Nolen Family Vacation 2017: Day 11

Tuesday, April 25th

Universal Studios

We’re big Harry Potter nerds here so Universal was so exciting for us. Years ago, when we went to Disney, we all had a good time, but we’ve never been super huge Disney fans so the boys enjoyed themselves, but they were beside themselves. It was neat to see them so looking forward to something.

Ben’s feet were really hurting and he was limping from the get-go. I really felt for him, but he insisted we press on. He was as excited as we were! 

We booked it to the Hulk ride first thing. Gabe adamantly refused to ride it so he and I sat out. After that we walked back toward the Harry Potter portion of the park. This is easily where we spent most of our time. We went into and just oohed and ahhed. We ate dinner at the Three Broomsticks and had a tasty butterbeer.

Diagon Alley

Both boys bought interactive wands. The park has several places where you can use your wand to perform “magic”.

We rode the Hogwarts Express, the Escape from Gringotts, Spiderman, Kong, and the Simpsons ride.

After tearing ourselves away from HP, we moved over to the Simpsons section of the park. Ben was excited!

No, he didn’t eat this donut alone!

We ate dinner at Red Oven and then headed back to the Airbnb. Once again we managed to stay up late chatting and hanging out. Chelsea wasn’t about to pay for Universal tickets when she couldn’t ride most of the rides, so she and Nate spent the day deep sea fishing. It was fun to catch each other up on how we’d spent our days.

We were all tired and Ben’s feet were really bothering him, but we’d had a great day and were excited to get up and do it all again!

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Nolen Family Vacation 2017: Day 10

Monday, April 24th

Honeymoon Island

We ate a quick breakfast at the golf course and then made our way to Honeymoon Island. Despite a good start, we still didn’t arrive until quarter to 4. We drove to the North lot at the furthest point of the island. It wasn’t crowded at all.

We’d already arranged to meet Chelsea and Nate. They beat us there and were ready to hit the beach when we arrived.

The wind was pretty strong here, too. We had to shout to be heard. The guys swam and we girls walked the beach looking for shells. Honeymoon Island is a great place to find shells. They were everywhere!

While walking, I bent over to grab a shell and my phone slipped right out of my pocket and into the ocean. It floated and I grabbed it right away, but I was still really bummed.

We headed back toward the guys but couldn’t find them. Tim was wandering around taking pictures. Nate was finally located on one of the benches. He said something about Ben and Luke up at the showers. We hadn’t been there very long at all so I was surprised Ben was getting ready to go already.

When Ben and Luke came back Ben told me that Luke had been swept into the rocks. Ben had freaked out and went after him. Nate went in, too. The rocks are covered with barnacles which cut them all up. Funnily enough, Luke was able to get right onto the rocks and only had minor scratches, but Nate had a large gash on his hand and Ben was cut badly all over both feet and hands. He was just done after that and I couldn’t blame him.

We managed to get our yearly “feet on the beach” photo, but Ben wasn’t about to take his socks and shoes off and expose his poor feet to the sand again.

One of these things is not like the other…

The wind had worn us all out so we decided to head back to the mainland and grab dinner. We ate a filling dinner at Frenchy’s Outpost and then headed to the Airbnb.

We’d planned ahead and rented a 4-bedroom house. Even though we weren’t in FL for Disney, the boys still got a kick out of the Disney-themed bedroom they shared.

Although, Karen’s bed was badly broken so that first night she had to sleep in Gabe’s bed and he slept on the couch. He wasn’t happy to say the least.

We hit a Trader Joe’s on the way out so that we could stock up on snacks and breakfast items. It was the largest, fanciest Trader Joe’s I’ve ever seen! I geeked out a little.

Once at the house, we stayed up a bit late just visiting and catching up. I knew Chels and Nate wouldn’t be up to MO again until Labor Day weekend so I wanted to get in as much time as possible.

We’d had a nice day and I was really impressed with Honeymoon Island. I had a hard time deciding between that and Caladesi State Park, a neighboring island. I usually plan everything out way ahead of time,but this decision I didn’t make until the day of.

