California Dreaming: Los Angeles

There are so many things to do in Los Angeles that it was almost too overwhelming to choose what to do on our last day.  After spending the previous day at Disneyland, we wanted something a little more relaxing and the Getty Museum was at the top of the list.  Everything about the museum was perfect:  the setting, the kids' activities, the architecture.  In fact, this is the most kid-friendly art museum we have ever visited. There is a huge area of one wing dedicated to five activity coves that allow kids to make masks, lay on a bed that is exactly like that found in a painting in the museum, or draw on the walls to help illustrate a medieval manuscript.  

We had picked up a series of "Art Detective" cards when we arrived and did a scavenger hunt through some of the galleries.  These types of games really help to keep the kids engaged as we walk though and look at the art and sometimes they actually learn something new.

The guards were incredibly nice throughout the museum and were always suggesting something to help the kids enjoy the experience more.  One of them mentioned that we should take them to the sketching gallery, where real works of art are on display for artists to sketch.  The kids were given a clipboard, paper and a charcoal pencil and invited to choose a piece of art to study.  This was one of the highlights of the museum for them and they really took it seriously.  Once they were done, the docent had them sign their work and rolled it up and tied it with a string to take home.

We had a fantastic lunch on the terrace overlooking the museum's beautiful sculpture gardens and then walked through the gardens to see everything up close.  

We made a quick stop at the La Brea Tar Pits to see some of LA's ancient history.  The kids really  enjoyed walking through the museum and then walking down to the tar pits, which still bubble and smell of tar.  

Our trip was unfortunately coming to an end and we headed back to pack up and get ready for our flight home the next morning.  On the way, we stopped for dinner at Rubio's, a local Mexican food chain specializing in fish tacos, that was near our apartment.  As almost every meal we had on this trip was, the food was fantastic.  The fish tacos were delicious and they had an expansive kids menu that included a grilled veggie burrito, chicken tortilla soup and nachos.  An appropriately great ending to a great trip!

California Dreaming: Disneyland

There are so many blogs and books out there to guide you on your trip to Disneyland, I won't try to provide much advice.  I will recommend the book that we have used for both Disney World and Disneyland:  The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland.  It gives a breakdown of everything in each park from character dining to rides to where to stand to get the best view of the parades.  The most useful things for us have been the suggested itineraries in the back of the book.  There are several for each park and each plan is geared to who you are traveling with (kids in strollers, teenagers, two adults only).  The Itineraries provide a plan of attack, letting you know everything from what order to tackle the park to what ride to Fast Pass to when to grab lunch, without pushing everyone to total exhaustion.  My only other advice is to get an early start.  We were there in the middle of the week in February and it was still very crowded.  

We had a good lunch at Rancho del Zocalo in Frontierland.  Serving Mexican food, the food was pretty tasty and the portions are huge.  The kids had a choice of a bean and cheese burrito or a chicken taco and fish tacos were on the menu for the non-meat eater in our group.  

Photo courtesy of Disneyland

Photo courtesy of Disneyland

On our way out of the park, we ate at La Brea Bakery in Downtown Disney.  Delicious sandwiches, salads and artisan pizzas are all excellent choices after a long day of walking around.  We watched the fireworks show from the parking lot before heading home.  Ava was asleep before we hit the highway with Jack following quickly after and as any parent knows, that is truly the sign of a great day.


California Dreaming: Santa Monica

Once we arrived in LA we had a little time to kill before we could check into the apartment we had rented in Venice.  We were all hungry and when I saw we were staying not far from Huckleberry Cafe, I knew that's where we had to go for lunch.  I had read a lot about Huckleberry on blogs and travel articles so I was excited to check it out and we weren't disappointed.  

After lunch we wanted to drop off our bags and check out our apartment.  We have rented several houses/apartments over the years and this was one of the best places we have ever stayed in.  There was plenty of room to spread out, everyone got their own bedrooms, and best yet, there were lots of toys and games for the kids to play with.  Once we got there and they saw all the kiddie stuff, we just hung out for a few hours so they could play and unwind.

Once everyone was sufficiently relaxed, we drove back over to Santa Monica to play on the beach and have dinner.  We walked along the Santa Monica Pier and then Alan and the kids headed down to play in the sand and watch the sunset while I did a little shopping nearby.  

