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Downtown Palm Springs is a Great Destination with Kids

Downtown Palm Springs is a Great Destination with Kids

*Our visit to Palm Springs was hosted in part by the Hyatt Palm Springs, and our views expressed here are, as usual, our own.

I’ve been visiting Palm Springs since I was 14 years old. Believe me – that spans many years, tons of good times and a LOT of visits. Now continuing those fun adventures with my own family, we’ve stayed in many different parts of the Coachella Valley. We are convinced that Downtown Palm Springs is a great destination with kids.

After a gazillion visits since the girls were babies, we’ve instilled this same love for Palm Springs in Sophia and Ava. They beg to drive over from San Diego for the hot desert sun, cool swimming pools, date shakes and warm nights outdoors. One of the big draws for them is the downtown Palm Springs area, because there is so much to do, see, eat and explore. Everything is located in an area we can easily walk (or drive when we’d rather ride in air-conditioned luxury).

Hyatt Palm Springs

The Hyatt Palm Springs is located smack dab in the middle of all the action of downtown Palm Springs.

We recently had the opportunity to stay at the Hyatt Palm Springs, right downtown on East Palm Canyon Drive in the heart of Palm Springs. Our experience was awesome because we were right in the middle of it all.

Downtown Palm Springs is a Great Destination with Kids

With so many activities, great restaurants and shopping right outside the front door of our hotel room at the Hyatt Palm Springs, we could easily have parked the car for the weekend and never seen it until time to go home.

Here’s a sampling of why our family thinks Downtown Palm Springs is a great destination with kids.

Lulu California Bistro in Palm Springs interior view with colorful art

Three levels of dining at Lulu California Bistro allow for plenty of colorful people watching!

Downtown Palm Springs Offers Great Restaurant Choices

Downtown Palm Springs is so walkable, we never had to get in the car to head out for a meal. This is a huge plus especially for families with stroller-age kids. Though our girls are much older now, we can still remember the packing up, buckling into carseats and folding strollers into the back of the car. Here, we were able to walk outside and choose from any number of restaurants within a five minute walk.

 Steamed Pork Belly Bun at Watercress Vietnamese Bistro

The steamed pork belly buns at Watercress were out of this world, or as they are properly known, Bánh Bao Thit Heo Kho. (The cocktails there were darn tasty as well).

We particularly enjoyed our meals at Lulu California Bistro, The Tropicale Restaurant, and Watercress Vietnamese Bistro. All were delicious in their own ways, kid friendly, and a short walk from the Hyatt.

The Tropicale Restaurant in Palm Springs

Toasting another fun visit to Palm Springs at The Tropicale Restaurant.

Palm Canyon Drive is a Shopping Mecca

For decades, East Palm Canyon Drive was the center of it all. Teeming with shops and restaurants, the area has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the last several years. Now it’s is a vibrant and exciting area for strolling and shopping again. Fashion, art, gifts and mementos can all be perused within a several long and interesting blocks. The sidewalks are even decorating with stars that honor famous people who have lived in Palm Springs.

Adding color and fun, the mid-century modern architectural movement is highly celebrated in Palm Springs. There are several galleries and shops downtown that feature decor from that era, now popular again and selling better than ever. Here’s a handy shopping map of Palm Springs to guide you.

Some of our favorite shops are Trina Turk/Mr. Turk, Greetings cards and novelty gift shop, and Modern Way mid-century furnishings.

Palm Springs Art Museum

Right behind the Hyatt is the new location of the Palm Springs Art Museum. This new building contains a surprisingly great collection of pieces, full of color and story. During our recent visit, the museum was hosting an Andy Warhol exhibit with some of his finest and most famous works.

On regular display is a collection of works by such masters as Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Robert Rauschenberg and Ansel Adams.

Bike Accessible for All Ages

If the kids have mastered the art of riding a bike, downtown Palm Springs is a safe and easy place for a cruise. Bike rentals can be reserved at several places, and the Hyatt even had a collection for free use by guests. Our family has always loved riding along the flat streets in back neighborhoods, in the areas behind the Hyatt against the mountains.

Palm Springs home of Leonardo DiCaprio

Celebrity homes abound in Palm Springs, like this one belonging to Leonardo DiCaprio.

Many Hollywood celebrities have owned homes in these areas. Today, bike routes can be planned to ride past the current Palm Springs home of Leonardo DiCaprio. Other celebrity homes easily seen from a bike include the former homes of Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and many more.

And if you are uninterested in riding a bike (like one of my kids) you can take an air-conditioned tour of movie star homes with Palm Springs Celebrity Tours. They take you to all the hot spots, and even fill you in on the scandals and stories behind the homes. Plus you get to stop for a date shake, which is a Palm Springs specialty. If you haven’t had one, you must!

The King of all the Starbucks

This story is not complete without a shout-out to the gorgeous new Starbucks in downtown Palm Springs. We’ve been in a few Starbucks locations in our travels, and this one takes the prize. The architectural design is significant in its own right, and it appears that many sustainable elements were used in construction. Fronting on a public plaza, this Starbucks has plenty of seating inside and out. We enjoyed an ice coffee drink outside under the shade of date palms, while watching the world go by.

Starbucks Downtown Palm Springs

The Starbucks in downtown Palm Springs has got to be the most beautiful one we’ve ever visited.

Swim in the Pool

With kids, sometimes these little forays into civilization need to be balanced with pool time. The beauty of staying at a hotel like the Hyatt Palm Springs is that you are steps away from the pool. Several times during our stay, we returned back from shopping or a meal to take a dip. After all, there is nothing like floating on your back in a Palm Springs pool. With the hot sun on your body and the view of purple mountains rising nearby, there is something magic about this place.

Pool view at Hyatt Palm Springs

The pool at Hyatt Palm Springs beckons us on a hot day.

 

We’re already counting the days until our next visit!

 

 


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The Living Desert is a Zoo Like No Other

The Living Desert is a Zoo Like No Other

*Our visit to The Living Desert was graciously hosted by them as part of a great tour organized by Visit Palm Springs, and we are grateful for the experience.

When people think of the desert, they typically envision endless sand dunes, scrubby little plants, some cactus, a bunch of rocks and maybe a lizard or two. But a zoo in the desert? Yep, and it’s awesome – The Living Desert is a zoo like no other. Located in Palm Desert near Palm Springs, The Living Desert is an amazing destination right in the middle of the blazing sun and dry, dry, dry conditions.

The Living Desert entrance

We’ve been visiting The Living Desert since the girls were babies, and as they have grown so has the park.

The Living Desert serves up an oasis of sorts, a respite where animals that are accustomed to dry conditions can feel right at home. What started in 1970 as a nature trail and preserve has grown and evolved into a legit zoo that is fun and interesting for the whole family. We visited recently and thoroughly enjoyed our experience.

The Living Desert is a Zoo Like No Other

flowers in bloom at The Living Desert

When visiting in springtime, you can catch the desert flowers in bloom at The Living Desert

The Birds and Bees

Across some 1,800 acres of parched land, The Living Desert thrives by showcasing the flora and fauna natural to this climate. The Living Desert’s gardens are vast and lush with plants indigenous to the area, including cacti like Cholla, Agave and Barrel Cactus.

We were lucky enough to visit in the Spring, during the short window when everything is in bloom. Cactus, wildflowers and other kinds of flowering plants were all just beginning to peak, so the area was rich in color and variety. With all these flowers in bloom, there were tons of birds and bees jetting about and adding energy to the mix. We even spied a Road Runner (the real kind, not the character from the old cartoons with Wile E. Coyote).

The Living Desert cactus gardens

Gardens at The Living Desert are artful displays of local plants that can withstand the intense sun and heat.

The Living Desert has several zones planted specifically to nurture species native from the immediate area as well as North American frontiers.  The kids loved the vivid colors of the California Fuschia, Desert Mallow and Indigo Bush along with many others blooming bright pink, yellow, deep blue, red and more.

Animals Adapt

Those desert critters are a resourceful bunch. In order to withstand the intense heat and drought conditions of desert living, they learned to avoid heat and retain water. It’s amazing to see how they reserve energy, keep themselves cool when it’s more than 100 degrees outside, and still thrive.

One of the things we loved witnessing while at the Living Desert was the Cheetah Run. Three cheetahs, sisters who have been inseparable since birth, are housed in a spacious enclosure planted with grasses and heavily shaded with trees.

cheetahs relax at The Living Desert

The three cheetah sisters at The Living Desert conserve their energy while relaxing in the cool shade.

Once a day, their keepers encourage them to get exercise by running from one side of the very long enclosure to the other. And boy can these girls run – it was breathtaking to see how fast they are, and how cool they stay despite the hot sun. When their run was finished, they went back to relaxing in the grass just as comfortable as before.

