Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Feature: Beardsley Zoo, Bridgeport, CT

With Connecticut being such a small state it's no wonder that we only have two aquariums and one zoo.  Our state's zoo is Beardsley Zoo in southwestern CT.  It's about a 1.5 hour drive for us and the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, RI is actually a closer drive but we've been to both and each will get their Friday Feature post.

I've always had mixed feelings about visiting zoos and aquariums.  On one hand I feel that they are great educational opportunities for children, especially for those who will never have the means to see these rare and wonderful animals in their natural habitat.  On the other hand I feel sorrow for these poor creatures who are confined to such a small living space.  When Brandon and I lived in Washington I volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation center so I'm very aware that some animals cannot be released back into the wild.  These animals are best suited for places like zoos or other educational programs.  Still, I feel that if animals must live the rest of their lives in a zoo they should at least be comfortable.

So that is where my mindset is while I write this post.

While Beardsley Zoo isn't one of the largest zoos I've been to it does have some unique animals and exhibitions.  Our favorite one is the indoor rainforest exhibit, perhaps because it brings back so many memories but also because it's a well-done exhibit.  There are bats, anacondas, caiman and also various species of monkeys and birds.

Inside the rainforest exhibit


Throughout the rest of the zoo there are tigers, a prairie dog exhibit, bison, otters, pronghorn and wolves.  They are currently working on a new exhibit for Andean bears in the area that used to house llamas.  Stink seemed to enjoy the zoo more than the aquarium, probably because the animals are more interesting to look at than fish.

You can poke your head in a tube to get a different view of the prairie dogs
Inside the wolf observation facility

At the center of the zoo is a cafe, indoor carousel, and pavilion with a small playground.  Live music is sometimes played at the pavilion during zoo events.  Toward the entrance of the zoo is a small gift shop, a greenhouse and animal research station.  Sometimes the station is open to the public and you can have the chance to handle animals like reptiles and tarantulas or feel the soft fur of a bobcat or mink.

The Verdict:  ★★  Beardsley is a little old and dated with unique but small exhibits.  There is a small farmyard area within the zoo but I was disappointed to learn that you can't feed the animals like you can at Central Park Zoo in NYC.  Some exhibits like the peccaries could use some new toys and replacement of the viewing glass.  Overall we would go back if we happen to be in the area but other zoos like Central Park Zoo and Roger Williams Park Zoo are better.

Where to Eat: I think Brandon would disown me if I didn't mention his all-time favorite restaurant chain, Puerto Vallarta, is only 15 minutes away in Orange, CT.  We're very fond of Mexican food and their service is quick and excellent.  Order sopapillas for dessert; they're not on the menu but they do serve them. 

Other Tips and Tricks: Beardsley Zoo offers a military discount for active duty and retired members: one free admission plus a 20% discount for the rest of your party.  Other activities within the zoo like camel rides (summer), hay rides (fall) and the carousel are at an extra cost.

Child Friendly?  Beardsley Zoo has something for all ages to enjoy but I recommend it for preschoolers and older.

Pet Friendly?  No

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday Feature: Amazonia Expeditions in Iquitos, Peru

I'm blogging from the comfort of my couch tonight.  Perhaps I should be watching a more appropriate movie for travel blogging like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty or Eat, Pray, Love.  Instead I'm watching The Hunger Games.  May the odds be EVER in your favor.

This Friday's post is about an awesome tour company that we used for our trip to the Amazon jungle.  We had been to the jungles of Peru once before, a 4-day trip to the Manu Cloud Forest from Cusco.  We didn't see much so we wanted to go back and experience the "real" Amazon.  After doing some extensive research about river cruises and lodges near Iquitos we settled on a company called Amazonia Expeditions.

