July 30, 2018

Things To Do In Petoskey With Kids

If you’ve been to Petoskey or a nearby town, you’ll agree: 24 hours isn’t much time to explore things. I know. Yet, we managed to see quite a bit of loveliness in that short amount of time during our summer road trip through Michigan. Read on to see all the things you can do in Petoskey if your family only has one day to explore.

Disclosure: Our visit was hosted by Visit Petoskey Area. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

Things to do if you only have one day in Petoskey

Our main goal while visiting the Petoskey area? Find a Petoskey stone. It was at the top of my Little Traverse Bay Bucket List.

Our second goal: Enjoy the scenery.

And my third goal (not quite shared with the family but since they were with me, they had to come along): Find some Hemingway history.

We accomplished all three.

Things to do in Petoskey with kids

We arrived in Petoskey on a gorgeous, summer day. I’m talking blue skies, 72 degrees, birds-chirping-on-my-should kind of day (I might be exaggerating on that last part).

The Little Traverse Bay has crystal clear water. My kids immediately began looking for Petoskey stones along the rocky shoreline.

We went down Bayfront Park for the view of the lake and immediately my kids started looking for Petoskey stones.

The hunt for Petoskey stones begins.

No luck. But, lunch called so we gave up the pursuit for a little bit. The kids are easily distracted by things like waterfalls.

There’s a little waterfall and a creek that winds through Bayfront Park in Petoskey, Michigan.

Near the Bayfront Park is Bear River Recreation Area. This pretty little creek runs through the heart of Petoskey and is a great little escape. We walked just a little ways, before moving on (there were Petoskey stones to be found, you know).

It’s an easy walk along the trail that runs through Bear River Recreation Area in downtown Petoskey.

Our best luck with the Petoskey stone hunt was at Petoskey State Park, which you’ll need a park passport to enter (an additional fee). The lake has a great beach area and an abundance of smooth stones washed ashore. We did luck out and found a few beauties!

The look of a happy kid, satisfied that he found an elusive Petoskey stone while at Petoskey State Park.

The sandy beach was wonderful but the water was frigid, so we kept the stone hunt close to shore.

The final place we enjoyed nature was in Alanson, a very small town near Petoskey. Our hotel, Stafford’s Crooked River Lodge, felt removed from everything in a good way. It was beside a river, where if we had time, we could’ve used the hotel’s kayaks to explore down river.

This was the entry point at the hotel for kayakers.

Instead, we sat on the stone patio, near the fire pit and soaked in the sunset’s reflection on the clouds over the river. Bliss.

If spending a lot of time outdoors is not your thing, Petoskey has a charming downtown area that’s full of local shops.

Downtown Petoskey has a mix of retail and restaurants. It’s very near the waterfront.

Our favorite stop was the bookstore ,McLean and Eakin. The kid’s department there was large.

Dining with kids in Petoskey

We didn’t have a lot of time to spend in Petoskey, and so, I only have two recommendations. They’re good ones, though.

The City Park Grill is an old Hemingway haunt in Petoskey, Michigan. He usually sat in the second seat from the end of the bar.

Petoskey has some Ernest Hemingway connections, including one bar that he had visited. You can go there today and sit in his seat, which was the second seat from the end of the bar. The place is called City Park Grill (though in Hemingway’s day, it was the Annex), and it’s in the heart of the very charming downtown area. I was with my family, so instead of saddling up to the bar, we sat at a dinner table and ordered lunch. There is a kids menu, so, it’s totally fine to bring well-behaved kiddos along.

We had parmesan fries, ice cream bars and beer at Petoskey Brewing Co. The brew pup is near Petoskey State Park.

Close to Petoskey State Park is our second food recommendation, Petoskey Brewing Co., though we can only vouch for the exquisite, tiny homemade ice cream bar there (and the beer, of course). There are several flavors to choose from, though my family all picked one that involved mint ice cream and Butterfinger candy bars. I dined on some parmesan fries, because that sounded way better food to accompany a craft beer than ice cream.

Where to stay near Petoskey

Our hotel, Stafford’s Crooked River Lodge, was about 5 miles away from Petoskey. It was a lodge-like getaway without really being too far from modern conveniences like book stores, fancy shops, and microbreweries, then take a look at this hotel.

Dusk at Stafford’s Crooked River Lodge in northern Michigan. If you look closely, you can see a bit of the fire that was crackling in the hotel’s fire pit.

If you’re set on staying in the quaint town of Petoskey, you might want to check out another of the Stafford’s properties: Stafford’s Perry Hotel in the heart of downtown Petoskey. It was built in 1899.

Anyway, back to Crooked River Lodge. The room we stayed in was spacious—the biggest on our entire trip. There were two bedrooms each with a king bed, plus a living room area and kitchen. And, then, the best part, there was also a private patio for our room.

The pool and hot tub were indoors, and included a little waterfall that delighted my kids.

The view of the lawn at Stafford’s Crooked River Lodge. Just beyond the lawn is the river.

The hotel had lawn games to check out, as well as the kayaks mentioned above. Additional kid-friendly things included a fish pond (with free fish food), hiking trails, complimentary popcorn in the lobby, and my daughter’s favorite thing of all: A little playhouse with toys and a play kitchen. She loved that space almost as much as she loved getting gobs of free popcorn.

There is a complimentary breakfast included with the stay.

Read more about Petoskey area

Family-friendly things to do in Petoskey if you only have 24 hours in Petoskey #PetoskeyArea #Michigan #PureMichigan #familytravel #outdoors

The Petoskey area was in the middle of an epic road trip for my family. To plan your own epic road trip through Michigan, read my Michigan road trip recap featuring restaurant highlights, sights to see, and where to stay.

