Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Another month, another plane ride to another wedding!  We’ve been looking forward to my BFF Rebecca’s wedding for a LONG time.  Rebecca and her husband (!!!) Eric first met and fell in love in Afghanistan in 2011 and have been living in Virginia Beach since they returned stateside.  Rebecca planned a simple and sweet beach wedding, encompassing everything that they love – their family and friends, the water, and great food.  Peanut and I were both in the wedding party, and we were so excited to help “Aunt Rebecca” celebrate her special day.  Nugget was excited to ride on the Metro again.

And he had fun running around the gate.  We saw the airport fire truck pulling out of the fire station, so obviously that was the highlight of the weekend.  Ha!

We arrived in Florida a day late and a hundred dollars short.  No, seriously, we did.  Poor little Peanut started showing signs of being sick at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday night.  Our flight to Tampa was scheduled to leave at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, but there was no question – she really needed to go to the doctor (which opens at 8:30 a.m.).  Southwest allowed us to change our flight to Friday morning instead (for the low, low price of $100).  And sure enough – double ear infection.  Ouch.  Poor kid!  She left the doctor’s office with a prescription for antibiotics and permission to fly the next day.  So, off we went to Florida on Friday instead of Thursday.  Once we got there, we didn’t waste a second – off to the beach!  Peanut was thrilled to see Aunt Rebecca.

So were Nugget and I!  We found Rebecca swimming with her sister and some friends.  Eric was walking the beach with his metal detector and announced, “I’m trying to find Rebecca a ring!”  Gosh, I love those two hilarious lovebirds.


Nugget enjoyed a swim with Aunt Rebecca and some of her friends, while I stayed on the beach with Peanut.

Peanut can be kind of unpredictable in her water comfort level.  The Gulf of Mexico was really warm and calm, but she didn’t want to swim.  She got drilled in California in August and has been avoiding the water ever since – oof.  But it was probably better for her ears that she didn’t get her head wet, anyway.

She did have fun playing in the surf.  As long as she was having a good time – that’s what matters!

Eventually her little brother joined her and they had a great time stomping and splashing in the small waves.

We headed back to our little beach cottage to clean up, and then Peanut and I joined the wedding party for a rehearsal.  We managed to get through the ceremony before the skies opened up and we moved inside Rebecca and Eric’s rented beach house for dinner – a fabulous Mediterranean spread.  No pictures from the rehearsal, but it was hilariously slapstick.

Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny.  The wedding wasn’t until 5:30, and Peanut and I weren’t expected until fairly close to zero hour, so we decided to devote the morning to squeezing in a little adventure.  (You know me…)  Rebecca had recommended a local Pinellas County park, Fort de Soto, for hiking, kayaking, shelling and general beach fun.  Naturally, we gravitated to the kayak outpost.

The kids were READY to get out on the water.  We loaded up and immediately shoved off for a morning on the Fort de Soto Water Trail.

Most exciting development of this excursion: Peanut got her own paddle!  As I mentioned in this post, Steve had been “duffing” Peanut in a single kayak, but she was putting his legs to sleep, and she seemed like she would be trustworthy enough to not jump over the side of the boat if she had her own seat, so we decided to try her out in a double kayak.  The kayak rental employee agreed that should work and suggested that she take along a particularly small and light paddle that he had lying around.  (More so that she could feel involved than anything else.)

Verdict?  She loved it!  I don’t think she was any help at all in either the steering or forward propulsion departments, but she had a good time and stayed in the boat, so – a win!  Now I’m looking at kids’ kayak paddles for her to tote along when we kayak the Potomac next summer.

As for me, I still had my little duffer in a single kayak.  Per usual, we were both swimming in our life jackets.  <–see what I did there?

It was a gorgeous day out on the water.  We were constantly scanning the area, looking for the manatees that we’d heard were having a party in the park only the day before, but didn’t see any.  A bit of a disappointment, but I reminded myself (and everyone else) that wild animals don’t adhere to a schedule.  We had great luck out whale watching in California, but there are no guarantees on the water.

And let’s be honest – any day out paddling with my family under bright blue skies and in such a beautiful place is a GREAT day.

The water trail was well-marked with signage and we followed the trail from point to point, watching the fish jump and pointing out beautiful birds.

I could have stayed out there all day!  I’d have loved to have more time to explore in the mangrove forest, too – but we stuck to the trail.

We were rewarded when we caught a glimpse of this guy:

A beautiful snowy egret!  Nugget and I paddled closer to take a good look.

Such a stunning sight!

Eventually, sadly, we had to turn back.  We needed to get a move on, and Nugget was starting to lose his patience.  He has about a one-hour shelf life in the kayak – anything more than that is pushing it.  I’m just grateful that, at two-and-a-half, he is so adventurous and game for anything.  If we have to keep our kayak excursions to an hour for now, I’ll take it.

