Monday, December 9, 2013

Tennessee Road Trip

Road plan. Click for full map.After a bit of consideration and some research we have booked a new road trip that we’re planning to take in the beginning of April of next year. This is a rather ambitious undertaking on our part as we’re going to be taking a 1,500 mile road trip with our kids on our car. Just the four of us. Since we will not be doing any flying planning itself was easier than it usually is.

The idea is simple. We wanted to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park for quite some time and now we’re doing it. But since a straight drive all the way there is over 700 miles we tried to break up the trip into several portions to cut down on the amount of driving on any given day and visit a couple of our usual objectives along the way.

Our first destination of the trip is going to be Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. We’ve been there when Aroshka was only 3 months old and it was during late fall. Now we’re going to see how the park looks in the middle of spring. We’re going to spend 3 nights1 in Shenandoah, and therefore we’ll have 2 full days to explore the park.

After that we’re going head to a town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The town is located right on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We’re going to spend 5 nights2 here. Our hotel will be 2 miles away from the visitor center. I didn’t even think to look for a Hilton brand hotel initially, but that’s what was coming up on the searches on its own. Thus we get to enjoy the benefits of our Diamond VIP status. The hotel has a bunch of indoor pools with impressive looking water slides which Arosha should enjoy.

On our way back we’re going to spend one night3 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The town is located right next to Raleigh, North Carolina, which is the capital of North Carolina. On the day we leave Chapel Hill we will checkout the capitol complex of Raleigh and the capitol complex at Richmond, Virginia. This will bring us to our final destination of our vacation — Washington, DC.

We will spend 2 nights4 in Washington, DC. Here we picked a hotel on the outskirts of the city instead of the downtown as usual with the consideration that we’ll have to drive anyhow with small kids. Thus by saving a bit on the price of the hotel we’ll have that money to use on paid parking. We think Arosha should enjoy visiting some of the monuments and museums that the nation’s capital has to offer. And after our stay in Washington we’ll head back home.

Since this is the first vacation that we’ll be taking Arosha to without our parents also coming — hopefully we can deal with him and Annushka on our own. Here’s to hoping that it’s going to be a fun and — even though active — relaxing (as in stress-free) vacation.

  1. Skyland Resort, $397 for 3 nights with taxes included. []
  2. The Park Vista DoubleTree, $583 for 5 nights with taxes included. []
  3. Hampton Inn & Suites Chapel Hill, $171 for 1 night with taxes included. []
  4. Hilton Garden Inn Arlington, $320 for 2 nights with taxes included. []
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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Tennessee Trip Highlights

Time really flies. It’s been more than a week since our vacation has ended and I, as usual, am having trouble figuring out which way to go about these posts. So I decided to just pick out some general categories about the whole trip and then split off location specific notes into separate posts.

Hotels


Throughout our trip we stayed at five different places. Four of those places were Hilton properties. We did not take advantage of our points for any of these since we’re saving them for our November trip, but we did get the full benefits of our Diamond VIP status.

Park Vista by DoubleTree. Gatlinburg, Tennessee.All Hilton properties are great. Clean, big rooms, nice blankets, good breakfasts. I would rate them all at four out of five starts with the exception of one. The hotel where we spent six nights — the longest and most important part of our vacation was just superb and by far the best one of our trip. It was Park Vista by DoubleTree (Hilton property) located right on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Our hotel. 15 stories atop a hill.Everything about it was great. The hotel itself was located on top of a mountain located right in the middle of a forest. We got upgraded to the top, fifteenth, floor. We had a balcony with a great view of Gatlinburg and the mountains that surround it.

View from the inside.This hotel had a very nice breakfast included with a chef that would cook hot to order meals. We also took advantage of the on property restaurant practically every day. Once we ate directly at it, but mostly we would order some dishes to go to bring up to our room and had our dinner while Anechka was tucked in for the night in the same room.

Other Hilton properties that we stayed at were located in Hershey, Pennsylvania — right near PA capital of Harrisburg, Chapel Hill, North Carolina — not far from NC capital of Raleigh, and the last one was located in Arlington, Virginia — right across the bridge from Washington, DC.

Skyland Resort at Shenandoah National Park.Our only non Hilton hotel was a lodge located right inside Shenandoah National Park. We did stay at the same lodge at the end of 2010. However because we had to reschedule our trip we ended up having to take the only left over room. It was located in a different part of the lodge (cabins are all over the property) and was somehow way below the standard that we are used to.

DoubleTree at Gatlinburg.Floors we were not covered with carpet and cold. Beds were small, mattresses were old. Arosha kept falling off the bed throughout the night. Hot water would run out before one could take a quick shower. There were no laundry facilities and we couldn’t do without them because of Anna’s diapers (more on that later). And it smelled like … — well, it just smelled.

The only thing that it had going for it was the fact that it was located right in the woods and we had a nice porch where Arosha could play with leafs, sticks, stones and all other things he loves playing with. And the restaurant was nearby as opposed to the other cabins from which one had to climb atop a rather steep hill to get to it.

