Cat heaven in Hawaii

If you asked my big girls to describe the attributes of their personal heavens, each would cite unlimited French fries and hundreds of playful cats. While Powerwoman and I haven’t been able to deliver on the French fries yet, we did find a spot that blew their cat-loving dreams.

The place: the Lanai Cat Sanctuary on the Hawaiian Island of Lanai.

At the suggestion of the concierge at Four Seasons Lanai, we visited earlier today. There were 495 cats. Running freely in an open-air 25,000-square-foot enclosure. For the girls, it was like Cat Christmas.

The place is quite a story—one I’ll tell in a variety of written and video pieces over the next few weeks. To summarize, it basically is a glorified animal shelter, it’s free to visit, and, if you love cats, is AWESOME. The Executive Director, a kind and gentle man named Keoni Vaughn, refers to the place as the Furr Seasons (a riff on Four Seasons, get it?). And for cats, it really is luxurious.

Dozens of different cat boxes. Dozens of grass patches in which to play. Trees to climb. Pipes in which to hide. Endless amounts of food and water. And because the place is open to the public, constant love.

Vaughn told me that about half of the animals there were feral cats rescued from the wilds of the island to relieve the threat to native birds. The other half of the animals had been abandoned by owners over the years. All of the kitties are happy. And just about all of them are available for adoption.

We didn’t adopt a cat yesterday but we all wanted to. Instead, the girls spent the better part of two hours petting and loving and kissing and feeding and chasing and playing with the cats. Every time I thought the girls were tiring, they’d perk up and move on to another cat. All they talked about for the rest of the day: Cats, cats, cats.

Below are a few images from our time at the Lanai Cat Sanctuary. As I noted, I’ll be creating some other content about the experience over the next few weeks. I’ll share it here as it’s published.

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Hawaii + Four Seasons = Malasada awesome

The rooms at Four Seasons Lanai are pretty nice

The rooms at Four Seasons Lanai are pretty nice

Hawaii holds a special place in the history of our pod. It’s where Powerwoman and I got married back in 2004, where L said her first word, where R did her first hike in the trusty child-carrying backpack. It also is where I’ve reported some of the most meaningful features of my time as a freelance writer.

In short, we f-ing love the place.

This is why we make a point of returning at least once a year. We’ve been lucky enough to go 15 times (together) in 12 years of marriage. This year’s iteration starts tomorrow.

We’re doing something different this year, spending the first half of our trip on the island of Lanai. Neither I nor Powerwoman has been back there since we went on our honeymoon. This experience is likely to be VERY different for two reasons: 1) Obviously this time we’ll have three kids in tow, and 2) The resort at which we stayed last time is now closed, and the resort at which we’re staying this time is arguably THE NICEST RESORT IN THE WORLD.

That resort, Four Seasons Lanai, was completely renovated in the last few years and reopened in February. (If you’re interested in learning more, this article provides some good context.)

Sure, it’s swanky. And yes, it’s renowned for its incorporation of technology. I’m sure the service is amazing. I know the restaurants are top-notch. The views are incredible. But the sweet tooth in me is excited about our stay for an entirely different reason: The hotel breakfast has a malasada machine. And I know my kids are going to flip out when they experience it.

You see we’re kind of mad for malasadas. I’ve written about malasadas for a bunch of different clients. What’s more, the sugar-covered dough balls have become a mainstay of our Hawaii trips—when we’re on Maui, we hit up T. Komoda General Store in Makawao; when we’re on Oahu, we go to Leonard’s.

Thursday morning—our first at Four Seasons Lanai—we’re going to stuff our faces with as many of them as we can handle. It will be a great way to kick off what is sure to be another epic Hawaii adventure.

Stay tuned for details.

Travel from the perspective of a 7-year-old

20160722_120703Because I write about travel for a living, I spend a lot of time thinking about how my girls see the new things they experience when we hit the road. Most of the time I’m making educated guesses—I’ll observe one particular moment in time, or latch on to something one of them said. Sometimes, however, they give me the opportunity to understand much, much more.

