The ice-skating debut

Northstar-Village-Ice-Skating

Skating at Northstar (not my kids)

They were so excited to go ice-skating, I wasn’t about to stand in the way. And so, on our first full day of our annual trip to Tahoe this weekend, I waltzed L and R into the skate rental shop at the Village at Northstar and got us our skates.

“What’s it like, Daddy?” L asked.

“Are we gonna fall?” R followed-up, not even giving me a chance to respond to her sister’s query.

“It’s…fun,” I said, trying to be as convincing as possible. “We’ll take it slowly and I’m sure you girls are gonna love it.”

Before you start thinking about what a great dad I am, know this: I abhor ice skating, much like I despise a great many other winter sports. I don’t like the way the shoes feel on my feet, I can’t ever skate for more than three or four sweeps of my feet before I fall on my ass, and I’m SUPER neurotic about any sport during which I can fall and break my wrist and impact my life as a writer. There are an infinite number of things I’d rather do than ice-skate.

Yet there I was, wobbling my way over to the rink, desperately trying not to fall while I held the girls’ hands and tried to keep them from falling as well.

When we got to the entrance, a bunch of drunk dudes clapped to commemorate my successful walk from the bench where we laced up. The girls turned around and smiled. I was mortified but my kids had no clue. They were loving every minute of it.

Our “session” began with both girls trying to skate out into the middle of the rink—and both girls falling squarely on their butts in a matter of seconds. Neither got frustrated, but both looked to me for guidance. So I did what any other self-respecting parent would do in that situation: I encouraged them to “get comfortable” by holding on to the railing while they “skated” around the perimeter of the rink.

Around the rink we went, one-half skating, one-half walking. Every few panels of glass, one of the girls would slip and fall on the ice with a thud. Every time, the fallen child resumed the position of the afternoon and continued unabashedly.

When we finished our first lap, I asked the kids if they’d had enough. “NO!” they both shouted.

When we finished our second lap, I asked them again if they’d had enough. “No way Daddy!” they shouted.

When we finished our third lap, before I could even ask the girls how they were feeling, they both turned around and told me we were going to continue.

Mercifully, however, it was Zamboni time. Workers rushed onto the ice and guided everybody off. The girls and I followed suit. When we made it safely outside of the rink, Powerwoman convinced the kids to put their boots back on. Miraculously, we had survived, and nobody had chipped a tooth.

To say I was relieved by the sudden change in plans would be an understatement. But the girls were genuinely bummed. Even though they never really got the hang of ice-skating, the kids loved it. Even though I wasn’t much of an instructor in the rink, they were thankful and appreciative of the time I spent with them inside.

The whole experience was a lesson in opening the mind. The kids didn’t care that they didn’t “succeed” at this new sport. They had fun trying. They felt awesome doing it. And that was enough.

Moving forward, perhaps it can be enough for me, too.

Villanos take Legoland, part 2

Hotel lobby. Seriously.

Hotel lobby. Seriously.

One of the coolest things about my job as a family travel writer is that I get to take my kids along on some pretty kick-ass assignments.

Case in point: Our trip this coming weekend, to LEGOLAND California.

You might recall that this isn’t the first time I’ve taken one of my daughters to Legoland; back in December 2014, Little R and I went for a similar weekend excursion/assignment. This time, I’m taking R and L—just the big kids and me—while Powerwoman and Baby G go to visit one of my wife’s buddies in Denver.

R is most excited for the airplane trip; she loves airplanes and cannot wait to fly again. L is excited to see what she missed last time.

We’ll really only be in the park for one day. During that time, we’ll check out some of the new attractions, film some social media projects for a client, report a feature for another client, and try to have some fun (which probably won’t be hard).

Over the rest of the weekend, we’ll also get to see my aunt and some cousins, and visit a bird sanctuary.

Perhaps the highpoint of the trip, however, will be our accommodations: We’re staying in the Legoland Hotel. This is noteworthy for a few reasons:

  1. There are LEGOs everywhere, including a LEGO pit near the front desk and LEGO kits in every room.
  2. Rooms come standard with bunk beds for kids, something my daughters are going to LOVE.
  3. A breakfast buffet is included, and my kids go crazy over those.
  4. The hotel is connected to the park itself, which means convenient returns for bathroom breaks and down time.

