Grab a paddle and…

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…hop in our boat!

I’m super happy to report that Expedition Austin: A Kid’s Guide to the Weirdest Town in Texas, is finished and on the shelves!

Everyone’s welcome on our wacky, wild and wonderful trip around the weirdest town in Texas! All you need is an open mind, a sense of adventure and this fun little guide that will get you where you want to go in the most exciting, kid-friendliest way possible.

Expedition Austin is an adventure (masquerading as a book) designed especially for kids to have a ball in one of the greatest towns to live in or visit in all of Texas, America and maybe even the world. Really! Austin is so great, in fact, that something like 22 million people visit every year and more people move here than almost anywhere else in the country. Whether you’re lucky enough to call Austin home, or one of the millions visiting from some other cool place, this here 120-page guide will give you the stuff you need to turn an ordinary trip around town into something you’ll want to brag about.

So, grab a paddle, a book, and maybe a friend or two and get your expedition started!

A Kid’s Guide to the Weirdest Town in Texas

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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!

Marfalandia

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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…

 

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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.

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

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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.

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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…

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…fun for kids. Win-win!

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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.

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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.

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

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…hula hoop in the parking lot,

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

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…buy kitschy souvenirs (guilty!), and

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…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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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More trailer park fun.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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…

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

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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.

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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?”

“Smits.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Girl.”

“Is it Omi?”

“Yes!”

“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.

Going Dutchlish: Playgrounds

Any vacation with kids is likely to include some time spent on playgrounds. Hence the name “family trip.” Fair is fair, and you can’t really ask a five year old to follow an adult-centric itinerary crammed full of museums, historical landmarks and leisurely lunches. In heavy doses, much of the culture will be lost on them, and their boredom will translate into understandable whining that will, in turn, ruin said adult-centric itinerary.

In my experience, it is advisable to toss in a playground at least twice a day on a city visit, and you should be prepared to stop again if you pass one along the way. In addition to being a very useful bone to throw at a child weary of sightseeing (we all like to have a say in how our day goes), playgrounds can give them an immersion course in the language, people and culture of your vacation spot. Whether they’re in a different state or a different country, playgrounds can say as much about a place as any public space. Are they graffiti- and litter-ridden? Modern or old-fashioned? Common or few and far between? Filled with locals or tourists?

As an added bonus, playgrounds are great places for adults to people watch, contemplate what we’ve seen so far, and give our ears a short break from the repetitive refrain, “Can I have some ice cream?”

Holland is a very kid-friendly country, and there are big, beautiful parks in most cities, as well as tiny ones tucked into most neighborhoods. As much as my daughter loves playing on them, I love seeing the variety of playgrounds that range from uber-modern to downright antiquated. Just as Dutch culture is ever-so-slightly different from American ways, the playgrounds are not wholly dissimilar, but somehow clearly not American. Here is a sampling of playgrounds we enjoyed in Holland.

Amsterdam’s Vondelpark

I love the Vondelpark more than any other park I’ve ever visited. When I lived in Amsterdam years and years (and years) ago, I spent some part of every day there–walking to the city center from our cold, bare bones room in a bank building on the Overtoomsesluis, going for a jog, soaking up some warmth like all of these Amsterdammers on a rare sunny day:

It’s a lovely park, and quintessentially Dutch: filled with art and cafes, manageable on foot or bike, well-maintained, and lush with beautifully planned green spaces. Its playgrounds are just as wonderful, and we visited three of them on a recent visit to see old friends.

This cool playground merges old and new Dutch design. Aldo Van Eyck designed the play circles on either side of the towers in 1968, and Carve recently added the climbing structure.

Carve also designed this awesome treehouse in the middle of Vondelpark and my daughter, husband and I all enjoyed climbing through it. If you want to know more about the treehouse or the playground mentioned above, visit this terrific blog: http://playgrounddesigns.blogspot.nl/2011/08/vondelpark-playscape-aldo-van-eyck-and.html

Proving that fun doesn’t necessarily have to be modern or high-tech, this old school playground at the Groot Melkhuis cafe provided seriously low-tech playground equipment. Stella had to try each and every one, including this pedal-powered merry-go-round. As an aside, the very Euro father in the photo was wearing an ascot and expensive shoes. I should have taken a photo of him helping the kids pedal so they could get some momentum going.