Today was one of those days. I had to write a story about riding the cable cars in San Francisco, and figured that was something L would like to do. So I took her with me, gave her my old (and disconnected) Smartphone, and told her that her job for the day was to be my photographer.

She took the assignment VERY seriously. I’m sure part of this stemmed from the fact that she is obsessed with Smartphones (I’m sure it’s because they’re controlled substances around here; as I’ve detailed previously, Powerwoman and I are strict about limiting screen time). But I bet her approach also was a result of being excited about the challenge—she always offers to help me with stories I’m writing and I always tell her to stay ready for the time I actually take her up.

In all, over the course of four hours she shot more than 200 photos. About one quarter of these were of the cable cars themselves (see below). The rest varied tremendously, and I am fascinated by how.

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For starters, L obviously was inspired by planter boxes—about 40 of the photos were of various boxes overflowing with bushes and flowers. She also liked photographing the detail of tree trunks—there were about 25 photos of those, too.

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In one case, she took a shot of a “tree sweater” someone had knitted for a maple (see above). In another case, she captured a box of cable-car ornaments at a local bodega (see below).

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Then, of course, were the macros she took in Union Square. The square is dotted with giant heart sculptures these days, and L took a bunch of pictures of the patterns on those (see below, and up top). She spotlighted other artwork, as well—there was an art show going on there today, and she took close-up shots of a number of the pieces from that.

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Finally—and frighteningly, maybe?—my oldest daughter clearly was interested in big-brand logos: She snapped pix of Starbucks signs, In-N-Out cups, and more. Why these things attracted her gaze I’ll never know; of all the stuff we saw in the Big City, these were the ones she spotted elsewhere at other times.

Really, it doesn’t matter WHY she shot the stuff she did. What matters to me is that she shot it at all, that she jumped at the chance to participate, and that she clearly enjoyed the experience. The episode convinced me to task her with similar responsibilities on subsequent family travels, too—if this process makes my kid more connected and invested in a place and the experience of going there, I’m all for it, even if there’s not an assignment on the books.

All about the ‘music’

20160719_111840It wouldn’t be summer in our family without weekly road trips somewhere fun. Most of the trips are relatively local: San Francisco, Monterey, Napa. Some are farther afield: Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, Los Angeles. And here are some commonalities about those trips:

  1. The most frequently consumed food is homemade GORP (without raisins).
  2. Everyone takes a bio break every two hours, no matter what.
  3. Kidz Bop is playing over Internet radio. Incessantly.

The first two realities are easy to stomach; my GORP is second to none and (despite the occasional protest) everyone benefits from empty bladders. No. 3 on the list, however…well, let’s just say that music MAKES ME WANT TO PULL OFF MY EARS AND STOMP ON THEM UNTIL THEY BECOME A BLOODY PILE OF MUSH.

For the uninitiated, Kidz Bop records sanitized versions of modern songs, sung by kids. In theory, it’s a wonderful introduction to grownup music from a kid’s POV. In practice, however, all of the songs sound like bad karaoke being sung underwater by a gaggle of weak and terminally ill cats. To call it “music” is generous. IMHO, it is, in fact, anti-music.

The problem of course, is that my kids love it. Obsessively. The first thing L asks when she climbs into the minivan: “Can we listen to Kidz Bop?” The first thing R says when she finds out we’re going to listen to Kidz Bop: “Can we keep listening to Kidz Bop the whole way there?”

(Thankfully, Baby G doesn’t have an opinion about Kidz Bop yet.)

I can’t explain their fascination at all. Powerwoman and I played Mozart for both big girls when they were in utero, and I spent a good part of their early childhood years introducing them to Springsteen, Lucinda, and other (artists I deem to be) classics. They are exposed to grown-up music in other forms, too: We do a lot of singing around the house, and it’s always the real versions of these songs, warts and all. Still, their love affair for the heinous Kidz Bop continues.

The worst part of this undying fascination: The damn music is catchy. The other night at the gym I was humming the Kidz Bop version of a popular rock song. Sometimes, usually when I’m drinking wine, I’ll catch myself playing, “What Does the Fox Say?” in my head.

