Saturday, May 16, 2015

More Tales From Another Blog

Here are some of my latest posts on Wee Westchester:

Composting 101
How I started composting (it's super easy!) and how you can do it, too.

Mother’s Day at Mohonk Mountain House
Splurge on an afternoon of dining al fresco and hiking at this beautiful resort.

Dim Sum Brunch
After much searching (and tasting), we found the go-to spot - and it's right here in White Plains.

Paint Nite puts the adults in front of the canvas for a change.

Hartsdale's largest Asian supermarket is filled with delicious snacks and dinner ideas.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Climbing in Cobá with Kids

We've been to Mexico on vacation four times, and the Playa del Carmen area for three of those times. It's simply the best place for an all-inclusive beach vacation in terms of quality, price, and service. This time we stayed at the Paradisus La Esmeralda, which was recommended by some friends, and it did not disappoint. The food, in fact, was amazing, which is something I've never said about an all-inclusive resort. Even the sushi, which is usually a joke at these types of places, was fantastic! Good sushi in Mexico - I never would've thunk it.

Anyway, there's only so much pool and beach that my family can stand before we're itching to do something more exciting. We decided to visit the Mayan ruins in Cobá for a morning. It's important to go in the morning, because the sun gets so unbearably hot as the day progresses. So we showed up at 9:30 and were gone by 11:30. It was just as well, because all the tour buses started pulling in just as we were finishing up, and things got a lot more crowded.

We chose Cobá over the other two famous ruins in the area, Tulum and Chichén Itzá, because it's the only site that still allows visitors to climb the largest temple, Nohoch Mul. Tulum is undeniably beautiful, with its beach location, but kind of dull for the kids. And Chichén Itzá is extremely grand, but hot as hell, with no shade in sight, and perhaps too grand for small children. Cobá is located in the middle of a very Indiana Jones-esque jungle that provides shade and interesting scenery for the kids.

The best part is that after you pay your entrance fee (about $6 per adult; the children were free), you get to ride a "Mayan taxi" to the different excavated locations within the site. It's basically a pedicab, and it was, as proclaimed by both kids, the best part of the visit. Something about being driven down the bumpy, shady, dusty paths of the jungle, with a light breeze blowing in your face, feels very relaxing and exciting at the same time. It's about $5 each way, and totally worth the money. You could also opt to rent a bike and ride it yourself, or just walk around. But I highly recommend the Mayan taxis.

We had our driver take us directly to the tallest temple, Nohoch Mul. It is a crumbly, unstable-looking structure with a greater-than-45-degree incline, and very intimidating to climb. The fact that we did it with a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old is probably kind of crazy and bordering on child abuse. But hey, when in Mexico. I was in charge of our daughter, while my husband watched after our son. My daughter scrambled up the thing faster than I expected, and it was all I could do to keep up with her and make sure she didn't climb right off the side, which has no guard rail or banister or even a rope to delineate where you could plunge off the edge.

Climbing the structure gave me the feeling of vertigo, and I couldn't look down, despite my daughter's urging me to do so. She kept turning around and exclaiming about how high up we were getting. Finally, we reached the top, and my husband and son made it, too.

The view is absolutely spectacular, and both children were energized and excited about their accomplishment.

I was worried about how we would get back down, considering how difficult it was for me to climb up. But it turned out that going down was much easier than going up. We simply sat on the steps and inched down on our butts. It took quite a bit of time, but I didn't feel unsafe or suffer from vertigo. We all made it down safely, albeit dustily.

Some tips on visiting Cobá with small children:

1. Travel on your own schedule. Our hotel offered lots of "Cobá package deals" that included things like a guide at Cobá, lunch at a local restaurant, and a side trip to a cenote, but we felt that the kids wouldn't be able to handle an entire day of traveling around in the heat. So we opted to rent a taxi from our hotel that would follow our schedule instead. We were picked up at 8:15 a.m., arrived at Cobá by 9:30, stayed for two hours, and were back at the hotel by lunchtime. It was quite pricey, about a dollar a minute for the driving time ($150 total) plus $70 for the two hours that we were there, but in the end still cheaper than one of the package deals.

2. The heat is no joke! Get there in the early morning (Cobá opens at 9 a.m.). We brought plenty of bottled water, of course, but also some spray bottles so that we could mist ourselves and keep cool. Some people that saw us spraying ourselves asked us to spray them, too!

3. Wear proper footwear and clothes. It's not a good idea to have exposed toes or shoes that come off easily, like sandals or Crocs. The steps can be slippery, crumbly and uneven. You'll also get very dusty and dirty, and you might end up climbing down on your butt, so make sure you're wearing pants or shorts.

4. If you have children with short attention spans, do not stop to visit the other structures on the way to Nohoch Mul. Our pedicab driver kept asking if we wanted to stop to see the various ball courts and other buildings, which all looked very interesting, but every minute you're there, it's getting hotter. So my recommendation is to go directly to Nohoch Mul, then maybe consider stopping at the other sights on the way back, if your children haven't completed melted down by that point, literally and figuratively.

Happy climbing!

Friday, March 20, 2015

DIY Birthday Tea Party

My daughter, who just turned 6, requested a tea party birthday this year with the girls in her class. I've never attempted a party at home before, but it seemed like the best location, given the theme. We decided all this about three months in advance of the party (she pretty much started focusing on her birthday immediately after Christmas was over), so I had plenty of time to plan. And, as it turned out, I needed all of that time!

The first thing I did was buy a stack of printed cardstock called the Haute Pink Collection from Jo-Ann's. Here's the same thing on Amazon. I did so many things with that stack of cardstock. First, I made teapot invitations. The template and instructions can be found here.

The next thing I did was make pennant banners using the same cardstock and some ribbon. Here's the template for that. (Add a thin flap on the top of the template so that you could fold it over the ribbon.)

The cardstock was also used to make placecards.

I threw in some fresh flowers in vases and tissue balls, and the house was party-ready.

The party was scheduled to run for an hour and a half. The first half hour would be devoted to crafts. The second would be eating. And the third would be dancing. I decided on two crafts for the girls to do. One was a foam teapot treat holder from Oriental Trading. The other was stringing pearl necklaces; I also got the pearls from Oriental Trading.

The teapot treat holder was a hit. The girls liked putting it together, and it was relatively easy to do. I had the adults put on a drop of superglue for the knob handle so that it would dry quickly. Sticking on the spout and handle was also slightly tricky and required some adult intervention, but for the most part the girls were able to do it themselves. I added a cup of markers to the worktable so that the girls could decorate the finished teapots as well.

The beads were not such a good idea. I'd prepared lengths of string with clasps, and counted out the proper number of beads into Dixie cups for each participant, but it was difficult for some of the girls to string the beads. Some did better than others. In the end, we had to abandon that project because we ran out of time, and my husband had to string together the final few necklaces for the stragglers. The girls were happy with the finished product, though, and many wore their necklaces during the party.

For the food, I'd prepared three kinds of sandwiches (PB&J, turkey and cheese, and hummus), fruit salad, and three kinds of dessert (mini cupcakes, cookies, and macarons). The thing that really made the food fun was the serving tower I bought from Target, only $20. It was used to present the sandwiches first, and then the desserts. The cupcakes and cookies were homemade. The macarons came frozen from Trader Joe's ($5 for a dozen) - for me, DIY only goes so far.

And of course there was pink lemonade in a fancy pitcher ($13 from Target).

As a treat, I also let the girls drink from real china teacups and eat off real china plates (which were just the saucers that came with the teacups). I bought 12 matching teacups and saucers from English Tea Store for only $50. After the meal was over, I washed the teacups and saucers, wrapped them in bubble wrap, and put them in loot bags as a parting gift.

