Snorkeling!

My kid has always loved the water.  Even as a wee one, he’d throw himself headfirst into any body of water, mud puddles to oceans, without a second thought.

But despite that love of water, snorkeling hasn’t always come so easy to Chet.  Maybe it’s the weird mask that sticks to your face like a leech and pulls your hair.  Or maybe it’s the incorrectly-named “dry” snorkel that fills with water if you turn your head even a little bit.  Or maybe it’s just the idea of swimming with your eyes open–a situation that makes it impossible to ignore that you are in the ocean.  With fish.  And a lot of water.  And God knows what else that might have recently been highlighted on some Shark Week show.

But, finally, on a recent trip to St. Maarten, the kid got this snorkeling thing down.  Like, freely swimming and diving and exploring kind of down.  And it makes ocean trips all that much more fun for me.

IMG_2321[1]

October 21st, 2014 | by Kayt Sukel Comment


Avoiding Bat Guano under Austin’s Congress Street Bridge

People head to Austin, Texas for all kinds of reasons.

Some come to check out SXSW, the annual music/technology geek-fest.  Others want to listen to some live music in one of the town’s hundreds of funky music venues.  Still others want a relaxing weekend in the nearby hill country–or to see if the town is really as “weird” as the rumors say.

Photo courtesy of Susan Baker.

Photo courtesy of Susan Baker.

We came for the bats.

Yep, bats.  Those little flying rodents that inspire fear and disgust in most sane people.

But the bats are quite a draw in Austin.  Somewhere between 750,000 and 1,500,000 Mexican free-tailed bats (yes, those numbers are accurate) have taken up residence within the city’s Congress Street bridge.  Every year, between March and September, those bad boys take flight en masse right at sundown so they can go find some food.  And every night, hundreds of people come to witness the spectacle.

My friend Susan and her family suggested that we all kayak down with Live, Love, Paddle, a local outfit that offers daily tours of the bat-flying.  And despite the fact that their FAQ page says that, yes, the bats may poop on you (though our guide was quick to point out that they are much, much more likely to pee on you–he suggested that you never, under any circumstance look up with your mouth open), we decided we’d give it a go.

Instagrammed

Sure, it’s kind of a weird thing to do (in keeping with Austin’s reputation, I guess) but it was a lot of fun.  We threw the kids in the front of our double kayaks and paddled about a mile and a half down to the bridge.  They occasionally even attempted to help move us forward.  Those in the know tied some cans of beer to their kayaks, letting it drag through the lake water to keep cool, grabbing a new can when thirst overtook them.  And once we got to the bridge, we sat and waited for it all to begin.

It was something.  It was amazing, really.  One of those things, in nature, that make you stop and revel in the wonder.  (And understand why so many people stare up at the sky, mouths open and risk the taste of a little bat pee–it was just that incredible).

Alas, the photo does not do it justice.  But right at sunset, the bats started making their way out of the bridge in a swarm in search of sustenance.  They circled like a huge bat tornado and made their way across the lake and over tall buildings.  The guide said that some would even make it as far as the coast before coming back to the bridge before dawn.  And those bad boys just kept coming.  Just as you thought there was a end to the swarms, a new group would come racing out from under the bridge.

But, with the kids starting to whine for sustenance, we only stayed and watched for about 15 minutes.  But the mass exodus goes on for a good while after that.

So, yep, we came to Austin for the bats.  We got to kayak on a gorgeous lake, check out downtown from a different vantage point and even managed to witness something pretty damn miraculous at the end of it all.  And no one, not a one of us (well, as far as we know), got hit by any bat waste.  All in all, I’d call it a win.

Photos courtesy of Susan Baker.

October 14th, 2014 | by Kayt Sukel 1 comment


Traveling as a blended family

DSC02911Once upon a time, a single Mom and her son traipsed about the world, exploring new and interesting places whenever they could.  And they had a lot of fun doing it.

