The ice-skating debut

Northstar-Village-Ice-Skating

Skating at Northstar (not my kids)

They were so excited to go ice-skating, I wasn’t about to stand in the way. And so, on our first full day of our annual trip to Tahoe this weekend, I waltzed L and R into the skate rental shop at the Village at Northstar and got us our skates.

“What’s it like, Daddy?” L asked.

“Are we gonna fall?” R followed-up, not even giving me a chance to respond to her sister’s query.

“It’s…fun,” I said, trying to be as convincing as possible. “We’ll take it slowly and I’m sure you girls are gonna love it.”

Before you start thinking about what a great dad I am, know this: I abhor ice skating, much like I despise a great many other winter sports. I don’t like the way the shoes feel on my feet, I can’t ever skate for more than three or four sweeps of my feet before I fall on my ass, and I’m SUPER neurotic about any sport during which I can fall and break my wrist and impact my life as a writer. There are an infinite number of things I’d rather do than ice-skate.

Yet there I was, wobbling my way over to the rink, desperately trying not to fall while I held the girls’ hands and tried to keep them from falling as well.

When we got to the entrance, a bunch of drunk dudes clapped to commemorate my successful walk from the bench where we laced up. The girls turned around and smiled. I was mortified but my kids had no clue. They were loving every minute of it.

Our “session” began with both girls trying to skate out into the middle of the rink—and both girls falling squarely on their butts in a matter of seconds. Neither got frustrated, but both looked to me for guidance. So I did what any other self-respecting parent would do in that situation: I encouraged them to “get comfortable” by holding on to the railing while they “skated” around the perimeter of the rink.

Around the rink we went, one-half skating, one-half walking. Every few panels of glass, one of the girls would slip and fall on the ice with a thud. Every time, the fallen child resumed the position of the afternoon and continued unabashedly.

When we finished our first lap, I asked the kids if they’d had enough. “NO!” they both shouted.

When we finished our second lap, I asked them again if they’d had enough. “No way Daddy!” they shouted.

When we finished our third lap, before I could even ask the girls how they were feeling, they both turned around and told me we were going to continue.

Mercifully, however, it was Zamboni time. Workers rushed onto the ice and guided everybody off. The girls and I followed suit. When we made it safely outside of the rink, Powerwoman convinced the kids to put their boots back on. Miraculously, we had survived, and nobody had chipped a tooth.

To say I was relieved by the sudden change in plans would be an understatement. But the girls were genuinely bummed. Even though they never really got the hang of ice-skating, the kids loved it. Even though I wasn’t much of an instructor in the rink, they were thankful and appreciative of the time I spent with them inside.

The whole experience was a lesson in opening the mind. The kids didn’t care that they didn’t “succeed” at this new sport. They had fun trying. They felt awesome doing it. And that was enough.

Moving forward, perhaps it can be enough for me, too.

Everybody loves sledding

L at top, R at bottom.

L at top, R at bottom.

The one winter sport everyone in our pod loves: Sledding.

We’ve been in Lake Tahoe for three days at this point, and we’ve managed to hit the sledding hills every day.

Our sledfest began yesterday in the backyard of the house we’re renting near Carnelian Bay. I built L and R a course and they spent the better part of two hours slipping and sliding all over it. Some of the runs they used the saucers we found in the shed. Most of the runs the girls just went down on their bellies.

Yesterday, we took the show on the road, heading over to North Tahoe Regional Park, where a friend (and local public relations maven) said the hills might be good. Inside the park we came across two separate hills—a considerably steep one that dropped almost straight down into a cul-de-sac and a less formidable one that bottomed out into a snowdrift.

Naturally (see this post), the girls opted for the easier hill. And after some hemming and hawing from L (she was frustrated her younger sister was so good), both of them got busy.

The next three hours were highlighted by cheers and giggles and wipeouts and declarations that each girl was “the best sledder in the world!” Powerwoman and I had a blast, too, taking turns holding the baby while the other could careen down the hill after our other kids.

In one sequence, R and I went down the longest of the runs on the easy hill and wiped out into a tree. I feared my middle child was hurt. Until she turned around and told me “crashing was awesome.”

By the time we had to leave for lunch, none of us wanted to leave. So when we got back to the house, the big girls and I hit the backyard course again, incorporating a beach ball into the fun. Years from now, when my kids look back on this trip, something tells me they’ll remember the sledding above everything else. I probably will, too.

