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One Hell of a Road Trip Vacation South with Kids

Last March break, we took our first, and maybe last, drive South toward Florida. It was my husband's idea. "Let's pile into the van, drive until the weather's warm, and get out," he suggested. It sounded simple. Who cared if we were just recuperating from colds and flus and three of us were still attached to Kleenex boxes? A week basking in the sun was just what the doctor ordered.

After all, people drive to Florida with their kids every year. In fact, some 300,000 Ontario cars head down the Interstate-75 each year. One family we know has it down to a science. They pack the car with sleeping bags, kids toys, snacks, and enough book tapes from the library to last 24 hours. Setting off at 3 p.m. from Toronto, the parents take turns driving all night (listening to mystery stories to keep them awake). By morning, just when the three kids are waking up for breakfast, they're at the Florida border. Within hours they're on the beach, cool drinks in hand and sunscreen at the ready. It sounded possible.

We woke our kids on a clear bright day and herded them sleep-walking style with their pillows and blankets into the van. "Where are we going?" they asked trustingly. "South," we answer. Everything was great until we hit the U.S. border. Then the clouds darkened and the snowstorm hit. When we stopped at a Denny's restaurant in New York State for breakfast, the waitress greeted us with "Isn't that a terrible storm out there? They say that it's going to keep up for days." Great news!

The car's defroster only worked at high speed, blasting cold air. Through Pennsylvania, the snow blew, breaking only to give us a glimpse of roadsigns warning of curves, steep hills, and -- deer crossings. "In this weather a deer would be lucky to get hit," my husband muttered.

Everytime my husband lit up a cigarette to calm his nerves, our teenager - the 90's Kids as we called him, (as in "Hey Mom, times have changed. This is the 90's") -went ballistic and got the others going on the perils of second-hand smoke. "Open the windows," he shouted. "We're breathing smoke back here." My husband obliged but the snow came swirling into the car instead. "Hey we're getting wet. It's snowing in here," they yelled. Then all three began to chorus, "Stop smoking. Stop smoking. Stop smoking."

Luckily, our oldest, had passed his Rapper phase of music and was just through dealing with Metallica. But he'd discovered jazz piano, which he wanted to hear at high volume, repeating piano scales and lots of drums. He'd brought along his tape recorder and his own music. "Isn't this great?" our son asked as he snapped his fingers, turned the jazzy tunes to an even higher pitch, and kept rhythm on the backs of the seats. "Turn it down," yelled one of the other kids. "Stop drumming on my seat," shouted another. Between the loud music, the grinding of the windshield wipers, the blasts of cold air, the high winds, the sneezing and coughing and shouts for the Kleenex box, it was not the relaxing holiday atmosphere we had been hoping for.

Navigating was even more difficult because our Road Atlas had somehow lost the staples holding it together. When it fell on the floor - which it frequently did because of its large Atlas-like size - all the pages got jumbled so that half of Tennessee lay next to half of Florida. There were rips and tears and holes in certain places - in fact the area around Washington, D.C. had completely disappeared. At one point, none of the road signs were coordinating with the map. "I guess they're too small to be included," I said. Then it dawned. We had been driving for half an hour on the wrong highway. I burst into tears. "Where are we?" my husband shouted as he peered through the windshield and lit up another cigarette. "Stop smoking," shouted the kids.

We arrived in Washington, D.C. at rush hour and got stuck in a traffic jam. We stopped at a diner and were seated in the smoking section. We booked into a roadside Motel that had colonies of ants living in cracks in the bathroom floor. The manager appeared to inspect them with a flashlight before he let us pack up and switch rooms. We had chosen to drive the I-95 so that when the nice weather hit, we could pull off to a beach. In Virginia Beach, however, the rains descended. We ended up in a pool hall in the rain wondering if we should fork out money for the manager's personal House of Horrors wax museum he had put together in the basement. "Let's drive home," we said.

For families who have the courage to make the 958-mile drive to Florida successfully, there are two possible routes. Many parents take the I-75 through Detroit to Cincinnati, Ohio and on through Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. This highway experiences less snowfall (although fog can be a problem especially through Tennessee) and is generally a shorter drive than the other route. The I-95 leads one from Fort Erie, down through Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Although this is the longer drive with generally worse weather, there are many places for families to stop off: Washington with its fantastic Air and Space Museum, Savannah with its parks, its fun Pirate Restaurant, and the nearby beach community of Tybee Island, (and if you're lucky, America's second biggest St. Patrick's Day Parade).

On last year's trip we did stop in Washington on the way back and had a fine time. We should have flown here in the first place we thought. No doubt some day we'll complete the drive to Florida with the kids. But it won't be this week!

Note: Dave Hunter, a Canadian who regularly made the trip down South, has written a fantastic guide for families driving to Florida. Called "Dave Hunter's Along the Interstate-75," it's filled with maps and information on just about anything you want to know as you wend your way South. Each map page covers 25 miles and Dave has marked every McDonald's, every turn-off for gas, or baby-changing washrooms along the way. "For the first time, I could tell my young son exactly how many minutes to the next washroom," wrote one enthusiastic reader. "No trip along the I-75 (lugging around 2 kids) has ever seemded so short to us," declared another. Hunter and his wife Kathy, are busy now between interviews with the American media writing about the I-95. At the cost of $XX it's indispensible. Another good book for road trips is "Sing as We Go," the family car song book, priced at $7.95. Some 100 songs including "I Wish I were in Dixie" and "We Shall Overcome" will shorten the miles. Both books available at Ulysses Travel Bookstore on Yorkville Ave., (416) 323-3600.





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