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Longing for a road trip…

I haven’t posted anything on this site for a while – a long while. It has been four months now that we have been staying close to home and practising physical distancing. Sadly, that means that there are no big road trips in our immediate future. This will be the first summer in ten years that we are not packing up and venturing east to Cape Breton – our favourite home away from home.

I have realized over the last few months how much we took for granted hopping in the car and heading to some of our favourite spots for summer fun – Kalahari Resort in Sandusky, OH, Zehnders Splash Village in Frankenmuth, MI, or Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls, ON.

Personally, I am longing for a shopping trip to Grove City, PA or Birch Run, MI. My husband is lamenting the fact that he won’t be able to attend the Woodward Dream Cruise in Detroit, and the kids just want to go to Canada’s Wonderland. But, we are staying home for the greater good and trying to make the most of our staycation.

We purchased some fun big floaties for my Dad’s pool, and we’ve been sampling all the local ice cream stores. We’re planning to get away for a week in August (still in Ontario) and we are all looking forward to that.

Once things open, I don’t think we’ll ever take for granted the freedom to eat in a restaurant, ride a roller coaster or browse in a gift shop – touching all the touristy tchotchkes.

We are also keeping a list of all the places we want to go once we can. We have friends and relatives to visit and new adventures to explore. We are also wondering when we will get back to the most magical place on earth… likely not for a while.

In the meantime we’ll keep exploring the wonder that’s around us and we’ll keep compiling a list of the places we plan to go once we can. Summer just doesn’t feel like summer without a road trip, but we are 100% for doing what’s needed to keep ourselves and all Canadians healthy and safe.

Is cross-border shopping worth it?

I spent the day last Saturday with three of my favourite people doing one of my favourite things – cross-border shopping! Growing up in south-western Ontario, cross-border shopping was always one of my favourite back-to-school rituals. We would usually go to Michigan – Port Huron, Troy, or the Birch Run Premium Outlets and sometimes to Niagara Falls NY. The value of the Canadian dollar compared the U.S. in the 1980’s was about the same as it is today, but back then the thrill of back-to-school shopping in the U.S. was going to stores that we didn’t have in Canada at the time (like The Gap and Old Navy as well as the big U.S. Department Stores such as Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor and J.C. Penny). The back-to-school sales in the U.S. were also a lot better. However, today, with our own outlets malls (including most large U.S. retailers), access to online shopping 24 hours a day, U.S. mailboxes and Amazon Prime, you might wonder if cross-border shopping still worth it?

For me, cross-border shopping is about the experience. It’s about a fun road trip with your bestie, hubby, or kiddos and still scoring some pretty great deals. If you’re up for being away an entire weekend, it’s about fun family time or girl time and having one last summer weekend away before back-to-school.

Whenever I shop with my friend Patty, one of our favourite retail destinations in the U.S. is Kohl’s. Kohl’s is a great place for kids clothing, some women’s and men’s brands, linens, housewares and seasonal decor. For kids, they carry brands such as Carter’s/OshKosh, Chaps, Adidas, Nike, Disney and Under Armor, as well as others – including a couple of their own house brands. Kohl’s regularly has pretty decent sales, and they have regular promotions (pretty much every other weekend) that if you use your Kohl’s charge card, you can save an additional 20-30% off. On top of that, you can sometimes earn $10 Kohl’s cash for every $50 spent (to be used a later date with no minimum purchase required).

Kohl's store in Port Huron, Michigan
Kohl’s store, Port Huron, Michigan

As a Canadian, you can open a Kohl’s charge in-store and get approved on the spot. However, whenever you use your Kohl’s card, make sure to pay it off right away in the store as otherwise it’s a pain to pay later on. Unfortunately, your Kohl’s account can’t be paid online from a Canadian bank account and it will cost you more to send a cheque by mail than to pay it immediately in-store.

Having a Kohl’s charge is definitely worth it in order to receive the additional 20-30% off coupons. For example, these are some of the great deals I scored this past weekend.

  • Boys Chaps golf shirt – regularly $20 on sale for $18, plus an additional 30% off for $12.59 USD. I got an even better deal on a boys white Chaps long sleeve dress shirt – regularly $30 for $12.59 USD.
  • Girls Adidas fashion jacket – regularly $45 on sale for $33.75. Not the best deal when you convert to Canadian dollars, but my daughter was in love with it and it’s still a good price for a fall jacket that she will likely wear every day.
  • Women’s Juicy Couture dress – regularly $58 on sale for $22.99 plus an additional 30% off for just $16.09.

In total, I had 11 items for $172.24 USD. I “saved” $232.50 vs. regular prices, and I also earned $30 in Kohl’s cash that I can spend in a couple weeks (either in-store or online), with no minimum purchase required. Overall I was pretty happy with my purchases, and what’s more important is the fun had and memories made with my friend and our daughters.

Kohl's receipt with savings

Part of our cross-boarding shopping ritual always includes either lunch or dinner at one of our favourite U.S. restaurants. So, after a quick trip to Target, the girls chose the Olive Garden (no surprise there!).

The Olive Garden in Port Huron, Michigan
The Olive Garden, Port Huron, Michigan

So, was it worth it? Yes! I got some really good deals and we had a great day shopping, laughing and lunching.

First things first, where to go? This is my list of what I consider to be the best places to go cross-border shopping.

  • Birch Run Premium Outlets, Birch Run, Michigan – I mostly like Birch Run because it makes for a great weekend away in nearby Frankenmuth (see my Frankenmuth post). It’s a large outlet mall with some great stores including the hard to find Pottery Barn/Williams Sonoma outlet.
  • Fashion Outlets, Niagara Falls, NY – the closest cross-border shopping to home, and lots of great stores to choose from – including my favourites (Ann Taylor, J.Crew, Kate Spade, etc.)
  • Walden Galleria, Buffalo, NY – large mall with great stores including Lord & Taylor, Macy’s and great restaurant options (Cheesecake Factory, PF Chang, Melting Pot, etc). I love department store shopping – especially for special occasion dress and shoe shopping. A great sale at a department store is often better than outlet mall shopping and the return policies are usually better.
  • Great Lakes Crossing, Auburn Hills, Michigan – a large indoor outlet mall with Legoland, Target and lots of hotel and restaurant options close by.
  • Somerset Collection, Troy, Michigan – The Somerset Collection is a large mall with both “regular” and high-end stores (think Gucci, Versace, Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton) and both a Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus. It’s great for department store shopping and lots of really good restaurant options too – like California Pizza Kitchen and Capital Grille.
  • Grove City Premium Outlets – Grove City is about 4 hours from Oakville. The Premium Outlet mall has all the usual outlet stores – plus there is no sales tax in Pennsylvania!
  • Kohl’s or Target (anywhere!) – the closest Kohl’s location is in North Amherst, NY on Niagara Falls Blvd and there is a Target store right by the Fashion Outlets in Niagara Falls, NY.

More cross-border shopping tips!

  • If you are going outlet shopping, most outlet malls have a “savings passport” or coupon book available at customer service. Many of these require a CAA/AAA membership and have valuable coupons (10-20% off at most stores). They’re not deep discounts but help take the sting out of the exchange rate! Note – these savings books are also available with your CAA membership at Canadian outlets malls (including Milton and Niagara Falls).
  • Check for coupons and sign up for mailing lists for the stores you are planning to visit – again, even a 10-15% discount makes the exchange rate better.
  • To get the most out of cross-border shopping, try to hit stores we don’t have at home. Unless you are looking at clearance items, the deals at Banana Republic and Old Navy are usually just as good in Canada when you factor in the exchange rate.
  • If you are crossing the border from the GTA, check the border wait times before you go, or have your passenger do this en route. You have a few options between Queenston-Lewiston, the Rainbow Bridge and the Peace Bridge (depending on where you are going) and this can save time on your trip.
  • Stay within your personal exemption amount to avoid paying duty. This is $200 per person after 24 hours and $800 after 48 hours. Note there is $0 allowed for a same-day shopping trip. However, it’s best to always tell the truth and hope that you don’t have to pay duty (from my own personal experience it’s about a 50/50 chance but rarely have I had to pay if I spent under $200). Duty and taxes can be expensive on top of the exchange rate so plan ahead and decide how much you are going to spend assuming you might have to pay.
  • Fill up on gas. Even with the exchange rate, gas is still cheaper in the U.S. For example, at $2.82 USD/gallon, this works out to $0.74 USD/Litre. Based on today’s exchange rate, $0.74 USD is approximately $1.00 Canadian. So… depending on the price of gas at home, you can probably save 10-25 cents/litre. And, if you get stuck trying to pay at the pump because you’ve been asked for your zip code, just enter the 3 numbers of your postal code followed by “00”. So, if your postal code is L6M 1R4, you would enter 61400. It works and you can avoid going into a sketchy gas station store! Before I knew this, I used to always try 90210 as it was the only zip code I could think of (it never worked!)

