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Roads Less Traveled...

Yet another year has gone by, and it was once again time to mull over the question of where our crazy family of five was heading to for this Thanksgiving break. We live dangerously close to Orlando – just an easy-breezy three-and-a-half-hour ride that makes it very tempting to decide to pay a visit to one of the parks on the spur of the moment. However, I have recently been having trouble shaking off the thought that every time we go to Disney or Universal, it is as if we just take the money and flush it down the toilet. Don’t get me wrong! Orlando and its theme parks will always have a special place in my heart for many reasons that are too intricate to discuss in this blog post, but it seems that the time has come to explore some roads that are less traveled. Something with less planning and more magic involved… If you know what I mean 😊.

That being said, after a few weeks of back-and-forth, I gave in and let my husband Chris put together a little itinerary for our upcoming Thanksgiving road trip. After all, I always argue with him regarding where we should go and how we should go about it, and it always turns out that he had been right. Yes, I said it, Chris – all these times you have been right.

So if you would like to explore the South that is a bit off the beaten track, follow us on our spontaneous family adventure that will hopefully inspire you to pack your bags and hit the road!

Day 1. Arriving in Birmingham, Alabama

Since we decided to take a scenic route instead of the Interstate, it took us close to eight hours to drive from Brunswick, Georgia, to Birmingham, Alabama. We enjoyed every minute of our journey through the idyllic countryside of west Georgia with its silver-white cotton fields and picture-perfect farms that spoke louder than any words of how much love and care the owners felt for their land.

Even though we gained one hour because of the time zone change, we were absolutely exhausted by the time we made it to the hotel – so we decided to say ‘yes’ to the comforts of room service and call it a night.

We stayed at Hilton Garden Inn at Liberty Park, and we loved it. The hotel is nestled just around the corner from Lady Liberty – a 36-foot-tall replica of the Statue of Liberty in New York – with real gas-fired flames and all! We were lucky enough to get a room with a view of the statue, and I have got to say, it is rather impressive, especially at night.

Day 2. Exploring Birmingham

After a good night’s sleep, we woke up full of energy and ready to explore the new city we had never visited before. I will be honest with you, when my husband suggested stopping in Birmingham, my first reaction was, “What’s there in Birmingham?”. My second reaction was, “Is it worth an eight-hour drive??” And I admit – Birmingham surprised me beyond my expectations. But I am getting ahead of myself 😊.

After having breakfast at the hotel, we drove to the Boy Scouts of America building across the street to take a closer look at Lady Liberty. It was totally worth it, since we were able to check out the statue from all possible angles and take a lot of pictures.

Our next stop was the Botanical Gardens, which, in my opinion, was Birmingham’s most pleasant surprise. The only reason we ended up there was because our main destination – Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum (more on that later) - was not opening until noon. We searched the expanses of the all-mighty Internet, as well as the map of Birmingham we had found in our hotel room, and figured we’d give Botanical Gardens a shot. And what a shot it was! It was as if we were magically transported to an enchanted garden with sparkling ponds, intricately laid-out path walks and exquisite architectural samples that, in my opinion, could even rival the gardens of the Peterhof Summer Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Transfixed, my husband Chris and I were walking around happily, pushing the stroller with our baby Chloe and taking in the atmosphere of omnipresent calm and inspiring tranquility. Our boys were particularly excited to find the hills covered in plush auburn and bright-yellow leaves that they used to roll down on to utter astonishment of passers-by.

Little did we know that the real surprise was awaiting us ahead. We turned the corner and were absolutely amazed at what we saw in front of us – a scarlet-red gate to the Japanese garden was looking back at us in all of its glory, its curved ends proudly facing the azure, never-ending sky. We walked through the gate, strangely feeling more and more like Alice in Wonderland on her quest to discover the unknown, and stopped atop a small picturesque bridge that offered a generous view of the Zen rock garden, multicolored and very well fed Koi fish gliding through the smooth dark surface of the interconnected ponds, and a traditional Japanese tea house – all accentuated by Monet-like paintbrush strokes of motley autumn foliage boasting its vibrant burgundy, amber and gamboge shades.

