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.


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

7 Family-friendly restaurants in Amsterdam

Whether you’re in Amsterdam with your kids for a few days or a few weeks, you’ll need to find some family-friendly restaurants where you can feed your crew.   I’m currently in Amsterdam with my 12 and 14-year-old kids, and even though we’ve rented an apartment, we’re still eating out a lot.

It’s easy enough to pack a lunch or grab snacks on the go, but every so often I like to sit down and let someone else do the cooking.  Here are a few of the places we’ve tried and liked.  Most of them are in or near the Jordaan, where we’re staying.


1. Pancakes! Amsterdam

We stumbled on this diminutive eatery our second day in town, and haven’t had better pancakes anywhere else.  A quick word on pancakes: they’re not just for breakfast here.  You can choose to have them sweet or savory, and eat them three meals a day.  The cheese, onion, and tomato pancake with guacamole was delicious, and the kids liked there citron pancakes too.  Be prepared to wait for a table — it’s popular and seems to serve only lunch and very early dinner.


2.  La Perla

I know, I know.  You didn’t come all the way to Amsterdam to eat pizza, but seriously: don’t miss this place.  Their authentic Napoli-style pizzas are fired in a wood oven and well worth waiting for.  Ignore the online reviews that claim they don’t take reservations — they do.  My kids loved the spicy salami (very similar to the pepperoni they’re used to) and my husband and I devoured the carciofo (artichokes, garlic, capers, and olives).  The neighborhood is adorable too.


3.  Cafe de Reiger

This is a good something-for-everyone spot, and really good for groups (they’ve got a big round table that seats up to 10).  While they claim not to take reservations, try calling if you’ve got a big party — you never know.  They’re known for their ribs, and my son says their steak frites is a good choice too.  Vegetarians in our group had a nice ravioli dish, and there were great seafood choices too.  The location is on a sleepy street in the shadow of the Westerkerk (which is a great middle of the street photo op, but watch out for bikes).  Don’t order dessert, though.  Instead, ask for the check and go to the next place on this list.


4.  Winkel 43 (or sometimes, just plain “Winkel”)

This is where people in the Jordaan come for apple pie.  You know when something is built up to the point that it cannot possibly live up to the hype?  This is not that place.  The apple pie with cream is absolutely sublime.  It’s more like an apple cake than an apple pie, but who am I to argue?  I’ve read that the line can go around the block on Saturday mornings during the organic farmers’ market at adjacent Noordermarkt but both times we went, we were seated immediately.  If you find you like apple pie, head over to Cafe Papeneiland around the corner and do a little comparison — it’s good too.


5.  Cafe at the Amsterdam History Museum

We have often found that we need a break from the charming, yet crowded and busy streets of Amsterdam.  The Mokum Museum Cafeat the Amsterdam Museum is the perfect place to recharge and refuel.  You can sit outside in their peaceful terrace courtyard or inside where it’s even quieter.  They serve the usual pancakes, salads, and sandwiches.  While prices aren’t cheap, the food is good and they have a children’s menu.  Open 10-5 daily.


6.  Groot Melkhuis

Visiting Vondelpark?  This is a great waterfront place for your kids to try tostis for the first time — little cheese or cheese and sausage-filled pastries that are delicious and well-priced.  My kids have developed a little bit of a habit.  You can also get soup, sandwiches, snacks and all kinds of drinks from smoothies and sodas to Irish coffee or a nice glass of rosé (it hasn’t caught on in America, but it’s a quintessential summer drink in lots of Europe — trust me).


7.  La Place Openbare Bibliotheek

Okay, this place is basically an upscale cafeteria, but stay with me for a minute.  It’s an upscale cafeteria with really fresh food and decent prices on the top floor of Amsterdam’s gorgeous public library — one of the few places in town high enough up to give you a view.  Even though you don’t (probably) speak a word of Dutch, it’s worth wandering through the library after you eat — it’s the biggest in Europe and a feast for the eyes too.


July 4th, 2014 | by Jamie Pearson 2 comments

Eat your way through Amsterdam

Looking for things to do with kids in Amsterdam?  Try a food tour

Finding family friendly things to do in major European cities can be… tricky.  In its infinite wisdom, the internet seems to think that most parents are willing to travel halfway around the world with their kids and then play miniature golf or pet goats.

