Making the most of a short weekend in Long Beach

img_3980A beach, a city, and a harbor for ships and visitors

Living 17 years in LA, I visited Long Beach about half a dozen times. It served as a halfway meeting point for me and friends who lived in Orange County. We had brunch and dinner there on occasion, and I visited the aquarium with my son and went whale watching once, but I never really considered Long Beach a destination. That was before I had the opportunity to spend an entire weekend there, and I truly got to know what this 55-square-mile city offers unique from its neighbors.

Long Beach has 11.5 miles of beach, which is how the city gets its name, but what sets this  Southern California seaside town apart is its urban environment by the waterside. Think Seattle or Miami, but with constant sunshine, and relaxed attitude of Southern California, along with a desirable geographic position 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

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Whereas across the Southern California coast, denizens can brag that they can snow ski in the morning and sunbathe on the beach in the afternoon, Long Beach one-ups that boast with the promise that residents can go sailing or deep sea fishing, or even visit the island of Catalina for lunch, then go skiing, and be back by dinner time to dine at a world-class metropolitan restaurant and hit the nightlife in the city, until the wee morning hours if they wish.

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It is a vast city, with a plethora of diverse offerings in the area of culture, cuisine and arts.  The latter category of arts happens to be one of most thriving for the city in the last decade, in which the city has dedicated 1% of its revenue to developing arts programs. Long Beach is the home of the Museum of Latin American art, along with the long beach museum of art, which combines contemporary collections and classical architecture with an oceanfront view. The city is also known for its street art, including the gigantic outdoor murals of the Pow! Wow! international art collective.

The local art scene inspires much of the culture of the town, from the awesome award-winning architecture of the Long Beach airport, named one of the 10 most architecturally beautiful airports in the world, to Retro Row, a 1950s-inspired walk back in time into a mid-century throwback of restaurants and coffee shops, barbershops, and furniture and decor shops that seem like a scene out of  Mad Men, for which in fact the set designers of said show often visited for props, wardrobe and inspiration.

One cannot talk about Long Beach without mentioning the RMS Queen Mary. The behemoth transatlantic ocean liner, built in 1936, that is three times larger than the Titanic, is permanently docked on the Long Beach shoreline, where at now serves as a tourist attraction and hotel where visitors can stay in one of the refurbished first class state rooms.

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In speaking to locals of Long Beach, it seems everyone has a connection to the Queen Mary. Many have worked there, or their friends or family members have, and many have their own personal stories about the lore of the old ship, purported to be haunted by ghosts.
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The boat has been floating at its current resting place since 1967, and it rises twice a day, up and down with the tide, hosting hundreds and even thousands of tourists daily for tours and special events. Visitors and ghost chasers revel in the stories told by the Captain and Commodore and the many knowledgeable docents who share a passion for the ship as strong as any Brit’s fealty to their royal figurehead.

Aside from the Queen Mary, there is much more to the shoreline and the bounty of the sea that is an essential draw to the city. The Long Beach aquarium is also world renowned, housing more than 11,000 animals and nearly 500 different species and featuring exhibits that allow visitors to get an up-close perspective and even touch the animals displayed there, in addition to sponsoring many learning programs for visitors of all ages.

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In addition to these two major attractions there is also a wharf area with seafood restaurants, like the renowned Parker’s Lighthouse, offering tourists and locals spectacular views along with the region’s best and freshest seafood. The culinary scene, like the city itself, has great variety, such as renowned authentic Mexican food at Lolos Mexican Cuisine; The Attic on Broadway, a southern comfort food eatery; the trendy Sip Bar & Lounge at the Marriott Renaissance Long Beach Hotel, featuring the “ocean to fork” culinary creations of award-winning Top Chef contestant Executive Chef Janine Falvo; and L’Opera, a sophisticated fine dining restaurant featuring Northern Italian fare.

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Lest we forget to mention the shopping, Long Beach is home to one of the area’s newest outlet malls, called the Pike Outlets, which not only has a number of premium discount stores, such as Restoration Hardware and Columbia sportswear, but it also features a Ferris wheel that has become an attraction in itself.

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While a day trip is an easy excursion from Los Angeles, for out-of-towners and those who want to stay overnight, the city offers a growing number of hotels, from the downtown Hyatt Regency, which offers spectacular vistas of the city to the quaint feeling Hotel Maya, a Hilton Doubletree hotel, which though is a sizable property of 200 rooms, has the charm of a boutique hotel, with views overlooking the bay and it’s own marina, which maritime guests can slip into and then stay overnight on their boats or in hotel rooms.

