New effort to stock airports with kids’ books

The Read on the Fly team, with Erin Kirkland in blue

Read on the Fly, with Erin Kirkland in blue

Family travelers get shit done. How else to explain the latest exploits of my buddy Erin Kirkland, the woman behind the travel blog AKontheGO?

Erin, who lives in Alaska and is a fellow member of the Family Travel Association, recently kicked off Read on the Fly, an initiative to stock boarding areas at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (TSAIA) with a library of children’s books. As Erin explains it in a post on her blog, she was inspired to start the program after cleaning out books from her son’s closet and realizing the books could be put to good use in a second life.

The goals of the project are to promote literacy and keep kids happy while they’re waiting to travel with their families. As of right now, the program will maintain six different mini libraries in the Anchorage airport, and will stock these libraries with books suitable for children ages 0-16. When kids are flying with their parents, they can either borrow books to read at their gates, or take books from the shelves and bring the books with them on their respective journeys. The hope is that kids will return the books they borrow. If they don’t, Erin plans to collect donations to keep libraries robust.

(Airport officials actually gave Erin security clearance so she can tend to the libraries whenever she likes. How cool is that?!?!)

Erin notes that Read On the Fly is truly a collaborative effort among AKontheGO, Alaska Airlines, and TSAIA, not to mention the long list of individuals and businesses who have offered books, time, space and effort to push this project to fruition. She adds that the bookshelves were designed by volunteers from the Alaska Aviation Museum, and likely will be built by those folks, too.

Eventually, the plan is to expand Read on the Fly to other airports. For now, however, the focus is on Anchorage. If you want to be one of the founding donors, click here. You also can email the Read On the Fly team at readontheflyak@gmail.com and let them know how you want to contribute. FWIW, I’ll be shipping some books north next month.

Oh, and if you’re as eager as I am to see the program in action, Erin says it launches formally this June.

Delta launches Atlanta airport facility for Autistic kids

Ball pit in the multisensory room.

Ball pit in the multisensory room.

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and I’m sure parents with children on the autism spectrum rejoiced last week when Delta opened Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s first multisensory room.

The project, a partnership with autism advocacy group The Arc, provides a calming, supportive environment and includes a mini ball pit, a bubbling water sculpture, a tactile activity panel, and other items children can interact with to help calm them and prepare them for travel. The room is located in a quiet space on the F Concourse, one of the busiest airport terminals in the country.

In short, it’s the perfect facility in the perfect spot for parents traveling with kids on the spectrum.

I was hipped to this news by buddy Damon Brown, who blogs about these sorts of things for Inc. magazine. In a post published yesterday, Damon noted that the room isn’t just good news for Autistic kids, but also for anyone who struggles with the sensory overload of today’s airport experience.

In related news, as I wrote in my weekly travel roundup column for AFAR.com, The Arc also sponsors “familiarization tours” during which pilots and flight attendants lead autistic children and their parents aboard parked planes to help alleviate any fears and uncertainties about the boarding process. The program is called Wings for Autism. For more information, click here.

The little things win again

Slinky!

Slinky!

Most people come to Yosemite National Park for the waterfalls, the iconic rock formations, the historic structures. On some level, we came for those things, too.

In the end, however, what my kids will take away most vividly from this year’s adventure were experiences that revolved around some of the tiniest creatures they saw all weekend: Caterpillars. Fuzzy little caterpillars.

The love affair began yesterday morning on the way to breakfast. It was early. We were tired. We rounded a bend on the walking trail from our cabin to the lodge restaurant and found ourselves face to face with a granite boulder covered with caterpillars.

L and R missed them at first, but my father and I simultaneously exclaimed, “Look, girls! Caterpillars!” I wasn’t sure how the kids would react, especially given their recent fear of bugs. Still, 20 minutes after we pointed out the creepy-crawlies, the kids were still playing with the slinky little bugs.

After breakfast, we drove into Yosemite Valley for that watercolor painting class. We had lunch. We marveled at Half Dome in the distance. We waved to The (hotel formerly known as the) Ahwahnee. We hiked to see Yosemite Falls. We played pooh sticks in the Merced (for the second consecutive visit). We squinted to spot climbers on El Capitan. Still, all the kids could talk about were the damn caterpillars.

Caterpillars, caterpillars, caterpillars. It was becoming an episode of that A&E show, “Obsessed.”

