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The Varsity: World’s Largest Drive-in Restaurant

Varsity

Credit: TheVarsity.com

Back in my carefree, single, post-college days, I visited my friend Tina in Atlanta. She took me to the Varsity, the world’s largest drive-in restaurant. While I relished the extremes of salty and sweet, what made a lasting impression was the frenetic pace and secret language of the counter staff, and the charmingly retro décor.

Twenty years later, and still in Atlanta, Tina blogs at Veggievangelist about the wholesome, home-cooked meals she prepares for her family. But she still takes them to the Varsity on occasion.

In this, her second guest post for GBOGH, she assures us that not much has changed at the Varsity. Phew.

Did I mention I’m hungry?

Where we went, and who was coerced into going:

When my friend Michelle suggested that we take our gaggle of boys to The Varsity in Downtown Atlanta before heading over to the World of Coke, I didn’t hesitate. If there are wide gaps in my religious education, it isn’t hard to figure out why. Our church is across the street from what is the “World’s Largest Drive-In Restaurant.” We would go get onion rings instead of getting our butts into our Sunday School classroom.

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World’s Largest Wegmans, and other great places to eat on the road!

WegmansSupermarket shopping isn’t high on my list of favorite things to do. But if we’re planning a road trip, I’ll always check to see if there’s a Wegmans on the route. It’s difficult to explain my love for Wegmans, which burns more fervently because there isn’t one anywhere near us. The chain is based in upstate New York, with additional stores in NJ, PA, VA, and — soon — in MD and MA.

I’ve dragged the family to the locations in Bridgewater, NJ, Pittsford, NY, Scranton, PA, and Harrisburg, PA. At first, they wondered why I would veer off a trip itinerary to visit a supermarket. Little did they know that the itineraries were based around these stops! The most recent addition to our Wegmans passport was in Fredericksburg, VA. It’s the largest store in terms of square footage, and therefore, the world’s largest Wegmans!

If you’ve been to Wegmans, you know why I love it. There’s a huge selection and a high-quality store brand, pleasing décor, friendly staff, etc. What puts Wegmans over the top is the cold and hot food bars within the store, connected to a dedicated eat-in section. There are always hundreds of selections of prepared dishes, served from themed stations (e.g. Asian, vegetarian, salad) and counters (e.g. pizza, subs). Add these to the more traditional deli counter which also offers pre-packaged entrees and sides, and it’s a smorgasbord.

Wegmans

It’s a good thing I don’t live near a Wegmans. We would be poor and I would never cook again.

Wegmans takes priority on our road trip itineraries because it’s a great place for a family to eat while traveling. It’s inexpensive and casual. Everyone can get what they want, and there are always healthy options. (Meaning, I slip some carrots and grapes from the salad bar into the kids’ boxes when they’re not looking.) The dining section is well-decorated; many steps above a cafeteria. Even better, the stores we have visited have fun tables for kids, and even offer movie nights. In Pittsford, we had dinner on a Friday night. Shrek was playing in the front of the room, and the bar in the back was serving wine to the parents! Everyone was VERY happy.

Some stores like Pittsford also have a separate eatery called The Food Bar. You place an order at the counter for hamburgers, fish fry, etc.  There’s also The Pub in two locations, Malvern and Collegeville, with full table service and menu, and no tipping allowed.

OTHER GREAT PLACES TO EAT ON THE ROAD

Preparing to write this post made me think about other affordable, non-restaurant alternatives for traveling families. So I put the question out to other family travel bloggers, “Where do you eat on the road instead of restaurants?” The answers mainly fell into three categories: farmer’s markets; specialty supermarkets; and food trucks/street food.

strawberries

Courtesy of Wandering Educators

Mara at The Mother of All Trips plans ahead to stop at farmer’s markets. “Along the New York State Thruway and the PA Turnpike they even have them at some of the rest stops in the summer. I picked up fresh cherries and blueberry bread at one that we ate for breakfast the next morning.” A great tip — she finds local food sources at LocalHarvest.org.