For Petoskey Area highlights, read these posts:

A Nature Getaway Near Petoskey – Stafford’s Crooked River Lodge – Aug. 20

My Petoskey Area/Little Traverse Bay Bucket List

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July 22, 2018

Detroit Museums For Families

Detroit has a rich history and an abundance of family-friendly cultural institutions. Our visit was meant to be a full three days of good food, good music, and world-class museums – I mean, I planned a HUGE Detroit bucket list and everything. And, we did manage to visit several great Detroit museums for families, however…

In the end, an unexpected family emergency meant some of our items got left off the itinerary and the ones we did manage to visit were clouded with tension. But, read on, friends, because we did see some amazing things in Detroit!

Disclosure: Our visit was hosted by Visit Detroit. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. 

Favorite family-friendly museums in Detroit

Must-Visit Detroit Museums For Families

If you are short on time and only got to visit one or two places, I have my favorites for you. The favorite museum of the kids was The Henry Ford, located in Dearfield, Mich. This museum is BIG, and full of so much history, and it’s all done in such an engaging way that both kids and adults just love. People told this was a must-visit and I agree.

We dined at the restaurant Lamy’s Diner located in the lunch car behind these iconic neon signs at The Henry Ford.

While there are historic items that you’ve got to see, like the Abraham Lincoln chair and Rosa Parks bus, the more appealing things for kids were hands-on exhibits, like the one dedicated to flight, the chance to sit in old cars and farm machinery, and the opportunity to work on an assembly line to build a (toy) Model T.

The Henry Ford is one of the top Detroit museums for families.

Who let my daughter behind the wheel of the 1917 Overland Car? There several photo opportunities throughout The Henry Ford, and we found them all.

While you’re in the area anyway, I highly recommend including a visit to Greenfield Village next door. Each place could be a day in itself to visit, but we visited both in one day. It was exhausting, but manageable. It was also ridiculous hot the day we were there, so we only spent a couple hours in the morning at the village. I wish we could’ve lasted longer, but summer won that battle.

Greenfield Village was a picturesque walk through time.

I loved the picturesque Main Street at Greenfield Village. Guests can pay a little extra to ride around in in a Model T.

It’s quite different, in that it’s like a living history museum. There’s so much to see and do there, from re-enactments to riding in a real Model T. You can walk into the Wright Brother’s bike shop, watch farm hands work at a Victorian era farm… and my kids’ favorite, eat delicious custard. Don’t skip the playground, too. It’s open seasonally, mid-April through October, and there’s a water play area to cool off.

Kids play area at Greenfield Village in Detroit

My kids could’ve spent an hour climbing, crawling, and digging at the village playground at Greenfield Village. It’s got an industrial feel to it.

The other must-visit museum is in Detroit itself: Detroit Institute of Arts. This would probably be more of my favorite than the kids’, however, they definitely loved the special exhibit that there this summer, “Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume.” The exhibit is there through Sept. 30, 2018. It’s an additional fee to see the exhibit, and it does sell out so it’s recommended that you purchase tickets online in advance.

The “Star Wars and the Power of Costume” exhibit is at Detroit Institute of Arts through Sept. 30, 2018.

So that exhibit is impressive and has a great kid’s audio tour that engaged my family. But, there’s a lot more to see at the museum (and you should allow more than two hours to see its collection of 6,000+ artworks on display, like I did).

The frescoes by Diego Rivera are one the highlights of the Detroit Institute of Arts. My kids stood still for about 5 seconds to let me admire them.

Highlights include the Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” frescoes, the knights armor, and this really fascinating projection called “Art of Dining” of a fancy French meal from the 18th century. And too many priceless paintings I’m embarrassed to say we only paused to glimpse at.

More Museums For Families To Visit

Detroit, more than any other city on our trip, had an abundance of museums and cultural opportunities to explore. It was hard to choose where we should go.

One of my kids’ other favorite stops was the Michigan Science Center. At this point of the trip, I was pretty wiped out by stress, so I wish I could say I enjoyed it more. Don’t let my stress stray you from visiting with your kids, though. There was a ton to see and do at the museum, and many of it catered to the city’s history in the car of industry.

Playing with the assembly line at Michigan Science Center in Detroit.

We were able to make use of the reciprocal membership perks of our Omaha Children’s Museum membership in order to visit the Michigan Science Center for free. Read more about how that program works here.

Since the city is the home of Motown music, I thought it was important to go to where it all started: Hitsville U.S.A. I had big hopes for visiting Motown Museum, but unfortunately, it just wasn’t the best fit for my kids, who at age 6 and 8 just weren’t quite ready for an hour-long guided tour. They typically do well at museums where they can go at their own pace. I would recommend this museum for families with older children.

Took the Motown Museum tour and got the T-shirt to prove it.

Me? I thought it was great and enjoyed learning more of the history behind the stars. The highlight was standing in the studio where so much magic was recorded. It was like hallowed ground.

Know that the tour groups are kept small and do sell out, so it’s recommended to buy tickets online well in advance of your visit.

Photography is not allowed throughout the Motown Museum…except for a couple minutes inside the recording studio. Our tour group sang “My Girl” at the conclusion of the tour.

What else can you do in Detroit

Detroit is so much more than those four museums, and so I recommend you check out my Detroit Bucket List. I was going to do a lot on that list while on this trip, but as I mentioned earlier, we had a family emergency (involving an extended stay in a hospital). As a result, all the extras I was going to do, like visiting parks and exploring downtown and eating at the classic restaurants…well, I didn’t make it to them as I had been planning.

