Monday, September 29, 2008

Camping in Calaveras County

We were bound and determined as we spent the money on the pop-up trailer to get it out one more time before turning our attention to some travels outside NorCal as well as ski season. Folks camp very late into the year here in NorCal as was evidenced by all the state parks and numerous private ones on the coast being completely booked through the second week of November. So we turned out attention to the higher country. It's been a while since we traveled down to Calaveras County and yes that would be the same county of Mark Twain's famed The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. This traditional green long-legged race still occurs the third Saturday of May in Angel's Camp and dates back to the 1800's. In fact the town lovingly has nicknamed itself Frogtown.

So Friday afternoon we loaded up and ventured the two hour drive from home. We set off as usual during the kids naptimes. Each one got 1 hour plus on the way down. Snacks and juice got us to the Big Trees Market in Arnold where we stopped for a couple of missing items as well as firewood as our campground was at 5000ft. Another 7mi up the road and we came upon our campground...Golden Pines RV Resort and Campground. We had hoped to stay in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, but alas they were full.

We entered the campground to see lots of permanently placed RV's completely with landscaping, water fountains, plastic flowers, yard animals, and permanent wood roof they do lease during the winter months for those who want to ski Bear Valley and use their RV as a "ski cabin." My husband was greeted by our host who had studied the check-in list and knew his first name and our family make-up just by telling him our last name. One downside to this place is you can not make site-specific reservations, but he was nice enough to give us our choice from a couple. But both broke my rules....were inside of loops and close to public areas. We went for a partial pull through with no one else staying at any spots on that particular loop, #73. The only one on the outside not in a lease is #34 (full hook-up). I think 22-27 might have been better choices, even though still on an inner loop, they were on an outter area of the campground away from the main drag.

We un-hooked, pop'ed up and I went about fixing dinner. My husband took the kids and dog (allowed on leashes) for a walk and to the red wood play structure that was conveniently located within sight of our camper. Dinner was spaghetti, bread, salad, and applesauce for the kids. We quickly learned after dinner another demise of our site choice...dirt + sap = sticky mess. As we drove and walked through we had noticed a lot of the "permanent sites" had appeared to have brought in their own gravel, rock, or bark. And we found out why when the kids started digging in the fine black dirt around our campsite after supper. We decided it was a losing battle especially with all the pines leaking sap and let them go to town while we set-up the beds and cleaned up from dinner.

All set-up we marched them off to the pay showers to clean-up. Two closed door quarter operated showers stalls/rooms existed in each the men's and women's restroom. These were located in a commons building which also housed a laundry and a rec room. The bathrooms were clean and well-stocked. And our kids enjoyed the decor of faux flowers, country embellishments of flowered hats hanging on the walls and bunnies in the window sills. Cleaned up it was time for samores and off to bed.

Now quiet hours were 10PM-9AM. And there were a lot of "leasees" in for the start of deer season. And they all knew each other and had a great time catching up. So it really did not quiet down until literally 10PM on the nose. The hosts were zipping through the campground using the golf cart nearly as a taxi service getting folks from one social gathering to another. It was really fun to take in the true RV'ing lifestyle. Thanks to deer season quiet hours ended at more like 5AM as everyone was up loading their big trucks and therefore opening and closing doors as well as starting them up. And remember we had to break our location rule, so they drove right past our camper as they left. So needless to say I didn't feel too bad when my kids were up and at'em full energy by 7:30.

Breakfast was french toast, fruit, coffee, and juice. Then we packed up lunch and headed 2mi back down the road to the State Park. We decided to take in the North Grove Trail which was a 1.5mi loop. It was very well maintained, so much so we saw several strollers along the way. There were more than giant trees with markers, which would have bored my 4yr old within 1/4 mile. There was one which had had a hole cut in it in the 1800's an a car driven through, another that had fallen and was hollow all through such that she cold walk the entire shaft, and yet another giant stump, so large I am guessing you could easily fit 50+ people on top. She walked probably 3/4 of the trail and piggy-backed another 1/4. We packed our son.

Then we turned our attention to lunch and getting our dog out of the car, as they are not allowed on trails. So we ventured a few more miles deeper into the park to the River Picnic Area. We picnicked at the obvious tables located on a bluff above the river. However, we wish we would have scouted better. Across from the restroom is a handicap parking spot, and on the other side of the fence is a trail down to the river. About 500ft which was do-able, all be it a little tough at times, with two little kids, but so worth it. At the bottom was a natural beach right below some rapids and some large boulders to sun on. Next time we are lunching down there.