What are your family’s favorite winter pastimes?

Testing limits on a family trip to Lake Tahoe

Big Girls. Waiting for a tether to the top.

Big Girls. Waiting for a tether to the top.

The last eight hours of our Lake Tahoe sojourn comprised an exercise in testing the limits of the big girls’ comfort zones.

There were tears. There were laughs. And everybody learned a bit along the way.

The scenes played out at Northstar California, a great ski resort outside of Truckee in the northern part of the Lake Tahoe region. We were here last in January 2015 (I wrote about parts of that trip in this Expedia Viewfinder piece), but L and R really didn’t do more than drink hot cocoa. This time, I was determined to get them to do something different. I was determined to get them out on the slopes.

I knew neither of them would go for skiing—L is way too much of a control freak to surrender to gravity, and R is scared of anything she considers to be “fast.” So I told them snow tubes were like giant pool floaties, and convinced them to go snow-tubing.

Before we could go tubing, however, we had to get ourselves up the mountain. So we hit the gondolas.

I could tell when we approached that both girls had serious misgivings about the ride. R kept asking if the gondolas ever fell off the cables. L kept wondering whether we sat or stood. Thankfully, because the gondolas move (slowly) as you embark, the girls had no time to overthink it when we boarded; they just got in and sat down. As the gondola started climbing up the mountain, both kids relaxed considerably. They smiled. They laughed. L marveled at the silence. R hooted at some skiers below.

When we arrived at mid-mountain, I led the girls hand-in-hand across the ski slopes to the snow-tubing center. We checked in at a yurt. We walked out to the tubes. We clipped in to a cable that towed us about 600 feet up the hill. Through this point, the kids were having the time of their lives, giggling and joking about the giant floaties in the snow.

As we walked over to the top of the J-shaped snow-tube course, their moods changed considerably. L asked how we’d get down. R wondered if the floaties tipped.

Just as I was starting to wonder how I was going to talk them through the experience, the man who was helping people into their tubes suggested that the three of us go down together. I thought this was a great idea. The girls were too petrified to respond.

So he used our tethers to tie us together. Then he pushed us down the hill.

What followed was, quite literally, a blur. I remember our flotilla spinning and banking high up a wall at the bottom of the run. I remember noticing both girls had their eyes closed. That’s about it.

When we came to a stop, both girls were bawling. As I helped them out of their tubes, L hit me a few times on the arm, yelling about how she’d never forgive me. R just kept asking: “Why did you make us do that? Why, Daddy? Why? WHY?”

Looking back, I guess maybe the snow tubes were a bit adventuresome for my kids. Still, IMHO, the only way they’re going to appreciate new experiences is if they try ‘em. Once the tantrums subsided, both girls were excited to take the gondola back down the hill. That’s a victory in my book. And hopefully the start of some limit pushing we can extend next winter.

The importance of looking up

It’s easy on family trips to get bogged down in the stuff that’s right in front of you: Screaming toddlers, bickering tweens, Snapchatting teenagers. Sometimes, it’s just as important to look up.

Powerwoman and I were reminded of this today during a snowball fight with the L and R in the backyard of our vacation home rental here in Tahoe. In the midst of battle, I heard an eagle cry. In the distance, I was able to spot a bald eagle perched high atop the lake, tending to eaglets in a nest.

The four of us (Baby G was sleeping inside) stopped our snowballs and plopped in the snow, marveling at the mighty bird. We couldn’t see much, but just knowing it was there kept our attention for the better part of five minutes. It was one of the most magical travel moments with the girls in recent memory. And it never would have happened without simply taking a break.

Pausing FTW

Pausing FTW

All Elsa, all the time

Elsa, surveying the North Mountain (and snow-covered deck).

Elsa, surveying the North Mountain (and snow-covered deck).

A funny thing happens when you vacation with three girls between the ages of 3 and 6—you feel like you’ve stepped into a Disney movie. All. The. Damn. Time.

Such was life last week when we spent five days in Lake Tahoe with great family friends. The girls could see or touch snow every waking moment of every day. Which meant they convinced themselves they were living in the movie, Frozen.

This alternate reality manifest itself in a number of hilarious ways.

First, we grown-ups were subjected to the word, “Elsa” no less than 70 times every hour of every day. The girls screamed it. They sang it. They took turns being Elsa 1, Elsa 2, and Elsa 3. One morning, the three of them got into an animated conversation of what Elsa would do if she were annoyed at her sister for not including her in a game with friends. (Their answer: Elsa would freeze everyone. Of course.)

Second, every day comprised multiple costume changes. Immediately after awakening for the day (at 5 a.m.), each girl raced to the room we had designated as the play room to get first dibs on the dress of their choice. Choices included three Elsa dresses, one Anna dress and a few other non-Frozen options. Two of the three girls also had plastic, turquoise Frozen heels, which they wore at all times in the wood-floored house, thus preventing the 7-month-old baby sleeping downstairs from getting a decent nap.

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering, those dress negotiations never EVER went smoothly.)

Finally—and this was perhaps my favorite—the kids took to citing lines from Frozen, and bending those lines to fit just about every situation in which we found ourselves over the course of the trip. Whenever wind gusts took the temperature from the teens into the single digits, at least one of the kids would state, “The cold never bothered me anyway.” When L got the brilliant idea to amass snow to build a man-like sculpture, she didn’t ask her sister or friend to help, but sang, “Do you want to build a snowman?”

It’s important to note here that I am in no way complaining about this phenomenon; on the contrary, I found it fascinating and instructive and endearing (most of the time). Multifamily travel in and of itself is one thing. Apparently, multifamily travel while playing princess pretend is entirely something else.

When family vacation rentals get weird

Yours truly, with bear and panties and cat mug.

Yours truly, with bear and panties and elf and cat mug.

For years, I’ve been an outspoken advocate of vacation rentals for family travel. When you work with a reputable (and hands-on) agency and you get a good place, there’s nothing better. But when you work with a hands-off agency or you book directly with an owner and you get an iffy place, the experience can color your entire vacation. And not in the best of ways.

We have been reminded of this truism this week during our time in Lake Tahoe. While here, we have rented a house (with another family) through Airbnb. And while we had a fabulous time overall, the house was…well…in a word…ODD.

Examples of the weirdness:

  • When we arrived, we found a pair of purple satin women’s underwear just sitting in the washing machine.
  • There were clumps of dog hair on two of the three beds (this one might have been our fault; even though neither vacationing family owns a dog, we opted for a pet-friendly house because we thought it’d be better for the kids).
  • The refrigerator was FULL of food, and the note on the counter made clear that we were not allowed to use any of it except condiments. (The freezer also was full; some of the items there included frozen bananas—with the peels—and frozen cold cuts.)
  • In looking for television remotes, we found a kleptomaniac’s stash of fancy salt-and-pepper shakers and a file folder with the owner’s birth certificate and Social Security card. (Honestly, it’s a good thing we are not hackers or identity thieves.)
  • The owner had a fascination with bears; there were three life-sized stuffed bears on the main floor, and more than 60 bear images throughout the house.

I chronicled some of the most eccentric details on my Instagram account over the course of our trip. To check them out, click here.

Again, to be clear, I don’t blame Airbnb for the shortcomings of the place we got. That said, considering the success Powerwoman and I have had with vendors such as Rural Retreats and One Fine Stay—brands that keep much tighter control over quality—I think we’ll pay more for a hands-on agency next time around.

What have your experiences been? When you opt for vacation rentals, where do you book and why?

Mess masters

The mess. Tahoe. 2014.

The mess. Tahoe. 2014.

It truly is amazing how much havoc three little girls can wreak in a matter of hours.

Case in point: The garbage dump we’ve designated as the “play room” this week at a vacation rental in Lake Tahoe. (We’re here with another family.)

When we arrived, we told the kids—L, R, and their friend, whom we’ll call S—they could use a section of the family room for their toys and games. And they did. A few hours later, however, the place looked like a tornado had come through. Board game pieces were strewn like trash. Dolls lied like corpses. Frilly Frozen dresses were everywhere. In some corner of the mess, a magic wand stuck out from between two couch cushions.

The mess gets worse/grows every night. And every night after the kiddos go to bed, we grownups are faced with an important question: To tidy up or not to tidy up? And because the mess is so sizable, because we’re on vacation, none of us has opted for the cleaner (and more responsible) option.

Of course we’ll *have* to clean it up before we head home. When we do, you’d better believe we’ll be putting the kids to work.

In our family, the rules are simple: You make the mess, you own it and you clean it up. In the meantime, however, the situation certainly makes for a great laugh.

The wonder of family travel in winter

Sleds and snow-brick makers.

Sleds and snow-brick makers.

