European Adventure # 2- Italy with kids

Italy is a perpetual feast of the senses. The sights, sounds, tastes, and smells infuse us with a sense of aliveness as we experience the abundant wonders of travel to this country. It’s no wonder it’s the birthplace to the greatest artists, poets, and lovers. We spent two weeks and whether we were throwing coins in the Trevi fountain, gazing at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or climbing the stairs of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, each day was an amazing adventure.

Highlights of Italy

Colisuem, Rome
Rome Getting there: We flew from London to Rome. We took the Leonardo Express Train from the airport to Rome (about 30 minutes and $20 for four of us. Train runs every 30 minutes – see below for directions from terminals to train. You can buy tickets at a ticket booth or quicker at the self-serve kiosks. Be sure to validate before getting on the train). We took the train to the main train station and transferred to the metro. The metro ticket machine does not take credit cards so have some cash ready. There were annoying people standing next to the ticket machines trying to help us (they want tips and will probably pick-pocket you so be careful). We told them firmly that we were fine.

Coliseum and Forum – Our hotel was about a block from the Coliseum and Forum so this was our first stop. We arranged ahead of time a tour with Angel Tours which was great. We met them at 9:00 and saw the two places with them while learning the history.
Tip: If you’re not with a tour, get your tickets on-line as the line is very long (hours) or you can get your tickets at the entrance to the Forum where (past the Arch of Constantine and not marked but amidst scaffolding). There was no line at the Forum ticket office and the ticket is good for both places. To use either the on-line ticket or ticket purchased at the Forum entrance at the Coliseum, walk down the middle line of the three lines cuing up to the turn stile and you’ll go right inside. For kids, I recommend buying the $12 book outside with overlays of how the sites looked originally. It gives a good perspective for the kids.

Since my daughter is a huge horse lover, we splurged on the $120 one hour horse drawn carriage ride from the Coliseum to sites in the area. It was a nice way to get an overview of the city.

Vatican City, St. Peter’s Cathedral and Sistine Chapel -   These are must sees. We went to St. Peter’s Cathedral first as we read that it’s less crowded in the morning. You do not need a ticket to see St. Peter’s. The line was about ten minutes long. There is a dress code (no sleeveless tops for women or shorts or too short of skirts. We read that men needed long pants, but they were allowing men in wearing shorts past their knees. You have to pass through a clothing inspector, so dress appropriately.) The Pieta sculpture by Michelangelo is breathtaking as is the dome of St. Peter’s.

The Sistine Chapel -  Buying tickets on-line in advance is a MUST. The line for the Sistine Chapel was at least three hours long in the hot sun. We bypassed the line to the reservations line and were inside in three minutes. There are tour guides outside who will tell you that the only way to bypass the line even if you have advance tickets is to go with them, but don’t believe them. Be prepared that inside that you have to walk about a mile through the Vatican Museums to get to the Sistine Chapel. There’s a lot to see, but it’s not air conditioned and it’s very crowded (especially when you first enter and the line is bogged down). We pretty much headed straight to the Sistine Chapel which was about a 30 minute walk through the Vatican museum. Once there, you can spend as much time as you’d like. It’s crowded, but you can sit on the floor near the back and gaze at the ceiling. There’s a no picture policy, but everyone was taking pictures anyway. To be honest, our kids weren’t that into it, so we told them they had to sit down and wait while we took our time to enjoy it.  I know they’ll appreciate it one day!

If you don’t have an audio tour to return (I downloaded a Rick Steves podcast tour onto my ipod that was great), you can take an exit from the back right corner that leads to St. Peters and save yourself having to walk miles back through the museums.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain – Very beautiful and magical. Legend has it that if you throw coins in over your shoulder, you’ll return to Rome. We threw a lot of coins because we all want to come back.

Spanish Steps – Was fun for my husband and I to see, but didn’t hold much interest for the kids.

Pantheon – I loved this temple  probably because of its simplicity and the open oculus. It’s also extremely well preserved. We had a great dinner in the square outside it at Di Rienzo Restaurant. The light of the setting sun on the Tuscan yellow and red buildings and the street musicians playing accordions made me feel like I’d been transported to the set of an Italian movie. It was sheer heaven.

La Bocca della Verita (The Mouth of Truth) - is an image, carved in marble, of a man-like face, located in the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It’s thought to originally have been a manhole cover, but its most famous characteristic is its role as a lie detector. Starting from the Middle Ages, it was believed that if one told a lie with one's hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it would be bitten off. The piece was featured in the 1950’s movie Roman Holiday starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn.

