Xtravapaloooooza™ Great Lakes Road Trip Highlights
To celebrate and distract my thoughts from my upcoming 50th birthday, I have been going on some adventures in what I am calling the “Yay I’m Almost 50 North American World Tour Xtravapaloooooza!™.” One thing that surprised me returning from my road trip was my lack of excitement to share my stories beyond my family; I had an awesome time so I am not sure why I was so quiet. But before my old brain starts to forget, it is time to get documenting.
My first adventure was a road trip around The Great Lakes with my 13-year-old niece; each day was completely different from the next and it is hard to pick a favorite activity. Some highlights:
Day 1 – I relaxed with a pre-trip pedicure then collected my niece and promptly got a speeding ticket. Discovered the niece likes my homemade kale chips.
Lowlight: Speeding ticket.
Bonding: Speeding ticket.
Day 2 – I got up early and renewed my expired car registration at the DMV then headed north for lunch at Gordy’s Hi Hat in Cloquet. The wind was so strong near the shore in Duluth the birds could barely get off the ground. Split Rock Lighthouse gave us our first chance at accidental learning. Gooseberry Falls was flowing like mad. My niece tried and even liked the Walleye at the lodge right on Lake Superior with the crazy loud tiny frogs. We repacked bags in more practical manner.
Highlight: The view and sounds of Superior from our room at Cove Point Lodge in Beaver Bay, MN; we had a comfortable patio for relaxing or could walk out right to the rocky shore and it was a fab way to begin our trip.
Bonding: Sharing the joy of singing “little old lady got mutilated late last night” from “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon.
Day 3 – Palisade Head is tucked away and accessed via narrow winding roads but has an amazing view. We hiked to Shovel Point, which was really just climbing tons of well-maintained stairs located in the woods. The weather prevented more hiking so we headed to the International Wolf Center in Ely, thumbs up, and the North American Bear Center, meh. We stayed at the Naniboujou Lodge where I enjoyed the décor and watching my niece try to get cell reception.
Highlight: I watched the sun rise for the first time in I don’t remember how long and it was stunning with the only sound being the waves crashing on the rocks; I hope I never forget it.
Blah: Driving for an hour behind an RV that seemed determined to never be passed and liked to swerve often.
Lowlight: Head bleeding from a black fly bite and imagining I had contracted all manner of disease. $%#@!
Bonding: That moment when the driver smiles and locks eyes with the passengers right after her head flopped about hard enough to wake her up and she sleepily says, “what??”
Day 4 – So much rain in the morning. We crossed the border without incident, which was mildly disappointing. Kakabeka Falls was a beautiful appetizer for Niagara and provided the opportunity for fun videos. Spent the afternoon at Fort William Historical Park and accidentally learned about history and later that night about astronomy, meteors and gravity. Stayed in a cabin at KOA and had a lovely picnic.
Highlight: Watching my niece so completely engaged listening to the in-character tour guide at Fort Williams and later the scientist at the observatory after she was resistant to going.
Food Find: Organic fruit stand in Thunder Bay was amazing and I have been dreaming about it ever since. They practically force you to taste everything, which makes you want to buy everything. The Crimson Sweet Pluots are the best new sweet thing I have tasted in years.
Bonding: Making up our own stories about the origin of the Sleeping Giant while searching for orthodontic wax.
Small World Moment: First of several occasions where we saw the same people at multiple locations. Today, the one other family we saw at the Fort was staying at the campground.
Day 5 – I got up early to work out in the light rain but stopped when the dudes in the next cabin seemed a bit too interested in my kettle bell swings. We went to an amethyst mine where we learned, “mined” and swatted away bugs. This was a day filled with driving broken up by lunch at the yummy Serendipity Café in Rockport and a few random tourist attractions. We stayed in Wawa, which is actually a town and not just an eastern US chain of convenience stores. Went on a bug hunt in the hotel room so we could sleep in peace.
Highlight: Saw a couple adorable black bears and a beautiful fox along the drive.
Blah: Have not seen a moose.
