Day / Weekend Trips

This section is devoted to some of the sweetest surprises our car has carried us. Day trips can be affordable while managing to get you out of the pit of mediocrity, enough to revitalize and send you back home with hopefully a refreshed spirit.

Our recent day trip was to the New River Gorge, near Fayetteville, WV. It was Labor Day weekend and I could not settle at home knowing every other person was off somewhere. We decided for Sunday and wanted to make it back to the house by eight in the evening to watch “Big Brother”.

The rain clouds were formidable but I wanted to stand up to them and tread on, well drive that is. The 1.5 hour drive was peaceful, none of the kids were carsick, Nikos looked over his shoulder when passing (usually a bickering session ensues if he doesn’t), and Nikolas only needed a bathroom break twice, which means pulling off to the side of the road. I know, we are fancy.

As usual, we couldn’t find the other end of the fishing pole so Nikos stopped in at the Fayetteville Walmart to purchase our 500th pole. Elizabeth accompanied him which was fine because she was beginning to aggravate me, falling into whine mode. Coincidentally, they ran into a a mother of one of Elizabeth’s friends. This must have been the reason it took thirty minutes to buy a cheapo pole.

It began to pour the rain. We stopped by the New River Gorge visitor center. Katerina was way too excited to be out of the car and was bellowing happiness. The Stoufis clan gathered uncomfortable stares as a result. This one lady in particular held such an impenetrable stare that I felt like reverting to seven years old and making my ugly face at her.

My kids have numerous Junior Ranger badges in which they have righteously earned from the national parks we’ve visited. Katerina takes it very seriously. She even shushes us if we talk during the park films. I found it strange that the one badge they have never earned happens to be one of our favorite day trip destinations. I waited in the short line at the ranger station and asked the gentleman behind the desk if he could please hand over three Jr. Ranger booklets. He proceeded to ask the ages, and then nearly reprimanded me that Katerina would be too young for the program, since she was only two. He droned on without pause, therefore I had to hold onto my patience until I finally had the opportunity to explain that the other parks allowed me to help her with it. He handed over a coloring book and talked too much yet again, saying she could not possibly understand the tasks. I am not the “my kid is a genius” type, but I do not believe in never underestimating the capacity of learning at any age. The guy was a volunteer, and I suppose was trying to inflict his unearned authority over me, however, I remained polite and gathered the two books plus a coloring book and simply said, “Thanks”.

Nikos had overheard the conversation and was enjoying the quiet scene. Does he ever come to my aid? Uh, nope. That’s okay. When it’s four a.m. and the kids think it’s a fine time to open the presents from under the Christmas tree, I won’t stop them, even if Nikos was up until two assembling ridiculously intricate toys. Nikos just shook his head, chuckled and said I was a Jr. Ranger psycho instead. I harshly whispered that he would get another booklet or we would not be leaving the visitor center.

We watched the wonderful film, beautifully created. I love visitor center films. Nikos does as well, he gets a solid nap during every single one we’ve ever sat through.

Nikolas begged for a bird call, then a book on fungi, then a gem, all of which I wouldn’t allow. I’d just bought him a book on fungi, he just needs to remember where he left it. Meanwhile, Nikos obnoxiously waved the third Jr. Ranger booklet and I nearly ran out the door. We can mail the booklets in for the kids’ badges.

It was still raining but we drove down the very steep descent to Fayette Station. If you ever make it to this area, be very careful at “Stupid’s Corner”. It will tear up your car if you fail to take the turn carefully.

While assembling a florescent yellow fake worm on our new fishing pole, Nikos ran into the a fellow engineer he used to work with. The guy is second under the commissioner. The drizzle curled up Elizabeth’s and Katerina’s hair which looked very pretty.

Nikolas took off running to be the first to cast, over near the huge boulder. Katerina tripped four times on the rocks and dunked her feet immediately into the river. Elizabeth stepped in dog poop, and proceeded to dunk her shoes in as well, while squeamishly grimacing at her misforutune. Katerina delighted in throwing the heaviest rocks her bay arms could lift in the rushing river. There’s a reason why we never catch any fish. The rafters were banking, and I envied their adventurous rush a little.