After the kayaking, we made a quick trip to the beach at Fort de Soto, but it wasn’t quite the shelling destination we’d hoped for, and it was getting close to lunchtime – so we headed back to civilization for a bite to eat and naps for everyone.  (Well, naps for the kids and for me.  I think Steve worked while the rest of us slept.)  And then it was time for the wedding!

Peanut and I headed over early to get ready with the west of the wedding party, and before we knew it, we were walking down the sandy “aisle.”  Peanut was radiant!  At five years old, she has long been crazy for weddings – Rebecca’s was actually the fourth one she’s attended – but this was the first time she actually got to participate.  She took her flower throwing extremely seriously.

Little sweetheart!  My heart was singing to see her so happy.  She was so obviously proud of her role and thrilled to be included in her godmother’s special day.  She also made the most of her moment in the spotlight, stopping frequently to strike poses and blow kisses – haha!  The groomsmen were having a particularly hard time holding it together and not laughing as she did her prance down the aisle.  Eventually, by a combination of wild gesturing and yanking, I got her “offstage” in time to give Rebecca her moment – and she was a glowing, wildly happy bride.

It was.  The best.  Wedding.  Ever.

Peanut and Nugget got to join in the fun for a little while, then we rushed them back to the beach cottage, where we had lined up a babysitter for them, before heading back to the wedding (a five minute walk away – so convenient) to dance the night away.  It was a wonderful, happy, sparkly night that I know Rebecca and Eric will remember forever.  We were so happy to have had a small part in their joy.

And with that – summer is really and truly over.  But what better way to send off the season than with a beautiful barefoot wedding in the sand?

Have you ever been to a beach wedding?





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With only one day left to enjoy California before we had to fly back to the East Coast (sniff) we were determined to make it an epic day.  Fortunately, we had big plans – whale watching!  I have been on several whale watches, but all as a kid – usually with my dad, but my mom and brother joined us from time to time.  Taking Peanut and Nugget on a whale watch has been high on my list of things to do, and I wanted to do something extra special to mark Peanut’s fifth birthday – so I convinced Nana and Grandad that they wanted to spend several hours on a boat with us (ha!) and we were in business.

We talked the whale watching trip up for weeks beforehand, and the shorties were EXCITED.  So was Nana!

The trip began with a  very interesting presentation by some naturalists who volunteered through the national park.  Seriously, how do I get that job?  They passed around some baleen and some krill for everyone to check out.  Nugget was extremely suspicious.  As for me, I was bouncing in my seat and raring to go.

We finally started chugging out of Ventura Harbor and wasted no time in spotting wildlife – even before we’d completely left the dock area!

Hey fellas!

(I had my camera all tricked out with my zoom lens.  I think I was halfway across the boat when I snapped this, and was zoomed all the way out.  I was READY.)

Heading out to sea, we saw passed the same buoy that we had passed on our way out to the Channel Islands the day before.  Once again, it was covered with sea lions.  They could very possibly have been the same sea lions, and none of them had moved in twenty-four hours.  They really did look exceptionally lazy.

Interesting fact we learned: the darker the sea lion looks, the more recently he or she has come out of the water.  The ones that are light in color look that way because they have been snoozing on a rock (or buoy) for quite some time.

But who’s judging?

Nugget.  Nugget is judging you for your laziness, sea lions.  Just kidding.  Nugget loves you!

Before we’d gone too far out in the channel, the captain came over the public address system to announce the very thing we had been holding our breath and hoping hard for – they’d spotted a whale!

Hello out there, big fella!  (Or big mama?)

We pulled up a big closer, killed the engine, and a hush came over the crowd as we stared at this majestic creature.  It was a blue whale – one of the rarest species in the world.

(Note: these are not black and white pictures!  It just happened to be a really cloudy day, which we learned was great for spotting whales.  I was worried that the cloud cover would hurt the visibility out on the water, but it turned out just the opposite.  With grey skies and calm waters, we had perfect whale watching weather according to the crew.)

We watched the first whale as long as we could, and we weren’t the only ones.  A curious sea lion, way out in the channel, popped over to say hello to his big friend.

And waved us goodbye as they both headed off on their separate ways.

Before long – another whale!

Another big blue.

This one, like the last, took a couple of “sounding dives” – deeper dives, during which the whale stays below the surface and out of sight for about six to eight minutes – while we sat, quietly and patiently, waiting for our friend to come up to the surface again.  We were hoping for some tail fluke action, but that would have to wait.

After a bit more peek-a-boo with our blue whale friend, we were joined by a pod of cheerful dolphins.  Seriously, this day kept getting better and better.

Some of them swam up very close to check out the action on board the Islander.

Well, hello down there!

They were such a delight.  Incredibly playful, they jumped and splashed in our wake as we chugged along toward Channel Islands National Park and in search of more whales.

It wasn’t long before we happened upon another whale!

