During our 3+ year journey around the globe we try to experience new things and seek adventure outside our comfort zone. Earlier in the year we rode horses for the first time and later Larissa flew an aerobatic plane upside down in Las Vegas. Which was how we found ourselves bobbing up and down on the gentle waves at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. We were finally learning how to surf in our 50s.

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Surfin’ USA

Waikiki Beach is an excellent spot for the beginner surfer: the waves break in easy 3-to-5-foot swells and there’s an abundance of surfing schools. We chose Gone Surfing, figuring that its female owner, Jo Jo Howard, would be patient with our nonexistent skills. We signed up for a two-hour semi-private lesson. Jo Jo was assigned to Larissa while Noah handled Michael, a formidable task for the young surfing instructor.

We started with a quick safety lesson on the beach where we were taught what to do out on the water. The three-step process seemed simple on solid land: 1) Bring your knees up; 2) Set your feet; and 3) Stand up. What could go wrong?

Since the waves on our part of the beach were pretty flat, Jo Jo and Noah towed us out to a farther section of the beach. Or we should say “toe’d.” Each of them hooked a toe over the front of our surfboard and paddled us out into the ocean. That was so relaxing that it could be a new activity for old-timers.

Wipe Out

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As we bobbed around in the water waiting for a wave Michael tried the three-step process on the stationary surfboard. Guess what? It’s a lot easier on solid ground. With the water shifting underneath him he promptly did an ungainly face plant. Watching Michael’s belly flop brought images from the movie Orca to mind. Hmm, maybe this would be harder than we thought.

The mellow Noah said not to worry. It would be easier when the board was moving. That sounded counterintuitive to Michael but getting into the Hawaiian island spirit he decided to roll with it.

Rumble at Waikiki


And then it happened. The first wave came. Michael was face down on his board and was paddling with the wave as it pushed him to shore. With Noah shouting out the commands Michael somehow found himself in a standing position on the board, feet pointing in the right direction, arms stretched out for balance. It must have been a day for miracles because he was actually surfing. His five second ride felt like five minutes and when he came crashing into the water at the end he was stoked.

Surfer Girl

Larissa jumped onto the second wave and with her convenient lower center of gravity (okay, she’s short) also rode to a watery glory. We were thrilled.

One of the nice things about surfing is that even experienced surfers end their rides with a dive into the water. It’s basically how you stop so when we fell off the board at the end of our attempts it wasn’t the same as doing a face plant on a ski run. It was actually quite refreshing.

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Don’t Worry Baby

We wore long-sleeved black shirts called rash guards that protect the skin from sun and scrapes. One of the nice things they do for a middle-aged surfer is act as a cover-up for sagging muscles so we looked as sleek as champion Laird Hamilton, well almost. We might just start wearing them everywhere even when we’re not hanging ten.

We were warned by some friends that we’d be pretty sore afterwards. The next day we were a bit sore in our ribcages where they pressed into the board. But that was it. A day after that we were fine.

Good Vibrations

The one lesson has given us enough confidence that if we’re staying someplace where we can rent boards we can now do so. Granted we’re not ready for the Banzai Pipeline on the north shore of Oahu, but we feel we can handle something more modest without embarrassing ourselves.

Collecting experiences at this point in our lives feels so right. We are creating new memories and are even picking up a few new skills along the way. Besides, as nomads without a home we can’t collect stuff, we have no place to put it.

Hawaii Vacations: Save 30% or more in paradise!

Here’s how to connect with Gone Surfing who was kind enough to provide us with this lesson.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Oh to be present at the first Thanksgiving in the Americas; a hearty feast to celebrate surviving a difficult ordeal, indigenous people looking on, and settlers clad in Spanish conquistador helmets . . . wait, what? The Pilgrims wore shiny metal helmets? Read more

Despite all the globe-hopping and monument seeking, the best aspect of travel is the people we meet along the way. They’re the ones who provide us the stories that make travel a more enriching experience.

This came into sharp focus at a recent Airbnb stay outside El Paso, Texas. Our host Carey casually mentioned that his father is a D-Day veteran who happened to live up the street. Not only was his father a D-Day veteran, he was one of the Pathfinders, the paratroopers who were dropped behind enemy lines the night before D-Day and later made famous in Band of Brothers. They were the sharp end of the spear and the precursor to today’s Special Forces.

As a student of military history who absorbs anything about World War II I couldn’t resist. Meeting a D-Day veteran has been a dream of mine but many veterans are reluctant to relive their wartime experiences so I nervously asked, “Would it be okay to meet him?”

“Oh sure,” Carey replied, “he loves talking to people.”

The next day we met former First Sergeant Maynard “Beamy” Beamesderfer, a veteran of not only D-Day, but also Operation Market Garden (depicted in A Bridge Too Far) and the Battle of the Bulge. Beamy was a sort of Zelig of World War II European battles.

d-day veteran military medals

He’s 89 years old now, but still retains the upright posture and quick-wittedness that enabled him to survive a war where most of his unit was wiped out. Along the way he earned several Purple Hearts and was a POW for a week before escaping.

He grew up with his lovely wife Mimi in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. I asked if they were childhood sweethearts to which Mimi quickly replied, “Oh no. He was four years older than me and kind of bossy. I was scared of him.” Well she finally tamed him.

In true heroic veteran style, Beamy was matter-of-fact about the rigors of war that he and his fellow soldiers of the 101st Airborne, the famous Screaming Eagles, endured. When his unit, the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, took off for the D-Day mission (after two false starts because of bad weather) each of the paratroopers was burdened with 90 pounds of equipment including: explosives wrapped around their legs, extra ammunition and food supplies, in case the seaborne invasion failed and they became stuck behind enemy lines.

“We were hoping that wouldn’t happen,” Beamy said.

d-day clicker

If you’ve seen classic D-Day film “The Longest Day” you’ll recognize the object in the center of this photo. It’s the clicker the Pathfinders used to identify themselves after they landed.

