The Queen of Christmas Merriment

I don’t know if you noticed, but I like to go places with my kid. Come rain, or come shine, or come the holiday season, we go places. In fact, I’m so good at going places, that I have cleverly made that our family tradition. This smart mami gets out of shopping, baking, and making wreaths by getting out of the house. I know, I know, they should make me queen.

Now the holiday season is well underway, and we are going places. Oh, we have plans to see twinkly lights, and dancing Nutcrackers in tights this December. We will head down to the city (San Francisco, to be exact) and stand in awe of the giant gingerbread palace in the fancy lobby of the Westin St. Francis Hotel, the doggies up for adoption in the Macy’s window display and the congregation of weird Santas in Union Square.

Every family does the whole holiday tradition differently, but this is our thing. Years from now, I hope my kid remembers that sometimes I made lame attempts at baking gingerbread men, and that sometimes I made more successful attempts at finding the darn best light display in town. Hopefully, he’ll forget the Santa with the dog collar and fishnet stockings.

I’m not the only one dreaming of Christmas this week, head on over to Mother of All Trips, the original Monday dreamer always has something good to share.

Today’s Tip: On Winter Driving

Those long car trips with kids can be a big fat drag. When you add snow, ice, road closures, chain controls, and that bumper-to-bumper California traffic, then you have a recipe for a meltdown (yours, of course). I am not a safety or driving expert, but I can share some tips for how I have learned to make the long, snowy drives more bearable, and a whole lot safer.

1. Know the weather and road conditions before you get in the car.

If you’re expecting clear skies and roads, then skip ahead to tip number 2. If you’re expecting blizzard conditions, then you have more to consider (while you drink a soothing, calming tea). You may consider postponing the trip for another weekend, or delaying the departure for the next day. Unfortunately, most people make reservations for lodging that can’t be changed at the last minute without a cancellation fee. If you decide (or are forced to) to change your trip plans because of highway closures, call the hotel to see if they will let you change your reservation without penalty.

2. Carry the right equipment and supplies no matter what the weather forecast says.

Weather conditions change quickly, so sunny skies are not an excuse to be unprepared. Carry chains if you need them. Take along food, water, blankets, maps, and flashlights. And always let someone know where you’re going and what road you plan on taking.

3. Make a pit stop before you begin the climb up to the summit.

The traffic may be flowing, the roads may be clear, and you may be ready to get there already, but make a quick pit stop before you continue your journey to family ski nirvana. Fill up the tank with gas, have the kids take a potty break, and get some food. Believe me, I have been stuck up on a mountain highway for hours, waiting for an unexpected accident to clear up. That’s when I see people climbing through 5 feet of snow at the side of the road, looking for a spot for their potty break. I’m not painting a pretty picture, right?

4. Don’t drive at night or while fatigued.

There’s nothing worse than getting in the car on a Friday night, after working all week, and driving through a snow storm. If you’re tired, don’t get behind the wheel.

5. Timing is everything.

Driving up to ski areas in the winter can mean heavy traffic, regardless of the weather conditions. If possible, you’ll want to travel early in the morning, even if this means leaving work or pulling the kids out of school early. If your trip coincides with a school holiday vacation, then use the extra days to your advantage. You can leave early on a Saturday morning instead of a Friday night, or you can avoid the days before major holidays.

So it’s a lot to think about, I know. But it’s all worth it to see your happy skiers race past you down the hill. Well, kinda. 

What do you do if your car starts to spin, or you get stuck in the snow? I may or may not have some experience with that. If you’re looking for driving tips to help you handle snowy, icy road conditions, then this article has some excellent suggestions. No idea, if I’d actually remember what to do if my left rear wheel started to skid though.

 

Linking up to Talking Trekaroo’s Spotlight Thursday for other family travel news.

Passports with Purpose Still Taking Donations

Got $10? Well, then click on over to the Passports With Purpose donation page and help them build a village in India. For the third straight year, a whole bunch of fabulous travel bloggers have gotten together to give back. Last year they built a school in Cambodia, this year they’re aiming to raise $50,000 to support the nonprofit organization LAFTI, an independent, nonprofit organization and build a village in India.

