A Kid’s Guide to the Weirdest Town in Texas

Austin_Barton Springs

My friend and graphic designer Virginia Shurgar Hassell have been working on a new travel guide about Austin for kids. It will look very much like our first collaboration, Paris When It Giggles, but this time around we’re targeting the book to kids. This little vignette about Barton Springs is one of 30-36 we’ll include about a variety of fun places for kids to visit in the weirdest town in Texas.

I think it’s turning out really well, but would be grateful for feedback. Is this the kind of thing you might buy for your own kids if you were visiting Austin? Does it have info you think they’d have fun and engage with, as well as enough nuts and bolts to help you make a memorable trip to Barton Springs happen?

As for “extras” in the guide, would it be helpful to have (for example) sample itineraries, a list of books, music and movies; and a calendar of local events?

All suggestions welcome!



A very cold jump into the pool at the awesome Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park (photo credit goes to Jessie LaPatra Greene).

I always love when the New York Times’ “Places to Go” list comes out. While some of the choices (like last year’s selection of Tulsa?!) are head scratchers, they give us a lot to daydream about. This year, editors included Marfa, Texas on the list at number 48, citing a new installation at the Chinati Foundation, music and film festivals, and the reopening of the Hotel St. George as reasons why it made the cut.

Last year for spring break, my crew joined two other families for a fabulous West Texas adventure that included Marfa, Big Bend National Park and Davis Mountains State Park. While Marfa is a “quick” six-hour drive up a wide open highway from my home in Austin, there are enough unique diversions to make it a worthwhile destination even if you’re coming in from the big city of New York.

Here are a few snaps from our trip to help you imagine yours…



Photo credit goes to Susan Brennan (Instagram @sanbrennan).

We stayed two nights in the gorgeous and gorgeously-situated Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park. It is a true triumph of the Civilian Conservation Corps and worth a look if you’re into architecture, even if you don’t plan to stay there. There are beautiful views of the lodge from a hike that starts just behind the building. It’s one of only a handful of hikes in the park, all of which could be managed by hardy kids of almost any age.

Also worth noting is that the park is very close to the McDonald Observatory, where you can sign up to attend star parties, stand in the darkest dark you can imagine and look through powerful telescopes. We were lucky to get to see Jupiter, along with the Orion Nebula and gazillions of stars. It is worth braving the cold as well as the crowds, if you go during spring break.


We had a blast learning how to geocache from a ranger in the park…


A skill we utilized throughout the rest of our trip. Not that I’ll tell you where to find the cache near the Limpia Hotel, especially if you’re a muggle (ProTip: If you don’t know if you are a muggle, then you are, alas, a muggle). Also, you can stay at the Limpia Hotel. It’s awesome, as perfectly explained here by Shinyribs’ Kevin Russell. It’s a fun story and gorgeous song.


One of the best parts of our trip was going with our old friends. We met up in Alpine at the Big Bend Brewing Company because there was fun for grown-ups, and…


…fun for kids. Win-win!


The kids spent the better part of a morning running around Fort Davis National Historic Site, learning about the Indian wars and frontier posts. They had a blast wandering into the numerous fort buildings and answering questions that would earn them a coveted junior ranger patch.


We decided to add a road trip into the middle of our road trip by driving a loop from Marfa to Big Bend and back. This photo was taken along the way in the middle of Big Bend State Park, which we all swore to come back and visit another day.


We pitstopped for lunch in Terlingua, a strange and storied place where you can…have a better-than-just-decent lunch,


…hula hoop in the parking lot,


…stand inside a mine elevator and look way, way down into a mercury mine shaft,


…buy kitschy souvenirs (guilty!), and


…have some brunch and catch live music at the Starlight Cafe. I actually ate dinner here a few years back, and had a very memorable evening on the porch chatting with philosophizing locals and stoned park visitors.