During Operation Market Garden Beamy and a group of fellow soldiers were captured by the Germans.

“They were tired and never searched us,” Beamy said. “We carried banjo wire with wooden handles on the end, one night when they were sleeping we were able to overcome them and escape.” For their efforts, on the way back to the frontlines they were mistaken for German troops and shot at by U. S. troops.

During a much-deserved rest in Paris the German counter-offensive that became the Battle of the Bulge began, it was Germany’s last gasp at victory. Enduring frigid conditions the 501st went back into the maw of battle.

“It was the coldest winter ever recorded in Europe,” Beamy recalls. “We couldn’t wear our overcoats because they were too bulky to fight in.”

The unit held its position but lost so many soldiers that it was disbanded. Beamy himself was severely injured several times, his whereabouts unknown to the point that his mother was notified that he was missing in action.

Beamy leafed through his well-read scrapbooks where he maintains a history of his unit, noting photos of his fellow soldiers. He also pulled out a military map of the D-Day invasion and pointed out in exquisite detail where he landed and how his unit achieved their objective of capturing a canal lock. It was hard not to marvel at the courage it took to land behind enemy lines to support an invasion that may, or may not, have succeeded.

Beamy says, “We were just teenagers. We thought we could do anything.”

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Part of Beamy’s impressive collection of military unit patches.

Today former First Sergeant Beamesderfer is an active member of the 82nd Airborne Division Association in El Paso, Texas. Their business card is the only one I’ve ever seen that included “Bar Open” hours on it. Although as Mimi told us, “He doesn’t even drink or smoke. During the war he did pretty well trading his cigarettes.”

It’s said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day, a cadre of oral historians that are irreplaceable. Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day, if you can, seek out these last living monuments to the Greatest Generation. For me it was an unforgettable experience.

My heartfelt thanks to Mimi and Beamy Beamesderfer for sharing so much of their life experiences with us.

meeting a d-day veteran

As you know, we practically live in Airbnb world. Here’s how to get $20 off your first stay at Airbnb.

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We’ve taken road trips all over the world but still love driving around America the most due to the wide variety of unusual roadside attractions in the United States. One of the more off-beat highlights of our autumn road trip across America was visiting Carhenge in Nebraska. Just north of downtown Alliance, it’s a faithful reproduction of the ancient site of Stonehenge in England. Carhenge was built in 1987 by Jim Reinders and his family as a memorial to his father and stands on his father’s farm. In keeping with the original Stonehenge’s reputed astronomical significance, it was dedicated during that year’s summer solstice.

visiting carhenge in nebraska

The cars are painted gray to resemble the original standing stones at Stonehenge. Surprisingly the wheels on the cars still spin.

carhenge nebraska

When the automotive sculpture was first erected the town elders of Alliance didn’t know what to make of it and wanted it torn down. But people started coming from all over the world to view the unique artwork so the locals now embrace it as a visitor attraction.

carhenge in america

Carhenge is definitely worth a trip. Considering the remote location in the far northwest corner of Nebraska I was surprised that there was a steady flow of people coming to see it on a blustery weekday in October.

Larissa Michael Carhenge Nebraska (800x666)

Right next to it is a “Car Art Reserve” with newer sculptures made out of cars and car parts. There’s even an “auto-graph” car people can write on. During the summer the appropriately named Pit Shop Gift Shop is open for souvenirs.

carhenge art reserve

For updated information go to: http://carhenge.com/. Admission is free. And be sure to stop a few miles north on Route 87 to see one of the more unusual rest stops we’ve come across.

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Visiting Carhenge in Nebraska

Visiting Carhenge in Nebraska is easy. It’s located on Highway 87, three miles north of downtown Alliance. Alliance is in the northwest section of the state that is sometimes referred to as the “Outback of Nebraska.” If you’re hitting all the top sights on a cross-country road trip, Carhenge is only a 2 1/2 hour drive south of Mount Rushmore. Which is really just a drop in the bucket for those of you who crave long drives. [youtube]http://youtu.be/CD-PKgrvXfk[/youtube]


28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

It’s that time of year with Halloween approaching that we start thinking of all things haunted. Here are 10 of the spookiest ghost towns in America, places that were once thriving but are now abandoned. A visit to any one of them is intriguing, desolate . . . and more than a little spooky.

Picher, Oklahoma

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The nearby lead mine was the primary local employer until lead waste from the adjacent slagheap began to sprinkle the town with toxic dust. In 2006 the town was declared a Superfund site and almost everyone moved away. Driving through Picher’s deserted streets it feels as though everyday life was interrupted for an air raid drill: the abandoned school mascot — the gorilla — forlornly oversees empty homes, churches and storefronts. Here’s a story with more about Picher, Oklahoma.

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Love Canal, Niagara Falls, NY

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This neighborhood near the Niagara River became notorious in the 1970s and 80s for toxic waste dumped by the nearby Hooker Chemical plant. The effect on the local residents’ health spearheaded the environmental Superfund cleanup program in the US. The houses were torn down, but remnants of the neighborhood still remain; weed-riddled sidewalks to nowhere provide an eerie remembrance of a once thriving suburb.

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Rodney, Mississippi

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Photo by Natalie Maynor.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries Rodney was a prosperous port on the Mississippi River. The river changed course, drying up the port — and Rodney’s livelihood — along with it. The town is literally a “ghost”; in 1930 the governor decommissioned it as a municipal entity. Officially Rodney no longer exists on maps. An eerie drive off the main road through trees dripping with kudzu vines and over a somewhat shaky bridge will get you to the few remaining buildings, including a Civil War-era church and a handful of houses and shops.