Naturally, we took our time enjoying the beauty and crisp air of the park that so unexpectedly turned out to be one of the highlights of our road trip. On the way back, I managed to take a candid snapshot of a photoshoot that made me feel even more like part of Lewis Carroll’s world of bizarre magic.

If you are ever in Birmingham, please pay a visit to the wonderful Botanical Gardens – you won’t regret it. Plus, it’s absolutely free!

The next stop on our busy itinerary was the reason Chris had thought of Birmingham in the first place – the magnificent Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. Featuring over 1,600 motorcycles and race cars from all over the world – some of them going back to very early 1900’ – this titan of a museum is nothing like you have ever seen before. Take it from a girly girl who has never been interested in cars or motorcycles to any extent whatsoever – the magnitude and scale of the collection are impressive enough to leave anyone gawking around with ever-growing enthusiasm.

Max had to get under the statue's butt!

The museum is very well kept, exceptionally clean and shiny, and it offers an unforgettable view of the five floors of the 144,000 square feet of exhibit space from a huge glass elevator located in the middle of the building. I don’t think I have ever heard our boys as excited about anything before – their wows, ohs and wide smiles brightening up that clear and sunny November day even more, a clear indication that the eight-hour car ride from home was indeed worthwhile.

On a side note, grab a bite to eat before coming to the museum. There are no cafes or restaurants there – just a small area with a few vending machines that only take cash. I guess it makes sense – the open-plan design of the museum is one-of-a-kind and allows visitors to view the exhibited motorcycles at a very close distance, but it leaves a lot of room for error in terms of, say, flying food or spilled drinks – especially if you have kids.

Caught in motion :)

We also lucked out and managed to watch a car race, which was happening right outside of the museum. I’m not sure if it was a scheduled race or a practice, but there is a good chance you too might sneak a peek at one when you are there. Our baby Chloe was emitting a hearty and naughty laugh every time the cars roared by, which made us wonder if we had a future car racer on our hands 😊.

Happy, excited and hungry, we headed out of the museum at about two o’clock and decided to go to… Chuck E. Cheese's. I know, I know… it was supposed to be an anti-corporation vacation, but when the children crave pizza and you want to kick back and relax while they are running around and burning their extra energy – you gotta do what you gotta do. Since we all know what Chuck E. Cheese's is about, I will skip the description of our visit there and will just say two things:

  1. Chuck E. Cheese's at 500 Old Town Road is less crazy than the one off 280. (We found out about that one too late, after striking up a conversation with a local couple later in the day.)

  2. Thank goodness they serve wine.

The day was getting close to an end, and the sky was blushing with peachy shades of approaching sunset. However, we had one more stop on our itinerary – the mighty Vulcan.

The Original Iron Man, a 56-foot-tall titan that depicts the Roman god of fire and forge, Vulcan, towers over the beautiful city it symbolizes. The largest cast-iron statue in the world is one of the three Birmingham titans – the other two being Lady Liberty and Electra. The park charges a small fee that allows you to take a closer look at Vulcan and also take an elevator inside the observation tower. We paid a visit to the mighty Vulcan at sunset, but I’ve heard that the views of the city at night are breathtaking.

On top of the world at Vulcan Park and Museum

As Chris and I watched the November sky shimmer with all possible shades of lilac, pink and orange, with a few silver planes coming in to land from various directions, I felt that somehow, we once again managed to be at the right place at the right time – as if we couldn’t have possibly picked the better location for our Thanksgiving trip. We could hear our boys laugh happily as they were once again rolling down a tall hill, Chloe was taking a peaceful nap with her little pink fingers still clutching the sippy cup – and everything felt just right.

Our Napoleonic plans included having a dinner at one of Birmingham’s famed breweries, but we were so exhausted after the fun day full of adventures and discoveries that our family council agreed on… yeah getting back to the hotel and ordering room service. 😊

However, if you are ever in Birmingham, these are the restaurants that were recommended to us by locals. I would have liked to check them out, but it looks like we would have to do it next time, because… we are definitely coming back!

