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.

Golden Gate Park by Segway on a family trip

Golden Gate Park is one of the greatest urban parks in the world. It’s even better when you explore it on a Segway.

You know the Segway; that two-wheeled transportation device made famous by the movie, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” The one that looks like a futuristic scooter. The one that simultaneously looks like the dorkiest dorkmobile in the history of humankind.

At least, I thought the things were dorky. After riding one around Golden Gate Park for half a day earlier this summer, I can safely say they are way cooler than I ever thought.

I did the tour as part of an epic two-city road trip I took with my family in June. The trip was on behalf of my client, Expedia. While my wife and kids were back at the hotel (the kids aren’t big enough to ride Segways, and somebody had to watch them), I was tooling around the park and making emu noises as I went.

I shot video as I went, and, when I got home, worked with my pals at Expedia to cut a 3-minute video of the experience. The video was published in mid-July. Finally, I have the opportunity to share it with you here.

So take a peek. Enjoy. Laugh. Cry. And whatever you do, open your mind to the coolness of a Segway. You’ll be glad you did. (And even if you’re not so glad, you’ll have fun pretending to be Paul Blart.)

San Francisco getting better for families, family travelers

Koret Playground, courtesy of the Chronicle.

Koret Playground, courtesy of the Chronicle.

As a proud member of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, I’ve always known I have a very skewed perspective on San Francisco. For us, it’s the Big City, a place with endless opportunities to keep our kids occupied, one of the greatest daytrip destinations on Earth.

For people who live there, however, there’s a different reality.

A blogger friend of mine, Amy Graff, recently wrote about this reality for her blog on SF Gate, The Mommy Files. In her post, she outlined 13 things that have made San Francisco a better place for families. Obviously, her target audience was locals—people who live in San Francisco and have kids. But some of the points she made apply to family travelers as well.

Take, for instance, her mention of Koret Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park, which recently benefitted from $380 million in bonds to improve neighborhood parks. Another highlight in her piece: The new Exploratorium, which is one of our favorite museums in the entire city (and about which a blog post by yours truly is long overdue).

Also worth mentioning: A new law in March 2013 that allows baby strollers on all San Francisco Municipal Transit Association vehicles, except cable cars.

I could go on and on about Amy’s piece, but it’s probably best if you just read it here.

The bottom line: The City by the Bay may not be as wonderful for family travelers as we’ve thought it was, but it certainly is getting better.

The heart of a great exhibit about whales

The heart.

The heart.

I’ll remember lots about the new whales exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, but most of all, I’ll remember the heart.

The life-sized replica of the blue whale heart. The one that has chambers big enough for kids to climb in. The one in which Little R played for 20 minutes. The one that inspired her to wonder aloud, “Dad, is your heart as big as this one?”

Sure, the exhibit, formally titled, “Whales: Giants of the Deep,” has lots of other cool stuff. Fully articulated sperm whale skeletons (including vestigial limbs). A dozen beaked whale skulls. A vocalization chamber in which you can hear the different sounds from different whales. There’s even a colorful cultural component, especially considering that most of the material in the exhibit is on loan from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, home to one of the largest marine mammal collections in the world.

But the heart. Man, that thing was AWESOME in every sense of the word.

Little R and I checked out the exhibit late last week on the day it opened. It’s no surprise that we Villanos loved the exhibit; as the name of this blog (and my work website) suggests, I’m a big whale guy. I also had a bit of a personal connection to the show: One part of the exhibit that provides animation of a sperm whale wrestling a giant squid was powered by data from Mark Johnson, a fellow with whom I used to work when I wrote for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

To be fair, much of the exhibit is pretty heady. The section about evolution, for instance, is complicated for little kids to understand. What’s more, echolocation, as a concept, is tough to grasp.

Even the parts of the exhibit that showcased whale-related Maori artifacts, the parts where verbiage and signage inform visitors how Academy scientists are working to study and sustain whale populations in our own coastal backyard and are bringing this research home to the museum—even those were a bit much for my kid.

Still, because of that heart (and also because R watched her Dad get TOTALLY amped up about the skeletons and the baleen and the vocalization chamber), she was excited about the experience for most of the hour we were there.

My advice: Plan ahead. If you’ve got younger kids, let them play in the heart and marvel at the skeletons, see if they’re into the vocalization room, then head downstairs to check out the rest of the museum. If you’ve got older kids, take the time to prep them for what they’re about to see, teaching them beforehand a bit about how whales went from sea to land back to sea, and how they use sound to communicate and “see” in the depths of the ocean.

