Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New York with kids

A couple of years ago, we traveled with kids to New York for my husband's grandmother's unveiling (see Jewish funeral customs.) So, our week-long trip was a mix of family activities and sightseeing.

We had a corner suite at the Beacon Hotel on Broadway at W. 75th Street on the upper west side. It was perfectly located (just two blocks from a subway station) and lots of room for our family of 5. There's a large grocery store across the street and laundry facilities at the hotel. I would definitely stay there again.

Our first night, we walked from the hotel down to Times Square in search of ice cream. Our kids were dazzled by the lights! The following two days were spent with family for the unveiling and to learn a bit about our family history. A highlight was our lunch at Katz's Deli on the lower east side. (Remember the line from When Harry Met Sally? "I'll have what she's having.") That's Katz's.

That evening, we met cousins for dinner on the back patio at La Lanterna in the west village. It's delicious Italian just down the street from Washington Square. Bryan played chess beforehand with one of the men in the park. (B lost, but what an experience!)

The next day, we split up. Daughters, moms and grandma went to the American Girl store and sons, dads and grandpa went to the Museum of Natural History. We met up afterwards in
Central Park.

The following day, we took a subway ride and a long walk to the pier at 42nd Street for a Circle Line Tour. We did the 75 minute Liberty tour which was just the right length for our little ones.

After the boat tour, we grabbed a slice of pizza and walked back to Times Square for a matinee of Disney's Little Mermaid.
(New York audiences talk too much!)

That evening, the grandparents and uncles went to see a show while the rest of us visited the observation deck at 30 Rockefeller Center. My theory is that the lines are too long at the Empire State Building but you get to see the Empire State Building from the Top of the Rock.

Our final day with the cousins was spent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had prepped our kids by reading From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler with them ahead of time. It was fun to see the fountain, Egyptian wing, etc. and imagine Claudia and Jamie's adventure there.

After the cousins and grandparents headed home, we went in search of the Flatiron building and met up with a high school friend of the husband's.

Our last full day in town, we had prearranged Statue of Liberty tickets. You have to book it ahead of time. At the time, we were only allowed up to the platform, but now you can go all the way up to the crown if you book ahead. Allow plenty of time - the security was tighter than any airport screening I've ever seen.

We also visited Ellis Island. I'm a genealogy fanatic, so that was like coming home to the Mother Ship. You could easily spend an full day on Ellis Island. Get the audio tour - it's fantastic!

Our last day, we made a quick visit to Central Park and the John Lennon memorial. We also visited Grant's Tomb before heading to the airport.
Guess who's buried there...

What a wonderful trip!

Travel books I used for this trip:

My favorite New York things

In the fall, I make an annual solo trip to New York City to visit friends and do a little genealogy. I say "annual" because I've made the trip the last two years and hope that by calling it that, I'll continue to go each year. Here are a few of my favorite things to do, see and eat:

Katz Deli is a fantastic Jewish deli on the lower eastside and a real New York experience. It's the best pastrami sandwich you'll ever have! Pair it with a visit to the Tenement Museum and a walk through Chinatown and that's a great day! While you're down there, look for Muji at 455 Boardway. It's a really cool Japanese store with all kinds of interesting things. I also love browsing at Pearl River.

Be sure to visit the High Line. It's a privately funded park built on a raised freight train track running from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to 20th Street in Chelsea with entrances every couple of blocks. There are plans to extend it up to 34th Street in the next few years. Last year, we walked down the High Line from Chelsea to the Meatpacking District and the West Village and discovered Kaas Glassworks. They make beautiful decoupage plates with vintage papers.

No New York trip is complete without a visit to the Guggenheim. I'm not a modern art aficionado, but I love the Guggenheim. The building is inspiring and the art is provocative. Get the audio tour, so you can understand the artists and what inspired them to create a particular piece. Last fall, we stopped at Le Pain Quotidien for lunch before heading to the museum. Le Pain Quotidien is a chain restaurant that serves delicious tartines, quiche, soups and salads. There are many convenient locations around Manhattan.

Lastly, I love, love, love Milk & Cookies. It's a small shop in Greenwich Village with made-to-order ice cream sandwiches. You pick the cookie and ice cream flavor and they make it up for you on the spot. My favorite is the Overload - peanut butter chocolate cookie with dark chocolate ice cream. Yum!

I'm already thinking about when my next trip will be and I'm sure my "favorites" list will grow. Stay tuned!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

London with Kids Part 1

A few years back, we traveled to England and Paris with the kids. That's us on the London Eye with our niece, Melanie, whom we took along as an extra set of hands and sometimes evening babysitter. I've shared this itinerary with several friends who have copied portions of the trip with equally successful results. I've even had folks who I didn't share it with tell me they got it third-hand and loved my suggestions, too!

