Best Of Summer 2016

I have a funny relationship with fall. Throughout the final weeks of August I find myself dreading Labor Day weekend and the change of seasons. I'm not sure why this is, because once I've gotten over the transition and the trees start to change, fall is my favorite season. It's almost as if I need that signal from the trees; they know it's time for change before I do. Once those colors start to pop I relax and say, oh, you are right, I'm ready for fall.

One of the reasons I have a hard time giving up summer is because it is often filled with lots of travel, something that is harder to do during the school year since Evan is a teacher. During the summer months Evan works at the airport so we use his awesome flight benefits to visit family and spread our wings. Now that Evan has finished his first couple weeks back at school and we're working our way into new fall routines, I'm already nostalgic for all of our summer adventures.

So as one last hurrah and in order to officially bid summer adieu, I'm having a little award ceremony over here for the Best of Summer 2016! (corny, perhaps, but work with me.) Perhaps it will help someone plan a future trip - like a road trip to the best brewery in the country (IMO)! Or at least reflect on your own summer bests, wherever you spent them.

Best Meal: The Farmhouse Tap and Grill, Burlington, VT
Evan and I spent our first night away from Henry since he was born (!) while visiting my parents in Massachusetts. We drove a couple of hours up to Vermont, where we stayed at a B&B, did some biking and dined at The Farmhouse. I got the fried chicken with honey and brown-butter glaze, with a side of nitty gritty spoon bread (like a cross between cornbread, polenta and grits) and braised kale. Evan got a burger. I don't know if we were simply wooed by the food itself or if the novelty of eating without a toddler magically enhanced our taste buds, but we left that meal on a food-high, determined to recreate it at home. I'll let you know if I ever succeed.

Best Beer: Tree House Brewery, Monson, MA
It's a blessing and a curse: once you've had Tree House beer everything else will pale in comparison. Evan learned about this brewery last winter when a fellow teacher informed him that it is one of the top breweries in the nation - and only 30 minutes from my parents' house in central Massachusetts. The clincher is, you can't buy this beer in stores, you have to get it on-site, after standing in a long line of fellow beer-enthusiasts. They only sell beer a couple days a week for a few hours in the evening, and you have to follow them on Twitter to find out what beer will be available that day. We happened to be there on a popular day so the line snaked around a field, and when we finally walked out of the brewery with a full box in our arms and saw all those poor souls still baking in the sun, it was hard not to smile. Even if you start the day as just meh about beer, by the time you leave Tree House you will be a fan. (Haze and Lights On are my favorites!)

Best Ice Cream: Four Seas, Cape Cod (it was so good I forgot to snap a photo!)
This old-school ice cream shop in the center of Cape Cod (Centerville, MA) is a little crazy inside but it's nothing the skilled high-school servers can't handle. They have ice cream scooping down to a science. Before I knew it, we made our way through the line and had the best maple walnut ice cream in hand. I believe I had this for breakfast on two occasions, and I'm not one to eat ice cream for breakfast. I don't even normally love ice cream, so that's saying something! It was the perfect smooth texture with some firmness behind it, and the taste was not overpowering. Second place winner goes to Ben & Jerry's since we visited the factory in Vermont. But it was so overpriced and the tour guide was pretty bad, so I'm reluctant to give them the win. We had another memorable ice cream stop at Burnette Dairy Coop in Grantsburg, Wisconsin (a roadside creamery), also maple walnut ... apparently that was my flavor of the summer!

Update: We visited St. Louis right after I wrote this post and since it was technically still summer, I should include our St. Louis favorite: Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. On the old Route 66, this place is a legend. If the long line and packed parking lot don't convince you of its popularity, just look at the side of the building for the celebrity board. And then try any of the mixtures off the menu - I gobbled up the Cinna-Crunch, Evan had a Root 66 which he explained as the perfect balance of root beer float and malt.

Best Bike Ride: Stanley Park, Vancouver
In all reality, we went on three pretty epic bike rides this summer. I'm choosing Stanley Park as the winner because it was the only ride we went on as a family of three - Henry rode in a burly. Stanley Park is like the Central Park of Vancouver, only by the water. Riding along the famous Sea Wall, Henry kept saying "awah" (water) and smiling at passing bikers.
Evan and I also biked along Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont, and out on the Causeway, where water (and wind!) great you from both sides. Another "honorable mention" goes to my ride with my dad in the Quabbin Reservoir, near their home in central Massachusetts. The best things about this ride: dad had a GoPro so we had fun playing around and we went fast (as all rides with dad go).
At the start of summer I hadn't been on a bike since Henry was born, so it felt great to get back on two wheels again. I'm also excited because we finally have a burly of our own so am looking forward to more family rides around the Minneapolis lakes, once we fix it up.

Best Beach: Nauset Light Beach, Cape Cod
We never even planned on making it to the Atlantic side of Cape Cod, but on a whim one day we packed up the car and drove to Nauset Light Beach (did you know it takes hours to drive through all of Cape Cod? I had no idea). If we ever go back to Cape Cod we will definitely stay somewhere on the Wild Atlantic Seashore, because it has this natural, rustic and I'll say it, wild, feel to it. We parked and walked to the stairs that led down the side of the cliff to the beach and looked down the coastline. From that vantage point, the mist mingled with the sand and there was a gentle haze everywhere. Maybe this doesn't sound like the perfect beach scene to you, but nothing gets me more excited than a mysterious and beautiful landscape. The best part about this beach was the little tide pools along the shore that allowed for easy toddler play, with the crash of the waves serving as a backdrop. We were lucky to have a couple of seals swim by during our visit.
Honorable mention beach goes to Rainbow Park at Alta Lake near Whistler, BC where we couldn't help but revel in the juxtaposition of the snow-capped mountains in the distance and the warm, clear waters of the lake on a perfect summer day. We also touched the waters in Cape Cod Bay, which is known for their low tide that goes out for miles upon miles. But the day we were there was so terribly windy we weren't fully able to explore - although my dad had fun capturing photos of Henry in the waves!

