Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wacky, Wonderful Weeki Wachee Springs

We’ve visited Florida many times, but on a visit to the Gulf Coast, we were looking for something a little different to do.  We found it.  About an hour’s drive North of Tampa is one of Florida’s oldest and most unique attractions - Weeki Wachee Springs!

Weeki Wachee Springs is a natural attraction in Weeki Wachee, Florida, about an hours drive North of Tampa.  The main draw is underwater performances by ‘mermaids’, viewed in The Mermaid Theater.  The theatre, built 16’ below the surface into the limestone on the side of the spring, makes you feel as if you are submerged with the mermaids.  The ‘mermaids’ swim freely underwater breathing from a free-flowing air hose, rather than from a tank on their backs and perform alongside the turtles, fish, manatees and otters who frequent the spring.

In it’s heyday, the park was visited by many celebrities, most notably Elvis.  These days, Weeki Wachee is not quite so famous, with most tourists sticking to Busch Gardens and Disney World.  That’s a shame because Weeki Wachee’s ‘mermaids’ have been performing underwater long before Cirque de Soleil, and these highly trained ‘mermaids’ really are fascinating to watch.

The mermaid shows are only just one of the things to see.  With animal shows, roaming peacocks, a river boat ride, canoe and kayak rentals, water slides and lazy river tubing, there is plenty to see and do.  The grounds, gardens, spring and river are lovely, and the people working there are friendly and welcoming.

We visited on an unusually cold and blustery day in January, so we didn’t have the opportunity to swim in the spring, but the mermaid show and relaxing river cruise were definitely worth the drive.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Unattended children will be used for bait

I got a chuckle out of this sign at a restaurant in Indian Shores Florida.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The CARES Child Aviation Restraint System

When B was under one, we always brought along a car seat for him to sit in when we flew.  While we still occasionally bring along his car seat on long flights, we more often bring along our CARES Child Aviation Restraint System.

CARES is the only child restraint ever certified for airplane use by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and is designed for children over 12 months of age, and between 22 and 44 lbs.

CARES’ belt and buckle system fits around the back of the seat and connects to the existing safety belt.  Its adjustable straps will fit virtually any airline seat and can be installed in less than a minute.

The benefits
  • It weighs only 1 lb and fits into a small stuff sack - it takes up only as much room in your bag as a baseball
  • The device is quick to install and take-off, and doesn’t hinder the passenger behind you from using their tray table
  • It provides a safe airplane seat for your child, without having to bring a car seat on board
  • Got twins or triplets? CARES offers discounts to parents purchasing for multiple children
Keep in mind
  • We have been on several flights where the flight attendants were unfamiliar with the system, so it is a good idea to make sure you carry the FAA documentation provided with CARES, just in case they have any questions.
  • If your child refuses to keep his/her lap belt fastened (B's new trick), this won’t help that.  For safety reasons, the buckle is still easily accessible in an emergency (AND for little fingers… click click click)

Bath time!

My son loves his pre-bedtime bath, and we try to maintain his routine as much as possible when we travel.  Often we find ourselves without a bath tub, so we've used sinks and several inflatable options.

The Munchkin Inflatable Safety Duck Tub was the first inflatable tub we purchased and it proved very handy.  The inflated size is 31" x 19" so it fit well even in tight shower stalls and it was lightweight at 1.6 lbs.  It deflated and folded easily and B enjoyed the duck shape.  (If you press the beak, it quacks!)  It even features a built-in patch that turns white when the water was too hot.  The manufacturer recommends this tub for babies between 6 and 24 months, but it became a bit too narrow for B when he was about 12 months old.  Of the tubs I have reviewed here, this one is the most suitable for babies who cannot sit up unassisted - when he was very small, we put B in sideways so he had little room to slide down.

The next tub we used was actually an inflatable pool - Intex's My First Baby Pool.  I loved this one because it was even lighter, at only 1 lb and folded up even more compactly the the other options noted here.  With a 24" diameter, it still fit in tight shower stalls (even cruise ones) and gave B lots of room to splash around.  We had to stop using it after several trips when it got a hole (my fault not the manufacturer's), and I found it very hard to replace when I needed it - in winter.

That's when I bought our third tub, and now my favorite - The Safety 1st Kirby Inflatable Tub.  It is recommended for babies over 20 lbs.  The inflated size is 28" x 21", it folds up easily and weighs only 1.4 lbs. My only fault with this tub is I found it difficult to inflate and deflate (the valves don't let much air in/out), so it is definitely best suited to holidays where you can leave it inflated for a few days, rather than having to inflate/deflate it on a daily basis. 

Please note - I have included links to Amazon for all these tubs, as I find it a helpful starting point for price comparisons and often contains the most comprehensive product descriptions.  I do not receive any commissions or kick-backs from purchases of products from their website.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Reclining airline seats. Love them or hate them?