Now, I love my kids as much as the next person, but I’m looking for slightly unusual activities that we can all enjoy.  More importantly (and with all due respect to miniature golf and goats), I want them to be activities we can’t do anywhere else.  Luckily for us, the Amsterdam Food Tour we recently took was just such an activity.

In fact, it was one of the best things I did on my 4-week trip to Amsterdam with my 12 and 14-year-old kids.  Here are some of the reasons we liked it:

The tour starts with apple pie in a brown cafe that dates back to the 1642 and once contained a secret passageway under the canal to a hidden Catholic church.

1.  Pie for breakfast?   Okay!

The Eating Amsterdam team recommended that we skip breakfast on the day of the tour, and that turned out to be very good advice.  No sooner had our group of 12 assembled than we tromped upstairs at the cozy Cafe Papeneiland (which dates back to 1642) for a huge slice of apple pie and a drink of our choice.

It turned out that all the portions were like this: full sized.  Many food tours pass around small samples, this tour actually feeds you.  So much, in fact, that we wondered how we were going to eat it all.

2.  A huge diversity of food. 

Even my 14-year-old tried the herring. This Dutch delicacy wasn’t our favorite food of the day, but it wasn’t bad either.

With its colonial past, its seafaring tradition, and its citizens’ passion for fried snacks, Amsterdam offers a huge diversity of food.  Most visitors aren’t in town long enough to try it all.  This tour takes you to places you’d be unlikely to find without a guide, and doesn’t bother to serve you fries and stroopwafels (figuring, correctly, that you can find those on your own).

Besides the apple pie, we had Indonesian and Surinamese food — which we loved.  There were two kinds of sausages.  Herring.  Kibbeling.  Three kinds of licorice.  Cheeses.  Champagne.  Bitterballen.  Locally brewed beer.  Meatballs.  Poffertjes.  Even vegetarians and picky eaters will find lots to try.

3.  A compact geographical area

The tour takes place in a very small neighborhood — the entire walking route is only about two miles total.  Probably the most challenging part is avoiding bicyclists while crossing the street.  Luckily the guides keep everyone safe and together.  Many of the tastings take place on the sidewalk in front of the shops, but an equal number are inside or seated at tables.

(Not that I’m a proponent of multi-tasking on vacation, but if you’re short on time, this is a great way to squeeze in some sightseeing in what is easily the prettiest part of the city: the Jordaan.)

A full hour of the 4-hour tour (toward the end, when you’ll be happy to relax a little) is aboard a plushly restored canal boat as you ply the waters all around Amsterdam.  The boat belongs to the ritzy Hotel Pulitzer, and once conveyed Winston Churchill and Queen Wilhelmina on a tour around the city after World War II.

Just when you’re sure you can’t eat another bite, you get a huge plate of puffy Dutch pancakes called poffertjes.

On the boat, you’ll try traditional Dutch snacks like bitterballen, cheeses, and meatballs as well as a delicious — and strong — locally brewed beer.

(Again, for you multi-taskers, now it’s a tour, a meal, drinks, sightseeing, and a boat ride all in one.)

5.  Great guides

While the company runs very popular tours in Rome and London, the Amsterdam tour was launched just this season.  Despite having just six weeks’ experience, the guides were very relaxed, knowledgable, chatty and fun.  They put all the food we ate in context, telling us stories about the neighborhood and teaching us a little — but not too much for the kids — about Dutch history. They keep the group size small on purpose, and seem to have good chemistry with all kinds of travelers.

Disclosure:  I was accommodated with a complimentary tour by Eating Amsterdam Food Tours for the purposes of this review.  They did not request that I express any particular point of view, and all opinions are my own.

June 28th, 2014 | by Jamie Pearson 1 comment

Wait. How long is a kilometer again?

There are some times when it would be to my advantage to really understand the metric system.  Such as when I am dosing myself with foreign cough medicine.  Or operating foreign ovens.  Or signing up for an all-day bike tour of the countryside around Amsterdam.


This is probably our Christmas card picture. Act surprised when you get it.

But alas, much like whether the earth orbits the sun or the other way around, this information does not seem to stick in my head.

So, when the Amsterdam bike tour guide asked, “Can your kids bike 45 kilometers in 4 hours?”, I said: “Sure!”  But I was thinking, “Wait.  How long is a kilometer again?”

She wondered aloud whether tackling the route in a more leisurely six hours might be better, and I quickly agreed.  Plus, the longer trip included lunch, and lunch always sounds good to me.