I’m not sure how to end Kidz Bop’s reign of aural terror.  Some days I fantasize about instating a moratorium on Kidz Bop. Most days I just quietly hope L and R will get tired of it. At some point, something is bound to change, right? Until then, I guess I’ll just quietly give the kids what they want. If it helps them enjoy our summer road trips, I guess the music isn’t that bad after all.

Why I hate Pokemon Go

All Pokemon, all the time

All Pokemon, all the time

Unless you’re completely off the grid, you’ve probably heard about this new augmented reality game called Pokemon Go. The augmented-reality game challenges players to explore the real world to capture virtual creatures they can see only when they look through their Smartphones.

People of all ages are going crazy for the game. In a matter of days exceeded Twitter as the most frequently used app in the United States. Usage in our country spiked so high so quickly that the game’s servers crashed (for a short while).

And users have been singing paeans to Pokemon all week. They love it because it gets kids off the couches at home. They love it because it increases fitness. They love it because it’s something fun to do together. They say it’s good for travel.

But I’m still a skeptic. Because it means seeing the world through a Smartphone screen.

I wrote about the issue for AFAR magazine, and in the article came out pretty strongly in favor of technology in moderation on a family trip. My reasoning: If the goal of travel is to connect with the people and heart and soul of a new place, it’s hard to accomplish that when you’re staring into a cell phone screen.

Where do you stand on this issue? Please read my piece and let me know.

Photo above by Yoshikazu Takada/Flickr

FAA reauthorization to include provision for families

Together! At last!

Together! At last!

In what can be described as the first big legislative win for the Family Travel Association (FTA), the latest FAA reauthorization includes a provision that will make it easier for families to sit together on flights.

Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Rodney Davis (R-IL), members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, earlier this week put forth the provision to require airlines to ensure children ages 13 and younger are seated adjacent to an adult traveling with them or an older child traveling with them.

Formal groundwork for the provision actually started last year when the two Congressmen introduced similar legislation, H.R. 3334, the Families Flying Together Act of 2015.

The FTA—an organization for which I have sat on the board since the beginning—has been a huge advocate of the move and advised the legislators on this decision. What used to be a given—families seated together on a flight—is not so much the standard anymore. As airlines have added more and more ancillary fees, including fees for seat changes and seat upgrades, traveling companions sometimes get separated.

According to an article on TravelPulse, the reauthorization is expected to be approved by the House and Senate sometime before the July 15 deadline, which means FEDERAL REGULATORY PROTECTION TO KEEP FAMILIES TOGETHER ON FLIGHTS SHOULD HAPPEN BY FRIDAY. Yes! Power!

I think my favorite part of today’s news are the official quotes from the two senators involved.

“The Families Flying Together Act will put an end to the absurdity of toddlers sitting separate or unattended on an airplane — requiring airlines to plan ahead so that families with young children can fly together,” Nadler said in a statement issued through his office. “For several years, we have tried to force the airlines to enact family friendly seating policies, and to not shift the burden onto other passengers to vacate their seats so that children can sit with their parents. Thankfully, the new FAA bill includes this common sense measure allowing families with small children to travel together safely and reliably without disrupting other passengers.”

Davis echoed these sentiments.

“Traveling with young children can already be very stressful for parents and when you can’t sit together on a flight, it only makes this process more difficult,” Davis added. “All we’re asking is for airlines to do a better job of accommodating parents ahead of time so we can make flying a better experience for families and other passengers aboard. I think most airlines have the same goal. This provision is important to updating an industry that continues to see growth in family travel. While my first choice is a long-term bill that includes major reforms that I believe are necessary to improve safety and increase global competitiveness within our aviation system, I am glad this provision and other sensible reforms are included in this extension and I look forward to voting for it.”

If you see me drinking champagne with breakfast this morning, now you know why. Kudos to all of my colleagues at the FTA, and to traveling families everywhere.

Note: The picture that accompanies this post was from Air New Zealand via TravelPulse.

4 reasons to love New York City playgrounds

The view from West Thames

The view from West Thames

I spent five years living in New York City, and never had any idea how many kick-ass playgrounds were there until I visited last month with kids. We were there for six days in all, visited eight playgrounds, and researched about a dozen more. Here are four things I enjoyed and appreciated about the playgrounds we experienced, and about the new perspective on NYC they helped me achieve.