Gianmarco’s. Fine Italian cuisine with white tablecloths and romantic lighting. Reservations are recommended.

O’Henry’s Coffee. Local coffee house that provides great coffee, baked goods, and friendly service in a warm environment.

Avondale Brewing Company. Locally owned and operated brewery in the heart of the Deep South with an unmistakable affection for hand-crafted brews.

Oh and yes - before I forgot. Max lost his first tooth in Birmingham, and the tooth fairy had to leave him an IOU since she had no cash! :)

Day 3. On to Huntsville, Alabama

Our 9-year-old son Liam has recently developed an interest in everything that has to do with space. Eager to encourage anything that doesn’t involve Fortnite, we decided to add the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville to our itinerary.

The drive from Birmingham to Huntsville was very pleasant and only took us about an hour and a half. The giant rocket that looks like it’s about to take off any minute is hard to miss and dominates the landscape of the town with its otherworldly magnificence. When in Huntsville, before heading straight to the Space Center, check out the Visitor Center first. The ladies who work there were as sweet as they could be, and they gave us a lot of discount coupons, including the ones for a 25% discount for the Space Center for all of us. Plus, you can take a super-goofy group selfie with a space shuttle in the background. 😊 You can’t beat that!

My overall impression of the Space Center was that it was more hands-on and offered more to do for kids than the Kennedy Space Center. Plus, there are a few movies you can choose from in the iMax Theater, and the boys really enjoyed the experience.

Liam and Max Prepare for Take-Off

Chloe Lost in Space

We spent about four hours at the center and then headed over to have some lunch in downtown Huntsville – at Pane e Vino Pizzeria located at the Huntsville Museum of Art overlooking Big Spring Park. It’s a very cute eatery with outdoor and indoor seating, really good pizza and a great selection of wine. With our bellies full after the quite memorable lunch, we walked around the park, gawked at the huge Koi fish in the pond and then crossed the street to check out dozens of Christmas trees donning their unique decorations prepared by different businesses and individuals from the surrounding area.

The choice of our hotel morphed into a family joke by the end of the road trip. Since I didn’t know what to expect from Huntsville (and, guilty as charged – didn’t do the proper research), I booked us into a nice, clean, but very generic Holiday Inn. As we were driving there from downtown, we passed an enormous Westin, shimmering with golden windows, a rainbow explosion of Christmas lights and boutiques, and a fairytale-like, picture-perfect carousel. I slowly shook my head and opened my eyes wider, silently begging my husband not to mention to our boys anything about the carousel and the fact that Chris had suggested back home that we should have booked this Westin instead of the Holiday Inn. The price was very-very reasonable considering that it turned out to be the Huntsville Bellagio. After checking in at our modest temporary abode, we decided to still venture out and take a closer look at the carousel and the shops around the Westin (Bridge Street Town Centre). As we were leisurely strolling around the glittering maze of restaurants and shops (and I’m talking H&M, Victoria’s Secret, Kate Spade and Michael Kors, to name a few), Chris couldn’t hold it all in at last and said, with a mocking grin on his lips, “Guys, I bet you now mom is beating herself up for not choosing this hotel…” And boy, indeed I was.

Long story short, if you are ever in Huntsville, my darling readers, I would highly recommend reserving a room at the Westin – because, well… it’s definitely worth it.

I went to bed still lamenting my choice of accommodation, trying to cheer myself up with the fact that the next day the breakfast would be included :) and that there was a whole day of adventure awaiting us ahead. Namely, Stone Mountain.

Day 4. Winter Fun at Stone Mountain Park

The drive to Stone Mountain from Huntsville was a whooping 4.5-hour ordeal, and by the time we finally made it there, the kids were ready for the exciting winter activities ahead. We purchased the Snow + Christmas package, which at the time of writing this post was $49.95 (same price for kids and adults) and included access to the Christmas Village, Skyride and a 2-hour snow tubing session. We couldn’t find any info on the website as to whether they charged any fees for babies (it’s usually not the case, but since the ticket prices were the same for everyone, we decided to check), and after calling them we found out that the park was indeed free for kids who are 2 years old or younger. Another interesting nuance is that when you buy a ticket that includes tubing, you have got to pick a 2-hour slot in advance. Time slots after 4:30 pm are called Galactic Snow Tubing, when the whole place turns into a kaleidoscope of multicolored lights, laser beams and dance music.