Ben and Nate bandaged themselves up and I put my phone into a bed of rice and then we all called it a night. Universal Studios was our next adventure and we were so excited!

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Nolen Family Vacation 2017: Day 9

Sunday, April 23rd

Savannah and Jekyll Island

Despite poor sleep from the night before, we were glad to get up and get on our way. The manager was very accommodating and gave us a full refund.

Before leaving town, we drove to Chippewa Square to see the bench that Tom Hanks had filmed on in Forest Gump, only to find that it had been removed and placed in a museum. Forsyth Park was another recommended spot to visit so we checked it out. It was a large park in the city. Not a whole lot going on, but it was peaceful and had a beautiful fountain.

We then moved on to Jekyll Island, just a couple hours away.

Since we arrived at such a good time, we headed straight for the beach. Driftwood Beach, to be exact. This beach was gorgeous and absolutely packed with neat critters. We saw more here in half an hour than I’ve seen on all the other beaches I’ve visited combined!

Finding treasures

Blue jelly

Beach combing with Karen


One of half a dozen live sand dollars Luke found.


We didn’t keep anything we came across. Just snapped pictures and let it be.

After a while we were all starving so we found a little restaurant with outdoor seating.  The main beach was right there so after eating we decided to check that beach out, too. Great Dunes Beach had soft, fine, white sand and large dunes with grass. There wasn’t much going on here and the wind really started to pick up so we didn’t stay long.

St. Andrew’s Beach was at the Southern end of the island so we decided to check it out to see if we were missing out on anything. This beach was the worst. Just yucky with lots of little trash and seaweed.

Everyone was worn out so we headed back to the hotel for showers and naps. The boys just wanted to relax and watch T.V. for a bit so we adults let them stay behind while we walked along the path near our hotel.

Our hotel

We’d seen a lighthouse earlier in the day, while at Driftwood Beach, so we decided to go in search of it. We found it on the nearby island of St. Simon.

St. Simon Lighthouse

The pier

The sun was setting and the wind was really strong, but we walked out on the pier anyway and were rewarded with a dolphin sighting.

We finished the evening with a a walk along the strip and  some gelato. It was dark and starting to get a bit chilly so we called it a night and decided to try and catch up on some sleep before our upcoming drive to Florida.

In retrospect, I wish we’d spent more time at Driftwood Beach and not have bothered about the other beaches. Of course, there’s only one way to find out and that’s part of the adventure. During every vacation there’s a place or two that I wish we’d had more time for and Driftwood Beach in one of those places, for me. I hope I can visit again some day!

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Nolen Family Vacation 2017: Day 8

Saturday, April 22nd

Savannah, GA

After a homemade breakfast with Nate and Chels, we hit the road and headed for Savannah. By the time we arrived and unloaded at the hotel it was late afternoon. We headed straight to the riverfront and strolled along the Factor’s Walk.

Here’s an explanation of what it is, exactly.

Factors Row and Factors Walk are located on a bluff just above the River Walk. Factors Row is a unique collection of red brick buildings, formerly a center of commerce for Savannah’s cotton factors, or brokers. Factors Row was also home to the original Cotton Exchange, where cotton factors, or brokers, set prices worldwide.


Running from east to west above the river, these vast brick buildings rise two or three stores above the bluff and descend for three or more stories to the river front. The topside contained the offices of the cotton brokers and the building on the lower River Street side were used as warehouses. A series of iron and concrete walkways, known as Factors Walk, connected the buildings to the bluff. Ramps leading from Bay Street down the bluff to River Street are paved with cobblestones, brought as ballast and abandoned on the riverbanks by departing sailing ships.

After walking the length of Factor’s Walk, we took a right and walked along the riverfront.

Georgia Queen


The Waving Girl statue

We ducked into a few shops including the Savannah Bee Company which gives free tastings of all their unique honey flavors.