Stay tuned here for a blog post following our excursion; I’m not bringing a computer with us on the trip but likely will write about it as soon as we’re home. You also can follow me on Instagram and Twitter for updates there.

All about the beach glass

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Our haul

Every kid likes treasure hunts. There’s something about the quest, something about the thrill of the hunt. Of course there’s also the sheer excitement at those moments of discovery—the very seconds the kids find what they’re looking for and practically jump for joy.

Friends tell me this is one of the things that makes Pokemon Go so popular. In our family, it explains why the girls love combing our local coastline for beach glass.

Beach Glass Hunts are one of our favorite activities—a go-to agenda item for those days when I want to get the kids fresh air but don’t want them to realize that they’ve spent the entire day outside. Luckily, we live about an hour from the Sonoma County coast, and many of the beaches out that way are veritable goldmines for beach glass.

I took Little R and Baby G earlier today, to Goat Rock State Beach. G spent the hunt (freezing her buns off) in the child-carrier backpack and R traipsed along the beach on foot. It was one of our the most epic days ever—we tallied more than 30 pieces in all.

Granted, many of these pieces were about the size of individual fish-tank gravel. But the kids didn’t care.

Our hunt started out slowly—it took us a while to walk from the parking lot over the dunes to the water’s edge, and a while longer to head up the beach to find rocky sections of sand. Eventually, however, R honed in on a section that provided the motherlode: more than a dozen green pieces, a few clear ones, two reddish-brown specimens, and a few blues.

Every time my kid found a piece, she’d scream BEACH GLASS BEACH GLASS BEACH GLASS at the top of her lungs. Every time she screamed it, the seagulls lingering up ahead flew off, scared for their lives.

Time on the beach went quickly; I thought we were out for 45 minutes but really it was about 90. The two (or three, I guess) of us could have kept going but the baby needed to eat and we needed to allow enough time to walk back to the car and drive back to pick up Big Sister L from school.

The itinerary didn’t matter one bit. R was happy to get time on the hunt and delighted to have a stash to show for it. G liked watching waves and birds, and hearing her sister scream and run around like a spaz.

In short, our coast time today was pure and total bliss. Beach glass never disappoints around here.

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.

Planning adventures for Yosemite 2016

We'll be learning from the man who painted this

A Steve Curl original (from his site)

The family trip to Yosemite National Park has become a bit of an annual tradition around these parts, and I’m in the process of lining up specifics for this year’s adventure. This year, however, there’ll be some major changes:

  1. Powerwoman and Baby G are heading to Denver, so instead L, R, and I are taking my dad (who we’ll refer to as GRANDPA POWER), making this year’s trip a multigenerational one.
  2. Because of the ridiculous name changes inside the park (for more on that, click here), we decided to stay outside the park this time, in a two-bedroom family cabin at the Evergreen Lodge in Groveland.

The four of us also have signed up for a half-day art class—a workshop in watercolors. I was hesitant to sign up L and R for a five-hour class, but considering how much both of them love art, I figured I’d give it a try. The instructor, Steve Curl, seems pretty laid back, and we can pull the plug whenever the kids are ready. (I’m guessing that will be around noon, since that’s usually when they get hungry).

In addition to the art class, we plan to do some waterfall-spotting, lots of rock-tossing into the Merced, and lots of hiking. The girls also have been fantasizing about a return to the pizza deck at (the spot formerly known as) Curry Village.

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to write about the adventure for Expedia. My coverage will comprise part of the company’s #ExpediaLovesParks campaign to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service. It also will be featured on the Expedia Viewfinder blog, a site for which I serve as senior editor.

You’ll hear more about our trip between now and when we go in April. Of course I’ll blog daily when we’re there, too. In the meantime, what family-friendly activities have you enjoyed in national parks?

Golden Gate Park by Segway on a family trip

Golden Gate Park is one of the greatest urban parks in the world. It’s even better when you explore it on a Segway.

You know the Segway; that two-wheeled transportation device made famous by the movie, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” The one that looks like a futuristic scooter. The one that simultaneously looks like the dorkiest dorkmobile in the history of humankind.

