Thursday, July 12, 2012

Vacations with Kids: American Girl Boston

Red and cousin Scarlett with their dolls at American Girl Boston

It all started last year in September.  I somehow got on the American Girl mailing list and a catalog arrived at our house.  Red looked at it cover to cover and decided she wanted to buy Kanani, the 2011 Girl of the Year who was from Hawaii.  We're not the sort of family to just go out and buy something for our kids just because they say they want it.  Even if we could, a $105 doll is a bit out of budget for us even as a birthday or Christmas present.  Being the industrious little girl she is, Red started saving her money for Kanani.  As Christmas approached it was pretty clear that she wasn't going to have enough money before Kanani was discontinued at the end of the year.  I proposed a solution --- Mommy and Daddy would buy Kanani for Christmas but that would be her only gift from us.  That did not go over well.  Just one Christmas gift?!!?  Once she rejected my plan, Red decided to keep saving on her own and get a My American Girl doll (i.e. the dolls you can buy that look like you) instead of Kanani.  

Then, June arrived and with it Red's 7th birthday.  She had achieved her goal.  She had $115 in hand and was ready to go to American Girl Boston when we went out east for our Massachusetts visit.

First of all, American Girl Boston is not located in Boston.  It is located in the suburb of Natick on the perimeter of the Natick Mall wedged between Crate and Barrel and The Cheesecake Factory.  We arrived at the mall around 1:30 on a Friday, and the parking lot was PACKED!  I literally drove around in circles for 10 minutes before I gave up and decided to pay to valet the van.  The moral of the story --- don't mess around, use the valet!

When we finally entered the store, the atmosphere was simply overwhelming.  There are cases everywhere filled with dolls and all their different outfits and furniture.  Anything you've seen in the catalog is on display.  Here are a couple examples:

We went to the store on Red's actual birthday.  When the staff was notified, they immediately got her a sticker to wear on her dress that said "It's my birthday!"  After that point, every staff member who saw her wished her happy birthday.  I thought that was a nice touch.  Red went there knowing which doll she wanted to buy.  She had decided upon this doll months earlier:
Then, we got the bad news --- they didn't have one in stock!  There were some tears and the sales girl did offer to ship one to our house for free once it was back in stock, but that kind of defeats the purpose of going to the AG store to buy the doll, right?  The sales girl claimed they had one right up until that morning.  Argh!  Bottom line --- call ahead to make sure they have in stock what you want to buy.  Anyway, Red decided she'd rather purchase her second choice than not buy a doll that day so she got this doll instead who she named Velma:

And all the sadness was forgotten!

After our experience, I have a couple more recommendations if you are planning a trip to the AG store yourself.

1. See if there is an activity going on that day.  The day we went to the store they had a free craft which was making a hair scrunchie for you and your doll.  They have the crafts and the dates listed on the American Girl website.  Many of the crafts this year are related to the release of the 2012 Girl of the Year McKenna.  Here are Red and her cousin working away on their hair scrunchies...
 ...and Red and Velma with their new matching scrunchies!

2. Have afternoon tea!  Tea is only available 2-430PM during the week, and you can only make tea reservations by calling the American Girl 800 number --- 1-877-247-5223.  What's really great about dining at the American Girl Bistro is that they have a high chair for your doll and at tea Velma even got her own little tea cup and saucer to use.  Also, if you don't have your own doll, they'll provide you with one to sit with you for your meal.
For beverages, the adults got our choice of teas, while the kids could have tea, hot chocolate or lemonade.  Our girls opted for lemonade.  The menu for tea is fixed, but the food was plentiful.  Here's the menu.  Zoom in to take a look:
The food for tea was served on tiered plates.  Here's mine.
Here's the rest of the food.
 Each person got a fruit kabob with yogurt and a mini muffin.
 There were three mini sandwiches per person---
turkey, ham, and cucumber with cream cheese. Pictured here are two cucumber and two turkey sandwiches.  I thought the stars shaped sandwiches with the flags were darling.
For dessert there was a brownie pop, a cupcake with pink frosting, and a Jello smile which was red jello in an orange peel.  Cute!
Even though we didn't purchase a birthday package (we didn't feel we needed another cake since we were having one that night at Grandma's house), my sister told our waitress it was Red's birthday.  She brought out a piped blob of whipped cream with a candle for her and the staff sang happy birthday.
While prices vary from location to location, brunch, lunch or dinner at the Boston location will run you $15.50-16.50 while tea is only $10.50.  The price difference might not seem like such a big deal, but here's the way I look at it.  Would you rather pay over $15 for a standard mac and cheese/hamburger type kids' meal or eat more of a heavy snack at tea but have it be a food experience that you're not going to get at another restaurant?  Tea could be a meal for some kids.  I know our children couldn't finish it and we had to get a box!  In the end, I was really glad that we went with tea instead of a meal.

