Tag Archive for: beach

Hunting for Dollars

Little R and some of her bounty

When my wife and I pre-booked the final night of our road trip in Morro Bay, we had one thing on our minds: Walking on Morro Strand State Beach. Which is precisely how we spent the last day of our trip on Wednesday.

But the Villano family beach walk brought with it a surprise. Sand dollars. Hundreds of them. All over the beach.

It turns out January is prime time for finding dead and desiccated sand dollars on the sandy beaches of Central California. Because Morro Strand is one of the longest beaches in the area, it is renowned for its sand dollar-hunting. Naturally, then, once we found our first dollar of the day, we treated the excursion like a treasure hunt.  Each of our three girls walked away with quite a bounty.

Later in the day, as we sped home in our Honda Odyssey, we hit the Internet to do some research.

We learned that sand dollars actually are close relatives of sea urchins. We learned that live sand dollars are a bit like ravioli—tough outside, soft inside. We also learned that the petal-shaped design actually is a bunch of pores that help the animals move.

Without question, the three-hour stroll was my favorite segment of the entire trip. A quest! Science! Beautiful views! The best part: It was all totally free.

These types of escapades represent the very best of family travel. They incorporate serendipity and fascination. To be clear, none of these moments is perfect; at one point there on the beach, Baby G was upset that a sandpiper flew away and started bawling like she’s never bawled before. Overall, however, these adventures are magical. I wish all of you at least one of these experiences on your next trip.

Family travel through her eyes


With three kids under the age of 8, it’s easy for Powerwoman and me to get caught up in planning trips around the bigger girls and not the baby.

Earlier this week, however, 15-month-old Baby G made sure I saw a family daytrip to our favorite Sonoma County beach from her point of view. The experience made me a better traveler, a better dad, and a better man. It also made me laugh.

The specifics are almost irrelevant—the big kids had off from school so I took the three of them out to Goat Rock State Beach, our favorite (despite its tendency to receive rogue waves). Because it was windy and the waves were big, I carried Baby G in the backpack while I monitored the whereabouts of her bigger sisters up the beach. After about an hour, however, the baby wanted out.

I obliged at lunch, when we set up a picnic blanket near the dunes and ate while we watched the waves.

That’s when it happened. After lunch, the big kids were clamoring to head down the beach to look for beach glass, but I didn’t want to go. I gave Baby G the option of getting back into the backpack or just hanging with me on the blanket. She very clearly slapped the blanket and grunted. She wanted to stay.

So we stayed. I sat her on my lap. We marveled at waves. We pointed at gulls. We played with sand. All told the two of us probably sat there, just enjoying the beach, for the better part of 45 minutes. She didn’t fuss or whine once. She didn’t complain about the wind. She didn’t even insist on peas, which she usually does at picnic lunches. In short, the baby was completely enraptured. As was I.

I’ve probably written about it 100 times, but this particular experience was yet another in the litany of experiences that taught me to slow down even more and take the time to appreciate life on the road.

Travel isn’t always easy—especially with kids. But I do know that in this case a little bit of extra effort went incredibly far with our baby, which is always a good scenario to cultivate.

Sand in the minivan

We rung in the new year in style today, traipsing all over our favorite beach in Sonoma County. As the crow flies, Goat Rock State Beach (part of Sonoma Coast State Park) is only about 25-30 miles from our home. But because it takes about 75 minutes to get there, we consider an excursion to this spot a family travel adventure of the day-trip variety.

And what an adventure it was. After experiencing a shutout for the first 20 minutes, the big girls found 27 pieces of beach glass in the 35 minutes that followed. The wind whipped us until we felt like icicles. We counted not one, not two, but THREE rogue waves.

Oh, and Baby G slept through her first trip to the ocean.

After the beach, we drove 10 miles south into Bodega Bay, where the five of us (ICYW, Baby G still was sleeping) grabbed some fish ‘n’ chips at one of our favorite local restaurants.

I capped the excursion by taking L and R on a walk around the marina, exploring finger docks (thankfully no-one fell in), dodging seagull poop (thankfully no-one got hit), watching pelagic birds (they loved the petrels), and scanning the surface of the water for signs of Harbor seals or California sea lions (sadly, no dice here).

Perhaps the most satisfying part of the afternoon came when we pulled into the driveway at home. The Big Girls got out and went inside. Powerwoman took the baby out and brought her in, too. I lingered a bit to collect some of the wrappers and usual detritus a family amasses on a daylong road trip.

That’s when I noticed it: The inside of our new minivan was covered with sand.

Normally this kind of unexpected mess would drive a neurotic freak like me nuts. This time, however, it was comforting, enthralling, and downright wonderful.

In that moment, the sand was the physical manifestation of a return to normalcy in our lives—a sign that after more than a month of working through a new routine as a family of five, our Wandering Pod was wandering again. It was, quite simply, proof we are back. Now that’s a mess I can embrace.

San Juan Islands family travel recap

Sisters. Eagle Cove. Beachcombing.

Sisters. Eagle Cove. Beachcombing.

If you’ve been reading this blog over the last few weeks, you undoubtedly already have read all about our family trip to the San Juan Islands. Now, however, there’s a place where you can read a recap of the entire adventure IN ONE POST.

The spot: The Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia (a client). The post: This piece, titled “Summer in the San Juans.”

My story, which published earlier today, summarizes our time on the San Juan Islands in about 1,400 words. It includes details about our marine animal sightings, our beach time, the fun we had at Roche Harbor, and even our side-trip to Orcas Island. It also chronicles some behind-the-scenes color from the downtime we spent as a family at the incredible house we rented.

I am especially proud of the photos that accompany the piece; I took hundreds of shots during our two weeks on the island, and was delighted to be able to publish a few of them somewhere other than Instagram.

(If you’re not currently following me on Instagram, by the way, you should.)

Even if you think you’ve read everything about our trip, I encourage you to take the time to give this story a read as well. Thanks in advance for the support.

Travel memory: Learning to talk on Kauai

Years later, our beach babe still loves the crashing surf.

Years later, our beach babe still loves the crashing surf.

A recent conversation with a friend about vacationing on Kauai (in Hawaii) reminded me of one of our first milestone family trips: A vacation in 2010 during which L spoke for the first time.

The three of us—R hadn’t even been conceived yet—stayed for a week in Poipu at the Villas at Poipu Kai, a wonderful property of furnished vacation rentals near Brennecke Beach. Those were the days before this blog; at the time I was keeping a different blog titled, The Daddy Dispatch (someday, I’ll re-publish those old posts). That said, this particular trip was of the unplugged variety; I happily didn’t write anything while we were there.

That didn’t stop important stuff from happening.

At the time L was about 13 months old, and she hadn’t said much more than, “Mom,” and “Dada.” We were just starting to wonder when she’d say her first real word. Then, one day, on the beach, it just came out: “A-gain! A-gain! A-gain!”

She was talking to the ocean, of course. The waves, specifically. She loved the way they came in and lapped at her tiny feet. She was ordering the ripples to continue.

Again and again, the kid screamed, “Again!”

At first, neither Powerwoman nor I knew quite how to react—we found ourselves somewhere between joy and did-she-really-just-say-that? After about 12 or so repetitions, we started cheering and crying and clapping and doing all the stuff that first-time parents do at a milestone of this nature. “Again” became the theme of the trip; everywhere we went, we did things two or three times, just so we could hear our first child ask us to do them again.

Looking back on that day, travel is an integral part of this cherished memory. Would we remember the accomplishment if L had said, “Again!” here at home? Of course. But the fact that she said it there in Hawaii, commanding the cerulean sea, makes everything about the experience more vivid.

That vibrancy, that extra detail, makes the memory even more special. That we experienced it on a family trip adds panache to an incident we’ll treasure for the rest of our lives.

What developmental milestones have your kids achieved while traveling?

The world’s biggest ball pit, for kids and grownups alike

The Beach, courtesy of Smithsonian.com.

The Beach, courtesy of Smithsonian.com.

In case you missed the news while you were celebrating Independence Day, the world’s biggest ball pit opened July 4 in our nation’s capital, and it looks like a kick-ass spot for kids and grownups alike.

The 10,000-square-foot pit, dubbed, “The Beach,” actually is an exhibit in the atrium of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The exhibit, from a firm named Snarkitecture, is designed to bring a summer staple for many suburban and rural residents into the Big City. It runs through Sept. 7.

Technically, the pit comprises about 1 million clear plastic balls. In a nod to the totally neurotic among us (that’d be me!), the balls are made of recyclable and antimicrobial plastic, which basically means museum personnel does NOT have to get in there with Clorox wipes and clean the balls every night.

(The whole cleanliness factor was a major issue for me when L went to our local MyGym.)

According to an article on Smithsonian magazine’s website, there are three different ways for visitors to experience the family-friendly attraction. First (of course) they can jump in. Second, they can relax on lounge chairs on the “shoreline,” or edges of the pit. Finally, they can sit near a snack bar and watch from afar.

Apparently, the ball pit is open until 9 p.m. every night. Later this summer, the National Building Museum will host a number of scavenger hunts, live music, tours, and games. An article in The Washington Post said there even might be volleyball.

Certainly sounds like a great family travel destination to me. See you there?

Our family’s happy place: the beach

Building teepees at Eagle Cove.

Building teepees at Eagle Cove.

We’ve been on San Juan Island about a week now, and while every day has been different, all of them have had at least one thing in common: A trip to a beach.

Beaches are our girls’ happy place, a surefire spot to make them happy and keep them that way.

On some beaches, they’ve walked the shoreline looking for cool shells and beach glass. On other beaches, they’ve used driftwood, seaweed, and bull kelp to build elaborate forts (or, if I’m helping, teepees). When we hit one beach at low tide, the kids beeline for the tidepools and peer down into worlds of sea anemones, sculpins, and hermit crabs. Another day, when we hit the beach at high tide, they grabbed their shrimp nets, waded out up to their knees and tried to catch us “dinner.”

