Valentine’s Day Gift Ideas

Our 2014 family calendar just arrived in the mail and I realized two things – first, I need to send a birthday gift to my one and only nephew as soon as possible (sorry Corbin – we still love you!), and second, I need to get hopping on Valentine’s Day gifts pronto. We don’t exchange large gifts, but we like to celebrate the occasion by giving each other something small and thoughtful. Last year we skipped the gifts altogether because we spent the week in Jamaica, but this year I definitely need to step up my game and get Russ something a little more special since we are going to be in Turks and Caicos without him just before Valentine’s Day. Here are some Valentine’s gift ideas (both big and small) of things that have caught my eye over the last few weeks for everyone in the family.

For the Ladies

Valentines for Her

red satchel, feed bag, dachshund oil + vinegar Set

heart bowls, heart elbow patch sweater

initial necklace, dog cookie jar, leopard clutch

The FEED bag is my favorite carry-on bag when traveling with the kids because it holds so much stuff and is really to grab things as you need them.  When you purchase this bag, you are also buying school meals for two kids for an entire year – win-win!

For the Dudes

Valentines for Menwatch, tie, new bruce album

rugged satchel, book

sunglasses, sneakers, mixers

Russ reminds me on a daily basis that he still doesn’t have the new Bruce album yet, but I don’t think he can wait until Valentine’s Day to get it.  The prescription sunglasses from Warby Parker are a lifesaver for anyone that has to wear glasses when they drive.  As an added bonus, Warby Parker donates a pair of glasses to someone in need for every pair they sell.

For the Little Dudes

Valentines for Boysvalentine’s cards, pajamas, raccoon overalls

croc scarf, puff the magic dragon

terrarium kit, love monster, seahorses

The raccoon overalls are expensive, but so adorable.  I want to get them for Declan to wear the next time we have our pictures taken.

For the Girls

Valentines for Girlsconversation heart crayons, sleeping bag, heart dress

wondergirl shirt, valentine’s cards

heart leggings, fox dress, ruffle jacket

Do you exchange gifts and/or get something small for your little ones on Valentine’s Day?

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Absolutely Free (& Possibly Good) Advice for a Family Adventure in Jamaica

One of my cousins recently asked me for advice about planning a trip to Jamaica. She is married and has two kids – a daughter that will be graduating from high school and a son in middle school. They haven’t traveled much and have never been out of the country so she wanted advice on where to stay in Jamaica.  We went to Jamaica last year and now all of this research has me itching to go back!

SONY DSC
Before I started researching hotels in Jamaica, I asked how they picked it as destination and what they wanted to do there. It turns out that Jamaica was the kids’ choice and they are interested in zip-lining, riding ATVs and having access to a nice beach. They would also like to be able to do the trip on a reasonable budget. They would prefer to spend their money on activities and excursions rather than on a hotel room that they won’t spend much time in anyway. Jamaica certainly fits the bill for all of these wishes. In addition, it is a relatively easy first international trip since the official language is English and it’s a short plane ride from the east coast of the US where they live.

With their interests in mind, I think they should consider staying in Negril, which means flying into Montego Bay, Jamaica. In Negril, they can stay on Seven Mile Beach and have access to many different restaurants and activities. A quick review of TripAdvisor shows that Country Country Beach Cottages would be a solid choice for a reasonably priced hotel located right on Seven Mile Beach.  Rates are ~$120/night for early June on Hotels.com and they are currently building a new pool.  The rooms look very nice and each cottage has a small patio.

Jamaica

Another reasonably priced hotel option is Rondel Village, which has garden view rooms available for $90/night (in early June) and gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor.  Rondel Village also has two and three bedroom villas available for an additional cost, as well as two pools and two jacuzzis.

Negril, Jamaica

With all of the options for activities in Negril and the surrounding area, there is no chance of her teenagers being bored. Here are the possible tour activities that are listed on just one company’s website (Island Routes – Caribbean Adventures): ziplining, bobsledding, Black River cruise and YS falls visit (which we did last year and highly recommend), catamaran cruise, riding ATVs (minimum age of 16) or dune buggies (for those 12 years and up), horseback riding through the rainforest and on the beach, Dunn’s River Falls visit, swimming with dolphins, and jungle river tubing.

bobsledding

dune buggy

jungle river tubing

ATV tour

I just checked airfare prices from Syracuse to Montego Bay (MBJ) in June and the tickets are only $356/person with one stop in Newark.  (Julie – the best website for airfare searches is kayak.com in case you want to search airfare prices for other dates).