Tips: Rick Steves has many podcast audio tours of attractions in Rome that are worthwhile.

Hotel:  Hotel Rosetta, Via Cavour, 295 00184 Roma http://www.rosettahotel.com/ No frills, but the location is GREAT). Francesca who works there speaks English and was extremely helpful. $160 night for quad room.

Rick Steve’s book guides to Italy are great.

www.roninrome.com/  This is a GREAT website and was really helpful for the little, but important things like how to buy train tickets from the Kiosks, how to find the Leonardo Express when you arrive in Italy. It’s very detailed and with photos. They sound like little things, but you’ll feel confident and like a pro when you arrive prepared and ready to go!

Packing – bring carry on luggage and a light backpack for each person. Pack light. You don’t need much and can wash small amounts of clothes along the way. See Rick Steve’s packing guide. http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/packlist.htm 
 Money - Carry money and passports in a money belt. The best way to get money is ATM's. Some places charge more if you use a credit card. In the big cities credit cards seemed to be okay and the exhange rate was fine for the credit cards. **Be sure to call your bank and credit card company before you go to let them know the dates you will be out of the country so they don't put a hold on your card for unexpected charges.

Eating: Eat in small places away from the touristy areas if possible. The restaurant I mentioned outside the Parthenon was excellent (Di Rienzo). Avoid places where someone out front tries to get you to come inside. They usually aren’t very good. Ask the front desk clerks for good local places. There are lots of small pizzerias with sandwiches and slices of pizza that are cheap. Sodas at restaurants are expensive ($4-$5 each). We stopped ordering them or had the kids split one.


Getting there: We took the train from Rome to Florence.  We bought our tickets a few days in advance (we weren’t able to purchase them on-line from the U.S.) at the train station when we first arrived in Rome. The lines are long, so we bought from the Kiosks and it was really easy. We bought second class on the EuroStar – ES (fast train – definitely use this one and not a regional train) and second class was perfectly fine. We arrived about 45 minutes early to the train station and couldn’t find our train posted. We saw another one going to Florence and went to that track and were told by the not so nice train worker that we were at another track (this train was a Regional one). When we got to the other track it said Venice and we realized that was its final destination with Florence as a stop so be careful about that and check for the train number as well as the destination.

Florence is a great city for kids. It’s small enough that it’s easy to get around walking, yet big enough that there’s enough to keep you occupied for a few days. I suggest spending two or three days there. It’s also a good home base to visit other towns in the area like Siena and Pisa (see below for more on those towns).

Florence Highlights:

The Ponte Vecchio   is a Medieval bridge over the River Arno. It’s noted for still having shops built along it, as was once common. Butchers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewelers, art dealers and souvenir sellers.

The Museo Galileo is all about the scientist Galilio and his inventions. The kids enjoyed seeing is thumb that was cut off encased in glass. It is situated in Florence's historical centre, near Ponte Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria. Family ticket (2 adults + max 2 children under 18)

Piazza della Signoria.  Great place to walk around. The plaza is the focal point of the origin and of the history of the Florentine Republic and still maintains its reputation as the political hub of the city. There are various eye-catching statues in the square including a copy of  Michelangelo’s David.

Santa Maria del Fiore (also known simply as the Duomo) is the cathedral of Florence known for its distinctive Renaissance dome.

A morning guided tour of Florence including a viewing of Michelangelo's David .http://www.tickitaly.com/tours/florence-guided-tour-morning.php

The tour began with a drive up the romantic Viale dei Colli to Piazzale Michelangelo, a strategic viewpoint that offers open views across the splendid skyline of Florence to the hills beyond. Then we drove back down the hill and into the historic city center for a walking tour of the area around the Duomo with the stops at the famous dome designed by Brunelleschi, Giotto’s bell tower, and the famous carved baptistery doors.  After this we walked to the Accademia where we bypassed the lines and headed straight in to view Michelangelo's famous David, an awe inspiring experience. This costs about $60 per person, but was well worth it.

Climbing the Duomo steps. You never really know what’s going to be a hit with kids, but this definitely was one of their favorite activities. I guess it was the curved staircases and being able to go into the dome and then stand on the top for the magnificent view.  The Duomo has 463 steps.  Hot Tip: We went at the very end of the day about 45 minutes before it closed. There wasn’t anyone in line and we avoided the crowds going up and down the stairs. We then had the top almost to ourselves. This cost about 8 Euros for adults and they let us split a ticket for the kids (

Segway rental.- For kids 12 and older. This was one of my son’s favorite parts of the trip. My husband and son (my daughter was too young) cruised around Florence on the Segways.

