Tag Archives: family travel

Mackinac Island, Michigan, Travel and Reading

Mackinac Island, Michigan, sits in on the Straits of Mackinac where the Great Lakes of Michigan and Huron converge. That location made it the ideal place for Native Americans and fur traders to make their summer rendezvous to trade and it was here that John Jacob Astor made his fortune in the fur industry. Missionaries, soldiers and eventually Gilded Age tourists from Detroit and Chicago pulled ashore to enjoy this remarkable island. Today, people from around the world arrive on the island and become part of that centuries long summer tradition.

History and Tradition Come Alive

I visited Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) Island in summers when I was growing up so the island has a special place in my heart. I returned earlier this summer and was happy to see little has changed. I felt the same sense of anticipation as the ferry ride (about 20 minutes from either Mackinaw City or Michigan’s upper peninsula) brought the Mackinac Bridge into closer view. The island still bans cars making it very bike, buggy and pedestrian friendly.  And, the smell of the island’s trademark product, fudge, continues to greet visitors on arrival. The lovely Victorian cottages still charm and the Grand Hotel remains grander than ever.

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Mackinac Island’s historic Grand Hotel features the world’s longest porch.

While Mackinac Island offers a terrific array of places to eat, drink, pedal and kayak, it’s the history here that has always grabbed me. That’s why I always urge fellow visitors to get away from the crowds on Main Street by the ferry docks and explore the island by foot, bike or horse.  Start with the famous Fort Mackinac which offers canon blasting, rifle shooting, historic displays and a spectacular view of the island and surrounding waters. (Slightly off topic, here’s one of the crazy things I remember from visiting as a kid.  There was a grisly display in the fort back then about Dr. William Beaumont who was an army surgeon at the fort and a young voyageur who had been accidentally shot in the stomach. The stomach wound didn’t heal and Beaumont was able to view the workings of the stomach through the hole–for a very long time. The exhibit is now at the Fur Company Store and Dr.Beaumont Museum.)

1118797Somewhere in Time and Literature

For a sense of history, I also recommend reading Iola Fuller’s classic tale of Mackinac, The Loon Feather.  It’s a romantic tale of a young Native American woman and it’s ending is improbably happy, but I’m a sucker for all that. And, the book conveys quite accurately the early days of the fur trade on the island.

At The Island Bookstore on Main Street, they’re happy to share their ideas for island-related reading and much more. If they’re not too busy, it’s fun to chat with owner Mary Jane Barnwell and store manager Tamara Tomack about literature and island life. Mary Jane is among the 500 or so people who live on Mackinac Island year-round. Because the island is accessible in winter only by snowmobile or airplane, you can bet she has a few stories to tell. And she does have a several adorable books of her own for children about the island, including Grand Adventure and Goodnight Mackinac Island, a children’s vacation journal.

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At The Island Bookstore, store manager Tamara Tomack (left) and owner Mary Jane Barnwell share their love of books and tips for your Mackinac Island reading list.

Here are their suggestions if you want to read up before your island visit: Once on This Island by Gloria Whelan,  Open Wound—the Tragic Obessions of Dr. William Beaumont by Jason Karlawish, and The Living Great Lakes: Searching For The Heart of the Inland Seas by Jerry Dennis. Finally, Somewhere in Time, by Richard Matheson is a must-read for Mackinac Island visitors.  It was written about the Del Coronado Hotel in San Diego, but the movie version of the story with Chrisopher Reeve and Jane Seymour was filmed on Mackinac Island, mainly at the Grand Hotel.

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Visiting the Mankato Minnesota Houses Where Betsy and Tacy Lived

Fiction Meets Reality in Maude Hart Lovelace’s “Deep Valley”

Betsy's House, the real-life home of Maud Hart Lovelace in Mankato, Minnesota
Betsy’s House, the real-life home of Maud Hart Lovelace in Mankato, Minnesota

It’s hard to believe that a series of novels can still be popular with a heroine who neither Tweets nor Snapchats, a girl who lacks magical powers, a vampire boyfriend, or a fabulous assortment of weaponry. Yet, the beloved Betsy-Tacy series by Mankato, Minnesota, author Maud Hart Lovelace have been in continuous publication since the 1940s and inspire an almost fanatical devotion, even among readers who are used to consuming racier fare such as “Gossip Girl” or “The Vampire Diaries.”

Docent Kathryn Hansen shows a Lois Lenski illustration of the Betsy-Tacy books and compares it to the neighborhood today.
Docent Kathryn Hansen shows a Lois Lenski illustration of the Betsy-Tacy books and compares it to the neighborhood today.

If you need proof, you need only show up in Mankato on a Friday or Saturday afternoon in summer. You’ll find Betsy-Tacy fans who’ve come from around the world to visit the trim little Victorian houses on Center Street, “Betsy’s House” and “Tacy’s House,” where Hart Lovelace and her real best friend, Frances Kenney, grew up right across the street from each other. Little girls and their grandmothers, mother and daughters, and adult “gals on getaways” line up for a tour of the real-life houses that are the setting of the beloved book series. The houses have been lovingly restored and designated as national literary landmarks.

A Calming Oasis
A step into Betsy-Tacy world is a step back into a slower, more peaceful era.The first of the series’ 10 books, Betsy-Tacy, begins in 1897, when Betsy is about to turn five, and the series continues through Betsy’s Wedding during World War I, all based on Hart Lovelace’s own girlhood.  The lack of technology, fighting and fast-paced action may be the secret for the books’ enduring appeal. Linda Lee, an adult Betsy-Tacy fan visiting from Claremont, California, says of the books, “I re-read them even now. They’re about family, friendship and fun in doing simple things.  Reading them brings a sense of calm to my frenzied life.”

The houses are open on weekends year-round but Betsy-Tacy fans DVHborder2015_0show up en masse each June for the Deep Valley Homecoming—this year from June 26-30— like a children’s book Coachella. (Deep Valley is the name Hart Lovelace gave her hometown in the books.) Activities include Betsy & Tacy home and neighborhood tours, narrated horse-drawn trolley rides, a Victorian Tea, Deep Valley Book Festival*, fashion show, living history actors, speakers and re-enactments, a vintage car show and more.

The old fashioned kitchen at Betsy's house offers a view of life in the early 1900s.
The old fashioned kitchen at Betsy’s house offers a view of life in the early 1900s, straight from the Betsy-Tacy books.

Inspiration for Modern Girls
Enthusiastic docents regularly lead tours of the houses and point out how the homes and the neighborhood compare to the books’ illustrations by Lois Lenski. From the old-fashioned kitchen, to the lace curtains and fine china, to the books and Maude Hart Lovelace memorabilia, tours furnish a cultural snapshot of the era, a chance to experience what it was like to live in a Midwestern town when the first automobile arrived and homes got their first telephones.

But beyond a nostalgic connection to a fictional world or a look at old houses with creaky floors and Victorian furniture, a visit to the Betsy-Tacy houses offers a look at the lives and friendships children, the aspirations of women at the turn of the last century, and celebrates girls who are, while old-fashioned, strikingly independent and adventurous.

While old telephones may be the highest tech you’ll experience on the tour, Betsy and Tacy aren’t totally off the grid. You’ll find constant discussion about them on Twitter and Pinterest.

*I’ll be at the Deep Valley Book Festival this year, signing copies of Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways.

If you go:
Mankato is about an hour and a half south of the Twin Cities via I-169. The houses are open this summer on Friday and Saturday from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children (under 5 free).

Download the Discover Deep Valley brochure for a walking tour of the area.

We picked up bagels at Tandem Bagels, 200 E Walnut St., for a picnic in Lincoln Park, which figures in the books and is set amidst a gorgeous grouping of Victorian homes.

Lonely Planet Travel Books for Kids Can Help Your Family Avoid a Case of MCS, “Maximum Cultural Saturation”

Unknown-3As a planner of family vacations, it took me a long time to reconcile my list of all the great things I wanted to show and teach my sons with the list of what might really interest them.

That was especially tough when it came to cities. At one point, as we dragged our kids through the British Museum, one of the boys declared that he had “reached maximum cultural saturation.” He just couldn’t visit one more museum, cathedral or fancy garden. Truth be told, the adults felt the same way.

Lonely Planet (the people who publish all those guidebooks for 5008-Not_For_Parents__New_York__North_American_Edition_222913_Largeadults) offers a terrific series of “Not-For-Parents” guidebooks that can help avoid a case of MCS on your next family vacation. The company sent me several copies to review and I’m now ready to gather up a few kids and take a trip.

One of my favorite things about travel is anticipating the trip. It’s a holdover from when I was a kids my mom took me to the library to load up on books that took place in the areas where we were going. Reading ahead of time offers a preview of coming attractions— what the food is like, historic things that happened there, what the buildings look like, animals you might see— things like that.

The series is a perfect way to to encourage such anticipation and to help children and families get the most from their trips. The books, as the company says, “open up a world of intriguing stories and fascinating facts about the people, places, history and culture of the world’s most exciting cities,” but they do it in a way that’s energetic and appealing, even for adults.

The three books I have cover “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know” about Europe, Paris and New York. They feature the inside scoop on each city with bright colors, crazy pictures and cartoons, and a combination of information that ranges from history and fashion, to scenes from movies and gross food that people may eat there—like snails in Paris. In the New York book, you’ll find Andy Warhol, rats and musicians in the subways, a look at Ellis Island and favorite NYC sports teams, and a lot of other fun stuff.

imagesSo, no more MCS. And, even if you’re not planning a major trip, these books make great summer reading and armchair travel for kids.

Lonely Planet also offers a helpful page on How to Travel Like a Kid that adults will want to read, just to remind themselves how to keep family trips kid friendly.

Celebrate Dad with a Literary Adventure Together

Looking for a creative Father’s Day gift? Think books-and-adventure. 

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Scott and Mike Smith prepare for a Father’s Day father/son skydiving adventure at West Side Skydivers. westsideskydivers.com

Say “literary travel” and people usually conjure up images of following in the footsteps of the Bronte sisters in England, visiting Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West, or perhaps tracing the route of the fictional Robert Langdon through Florence in Dan Brown’s latest, Inferno.  Those are great ideas, but for most of us, such excursions mean a major investment of time and money.  Instead, I maintain that you can concoct a lit trip just about anywhere if you find the right book and activity combo.  A short lit trip doesn’t have to take a huge chunk of your budget or your schedule.  And it doesn’t require plowing through high-brow literature. The idea here is to have fun.

Like moms, fathers love spending time with their kids. Unlike moms, “together time” for dads may involve watching golf or ESPN. A lit trip with dad provides just the right catalyst to propel everyone away from watching sports on TV to watching events in person or better yet, participating. Reading the same book  (fiction or non-fiction) just naturally brings people together over shared stories and ideas. A literary adventure, near or far, extends the pleasure of sharing a book by adding an experience to the mix, creating an opportunity to live the book. So, it a lit trip doesn’t have to be a scholars exercise, just a way to try out new ideas, activities, and even meet new people.

At almost all of the events and appearances I do for my book Off the Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways, men come up to me and say I should do a book for guys.  Often, the books and itineraries in my book can be enjoyed by both men and women, so I imagine an Off The Beaten Page, Men’s Edition would offer much of the same sort of content but with a bit of fine-tuning… more NASCAR, less shopping.  Here are a few ideas for literary adventures for guys, dads and otherwise.

A Flying Leap

Is there something on dad’s bucket list that he just needs a little encouragement to try? Sky diving was on my husband’s list for ages and he finally talked one of our sons into going with him as a Father’s Day treat for himself.

Read: Above All Else: A World Champion Skydiver’s Story of Survival and What It Taught Him About Fear, Adversity, and Success by Dan Brodsky-Chenfield.  (Okay, I’m thinking you may want to go skydiving first, then read the book.)

Go: skydiving

How to Be Manly

Not so hot on extreme adventures like skydiving?

Read: Man Made: In Which a Dad Learns to Be a Man for His Son by Joel Stein. In man-made-coverhardback, this book had a title I liked better, A Stupid Quest for Masculinity. Stein confesses that he’s not a “manly man” and so undertakes an investigation of how to become one in this very funny book. Chapter One: “Surviving Outdoors”

Go:  camping or simply take a hike.

America’s Game

Baseball travel” is a favorite form of travel for many guys, with groups traveling across the country to tick off visits to both major league and minor league stadiums.  (Read my post on Major League Vacations.)

Read: Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age by Allen Barra.  This new book had been well received by critics.

Go: Take in a baseball game together.

The Scene of the Crime

It’s no wonder that crime is one of the most popular literary genres.Unknown-9

Read: Revisit the classics, books like Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon or Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. You just can’t beat those hard-boiled gumshoes. Or, pick up more recent classics like Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer or Walter Mosely’s newest Easy Rawlins mystery, Little Green.

Go: visit the people in blue at your local police department.  Even small-town police departments offer some amazing behind-the-scenes tours and some even give you a look at offer their crime labs, ala CSI.

Grill n’ Chill

Cooking is a great creative outlet for just about anybody and there’s plenty of great food writing to go with it.

Read: Calvin Trillin’s The Tummy Trilogy or MFK Fisher’s classic The Art of Eating.Unknown-11

Go: take a cooking or grilling class together.

The sky’s the limit.  Just think book and “field trip.” For any dad, the memories of a literary adventure with his kids will stay with him far longer than a Hallmark card. If the kids are too young to share adventures with dad, you’ll want to check out the funny “Literature For Dads” video from The Dad Lab. They suggest avoiding Cormac McCarthy’s The Road–not an uplifting father-son travel idea.

AND–if you have any other book-and-travel pairings that a dad would like, please send them to me.  You can comment below, send links to favorite travel blogs, or email me at tsmith952@comcast.net with your ideas.  I’ll add them to this blog. But be quick.  Father’s Day is June 16.

Spoleto Fests Large and Small in Charleston

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A carriage ride is a great way to get your bearings in Charleston.

“We just love the way y’all talk,” a Charleston carriage driver comments on my Midwestern accent. He says it, no doubt, with a bit of irony because so many Midwesterners say the same thing to him. Our banter is all in good fun. As we roll through some of Charleston’s most historic and elegant neighborhoods, I feel the warm, humid breeze from the bay blow over me and start to settle into the friendly, genteel hospitality of Charleston. It’s clear that the city still holds the same appeal that it did for Rhett Butler in the closing lines of Gone With the Wind. He tells Scarlett O’Hara that he’s going back home to Charleston, where he can find “the calm dignity life can have when it’s lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone. When I lived those days, I didn’t realize the slow charm of them.”

Charleston is one of America’s oldest cities and many of its old guard trace their roots to English colonists, who laid out its series of broad, elegant boulevards. But while the city works hard to preserve its colonial and antebellum historic sites, it is by no means stuck in the days of tight corsets and hoop skirts.  The city is home to charming shops (see upper and lower King Street and Broad Street) and restaurants such as Husk that I dream about long after I leave. Most notably, Charleston displays its vibrant cultural life with the Spoleto Festival USA which runs until June 9  and fills the city’s historic theaters, churches and outdoor spaces with performances by world renowned artists as well as emerging performers in opera; theater; dance; and chamber, symphonic, choral and jazz music.

Spoleto brings in artists from around the world. It’s the big boy in town. But if you’re

Piccolo Spoleto Poster
Piccolo Spoleto Poster

looking for a taste of regional arts and culture head for Piccolo Spoleto, which focuses primarily on artists of the Southeast region with an emphasis on events for children and families.  There’s also a piccolo literary festival. Piccolo Spoleto offers performances and event either free of charge or at prices that are more affordable than its big brother.

No matter which Spoleto you choose, or if you prefer to simply stroll Charleston’s streets or visit nearby plantations, you’ll feel as at home here as Rhett Butler did. Heading for Charleston?  Here are a few don’t-miss books to read before you go:

Pat Conroy- South of Broad, The Prince of Tides, Beach Music 

Dorothea Benton Frank – Bulls Island, Folly Beach, Lowcountry Summer

Gloria Naylor, Mama Day

Edward Ball, Slaves in the Family

Alphonso Brown- A Gullah Guide to Charleston: Walking Through Black History.

Looking for an itinerary for your visit to Charleston? The city is a featured destination in Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways.

 

Bikes and Books Tour of Minneapolis

The Twin Cities are regularly rated among the most literary cities in the country
(check out Flavorwire‘s pairing of top cities and books set in them) and Minneapolis has been voted the best biking city in America for the last two years.  So it makes sense to put the two together for a two-wheel tour of some of Minneapolis’ outstanding independent bookstores as well as its famous Chain of Lakes.  FYI, for anyone not familiar with this area of Minneapolis, we’re talking flat, paved bikes-only paths, great for kids and anyone who may not be Tour-de-France-fit.

Start out in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, home of some of Minneapolis’ most fun bars and restaurants, as proven by the continual discussion of noise regulations for the area at city council meetings.  It’s also the home of Magers and Quinn on Hennepin Avenue, the city’s largest independent bookseller which bills itself as “A bounty of the world’s best books assembled by biblioholic booksellers.”  This is a place that will make even the most dedicated e-book reader stow the tech and stock up on print.  It has that cozy independent bookstore feel and stacks you could wander for hours. They have everything, new, used (deals!), beautiful antique volumes and first editions…so bring your backpack.  And, if they don’t have a book you’re looking for, they’ll track it down and order it for you.  It’s also a good idea to get on their mailing list for author appearances and reading ideas.

If you haven’t come equipped, trot around the corner to Calhoun Bike Rentals on Lake Street and rent a bike for the rest of your journey.   They also offer bike tours of some of the most interesting areas of Minneapolis.

The Tin Fish restaurant in the Lake Calhoun Boat Pavillion makes a great place to stoke up for lunch. Then start pedaling.  The Chain of Lakes is part of the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway.  Head south along the east side of Lake Calhoun and on down to Lake Harriet.

A short side trip from Lake Harriett is Wild Rumpus Books a fantastic children’s bookstore that features, in addition to books, live animals and a tiny front door for children to enter through.

Head back to Lake Harriet and north again to Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles and on to Birchbark Books and Native Arts in the lovely, leafy Kenwood neighborhood.  It’s one of my favorite bookstores (see my previous post) with a special emphasis on Native American literature.  The staff and owner, novelist Louise Erdrich, carefully choose the books here and handwritten notes offer insight into books for browsers.  Books aside, any store with a confessional and dogs on the premises is good for the soul. You’ll need a little nosh to sustain you as you retrace your path back to Uptown.  Stop next door at the Kenwood Café.

Many bibliophiles make a point of hitting independent bookstores such as these whenever they travel.  To that end, IndieBound has an Indie Store finder that helps readers find indie booksellers just about anywhere.  For more on bookstore tourism, take a look at GalleyCat and Bookstore Tourism.