IMG_5016 (1)

From Terlingua, we made our way to Big Bend National Park and did the most accessible hike from the west side of the park, Santa Elena Canyon. It is lovely, and even small kids can handle it. About 30 seconds after I snapped this photo, a ranger came and warned us to call the kids back before they stepped onto Mexican soil, lest they spark an international incident.


More Big Bend fun. Do not underestimate the size of this park. It is HUGE, and you would need at least three days to experience it in a meaningful way.


We spent our last few nights at El Cosmico, a trailer park and campground a block or two out from “downtown” Marfa. While it may seem odd to shell out good money to stay in a rusty old trailer, they are trailers brought to you by the same folks who gave Austin the Hotel San Jose and Hotel St. Cecilia, and San Antonio the Hotel Havana. It’s a hip experience for sure, but we all had a blast. (True confession: That fluorescent orange on the kids’ plates is not Annie’s organic mac and cheese.)


More trailer park fun.


A major highlight of a Marfa visit is a trip to the Chinati Foundation, the museum established by artist Donald Judd. It’s where all the Marfa cool began. I’m no expert, so it’s really hard to explain how and why the landscape, buildings and huge artworks mesh to make something so beautiful, but it is all very awesome and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We did the guided tour, and a five-year-old and two eight-year-olds were all impressed enough to behave and admire it all, including row after row of these super-cool neon light installations by Dan Flavin.


One thing to note about Marfa is that it does not operate according to a traditional clock. Businesses open and close with no apparent rhyme or reason…at least to interlopers like us. Be prepared to sit on a bench and read a book while you wait to get into a gallery, book store, ballroom or shop. If you are flexible, maybe visit on a weekend, rather than a Monday or Tuesday. It’s all part of the Marfalandia mystique, I guess. And why it’s worthy of that New York Times list.

Want Giving Kids? Take Them On a Trip.

FlorenceA few weeks ago, I wrote an article for (the totally awesome) Giving City Austin about how travel can help kids become more generous, empathetic and altruistic. I have been interested in the topic for a long time because so many friends, as well as family travel bloggers, have shared anecdotes that suggest travel teaches kids much more than geography. I decided to dig into it bit, and found some research that supports the cool claims of so many parents. As it turns out, travel can be a great teacher of the stuff that really matters in life. You can read the article here.

Paris When It Giggles Available Now!


Well, I can hardly believe it, but Paris When It Giggles is finished and available for purchase. If you or someone you know is thinking about a trip to Paris with their family, or lucky enough to actually be going, I hope you’ll recommend this pretty little guide to help them get inspired, informed and entertained. Between the beautiful illustrations, sentimental travelogue and first-person tips, I really don’t think there is anything quite like it out there, and my collaborator Virginia and I hope you will find it fun and useful!

I’ll have hard copies of my own any day now, but it is available here as I sit and type: Paris When It Giggles

In the meantime, take a look at the book’s inspiration…this blog post I wrote immediately upon my family’s return from Paris as I was feeling so grateful and didn’t want to forget a single thing. As you flip through it, listen to the Paris When It Giggles playlist. I guarantee you’ll be ready to pack your bags when you’ve finished!

Coming Soon: An Honest Guide to Paris With Kids~True Stories, Pretty Illustrations and Specific Tips

Eiffel Tower Playground
A few years ago, I posted about a trip to Paris with our daughter. I got enough positive feedback that a friend/colleague/designer and I were inspired to write and design a sweet little book based on the experience. There are countless stories about Paris, and plenty of pretty guides for traveling there, so our goal is to give parents something a little different:  a true, you-can-do-it, slightly-sentimental, beautifully-illustrated story about visiting Paris with kids…that also provides concrete reasons why you should spend your family vacation in a huge city, and tips on where to stay, what to do, and how to do it.