Arligngon, Virginia.Overall this contributed to us cutting our Shenandoah stay one night short. We ended up adding the night to our Tennessee stay which proved to be a very good move on our part.

Pools


The hotel in Tennessee had probably the best pool we’ve encountered during all our previous travels. It had a pair of shallow pools for kids, a hot tub, and an adult pool with a two story high slide leading right into it. Arosha loved it. I would put him between my legs, we would lie down on our backs and slide down right into the water. I have to admit that it was quite fun for me as well.

Pools at Gatlinburg DoubleTree.There was another smaller slide leading into the kids pool, but it was a tube going through the wall. It was pretty dark inside and only on our last day I managed to talk Arosha into trying it. He had to go through it alone as I would not fit into it. So when he was ready to go in I told him that I’ll run down to the pool and catch him at the bottom.

The first time by the time I got there I saw a huge splash and Arosha managing to get above water on his own. Naturally he wanted to go again. On the second time by the time I got down to the pool I heard yelling coming through the tube:
– Ready??
– Ready.
– Ready???
– Ready!

Water slide.The next thing I see is Arosha flying through the tube with complete terror on his face. He splashes down into the pool, jump out with with complete ecstasy written all over his face. Again! Third time went very much like the previous run. Same “readies”, same terror, same happiness.

Alena also took Anna out to the pool. She also enjoyed it along. Alena would hold her in the water with her head above it and they would “swim” around the pool. One time Arosha and I talked Alena into trying the slide. We practically had to coerce her into it. Eventually she reluctantly agreed.

Another view of the slide.When she got up there I told Arosha — now listen to this! And then we heard multiple high pitched yells, screams and howls. She did end up liking it too. I’m glad we made her try.

Our other pool experience was rather sad. While we stayed in Arlington we decide to go to the pool. Arosha got all dressed, all prepared, totally happy. We all also got dressed for the pool. Then we couldn’t figure out which floor it was on. When we went down to the lobby to inquire where it is it turned out that this was the only hotel of our stay where there was no pool. It was a complete tragedy for poor Arosha. So much preparation and anticipation and such a fiasco. He was crushed. That will teach us a lesson for the future though.

Our Car


Our car has served us admirably. I’m really enjoying the “utility” part of our SUV. The cargo space easily fit a pair of large suitcases, a stroller and a good number of smaller bags and purses, while still allowing us to pull a cover over them.

Shenandoah fog and our car.The ride was comfortable and higher vantage point makes for a better trip — you can see more. Distronic made driving for 2,000 miles easier on me. Our car fully loaded with four people and a lot of cargo came out with a very respectable MPG of 26. That’s with mixed highway and city driving. We had to fill up only 4 times and that’s considering that we never waited for it to fall below 1/4th of the tank. Diesel rules.

One thing to note is that while I feel rather well driving Mercedes in and around New York it felt a bit awkward everywhere else. It attracts too much attention and really stands out. Something like Chevy Tahoe would feel somehow safer and more comfortable in that respect.

Another trail.However while before I never wanted anything to do with SUVs now I’m a big fan of an SUV as a family car. It is safe, heavy, stable and allowed us to easily park in all kinds of “off-road” ditches while in the parks.

Kids


Our kids did great. We feared that 400 miles in one day was not doable without many problems. Our original plan was to split it into two days when we left Shenandoah one day early. Turned out it wasn’t a problem at all. We kept planning to stop at 200 miles, 300 miles, but they just kept doing well. Only towards the end a little amount of crying ensued from Anyuta. Arosha had zero issues at all.

On the trail to Laurel Falls.The totally love nature. We could not drag Arosha away from anywhere. Sticks and stones, rivers and puddles. Arosha’s kind of paradise. Anyuta also was very happy to sit on the ground and taste grass, flowers, sticks and just plain good old dirt.

Arosha did great on hikes. We did numerous long hikes on steep trails that were about 3 miles in length and he walked them on his own without any problems. Anna on the other hand refused to sit in her ergo for the most part and Alena had to carry her. I don’t know where she gets the strength and energy. Us driving our stroller around was totally pointless. We haven’t used it once.

Nature fun.Sleeping in one room was perfectly fine too. We thought that’d all have to go on Anna’s schedule and go to sleep at 8pm. However once Alena did put her to bed we could still sit around and do other stuff. Arosha could watch some cartoons or all of us would go through our pictures we took throughout the day. Or we would eat dinner using bathroom sinks as dinner tables. It all work out rather well.

Laundry


Now this was a first for us. Because Anyuta is allergic to disposable diapers we have to use washable cloth ones. And as a result we had to do laundry every other day. Shenandoah was the worst. No laundry facilities and the closest town was 30 minutes away. Hot water would run out. Alena did hand wash them in the cold water.

View from the window of our Gatlinburg hotel.We dried them everywhere. Radiators, tables, TVs and so on. The best place though goes to the dashboard of our car while the car was sitting in the sun and we were away on a walk of some kind. Other hotels did have laundry facilities, yet it was still quite annoying to say the least.

Food


Food was … boring. This country is full of steak houses with very little variety. By the end of the trip we could not look at steaks, burgers and potatoes. We did eat at a nice Mexican restaurant once and one Cuban hole in the wall place. While in Washington we ended up running into a completely random and cheap Chinese place that was in China Town which was well reviewed by New York Times as it turned out. By most evenings my appetite for any food was nowhere to be found so we mostly ate from the appetizer sections of the menus.

Bullfish Grill at Pigeon Forge, Tennesssee.One thing that worried us slightly was the fact that Anyuta would always cry before at any kind of a restaurant. But Alena figured out a perfect solution. She can sit very well in a high chair on her own. Alena would put a plate in front of her and would put all kinds of non-choke hazard vegetables on that plate — string beans, broccoli, slices of carrots and so on. Anyuta would reach out for them and taste them. That kept her occupied rather well and would could eat in peace.

Overall


Overall it was a really nice road trip. A great vacation with an exception of one nightmarish night in Shenandoah. I’ll explain in more detail later. Otherwise we got very lucky with the weather, spring was in full bloom and we’ve seen a lot of beautiful and interesting new places. It was fun for all four of us and it was not as hard as we thought it would be. It actually wasn’t all that hard at all. Our kids are great.
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So our Tennessee vacation is the thing of the past. What left is a bunch of fond memories, hundreds of colorful pictures and of course stronger family bonds.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee.To be completely honest, I was quite nervous beforehand. Danya and I never traveled alone (without parents) with Arosha, let along with two small children. Plus there is Anюta’s eczema, my gluten-dairy-nut-soy-eggs-you-name-it diet, eating out multiple times a day with an infant for almost two weeks, cloth diapers which need laundry every other day, and 400-miles-a-day drives. Oh, and staying together in the same room with two little children, who go to bed at different times, was also on the list of things that made me anxious.

Our travelers.It all turned out better than expected! Apparently, our kids are born travelers! They handled long drives just fine — Arosha was either talking, listening to Russian rock music or sleeping; Anюta was either playing with her toys or sleeping. Rarely did they complain or cry. During long drives we made sure to stop every few hours, so that everyone can stretch, run around and get some rest.

Car travel. Stop in Great Smoky Mountains.Danya downloaded a whole bunch of audio books for Arosha to listen to in the car, but we listened to them very little on account of Anechka. Every time Danya turned on a story, usually read by a man, she was crying after a few minutes and did not calm down until the recordings were off. Interestingly enough, the exception to this was when the story was told by a woman. Anna had no issues with music and songs as well. She is a pretty sensitive child, so my theory is that she was getting scared of strange men that were suddenly talking and talking in our car.

Sleeping arrangements. Pillow barricades for Arosha.Cloth diapering on the road was a little annoying (when is it not), but totally manageable. We mostly stayed in Hilton branch hotels, and all of them had guest laundries. The only hotel that lacked both laundry and hot water in the room was the Skyland Lodge in Shenandoah National Park. There I had to hand wash diapers in ice cold water and then dry next to the radiator. We also had to finish drying some inserts on the dashboard of our car — luckily it was a very sunny day, so it only took an hour or so. I did not even try using disposables in fears to irritate Anna’s sensitive skin. By the way, she does #2 on the potty every morning pretty consistently, so I rarely have to deal with soiled diapers. Not that they disgust me — I think nothing my kids do at this age can — but it’s still nice to catch even a little break.

Drying cloth diapers.Anюta’s eczema was getting worse little by little throughout our trip. She had almost clean skin in the beginning, and was all covered in red itchy spots by the end. I am still not sure what causes it — probably food sensitivities — but at least I was able to rule out cat allergy, which is a huge relief. I think that she definitely has a reaction to bananas, but the rest is still questionable. I keep maintaining my diet to the best of my ability, although by the end of the trip I ate some gluten and other things which I try to avoid.

DoubleTree restaurant.Both kids did great at restaurants. Arosha loves going out and we never have issues with him. He loves hamburgers and french fries, so he had his share of those, but majority of the time we ordered him healthy things like vegetables, grilled chicken, wild salmon, soups, hummus, rice and beans. He also developed a fondness of oatmeal for breakfast. He usually hates it at home, but brown sugar and raisins really made the difference it seems.

Shenandoah. Skyland Resort.Anюta was as easy in restaurants as a 7 months old baby could possible be. I started following a baby led weaning approach with her a few weeks prior to vacation, so she loves holding pieces of food and munching on them. For breakfast I was giving her apples, melons and even a piece of bacon ones (I know, not good). For lunches she was usually munching on steamed vegetables or grilled chicken — I realized though that I have to ask them to not season vegetables and it made my food more delicious. She does not swallow much — food is more for tasting and playing for now — so getting proper nutrition was not a concern.

Best toys.I also am happy about the fact that our children seem to really like and enjoy nature. Arosha loves being outside and he always can come up with some game to play — he pretends to be fishing, or sweeping, or building a fire and such. He found a great tree for climbing in the Big Meadow in Shenandoah and could not get enough! He hiked one and a half miles each way to two different waterfalls in the Smokies, he also had no issues with steep road uphill to Clingman’s Dome, although we had to stop for rest more than ones.

Anna playing with the grass.Anюtka also loved being close to nature. Sometimes, when I was taking her out of the car and she saw how beautiful it was outside, she laughed out loud out of sheer delight. I let her play with sticks, stones and the likes. She also really enjoyed playing with the water near Laurel Falls. I carried her around either in ergo or just in my hands since she prefers to be forward facing. We took our City Mini stroller, but have not used it a single time.

And of course it was so good to explore new things with Danya! We see each other a lot since he works from home twice a week, but on vacations its a different quality of together time. I love traveling with him, with our children. I will write more about the nuances of our trip, but for now let me just say again that I am very glad that it all went so well.
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Friday, June 6, 2014

Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains. View from Clingmans Dome.Great Smoky Mountains National Park was on my list of to-visit places for a while now. I spotted it on the map for the first time during the spring-summer of 2010, when we were thinking of our last vacation before our kids started arriving — Alena was well along into her pregnancy. At the time we decided that it was too late to try anything as ambitious as 1,400 mile trip at the minimum.

Zoo at Natural Bridge.Later that year we went to Shenandoah for a week’s stay with my parents and our brand new family member. From that moment on I kept mentioning Great Smoky Mountains from time to time and we kept deciding that it was too early to do something like that. This spring I brought it up again and somewhat to my surprise Alena agreed.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance.Not only would this be by far the biggest drive for Arosha in his life — although he has shown himself a great traveler during our Washington State trip. And not only it would be the first trip with Arosha without my parents, no. We also had a tiny new unit who wouldn’t even be 7 month old by the time our trip would start.

Sugarlands Visitor Center.Keeping all the above in mind we planned the trip in such a way that we would make several stops on our way to Tennessee and back to give our kids some breaks from long drive days. Our original plan had a single stop in Shenandoah for three nights and two full days of relaxation at the park before driving another 400 miles all the way to Gatlinburg.

Newfound Gap road.But since we decided to leave Shenandoah a day earlier (more on that in Shenandoah post) we figured we’ll just split our drive into two 200 mile sections instead of a full 400 mile jump. But to our surprise our kids were so good that we ended up making it all the way to the end in one day, thus adding another great day to our best part of this vacation — our stay in Great Smoky Mountains.

At the top of Clingmans Dome.On our way we had two breaks — one was a detour to see natural bridge instead of which we ended up visiting a zoo. Kids had a lot of fun there. Arosha fed goats, llamas, giraffes and camels among the things that I remember. Llamas were making all kinds of sounds while gobbling up the treats and both of our kids found them to be by far the most amusing bunch. As a result llamas got most of our treats.

Same location.Our second stop was for a lunch at some local BBQ place where I got 1/4 (or was it 1/2) of a rack of ribs which were double the size of the normal rack that I’m used to seeing. Good thing I wasn’t greedy and didn’t order the whole thing. It was interesting, but it took much more fighting than ribs usually take. Not fun. We were tired after.

Conquering the fear of heights.So we kept driving and driving and our kids kept being totally content, taking naps and at some point we figured that it no longer really makes any sense to spend a night elsewhere but our final destination. Only when we got off the main interstate and started driving via a local road with traffic lights Anюta started to get annoyed and started crying. Luckily it was only for the last 5 miles of our drive.

Observation tower at Clingmans Dome.On our way to Gatlinburg we were greeted by a neighboring town of Pigeon Forge. We always imagined that Gatlinburg would feel a lot like Bar Harbor near Acadia National Park or like Port Angeles by Olympic National Park or even like Ashford near Mount Rainier. Pigeon Forge though was nothing like. The best analogy that I can think of is the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, but bigger — everything is covered in flashing neon signs, mini-golf courses, houses of scary mirrors, Guinness record halls and so on and on and on for miles.

On the way down.To our relief Gatlinburg was a lot more toned down, yet still not a serene and cozy town we expected it to be. We were glad to find out that our hotel is located on the edge of the town and on a top of a decently sized hill. The location was so great that it was only a third of a mile away from one of the entrances to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Stopped on the side of a road for one of the numerous trails.The hotel itself, as I wrote earlier, was not what you would expect to find near a national park. This one was a fifteen plus story building bustling with activity. We were lucky enough that they had a room available for our first unplanned night — we did check via their website before driving all the way there. But reasonably enough they had no upgrade for us on such a short notice.

Us at Laurel Falls.The room was on the first floor. When they asked us whether we preferred to just stay in one place or we would like to get our upgrade for the rest of the nights we inquired what kind of upgrade it would be. — We would put you on the 15th floor. — How many are there? — Fifteen. — We’ll move!

Thus our Tennessee stay has begun. Hotel and our room were great. Breakfasts were included. Lunch and dinner menus were reasonably priced. Pools were fun. And Great Smoky Mountains National Park was right beside us for us to explore.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park


Laurel Falls.Now after my not-so-short introduction on to the park itself. In the park we visited four major scenic places or destinations, two visitor centers and did a number of smaller hikes in the forest by just pulling off the road and taking quite trails.