Centralia, Pennsylvania

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This was a booming mining town until an underground coal seam caught fire in 1962. A seemingly endless supply of fuel snaking deep into the earth makes the fire impossible to extinguish; it’s been burning for over 50 years now and is slowly moving towards the cemetery. The underground inferno has killed all vegetation at the surface and made living in Centralia hazardous. The town is almost entirely abandoned but the street grid, sidewalks and driveways remain; a drive down the abandoned main street reveals cracks in the ground where smoke plumes snake out. Recently a time capsule that had been somewhat optimistically buried in 1966 was opened but the contents were flooded. Such has been the luck of Centralia.
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Surfridge, California

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Since it sits underneath the runways of Los Angeles International Airport, this may be the noisiest ghost town in America. Surfridge was a housing development in the 1920s that took advantage of a glorious view overlooking the Pacific Ocean. At the time the airport was a small field that serviced propeller driven craft. With the advent of jet engines the runways needed to be expanded and Surfridge was history, its residents dispersed. In an odd twist the streets remain so savvy airline passengers will notice it if they look the window. You better hurry to see this one, last time we checked they were ripping the old roads out to restore the dunes to their natural state.

Lobo, Texas

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This former railroad town in the West Texas desert was finally abandoned in 1961. Behind barbed wire fences visitors can still see the remnants of homes, a filling station and a roadside motel. Its location right on I-90 makes it one of the more accessible of America’s ghost towns, well that is if you happen to be driving in this remote spot. The town has recently been purchased and even hosted a film festival in 2014. No word if they just showed scary movies.

Pioche, Nevada

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While the town is occupied by a few hardy souls, there are abandoned mine heads on the outskirts of town and an old-fashioned Boot Hill cemetery. That cemetery filled up quickly as over 70 residents died from shootings before one met the hereafter naturally. The aerial tramway resembling a ski-lift that carried ore from underground still floats eerily over the town, with rusty buckets dangling precariously in the wind.

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Ruby Hill Mine, Eureka, Nevada

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Along Route 50 in central Nevada, known as the Loneliest Road in America, there are many ghost towns to visit. Most of them are former mining towns that were abandoned when the underground riches ran dry. Ruby Hill Mine is located a few miles south of Eureka, one of the only stops on Route 50. There are several intact buildings with interiors that are still furnished.

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Camp Hearne, Hearne, Texas

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Containing some of the last remnants of a World War II POW camp in North America, Camp Hearne once housed German prisoners from Rommel’s Africa Corps. The temporary barracks were removed after the war but concrete foundations peek out through the brush, along with rows of fire hydrants standing sentinel in the parched grass field. A small museum on the site displays relics of the POW days. Particularly chilling are documentation of Nazi terrorism within the prisoners’ ranks, including the murder of one ambivalent German, whose ghost is said to still haunt the camp.

Camp Hunt, Idaho

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In the months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the West Coast of America was in a frenzy over a possible attack on the mainland. One of the responses was to round up all people of Japanese descent, many of whom were American citizens, and ship them off to “relocation centers” in the heartland. One of the few surviving examples is the Minidoka Japanese Internment Camp in Idaho. There are several intact wooden buildings and coils of rusted barbed wire eerily snaking its way through the camp. The site is now an unstaffed unit of the National Park Service; its remote location and bleak location conjure up the spirits of its former involuntary residents.

Minidoka japanese internment camp Idaho entrance

What other ghost towns have you visited?

Further reading: Here’s our more detailed story about Centralia, Pennsylvania.

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Las Vegas is one of the most popular cities in the world, but is it an attractive tourist destination for people who don’t gamble? We put the city to the test, starting out by finding hotels in Las Vegas without casinos (or that place them in a separate building). They still provided an exciting Vegas vibe while allowing us a bit of freedom from glitzy slot machines and poker tables. As an added bonus they are all non-smoking hotels.

The Vdara Hotel & Spa

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Tucked into the glittering City Center complex that also includes The Aria hotel & casino, the Vdara offers a slick yet sedate address right in the thick of The Strip. Accommodations are all suites of varying sizes, decorated with edgy touches like remote controlled sun shades straight out of a James Bond villain’s lair.

You’re also only steps from Cirque du Soleil’s Zarkana show. We had never seen Cirque du Soleil show before and were blown away by it. With eight different Cirque du Soleil shows currently appearing in Las Vegas, you’ll never run out of nightly entertainment options.

Zarkana stage (800x217)

There’s a gourmet market and café off the lobby that offers a varied selection of simple meals and snacks to enjoy in your room. There are no in-room coffee makers, which perhaps explains the long lines at Starbucks down in the lobby, but upon request housekeeping will bring up a Keurig machine with all the fixings.

Highlight: The super quiet atmosphere in the midst of the buzzy Strip, along with the north-facing rooms offering an impressive view of the Bellagio fountain show.

The Platinum Hotel

LAs Vegas platinum hotel interior

Perhaps the best-kept secret in town, this all-suite smoke-free property sits tucked away only two blocks east of Las Vegas Blvd, putting guests within easy walking distance of the dancing fountains and flashing lights of The Strip. Describing the accommodations as “suites” is an understatement; they are large 1- and 2-bedroom apartments, complete with well-stocked kitchens, gas fireplaces and washer/dryers. We could easily have moved in for a few months.

Westward rooms face the glitz of Las Vegas Boulevard while eastern rooms offer a majestic mountain view; these also face the airport but the windows are so insulated you won’t even notice the planes gliding by.

Highlight: The 6th-floor indoor/outdoor pool, with a fantastic view of The Strip.

 

Palms Place

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A quiet oasis perched at the edge of the sprawling Palms casino/hotel complex about 1 mile west of The Strip, all accommodations are sleekly decorated “suites” that are either studios or full apartments. The location is just perfect for offering a panoramic view of The Strip skyline to the east; western-facing suites give you the mountains and glorious sunsets (note: 1- and 2-bedroom units have huge tubs perched right at the windows, so you can indulge in a soak while you soak up the views).