Lowlight: Bugs. So. Many. Biting. Bugs.
Food Find: The soup and Caesar salad at Serendipity were “the best ever” according my niece; always good to get tips from the locals.
Bonding: Coined new word, “delishit” to describe food that tastes good in the initial second but turns out to be crap. I don’t care if it is already in the Urban Dictionary, in our minds we made it up.
Day 6 – Today was a rollercoaster of highs and lows…and by lows I mean bugs. &^%$#!! bugs! Went to Tim Horton’s and my niece said it was the best doughnut she has ever had. Luckily, there is a Tim Horton’s on every corner so she can continue to have the best for days. We tried to hike a few times in Lake Superior National Forest but the bugs were so overwhelming and the trails a bit too rugged we abandoned the effort and resolved we are city girls. Stayed in a yurt on Pancake Bay just feet from Lake Superior; it was stunningly beautiful except for the bugs.
Highlight: Our long afternoon on the beach at Pancake Bay was probably the best time I have ever had on a lake beach. The water was clear and not too cold and the bugs were saying away. There were only a handful of other people around and it was like this whole beautiful place was just for us. We really lucked out on the weather, as it cleared up just for our beautiful afternoon.
Lowlight: Getting stung by mosquitoes while using the outhouse. I hope I did not poison myself with DEET.
Funny: Lake Superior National Forest has the best names for rivers and lakes: Mom Lake; Dad Lake; Orphan Lake; Bald Head River; Old Lady River, which was all dried up as I jokingly predicted.
Cute: The local chipmunks have no fear of humans and an insatiable appetite for peanuts; it is highly entertaining to watch them shove them in their cheeks and run off to their holes.
Bonding: Playing Zombie Dice, which got very silly and resulted in some illegally obtained videos which prove I do some pretty amazing accents.
Day 7 – I had a rough night sleep as I tried to not make another outhouse visit. I went for an early morning walk and saw a crow so large it might have been the missing link to the dinosaurs. More bugs. With a cloudy day and rain on the way, we abandoned our yurt a day early and headed toward city life. Today my niece got to see my crabby mood for the first time. We ended up staying in Sudbury, not a particularly beautiful city but it was a city and closer to our next destination, Toronto and the urban leg of our adventure.
Lowlight: Leaving my phone on the hood of my car as I raced to pack and not be eaten alive by mosquitoes and black flies.
Highlight: Finding my phone on the hood of my car unharmed after freaking out and almost bursting into tears due to bug agitation and lack of sleep.
Blah: So much road construction made the drive extra long.
Bonding: Ordering everything we wanted from room service and eating on our comfy hotel beds with fresh sheets surrounded by mounds of pillows.
Day 8 – Got up early again to workout but was frustrated by my weak arm which was the first sign of what I am dealing with now. Blah. Driving to Toronto I noticed a marked difference in the aggressiveness of drivers. In Minnesota, we are taught (but don’t actually follow) to stay in the right lane and then pass on the left while here most cars speed along in the left lane and only move right for turning or if there is a speeding opportunity; there is significantly more lane shifting and happily more corresponding blinker usage. Discovered a yummy Chinese restaurant in a strip mall near the hotel.
Highlight: Royal Ontario Museum had some great exhibits in the permanent collection, especially the dinosaurs, and a special exhibit called The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors.
Bonding: Experiencing the joy of living and a racing heart after a car in my blind spot tried to merge in the same lane I was merging into.
Day 9 – We began our first full day in Toronto trying to follow the Google Maps chick’s ever-changing directions to downtown as she tried to avoid construction and traffic jams. So much construction it is nuts! We spent time on a hop-on, hop-off bus tour and took in the city sights and the construction. I was surprised how often our tour guides would compare Toronto to US cities in almost a defensive way; I am sure it was just a way to provide context and illustrate how the city is exploding but it was odd. I have never heard Toronto mentioned when on a US city tour but that could be a result of our lack of a world perspective as much as anything; I am sure NYC is not concerned that Toronto beats it on condo construction or Chicago acknowledges that Toronto now has more people.
