For the love of Monopoly

20160801_165215One of our favorite things about vacation rentals on family trips: The surprises we find in the cabinets and drawers.

No matter where we go, no matter what sort of rental we get (house, apartment, etc.), L and R always manage to discover some sort of treasure with which they become obsessed. The treasure usually then becomes part of our lives.

Our recent vacation on Maui was no exception. The item of choice: Monopoly.

To be fair, L had played a version of this game before—Monopoly Junior, which is a version of the original game that has been simplified for kids under the age of 8. This time, however, she and her sister, R, were digging a rare and unusual grown-up version: a Peanuts-themed take on the original game.

(The Peanuts theme was a weird coincidence; Charles Schulz spent the latter part of his life near our home in Santa Rosa, California, and we’re members of a museum there in his memory.)

The sisters found the game in a chest of drawers. Once they checked out all the pieces, once they had me teach them how to play, they became full-on junkies, insisting that we play for at least a few hours every day of the trip.

Most of our games took place before 9 a.m.; I had the morning shift and this was how we spent it.

Invariably, R would start out strong, buy a bunch of properties, then lose interest when she ran out of cash. L, on the other hand, was a veritable shark, waiting in the weeds for tactical purchases, accumulating monopolies, then building houses and hotels to wipe the rest of us clean. She also went after the game’s equivalent of utilities, which always cost of the rest of us dearly.

Of course we tweaked the rules a bit. R was *very* upset at the idea of going to jail and refused to play unless I guaranteed she and her sister didn’t have to go. As a result, only the grown-ups could end up in jail; the worst fate for those of us under the age of 8 was “Just Visiting.”

Another change had to do with paying rent. If either of the girls didn’t have enough money to pay me rent, I would accept payment in smooches, with an exchange rate of one kiss for every $10.

(One game, I had three monopolies with hotels on every property. I got a lot of kisses.)

In the end, though I think I would have rather spent that time with the girls outside, it was wonderful to see them taking interest in a board game, and even more uplifting to see them wanting to experience it TOGETHER. They’ve been clamoring to spend a Saturday playing here at home. The requests are proof positive of how this past family vacation changed their lives—that makes me very happy, indeed.

What do you love most about vacation rentals when you travel with family?

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.

You know you’re on family vacation with young kids when…

Sisters playing with perlers. 6 a.m.

Sisters playing with perlers. 6 a.m.

1. You wouldn’t be caught dead in a restaurant without paper and crayons.
2. You order that second Manhattan at dinner to go so you can drink it up in the room during books and songs.
3. You implore loved ones to use “inside voices” way more than you’d like.
4. You hear—and share—more poop and pee jokes than you’ll admit, even to your best friend.
5. You and your partner snuggle up in bed at 8 p.m. to watch separate movies on separate mobile devices with headphones (so as not to disturb anyone in the next bed).
6. You use Suave watermelon shampoo/conditioner on your own hair AND YOU DON’T GIVE A SHIT.
7. You listen to the same playlist in the car over and over and over and over again.
8. You consume French fries (and ice cream) at least once every other day.
9. You are awakened before 6 a.m. every day, usually to officiate an argument.
10. You have an adventure on each trip to a public restroom.
11. You (reluctantly) accept that the process of applying sunscreen takes more than 15 minutes.
12. You tip servers more than normal to assuage your guilt for leaving such a mess.
13. You relinquish all semblance of privacy in the bathroom (or otherwise).
14. You explain new stuff you encounter. In great detail. Frequently.
15. You step on small toys (or Perler Beads) daily, and cannot bring yourself to curse about it when you do.
16. You find yourself justifying how pasta really is its own food group.
17. You have to call housekeeping for help to replace marker-stained pillowcases.
18. You visit every toy store in a five-mile radius of your destination.
19. You realize museums and playgrounds are unbeatable diversionary tools.
20. You expand your family limits to include a litany of stuffed animal friends.

All Elsa, all the time

Elsa, surveying the North Mountain (and snow-covered deck).

Elsa, surveying the North Mountain (and snow-covered deck).

A funny thing happens when you vacation with three girls between the ages of 3 and 6—you feel like you’ve stepped into a Disney movie. All. The. Damn. Time.