Full kitchens provide convenience for take-out meals and snacking.  There’s plenty of free covered self-parking in the adjacent lot. One acrid note: the bar that is open to the lobby allows smoking, which was odd in an otherwise smoke-free hotel.

Highlight: The epic showers, with a combination of rainfall and massaging showerheads that made us want to spend hours in there soaping up with the luxury amenities, including a complimentary bath pouf.

J.W. Marriott Resort and Spa

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This elegant property is nestled amidst a golf course in the upscale community of Summerlin, about 15 minutes northwest of The Strip. Although the separately-operated Rampart Casino shares the property, the towers housing the rooms are completely separate, so you never need to pass through the gauntlet of slot machines. Rooms, which are spacious and chock-full of luxury touches like fluffy robes and oodles of pillows are housed in two 6-story towers with balconies or terraces overlooking the lushly landscaped grounds.

Although the resort offers several restaurants, they are near the casino. If you’re seeking a quieter and less smoky option head to the nearby Tivoli Village luxury shopping and dining complex and feast at Echo & Rig, a new restaurant that combines a fine steakhouse and bespoke butcher. They offer delicious cuts of meat we hadn’t even heard of before and grill them all over red oak. Delicious!

Highlight: The huge pool area offers plenty of spots of lounging in sun or shade.

Dining: Many of the signature celebrity restaurants in Las Vegas are affiliated with casinos and often open up right into the smoky, noisy gaming room. Here are two upscale dining options off the Strip that are freestanding restaurants, making them quieter and smoke-free.

Piero’s Italian Cuisine: This old-school Italian restaurant is the place for celebrity spotting off the strip. The most popular item is the tender Osso Bucco, which comes with a special spoon to scoop out the delicious marrow. As an extra throwback bonus, 1980s semi-icon Pia Zadora sings in the lounge on Fridays and Saturdays. 355 Convention Center Drive  (702) 369-2305 www.pieroscuisine.com

 

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Echo & Rig—Butcher and Steakhouse: If you want to get your carnivore on, this is the place to go. The in-house butcher shop creates prime cuts that are not found elsewhere: ask for the “Cap” steak, which is the tender part of a ribeye, its smaller size makes it a good value. 440 South Rampart Blvd., (702) 489-3525, www.echoandrig.com

Echo and Rig steak (800x630)

As a companion to this story we’ve also written about things to do in Las Vegas without gambling. Click here to find more hotels in Las Vegas.

 

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Strolling down the Strip in Las Vegas, our faces were overwhelmed by the glow of a million pulsating lights. We don’t gamble so what would we do in a city that is defined by casinos? We weren’t alone. Las Vegas is one of the country’s top convention cities, each year bringing in over 5 million people on business trips—and many of them aren’t into gambling either. To our surprise there were many things to do in Las Vegas without gambling.

Getting married in Las Vegas (or confirming your vows)

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Las Vegas is the wedding capital of America with over 300 ceremonies a day performed in two dozen wedding chapels; which is why the city’s marriage license bureau is open every day of the year from 8 a.m. to midnight. Rather than simply watch others take the plunge, on a lark we decided to renew the vows we’d made 27 years earlier. For the full-on experience we chose the Elvis Presley themed Graceland Wedding Chapel where Jersey native Jon Bon Jovi tied the knot. It’s a freestanding chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard South, a block north of the Gold and Silver shop featured on the TV series Pawn Stars. (Which is handy for those who need a spur-of-the-moment wedding ring.)

We expected the ceremony to be kind of hokey. But even though sequin-clad Elvis look-alike Brendan Paul made us promise, among other things, not to step on each other’s blue suede shoes, it turned out to be surprisingly sweet. Newly re-hitched we made Las Vegas our honeymoon playground.

Plan your Las Vegas wedding (or renew your vows).

Flying upside down over the Nevada desert

larissa sky combat ace gleeAnyone who loved Top Gun would find it hard to pass up an aerial thrill ride. Larissa donned a flight suit and boarded a propeller-driven aerobatic aircraft at Sky Combat Ace. For starters Richard “Tex” Coe, a former Air Force F-14 fighter pilot, performed several barrel rolls and flew upside down to test Larissa’s stomach . . . then handed the controls over to her!

LArissa sky combat ace upside down 2She flew the plane through an adrenalin-pumping inverted 360 degree loop as she pulled 7 Gs (that’s seven times the force of gravity), contorting her face into an odd Hobbit-like mien before reverting to unbridled glee at what she had just accomplished. Upon returning to terra firma Larissa declared, “My knees are wobbling, when can I go again?”

Be sure to watch Larissa’s flight below then plan your Aerobatic Flight here.

Playing with construction toys

To get our feet back on the ground we ventured to Dig This, an attraction that fulfills childhood dreams of playing in the dirt. We chose a session on the Caterpillar excavator, those forbidding looking pieces of equipment with steel-toothed buckets that loom overhead like escapees from Jurassic Park. After rumbling across the sandy site we dug Humvee-sized holes, maneuvered 2,000 pound tires into pyramid shaped piles and played a form of excavator basketball where even LeBron James wouldn’t dare block our shots.

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We assumed all that getting dirty appealed mostly to men living out their boyhood fantasies, but owner Ed Mumm said that half of their customers are women. “Quite frankly they’re better at it,” he revealed. “They listen to the directions while men tend to barrel ahead.” (Somewhere in that observation is marriage advice waiting to be heeded.)

Want to play in the dirt? Click here to book your adventure!

Quirky museums of Las Vegas

Las Vegas defines their history in more recent terms than our hometown of Philadelphia. The desert city was just hitting its stride only 60 years ago and some fascinating museums highlight the quirky events that have helped shape its identity.

Click here for tours of Las Vegas museums.

