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.

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?

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.

Exploring San Francisco’s New-and-Improved Exploratorium

Exploring. At a place made for it.

Exploring. At a place made for it.

It took explorer Sir Edmund Hillary two years of trying before he became the first climber to summit Mount Everest in 1953.

Judging from our family’s recent visit to the Exploratorium in its new digs in San Francisco, it could take us just as long to explore all there is to see at our home city’s most exciting science museum.

I went with the girls and my parents (we usually call them Grammy and Grampy Power). We visited last week, exactly one week after the facility opened in Pier 15 on the Embarcadero. All told, we spent the better part of three hours there. During that time, we didn’t even get to see one third of the museum.

Granted, part of this was because we were moving at toddler speed; that is to say, we lingered at every exhibit for at least five minutes so little R could get a sense of what it was, what it did, and whether it was going to scare the bejeezus out of her.

But, really, our experience proves a much simpler truth: This museum is HUGE.

In other words, if you’re visiting with your kids a) allow a full day and swing by the café for lunch and b) don’t be a Clark Griswold about seeing everything because it’s virtually impossible.

As is the case with most museums, certain exhibits likely will resonate with different kids differently. L, who turns four at the end of May, *loved* all of the magnetic stuff—she spent 20 minutes building washer bridges between two powerful magnets and another 20 at a different magnet exhibit, making afros out of magnetized sand. R, on the other hand, who just celebrated her 19-month birthday, showed little to no interest in the magnets, and preferred getting creative with wooden blocks (see that picture, with Grampy Power, above).

That said, both of my kids loved the “Listening” exhibits; the Villano family went all Von Trapp and spent an extended jam session in the xylophone room that had onlookers (horrified or) in stitches.

Another favorite among the pint-sized members of our family: The “fog bridge” outside the museum, a public sculpture that replicates the sensation of walking through an active fog bank.

My only complaint about the new Exploratorium: The place needs more changing tables.

Yes, every women’s room had at least one. The men’s rooms, however, were another story. I understand the age-old assumptions about traditional gender roles. But, scientists, it’s San Francisco! And in the name of Frank Oppenheimer, we dads like to change a few nappies every once in a while, too.

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