Feb 012011

We booked a family trip to Las Vegas over Halloween weekend for a meet-up of Mr. T’s college buddies.  And I immediately started to worry.  It was my first visit, and as a non-drinker and non-gambler who gets migraines from cigarette smoke and hates crowds and clubbing, I didn’t consider Las Vegas a dream destination.  Throw in an energetic 18-month-old and a 5-hour flight, and the trip had “potential disaster” written all over it.

The guidebook I checked out from the library did nothing to ease my fears.  It contained a special section entitled “Vegas with Kids,” which basically said:  “Once upon a time, Las Vegas tried to market itself as a family destination.  That was a ridiculous failure.  People come here for sin, and kids are out of place, and you will ruin the adults’ party by even bringing children into their presence.  Everyone will hate you. Don’t do it.”

Luckily, shortly before the trip another attendee at a local Mom blogger event happened to mention that she just returned from a week in Vegas with her 2-year-old.  Score!  She shared a bunch of useful advice, and reassured me that she and her child both enjoyed their trip.  Her advice is written up here.  I would second all of it, and add the following:

A different kind of Vegas bottle service.

1.  Understand that you won’t experience the full Vegas scene. This advice may sound silly — one would hope parents don’t include their toddler on a night of boozing and craps.  But nightlife is such a vital part of The Strip that I found it difficult to return to the hotel room for baby’s bedtime just when everyone else was gearing up for the night.  Generally I love a little quiet time to myself, even on a trip, but in Vegas it felt like I was missing out.  Of course, it didn’t help that Mr. T was one of the people heading out with his friends….  Also not a help: the 3-hour time difference.  Our girl fell asleep through dinner every night (her usual bedtime back home), then got a second wind to party all night with exhausted Mommy back at the hotel.

2.  Don’t apologize for your presence. Sure, we got a few glares from young partiers there for the “what happens in Vegas” scene.  But the staff at hotels, stores, and restaurants, without exception, went out of their way to be helpful and welcoming.  (If you were a customer service employee, would you rather deal with the yet another drunken partier or a cute, mostly happy little kid?)  And, of course, even the partiers weren’t uniformly anti-kid.  Among other things, the hedonistic Vegas image leaves out the fact that nearly 25% of Vegas gamblers are elderly — grannies love the little ones!

To my surprise, The Venetian had a lovely baby pool. Toddler heaven.

3.  Don’t overthink activities. Before the trip, I did hours of research into child-friendly attractions.  Turns out we didn’t visit a single one.  Toddlers are entertained by almost anything new and different — a fountain! a crowd of people! a costume! a big clock! — and Las Vegas delivers easily on the “new and different” front.  The Bellagio’s fountains and The Venetian’s canals were big hits, but so was our hotel’s pool and long empty hallways.

Vera loved the buffets … when she was awake for them.

4.  Buffets are your friend. Mr T and I love a good buffet (honestly, I can even live with a not-so-good buffet), so their child-friendly atmosphere was just added incentive to visit daily.  Does your toddler eat only watermelon, roasted lamb, and peas?  No problem, they’ve got that!  (In fact, I’m pretty sure that was one of Vera’s actual meals.)  For us, the few downsides — long lines at peak mealtimes, casino bathrooms that lacked changing tables, and the walk through smokey casinos to reach the buffet — were more than outweighed by the value and mind-boggling variety of this Vegas culinary mainstay.

5.  Stockpile water and snacks. Ideally at a grocery store, but Strip drugstores work in a pinch.  There are takeaway options within most hotel complexes, but they are expensive and inconvenient.  We had particular trouble keeping hydrated, between the dessert setting, the awful tap water at our hotel, and the bother of toting heavy liquids from the Walgreens down the block.  Wish we had just taken the car to the grocery store on Day One and stocked up properly.

Toddling the Strip at night.

6.  Consider renting a car. We went back and forth on the car issue, and I’m glad that we decided in favor.  The hotels are huge and far apart, and just about everywhere has free valet parking.  We explored more than we would have if limited by transportation options.  Plus, we could install our carseat from home (brought as checked luggage on the plane) and not worry again till it was time to leave.

