Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Looking Back: Sonoma, CA with kids - Visiting a Family-Friendly Winery

When my husband and I were looking into visiting Sonoma with the kids in tow we were happy to discover that family-friendly wineries do exist! While we knew that the kids wouldn't be able to taste, of course, we figured the educational value of visiting a winery would be good enough....aaaand there'd be wine for mom and dad to enjoy at the end as well!

Our visit to Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma, CA did not disappoint. The property is breathtaking, just what a winery in Sonoma Valley is pictured in your head to look like. With mountains in the distance and beautiful vineyards of purple and green grapes rolling among the hills it looked just like a picture postcard.

We purchased tickets for the Biodynamic Tram Tour, which was $20 for my husband and I and $5 for each of our kids. The 45-minute tour brought us to see the vineyards up close, where the guide explained to us the importance of biodynamics in the vineyard.

Close up of vineyards

From there we visited the fermentation facility and entered the barrel caves, where the wine is stored in a naturally climate-controlled environment. I appreciated the responsibility Benziger Family Winery took in regards to their winery's impact on the environment. It was great for the kids to learn about and see first-hand as well.

After the tour we were brought to the tasting room and got to try some wines. My husband and I picked up a bottle for home as well as some picnic goodies and had a wonderful lunch on the deck. The kids enjoyed some play time on the playground after lunch as well.

Our lovely picnic lunch

Our visit to the Benziger Family Winery was the perfect end to our California vacation. The employees of the winery proudly educated the visitors on their approach to a biodynamic, sustainable, and organic winery. If you will be looking to visit wineries in Sonoma with children, let Benziger Family Winery be at the top of your list!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Looking Back: Muir Woods and Sonoma, CA with kids

We spent our final days on our trip to northern California relaxing in Sonoma. My husband had taken a cab back to the airport to pick up our rental car while the kids and I packed up and got ready. We soon left the city by the bay behind and crossed over the foggy Golden Gate Bridge, which was shrouded in clouds!

The foggy Golden Gate

Our first stop was about 16 miles north of San Francisco at the Muir Woods National Monument. Here you will find some of the tallest trees in the world--the coastal redwood trees. While we knew these weren't the absolutely biggest, those are much farther north, we were still excited to see the tallest trees we had seen yet! We started winding up mountain roads, not realizing how high and winding these roads would be! We pulled into the Muir Woods National Monument and saw that the tiny lot in front of the entrance was already full. We drove along the road until we saw a spot to park alongside, as everyone was doing at this point. The monument cost $7 for my husband and I, with the kids free. The monument has a fully stocked vistor's center with many souvenir items available for purchase. Rangers are available daily for walks and talks, although we chose to visit it on our own.

It was absolutely breathtaking once you enter. The redwood bark that falls off the trees made a soft little carpet on the floor as you walked through it. It is a very peaceful and serene feeling to be among them.

Looking up at the redwoods, Miss A posing, the kids and I inside a redwood

My husband and I enjoyed the overall serenity of the woods, the hushed quiet while standing among the tallest living things on Earth. The kids, however, kids were most impressed when they came across a slug!

After Muir Woods we drove north for about an hour and reached our hotel, the Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort & Spa. It was a beautiful property, complete with swimming pool and hot tub, which the kids were most excited about. It was in the 90s when we arrived, which was about a 30 degree difference from our last few days in San Francisco. While I got our room ready, my husband took the kids to the pool. I ended up joining them, where we spent the rest of the afternoon. We then got cleaned up and headed into the town. I was actually surprised at how small Sonoma is. With being so well-known I imagined it would be much more built up, but it felt just like a small town, which was nice. We stopped off at Whole Foods and got some picnic items and went to the park right behind the city hall. It was shaded with plenty of picnic space and playground equipment. We spent the evening here and once it was dark headed back to the hotel.

