The blog for inspired travel with children

Friday, June 29, 2012

San Antonio, Texas

The bus at Kiddie Park - a favorite!

San Antonio keeps a low profile, but there is a surprising amount for families to do in this faded but beautiful city.  It’s an easy day trip from Austin and we go there pretty often. It’s the 6th largest city in the nation (as of 2010), but it often feels semi-deserted (outside of the downtown core anyway).  The lack of gentrification means that San Antonio still has oodles of charm. Aside from our chosen destinations, I just like driving around this city – we always come across charmingly funky old buildings dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries.  I especially love the 1920s Spanish-style architecture, which you see all over the city.

What follows is just our most recent itinerary – in future posts I’ll tell you about the Missions (not forgetting the Alamo!), downtown, a crazy restaurant called Mi Tierra, the zoo, and lots more.

First Stop: Kiddie Park!  This sweet little amusement park has been in operation since 1925 (local parents have told me that it was pretty run-down when they were kids – it’s lovely now).  It is refreshingly free of branded characters and in-your-face marketing.  Instead it offers 9 little rides, including an antique merry-go-round, a ferris wheel, mini airplanes, boats, and more.  It is, in a word, cute. It is also a pretty good deal at $13 for unlimited rides (there’s no admission fee).  There is a snack bar (candy, goldfish, pizza, etc.), but you’re welcome to bring your own food and sit at one of the many picnic tables.

After getting his fill of the rides (plus a few games of pinball), we still weren’t hungry for lunch yet, so we paid a visit to Alamo Fiesta.  This rambling store is basically a party store but also has clothing and decorative items.  The many rooms are stuffed to the gills with piñatas, paper flowers, garlands, hats, and more.  Oscar picked out a mini piñata for a souvenir and I picked up some big packages of crepe paper, which they carry in lots of colors (I’ll definitely be buying some more next visit, which I feel will be soon!)

For lunch we dined at La Gloria, in the recently renovated Pearl Brewery complex (now known simply as Pearl).  This bustling place is super kid-friendly (there’s a lawn for them to play on post-meal), but also nice for adults; I’d go there to meet a friend for a margarita anytime. 

My Tacos al Pastor

La Gloria Ice House

While at Pearl we checked out The Twig Book Shop, a small bookstore with a large children’s section (They do a story-time on Fridays).  Next door is Melissa Guerra Tienda de Cocina, which stocks kitchen equipment and tableware with an emphasis on Mexican cooking.  Across the street we found a new children’s clothing shop called Roo & Me – small selection, but worth peeking into if you have a minute…

Melissa Guerra  Tienda de Cocina

Finally it was time to head home - but not before a quick stop at Bird Bakery on the way out of town. This bakery is really all about cupcakes - and they are delicious! Not too large, and slathered in delicately tinted buttercream frosting. Yum!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Stay: Un Lit Au Pre

Good god, this is my dream – a rustic (but not too rustic) little cabin in the French countryside, with delicious food close at hand and bucolic views all around. 

La Ferme du Moncel

Un Lit au Pre offers accommodations at six small farms in central and northern France. The cabins – more like tent-cabin hybrids, really – are simple but so charming.  I love the cupboard beds for kids (there’s a larger bedroom for parents) and mismatched chairs.  I also love the absence of electronic anything!  For cooking, there is a wood-burning stove; each tent has a proper modern toilet.  Showers are a short distance from the cabin. Local foods can be purchased from the “Larder” found at each farm, to be prepared by you in your own cabin. 

Inviting, isn't it?

Extended time outdoors, the freedom to wander and explore - these things are so important for children (adults too!  Here on the farm, you get to hang out with the animals; special areas are set aside for children to engage with young animals (goats, rabbits, calves, and more)... You can also take a tour of the farm, and rent bicycles for touring the surrounding countryside.  Heaven!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Low-tech Travel Toys

Portable DVD players and other electronic devices have their place - but sometimes something simple and decidedly low-tech will do the trick just as well, or better.  Here's a few easy toys that travel well and stimulate the imagination...

Pipe Cleaners!