Hotel:  We stayed at the STROZZI PALACE HOTEL**** - Via dè Vecchietti www.strozzipalacehotel.com. It was wonderful and centrally located (3 minute walk to the Duomo) and easy walk to everything else.  I booked it on Hotels.com and a quad w/breakfast was $147 a night. Usually it’s about $200 a night.

Restaurants: Restaurant Garibardi www.giribardi.it  (near the Piazza Mercato). The Gelato store across from it, Le Dame, was very good and the guy who worked there very nice and patient with us.

Side trips from Florence

Siena - We took two side trips from Florence. One was to Siena. It was 1 ½  hour train ride through Tuscany. It’s an easy bus ride from the train station to the city (see Rick Steve’s guide for more details). Siena is a beautiful walled city with narrow cobblestone streets, shops, restaurants, and a great Piazza square. I’m glad we went, but it didn’t have a lot to hold the kids’ attention, so I’m glad we only did it as a daytrip. The day before we were there was their annual horse race, so we were able to join a parade going through town celebrating the winning horse. We also saw the winning horse, when its owner walked it through town, so that we fun.

PisaThe leaning Tower of Pisa was a must see for our family. The train ride from Florence was only an hour. Once at the station, purchase a bus ticket and catch the bus across the street  to the tower (see Rick Steve’s guide for more info on this). I purchased tickets on-line in advance to be able to walk to the top of the tower. This is a definite must-do if you’re at Pisa. It was really fun to walk up the slanted stairway and stand on top of the Tower. The kids were a little freaked out at the top because you can definitely see the lean and how it slopes when you look from one side to the other. Another fun thing to do is to take the goofy pictures of the family acting like you are pushing the tower back up (everyone was doing it, so you didn’t feel too nerdy).

Naples and Pompeii

From Florence, I would suggest going either north to Venice and then to Cinque Terre area or south to the Naples area. With kids, I wouldn’t try doing both on one trip (but that’s just me. I didn’t want to try to do too much with kids in tow). We chose to do the southern route because we really wanted the kids to see Pompeii. My husband and I are into ancient history and had been there before and thought it was a must-see for the kids. 
cast of body at

I’d read in my Rick Steve’s guide that Naples could be a little scary (sit near the front of the train at night, etc.), so I was on guard. The last time my husband and I had been there a nicely dressed man approached us as we got off the train and said he worked for the tourism board and would help us. He told us we needed to hurry to catch the local train to Pompeii and told us he’d take our luggage and store it for us. After letting him help us get our train tickets, I realized something wasn’t right and told him to leave and had to shout for help to get him to leave us alone. When we got off the train this time, we noticed some guys just like the one who tried to help us before and ignored them and walked quickly away.

We took the Circumvesuvius train from the main train station to the town of Pompeii. This was the train that Rick Steves said to ride close to the front at night and to watch for pickpockets. The train was mainly locals and I was a little worried at first. Then the train conductor came and checked with us that we were one the right train and told us when we’d arrived. It was the nicest anyone had been to us on the trains thus far. As I settled in, I quickly felt more comfortable and would come to really enjoy and like the people in the Naples area.  The train sped along through graffiti painted stations with young beach-going locals getting on and off at the stations.

Mt. Vesuvius. The volcano that erupted
on Pompeii.

hiking Mt. Vesuvius
We stayed in Pompeii for three nights at Hotel Diana (great place!). We were within walking distance to the ruins and spent a day there (really cool), and a day at another site called Herculaneum (short train ride to the town and short walk to the site). Herculaneum is much smaller and there are no crowds. It’s really well preserved, but there aren’t any body casts there (they found hundreds of dead people in the boat houses, but their bodies have been excavated). We also took a day trip up Mount Vesuvius and did an hour long hike along the crater (really, really cool). We set it up through the hotel with transportation from the hotel up to Mt Vesuvius for $10 each. It was definitely worth doing.

The town of Pompeii was a nice stop off the beaten track. The people were really nice and we found two great restaurants. One was called Pizza and Pasta and was off the main square about a block from the train station. The other one was right next to Hotel Diana (sorry, but I forgot the name). It was excellent and they were really friendly.

