(part 2 in a series about our recent vacation adventure)
For us, traveling as a large family means one thing...attempting to have a plan, and then being willing to throw it out the window when things don't go accordingly.
Things started out well. We met at Dad's and after joining hands in prayer for safe travels, and a few kids car-swapping for the first leg of the trip, we were off. Cell phones and walkie talkies kept lines of communication open, allowing us to learn from one family traveling ahead of us that the rest-stop we were planning as our lunch stop was closed...the first (and maybe simplest) in a series of adjustments to the "plan." (Walkie Talkies for the kids in the caravan would be my first fun travel tip). We mapped out another rest-stop and met up with 2 other cars. There would now be 6 cars in our caravan, and 2 others well ahead of us.
There are only so many things I can try to predict and plan for when preparing...how much food to bring, how many changes of clothes, what sites we plan to try to visit, and sometimes even what we'll do for a plan B if weather (or kids) are rotten. One thing I didn't factor on was the CROWDS of people that come to visit the Falls. Hundreds, thousands maybe. My life seems to be a constant head count the way it is, and with crowds as they were, it was magnified.
Often as we walked, it was with our entire group (39 people.) The kids loved hanging out with their cousins, and aunts and uncles, and I'd often find more than one of mine enjoying a shoulder ride through the park. This was wonderfully reassuring, and at the same time incredibly stressful to not have them constantly at my side...within head-count range. Throughout the entire trip (and in my sleep even) my mind was constantly at work...Alice, Emma, Sam, Grace, Mary, John? John? John? white shirt? okay there's John, Charlie, Frank, Rose? Rose? Rose was with cousin Jessi right? Yep, there's Rose...and Lucy (usually with John or I, and easiest to keep count of.) Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It was unsettling. Note, my second tip, this time for SAFE traveling: Dress the entire family in a matching color, preferrably something neon. I say this only half-jokingly. Definitely dress alike, even though I laugh when I see it on tv...Duggar style, but neon is optional. Alice and Emma wore matching neon yellow camp shirts one night, and they were the easiest to locate, despite the fact that they were most often apart from the crowd.
We spent our two nights there at the Holiday Inn Niagara Falls (NY side), which turned out to be a perfect location...walking distance to the Falls, and lots of great little sites within the State Park...and yes, State Park spells cheap (and in some cases, for kids 6 and under, FREE). There were lots of walking paths and trails, access to the observation tower and viewing sites for both the American and Horseshoe falls, trolley rides on Goat Island, 3 Sisters Islands, and lots of other little gems. What we didn't even realize until we were leaving on Sunday, was that a block behind us was the commercialized part of the Falls...a section of town that was nothing but t-shirt stands, carnival-type rides, street vendors galore...certainly something enjoyable for some families, but nothing that we had budgeted for in our trip, and something we were tickled pink to have blissfully avoided all weekend. There are fireworks over the falls on Friday and Sunday nights thru the summer months, and they were well-worth staying out late with young ones. We could view them perfectly just across the street from our hotel. Perfect!
Most of the rest of the family ate at and enjoyed Top of the Falls restaurant (on Goat Island?), which had prime dining with a view of the falls. We were planning to join them, until all 10 of the kids, while reviewing the menu during our wait outside, chose Cheese Pizza as their entree from the kids menu. At $8.95 per kid, we opted to return to the hotel and order in pizza pool-side with a few of the others who also opted out. The view sounded really nice, and I was told the food was excellent, but when feeding these masses, we have to be budget-realistic. No pizza is worth $89.50. My days of fine dining have come and gone...and will be back before I know it, but now is not the time. Tip #3, relating to group traveling, sometimes you just have to break from the crowd. For me, ordering pizza poolside was so much more relaxing than the thought of hushing my wild bunch after a hot day of long walks along trails. And vacation is about relaxing (at least a little bit, right?!) Do what works for you and your family.
On Sunday, everyone broke to go their seperate ways. Some had actually left early Saturday evening to be back home for other plans, some were going to be staying over longer in Cleveland on the way home, and still others wanted to spend a bit more time at the Falls. We opted to go to mass at The National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, just 10 minutes north of the falls. Unfortunately, we had one sick little one (a stomach virus), and the Basilica where mass was held was HOT, steaming HOT. So while we managed to make it through mass without event, we didn't get to stay and tour the beautiful grounds. It did have a life-size statue garden with many (50 or more?) statues of the saints. It was beautiful from a distance as we passed by, and wish we could have spent the afternoon wandering around there. It was the perfect end to and ready-to-end mini vacation. I recommend a stop there if you're in the area.
Overall, it was a WONDERFUL trip. I'm so glad we went, and enjoyed traveling (for the first time I think) with family in such a large group. I worried unneccesarily beforehand about how group-travel would be...and turns out it was great. I hope it becomes tradition. John's dad turned 80 earlier this year, and none of us know what time will bring. I'm glad to have these memories of a family vacation with him, and think he might have enjoyed it too. I'm certain he was glad that his days of head-counting his 12 kids are over, and could relax a bit...though it was no "walk in the park" for him, I'm sure. I think it's safe to say we ALL slept better in our own beds when we got home.
Happy, safe travels to all of you this summer.