Have you ever been to Jamaica? Do you have any other suggestions for my cousin in planning her first trip to the island?

An Afternoon at the Strong Museum in Rochester, NY

A few weeks ago, while visiting Jennifer’s parents for Christmas, we decided to pay a visit to the Strong Museum in Rochester, NY. Since her parents live an hour outside Rochester it was doable, and because it was about 20 degrees outside we needed some indoor activities for the boys.

Strong Museum

Officially known as the Strong National Museum of Play, it is located in downtown Rochester.  From the New York State Thruway it was very easy to find.  Had we visited in the summer I would have been up for exploring the surrounding area as well.  Jennifer agreed and confessed that she has not spent much time in Rochester.  (It has always surprised me that Jennifer grew up near both Syracuse and Rochester, but spent very little time in either city, save for visits to the Carrier Dome to watch her beloved SU basketball team.  She chalks it up to being a small town girl.  I on the other hand much prefer cities.).

Upon arriving at the museum I was pleased to find there was ample free parking in the museum’s parking lot. I was even more pleased that admission was reasonable ($13.50 per person, children 2 and under are free).  The museum is quite large, boasting over 150,000 square feet.  There are many hands-on exhibits, which the boys loved.  We practically had to drag them out of the construction zone where they and several other children were busy erecting an elaborate structure with plastic snap-into-place pieces.

Construction Zone

Strong Museum

Other themed areas included the Bernstein Bears, Sesame Street and a story book land, filled with large play areas with Humpty Dumpty, Peter Rabbit, the Three Bears and many others.

Reading Adventure Land

Peter Rabbit Garden

My favorite part of the museum was the National Toy Hall of Fame.  Basically this is the Cooperstown for toys. Strolling through this exhibit brought back many memories of toys that I played with (or wanted to own as a kid but never did), and provided a cool retrospective on how far the toy industry has come and the evolving complexity of toys, which mirrors changes in society. All of your favorites are here: Lincoln Logs, GI Joes, View Master, Barbie dolls, Lionel Trains, Jack-in-the-Box, Slinkys, Mr. Potato Head and on and on. Recent inductees include Star Wars action figures, Hot Wheels cars and rubber duckies. I am not sure what criteria is used to determine which toys get into the Hall of Fame, but they may be similar to Major League baseball as they seem to take it quite seriously.

Mr Potato Head

Slinkys

Jennifer’s favorite exhibit was the Wegmans Super Kids Market. Imagine a miniature supermarket, where children both shop and work behind the counters and registers. Wegmans is headquartered in Rochester and has a bit of a cult following.  The exhibit is a cute replica of the regular grocery stores, complete with a sushi section, pizza station, and deli counter.  The boys liked taking turns as shoppers and store employees.

Strong Museum Wegmans

Strong Museum Wegmans

Strong Museum Wegmans

When shopping, each child is allowed to pick out five items from the store to put in their shopping cart.  They can then unload their items onto the working belt and check themselves out.  There is even a working register that produces a real receipt!

Strong Museum Wegmans

Strong Museum Wegmans

Strong Museum Wegmans

Strong Museum Wegmans

Strong Museum Wegmans

Declan’s favorite exhibit was the Post Office where kids can write a postcard and drop it into the nearby mailbox. He would have happily filled up the entire mailbox with his scribbled on post cards if we let him stay there all afternoon.

Strong Museum Post Office

There was also a butterfly house, which was the highlight for Finnegan. There is an extra fee to go into the butterfly house so I stayed behind while Jennifer went in with the kids. After their 15 minute tour, they came out raving about getting to hold the butterflies and telling me all about the turtles and birds that also live in the house with the butterflies.

Strong Museum Butterfly House

Strong Museum Butterfly House

Another favorite for Finnegan was the super hero section of the museum. There are large statues of the super heroes and a great version of whac-a-mole where the kids help Batman by whacking his enemies on the head.

Strong Museum Spiderman

Strong Museum Superman

Strong Museum Whac a Mole

Our only regret was that we did not arrive earlier in the day as we ran out of time because the museum was closing. We hope to visit again and we would suggest setting aside most of the day to spend there as you will certainly have plenty to see and do during your visit.  Out of all of the children’s museums that we have visited so far, this was probably our favorite.  Even during Christmas break, it wasn’t crowded and our kids were the perfect age for most of the exhibits.