With each ten dollar donation, you can bid on one of many fabulous prizes. How about a 5-night stay at any of the nine Paradise by Marriott resorts? Sounds heavenly. Marriott Resorts generously sponsored this prize through the site Best Family Travel Advice. And there are many more heavenly prizes to choose from.

But the real treat is helping to build that village in India. You have until December 13 to make your donation. Head on over there.

Ty Warner Sea Center

The Ty Warner Sea Center is the aquatic branch of the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, and is located right over the Pacific Ocean on Stearns Wharf. It is a small aquarium, but what it lacks in size, it makes up with engaging and accessible exhibits.

At the shark touch-pool, my son got to touch a harmless swell shark. The tidepool tank had viewing windows that were accessible to even the youngest toddlers and an underwater tunnel for them to walk through as well.

Older kids enjoyed some of the computer-based exhibits throughout the first floor of the center. We also spent some time with some other aquarium youth volunteers as they pulled up samples (of mostly seaweed) in netted cages attached to ropes. They were all great about answering questions and giving information about specimens they had for viewing under video microscopes. 

The second floor of the aquarium was a special exhibit called Superpowers, about animal adaptations, which included another touch-pool opportunity. The 39-foot model of the gray whale and her calf hangs in the main entrance, right over the gift shop.

Useful Tidbits: Admission for just the Sea Center is currently $8 for adults and $5 for children ages 2-12. You can also get a Santa Barbara Nature Pass and get admission for the Sea Center and Natural History Museum for two days. Parking is free for the first 90 minutes with validation from the Sea Center. Check the website for current information.

Things to Do in California: December Edition

‘Tis the season to take the family to enjoy the Christmas lights, catch a matinee of the Nutcracker, and get that picture with Santa at the mall (unless you have a kid that refuses to get within a foot of the mall Santa). If you’re looking for ways to keep the kids busy this holiday season, you will find plenty of options in California. Here are two of my favorite family-friendly events in California this month. They’re educational too, just don’t tell the kids.

San Francisco

Snow and Reindeer at the California Academy of Sciences from November 23 to January 2.

Kids love to listen for reindeer hooves on their roofs on Christmas Eve, so take them to the east garden of the Academy to meet the reindeer at the Reindeer Rendezvous special exhibit. Then step inside the igloo presentation dome to watch the five-minute video about the North Pole. There are plenty of daily science, animal, and cultural presentations to choose from, but if you go on Wednesdays, you’ll get to meet the scientists that explore the Earth’s coldest regions. Don’t forget to get a picture with Santa Claude, the Academy’s alligator character, and catch the indoor snow flurries.

These special holiday activities are all included with general admission tickets. Check the website for more information and schedules.

Los Angeles

The Science of Gingerbread at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana from November 23 to January 3.

Kids know how darn cute (and yummy) houses can be, so take them to the Discovery Science Center this month, so they can see the entries of the gingerbread house competition displayed throughout the center. On weekends, kids get to check out the gingerbread decorating demonstrations, and try their hand at baking at the measure-and-mix learning station. There are also daily shows and presentations, such as the “Matter of Taste” show. If you want to  participate in a special gingerbread house workshop, check out their website for more information.

 

Linking up to Trekaroo Spotlight Thursday, where other bloggers are sharing their lists of favorite holiday events.


Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove

I saw the first Monarch Butterflies fluttering around the streets of San Luis Obispo, about fifteen miles away from the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove. I’m glad that I did, or I would have completely forgotten that they start arriving at their winter home in the groves of Pismo Beach in early November. So then I would have just driven right by them on Highway 101, and I would have missed the best pit stop ever.

If you’re in the Pismo Beach area between the months of November and February, follow Highway 1 to Pismo State Beach and the North End Campground entrance. Find the free parking in the campground and follow the marked path. Besides seeing trees full of butterflies, you’ll find docents, displays, and some binoculars set up for the kids to get a closer view.