The thing that set AE apart from the other companies is the fact that each family gets their own private guide with the ability to set their own itinerary.  Whether you want to focus your trip on photography, birding, adventure or relaxation, you have the opportunity to do as much or as little as you choose.  Some activities are grouped together like ziplining and trips to the artisan market in Chino village but most activities are done with your private guide.  The guides also collaborate with each other ensure that families aren't going on the same trails in the jungle.  The smaller (and quieter) the group, the more likely you'll be to see wildlife on a jungle hike.

The main lodge
AE was responsive and courteous from our first email contact.  On our way to Peru we had a 5-hour layover in Ecuador and realized that we had left our bank card at home.  We needed enough cash to pay for laundry services and a tip for our guide so AE allowed us to send money via Paypal and they had the Peruvian soles waiting for us at the office on our arrival.  They picked us up from the airport and escorted us to their office right on the river.  We arranged to spend a night in one of the rooms above their office both before and after our trip to the jungle. Their rooms were clean and adequate with a beautiful view of the river.  Breakfast was provided for us the next morning.

Our room at the office, complete with a balcony

Our guide Dustin greeted us on the first day and gave us a tour of the open market in Iquitos.  Then we had breakfast and boarded a boat for the 2 hour trip up the Tahuayo River to the lodge.  At the lodge we were greeted with passion fruit juice and a quick meeting about how everything runs.  There is no hot water and electricity is minimal at the lodge but after a long day of hiking you don't care about showering in cold water and the small LED strips in your room are sufficient for finding your way around.  There's a large cooler with sodas for purchase in the dining hall, computers with wifi access and a hammock room for reading and relaxing. 

The dining hall

The hammock room
All the rooms are screened in plus the beds have mosquito netting so no need to worry about tarantulas or snakes visiting you in the middle of the night, but both are lurking around the lodge.  You can find them if you look hard enough, otherwise you probably won't notice them.  We were assigned Room 7 at the lodge, aptly decorated with a piranha.

At AE you're given the option for 4 different activity time slots each day if you want, built around mealtimes: before breakfast, before lunch, before dinner and nighttime.  For longer activities that miss mealtimes your guide will bring along sandwiches.  We did roughly two activities per day, our favorite being piranha fishing.  Amazonia Expeditions has an extensive list of activities you could potentially do on your trip but not all of them are possible, depending on the time of year you visit and your stamina.  For example, I really wanted to see the hoatzin bird but that was a 4-hour round trip hike through the jungle, not something an out-of-shape person like me could do.  Fishing for peacock bass is something you'd be more successful at during the dry season when the lake is lower, though I did manage to catch a small one unexpectedly.  Caiman are very hard to find during a full moon and though we searched for many nights we couldn't find one for this reason.  Your guide will go over your "wish list" of activities and help you figure out what's possible to do.

The food at the lodge was so delicious and fresh.  The meals were buffet style so you were free to pick and choose what you wanted.  Fish was served almost daily, along with carbs like rice and yucca.  On the last night of every family's trip the cooks would bake a cake which was large enough to share so we were able to enjoy some yummy cake on a fairly regular basis.  Clean drinking water is provided but it's not cold so that takes some getting used to.  Brandon and I brought a few bottles of Mio to flavor our water.

Buffet style dinner
Our farewell cake

Some of the nearby villagers provide laundry service at an additional cost but due to the constant humidity in the jungle your clothes will take 2-3 days to dry.  Bring clothes that dry quickly and make sure you get your laundry done a few days before you need it (or before the end of your trip).  We paid for laundry once on our 9-day trip and then just showered with our clothes on to wash off mud and dirt from our hikes.  We also brought Space Saver bags to separate clean clothes from smelly, dirty ones.

Guests have the option of staying in the Research Center further upriver and more remote than the main lodge.  We chose to stay here a few nights.  It provided some different scenery and we took a camping trip from there as well.  If you're only staying a short while then the main lodge is completely sufficient and you will still be able to see plenty of animals.  We saw so many monkeys, birds and other animals just on our first day at the main lodge.

