Room-service breakfast FTW

One of our favorite places to stay: the Fairmont San Francisco

One of our faves: the Fairmont San Francisco

Powerwoman and Baby G are headed out of town next week so my wife can conduct some research at a major university, which means I’ll be flying solo with the big girls for quite a while.

Most of this time will be spent winding down their respective school years here at home. I also have promised L and R we can spent at least part of the time doing something we Villanos do pretty well: Traveling. We won’t go far, just from our home in the northern reaches of Sonoma County down to the big city of San Francisco for a few nights. The only must on our agenda: A visit to the new SF MoMA.

As I started contemplating what to do for the rest of our time away, I decided this time I’d let the girls choose. And so, after snack time, I asked each of them individually to name three activities or experiences she would like to see on our agenda.

Both kids tabbed “room-service breakfast” at No. 1.

On the surface, this was completely shocking in the absolute best way—room-service breakfast is one of my very favorite guilty pleasures when traveling, and I love that my two oldest girls agree.

The more I thought about it, however, the less shocking this selection really was. Whenever Powerwoman and I want to celebrate something special on a family trip, we splurge for room-service breakfast and make a big deal out of it. We reinforce this ritual by talking about how much we love it, even when we’re not, in fact, having room-service breakfast ourselves. The fact that L and R chose this means they’ve learned from our examples and appreciate the choice.

Put differently, it means we’ve taught them well.

Lest you think we’re going to spend the entire time eating omelets and French fries in bed, the other two items on their respective lists were carousel time and the California Academy of Sciences (which they love because of the exhibit where butterflies can land on your head).

Throw in a trip to the sushi boats restaurant for dinner and it sounds like a pretty awesome family getaway to me.

What are your favorite things to do on a family vacation?

New gear for traveling with a new baby

LullaGo.

LullaGo.

It’s been more than four years since we’ve traveled with a newborn. Naturally, then, in anticipation of our first hotel overnight with Baby G later this week, it was time to invest in some new gear.

Our product of choice this time around: the Chicco LullaGo Travel Crib.

We had heard rave reviews of this travel bassinette for its ease of assembly and its size—good news since we’ve always hated how big and boxy traditional pack-n-plays are. Friends also told us it was sturdy enough to use at home as the primary newborn bed (which means we can save money, too).

While we haven’t traveled with this sucker yet, I can tell you that I already am hooked. After I took the product out of the box, it took me less than 60 seconds to set the thing up. The sides have adequate ventilation, so we don’t have to worry about the baby rolling on her side and struggling to breathe. And the size thing is a huge deal—the bassinette is spacious yet noticeably smaller than a pack-n-play.

The only downside I can see at this point is that the carrying case could be a bit bulky to take on a plane trip. To be fair, though, I’m not sure we’d ever WANT to take it anywhere we can’t travel by car.

Of course the true test for us Villanos will come Christmas Day, when we part ways with family members and take the bassinette to a hotel for the night. I’m eager to see the LullaGo in action. Stay tuned for details on how it performed.

What newborn-oriented travel gear do you love and why?

Introducing the newest member of the pod

L and R meet Baby G.

L and R meet Baby G.

She’s here! She’s here! The newest member of our pod arrived Monday around 7:30 a.m., and we couldn’t be happier to welcome her into the gang. (I’m actually writing this post from the hospital.)

As you know if you’ve read this blog for a while, I don’t believe in publishing any identifying information about my kids on the Internet. I will, however, tell you this, the baby’s first name starts with the letter G, so here on these pages she’ll be known as Baby G.

Big sisters L and R are delighted to have another little human to boss around dote on. As for we grownups, Powerwoman and I are stoked about introducing another little one to the world. We’ve got a few trips on the horizon—some we both have been planning/tossing around for a while, others that will come as a surprise to some (more on that around Christmas time).

In other words, we’re stoked to get this baby home, watch her grow a bit, then get back out on the road.

With that in mind, consider yourselves warned: Over the next year or so I’ll be writing a number of posts that spotlight the challenges and wonders of traveling with a little one again. Some of the perspective will be a fresh take on the same old issues—diapers and swaddling and hotel cribs and lap children. The rest of it will be entirely new; after all, now we’re a Party of Five.

So stay tuned. Hopefully the adjustment period for you, dear readers, is easier than it undoubtedly will be for us. I promise we’ll keep it real.

Growing the pod

Me, with L, six years ago. Ready to do it again!

Me, with L, six years ago. Ready to do it again!

Look up at the masthead of this fair blog and you’ll notice something new: a fifth dorsal fin. This isn’t just an example of artistic expression. Any day now, we’re expecting another daughter.

