Traveling with family: Anchorage, AK

 A moose hangs out at the alaska wildlife conservation center

A moose hangs out at the alaska wildlife conservation center

Last year, my sister-in-law and her two boys moved to Anchorage, Alaska, much to the chagrin of the family and especially my son, who ADORES his older cousins. As soon as we heard about the move, we knew we’d be taking a trip to visit them in their new home sooner rather than later. 

We booked a trip for June.

When the temperature in Phoenix reaches triple digits, the idea of a brisk wonderland sounds heavenly. There are a few things to keep in mind

  • In actuality, June in Alaska is COLD! Like, REALLY eff-ing cold! I wore my winter woolens every day...even on the warm(ish) ones.
  • It's light all the time. Sun sets after 11 p.m....or WAY past bedtime and rises before 5 a.m. Black out shades are a necessity.
  • Car rental is a must in Alaska. Visiting all that rugged wilderness logs miles. 
  • Everything you do in Alaska has the threat of death. Want to take a stroll on the beach? The beach is actually mud that has weird air pockets that act like quicksand. If you get stuck and the tide comes in…you die. You’re hiking and you see a bear. You might die. You’re hiking or biking and you see a moose, it could charge and you might die. Hiking on one of the many glaciers and you can fall into a crevasse…and, yes, die. This, as you might imagine, can be nerve wracking if you’ve got young ones in tow. But, never fear, with some attention, education and a few precautions you can navigate a safe trip to Anchorage.

Here are a few itinerary ideas for spending your days in Anchorage…

Day 1: Head to Girdwood 

About a 45-minute drive from Anchorage is the cute little ski town of Girdwood.

Enjoy an easy lunch at The Bakeshop, a cute mom & pop shop serving delicious sandwiches, soups, salads and cinnamon rolls the size of your head.

Work off aforementioned lunch at Virgin Creek Trail. Drive to the end of Timberline Road and look for a wooden sign marking the entrance of the trail. The hike to the waterfall is short (10-15 minutes) and not too arduous except for the knotty tree roots you’ll have to navigate. Note: Make some noise, there might be bears.

If the hike was not enough to wear out the kids, stop by Girdwood Playground for some structure climbing.

View some of Alaska’s most impressive animals, safely fenced in, at the gigantic Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Musk ox, bison, moose, bear, deer, porcupine and more are all milling about in their own giant enclosures behind electric wire. View from your car or one of the many observation decks. Check the schedule for the feeding times for the different animals. Tickets are $10-15 per person. Kids 6 and under are free.

Other stuff at or near Girdwood:

  • Take in the amazing views on the tram at Alieska 
  • Pan for Gold at Crow Creek Mine. For $10-20 a person get a pan, shovel, bucket and collection vial and head to the creek for a chance to strike it rich. Your admission will get you a bag of dirt with a few gold flakes for a quick test run before you head down to the actual creek. Those four flakes were all we found — but it was totally worth it. 
 PANNING FOR GOLD at crow creek mine

PANNING FOR GOLD at crow creek mine

Day 2: Seward

The drive to Seward is a lovely 2-3 hour drive past placid lakes and snowy mountain tops. By the time you're near Seward, it’s like, “Just stop it Alaska, we know you’re beautiful!”

For a relatively easy hike up to a cool glacier, visit Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. Go to the visitors center and pick up a Junior Ranger Adventure Guide. There are also backpacks on loan for kids — one has science-themed activities (a thermometer, binoculars, magnifying glass, bird, plant and animal guides), the other is full of art supplies.

 Exit glacier near seward

Exit glacier near seward

The hike to the glacier is anywhere from just under to just over a mile, depending on the route. 

Finish the guide and get a cool wooden pin and sworn in as an official junior ranger. Finish the exercises in the backpack and get a cool patch. 