Check it out – a little spout action!

I was in awe of the way they rose out of the water and their backs just kept going and going.  I can see why ancient mariners thought they were sea monsters.

Another sounding dive!  Before I knew it, we were approaching the Channel Islands – again!  I was excited to see them – after the previous day’s adventures hiking and kayaking the sea caves, the islands felt like old friends.

Ass we steamed closer to Anacapa Island, more playful friends came along for the ride!

We were joined by a small pod of dolphins.  These guys were having fun.

Before I knew it, we were in island waters!

The Anacapa Island lighthouse and rock arches are iconic.

More wildlife!  Another bunch of lazy sea lions, napping on a rock.  These guys!

So gorgeous it didn’t look real – but I promise you, it was.

As we steamed away from Anacapa, our own pod was getting a little sleepy.

But everyone perked up when we met up with yet another bunch of playful dolphins!

This was a nursery pod – several of the adults were swimming alongside babies, which was an absolutely incredible sight.  I love marine mammals in general, and cetaceans in particular, and seeing healthy baby dolphins is a joy.

At some point, the captain came back on the loudspeaker and announced, with a sigh, “Well, folks, looks like it’s just one of those days.  Another whale.”  Ha!  The whole boat was pinching themselves, because it seemed like we were seeing blue whales everywhere we looked.  In total, we spotted eight blue whales and a fin whale.  Peanut was the first to get eyes on the fin whale, and actually called it out for the captain – you go, girl!

Of the eight – eight! – blue whales we spotted, we saw everything from fully grown bull whales to a mother and her calf.  The latter was the most incredible sight all day – we actually had the great privilege of watching the mother whale nurse the baby.

Check out that spout action!  We couldn’t see much, but the captain and naturalists aboard the Islander explained what was happening.  We spotted the mother and calf swimming together.  Then at one point they stopped, and the mother hovered near the surface for an extended time, while the calf could only be spotted swimming around underneath her.  Witnessing the miracle of a mother blue whale nursing her baby was something I won’t soon forget.

It wasn’t a big day for tail flukes – blue whales aren’t big on acrobatics – but we saw a couple.

This one:

And this beauty:

WOW.  Nature is so powerful.

As I mentioned up above, I went on several whale watches as a kid.  The first one, when I was about Peanut’s age – maybe a bit older.  We were in Cape Cod on vacation, and my dad took me whale watching, primarily to get me out of my mother’s hair while she was busy with my newborn baby brother (you know, the seal).  On that trip, we saw a right whale calf, who put on a show for the boat – breaching, spyhopping, tail- and pec-slapping, and being generally amazing and adorable.  The captain explained that right whales had been hunted nearly to extinction, so seeing such a playful baby was a special privilege.  I never forgot that day, and it was the start of my lifelong love of cetaceans.  I’ve been on other whale watches since – including one awesome day when we saw ten of my beloved humpbacks – and I hope that this trip was the start of a similar love affair that my kids will have with nature generally, and with cetaceans (my favorites!) in particular.  Of all of the things I hope to pass on to them, my love of whales – and my desire to protect them – is one of the biggest.  (Pardon the pun.)

As we steamed back to the harbor, we were joined by a massive pod of over a thousand common dolphins – what a way to end the trip!  Photos did them no justice.  They were truly spectacular.

A happy day, indeed.

Sadly, this ends our trip.  It was one for the ages.  I think the whole family had an amazing time – I know I did!  We flew home the next day, feeling exhausted and sorry that it was over, but also very full of love and family and adventure – and I think that’s exactly the way to end a trip.

Goodbye for now, California!  Thanks for showing us such a marvelous time.  We’ll be back soon!

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In between all of the family time and beach relaxation, Steve and I really wanted to sneak away for an adventure, just the two of us – like old times!  So we asked my parents to take the kids off our hands for an entire day; they were happy to oblige, and bright and early on Wednesday morning, we found ourselves at Ventura Harbor getting ready to board the Island Explorer for the ride out to Channel Islands National Park.

Look at us!  I feel like we’ve been together forever, but I also can’t believe that we recently celebrated twelve years of married adventuring.  He’s still my favorite person to hit the trails (or the high seas) with.

I am Moana of Motonui.  You WILL board my boat…


As we chugged out of Ventura Harbor, the captain came on the loudspeaker and pointed out a bouy off the starboard side.  “Do you see the seals?” he asked.  “Yeah!” cried half the boat excitedly.  “No you don’t!” he chortled in reply.

Because they’re SEA LIONS.  Steve and I did not make that mistake.  We know our pinnipeds, thankyouverymuch.

It was a bit of a hazy and choppy day, but we got up a good clip and it wasn’t long before we had company – Pacific common dolphins, riding the wake!

And then, up ahead – Santa Cruz Island.

