Pop-up introduction to NYC

Brooklyn Bridge pop-up

Brooklyn Bridge pop-up

We’re less than one week before our first family trip to New York City—the metropolis both Powerwoman and I call home.

My wife and I are excited for a week of pizza, bagels, bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches, and black-and-white cookies. The girls are excited to see buildings that actually scrape the sky, the Brooklyn Bridge, and “the biggest park ever.” And they’re getting excited about other stuff every day.

We’ve pulled out all the stops to educate them about NYC in advance. Among our materials: Old photos (including some with the Twin Towers), anecdotes from their grandparents (all four of whom also hail from the NY area), our own artistic renderings, and a mix of books—some geared toward grownups, others for kids.

One book has emerged from this mini-library as a fave: the new Pop-Up New York book from Lonely Planet Kids.

The book, which retails for $9.99, is short and sweet, with eight spreads and six pop-ups in all. R’s favorite: The Brooklyn Bridge, which opens up to reveal both sides of the icon (and a boat passing underneath). L’s favorite: The Empire State Building, which has a pull-up tower that basically means the image doubles in size.

(Personally, my favorite is the hot-dog stand with a pop-up umbrella. But it’s not about me.)

In fact, the girls have been so excited about these two pop-ups in particular that Powerwoman and I have decided to organize the trip so we can visit BOTH icons IRL when we’re there. For R, who is obsessed with bridges of every kind (if you remember, she loves the Golden Gate), this is a particularly big deal; she notes daily how much she can’t wait to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Thanks, Lonely Planet Kids, for sparking excitement in my kids about our next trip.

Pilgrimage to Golden Gate Park cardboard slides

I’ve never been a fan of the concept of a “bucket list.” My thinking: Death is an inevitability for all of us, so why should it drive any of the decisions we make in life?

Instead, I am the kind of guy who really tries hard to live in the moment. One moment I’ve been regretting in recent weeks: Never making the time to take my kids to the historic concrete/cardboard slides in the Koret Childrens Quarter of Golden Gate Park.

And so, this morning, because I was in the city with the big girls and we had some free time, we went.

For those of you who never have heard about these slides, know this: THEY ARE OLD-SCHOOL AND AWESOME. The slides themselves date back a while (not as long as the park, which dates to 1888, but a while). To ride them, you need sand (to speed things along; think shufflepuck) and a piece of cardboard on which to sit. The more sand on the track, the faster you go. The thinner your cardboard, the easier it is to control.

Cardboard slide, Golden Gate Park. My kids are in HEAVEN. #sistergram

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

I first tried the slides on one of my first adult trips to San Francisco, back in the 1990s. Even then, decades before my kids were born, I knew: Someday I had to bring my kids there.

R was having a rough morning but L did not disappoint. She first tried the slide without cardboard, but after sporting a strawberry on her buns, she changed her game and was hooked from there. Over the course of the 45 minutes that followed, the kid must have gone down 30 times. She LOVED it.

In fact, if we didn’t head to the carousel immediately after the sliding session, I’m not sure we ever would have been able to convince L to join us.

It was THAT cool.

Make time to visit the Koret this summer. And remember: The earlier you arrive with kids in tow, the more likely it is that you’ll have most (if not all) of the place to yourselves.

New family travel fave: Flathead Lake Lodge

Sunset at Flathead Lake Lodge

Sunset at Flathead Lake Lodge

No, I didn’t have my family with me on a recent trip around Glacier Country, Montana. But I didn’t need three kids in tow to appreciate the family travel awesomeness of Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge (FLL) in Bigfork.

I stayed at the lodge two nights as part of the week-long #PictureMontana summit through my client, Expedia. I walked away with a new addition to my travel-dream list.

Much of what makes FLL kick-ass appeals and applies to guests of all ages. Horses you can ride every day. Boats you can take out on Flathead Lake. Communal meals in an authentic western lodge. S’mores by the campfire every night of the week. The fact that the place is all-inclusive means you don’t have to fumble around for cash or credit cards, and don’t have to worry about the a la carte pricing on activities. The fact that it’s been there for more than 70 years means it’s oozing with history.

