Dublin State of Mind

R investigating pebbles at Newgrange, outside of Dublin.

R investigating pebbles at Newgrange, outside of Dublin.

Nearly three months have passed since our pod surfaced in Dublin, Ireland, as part of our 4-month stint in London. Thanks to scheduled delays in the publishing world, however, some of my articles about the experience were just published this week.

The first story, for Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts’ “Have Family Will Travel” blog, spotlights the specific experiences the four of us had as guests of the Four Seasons Hotel Dublin.

The second piece, for the Expedia ViewFinder blog, is more a general look at Dublin for families.

Both stories feature text and photographs from yours truly. Both pieces include colorful references to the specific experiences the four of us had in Dublin—the first stop on our 10-day family vacation to Ireland.

It’s always a treat to have my work published, but these types of pieces are particularly fulfilling. For starters, they offer unique perspectives on our experiences in faraway places. Second, the posts give me the opportunity to mix anecdotes and narrative with service—a mash-up that, IMHO, is what makes travel writing fun. Finally, the articles appear on two of the blogs I respect most.

Anyway, to reiterate, you can read the pieces here and here. Enjoy! Spread the word! And please, keep reading.

A Walk to Remember

My Big Girl, drinking tea before the hike

My Big Girl, drinking tea before the hike.

My wife and I are avid hikers, and we’ve raised our girls to embrace the outdoors as well. Back in California, no day is complete without a tromp in the woods near our house. Here in London, though experiencing “woods” requires more of an effort, we get the girls out and about to breathe fresh air as much as we can.

This is one of the reasons why all four of us were so excited about spending Thanksgiving in the country (at Four Seasons Hampshire). It’s also why I didn’t bat an eye when L requested a hike after sundown one evening last weekend.

Our goal for the evening journey was simple: Hike well-marked pathways as far as we could in 30 minutes, then turn around, return to the resort and have hot chocolates in the library bar.

To guide the way, L took her ladybug flashlight; I bugged the concierge for a “torch” (that’s what they call flashlights here) of my own.

The walk started quietly; as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, L was focusing intensely on watching her steps.

Once we were startled by a braying horse, however, the mood lightened considerably. We quizzed each other on whether certain twinkles were airplanes or satellites or stars. We reminisced about our favorite parts of the day we spent in nearby Farnham (hers: Watching Christmas carolers; mine: Lunching in a 500-year-old pub). We even shared our favorite stories about the Baby, a.k.a., her little sister.

After 30 minutes—probably 1.5 miles in all—we turned around as planned. With the manor house looming on the horizon, L realized we likely were the only people hiking in the field at that moment, so she shared a perfectly normal (for a 4-year-old) request:

“Dad, it won’t bother anybody else. Can we please listen to Taylor Swift?”

Normally I have a strong No-Artificial-Sounds-in-Nature rule. On this night, however, because we were the only people in the field (and, of course, because she asked so politely), I relented.

L was delighted. She skipped. She twirled. At one point, she screamed along with words I hope she doesn’t understand for a long while (I think the song was, “Dear John”). And about halfway back—I kid you not—we spotted fireworks exploding over the trees on the edge of the property.

In that moment, my daughter described the fireworks as “magical,” “unbelievable,” and “amazing.” We now have been home a week, and she still uses those same words when talking about the hike.

To be honest, I do, too.

Those 60 minutes were the best 60 minutes of my Thanksgiving, and arguably the best 60 minutes I’ve had in a long, long time. These are the moments we as parents live for.

Could we have had the same experience at home? Maybe something pretty close. But being in a faraway, foreign place enriches every aspect of moments like that one, and the richer those moments, the better.

The Importance of Being Unplugged

Little R, exploring a castle in Trim, Ireland.

Little R, exploring a castle in Trim, Ireland.

Between this blog, my website, and my overactive Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles, it’s pretty obvious that technology is a big part of my life. Considering how often my family and I are on the road, that means technology is a pretty big part of their lives, too.

For most of the year, we embrace the constant presence of Smartphone cameras and WiFi signals. Every once in a while, however, we like to unplug for a while, and just be.

We embark on one of those trips Sunday morning, when we head to the West Coast of Ireland. We’ve rented a beach house in Connemara for the week. Aside from day trips to Cong (where they filmed “The Quiet Man,” one of my wife’s favorite old-time movies) and the Cliffs of Moher, we plan to do a whole lot of nothing. The old-fashioned, Luddite kind.

Sure, I’ll catch y’all up on our adventures when we’re back. I’ll also share some stories from our time here in Dublin (and the incredible Four Seasons Hotel Dublin, where I’ve been on assignment since Thursday).

Until then, for the next few days, know that the four of us are out there on the edge of the world, telling stories, dodging raindrops, eating French fries, beachcombing and singing Doc McStuffins tunes.

I can’t think of a better way to spend a week.

To what extent do you prioritize unplugging with your family when you travel?

Wandering Pod on Four Seasons Blog, Again

Three pix from our trip to the Isle of Dogs.

Three pix from our trip to the Isle of Dogs.

Another month, another featured post for yours truly on Have Family Will Travel, the kick-ass family travel blog from Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts.

My latest piece spotlighted our pod’s three-day visit to the Four Seasons Hotel London at Canary Wharf. We stayed there for the first three days of our current London adventure; the story was published this past weekend.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize some of the pictures and anecdotes immediately; snippets from the story were published here first. Taken as a whole, however, the post represents the first comprehensive account of that portion of our visit. (The story also is the first formal article I’ve published about our stay in London, and the first time many of the photos have been published outside of my personal Facebook page.)

My next trip on behalf of Four Seasons begins later this week—we’re headed to the Four Seasons Hotel Dublin, then renting a cottage on the West Coast of Ireland for a week of quietude. We’ll be unplugged (seriously) for the latter part of the adventure, but stay tuned for updates from the Big City on the front and back ends.

In the meantime, please feel free to read some of my previous posts for the HFWT blog; you can find the local links to them here and here.

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?

The Gift of Family Travel

Bon voyage cupcakes, from my 12-year-old niece.

Bon voyage cupcakes, from my 12-year-old niece.

Two cocktails into our final domestic Date Night of 2013, Powerwoman popped the question about our impending (we leave in two days) semester-long move to London.

“Are you nervous?” she asked.

At first, I didn’t know how to respond. I mean, I’ve spent the better part of the last eight months thinking about the epic family adventure we’re about to begin, but never—literally, not one time—have I stopped to consider the degree to which I am nervous about the idea of establishing a new life in a new place with two kids under the age of five.

Naturally, the query prompted me to chase my Manhattan with some shots of serious self-examination.

Yes, I am nervous about the logistics behind towncarring from Heathrow to our first stop on the adventure, the Four Seasons London at Canary Wharf (I’ve got an assignment there). And, yes, I’m nervous about getting from Canary Wharf to our new flat on the day we move in (which is Aug. 24, for those of you scoring at home).

Honestly, though, that’s it.

The remainder of my emotions would fall into categories such as EXCITED, THANKFUL, and HONORED. For me, our next adventure is nothing short of the best gift ever.

How is it a gift? For starters, we get to bond as a unit—a rarity in today’s era of school schedules and working parents and daycare. Second, we get to experience faraway countries and foreign cultures through the eyes of our daughters, for whom everything is new. Finally, we get to do it all on a temporary basis, knowing that, come Christmas time, we can return to our lives here in Wine Country and start planning the next trip.

I know there are people who think it’s senseless to travel with young kids because they likely won’t remember much of what they see and do. In my book, however, Powerwoman and I aren’t doing this so the kids remember it. We’re doing it because it simply is what we do.

(Though, of course, if they remember any of it, that’s a bonus which we gladly will accept.)

We Villanos aren’t sitters. Whatever we’re doing, we don’t stay still for long. One of the reasons Powerwoman and I work well together is because we share a sense of adventure and an indomitable need to explore. As parents we have tried to lead by example and pass along these credos to our girls.

I’ll be “nervous” if anyone in this family ever approaches life differently. Until then, I say, bring it on.

To what extent do you think kids remember family travel? To what extent does it matter?

Wandering Pod Featured on Luxury Hotel Blog

Peering at a donkey inside Centreville Amusement Park.

Animal-watching at Centreville Amusement Park.

What’s the most family-friendly destination in Toronto? According to my recent blog post for “Have Family Will Travel,” the family travel blog from Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, it’s Centre Island, one of the barrier islands smack in the middle of the city’s harbor.

The story, titled, “Family Day Trip for Dad: Toronto’s Centre Island,” was published on the blog last week.

It chronicles a recent visit with an “adopted” pod—a friend, her sister, and the sister’s two kids.

Without question, the undisputed highpoint of the experience (and of the story) was our time at Centreville Amusement Park, an expansive amusement park. Here, the lot of us spent hours riding rides, playing games on the arcade, splashing around in puddles (it rained while we were there) and petting animals at the on-site petting farm.

Another fun part of the trip: The ferry ride (in a 70-year-old ferry) from Toronto’s waterfront out to the island itself.

All told, our fun-loving jaunt to Centre Island was a spectacular (and family-friendly) way to spend a day in Toronto. I can’t wait to bring my own kids next time.

Building Brand Loyalty at an Early Age

Daughter/Daddy slippers at the Four Seasons, Silicon Valley.

Daughter/Daddy slippers at the Four Seasons, Silicon Valley.

My older daughter always will remember her first visit to a Four Seasons Resort. It’s not because we spotted Bruce Willis in the elevator. It’s not because she got a personal tour of the spring collection at Badgely Mischka. It’s not even because a thoughtful housekeeper had written her name in stickers on the door to the glass shower.

It’s because she got a stuffed giraffe upon check-in. And she got to select it from a red wagon full of stuffed animals—a wagon full of gifts specifically to make younger guests feel like princes and princesses when they arrive.

For many of us grown-ups, this kind of thing is nothing more than a nice touch, a cute amenity about which we might tell our friends over Manhattans at the next neighborhood barbecue.

But for our little ones, it’s HUGE. Because it’s something they don’t experience at other resorts.

L and R got another taste of the Four Seasons treatment this weekend; on assignment for the company’s “Have Family Will Travel” blog, I dragged my family to the Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley at East Palo Alto. We spent the weekend there, reacquainting ourselves with Palo Alto (Powerwoman got her Ph.D. from Stanford) and bumming around the hotel.

In between, our experience was an all-star showing of kid-friendly tricks and treats—bonus treatment that the hotel extends to all of its younger guests (not just the kids of visiting journalists on assignment for the parent company).

Some of the family-oriented amenities the girls liked best:

  • A personalized welcome. When we got up to our room after check-in, housekeepers had written my daughters’ names in sponge letters on the side of the bathtub. Later in the stay, the same housekeepers set out two pairs of kid-sized slippers with sponges representing the girls’ first initials (see photo).
  • A special kid-oriented room-service menu with items such as fresh fruit, house-made rigatoni with butter (or marinara), and pancakes.
  • A DVD movie library with an extensive kid-friendly selection. For our movie time on Saturday, L selected “Tangled” and Rango” (yes, it was a chameleon kind of day). About five minutes after we started the movie (ultimately, she chose “Rango”), room service brought up complimentary buttered popcorn.
  • A cache of floaty noodles and kickboards at the pool.

(Of course perhaps my girls’ favorite “amenity” at the resort was the giant fountain in front of the property, which now is home to at least 75 of our pennies.)

The bottom line: On-site, kid-friendly touches go a long way with the next generation of luxury travelers. When we pulled into the driveway tonight, my Big Girl told her mother: “I’m happy to be home, but I miss the Four Seasons.” I’m not sure I could have said it better myself.

Embracing Accidentally Family-Friendly Hotels

Bathroom televisions: Better than stuffed animals.

Bathroom TVs: Better than stuffed animals.

It’s one thing for a hotel to go out and declare itself as “family-friendly” and stock the rooms with all sorts of kid-oriented goodies and treats. It’s another thing for a hotel that doesn’t make a big deal about family travelers to boast the kinds of amenities that make us who vacation with kids feel right at home.

I like to consider this phenomenon “AFF,” or Accidentally Family-Friendly. As a traveler, when you experience it, it’s the best kind of surprise. Like a dollop of caramel in the center of a chocolate cupcake. Or a clutch hit from a rookie who just got his call-up to the Big Leagues.

Different families can deem different hotels AFF for different reasons. Here’s a rundown of some amenities that have made qualified properties as AFF in our recent experiences:

  • Bathroom televisions. Sure, L loved the free stuffed animal she received upon checking in to the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, but she’s still talking about the tiny television in the bathroom. The kid liked this TV so much she refused to watch the big one out in the bedroom. It also came in handy for me—while I shaved, she chilled out next to me and hung with “Sofia the First.”
  • 24-hour room service. When we travel internationally (or just cross-country), we usually reward good in-transit behavior with favorite foods. This means ordering odd items (French fries, hummus) at all hours of the day and night. It also means we’ve become huge fans of all-hours room service. The girls love knowing they don’t have to wait for their rewards. We love the good behavior this reality usually engenders in mid-air.
  • Flashlights. My kids love building forts and “camping out” (pretty much all the time at home and) in hotel rooms. The one item from home that’s always missing: A flashlight. I usually bring a headlamp for nighttime runs (yes, I’m that guy who runs at 11 p.m.), but the big boys are just too clunky to bring along. Naturally, then, you can imagine how excited the girls get when they find a flashlight hiding in the closet of a hotel room.
  • Extra space. We love hotels like Maui’s Fairmont Kea Lani, where even the “standard” rooms actually are suites. When everyone’s awake, this configuration gives the girls room to spread out and do puzzles or have dance parties. When the girls go to sleep, it also gives Powerwoman and me the chance to shut the door to the bedroom and have some semblance of alone time.

The bottom line: Some hotels might be more family-friendly than you think. For an honest rundown of how other family travelers have rated a hotel, call the concierge and ask what in-room features seem to resonate with other customers in your demographic. Another, easier option: Ask friends, either in person or through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. And remember, there’s more to “family-friendly” than toys and games.

To what extent have you found hotels AFF? Which amenities in particular did your kids adore?

Also: For more information about hotels and hotel amenities, join me this Wednesday, May 15, between 10:30 a.m. and noon, as I co-host a Twitter chat for Expedia. To follow along or participate, just log on to Twitter and search for the hashtag, #expediachat.

Chameleon Couture: A Daddy-Daughter Trip to Beverly Hills

Chameleon couture

Chameleon couture

I blogged extensively over at Parenting about the trip L and I took to Los Angeles this past February. Now, I also have written about the trip for “Have Family Will Travel,” a family travel blog from Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.

My most recent post was published today. The headline is too long and SEO-optimized to share here. Really all you need to know is this: The piece chronicles (a brief encounter with the actor, Bruce Willis, and) the morning L and I spent sketching couture dresses on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

Check out the piece here. And, please, feel free to share it with friends.

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