Heather, the Texas Destination Guroo at Trekaroo.com, likes the Avila Valley Barn in Avila Beach, CA for a tasty baked treat, ice cream, or fruits and veggies, and even a petting zoo. She also recommends the farmer’s market on Thursday nights in San Luis Obispo, CA. “It’s crowded, but there are five blocks of street vendors, farm stands, outside barbecue stands, and other restaurant vendors.”

As for specialty supermarkets, Whole Foods got a mention for its great deli selection. I can attest; I’ve spent my fair share in their prepared foods aisle. Lora at Cascadia Kids likes Trader Joe’s, mainly for picking up healthy treats to-go. “I’m pretty big on the protein-while-traveling, so we focus on the trail mixes, nutrition bars and hard cheeses.”

Keryn at Walkingon Travels loves the food trucks in Seattle, especially the city’s wealth of taco trucks. “El Camion is our favorite. It tends to park near Home Depot locations. My almost 2-year-old son can’t get enough of their carnitas (pork) burritos with black beans. I figure anything he will eat is worth the stop.” Even better, music blasts from the truck, so they can dance a little salsa!

Chinatown

Chicago's Chinatown, courtesy of Wandering Educators

Jessica at Wandering Educators loves ethnic grocery stores, particularly those within Asian communities, where she can pull together a meal of seaweed salad, sushi, dumplings, cold noodle salad, and grilled meat. She never forgets the treats. “We LOVE shrimp crisps, as well as those hello panda biscuits with chocolate inside, and Pocky! Don’t forget the bubble tea, calpis, or any of the amazing flavored beverages in the cooler.”

I appreciate all the input, ladies! So, where do YOU like to eat on the road?

Fredericksburg Things To Do on raveable

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I ♥ Elwood

Thanks to everyone who took a guess at our “Where is it? Wednesday” game yesterday! Liza and Bill both knew that this fellow – his name is Elwood, sigh – lives in Iowa. To be precise, he lives in Reiman Gardens on the Iowa State University campus.  Mike offered a more compelling back story about Hans, Das mad Gärtner, which I think was a product of his new parent sleep deprivation.

Standing 15-feet tall, Elwood is the world’s largest concrete garden gnome. My special guy Chomsky is the second tallest, at just over 13 feet.

Thanks again to Jody at Family Rambling for providing the photo, and this background info: Elwood is modeled after a garden gnome statue made by Created in Johnston, a company which creates concrete statues.

He is named after both an ISU professor who taught Landscape Architecture, and the original street which Reiman Gardens sits on (which is now called University Avenue).

There is a gnome in Poland which is larger, but he is made of fiberglass.

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Go BIG or Go Home Road Trip; Day Two

December 27, 2010

It was a historic day in the city of Columbia, SC. The first Christmas snowfall. We drove into town and scratched our jaded New Yorker heads. It was merely a dusting; certainly not enough to stop everything in its tracks. But it did. The EdVenture Children’s Museum, our morning destination, had delayed its opening until noon, which put our road trip schedule behind.

We’re nothing if not flexible (snicker), so we took it in stride. We had to give up our plans to take I-75 through GA, however, and so I didn’t get to see the world’s largest peanut. It would have tacked on another 90 minutes to our travel time to Tampa, and that’s like asking…”Please, may I have two cranky kids in the back seat? Thank you!”

Next week, I’ll post a more complete description of “Eddie,” the world’s largest kid, who sits in the middle of the completely engaging and entertaining EdVenture Children’s Museum. This attraction was well worth adding to our itinerary; the kids loved every minute.

Childrens museum

"Eddie," the world's largest kid!

As it turned out, we should have taken I-75, because we got caught in a horrific traffic jam on I-95 through SC. We got back every penny we paid for “Nuvi,” our GPS unit, who found an alternate route along the kind of back roads which instantly bring to mind banjo melodies.

No matter how many times I’ve driven into the state of Florida, it always takes me by surprise when I realize I still have hours to go after crossing the state border. It’s such a LOOOOOONG state! I also half-expected the weather to turn instantly balmy, but no such luck. Temps were still in the 30’s. We arrived in Tampa three hours behind our anticipated time, exhausted but safe.