At least, I thought the things were dorky. After riding one around Golden Gate Park for half a day earlier this summer, I can safely say they are way cooler than I ever thought.

I did the tour as part of an epic two-city road trip I took with my family in June. The trip was on behalf of my client, Expedia. While my wife and kids were back at the hotel (the kids aren’t big enough to ride Segways, and somebody had to watch them), I was tooling around the park and making emu noises as I went.

I shot video as I went, and, when I got home, worked with my pals at Expedia to cut a 3-minute video of the experience. The video was published in mid-July. Finally, I have the opportunity to share it with you here.

So take a peek. Enjoy. Laugh. Cry. And whatever you do, open your mind to the coolness of a Segway. You’ll be glad you did. (And even if you’re not so glad, you’ll have fun pretending to be Paul Blart.)

Family time, unplugged

I unplug to escape stuff like this. (Me! In Times Square!)

I unplug to escape stuff like this. (Me! In Times Square!)

As a freelance writer, I have to stay connected most of the time. My business depends on it—if I miss an email from an editor, I might miss out on a potential assignment, which means missing out on cold cash.

Generally speaking, I don’t mind this constant state of connectedness. It enables me to stay on top of trends, and to build my brand as a family travel blogger by posting Instagram pictures and other social media missives when we travel as a clan.

Still, every now and again, it’s nice to take a trip on which I’m completely unplugged.

Powerwoman and I try to take one such trip every year. For better or for worse, these tech-free trips usually happen when the two of us have the opportunity to steal away together, without the girls. In fact, we leave later today for four days of disconnected bliss on the Mendocino County coast (which is about three hours from our home).

The plan for these trips is pretty simple: Keep me away from technology at all costs. No Facebooking. No Tweeting. No Instagramming. And almost certainly no email.

Of course going away without the children necessitates a certain degree of connectivity; my mother-in-law, who’s watching the girls back at our place, needs to be able to reach us in case of an emergency. What’s more, Powerwoman often brings her phone so the two of us have at least one camera to document great places and fun times.

Still, for me, these trips are glorious. Because I get to just be in the moment. Every moment. All day long.

Preparing for our tech-free vacations always reminds me just how dependent on technology we’ve become. It also inspires me to try to be more tech-free in my everyday life. Especially when I’m with the kids: Do I really need to check my phone every time the damn thing vibrates or sends me a notification?

Of course the answer is no. And of course it will be far more difficult to ask and answer that question one month from now, when this unplugged vacation is long over and I’m back in the thick of life. Still, the question itself is a good one. And the self-examination it inspires almost always leads to more self-awareness, and at least the recognition that I could and must be better.

The bottom line: We all could stand to ditch some technology. I challenge you to take the same break in your life and evaluate the consequences. Big changes take time. This one’s worth waiting for.

The evolution of hiking chatter

R, in full hiking attire.

R, in full hiking attire.

As an avid hiker, I’ve spent a good tenth of my life ambulating on trails. Most of those hikes have been alone or with friends. In recent years, however, many have been with different companions: my daughters, L and R.

Naturally, the change in partners has resulted in some subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences, as well.

Specifically, the chatter is a lot different with my kids.

I have spent most of my solo hikes, for instance, daydreaming about winning millions in the World Series of Poker Main Event. In my 20s and early 30s, when I hiked a ton with guy friends, we spent the majority of each tromp talking about girls (as in, women we were dating, not 3- and 5-year-olds).

Now, of course, since I do most of hiking with my own kids, conversation ranges from the educational (“Wow, honey, that’s a madrone!”) to the inspirational (“I love the sound of the wind in the oak leaves”). Sometimes, especially when we come upon animal poop, it’s comical (“Dad, what does frog poop look like?”).

Still, I’m not sure any hike chatter can beat the game I played on a recent midday hike with Little R.

We were hiking in an open space preserve near our house here in Northern California. About halfway out on a two-mile loop, the kid was getting restless and I asked her if she wanted to play a game. She responded by creating a clue-based quiz about Disney princesses. The rules were pretty simple: She gave me clues and I had to guess which princess she was describing. I got a point for every princess I guessed correctly.