Wheely Dutch Bike Tours had a friendly-seeming website — lots of pretty pictures and buoyant punctuation.  Digging deeper, I saw that the fitness level required for their tours were ranked on a tulip scale — cute!  One tulip for easy, two tulips for medium, and three tulips for challenging  We selected the full-day Taste of Holland Tour.  Since this was a one-tulip trip, I assumed it would pretty much be downhill both ways.

Not quite.


No rural Holland bike tour can be considered complete without sheep.

We met our tour guide — and company owner/operator — Rebecca Uleman at a bike rental shop on Damstraat in Central Amsterdam, where we picked up bikes and bike bags for the journey.  Rebecca is a really down to earth and calm guide who is half-Australian and half-Dutch.  Although she’s lived in Holland for about ten years, she’s biked aaaaall over the world.  She’s really good company too.


Not to completely state the obvious, but this tour — and all bike tours in and around Amsterdam — starts right in the Central District.  Thank goodness Rebecca was there to ring her bell and usher us through town like a bunch of baby ducks, because the streets are busy.  If your kids are even a little bit wobbly, I would recommend riding behind them and slightly to the left.  Also, try to be as wide as you can, so that anyone who passes on a bike, motor scooter, or car will have to do so with a larger margin.  They will beep and ring their bells.  Let them.


A bucolic view across the polders, low-lying Dutch farmland surrounded by dikes. Don’t tell these cows, but 40% of the country used to be underwater.

Within 15 minutes we were out of the city limits and heading south toward the farmlands, canals, and rivers south of the city.  Within 30 minutes we were gawking at windmills and sitting where Rembrandt sat and painted these iconic Dutch landscapes.

The first half of the tour, we shared the road with other bikes, mopeds, and cars (though not too many).  Later, it was just us, other bikes, and the cows.  We rode across the river on a bike and car ferry and also crossed the river on a pulley boat which has no engine, just a hand crank.  Rebecca was very indulgent of my endless photo stops and slow pedaling, my husband slightly less so.


A chocolate chip lamb. I want one.


For me there were really three highlights:

  1. Completing a 45-kilometer bike ride (oh stop laughing, you irritating bike people).  I waddled straight home, pulled up an online mile/kilometer converter, and discovered I had just ridden 28 miles!  Bragging rights.
  2. Cycling past farm animals and wildlife — especially the babies.  Ducks and ducklings.  Swans and cygnets.  Sheep and lambs.  Horses and foals.  Pigs, cows, rabbits.
  3. Watching my overheated son and husband strip down to their underwear to jump in the Amstel River in front of some bemused locals (photos withheld — sorry).


Two low points:

  1. My son is a pretty confident biker, but not totally confident.  Every time he wobbled, my heart stopped for a second.  One time he clipped a garbage can and almost fell.  Since it was a warm holiday weekend, there was a lot of other bike traffic passing us (him) just a little too close for my comfort.
  2. I have the good fortune to be part of a fit family.  As the weakest link, I am always the first one to run out of gas.  In this case, I ran out of gas somewhere around mile 25.  While there are no hills in Amsterdam, there are 1,500 bridges.  I wasn’t sure I was going to make it up and over the last few.
The colors really look like this.  I didn't mess with them.

The colors really look like this. I didn’t mess with them.


I would highly recommend Rebecca’s trips.  If you’re not up for a 28-miler, she has some other great-sounding tours.  I was particularly tempted by both the Wheely Dutch Snack Track and The Pancake Tour.

Here’s my number one bit of advice for this tour.  Ready?  Upgrade your bike.  We rented these huge, heavy 3-speed beasts, and I would really have liked having a few more gears.  If you’ve got a semi-wobbly rider, a tandem bike might be a good idea too.

Potty breaks are few and far between, so go easy on the coffee the morning of your tour.  Bring water bottles for everyone, but just one since Rebecca will bring a big bottle for refills. 

This moped-rider was yelling and beeping at us to get out of the way.  Also?  His dog was barking.

This moped-rider was yelling and beeping at us to get out of the way. Even his dog was barking.  My husband stared him down instead.

All posts in this series:

Why not Amsterdam
Getting to Amsterdam: Even the easy way was kind of hard
The Mystery of the Giant Pink Penis Lamp
Wait.  How long is a kilometer again?


June 8th, 2014 | by Jamie Pearson 8 comments