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.

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.

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.

Testing limits on a family trip to Lake Tahoe

Big Girls. Waiting for a tether to the top.

Big Girls. Waiting for a tether to the top.

The last eight hours of our Lake Tahoe sojourn comprised an exercise in testing the limits of the big girls’ comfort zones.

There were tears. There were laughs. And everybody learned a bit along the way.

The scenes played out at Northstar California, a great ski resort outside of Truckee in the northern part of the Lake Tahoe region. We were here last in January 2015 (I wrote about parts of that trip in this Expedia Viewfinder piece), but L and R really didn’t do more than drink hot cocoa. This time, I was determined to get them to do something different. I was determined to get them out on the slopes.

I knew neither of them would go for skiing—L is way too much of a control freak to surrender to gravity, and R is scared of anything she considers to be “fast.” So I told them snow tubes were like giant pool floaties, and convinced them to go snow-tubing.

Before we could go tubing, however, we had to get ourselves up the mountain. So we hit the gondolas.

I could tell when we approached that both girls had serious misgivings about the ride. R kept asking if the gondolas ever fell off the cables. L kept wondering whether we sat or stood. Thankfully, because the gondolas move (slowly) as you embark, the girls had no time to overthink it when we boarded; they just got in and sat down. As the gondola started climbing up the mountain, both kids relaxed considerably. They smiled. They laughed. L marveled at the silence. R hooted at some skiers below.

When we arrived at mid-mountain, I led the girls hand-in-hand across the ski slopes to the snow-tubing center. We checked in at a yurt. We walked out to the tubes. We clipped in to a cable that towed us about 600 feet up the hill. Through this point, the kids were having the time of their lives, giggling and joking about the giant floaties in the snow.

As we walked over to the top of the J-shaped snow-tube course, their moods changed considerably. L asked how we’d get down. R wondered if the floaties tipped.

Just as I was starting to wonder how I was going to talk them through the experience, the man who was helping people into their tubes suggested that the three of us go down together. I thought this was a great idea. The girls were too petrified to respond.

So he used our tethers to tie us together. Then he pushed us down the hill.

What followed was, quite literally, a blur. I remember our flotilla spinning and banking high up a wall at the bottom of the run. I remember noticing both girls had their eyes closed. That’s about it.

When we came to a stop, both girls were bawling. As I helped them out of their tubes, L hit me a few times on the arm, yelling about how she’d never forgive me. R just kept asking: “Why did you make us do that? Why, Daddy? Why? WHY?”

Looking back, I guess maybe the snow tubes were a bit adventuresome for my kids. Still, IMHO, the only way they’re going to appreciate new experiences is if they try ‘em. Once the tantrums subsided, both girls were excited to take the gondola back down the hill. That’s a victory in my book. And hopefully the start of some limit pushing we can extend next winter.

Finding math in nature on the road

Math is cool.

Math is cool.

I never was good at numbers, but one of my fondest memories of math as a teenager was learning about the Fibonacci Sequence.

Ms. Sheehan, my teacher at the time, described this as a series of accumulating numbers in which the next number is found by adding the previous two together beginning with zero and one. The chain of numbers produced (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on) describe natural phenomenon from leaf growth to the curl of a shell. And once you are familiar with what that chain looks like (check out this video), it’s easy to spot Fibonacci just about everywhere in nature.

A recent article in Sierra magazine reminded me of this. The piece, written by an author named Mikey Jane Moran, makes a bold leap from Fibonacci to the importance of play-based learning, and the need to avoid screens. A snip:

“Tell your children to hunt for the curling Fibonacci shape outdoors and they will start to see the patterns everywhere, in the cowlick on their brother’s head and in spider webs—places where there aren’t really Fibonacci patterns. But the beauty is that they are noticing. Instead of staring at a video game screen on long road trips, they are looking at clouds. Walks may take longer as they stop to look at every little thing, but how can anyone complain?”

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know this notion of play over technology is a big one for me. Quite frankly, it’s nice just to see mainstream publications championing the same priorities for a change.

That said, Moran is right—finding Fibonacci in nature is DAMN cool, and something worth doing.

Whenever I head out with the girls, we try to look for Fibonacci and other phenomena like it. The hunt becomes a big part of our adventure; L and R look everywhere for examples, and the two girls compete to see who can find more (they are sisters, after all). As Moran suggests, the search (and subsequent success or failure) introduces a much-needed component of play into the learning-from-nature mix. The result is a wonderful way to experience new stuff.

Patience is a virtue on family trips

Before the eel, I saw this.

Before the eel, I saw this.

Squiggling and wriggling like a pudgy underwater ribbon, the pale-green moray eel moved along the coral reef quickly—almost too fast to spot.

As a relative novice snorkeler, I probably would have missed it, had I not glimpsed a small school of tropical fish dart out of the way of the creature, fleeing for their lives. I kicked my flippers and dove deeper into the warm water, inching closer to the beast with every stroke.

Finally, the eel came into full view. I could see its undulating tail, its dark-green splotches, and the ugly (horrifying, really) teeth protruding from its mouth.