The hotel did a great job in the evening with creating a cozy atmosphere. We went in to the bar and got a drink for ourselves and a fountain soda for the kids and returned to a seating area under a grapefruit tree. The staff lit tiki torches around the property and we all just relaxed until it was time to turn it.

Up next: Day One in Sonoma was done and now we were off to a family-friendly winery!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Looking Back: San Francisco, CA with kids - The Exploratorium and the bay

Our fourth and final day in the city was spent at the Exploratorium, which is a wonderful, hands-on science museum dedicated to kids! When we went in 2012 it was still at its old location at the Palace of Fine Arts. It was a beautiful campus, however the new location, at Pier 15, will provide visitors with a much more logistical location.

At the old Exploratorium location at the Palace of Fine Arts

The museum was full of engaging exhibits. My kids got to create a tornado, play with magnetic sand, and watch a cow's eye dissection. They learned while touching, watching, exploring, and thinking while here. Overall it's a fantastic place for children, especially those interested in science.

Afterwards, we crossed the street to hang out on the beach. It was a cool, windy day, but the kids still enjoyed playing in the sand and dipping a toe into the bay. It was definitely cold, they said!

Post Exploratorium visit to the beach

This was our final day in San Francisco. Next up: Heading north to Muir Woods and on to Sonoma!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Looking Back: San Francisco, CA with kids - The Bus Tour

One of our favorite things to do as a family when we travel to a new city is take a red double decker bus tour. It's a great way to see all the top sights in a relatively short amount of time. You can then hop off and explore what attractions interest you and then hop back on again. The guides are knowledgable and usually share little factoids along the way. Sometimes you get lucky with a guide that really enjoys his/her job and gives a humorous commentary!

On our third day in the city we took the double decker bus tour, beginning in Union Square. We stayed on the bus for the first duration, as once we got the coveted upper deck seats we knew we may not be so lucky once got back on. We got to see all of the top sights and learn along the way. One thing we learned is that the famous Lombard Street is actually not the crookedest street in San Francisco, as it is often claimed; rather that title belongs to Vermont Street, which numerous guides mentioned is not in a good area of town. So we were fine with climbing Lombard and pretending we were in fact on the crookedest street in the city for the time being.

View from the top of Lombard street and trio at the bottom, before the strenuous climb!

We had plans to bike or walk across the Golden Gate bridge, but it had been too windy to comfortably do so. Instead we went for a quick ride over it on the bus!

Crossing the beautiful Golden Gate

We ended our tour at Fisherman's Wharf and decided to take a cable car back to the hotel, being part of the quintessential San Francisco experience. I will admit, this ride wasn't all that fun. The kids and I had to ride inside while my husband luckily got to hang on the outside. We had to hang on tight so we wouldn't land on our fellow passengers. Even though the ride was anything but relaxing, the operator worked very hard, doing all the "driving" manually inside, and it's one of those things you just have to do in the city.

Kids on a Cable Car

With our third day in the city done, we had one day left in the city: Off to the Exploratorium!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Looking Back: San Francisco, CA with kids - Alcatraz

On our second day in the city we were feeling adventurous and apparently full of energy so we decided to walk all the way down to Pier 33, which is the location for catching the ferry to Alcatraz. The temps were in the mid-60s so it felt great to be walking outside. We came across a little café so my husband and I stopped as we wanted to grab a coffee. It turns out the cafe carried chocolate soy milk so I surprised my kids with these special drinks for our walk!

We made our way through the Financial District, past the Embarcadero, and finally reached our Pier. I purchased our tickets online about 6 weeks ahead of time as it was August when we visited, still at the height of tourist season. When I purchased them there was already one slot sold out so I highly recommend booking the tour well ahead of time!

We arrived about an hour before we were due to board so we killed some time by having a small snack in the gift shop/cafe. We got in line to board the ferry about 30 minutes before departure and others soon followed. I had read that in order to get the best view of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge as the ferry departs for Alcatraz one should sit on the top deck on the left side. We were sitting towards the back on the left and this was definitely a great spot! We got our first glimpse of the Golden Gate and beautiful Marin County beyond with it’s emerald hills rolling peacefully as far as we could see. In front of it was a rocky outcrop known as Alcatraz Island!

