Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Midwest Adventure 2018, Part 2: Lansing, Michigan

This is my second post about our adventure traveling through Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana. You can find the first post from this trip here and links to all the other educational US travel our family has done here.

Because I blog about educational travel, I received free admission tickets, discounts, media rates, and other benefits for some of the hotels and attractions we visited throughout the trip. Many attractions we toured are free to everyone. I paid full price for the rest. This has no bearing on my reviews. Everything I'm sharing is something that I whole-heartedly recommend. If you notice any gaps in my narrative, it is because I didn't love a particular hotel, attraction, or restaurant enough to recommend it to you, regardless of how much I paid or didn't pay.


Lansing, Michigan

The distance from Chicago to Lansing is 219 miles, so it took us around 3.5 hours (plus a time zone change) to get there. By the time we arrived in Lansing it was 1:30 local time, so we were definitely ready for lunch. I'd heard that the place to eat was Meat Southern BBQ and Carnivore Cuisine. I'm not much of a carnivore, but I do love BBQ and there were lots of options that didn't include just ordering a big pile of meat.

Check out these nachos. Homemade tortilla chips, topped with shredded pork, bacon, and brisket, cheese, BBQ sauce, sour cream, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and avocado. Heavenly.

Everything we tried was absolutely delicious. The table was set with their six different sauces, so of course we had to try them all. Repeatedly. Yum.

Downtown Lansing is really cute, with lots of neat shops and restaurants to explore. But we only had time for a few quick pictures before we had to get to the main places we'd come to Lansing to see.

We drove a few miles to the Michigan History Museum. It's an amazing place and serves as the flagship for the Michigan History Museum System. This was a new concept to me, but we encountered it again later in our travels, where all the history museums within a state are linked together and run by one organization.

We only had 2 hours at the Michigan History Museum before it closed and we easily could have spent 4-5 hours. It was annoying to have gloss over some of the interesting exhibits, but we saw as many as we could. Michigan’s history is a very interesting mix of logging, mining (copper and iron), fishing, cereal, the automobile industry, post-war migration, race relations, music, and a lot more. Quite a few of the museum's exhibits are interactive. Here's Trevor trying out virtual reality to experience fishing in Michigan.

Cereal. (RIP Cereal City.)

The amount of detail in the museum was impressive. And we loved that it was such an immersive experience.

Steve and I make quite a pair, don't you think? 


Like I said, we could have spent a lot more time at the Michigan History Museum. Alas, it was not to be. We had a Capitol to explore. We walked a few blocks toward the Capitol and saw this. All three of us said, "New Jersey!"

Fortunately, we were wrong. The other side of the building had no fencing and the visitors' entrance was well-marked. Phew! (Trenton, take note. Signs for visitors, please, particularly when construction blocks all obvious entrances.)

We joined a guided tour, which was outstanding. As we visit more and more Capitol buildings, we are learning that they have more differences from each other than similarities. Lansing features lots of wood and glass, not the stone that is so common in many others.

The ceiling of the Senate chambers is particularly unique. Check out those square spaces.

Each one features the seal of one of the 50 states. We've never seen a Capitol that displays other states' seals, flags, or other symbols.

We left the Capitol, not ready to say goodbye to Lansing. But we had to move on. Tomorrow I'll tell you all about Detroit and our unplanned visit to the US Detention Center. (Spoiler alert: They let us out eventually.)

Monday, August 13, 2018

Midwest Adventure 2018, Part 1: Chicago, Illinois

Our family returned last week from a 17-day, 6-state, 1-province, 11-city midwest adventure. The primary reason for the trip was to attend a wedding in Ohio. We knew that we wanted to spend 4 or 5 days in Ohio, then spend another week or so exploring the surrounding states. I played with several different itineraries, each hitting many cities that we were excited to explore. After a lot of research, we decided to fly into Chicago, then get a rental car. We'd visit Michigan on the way to Ohio (crossing the Detroit River to visit Windsor, Ontario), then hit West Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana, then fly home from Indianapolis.

So how was the trip? Fabulous! I can't wait to tell you about all the great places we visited, the delicious regional foods we tried, the hotels we loved, and the mishap that landed us in the US Detention Center on our way back to Michigan from Canada. Today, it's all about Chicago.