Water features

Most of the playgrounds we visited (and many of the playgrounds we didn’t visit) boast some sort of water features—free and public ways to cool off. Many of these features were glorified sprinklers that shot water from the ground and invited kids to run through the spray. At the West Thames Park Playground in Battery Park City, my girls and some family friends spent the better part of an entire afternoon running through the water feature. It never got old – even after they all soaked through their clothes.

Varied structures

Modern playgrounds can all look alike: Metal bars, plastic spheroid connectors, triangle trees, etc. While New York City certainly had its fair share of playgrounds with this design, there also were dozens of other set-ups. One of our favorites, the Diana Ross Playground in Central Park, was an old-school wooden playground with beams and bridges and more. I’ve read the playground was built with money Diana Ross donated to the park after a concert there in 1983. Yes, this means the park is old, but the setup still works—proving nicer and newer isn’t always better.

Enclosures

Here in California, playgrounds are open to all—usually the only fenced-in parts are the portions designated for super-little kids. In New York City, all of the playgrounds had fences lining the perimeter. One of the playgrounds that seemed to do this best was the Hippo Playground in Riverside Park, on Manhattan’s West Side. This design is a great way to limit coming and going. It’s also a wonderful safety feature; as a parent, you can rest assured that if you’ve got eyes on the only exit, your kid isn’t going anywhere without you knowing about it.

Shade

Just about all of the playgrounds we visited in New York City offered some degree of shade. In some cases, like at West Thames, shade came in the form of a manmade shade structure, built like a canopy over the play structures. At Washington Market Park in Tribeca (arguably THE BEST playground we hit during our visit because it had the most varied play structures), trees provided shade throughout. This playground also had clean bathrooms, an added bonus for when the big kids realized they’d forgotten to go back at the hotel.

Since we’ve come home, every time my kids have looked back on their experience in the Big Apple, the playgrounds are right up there with black-and-white cookies, pizza, and walking around at night as their favorite parts of the trip. That means the playgrounds enhanced the visit for all of us. Which is good news for everyone involved.

What’s your favorite playground city and why?

How family travel can save the world

Our pod minus one. London, 2013.

Our pod minus one. London, 2013.

“Your scarf is so pretty and sparkly. Are you a princess?”

With these words, spoken on a bus in London back in 2013, my oldest daughter made a Muslim friend. It didn’t matter that the woman was in her 20s. It didn’t matter that it was rush hour and the bus was packed. It didn’t even matter that nobody else on the bus was talking. For L, who was an intense and precocious 4 at the time, the purple hijab bedazzled with rhinestones and tiny little mirror beads was EVERYTHING in the world.

Over the course of our short ride, my daughter peppered the new friend to her left with questions about the garment. Was it soft? Was it warm? Where did you get it? Do you wear it to bed?

The woman, sweet and kind and patient beyond belief, answered every question quietly, with a smile.

I watched quietly from my seat to L’s right, trying my hardest not to intervene. Every now and again I stroked my daughter’s knee, just to let her know I was sitting next to her, just to let her know I loved her.

Then came the question I was afraid she’d ask: Why are you wearing it?

I don’t know why I was so scared she’d ask this—after all, it’s a perfectly logical question, especially when you’re 4 and you’ve gotten answers to some of the other queries on your mind. I guess maybe I was concerned that my kid wasn’t ready to talk religion, wasn’t ready to think about other Gods and Jesus and the differences between them. Maybe I was scared her question might offend the new friend.

But it didn’t. In fact, it had the opposite effect. The young woman lit up, explaining on a very high level about her beliefs, the rules of her faith, and her commitment to upholding those rules. L listened closely, nodding and staring at the garment and smiling. She processed the woman’s response. Then she spoke.

“I think it’s really neat that you get to wear something so pretty because of what you believe,” she said. “You might not be a princess, but you look like one to me.”

