Inland Cruises are a Great Travel Value
Ninja Level 1 (out of 5)
When we travel we love to take whatever local cruises we can find, whether they are lake cruises or river, they are an excellent way to see a “side” of the city or town you wouldn't see any other way. An added bonus is they are often an excellent entertainment value as well.
Called “Michigan's little Bavaria,” Frankenmuth is a charming town, on the Cass River, featuring a strong German heritage, with it's own Brewery and quaint, German themed shops. Michigan families have made staying at the 13 acre Bavarian Inn a tradition for generations... it's an full fledged family resort with multiple pools, a water park, arcade, mini-golf and a variety of adult, and family, activities. It's a perfect place to stay if you have kids to entertain.
If you are in the Detroit area, Frankenmuth is just an hour, to an hour and a half, North, through some charming farm country. You'll see the Bavarian Inn on your right as you come into town, but if you prefer to stay in the downtown area they have several selections there as well (Marv Herzog, Fairfield Inn, Springhill Suites and Drury Inn).
We were just there for a day trip though, so we hit the downtown and parked at the River Place Shops, walking over the bridge to the park and annual craft festival, to spend an hour checking out it's exhibits before the boat ride.
We planned the highlight of our day to be the cruise on the Bavarian Belle, followed by lunch at one of the many interesting restaurants and cafes.
The Bavarian Belle is a beautiful boat, and it docks right at the River Place Shops, it's dock and ticket kiosk is by the fountain. Not knowing how crowded the first cruise of the day would be (it wasn't), we got to the ticket kiosk about a half hour early, bought our tickets (just $12 for adults, $4 under 12 and free for children under 4 – cash only), and walked around the shops for a bit.
Getting on the boat was easy, you go down a winding path, a little steep, but still navigable if you have someone in a wheelchair (boat is handicapped accessible), and you just pick your seat. The boat is big enough to move around on, they have popcorn and beverages avail to purchase, and there is plenty of shade on both the upper and lower decks.
I just love taking a boat ride! You always learn a lot of history of the local area and, with the Bavarian Belle, the boats history as well. The Bavarian Belle is a fully restored paddle wheel boat that holds 150 passengers and is run by a family, all working together (Dad is the Captain). It has (non operational) smokestacks and it was interesting to learn that the smokestacks on these boats are hinged and made to lay down for passing under low bridges. Some of what we learned involved the river commerce that used to be so essential to the economy of these small river towns.
We got to see quite a few ducks and Canadian Geese on the Cass River, plus one lonely white goose who, every year, attaches itself to the first duck or goose Mother to hatch babies, helping to guard and raise the brood. The birds are used to passengers throwing popcorn into the water for them, so they will paddle out for easy picture taking... like they did in the photo here!
The cruise lasts only an hour but that was plenty of time to learn the local history and enjoy the scenery. After our cruise we had lunch at the Frankenmuth Brewery, partly because the waiters were waving at our cruise boat from the outside deck. We couldn't disappoint them since they were so obviously wanting our business, but it was a good decision, The Brewery has a nice selection of German and American food (even a couple of “Tex-Mex” items), and you can pick up some of their craft beer to go.
Visiting Frankenmuth has been considered a “summer staple” in Michigan for years, so when you go there you'll feel like you're “vacationing like a local.” You could easily spend several days in Frankenmuth enjoying their restaurants, shopping and activities but DO make a cruise on the Bavarian Bell part of your fun; you'll be glad you did!
Author: Sue Copening
Dining on the Road – Budget ideas
Ninja Level 1 (out of 5)
Cost: $ to $$
One of the great things about traveling today is the number of travel-friendly phone APPS like “Around Me” that allow you to find businesses within your current area. This allows the passenger to browse as you drive down the road. I use the APP to easily find ways to eat well, but on a budget.
I think one of the most fun parts of travel is finding the “Mom & Pop” eateries... like the “HomeFront Cafe” in Altamont, New York (just outside Albany), a charming country diner with patriotic and war memorabilia, including photos and memorials of locals who served our country. It was one of those places you could picture becoming your regular place, and it had an vintage “soda shop and ice cream bar” that is open in the warmer seasons.
One of the pleasures of locally owned, rather than chain, restaurants is that you often find the food to be unusually good, less expensive, and you get to experience the “flavor” of the local area, rather than a homogeneous “cookie cutter” ambiance that doesn't change with geography. Eating in a local place is a great way to get a feel for the community. Why not sit at the bar so you can chat with the locals?