We tried to find dinner, but everything was booked, being a Saturday night and all. Instead we found a Whole Foods near our hotel and grabbed food there.

Oh, the hotel. It was miserable. There was a huge group of young adults who were up alllll night long. They were making noise in the parking lot, they were making noise in the hallways, they were up and down the stairwell all night. Every time the door to the stairs was closed it slammed shut. At 3am I called down the the front desk and the receptionist said she’d tell the manager. After another hour of this I went down in person. It turns out the only employee was a pregnant receptionist. She informed me that they’d had this issue with the same group the night before and there was nothing she could do. It was a reallllly long, sleepless night.



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Nolen Family Vacation 2017: Day 7

Friday, April 21st


Sometimes on our vacation we find oddball things to do. Like the time we visited an alpaca farm in New Mexico. This time it was a tour of Sloss Furnace in Birmingham.

But, first, I need to back up.

Remember, in the South nothing starts early. Sloss Furnace is no different. Thankfully, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens do open early. And they’re free.

This was a lovely place and I would have been happy to spend more time here.

The bamboo garden was amazing. It was a whole forest of towering bamboo with trails winding through it.

Bamboo shoot

We came upon this heron in the woods. We were surprised at how oblivious he was to our presence. He just completely ignored us. After about 5 minutes we found out why. He was stalking a chipmunk! While we were watching he pounced and we saw a struggling chipmunk in his beak! He squeezed the life out of it and then proceeded to swallow it whole! Woah.

Blue heron

Koi pond

Japanese Garden gate

Love in bloom (rose garden)

Peaceful stream

I took a million pictures here and will have to process the rest little by little. There was so much to see.

We went from the beauty of nature to the magnificence of industry.

Visitors are allowed to roam the grounds of Sloss. There are some places where you can’t climb or wander, but a lot of it is open and available. I’m amazed actually that it’s legal! All of that metal and rust!


Underground tunnel.

Nothing creepy about this…

I thought this was a really unique experience. And it was free, which is always a bonus. I love that we had the freedom to roam and explore. Very cool!

It was a good thing we got some walking in because we had a long day in the car. It wasn’t supposed to be so long, but the traffic around Atlanta was horrible. It’s always bad, but they’ve had some major highway issues lately so there was a lot of rerouting going on. Ooooh, it was agony.

To top it off, Tim wasn’t feeling well. The last hour of the journey just seemed to drag on.

But, as always happens, we did make it. Tim and Karen decided to go straight to the hotel and rest while we spent the evening with Nate and Chels.

We ate a yummy dinner with them at a little hole-in-the-wall BBQ joint and then went to the lake to skip rocks. After dark we took their dogs to a nearby park for a walk. It was laid back and low-key, but everyone was tire. Nate had worked all day, Chels is expecting, and we’d put in a long day on the road. We crashed at their place and they spoiled us with breakfast in the morning before we hit the road again.

It wasn’t a long visit, but we knew it would only be a few days before they’d be joining us in FL!


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Nolen Family Vacation 2017: Day 6

Thursday, April 20th


After breakfast at the hotel we drove over to Vicksburg National Military Park. It was meant to be a quick stop, but I didn’t realize from the online maps, just how long and meandering is the road through the park.

Entrance to the park.

It as a picturesque drive through green hills covered in mist. Memorials to various soldiers and regiments are scattered here and there.

Illinois Memorial

Wisconsin Memorial

Funnily enough, we didn’t stop and see the Missouri monument because it was toward the end of the park along a side road and we were pressed for time.

The cemetery was beautiful.

One happy surprise was the U.S.S. Cairo. This warship was sunk during the Civil War and was recovered 200 years later. They had to shore up a lot of it and rebuild it in places, but you can actually walk all around and even inside of it. It’s hard to grasp the scale of things like this when you only ever see it in books and movies.

Front view

The museum was full of items recovered from the ship. Most of them were mundane, day-to-day items, which give so much insight into how people lived back then.