In reality, the ocean was eerily quiet. In my head, I could hear the Hallelujah chorus to Handel’s Messiah.

Understandably so. Over the course of the last 11 years I’ve made 16 visits to Maui and hired local outfitters to take me snorkeling nine different times.  Before every trip, I convinced myself *this* would be the trip on which I’d see a Moray in the wild. Every time I came up empty. Finally, on a two-hour jaunt with Hawaiian Paddle Sports, my string of bad luck came to an end. And the sighting was well worth the wait.

This life-changing spectacle actually occurred last month, smack in the middle of a trip to Maui with the Expedia Viewfinder team (full disclosure: Expedia is a client). The trip was an off-site of sorts; I was surrounded by some of my favorite work friends. Noticeably absent: my kids, who have become mainstays of my Hawaii visits.

Still, the experience got me thinking about an important—and often underappreciated—philosophy we parents can espouse on family trips: To practice patience.

I mean, think about it. I had visited the islands 16 times. I had gone snorkeling nine times. And over that stretch, I had *never* seen a Moray. After a schneid like that, I had every reason in the world to give up hope or try a new activity (or, even more dramatic, start vacationing somewhere else). But I persevered. I hung in. Because I knew that sooner or later, I’d spot one.

This patience, this quiet confidence in letting the world come to you (as opposed to going out there and getting caught up in grabbing it), comprises a huge part of my outlook on travel. It also is one of the most important concepts I can pass along to L and R as they continue to explore the world.

The lessons are subtle. When we go whale-watching, for instance, I’m careful to remind the girls that the whales aren’t on a payroll and largely do their own things. When we go beachcombing, I explain how the waves always churn up different stuff, and that you really never can “count” on anything in particular hiding in the sand underfoot. Even when we’re hiking, I remind the kids to look beyond the trail map.

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m *not* saying we parents shouldn’t teach our kids to be proactive about experiencing the world. Instead, I’m emphasizing the importance of not overdramatizing the choice part of a choose-your-own adventure. I’m suggesting that the best (family) travelers put themselves in a position to get the most out of a new experience, but then sit back and let that very experience run its course.

Someday, I’m sure L and R will have their own personal Moray stories. They’ll have stuff they desperately want to see in particular destinations and will find themselves faced with the same choice that faced me: Persevere or go in a different direction?

When they reach these junctures, I only can hope they decide to practice patience. In the short term, it’s a great exercise in appreciating a process. And in the long term, the results can be magical.

Talking about adventure travel with kids

11008331_427287300759512_1056352386_nMost of the time, the virtual pages of this blog comprise my most prominent platform for discussing family travel. Sometimes, however, I get golden opportunities to present my perspective in other formats. Namely, talking. On a stage. In front of a room full of people.

That’s the way things will roll this weekend, when I participate in a panel discussion as part of The Great Baby Romp, held at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito on Sunday, March 1.

My panel, which kicks off at 11:45 a.m., will focus on adventure travel with kids. I’ll be asked to talk about our family’s experiences in faraway places such as London, Ireland, Hawaii and Vancouver Island. I likely will mention some of the very same anecdotes that first appeared here. Heck, I’ve even shared a few snapshots that many of you have seen once or twice over the years.

The other panelists certainly are esteemed. I’ll be speaking alongside Katie Hintz-Zambrano, the co-founder and editor of Mother Mag; as well as Jennifer Latch, another freelance writer. Our panel will be moderated by Erin Feher Montoya, who is the Bay Area Editor of Red Tricycle.

Perhaps the biggest treat for me on Sunday will be the audience. Organizers are expecting a crowd of mostly families. And at least one of those families in attendance will be my own, making this the first time my kids ever have heard me speak publicly (provided they pull themselves away from the exhibits long enough to see Dad on stage).

Our panel isn’t the only educational session of the day, either. Between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., The Great Baby Romp will sponsor a host of other talks, covering issues such as making baby food and toddler snacks, navigating household employee contracts and California taxes, and baby sign language.

The event will conclude with an all-ages dance party.

If you’re in the neighborhood, come check us out! If not, stay tuned for a recap post and some pictures from the event.

Travel adventure as a state of mind

R, beachcombing.

R, beachcombing.

Our family is always seeking new adventures. Near, far—we don’t care where we travel, we simply make habit out of striving for something out of the ordinary.

Nevertheless, we have developed some travel favorites over the years. We love vacationing in Hawaii, largely because nobody wears clothes. We love public transportation, because the girls always can find something at which to marvel. We love shopping at farmers’ markets, because the produce is so fresh.

We also love spending days at the beach—not so much because we like to surf or swim (both girls actually are afraid of the ocean), but because we LOVE to go beachcombing. We don’t have preferences about what we hunt—beach glass, sea shells, pretty rocks, and more. If we’re on the beach with a mission to find cool stuff, we’re a happy crew.

With this in mind, we usually try to incorporate a beach visit into each and every one of our coastal vacations.

And when we’re not traveling, we try to drive the 45 minutes from our house to the coast once a month.

