The Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is one of the few active volcano systems on earth. In fact isn’t just a volcano, it is a super-volcano capable of the most massive eruptions known to man. The last such eruption wiped out a chunk of North America about 170,000 years ago and while geologists predict the next one is at least 10,000 years away, whats 10,000 years in the Earth’s timescale! So I had been hankering to get to see the park before it exploded again.

The park is an earth lover’s delight. Despite having seen the beauty of South America with its awe-inspiring scale, Yellowstone turned out to be unique and amazing. The landscape is gorgeous with multi-coloured rocks, hydrothermal bodies, lodgepole pine trees and their very own big five of the wild life.

We spent 5 days in the park, divided between the south – heart of the geo thermal wonders: hot springs, geysers and the like, and the north which is good to spot some wildlife. Since were were three families with five kids between 1yo and 9yo, we splurged on the stay with 2 nights at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge in the South and the Grand Canyon Lodge in the North. Accommodation within the park closes almost 6-8 months in advance, so book early.

South Yellowstone: stunning landscapes and geysers

The Old Faithful Lodge is a short walk away from the namesake geyser, which is called so because it will explode every 45 mins, give or take 10. The next eruption time is put up near the visitor complex and we headed straight there after checking in. The Old Faithful is amazing to watch, starting off as a small bubbling fountain and rising to the sky. Staying close by offered us the chance to watch the eruption multiple times and at different times of the day.  Being on the side of the sun at sunrise and sunset offers a nice rainbow view on the opposite side. There is a boardwalk that takes one to watch a number of other smaller geysers in the area and is worth a visit, though little ones have to be constantly monitored not to end up in hot water.

A nice vantage point to watch the Old Faithful
A nice vantage point to watch the Old Faithful

The geyser eruption

There are a number of hot-springs and geysers in the area

Kabir enjoys playing with a stick, oblivious to the Old Faithful right in front of him!
Kabir enjoys playing with a stick, oblivious to the Old Faithful right in front of him!

The other big attraction in the region is The Grand Prismatic, a short drive away from the Old Faithful. While ariel views of the basin are breath-taking, even a walk on the walkway around is beautiful. The boardwalk is pram friendly, but if your toddler is anything like mine, one who wants to run around at freewill, he will need constant monitoring. The ground off the boardwalk may look solid, but is merely a thin crust at a lot of places, plus the water rivulets are boiling hot. It gets quite windy, so best to take off hats, stoles etc that might fly away. We saw many a wise men who had chosen not to pick up their hats that had flown off.

A view of the Grand Prismatic from eye level
A view of the Grand Prismatic from eye level
The kids walking along the boardwalk surrounding the Grand Prismatic
The kids walking along the boardwalk surrounding the Grand Prismatic

It’s top view looks like a colourful eye and is worth a hike up the close by hill. The park intends to open a proper viewing point by August 2017, but in June, Mohit had to hike up a narrow and steep trail. The best time to get there is between 11am and 2pm when the sun is high up and all the colours are at their brilliant most.

There are a lot of artist references in the naming of the attractions and for good reason, the landscape is unpredictably gorgeous and colourful. From the Artist’s Paint Pots to Yellowstone River to Mammoth Hot-springs.

The multi-layered steaming hot rocks at Mammoth hot-springs
The multi-layered steaming hot rocks at Mammoth hot-springs
The viewing point at the top of the Artist's Paint Pots
The viewing point at the top of the Artist’s Paint Pots
The Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River

We ended our Day 3 with driving down to the Yellowstone Lake for a fabulous view a quiet dinner.

North Yellowstone: the wildlife

We moved to Canyon Lodge on the next day and from here on it was all about driving around to spot the wildlife. The Yellowstone big 5 comprise – the bison, bear, elk, bighorn sheep and wolves. Like any wildlife, they are best spotted in the early morning and evening hours.

We first drove out to the magnificent view of the Tower Falls, followed by some ice-cream and then drove around with a picnic lunch in search for the bears.

The gorgeous Tower Falls
The gorgeous Tower Falls

The trick here is to keep driving around with your eyes peeled till you find a bear or a bear jam. Yes, the long line of cars which have stopped on the side of the road because they spotted a bear. Sara was clearly better at spotting the animals than we were. We saw 2 bears, a coyote crossing the road, big-horn sheep from a long distance and an eagle nest.

The lone bison
The lone bison
Spot the bear. They are tough to spot. This was a baby bear which looked more like a wolf from the distance
Spot the bear. They are tough to spot. This was a baby bear which looked more like a wolf from the distance

The elk and the eagle’s nest

The one where we spotted the bear and started a bear jam
The one where we spotted the bear and started a bear jam

Alas, no wolves though we did drive out to Lamar valley where one has the highest probability of spotting one. Elks and bison were far more easily spotted grazing around.

There were very many great nooks for a nice picnic lunch and we stopped by a stream to enjoy the view.

Our picnic by the stream
Our picnic spot by the stream
Tempted to dip our toes in the water
Tempted to dip our toes in the water

The landscape changes so dramatically between the north and the south of the park. Thick pine forests and snow cover most of the north. The region sees its fair share of forest fires and one can spot the burnt pine needles from a distance. But seeing the new shoots right among the burnt trees made me feel the power of the earth, its resilience – it will survive, we wont.

Normally I’m amazed by the vastness of the universe, this was one of the places I was moved by the power, beauty and resilience of the earth.

~~~

Things to keep in mind while in the Yellowstone National Park

Animals and safetyWhile driving around to spot the animals is a great idea, the par does advise one to stay 100 yards away from the big animals like bears and wolves and 25 yards way from all others including bison and elk. Keep children under safe watch

Preparing for the weather: though temperatures seem fine in the shade, the sun can get really warm in summers and sunscreen is a must. Keep an extra layer of clothing  – like a light jacket and tights in the bag for the evenings which get quite chilly. 

Food: we found the food option in the par very limiting. There was either the the visitor complex and its fast food area with the same burger type options everywhere or the sit down diner places where one had to wait 45 mins in line before being able to order. The other choice was cold sandwiches and salads from the souvenir shop. We did pick up fresh fruit everyday. Warm milk was another challenge, cold milk was available everywhere, but no heating mechanism was available outside or even in our rooms. 

 

 

NASA: Kennedy Space Center, Florida

“The sky calls to us” – Carl Sagan

Says the wall outside the visitor complex of the NASA launch pad, Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral, the very place which launched the first man on the moon.

My holiday isn’t complete unless I get to see the milky way, this was way better. We spent a day at the KSC understanding what really happens at NASA, admiring the height of American achievement at the Atlantis Space Shuttle showcase and giving the kids (and ourselves) a chance to get up, close and personal with rockets, science and astronauts.

The day started with the 90 minute bus tour of the entire complex that showed us the actual vehicle assembly building where the rockets are assembled, the launchpad for the shuttles all the while explaining what goes into getting to space. We stopped off first to watch the history of the NASA space program and its progress over the years, followed by a visit to Saturn V.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1402.
Right outside NASA!

The introduction was all about how the ‘man on the moon’ mission came about along with the speech from Kennedy, followed by  the actual control room from where the first successful shuttle to the moon was launched, to live the ‘race to the moon’. With a countdown timer running on the side, the relevant controls lighting up in front of us and the realistic sound and light effect of a rocket launch, I could feel the euphoria the team must have felt at the time of the real launch and almost felt like standing up and cheering at the launch.

The control room from where the Saturn V was launched
The control room from where the Saturn V was launched

The exhibit closes with one walking into a large area displaying Saturn V, at 363 feet long, the largest rocket ever built. We spent close to 2 hours exploring the place – the rockets, moon rocks, exhibits one could walk through and feel like an astronaut in and lunching at the cafe. The food court here was a lot cheaper than the main visitor complex.

The magnificent Saturn V
The magnificent Saturn V

 

Under the belly of Saturn V
Under the belly of Saturn V

Next on the list, was a visit to the Space Shuttle Atlantis building. Along with the magnificent shuttle was American marketing prowess on display.  One cant fail to be impressed with the full scale 184-foot space shuttle stack, including external tank and two solid rocket boosters, right at the entrance.

The entrance to the Space Shuttle Atlantis
The entrance to the Space Shuttle Atlantis

Inside, we saw an IMAX movie presenting the context, followed by a short 360 movie view of the rocket,  closing with a a large screen with a picture of the Atlantis Space Shuttle…and then the screen lifts to reveal the beauty itself, the real spaceship suspended mid air with its cargo doors open. A showcase that is awe-inspiring as intended. We spent close to 45 mins admiring the ship and the multiple interactive exhibits that allow kids to feel like they are navigating a spaceship!

The Atlantis
The Atlantis

 

After making our way back, we went into the IMAx theatre to watch a movie about Mission Mars. The queue gets long, so getting there early would help. The way out lead us to a number of interactive exhibits simulating some space experiences including an air slide, a transparent tunnel suspended 20 feet above the ground, space toilets etc, which the kids really enjoyed.

What do you call a poop floating in space?                     A gastronaut
What do you call a poop floating in space? A gastronaut

 

We had limited time and had to head back after about 5 odd hours, but the place deserves at least a full day. The two other attractions we would have liked to visit were the Rocket Garden and the book signing by a real astronaut. Older kids are likely to enjoy the space shuttler simulator immensely.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1482.
The Rocket Garden

Even without an engineering background I was much fascinated by the detail that goes into exploring beyond the earth – from the sheer energy required to propel a rocket into outer-space to the nuts and bolts of the launch pad. A trip to NASA is guaranteed to inspire awe and amazement. I left with a renewed feeling of wide eyed wonder at really  how amazingly expansive the universe is, and how, despite all our breath-taking achievements, we’ve only gone so far…. and the sky calls to us.

~~

Planning Tips with kids

  1. Plan to spend at least 7-8 hours at the centre, we were there for about 5 hrs and missed the astronaut meet and greet, rocket garden and space shuttle simulator
  2. Get there early, queues start lengthening after 10 am. Also, do the Atlantis Space Shuttle and Saturn V in the beginning to avoid long wait time.
  3. Use the loo; eat a snack before getting onto the bus tour since it is about 45 mins long and there may be long queues for boarding
  4. Try the space dots ice-cream 🙂
  5. Strollers are available for a nominal charge at the ($6) near the start of the Bus Tour, but if you get your own, parking is also available.
  6. While there is a children’s play dome with a NASA themed play area, we found the exhibits far more interesting and a better use of the limited time!

3 Weeks In The USA

Our big trip this year was planned for the US. Unusually enough, it did not involve any sporting event. I was really keen on getting to the Yellowstone National Park before it blows up and staying inside the park needs one to make booking about a year in advance, before any sports event dates were declared!

This trip, all of three weeks had us trooping across the US starting with Florida for 4 days, followed by a cruise to the Bahamas for 4 days, a day at NASA, onto Yellowstone National Park for another 4 days then a day in Vegas, a day driving to the Grand Canyon, a day driving back to Vegas and finally 2 days in Orlando exploring the parks.

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 9.08.28 PM

Much debate happened around whether we should do Disneyland right at the beginning of the trip or at the end – start with a bang for the kids or end with one? Finally, given young Kabir still naps in the afternoon and takes forever to get over jet-lag, we decided to push Disney to the end so we wouldn’t all be cranky.

The days in Florida were spent with friends in Davie at sun-kissed beaches between Davie, Ft Lauderdale and Miami, with a fantastic Peruvian lunch thrown in <Close to 15th and Collins, is Chalan by the sea. Do try the Saltado house meat dish and the fish in garlic sauce>.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1176.
Enjoying the clear blue skies and gentle waves on the beaches of Florida
The Miami Post Office,  apparently barely used
The Miami Post Office, apparently barely used
Cute outdoor cafes with a strong Latin American flavor
Cute outdoor cafes with a strong Latin American flavor

 

The ariel view of the state pretty much shows water bodies everywhere but I was surprised to hear that there is a piece of news every other week about a croc being sighted in someone’s house or a lake nearby! The friends we stayed with, got to see lizards of every size pretty much every week in their back-yard. So my greatest disappointment was not getting to see a croc lazing about on the road.

So while the first week was very relaxed with lazing at the beaches and cruising, the last few days were very hectic what with driving all day for 2 days, snatched tourist moments at Vegas and just about a sunrise and sunset caught at the Grand Canyon, followed by really long days at Disneyland and Universal Studios. In hindsight, we should have cut out the Vegas and Grand Canyon leg, and spent 2 additional days at the parks; or, swapped the dates for the cruise and the parks.

We drove around pretty much on every leg, except of course the cruise. The US is a great place to drive and park. Every car is given about 3 cars worth of parking space! My Indian parking sense really wanted to yell at people to move over and make space for each other rather than keep driving around in circles waiting for someone to vacate a spot so you can actually get off at a viewing point.

Flights are best for long distance travel. We flew from Orlando to Yellowstone West, then to Las Vegas and then Back to Orlando. Flying Delta was a good experience the service great but no inflight entertainment, unless one downloaded their app in advance. United was not entirely pleasant. I wasn’t too positive about them given the recent news and my personal experience did nothing to dispel the notion. They had no blankets, little and disappointing food and generally irritated staff.

I didn’t quite know what to expect a US trip to be like, in the Trump era, but there is nothing worth mentioning. The VISA and immigration formalities were no different than when I visited 10 years ago. I may have felt more visible signs of intolerance, but it could well have been confirmation bias.

Well, more on each leg in the following blogs.

 

Cruisin’ With Kids and Toddlers – Carnival Liberty

Our next big leg after Florida was a short 4 day cruise to the Bahamas on Carnival Liberty. This too, was with our friends from the US (with kids aged 5 and 1.5). I wasn’t quite sure about how the experience would be, since holiday for me means being outdoors for most waking hours and cruise means being pretty much in the hotel, gigantic as it may be, all the time. It turned out be be a mixed bag.

The fun parts:

We boarded from Port Canaveral, Orlando at noon, choosing to do an early check in so we could enjoy a good lunch and pool before the rooms got allocated. Having done our research, we’d packed a day bag with swimwear and sunscreen and most essentials that the kids would need, as it takes about half the day to get the bags after the check in. So lunch was followed by hitting the  fairly empty pools directly.

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 9.17.30 PM

There was a good kids club called Camp Ocean, where one could leave kids above 2 years for almost the whole day. With enough activities to do, the kids stay occupied; the camp team takes care of meals for the older ones and gives the parents a phone on which they can call in case the child needs the parents. We were happy to leave Sara and Kabir for a couple of hours. But mostly they spent time with the kids of the friends we were traveling with.

There were a number of really fun activities for the kids – the pools, the water slide, Father’s Day card making, Camp Ocean activities, Harry Potter quiz, build a bear (entirely missable and expensive), and some others. The highlights were Dr Seuss story reading session which was done very well and the Dr Seuss breakfast (@USD 5 per person). In both cases the kids got to meet the characters, be part of the story, dine on green eggs and ham while being served by Thing 1-82! To be honest, I enjoyed this part as much as the kids did.

The stage is set for The Cat In The Hat
The stage is set for The Cat In The Hat
DCIM100GOPROGOPR1309.
Real Green Eggs & Ham!

The evenings were spent on the deck watching a kiddy blockbuster with popcorn and hot dogs. The kids quite enjoyed the movie, and i enjoyed watching the sunset from various parts of the deck which chasing Kabir around the ship.

Gorgeous sunsets that lasted almost an hour
Gorgeous sunsets that lasted almost an hour

Our cabin was quite spacious, complete with a small wardrobe, fridge, TV, and bunk beds for the kids. We pushed one of the suitcases under the bed which gave us plenty space to move around. The window-sil was made into private spaces by the girls and the little boys spent their in-room time climbing up and down the bunk bed.

This is our space
This is the girls’ space

 

And this, the boys'
And this, the boys’

Food and drink was always available in plenty. We dined mostly in the informal dining area at meal times and picked up snacks as and when needed. There was ice-cream, tea and coffee available round the clock free of cost which made all of us quite happy. Dinner tables were reserved for each room in the formal dining hall which had good food including an Indian dish on the menu and the deserts were to die for. One could order breakfast in the room all day, which gave us a plentiful supply of fruits and snacks for the kids.

The Disappointments:

So I did get the feeling of being indoors for way too much time on the first 2 days that we were at sea, and even on the days that we docked at Nassau and FreeportI felt we had too little time to really explore the islands. We’d manage to get off the ship by 1030 and had to be back by 4.

There was absolutely no cell-phone connectivity and the internet packages were very expensive @40USD for the 4 days for non streaming connections and @16 USD for whatsapp only.

The water-play was very limited. There were 2 stamp sized pools and 4 coin sized whirlpools. There was no water play area, only a water slide where they did not allow kids to go in the lap. So while Sara thoroughly enjoyed it, Kabir couldn’t really go. Also, they had this weird policy of not allowing babies in diapers into the pool! It seemed that drunk adults in the pool were more likely to cause disasters than little kids.  While we had started toilet training Kabir before leaving, it’s hard to keep up on vacation and we did put him in with a swimming diaper on, making sure it wasn’t visible.

In the formal dining area, there are only 2 dinner slots – 630pm and 830pm, so one couldn’t dine there in between, which made it difficult.

Despite calling themselves family friendly, there is no supply of any baby products on board. So if you run out of diapers, formula or wipes – you’re on your own. Even warm milk was a challenge. Most of the milk available was cold, and one could order hot milk as part of dinner or room service, which made other milk times quite difficult.

If, the kids were older, i think we would have enjoyed a lot more. All the pools were visible for the main deck, so putting the kids in the pool and lounging on the deck with drinks or dropping kids at the Camp ocean for an evening out is very much possible with kids above 5.

Would I do a cruise again? I did enjoy seeing the stars on open waters, and with more docking days, it would have been nicer. Maybe Alaska.

~~~