We continued on our way. Our next stop was the Cypress Swamp. It’s right off of the Natchez Trace Parkway. It was beautiful, but the mosquitoes were intense. We sprayed ourselves down, but could only stay 30 minutes.

Hello, Mr. Butterfly.


Cypress Swamp

The lake at the next pull-off.

We drove for a few more hours and then ate linner at a Mellow Mushroom in Tuscaloosa. There was a nice downtown area with shops and restaurants and nice, paved, walkways. It looked like a nice place to spend an afternoon.

But not for us. Because we had to press on.

Birmingham is a larger town with a bit more to offer. We stretched our legs at the Railroad park. So named because it runs along the railroad downtown.

We grabbed a coffee and sipped while we walked. After walking the park we headed out to get some ice cream. Ben and Luke chose a flavor aptly named “Road Trip.”

Our last stop for the evening was Vulcan Park. Birmingham was a steel producing mega-center back in its heyday. The Vulcan sculpture was actual taken to and displayed at one of the World’s Fairs.

I recommend taking the elevator. I thought I’d be clever and walk off my ice cream. Oy. 159 steps is more than it sounds.

Before Dark.

After dark

View from the top

Once again, we packed a lot into one day. All the days and all the things we’d seen were starting to blend together….and we weren’t even at the halfway point yet!

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Nolen Family Vacation 2017: Day 5

Wed. 19th


Knowing that most things would be closed, we headed to the City Park to kill some time. I wasn’t expecting much, but we kept finding interesting things to view.

We started off near a little stone bridge. It wasn’t really much to see, but it was cute. We kept on and found this pond.


Then the pavilion.



And palms.


Turtles on a log.

Those trees!



An even prettier bridge than the one we parked next to.

Old pigeon house.

Across the pond.

I could not get enough of these trees.

We probably walked and took pictures for about an hour. Ben and the boys hung out, waiting for us. They’d held back not thinking there would be anything to see!

Next, we drove just 15 minutes to Longvue. It’s a home and gardens that is free to us since we’re members of MOBOT this year.

It was stunning!

A view of the house from the gardens.

I probably took 100 pictures here and it will take me time to weed through and process them all. There’s a main house and a…lodge? The house is by tour only and it takes about 45 minutes. Ben and the boys vetoed that immediately, so we roved the grounds instead. You start off just behind the house. There are fountains and and citrus trees and bushes and flowers and little seating nooks galore. Everything was in bloom and beautiful.

We continued on through a series of gardens including a wild garden which was heavily wooded, and a children’s garden.

Oh, my word, the children’s garden was the best!!! They had compost bins, a bamboo den, and all kinds of raised garden beds with different themes. For instance, one theme was tactile so it was full of plants such as Lamb’s Ear. Another bed was aromatic so it included lavender and rosemary and other spices. It was so neat to see plants grouped together like that. They have a “plant your own garden” area where the plants are all in pots and the kids can drag them around to “plan” and “plant” their own unique gardens. I could have stayed all day!

But, we had to move on.

I’d scheduled a swamp tour about 45 minutes away in Slidell, LA. We were already packed up and ready to go so even though it was early we headed down that way. Lunch was eaten at BJ’s and it was really good.

We arrived at Honey Island Swamp Tours with time to spare.

Waiting for our boat.

It wasn’t long and we were loaded onto a boat and set out. The captain of the boat was very knowledgeable and informative. It took about 20 minutes to get back to where the gators are. He taught us all bout the area, the difference between swamps and bayous, etc. Several times he put the boat into high gear and we just roared over the open water.

There was plenty to see along the way.


There were homes on both sides of the bayou. They sit right on the edge of the water.

Would you want this to be your backyard?


Our captain took us back into the trees. We got to see this little guy. They threw marshmallows at him and he ate them right up. So cute!


Big bird.

We headed back to open water and finally got to see some gators.

First gator.

Warming up.

Time for a snack

Hot dogs! Yum!

They were wary at first, but they warmed up quickly.

After watching and learning about the gators for a bit, we headed back.