Back to the campground for naps. Afterwards more play at the playground as well as they had a bounce house inflated. There were a few children at this site, but as there were so many leasees I am guessing most overnighters had grown children versus the small ones. But they still had plenty to keep the small ones busy, including a pool (but it was already closed for the season). Dinner this evening was turkey dogs over the campfire, salad, and veggies. Another round of samores and showers and they were snoozing away. This evening we sat out by the fire with a bottle of wine and again watched the RV social scene swirl around us.

Pack-up morning breakfast is always a easy clean-up one. Yogurt, muffins, juice, and hot chocolate. The kids played really well in the camper for a while, but then went off to the playground when time came to break things down. Next time we would really like to stay at the State Park, but this was a very friendly, amenity packed facility for $30 a night for a partial hook-up (water & DC). There was a huge area in the back behind the RV's for tents-only as well. And as far as the general area we only scratched the surface...there are caves, mine tours, horseback riding, old mining towns, and this is on our list as a potential for our annual winetasting/camping for next year as Arnold and Murphys are packed with wineries. Definitely a do-over destination....

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Child on the Go at a Music Festival....

About a month ago some friends of ours informed us they were headed to the Outside Lands art and music festival at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. We were seriously jealous.... they were getting to see some killer bands for a awesome cause and so we thought...enjoy all the tunes munchkin free. See they have an adorable 18month old.

And I later grew more jealous when I learned they had a great day...seeing 6 performances with their daughter in tow. So Mom, Blythe, has been kind enough to share their tips from the day. And they called this the inaugural event, so with these tips...count us in next go around.
Enjoy! And Thanks B!
We recently took our 18 month old daughter to a day of the outside lands music festival in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It was our first concert with her and it went off without a hitch. Here are a couple of things that helped us all enjoy the day:

· Preparation... with the weekend festival, there was a very helpful website that was full of good information to have: parking (or lack thereof in this case), schedule, and most importantly, what’s allowed in and what is not.

· Food & Drink… we were allowed to bring soft sided coolers, so we packed one with all of the possible food and beverage items for kiddo and one for our dinner so we didn’t have to shell out quite so much on food & drink while there. We were sure to bring some of the favorites for our daughter so she would be more apt to eat given more than the usual amount of distraction. Also, we had plenty of water for her since it was outside.

· Comfort… we hauled in an old comforter for us all to sit on during the different acts. It was a nice place for us to sit and to keep all the other items we had semi contained. Given that it was an outdoor concert with 6 different stages, we packed everything in a very large bag that we could help carry things from stage to stage – a bit of a traveling circus, but it worked (we heard 6 bands in all).

· Transportation inside… we went sans extra transit method given that our kid likes to walk and can be corralled easily enough (and our stroller is not made for off-roading through the fields of the park). We did see several strollers that doubled as kid stuff carriers and we saw some soft side kid carriers. They were not allowing backpacks with frames into the venue in general, so that is one thing to look up before you try.

· Entertainment… while we had built in entertainment for the adults, I wanted to make sure we could enjoy the music and not have to be a constant entertainer for the kiddo. I packed a variety of items that I knew she would be enamored with…crayons, stickers, a notepad, a ball, bubbles (although we got outdone by the bubble machine someone else brought in), and a couple other things she was into that week. I considered what I brought to keep her entertained in one spot on the plane and expanded my ideas from there.

· Location at the concert… two things to consider in scoping out your spots at the concert – noise and people surrounding you.
> Location consideration 1: Noise… we opted not to go with earplugs for our daughter and chose our spots well enough away from the stage to be away from the crowded area and at a reasonable noise level. We did see kids with a variety of different ear plugs in (I think our curious George would have ripped all of them right out) and I’ve also read that getting hunting earphones/protectors is a good way to go.
> Location consideration 2 – surrounding parties… by the end of the day, we were sitting close to several families with kids (when we go again, we will look for this). This was great for two reasons. First, there’s less of a chance your kid will have to inhale smoke or hear words and phrases you may not utter around them normally and second, entertainment value. We ended up being the “base” for few kids that were interested in the crayons, ball, etc, which we were more than happy to share, as it gave our daughter even more entertainment and allowed other parents to enjoy the music as we were. We had fun chatting with the other parents too.

· Exit plan… we knew that we would not make it through the end of the last concert. We laid out our blanket in a strategic location so we could hit the exit without too much trouble (or walking in front of too many people). Our plan was to change our daughter into pjs on the blanket, let her drink her cup of milk there if she wanted and then bail and let her cash out in the car on the way home. It worked perfectly, but we also had contingencies in mind if things didn’t go the way we planned.

All in all, it was a great day for everyone and we are certainly going to try something similar again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Book Ski Vacation Accomodations Now....

