Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Gateway Arch and downtown St. Louis

I kicked off a weekend road trip with the family with an afternoon in St. Louis. It's such a beautiful downtown area. I'm always impressed when I get the chance to visit.

We got an early start from our base in NE Indianapolis and arrived in St. Louis by lunch time. It was about four hours of driving, including a stop in Terre Haute for gas. It's an easy drive from Indy - a straight shot on I-70, exiting downtown after crossing the Mississippi.

Drive just past the Arch to its parking garage. You can park for up to 9 hours for $6.

The parking garage is a five-minute walk from the Arch itself. The paved pathways offer numerous benches and ample shade, which was nice on this sunny, 80-degree day.

We had packed our own lunch and carried our cooler all the way to the benches at the base of the 630-foot memorial. Upon arrival we made a quick trip to the underground lobby area to take a restroom break and to make an advance purchase for tickets to the top. It wasn't too crowded on the day we visited, however, lines during the summer are typically much longer. You can also pre-purchase tickets online.

There's also a security line to get into the building. Bags are searched and x-rayed, and all pockets must be emptied. This process went quickly on the day we visited, but I could envision long lines during peak times.

Following our lunch and some wandering/picture taking around the grounds and along the banks of the Mississippi, we went back underground. Officially known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the underground visitor center includes two theaters and the Museum of Westward Expansion.

The Museum of Westward Expansion was fascinating to me. Much of the exhibit is dedicated to the Lewis & Clark Expedition, which Jefferson commissioned from St. Louis to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. Excerpts from the adventurers' diaries/letters are posted along with wall-sized photographs from the locations where they were written. It was interesting to read about their adventures, hardships, interactions with the native tribes they encountered and how they persevered.

Another eye-catching display was the gold, presidential medals. The medals were given to dignitaries as well as to Indians who had made peace with the white men. The medals featured images of several kings of England as well as the first dozen presidents.

Our visit overlapped with a special exhibit entitled "Baseball's Gateway to the West." The exhibit opened in July in conjunction with the city hosting major league baseball All-Star Game and runs through Dec. 31. Baseball artifacts from 1900 through today chronicle St. Louis' role in the game.

Admission to the Museum of Westward Expansion is free. There is a charge for the movies.

Top of the Arch

After touring the museum, it was time for our trip to the top of the Arch. Eight-car trams, each holding five people, make a four-minute ascent every few minutes. I'm not claustrophobic, but I noticed that the tram cars were well-lit and well-ventilated. I assume that would make it a bit easier for those who might be a bit claustrophobic.

Once at the top, we climbed the last few steps to the viewing platform. There are 16 windows on each side. Looking west, you can look down on downtown St. Louis with a picturesque view of the old courthouse and the new baseball stadium.

Looking east offers a view of the river and back into Illinois.

You can spend as much time as you like at the top of the Arch before riding either tram down - the north tram or the south tram.

Unfortunately, the ride to the top is not handicapped accessible. There are steps to climb, and the tiny cars won't fit anything more than a cane.

Historic Old Courthouse

Two blocks from the Arch is the Historic Old Courthouse open daily free of charge. There are several exhibits. Most noteworthy are some exhibits and a film about the Dred Scott case - a case the ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court and played a role in the beginning of the Civil War. The case was first heard in St. Louis' Old Courthouse.

Downtown St. Louis

Just beyond the Old Courthouse lies a bustling downtown area and just a few blocks away is Busch Stadium, home to baseball's Cardinals.

Kiener Plaza features a waterfall, fountain, amphitheater, and a great view of the Arch behind the Old Courthouse.

The area features numerous bars, restaurants and hotels.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Santorini Greek Kitchen (Indianapolis)

I recently had the opportunity to make my first visit to Santorini Greek Kitchen. Located in the Fountain Square area just southeast of downtown Indianapolis, it's a real treasure.

It's close enough to downtown in fact that on the night I went it was filled with Colts fans getting ready to head to the stadium for a pre-season football game.

I sampled a series of appetizers and was thoroughly impressed. My host encouraged everyone in our group to try the eggplant "whether they like eggplant or not." It did not disappoint. Thick slabs of eggplant were fried to a golden brown and then covered with sauce and parmesan cheese. It was absolutely delicious.

I also sampled tiropita - cheese-filled phyllos that are baked to a golden brown.

Of course, there was warm pita bread that I dipped in the hummus, tzaziki and baba ganoush sauces.

For dessert there was galaktabouriko, a greek custard with a light touch of cinammon.

Everything was excellent.

Although I didn't sample any entrees, the menu offers a wide variety of Greek fare, including lamb, beef, chicken and seafood. There is a large wine list, as well.

As I sat and dined and gazed at the pictures and memorabilia, I longed to get on the next flight to Athens for a visit to Greece and its isles.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Carnival contest

Carnival Cruise Lines is searching for a child from the United States or Canada (ages 7-12) to serve as the “godchild” for the waterslide aboard the new ship “Carnival Dream.” Children may submit an essay up to 250 words starting with the words “I’m always dreaming up fun stuff. Wouldn’t it be awesome if . . .” between Aug. 17 and Sept. 18 at www.carnivalbookofdreams.com. The winner will christen the slide, and his/her family will win a two-night cruise on the ship at its debut. Also, Carnival will donate $2 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for every essay submitted and $1 for each vote on the Web site, up to $25,000.

Monday, August 17, 2009

TSA requiring name, gender, birthdate

The next phase of the Transportation Security Administration's Secure Flight program starts taking effect Saturday.

When booking with airlines, you may be asked for your gender and birthdate. Your name should match what's on the ID used to travel. The aim is for TSA to identify "No Fly" travelers in advance and stop misidentifications in an anti-terrorist initiative due to be fully implemented in 2010. For now, if you fly on an already-bought ticket with a name that doesn't match your ID but is close, you can clear security, the TSA says.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Holiday World and Splashin' Safari

I made my first trip to Santa Claus, Indiana this week to visit the area's main attraction Holiday World and Splashin' Safari. The amusement park is located just off I-64 in southern Indiana.

It's kind of in the middle of nowhere, but at the same time, it's within easy driving distance of several midwestern cities. It's about 3 hours from Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Nashville and St. Louis, and one hour from Louisville. It's a fun and slightly less expensive alternative to some of the parks in those areas.

Regular admission is $39.95 for adults, although pre-purchasing tickets online cuts $4 off that price. We purchased discount tickets at a CVS on our drive down and got the tickets for $32.95. Regular price for kids and seniors are $29.95, although we found plenty of $2 off offers for those tickets.

At Holiday World, the price of admission includes some nice extras - free parking, free Pepsi soft drinks and free sunscreen.

The parking was very convenient. We got there at 9:30 CT when the park opened and were close enough to the front gates to walk, although there is also tram service. The free soft drinks are a nice benefit. Drink "Oases" are located throughout the park, loaded with cups for the Pepsi fountain drinks. I thought it was great that the machines also included water and orange Gatorade - great ways to stay hydrated on a hot summer day instead of slurping down sugary soft drinks. There is bottled water for sale at the concession stands, but why buy water when you can fill a cup for free at the Oasis.

The free sunscreen was also a big plus. I thought the stations inside Holiday World were a bit few and far between, however I think there was a station outside every restroom inside Splashin' Safari.

We picked the perfect time of year to go. The second full week of August meant that about half the schools in Indiana had already resumed classes for the fall. That translated into a very uncrowded park. We never waited more than 15 minutes in line for any ride, and most of the rides were more like 5-10 minute waits.

Traveling with two young kids, we stuck to mostly pretty tame rides, although the park has a great selection for real thrill seekers.

Just off the entrance to the park is Rudolph's Reindeer Ranch, a collection of rides for very young kids. My boys enjoyed this area last year, but a quick ride on the bumper boats was plenty of time for them this time around.

Our first stop of the day was in the Halloween Section for the Frightful Falls log ride. We also hit the Scrambler.

Also in this area of the park is The Legend, a wooden roller coaster with three dramatic drops and a top speed of 65 mph. It's consistently voted one of the top roller coasters in the country.

Next up, the 4th of July area with the Raging Rapids and Liberty Launch. Raging Rapids was great. We got soaked. Our silly mistake was to do it right before going to Splashin' Safari, so our wet clothes got stuffed into lockers and didn't have a chance to dry.

Past the 4th of July area is another great area for kids - Holidogs Funtown. We rode the Doggie Coaster several times, as well as the Funtown train. There's a great playground here with slides, climbing nets and fountains.

The final section of the park is the Thanksgiving section. The boys almost got their grandmother sick on the Turkey Whirl, another ride similar to the Scrambler. Fortunately, right across the way is Gobbler Getaway, a slow-moving indoor ride. Each person in a four-person car has a laser "gun" to try and shoot turkeys as the car moves from room to room.

At the back of the Thanksgiving section is the park's newest ride - Pilgrims Plunge. It's the log ride on steroids, billed as the world's tallest water ride. Riders board a large boat that is lifted 135 feet into the air on an open-air elevator. Seconds later they hurtle down 131 feet at a 45-degree angle, reaching 50 mph.

My five-year-old really wanted to go, but the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief when we found out he was too short to ride even with an adult.

We ate lunch at Plymouth Rock Cafe, and I must say my overall impression of the food at the park was very favorable. Our group of six ordered a family meal. We got eight pieces of chicken, three sides (mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, and strawberrry glazed bananas) and four rolls for $30. The drinks, of course, were free. According to the staff at the cafe, a hot seller introduced this year has been turkey legs.

As we ate, we watched riders on The Voyage zoom past us. The roller coaster features several tunnels and 24 seconds of weightlessness. Too much for my queasy stomach.

The other half of the day was spent in Splashin' Safari. We took several inner tube trips along one of two lazy rivers, played in a wave pool, rode down water slides and raced each other on a five-story slide with 10 lanes. The area also features several tube and raft rides.

The wave pool had free life jackets for the kids to wear - another nice extra included at the park.

Lockers are available in the water park. It's $10 upfront with $7 of that refunded when you return your key. We learned quickly that the lockers are pretty small and our nice big beach bag was a very tight squeeze. We, and a lot of other people, ended up putting our shoes and towels on top of the locker cabinet and using the locker itself only for our valuables.

One nice extra - the water rides inside Holiday Park offer free lockers to stow your valuables before you get soaked.

Because we picked a date near the end of the season, Splashin' Safari closed at 5:30 and Holiday World closed at 6:30. Normal summer hours are several hours later.

On our way out, we stopped at Kringle's Kafe for pizza.

Overall, it was a great day for everyone.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More Indy to NYC flights coming

AirTran will add two daily flights between Indianapolis and LaGuardia beginning Nov. 4.

The airline recently swapped slots with Continental airlines to add flights to NYC and Washington.

AirTran will offer daily nonstop departures from Indianapolis at 9:15 a.m. and 3:31 p.m. Return flights from LaGuardia to Indianapolis will depart daily at 12:32 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Introductory fares on the new route, which must be purchased by Aug. 28, are $69 each way.

Other airlines with nonstop service between Indy and LaGuardia include US Airways and Delta. Continental offers nonstop service to Newark.