Such was life last week when we spent five days in Lake Tahoe with great family friends. The girls could see or touch snow every waking moment of every day. Which meant they convinced themselves they were living in the movie, Frozen.

This alternate reality manifest itself in a number of hilarious ways.

First, we grown-ups were subjected to the word, “Elsa” no less than 70 times every hour of every day. The girls screamed it. They sang it. They took turns being Elsa 1, Elsa 2, and Elsa 3. One morning, the three of them got into an animated conversation of what Elsa would do if she were annoyed at her sister for not including her in a game with friends. (Their answer: Elsa would freeze everyone. Of course.)

Second, every day comprised multiple costume changes. Immediately after awakening for the day (at 5 a.m.), each girl raced to the room we had designated as the play room to get first dibs on the dress of their choice. Choices included three Elsa dresses, one Anna dress and a few other non-Frozen options. Two of the three girls also had plastic, turquoise Frozen heels, which they wore at all times in the wood-floored house, thus preventing the 7-month-old baby sleeping downstairs from getting a decent nap.

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering, those dress negotiations never EVER went smoothly.)

Finally—and this was perhaps my favorite—the kids took to citing lines from Frozen, and bending those lines to fit just about every situation in which we found ourselves over the course of the trip. Whenever wind gusts took the temperature from the teens into the single digits, at least one of the kids would state, “The cold never bothered me anyway.” When L got the brilliant idea to amass snow to build a man-like sculpture, she didn’t ask her sister or friend to help, but sang, “Do you want to build a snowman?”

It’s important to note here that I am in no way complaining about this phenomenon; on the contrary, I found it fascinating and instructive and endearing (most of the time). Multifamily travel in and of itself is one thing. Apparently, multifamily travel while playing princess pretend is entirely something else.

Understanding a New Option for Vacation Rentals

KCLogoSquareOnWhite-703c666b90bed46938544a8c8603a272In the world of vacation rentals, there’s a new “kid” on the block: Kid & Coe. The company, which launched in October 2013, not only lists rentals but also vets them, offering users pre-qualified references in cities all over the world. The endeavor is the brainchild of Zoie Coe, a mom who travels frequently with her kids (and who also happens to be the wife of DJ Sasha, from Sasha & Digweed). Following a small feature on the company in a recent issue of Travel & Leisure, I caught up with Coe to understand a little more about her approach.

Tell us more about your inspiration for the company.
We were on tour in Sydney as a family and were lucky enough to be checking into the Four Seasons, planning to stay there for a few weeks. Nothing against Four Seasons, but within two days we realized it wasn’t going to work for us as a family; once Luca was asleep at night, we were tiptoeing around him in the dark, whispering so we wouldn’t wake him. We realized he wouldn’t be eating any healthy home-cooked meals and we just needed more space to enjoy our family time together. I think all parents that have stayed in hotel rooms with their kids know this scenario!

When I started the process of looking for an apartment to rent, it took days. Most were unsuitable for a young child. I had to go and personally check them all out. When we found somewhere that did work, I then had to source a baby equipment rental firm to kit us out with high chairs, stair gates and the rest. It took a whole week out of our trip just getting to that point.

But then everything opened up. As soon as we were situated, it felt that all of Sydney was our Sydney: We had a base to find local fresh grocers, nearby playgrounds, farmers markets, and cafés.

That’s how it started. From that I realized that staying in a house as a family was the way to go. Spending too much time going through uninspiring websites looking at uninspiring houses that claimed they were family-friendly made me realize there was a real lack in the market for people who need the space of a home the most. And Kid & Coe is an elegant solution for traveling families.

How can a family know if it is better suited for a rental over a hotel?
I think that for anything over a few days, a self-catering property would prove to be the better option. That’s primarily because it comes down to space, unless you’re in the lucky position of taking two adjoining hotel rooms, it becomes difficult to navigate a hotel room with two young children. Homes provide the opportunity to stretch out yet still be connected at the same time. They also offer a more authentic experience—you can really get stuck into a neighborhood, with farmer’s markets, fresh grocers, etc. [Rentals] provide a great base to explore.