Do you have a favorite children’s museum?

Next Up: Turks & Caicos

I am so done with winter this year.  Completely, utterly done.  I’m so over winter that I made a rash decision to book three plane tickets to Turks and Caicos for early February.  That’s right, only three plane tickets.  Since Russ started a new job recently, he hasn’t accrued any vacation time and while I love him dearly, I can’t wait until July for our first vacation of the year.  What made me go from waffling about this decision to hitting the purchase tickets button on the Delta website this morning was the upcoming forecast.  There are two nights next week with projected lows in the single digits.  You would think that growing up near Syracuse, NY would have made me hardy and impervious to the cold.  However, you would be wrong.  I feel like I’ve already dealt with a full lifetime worth of snow and cold and I wouldn’t be sad if I lived somewhere without winter.

So, I’m taking the boys and we’re heading to one of the most kid friendly beaches in the world – Grace Bay Beach (ranked the #3 beach in the world on this list from CNN) ).  It’s calm, shallow, and so clear that I should be able to convince Finnegan that it’s not possible for any sharks to sneak up on him.

grace-bay-turks-and-caicos

We haven’t booked our accommodation yet, but I might splurge for the easy option of staying at Beaches – an all-inclusive resort that caters to kids.  Once we step foot on the resort, I know we won’t leave, which is my only hesitation in booking.  I hate going to a new place and not really exploring it.  But I made the mistake of showing Finnegan and Declan the website for Beaches, and they are completely sold.

The hotel has a waterpark with a Pirate Ship and Lazy River.

pirate ship beaches

lazy river beaches

There are options to dine, sail, have tea, learn about science, go on a bird watching tour, and participate in a parade with Sesame Street characters, and the kids can even bake cookies with Cookie Monster.

sesame street parade beaches

elmo catamaran beaches

elmo beaches

There are six pools and two kiddie pools, including one with a kid’s only swim up bar!

beaches pool2

beaches pool

swim up bar

And they have Finnegan and Declan’s two favorite types of restaurants – sushi and hibachi.

hibachi beaches

soy beaches

I’m a little nervous about watching both of them in the ocean, but the beach looks too beautiful to pass up.

beaches beach

The boys are too excited to back out now and I think a hotel that’s designed to entertain kids might mean more time to relax (or at least breathe) for me.

What do you think?  Does it sound like a good plan to forego a more authentic island experience in exchange for a hotel that offers endless options to keep the kids entertained?

Dolphin Encounter in Roatan, Honduras

After three days of rain in Roatan and missed flights, the Curley’s were ready to get out of our hotel room and have an adventure.  The break in the weather allowed for us to partake in a dolphin encounter at Anthony’s Keys Resort, which was a 15 minute drive from our hotel.  We picked up our tickets and took a short boat ride over to the enclosed dolphin pens with a dozen or so other passengers.  The large pens are used to train and study the dolphins, and while giving the dolphins plenty of room to swim, it keeps other marine life out and to our surprise were low enough for the dolphins to jump over and ‘escape’ if they desired.

Roatan, Honduras

As soon as our boat pulled up to the dock by the dolphin pens, the boys squealed with excitement as they saw the dolphins swimming close by.  We were quickly ushered over to our guide, who gave the group a quick overview on what to expect during the encounter and instructed us on which areas the dolphins liked to be touched and where they do not (the guide also instructed us on where the male and female dolphin parts were and suggested avoiding touching those areas, as the dolphins might enjoy that touching a little too much).  Then, without much more fan fare, we were striding into the water and dolphins were everywhere!  The group was split up into two groups: English speaking and Spanish speaking.  One lucky couple from El Salvador were the only Spanish speakers, so they got a private dolphin encounter.  Jen thought we should have used what little Spanish we know to try and barge in on that group, but I thought better of it.