As our time at American Girl wound down, Velma got her ears pierced at the doll salon and we bought a couple outfits for Velma as Red's birthday gift.  Red opted for Rebecca's movie dress and the ballet outfit.  Overall, it was a great time at AG Boston!  

Do you embrace or hate the American Girl phenomenon?  Do you think you'll go to an AG store in the future?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Vacations with Kids: Cape Cod

Red and cousin Scarlett head for the beach!

Who doesn't love the Cape?  Since we used to live in Massachusetts and my husband spent a couple of years living on Cape Cod, we kind of consider ourselves veterans in terms of vacationing there.

In the past, we've rented a house (we've stayed in Eastham, Hyannisport and Yarmouth in the past) and hunkered down for a week by ourselves and drove to a bunch of different towns.  This year we stayed in Yarmouth with my sister's family and my mother-in-law for a little less than a week.  Even with all the togetherness (5 adults and 4 kids in a 3 bedroom house!), I think it was a best trip yet!

First of all, if you've never been to Cape Cod and you're looking for a place to rent, may I suggest the Great Island Ocean Club in Yarmouth.  This is where we stayed.  You are literally steps from the beach.  In our case, we were about 2 houses away!  They also have a pool, tennis courts and a playground on the property.  Needless to say we spent a lot of time at the beach:

Everyone coming on to the beach.
Tom Thumb chasing Daddy!
Me and my sister Andrea
The kids are pretending they're lifeguards.
Out on the rocks...
A daddy son moment :-)

If you get tired of the beach, here are some other great spots to try:

Cape Cod Creamery - This is seriously the best ice cream on the Cape---and we've tried most of them! :-)  They make it themselves and they have all kinds of fun flavors named after different parts of Cape Cod.  The kids couldn't get enough of Marston Mills Mint Chip, while I became addicted to Corporation Beach --- a new addition to their menu that features chocolate ice cream with pretzels filled with peanut butter.  I literally got it both times we went there.  Sit in the Adirondack chairs out front and watch the tourists drive by!

The Lobster Boat - Cheapest place for lobster around!  I totally recommend the buy it at the fish market and cook it at the house method (if you go this way, there is a fish market right next door to this restaurant that is good), but if you'd rather have someone kill the lobsters for you this is the place to go.  If you're looking for a fancy pants atmosphere this is not it, but for $22 you can have two steamed lobsters, a baked potato, and an ear of corn.  Their chowder wasn't too shabby either.  If you want value for your money, it's The Lobster Boat.

The Sesuit Harbor Cafe - Want to do it like the locals?  Go here for the lobster roll.  It will be confusing getting in there.  It looks like a private boat marina and you have to get a parking pass to get in, but once you're in be prepared for the most yummy lobster roll around.  My sister and her hubby are big fans of the fried seafood there too.  My little sis recommends the fried scallops.

The Book Rack - Don't have an e-reader, but want a book quick at a reasonable price?  Hit The Book Rack.  It's in a strip mall on Route 28 and has nearly every genre used book you can imagine organized in an easy to find method.  I went in there looking for Half Broke Horses.  They didn't have it so I walked out with Bel Canto at half the list price.  That's their price methodology---half the price listed on the back of the book.  Easy peasy.  Is it as cheap as Amazon?  Maybe not depending on the book you choose, but you're paying a bit for convenience.  This is vacation, remember?