We flew nonstop to London Heathrow and took the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, then the Tube (underground) to Victoria Station in search of our hotel. We stayed a few blocks away at The Elizabeth on Eccleston Square. I had reserved one of their 2-bedroom apartments on the 5th floor complete with full kitchen and laundry facilities. The husband and I shared the double room, our daughter and niece shared the 2 twin bedroom and the boys slept on the fold out couch in the living room. Breakfast was included each morning in their cheerful basement dining room. It was basic but comfortable and enough room to spread out for the week.

Our uncles stayed at the Rubens on a recent London visit and were very pleased. It's more upscale than the Elizabeth and ideally located next to the Royal Mews, Buckingham Palace's stables. That's where I want to stay on the next London trip with the husband but without the kiddos.

Victoria Station is a large train, taxi, underground and bus station. That first afternoon, we picked up an Original London Tour double-decker bus there for a loop around town to get the lay of the land. Unfortunately, the kids all fell asleep by the time we got to Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, so we hopped off for a quick bite to eat. Afterwards, we hopped back on the double-decker bus, completed the loop and made our way back to the hotel for naps and dinner at a nearby pub.

Our first full day in London, we took the Tube from Victoria Station to Tower Hill station to visit the Tower of London.

I had prebooked combo tickets for Hampton Court Palace and the Tower. Tower of London is not to be missed. There are Beefeaters, crown jewels, coats of arms, ravens and more! It was a great introduction to ye merry old England. I wish I had known to apply ahead of time for admission to the Ceremony of the Keys.

From the Tower of London, we made our way across town via the Tube to the Baker Street station. From there, we walked a short distance to Madame Tussaud's wax museum. It was incredibly crowded, very expensive (~$90), quick (45 minutes) and the thing my kids enjoyed the most was the virtual soccer exhibit, not the wax celebrities! My 15-year-old niece enjoyed it, as did my want-to-be rocker husband.
Our third day, we had tickets for the London Eye. Built as a ode to the millineum, it was initially sponsored by British Airways. It was conceived as a temporary attraction, but was so well received it became permanent. You don't need to prebook your "flight," though we did. As it turned out, we discovered long lines as we rounded the corner from Westminster Bridge.
Because I had bought our tickets ahead of time, I inserted my credit card into the machine, it spit out tickets and we walked on board. The flight takes about an hour and you can see an unimaginable distance (if you luck out on a clear day!)

Following our London Eye flight, we walked up to Buckingham Palace to view the changing of guards. It happens daily at 11AM, but you have to get there pretty early for a spot in front of the palace. We opted to grab a curb spot on the Victoria statue circle facing Buckingham Palace. We saw the arrival and departure, plus heard the goings on behind the gates. It wasn't great, but less intense than if we'd tried to squeeze our way in. Afterwards, we walked back to Trafalgar Square for lunch at the National Gallery café and a quick visit to Van Gogh's Sunflowers.

That evening, we had tickets to see Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward Theatre in the West End. Did you know they let you eat ice cream in the theater seats?!?

The next day, we took the train from Waterloo Station a half hour west to Hampton Court. Henry VIII took Hampton Court from his courtier, Thomas Wolsey, in 1525 and many of his infamous weddings and divorces are tied to the palace's history. Costumed docents lead house tours and the grounds are amazing.

One memorable sight for my kids was the palace kitchen. Just today, upon entering an early California adobe residence on a field trip, my daughter exclaimed, "It smells just like the kitchen at Hampton Court!" Do not miss the Garden Maze. It's a great place to burn off some energy before heading back to London on the train.

To be continued...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Alligators in Texas?

Following our New Orleans visit, we traveled to Beaumont, Texas for my brother's wedding. We managed to squeeze in a visit to the local alligator farm: Gator Country

Gator Country is the home of Gator 911, an alligator rescue reality show on CMT (that's Country Music Television for all you non-cowboys.) We now have a TiVo season pass to the show and can't wait to watch our buddies, Gary and Kent, wrangling alligators out of people's backyards.

That's Kent with the three-legged alligator they let us each hold (notice the electrical tape around its mouth.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Some things I've learned over the years

Most of these are probably obvious, but here are some tips it took me a while to figure out:

- Whenever possible, we fly nonstop. More takeoffs and landings mean more possibilities of problems. If it's only slightly more expensive, I'll choose nonstop flights to get us where we're going quicker, avoiding long layovers and possible weather or mechanical delays.