So, again… is cross-border shopping worth it? It’s up to you. If you have fun and get a few deals, I say it is!

National Corvette Museum – Bowling Green, Kentucky

This past spring we travelled to Bowling Green, Kentucky to visit the National Corvette Museum (a destination my husband had been wanting to visit for a long time!).

Bowling Green Kentucky is about a ten-and-a-half hour drive from the Toronto area. The quickest route (according to Google maps) is to cross into the US at Windsor/Detroit and take the I-75 south to Bowling Green. The other option (which we chose to take because we wanted to make a couple stops along the way) is to cross the border at Fort Erie/Buffalo.

A 10-11 hour drive is doable in one day, however, we decided to leave after work on the first day (at approx 4pm) so we could get a few hours under our belts and have a shorter drive the second day. We stayed over night at the Home2Suites in Erie, PA (we only stay at Hilton properties to earn our Hilton Honors points). This was a great stop and made the drive the next day quite a bit shorter.

To be perfectly honest, the kids and I were not that interested in the Corvette museum. We were more focused on the second leg of our journey – a visit to Nashville, just 60 mins south. However, the Corvette museum was fantastic.

The kids loved all the cars – and there were cars on display everywhere. The museum had a great foot print and interesting, interactive displays.

Our only complaint was that the kids area in the museum was really small – and meant for much younger kids. At 9 and 7 we were way too big for most of the activities. However, the kids did enjoy changing the tires in the mini garage!

If you don’t know the history of the National Corvette Museum, five years ago, in 2014, part of the museum – including several extremely valuable corvettes – was “swallowed” by a sink hole.

The museum was re-built and most of the cars were rescued and restored. The sink hole site is on display – including a video with a re-enactment of the event. It was really interesting.

The boys also tried “driving” a corvette (in quotations because the car was stationary). You had to pay extra for this experience, however, it was pretty neat to drive a corvette in the museum. Note that there is also an outdoor track where you can have a real driving experience- either as the driver or as a passenger. The track isn’t open every day and the museum suggests arranging this in advance.

We arrived at the museum early to beat the crowds so by noon we were ready for lunch. We decided to try the restaurant onsite – the Corvette Cafe. The food was just so-so, however, the milkshakes were AMAZING. We watched the staff prepare the milkshakes using real ice cream and whipped cream – so good!!!

In the afternoon there was a car show in the museum parking lot – which meant more cars for hubby to look at while the rest of us patiently waited to return to the hotel…

Bowling Green was a really nice place to visit. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn (we almost exclusively stay at Hilton properties so we can collect our Hilton Honors points) and the Bowling Green HGI was great! Upon our arrival the previous night we were hungry and the hotel recommended we try the restaurant next door, Montana Grille (independently owned – not the chain). Our dinner was fantastic. The grown ups started with Kentucky bourbon watermelon cocktails and jalapeño cornbread right out of the oven. They had a number of delicious steak options (I believe I had the bourbon tenderloin filet) and you could choose to have it grilled over charcoal or hickory. So good!

Kentucky, we will be back!

Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Cape Breton is our all-time favourite summer destination. We have been travelling to Cape Breton every summer for the last 10 years – ever since my sister and brother-in-law moved to the beautiful Margaree area.

It’s about an 19 hour drive from Toronto (not including stops), but there are so many wonderful stops along the way and driving is a fantastic is a way to see Eastern Canada.

This past year, our driving strategy was to get up really early on the first day (like 4 am early) and be on the road before 5am. This worked out well as the kids slept in the car for most of the morning. We made it through Montreal before lunch! And whenever we are driving through Quebec, our favourite lunch or dinner stop is always St. Hubert!

