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.

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.

The Best Family Travel Product Ever

We. Love. This. Game.

We. Love. This. Game.

After four years of searching, I have found the single best family travel product in the history of family travel products: Rory’s Story Cubes.

Yes, the game/activity is something that can fit in your pants pocket or a stocking (HINT, HINT). Yes, it comprises nothing more than nine dice (or, in the app, nine virtual dice). But the “Cubes” rock because 1) they are so simple and 2) they spark endless creativity in both you AND the kids.

Here’s how the Story Cubes work. Every side of each die has an image. When you roll the dice, you get nine different images facing skyward. Then you have to tell a story that incorporates each one.

According to the official game rules, it doesn’t matter which image you choose to begin your story, so long as you touch ‘em all before you’re done. And, of course, the wackier the story, the better (which is particularly why 4-year-old L loves this game so much).

The company behind the product, Belfast-based The Creativity Hub, also regularly publishes suggestions from fans and customers of alternative ways to play.

(Also, for the record, the game comes in two other versions: Actions and Voyages.)

Because the parent company is based in Ireland, it’s fitting that we discovered the game at the cottage we rented last week on the Connemara coast. We had plenty of games from which to choose, including Ker-Plunk, Operation and more. Time and time again, we went for the Cubes.

When we returned to London, I purchased the app (for Android; no Apple products in this family). Since then, none of us has been able to stop playing. (Also, since then, I’ve connected with the game creator, Rory O’Connor, on Twitter.)

Because I’m not a fan of unnecessary screen time for kids, I prefer the dice you can shake in your hand and throw. That said, I admit that the Smartphone and tablet versions are great because you can play them in environments that aren’t exactly conducive to throwing dice (namely, on planes during long flights and in cars on road trips).

Whichever version you choose ($7.65 on Amazon.com; $2.25 for the Android app), consider this sucker a must-buy. And have a blast.

What are your favorite games/products to bring along when you travel with the kids?

The Secret to Pub Crawls With Kids

A typical lunch scene during our trip to Ireland.

A typical lunch scene during our trip to Ireland.

Confession: My wife and I spent nine full days in Ireland, and despite the fact that two members of our party are under the age of five, the grownups managed to sample an abundance of local beer every day.

Irresponsible? Perhaps. Gluttonous? Sure. Most of all, though, I like to describe our feat as GENIUS.

The secret to our accomplishment: the pub lunch. You see, most pubs in Ireland (and England, for that matter), start serving food around noon. Since very few locals swing by this early, a lunch visit just past 12 means you’ve got a) the place to yourself, and b) prompt service, since there’s no backlog of orders. Of course in Ireland, it also means Guinness. And Harp. And cider (for my bride). And whiskey.

Powerwoman and I applied this strategy every single day of our visit. Because the girls get up at 6:30 a.m., it was easy to build our days around a noon or 12:30 p.m. lunch. And because they both love fish and chips (which is a staple of most pub menus here in the U.K.), the kids were totally on board.

To put it differently, the question was never, Are we going to eat at a pub today? Instead, it was, At which of the pubs in [insert town here] are we going to eat?

For us, this was an effort to sample local culture by osmosis, a specific approach to work in booze and bar time to an otherwise G-rated affair. (FWIW, our favorite of the bunch was O’Dowd’s, a tiny bar in a Connemara fishing village named Roundstone. Coincidentally, this bar also starred in the 1997 Janeane Garofalo flick, The Matchmaker.)

For the girls, the meals themselves were similar enough to our usual meals while out and about. (Translation: They basically survived on chips and mushy peas). They drew with paper and colored pencils until their food came. When they were done—so long as they stayed at the table—they could resume drawing or make up a new game. If they behaved, they could score a few M&M’s from the secret stash in my bag.

The only downside to this strategy: We missed live music sessions, which normally take place after dark. The only difference from the usual approach to dining out on the road? Incessant toasting; every time Powerwoman and I ordered another round, we insisted the girls clink glasses with us.

While we didn’t make a habit of drinking more than one or two rounds, there were a few visits—especially when we were cabbing around Dublin—where we ended up clinking multiple times.

Thankfully the girls didn’t mind; after all, family travel is a vacation for Mom and Dad, too.

To what extent do you frequent local bars when you’re traveling with the kids?

There’s Something About Nothing

L, surveying the scene at a Connemara beach.

L, surveying the scene at a (chilly) Connemara beach.

We’ve just returned to London from six days in a rural stretch of County Galway in Ireland. In short, they were the best six days in a long, long time.

And we did copious amounts of nothing. The whole time.

Sure, there were moments of wonder—I’ll write about those over the course of the next week or so (Hints: They involve pubs. And castles.). But, for the most part, we just were.

Our base for the week was a three-bedroom cottage on Gorumna Island in a tiny town called Leitir Moir—basically in the southwest corner of the Connemara region. The name of the cottage was Sonas, which means “peace” in Gaelic. Donkeys and cows and horses outnumbered our human neighbors by a ratio of at least 3:1.

For those of you who’ve never been to this part of the world, I’d describe the topography as Coastal Maine on steroids. Lots of tidal inlets. Lots of bays. Lots of granite. And, every now and again, a house or two.

In this environment, we encouraged the girls to let their imaginations run wild. This meant daily walks along the one-lane road to and from the house—with the express purpose of getting into staring contests with the local animals. It meant journeys to harvest the tiny “flowers” that grew from the rocky hillsides. We also a) caught raindrops with our tongues, b) watched the sun rise and set, c) collected a carry-on suitcase full of shells, and d) engaged in rock-throwing contests toward the sea.

These, of course, were just the outdoor diversions.

Inside, we spent our time making fires out of turf (apparently, that’s what the industrious people in this part of the world burn), playing Ker-Plunk (yes, the board game from the 1960s and 1970s; they had it at the house), and listening to the rain plonk on the roof of the conservatory.

Perhaps most important, L and R became BFFs. Our daughters always have gotten along, but after this trip, it is safe to say the duo is inseparable.

Over the course of six days, they had tea parties with their stuffed animals (a Doc McStuffins for L; a kitty for R), used the markers to draw rainbows and “cooked” tasty—and imaginary—treats they called “flower snacks.” By the time we left for the airport this morning, L even was “translating” what her sister said when we couldn’t understand.

Our experience in Leitir Moir proves that sometimes, especially when it comes to family travel, less is more. Put differently, there’s something about nothing that works wonders for a wandering pod.

Don’t take my word for it; try it for yourselves.

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?

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