Sunset view from the Research Center

Our guide Dustin was so knowledgeable and friendly, he was really what made our trip so enjoyable.  All of the guides were wildlife experts, having grown up in the same area that we were visiting.  Dustin's English was excellent and he knew every animal we came across.  At the end of our trip I sat down with him and we went through all of my pictures and he helped me identify them so I could write the names down in my journal.  He could point out animals we couldn't even see in the trees and at some points we would just hand him our camera to take the picture before the animal disappeared.

Another guide with a snake.  The bandages on his hand were from handling a caiman earlier

Dustin would always go above and beyond to make our vacation memorable.  I really wanted to see a caiman and though we took nightly trips on the river to find them we never came across one.  One night, instead of simply giving up, Dustin and our boat driver took us to a massive lake where we floated under the full moon while Dustin told us Peruvian folklore stories from his childhood.  It was an evening I would never forget.

Watching Dustin make fishing poles

Our guide Dustin with a tree frog

The Verdict:  ★★★★★  Amazonia Expeditions is really an all-in-one tour company.  Aside from booking your own flight (which they can help with) they can handle all your needs from the time you get off the plane until the time you get back on.  I recommend staying a night in their B&B rooms, especially at the end of your trip.  Their company can accommodate anyone: young kids, seniors, active or inactive, solo or groups.  There's no supplemental charge for those traveling solo and though you still get your own private guide for the entire trip you can also join up with other families for activities like fishing and zip lining. 

When to Go:  This depends on what you want to do.  The rainy season is December through May and much of your activities would be from a boat.  If you're interested in hiking that might not be a good time to visit but it would be a great time if you're more the inactive type who still wants to see lots of wildlife.  Mid-July through November is the dry season so expect lots of hiking, especially if you want to access lakes and other areas that a boat can't reach in the dry season.  We went at the end of June between the wet and dry season so the trails were still muddy in many spots but manageable for hiking.

What to Do: This is completely up to you!  You can hike in the higher grounds of terra firme forest to search for poison dart frogs.  Don't forget to check out the giant log with sleeping bats or swing from a vine out over a ravine while you're there!  You can canoe up the river looking for pink dolphins, go ziplining or camping in the jungle, or do volunteer work at the local villages.

Beautiful basket at the artisan market in Chino village
Spotting a sloth on our way back to Iquitos 

Child Friendly?  Dustin told us that the youngest guest at the lodge was just over a year old.  While I would never take a child that young into the Amazon jungle I do feel confident that AE can keep kids safe during their stay.   If you're traveling with kids AE will try to match you with a guide who is especially good with children.  There were 4 older children staying at the lodge with us, all about 8-12 years old.  This is the age I would recommend for a trip to the jungle as kids this age seem to be very interested in learning about animals and nature and they are responsible enough to follow directions to avoid injury.  

Pet Friendly?  No

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Travel Inspiration: Quotes and Poems

This post is the start of a little mini-series about travel inspiring literature and media.  Some people prefer to absorb their travel inspiration from books, others from movies.  In this series I'm going to highlight my favorites from each of the following categories: quotes and poems, songs, movies, and television shows.  I'm leaving out a post about books because in all honesty I'm not much of a reader.  I tend to read the same books over and over again, rarely adding new ones to my list.  I am not a good source for books that inspire travel.

Quotes and poetry were some of the first sources for my travel inspirations.  I wrote my fair share of poetry when I was a moody teenager but they were mostly about unrequited love and unfortunately none of them were preserved for my adult self to reminisce. 

Here is a list of my top 10 quotes and poems, in no particular order:

1. "Only as high as I reach can I grow,
      Only as far as I seek can I go,
      Only as deep as I look can I see,
      Only as much as I dream can I be." -Karen Ravn

2.   "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." -Saint Augustine

3.  "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move." – Robert Louis Stevenson

4.  "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." – Mark Twain

5.  "Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." – Ralph Waldo Emerson

6.  "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
      And sorry I could not travel both
      And be one traveler, long I stood
      And looked down one as far as I could
      To where it bent in the undergrowth;

     Then took the other, as just as fair,
     And having perhaps the better claim,
     Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
     Though as for that the passing there
     Had worn them really about the same,

     And both that morning equally lay
     In leaves no step had trodden black.
     Oh, I kept the first for another day!
     Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
     I doubted if I should ever come back.