The four of us are gearing up for a post-Christmas vacation (with dear friends) in Lake Tahoe, which means Powerwoman and I have been prepping the girls for snow (and enduring all of the concomitant Elsa references) and stocking up on cold-weather supplies.

It also means L and R have learned a whole lot about winter travel in a relatively short period of time.

My favorite of the lessons came earlier this week during a family excursion to the local Target. After the groceries, after the Xmas lights, we made our way over to the sporting goods section, where I proceeded to pick up two snow-brick molds (IMHO a critical tool for snowy winters) and two saucer-shaped sleds.

“What’s that giant Frisbee, Dad?” asked the Big Girl.

“This?” I responded, pointing to the pink saucer. “This is a sled, honey.”

“What’s a sled, Daddy?” chimed R.

It was at that moment that I realized: Our girls have visited five countries and lived in London and hung out in Hawaii six times, but THEY NEVER HAVE PLAYED IN SNOW.

On one hand, this is inexcusable—we pride ourselves on taking them everywhere, it’s hard to believe they’ve never played in snow. (For the record, they did *see* snow last fall, in the Lake District of England.) On the other hand, the reality is perfectly understandable; we live in a place where temperatures rarely drop below freezing, and most of the places we visit are warm.

Either way, all of this means the girls are going to be STOKED when we get up there and they get up close and personal with fresh powder.

We’ve been to Tahoe as a family before, but only in the spring and summer.  For me, what’s going to make this trip so fun is that the winter wonderland will make an old favorite seem like new. The girls think they know what to expect from another family vacation in Tahoe. I can’t wait until they realize how mistaken they are.

What kind of family trips do you like to take in winter?

Making travel games their own

Yahtzee!

Yahtzee!

Little R has been under the weather this week, and Powerwoman and I have been scraping the bottom of the barrel of activities to keep the girls busy. This afternoon’s game was a real zinger. I like to call it, “Look through Daddy’s Old Camping Stuff!”

It was a curious scene. The three of us took over the garage. The girls opened up two lawn chairs. Then they sat and waited to “inspect” my old bags for “treasures.” Over the course of the new Taylor Swift album (this is how we measure time), we found a 10-year-old water filter, about 12 corroded AA batteries, an unopened canister of bear spray, and my long-lost Leatherman.

We also found a box of some old travel games, including magnetic Tic-Tac-Toe, magnetic checkers and travel Yahtzee.

Not surprisingly, this was the stuff the girls liked best of all.

R couldn’t get enough of the magnetic goodies; she kept taking the tiny pieces, putting them on the metal frame of the lawn chair, and watching them stick. L, on the other hand, was all about the Yahtzee. She asked me how to play and listened intently as I explained the rules. Then she announced that she didn’t like the official rules, and was making up her own.

What followed was a tutorial in “Yahtzee According to L,” or YAL. Forget playing for a Yahtzee or a Full House; in L’s game, you rolled the dice, counted them up, and practiced writing your numbers on the scorecards.

Over and over and over again.

At first I tried to help her understand the REAL rules, reviewing them here and there to see if I might catch her interest. After about 10 minutes, I realized this sort of instruction was a waste of time; L loved the game, but she only loved it on her terms, and that was the way it would be.

By dinnertime, my older daughter was talking about how she was going to bring YAL on our next road trip (to Lake Tahoe), how she was going to play it “for the entire drive,” and teach it to everyone we met at rest stops along the way. Joking, I told her she could introduce the game to everyone in and around the lake. Her response: “How many people live there, Dad?”

Regardless of whether our Big Girl becomes the next Milton Bradley (I’m not talking about the former Cleveland Indians’ centerfielder here, people), the YAL incident reminded me of a valuable lesson: When it comes to kids and travel, we parents need to allow their imaginations to run wild.

Put differently, the rules by which my kid wants to play Yahtzee don’t matter at all. What does matter is that she actually wants to play, and that she’s excited about doing so on our next trip.

This means she’s already looking forward to our next adventure. Which is a win from the start.

Five signs of a kid-friendly hotel

Our Big Girl tries her hand(s) at foosball.

Our Big Girl tries her hand(s) at foosball.

We have stayed at dozens of kid-friendly hotels over the years, but I’m not sure any of them has been as fun for kids as the place we stayed during our recent family trip: The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe.

