Saturday, 25 February 2017

A Favorite on my Kindle for Homeschool Helps - The Big Book of Homeschool II

As a relative newcomer to homeschooling (we've only done it for about a year,) I appreciate having advice from other homeschooling parents at my fingertips. The Big Book of Homeschool Volume II fits the bill nicely. Because we travel a lot, I opted for the Kindle version and was not disappointed. This new volume is well laid out and easy to use as a reference but reads more like a conversation. I especially enjoyed the section on homeschooling your child with ADHD. I had to chuckle as I read another parent describe her morning and realized it wasn't only me who had days like that with fidgeting little hands and minds that might rather be dreaming in the clouds (or spending the day discovering at an old fort!)

I could also relate to the mom who described herself as a "homeschooling shopaholic", buying and collecting free worksheets and curriculum that you might never use. Don't get me wrong, there are some terrific resources out there but, as this volume advises, you need to be organized and be sure you are purchasing/collecting things that you need (and will use.) Even though I only print the pages when I need them, I find my laptop file folders bulging with items I have forgotten I even have. There is no help in that.

While we are still in elementary, the section on teaching healthy independence shares great tips on how to prepare your child for their next steps. Along with these are helps in what to watch for to be sure you don't get off track as your child becomes more independent in their work. I can see myself going back to this, and the section on high school, as we near the teenage years.

Whether you are new to homeschooling or an old pro, the Big Book of Homeschool Ideas Volume II is cram packed full of ideas with sections on theory, STEM, homeschool networks, and plenty more in between. It has joined the original Big Book of Homeschool Ideas as one of my Kindle favorites!

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free product in return for my honest review. All thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Travel Whispers Blogger Challenge! - from a North American Road Tripper

As a newcomer to travel blogging, I have spent much of the past year reading other travel blogs, joining in on Twitter chats, improving (hopefully) my photography skills and traveling. When I read about the Travel Bloggers Whispers Blogger Challenge, organized by Stephanie Fox, I couldn't resist jumping in with both feet and giving it a go. (You can find Stephanie's Travel Whispers here.) 
Each Travel Whispers blog post can be found by clicking the link through to the next blogger at the bottom of the post, and so on, so take the time to read through a few – you might find some exciting new bloggers to follow and some great travel ideas for the future!  You can also find them across Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #TravelWhispers.
For the challenge, I have to answer the following ten questions. I thought it would be a piece of cake until I began to look through my travel photos from this year (they number in the thousands). It was tough to choose favorites but I've done my best to be honest in my answers.

1. If you had to move to a country that you’ve NEVER been to, and live there for ten years, where would you go?

This is a tough question. There are a number of countries I would love to visit but ten years is a long time. The front runners of these are Ireland and France, the countries of my heritage. Ireland would be lovely and does have the advantage of being an English speaking country but the image of roaming the French countryside, visiting historic and cultural sites is enchanting, plus I've never been to Disneyland Paris. Yes, I think France would be my choice. Better brush up on my schoolhouse French!

Chef Remi - Les Chefs du France - Epcot World Showcase

2. If you had to live in a hotel for the rest of your life, which hotel would you choose and why?

The JW Marriott Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. The service is wonderful, the scenery is lovely, and you are close to both the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip and the magnificent vistas of Red Rock Canyon. After a day of adventuring, we love to relax at Spa Aquae, My husband loves the outdoor hydrotherapy circuit pool but my favorite is the warm float pool in the women's ritual room (there is one for the men as well).

Hubby catching up on his reading on our private patio.

3. If you could only eat the cuisine of one nationality forever more, which would you choose?

French (ok, this may have influenced my earlier choice of country). Seriously, what can be wrong with a cuisine that features both wine and cheese? Add a little foie gras and a baguette and you have a perfect picnic lunch. With all of the distinct regional cuisines, I don't think I could ever run out of choices. And I haven't even mentioned dessert. Creme brulee, macaron, eclair, mille-feuille...I can taste them all now.

Mother's Day creme brulee - Les Chefs du France - Epcot World Showcase

4. Who has given you ‘holiday envy’ this year, and how?

Another tough question. I have been blessed with the opportunity to travel with my family this year, visiting National Parks across the U.S. during their 100th Anniversary along the way. I guess I would have to say my holiday envy would be of friends and family who visited Italy and The Vatican this year, Their photos were amazing and reminded me of why this spot is on my bucket list. Hearing the Pope say mass in St. Peter's Square would be an absolute highlight for me,
St. Peter's Basilica (from their website)

5. If you had to look at the same sunrise or the same sunset every day, where in the world would you never get bored of seeing? Please don’t say sitting outside Cafe Mambo in Ibiza.

