Butterfly-watching in Sonoma County

Whoever said daytrips can’t be magical clearly hasn’t spent time in Sonoma County.

How else to describe the morning the Big Girl and I had today? How else to describe the wonder we felt while watching fledgling monarch butterflies emerge from their tiny little chrysalises?

The experience was wonderful in its simplicity. Earlier this week, a friend at Safari West, a local animal park, tipped me to a new exhibit that features caterpillars as they undergo metamorphosis into monarchs. This morning, after breakfast, L and I went to check it out. The exhibit itself was much more modest than I expected–in all there only were about a half-dozen caterpillars, and about two dozen chrysalises.  Lucky for us, when we arrived some of the critters were in the midst of emerging from their transformations. We actually got to watch one of the butterflies climb out of its chrysalis completely.

I never had seen anything like it. When the creature first broke the thin exterior of the chrysalis, its wings were crumpled, almost velvety. Gradually, however, the insect managed to straighten out its wings, and the butterfly took flight. The whole process took the better part of an hour. L was transfixed. I was, too. I only wish we’d done some time-lapse video. Instead, this pic will have to suffice.

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

The bottom line: family travel + science = FUN. Put differently, the monarch migration is on now, so if you live near Safari West or ianother spot (in the wild!) where you can get out to see these beautiful butterflies, do it before it’s too late.

Meeting a baby giraffe at Safari West

Big Girls meet Kopi.

Big Girls meet Kopi.

We’re lucky enough to have a world-class animal park—Safari West, for those of you scoring at home—in our proverbial backyard (it’s about 20 minutes away). So when my friends over there heard we recently welcomed a baby into our family, they invited me and L and R to come and meet some of THEIR new babies—namely a baby giraffe and a baby Brahma cow.

We went down this past weekend, and the girls had a blast.

Nikki, one of the animal keepers, met us at the front gate with the baby cow (they’re called calves), and the girls treated her (the calf, not the human) like a puppy.

From there, Nikki led us back to the giraffe barn, where she let the girls feed some of the momma giraffes and ogle at the new baby. They became particularly fond of a hungry and curious long-neck named Kopi. (Related fun fact: the baby, who was less than 10 days old when we met him, was taller than most players in the NBA.)

We ended our visit checking out some of the skulls and skeletons from animals who have died at the park over the years. I thought my girls would find this part of the afternoon disgusting. To the contrary, I think it might have been their favorite part—especially when they started pretending to battle each other with the bones.

In the interest of full disclosure, we were able to have this experience because the folks at Safari West have become friends over the years; the giraffe barn is NOT something general members of the public get to experience on an average visit.

That said, Safari West is a wonderfully family-friendly spot here in Sonoma County, and is worth the trip on a Wine Country vacation.

My Big Girls always have loved the place. Now I think they love it even more.

A Little Help from Some Friends

Three of the four musketeers, in a common pose.

Three of the four musketeers, in a common pose.

As much as I despise the word, “staycation,” we’re big fans of family travel to destinations within a 1- or 2-hour drive of our home.

Partly this is because we live in Sonoma County, California, IMHO one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It’s also because Powerwoman and I believe strongly that you don’t have to go far to experience the wonder of something new.

We put this philosophy into practice over the holiday weekend, when good friends from Central California—a family of four with two daughters, ages 5 and 3—came to visit. They arrived Wednesday night. And from that point until late Saturday, we had a Peter Pan-like panoply of adventures without ever leaving the county.

The activities themselves were fun—especially on Friday, when the eight of us took a private tour of Safari West, a private animal park with giraffes, zebras and hundreds of other animals, just down the freeway in Santa Rosa.

But what was even better was watching the girls play and laugh and bond by just being girls.

They shared cookies at a French bakery. They waved flags at a Fourth of July parade. They splished and splashed in an inflatable kiddie pool. They danced to a ragtag folk band at a local farmers’ market.

Sure, my kids had done most of this stuff before. But they’d never done the stuff with friends, and that factor enhanced each experience acutely.

This reality has been true for me, as well.

My fondest memories of that trip in high school to Acadia National Park revolve around hiking solo with a buddy who tagged along for the adventure. And as a younger child, the best parts of summer trips to Cape Cod were the lazy days with a childhood pal (and her brood).

Last night, a few hours after we parted ways, my Big Girl looked at me with sullen eyes and stated, “Doing stuff was more fun with [my buddy’s daughters] around.” In that moment, I was reminded of something we all should remember: Traveling with family can be transcendent, but traveling with family and family friends can be even better.

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