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Room at the Inn for Family Travelers

Exploring our surroundings at the Little River Inn.

Exploring our surroundings at the Little River Inn.

For many family travelers, the notion of crashing with youngsters at a romantic inn is a recipe for an anxiety attack. What if they’re loud? What if they disturb the neighbors? What if efforts to control the kiddos trigger an all-out melt down?

Yes, these are all legitimate concerns. But in the right kind of atmosphere, the experience actually can be pleasant.

I came to this epiphany late last month on a solo road trip with my two girls. As part of our adventure, we spent two nights at the Little River Inn, a circa-1853 lodge-style spot along the Mendocino County Coast. A number of family-friendly amenities there made the stay palatable for all of us—and other guests, too. Here a closer look at those that made the biggest difference.

  • Suites. Standard rooms generally can feel cramped for a family of 3 or 4 (or more). Thankfully, the inn offered the Llama Barn Suite, a private one-bedroom cottage about a mile from the main lodge. The girls and I used the front room like a playroom, spending time there playing games, telling stories and horsing around. At night, when I put the kids to sleep in the bedroom, I used the front room as an office and workout space.
  • Kitchenettes. We family travelers don’t need a full kitchen with a stovetop and oven, but a refrigerator and, sometimes, a microwave, sure make things easier. At the Little River Inn, I stocked the Llama Barn Suite fridge with milk and fruit to give the girls as snacks. One night, I made us popcorn to snack on outside while we looked for the moon.
  • In-room dining. We tried meals out (one night in Mendocino, the other in the Main Dining Room at the inn itself), but after two debacles (L triggered the first; R the second), I gave up and ordered room-service breakfast on the last morning. This was a nice luxury, especially since the kids woke up early. It also saved me from the (inevitably hour-long) process of getting them ready.
  • Open (outdoor) space. Hotel lobbies are great places for letting kids burn off steam after a long day of travel. Open fields and/or meadows are even better. Our accommodations at the Little River Inn had two options for this: A patch of grass right off the patio of the front room, and the beach at Van Damme State Park, located just across Highway 128 from the main lodge. I set the girls loose (under supervision, of course) in both spots. They returned happy and tired.

The fifth and final element of a family-friendly atmosphere at a small hotel is one that’s challenging to define. I like to call it: the Wild Card.

This might be an on-site swing set or playground. It might be a waterfall just outside the room. Whatever it is, the Wild Card must be something that piques your kids’ curiosity. And it can’t ever get old.

The Llama Barn Suite had a few of these.

No. 1, of course, were the namesake llamas—four of them in all, housed in a pen just a short walk from our front door. Every morning the innkeepers Marc and Cally Dym left us with radish greens to feed the critters. And feed them we did; my girls were obsessed (and still excitedly pontificate on what types of greens and goodies would make for good llama snacks).

We also had access to a beautiful garden, a spot where the Dyms grew everything from Zinnias and Peonies to strawberries, raspberries and sugar snap peas. (A note in our room informed us we could sample the fruit, in moderation.)

Finally, of course, was Rosie, the Bernese Mountain Dog that patrolled the area between the Llama Suite and nearby homes. Even though the pooch was twice their size, my girls fell in love with her and showered her with attention pretty much every time we left the cottage. The dog became the de facto mascot of our trip; my kids drew cards for her before we left.

The bottom line: The notion of vacationing with young children at a romantic getaway doesn’t have to be an oxymoron. As I learned last month, a few tiny touches can go a long way.

Just make sure you pick accommodations from innkeepers who understand what kinds of touches those might be.

For what kinds of amenities and/or features do you look when you book accommodations on family trips?

The Most Kid-Friendly Travel Destination Ever?

L shows off a winning handful.

L shows off a winning handful.

In my experience as a parent, the most kid-friendly travel destinations involve adventure, interactivity, constantly changing scenery (to keep things interesting), and a quest. They take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. They spark imagination. And they allow for souvenirs.

For all of these reasons, Glass Beach, part of MacKerricher State Park in the tiny Northern California town of Fort Bragg, might just be the most kid-friendly travel destination ever.

As its name suggests, the beach is known for glass—specifically, beach glass. And there’s a whole lot of it; so much so that in any given handful bits of beach glass outnumber rocks by a margin of 10 to 1. Most of the bits have been smoothed and rounded by the churning of the ocean. For kids who like hunting for treasure and sparkly stuff, it’s the perfect activity for an epic day.

Also important: It’s totally free.

I first visited the beach eight years ago with my wife (on a trip to celebrate my first section-front feature in the San Francisco Chronicle). This past weekend, as part of a 3-day road-trip along the Mendocino County coast, I went back—this time with my two daughters.

To put it simply, the girls could not believe their eyes. My older daughter, L, thought I had brought her to a secret land of jewels. My favorite of her exclamations: “Daddy, the beach is glimmering!”