The one new thing we tried on this trip was a seal watch.  Unfortunately, we had to do it the unorthodox method because the waters were too rough the day we went.  Normally, you get on a bigger boat for a couple hours and they drive you around the perimeter of the island to see the seals.  We got the little boat instead.  They did give us a $10 a head discount for the inconvenience (normally it's $35 for adults and $30 for kids 12 and under).  They loaded us on to a glorified ski boat, dropped us on an island, and we walked to where the seals were beached.  We did get some great photos however and the kids were simply thrilled:

Here we are on "the little boat."  Tom Thumb thinks he's the captain!
 Here's Red---the seals are the black on the beach in the background.
 We were able to get a smidge closer to get some pictures.  Keep in mind that my camera is still zoomed all the way in.  We didn't want to scare them into jumping back in the water! 
Check out the cute baby seal in the foreground.
 Some of the younger seals were swimming right up to the beach to check us out!

Overall, despite the snafus with the water, a great experience.  Here's a link to the tour company we went with for the seal watch.  Just FYI --- you need to make advance reservations for this one.  

There's still time to head to the Cape before summer ends!  Ha ha!  Where are you going on your vacation this summer?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Vacations with Kids: Howe Caverns

Our family standing on the heart at the Bridal Altar inside Howe Caverns

I just got a comment today that said something to the effect of "Aren't you due for a blog post?"  Yes, I'm somewhat overdue, right? ;-)  We were off traveling in New England visiting the Cobbler's mommy and my sister's family for a week and a half.  Then, upon our return, I developed an inner ear infection.  Fun times...I'm still dealing with intermittent dizziness after a week and a half, but I'm well enough to write today.  There is such a thing as "ear rocks."  Who knew?

If you're planning any summer trips, I can make a few recommendations based on our recent excursion.  This time was our first visit to Howe Caverns.  Red has developed an interest in rocks over the last year so this side trip on our way to Massachusetts was a nod to her latest hobby.  Howe Caverns, which is located in Howe Caves, New York, was discovered in 1842 by Lester Howe.  Over the years the cavern, which lies about 15 stories below ground, was explored and later developed for tourists.  If you're looking for a natural cave tour in which you rough it and climb over rocks and squeeze through crevices, this tour is not for you.  If you want an easy walk on brick pathways in which you get to see rock formations up close and personal, then you'll like this tour.  

A variety of choices are available, but we opted for the Traditional Tour.  The Traditional Tour is about an hour and a half in length.  It included an easy group walking tour with a guide and a short boat ride inside the cavern.  There was some cheese factor involved---like a dated animatronic Lester Howe telling us about discovering the cavern at the beginning of the tour---but once you got down into the cave you really got to see some great formations.   The photos don't do them justice, but here are some shots of what we got to see:
This is a rock formation known as "The Chinese Pagoda"
"The Turtle"
The kids and I touching the one touchable formation in the cave.
Many of the formations were bathed in colorful lights so you could see the details.

The tour didn't come cheap.  It is $23 for adults, $12 for kids 5-11, but Tom Thumb at age 4 was still free.  They do offer a AAA discount which got us a couple of bucks off each ticket.  Even with the prices, we all agreed that it was well worth it for what you got to see.  Red even asked if we could go again next year.  One suggestion---bring jackets!  No matter what time of year it is or what the temperature is outside, the cavern is always in the mid-50s.  I was so glad we had sweatshirts.

A recent addition to the Howe Caverns campus is the Howe Caverns Mining Company.  Is it touristy? Yes.  Did the kids love it?  An emphatic YES.  What you do is you purchase a bag of
mining rough at the register inside and then the kids get to use a water sluice (essentially a stream of water running through a trough) to remove the dirt and clean the rocks.  We bought a 5 pound bag for $8 and the kids had a blast!  Here are some photos:

Red and Tom Thumb each ended up with a small bag of rough gemstones including amethyst, quartz, and fool's gold.  Well, worth the money for our little rock lovers.

Next time you're close to Albany or Syracuse, NY, consider a side trip over to Howe Caverns.    It comes highly recommended from our crew!  More blog posts coming in the days ahead!