A couple weeks ago, we returned from our annual family road trip and this year was our biggest yet. In 13 days, we drove more than 5,000 kilometres across nine states—New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, regular Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio—and one province.
Luke was about 10 weeks old when we left and the older kids are six and four. That might sound like a nightmare to some people, but it was truly awesome! It was fun to spend two weeks together, just the family, while experiencing lots of new things and learning a ton. We weren’t sure he’d remember our house, but he got very excited as soon as we walked in the door at the end of the trip, so I guess he did.
In no particular order, here are the 10 best things we saw and did while we were away:
1) American Pharoah
Visiting American Pharoah at his new home, Ashford Stud, was one of the few things we booked in advance. I covered Pharoah’s race at Saratoga last year and the kids loved watching him in the Triple Crown races and beyond. Tours of his farm, outside Lexington, Kentucky, are selling out as soon as they go on sale, as they only let 25 people in every day. They knew why everyone was there and brought Pharoah out right away and some people cried when they saw him. After everyone got a photo (or six) with the champ, we saw the rest of the stallions and visited the breeding shed. Our guide was not actually a guide—his job was taking care of the stallions, including Pharoah—but he was extremely knowledgeable and patient.
2) West Virginia
Not anything specific, just everything about the state. I’ve been fascinated with West Virginia for a long time, especially its founding during the Civil War, but had never visited. My wife, Caitlin, was excited to see it, too, and we loved everything: from the mountains to pepperoni rolls to Morgantown to the State Fair to a Single-A ballgame in Charleston… We actually drove a slightly longer route on the way home so we could pass through West Virginia again, rather than Ohio, and we’re already making plans to return for some hiking, likely sans kids.
3) Cincinnati Reds game
My brother and I went to a Blue Jays game in Toronto a couple months ago and we each paid about $30 to sit in the nosebleeds in right field. In Cincinnati, after a long lunch at Lachey’s (very family-friendly, considering it’s a sports bar), we headed over to Great American Ball Park and bought four tickets for $48 (about $60 Canadian). Of course, Cincy didn’t go to the NLCS last year and they aren’t leading their division this year, but the seats were comparable to where we sat in Toronto and they came with four free hats and t-shirts. Not a bad deal.
The stadium is beautiful, on the banks of the Ohio River and, since it wasn’t close to being full, we could move around and explore. There was a play structure for the kids, lots of craft beers and plenty of the quirky design features that I love about baseball stadiums. For example, there is a small viewing area on the outfield concourse where anyone can stand and look down into the bullpen, watching the pitchers warm up. A huge thunderstorm caused a rain delay in the 7th inning, so we left a bit early, but I think Luke had fun at his first MLB game.
4) National Battlefields
We visited Gettysburg two years ago and Queenston Heights last year, but we weren’t really planning to visit any battlefields on this trip. However, on our way to Spartanburg, SC one afternoon, we saw signs for Kings Mountain (no apostrophe), a pivotal battle in the Revolutionary War. We decided to stop and were very glad we did. While I hiked around the battlefield, the kids completed a junior park ranger program that one of the rangers offered. They filled out an activity book, learning about the battle, and then received a badge with the name of the park on it—and they loved it! We found out that they offer the program at all national parks and that there are 25 National Battlefields administered by the NPS. One of the criteria for the battlefields is that they look similar to how they did at the time of the battle, allowing visitors to get a real feel for how the fighting unfolded—and the museums and guide pamphlets developed by the NPS are fantastic (and usually free).
We immediately changed our plans for the following day to visit nearby Cowpens, another key American victory a couple months later, and the site of the only double envelopment in the Revolutionary War. The field itself was not as impressive, but we learned a lot and Ava walked most of the battlefield with me. The kids earned their second park ranger badges and Mike even recited the junior park ranger pledge this time, after refusing to do so at Kings Mountain.
On the way home, we made another detour to visit Fort Necessity and Jumonville Glen, southeast of Pittsburgh, the site of the opening battles of the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War, if you’re American). Ava is interested in George Washington, so it was cool for her to stand in a place that he fought. The fort itself was surprisingly tiny, but the highlight was Jumonville Glen, where Washington, as a young lieutenant colonel in the British Army, ambushed a group of French soldiers and touched off what became a global war. I hiked in to the glen by myself and it was completely silent. From the rocky outcropping overlooking the French encampment, you could imagine the terror of the French soldiers when they discovered they were surrounded.
5) Carolina Panthers training camp
The original reason for our visit to Spartanburg was to take in a Carolina Panthers training camp practice. I’d never been to an NFL training camp and we were driving by anyway, so why not? Caitlin has a few answers to that question, but she indulged me for the morning. The Panthers hold their training camp in South Carolina (“Two states, one team,” is their slogan) at Wofford College and the set up is very fan friendly…they have concessions and port-a-potties and you can walk right up to the edge of the field and get autographs afterward. Ava impressed the players with her pink feather pen, but my favourite part was when one of the back-up QBs completed a 50- or 60-yard pass in 11-on-11 drills and Cam Newton ran down the field jumping and screaming to congratulate the receiver. You’d have thought it was the Super Bowl, rather than training camp.