Kresge Court was a nice place to have a light lunch at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Of the unique dining experiences we have, I can point you toward two places. First, if you’re at the Detroit Institute of Arts and hungry, try Kresge Court for a beautiful setting for lunch. They serve salads, sandwiches and desserts, like huge cookies kids cannot resist. There wasn’t a kid’s menu.

The kids made their own pizzas at the local pizza chain, PizzaPalis.

The other place my kids liked was actually a local chain restaurant near our hotel in Troy, Mich. Since there isn’t one in Omaha, I feel fine recommending it. It’s called PizzaPapalis, and the draw here is that kids can build their own pizza at the table and they’ll bake it up for them.

The comfy bed at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Troy, Mich.

As for hotel recommendations, we stayed at the Fairfield Inn & Suites By Marriott in Troy, Mich. Troy isn’t the most centrally-located part of Detroit, and as such, I can’t really tell you that it’s the best one to book for your trip to Detroit. However, it was pretty near my husband’s hospital. And, it was near a mall, a Target, and an abundance of familiar chain restaurants, which is appealing to some.

If we return, I’ll aim for staying closer to downtown Detroit (and not have any family member end up in the hospital).

Read more about things to do in Detroit

Planning a visit to Detroit? Start with the Detroit Bucket List, and then check out these posts for further details about Detroit museums:

“Star Wars and the Power of Costume” At Detroit Institute Of Arts

Fairfield Inn & Suites In Troy, Michigan Review – Aug. 29

20 Things Kids Love At The Henry Ford & Greenfield Village – Sept. 7

What To Expect At The Motown Museum – Oct. 5

This was the final stop of an epic Michigan road trip, so check back for that post soon!

What to expect at top Detroit museums for families, including The Henry Ford, Michigan Science Center & Detroit Institute of Arts

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July 16, 2018

Family Vacation At The Grand Hotel

If you’re planning a family vacation to Mackinac Island, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the Grand Hotel. It’s won a ton of awards over the years, and have been included in countless lists like Travel + Leisure’s Best All-Inclusive Hotels in 2018. So, what’s it like to stay overnight at the Grand Hotel with kids? I’ve stayed there this summer and wrote about my family’s experience. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Family vacation at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan

Disclosure: My visit was hosted by the Grand Hotel. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

What to expect in Grand Hotel rooms

The Grand Hotel is so large, it’s easy to spot from the ferry as you make your way to Mackinac Island, Mich.

The Grand Hotel is a luxury, all-inclusive resort on the car-free island, Mackinac Island, located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s a National Historic Landmark that dates back to 1887. It’s impressive. It’s full of tradition, like Afternoon Tea in the Parlor and dressing up for dinner.

There are several levels of rooms to book at the Grand Hotel, plus some suites. Each of the 393 rooms has its own unique look. Each room is exquisitely decorated. I swear, every detail in this hotel is exquisite, so I’m not surprised the each room has an artistic touch.

Our Category I room at the Grand Hotel included two queen size beds and an interior view. It was large enough to accommodate a family of four. The interior designer Carleton Varney of Dorothy Draper & Co. decorated the hotel and its rooms.

We stayed in a Category I room, meaning it was smaller and had an interior view (AKA, it overlooked a roof and another wing of the hotel). Category II is a higher price point and means you either get a larger room with an interior view or a smaller room with a lake view. Category III is yet a high price point, and included a deluxe room with a view (some have balconies). See all the room options here.

Most room rates include breakfast and dinner; the Full American Plan also includes the Grand Luncheon. The good news is that kids 9 and younger stay for FREE at the Grand Hotel. Obviously, they’ve seen how little my kids eat. j/k If you have a child between ages 10 and 17, the rate is significantly lower for him or her, too.

Our room at the Grand Hotel was a Category I, meaning it was smaller than others and had an interior view instead of lake view. On the plus side, it was a lower price and still included all the meals.

Our Category I room was quite comfortable for our family of four. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the room, anyway, so the we did not require something more spacious. The amenities, by the way, were quite luxurious and smelled wonderful. I may have pocketed the lotion.

What to expect dining at the Grand Hotel

The price you pay for your Grand Hotel room covers most meals – the full breakfast and dinner. There are more than one restaurant on hotel grounds where you can dine at with your family.

There was live music in the Main Dining Room during dinner at the Grand Hotel.

During our visit, we had breakfast and dinner in the Main Dining Room. This was quite the experience! First, let’s talk about breakfast.

Kids and adults order from the same menu at breakfast, plus there’s the option of going to the buffet. The kids opted for the buffet, but both me and Mr. Wonderful wanted to try all the great stuff on the breakfast menu. I had a bagel and lox, plus a berry salad topped with homemade whipped cream.

Part of my breakfast was a berry salad topped with homemade whipped cream.

Breakfast was the most casual of all meals. It was a little frustrating to watch my kids grab a single-serve box of Fruit Loops when there was an abundance of dishes, fresh fruit and pastries to choose from. If your kid has a similar palate, brace yourself to bite your tongue.

Dinner is an experience not to be missed at the Grand Hotel. I prepped the kids ahead of time, explaining expectations and how there was a dress code for dinner. They loved the idea of dressing up, surprisingly, and getting ready went without a hitch.

The kids in their dinner clothes – a suit coat and slacks and a little black dress. After dinner, they wanted to play with the giant chess board on one end of the Grand Hotel’s porch.

There was a kid’s menu for dinner, though both kids preferred to head straight to the buffet. Again, Mr. Wonderful and I ordered from the menu and enjoyed an elaborate five-course dinner.

There’s a lot of activity in the Main Dining Room at dinner time. The live music was a nice touch, and the kids loved watching waiters come and go. One carried a tray on his head, much to the delight of every kid in the dining room.