It was a neat experience and wasn’t too long or too short.

The rest of the day was just spent driving. It didn’t take us long to get into Mississippi and we were able to get all the way to Vicksburg before nightfall.

I was already looking forward to the following day when we’d be touring Vicksburg National Cemetery. I had to sneak a little history into the trip somehow!

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Nolen Family Vacation 2017: Day 4

Tuesday, April 14th

New Orleans

So one think I didn’t reckon on is that the South doesn’t do anything early. Even the state parks don’t open until 9 or 10. We had no idea so we were up and at ’em and wound up sort of wandering around for a good two hours.

We parked by the river right across from Jackson Square.

Tracks along the river.

Can’t take this crew anywhere.

Party tree

The Cathedral was open so we stepped inside.

St. Louis Cathedral

Cathedral interior

It’s not gluten-free, but we had heard so much about Cafe du Monde that we had to stop in and try some beignets.

Do not eat these on a windy day!

A true fan!

They aren’t very good. They are just fried dough topped with tons of powdered sugar which gets all over you. Meh.

Very few stores were open but we walked around. A friend cautioned my that Bourbon street was not a place for kids after dark but we wanted to say we’d been there so we walked around over there. A few of the shops were….colorful…and we had to distract the boys, but nothing too awful.

The French Market was next. It’s an open-air market with lots of vendors. A lot of the stuff was just your normal trinket-y stuff, but the food was worth it.


Gluten-free crepes!


We decided to head over to the Sculpture Garden, which is free. I always enjoy our sculpture park here in St. Louis so I felt this was a safe bet.

As we drove along we found ourselves near a cemetery. I’d read online that most cemeteries won’t allow people in by themselves without a guide anymore so I’d crossed that off our list. But this cemetery was open so we parked along the street and looked around a bit.

The tombs were so grand!

After a yummy lunch we headed back to Jackson Square via the Garden District. There’s really not anything to do here, but the houses are gorgeous! Once back at the square, the Presbytere is an inexpensive museum that tells you everything you’d want to know about hurricane Katrina and Mardi Gras. Very informative. By this time there were more vendors and performers out on the square so that was entertaining.

NO doesn’t have much to do in the pm – for families anyway – so we headed back to the Airbnb and rested up. The day had gone fast and the next day would be even more packed!

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Nolen Family Vacation 2017: Day 3

Monday, April 17th


We drove just a few hours South to Natchitoches (Nack-it-osh) to drive the Cane River Valley. We stopped in at the Visitor’s Center in town. It was such a charming area.

A map in hand, we set off to drive through the Cane River Valley. I hadn’t planned for the fact that some things would be closed because of Easter weekend. Oops. We started off and were a bit disappointed by the drive. It was long and not as picturesque as promised online. We ended up missing the first plantation entirely.

Finally, we arrived at the Magnolia Plantation. No rangers were present, but we were allowed to roam the grounds on our own. It was a beautiful day.

First stop was the Slave Hospital. We were able to walk around the interior of the house. The kitchen was updated in the 50s/60s, but the rest of the house looked pretty old.

Sitting in the Overseer’s House/Slave Hospital


Next, we walked over the the blacksmith shop.

There was a beautiful lawn with several large trees. The boys spent at least 20 minutes climbing before we could persuade them to move on.

The slave quarters were next.

Of course, here it looks quaint and cozy, but I’m sure it was anything but.

The Barn was next. I couldn’t tell one part from another, but the huge cotton gin was really impressive.

Since the main house is privately owned and we were much too early for the daily tour, this ended up being a pretty quick stop for us. Maybe an hour was spent here and most of that time was spent walking the grounds and climbing trees.

Still, I’m glad we had the chance to stop by. According to the ladies in the Visitor’s Center, this is the oldest open intact plantation in the country.

Also, I finally got a chance to look at these beautiful flowers that are growing everywhere in Louisiana.