Yesterday morning, it was more of the same. I allowed L to “collect” one of the creatures on the way to breakfast; she kept it in a clear plastic cup with a lid. After we ate, we piled in the car to see another of the park’s one-of-a-kind features: Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

To make a long story short (I’ll probably blog about that next week), our outing ended sooner than expected. When we got back to the cabin, the girls went caterpillar-hunting again.

This time their interest reached a fever pitch. The two of them foraged for sticks and leaves to build a “caterpillar hotel” in which to house any creatures that happened to wander by. When they returned with supplies, R got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the surface of the cabin patio “so it would be clean for the caterpillars.”

Finally, this morning, on our way back from our final breakfast here at the Evergreen Lodge, I granted their wish, and allowed each of them to harvest a total of six caterpillars as pets. Each girl put the bugs in a large plastic cup with a lid. Each girl foraged for sticks and moss and leaves and other “natural stuff” from the forest to include in their cups. And each girl has been gazing into her cup ever since.

Here in the rec room, where I’m writing and filing this post, I asked them to list their top three favorite things about our trip. No. 1 for both of them: The caterpillars, of course.

While my kids certainly appreciated all the big stuff they saw on our Yosemite trip this year, they LOVED these little things, and saw the bugs as a way to connect with Yosemite on their own terms, their own level.

I’ll be honest: Going into this multigenerational adventure, the caterpillars aren’t exactly what I hoped my kids would take from this trip. But now, after 48 hours of Caterpillalooza, I think I’m OK with the girls’ newfound obsession; the fact that they’ve taken interest in any part of the trip whatsoever is a win—for all of us.

If nothing else, this experience is a reminder that sometimes, the littlest things on a family trip can make the biggest impressions and differences in our kids’ lives.

We’ve all heard that age-old saying that implores us not to lose the forest through the trees. In this case—not losing the caterpillars through the trees, forest, rock formations and waterfalls—the lesson is even simpler and more poignant. I plan to savor it while I can.

5 things I’ve learned in 48 hours of multigenerational travel

Grandpa Power and the girls, making art.

Grandpa Power and the girls, making art.

Considering how much we Villanos travel, it’s hard to believe this weekend’s trip to Yosemite National Park marks the first time my big girls ever have traveled with one of their grandparents. Perhaps that explains why they’re LOVING having Grandpa Power along for the ride. Perhaps it also explains why I’m getting such a kick out of watching my dad interact with the kids in our typical travel vibe.

Don’t get me wrong—assimilation hasn’t been painless. It takes my father FOREVER to get ready to go anywhere, and I already struggle getting my 6- and 4-year-old prepped for the day on time. Still, for the most part, the experience has been a delight. Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far.

  1. Co-parenting is non-transferable.

When Powerwoman and I are together with the kids, we are equal parents with equal responsibilities for discipline. When one of us is missing, it’s really impossible to have someone else just slide into that role. I learned this the hard way today—I needed my father to talk to L about using hands on her sister, and he did…just not the way I would have liked. I quickly realized I couldn’t blame him. He might be my dad, but he’s no substitute for the girls’ mother.

  1. I am a second-string storyteller to the all-star starter known as Grandpa.

I’ve spent the last six years thinking my stories were the best stories these kids ever have heard. They have demanded the stories everywhere when we travel: in the car on road-trips, in foreign bathrooms, even on hikes. Until this weekend. Over the last two days, whenever the girls have wanted stories, they’ve asked for grandpa. In the car. On trips to the bathroom. And on our hikes. It’s like I’ve been replaced by my mentor. And it hurts! (OK, maybe not really. But still.)

  1. It’s OK to bend rules on vacation.

Generally speaking, I can be a bit of a hard-ass about rules and routines. My dad, on the other hand, is about as loosey-goosey as they come; he never met a rule he didn’t try to bend. Though my instinct on this trip has been to enforce typical edicts such as one sweet a day and pre-bed at 6:45 p.m., I’ve relaxed the rules a bit and can sense the positive repercussions. The kids are happier. They’re listening better. And they’re actually appreciative. WTF?!?

  1. Grandparents make great babysitters on the road, too.

We live close enough to the girls’ grandparents that the kids get to see the old folks on a regular basis. Grampy and Grammy (my parents) and Pop-Pop and Tiki also are fantastic babysitters when Powerwoman and I need to go away or get a date night here and there. So far my dad has been an amazing child-minder at Yosemite, too. He’s overly cautious because of the new surroundings. He communicates well (via text). He even picks up the tab on snacks, just because.

  1. It’s natural to worry about those you love.

I’m used to being concerned about L and R when we’re having adventures all over the world. Here in Yosemite, I’ve got a new family member to be worried about: Dad. Will he twist an ankle on those rocks? Why is it taking him so long to use the bathroom? Can he drink coffee after 4 p.m.? Bandwidth isn’t a problem; I’ve got plenty of agita to go around. Still, it’s been an adjustment to spread the worrying around.

I’m sure I’ll learn another five things in the next 48 hours on this multigenerational trip. IMHO, that’s the beauty of family travel: You always learn something new.

The most family-friendly place near Yosemite

L, exploring a rope bridge.

L, exploring a rope bridge.

If you’re planning to visit Yosemite National Park with kids, you NEED to stay where we’re staying for the weekend: Evergreen Lodge outside of Groveland.

It’s not typical for me to make such bold statements here on this blog, but in the case of this lodge, there’s simply no other way to put it. With multiple play areas, an indoor rec room, two-bedroom cabins, a down-to-earth on-site restaurant, and activities for people of all ages, this place seems like it practically was designed for families.

Perhaps the only downside to this lodge is that it’s not *inside* the park; today it took us about an hour to drive from our cabin to Yosemite Village. Still, considering the beautiful scenery, even that wasn’t too much of a hassle.

The rooms

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect when I made the reservation. A photographer friend of mine recommended it. I trust this guy implicitly. So I booked without thinking (on Expedia, of course).

I signed up for a “Family cabin,” essentially a two-bedroom suite. The bedrooms sit on either side of a common room. The configuration is perfect for families like ours because it affords us the opportunity to close the barn doors to the kids’ room when us grown-ups are still awake (and reading and/or writing blog posts in the common room).

Décor in the rooms is country and clean. Both bedrooms have fans and wall-heaters, and the common room has ample seating (probably even enough for a family of six or eight).

Oh, and unlike other cabin-oriented lodges, this place has housekeeping service every day.

The eats

There’s only one restaurant on-site at Evergreen, and because the lodge is about 45 minutes from the next closest restaurant, there’s a chance you’ll eat here more than once if you’re a guest. The good news: The place is pretty good, so long as you don’t mind higher-than-usual prices.

The restaurant itself is broken into three different sections. The biggest of the bunch looks and feels like a formal eatery, complete with white walls and hushed voices. You also can get food in the tavern, which has a much more casual, first-come-first-served type of vibe. Finally, the restaurant recently added a back patio. In the summer it’s open air; in the winter or spring, it is enclosed with heat lamps. This is a great place to eat if you plan to let your kids run around the adjacent play area (more on that in a moment).

Food is above average—maybe even a bit healthier and more eclectic than you’ll find elsewhere in Yosemite. Grown-up dishes include a selection of small plates featuring a kale and farro salad, as well as entrees such as lobster risotto and elk burger. The restaurant also offers a pretty extensive kids’ menu, and all portions (including kids) are large, which helps you stomach the jacked-up price points (hey, they have a monopoly out here).

A tip: Skip dessert with/for the kids and take advantage of the nightly s’mores hour, held by the outdoor fireplace from 7-8 p.m.

The activities

One of Evergreen’s strong suits is the activities program, which includes a host of guided trips and excursions into Yosemite National Park and some of the surrounding communities. We won’t be participating in any of these activities this trip because most of the offerings are full-day jaunts and my kids aren’t ready for that kind of commitment yet. Still, I can’t wait to come back when they’re older and give the activities desk a try.

Some of the options that appealed to me:

  • A five-hour drive and hike excursion to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Wapama Falls.
  • An eight-mile round-tripper through Granite Gorge and along the Tuolumne River to Preston Falls.
  • Rafting day trips on either the Tuolumne or Merced rivers.

I also like that the lodge rents bicycles and jogging strollers by the hour, half-day, or day, providing a great resource for families to get out and explore the Evergreen Road back toward 120 or TK road out to Hetch Hetchy reservoir.