Highlight: Introducing my niece to her new favorite place in the world, H&M. The Toronto Eaton Centre is a pretty cool, and huge, urban shopping center and I was most impressed by the abundance and cleanliness of the bathrooms.
Bonding: I was able to share some of my key shopping tips: if you find a pair of pants you absolutely love you should go ahead and buy them in every color; if you look good hats, buy all the ones you look good in; and you can never have too many t-shirts.
Blah: My niece employed her teenager veto powers and we did not get to visit Casa Loma as I had wanted.
Day 10 – I love a good breakfast when traveling but this hotel has the worst eggs and sausage I have ever tried to force into my stomach. Gross. Another driving adventure into downtown Toronto with me not being in sync the Google Maps chick and making some wrong turns here and there; love the recalculating feature but do not love when she just gives up and quits talking to me. Toronto drivers are really aggressive, walkers are passive aggressive and there is an abundance of honking but a lack of gesturing. There are many more smokers than I am used to seeing. The harbor cruise was mediocre as there isn’t much to see but St Lawrence Market had an impressive array of food and venders.
Highlight: I did the CN Tower Edgewalk! My niece did not and thought I was insane for walking around a building 116 stories off the ground.
Bonding: Laughing at the pictures of me, smiling but scared, on the Edgewalk.
Lowlight: My back gave out at the market for the first time in months and I let out an involuntary squeal as I almost fell. I blame the super tight harnesses from the Edgewalk that prevented me from falling off the building but compressed my back in an uncomfortable way.
Day 11 – C’mon Canada, sausage should not be this color and this bland! We drove to Niagara Falls and it is even more beautiful in person than in that Superman movie and we lucked out again on the gorgeous weather. Looking at the falls you see the awesome beauty of nature, then you turn around and you see the awesomeness of buildings, neon, and tourism. The border crossing was uneventful. I had to recalculate my brain from kilometers back to miles and get used to toll roads that those eastern states love so much. The absolute worst part of the trip and my worst mood involved an encounter with a dick cop in Cleveland; Cleveland might rock but to me it sucked. Our hotel had a “Shining” vibe and dinner kinda blrw which is my fault for not ordering the bar/restaurant specialty. The Hotel dude thought we were there to see Bruno Mars so I must need a makeover.
Highlight: The natural beauty of Niagara Falls and the gardens and parkway of the city were beautiful. We met a couple that has been married over 50 years and lives just 20 minutes away but was experiencing the Maid of the Mist boat ride and colored ponchos for the first time.
Food Find: Finally tried poutine. I did not love it as there are too many food sensations going on at once for this chick but it was much better than I expected.
Blah: My niece employed her teenager veto powers and we did not get to visit other Niagara attractions like the Cave of the Winds; she was a bit queasy after the boat ride.
Small World Moment: The three Swedish women who were on our boat tour in Toronto were on our boat in Niagara.
Bonding: Shopping for souvenirs in Canada was pretty fun; we shop well together.
Day 12 – Waking up in Cleveland in an uncomfortable bed and listening to a drip from the hotel room ceiling, I began plotting ways to get the hell out of “the mistake by the lake” as soon as possible. The workout room was hot and muggy but luckily the breakfast buffet was pretty tasty. Post food consumption, we decided to continue with our original plans. We spent a good part of the day at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the only reason to come to Cleveland, and watched the Pride Day event as we ate lunch and fought off the birds on the museum balcony.
Highlight: Seeing memorabilia from so many bands I love at the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. Sadly, their t-shirt selection was kind of lacking.
Bonding: Taking my niece to her first R-rated movie (at the theater) so she could see one of her movie crushes in “22 Jump Street”
Non-Bonding: Telling my niece about the bands I love or how many I have seen live in concert; she was over it after the first one.
Lowlight: I had the worst bite of food I have ever had that did not later poison me. I may never eat artichoke hearts ever again. Just typing about it made me throw up in my mouth a little.
Really? Returning to the hotel room we found the leaky ceiling “fixed” which just consisted of putting a glass under the drip.