Whatever you do, dear reader, especially if you consider yourself a whale-lover, don’t miss this exhibit. It runs through Nov. 29. Check it out! (And if you’re a San Francisco resident, go on a free day!)

Luxury family rooms coming to airports near you

 

The Family Room inside the Centurion Lounge at SFO.

The Family Room inside the Centurion Lounge at SFO.

American Express has talked about how “membership has its privileges” for most of my life. Now, with the company’s new Centurion Lounge program for Platinum Card holders (such as moi), I totally get it.

The lounges, currently available at four airports around the country, are the ultimate in VIP airport swank: Modern hangouts, free food, free drinks, free WiFi, and a host of other amenities for business travelers (heck, most of the lounges even have shower stalls).

My favorite part of the new spots: The “Family Rooms.” These facilities—available at three of the four lounges right now—boast beanbag chairs, toys, games, video games, giant televisions and a host of kid-friendly movies. They also have fun and colorful wallpaper. And soundproof walls so crazy kids won’t disturb grownups who are relaxing elsewhere in the lounge.

By the way, lounge-facing walls of these rooms are all glass, so, technically, parents can sit outside and drink hand-crafted cocktails while the kids blow off steam inside.

Official Centurion Lounge terms and conditions stipulate that so long as the Platinum Card holder is present, he or she can bring in a spouse or domestic partner and all children under the age of 18, no matter how many kids there might be. That means that when the four of us Villanos travel together, all of us can get in to these lounges free of charge.

I haven’t actually experienced the rooms with my kids yet, but I have visited Centurion Lounges at San Francisco International Airport and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, and have admired the facilities in both spots.

(As of now, the other lounge with a family room is at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.)

With that in mind, I’ll tell you this: The next time I book a trip for the lot of us, I’ll be inclined to book from an airline that flies into or out of a terminal with a Centurion Lounge. I pay more than $400 per year for my Platinum Card; it’s nice to know my entire family now can benefit from some of the privileges of membership.

What are some of your favorite airport lounges?

Turning family travel disaster into fun

Airplane impersonations at PDX, Gate C5.

Airplane impersonations at PDX, Gate C5.

You probably have heard a saying about making lemonade when life gives you lemons. As a family traveler, I embrace this philosophy wholeheartedly.

My commitment was put to the test today on what amounted to a 15-hour travel day to fly 600 miles after a weekend in SoCal (and Legoland California) with Little R. Yes, the day was exhausting. Yes, in the scheme of things, it was wildly irritating. But I learned some valuable lessons about being prepared, staying positive, and never letting the kiddos see you sweat—lessons that forever have changed the way I’ll approach parenting on a family trip.

So when our flight from San Diego to Santa Rosa circled the Santa Rosa airport nine times to wait out bad weather, I dug deep into my (literal) bag of tricks and gave R a brand new sheet of Melissa & Doug reusable stickers. And when R decided (and threw a tantrum because) the on-board toilet was too high for her to use, I simply reassured her that if she couldn’t hold it in and she wet her pants, I had a change of clothes ready to go.

(ICYW, she held it, then fell asleep.)

Later, when the pilot announced we were running out of fuel and needed to divert to Portland, Oregon, I made up a story about how our plane had been hand-selected by Queen Esmerelda to come and visit her kingdom of Portland and how this was a great honor bestowed only on the luckiest of passengers.

After we deplaned, when R started losing her bananas in the rebooking line, I handed her blank paper and crayons, and asked her to draw the gate agent a special thank-you card—a card that not only got her an entire sheet of (really awesome) Alaska Airlines stickers in return, but also made the gate agent smile (something I didn’t see the agent do very much in the 45 minutes of yelling she received from other passengers on our flight.)

Upon learning that we’d have to wait four hours in Portland, I told R that Queen Esmerelda sent us a credit for the gift shop, and allowed her to pick out $20 worth of toys (she got a stuffed pony, among other things).

I improvised in other ways during the wait, too:

  • When we happened upon an empty gate, we played football with my hat.
  • At another empty gate, we pretended to be airplanes and ran around in circles for a good 20 minutes.
  • Thanks to a Facebook tip from a friend, we took the moving sidewalks down to an area with kids’ games and spent 45 minutes playing with those.

Oh, and when R had to use the bathroom (always a dicey proposition in our family when “magic-eye” automatic flushers are involved), I pretended to take a call from Queen Esmerelda, who “directed” us to a special family bathroom where R was able to get totally naked, spend quality time on the toilet, listen as I read her a few books on the Kindle, and do more than her fair share of business (if you know what I mean).

