Friday, July 29, 2016

Carolina Panthers training camp

The NFL Carolina Panthers have trained at Wofford College in Spartanburg every summer since 1995, their inaugural season. Sports Illustrated ranked Wofford’s facilities in the top five in the league for fan friendliness, the school's 60,000-square-foot Richardson Physical Activities Building providing state of the art training facilities.

Thursday marked the start of the Carolina Panthers 2016 training camp, presented by Lowe's. Running through August 16th, all training camp practices are free and open to the public. For times and a promotion schedule, see the Panther’s website.

There was a kickoff party yesterday to celebrate the start of training camp, complete with face painting, food, games and promotions. The celebration started at 4, fans lined up outside the gates to get the best seats. As practice only started at 6:30 (with cheerleaders, the TopCats, Sir Purr and PurrCussion taking the field around 6pm), we had time to wander around the stadium. Eventually we entered and found seats, and it was a good thing there were bleachers in the shade; we saw at least one woman taken away on a stretcher, possibly a victim of heat stroke.

the cheerleaders take the field!

The Carolina Panthers are headquartered in the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, and are one of only a few NFL teams to own the stadium they play in. During the first season they played home games at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, which might explain what makes the Panthers a Carolina – North and South – team in the eyes of its fans.

With strong playoff showings in recent years (including a Super Bowl appearance against the Broncos earlier this year), the Panthers have a solid fan base with high hopes for the season. When quarterback Cam Newton took the field for practice, the crowd roared its approval in welcome.... It’s hard not to join in the excitement as the Super Bowl hopefuls approach the beginning of the 2016-17 season.

Good luck Panthers! Keep pounding!!!


If you’re planning on attending one of the training camps in the coming weeks, make sure you check the website for more information and a parking map. Certain streets are closed to private vehicles and the volume of fan traffic can be overwhelming, so give yourself plenty of time to get situated, and take advantage of the fan shuttles & free parking lots. Based on our experience, we would suggest to bring sunscreen and a water bottle in addition to a marker and something to sign; players give autographs for fans at the conclusion of training camp practices.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Atop Pinnacle Peak in Crowders Mountain SP

Yet another destination just an hour from Greenville, Crowders Mountain State Park is located north of the SC/NC state line a few miles from I-85, making it easily accessible from Spartanburg and Charlotte, NC. Our previous visit coincided with the aftermath of a snowstorm, and although the Fern and Lake trails were open for exploration, all trails leading to the summits of Crowders Mountain and neighboring Kings Mountain Parks in SC were closed due to safety concerns.

On this particular visit we had our sights set on The Pinnacle, a two-mile trek from Sparrow Springs Access and the Park Visitor Center. It’s easy to find the trailhead (which is just next to the Visitor Center), but the ascent to Gaston County’s highest peak takes a little more effort. There and back brings the total to 4 miles, with an elevation gain of almost 1,000ft. Rated strenuous on the state park website but easy on some local hiking sites, I found it somewhere in the middle; the final climb to the pinnacle was steep and the last 100 feet scaled the rocky outcrop, and so this isn’t a hike I would attempt alone with the boys. On the other hand both the 6 and 4 year olds managed with only a little hand-holding, while the backpack carrier allowed Vilis to ride the more difficult sections.

Following the orange blazes we soon hit the split with Crowders trail, the 3-mile hike to Crowders Mountain, a 1,625ft peak on the north end of the park. Continuing on, the trail is wide and well-worn, and at one point we passed a family pushing a stroller going the opposite way (I have no idea how far they made it, and definitely do not recommend this trail as stroller-friendly). We hiked from a pine forest into a rocky, prevalently oak woods, the trees becoming more stunted as we approached the crest.

Shortly before the trail ends you’ll pass Ridgeline trail which leads over 6 miles south to the state line and into Kings Mountain State Park and Kings Mountain National Military Park. Although Crowders Mountain SP opened in 1974, it wasn’t until 1987 that this portion of the park was added. The last ½ mile is the steepest, with the trail culminating in a climb up the large rock outcrop to reach several open areas with panoramic views to the northwest.

The site of many accidents and fatalities over the years (recently a mother of three who slipped off while taking a picture), extreme caution should be exercised near the edge and on the rocky ridge. With views extending a hundred miles and scenic shots in every direction, there is no reason to climb the crags for a photograph at the cost of a life.

For a variation on the return trip, about halfway back you’ll come to the intersection with Turnback trail. As the name implies, following this trail will take you back toward the parking area, although you’ll emerge closer to the Lake Trail loop and approach the Sparrow Springs Access from the south. This state park has become a popular destination in recent years due to the scenic views and updated visitor services, so plan for crowds on the weekends. Even on an extremely hot summer afternoon we met dozens of people on the trail and hardly had the pinnacle to ourselves; instead, there was a film crew and photographer seemingly shooting a rap video. Just remember, parking at the Sparrow Springs Access is limited, and once full, it is closed until spots open up. We thoroughly enjoyed this hike – the views but also the challenge of a longer hike – and will probably return in the fall when the leaves are turning.

Click here for a map of Crowders Mountain State Park.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Sargent Wilson Museum & Gallery at Heritage Green

We visit Heritage Green, Greenville’s urban arts and cultural campus, about once a week. Some days it is to return or pick up a few new books from the Hughes Main Library, other times to utilize our membership to the Children’s Museum of the Upstate (although we go more often in the winter when the weather is bad). It seems that we mostly visit the Upcountry History Museum when there is a new exhibit, although sometimes twice/three times during its run if the boys really like it (like Storyland!). Greenville County Museum of Art has a great Sunday art program for kids which we’ve previously enjoyed, and the Greenville Little Theater has some really great shows (currently showing Rock & Roll is Here to Stay, with Footloose coming up in September). But it’s the last of the Heritage Green museums that seems the least often visited, although it’s hard to understand why, as the Bob Jones Museum & Gallery features fantastic exhibits that are fun for the whole family, such as the current “The Art of Sleuthing.”

The Museum & Gallery at Heritage Green is a satellite of the Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery.  The rotating exhibits of Old Masters complement the Museum & Gallery at Bob Jones collection, and include works by Rubens, van Dyck and Reni. One of the highlights of the current “The Art of Sleuthing” exhibit is Lucas Cranach’s Madonna and Child, with the fascinating story of Nazi-looted art provenance that ends with the painting recovered and on display today, on loan from the North Carolina Museum of Art.

The idea behind “The Art of Sleuthing” is to discover and appreciate works of art through exploration and investigation of various mysteries of the art world. By viewing the backs of paintings, x-raying art and comparing forgeries to the real deal, the intriguing world of art heists comes alive for adults and kids alike. A scavenger hunt leads children (ages 5-12) through the museum in search of “top secret” clues that teach them about the identification of artwork, how professionals examine these pieces, and the forensics behind catching the thieves and forgers of the art world.

On the second floor we arrived at the Children’s Learning Center. Lauris and Mikus joined the A&A Detective Agency to find clues and solve crimes using observation, logic and tools. The room is intricately set up to contain all the clues needed to solve four separate mysteries, the information color coded to match the mystery in need of solving. Both the boys enjoyed these mysteries immensely, and the additional activities – fingerprinting, dress-up, a book nook and photo booth – kept Vilis (sort of) entertained while his brothers fought crime.

Vilis wasn't happy about the crime going unsolved... (photobooth fun!)