It helped that we selected a cove where there were no other humans in sight. From a parking lot near the trailhead, we hiked about a quarter-mile on an access path flanked on one side by wildflowers. Then we descended a steep trail to the beach—a typical NorCal affair, complete with bull kelp, natty sea grass, sand fleas and millions and millions of tiny rocks.

We spent about an hour down there, sifting through handfuls of rocks and glass to put together a modest collection. I instructed the girls to look for the rarest types: red and blue. They came up empty on those fronts, but ended up with a Ziploc baggie full of white, green and brown.

(Technically, at least according to signs all over the place, we weren’t supposed to take the glass off the beach. To any state park officials reading this: I confess. I’m guilty. I did it for the kids. And I’d do it again.)

The beach itself has a colorful (pun intended) history. One of my travel-writing buddies, Susan Kim, did a piece for Coastal Living a few years back on the place; in it, she notes that most of the glass comes from the site’s former life as a dump.

Of course I didn’t explain the true story to my girls. Instead, I let them tell the tales. L, who is developing an imagination to rival J.K. Rowling’s, said the “glass jewels” had been sent to shore by ocean princesses who wanted little girls to enjoy them. R, my younger daughter, was content to chant, “Beach glass! Beach glass!” incessantly (until a sand flea or seagull distracted her).

Three days later (and counting), the girls are still talking about the experience.

Here at home, the glass lives in a tiny jar, and L has counted the contents at least a dozen times. If R can’t spot the jar on the counter, she yells, “Where’s [the] beach glass?” until someone points it out. There have been pictures of the beach glass. Songs about it. Even some poems.

If all of this doesn’t prove that Glass Beach is the most kid-friendly travel destination ever, I’m not sure what else could.

What are some of your favorite kid-friendly travel destinations and why?



Building Brand Loyalty at an Early Age

Daughter/Daddy slippers at the Four Seasons, Silicon Valley.

Daughter/Daddy slippers at the Four Seasons, Silicon Valley.

My older daughter always will remember her first visit to a Four Seasons Resort. It’s not because we spotted Bruce Willis in the elevator. It’s not because she got a personal tour of the spring collection at Badgely Mischka. It’s not even because a thoughtful housekeeper had written her name in stickers on the door to the glass shower.

It’s because she got a stuffed giraffe upon check-in. And she got to select it from a red wagon full of stuffed animals—a wagon full of gifts specifically to make younger guests feel like princes and princesses when they arrive.

For many of us grown-ups, this kind of thing is nothing more than a nice touch, a cute amenity about which we might tell our friends over Manhattans at the next neighborhood barbecue.

But for our little ones, it’s HUGE. Because it’s something they don’t experience at other resorts.

L and R got another taste of the Four Seasons treatment this weekend; on assignment for the company’s “Have Family Will Travel” blog, I dragged my family to the Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley at East Palo Alto. We spent the weekend there, reacquainting ourselves with Palo Alto (Powerwoman got her Ph.D. from Stanford) and bumming around the hotel.

In between, our experience was an all-star showing of kid-friendly tricks and treats—bonus treatment that the hotel extends to all of its younger guests (not just the kids of visiting journalists on assignment for the parent company).

Some of the family-oriented amenities the girls liked best:

  • A personalized welcome. When we got up to our room after check-in, housekeepers had written my daughters’ names in sponge letters on the side of the bathtub. Later in the stay, the same housekeepers set out two pairs of kid-sized slippers with sponges representing the girls’ first initials (see photo).
  • A special kid-oriented room-service menu with items such as fresh fruit, house-made rigatoni with butter (or marinara), and pancakes.
  • A DVD movie library with an extensive kid-friendly selection. For our movie time on Saturday, L selected “Tangled” and Rango” (yes, it was a chameleon kind of day). About five minutes after we started the movie (ultimately, she chose “Rango”), room service brought up complimentary buttered popcorn.
  • A cache of floaty noodles and kickboards at the pool.

(Of course perhaps my girls’ favorite “amenity” at the resort was the giant fountain in front of the property, which now is home to at least 75 of our pennies.)

The bottom line: On-site, kid-friendly touches go a long way with the next generation of luxury travelers. When we pulled into the driveway tonight, my Big Girl told her mother: “I’m happy to be home, but I miss the Four Seasons.” I’m not sure I could have said it better myself.

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.

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.

The Book That Will Change the Way You Travel With Kids


Inspiration, Bellows-style.

As someone who writes about family travel for a living, I understand and appreciate how difficult it is to cover the subject in a way that appeals to an audience comprising diverse perspectives.

That’s why I love Keith Bellows’ new book so much.

The book, titled, “100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life: From Your Backyard to the Ends of the Earth” (National Geographic, 2013) takes a look at destinations that offer something for everyone. Most of the destinations (Cape Cod, Berlin, etc.) aren’t new; the format in which the book presents certain information, however, definitely is.

Destinations are organized into geographic regions, and each write-up works like a separate magazine feature. The main attraction: a service-oriented mainbar about the most family-friendly stuff to do.