Hotel:  Hotel Diana (I highly recommend) http://www.pompeihotel.com/ 
Tour Company to Mt. Vesuvius: Campania. http://www.incampania.com/en/http.  I highly recommend them as well. They also have inexpensive transfers (transportation) for day trips to the Amalfi Coast from Pompeii.

Sorrento is magnifico! It was a half hour by the Circumvesuvio train and as we got closer the graffiti disappeared and it became more beautiful and Mediterranean.. Sorrento overlooks the beautiful Bay of Naples with Mount Vesuvius in the distance. We are not Hilton people, but since we had Hilton points from my husband’s work travels, we weren’t about to turn down three free nights, and boy we’re we happy. The Sorrento Hilton is on a hill with great views and a fabulous pool, grounds, and playground area. It was a little bit of a hike walking up the hill from town, but our kids were old enough to survive the ten minute walk (hint: you can cut time off from the walk by taking the elevator in the hotel down to the pool area and walking down a service path/entrance to the street). We were also upgraded to the Executive Club and had the 7th floor Executive Club lounge at our disposal all day with free breakfast, snacks, and drinks all day! It was awesome!

Capri – this is a rancy fancy island off of Sorrento where the wealthy Italians vacation. It’s a 20 minute hydrofoil (fast boat) ride to the island. The big tourist attraction is the Blue Grotto, a cave with magnificently blue water. We took the boat to the island, and got in line to take the smaller boat to the Blue Grotto only to find the water was too choppy and Blue Grotto trips were cancelled for the day. Instead, we took a boat around the island to see the beautiful rock formations. After that, we took the funicular to the town and walked around. It was beautiful with a lot of shops and restaurants. There wasn’t a lot to do with the kids, so we took the boat back and went and hung out by the pool at the Hilton.

Amalfi CoastSorrento is the gateway to the Amalfi Coast, a windy road with amazing cities like Positano perched on cliffs above the beautiful sea. Never say on a trip, “Wow, this trip has been great there haven’t been any glitches,” because as soon as we said that we were jinxed. We awoke our last day ready to take the ½ hour bus ride from Sorrento to Positano on the Amalfi Coast only to arrive at the bus station to find that the buses were on a one day strike. Wondering what we were going to do on our last day, I remembered that they rented boats at the Marina Grande. We walked there and found a little boat rental shack and rented a zodiac boat for three hours. We grabbed sandwiches and drinks at a little shop in the marina and were soon on our way exploring the beautiful coastline. We found a little cove and anchored the boat and swam in to a beach and jumped off rocks and swam into our own little “blue” grotto. It was great and the kids said it was one of the best parts of the trip.

That night we had a great dinner in Sorrento at a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves. At the hotel, we we watched the sunset over the Bay of Naples I cried at having to say goodbye to beautiful Italy.

The next day we took the Curreri Viaggi bus from the train station to the airport in Naples (10 Euros each) – great way to get to the airport (took 1 ½ hours) and flew to London for the night and home to next day.

London and Italy were a great start to what we hope are many more trips abroad with the kids.  I highly recommend them both for your fun travel with kids. Wishing you happy and safe travels with yours!!


European Adventure #1 - London, England with kids

What do you get when you mix two kids, three weeks, two European countries, four trains, seven cities, and too many gelato ice creams to count? You get an incredible family vacation to London and Italy. This summer we ventured to Europe with the kids and had a great time. We spent one week in London and two weeks in Italy. Here are the highlights of the trip. I’ve broken it up into London and another blog will be devoted to Italy.

London Highlights

Day 1 – We arrived at 11:30 a.m. and didn’t have any specific plans for the day because we wanted to give ourselves time to recover and adjust to the time change. We took carry on luggage (one bag and one light backpack each) so we got through border control and customs quickly. Then we stopped to get a week pass for the London Underground (subway) and tickets for the Heathrow Express into town. (The Heathrow Express was a little pricey- about $75 total to save about 20 minutes in travel time). In hindsight, we probably would have spent $16 total for the regular subway. Kids 10 and under ride free on the subway.

We arrived in one piece to our hotel our eyes red from being tired but wide with excitement. I carefully pre-planned and wrote put all of our directions and tube stops needed for each hotel on a list, so we would know how to get where we were going. We still got lost as the directions weren’t entirely clear and wondered around for about 20 minutes until we finally found our hotel, The London House Hotel. After checking in, we took a walk around the Bayswater neighborhood. It was a bustling area with a small mall and lots of shops and restaurants. When I was growing up, my mom brought my sister and I to live in London for three months and the hotel was in the same neighborhood where we lived, so I felt right at home. At the end of the street was Kensington Gardens Park and the Princess Diana Memorial Park, a lovely park with a huge pirate ships, see-saw, swings, and meandering paths and wooden play structures.