On the way to Cades Cove.Our very first stop was by a standard national park entrance sign. We saw some people taking their pictures by the sigh and I kindly offered to take a picture of all of them. The nice people offered to take our picture as well and I confessed that it was my plan all along.

Woodpecker.After that we stopped by Sugarlands Visitors Center to put together a plan of actions for the next five days. We also got our passports stamped. Arosha now has his own passport with a pretty nice collection of stamps already. Too bad we didn’t buy it for him back during our Northwestern trip.

Taking a break from all the driving.My conversation with a ranger about places to see and hikes to take was interrupted by loud howling cry. Arosha was all in tears and at first we got very scared that he hurt himself somehow — he really only cries that loudly when it really hurts. Luckily it was not that — turns out he was playing under the stand (desk) with his pasport while I was talking and somehow managed to drop it into that stand.

Meadows at Cades Cove.A bunch of rangers gathered around, but only to find out that stand is solidly built and attached to the floor and there was no way to get inside of it. Arosha was terribly upset and couldn’t stop crying. Several rangers tried to calm him and tell him that they will save his passport. They ended up taking their stand apart and extracting the passport. From that moment on Arosha was much more careful with his collection of stamps.

Old aqueduct.We put off the destinations that we discussed with the rangers to other days because there was one place that I’ve read about before coming to the park that I really wanted to visit — Clingmans Dome. Clingmans Dome is the highest mountain in the Smokies and it has a 45 feet observation tower build on top of it offering unobstructed view in all directions.

Old mill.This is the destination that we ended up visiting tree times, but did the hike to the top only twice. So on our first day our first trip up there was on a relatively clear day. But from the top there was still significant haze. However the views were magnificent.

Bear cub!The hike itself is only half a mile long, but it is very steep. Alena had to carry Anna in her arms as she didn’t want to sit inside her ergo (which was the case for pretty much all our hikes), but Arosha had no issues doing the hike on his own.

The whole family. Mama bear with 3 cubs.Several days later we came here again. The day was very foggy and we were hoping to get above the clouds. It was not meant to be. Clouds were too high and when we started our hike we ran into a couple coming back down. We asked them if the visibility was any better at the top and they said it wasn’t at all, so we just turned back.

Wild turkeys.And several days later we got up here again on a cloudy day. Even though we did get above the clouds the cloud cover underneath wasn’t as thick as I was hoping it would be. We made the hike to the top again and did take a bunch of nice photographs. So overall I have to say if you’re going to see only one place in Great Smoky Mountains this is the destination to go to.

Fog at Clingmans Dome parking lot.One our second day we went on a hike to see Laurel Falls. The trail was three mile round trip with a pretty modest altitude change — non stop climb up to the falls and descent on the way back. The trail was paved, but there were several signs warning of danger as there were fatal accidents on this trail before. The path was laid right along a steep cliff and children had to be protected and supervised at all times. So while we were hiking up I was firmly holding Arosha by his hand.

Trail to Clingmans Dome.We passed by several small streams on our way up and Arosha loved them. As did Anyuta. Arosha found some branch with a bunch of leaves on the end and started dunking it into the water and then “washing” everything around him. He kept pretending that he had this awesome broom and kept talking and talking about it. At one point the end with the leaves just fell off. That fazed him for all of 2 seconds when he declared: “I just pressed a special button and my broom turned into a vacuum cleaner. It works even better now.”

Thick fog.The waterfall itself wasn’t big or anything, but since waterfalls seem to be our favorite destination in any park — we liked it. The trail led us to the bottom of it and it was falling on the huge boulders right in front of us. Arosha started fishing with his “vacuum cleaner” and when Alena let Anna touch the water she turned into a little speedy propeller with her arms flying in circles.

Another random trail to nowhere.Eventually Arosha managed to slip and fall in with one of his shoes into the water. However that wasn’t enough. Soon enough he ended up knee deep in the water with both of his feet. And we had no spare pants, socks or sneakers. I fished him out quickly enough, but his feet were all soaked. We had to go all the way back like that and we had to listen to Arosha’s whining about how it was horrible and not fun at all.

Riding an old log.When he would switch to crying we would try to cheer him up by saying that all people only saw the waterfall, but he actually was inside of it and that it was quite funny. He kept disagreeing and protesting claiming that there was absolutely nothing funny about his tragic situation. Later on when he was all dried off in a new set of clothing he did admin that maybe it was a little bit funny after all.

Wonderworks at Pigeon Forge.So after our mandatory stop back at the hotel (to get dry clothing) we got back into the car and drove to Cades Cove. Cades Cove is a place with a bunch of old houses and farms and things like that, but the main attraction for us was the fact that apparently that was the best place to spot wild life. And that indeed ended up being true. We did see a total of 8 bears, a whole bunch of deer, wild turkeys and a really good looking woodpecker on that day.