It was so exciting to approach the island.  I put a lot of thought and planning into this adventure, and Steve and I had both been looking forward to it with great anticipation for months.  I couldn’t believe we were finally there!

The island was gorgeous.

Steve was excited, too.

We pulled into the cove, docked, and headed off for a briefing by one of the Channel Islands National Park Rangers, who gave us the lay of the land and some instructions for the day.  About half of the folks on our boat were there to explore or camp on their own, and the other half – including us – had other plans in mind.  But more about that next week.

Our morning was free – our big, exciting, planned adventure didn’t start until after lunch – so we trotted off on a hike, keeping an eye open for the island foxes the Ranger promised we’d see everywhere.  He wasn’t kidding – one of our first wildlife sightings of the hike was a couple of island foxes trotting along the main road.  They’re the biggest mammal predator on the island, so they have some swagger.

I say it every time I hike far from home – one of my favorite things to do while traveling is to hike in places with a completely different landscape from what I’m used to.  Joshua Tree delivered, and so did Channel Islands.

We headed past the campsite and into the hills, and started climbing almost immediately.

The trail and the scenery were so beautiful – I couldn’t stop smiling.

Our plan was to hike a five-mile loop – from the boat dock to Potato Harbor and then Cavern Point, then back in time for lunch and our p.m. adventure.  We felt lighter than air without our usual (adorable) encumbrances, and we practically bounced the entire five miles.

The usual loop hits Cavern Point first, but we had it on good authority that we should hike the loop backwards, in light of the weather.  The hope was that if we got the inland walking out of the way and hit Potato Harbor first, the mist would have lifted slightly for our walk back along the bluffs, giving us better views.  So we headed for Potato Harbor first.

I loved seeing the diversity of plant life on the island.  From the water, and especially on a grey day, the islands looked like a lot of forbidding rock, and a little bit of brown grass.  Once we got up onto the bluffs, we were amazed by how much there was to see.

And then, before we knew it, we’d made it to beautiful Potato Harbor!

Don’t ask me to explain why it’s called Potato Harbor.  We asked everyone who looked like they might know anything about the park, and no one knew.  (If you know, please leave a comment and tell me.  This mystery is killing me.)

So gorgeous!  There was another couple hanging out and watching some sea lions through their very heavy-duty binoculars.  They offered the binoculars to us, and I took a turn but couldn’t see the sea lions – bummer!  You bet I could hear them, though.

After a little while spent drinking in the view at Potato Harbor, we hopped back on the trail and headed for Cavern Point.

The views were stunning as we walked the bluffs.

Happy hikers!

Before long, we came across a sign and we knew we were headed in the right direction.

And then we were there!

Cavern Point was a beautiful vista.  Mainland or island – there’s nothing like a California coastline.  We found a comfortable rock, sat down together and just enjoyed the view.

It was hard to leave, but eventually we had to move on.  Our stomachs were rumbling, and we had to eat lunch and get ready for our afternoon activity (about which, more next week).  But lucky for us, the walk back to the cove delivered plenty of beautiful views.

Including the Island Explorer, moored and waiting for us to take it back to Ventura at the end of our fabulous day – but not just yet!  We waved to the boat from our perch high up on the bluff and thanked our lucky stars that we had more adventure to come.

And then we were descending – too soon.  I was a little sad to say goodbye to such a beautiful hike, but I couldn’t be too sad, knowing what was in store for the rest of the afternoon.  But that is a story that will have to wait – until next week.

Do you like to go on adventure dates?




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As we sat down to plan our California trip, there were a few must-do items on our list – and one of those was “hike with Dan and Danielle.”  My brother and sis-in-law are avid hikers, just like us!  In fact, they’re generally more adventurous than we are (I give us a pass for now, since we’re toting little hikers with us).  We compared schedules and decided to hike Joshua Tree together as our big sibling activity for the week.  Well – you might have noticed – our family made it to Joshua Tree, but Dan and Danielle didn’t, due to a snafu with their rental car.  Bummer!  We rolled with it and decided to hike in the Santa Barbara area instead – and luckily, there were plenty of highly regarded hikes to choose from there.  After some hemming and hawing, we decided on the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve and Seal Sanctuary.

We had the parking lot almost to ourselves, so Peanut took advantage of the wide open space and got some spins out of easy mark Aunt Danielle.

As we headed into the park, we saw water views almost immediately.  Yes, please!

Look at that joy!  Aren’t piggyback rides the best?

A word about our child carrying arrangements.  As you’ve seen in previous posts, I had my child carrier with me, which is currently calibrated for Nugget, so he caught a ride.  With limited space in our bags, we made the tough decision to leave Peanut’s carrier at home and to rely on her to walk along with us.  I didn’t know quite how that would go, but it was great.  She hiked more than two miles at Joshua Tree – a long distance for such little legs!  And she walked most of the time at Carpinteria as well, although when she was tired, there were willing shoulders.  I was really proud of how well she did walking throughout the trip, and it’s nice to know that we can start transitioning her away from expecting to ride all the time.