After eating, the girls decorated their own cupcakes. I'd prepared cupcake boxes so that they could take their masterpieces home in the loot bags as well. For the loot bags, I just attached onto plain white bags heart cutouts made from - you guessed it - the cardstock. That stack of cardstock is my new best friend. I'm making a shower curtain out of it next.

Then it was time for dancing. After all my preparation, I think it was the dancing (which required almost no preparation) that the girls loved best. They just jumped around to Kidz Bop for half and hour and worked off all that sugar. Everyone went home exuberant.

To be honest, it was a lot of work! But I think everyone had a good time, and the preparation was actually a lot of fun, too.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

I'm Cheating on My Own Blog

I started guest blogging at Wee Westchester recently, and it's been really fun. Here's a collection of my latest posts.

Celebrating Dr. Seuss's Birthday With Some Whimsical Treats
Green eggs and ham and other goodies inspired by our fave author.

Chocolatiers in Training
Scarsdale's Chocolate Works is the perfect setting for a fun and yummy playdate.

Snow Day Craft: For the Birds
It's National Bird Feeding Month. Three fun projects to keep little hands as busy as the birds.

One Spectacular Slurp
We found the best ramen in Westchester.

Winter Blues? Cure It With Baby Farm Animals!

Nothing says spring like baby farm animals. We found out there were some new lambs at Muscoot Farm in Katonah and took a trip to see them this past weekend. The temps were in the high 30s, but we bundled up, put on our rain boots to protect against the melting snow, and made the half-hour trip north.

It turned out to be a great visit. Most of the animals are indoors in their respective "houses," and we saw cows, horses, turkey, chicken, pigs, goats, and of course the sheep. There were two baby lambs, one born a week ago, and one born just that morning! 

The other animal my kids liked a lot were the pigs, which were huge. I didn't get a good picture of them (they were too big to fit into my camera frame!), but they were literally three times the size of me. I've always thought of pigs as about the size of a dog, but these pigs were more like small cows. Still cute, though.

The animals were in close proximity to one another, which was great because it was so muddy out. It was a good thing we wore rain boots; the kids were really into the puddles.

One more day until spring officially begins!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

San Diego Getaway

It's been a brutally cold winter in New York this year. So cold, in fact, that in December we decided to scrap our original February-break plans of skiing in the Poconos, and warm up in sunny San Diego instead. Boy, did that turn out to be the right move! The day we flew out it was 18 degrees. When we landed in San Diego, it was only about 65 degrees, but to our miserable, winter-beaten bodies, it felt like paradise.

We stayed at the Catamaran Resort in Mission Bay based on a friend's recommendation, and I was so grateful we did. I'd originally planned on booking a Residence Inn near the zoo, but after my friend mentioned how awesome the Catamaran was, I decided to look into it. Turns out it's located directly on the beach and features resort-like facilities. From the looks of the website, I figured it would be an expensive place to stay, but it turned out to be slightly cheaper than the Residence Inn! This was the view from our sliding glass backdoor. 

We sent the kids out to play on the sand while we unpacked our things. The front desk even let us borrow beach toys, free of charge. 

The interior of the complex was gorgeous as well, with lush foliage lining the paths, koi swimming in the ponds, and fancy-looking ducks roaming the grounds.

I honestly couldn't recommend this hotel enough. We even got free breakfast at the resort's restaurant thrown in, just because I had a nice conversation with the receptionist when I was booking the place. And the Catamaran offered great discount tickets to the San Diego Zoo and Legoland, two of the destinations on our itinerary.

Our first day in San Diego, we decided to drive about 20 minutes north to Torrey Pines Natural Reserve. We were told that the views along the hiking trails couldn't be beat, and that there was a nice beach there. Hiking with two small children who prefer riding in their strollers to walking isn't an easy feat, however, so I did extensive research on how doable the trip would be for us. It looked like the Guy Fleming trail, which does a 2/3 mile loop, was the simplest, so that's the one we attempted. 

