Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Cape May, New Jersey

We visited Cape May with some friends who've been going there at least once a year with their kids for many years. I wasn't sure if it would live up to all their hype, but this gem of a beach town actually did. Cape May feels more New England than Jersey Shore. It's charming and laid back, with many dining options and a great beach that somehow never gets too crowded. I loved that people biked everywhere and that almost every popular lodging or restaurant was situated in a quaintly remodeled Victorian house.

Where to Stay

We stayed the weekend at the Montreal Beach Resort, which provided beach access across the street that included a set of chairs and an umbrella. The hotel had a decent pool and a great restaurant downstairs, Harry's. The biggest drawback was the location, just a little too far from town square to walk to with small children (about three-quarters of a mile). It can be done, but would be difficult in the heat or after a long day at the beach.

Our friends are regulars at the Carroll Villa Hotel, a bed and breakfast right off town square. We ate breakfast at its restaurant, The Mad Batter, and loved the location, but would probably stick with the Montreal for the pool and beach access.

What to Do

The first thing we did in Cape May was drive out to Sunset Beach to look for the famous Cape May diamonds along the shore. The diamonds are actually quartz pebbles that have been worn by the ocean to the point where they're translucent. It was no easy feat to gather this handful of "diamonds"! They're small and hidden among the millions of other small pebbles found along the beach.

Cape May's Washington Square Mall is a town square of sorts, about three blocks long, with a ton of shopping, food and activities packed into that outdoor space. The pedestrian mall is charming and lively in the evening, and definitely worth a stroll. We even stumbled upon the a big band concert at the Rotary Park Bandstand nearby on a Saturday evening and stopped to listen to the lively swing music.

Something that a lot of visitors seem to do is bike from the center of town to the Cape May Lighthouse, just a few miles away. We drove up to the lighthouse to admire it, but didn't climb to the top to take in the view because it was such a hot day.

We spent one afternoon at our friends' favorite place in town, the tasting room of the Cape May Brewing Co. Here you're welcome to try beer flights while hanging out at oversize picnic tables under a tent. We munched on the crab guac and chips from the Taco Shop next door and sampled our beers while the kids sipped root beer and ginger ale, and played giant Jenga.

We only spent a long weekend in Cape May, and probably could've used one more day to see it all. Some things I had on our itinerary but we missed out on were the Cape May Zoo, biking the promenade along the beach, and the Cape May Winery.

Where to Eat

The dining scene in Cape May is quite varied, offering everything from breakfasts on wraparound porches to takeout for the beach, to fine dining. We sampled a little bit of everything. My favorite meal was the lobster roll I got from Quincy's, which I devoured on the beach. The kids and my husband got hot dogs from the popular Hot Dog Tommy's.

For breakfast, we ate at the aforementioned Mad Batter, with its trendy, brunchy vibe, as well as George's Place (diner-style breakfast) and Harry's (breakfast with a beach view). For dinner, we had two fabulous meals at Younger Brother and 401 Bank Street; reservations are highly recommended for both during the high season.

What's Nearby

About 20 minutes from Cape May is Wildwood, another beach town that's got a proper boardwalk and all the things that come with that: carnival games, an amusement park, a water park, even Zorb on the beach. We spent a brief afternoon there playing the carnival games.

Wildwood is also apparently where all the Cape May locals go to grab fresh seafood. Some place we wanted to check out but ultimately didn't have time to visit were Crab and Seafood Shack and Sun Dog on the Beach.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Shanghai, China

For the average traveler, Shanghai may seem like an intimidating city to visit. And if you add in kids, the trip may seem downright impossible. I speak some rudimentary Mandarin, and I was still nervous about this week-long vacation, which we took because my husband was going to Shanghai on business. But when we finally got to the city after a 13-hour plane ride, I was surprised to find that it’s actually very similar to most major U.S. cities.

I was expecting squat toilets, streets with strange smells and sights, language barriers, and disorderly traffic, but only the latter turned out to be accurate — definitely look both ways before crossing the street! In a thousand different ways, Shanghai is shaping up to be a completely modernized city. It’s clean and organized, with tons of familiar foods and shopping, and many people speak English. Of course, many people also don’t, but chances are that you’ll be able to find someone to help you out.

