Oregon Dunes (Florence) with Kids

Skateboarding kid at Oregon Dunes in Florence, Oregon

Skateboarding kid at Oregon Dunes in Florence, Oregon

The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area — the largest coastal sand dunes in North America – makes you feel exactly like Luke Skywalker. Well, maybe you won’t look or sound like him, but after 10 minutes here, you’ll empathize with Luke’s long walk over those huge, majestic dunes on Tatooine.

Naturally, kids LOVE this place.

As if  dropped right into a giant’s sandbox, you’ll find giant 500-foot-tall (152 m.) peaked mounds and “tree islands,” where trees cluster together, surrounded by sand.

The Oregon Dunes NRA Visitors Center offers hiking tips through the dunes, info on the area’s natural history and summertime programs on the plants and animals of the dunes. No tusken raiders actually live here, boo.

Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park is a great place to experience the area’s unique landscape — walk the dunes, watch kids sled or snowboard down dunes, and visit the beach. The park’s freshwater lake (Cleawox) was warm enough to qualify as a “bath” for my kid, who hates baths but didn’t complain here.

Cleawox Lake, Florence Oregon with Kids

Cleawox Lake, Florence Oregon

The dunes stretch for forty miles long along the coast, so many visitors opt to see them in a giant, slow-moving dune buggy (you can even bring a baby in a carseat on a buggy) or a faster sand rail (required: goggles, a helmet and age 3 & up).

In either case, reservations must be made in advance with one of the dune buggy outfits. Sandland Adventures has a nice little Family Fun Center with bumper boats, if you want to cool off after a Sandland buggy ride.

If sandboarding looks more your kids’ speed, Sand Master Park rents gear, gives lessons and offers family packages. The park is right next to a Fred Meyer, and it’s funny to see the sand actually moving into the parking lot – it creeps inland 16 feet per year. Maybe some day we’ll all be driving sand buggies.

Oregon sand dune

View from the top of a Oregon Sand Dune

Where to stay in Florence with Kids

You can stay at Jessie M. Honeyman in one of the yurts — or bring your tent. Book far in advance, because it’s a popular destination with great weather.

We stayed at the Driftwood Shores Resort right on the beach, which was fine and clean, if a bit dated and mildewy in spots (hey, it’s the Northwest Coast — only so much you can do about things like this). A bonus: The Inn has a small children’s aquatic play area with fun showers and sprinklers — a nice back up if you do arrive on a very windy or rainy day.

Where to eat in Florence with Kids

After some deep research, we went with a few fun places:

Mo’s in Florence Old Town. 1436 Bay St., Florence, Oregon. So,  the seafood is similar, perhaps, to your grandparent’s seafood restaurant (like a fancy Skipper’s, maybe). You can’t beat the location (right on the water), the kid-friendly aspects (really noisy restaurant, crayons, kid menu) and the fact your child’s palate and your grandparent’s palate are probably not too dissimilar. It’s fine. Order an appetizer if the restaurant is busy, as you may wait a while for your food.

Maple Street Grille. 165 Maple St., Florence, Oregon. An upscale restaurant with solid meal options, including well-cooked salmon, chicken and pasta. A bit more formal and expensive. No kids’ menu, but kid-friendly restaurant staff will help your children find yummy food, such as mac ‘n’ cheese.

Nature’s Corner Cafe and Market. 185 Hwy 101 Florence, Oregon. Hearty, healthy breakfasts in a very casual setting  — more like a store than a restaurant. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. It can take a while for the food to arrive (maybe order something small to take the edge off). But when it does  arrive– yum.

1285 Restobar also looks like a decent option for pizza and Italian food.

Read more about Florence with Kids.

No-Cry Tips for Camping with Babies and Toddlers

OK, I’m sure half of you are laughing at the very title of this article – camping?! With an infant, crawler or toddler? The little humans that are nothing if not predictably unpredictable? Noooothankyou.

Wait, wait…come back. We’ll break this down and I’ll see if I can convince you. Because maybe there’s some little part of your pre-baby self that does want to sleep beneath the towering evergreens, the scent of fir and campfire enveloping your soul.

(I know, I said the word “campfire” and now all you can think about is your toddler playing with the embers.)

We took both kids camping at an early age – my daughter at 8 months on Mt. Rainier and my son starting at 12 months, on the Hood Canal. I’ve compiled a list of recommendations and tips from myself and Jennifer Aist, blogger at Wilderness for Kids and author of the excellent Babes in the Woods: Hiking, Camping & Boating with Babies and Young Children.

1. Try the tent. Camp in the glory of your own backyard, just to give your family a trial run. Some children have easy-to-transition personalities that won’t screech at a new sleeping spot. Others – well – let’s hear a story from Kelowna, BC-based mom Bobbie-Sue Menard, whose first four kids slept well in tents between 12-24 months. Then her fifth child put the established pattern to the test.

“My last baby pitched a high- frequency panicked fit at the top of his lungs on our first camping trip – at 3. a.m.,” Menard says. “Since we were surrounded by hundreds of tenters in Banff national park who were being woken up to the sound of screaming baby at 3 a.m., Baby and I slept sitting up with babe sprawled across my chest inside the van for the next three nights.” It happens. (We’ll hear more from Menard later in the week — this woman rocks the camping trip)

2. Pick the perfect campground. “If you are unsure about this whole camping thing, choose a campground that has resources nearby like a grocery store, restaurant or maybe even a hotel,” says Aist. I recommend staying no more than an hour from home, only so you can beat a hasty retreat if necessary (see point #1 above).