(By the way, there are a bunch of free activities, too, such as movie nights, bingo, yoga, and a session during which kids can dissect owl pellets to see what the bird had been eating.)

The family focus

Without question, my favorite thing about this lodge is the way it gets real in its offerings for kids. Whoever designed the place clearly understood that when kids are on vacation, they like to bum around on playgrounds. Proof: There are at least four incredible outdoor play structures, and one unbelievably awesome rec/game room.

My girls are OBSESSED with the outdoor play structures. The one closest to our cabin has a 12-foot-tall rope ladder and an oversized chess board. One down by the registration desk has a rope bridge, a suspension bridge, another rope ladder, and a zipline. A third play structure has a fort and another zipline.

There’s even one for little kids, composed of a sandbox, teepees, and more.

Inside, the rec room is every kid’s dream come true, complete with shufflepuck, giant Connect Four, foosball, and pool. Near the book nook, there also are giant pillows and a Steph Curry-sized stuffed bear.

(We didn’t go in the pool, but the pool area is modern and inviting. There’s even a bar and a cafe there, to keep the grown-ups happy.)

I honestly think that if I didn’t drive my kids into the national park for adventures there, they’d be perfectly happy spending every moment of every waking moment here at the lodge. As a family travel writer, I safely can say there’s no bigger compliment than that. Which is precisely why we’ll be back.

Which are your favorite places to stay in Yosemite National Park and why?

They hate bugs

All week, people have asked me why we’re not camping during our upcoming trip to Yosemite National Park (or at least staying at the klatch of tent cabins formerly known as Curry Village). The answer is simple: My girls hate bugs.

I mean, they REALLY hate bugs. And their antipathy takes very different forms.

For R, it’s all terror, all the time. We’ve had a spate of mosquitoes here in Northern California, and whenever she sees one she runs in the other direction shrieking like a banshee. L, on the other hand, is curious and disgusted at the same time. She’ll touch caterpillars and moths and spiders, but as soon as the critters take an interest in HER, she freaks, too, usually throwing or striking the bug before running away.

Over the course of day-to-day life here in a house, these behaviors range from mildly irritating to oddly humorous. Can you imagine how crazy the entomophobia would be in a tent?

I can close my eyes and picture it. DADDY A GNAT! Dad! There is a bee flying around. Kill it! Kill it or I’m sleeping in the car. OHMYGOD DAD THAT MOSQUITO IS GOING TO KILL ME AND GIVE ME HEART CANCER.

(Yes, R is obsessed with/worried about “heart cancer.”)

Needless to say, I’d be crazy to force myself to deal with this paranoia in a confined space. I’d also have to be pretty inconsiderate; my campground or tent village neighbors would hate us in minutes.

For these reasons, we’ve reserved a two-bedroom family cabin at Evergreen Lodge outside the park in Groveland. We booked it on Expedia, of course. And we’re excited for four days and three nights of bug-free living so we can get good sleep and embrace all the park has to offer. (We can do the tent-and-bugs thing in the backyard or local park when we get home.)

Different take on a family trip to Yosemite

Me and R, near Lake Tahoe in 2015.

Me and R, near Lake Tahoe in 2015.

T-minus four days until I take L, R, and Grandpa Power on a multigenerational trip to Yosemite National Park, and everyone over here is getting pretty excited for the excursion. L is excited to have a reason to miss school. R keeps talking about hiking to waterfalls. The two of them also have been totally geeking out about the plein air painting class we’re signed up to take.

My father – a.k.a. Grandpa Power – is pretty stoked, too. This trip will mark the first time my girls have been on vacation with any of their grandparents.

I guarantee nobody is as excited about the trip as I am. As part of my assignment for the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog, I’m going to give all three of my traveling companions Moleskine journals and encourage them record their own impressions of the trip. They can write or draw, whichever they prefer. And when the trip is done, I’ll go through their journals and pick the best passages for inclusion in a separate post.

Something about this different take on family travel has me nearly BURSTING AT THE SEAMS. I’m trying desperately to keep this plan a secret from the girls but couldn’t help myself from telling my father in an email tonight. Hopefully the three of them will appreciate and enjoy it as much as I know I will.

I’ve spent years chronicling family travel from my own POV. It’ll be a treat to get different perspectives.