Climbing.Our first spotting of a bear was actually not far from the entrance to the park itself. We saw a whole bunch of cars stopped on the side of the road going in the opposite direction. I did an SUV maneuver through the median, put on my big lens and got out of the car. I couldn’t spot the bear myself, but soon enough some kind folks did point it out to me. It was far away enough that I felt it was safe to get Arosha out of the car and show him the bear. He did see him too.

Snowboarding.In Cades Cove we just kept driving very slowly and looking around. Alena spotted a woodpecker on the tree, but by the time I had my camera in hand he already jumped off. I did get several nice shots of him still.

Urtica burn. Luckily we avoided Poison Ivy.Our kids fell asleep on the way there and got some rest on the road. Then we stopped at some gift shop where we discovered yet another stamp (we got one at Clingmans Dome too) and an old watermill.

Trail to Grotto Falls.Arosha played with the water throwing all kinds of stuff into an old aqueduct, pretending to be cooking some soup which had about 50 different ingredients. We saw some wild turkeys, but one guy scared them all off before we had a chance to take a picture — we did find some more on our way back that did pose for us.

Grotto Falls.The best way to spot a bear is to see for a bunch of stopped cars and a bunch of observers with cameras. Thus we spotted a mama bear with two cubs, but they were quite far away. I could see the black dots through the camera, but not much more. They were sitting in the open field when suddenly a deer ran out of the woods and stopped. After realizing that it probably is not the best idea to be handing out around the bears the said deer disappeared in the woods even more hastily than it appeared.

Walking behind the falls.And several miles later we saw a whole bunch of cars again. I got out of the car and went about 50 meters into the woods. And there I saw several photographers taking pictures of a mama bear and her three cubs not far away. That’s where I got my best pictures of the cubs climbing the trees. Needless to say that was pretty exciting.

View from behind the falls.On the next day we went onto another trail. This one was located on a scenic road that started right around the back of our hotel. The trail was to Grotto Falls. This one was also about three miles both ways which Arosha also hiked without any problems. However this time we were much more careful around the waterfall itself in order not to have to do the hike back in a half wet condition again.

Gatlinburg. View from our hotel.The trail was also very scenic as any other trail. But the waterfall itself stands out because you could hike under and behind it. I actually carried Arosha under it because it was a sure way for him to get a shower otherwise.

Over the clouds at Clingmans Dome.We also spent half a day in Pigeon Forge and went to a weird place called Wonderworks. They had an upside-down building and all kinds of weird things inside, but overall it ended up being pretty boring. Arosha tried climbing a special mountains, but he didn’t seem to like that at all, and couldn’t really grasp the concept of having a safety on him and why he needed that at all.

Observation tower path.On our way back we stopped for a lunch at a hole-in-the-wall Cuban restaurant. And we saw a beaver on the side of the road. At first time we went by him too quickly so we made a U-turn and came back and he was still sitting on the side of the road. But as soon as I touched my camera he split with the speed of light — so no picture.

Wildflowers.And on our last full day we again went to Clingmans Dome, which I wrote about above and after that went on a trail through the woods the start of which was literally one third of a mile away from our hotel. Just a nice quite trail that runs along a mountain river and no people around.

Trail by our hotel.On our way our way out of Tenseness we crossed the whole park and came out on the other side in North Carolina. We stopped at another visitor center on that end, bought some wildflower honey for ourselves and our parents and walked around the old farm that used to be located near it.

Newfound Gap road.And that’s pretty much it. We picked a very good time to visit the park as everything was in full spring bloom. Everything about this stay was great. The only regret is that parents weren’t with us. They surely would’ve liked it a lot as well.

By Oconaluftee Visitor Center.P.S. All pictures are posted in chronological order.
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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Shenandoah

Shenandoah National Park.Our vacation started on Wednesday evening. Just as planned we left home after Danya finished his work. I think it was a good thing that we left when we did — even though we did not drive all that many miles, but finishing packing and getting out of the house alone saved us good two hours for the next day. Nothing is fast with two little ones.

Shenandoah.After a 3 hour drive we arrived to Hershey, PA at around 11pm. Our hotel, Hampton Inn, was located on Chocolate Avenue, which really amused Arosha. There really is nothing much I can say about our stay there — we just spent the night, ate breakfast and moved on.

There is an amusement park in Hershey, but they were still closed for the season. The only memorable thing for me are the lampposts on Chocolate Avenue — they were made in the form of Hershey kisses.

Skyland Resort.We stopped at Harrisburg for a tour of the state Capitol, ate a pretty decent lunch at Ruby Tuesday’s and then proceeded to Shenandoah.

In Shenandoah we checked in and went to get some dinner at the local restaurant, which had two sections — the main dining area, which was very busy at the time, and the bar. We decided to eat at the bar, even though their menu was much more limited. I ordered a salad, which was pretty much the only thing that I could eat with my diet. Big mistake, as it turned out.

