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Next Stop: Babyland

Long live paper maps.

Long live paper maps.

Call me old-school. Call me a Luddite. Heck, go ahead and call me a loser, I don’t care. I like paper maps. And I plan to share this passion with my travel-loving kids. No matter what.

The maps are sort of everywhere. Each child has one on the wall in her room. We raid the local AAA store and get “research” maps before every big road trip. Occasionally, instead of building with blocks or coloring, we’ll just unfold a map of the U.S. and talk about states.

Our latest endeavor transpired this week. In the first official effort to give the girls a better sense of where on the planet we’ll be when we move to London, I bribed them with mini marshmallows and invited them to join me for an up-close-and-personal session with a world map from Little Passports.

The two of them internalized the session in different ways.

R, who is 20 months at this point and already is learning her colors, pointed to every blue nation and proudly screamed, “Blue!” as loud as she could.

L, who turns 4 on Tuesday, fixated on distances. On one hand, she was fascinated by how far England is from home (here in California), and asked me repeatedly to trace the likely flight arc of our plane. On the other hand, she couldn’t get over how close London is to Paris; when I told her we’d take a train between the two, she reacted as if I told her we’d ride unicorns.

The “lessons” lasted out for about 30 minutes total; after that I had to wash some dishes so I left the girls to play on their own.

That’s when Babyland was born.

For L, this magical place was the perfect destination for little sisters—a place where toddlers would feel at home. It was an island oasis. For babies. In the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Naturally, this was no ordinary island. As L explained it to R, in Babyland, people eat strawberry yogurt with every meal, dance to Bruno Mars at all hours of the day or night, and never leave home without at least two stuffed kittens.

She added that in Babyland, ladybugs can talk. And they all know you by name.

Many of these facts were still making their way into my notepad when I looked up to spot L with a purple crayon, drawing a flight arc that stretched to Babyland from London. She explained to her sister how planes would follow that route, and how, someday, the four of us would take one of those planes and see it all for ourselves.

L kept talking, and R listened quietly, hanging on every word. I put my pen down and listened, too.  After about five minutes, my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. Long live paper maps.

Embracing Accidentally Family-Friendly Hotels

Bathroom televisions: Better than stuffed animals.

Bathroom TVs: Better than stuffed animals.

It’s one thing for a hotel to go out and declare itself as “family-friendly” and stock the rooms with all sorts of kid-oriented goodies and treats. It’s another thing for a hotel that doesn’t make a big deal about family travelers to boast the kinds of amenities that make us who vacation with kids feel right at home.

I like to consider this phenomenon “AFF,” or Accidentally Family-Friendly. As a traveler, when you experience it, it’s the best kind of surprise. Like a dollop of caramel in the center of a chocolate cupcake. Or a clutch hit from a rookie who just got his call-up to the Big Leagues.

Different families can deem different hotels AFF for different reasons. Here’s a rundown of some amenities that have made qualified properties as AFF in our recent experiences:

  • Bathroom televisions. Sure, L loved the free stuffed animal she received upon checking in to the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, but she’s still talking about the tiny television in the bathroom. The kid liked this TV so much she refused to watch the big one out in the bedroom. It also came in handy for me—while I shaved, she chilled out next to me and hung with “Sofia the First.”
  • 24-hour room service. When we travel internationally (or just cross-country), we usually reward good in-transit behavior with favorite foods. This means ordering odd items (French fries, hummus) at all hours of the day and night. It also means we’ve become huge fans of all-hours room service. The girls love knowing they don’t have to wait for their rewards. We love the good behavior this reality usually engenders in mid-air.
  • Flashlights. My kids love building forts and “camping out” (pretty much all the time at home and) in hotel rooms. The one item from home that’s always missing: A flashlight. I usually bring a headlamp for nighttime runs (yes, I’m that guy who runs at 11 p.m.), but the big boys are just too clunky to bring along. Naturally, then, you can imagine how excited the girls get when they find a flashlight hiding in the closet of a hotel room.
  • Extra space. We love hotels like Maui’s Fairmont Kea Lani, where even the “standard” rooms actually are suites. When everyone’s awake, this configuration gives the girls room to spread out and do puzzles or have dance parties. When the girls go to sleep, it also gives Powerwoman and me the chance to shut the door to the bedroom and have some semblance of alone time.