These kids adore the sand and surf so much you’d think they grew up in a coastal zone (they didn’t; we live about 30 miles inland). As a fellow ocean-lover, I can understand the appeal and appreciate the sense of wonder and joy.

Our best beach day so far has been at Eagle Cove, a locals’ beach I remember from my days on the island as a twentysomething. We’ve been there three times already; we’ll probably visit another three or four times before we head home. At low tide, the beach stretches out a half-mile. Gentle waves lap at the sand. The sides of the cove frame the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

This is the beach where L discovered chiton shells—since that moment of discovery she has collected approximately 3,486 of them. It’s also the beach where R found her first cache of beach glass.

We’ve played ball on this beach. We’ve built fairy houses there. One day, while the kids were lounging with Powerwoman on a blanket, I took matters into my own hands and dragged driftwood from the back of the beach to build a shelter in which the girls could play cards.

Weeks from now, when L and R look back on this trip, despite the Orcas and the red foxes and the bald eagles and the ice cream every day, I bet they remember the beach best of all.

And I won’t blame them one bit.

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.

Visiting the special family place, without kids

Maui. With my loves.

Maui. With my loves.

Hawaii is a special place for everyone in our family. It’s where Powerwoman and I got married, where L said her first word (the word was, “again;” she said it at the ocean waves), and where R fell in love with the beach.

It’s also a place to which we’ve traveled as a unit multiple times.

For this reason, it’s hard for me to think about Hawaii without thinking of my family. The two go together like light rum and dark rum in a Mai Tai, like palm fronds and tropical breezes.

That’s the main reason this week has been particularly odd. I’m on Maui all week on behalf of my client, Expedia. We’re here to participate in an off-site for the Expedia Viewfinder team, to run a number of contests (like this one), and to report on all things sun and sand and surf in this part of the world. All of my favorite colleagues are here. The only thing missing: my brood.

Trust me—I’m having a blast. And I’m enjoying the restful sleep at night. But everywhere I look, every sight and smell and sound I experience, I’m wishing the girls and Powerwoman were here, too.

This morning, for instance, I joined a colleague for a run along the beach in Wailea and we spotted a giant snail inching along in a pointy seashell—notably different from the snails we see at our home back in Northern California. When I saw the creature, I couldn’t help but think of the girls. They would have been talking about that thing all day.

Later this week, when I take some of my fellow Viewfinders on a run to get malasadas (i.e., fried donuts) from my favorite bakery on the island, I’ll be thinking of L, since malasadas comprise one of her favorite food of all time.

The phenomenon has taught me that solo travel to one of the destinations you usually frequent as a family is a variation on family travel as a whole.

They’re not here, but they are. It’s magic. It’s amazing. And it makes perfect sense.

If nothing else, the last 48 hours have inspired me to come back before the end of this summer, with my loves in tow. Maui is wonderful no matter what the circumstances of the visit. But for me, it’s especially wonderful with my kids and wife. As any favorite family travel destination should be.

What is your favorite family travel destination and why?

Travel adventure as a state of mind

R, beachcombing.

R, beachcombing.

Our family is always seeking new adventures. Near, far—we don’t care where we travel, we simply make habit out of striving for something out of the ordinary.

Nevertheless, we have developed some travel favorites over the years. We love vacationing in Hawaii, largely because nobody wears clothes. We love public transportation, because the girls always can find something at which to marvel. We love shopping at farmers’ markets, because the produce is so fresh.

We also love spending days at the beach—not so much because we like to surf or swim (both girls actually are afraid of the ocean), but because we LOVE to go beachcombing. We don’t have preferences about what we hunt—beach glass, sea shells, pretty rocks, and more. If we’re on the beach with a mission to find cool stuff, we’re a happy crew.

With this in mind, we usually try to incorporate a beach visit into each and every one of our coastal vacations.

And when we’re not traveling, we try to drive the 45 minutes from our house to the coast once a month.

I went earlier today with R. Our mission: To find beach glass for L (who is an avid collector). She has an extensive collection of green glass, but lacks diversity in her stash. Specifically, she asked us to look for glass that was red or blue.

The fact that we achieved our mission was irrelevant; R and I just loved the challenge. At one point, she was so enthralled with our search that she jumped up and down screaming, “BEACH GLASS!”

What’s more, this was the first visit on which my little girl worked up the courage to brave the loud and scary crashing surf and walk up and down the beach to hunt (previously she would just pick a spot to sit and only investigate the sand in her immediate vicinity).

Wherever and whenever we have them, our family beachcombing experiences are proof that you don’t have to travel very far outside your geographic area or comfort zone to take a meaningful journey together.

My advice? Find something you and your family enjoy together and seek it out wherever you are. This enables you to have life-changing experiences at any place and any time, to turn the sense of travel adventure into a state of mind. It also means you’re never too far from a great day out and about. Or new items for your beach collection.

What sorts of family travel adventures do you like best?