Speltuin de Leemkuil

Opened in 1946, this sweet playground in Nijmegen is more proof that low-tech can be more fun. There are numerous climbing structures and other equipment tucked into a pretty wooded area near the German border and, in true Dutch fashion, there’s a cafe where parents can have a cup of coffee while the kids run wild.
The one negative about taking your only child to a playground in a country where all the kids speak her second language is that she’ll want to share every single experience with you. All 184 of them. Here she comes now, looking for a see-saw partner.
These slides look awesome, but lacked slippery-ness at the bottom, which apparently meant you had to crawl the last five or six feet.
This water feature was loads of fun. Five minutes after witnessing a two year old getting completely soaked, I saw her run up to her mother who was drinking coffee with a friend at the cafe. It was clear the mother had no clue how the child could have gotten so soaked. Hilarious.
I wanted to take a spin on this hamster wheel myself.

Neighborhood Parks

So many playgrounds, so little time. From 5×5 fenced squares containing a lone swing to vast grassy areas with jeu de boules courts and an array of climbing equipment, playgrounds in our home base of Nijmegen were everywhere.

Stella loved this weird playground full of airplane-shaped jungle gyms, in part because she learned to ride a bike here!

Perhaps no playground is better than the one you get to go to with your cousin.

Okay, so a jump house is not a playground. This was the kid entertainment at a festival in front of our favorite cafe. As the children had the bounce house experience of a lifetime, all of us parents stood around, sipping wine, wringing hands and wondering aloud whether it was too dangerous. What is that word for the shirking of responsibility in a group? The bystander effect or something like that? Whatever that word is, we were all engaged in it.

The Tradition

There is something to be said for tradition when it comes to the family trip. As a child, most of my family’s summer vacations were spent either in New Braunfels, Texas or at the Coca Cola Camp on Lake Bruin in Louisiana.

Typically, we’d go with five or six other families to New Braunfels for the Fourth of July. We always stayed in a little area called The Other Place, an oval cul-de-sac of houses and condos surrounding a grassy median with playground equipment, picnic tables and barbecues. We’d float the river in inner tubes, cook out, play horseshoes, watch fireworks and the Wimbledon finals, nearly drown at the Schlitterbahn water slide and generally run barefoot and wild with hordes of other kids while our parents played tennis and drank wine coolers. It was great.

Coca Cola Camp was very similar, only we’d join my Dad’s four sisters and their families in a giant screened-in house for a week of family fun. Shout out to the Coodys! My Uncle Robert worked for Coke, and through some generous arrangement completely unbeknownst and beside the point to me, my sisters and I got to spend several glorious days with our aunts, uncles, 11 cousins and miscellaneous tagalongs. We’d hang out on the dock, waiting with fear and excitement for Uncle Robert to hurl us into the lake. We also fished for gar, made cheese dip, helped ourselves to an endless supply of Cokes and played Monopoly into the wee hours while our parents drank beer. It was great.

Being European and all, Jasper’s family trips were a little different from ours. Ski holidays in the Austrian Alps and “camping” vacations on the French Riviera were a far cry from La-Tex lakes and rivers, but my sense is their trips had many of the same components ours did. Really, white trash really isn’t so far removed from Euro trash, but that’s a post for a different day.

My little family is very lucky to have a generous friend who lets us use his condo in Crested Butte, Colorado, so our tradition happens to be in the most beautiful mountain town in the world. Seriously, I challenge you to find one that’s any lovelier. The first time we went to CB, it was summertime and Stella was two years old. We recently got back from our fourth winter trip, and I still love the whole package…Jasper’s infectious enthusiasm for skiing, spending hours in front of the fire, soaking in pristine landscapes and clean air, making memories with friends, and doing things that are slightly out of my comfort zone. There’s nothing like 12 degree temps and an accidental encounter with a scary slope to make you feel alive!

Most of all, though, it’s a thrill to watch Stella enjoy the mountains. I don’t know if it’s possible to feel nostalgic for the moment you are in, but the slightly tweaked deja vu sensation you feel watching your child experience the same thing year after year triggers something like it.

If you go to Crested Butte four years in a row…

Other Posts

Paris With a Five Year Old

Resorting to a Resort

Puffers in Paris: The Association Game