We were all tired and ready for bed around 6:00 and wanted to keep the kids up, but stopped fighting it. Luckily, the slept until 7:00 the next morning.

Day 2 – London Tower, River Boat ride, Parliament and Big Ben

This is a great place for the whole family. The Tower of London has played a prominent role in England's history. It was used as a place of refuge for unpopular monarchs and at times a centre of government. The Tower has served variously as an armoury, a treasury, menagerie, the Royal Mint, a public records office, and the home of the Crown Jewels.

Free tours are offered every ½ hour with a Beefeater (guard) with personality plus. They are funny and give facts about the cruel and unusual history of the tower. After the tour you are free to roam the various towers such as the Bloody and White Towers and view various torture devices and suits of armor. The Crown Jewels are housed here as well and are a must see. To see the whole thing took up a good four hours.

Afterwards, we walked down to the river and hopped on one of the river boat taxis and took it to the Parliament and Big Ben. We just viewed these from the outside.

Day 3 - Buckingham Palace - Changing of the Guard and British Museum

Buckingham Palace - Guard Change is every day at 11:30. Get there early (by 11:00) and for a better stand on the Victoria Memorial (in front of the palace) on the raised gardens. For a more interesting view of the change and what we did is we watched the detachment of the old guard and followed them to the new guard. This begins at 11:10 at St James Palace at Marlborough Road towards Buck Palace. It is best to stand on The MALL at the end of
Marlborough road by St James Park (there are free toilets just inside the gate.). As the band and guard March past, march down with them as far as Victoria Memorial and then cut through St James Park. Look out for other guides in the know, eg, Big Bus Co, follow them. Once on other side of Park. On bird Cage walk, you will see the Wellington Barracks. In front of the building will be the New Guard ready to leave. Turn right out of park and find a position on Spur Road, At Approx 11.25, the new guard with band leave
the barracks and Head To Buck Palace. After that, you can find a place with the masses to watch through the gate the rest of the guard change or try to find a spot towards the Victoria Memorial. At approx 12.05 the Old Guard with band leave Buckingham palace to the Wellington Barracks and the detachment of New Guard leave for St James Palace So, essentially, the reverse of what happened at 11.10 happens. If it is raining at about 10.50am, then guard change may be cancelled (although no announcement is made) you will only know if you are standing around at 11.20 and nothing has happened.

British Museum – This is probably my favorite museum in the world. It has the Rosetta Stone, tons of Egyptian statues, artifacts (mummies and cat mummies too) and the Elgin Marbles (Greek statues from the Parthenon). Museums in London are free, so even if you just go in for a peek, you won’t be disappointed. We found a great Italian restaurant right down the street called Bush and Fields at 49 Museum Street.

Day 4 – London Eye, Westminster Abbey and Stonehenge

The London Eye is a giant 443 ft tall Ferris Wheel situated on the banks of the Thames River in Central London. This was one of the kids favorite activities. You ride in pods with a seat in the middle. I’d heard it gets crowded, so we purchased our tickets on-line and avoided a long ticket line and got right on. We had an early reservation (10:00), so there were only two other people in our compartment which made the viewing great. We were able to see the city below us and got great views of Big Ben, the Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. We saw afterwards, that you could purchase books with maps of what you were seeing from above that we wished we’d had while on the eye.

Westminster Abbey – a short walk from the Eye we went on a quick tour of Westminster Abbey before meeting our tour to Stonehenge. The kids didn’t get much out of it, but it’s a must see while in London. The best part for them was seeing the coronation chair where the kings and queens are crowned.

Stonehenge – Stonehenge is located an hour and a half outside of London, so I booked a half-day tour to see it through Evans and Evans Tour company. The bus took us out to the site and we had an hour and a half to roam the site with audio tours. My husband and I were awed at the magnificent rock structures built so long ago and perfectly aligned with the sun’s solstices. The kids however, didn’t quite get the marvels of ancient engineering and when I asked twelve-year-old Jake what he thought he said, “It’s just a bunch of rocks.” (I just know someday he’ll appreciate all this!).

