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  • Writer's pictureMary Cook

Chasing the Sun - Road Tripping with a Baby and a Toddler

Like many others, I gave birth during a global pandemic, in the middle of winter, and with nowhere to go to let my toddler burn off some steam. With so many places closed and a trip to the outdoors requiring so much time to suit up (hello winter in Michigan with two children!), we decided that road-tripping to find sunshine with a baby and a toddler was a better option than staying inside our 4 walls for the rest of my maternity leave. A maternity leave that, let’s face it, led to more of a cabin-fever feeling than the snuggled-up-at-home-with-my-babies feeling that I was hoping for…

So, what do you do when you’re 2 months into your maternity leave during a global pandemic and already climbing the walls (with toddler and newborn in either arm, of course)? You spontaneously convince your husband to take an unplanned road trip (since flying somewhere was not an option) with your baby and very energetic toddler. Not crazy at all!?

Road-tripping with a baby and a toddler was very different and new for us

Every February we visit Palm Springs, California. If you’ve been, you’ll understand why this is an annual trip for us. And if not, I’ll be sharing about vacationing in Palm Springs someday soon!

Luckily, Ryan, my husband had 3 weeks of paternity leave to use, and we were in desperate need of the annual February sunshine that we were used to. So, we rented a minivan (which was, potentially, the best idea we’ve ever had) and drove South with no set itinerary other than “let’s find some sun and get outside”.

What road-tripping with a baby and a toddler looked like

A summary of our trip: diaper changes with a change of scenery…

All we really planned was that we would drive until we felt that we needed a break. At which point I would open my Marriott app and search for the nearest hotel – yes, I’m a loyal Marriott customer!

Louisville, KY

After the first 5 hours of driving, we made our first stop in Louisville, KY. The boys, Jack and Will surprisingly did wonderful and our stay was great! It wasn’t busy, our hotel, the AC was empty, and we felt incredibly safe on our first big trip away from home since the pandemic hit.

We walked, explored the city, fed Jack’s obsession with playgrounds, and shopped for some of Louisville’s famous bourbon - Ryan’s favorite. We ate at Royals Hot Chicken - I highly recommend the Nashville HOT chicken, it was to die for - stopped at Churchill Downs, and Will slept pretty much the entire time. It was bliss.

Nashville, TN

Though I had visited Nashville for work, Ryan had never been, so we were excited about this stop! But boy was it BUSY! A little too busy for comfort. Little did we know that we timed our arrival in Nashville with the finals of the college NCAA basketball finals.

We stayed at an AC hotel again, walked around downtown Nashville – it was lively with country music blasting from every single angle. We ate at Shake Shack for convenience. Jack loved the fries and Will slept. Lastly, we stopped at one of my favorite coffee roasters, Crema. It’s so so good. I even liked it before I really got into coffee, which by the way was just this past year after having 2 kids- ha! It’s a must stop if you are into coffee.

Atlanta, GA

Unfortunately, there was one stop that we didn’t like, and it was our third stop, Atlanta. And not because we didn’t like the city, but because of what happened when we arrived…

We arrived at 10 pm, exhausted and looking forward to crashing in the W Hotel that we had booked. Not only was the hotel like a nightclub - honestly, the cars and the crowds outside were unbelievable (not family friendly at all) - but upon checking in we were told that the room we had booked wasn’t available… WHAT?! I had two sleeping children and a husband in the car, all ready for a good night of sleep, and all they could offer us was a room with a single bed. They didn’t offer any solution to their own mistake. But it’s ok, because I was assured that the manager would call me the next day. Useful. Luckily the AC Hotel down the street had a room available (at a premium of course) and we were able to avoid a night of sleeping in the minivan.

The next day we took a walk through Piedmont Park - which was the perfect spot to get outside and enjoy the sunshine. Jack played in the Natuzzi playground, ate popsicles to beat the Hot-lanta heat and we all had smiles on our faces. It’s crazy what a little vitamin D can do for you.

After that we went to the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, complete with dinosaur sculptures and a beautiful walking path set above the treetops! We also found a cute park nestled in the forest for Jack to play in whilst Ryan and I relaxed on a bench with Will.

We ended the day back at the hotel heating up a bag of frozen cauliflower. Jack had the biggest smile on his face when he saw the cauliflower – it was like a piece of home brought to him on vacation (his favorite vegetable by the way).

Top tip: visit Bold Monk Brewery for incredible food and a wonderful outdoor space! It’s a must stop for anyone even if you are not into beer.

St. Augustine, FL

Because our entire trip was based on chasing the sun, we made a last-minute decision to stop in St. Augustine and avoid the rainy forecast on the Carolina coast. We were pleasantly surprised by its quaint and charming atmosphere and cobblestone roads - and Jack’s favorite...playgrounds.

As the evening approached, we realized that we hadn’t booked anywhere to stay! And there was nowhere available. We drove past hotels, we called hotels, we scoured the internet, nothing. Just as I was mentally preparing for a night in the van with our toddler and baby, I found Scott. Scott is the general manager at La Quinta - a brand new and clean hotel away from the busy strip - and he was my hero. He made their final room available to us and gave us a great deal. Probably mostly due to the “oh shit” tone in my voice. So, Scott if you are reading this, thank you so much again!!

We loved exploring St. Augustine. An old town with a heap of history - we explored the lighthouse, went to the beach, and ate 2-3 fresh popsicles every day. Jack loved it. The popsicles in particular. Our days were short because of naps, but the entire stay was just what our hearts needed - a break from COVID, enjoying each other's company, the sunshine, and experiencing new things.

The way back home

We left St. Augustine and started to make our way back home, taking our first stop in Charlotte, NC. All I learned from our stay here was to never listen to your husband and “just book the more expensive hotel”, but I’ll leave it at that…

Columbus, OH

The next day we made our way to Columbus, OH, ending our trip with a final night in yet another AC Hotel. By now we were regulars and it felt like the best place to spend our final night! In the morning, we woke up very excited and headed to the famous Columbus Zoo. The one thing Jack wanted to see? An elephant. Something that he was very excited about as we don’t have any at our local zoo. And he was right to be, they were beautiful.

We then spent nothing short of an hour on the carousel—sorry Dad, followed by watching a giant python snake eat a rabbit. Jack didn’t want to remember the snake as being mean so kept repeating to himself that “the snake was nice”...I think he was a little traumatized.

Final thoughts on road-tripping with a baby and a toddler

Finally, we changed the diapers, packed the boys into the car, and started the long drive home. Our entire trip was basically a bunch of 1-day stops, but boy did we make a lot of memories! I will always remember it as the time that we were spontaneous and got to soak each other in for a few uninterrupted days (whilst I sat on a cooler and played car-attendant to the boys for the majority of the 35+ hour drive…). Ryan realized he can drive long distances with back seat drivers – ha! I mastered baby wearing. Will got to ‘see’ many different places in his first few months of life. And Jack…well he was the life of the trip. He discovered the magic of the elevator, popped endless bags of microwave popcorn, and called all of our hotels “vacation”. “We have to go back to “vacation” was our daily cue to head back to the hotel.

Though not relaxing - and actually pretty stressful! - I really enjoyed it. This is where our lives are now. It’s chaotic, busy, fun, messy, and full of so much love. I will always remember this for years to come. It taught me that we can do anything we put our minds to!

Have you been road-tripping with a baby and/or toddler? I would love to hear about your experience!

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