Roatan, Honduras

Our group was the four of us, plus three other couples for a total of 10 people.  It was a small enough group where everyone one had ample time to touch the dolphins and pose for pictures.  With no more than a whistle or a hand gesture (and a bucket full of fish), the dolphin-guides could make the dolphins swim right up to them and perform a variety of tricks on command.  First, the dolphins laid still in front of us and everyone got to touch the top and bottom, being mindful to avoid the blow-hole and to be gentle around the dorsal fin.  It was remarkable how calm and trusting these creatures were, as it permitted a bunch of strangers to feel its body.  Several different dolphins cycled in to be touched and all were equally gracious and patient with its visitors.  Next the dolphins would give each person a “kiss” on the cheek, which was professionally photographed.  Although that felt a little staged and touristy, you can’t beat the photograph that you get!

Roatan, Honduras

Roatan, Honduras

Roatan, Honduras

Roatan, Honduras

When the boys first got to touch the dolphins they could not believe it.  Both remarked how smooth and sleek the dolphins felt.

Roatan Honduras

I was impressed with how strong and fast they are as we were treated to tests of their speed and agility.  The trainer put the dolphins through their paces, racing them around the pen and then stopping just feet from us or leaping high out of the water.  Absolutely amazing!

Roatan, Honduras

And then it was over all too quickly.  The tour guide thanked us for coming, but hung out on the dock to answer all questions put to him.  Finnegan broke the ice by asking the first question – do dolphins sleep?   After the guide answered everyone’s questions, he also explained that the dolphin encounters fund the research center as scientists are still learning a great deal about dolphins.

Roatan, Honduras

Roatan, Honduras

On the ride back to the hotel I chatted with the couple from El Salvador that was staying at our hotel (his English was pretty good, hers was not).  I was curious to hear about El Salvador and what life is like there today.  For years I heard only of the civil war that ravaged that country.  Like Honduras, El Salvador has a lot to offer, but has many impediments in its way.  But, to hear this young man tell it, El Salvador should be high on our list of countries to visit.

Our 13 Favorite Travel Memories of 2013

travel makes you richer

It’s hard to believe that 2013 has come to an end and a new year has begun.  We had some great travel experiences over the last year and thought it would be good to highlight some of our favorite moments, especially since we never did get around to making holiday cards this year.

Finnegan

1.)    Having our own pool in Jamaica so he could swim anytime

2.)    Catching frogs in Sanibel

3.)    Chasing lizards in Honduras

Declan

4.)    Without hesitation, Declan’s first answer was swimming with dolphins (blog post still to come)

5.)    Watching the sharks and crocodiles at the National Aquarium in Baltimore

Jen

6.)    Swimming with dolphins.  So much fun for kids and grown-ups alike.

7.)    Spending the day on Inisheer riding bikes, having delicious coffee, and watching the kids play on the beach

8.)    Reading an entire book on our trip to Honduras.  It’s the first time this has happened since Finnegan was born.  I read Little Bee and thought it was a great vacation read (although maybe not the most settling choice when traveling to a country with the highest murder rate in the world)

9.)    Watching Finnegan’s face light up when he caught a sea star swimming in the ocean in Sanibel

Russ

10.)  Finally convincing my 77 year old father to join us on our trip to Ireland where he visited his parents’ hometown and met his wonderful Irish cousins for the first time.

11.)  Getting a chance to go for a run with an old friend and college teammate Dr. Donal O’Sullivan, PhD, while visiting Denver.

12.)  Camping with Finnegan at the Blue Moon Acres Farm to Camp Out

13.)  Admiring the beauty and sheer magnitude of the Cliffs of Moher (and I would have said our day on Inisheer if Jennifer didn’t already list it as one of her highlights)

And there are so many other little moments that we will remember and cherish for a long time to come, like Declan referring to our cottage in Sanibel as our Cottage Cheese.

What were your favorite memories from 2013 – travel or otherwise?

There’s a Monkey on Your Head (Gumbalimba Park Review)

We took a chance by visiting Roatan in the rainy season, and unfortunately the gamble did not pay off. It poured three out of the four days that we planned to stay on the island and indirectly led to us staying an extra two nights, but more to come on that saga later.

On the second day that we were holed up in our hotel room, I was losing my mind and the kids were driving us crazy with their endless requests to build forts and watch cartoons.  We decided that we had to do something even if it meant getting drenched because like most Caribbean islands, there were no indoor attractions to be found in Roatan. When I asked the “activities director” at our hotel for suggestions of things to do inside with our kids, her only idea was coloring. Oh, so helpful.

We settled on a visit to Gumbalimba Park instead. It is a big tourist attraction on Roatan and a common shore excursion for the thousands of people that visit Roatan as part of a Caribbean cruise. If you are looking for an authentic island experience, this is not the place. However, it suited our needs of escaping the hotel room and entertaining the kids perfectly.

Upon arrival to the park, you have the choice of crossing the Pirate’s Bridge or taking the chicken walk around the small lake. Finnegan chose the Pirate’s Bridge and Declan picked the chicken walk. I’m not sure if Declan was afraid or just didn’t want to wait in the line.  He had too much pent up energy and was running down the trail before I could find out.

Roatan Honduras

Roatan Honduras

Since Declan took off before we could really figure out how the place worked, we did the tour without a guide. It worked out fine because there are only a few areas where you can hold the animals and it was easy to join in with other groups to hear the commentary.

The first area houses the parrots. There are scarlet macaws as well as green parrots (red crowned Amazon parrots, I think). It was raining during our visit to the park so I had a hard time keeping my lens clear and dry and most of our pictures are a little blurry.

Roatan Honduras

To my surprise Declan ran to the front of the line to hold the parrot. He’s normally a pretty cautious kid, but he had no fear of these birds that were almost as big as him.

Gumbalimba Park
Equally surprising was the fact that Finnegan seemed too nervous to hold the parrot so we moved on to the monkey area.  The ‘park’ includes a large group of charming, mischievous white face capuchin monkeys.  Russ was carrying a backpack with bug spray and a plastic bag in the outside pouch. We were there for less than a minute before the monkeys spied these prizes and stole them in the blink of an eye.  As a warning, other people lost much more valuable things like sunglasses and cameras to these sneaky thieves so make sure you hide your things or hold onto them tightly.

Roatan, Honduras

Thankfully, not all of the monkeys were so cheeky and a few came down to visit.

Roatan Honduras

Roatan Honduras

On the way back, we met another monkey off on his own. Perhaps he was looking for some peace and quiet or maybe some extra attention.

Roatan, Honduras

Roatan, Honduras

While we were at Gumbalimba, we also explored the rest of the grounds and visited the Pirate Cave. In nicer weather, there is a pool to enjoy and a small beach with hammocks. For the adventurous, they also have a zip-line tour.

Roatan, Honduras

The grounds are very pretty and well maintained. There is even an area with several hummingbird feeders that were very active despite the rain.

Roatan, Honduras

Roatan, Honduras

The boys raced through the Pirate Cave so we didn’t see too much, but it’s worth a stroll through if you are traveling with kids.  There is some information on the history of the island and the famous pirates that visited the area.

Roatan, Honduras

Roatan, Honduras

If we were traveling on our own, I don’t think we would have paid Gumbalimba Park a visit, but it was a lot of fun and it’s always a thrill to get a chance to interact so closely with animals. There would have been even more to do if the weather had cooperated. Visit the Gumbalimba Park website for a full list of activities.

Roatan, Rabies, and Rain

I am reasonably sure that I don’t have rabies as a result of our recent trip to Roatan. My opening sentence used to read that I was certain I didn’t have rabies (you know since I’m still alive and all, more than a month after getting bit by a dog on West Bay Beach), but my confidence level has dropped significantly because of the internet. First year medical school students are warned not to convince themselves that they have contracted one of the rare infectious diseases they are studying, because frequently students will read about the symptoms of some disease found in a remote corner of Papua New Guinea and convince themselves they have it. Unfortunately, the internet doesn’t come with the same warning. Thanks to the CDC website and Wikipedia, I’ve learned that the incubation period for rabies in humans is far longer than it is for dogs. Did you know that rabies can incubate in people for up to six years before the symptoms appear, but death is almost certain within days as soon as the symptoms finally present?! Remind me that I can breathe a sigh of relief in 2019.

rabid dog

I should probably back up and start at the beginning. Our recent trip to Honduras consisted of two parts: the rainforest and the beach. After three great days of seeing exotic creatures and falling to sleep to the sounds of the jungle, we set off for the island of Roatan for some beach time with the boys. Roatan is an island 30 miles off the coast of Honduras with its own relaxed vibe. Roatan is renowned for its great diving and snorkeling, and has beaches that rank among the best in the Caribbean.

roatan diving

So, after taking a 75 minute ferry ride that had all four of us feeling queasy by the end, we met the shuttle van that took us to the Mayan Princess Resort. Also sharing the same van was a group of orphans from the mainland who were being treated to a stay at this all-inclusive resort courtesy of a Dallas-based Catholic Church group that does charitable work in Honduras.

Roatan Honduras

Upon our arrival at the Mayan Princess, we quickly made our way to the beach. The weather was perfect, the water was even more turquoise than I expected, and the beach was crowded with tourists and vendors selling all sorts of trinkets. The ocean water was warm and the boys loved running off the beach and into the water, where Russ and I would catch them just as they tumbled into the water. We told our kids to pace themselves because we were staying there for four nights, but we should have been telling them to soak it all in because a storm was brewing and we spent the next three days mostly inside watching TV and building forts.

Roatan Honduras
After spending a few hours hopping between the beach and pool at our hotel, the boys wanted to get some ice cream. We walked down the beach to the store at the Bananarama, a nearby hotel, to buy two ice cream cones as the sun was setting.

SONY DSC

On the way back, I noticed a pack of dogs running off-leash and made a mental note to keep Declan away from them because I was worried they might be attracted to his ice cream cone since it covered three quarters of his body by this point. As I was busy trying to clean Declan up, Finnegan and Russ were running down the beach and unbeknownst to me, the dogs started chasing Finnegan. Russ put himself between the dogs and Finnegan and told him to stay calm because the dogs probably thought he was trying to play. Finnegan was getting really nervous because the dogs didn’t leave. So instead of staying calm, he ran to me. However, my back was to him so I didn’t see him coming or the two dogs following him. It was quite a shock to get bit by a dog that I never even saw coming. I’m still so thankful that the dog didn’t bite Finnegan or Declan.

To my surprise, the dogs were not strays and it didn’t take Russ long to launch into all-out-lawyer-mode, demanding rabies certificates, payment for any medical expenses, and calling for the local police to launch a full-scale investigation. The dogs’ owner was an Australian hippie chick, who seemed high. It wasn’t until Russ screamed at her several times to leash her dogs that she finally did. Although she was mildly apologetic, she mostly seemed surprised that something could have gone wrong with her obviously well thought out plan to take a pack of four formerly stray dogs for a walk off leash on a very crowded beach. The bite was mostly a bruise and there was a doctor that witnessed the incident so he gave me some iodine to clean the wound.

SONY DSC

The hotel manager insisted that I go to the hospital and offered to send a babysitter to watch the kids while I saw the doctor. In the end, I relented to give Russ (and maybe myself) a little piece of mind. Instead of dragging the kids halfway across the island on the bumpy pothole ridden roads, Russ stayed behind and the babysitter acted as a translator instead. The private medical center was 45 minutes away in Coxen Hole, which was not a pleasant place to be after dark. The center was empty so I was able to see the doctor right away. He cleaned the wound and recommended antibiotics and pain medicine, but didn’t think the rabies vaccine was necessary since I only had a scratch with minimal bleeding (and I seriously doubt they had the expensive vaccine on hand to administer anyway). The doctor also said there haven’t been any rabies cases on the island in the last ten years. I felt pretty good about this reasoning before doing my own research on the internet. The internet is the worst sometimes. The worst.

So other than that, how did I enjoy Roatan you might ask. There’s more to come in the next few days on our visit to Gumbalimba Park, swimming with dolphins, and a review of our hotel.

In the meantime, I also have to get busy planning a weekend trip to Raleigh, NC for a girls weekend with some of my childhood besties in early January. So if you have any recommendations for Raleigh, let me know in the comments.

10 Places to See Before They’re Gone

This is kind of depressing since almost every one of these ‘disappearing’ places is on my bucket list or has been a personal travel highlight.  Now I know how to prioritize my bucket list.  It’s pretty hard to believe that the Taj Mahal could be closed to tourists in the next five years, but the marble building is being damaged by pollution and will most likely continue to yellow over time.  Just click on the image below from TripInsurance.com to view a larger version.

10-places-to-see-before-theyre-gone_51470651b2b30

If you want to get more depressed, here is another ‘ten places to see before they’re gone’ list.

National Aquarium: Baltimore, MD

Last month we traveled to Baltimore, Maryland.  Jennifer had a business trip there, which meant a free hotel room for the rest of us!  (Jennifer says she prefers to have her entourage accompany her whenever possible and we made sure not to interfere with her work).

