Saturday, August 22, 2009

Chillin' in Iceland in the Summer

At 66 degrees latitude, the northern most point in Iceland just grazes the Arctic Circle. This August, Alex ended his summer of fun with a trip to this cold, but beautiful country of Vikings, trolls and volcanoes.

There are roughly 310,000 Icelanders and most of them live in the Capital City of Reykjavik, but another million people visit the county annually. At any given time during the summer months, tourists are likely to outnumber the locals. By August, fall has set in and the summer temperatures that had soared to the low 60s have turned chilly with windy and rainy days.

Geologically, Iceland is undergoing processes now that the rest of planet Earth underwent 10 million years ago. About a tenth of island is permanently covered in ice with many of its highest mountains active volcanoes capped by glaciers. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge actually runs right through the middle of the country and divides the country into two continents. So while Iceland is the westernmost country in Europe, Alex ran across the bridge connecting the two ridges with one foot in North America and the other in Europe. The ridge is separating at 2 cm annually.

Reykjavik Excursions will charge you premium prices, but a day’s drive from city will bring you to the gorgeous Gullfoss waterfall, 10,000 year-old rock lava formations, craters now filled with water to form small lakes, boiling mud pools and bursting geysers.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Volubilis, Mocorro

If you want to visit the 2nd Century, an easy day trip from Fes are the Roman Ruins of Volubilis. Once home to 20,000 people, the ruins were inhabited until the great quake in 1722 and then razed as an archaeological site in 1915.

A marble, Triumphal Arch still stands marking the entrance to this illustrious city. It leads down the ceremonial road, Decumanus Maximus, lined by houses, baths, fountains, a bakery, a basilica, massage chairs and more. Many of the tiny mosaic floors remain in tact exposed to all the elements of weather for centuries.

The city's Capitol is now controlled by storks who lay their eggs annually teaching their babes to fly from atop the ancient columns. Free to wonder throughout the site, Alex jumped from wall-to-wall, practiced pressing olives and picked wildflowers.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Running in Ruins

North of Casablanca, along the Atlantic coast, is Morocco’s capital city of Rabat. The second most important city in the country (behind Casablanca), Rabat is home to the world’s embassies and tourists galore. On its highest hill is the Le Tour Hassan, an enormous minaret built in 1195 originally intended to be the largest and highest in the Muslim world. The project was eventually abandoned at 44 meter tall before completion. In 1755 an earthquake destroyed the mosque leaving only the pillars standing. Alex raced his way through them like pylons and scaled the tower at least one meter.

Opposite the tower is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V where the current king’s father and grandfather are laid to rest and visitors look down onto the tombs from a small room above. The building is intricately carved in white with a green tile roof. Alex preferred to check out the horses guarding the outside walls around the ruins. Other sites we missed include the Kasbah of the Udayas, Chellah Necropolis, and the Royal Palace. Alex will have to wait to check out this old city, the Roman ruins and meet the king on the next trip.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Caught in a Donkey Jam in Fes el-Bali

Alex ran, jumped, rolled and stomped his way through all of the four imperial cities of Morocco – Fes, Marrakech, Meknes and Rabat. Fes is the oldest of the four cities with the old walled section known as Fes el-Bali (Old Fes). A UNESCO World Heritage site, this medina is the largest contiguous car-free urban area in the world. Donkeys and mules are the vehicle of choice. Alex got caught in a stroller in a donkey-jam along the twisting, narrow, stone passageways of the city trapped between bazaars, spice shops and restaurants.

Fes is Morocco’s religious and cultural center. Having welcomed people of different faiths and faraway places for centuries, it is one of the world’s best examples that people of different backgrounds can live together peacefully. Unique to the city is its’ natural spring that has kept clean water running in the homes of the old city since the 9th century, and its medersas (theological colleges). Among the finest, Alex visited the Madrasa Bou Inania founded in 1351 as a theological college and today remains a premiere institution.

