All about the ‘music’

20160719_111840It wouldn’t be summer in our family without weekly road trips somewhere fun. Most of the trips are relatively local: San Francisco, Monterey, Napa. Some are farther afield: Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, Los Angeles. And here are some commonalities about those trips:

  1. The most frequently consumed food is homemade GORP (without raisins).
  2. Everyone takes a bio break every two hours, no matter what.
  3. Kidz Bop is playing over Internet radio. Incessantly.

The first two realities are easy to stomach; my GORP is second to none and (despite the occasional protest) everyone benefits from empty bladders. No. 3 on the list, however…well, let’s just say that music MAKES ME WANT TO PULL OFF MY EARS AND STOMP ON THEM UNTIL THEY BECOME A BLOODY PILE OF MUSH.

For the uninitiated, Kidz Bop records sanitized versions of modern songs, sung by kids. In theory, it’s a wonderful introduction to grownup music from a kid’s POV. In practice, however, all of the songs sound like bad karaoke being sung underwater by a gaggle of weak and terminally ill cats. To call it “music” is generous. IMHO, it is, in fact, anti-music.

The problem of course, is that my kids love it. Obsessively. The first thing L asks when she climbs into the minivan: “Can we listen to Kidz Bop?” The first thing R says when she finds out we’re going to listen to Kidz Bop: “Can we keep listening to Kidz Bop the whole way there?”

(Thankfully, Baby G doesn’t have an opinion about Kidz Bop yet.)

I can’t explain their fascination at all. Powerwoman and I played Mozart for both big girls when they were in utero, and I spent a good part of their early childhood years introducing them to Springsteen, Lucinda, and other (artists I deem to be) classics. They are exposed to grown-up music in other forms, too: We do a lot of singing around the house, and it’s always the real versions of these songs, warts and all. Still, their love affair for the heinous Kidz Bop continues.

The worst part of this undying fascination: The damn music is catchy. The other night at the gym I was humming the Kidz Bop version of a popular rock song. Sometimes, usually when I’m drinking wine, I’ll catch myself playing, “What Does the Fox Say?” in my head.

I’m not sure how to end Kidz Bop’s reign of aural terror.  Some days I fantasize about instating a moratorium on Kidz Bop. Most days I just quietly hope L and R will get tired of it. At some point, something is bound to change, right? Until then, I guess I’ll just quietly give the kids what they want. If it helps them enjoy our summer road trips, I guess the music isn’t that bad after all.

Family destinations in Missoula

Hissing cockroaches. Yuck.

Hissing cockroaches. Yuck. (But cool!)

Even when I travel without the kids, I’m always on the hunt for awesome family travel destinations. That explains why I just spent two hours of my (solo) afternoon here in Missoula, Montana, poking around two of the city’s most family-friendly spots: the Missoula Insectarium and the University of Montana’s spectrUM Discovery Area Downtown.

I’m here in Missoula for the next five days on behalf of a client, Expedia. Every year those of us who contribute to the Expedia Viewfinder blog get together in a faraway place for a week of strategizing and bonding. Last year’s summit was in Maui; this year’s is in one of my favorite places on the planet: Western Montana (a.k.a., Glacier Country). I arrived earlier this afternoon and had a few hours before our first official #PictureMontana meeting. So I hit the streets to explore.

I didn’t have to go too far from our hotel to find kid-oriented stuff; the Insectarium and spectrUM share a building that was literally two blocks away.

The Insectarium was first on my list. After paying the $4 admission fee and grabbing a magnifying glass at the front desk, I perused the exhibits, marveling at some of the arthropods (not just insects!) on display in 18 terrariums that ring the room.

I’ve detailed how much L and R despise bugs, but I had to think they would have found parts of this place really neat. Like the habitat full of butterflies. And the millipedes. They probably also would have enjoyed the touch table where visitors can interact with walking stick bugs (and a variety of other critters).

(Without question, they would NOT have liked the habitat with a dozen Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. Or the one with the scorpion.)

The kids also would have adored participating in the Insectarium’s scavenger hunt, which anyone can do.

My favorite part of the Insectarium? The Goliath Bird-Eater Spider, which is a species of tarantula. When I was there, this spider was hidden at the bottom of a flower pot in its habitat. Even though it was motionless, even though it was all scrunched up, I could tell the thing was HUGE. My mind was blown.

(I also enjoyed learning that Roly Poly bugs are actually not bugs at all; they’re crustaceans—cousins of crabs and lobsters.)

After hanging with the bugs, I ventured downstairs to the spectrUM facility—one of the cleanest, nicest, and most approachable museums I’ve ever seen. Technically the museum is a science museum, not a kids’ museum. Whatever you call it, the place is perfect for kids ages 12 and under, and you can plan on spending at least an hour there.

The modest museum is broken into two main parts—the main museum and a hands-on area, which is dubbed BrainLab. Today in the BrainLab, visitors were learning about brain maladies during Shakespeare’s time, part of a week-long celebration surrounding Shakespeare’s First Folio, which is on display in Missoula until the end of the month. I watched long enough to see kids playing with plastic brains.

In the main museum, an exhibit on large river ecosystems gave kids the chance to soar (via virtual reality) above the Clark Fork River, create their own virtual floodplain, and more. Another exhibit, the SciGirls DigiZone, offered the opportunity to play with different kinds of technologies. A third exhibit, the Discovery Bench, encouraged hands-on play with science.

What struck me about spectrUM was how engaged and satisfied all the kids seemed. It’s truly remarkable how much more palatable learning is when you’re having fun. Clearly, here in Missoula, they know this better than most.

What are your favorite museums for families and why?

5 things I’ve learned in 48 hours of multigenerational travel

Grandpa Power and the girls, making art.

Grandpa Power and the girls, making art.

Considering how much we Villanos travel, it’s hard to believe this weekend’s trip to Yosemite National Park marks the first time my big girls ever have traveled with one of their grandparents. Perhaps that explains why they’re LOVING having Grandpa Power along for the ride. Perhaps it also explains why I’m getting such a kick out of watching my dad interact with the kids in our typical travel vibe.

Don’t get me wrong—assimilation hasn’t been painless. It takes my father FOREVER to get ready to go anywhere, and I already struggle getting my 6- and 4-year-old prepped for the day on time. Still, for the most part, the experience has been a delight. Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far.

  1. Co-parenting is non-transferable.

When Powerwoman and I are together with the kids, we are equal parents with equal responsibilities for discipline. When one of us is missing, it’s really impossible to have someone else just slide into that role. I learned this the hard way today—I needed my father to talk to L about using hands on her sister, and he did…just not the way I would have liked. I quickly realized I couldn’t blame him. He might be my dad, but he’s no substitute for the girls’ mother.

  1. I am a second-string storyteller to the all-star starter known as Grandpa.

I’ve spent the last six years thinking my stories were the best stories these kids ever have heard. They have demanded the stories everywhere when we travel: in the car on road-trips, in foreign bathrooms, even on hikes. Until this weekend. Over the last two days, whenever the girls have wanted stories, they’ve asked for grandpa. In the car. On trips to the bathroom. And on our hikes. It’s like I’ve been replaced by my mentor. And it hurts! (OK, maybe not really. But still.)

  1. It’s OK to bend rules on vacation.

Generally speaking, I can be a bit of a hard-ass about rules and routines. My dad, on the other hand, is about as loosey-goosey as they come; he never met a rule he didn’t try to bend. Though my instinct on this trip has been to enforce typical edicts such as one sweet a day and pre-bed at 6:45 p.m., I’ve relaxed the rules a bit and can sense the positive repercussions. The kids are happier. They’re listening better. And they’re actually appreciative. WTF?!?

  1. Grandparents make great babysitters on the road, too.

We live close enough to the girls’ grandparents that the kids get to see the old folks on a regular basis. Grampy and Grammy (my parents) and Pop-Pop and Tiki also are fantastic babysitters when Powerwoman and I need to go away or get a date night here and there. So far my dad has been an amazing child-minder at Yosemite, too. He’s overly cautious because of the new surroundings. He communicates well (via text). He even picks up the tab on snacks, just because.

  1. It’s natural to worry about those you love.

I’m used to being concerned about L and R when we’re having adventures all over the world. Here in Yosemite, I’ve got a new family member to be worried about: Dad. Will he twist an ankle on those rocks? Why is it taking him so long to use the bathroom? Can he drink coffee after 4 p.m.? Bandwidth isn’t a problem; I’ve got plenty of agita to go around. Still, it’s been an adjustment to spread the worrying around.

I’m sure I’ll learn another five things in the next 48 hours on this multigenerational trip. IMHO, that’s the beauty of family travel: You always learn something new.

The most family-friendly place near Yosemite

L, exploring a rope bridge.

L, exploring a rope bridge.

If you’re planning to visit Yosemite National Park with kids, you NEED to stay where we’re staying for the weekend: Evergreen Lodge outside of Groveland.

It’s not typical for me to make such bold statements here on this blog, but in the case of this lodge, there’s simply no other way to put it. With multiple play areas, an indoor rec room, two-bedroom cabins, a down-to-earth on-site restaurant, and activities for people of all ages, this place seems like it practically was designed for families.

Perhaps the only downside to this lodge is that it’s not *inside* the park; today it took us about an hour to drive from our cabin to Yosemite Village. Still, considering the beautiful scenery, even that wasn’t too much of a hassle.

The rooms

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect when I made the reservation. A photographer friend of mine recommended it. I trust this guy implicitly. So I booked without thinking (on Expedia, of course).

I signed up for a “Family cabin,” essentially a two-bedroom suite. The bedrooms sit on either side of a common room. The configuration is perfect for families like ours because it affords us the opportunity to close the barn doors to the kids’ room when us grown-ups are still awake (and reading and/or writing blog posts in the common room).

Décor in the rooms is country and clean. Both bedrooms have fans and wall-heaters, and the common room has ample seating (probably even enough for a family of six or eight).

Oh, and unlike other cabin-oriented lodges, this place has housekeeping service every day.

The eats

There’s only one restaurant on-site at Evergreen, and because the lodge is about 45 minutes from the next closest restaurant, there’s a chance you’ll eat here more than once if you’re a guest. The good news: The place is pretty good, so long as you don’t mind higher-than-usual prices.

The restaurant itself is broken into three different sections. The biggest of the bunch looks and feels like a formal eatery, complete with white walls and hushed voices. You also can get food in the tavern, which has a much more casual, first-come-first-served type of vibe. Finally, the restaurant recently added a back patio. In the summer it’s open air; in the winter or spring, it is enclosed with heat lamps. This is a great place to eat if you plan to let your kids run around the adjacent play area (more on that in a moment).

Food is above average—maybe even a bit healthier and more eclectic than you’ll find elsewhere in Yosemite. Grown-up dishes include a selection of small plates featuring a kale and farro salad, as well as entrees such as lobster risotto and elk burger. The restaurant also offers a pretty extensive kids’ menu, and all portions (including kids) are large, which helps you stomach the jacked-up price points (hey, they have a monopoly out here).

A tip: Skip dessert with/for the kids and take advantage of the nightly s’mores hour, held by the outdoor fireplace from 7-8 p.m.

The activities

One of Evergreen’s strong suits is the activities program, which includes a host of guided trips and excursions into Yosemite National Park and some of the surrounding communities. We won’t be participating in any of these activities this trip because most of the offerings are full-day jaunts and my kids aren’t ready for that kind of commitment yet. Still, I can’t wait to come back when they’re older and give the activities desk a try.