Over the course of that second mile, we went through EVERY princess, twice. She liked the game so much she insisted we continue playing back at the house. (I think “Ariel” was an answer nine times.)

Was the game my idea of fun? Not exactly; I can deal with Disney but something about the mix of Disney and nature just feels wrong. Still, I embraced it; considering how hard it is to get kids to embrace the outdoors these days, I’ll take whatever sort of motivation I can get.

I might even suggest the “Princess Game” on our next tromp. I’ll just have to study to improve my score.

An elevator your kids will talk about for years

Little R, enjoying Duplos inside the park.

Little R, enjoying Duplos inside the park.

Little R and I have been going through LEGO withdrawal all week this week, as we spent last weekend at Legoland California Resort and had an “awesome” time.

I’ll get to some of the details of our trip in a handful of pre-holiday posts next week. For now, I want to focus on the single best thing about our experience on site: The elevator at the LEGOLAND Hotel.

Yes, people, our favorite thing about the visit was an elevator.

This wasn’t just any old elevator. It was a Disco Elevator. With disco music that alternates depending on your destination. And flashing lights. And a disco ball. And a dance floor. Time and time again, every single person who asks R what she liked best about our visit, hears the same response: “The disco elevator.” It truly was THAT cool.

Every time we entered the elevator, it was playing standard elevator muzak—“The Girl from Ipanema” or some such smooth jazz. But when we pushed our button (we stayed on Floor No. 3) and the doors closed, the elevator transformed into a scene out of Saturday Night Live.

Lights went down. Disco music (or the LEGO theme song, “Everything is Awesome”) came on. A disco ball on the ceiling rotated. Laser spotlights zipped across the elevator walls.

It was impossible NOT to boogie to this scene; R and I obliged every time. (See YouTube video below.)

I know some might think this sort of gimmick is silly (or, worse yet, maddening). But as a dad who has ridden in countless elevators with his kids, I can tell you that the elevator made the simple (and often monotonous) experience of getting from the lobby to our room fun. And that set the tone for the rest of the trip.

My kid likely will be talking about the Disco Elevator for months. Yes, there were other things we liked at Legoland California. But that elevator was, without question, simply the best.

The one-bag experiment

Our reality for the next three days.

Our reality for the next three days.

Little R and I head out tomorrow for a weekend trip to LEGOLAND California (and to see family), and I’m going to try and fit all of our stuff in one carry-on bag.

I’m subjecting us to this challenge for one very important reason: I’ve only got two hands, and somehow I’ve also got to bring my laptop bag (technically, it’s a work trip) and R’s Britax Roundabout car seat, and I need to guarantee I’ll have a free hand as we get ourselves from the airport to the rental car facility.

On the front end, the logistics of this strategy seem easy-peasy. We arrive at the Charles M. Schulz Airport near our house in Santa Rosa, California. We check the car seat. I wear the big daypack on my back and the small laptop bag (it’s also a backpack) on my front. This leaves me with both hands to navigate the TSA checkpoint and corral R when she gets feisty.

On the back end, at San Diego International Airport, the plan is only minimally different—backpacks will go on the same sides of my chest, car seat bag will go in my left hand, and R’s hand will go in my right.

Yes, I know I’m insane. Yes, I’m sure I’ll probably regret this choice when I’m dripping with sweat on the rental car shuttle. And, yes, I’m sure something completely unforeseen will happen (and cause me to curse out loud) and I’ll be forced to rethink everything on the fly. But the way I see it, at least at 12 hours before our time of departure, I’ve got no other option.

Still, all of this planning has me thinking about some bigger-picture considerations:

  • To what extent can I—and we, as family travelers in general—downsize our load to maximize efficiency when traveling with kids?
  • Why do we as a society think roll-aboard/wheelie carry-on suitcases are so great?

Of course I also have been fixating on the reality of single parents who travel with their kids: How on earth do they do it, especially when they’re traveling with more than one?

I’m guessing I’ll have some answers to these rhetorical questions by Sunday evening. In the meantime, between now and then (but especially between now and Friday around 10 a.m.), if you have advice you’d like to share about these issues, please do. And wish us luck!

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