Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Miami-Florida City-Key Largo

Kudos to Delta for still handing out snacks for free. A few weeks ago when I flew to Phoenix on Northwest, there were no more complimentary snacks. No more peanuts, pretzels, anything. They sold snack boxes for $2 and $5.

On this afternoon’s flight to Miami, Delta had five snack options available at no cost – Sun Chips, Granola Bars, crackers, peanuts and pretzels.

Car Rental

Renting a car at Miami’s airport is not nearly as convenient as Phoenix where a shuttle takes you to a central location for all agencies. At Miami, you hop on a bus for your specific car rental company that takes you offsite to their location. In the handful of times I’ve been to Miami in the past several years, there’s always been construction going on around the airport, and it can be very confusing getting out in the right direction.

I’ve heard from several people that it’s a lot easier to fly into the airport at Ft. Lauderdale. Even though it’s 30-40 minutes north of Miami, it can be quicker to get to your final destination because it’s smaller and renting a car is much less hassle.

Florida City

Florida City is the last stop on the Florida Turnpike before heading into the Keys. There are several hotels and restaurants here, including a Hampton Inn that is undergoing renovation. I love Hamptons for their free internet access, free breakfasts and typically very nice accommodations.

I’ve eaten at Gusto’s before. The lunch menu was fairly diverse and tasty, however I was not nearly impressed with their food at dinner.

Key Largo – The Fish House

One of the best spots to eat around here is about 30 miles south of Florida City in Key Largo. The Fish House and The Encore are at Mile Marker 102.4. The food is excellent. I’ve eaten at both and found the menu is slightly different. I prefer The Encore which is just south of the Fish House. It offers a piano lounge and an outdoor dining option as well – only drawback, no view of the ocean. Personally, I recommend the Grouper Oscar, a large filet of grouper topped with crab meat, asparagus and bĂ©arnaise sauce on a bed of rice. Also get a cup of the lobster bisque – outstanding.

The Encore was closed this evening, so a friend and I went to the Fish House. Tonight I had Grouper Baked & Stuffed. A large grouper stuffed with crab meat. It was also served with rice, beans, corn on the cob and cole slaw. Price with tip was about $30.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Sedona - Soldier's Pass Trail

A nice side trip from the Flagstaff area is Sedona. It’s about 45-minute drive and a drop in elevation of a couple thousand feet so be prepared for much warmer weather. The drive itself is very entertaining. For a good 10 minutes, you twist and turn your way down. Breathtaking views abound as you leave the mountain forests for Red Rock country.

On this trip, we opted for a relatively easy hike on a trail called Soldier’s Pass. Follow 89A to Soldier Pass Road on the right. Go 1.5 miles to Rim Shadows Drive, then right 0.2 miles (keep straight ahead where Rim Shadows branches left) to a gated entry road to trailhead parking on the left. There’s room for about 15 cars to park, and you must display a parking pass, which can be purchased at numerous locations around Sedona.

Not far from the trailhead, perhaps a ¼ mile, is Devil’s Kitchen, a 100-foot deep active sinkhole.

Unfortunately, we lost the trail here and ended up on a Jeep trail. Several tour operators give Jeep tours around the Sedona area. Not to worry, the trails intersected again at the “Seven Sacred Pools” a short while later. The pools are carved in the sloping red sandstone that cradles a small stream here. Although these pools are small, because they hold water even in dry periods, they are important to the birds and animals of the area.

This was a great place for the kids, 4 & 2, to climb around and burn off some energy. It also afforded some wonderful views and photo opportunities.

The Soldier’s Pass trail is very moderate. In fact, our four-year-old hiked the entire 2+ hours, while the two-year-old spent most of the time riding on my shoulders and then eventually napping while being carried in a backpack.

The trail continues to some arches. We made it about ¾ of the way there before deciding to turn back. Overall, the trail is a little more than 2 miles roundtrip. It also connects with a couple of other trails to make a nice loop of the area.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Historic Downtown Flagstaff

Historic Downtown Flagstaff is a 15-square block area of restaurants and shops on the north side of Route 66. The sidewalks are paved in brick, and there are dozens of restaurants, stores and boutiques (more than 150 according to one source). The selection of shops and restaurants is very diverse.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Lowell observatory

A crisp, cloudless night presented a perfect opportunity to visit Lowell Observatory - one of the western United States' first observatories and the location where Pluto was discovered in 1930.

Admission is $5 for adults.

I arrived just as a 30-minute presentation was starting in the lecture hall. The presenter did a good job of presenting the information with bits of humor that kept all ages engaged. The presentation was directly related to what we would be seeing in the sky on this particular evening.

Following the presentation, I headed onto the grounds to look through the telescopes. Several portable telescopes were set up with experts stationed at each to dispense information. The highlight of course was the 24" telescope housed in the dome. Tonight it was set up to view M15, a globular cluster in the constellation Pegasus. M15 is approximately 34,000 light years away and features 350,000 stars. The telescopes 330x magnification presented an incredible view.

Next I went back inside to the "Discover the Universe" exhibit hall. A wealth of information is presented, including several interactive exhibits perfect for kids.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Wupatki National Monument & Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

The free breakfast at the Sleep Inn was a bit on the light side. Compared with other hotels I’ve stayed at, the selection was minimal – a couple cereals, donuts, biscuits and gravy.