We put in a full day of driving and made it all the way to Fredericton, New Brunswick on day one. This was important so we could arrive in the Margaree area mid afternoon on day two. We stayed at the Hampton Inn in Fredericton (as I mention in all my posts we almost always stay at Hilton properties to collect our Hilton Honors points. What’s great though, is that most of the Hampton Inns in the East have waterslides in their pool areas. This is a great way for kids to cool down and burn some energy after a long day spent in the car.

Waterslide at the Hampton Inn, Fredericton

After stopping for the night, we had a short six hour drive the following day. If you have never been to Cape Breton and the Cabot Trail, the landscape is stunning. We spend most of our time on the west side of the Island – between Inverness, Margaree and Cheticamp. The drive along the Cabot Trail is breathtaking and a trip into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park is a must-do.

Cape Breton Island

There are a number of scenic hikes through the Park, the most popular and most breathtaking being the Skyline Trail. It’s about a 7km hike (easy walking – mostly boardwalk), and the reward is this spectacular view. There’s also a chance of seeing some pretty impressive wildlife – including moose and whales. Because the hike is so popular, it’s best to try and go early in the morning or later in the day for a better chance of spotting wildlife. However, you want to make sure it’s a clear day so the clouds don’t obstruct this gorgeous view!

Skyline Trail, Cabot Trail Cape Breton
The Skyline Trail – Cape Breton Highlands National Park
View from Skyline Trail, Cabot Trail, Cape Breton
View of the Cabot Trail

Cape Breton is also famous for having beautiful beaches. We spend almost every sunny day at the beach. Our favourite place is Chimney Corner beach where the kids will spend hours swimming, playing in the sand, and catching (and releasing) lobsters in their sand pails. Margaree Harbour Beach and Whale Cove beach are also beautiful beaches to visit in the same area.

Catching lobsters at Chimney Corner Beach
Chimney Corner Beach, Cape Breton
Chimney Corner Beach

Cape Breton is also famous for the music. While visiting Cape Breton, be sure to check out a ceilidh or concert over the course of your stay. One of our favourite stops is the “The Barn” at the Normaway Inn on Wednesday nights. Here you can hear some amazing Cape Breton fiddlers. If you are lucky enough to be in Cape Breton the last Sunday in July, you can attend The Broad Cove Scottish Concert – the biggest outdoor Celtic music concert anywhere.

Normaway Inn, Cape Breton
The Barn at the Normaway Inn

And… of course, with any trip to Nova Scotia there is the food. If you are a seafood lover, there are so many opportunities for delicious lobster, mussels and chowder. Because we love it so much we’ll write more about our favourite stops in future posts. The first pic below is at Baddeck Lobster Suppers and the second is the Lobster Pound at the Island Sunset Resort. Both were absolutely delicious!!!

Baddeck Lobster Suppers, Baddeck
Baddeck Lobster Suppers
The Lobster Pound
The Lobster Pound at the Island Sunset

We can’t say enough about how much we absolutely adore this beautiful island – a spectacular part of Canada!

SoundWaves – Nashville, Tennessee

This past spring, we took our first family trip to Nashville and thoroughly enjoyed our visit to SoundWaves, the beautiful water park at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Centre.

It’s about an 11 hour drive to Nashville from the Toronto area. We did the drive in two days as we had a few stops we wanted to make along the way (including the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky).

This was our first time staying at the Gaylord Opryland, and the hotel is huge. There’s a massive atrium with lush gardens throughout – several restaurants, shops and even a river boat cruise – right in the hotel. It’s truly a spectacular place.

Because we love water parks, I upgraded our reservation to a “SoundWaves” package. SoundWaves is the water park in the hotel and is not included in a regular stay. The indoor water park opened in November 2018, and the outdoor water park in May 2019 (the weekend before we arrived).

This is an absolutely beautiful water park. May was a great time of year to be in Nashville. The weather was warm (especially given we’d had such a long, cold winter in Ontario). The indoor water park had some nice features including both a lazy river and a “fast” river, plus a “FlowRider” surf simulator – all with a music theme.

SoundWaves is described as an “upscale” water park – and that’s exactly what it is. The outdoor part has an elegant resort-like feel to it. There was live music playing in the afternoon – and then a large video screen playing music videos above the wave pool.

The water slides at SoundWaves were okay – they didn’t compare to Kalahari or Great Wolf Lodge, however, the ambiance at SoundWaves was amazing. We truly felt like we were on vacation.

If you are looking for a relaxing resort-like water park experience, we highly recommend SoundWaves at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel.

Kalahari Resorts – Sandusky, Ohio

We discovered Kalahari Ohio a couple years ago and it has quickly become one of our favourite summer destinations.

Kalahari is located in Sandusky, Ohio. It’s about a 5 hour drive from the GTA west and makes for a great 2-3 day getaway. There are two options for driving to Kalahari – either driving towards Niagara and crossing at Fort Erie / Buffalo or taking the 401 to Windsor and crossing into the US at Detroit. It all depends on the time of day and the wait times at the border. I will usually check both Google Maps and Waze as well as the border wait times before we leave.

Driving to Kalahari in Sandusky, Ohio

While the hotel is open year round, we highly recommend visiting Kalahari over the summer months.

The indoor water park is large – with a number of great slides, a wave pool and a lazy river for the whole family to enjoy. However, our favourite slides hands-down are in the new outdoor water park. These slides are AWESOME. The outdoor water park opened in 2017 and features three “thrill” raft rides and two body slides (the first time I rode on the green raft ride I thought I was going to fly right out!). It’s tons of fun and if you’re like us, you’ll want to ride the slides over and over again. There is also a large outdoor pool and huge outdoor kiddie area.

Outdoor waterslides at Kalahari, Ohio

Also in the outdoor part of the park is a large ropes course. This is an extra activity that you need to pay for – though there are some packages that come with the ropes course included. This is another favourite activity for our kids (though I can’t stand to watch).

Kalahari outdoor adventure

When they’re done with the water park for the day, our kids’ second favourite place to be is the arcade. Kalahari has a huge arcade with tons of games plus indoor laser tag. This was our first experience playing laser tag as a family and the kids loved it!

Arcade at Kalahari

A two-night trip to Kalahari is not inexpensive – especially for Canadians given the current value of the dollar. However, if you sign up for their email list, there are a number of promotions that you can take advantage of over the course of the year. There are often deals for as low as $149 USD/night if you are flexible and can go mid-week. Note that there’s a nightly resort fee that’s added on top of this – be sure to look carefully before you book.

There are sometimes deals for Kalahari on Groupon – but I’ve found that the email offerS from the hotel itself are often better. Again, be sure to pay attention to any added fees on top of the room rate when you are comparing deals.

Kalahari also has a number of room options, including a variety of suites (many with full kitchens) if you’re travelling with a larger group. It’s a very large property (including a conference centre) so be sure to ask to have your room close to the water park (assuming that’s a priority).

There are a number of on-site dining options from the casual pizza take-out restaurant to a buffet restaurant and steak house. We’ve eaten at all three and they were all decent. However, if you want to leave the property, there’s also an Olive Garden and Texas Roadhouse right down the street.

There’s lots of fun frozen drinks in large souvenir cups for both adults and kiddies – as well as the decadent candy shop in the main lobby as soon as you enter the building (Including chocolate covered bacon).

If you are planning to stay in Sandusky for a couple days, it’s also the home of Cedar Point. I visited several times as a teenager but we haven’t ventured there yet as a family – maybe next summer!

We love Kalahari, Ohio and look forward to one day visiting their sister resorts at Kalahari, Wisconsin and Kalahari, Pennsylvania.

Frankenmuth, Michigan

One of our all-time favourite weekend getaways is the lovely town of Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Approximately 3-4 hours from the GTA, Frankenmuth makes for an idyllic family weekend getaway. Known as Michigan’s “Little Bavaria”, there’s plenty to offer in this quaint little town. With a large water park hotel, a world-famous Christmas store (the size of a Walmart), and Prime Outlet shopping just five minutes away, what’s not to love?

The drive to Frankenmuth is pretty straightforward from the Toronto area. You cross into the US at Sarnia / Port Huron and then it’s about an hour drive once you get to Michigan. If you want to stop for lunch, there are all kinds of options in Port Huron.

Driving to Frankenmuth from the GTA

For me personally, there’s an element of nostalgia as I have fond memories visiting Frankenmuth as a child with my parents and my two grandmothers. And, as a teenager growing up in south-western Ontario, this is often where my mother would take us for a couple days the last week of August to do our back to school shopping – especially since many of the hotels and restaurants used to honour the Canadian dollar at par (more on that below)!

Where to stay?

First things first – where to stay? There are many options for hotels in Frankenmuth, depending on what you need. There’s a Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, Fairfield Inn, etc. However, if you have kids, you’ll want to stay at one of the two water park hotels – either the Bavarian Inn or Zehnder’s Splash Village. Our preference by far is Zehnder’s Splash Village. While the Bavarian Inn has two waterslides and a large arcade, Zehnder’s Splash Village is a complete water park that rivals a Great Wolf Lodge. The water park has a great kiddie area and “thrill” rides for the bigger kids – including a “drop capsule” body slide and a family raft ride. Our kids love the water park – especially the “fast” river. The newer part of the water park is in a large, bright atrium with lots of seating and there are water park facing rooms as well.

Prices typically range from $179 to $300+ USD/night depending on the time of year and the room type. It’s best to check the website and to sign up for their emails as there are often deals to save $20-30/night. It’s great family fun, but you might wonder if it’s worth the drive vs. going to Great Wolf Lodge…. well, in my opinion it is. While the hotel doesn’t have the ambiance of a Great Wolf Lodge, the water park is comparable and there’s a pretty good arcade as well (kids like it because they think the prizes are better than most arcades). There is also a casual restaurant and small gift shop on site. However, the best part is that Zehnder’s Splash Village takes Canadian dollars at par up to $100/night!   In order to get this deal, you need to book your room over the phone (not online), use a credit card for the reservation and then pay with Canadian cash when you arrive. They used to allow you to pay Canadian for your entire stay but they changed their policy in January 2016. However, $100/night is still not bad – especially if you are staying two nights or more.

Dining

For dinner, they have an eat and sleep package that includes a Frankenmuth-famous all-you-can-eat family style chicken dinner at Zehnder’s restaurant. This restaurant is famous for their family-style chicken dinners and it is the largest family restaurant in the United States. There is even a shuttle that will take you there and back to the hotel (it’s a 3 minute drive – totally walkable in the summer). This is a great option so you don’t need to worry about parking (and also allows you to indulge in a large pina colada by the pool). This chicken dinner is served family style with a large platter of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables, buttered noodles, stuffing, coleslaw, and all the fixin’s. We’ve never requested second helpings but if you want more, they will keep it coming. It isn’t fine dining but it’s fun and the food is pretty kid friendly. There’s also a large bake shop and gift shop that’s not to be missed on the lower level of the restaurant that has AMAZING desserts and chocolates as well as local jams, jellies and wine.

Zehnder's Restaurant

After dinner, you can stroll through town and visit the old style cheese, fudge and toy shops – as well as a number of other specialty stores. You can also take a horse drawn carriage ride.

Shopping

Of course a trip to Frankenmuth is not complete without a stop at Bronners (though my husband might argue differently). Bronners is the largest Christmas store in the world, and unless you have been there yourself it is hard to even imagine – except that it’s awesome. They have a huge selection of ornaments for every interest, hobby, and person you can imagine – plus all kinds of indoor and out door decorations. If you have never been there it is definitely something to see.

If you are a shopper (like me), the Birch Run Prime Outlets are about five minutes away. There you will find all your favourite outlet stores, plus a large Pottery Barn / Williams Sonoma outlet. I’ll write more about shopping trips in another post, but always make sure to go to customer service and show your CAA card to get extra savings at most of the outlet stores before you start shopping! If not everyone in your group wants to shop, there’s even a golf course (also owned by Zehnders) right in town (before kids, my girlfriends and I used to drop off our husbands off there before heading to the outlet mall).

With a water park, outlet mall, Christmas store, quaint shops, golf course and a brewery, Frankenmuth is a destination that the whole family can love.

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