There are multiple educational reasons to visit “The Art of Sleuthing” with your children, but as the museum was almost empty on our last visit, our top reason might have been that we weren’t disturbing other patrons with the toddler temper tantrums or over-exuberance, the usual deterrent from visiting museums. Also, admission fees are low, adults/$7, seniors/$6, students $5 and children under 12 free. (Note that the Hughes Main Library has a museum pass program that allows you to reserve a family pass to the museum with your library card, for free admission.) Finally, I want to stress that this is not your average art museum. The interactive, child-friendly exhibit piqued both boys interest in a subject that is rather hard to teach to children their age. Of course it is important to discuss with your children beforehand that they may not touch the paintings, as well as to heed the no food and drink rule, but the M&G does not have the sterile feel of many art museums and it encourages interaction with the subject matter. If we didn’t have the toddler with I would have been able to delve even deeper into the intriguing stories within the exhibit, and to share it with the two older boys who were definitely interested in the mysteries of these old masters. It's still a small enough space that it can be comfortable viewed in a couple of hours, although you might want to budget more if you plan on viewing all the film segments. 

For more information on museum hours and the exhibit, see the museum’s website. Guided Tours are available at designated times for $3 in addition to general admission, although the scavenger hunt, access to the children’s area, and extremely helpful, informative, knowledgeable & understanding personnel are included in admission. I hope you’ll opt for exploring the Museum & Gallery on a visit to Heritage Green now that you know what’s there – how it’s remained a hidden treasure of Greenville, now that’s a mystery!

Friday, July 22, 2016

West Toronto, from Dundas to Bloor

On my solo trip (+Vilis) to Toronto last year my cousin Kaiva gave me a tour of the up-and-coming Junction neighborhood along Dundas St. W including stops at several used bookstores and past two or three old churches that were renovated into apartment buildings. In addition to stopping in at Crema Coffee Company (and bypassing some high-allure art supply stores), we passed by Pacific Street where the weekly farmers market is located. As our visit was on a weekday, we were not able to check out the Junction Farmers Market; I was happy that our recent trip afforded us a free Saturday morning to go for a walk that would include this local treat.

One bag of cherries, two Bavarian pretzels and a cupcake later we were sitting on the steps, listening to a woman with a lovely voice singing all the favorites, one after another. Once the cupcake and pretzels had been demolished, we headed further along Dundas in search of a bookstore I thought I had seen. Although we didn’t find it, we did stumble into Pascal’s Baguette & Bagels, lured by the promise of “smoked salmon on free-ranged eggs on sundried tomato baguette w/housemade sauce and made to perfection.”

The heart of the West Toronto Junction is at the intersection of Dundas and Keele Streets, where the Post Office & Customs House and Town Hall (including the police station and fire hall) once stood. Still standing are the original Bank of British North America (1907), the Thompson Block (1889), the Bank of Toronto (1911) and the Campbell Block (1888). Headed south down Keele we left The Junction for the High Park North neighborhood, lined with residential homes and dotted with parks.

Although named for location in relation to High Park (the famous 400-acre park that stretches all the way to Lake Shore Blvd and Humber Bay), there are a few smaller parks scattered about and we made it our mission to stop in all that we passed. We check Baird Park off the list without sacrificing our clothes to the wading pool, but at Lithuania Park all bets were off (along with many articles of clothing).

I’ve always felt it a stereotype to say that Canadians can be a bit weird, but then there’s this...

We crossed down to High Park and headed west along Bloor St W where we soon made a pit stop for coffee and smoothies at Timothy’s World Coffee in Bloor West Village. This area is completely different from Dundas – the used bookstores are replaced with ones selling new books (actually, now it’s singular as the Chapters closed at some point), and stores with fruit and flower displays on the sidewalk face the street. You’ve also got some larger, chain groceries, and restaurants and boutiques fill in the rest of the space.

(actually on Dundas in The Junction, but I really liked the storefront!)

Once we turned north on Runnymeade we were back in a residential neighborhood, hitting a few shops at the intersection with Annette but otherwise a much quieter stroll. All together this walking tour of these three/four neighborhoods took the whole morning, especially as we made frequent stops to shop and play. But at under 4 miles it was a do-able exploration of a portion of the west end of Toronto, giving an opposing perspective to the tourist central adventure along the lakefront in the heart of downtown, or the summer weekend destination of Toronto Island Park. We arrived back with just enough time to shower before heading to the #Mija2016 wedding celebration…

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Toronto's Railway Lands and Harbourfront

The area around the landmark CN Tower in Toronto was once a large railway switching yard. Owned and maintained by the Canadian National Railway, this prime real estate near the waterfront has since been redeveloped and is today home to the Rogers Centre, Ripley’s Aquarium Canada and the famous tower (whose name refers to the Canadian National, the rail company that built the tower). The neighborhood is named Railway Lands and includes the South Core and City Place neighborhoods (also known as the Entertainment District), and just south is the Harbourfront, which faces the inner harbor and the Toronto Islands.

Downtown Toronto is easily accessible by bus and train, and one morning we took the subway to Union Station, the crossroads of Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) subway and streetcar system, Via Rail, Amtrak and GO Transit rail services. This National Historic Site of Canada serves over 250,000 passengers a day, serving as a connecting hub for the Union Station Bus Terminal just across the street and to the airport, with the Union Pearson Express train offering service to the airport.

Connecting Union Station to the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre (SkyDome) is the SkyWalk, a 1640ft enclosed walkway that passes above the York Street subway and the Simcoe Street Tunnel. Opened in 1989, the post-modern curved metal and glass structure was the first major construction project in Railway Lands after the CN Tower.

We emerged from the Skyway behind the Ripley's Aquarium of Canada, our morning destination, and at the base of the CN Tower.

Across the street from Ripley’s are Roundhouse Park, Toronto Railway Museum and Steam Whistle Brewing. The brewery offers a tour and taste, where visitors can learn how the pilsner is made, tour the "green buildings" and catch up on the railway history of the area. We continued south under the Gardiner Expressway, and across to the Simcoe Wave Deck. The 2009 project was inspired by the shorelines of Ontario’s Great Lakes, the 200 foot-long yellow glulam cedar and ipe wood construction an undulating rollercoaster of curves.

We stopped in at the Amsterdam BrewHouse for lunch, sampling their brews with several tasting flights alongside a diverse menu of burgers, seafood and pizza. Once the Blue Jays game ended, a wave of people arrived at the BrewHouse to refuel, the extensive indoor seating area and two outdoor patios providing plenty of space for hungry fans.

The rear patio and the adjacent walkways provide beautiful views of the Inner Harbor and the planes departing from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. We admired the view, and even caught glimpse of a mysterious pirate ship in the lake fog, a cannonshot echoing across the water surprising adults and kids alike. Our best guess is that one of the tall ships was rented out for a wedding ceremony as there appeared to be dozens of guests onboard, although you never know…

Having crossed over the Amsterdam Bridge we continued along the Waterfront Trail, passing Lakou Mizik doing their sound check on a concert stage (Cowboy Junkies had performed the previous week). Having circled around the Harbourfront Centre we were now only a short distance from Union Station, marking the end of that day’s tour of the waterfront. However, Harbour Square Park and the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal is just another block over, and so the lakefront exploration could easily extend to the Toronto Island Park via a short ferry ride. Or, you could head west along the Waterfront Trail, to explore the Spadina Quay Wetlands, the Toronto Music Garden and HTO Park. Regardless, the area has come a long way since the years of rail switching yards and shipping warehouses, transformed over the course of two decades into a gathering space with tourist attractions and favorite local spots alike that add to the vibrancy of Toronto’s downtown.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Toronto Island Park

When I think of being a tourist in Toronto, I think CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium Canada, ROM, High Park and the waterfront, a combination of historic, iconic, family-adventure and the outdoors. What this list is missing might be the best option to get in a little of everything Toronto-ish in just one day… a visit to Toronto Island Park.