The water views on our left were stunning, but there were some beautiful views on our right, too.

Mountains!  The California mountains are so different from the Adirondacks and Blue Ridge Mountains – my playground in the East – and from the Colorado mountains where Dan and Danielle do most of their adventuring.  I just loved the setting of Santa Barbara, nestled between the mountains and the ocean.  What a place to live, right?

Don’t be fooled by this picture; Peanut is not walking – she’s swinging.  Dan and Danielle, not being parents, thought it was so sweet that she wanted to hold both their hands!  She revealed her ulterior motive very quickly.

Most of the hike went along the railroad tracks, much to Nugget’s delight.  He was even more excited when a train went by!

Look at these people.  I just love them all so much.  Warm fuzzies!

After a short walk, we reached a viewpoint, and it was pretty astonishing.

Way too gorgeous.  There’s nothing quite like the California coastline.  It reminded me of hiking Point Reyes with Steve back in 2009, and of a family trip to Big Sur when I was little.

This was Danielle’s first trip to California.  I think she had a grand adventure.

We wanted to stay and gawk at the view forever, but we had to get on our way.  That’s a thing about hiking with kids – they keep you moving.

Back on the trail!

Fortunately, we had gorgeous views to enjoy while we walked.

Our next stop was the seal sanctuary portion of the nature preserve.  During the seal pup season (December through May) there are hundreds of seals on the beach below the Carpinteria Bluffs.  We were, of course, there in August – so we didn’t expect seal pups.  But we were hoping that if the beach was that popular with the pinniped set, there’d still be a few lounging around.

Strikeout.  Lots of seagulls, though.  The good news?  I’d forgotten my zoom lens back at our aunt and uncle’s house, so I wouldn’t have been able to paparazzi the pinnipeds even if they had been there.  Since they weren’t, I stopped kicking myself for forgetting it.

The seal overlook (that wasn’t) was the end goal of our hike, so we turned around and headed back to the cars.  We were all a little bummed that there were no pinnipeds, but happy to have had time together in a beautiful place – no regrets!

Dan felt sorry that we hadn’t seen any seals, so he did his best imitation.

It’s really a shame that he is always serious and hates fun.

We had some extra time, and we were having fun hanging out together, so we decided to keep the party going (and hopefully see some pinnipeds after all) in Ventura.  Dan and Danielle had been staying on our Uncle Peter’s boat, which is docked in Ventura Harbor, and they said there was a gaggle of sea lions that could be spotted pretty reliably around the Channel Islands National Park visitors’ center.  So we decided that lunch in Ventura Harbor was clearly in order.

Uncle Peter got his boat fairly recently, so I never had a chance to visit Ventura Harbor when we would stay in Santa Barbara on childhood trips.  It was bustling and beautiful.

With just the right amount of kitsch.

It’s too bad that Aunt Danielle is also always serious and hates fun.

Piggyback love was spread around.  Peanut had her turn in Carpinteria, and now Nugget got a chance to ride on Uncle Dan.

It was such a treat to be together in California and get to spend some quality time with Dan and Danielle.  Sorry for the gushing, but I just love this gang so much!

We walked around almost the entire harbor, checking out all of the boats.

And finally, a pinniped sighting!  There were a small group of California sea lions sunning themselves on the docks near the national park visitors’ center, just as Dan and Danielle had promised there would be.

Ahhhhhhh they are so funny and adorable!!!!

After our walk, we enjoyed a fabulous lunch at one of the seafood restaurants right on the harbor, and spent some time exploring the Channel Islands National Park visitors’ center.  Peanut and Nugget rode on dolphin and sea lion statues, because why not, and we all soaked up the family time that we don’t get nearly enough.  The hike may not have gone quite to plan, but any day on the trail with Dan and Danielle is a red letter day.

What is your favorite place to spot wildlife?

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Ahhhhhh, summer.  You’re almost over – tomorrow is officially the first day of fall.  And while I’m ready to welcome my favorite season, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give my very-close-second favorite the sendoff that it deserves.

I’ve written here before that, while I live in the temperate Mid-Atlantic region now, I still have something of a New York mentality when it comes to summer fun.  I’m used to waiting impatiently all year for what inevitably turns out to be far too short of a warm season, and to squeezing every minute of fun that I can possibly get out of these few months of the year.  Even in Virginia, where the days are long and warm into October, I can’t help myself – I pack every weekend with activity and drag the family out to make memories several times a week.  Someone stop me!

On Memorial Day weekend, we welcomed the high summer season with a visit to a lavender farm, a stroll through Jones Point Park, and lots of pleasant wandering around Old Town.  We made the rounds of the playgrounds and ate delicious Mexican food with Zan and Paul, who were in town visiting.