I love these beautifully-colored, variously-sized pipe cleaners by Eeboo – so many possibilities!  They are a perfect way to “make stuff” on a long car trip (or a plane trip, although I haven’t tested these with security).  They don’t make a real mess, they’re easy to pick up, and easy to share. 

Auto Bingo!

I’ve noticed these Auto Bingo games popping up all over the place.  There are four themes: Traffic Safety, Interstate, and plain old Auto Bingo.  They may look old-fashioned, but they still work for car trips!  I found them locally for $2 a card, so look around where you live.  It’s nice to have several on hand.

Sticker Activity Book!

I like to keep a few sticker books around at all times, wherever we are.  My seven-year old still likes them, and of course they also work well for younger kids.  This Richard Scarry book is great because it has all kinds of sticker activities and games inside.  I also always bring a sketchpad, so O can make “sticker stories” in that too.

Eeboo Travel Games!

These compact little games are not for the car - but for an airport layover? Perfect! There are three varieties of matching games - I Never Forget a Face (featuring illustrations of children from around the world), Life on Earth (animals), and Bugs and Butterflies (yep - bugs, butterflies). I can imagine these little cards inspiring other sorts of imaginative play as well - at least enough to kill some time while you wait.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Taking Risks

I came across this wonderful video recently (produced by the Alliance for Childhood and KaBoom!), all about the importance of risk-taking in childhood.  While we want to keep our children safe, learning to feel and test risk is so important – it’s how kids gain confidence, learn about limits, and how to reasonably push those limits (of course, as they point out in the video, it's easier to accept risks when you have ready access to free or affordable heathcare).  Watch it and see what you think:

It struck me that you could talk in a similar way about travel (especially, I think, travel with children).  We take a risk everytime we step outside our door – and the farther away we go, the greater the risks.  When we travel, there are so many opportunities for mishap: we might be misunderstood, we might get lost, we might be robbed, we might lose our belongings – and on and on. 

Yet it is still critical that we GO. Just as children do, we need to explore the world, and find our place in it. We need to push the limits a little. I hope that by traveling with my little boy I am teaching him something about this - that it's OK to step outside your comfort zone, and see what's going on - and just participate.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Airport Culture: The Urban Jellyfish Project

Are you touching down in Portland, Oregon sometime this year?  Kids or no kids, be sure to look for this beautiful installation in the D/E Lobby:

Artist Sayuri has created an ethereal underwater landscape, called Urban Aquarium (it's an ongoing project), populated by seven varieties of jellyfish – these are familiar looking but truly fanciful creatures, born from the artist’s imagination.  Here is how she describes one species (name: Cirrus Ars Magica) represented in the installation:

“These jellies are extremely considerate and warm-hearted, despite their life in cold water. They are brilliant and understanding, if you befriend one you can never get enough. They love ice cream. They bring magic to your life.”

Visit Sayuri’s website to learn all about her jellyfish (photography by Kelty and Hannah at The Weaver House - check out their site for some inspiring visuals!). The installation will be in place through January 15, 2013.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Stay: San Ysidro Ranch

When I was about seven years old, my parents were lovely enough to whisk my sister and me away to Montecito, CA (near Santa Barbara) for a weekend at the San Ysidro Ranch.   This resort (it’s not what most people think of when they hear the word “ranch”) is low-key and glamorous in a distinctly Californian way.  I remember my mother excitedly telling me that this was where the Kennedys had honeymooned. 

It was certainly romantic – even at seven I was old enough to be enchanted by the pretty cottages and flowers everywhere.  My sister and I made friends at the pool, and I got to go on one of my first horse rides. 

The ranch is still going strong and it looks as beautiful as ever. They don't seem to offer horseback-riding these days, but they do have miles of hiking trails. The ranch occupies more than 500 acres and the views and landscapes are gorgeous.  Importantly, they are happy to accommodate children and families, offering baby monitors, tubs, baby-proofing, and other items and services. They even provide babysitting! What a special weekend this would be for some lucky child...

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Favorite Places: The Girard Wing at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico

There are many beautiful spots in Santa Fe; it’s just a magical place.  Perhaps this is due in part to its age; people have been living here since the 10th century.   That sort of thing alone will give a town a particularly rich energy.  The city’s decision back in the early 20th century to mandate building styles in keeping with the town’s existing character (lots and lots of low-slung adobe) also contributes to the feeling of enchantment.  Besides just looking pretty, the small human scale of the town has been largely preserved, making it a great place to be with kids. 

