Butterfly-watching in Sonoma County

Whoever said daytrips can’t be magical clearly hasn’t spent time in Sonoma County.

How else to describe the morning the Big Girl and I had today? How else to describe the wonder we felt while watching fledgling monarch butterflies emerge from their tiny little chrysalises?

The experience was wonderful in its simplicity. Earlier this week, a friend at Safari West, a local animal park, tipped me to a new exhibit that features caterpillars as they undergo metamorphosis into monarchs. This morning, after breakfast, L and I went to check it out. The exhibit itself was much more modest than I expected–in all there only were about a half-dozen caterpillars, and about two dozen chrysalises.  Lucky for us, when we arrived some of the critters were in the midst of emerging from their transformations. We actually got to watch one of the butterflies climb out of its chrysalis completely.

I never had seen anything like it. When the creature first broke the thin exterior of the chrysalis, its wings were crumpled, almost velvety. Gradually, however, the insect managed to straighten out its wings, and the butterfly took flight. The whole process took the better part of an hour. L was transfixed. I was, too. I only wish we’d done some time-lapse video. Instead, this pic will have to suffice.

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

The bottom line: family travel + science = FUN. Put differently, the monarch migration is on now, so if you live near Safari West or ianother spot (in the wild!) where you can get out to see these beautiful butterflies, do it before it’s too late.

Happy 100th, National Parks

Moi, in Alaska, a few days before the whale.

Moi, in Alaska, a few days before the whale.

It started as a rustle. Then, sniffing, lots of sniffing. By the time I heard the snorting on the other side of my canvas tent, I was pretty certain my early-morning visitor was a bear.

The problem, of course, was that I was in the middle of nowhere, kayak-camping on Strawberry Island, one of the Beardslee Islands at the mouth of Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. Despite all of the warnings about not camping alone, I was out there all by my lonesome. Just me and the bear.

So at 3:14 a.m., I started reading Allen Ginsberg poems. Really loudly.

Eventually (maybe it was “Please Master”), the animal retreated back into the woods. When he left, I broke camp faster than I’ve ever broken a camp in my life, stuffed it all back into the kayak, and paddled like an Olympic rower out of the cove. About 100 yards from shore, I spotted my black ursine friend, clearly curious about the disappearing poetry. I stopped paddling just long enough to mutter the words, “Holy shit.”

Five minutes later, I was greeted by yet another animal; this time, a 50-foot humpback, which surfaced just off the port stern.

The whale signaled its arrival with a blow—I was so close that within seconds I was enveloped by the moist stench of rotting fish. Then it dipped beneath the water line out of sight.

I knew it wouldn’t go far—I had studied humpbacks for most of my 20s and knew that a lone humpback hanging out during summer in Alaska was either feeding or sleeping or maybe a bit of both. So I took my paddle out of the water and waited.

Two minutes later I saw the leviathan again. This time it announced itself with a flash of white down below—undoubtedly a flipper or maybe the underside of some tail flukes. Then, closer to the surface, just beneath the boat, I spotted the animal’s eye. Looking right at me. So close I could practically reach out and poke it.

The whale hovered below the kayak for a few moments, staring at me. The animal dwarfed me and all of my poorly packed possessions. It surfaced with a blow, then dived and hovered again.

Surface, dive, hover; again. And again.

After about five cycles, it hit me that this animal wasn’t going anywhere. I’m sure the whale was just curious, probably thinking, What the fuck is this guy doing in his kayak at 4 a.m.? Of course in my sleep-deprived mind, I convinced myself the whale somehow knew that bear had scared the shit out of me and driven me from my tent. I kind of thought the whale was hanging around to protect me.

We floated together for what seemed like an eternity. Surface, dive, hover. Surface, dive, hover. I didn’t even realize I was crying until I tasted my own tears.

I’m not a religious guy (that’s another subject for a less public venue). But in that moment, on that night in Glacier Bay, I had the most spiritual experience of my life. When the whale finally got bored with me and my kayak, it pumped its flippers and waved goodbye with a raise of the tail flukes before diving to the depths. The image of those flukes, the quiet with which they slipped beneath the water as the giant animal disappeared forever—those details will be among the last things I remember on this Earth. They’ll be right there with the births of my girls, my wedding day, singing with my high school choir at a wood stave church in Norway.

And the whale encounter never would have happened without the national parks.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park System, our country’s greatest invention. I can’t help but remember that fateful night without thinking of the parks. The open space! The untrammeled landscape! The fact that I was the intruder! That I was able to have this experience is reason enough to celebrate the parks. And when you consider how many lives the parks have touched in similar fashion over the years, you recognize what a big deal this centennial really is.

As of this summer, the only national parks my girls have visited are here in California—Yosemite and the Presidio. Someday, I’ll take my them to Glacier Bay and introduce them to the wonder and beauty of it there, too. I know I can count on the Beardslees being just as great down the road as they were back in 2003.

And so, to the National Park Service (and the federal government, really), I say this: THANK YOU. And Happy Birthday, indeed.

More cats, more cat videos

Another day, another video of our time at the Lana’i Cat Sanctuary. The latest video, an edited version of the original that appeared on AFAR.com, ran on AFAR’s Facebook page. The 50-second clip has no speaking, but with images and captions it gives a great sense of what the place is like.

To refresh your memory, we visited the Lana’i Cat Sanctuary last month during a four-day stay at Four Seasons Lana’i. The experience changed our lives. Especially for L and R.

Below you’ll find a screen shot. To see the whole video, click here.

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For the love of Monopoly

20160801_165215One of our favorite things about vacation rentals on family trips: The surprises we find in the cabinets and drawers.

No matter where we go, no matter what sort of rental we get (house, apartment, etc.), L and R always manage to discover some sort of treasure with which they become obsessed. The treasure usually then becomes part of our lives.

Our recent vacation on Maui was no exception. The item of choice: Monopoly.

To be fair, L had played a version of this game before—Monopoly Junior, which is a version of the original game that has been simplified for kids under the age of 8. This time, however, she and her sister, R, were digging a rare and unusual grown-up version: a Peanuts-themed take on the original game.

(The Peanuts theme was a weird coincidence; Charles Schulz spent the latter part of his life near our home in Santa Rosa, California, and we’re members of a museum there in his memory.)

The sisters found the game in a chest of drawers. Once they checked out all the pieces, once they had me teach them how to play, they became full-on junkies, insisting that we play for at least a few hours every day of the trip.

Most of our games took place before 9 a.m.; I had the morning shift and this was how we spent it.

Invariably, R would start out strong, buy a bunch of properties, then lose interest when she ran out of cash. L, on the other hand, was a veritable shark, waiting in the weeds for tactical purchases, accumulating monopolies, then building houses and hotels to wipe the rest of us clean. She also went after the game’s equivalent of utilities, which always cost of the rest of us dearly.

Of course we tweaked the rules a bit. R was *very* upset at the idea of going to jail and refused to play unless I guaranteed she and her sister didn’t have to go. As a result, only the grown-ups could end up in jail; the worst fate for those of us under the age of 8 was “Just Visiting.”

Another change had to do with paying rent. If either of the girls didn’t have enough money to pay me rent, I would accept payment in smooches, with an exchange rate of one kiss for every $10.

(One game, I had three monopolies with hotels on every property. I got a lot of kisses.)

In the end, though I think I would have rather spent that time with the girls outside, it was wonderful to see them taking interest in a board game, and even more uplifting to see them wanting to experience it TOGETHER. They’ve been clamoring to spend a Saturday playing here at home. The requests are proof positive of how this past family vacation changed their lives—that makes me very happy, indeed.

What do you love most about vacation rentals when you travel with family?

Now is the time for a family trip to South America

20 years ago in Brazil, I wrote this

20 years ago in Brazil, I wrote this

Like the vast majority of American citizens, Powerwoman and I have been watching snippets of the Olympics with the big girls these last few weeks, and the kids are loving it. While they’re interested in the gymnasts and swimmers (and their outfits, of course), they’ve expressed the greatest amount of curiosity about the backdrop, Brazil.

I’m sure part of this is because they know I lived there back in 1995 while volunteering for the International Wildlife Coalition. I’m sure it also is at least in part because they know my wife is an Andean archaeologist, and that the two of us lived in Lima, Peru, for a while back in 2005.

Still, I think the kids are genuinely eager to learn more about Rio. And the Amazon. And South America.

Their interest has triggered my wander bug and I’ve been exploring ways to get the family down south for a post-Olympics vacation.

Surprisingly, there are some pretty cool deals to be had—not just in Rio, but all over the continent. I’ve mentioned that Expedia is a big client of mine and my friends there recently shared some interesting data about trips to the region from the United States. For starters—and not surprisingly, really—ticket demand to Rio has increased by nearly 40 percent and ticket prices are nearly 60 percent higher than they usually are around this time of year.

Perhaps more interesting (to me, at least), were some of the data about ALTERNATE destinations from the United States—that is, places that aren’t Rio or Brazil. Savings on tickets to Bogota, Colombia are hovering around 10 percent. Savings on tickets to our beloved Lima are about 15 percent. And if we wanted to go to Caracas, we could save up to 30 percent.

It’s certainly food for thought. (And when we’re ready to book, we’ll book here.)

Where would we go? That depends on the conditions of your question, and whether I’m responding as travel-loving fan of South America, or the father of three kids under the age of 8.

If money were no issue, I’d sign everybody up for a trip to Manaus, the Brazilian city in the middle of the Amazon. There’s an opera house there that dates back nearly 150 years. I studied the place in college and have wanted to go there ever since. While it’s not exactly a family travel destination, it tops my list.

The sentimental choice would be Chavin de Huantar, the Peruvian town where Powerwoman conducted some archaeology field work in the early part of her career. The big potential problem here is that the site is at altitude, and we have NO idea how the kids would fare up there. (Side note: We *do* know from our experiences in Cusco that I do NOT do well above about 8,000 feet.)

The practical option: Lima, largely because we know it well and it’s easy to get around with kids. See you there?

Just say no to goody bags for fellow passengers

Offending goody bag, circa 2014

Offending goody bag, circa 2014

The family travel world was buzzing this week with outrage over the suggestion that parents who fly with kids should bribe other passengers with goody bags for their patience.

This ridiculous assertion—which first surfaced back in 2014, mind you—was aired anew in an absurd New York Times story by (former editor) Damon Darlin, and was Tweeted and retweeted a zillion times by other family travel haters around the world. Then came the rebuttals, most convincingly from Heather Havrilesky in New York magazine.

At first I tried to downplay the whole thing, addressing it with a throwaway line in my previous post.

Now, however, as more and more of my friends and colleagues have asked for my opinion on the subject, I feel it warrants a degree of standalone treatment here. So let me make sure I don’t mince words.

THE NOTION OF FAMILY TRAVELERS GIVING GOODY BAGS AS OFFERINGS TO OTHER PASSENGERS IS COMPLETE LUNACY AND ABSOLUTE BULLSHIT.

In case my true feelings didn’t come through there, let me repeat: FUCK NO. NEVER.

To further explain my take on this issue, I’d like to pull some text from a column I wrote for Parenting magazine (about a similarly ridiculous issue) back in 2012:

“My pet peeve is this whole notion that we parents somehow bend the rules just by bringing babies into the airplane environment.

Here’s my take, plain and simple: If an airline is going to sell me a ticket and I obtain that ticket in the same fashion as other passengers obtain theirs, I am just entitled to bring aboard my baby as others are entitled to ‘carry-on’ potentially annoying stuff that Federal Aviation Administration regulations allow them.

Like a propensity for loud-talking. Or snoring. Or a knack for passing silent-but-deadly gas.”

You don’t see people who travel with these conditions giving out peace offerings to other passengers. Like halitosis-sufferers distributing nose plugs to help seat-mates avoid the rotten-onion breath. Or snorers doling out ear plugs so people don’t have to listen to them cutting wood for four hours over the red states in the middle of the country.

So why would anyone ever think goody bags to make up for potentially loud babies is OK?

Let’s be honest. Flying has become an exercise in patience. For everyone. Each flight has a lot of people, crammed into tiny metal tubes for long periods of time. Under these conditions, everything is magnified. But the sooner fellow passengers recognize that this reality applies to all of us, the better off we’ll be.

Put differently, if my wife and I fly with our baby and we don’t put forth maximum effort to soothe her when she cries, that’s our fault, not the baby’s, and fellow passengers are more than entitled to hate us accordingly. But if we’re trying like heck to get the baby to calm down and the baby simply won’t stop crying, that’s life. You don’t need to work for The New York Times to understand that sometimes babies are going to act like babies. Fellow passengers never will hear an apology—or get pre-emptive Tootsie Rolls—from this father for that.

Real talk about air travel with kids

My seatmate was cute, but also a handful

My seatmate was cute, but also a handful

Let’s face it: Even for those of us who consider ourselves “experts,” flying with kids is no easy task. I’m not saying you should go and give other passengers goody bags as a way to pre-emptively apologize for your kids being kids (like this NY Times author did this week). I’m just saying that sometimes, as parents, we just need to admit that the majority of the “getting there” part of family travel simply sucks.

I was reminded of this fact on three different occasions yesterday as we returned from Hawaii.

No. 1: Navigating the TSA checkpoint.

When we arrived at the airport to catch our flights, it was hot. REALLY hot. Like, so hot that those prone to sweating (ahem, moi) were sweating like Patrick Ewing hooping it up at Madison Square Garden in the heyday of the Knicks. And that was just when I was standing still.

On the TSA line, the sweat situation got worse. The kids left me with their bags. I was nominated to breakdown the stroller. Then I had to worry about my own stuff.

By the time I got through the scanner, someone asked me if I had just come in from a run.