The famous pecan ball at Grand Hotel. I ordered it for dessert the night we were there. Don’t leave the dining room before you had a chance to try it.

I’d mentioned before that there were other restaurant options at the Grand Hotel. There are a few not on hotel grounds. If you dine at one of them (I mentioned The Woods in this post), know that the dining plan probably doesn’t cover a full meal but, instead, covers a portion of the dinner.

There is also a daily afternoon tea that is an additional price. It runs from 3:30 to 5 p.m. I skipped it on our visit, but then passed through the lobby as it was occurring and regret it terribly. The desserts looked delicious and there was a harpist performing during the meal. It looked utterly charming, and I would book it in a heartbeat to attend with my daughter if we return.

Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor had its own entrance in the Grand Hotel.

You can’t really stay at the Grand Hotel and skip visiting Sadie’s, the ice cream shop on the ground floor, especially if you are staying at the hotel with kids. Read the next section to see how your kids can get a FREE scoop of ice cream there.

What’s fun for kids at the Grand Hotel

We traveled all over Michigan for more than a week, and the highlight of the entire road trip? The Grand Hotel’s pool. It ranked that high in my kids’ memory.

The Grand Hotel’s pool was the largest my kids have seen. There were inflatables available and goggles for kids to use.

The Esther Williams Swimming Pool is quite large, with two hot tubs to boot. It gets its name because the movie star filmed a movie at the hotel long ago. Anyway. The big draw for my kids, though, were the collection of colorful floaties and pool toys that were free for guests to use.

Pool staff was also handing out free sno cones to kids on the day we were there. Pointing it out to my kids was the only way I could get them out of the pool.

Cooling off after a swim with a complimentary sno cone at the Grand Hotel.

One things to note: This is an outdoor pool and it is a bit of a trek from the hotel building. Bring pool shoes or flip flops, plus a cover up if you think your family is going to be taking a dip in the pool. And you’ll want that cover-up if you close down the pool, too. The pool closes at 6 p.m., which also happens to be the time when the formal dress code starts to apply in certain lobbies. I was a bit self-conscious returning to the hotel with the kiddos when everyone else was strolling around in chic clothes.

We rented bikes from the Grand Hotel and took an 8.5-mile, self-guided tour around the island. They had kid-sized bikes plus tagalong attachments. The bike ride was one of my favorite parts of our visit to the island.

You can rent bikes from the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. You can ride around the island via the state highway, a large, paved, two-lane bike path that’s mostly flat and along the beautiful lakeshore.

The hotel has an excellent health program courtesy Blue Cross Blue Shield. Kids get a card at check-in, and if they complete at least five activities, they receive a FREE scoop of ice cream at Sadie’s. The scoop, mind you, is huge. Activities include swimming at the pool, taking a bike ride, playing a round of FootGolf and playing chess on the porch. Some activities were an additional fee.

My kids had no problem completing the needed activities during our brief stay.

Children’s programs at the Grand Hotel

Given our short timeframe of staying, we did not take part in any of the complimentary children’s programs at the Grand Hotel. These programs are held daily on hotel grounds and include drop-off options for kids ages 5 and older. In 2018, the program runs from June 2 through Aug. 31.

All kids programs at the Grand Hotel start and end in this room located near the hotel’s arcade.

There are afternoon and evening programs, and all of them begin and end in Rebecca’s Room located on the Lobby Level of the hotel. Afternoon programs include:

Afternoons – Arts & Crafts (Mondays), touring Fort Mackinac (Tuesdays), kite decorating and flying (Wednesdays), tennis court activities (Thursdays), touring the Butterfly House (Fridays), rock painting and skipping (Saturdays), and visiting the Manoogian Art Museum (Sundays)

Evenings – Chicken dinner, ice cream at Sadie’s and FootGolf (Mondays), dinner in the Main Dining Room and arcade games (Tuesdays), pizza and movie night (Wednesdays), dinner in the Main Dining Room and story telling games (Thursdays), dinner at The Gate House and school yard activities (Fridays), sandwich buffet with arts & crafts and ice cream sundaes (Saturdays), and dinner in the Main Dining Room and bingo (Sundays).

Kids aren’t the only ones with activity options. The list of daily activities is found in the lobby and a paper version is delivered to your room each day. 

There were also a number of activities for adults. No doubt, if we were staying longer at the hotel, we would’ve registered the kids for one of the programs and joined in one of the activities for adults scheduled at the hotel. What an easy way to sneak in a date night while on vacation!

Overall impression of a family vacation at the Grand Hotel

In the words of my 8-year-old, “This is one classy place.” Staying here has been on my bucket list for more than a decade, so the expense, in my opinion, is worth it. But I can see how it could be difficult to justify the expense if you have a large family.

The view of the Grand Hotel from the lawn.

Having said that, meals are included and there were a good variety of complimentary activities. Having dined elsewhere on the island, I have an idea how much we’d spend as a family having dinner out, so having it included is a selling point to me.

If we had another day or two at the hotel, I would’ve felt comfortable registering the kids for one of the daily programs. This would have allowed a couple hours for me and my husband to chill out together, either taking a walk or having a drink at the hotel’s wine bar (or on that spectacular porch).

If you can budget a stay at the Grand Hotel, I highly recommend it for your family. If not, you can still visit the hotel for the day. The cost is $10 per adult, $5 for kids ages 5-9 and FREE for children 4 and younger.

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island had free activities on the lawn and on its famous porch.