My favorite sunsets are in the desert, the colors are wonderful against the variety of tundra, but I would have to say my favorite is the sunset over Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. You can see the sunset in many different spots throughout the park, each one holding its own charm.

Sunset at Joshua Tree National Park

6. If you were taking a ‘staycation’ in your hometown, where would it be and what would you recommend others to do?

I'm from Canada and this year we are celebrating our country's 150th birthday so I'd love to answer Canada from coast to coast to coast but that is a little broad. I'm fortunate to live in southern Alberta where we are close to the mountains, prairies and four of Alberta's UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the fifth is further north, near the capital city of Edmonton). The Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, and Banff National Park, in particular, is a must-do for visitors to our area and only a short hour and a bit drive from Calgary. The scenery is breathtaking and there are loads of hiking areas. (A bonus for 2017 visitors is free admission to celebrate Canada's milestone birthday.) To the east of the city, you can visit the Canadian Badlands and the world famous Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. And if your group includes dinosaur fans (young or old) a drive further east will bring you to Dinosaur Provincial Park where you can join in on activities that include fossil hunting. To the south of Calgary is another of the sites; Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump. Here you can learn about Alberta's aboriginal peoples and how they lived. Rounding out the sites is Waterton Glacier International Peace Park. This beautiful park is shared between Alberta and Montana. Hmmm...I think I need to plan a staycation in the near future!

Hoodoos at Banff National Park

7. Describe your perfect travel day of the year?

My perfect travel day, how can I choose just one? There are a couple of particular favorites, the first is driving along the Gulf Coast. Not only is the drive beautiful itself but the stops along the way are amazing. We loved seeing the different architecture and historic sites as we visited Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. My other favorite is driving down the Pacific Coast Highway. Another shoreline drive but so different than the Gulf Coast. I love the quirky and quaint shops that line the old highway at the southern end.

Waves crashing along the shoreline - Pacific Coast Highway

8. What have you ticked off your bucket list in 2016?

Digging for diamonds at Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas, visiting Sutter's Mill, where the California Gold Rush started and exploring Virginia City, Nevada where Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) began his writing career.

The old schoolhouse at Virginia City, Nevada

9. What is top of your travel bucket list for 2017?

Our big bucket list item this year is to drive across Canada for Canada's 150th birthday. Since we homeschool our grandson, it will be a wonderful opportunity for him to learn about our great country.

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10. Share your favorite Instagram photo of 2016?

Looking through my Instagram photos I realize a) I have traveled a lot this year and b) I have many favorite photos. I chose this one taken in New Orleans during lunch at Bubba Gump's. I love the color of the building and it reminds me of the fun we had exploring the French Quarter during our visit.

There, I've done it, completed my answers and am now sitting down with my travel journal to add more destinations to my bucket list after reading other's travel blogs.

Follow the trail of Travel Whispers where I'm sure you will find a few spots to add to your own bucket list!

The blog that inspired me to join the challenge is:

You can find more travel whispers at the links below:

If you want to get involved join the Facebook group!

Monday, 26 December 2016

Digging Diamonds in Arkansas

In all of our travels, the one place our middle daughter has really wanted to visit was Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas. We almost made it about three years ago but her older sister wanted to visit the Oklahoma City Memorial (and she had been asking about it longer) so our drive from southern Alberta to Orlando took us along a different route. As we were making plans for our Walt Disney World visit this fall, the request for a stop at Crater of Diamonds was again added to our list. Since I was only traveling with my middle daughter and grandson this trip, I made sure a stay in Arkansas was a priority.

Once we had decided on visiting Crater of Diamonds, I started to look for other things to do in the area while we were there. I was amazed at all of the “kid friendly” activities I found. Way too many for us to accomplish during our four day stop (so, of course, I am already planning our next visit!) Although Crater of Diamonds is near Murfreesboro, we booked our stay at the SpringHill Suites in Little Rock (I have a LOT of Marriott Reward points and it was a bargain as a category 1) so we would be central and also be able to visit some of the attractions in the state capital.

After just over two weeks in Orlando (this included the arrival of Hurricane Matthew) we were all tired and suffering from summer colds so the first couple of days in Little Rock were pretty laid back. We caught up on some schoolwork (we homeschool and science experiments are tough to do on driving days) and checked out the area. Did you know that all state parks in Arkansas are free? They only charge a small fee for activities. (Very helpful for the travel budget.)