The best way to explore the old city, get lost in its tiny streets and barter with the shopkeepers is to leave your little one back in the U.S. Pushing a stroller up-and-down the cobblestone streets or hauling nearly 40 pounds of little boy is no easy task. Luckily, the stray cats lounging around the old city provided enough entertainment to keep Alex content for hours between mosques and the riads.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Play it again, Alex

Alex started his summer vacation to Morocco in the hip, modern city of Casablanca. A coastal metropolis, the city bustles with traffic, maintains a European-French flare and is home to the world’s third largest mosque. Built atop the edges of the Atlantic Ocean, Hassan II Mosque is the crowning achievement of King Hassan II. Opening in 1993, after seven years of around-the-clock construction, every detail of the building was handcrafted by more than 6,000 artisans. The elegantly carved wood and stucco showcases the different regions of Morocco. The building can hold 25,000 worshippers and on Ramadan another 80,000 will fill its courtyards. The 210-foot minaret shines a laser beam toward Mecca at night. The mosque also features a retractable roof and a section of glass flooring to see the sea below. The project cost more than one-half billion dollars mostly funded by the people of Casablanca and around.

Alex slept through much of the tour, but woke up in time to splash in the Hammam (Turkish bath). Now expert now on Moroccan fountains, pools, natural springs, ablution rooms and other sources of water around the country, Alex can tell you the best places to splash about in the summer Moroccan sun. So, while we didn’t make it to Rick’s CafĂ©, Alex did play again and again.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Celebrate Seal Day!

The Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur rehabilitates rescued sick, injured and orphaned sea lions and seals. Perched atop San Pedro, CA with an impressive view of the Los Angeles Harbor, the center treats dozens of animals annually. Seal Day gives visitors a behind-the-scenes peek at how the mostly California seal lines, northern elephant seals, harbor seals and fur seals are cared for in private tanks. Most of the animals are released back to sea after an average one-to-three month stay, but for a handful of others, adoption is the only option. Alex got an up-close look at lunch time with a full menu of fish served by volunteer caregivers.

So, what should you do if you should encounter a beached animal? Stay at least 50ft. away and keep others back too. It is a federal offense to disturb marine mammals. Don’t push it back into the water, pour water on it or feed it. Call the local animal care and control agency.

See you next year on Seal Day!

Day Out with Thomas

Day Out with Thomas is probably one of the coolest things a kid can do. Sir Topham Hatt and Thomas the Tank Engine ™ tour the country annually so kids and families can hop onboard. From Tennessee to Texas and Oregon to Ohio, children of all ages can experience their imaginations on a full-size tank engine. We climbed aboard in Fillmore, CA, which isn’t quite the Island of Sodor, but Alex did get to meet the Hero of the Rails. The 25 minute train ride rolled by fast, but the rest of the festival gave every kid a chance to play for hours with Thomas, James, Percy, Gordon, Henry and all their friends on the traditional wooden and plastic tracks. Note to Parents: book tickets well in advance and bring your credit card for the special Thomas gift shop.

The Fillmore and Western Railway Company hosted the local event. The rest of the year, FWRY is # 1 in train film production with freight and passengers cars dating back to the 1860s. Families can enjoy FWRY during all the holiday – New Year’s, Easter, Mother’s Day, July 4th, Halloween, and Christmas – tours. In the summer Margarita Madness and Wine Express are offered for adults, but families can also search for the Headless Horseman during dinner or solve the murders aboard the mystery line tours.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Children's Garden is More Fun than Rare Books

The Huntington Library in San Marino, CA covers 207 acres of gardens with more than 14,000 varieties of plant life. Its art galleries feature paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as sculpture, tapestries, porcelain and furniture. The Library’s collection of rare books, manuscripts, prints, photographs, maps, and other materials in the fields of British and American history and literature totals more than six million items. But, if you want something fun to do, then head directly to the Children's Garden where little ones are allowed to splash in tot-size fountains, run under miniature arbors, dance in the foggy mist and get lost in tunnels of foliage.

While, the Library is dedicated to research and education, I only had the chance to take in some of the beauty. The Chinese Garden is the newest attraction opening in early 2008. The grounds also include lily ponds, the Jungle Garden, Rose Garden, Shakespeare Garden and many more. You'll want to keep your kids away from the Desert Garden -- one of the most amazing cactus collections you'll ever see. The Japanese Rock Garden is equally wonderfully, but Alex wanted to rake the gravel into his own zen designs.

Tar Seeps with Dinosaur Bones in Financial District

It might have been a good idea to know that Alex was terrified of dinosaurs before I took him to see a giant Mastodon at the Page Museum La Brea Tar Pits. One roar from the mechanical mammoth, and our museum experience quickly ended.

Crude oil seeps from the ground in the middle of the Los Angeles financial district on Wilshire Boulevard and every once in awhile, the paleontologists there excavate a fossil from the last Ice Age.