But first, a disclosure: Because I blog about educational travel, I received free admission tickets, discounts, media rates, and other benefits for some of the hotels and attractions we visited throughout this trip. Many of the attractions we toured are free to everyone. I paid full price for the rest. This has no bearing on my reviews. Everything I'm sharing is something that I whole-heartedly recommend. If you notice any gaps in my narrative, it is because I didn't love a particular attraction, restaurant, or hotel enough to recommend it to you, regardless of how much I paid or didn't pay.


We landed at O'Hare at 8:00 PM on Sunday, July 22. After a quick dinner, we followed the well-marked route to the L Train. I haven’t been to Chicago since I was 16, so even though I’d ridden it then, I didn’t remember anything about it.

Our experience was great - the Blue Line train was clean, safe, and convenient, filled with lots of other tourists with luggage. And, at $5 a person, it was a much more affordable option than any other way to travel the 45 minutes to downtown Chicago. We got off the L at the Clark/Lake station and walked two blocks to our hotel, The Wit

If you visit downtown Chicago, stay at The Wit. It was in a great location, the room was clean and very comfortable, the staff was super friendly and helpful, and we were greeted with warm cookies.

We woke up refreshed on July 23, eager to explore the Windy City. Because we only had a single day in Chicago, I wanted to get an overview and see as much as possible in the limited time. We started with the Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Co. Hop on Hop Off tour. The tour has 14 stops, including two that were an easy walking distance from The Wit, which was handy. We could have gotten off at any of the stops, but we chose to do a round-trip. We learned a lot from the narration and enjoyed the beautiful views from the top of the trolley. 

After visiting each of the 14 stops and seeing how many neat attractions Chicago has, it was very tempting to drop the rest of our plans for the day and hop on and off at each of the stops. But we stuck with our plan, got off at Millennium Park, and went in search of Chicago-style hot dogs for lunch. With some help from friendly locals, we found Relish Chicago Hot Dogs.

If you're not familiar with Chicago-style hot dogs, the first thing you need to know is what is NOT on them. 

A proper Chicago-style dog has yellow mustard, a bright green relish, chopped white onions, a dill pickle, tomatoes, pickled peppers, and a dash of celery salt in a poppy seed bun. It's pretty much the exact opposite of what I like best on a hot dog (ketchup, mayo, and shredded cheddar cheese), but hey, when in Rome.   

Our trolley tickets came with coupons for free popcorn at Garrett, so that was our next stop. All the flavors we tried were delicious, but I highly recommend combining Almond Caramel Crisp with Buttery. Yum!

Next on our schedule was the Chicago Urban Adventure Quest. We've loved all the Quests we've done (11 and counting!) and believe there is no better way to get to know a city. The Quest took us all over downtown, including to The Bean... 

... the start of Historic Route 66...

... the awesome and totally unique Crown Fountain...

... the beautiful Riverfront... 

... and my personal favorite, the Chicago Tribune building, which has pieces of famous buildings and materials from all over the world embedded into the exterior of the building, brought back from Tribune correspondents all around the world. There’s everything from a piece of the White House to a chunk of the Great Wall of China to a piece of the pyramid at Giza to petrified wood from California. 

We finished the Quest with one dumb mistake, putting us at #61 on the All-Time Leaderboard. Not our best showing, but we learned a lot and had a great time. And I know that we saw a bunch of cool things that we would otherwise have walked right by. 

Speaking of walking by, we passed many painted lighthouses during our time in Chicago. They're temporary, which is a shame because they are so beautiful. The goal is to shed light (hence the lighthouses) on people with disabilities. About half of the 51 artists are living with a disability. If we'd had more time in Chicago, I would have found and photographed all of them. Fortunately, you can see and learn about the inspiration behind each lighthouse online. Allow a lot of time to look at them all and listen to the artists speak. It's amazing. 


We decided to get an early dinner to avoid the crowds at Lou Malneti’s, home of the best (say many) deep-dish pizza. 

It was a good decision. We arrived at 5:00 PM and ordered right away; by the time our pizza came, the place was packed. 

The pizza was cheesy and gooey, with a great tomato sauce, lean sausage, and delicious buttery crust. I’d eat there again and again. The three of us split one small 'Malnati Chicago Classic.' It wasn't quite enough food for us, but that wasn't a problem because when I'd asked the staff at The Wit to recommend where we should try deep-dish pizza, they gave me a coupon for a free Chocolate Chip Pizza at Malnati's. It was absolutely perfect, and just the right size to fill us up. 