Right along the beach is a group of restaurants owned by the Blue Plate Restaurant Group.  We were all in the mood for seafood so we chose to eat at Blue Plate Oysterette.  The food was delicious and the decor was classic New England meets Southern California cool.  

Photo courtesy of Blue Plate Oysterette

Photo courtesy of Blue Plate Oysterette

Photo courtesy of Blue Plate Oysterette

Photo courtesy of Blue Plate Oysterette


Winter Car Trip Part III

Before heading out to our final stop of Asheville, we grabbed breakfast at Rise Biscuits and Donuts.  Tucked into a strip mall on the outskirts of Durham, they had delicious homemade biscuits with a variety of fillings and donuts with traditional flavors (glazed, chocolate glazed) to the more exotic such as creme brûlée and pomegranate glaze.  

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Once we got to Asheville, we found (somewhat unexpectedly) that this is a popular vacation spot during the holidays.  After being turned away from several places for lunch, we finally settled at Doc Chey's Noodle House.  The menu is expansive and the portions are huge so two kids could easily share an entree.  They also offer a nice kids menu if you prefer to go that route.  Everything we had was delicious and their emphasis is on locally-grown, organic ingredients (as is the case with most of the restaurants in Asheville).  

Just down the street is an Asheville institution, Mast General Store.  Founded in the 1940s, this store has everything you could want or need.  From clothing to toys to birdhouses to a huge selection of penny candy, you are sure to find a souvenir to take home in this place.  

The Grove Park Inn is a historic hotel which has seen many famous visitors, among them F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Sedaris, and Barack Obama (twice).  Built in the early 20th century in the Arts and Crafts style, this is one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever visited.  Unfortunately we weren't spending the night; we were just there to view the annual gingerbread competition the hotel hosts each holiday season.  Next time I definitely want to sit in front of one of the huge fireplaces and enjoy a glass of wine or sit out on the porch and watch as the sun sets over the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Looking at the website, there is plenty to keep you busy:  golfing, an outdoors center which offers guided rafting and hiking trips, and history tours of the inn.  They also offer both a children's day program and a kids' night out for parents who want a little adult time.  

The gingerbread competition was lots of fun.  We had gone to a local one in NJ before Christmas, but this was beyond all expectations.  It was hard to believe that some of these were made from just a little flour and sugar!  The competition was spread out throughout the inn so you could enjoy the views over the mountains and the beauty of the hotel as you went through the exhibit.

Towards the end there is a nice collection of shops.  The favorite of the group was The Pink Pig,  selling beautiful christmas ornaments and decorations, lots of sweet treats, and a nice coffee bar to boot.  

We took one last picture on the porch in Santa's sleigh and then reluctantly headed back to our car.  We thought about having dinner at the inn's newest restaurant, Edison, but decided to save that for next time.

The next day was cold and rainy and despite howls of protest from Jack, we set out early to tour the Biltmore EstateGeorge Vanderbilt's "vacation" home.  This had been on my to-see list for a long time and visiting it while it was decorated for the holidays was even better than I could have hoped.  We chose the self-guided tour with timed entry and then purchased the audio tour once we arrived at the house.  There is a special tour for kids narrated by one of the Vanderbilt's dogs, Cedric, which was a big hit with our two.  There are suggested itineraries for families on the website as well as helpful tips, particularly for those traveling with younger children.  For Downton Abbey fans, the exhibit we saw earlier this year of costumes from the series is coming here and will be on display February 5 - May 25.

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                                                          Image courtesy of Saturday Evening Post

                                                         Image courtesy of Saturday Evening Post

The kids loved the house and immediately wanted to move in.  They enjoyed looking for good hiding places and imagining how long it would take their friends to find them!  The tour is a little long at 90 minutes and we were all ready to head outside and explore the gardens once it ended.  Both the formal gardens and the surrounding countryside were designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who is also responsible for the design of Central Park in Manhattan and our family's beloved Prospect Park in Brooklyn.  

Because of the cold, we didn't get to walk around as much as would have liked.  Be sure to look out for the shops including a toy store and a confectionery as well as a restaurant and coffee bar adjacent to the house in what was formerly the stables.  This is a nice place to take a break after touring the house and before heading outside.  There is also a restaurant in Antler Hill Village which is on property but can only be reached by car once you have finished touring the main house.  Also at Antler Hill is a playground, farm yard, and winery.  

Take your time as your drive out and enjoy the beautiful views and landscapes courtesy of Mr. Olmsted.  

