Celebrating the best family travel year ever

One year ago tonight, in London.

One year ago tonight, in London.

One year ago today—August 20, 2013—our wandering pod embarked on the greatest adventure of our lives: a five-month relocation to London.

Our stay in the U.K. kicked off what has been the greatest stretch of travel in our lives. Over the course of the last 12 months, we Villanos have logged nearly 400,000 (air and car) travel miles as a unit, touching down in England, Ireland, Canada, Hawaii, Florida (specifically, Walt Disney World), Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and more.

The best part: We’ve done it all together.

I’ve had fun over the last few nights going back and looking at posts and pix from this time last year. There’s this post, from two nights before we departed. And the photo that accompanies the entry you’re reading now; the pic was taken at 3 a.m. London time on the night we arrived—after both girls woke up for the day (damn you, jet lag!). Then, of course, there is this piece, from two days after we arrived.

(Interestingly, we ditched the pram in that post for a sturdier one we bought in London. We still use the “London buggy” every time we fly.)

It’s also been fun to remember the highs and lows of a year of family travel. My favorite high: A week of dodging raindrops and chasing geese in the Lake District, toward the end of our run in England. My least favorite low: The night Little R kicked me out of bed at The Ahwahnee (inside Yosemite) and insisted that I sleep on the floor—making it the most expensive campsite of all time.

Throughout these adventures, I have deepened my appreciation for the world, for embracing new things, for the privilege to leave home for a while. I’d like to think the girls have experienced similar growth.

Even if all this travel hasn’t changed my kids, exposure to it certainly has sensitized their little brains to the notion of exploration. Will I be disappointed if they grow up to be homebodies? Not at all. But something tells me that after a year like the one we’ve just had, curiosity will come naturally to them.

What will the next year bring? From a practical perspective, the next 12 months of travel likely will look very different; with both girls in school (and L in Kindergarten five days a week), our opportunities to escape as a foursome may dwindle. Rest assured, we’ll find ways to get out and about. There are places to go! There are people to see! Most important, this travel thing is what we Villanos do best. Here’s to another great year.

‘Storybook’ Yosemite post comes to life

Little R, seeking a cozy hideaway.

Little R, seeking a cozy hideaway.

As I have noted here in the preceding weeks, we’ve just come back from our biggest trip of 2014—a family excursion to Yosemite National Park.

We took the trip as part of an assignment from Expedia, for whom I serve as (senior editor and) a contributing writer to the Expedia Viewfinder blog. Now—finally, IMHO—my main narrative piece from the trip has been published for all to read.

The piece, titled “Family adventure in Yosemite” appeared on the Expedia blog today—just one day after Earth Day.

It kicked off the blog’s “Storybook” campaign.

In the story, I detailed the best parts of our four-day excursion from our home in Northern California to Yosemite. Some of these highlights:

  • Our day “hiking” with the girls to Mirror Lake
  • Our game of “Pooh Cones” in Tenaya Creek
  • Our trip to Lower Yosemite Falls
  • Our rock-tossing session on the banks of the Merced
  • Our nighttime stroll under the starry sky

Perhaps the biggest personal milestone: The trip was the first time the four of us had visited a national park as a family, and the first time my lovely bride ever had stepped foot in the park (considering she has spent nearly half of her life in California, this is a big deal).

Yes, regular readers of this blog have read portions of the Viewfinder recap before. But there’s new stuff in there, too. And there’ll be more; I plan to publish two additional installments over the next few weeks. Please give it a read! Please check back often! And please follow along with the rest of the campaign, as my colleagues will be writing their own “Storybook” posts between now and July.

Doing is believing

Tossing rocks (and pinecones) into the Merced.

Tossing rocks (and pinecones) into the Merced.

There are logical reasons why touch tanks always are kids’ favorite part of the aquarium. The exhibits are at kid-level! They’ve got stuff kids can reach in and grab! Most important: They are one of the only places in the facility where kids can DO instead of just SEE.

This last reality is one we traveling parents often overlook. Yes, it’s amazing to expose our kids to international cities and world-class museums and great music and all sorts of cultural phenomena like that. It’s also a big deal to let ‘em get down on their knees, roll up their sleeves and interact with stuff for themselves.

I was reminded of this last weekend, during our storybook family vacation to Yosemite National Park.

Sure, the kids loved it when we hiked to Mirror Lake. And yes, they loved it when we traipsed around Yosemite Valley for different perspectives on Yosemite Falls, the highest measured waterfall in North America.

But they were happiest when they were able to get their hands on the nature around them.

The first example of this came during our hike (from The Ahwahnee hotel) to the lake. About halfway out, L and R insisted on wandering off-trail, exploring the granite boulders around us for “cozy hideaways” for fairies. I monitored these activities closely; technically they weren’t supposed to be off-trail at all, and the terrain wasn’t exactly easy to navigate. Still, amid the boulders, picking at moss and leaves and all sorts of other stuff around them, the girls played for hours (literally).

The second example of the importance of doing came toward the end of our visit, on a day when L and I went out to explore while R and Powerwoman napped back in the room.

My older daughter and I wandered out of the hotel and back toward the Merced River. There, along the riverbank, we spent 15 minutes tossing pinecones into the current and watching them head downstream. I could tell L was curious about something, so I asked her if there was anything else she’d like to do. Her response: “I want to feel the water, Dad.”

And so, I let her. I held her jacket while she leaned out from the side of the bank and dipped her hands in the Merced. Once her hands were wet, she pulled them back and wiped the water on her tiny face. As the droplets ran down her cheeks, she stuck out her tongue and giggled.

“It’s cold!” she commented. Then she dipped her hands in again. And again.

To be honest, I had no idea how meaningful that moment was until the drive home. Somewhere around Mariposa, my wife turned around and asked the girls what they liked best about our trip.

R’s answer was simple: She loved the waterfalls. L’s response, however, caught both of us grownups off-guard. “My favorite part was feeling the river,” she said. “It was fun to see the waterfalls but touching the water itself was amazing.”

I’m not sure I could have said it better myself.

The yin and yang of family travel

Outside The Ahwahnee, right after we arrived.

Outside The Ahwahnee, right after we arrived.

Five days have passed since our family excursion to Yosemite National Park and The Ahwahnee Hotel. Though the trip was, by its very nature, a dream come true, the adventure included stratospheric highs and horrendous lows.

Chronicling the highpoints is easy. On the list: Watching the girls seek “cozy hideaways” for fairies as we hiked amid granite boulders on the way to Mirror Lake, hearing the kids sing songs from “Frozen” as Little R experienced snow for the first time in her life, taking them to the Curry Village Pizza Deck, helping L put her hands and face in the Merced River to see what it felt like, and, of course, spotting a bobcat slink by less than five feet away.

Of course watching my girls watch Yosemite Falls also was pretty amazing—the baby could not get over the fact that the waterfall never “shut off.”

The lowpoints are just as easy to enumerate.

Like the mid-brunch tantrum on the last morning that featured L scratching her mother like that aforementioned bobcat. Or R’s insistence on being carried for the duration of a 3-mile hike.

Both of these experiences paled in comparison to the indisputable nadir: The night when my 2-year-old daughter kicked me out of the bed we were sharing and screamed like a banshee until I agreed to sleep on the floor.

(At first this scene amused me; then I realized I was paying close to $500 a night to camp in a hotel.)

Personally, I expected the trip to have a little yin and yang—this is what happens when you travel with two humans under the age of 6. Still, I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t at least a little surprised by just how much yang there was on this particular adventure, especially considering how well the kids did on our last major adventure in London.

Overall, the experience was a perfect reminder of what family travel really is—beautiful, frustrating, exhilarating, and exhausting. Yes, there were low points. But there also were high points, and all it takes is one of those to make a memory that can last a lifetime for any of us.

All about the storybook(s)


Inside spread, Alaska Airlines magazine

This is shaping up to be the biggest week of the year for those of us here at Wandering Pod, and it’s all about the placements.

First, on Tuesday, the April 2014 issue of Alaska Airlines magazine hit seat-backs with a cover story written by yours truly. The story, which runs nearly 4,000 words, spotlights family travel in Hawaii. In it, I pulled together anecdotes and experiences from five years of visiting the Aloha State with (at least one of) the girls.

Check it out by clicking here (and then scrolling to page 34, where the piece begins).

Next, later this morning, Powerwoman, L, R, and I will hop in the Prius and head out to Yosemite National Park, where we’ll spend the next four days disconnecting from the world and exploring as a family.

This trip is part of a HUGE package of articles I’ll be writing for Expedia’s Expedia Viewfinder blog. The effort is in conjunction with Expedia’s new “Find Your Storybook” advertising campaign; during the promotion, each Viewfinder will create content about a dream trip.