For a closer look at the animals of Resurrection Bay, visit Alaska Sealife Center. The cool facility rehabilitates sick/injured animals and releases them back into the wild when they can. Watch some harbor seals dart about, touch anemone and star fish, get up-close-and-personal with puffins. 

Day 3: Chestnut Creek Trail and Westchester Lagoon Park

There are loads of biking trails all around Anchorage, many which pass by cool parks. One of our favorites was Margaret Eaton Sullivan Park (aka Westchester Lagoon). Located right across from the lake, the park has a bunch of cool structures old and new, plus there’s a snack shack with hot dogs, ice cream and snacks. Don't have a bike? Rent one here.

In rainy, snowy or otherwise unpleasant weather:

If I visited Alaska again during the summer I'd bring...

 

 

Traveling with family: Washington, D.C.

 Taking in the view on the balcony of the capitol.

Taking in the view on the balcony of the capitol.

Impressive monuments, loads of museums (many of them free!), wide open spaces, good food and the potential for a presidential siting  — Washington, DC has all the makings of a great kid-friendly holiday for kids (of all ages) and adults. 

Having family and friends located in the nation’s capitol, my husband, now 5 year-old son and I have headed to DC multiple times — and never had the same trip twice. When our son was age 3 we did the zoo and viewed cherry blossoms (while he napped in his stroller). At age four, we toured the monuments and hit the Air & Space Museum. At 5 we explored the International Spy Museum and the Capitol.

What has worked for us: keeping our son on Arizona time (so we, the parents, can go out to dinners) and tackling only one major destination or area a day. We like to have a general game plan, but with erratic weather, traffic, etc., we’re also open to keeping things easy and breezy.  

So if you’re thinking about planning a family trip to DC — here are a few tips to navigate:

When to go:

January through early March is cold, rainy and maybe snowy. It’s probably the cheapest time with the least traffic, but probably the most unpleasant for traversing the city.

The weather turns in mid-late March. Weather can be erratic. Our last trip in late March began snow-y and turned four days later to sunny skies and 70 degrees.  Late March or early April is cherry blossom season — which is delightful…and popular. Spring breaks and school trips are also spring so expect to encounter crowds, tour buses and long lines.

In summer, expect the usual summer holiday travelers (see above) along with some high humidity.

My sources recommend visiting September through December when the weather is mild and the crowds are thin.

Transportation:

By air: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is the closest airport to the city.  Dulles is located in Virginia about a half hour out of town. Baltimore/Washington International is about a 45 minute drive to DC. 

Should you rent a car? If you’re sticking to Washington DC proper, the metro and buses are great and Uber/Lyft cars are plentiful. Download the Uber app; You can request cars with carseats. That said, there are some cool sites out of town. Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum is 30 minute drive from the city near Dulles Airport. Mount Vernon is a 45 minute drive toward Richmond, Virginia.

Do you need a stroller? There’s a lot of ground to cover in DC, much by foot. We brought a stroller when our son was 3 and 4. At age 5 he was able to walk on his own, with sporadic breaks, a little carrying, and some iPad bribery.

Note: New York City and Philadelphia are an easy Amtrak trip away if you want to make DC a part of a larger east coast tour.

Where to stay: 

For families, I think home rentals like airbnb and VRBO are the way to go. Look at Dupont Circle (like here and here), Columbia Heights (here and here) or Adams Morgan (like here, here and here) if close proximity to trendy restaurants and shopping is a priority.

For a more historic experience closer to the sites, try a place in Foggy Bottom or near George Washington University.

Where to eat:

We used Yelp to navigate through the loads of ethnic restaurants scattered around the city.  Many restaurants take, and even recommend, reservations — the Open Table website or app makes it easy.  

A few suggestions;

Matchbox, located between Logan Circle and Adams Morgan, has American a kid menu and unpretentious atmosphere. Ask for a bit of dough for kids to play with. When the kids are done, they’ll fire it — and give it back.

Artisanal markets, interesting food stands and pop-up shops, Union Market has a bunch of cool dining spots (especially for varying tastes) — and if the weather is nice, an outdoor eating space.

For a quick meal, fast food Peruvian chicken is what my DC dreams are made of. Get extra chimichurri and “white sauce” (I have no idea what it is — but it’s yummy) they offer along with some rice and plantains. You’ll be happy you did.

Some things to do:

There’s something for everyone. If you’ve got inquisitive kids who love learning, the Smithsonian museums are endless wonders. For art-lovers, try the new Renwick Gallery. For kids who can’t sit still, visit the zoo and walking the monuments.

For really young kids

National Zoo
Price: Free
The zoo is meandering and beautiful, 163 acres of wooded loveliness with all of the usual animals plus giant pandas! The grounds are expansive and it’s about a 15-20 minute hike from the metro; I’d recommend a stroller.  
Rating — Kids ****  Adults ****

The Smithsonian Museums (any age)
Price: Free
Air & Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, American History Museum…there are a bunch (see list)
Giant airplanes and spacecrafts, dinosaurs, cool American memorabilia housed in majestic old buildings…for free. They can be crowded and overwhelming. If you have an antsy kid and the lines are long you can retire to the mall for some running and a carousel ride (located between the Smithsonian Castle and theAir & Space Museum) to let off some steam.

Mount Vernon (any age)
Price: $20 for adults, $9 for children 6-11, children 5 and under are free
A 45-minute drive from the city, Mount Vernon can easily be a whole day of activity for the family — especially on a nice day since most of the sites are outdoors. The tour of the main mansion is quick and informative, it probably takes 20 minutes tops and covers some interesting facts/events (see the room where Washington died, view an AC chair). There are also other tours available of the gardens and audio tours additional fees. Take in the views of the Potomac on the back lawns.  Traverse the farms (we saw 2 week-old baby sheep), walk the sprawling fields and down to the Potomac.  Leave time for the interactive education center at the end. It has models and — breaks down Washington’s life into easily-digestible vignettes. Pick up an adventure map at the orientation center. Solve the puzzles, win a prize. 
Food: The Mount Vernon Inn has period decor but modern , think fried green tomato sandwiches and turkey pot pie. There’s a food court, or you could opt to bring in your own sandwich and eat on the lawn overlooking the Potomac (check).
Rating: Kids ****    Adults *****

For 5 and over

International Spy Museum (5 and up)
Price: Basic entrance is $21.95 for adults, 6 and under are free
Adopt a new identity and check out the extensive collection of spy memorabilia and historical paraphernalia. Kids will love the spy gadgets, like button cameras and cigarette guns, and enjoy a crawl through the duct system. Adults will like those things too, plus learn how espionage has affected our country’s history from American Revolution to atom bomb.  There’s a family For kids 12+ there’s Operation Spy (which sounds awesome) which is an hour-long spy mission. I left wanting to watch James Bond movies and read spy books.
Rating: Kids ***** Adults *****

Note: If you need a snack or a rest afterward, head across the street to the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery and find their atrium where you can buy a pricey snack and rest in a magical room with an open ceiling, modern splash pad/ fountains, and rainforest vibe.

 Art appreciation at the Renwick

Art appreciation at the Renwick

Renwick Gallery
Price: Free
Recently refurbished and re-invented, this small well-located museum (across from the White House) offers a bite-sized sample of modern fine art. The two floors house nine rotating installation pieces from artists around the country. On our visit we saw a giant rainbow made of string, a room decorated entirely with bugs, multiple “nests” made with sticks, and a suspended hollow tree.  Adults will find this cooler than the kids, though even kids should find something they like (room of bugs!), and even if they don’t, they’ll be through it before they know it.
Rating:  Kids ***    Adults *****

Make it a game. Mission Washington, DC challenges kids to find clues in the major museums and monuments around town.

For 10+

This is out of my wheel house at the moment, but from the looks of things, there were some pretty cool things for older kids as well. First, there's all of the typical things you do with the little ones, which would probably be way more interesting with bigger kids who actually might give a shit beyond the outfits. Some other things that looked good:

  • Amazing bike trails along the Potomac. 
  • International Spy Museum (see above). Older kids can go on spy adventures around the museum -- or around the city.

Other sites:

The White House
Price: Free
My son announced his desire to visit the White House and spend some quality time with President Obama two weeks before our April trip to Washington, DC. He did not see the President. If you (or your child) have designs on touring the White House, book it now. Seriously, stop reading this right now and start booking. Tours are booked through your state congress person (if in AZ, click here) and take some time to set up. Think 2-6 months ahead of schedule. 

Oak Springs Cemetery
Price: Free
My zombie-obsessed son wanted to see a graveyard, so we took him to this sprawling one in Georgetown perched on a picturesque hillside with loads of cool headstones.

Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum
Price: Free (but $15 for parking)
A truly awe-inducing expanse filled with air and space giants like the space shuttle rocket, a Concord plane, the Enola Gay aircraft that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, plus tons of other notable aircraft like home-made helicopters, record breaking gliders and historic hot air balloons. 

Note: The only thing to eat at the museum is McDonalds. If you’re looking for something a little more adventurous, try the Megabytes Eatery a couple of miles down the freeway for fare ranging from banh mi to tacos to paninis.

US National Arboretum
Price: Free
The arboretum is a couple miles of grassy plains dotted with flowers, trees and the occasional example of cool architecture. On a recent visit. We visited the children’s garden, where we sampled Stevia leaves (sweet!) Off to the side was a small stage, some makeshift balancing apparatus, sandboxes and a trail to what looked to be a cool hike.

For the kids, a lot of wide open spaces to run around. For adults, the Bonzai exhibit is super cool.

Parks

Traditional parks are few and far between in DC — but there are a couple.

Kennedy Recreation Center
P Street & 7th Street
A newly remodeled public playground with dual play areas. The first for smaller kids (toddler - 5) has a play house, teeter totters, climbing apparati, swings, spinning seats, etc. The area for older kids (4+) includes an amazingly scary looking slide (think vertical tube that spits out kids like a salad shooter), more advanced climbing equipment and a merry-go-round. 

Kalorama Park
18th Street & Columbia in Adams Morga
A neighborhood park with a separate gated area for smaller kids (toddler - 4).

Resources:

For more in-depth suggestions, check out mom blog http://kidfriendlydc.com/

 

 

 

Finding a kindergarten

My advice for parents looking for schools for their soon-to-be kindergarteners; Look at and apply to everything.

Right now in Arizona, there are tons of education options: public schools, private schools, charter schools, home schooling -- which makes making a decision -- HARD.

Our grammar school search began when our son was 3. A friend had toured a small private school for her older children and she thought it’d be a good fit for us. It’s a small school with one class per grade and a focus on social interaction. “They learn to read in the desert,” my friend enthused. “I think you guys would love it!”

Not knowing how any of this stuff worked, we went on a tour. We saw lots of bright kid-made art on the walls. Kids were, indeed, learning to read one-on-one in the desert while others played. One on one! Outdoor time!  In a math class, about 6 students were gathered around a three-dimensional shape and a bunch of cubes discussing volume. “This is the way math should be taught,” said my husband excitedly. 

We went to another traditional school orientation soon after and saw how other highly-recommended schools operate; Nothing on the walls that could be distracting, lots of book learning, advanced classes, no computers.

Our son is artistic and expressive, loves to learn but has a hard time focusing.

At the end of our limited search, we decided the small private school was our perfect fit and we need look no further.

So we took another tour when our son was 4 and applied for the following year.

And then we waited and imagined how the next year would play out: school performances, playdates, etc.

In March we got the call…we didn’t get in. 

We did have a “backup” school; our neighborhood public school which focused on Spanish immersion (our son goes to a Spanish immersion pre-school). A lot of kids from my son’s class were going to the same school and he’d get to continue his Spanish, I reasoned. But I still worried that it wasn't quite right for us.

Then during the end-of-the-year student/teacher conference, my son’s teacher said our son would probably benefit from smaller class sizes. “He doesn’t do any work unless a teacher is sitting right next to him. He needs a lot of attention.”

Shit. 

By this time, most people were settled on which school their kids were attending. We got lots of suggestions, Montessori, other private schools. “It’s kindergarten,” people would tell us. “It’s not really a big deal.” 

But these early years are when my child is going to develop his feelings about learning, make friends, spend the next 5 or more years of his life. To us, it seemed like a big deal.

We eventually visited a school with religious affiliation recommended by our pediatrician and a few other acquaintances. One we wouldn’t even consider early on because we’re not religious. But the classes are small. They teach technology and have a great maker space for older kids. They have a uniform, with a patch, which my son loves. We took a tour, my son sat in on a class. We all really liked it…and so we filled out an application, and passed the application test — but because of our late entry, they are now full for next year.

So what we learned about this whole process:

First, there’s a lot of competition for spaces in small schools. Don't be afraid to really let your chosen school know that they are your number one choice. Write thank you notes after visits. Check in periodically and remind them how interested you are. 

Also, kids grow and change a lot between the ages of 4 and 5, and you might not know at application time exactly what your kid will need. 

My advice: Look at several school options, keep an open mind, and tell yourself, "it's only kindergarten."

The countdown:

  • Look at different schools about 2 years before you think he'll be attending
  • Start applying to schools in the fall/winter of your child's last year of preschool (usually October or November)
  • You'll generally find out if your were accepted, waitlisted or denied around March
  • Waitlists vary. At some schools, waitlisted students have a great chance of admission. At others, it's basically an empty gesture. The admissions person should let you know if it's a valid possibility, or if you'd be better of focusing your attentions elsewhere.

To kinder...or not to kinder?

If your child's birthday is after August 31, you'll have to wait an extra year to enroll in kindergarten. Many kids in my son's class who had summer birthdays decided to keep their children in preschool for one additional year before starting preschool, even though technically, they were eligible. Some parents want their kids to have an age advantage and be the oldest in their grade rather than the youngest. I heard that some feel like an older kid will have an edge in sports. Some parents were concerned their child was too sensitive, immature or too small -- and would benefit from an extra year. 

Some elementary schools

  • Public schools - Madison and Scottsdale public schools are some of the best in the state. On the plus side, they have a diverse student population and many now emphasize different skills like foreign language immersion, STEM skills, arts, etc. On the bad, they are Arizona public schools, which are woefully underfunded with no sign of improving.
  • All Saints - A private school with a beautiful campus, small class sizes and a rigorous education that doesn't exclude technology. Kindergarteners learn to code and middle schoolers use power tools to build go-karts. Preschool - 8th grade.
  • Desert Marigold Waldorf School - A charter school with a hippy vibe stresses learning in a nurturing environment, practical skills like gardening and building and lots of outdoor time. The best students to have around if you're stranded on a desert island. They have classes from early childhood through 12th grade.
  • Desert View Learning Center - A small private school that focuses on tailoring an education to the child's individual needs. Count on lots of parental involvement. K - 4th grade
  • Phoenix Country Day School - A friend toured this school guided by an unflappable 6th grade student, which, she said, was the best advertisement she could imagine. Small classes, expert facult and a state-of-the-art campus --  it also has a tuition to match.  K - 12th grade.
  • Veratas Academy (A Great Hearts School) - Kids learn Latin and French and get a good, traditional education through high school. 
  • Villa Montessori - Stresses student-led education and research. Classes meet as a group, but then the child (with guidance from the teacher) creates their learning plan for the day. The school is from preschool to 8th grade. Camelback High School has a Montessori track.