Some of the options that appealed to me:

  • A five-hour drive and hike excursion to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Wapama Falls.
  • An eight-mile round-tripper through Granite Gorge and along the Tuolumne River to Preston Falls.
  • Rafting day trips on either the Tuolumne or Merced rivers.

I also like that the lodge rents bicycles and jogging strollers by the hour, half-day, or day, providing a great resource for families to get out and explore the Evergreen Road back toward 120 or TK road out to Hetch Hetchy reservoir.

(By the way, there are a bunch of free activities, too, such as movie nights, bingo, yoga, and a session during which kids can dissect owl pellets to see what the bird had been eating.)

The family focus

Without question, my favorite thing about this lodge is the way it gets real in its offerings for kids. Whoever designed the place clearly understood that when kids are on vacation, they like to bum around on playgrounds. Proof: There are at least four incredible outdoor play structures, and one unbelievably awesome rec/game room.

My girls are OBSESSED with the outdoor play structures. The one closest to our cabin has a 12-foot-tall rope ladder and an oversized chess board. One down by the registration desk has a rope bridge, a suspension bridge, another rope ladder, and a zipline. A third play structure has a fort and another zipline.

There’s even one for little kids, composed of a sandbox, teepees, and more.

Inside, the rec room is every kid’s dream come true, complete with shufflepuck, giant Connect Four, foosball, and pool. Near the book nook, there also are giant pillows and a Steph Curry-sized stuffed bear.

(We didn’t go in the pool, but the pool area is modern and inviting. There’s even a bar and a cafe there, to keep the grown-ups happy.)

I honestly think that if I didn’t drive my kids into the national park for adventures there, they’d be perfectly happy spending every moment of every waking moment here at the lodge. As a family travel writer, I safely can say there’s no bigger compliment than that. Which is precisely why we’ll be back.

Which are your favorite places to stay in Yosemite National Park and why?

They hate bugs

All week, people have asked me why we’re not camping during our upcoming trip to Yosemite National Park (or at least staying at the klatch of tent cabins formerly known as Curry Village). The answer is simple: My girls hate bugs.

I mean, they REALLY hate bugs. And their antipathy takes very different forms.

For R, it’s all terror, all the time. We’ve had a spate of mosquitoes here in Northern California, and whenever she sees one she runs in the other direction shrieking like a banshee. L, on the other hand, is curious and disgusted at the same time. She’ll touch caterpillars and moths and spiders, but as soon as the critters take an interest in HER, she freaks, too, usually throwing or striking the bug before running away.

Over the course of day-to-day life here in a house, these behaviors range from mildly irritating to oddly humorous. Can you imagine how crazy the entomophobia would be in a tent?

I can close my eyes and picture it. DADDY A GNAT! Dad! There is a bee flying around. Kill it! Kill it or I’m sleeping in the car. OHMYGOD DAD THAT MOSQUITO IS GOING TO KILL ME AND GIVE ME HEART CANCER.

(Yes, R is obsessed with/worried about “heart cancer.”)

Needless to say, I’d be crazy to force myself to deal with this paranoia in a confined space. I’d also have to be pretty inconsiderate; my campground or tent village neighbors would hate us in minutes.

For these reasons, we’ve reserved a two-bedroom family cabin at Evergreen Lodge outside the park in Groveland. We booked it on Expedia, of course. And we’re excited for four days and three nights of bug-free living so we can get good sleep and embrace all the park has to offer. (We can do the tent-and-bugs thing in the backyard or local park when we get home.)

Different take on a family trip to Yosemite

Me and R, near Lake Tahoe in 2015.

Me and R, near Lake Tahoe in 2015.

T-minus four days until I take L, R, and Grandpa Power on a multigenerational trip to Yosemite National Park, and everyone over here is getting pretty excited for the excursion. L is excited to have a reason to miss school. R keeps talking about hiking to waterfalls. The two of them also have been totally geeking out about the plein air painting class we’re signed up to take.