The next weekend, Steve went out of town for a boys’ getaway to celebrate a friend’s fortieth birthday.  I was on solo parent duty and spent most of the five days of his absence running to and from the nanny, school and work – and then Peanut came down with a vicious case of strep.  No fun at all!  But we did manage to get out for some fun on that Saturday.  I might be insane, but I took both kids to the zoo by myself.  We visited with the great cats, pandas, elephants and more and the kids had way too much fun in the splash pad.

As soon as Steve returned, I left – for two days of practice group meetings at my firm’s Chicago office.  It was mostly workshops and networking, but I did manage to squeeze in a little time for myself.  I set my alarm early on Friday morning and headed out for just shy of four miles of Chicago sightseeing before making my way to the office and then the airport.

With a couple of weeks to spend at home before our travel schedule heated up, we explored the summer fun in northern Virginia.  We put in some quality time at our local community pool and found a new favorite activity – the splash pad!  We were there almost every weekend, unless we were out of town.

And we also spent a lot of time here – on the back patio, tending to our garden.  It was a little slapstick sometimes, but we had fun and learned some stuff.

In late June, summer travel began in earnest!  We spent a weekend on Virginia Beach visiting with my BFF Rebecca, her fiancé Eric, and their family.  We even got to be there to wish a certain Buffalo friend’s little nephew a happy second birthday in person, and to see his mom’s adorable baby bump!  (Congratulations on your upcoming promotion to big brother status, Hudson!)

And just two weeks later, we packed up the car again and headed to New York for the fourth of July weekend, which we spent at my parents’ Adirondack camp.  Nothing better!

We hiked at Grafton State Park with my friend Christine (and Nugget tried to launch one of the rescue kayaks).

Climbed our third Adirondack high peak.

Took the kayak out for a paddle on the Sacandaga… (#paddlethedacks)

Sailed with my cousin Jocelyn and some family friends…

Rambunctiously wished America a happy birthday…

And stared in awe at a golden Adirondack sunset.

The very next weekend, we spent the day at a motor sports park in West Virginia watching Steve race a Porsche supercar around their track – his “big” Christmas present from 2016.  He absolutely loved it – and so did Nugget, who has proudly been telling everyone we meet that his daddy drives race cars.

We kept the paddling fun coming at Fletcher’s Cove – now that we knew the kids could be trusted to duff, there was no keeping us off the water!

And – kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk! – we picked blueberries at Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, Maryland…

Which were later turned into pie.

We swam in the community pool a lot.

And then we flew to California for the wedding of a dear friend, followed by a family reunion!

We had some epic adventures (stories continue every Friday!)…

And flew home over the Grand Canyon.

We visited with our heroes.

And we bid farewell to summer from the sunflower fields.

Bon voyage, summer of ’17!  You’ve been sun-baked and sweet.  And now, fall, you can start anytime.

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On Peanut’s fifth birthday, we woke up with two thoughts on our minds: (1) give the birthday girl ALL the snuggles; and (2) watch the solar eclipse!  Santa Barbara was nowhere near the path of totality, but we still wanted to tune in for the show that all of America was going crazy for.  So we swiped my Uncle Peter’s eclipse glasses (he was out at Channel Islands with my brother and sister-in-law) and headed for Goleta Beach, the nearest sandy spot to my Uncle Peter and Aunt Kathy’s home.

It was a pretty cool show!  Even though it was only a partial eclipse where we were, Steve and I both enjoyed peering through the eclipse glasses.  The birthday girl, predictably, wanted nothing to do with the eclipse.

Little bro took a look for a minute, but I don’t know how much he really saw.  He shoved the glasses off his face and asked to walk the pier instead.  Okay, little guy – you win!

We walked all the way out to the end of the Goleta Pier and looked back over the water at the pretty palm trees and the gorgeous mountains in the background.  It was a cloudy morning – but that can be better for beaching it with little ones; less worry about them turning into little lobsters.

We had a nice morning digging in the sand and climbing the rocks, then headed back to my aunt and uncle’s house for lunch.  After an aborted naptime attempt, we were out the door to our afternoon activity.  When planning the trip, I knew I wanted to do something extra-special on Peanut’s birthday – something that would reflect my favorite girl and her interests.  She loves gardening and flowers, and Santa Barbara has a stunning botanic garden – so that’s where we went!

I’ve been to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden before, but not for about twenty years.  I remembered the beautiful pathways through the meadow, and the cool desert garden…

…but somehow, I’d forgotten the absolutely incredible mountain setting.  The Botanic Gardens were tucked into a hillside and nestled amongst Santa Barbara’s stunning mountains.  How did I not remember this amazing scenery?  (Well, I was fifteen at the time, and responsible for not losing my ten-year-old cousin Jessica – I was the summer childcare arrangement – which was a tall order.  So I guess I was focused on more important things than mountains at the time.)