No. 2: Reacting to the inevitable spills.

Little R, our middle child, is notorious for spilling at least one beverage at every meal. Not surprisingly, her habits don’t change on an airplane. This means that at some point on every flight, the child will spill something. It’s up to Powerwoman and me to minimize the impact of that spill on R and everyone else.

Normally we just bring a change of clothes and administer that change once R has soaked herself. But on this particular flight, when R’s spill soaked her own pants AND the backups—we had to get creative.

The solution this time: Wrapping our wet child in dry sweatshirts.

Yes, this means she was half-naked on a plane. Yes, it meant that the sweatshirt got pretty wet as well. But by the time we landed her primary pants were mostly dry. (My carry-on was another story.)

No. 3: Managing potty breaks on the plane.

Baby G got top priority at 35,000 feet, hanging with me in the only lavatory with a changing table while I handled her business. But when the two of us returned to the seats, BOTH other girls had to go, kicking off an out-and-back parade of Villanos from rows 19 and 20 to the aft lavs.

Don’t get me wrong; everybody went. But getting them back and forth was an effort, and getting them into the lavatory and reminding them to a) Not let their shorts touch the scuzzy floor, b) Not to fiddle with the flush button, and c) Not to freak out about the suction-sink definitely tested some patience.

It also necessitated a Dewar’s from the in-flight booze cart, FWIW.

The bottom line: Though some say the wonder of a trip is “in the journey,” when the journey involves air travel, it’s OK to be realistic about how unpleasant the experience can be.

Remember that the next time you’re traveling with your kids, or when you see a passenger who is.

Robot toilet overload

Toilet blindfold

Toilet blindfold

Most people who stay at the Four Seasons Lana’i remember the luxurious rooms, the incredible dining options (Nobu! Dean & DeLuca in the minibar! Those amazing malasadas!), the intimate pool, and the picture-perfect sand beach on Hulopo’e Bay.

My kids will remember all of those things. But also, the in-room toilets.

These aren’t just any toilets, mind you. They are what our Big Girl calls, “Robot Toilets.” Toilets with built-in seat warmers. Toilets that open and close and flush automatically. Toilets that sport bidets for those trips to the bathroom you just can’t seem to tidy on your own.

The toilets represent the top-of-the-line product from a company called Toto, a company that makes all different sorts of toilets. The ultra-exclusive fixtures undoubtedly are intended to add to the feeling of luxury—especially since the technology creates this situation that actually obviates the need ever to touch the toilet or toilet seat when you go. (As an aside, they are priced at more than $3,000 apiece.)

But for my Big Girl—a brilliant and creative 7-year-old who suffers from anxiety about foreign toilets in general—they basically were the Devil in porcelain clothes.

At first, before she had to use the toilet in our room, she was fascinated by them, pushing the buttons to watch the lids go up and down. Curiosity quickly turned to fear when she sat down and the toilet unexpectedly started a circulate cycle to make sure none of her “presents” stained the bowl. We quickly figured out to use a (complimentary and posh) kid-sized slipper to “blindfold” the toilet’s electronic eye (which triggers the circulate cycle when you sit down).

For a few days, this plan worked wonders. Her curiosity returned.

Then, drama struck. We refer to it as The Bidet Incident. Completely out of nowhere, while the Big Girl was doing her business on the bowl, the toilet’s bidet feature went rogue and sprayed her bottom with gusto. To say this caught her by surprise would be an understatement. There were many tears. And blood-curdling screams. Then she announced she was “never peeing on Lana’i again.”

Powerwoman and I dried off our daughter’s bottom and did our best to stifle laughter. We spent the rest of the afternoon creating stories about robot toilets gone haywire. Mine evoked the Terminator movies, only with robots that sprayed unsuspecting butts instead of killing people. (The stories worked. She peed again.)

Thankfully, by our last morning on Lana’i, the Big Girl was able to smile about the toilet. She and her 4-year-old sister made up a farewell song. They included the toilets in their recap of their favorite things about the Four Seasons Lana’i. The two of them even figured out how to hold the blindfold slipper without any help from my wife or me.

As we headed for the door, depressed at the thought of leaving this paradise, L ran back to “do something important” and kiss the toilet goodbye.

“I just did it on the top,” she said. “I didn’t want the bidet to shoot me in the mouth.”

Cat heaven in Hawaii

Lana'i Cat Sanctuary, as shot by L

Lana’i Cat Sanctuary, as shot by L

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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UPDATE: One of my clients, AFAR, has published a story (by moi, of course) about our time at the Sanctuary. You can read the piece here. For even more Lana’i kitty goodness, check out the video I produced for AFAR…

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.

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