Today we visited Crater of Diamonds. The hour and forty-five-minute drive took us through some beautiful tree lined country roads and tiny towns (EJ thought it was cool that we drove through Hollywood to get there.) During the drive, we talked about what we might find at the park today and how we thought diamonds ended up in a field in Arkansas (a volcano) and how we would know  if we found a diamond (they have an identification office.) We did get little worried at one point when we hadn’t seen a sign for a bit but there was one at the next fork in the road.

Arriving at Crater of Diamonds we parked by the Visitor Center where we paid our admission to the diamond search field (as I said, admission to the park is free but there is a fee for activities.) You can purchase a starter kit here as well as items like cloth bags and gloves. There is another building downstairs where additional equipment (shovels, wagons, buckets) can be rented for the day. They do require a deposit so if you are paying cash, be sure to account for this (our deposit was $60 and rental $13 for a deluxe kit including everything we needed.) The identification office is located here as well as washrooms and a few picnic tables. (You will find more tables out in the treed picnic area and dotted around the dig site)

Another social media traveling mom suggested we bring a change of clothes and a bag for the dirty ones. After spending the day digging in the dirt and wet screening our finds the value of this advice was very clear! There is a spot where you can spray off your equipment (and your shoes) near the rental building, that was a big help. (It’s best to start your clean-up by 4:30 as you will need to return your rental equipment by 4:45 to get your deposit back)

So, did we find any diamonds? Unfortunately no but we did have a lot of fun and ended up with great memories and some really neat rocks for EJ to add to his collection. Would we visit here again? Absolutely!

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Traveling Trails and Back Roads

With gas prices continuing to stay relatively low and the cost of air travel continuing to climb (think baggage fees etc. plus the hassle of airport security with children) many families are turning to road travel for their annual vacations.

Beyond the typical visits to amusement parks and well-known landmarks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, families can discover some amazing places that also help keep travel costs down.

A travel writer I know calls it “traveling the black lines on a map.” She encourages folks to “take the next exit off the interstate,” and find those lesser known gems that locals have been enjoying for years. Taking her advice can open up a whole new world of adventure on your next road trip.

If you have the time (and your kids can manage time in the car) another fun road trip idea is following a trail. The National Parks Service has some wonderful booklets available (free of charge) that explain the history and current location of routes including the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails. You can also choose to travel the route of Lewis & Clark and their Corps of Discovery (Auto Club has a great route mapped out that members can download for free.) Visitor Centers along the way will help keep kids engaged and learning in a fun, hands-on way.
EJ receiving his Junior Ranger badge from a friendly ranger
If you prefer something a little more modern, a journey along Route 66 or the Lincoln Highway might be more your style. Both routes feature reminders of days gone by when our picnic lunches were wrapped in wax paper and sodas were icy cold in a glass bottle. There are websites catering to travelers of both old routes. You can even earn a Coast-to-Coast Award from the Lincoln Highway Association after completing the historic trek.

Whichever road you choose for your next family vacation, be sure to allow enough time to “stop and smell the roses.” Be flexible in your schedule so if your kids spot an ice cream shop (shaped appropriately like a giant soft serve cone) you have time to stop and enjoy a treat. If you can’t make it to one of the spots on your list because you ran out of time, think of it as a reason to start planning your next visit to the area.

Enjoying some local flavors in Georgia...the peach ice cream was delicious
Road trips (and travel in general) can be stressful for little ones so try to stick to routines when you can. If you normally share a bedtime story, continue to do so whether in an RV, tent, cabin, or hotel room. Our kids have always liked to bring their own pillows from home. They use them in the car for napping as well as having something familiar at bedtime. If yours are used to having a nightlight at home it’s a good idea to pack one along as well.

If you are staying in hotels, it’s nice to book one with a kitchen. Whether you have kids with food allergies (like mine) or simply picky eaters (our grandson) being able to cook your own meals is a plus. I even bring along a slow cooker if we’ll be staying in one place for a while. There is nothing better than coming back to the room after a long day of exploring and having supper ready and waiting. (The slow cooker meal kits from Walmart are terrific time savers too and so easy to get ready in the morning.)

Our kitchen was well stocked in preparation for Hurricane Mathew on a recent trip 
Our family has traveled a lot this year (can I use this as the reason I’ve been so bad at posting to my blog?) and visited many states. Each one of them is different and has something special to offer. Another big plus is the time we get to spend together as a family, enjoying these places together.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Welcome to Alberta

Returning home to Alberta after a recent road trip, we decided to stop at the Travel Alberta Milk River Visitor Information Centre for a quick break after crossing the U.S./Canada border at Sweetgrass/Coutts. This wasn't our first visit but it was the first time we took the time to look around.

