Family travel inspiration from the Mendocino Coast

It's good now; it'll be even better in 2020.

It’s good now; it’ll be even better in 2020.

Most of the time, family travel is all about the ins and outs of traveling with the kids. Other times, it’s about family-oriented epiphanies, observations, and/or discoveries when traveling while the kids are back at home.

This past weekend, Powerwoman and I were lucky enough to experience the latter form of family travel. The two of us were traveling solo—my mother-in-law was watching the girls—as part of our annual unplugged and tech-free trip. We were staying just north of Fort Bragg at the Inn at Newport Ranch, a breathtaking new spot on the Mendocino Coast. And we had dinner with some wonderful people on the first night.

Our hosts, Creighton and Cindi Smith, are the innkeepers at Newport Ranch; they’re the ones who prepared the meal. In addition to us, they invited two of their friends, Guy and Sarah Pacurar.

Guy and Sarah are innkeepers, too—they own the Brewery Gulch Inn, another great spot on the Mendo County coast, much closer to Mendocino. When Guy and Sarah aren’t running their inn, they run a fledgling winery.

This is where the family part comes in. You see, the name of Guy and Sarah’s winery is Fathers & Daughters. Guy named it after his two daughters. Since Sarah’s father owns the vineyard in which the winery’s grapes are grown, Guy also named the endeavor after his father-in-law. Do the math: The label celebrates two fathers and three daughters.

You can’t get much more family-oriented than that.

I admit, I’m a sucker for the whole daddy/daughter story; I’ve got two daughters now and will have three of them by the time I turn 40 later this year. Still—the story behind Fathers & Daughters is a juicy one (pardon the pun). And the wine is great, too.

We tasted the 2012 Ella’s Reserve Pinot Noir; a bright, fragrant and complex pinot made with some of my favorite clones (I won’t get too wine geeky here, I promise). I’d describe the wine as being light and full-bodied at the same time (the tasting notes use the phrase, “lean and lush”). Most important, the wine is named after Guy and Sarah’s daughter, Ella.

While I like the wine itself, the family connection is what I like best about this brand. And that doesn’t surprise me at all. Even when we’re not on a “family vacation,” we can be inspired by family-oriented experiences on the road. Even when we’re not traveling with our girls, they’re with us when we go.

Once a family traveler, always a family traveler, I guess. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Family time, unplugged

I unplug to escape stuff like this. (Me! In Times Square!)

I unplug to escape stuff like this. (Me! In Times Square!)

As a freelance writer, I have to stay connected most of the time. My business depends on it—if I miss an email from an editor, I might miss out on a potential assignment, which means missing out on cold cash.

Generally speaking, I don’t mind this constant state of connectedness. It enables me to stay on top of trends, and to build my brand as a family travel blogger by posting Instagram pictures and other social media missives when we travel as a clan.

Still, every now and again, it’s nice to take a trip on which I’m completely unplugged.

Powerwoman and I try to take one such trip every year. For better or for worse, these tech-free trips usually happen when the two of us have the opportunity to steal away together, without the girls. In fact, we leave later today for four days of disconnected bliss on the Mendocino County coast (which is about three hours from our home).

The plan for these trips is pretty simple: Keep me away from technology at all costs. No Facebooking. No Tweeting. No Instagramming. And almost certainly no email.

Of course going away without the children necessitates a certain degree of connectivity; my mother-in-law, who’s watching the girls back at our place, needs to be able to reach us in case of an emergency. What’s more, Powerwoman often brings her phone so the two of us have at least one camera to document great places and fun times.

Still, for me, these trips are glorious. Because I get to just be in the moment. Every moment. All day long.

Preparing for our tech-free vacations always reminds me just how dependent on technology we’ve become. It also inspires me to try to be more tech-free in my everyday life. Especially when I’m with the kids: Do I really need to check my phone every time the damn thing vibrates or sends me a notification?

Of course the answer is no. And of course it will be far more difficult to ask and answer that question one month from now, when this unplugged vacation is long over and I’m back in the thick of life. Still, the question itself is a good one. And the self-examination it inspires almost always leads to more self-awareness, and at least the recognition that I could and must be better.

The bottom line: We all could stand to ditch some technology. I challenge you to take the same break in your life and evaluate the consequences. Big changes take time. This one’s worth waiting for.

Room at the Inn for Family Travelers

Exploring our surroundings at the Little River Inn.

Exploring our surroundings at the Little River Inn.

For many family travelers, the notion of crashing with youngsters at a romantic inn is a recipe for an anxiety attack. What if they’re loud? What if they disturb the neighbors? What if efforts to control the kiddos trigger an all-out melt down?

Yes, these are all legitimate concerns. But in the right kind of atmosphere, the experience actually can be pleasant.

I came to this epiphany late last month on a solo road trip with my two girls. As part of our adventure, we spent two nights at the Little River Inn, a circa-1853 lodge-style spot along the Mendocino County Coast. A number of family-friendly amenities there made the stay palatable for all of us—and other guests, too. Here a closer look at those that made the biggest difference.

  • Suites. Standard rooms generally can feel cramped for a family of 3 or 4 (or more). Thankfully, the inn offered the Llama Barn Suite, a private one-bedroom cottage about a mile from the main lodge. The girls and I used the front room like a playroom, spending time there playing games, telling stories and horsing around. At night, when I put the kids to sleep in the bedroom, I used the front room as an office and workout space.
  • Kitchenettes. We family travelers don’t need a full kitchen with a stovetop and oven, but a refrigerator and, sometimes, a microwave, sure make things easier. At the Little River Inn, I stocked the Llama Barn Suite fridge with milk and fruit to give the girls as snacks. One night, I made us popcorn to snack on outside while we looked for the moon.
  • In-room dining. We tried meals out (one night in Mendocino, the other in the Main Dining Room at the inn itself), but after two debacles (L triggered the first; R the second), I gave up and ordered room-service breakfast on the last morning. This was a nice luxury, especially since the kids woke up early. It also saved me from the (inevitably hour-long) process of getting them ready.
  • Open (outdoor) space. Hotel lobbies are great places for letting kids burn off steam after a long day of travel. Open fields and/or meadows are even better. Our accommodations at the Little River Inn had two options for this: A patch of grass right off the patio of the front room, and the beach at Van Damme State Park, located just across Highway 128 from the main lodge. I set the girls loose (under supervision, of course) in both spots. They returned happy and tired.

The fifth and final element of a family-friendly atmosphere at a small hotel is one that’s challenging to define. I like to call it: the Wild Card.

This might be an on-site swing set or playground. It might be a waterfall just outside the room. Whatever it is, the Wild Card must be something that piques your kids’ curiosity. And it can’t ever get old.

The Llama Barn Suite had a few of these.

No. 1, of course, were the namesake llamas—four of them in all, housed in a pen just a short walk from our front door. Every morning the innkeepers Marc and Cally Dym left us with radish greens to feed the critters. And feed them we did; my girls were obsessed (and still excitedly pontificate on what types of greens and goodies would make for good llama snacks).

We also had access to a beautiful garden, a spot where the Dyms grew everything from Zinnias and Peonies to strawberries, raspberries and sugar snap peas. (A note in our room informed us we could sample the fruit, in moderation.)

Finally, of course, was Rosie, the Bernese Mountain Dog that patrolled the area between the Llama Suite and nearby homes. Even though the pooch was twice their size, my girls fell in love with her and showered her with attention pretty much every time we left the cottage. The dog became the de facto mascot of our trip; my kids drew cards for her before we left.

The bottom line: The notion of vacationing with young children at a romantic getaway doesn’t have to be an oxymoron. As I learned last month, a few tiny touches can go a long way.

Just make sure you pick accommodations from innkeepers who understand what kinds of touches those might be.

For what kinds of amenities and/or features do you look when you book accommodations on family trips?

An Ode to Solo-Parent Family Travelers

Happy times, with a tree llama.

Happy times, with a tree llama.

After two-thirds of a mommy-free, 3-day road-trip with my girls, I can tell you this: Solo-parent family travel is a LOT harder than I ever thought it would be.

In my abbreviated experience, challenges generally come in two main flavors: Kid-time and alone-time.

The ones during kid time should come as no surprise. Meals are tough because you’ve got no help to feed or discipline or disrobe crayons or put together a puzzle or cut grilled cheese or chase down that piece of fried fish one of the children just threw across the room. Bedtimes can be rough when the kids are on different schedules and there’s only one parent to wipe butts and brush teeth and read books and sing songs and snuggle.

Alone time presents its own obstacles. Because there’s nobody else to watch the kids for even a moment, you find yourself Instagramming and scribbling story notes while adjudicating a game of “Go Fish,” eating dinner (of unclaimed pasta with butter sauce, natch) at 5 p.m., and engaging in training “runs” of four miles (in circles) around the living room of your rental cabin.

(Yes, I really did that last one. I know: I am a complete and total freak.)

Months from now, I’ll look back on this experience with my girls as difficult but fun. Heck, next week I plan to write about some of the amazing stuff we have done over the last 48 hours.

Right now, however, crashed out on a couch while the gals snooze away in the other room, I see the takeaway as more visceral: nobody—I mean, nobody—deserves more credit in the world of parenting than single moms and dads who vacation with multiple children multiple times a year.

For these parents, solo-parent vacations aren’t a choice.  For these parents, help rarely is even an option. For these parents, this rigmarole is reality, on every single trip.

In my book—especially tonight—that makes them rock stars; parents from whom I’ve got a ton to learn.

On the Road Again, Solo with Kids

Little R (and friends) on our last big roadie.

Little R (and friends) on our last big roadie.

A few weeks ago, when Powerwoman decided to book a 4-day trip to see friends and family members back East (we both hail from New York), I was left with a number of options to entertain the girls. The County Fair! Museums in the city! Kicking it at home!

Had I chosen any one of these, all three of us would have been perfectly content with the result. Instead, however, I opted for something far more adventuresome (and outlandish and insane): A road trip.

That’s right. A road trip. Alone. With two kids under the age of five.

The trip is this weekend. The plan is simple: We pile into a 2013 Toyota RAV4 Limited, take our time driving up to the Mendocino County coast, and spend the long weekend exploring nooks and crannies of the area from our home base at the Little River Inn outside of Mendocino.

Am I nuts? Am I delusional? Most of my friends think so. One buddy asked if I was going to hire help along the way. Another—a mom, mind you—said she would “dread” a roadie without “backup” (i.e., her partner). Even my own parents questioned whether I’d have the energy and wherewithal to handle the challenge.

I certainly don’t scoff at these concerns. I mean, save for day trips here and there, I’ve never traveled solo with both girls–not by car, not by plane, not by hang-glider. What’s more, it’s probably not the brightest idea to take two kids who get car sick on a road trip that involves windy roads.

Still, why not go? We’ve got the time. We’ve got the car. We’ve even got a collective will to explore.

(As an aside, our room apparently is next to a llama barn, so I could say, “We’ve got llamas.”)

In general, my motto when it comes to traveling with my kids is this: Go big. Go often. And go to places they’ll enjoy. On paper, this trip should achieve every part of that credo. Now all we have to do is get out there.

Stay tuned throughout the week for nightly updates from the road. For more up-to-the-minute coverage, follow me on Instagram and like the blog on Facebook.

What’s the craziest solo trip you’ve ever taken with your kids?

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