Approaching Alcatraz Island

Once we disembarked at the dock of Alcatraz Island, a Park Ranger tried to gather the crowd around so he could give a PSA. A lot of folks decided to just go on their merry way but we stopped off to listen. He gave us information on where to get the headsets for the cellhouse tour and how the departure worked. We decided to do the cellhouse tour first, as it was what the kids were looking forward to most. We got our headsets and made our way through the cellhouse, seeing the bleak cells that criminals once called home. We listened to testaments from both former guards and former inmates. They retold the story of the infamous escape and to this day it’s still a mystery if the escapees survived or not. We learned that Alcatraz wore many hats, having been a lighthouse, military outpost, military prison, and most famously a federal penitentiary. Alcatraz also harbored many well-known criminals, such as Al Capone, Robert "The Birdman Stroud", and George "Machine Gun" Kelly.

Inside the cellhouse, sights on Alcatraz Island, the kids peering into the kitchen, and menu with the last meal served

Once we finished touring Alcatraz Island, we boarded the short ferry back to the mainland. We were hungry for lunch so we headed to Fisherman's Wharf where we ate at a quaint little water front restaurant, the Eagle Cafe. The staff was very helpful with the kids' food allergies and they enjoyed hamburger patties and french fries. My husband dined on the quintessential San Francisco bowl of clam chowder. We also had great views of the pier and waterfront so it definitely was a great first restaurant to try in San Francisco. From the cafe we ventured to Pier 39 to see the famous sea lions! We easily found it as there is signage directing you to this popular spot throughout the Wharf. My kids had a blast watching the sea lions frolic around in their natural environment!

Watching the sea lions at Pier 39

Afterwards, we took a spin on the carousel and checked out the many touristy shops. Our last stop at the Wharf was Musee Mechanique, which is basically an interactive museum of old carnival games. The kids all had fun playing a few games and were impressed to see how far games have come.

As for dinner this night, we discovered The Cheesecake Factory across the street from our hotel. We often to have to rely on chain restaurants when we travel as we are familiar with their menus enough to know that they are safe for our kids’ allergies. Like usual, it was a very long wait but it was worth it. We finished our delicious dinner and headed back to our hotel for some shut-eye.

Another day of fun in the city by the bay was behind us. Up next: Day 3 – The bus tour!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Looking Back: San Francisco, CA with kids

This is the first post in my "Looking Back" series where I reminisce about trips we've taken in the past few years. Because I just recently resumed blogging about our travels I thought it would be a great way to "look back" on old memories.

In August of 2012 my family visited the city of San Francisco, CA. When we first arrived, after a four hour flight from Chicago, we took the train from SFO (the BART) which landed us near Union Square where our Marriott hotel was located. Our first impression of San Francisco was how cool it was weather-wise, especially compared with the hot and humid temps we had left behind in Chicago. The next thing we noticed was how hilly it was! We now had to drag all of our luggage uphill a couple of blocks to our hotel! I’m sure we were a sight!

Once we were settled into our hotel we trekked to Chinatown, which was just a few blocks away. Our map at hand is a favorite of mine, the Guy Fox maps, that you can find here. It’s designed for children due to the fact that it’s simplified yet colorful and complete with the necessary major streets and popular monuments and landmarks. They have become a favorite of mine to use since I first used one in London.

As we entered the "Dragon Gates" complete with dragon statues on either side and topped with green pagoda rooves, we were suddenly immersed in a new, mystifying place known as Chinatown. Chinatown is very bright and colorful, crowded with both locals and tourists, and the strong smells of Chinese cuisine waft through the air. We enjoyed taking in the sights and sounds and the kids happily picking up a few souvenirs along the way.