Woo-hoo...check another item off my to-do list. As mentioned prior we do a very large ski trip every winter for college friends and their families. Our numbers have been anywhere from in the teens to pushing thirty depending on the year, destination, etc.. We have singles, couples, and families. We prefer houses/townhomes with a group this size as this is just as much a reunion as a ski vacation, so we want to be able to have common areas for the adults and kids to socialize in at any hour.

But no matter what the numbers we always book early. Most winter vacation rentals start coming on the market after Labor Day. This early booking is good for a few have the best selections and availabilities by searching early and it also allows you or your fellow travel companions plenty or time to search for a decent airfare. Which we all know in this day and age is pretty tough.

This year we are returning to Park City where we have been in the past. 2002 for the Winter Olympics as well as 2004 for our group trip. I started my search the week after Labor Day. I went to a general Park City Tourism site and found all their property management companies. Before contacting any of them I ensure I have my dates dialed in. We generally avoid holiday weeks/weekends as rates can be double. I also ensure I have our accomodation needs thought out as well...approximate number of bedrooms, baths, linen service, stocked kitchen, on a shuttle route, parking, hot tub are just a few of the things to think about. And of course above all the budget. Be sure when communicating with anyone regarding numbers they include any taxes, booking fees, cleaning fees, etc.. If you get a number without those you will generally see it inflate 10+% when the broker adds them in. Then start contacting away. Nearly everyone has websites with photos, maps, etc. But do not be afraid to ask for physical addresses of properties, so you can see if "downtown" is really downtown.

Another avenue to consider is VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) or listings on Craigslist. Generally you will see huge savings in these properties as they are not paying a middle man to do their advertising or management of their property, including check-in/outs and cleaning. However, you do need to be careful by going directly through the owner. Ensure they have a contract and read it thoroughly. If their listing does not have previous guest comments ask for referrals. Also if you find something you really like, but is a little out of your range...ask them in they are willing to negotiate. This is more likely to happen with the direct owners vs a property management-ran property.

So here's a list of past properties or companies we have used and have had wonderful experiences
> 2002: Resort Quest in Park City, UT Property no longer listed
> 2003: ...back to you on this one. Need to find the info.
> 2004: Resort Quest in Park City, UT Property no longer listed
> 2005: in Zephyr Cove, NV Property#303
> 2006: Vail Central Reservations in Vail, CO Gore Creek Meadows Condos
> 2007: was VRBO is now TahoeMoonProperies in Tahoe City, CA Carmen's Talamont Retreat
> 2008: VRBO in Steamboat, CO Steamboat Escape Cimmaron
> 2009: VRBO in Park City, UT Canyon Cottage....keep your fingers crossed this one is as good as year's past

There is one other property management company I would like to mention. Even though I have not booked one of their properties their sales associate tends to bend over backwards to try to get my business...Mountain Reservations. Most notably Nate out of Park City.

And with Resort Quest in Park City ask for Janice White.

Our 100 degree days are gone here in NorCal and the leave are starting to fall. So snow is slowly coming to our mind....

Friday, September 12, 2008

We LUV All-Inclusives this much...... be up at 5AM this morning after a few hours of sleep in order to re-book our vacation thanks to Hurricane Ike. Now, I am not going to complain or moan poor me in this post at all. There are people dead, dying, homeless in the Caribbean...and more unfortunately probably still to come as Hurricane Ike heads for the Texas and Mexico coastline.

We booked 8 nights at Beaches Turks and Caicos nearly a year ago. They always offer these awesome deals at the end of a calendar year for bookings done in the next year. And it only takes a few hundred dollar deposit to secure your reservation. This is our 2nd trip to a Beaches. The first was to Ochos Rios, Jamaica named Boscobel. This is our third with this entity as we honeymooned at Sandals Negril. And we have done a 4th via Couples Swept Away with 3 other couples as a 5yr anniversary/reunion. So yes, we love it and we keep coming back for more.

All-inclusives are not cheap...and they certainly are not for everyone. After getting married just after graduating college we wanted a honeymoon, but didn't want to be skipping breakfast to ensure we could afford dinner. As we started our family we again wanted this thought-less process...except with the munchkins in mind. I hate to see food wasted as much as the next person, but let's be many toddlers and preschoolers have eyes bigger than their stomachs? Or there are days our son loves a banana and a piece of toast for breakfast and what restaurant menu let's you do that? And in my selfish mind...if I am going to one of the best dive destinations in the world I want to be able to go....A LOT. And where else will my daughter have dance lessons with Sesame Street's Zoe and bake cookies with Cookie Monster.