Big Meadow.It was close to Anюta’s bed time, so I gobbled the unappetizing plate of wilted greens, droopy tomatoes and weathered onions. My head was starting to hurt and I felt tired overall. I left the boys to finish their meals and ran to the room to feed Anechka and put her to bed.

Danya and Arosha decided to take their equally horrible tasting meals to go and joined us shortly. By that time not only I had a horrible headache, but felt nauseous. I think I yelled at poor Arosha for being his overly active self and had to run to the bathroom to throw up.

Big Meadow fog.Long story short, I was throwing up half the night. This summoned an anxiety attack in Danya and his stomach went all crazy on him. To make things worse, Arosha kept falling off the high bed he was sleeping on (and he had no such issues in the hotel bed the night before). The only thing that made it all better in my eyes was that is was happening to me and not the children. I could not imagine how much worse it would have been if this was happening to one of them.

Climbing tree.To prevent Arosha from falling down again — he fell 3 times before we did something — Danya moved his bed to the wall and went to sleep on the other edge. This worked well for Arosha and not so well for his dad since our little unit kept trying to push Danya off in his sleep. The next evening Danya put two beds together so that Arosha will at least have the whole bed to move around.

When we got up on Friday morning, I was all better and so was Danya, although this incident brought a bout of evening anxiety feelings for him. Too bad it had to happen.

Under the tree, while Arosha is climbing.There was a small and expensive breakfast buffet in the hotel, which was not included in the price of the room. We decided that it was not worth it and got some oatmeal and yogurts instead and went to see the park right after.

When we were driving from Hershey, we saw nature waking up — lots of trees with fresh green leaves, lots of trees and bushes in bloom. This was not the case higher up in the mountains though. We’ve been to Shenandoah in November before, and I have to say that at the end of April everything looked about the same if not worse.

Luray Caverns.We’ve decided to go to the Big Meadow since it was the most memorable place from our last trip. Before our vacation I was imagining it all covered in mountain flowers. Ha-ha, so silly. There was not even a single green grass spear. Oh well. It was still a nice experience. We started walking towards trees in the horizon and walked into the cloud of fog. The weather was grey and grim, but at least it was not raining. Yet.

Arosha found a big tree with a lot of brunches at the bottom and he kept climbing up and down. He had so much fun! Danya also climbed up and down ones. Anюta just sat under the tree and played with dry grass and pine cones and stones and pretty much everything that she could find.

Donation pool.After a while we headed back to the car and kind of got lost. The fog was everywhere and the Big Meadow was … well … BIG! I did not take us too long to find our car, but it still felt like a little adventure. I have to confess thought that if Danya was not there it would have taken me much longer to find the way out.

Just as we got into the car it started raining, so all other hikes had to be canceled. We decided to drive down to Luray and visit the famous caverns instead.

Car and carriage museum.The drive was OK. It kept raining on and off, the children were asleep. When we arrived to our destination and Danya got out of the car to get something from the trunk it started pouring really bad. My poor husband jumped into the trunk to stay dry. I think he spent around 15 minutes there. Don’t think it was too comfortable, but it beats walking around in wet clothes.

Luray.When the rain got a little lighter we ran to the entrance and bought tickets for the tour. Unfortunately in order to see caverns one has to get a tour, there is no such thing as just walking at your own pace. The tour duration was a bit over an hour and I was a little anxious as to how children will handle it.

Caverns.The caverns themselves were nice. I’ve been to similar caverns twice — ones in Crimea, Ukraine and ones in Carlsbad, New Mexico. All of them are quite impressive, and even though the novelty wears off, it was still interesting to see all the rock formations. The unique thing about Luray Cavers was The Great Stalacpipe Organ. It was interesting to listen to it and I hope that the vibrations will not harm ancient stalactites in any way.

Arosha seemed to like the caverns too, although he got tired of the tour by the end. At some point he was asking Danya to take a picture of each and every rock that entered his field of vision. It was cute and a little annoying at the same time. Anюtka was not too impressed with the caves, but she did not throw any bad fits, which is already good.

Big Meadow in fog.We finished our Luray trip with the tour of the automobile museum. Danya found it to be relatively interesting and Arosha wanted to be done with it as soon as possible.

Skyline Drive. Shenandoah National Park.We drove back to the lodge and ate dinner at the local restaurant. It was much better this time. Danya and I have decided that it would be better to leave one day early — it was not one factor, but everything together: cold weather, lack of laundromat and hot water, horrible beds. Luckily, lodge’s stuff did not give us any hard time at all. So next morning after another round of yogurt and oatmeal we left for Tennessee.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

State Capitals and Washington

Washington, DC. View from WWII memorial towards Lincoln Memorial.As a side trip(s) or objective of our Tennessee vacation was to visit some of the state capitals and their respective capitols and a capital of our country. Arosha hasn’t been to Washington, DC yet and we thought that it would be fun for him to see some of the National Monuments that our capital has an abundance of.

Harrisburg, PA.Our first state capital stop was on the very first full day of our vacation. We stopped at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We’ve visited this capitol complex back in 2010 during our first trip to Shenandoah. Arosha too was there. Only he was only 3 months old. Also this time we were able to get inside and it’s as impressive there as it is on the outside. Probably one of the best looking capitol complexes that we have seen.

Dome in Harrisburg.Also while Brooklyn was still asleep spring was all over the place in Harrisburg. It was a very pleasant stop of our trip. We also got a proper state capital stamp inside the capitol building. And Aroshka clearly seems to be afraid of heights in certain places. When we were on a balcony of senate assembly he really wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.

Inside Pennsylvania Capitol.On our way home — after Great Smoky Mountains we made a pair of stops in two other capitals that we haven’t been to before. The first one was in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was a nice looking capitol and pretty nice people inside. We also got a stamp there.

North Carolina Capitol.The thing that stands out the most for me about this capitol is the fact that it burned down to the ground some time ago because of an accident that happened while they were fireproofing it. Doesn’t get any more ironic than this.

NC senate.Another stop was in Richmond, Virginia. Now even though the capitol building was unusual the thing that stands out the most about this experience is an extremely rude elderly woman in charge of tours. We’ve been to numerous numerous capitols and have never seen anything remotely like this.

Historic room.She was rude to the point that she made Alena cry. Sadly I haven’t noticed it at the time or I would’ve raised an issue and would’ve demanded to speak to her boss. Anyhow. We didn’t see the inside of this place.

By the capitol building.Outside it had a nice park with a lot of statues. We walked around, kids ran around and played in the grass. We spent a decent amount of time here and if it would’be be for a crazy lady it would’ve been a nice experience overall. Alas.

Washington in Raleigh.To Washington, DC itself we dedicated a full day. Thus we spent two nights there. We originally were looking to stop at a hotel right in Washington itself as we did many times in the past, but the prices were quite high and those hotels only had valet parking (which we hate) available, which was priced at $40 a night or so.

Virginia Capitol in Richmond.So we figured we’ll just stay somewhere close, but outside and will spend the money for parking when we go to visit destinations instead of overpaying for the hotel itself. Either way we would have to take the car since you can’t walk too far with two little kids.

Capitol grounds in VA.We picked a hotel right outside the city in Arlington, Virginia. It literally was 3 minutes away from Washington itself. In fact when looking for our hotel we missed an exit off the highway (they actually changed the roads a bit, so our GPS was confused) and ended up crossing the bridge over Potomac river right into Washington.

First of many fountains we saw during our hike in DC.By the end of this day we were quite tired as we drove all the way from Chapel Hill with two long stops at capitals I wrote about above.

Einstein climbing.On the next day we ate our breakfast and were on our way to tour the capital. Remembering how hard it is to get into the capitol we didn’t even try it. Instead we decided to visit open famous monuments such as Lincoln Memorial.

Vietnam War Memorial.We didn’t have much trouble finding parking, although we did make a couple of large circles trying to find a spot as close to Lincoln Memorial as possible. In the end we parked some where closer towards the middle of the National Mall and settled in for a longer walk. And a long walk it was.

Inside of Lincoln Memorial.We started with a visit to a famous statue of Albert Einstein done by sculptor Robert Berks. Even though Arosha doesn’t yet know who Einstein is he liked the statue because it is very climbable. He was all over it. Next we set course to Lincoln Memorial. Arosha was impressed by a giant statue, stairs, columns. We also walked through Korean War Memorial and Vietnam War Memorial.

Lincoln Memorial. The sun is too bright.Then we set course towards the middle of the mall again and on our way made a detour to see a new Marin Luther King Jr. Memorial. I haven’t seen it yet and it’s an impressive sculpture.

Korean War Memorial.We also got a whole bunch of National Park stamps for our passports. Arosha had many new additions and I got a few new ones too. And then we walked back to our car through World War II memorial.

MLK Memorial.We were quite tired after this gigantic circles and were yet again impressed by Arosha’s stamina. This is the point where we decided to buy him a hot-dog which he really wanted since the moment we parked near a street hot-dog vendor cart.

World War II Memorial.The funny thing is that when later when we asked him what was his favorite part about Washington he would reply — a hot-dog. Naturally.

Us at WWII Memorial. Lincoln Memorial in the background.We all were ready for lunch. At first we found some Greek place via Yelp, but then while we were circling in search for a parking spot we somehow got away from that place and ended up in Chinatown. We parked in the first spot we saw and went to eat our lunch in to a place right next to where our car was.

Our dinner in China Town.The place was called Chinatown Express. It was very cheap, but the food was made right there (we saw a cook spinning the noodles out) and it was really fresh and delicious.

US Capitol Building in Washington.We spent the day with a nice walk around the Capitol Building. Originally we planned to visit Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, but we were so tired that we decided to leave it for the next time.

Spring in Harrisburg.We just went back to the hotel and rested. In the hotel we actually made an attempt to visit a pool which resulted in a parental epic fail, but I wrote about that before. Overall it was a great day. Arosha was excited about visiting Washington all throughout the trip and hopefully he’ll retain some of the memories of that day.

Dome of Pennsylvania Capitol.

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