Mad about Mad Libs

Big Girl. Wrapped up in a game.

Big Girl. Wrapped up in a game.

It was big news around these parts earlier today when our grammar-loving 6-year-old discovered Mad Libs for the first time. Not surprisingly, the kid is now obsessed.

Because Mad Libs are so portable, this means our next family road trip just got a ton more fun. Now, instead of singing along to Ellie Goulding or telling progressive stories the whole drive, we can mix it up with a little Mad Libs action.

In other words, Powerwoman and I just got a whole new way to advance L’s love of literacy.

Already the discovery is paying huge dividends. Before this afternoon (when we came home from a trip to the toy store with two new pads of Mad Libs), the soon-to-be-First-Grader only had a general understanding of adverbs; now she can provide them without a moment’s hesitation. Before today, she couldn’t differentiate between a noun and NOW (as in, “I want it NOW”); now she points to random stuff on the street and calls out, “noun” in celebration of knowing the part of speech.

Oh, and for the record, the one time (to this very moment) we’ve used Mad Libs in the car, the activity made the 20-minute drive on the freeway feel like a five-minute jaunt down the street.

Perhaps the only unresolved issue at this point is how long it will take L (and her sister, for that matter) to discover the fun and wonder and silliness of submitting potty words instead of actual nouns and verbs and adjectives.

Some friends predict this de-evolution will happen within weeks. I’m holding out for age 7. At least.

What are some of your favorite road trip games when traveling with family?

San Juan Islands family travel recap

Sisters. Eagle Cove. Beachcombing.

Sisters. Eagle Cove. Beachcombing.

If you’ve been reading this blog over the last few weeks, you undoubtedly already have read all about our family trip to the San Juan Islands. Now, however, there’s a place where you can read a recap of the entire adventure IN ONE POST.

The spot: The Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia (a client). The post: This piece, titled “Summer in the San Juans.”

My story, which published earlier today, summarizes our time on the San Juan Islands in about 1,400 words. It includes details about our marine animal sightings, our beach time, the fun we had at Roche Harbor, and even our side-trip to Orcas Island. It also chronicles some behind-the-scenes color from the downtime we spent as a family at the incredible house we rented.

I am especially proud of the photos that accompany the piece; I took hundreds of shots during our two weeks on the island, and was delighted to be able to publish a few of them somewhere other than Instagram.

(If you’re not currently following me on Instagram, by the way, you should.)

Even if you think you’ve read everything about our trip, I encourage you to take the time to give this story a read as well. Thanks in advance for the support.

Dishing tips for Trips + Giggles

Power, indeed.

Power, indeed.

It’s always fun to share family travel tips with other experts. That’s why I’m especially excited to share a Q&A I did with my buddy, Juliana Shallcross, the gal behind Trips + Giggles.

In the piece, I offer a number of creative options for keeping kids happy and entertained during family trips. Perhaps my favorite hack: Progressive Storytelling, a fun and no-tech game that the four of us played at least once a day on our recent trip to the San Juan Islands.

I also used the opportunity to share some news: Our pod is expanding this November when we welcome another daughter into the mix. (Stay tuned for more on this, obviously.)

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll recognize some of the other tips—Perler beads for hotel rooms, window clings on long plane trips, Dum-Dums for take-offs and landings, and Rory’s Storycubes for more creative fun.  For a complete transcript of the interview, click here. And if you’re not currently reading Trips + Giggles, add it to your list.

Seattle Center = Family travel heaven

The. Best. Playground. EVER.

The. Best. Playground. EVER.

After more than two weeks away from home, we closed out our 2015 summer road trip in style today with six hours at Seattle Center, an entertainment hub (and former World’s Fair fairgrounds) on the north end of downtown Seattle.

Without question, it was one of the best days of our trip, with a seemingly never-ending number of kid-friendly attractions to keep L and R interested.

From our hotel—the Hotel Monaco downtown—the fun began on our approach; instead of taxiing or walking to the area, we took the Seattle Monorail, which travels about a mile from a shopping mall in the heart of the city to the middle of Seattle Center. Aboard this futuristic train, the kids felt like they started their day with a ride. (FWIW, the monorail was built for the 1962 World’s Fair, too.)

From the Monorail station, we walked about 100 yards to Seattle Center’s newest attraction: the Artists at Play playground.

The centerpiece of this playground is a giant climbing structure designed for kids a bit older than ours—L got scared climbing up the ladder to one of the structure’s rope bridges and had to come down. Still, with swings that make music, smaller climbing structures, and a handicapped-accessible merry-go-round, the park had plenty to offer for younger kids.

(Also, there was a shave ice stand, so my girls were stoked.)

Following a hard hour of playing outside, the kids were sweaty and hungry, so we took them into the Seattle Center Armory, which has been repurposed as a food court with plenty of kid-friendly options for lunch.

Next, the kids led us to the ground floor of The Armory, where they spotted peers playing at the Seattle Children’s Museum. We’ve been to a number of children’s museums over the years and this one ranks among the tops. The girls loved an exhibit that challenged them to build their own forts using household materials such as pillows and sheets. They also enjoyed a 30-minute session in the “Imagination Studio,” an art studio with an unlimited supply of paint, crayons, and crafts.

We ended the day experiencing the most famous Seattle Center attraction: the Space Needle. On the elevator ride up, they likened the tower to the lookout from “P.A.W. Patrol,” a Nick Jr., cartoon with which they’re obsessed. From the top, more than 600 feet above the ground, the kids marveled at cars and ferries and buildings below, and oohed and aahed at the view of Mount Rainier, which seemed to float on the horizon to the south.

By the time we got back down to ground level, the kiddos were spent and in need of some serious Down Time back at the hotel. We barely scratched the surface of Seattle Center—the area also is home to the EMP Museum, the Pacific Science Center, and Chihuly Garden and Glass.

Now we know we’ll be back.

Tinkle practice

Calm before the accident.

Calm before the accident.

Like most girls, L and R are *huge* fans of the Disney movie, Frozen, and they love the line in the song, “Fixer Upper,” about going “tinkle in the woods.” In practice, however, the kids actually are quite terrible at actually going tinkle in the woods. And they’re not getting better any time soon.

Powerwoman and I were reminded of this on two consecutive outings this week.

R’s bladder failure happened first, after an ill-advised cup of milk and an unexpectedly long beachcombing trip along Orcas Island’s Crescent Beach. One minute we were plodding along the shoreline looking for beach glass, the next minute, she announced she had to pee, pulled down her pants, squatted to go, and peed all over herself.

L’s tinkle-castrophe occurred the following day while we were watching whales (we did a lot of that). This scene played out in similar fashion: Sudden need to urinate, pants at the ankles, and a valiant squat attempt, followed by soaked flip-flops and undies.

In R’s case, the issue was inexperience; because she’s only freestyled once before, she doesn’t really know how to do it. L’s case, the culprit simply was stubbornness. The child thinks she is the Serena Williams of pee-holding; instead of forcing her to recognize her own limits, we have decided to let her learn them on her own.

Together both experiences reminded Powerwoman and me of an underappreciated family travel truth: Even a little pee versatility can go a long way.

How will this epiphany change our travel practices? In the immediate future, I’m guessing, not that much. Down the road, however, especially before our next big road trip, you better believe my wife and I will work with the kids to help them get better at tinkling in the woods.

I’m sure the path to enlightenment will be rocky. I’m sure we’ll wet a lot of shorts along the way.

Ultimately, of course, the goal is to empower our daughters to go with ease, whenever and wherever they feel they need to go. To paraphrase the famous World Cup slogan: I believe that they will pee.

Best spots in Portland for family travel

Playing with water funnels at OMSI,

Playing with water funnels at OMSI,

We’re still in the San Juan Islands of Washington State, enjoying days full of beach time, wildlife-watching (all Orcas, all the time), and lots (and lots) of locally made ice cream.

Before we got here, however, we spent a few days exploring Portland, Oregon, to the south.

The real reason for that part of the trip was to see some old friends. Naturally, however, because this family travel writer likes to hunt down good stories wherever we go, I also reported a story for the Expedia Viewfinder blog (and, potentially, other outlets) about the very best Portland has to offer for kids.

That piece, titled, “Portland for kids,” appeared on the Viewfinder blog earlier this week. In it, I chronicled our experiences at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, on the Portland Aerial Tram, and at one of the city’s best donut shops, Blue Star Donuts.

I also gave some serious props/love to the Hotel Deluxe, the fabulous boutique (and restored turn-of-the-century) hotel where we stayed.

We packed a ton into the 48 hours we spent in Portland. Still, there were a number of sights we actually *didn’t* get to see. Among the stuff I’ve got on my list for next time: the Portland Children’s Museum, the Oaks Amusement Park, and a trip to Pok Pok, supposedly one of the best Thai restaurants in the entire country.

I’m already looking forward to our return.

Our family’s happy place: the beach

Building teepees at Eagle Cove.

Building teepees at Eagle Cove.

We’ve been on San Juan Island about a week now, and while every day has been different, all of them have had at least one thing in common: A trip to a beach.

Beaches are our girls’ happy place, a surefire spot to make them happy and keep them that way.

On some beaches, they’ve walked the shoreline looking for cool shells and beach glass. On other beaches, they’ve used driftwood, seaweed, and bull kelp to build elaborate forts (or, if I’m helping, teepees). When we hit one beach at low tide, the kids beeline for the tidepools and peer down into worlds of sea anemones, sculpins, and hermit crabs. Another day, when we hit the beach at high tide, they grabbed their shrimp nets, waded out up to their knees and tried to catch us “dinner.”

These kids adore the sand and surf so much you’d think they grew up in a coastal zone (they didn’t; we live about 30 miles inland). As a fellow ocean-lover, I can understand the appeal and appreciate the sense of wonder and joy.

Our best beach day so far has been at Eagle Cove, a locals’ beach I remember from my days on the island as a twentysomething. We’ve been there three times already; we’ll probably visit another three or four times before we head home. At low tide, the beach stretches out a half-mile. Gentle waves lap at the sand. The sides of the cove frame the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

This is the beach where L discovered chiton shells—since that moment of discovery she has collected approximately 3,486 of them. It’s also the beach where R found her first cache of beach glass.

We’ve played ball on this beach. We’ve built fairy houses there. One day, while the kids were lounging with Powerwoman on a blanket, I took matters into my own hands and dragged driftwood from the back of the beach to build a shelter in which the girls could play cards.

Weeks from now, when L and R look back on this trip, despite the Orcas and the red foxes and the bald eagles and the ice cream every day, I bet they remember the beach best of all.

And I won’t blame them one bit.

You can go back again, with family

I call this, "Orca Window."

I call this, “Orca Window.”

I was hunched over the sink washing dinner dishes when I saw them through the kitchen window—first the telltale blows, then black triangle-shaped dorsal fins rising from the surface of the water.

“Orcas! Orcas!” I screamed. “Girls, get out here! There are orcas!”

This was the moment I had dreamed about, the very instant when my kids would see the namesake animals of this blog and come face-to-face with the marine mammals that had eluded me for the first 24 years of my time on Earth. Put simply, this was why we had come to the San Juan Islands in the first place: To see these very whales.

It took a few minutes for L and R to understand and appreciate the gravity of the situation. First they couldn’t see the whales from the living room of our vacation rental. Then they complained about how “small” the animals appeared. Only after I pointed out a baby did they start to come around.

And come around they did. They sang songs about the Orcas. They vocalized like Orcas. They pretended to be Orcas and chased each other around the living room. They requested Kindle books about ‘em, too. (Subsequently, they have asked to go to the local whale museum so they can learn even more.)

The San Juans have represented a special place for me since 1999. That summer, after a few years of living in the concrete jungle of Manhattan, I decided I needed to experience some open space. I never had seen Orcas in the wild, and knew there were some resident populations of the whales out here in the Pacific Northwest. So I bought a plane ticket to Seattle and a passenger ferry ticket to Friday Harbor. And I improvised the rest.

Over the course of two weeks that first summer, I lived in my tent and worked off my cell phone and a laptop from a coffee shop. I also kayaked a ton and saw literally hundreds of Orcas. The next summer, I came back for three weeks and did the same stuff. In the summer of 2001, I came again (that time with friends).

That middle summer, after one of the most intense animal encounters of my life, I vowed to bring my family here someday, and promised to make sure my kids wouldn’t wait as long as I did to see Orcas in the wild.

Which is what brought us here this year. It’s also what prompted us to rent this house—the house sits along the southern tip of the Island with a commanding view of the confluence of Juan de Fuca and Haro straits. I knew this was a spot where we’d be able to see whales without getting in a whale-watch boat. I was right.

We’ll be on the Island for a grand total of 13 days, and, already, the kids (and Powerwoman, for that matter) are saying they never want to leave. Whales! Beaches! Lakes! Mountains! This place has it all.

For me, however, San Juan Island has something even more meaningful: Memories. I forged the first set here at a time in my life when I was totally alone. Now that I’m back on the islands surrounded by family, I get the opportunity to make new ones with the people I love most in the world. I can’t think of a better gift for any of us.

Previewing the family road trip of my dreams

Come June, this will be us.

Come June, this is how many days will end.

It’s easy to make excuses to put off big trip. We lead busy lives. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Especially for family travelers, it seems there’s always a convenient excuse to cite as the reason for NOT taking the vacation of your dreams.

Which is precisely why it’s so liberating to finally say, “No excuses,” and take the leap.

This concept of “No Excuses” is the basis of a major advertising campaign from Expedia, one of my biggest clients. And because I’m the senior editor of the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog (a great source of inspirational travel content, by the way), the concept also was the basis of a recent blog post, which was published on the site earlier this weekend.

In the post, I essentially preview what will become our big trip of the summer—a three-week (and maybe longer) road trip from our home in Northern California to the San Juan Islands in Washington State.

As I note in the post, the SJIs hold a special place in my heart, and I’ve dreamed of taking my family there for more than a decade. Finally, with the support of Expedia, we’re making the trip happen in a big way.

Our plan is simple. We’ll rent a house. We’ll explore. We’ll watch for whales. I’ll run a half-marathon. And we’ll just relax.

Sure, we’ll book some day trips (I mention a few of them in the post itself). And, as of right now, it looks like my inlaws will join us for part of the time. But there’s no grand scheme. We try to take one big trip every summer, and the goal of that trip is to assimilate, to become part of the local zeitgeist. This trip to the San Juans will be no different.

I’ve made excuses for years—the girls were too young, they wouldn’t appreciate it, blah blah blah. The truth: The time for excuses is done. I’m delighted and excited to finally have the opportunity to take my family on this adventure. To be honest, June can’t come soon enough. (Oh, and stay tuned for updates.)

Where have you always dreamed of visiting and why?

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