Feeding Time

In several places throughout the park, guests can participate in feeding the animals. In the colorful lorakeet exhibit, guests are invited to entire the aviary carrying a small cup of nectar. Lorakeets are so attracted to this nectar that they fly right over to the guests and land on their heads, shoulders, arms and hands – trying to get a delicious sip. If you like birds, this is an incredible experience. If you don’t like birds, this is your worst nightmare. Good thing we like birds!

giraffe feeding time at The Living Desert

Giraffe feeding time at The Living Desert is fun for the whole family.

Over at the giraffe area, the Living Desert has built a special viewing platform so guests can be eye-level with this stately creatures. At certain times, guests can feed the giraffes a special cracker they seem to love very much. The kids had a blast watching the giraffes’ long black tongues reach out of their mouths and grab the cracker like a hand. Evidently, their 20-inch tongues are prehensile just like a monkey’s tail – they can move them far more independently than we humans. We were all fascinated and could have watched for hours!

The Model Train Display

The Living Desert model train exhibit

The model train exhibit at The Living Desert is massive and fascinating, with more than 3,300 feet of tracks.

Not really a desert-specific exhibit and certainly not an animal, the working model train sets on display in the center of The Living Desert are nothing short of fantastic. Their sets are miniature versions of towns, lumber yards, stations and even a scaled version of Mount Rushmore. With more then 3,300 feet of track laid, they criss-cross and wind around each other in constant motion. Kids and adults alike are fascinated at the intricacies of this display.

How to Visit The Living Desert

For all of these reasons and many more, The Living Desert is a zoo like no other. There is plenty of parking, and lots of shade but it’s always a good idea to bring a hat and sunscreen.

The park is open every day October 1 to May 31 from 9:00am to 5:00pm, and in the summer months every day June 1 to September 30 from 8:00am to 1:30pm.

Entrance fees are $19.95 for adults, $9.95 for kids 3-12, and kids under 3 are free.

 


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The Seals at Children’s Pool in La Jolla

The Seals at Children’s Pool in La Jolla

It seems like the fuss about seals beaching themselves at Children’s Pool in La Jolla has been going on for years, with people on either side of the argument getting pretty heated up at times. You see, these harbor seals love sunning themselves on the warm sand at Children’s Pool near La Jolla Cove, because it is a protected place for them to give birth and raise their young pups. It’s pretty difficult for people to be on the beach without disturbing the seals, and vice versa. (It’s reaaaaaalllly smelly with seal, um, stuff, so there is that….)

Seals beached at La Jolla's Children's pool, complete with City of San Diego sign saying not to disturb them Seals beached at La Jolla’s Children’s pool, complete with City of San Diego sign saying not to disturb them

All I know is that those seals are so darn cute, and we all loved walking around the cliffs there today to watch them bobble around, yawn, yak at each other and bray those famous seal calls. Sophia and Ava named several of their favorites, and wanted to bring one home as a pet. Crowds of people numbered in the hundreds, lining all available vantage points to watch, point, video and snap these celebrity seals.

I dunno, that sand looks pretty darn comfortable to me! I dunno, that sand looks pretty darn comfortable to me!

The issue has become so contentious that the City of San Diego has weighed in with protective ordinances (several times) and the courts have flip flopped through various lawsuits (several more times). Read this recent LA Times story for more details.

With miles and miles of gorgeous beaches in San Diego, do we really need to possess this small bit of sand too?

I’m curious what you think???  People? Or seals?

They are so dang cute! They are so dang cute!


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Highway to Hell

Highway to Hell

We took a road trip up the California coast, and the kids WERE. NOT. HAVING. IT. It seems wifi has become the single most important component in whether a vacation will be happy (or not). As we curved our way up Highway 1 into the wilds of Big Sur and beyond, the craggy coastline gave way to zero bars on the signal symbol. Hysterics ensued.

Read on for my recent recounting in my Family Afar column for San Diego Magazine, aptly entitled Highway to Hell.

Lessons learned.

The search for wifi turns Sophia into a living cell tower The search for wifi turns Sophia into a living cell tower

 

 

 


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Visit Cambodia, Inspired by a Video Game

Visit Cambodia, Inspired by a Video Game

Who knew that playing the video game Tomb Raider, and watching Angelina Jolie play Lara Croft in the movies of the same name, would lead us to an epic visit to Cambodia? Well it was a bucket list adventure, and our whole family loved this country.

Lara Croft inspired our trip to Cambodia. How's that for a gay twist? Lara Croft inspired our trip to Cambodia. How’s that for a gay twist?