- Because we're a family of 5 and most planes have 3x3 seat configurations, I try to reserve an entire row across, leaving one middle seat vacant in the middle of our family. Middle seats are filled last and if someone does indeed get assigned that seat, he or she would most likely be willing to switch to the window or aisle seat. But, in the off chance it doesn't get filled, you have extra room.

- Bring along lots of distractions for the kids. When my kids were younger, I used to pack little backpacks with "new" toys - a new box of crayons, a bag of beads and pipe cleaners, materials to weave lanyards, Crayola foam clay, etc. I always bring a pad of paper and some colored pencils for each child. Maybe a new book (cheap grocery store paperbacks that I don't mind losing.) Really anything new or a toy they don't often get to use. We limit Gameboy time to airplanes and long car rides. Nothing like the forbidden fruit!

- For toddlers and babies, it's really important to help them equalize their ears on takeoff and, more importantly, on landing. Swallowing is best. I always brought along something for them to drink (more difficult, I know, since 9/11) or sometimes a lollipop.

- Stay in one place. My kids are happiest when we stay in one hotel for 4 to 7 days and take day trips. Moving hotel to hotel usually means lots of aggravation and many lost things.

- Vary the activities. You can't drag kids to museums three days in a row. Do a half day at a museum followed by a couple of hours in a local park. Better to see less but enjoy it more than try to keep them interested in exhibits for hours upon hours. For our family, mornings are easiest to visit museums or do quieter activities.

- We usually try to stay on west coast time (our home time zone.) For visits to the grandparents on the east coast, that means my kids can easily stay up till 11PM, but sleep in past 9AM. It can be more difficult going the other direction - in Hawaii, they wake up around 5AM and fall asleep at the dinner table at 8PM. Bonus side of that is I get a little quiet time with the husband!

- We try to come home one day before everyone has to return to school and work. Having that extra "free" day helps with the jet lag, laundry and other re-entry issues.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

New Orleans

My family of five is visiting New Orleans this week. My first visit. With our kids. It's an interesting mix. My brother is getting married in east Texas next weekend and the choices were to fly into NOLA or Houston, so we chose New Orleans. Can you blame us? Navigating with kids, though, that's the challenge. Here's what we've done so far:

We're staying at the Holiday Inn French Quarter. Not fancy, but the price was right and the space (and beds) were good. We have an extra large double/double with a rollaway for my daughter at $99 per night plus $20 for the extra bed. Can you beat that? Plus it's on Royal in the French Quarter. Clean, too. Not fancy, mind you. But they even have (albeit small) laundry facilities.

Here's where I'd stay if I wasn't with kids (and had lots of money): Hotel Monteleone

We lucked out and coincided with the last day of the FREE French Quarter Festival. Wandered around, enjoyed music, ate beignets at Cafe du Monde and got the lay of the land. There were ~15 stages set up around the French Quarter with nonstop shows from noon to late.

Sampled red beans and rice with smoked sausage at Sammy's on Bourbon Street. Saw some wonderful street bands, too, including Tuba Skinny. Did I mention the Hurricanes?

The next day, we had a fantastic breakfast at Stanley's on Jackson Square. Their specialty is Eggs Stanley - Eggs Benedict with fried oysters on the side. Yum! The kids all got stacks of plate-sized pancakes with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream and Louisiana pure cane syrup. They were all very happy. Afterwards, we visited the "Historic Voodoo Museum" (quotes are intentional) for a little local flavor.

We met the practitioner and a couple of his snakes and learned a bit about voodoo, Marie Laveau and gris-gris.

Afterwards, we walked along the river down to the Natchez steamboat wharf and got tickets for the afternoon cruise down the river. That evening, the husband and I left the kids and an extra large cheese pizza at the hotel while we went out. Saw a jazz pianist play and a Q&A with a local DJ at the Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities for a mere $5 each, then had dinner at the Pelican Club. Delicious! Each of us ordered soup (Crab & Corn bisque and chicken gumbo) & salad and shared crab & wild mushroom ravioli followed by the best bread pudding I've ever eaten. Good thing I'm walking a lot or I'd need to buy an extra plane seat for the way home.

The following day, we spent with friends at the National World War II museum. It's incredible. We spent a solid 4 hours there, including a one hour IMAX movie you shouldn't miss. Could have stayed longer if it weren't for the antsy youngsters. Went to Mother's for a not-to-be-believed roast beef and ham po'boy complete with 'debris' - the pan drippings from the roast beef. Sandwiches come dressed with mustard, cole slaw and pickles. I ordered the 2/3 'mini' which was anything but small.

Our final day, we took the St. Charles streetcar from Canal Street to the Garden District. Along the way, the street is lined with gorgeous southern homes and there were Mardi Gras beads hanging from the trees. We got off at the Audubon Park and since my kids are a little passed zoo enthusiast age, we toured Loyola University and Tulane instead. We try to "visit" colleges wherever we travel so the kids can get an idea of various sizes, locations and flavors before we're on the true college hunt. Our eighth grader was a little embarrassed, but we joined a Tulane Admissions Office tour this time. I'm sure he's on all kinds of mailing lists now.

Our final dinner was at the Acme Oyster House for charcoal barbecued oysters, jambalaya, hush puppies and crawfish. I'm stuffed! The husband and I are headed out to see some live music at Preservation Hall and have one last Hurricane before we call it a night.

Tomorrow, we pick up a car and muffulettas from the Central Grocery before getting on the road to Beaumont, Texas for my brother's wedding. Our plan is to visit Oak Alley Plantation on the way and perhaps a quick stop in Baton Rouge.

It's been a great trip and I can't wait to come back another time!

Travel book I used for this trip:

LA to SF

Here are my suggestions to my sister-in-law's neighbor (whom I've never met but hope she enjoys their trip, none-the-less!

There are, of course, an unlimited number of things you can do. Here are a few suggestions off the top of my head:

Disneyland and California Adventure, of course
I'm not a big Universal Studios fan, but I do like CityWalk http://www.citywalkhollywood.com/
Visit Venice Beach for a true L.A. scene: http://www.venicebeach.com/
Santa Monica Pier and Rodeo Drive for great people watching: http://www.santamonicapier.org/ or http://www.rodeodrive-bh.com/index4.html
Santa Barbara is a beautiful town right on the beach. Maybe visit Mission Santa Barbara for a little California history lesson http://santabarbaramission.org/
Solvang is a cute dutch town on the road between LA and Santa Barbara: http://www.solvangusa.com/
Wine Tasting in Santa Barbara County? http://www.sbcountywines.com/wineries/wineries.html
Cambria is one of my favorite Chardonnays http://www.CambriaWines.com/
Tour Hearst Castle in San Simeon. You should reserve tickets ahead of time: http://www.hearstcastle.org/
Drive Highway 1 through Big Sur http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Sur
Eat a corndog and ride the roller coaster at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk http://www.beachboardwalk.com/

In San Francisco, be sure to walk through Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf and North Beach (Little Italy)
For a slightly risque and definitely irreverent show, see Beach Blanket Babylon http://www.beachblanketbabylon.com/
Another fun (though pricey) experience is Teatro Zinzanni. It's part dinner theater, part circus and part comedy show http://love.zinzanni.org/
Walk or ride a bike across the Golden Gate Bridge http://www.blazingsaddles.com/
Take the ferry to Alcatraz (http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/) and/or Sausalito (http://www.sausalito.org/) Must get Alcatraz tickets ahead of time.
Ride a cable car from Market Street (http://www.sfcablecar.com/), hop off to visit the FREE Cable Car Museum (http://www.cablecarmuseum.org/),
then get back on and continue to Ghirardelli Square for hot fudge sundaes (http://www.ghirardellisq.com/)
The California Academy of Sciences is a wonderful new science museum which opened about a year ago http://www.calacademy.org/
The DeYoung Museum is newly remodeled http://www.famsf.org/
The Asian Art Museum is very popular, though I haven't been there http://www.asianart.org/
SFMOMA is always good, too http://www.sfmoma.org/
The Ferry Building is full of great places to eat http://www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com/
The Slanted Door is a fantastic small plates restaurant located in the Ferry Building http://www.slanteddoor.com/

Why travel? Why blog?

I love to travel. For as long as I remember, I even enjoyed just going to the airport, whether or not I was traveling! Over the years, I've done my fair share of solo travel as an exchange student to Mexico and Japan, solo to Spain & Italy, Chile, various other Latin American countries, as well as the United States. In the last several years, I've done a bit of international and domestic travel with my family: husband, Howard, now 14-year-old Ethan and twins Katie & Bryan, aged 10 years. Friends ask me my opinion. And I am opinionated. I live trip to trip. I plan travel for relatives. I plan imaginary trips for the family. Just recently I was asked to help friends of my sister-in-law whom I've never met, by the way. And, I've loved it. Every last minute. Every detail. Every discovery. I hope my experience is helpful to you.