I have already written about our annual visits to the Natural Bridges Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Santa Cruz, California: here, here, and here. I know that I’m a little obsessed with these orange buggers. It’s just that they’re so darn cool. So what are you waiting for? This winter, go find a butterfly grove near you.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

I have a kid who is donning a zookeeper costume for the second Halloween of his young life, so I tend to spend a lot of time at zoos with my little animal enthusiast. We have seen more elephants, giraffes, and lemurs than I’d like to remember. But since I’m here to share our adventures, I will remember our few trips out to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly known as the San Diego Zoo Wild Animal Park). Here are our favorite San Diego Safari Park experiences:

1. Elephant Overlook

There are not many places where a kid can see an elephant herd in California, so the Elephant Overlook exhibit is definitely worth a visit. There are eight baby elephants to ooh and ah at. Be sure to follow the elevated pathway alongside the huge exhibit until you get the best close-up views of the pachyderms. We found these guys hanging out in a corner of the exhibit, but the enclosure is pretty big so keep looking, you won’t miss them. Ha.

2. Lion Camp

This not the place where you want to set up your tent and roast marshmallows, but it is the place to go find the kings of the jungles lazing around just inches away from you (through the thick glass window, of course). This exhibit lets you and the kids get safely and uncomfortably close to the lions, much closer than most zoo exhibits. They looked quite cozy on their bed of boulders, but I wouldn’t go tapping on the window.

3. Journey Into Africa Tour

The park’s main visitor draw is this 25-minute tram tour through the Heart of Africa exhibit. Among the many African animals, you will see the giraffes, rhinoceros, gazelles, and impalas out the tram windows. This is not a tour that will let you experience a closer interaction with the animals (you will have to pay for the photo caravans if you want the giraffes to come up to the window), but it will let kids get a glimpse of animals wandering around more freely in their bigger enclosures.

4. Lorikeet Landing

This is the place to go if you like green-naped lorikeets swooping down on you and your kid. The lorikeets are not afraid of people, mostly because the homo sapiens come into the aviary with cups of nectar for them to dine on. The people may be afraid of them though, so this is not the place for kids who don’t like lorikeets climbing-or potentially pooping-on their heads. My kid, a.k.a the crocodile hunter, feared no lorikeet and loved every minute of it. So much so, that we had to go get another cup of nectar. It does make for a great photo opportunity though.

Tips:

This park is part of San Diego Zoo, but it’s about 35 miles away in the inland city of Escondido. Don’t expect to do this park and the zoo in one day unless you have some sort of death wish. Give yourself at least a good half-day to explore the Safari Park, we’ve been twice and still not seen the whole thing, mostly because it involves a lot of walking in the California desert heat.

It’s hot, so plan to go early in the morning during the summer or just avoid that season altogether.

Plan to do a lot of walking because there are fewer but larger exhibits that are spread out throughout this huge zoo park. But don’t let that stop you from exploring at least some of the park by foot, there is much more than the tram tour.

Check the website for special events, additional experiences and the occasional deal (kids get in free this October, for example).

Columbia State Historic Park

What: Columbia is a preserved and recreated Gold Rush town located about three miles north of Sonora, California. There are exhibits displaying historical artifacts throughout the town, and some even provide hands-on activities for kids. You can also take a stagecoach ride or try your hand at gold panning. Some of the proprietors of the shops, restaurants and hotels are dressed up in period clothing.

Why: We were driving back from a trip to Yosemite National Park along historic Highway 49 and knew this was the perfect opportunity to introduce the kiddo to a slice of California history.

My Kid’s Picks: He didn’t let the lanky cowboy intimidate him while he tried panning for gold at the Hidden Treasure Gold Mine place in the town’s southern end. It took a few tries and some refinement of his technique, but he got to take a few “gold” flake home for show-and-tell. At the working blacksmith shop, he also got his named hammered into a horseshoe souvenir. We took an ice cream break at the Fallon Ice Cream Parlor and also bought a few bottles of sarsaparilla (looks like a beer bottle) soda. And of course, our kid-approved activities wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the ol’ candy shop.

Mom’s Verdict: This is one of the best sites along the Mother Lode highway for kids to get a feel for the Gold Rush era. It may not be the most historically important town, but its neatly restored buildings and living history component makes it the most enjoyable for kids. It was worth walking up a few blocks to check out the old Columbia Schoolhouse, where school is no longer in session, but you can take a peek at the rows of desks and dunce chair at the front of the room. You can also get a bathroom pass and check out the historical outhouses by the school. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s always good for kids to get a bit of perspective, so that they can better appreciate the bathroom at the at the next gas station pit stop.

Useful Tidbits: California’s Gold Country towns can get unbearably hot during the summer. Be prepared for the heat or plan your trips for summer or fall instead. Admission and parking are free. The museum open 10-4 daily, most businesses are open until 5. Gold Rush Days are held on the second Saturday of every month 1-4. Check the website for regular town tour times.


Today’s Tip: When You Give a Kid an iPhone

…he just may find a way to pass the time.

He’ll never be bored while waiting for his flight…

…or while waiting for his kid’s menu at the restaurant…

…or even while waiting for the big tall dude to sit down and stop shaking his pom-pom at the big playoff baseball game.

But if his mom leaves him unattended with the iPhone camera for too long, she just may have to delete a lot of very embarrassing pictures. (Sorry you’re not getting any photos of me with the clown hair and big red nose.)

Photo creations by the kiddo using Faces iMake and Squiggles apps. I found out about these apps while browsing two very helpful kid’s apps sites Moms With Apps and Best Kids Apps.

Spawning Kokanee Salmon in Lake Tahoe

Every autumn the Kokanee Salmon of Lake Tahoe, make their triumphant but tragic journey up Taylor Creek to fulfill their spawning destiny, and every year I drag my son out to see it. Maybe I’m just giving him one more reason to hate me when he turns sixteen, but I’d like to think I’m teaching him all about one of nature’s most fascinating cycles. So far, my son thinks the whole thing is pretty cool.

Throughout the month of October, you can walk the trail along Taylor Creek and come within inches of the salmon as they swim upstream. There are sections of the creek that turn red, they’re so full of salmon. The trail goes through the Stream Profile Chamber, where you can get an underwater view of the creek and a look at a few informational exhibits on the wildlife of Taylor Creek. Did you know that the Kokanne males develop a humped back and a hooked jaw to help their chances with the whole mating thing? Well you and the kids may get a close-up view of this distinct hooked jaw through the aquarium windows. They will also enjoy looking at the 180-degree diorama mural of Taylor Creek and spotting the animals hidden throughout the room.

I have to admit that besides witnessing the exciting journey of the Kokanee, I enjoy our autumn visits to Taylor Creek because of the beautiful views of the aspens in their fall colors. There are not many places in California where I can walk in forest of golden trees, so the Rainbow Trail at Taylor Creek is one of my favorite fall foliage destinations. The trail is paved, an easy hike for all ages, and begins outside the Visitor Center. There are other trails that fork out from the visitor center, including the bike trail that leads to Tallac Historic Site.

I hope I can make a visit to Taylor Creek again this year (haven’t asked my son, though). I’m penciling in a weekend in October, packing my picnic basket, and looking forward to a brisk autumn afternoon with the Kokanee.

Useful Tidbits: The Taylor Creek Visitor Center is off Highway 89 in South Lake Tahoe, just north of the Tallac Historic Site. The Kokanee Salmon Festival will be held on the weekend of October 2-3 this year. Although I have never gone, there are plenty of kids’ activities, food, ranger talks, and Sammy the Salmon Mascot. This weekend may be more crowded, so check website link for more information. Oh, and there are bear sightings during the spawning season, so take precautions.