The Mother of Adventure

Paradise Found

SunriseWalking out the doors of the San Jose Del Cabo airport, the heat and humidity hit us like a wall.

This was nothing new – it felt nearly identical to the weather we had recently left at home in the suburbs of Ottawa, Ontario. The main difference was the setting we would call home for a week; the cab ride through the scorched and barren desert of the Baja California peninsula ended in the most visually stunning and relaxing travel destination I have ever experienced.

Beach funI had questioned travelling to Mexico in the summer – Canadians tend to try to time out their beach escapes for the cold months – but it was the only time of year that it worked out for my husband and his entire family to meet from various sides of the continent. It also coincided perfectly with the 40th wedding anniversary of my parents-in-law, which was the impetus for our celebratory trip.

And let’s face it; if you’re going to be stuck with a solid week of high temperatures and humidity, you might as well have a pina colada in hand and a gorgeous pool within a hop, skip and a jump – not to mention a heavenly view of the ocean waves crashing against the beach.

I have to credit a huge portion of our idyllic stay to our amazing hotel – we were at the Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort. With breath-taking views from virtually every angle, each guest room in the hotel offers an oceanfront view. Our good fortune for staying at such an incredible place was due solely to the incredible generosity of my in-laws – who treated the whole family in honour of their landmark anniversary.

Balcony view2My husband and I literally spent the first couple of days struggling to absorb the calibre of the holiday we had been given. Our room was beautiful, every single meal was outstanding, even the temperature of the pool was perfect – a tepid bath that disposed of that awkward, easing-into-the-cold-water feeling.

While the adults were transitioning, our kids jumped right in – literally. Our nine-year-old and five-year-old daughters were thrilled to spend their days splashing in the huge hotel pools and jumping waves in the ocean with their younger cousin. In fact, it turned out to be a challenge to get them to take breaks – for meals and sunscreen reapplication – during their many hours in the water.

Daddy & girlsLos Cabos is the perfect place to go to relax; there is really not a whole lot to do beyond sitting by the pool and jumping waves in the ocean (there were some good surfing opportunities for the ambitious and athletically inclined; our group stayed closer to the shoreline and watched). When we bored of lying in the sun with our novels and enjoying margaritas and freshly-made guacamole at the swim-up bar, we took excursions to the local towns on either side of the resort – Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo.

Historically a fishing port, Cabo San Lucas was revitalized in the 80s and 90s to become a tourist destination for nightlife – something comparable to the party atmosphere of Cancun. For university students it might be appealing, but our daytime family visit revealed a lot of garish nightclubs and tacky souvenir shops. For us, the highlight was definitely an hour-long boat tour which took us past the gorgeous, rocky arch called El Arco de Cabo San Lucas and a number of other well-known rocky structures and beaches in the area.

La Panga2San Jose del Cabo was a study in contrast, offering more history, art and culture than Cabo San Lucas. The buildings and the Parroquia San José church gave a sense of old Mexican charm to the town, which was officially founded as a mission in 1730. We browsed a few of the many galleries and ceramic gift stores, and enjoyed an excellent seafood dinner at La Panga Antigua.

The worst part about our family vacation was leaving our new-found paradise; after the initial disbelief, I must say I had transitioned quite nicely to the pampered life. Although I love our life in Ottawa, coming back to reality – complete with laundry, yard and meal duties – was a bitter-sweet pill to swallow. But I can always dig my toes in the kids’ sandbox, crack open a Corona and dream that I’m back in paradise.

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Mommy and Daddy need a “time out” (Paris, France)

Biking in Paris while taking a “time out” from the kids.

I’ve had the pleasure of taking over my husband Ian’s weekly blog space on the Today’s Parent web site over the past month, to help ease his workload while he concentrated on the London Olympics. Today was my fourth and final blog post – reflecting on taking a kid-free, mini-vacay here in Europe.

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Suburban girl meets big-city transit system (London, UK)

In my latest blog post for ‘Today’s Parent,’ I describe my evolution from all-Canadian suburbanite to savvy London transit mom!

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Giuseppe’s Ristorante Italiano (London, UK)

One of the fantastic things about London is the amazing variety of food. While you just can’t leave the city without chowing down on some traditional fish and chips (at least once), you are not in the least bit limited to classic British fare.

