Friday, September 9, 2016

10-Day (Almost) Car-Free California Trip

School is back in session, and I'd say our summer went well. As I mentioned back in June, at the beginning of the summer, I planned out what we would do each day. It helped me get us out of the house every day, and it distracted the boys so they wouldn't get bored and fight with each other. There was no preschool for the last two weeks of summer, so I planned a 10-day family trip to California.

My hope was that our vacation wouldn't involve any cars, and it ended up being about 95% car-free (getting to Legoland without a car is tough!). Not bad! There were some miserable parts where the boys were tired of waiting for the train or waiting at restaurants or bored with being in a hotel room (the perils of vacationing with four- and six-year-olds), and there were times when I regretted going on the trip. But we also had fun. After we got home, the boys kept talking about how much fun they had, and how they want to go on another California trip, so I guess the moments of family strife didn't bother them. And looking at all of these nice pictures, the bad parts are fading from my memory too. So maybe we'll do it again next year (or, as Patrick and I agreed soon after the trip, maybe it would be best to do one-kid/one-parent trips for the next few years--they seem to behave better when they're separated).

Day 1:

On the first day, we caught the Amtrak Coast Starlight train in Portland. As with previous trips, we splurged and got rooms in the sleeper car, because otherwise it would have been a rough 21 hours. I bought Arlo a new car magazine for the occasion.

On the Train
On the Train

Day 2: Monterey

We arrived in Salinas around lunchtime, caught the Amtrak bus to Monterey, and had a late lunch at the Wild Plum Cafe. Everybody was hungry and irritable, and the food took a long time to come out, but at least it was tasty. It was my mistake for planning on going there at prime brunch time on a Sunday--the nearby Chipotle would have probably been a better bet with two hungry kids.

We stayed at the Monterey Hotel, which was walkable from the Amtrak bus stop and was on a trolley line that would take us (for free!) to the aquarium the next day. We had to wait for about an hour for our room to be ready, but Plumes Coffee and Tea next door had pearl milk tea, comfy couches, and the Olympics on TV, so it was okay (our trip was well-timed; we were able to watch the Olympics every night in our various hotel rooms, much to Arlo's chagrin. He would have preferred the Food Network). We also walked over to Dennis the Menace park, which was super cool, but the boys weren't very interested in playing there--I guess they were tired from the train ride.

We were in Monterey a few days before the big annual car show/auction, and we got to see a bunch of sweet cars being unloaded around downtown Monterey. It was great (and unintentional) timing.

Cool Cars in Monterey
Cool Cars in Monterey

We took the boys out for dinner at Full Moon--their first time at a Chinese restaurant. A few weeks prior, Arlo had asked me what a fortune cookie was, and Portland doesn't have many great Chinese restaurant options near our house, so this seemed like a good opportunity. As expected, the boys weren't very excited about the main courses, but they liked the little tea cups and the fortune cookies (so do I!).

Day 3: Monterey

We spent most of the day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with Grandpa Rick and Sunie. Patrick and I really enjoyed going to the aquarium when we lived in the Bay Area, pre-children, and I was looking forward to sharing it with the boys. Unfortunately, since it didn't involve vehicles, they got bored with it, which was frustrating. They did enjoy the touch pools and the interactive exhibits that involved levers and buttons (and the gift shop, of course), but Felix had no interest in just standing there and admiring all the creatures in the kelp forest or the outer bay exhibit, which is what I would have liked to do. Four-year-olds, man.

Touching Hermit Crabs
Monterey Bay Aquarium

After finishing with the aquarium we stopped at a candy store across the street (jelly beans by the pound--a big hit!), and then we caught the trolley back to the hotel. For dinner, we headed to Fisherman's Wharf, and ate at Crabby Jim's (a touristy choice, but it seemed like a relatively kid-friendly option in the neighborhood). The view was nice; the food was okay. We found a store window full of toy cars on the walk back to the hotel, and amazingly nobody had a breakdown when we left without buying anything. Huh!

Toy Cars, Fishermans Wharf, Monterey

Day 4: San Luis Obispo

Waiting for the Bus to Salinas

The next morning, it was back on the bus to Salinas, then a train (the Coast Starlight again, this time in coach) to San Luis Obispo, and then the free hotel shuttle to the Madonna Inn. Arlo was speculating about what kind of shuttle the hotel would have, and it turned out to be an unremarkable maroon minivan, but he seemed satisfied with it. I guess a minivan is pretty exotic to him. The train had a delay coming into SLO, as a train bridge up ahead had been damaged by a too-tall truck passing underneath, but luckily we only had to wait for a half hour, and the bridge was still passable. This was the only major train issue we encountered on our trip, which was pretty good!

Contemplating the Water Wheel
Grandparents and Dutch Mill
Sleepy Boy with Sparkles

This was our first time at the Madonna Inn, and it was great. We were in the Dutch Mill room, with sparkly wallpaper, elaborate mural, and a working water wheel in the middle of the room. Our favorite part was the hotel pool, which wasn't even on my radar when I was planning the trip. It was warm and had a nice shallow part where the boys could walk around, and it wasn't too crowded. I'd definitely like to go there again the next time we're in the neighborhood (and next time I'll bring my swimsuit so I can go in past my knees!).

Madonna Inn Pool
Wishing I Brought a Swimsuit

My mom and Alan met us there (I was happy with how many family visits we were able to fit in over the course of the trip!), and they fed the boys dinner while Patrick and I went out to dinner at the hotel's Gold Rush Steak House. It was so pink; I had trouble capturing the awesomeness of it all. I had a Shirley Temple, and they gave me three maraschino cherries--the mark of a quality establishment! In keeping with the pink theme, I had the pink shrimp Dolce Vita, and we shared the pink champagne cake for dessert. The food wasn't amazing, but I enjoyed the ambiance, and I'd go there again.

Pink Shirt, Pink Lightpost
Lots of Pink

Day 5: SLO/Ventura

This marked the halfway point of our trip, so while Patrick and the boys returned to the hotel pool, I jammed all of our dirty clothes into a backpack and took a very nice walk up the Madonna Inn bike path to a laundromat (Parker Street Coin Laundry), where I sat quietly and didn't have to take care of anyone but myself for an hour and a half. Lovely!

SLO Laundromat

Around lunchtime, we took the hotel shuttle back to the Amtrak station, Patrick picked up some excellent (and large) sandwiches at Gus's Grocery (one block from the station--they have Dutch crunch bread), and the children waited impatiently for the train to Ventura to come (we were on the Surfliner for the remainder of the trip).

I had planned the overnight stop in Ventura to break up our travel and avoid antsy kids on the train, but I'm not sure if that was a good call. We got in around dinnertime, after the fish taco place I wanted to visit had closed, so Patrick went out and got Mexican food and brought it back to the hotel, and Felix had a meltdown about not getting juice (I think? It's hard to keep track--he was kind of fragile for most of the trip, since he skipped his nap for 10 days straight, and we were in a new place nearly every day). I had hoped to visit the beach, but we didn't have the energy and it was getting dark, so we just sat grumpily in our kind of subpar hotel room (we stayed at the Clocktower Inn near the station. It was okay and affordable, but not as nice as the other places we stayed). This was the low point of the trip, but luckily things looked up the next day because we went to...Legoland! (Imagine Felix flailing his arms excitedly like Kermit and exclaiming, "Yay! Legoland!").

Day 6: Yay! Legoland!

We left Ventura on the 7:30am Surfliner and debarked in Oceanside around lunchtime. We had a great lunch at Petite Madeline a few blocks from the Oceanside Transit Center (crepes/sandwiches and an excellent dessert case). I had an elaborate plan to get us to Legoland without a car--it involved taking Breeze bus 101 to the Carlsbad Poinsettia Station and then taking Flex bus 373 (reserved in advance) to Legoland. Unfortunately, I didn't look at the bus 101 route map closely enough, and it turned out that it didn't actually drop off at the Poinsettia Station. So we frantically walked 3/4 mile from the bus stop to the Poinsettia Station (in the heat, with short-legged children), but the Flex bus had already left because we didn't show up on time. Sigh.

If we do this again, I'll have the Flex bus pick us up at an actually stop on the bus 101 route, and we should be golden. Instead, Patrick called us a taxi van. The driver made a fuss about the boys not having booster seats (understandably), but he ended up giving us a ride anyway, and we got to our destination safely (phew!). It was stressful for me, but the boys were excited to ride in a taxi, so that's something.

And even more exciting than a taxi? The Legoland Hotel! I debated whether it was worth paying extra to stay there instead of in a normal hotel a few miles away, but it was totally worth it. We only stayed there for one night, which was sufficient. There was a lot to see/hear/do, and the boys kind of lost their minds, but since the hotel was full of equally loud and excited kids, it was not a problem.

Family at Legoland Hotel
In the Lego Pit at Legoland Hotel

We stayed in one of the pirate rooms, which had a bunk bed, free minifigs, Lego cartoons on TV all the time, and complimentary hot cocoa and juice. Also, Legoland was right out the back door, which meant that we were able to spend a few hours there before dinner (we ate at the Skyline Cafe in the hotel; it was fine), go back after dinner, and then return (early) the next morning.

We spent most of the first afternoon in Fun Town, as it had the most vehicle-themed rides. The fire/police truck ride, helicopters, and safari Jeep ride were a big hit with Felix, and Arlo liked driving school. The lines weren't too long (it was a Thursday afternoon), which was nice. The park had plenty to do, but it was a reasonable scale for young kids--not too overwhelming. The weather was perfect; we ate popsicles. Two thumbs up for Legoland! I'd say it was the highlight of the trip for the boys, and us grown-ups had fun too. Patrick was hesitant to go when I was planning the trip, but I'm very glad he was there, as most of the rides required a parent to accompany children under 48", and getting both boys on the rides with only one parent would have been tough.

Legoland
Felix at the Wheel, Legoland
Legoland is Fun
Driving School, Legoland

Day 7: More Legoland!

Our stay at the Legoland Hotel included a free (and pretty extensive) breakfast buffet at Bricks, and we got to enter the park an hour early (though only some of the rides were available before the general opening time). I convinced Arlo to ride the Coastersaurus with me. It seemed like a pretty tame roller coaster, so I figured it would be okay, but he did not like it, poor guy. I probably should have just gone on it by myself. Sorry, Arlo!

We revisited our favorite rides from the previous day, ate apple fries, walked around Miniland, and then spent a good amount of time at the attached water park. We stayed there until around 5pm, which felt a few hours too long for Felix (he and I spent the last half hour lying on a grassy hill). A day and a half seemed like the right amount of time to do everything we wanted at Legoland.

We ended the day with a visit to the big Lego store at the park entrance, and Arlo had a meltdown when we didn't buy any Lego sets (there were new Lego sets waiting for them at our next stop on the trip, but that wasn't a convincing argument when they were faced with ALL OF THE LEGOS). Oh well, I'm sure he's not the first child to have a tantrum at the Lego store.

We were staying at West Inn and Suites that night--strategically chosen because they offer a free shuttle to and from Legoland (with booster seats and car seats available in the van!), and they have free cookies. Also, the hotel is only a few blocks from the bus 101 route, so we didn't have to do any complicated transit stuff the following day. I was really happy with the combination of one day at the Legoland Hotel and the second day at West Inn and Suites.

Since we were on vacation (and were tired of plying our children with video games to get them to behave at restaurants), we ordered room service and ate dinner while watching TV. Exciting!

Day 8: Los Angeles

The next morning, we took the Breeze 101 back to the Oceanside Transit Center and caught the Surfliner north to Los Angeles, to visit Aunt Meg (and Simba the dog and Dan the man, with a bonus visit with Aunt Heather and Uncle Jay). I was a little nervous about navigating the LA transit system with two kids, but it turned out fine (though it certainly made me appreciate Portland's 2-hour free transfers and free rides for kids under 7--thanks, TriMet!).

Arlo with LA Metro Map

We took a quick ride on the Metro to Grand Park, where we grabbed sandwiches from the Starbucks in the park and had a picnic. Then it was back on the Metro--first the red line, and then the Expo line to Meg's apartment. I had hoped to stop in the middle to visit the Natural History Museum and Science Center, but they didn't have any place to store our bags, so it wouldn't have worked.

We spent the afternoon relaxing at Meg and Dan's place with Simba and the gang--a nice change of pace. We took Simba to the park and then had yummy burgers at Plan Check. The boys got along well with Simba on this visit--Felix declared his love for Simba repeatedly.

Day 9: Los Angeles

First Time on an Articulated Bus

This was our museum day. We took an articulated Metro bus (a first for all of us--Arlo was very excited!) to LACMA, where we met up with Meg and checked out Metropolis (an exhibit full of Matchbox cars and other toy vehicles racing around a track), and then we spent a few hours at the Petersen Automotive Museum. It would have been nice to spend more time at LACMA, but as we were reminded at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, if it doesn't have wheels, buttons, or levers, the kids aren't interested. Oh, but we did ride the room-sized elevator next to Metropolis--that was pretty cool!

Checking Out Metropolis at LACMA

The car museum had some nice exhibits, and they had a special hands-on room for kids, but overall I didn't like it as much as the Tacoma car museum (but maybe that's just because we had both kids on this trip, and in Tacoma it was just me and Arlo). As you might have guessed, the highlight for the boys was the amazing gift shop, and many tears were shed when we left without buying anything (in retrospect, maybe I should have caved and allowed a toy car purchase, but we already have so many at home!).

Toy Car Heaven

Both boys fell asleep on the bus on the way back to Meg's place, which was sweet. That night, Meg and Dan took care of the boys while Patrick and I walked to Tsujita for ramen (tasty!). For dessert, we got a snow cream at Blockheads, but we didn't see the appeal. Maybe I just chose the wrong flavor.

Day 10: Santa Monica

On our final day in L.A., we took the Big Blue Bus to Santa Monica and spent the morning at the beach (we had surprisingly few beach visits on this trip, but this was a good one). We had lunch a few blocks from the beach at M Street Kitchen, which Meg recommended and I really liked. They were very accommodating, and the food was good.

Santa Monica Beach
Good Lunch at M Street Kitchen

Then we took the bus back to Meg's, where we packed up and started our airport odyssey. We took Big Blue Bus 1 to the Culver City 6R bus to the airport terminal shuttle. Our flight home was uneventful. This was Felix's first flight since he was a little guy, and he thought it was cool, except he was worried that the plane was making too much pollution and was making the Earth too hot (I'm still figuring out the right balance in teaching our kids about climate change without freaking them out).

And then, once we got home to Portland, we found out that the MAX tracks were under construction, so we had to take two MAX trains and two buses to get home. A big travel day: seven buses, two light rail trains, and one airplane! We all slept well that night.