Given we also both work for a living (and have families), this project has been squeezed in whenever we had time. Finally (make that FINALLY!), we are just about ready to publish it. After a few tweaks and one or two more obsessive fact checks, we’ll release it into the wild. Still, I am very open to hearing what kinds of questions you’d like answered in a guidebook. Do you want to know where to eat in a particular neighborhood, tips on the Louvre, how to find a place to stay? If you have thoughts, please let me know!

Homage to Two Wheelin’

Learning to ride







There’s just something about being on a bicycle that’s good for the soul. To deconstruct a simple pleasure:

  • You experience more of the world on a bike than from inside a car.
  • Pedaling is just fast enough.
  • It’s hard to be irritated while coasting down a hill.
  • Fighting to make it up a hill is good for your body and your ego.
  • There’s no pollution involved.
  • A bike ride almost always leads to an unexpected adventure.
  • Biking is fun for all ages!

While we aren’t purists, my family enjoys biking around our Austin neighborhood, and we are very lucky to live close to my daughter’s school as well as local services like bakeries, restaurants, libraries, and snow cones. Being out and about in the ‘hood often results in delightful and unexpected encounters with the folks around us.

Biking is also a common activity for us on vacation. Combined with a pre-packed picnic and beautiful scenery (or an urban park), renting bikes can be a pretty cheap thrill. Whether you’ve got babies or teens, a two-wheelin’ experience is one the whole crew will enjoy and remember. Learning to ride a two wheeler is obviously a rite of passage, and it’s fun to see your child evolve from passenger to rock hopper. Here are a few of our biking highlights:

The Sweet Ride: This was our first summer in Crested Butte. Our girl was two, and she loved being toted around in the bike trailer. Snacks, books, stuffed animals and a sweet ride with a good view. Wheeeee! For the chauffeurs, the ride down was, admittedly, more fun than the ride up.

Crested Butte







The Practical Pedaler: Several months later, she took another sweet ride with her Opie in the Netherlands. I’m not sure who enjoyed it more. This is how most Dutch families get from A to B with baby (and groceries and laptops and diaper bag) on board.

Going Dutch







The Tag Along: The next summer, we took an awesome trip to Boston, Vermont and Maine. She was big enough to pedal on her own, though she could not be trusted to watch the road…or steer. Our solution in Stowe was to rent a tag along so she could get the satisfaction of (sort of) pulling her own weight while rubbernecking.









The Improvisation: A year later, when Stella was almost five, we took a family vacation to Rosemary Beach. We’d gotten wind that her younger Dutch cousin had learned to ride without training wheels when her Dad (Jasper’s brother) improvised a device to help her stay upright. If you’ve been to Rosemary Beach or Seaside or Watercolor, you know that the area is impossibly Mayberryesque and, therefore, the perfect place to learn how to ride a bike. It went well here, and after a week of being led around by a broom handle, Stella actually did ride about 20 yards over a grassy area by herself. 

Rosemary Beach







Going Dutch: All of the progress made in Florida was wiped out with one nasty fall on the mean streets of Dallas and we went right back to training wheels. The next summer, we traveled to Holland where, on the second day, Stella got in touch with her Dutch roots and came pretty darn close to biking alone. Staying upright was easy peezy lemon squeezey, but steering and paying attention were still a work in progress. I should have taken a picture a few seconds later, when Stella was immersed in the pretty Dutch scenery.

Going Dutch







She’s Got It! Within days of being in Holland, Stella had totally mastered her bike, and this time it stuck with her once we got home. Now, there’s no stopping her, though I still have to remind her to pay attention and steer from time to time. As a result, we get to do lots of fun biking together. Here, our Crested Butte route gets a tad more interesting…

Crested Butte biking








in no small part because we can (almost) keep up with Stella’s cousins:

Crested Butte







The Staycation: Austin is a great town for biking with kids…particularly if you remember to bring toys and band-aids for blisters. If you forget the band-aids, your kid may become despondent at mile 4.5 of a six-mile loop.








