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 travel inspiration from Charles Schulz

The five of us spent the afternoon today at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, watching Peanuts cartoons and learning more about the legacy of the man behind Snoopy and Charlie Brown. During our visit, in an exhibit about the new “Peanuts” movie, I spotted this quote on the wall, which pretty much says it all…

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

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.

Sucker for the midway

Yours truly. With an emu. On the carousel.

Yours truly. With an emu. On the carousel.

My name is Matt Villano and I’m a sucker for a carnival midway.

I’ve been a midway maniac for most of my life. I play games. Lots of games. I’ve never seen a ping-pong-ball-in-the-goldfish-bowl game I didn’t like. I can’t whack enough moles. I love shooting water into a clown’s mouth. And I wholeheartedly embrace the challenge of knocking down three milk jugs with one bean bag.

I chose this forum in which to come clean because, well, attending carnivals always is better with kids. And because the county fair has been going now for the last two weeks. And because I just went with my kids and their two cousins.

You read that right, people: This year I hit up our local county fair solo, in charge of four kids between the ages of 3 and 14.

I like to think of the experience as EXTREME FAMILY TRAVEL: One almost-40 dad and four kids brave 100-degree temperatures to go on rides, pump their veins full of sugar and shoot baskets until their wrists fall off.

We took a wagon for my girls. We alternated between little-kid rides and big-kid rides. And—of course—we snuck in dozens and dozens of games. We won a few fish. We won 19 stuffed animals. We even won some silly little necklace.

Along the way, I taught L and R how to bash rubber frogs from catapults and on to lily pads. I gave my niece and nephew a crash course in fair food (Lobster Corn Dog 1, Niece & Nephew 0).

Oh, and I must have spent like $500 in an afternoon (seriously).

Still, IT WAS THE FAIR, which means, it was a blast. Some traveling parents may strive to avoid these types of chaotic environments like the plague. I, for one, embrace them wholeheartedly. Whether I’m 30 minutes away from home or 3,000 miles away from the nearest national border, if there’s a carnival midway, I’ll be there. Experiencing it all with my kids makes the fun even better. Which is precisely why I don’t plan to break this addiction any time soon.

Sticker heaven

On the tour.

On the tour.

My kids, like just about every kids under the age of 6 (or, maybe even 10), REALLY like stickers. They’ll stick the things just about anywhere. On the inside of the backseat windows in my truck. On our furniture. On each other. On me.

Sometimes, if L and R are feeling particularly creative, they’ll use the stickers as characters in make-believe worlds, and move the stickers from spot to spot as if they were alive.

It’s cool to watch. It’s even cooler to encourage. That’s why I’ve been jonesing to visit Mrs. Grossman’s.

Mrs. Grossman’s, as in, the last remaining sticker factory here in the U.S. The place is located in Petaluma, California, (next to Camelbak world headquarters and) just about an hour from our front door. And they host four tours every day between Monday and Thursday. So, last week, on a day when R didn’t have preschool, I took her. And we loved it.

The $7 tour ran about 45 minutes. I give a light-hearted narrative rundown of the experience in my latest family travel column for the San Francisco Chronicle (the story will be published in Thursday’s paper), and you can read more about it there. The highlights:

  • A 5-minute introductory video in which we learned the staggering fact that, if all of the equipment in the factory were operational at once, Mrs. Grossman’s could churn out 5 million stickers a day.
  • A detailed explanation of how stickers are cut, painted, and packaged.
  • A stroll down an entire aisle of giant rolls of stickers. In a matter of minutes, we spotted everything from horses to wizards to sparkly frogs and princesses. R was in her glory, pawing at each of the rolls like a cat might paw at a hair tie.
  • A free, sticker-based arts-and-crafts project at the end of the tour.

Along the way, our tour guide gave us free stickers at each of six stops. She also pointed out some of the business-to-business work Mrs. Grossman’s does, noting that a significant percentage of the factory’s work at this time of year comprises labels for local wineries. (We saw lots of labels for Francis Ford Coppola’s winery in Geyserville, California.)

When our tour was over, when R had had enough of her arts-and-crafts project, we perused the modest on-site store and bought a bunch of other stickers to take home for L (and just to add to the stash). Part of this take: Two sealed (and $3.99) “Mystery Boxes” that comprised $20 worth of stickers apiece.

We took the tour more than a week ago and R still talks about it every day. This morning, as she was playing with a sheet of hibiscus stickers we bought that day, she asked if we could go back.

Based upon this assessment alone, I’d rate Mrs. Grossman’s as one of the greatest kid-oriented tours in the entire Bay Area. Throw in easy parking, friendly tour guides, all those free stickers, and proximity to an In-N-Out Burger restaurant for post-tour lunch, and the tour is a perfect activity around which to build an afternoon. Maybe we’ll even see you there.

What are some of the best kid-friendly tours you’ve encountered in your travels?

Shining spotlight on a new local gem

Fishing at the CMOSC.

Fishing at the CMOSC.

Because this blog deals with family travel on a general basis, I usually try to keep the focus as broad as possible. Sometimes, however, I can’t resist writing about local stuff. Especially when I’ve profiled that local stuff in a major metropolitan daily newspaper.

Case in point: the new Children’s Museum of Sonoma County (CMOSC), which I spotlighted in my most recent family travel column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The playground portion of the facility opened in March and the girls are OBSESSED. In fact, the day after my story about the place was published, we became members. I’m certain we’ll be headed there at least 2-3 times each month.

Things we love: the water play area, which comprises a series of water tables and a river from which kids can pluck plastic fish; the art studio, which hosts a different themed project every day; the organic garden, from which kids (under appropriate supervision) can pluck fruits and veggies; and the giant building blocks, with which kids can build giant Rube Goldberg-type machines.

Personally, I also love that after I called them out about it in my piece, the museum added a shade sail.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s stuff we’d change about the place, too. One of the biggies: The museum has way too many rules. You can only eat in a certain spot. You can’t be barefoot. You can’t play *in* the river (you have to stand on a bridge).

Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly recommend taking the family the CMOSC. Perhaps the best plan is to combine your visit with a trip to the Charles M. Schulz Museum, which is next door. There’s even an In-N-Out Burger down the street for an impromptu lunch. California Wine Country isn’t just for grown-ups anymore.

All potty, all the time

Potty. At Gott's in St. Helena.

Potty. At Gott’s in St. Helena.

We’re deep into potty-training here this month, as we’ve been trying to get R to ditch the diapers and embrace the toilet like the rest of us. She got the whole peeing thing down quickly. Poop, on the other hand, has proven to be a significant challenge. As in, we’ve lost an average of five pairs of undies a week.

This explains why Powerwoman and I have been toting a portable potty with us wherever we go. Into town. To the doctor. And, yes, even on road trips.

Case in point: today’s pre-Mother’s Day excursion to St. Helena, one of the fanciest towns in the entire Napa Valley. While tourists enjoyed hamburgers and milkshakes at Gott’s Roadside, I was looking for a place to stash R’s portable throne. While other visitors wandered up and down Main Street in Prada and Vera Wang, there was yours truly, pink potty under my arm.

A handful of passersby (mostly younger folks) were oblivious to my accessory. The rest, however, looked at it quizzically, then glanced at the girls, and smiled.

The smiles revealed a certain familiarity; it was as if many folks were saying, “Dude, I was there, too.”

On one hand, these knowing smirks reassured me that our recent lives of Potty 24/7 are not that unusual. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but wonder: Generally speaking, why don’t I see more parents schlepping around potties in today’s day and age?

I’m being serious here, people. Every kid learns how to use the potty; why isn’t potty training more of a common sight with regard to family travel? Is it just that families don’t travel when their kids learn? Do most parents prefer just to put their kids in pull-ups when they’re on the road? Are we the only ones ridiculous enough to lug around a full-on potty (instead of a potty seat R can just use in a rest room)?

Obviously, I’d love your input on this issue. In the meantime, I intend to stick to my guns. The girls and I have a picnic date on the Sonoma County Coast this Tuesday. I’ll be the guy with the pink potty.

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.

%d bloggers like this: