Monday, December 21, 2015

Weekend in Boonville

Every holiday season, my family gets together for a weekend getaway. It was a decision we made five years ago to forego gift giving and instead use those resources to experience something new together. As adults, my siblings and I have spread out across Northern California, so a weekend together gives us the opportunity to reconnect and for the cousins to play together (probably the highlight of the trips for me is seeing the kids reunite). Whether it's a weekend away, or something easier like taking a family hike or playing tourist closer to home, I have found that creating memories together has been far more rewarding than gifts.

This year we landed on the small town of Boonville, nestled in the Anderson Valley and a short drive from the coastal town of Mendocino. Our home for the weekend was the beautiful Toll House Inn. I could probably devote an entire post to this amazing property alone. The Inn is made up of two rental properties (The Toll House and the Bunkhouse) that are adjoined by a common breezeway, but are otherwise completely separate. We stayed in the Toll House, which is a historic Boonville Landmark, built in 1912, and beautifully restored to accommodate large groups. There are 4 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms (horray for that!) as well as a chef's kitchen and an inviting common room with a wood burning fireplace. The Inn sits on 650 acres of open space that includes hiking trails and a pond and could easily provide enough entertainment if you chose to forego the local wineries and state parks.

Every square inch of the home was perfectly styled while still being extremely inviting.
As tempting as it was to spend our entire visit snuggled up next to the fireplace, we did venture out on Saturday morning to take advantage of the break in the rain. Our first planned stop of the day was Hendy Woods State Park, which much to my dismay ended up being closed for the season due to construction. The other nearby state park, Navarro River Redwoods, was also closed due to flooding on the highway that provided access to the park. Luckily, the entrance to Hendy Woods was directly next to the Philo Apple Farm, which had peaked my interest during my research for the trip.

Although apple picking season was over and the farm was clearly in it's off-season, there was a small farmstand full of fresh fruit and apple juice as well as a nice assortment of jams, jellies, chutneys and wine, among other tasty treats. The kids enthusiastically pounded a glass of their fresh apple juice and then we took a short walk down to the Navarro river that runs along the edge of the farm. The apple farm is definitely a place I would like to return to in the fall.

Since the nearby parks were either closed or inaccessible, we opted to start the wine tasting portion of the day a little earlier than intended. Our first stop was Navarro Vineyards, which in addition to a nice range of award winning wines, also offers a very popular non-alcoholic grape juice. The grounds were pristine and although the tasting room was relatively small and not ideal for 4 toddlers, the outdoor space was perfect to let the kids run free. We alternated between wine tasting and playing on the grass lawn that ran next to the rows of grapevines. This would definitely make for an ideal spot to grab a bottle and have a picnic.

Just down the road was our second stop of the day, Scharffenberger Cellars, which specializes in sparkling wines. I really enjoyed our tasting at Scharffenberger. Not only were the sparkling wines extremely good (and a bargain at $20), the woman helping us was very kind and not at all phased by our large group or energetic toddlers. The tasting menu made sure to note that they were a kid-friendly venue and offered both crayons to color with and juice to keep the children entertained. I'm always a bit uneasy when wine tasting with toddlers, but their warm welcome immediately put me at ease. An added bonus is the selection of scharffenberger chocolates that you can purchase and enjoy later immediately.

View from the front patio of the tasting room
Boonville's main street is about a block long, and there are a handful of charming shops clustered around the Boonville Hotel. If you are looking for a sweet treat, then Paysanne's is worth a stop to pick up some cookies and a pint of Three Twins ice cream (have you had their Lemon Cookie flavor? soooo good!). For lunch, we wanted an easy to-go option that we could take with us to our last stop of the day, Anderson Valley Brewing. We settled on sandwiches from The Boonville General Store. I had a difficult time finding something on the menu that would appeal to our kids and the sandwich we got was good, but not memorable. I will probably give somewhere like Lauren's a chance the next time we are in the area.

With lunch in hand, we trekked on down the road to Anderson Valley Brewing Company. I always seem to favor a good brewery over a winery when traveling with kids. The vibe is typically very relaxed and in the case of Anderson Valley Brewing, there is a large outdoor area for the kids to enjoy as well as a small herd of goats. We enjoyed a pint of their Blood Orange Gose and an experimental Cherry Gose, both categorized as sour wheat beers and both VERY tasty. The kids enjoyed trying to get the attention of the goats and walking around the frisbee golf course.

We returned home just as the clouds opened up and the rain began to fall. The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent by the fireplace watching the kids chase one another around, followed by a delicious home cooked meal and Christmas presents for the kids.

The rain continued throughout the night and peaked in the morning hours. This meant, unfortunately, that we did not have the chance to explore any of the hiking trails on the property. We did enjoy a leisurely breakfast and managed to get a photo of all four cousins!

What are some of your holiday traditions? Would you prefer an experience over gifts?

Details: Boonville is about 2.5 hours from Berkeley. The Tollhouse can be rented by the room, or you can rent the entire home. I think renting by the room would be ideal for a childless vacation (or if your kids are exceptionally well behaved). The bunkhouse is another option if you have a large family, but don't require the entire home.  Tastings at Navarro Vineyards were free and most bottles were $20-$30. Tastings at Scharffenberger were $3 and waived with the purchase of a bottle, which was around $20. Pints at Anderson Valley Brewing were $4.50. Anderson Valley Brewing also offers a daily tour of their brewing facility, which you can inquire about in the tasting room.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Thrifty Traveler Turns 1: Tips for traveling with toddlers

I started this blog one year ago as a way to re-ignite my sense of adventure (something that was temporarily put on hold when I had two kids under the age of 3). As a family, we had found ourselves in an enjoyable, but pretty predictable routine of spending our weekends hanging out in the neighborhood, enjoying time with our family, visiting our local farmers market and preparing for the upcoming work week. I felt like our weekends were flying by and when I would reflect on the previous month or two, it was all a bit of a blur.

One year and nearly 50 day trips/local adventures later I know without a doubt that the decision to get out and explore with our kids has been a game changer. The kids ask us every weekend "where are we going today?" and their eyes light up when we tell them about our upcoming trips. I can only hope that their willingness to participate in these family outings continues as they grow older.

Here are a few things that I have learned from traveling with toddlers this past year:

1. It's not easy, but it's not as hard as it might seem. When I started the blog our girls were 1.5 and 3.5 years old and the idea of packing them (and all their gear) into the car for a day trip was overwhelming to me. I was already pretty exhausted from trying to keep up with the kids and planning and executing a day trip seemed like it would only further deplete my energy levels. I was wrong. REALLY wrong. It turns out that entertaining your children at home is A LOT more work then letting them be entertained by a new place. And the drives to our destinations that I had been dreading turned out to be a wonderful opportunity for me to drink my coffee without a kid climbing on me! Our kids also have a tendency to nap on the way home, so we return home in the afternoon to a clean house (because the kids hadn't been destroying it all day!) and well rested kids!

2. It doesn't have to be expensive. This was probably one of my biggest hurdles to overcome. We have two kids in daycare (expensive!) and we live in the Bay Area (even more expensive!) so we don't have a ton of disposable income. Spending money on a trip that might turn out to be a disaster was nerve wracking to me. Turns out that there are a lot of amazing things you can do for FREE in Northern California. Most of our day trips cost us between $20 and $50 for the entire family and that includes gas/toll and food. I found that having a budget for a specific trip (and likewise having a travel budget for the whole year) made it easier for me to spend money and not feel like I was spending frivolously. I'm naturally VERY frugal, so even spending $2 on a cup of coffee when I know I can make a similar cup for 20 cents at home would be a source of stress for me. Now I just spend within my budget for the trip and let myself enjoy that cup of a coffee!

3. Have realistic expectations.  This one is really important. Almost every trip that we go on there is some sort of whining (I'm hungry, I'm tired, I need you to carry me). The way I look at it is that there would probably be far more whining and tears if we were at home. Despite the occasional setbacks, there hasn't been a single trip that we have taken where I look back on it and think "I wish we hadn't gone on that trip". The memories that stick with me are of when the kids decide to hold hands and run out ahead of us or the squeals of excitement when we do something particularly adventurous. On the same note, if you are planning on overnight trip, it is best to expect a horrible nights sleep. Our oldest does pretty good at night, but our youngest is still known for squirming in the middle of the night, talking in her sleep, falling out of beds we rarely sleep well when traveling (thank you coffee).