Footnote on Fietsen: One of our Dutch friends said learning to bike (fietsen) in Holland is a necessary skill, like learning to swim. It’s not something he ever really remembers being “fun” as much as simply part of the daily routine. While I think the Dutch biking culture is completely awesome, I think the loss of that fun factor is kind of sad. Luckily for all of us, Jasper has acquired a slightly less practical perspective on biking.

Jasper biking

Quiz and Other Diversions: Because Sometimes the Road is Long

Traveling with a family of any size has its pros and cons, and hitting the road with an only child has its unique quirks. In the pro column, we can list: lower cost, less stuff, fewer opinions, smaller number of needs to be met. The con column pretty much amounts to one thing: singleton’s constant and insatiable need for a playmate. A kid does need social interaction and, oftentimes, parents are the only option.

Now, before you shed a tear for our daughter’s pitiful little lonely only child heart, bear in mind that she is pretty good at entertaining herself, and my husband and I are masters of the diversion. Though I can only pretend to be a puppy for so long without becoming completely catatonic, I happily sing songs, play hide-and-seek, read stories, color and engage in many other kid-centric activities that make it much easier for her to keep plugging along, and much easier for us to stave off whining.

More importantly, we want our daughter to WANT to go on trips with us–from now until we’re too old and decrepit to go anywhere other than the sunroom down the hall. The “family that plays together stays together,” right? That’s a pretty cool thing, and something we try to do while out and about as well as at home.

Quiz Show

While playgrounds are the very best diversion, Quiz is a pretty close second, especially in transit. We “discovered” this guessing game on a recent visit to Sicily, where lines can be long and travel times unpredictable. As you might surmise, Quiz is pretty much like Twenty Questions without the limit. The five-year-old version of it goes something like this:

“I’m thinking of a person {or movie or song or place or flower or animal…}.”

“Is it a friend or family member?”

“Family member.”

“Is it a Coody or Smits?”


“Boy or girl?”


“Is it Omi?”


“Your turn.”

I am not exaggerating when I say Quiz can provide hours of preschooler fun in even the dullest situations, like this car rental line at the Palermo airport. Not a single soul was smiling in this teeming, uncomfortable and interminable place where the toilets were goopy and snack machines empty. No one, that is, except our girl, who was perfectly content running up the ramp in between rounds of Quiz.
Nor was she unhappy five hours later in Milazzo, where another mass of people stood in another interminable line to buy ferry tickets. I’m telling you, Quiz (and pizza) can turn even a stinky sidewalk into a party.
Now, nine hours of flights, car rides, lines and waiting later, you might think that a child would have had it. Not our girl–she kept her spirits up even through the 3.5-hour ferry ride that was supposed to be 1.5 hours. By this point, I will admit that we were all pretty much Quizzed out, and it was The Backpack that saved us (a diversion previously discussed here).
After a “live and learn” kind of 13-hour day, we finally arrived on the worth-the-effort island of Salina at the lovely and amazing Hotel Ravesi, where lines, rental cars, ferry rides and bus trips were quickly washed away by this incredible view.
[QUIZ: What volcano is that in the distance? {Hint: It’s a tasty food as well as the location of an Ingrid Bergman movie Woody Guthrie wrote about in this rather tawdry song put to music and performed by Wilco and Billy Bragg on the fabulous album Mermaid Avenue: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o76IoHCxfxw}]

The Ants Go Hiking

Motivating a kid to hike, bike and sightsee at a pace that is enjoyable for all is a post for another day, but I will say that oldie but goodie “The Ants Go Marching” (and plenty of snack and water breaks) got us all from this view of the Santuario Della Madonna Del Terzito:
to this one
with only a few draggy moments in between. Of course, it might have been the view, as much as the song that kept her motivated.
Or maybe it was the promise of a beach stop afterward. Ah, Italy. Where the place itself is the diversion to top all diversions. We were a trio of lucky, lucky ducks.