My father – a.k.a. Grandpa Power – is pretty stoked, too. This trip will mark the first time my girls have been on vacation with any of their grandparents.

I guarantee nobody is as excited about the trip as I am. As part of my assignment for the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog, I’m going to give all three of my traveling companions Moleskine journals and encourage them record their own impressions of the trip. They can write or draw, whichever they prefer. And when the trip is done, I’ll go through their journals and pick the best passages for inclusion in a separate post.

Something about this different take on family travel has me nearly BURSTING AT THE SEAMS. I’m trying desperately to keep this plan a secret from the girls but couldn’t help myself from telling my father in an email tonight. Hopefully the three of them will appreciate and enjoy it as much as I know I will.

I’ve spent years chronicling family travel from my own POV. It’ll be a treat to get different perspectives.

Planning adventures for Yosemite 2016

We'll be learning from the man who painted this

A Steve Curl original (from his site)

The family trip to Yosemite National Park has become a bit of an annual tradition around these parts, and I’m in the process of lining up specifics for this year’s adventure. This year, however, there’ll be some major changes:

  1. Powerwoman and Baby G are heading to Denver, so instead L, R, and I are taking my dad (who we’ll refer to as GRANDPA POWER), making this year’s trip a multigenerational one.
  2. Because of the ridiculous name changes inside the park (for more on that, click here), we decided to stay outside the park this time, in a two-bedroom family cabin at the Evergreen Lodge in Groveland.

The four of us also have signed up for a half-day art class—a workshop in watercolors. I was hesitant to sign up L and R for a five-hour class, but considering how much both of them love art, I figured I’d give it a try. The instructor, Steve Curl, seems pretty laid back, and we can pull the plug whenever the kids are ready. (I’m guessing that will be around noon, since that’s usually when they get hungry).

In addition to the art class, we plan to do some waterfall-spotting, lots of rock-tossing into the Merced, and lots of hiking. The girls also have been fantasizing about a return to the pizza deck at (the spot formerly known as) Curry Village.

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to write about the adventure for Expedia. My coverage will comprise part of the company’s #ExpediaLovesParks campaign to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service. It also will be featured on the Expedia Viewfinder blog, a site for which I serve as senior editor.

You’ll hear more about our trip between now and when we go in April. Of course I’ll blog daily when we’re there, too. In the meantime, what family-friendly activities have you enjoyed in national parks?

Sand in the minivan

We rung in the new year in style today, traipsing all over our favorite beach in Sonoma County. As the crow flies, Goat Rock State Beach (part of Sonoma Coast State Park) is only about 25-30 miles from our home. But because it takes about 75 minutes to get there, we consider an excursion to this spot a family travel adventure of the day-trip variety.

And what an adventure it was. After experiencing a shutout for the first 20 minutes, the big girls found 27 pieces of beach glass in the 35 minutes that followed. The wind whipped us until we felt like icicles. We counted not one, not two, but THREE rogue waves.

Oh, and Baby G slept through her first trip to the ocean.

After the beach, we drove 10 miles south into Bodega Bay, where the five of us (ICYW, Baby G still was sleeping) grabbed some fish ‘n’ chips at one of our favorite local restaurants.

I capped the excursion by taking L and R on a walk around the marina, exploring finger docks (thankfully no-one fell in), dodging seagull poop (thankfully no-one got hit), watching pelagic birds (they loved the petrels), and scanning the surface of the water for signs of Harbor seals or California sea lions (sadly, no dice here).

Perhaps the most satisfying part of the afternoon came when we pulled into the driveway at home. The Big Girls got out and went inside. Powerwoman took the baby out and brought her in, too. I lingered a bit to collect some of the wrappers and usual detritus a family amasses on a daylong road trip.

That’s when I noticed it: The inside of our new minivan was covered with sand.

Normally this kind of unexpected mess would drive a neurotic freak like me nuts. This time, however, it was comforting, enthralling, and downright wonderful.

In that moment, the sand was the physical manifestation of a return to normalcy in our lives—a sign that after more than a month of working through a new routine as a family of five, our Wandering Pod was wandering again. It was, quite simply, proof we are back. Now that’s a mess I can embrace.

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?

The ultimate vehicle for family road trips

Inside our van, during a rare moment sans kids.

Inside our van, during a rare moment sans kids.

My name is Matt Villano, and I drive a minivan. A Honda Odyssey, to be exact. And I’m proud of it.

I know what you’re thinking: WHAT A TOTAL LOSER. And you’re entitled to your opinion. The truth, however, is that I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK. What’s more, I actually kinda sorta love my new wheels. So there.

No, dear readers, minivans aren’t pretty. They’re not cool. Even after Toyota tried to brand its version as the “Swagger Wagon,” they’re not even remotely stylish. But I never was a form-over-function kind of guy. Minivans actually are the ultimate in function-over-form. And when you’ve got a wife and three kids and you take a lot of road trips, all you ever really care about is function, anyway.

Let me repeat that for you, just to make sure there’s no miscommunication here: MY NEW MINIVAN IS AWESOME FOR FAMILY TRAVEL.

Allow me to count the ways:

  1. It came with seats for eight human beings. EIGHT HUMAN BEINGS. That means our family of five has room to spread out. Hell, I took out the center seat in the second row to let L access the back of the van more easily and there’s still room for seven. (ICYW, no, we are not having more kids.)
  2. It has SEVEN cup holders (nine if you include the two that were part of the seat I removed). This means there are plenty of places for Powerwoman and me to put our coffees/water bottles, and plenty of places for L and R to store their plastic gems and other treasures they collect along the way.
  3. It has three-zone climate control. This rules because I doze off behind the wheel if I’m too cold. With this feature, the girls can be all warm and toasty (at different temperatures, mind you), and I can be chilling (literally) behind the wheel.
  4. Even with the third row of seats, there is ample trunk space. This is good news for our family, since the girls like to take a bunch of crap stuff when we road-trip.
  5. It has cool back-up and side-view cameras. I don’t really use these things, but they are great tools to call into action when L and R are melting down or fighting (or both). You can almost picture how this goes. HEY KIDS, STOP YELLING AT EACH OTHER AND CHECK OUT HOW COOL THE SHOULDER LOOKS THROUGH THE SIDE-VIEW CAMERA! It actually works!

These five faves barely scratch the surface. Another reason I love the new van is because it reminds me of the first car I ever had—oddly that also was a minivan, though I removed all but the third row of seats so I could make out with girls in high school and college. (Definitely another story for a different blog.)

Admittedly, our new van isn’t for everyone. Most people likely would have sprung for the model with the built-in TV screens in the back; we, because of our stance on screen time, did not. Most people in the Bay Area probably would have opted to spend a little extra money for an oversized SUV (such as the Chevy Tahoe or Suburban) with four-wheel drive; we, because we only go to the mountains once a winter, did not.

(Also, if you care about things such as gas mileage, the van’s is pretty terrible.)

Still, this vehicle is PERFECT for family road trips, and we intend to take it on a bunch. Already, in the van’s short life with us (we’ve had it for fewer than 1,000 miles to this point), we’ve taken it to the beach (60 minutes away), the city (75 minutes away), and the remote country (90 minutes away). Next spring, we’ll take it to Yosemite. Next summer, it might even make the drive to Disneyland.

In National Lampoon’s Vacation, the Griswolds called their lovable station wagon the Family Truckster. I think we’ll start calling ours the Family Vanster, or F.V., for short. Make fun of us all you want. We’ll be laughing from our comfortable ride all the way home.

What are some of your favorite vehicles for family travel?

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