It was super hot and humid, but that didn’t stop us from a 12-mile bike ride on muddy “roads” through the jungle to a remote monastery. Read more in my recent column for San Diego Magazine, A Family Afar: Exploring the Ruins of Cambodia.

Ava, Sophia and their new buddies at the Monastery Ava, Sophia and their new buddies at the Monastery


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Visit Iguanas and Molè in Huatulco, MX

Visit Iguanas and Molè in Huatulco, MX

Mexico is a place of deep comfort for our family. We’ve traveled here many times to enjoy the easy, breezy lifestyle, the tropical beaches, the green jungle and the amazing food. But it’s the people that keep us coming back – always friendly, with easy smiles, warm hearts and laid back lifestyles.

So it was easy to plan another vacation here, this time traveling with family to visit Huatulco in the far reaches of Mexico in the state of Oaxaca. Personally, I had never heard of it and suggested more common climes like Zihuatenejo or Xtapa. Our sister-in-law was set on going somewhere off the beaten path, and we chose the beach resort town of Huatulco.

Hotel Camino Real view Our vacation home had a great view of beach and resort

 

I could not be happier that we made that smart decision. The area consists of nine bays and more than 30 beaches, much of which are protected and undeveloped.

Visiting Huatulco is like going to Mexico 30 years ago, when tourist destinations were less popular – or should I say less visited. Huatulco is charmingly unsullied by the hoards of American tourists in Bermuda shorts and sunhats, making demands of locals that border on rude and bartering for $5 tchotchkes they can well afford at full price. If you’ve ever been to Cancun, you know exactly what I mean.

Even better, the Bahías de Huatulco (Bays of Huatulco) were certified by EarthCheck in 2010 as an environmentally sustainable tourist destination. There are huge natural preserves, unreachable except by boat and protected by the Mexican Government so that flora and fauna can prosper without danger of overdevelopment.

We rented a big villa within the resort of Camino Real, where hotel rooms stack nicely up the hill to catch views and offshore breezes. With the best of both worlds, our 6-bedroom villa easily fit our three families with kids and still left plenty of room for alone time. Even better, it was part of the resort so we could use the giant pool facilities, sign cocktail bills to our room, eat in the restaurants and more.

On our drive to town from the airport, we made friends with our van driver. I highly recommend this practice, as the local drivers always know the best places for everything. Jose Manuel did not disappoint, and his giant van fit 14 people comfortably.

Our (his) recommendations if you go here:

La Crucecita – The little downtown here is quaint and authentic, with little shops, jewelry stores and restaurants aimed at visitors. Not without it’s tourist traps, at least this village is not overrun with them. The tree-shaded square in the middle of town sports a gazebo and live music, which adds to the small town feel. The church, however, is rather unremarkable.

Mezcal Chahue – This little shop in downtown La Crucecita is a great place for a Mezcal tasting adventure. At Jose Manuel’s suggestion, we wandered in after dinner and tasted five or six different varieties. If you’ve not tried it, Mezcal is made from the Mexican agave plant in this area of Mexico only. It’s delicious, with a sweeter, smokier flavor than its sister, tequila. Many bottles come complete with a worm, native to the agave plant and said to add a special flavor. We bought several bottles to bring home, sans worm.

Terra Cotta Restaurant – The only air-conditioned restaurant in the entire region. You will thank me for this. Oh, and the food is good too. Try the local molé, a sauce famous in this State of Oaxaca area and made from unsweetened chocolate, chile, onion, garlic and spices. Sooooo good. And really, really affordable.

Mexican Chocolate Mole The traditional chocolate mole sauce was so delicious

Captain Rogerio and his yacht The Virginia – Berthed in Santa Cruz Harbor, the Virginia easily fit 12 of us as we set out for a day of snorkeling, beaches unreachable by car, and some deep sea fishing. We held a live puffer fish underwater, spied a sea turtle or two, and tried unsuccessfully to catch a few deep sea fish. Granted, we didn’t try the fishing for very long, due to my untimely decision to lose my breakfast in a rather rocky sea. Next time: Dramamine first. (The cost was about $120/hour).

Three hour tour, a three hour tour.... Three hour tour, a three hour tour….

Maguey Beach – A beautiful stretch of beach with calm waters for swimming and collection of restaurants serving freshly caught seafood. The dorado a la plancha (grilled mahi mahi) and giant shrimps at El Costeño restaurant looked delicious as I sipped my lime and soda (see earlier comment about boat ride). The rest of the group raved about the simple and delicious seafood preparations. A couple of us took at taxi home from here rather than the boat ride, and it was about 20 miles – the taxi fare was ONE DOLLAR.

