Category Archives: Travel

Crash Course – 6 Years of Girl’s Camp


I recently returned from five days in the Sierras with 140 young women between the ages of 12-18. Along with a bunch of un-paid adults that volunteer their time and talents to make the annual church camp happen. Scott and I had the opportunity to serve as the camp lifeguards.
We spent most of our time here at the lake, it’s a rough job, but someone has to do it. The scenery is certainly breathtaking, but my favorite experience has been seeing the friendship and development of the girls over the last six years, especially my daughter and her friends.
Their first year. I was their cabin leader! Ali, Camryn, and Mackenzie met Kelsey for the first time. Everything was new and exciting.

Each year brought great experiences… performing skits, doing crafts, rapelling, rock climbing, spending time at the lake, learning new skills, and developing spiritual gifts.
Their 4th year was the most physically challenging. A 3 day backpacking hike over 20 miles. Each of their dads were there!
Their 5th year they served as Youth Counselors where they lead a small group of younger girls. It’s a huge responsibility.
This year they served as Youth Leaders and basically plan and run the entire camp. They are mentors and leaders to all of the younger girls. It’s been amazing to see what beautiful examples the girls have become. They are fun and complete goof-balls, yet at the same time compassionate, caring and embrace their roles as leaders. I love those girls, and all of the other girls and leaders up at Girl’s Camp. In 3 short years we will begin again with my youngest daughter, Natalie. I can’t wait.

Washington DC and More – The Food Tour

PA_Geno'sSteakThis is part 2 of our Washington DC Trip. All about our food adventures. Deserved a separate post.
Washington DC Favorites:

1. Good Stuff Eatery
Amazing handmade burgers, hand-cut fries and handspun ice cream shakes. The hamburgers were juicy and perfect. My husband was thrilled about the line up of fry sauces, reminding him of his days in Belgium. Seriously, he’s obsessed with it. The shakes were thick and creamy. We ordered several flavors and shared. Our favorites were the Salted Caramel Kiss and Red Velvet. If we come back to DC, this will be our first stop.

2. We the Pizza
Located next door to Good Stuff on Capitol Hill. Large variety of pizzas that you can order by the slice or by the pie. Go adventurous or stick with the classics. My favorite seasonal pizza was the Butternut Squash with Goat Cheese and Balsamic Glaze.

3. Farmer’s Market at Department of Agriculture
Fridays, 9am to 2pm (May to October) in the parking lot next to the USDA Headquarters. It was a perfect place to stop and get a snack between museum visits. Fresh fruits, vegetables, juices and fresh kettlecorn. I loved the different varieties of crisp apples.

PA_EatingCheesesteakWe couldn’t drive to Philadelphia without getting cheesesteak for dinner. We stopped at the famous, friendly rivalry of Pat’s vs. Geno’s, serving cheese steak since 1930. We did understand that these places are largely a tourist thing and probably not even the best steaks in Philly, but we had to order from both and make our family decision. Our family vote was Pat’s. The meat seemed a little juicier and the rolls a little less chewy.

New York:
First of all, New York eating with seven people was a lot different than New York when it was just Scott & I. We had to go a little more budget friendly!
We had to do Pizza in Little Italy. And Lombardi’s is fantastic. We love the margherita pizza! The crust is perfection, topped with fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella, and sweet basil.
We followed pizza with rice pudding from Rice to Riches. Lots of interesting flavors in a modern environment with sassy verbiage throughout. The pudding is very rich – definitely for sharing. Coast to Coast Cheesecake was my favorite.
While biking in Central Park we had to track down the Wafels and Dinges Food Truck. It’s hard to find authentic Belgian Wafels, but this place is legit. Traditional Belgian wafels with that crystallized sugar baked in and topped with your choice of toppings (dinges). I’ve tried one of savory selections (the pulled pork wafel) as well as their sweet offerings and both are SO good.

New York has so many amazing eating options. But alas we were only there a couple days.

Crash Course Travel – Washington DC and more

Planning: Normally I do a lot of research and planning before I travel. However, I try to build in some flexibility so that we aren’t over scheduled or lose the opportunity for unplanned discoveries along the way. It’s definitely a balance. Knowing the best place for parking ahead of time instead of driving in circles for 30 minutes can be invaluable when you want to get the most out of your day.

One of the things I discovered while researching our East Coast trip is that we could fly into Washington DC and fly out of New York City for about the same price as a round trip flight from the same location. So that influenced how our trip played out as you will discover as you read the rest of this post.

Washington DC: We were fortunate to have family members that live in Virginia and welcomed us into their home for this part of our trip. This helped our hotel budget a ton and we loved getting advice on our daily plan from “locals”. Almost everyone had given us the advice of not trying to see “everything”. You can’t. So we made a list of our family’s top picks and made sure those activities were fulfilled.

October is a fantastic time of year to go. It’s not crowded at all because school trips are usually scheduled in the Spring and family trips are usually in the Summer. The weather is nice, not too hot or cold.


Day 1: The American History Museum. We all loved it. Nothing like seeing tangible items that you’ve heard or read about all your life… Thomas Edison’s lightbulb, George Washington’s personal telescope used during the Revolutionary War, the orginal Star Spangled Banner, even the Ruby Slippers from Wizard of Oz. My favorite of the museums.

Our Self-Guided tour of the Monuments: Washington Monument, World War II, VietNam Memorial, Lincoln Memorial. Why is Ryan on the ground? He wanted to look at the Washington Monument from that perspective. I would have never thought to look at it that way – pretty cool.

The VietNam Memorial was particularly moving since my dad was a Marine in the VietNam War. We wanted to find my dad’s best friend, Patrick Hoppe. I even have the honor of being named after him. (My middle name is Patricia) After searching for awhile we finally did an internet search and discovered we were standing right in front of the block where his name is engraved.

We ended our walk playing on the lawn, enjoying the sunset view, and resting our feet after walking over 7 miles.

Day 2: Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Because of the time of year, we were able to walk in without getting tickets ahead of time. It’s a short tour where you get to see how money is made. Since I love paper and printing I found it particularly amazing and the rest of the family loved it because… it’s money!

The Natural History Museum. Great for younger children! Every animal you can think of – and some you never knew existed.

JillMeans_DC_Butterflies Natalie saved up some of her own money to do the Butterfly exhibit which you have to pay a small fee to experience. She loved it. Butterflies land on you!


Our favorite activity of Washington DC was the Monuments at Night Bike Tour. (If everyone in your party is over 16 you can do the Segway version of the tour.) We were able to see some of the memorials we didn’t see in the day – including the Jefferson Memorial, the Martin Luther King memorial, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even the memorials we had already seen during the day, are completely different at night. The guide gave us interesting and entertaining information. And our evening became even more exciting when it began pouring rain (the only rain of our whole trip). Ponchos are included so we just continued on our tour and it was awesome.

Day 3. In the morning we split up and the girls went to the National Art Gallery and the boys went to the Air & Space Museum. For the Art Gallery – have a plan. Choose specific artists or type of work/time periods you want to see and go to those sections. You’ll feel more rewarded and less overwhelmed.

One of the great things about our experience is that our children have a more personal connection with what they are learning in school. Right after we got home, Natalie was learning about Van Gogh in school. I reminded her that she had seen several Van Gogh paintings in person! We even printed out some photos including the one on the right in front of a Van Gogh and she brought them to school to share her experience with the class.

The National Archives: You can’t take any photos here. It was pretty amazing to see the documents that changed America’s History face to face like The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Our last morning in DC we had a tour of the Capitol scheduled with our Congressman. The tour was filled with little tidbits of interesting facts and the drama of how everything all works. Plus because it’s a private tour, you can ask questions about anything that comes to mind, which can’t really happen in a large group with headphones.

After our Captiol tour we started our road trip to Philadelphia.

Philadelphia: We didn’t have a lot of time, but we were able to make the last tour of Independence Hall. There is a reverence in that building that you can just feel. After a few sites and a Philly cheese steak dinner we stayed at a hotel in New Jersey.

New York City: The next morning we finished our drive to NYC. We turned in our rental car in favor of walking and subway travel. Hotels are expensive and not conducive to a family of seven. Our best bet was finding a great deal on Priceline and getting two rooms with double beds. If we were staying more than 2 nights we’d probably go with another plan. With only 2 and a half days for NYC we had to pack it in.

We were able to go on a bike ride through Central Park, hang out in Times Square, see the Statue of Liberty (from afar), visit the 9-11 memorial, and we splurged on tickets to a play on Broadway. We saw Cinderella!

Traveling with a big family has it’s challenges, but we had so much fun learning and experiencing new places together. We made lifelong memories! If you have any travel ideas or tips for traveling with a big family – please share!