Overall, I found Las Vegas to be like a cruise, in the sense that it’s known for a certain stereotypical vacation but in fact offers so much variety that each visitor can create a customized experience.  Sinful or toddler-friendly, luxury or budget, high elegance or retro kitsch — Vegas really does have it all.  Both parents and baby enjoyed the trip, and we would absolutely do it again.

Dec 102010

What social gathering rocked your socks off in 2010?

Last month, Mr. T and I went to an amazing party sponsored by the National Defense University in honor of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It gave me newfound respect for Secretary Gates, and it left me pondering the nature of patriotism and the sacrifices of our men and women in the military.

But I’m tired. I’m just not up to musings on the nature of citizenship at the moment, and I suspect you’re even less in the mood for reading my half-baked patriotic platitudes.

So, instead, how ‘bout I share some photos from Mr. T’s 10-year law school reunion? The dinner was pretty dull. But the setting in the Smithsonian American Art Museum was awesome! End result = we took a lot of pictures. Here are a few:

Mr. T and I posed with a random statue

I had never been to the museum’s 3rd floor — turns out I was missing some cool modern art and a peaceful sitting area for future visits

Mr. T with his friend Steph (a law professor, environmentalist, and all-around genius). What is IT? We don’t know, but we promise we left it alone!

Dinner was held in the Museum’s dramatic glass-canopied Courtyard

And enhanced by some crazy/cool mood lighting

Our camera has built-in “art filters,” including one for “grainy black-and-white film.” We had fun playing around with the filters (did I mention dinner was boring?) and were still at it as they cleaned up and kicked us out at the end of the night!
What was your most memorable event in 2010?
Jan 202009

This week marks an exciting time to be a proud resident of DC.  But it’s strange to be surrounded by historic events when you’re not allowed out of your house!  Most of my exposure to this weekend’s Inaugural events has come from TV and the Web, just like for everybody else.

I do get the occasional man-on-the-street update from Mr. T.  He returned from walking Zoe late last night with tales of National Guard members guarding our block.  Earlier, he reported lots of frantic people trying to catch cabs in the cold.  Revelers pass our front door loudly at all hours (we have a convenient-but-not-quiet location between the building’s front door and elevator), including a few hearty souls who left at 4:00 this morning to reserve a spot for the day’s festivities.

Although we live a mere 5 blocks from the Capitol, Mr. T and I watched the swearing-in on TV.  We did hear the cannon salute, and the Bush helicopter leaving after the ceremony.  So there’s that.  (Now the sounds outside are almost entirely emergency vehicle sirens.  Mr. T’s theory is that today’s estimated 2 million visitors are starting to succumb to exhaustion and cold.)

The Capitol looked fantastically red-white-and-blue this morning.  But I figure we’ve all seen the same photos, so here are a few from Inaugurations past.  Here’s hoping that when we look back on archive photos of this Inauguration, some 30 or 40 years hence, we will remember today as the start of a flourishing period in this Nation’s history.

How are you marking today’s historic events?
Dec 102008

We touched on Talkeetn in “Daily Lifebecause it’s where Sister-in-Law spends her long weekends, but I just had to give it one more post because I loved the town.  Talkeetna isn’t a large place —Wikipedia says the population is 772, and downtown is about 3 blocks long.  But something about the place is so welcoming and charming.

The town’s airstrip (below) may not look like much.  But Talkeetna actually gets a steady stream of visitors traveling between Anchorage and Denali.  Rafting, hunting, fishing, and flight-seeing also make Talkeetna a destination in its own right.

