Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Minnesota travel app makes planning lake vacations easy

Spin through entries with the filter wheel page.

Minnesota tips from an expert
Melting snow means means it's time to plan summer lake vacations in Minnesota. Why here? This is the place to do it. With more than 11,000 lakes, Minnesota boasts most coastline than California.

Are you a fanatic angler? Happy camper? Or more into happy hour and pontoon cruises? No matter your vacation style, you'll find more than 120 of the best lake resorts, restaurants and attractions in the Minnesota Lake Vacations app.

Yes, this is a shameless promotional pitch. But at $1.99 for those of you with an iPhone/iPad/iTouch, this travel app is close to free and the best vacation investment you can make.

Why? Let me count the ways.

An example of an entry.
The next generation of travel guides

1. The term "app" feels as overused as the word "like" in a teen's conversation. Worse, anyone can regurgitate information from the web and claim they have a "travel app." Like websites and blogs, not all are created equal.

Minnesota Lake Vacations app is part of Sutro Media's library of travel apps, which use an ingenuous, interactive setup to launch a whole new generation of travel guides. They've tapped the country's best authors and travel writers, too. Each of their travel apps has as much written expertise as traditional travel books, as many maps as GPS, as much essential info as a web site, and more photos than you'll find anywhere. Check out this demo.

If you're worried I'm biased, Sutro travel apps also made Outside Magazine's Hot List for 2011.

Voyageurs Nat'l Park

Apps fit in your hands
2. Use an iPad if you like big screens, iTouch/iPhone if you like pocket-sized (and need an excuse to upgrade your Verizon phone). No need to have brochures, maps and pamphlets spilling across the car floor or crowding your purse (although I may never full break that habit). 

Photos galore
3. As a visual person, I need need to see destinations before investing my time and money into them. Minnesota Lake Vacations has close to 800 photos of restaurants, accommodations and things to do.

4. As a journalist for more than 20 years and professional travel writer for the last 10, I know how to dig into each destination and find the best, most unique attractions.

As a Minnesotan, I know where to find the best of each season and great ways to celebrate the quirks of its culture.

And, as a mother of three children and someone often on a budget, you will find excellent tips for saving money and keeping the kids happy.

Save yourself time
5. You could go to the individual web sites for all 120 or so entries on restaurants, lodging and attractions, but do you have that much time? It's easier to scroll through these. One flick of the thumb on the so-called filter wheel pages, and photos fly past like fruit on a slot machine.

You can speed-sort information by region (Brainerd Lakes, Glacial Lakes, Headwaters, Iron Range & Ely) and category (dining, camping, hidden gems, get outdoors, take the kids, etc.).

Help for the directionally challenged
6. Sure, you can use maps and GPS, but these colorful, pocket-sized Google maps are fantastic. No need to refold maps or keep flipping to those in visitors guides. Download the app before your trip, and you'll have all the destinations ready to go without having to type the next restaurant, state park or roadside attraction into your GPS.

Speedy, easy reservations
7. If you like what you see with interior and exterior shots of Minnesota Lake Vacations lodging or start drooling at food descriptions, simply click on the contact information, and you'll be dialing the destination and getting your reservation set up. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

Even locals can benefit
8. Global travelers will likely key on opportunities to ice fish, sleep in historic lodges, see black bears in the wild or head into the world-class Boundary Waters canoe area. But even locals who are well-versed in what Minnesota offers have told me many times--with great surprise--that they never knew Minnesota had [fill in the blank]. Make sure you're not missing anything, whether it's sleeping in a Viking ship that hangs from a ceiling (Nordic Brew B&B) to fantastic ethnic foods on the Iron Range.

Invest in your vacation
9. In a world where so much is free, there are folks who balk at paying $1.99 or $2.99 for a travel app. But, really, this isn't just an app. It's a tour guide. Where else were you going to spend that change from the couch? On half a bundle of wood while camping? That iced tea at a lakeside restaurant? Or more Silly Bandz for the kids?

Disagree or can't wait to share something?
10. Each entry has a place to add comments. If you just went snowshoeing by a full moon and want to recommend it, please do! If you didn't like the walleye sandwich, pipe up. This is more than a guide--it's a conversation.

A gift that keeps on giving

Yep, it does. As I continue to hit the road this year, I'll be adding even more restaurants, cabins and lodges and attractions along the way. Look for a new category that highlights golf courses and the best holes, too. Want to stay updated? Like the Minnesota Lake Vacations page on Facebook.

If you've bought Minnesota Lakes Vacations, you'll be able to download FREE updates each year. 

That's almost as sweet as a quiet dock, a steaming cup of coffee and a technicolor sunrise.

Summer's coming. Get planning.

Attention: North Shore fans
Watch for Minnesota's North Shore later this year. This will be a second app that exclusively covers Duluth, the North Shore and the Gunflint Trail.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Watch bald eagles soar above the Mississippi River

Photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick.

If you've ever wanted to get nose-to-beak with bald eagles and also watch them in the wild, now is the time to hit the Great River Road. The Mississippi River, between Red Wing and down to Winona is one of the best parts of the United States to see this living symbol of America.

Wabasha--in between the two cities--is the epicenter with its National Eagle Center's Soar with the Eagles weekend events throughout March.

Head to Wabasha's National Eagle Center

Located on a stretch of the Mississippi River that rarely freezes thanks the strong current of Lake Pepin to the north, the National Eagle Center is both a cultural museum and ideal observatory for watching bald eagles in the wild.

The birds can sometimes be tricky to spot against gray winter skies, but the center's five resident eagles face the river and loudly announce wild eagles that swoop across the sky--no matter how far away they are.

"An eagle can see a rabbit running two to three miles away," said Alison Springer with the National Eagle Center.

I have no doubt.

March is for migration and bird lovers

There are decks and spotting scopes to watch wild eagles swoop for fish, gather sticks for building huge nests or spiral into an elegant mid-air mating dance.

March can be a temperamental month. It typically doesn't inspire travel with its messy, monochromatic clash of winter and spring. Birders, though, know it's the ideal month to see ducks, cranes, swans and eagles. Why? Lack of foliage makes them easier to see. So does the tendency of flocks to arrive in groups from wintering grounds before pairing up and heading to remote nesting spots. It is the absolute best time to see bald eagles in particular.

Bald eagles make a comeback
I often stayed at my Grandma's riverside cabin in Wabasha in the 1970s and into the 1980s. We never once saw an eagle. They were almost wiped out by DDT pesticide, which thinned egg shells so much they'd crush beneath the parents' weight.

An eagle rests above Red Wing's Colvill Park.
In 1963 there were about 450 nesting pairs in the en country and a 260-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Wabasha and Rock Island was down to just one nesting pair.

Now there are more than 1,000 eagle pairs across Minnesota alone.

These days there are about 40 nesting pairs of eagles within a few-mile radius of Wabasha that stretches into Lake Pepin and along the Chippewa River. There are more than 1,000 eagles thriving throughout statewide, especially on the Upper Mississippi River in Minnesota's Chippewa National Forest.

Take the kids on an eagle field trip
My kids and others of their generation may take spotting eagles for granted, but it's impossible not to be impressed by seeing them up close and learning more about them.

Kids giggle at learning eagles can projectile poop six feet away to keep their nests clean. They lift simulated eagles to feel how surprisingly light the birds area. Molted feathers from resident rescued eagles are given to Native Americans who might wait years to receive one.

Cultural references to eagles are everywhere--from the rock group and fighter jets to space craft and "Old Abe," an eagle that followed Yankees into 37 Civil War battles and survived.

Soar with the Eagles events:

March 12-13  The Flyway
Guests include the Cincinnati Zoo's Wings of Wonder Traveling Bird Show, a session with a loon expert, hunting dog handler and wildlife photography specialist.

March 19-20  The Eagle
Special events include a photography class, sessions on the ivory-billed woodpecker, flint-knapping, falconry and a field trip to hot spots for eagles and other species.

March 26-27  The River
Special sessions highlight local wildlife, birds of prey and symbolism of the eagle.

Staying overnight?
Eight places offer special March packages from $121-$241/night with National Eagle Center admission, gift shop and local dining gift certificates. If you're taking kids, AmericInn of Wabasha is the best bet.

Make it an easy day trip
If you want to do a shorter eagle trip, Red Wing's Colvill Park is about 45 minutes from the Twin Cities and another excellent open-water place to spot the eagles. Two years ago, locals counted 156 eagles in one afternoon.

This year's eagle numbers--perhaps due to fluctuating weather--are not as plentiful as in years past. But it's not the numbers that impress. It's the chance to see the soaring flight of bald eagles, see how nests are carefully restored and catch a close-up look at fierce but proud faces that became a national symbol.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

"The Tonight Show" visits Minnesota's Eelpout Festival

Watch "Tonight Show" clips

NBC sent an Aussie to the Eelpout Festival in Walker, Minnesota, last month. At the end--after he jumped into frigid Leech Lake--he gasped "You owe me, Jay Leno." Indeed. I'm guessing taking that polar plunge in a kangaroo costume soaks up extra icy water. He should have gone for the offer of a rabbit fur loin cloth from Steinarr ("the Crazy Viking," pictured above).

There is more about Steinarr and his bizarre B&B, the Eelpout Festival, Brainerd's largest ice-fishing festival in the world, and other Minnesota oddities and wonders on the Minnesota Lake Vacations app or visit Explore Minnesota.

Links to "The Tonight Show" clips:

Part I--Introduction to Eelpout
Part II--best clip is the guys riding kegs behind an ATV

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ultimate Egypt field trip: King Tut's Treasures

Psusennes at the Minnesota Science Museum
Photos & text by Lisa Meyers McClintick

With Egypt in the news this past month and kids talking about it at school, it's perfect timing for spring break field trips to "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharoahs" at the Minnesota Science Museum.

Put more simply, it's King Tut and more than 100 treasures from Egypt's ancient sites. Adults love the gold, glamour and amazing craftsmanship. Kids are more drawn to the "Ewwww" factor of mummies. (It's rather comforting that the one on display is a replica.)

Research Egypt first
It helped to prep our daughters for the exhibit that opened Feb. 18 by checking out a variety of library books. The DK Eyewitness guides to Egypt and mummies were stand-outs thanks to many visuals and quirky stories. Some photos--such as one of a mummified cat or mummified shrunken heads--are way up there on the ick factor. You don't necessary want to look, but you can't help it.

In search of the mummy, mummy, mummy

A game from Tut's tomb
The exhibit's impressive enough to inspire those hushed moments of awe. Unfortunately, I doubt I was the only mom whose kids' nagging mantra of "Mummy, mummy, mummy!" were like being at a playground and hearing "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" until you're ready to crack your skull on the jungle gym.

If you're visiting with younger kids (my girls are 7), design a scavenger hunt or quiz to get them more engaged and paying attention, rather than hurrying through to see the mummy. If you do this, keep the notebook or paper small and use a pencil. No pens are allowed around the priceless artifacts.

You also can check the museum web site for archaeology and King Tut classes and crafts designed for kids ages 6-8 and 9-12.

DIY King Tut scavenger hunt 
Here are some of the most memorable items to look for:
  • Intricate hieroglyphics show up on many statues and carvings. Have kids seek something specific such as bird symbols.
  • Egypt's version of toilet seat. Really.
  • A sarcophagus for royal cats. It puts a new twist on the term "cat box."
  • The king's chair. Smaller than you'd think.
  • King Tut's intricately inlaid coffinette that held his mummified stomach.
  • A necklace with golden falcon heads. It's one of several gorgeous jewelry pieces.
  • Golden head of a leopard.
  • Golden finger and toe covers used on the mummy and golden sandals.
  • Golden sandals etched like woven reeds.
  • King Tut's game box. Tell the kids it was his Nintendo.

Another Minnesota big-ticket exhibit
The Minnesota Science Museum continues to reel in major exhibitions, which have recently included "A Day in Pompeii," "Titanic: the Artifact Exhibition," and "The Dead Sea Scrolls."

Tutankhamun, though, is its largest to date with 16,000 square feet of exhibit space. You'll need at least an hour to get through the maze of rooms that lead visitors into a simulated tomb. If you can visit without kids in tow, you'll want 90 minutes or more to ogle the details and listen to the full audio tour.

If it feels like walking through the pages of National Geographic, it's no wonder. The National Geographic Society is a key player in putting together this exhibit with cooperation from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The Science Museum is the only Midwest site that will have King Tut's treasures. They'll be on display through Sept. 5.

Advance tickets--which come with an assigned entrance time--are recommended. If you want to see the IMAX film, "Mummies: Secrets of the Pharoahs," do that first so you aren't rushed through exhibit.

Tickets start at $16 for kids (without the film). If you like to go to the museum than once a year, the $95 household membership includes regular admission and the Omnitheater show (usually $14.50 to $17 for both), discounts on parking, and special rates for traveling exhibits such as King Tut. Kids' Tut tickets are as low as $9 in March with a membership. Membership gets families into 200 additional museums across the country.

Weekday King Tut rates are cheaper, but check the site first to make sure special events at the Xcel Center don't jack up parking fees.

King Tut audio tours ($6-$7) include narration by Harrison Ford. He's a good fit. It's impossible to keep out visions of fearless explorers excavating treasures and risking the mummy's curse--another creepy, intriguing tale to get kids hooked on King Tut and ancient Egypt.

A cat sarcophagus.
 More King Tut trivia
  • The so-called boy king was about 9 years old when he was crowned. That's also when he married his half-sister.
  • He died at about 19 years old, according to modern CT scans. Modern technology also squelches rumors of murder, pointing instead to an infection from a fracture on his left leg.
  • He had two stillborn daughters who were mummified and buried in his tomb.
  • His father Akhenaten spearheaded a religious revolution to worship one god rather than many.