As for visiting this city with kids, the Shanghainese don’t just tolerate children, they genuinely love to accommodate them. In most restaurants, for example, you’ll be asked if your kids would like child-size place settings. And don’t be surprised if they get a pat on the head and a big smile everywhere they go.

Where to Stay

We stayed at the Sheraton Shanghai in the Hongkou area of the city because it was near my husband's meetings. It's an extremely luxurious hotel with impeccable service (and it’s not all that expensive), but it's primarily a business hotel. There was a lovely children's park called Aisi a block away and plenty of little malls in which to find good food within walking distance.

If I were to pick an area in which to stay with young kids, however, I'd choose the French Concession, which is walkable, scenic, and lined with tons of restaurants and shops. Many expats live in that neighborhood, making it easy to get around with limited English.

What to Do

Most visitors to Shanghai at some point end up at Yu Yuan Garden, a labyrinth of shops, food stalls, tea houses, and gardens. This is where you go to shop for souvenirs and sample street foods.

The kids got cotton candy shaped like an elaborate flower, and we filed across the zigzag bridge, peeking down at the koi in the pond below, along with a throng of other tourists. The area, with its ancient buildings and historic gardens, is both authentic and touristy at once, and it’s best to go on a weekday morning, when it’s not so crowded.

Right near Yu Yuan is The Bund and the Huangpu River. Here you can find river tours of all kinds, but we decided to simply travel across the river in a ferry (15 cents per adult, kids were free) and take in the skyline that way.

The kids and I spent one morning at Eday Town, a kid-centric attraction that lets children try their hand at various occupations. They earn money along the way, which they can spend on snacks and certain activities. We’ve been to similar attractions in other countries, such as Kidzania in London and Baby Boss in Taiwan. Eday Town is not as well done, but had some cute features, such as the dumpling shop (the kids made dumplings out of dough, then got to eat some pre-made ones). All of the activities were conducted in Mandarin, which intimidated my son (I had to sit by his side and translate for him the whole time), but I saw plenty of other foreign kids happily participating despite the language barrier.

We spent another morning braving Shanghai Disneyland, which was somehow an even more harrowing experience than Disney World in Orlando. The sheer number of people, combined with a somewhat useless FastPass system (all the Fastpasses for the day were distributed within 30 minutes of the park's opening, so after that you basically had to wait on the crazy lines) made this experience less enjoyable than I expected.

I will say that the park is extremely clean and brand new, and the revamped, immersive Pirates of the Caribbean ride alone was pretty spectacular and worth the price of admission (which is relatively inexpensive, compared with other Disneys). It was also fun to eat Disney's Chinese version of American food, for example the Mickey-shaped pizza topped with tiny chunks of char-siu.

I booked a couple of tours for our visit, and they both turned out to be great. We really appreciated the insights and history that our guides provided us, and we learned so much about everyday Chinese life and the history and symbolism behind the sights we were seeing. The guides were always careful about including the kids and customizing our tours so they were interesting for them as well.

We spent one morning with Christina from Untour Food Tours, who took us around to sample Shanghai breakfast street food (there are tours for lunch and dinner as well, including a dumpling tour that includes a dumpling-making class!). My husband and I really wanted to try the street food, but didn’t know where to start, so this was a great way to go. Our guide took us to several stands and shops to enjoy freshly made dough sticks, soy milk, potstickers, jian bing (a Chinese crepe), tea, hand-pulled noodles, soup dumplings, and mochi. It was really more of a huge brunch tour than a breakfast tour!

While walking from stand to stand, we strolled through the bustling Xiang Yang park in the French Concession area (where retired locals were doing tai chi everywhere we looked), a residential alleyway, and a wet market, learning about each location along the way. As a bonus, our guide knew where all the good bathrooms were. We had such a delicious and informative time!

On another morning, we toured the water town of Zhujiajiao, about an hour west of Shanghai. We wanted a taste of old China, which is impossible to find in the city. Zhujiajiao, dubbed the “Venice of Shanghai,” is a fishing village built on a canal 400 years ago that remains largely preserved today (except that now the residents are more likely to operate B&B’s than make a living as fishermen!).