There’s a retro-cool vibe at the Neon Museum, where the gaudy signs of former casinos are preserved. Visitors enter through the restored lobby of the scallop-shell-shaped La Concha motel, a circa 1961 structure that was designed by Paul Revere Williams, the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects. Its white swooping roofline is a stellar example of the futuristic Googie architecture (think of the house on The Jetsons) that abounds in Las Vegas.

neon museum night tour las vegas

The huge signs, perched on the ground in an outdoor setting, are most evocative during a nighttime tour. Our guide, the jovial Ian Zeitzer from northeast Philadelphia, led us on a serpentine path through the neon boneyard illuminating his “history lesson of lost Las Vegas.” The fancy script letters of the Moulon Rouge sign once flashed outside the casino that was a trendsetter in 1955; it was the first integrated gambling hall in Las Vegas, attracting the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. and his Rat Pack pals Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

The picturesque Neon Museum has become a fashionable venue for outdoor weddings with a popular photo op beside the restored 1940s era “Wedding Information” sign, whose bright red arrow once pointed the way for nervous couples to tie the knot. During the summer we went for the popular nighttime tour.

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Back in the heyday of Las Vegas, the ownership of some of the casinos was murky, a topic that’s played out at the downtown Mob Museum, located in the former Federal Courthouse that was home to the Mafia hunting Kefauver hearings in the 1950s. You have to admire a city that isn’t afraid to highlight the sordid side of its history. The museum tells the unvarnished story of organized crime in America and how its tentacles wrapped around every aspect of casino ventures in Las Vegas. Visitors can also listen to tapes of undercover FBI agents as they ensnared the mobsters. A costume display reveals that Tony Soprano wore somewhat mundane Dockers on the TV show.

national atomic testing museum las vegas alien

While casinos were popping up like mushrooms, the US government was experimenting with mushroom clouds in the nearby desert. The National Atomic Testing Museum pays homage to the era when nuclear weapons were new and novel. Exhibits encompass the scientific and the social: some local hotels offered rooftop-viewing parties complete with bag lunches and heavy-duty goggles to watch the atomic detonations.

If any portion of your youth was spent hunched over a pinball machine, you’re in luck in Las Vegas. The Pinball Hall of Fame features over 250 working machines dating from 1932 to the present day just waiting for itchy flipper fingers. Tim Arnold, a self-confessed “pinball nut,” created the Hall of Fame as a non-profit entity that donates its proceeds to charity. We were drawn to beautifully restored games of the 1950s and ‘60s, which cost only a quarter to play. A pinball geek can while away hours there for less than they’d drop on a blackjack table in ten minutes.

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Epilogue: Newly remarried we were leaving Las Vegas when we stopped at a gas station on the edge of town. After ten days of living casino-free Michael just couldn’t resist a one-armed bandit seated right by the cashier. But each time he slid in a crumpled dollar bill the machine kept spitting it out, and so ended our one attempt to gamble in Las Vegas. We guess it just wasn’t meant to be.

Pin it!There are plenty of fun and family-friendly things to do in Las Vegas without gambling!

If you really want to avoid the lure of gambling, here’s our review of hotels in Las Vegas that are casino-free or have placed them in a separate building.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

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While redeeming the souls of over 13,000 of his fellow soldiers at the Civil War prison in Andersonville, a Connecticut man became one of the biggest whistle-blowers of his era. For his efforts he was hounded by the Army, court-martialed and sentenced to hard labor for allegedly stealing a government document. Read more

We’ve been traveling around the world for almost three years with our trip mascot Little Rocky but had yet to meet sculptor A. Thomas Schomberg, the man who made the Rocky statue. Originally the statue was a prop for the movie Rocky III but its popularity Read more

We meet some incredible people on our travels who make Larissa and me seem like a couple of slackers. Such an encounter happened when we were visiting Death Valley National Park on a typical steamy summer day. With the temperature hovering around 114 degrees we saw a young man wearing a luminous lime-green vest, long sleeve shirt, long pants and a broad-brimmed straw floppy hat as he pushed one of those baby jogging strollers full of food and camping gear. Since we were roasting in our shorts and t-shirts we just had to ask what the heck he was doing.

Michael Stafford is a 27-year-old native of Erie, Pennsylvania who is walking across America. He set out from Virginia Beach on January 4th and hopes to reach the San Francisco area by mid-July. It’s truly an awe-inspiring accomplishment and reveals the life of someone who doesn’t worry about what lays beyond the next bend in the road. The 2007 Penn State graduate is remarkably composed about his accomplishment so far.

Michael Stafford walking across America supplies (800x658)

The walk is not part of some grand plan. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing for the past eight years. It’s always been sitting there in the back of my mind,” Michael said. He takes back roads and avoids interstates, the better to experience the sweeping landscape of America and its small towns along the way.

I asked him if he would be like Forrest Gump, see the Pacific Ocean, turn around and repeat the journey in the other direction? That’s when his obvious weariness kicked in, “Oh no,” he replied. “I’ll just want to rest.”

As for his plans after he reaches his goal he is remarkably sanguine. What will he do next? “I don’t know, but it’s okay to have unknowns in life. I’ll find something that will come up,” Michael stated.

After our chat with Michael we climbed back somewhat guiltily into our air-conditioned car. As we pulled away Michael gave us a wave as he took off down the lonely road deeper into Death Valley.

walking acorss america death valley

You can follow Michael’s journey on his blog at Mike Hikes. For those of you seeking tips for a similar journey he was wearing Naot sandals.

Another remarkable traveler we’ve met is Vladimir Yarets, a deaf mute motorcyclist form Belarus who is motorcycling around the globe.

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Memphis is a city oozing with musical spirits, with the ghost of Elvis Presley topping the list. Although most people know Memphis as Elvis’ home at the peak of his career, it’s also the city where he grew up.

Perched on a bluff high above the Mississippi River, midway between Chicago and New Orleans, Memphis has for over 100 years been a melting pot of musical genres. Throughout the past century Delta Blues, Gospel, Jazz and Country music drifted into this port town, cooking up a musical stew that would eventually simmer into and Rock and Roll.

To gain an appreciation of the musical atmosphere that helped to form the future “King of Rock and Roll”, explore the Memphis of Elvis’ youth.  The best way evoke the past is to climb into a 1955 Cadillac and cruise the city streets in search of memories. Ride along with Tad Pierson of American Dream Safari for a journey back in time. Bouncing on the vast bench seats with the windows down and the AM radio playing hits from 60 years ago, you’ll soon feel immersed in the 1950’s.

ghost of elvis tour tad pierson lomo-Michael Milne

Along the way you’ll visit Lauderdale Courts, the public housing project where the Presley family lived during Elvis’ teen years. You can imagine him sitting on the front stoop on a hot summer night, strumming idly on a beat-up guitar.  Nearby is Humes High School, were a young “Elvis Prestley” first performed in public, winning the school talent show in 1953. It’s ironic that his own school would misspell his name in the program.

ghost of elvis sun studio-Michael Milne

Cruise past juke joints and barbecue shacks, where the succulent aroma of Memphis ribs offers what Pierson likes to call “psychic souvenirs”.  Glide past Lansky’s clothiers and Beale Street where Elvis would develop his signature clothing style. Take a few moments to stop outside Sun Studios, and picture an 18-year-old lad timidly purchasing a session to record a song for his mother’s birthday.

ghost of elvis outside Memphis Hotel Chisca Michael Milne (1280x990)

But nowhere does Elvis’ presence seem to linger more than outside the Chisca Hotel.  Now vacant and decidedly downtrodden, the Chisca was once the site of the famous “Red, Hot and Blue” radio show. It was here on the evening of July 7, 1954 that host Dewey Phillips first played Elvis’ “That’s All Right Mama”, sending Memphis listeners wild. The phone rang off the hook that night, and Phillips would end up playing the song 14 times in a few hours. Sitting in a big old Caddy across from the Chisca, with the warm summer breeze drifting through the open windows, it is easy to envision the future King lounging against the side of the building, snapping his fingers to the beat.

Thanks to Tad Pierson for showing us this unique slice of Memphis. To arrange your own American Dream Safari call Tad at 901-428-3602.

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Visiting the Nixon and Reagan libraries

When Ronald Reagan finished his second term he rode off to his ranch in California, atop a wave of popularity that helped his vice president get elected to succeed him. Our last image of Richard Nixon was quite different. Read more

Visitors to the City by the Bay, and even locals like me, are always looking for free and cheap things to do in San Francisco. From hilly streets to chocolate treats, here are 10 of my favorites:

1. Explore the secret parks (called “POPOS”) that downtown building owners don’t want you to find.

Due to a quirky zoning code, many downtown San Francisco buildings operate secret public parks, rooftop terraces, and gardens that are on private property but are open to anyone. These privately-owned public open spaces (“POPOS”) are sometimes difficult to find, but locating them makes a fun scavenger hunt for the chance to enjoy a picnic in the park, likely all by yourself. Click here to check out a Google Map of these parks or download a smartphone app.

POPOS San Francisco

2. Skip the expensive cable car, ride the historic trolleys instead. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation agency (Muni) operates a number of beautifully restored vintage streetcars built from 1912 through the 1940s. They run on a scenic route (the F-Line) from Fisherman’s Wharf around the coast and up Market Street through Downtown. At only $2.00 per ride, this journey through history is a fraction of the cost of the cable car.

San Francisco Streetcars

3. Wander the Mission District. Check out the colorful street art and explore this fast-changing but still diverse Mexican and Central American community. Get a burrito or tacos from one of the Mission’s famous taquerias. El Farolito and El Tonayense are my favorites.

Mission Street Art, San Francisco

4. Taste delicious SF-made chocolates and get a tour of the Dandelion Chocolate Factory. While you are in the Mission, stop into the cafe owned by bean-to-bar chocolate maker, Dandelion Chocolate (740 Valencia Street). Sample a few of their chocolate bars for free in the front of the cafe and then take a free, thirty minute tour of the factory.

Dandelion Chocolate, San Francisco

5. Peep through the fence to watch a San Francisco Giants Game. Walk along the waters of McCovey Cove (adjacent to AT&T Park) and watch the game through a fenced opening in the wall for free. You can catch a few innings before the security guards shoo you away. Keep an eye out for fans in boats and kayaks in the water, wielding fishing nets in the hope of collecting a home run ball.

SF Giants, AT&T Park, San Francisco

>>Book a tour with Viator in San Francisco<<

6. Explore the Ferry Building’s gourmet food stalls and go on a free city walking tour. San Franciscans live for food, and this shopping center devoted to all that is delicious is the easiest way to experience the city’s foodie culture. For the full experience, go on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday mornings, when one of the city’s largest farmers markets is set up outside. During the Saturday and Tuesday markets, volunteers from San Francisco City Guides offer free walking tours of the Ferry Building. If you’re an adventurous eater, stop in to the wild mushroom store, Far West Fungi, and buy an ice cream bar, naturally flavored with candy cap mushrooms — it sounds scary, but it is delicious and will remind you of maple syrup!

San Francisco Ferry Building

7. Sample one of San Francisco’s favorite sweet treats, an It’s-It. This curiously-named ice cream sandwich is a San Francisco tradition. The company was founded in 1928 by a vendor at the San Francisco Beach boardwalk. He baked two large oatmeal cookies, pressed them together with vanilla ice cream, and covered them in a hard chocolate shell. When the boardwalk was demolished in 1970, the stand closed down, but San Franciscans didn’t forget about It’s-Its. In 1974, the company reopened, and began selling the frozen treats to local mom and pop stores across the city. You can find these nostalgic (and cheap) eats at almost every corner market and grocery store in San Francisco.