Day 13 – Woke up and slipped on the leaking water that had supposedly been actually fixed the previous night after the water glass fix failure. I could not wait to get out of Cleveland but could have done without all the dang toll roads. It was awesome to see the Chicago skyline; I have always loved the city and it was nice to be some place familiar again. With a bike race closing many roads, it was a bit challenging to get around but I managed to find a super expensive parking lot so we could start enjoying the city.
Highlight: The Art Institute of Chicago is one of my favorite art museums and I loved revisiting some of my favorite works of art. I loved that my niece identified herself as an artist as we explored the works.
Bonding: It took real teamwork to unload our entire car on the busy Chicago streets while having to self-park 2 blocks away.
Day 14 – There is just too much to do in Chicago so we picked activities that were different from what we experienced so far; I could stay here for weeks. The Shedd Aquarium had a cool Jellyfish exhibit, awesome sharks and is an entertaining way to spend part of a day. I am always conflicted watching the animal shows; I love seeing the beauty of these creatures but at the same time hate seeing them perform just for our amusement and the promise of a fish. I do appreciate the conservation efforts of the aquarium so focus on that. The 4D Dino movie was really fun although my niece got slammed in the back pretty hard when the prehistoric creature attacked. The Adler Planetarium was not as exciting as I remember and the performer in the main show was a bit irritating but we bought a bunch of space ice cream for her siblings.
Highlight: Our dinner at Harry Caray’s Italian Steak House was so delicious. I had low expectations for an overpriced, mediocre celebrity restaurant but everything we had was yummy, our service was awesome and we even splurged on a dessert.
Bonding: Walking from the restaurant to the hotel in a torrential downpour; knowing there was no way to not get soaked to the core, we just enjoyed ourselves and splashed around. My shoes will never be the same but this was a highlight of my entire trip.
Day 15 – Since we would be out late, I let my niece sleep in; I had no idea what that really meant for a teenager. I was able to work out, do laundry and read while she got her beauty rest. Once she was finally up, we explored the Magnificent Mile shopping and I introduced her to Chicago-style pizza and fried ravioli, both yummy. While yesterday was an awesome food day, today was full of missteps from the waitress failing to bring me my lunch to a disappointing dinner.
Highlight: We went to see “Million Dollar Quartet” and loved it. The musical tied together musicians and elements from the roots of rock and roll that we had discussed at the Hall of Fame but what really made it great were the performers. I loved the look on my niece’s face as she smiled and watched intently. It reinvigorated my love of music of the era.
Lowlight: Our dinner at Rick Bayless’ XOCO was not at all what I wanted and we were sat near a hot oven that made it impossible to enjoy ourselves. The flavors were okay but I hate fatty meat and the torta was too spicey and the guacamole too bland. The hostess was unwelcoming and we were rushed to order without looking at the menu; it seems like a place that is awesome for regulars but has no patience for the uninitiated.
Bonding: A conversation that began as a discussion on itchy pants and ending abruptly when I answered a question about feminine itching products.
Day 16: Packed and checked out of the hotel and then headed to Navy Pier for a Ferris wheel ride, round of miniature golf and a sail on the tall ship Windy. After eating at a place that supposedly inspired the John Belushi SNL “cheesebuga, cheesebuga” skit, we headed out of town and drove until I needed to sleep.
Highlight: Even on a cloudy day, I loved seeing the Chicago skyline from Lake Michigan. The crew of the Windy was pretty entertaining too.
Bonding: Being interviewed for a radio show about our latest movie and I got to talk about my nieces love for Channing Tatum much to her embarrassment. Luckily it was radio and I never used her name.
Day 17: We got up and headed home so my niece could reconnect with all of her friends and we could bond with family and share our t-shirt haul.
I spent a bit of time with family then a few days home with my youngest nephew exploring Minneapolis.
This was an amazing adventure and one that required a bit of time for recovery. I was extra happy that I did not abandon Operation Suck Less 2014™ and we stayed active and ate healthy. Based on the comments from my nephew, I expect a long adventure with him in a few years; I should be recovered by then.