If you venture up into the hills, you will find one of my favorite places in Santa Fe: the Girard Wing of the Museum of International Folk Art.  The whole museum is worth a visit, but the Girard Wing is unique.  It contains textile designer Alexander Girard’s collection of folk art and toys from around the world – approximately 106,000 items. 

Girard not only contributed the items, he also designed the permanent exhibit space to hold them.  It is a fantastic space.  Colorful and maze-like without being overwhelming, it showcases the objects at various eye-levels (including some at near floor-level).  It invites people of all sizes to wander and explore.  Everything is behind plexiglass, but many displays can be seen from multiple perspectives, making viewing a more dynamic experience. Toys are arranged in a frequently humorous way, creating an elaborate tableaux or telling a little story (sometimes the story is enchantingly ambiguous).  

I happened to be without my son during my visit, unfortunately - but other children I observed were utterly delighted.  I can't wait to go back, kid in tow.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The City of Sonoma, California

The courtyard at the Mission in Sonoma

Sonoma, like Napa one valley over, is generally thought of as a playground for adults.  But if you find yourself up that way with nary a babysitter in sight, there is plenty to keep a young child going, too. 

We stayed with family in a sweet little cottage just outside of Glen Ellen, a little under eight miles north of the city of Sonoma on Rt. 12.  In the morning we had a terrific breakfast at El Molino Central.  I confess I chose this place because of its cuteness; happily the food was delicious too.  It’s a tiny place - we sat on the back patio since the weather was nice; O had a little room to spread out this way.

Our first stop in town was the Mission San Francisco Solano, sited right off the plaza at 20 East Spain Street.  Founded in 1823, it was the last-built of California’s twenty-one Missions. It’s a small but lovely place with a small courtyard in the rear. After some quiet time here we strolled across the street to the wood and adobe Soldiers' Barracks (built around 1840).  This building now houses exhibits, including a recreation of the soldier’s sleeping arrangements and a replica of the 1846 “Bear Flag”; the courtyard is open for sitting or poking around.

The courtyard of the Soldiers' Barracks

Replica of the 1846 “Bear Flag”

Having picked up some sandwich fixings at the little grocery store in Glen Ellen, we had a picnic lunch in the square in downtown Sonoma.  It was lovely, with tall trees providing lots of shade, and lush grass for lounging.  There are two play areas, which kept O busy for a long time. 

The most obvious child-friendly attraction in town is Train Town.  Train Town is a small amusement park not far from Sonoma’s plaza.  It features, of course, a train, which runs throughout the lush property making a stop in a miniature “ghost town.”  The train halts for about 10 minutes, so there is time to explore the little buildings and feed the goats that reside here. There are also a number of small carnival-type rides.  This is an easy-going little place, though - there is none of the stress or frenzy of a big theme park.  When we visited, there were no lines at all.  Warning: skip “The Scrambler” (I’m talking to you, not your kid!). 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Texas State Parks

Bastrop State Park

When I don’t have a big trip planned, but still feel that itch to get the heck out of Dodge, I start looking around for interesting destinations closer to home.  Texas can be a tricky departure point because it is so freaking big – it is an major effort just to get out of the state!  Luckily, there are lots of places worth visiting nearby (even if what I really long for is something more exotic).

Recently, I visited a couple of Texas’ state parks.  I wanted to get out into the country before the heat of the summer makes being outdoors too unpleasant.  Blanco State Park is about an hour west of Austin.  It’s tiny, but there is a nice slow-moving river running through it, and it was a pleasant place to spend a few hours.  O spent most of the time playing at the water’s edge.  Blanco State Park has campsites available; there are also screened cabins available for rent.