Where is the line in terms of what you should expect a rental owner to provide? For instance, if an owner doesn’t offer outlet covers, should you look elsewhere?
From a host perspective, we’re looking for properties that tick a few boxes. Is it in a fantastic location? Does it provide any family amenities? Is it safe and spacious enough to accommodate a family comfortably? There are many variables that we take into consideration when evaluating a property—we wouldn’t turn one down for not having outlet covers!

Our aim at Kid & Coe is to present the specific information that a family needs for their own unique needs. What’s child-friendly for a parent of a 2-year-old is very different from what’s family-friendly for a parent of an 8-year-old. We don’t try to make the decision for the family, but we aim to present all the information clearly so parents can make the right choice for their family.

What do you consider to be the must-haves for an ideal family rental?
For my own family, we take into consideration the location. If we’re in a city, we want to be right in the thick of it, if we’re by the beach, we want to be very close to the water. Location is key. I’m personally less concerned about the level of toys that a home might provide because I have older kids now and we want to be out exploring the destination. But when I traveled with my 1-year-old, I was definitely concerned about stairs, high chairs and cribs etc. So again, it comes down to what those family’s unique needs are at the time.

We’ve had a range of requests, from a mom and teenage daughter wanting to explore London, to groups of families holidaying together. Families come in different shapes and sizes and we hope to provide suitable accommodation suggestions for all of them.

How many rentals currently are in your program? How do you evaluate them? Do you see them all in person?
We have about 200 live on the site [spanning international destinations from Oakland to Umbria]. More are being added every day. The first step is that we ask hosts to fill out a quick application and a paragraph detailing why their property would be a good fit for our family community. We request photos so we can get a feel of the space.

Once they’ve been accepted, our team takes a lot of time working with the host to make sure all the information provided is relevant and clear. We currently don’t see them all in person—those that we do, have a yellow ‘verified’ stamp on the page. We work so closely with the hosts we accept that we feel we really get to know them that way.

To what extent do you pre-qualify family customers?
We’re working hard on building out more community features on our website. For example, I’d love to be able to see the Instagram feed of the family that’s coming to stay in my home, if they want to share that information. From what we’ve seen so far, it’s very much a case of like-minded families sharing with other like-minded families and we’ve seen the idea of community really taking shape. We’re working hard to develop more features on the site that really grow that community.

Tell me a little about yourself. What did you do before Kid & Coe?
I worked in various jobs, the most recent was that I managed my husband’s music business which granted me the opportunity to travel extensively, both before the kids and after. I’ve been working on this concept full-time for the last year and a half.

How to Find Amazing Family-Friendly Vacation Rentals

Our backyard at Riverain, in England's Lake District.

Our backyard at Riverain, in England’s Lake District.

We’re near the end of an epic week in England’s Lake District. A big part of what has made this visit unforgettable: Where we’re staying.

On paper, we’ve rented a 3-bedroom “cottage” in the tiny town of Blencowe, about five miles outside of Penrith, on the northern edge of Lake District National Park. In reality, however, we are staying in part of a restored and renovated circa-1700 carriage house, one of the structures that flanks a castle-like manor house that dates back to the 1500s itself.

Our rental has heated floors, an incredible wood-burning fireplace and those tiny windows that you find in pretty much all castles and stone buildings from hundreds of years ago. On the grounds: A rushing stream, hundreds of sheep and acres upon acres of rolling hills.

Did I mention the place is costing us less than $225 per night?

In celebration of our find, Powerwoman and I put our heads together last night and came up with a list of tips for how to find killer family-friendly vacation rentals. Here are the highlights.

Tip 1: Book with Experts
In today’s age, many family travelers book on AirBnB and call it a night. If you’re lucky, the place is nice. The problem, of course, is that you might not be so lucky. Instead of winging it, we almost always opt for a vacation rental service. These services require property owners to keep places to a high standard of quality. They also are more than willing to help out if something goes wrong. For this trip—and for other trips to rural England—we used Rural Retreats, which is based in the Cotswolds. When we went to Ireland earlier this year, we went with Elegant Ireland. OneFineStay is another service about which I’ve heard great things.

Tip 2: Confirm there’ll be kid-friendly stuff
Some rental entities prattle on about how their properties are “kid-friendly.” What this means, however, can vary widely depending on where you go. We always like to call or email in advance and make sure the place we’re going has access to a) a crib b) stair gates and c) a high chair. If the place doesn’t offer this stuff—or if they can’t guarantee they’ll get it for us—we look elsewhere.