Last night, my husband finished work in time to meet me for dinner in Southwark. He was starved and we decided to go for Italian; he knew of a quaint little spot close to London Bridge called Giuseppe’s. The address is on High Street but the entrance is on the side of the building, so you have to go partway into a little alley to get in.

Down a steep flight of stairs, the cozy little restaurant is situated below ground level. ‘Cozy’ can be great when you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with your own friends and family, but not always as desirable when you’re seated four inches from another foreign couple having their dinner. Tight quarters…we were wondering why we didn’t get one of the larger tables until more customers flowed in; in no time at all the place was packed.

The restaurant’s popularity is definitely a testament to Giuseppe’s cuisine. We started with a bowl of olives and an order of garlic-stuffed mushrooms. There were only two mushrooms on the plate – but they were massive portobellos; a delicious appetizer. The biggest surprise, however, was yet to come.

Both Ian and I decided to have a pasta main; I settled on the ‘Ravioli Lobster’ and Ian ordered a dish called ‘Pasta Nero di Seppia.’ He had pointed it out on the menu for our waiter; if I had heard the word ‘nero’ it might have tipped me off as to what we were about to see.

Ian unwittingly orders ‘Pasta Nero.’

When our meals were placed in front of us, we both stared at Ian’s dish in total shock. He had been presented with a huge bowl of linguine pasta with seafood, which is just what he had expected. What he didn’t expect was for every last piece of it to be perfectly black. Dark as night.

After simultaneously wearing puzzled expressions and asking each other, “What IS that?” Ian took his first tentative bit.

I watched his reaction carefully. “What does it taste like?” I asked.

“It tastes totally normal – like seafood pasta,” he replied. He began digging in with more gusto. A few bites later, I snickered at him; his lips, tongue and teeth were all blackened beyond belief. Clearly this mystery dish was not a first-date food.

I was admittedly skeptical about Ian’s ink pasta dish.

Curious, I had to try it for myself. Sure enough, it tasted delicious. But I just couldn’t get past the colour! It prompted a conversation about the psychological impact foods’ colour has on our perceived enjoyment of it. We both agreed the black sauce was somewhat bizarre.

When we were about halfway through our meal (you’ll notice that the North American ‘quality check’ in restaurants is sorely lacking here; if you need something, good luck getting your server’s attention), I flagged one of the waitresses who seemed to have a solid grasp of English. She explained that the black colour was indeed ink, taken from a cuttlefish to flavour and colour the dish.

Back at the hotel, we did some quick online research to learn more about the evening’s mystery dish. In fact, we found a short video from a celebrity chef that outlined the cooking procedure for Ian’s exact meal. It does not seem to be uncommon, nor is it something exclusive to London. It was simply something we had never heard of or tried before, thus turning our dinner out into a somewhat comic and highly memorable experience.

Oh – by the way – my lobster-stuffed ravioli was fab.

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Natural History Museum (London, UK)

The impressive exterior of the Natural History Museum.

The Natural History Museum is, in a word, incredible. This spot definitely needs to be added to your ‘must-see’ list when you’re visiting London, especially while travelling with kids.

First of all, be forewarned that this place is massive. We spent about three hours there and I would guess that we might have seen 20 per cent of the museum, if that. In fact, we may plan a second visit since we are lucky enough to be in London for several weeks. Try getting there in the morning while the kids’ energy level is high and the crowds are thin.

If you have the chance (and access to a computer), check out the museum’s excellent web site before your visit. It will give you a sense of the main areas of the museum – which are called ‘Zones’ and classified by colour for easy navigation. It also features a ‘Parents’ survival guide’ that lists some key activities that you’ll want to check out if visiting with kids.

Lily models the gear included in her ‘Explorer backpack.’

We started out by visiting the Central Hall, where the information desk supplies the under-seven-year-old set with ‘Explorer backpacks’ (yes, they are free!). These ridiculously cute exploration kits consist of a small, orange backpack, kid-friendly binoculars and a plastic explorer hat (reminiscent of Go, Diego, Go!). You have your choice of backpack themes – I requested the ‘Mammal’ edition for my four-year-old daughter, Lily. A bag containing three ‘specimens’ and a booklet of clues prompts kids to find a specific exhibit within their theme (spoiler alert: Lily had to find the polar bear display in the mammal hall).

Elissa discovers a tray of specimens in the hands-on kids’ laboratory.

