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Making family travel more meaningful

Making travel meaningful on San Juan Island

Making travel meaningful on San Juan Island

I’m lucky enough to serve with a bunch of great people on the board of the Family Travel Association. Jim Pickell, CEO of, is one of those folks.

Earlier this week, Jim penned a great piece for HuffPost Travel about 10 ways to make family travel more meaningful. The story was republished on the FTA’s own website, and you can read it in its entirety by clicking here.

I’m not going to summarize all 10 of Jim’s tips; y’all can read and y’all can read ‘em for yourselves.

That said, I did want to spotlight a few of my favorite suggestions. Like his call for taking travel days out of the equation and including the journey as part of the trip. Or his suggestion to embrace nature. I also really appreciate how Jim recommends giving kids a camera and getting creative with family photos. I plan to do this with L and R in Yosemite next month.

All told, I think my favorite part of the article is this: “Good times and happy moments are single instances in time, whereas meaningful experiences bridge the past, present and future, and can have a lifelong impact.” Quite literally couldn’t have said it better myself. Well done, old pal.

What are your tips for making family travel more meaningful?

A different kind of all-in-one

Little R, learning about animation at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Little R at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

I’ve never been a fan of all-in-one resorts. You know what I mean by that phrase, right? The places that tout they have absolutely everything you could possibly need during your stay, right there on property? Want good food? On-site restaurants. Want some culture? On-site museum. Want adventure? Check out the on-site pool or climbing wall or gym or wave pool.

While places like this certainly are convenient, they eliminate what I consider to be the most valuable component of travel: discovery. When everything’s “on-site,” nothing’s a surprise. And when nothing’s a surprise, at least IMHO, there’s not much reason to travel to experience it.

At this very moment, however, my family and I are experiencing a different kind of all-in-one. We’re spending a few days at the Presidio of San Francisco, a former army post that in recent years has been converted to a city within the city. Because the Presidio has overnight accommodations (we’re staying at the Inn at the Presidio) and other tourism infrastructure (such as restaurants and public transportation), it’s a great travel destination, too. And it’s perfect for families.

This afternoon we stayed “close to home” and explored things right around the inn:

  • We wandered over to the Walt Disney Family Museum and introduced the girls to the man behind the Mouse.
  • The big girls climbed trees on the great lawn out in front of the museum.
  • We tromped over to the Presidio Social Club, a fun but casual restaurant in renovated barracks.
  • We wandered back to the inn by starlight (a rare occurrence since this part of San Francisco often is socked in with fog).

None of these activities was more than 15 minutes from our tiny (21 rooms in all) inn, yet everything was separate. Put differently, we never left the Presidio, and we were out and about the whole day.

Tomorrow’s plan is even more eclectic. We’ll start our day at the House of Air, an indoor trampoline arena. Then we’ll explore Fort Point National Historic Site, which has guarded the Golden Gate Narrows for 150 years. After lunch down near the fort, we’ll come back to the Main Post (that’s what they call the area around the hotel) to learn about the archaeology in the area, hit some bowling at the Presidio Bowling Center, and throw down a fancy dinner at Arguello, a restaurant from renowned chef Tracy des Jardins.

We’ll wrap up our visit Friday morning by hiking to see sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy.

Even with all of these items on our agenda, we won’t even scratch the surface of all the things to do and see and experience in this national park (yes, this place is a national park). And that’s exactly the point; the Presidio offers the variety of an all-in-one without making you feel like you’re missing out on something equally awesome nearby.

“The Resort” in the Presidio is everywhere—the components are related but entirely unique. Add to this variety a hearty dose of authenticity and years upon years of history and you’ve got the makings of a great family trip.

The best vacation rental on Earth

I want to stay here. (Forever.)

I want to stay here. (Forever.)

We Villanos have stayed at some pretty amazing vacation rentals over the years we’ve been traveling as a family. Never, however, have we stayed at a place like The Sweet Escape.

The house, available for rent on, has 10 bedrooms, a five-acre backyard, and a pool in the shape of an ice cream cone. It has a candy-themed miniature golf course, playgrounds, tetherball court, full movie theater, and 1,400-square-foot karaoke club.

It’s also located just outside Orlando, a short drive from the Walt Disney World Resort.

A good buddy of mine—Spencer Spellman—recently spotlighted the house in a blog post for His piece does a great job of capturing the youthful exuberance of the home. It also includes a picture of arguably the coolest bedroom on the planet—a room with two bunk beds and ball-pit balls covering the floor.

The theme of that bedroom is lollipops. Other bedrooms have other themes, including a PEPSI bedroom with its own pinball machine, and a carnival games bedroom with its own carnival game booth.