Crash Course Travel: Ribs in Reno

CreativeCrashCourse_RenoRibCookOff_Scott&JillCrashCourseCreative_RenoRibCookOff_RibsCookingReno is less than 3 hours from Lodi, so it works for a getaway within driving distance. To be honest, I never really thought of Reno as a destination, we are usually driving right through it on our way to Utah. And especially if you don’t gamble, why would you be headed to Reno? Because every year Reno is host to “The Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off”. Our friends John & Karen have been going on this annual Rib Fest getaway for a few years and finally this year we were able to join them. We owe our entire trip itinerary to their expertise. They recommend attending on a week day, since it can get crowded on the weekends. We drove up on a Wednesday and attended the Cook-off on Thursday.

The Rib Cook-off features 24 top rib cookers from all over the country as well as other booths and activities. Each Rib Vendor had huge displays of their menus and banners showcasing awards and bragging rights. Going in a group is great because each couple would go out and buy a half-rack of ribs from a different vendor, then we would set them out on a picnic table and taste them. You could compare the different rubs, sauces and flavors. It’s not cheap, a half-rack will set you back about $11-15. CreativeCrashCourse_RenoRibCookOff_Walking

We were at the Rib Festival for lunch in the afternoon then broke up the day (and got out of the heat) by going to Scheels, a huge sporting goods store nearby. You can literally spend hours in there. Some of the attractions include a Wildlife Mountain, an operating Ferris Wheel, and Sport Simulators where customers can test their skills including basketball, soccer, baseball and football. They also have a café. We balanced out our rib eating by ordering some gelato – the salted caramel is the best.

CreativeCrashCourse_RenoScheelsWe followed that with some shopping at the outlets in the same shopping center. Later in the evening, we returned to the Rib Festival for dinner. The weather was cooler and it was fun to enjoy the company of our friends around a table with some great food.

In our informal tasting, we loved Just North of Memphis, a husband and wife team specializing in dry rubbed ribs. Their sauce was a thin, vinegary style that didn’t overpower the meat. Bone Daddy’s was also a favorite and their beef brisket was the perfect balance of sweet, savory and spicy. We also gave high marks to Yazoo’s, BJ’s and Butch’s. We didn’t try the California vendors, since we have access to those eats at home.

One of my favorite offerings was the Kick A Fries from BJ’s. A basket of fries with a sprinking of cheddar cheese, topped with barbecued pulled pork and BBQ sauce. Yum. Definitely for sharing though, because it was huge. Before we left, we had to try the Homemade Peach Bread Pudding and Mike couldn’t resist buying some Alligator on a Stick for everyone to try. Yes. Alligator. I was not a fan. Everyone went home with a bag of Hillbilly Kettlecorn for their kids at home.


Accommodations: We chose to stay at the Peppermill Resort. We booked a room in the Tuscany Tower and were quite impressed. I loved that you could check-in and go to your room without wandering through a casino. The rooms are spacious and clean. The king bed had a comfortable mattress and nice linens. My favorite part of the room was the spa-style bathroom featuring a double head shower, soaking tub, double sink vanity and even a TV. The Tuscan decor and furniture is a little over the top, I prefer a more modern, understated look, but overall I was very happy with our room. We are not gamblers or night clubbers, but we did utilize the pool and fitness center which are state-of-the-art and have all the desired amenities. We loved the homemade gelato from Biscotti’s Cafe.


(photos courtesy of Peppermill)

Spa: My husband and I booked massages at Spa Toscana, the on-site spa of the Peppermill. The spa is truly the jewel of the entire resort. We arrived a couple hours before our appointment and enjoyed the beautiful indoor pool surrounded by luxurious lounging areas. Spa refreshments are provided or you can order room service if you desire. I selected the exfoliating massage and my therapist was Kelly, who was amazing. The massage was perfection. The entire staff at the spa are warm, friendly and determined to make your stay at the spa dreamy. My husband and I spent some time together, then enjoyed the private sections of the spa separated by gender, where I spent a few moments in the steam room before taking advantage of the vanity area to get ready for the rest of the day. With the rooms at the Peppermill at such reasonable rates, adding on a spa experience is completely justified and you won’t be disappointed.

The entire experience was a fun little escape and perhaps become part of our own traditions. If you are interested in next year’s event, visit I booked our hotel accommodations here:

I was not compensated in any way for this review.