The misty clouds rose into the hilltops, providing perfect scenery. The fishing line was caught and broken early on and our fishing for the day was over. The river whispers its ancient secrets and I am always aware, every single visit, that this is truly a special place, forever in my heart.

We headed back up the hill to our favorite restaurant in WV, Smokies on the Gorge. The food is amazing, the view equals the culinary fare, and it is a must for the “Good Eats” section. I gorged at the Gorge (oh that’s some serious cheese!)

Going home with our happy bellies, satiated by our day trip. Katerina fell asleep just before we made it home.

 

 

Campfire Talk

This will undoubtedly be my favorite destination on my website. I adore camping talk! Let’s talk gear while we are together. We have the epitome of laziness tent, the kind invented for the husband who has been coerced, nagged, guilt-tripped, and is entirely unmotivated to go camping with his family.

We recently purchased our second Coleman instant tent, which sets up in a minute by the OCD/neurotic type, otherwise it takes the average individual a mere five minutes to proudly show off their tent-building expertise to the rest of the campground. There is the label on the side, “Coleman Instant” so be sure to find an out of the way campsite if you feel a little humbled.

 

If you are wondering what happened to the first tent, please go to the “disaster vacations” forum. Now I like comfort camping. I prefer campgrounds with clean bathrooms, flushable toilets, a small camp store, a playground, and spacious sites. I am not a “roughing it” type as much as I would aspire to be. We have instant mattresses, which can be deflated in seconds, rolled tightly for space and weigh two pounds. I pack our pillows and sleeping bags, and usually grab a comforter.

A propane stove for me is a necessity. I don’t believe in eating lifeless canned food fare, in which to dread dinner all day long. Campfire food can be entirely as gourmet as you are motivated to cook. I often plan an appetizer before out meal, which might be an olive tapenade with small toasts, following a meal of panko-encrusted chicken with a mushroom cream sauce, served with cilantro risotto and veggie kabobs. If you are the type who needs to carefully measure ingredients out, this could prove problematic for you.

My husband still has quite a bit of neanderthal left in his DNA and therefore feels determined to build the most obnoxiously huge fire in the campground. I remind him but to no avail that that would came from beautiful trees like those surrounding us, and that he is contributing far more to global warming than styrofoam cartons.

The kids play and run around and I am acutely aware of time fleeting before me, forcing me to nostalgically tuck away these wonderful visions of my sweaty smiling children in my special Mama pocket. Inevitably, I grow misty-eyed on every one of our hundred plus camping trips.

 

There is no other time in my life when I feel more alive, happy, and truly grateful for what I have than when I am sitting in my camp chair, surrounded by nature while camping.

Once you have faced the hassle of packing up your house, forgetting a few items, heard your husband struggling and swearing with the luggage, you are there, out in nature. Camping forces you outside. The stars shine brighter, the air whispers freedom, and you are once again in touch with that interconnected instinctual bond with nature.

Smokies on the Gorge

It seems this country is charging forward to the numbing of the senses movement, in terms of eateries.  The chain restaurants are spawning rampantly, appealing to the masses, whose taste buds have grown accustomed to fake food, frozen and artificial.  How many times have you waited thirty minutes or more to get a table, only to be left feeling agitated and forced to endure the pungent smell of sour milk from a table due to being wiped down with a mildewed towel?  I suppose I am sounding melodramatic, however most of us go out to eat as a treat, for entertainment, a break from the chore of cooking at home.  As diners we should not be forced to numb our taste buds and be brainwashed into thinking what lies before us is something edible.  Free yourselves from the chains of chain restaurants, long live privately-owned establishments, who cook with care and from their hearts.  I should note that one of my favorite restaurants is indeed a chain.  So call me a hypocrite, but Macaroni Grill offers some wonderful dishes, all is prepared and cooked on the premises of the individual restaurant.  With that note aside, allow me to introduce you to Smokies on the Gorge!  Nestled in the hills-“mountains” to us Mountaineers, overlooking the New River Gorge is the best restaurant you will find in West Virginia. The interior is reminiscent of an upscale Boy Scout dining hall, encased in wood paneling, and I swear you can still smell that pungent pine scent, and I am not referring to Pine-sol!

There are seats outside as well, and if you are fortunate you can sit directly beside a cliff, and dine with an incredible view as equally fine as the morsels in your mouth.  This establishment is a buffet setting, filled with nothing short of the most scrumptious bites  be it gourmet, unique, and loaded with artistic flair.

I will first let you in on an on-going problem, and as my husband refers to as control issues.  I normally am a nervous wreck at buffets and avoid them at all costs, with the exception of my favorite WV restaurant.  First, all that food arranged like produce or meat at the grocery store, overwhelms me and my mind feels like it’s in a mirror maze and everywhere I turn I am engulfed in hyper-stimulation me mode.  I do my best to resume some kind of mental order by requiring that Nikos and the kids first go up and get salad, fruit and vegetables first.  The kids moan and groan and I am right there with them wanting dessert first.  One day, I promise to anyone who is reading this, I will relinquish my suffocating structure and we will eat dessert first.  Nikos gets his revenge on my bossiness by refusing to get the salad first, and he thinks he’s such a tough guy while he’s muttering under his breath like a kid sent to his room, “I don’t need to get a salad.  You can’t make me.  I am getting a piece of fried chicken and you can’t stop me.”  I suppose he is reigning in bravado to defy me and pick up that piece of chicken before his veggies.  While sauntering up to the salad bar, I am mad and nearly sweating by my mental chaos and Nikos is not helping.  It’s all the food, it’s the other diners, and I just have issues, but I will swallow it all and deal when it comes to Smokies on the Gorge.

The salad bar is a lovely arrangement, like a colorful iceberg of fruits, cheeses, crackers, and salad fixings.  Even Nikos in his acts of spiteful rebellion gets the salad first.  The main fare is cooked by fine chefs, with a multitude of flavors.  The last time they even had wild boar in conjunction with a cherry/brandy chutney. There are usually five or so main entree dishes, some seafood, meats and pasta.  You can expect the vegetables to be sauteed in fanciful ingredients to make any veggie hater a fan.

I am nervous waiting in the brief line afraid that my food will be snatched up by the person in front of me.  I believe I  even despise them momentarily.  Our plates are filled numerous times and the kids are even infatuated by their food. I am in a blissful state of gluttony and the nerves have been quelled.  Then, comes the introduction to the jewels of the evening, dessert.  There is cheesecake, a variety of lemon-filled/chocolate/vanilla custard cannoli, cobblers, and what looks like seven layer brownies.  Every time we have visited, there are different menu items, including dessert.

What you need to understand is that the combination of the scenery, the amazing food, and the ambiance will leave you with a profound sense of satiation with life.

Don’t Eat the Lobster

It was three summers ago, and I was pregnant with Katerina.  Like the other two pregnancies, I had horrible morning sickness and needed to eat every moment in order to prevent my usual and very embarrassing dry-heaving.  As much as I normally love to eat, morning sickness eating is pure misery.  I was five months along and we decided we would take a road trip to Nova Scotia.  The name alone sounded so cool, and we were so inept with our geography skills, we didn’t even realize until we were at customs that we could drive to our destination.  The Canadian customs agent must have been shaking her head as we had driven off, chalking us up as yet another clueless and geographically-challenged family.  The agent had patiently explained that there was a land bridge, and therefore there wasn’t need to take a ferry.

We first stopped in Manhattan for two nights and met my oldest brother and his family.  My sister in-law did a fine job of picking out a delightful restaurant called Penelope’s in the Greenwich Village area.  Back in those days, I believed if I had a girl I’d name her Penelope (aren’t you pleased little Katerina, that your Mama changed her mind?).  I still remember eating a fairly decent lobster roll and had a giant chocolate chip cookie for dessert.  The atmosphere was jazzy and I hadn’t been possessed by a wandering palette, asking what if a better dinery was near.  My brother was irritated that we only shelled out around a hundred dollars for our 4 or 5 star hotel while they had paid much more, (thank you Priceline, even though I despise your business).  They made for great company and it was obvious my brother  missed living near here, with his quickened energetic pace along with his Bob Dylan look of hands in pockets.

Elizabeth and I also went on a date at the American Girl place.  It is beautiful and girly, decorated in black and pink in the restaurant.  We had pink lemonade and warm cinnamon rolls to start.  I was giddy with the pleasant atmosphere and enjoying my little daughter immensely.  She took great care of her Samantha doll and I should add this was our second visit here.  We’d visited the year before around Easter.  The food is wonderful, with an included appetizer and dessert.  Naturally, I gave Elizabeth my chocolate mousse.

It took a couple more days to make it to Maine.  We’d stopped for one night in Salem, MA.  The kids enjoyed playing by the water, and we dined near the harbor so Nikolas could delight in the boats.  A mouse scurried by my feet as I was eating and I screamed and ate the rest of my meal with my feet up in the chair.  I’d picked a lovely hotel built in the 19th century, yet the poor kids were still waiting to swim in a pool.  We went on a ghost walk which wasn’t overly scary to prevent especially five year old Nikolas from going to sleep that evening.  Earlier in the day, however, was a creepy and very hokey reenactment of the Salem witch trials, held in an old church.  The following day we were off to Maine.

My only recollection of Maine was when I was fifteen and visited with my dad, grandma and brothers.  My dad did far better than I at the planning of that trip.  All I wanted was to take a walk in the evening with the fog encircling our feet, and hearing our footsteps on the cobblestone streets, once again.  There was none of that this trip, because I had failed to do any real research.  Honestly, my pregnancy aversion even had me nauseous of the smell of the computer keyboard back then!

We made it to Acadia National Park in the early evening.  There was a quaint and picturesque town brimming over with tourists.  The long and winding road…and now I’m stuck with a Beatles song in my head,  carried us to a campground.  The only sites that were left happened to be a quarter of a mile walk from the car.  This is very difficult to accomplish with two kids then and a huge tent, gear, and all the rest.  Nikolas had an army hat on and looked so incredibly cute and boyish.  Elizabeth carried her American Girl doll and too many accessories, even though I’d warned her to leave them in the car.  We sat in our camping chairs while Nikos pitched the tent.  I wasn’t very enthusiastic about camping, especially since I was already so huge in my four and a half months of pregnancy, my hips killed me even sleeping in a big soft bed.

Once all was properly set, we drove thirty or so minutes until we found a cozy little water-side restaurant.  I could not wait to feast on fresh lobster, dripping with clarified butter.  The crowded inn was on the water, and waving hello or I should say farewell greetings were the fifty plus lobsters in the clear tub of water.  We had to wait twenty minutes to be seated, and someone occupied the ladies restroom for most of that wait.  I was entirely grossed out when she finally exited, imagining the germs and the smell awaiting me.  Being pregnant, highly sensitive to scent, hungry, nauseous and always needing an unlocked bathroom took more patience than dealing with the evil torture-obsessed clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Nikolas clung to the lobster pool, I’m not sure out of fascination or the fact that he was craving a swim on the trip since we still hadn’t indulged him.  Meanwhile Elizabeth was close to tears, feeling sorry that we were going to eat some of the unlucky few crustaceans with their literally beady eyes.  My envy surged every time the server passed by with her arms like pedestals carrying beautiful  plates to other diners.  The four of us ordered whole lobsters.  What took as long as if I’d gone out in a small boat and waited to catch a fish, we finally received our bounty.  Huge platters with a treasure of red shell, mashed potatoes and green beans was the only thought in my head as I happily feasted. I remember telling the kids we could eat whole lobsters every day while on our trip.  After all, for a two pound lobster, it was a mere $12.  I am sure there are some readers out there questioning how a pregnant woman could feel guiltless and eat tabooed shellfish, due to all of the warnings of high mercury levels and other chemical industry-induced pollutants absorbed by the fish.  Here it is, I do not smoke, drink alcohol, even use sunscreen because of its estrogenic properties, drink any coffee or other caffeinated drinks while pregnant, so please, step aside and let a pregnant lady eat some lobster!

I had polished off my lobster and it was convenient that Elizabeth refused to eat another bite when she discovered a vein in hers, because I was still hungry.  After I had eaten most of what was left of Elizabeth’s I generously told Nikos that he could finish Nikolas’ mostly eaten leftovers.  Nikolas wanted the claws as a souvenir and put them over his hands and I guess he was trying to act like he was a lobster.  I didn’t care what the kids were doing, I was in a delirium of lobster heaven. The place had cleared out while we waited for our check.  I noticed a new mom with her baby girl and what looked like her in-laws.  She was far too uncomfortable sitting there for the couple to be her own parents.  The grandma readjusted the pink toile and brown blanket on the infant at least seventeen times.  This might have been her first grand baby and she didn’t look comfortable either.  The new mother looked far better than I would have even two years postpartum.

As we waited for the bill, my legs began to itch.  All of the sudden the restaurant seemed dirty and I wondered if there were bugs in the place.  I just kept scratching like our skanky cat does with her fleas.  Then it moved to my belly and hips until my entire body was itching.  My arms began to be covered in red whelps and Nikos just sat with wide horrified eyes, speechless.  The waitress and then the owner told me I was allergic to lobster.  I said that was impossible since I’d eaten it many times at Red Lobster.  Neither had heard of such a place.  The lady expressed that the lobster I’d ingested had been caught just hours before, and it wasn’t uncommon for a person to have an allergic reaction to it when it is so fresh.  The owner told me I needed some Benadryll.  When I told her I didn’t have any, she questioned what kind of mother I was if I didn’t carry it at all times with me, especially on vacation.  Here I was itching manically, being scolded for not drugging my kids regularly,  and not exactly loving Maine.

It was close to ten, and Nikos began driving along the winding fog-filled road to find a gas station or store.  Nikos was freaked out, asking me why I had to be a social introvert and outdoorsy wanna be, why couldn’t I simply want to go to an amusement park.  We called my friend Lisa, to get my other friends number, who is a DO.  The phone service kept going in and out, and my whelps now covered me completely except for my head.  The first thing Tamara said was that pregnant women should not eat shellfish-yeah, I already knew that, thank you!  The second thing was that we needed to find a hospital if my throat was swelling and I needed Benadryll.  Nikos was now on a mission, yet the visibility was poor and we hadn’t a clue where we were.  The kids were exhausted which meant it was time for tears.  Elizabeth has a mild case of hypochondria, and began believing that she also was having an allergic reaction especially to the “disgusting blue vein”.  Nikolas fell asleep first, and finally Elizabeth.  Hearing about her afflictions and scratching mine at the same time was an ugly combo.

We came across a gas station, but it was closed.  Then another and yet another was closed.  Finally, Nikos found one, but they didn’t carry Benadryll, but the attendant directed Nikos where to go.  My arms were even bleeding a little from all of the frantic scratching.  I was going insane, being tortured for an hour and a half of the craziest itching ever known.    Finally, the angels were singing “ahhhh” as we pulled up to a gas station with florescent lights illuminating against the black misty night.  Nikos brought back a single serving size of Benadryll.  Nikos had to open it for me and I only took one.  The rest of the night was over for me.  In thirty seconds flat, I was out, and I mean blacked out, like that night sky.

There’s only one thing left that I remember from that horrid night.  We were in  the parking lot at the campground and I remember Nikos grabbing my arm hard, and the rest is left to Nikos for recapping.  Nikos managed to get us back to the campground close to 12:30 in the morning.  He couldn’t imagine how he was going to carry the two kids the quarter of a mile path to the tent, let alone a conked out and way too big for four months pregnant lady.   He had pulled me to standing, while he gathered the slumbering kids and the next thing he saw was that I was free falling backwards, and at the last second he grabbed my arm, just before I slammed my head on the ground.  Nikos said he had Elizabeth over one shoulder, and Nikolas and me on the other and he sort of dragged us along the “ten” mile path.  I can’t imagine all of the cussing that transpired and how many times Nikos questioned why he ever married a camping-crazed, lobster fanatic who nags her way to get to Maine, just to be covered in red whelps!