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World’s Largest and Deepest Freshwater Spring, Wakulla Springs, FL

FIRST, an announcement that Linda B. is the winner of our latest giveaway, a copy of Walt Disney World Extreme Vacation Guide for Kids by Kathleen Reilly. CONGRATS!!

This morning, the outdoor thermometer read a whopping 2° F. That’s why I especially enjoy this month’s guest post about a warm, sunny place. My friend Rebecca Roberts lives in Tallahassee, FL, which is close to Wakulla Springs, the world’s largest and deepest freshwater spring. We met way back in elementary school, when we both lived in the Middle East. She still lives in a warm climate, while I’m stuck in this frozen tundra.

I lived in Tallahassee for three years, just out of college, and unemployed. My parents graciously opened their home to me, then charged me rent! (Something about a valuable life lesson, blah blah.) So, I’ve been to Wakulla Springs myself, and even got to ride on the glass-bottom boat, which isn’t always running, depending on the weather and water quality.

Wakulla Springs

GOR. GEOUS.

What left the biggest impression on me? The signs warning that alligators are attracted to pets and small children. Yikes.

But Becca the Brave didn’t let the threat of harm prevent her from providing this report from the field:

Where we went, and who was coerced into going:

Becca and her boys!

This August for our last “field trip” before the start of school, I took my sons, Will (8) and Sam (5) to Wakulla Springs.

WHY did you go there, exactly?
We had all been there before as a family and on a kindergarten field trip, but it is one of those day trip destinations from Tallahassee that we try to do at least once a year.

Okay, what was so cool about it?
We went to the springs to go on the 45 minute boat tour and take a dip in the freezing cold spring. The water is 70 degrees year round and on a 98 degree day in August it will take your breath away. Wakulla Springs is very unique to the area and a cool trip for the day. We packed a picnic lunch, our swimsuits and made a day of it. The boat tour is a must-do. On every visit we have had a tour guide that is both entertaining and knowledgeable about the surroundings. The boat winds down the river, which is lined with Cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss. We saw various birds, alligators, turtles, snakes (ugh!), fish, and we even saw two manatees on this trip.

Alligator

I leave the death-defying reporting to my guest bloggers.

A little background info about the place:
Wakulla Springs is located on the Florida Panhandle near Tallahassee. On average, more than 250 million gallons of water flow from Wakulla Springs forming a nine mile river that reaches the Gulf of Mexico.  If the water is clear you can see the fossilized remains of a mastodon resting on the bottom in about 80 feet of water. There are miles of caves and tunnels under the water.

And, this is where I would start worrying about that alligator warning sign…

Wakulla Springs is a state park, so it is available to anyone that would like to visit, and it is open 365 days a year. The springs also has a lodge and restaurant that has been open since 1937, and it still appears as it did back then.

FUN FACT…… Scenes from the movies ”The Creature From The Black Lagoon” and “Tarzan” were filmed at Wakulla Springs!

How it rated on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = snoozefest, 10 = add to your bucket list):

9. Wakulla Spring is a must-do if visiting the “Big Bend” area, and we typically bring visitors from out of state because it is so unique.

Hey YOU! Go BIG!:

Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
Friends of Wakulla Springs

550 Wakulla Park Drive, Wakulla Springs, FL 32327. (850) 926-0700

Turtles

Sunbathing sounds really good right about now.

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British Columbia’s Tallest Tree House

Good lord, it’s November! Who else has seen Christmas commercials on TV and has broken out in a cold sweat?

This month’s guest post is a FUN one, especially if you ever had a tree house when you were a kid (or wished you did)! Tanya Bennett is principal writer at DrivingandDining.com, which features great places to visit and eat at on the road. Check out her most recent post, “Happy Fried Day,” for a tantalizing peek at a deep-fried Mars bar…mmm…

Where we went and who was coerced into going:

tallest treehouse

I'm thinking that's a lot of stairs...

We rented a 22-foot trailer and hit the road for 8 days, traveling around British Columbia, Canada. Our itinerary included The Enchanted Forest, home to  British Columbia’s (maybe even Canada’s?) Tallest Tree House.