Having said all that, are you wondering about your comfort level at a place like this? Is it too nice? Sure, there’s a dress code for part of the hotel after 6 p.m., and that can be intimidating. Call it “dress up time,” and your kids will get behind the idea. My daughter wore a little black dress and my son wore his First Communion outfit.

There are exceptions made when it comes to the dress code, so relax. For instance, I forgot a tie for my son and that was no big deal. Also, my husband was injured and in a wheelchair. Due to his injury, he could not wear his dress shoes. The dining room staff graciously did not make a fuss.

Family vacation guide to staying at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan  #familytravel

If you go

Grand Hotel

Where: 286 Grand Ave, Mackinac Island, Mich.

Getting there: Most people take a ferry from either Mackinac City or St. Ignace. The Grand Hotel will pick up your luggage from the ferry and deliver it to your room. The hotel also brings your luggage to the ferry for your departure.

About tips: Tipping is not allowed at the Grand Hotel, except at the salon. It is expected at most off-site locations like some of the restaurants and at the pool.


Read more about Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island inspired an entire road trip through Michigan (more on that to come). To plan your own awesome road trip through Michigan, I’ll be sharing a road trip recap soon featuring restaurant highlights, sights to see, and where to stay. You can start planning now with this ultimate Michigan Bucket List.

For Mackinac Island highlights, read these posts:

My Mackinac Island Bucket List

24 Hours On Mackinac Island With Kids

Exploring Fort Mackinac with Kids (July 30)

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July 12, 2018

48 Hours In Traverse City With Kids

Traverse City, Michigan, is the kind of lakeside town that will have you planning your return visit before you even leave. My family visited for two days during our epic Michigan road trip. We were reluctant to move on when it was time. Blame the lakefront view from our balcony. Blame the proximity to gorgeous parks. Blame MOOmers.

Disclosure: My visit was hosted by Traverse City Tourism. All thoughts, opinions, and typos are my own.

Family-friendly things to do in Traverse City, Michigan

What to do in Traverse City with kids

Traverse City isn’t a very large city, but it packs in quite a few city offerings. It blends familiar convenience:

– Costco and Walgreens near our hotel

– Local specialties, like microbreweries, charming locally-owned stores, and the famous MOOmers Homemade Ice Cream

– And natural beauty. Not only is it near Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, the city itself is on the West Traverse Bay, with a river passing through it.

Traverse City hotel with a view

My daughter enjoying the view from our balcony at Cherry Tree Inn & Suites in Traverse City, Michigan.

So, what’s a family to do? Our kids are 6 and 8 so we were beyond playing in the sand at the hotel. Though between you and me, they sure did enjoy the playground at our hotel, Cherry Tree Inn & Suites.

Pirate ship playground at Cherry Tree Inn & Suites in Traverse City

Cherry Tree Inn & Suites has a pirate ship playground on its private beach.

Anyway. Away from the playground, the most memorable outing was about a 30-minute drive from Traverse City, actually – Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.

The view from a sand dune at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore

There’s a 450-foot sand dune at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, and some people thought it would be wise to run down it. The climb back up takes a few hours.

It’s a picturesque area run by the National Park Service. Be prepared to climb some sand dunes. Also, do take the time to do the scenic drive, and do not skip the scenic drive and stops No. 9 and No. 10. The views are stunning.

Scenic overlook at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in MIchigan

We stopped at a few of the lookouts as we drove the scenic route around Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. Talk about cruising in style – we drove the 2018 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD during the road trip.

Be warned: There are people who run down the 450-foot sand dune at the Lake Michigan overlook and spend hours crawling their way back up. Your kids will want to do this, too. Don’t let them.

Also, note that while it is a lakeshore, there isn’t much swimming going on at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. My kids were disappointed. Luckily, there are a few beach options nearby.

Glen Haven Beach is picturesque but when we visited, the water was freezing cold and the waves were surprisingly strong.

We tried swimming nearby at Glen Haven Lake. The water was frigid for June. And check out the waves in the picture. For a lake, it had quite the possible rip tide.

Back in Traverse City, there were better lake swimming opportunities. Clinch Park seemed to be the most popular. We checked out the private beach of our hotel, Cherry Tree Inn & Suites, but decided the outdoor pool and hot tub were more of our liking. The lake had a bit of a seaweed thing going on that my kids didn’t deal with well.

Lakefront hotel in Traverse City

The kids were excited about staying at a hotel with its own beach. Problem was, the water was super cold and there were weeds that clung to the kids’ feet.

There is quite a trail system in Traverse City, so we decided to rent some bikes from Einstein Cycles, which was within walking distance of our hotel. We took the T.A.R.T. toward downtown Traverse City, stopping for lunch at The Filling Station Microbrewery before turning back around. The trails do cross some streets, and if you’re kids aren’t confident with stopping and starting, it may be nerve-wracking.

Bike riding in Traverse City

We biked along the T.A.R.T. in Traverse City. There’s a great, family-friendly brewery known for its pizza on the route called The Filling Station.

Our hotel had some watercraft rentals available, but were a bit out of our price range. Just know that people could boat, jet ski, kayak and SUP out on the water.

Where to stay in Traverse City with kids

Hotels line the bay of Traverse City, and the lucky ones who have the water-facing rooms are in for a treat. We stayed at Cherry Tree Inn & Suites, and the view at sunrise was worth waking early for, and sunset drew every guest out on to the beach each night.

Pretty sunset at Cherry Tree Inn & Suites in Traverse City

Sunset at Cherry Tree Inn & Suites in Traverse City, Michigan.

While you’d think having a lake at your back door was enough, the kids were excited that the hotel had both an indoor and outdoor pool/hot tub area.