Yes, this is a luxury hotel. Yes, the rooms are uber-fancy. And, yes, if you’re traveling on a budget, it might be out of your price range (though off-season and shoulder-season rates are more affordable than you might think). But, to be blunt, the hotel is PERFECT for traveling families. Here are five reasons why.

Games galore
I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of games we played at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe. All of them belonged to the resort. Outside, next to the expansive pool area, the four of us spent copious amounts of time trying out the bocce court, two cornhole courts, oversized Jenga blocks (which the girls used to build castles), and Ladder Toss (with which I am now obsessed). Out near a small lawn, there also was a giant tub of Frisbees (for the Frisbee golf course), badminton equipment and soccer balls. Inside, when R napped, L and I raided the arcade, which had two grabby-claw games, two pinball machines, foosball (which both kids tried and disliked), air hockey (which L tried and LOVED and really was good at) and a variation on Pop-A-Shot (for the record, I notched a 229, which apparently was the second-highest score ever. #notsohumblebrag).

Ongoing kid activities
In addition to these at-your-leisure games, the resort offered a handful of organized games, too. One of our favorites: “Where is the Bear?” The rules of this game were pretty simple. Every morning, members of the hotel’s concierge staff hid a stuffed bear in secret places throughout the Living Room (which is what they call the upstairs lobby). Our objective: To find it. We spent three days trying to find that sucker, but we came up empty every time. Apparently, if L or R *had* spotted the furry little dude, they would have received prizes. Thankfully, for them, the fun of searching endlessly (and screaming, “Where are you, Bear?!?!”) was prize enough. Naturally, the other ongoing kid-oriented program that my little sweet-tooths loved was the daily “Marshmology,” during which hotel staffers doled out house-made marshmallows, Hershey’s chocolate bars and graham crackers for guests (of all ages) to make s’mores. On our first day, both kids burned their marshmallows. By our last day, they had perfected the science of getting those buggers golden brown.

Child-specific amenities
It would be easy for a hotel like The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe to take itself too seriously—during ski season, this is one of the swankiest resorts in the entire area. The reality, however, is that a handful of amenities kept the atmosphere light and welcoming for little ones. I’ve blogged previously about the “Just for Kids Indoor Campout” through which kids can spend their stays in indoor tents. We signed up for this program and the girls LOVED it—so much so that they have requested weekly “tent nights” here at home. The girls also enjoyed the Ritz Kids program; though we didn’t sign up for any of the guided programs designed by Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Future Society, we did duck inside the designated Ritz Kids clubhouse (next to the arcade) for some arts-and-crafts time. (Of course I also have blogged about how much L loved the excursion with Tahoe Star Tours, as well as about how much we all enjoyed the gem-panning attraction in Northstar Village.)

Kid-friendly restaurants
For me to describe a restaurant as welcoming to pint-sized customers, it must offer young diners a) special children’s menus and b) crayons and paper, and must bring orders quickly (so the natives don’t get restless). Many restaurants that self-identify as family-friendly come up short on at least one of these requirements. Thankfully, none of the eateries at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe disappointed us at all. All of the restaurants had unique (and healthy!) kids’ menus. All of the restaurants offered crayons. And all of the restaurants brought food to L and R quickly. On the night we took the girls to Manzanita, the hotel’s fancy eatery, the wait staff was so attentive that the girls lasted a whopping 90 minutes at the table (trust me, this is unprecedented). Still, our favorite on-site restaurant was the Backyard Bar & BBQ, which served up kid-friendly dishes such as cheese pizza, hot dogs and cornbread, and afforded us the chance to sit outside and watch clouds as we ate.

Customer service
Let’s be frank: Sometimes it’s not easy dealing with customers under the age of 6. They can be fussy. They’re often impolite. And even the most neurotic of them leave a trail of messes. For all of these reasons, I’m always aware of how rank-and-file employees at hotels treat me and my kids. And, on this point, the people at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe simply blew me away. Bellmen quizzed the girls about stuff we saw on our daily hikes. The concierge playfully teased them about their inability to find that bear. Perhaps the most notable interactions we had with a staff member were the morning visits with Jennifer, the woman who delivered our room-service breakfast every day of our stay. The girls informed her of their fairy names for each day. Jennifer, in turn, regaled them with stories about her daughter, who apparently had just graduated high school. When we checked out, we found two gift bags behind the front desk with a card from Jennifer. For that kindness alone, we most definitely will be back.

What are some of the amenities you look for in a kid-friendly hotel?

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