For older children – ages seven to 14 – the lower level offers up an impressive hands-on science lab called ‘Investigate.’ Staffed with enthusiastic young volunteers, the large lab is home to hundreds of specimens – all of which can be pulled out in trays and examined with magnifying glasses and easy-to-operate microscopes. An adjoining courtyard garden (which was under renovation during our visit) allows kids to collect live bugs and pond samples.

Lily checks out a display in the ‘Creepy Crawlies’ area.

One area within the green zone on the main level is ‘Creepy Crawlies.’ Elissa and Lily enjoyed walking through the kitchen display, which features cupboards and a garbage can that can be opened to see pictures and read information about common household pests. Displays are organized according to four main groups: insects, crabs and related species, centipedes and millipedes, and spiders and related species.

Partway through our exploration of the Natural History Museum, we stopped for lunch at ‘The Restaurant,’ located on the main level. Featuring a children’s ‘Scoffasaurus menu,’ there were lots of kid-friendly choices. Food is freshly prepared on site; we had a tasty meal of burgers and pizza. For those with special dietary needs, they do offer vegetarian and dairy-free dishes and food with no gluten-containing ingredients.

All in all, a great place to keep the whole family entertained, especially on a cool, windy day in London.

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Leave Wenlock for the kids

While my hubby is busy covering the London 2012 Olympic Games, I am taking over his weekly blog for ‘Today’s Parent.’ My second blog entry is dedicated to Wenlock, the controversial Olympic mascot.

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Borough Market (London, UK)

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the Borough Market is bustling.

I have had the luxury of spending the past couple of days in the London Borough of Southwark, enjoying some rare child-free time as the girls bond with their grandpa and grandma.

One of the major highlights of this area is the Borough Market, which is London’s oldest and most renowned fruit and vegetable market. I’ve enjoyed strolling through the stalls of vendors (there are over 100 individual stalls), most of which offer high-quality food products for sale. There is also the occasional booth selling handcrafted items, such as painted dishes and bags.

One vendor offers an incredible selection of mushrooms.

While my adopted hometown of Ottawa offers a number of lovely outdoor markets in the summer months, I have to say that the Borough Market dwarfs them all in both size and quality of offerings. In addition to the jaw-dropping selection of fresh produce, there is a myriad of meat, fish, baked goods, oils, jams, preserves and beverages (yes, many of them alcoholic!). One booth offered up a stunning selection of fresh mushrooms – virtually every variety I have ever heard of and more.

An array of thirst-quenching juices for sale at the Market.

Freshly-squeezed juices abound; I treated myself to an orange-mango juice from a market merchant. Large slices of fresh watermelon were also a popular item for those looking to quench their thirst on a warm July day.

Though I didn’t have my kids with me at the Borough Market, I would advise visitors with children to plan to arrive as early in the day as possible. Customers trickle in as the day begins, but by early to mid-afternoon shoppers are shoulder to shoulder on a summer weekend.

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Science Museum (London, UK)

Lily makes some music in ‘The Garden’ at the Science Museum.

One of the first kid-friendly destinations we targeted after arriving here in London was the Science Museum. My niece – who is about to turn three – had recently been there and we heard positive feedback about the museum’s interactive areas. Our own experience certainly didn’t disappoint, especially considering this impressive institution is open year-round with free admission to the public (a £5 donation per person is suggested).

We began our exploration of the museum on the lower level, in an area called ‘The Garden.’ While it’s targeted at three to six-year-old children, even eight-year-old Elissa loved it. She and her younger sister Lily, age four, spent nearly an hour playing together in this hands-on area, which featured unusual instruments, crazy mirrors, a large water table and giant-sized lego blocks.

Lily rides in a smaller version of the museum’s Red Arrow flight simulators.

After a short snack break (the raspberry ice cream was delicious!), we proceeded to the third floor. This is home to a Red Arrow flight simulation area, which includes a 3D cinema as well as Fly Zone flight simulators (tickets must be purchased separately). For the younger set, there is Fly Kids, which is similar to a ramped-up, coin-operated mall ride.

The ‘Launchpad’ is also located on the third floor. Another interactive area, this one is aimed at eight to 14-year-old kids. One energy-themed activity featured a bike connected to a generator; increasing your pedaling speed powered the generator to illuminate a bulb and then activate a television (with a camera pointed at the cyclist, so you see an image of yourself).

Elissa participates in a rocket demo.