An article in the Travel section of yesterday's Toronto Star The Recline and Fall of Western Civilization has my mind racing.  The article weighs in on the conflicting views travelers have on the etiquette of reclining airline seats.  Whether you love them or hate them, it is clear most people feel passionately either way.

On a Thai Airways flight a few years ago, I witnessed two passengers nearly come to blows.  A passenger in first class insisted on reclining his seat, despite the fact his seat came only a few inches in front of the person in coach directly behind (and only separated by a curtain).  I could understand both mens' points of view... the passenger in first class likely paid a lot for the extra measure of comfort, but the passenger in coach still deserved a measure of personal space.

I have never been a fan of reclining airline seats.  Unless I have had the fortune of sitting in first or business class, reclining seats rarely provide any additional comfort.  And, in these days of steadily reclining seat pitch, the inch or two of space lost when a fellow passenger reclines his/her seat feels intrusive and claustrophobic.  Now that we are traveling with a child, this lack of space has become more of an issue.

Last year we flew to Hawaii.  Because of the long flights from Toronto, we purchased B his own seat and brought along his car seat so he'd have a comfy, familiar place to sleep.  The down-side of a car seat on board is they raise the child up so that it is almost inevitable their feet will touch the seat ahead of them.  On our first leg, the distance between seats was so minimal, I tapped the young man on the shoulder who was sitting in front of B, and gave him a heads up that although we were sorry for the inconvenience, he would not be able to recline his seat because our son's feet would be squashed.  To my amazement, even though this was a daytime flight, he was less than understanding, and his mother seated next to him spent the next several minutes complaining to the flight attendant how unfair it was he could not recline his seat.

On the second leg, the distance between the seats was even tighter.  The (yet another) young man seated in front of B insisted on reclining his seat, despite my polite pleadings.  B's feet were so crushed up against the seat in front, we spent most of the flight with his car seat sitting sideways while Mark and I were jammed in the remaining seat and a half of space.  So much for safety...

Thankfully on our return flights, we were seated in the bulkhead row.  Though this presented other problems (see Are bulkhead seats worth it?), at least we didn't have to deal with reclining seats.  On other flights, we have been incredibly fortunate to have understanding passengers seated in front of B.  But this understanding is definitely a two-way street - we don't want to inconvenience another passenger any more than they want to be inconvenienced, and we do our best to make sure B disrupts other passengers as little as possible.

These experiences have made me particularly mindful when I think about reclining my own seat.  Now that B is over two, we usually bring along the Cares flight restraint system, which allows him to sit securely in the airplane seat, and keeps his feet far enough away from the seat in front of him.

Do passengers have the right to recline their seat?  Sure they do.  But given the large number of people crammed in such a small space, showing a little consideration to your fellow passengers is paramount.

So I've got a little request of everyone next time you fly... if you are thinking of reclining your seat, please look behind you first.  The passenger behind you may be very tall, may be very small (and in a car seat), or even just an exhausted parent bent over trying to retrieve a toy off the floor (if I had a nickel...)  Ouch!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Traveling With Kids: Flying with kids: 7 holiday-travel tips

A fellow travel blogger offers these great tips for traveling during the busy and hectic holiday season:

Traveling With Kids: Flying with kids: 7 holiday-travel tips: The holiday season can be stressful for many reasons, and flying with (or without!) kids during the holidays can also be more stressful than...

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Adventure Travel with Small Children

Photo from Africa Exclusive

I was starting to think my adventure travel days were over…  No more dodging cars on my bike in Vietnam or viewing stupas from a hot air balloon in Myanmar.   Thankfully there are many tour operators out there helping to add adventure to travel for families with young children.

Africa Exclusive specializes in luxurious safari holidays for families with children as young as 3 years old.  They can put together your custom dream holiday to Africa, and can recommend the most child-friendly safari lodges.  They can even tailor your experience to non-malarial areas if you are uncomfortable giving anti-malarial drugs to your child. Single parent tour dates are offered.

The Adventure Company offers several itineraries for families traveling with children under 5 years of age.  Destinations include Morocco, Greece, Malta, Cypress and Turkey and special single parent tour dates are available. I am particularly intrigued by their 8-day Magical Morocco trip which features old pirate lairs, castles and a mule trek into the Atlas Mountains.

Smiling Albino specializes in family adventures in Asia.  Adventures include supported cycling tours in Thailand and Cambodia.  But the most eye-popping itinerary is their 15-day multi-sport Nepal Grand Slam featuring supported mountain biking, elephant safaris and mountain trekking.  The route avoids high altitudes so altitude sickness isn’t a worry.  Children under 50 lbs who are unable or uninterested in trekking can be carried by porters in specially designed baskets.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

So that's what a kinkajou really looks like!