We headed back to downtown Asheville for lunch at Early Girl Eatery.  A great place with a funky atmosphere, they serve breakfast all day (a big draw for our kids) with a focus on local, organic ingredients. The kids had delicious multi-grain pancakes, but if that's not your thing there are salads, sandwiches, and a "protein and two sides" entree.

Later on we grabbed some ice cream at Ultimate Ice Cream.  On their menu are the usual suspects such as vanilla and chocolate but they aren't just ordinary vanilla and chocolate here.  No, it is Madagascar Vanilla Bean and Belgian Dark Chocolate and it is awesome!  There are also choices beyond the basics such as Kahlua Mocha Almond and White Chocolate with Raspberry Swirl.  They are known for one of their more unique flavors, Brown Sugar Maple and Bacon, but unfortunately this wasn't on the menu the night we visited.

Sadly, this ended our time in Asheville but we will definitely be back.  This area is so beautiful and has so much to offer it is impossible to do it justice in just two days!

Winter Car Trip Part II

We arrived in Raleigh for a late lunch at Chuck's Burgers and Frites, one of many restaurants owned by local restauranteur, Ashley Christensen.  Everything was delicious and was served in a very hip, urban environment.  Burger joints are sometimes a little hard for us as Ava is not a burger fan but luckily she has recently acquired a taste for veggie burgers and she gave this one a big thumbs up.  They also offer a grilled cheese if you have non-burger lovers along.  The fries are served Belgian-style in a paper cone with your choice of 8 dipping sauces.  The shakes looked yummy and they had a nice selection of local craft beers.  

Later we decided to grab some ice cream from a newly opened shop in downtown Durham.  The Parlour began as a food truck and then opened a storefront after raising funds through a Kickstarter campaign.  The ice cream is delicious and there are several vegan flavors available as well.  

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The next morning we headed back to downtown Durham for breakfast at Scratch.  This was one of the best meals of our trip!  Southern biscuits and grits, great muffins, and delicious coffee made this a breakfast we all loved.  

The restaurant was right next to Parrish Street, also known as the Black Wall Street.  There was a small museum showcasing the history of black entrepreneurship in the area and several street markers highlighting areas of interest.

After breakfast we drove over to Chapel Hill and walked around the campus a bit (this was really not a college tour).  We stopped at the Old Well, the symbol of the university that for many years was the only source of water for the two dormitories that flank it on either side.  Now it is considered good luck for a student to drink from it on the first day of school. 

Also in the area is the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, which offers multiple shows daily on weekends and the North Carolina Botanical Gardens, with the newly opened Children's Wonder Garden.

We stopped for lunch at Foster's Market, located between Durham and Chapel Hill.  Featuring lots of lunch selections such as salads and sandwiches, this is a great option that will please everyone.  Don't miss the desserts on your way out!  

Next we headed over to the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.  This is truly a great spot for kids and we easily spent 3 hours here and could have spent even more.  Inside, there are all sorts of science-based exhibits on weather, space exploration, and engineering.  

But outside is where this place really shines.  There is something to please everyone no matter what their interests: a farmyard, a butterfly house, a dinosaur trail and fossil dig and much, much more.  We spent the bulk of our time outside and finished just as the museum was closing.  

The farmyard is typical of anything you will see at a zoo, although petting and feeding the animals is not allowed.  What makes it better than a zoo are the charming red buildings and cute information cards provided about each animal, giving information such as name, age, and how they came to be here.  There are goats, a donkey, alpacas, rabbits, a jersey cow, and...

our favorite, Miss Piggy! 

The dinosaur trail and fossil dig is a must for all the dinosaur lovers out there.  All of the plantings are from the time of dinosaurs and velociraptors, triceratops and T-Rex are all represented.  The dig area has soil brought in from a fossil-rich area of North Carolina and finds can include shark teeth (we found several easily), shells, coral and small bones.

There is also a great exhibit on the wind, how topography shapes the weather (with a fairy village feel) and brown bears, red wolves and lemurs!

That night we were all in the mood for Mexican and so we decided to try Dos Perros.  Lucky for us it was Sunday, which meant taco night.  On Sundays and Mondays, the restaurant serves 6-7 different taco combinations in lieu of their regular dinner options and they were all amazing (between the 4 of us we sampled all of them).  From the green tomatillo salsa to the delicious tacos, we ended the day on a great note!