The house is owned and operated by a man named Andrew Greenstein, who owns other notable homes such as the Ever After Estate, which was featured on HGTV’s “Most Outrageous Homes in America”; and the Great Escape Lakeside, another themed property that recently made Guinness World Records for having the world’s largest word search. As Greenstein told Spence: “I always dreamed of playing non-stop, so I wanted to create homes that reflect what I dreamed to be the ultimate place to live, laugh, and love.”

As for The Sweet Escape, the place sleeps up to 52, so it’s perfect for a REALLY BIG family. What are you waiting for?

Fresh take on multigenerational family travel


Heather and her peeps.

As a board member for the Family Travel Association, I get to work regularly with some pretty incredible people. One of them: Heather Greenwood-Davis, one of the best family travel writers in the biz.

I’ve blogged previously about Heather’s prowess with the pen—her piece about canal boating around England with her husband and two kids was a tour de force (and a story I dreamed about writing when we lived in London back in 2013).

Last week, HGD was at it again, this time with a piece about multigenerational family travel.

The story first appeared in The (Toronto) Globe and Mail, but was reposted everywhere, including on the FTA website (hence the weird tiles you see when you click through that link above). IMHO the piece can’t be reposted enough; as it delivered one of the freshest and sincerest perspectives on multigenerational travel I’ve ever read.

I appreciated Heather’s tips regarding who will parent the kids on a multigenerational trip—the few times we’ve traveled with family members, this has been a source of tension for us as well. I also like her note about not over-planning.

But my absolute favorite part of the story is the section where she talks about using the generations against each other and to your advantage. Here’s a snip:

“Don’t ask your parents to babysit. Instead coach your kids in the exact words they can use on Grandma. Phrases like, ‘Granny, can we have some just-you-and-me time tonight?’ or, ‘Grandpa, I love the way you read me stories. Can I have a sleepover?’ are the types of things that evenings alone with your significant other are made of. Embrace it early and create opportunities for the generations to enjoy each other while you enjoy the quiet.”

Yes, this last bit from HGD is a different way of approaching a multigenerational trip. But it’s a great perspective. And one I intend to try the next chance I get.

What are your tips for surviving multigenerational family travel?

New gear for traveling with a new baby



It’s been more than four years since we’ve traveled with a newborn. Naturally, then, in anticipation of our first hotel overnight with Baby G later this week, it was time to invest in some new gear.

Our product of choice this time around: the Chicco LullaGo Travel Crib.

We had heard rave reviews of this travel bassinette for its ease of assembly and its size—good news since we’ve always hated how big and boxy traditional pack-n-plays are. Friends also told us it was sturdy enough to use at home as the primary newborn bed (which means we can save money, too).

While we haven’t traveled with this sucker yet, I can tell you that I already am hooked. After I took the product out of the box, it took me less than 60 seconds to set the thing up. The sides have adequate ventilation, so we don’t have to worry about the baby rolling on her side and struggling to breathe. And the size thing is a huge deal—the bassinette is spacious yet noticeably smaller than a pack-n-play.

The only downside I can see at this point is that the carrying case could be a bit bulky to take on a plane trip. To be fair, though, I’m not sure we’d ever WANT to take it anywhere we can’t travel by car.

Of course the true test for us Villanos will come Christmas Day, when we part ways with family members and take the bassinette to a hotel for the night. I’m eager to see the LullaGo in action. Stay tuned for details on how it performed.

What newborn-oriented travel gear do you love and why?

Family outing for holiday tea



As the father of three girls, I’ve resigned myself to lots of fancy stuff over the next 18 years. Sometimes this means attending elaborate dress-up parties. Other times it includes fabulous afternoon teas.

On very rare occasions, I get to do both.

Such was the case earlier this weekend, when the five of us attended an afternoon holiday tea at the nicest hotel in our hometown, Hotel Healdsburg.

The tea is a special annual offering for the Christmas holiday. Every year on weekends in December (and, some years, in early January), the hotel (technically it’s Dry Creek Kitchen, which is the hotel’s signature restaurant) serves the fancy meal in the lobby. We’ve wanted to go since L was 3. Finally, this year, we got there. And it was well worth the wait.

For each person, the experience includes tea (of course), savory sandwiches, house-made scones, and house-made pastries. In our case—at least for the grownups—the tea also included special holiday drinks. The price: $34 ($43 if you get a cocktail or wine) for adults, and $14 for kids.

Among the favorites: The egg-salad, scallion, and watercress sandwiches; the cheddar-sage scones; the almond raspberry cake; and the lemon bars. L and R also loved the sandwiches of smoked salmon, cream cheese, and caviar. In fact, they loved ‘em so much that neither Powerwoman nor I even had a taste.

Equally delicious was the holiday themed drink: a walnut-flavored whiskey sour.

But perhaps the best part of our tea experience at Hotel Healdsburg was the setting; the host put us at a table right next to the piano, where a woman played holiday tunes throughout. The girls felt like they were receiving their own personal concert. And Powerwoman and I were grateful for the distraction.