We stayed at the Baltimore Hilton, which is located right next to the Orioles baseball stadium at Camden Yards.  When I saw the view from the fitness center, I wished we were there during baseball season as we could have watched a game quite easily from the hotel deck.  The hotel was also connected to the Baltimore Convention Center, and more importantly for us, was a short walk from the Inner Harbor.  Quite a few years ago  “Charm City” revitalized the Inner Harbor and it has become somewhat of a tourist destination.  One of the main draws is the National Aquarium.  I had heard good things about Baltimore’s Aquarium from friends who had visited it and I knew both boys would love to visit.

After a quick breakfast at the hotel restaurant, Jen was off to her business meetings and I was tasked with keeping both boys entertained all day.  We managed to kill some time swimming in the hotel pool and having lunch in the Inner Harbor before setting out to the Aquarium.  It is a cool looking building, situated right on the harbor, with an impressive submarine (the USS Torsk, a retired World War II era submarine that saw action in the Pacific theater and is now a maritime museum), docked outside.

USS Torsk BW

I must say I had a bit of sticker shock at the cost of admission to the aquarium.  Even with Declan being free, the cost for me and Finnegan was $56.  I have been to several other aquariums and none were as expensive.  After getting our tickets and making our way inside, I was advised that the aquarium has a strict no stroller policy.  I was prepared for this as a friend warned me ahead of time about this policy.  The aquarium does permit visitors to check their strollers and other items in a room that is carefully guarded.  This only became an issue after our three hour visit and both boys were tired and yearned to ride in the stroller.

Once we began exploring the aquarium we quickly began marveling at all of the cool species of aquatic life residing in the various exhibits.  The aquarium is fairly comprehensive and includes all of the animals you would expect to find and several other you might not. The aquarium is basically divided into three parts: the glass pavilion with an Australia Wild Extremes themed exhibit with saltwater crocodiles, snakes and other reptiles; Pier 3 Pavilion contained a multi-level shark and sting ray exhibit and the Pier 4 Pavilion had dolphins and jelly fish exhibits.  I thought the layout of the aquarium was a bit confusing, particularly since there is no Pier 1 or Pier 2 Pavilions (and I admit I kept searching for them and it was only after consulting the map that I realized my search was futile).

Baltimore

Baltimore

Baltimore Aquarium Croc Exhibit

To me the piece de resistance of the Baltimore Aquarium is the Dolphin Discovery exhibit.  I had never seen an exhibit like this at any other aquarium and, outside of SeaWorld, I don’t know where else you can see it.  The dolphins performed a plethora of tricks, jumps and acrobatic feats, much to the delight of the crowd.  We were able to sit very close to the water, but just outside the splash zone so we did not get wet.  Both boys enjoyed this exhibit, and I may have enjoyed it even more than they did.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

A close second was the multi-level Blacktip Reef exhibit, a re-creation of a piece of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  Teeming with sharks, sting rays and over 70 different species of fish, in a curved viewing area 20 feet wide, the exhibit allows visitors to be immersed in the aquatic habitat (without getting wet).  Each level had different animals and each level represented the different species that reside at varying depths of the ocean. The lower levels tend to be darker, which made Declan a bit frightened so some smaller children might not enjoy the lower levels.

Baltimore

Baltimore

There was also the Upland Tropical Rainforest, which is a green house type exhibit that featured several tropical birds that were hard to see.  This exhibit seemed oddly out of place for an aquarium as none of these birds actually live in water, just in the rain forest.  We did not stay long in that exhibit as it was uncomfortably humid and we only saw one bird.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

There were also two films playing, both billed as “4D” (which I don’t really understand as time is supposed to be the fourth dimension according to Albert Einstein).  We skipped the films as they required an additional ticket and because I was convinced that both boys would have fallen asleep in the darkened theater (which would have left me brooding over spending even more money on a nap).

By the end of our visit both boys were tired and wanted to ride in the stroller (damn that no stroller policy!).  So we hurried back to the room where we checked all of our belongings and headed for the door.  Since we do not have a double stroller, Finnegan was forced to walk back to the hotel (which he did with surprisingly little whining).  He then practically collapsed in the lobby of the hotel and took a quick nap while we waited for Jen.  If we had more time (and energy), we would have liked to visit the Port Discovery Children’s Museum as well.  Next time.

Have you been to the National Aquarium?  What were your thoughts?  Any tips besides bringing a baby carrier for little ones that need to nap?