Cherry Tree Inn & Suites outdoor pool

The Cherry Tree Inn & Suites’ outdoor pool and hot tub had a nice view of the bay. My kids preferred it to the indoor pool.

There are different room options at the hotel (I think they said 25 types), and we were in a room with two queen beds, water-facing balcony, and a mini kitchenette. It was just the right size.

It’s conveniently near a pharmacy and within walking distance to putt putt golf and bike rentals. The hotel will also offer free shuttle service, which is helpful if you feel like trying one of the many microbreweries.

Where to eat in Traverse City with kids

Near the strip of hotels, you’ll mostly find chain restaurants with a local restaurant or two hidden among them. Our happiest dining experiences were far from that. Try heading into the downtown area around Front Street for food. Our first dinner in town was at 7 Monks Taproom, which has a kids menu and what my husband swears is one of the top 5 hamburgers he has ever tried. The Bacon Jam Burger may be $16 but he wanted to return the next night to have it again.

Lunch at The Filling Station Microbrewery was also wonderful, and right on the T.A.R.T. Trail, so a lot of biking families were there. Small kids can play in sandboxes while you wait. They mostly serve flatbread pizza and salads, and the beer is excellent.

Food and drinks were ordered at the Filling Station’s outdoor bar. The family-friendly brewery/restaurant was located along the T.A.R.T. Trail in Traverse City.

I heard a lot of talk about Moomers, whose ice cream was ranked as some of the best in the nation in recent years. So, we had to go, right? It’s a working dairy farm outside of the city, and apparently, everyone makes the drive. We went on a Monday night and there was a line for scoops. This place is efficient, though, and we had our ice cream in no time. The view is worth the drive, too.

Moomers ice cream in Traverse City

You can enjoy Moomers ice cream while looking at dairy cows in the distance.

We had a miss or two on meals, and our breakfast was complimentary at the hotel, so I have no recommendations for that.

Plan a Traverse City vacation

I started planning this vacation in the form of a bucket list. Check out the Traverse City Bucket List to begin your plans.

Read more about some of the things we did in upcoming posts:

Staying On The Lake in Traverse City

Taking Kids to Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore (TBD)

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July 9, 2018

Tips For Visiting Blank Park Zoo In Des Moines

Blank Park Zoo is a hidden gem that’s a bit off the beaten path in Des Moines, Iowa. My family is most familiar with the downtown area and, of course, Adventureland; however, we decided this summer, it was time to pay this zoo a visit. I’m glad we did! I just wish we had allowed more time to explore – we visited on the last day of a great weekend in Des Moines.

Tips for visiting Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa

Disclosure: Our trip was hosted by Catch Des Moines. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

You can explore the zoo in an afternoon – there are 22 acres of exhibits and facilities to see.

The zoo in Des Moines has an indoor rainforest with a low-hanging rope bridge.

Here are some of the things we discovered at the Des Moines zoo:

Not-to-miss animal encounters

Blank Park Zoo loads their summer days with animal encounters, keeper chats, feedings and more. You can see a schedule here. They are, of course, subject to change. We caught one of the Look & Learn educational programs near the penguins. It’s held daily at 11 a.m. If you arrive to the area at 10:45, you can watch the penguins being fed and then you’re just a few steps away from the animal program.

There are other encounters for an additional fee. My kids begged and begged to ride the camel, so we forked over the $6 each for them to ride.

Des Moines Zoo Camel Ride

For an additional fee, kids can ride a camel at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa.

A few of the other activities that are an additional fee include feeding parakeets ($2 for a feed stick, $1 for admission only), the train ride ($2.25 per person or $2 for members), and the carousel ($2.25 per person or $2 for members). They also had a face painting stand, which seemed like a sweaty mess waiting to happen.

One of my favorite add-ons was the giraffe feeding, which I thought was reasonably priced. My daughter and I also fed giraffes for $2 a treat (which was actually like several lettuce leaves). I thought it was more fun getting up close to giraffes than camels, but my daughter may have a different opinion about it.

Feeding giraffes at Blank Park Zoo was an additional fee but definitely a memorable experience.

Behind the Scenes Tours

I can’t vouch for how a one-on-one tour with a zoo keeper and animal goes, but Blank Park Zoo has several different Behind The Scenes Tours that sound awesome. Sign me up for the sea lion and penguin experience, pronto.

Note that each tour has a different age restriction, so younger kiddos might not be able to take some of the tours. Prices for non-members are $50 for kids younger than 11 and $100 for kids 12 and older.

If your family loves incredible animal encounters and small-group tours, check out Tanganyika Park in Kansas!

Most unique ways to see animals

I appreciate it when a zoo finds an interesting way to get you (safely) close to animals to observe them. Two of my favorites were at Blank Park Zoo.

There’s an underwater viewing area for the sea lion exhibit that was one of our favorites. The animals would swim past the windows frequently.

Des Moines Zoo Seal Viewing Window

The seal exhibit had above water and below water viewing areas. We especially enjoyed watching the animals swim underwater.

My kids liked crawling through the prairie dog tunnels and popping their heads into the bubble in the exhibit. Only attempt crawling through them yourselves if you don’t mind looking super awkward.

There’s also an area called the Australia Adventure. In theory, this exhibit sounds awesome – the animals, like a wallaby, roam freely as you walk the trail. However, the trail was closed the day we visited, so I’m not sure how many animals one would actually get to see in the exhibit. If you’ve visited and got to walk the trail, let me know how it was!

Best kids play area

Des Moines Zoo Kids Area

Inside the Kids Kingdom at the zoo in Des Moines, you’ll find a petting zoo and wooden playground.