In the next town over we stopped for lunch and I was in hippie heaven. They served healthy, locally-grown foods. Everything was healthy and fresh and didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Plenty of gluten-free and dairy-free options, too, which was awesome!

We headed still further South. It started to rain a bit and we hit some traffic. Several of us needed to use the restroom and the situation was getting desperate. Ben finally decided to pull over on the highway and we all just walked to the nearest gas station. I was appalled, at first, but it was the right call. There were NO other exits for miles and traffic just crawled.

Despite the traffic, we made it to NOLA at a good time. After a quick stop at a Trader Joe’s to pick up more snacks and breakfast items, we headed to our Airbnb.

It was super cute and obviously completely restored, BUT the neighborhood had us a bit nervous. Within 20 minutes of being loaded in we had a very dazed and confused lady knock on the door and ask Ben if the guy she’d bought stuff from was there. After he told her that, no, that guy was long gone, she asked for bus fare. Yeaaaaah.

But the interior had us oohing and aahing. So well done.

We settled in for the night and rested up a bit. We knew we’d have a lot of walking ahead of us as we explored NOLA the following day!


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Nolen Family Vacation 2017: Day 2

Sunday, April 16th


It was a bit weird to celebrate Easter Sunday while on the road! About the only Easter-y thing I did was to fill eggs ahead of time and put them in the car in people’s seats.

We headed straight to T. R. Pugh’s Memorial Park. It looked really neat online, but I know firsthand how that can go so I was delighted to find that it was every bit as amazing in real person as it looked online.

It was like a fairy wonderland.

Turtle spotting

We were the only ones there for a bit and it seemed like a gift. It was so lovely and peaceful and perfect on an Easter morning. Absolutely amazing. I didn’t want to leave.

But we had to press on.

Our next stop was the Visitor’s Center for the Little Rock Central High School. This was the first desegregated high school in the country. I wasn’t sure the boys would find this super interesting, but we all spent some time viewing the exhibits and learning about that very important time in our nation’s history.

Right across the street are the memorial arches.

We met a nice ranger who encouraged us to cross the street and view the school. I’m so glad he did because a bunch of trees were blocking the school and it didn’t look like much, but when we walked over we saw this:

Stunning! That’s got to be the grandest high school I’ve ever seen! Way to go, Little Rock!

You can tour the school with a ranger, but it takes about an hour and we needed to move on.

We crossed the street again and looked at the old Mobile station. This is also a part of the NPS because it’s the only place reporters could send info back to their papers.

Our next stop was only an hour and a half away. Crater of Diamond’s State Park, to be exact. It was sunny and hot, but that didn’t deter us. We changed into old clothes, grabbed our shovels and buckets, watched a film about diamonds and how to find them and we were off!

Mine entrance

Our hope faded in about 10 minutes.

The mine is all above ground. It’s a massive field of dirt that’s freshly plowed every day. You pick a spot and plop down and start digging and moving dirt around. The dirt is packed so you have to loosen a spadeful, dump it out, and then use your hands or trowel to smoosh the dirt around to try and find any diamonds that might be hiding within. It’s hot, dirty, disheartening work.

Gabe had been the most excited about this adventure and he was the one to crab, first. He found a shady spot under a tree and dug there for a while so that helped a bit.

Tim and Karen tried washing bucketfuls of dirt and panning through it. We moved around, tried different things. After just a few hours everyone was exhausted and hot and tired and not even the possibility of finding a diamond could hold them there any longer so we left.

We’d found a few small pieces of jasper and other non-diamond minerals, but it was pretty disappointing overall!

The upside to leaving the mine early was that we knew we’d get checked into our hotel at a good time so that we could clean up and rest well. But first we had to find food and that was presenting a challenge because it was Easter Sunday. Finally we took the classy route and bought food at Wal-Mart and ate it in the parking lot. What can I say, mining for diamonds really takes it out of you!

We made it to Shreveport at a good time and got settled in. Unfortunately, it was the grossest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

It’s only one night, it’s only one night, it’s only one night. Tomorrow is a new day.

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