More cats, more cat videos

Another day, another video of our time at the Lana’i Cat Sanctuary. The latest video, an edited version of the original that appeared on AFAR.com, ran on AFAR’s Facebook page. The 50-second clip has no speaking, but with images and captions it gives a great sense of what the place is like.

To refresh your memory, we visited the Lana’i Cat Sanctuary last month during a four-day stay at Four Seasons Lana’i. The experience changed our lives. Especially for L and R.

Below you’ll find a screen shot. To see the whole video, click here.

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For the love of Monopoly

20160801_165215One of our favorite things about vacation rentals on family trips: The surprises we find in the cabinets and drawers.

No matter where we go, no matter what sort of rental we get (house, apartment, etc.), L and R always manage to discover some sort of treasure with which they become obsessed. The treasure usually then becomes part of our lives.

Our recent vacation on Maui was no exception. The item of choice: Monopoly.

To be fair, L had played a version of this game before—Monopoly Junior, which is a version of the original game that has been simplified for kids under the age of 8. This time, however, she and her sister, R, were digging a rare and unusual grown-up version: a Peanuts-themed take on the original game.

(The Peanuts theme was a weird coincidence; Charles Schulz spent the latter part of his life near our home in Santa Rosa, California, and we’re members of a museum there in his memory.)

The sisters found the game in a chest of drawers. Once they checked out all the pieces, once they had me teach them how to play, they became full-on junkies, insisting that we play for at least a few hours every day of the trip.

Most of our games took place before 9 a.m.; I had the morning shift and this was how we spent it.

Invariably, R would start out strong, buy a bunch of properties, then lose interest when she ran out of cash. L, on the other hand, was a veritable shark, waiting in the weeds for tactical purchases, accumulating monopolies, then building houses and hotels to wipe the rest of us clean. She also went after the game’s equivalent of utilities, which always cost of the rest of us dearly.

Of course we tweaked the rules a bit. R was *very* upset at the idea of going to jail and refused to play unless I guaranteed she and her sister didn’t have to go. As a result, only the grown-ups could end up in jail; the worst fate for those of us under the age of 8 was “Just Visiting.”

Another change had to do with paying rent. If either of the girls didn’t have enough money to pay me rent, I would accept payment in smooches, with an exchange rate of one kiss for every $10.

(One game, I had three monopolies with hotels on every property. I got a lot of kisses.)

In the end, though I think I would have rather spent that time with the girls outside, it was wonderful to see them taking interest in a board game, and even more uplifting to see them wanting to experience it TOGETHER. They’ve been clamoring to spend a Saturday playing here at home. The requests are proof positive of how this past family vacation changed their lives—that makes me very happy, indeed.

What do you love most about vacation rentals when you travel with family?

Robot toilet overload

Toilet blindfold

Toilet blindfold

Most people who stay at the Four Seasons Lana’i remember the luxurious rooms, the incredible dining options (Nobu! Dean & DeLuca in the minibar! Those amazing malasadas!), the intimate pool, and the picture-perfect sand beach on Hulopo’e Bay.

My kids will remember all of those things. But also, the in-room toilets.

These aren’t just any toilets, mind you. They are what our Big Girl calls, “Robot Toilets.” Toilets with built-in seat warmers. Toilets that open and close and flush automatically. Toilets that sport bidets for those trips to the bathroom you just can’t seem to tidy on your own.

The toilets represent the top-of-the-line product from a company called Toto, a company that makes all different sorts of toilets. The ultra-exclusive fixtures undoubtedly are intended to add to the feeling of luxury—especially since the technology creates this situation that actually obviates the need ever to touch the toilet or toilet seat when you go. (As an aside, they are priced at more than $3,000 apiece.)

But for my Big Girl—a brilliant and creative 7-year-old who suffers from anxiety about foreign toilets in general—they basically were the Devil in porcelain clothes.

At first, before she had to use the toilet in our room, she was fascinated by them, pushing the buttons to watch the lids go up and down. Curiosity quickly turned to fear when she sat down and the toilet unexpectedly started a circulate cycle to make sure none of her “presents” stained the bowl. We quickly figured out to use a (complimentary and posh) kid-sized slipper to “blindfold” the toilet’s electronic eye (which triggers the circulate cycle when you sit down).

For a few days, this plan worked wonders. Her curiosity returned.

Then, drama struck. We refer to it as The Bidet Incident. Completely out of nowhere, while the Big Girl was doing her business on the bowl, the toilet’s bidet feature went rogue and sprayed her bottom with gusto. To say this caught her by surprise would be an understatement. There were many tears. And blood-curdling screams. Then she announced she was “never peeing on Lana’i again.”

Powerwoman and I dried off our daughter’s bottom and did our best to stifle laughter. We spent the rest of the afternoon creating stories about robot toilets gone haywire. Mine evoked the Terminator movies, only with robots that sprayed unsuspecting butts instead of killing people. (The stories worked. She peed again.)

Thankfully, by our last morning on Lana’i, the Big Girl was able to smile about the toilet. She and her 4-year-old sister made up a farewell song. They included the toilets in their recap of their favorite things about the Four Seasons Lana’i. The two of them even figured out how to hold the blindfold slipper without any help from my wife or me.

As we headed for the door, depressed at the thought of leaving this paradise, L ran back to “do something important” and kiss the toilet goodbye.

“I just did it on the top,” she said. “I didn’t want the bidet to shoot me in the mouth.”

Cat heaven in Hawaii

Lana'i Cat Sanctuary, as shot by L

Lana’i Cat Sanctuary, as shot by L

If you asked my big girls to describe the attributes of their personal heavens, each would cite unlimited French fries and hundreds of playful cats. While Powerwoman and I haven’t been able to deliver on the French fries yet, we did find a spot that blew their cat-loving dreams.

The place: the Lanai Cat Sanctuary on the Hawaiian Island of Lanai.

At the suggestion of the concierge at Four Seasons Lanai, we visited earlier today. There were 495 cats. Running freely in an open-air 25,000-square-foot enclosure. For the girls, it was like Cat Christmas.

The place is quite a story—one I’ll tell in a variety of written and video pieces over the next few weeks. To summarize, it basically is a glorified animal shelter, it’s free to visit, and, if you love cats, is AWESOME. The Executive Director, a kind and gentle man named Keoni Vaughn, refers to the place as the Furr Seasons (a riff on Four Seasons, get it?). And for cats, it really is luxurious.

Dozens of different cat boxes. Dozens of grass patches in which to play. Trees to climb. Pipes in which to hide. Endless amounts of food and water. And because the place is open to the public, constant love.

Vaughn told me that about half of the animals there were feral cats rescued from the wilds of the island to relieve the threat to native birds. The other half of the animals had been abandoned by owners over the years. All of the kitties are happy. And just about all of them are available for adoption.

We didn’t adopt a cat yesterday but we all wanted to. Instead, the girls spent the better part of two hours petting and loving and kissing and feeding and chasing and playing with the cats. Every time I thought the girls were tiring, they’d perk up and move on to another cat. All they talked about for the rest of the day: Cats, cats, cats.

Below are a few images from our time at the Lanai Cat Sanctuary. As I noted, I’ll be creating some other content about the experience over the next few weeks. I’ll share it here as it’s published.

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UPDATE: One of my clients, AFAR, has published a story (by moi, of course) about our time at the Sanctuary. You can read the piece here. For even more Lana’i kitty goodness, check out the video I produced for AFAR…

Hawaii + Four Seasons = Malasada awesome

The rooms at Four Seasons Lanai are pretty nice

The rooms at Four Seasons Lanai are pretty nice

Hawaii holds a special place in the history of our pod. It’s where Powerwoman and I got married back in 2004, where L said her first word, where R did her first hike in the trusty child-carrying backpack. It also is where I’ve reported some of the most meaningful features of my time as a freelance writer.

In short, we f-ing love the place.

This is why we make a point of returning at least once a year. We’ve been lucky enough to go 15 times (together) in 12 years of marriage. This year’s iteration starts tomorrow.

We’re doing something different this year, spending the first half of our trip on the island of Lanai. Neither I nor Powerwoman has been back there since we went on our honeymoon. This experience is likely to be VERY different for two reasons: 1) Obviously this time we’ll have three kids in tow, and 2) The resort at which we stayed last time is now closed, and the resort at which we’re staying this time is arguably THE NICEST RESORT IN THE WORLD.

That resort, Four Seasons Lanai, was completely renovated in the last few years and reopened in February. (If you’re interested in learning more, this article provides some good context.)

Sure, it’s swanky. And yes, it’s renowned for its incorporation of technology. I’m sure the service is amazing. I know the restaurants are top-notch. The views are incredible. But the sweet tooth in me is excited about our stay for an entirely different reason: The hotel breakfast has a malasada machine. And I know my kids are going to flip out when they experience it.

You see we’re kind of mad for malasadas. I’ve written about malasadas for a bunch of different clients. What’s more, the sugar-covered dough balls have become a mainstay of our Hawaii trips—when we’re on Maui, we hit up T. Komoda General Store in Makawao; when we’re on Oahu, we go to Leonard’s.

Thursday morning—our first at Four Seasons Lanai—we’re going to stuff our faces with as many of them as we can handle. It will be a great way to kick off what is sure to be another epic Hawaii adventure.

Stay tuned for details.

Travel memory: Learning to talk on Kauai

Years later, our beach babe still loves the crashing surf.

Years later, our beach babe still loves the crashing surf.

A recent conversation with a friend about vacationing on Kauai (in Hawaii) reminded me of one of our first milestone family trips: A vacation in 2010 during which L spoke for the first time.

The three of us—R hadn’t even been conceived yet—stayed for a week in Poipu at the Villas at Poipu Kai, a wonderful property of furnished vacation rentals near Brennecke Beach. Those were the days before this blog; at the time I was keeping a different blog titled, The Daddy Dispatch (someday, I’ll re-publish those old posts). That said, this particular trip was of the unplugged variety; I happily didn’t write anything while we were there.

That didn’t stop important stuff from happening.

At the time L was about 13 months old, and she hadn’t said much more than, “Mom,” and “Dada.” We were just starting to wonder when she’d say her first real word. Then, one day, on the beach, it just came out: “A-gain! A-gain! A-gain!”

She was talking to the ocean, of course. The waves, specifically. She loved the way they came in and lapped at her tiny feet. She was ordering the ripples to continue.

Again and again, the kid screamed, “Again!”

At first, neither Powerwoman nor I knew quite how to react—we found ourselves somewhere between joy and did-she-really-just-say-that? After about 12 or so repetitions, we started cheering and crying and clapping and doing all the stuff that first-time parents do at a milestone of this nature. “Again” became the theme of the trip; everywhere we went, we did things two or three times, just so we could hear our first child ask us to do them again.

Looking back on that day, travel is an integral part of this cherished memory. Would we remember the accomplishment if L had said, “Again!” here at home? Of course. But the fact that she said it there in Hawaii, commanding the cerulean sea, makes everything about the experience more vivid.

That vibrancy, that extra detail, makes the memory even more special. That we experienced it on a family trip adds panache to an incident we’ll treasure for the rest of our lives.

What developmental milestones have your kids achieved while traveling?

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.

Visiting the special family place, without kids

Maui. With my loves.

Maui. With my loves.

Hawaii is a special place for everyone in our family. It’s where Powerwoman and I got married, where L said her first word (the word was, “again;” she said it at the ocean waves), and where R fell in love with the beach.

It’s also a place to which we’ve traveled as a unit multiple times.

For this reason, it’s hard for me to think about Hawaii without thinking of my family. The two go together like light rum and dark rum in a Mai Tai, like palm fronds and tropical breezes.

That’s the main reason this week has been particularly odd. I’m on Maui all week on behalf of my client, Expedia. We’re here to participate in an off-site for the Expedia Viewfinder team, to run a number of contests (like this one), and to report on all things sun and sand and surf in this part of the world. All of my favorite colleagues are here. The only thing missing: my brood.

Trust me—I’m having a blast. And I’m enjoying the restful sleep at night. But everywhere I look, every sight and smell and sound I experience, I’m wishing the girls and Powerwoman were here, too.

This morning, for instance, I joined a colleague for a run along the beach in Wailea and we spotted a giant snail inching along in a pointy seashell—notably different from the snails we see at our home back in Northern California. When I saw the creature, I couldn’t help but think of the girls. They would have been talking about that thing all day.

Later this week, when I take some of my fellow Viewfinders on a run to get malasadas (i.e., fried donuts) from my favorite bakery on the island, I’ll be thinking of L, since malasadas comprise one of her favorite food of all time.

The phenomenon has taught me that solo travel to one of the destinations you usually frequent as a family is a variation on family travel as a whole.

They’re not here, but they are. It’s magic. It’s amazing. And it makes perfect sense.

If nothing else, the last 48 hours have inspired me to come back before the end of this summer, with my loves in tow. Maui is wonderful no matter what the circumstances of the visit. But for me, it’s especially wonderful with my kids and wife. As any favorite family travel destination should be.

What is your favorite family travel destination and why?

Preparing for an ‘Expert Roundtable’

Sisters. North Lake Tahoe. Summer 2014.

Sisters. North Lake Tahoe. Summer 2014.

Over the course of my professional life, I’ve spoken in front of standing-room only crowds of journalists, packed lecture halls of marine biologists, and giant auditoriums of car salesmen (really; don’t ask). None of these gigs has given me as much pride as the engagement I’ve got lined up for Wednesday morning: I’m the featured speaker for the “Expert Roundtable” in L’s kindergarten class.

The gig is part of a monthly series during which parents come into the classroom and chat with students about what they do and the tools they use to do their jobs right.

The last speaker was a veterinarian. I’m chatting about being a journalist.

Because I can’t bring kittens (let’s face it: A vet is a tough act to follow), I’ll be bringing newspapers, magazines, keyboards and steno pads for the kids to touch and feel and share and (in the case of the pads) keep.

Beyond that, my plan is simple: I’ll chat a bit about what kinds of stories I tell, explain how I collect information for my stories, have the kids interview each other (for a sense of what that’s all about), then I’ll share the process through which I put the stories together. (HINT: The process involves bowls of pretzels and M&Ms.)

I’ll conclude with some examples—a retrospective of some of the most fun stuff I’ve done over the years. Naturally, because I specialize in family travel (and because family travel comprises the bulk of what I’ve written since L was born), I’ll share a bunch of anecdotes about that.

Like that piece about the time L and I traveled to Beverly Hills so she could sketch haute couture. And the piece about the time we crossed the Thames River, in London, in an underwater tunnel. I’ll share a story from our family trip to Yosemite this past spring, and the piece from last month, about R’s birthday walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.

I’ll also share my favorite anecdotes from the month we spent living in Hawaii—the ones about the goats that jumped on the picnic table, and about the time when Blue the horse stuck her white fuzzy nose in through the car window and nuzzled my kids.

I might even show them some of the stuff I reported on our August trip to Walt Disney World Resort.

No, I’m not expecting more than half of the kids to pay attention. And I’ll be happy if one or two (beside L and her BFFs) even remember my name. But maybe, just maybe, one of those kids will hear my stories about my life telling stories and be inspired to become a journalist herself (or, I guess, himself). The mere chance of that is reason enough to do it. Which is precisely why I’m so stoked.

Celebrating the best family travel year ever

One year ago tonight, in London.

One year ago tonight, in London.

One year ago today—August 20, 2013—our wandering pod embarked on the greatest adventure of our lives: a five-month relocation to London.

Our stay in the U.K. kicked off what has been the greatest stretch of travel in our lives. Over the course of the last 12 months, we Villanos have logged nearly 400,000 (air and car) travel miles as a unit, touching down in England, Ireland, Canada, Hawaii, Florida (specifically, Walt Disney World), Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and more.

The best part: We’ve done it all together.

I’ve had fun over the last few nights going back and looking at posts and pix from this time last year. There’s this post, from two nights before we departed. And the photo that accompanies the entry you’re reading now; the pic was taken at 3 a.m. London time on the night we arrived—after both girls woke up for the day (damn you, jet lag!). Then, of course, there is this piece, from two days after we arrived.

(Interestingly, we ditched the pram in that post for a sturdier one we bought in London. We still use the “London buggy” every time we fly.)

It’s also been fun to remember the highs and lows of a year of family travel. My favorite high: A week of dodging raindrops and chasing geese in the Lake District, toward the end of our run in England. My least favorite low: The night Little R kicked me out of bed at The Ahwahnee (inside Yosemite) and insisted that I sleep on the floor—making it the most expensive campsite of all time.

Throughout these adventures, I have deepened my appreciation for the world, for embracing new things, for the privilege to leave home for a while. I’d like to think the girls have experienced similar growth.

Even if all this travel hasn’t changed my kids, exposure to it certainly has sensitized their little brains to the notion of exploration. Will I be disappointed if they grow up to be homebodies? Not at all. But something tells me that after a year like the one we’ve just had, curiosity will come naturally to them.

What will the next year bring? From a practical perspective, the next 12 months of travel likely will look very different; with both girls in school (and L in Kindergarten five days a week), our opportunities to escape as a foursome may dwindle. Rest assured, we’ll find ways to get out and about. There are places to go! There are people to see! Most important, this travel thing is what we Villanos do best. Here’s to another great year.

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