Upon arriving and getting our Will-Call tickets, we headed over to the Summit Skyride – an impressive funicular that will take you sky high, to the very top of Stone Mountain – or, to be more precise, to the tummy-churning elevation of 1,686 feet above the sea level. I would highly recommend doing it first thing, since you will be able to get a great idea where everything in the park is and also sneak a peek at the snow-tubing action down below. Needless to say, the boys were beyond themselves with excitement once they saw the snow park from up high. Make sure that you dress warm if you go up there, because the wind there is insane. We all enjoyed our Skyride – in particular, our 6-year-old son Max who – the moment he stepped out of the funicular – yelled in exhilaration, “Mom!! We are on the moon!”. 😊 And we might as well have been – the dome of Stone Mountain, primarily composed of quartz monzonite, was formed around 300-350 million years ago as a result of the upwelling of magma from within the Earth's crust. The tall and proud skyscrapers shimmering in pale-yellow November sunlight looked more like alien structures of some unknown planet in a distant galaxy than our good old Atlanta skyline, and we all had to stand there in silent awe – at least for a few minutes – to take in the majestic and expansive beauty of Mother Nature.

When back on the Earth, we set out to explore the quaint Christmas Village that was slowly coming alive with millions of glittering lights as the sun was quickly sinking behind the horizon. The sweet fragrance of hot chocolate and popcorn woven into crystal clear and cold air, children laughing happily, and the awe-inspiring dome of Stone Mountain, towering like a gigantic whale against the backdrop of the rosy-pink sky – what could be a better way to kick off a holiday season with those who you love the most?

If you have never been to the Stone Mountain Park around Christmas time, another must-do, in my opinion, is to watch a short, 4-D version of Polar Express. We did it eight years ago with our fist baby Liam, and we did it again in 2018, when “baby Liam” was 9 years old and we had two more kids in tow – and it was just as exciting and just as memorable. Plus, the movie is also included in the price of the ticket – so, why not?

After the movie was over, we hurried towards the snow-tubing part of the park – Snow Mountain – since it was already just a little bit after 5:00 pm (and our session was booked from 5 to 7). The temperate dropped pretty drastically, and the shimmering snow tubing slides lit up with dancing fluorescent glow. We took turns snow-tubing since Chloe was too young to participate, and while Chris and the boys were having their winter fun, us girls strolled around the charming Christmas village and watched the Christmas Tree lighting ceremony.

When my turn came to go snow-tubing with the boys, to say I was excited is to say nothing at all. After all, I grew up in Russia and spent many fun hours zooming down hills on my sled, squealing in delight as the cold air mixed with snowflakes kissed my face and laughing diabolically as I would always tumble down at the bottom and end up in a pile of snow. Needless to say, the fun at Snow Mountain was more organized. 😊 If you wanted to get on an individual ride, you’d need to get your tube at the bottom and take it to the top of the ride. Even though there is a moving walkway – likes the ones they have in airports – the process is still rather long and tedious in my opinion. A much better option is to go for the all-family ride. The tubes are already there and it’s actually much-much-much more exhilarating. As a matter of fact, it was so exhilarating that our son Max almost flew out of the tube and Chris had to catch him mid-air. So yeah – make sure you strap your little ones in there. 😊

My overall impression was that two hours of snow-tubing was somehow not enough for me. But that could be because we were taking turns. Also – don’t lose your snow-tubing tickets where your booked time slot is specified, because every time you leave the Snow Mountain area (which is very easy to do inadvertently), you have to show your pass again to re-enter.

Our final activity of the day was the Snow Angels zone, which was super cool and came as a nice surprise. It’s a pretty large snow-covered area where kids can build snowmen, play with little shovels and buckets and even go down little rides. The rides are the perfect size to be fun for toddlers (Chloe was eighteen months old at the time) and bigger kids alike. Max and Liam had a blast racing Chloe down the rides – even though they did have to rescue her after when she was lying down at the bottom of the slide, laughing heartily and kicking her legs and arms helplessly like a beetle on the grass 😊.