It’s not too early to book for later this year. It’s also never too late to bookmark this idea for next year. Life is better when it’s fancy. Take it from a guy who’s reminded of this every day.

Cool family travel gadgets from Travel Age West

FlyeBaby. (Photo courtesy of the manufacturer.)

FlyeBaby. (Photo courtesy of the manufacturer.)

Holiday time is gift time, and there’s no better reason to go out and buy your favorite traveling family (or your own family) gear to make their lives on the road a little easier.

With this in mind, the folks at Travel Age West magazine recently published a story about the latest and greatest in family travel gear. The story is jam-packed with great suggestions. Heck, it might as well have been a gift guide.

My favorite mentions: the Indoor Tuckaire Toddler Travel Bed, FlyeAway baby sling for airplanes, and the card game, Uno. Because I’m a huge fan of white noise on the road, I also support the mention of the app, Sleep Pillow. I sort of can’t believe the authors didn’t also include the mifold, which I spotlighted on the blog last month.

(I also am surprised the story didn’t at least give a nod to Poo & Pee.)

In terms of which of the feature products we use in our day-to-day lives, we purchased the Lotus Everywhere Crib when G was born but have not had the opportunity to use it yet. Guess it’s never too late for a review. (In other words, stay tuned.)

Check out the Travel Age West article here. Once you’ve read it, respond in the comments field with a list of other products you think the authors should have mentioned.

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.

A letter to our daughter

G and me.

G and me.

Dear Baby G:

You’re here! Welcome to the world and, more important, to the all-girl band that is our family, or pod.

Your mother and sisters and I are so delighted you’ve arrived. Technically, Mom and I waited nine months for you. But really, we’ve been anticipating your arrival for almost as long as we’ve been married. Your mom is the youngest of three sisters. It’s a distinction she now shares with you.

People often say they “have no words” at momentous times like this. I’m a writer, so that’s never really the case with me. In the immediate future, I’m overjoyed to get to introduce another little human to this thing called life, to watch you marvel at the murmurations of starlings and pucker with disgust when you try pureed parsnip for the first time. I can’t wait for you to get to know your sisters—those crazy kids who keep poking and prodding at your cheeks and chin. I’m stoked to read to you and inspire in you a love of language and listening and cadence and literacy. Down the road, and really more than anything, Baby G, I’m overjoyed at the thought of showing you all of the varied places and people that live on our planet.

In our family, you see, travel is a way of being. Sure, we have a house and bedrooms and regular routines, but we also make sure that, as a family, we regularly experience life beyond the stuff we know best. Foreign places. Unfamiliar people. Unusual cultures. We’re open to it all. Your mom and I believe the mere act of exploring and learning about things that are different from what we know and love helps broaden our minds, widen our perspectives, and temper our judgment.

With this in mind, we always will strive to teach you girls to consider the larger world around us and lean on lessons from that world to make a difference closer to home.

You’ll hear people sum up this philosophy as, “Think globally; Act locally.” To some degree, that catchphrase is apt. Unfortunately, though, in today’s world, many people have become so obsessed with the big picture that they fail to see the changes they can make on a smaller scale. Just this week, another new dad, Mark Zuckerberg, penned a letter to his new daughter, and the note read more like a treatise on global change. I don’t fault this other dad for the sentiment behind his note—broad-sweeping issues such as advancing human potential and promoting equality are important, this dad has a ton of money, and he’s willing to give a lot of his money to make the world a better place. I just believe the secret to real change is focusing on the simpler stuff first.

And so, G, on the first day of your second week of life, I make of you five requests:

  1. Be present. Physically, mentally, AND emotionally, be in the moment, always. When friends and family need you, be there for them, both with listening ears and warm hugs. As you inevitably incorporate technology into your life, do not allow your Smartphone screen (or any other device, for that matter) come between you and the ones you love. Even if you’re upset or angry about something, never let those feelings prevent you from giving others what they need when they need it most.
  2. Be patient. Not everything in life goes the way you want it to go. In these moments of frustration and disillusionment, instead of losing your temper, instead of raising your voice, breathe deeply, “cool your heat” (as the therapists like to say), and give others another chance. If a friend of family member really screws up, forgive them, again and again and again. Always take the time to try and help others learn from their mistakes.
  3. Be kind. The way we treat others says a lot about how we love ourselves. With this in mind, I ask you to approach all interpersonal interactions with thoughtfulness and respect. When you don’t understand another person’s point of view, seek to discuss it with an open mind. When you meet someone different, do not judge that person on those differences, but instead on how he or she treats you and others. Even in the face of evil, remember that all humans deserve dignity.
  4. Be humble. Your mom and I will tell you a billion times how great we think you are. Don’t let it go to your head. Just because we think you’re amazing doesn’t mean others will feel the same way. Just because we’ll work to give you every opportunity under the sun doesn’t mean you’re entitled to the opportunities you receive. Constantly strive to be a better person. Work hard for everything you want. Take nothing for granted. Appreciate every chance to grow.
  5. Be curious. The world is a wonderfully eclectic place, and the only way you’re going to experience that diversity is if you seek it out. When you meet new people, ask questions. When you see new places, explore. When you have the opportunity dig deeper and learn more information about something—anything, really—read, then read, and read some more. Knowledge is the most precious gift in this life. You can never have too much.