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The hotel also features Fuego restaurant, famous for its handcrafted margaritas made from its expansive selection of premium tequilas. Its best-kept secret its small private beach, Playa Maya, for which the hotel developers brought in thousands of pounds of sand to create an inviting alcove with lounge seating around fire pit which are the scene of s’more making and merry making in the evenings.

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The hotel offers bike rentals which I took advantage to take a quick, three-minute ride to the Queen Mary, then I doubled back and headed into the city, which was easily accessible by bike designated bike paths. I rode to the Pike and took a break by the Rainbow Lagoon Park and a spin by the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, which was dark on the weekend I visited.

On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, the city was quiet, almost deserted, which is part of the diverse character of the city that is a lure to visitors. It is a bustling city during the weekdays, and a laid-back beach city on the weekends – a city that embodies work and play. While tourists may find its appeal as a central outpost for visiting Los Angeles and many of Southern California’s other major attractions, such as Disneyland, California Adventure, and Universal Studios Hollywood Long Beach in itself has the draw of a tourist destination, with its features as a metropolitan city, with the added appeal of a sunny beach comprising its boundaries.

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As a port city, where cargo ships dock from around the world, and to which trucks haul goods back and forth, Long Beach can experience a fair amount of traffic, and the tangled maze of roads to the harbor, with the abundance of signage directing visitors to the various attractions, can make it a navigation feat to find one’s way around at first. Once I got the hang of the roadways, with the help of Waze, I was able to steer myself around like a native, and in fact I found a few short cuts. While I got a good sense of Long Beach by staying there for a weekend, I learned there was a great deal I have yet to explore in this sprawling beach, I mean, city.

Things for families to do in Carlsbad

Most people think of Carlsbad, California, as the town where LEGOLAND is located. The theme park is certainly a main attraction, but Carlsbad has much more to offer, including many unexpected charms, as our family discovered on a recent trip.

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About 90 miles from Los Angeles, or two to three hours by car depending on traffic, Carlsbad can be a day trip or a great weekend getaway. We visited during the summer, which is a popular time for families, because the kids are out of school, but it’s also a great time for other reasons, including great beach weather, and not to mention it is peak strawberry season.

We started our weekend vacation early at the LEGOLAND Park, and the kids loved the newest attraction at the park, Heartlake City, especially appealing to girl guests. It featured live musical performances with ‘tween-themed dance numbers, with lots of girls in frilly pink costumes.

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img_6124We first started coming to LEGOLAND when the kids were five, and while we expected our kids, age 7, to outgrow LEGOLAND at their age, we were thrilled to see they were still excited to ride the Dragon roller coaster, which we were able to experience at least five times, thanks to the short lines early in the morning, and they had not yet tired of the LEGO Technic Coaster, which they were now tall enough to ride on their own.

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img_6128As we do every visit, we loved racing other families in the Police and Fire Academy relay, though as usual, our rig came in last. As a special treat, we got tickets to visit the water park adjacent to LEGOLAND, which was a great way to cool off after a day of traipsing around the park in the sun. Our favorite waterslide is always the orange rush, because all four of us can ride together as we spin down a giant slide and ride the walls of a huge half pipe.

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After a full day at the theme park and water park, we discovered a strawberry field right near the freeway exit. We decided to do a little impromptu strawberry picking. For $20, we got a bucket that the whole family could fill up, and we were told we could eat as many strawberries as we wanted while we were picking them. Since it was late in the afternoon, the heat had dissipated, and it was perfect timing for us to be out in the exposed fields.

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The kids loved competing to find the most outrageously large strawberries in the most bizarre shapes. We ate so many strawberries we almost didn’t have an appetite for dinner, but when we told the kids we were going to Bistro West, suddenly they were hungry again.

Bistro West is one of our favorite restaurants in Carlsbad. It’s just a few miles from LEGOLAND, and they have a terrific farm-to-table fresh summer harvest menu. Chef Jason also prepares a great kids menu with many healthy choices, and they even have a Bow Wow Hour on the patio for guests with pets. They also have an expansive vegetarian menu and a gluten-free menu of over 20 items. As always, the kids ordered their favorite calamari appetizer with dipping sauces, and the grown ups shared one of their unique signature pizzas, topped with pear Gorgonzola and prosciutto. Besides the excellent food, the kids also love watching the “bubble wall” fixture in the restaurant that mesmerizes them with is changing colors.