Even if you were an avid, hardcore backpacker before kids, don’t beat yourself up for taking the car-camping or “glamping” route with little ones. I hold off on the backpacking, at least until kids can help carry items back and forth to the car. However, other families certainly pull can this off with panache. (If you’re a backpacking-with-babies family, I’d love to hear from you)

Aist points out that busy campgrounds can be stressful; smaller campgrounds offer a calmer environment for young children. I prefer campgrounds stocked with additional attractions, such as a lake, beachfront or easy hiking trails. My other must-haves include running water — it makes for easier clean-up of easy-mess infants — and modern flush toilets. Pit toilets can be intimidating (and mega stinky) for adults, much less a potty-training toddler.

3. Select your site carefully. Avoid sites near rivers or lakes (to prevent wandering catastrophes), entrance/exit points for the campground (too much car traffic), or even a site without much privacy.  “Pick a site that backs up to the woods rather than another campsite so you won’t fret over keeping your neighbors up all night with a fussing baby,” Aist says.

If you’re with a potty-training kid, sites near the bathroom and running water are solid options; bringing along a portable potty isn’t such a bad idea either (we brought a Babybjorn Potty Chair).

4. Pack right. “Toddlers are very sensitive to their routines,” Aist says. “Keep the routines going even when you are camping,” and incorporate expected customs around sleep, comfort, food and play. Pack favorite snacks (Cheerios, Goldfish crackers), beloved stuffed animals, books they can practically recite from memory, Tylenol for teething infants and a camping lamp that can run all night (if your child loves his bedroom nightlight). One note — if you do use cloth diapers, you might think about switching to disposable or Gdiapers for the duration of your camping trip. Or figure out a good solution for dealing with dirty dipes (stay-dry stuff sacks are a good option).

To keep baby out of the fire or food prep area, use a pack ‘n’ play-type playpen from home, which can double as a nap and nighttime solution. “Daytime naps are critical to good night sleep,” Aist says, so don’t skimp on this part. With a baby monitor, you can listen in on your tent-napping babe, while you relax with a book by the fire.

5. Sleep tight. “For small tents, the pea pods (example: KidCo PeaPod Portable Self Inflating Travel Bed – Lime) are popular,” Aist says. She also recommends bag doubles like the Functional DesignSleeping Bag Expander for co-sleepers — the expanders make one parent’s sleeping bag wider, so baby can snuggle in with you.

Another option (our family’s choice) was to cosleep on a queen-size air mattress, bringing sheets, pillows and a lightweight-but-superwarm blanket along with us (I love our wool Pendleton Blanket— 10 years old and often all we need on a camping trip). We dressed ourselves warmly and outfitted our daughter in a fleece bunting, (like this Columbia Snowtop II Bunting) so she stayed warm all night — even after kicking off the covers. The bunting also served as a warm romper during a chilly alpine morning.

Before bedtime, remember what we mentioned about routines. “Look at your home bedtime routine and see how you can modify it in the field,” Aist says. “For example, if you read a book before bed at home, do it in the tent too. If you use a white noise machine at home, download a white noise app for your iPod and play it in the tent.” Don’t skimp on the pre-bedtime snack or feeding, and don’t keep your baby up late hoping they’ll be so pooped they’ll pass out. “Put them down for bed before they are overtired,” Aist suggests.

6. Reframe “camping.” The pace is slower, and there won’t be as much sitting around, reading magazines and books or chilling out by the fire — except during naptime. You may have to plan activities for your toddler or spend more time entertaining them, as on an airplane — but without someone glaring from the seat in front.

Order a book on local flora and fauna (we use National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest), as toddlers enjoy identifying and naming objects — why not the stinging nettle (ouch) or huckleberry? A few more fun toddler-ready ideas: Heading out on a trail ramble, looking for crabs (under rocks) at the beach, using a magnifying glass to get up-close to bugs, throwing rocks into the lake and collecting seashells. Playing with some of the food-prep equipment is always a great option – a toddler, a small fry pan, a tin cup and a spoon can last longer than you’d think. You could even bring a few toy trucks from home for hauling pebbles.

7.  Worst case scenario. We know what this looks like. Your infant or toddler hates camping. She hates being cold, she hates the weird noises and she really, really hates that icky campfire smell. You have a few options – pack it up and go home (we know people who’ve done this), sit in the car with your baby until she calms down or….pack it up and go home.

But don’t give up on the idea yet. There’s always next year, when the kids are a little older and more flexible.

“The benefits of getting kids outside far outweigh a bad night’s sleep,” Aist says.

Readers, do you have any tips for camping with babies or toddlers? Any favorite toys, campsites, must-bring items from home?

18 Tips for Visiting Great Wolf Lodge

Great Wolf Lodge with Kids

Great Wolf Lodge with Kids

Before heading to any big-ticket, big-adventure resort, it’s always best to ask an expert for tips. I asked three BC and Washington State moms who have repeatedly visited Great Wolf Lodge for their best tips, and added a few more tips from my own research. Of course, these are just opinions and suggestions. You may have your own spin on a Great Wolf Lodge stay.

1. Don’t break the bank for Great Wolf Lodge bunks.

The bunk-style suite rooms (Wolf Den, KidKamp and Kid Cabin) are cute and fun, “but we have found that you are not in your room long enough to make them worth the cost if you can fit in a smaller room,” says frequent Great Wolf Lodge visitor and Kelso, Wash., mom Melissa Parcel. Check Great Wolf Lodge’s website with special deals and coupon codes when booking; remember that the resort fee and taxes do add a decent amount to the final price.

2.  Sleep soundly — even at a crazy-busy water park.

For a quieter room, request a room away from the stairwells and on the opposite side of the I-5 freeway. Ask when making the reservation and upon check in. Although there’s a rule about “quiet time” in the evenings, guests do say that unaccompanied children playing MagiQuest down the hallways can be an earful.

3. Book your Great Wolf Lodge breakfast in advance.

If you think you want the on-site breakfast buffet — after considering point #9 below — book it in advance when making your hotel reservation. The total for four people is $40 when purchased in advance and includes drinks. If you buy buffet on-site, it’ll cost $13.95 per adult and $8.95 per child, and does not include drinks.

4. Make it a midweek resort stay.

To avoid crazy lines at these Washington water slides and to take advantage of great deals, head to GWL during the midweek. But ask if the hotel’s hosting a convention during your stay, suggests Korene Torney, a Victoria, British Columbia mom to two girls. Conventions can stretch the hotel’s capacity.

5. Display your cell phone smarts.

When you check in, you’ll get an information packet that offers a cell phone number to register on your phone. “I did this, and got some coupons texted to me, “ says Kirkland, Wash., mom Shannon Maher Longcore, a mom to three kids and frequent Great Wolf Lodge guest. “It saved us some money in their restaurants.”

6. Dive into two-day resort stay play.

Your pass into the GWL starts at 1 p.m. (you can access your hotel room after 4 p.m.), as long as you stop by the front desk to pick up your waterpark wrist bands. On the second day, check-out time is 11 a.m., and you can stay until closing (9 p.m.). There are changing rooms and lockers for use before check-in and after check-out. “We just put our suitcases in the car, and had a small day pack with our necessities in it. That worked out great,” says Longcore.

7. Wait on the MagiQuest wand.

The grand total for your MagiQuest game will come to about $30 total — $17 for the wand, and about $13 per “game.” If it’s your first visit, Melissa Parcel says you may want to wait to purchase the wands. “On our first trip, we caved and bought one for our son, but we spent all of our time in the water park and didn’t get any use out of the wand.” Older kids seem to love the wand game, however, and repeat visitors seem to love the game. Read more about how to extend play at #8, below.

8. Wave that MagiQuest wand.

If you leave near Great Wolf Lodge, you can visit just to play the MagiQuest game and run around the resort, which is something that Melissa Parcel has done twice. “It’s a pretty inexpensive day trip if you live a short distance away.” If you want to re-engage the wand, you’ll pay about $13 per wand on each new visit. You can also use the wands at other properties (provided you pay the “re-up” fee).

9. Host grandma or friends while staying at the resort.

Purchase additional water park wristbands (for $41.20 each) for people visiting you at the water park, even if they’re not staying overnight.

10. Skip the expensive Great Wolf Lodge resort food.

Korene Torney brought her own breakfast and snacks (cereal, yoghurt, fruit and vegetables) for the mini-fridge. Melissa Parcel brought along cereal and doughnuts for breakfast and sandwich making items for the next day’s lunch. Don’t forget to bring camping-style dining equipment (i.e. paper or tin plates, cups, bowls) for your in-room service. Korene Torney’s family also went to two Oregon-born restaurant chains in nearby Centralia: McMenamins Olympic Club and Burgerville (two thumbs up for both of those destinations from Lora!).

11. Freeze Great Wolf Lodge-related tantrums and meltdowns.

“I think limiting pool play to three hours at a time works well,” Korene Torney says. After three hours, Torney’s family lets the kids eat and relax in the room. It can also help to construct a schedule. Torney’s family wakes, eats in the room (with Starbucks from the lobby, delivered by her husband), goes on the morning “Howl Walk” at 9 a.m. (which includes a free craft), then pool time from 10-1. They rest, and eat in the room or drive to Burgerville. Then it’s back into the pool around 5-7 p.m.; out in time for evening stories.

12. Water, water everywhere…but bring a drop to drink.

“The pool room is very warm, so just remember to  drink some fresh water while there,” says Longcore. She says she saw some episodes of possible kid-dehydration; despite all that chlorinated water around, some children forget to sip drinking water.

13. Forget-it-not at home: must-bring items for Great Wolf Lodge.

Some items are spendy to replace on-site, should you forget them at home. Pack swim goggles, earplugs, flip-flops, Aqua Socks (if your bare feet don’t like all that concrete) and a swimsuit cover-up. Swimsuit cover-ups are particularly necessary, Torney says: “You want one because otherwise you’re forced to wear clothes over your suit to get between room and pool.” Men should bring t-shirts or a robe. However, you don’t need to pack a towel – they’re provided for free by Great Wolf Lodge. Life jackets in several sizes, notes Longcore, so there’s no need to bring one from home. You can also bring arm floaties and floating swimsuits, but no other floating devices. Leave the ravenous floaty shark at home.

14. Get crafty with Cub Club.

Bring your own hands-on activities and avoid expensive resort crafts ($10-20) in the Cub Club, Torney says. However, if you do plan to participate in Cub Club (which offers kids’ programs, crafts and projects about nature and the Northwest), make a reservation upon arrival to ensure your child’s spot. Adults must accompany kids under age 12 in the Cub Club; it’s not a childcare venue.

15. Stop the souvenir gimmes.

“We give our kids an allowance of $15,” Korene Torney says. With $15, the kids can enjoy a craft, buy snacks or candy, a cheap souvenir, or pool the money for one wand.  “As is usually the case with an allowance, this provided the perfect opportunity to teach them about the value of money while eliminating the perpetual ‘I wants,’” Torney says. “It worked great for us this year. They both bought ridiculous souvenirs, but enjoyed every minute of it.”

16. Snag your Great Wolf Lodge poolside spot.

“Friends of ours get down to the water area early and camp out at a table,” Longcore says. “If your kids are much older, and don’t need parents hovering, a table would be great.”

17. Entertain the teens at Great Wolf.

At gr8_space (Yes, that’s really the way it’s spelled), teens can use the Internet, listen to music, enjoy evening karaoke or play the Nintendo Wii and Xbox360. Admission runs $10 per child; you may want to bring the DS from home if that seems spendy. Most tweens and teens will be happy with just the water park slides, but you can visit the Myspace page of gr8 space here for a sample of the goings-on.

18. Avoid long checkout lines.

Use the express check-out via your room phone or TV.

You can find more answers on the Great Wolf Ask-A-Mom site (but these answers seem to be pre-vetted by a corporate PR firm). Or read a great write-up of a Great Wolf Lodge stay at PDX Family Adventures.

Do you have great tips (or a promo or coupon code!) for families headed to the Great Wolf Lodge in Grand Mound, Washington State? Leave your tips in the comments.

Read more about Washington Water Parks and British Columbia (BC) Water Parks and Water Slides.

Stormwatching at the Coast: Tips and Hints

Winds howl outside at 55 miles per hour – fast enough to tip over a toddler. Waves explode on the beach, each one more spectacular than the last. The lights flicker, but stay on. Your family is inside, dry and happy, playing “Apples to Apples” with a warm drink (Hot chocolate? Hot cider? Hot toddy  — just for grown-ups) in hand.

During this season of storms and seas, some upscale resorts even offer a “stormwatcher’s package,” like this one at the Wickannish Inn in Tofino. But you don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy the wild weather at the coast.

Here are tips for enjoying stormwatching in the Pacific Northwest and BC:

The best months for stormwatching, generally, are November-March. Low season for travel in the Pacific Northwest, so you should benefit from lower room rates. This year’s winter season will be more powerful than in many other years, according to weather forecasters.

Watch or read the weather forecast and book when it looks like a weekend storm’s a-brewin’. A “storm” on the Beaufort Wind Scale includes very high waves (20-30 feet) with overhanging crests, a white sea with foam and lowered visibility. Winds reach 55-63 miles per hour. Either choose a destination with lots of rocky shore (Depoe Bay, Westport, West Vancouver Island) for wave-meets-cliff explosions or sandy beach (Cannon Beach, Newport, Long Beach, Ocean Shores) for a milder experience.

Reserve a room with double-pane windows and an ocean-front view. No partial views, no peek-a-boo views. Just listening to the wind howl isn’t as interesting as watching the waves crash on shore.

Bring cozy-day essentials: books, blankets and board games. Make bets with your kids on which wave is the biggest, and let them take pics from the hotel room. Talk about or watch a video on how waves work. Trust me, nature’s rage captures a kid’s attention immensely. And sort of puts that whole post-naptime tantrum in perspective.

During a storm, when the wind is strong enough to make walking difficult, stay away from sea cliffs (ulp!) and don’t walk outside. Wind and sneaker waves can sweep you out to sea, and branches or driftwood can make a surprise, airborne appearance. Bring waterproof jackets for the whole family, if you must venture out for dinner or groceries. But remember that more than 30 people lost their lives to storm-watching in Oregon, in the past 20 years.

Even after the storm’s passed, remember that large waves can still approach. Check the tide times and don’t get trapped on outcroppings, as always. However, many say that the best beachcombing is right after a storm – all those knickknacks got kicked out of the sea.

The storm may knock out electricity, as it did during the Great Coastal Gale of 2007. It’s not a big deal, and unlikely. Still, it may make sense to keep extra water, snacks and flashlights on hand.

Do you have a favorite storm-watching spot in Washington, Oregon or BC? Any favorite board games or tips for storm-watching with kids?

Tips and Hints: Finding a family-friendly hotel

Kid friendly hotels – whether in Portland (Oregon) or Portland (Maine) — are blessedly similar. Sure, the landscape changes, but a great hotel offers both respite and recreation to vacationing families.

Here are questions we ask before we go, we or read over hotel websites to find the answers. Any of these points are equally valid if you’re looking for family friendly New York City hotels or kid friendly Las Vegas accommodations. And of course, you’ll want to take into account customer reviews or guidebook recommendations (I recommend dozens of kid-friendly Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle and Portland hotels in my book Northwest Kid Trips).

However, it’s rare to find a hotel that offer every amenity – you’ll probably weight some kid-friendly hotel features over others, and some won’t matter you a bit.

Questions to ask before you book your family-friendly hotel:

Do kids stay free? If we need a rollaway, is that free? Do kids eat for free?

Most (if not all) family-friendly hotels offer free stays for children under age 18, even if extra bedding (rollaway bed) is required. Kids may be offered free breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Does your hotel offer a free breakfast for families? What time is breakfast served?

A free breakfast for the whole family is a total score, in my book. Even if it is blah hotel food, fresh from Sysco, dished up assembly-line style. You can’t mess up cereal, fruit and eggs, at least not to an inedible extent. However, breakfast has to be served when a child’s internal alarm clock wakes the whole family . A 9 a.m. cereal call is not going to work for most children; they’ll wait too long and the whining will begin.

Is there a pool? Is it indoor or outdoor? If outdoor, what’s the temperature? Are there hours that are off-limits to families?

In the summer, an outdoor pool is lovely in the Pacific Northwest or British Columbia. But during any other time of the year, get staff to specify whether the pool is indoor or outdoor. An outdoor, unheated pool is a disappointment on a rainy spring day. A pool that kicks kids out by 8 p.m. is nothing but frustrating (10 p.m. seems reasonable, though).

Does your hotel offer any children’s services or perks?

Some Seattle, Portland and Vancouver hotels offer kid-friendly options like toy-stuffed backpacks, treasure hunts, holiday parties, stuffed animals, free passes to area attractions, borrowable board games, fish-babysitting opportunities and complimentary kid-bathrobe use. But you may not know unless you ask. Even if booking agents tell you about the amenities at booking time, you may have to remind front-desk staff at check-in. They’re busy and may forget.

Are there rooms on the ground floor that open onto a lawn or beach? Is there a fence or other kid-containment device? If the room opens onto a balcony, is it safe for toddlers or preschoolers?

Access to an outdoor area is lovely – as long as it’s safe. Older children, in particular, do well with wide-open spaces right outside the back door.

Is there a DVD player in the room? Do you offer kid movies for rent or free?

Some hotels are now offering DVD players and free rentals for families, or a coupon for one free on-demand family movie. I love this trend.

Is Wi-Fi free in the room?

I love it so I can work after the kids pass out (I’m often writing about our trips). But my kids love Wi-Fi because I can always set them up with a streaming movie or TV show if I need to take a quick shower. On our last long trip (taken during the school year), my daughter wrote blog posts on the educational aspects of the vacation — and then posted those items for her teacher’s review.

Where is the nearest playground or play area?

Hopefully, it’s around the corner or within a few blocks of your hotel.

Where is the nearest shopping or eating center?

I am not a fan of suburban stays – I don’t like being forced to eat lunch or dinner on-property, particularly because most hotel food is so overpriced and undertasty. I also generally dislike driving once at my destination, so I prefer to stay near a downtown location, where you can visit parks, pick up inexpensive food and toys, ride public transport and go for walks to people-watch.

Do you offer baby cribs, playpens or child-proofing kits?

You won’t need to bring your own massive furniture from home or rent it, if the hotel offers on-site baby-care items. In some older properties, you may want to make sure that the crib or pack ‘n’ play is up to current safety standards.

Does the room come with a fridge or microwave?

Many hotels offer minibars, but those rarely keep our noshes cold enough, and there’s all that moving around of tempting expensive liquor bottles. I prefer a fridge; sometimes you can pay a little extra to get a mini-fridge delivered to your room ($10-$15/night), if they’re not an automatic amenity. And a microwave is nice, if your children want warmed-up food.

Do you offer a clothes washer and dryer in the room? On site?

Some suite-style hotels do offer clothes washing facilities. You don’t have to pack as many clothing choices, and you won’t worry (as much) when your toddler paints his pants with ketchup.

Playmobil vacation on a hotel bed

Playmobil vacation on a hotel bed

Can we get a larger hotel room, such as a corner room?

This can be more important than a room with a view, at least for vacationing families. Rooms size and layouts – particularly in older properties – can vary tremendously, and you’ll want a room with ample floor area for playing, rather than a supersized, spa-style bathroom. On the other hand, if you’re staying in a city and plan to be out and about for most of the day, the room’s size may not matter so much.

Does the hotel room have a bathtub?

With smaller hotel room footprints, you may find only a shower in the bathroom. My kids are flexible and can go with any type of set-up (or we just don’t wash them for a day or two, oh horrors). But if your children insist on a bathtub (and you don’t want your kids to smell like mine), then you should insist on a tub as well.

Where is the parking located? Is it on-site? Is the parking garage down the block? Do you offer valet parking only?

Babies and toddlers usually require more gear: carseats, strollers, blankets, diapers, wipes, food, diaper bags…the list feels endless. You will forget something in the car. Or you will forget something in the hotel room. If you can’t easily access your vehicle – without going through a valet or three elevator systems – you will curse every forgotten item. You and your partner may play a super-fun game of “I think it’s your turn.”

It is not really a fun game. I’m lying. You should find a hotel with in-building or on-site parking.

One more note: Leave a decent tip for housekeeping, whenever they come to your room. Kids make messes and it’s nice to provide a little extra to those who work hard to clean up after you.

What would you add to this list of family-friendly hotel features?

12 Tips for Family Road Trips

Road trips help cement the family lore and introduce good travel habits to little ones. Here are 12 tips for family road trips.

12 Tips for Family Road Trips

1. Start early on your road trip. Hate to sound like your grandpa, but there it is. Get up at 6 or 7 a.m., but leave by 7:30 a.m. Pack the night before, and include breakfast sandwiches so you don’t have to stop too early. Kids are on their best behavior in the mornings – and may even snooze – while you’re at your most alert for the drive. You’ll arrive at your destination by noon at the latest, freeing you from the car and ensuring a good lunch.

2. Drive for only two hours at a time. Unlike your grandpa, I’d never drive for more than two hours straight. Stop for 20 minutes at a playground, a coffee shop, a toy store. The break will do the whole family good and free you from GottaGetThereItis. It also allows for the serendipity of the road, discovering a cool stop — a delicious local ice cream shop or a shaded playground — that isn’t in any guidebook.

3. Plan your road trip around the young child’s nap. Plan to be on the road in the afternoon. Don’t expect a very young child (under age 2 or 3) to self-entertain. You may all have a more enjoyable trip if an adult sits in the backseat to sing, read books and chat.

4. Do pre-trip research on the website Roadside America. Find wacky stops along the way. Kids tend to love these weird attractions: giant hats, lumberjacks, teapot gas stations? Yup. 

5. Snap to it. Give children a camera to photograph the weird attractions (above), a sibling’s drool while sleeping or odd cars you see on the road.

6. Plan for family car fun. Half the fun is getting there! Print out a list of kid-friendly travel games from FamilyFun.com to resolve emergency freak-outs. I also created a Pinterest board of family car trip activities and game ideas

7. Sleep over. When planning a road trip, stay for at least two nights in one town. Take it easy, see one attraction or two, make time for naps and know that there will always be a next time (in case you didn’t get to do everything).  Tight planning often makes for stressed-out kids and parents.