The adventurers: my husband (and, it turns out, expert trailer-backer-upper), me (roadside attraction connoisseur), and our two daughters (aged 3 and 10 months).

The route: We arrived at the Enchanted Forest via Vancouver, Bridal Falls (DinoTown! – just in time to visit before it closed forever), Kamloops, Salmon Arm, and Craigellachie (Beardale Miniature Land!).

The Enchanted Forest roadside attraction is located halfway between Sicamous and Revelstoke, in South Eastern British Columbia, on the side of a densely wooded hill. You enter through a fairy tale cottage (think Hansel and Gretel) and then stroll along windy paths. You pass settings that portray favorite children’s stories from nursery rhymes, fairy tales and literature. Kids (and flexible adults) can actually enter most of the small buildings, where they will see tiny little beds for the seven dwarves or a table set with three bowls for the three bears.

WHY did you go there, exactly?

To see BC’s tallest tree house, of course! During a previous visit to the Enchanted Forest I was 8 months pregnant and unable (or at least, unwilling) to climb to the top of BC’s tallest tree house. I’d been complaining about it ever since, so this year my husband agreed to go again. My daughter didn’t need to be persuaded – her response was, “Are we going right now?” “No.” “How about now?” “Not yet.” (Pause.) ”How about now?” (You get the idea.)

Okay, what was so cool about it?

The surrounding forest sets the scene and then you feel like you are entering a very special, magical place as you climb the twisty staircases to the top of the enchanting multi-level structure. My three-year-old daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed our exciting adventure to the top. The bunk beds there sparked our imagination as we pictured ourselves sleeping in the treetops, surrounded by the fantasy figurines below.

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World’s Largest Jack O’Lantern Displays

HALLOWEEN EDITION WITH GIVEAWAY OF BIG CHOCOLATELY GOODNESS!

I know I’m starting to sound like a scaredy cat. I assure you it’s mostly just a fear of heights. And spiders. And 200 TV channels all airing reality shows at the same time.

Keene Pumpkin Festival

Keene Pumpkin Festival. Photo Credit: J.W. Ocker via OddThingsIveSeen.com

Given my delicate nature, Halloween tends to not be my favorite holiday. But Jack O’Lantern festivals are just my cup of tea. They’re more about fun and artistry, and less about fright and gore.

There are two events this year vying for the world record for the most Jack O’Lanterns lit at one event.

The Keene Pumpkin Festival in NH is the largest and oldest. The world record for the number of Jack O’Lanterns lit at one event was broken here eight times, until a 2006 event in Boston topped it. Still, last year’s 29,762 pumpkins was a record for this festival, and the world record may be broken again this year! The 20th anniversary of the Keene Pumpkin Festival takes place on Main Street in Keene this Saturday, October 16.

In this corner, the challenger! The Great Highwood Pumpkin Festival in IL, is preparing to take its own shot at the world record this year. The whole community participates, creating and donating their own carved creations. They anticipate lighting 32,000 Jack O’Lanterns to take the title! This event takes place October 20-23 in Highwood, IL.

Highwood Pumpkin Festival

Highwood Pumpkin Festival. Photo Credit: Marcia Burke, City of Highwood

Full disclosure: we have not been to either of these events. But we have been to The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze in Croton-on-Hudson, NY for five years in a row. There are over 4,000 Jack O’ lanterns on display here; nothing to sneeze at! And since this event is my personal, “hometown” favorite, I’m going to give them a plug.  The level of artistry and creativity at the Blaze is notably above par. The Jack O’Lanterns cover the grounds of a 17th-century historic site; hanging from tree limbs, perched on rooftops, and incorporated in themed vignettes. You’ll see an undersea aquarium, a field of detailed Celtic knots, a den of dinos, a beehive, pirate ship, and a group of mummies with a pyramid. Amazing.

If you would like more information about these and other Jack O’Lantern festivals, I recently wrote this article for WomansDay.com about ten different events across the country.

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World’s Largest Toilet, Columbus, IN

Sometimes this blog will enlighten and enrich your life with descriptions of artistic, cultural, or spiritual sites, like the large Buddha at the Chuang Yen Monastery.

Other times, we ditch all that highbrow stuff and go for the easy chuckle. This is one of those times.

Our guest post for October, graciously submitted by Julie Henning, is about the World’s Largest Toilet. Yes, you read that right!  Julie is the “Feed Me” Editor at a great site, Road Trips for Families. I met her at the BlogHer conference, and was jazzed to realize that there are other moms out there who: A) love quirky roadside attractions; and B) have no qualms about forcing them upon their defenseless children.

Worlds largest toilet

I can only imagine the stories these kids told their friends about this experience!

The toilet is located inside the Kids Commons Columbus’ Community Children’s Museum in Columbus, IN. Here’s Julie’s take:

Where we went, and who was coerced into going:

As a way to intentionally break up our recent 18-hour road trip from Madison, WI to Charleston, SC, we downloaded the Roadside America iPhone app to our iPhones. With a touch of a button, the app detects your physical location and returns back an interactive list of nearby unusual, interesting, and “Go BIG-worthy” places. Restless in Indiana, we gave the app a whirl.

WHY did you go there, exactly?

Truthfully, we hadn’t stopped since a rest area in Illinois and we all had to go to the bathroom! Fate intervened with the “World’s Largest Toilet” a short distance from I-65 in the heart of downtown Columbus, Indiana. Housed in the Kids Commons Columbus Community Children’s Museum, the museum gracefully allowed us to use the real bathroom and visit the big-daddy loo too. Normally, there’s a nominal admission fee.

Okay, what was so cool about it?

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World’s Longest Elevated Pedestrian Bridge, Hudson Valley, NY

Walkway Over the Hudson

Walkway Over the Hudson

As I mentioned in the post about the World’s Largest Kaleidoscope, I ♥ the Hudson Valley! I look past the winter weather in anticipation of the bright, verdant springs and the brilliant snap of fall. (Exception: last winter’s ice storm which knocked out power for three days; that one left a mark.)

It’s the valley topography which lends itself to amazing scenery of undulating tree-covered hills and mountains. (It’s also the perfect holding vessel for seasonal pollen, which brings on the annual allergy attack and sinus infection, but again, LOVE the HudVal!)

Where we went, and who was coerced into going:

Last year, the Hudson Valley earned its place on the tourism map with the opening of the Walkway Over the Hudson, which is The World’s Longest Elevated Pedestrian Bridge.

We’ve been a few times since then, as a family of four, and twice more when out-of-town family has visited.

Was coercion necessary? If by coercion you mean “put on the big girl panties and force a brave face in front of the kids because you are too chicken shit to go all the way up there on an open-air bridge,” then yes, I had to coerce myself into going. I also had to convince my son (Trip #1) and my brother (Trip #2), because we all share the gene for “fear of open heights.”

It’s also one of the reasons why Matt and I could never win the Amazing Race. Well, that, and my inability to drive stick shift.

WHY did you go there, exactly?

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World’s Largest Kaleidoscope, Mt. Tremper, NY

Why I love living in New York’s Hudson Valley: there is some funky big stuff to see, like a 13-foot garden gnome, a 37-foot Buddha, a 31-foot fork in the road, and a tall Paul Bunyan statue complete with chest hair. Settle down, we’ll eventually get to posts about all of these!

Here’s a little something to tide you over:

Where we went, and who was coerced into going:

Worlds Largest Kaleidoscope

The kaleidoscope is inside this 56-foot tall silo

Curiosity and proximity have lured us to the World’s Largest Kaleidoscope in Mt. Tremper on two occasions.

WHY did you go there, exactly?

The four of us frequently head out in the family roadster to see the local sights. Mainly because if we stay home, I’m forced to listen to the background music of the Mario Galaxy game which The Boy plays on the Wii, and it makes me cranky.

The first time we went, we were on a weekend trip with friends. Our families meshed perfectly; the moms were friends, the dads were poker buddies, my son and their daughters were about the same ages. These were the tranquil days before The Girl arrived to rock our world. It was one of those sweet “family dating” relationships where everyone gets along in shared interests. Sigh.

The second time, The Girl was on the scene.

Okay, what was so cool about it?

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