I love meeting locals when traveling... and some are just a delight. In Kentucky my boyfriend and I sat next to an African American gentleman who was a regular at the diner. His name was Clay and he worked at a local non-profit helping men with drug and alcohol problems get back on their feet. He recommended we try the “Hot Brown” which is a Kentucky favorite consisting of Turkey and Bacon, sometimes with Ham as well, and served as an open faced sandwich with either a Mornay sauce or Cheddar Cheese. We did, and their version was a little different than my Mom used to make but very, very good. This diner had drinks, my boyfriend had a beer and I had a couple of cocktails. When we went to pay our bill however, we found that Clay had already picked up our check. So, not only did we have a delightful dinner companion to chat with, but we had that as a pleasant surprise!
Now “Diners” can vary in quality from state to state. In New Jersey and Michigan, a diner is often like a 4 or 5 star restaurant but with a more casual atmosphere and much lower prices. In fact New Jersey is famous for it's highly rated diners... like the Americana Diner in East Windsor, a delightful treat that made getting a bit lost totally worth it. The Americana serves cuisine best described as “international' in it's range, including curry flavors, Mexican, Italian, Asian, french, Greek and, of course, American!
In other states “Diners” might be slightly grimy places with little more than hamburgers and chicken soup on the menu. Frankly, I don't care which type of place it is, I still prefer being able to relax and get waited on (while enjoying the local ambiance) rather than grabbing a predictable (and generally unhealthy) meal in a fast food joint that looks the same as the one around the corner from our house. Often, you spend the same amount of money, so why not do something different and enjoy one of the pleasures of travel?
Ever been traveling and wanted a meal late at night but there were no options other than the normal fast food joints off the highway? Now here is something you might not even think of... Check the internet for local hospitals! This is something I picked up on while caring for sick relatives over the years... hospital cafeterias are often open very late, and some even have a limited selection 24/7. They generally have some “home cooking style” hot meals like meatloaf, chicken, fish and pasta, salad bars, a wide beverage selection and even desserts. Another plus... pricing! Hospital cafeterias are designed to service both employees and visitors of patients, so generally speaking, they are a low budget option for dining. Most of the time hospitals are located within a few miles of the major highways as well... so just look on your phone APP, then check the website for the hospital to see what their cafeteria hours are. Once I had a great meal at a hospital that served full meals till 1:30 AM.
Most of the time when we are traveling by road we take a couple of coolers with us. This saves us a bunch of money and allows us to snack healthier while driving. Before leaving I make up a bunch of hard boiled eggs, a few sandwiches, sometimes some cold chicken and salads. Throw in a half gallon of milk or tea, some yogurt, blocks of cheese, fig or fruit spreads and crackers and you're good to go, Finding a scenic spot for a picnic is usually pretty easy.
Now that's at the beginning of the trip. On the return, we often don't have much of a kitchen for preparing, but we can restock the cooler from a local grocery store. Additionally having a cooler allows us, when we eat in a restaurant, to have a place to put leftovers. Sometimes, if we are driving through more remote areas, I'll even order another meal to-go, something I know will keep in the cooler well that we can have up the road or the next day.
When we go on trips where we will be in the same spot for a week or two, we try to find places to stay that have somewhat of a kitchen in the room. This cuts down on the number of (more expensive) restaurant meals. You'd be surprised what you can do even in a room with only a microwave and mini fridge. I don't use microwaves for cooking though (only for heating water), so we also bring our trusty CrockPot (slow cooker). I've made delicious lasagna, pot roast and other hot meals right in the room. Like pasta? Cook the sauce in the CrockPot and heat water to boiling in the microwave, pull it out and drop in Angel Hair. It's thin enough it only has to sit in the hot water for a few minutes to be ready.
You can easily bake potatoes in a CrockPot and, if you get an elevated rack for your slow cooker you can bake chicken or meatloaf as well. Just use Google to find great recipes perfect for hotel room “dinner and movie” nights!
For packing, I throw our condiments, salt, pepper and spices, in the CrockPot, along with some of our own silverware and knives for prep. Into a tote goes a couple of plates and bowls, a larger serving bowl for prep, a roll of paper towels, crackers, nuts and other snack items. You can take along a complete kitchen “outfit” in no more than two tote bags.
My final “Road Tip” is this... don't pass up the chance to stop at those roadside stands.. in the Southern USA the boiled peanuts are a delightful snack and, all across the country, you can find some amazing BBQ, crabs, boiled shrimp, jerk chicken, empanadas, tacos and more. If you're not hungry when you come across them... stop anyway and throw something in that cooler!
Author: Sue Copening
Tubing at Kelly Park.
Rock Springs Run
Central Florida, NW of Orlando
Ninja Level – 2 out of 5
Budget - $ (take cash)
As a lifelong Florida resident I have, sadly, not even begun to cover all the opportunities for adventure and leisure, that it has to offer. You could really spend a lifetime visiting all the unique parks, springs, towns and historical spots within the state... where to start?
Recently though we made a pledge to get off our couch, get out and explore. I'd heard a lot about Rock Springs in Kelly Park and it was close enough for a half day adventure.
