Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bryce Canyon--Best Family Hike

Bryce Canyon National Park is a very popular vacation spot.  Why?  The view is spectacular, the camping is plentiful and well managed, and there are several easy to moderate hikes making Bryce very family friendly and interactive.

The View

Known as hoodoos, these unique rock spires form a spectacular view.  Bryce Canyon offers an extremely dense collection of hoodoos with some spires rising a staggering 10 stories.  It is no coincidence that the best lookouts are called Sunrise, Sunset, and Inspiration Point.  A few spires standout from the group including our son's favorite--Thor's hammer.  Though the views are always breathtaking, at sunrise, sunset, or with a touch of snow are particularly amazing.

The Camping

Bryce has two major campgrounds, both operate on a first come, first serve basis.  The inability to reserve a campground in advance can be a little unnerving.  We camped during the annual geology festival on a summer weekend and had no problem finding a camping site (the numerous motels were fully booked).   I do recommend arriving by 5 at the latest when camping.  You want to make sure there will be a space available (and in the extremely unlikely chance that one is not, you have enough time to make another arrangement), you want to have plenty of time to set up camp, and you want to explore the park a little--either at the visitor's center or watching the sunset.

I really enjoyed Bryce Canyon's campground.  It was close to the main area--general store, lookout point, and visitor's center.  It offered showers and clean bathrooms that had flushing toilets, water spouts, and a soaker sink for dishes or laundry.  Also, my husband was thoroughly impressed that he had internet access at our camp (I am not sure I see that as a plus).  My only real complaint was that the campgrounds were densely packed so there was little to no privacy.

The Hiking

Bryce offers several easy and moderate hikes (as well as strenuous hikes for the more adventurous).  As a family with both a three-year-old and at a then two-month-old, we hiked the Navajo Loop, a 1.3 mile moderate hike that is extremely well known in the park.  Leaving from the Sunset Viewpoint, take the right trail winding through the heart of the hoodoos.  At the bottom, walk through a narrow passage as the cliffs rise several stories in the air on both sides (like an open air tunnel).  Finally loop back around to the less impressive, but easier side to hike up.

This was one of our family's favorite hikes.   It changed the experience from looking at a view to interacting with that view.  

The hike took less than 90 minutes, but I insisted each child carry a bottle of water.  Because we are use to high altitudes and a dry climate, we did not need that much water, but we saw several adult hikers that were struggling and looking enviously at our children's water bottles.

Bryce also offers other easy hikes including the rim trail, a waterfall hike, and fir forest hikes. Also be sure to check out the visitor's center to learn more about the geology and wildlife of Bryce, watch the short film, and explore the museum.

Why should you visit Bryce Canyon? One Word--Hoodoos

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

5 Free (or Almost Free) Kid Favorites in Boston

Boston--a little of everything 

Boston is an amazing city.  It has some of everything.  Far more than you could ever hope to see in one trip.   Part of Boston's charm is that it has several venues for adults, for kids, for the whole family. Boston has history, the bay, museums, sports, shopping, music, breweries, cannolis.   If you include the surrounding area, your options almost become limitless (beaches, Lexington and Concord, John Adams tour in Quincy, Newport mansions in Rhode Island, Six Flags, I could go on and on). Unfortunately most of these hot spots are relatively expensive--the aquarium and whale watching, most museums including the highly rated Science Museum and Fine Arts Museum, a Red Sox game at Fenway, some of the stops on the Freedom Trail, not to mention parking, shopping, and restaurants (you have to try the lobster).  However, we did find some of the cheaper sights.   Here are our favorite five free or almost free hot spots in Boston when touring with children.

Favorite 5

1--The Subway and Ferry Ride 

Especially if your kids live in a place that does not have a subway system, the subway is a major highlight.  My children particularly enjoyed that the subway went both under and above ground providing them with plenty of tunnels and views.  Inside one of the tunnels is a "movie" where pictures have been drawn along the wall.  At subway speeds, those individual pictures blend into a movie similar to a flip book.  After initially finding their legs, my children also tried subway surfing where you stand in the aisle and try to maintain your balance as the train turns, slows, speeds up, and stops.  You do need to be careful entering and exiting (mind the gap) and try to surf safely.  We found most fellow subway passengers to be friendly and delighted with our children's excitement but we also made sure we practiced manners, particularly during crowded times. And in Boston, children under 11, ride for free. Adults can purchase a week pass which is very economical if you want to make multiple stops or will be touring for more than a day or two.
Probably more enjoyable than the subway was the ferry that crosses near the Aquarium to Charlestown where the Freedom Trail ends at Bunker Hill and the USS Constitution.  Not only is this a cost effective way to get to the end of the Freedom Trail, but it gives you a fantastic view of the harbor from the Boston clock tower to Old North Church.  (This also a great place to pick up discount t-shirts from the street vendors).