After the flight back to San Francisco (on which R watched “Peppa Pig” shows the entire time; at that point in the day, I was more than happy to relax my screen-time restrictions), I even tried my best to turn the ordeal of a one-way rental car into something fun: We pretended the AirTrain to the rental car facility was the Monorail at Walt Disney World Resort, and I let R select the car (she chose a “sparkly silver” one).

On the way home, before the kid passed out in the car, I asked her about her favorite parts of the trip. Her response: “Today was really fun, Daddy.”

To say this comment made me happy would be an understatement. (Actually, I started crying the moment she said it; thankfully it was dark.) It was clear that my kid didn’t consider the ordeal a pain in the ass because I never gave her a reason to do so. To R, it all was just another part of our trip; a wonderful perspective that taught me a ton about parenting, traveling, and, quite frankly, myself.

So often when we travel, our kids feed off of us. They take cues from us. They read our body language. If we wig out, they wig out. Which is precisely why we always need to stay cool and take everything in stride.

Sure, our day today was COMPLETELY exhausting. And, yes, the delay was wildly inconvenient (in more ways than one). I’m sure I’ll be feeling the effects of it all throughout the course of the week. Thankfully, however, my 3-year-old will not. In my book, given the circumstances we overcame, that is the sign of a family travel victory.

What have been some of your worst family travel experiences, and how did you cope?

The best road trip snack ever

Mmmmm, GORP.

Mmmmm, GORP.

Today we celebrate a Wandering Pod first: A recipe for a treat that will be a hit with even the most reluctant child travelers.

The treat, of course, is trail mix. We’re big fans of the stuff in this house—a vestige of my pre-fatherhood life as a serious backcountry hiker and camper. We eat it as frequently as we can, and I try to cook up a special new batch of GORP (or GORP-inspired goodness) in advance of every one of our family road trips.

This past weekend, when we traveled into San Francisco to celebrate R’s third birthday, I outdid myself with what the girls are calling The Best Road-Trip Trail Mix Ever. Ingredients for this magic snack were simple: Dry-roasted and salted cashews, raw (and unsalted) almonds, Pepperidge Farm whole-grain goldfish crackers, and M&Ms.

If your kids like raisins, I suppose you can add those, too. And sunflower seeds. Without the shells.

Measurements for this kind of treat are totally dependent on what your kids like best; in our family, a 1:1 ratio of goldfish to M&Ms is key, and the nuts are almost secondary. You don’t want to make too much of the snack, because the goldfish go stale after about a week. I suggest storing it in a gallon-size Ziploc bag.

Oh, and to serve this treat, I like to portion out a half-cup for each girl and give it to them in their own travel cups (with lids).

What’s your go-to recipe for homemade road-trip snacks? What’s your personal mom/dad secret for trail mix?

Kid amenities worth every penny

Happy Birthday R, courtesy of Four Seasons SF.

Happy Birthday R, courtesy of Four Seasons SF.

We Villanos are big fans of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts brand. Yes, the room product is amazing. Yes, the service at these resorts—as a family, we’ve stayed at five of them—is second to none.

Really, however, what we like about Four Seasons is the way they welcome kids.

I’m not talking about greetings and salutations here (though the bellmen always are very nice with those). I’m talking about amenities, presents and an assorted variety of other goodies that Four Seasons properties give kids when families visit.

We stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco this past weekend as part of R’s birthday celebration (she turned 3 on Monday). This meant the folks at the hotel treated our girls like rock stars, with everything from San Francisco Giants dolls and hats to pre-dinner birthday cake and cookies from room service.

There were other treats, too. Like the “passports” each girl got upon check-in; they loved inserting pictures of themselves and information about personal characteristics such as eye color and hair color.

The “passports” also (could have) doubled as forms of identification when we were out and about.

Another highlight for the girls: the make-your-own sundae option at MKT, the on-site restaurant. We only managed to get to the restaurant for a late lunch, but that didn’t stop us from trying out this incredibly interactive form of dessert. (In case you’re wondering, both girls chose to douse their sundaes with M&M’s.)

On previous visits to Four Seasons hotels all over the world, the kids have enjoyed other amazing amenities, including child-sized robes, kids-only room service menus, in-room game kits, and more.

It might seem odd that a hotel brand popular among luxury and business travelers makes families such a priority. The reality—at least as it seems to me—is that Four Seasons recognizes the benefits of establishing brand loyalty at an early age.