     I shall be telling this with a sigh
     Somewhere ages and ages hence:
     Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
     I took the one less traveled by,
     And that has made all the difference." -Robert Frost

7.  "Not all those who wander are lost." – J. R. R. Tolkien

8.  "A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for." -John A. Shedd

9.   "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." -J.R.R. Tolkien

10.  "When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money." – Susan Heller

What are some of your favorite travel-inspiring quotes and poems? 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Friday Feature: B.F. Clyde's Cider Mill

One of the highlights of fall in New England is apple picking, apple cider, apple harvest festivals and anything else to do with the delicious fruit.  Brandon and I each have our favorite variety of apple (Honeycrisp for me, Fuji for Brandon) and we usually go apple picking a few times from August to November.  If you're an apple lover like us and are visiting Connecticut in the fall then B.F. Clyde's Cider Mill is a place you should definitely check out.

The general store on the left and the grist mill on the right

B.F. Clyde's Cider Mill has been selling cider since 1881.  The mill on the property that still presses apples today has been around since 1897.  The mill and store are only open 4 months out of the year, from September 1st until late December, but they are well worth a visit.  Cider making demonstrations are performed in October and November on the weekends and the mill is packed with visitors during that time.  The demonstration takes about half an hour and warm clothes are recommended because it can be very drafty and cold, even inside the mill.  Despite the chilly atmosphere, you can't beat the smell of fresh juice being squeezed from a few hundred apples!

Cider Mill where the demonstrations take place

The workers performing the demonstrations are just that: workers.  They're not there to explain what they're doing or the history of the mill as they're working but they will answer your questions if they aren't busy at the moment.  The mill is the size of a very large pool table and is divided into two equal size squares.  There is the press over one half and the apple chute on the other half.

The demonstration begins by funneling chopped apples down a chute and onto a large tray covered in cloth.  The mushy apples are shifted around until the layer is flat and then a wooden grate is placed on the apples.  Another layer is added in the same fashion and then a third and final layer of mushy apples is placed on top.  Each layer produces about 25 gallons of delicious cider.

Pressing the apples

After 3 layers of mushy apples are stacked the mill table is spun around so that the apple stacks are now under the press.  The workers use the press to squash the apples and the holes on the bottom of the table funnel the juice into a large wooden reservoir.  There was so much juice in the apples that it was in danger of spilling over the side of the table and the aroma was so delectable.  The pressing process takes about 10-15 minutes and during this time many people came and went.  This is a good opportunity to wander around the inside of the mill where you can see various artifacts of the mill from the last century or ask questions to the mill workers.  After the pressing is done the table is spun again so the apples are back under the funnel and the mushy apples are carted off to be fed to beef cattle.

Carrying away the leftover apple mush

The cider mill has a very large general store that sells hot mulled cider, wine, syrup, jams, fresh doughnuts and other local products.  The old grist mill has also been converted into a little gift shop with other products like shirts, handmade soaps and postcards.  There is a large wraparound porch with chairs where you can enjoy your doughnuts and hot cider as well as picnic tables.  Hard cider is also available for purchase but cannot be consumed on the property.


The Verdict:  ★★★★  The cider mill isn't an outing you could spend all day doing but it's free and the kids will love the doughnuts, cider, and press demonstration.  It's definitely a unique experience but not something I would drive a long distance just to see.  However it's less than 3 miles from more popular attractions like Mystic Aquarium and Olde Mistick Village so if you don't live close by then you could make the cider mill part of a day trip to the area. 
What to Try: The mulled cider, apple cider doughnuts, and apple pies are the most popular products sold at the mill and for good reason.  My favorite drink is the mulled cider with caramel and it's not served too hot so you can enjoy it right away. 