The first of *my* storybook stories is slated to run on the Expedia Viewfinder later this month. I’ll be creating oodles of content for this site, too. Stay tuned!

The things they carry (on family trips)

Just some of the stuff we'll be bringing to Yosemite.

Just some of the stuff we’ll be bringing to Yosemite.

When you leave home on an extended trip, you never know when you’re going to want to have a tin pencil case in the shape of a mummy. Or when you might need that unwrapped green straw from Starbucks. Or when you’ll be looking for a ladybug eraser.

But if you’re one of my kids, you bring these items anyway. Just in case.

Yes, as we pack up for this week’s family vacation to Yosemite National Park, the girls have opted for some unusual items to bring along for the ride.

The mummy tin, green straw (??!!??), and ladybug eraser are only highlights. Also in the gyre of ridiculousness they plan to take: A die-cast double-decker bus, a Lego rectangle, a plastic Cinderella amulet (which sings when you depress the center), a bunch of bow-shaped hairclips, two pieces of wooden model railroad track (but, peculiarly, no trains), a Candyland game piece, a ball-pit ball, and old t-shirts that are way too small (apparently these will serves as “nightgowns” when the stuffed kitties get cold at night).

Powerwoman and I don’t really understand why the girls want to bring all of these tchotchkes—not one bit. At the same time, we recognize the familiarity our kids have with each of these items, and respect the notion of bringing some of those familiar goodies along for a trip to somewhere new.

Sure, travel is exciting. But for little ones, it also must be scary (to a point). We’re in favor of anything the girls can do to make the experience more comfortable.

And if we need to invoke ancient Egypt along the way, we’re covered. Thank goodness.

What silly/ridiculous totems do your kids insist on bringing for family vacations?

Next on the family travel wish list: Cayman Islands

Family bike-riding in the Cayman Islands.

Family bike-riding in the Cayman Islands.

We’re not big into “Bucket Lists” in our family; generally speaking, when we want to do something, we do it. Still, we live by our Dream Jar, in which we have collected our family travel wishes since L was born in 2009.

We’re making one of those wishes come true next week with a four-day excursion to Yosemite. And tonight, as I ceremoniously stripped the jar of all those wishes about Yosemite Falls and Glacier Point and El Capitan and the iconic Ahwahnee Hotel, I added a new destination to the mix: The Cayman Islands.

The islands comprise a territory of the United Kingdom; there are three of them in all (Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman), and they sit in a cluster south of Cuba and northwest of Jamaica.

They also seem like one of the most family-friendly places on Earth.

No, I’m not talking about the powder-soft sand or the turquoise waters. Nor am I singing the praises of the friendly people (the world’s friendliest, according to Forbes). I’m also not extolling the virtues of the island hotels or restaurants. I’m just saying that it sounds like these islands have cool stuff to do.

Such as Cayman Carnival Batabano, an annual event in early May that is one-part circus one-part cultural celebration. Friends who have been tell me the event is a one-night cultural immersion, featuring music, dance, and colorful costumes. According to locals, it also features street parades for adults and children alike (this year, the family day is on May 10).

Another family-friendly draw: Pirates Week. This time-honored November tradition celebrates Caymanian culture with more than 40 family-friendly events, including live music performances, street games, parades, sports competitions, fireworks, costumes, and more.

(There’s also an homage to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” flicks.)

I know my older daughter in particular would love the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, which looks like it has other-worldly displays of native flora and fauna. L would never want to leave the Floral Color Garden, which bills itself as one of the most colorful places in the world. When we go, we’ll have to be sure to bring a sketch pad and enough colored pencils for the girl to share.

And we’ll have to stop at the Stingray City Sandbar for R. This natural sandbar area is home to a fleet of people-friendly southern stingrays who congregate all day long. Visitors can swim among these creatures and touch them. Because Little R is an animal lover, I know she would not want to leave.

Sounds fun, right? It does to me. I’m putting the Cayman Islands in the jar.

If you might want to visit the Cayman Islands, check out the current “Caymankind” promotion being offered by the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism (which paid me to write this post). As part of this promotion, one family can win an all-expenses paid trip for 4 to the Cayman Islands by sharing what makes their child a “Caymankind” of kid. To enter, click here and submit a blurb about your child’s kind act, his/her respect for others, or the care your child shows for the environment. Good luck!