I’ve made a few subtle references to the new arrival over the last few months, but consider this the first official word. The Wandering Pod is growing. And that’s a wonderful, awesome, exciting, terrifying, crazy, and unbelievable thing. (As we like to tell our friends, we’re either really committed parents, or we’re fucking insane.)

Baby G, as we’ll call her, already has caused quite a stir. As part of an effort to convert my former home office into her room, I hired a crew to build me a new home office in the back corner of our garage. Then we redid floors and carpets, and painted a bunch of stuff (including the baby’s new room; very trippy to see those walls purple). We bought a minivan (more on that later this week). Earlier this week, I fetched the crib and changing table out of storage and put those back together. We even sanitized some pacifiers.

Of course all of these changes pale in comparison to how this little human will transform the way we Villanos travel. For starters, whenever we fly we once again will get to use my least favorite word in the modern English language: LAPCHILD. Next, after two years of traveling diaper-free, we’ll have to schlep diapers and wipes wherever we go. We’ll need to get back in the habit of requesting cribs at hotels. Also, every night around 5 p.m., either Powerwoman or I will disappear from the face of vacation for a while to get the kid to sleep (which means a new travel pre-bed ritual for the bigger girls, who, as of this writing, are 6 and 4).

These changes are only the beginning. Gate-checked strollers. Ergo baby carriers. Breast pumps. We’ll have to whip them all out again and work them all back into the repertoire.

I’d love to stand here and tell you I’m looking forward to most of these changes. The truth, however, is that I’m not—our pod has established some good routines over the last few years, and changing them undoubtedly will be a challenge.

I am interested to see how L and R respond to traveling with a baby. Up until this point, they’ve been the focal points of every trip; how will they fare when they’re sharing our attention with a needy little one? Logistics will be a learning curve, as well—when Baby G wakes up at 2 a.m. in a hotel room in Anaheim (or Kapalua or Seattle or Chicago or Victoria, B.C.) wanting to eat, will L and R wake up, too?

Don’t mistake these doubts and questions as fear; I’m really not worried. Millions of multi-child families have dealt with these issues before us, and millions will deal with them after. Instead, I’d describe my state of mind as curious: In the months following our expansion into an all-girl band, how will our travel style change?

One thing is certain: Whatever happens, you’ll read about it here. So stick around. Stay tuned. And get ready for a bigger, bolder, and better Wandering Pod.

How has a growing family changed your travel style?

Alternative to hotel cots: the Kid-O-Bunk

The Kid-O-Bunk.

The Kid-O-Bunk.

Hotels have a lot of nerve charging $10 or $15 for cots in which to put the kids on a family vacation. A cheaper and more efficient alternative: the Kid-O-Bunk, from a company named Disc-O-Bed.

In a nutshell, the Kid-O-Bunk is a portable hammock-like bunk bed comprising two separate portable cots that can be stacked on top of each other. The portable cots also can be used separately, or jerry-rigged to form a bench. The $290 travel tool disassembles completely and fit into supplied carry bags. What’s more, the sleeping “decks” are made of machine-washable polyester, which means you can guarantee that the thing is as good as new after each and every use.

To be clear—I haven’t used the thing yet. But I can only imagine how this would change our family trips.

For starters, we wouldn’t have to share beds with the kids, a common occurrence when the four of us travel as a group. Second, we wouldn’t even have to ORDER cots, something we usually do (though, again, the kids rarely spend more than an hour or two in them).

Finally, the Kid-O-Bunk would give everybody—especially the girls—his or her own space, something we often crave when we’re all crammed into a hotel room on a family trip.

The next time we all stay in a hotel we’ll actually be a party of five, making something like the Kid-O-Bunk even more useful. Add this to my Christmas list, y’all. I can’t wait for our kids to experience it for themselves.

4 reasons we love Cavallo Point

The view from our room at Cavallo Point.

The view from our room at Cavallo Point.

Because those three weeks in the Pacific Northwest simply weren’t enough, we’re spending the night tonight at Cavallo Point, the Lodge at the Golden Gate.

In case you don’t know it, the lodge is an old fort—named, coincidentally, Cavallo Point—that was renovated back in 2007 into a luxury resort. The place has 142 rooms in all, and the company that owns it is the same company that owns Post Ranch Inn, one of the swankiest resorts in all of California.

With this in mind, it’s no wonder we never want to leave. Here are the things we like best so far:

The room

Renovations to the property turned some old officers’ quarters into new hotel rooms. There are about 70 of these “historic” rooms. To double the size of the resort, owners also built 70 new (they call them, “contemporary”) rooms in 11 standalone buildings. Our room is one of the latter types. On the first floor.

Without question, the best thing about the room is the view—we have an unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Little R, who loves the bridge, has been literally staring and smiling at it since we checked in.