We had several good meals while visiting Talkeetna, including some tasty Caribou Chili at the restaurant behind this sign. Another local favorite is the 
Talkeetna Roadhouse, which has not-to-be-missed breakfast and bakery goods (and also well-priced guest rooms), if you’re ever in town.
But the best thing to come out of Talkeetna? Future brothers-in-law! My sister-in-law first visited Talkeetna on a whim, to check out their yearly Wilderness Woman Contest and Bachelor Auction. She walked off with a bachelor of her own, and this year, after the auction, he proposed.  We’re all thrilled about the new addition to the family and wish them both the very best.
The happy couple at our wedding.  (Photo byPunam Bean.)
Dec 082008

Our major tourist adventure in Alaska was an overnight visit to Denali National Park— an amazing 6 million acres of largely untouched wilderness.  To preserve that “largely untouched” quality, there is only one road through most of the park, and visitors must ride tour buses.  We took one of the shorter trips, but still I was worried about 6+ hours in a school bus for a nauseated pregnant lady who needed to pee every hour.  Turns out it was totally worth it!

Our drive from Talkeetna up to Denali was scenic in and of itself.  (Here’s Mr T trying to capture some of the great, majestic glory via point-and-shoot.  I gave that up as hopeless early on, and decided it was more fun just to capture Mr T.)

The weather was a bit iffy, and any far-away views of Mount McKinley were obscured by clouds.  But the drizzly weather did offer up one glorious rainbow:

We spent the night in an inexpensive motel near the park, then hopped the Denali tour bus early the next morning.  Most people visit Denali National Park with the goal of seeing Mount McKinley (now more often known as “Denali”), the highest mountain in North America.  The mountain rises over 18,000 feet from base to summit, giving it a greater vertical rise than even Everest.  Unfortunately, Denali is a “shy mountain” that frequently hides behind clouds.  Only 30-40% of park visitors actually get a glimpse of the famous mountain.

But we were in luck the day of our visit — matchless Denali views both coming and going.  In some ways, this is a sad view of Denali — through a bus window many, many miles away — and yet we felt so blessed to see it!

The other special sighting opportunity in Denali National Park is the park’s wildlife.  Because human visits are so carefully controlled, bears, moose, caribou, and other native Alaskan animals roam in their natural state with little interference from humans.  Unfortunately, our bus didn’t have as much luck with wild animals as we did with wild mountains.  We saw bears, Dall sheep, and moose, but they were all quite far away.  Far enough that you couldn’t see much without binoculars — when reminiscing, Mr T and I fondly remember our sightings of “bear dots”, “sheep dots”, etc.

I did spot one odd, orange-coated moose.  Wildlife experts have expressed an interest in learning more about this mysterious creature:

Next up is our final installment: more views of Talkeetna!
Dec 032008

Hello, all!  Sorry to disappear for a bit — turns out Internet access during my travels was more difficult than expected.  I’m flying home tonight, and meanwhile am at a wi-fi coffee shop long enough to share more Alaska photos….

Was going to add some pics of our travels to the Kenai Peninsula, including the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, a 4-hour glacier cruise, and some close encounters with bears and moose at a private wildlife refuge along the Seward Highway. But then I realized the photos just weren’t that exciting.  So let’s just skip to the real reason for our trip — a visit to my sister-in-law’s house:

My sister-in-law has an amazing life.  She works as a specialty surgeon (urology) in Anchorage.  But every weekend is a long weekend, and she spends them in the charming town of Talkeetna (rumored inspiration for the 80s TV show Northern Exposure), jam-packed with outdoor activities.  Example: we sometimes throw sticks for Zoe to chase at our local dog park. But when Sis heads out to throw sticks for her dogs, the surroundings look like the above!

Sis has a white German Shepard (she has occasionally convinced gullible tourists that there’s Polar Bear in his lineage), and when he chases a stick, he chases a STICK.  This one was almost as tall as I am:

Our original plan was to stay in Sister-in-Law’s “guest suite”, an Airstream trailer that’s adorable inside (everything so perfectly compact!):

But the plumbing wasn’t hooked up, and Pregnant Lady wasn’t looking forward to multiple nightly trips to the alternative bathroom option:

So we stayed in their beautiful home, which exists “off the grid” on mostly solar power.  Their home is set in woods, and everywhere you turn are lovely nature sights.  The back deck looks onto a hill and a stream (just out of sight in the first photo), where a young bear often visits to snag fresh salmon:

Because we visited in early September, fall colors were everywhere.

And even a rusted pickup near the drive was a photo just waiting to happen:

Next stop: Denali National Park.  (Stay tuned!)