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.

Sand in the minivan

We rung in the new year in style today, traipsing all over our favorite beach in Sonoma County. As the crow flies, Goat Rock State Beach (part of Sonoma Coast State Park) is only about 25-30 miles from our home. But because it takes about 75 minutes to get there, we consider an excursion to this spot a family travel adventure of the day-trip variety.

And what an adventure it was. After experiencing a shutout for the first 20 minutes, the big girls found 27 pieces of beach glass in the 35 minutes that followed. The wind whipped us until we felt like icicles. We counted not one, not two, but THREE rogue waves.

Oh, and Baby G slept through her first trip to the ocean.

After the beach, we drove 10 miles south into Bodega Bay, where the five of us (ICYW, Baby G still was sleeping) grabbed some fish ‘n’ chips at one of our favorite local restaurants.

I capped the excursion by taking L and R on a walk around the marina, exploring finger docks (thankfully no-one fell in), dodging seagull poop (thankfully no-one got hit), watching pelagic birds (they loved the petrels), and scanning the surface of the water for signs of Harbor seals or California sea lions (sadly, no dice here).

Perhaps the most satisfying part of the afternoon came when we pulled into the driveway at home. The Big Girls got out and went inside. Powerwoman took the baby out and brought her in, too. I lingered a bit to collect some of the wrappers and usual detritus a family amasses on a daylong road trip.

That’s when I noticed it: The inside of our new minivan was covered with sand.

Normally this kind of unexpected mess would drive a neurotic freak like me nuts. This time, however, it was comforting, enthralling, and downright wonderful.

In that moment, the sand was the physical manifestation of a return to normalcy in our lives—a sign that after more than a month of working through a new routine as a family of five, our Wandering Pod was wandering again. It was, quite simply, proof we are back. Now that’s a mess I can embrace.

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.

Knowing when to fold ’em on family trips

Bouncing. Before the meltdown.

Bouncing. Before the meltdown.

Poker players and country music fans alike are familiar with the famous 1978 Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler.”

On the surface, the ditty is a song about poker. (You know the tune: “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em/know when to fold ‘em/Know when to walk away/Know when to run.”) It’s also a metaphor for life. And, as it so happens, for family travel.

I was reminded of this fact today while trying to balance a jam-packed itinerary of activities on a daytrip around our home county.

The short story: We got through about half our list. Then we aborted the mission. And it all worked out.

Our day began early, as the days usually do with L (for whom 6:30 a.m. is “sleeping in”) and R. After breakfast and an early-morning shopping run, we headed out for a hike and some (seemingly) low-key playing by the river, then headed to the indoor trampoline arena for a little jumping. The problem: It was nearly 100 degrees before noon, which made the kids incredibly cranky.

The afternoon portion of our agenda for the day included swinging by a party/fundraiser hosted by some of our friends. As that part of the plan got closer, however—and at the very moment the two of them decided they hated their lunch—the girls endured a major and catastrophic meltdown.

They were hot. They were tired. They were hungry. And they lost all capacity to act like normal humans.

I could have forced the issue, could have soldiered on in the name of keeping plans. Instead, I did what, IMHO, is perfectly acceptable on a day of family travel of any kind: I capitulated.

I’m not saying I gave up in the traditional sense of the phrase. No, I’m saying I rationally and clearly looked at all of my options, recognized that the kids were done, and changed the plan on the fly. In short, I knew when to lay down my hand and call it quits for the day.

Powerwoman and I have learned this lesson the hard way over the last few years. Time and time again, on those days when the kids are just a little off, it almost always has made more sense to acquiesce when push comes to shove. Sometimes this has meant spending an afternoon in the hotel playing Crazy 8’s. On other occasions it’s meant extended downtime, just to keep everyone happy. Today, it meant bailing on a party. Next time, it might mean bailing on a surf lesson, or mini golf.

The bottom line, folks, is that Kenny was right—you need to know when to hold the plans and when to fold ‘em.

There’s no shame in bagging an agenda if you think your kids—and, through the transitive property, you—will be better off in the long run. Family travel isn’t about WHAT you do so much as it’s about HOW you do it. Remember: Short of big-picture calendar items such as airplane flights or train times, no travel plans ever are set in stone.

Jumping away the last days of summer

The trampolines at Rebounderz.

The trampolines at Rebounderz.

As much as our family loves to travel to faraway places, we also love discovering new family-friendly stuff in our own proverbial backyard.

Today we found a new fave 30 minutes south of our house: Rebounderz, an indoor trampoline park.

The place is a kids’ fantasy land with dozens upon dozens of trampolines. Plain trampolines. Trampolines on walls. A basketball court made out of trampolines. Even trampolines that enable kids to bounce themselves into a giant pit of foam cubes.

There’s also a three-story indoor playground, an epic arcade (with Pop-A-Shot), a regular hardwood basketball court, and a snack bar.

It’s been over 100 degrees here all week, so Rebounderz was the perfect place to bring L and R to blow off steam. The facility is the first West Coast outpost of an East Coast franchise. It was well-organized. It was clean. Perhaps the only downside to the place: It was SUPER expensive, as in, $48 for both girls for two hours. (It was so spendy, in fact, that I decided not to jump; if I had joined them, it would have cost us another $21.)

We went with some of the girls’ friends—five girls in all. The trip was sort of a last hurrah: The girls all start school next week.

Sure, the kids liked the trampolines, but the undisputed highpoint actually was the playground, which boasted a corkscrew tunnel slide, two platform ladders, lots of rope bridges, and a bunch of bouncy-house type obstacles. Once the kids tried all the everything else (except the basketball court ones; the kids were intimidated to try those); they insisted on returning to the playground. Afterward, that’s the part L and R remembered most fondly.

We didn’t really hit up the snack bar; I and the other parent for the day smuggled in our own (healthy) snacks but relied on the in-house options for cups of Dippin’ Dots as a special bonus for the girls. As for the arcade, I’m still not sure how much each game actually cost ($20 bought me a bunch of credits, and each game cost different amounts of those), but it felt like my money disappeared particularly fast.

Next time, I’ll take advantage of booking jump times online. I’ll also make sure we arrive right when the place opens; we got there about 30 minutes after the joint opened, but by lunchtime, it was a zoo.

Overall, I’d say our first experience at Rebounderz was a positive one. I’m not sure we can afford to visit more than once or twice a quarter, but it’s nice to know we’ve got such a fun new option so close to home.

What are your go-to daytrip spots within 30 minutes of your home?

San Francisco getting better for families, family travelers

Koret Playground, courtesy of the Chronicle.

Koret Playground, courtesy of the Chronicle.

As a proud member of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, I’ve always known I have a very skewed perspective on San Francisco. For us, it’s the Big City, a place with endless opportunities to keep our kids occupied, one of the greatest daytrip destinations on Earth.

For people who live there, however, there’s a different reality.

A blogger friend of mine, Amy Graff, recently wrote about this reality for her blog on SF Gate, The Mommy Files. In her post, she outlined 13 things that have made San Francisco a better place for families. Obviously, her target audience was locals—people who live in San Francisco and have kids. But some of the points she made apply to family travelers as well.

Take, for instance, her mention of Koret Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park, which recently benefitted from $380 million in bonds to improve neighborhood parks. Another highlight in her piece: The new Exploratorium, which is one of our favorite museums in the entire city (and about which a blog post by yours truly is long overdue).

Also worth mentioning: A new law in March 2013 that allows baby strollers on all San Francisco Municipal Transit Association vehicles, except cable cars.

I could go on and on about Amy’s piece, but it’s probably best if you just read it here.

The bottom line: The City by the Bay may not be as wonderful for family travelers as we’ve thought it was, but it certainly is getting better.

Sticker heaven

On the tour.

On the tour.

My kids, like just about every kids under the age of 6 (or, maybe even 10), REALLY like stickers. They’ll stick the things just about anywhere. On the inside of the backseat windows in my truck. On our furniture. On each other. On me.

Sometimes, if L and R are feeling particularly creative, they’ll use the stickers as characters in make-believe worlds, and move the stickers from spot to spot as if they were alive.

It’s cool to watch. It’s even cooler to encourage. That’s why I’ve been jonesing to visit Mrs. Grossman’s.

Mrs. Grossman’s, as in, the last remaining sticker factory here in the U.S. The place is located in Petaluma, California, (next to Camelbak world headquarters and) just about an hour from our front door. And they host four tours every day between Monday and Thursday. So, last week, on a day when R didn’t have preschool, I took her. And we loved it.

The $7 tour ran about 45 minutes. I give a light-hearted narrative rundown of the experience in my latest family travel column for the San Francisco Chronicle (the story will be published in Thursday’s paper), and you can read more about it there. The highlights:

  • A 5-minute introductory video in which we learned the staggering fact that, if all of the equipment in the factory were operational at once, Mrs. Grossman’s could churn out 5 million stickers a day.
  • A detailed explanation of how stickers are cut, painted, and packaged.
  • A stroll down an entire aisle of giant rolls of stickers. In a matter of minutes, we spotted everything from horses to wizards to sparkly frogs and princesses. R was in her glory, pawing at each of the rolls like a cat might paw at a hair tie.
  • A free, sticker-based arts-and-crafts project at the end of the tour.

Along the way, our tour guide gave us free stickers at each of six stops. She also pointed out some of the business-to-business work Mrs. Grossman’s does, noting that a significant percentage of the factory’s work at this time of year comprises labels for local wineries. (We saw lots of labels for Francis Ford Coppola’s winery in Geyserville, California.)

When our tour was over, when R had had enough of her arts-and-crafts project, we perused the modest on-site store and bought a bunch of other stickers to take home for L (and just to add to the stash). Part of this take: Two sealed (and $3.99) “Mystery Boxes” that comprised $20 worth of stickers apiece.

We took the tour more than a week ago and R still talks about it every day. This morning, as she was playing with a sheet of hibiscus stickers we bought that day, she asked if we could go back.

Based upon this assessment alone, I’d rate Mrs. Grossman’s as one of the greatest kid-oriented tours in the entire Bay Area. Throw in easy parking, friendly tour guides, all those free stickers, and proximity to an In-N-Out Burger restaurant for post-tour lunch, and the tour is a perfect activity around which to build an afternoon. Maybe we’ll even see you there.

What are some of the best kid-friendly tours you’ve encountered in your travels?

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