(True story: Chase Averill, who’s my age, runs the place now. His dad, Doug Averill, ran it for years and still plays a pretty important and visible role today. His grandpa, Les Averill, started the place in 1945.)

But the lodge also is PERFECT for families. My accommodations—Cabin 2—had two bedrooms, one with a queen-sized bed and another with two twins (which would have been perfect for L and R). During the summer season, kids have dinner together 30 minutes before the grownups, then head out on horseback rides to give the grownups some time to themselves. There’s cornhole and beach volleyball and board games galore.

Heck, on the night of the weekly steak fry, everyone gathers ‘round to hear a cowboy sing folk music.

(Also, the beach at the lodge was made for skipping stones. See the slo-mo video of me doing that here.)

The reality is that absolutely everything is included in the one-week stay—lodging, food, activities, and more. The only thing that’s not technically part of the package is alcohol; instead, FLL encourages you to bring your own and help yourself to it whenever you desire.

I’m not going to lie—at $3,808 per adult, $2,842 per kid ages 6-17, $1,546 per kid ages 3-5, and $182 per infanct, the place ain’t cheap. It would cost our family of five $12,236 plus airfare. But when you consider what seven days of this experience would cost if everything was priced individually, the rate is reasonable. What’s more, when you consider that FLL serves up a dude-ranch experience unlike any other in the West, it seems even more worthwhile. The only question left for us: When do we return?

Family destinations in Missoula

Hissing cockroaches. Yuck.

Hissing cockroaches. Yuck. (But cool!)

Even when I travel without the kids, I’m always on the hunt for awesome family travel destinations. That explains why I just spent two hours of my (solo) afternoon here in Missoula, Montana, poking around two of the city’s most family-friendly spots: the Missoula Insectarium and the University of Montana’s spectrUM Discovery Area Downtown.

I’m here in Missoula for the next five days on behalf of a client, Expedia. Every year those of us who contribute to the Expedia Viewfinder blog get together in a faraway place for a week of strategizing and bonding. Last year’s summit was in Maui; this year’s is in one of my favorite places on the planet: Western Montana (a.k.a., Glacier Country). I arrived earlier this afternoon and had a few hours before our first official #PictureMontana meeting. So I hit the streets to explore.

I didn’t have to go too far from our hotel to find kid-oriented stuff; the Insectarium and spectrUM share a building that was literally two blocks away.

The Insectarium was first on my list. After paying the $4 admission fee and grabbing a magnifying glass at the front desk, I perused the exhibits, marveling at some of the arthropods (not just insects!) on display in 18 terrariums that ring the room.

I’ve detailed how much L and R despise bugs, but I had to think they would have found parts of this place really neat. Like the habitat full of butterflies. And the millipedes. They probably also would have enjoyed the touch table where visitors can interact with walking stick bugs (and a variety of other critters).

(Without question, they would NOT have liked the habitat with a dozen Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. Or the one with the scorpion.)

The kids also would have adored participating in the Insectarium’s scavenger hunt, which anyone can do.

My favorite part of the Insectarium? The Goliath Bird-Eater Spider, which is a species of tarantula. When I was there, this spider was hidden at the bottom of a flower pot in its habitat. Even though it was motionless, even though it was all scrunched up, I could tell the thing was HUGE. My mind was blown.

(I also enjoyed learning that Roly Poly bugs are actually not bugs at all; they’re crustaceans—cousins of crabs and lobsters.)

After hanging with the bugs, I ventured downstairs to the spectrUM facility—one of the cleanest, nicest, and most approachable museums I’ve ever seen. Technically the museum is a science museum, not a kids’ museum. Whatever you call it, the place is perfect for kids ages 12 and under, and you can plan on spending at least an hour there.

The modest museum is broken into two main parts—the main museum and a hands-on area, which is dubbed BrainLab. Today in the BrainLab, visitors were learning about brain maladies during Shakespeare’s time, part of a week-long celebration surrounding Shakespeare’s First Folio, which is on display in Missoula until the end of the month. I watched long enough to see kids playing with plastic brains.

In the main museum, an exhibit on large river ecosystems gave kids the chance to soar (via virtual reality) above the Clark Fork River, create their own virtual floodplain, and more. Another exhibit, the SciGirls DigiZone, offered the opportunity to play with different kinds of technologies. A third exhibit, the Discovery Bench, encouraged hands-on play with science.