It turned out to be just right for us. The trails are sandy, so pushing a stroller is out, but the hike is just the right length and offers breathtaking views along the way, so the kids were too occupied to complain. 

There are signs along the way to tell you about the various plants and trees on the path, and my kids were excited to see the namesake Torrey pine tree. Toward the end of the trail, just as my daughter started whining about thirst, we came upon a water fountain. It was a hiking miracle!

Feeling accomplished, we got back in our car and drove down to the beach below. Oh, I should mention that if you're planning on hiking here with small children, it's worth it to pay the parking fee ($10) to park inside the reserve. I'd read that there's free street parking outside, and at first we attempted to snag a spot, to no avail, but it turned out that it was lucky we didn't find street parking because there's an extremely steep climb to get into the reserve in the first place, and then to get onto the first hiking trail. We would've been done before we began.

The Torrey Pines beach is amazing. Easily one of the best beaches I've ever visited. The entrance is layered with smooth rocks of a ridiculous variety of colors and patterns. 

We wanted to take one of each kind home, but soon gave up because there were so many kinds. My kids spent a long time just picking through the rocks. 

The rocks give way to smooth, fine sand, and next my kids spent an hour on their all-time favorite activity - outrunning the waves. 

The shoreline goes on and on, the water is crystal clear, and the sand is pristine. Why can't East Coast beaches look like this?

Next we drove to La Jolla for lunch. We ate at Puesto, which bills itself as a Mexican street food restaurant, but it's actually more like upscale Mexican fusion. Think lobster tacos and fruit salad drizzled in chile sauce. The ambiance was nice, though, and the food was good. 

After refueling, we were ready to check out La Jolla's famous coastline. There are several popular stops that are within walking distance of one another along the coast: La Jolla Cove, Shell Beach (for tide pool exploration), the Children's Pool (which isn't a pool at all, but a beach where seals gather and people go to watch them), and the La Jolla sea caves. 

Our first stop was Sunny Jim's Cave Store, which is the only way to access a sea cave on foot. Usually people swim or kayak to check out the caves, but we were in no position to attempt such adventure. So instead we paid $5 each (Leah was $3 and Matt was free) to descend 145 steps down a dark, wet tunnel. 

At the bottom, we got to view the mouth of the cave, which is said to be shaped like the profile of a famous British cartoon. (Shrugs.) 

Then it was time to head back up. In retrospect, I would've skipped this activity, as it was rather touristy and expensive for not that much payoff. But I suppose it's worth it if you're a cave enthusiast whose unable to kayak or swim. Going down the dark stairway was also kind of fun for the kids. 

Next we made our way over to La Jolla's famous cove, which was indeed beautiful. The space is rather small, though, and swarming with tourists. My kids had fun outrunning the waves on the beach, but had to dodge other people while doing it. The cove was definitely worth visiting, though, because of the seals. Seals would swim up to the shore just a few feet from us, and then climb out! Some of them hung out on the rocks by the water, while others made their way to the back of the cove and took a nap against the back wall. 

We moved onto Shell Beach after that, to check out the tide pools. Turned out to not be such a good activity for small children, as the rocks were very slippery and I was pretty sure someone was going to end up with a huge gash on their knee or head. We spent more time on the beach instead. 

Our last stop was supposed to be the Children's Pool, but we'd seen plenty of seals up close already, so we decided to head back to the hotel to wash up for dinner instead. Our intention was to venture into the Gaslamp Quarter (about a half hour away) for burgers, but we weren't sure the kids would make it without falling asleep, so we ended up driving back to La Jolla and eating at Burger Lounge instead. It was a tasty (though far from healthy) meal, and the vanilla milkshake was good. 