Tom of Shanghai Driver Guide picked us up from our hotel for our private tour and drove us there, then brought us into a wealthy family’s former estate, across ancient stone bridges, through immaculately maintained gardens with koi ponds and rice paddies, and to visit sites that look like movie sets, including a 200-year-old post office and an equally old pharmacy, both still operational yet open as tourist attractions.

The kids had fun feeding the koi and clambering over all the stone steps and bridges. After the walking portion of the tour, we took a gondola ride up the Grand Canal and had lunch at a no-frills restaurant on the river, where we feasted on braised pork shank, noodles, and some local vegetables for just $24 total!

Where to Eat

Shanghai offers a hodgepodge of chain restaurants (where you can expect to pay Western prices) and mom-and-pop eateries that will sell you freshly made bowls of rice or noodles for next to nothing. We ate at both types of places.

In terms of the chains, we found Haidilao to be a hoot. It’s a hotpot restaurant that’s perpetually packed, so they offer all sorts of free services while you wait for a table, from hand massages to trays of snacks to a kids’ play room. Once seated, the entertainment continues, with the wait staff bringing you everything from blankets if you’re feeling chilly to trinkets for the kids. We ordered the hand-pulled noodles for our hotpot, and a “noodle artist” in a fedora came to our table, stretching and flinging a hunk of dough into strands of noodles right before our eyes while spinning theatrically.

Another favorite restaurant of mine is Din Tai Fung, which is really a Taiwanese chain that’s taken over the world. The specialty here is soup dumplings, which were invented in Shanghai, then made popular around the world by Taiwan. We ate at the Pudong location for dinner, which has a panoramic view of the Shanghai skyline.

Our UnTour Food Tour brought us to several hole-in-the-wall eats around the French Concession. My favorites were Henan Pulled Noodles on Changle Lu for the scallion noodles (which you can watch being pulled downstairs), and Soup Dumplings on Nanchang Lu.

What's Nearby

Our China travels took us to Beijing for a mere day and a half, as my husband was having a meeting there as well, but that was just enough time for me and the kids to visit the Great Wall by ourselves. I booked a private driver called Mr. Ma through Viator, who turned out to be super kind and helpful, as there were certain things I couldn't do myself, like take both kids down the mountain coaster (Mr. Ma went with my son, while I went with my daughter). And yes, there is a mountain coaster that you can zip down from the Great Wall! There’s also an open-air chair lift and an enclosed gondola to take you up. The Mongolian invaders must be spinning in their graves!

Anyway, we visited a section of the Great Wall called Mutianyu, which I chose because it's supposed to be easy to hike, and because of the aforementioned mountain coaster. I was concerned that the kids would quickly get bored of walking along the wall, but it turns out that this section consists entirely of ascending and descending stairs, so there was no opportunity to get bored. It was quite strenuous to climb up all those steps, and rather intimidating to climb down, but we managed without incident and took in truly amazing views the whole time.

Tips for Traveling to China

Haggling is a sport in China, and it’s one that I never got good at. My only advice is to always ask for the price of an item before agreeing to buy it, and if it sounds unreasonable, don’t be afraid to walk away. You’ll see the price drop dramatically (like up to 75 percent) when you do.

I also never quite got the hang of pricing in China. Some things were extremely inexpensive — an hour-long cab ride is about $15, and an hour-long massage (a real treat) at one of the ubiquitous parlors is about $30. Other things were downright exorbitant — a scoop of Häagen Daaz ice cream in a mall is $6, and a bottle of soda at the top of the Great Wall is almost $8. Just never assume you know the price of something until the seller confirms it for you, and always ask before you buy!

Bring lots of cash around with you. About half the places we visited wouldn’t take foreign credit cards. Most Chinese establishments, even the street stalls and cabs, take payment in the form of a local app that scans the shop’s QR code. Credit cards are almost never used, but cash is always accepted.

Tipping is not expected for cab drivers and at restaurants, and can even lead to some awkward interactions. Also, never bus your own table at a restaurant, even at self-serve places.