The bottom line: Some hotels might be more family-friendly than you think. For an honest rundown of how other family travelers have rated a hotel, call the concierge and ask what in-room features seem to resonate with other customers in your demographic. Another, easier option: Ask friends, either in person or through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. And remember, there’s more to “family-friendly” than toys and games.

To what extent have you found hotels AFF? Which amenities in particular did your kids adore?

Also: For more information about hotels and hotel amenities, join me this Wednesday, May 15, between 10:30 a.m. and noon, as I co-host a Twitter chat for Expedia. To follow along or participate, just log on to Twitter and search for the hashtag, #expediachat.

Finally, a Scientific Explanation for Hating on Family Travelers

A scene of the crime. Or is it?

A scene of the crime. Or is it?

It always has seemed so irrational; the way ordinary, fun-loving people embark an aircraft and suddenly hate families how Tonya Harding hated (hates?) Nancy Kerrigan.

They stare. They snivel. They seethe. Sometimes, they even sneer.

We encounter these terrible humans just about every time we fly the so-called “friendly” skies, and every time we meet them, we think to ourselves, “What the hell is wrong with these people?”

Now, thankfully, we have an answer: According to researchers from King’s College in London (including the very first UK professor of “aerospace medicine), many mental processes are impaired at altitude. Read between the lines and this discovery means, quite simply, that flying makes people dumb.

Finally, everything is illuminated. The guy who changed his baby’s diaper on flight attendant jump seats. The dude who slapped a crying baby on an airplane’s descent. The couple that bribed fellow passengers on a cross-country flight with goodie bags.

All of these people behaved badly. And all of them were, obviously, “impaired.”

Thanks to David Gradwell, all of this bad behavior makes perfect sense; for better or for worse, the very act of flying has turned our brethren against us.

As the objects of derision and hatred, we family travelers COULD blame the airlines. All this time, we’ve put up with lousy food, rising prices and dwindling benefits for enduring the additional challenge of traveling with kids. Now we find out these companies are sitting back idly while they poison our countrymen (and women) against us. The bastards!

I suppose we also could blame our fellow passengers. They willingly board these planes, tacitly accepting anything and everything that occurs as a result.

Sure, they might end up next to a former wide receiver for the LFL with whom they decide to join the mile-high club. But they also might end up sitting behind a baby who is acting like a baby, and therefore (to them, people) deserves life in a North Korean prison.

Instead, dear readers, I offer a different solution: Forgiveness.

Our fellow passengers know not what they do when they call our daughters “demons.” They aren’t themselves when they encourage us to “get a muzzle.” Instead of taking offense at these types of messages, from now on, I will look at the messengers and feel pity, or just nod and smile.

The way I see it, turning the other cheek like this is the very least we can do. After all, like Gradwell says, life at 30,000 feet makes us all do some pretty crazy stuff.

‘National Park Week’ Great for Family Travel


L, meet lichen. Lichen, meet L.

This weekend kicks off what is arguably one of my favorite weeks of the year: National Park Week, an 8-day stretch during which admission to all 401 of the parks in our national system is totally free.

For family travelers, this means now is a great time to get out and explore some of our nation’s biggest treasures.

Heck, Monday is Earth Day, so why not celebrate in a national park?

Many parks will be rolling out special programs all week long. Some of these programs are interactive; others are more educational in nature. In previous years my family has participated in art programs and guided hikes. We also have enjoyed storytelling sessions like this one at Buffalo National River in Arkansas.

(My wife, the archaeologist, always has longed to join up with one of the full-moon walks at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.)

Then, of course, there’s Volunteer Day on April 27, during which your entire family can get elbows dirty and participate in trash pick-up, trail maintenance or other forms of hard labor typically reserved only for rangers and docents.

If you’re part of a family that likes to explore parks independently, take advantage of the free admission and plan an outing all your own. One great resource: National Geographic Secrets of the National Parks: The Experts’ Guide to the Best Experiences Beyond the Tourist Trail, a new book by friend and fellow travel writer, Bob Howells.

As for us, we Villanos will be celebrating National Park Week with a mid-week jaunt from our home in Sonoma County, California down to Muir Woods National Monument, where we’ll have picnic and a morning under the redwoods.

Last time we went, R was so little that I had to carry her in an Ergo. This time, I’m sure she’ll give big sister L quite a race.

Sightseeing with the Family, Prefontaine-style

The Daditarod, on a recent trip.

The Daditarod, on a recent trip.

Many families like to explore new cities on guided tours. Others prefer to rent cars and see the sights on their own. Still others—usually those with kids old enough not to complain—like to walk.

In this family, however, we take a different approach. When I’m itching to experience a new place with my kids, I buckle them in a jogging stroller, lace up my sneaks and start running.

The result is a fast-paced, ground-level view of the very best a destination has to offer. We run through urban parks, alongside rivers and over bridges. We run along quiet roads, past farmlands and (at least in our hometown) vineyards. When we’re feeling really adventuresome (and when traffic doesn’t create a major safety issue), we even dash by major tourist attractions.

Because I’m the one mushing, because these runs usually are epic (read: 1 hour or more), I call this method of sightseeing the “Daditarod.”

The approach keeps everyone happy:

  • I like it because I get in a killer workout (trust me: pushing a 40-pound human and a 6-pound jogging stroller up a giant hill is tougher than anything I’ve done with the personal trainer).
  • My wife likes it because taking the kids out for a jog frees her up to take a tub, hit the spa or swing by a museum on her own.
  • Of course the kids like it because they can sit back and tune in or check out when they want to, without having to worry about following along.

L also appreciates having the privilege of using my Smartphone to play deejay, and regularly blasts old-school Taylor Swift songs as we plod along.

Depending on where you travel, you can either rent a jogging stroller or bring one from home. We’ve done both; while renting the devices can get expensive, I recommend that approach because these strollers take up a TON of room in the back of a truck or car. (Of course you also could ask Facebook friends at your destination if they have a stroller you could borrow.)

In case you’re wondering, most manufacturers sell special shields for you to throw over the stroller to keep the kiddos dry when it rains. Some manufacturers also sell full-body warmers to keep babies toasty in the cold.

So…if you run and you can get hands on a jogging stroller during your next trip, give this a try. It’s easy! It’s fun! And the word “Daditarod” becomes “Momitarod” in a flash.

Chameleon Couture: A Daddy-Daughter Trip to Beverly Hills

Chameleon couture

Chameleon couture

I blogged extensively over at Parenting about the trip L and I took to Los Angeles this past February. Now, I also have written about the trip for “Have Family Will Travel,” a family travel blog from Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.

My most recent post was published today. The headline is too long and SEO-optimized to share here. Really all you need to know is this: The piece chronicles (a brief encounter with the actor, Bruce Willis, and) the morning L and I spent sketching couture dresses on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

Check out the piece here. And, please, feel free to share it with friends.

Family Travel Dreams, in a Jar

Our jar of travel dreams (not the Skippy).

Our jar of travel dreams (not the Skippy).

Some households have a bucket list. Others have a corkboard brimming with ideas. At our crib (pun intended), we keep all of our family travel wishes in something called a Dream Jar.

And it’s overflowing with vacation fantasies we’ve saved over the years.

There’s a magazine clipping in there about beluga whale-watching near Churchill, Manitoba (my pick), and handwritten notes about a family-friendly trek through the New Zealand bush (Powerwoman’s). Other destinations in the mix: Hermanus, South Africa (both of us); Dubai (totally me); Petra (my archaeologist wife).

Even L, who is no stranger to maps of North America, has stuffed the Jar with a Nebraska piece from one of her many puzzles of the U.S. (She is obsessed with the Cornhusker state because of Bruce Springsteen. I admit: I am very proud of this fact.)

With our upcoming stint in London (we’ll be there from August to December of this year), we recently have stuffed the Jar with all sorts of information about our new home. L’s contributions focus mostly on parks. Powerwoman’s are almost exclusively museums. As for mine? Well, they’re bars.

(By the way, I’m not ignoring R here. She’s just too young to have opinions about this stuff yet.)

The Jar has a commanding position on our kitchen counter. Whenever we decide it’s time for another family trip, it’s the first place we go.

Over the last two years, we’ve probably sorted through the snippets and scribbles dozens of times. Still, every time we pop the top, it’s like we’re seeing our dream destinations for the first time again. South Africa! Nebraska! The possibilities are intoxicating.

I’d be remiss without noting the jar’s provenance; we got it from an artist whom I met while reporting a story in Lima, Peru. Powerwoman and I lived there for a few months back in 2005, well before our girls were even on the agenda.  Looking back, that experience still ranks as one of our family’s greatest adventures; it’s fitting that the Jar now plays such an integral role in the adventures to come.

How do you keep track of your family travel dreams? Let me know in the comment field above.