Thursday, October 31, 2013

Exploring Boston's Freedom Trail

Boston's Capitol undergoes a "facelift"
(photos: Michelle Richmond)

 It's a crisp, sunlit morning in Boston, one of those picture perfect days you hope for when exploring a new city - especially one with so much history. Boston is one of my favorite cities and although I've been many times, it never ceases to draw me into its spell. There's a certain energy here that's almost palpable, and while it was obviously so different 300 years ago, you can almost sense the patriots who once called it home. 

This is the "Cradle of Liberty," the birthplace of American Independence and I'm anxious to explore the Freedom Trail, where so many important events took place.

Started in the 1950s by concerned Bostonians who wanted to preserve the story of the American Revolution, the 2.5 mile trail is marked by a bricked or painted red line winding past 16 historically significant sites. Beginning at Boston Common and ending in Charlestown at the USS Constitution, it is an integral part of Boston, attracting more than 3.2 million visitors annually.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Mark Twain's House With a Soul

The stately mansion draws visitors from around the globe (photos: Michelle Richmond)

"To us, our house….had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with: and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction."
- Mark Twain -

I'm standing with my two daughters and a small group of other fans, in the dimly lit hall. We're enveloped by antique memorabilia, clearly from a kinder, gentler time, but we've been told to "expect the unexpected" on this ghostly tour of the Mark Twain House, the author's family residence in Hartford, CT.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Tips on Cruising with Your Grandchild

Taking a "buddy" makes it easier
(photo: Michelle Richmond)

Sometimes we're given the opportunity to travel with our grandchildren. It not only allows us some precious bonding time with them, but it also affords us an opportunity to see the world through their energetic eyes, while creating memories which they can carry with them throughout their lives.

Here are some tips on making it a success:
  • Carry written permission from the child's parent or legal guardian which will allow you to make medical decisions on behalf of the child in case of an emergency. 
  • Establish some ground rules right from the start - especially on a cruise. Children should not be allowed to wander the ship alone and if they do make friends and want to leave your side, make sure they advise you of their changing destinations. Try to make yourself "invisible" while they play with new friends in the pool - or elsewhere - but plan to be there - just in case. 
  • Explore the Youth Program, onboard the ship even if your grandchildren think they don't want to sign up. Once you’ve seen it for yourself you will feel comfortable either encouraging them to join, or supporting their decision not to. 
  • Be flexible and allow time in your schedule for spontaneous activities and for those inevitable delays. This will make the trip more relaxed and more fun for all of you. In years to come, your grandchildren may not remember everything they saw, but they will remember all the laughs you shared. 
  • Take lots of photos, keep journals and talk about the trip long after it ends. Children grow up so fast and they may not always want to travel with you so it's just as important for you to capture those memories as it will be for them someday. 

Setting Out to Sea With My Grandson

Meet and Greet with Mickey (photos: Michelle Richmond) 
From the moment we step into the soaring atrium of Disney's Fantasy - their latest ship to hit the high seas - we feel like VIPs. We approach the grand staircase - punctuated by an elegant bronze statue of Mademoiselle Minnie Mouse herself - and a crew member announces us over a loudspeaker. It's a little daunting as we've never been exposed to such "red carpet" fanfare. I can feel my 8-yr-old grandson Mateo shrink beside me.

Disney is by definition for kids (and kids at heart) so I invited Mateo to accompany me on this three-day sailing to their private island, Castaway Cay. No stranger to the cruise experience (he already had five under his cap) I figured that his observations would give me a "youthful" perspective on this voyage. I wasn’t disappointed. I just hadn’t counted on the non-stop activity I would be exposed to. What was I thinking?

We settle into our spacious cabin - complete with verandah - and I can sense Mateo's silent approval. He spies two cellular phones that family members can use to track one another while onboard and quickly voices his enthusiasm.

"Now, we can call each other from all over the ship," he declares.


After freshening up, we set off for lunch at the indoor-outdoor Cabanas restaurant. Simulating a California boardwalk – complete with palm trees, beach umbrellas, and seagulls – it offers an array of cold as well as hot choices scattered throughout the “food stations.”

Thankfully, Disney has dispensed with tiresome buffet lines.

Wishing and Spinning

Mateo and new friend prepare for "launch" 
An hour or so later, we're in the middle of the “Sailing Away” party with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Chip and Dale and a host of other Disney characters cavorting around us. The ship’s horn blasts the opening strains to “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and we're off.

My head is spinning with all the excitement, but Mateo is already eyeing the AquaDuck, the enclosed signature water coaster, that spins you up, down and around the perimeter of the ship via raging "river rapids." We head over there before the lines grow any longer. He seems grateful that I'm accompanying him on the maiden run. We climb into the rubber raft and a crew member asks: "Have you ever done this before?"

"No," I respond.

"Well, if anything happens and you get stuck, don’t worry. Someone will be there to get you out right away,” he advises.


I can hardly wait for the "launch," yet it proves to be an exhilarating ride.

Mateo eventually makes “buddies” onboard and no longer needs – or wants - my company on the watery whirling dervish.

Later, I catch sight of the adult-only "tranquility" area with private pools, hot tubs, cozy café, spa and collection of dining options and bars. As appealing as it is, I have to admit that I wouldn't have given up one minute of bonding with my energetic grandson for all the secluded sundecks in the world.

Disney offers a variety of kids clubs ranging from the Oceaneer’s Club and Lab for grade schoolers, to the Edge for tweens and the Vibe for teens. There’s even a “Chill Spa” for teens with age-appropriate treatments.

Mysteries and Magic

Mateo opts out of the Oceaneer’s Club experience because "there were too many girls.”

Instead, he develops friendships with boys around the pool, the hot tub and on Goofy's Sports Deck with its nine-hole miniature golf course. I'm now on my own but he does check in periodically to apprise me of his next destination.

The high-tech, Midship Detective Agency scavenger hunt is a favorite. We're given a “secret” card which brings specific artwork around the ship to life when we pass it and we're given clues which send us off to solve the ship's mysteries. I wonder out loud how it works.

Mateo doesn’t hesitate to reply: “It’s magic.”

Scary pirate was seen roaming the decks
Disney's exclusive “rotational dining” which allows us to enjoy different restaurants each night, taking our servers with us proves to be a great bonding experience. We try all of the family restaurants: the ornate Royal Court, inspired by Disney classics “Cinderella,” and “Beauty and the Beast;” Enchanted Garden, a whimsical nod to the gardens of Versailles, and Animator’s Palate where your own art comes to life.

Buccaneer Blast, Disney’s pirate party at sea with fireworks is a highlight of the trip. Capt. Jack Sparrow leads the partying by zip lining
onto the deck, launching a raucous pirate show.

When the party ends one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies starts on a LED screen. People drag out chairs and within minutes, the pounding pirate bash is transformed into a quiet movie-watching soiree.

Chilling out on Castaway Cay 

Our layover in Castaway Cay in the Bahamas the next day provides much to do for all ages, from kayaking to water sports, to beach massages.
Mateo and I don life jackets for a snorkeling expedition and head out to deep water, where we follow a path leading to the "Nautilus" from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." The seas are strong and we struggle back to shore, when I feel a small hand plop on my shoulder as Mateo attaches himself to me for the "ride" back. After a very satisfying lunch and beach time, we head back to the ship.

Mateo and "friends" enjoy midnight snack 
On our last evening, after Mateo shows me how the cell phone works. He has made plans to meet up with his new friend, 8-yr-old Mathew, from Seattle. He saunters away, phone tucked into his cargo pants, leaving me a wreck.
True to his word, he calls me at the agreed upon time, to let me know that he's on his way back to the cabin. We take advantage of the 24-hr room service and order a snack - which arrives within a few minutes - before setting our bags outside the door and call it a night.

While disembarking the next morning, I ask Mateo if he enjoyed the Fantasy and if he would sail with Disney again.

"Definitely," he replies.

I couldn't agree more. Was it relaxing? Not really, but would you expect anything less when traveling with a child on a Disney cruise? Was it fun? You bet!

If You Go: