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Road Trip with the Rugrats

Taking a Road Trip with Grandchildren

by Courtney Caldwell

When I was young, I played gin rummy and Scrabble with my grandmother who was parked on our living room couch almost every day during her sunset years. There was little conversation between us other than the occasional question about school.

We'd pull up a card table where I would sit on a hassock opposite of her and we'd play for hours. That was the way it was back then sans the occasional gathering of relatives who descended upon our summer home on the lake every weekend.

There, Memere, as she was known, (French for grandmother) would sit in the midst of her 10 adult children while they all scurried around interchanging jobs as lifeguard, BBQ master and EMT for the dozens of offspring produced by the clan. Life was pretty simple back then for grandparents. They paid their dues by bearing unreasonable numbers of progeny and then raising them to semi-dysfunctional adulthood. This success earned them the right to be waited upon, gain excessive amounts of weight, and reap the spoiling of dozens of attentive grandchildren.

Courtney Caldwell and her GrandchildrenHow things have changed!
Today, I am the grandparent. In fact, I'm the only living grandparent of two rambunctious boys, 15 and 12, with whom I try to spend as much time as possible considering we live 2500 miles apart. During our visits we go to movies and out to dinner. Sometimes we even play on game boys and other electronic gadgetry on which I best be up to snuff or become lost in the same generation gap I experienced with my own grandmother. But even electronics can only go so far as a shared experience and my wrestling days are pretty much over, so I started asking other grandparents what they did with their grandchildren when they came to visit for extended stays.

The most common thread I discovered was that many families are separated by long distances today, even oceans, for a variety of reasons, which means grandparents sometimes either have to drive excessive miles or take a plane to see their grandchildren. Or, as the kids get older quite often they're "sent" to grandma's house for an extended visit while mom and dad go to work or take a well-deserved vacation of their own.

Since many of these visits are only once or twice a year, a good majority of grandparents find themselves disconnected as their grandchildren immerse themselves in all the latest toys and speak a language only known and understood by other gadget geeks. After all, the greatest generation and most boomers weren't exposed to computers until late in life, whereas, most Generation "Y"-ers don't know a life without them.

Grandparents, it seems, are struggling with ways to communicate with their grandchildren. Trying to entice them away from the latest X-Box game or personal cell phone with backyard barbeques or scrabble just isn't cutting it anymore.

Road Trip co-sponsored by Embassy Suites HotelI began to wonder what would cut it. What would connect these two generations? Then it hit me…a road trip. I for one didn't want my grandsons spending our 10-day visit in lock-down hidden behind closed doors engrossed in HD TV or laptops only to immerge for the occasional feeding or bathroom run. What better way to achieve quality time together while covertly educating them with my knowledge and experience on the road, a place I know well.

Road Trip co-sponsored by On-StarAfter all, isn't it the boomer generation who is the most well-traveled of all today? Isn't it the boomers who had geography and history lessons pummeled into their brains all throughout school? I was shocked to learn that Jake, my 12-year-old grandson, who has attended a private school since first grade, has never had a history or geography class, nor had his 15-year old brother Johnathan until his first year in a public high school. Even then he said not much emphasis was placed on history but rather on math and science. What better way to learn about U.S. geography and history than a good old-fashioned road trip?

What better ways to share quality time, while having a whole bunch of fun and educational entertainment? What better way to open up these young minds to the world outside of Windows?

The thought of spending ten days and 1600 miles on the road with two young teens may not sound appealing to most but with proper preparation it's not nearly as daunting as it may seem.

Tip 1: Create an itinerary that completely immerses the kids not only in the destinations but also in the journey. If they're involved in the process it makes the journey that much more enjoyable. And most of all make sure the ride is comfortable and safe.

2008 GMC AradiaMy first stop was General Motors and OnStar for a perfectly well-suited vehicle for a road trip of this length; one that would provide plenty of room, comfort, style, class and safety. They surely delivered.

The all-new GMC Acadia, which seats six comfortably with three rows of seats, was our road trip ride. Not needing the third row for passengers the 60/40 split seats laid flat to accommodate three suitcases, two backpacks, a large box of food and a cooler - all of which were packed for easy access. The backpacks were placed near the middle row bucket seats so the boys could access their stuff and the cooler by the automatic lift gate for rest stop meals. The boys really got kick out of the automatic lift gate and ended up finding all the different ways it could be opened and closed. [READ FULL REVIEW OF GMC ACADIA]

Tip 2: Bring lots of healthy snacks. The sugar content of things like candy, potato chips and soda only intensifies the antsy-ness of high energy kids. The last thing any driver wants is teens and tots in a high state of alert strapped in a seat belt for 300 miles.

Bring an assortment of fruits, water, string cheese, crackers, health bars and things of that nature so they can nibble during the more lengthy legs of the journey. For kids not used to healthy snacks this is a great opportunity to start adapting them (and perhaps yourself) to a healthier lifestyle. And they will adapt quickly when that's all there is.

Also, keep a small amount of these snacks handy and accessible for each child in a Ziploc bag or a small bucket by their seats for snacking at will. This will prevent you from having to constantly pull over to get the snacks or worse, letting a child get out of his seatbelt while you're driving to access food. Not a safe idea.

Tip 3: Be sure each child has their own set of headphones and bring DVDs that are age appropriate. Kids today are far more savvy and sophisticated and very likely will not be interested in watching the kind of movies we watched as kids at the same age. Be mindful of their experience, not so much their age, when selecting movies.

You may want to first ask them what they like and then ask their parents to gauge a happy medium. Although, if you're a grandparent like me, the goal is to spoil your grandchildren rotten with just about anything and everything they want (within reason of course). After all, they're our reward for not killing our own kids.

OnStar's Turn-by-Turn Navigation

One of the first things we did was become familiar with our new onboard partner and adviser, OnStar's Turn-by-Turn navigation system. We named our invisible friend Jack, after my father, who was known as the go-to guy in our family for great advice. By giving the OnStar voice a name, it also provided a fun way to easily talk to Johnathan and Jake's about their great-grandfather; a wonderful man they never knew but surely would have loved for his unique character. [Visit OnStar Newsletter]

I also loved Jack because he made my grandsons laugh. When Jack speaks you must listen and let him finish before answering. Not being the most patient person, I often stepped on Jack's questions with my too-soon answer. He would then start over because he couldn't understand my response when I interrupted. The boys got a big kick out of Jack's ability to shut me up. I learned quickly not to interrupt. It soon became very apparent that having Jack on board kept us safe, in sync and on schedule, not to mention entertained. [READ ABOUT ONSTAR'S TURN-BY-TURN]

Tip 4: Choose destinations that are entertaining for both you and your grandchildren, again keeping their gender and age in mind.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, OhioRock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio
After flying Johnathan and Jake to Michigan from California, I gave them just one day to adjust to the 3-hour time difference then off we went to Cleveland, Ohio for a tour of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Music, in my opinion, is the only universal communication that seems to truly connect generations and cultures so what better way to start the journey than with a walk through music's history showcasing groups that were hot when I was a kid and are still hot today.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, OhioThe seven-story Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is only 10 years old but in that 10 years they have managed to fill every nook and cranny with memorabilia. My grandsons enjoyed learning the history, looking at the famous costumes and instruments, and especially appreciated the photos and videos of how Rock & Roll has evolved over the years. [READ MORE ON ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME]

Tip 5: Allow plenty of time at each destination. Kids and grandparents each move at different paces. Some move slower, some faster. Be sure to allow ample time to explore the attractions you've selected without rushing. This will keep everyone's tempers quelled making the experience more fun and unforgettable.

Tip 6: Choose a hotel that is kid-friendly and has enough room.

Embassy SuitesEmbassy Suites: A Great Hotel for Families
At the end of our Rock & Roll Hall of Fame tour we headed for our host hotel, the Embassy Suites Rockside in Cleveland. The Embassy Suites is one of my favorites because they offer so many great amenities for not only families but also for business travelers on a budget.

In addition to reasonable rates, the Embassy Suites rooms are spacious with the bedroom completely separated from the living area, which is nice if you're traveling with children. The living area has a sofa bed, table and chairs, a TV, a kitchenette with microwave, refrigerator and coffee maker, great options for making your own meals. The two rooms also make it convenient for putting kids to bed early if the adults want to stay up later, although some may find themselves as pooped as the grandkids by the end of the day. [READ EMBASSY SUITES REVIEW]

Tip 7: Try to plan your itinerary to stay on schedule with meals and decent bedtime hours. Remember, kids get excited with all this activity so it takes awhile for them to calm down at night. Staying on some sort of normal eating and sleeping schedule will make it easier to get them up in the morning and keep them from lagging behind on the next day's activities. Of course, this best applies if your road trip goes through states in the same time zone. In our case, the boys were on west coast time trying to adjust to east coast time so getting them up on the first couple of mornings was a bit challenging. But due to the element of excitement of the trip, they adjusted fairly quickly.

Tip 8: Get the kids involved in the daily maintenance of the trip. When you pack a cooler full of water and juice it requires ice refills daily. It was necessary to pack and unpack the Acadia every time we arrived at a hotel. There were also numerous gas fills. Be sure to assign tasks to everyone on the trip right from the get-go. With everyone pitching in and taking responsibility for a portion of the trip it makes it much more of a team effort instead of one person doing everything and resenting it.

Jonathan took care of all our gas fills as well as all the loading and unloading of the heavy luggage. Jake, a bit smaller, emptied our ice chest every night and made runs to the hotel's ice machine to refill it. I also made a check list of all the bags and electronics we had with us so before leaving the room each morning we checked off everything on the list to ensure nothing was left behind. Within a couple of days, the boys had it down to a science.

Sharing the responsibility of the trip really turned it into a team effort, which everyone felt good about. It gives kids a sense of pride in knowing they're contributing and it's being appreciated. They also tend to appreciate their destinations more when they recognize how much goes into the itinerary.

New York City, New York
After Cleveland, we headed for New York City for the 4th of July celebrations. This was not one of my brightest ideas. New York City during 4th of July week is not the best place to take kids, or even to go alone. It was quite busy.

It's brimming with tourists from all over the world to the point where every street is like a mob scene out of War of the Worlds. It's an ideal situation for pick-pockets but not for families. It would be very easy to lose a little one or actually anyone in such dense crowds. It's also very loud with taxis and cars blasting horns and construction workers screaming above it all. And with so many tourists, trying to find an available taxi was difficult at best.

Although we had the Acadia, I had our New York Embassy Suites valet tuck it away somewhere safe where it wouldn't get dinged and banged, which meant we ended up walking everywhere.

We took the hop-on hop-off bus tour in lower Manhattan and managed to see the Statue of Liberty, ride the Staten Island Ferry (which is free by the way), and see ground zero from 9/11.

We also took a tour of the Empire State Building and enjoyed the bird's eye view of Manhattan from the 86th floor. In spite of all that, the traffic getting in and out of NY that week was horrible, crowds were overwhelming, every attraction was crowded with long lines, and everything was very expensive, including $50 per night for parking. In fact, Johnathan and Jake mentioned at trip's end that NY was the least favorite spot. A lesson learned.

"The best part of NY for us was our host hotel,
the New York Embassy Suites."

If you think this Hilton-owned chain is too budget-based for your needs, think again. The location of this property was very close to the Hudson River with our room facing west for amazing sunsets. The concierge is very helpful with directing tourists to places of fame and notoriety. And like all Embassy Suites, they provide a full cook-to-order breakfast, which is included in the cost of the room.

This is especially beneficial in New York where prices for everything are over the top. The NY Embassy Suites also included free Internet access, a nice little perk indeed. And, Johnathan expressed how comfortable the fold out sofa was during our two-night stay there, stating that it was even more comfortable than his own bed at home.

Nonetheless, when it came time to leave New York we couldn't leave fast enough. Had it not been for OnStar's Turn-by-Turn getting us in and out with such ease amongst all the construction and traffic we might still be finding our way out today.

Mystic Seaport, Connecticut
After leaving NY, and encountering a minor altercation with a 'lady' construction worker, who didn't disappoint with her world-class performance of the reputed New York attitude, sailor mouth and hand gestures included, we headed north to New England.

Connecticut's Mystic Seaport Along Connecticut's winding coastline we stopped in Mystic Seaport and entered the world of the 18th century whaling and shipping community. I took my own children there in the 70s and had fond memories of that tour but when we arrived much had changed. The village had been upgraded, the ships were fewer than I recall, and some of the historical outdoor displays were gone, probably ruined and rotted from the salt air exposure. But not all was lost. [READ ABOUT MYSTIC'S 18TH CENTURY COMMUNITY]

New England: Meet the Family
Visiting our family in New England and having the boys meet those they've never met before was one of the highlights of our road trip. With so many families separated by distance today, kids, especially grandchildren, are not growing up the tight-knit families that were once common place. Many kids rarely, sometimes never, meet their extended family so any time there's an opportunity for my grandsons to make that connection to learn more about their heritage, I'm all for it.

Like most people, I have a totally dysfunctional family who I love dearly, and of course, their nuttiness was in full swing upon our arrival. The boys also met their 90-year-old, great grandmother (my mother), who is in a nursing home with Alzheimer's disease.

Nonetheless, during our brief visit she smiled the entire time even mentioning at one point that one of the boys reminded her of her brother. Having Alzheimer's we thought this comment was progress. As for the boys, they experienced yet another generation and history from which they came.

The boysAt the end of our trip I asked the boys what they enjoyed most about their adventure, and without hesitation, they said meeting their family. I pondered that for a moment and was reminded of the power and importance family has over all other things. Although meeting family was awesome and a bunch of fun, I had one last big thing in store for them.

Niagara Falls, New York: Saving the Best for Last
When one thinks of Niagara Falls they might think weddings, romance, and honeymoons. And while Niagara Falls is one the most well-know honeymoon destinations in the United States it has so much more to offer.

Niagara FallsActually, a little tidbit we learned from Ambassador Art, our personal tour guide who was assigned to us from the Niagara Convention and Tourism Corporation, was that about 50 percent of all Niagara Falls tourists visit from India and approximately 15 percent visit from Asia. Art explained that the people from India are taught from a very young age about the power of water. They learn that the Ganges River is the source of life and the receiver of death.

There are constant cremations along the Ganges River from the time of their ancestors to today. They believe their spirit thrives in the river. The Niagara Fall also represents these magical powers to the people of India which is why they travel in hordes every year to experience the enigmatic power and spiritual connection the falls represent to them and their culture. [READ MORE ABOUT NIAGARA FALLS ADVENTURE]

What a trip! What an experience! Was it easy planning such an eventful trip? No. Was it tiring being on the road for a week and driving 1600 miles? Yes. Was it worth every minute of every day to take my grandsons on a road trip they'll never forget? Absolutely. Would I do it again? Without hesitation.

Niagara Falls AdventureThis trip created memories for Johnathan and Jake that they'll never forget for the rest of their lives. Today, they're sharing stories of their adventure with their friends.

Tomorrow, they'll share those same stories with their own children, and hopefully someday, take their own grandchildren on a memorable adventure of their own. To ensure that they never forget a moment of their remarkable journey, upon our return I made a souvenir scrapbook full of memorabilia including tickets, wristbands, photos, even pieces of our waterlogged ponchos from every place we visited, and every adventure shared.

I want my experience with my grandchildren to be different than mine was with my grandmother. Although I learned many things from her, including becoming a spelling bee champion, no doubt to all those years of scrabble, I want my grandsons to remember that life is about living to the fullest, part of which includes adventure of both mind and spirit and endless possibilities to learn and explore. What better way than a good old-fashioned road trip?


If you go:

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
751 Erieside Ave.
Cleveland, Ohio 44114
(216) 781-ROCK

Embassy Suite Rockside, Cleveland
5800 Rockside Woods Blvd.
Independence, Ohio 44131
(216) 986-9900

Embassy Suites, New York
102 North End Avenue
New York, NY 10282
(212) 945-0100

Niagara Crown Plaza
300 Third Street
Niagara Falls, NY 14303
(716) 285-3361

Mystic Seaport, Connecticut
75 Greenmanville Avenue
Mystic, CT 06355-0990
(888) 973-2767

Niagara Falls Tourism and Convention Corporation

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