Millions of years ago, Los Angeles lay beneath the Pacific Ocean. When the ocean receded about 100,000 years ago, pools of asphalt formed. Before the bankers of Wilshire trapped our money, animals were trapped in the tar pools. Literally millions of animal and plant fossils have been pulled from the tar. A Fishbowl Laboratory gives visitors a chance to see the restoration process and in the summer Pit 91 is the longest running paleontological excavation site in the world -- operating since 1969.

For future dinosaur diggers, the giant Shasta Ground Sloth, the Sabertoothed cat and Mammoths can't be missed. For little guys who can't quite handle a T-Rex, you may want to save the experience until they're ready for Jurassic Park.

City Kid digs the Farm!

Just about 45 minutes north of downtown Los Angeles, a city kid can get a taste of the great outdoors in Simi Valley at the Underwood Family Farms. Alex rode his first pony, went mining for minerals, fed the goats carrots and took a train ride. There are two locations, the Somis Farm and the Moorpark Farm. Both boast pigs, llamas, ponies, goats and other farm animals, as well as opportunities to pick your own produce and buy organic at their fresh market. If you really want the full experience, you can sit on a tractor or bounce through the fields on a the back of an open wagon.

Mostly, Alex loved to dig in the giant sand box, run through the fields and climb the great pile of straw -- just like a real farm kid. As a kid who grew up on a farm myself, it's odd to pay the entrance fee and buy tickets for the giant air jumper just to get the farm experience. But, for small children in Los Angeles, its a great chance to escape the freeway, masses of people and play in the dirt!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Paradise is the Bahamas!

There is a beach in Nassau, Bahamas behind the Atlantis Hotel where the warm water rolls with shades of aqua, teal and marine blue. The sand is soft, fine and nearly white. Locals will work hard to sell all-you-can drink “Bahama Mamas,” a mixture of rum and fruit punch. You can sit on the beach and relax the worries of the world behind.

Alex rolled in the sand covering every part from head to toe, sipped cocktails from a coconut (minus the rum) and splashed in the soft waves of the Atlantic. It might have been the most fun that he ever had.

In addition to its amazing beach and pure sun, the Atlantis Hotel is a Las Vegas scale casino and hotel where you can swim with the dolphins in its marine aquarium, allow the stingrays to swim under your finger tips, and experience close up view of sharks, barracudas and green sea turtles. An Aqua Tots program even lets the little ones get in the water to feed the fishes.

Probably the best way to get to the Bahamas is via ship. Just a hop, skip & a jump from the Florida coast, Nassau is a popular docking spot for all the major cruise lines. Once you debark, dozens of taxi cabs are lined up with photos of the beach and the Atlantis eager to take you 15 minutes across the island – to Paradise!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Cruising the High Seas

It turns out 2 ½ years is the absolute worst age for a child to board a cruise ship and expect to have some fun. Not quite potty trained, Alex was banned from any of the “Ship Mates” big kid activities in the Youth X-Club like the slide, ball pit, swimming pools and more. A little too big for the “Toddler Time” in the baby room, he wasn’t welcome to play with little ones there either. That doesn’t leave much for a little guy with a lot of energy trapped aboard a floating vessel.

The Celebrity Infinity docks at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. The eleven story ship carries 2100 passengers and 900 crew. It boasts a couple of swimming pools, the Aqua Spa, several restaurants for casual and fine dining, dance floors, a movie theater, casino, high end duty free shopping, and a collection of different musicians and comedians to entertain. While they claim excellent service, Pedro the stateroom attendant was much more helpful than anyone at the Guest Services, where you end up spending hours waiting in line every day because of one mix-up or another. The internet package for a few days of floating at sea will cost you more than a month’s rent, and you won’t be able to find ‘hot spots’ to use it outside business service office.

The four day trip cruise was suppose to make a ½ day stop in Key West, FL and then head south to Cozumel, Mexico for snorkeling and shopping, but after the ship’s navigation system broke down and we ended up marooned in Key West and rerouted for a few hours in the Bahamas as a consolation prize.

So, while the cruise wasn’t quite all it was advertised and Celebrity doesn’t deserve any praises, Alex did make friends with the pizza guy after 5 trips a day to get a slice, raced the elevators up-and-down, and learned how to eat ice cream in a cone. But, the highlight was his hours breaking the rules splashing in the Jacuzzi --- oops, hope those swim diapers work!