Day 5 – British War Museum, Double decker Bus ride, Trafalgar Square, and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

We left this day open and decided to go the British War Museum because my son loves everything war. There, the kids got to go in a pretend submarine, peer at guided missiles of all shapes and sized, and walk on real tanks. My husband and I took turns taking quick visits into the Holocaust section (not recommended for children under 14).

No trip to London is complete without a ride in a double-decker bus (or a London taxi which we did the day before), so we found a bus line going in our direction and hopped on for a ride to Trafalgar Square. The Square was alive with people, fountains, and four very large lion statues. The National Gallery is located on the stairs so we took a peek inside admist protests of “I’m tired!” and went straight to the Van Gogh section for a view at his famous Sunflowers painting. I could have stared at it all day, but was pulled away. We made a quick stop downstairs where a bank of computers let you look up the paintings the gallery housed and information on them.

Quick tips on London:

London is a great starter country to visit with children. It’s easy and they speak our language! My kids loved it there. For planning purposes, I found it helpful to plan only two things to do a day as the kids get tired easily and you don't want to overdo it.

Use public transportation. The underground is extremely easy and safe. The double decker buses are easy too. You can buy an oyster card that will save you money on the tube and buses for the week or for a few days. Kids ten and under are free.

Hotel: The London House in Bayswater, London.
I choose hotels that are in good locations (close to public transportation and restaurants), clean, and affordable. Most hotels in Europe are for two people, so for a family of four you have to book “Quad” rooms. They charge for each extra bed whether for a kid or an adult so it can get expensive. We stayed at the London House. It’s no frills, but was clean and in a GREAT Location. I highly recommend it. It was about $180 a night for the four of us. Breakfast was extra and we did not get it because it was cheaper to just get something light in the neighborhood. There is a mini- mall about 5 minutes walking about with a Spencer’s Market where we picked up muffins and juice inexpensively. You need to book this hotel early as it does fill up. We had the Lower Family Room and it was great.

Food: There were tons of small places and pubs to eat near our hotel. I’d hear food was really expensive, but as long as you don’t eat in a real touristy place, it was fine. Sodas are expensive, so once we figured out we were spending $4-$5 per drink, we started drinking water. We also picked up snacks and breakfast nearby. Our room had a refrigerator which was helpful and we would even pick up pasta salads and French bread at the local grocery stores for lunch ( a great cost saver). The Prince Edward Pub a few blocks from the hotel at 43 Princes Square was good.

Rick Steve’s Guidebooks are really helpful and I swear by them.

Packing – bring carry on luggage and a light backpack for each person. Pack light. You don’t need much and can wash small amounts of clothes along the way. See Rick Steve’s packing guide. http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/packlist.htm 
Carry money and passports in a money belt.


Central Coast Adventure # 6 - Shell Beach Bluff Trail Hike to the Sea Cave

He Nani e, He Nani no (Beautiful, Beautiful Indeed) is the inscription on the lone bench at the top of the bluff of this trail. Beautiful, sweeping sea vistas, the smell of salt water, and the sweet fragrance of blooming flowers await you on this great family hike. The fun starts at the Shell Beach Bluff Trail (see directions to trail head below). A paved walking path meanders along the bluffs with open views of the ocean. Watch carefully, as dolphins can be frequently sighted frolicking in the ocean below. The trail is easy and with little ones in tow will take about 15-20 minutes one way. Strollers are okay if you are just doing the first leg of the hike (packs or kids who can walk themselves are needed to go to the sea cave).

For more excitement continue the trail onto the dirt path over to Pirates Cove and the Sea Cave. There is a large warning sign to beware of the eroding cliff, but the trail is perfectly safe as long as you stay on it. The trail gets a little steep for a few minutes, but it's worth the hike as you're rewarded shortly by a nice bench to stop for a rest. Take in the breathtaking vista with views to the south of Guadalupe dunes and north to Avila Bay. Continue on the trail over to the dirt parking lot to Pirates Cove Beach. Look for the trail head down to the beach and follow it. You will come to a sign that says Beach/Cave. Go right to the sea cave. Follow it for about 5 minutes and you'll come to the wide opening to the sea cave. Enter the cave and have a look at the beautiful seascape. Keep younger children close to you as the edge of the cave is also the edge of the bluff. Rest for a few minutes then continue back the way you came. For added fun, you can take a detour down to the beach. The trail to the beach is steep with stairs and is eroded at the end. There is a rope to hold onto to get down. If you're steady on your feet then you can do it with little ones, but it's probably better for kids 5 and up. I was able to negotiate it with a small dog in tow. The beach is a nude beach, so if it's a little early to give your kids an education in anatomy, stay at the end toward the trail which I've found to be a "safe zone." The beach is one of my favorites and is a pretty cove. We saw sea lions on a rock and a lot of seabirds.

When finished, head back the way you came, through the parking lot and over to the Shell Beach Bluff Trail. Take in the salt air, the beautiful vistas, and a great day spent outdoors.

Directions: Heading North on Hwy 101 exit at Avila Beach Drive (not San Luis Bay Drive) Don't go right or left on Avila Beach Drive. Go across! This turns into Shell Beach Drive. Turn right at the first street, El Portal Drive. Drive to the end and take a right on Indio Drive. At the gated Bluffs Drive park on street (there is limited parking if you go down the hill to the left). Walk down the hill to the left and you will see the trail head. From the South, exit at Avila Beach Drive, go under Freeway and make your first left onto Shell Beach Drive. Follow directions above.
Length of hike: about 30-40 minutes round trip for the first leg. If you go over to the Sea Cave about 1 hr and 10 minutes (recommended for kids 4 and up or for kids in a pack).


Central Coast Adventure #5 Carizzo Plains National Monument

Ages: all but ages 5 and up will have a greater appreciation for the area. Travel from San Luis Obispo: 1 1/2 hours.
A word of warning on the website says not to rely on directions from computer map programs or GPS (they will lead you astray). See directions below from the website or check the website for directions from other areas.
Tips: bring lunch, snacks, and water. There are no facilities on the way or at the plain. Gas up before you go. I didn't see any gas stations on the way.
The Goodwin Education Center (Visitor Center) is open from December to May, Thursday - Sunday, 9-4.
Painted rock trail closed March - July except with docent led tour on Saturdays (book ahead)
Website: http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/bakersfield/Programs/carrizo.html

It was a beautiful spring day in early April and the end of the kids two week spring break. We decided to take a day trip adventure to the Carizzo Plains. I'd heard of the beauty and natural life on the plains for years and there'd been a lot of talk about the area in the news recently since it's a proposed site for two solar energy projects.

We invited another family to join us and loaded everyone in the minivan (3 adults, 2 boys ages 7 and 11 and two girls ages 10) and headed out at 9:00 a.m. We drove to Santa Margarita and then to highway 58 a two-lane road that meanders through oak-tree dotted rolling hills. We had plenty of color with the wild flowers blooming in vivid yellows, oranges, and purples along the way and a herd of wayward sheep blocking the road was cheap entertainment for the kids.

An hour and a half later, we turned off on Soda Lake Road and were welcomed with a view of Soda Lake glistening in the distance. A Carizzo Plains Monument sign confirmed we were in the right place. It was a short ride to our first stop the Soda Lake Overlook. Bathrooms at the overlook were a welcome sight as well as a display with a map of the area and information on the flowers and wildlife we were likely to encounter.

A short walk up a hill and we had a great view of the lake. Another short climb to the top gave us an even greater view of the entire plain. Spring flowers in bloom carpeted the area in shades of yellow, blues, and purples.

Across the street was the Soda Lake Trailhead, but first we took a quick drive up to the Visitor's Center. There we got an overview of the area. We learned about the flowers, wildlife, the San Andreas fault that traverses the plain and Native Americans who lived there, and Painted Rock, a horseshoe shaped monolith rock formation that rises about 55 feet above the plain near the Caliente Mountain Range. Still considered sacred by the native peoples, the rock is considered one of the most important rock painting (pictograph) sites in the United States. The trail to Painted Rock is closed from March until July (open during this time only on Saturdays with a guided tour that must be booked well in advance).

From there we drove back to the Soda Lake Trailhead and took the .9 mile walk with a .5 mile boardwalk made out of recycled plastic milk jugs. The kids ran down to the lake and walked on the crunchy, white, salt-coated shore while the parents took pictures of the Tremblor Mountain range reflecting in the water. The ranger at the station told us the lake was only about 8 inches deep all the way across and that it drys out most of the year. As I stood there looking at the quiet plain bordered by two mountain ranges, I felt I was in an area by-passed by time and a sense of life in a long-gone era where there was nothing but wilderness.

After a walk along the boardwalk and a stop for lunch at the trailhead, we drove over to the Wallace Creek Trail, home of the San Andreas Fault line. The ranger at the Visitor Center told us to avoid the shortcut on the map to the trail head as it's deeply rutted and suitable for 4 wheel drives. He gave us directions to the 7 mile road and the drive only took about 10 minutes.

The Wallace Creek interactive trail had information on the fault. We were all surprised to learn that that we are moving one inch a year toward San Francisco. Where we were currently standing, it said, in 10 million years we'd have a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. We walked up a short hill to the creek and a view of the famous offset creek bed, a clear visual of how the creek bed was offset about 40 yards during earthquakes. The kids went into the creek bed and I explained they were currently standing on the Pacific Plate. I had them run across the fault to the other side of the creek onto the North American Plate. They giggled at their "plate hopping."

We climbed the trail a little further to the top and had an even better view of the creek. We continued on the trail a little further, but the kids were getting tired. It wasn't until we got back down and checked a sign again that we noticed there were numbered posts above showing the different movements of the fault, something to look forward to next time.

We drove out and looking at the map noticed we were very close to Highway 58, so instead of backtracking, we picked up Highway 58 and headed home.

Directions from the Central Coast: Take US Highway 101 to Santa Margarita (which is located half-way between Atascadero and San Luis Obispo). From Santa Margarita take State Highway 58 east about 40 miles turn right (south) on Soda Lake Road toward California Valley and the Carrizo Plain National Monument. In 7.6 miles you will arrive at the boundary of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. As you travel south on Soda Lake Road be sure to pull off at overlook hill and the Soda Lake boardwalk. Seven miles from the boundary, a dirt road heads west (right) 1/2 mile to the Goodwin Education Center.


Central Coast Adventure # 4 - Terrace Hill Hike, San Luis Obispo

Ages: All
Fun Factor: easy hike; fun for the kids
Cost: FREE
Location: Terrace Hill Open Space. On Bishop Street just past intersection of Augusta Street (Bishop Street is off of Johnson Ave. near French Hospital). Park on Augusta Street and take a short walk up Bishop's Street to trail head.

This is a great hike for families. It's easy, quick, and has a great view of San Luis's most beautiful peaks - San Luis and Bishop Peak Mountains.

From the trail head,head up the wide trail to the top (about 5 minutes). At the top you will be greeted with a flat open space and great views of the city. There is a trail that makes a circle around the top. There are a few benches for resting or to sit and look at the city below.

Tips: There are a few rock outcrops that are fun for the kids to play on.
The peaks make a great backdrop for family portraits.
This hike isn't really jogger stroller friendly because the gate at the bottom is really skinny and hard to get through (might be able to lift a closed stroller over the fence), but you don't really need a stroller because even a two-year old can climb this one. You can get through with a child in a pack on your back if you get sideways just the right way.

Central Coast Adventure # 3 Where the Wild Things Are: Wild Things Exotic Animal Sanctuary - Salinas, CA

Do your kids like wild things? Would they enjoy seeing real live "movie star" animals? If so, then come hob nob with the baboon used as the model for Rafiki in Lion King. See the most photographed Tiger ever and watch elephants and zebras roam on an African Savannah (well, a movie set Savannah that is). Wild Things in Salinas, CA is a unique experience for you and your family. Tours are given daily at 1:00 (last one hour and reservations are not required, just show up. 3:00 tour also available in June, July, & August). $10 Adults, $8 children. There's also a bed and breakfast on the site where you can stay in a safari-like cabin with a view of elephants and zebras.

Wild Things is dedicated to providing professionally & humanely trained wild/exotic & domestic birds and animals for film, television, live productions, education and much much more. Wild Things takes great pride in offering sanctuary to many animals that can no longer participate in entertainment or would otherwise not have a home or family.

I took my kids ages 11 and 9 and they loved it. An animal trainer gives a tour that last about an hour. You will learn about the different movies the animals were in and how they train them, i.e., How do they train bears to look like they're attacking someone? Answer: Teach them to dance then instruct them to dance. Add some ferocious sounds and you have what looks like a bear attacking.

For a unique lodging experience, check out their B&B. Listen to the lions and tigers roaring only yards from your canvas walled hotel suite. Wake to a continental breakfast delivered to your tent (often by our animal friends). Prices start at $225 a night.

Salinas is about 30 minutes from Monterey, CA. This is a great companion trip to a weekend in Monterey and a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

For more info: http://wildthingsinc.com/html/_welcome_to_our_jungle_.html