What struck me about spectrUM was how engaged and satisfied all the kids seemed. It’s truly remarkable how much more palatable learning is when you’re having fun. Clearly, here in Missoula, they know this better than most.

What are your favorite museums for families and why?

Indian Springs: family-friendly resort in Wine Country

Bunk beds, Cottage 8.

Bunk beds, Cottage 8.

People assume that because California’s Wine Country is all about wine, it’s not a destination for families. I live here, and let me tell you – this could not be farther from the truth.

My wife and I were reminded of this again this past weekend when we spent a night at Indian Springs Resort & Spa, a Bohemian paradise at the north end of the Napa Valley. The resort dates back to the late 1800s and currently is at the tail end of a multimillion-dollar expansion and renovation that basically tripled the size of the place. Another benefit of all the construction: The place now is more family-friendly than ever before.

Our accommodations—Cottage No. 8, for those of you scoring at home—reflected this perfectly. When the cottage was built, in the 1930s, it was a one-bedroom/one-bathroom with a kitchen. Today, the cottage still has the main bedroom (with a queen-sized bed), the bathroom, and a sitting room. But as part of the upgrade, the kitchen was converted into a second bedroom with bunk beds.

The bunks, from Restoration Hardware, were a great design: queen on bottom, twin on top. As part of the rehab, the resort also covered one of the windows with a chalkboard on which kids could draw. (ICYW, the resort provided a little basket of chalk.)

Elsewhere in the cottage, in the main sitting room, we found a mini-fridge, and plates and silverware.

The cottage would have been great for our family of five. Though Powerwoman and I appreciated escaping with Baby G, we lamented that we hadn’t brought our big girls to experience it, as well.

We thought of L and R at other moments during our stay. Near the main pool, which is fed by a natural spring and has waters that are always somewhere between 92 and 102 degrees, the resort has set up two kid-sized picnic tables with cups of colored pencils. Near the main spa building, there’s a Gratitude Tree on which guests of all ages can write down what they’re grateful for and hang the tags on the tree.

The resort also has shuffleboard, ping pong, and bocce. And a restaurant with a killer kids’ menu (and churros flavored by candy-cap mushrooms). For the grown-ups, there’s an amazing spa, and an adults-only pool.

In short, if I were visiting Wine Country with young children, Indian Springs would be one of the first resorts I called upon to inquire about availability. Not only do I recommend the place, but I can’t wait to get back (with big girls in tow). Maybe we’ll see you there.

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.

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?

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.

The best vacation rental on Earth

I want to stay here. (Forever.)

I want to stay here. (Forever.)

We Villanos have stayed at some pretty amazing vacation rentals over the years we’ve been traveling as a family. Never, however, have we stayed at a place like The Sweet Escape.

The house, available for rent on HomeAway.com, has 10 bedrooms, a five-acre backyard, and a pool in the shape of an ice cream cone. It has a candy-themed miniature golf course, playgrounds, tetherball court, full movie theater, and 1,400-square-foot karaoke club.

It’s also located just outside Orlando, a short drive from the Walt Disney World Resort.

A good buddy of mine—Spencer Spellman—recently spotlighted the house in a blog post for HomeAway.com. His piece does a great job of capturing the youthful exuberance of the home. It also includes a picture of arguably the coolest bedroom on the planet—a room with two bunk beds and ball-pit balls covering the floor.

The theme of that bedroom is lollipops. Other bedrooms have other themes, including a PEPSI bedroom with its own pinball machine, and a carnival games bedroom with its own carnival game booth.

The house is owned and operated by a man named Andrew Greenstein, who owns other notable homes such as the Ever After Estate, which was featured on HGTV’s “Most Outrageous Homes in America”; and the Great Escape Lakeside, another themed property that recently made Guinness World Records for having the world’s largest word search. As Greenstein told Spence: “I always dreamed of playing non-stop, so I wanted to create homes that reflect what I dreamed to be the ultimate place to live, laugh, and love.”

As for The Sweet Escape, the place sleeps up to 52, so it’s perfect for a REALLY BIG family. What are you waiting for?

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