2--Boston Common  

This 50 acre park is a landmark in itself (and a subway stop).  The best part is the frog pond where children can wade in the summer in a foot or so of water (unfortunately it frequently closes largely because of weather).   Nearby is a large playground with features for tots as well as older children.  On the other side of the park is a whimsical bridge, the "Make Way for Ducklings" statues, and the swan boat ride (which does charge a fee).  The Common is also home to a few historical sites including a large statue of George Washington, smaller statues primarily depicting various wars, and is the spot of the original stocks and hanging tree from colonial times.  A carousel was recently added (which also charges a fee).  Be careful to check the weather and the event schedule before going.   I also recommend you bring a picnic which seems to be a crowd pleaser at my house.

3--Parts of the Freedom Trail

The Freedom Trail is a well known walk through Boston that covers 17 sites.  Some of them are free, some of them are kid friendly.  Others are not. Before going, familiarize yourself with the stops and prepare your children ahead of time.  Take their ages and interests into consideration when deciding which parts to do.  My children's favorite stops were Boston Common, Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill, and the USS Constitution, although they were willing to go to most of the other sites, many of which we only stayed at for a short time.  The Granary Burying Ground located next to Boston Common was an unexpected surprise.  This graveyard holds Sam Adams, James Otis, Paul Revere, victims of the Boston Massacre, Mother Goose (did you know there was a woman behind the legend?) and other historic figures.  It was very moving for me and an incredible teaching moment.  As you continue on the trail, be sure to point out the hop scotch by the Benjamin Franklin statue in honor of early American public schools.  You will want to hit Faneuil Hall (also called Quincy Market) around meal or snack time (okay, that means this stop will not be free or almost free).  It is a food court on steroids and shopping mecca.  Point out the grasshopper weathervane on top used as a spy symbol during the Revolution and a symbol of wealth.  Have your boys stand next to the bronzed shoes of Larry Bird (they are as big as clown shoes).   Across the bay is the USS Constitution (see below) and Bunker Hill.  Find a burst of energy, the Bunker Hill monument is a mere 292 stairs to the top in very humid air.  My older kids raced to the top and I followed about 10 minutes behind with a 16-month-old in arms.  The views are spectacular not to mention the bragging rights.

4--USS Constitution and Museum

One of the last stops on the Freedom Trail, this Naval ship dates back to 1797.  Still operated today by the Navy, the free tour of this ship is one of the best I have ever been on--funny, full of facts and stories, with plenty to see both on deck and below.  Wait time varies and the holding area is outside so avoid going in the heat of the day or during heavy storms.  Adjacent is a wonderful museum (with a suggested donation).  The main floor is mostly geared towards adults with short explanatory films and exhibits.  Upstairs is a mini children's museum.  Children pretend to be enlisting in the Navy or Marines 200 years ago.  They can scrub the deck, works the masts, cook in the mess hall, see the life of an officer, swing in a hammock, shoot the cannon, see how the ship survived the pirates, and much more.  Our then second grader rated this higher than the expensive and famous New England Aquarium.

5--The Children's Museum Discount Day

The Boston Children's Museum is one of the best in the nation and only costs $1 per person on Friday evenings.  Yes, it will be crowded.  Yes, you will want to stay until closing at 9:00 which will mean a late bedtime.  It is well worth it.  Climb through the 3 story puzzle sculpture, explore Arthur's world, play a new game, have fun in the bubble room, dance on the lighted floor, explore the Japanese house, and delight in Peep's World sand and water tables (just name a few of the exhibits).  We only saw about 2/3 of the museum in the 4 hours we visited!  Parking on discount days is impossible so be sure to take the subway.