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We told the kids we wanted to make this Carlsbad trip an educational experience, and at first they grumbled, but once we arrived at the Museum of Music Making, they changed their tune. While the antique instruments were more captivating to the adults, the kids gravitated immediately to the experiential area of the museum, where they got to put on headsets and play the drums so that only they could hear the sound effects.

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The kids were enjoying themselves so much they hardly realized they were learning as they explored all of the hands-on exhibits. We lucked out, and the day we visited the museum was hosting a drum circle. This was a new experience for all of us. Each of us chose a drum from an assortment offered to us, and a leader set the pace and chanted and sang while we beat our drums in rhythm.

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As the kids were getting antsy about being indoors in such a beautiful day, our next stop was to a local skate park. My son had been in skateboard camp for the last two summers, and he thought he had seen the best skate parks Southern California had to offer, until we drove up to Alga Norte park.

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The skate park, the largest in San Diego, features more than 10,000 feet of curved and flat ramps, two pyramids, two stairways, several bowls and pipe grinding ledges. It was skateboarder’s heaven. While there were a number of teens at the park, there were also a good number of younger skaters, and there was a beginner’s area, which parents like myself favor, since at some parks the littler kids often get run over by the older, more experienced skaters. Best of all for parents, there was a shaded picnic area where we could sit and spectate.

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img_6172Onto the second to last stop of our whirlwind tour, we headed to Carlsbad State Beach, which was directly across from our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn. Even though we live in LA, less than 15 minutes to Venice and Santa Monica beaches, Carlsbad beach remains one of our favorites in Southern California.  We were able to find easy metered street parking, though there were a number of parking lots near the beach. We accessed the beach from a paved path down from the sidewalk along the shore, and we set up our base camp near the water.  Even though it was a mid-summer weekend, we were delighted to be one of just a few dozen families in sight, and we felt like we had our own little slice of beach to ourselves.

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img_6052The kids played in the sand with some buckets and shovels we brought along, courtesy of the hotel, and we watched some surfers who seemed to be catching some decent waves. The kids loved that near the restrooms there was a tower of showers, were all the surfers and beachcombers rinsed off the sand, and the kids got to help some surfers wash off their boards.  We were very impressed at how friendly the local surfers were and considerate of their little admirers.

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After the beach, we headed for the Harbor Fish Cafe. Despite its humble appearance, this little restaurant is one of the hottest spots in town. It’s popular with both locals and tourists, though it is known less for its great seafood than its awesome views, especially at sundown.  As we experienced the vivid pink orange hues of the sky as the sun set over the water, we were happy that the kids were already starting to nod off at the restaurant.

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Back at the hotel, we all crashed, like the waves on the beach. We had considered a day trip to Carlsbad, but we were glad we had opted to make it a weekender.  The Hilton Garden Inn is an affordable option for families, with suites that have separate living areas with pull-out sofas and private patios. They also have fabulous views of the ocean across the street, and a large outdoor pool and whirlpool, plus free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel, so while the kids slept I was able to get some work done.

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The hotel is also two miles from LEGOLAND, which was the primary reason we felt the location was ideal for us, but little did we know the park was just one of many terrific family attractions close by, including an adorable beach community and shopping Village that we had overlooked on previous trips, because we were focused on the theme park.

As we took a final stroll along the beach and got some smoothies for the road before we headed back to LA, a group of motorcycle riders on Harleys rode by us down the main drag. As a fan of Sons of Anarchy, the TV series about a bad boy motorcycle club of a town called Charming, I was intrigued to get a closer look at the riders. But instead of tough guys, these riders looked like retired corporate executives, sporting shiny luxury bikes, as they rode in orderly formation and pulled up to the juice bar where we were sitting. As the cyclists joined us at the yellow painted picnic tables, and we enjoyed our smoothies in the sunshine, I snickered to myself, that really, this was the town that truly should be called Charming.

Hotel Del Offers Family Getaway for Generations

A 1991 movie, LA Story, made fun of Los Angeles and its lack of history and culture.  Steve Martin cynically gives Sarah Jessica Parker a tour of our fair city exclaiming, “Some of these buildings are (wait for it) … 20 years old!”  But indeed there are some Angeleno landmarks and traditions that date back more than 100 years, and my family recently got to experience one, Hotel Del Coronado, just 2.5 hours south of LA, but a world away from the glitz and hustle of the city.

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Hotel Del, as it is affectionately known, attracts families that return generation after generation, to celebrate weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and holidays, most notably Christmas, at this luxury beachfront resort.  The iconic red-shingled roof of the wooden Victorian-style main hotel is immediately recognizable and has played the backdrop not only for memorable family vacation photos but also for many Hollywood movies.

Since its opening in 1888, the hotel has hosted many of the silver screen’s greats, such as Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and Mae West, and today it still serves as a getaway to the rich and famous, from Madonna, Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, to a slew of Presidents, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barak Obama.

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The hotel is one of the largest all-wood structures in the United States, and its famed Crown Ball Room, which served as inspiration to the writer of Wizard of Oz, L. Fred Baum, who often stayed there, features a wooden ceiling installed with pegs and glue — not a single nail.

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Its architectural and cultural history alone make Hotel Del a destination worth visiting, but its welcoming, family friendly atmosphere and family traditions keep families returning year after year.  Most famously, the hotel hosts a legendary month-long winter holiday celebration featuring a beachside outdoor ice skating rink, thousands of festive white lights and an giant Christmas tree in the lobby, an homage to America’s very first electrically lit outdoor Christmas tree at the hotel, in 1904.

The lobby’s brass-gated elevator, complete with a uniformed elevator operator, and the dark wood-paneled stair cases and the bright, wide-open enormous hallways to guest rooms harken back to an era of grand hotels, adding to the nostalgia of the Hotel Del, and serving as a wonderment to children, who look forward to coming back to the hotel each year for holidays and vacations.

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The property was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977and a California Historical Landmark in 1970 and has been named by USA Today as one of the top ten resorts in the world.  Despite its age, the hotel has kept up with modern times with multiple renovations, including more than $10 million in upgrades, including the addition of a few dozen limited-term occupancy cottages and villas a couple hundred more rooms, in addition to the 399 original rooms.

The amenities include an Olympic-sized salt water pool, tennis courts, and many lush gardens and gazebos around the property, along with shops and restaurants.  Of course, with the digital age, Hotel Del added Wi-Fi, flatscreen TVs, electronic key cards and all the modern comforts that today’s luxury travel expects.  But while many hot spots come and go, Hotel Del has stood the test of time.

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For many of today’s visitors, like our family, the Hotel Del represents the best of new and old, where grandparents enjoy the charm, comfort and familiarity of a magical place where their own childhood memories were made, while they watch their grandchildren play on the beach and make memories for a lifetime.  For our family, our visit this holiday season was the first of what we plan to make an annual tradition.  And maybe one day we will be lucky enough to come back and see our own grandchildren fall in love with the Del.

LA Museum Season Kicks Off to Attract More Museum Visitors to the City

Guest post by Stephanie Houfek

Book two hotel nights from Oct. 6 – Nov. 14 and receive up to 15% off select hotels and get free admission to L.A. museums

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This fall, just prior to the start of the city’s famed red carpet Award Season, Los Angeles puts the spotlight on its cultural offerings with the return of “L.A. Museum Season.”  From Oct. 6 – Nov. 14, visitors who book two hotel nights or more for stays during this time period receive two free admissions and museum store discounts at more than 20 premier Los Angeles cultural institutions. For more information visit http://www.discoverlosangeles.com/museumseason.

“As home to more museums than any other U.S. city, Los Angeles offers permanent and temporary exhibitions for every taste and temperament,” said Ernest Wooden Jr., President & CEO of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board (L.A. Tourism). “From Picassos to pop hits, dinosaurs to diamonds, cowboys to classical sculpture, L.A.’s museum collections span the gamut.”

Institutions participating in the free admission offer include:  Autry National Center; Craft & Folk Art Museum; GRAMMY Museum® at L.A. LIVE; Hollywood Museum; Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens; Kidspace Children’s Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Latin American Art; Museum of Tolerance; Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; Norton Simon Museum; Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits; Paley Center for Media; Pasadena Museum of California Art; Skirball Cultural Center; and USS Battleship Iowa.

Additionally, the following institutions offer a discount off museum store purchases: Annenberg Space for Photography Skylight studios; California Science Center; Fowler Museum at UCLA; Getty Center; Getty Villa; Hammer Museum; USC Pacific Museum

A SAMPLE OF MUSEUM SAVINGS AND EXHIBITION HIGHLIGHTS INCLUDE:

–       Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens (A savings of $40 on two or more regular adult admissions) – In commemoration of the start of World War I in the summer of 1914, a centennial Posters of the First World War exhibition in the Library’s West Hall through Nov. 3 illustrates how a global war was waged not just by soldiers on battlefields and politicians in offices, but by civilian populations of men, women, and children on the home fronts of combatant nations including Canada, England, France, and the United States.

–       LACMA (A savings of $30 on two regular adult admissions) – Big Quilts in Small Sizes: Children’s Historical Bedcovers features diminutive quilts chosen from the museum’s collection, all of them made for children and presenting strikingly beautiful decorative designs, reflecting the same meticulous stitching and geometric patterns that have been used to create full-size bedcovers in the United States for centuries.

–       Hollywood Museum (A savings of $30 on two regular adult admissions) – Be among the first to enjoy a new collection of sorcery acquisitions from the Harry Potter film franchise including original wands, Harry Potter’s robe, his ultimate broom, blueprints of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and more.

–       Grammy Museum (a savings of $25.90 on two regular adult admissions) – California Dreamin’: The Sounds of Laurel Canyon, 1965-1977, explores the story of the Los Angeles rock scene during this golden age of music, creativity and culture.  See a broad array of items on display including Jim Morrison’s (The Doors) writing chair; Arthur Lee’s (Love) 6 String Flying V guitar; Cass Elliot’s (The Mamas and the Papas) c.1960s, hand painted chair; and original scrapbooks, handbills, and posters.

For more information on arts and culture or all of the endless entertainment options in Los Angeles, visit the official visitor information website of Los Angeles at www.discoverLosAngeles.com, and visit www.facebook.com/LosAngelesFan and Twitter @discoverLA.

10 Take-Alongs for Your Labor Day Road Trip

The last days of summer are here, so get on the road for a family final farewell to warm weather.  Stock up for your road trip with these 10 take-alongs for comfort and fun.

Hot Seat

Little ones may chill on the “are we there yet” mantra if they are sitting high and comfy on a rad booster, like the Olli in tokidoki pattern ($99). The award-winning cool seat is designed for kids 40 to 120 lbs and built with a comfort cube to eliminate “numb bumb.”  Its cover is removable and washable and it features a quick-release strap and carrying strap plus a cup holder.  It clicks in to vehicles’ anchor latch system for extra stay-put security.  Available in several kid-friendly patterns at major retailers or shop.clekinc.com.olli-tokidoi-all-over

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Your Entertainment Pleasure

Even if you’ve sworn never to make electronics your babysitter, long trips with kids in the car were made for headphones and tablets. The Note Galaxy Note 8  ($349 at Best Buy) is your portal for games, movies, music and ebooks which can be stored on its 16GB internal drive plus it can expand up to 64GB with a microSD card.  It comes with a stylus for writing, drawing and doodling on the HD touch screen.

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Protect your tablet with an Otterbox case like the Defender Series ($69.95) with an armor-like shell that shields against drops and dust and features an integrated screen cover that guards against scratches and smudges.

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Sharing is caring with the Wicked Audio Splitter ($9.99) which allows a second person to to plug in and share music with any pair of headphones or earphones and raise and lower their volumes independently.

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Tech for the Trip

For the armchair tourist in all of us, hook up SlingTV ($299) on your home entertainment system before you leave so you can tune into whatever is playing on your home TV from a laptop, tablet or phone.  Placeshift your TV and launch the Slingplayer app on your device and control your TV like you were sitting in your living room at home, no additional subscriptions required.  It even works internationally and anywhere there is an Internet connection.  Available at slingbox.com.

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Work, Synch, Play

Even if you must take your work along, you don’t have to lug a laptop.  Tote the slim Nokia Lumina 2520 ($499, or $299 with AT&T contract) and its companion keyboard ($149) which features two USB ports and adds up to five hours extra battery life.  This quick-charging tablet powers up 80 percent in one hour and then is ready to create and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files on the go. Synch your email and calendars with Outlook. And with up to 64GB of expandable memory and OneDrive, you can save your documents and pick up where you left off whenever you want. And with 4G LTE connectivity for a super-fast experience, you can spend more time out and about.Nokia-Lumia-2520-jpg

Here Comes the Sun

Don’t let sunburn ruin your last days of summer.  Cover up with sun protection that won’t wear off, because you are wearing it.  UV Skinz UPF 50+ sunwear for the whole family is fashionable and comfortable in dozens of styles for everyone from baby to mom and dad.  Whether snorkeling or surfing, UV Skinz has an outfit for that, from hoodies to aloha print shirts and bucket hats.  Available at uvskinz.com.

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Bee Prepared

If anyone along on the trip has allergies or special medial needs, pack along needed supplies, like an EpiPen or inhaler, in cute cases by AllerMates  ($17.99) that kids don’t mind carrying along.  The cool and colorful cartoon designs suit kids tastes, and the insulated cases are free of BPA, phthalates, nickel and latex and contain an emergency contact and medications info card.  Available nationwide at CVS, Kmart, Walgreens and allermates.com.

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One for the Road

Avoid traffic and hit the road when the roosters crow, but don’t skip the day’s most important meal.  Take along liquid breakfast to-go, Naked Juice Protein Zone, a satisfying smoothie that serves up plenty of protein and fiber.  Stopping for meal breaks can slow you down, so pack along refreshing nutrition you can drink down, like loaded-with-veggies Naked Juice Green Machine.  Take in a meal or snack every 3-4 hours to keep your blood sugar levels balanced and your energy levels soaring, and stay hydrated naturally with Naked Juice Coconut Water, straight from Mother Nature and chock full of electrolytes and available in flavors like pineapple, mango or peach.  Available at grocery stores nationwide.

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Naturally Refreshing

Stock your cooler for the car or beach and keep that bikini bod year round with stevia-sweetened Zevia, the all-natural alternative to fattening sugary carbonated drinks.  Available in 15 flavors, these sparkling refreshers have zero calories and no artificial sweeteners. Available in grocery stores nationwide including Whole Foods, Kroger, Safeway and Target.

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Virginia’s Busch Gardens Wins Over a California Theme Park Visitor

There’s a lot of ballyhoo about Southern California theme parks being the best in the nation, but as an Los Angeles replant and frequent visitor to all the usual suspects (Disneyland, California Adventures, LEGOLAND, SeaWorld, Six Flags, etc.,) I believe Busch Gardens  in Williamsburg, Virginia, can hold its own against the park super powers.

Ride of My Life

On a recent trip back to my home state of Virginia our family of two adults and two six-year-olds planned a two-day visit to Busch Gardens in historic Williamsburg.  My childhood memories of the place are still fresh.  I recall riding the famed Loch Ness Monster when it opened in 1978, and the fear in my heart as a bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace played softly over the stereo system as my brother and I waited in line.  My parents refused to go on this crazy upside-down looping roller coaster over a pond of water.  I thought my folks were being wimpy and lame, in the day.

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So here I was some — choke — 36 years later, looking at the twisting interlocking loops and the 130-foot drop above the park’s Rhine River, I tried to beg my son — the only one of our party eager to brave this beast — out of going on this ride.  He was steadfast.  So I waited in line with him hoping for the ideal situation which thankfully presented itself.  Another boy, a bit older and much taller, was also seeking a buddy to ride in the two-seater car with him.   Away they went, eyes wide with trepidation.  A few minutes later, the laughing boys arrived back at the station screaming, “We want to go again!”

Even on a mid-summer day, in July, we were able to ride again and again on our favorite rides.  This was something that we had found impossible at SoCal parks, where even with a Fast-Pass, if you can figure out the system, you are lucky to ride any of the premium rides more than once in a day.  Perhaps it was the horribly humid Virginia summer heat that kept tourists away, or the economy that is still not recovered enough for many families to spring for the admission price ($72 for 10 and up, $62 for 9 and under), but we found the crowd, even at peak times, to be manageable, and I dare say pleasanter than at left coast parks, possibly owing to the polite and genteel nature of folks south of the Mason-Dixon line.

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Into the Woods

Besides quick-moving lines for rides, another recommender for Busch Gardens is the lush environs.  Each time I visit Northern Virginia, right off the plane at Dulles Airport I am always immediately struck by the difference in vegetation. The thick woods of green trees and fields of green grass and farms along the roadside are a sight for dry eyes accustomed to the dusty expanses of cacti and other succulents and the non-native palm trees of LA.  Busch Gardens has somehow preserved this dense greenery even at the center of the park. Roller coasters zoom through them, tug boats chug beside them and the train that circles the park lumbers around these shady forests of old-growth trees, which are an enchanting retreat from the sun on hot days.

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While our family is always impressed with the impeccable upkeep at Disney parks, Busch Gardens truly earns its 23-years-running accolade as the nation’s most beautiful theme park, as voted by the National Amusement Park Historical Association (NAPHA).  Adults can appreciate the quant reproduction of Europe as represented by nine villages in six countries, and kids will find the grandest assortment of thrill rides along with kiddie rides to satisfy every age and degree of daringness.  We all do love the wonderful “experiences” at Disney, but for older kids who really want to have their cranium shaken, Busch Gardens has it all — the soaring Apollo’s Chariot hyper coaster, the snow monster floor-dropping Alpengiest, the insane 205-foot free-falling Griffon, and the Verbolten autobahn racetrack coaster for starters.  Then there’s DaVinci’s Cradle, which I boarded thinking it was a mild-mannered giant swing to soon realize this massive raft-like ride was working its way up to a full circle rotation that left me wondering what sort of engineering feat enabled this contraption to stay standing while subjecting us and its foundation to such a magnitude of centrifugal force.  We also loved the scare of Curse of DarKastle which was like Disney’s Haunted Mansion on 3D steroids.

Hot Enough for Ya?

On boiling hot days like when we visited, the park has misters to cool off visitors, and there are splash and soak rides, like Escape from Pompeii, Le Scoot and Roman Rapids that provide relief, but in the case of weather, the SoCal parks win, as even when it hits triple digits it never feels hot and sticky like an East Coast summer.  Speaking of attractions where the West wins, Busch Gardens’ Europe in the Air simulator ride is a poor imitation of Soarin’ Over California, the latter which I could ride all day, and the former which literally made all of us nearly lose our lunch from motion sickness.

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During our visit we got treated to Star Spangled Nights, a fireworks display after dark that added extra excitement to our evening experience.  The park hosts several special events like this year round, including an extraordinary holiday light display during the park’s Christmastown winter season event.

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History Repeats Itself

Of course, Busch Gardens’ Old Country pales in comparison to the surrounding city of Williamsburg, which includes Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown.  Visitors who come for the theme park should book at least a couple of days to explore this amazing throwback to our country’s earliest days with exhibits that show what life was like as early as 1607 when the first Virginia settlement was founded.

There are many places to stay in Williamsburg, and because it is a terrific place for recurring vacationers many time share developments offer affordable extended stay accommodations.  Just a few minutes away from the park, we discovered a spacious and comfortable townhouse at Kings Creek Plantation, where we had all the amenities of home in a two-bedroom, two-bath unit which included a living and dining area and a fully equipped kitchen.

Our stay was two days and one night, which was not nearly long enough to explore the tip of the Historic Triangle and all the offerings of Williamsburg, but it’s reasonable to say that this destination has been standing beautifully preserved for centuries, and it will be there for us for our next visit, which we will definitely make soon.

 

The Buick LaCross is Welcome at the Ritz

The Buick LaCrosse Touring was one of the most luxurious cars I have test driven lately.  When the valet parked in in front of the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, it looked perfectly at home alongside the Jaguars and Bentleys.  Besides its beautiful exterior styling, the interior is built for comfort, including eight-way driver’s seat adjustments plus and power lumbar support.

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The cabin is generously proportion to be roomy for stretching out on long trips, and the safety features like side blind zone alert and rear cross traffic alert helps make trips more carefree, and the IntelliLink infotainment center with satellite radio and Bluetooth connection and navigation can be controlled hands-free so you can keep your eyes on the road, which is a good thing because the manual button operation of the navigation was cumbersome. Image

 

The LaCrosse exudes power inside and out, which you can feel as you accelerate the 2.4 ECOTEC DOHC 4-cylinder DI engine, but as you’d expect with a heavy, solid car like this, the mph at 21 on the highway is not the most fuel efficient, but then again you are in this car for the love of the ride.  $32,769 or fully equipped at $39,240.

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