This island retreat in the middle of the city is accessible by a short ferry ride from the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal in downtown Toronto, within walking distance from the popular Harbourfront area. Ferry prices are reasonable: adults $7.50, students/seniors (ages 15-19 and over 65 with proof of age) $5.00, children ages 2 to 14 $3.65 and infants under 2 free (prices in Canadian dollars as of May 2016 and include return trip, for vehicle pricing and monthly pass info see ferry website). On your way out to the island grab a spot at the railing looking back at the city – the view of the Toronto skyline is unbeatable, except maybe from a plane…

There are actually three separate ferries, one heading to Ward’s Island on the east end, one to Hanlan’s Point on the west end, and the third to Centre Island. Home to Far Enough Farm and Centreville Amusement Park, the 30 rides and bevy of animals could keep you busy all day. Keep in mind there’s still the entire main island to explore, starting with its four beaches: Ward’s Island Beach (west end), Centre Island Beach, Gibraltar Point Beach and Hanlan’s Point Clothing Optional Beach (east end). We chose Manitou, even though with three kids under six clothing optional activities are rather commonplace.

We crossed the bridge from Center Island and strolled past a fountain and through large, formal gardens to reach the water. The pier at Manitou Beach is adjacent to the island bar, bicycle rental and changing room facilities, and Centre Island Beach is right there. All the beaches have lifeguards on site, but pay attention to the flags; it might be a red-flag day due to water quality. Don’t let this keep you dry though, head to the nearby splash pad and playground if the sun and surf isn’t your thing!

out on the pier

My favorite part of the whole Toronto Island Park experience was Franklin Children’s Garden. This interactive garden is inspired by the Franklin the Turtle book series, and there was so much to explore that we ended up spending over an hour there. We climbed the Snail Trail, played in the Hide and Seek Garden, watched bees at the Pollination Station and helped water the Little Sprouts Garden.

The William Meany Maze is not far from the gardens and proved to be a challenge the boys couldn’t resist. 1,200 black cedar trees create a hedge maze to truly get lost in…

A little further west from the garden is the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, the 200 year-old (reportedly haunted) historical beacon that is the oldest stone building in Toronto and Canada’s oldest standing lighthouse. Past that is Hanlan’s Beach, beyond which is Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, which you might have flown into if you’ve ever flown Porter to Toronto – a good spot to watch planes with the kids. Meanwhile, on the east end of the island are the car-free communities of Ward’s and Algonquin Islands with their distinctive architecture and beautiful summer gardens (approximately 750 people live in the 262 homes year round). There is a guided tram tour that will visit all these historical sites, or you can rent a boat or paddleboard and explore via water. And if swimming, cycling and boating don’t use up all your energy, there’s even an 18-hole disc golf course, volleyball courts and tennis courts. Once you get hungry there are food & beverage vendors located through the park, or you can find one of the 40 picnic sites dotting the island if you’ve brought your own food. Finally, you’ll find several other park and private vendors and activities throughout the park, ranging from the Toronto Island Challenge Course to the Pirate Life Children’s Theatre, which urges visitors to join the crew & search for treasure!

I’m not sure when we’ll next return to Toronto, but I hope that on our next trip Toronto Island Park is included. I would love to explore in autumn when the monarch butterflies are migrating through, to see the sand dunes in the spring, or to take the boys fishing; northern pike, panfish and largemouth bass populate the weedy shallows of the lagoons. It would be fun to take either the Ward’s Island or Hanlan’s Point ferry across and then work our way across the entire park, we would just have to tear ourselves away from the beaches and gardens! The park is truly an island escape, and although you might be reluctant to leave, just make sure of one thing – that you don’t miss the last ferry back to the city and that scenic view of the downtown skyline!

Friday, July 15, 2016


While we were living in France, it felt like we missed so many big days: birthdays, graduations, christenings, confirmations, weddings… Although we tried our hardest to stay in touch with our friends and family, it was hard to watch the distances seemingly grow, and moving back to Greenville didn’t entirely bridge the gap – we are still far from the cities we grew up in. But then celebrations occur that bring us back into the fold of friends and family, and it’s as if we never left – we’re thankful for these moments and grateful that we can be there.

