When Free Is Best

Looking down on the (family-friendly) trout count.

Looking down on the (family-friendly) trout count.

Here in the heart of California’s Wine Country, we locals have plenty of options to spend big bucks on a family-friendly day out and about. We can take the tour at the Safari West animal park in Santa Rosa. We can rent a cabine near the day-use pool at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville. Heck, we even can hop over the Mayacamas Mountains and pay to see the inside of the castle at Castello di Amorosa winery in Calistoga.

Again, all of these activities kick ass for families. They also all require at least a few hours’ worth of cash.

Sometimes, however, the best options for those of us with young kids are the options that cost nothing at all. Case in point: Our family’s experience earlier today at the Milt Brandt Visitors’ Center and Fish Hatchery near Lake Sonoma in our hometown of Healdsburg.

We went for the trout; despite our drought-like conditions here, the Steelhead are running and I figured at the very least we might spot some of those buggers as they swam up the fish ladder toward the hatchery itself. What we encountered, however, was far more incredible—and something (at least) L will remember for the rest of her life.

If you who don’t know much about fisheries, hatcheries like this one breed fish and release a certain number back into the wild every year in an attempt to control (read: stabilize) population growth. As part of this process, scientists keep tabs of the fish that return to see how many are repeat customers.

This means every year researchers tap a small sample of returning fish to a) check and see if they’ve been tagged previously, and b) keep track of what percentage of them are females.

At Lake Sonoma, they open this process to the public. And we managed to luck into seeing it first-hand.

To a large part, our good fortune was attributable to being in the right place at the right time; when we arrived at the hatchery catwalks (most people look down from here), a group was witnessing the count down on the laboratory floor. When they left, I ignorantly yelled down and asked the biologists if we could be next.

Technically, the answer should have been a resounding no. But because we were just four, and because our littler two found the process fascinating, the researchers let us down.

There on the floor, face-to-face with trout the size of their torsos, the girls were terrified and enthralled at the same time. R kept pointing to the creatures, yelling, “Big fishy!” and “Why isn’t that fishy swimming in the ocean?” L observed intently with her mouth agape, occasionally requesting to move back when she thought a flailing fish might splash her (she does NOT like to get splashed).

We watched as the biologists did their jobs, using a standard-issue hole-puncher to punch holes in the tails of first-time visitors, measuring the specimens, then separating the fish by sex and launching each sex down a different chute (the chutes fed two different holding pens).

The four of us stayed inside the hatchery for the better part of an hour. The girls likely could have stayed longer. But the researchers had to go on lunch.

We spent the rest of our visit walking up and down the fish ladder, ogling fish as they swam upstream and listening to chirping birds in the unseasonably warm morning air. Later, we walked across the street to an often-deserted playground, where, after the girls ran around like maniacs, the four of us had a picnic lunch.

All told, the experience set us back $16—the price for two stuffed birds in the Visitor Center gift shop. Considering how much we all learned about trout, considering how much the girls have talked about the day all afternoon, I’d say it was a great way to spend a day in Wine Country.

What are some of your favorite free (or budget) family activities near your home?

Why Free Museums Benefit Family Travelers

Making art at the Tate Modern.

Making art at the Tate Modern.

Most museums here in London are free, and this rules for at least two big reasons.

First: It makes sightseeing cheaper.

Second, during those inevitable moments when your kids act like kids and you need to pull anchor and abort the mission, you don’t have to worry about wasting money.

I’ve come to appreciate the first reason slowly over the 40 days we’ve been here.

As for the second lesson, let’s just say I had a crash-course in learning that one on Thursday, when I took the girls to the Tate Modern museum of contemporary art to celebrate L’s first “Exploration Day.” (For more on the back story that prompted these special weekly adventures, click here.)

The trip started fine. After an uneventful Tube ride to Southwark and a seemingly interminable walk to the museum, the kids climbed on a stair sculpture out front, then excitedly proceeded to the galleries. We hit the brand new Bloomberg Connects bar first, so the girls could ease into the experience with some interactive e-drawing (the units themselves mimicked drawing on a tablet computer, only the pictures posted to a giant wall).

Because the drawing went so well, I thought I might try to expose them to some of the actual art.

This, however, is where the day went south; as we walked through room after room of paintings and pieces in various media, the kids lost it. Big time. They started rebelling with yoga on the floor. Then they hopped around, belting a song from “Doc McStuffins.” In the middle of a crowded gallery.

Finally, when R quite literally ran over and climbed up on one of the art pieces, it was time to go. So we hit the café. Then we went home.

All told, we spent about 90 minutes at the Tate—40 minutes with the interactive e-drawing, 40 at lunch and about 10 minutes in the galleries. If I had paid full-price for that, I would have felt gipped. But because everything but our fish-and-chips lunch (natch) was free, it was no big deal.

I know the thinking behind free museums is to make them available for everyone, but I think the approach benefits (adventuresome) family travelers most. You know the saying about how to roll “if at first you don’t succeed,” right? Let’s just say I’m thankful that we have another three months to get back out there and try, try, try again.

How do you determine when it’s time to abort a travel mission with your kids?

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?

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