A different kind of all-in-one

Little R, learning about animation at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Little R at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

I’ve never been a fan of all-in-one resorts. You know what I mean by that phrase, right? The places that tout they have absolutely everything you could possibly need during your stay, right there on property? Want good food? On-site restaurants. Want some culture? On-site museum. Want adventure? Check out the on-site pool or climbing wall or gym or wave pool.

While places like this certainly are convenient, they eliminate what I consider to be the most valuable component of travel: discovery. When everything’s “on-site,” nothing’s a surprise. And when nothing’s a surprise, at least IMHO, there’s not much reason to travel to experience it.

At this very moment, however, my family and I are experiencing a different kind of all-in-one. We’re spending a few days at the Presidio of San Francisco, a former army post that in recent years has been converted to a city within the city. Because the Presidio has overnight accommodations (we’re staying at the Inn at the Presidio) and other tourism infrastructure (such as restaurants and public transportation), it’s a great travel destination, too. And it’s perfect for families.

This afternoon we stayed “close to home” and explored things right around the inn:

  • We wandered over to the Walt Disney Family Museum and introduced the girls to the man behind the Mouse.
  • The big girls climbed trees on the great lawn out in front of the museum.
  • We tromped over to the Presidio Social Club, a fun but casual restaurant in renovated barracks.
  • We wandered back to the inn by starlight (a rare occurrence since this part of San Francisco often is socked in with fog).

None of these activities was more than 15 minutes from our tiny (21 rooms in all) inn, yet everything was separate. Put differently, we never left the Presidio, and we were out and about the whole day.

Tomorrow’s plan is even more eclectic. We’ll start our day at the House of Air, an indoor trampoline arena. Then we’ll explore Fort Point National Historic Site, which has guarded the Golden Gate Narrows for 150 years. After lunch down near the fort, we’ll come back to the Main Post (that’s what they call the area around the hotel) to learn about the archaeology in the area, hit some bowling at the Presidio Bowling Center, and throw down a fancy dinner at Arguello, a restaurant from renowned chef Tracy des Jardins.

We’ll wrap up our visit Friday morning by hiking to see sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy.

Even with all of these items on our agenda, we won’t even scratch the surface of all the things to do and see and experience in this national park (yes, this place is a national park). And that’s exactly the point; the Presidio offers the variety of an all-in-one without making you feel like you’re missing out on something equally awesome nearby.

“The Resort” in the Presidio is everywhere—the components are related but entirely unique. Add to this variety a hearty dose of authenticity and years upon years of history and you’ve got the makings of a great family trip.

Free park time for fourth graders, families

Little R, enjoying some park time of her own.

Little R, enjoying some park time of her own.

The National Park Service today unveiled a new program through which fourth graders and their families can get one full year of free admission to U.S. National Parks, federal lands, and federal waters.

The program, (appropriately) titled the Every Kid in a Park initiative, aims to provide an opportunity for each and every fourth-grade student across the country to experience their public lands and waters in person throughout the 2015-2016 school year.

That means the program starts in August and September, depending on where your kids go to school.

According to literature, the initiative was conceptualized by President Obama himself as a call to action to get all children to visit and enjoy America’s unparalleled outdoors. Today, more than 80 percent of American families live in urban areas, and many lack easy access to safe outdoor spaces.  At the same time, kids are spending more time than ever in front of screens instead of outside.  A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that young people now devote an average of more than seven hours a day to electronic media use, or about 53 hours a week—more than a full time job.

The new program also is part of a larger effort launched earlier this year. This effort—Open OutDoors for Kids—aims to expand nature programs for all children, especially kids who grow up in the inner city and may not otherwise have an opportunity to experience nature on their own.

(Through this latter program, you can donate money to help directly; every $10 helps one child.)

Personally, I cannot say enough good things about these programs. I support them wholeheartedly, even though my kids won’t even qualify for the free passes for another four years (L is in kindergarten now). For those families with children who *are* 9 or 10, these initiatives are HUGE. They help families save money. They increase accessibility. And they’re just darn cool.

The National Park Service turns 100 years old in 2016, making next year the perfect time to cash in on those free passes and take a family trip to a park. I strongly recommend starting planning now. I know we will. Maybe we’ll even see you on the trails.

Which National Park have you always wanted to visit and why?

‘National Park Week’ Great for Family Travel

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L, meet lichen. Lichen, meet L.

This weekend kicks off what is arguably one of my favorite weeks of the year: National Park Week, an 8-day stretch during which admission to all 401 of the parks in our national system is totally free.

For family travelers, this means now is a great time to get out and explore some of our nation’s biggest treasures.

Heck, Monday is Earth Day, so why not celebrate in a national park?

Many parks will be rolling out special programs all week long. Some of these programs are interactive; others are more educational in nature. In previous years my family has participated in art programs and guided hikes. We also have enjoyed storytelling sessions like this one at Buffalo National River in Arkansas.

(My wife, the archaeologist, always has longed to join up with one of the full-moon walks at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.)

Then, of course, there’s Volunteer Day on April 27, during which your entire family can get elbows dirty and participate in trash pick-up, trail maintenance or other forms of hard labor typically reserved only for rangers and docents.

If you’re part of a family that likes to explore parks independently, take advantage of the free admission and plan an outing all your own. One great resource: National Geographic Secrets of the National Parks: The Experts’ Guide to the Best Experiences Beyond the Tourist Trail, a new book by friend and fellow travel writer, Bob Howells.

As for us, we Villanos will be celebrating National Park Week with a mid-week jaunt from our home in Sonoma County, California down to Muir Woods National Monument, where we’ll have picnic and a morning under the redwoods.

Last time we went, R was so little that I had to carry her in an Ergo. This time, I’m sure she’ll give big sister L quite a race.

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