After a morning rain, we headed to a neighborhood park and let the kids play for a while.

After lunch we drove about 45 minutes north of Flagstaff on Highway 89A to two National Monuments. Admission is $5 per adult.

The Wupatki National Monument features stops at five prehistoric pueblos. All five are short hikes on paved trails from parking areas. In addition to seeing the ruins and remains, the views of the San Francisco mountains in one direction and the Painted Desert in the other direction are astounding.

Wupatki is several thousand feet lower than Flagstaff and is about 10-20 degrees warmer.

A 35-mile road loops from Wupatki to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. We drove with eyes wide open at the beauty. The landscape seemed to continuously change from desert shrubs and flowers to grasslands to forest. On our hikes we came across several collared lizards, while we slowed our car to a stop when we spotted a coyote in the grass just off the road.

Sunset Crater Volcano, towering 2,000 feet above us, was formed in a series of eruptions 800-1,000 years ago. Lava rock is everywhere and the sides of the volcano and many other “hills” in the area are finely crushed black rock.

There are several trails to hike, although we opted against it since we were traveling with the kids and had already worn them out.
Our roundtrip from Flagstaff took between 3-4 hours.

Departing for a seven-day trip with the kids

October 5, 2006
Indianapolis to Flagstaff

Today we depart Indianapolis for a seven-day trip to Flagstaff, Arizona to attend a wedding. There could be some challenges as we travel cross country with our two children, both under four years of age, but we’re excited to get away as a family.

We’ve loaded up a backpack with books, some toys and a portable DVD player. We checked out three DVDs from our local library. Due to our kids’ young ages, we opted for shorter episodes of shows rather than long full-length movies. We also bought a couple of new activity books and new toys to introduce to them as they start getting bored. And we took plenty of snacks – crackers, raisins, granola bars.


One of the first things to do when flying – and perhaps often overlooked until the last minute – is parking. We made advance reservations with Park Ride & Fly. Located just past the regular “Economy” lot, they offer valet parking service and shuttle ride to the terminal at essentially the same price as the airport-controlled lots. Park Ride & Fly serves 45 airports in the United States. Harmony Travel can make an advance reservation for you the next time you fly.

The Flight

I took the opportunity to check us in online the day before we departed. We still had to go to the counter to check our bags, but it did save us some time since we were flying under two separate reservations (two free tickets via frequent flyer miles and two paid tickets).

Security went smoothly. One of the keys is to always check in the days before you fly to check on the status of prohibited items. Then take your time and don’t feel rushed going through the checkpoint even as the line grows behind you.

Our flights went great with very little fussing from the kids. Both flights featured a 3-3 seating configuration, so we were able to sit three in a row with the other person across the aisle. We opted to take one car seat on board for our youngest, who also happens to be the most rambunctious. Having him in a familiar setting – the car seat – kept him from moving around as much as he would have without it. He still needed to get out for a while, but everything went well.

We had just over an hour between our flights, and it proved to be the perfect amount of time, if not even a bit too little. By the time we deplaned, walked to our next gate and used the restroom, our second flight had already started boarding. Luckily, a fast food restaurant was right by the gate, which allowed us to by some food to take on board.

We were flying Northwest, which like several other airlines, has stopped serving any type of complimentary snack. Not even peanuts or pretzels are free anymore. Snacks were available for either $2 or $5.

Phoenix – Sky Harbor Airport

We landed in Phoenix on time at about 12:30. After getting our baggage we hopped on a shuttle bus to the rental car facility. About 18 months ago, the airport opened a large facility that houses all of the rental car companies. Free shuttles take passengers to and from the facility. Buses run quite frequently.

The drivers and other staff are tremendously helpful. We were loaded down with three checked bags, two car seats and three other bags. They did a great job of loading and unloading them for us. A free cart was available at the rental car facility to take our bags to the car.

Rental Car

Phoenix is one of the busiest airports in the U.S. and boasts some of the highest rental car figures in the world. Unfortunately, they also have some of the highest taxes on rental cars too, turning even the most basic rental into an expensive outlay.

Researching rental rates, we opted to go with a smaller company that is relatively new – E-Z Rental. The weekly rate for a minivan for us was about $100 less than any of the name brands.

After making the reservation, I even found a $10 coupon on their website which they gladly accepted at the counter.

Driving to Flagstaff

We spent the next 2+ hours on I-17 to Flagstaff. One of the amazing things about Arizona is how quickly the landscape can change. The desert of Phoenix quickly morphs into a land of mesas and then into mountains. Flagstaff is 7,000 feet above sea level.


We checked into the Sleep Inn on Woodlands Blvd., which had offered us the best group rate for the wedding party. Sleep Inn are part of the Choice Hotels group that includes Comfort Inns, Quality Inns and others. It’s a mid-level chain with fairly basic amenities, but the price was right.

Our room with two queens was clean and quiet. There were only three drawers which was not nearly enough to accommodate clothing for four people for six days. Note to parents with young kids – Sleep Inns feature showers only, no tubs.
The hotel featured a hot tub and pool on the first floor. The indoor pool was a plus. Several other hotels in the area had outdoor pools that didn’t see much use with the falling temperatures and periods of rain off and on.