Night in the city without a phone

We’re in San Francisco for the remainder of the holiday weekend, and tonight I found myself alone with the big girls and no smartphone. Instead of panicking, the three of us got resourceful and saw a movie, found and booked a dinner reservation, and got around just fine.

The takeaway: Technology is awesome but grossly overrated.

The phone snafu was a pretty dumb mistake on my part. The five of us drove down in our minivan together, but Powerwoman and G dropped the big girls and me off at our hotel before continuing down to see some family members in Silicon Valley. When we arrived at the hotel, I was so fixated on getting L and R out of the car safely that I forgot to take my phone. We didn’t realize it was in the car until Powerwoman already was effectively out of the city.

This could have been a disaster. We were planning to Uber all over town, find a movie theater showing Moana at a reasonable time, then use Yelp to find a good restaurant before the show.

Instead, we did it the way I did it when I was a kid and the way countless others did it when they were younger: We winged it, we flew by the seats of our pants. And it worked. Masterfully. Almost without a glitch. (The glitch: NO PICTURES TO DOCUMENT THE NIGHT.)

To meet the challenge of picking a movie theater, we fired up the old laptop and I wrote (with pen on paper) some options down. To find a good restaurant, we used our voices to ask the concierge. Finally, to physically get ourselves from one part of town to the other, we shot our left arms into the air and hailed taxis.

Admittedly, the girls were a bit confused. HOW ARE WE GOING TO GET FROM HERE TO DINNER, asked a befuddled L, the Uber addict, when she learned Mommy had my phone. R was more concerned about no music.

But we did it, people. And you can, too.

Poetically, our night in the big city without a phone came on Black Friday a day when REI and other big companies encourage people to ditch technology and “opt outside.” We opted outside all right. Not internationally, but we did. And it made for a holiday gathering I’ll remember for a long while.

Travel from the perspective of a 7-year-old

20160722_120703Because I write about travel for a living, I spend a lot of time thinking about how my girls see the new things they experience when we hit the road. Most of the time I’m making educated guesses—I’ll observe one particular moment in time, or latch on to something one of them said. Sometimes, however, they give me the opportunity to understand much, much more.

Today was one of those days. I had to write a story about riding the cable cars in San Francisco, and figured that was something L would like to do. So I took her with me, gave her my old (and disconnected) Smartphone, and told her that her job for the day was to be my photographer.

She took the assignment VERY seriously. I’m sure part of this stemmed from the fact that she is obsessed with Smartphones (I’m sure it’s because they’re controlled substances around here; as I’ve detailed previously, Powerwoman and I are strict about limiting screen time). But I bet her approach also was a result of being excited about the challenge—she always offers to help me with stories I’m writing and I always tell her to stay ready for the time I actually take her up.

In all, over the course of four hours she shot more than 200 photos. About one quarter of these were of the cable cars themselves (see below). The rest varied tremendously, and I am fascinated by how.

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For starters, L obviously was inspired by planter boxes—about 40 of the photos were of various boxes overflowing with bushes and flowers. She also liked photographing the detail of tree trunks—there were about 25 photos of those, too.

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In one case, she took a shot of a “tree sweater” someone had knitted for a maple (see above). In another case, she captured a box of cable-car ornaments at a local bodega (see below).

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Then, of course, were the macros she took in Union Square. The square is dotted with giant heart sculptures these days, and L took a bunch of pictures of the patterns on those (see below, and up top). She spotlighted other artwork, as well—there was an art show going on there today, and she took close-up shots of a number of the pieces from that.

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Finally—and frighteningly, maybe?—my oldest daughter clearly was interested in big-brand logos: She snapped pix of Starbucks signs, In-N-Out cups, and more. Why these things attracted her gaze I’ll never know; of all the stuff we saw in the Big City, these were the ones she spotted elsewhere at other times.