4. Have some backup clothes and lots of wipes on hand. Something I learned on our very first trip is that our kids are prone to motion sickness! We have had quite a few incidents in the past year. Good news is that kids are exceptionally resilient and once their stomachs are empty they seem to be good to go! Most of the time we have wipes on hand and a change of clothes. A few times we didn't have extra clothes, which is when your kid ends up wearing a sweater with no shirt underneath or their little sisters leggings :)

5. Do a bit of research/planning ahead of time. Having a rough idea of where you plan to eat and visit before you set out can eliminate a lot of unnecessary stress. I get really cranky when I am hungry and searching menu's on my phone in search of a kid-friendly and budget-friendly restaurant becomes a really irritating task that often results in settling on food that I'm less than excited about. Having a flexible itinerary for the day is a must. I always try to have our food options picked out ahead of time and then a plan for what order we want to visit things, knowing that everything on our list might not get accomplished. Researching an area can be fun, but also exhausting and time you can always cheat and steal ideas from the blog :)

6. Traveling with young kids is worth it.  Before we started traveling, the idea that my kids would probably not remember most of these trips definitely crossed my mind. What I know now is that it doesn't matter if they remember the trips from when they were toddlers. The experiences are helping to shape their sense of exploration and hopefully creating a love of new adventures that will stay with them as they grow into young adults. Our oldest daughter asks us regularly to list off all of the upcoming trips we have and will quickly remind us if we forgot to include one that we previously mentioned.

7. Prep your kids ahead of time. We like to get the kids excited for upcoming trips by telling them a little bit about what we are going to do a few days in advance. It's fun to create this big image of a grand adventure in their minds and I think it makes them that more excited when it's time for the trip.

8. Plan a balanced trip. I always try to plan a trip with everyone's interest in mind. While the zoo and kids amusement parks are great for the kids, they are not all that appealing to me. Likewise, a day of wine tasting might sound great to me and horrible to our kids. If we are planning to do a beer or wine tasting, I try to find venues that have open space for the kids to run around, live music or farm animals (here is an amazing brewery with goats and a winery with goats and a river). I will also include outdoor activities such as a hike in the redwoods, a visit to a swimhole or a trip to the beach to give them a chance to let loose. Small treats during the adult portions of the trip like juice while we taste wine or fruit snacks also go a long way.

9. Traveling with other families or grandparents can make things a lot easier! Having an extra set of hands and eyes can make traveling with kids much easier. We are lucky to have both sets of grandparents nearby, so we will often try to include them in our day trips. It's a great way for the whole family to create memories together and the extra help means that you can relax a little bit more. Likewise, taking a trip with another family means the kids can typically entertain each other and you can get some much needed adult interaction!

10. Bring food/snacks from home. Trying new food is often an exciting part of traveling, but it's also an area where the dollars can add up quickly. If we are going somewhere that is known for exceptional food, coffee, ice cream etc...then I make room in the budget for it. Sometimes this means sharing an entree or not leaving stuffed (which can be a good thing). This may not be the route I would take if money were no object, but it gives us the opportunity to sample the local cuisine and not stress about the cost. If we are going somewhere that is not known for it's culinary excellence (like Pinnacles, which is a National Park located off the beaten path) or is known for having exceptionally inflated prices due to location (such as Big Sur) then I will bring a picnic along and pack lots of snacks to keep costs down.  I love good food and have been spoiled living in the Bay Area, so paying for mediocre food makes me a bit sad and is something I try to avoid.

11. Make the trip to/from the destination part of the adventure.  If you are planning a longer road trip, do a little research on places to stop along the way. It might make extend the time it takes to get where you are going, but it is also an opportunity to take an otherwise uneventful drive and turn it into a memory. Some of my favorite stops have been on the way to our final destination. A few examples to get you in the spirit for tackling a long drive are drive through Sutter Creek and Hope Valley on the way to South Lake Tahoe, our hike at Pinnacles National Monument on the way to San Luis Obispo, our return drive up Highway 1, a swimhole and local brewery on our way to North Lake Tahoe, and another awesome brewery and amazing hike through an abandoned railway tunnel on our drive back from that same trip.

What tips do you have for traveling with kids?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo State Park

This past summer we spent a long weekend in San Luis Obispo County, which we capped off with a drive along Highway One. One of our many stops along the drive home was to view the elephant seals in San Simeon. The kids loved watching the massive seals bark and play in the water and enthusiastically imitated them for a good portion of our drive home. Over Thanksgiving weekend we made a last minute decision (as in Saturday night at 10:30) to take a trip down to Ano Nuevo State Park the following morning to visit some more elephant seals! When the kids woke up I told them about our plans and the house was soon filled with the familiar barks of our girls doing their best seal impressions. A pretty good start to the day!

Ano Nuevo State Park is located just off Highway One between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz and is known for being one of the largest mainland breeding colonies in the world for the northern elephant seal. The peak viewing months are mid-December through March, at which time you can only view the seals on guided tours that cost $7/person (kids 3 and under are free). The seals are present year-round however, so don't fret if a guided tour isn't your cup of tea.

We were lucky to get exceptional weather on our late-November visit. Highs were in the low-60's with perfectly blue skies and a slight breeze. This part of the coast is frequently fogged in, so clear skies felt like an extra special treat. In order to reach the elephant seals, there is a relatively easy 1.5 mile walk (3 miles roundtrip) that is primarily along a well maintained trail but requires walking through soft sand for the last 1/4 of a mile. Along the path (which is stroller friendly!) there are multiple viewing points where you can peer out at the ocean.

About a quarter of a mile into the hike there is a short trail that will take you down to this lovely beach.

The views are spectacular and there is plenty of wildlife to spot (this is definitely a trip worth bringing some binoculars on). We saw large hawks and bird formations as well as several whales breaching off the coast!

Here my youngest is asking if she can "take this one home, please?"

The kids did really well on the walk out to the elephant seals and were especially spirited when it got to the sand portion of the trail. Once you reach the sand there are three viewing areas to see the seals. While I was tempted to go to the furthest viewing point, we eventually decided that the closest one was a safer bet. Each viewing point has volunteers available to answer questions and provide information about the seals. The girls enjoyed watching the seals "wave" at us as well as the occasional attempts at moving along the sand.

The trail is an out-and-back trail, so we headed back the way we came, making the occasional stop to admire the views. I recommend bringing a good stroller if you are visiting with young kids. We ended up carrying the girls a good portion of the walk back, so a carrier or stroller would have made this much easier.

Assuming you are coming from the Bay Area, there are a couple of great options for stops on your drive home. We had never been to Pescadero, so we made a quick detour on our way home to grab some food and check out the shops. Arcangeli Grocery Co is famous for their freshly baked artichoke bread, so we grabbed a loaf and enjoyed it in the small picnic area behind the store. The Pescadero Country Store seemed to be a popular spot and the outdoor picnic area looked like a great place to enjoy a beer and let the kids run around (next time!). Overall, I was a bit underwhelmed with Pescadero, but it's possible my expectations were a bit high. I would give it another shot and would like to make a visit to nearby Harley Farms.


If you are looking for a really exceptional place to eat on your way home, I highly recommend making a stop at Cafe Capistrano in Half Moon Bay. If you still have energy for a bit more exploring, you can see details of our recent trip to the area that included a beautiful walk along the Devil's Slide trail followed by a lovely hike along Pillar Point Bluff and a visit to Francis Beach (see pics below).

Views from the Devil's Slide trail

A hidden beach along the Pillar Point Bluff Trail
Francis Beach on a chilly afternoon!

Winter is one of my favorite times to visit the beach and coastal communities in Northern California. There tends to be less fog and far less people, making for an extra memorable experience. What are your favorite winter trips?

Details: Ano Nuevo State Park is about an hour and a half drive from Berkeley. Admission to the park is $10 per vehicle. If you are visiting between from December-March, you must reserve a spot in one of their guided tours in order to view the elephant seals. There is a short trail that leads down to Cove Beach at Ano Nuevo SP, so if you are planning on a longer visit you can bring along some snacks and make a day out of it.