This moment has stuck with me as one of the most vibrant memories of the five months we spent in London that year, one of the most vivid experiences of my life as a parent. I’ve thought of writing about it frequently, but never have thought the time was right. Today, however, as I’ve struggled to make sense of the prejudice-driven shootings and killings that have wracked our society here in the United States, I have found myself thinking of that interaction, over and over and over again.

What stands out to me about the exchange is how uncomplicated it was. There were no preconceived notions, no stereotypes, and no bigotry. Just innocent curiosity on the part of my kid. And kindness, compassion, and patience on the part of her friend.

I can’t help but think about how much we all could benefit from this approach, about how much easier it would be to coexist peacefully with foreign people and foreign cultures if we saw these “others” with a similar sense of wonder. Don’t understand differences? Ask about them and listen to the response. Don’t agree with an outside perspective? Respect it nevertheless. These concepts weren’t difficult for a 4-year-old. They shouldn’t be difficult for the rest of us.

Family travel has taught me heaps about myself, about fatherhood, and about the bonuses of slowing down to experience the world at a child’s pace. That day in London, during our bus ride with the princess in the sparkly hijab, traveling with my oldest daughter reminded me of something much more important: Above all else, the secret to knowing the unknown is, quite simply, an open mind.

The most family friendly hotel amenity on Earth

The covers.

The covers.

We’ve just returned from our three-day/two-night family getaway at the Fairmont San Francisco, and as far as family trips go, it was one of the best in recent memory. I’ll get to specifics over the next few days. In the meantime, I felt compelled to write a post about one particular aspect of our stay: The outlet covers hotel housekeepers left in our room.

I know what you’re thinking: OUTLET COVERS? WTF? But for those of us who travel with babies that shimmy and crawl around and stick their fingers into everything, these little plastic discs are a necessity.

To be honest, Powerwoman and I have traveled with four or five of these things on every trip since L was a baby. We bring them with us because we’ve never found a hotel that has them available upon request. Until this weekend.

But what made the Fairmont’s outlet covers even more spectacular was the fact that they left them for us WITHOUT REQUEST. Like, they just anticipated we’d need ‘em. Because we were visiting with a baby. It was as if the housekeeping staff crawled into my little brain and asked me what they could do to make the stay more comfortable.

The covers weren’t the only presents/amenities we received from the hotel staff; upon check-in we found a cornucopia of little bonuses. Among them: a diaper genie, a package of wipes, a kit of baby soaps with a little otter washcloth, plush stuffed animals, and coloring books.

The bulk of these goodies made all of us feel extra-welcome; the outlet covers made us feel extra-safe. It all combined to make this a trip for the ages. Thanks, Fairmont!

Dividing and conquering a San Francisco staycation

Our suite (but not us)

Our suite (but not us)

Most of the time, we Villanos prefer to travel as a complete pod—all for one and one for all, wherever our wanderlust (or my assignment) takes us.

Sometimes, however, we also like to try out different permutations of our family for particular trips.

I did this earlier this month (click here and here) on a weekend in San Francisco with L and R. We’ll be doing it again this coming weekend—only this time L will be with her grandparents and my partners in crime will be Powerwoman, R, and Baby G.

Our plan is simple. We’ll crash at the fabulous Napoleon Suite at the Fairmont San Francisco, one of my favorite family-friendly hotels in town. We’ll ride the cable cars to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I have to report a story. We’ll meet up with my sister- and brother-in-law for dinner in North Beach. We’ll Uber over to the recently re-opened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where I have to report another (and completely unrelated) story. At some point we’ll grab drinks at the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, the iconic hotel-pool-turned-tiki-bar (where it “rains” periodically throughout each night). For the rest of the time, we’ll just hang.

R says she’ll be happy so long as she can have a milkshake every day. G is always happy. As for my wife and me, well, we notched our 12th wedding anniversary this week, so I guarantee we’ll make some time to celebrate that.

While I’m sure we’ll miss L (she’s often the person in our family around whom the action gravitates), it will be fun to experience the dynamic of our two younger daughters on the road; since G was born in November, the two of them haven’t been away together. As always, it also will be a treat to expose our kids to different parts of their “hometown” city.

The more they get to know San Francisco, the more they love it, and the more they love urban life in general. This is just another part of their education. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

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