Blanco State Park - that's a walled--off swimming area just right of center

Next we went to Bastrop State Park, about 45 minutes east of Austin.  I was curious to see how the park was doing after barely surviving the Labor Day Fire of 2011.  Specifically, I wanted to see how the historic CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) –built stone cabins and other structures looked – I spent half a summer measuring and drawing some of these charming little buildings many years ago (See the results here).  I knew they had survived, thanks to the heroic efforts of firefighters and park employees, but wasn’t sure how well.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the forest is recovering nicely, and the buildings are in great shape too.  Trees are still blackened, and the lack of foliage means that you can see much farther.  But the park staff is working hard to prevent erosion and help the native species regain their place.  The cabins looked great and nicely taken care of – they all had brand-new wood shingle roofs and their funky stone walls were as solid and sweet as ever.  You can reserve one for the night, or camp under the stars.

Civilian Conservation Corps Cabin #4 at Bastrop State Park

A fence made from reclaimed burned trees

At the end of the day we hit the pool – a large oval-shaped oasis with plenty of places to sit in the shade around the edge.  If you ask nicely the staff will loan you a kickboard.

The pool at Bastrop State Park

Monday, June 4, 2012

Berkeley, California

Berkeley is a paradise for kids – there are beautiful parks all over the place, plenty of nice things to eat, even for the picky, and magical spots galore.  I’ve included some of our favorites below.  The weather is mild but variable – microclimates abound.  Wear layers!

The Berkeley Marina The Marina is one of my favorite spots – being right next to the water is invigorating, and you can see so much of the Bay Area from here.  You can hike around the old city dump (don’t worry, it’s now a park), or venture out on the pier, which stretches for more than half a mile into the bay (bring a jacket, it’s cold out there!). The small beach is lovely for kids.  A real gem is the Adventure Playground – it’s constructed primarily by children, and is a constant work-in-progress. Here kids can climb, build, paint, engage in imaginative play, and ride the zipline to their heart’s content.  Children aged 7 and older may be left for up to three hours for a small fee ($10 at this time) – leave them here to play and head over to Fourth Street for a bit of shopping or lunch.  Or, simply take a hike and enjoy some peace and quiet!

Lawrence Hall of Science The Lawrence Hall of Science is perched high in the Berkeley hills, with spectacular views from its outdoor areas.  Indoors, there is plenty for kids to do, including daily planetarium shows. The rear terrace has an interactive water feature and plenty of pleasant spots for parents to sit.  LHS is served by the 67 bus line, and just down the hill to the south is the Botanical Garden and Strawberry Canyon Pool.  1 Centennial Drive

Habitot Children’s Museum This small but terrific children’s play museum occupies the basement of the old Hink’s department store downtown.  There is water play, a play store, a wonderful art center (including a painting wall), and more. Habitot is most appropriate for toddlers.  2065 Kittredge Street

East Bay Vivarium This amazing pet shop sells reptiles and amphibians and is packed to the rafters with every sort of creature you can imagine (well, those which can legally be sold as a pet).  The merchandise is fascinating, the staff is knowledgeable, and kids are welcome to wander the aisles to their hearts’ content.  1827 5th Street Ste. C

Sather Tower, more commonly known as the Campanile, sits in the middle of the UC Berkeley campus (it's that big tower in the image at top) and is the third tallest bell and clock tower in the world.  For a small fee, you can ride and climb to the top and enjoy fantastic views of the whole bay area.

Tilden Regional Park Tilden Park is huge, and has numerous terrific hiking trails and a lot more great views.  There is a carousel (an ice cream shop and a playground share the location). The Little Farm is home to pigs, goats, and other farmyard animals (as well as the Environmental Education Center).  Farther south is a miniature steam engine, which travels through the forest and is a delight (The Lawrence Hall of Science is close to this end of the park).

Codornices Park and Rose Garden Codornices is just a beautiful park and a great spot for a picnic.  The park is bowl shaped and surrounded by forested hillsides. The standout feature is the concrete slide (it dates to the 70s) which winds down a hill, past a glorious and patient old oak tree -  a constant stream of children (and some adults) trudge up the old staircase built into the hill, clutching scraps of cardboard to make the ride faster.  Some days it’s slow, some days it’s ridiculously fast – it’s always fun!  The Rose Garden is across the street, but you can get there via tunnel, which is of course more fun. Euclid Avenue between Eunice Street and Bayview Place

Live Oak Park Another lovely park with a well-shaded creek carving its way through it (there is also a playground).  I mostly mention this park because it is right down the street from the Thursday afternoon Farmer’s Market on Shattuck Avenue – grab some delicious food and head to the park for an easy picnic.  Shattuck Avenue between Eunice and Berryman Streets

Indian Rock Park  This is a neat little spot for older kids (i would say 5 or 6 and up) – years ago, somebody carved meandering steps into this giant rock outcropping.  The views are lovely, and it’s fun to just clamber around.  Corner of Indian Rock Avenue and San Mateo Road


This excellent but super casual Mexican restaurant is large, fun, and good for large groups.  1328 6th Street

Acme Bread What kid doesn't like bread?  And this is some of the best you'll ever eat.  They also have amazing croissants and other baked snacks. Southeast corner of San Pablo Avenue and Cedar Street

The Cheeseboard Collective By which I also mean their not-quite-adjacent pizza restaurant.  No plain cheese pizza here – the Cheese Board only offers one variety of pizza per day, and there are usually vegetables involved.  But the pizza is consistently delicious.  The Cheeseboard itself sells terrific baked goods and (of course) cheeses.  1504 Shattuck Avenue

Saul’s This large deli and restaurant is big, loud, and definitely child-friendly.  1475 Shattuck Avenue

Betty’s Oceanview Diner is great, but if the kids are really hungry, skip the wait and go next door to Betty’s-To-Go.  Pick up a delicious lunch in just a few minutes (I love their pizza) and sit on a bench outdoors.  1807 4th Street

Vik’s Chaat If your child likes Indian food, get thee to Vik’s Chaat – this big and colorful establishment is the perfect speed for dining with kids.  There is also a small Indian grocery on the premises.  2390 4th Street

Tokyo Fish This is not an eating establishment, but there is a great selection of Japanese snacks near the register, and it’s fun to browse the groceries.  1220 San Pablo Avenue


Mr. Mopps Children’s Books and Toys This place has been around forever!  Well, since 1962 anyway.  The store is large and packed, and has a train table for the kids in the book room.  1405 MLK Jr. Way

The Ark A beautiful toy and book shop featuring a well-edited selection of high-quality toys. Small play areas upstairs and down. 1812 4th Street

Friday, June 1, 2012

Favorite Places: The Ferry Building in San Francisco

The Ferry Building is one place I always try to visit when we’re in the Bay Area, because it is just such a reliable pleasure for everyone involved.  Hidden for decades behind an ugly double-decker freeway, the building was liberated by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake - the freeway came down for good in 1991, and the building's reincarnation as a first-rate destination and gathering place by the preservation architecture firm Page & Turnbull  (among others) was completed in 2003.

The Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market is held Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am to 2 pm, and on Saturday from 8 am to 2 pm.  It’s worth visiting even you don’t have a kitchen to bring veggies home to, because of course they also sell fruit and other fantastic picnic-ready items. But you can eat and dine here any day, and it’s hard to find a place that is so child-friendly and also offers such high-quality eats, all in such a wonderful setting. 

The food offerings throughout are amazing, and you can’t really go wrong (Click here for a full list of merchants).  Although there are several sit-down restaurants, I prefer to get my meal to-go, and eat outdoors on the bayside.  My favorites include Acme Bread Company, Frog Hollow Farm, Boulette’s Larder, and Boccalone Salumeria…  but poke around for yourself, you’ll want to try everything.  The nice thing is you can also easily pick up some great olive oil or other edible souvenir here, and just take everything with you.  

For shopping, be sure to visit The Gardener and Heath Ceramics – both stock consistently gorgeous wares, mostly for the home.  Distract your little one with something delicious while you browse (the shops are small - almost kiosks).

We love to eat our lunch while watching the action on the bay – the bridge seems to tower over the scene, the bay is a fantastic deep shade of blue, and all manner of watercraft is continually coming and going.  Seagulls play over the water.  It's usually pleasantly breezy.  My son runs around for a bit while I relax on a bench and soak up the sun (or lack thereof – I don’t really mind either way).  

From the Ferry Building, you can journey in a number of directions.  It's fun to take a ride in one of the beautiful vintage streetcars zipping around; you can go down towards Fisherman's Wharf, or up Market Street towards downtown. Or just go for a stroll up the embarcadero, towards nothing in particular.