I really didn't know what to expect before visiting the park, though I did a quick online search for basic information. It costs (cash only) $3 per car with 1-2 people, $5 for 3-8 and $1 for each extra person in case you've got folks strapped on the roof or something.
The springs are the perfect place to go in the HOT Florida summer (I frankly find the beaches as attractive an idea as inserting myself in my toaster oven). There are plenty of shade trees and the water is (“Rock Springs” – duh) from a SPRING... meaning it is COOL. Not so cold that you don't adjust to it pretty darn quick, but cool enough that you absolutely feel refreshed.
As we were getting close to the park we stopped just outside at an intersection with a gas station on one side and a place to rent TUBES on the other (no tube rental inside the park). To rent a tube they ask you to leave them your ID (as sort of a deposit to insure you come back), and tubes are just $5 each to rent (take cash for these too). If you have a good sized trunk the tubes will just stack in there and probably not bounce out as you only have a short distance to get to the park (though some people will just stick their hand out the window and hold the tube). Total cost for 3 people: $5 entrance, plus 3 tubes = $20 for an entire day of fun! You can bring your own tubes and floats as well... though be aware they cannot be longer than 5 feet in length (a lot of blow up rafts are 6-7 ft).
We were not planning to stay the whole day so we didn't eat in the park, but you can certainly do that. The park has BBQ grills and picnic tables scattered under the trees and, if you're just feeling lazy, you can pick up sandwiches on your way there or buy food at the park's concession stand where they have hamburgers, hot dogs, ice cream and drinks. Don't bring alcohol or beer though... it's not allowed and, with the number of kids and families there, anyone that is drunk or disorderly is sure to feel the wrath of “Florida Redneck Father” - a common, and occasionally frightening, creature best left unprovoked.
Upon arrival we grabbed our tubes from the trunk of the car and headed down to the Springs to check things out. A little tip: Lock your valuables in the car and put your car key (but not remote) on a lanyard around your neck. This way you won't risk losing the keys by having them fall out of your pocket while swimming, or have to worry about someone stealing them.
The layout of the Springs is such that you will first encounter an area that is about midway from the springs headwaters to the end of the “run.” If you just want to float around a bit, there are stairs to make it easy to get down to the water; so just go for it. Even if you are partially disabled or less limber, it's easy to get in here and you can then float to the end of the “run,” get out on a ramp there and take the tree lined sidewalk back to the midway point. This aspect makes tubing in Rock Springs great for the whole family and we saw many grandparents enjoying the water.
If you want to float down the whole length of the “run,” which is more like a slow stroll down a “lazy river,” then you can take a series of boardwalks up to the springs headwaters. Here you will find it a little trickier to get into the water if you are not limber, because the rocks are a tad slippery. I would certainly not recommend it for anyone that is disabled in any way because slipping on the rocks could leave you with a nasty injury. I did see a rather overweight gentleman manage to navigate an entrance into the water just fine, although it took him a bit of time to figure out the safest way.
The “run” itself takes you down a mostly tree shaded river surrounded by flowers and wildlife. We encountered some Ibis birds that were so intent on nabbing their insect breakfast, and so used to people, they allowed us to come within 4 feet of them. There was also a bit of drama as the park rangers briefly closed off a fork in the river when someone spotted an alligator. It was a baby gator so it was more to protect it, than the noisy humans, but from the level of excitement in the crowd you'd think it was an extraterrestrial.
If you have a waterproof camera or one of the new waterproof smart phones, bring it! You'll be able to capture some great photos of foliage, flowers and maybe even wildlife.
One of the things I liked most about the “lazy river” part of the park is that it is a combination of floating down and walking back. It takes about 25-30 minutes or so to float from the head-springs to the end of the run... and only about 10 minutes to walk back on a beautiful shady path to do it again. This makes it a perfect way to both relax AND get a bit of moderate exercise.
Another thing I liked is that they close the park when it reaches capacity... meaning, while it can get a bit crowded,it's not so overcrowded you can't enjoy yourself.
A word of warning though; you must get there early as the park often reaches capacity very quickly after opening (8:00 am opening time). We were there by 9:00 on a Monday (during summer vacation when the kids are out of school) and they had closed the park already when we left at Noon. The park is open until sunset and they do let additional vehicles in after 1 pm, IF enough of the earlier visitors have left. If you're driving a distance to get there though.. best to plan an early arrival (8-9 am) to avoid disappointment and so you won't have to wait in too long a line to get in and parked.
Kelly Park Rock Springs Run is part of Florida's State Park system and is only about 40 minutes from downtown Orlando and 45-50 minutes from International Drive, making it convenient for a day, or half day, adventure for locals and tourists alike.
Author: Sue Copening