I wouldn’t have noticed this if not for a conversation I had with R earlier today. We were talking about her next birthday, and what she wanted to do. We tossed around ideas of visiting another great monument or a park, or just laying low for a fairy party.

“I want to stay at a Four Seasons, dada,” she said after some pose. Honestly, I don’t blame her one bit.

Birthday vacation in the Big City

The Birthday Girl on the Golden Gate.

The Birthday Girl on the Golden Gate.

We like to celebrate birthdays with panache in this family. When I turned 30, for instance, Powerwoman and I were living in Lima (in Peru), and we spent a weekend dining at some of the best restaurants in town. When L turned 4, we had a party with a cupcake-to-human ratio of at least 4:1. Last September, when R turned 2, we were living in London, she was obsessed with the London Eye, and all she wanted was to ride the thing (which we did).

Naturally, then, this year the pressure was on for us to take the fiesta to the next level.

After much deliberation, we decided to do what any San Francisco Bay Area-based parents of a tourist attraction loving-kid would do: We made plans to travel to the Big City and walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Because no Villano can ever do things half-assed, our plans comprised more than just a bridge walk. In addition, the itinerary included a) a Friday overnight at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, b) a family dinner party at Mel’s Drive-In downtown, c) a morning trek to the carousel at the Children’s Creativity Museum, and d) a picnic lunch in the Marin Headlands.

The bridge walk itself was hilarious. It took us about 45 minutes to find a parking spot at the visitor center on the Sausalito (i.e., the north) side, then another 45 minutes to walk out part of the way. We didn’t even make it from the northern end of the bridge to the first station before the Birthday Girl announced, inimitably, that she was “freezing cold” and that she wanted to go home. Still, she managed to enjoy herself (and Mom and Dad managed to snap a few pictures).

What preceded the bridge walk was special for other reasons. We were welcomed at the hotel with special check-in amenities such as chocolate cake, Panda (as in, Pablo Sandoval) hats, and stuffed San Francisco Giants dolls. We commemorated the start of R’s special day with room-service breakfast. Because we got to the carousel right after it opened, we had the whole attraction to ourselves.

Oh, and at the family dinner, everybody (at least everybody in our immediate family) got milkshakes.

Technically, all of this happened less than 100 miles from our house. Still, because we overnighted, because we “road-tripped” to get there, we all considered it a destination birthday. (Yours truly even made special “road trip trail mix” for the ride down.)

Like I’ve said before, you don’t have to travel very far to have the kind of vacation about which you’ll be talking forever. And for us, R’s birthday celebration was yet another vacation to remember.

What are your favorite ways to mix birthdays and family travel?

Red Thumbs Up

Looks funny; packs a punch.

Looks funny; packs a punch.

No matter how many times I read the statistics about the dangers of distracted driving, no matter how many public service announcements I see and hear, I still occasionally am guilty of texting, status-updating, Tweeting and Instagramming behind the wheel of my moving vehicle.

It doesn’t happen often. And it rarely, if ever, happens at home. On the road, however, especially when I’m traveling with my family for work, sometimes I realize I’m that guy who’s staring into his phone with kids in the back seat.

And that’s never, ever OK.

This is precisely why I have embraced a new campaign out of Colorado to get parents to stop distracted driving once and for all. The program, dubbed “Red Thumb Reminder,” is the brainchild of an advertising executive at San Francisco-based Evolution Bureau. The premise is simple: Paint your thumbnail red so every time you pick up your phone while driving, all you see is a big red sign reminding you to STOP.

Steve Babcock, the man behind the campaign says on the program website that he was inspired by his daughter’s technique of tying a piece of yarn around her finger to remember something for school.

Whatever the inspiration, it works.

Maybe it’s the flash of red. Maybe it’s the notion of utilizing a slightly heavier thumb. Maybe it’s all in my head, I don’t know. The bottom line is that during the few hours I’ve spent with a red thumb on the wheel of my truck, I haven’t even had the URGE to pick up my Smartphone.

This campaign is great news for family travelers. Safety is the No. 1 issue on a road trip, and being mindful of avoiding distracted driving will keep us safer. Furthermore, the more we embrace this idea, the more we discuss the dangers of distracted driving with our kids, the more careful (we can hope) they will be when it’s their turn to get behind the wheel later in life.

Another benefit: The less distracted we are when we drive, the more focused we can be on the experience of the journey itself. From a family travel perspective, this is almost as important as being safe. Both are gifts worth protecting at all costs.

To get involved with the Red Thumb Reminder campaign, follow it on Twitter and like it on Facebook. (Just don’t follow or like on your phone while you’re driving, OK?)

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