Iguanas – They are everywhere, literally coming out of crevices, perched on sunny stairs throughout the resort, and climbing trees on the side of the road. Don’t worry, they’re harmless and some are even friendly. Locals suggest you don’t try to touch one in the wild, but we saw several people holding tame iguanas for a photo opp. We learned the black ones live in the ground, starting out green and then tanned dark by the sun. The tree iguanas stay green because of the leafy shade. Who knew?

Friendly iguanas bask in the sun Iguanas are everywhere – black ones on the ground and green ones in the trees greet those who visit Huatulco

Copalita Ecological Park – Site of an active archeological dig, Copacita was once home to the Mixtec people some 2,500 years ago. We trekked through the park with a guide, who explained the ruins we were viewing and pointed out some cool plants and animals. Gigantic striped iguanas clung to jungle trees, rare spoonbills perched on nests, and brightly colored tropical birds dipped through the trails as we walked by. This visit was a highlight – the tour was about two hours and non-strenuous.

 

 

 


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Spooked At The Haunted Whaley House

Spooked At The Haunted Whaley House

Our kids have that weird fascination, where they are a little scared of ghosts but yet are drawn to ghost stories and scary movies in some sort of curious can’t-look-away kind of attraction. At 12, Ava lives in that in-between stage where she’s not a kid anymore, and not yet a sturdy teen with practiced cynicism and a healthy case of KnowItAll-itude.

So tonight, Ava was finally ready to tackle the Whaley House.

The Whaley House is noted as one of the most haunted houses in the US The Whaley House is noted as one of the most haunted houses in the US

Situated smack dab in the middle of tourist traps, great Mexican restaurants and many historic buildings dating back to the city’s founding, The Whaley House rules Old Town San Diego. Local lore tells us this is a classic haunted house, and the folks that run the house give a great tour full of stories that support the claims. (The House has actually been featured in several books and TV specials, including Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel).

It seems Old Man Whaley was an opportunist back in the day, and he saw a good deal in buying the land where San Diego officials used to hang bad guys. The gallows were built pretty much where the Whaley House stands now. Now let’s see, what would be your first clue there was a reason that land was so cheap? Hmmmm.

Anyway, the ghost of Yankee Jim Robinson was the first dude to haunt the place, and the Whaley family reacted poorly. People started dropping like flies, including several children. All in all I think seven or eight people died in the house, not counting the people they hung on these grounds beforehand. On top of all that (literally) the house is built near a graveyard, which still exists in part. That’s a lot of ghosts to wander around, and naturally people are going to see some.

The Whaley House haunted tour is definitely spooky, like this hideous living room decor for example The Whaley House haunted tour is definitely spooky, like this hideous living room decor for example

Not us. Despite the spooky house – which is more like a museum than anything – we saw no apparitions, experienced no sudden gusts of cold air, heard no creepy little lady calling “Carol Anne, Carol Anne, go into the light!” We did listen to some great stories about the Whaley Family, the history of San Diego in its early years, and what life was like in the olden days.

On a related note, I almost died and joined the Whaley ghosts going up and down that staircase inside the house. That thing is steep and spindly, so watch your step.

You could easily become a ghost at The Whaley House by trying to navigate this rickety staircase You could easily become a ghost at The Whaley House by trying to navigate this rickety staircase

Overall, the Whaley House hosts a super interesting tour – definitely creepy – and maybe the kids were a little freaked. A little. Ava did great, racking up another notch on her Rights of Passage marker. Definitely worth the $13 ticket.

I kinda miss the days when she got scared and ran into my legs, wrapping her arms around me and burying her face, holding on for dear life. Yeah, that doesn’t happen any more.


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What To Visit in Vietnam With Kids

What To Visit in Vietnam With Kids

Vietnam is an amazing and beautiful country, and a great place to visit with kids when you know what destinations and sights to visit. Here’s my recent story for HiltonMomVoyage.com on our family travel experience in Vietnam.

The tour of old Hanoi in traditional rickshaws - we were pulled by old men in better shape than either Triton or me. The tour of old Hanoi in traditional rickshaws – we were pulled by old men in better shape than either Triton or me.

The incredible sights, the delicious food, the friendly people, the crazy adventures (remind me to tell you about our experience crossing the busy streets of Hanoi). We can’t wait to go back!

Yes, they really do tend the rice paddies in Vietnam by hand, and it's beautiful to witness. Yes, they really do tend the rice paddies in Vietnam by hand, and it’s beautiful to witness.