I went earlier today with R. Our mission: To find beach glass for L (who is an avid collector). She has an extensive collection of green glass, but lacks diversity in her stash. Specifically, she asked us to look for glass that was red or blue.

The fact that we achieved our mission was irrelevant; R and I just loved the challenge. At one point, she was so enthralled with our search that she jumped up and down screaming, “BEACH GLASS!”

What’s more, this was the first visit on which my little girl worked up the courage to brave the loud and scary crashing surf and walk up and down the beach to hunt (previously she would just pick a spot to sit and only investigate the sand in her immediate vicinity).

Wherever and whenever we have them, our family beachcombing experiences are proof that you don’t have to travel very far outside your geographic area or comfort zone to take a meaningful journey together.

My advice? Find something you and your family enjoy together and seek it out wherever you are. This enables you to have life-changing experiences at any place and any time, to turn the sense of travel adventure into a state of mind. It also means you’re never too far from a great day out and about. Or new items for your beach collection.

What sorts of family travel adventures do you like best?

Free Fun in London, Without the Queue

Baby's-eye view of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

Baby’s-eye view of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

Sure, we Villanos can appreciate the typical tourist stuff. But one of our favorite strategies when visiting a big city is to find the biggest crowds and head in the opposite direction.

This was our plan earlier in the week after arriving for four months in London.

Instead of spending hours upon hours in queues for attractions such as the London Eye, Buckingham Palace and the like (stuff I’m sure we’ll see at some point during our stay; preferably once the summer ends), we laced up our trainers and wandered east from the Four Seasons London at Canary Wharf onto the Isle of Dogs—and beyond.

Our first stop: Mudchute Park and Farm, a 32-acre plot of countryside, smack in the middle of East London. The place also happens to be one of the biggest city farms in Europe. And it’s free.

We knew we were someplace special immediately; as we rounded the corner of a back entrance trail, L spotted a horse grazing at the far end. Later, after feeding ourselves at the modest café (which serves surprisingly delicious food made mostly with produce grown on-site), we fed bunnies and chickens.

Then came the bigger animals. Goats. Llamas. Donkeys. And sheep.

Coming from a rural part of Sonoma County, California, these critters were nothing new for our girls. But seeing them against the backdrop of glimmering skyscrapers—now that was novel. For all of us.

As if the Mudchute experience wasn’t mind-bending enough, we left the farm and headed straight Greenwich, on the south side of the Thames. No, we didn’t take one of the many water busses that service the waterway. Instead, we walked. Under the river. In a 111-year-old tunnel.

That tunnel, formally dubbed the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, was built in 1902 to allow workers living on the south side of the river to get to work on the Isle of Dogs. Today, save for the Tube, it’s one of the easiest ways to get to Greenwich—home of the Royal Observatory, London’s only planetarium and, yep, the Prime Meridian (if you’re a geography geek like I am, this last one is a REALLY BIG DEAL).

Oh, the tunnel also is totally free.

I’m not sure what our girls enjoyed more: Listening to their own echoes as we walked the 1,215 feet across, or playing (and drenching themselves) in the shallow fountain on the Greenwich side. Either way, the traverse was a big hit, and a fantastic way to end a day of alternative sightseeing in our new home.

What are some of the most off-beat attractions you’ve encountered with the kids on recent trips?

What Does ‘Family-Friendly’ Really Mean?

Daddy and daughters, enjoying the view.

Daddy and daughters, enjoying the view.

One could make the argument that the overall experience of family travel is dramatically different from the sum takeaways of, say, romantic or adventure getaways designed exclusively for grown-ups.

Still, just because you travel with kids doesn’t mean every vacation activity must revolve around them.

After four years of traveling extensively with at least one child (and two years traveling with two of them), Powerwoman and I have become firm believers that every family trip should include at least two or three activities and outings that we would do even if we didn’t have kids in tow. Sometimes, we might hit up a happening hotspot. Other times, we might check out a historic church or archaeological site (my wife is an archaeologist).

Saturday, here on Oahu, we dragged the kids on a 2-mile round-trip hike along the paved Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail.

The girls did fine for the first half-mile or so. Then the heat got to L. Upon her request, I carried her for about a quarter-mile. From there, we put her in the stroller and I carried R. This meant that one of us was carrying a child for the duration of the hike.

For some, the additional burden of schlepping 25-45 extra pounds might have detracted from the overall experience.

But for us, having the kids with us while we took in sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and the windward side of Oahu made the hike even more epic. We watched waves. We spotted little red-headed birds. We marveled at turquoise waters. At one point, we even spied Molokai and Maui in the distance (this was particularly exciting for L, who is fascinated by Hawaiian geography).

Sure, by the time we got back to the trailhead, the girls were ready for a big lunch and long naps. And, yes, they might have been a bit more tired than they would have been otherwise. But considering L was still raving about the views at dinner, I’d say the experience made quite an impression.

These impressions, this sense of wonder, is the main reason Powerwoman and I travel with our kids. We know they can get these experiences doing typical family stuff; we also know they can get them doing certain grown-up stuff. Working to achieve a balance between these two approaches makes vacations more memorable for all of us.

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