We meandered through the meadow exhibit first, and I couldn’t stop gushing over the craggy mountains surrounding us.

Met a new friend…

This little guy was smaller than the lizards we saw in Joshua Tree, but no less fascinating!

Peanut found a pond – still her favorite ecosystem!  Some things never change.

After a good ramble around the meadows, we headed down into a ravine to explore the redwood section.  As we walked past the sign, we saw trees towering with their canopies seventy feet above us, just off to our left.  Steve remarked that he was thinking those were pretty tall trees, but nothing that impressive, until he realized that they were growing up from the ravine floor, some 100 feet below.

We strolled down a beautiful path through the stand of California redwoods – another part of the garden I had forgotten from my last visit.  So unbelievably gorgeous!

Beautiful and serene.

After we got our fill of the redwoods we headed back up to explore more of the hillside.

Nugget and I checked out the cactus garden – always one of my favorite spots in any botanic garden.  And then we set off in search of a hidden treasure Steve had heard was tucked away in a corner of the gardens.

Walked past the potting sheds – so pretty and picturesque.

Down a pretty path, through a less-traveled section of the garden, all the way to…

A Japanese tea house, originally built in Kyoto and reassembled painstakingly in Santa Barbara!  According to the garden’s brochure, it is still used for tea ceremonies.  But on the day we visited, it was shut up tightly.  Still such a treat to see.

We had one more stop to make in the garden – a new nature center that was built recently (so, long after my fuzzily-remembered last visit).

Crossed the street and ascended a mountain path – the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens delivered some great hiking!  Up to the nature center, which was closed, but that was fine – we were really there for the view.  This view:

Whoa.  And also this one, too:

Can you believe this place is real?  It’s like something from a beautiful dream.

The hills are aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiive…

Oh, my little loves.  Never a dull moment.

After spending a good half hour running on the lawn, rolling in the grass and gawking at the view, it was time to head back down the hillside for dinner.  Check out that view on the way down!  How many hikes deliver those kind of wonders?  We will definitely be back.

Still reeling from the beauty of the Botanic Gardens, we drove down out of the mountains and into Santa Barbara proper, to meet the rest of the family for Peanut’s birthday dinner.  I had to browbeat everyone a little bit, but I managed to drag the entire family together – my parents, Dan and Danielle, my Uncle Peter and Aunt Kathy, and my cousin Jessica – at a beachfront restaurant in downtown SB.

We were early, so we got to explore the beautiful boardwalk and bike trail area, and to spend some time watching the skateboarders riding in the oceanside skate park.  Nugget was completely fascinated, and Peanut wanted to know where the girl skateboarders were.  (Her first feminist moment?)

Anyway, we had a lovely short walk taking in the beach and ocean and mountain scenery.  Santa Barbara is so gorgeous!  And then, it was time for dinner.

Our group was so big, I couldn’t get everyone in the frame!  Nugget – Peanut – Nana – Aunt Kathy – Uncle Peter – Dan – Danielle (blocked from view) – Jessica – Steve – Grandad.  And Mom behind the lens, as always.

Okay, there they all are.

Nugget made the rounds of the table, and also twisted every single adult arm into accompanying him to view the big aquarium by the hostess station.

But don’t worry – he was back for cake.  The restaurant kindly gifted Peanut with a gigantic slice of mud pie (which was actually the world’s most delicious coffee ice cream confection) and the whole table shared it – after she blew out her candle and made her five-year-old wish, of course.

Happy birthday, one more time, my girl!  I hope you had a great day.  We sure do love you!


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Get ready for a massive photobomb of a hiking recap!  When we decided to make California our family vacation for the year, I knew immediately that I wanted to hit the trails and explore another national park or two.  Some quality time spent on nps.gov narrowed the candidates down, and when I checked my schedule I decided that it made sense to include Joshua Tree National Park in our itinerary for the trip.  To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by Joshua Tree.  Of course, I know that any park that has achieved National Park status has been elevated for a reason, so I was sure it would be wonderful.  But my uncle – who lives in California – had sort of downplayed it and I had the idea that Joshua Tree would be one of those places I’d be glad to have visited once, but not feel compelled to return to again and again.

Then I stepped out of the car.

I’d been getting more and more excited as we drove into the desert, and I almost flew out the window when we spotted the first Joshua tree by the side of the road.  But still, I was unprepared for how immediately and completely the desert landscape would grab ahold of my heart and imagination, just feet from the park gate.

I had planned out two short hikes for us to do in the park (and immediately wished we had time for more, and to stay the night – I’m sure the stars are incredible over the desert).  Without skipping a beat, we sunscreened up, collected the kids’ Junior Ranger workbooks, and headed off to our first hike.

Barker Dam is a 1.1 mile loop hike that hits some of the highest points of scenery in the park – historic old structures, sweeping mountain vistas, interesting rock formations, prehistoric petroglyphs, and a veritable forest of Joshua trees.