It's-Its San Francisco

8. Get a free, panoramic view of  the city from the top of the de Young Museum. While you do need to pay a standard entrance fee to visit  this fine art museum, the elevator ride to the Hamon Tower Observation Deck is free. This 360 degree, glass-paned view deck offers a great look over the city’s rooftops, the Pacific Ocean, and the green expanses of Golden Gate Park.

de Young Museum Tower, San Francisco

9. Take it outside to hike the stairs and catch more great views from the city’s many hills. Telegraph Hill, prominently topped by Coit Tower, is one of the more famous hikes where it’s possible to ascend a series of sometimes rickety, wooden steps. Look for one of the hundreds of feral green parrots that live in the trees on this hill. The nonprofit organization Greenbelt Alliance regularly offers free group hikes. A few years ago on New Years Eve we did a night hike going up and down Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill and Russian Hill, ending near the waterfront to watch the fireworks.

Coit Tower, San Francisco

10. Get out of San Francisco (but not that far) for the best view of the city and the bridge. Cross over the Golden Gate Bridge into the Marin Headlands. The most radient view is in late afternoon (what filmmakers call the Golden Hour) as the setting sun lights up the face of the bridge. Even on foggy days (and there are a lot of them!) you can often catch an iconic shot of the bridge peeking out from beyond the thick fog.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

What offbeat places do you recommend in San Francisco?

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cassie kiferCassie Kifer writes about travel, food, and photography at Ever in Transit. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she spends her time plotting her next journey and eating adventurously. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, or Google+.

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Sonoran hot dogs are considered by many to be Tucson, Arizona’s signature street food. Since we’re crazy for a good hot dog (such as Buffalo’s chargrilled beauties) we had to give them a try.

These southwestern treats are not for fat and cholesterol wimps, so readers beware! Read more

With guest writer Sofie ~ Los Angeles is chock full of  amusement parks, fancy restaurants and trendy night clubs. But these things all cost money. Visiting Los Angeles doesn’t have to be expensive, though. Here are a few hidden gems among the free things to do in Los Angeles. But to keep your day free, make sure to heed our warning below about the extremely aggressive parking ticket people in Los Angeles.

Free things to do in Los Angeles

1) Get taken for a ride at the Automobile Driving Museum

automobile driving museum LA model t

The Automobile Driving Museum in Segundo, five minutes southeast of Los Angeles International Airport, boasts that it is the only car museum in North America where you can actually ride in the vintage cars. Every Sunday they roll 4 or 5 cars off of the museum floor and take visitors for a spin around the block. On any given Sunday you might get taken for a ride in a 1947 Studebaker, a 1909 Model T or even a 1975 AMC Pacer. Check their website where they post the schedule of which cars will be taken for Sunday drives.

2). Walk the Walk of Fame

The Walk of Fame stretches over the public sidewalks on Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street in Hollywood. It’ll be more calm checking out the stars on Vine Street, but to get the real Hollywood buzz you have to be at Hollywood Boulevard, where you’ll also find the TCL Chinese Theater where you can see where stars (both human and animal) have placed their footprints, paw prints and autographs in cement for posterity. If you believe your idol deserves a star on the Walk of Fame, you can submit a nomination with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Stars are voted in once a year in June and on average 20 new celebrities get a star on the Walk of Fame each year.

 

3) Gaze at another type of star at the Griffith Observatory

The Griffith Observatory is named after Griffith J. Griffith, a former wealthy local who donated both the Griffith Park and the Observatory to the City of Los Angeles. The Observatory is free to visit and has different exhibits on display. Located on Mount Hollywood, the terraces around the Observatory offer great views on the city and the famous Hollywood sign.

4) Rock on at the Fender Guitar Factory

fender guitar factory jam room

The list of legendary musicians who’ve played Fender guitars is almost endless: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dick Dale and Kurt Cobain are just a few. While there is an admission charge to tour the factory in Corona, the museum devoted to the history of Fender instruments is free. There is a Jam Room where all the guitars and amplifiers made here by Fender are on display. Best of all, anyone can stroll right in, take a guitar off the wall, plug it into one of the amps and wail away. How cool is that?

5) Hike through Runyon Canyon Park

Los Angeles Sophie canyon

Runyon Canyon Park is known as one of the places in Los Angeles to spot celebrities. Because it’s so close to the Hollywood Hills and some of Hollywood’s residential areas, you might just see some famous actor walk his dog. And even if you don’t spot Johnny Depp, Runyon Canyon still offers great views over Los Angeles. The wide paths go up and down, making a treadmill or any other machine you’d use at the gym look like a comfortable couch. Tip: go hiking in the morning, preferably before the sun is up, and bring enough water.

6) Stroll along Venice Beach

muscle beach venice

Sunbathing at the beach is an obvious free thing to do on vacation, but Venice Beach has much more to offer than just a strip of sand. There’s the famous Muscle Beach, where you can see bodybuilders and others train their muscles in the sun. They have to fight for attention with the many street artists doing tricks or selling their work along the Ocean Front Walk. Of course there are also the typical seaside shops, some with cool clothes, others with cheap souvenirs. More interesting is the beach skate bowl where youngsters on skateboards and inline skates dive in and jump back up against the background of a setting sun. And if you think you’ve seen it all, you can always follow the beach path or the Ocean Front Walk all the way until you reach Santa Monica.

7) Take a cultural trip to the Getty Center

gety museum

This one is free . . . and it’s not. You see, there’s no entrance fee to visit the Getty Center, but you do have to pay for parking ($15 per car during the day, $10 per car during the evenings in summer). The Getty Center cannot be missed, though. The different exhibition halls offer something for everyone: paintings, photography, decorative art, sculptures, manuscripts . . . It’s all there, presented in the modern buildings of the Center. It wouldn’t surprise me if the architecture of the Center is the main reason some people visit the Getty, built on a hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains, offering great views from the Central Garden.