Connected to the Launchpad is a demonstration room, where we took in a presentation about rockets. Elissa – who is not in the least bit shy – agreed to participate in a demo for the group. The presentor had her act as the front of a rocket with a little boy (who acted as the back of the rocket); the skit demonstrated one of Newton’s laws of motion.

After the demonstration, we perused an area that detailed historical advances in medicine. At this point, we had spent about three hours at the Museum and, while we had only explored two of the many levels of exhibits, decided to get going.

A pizza lunch around the corner from the museum.

There is a myriad of cafés and restaurants close to the Science Museum, which is accessible via the South Kensington tube station. The girls were looking for pizza, so we found an inexpensive little restaurant, Sole Luna, to sit down. Our ham-and-cheese pizza was the perfect end to our successful outing.

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Landed in London

Daddy and Elissa (8), settle in for the trans-Atlantic flight.

Our flight from Ottawa to London would definitely be deemed a “smashing” success (yes, I’m trying to start using London lingo!).

My husband, Ian and I were intrigued to see how the red-eye flight would play out with our two young daughters. As we had hoped, both of them ended up sleeping for four or five hours – as did Mom and Dad. So we were all in decent shape energy-wise when we landed at Heathrow Airport just after 11 a.m. local time (or should I say 11:00 hours – the 24-hour clock is utilized here).

Jet-lag is a strange beast though – it did catch up with Lily on our first night when she went to bed early (19:00) only to awaken two hours later in a sweaty snit of a mood. For the next three hours, she snacked and played computer games before she was finally ready to come back to bed.

Elissa was pretty excited about her first double-decker bus ride in London.

We all slept in till 10:00 on our first full day in London, which ended up being a true transitional day. The jet-lag came back to bite Lily once again that afternoon when she got extremely fussy on a short walk from the flat, necessitating a double-decker bus ride right back to our starting point. The day definitely ended on a high note for Ian and I, however, as we had the chance to see our long-time friends Kim & Brandon Hollywood and their two little girls. Nothing says “Welcome to London” better than two smiling friends with waiting glasses of Pimms!

Day #2

I couldn’t think of a better way to start the day than a cappuccino overlooking the Thames River; we are very blessed to be using Grandma & Grandpa’s beautiful flat as our ‘home base’ while in London.

Morning coffee overlooking the Thames River.

 

It seems we’ve brought the sun with us from Ottawa; it’s been sunny and warm since we arrived, with not a drop of rain in sight. We decided the conditions were perfect for taking in some sights.

Two double-decker bus rides brought us to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen ushered us in for high tea. Well, not quite…but we did get some cute shots of the girls; we will have to plan our return trip to see the changing of the guard.

Our daughter, Elissa, had read all about Big Ben in her kids’ travel guide to London so she was excited to see the real thing.

A short walk later and we were admiring Big Ben, followed by some obligatory playtime in the classic, red phone booths. We made it to Trafalgar Square, which was not much of a stopping point as it was cordoned off – assumably in preparation for some Olympic festivities. So no pigeon-taming for us today.

After about five hours of tourist wanderings, we were all happy to come back to the flat and relax before ordering yummy Indian food for dinner.

So far, Lily has definitely been most affected by the jet lag, though it may rear its ugly head again in the next day or two. I’ve noticed that I’ve been hungry at odd times, despite doing my best to switch over to UK meal times; I suppose that’s jet lag’s effect on me.

Five hours of sight-seeing took its toll on four-year-old Lily, who passed out en route back to the flat.

Tomorrow promises to be another very warm day; my hoodie and raincoat are feeling a bit like wasted real estate in the suitcase right now, but you certainly won’t hear me complaining! I know the Brits are overjoyed to say farewell to the constant rain – at least for a little while.

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Power packing!

Consider making a packing checklist – or buy one like this pad from Knock Knock.

Planning a major trip months in advance has the effect of making it seem somewhat surreal; at least that’s the case for me. We’ve known about my husband Ian’s assignment to cover the 2012 London Olympics for about half a year, and quickly made the decision that the whole family would go. Yet, the excitement of the trip didn’t really build until the final weeks leading up to it; perhaps because it was hard to imagine myself sipping a Pimm’s on a London patio while wearing a snowflake sweater under a parka and scraping ice off the windshield.

Now that the packing has started in earnest, the reality – and the excitement – of our trip has started to sink in. That extra adrenaline is a big help, as packing up your family for an overseas trip is a big job. Now that I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel of trip preparation, I thought I’d share a few of my own tips with you:

Use lists

I’ve always been a list maker. I’m the type of person who goes to the grocery store and, if I don’t have a list, buys everything I need for spaghetti and meatballs…except the spaghetti. My fellow moms will understand this; as keepers of all family and household minutiae, mothers constantly have about 73 thoughts, logistics, to-do items and details swirling around in our brains. So when it comes to packing for a major trip lists are really helpful; especially since you’ll need to think of extra things you wouldn’t need for a quick weekend trip. You can make your own lists – simple using any sort of word processor – or you can even buy a pre-formatted packing list like the one pictured here.

Pack for the weather

I know this seems like a no-brainer, but I can honestly tell you that it’s hard to pack for a climate that’s totally different than your own. With Ontario in the midst of a massive heat wave, I really don’t remember the last time I put on a pair of pants. These days, my usual garb is a pair of shorts, a tank top and sandals; I have totally – and happily – switched over to summer mode. So it’s a bit disheartening to see that the summer so far in London has been rainy and cool, with average daytime temperatures in the mid to low teens. Accordingly, I’ve had to take a second look at our suitcases – in my case taking out eight of the nine tank tops and switching them for a few long-sleeved t-shirts and (*sigh!*) even a sweatshirt. I’ll also need to make room for a hooded raincoat for myself and everyone else in the family.

Try it on

This is especially important for travelling with kids, who grow and change so fast. Before throwing in a favourite pair of pants or leggings, take a minute and get them to put it on to make sure they haven’t inadvertently turned into capri pants. I swear my kids grow overnight – sometimes they emerge from their bedrooms and they just look taller…and they usually are! Another advantage I’ve found to trying things on is that I often find minor problems with clothing items that need to be addressed. A button fell off a shirt, or a mysterious stain appeared after last week’s art class. By checking your items in advance, you give yourself time for minor mending or shopping for replacement items when needed.

Be practical

They say that ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ but I think you have to take that with a grain of salt, especially when kids are involved. Sure, I’ll be hitting the streets of London (with a couple of days in Paris – woo hoo!) but I’m not sure it’s in my best interests – or those of my kids – to try to keep up with European runway fashions. The truth is: Most of my time will be spent visiting kid-friendly attractions. I’ll also be going up and down many flights of dingy stairs as we get on and off the Tube or double-decker buses. So do I really want to be teetering around in a pair of uncomfortable heels, or worrying that the vagrant in the subway might try to snatch my ‘Coach’ purse? No thanks. I’ll stick with my Columbia walking shoes and my MEC satchel if it means I can move around with ease and comfort; plus that’s more my style anyway.

While they might be awful for the teeth, a few secretly-stashed lollipops just might save your sanity and calm a fussy toddler in the middle of a trans-Atlantic flight.

Think like a kid

As a parent, I am constantly on the go. So the thought of sitting on a plane – while someone else brings me a beverage of MY choice – seems like pure bliss. Give me a neck pillow and I’m good to go. Not so with kids; unlike us, little people have endless energy and abhor being dormant for long. Of course on a plane, there is no choice; so you’ve got to think ahead and keep it fresh. One thing I did is to buy them each a new activity book; I found them at Costco for about $8 each. More than a simple colouring book, these have all sorts of educational activities; they are designed to help kids prepare for their next year in school. Since the apple never falls far from the tree, our kids are of the geeky variety that actually love homework so this is a treat for them.

Speaking of treats, don’t forget those; hungry kids equals cranky kids. There is always the possibility of unexpected delays with travel, so have some nourishing snacks on hand like nuts (our girls love almonds and cashews), granola bars, mini pitas or crackers. (Fruit and veggies are great, but bear in mind they are not permitted through customs so you’ll have to snack on them in the car or during check-in.) Stash a secret supply of Smarties or lollipops in your purse in case you need a quick fix for a fussy child. Don’t forget the water; air circulation is always brutal on planes and you’ll dehydrate if you’re not drinking frequently.

If your kids love their screen time as much as ours do, think about bringing a portable DVD player (with a few fave movies) or an iPad with some fun games. A small, blank pad of paper and a bag of crayons and markers, ‘Go Fish’ playing cards and dry-erase books are other entertainment ideas.

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