Since her first attempt at a fairy tale romance hadn’t ended in a happily ever after, she saw no reason to add any new Princes to the mix.  She thought she was content to wander about with her boy, a natural explorer if ever there was one.  Because, like I said, they were having a lot of fun.

Of course, as her boy got older, she began to wonder.  Maybe finding a Prince wouldn’t be so bad–for her or the boy.  Sometimes, a girl wants to share beautiful places with someone other than an elementary schooler.  They don’t always appreciate the details.  But she wasn’t going to settle for just any Prince.  If any Charmings were to, somehow, someway, fall out of the woodwork, they’d have to be explorers, too.  Have passport, will travel, and all that jazz.

You can imagine how this story ends, right?  The Mom met a man.  A really awesome man.  That awesome man had a daughter, who was just as awesome.  But neither he or his daughter were experienced travelers.  Heck, neither of them even had passports.  Neither had done much traveling–well, ever.  And yet, despite that lack, she fell for them both anyway.

IMG_0635 That’s my story.  It definitely wasn’t what I expected to happen.  But I’m glad that it did.  (And, yes, before you ask, I immediately insisted that both my new husband and daughter procure passports).

And, you know, this change to my own family has got me thinking about family travel differently. I often have other parents tell me, “You are so lucky you get to travel!  I wish I could.  But…”

And then those buts are usually followed by one of these statements:

  • It’s too expensive.
  • It’s too hard to make everyone happy.
  • It’s impossible to take time off work right now.
  • My kids won’t act right.
  • I (we) hate to fly.
  • My kids will never appreciate it.
  • I’ll do it when the kids are older.

I’ll admit it, I used to roll my eyes.  But now that I have a different sort of family, I can see why it’s harder for some families than others.  Now that I belong to a set of four, the expenses can really add up when scouting out a trip.  My son and my daughter often have very different ideas of what constitutes “fun”–and they aren’t afraid to let us (or their sibling) know it.  They both have other parents and visitation schedules that can make trying to plan new adventures a real headache.  And since my husband has a straight job, with a limited amount of vacation time, deciding to just pop up and fly to Malta because there’s a cheap fare isn’t an option.  It’s a bit of a change.  But travel remains a priority.

So, moving forward, you might see some changes in the way I approach travel–and the kinds of places we go and the kinds of things we do while we’re there.  It’s a function of being part of this new blended family.  But while I may utter a few more of those lines about expense and kid gratitude and all that (and not be so damn smug when you say those things to me), we’re still going to travel.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll find a different sort of happily ever after while doing it.

October 7th, 2014 | by Kayt Sukel Comment


Helmet Diving in St. Maarten

I am a SCUBA diver.  Or, rather, it’s probably more accurate to say I once was a SCUBA diver.  Alas, it’s hard to find opportunities to get wet once you have kids.  Especially if you are traveling as a single mother.  Too hard to justify the time and the expense.

But on a recent trip to St. Maarten, Chet, curious about (or perhaps tired of) my tales of underwater exploration, suggested we take a Sea Trek helmet dive.

seatrek0008

It’s a pretty simple thing, really.  You get outfitted with a diving helmet.  The helmet pipes oxygen to you–allowing you to easily breathe under the water.  The helmet’s weight, about 75 lbs. above the water (but feels more like 15 lbs. under it), keeps you firmly grounded on the ocean floor.  And you walk along a set platform for about 30 minutes, checking out what lives in the coral and feeding some fish.

It was a lot of fun.  The guides, donned in full SCUBA gear, point out the local wildlife and even bring some creatures over to you so you can check them out.  They also take photos the whole time–so you don’t have to.  And the quiet!  The helmets don’t have any communication devices, so the kids can experience the peace of being down under.  Okay, I might have appreciated that a bit more than Chet did.  But still.  The quiet!  It rules!

Tour groups are divided in two.  While one half of the group helmet dives, the other half is invited to snorkel in a small, picturesque lagoon.  And St. Maarten’s clear turquoise water means that the kids will see plenty of fish from above, too.  If they’ve never snorkeled before (or have, historically, been a little leery of doing so), this is a great spot to ease them into it.

All told, the helmet dive was a great introduction to underwater exploration–maybe even enough to inspire Chet to take up SNUBA or SCUBA diving next.

At least, this former diver can hope.

Photos courtesy of Sea Trek.

September 30th, 2014 | by Kayt Sukel Comment


Things to do in Philly with Kids

My family’s week-long vacation in Philadelphia was a homecoming for me but new territory for my husband and two teenagers. I grew up on the other side of the Delaware River, in New Jersey, and spent a lot of time in Philly, eventually attending college in West Philadelphia. But I’ve lived in North Carolina for twenty-five years, so I was excited to visit some familiar spots and also see what had changed in the City of Brotherly Love in the last couple decades.

 Things to do in Philly with Kids

Franklin Institute

When I was growing up in South Jersey, The Franklin Institute was the go-to spot for school field trips. The only thing about The Franklin Institute that I remembered was the Giant Heart. Picture this: you walk up and down stairs, through the ventricles and atrium, entering the lungs, returning to the heart, while hearing the beating of the heart, the whooshing of blood. Tell me that’s not the best thing ever. No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to hear it. My kids, who grew up in North Carolina, never got that experience and I have always felt that I let them down, that I neglected some essential childhood rite of passage, like catching fireflies or chasing the ice cream truck.

So on this trip I finally got the chance to take them, age age 16 and 19, through the heart. Really, it was the only reason we went to the Franklin Institute and they knew better than to resist, given that they’d heard me talk about The Giant Heart throughout their entire childhoods. If it had to be a forced march through those ventricles, so be it. They were going to walk through the heart.

 Things to do in Philly with Kids

But they didn’t resist. They walked through happily (or at least tolerantly) and one even went through a second time with me.  It was exactly as I remembered. Just as cool. That would have been enough but, surprisingly, they wanted to stay and do “all the things.” So we did. The electricity exhibit, the Observatory, the “brain” room. Spoiler: you don’t walk through the brain.  If you know anything at all about the anatomy of the brain you know that wouldn’t make sense anyway. However, there was a big play structure somehow related to brains that little kids were climbing all over while shrieking.

Which leads me to the next point. You might want to go after 4 p.m. I love kids. Children are our future and all. But when the hundredth group of kids in matching summer camp t-shirts tears through the exhibits at high volume you’ll excuse me for starting to have less than warm feelings toward the embodiment of our future. Trust me. P.M hours.

Big Bus Tour

My family did not reach complete consensus on the bus tour. My husband and I feel that bus tours are a great way to get an overview of a city and give us ideas of attractions we might want to visit. Plus you get to sit down. My kids aren’t sold. The Big Bus Tour uses open air double decker buses (as well as trolleys) so my husband and I sat on the top and the kids sat downstairs, inside, where I didn’t have to see if they were paying attention or not.

 Things to do in Philly with Kids

Our tour guide, Isaac, did a great job of familiarizing us with the history of Philadelphia in a hurry. I’m pretty sure that drinking is not allowed on the Big Bus Tour but if it were, a great drinking game would be to chug every time the tour guide said “Ben Franklin.”

Philadelphians tend to be opinionated about the best cheesesteak. The three biggies are Pat’s, Jim’s and Geno’s. Isaac’s opinion? None of them!  He recommends Sonny’s Famous Steaks on Market Street between 2nd and 3rd. If you’re using this article as a resource for your own trip you probably won’t follow my next bit of advice but I’m offering it anyway. For the absolute best cheesesteak, cross the Ben Franklin Bridge, drive a few miles north on Route 130, and go to Gaetano’s in Willingboro, New Jersey. Order the small. You’re welcome.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Stark, gothic, creepy…Eastern State Penitentiary looms over Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood in stark contrast to the otherwise genteel surroundings. Used as a prison from 1829 until 1971, it’s now a tourist attraction.  Visitors walk through the cellblocks, now in a state of semi-ruins, where, until the early 1900s, all prisoners lived in solitary confinement, even wearing hoods when leaving their cells so that they’d never see another human being. Some perspective, though: when Eastern State Penitentiary was built, its new “Pennsylvania system” was considered a humane alternative to the prison system of the time, and was emulated in many prisons across America and Europe.

 Things to do in Philly with Kids

Admission includes an excellent audio tour, narrated by—no kidding—Steve Buscemi. There was a guided tour available as well, but we didn’t take it because it was not led by Steve Buscemi. We learned that the most famous prisoner at Eastern State was Al Capone, although he served his time in relative comfort due to his celebrity status. Also, he had his tonsils removed right in the cellblock.

Although the tour is somewhat disturbing and sobering, it’s not scary. If you do want to be scared, during Halloween season the Penitentiary hosts a haunted house, Terror Behind the Walls, that is said to be one of the best haunted attractions in the country.

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

Magic is the right word for this place. Artist Isaiah Zagar, a long-time resident of South Street, has been beautifying his neighborhood with mosaics since the 1960s, and, in 1994, started working in the vacant lot next to his studio, excavating tunnels and grottos, sculpting multi-layered walls, and covering every surface with tiles. When the owner of the land decided to sell the lot in 2002, neighbors joined forces to support Zagar. Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens was incorporated as a non-profit and opened to the public.

 Things to do in Philly with Kids

Today 3,000 square feet are covered with mosaics and sculptures. Part of the magic is how there are so many ways to look at the artwork. Just when you think you’ve taken in everything around you, you notice a tiny scene made from figures, or the way a bicycle wheel frames a a window through a wall, or a collection of brilliant bottles jutting out of a corner, or a magnificent scene under your feet, or in the ceiling above your head. You can look at the art in an area as a whole, or in intricate detail. It’s like switching a lens on a camera between wide angle and macro, except it’s your eyes and mind doing the switching.

One would have to be very cynical to not be enchanted by this place.

Mütter Museum

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum contains a collection of preserved anatomical specimens, models and medical instruments. A few of the specimens on display are the world’s largest colon, the plaster cast and conjoined liver of “Siamese twins” Chang and Eng, a slide of Albert Einstein’s brain, the skeleton of a 7’6” giant, and the “Soap Lady,” a corpse that turned to a soapy matter.

My kids are huge fans of medical anomalies so the Mütter Museum was a hit. Although less gruesome than many of the museum’s artifacts, I was fascinated by the collection of over 2,000 swallowed objects that Chevalier Jackson, MD (1865-1958) removed from patients and catalogued. So many pins! So many buttons!

 Things to do in Philly with Kids

Photography is not allowed, so don’t even think of taking a selfie with President Grover Cleveland’s jaw tumor. However, you can bring your memories home forever with a purchase at the gift shop. Some choices: the Mega Colon Plush Toy, conjoined twins cookie cutters and hand soap in the shape of the Soap Lady (rose or lavender scent.) You saw that coming, right?

If you’d like to contribute to the museum but don’t want to bring home a medical oddity trinket, you can “adopt a skull.”

The museum walks a fine line. Most visitors are attracted by the quirkiness and shock value of the artifacts, but the mission of the museum is to educate, and, gift shop notwithstanding, the artifacts are displayed in a serious, no-nonsense manner, with respect for human dignity. Or at least with as much dignity as possible for people whose organs are displayed in jars.

Photo credits:   Philadelphia Skyline courtesy of M. Fischetti for Visit Philadelphia™.  Franklin Institute courtesy of The Franklin Institute Science Museum.  The Big Bus courtesy of B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia™.  The Eastern State Penitentiary and Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens courtesy of R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia.  Mutter museum courtesy of George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

September 23rd, 2014 | by Jody Mace 4 comments