8. Go car-free. Try to plan a car-free day where you walk everywhere, visit parks and enjoy the outdoors, instead of driving. My kids are used to the intense travel style of a travel-writer mom, so they think anything other than five activities per day is weird. But we still plan car-free days on our trips, and we walk everywhere on those days.

9. Pack snacks. Bring fantastic, new snacks that require little refrigeration – fruit, bars, crackers, hard cheese, trail mix. Avoid melty snacks with chocolate. My sister-in-law recommends a lollipop (it keeps ’em quiet and takes a looong time to eat). I also created a Pinterest board of family travel recipes and snacks

10. Make clean-up easy. Bring wet wipes, freezer-size Ziploc bags, a towel and several large plastic bags, no matter the age of your children. You will need all of these items at some point.

11. Keep the kids surprised. Keep kids entertained with new books, small surprise toys and pocket-sized magic tricks. You can even pick up a treasure trove’s worth at your local Value Village, Savers or Goodwill. Let the kids open one package or surprise, every hour or two. 

12. Just go for the tech solution! The Apple Touch or iPhone is fantastic — just load it up with games and movies and bring headphones (we make the kids share one and use a splitter to connect the headphones). See the Apps4Kids site and the Best Kids Apps sites. My kids don’t get to watch a lot of television at home, so enjoying a movie en route is a total treat. There’s a time and place for tech — and long, dull stretches of I-5 is that time and place.

Road warriors, what are your tips for family road trips? Do you have a favorite game or activity?

Want to read about a truly intense road trip? Check out Amy’s “Pit Stop a Day” road trip from Pit Stops for Kids — she went on a 22-day journey through Oregon, Washington, Montana and down to California. Wow!

Giveaway: Your ticket to family travel

If you’re like many of us, you haven’t figured out how to spend your summer. Should you go on a trip? If so, where to? I’ve got a solution for you.

Next Thursday, I’m participating in the Moms Night Out: Sip and Plan Your Summer Trip event on Thursday, June 3 from 6-9 p.m. at the Woodmark Hotel Yacht Club and Spa in Kirkland, Washington.

For $22, you get a copy of the book Wanderlust and Lipstick: Traveling with Kids
by Michelle Duffy, one glass of wine, light appetizers, a swag bag stuffed with goodies and the chance to learn more about family travel.

Who’s gonna be there? Four family-travel bloggers — baby-travel-savvy Debbie Dubrow (from DeliciousBaby.com), world traveler Michelle Duffy (from Wandermom.com), and luxe expert Anne Taylor Hartzell (from HipTravelMama.com) and oh yeah, ME.

I’ll also have copies of my book for sale, so bring a $20 if you want to purchase it on-site.

There will be two giveaways at the event, too:

  • One attendee will win an Escape to the Lake package at the Woodmark Hotel: An overnight stay in a lakefront room and breakfast for two.

You can read more about these giveaways at Hip Travel Mama.

But what am I giving away? A free ticket to the event. Yup, I’m gonna pony up $22 for you to meet us and get custom tips for your summer trip.

To enter this drawing, leave a note below with a question you’d ask our experienced panel. All entries must be in by midnight PST Monday. I’ll draw names on Tuesday and will contact you on Tuesday. If you don’t respond by midnight Tuesday, I’ll choose the next person on the list (we have to get you this ticket in a hurry!).

As always, please be patient for your comment to show up, I have to hand-approve all comments. Thanks!

Tip Tuesday: Taking kids out of school to travel

Every week, we speak with experienced family travelers to discover tips and tricks.

Question for this week:

Would you take kids out of school to travel? If so, how do you get the teacher’s permission? We talk with two travel bloggers who have older children. Read over their thoughtful responses (and read more on their sites) — then share your opinion!



Our family’s solution to this challenge comes from presenting the travel experience as an educational opportunity.

First, I provide the teacher with advanced written notice, as early as possible – this gesture is always appreciated, particularly if there is a major project due during our absence. (If there is, we work with the teacher to determine deadlines to see what could be accomplished prior to departure, or during our journey, as a last resort.)

I discuss our trips at approximately two months in advance of departure. If it’s too far ahead of time, it’s difficult to estimate workloads, and the teacher will forget we’ve spoken at all!

I’ll be notifying our new teachers of our planned first-week-of-school absence (for September), in June before this school year ends, and reminding them via email before we leave in mid-August. I don’t think the kids will be missing all that much the first week of school, but I like to keep the teachers informed as best possible.

We also organize a meeting with the teacher and describe our trip destination and duration, and invite the teacher to indicate the ways in which she might like to see our kids best learn from their travel experience.

This could take the form of a written journal or booklet, photo board display, or oral presentation that combines segments of both. Or, it could involve doing reading and research beforehand in preparation for the journey (part of our usual trip prep), and proposing the child become a ‘travel reporter’, bringing back to the classroom an evaluation on how the destination measured up to the literature, what the child’s favorite moment or memory was, and so on.

Some teachers may take the view that the act of travelling abroad, and soaking in the culture of a new place is education enough, and that no additional work or make-up homework is required. This seems to happen most often in the early grades, when the workload isn’t as onerous as in later years.

Claudia, parent of two (10 and 12) and blogging at The Travelling Mom.

Related post: The Trouble with Travelling with School-Aged Kids.


In elementary school teachers are generally pretty flexible and most just tell the kids to have fun and catch up with the homework when they get back.  Be sure to ask how the teacher wants to deal with missed homework, projects and tests.  Some may give you the work ahead
of time while others may make you play catch up when you return.  It is usually totally up to the teacher – be polite and don’t argue with them. And make sure the kid delivers on whatever is asked.

I am really anti-taking kids older than about fourth or fifth grade out of school for vacation travel. Missing more than one day is basically a crisis for our middle school and high school kids, because of the volume of homework and the pace of the classes. Even if you could convince the teachers to give you the homework ahead of time (which you usually can’t) who wants to make your kid do three hours of homework a day on a vacation?

Once the kid hits middle school, listen to your child and see if they are comfortable missing out on school, sports, etc.  The trip may not be worth it if there is going to be a negative impact on the report card or if your kids are the type who will be stressed and struggling to catch up.

As kids move on to middle school and high school they communicate more directly with the teachers and parents have less interaction.  Make sure the kids have all the info they need about dates, etc. so parents and kids are on the same page.

In middle school, it is probably mom who emails teachers individually, but the kid has to make the rounds to pick up the assignments so mom and kid need to be on the same page.

So, my advice is to take advantage of schedule flexibility when the kids are young. In elementary school teachers are generally pretty flexible and most just tell the kids to have fun and to just catch up with the homework when they get back.

Mary, blogging at Travel with Teens, and parent of two (aged 13 and 16).

Related post: General site Travel with Teens.

What do you think of traveling with kids during the school year? Would you do it? Have you taken your kids out of school for a trip? How did it work out?

10 Tips for Enjoying Farmers Markets with Kids

Wherever our family travels in Washington, Oregon and BC, we always visit a produce market. Almost every destination offers a farmers’ market, whether the big-city Pike Place Market or the tiny, thriving Cannon Beach Farmers’ Market. In fact, we find farmers’ markets so fun that we sought them out in Paris (mmm, stanky cheese!), Provence (chickpea crepes) and Italy (fresh tomatoes).

Here are my tips for enjoying farmers’ markets with kids:

  1. Check the market’s website before you head out the door. Use the site to pull together a scavenger hunt for in-season produce, print out maps, look for coupons or find out when a children’s performer will be on the stage. There may even be kids’ cooking classes offered, or special seasonal events.
  2. Give the kids their own spending money.  This is particularly fun if they’re going to use a foreign currency at a cross-border market. A dollar buys few honey sticks at our local market, and five dollars gives the kids plenty to work with. Eagle-eyed children may be able to spot a perfect, locally-made craft souvenir on a vendor’s table.
  3. Give the kids a shopping tote. They’ll grown-up and responsible. They can help carry your buys or pack their own purchases. Don’t let them fill their own bags too full, or you’ll be carrying theirs as well.
  4. Let them choose lunch from any one of the food vendors. The beauty of the NW and BC’s diverse markets? Mom orders a pesto-topped baked potato, dad dines on pierogies and the kid scarfs down pizza.
  5. Talk about seasonal and local produce with kids. Ask questions like, “Why don’t we see any bananas at this market?” If you’re at larger markets (like Pike Place or Granville Island Market), you will see tropical and out-of-season fruits. Ask the kids whether these foods grew here – and if not, how do the kids guess that they arrived? Can they help you spot the locally grown food?
  6. Involve the kids in weighing, counting and paying for purchases. These activities painlessly build math skills.
  7. Bring change for the kids to put into the buskers’ tip jars and guitar cases. Enjoy the fiddlers, guitar-strummers and singers that make the market a community event.
  8. Challenge your child to pick out the most unusual fruit or veg. Regional growers are showing an interest in heirloom produce, and local foragers bring back unusual mushrooms and plants. What will you find today — blue potatoes? Nettles? Giant mushrooms? Purple tomatoes?
  9. If you’re in a hotel or rental with a kitchen, ask your child to help you assemble a locally grown dinner from the market. Ask the vendors for cooking tips and pair-with suggestions. Make sure you choose at least one dish your child can help prep, whether chopping fruit for fruit salad or snapping off green bean tips.
  10. Keep a watchful eye on the kids, and talk about what to do if you get lost. With bustling pedestrian traffic, it’s easy to lose sight of your kids. Many parents either hold hands, put children in carriers, a stroller or a pull-wagon.

Do you have any tips that work for your family? Leave them below.

20 Things to Do in Bellingham with Kids

Recently, we went on a short jaunt to Bellingham, Wash., about 30 minutes south of the U.S.-Canadian border, and two hours north of Seattle. It’s a cute little college town with a thriving arts scene and fabulous food. Turn-of-the-century architecture lines downtown Bellingham’s streets, and the town is home to Washington’s oldest brick building (built in 1858).

While many of us know Bellingham as a place to stop en route to Vancouver or Seattle, I think Bellingham deserves its own overnight stay or weekend getaway. Here’s my guide to family travel in Bellingham:

10 a.m. Whatcom Museum of History and Art

Bellingham Family Interactive Gallery

Family Interactive Gallery

The Whatcom Museum’s new Family Interactive Gallery took us all by surprise. It’s amazing what they’ve done in such a small space.

Kids can craft in the art room, build with enormous Tinkertoy-like foam toys, or play camp (like with tents, not with sequins) in a Northwest-themed area.

We created a soundscape with authentic Cascadia noises (orcas, owls and of course, rain).

I liked how real art was mixed into each exhibit space, along with questions to provoke discussion.

The gallery is ensconced in smooth, touchable wooden fixtures and forms; all of it is handcrafted from sustainable wood, by a local woodworking shop.

Noon. Super Mario’s. Most kids love Mexican food, all smothered in cheese and whatnot. But how about El Salvadoran food? What if the restaurant was named Super Mario’s? (3008 NW Ave., 360-393-4637). With such an awesome name, you can’t go wrong. Right?

No one was in the small dining spot (thereby violating travel rule #1: Never eat in an empty restaurant). Super Mario’s was a jarring combo of high-end and low-end, and I feared for the worst. It was inside a stripmall, with granite-style tables and marble floors, with two dueling televisions playing on each end of the rectangular room.

But Super Marios served a fantastic south-of-the-border meal – we had pupusas (tip: add the green sauce for a stellar experience), we had creamy tamales, we had quesadillas that rocked so hard that even my veggie-hating kids ate them in a hurry and pleaded with us to quit stealing bites.

Super cookies at Super Mario’s restaurant

AND they play Nickelodeon on one of the TVs, at least on the day we were there. Can’t beat that. By the time we left at 1 p.m., (pink sugary cookies in hand), the restaurant was full.

1 p.m. Aladdin’s Antiques. Half history lesson, half shopping experience, Aladdin’s Antiques (427 W Holly St.; 360-647-0066) offers cute figurines, Star Wars goodies (we found a retro 1981 activity book my son now carries everywhere) and great vintage finds for your kid’s room. My kids have found enough treasures at antique malls to be interested; yours may need some convincing.

Aladdin’s Antiques

If your kids are definitely NOT into in oldy-worldy goodies, you can send them (with your partner) to Mindport. They’ll love it, promise.

2 p.m. Mallard Ice Cream. About a 10-minute stroll from Mindport, Mallard is the ice cream shop a child would design, if only we parents would let them. Bright-red barstools, vivid green couches, and out-of-this world flavors that seem like they were hand-mixed by a creative 4-year-old foodie – black sesame vanilla, cardamom, rose, butter pecan and over 20 more.

A big bowl of goodness at Mallard Ice cream

We all wanted to try multiple flavors, so we bought a bowl with four scoops, topped with chocolate and whipped cream. After the kids polished off the bowl, they played a sticky-fingered game of Connect Four.

3 p.m. Walk Fairhaven. Fairhaven is a steep-sloped Bellingham neighborhood. It’s crowded with artisans’ galleries, kids’ toy shops, a cupcake shop, a great gelateria (Sirena) and cool little indie bookstores, all within about six city blocks.  An itty-bitty San Francisco, as it were.

A former rough-and-tumble waterfront town in the 1800s, Fairhaven has now been gentrified. You won’t need to fear the likes of “Dirty Dan,” described as an “infrequent bather” (sound like anyone in your home?). He was also worked as a rum-runner, war-inciter and in other jobs not outlined on Career Day. However, you will see bronze statues memorializing Dan and placards describing the town’s bad history. Kids love that stuff.

Dirty Dan

Fairhaven is well-situated for Seattle and Vancouver families – the railway station drops you about a quarter-mile from all of the action. Victoria families can take the Victoria-San Juan Cruises over to Fairhaven, starting in late spring.


Fairhaven Village Fish and Chips (also a local favorite)

Summer may be the best time to visit – you can take advantage of the Fairhaven Outdoor Movies (see the past year’s showings here).

5 p.m. Marine Park. Walk 10 minutes from Fairhaven’s core toward the water, past the Amtrak station and the large ferries destined for Alaska daily (as part of the Alaskan Marine Highway System) and toward Marine Park.

Rock tossing in Fairhaven

Flat, smooth stones (perfect for skipping) populate the Marine Park’s shoreline. I recommend arriving about 10 minutes before sundown. Bring your camera! Here, it’s like the sun can only set in some sort of Kodak moment, behind the San Juan Islands and the Olympic Mountain Range.

The view from Marine Park

6 p.m. Boundary Bay Brewery. We drove back out of Fairhaven for dinner. While Fairhaven has plenty of restaurants, we’d heard raves about Boundary Bay Brewery, and we weren’t disappointed.

If you forgot to make a reservation, kids can pick through the Duplo block basket in the waiting area. But note: Make a reservation! Although this brewpub offers large rooms and lots of seating, it’s incredibly popular with college kids, families and singles. Smart sandwiches on Great Harvest bread, creamy salmon chowder, micro-brewery beer, the whole authentic Cascadia mix.

Overnight. At this point, we could’ve gone home, but we decided to spend the night in Fairhaven to soak up the atmosphere. We stayed at the 22-room Fairhaven Village Inn, which has special winter rates and a fun library room with games.

Fairhaven Village Inn’s board game shelves

The room’s gas fireplace made the room toasty on a winter night, and the next morning, my kids gobbled their free continental breakfast. They ate cereals, bananas, muffins, made-to-order waffles, eggs and yogurts. Yes, each child ate all of those things. When you figure the cost of feeding four people in my family, a breakfast-inclusive stay is always a money-saver.

8 a.m. Harris Avenue Restaurant: However, if you decide to sleep elsewhere, I recommend going for breakfast at Fairhaven’s Harris Avenue Restaurant (1101 Harris Ave.; 360-738-0802), where we’ve eaten on our way back from Vancouver, BC. You’ll find hearty breakfasts, plus fruit face pancakes for the kids. Huge, huge lines. Get here early for your cornmeal pancakes.

Harris Avenue Cafe at noonish, after the lunch rush dies down.


This summer, we hope to return — maybe take the Amtrak up for a family day trip, or bring the car for a weekend. We want to cruise the well-regarded Chuckanut Drive, forebodingly called Upchuckanut Drive by some locals.

My youngest is an upchucker. We’ll need to be well-prepared.


To discover more about Bellingham, check in with Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism.

What did we miss in Bellingham? Do you have any tips for the prevention of road nausea?

Bellingham Family Vacation