6) Bourbon distillery tour
On the morning of our Ashford Stud tour, we stopped at the nearby Buffalo Trace Distillery, part of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. The tour was free and the guide and workers made the kids feel very welcome. We actually got to visit one of the bottling rooms, where employees were filling and packing bottles of bourbon by hand. Mike was fascinated by the assembly line and especially the machine that pumped the bourbon into the bottles.
When we arrived, we noticed a huge, old warehouse, filled floor to ceiling with bourbon barrels. The windows were open, despite the 30-degree-Celsius heat, but we learned the changing temperatures are actually a key part of the aging process, with the less-aged, cheaper bottles coming from barrels at the top and the longer-aged bottles coming from the lower floors.
The distillery, which hasn’t always been called Buffalo Trace, was originally built in the 1700s and has been operating continuously since before the American Revolution. They didn’t even stop for Prohibition, when they had a licence to produce whiskey for “medicinal purposes.” Our guide was very friendly and he even included the kids in the post-tour tasting session, pouring them glasses of root beer.
7) Great Smokey Mountains
We rented a cabin in the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains near Pigeon Forge, Tennessee as a base for a couple days to explore the area (it was the only place we stayed for more than one night on the trip). Since we were there during the week and waited until the last minute to book, we got a great deal on a beautiful place with a bit more space than the hotel/motel rooms we had been staying at…not to mention a hot tub and a few TVs to watch the Olympics in the evenings.
Our first morning there, Caitlin went outside to grab something from the car. Five minutes later, I looked out the front window to see a family of black bears wandering down the road. After that excitement, we drove up Clingmans Dome (the Americans don’t seem to like apostrophes) and hiked to the observation tower at the top. The mountain is the tallest point in Tennessee and gave us a great view of the Smokies. We watched as thunderstorms passed through ridges and valleys to the south and we tried to find our cabin down in the hills. Then we hiked a bit on the highest part of the Appalachian Trail—Caitlin’s dream is to hike the whole thing, possibly with me in tow—which passes just below the summit.
8) Titanic museum
Pigeon Forge is a tacky tourist trap capitalising on its proximity to a natural attraction, like Niagara Falls. We didn’t really intend to do much in the town, but, while eating breakfast there one morning, we noticed a massive replica of the Titanic, which appeared to be plowing into the street. I’ve loved the Titanic story since I was little and when I read all the positive reviews of the museum online, I decided we had to go.
It was amazing! When you enter the half-scale replica ship, you feel like you are actually on the Titanic. All the employees are dressed as White Star Line officers or cabin maids and speak to you as though you are on the ship in 1912. There are full-scale replicas of first- and third-class quarters and even the grand staircase, as well as a ton of artifacts from, or relating to, the ship. There were also loads of hands-on activities the kids could enjoy, including decks slanted at different angles to climb, representing different stages of the sinking, and a pool to stick your hand in with water as cold as the ocean was the night of the sinking. Caitlin suggested a contest to see who could keep their hand in the longest. We bailed after about 10 seconds, but Ava kept hers in for 45 seconds and then complained that it hurt for the next hour or two.
9) World’s largest knife store
Smoky Mountain Knife Works bills itself as the world’s largest knife store and, after Caitlin and I spent half an hour walking around with the kids trying to find each other (twice), I’m not about to argue. I bought a case for my Swiss soldier’s knife, but the best part was their section of military and historical items, where Ava and I spent an hour. They have more artifacts than most museums, but you can actually touch them. They also sell just about any gun you can imagine, which is scary, but still interesting to see.
10) Hot air balloon ride
Ava has always loved hot air balloons and every time we see one, she says she wants to go for a flight. In Pigeon Forge, we noticed a tethered balloon flying above the town, just another touristy gimmick—but also a chance to fulfill another of Ava’s dreams. We checked online and learned that it wasn’t actually a “hot air” balloon (it was filled with helium), but the price was reasonable and Ava didn’t care.
When we left the Titanic museum, the sky was clear and we stopped to see if there was a wait for a ride. The girl at the desk said we could go right up, so I asked Ava if she wanted to go. From that point until we got back to the ground, she didn’t go more than 15 seconds without squealing. I had never heard the sound she was making..not some put-on noises, but genuine delight. The balloon went about 500 feet in the air, giving us great views of the town and the Smokies, and Ava loved every second of it. She was so excited and I loved watching her.
Time to start planning next year’s trip…maybe in the fall, so it’s a bit cooler.