Really, it doesn’t matter WHY she shot the stuff she did. What matters to me is that she shot it at all, that she jumped at the chance to participate, and that she clearly enjoyed the experience. The episode convinced me to task her with similar responsibilities on subsequent family travels, too—if this process makes my kid more connected and invested in a place and the experience of going there, I’m all for it, even if there’s not an assignment on the books.

The most family friendly hotel amenity on Earth

The covers.

The covers.

We’ve just returned from our three-day/two-night family getaway at the Fairmont San Francisco, and as far as family trips go, it was one of the best in recent memory. I’ll get to specifics over the next few days. In the meantime, I felt compelled to write a post about one particular aspect of our stay: The outlet covers hotel housekeepers left in our room.

I know what you’re thinking: OUTLET COVERS? WTF? But for those of us who travel with babies that shimmy and crawl around and stick their fingers into everything, these little plastic discs are a necessity.

To be honest, Powerwoman and I have traveled with four or five of these things on every trip since L was a baby. We bring them with us because we’ve never found a hotel that has them available upon request. Until this weekend.

But what made the Fairmont’s outlet covers even more spectacular was the fact that they left them for us WITHOUT REQUEST. Like, they just anticipated we’d need ‘em. Because we were visiting with a baby. It was as if the housekeeping staff crawled into my little brain and asked me what they could do to make the stay more comfortable.

The covers weren’t the only presents/amenities we received from the hotel staff; upon check-in we found a cornucopia of little bonuses. Among them: a diaper genie, a package of wipes, a kit of baby soaps with a little otter washcloth, plush stuffed animals, and coloring books.

The bulk of these goodies made all of us feel extra-welcome; the outlet covers made us feel extra-safe. It all combined to make this a trip for the ages. Thanks, Fairmont!

Dividing and conquering a San Francisco staycation

Our suite (but not us)

Our suite (but not us)

Most of the time, we Villanos prefer to travel as a complete pod—all for one and one for all, wherever our wanderlust (or my assignment) takes us.

Sometimes, however, we also like to try out different permutations of our family for particular trips.

I did this earlier this month (click here and here) on a weekend in San Francisco with L and R. We’ll be doing it again this coming weekend—only this time L will be with her grandparents and my partners in crime will be Powerwoman, R, and Baby G.

Our plan is simple. We’ll crash at the fabulous Napoleon Suite at the Fairmont San Francisco, one of my favorite family-friendly hotels in town. We’ll ride the cable cars to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I have to report a story. We’ll meet up with my sister- and brother-in-law for dinner in North Beach. We’ll Uber over to the recently re-opened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where I have to report another (and completely unrelated) story. At some point we’ll grab drinks at the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, the iconic hotel-pool-turned-tiki-bar (where it “rains” periodically throughout each night). For the rest of the time, we’ll just hang.

R says she’ll be happy so long as she can have a milkshake every day. G is always happy. As for my wife and me, well, we notched our 12th wedding anniversary this week, so I guarantee we’ll make some time to celebrate that.

While I’m sure we’ll miss L (she’s often the person in our family around whom the action gravitates), it will be fun to experience the dynamic of our two younger daughters on the road; since G was born in November, the two of them haven’t been away together. As always, it also will be a treat to expose our kids to different parts of their “hometown” city.

The more they get to know San Francisco, the more they love it, and the more they love urban life in general. This is just another part of their education. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Three lessons from our first flights with three kids

We got home a few hours ago from our first official airplane trip as a family of five—and all of us lived to talk about it. But because family travel is so organic, because every trip is different, Powerwoman and I learned some new things about flying with our brood. Here are three of the most salient lessons.

You can never be too prepared

This was the third round of the whole flying-with-baby thing, and Powerwoman and I thought we had everything covered with extra diapers, extra wipes, extra outfits, and plenty of pacifiers. What we neglected to remember was that our big girls might need backups, too. Imagine our surprise, then, when L spilled an entire glass of apple juice on her sister at breakfast this morning. Thankfully, we were able to find the ONLY kiosk at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) with kid-sized pants AND kid-sized shirts (the girls opted for bedazzled numbers; they are ridiculous). Still, for about an hour of searching and calming a wet and upset Little R, we were not exactly jazzed about the oversight. The lesson: Always bring a pair of backup clothes for every child, no matter how “big” you think the big ones might be.

Shrieking and crying are two different things

Baby G’s nickname has become The Happiest Baby on Earth. Just because she’s happy, however, doesn’t mean she’s quiet. About a week before we left on our New York adventure, G rolled out a new habit of shrieking. She practiced this shriek again and again over the course of both flights. At first Powerwoman and I were nervous about what fellow passengers would say. It turns out that shrieking bothers other travelers a heck of a lot less than crying. In fact, most of the other passengers (except for one crotchety old man) laughed when she shrieked, even going to far as to comment about how much it seemed she was enjoying the flight. The lesson: Just because your baby is noisy on a flight doesn’t mean it’s going to irritate other people.

In a pinch, airplane food doesn’t suck

Normally I like to bring TONS of food on plane flights to control what the girls eat. This time, however, we were rushing to get out of the house to catch our flight from San Francisco International Airport to EWR and I left most of the best snacks in the refrigerator at home. Of course I didn’t discover my blunder until we were on the actual airplaine. D’oh! Once I stopped berating myself for this mistake, I accepted that the only alternative was airplane food. And it wasn’t bad. We opted for a bunch of cheese plates, which came with grapes and apples. No, the kids weren’t stuffed to the gills, but the food provided ample nutrition until we landed in Newark and were able to get other stuff. The lesson: Sometimes, even with the pickiest eaters, airplane food is enough to sustain you.

I could go on and on about other lessons from the flights but these were the three that stuck out most. For you, dear readers, I hope the general takeaway is that even we “experts” still learn stuff. Nobody’s perfect. That’s one of the things that makes family travel so much fun.

What lessons have you learned about flying as your family has grown?

Pilgrimage to Golden Gate Park cardboard slides

I’ve never been a fan of the concept of a “bucket list.” My thinking: Death is an inevitability for all of us, so why should it drive any of the decisions we make in life?

Instead, I am the kind of guy who really tries hard to live in the moment. One moment I’ve been regretting in recent weeks: Never making the time to take my kids to the historic concrete/cardboard slides in the Koret Childrens Quarter of Golden Gate Park.

And so, this morning, because I was in the city with the big girls and we had some free time, we went.

For those of you who never have heard about these slides, know this: THEY ARE OLD-SCHOOL AND AWESOME. The slides themselves date back a while (not as long as the park, which dates to 1888, but a while). To ride them, you need sand (to speed things along; think shufflepuck) and a piece of cardboard on which to sit. The more sand on the track, the faster you go. The thinner your cardboard, the easier it is to control.

Cardboard slide, Golden Gate Park. My kids are in HEAVEN. #sistergram

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

I first tried the slides on one of my first adult trips to San Francisco, back in the 1990s. Even then, decades before my kids were born, I knew: Someday I had to bring my kids there.

R was having a rough morning but L did not disappoint. She first tried the slide without cardboard, but after sporting a strawberry on her buns, she changed her game and was hooked from there. Over the course of the 45 minutes that followed, the kid must have gone down 30 times. She LOVED it.

In fact, if we didn’t head to the carousel immediately after the sliding session, I’m not sure we ever would have been able to convince L to join us.

It was THAT cool.

Make time to visit the Koret this summer. And remember: The earlier you arrive with kids in tow, the more likely it is that you’ll have most (if not all) of the place to yourselves.

The check-in ritual when we travel with kids

Crazy jumpers.

Crazy jumpers.

Forget the minibar. Forget the views out the window. When our wandering pod checks into a new hotel, the big girls have one thing and one thing only on their minds: They must rip off their sneakers and jump on the bed.