So by the time you start adding all these things up...and then throw in childcare from 8AM-8PM for as long, short, or as many drop-ins as you want that $500-$700 a day doesn't seem to bad. Diving alone for my husband and I would easily cover a couple hundred of that each day. Then toss in premium drinks, snacks, numerous restaurants, activities...and NO TIPPING. Well, it is the reason we budget in a all inclusive vacation every 2-3 years. All our money is paid upfront and the only bit we bring along is for souvenirs and any incidentals getting to our destination. This is definitely something to consider if you are looking for an active vacation with diving, snorkeling, other water sports, good on-land amentities like gyms, classes, well as care for little ones. If you and your family just want to veg on the sand it may be more economical to do that elsewhere.

So back to the original....Turks and Caicos was hit by Ike as a Cat4 last week. We had heard that "Provo" was the least damaged, so we waited and waited and read all the forums and thought we were in the clear for our vaca scheduled in November. But last night we received an email they would be closed and we needed to rebook. And We LUV All-inclusives so much we had to rebook ourselves, 3 of the 4 grandparents, and some family friends who we have all sold on the idea and were joining us.

Here's some tips on re-booking. Be prepared and know your options. Pull your current flight, confirmation numbers, costs, etc...and have some flights for potential rebooking pulled. Ask the airlines if there is a policy in place to wave change fees due to the catastrophe. Our airline when all is said and done will have waived...$1800 in change fees and another $300 in crediting back frequent flyer miles. Some of us had travel insurance...some didn't. So some will recoup their ticket differentials they had to pay. Some of us will eat it. If you are traveling with a group and someone is willing to take responsibility for everyone that is best...this way all travel associates you are dealing with realize they are dealing with numerous bookings and hence lots of customers and revenue. And be first in line...we got the email after Beaches office hours and called and were up and on the phone when they opened at 5AM west coast time.

And my motto in any dealing as this is try to kill them with kindness. Lots of thank yous go a long way. In a situation such as these catastrophe they are dealing with many upset and angry people and if you are the one who is kind and makes that last angry call they got disappear you will be amazed at what it could get you.

We LUV All-Inclusives so much we have our entire entourage rebooked for 1 month later than originally planned and we are going to enjoy and support the economy of Turks and Caicos.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Swimming at home & on the go...Fun!

Sorry to have disappeared. We have had the invasion of the grandparents for the last 3 weeks here at our home. So lots of going...and lots of pool fun, which brings me full circle to the 2nd piece of the swimming article I promised.

My kids have been in water since tiny tots. Even before we had our pool we bought those under $20 inflatables to get them used to the splashing and water in their face. Noting how much they loved cups and pouring water and filling things we gave them lots of those in early water play. Anything to get them comfortable. Even now our nearly 2 yr old son spends the majority of his play time on our over-sized 18" deep step with his cups lined up on the pool deck filling and emptying.

Our next step was to get them used to floating free in the water. We did this through whatever was on sale inflatable at the local Target, Walmart, or store of your choice that they could sit in and we could motor them around the pool. We also played motorboat a lot. It's a game that every swim instructor any of my children has had has played. You basically hold your child under their arms and above the water...then "Motor boat. motor boat goes real slow"...and you hold them out from your body and you turn in a circle more or less driving them through the water. "Motor boat, motor boat goes real fast...."....easy enough...pick up the speed. "Motor boat, motor boat kick on the gas!"....your child is more or less moving fast enough to create a wake with their legs. They love it!

Next when it was time to let them jump in or float free we went through lots of options...or dilemmas. We tried the suits with the blow up inserts. A lot of our friends have done the water wings. Friends who already have them just go ahead and use life jackets. And then there is the train of thought that is no flotation aids at all. I have seen benefits with them all, but at the end of the day you may have to go through a few options, before you find what best comforts your child.

Now that we have a swimmer we have progressed with our water toys. We have dive rings, toypedos, swim through rings, noodles, and fins. Oh and don't forget the ever popular water cannons and the such.

Honestly everyone asks how myself and some other close friends have such young swimmers...and I think there are a few major factors. #1...making it fun whether at home or in a lesson. #2...comfort, do what it takes to make your child have an enjoyable water experience. When they are cold or scared, take a break, talk it out, etc.. #3...exposure, the more opportunity they have the more comfortable they will be. And this needs to include other children their age. We saw this in full action last Friday. We have been working on my daughter's back float all summer. One of her best buds came over and she could...and within 5 minutes our daughter was right along side her back-floating with kicks all over the pool.

So I have a lot in draft right now...all-inclusive, more camping, plan your ski vacation now...and a guest article from a friend who just did an all day concert with their 18month old.