'Rock formations' in the parking lot
EJ loves to pick up brochures whenever we travel and this time was no different. We were all impressed with the selection of maps and guides available (and all for free.) We chose some guidebooks that contain suggested day (and longer) road trips for various parts of our province. These guides have given us some terrific ideas for 'staycations' this summer. Even though we live in Alberta and travel a lot, there are sites that we haven't been to yet (or for a long time.)

Guides and maps provide info on various areas of Alberta. 
And the center doesn't end there. Walking past the front area and (clean) washrooms, you enter an interactive area where kids can take a quiz on Alberta, dig for dinosaur bones, see mining equipment, and ride on a chuckwagon. Each of these exhibits represents a different area of Alberta and its culture and history. There is even a kiosk where you can make reservations at Alberta Provincial Campgrounds. (I recommend a visit to Dinosaur Provincial Park for anyone with kids who like anything prehistoric! We visited last summer and can't wait to go again.)

For anyone planning an Alberta road trip this summer, the Milk River Centre is a great first stop if you are arriving from the south.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Beignets and Brown Feathers - An Afternoon in New Orleans

Pelicans swoop in and scoop up brackish water with their sagging beaks. A lone seagull snatches up a sardine from the sand. A quiet spot except for the cawing of ocean birds and the occasional blaring horn of a passing barge.

I love this time of day. I watch as runners sprint along the sea wall that separates the downtown skyscrapers from the churning water of the Mississippi River. They are heading home after spending their days toiling in cubicles and offices in these same buildings. The business day is ending as the French Quarter comes to life.

In the watery light of sunset, shopkeepers fold up sidewalk signs and draw window shades. Antique shoppers and families of tourists are replaced by couples out for a romantic evening, and later still, by groups of friends out for an evening of revelry.

Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral
I head over to Decatur Street and Cafe du Monde where I can see mule-drawn carriages quietly line the iron fence of Jackson Square, awaiting their evening fares. Sitting at a small patio table, enjoying a cafe au lait with my hot and crispy beignet, I pull a handful of postcards from my bag and begin the old fashioned practice of writing to friends and family while I wait for my husband and grandson to join me.

We decided to split up fro the afternoon so I could do some shopping and visit St. Louis Cathedral while they rode the vintage streetcars and took the Canal Street Ferry over to Algiers Point. It's a fun way to see the sights, especially for a 9-year-old who loves anything to do with transportation. The ferry ride is only $2 and a one-day "Jazzy Pass" for the streetcars is $3 and is valid for a 24-hour period. Nice and easy on the budget.

Canal Street Ferry
I don't have long to wait before I hear EJ calling to me. He is super excited to tell me about all he has seen. There were barges and tugboats on the river. Not something we see at home on the prairie for sure. He tells me about the brown pelicans "catching fish in their beaks" and the riverboat that is "almost just like the one at Disneyland!" He slows down enough to have a drink of his hot chocolate that has just arrived at our table, and take a bite of his beignet, powdered sugar sprinkling down the front of his shirt and dusting his cheeks (it is tough to eat them without wearing at least a little.)

Crispy hot and sugary beignet (French donuts)
Taking advantage of the break in conversation I open a paper shopping bag to share my shopping success with my husband who is enjoying his chicory coffee, black and piping hot, as he munches through his plate of "French donuts" as he likes to call them. There are mardi gras masks for our girls, full of feathers and sequins, in a variety of colors, a fleur de lis tea towel for his mother, and some mardi gras beads for my brother. Shopping in the French Quarter and the market is a must-do for any visit to the Crescent City.

As we finish our afternoon repast and head to the streetcar station, our table is quickly filled by others who have been waiting in line for a spot. Cafe du Monde can get quite busy, especially during the summer months, but the wait is worth it.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Second Honeymoon in Vegas

When the weather turns warm and our thoughts turn to outdoor activities, I like to take some time to make sure our winter vacation plans are taking shape. One of our favorite spots during colder months is southern Nevada and the Las Vegas area. There are many things to do for the entire family but my husband and I like to visit there on our own as well.