In addition, peppered throughout each chapter are call-out boxes and sidebars with specific information for which any of us would kill while on the road with our kids.

Some of this marginalia includes:

  • “Buy Worthy,” a box that lists authentic products that express a sense of place.
  • “Fast Facts,” which incorporates nutty trivia that will surprise your kids.
  • “Know Before You Go,” a compendium of books, music, movies and other media to give you the sense of a place before you buy the ticket.
  • “Nest,” which comprises family-friendly hotel recommendations.
  • “Yum!” which chronicles where kids will find food (and atmosphere) they’ll actually like.

Additional sidebars include information about insider tips, neat cultural objects, organizations working in the field that can provide visitors with more in-depth information and data about how you and your kids can help change people’s lives when you travel.

These sidebars are great because they’re digestible, easy-to-find and packed with worthwhile information.

They also work because they contain material that most other family travel offerings do not.

No, the book isn’t perfect. Without question, the work would benefit from more images—the only non-text specimens are icons and drawings or sketches. Also, cost is one data point that is obviously absent from the discussion, leaving one to assume that most of the trips mentioned therein cost a pretty penny. (Believe it or not, many families can’t actually afford a trip to see the Pyramids of Giza.)

Still, if for no other reason than to generate family travel ideas, this book is worth a read. Check it out.

Take a Seat. (Literally.)

Our new favorite seat. (No, that's not R.)

Our new favorite seat. (No, that’s not R.)

Because we spend so much time away from home, because little R is one of those kids who would scale the Eiffel Tower if left unattended, we’re always looking for good travel booster seats to bring along.

For most of her toddler life, we’ve used an early-model variation of this one.

Now, however, we’ve got a new hands-down fave: the Go Anywhere Booster Seat with a 5-point harness, a new offering from Polar Gear Baby.

A representative for Polar Gear recently sent me a sample of the seat to try and we gave it a whirl over Easter when we used it for two meals at my mother-in-law’s house. The baby didn’t seem to mind the new digs, which I interpreted as a de facto thumbs’ up. As for Powerwoman and I, we were generally impressed.

The pros:

  • The nylon (they call it PVC) material was easy to wipe clean; a necessity when your little eater is as much of a slob as ours.
  • The 5-point harness really did keep the baby in one place (as opposed to other seats, which allow her to bend at the waist and bonk her head on the table).
  • The seat folds up into a lightweight shoulder bag—a feature that generally is great but (admittedly) didn’t come in too handy on our car trip to see the inlaws.

The biggest con: Because the seat lacked some sort of cushion on the part behind the baby’s head, she bonked her noggin on the back of the chair every time she leaned back.

(It’s also worth noting that the seat doesn’t come with a tray—this is a standard feature on many other models, including our Fisher-Price one—so if you’re looking for that kind of setup, you probably are better off buying something else. FWIW, this omission didn’t bother us.)

The bottom line: We *definitely* will use the Go Anywhere seat again. And for about $40 (click here), it’s worth a try in your traveling family, too.

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.

The Best Family Travel Game Ever

This week I stumbled upon the Holy Grail of family travel diversions: Flip to Win Hangman from Melissa & Doug.

Like most stuff from the illustrious M&D, the game is nothing short of genius. The base is a white wooden board the size of a gossip magazine, about an inch thick. On top of this platform are three basic sections:

  • One, on the left, which has every letter of the alphabet on wooden tiles, strung (with elastic) tightly together and then tied to the board so nothing falls off or gets lost.
  • Another, on the right, which boasts 11 tiles that make up a Hangman. The tiles are strung together tightly and tied to the board like the letters.
  • The final section, which runs across the bottom of the board, is a strip of dry-erase material that allows participants to spell out words each time you play.
Hangman 2.0

Hangman 2.0

Of course the game also comes with a small dry-erase marker, which has a tiny square of eraser felt on the top of the cap (another great way to make sure participants don’t lose it).

Overall, the game is perfect in its simplicity. Especially for road trips. (Though, I admit, I have incredibly weak fingertips, and for people like me, those letter tiles are a bit hard to flip over until the elastic strings get some slack.)

I discovered the game as part of a Travel Kit put together by Kidville and Portico (who, in the interest of full disclosure, sent me a sample to review). Dubbed “Portico Travel Pals,” the kits are retailing at Kidville’s Upper West Side boutique in New York City (466 Columbus Ave.) for $100 apiece. They’re also provided to Portico members traveling with children throughout the month of March—the travel company’s “Family Month.”

For the record, there are other cool items in these kits: the SkipHop travel pillow is pretty rad, and the decorate-your-own-travel-mug was a bit hit with the burgeoning artist who doubles as our Big Girl. Still, IMHO, this Flip to Win board takes the cake; I wish they made these things when I was a kid.

If you don’t want to buy the whole kit, look for the Flip to Win board on Amazon (where it’s listed for $17.95), or buy it direct from Melissa & Doug (where it’s about $5 cheaper). Sure, the license plate game is still cheaper. But this one is more fun.