The rest of the room is above average. Features are modern and sleek; because the new buildings are LEED-certified, I believe most of the furniture and built-in work is made from recycled bamboo. The bathroom is tremendous and has a deep tub which I’m sure the girls will love. There also is a mini fridge in the room—always a bonus when you bring your own snacks like we do.

The red-carpet treatment for kids

Shortly after we checked in, a bellman knocked on our door with a gift from the concierge. The gift was for the girls. Inside this bag were two coloring books, two sets of crayons, two jump ropes, two chocolate lollipops, and two sticker sheets. I wandered down to the front desk about an hour after the present arrived and asked the concierge if we received the bag because she knew I was a journalist. She explained that every kid who checks in gets a similar set of goodies.

The bar

In addition to room service, the resort has two dining options: Willow Circle, a restaurant, and Farley Bar. At night Willow Circle can be a bit formal and stuffy, so tonight we chose to dine with the girls at Farley Bar.

Original tin ceilings, a built-in wooden bar, roaring fireplaces, and period lighting fixtures set the scene here and made Powerwoman and me feel like we had stepped back in time. Our server, who seated us in a corner booth near a fireplace and indulged the girls by calling them princesses, made us feel like we were the only patrons of the night (trust me, we were not).

The Farley menu was limited—I mean, it *is* a bar—but reliable and good.

The kids’ meals, grilled cheese and chicken strips, came with berries and were $9 apiece, and our server brought them each Arnold Palmers the way they like ‘em, with no ice. Powerwoman ordered a bit of an eclectic meal: soup and macaroni and cheese. My burger was spot-on.

Perhaps most important, we were comfortable. Sometimes dining with kids in a hotel bar can be riddled with dirty glances and uncomfortable feelings. At Farley, we fit right in. In fact, while the kids were enjoying ice cream sundaes for dessert, I looked around and noticed four other families dining in the bar. The takeaway: Families and the Farley coexist nicely, which makes it a place to try.

The parade grounds

Yes, the view from just about anywhere at Cavallo Point is amazing—depending on the angle, you can see both spires of the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as Alcatraz, the San Francisco Bay, and more.

Still, we liked the Parade Grounds even more. This is the giant open space between the officers’ quarters on the main lawn. Years ago, when the area was an operational fort, the men stationed here would use the greenspace to train, play baseball, hold parades, and more. Because the property has such a colorful past, the name stuck.

Before dinner, L met some other kids climbing a giant old conifer across from the main entrance to the resort. After dinner, L and R ran laps around a flagpole in the very center of the green—a flagpole I’m sure has been there for at least 50 years.

While the girls were running, Powerwoman and I sat on the steps to the bar, drinks in hand, watching from afar. We liked knowing that the girls were safe, that we could just let them run without fear of them being hit by a car or a golf ball. The girls certainly liked it, too—R, after running a grand total of 12 laps, declared she wanted a Parade Grounds at our house. (We’re working on that.)

Of course we also love the hotel’s proximity to the Bay Area Discovery Museum, a fantastic children’s museum in more former fort structures right near the Bay. Our plan is to spend most of the day tomorrow down at the museum. Unlike previous visits there, which have started with a 75-minute drive from home, this time we’ll be able to stroll down in five minutes or less. That’s the kind of commute I could get used to.

You know you’re on family vacation with young kids when…

Sisters playing with perlers. 6 a.m.

Sisters playing with perlers. 6 a.m.

1. You wouldn’t be caught dead in a restaurant without paper and crayons.
2. You order that second Manhattan at dinner to go so you can drink it up in the room during books and songs.
3. You implore loved ones to use “inside voices” way more than you’d like.
4. You hear—and share—more poop and pee jokes than you’ll admit, even to your best friend.
5. You and your partner snuggle up in bed at 8 p.m. to watch separate movies on separate mobile devices with headphones (so as not to disturb anyone in the next bed).
6. You use Suave watermelon shampoo/conditioner on your own hair AND YOU DON’T GIVE A SHIT.
7. You listen to the same playlist in the car over and over and over and over again.
8. You consume French fries (and ice cream) at least once every other day.
9. You are awakened before 6 a.m. every day, usually to officiate an argument.
10. You have an adventure on each trip to a public restroom.
11. You (reluctantly) accept that the process of applying sunscreen takes more than 15 minutes.
12. You tip servers more than normal to assuage your guilt for leaving such a mess.
13. You relinquish all semblance of privacy in the bathroom (or otherwise).
14. You explain new stuff you encounter. In great detail. Frequently.
15. You step on small toys (or Perler Beads) daily, and cannot bring yourself to curse about it when you do.
16. You find yourself justifying how pasta really is its own food group.
17. You have to call housekeeping for help to replace marker-stained pillowcases.
18. You visit every toy store in a five-mile radius of your destination.
19. You realize museums and playgrounds are unbeatable diversionary tools.
20. You expand your family limits to include a litany of stuffed animal friends.