Cold, exhausted and happy, we slowly made our way back to the car, casting the last glance at Stone Mountain towering over the enchanted Christmas village, aglow with sparkling Christmas lights and neon lasers of the snow park.

And then we drove to our next – and last stop of the trip – Chateau Elan.

Day 5. A piece of France in North Georgia – Chateau Elan Winery and Resort

You might think that you have been magically teleported into 16th century France – when in reality you are in Braselton, Georgia, about an hour away from Atlanta. Since we did a lot of “boy” stuff on this trip, aka motorcycle museum, space museum and such, Chris suggested that we bring a bit of balance into our itinerary – hence the stay at Chateau Elan. A hopeless admirer of anything French and a hopeless wine lover that I am – this addition to our road trip was like a dream come true!

We arrived at Chateau Elan late, when the vineyards and the resort buildings were already immersed in the indigo dark of the night, with just a few golden windows gleaming through the cold sheen of November air. The moment we emerged from the car, hungry and shivering in bone-chilling wind, we saw a picture so heart-warming, it looked as if it stepped down from pages of an Irish fairy tale book. Paddy’s Irish Bar, with its welcoming fireplace, upbeat tunes, amazing food and the friendliest staff on Earth, seemed like a dream come true.

I don’t even remember walking from the pub to the hotel – this was how tired we all were after the fun day at Stone Mountain Park. All I recall was that the room was fantastic and the shower – heavenly. And the pillow was the softest I had ever encountered in my life. We all fell asleep at once, spellbound by post-adventure exhaustion.

When I opened my eyes, everyone was still fast asleep, Max snoring ever so lightly, like a little puppy. The morning sun was streaming through the tall windows, clearly inviting me to take a look outside. I jumped out of bed, moved the transparent white curtain aside – like Rapunzel in her tower – and almost squealed with delight. I didn’t waste my time and woke everybody up right that moment – because we just had to go outside and take it all in.

Chateau Elan greeted us with vibrant green vineyards spread as far as our eyes could see, fresh and crisp morning air, turquoise sky that somehow seemed more expansive than ever and the magnificent Loire-Valley-style chateau being the proud centerpiece of the gorgeous ensemble.

We only stayed at Chateau Elan for two nights, but if you happen to have more time on your hands, the resort has a lot to offer. Established in 1981, the winery was the first to be established in the region after Prohibition and has since grown into an expansive complex that includes an inn, a health spa, eight restaurants, and a wine market. The resort also offers four golf courses, a tennis center, and an equestrian center, as well as a residential community.

After a long and very pleasant walk, we headed over to Athens, Chris’s old stomping ground from his rock’n’roll days 😊. Since it was almost Thanksgiving, the place looked a bit like a ghost town, which was cool in its own unique way – we felt like all of Athens belonged to us! We strolled around, checked out the stadium, had a picnic on the grass in a park, had some ice cream, paid a visit to a comic book store and a music store and then headed back to Chateau Elan.

I thought that was funny. The boys are looking at the stadium...
And the girls... at the bus? Universe, what are you trying to tell us?

A few hours later, when Chris and the kids were relaxing in the room (or rather, Chris was trying to relax while the kids were jumping over his head), I was kicked back at one of the outdoor tables facing the vineyards, reading a book, sipping on some Sauvignon Blanc and watching the full moon rise in the lilac and primrose-pink sky. I thought about how happy I was to be there. How exciting it was to roam down the road of this crazy life and this crazy planet with those who make my heart sing. And how lucky I was to be married to a man who would always say, “Of course, you can go and have some wine by yourself. I got it, baby.”

I took the last sip of the silvery wine, glanced up at the amber moon and closed the book. Tomorrow we would be driving back home and diving head over heels into the holiday season. This Thanksgiving trip was almost over – but there is so much more adventure ahead!

P.S. Oh and I almost forgot - Christmas came early for me this year! :)

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