Photo by Mattias Klum
A few weeks ago, Mark and I had the opportunity to see a presentation by Mattias Klum, the first of four speakers at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall presented by National Geographic.  A long-time National Geographic photographer, Mattias has capture stunning photographs of wildlife in some of the most inhospitable places on earth.

Photo by Mattias Klum
From photographing wildlife 400 ft up in the rainforest, to a misguided stunt perched at the top of a hot air balloon, to too-close-for-comfort encounters with a lioness and a cobra, Mattias is a true adventurer.  In his work, he has traveled all over the world with his wife and his two young sons, one of whom took his first steps in Antarctica.

Mattias’s quirky sense of humor and gorgeous photographs made for a spellbinding night.  Though what I really appreciated the most was learning about kinkajous and other threatened animals, that until that night I had only seen on Go Diego Go! :)

Fantastic travel crib >> The Baby Bjorn Travel Crib Light

I’m not a really sentimental person in terms of keeping a lot of baby ‘stuff’.  I’ve saved a few things from B’s under-two days… a few pieces of artwork, his first pair of sneakers and a pair of tiny pj’s, now worn by one of his stuffed animals.  Most of my favorite moments are kept in a digital fashion and chronicled in photo albums.

But our travel crib is another matter.  Although B has grown out of it and usually shares a bed with us now when we travel, this is one piece of travel gear I’m not looking forward to giving up. 

From our earliest trips with a baby-on-board, we have been using the Baby Bjorn Travel Crib Light.  Lightweight at only 11 lbs, comfortable for baby, safe, sturdy and super-easy and fast to put up and take down, our Baby Bjorn Travel Crib has come along with us everywhere from Panama to Hawaii.  It has also come along for numerous trips to visit friends and relatives, as it makes a great spot for nap time and is far more compact and convenient than hauling around a pack ‘n play.

Selling at around $250, this crib does not come cheap.  But for us, it has paid for itself many times over in terms of practicality and convenience.  Bringing the crib along has removed the uncertainty around the quality/cleanliness of a borrowed or rented crib, and it has provided B with a familiar place to sleep regardless of our destination.  The mattress cover and crib fabric are both machine washable, and the mattress is easily wiped clean.  The crib uses standard pack ‘n play sheets so there is no need to buy specialized bedding.

A couple of considerations if you plan on flying with it:
  1. The crib case isn’t weatherproof.  I’ve found the best way to keep the crib in excellent condition despite numerous flights is to pack the crib in one of the large plastic airline bags first, THEN slide it inside the nylon crib bag.  This keeps the crib clean while in transit, and allows you access to the crib bag handles, both for baggage tags and for ease of carrying through the airport.
  2. Unlike strollers and car seats, many airlines (including Air Canada and United) do NOT consider a travel crib a safety item, and will treat it as an additional piece of baggage.  It’s always a good idea to check your airline’s baggage policies in advance so you don’t get any expensive surprises at the airport.
I’ve found a new owner for our travel crib but I am definitely sad to see it go.  Thankfully I know our travel crib is going to a good home and has a long life ahead!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Alternatives to Toronto Pearson Airport

Our recent trip to Boston highlighted for me some of the challenges of flying out of Toronto Pearson, particularly on Air Canada.  The timing could not have been worse:  In the days leading up to our flight, Garda, the company which handles security screening was operating on a work-to-rule and line ups were horrendous.  Making matters worse was the threat of a strike by Air Canada flight attendants.  In the end, things worked out fine for us… we moved our flights up by a couple of days to avoid a flight attendant walk-out (which was prevented anyway) and Garda disciplined the employees causing trouble at security so that problem got ironed out too.

Even during the best of times, Toronto Pearson is not my favorite airport.  With long line-ups at check-in, U.S. customs (when traveling to the U.S.) and security screening, it can mean having to entertain B for a long time before we even get to the gate.  The airport’s two play areas are only accessible if you are taking a domestic flight from terminal 1, or an international flight from terminal 3, so a wait at Toronto Pearson inevitably means spending a lot of time on the moving walkways.

Thankfully there ARE alternatives to Toronto Pearson for many destinations.  If flying during the winter, keep in mind that a blizzard could snarl your plans to drive to another airport, so you need to plan accordingly.  Here four alternative airports which are convenient to the Toronto area.

Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport


Proximity/drive to downtown Toronto
4 km (approx 30 minutes including ferry ride)

Airlines serviced:
Porter Airlines (to/from over a dozen cities in Canada and the U.S.)
Air Canada (to/from Montreal)

You will appreciate:
  • Short check-in and security screening lines
  • Family washrooms and change tables in select men’s and women’s washrooms
  • Free wi-fi
  • Easily accessible by foot, bike, TTC and free shuttle bus from the Royal York Hotel
Kids will enjoy:
  • The 2 minute ferry ride from the foot of Bathurst St. to the airport (free for pedestrians, $11 return for vehicles)
  • Complimentary water, juice and cookies in Porter’s passenger lounges
Limited on-site parking, but pick up/drop off parking is available at the Bathurst Street and Stadium Road lots

Waterloo International Airport


Proximity/drive to downtown Toronto
104 km (1 hour, 20 minute drive)
Adjust your drive times accordingly during rush hours and inclement weather

Airlines serviced:
Westjet (to/from Calgary)
Sunwing (to/from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic)
Bearskin (to/from Ottawa, Montreal)

You will appreciate:
  • Short lines for check-in and security
  • The Aviator CafĂ© in the gate area sells milk and other healthy items (e.g. fruit and cheese, granola, yogurt)
  • Family washroom in the main airport lobby and change tables in men's and women's washrooms
  • Free wi-fi
  • Free use of baggage carts
Kids will enjoy:
  • Charging stations in the departure lounge mean you they won’t run out of juice on portable DVD players or other electronics
On site $6/day ($45/week).  Effective January 1, 2012 parking rates will be reduced to $6 per day.

Hamilton International Airport


Proximity/drive to downtown Toronto: 
84 km (1 hour, 7 minute drive)
Adjust your drive times accordingly during rush hours and inclement weather.

Airlines serviced:
Hola Sun (seasonal flights to/from Cuba)
Westjet (to/from Calgary, seasonally to/from Moncton, Halifax, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Orlando and Punta Cana)

You will appreciate:
  • Short lines for check-in and security
  • Tim Hortons for milk, juice and snacks
  • Change tables in men's and women's washrooms
Kids will enjoy:
  • The children’s play area with tables, chairs, colouring books and games
On site economy $14/day ($59/week), premium $19/day ($79/week)

Buffalo Niagara International Airport


Proximity/drive to downtown Toronto
175 km  (2 hour drive)
Adjust your drive times accordingly during rush hours and inclement weather.
Allow extra time for the US border crossing particularly on summer weekends and holidays and for roadway construction at the airport.

Airlines serviced:
8 airlines serving 23 destinations in the U.S.

You will appreciate:
  • Short lines for check-in and security
  • "Companion Care" rest rooms in several locations, change tables in men’s and women’s washrooms
  • Numerous restaurant options (milk available) – there is even a branch of the Anchor Bar, the originator of Buffalo chicken wings
  • Since you have already crossed the US border on the way to the airport, no further customs screening is required
Kids will enjoy:
  • The Fisher Price Play Gate near Gate 16
Variety of options with cost ranging from $10 to $24 per day.  Many travelers stay near the airport the evening before their flight.  Not only does this help ensure you don’t miss your flight, but most airport hotels offer free parking for the duration of your holiday.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Playing away in Norway

On our recent trip to Norway, B was invited to join in and play with a class of pre-schoolers.  Norwegians have a distinctly different (and refreshingly healthy) approach to children's play from what I am accustomed to - a real eye-opener.  The daycare was perched on top of a rocky outcrop.  While Mark and I hovered cautiously around B, the other kids scrambled over rocks, threw themselves head first down the slide and did other things that made me cringe.  But as the centre's caregiver explained, "we want the children to learn by doing, and falling down is part of that."

That afternoon turned out to be one of the highlights of our Norway adventure.  We were welcomed by the caregivers as if we were old friends and we learned to worry a bit less about falling down at park.  And, while one of the other boys held B's hand and led him around the playground, I couldn't help but think about how unlikely this scenario would be in litigation-crazy and oft-reserved, Toronto.

Tourists as ambassadors for tolerance

In an interview with Conde Nast Traveler Magazine, Queen Rania of Jordan responded to the question of whether or not she believes tourism promotes cultural understanding:  "Without a doubt, yes ... When people meet, share a coffee, and talk about their country or their experience, differences often melt away.  Tourists are the best ambassadors for tolerance.  Every holiday snap, every email home, turns them into digital diplomats.  There is no doubt in my mind that travel fosters tolerance, promotes knowledge, and encourages harmony between people of different cultures and religions."

Disciplining a child when traveling

Something I struggle with regularly when we travel is how to effectively discipline B when we are traveling.  If he has a tantrum at home or in the car, we can just let him scream away in a safe spot or in his car seat while we ignore the meltdown.  But this isn’t really an option on a flight, on a bus, or in a hotel room.  And despite knowing I am doing the wrong thing, I often find myself being a bit more lax on naughty behavior simply to avoid some of the toddler squabbles.  I'd love to hear from readers on your own experiences and thoughts on the topic!