Family travel experts who start young

Next week, we'll be here.

Next week, we’ll be here.

As Powerwoman and I make final preparations for next week’s road trip from our home in Northern California to Yosemite National Park, we’ve come up against a rather opinionated family travel expert: our own 4-year-old.

Apparently, since L has amassed multitudes of experience on the road, she has developed firm particulars about what she will and will not accept during a long haul in the car.

On the whitelist: Taylor Swift music, goldfish crackers, Etch-a-Sketch, and playground stops.

On the blacklist: Naps, male singers (including Mumford & Sons, unfortunately), uninterrupted drive times of more than two hours, and carrot sticks.

Our daughter also has shared deep thoughts about hotels over the last few weeks, seemingly in the hopes that we will base our planning decisions on her wants and likes (we won’t; we’re staying here). Some of the more notable statements: 1) Hotel rooms with extra space are better because that way the two sisters can run around “like maniacs,” 2) Sometimes the “toilet seats in hotel bathrooms are too big,” and 3) It is annoying when Daddy has to spend time talking to his “friends” who run hotels.

Yes, these statements are completely ridiculous (especially No. 2). But they’re also true. And they’ve led Powerwoman and me to marvel at how insightful our jet-setting preschooler has become in her short time with a frequent flier number.

We’re not the only parents to marvel at this type of precociousness.

Friend and fellow travel blogger Katie Wood Dillon, a.k.a., La Jolla Mom, recently posted on Facebook about a similar experience with her 6-year-old. With Katie’s permission, here’s the snip:

“I just had the option to upgrade/re-route our mileage flights so thought I’d run the options by [my daughter]. She rejected international first class (!!!) on American Airlines for business class on Japan Airlines citing cold green tea, Pac-Man on the inflight entertainment and beef curry at the Narita lounge. In the same breath, she stated that American Airlines planes smell worse and that she’ll do anything to avoid flying a regional jet unless we’re going to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific which is the best airline ever. At 6-years-old, all of this is so incredibly accurate that I can almost not handle it.”

When did these little humans become so smart? When did they become so perceptive? Are the ins and outs of travel THAT obvious? Most important: What else can our kids teach us about the vagaries and eccentricities and realities of travel we have come to accept as normal?

I’m not sure I know the answer to any of these questions. But I sure as heck am going to turn to the family’s newest travel expert to try and figure things out.

Bitten by the Bug

The Villano Family: Coming to a hillside near you.

The Villano Family: Coming to a hillside near you.

My friends warned me. They told me that after spending four months living with my family in London, I’d come back yearning to get the kids out on the road again ASAP. They joked that we’d all catch “the [travel] bug” and return to Wine Country, only to liquidate our assets and start a nomadic life.

Heck, one buddy bet me we’d never actually come home.

While I’m proud to announce that the gambling friend lost, the other predictions haven’t been too far afield. And the fallout has caught this family travel blogger by surprise.

Things developed rapidly over the last few weeks. The day after we got home (Christmas Eve day), my wife and I swore we’d keep our girls in one place for a while. We informed the girls of our decision and they seemed to be on board. L, our older daughter, went so far as to declare that she did not want to step foot in an airplane for “at least a few months, or ever again, unless it was a plane that went somewhere cool.” R, the younger sister, agreed in her own way, stating that airplanes were loud and her ears didn’t want to hear them again for a while.

We held these beliefs for at least a week. Then, just about the moment we were completely unpacked, everyone’s perspective began to change. During a session building Legos, I told the girls about the Legoland Hotel and they insisted we book a trip. Then we started looking at flights for a trip to Texas. And we discussed a trip to Walt Disney World. And we started planning a trip to Lanai.

These were just the family trips. At the same time, we grown-ups were making plans of our own.

Powerwoman started planning a solo trip to help her best friend shop for a wedding dress. I lined up work trips to Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas, and San Diego, to name a few. Then my wife and I recruited the grandparents to watch the girls so we could fly back to New York.

In a span of two weeks, we Villanos went from a policy of “No New Trips” to booking nearly 10 of them. And I’m sure there’ll be more.

No, we’re not planning on selling the house and hitting the road for good (though there is a high likelihood we’ll take an RV to Yosemite National Park this spring). But we *did* catch the family travel fever, and especially while our girls are still young, it’s a wonderful affliction to have.

How quickly after a big family trip do you plan your next escape?

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