Adventures in family travel reporting

Downtime, before the poop.

Downtime, before the poop.

Because I’m such an advocate of family travel, I have no qualms about taking L and R with me when I go away to report non-family travel assignments. When I do this, my trips become a tale of two experiences: The reporting process, which often is kid-oriented, and the write-up, which can lack mentions of the girls completely.

We found ourselves in one of these situations this past weekend. My goal: To report a feature about the Anderson Valley for the travel section of a major international newspaper. Momma was away at a conference. So I schlepped girls along for the ride.

The effort alternated between amazingly awesome and incredibly stressful.

On Friday, when we arrived at our 9-room luxury hotel, the girls ran around like wildwomen. (At one point, R screamed the word, “vagina,” incessantly; thankfully we were the only guests there at the time.) On Saturday, when we toured a local artisan cheese operation, the girls couldn’t get enough of the goats and sheep. Dinner one night, at a local pub, was a breeze (thank you, colored pencils). Lunch the next day at a local drive-in was a nightmare that resulted in R picking someone else’s chewed gum off the bottom of the table (and nearly eating it).

The low point of the trip: Both kids crapping out about 15 minutes into a hike in Hendy Woods State Park. The high point? Well, um, it, too, had to do with crapping out.

It happened Saturday, just before we cleared out of town and headed for home. I had to interview a winemaker, and set the girls up for some downtime of quiet drawing at a bistro table just outside. For the first 15 minutes, they behaved perfectly. Then, out of nowhere, L came into the winery and interrupted my interview with a frantic declaration: “Dad, I know it’s downtime, but I have to go poop.”

Thankfully we were in the uber-laid back Anderson Valley—had we been in Napa or even Sonoma, I’m sure the winemaker would have scoffed (or at least winced uncomfortably). In this case, the winemaker took the interruption in stride, and led me and my daughter to a spacious bathroom in the back.

Seconds later, the winemaker chuckled when L insisted on keeping the door ajar while she did her business.

“It’s [Boonville],” the oenophile said. “We’re all pretty open here.”

L’s work in the restroom was a booming success; something about the winemaker’s kindness must have relaxed my daughter in unprecedented ways. More important, the experience gave me perspective on the Valley that I’m not sure I would have gotten any other way: There aren’t many tourist destinations that are great both for luxury travelers and for 5-year-olds needing to go. This specific epiphany probably won’t end up in my finished product, but the lesson wasn’t lost on me.

These are the kinds of things we family travelers remember forever.

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.

Babysitter directory that might change your life

Please. Someone. Come watch these maniacs.

Please. Someone. Come watch these maniacs.

I’m not going to lie: Whenever Powerwoman and I take the kids on vacation, we’re hesitant to use sitters we don’t know.

Most of the time, we talk ourselves OUT of it, allowing our overriding lack of familiarity with the sitters in a particular destination (as well as our own neuroses about who is watching the girls) push us into inaction.

Translation: We rarely go out when we travel with the girls. Ever. And the few times we’ve actually used nanny services, we’ve been basket cases the whole time.

Naturally, then, earlier this week, when one of my favorite family travel blogs, Trips + Giggles, launched a brand new hotel babysitter directory, both my wife and I were stoked.

With the service, Juliana Shallcross, my buddy who runs the site, created a list of babysitting agencies in more than 20 cities across the United States. Her list comprises sitters who are often recommended by luxury hotels; she actually worked with luxury hotels to screen candidates and grow the list. The sitters on there now are people with whom she would trust her two girls (who are roughly the same ages as L and R).

Which puts my mind at ease.

In her announcement post, Juliana was careful to lay out parameters of the service. She notes that, because of liability concerns, most hotels cannot make the sitter reservation for you, so it’s up to you to call the agency and find out their pertinent info. She hipped readers to what rates and cancellation policies they can expect ($20-$25 per hour, 24 hours’ notice, respectively).

She even went so far as to recommend that travelers call the babysitting agencies themselves, at least two weeks in advance, and find out as much as possible about the sitters. A direct quote from her site: “Agency directors understand how nerve-wracking it can be for parents to hire sitters, so a good agency director will take the time to answer all of your questions. All of them.”

The catch (if you want to call it that) to all of this: In order to gain access to the directory, you have to sign up to become a member of Trips + Giggles (which, by the way, is free).

On the fence about joining? I’m a member, and I’ll tell you this: If being a part of the Trips + Giggles community brings you peace of mind the next time you and your partner want to have a date night on a family trip, I say it’s worthwhile. I know we’ll be using the directory the next time the four of us travel together.

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