Best Coffee Spot: my parent's front porch
A couple years ago my parents packed up and moved from their home in New Jersey, where they raised their four girls, and transplanted themselves on a hill in central Massachusetts. In some ways I wish they still lived in my hometown, but in other ways I'm glad of where they've landed. And by other ways, I mainly mean the view. To wake up in the morning with hazy mountains on the horizon or to watch the stars light up the sky at night ... a good view is always the perfect way to bookend your day. So naturally, this was also my favorite spot to enjoy a cup of coffee (the free "childcare" wasn't bad either!). And my parents make strong coffee with fancy frothed milk, so it's basically like you're at your own coffee shop ... or bed and breakfast!

Honorable mention goes to ... I can't believe I'm going to say this ... Whole Foods in West Vancouver. But you guys, this WF was so impressive, so much better than in the states! Their bakery section was out of this world with locally made artisan breads, pastries, and cookies. And their cold-pressed coffee had me on a caffeine high before we made it back on the highway. 

Best Drive: Sea-to-Sky Highway, BC (Hwy 99)
I've been on beautiful drives before, but our day-trip north of Vancouver to Whistler was one that will go down in the books as my favorite. I knew that the contrast of sea (technically Howe Sound) and mountain was striking before heading out, but watching those mountains gradually present themselves out the front window as we bent around turns with new ocean vistas, was magical. Note: we also took a gondola to the top of this mountain and ventured across a suspension bridge, pictured above.

Honorable mention drive goes to our route through the countryside from Burlington VT to central Massachusetts because it proved that Vermont is just as we imagined it would be: like Minnesota, with rolling hills, small towns and cows, but even better, thanks to the mountains on the horizon. 

Best Tour: Cape Cod Chips
I still can't believe we did something quite this touristy on vacation. Well, make that twice. We went on two factory tours: Ben & Jerry's (interesting facility but the tour itself was awful) and Cape Cod Chips. The beauty of this tour, which we did on a rainy morning, is that it is self-guided and short. You simply walk down a hallway and peek through windows into the factory, and read a couple signs if you want. (Fun fact: the 40% reduced fat ones are simply spun longer in one point in the process, but everything else about the chip remains the same as the originals.) Now we have an excuse to buy Cape Cod potato chips, right? The beach I mentioned above also happens to be where the lighthouse on the Cape Cod Chip bag sits (Nauset Light). It's no coincidence that Henry learned the word "chip" on this vacation. ;)

Best Museum: Eric Carle Museum, Amherst, MA 
This is where we spent a good 15 minutes reading stories inside of a life-sized Very Hungry Caterpillar and Henry shared a kiss with the butterfly. Most of the exhibits are more geared for adults and are perfect if you're interested in children's book illustrations and stories. We learned about Eric Carle, obviously, but also Robert McCloskey (Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal), among others. 

Update: I wrote this post right before visiting St. Louis for a weekend, and now that I've returned I have to add that the Route 66 exhibit at the St. Louis History Museum (in Forest Park until July 2017) is very well-done and probably deserves my Best-Of award more than the one above. It is FREE, very comprehensive, and includes all sorts of artifacts, like old bumper cars from roadside amusement parks. Evan and I enjoyed a little day-date and daydreamed of a Route 66 road trip back in the 60s ... maybe we should hit the road now for a modern day experience!  

Best Unplanned Moments: 
All those little things that stick with you as the highlights, even though they were never planned or anticipated.
  • Watching Henry "race" in the backyard with the patio string lights turned on.
  • Jumping in the freezing water during our kayak/canoe trip in the Swift River (central Massachusetts) with my dad.
  • Henry learning the meaning of the word "mountain" by riding the sea-to-sky gandola and driving through the mountains in British Columbia. Also, Henry showing understanding for the first time that we are packing to go on an airplane (and wondering every day after, if we are headed to the airport)
  • Finding out that my childhood best friend was vacationing in Cape Cod when we were also there, which is exactly what happened a couple decades ago! (Unfortunately we didn't meet up due to Henry's ear infection - see below). 
  • Scoring some $6 shoes at a Dollar Store in a small Wisconsin town after forgetting to pack Henry a pair of shoes.

Worst Moments:
Just to balance it out, because nothing is ever quite as perfect as it seems:
  • Losing our Ergo baby carrier in Vancouver and having to manage Henry in an airport without it for the first time (quite the challenge when your kid likes to run) 
  • Henry's meltown after lunch in Stanley Park because he wanted to push the Burley instead of ride in it. Meanwhile, I stood in line for $8 water for 20 minutes. In the same vein, his temper tantrum at the top of a mountain in British Columbia.
  • Our Urgent Care visit in Cape Cod to confirm Henry's ear infection.
  • Learning, first-hand, the downfalls of using cheap diapers on vacation: Henry's diaper leaked while I wore him going through customs in Vancouver, and multiple times in his car seat!
As I sit here wrapping up this post, a thunderstorm is rolling through, and I'm pretty sure in the morning we'll have a light carpet of early red and orange leaves. Why hello there, fall.

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