Making family travel more meaningful

Making travel meaningful on San Juan Island

Making travel meaningful on San Juan Island

I’m lucky enough to serve with a bunch of great people on the board of the Family Travel Association. Jim Pickell, CEO of HomeExchange.com, is one of those folks.

Earlier this week, Jim penned a great piece for HuffPost Travel about 10 ways to make family travel more meaningful. The story was republished on the FTA’s own website, and you can read it in its entirety by clicking here.

I’m not going to summarize all 10 of Jim’s tips; y’all can read and y’all can read ‘em for yourselves.

That said, I did want to spotlight a few of my favorite suggestions. Like his call for taking travel days out of the equation and including the journey as part of the trip. Or his suggestion to embrace nature. I also really appreciate how Jim recommends giving kids a camera and getting creative with family photos. I plan to do this with L and R in Yosemite next month.

All told, I think my favorite part of the article is this: “Good times and happy moments are single instances in time, whereas meaningful experiences bridge the past, present and future, and can have a lifelong impact.” Quite literally couldn’t have said it better myself. Well done, old pal.

What are your tips for making family travel more meaningful?

A different kind of all-in-one

Little R, learning about animation at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Little R at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

I’ve never been a fan of all-in-one resorts. You know what I mean by that phrase, right? The places that tout they have absolutely everything you could possibly need during your stay, right there on property? Want good food? On-site restaurants. Want some culture? On-site museum. Want adventure? Check out the on-site pool or climbing wall or gym or wave pool.

While places like this certainly are convenient, they eliminate what I consider to be the most valuable component of travel: discovery. When everything’s “on-site,” nothing’s a surprise. And when nothing’s a surprise, at least IMHO, there’s not much reason to travel to experience it.

At this very moment, however, my family and I are experiencing a different kind of all-in-one. We’re spending a few days at the Presidio of San Francisco, a former army post that in recent years has been converted to a city within the city. Because the Presidio has overnight accommodations (we’re staying at the Inn at the Presidio) and other tourism infrastructure (such as restaurants and public transportation), it’s a great travel destination, too. And it’s perfect for families.

This afternoon we stayed “close to home” and explored things right around the inn:

  • We wandered over to the Walt Disney Family Museum and introduced the girls to the man behind the Mouse.
  • The big girls climbed trees on the great lawn out in front of the museum.
  • We tromped over to the Presidio Social Club, a fun but casual restaurant in renovated barracks.
  • We wandered back to the inn by starlight (a rare occurrence since this part of San Francisco often is socked in with fog).

None of these activities was more than 15 minutes from our tiny (21 rooms in all) inn, yet everything was separate. Put differently, we never left the Presidio, and we were out and about the whole day.

Tomorrow’s plan is even more eclectic. We’ll start our day at the House of Air, an indoor trampoline arena. Then we’ll explore Fort Point National Historic Site, which has guarded the Golden Gate Narrows for 150 years. After lunch down near the fort, we’ll come back to the Main Post (that’s what they call the area around the hotel) to learn about the archaeology in the area, hit some bowling at the Presidio Bowling Center, and throw down a fancy dinner at Arguello, a restaurant from renowned chef Tracy des Jardins.

We’ll wrap up our visit Friday morning by hiking to see sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy.

Even with all of these items on our agenda, we won’t even scratch the surface of all the things to do and see and experience in this national park (yes, this place is a national park). And that’s exactly the point; the Presidio offers the variety of an all-in-one without making you feel like you’re missing out on something equally awesome nearby.

“The Resort” in the Presidio is everywhere—the components are related but entirely unique. Add to this variety a hearty dose of authenticity and years upon years of history and you’ve got the makings of a great family trip.

Travel, technology, and the children of St. Jude

There are lots of reasons why I love working with Expedia on the Expedia Viewfinder blog, and the company’s commitment to supporting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital tops the list.

Naturally, then, I was blown away by this piece, in which my colleague Sarah Gavin shares her story about how Expedia recently leveraged technology to enable patients to “travel” without ever leaving Memphis.

No, the initiative isn’t family travel in the traditional sense. But considering that many of these terminally ill cancer patients will never leave the halls of St. Jude, Expedia has, in a sense, brought the wonders of travel to them and their families. I can’t think of a better use for technology. I also doubt there’s a better kind of travel.

Once you’ve read Sarah’s story, check out the video below. I dare you to keep your eyes dry.

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