Yes, I did dress him in that “National Park Explorer” t-shirt on purpose.  Thank you for asking.

We headed down the trail as both kids snacked on applesauce pouches (don’t worry, we packed out all of our trash – leave no trace!).  Just as I was starting to wonder how long this hike was going to take with four little feet on the trail, Nugget asked for “uppy.”  Phew!  Fortunately, I was prepared with my hiking backpack; we’d left Steve’s back in Virginia.

Steve and Peanut continued down the trail ahead of us, keeping a careful watch for flora and fauna to record in Peanut’s Junior Ranger booklet.  Nugget asked me if he could climb the rocks.  I promised to bring him back someday, so we could climb them together.  (And instantly started planning to enroll him in a kids’ climbing course at EarthTreks just as soon as he’s old enough.)

I was in awe of the incredibly cool rock formations, myself – and of the incredible diversity of the desert foliage.  We were really there for the Joshua trees, of course, but we kept an eye out for beautiful cacti, junipers, and other desert plants.  We saw a lot!

So many cool and interesting plants!  Eventually, we climbed through a narrow and technical pass and found ourselves at Barker Dam – the historical landmark for which the hike was named.  It was cool to see one of the oldest structures in the park – but even cooler was the incredible mountain vista beyond it.

Oh, California, you have stolen my heart!

At this point, Steve suggested we “make it an out and back.”  I was reluctant to turn back and see the same scenery over that we had already been through.  We asked a couple of hikers who were doing the loop trail in reverse how it was in the direction from which they’d come, and they assured us that once we got down out of the narrow path, it would be smooth sailing.  We took their word for it, descended some rock stairs, and found that they’d told the truth – the rest of the trail was flat, easy, and completely different from the rock formations we’d been seeing.  Now, we were completely surrounded by the park’s namesake Joshua trees!

I just couldn’t get enough of them.  I knew what Joshua trees were and how they got their name, and I thought they’d be fine but nothing Earth-shattering.  I was completely wrong!  Around every corner, I found myself gasping at new visual splendors.

I was a broken record, but I couldn’t stop stammering out how beautiful this park is.  Joshua trees, as far as the eye can see!  Eventually, we finished the hike – but not before checking out some ancient petroglyphs for one more treat.  Throughout the hike, I had been reminding my companions to “keep your eyes open for rock art!”  As I hiked along, I carefully inspected each boulder for signs of ancient civilization.  Turns out, I could have saved my time and squints, because the park helpfully placed a sign on the trail reading “Petroglyphs 0.3” – well, that was easy!

So amazingly cool.  Peanut approved.

From Barker Dam, we headed to our second hike of the park – Hidden Valley.  (Yes, I thought of ranch dressing.)  The Hidden Valley trail is also about a 1-mile loop, bringing our total mileage to just over two miles for the day – pretty good for an almost-five-year-old.  Peanut was a champ throughout both hikes, and I was so proud of her.  She was inspiring everyone on the trail, and more than one group decided to press on and finish their hikes as we came through with our preschooler on foot and toddler in a backpack.

Anyway, before setting off on the Hidden Valley trail, we reapplied sunscreen, had a quick snack, and Peanut worked on her Junior Ranger book – she had some drawing activities to do – at the picnic tables while Nugget and I gawked at the view across the road (above).

Let’s do the thing!

Hidden Valley was a totally different landscape.  In 1910, an explorer had blasted a hole in a large boulder and slipped through to find a paradise never before seen by human eyes – a hidden valley, lush with all kinds of desert foliage.  It’s still pretty much unspoilt, and a completely different landscape from the Barker Dam hike.  I couldn’t believe how varied the topography was inside the park.

Nugget was chomping at the bit to climb these mountains.  He takes after his mom.

We were keeping our eyes open for cool wildlife throughout both hikes, and we finally saw a little friend.  See him sunning himself?

No?  How about now?

I just couldn’t get enough of Joshua Tree National Park, and I’m so glad we made time for it!

After leaving the park, we stopped at the visitors’ center and collected the kids’ Junior Ranger badges – their first! – and I think I was even more excited than they were.  They were both conked out while we presented our booklets and got their badges, and the park ranger took one look at them – Peanut passed out in Steve’s arms, and Nugget in mine – and deadpanned, “They have to be awake to take the oath.”  Ha!  They very nicely gave us the badges for both kids without making them wake up, and even though Nugget was technically too young (every park’s program is different, but Joshua Tree’s starts at age 4).  The kids were proud and delighted when I showed them their badges later, and have insisted on wearing them regularly so that family and friends can marvel at their accomplishment.

Joshua Tree National Park, you were a delight from the first moment to the last, and I can’t wait to visit again!

What’s your favorite national park?  Shenandoah still has my heart, but Joshua Tree was a joy.

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