Using a public restroom can be a bit of an adventure. Most places in Shanghai offer Western-style toilets, but you may encounter squat toilets here and there. Here’s how to use one. Bring a pack of tissues everywhere you go, as some bathrooms won’t provide them.

Personal space is practically non-existent in China. There are so many people in the country that perhaps it’s not reasonable to expect it. If you’re in a crowded space, there will be people bumping into you or standing right up against you all the time. It may seem rude or offensive at first, but this is simply a part of the culture and it’s really up to you to adapt!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sonoma, California

Wine country may seem like an unlikely place to bring your kids, but we saw it more as a spot with good food and plenty of wide open space to frolic. And when we got to Sonoma, that was exactly what we found. Yes, there's plenty of wine (and vineyards, so many beautiful vineyards), but there's also plenty of tasty grape juice for the kids to drink  in other words, something for everyone!

What to Do

Our first stop in Sonoma was Cornerstone Gardens, a super kid-friendy and beautifully manicured garden that had my kids exclaiming at every turn. We loved everything, from the field of pinwheels to the "white cloud" hanging over the prickly pear garden. There was so much open lawn space for the kids to chase each other and do cartwheels on. And after you've had your fill of the garden, there are about a dozen small shops, eateries and tasting rooms to explore on the premises.

Sonoma Plaza is definitely a draw for tourists, but it's got a charming, neighborhood-y feel to it as well. My kids loved playing in the park at the center of the plaza, especially on the playground and by the duck pond, where we spotted several ducklings. I loved the sculptures of deer scattered in one corner of the park. (There's a public restroom there, as well, which came in handy!) Surrounding the park are many charming restaurants and stores, including Sweet Scoops, the homemade ice cream shop that's definitely worth a stop.

Our favorite activity of the weekend turned out to be a one-and-a-half hour, family-friendly bike ride through Sonoma's adorable neighborhoods and vineyard-lined roads. We rented bikes from Sonoma Valley Bike Tours (there are kid-size ones, plus tag-alongs and trailers), then took off from the shop, through quaint residential blocks and past picturesque vineyard parcels. The shop attendant provided us with a map of several scenic route options, and we customized it to our kids' riding abilities.

In Sonoma there's also a small, train-themed amusement park called TrainTown, but its target audience is smaller children (probably no older than 6) and die-hard train enthusiasts, so we ended up skipping it.

And, of course, it's hard to visit Sonoma without considering a winery tour; Sonoma Magazine has some suggestions for kid-friendly ones. Realistically, though, winery tours are just not all that interesting to kids. We took the tram tour at Benziger Family Winery, which might've been lovely and informative, but we were too distracted by our complaining children. Maybe we'll return when they're older and more interested in wining than whining!

Where to Eat

The first restaurant we ate at near town square was The Red Grape, and I can't recommend it highly enough. It's pure Sonoma, from the tranquil outdoor space to the cups of 100 percent grape juice that come with the kids' menu. My husband's pizza looked delish, and my handmade capellini was amazing. We could've just sat out under the string of patio lights all evening.

We also had a tasty brunch at the Sunflower Caffe, featuring another gorgeous and Sonoma-esque patio in the back, and Taste of the Himalayas, a tiny eatery tucked into one of the alleys that beckon off the square. Himalayan food (very similar to Indian food) was a nice respite from all the sourdough sandwiches and mesclun salads.

What's Nearby

About 45 minutes north of Sonoma, in Santa Rosa, is Safari West, a truly wonderful animal sanctuary that's open to visitors by reservation only. The 400-acre preserve offers a two-hour safari tour that takes you through the gates of the animal habitats and right up to several species of African wildlife, from giraffes to rhinos to zebra. Our guide, Jessica, was super knowledgeable and affable, answering all our questions and giving everyone on board a turn at the coveted seats on the top of her retrofitted 1950s truck. After the tour, we stayed for the buffet barbecue lunch, which was absolutely delicious. Just go!

And about 45 minutes east of Sonoma, in Fairfield, is the Jelly Belly Factory, a fantastic factory tour that offers free admission. (Of course, we ended up spending way more than we should've on candy after the tour because we felt like we were getting in for free anyway!) This is one of the better factory tours that I've been on, showing you the whole operation floor and featuring cute, informative games along the way. On the way out, they offer a free bag of jelly beans. And if that weren't enough, you can try unlimited flavors at the sampling station. We were all pretty happy with the experience.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Palm Springs, California

We spent spring break in Palm Springs, which was my first time visiting a desert. They say the dry heat isn't so bad, and it's true. It was in the low 90s during our visit, and we were able to withstand it just fine, so long as we didn't stand directly under the sun. Of course, much of our time was still spent in the pool. If you're thinking of vacationing in Palm Springs with kids, plan to do any outdoor activities in the early morning, then jumping into the hotel pool after lunch and spending the rest of the day there.

Where to Stay

We were traveling with my cousin's family and everyone wanted a hotel with a nice pool, since we figured we'd be spending the majority of our time there. We ended up choosing the Marriott Desert Springs Villas I in Palm Desert (a suburb of Palm Springs) because it had not just one, but seven pools, plus access to the pools at the adjacent JW Marriott. With the poolside dining, you really never had to leave the area.

In addition to the luxurious pools, the villa we stayed in was absolutely beautiful, with plenty of space and all the trappings of home (including an in-room washer and dryer set, which, if you ask me, is vacation gold!). I've never been more comfortable in a hotel room. It truly felt like home.

What to Do

One of the big reasons we wanted to vacation in Palm Springs was to check out nearby Joshua Tree National Park. After visiting Yellowstone a couple of year ago, we've been on a national park kick (Zion and Bryce Canyon are planned for this summer), and Joshua Tree seemed like an interesting one to experience. And it did turn out to be an oddly beautiful park, full of weird and wonderful things to see. My advice is to go first thing in the morning (the park opens at 8), do a hike or two, maybe have a picnic lunch, and then get out by 1pm. It starts getting really hot around noon, and there is very little shade.

Our game plan was this: Enter the park from the west entrance, hike the popular and easy Hidden Valley Trail, maybe hike Barker Dam if everyone was still in good spirits, make a stop at Skull Rock (pictured below) for photos, check out the Cholla Cactus Garden, then exit through the south entrance. We managed to do everything except for the Barker Dam. Along the way, the drive through the park is incredibly scenic, with fields of Joshua trees as far as the eye can see (they almost look like people standing very still in the desert), and mountains of rocks and boulders looming in the background. Here's a good map of the park.

The Hidden Valley Trail is the most popular hike, located not far from the north and west entrances, and it's an easy 1 mile loop. What makes it fun are the boulders along the way, which the kids loved to climb. You could avoid them altogether and just stick to the sandy path, but all my kids talked about afterwards with their cousins was the fun rock scrambling, so that's the real appeal of this trail.

By the time we got to the Cholla Cactus Garden it was nearing 2pm and way too hot to hike without shade. So we just wandered up the path for a few minutes, took some photos with the adorable cholla cacti and then turned around. If you can get there earlier, this should be an easy and scenic hike.

Another morning, we visited the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert. I recommend shelling out for the Total Adventure Package, which includes unlimited giraffe and lorikeet feedings, camel rides, and carousel rides. You're going to end up paying for each of these activities anyway, so you might as well buy the package, which saves you a bit of money and lets you do each activity more than once. My favorite was the giraffe feeding, where each person is given three carrot sticks to offer. The giraffes grab the carrots from you with their long, curling tongues.

One attraction in Palm Springs that we didn't get to was the Aerial Tramway. The tram ascends more than 2.5 miles up a canyon and drops you off at Mt. San Jacinto State Park, where there are plenty of hiking trails to explore. Next time!

Where to Eat

I had many highly-rated places to eat on our itinerary (including El Ranchito Taco Shop, Wilma & Frieda, and Smoke Tree BBQ), but because we were traveling with a large group that included five kids, most of the time fast food was all we could manage  mostly In-N-Out Burger, which is always intriguing to those of us from the East Coast. On days when we couldn't get ourselves off the hotel premises, we dined al fresco at the JW Marriott's Rockwood Grill, where the food was excellent.

What's Nearby

As part of our Palm Springs vacation, we spent some time in Los Angeles and Anaheim, both about two hours away. In Anaheim, we visited Disneyland and California Adventure. I actually prefer this version of Disney to the one in Orlando, which can get really overwhelming, really fast. Magic Bands are not yet a thing at Disneyland, and maybe that's a good thing. You don't need to spend a week of your life planning for a visit to these parks, as you would for Disney World (although here's my primer for that, if you're interested). For Disneyland, just read up on the rides and shows a bit so you're not wandering aimlessly through the parks, and head on in for some low-key Disney magic.

In L.A., we spent a day at the Getty Museum, which totally exceeded my expectations. Art museums are always a tough sell with kids, but this one is located on beautiful grounds that encourage exploration and even running (and rolling) around on. There's also the tram ride that takes you up the hillside and overlooks what seems like all of Los Angeles.

And, of course, there's the actual artwork. The Getty Museum houses several world-renowned Impressionist paintings that are exciting to see in person and fun to copy. Whenever we visit an art museum, I supply the kids with sketch pads and colored pencils so they can copy their favorite pieces. It's a great way to get them to engage with the artwork in a memorable and meaningful way, and it keeps them busy for at least 20 minutes so you have some time to relax and enjoy the artwork as well.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Oahu, Hawaii

We visited Oahu during the second half of our Hawaiian vacation (Maui was our first stop). Comparing the two, I'd describe Oahu as the Disney World version of Hawaii. If you've never been to the state before and you're choosing between the islands, Oahu is the perfect place to start because it offers a taste of everything in a commercial and easily accessible way. And when you're traveling with kids, sometimes that's exactly what you want.

Where to Stay

We stayed in two different parts of Oahu, starting at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort in bustling Waikiki. The hotel is excellent  well priced yet posh, and within walking distance of great food. We loved the free activities that Outrigger offered, like the lei-making class. As a bonus, there's a great view of the Hilton Hawaiian Village's fireworks every Friday night from Outrigger's beach.

After a couple of days in Waikiki, we drove up to the North Coast of Oahu, which is decidedly more tranquil and tropical. We stayed at the vast Turtle Bay Resort, which offers everything from horseback riding to biking to snorkeling on the grounds. Turtle Bay is where movies and shows like Hawaii 5-0 and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are filmed when producers are looking for an iconic Hawaiian setting. Not to date myself, but the episode of Full House where the Tanner family goes to Hawaii was also filmed at Turtle Bay!

Where to Eat

We had so much good food in Waikiki. Our first meal was at Marukame Udon, an excellent Japanese restaurant with delicious udon options, a tempura self-serve bar, plus extras like spam musubi and rice balls. Get there before 5:30 for dinner, or be prepared to wait on a line that snakes down the street. Another great Asian option is Poke Bar, with its fresh, quality fish and myriad of optional toppings. My bowl was so good, I ended up coming back for a second meal the next day.

My husband and kids don't enjoy (or even tolerate) raw fish, so they got delicious-looking takeout spaghetti and pizza from Arancino, one block over, instead.

We ate lunch one day at a food truck court near our hotel called Pua Hana Market Waikiki. My husband picked up this adorable barbecue chicken bowl, while I had some excellent lemon butter shrimp and the kids ate ramen. Everyone was happy.

On the North Coast, we dined at more food trucks, since they're well known for their freshly caught shrimp up there. I waited on a massive line to try the shrimp at Giovanni's, while my husband got some brisket over rice at HI-BBQ. Everything was absolutely worth the wait. For another meal, we stopped at Ted's Bakery to try the Hawaiian dish loco moco, which is basically a hamburger and fried egg over rice, smothered in a thick brown gravy. If that's not heavy enough for you, the dish comes with a requisite side of macaroni salad.

What to Do: Waikiki

After experiencing the laid-back wonders of Maui along the Road to Hana and up to Haleakala, I was expecting the attractions in Waikiki to be similarly relaxing. Wrong! Here, you need to get everywhere super early, or be prepared to fight the crowds. Our first inkling of this was at Diamond Head State Monument, where we hiked up the side of the famous crater, single file, along with hundreds of other tourists.

The hike was much tougher than I anticipated, as you're basically switchbacking upwards for half the trip, but we did manage to get up and down with the kids in about an hour and a half. Another reason to go early is to avoid the afternoon sun, as at some points during the hike there's no shade at all. The views from the top, however, are stunning.

We learned our lesson and got to Hanauma Bay much earlier the next day. The bay is famous for its rich snorkeling, but if you don't arrive by 7:30am, there may be no parking spots left. We bought all our snorkeling gear at an ABC convenience store near our hotel, which was cheaper than renting at the bay.

What we didn't do, but should've, was bring all of our beach gear, since the bay is basically a beautiful sandy beach with the added bonus of tons of colorful fish and coral in the water. The kids and I were satisfied to wade out a few feet and spot the stray fish here and there, but my husband swam out and said he saw literally hundreds of beautiful fish swimming right under him.

The kids were really interested in riding in a submarine, so I booked an excursion with Atlantis Adventures, which operates on both Oahu and Maui. The activity has its pros and cons. Pros: The crew is highly trained and very entertaining. The kids were given booklets that explained the science of submarines and diving, and it included a checklist that depicted all the sea creatures they might spot. You also have to take a boat out to the dive location, so the excursion includes a relaxing 10-minute boat ride. Cons: It is a very expensive activity (although I'm sure operating a submarine costs a lot). We saw plenty of fish and even a couple of turtles, but the water is murky and color is mostly lost at that depth, so it was kind of like viewing the ocean through a blue-and-white screen.

Snorkeling is a much more thrilling fish-watching experience. Still, the kids said they had fun and wished the excursion was longer, so I guess some of us had a better time than others.

What to Do: North Coast

My favorite activity in Oahu was the Polynesian Cultural Center, located in the North Coast (about 50 minutes from Honolulu). It's basically a theme park based on the history and culture of the Pacific Islands. The park is divided into six areas (Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Tahiti and Aotearoa), each featuring its own show and hands-on activities. We were at the park from opening to close, and in that time learned how to play the ukulele, throw a spear, dance the hula, fish with a bamboo pole, and start a fire in under a minute (really!).

Other activities that we fit in included a breathtaking 4D movie about Hawaii, a traditional Hawaiian luau, and an almost two-hour Broadway-quality production called Ha: Breath of Life that included singing, dancing and an amazing fire show. All in all, the trip to the Polynesian Cultural Center made for a long, fun day, and we learned a lot about Pacific Island life to boot.

At Turtle Bay, we booked a trail ride with the on-site stable, which is open to the public. It was lovely to ride our horses along the beach and through the grounds, even in the rain. My kids' horses were gentle and well-trained, and the 45 minutes went by too quickly. I also liked that the horses seemed healthy and well cared for. Several of them have even appeared in the movies and TV shows that get filmed here; we were told that my husband's horse, Tom, had a big role in the movie Open Range!

On our last day in the North Coast, we decided to do the smoothie tour at nearby Kahuku Farms. The tour is a half-hour, tractor-pulled wagon ride through a working farm, and you get smoothies made from the fruits grown on premises afterwards. It's informative and interesting (I'll never take bananas for granted again), and our tour guide couldn't be more amiable, but the activity is mainly geared toward adults, as there are no hands-on activities like fruit-picking or animal-petting involved. But the kids did enjoy turning cartwheels on the wide open field by the cafe area, where we ate the most delicious vegetable panini I've ever come across.

One place I had on our itinerary but we didn't get to visit on account of the rain is the Dole Plantation, located about halfway between Honolulu and the North Coast. Here you can take a pineapple train and plantation tour, wander through a pineapple garden maze, and taste the famous Dole whip that everyone's so obsessed with. Next time!

What's Nearby

We started off our Hawaii vacation in Maui, and it is truly beautiful there  probably what you're imagining when you think of Hawaii. The attractions are more natural and not so much built for the sake of luring tourists (although plenty of tourists visit them). We did a lot of driving, from the Road to Hana to the top of Haleakala, and it was all totally doable with kids. Here is my itinerary for that leg of the trip.