Colorful sights of Chinatown

We took a detour down a small alley which is nestled in between the bustling streets of Chinatown and found the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. It was very tiny inside, just enough for our family of five to get a good view. We watched the workers mold the warm cookies hot off the presses. They offered free samples so I took one. I had never tasted a warm, fresh fortune cookie before so it was a new experience! There was a bucket out where they have a sign, “50 cents for photos”. I took a few pictures and dropped some money into the bucket and we were on our way.

The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

After spending the evening there, we returned to our hotel for some room service dining as we were tired from our long day. Up next: Day two, venturing to Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Time on the lake in Northern Michigan

Every summer we look forward to getting back to our roots, Michigan roots that is. Both of us were born and raised in this beautiful state and nothing screams “summer is here!” more than being by a lake surrounded by pine and birch trees, slapping mosquitos away as the sun starts to set, and making the customary s’mores over a roaring bonfire. We are lucky enough to spend a few weeks doing this every summer on a big lake in Northern Michigan. My sister and her husband own a beautiful lake home that is complete with a huge deck overlooking the lake, a tennis court, hammock for lazy reading, and a spacious dock where I spend my time catching up on my favorite magazine, Travel & Leisure, and devouring my current favorite read, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, while my kids splash in the cool, clear lake before me.

This year we arrived on the evening of July 3 and were looking forward to the next day--the 4th of July, one of our favorite holidays. We love the small town parade where you can show up 15 minutes before and easily get a great spot on the sidewalk. The kids remember to bring their own bags now for catching candy tossed from passing vehicles.

A glimpse into a small town 4th of July parade

After the parade we head back to the lake house where the kids happily trade pieces of candy with one another while the grown-ups prep the dinner to be grilled later in the day. This year I handled the dessert, which was a new twist on an old fave: lemon shortcake topped with berries and whipped cream. After our kitchen duties were over for the time being we spent the day swimming, sunning, and paddleboating. As the sun started to set we grabbed a light jacket and a drink of our choice and hopped on the boat for a ride across the lake. We had hoped to watch the fireworks from this prime location as we had done the year before but this year they weren’t going on for some reason. We did have a great view of many other fireworks going off in the distance while cruising back home. Once we disembarked from the pontoon, we all sleepily made our way inside. The 4th of July was done for another year but we still had many great days on the lake head of us!

This year we spent a total of two wonderful weeks at the lake. Besides our usual swimming, boating, paddleboating, and fishing, we also made a couple of stops at playgrounds and even more stops at the ice cream stand! We are always sad when our time on the lake comes to an end because it symbolizes the end of yet another summer with the school year looming ahead. Here are some photos of our great times on the lake:

Fishing, Boating, Paddleboating, Sunning, Swimming, Grilling...what better way to spend the dog days of summer?

Up Next: With our summer travels behind us for this year we are looking ahead to the fast approaching school year. We have two trips planned over our 10-day Fall Break in October that I can't wait to share. I also have some new blog projects I'm working on so stay tuned!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Laguna Beach, CA with kids

After a few busy days behind us we wanted to rest up and relax with a day at the beach. My husband cabbed back to the airport in the morning while the kids and I got ready so he could pick up our rental car. By the time he came back, we were all ready with our beach bag packed excited to explore a little bit beyond the Disneyland Resort.

We drove down to Laguna Beach and found Treasure Island beach near the south end of the city. It had a parking garage and nicely attended restrooms where we could change into our beach attire. The walkway was beautiful:

Treasure Island Beach in Laguna Beach, CA

We were really high up on the walkway, looking down at the beach. It was amazing to see how dramatic the cliffs were with the ocean pounding below:

We ended up spending a couple hours here. The kids couldn't swim as the waves were too strong but they enjoyed trying to out run the waves--they were usually unsuccessful!

This was our last day on our travels to Southern California and we flew home early the next day. Coming up: Two wonderful weeks on the lake in northern Michigan!