8) Walk like an Egyptian

los angeles central library pyramid

The Los Angeles Central Public Library was built in the 1920s, when the Egyptian Revival design craze was sweeping America. That could explain why it’s topped off with a pyramid shaped tower. Stroll around and see how many sphinxes you can find. Travel geeks should make sure to visit the travelogue and vintage map collections on the lower level.

9) Climb the secret stairs

los angeles secret stairs

In the 1920s, before cars were everywhere in LA, outdoor staircases were built in neighborhoods with steep hills so people could access the trolley cars.  Some houses were built along them as they provided their only access to the outside world. Some of the staircases are in better condition than others. Try the 861 step Beachwood Canyon stair climb for a classic view of the Hollywood sign or the Pacific Palisades, where the houses are perched precariously as they hope to avoide the next mudslide, for spectacular and secluded ocean views. Find out more at: Secret Stairs-LA where you can also download walking maps.

10) Ascend City Hall

los angeles city hall observation deck

The building is recognizable since it is featured prominently on the badges of LAPD officers, but this free gem isn’t even known by most Angelenos. Sign in at security and ride the elevator to the top of City Hall for a 360 degree view of Los Angeles. From there you can gaze upon the Pacific Ocean, the Hollywood sign and more.

11)  Take a peek behind the Iron Curtain

wende museum cold war los angeles

The Wende Museum is dedicated to preserving the history of life in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. They are building up an incredible collection of artifacts that portray what it was like living behind the Iron Curtain. From cast-iron Lenin statues to propagandist artwork to dairies of ordinary citizens, visitors get a sense of life under a totalitarian regime in the not-too-distant past.

12) Attend the Grammy Museum for free

grammy museum lecture series peter guralnick

The Grammy Museum offers a free evening lecture series where you can participate in interviews with award-winning artists and journalists. Recent shows included Placido Domingo, Elvis Presley biographer Peter Guralnick and the The Beatles are Coming: The Birth of Beatlemania in America. As an added bonus, the event takes place in a wing of the museum where you can view the latest special exhibition for free. Check out the list of upcoming programs at the Grammy Museum.

Bonus Pick: Take flight at the Flight Path Learning Center

flight path learning center Los Angeles

Hidden among the runways at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is the Flight Path Learning Center, a museum dedicated to the history of commercial flight. The docents are retired flight attendants and are probably the cutest and most gracious anywhere. Exhibits include ephemera from the first century of commercial flight including racks of vintage stewardess uniforms and silver cutlery from flight’s Golden Age. But the real reason you come here is for the incredible runway level views of one of the most active airports in the world. A radio plays a live feed of the control tower so you can hear the pilot being guided in then watch the plane land. You can even walk out onto the runway, closely supervised of course, to board a DC-3. For airplane geeks the Flight Path Learning Center is a must see.

Do you know something that’s both free and fun to do in Los Angeles?

Travel warning for Los Angeles from editor:

Los Angeles has the most aggressive parking ticket enforcement we have seen anywhere. On several occasions we were ticketed as well as people we were traveling with. What made it particularly galling was that we had put an hour on the meter and only been gone for 55 minutes. The cost of a parking ticket in Los Angeles is a whopping $63. Now we know why the city makes over $134 million in parking fees per year. When parking in Los Angeles beware.

Co-Ala sofie pic (216x250)uthor Sofie is a Belgian, language lover and travel aficionada who combines a full-time job with a freelance writing career and a never-ending wanderlust. She uses her weekends, vacation days and public holidays to travel the world and share her experiences. Be sure to follow her on Twitter and Facebook or connect with her on Google+.

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Leopold’s has been scooping up their fresh house-made ice cream in Savannah, Georgia since 1919. The store was founded by three Greek immigrant brothers and their legacy continues with one of their sons, movie impresario and sometime busboy Stratton Leopold. He’s joined behind the counter by his wife Mary.

leopolds ice cream in savannah exterior
When we showed up a line of customers snaked its way into the street. Fortunately it moved quickly and Mary handed out cups of water to those standing in the sweltering sun of a Savannah summer.

The ice cream was worth the wait; rich and creamy as it softened a bit from the summer heat which allowed the intense flavors to shine through.  The sundaes are served in old-fashioned bowls which adds to the experience.

leopold stratton ice cream

Stratton Leopold surveys his famous ice cream shop in Savannah, Georgia.

When he’s not wiping down tables or greeting customers, Leopold has produced Hollywood blockbusters from The Big Chill to Mission Impossible: III. Movie memorabilia provides the shop’s vintage décor.

Just like we travel with a Rocky statue as a trip mascot, Stratton doesn’t go anywhere without a movie prop ice cream cone he’s named “Scoop.” The walls of the café are lined with Scoop posing with actors from Tom Cruise to Helen Mirren to Anthony Hopkins and more.

Songwriter Johnny Mercer, who penned Moon River, grew up eating at Leopold’s and even said he’d someday wrote a song about their signature flavor, tutti frutti. It’s a rum-based concoction that’s studded with fruits; the name means “all fruits” in Italian. But fellow Georgia native Little Richard beat him to the punch, releasing his signature song, “Tutti Frutti,” in 1955. The song was controversial due to its lyrics which were considered a bit racy at the time.

best ice cream in savannah

Even statues like ice cream.

The ice cream has whipped up a bit of controversy of its own. Roy Motherhead claims to have invented tutti frutti in Kentucky in the 1950s. But the current Leopold in charge says, “We’ve been serving it since we opened almost 100 years ago.”

Despite its popularity in Savannah, the flavor is still hard to find elsewhere. Recently, Leopold ‘s filled an order for someone who was dying, one of their final wishes was to savor a dish of tutti frutti ice cream, a request that with the use of dry ice and overnight shipping, Leopold’s was able to fulfill. It sounds like something right out of a movie.

stratton and mary leopold ice cream

Mary and Stratton Leopold hoist our trip mascot Little Rocky and their mascot “Scoop.”

Further information:

Leopold’s Ice Cream

212 East Broughton Street

Savannah, Georgia 31401

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