Tip 3: Follow the hampers
It’s standard operating procedure among the best vacation rental services to provide visitors with food hampers to supplement grocery items they’ll buy for the duration of their stay. The worst of these baskets amount to nothing more than snacks. The best of them provide the ingredients for multiple meals. In our experiences, baskets from Rural Retreats have supplied us with ingredients for the first dinner in the house, as well as a number of days of snacking. The best basket we’ve ever had: The one from Elegant Ireland, which contained freshly-baked bread, and all of the ingredients for multiple Irish breakfasts.

Tip 4: Go off-peak
Busy times at most vacation rentals are like busy times at hotels—if you’re able to find availability, the price points likely are astronomical. Instead, try building your vacation around off-peak times. Over the years (especially in Hawaii), we have saved big bucks scheduling trips around only one weekend instead of two. Another strategy we’ve used: Traveling from Tuesday or Wednesday to the following Tuesday or Wednesday (this was how we rolled this time around). Time of year is huge, too: Check websites for peak seasons, then book around them. Finally, be open to sacrificing location; a few miles away from the tourist hotspots could save you hundreds—if not thousands—down the road.

What are your secrets for finding great family-friendly vacation rentals?

Family Travel Food for Thought

Have farmers' market, will travel.

Have farmers’ market, will travel.

The June issue of Conde Nast Traveler is jam-packed with suggestions about places to take the family on vacation this summer (and beyond).

While I take issue with the feature’s headline (sorry, folks, but no vacation involving the vagaries of children ever is “foolproof”), I think the piece is a solid collection of service-oriented destination write-ups, travel tips and first-person suggestions/anecdotes.

In short, I wish I had written the damn thing myself.

In particular, I admire the magazine’s selections of vacation destinations for big families on a budget. We never have visited Sayulita, but we have good friends who go there with their kids every year and describe it as “the cheapest and most laid-back beach town on Earth.” We have visited Honua Kai Resort on Maui, and the 2-bedroom units indeed are a great value for the price. (Usage of the phrase, “mod cons,” however, should be outlawed in all 50 states.)

It also was exciting to see the magazine give some love to the Tyler Place Family Resort, in Vermont. This place is renowned in family travel circles for programs that include supervised morning and evening activities for kids up to 30 months old.

Tyler Place also an all-inclusive, which some say are a great value for families. (In case you were wondering, I am not one of these people, and am skeptical of all-inclusives in general. But that’s another subject for another post.)

In any event, the article is worth a read.

Where do you plan to take your family for vacation this summer? Let me know in the comments field.

Babyproofing Away from Home

These things save lives.

These things save lives.

Our older daughter never required much in terms of baby-proofing; when she was a toddler, we told her to stay away from stuff like cabinets and oven knobs, and she listened.

R, however, the baby in this family, is another story entirely.

We liken the kid to a two-legged raccoon; if something can be fiddled with in any way, girl will fiddle with it, then fiddle again. This means we’ve got child-proof latches and locks on just about everything here at home.

It also means that when we hit the road for a week at vacation rentals all over the world, we must scramble to make sure the kid doesn’t get herself (or us) into trouble.

That’s why I love the Travel Childproofing Safety Kit from Travel-Tot.

I heard about the kit from a bunch of friends, but didn’t really come to appreciate it until reading about it on Shelly Rivoli’s Travels with Baby blog (which, by the way, kicks major ass).

According to Rivoli, the kit comes in a suitcase the size of a small shoebox and comprises a host of child-proofing tools that traveling families can administer in just about any place on the road. Items requiring application are fastened with non-damaging adhesive strips provided in the kit. Components require no tools and can be installed in about five minutes.

All told, the kit includes a finger pinch guard, electrical outlet plug covers, foam corner guards, a door knob cover, a cord wind-up, a sliding door lock, a cabinet lock, multipurpose straps, water thermometer and bandages.

There’s also a forehead thermometer and this genius little door-hanger that says, “Shhh, Travel-Tot sleeping,” so your neighbors in a hotel know not to crank the Rhianna after 10 p.m.

The price: $34.95. Sure sounds like a good investment to me.

%d bloggers like this: