Tag Archives: family travel

Island time

I’ll never forget my first snorkelling trip, to Buck Island off of St. Croix, when I was 12. We saw a number of tropical fish and even barracudas knifing through the turquoise Caribbean waters. It was spectacular. I’m pretty sure my daughter Avery will always remember her first time donning a mask and fins in an ocean aquarium during an excursion to the Belize Barrier Reef from our base on Ambergris Caye.

Bennett and Avery take a break from the sea on a snorkelling excursion to the Belize Barrier Reef.

Bennett and Avery take a break from the sea on a snorkelling excursion to the Belize Barrier Reef.

She saw electric blue damsel fish, orange and white longspine squirrelfish, yellow and white striped French grunts, giant brain coral and purple sea fans (an underwater camera would’ve come in handy!). And, with her little brother Bennett doggie paddling beside her in a life jacket (without a mask and snorkel — he’s not quite ready), she watched a nurse shark and eagle ray swim below her, followed by a green sea turtle. It was neat for me to see those critters, too, but it was more of a thrill to watch the kids’ jubilant reactions to a day spent offshore with Suya Tours.

The sea life just offshore Ambergris Caye is incredible. Snorkellers

The sea life that inhabits the warm, clear water just offshore Ambergris Caye is incredible. It’s the best snorkelling I’ve done in a long time.

The marine life is just one part of our visit to Ambergris Caye, one of the islands off the coast of Belize. In the coming days we’ll be exploring the town of San Pedro and the nearby Mayan ruins, and sampling more tasty island cuisine. When you’re staying beachside, however, the clear water is always beckoning, be it ocean or pool.

Bennett, Avery and Blake kayak off the dock on Ambergris Caye, Belize.

Bennett, Avery and Blake kayak off the dock on Ambergris Caye, Belize.

On “island time,” the kids are in the pool by 8 a.m. and pretty much stay in the water until 6 p.m., with mandatory down-time out of the sun for a couple hours over lunch. Overall, life is pretty beachy!

Just chillin' on the patio and contemplating... Beach or pool?

Just chillin’ on the patio and contemplating… Beach or pool?

Ziplining at Selvatura Park

Zooming high above the cloud forest canopy I see only the tops of the trees below; a sea of green foliage that cachets hundreds of species of birds and thousands of butterflies. It’s not the best way to see Costa Rica’s abundant wildlife, but it’s certainly the most exhilarating way to experience the jungle.

At Selvatura Park 13 zips speed guests over 3.5 km of rainforest canopy.

At Selvatura Park 13 zips speed guests over 3.5 km of rainforest canopy. Here, Avery gets doubled by another rider.

We’re at Selvatura Park, a rainforest park that borders Monteverde, the country’s most famous cloud forest. For two hours we get to be like the howler monkeys that wake us up every morning, zipping from tree to tree while covering 3.5 kilometres in the air across a series of 13 zips. No sooner do I alight at one platform than a guide clips me onto the next cable and sends me screaming out over the green abyss.

Avery and I stop for a selfie on a zipline platform.

Avery and I stop for a selfie on a zipline platform.

It’s my third time ziplining (I have tried it previously on Maui and in Vernon, B.C.) and this is by far the best. As far as the eye can see there is only 50 shades of green and the wonder at what lurks beneath the canopy.

Fifty shades of green.

Fifty shades of green.

Avery holds a blue morpho butterfly inside the butterfly garden.

Avery holds a blue morpho butterfly inside the butterfly garden.

After, we join a tour of the butterfly garden, watch violet sabrewing hummingbirds whiz through the hummingbird garden, and explore the hanging bridges canopy walk, a three-kilometre hike around the park where we spot shrill bellbirds calling from the treetops. Avery even manages to catch another frog (her total for the trip so far: five).

The hanging bridges hike lets us spot birds that surround us in the forest canopy.

The hanging bridges hike lets us spot birds that surround us in the forest canopy.

At day’s end we brave the crazy Costa Rican roads on the long drive back to Nuevo Arenal. We never do spot a resplendent quetzal, the “it” bird of Monteverde, but after hours spent flying like one above the rainforest, it’s fair to say we’re ok with that.

Pura Vida in Costa Rica

After years of talking about taking a family holiday to Costa Rica we are finally here! And it is beautiful. We’re based near the small town of Nuevo Arenal, on the shore of Lake Arenal about one hour from the Arenal Volcano and adventure centre La Fortuna.

Family hike at Villa Encantada near Nuevo Arenal.

Family hike at Villa Encantada near Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica. Posing in front of a 400-year-old tree.

No resort for us — we’ve rented gorgeous Villa Encantada that sits on 40 forested acres and comes with hiking trails, a waterfall, a pond for fishing and kayaking, and a pool and water slide. If we run out of things to do there’s a bird feeder that attracts ridiculously colourful birds (identifying them in the Birds of Costa Rica book is hopeless, as there are so many different kinds), plus a slew of nearby adventure activities. We’ll be here another three days, then it’s off to a beach house at Playa Grande for the final week.

Avery enjoyed a soak in the waterfall at Villa Encantada. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Avery enjoyed a soak in the waterfall at Villa Encantada.

Kayaking around the pond at Villa Encantada. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Kayaking around the pond at Villa Encantada.

Everyone who comes to Costa Rica raves about it and now I get it. Fresh air, fresh fruit, unspoiled cloud forests and picture-perfect volcanoes. It really lives up to its unofficial national slogan: “Pura Vida!” (Pure Life). I’m excited to share some of our adventures over the next couple weeks, and write about experiencing the country with kids for an upcoming issue of WestJet Magazine. Until then, Pura Vida!

A turquoise bird and a green bird dig in to the papaya rinds. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Tropical birds dig in to the papaya rinds.

Hiking Indiana Jones style at Villa Encantada. Photo by Lisa Kadane.

Hiking Indiana Jones-style at Villa Encantada.

Marvelous Mount Norquay a hit for families

Back in the days before kids my husband Blake and I happily drove past local Banff ski hill Mount Norquay in favour of chasing powder and longer vertical at Sunshine Village or Lake Louise. But now that our two children are skiing we see the charm and practicality of a smaller ski hill. So, we happily accepted an invitation to Mount Norquay this past weekend for a family ski day.

Posing at the top of Cascade chair at Mount Norquay.

Posing at the top of Cascade chair at Mount Norquay.

Our first clue the skiing was going to be great was the icy road conditions driving west from Calgary to Banff. It turns out Norquay had received 20 cm of snow overnight — more than the other Banff resorts. After handing the kids over to their ski instructors for a morning lesson we got busy tracking up the powder.

We were helped in this endeavour by Canadian ski great Ken Read who, along with five other Alberta partners, owns Mount Norquay. Read helped us find some powder stashes off the Mystic Express chair and pointed out areas where the resort is widening runs to make them more race-course friendly. He also talked about why he loves Norquay: it’s friendly, intimate, and easy to navigate thanks to its small size. It feels like a local hill, and families that ski here regularly or enrol their kids in the racing program really get to know each another and the mountain.

Ken Read skis me and fellow writers Kim Gray and Lisa Monforton around Mount Norquay.

Ken Read skis with me (far left) and fellow Calgary travel writers Kim Gray and Lisa Monforton at Mount Norquay.

But what really impressed me is that Norquay looks after newbie skiers while also offering some gnarly terrain for experts. Not all ski hills strike a good balance between these extremes, and few have black runs right next door to the bunny hill! The fall line at Norquay is also stellar — most runs cut right down the fall line making it easy for skiers to follow gravity and stay on the run.

Our son Bennett, a beginner, was in great hands with Phil, his instructor, during a two-hour private lesson. Phil was incredibly patient and encouraging with Bennett, who has autism, and regularly praised how well he was doing. He even took Bennett on some tree runs (!) and over two jumps (!!). Bennett had such a fun time that when he saw me on the hill he told me to “Go away.”

Bennett shreds the pow-pow at Mount Norquay.

Bennett shreds the pow-pow at Mount Norquay.

We saw Bennett tearing up the pow-pow on a green run called Temptation as we booted over to the adjacent North American chairlift so Blake could hearken back to his mogul-munching high school days. From the top of the chair you get a bird’s eye view of Banff townsite and it’s a steep 1,300-foot vertical drop down bumped-up black runs to the bottom. Luckily (or not?), the Volkswagen bug-sized moguls were covered in snow to cushion me every time I fell.

A view of Banff townsite from the top of the North American.

A view of Banff townsite from the top of the North American.

After lunch we skied Cascade as a family, with one of us traversing the green runs with Bennett while the other hit the terrain park with our daughter Avery. She killed it in the park, catching some jumps and skiing her first rail without crashing — way to go!

Finally we headed up to the tubing park to finish the day on an adrenalin high note. Avery is a natural thrill seeker as well as a roller coaster aficionado, but I worried Bennett would chicken out at the top (the seven tubing tracks are steep and long). Before he knew what was happening our four linked tubes were careening down a wide, super-fast bobsleigh-like track, leaving our stomachs at the top of the hill. “It’s too fast!” Bennett shrieked, only to demand we “Do it again!” at the bottom.

The tubing park at Mount Norquay is awesome.

The tubing park at Mount Norquay is awesome.

In fact, “Do it again!” could well be our motto for the entire Mount Norquay experience. Our family of four skiers of different abilities all had a blast. Perhaps we’ll hit Norquay again Easter weekend, before it closes for the season April 21.

End of the road… trip

There’s always a sense of letdown coming home from a great holiday. Your excitement to sleep in a comfortable bed is tempered by your disappointment over trading scenic hikes and hot beach days for a predictable routine. So it was for us as we pointed the car east (no one ever says, “Go east,” do they?) from Vernon toward Calgary.

The climb up and the descent down Roger's Pass was the highlight of the final leg of our B.C. road trip, from Vernon to Calgary.

The climb up and the descent down Roger’s Pass was the highlight of the final leg of our B.C. road trip.

With six road hours (and eight tunnels) ahead, we had time to talk about our favourite parts of the B.C. road trip.

Avery most enjoyed the cabin up Indian Arm off North Vancouver. A budding naturalist, she’s in her element turning over rocks to find eels and crabs.

Avery catches one of many crabs up Indian Arm.

Avery catches one of many crabs up Indian Arm.

Bennett has graduated from water baby and is a bonafide splash kid. When he wasn’t paddling around a lake (or the Pacific) in his life jacket, he was imitating Piper’s doggy paddle in shallow water. Perhaps he’ll soon be swimming under his own power?

Bennett swims to his honorary auntie while cousin Jack enjoys the water too.

Bennett swims with his honorary auntie Simone and cousin Jack in the frigid Pacific up Indian Arm fjord.

Blake loved escaping the big city to be active outdoors as a family while hiking, swimming, kayaking and mountain biking in beautiful B.C. Oh, and stuffing his face with peaches, cherries and samosas (and wine!) in between activities.

Hiking as a family to BX Falls near Vernon.

Hiking as a family to BX Falls near Vernon.

I (Lisa) loved the heat. And being outside so much. And the way time seemed to slow down for two weeks. Though the places we visited were quite different from one another — small town Fernie; rustic, rainforest-tinged Indian Arm; smoking hot, lake-blessed Vernon — our theme of being active outside persisted throughout the trip. More than once I was amazed by our kids and their willingness to try new things (crab meat! paddle boarding!), hike several kilometres under the baking sun, or sit for hours in a car without complaint. They are turning into real little travellers and I couldn’t be happier about that. But if I had to pick one moment…

Sweet sibs share a moment at one of the most beautiful alpine lakes near Fernie.

Sweet sibs contemplate a beautiful alpine lake. They’ll always have each other, and share childhood memories of this family vacation.

My family-travel bucket-list

As I write this post we are five days away from a spring break trip to beautiful… Arkansas! I never dreamed I’d be packing our bags for the Natural State for the fourth time in seven years, but that’s what you do when Grammy lives near Hot Springs (Bill Clinton’s boyhood home, FYI).

Besides, the kiddos are excited about visiting the Arkansas Alligator Farm, where they can “pet a real live alligator.” Bennett is especially thrilled we are flying to Easter and is looking forward to all the eggs because when they hatch he’ll have baby bunnies (I know, so cute, right?). Perhaps he recalls how, during our visit three years ago, his second cousin Jackson received a real live bunny from the Easter Bunny on Easter Sunday.

Three years ago this little bunny hopped over for some Easter fun.

Three years ago cousin Jackson’s little bunny hopped over for some Easter fun.

Anyway, Arkansas it is. Before we had kids my husband and I fantasized about all the amazing trips we’d take as a family. We wouldn’t be like those lame-os who go to all-inclusives or opt for the safety of Hawaii or surprise their kids with a trip  to Disneyland. No, we’d be jetting off to Australia to rehabilitate koala bears, schussing in Zermatt and trekking to Everest base camp (evidently, in our travel fantasies we were also rolling around in fat stacks like Scrooge McDuck). Arkansas was definitely not on our family-travel bucket-list.

But the reality is that travel with young kids can be trying, especially when one of them has autism (it’s difficult enough when the kids are both typical). Truthfully, some days I’m amazed we ever leave town. But we do, though our destinations are the very places we used to scoff at: all-inclusives in Mexico, Maui and yes, Arkansas. But hey, at least we are getting out there and seeing new places!

I came across a beautiful Vancouver Sun photo gallery earlier this week: 15 places to see before you die. I scrolled through it and felt that old wanderlust creeping up as images of Petra in Jordan, the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and Pammukale hot springs in Turkey filled my iPad screen. A couple days later I read a story on making a parenting bucket list, about one mom’s parenting resolutions to her children. It got me thinking I should make a family-travel bucket-list, filled with trips we could realistically take in the foreseeable future that are bucket-list worthy for our travel style. No, not a trek to Everest base camp, but something adventurous and cool, like sea kayaking in the Sea of Cortez.

What adventures await our family of four?

What adventures await our family of four?

Avery went through a similar bucket-list exercise last year but, being six at the time, included things like “Climb a mountain (the highest one)” and “Go to Mexico and dance on a table.” So, in an effort to keep this list somewhat grounded, here goes…

Our Family-Travel Bucket-List:

  1. Raft through the Grand Canyon
  2. Go backcountry camping and swim in an alpine lake
  3. Visit Costa Rica and zipline through the rainforest canopy
  4. Go on a family African safari
  5. Climb a mountain together (not Everest; maybe a Colorado 14-er?)
  6. Sail around the Caribbean
  7. Go on a train journey like the Rocky Mountaineer
  8. Sea kayak in the Sea of Cortez
  9. Ski on a glacier somewhere (Alaska? Heli- or cat-skiing?)
  10. Road trip to Walley World (or, ahem, maybe even Disneyland), stopping in all the beautiful U.S. southwest national parks along the way.

How close are we to actually achieving any of these? Well, we recently returned from a trip to Arizona that saw us hiking in Sedona, exploring underground caverns and horseback riding at a dude ranch. It’s fair to say we’re on our way…

Hiking the Bell Rock trail in Sedona, Ariz. is a baby step toward realizing the travel dreams on our family-travel bucket-list.

Hiking the Bell Rock trail in Sedona, Ariz. is a baby step toward realizing the travel dreams on our family-travel bucket-list.

Kartchner Caverns cave tour with kids: un-fun

I should have guessed the tours into Kartchner Caverns near Benson, Ariz. would be un-kid-friendly by the sign that greeted us at the registration desk inside the state park visitor centre. It was basically a list of items not allowed inside the caves including:

  • Food/drink
  • Cameras
  • Binoculars/flashlights
  • Purses/totes
  • Strollers

After my children wandered through last week I’m sure Peggy, our verbose guide for the duration of the hour-long tour, will add two more no-nos to the list:

  • Cowboy hats
  • Children

You would think a cave would cater to kids, being all dark and drippy and underground, with bats and piles of guano. That was our thought, anyway, when we veered off Highway 10 and headed south.

Two college students/caving enthusiasts discovered Kartchner Caverns after squeezing through small rock crevices.

Two college students discovered Kartchner Caverns after squeezing through small rock crevices.

Kartchner Caverns State Park protects a living cave system that tunnels through a limestone block under the Whetstone Mountains in southern Arizona. “Living” means the formations inside are still growing. The caves were discovered in the 1970s and have remained virtually unchanged since then. There are both stalagmites and stalactites, as well as flow stone that looks like raw bacon and long soda straws (thin, hollow mineral tubes) that, according to Peggy, are so fragile, “If you sneeze near one it will fall to pieces.”

This is what my camera would have captured if I had been allowed to bring it into the cave. The rationale for no cameras? "The flash might disorient someone."

This is what my camera would have captured if I had been allowed to bring it into the cave. The rationale for no cameras? “The flash might disorient someone.”

Being a geologist, my husband was keen to go. Being a parent, I figured spending an hour inside a hermetically-sealed underground cavern with an autistic five-year-old was a peachy plan. What could go wrong?

Since our children were the only kids on the geriatric-weighted tour, Peggy paid close attention to us from the get-go. She first ordered Blake to spit out his gum, lest he forget himself and hork it toward a stalagmite once inside the cave. After we entered the man-made tunnel that leads underground, Peggy instructed us to remove our jackets and roll them up before tying them around our waists, lest tiny lint fragments somehow befoul the ancient limestone formations. And under no circumstances were we to touch ANYTHING, save the paved pathway and the railing. “Touching the formations is punishable by law!” Peggy said, looking squarely at Bennett. Evidently, the oil from our hands is bad for caves. It gives them zits and then no one visits anymore.

I'm sure the "touch" perps in this photo are incarcerated in an Arizona prison somewhere.

I’m sure the “touch” perps in this photo are incarcerated in an Arizona prison.

Peggy pulled an orange wrist band from her pocket. “If anyone touches anything inside the cave, I will tie this around their wrist so everyone knows who did it.” Great, public shaming! “Then, we mark the spot they touched and a team enters the cave after closing and hand washes it.” Good to know were were touring the Mommy Dearest cave. I mean, seriously? It’s a cave, not the Mona Lisa. So of course, as if to test her, Bennett immediately put his hand on the venting system in the manmade tunnel. “Son! No touching!” she scolded. This was going to be un-fun.

So OCD are cavern officials, you can't even touch man-made stuff en route to the caves.

So OCD are cavern officials, you can’t even touch man-made stuff en route to the caves.

We entered the cave. The door closed behind us. I shadowed Bennett, waiting for a misplaced finger to incur Peggy’s wrath. It didn’t take long — unbeknownst to me Bennett had been trailing his hand along the rock wall. “Son! Absolutely no touching! We take this very seriously!” I waited for what I assumed would be one of many orange wrist bands to decorate my son’s arm, or at least for the CSI-Kartchner team to file in and flag the yard of contaminated rock, but nothing happened. From then on I held his hands. Not long after, Avery’s cowgirl hat fell off of her head and onto a pile of rocks. This caused some panic amongst Peggy and her two helpers. “Can’t we just grab the hat?” I asked. “We’re not sure ma’am.” It was like a crime scene, where you couldn’t move anything. Perhaps her hat would remain in the cave and morph into a hatagmite over the millennia? She eventually got it back.

Avery, hatless, poses by a fauxmation in the visitor centre.

Avery, hatless, poses by a fauxmation in the visitor centre.

The tour culminated in a large cavern in front of the cave’s largest formation, a stalagmite called Kubla Khan, so named in honour of the ruler of Xanadu (a fictional cave kingdom) in the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Peggy made us sit through her pretentious recitation of the poem, then she turned on some tribal-sounding music and we watched a sort of light show illuminate various formations in the vast cavern. It was meant to be a solemn and awe-inspiring finale, but I really wished Bennett had chosen that moment to belch the alphabet, or at least fart loudly, to steal Peggy’s thunder.