Yes, Sweet Baby, in comparison to those macro issues such as advancing human potential and promoting equality, the concepts of being present, patient, kind, humble, and curious are small potatoes. But IMHO, in today’s world, the micro issues are even MORE important. Do them right and you’ll transform your world by the way you interact with others every day. Do them wrong and you’ll contribute negatively to some of the problems we’ve already got.

Someday, maybe you’ll have the financial resources and individual fortitude to take on some of the global issues like the ones that other dad mentioned in the note to his baby. Until then, this dad encourages you to love, give, tolerate, support, teach, help, nurture, and understand. These are my hopes for you and your generation, Baby G. In an era when parts of our world are brimming with hate, violence, and intolerance, we must start small and go from there. Your mom and I are excited to watch you on this journey, and will support you every step of the way.


The ultimate vehicle for family road trips

Inside our van, during a rare moment sans kids.

Inside our van, during a rare moment sans kids.

My name is Matt Villano, and I drive a minivan. A Honda Odyssey, to be exact. And I’m proud of it.

I know what you’re thinking: WHAT A TOTAL LOSER. And you’re entitled to your opinion. The truth, however, is that I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK. What’s more, I actually kinda sorta love my new wheels. So there.

No, dear readers, minivans aren’t pretty. They’re not cool. Even after Toyota tried to brand its version as the “Swagger Wagon,” they’re not even remotely stylish. But I never was a form-over-function kind of guy. Minivans actually are the ultimate in function-over-form. And when you’ve got a wife and three kids and you take a lot of road trips, all you ever really care about is function, anyway.

Let me repeat that for you, just to make sure there’s no miscommunication here: MY NEW MINIVAN IS AWESOME FOR FAMILY TRAVEL.

Allow me to count the ways:

  1. It came with seats for eight human beings. EIGHT HUMAN BEINGS. That means our family of five has room to spread out. Hell, I took out the center seat in the second row to let L access the back of the van more easily and there’s still room for seven. (ICYW, no, we are not having more kids.)
  2. It has SEVEN cup holders (nine if you include the two that were part of the seat I removed). This means there are plenty of places for Powerwoman and me to put our coffees/water bottles, and plenty of places for L and R to store their plastic gems and other treasures they collect along the way.
  3. It has three-zone climate control. This rules because I doze off behind the wheel if I’m too cold. With this feature, the girls can be all warm and toasty (at different temperatures, mind you), and I can be chilling (literally) behind the wheel.
  4. Even with the third row of seats, there is ample trunk space. This is good news for our family, since the girls like to take a bunch of crap stuff when we road-trip.
  5. It has cool back-up and side-view cameras. I don’t really use these things, but they are great tools to call into action when L and R are melting down or fighting (or both). You can almost picture how this goes. HEY KIDS, STOP YELLING AT EACH OTHER AND CHECK OUT HOW COOL THE SHOULDER LOOKS THROUGH THE SIDE-VIEW CAMERA! It actually works!

These five faves barely scratch the surface. Another reason I love the new van is because it reminds me of the first car I ever had—oddly that also was a minivan, though I removed all but the third row of seats so I could make out with girls in high school and college. (Definitely another story for a different blog.)

Admittedly, our new van isn’t for everyone. Most people likely would have sprung for the model with the built-in TV screens in the back; we, because of our stance on screen time, did not. Most people in the Bay Area probably would have opted to spend a little extra money for an oversized SUV (such as the Chevy Tahoe or Suburban) with four-wheel drive; we, because we only go to the mountains once a winter, did not.

(Also, if you care about things such as gas mileage, the van’s is pretty terrible.)

Still, this vehicle is PERFECT for family road trips, and we intend to take it on a bunch. Already, in the van’s short life with us (we’ve had it for fewer than 1,000 miles to this point), we’ve taken it to the beach (60 minutes away), the city (75 minutes away), and the remote country (90 minutes away). Next spring, we’ll take it to Yosemite. Next summer, it might even make the drive to Disneyland.

In National Lampoon’s Vacation, the Griswolds called their lovable station wagon the Family Truckster. I think we’ll start calling ours the Family Vanster, or F.V., for short. Make fun of us all you want. We’ll be laughing from our comfortable ride all the way home.

What are some of your favorite vehicles for family travel?