Having visited many Midwest zoos, there always seems to be a playground of some sort planted somewhere within. Blank Park Zoo has a fantastic space that’s tied in with its petting zoo. Don’t skip Kids Kingdom, with plenty of room to climb and play.

The playground at the Blank Park Zoo could be a destination in itself. It keeps kids busy for a long time.

And so you don’t have disappointed kids, you’ll need a $1 per food cup so your kids can feed the goats and llamas.

How to get a discount to Blank Park Zoo

If you have a membership to a zoo that belongs to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, you may get 50 percent off or event FREE admission to the zoo. For example, Omaha zoo members receive 50% off admission, while members of the Lincoln Children’s Zoo get FREE admission. Visit this AZA Reciprocal Admission Program page for more details and to check to see if your zoo participates. It’s also a good idea to call ahead to be sure.

I’ve written about the benefits of reciprocal programs for zoos, museums and botanical gardens, so check it out!

Want to explore more of Des Moines?

My son liked the interactive exhibits at Living History Farms in West Des Moines.

This is the second time we’ve visited Des Moines with the kids. If you’re interested in seeing what there is to do in West Des Moines (like the Living History Farms), check out this post. To learn more about downtown Des Moines attractions, read this post.

To plan your own Des Moines family getaway, start with the Des Moines Bucket List.

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July 6, 2018

24 Hours On Mackinac Island With Kids

Mackinac Island, Mich., is almost too good to be true. This little, car-free island has been named by TripAdvisor the No. 1 summer destination and, at one point, one of the top islands to visit in the world. Imagine horse-drawn carriages, beautifully restored building, and spectacular views of Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and the Mackinac Bridge. (Heads up: It’s all pronounced Mack-in-naw)

Mackinac Island was actually the inspiration for this summer’s epic Michigan road trip. We planned one full day to explore the island as a family. This itinerary includes a bike ride, plenty of fudge, exploring Grand Hotel, and breath-taking views.

Disclosure: My visit was hosted by Grand Hotel and Mackinac State Parks. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

Day Itinerary For Mackinac Island

24 hours on Mackinac Island with kids

First off, 24 hours is not long enough, even though the island is roughly 3.7 square miles. However, if budget is a concern, one day here will do. I’d recommend staying overnight on the island, if at all possible, to see what it’s like once the day-trippers head back to the mainland.

Soaking up the view of the marina and carriages on the Main Street on Mackinac Island.

Ferries drop you off at the main hub of activity, where you will find bicycle rentals, souvenir shops, restaurants and fudge shops. It’s as touristy as it gets, and chaotic, but the charm of the island is inescapable: As you soak in the scenery of colorful bicycles, horse-drawn carriage taxis and hotel shuttles, and then there’s that smell of fudge.

Once you’re done shopping and sampling fudge, get out of that tourist area to explore the rest of the island. There are a few ways to see the full island, including carriage tours, but I recommend getting bicycles if you’re able. If you are traveling with young kids, I have a section below that details what to expect if you’re going to bike around the island with them.

As beautiful as the architecture is at the port, the natural scenery on the rest of the island is truly remarkable. There is a paved bike trail that takes you past some of the key sights, like the British Landing and Arch Rock, plus the route is flat.

The route along the lake shore of the Mackinac Island frequently passed by stacks of stones like this.

My kids love hands-on activities, so two places on Mackinac Island to go for that are Fort Mackinac and the Mackinac Art Museum. Both are managed by Mackinac State Park. Fort Mackinac will take a few hours if you plan on touring. There is a kids area for dress up and activities to learn more about what life was like at the fort more than 100 years ago. There are re-enactors at the fort, and you’ll likely get to watch them fire guns and hear the cannon fire.

While I was the only one who got to fire the cannon at Fort Mackinac, my kids (ages 6 and 8) were able to help prep the cannon.

If your kid is older than 13, he or she can fire the first cannon at Fort Mackinac for an additional fee and reservation. I tried it out, and my little kids could help prep the cannon. I’ll be writing about it soon.

The art museum is small and in a historic building. My kids headed straight for the kids studio in the basement, so I didn’t get to see much of the art. There is a fee to enter the museum, but once you’re in, the activities in the studio are included. This is a great rainy-day activity.

We stopped at the Stuart House Museum, as well. My son loves history, so he enjoyed it the most.

Biking Mackinac Island with kids

My kids wanted to take a horse-drawn carriage and ride bikes. Since our shuttle to the hotel was a carriage, we checked one thing off the list right away.

We decided to take a self-guided tour of the island by bike. You can rent bikes by the ferry drop-offs, but we opted to rent them at our hotel, the Grand Hotel. The fees were comparable.

The state highway around the island is a large, paved, two-lane bike path that’s mostly flat and along the beautiful lakeshore.

Our 8-year-old biked on his own, while our 6-year-old was seated in a tag-along. The route around the should probably take you about 2 hours if you’re with young kids, but plan more time if there’s a chance you’ll hike a trail or two. And how could you not? It’s beautiful here.

The bike path takes you by the Devil’s Kitchen, a little burnt-out looking cave; the British Landing site, a historically significant spot on the island; and Arch Rock, which you’ll need to get off the bike and hike a bit if you want a good view.

There aren’t many hills to worry about and the main route around the lakeshore of the island is strictly bike, so it’s great for families. However, if you’re doing a full loop, you will have to pass through the main street of tourist activity. There are carriages everywhere, walkers who are not looking, and other bicyclists. Still, my kiddo did fine navigating around things.

Staying the Grand Hotel with kids

This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip that I’d been dreaming about for 15 years, so I had to stay at Grand Hotel. This gorgeous, historic hotel is open to visitors for a $10 fee if you want to explore it but not stay there. But staying here? It’s an experience all its own.

The street that leads to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

First thing’s first, check out the pool with the kids. It is a walk from the hotel, but this large pool area is going to be a highlight for your kids. There are pool toys, two hot tubs, and complimentary sno cones. We hit the pool after our bike ride.

There are lawn activities for free, and things like foot golf for a fee. There are also drop-off kids programs that we totally would have taken advantage of if we were staying another day or two. They looked fun, and would’ve provided a little bit of a date night for me and Mr. Wonderful.

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island had free activities on the lawn and on its famous porch.

On check-in, kids receive activity cards. If they complete at least five items on the list — things like trying a new food, biking, playing over-sized chess, or swimming in the pool — they receive a free (huge) scoop of ice cream at Sadie’s Ice Cream Shop in the hotel. It’s a great, free program for kids, and really motivated my kids to fit in a lot of things during our short stay.

Dining on Mackinac Island with kids

I’m biased since I’ve been dreaming about the Grand Hotel for years, but our dining experience at the hotel-ran restaurants were better than what we tried in the touristy strip of restaurants.

Most hotel plans include breakfast, the Grand Luncheon Buffet and dinner at the Grand Hotel. I highly recommend not skipping the dinner; it’s quite the experience, with live music, five courses for the adults, and a beautiful view if you get near the windows.

While there is a dress code for dinner, my kids were absolutely delighted to play dress up for the night. For dinner, kids can order off a kids menu or get a buffet with things like deep fried mac and cheese, barbecue, and fresh fruit (not to mention an abundance of desserts). Don’t miss your chance to order their famous Grand Pecan Ball for dessert.

The famous pecan ball at Grand Hotel.

Breakfast was similar, though this time, kids could order off the adult menu or get the buffet. My daughter? She got the buffet and returned to the table with a box of Fruit Loops. I kid you not.

The other memorable spot for food is the Fort Mackinac Tea Room located inside fort (so you will have to pay the park’s entrance fee). The Tea Room is managed by Grand Hotel, and it has arguably the best view of the island. We just had coffee and hot cocoa, so I can’t vouch for the food. But the views? Unforgettable.

The kids loved the hot cocoa with whipped cream at the Tea Room, located inside Fort Mackinac. The view can’t be beat.

By the ports, you’ll find a lot of restaurants. There will be a wait at most meal times. We went to one facing the marina and the food was okay, the prices were expectedly high, and the service was a little sullen. On our way out of town, we grabbed picnic food to-go from Dowd’s, which claims to be America’s oldest family-owned grocery store. While the prices are higher than Omaha’s (it is an island, after all), the food I grabbed was fresh and satisfying.

If you’re looking for fudge, I’m pretty sure you can’t go wrong with any shop along the tourist strip. You’ll also likely see employees making the fudge. We bought some fudge at Murdick’s and received complimentary fudge from Grand Hotel. I loved the chocolate fudge from Grand Hotel, but everyone else in my family loved the caramel-y fudge we picked out at Murdick’s. Ask for samples, of course.

Main Street on Mackinac Island – fudge, bikes, tourist shops and horse-drawn carriages sums it up.

Itinerary for Mackinac Island with kids

Now that you’ve read the details, here’s how we fit all of that into 24 hours on Mackinac Island:

9:30 a.m. – Star Line Ferry from Mackinaw City, with pass under the Mackinac Bridge

10 a.m. – Walk around Main Street and visit Stuart House Museum

12 p.m. – Lunch at Mary’s Bistro

1 p.m. – Horse-drawn carriage shuttle to Grand Hotel; explore hotel

2 p.m. – Rent bikes

5 p.m. – Swim at Grand Hotel pool

7 p.m. – Dinner at Grand Hotel

Next day

8 a.m. – Breakfast at Grand Hotel

9:30 a.m. – Fort Mackinac to fire cannon

10 a.m. – Coffee and hot cocoa at Fort Mackinac Tea Room

12 p.m. – Ice cream at Sadie’s Ice Cream Shop

1 p.m. – Mackinac Art Museum

1:30 p.m. – Lunch to-go from Dowd’s

2:45 p.m. – Ferry back to Mackinaw City

OK, that was a little more than 24 hours. But, you get the idea.

Getting to Mackanic Island

To get to the island, you need to take a ferry (or perhaps you own a boat or small plane). Star Line Ferries ran almost every 15 to 30 minutes at the peak of summer when we traveled. We left fairly early in the morning and lucked out with the ferry making a pass under the Mackinac Bridge. Check the schedule to time your trip to the island to include that! Ferry rides take about 20 minutes, and for small kids, the ride itself is pretty exciting.

We sat on the upper deck of the Star Line ferry to Mackinac Island to get this picture of the Mackinac Bridge at our backs.

You will have to leave your car on the mainland, of course. We took Star Line, which offered a couple of levels for parking, including a free one. The most convenient is the valet parking, which seemed like a pretty good deal so we took. It was $14, included a secured lot, and they’d deliver the car to the ferry when we returned.

If you’re staying at a hotel on the island, there’s a good chance there’s a porter who will pick up your luggage from the ferry and deliver it to your room. The Grand Hotel did, and the convenience is much appreciated.

Read more about Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island inspired an entire road trip through Michigan (more on that to come). To plan your own awesome road trip through Michigan, I’ll be sharing a road trip recap soon featuring restaurant highlights, sights to see, and where to stay. You can start planning now with this ultimate Michigan Bucket List.

For Mackinac Island highlights, read these posts:

My Mackinac Island Bucket List

Family Guide To Staying At The Grand Hotel

Exploring Fort Mackinac with Kids (July 30)

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