The next day, we all woke at the crack of dawn thanks to jet lag. The plan was to visit the San Diego Zoo, but it opened at 9, and it was about 5:30. So after breakfast we spent some time checking out the Spruce Street Footbridge first, located near the zoo. I'd read that it offers great views and is fun to cross, and both these things are true. But it's also totally dangerous for kids! The whole bridge wobbles from your weight when you walk on it, and the sides are pretty open, so falling to your death is totally a possibility. It was fun to walk across, but we were gripping our kids' hands pretty tightly the whole time. 

Finally it was time to visit the zoo. I actually don't love zoos, but of course we had to go to the San Diego Zoo while we were in San Diego. The goal was to see the pandas first, since we'd heard that the line for that exhibit could get out of control. As soon as the gates opened, we sprinted to the back of the park, where the pandas are located, and breathlessly entered their exhibit. It was completely empty! We were the first people there! Jet lag is good for some things.

After we had our fill of panda cuteness, we walked around the back of the zoo for a while, and then took the skyride back to the front of the park, where we boarded a tour bus that takes you to all the major exhibits (both these rides are included with the price of admission). If you're going to take the bus tour, make sure to sit on the upper level, and on the RIGHT side of the bus. You see so much more that way! I felt bad for all the left-siders who had to stand up and crane their necks through the whole tour.

After that, we were done with the zoo. It'd only been about three hours, but as I mentioned, I'm not much of a zoo person and it turns out that neither are the rest of my family members. We headed out and across the street to Balboa Park for lunch. The park is amazing, by the way, sort of like New York City's Central Park, but more low-key and artsy. So much to see and do - carousel, museums, gardens, water fountains. It's just a nice place for kids to run around. And they loved the clock tower there, which chimed every quarter hour. 

We had lunch at the Tea Pavilion near the Japanese Friendship Garden in the park. It was Japanese fast food, but it was pretty good. We all had the soba noodles. The outdoor seating is very pleasant and overlooks the Friendship Garden. 

That evening we tried a divey taco place called La Playa Taco Shop, right next to our hotel. It looked kind of dicey, but had great reviews on Yelp. Turned out it was our best meal of the whole trip. I had the combination plate with two fish tacos, and they were literally the best tacos I've ever eaten in my life. I regretted not having discovered this place sooner.

Next we headed around the corner to a custom ice-cream sandwich place called The Baked Bear. The concept is fantastic (choose your cookies and ice cream flavor, and they combine it into an ice cream sandwich for you), and everyone in my family was very excited about the cookies on display at the front of the store. 

The sandwiches are gigantic and we couldn't finish them, so we had to choose which parts to eat. My husband and I were more into the ice cream (the cookies 'n' cream is excellent - perfect texture), while the kids focused their attention on the cookies. Difficult decisions, I know.

For our last day in San Diego, we drove half an hour north to Legoland California. This is a great park for kids ages 3-8. Just about all the rides are geared toward younger children, and there were lots of those driving types of rides that my kids love, where they're behind the wheel of a car or boat or plane. 

I was impressed by all the stations where you could play with Legos. On rides where the wait time is pretty long, there's a play area for children so they're occupied while the parents stand in line. For the most part, we didn't have to wait longer for 10 minutes for rides, although for one ride (Safari Trek in the Duplo Village) we waited almost an hour. My kids also spent a lot of time at the Build and Test building in the Imagination Zone, where they built cars and raced them. 

We also visited the very cute miniature land, where Star Wars scenes and famous U.S. landmarks are recreated using Legos. My favorite replica was of Grand Central Terminal. 

All in all, I enthusiastically recommend Legoland for younger children. As someone who's done her share of amusement parks, this place ranks highly for originality. We ended up staying the entire day, from 10 to 6, which is something we've never been able to do before. The food was also very good, and fairly priced. I liked the cinnamon-covered apple fries that they sell toward the back of the park.

And that was it for our trip to sunny San Diego. When we got on the plane to return to New York, the stewardess announced that it was 7 degrees back home. Not the best conditions to return to, but at least we got to escape the cold for a few days!