It was the wedding of a couple of friends that brought us to Toronto, but we seized the opportunity to stretch out our visit over four days to also spend time with family. On both sides, actually, as my mother’s sister lives there, but Roberts’s brother and wife were in town from Latvia for the festivities. Not only were we able to spend some time with my godparents and let the boys get to know everyone better, but we also had the opportunity to play tourist in a town I’ve often visited but rarely seen.

The wedding was beautiful. We left the boys with my godmother and ‘Toronto Juris,’ and headed to the east side of the city to Fantasy Farm, a hidden retreat just off Don Valley Parkway. Although a drizzle kept the ceremony short, it wasn’t just rain I was wiping from my eyes as they exchanged vows…

A true celebration followed, the occasion pulling together friends from all corners of the globe. We were by no means the guests who had traveled the furthest, as in addition to the before-mentioned brother & sister-in-law from Rīga, we were seated at a table with our friends living in Doha, Qatar. As well as traveling long distances to be with the bride and groom, surprisingly many had made the journey with new families. In addition to a couple of babies not even a month old, it also seemed that every other woman at the wedding was pregnant – like 8 months pregnant!

The blogging-press was out in full force; in addition to yours truly and an expat blogger, the Latvian financial sector was represented, as was a Canadian lifestyle & garden blog. All kidding aside, it was a great time catching up with old friends, putting some faces to names, and making new acquaintances.

It was long after the tortes had been brought out and the food truck left that we reluctantly tore ourselves away; the kids might be sleeping now (thanks A&J!), but we knew very well what the next morning would bring. Of course, we still had a couple of parties to attend in addition to a day of sightseeing ahead of us, so we would be seeing many of our friends again over the next couple of days.

Mija, I wish you both the best. Thank you for sharing your special day with us!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Underwater in Toronto

A wedding took us to Toronto where we then had some time to play tourist, unlike the past couple of times I traveled to Ontario (once for a scout leaders’ conference and once with Vilis for this wedding). Our explorations took us to the comparatively new Ripley’s Aquarium Canada, located adjacent to the CN Tower. Construction was originally planned for the Niagara Falls area, but plans fell through and Ripley's ended up in Toronto. What was once a no-man’s-land around the rail lines became a $130 million (Canadian) project in August 2011, opening to the public in October 2013.

Canada’s largest indoor aquarium, the attraction contains 1.5 million gallons of water. We got our feet wet in “Canadian Waters,” the exhibit highlighting 17 different habitats, before heading to “Rainbow Reef,” with its vast collection of tropical fish.

Everyone enjoyed “Dangerous Lagoon,” the underwater tunnel that wound under and through the giant tank full of sharks. The moving walkway helped keep the crowds moving, but the length of the tunnel ensured we got our money’s worth of giants swimming overhead.

A pause in the Discovery Center while the kids explored the playground and pet the Horseshoe Crabs before continuing on to the “Ray Bay.” These guys were a touch larger than the ones we had met last week at Roper Mountain Science Center’s Marine Lab

My favorite exhibit was “Planet Jellies.” The eight tanks of different jellyfish were backlit in color-changing displays that were simply mesmerizing. The presentation was similar to that of the Georgia Aquarium, although the tanks were bigger and more numerous.

We bought tickets on site, but if you would prefer to save some money make sure to book online a few days before. Our Friday visit coincided with the start of summer vacation and the place was obnoxiously packed, so if you would prefer a quieter visit consider a different day of the week, or simply go off-season. The layout allows for a continuous exploration of the aquarium without having to double-back or possibly miss a portion, and is comfortably viewed in three hours. Discovery Center (which is about halfway) offers snacks for sale, and various live dive shows and other programs are programmed throughout the day; see website for details. 

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