This fascination repurposes sacred sleeping spaces into trampoline parks immediately. It usually transforms hospital corners into a mess of wrinkles and kinks, too.

It also often irks Powerwoman, who loves a nicely kept room (and isn’t afraid to fight for one).

Imagine the girls’ excitement, then, today when the three of us checked in for the night at the Hotel Vitale in San Francisco. No mom. A king-sized bed. Sparse décor elsewhere in the room to minimize risk of head injury. It was a perfect storm of bed-jumping awesomeness. And jump these little ladies most certainly did—for 25 consecutive minutes.

The routine was fast, furious, and, obviously exhilarating; these kids enhoy few activities as much as jumping around like Tiggers.

Sadly, I admit the experience also was incredibly nerve-wracking for dad. Would L jump on R’s foot? What about when R decided to “take a rest” by laying down on the bed—would L jump on her head then? To what extent can the peeps in the next room hear the boxspring making all that noise? These were just some of the questions I asked myself while the girls re-enacted a scene from Rebounderz here in the room.

Why do they love hotel-bed jumping so much? Maybe it’s the fact that we don’t really let them jump on beds at home. Maybe it’s because the kids have been pretty spoiled by spending tons of time in fancy hotels over the course of their short lives. Maybe it’s the manifestation of their secret desires for a padded room at home where they can run and jump like maniacs.

Whatever the reason, I’m not about to be the guy to shut down my kids’ bounce routine. They love it. I love that they love it. Sounds like a win to me—especially on a family trip away from home.

What sorts of rituals does your family have for family vacations?

Room-service breakfast FTW

One of our favorite places to stay: the Fairmont San Francisco

One of our faves: the Fairmont San Francisco

Powerwoman and Baby G are headed out of town next week so my wife can conduct some research at a major university, which means I’ll be flying solo with the big girls for quite a while.

Most of this time will be spent winding down their respective school years here at home. I also have promised L and R we can spent at least part of the time doing something we Villanos do pretty well: Traveling. We won’t go far, just from our home in the northern reaches of Sonoma County down to the big city of San Francisco for a few nights. The only must on our agenda: A visit to the new SF MoMA.

As I started contemplating what to do for the rest of our time away, I decided this time I’d let the girls choose. And so, after snack time, I asked each of them individually to name three activities or experiences she would like to see on our agenda.

Both kids tabbed “room-service breakfast” at No. 1.

On the surface, this was completely shocking in the absolute best way—room-service breakfast is one of my very favorite guilty pleasures when traveling, and I love that my two oldest girls agree.

The more I thought about it, however, the less shocking this selection really was. Whenever Powerwoman and I want to celebrate something special on a family trip, we splurge for room-service breakfast and make a big deal out of it. We reinforce this ritual by talking about how much we love it, even when we’re not, in fact, having room-service breakfast ourselves. The fact that L and R chose this means they’ve learned from our examples and appreciate the choice.

Put differently, it means we’ve taught them well.

Lest you think we’re going to spend the entire time eating omelets and French fries in bed, the other two items on their respective lists were carousel time and the California Academy of Sciences (which they love because of the exhibit where butterflies can land on your head).

Throw in a trip to the sushi boats restaurant for dinner and it sounds like a pretty awesome family getaway to me.

What are your favorite things to do on a family vacation?

Wandering Pod debuts in Businessweek

Family travel isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek. Yet a few months ago, a friend of mine who is an editor there approached me to see if I’d contribute to a section they were doing about traveling with kids.

Naturally, I jumped at the chance. The resulting story appears in the May 2-8, 2016 issue, which hit newsstands this week.

My piece is short and sweet; it appears as a three-panel, illustrated “as told by” piece near the back of the book. In the graphical account, I (re)tell a story I first shared on the pages of this very blog–a piece about how Powerwoman and I kept L and R occupied with paper chains on a flight from San Francisco to Maui. Want the scoop? Check out the Instagram pic below.

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

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.

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