At only $15 plus tip for the three of us, Malnati's was not only delicious, but ridiculously inexpensive. We'd be regulars if we lived in Chicago, no doubt about it. 

Our trolley tickets included a night tour of Chicago to see the beautiful lights, but we were all exhausted and wanted to get to sleep for our early morning. If we'd had an extra day in Chicago or didn't need to race off in the morning, we definitely would have done the night tour. I love that it's included in the price of the trolley tickets. 

We weren't ready to say goodbye to Chicago so soon, but it was time to head east and continue our adventure. But first, I walked two blocks to get us donuts from Do-Rite Donuts. I'd heard they were the best in the city. 

Since we only tried these donuts, I have no idea whether or not they're the best in Chicago. But I can say that they were spectacular. They were all delicious, but my personal favorites were the Pistachio-Meyer Lemon, the Michigan Apple Fritter, and the Valrhona Chocolate Cake. And Do-Rite Donuts is the most efficient donut shop I've ever seen. Despite a line in front of me, I was in and out in under 5 minutes.

There's one more thing I want to mention about The Wit. (Can you tell I loved this hotel?) In the hallways, they have recordings of different birds peeping and singing. That was cool, but the neatest thing is that the bird calls change depending on the time of day. In the early morning, there’s a rooster interspersed with other morning singing. In the evenings, owls. Late nights, crickets. It was awesome.

Anyway, after we finished our donuts and packed up, Steve walked two blocks to the car rental pickup. We'd originally thought we'd just rent a car at the airport and park it in Chicago for the two nights, but as soon as I learned that it costs $60+ per night to park downtown, we quickly abandoned that idea. With a car rental place so close to The Wit, it was no problem to pick it up when we actually needed it, rather than unnecessarily paying rental for two extra days AND parking for two days. That was a few hundred dollars saved we could put toward the rest of the vacation. 

We loved everything about Chicago and can't wait to go back someday. Tomorrow I'll tell you all about our next destination: Lansing, Michigan.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Library Tic-Tac-Toe

We're a library family. We visit the library several times a month to check out books, for Trevor's book club, for special events, to borrow movies or audiobooks, for Library Roulette... and the list goes on and on. If you were to visit our house, you'd find a pile of library books waiting to be read and a pile ready to go back. We love everything about the library. Now I've come up with a new way to enjoy the library. I'm calling it Library Tic-Tac-Toe. 

To play Library Tic-Tac-Toe, find a partner and head to the picture books. While this is technically the children's area, I have long felt that picture books are for everyone. I mean, who wouldn't want to read When Cows Come Home (affiliate link)? It has a clever rhyming plot and hilarious illustrations.  

When I was getting my teaching credential, our literature instructor emphasized that no matter what grade level we ended up teaching, we should incorporate picture books into our curriculum. I wholeheartedly agree and regularly used them in my 5th grade classroom. Even though the reading level was too low for most of my students, picture books have so much more to offer: rhyme, rhythm, meter, plot, and pacing, for example. The illustrations are a great jumping-off point for student artwork or to teach art concepts. Reading picture books aloud is a great way for kids to become more fluid in their oral reading. They're great for English Language Learners. Long story short, I'm a fan of picture books, no matter what your age. 

How you play Library Tic-Tac-Toe depends a lot on the age of the child. With a very young child, have the child name the pictures on the paper (vocabulary development) and then work together to find the pictures in books (reading conventions - left to right, prediction based on the cover, turning pages gently to 'be nice to the book', etc.). Introduce the concept of getting three in a row. When you've found three, sit down together and read the books. Repeat as desired!

With grade school children, you can play cooperatively (like above) or competitively. To play competitively, agree ahead of time who is X and who is O. Each person searches through books to find an illustration matching the picture on the tic-tac-toe board. When you find one, mark your space with an X or an O. Three in a row wins. Then sit down and enjoy the books you found. Here, O has found a pictures of bees and will circle the bee on the card.

I made the cards using PicMonkey.

Great looking pics in two clicks, thanks to PicMonkey's photo editing tools

It was so easy - I just created a grid and dropped their adorable overlays into the spaces. It only took a few minutes per card. Feel free to print my cards and try them out! Or, head over to PicMonkey and make your own.