Last December was one of these times. We decided to visit during the National Finals Rodeo, even though we didn't have tickets since there are so many things to do during that time. We stayed at the Renaissance Hotel so we could walk over to the convention center, home of Cowboy Christmas. Since I am a Marriott Rewards Platinum Elite member, we were able to enjoy the benefits of their concierge lounge. It was nice to have breakfast each morning plus appetizers and desserts in the evenings.

It was nice to be close by the convention center since we didn't need to take the car or transit. (Hubby appreciated the short distance since he was carrying the bags after I took advantage of the fantastic shopping opportunity.)

Cowboy Christmas
We planned this trip as a sort of second honeymoon, the first trip in a long time where I could travel with my husband for his entire vacation since I had recently left my ‘day job’ and began a venture into writing full time. This was going to be a vacation of sleeping in, staying up late and doing things on our bucket list (but only if we felt like it at the time.)

One of the great things about rodeo week in Vegas is the number of places you can take in the action on a big screen. We became regulars at the Golden Nugget downtown where the crowd got larger and more ‘into’ the competition as the week went on. The Nugget was a great place for us to hang out since they had some terrific concerts that started right after the rodeo performance.

I grew up on country and hubby is a fan so rodeo week in Vegas made us feel like kids in a candy store. To kick off the week, we went to the Downtown Hoedown on Freemont Street. That was a lot of fun. Even the Viva Vision light show was themed for the WNFR. We took in concerts by the talented Reba, Brooks & Dunn, Tanya Tucker, Big & Rich, Trace Adkins, and Terry Clark during the week too.

And our vacation fun didn’t stop with the evening entertainment. There are so many things to do in the Las Vegas area it’s tough to get them all in on one trip by we made a good effort.

Driving out of the city during the day, we visited the ghost town of Rhyolite. Walking down the main street, you can almost feel what the town must have been like in its heyday. Looking across from the remains of the school, you can see right through the eerie skeleton of the general store at a rather small, unassuming adobe building. Checking the guide map we realized this was the last brothel standing in the town. It seems the larger properties had succumbed to the elements years before but this sturdy little shack remains. A testimonial to the seedier side of town.

General store at Rhyolite with last remaining brothel in the background
While in Rhyolite, we also visited the Goldwell Open Air Museum. My favorite sculptures there were by Polish-Belgian visual artist Albert Szukalski. His depiction of the Last Supper set against the Nevada desert quite amazing. His effect of ‘shrouded ghosts’ was accomplished by wrapping live models in plaster-soaked fabric. Even during the week there were a number of other tourists visiting and taking advantage of the smaller crowds to get some great photos.

Another of our favoured Nevada spots is Death Valley National Park. Really too hot to visit in the summer months, this park is the hottest, driest, and lowest spot in the U.S. but one of its popular tourist spot still suffered damages during last October’s torrential rain storms and flooding. Sadly, we were unable to visit Scotty’s Castle on this vacation and I hear it won’t likely reopen until 2019. But there was still lots to see as we traveled on roads where 20-mule-teams once trundled along carrying their loads of borax from near-by mines and visited the remains of the Harmony Borax Works.

We walked out onto the salt flats at Badwater Basin, 282-feet below sea level. A bit slippery and I wouldn’t want to try it in the summer! Since we both love photography, we drove through Artist’s Palette where the late afternoon sun provided the perfect light against the colorful volcanic hills. (Now if I could only find the memory card with those pictures on it.)

Hubby at Badwater Basin on a previous visit
Another drive into the desert was our visit to the China Date Ranch. Story has it that a Chinese man named Quon Sing (or Ah Foo) developed the water and planted fruits and vegetables in this canyon by the Amargosa River. Instead of working in the Death Valley borax mines as he had for years, he became a businessman and sold his produce to the mining camps. The story goes on to say that a man named Morrison ran Quon Sing off of his own land at gunpoint around 1900 but people still referred to the property at Chinaman’s Ranch. The date grove was planted by the youngest daughter of one of the later owners in 1920 and has expanded to what it is today, a delightful oasis in the desert. We stocked up on fresh dates and enjoyed a date shake before heading out on the road to enjoy more of the beautiful scenery.

We made sure to stop in at the Clark County Museum. They change the displays in their homes on Heritage Street by the seasons so I was hoping they might already have their Christmas decorations up. It turns out we were a bit early this year but they were done up for Thanksgiving. It’s really neat to see the differences in the houses through the different decades plus, I have to admit, I just plain enjoy visiting period homes.

This is just a glimpse some of the many places we visited during our stay. There were a bunch more including, Red Rock Canyon, The Morman Fort, and Springs Preserve among them. And I can say with certainty, we’re already making plans for another visit!