Yummy cider!
Lemme just steal this doughnut while Daddy isn't looking

When to Go: If you want to see the mill demonstrations on the weekends I recommend arriving about 45 minutes before the demonstration.  This gives you enough time to visit the store and grist mill and allows for some time to take pictures of the mill before it gets crowded.  After the demonstration is when the general store tends to be packed with people and the checkout lines can be very long.

Child Friendly?  Older kids will enjoy watching the apple press demonstration but it couldn't hold Stink's attention the way that cider and doughnuts could.  Kids aren't allowed to sit on the shoulders of parents to watch the demonstration so arrive early to pick a spot in front, otherwise they won't be able to see a thing.

Pet Friendly?  No

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Middle Earth Halloween

Last year was Stink's first Halloween and I had decided I wouldn't take her trick-or-treating because what's the point?  It's not like she would understand what was going on.  But her older friends were going so at the last minute we decided to tag along and I bought her a simple cat costume because A) it was one of the few costumes left and B) it was cheap.

This year, however, I considered to be her first real Halloween.  I didn't start putting much thought into her costume until this summer when I discovered that Stink's hair was getting so so curly.  Hobbitish curly.  And I knew that this year would be the last year I'd get to pick out her costume theme so I needed to take advantage of that.  That's when I decided for a Middle Earth themed family costume with Stink as a hobbit, me as Arwen and Brandon as Gandalf.

I had a really hard time finding a proper costume for Stink.  The only hobbit costumes available on costume websites were for older kids and boys.  I decided to enlist the help of (i.e. beg and plead) my mom to help make a hobbit costume for her because I have no domestic talent whatsoever.  Seriously, I can't even sew on a button.  So after some scheming and buying patterns that didn't end up being used my mom made this:

I used a photo of Martin Freeman's version of Bilbo Baggins, instead of going with Elijah Wood's Frodo look.  I searched for material for a green suede vest and a yellow skirt.  My mom used super simple patterns for each piece: McCall's M6780 for the skirt and Simplicity 1923 for the vest.  The scarf was simply made from spare skirt fabric. 

I unfortunately didn't realize I was supposed to buy a separate material for the liner of the vest so both sides were from the suede material which made it pretty difficult to make button holes.  So my mom just sewed the buttons onto the front of the vest and I bought fabric glue and Velco strips to keep the vest closed.  That was my ONLY crafty contribution to this project but I'm still proud of it.  My mom added a pocket to the front of the vest so Stink could keep her Precious safe but it turns out that Stink wasn't really interested in having a Precious.  Instead she kept dropping it and letting it get away.  Good thing the fate of Middle Earth wasn't resting in her hands!

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins
Stink as Bilbo Baggins

The rest of the outfit was completed by items I purchased online.  The maroon peacoat was purchased on Zulily, the white peasant shirt came from Old Navy (although any white undershirt or onesie would do) and Stink's satchel came from Target and doubled as her candy bucket.  I bought a swatch of brown fur that I cut into strips and wedged under the Velcro straps of Stink's shoes to make her furry hobbit feet.  If we had lived in a warmer climate I could have wrapped the fur around some flip flop straps but this is New England and it was freezing cold on Halloween night.  I had planned to make Stink's hair a bit more curly with some hairspray or gel but we were running late so we just left it as-is.

Maroon coat from Zulily

Brandon's costume was a generic Gandalf costume from a Halloween costume shop, with an added beard and wig.  Because all the Arwen and other elf costumes didn't come in plus size I had to do with buying a renaissance themed dress that looked similar to an elf costume.  I purchased latex elf ears at a renaissance faire and bought a replica of Arwen's necklace at a costume shop.

Unfortunately I didn't get to wear my costume and complete the Middle Earth trio because on Halloween night Brandon was helping me get dressed and ripped the zipper right off my cheap costume.  Pinning it wasn't an option so instead I went dressed as a stay-at-home mom. 
My costume that broke before I could wear it

Stink had a great time trick-or-treating with her buddies but was a bit freaked out by Brandon's beard so he had to take it off after only 10 minutes of wearing it.  I felt so sure that people would recognize Stink's costume and comment on the awesomeness of it so I was pretty disappointed when only ONE person recognized her as a hobbit the entire evening.  All the other people said "What a cute shark!  What a cute mermaid!  What a cute...costume!".  Even when we explained she was dressed as a hobbit or Bilbo Baggins they still didn't know who she was.  I guess old people don't read Tolkien.

This lady commented on what a cute baby we had.  She had no clue
Not too sure about the creepy old man with Daddy's voice

So that was our Halloween 2014.  A bit of a flop but one that will still have a special spot in Stink's baby book and we definitely plan on keeping her costume in her memory box.  Next year I'm willing to bet that we'll be dressing as characters from Disney Junior.  At least Stink will.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Top 5 Countries I Want to Visit

Traveling is an expensive hobby.  There are only so many places around your town that you can visit, free or not, before you start dreaming about a "real" vacation, far away from home with exotic foods and landscapes.  The problem is that money is not infinite and in our case it's about to be chopped in half as we learn to live on a student's budget.

That doesn't prevent a girl from dreaming though!  Our passports expire in 2018 and I'm determined to get a few more stamps in them before we have to re-apply.  Ireland had always been my "dream destination" and in 2011 we finally made that dream come true but  here is a list of 5 more countries that I would like to see during my lifetime.  None of them will happen in the immediate future, we're visiting other countries first, but I'm hopeful that one day we'll get to see them all.

5.  Norway

Brandon and I saw the beautiful mountains of the Inside Passage in Alaska but I'm sure those would pale in comparison to the fjords of Norway.  One of Brandon's longtime desire has been to see the Northern Lights and Norway would be a perfect place to do that.  I would love to visit the towns of Oslo, Bergen and Tromso.

"Sognefjord" by Peter Schmidt. Licensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons
4.  Tanzania

An African safari has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember.  Like a trip to the Amazon jungle it is one that would take considerable planning and funds.  It's a trip that would best be taken when Stink is much older and can appreciate seeing such animals in their wild habitat.  It's also one that I want to save up a lot of money for because there's no point in going to Africa if we can only afford a short trip.

3.  Japan

There are SO many things I want to see in Japan: the cherry blossoms, Mount Fuji, the bullet train, and ancient Buddhist temples.  Japan is such a beautiful country and the history is intriguing.  The problem with a trip like this is that Japan is very very expensive because the American dollar doesn't go very far there.  This is a trip that might be too pricey for us to do to the extent that I want to, but I would be happy with a shorter version.

Matsumoto Castle by Sacha Fernandez.  Licensed under Creative Commons via Flickr

2.  Costa Rica

Pura Vida!  Last year when Brandon and I were planning Stink's first international trip Costa Rica was one of the contenders.  In the end we decided to wait until Stink was a little older to take her to the rainforest.  For us Costa Rica is a closer and more budget-friendly alternative to the Amazon jungle of Peru and we've heard that it's more child friendly too.  I think Costa Rica would be a great introduction to the rainforest for Stink and a new destination for all of us to explore.

1.  New Zealand

Brandon and I are big Lord of the Rings fans so part of the reason I want to visit New Zealand is to visit the tourist trap of Hobbiton.  However the other part is to see the varied landscape of New Zealand, from the mountains to the coast.  Right now I'm tentatively planning an adventure Down Under by taking a road trip around New Zealand and then a cruise around Australia, but this won't be for a few years. 

Hobbiton by Trey Ratcliff.  Licensed under Creative Commons via Flickr

And there you have it.  The top 5 countries I would like to visit, if money were no object.  What countries would you visit if you had the time/money/ambition?