Other Options

Many museums (not just the Children's Museum) offer a free or heavily discounted day, so be sure to check their websites.  Although, families with young children might want to pass.  A short drive from Boston also has other family friendly venues particularly the beach (though some charge a parking fee or small beach access fee) and Lexington-Concord National Park (a family friendly must see).

Grab Your Sneakers

As you can tell from the list, Boston involves a lot of walking, standing, and climbing stairs--A LOT.  So be sure to grab your sneakers.  But leave most your money home for a day or two and enjoy the cheaper side of the city.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Las Vegas for Kids

Can you really take kids to Vegas?

We all think of Vegas as an adult's playground.  But we love this city for family vacations as well.  Here are some of our favorite kid friendly spots.

#1--Circus Circus--Clearly the most family friendly major hotel/casino in Vegas is ultra cheap (as low as $30 a night).  To entertain the kids, they built the Adventuredome, an indoor amusement park at a reasonable price with plenty of rides, 4D movies, and clown shows.  But be aware the noise level can be excessive (it is indoors after all).  You can also head upstairs to see the free circus acts and play the midway games.  With acts every 20-30 minutes, you can pace yourself on the games and catch a few acts (no amateur hour here).  Savvy midway players will recognize guaranteed win games like lucky ducks which means your child will win a small stuffed animal.  We spent roughly $30 and 3 hours.  For our money, we saw 7 circus acts and won 8 stuffed animals.  On the other side of the hotel is a magic shop where very well trained salesman magicians will perform several tricks (that happen to be available for purchase in the store).  My husband is a big magic fan, so this was a must stop.  After watching several tricks and looking through the store, we finally bought a fairly cheap wand trick which the kids have played with for over four years now. If you are really into magic, definitely check out other venues (Vegas is a magic haven).  But if you are already at Circus Circus and just want a little something, this store is for you.  Finally, the buffet is definitely a kid favorite.  This is a place that has a million promotions, specials, and coupons.  So make sure you get a discount on just about everything.   There is a reason this is a bargain spot.  The hotel is old and distanced from the other major hotels on the strip (you will need to drive or ride the bus down to the other attractions). And with all the kids in this place, I recommend packing hand sanitizer.

#2--Bellagio Fountains--Enchanting to both adults and kids alike.  Our younger ones often subconsciously bend and sway in imitation while they watch.  We try to catch the fountains at least twice, once during the day and the other at night.  They are that good.   While here, slip inside and see the blown glass ceiling sculpture as you walk toward the conservatory.  Here is Vegas finery with a changing seasonal display featuring indoor fountains and a botanical garden carefully created by 140 horticulturalists.  Then take a quick side trip down the hall to see the chocolate fountain and chocolate shop.  Like a Food Network show come to life, this shop features several show pieces created exclusively out of chocolate including a fountain display (this not your average fondu fountain).

#3--Mirage Volcanos--aside from the Bellagio fountains, this is one of our favorite outdoor shows.  Fire and water combine to make this a memorable event (though perhaps a little too memorable for toddlers--"big fire" as one of our kid's said while clutching my pants).

#4--McDonalds across from Bellagio--Children will surprise you.  After our vacation, our then four-year-old said this was his favorite spot.  It doesn't even have a play land.  Why did he like it?  It is two stories.  He loved eating upstairs.  Since our visit, we have confirmed this with other restaurants--upstairs is a winner.

#5--M&M World--You can spent a couple hours in this four level store devoted to the beloved candy.  The big attraction is a free 3D movie featuring the m&m characters.  Then let the shopping begin.  This store has everything at every price point--pencils, plastic tumblers, gourmet flavors, candy dispensers, clothes, jewelry, magnets, to very expensive collectibles.

#6--FAO Schwarz and Caesars Palace--Despite being an upscale shopping mecca, this place is great for children.  The larger-than-life entry way begins the magic followed by hallways filled with large statues ending with the Zeus statue and fountain that comes to life with a mini-show.  Though the plot is difficult for children to understand as are the speaking statues, the special effects are absolutely magical to a child (can't see a show like this is your mall at home).  Close to this is an aquarium sized fish tank where divers are seen regularly feeding the fish.  Adding to the excitement, you can walk all around the tank with plenty of seating (a good resting place for tired little ones).  The other magical spot is the FAO Schwarz store with the famous large floor piano.  Everyone loved hopping from note to note as they tried to play simple melodies without losing their balance (finally all those hours of piano practice paid off). This Vegas gem sadly no longer exists.

The Opportunities

On one of our trips, our then third grader was studying the Romans in school.  She was delighted to get her picture taken with one of the numerous statues inside Caesars Palace and bring it for show-and-tell.  Not to be out done, our then first grader insisted we take a picture of the pyramid since he was learning about the Egyptians.  By the end of the day, we had also discussed the Eiffel Tower and Michelangelo's work replicated inside the Venetian.  As one friend said, "if you can't afford Europe. . ." Aahh, the educational value of Vegas.

The Take Away

Las Vegas has plenty to keep children entertained and this list was exclusively comprised of attractions located on the Strip.   Even if you are just passing through, a day in Vegas can add a lot of magic to your family vacation.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Places My Three-Year-Old Begs to Go

Fun with a 3-year-old

I have found with a three-year-old, getting out of the house is important.  Very important.   Here are some of the places my boy begs to go.

His Top 5 Pay Places
  1. Any fast food restaurant with a play land.  Whether it is hot in the summer and you need some air conditioning or snowing outside in the winter, this is one of our favorite stops.  The play area is the perfect release for my active little guy.  Afraid of the cost or nutrition?  Don't be.  I usually buy a snack from the healthier options like apples or yogurt, though I do buy the occasional ice cream.  My child is really there for the play area not the food.   I love it.  I often get a diet soda and two hours of reading time.  
  2. Swimming pools--especially indoor pools.  Many cities now have rec centers with indoor pools at steeply discounted prices with water features and even slides (the one by me is free for kids 3 and younger and adults are a mere $4.50).  With no sunblock to worry about and a year round option, swimming is two hours of fun at a minimal cost.  
  3. Children's Museums--highly interactive, educational, and fun, but a more expensive option.  I only go if I have a 2-for-1 coupon or on a discounted day (although the museum can be excessively busy).  Many museums also offer a yearly pass which may be the best option depending on how many times you plan to visit.   These museums require a high level of supervision which can be exhausting on mom.  So I only go if I also have a lot of energy.
  4. Chuck-E-Cheese--More expensive than a fast food place, but my child LOVES it.  This also requires a lot of energy on mom's part to supervise and help your child go on rides and play the games.  The noise level can also be excessive during busy times.  If you have more than one in your area, you may want to try the different ones.  Like play lands in restaurants, they vary widely. All of my children have hung a picture of me with them taken at the photo booth at Chuck-E-Cheese.  It is often the last thing they see before closing their eyes.  Priceless.
  5. Inflatable Slides and Bouncers--Our area has several places with inflatable slides and bounce houses.  Our favorite has a $2 day and a foam ball area.  Not only does our three-year-old love this place, the older ones beg to go as well.  We have even had birthday parties here at $2 a kid.  
His top FREE places
  1. Parks--He needs a place to run around and be loud.  The only problem--the weather.  So we go as often as we can on non-rainy days in the spring and fall and go early in the morning or after dinner in the summer.  I also scope out the different parks in the area for variety and go to parks farther away in conjunction with another errand.  That way we get to try new parks without me having to drive out of my way.  It also helps my child during an errand know that good behavior will be rewarded with a stop at the park.  
  2. Play dates or Mother's Group--Friends for both him and me, what could be better?  From a swap with a neighbor to an organized group, these get togethers help your child learn to share, make friends, and try new toys.  For mom, you can talk to other adults about adult things or share advice on what your kids are doing.  My only advice, try to find a group that is positive rather than competitive.  
  3. Church--Yes, he actually asks if it is church day.  He loves the children's class which is full of toys, snacks, friends, and a coloring activity.  
  4. Library--My child loves to see the library pet, play with the toys in the children's area, and look at the books.  He also enjoys checking out the movies and picking a book to bring home.  The only challenge is he has to be quiet and he is not allowed to run.  I keep library visits short, around 20 minutes.  Our library also offers a toddler class that includes stories, games, crafts, and songs.  
  5. Feeding the ducks--I don't know what makes this so magical, but all of my children have loved this when they were two and three.  I wait until I have leftover bread--a few hamburger buns, maybe a tortilla, or half a loaf that we didn't quite finish.  Also, I have bought expired bread from outlet bakeries for a quarter.  My only caution is your child will take a few bites himself while throwing pieces to the ducks.  Smaller children find this better than the zoo and definitely cheaper.

So get out the house, and do something fun.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Yellowstone's Bear World--Great For Young Children

What is Bear World?

Planning a vacation to Yellowstone with young children?  You may want to consider spending a day at Yellowstone's Bear World.  Located near Rexburg, Idaho, Bear World is about a 90 minute drive from the west entrance to Yellowstone.  For young children who may be unimpressed with the unique majesty of Yellowstone, Bear World provides a perfect outlet mixing a zoo with a kiddie amusement park.

The Zoo

Many Yellowstone tourists are eager to see Moose, Bears, and Wolves when they visit.  Unfortunately, few get that privilege and those who do see a bear, may get more than they bargain for.  Yellowstone's Bear World allows you to drive through the park grounds where bears and wolves roam freely.  From the safety of your car, you are going inside their extensive cage and the bears will come right up to your vehicle.  They might even climb onto your car or look through your window.  It is quite an experience to drive slowly with a bear 4 inches away through your car window.  Grizzly bears are kept behind a fence but easily visible from your car.  You are also likely to see a pair of wolves meandering through.  Several Deer, Elk, and Bison are also part of your vehicle tour.  Fortunately, you can drive through as many times as you like.

Another part of the park has animals that can be seen on foot like at a traditional zoo.  May visitors' favorite exhibit is the baby bears who play in a cave style enclosure.  Another enclosure has mountains goats.  Nearby is a beautiful deck overlooking a pond which houses the moose (bigger in person than you might think).  Next to that is a very impressive petting zoo featuring a large variety of barn animals and frequently baby deer.  Our daughter (and me) were absolutely enchanted with petting a deer.

The Rides

Bear World has 5 kiddie rides.  Aimed at very young children, these classic carnival rides generally have little to no line and are certainly nothing unique.  However, our then five-year-old considered it one of the best parts of the whole trip.  For children who will primarily be seeing nature--both geologic wonders and wildlife, a few rides can go a long way.  Parents, beware.  Adults can ride the train with their children along a small oval loop and you may be on that train over and over again.

The Extras

Bear World offers a few extras at an additional fee.  Visitor can feed the baby bears with a bottle or feed the adult bears from an elevated truck.  We decided to go for the adult bear experience.  While riding in the back of a large truck, elevated and with rails, a tour guide explains about the various animals in the park including unusual facts about elk, deer, wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, bison, moose, and more.  Inside the black bear enclosure, the truck stops multiple times while the tourists toss bits of bread and other food to the adult bears.  Some of the bears will perform tricks.  Others will eagerly come beg at the truck, barely (or should I say "bearly") out of reach.  Despite keeping a very close eye and hand on our then two-year-old son, he did manage to take a bite of the bear bread (stale cinnamon raisin bread) before we could stop him.  The guide assured us many a young guest had tasted bear food with no ill effects.

What You Should Know

The pricing for Yellowstone's Bear World is unique.  There are group rates which favor large families.  For the price of two adults, our entire family was able to go on the curator tour (feeding the adult bears).  However, instead of using the vehicle rate for the main entrance fee, we used coupons because some of our children were young enough to be admitted free.

The Side Benefit

We were traveling through Idaho to reach Yellowstone, so stopping at Bear World was not out of our way.  We decided to stop on the way to the park and spend the night in Rexburg.  This had a tremendous side benefit.  Rexburg motels are significantly cheaper than West Yellowstone or Jackson Hole as are the restaurants.  Near our motel was a public park with an impressive splash pad and two kiddie water slides--far better than a traditional motel pool.  Free of charge, this park is located at 250 W 2nd St by the Centennial Carousel (the carousel is $1 a ride). Rexburg is a small town and the motel clerk can easily provide you directions. Also, because we were only a 90 minute drive to the west entrance of Yellowstone, we were able to leave the motel early and spend the entire day in Yellowstone Park including exploring some of the trails during the cooler morning hours.   If you are trying to save money, you can also leave Yellowstone Park later in the evening on your final day, checking into a motel in Rexburg late.  We saved around 50% on our motel (compared to staying in West Yellowstone) using that trick but did not check into our room until about 10:30 p.m.  That allowed us to swim the next morning before checking out and still have enough time to drive home.

The Take Away

If you have older children or no children, I would not pay to see Bear World.  I also would not drive out of my way to see it (especially if you are traveling in and out of the north entrance to Yellowstone).  It is simply a cleverly designed zoo with a few kiddie rides.   But for younger children, it may be well worth the cost and the stop.  Besides, now I can say I have fed a bear.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Tips to Help Your Child in a Restaurant

The Surprise

After a multi-day vacation across much of the United States, I asked my then five-year-old what were his favorite parts.  Predictably his favorite was the motel swimming pools, especially the ones that had water slides.  He then named Grandma's house (also, no surprise).   The third thing he said made me stutter in shock--the McDonalds that had the mini-trampoline (I barely could remember that meal).  Uh, not the zoo, the aquarium, the beach, Niagara Falls, Mt. Rushmore, Boston Common, the children's museum, buying the stuffed animal he was holding at that moment?  Nope.  Restaurants in general and that McDonalds in particular.  My older children have also mentioned certain restaurants as being highlights of the trip (Ruby's on the pier at Huntington Beach, Mike's Pastries in Boston, Blue Bayou at Disneyland, a teppanyaki restaurant outside of Yellowstone, the Circus-Circus buffet in Las Vegas).

But as a Mom, restaurants can be stressful, difficult events--especially on vacation.  At home, restaurants are a rare and fun treat, often in celebration of a birthday or school success.  They are easier to plan because I am familiar with local restaurants and I have more flexibility in picking a time that would be easiest on my family.

Vacations can be less predicable.  It can take 10 minutes just to read through an unfamiliar menu and help each child pick both an entree and drink (amazingly most restaurants do not even list the drink choices, so I spend another 5 minutes asking the waitress if they have raspberry lemonade, chocolate milk, hot chocolate, Sunkist or another orange soda, root beer, apple juice, etc).  Eating times can vary especially during road trips, at amusement parks, or changes in time schedules making some kids particularly hungry and consequently more impatient and grumpy.

Here are a few tips I have learned to help my children (and me) enjoy restaurants.

Kid Menus are insufficient

  • If you can, plan.  If you are going somewhere new like Vegas or Disneyland, check out your dining options ahead of time.  Make sure you have read through several menus so you have a general idea where you would like to eat and what your children might enjoy.  A large number of restaurants do not even offer children's menus (for example, Cheesecake Factory has no kid's menu despite having a multi-page menu with two pages of dessert choices alone).
  • Order carefully.  Even kids meals may not be the common recipe your child is expecting.  I now refuse to order mac and cheese at restaurants because the recipe is often different from what my child envisioned.  I also am careful of the sauce on spaghetti.  
  • Avoid at almost all costs having to wait more than a few minutes at a restaurant.  This may mean adjusting meal times, eating at counter service or fast food restaurants, making reservations, or eating at a buffet.  For the inevitable few minutes of wait time (either for a table or from the time an order is placed until the food arrives), play some games or use the crayons.  Do not rely on the restaurant's children's menu to be entertaining.  In my experience, the menu only targets one of my children's ages well usually leaving my others bored, often my preschooler is the least happy.  A 3- or 4-year-old is generally too young to do a dot-to-dot, unscramble words, read the jokes, or do a word search.   My current restaurant kit includes a few pennies, a very small stuffed animal, 2 matchbox cars, a reading book for my older elementary child, and an iPod touch with headphones.  When I was a child, my mom's kit included a magnetic chess set, a travel size memory game, a strawberry shortcake doll (the size of an action figure), and a ziploc full of legos.  
  • Nutrition should not be completely forgotten, but may have to be very flexible, especially on the toughest vacation days.  We insist our children have milk at two meals every day on vacation and eat some fruit.  They are also not allowed to drink caffeinated soda.  Everything else is pretty much negotiable, though I try to make sure we do not have an all junk food day (if we had fries at lunch, then bananas for snack; eggs and cold cereal with white milk for breakfast means corn dogs and cotton candy at dinner).  
Timing, Bathrooms, and the Noise
  • Children will finish eating faster than adults at sit down restaurants.  So, adult either need to take their food to go halfway through the meal or give the children something to do during the rest of dinner time.  Some restaurants offer ice cream scoops for $1 for the children to enjoy while adult are finishing their entrees.  Otherwise, it is time to break out the games and crayons.  
  • Restaurant bathrooms need an article all to themselves.  Be prepared for anything.  Most bathrooms have diaper changing stations but I have had to change some babies on the seat of my car.  Most of my children have been deathly afraid of automatic flushing toilets, which usually can be fixed by placing some toilet paper over the sensor.  My then six-year-old son once shouted that he was out of toilet paper in the men's room and needed help.  Just remember, you will laugh about it one day.
  • I prefer loud restaurants because the noise of my own children is less noticeable, especially if the baby is fussy (if the baby is actually crying, I take him out).  
  • Tricky as it may be, try to eat when your children are too hungry or sleepy (they won't behave as well) or when they are not hungry (then they get bored too easily).  Plenty of snacks on hand can help delay a meal when necessary but over snacking may mean your child is full after a single glass of soda or milk.  
Types of Restaurants
  • Buffets can be a good option for some of the meals.  Many motels offer a free buffet style continental breakfast.  Buffets in general mean little to no wait and can be more economical (often children are free or more deeply discounted than a traditional kid's meal).  Though I do not let my child abuse the buffet, it is not a big deal if he takes a bite and then does not want to eat something (I often only but a bite's worth on his plate until he tries it). That allows my children to try all sorts of new foods and have fun picking a little of this and a little of that.  With my younger children, I leave them at the table with dad while I get a plate for them to share--some fruit, some entree, some sides.  Trying to let them pick from a sea of choices may be overwhelming and time consuming.  I especially use this trick at a Vegas style buffet.  I brought back to the table a plate of pastries, a plate of hot carbs like pancakes, a plate of hot proteins like eggs and bacon, a tray of juices and milk, and then I got a few special requests as my children saw what other tables were eating. 
  • If you have young children, plan a few meals at places that have playgrounds.  I have found for my children under 8, a playground can work wonders.  I can sit and regroup.  They can play until their hearts are content.  My husband and I have occasionally gotten take-out to eat in the car or at the motel for ourselves if we rather not eat fast food and let the children enjoy themselves.  Also, prepare your child to not expect a toy.  Increasingly, I have found may restaurants with toys that were of no interest to my children or only had a very limited selection--making one child happy and the rest jealous that there wasn't a toy that interested them as well.  After seeing tears of disappointment, I had to retain my children to see the slides as the treat and a toy as a very rare event.  I also have bought dollar store type toys that were tailored to my child's interest and passed them out during long road trips as treats, even passing them out in the kid's meal.  That seems to make everyone happier then buying whatever toy happens to come in the meal.   
Restaurants should be fun

So plan a little from timing, to menus, to what you pack in your purse, and make sure to include a few restaurants as part of your family's vacation.  It may just be what your child remembers most.  

Friday, September 2, 2011

My Oahu, Hawaii Top Ten

Beautiful Hawaii

Let me begin by saying that my vacation to Hawaii is on a lot of my top ten lists--best vacations, happiest places on earth, most romantic.  It was a wonderful second honeymoon.  Beautiful. It was Hawaii.  Trying to narrow down all that Oahu has to offer to a top ten list is almost impossible.

Please note that when I went to Oahu, I was ten weeks pregnant.  Consequently, I did not scuba dive or take surfing lessons.  If I had, they would probably be 1 and 2 on my list.  I also did not get a chance to try a helicopter tour or swim with dolphins.  They too would probably have made my top ten list.  Despite those shortcomings, I think you will find my top ten list a pretty impressive vacation.

Top 10

#10--Kualoa Ranch

This is really for my husband.  He is a BIG movie fan.  Kualoa Ranch is Hawaii's Hollywood.  Jurassic Park, Lost, Hawaii 5-0, and many more movies and t.v. shows were filmed here.  Hop aboard a tour bus and drive through the ranch with plenty of stops for pictures.  They also have horse riding and other activities.  For those who do not want a dharma t-shirt, there are several other tourist options including Dole Plantation's pineapple maze, 'Iolani Palace, hiking Diamond Head Crater, or Bishop's Museum.  

#9--Giovanni's Shrimp Truck

Garlic heaven.  Giovanni's is a graffitied truck with open air tables and a line that stretches to the parking lot.  Yes, it is that good.  The shrimp is fresh and generously seasoned, served with a side of garlic rice.  I craved this for weeks after leaving Hawaii.  My only regret is that we didn't eat here more often.

#8--Swap Meet

The Aloha Stadium Swap Meet is miles of shopping bargains.  For a fraction of what you will spend shopping in Waikiki, you can pick up all your souvenirs including Hawaiian shirts, bongo drums, tiki monsters, jewelry, and everything else you can possibly imagine.   Husbands beware, your wife can shop for hours here.

#7--The International Market

Located in the heart of Waikiki, this shopping experience is the other bargain spot in Hawaii.  Hundreds of carts cluster in an around an enormous banyan tree.  My favorite finds were Japanese puzzle jewelry boxes and wooden frog instruments.  Be sure to have your bargaining skills ready.  Many items can be purchased for around half the original price.


Nothing says Hawaii like hula dancers and a pig roast.  A must for first time tourists, but pricey enough you may want to skip the next time around.  Otherwise, sit back, eat your fill, and enjoy the show.

Top 5

#5--Waimea Falls

Tropical Paradise.  A leisurely mile walk through tropical jungle ending with a swim in the falls (strength of the falls varies by season).  The pool is several feet deep, so you must be a good swimmer.  It was also fairly cold.  But, standing in the falls with my husband--amazing.   The jungle is also stunning and filled with beautiful and unusual plants, flowers, fruits, and birds, but no reptiles or mammals.

#4--Polynesian Cultural Center

Located on the north end, the Polynesian Cultural Center or PCC is a unique experience.  Run mostly by students, the PCC showcases several different Polynesian groups including Tahiti, Samoa, and Hawaii.   The talent is exceptional, especially the dancers.  Each exhibit is highly interactive and child friendly.  Each area depicts housing, customs, games, dances, and traditions unique to that country.  Of the different areas, Samoa is the most amazing.  The host climbs a palm tree, shreds a coconut in seconds, and displays a small taste of his fire knife dancing skills.   The real excitement comes at night when several Samoan dancers perform fire knife dancing tricks worthy of a Vegas stage.  They manipulate fire in the palms of their hands, twirl it on batons, and walk barefoot through it.   The cost of this venue is steep but the evening show is well worth it.

#3--The Beach

We visited several beaches all around the island.  Some had tide pools with all sorts of sea life.  Others were great for a swim.  Still others were fun to play in the crashing waves.   We spent almost half of each day in the ocean.  And we spent most evenings dining and walking along the beach at sunset.  I practically lived in my swimsuit.  There are all types of water activities including stand and paddle surfboards, traditional surfboards, tube floats, glass bottom boats, and more.

#2--Pearl Harbor

Very powerful.  The memorial is in the middle of the bay atop of the USS Arizona, one of the sunken battleships whose hull is still visible in the ocean.  The experience includes watching a short film explaining the events leading up to the attack, seeing the names of the dead, starring into the depths and seeing the ghost ship still leaking oil.  The grounds are expanding with several exhibits and displays to wander through.  There are also three other major museums nearby--the battleship Missouri (where Japan surrendered ending WWII), the Bowfin Submarine Museum, and the Pacific Aviation Museum.  Because my husband's grandfather served as a pilot in the Pacific, we visited the aviation museum.  The life size replicas bring history to a new level.  My only regret is we only had half a day to spend at these locations and were unable to tour as long as we liked.

#1--Hanauma Bay

One word--snorkeling.  I had never been snorkeling.  From the time I first put my masked face into the water, I couldn't believe my eyes.  It was like being inside an aquarium tank.  There were dozens of brightly colored fish swimming all around me.  Below me were myriads of coral species.   I bought an underwater camera and began snapping pictures.  I was practically awestruck.  I even saw an eel which actually made me panic a little.   This is a must see attraction.

Beautiful Hawaii

Hawaii was amazing--the food, the views, the history, the ocean.  I ate more tropical fruit in one week than I usually do in a  year.  I also swam more in a week than I usually do in a year.  And I can't wait to go back.