Why I Love Big, Complicated Cities

West Side of Manhattan

West Side of Manhattan, Present Day

An article on hiking Paris’ Petite Ceinture reminded me of the unique types of adventures offered by big, complicated cities.

About 35 years ago, I made the most incredible discovery on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

It had been an emotional day and I desperately needed to try something a bit wicked. I decided to explore an area of the city my Upper East Side borne father had forbid me to visit.

“The West Side is a bad neighborhood!” warned my dad.

What better way to pique my curiosity! I headed over to the old Penn Central Railroad yards. Besides being forbidden fruit, I liked that the space was undeveloped and right next to the Hudson River.

After walking awhile, a mirage-like structure appeared in the midst of block after block of weed-strewn emptiness. It was a good-sized chain link fence enclosure covered in ivy. I wiped my eyes in disbelief and marched closer to look inside. It was inhabited! There was a trim, dark-haired guy in his early 70s sitting in the midst of a beautiful garden.

He greeted me, opened the gate, and invited me in. After giving me the grand tour (which included his prized tomato plants), he then offered me a seat and asked if I wanted a drink. “Sure,” I replied, expecting him to fetch some beverage out of a typical Styrofoam picnic cooler. Instead, he reached down to locate a large metal ring attached to a small square door covered in grass. It turned out that his urban oasis was complete with private wine cellar!

Of course, anyone brave enough to carve out a place of respite in a borough known for chaos, had to be a bit of a character. After we talked for a while, he asked if I wanted to see what the garden looked like in other seasons. “Sure!” I said, and he handed me a pile of photos. I caught him watching me carefully (with a twinkle in his eye) while I was shuffling through the pictures, obviously waiting for me to get to one particular snowy shot. I’m sure my reaction didn’t disappoint upon finding the nudie picture: a beautiful blond posing in the garden wearing a fur coat opened wide to artistically show off her curvy naked torso.

The rest of the time we spent talking and sipping wine and enjoying the kind of leisurely afternoon one expects to find in Tuscany rather than Manhattan. When I left a few hours later, I had a new found respect for the hidden treasures of a large, complicated city.

Posted in New York, Urban Adventure | Leave a comment

Walking New York’s High Line Park is Like Hiking Utah’s Zion Narrows

New York's Beautiful and Unusual High Line Park

Walking New York’s most innovative park, the High Line, reminded me of a hike I took last summer in Zion National Park.

Although Manhattan’s elevated promenade doesn’t require the Zion Narrows’ tricky navigation through a swift flowing river, both popular trails have a lot of similarities.


The Zion Narrows in Zion National Park

Relaxing on the Zion Narrows Hike

The Zion Narrows in Utah’s Zion National Park is one of the most unusual trails in the world. Most of the hike is in rocky, swift flowing water that can be quite hard to navigate and some of the hike involves swimming. But the reward for those who attempt even part of this world famous adventure is awe-inspiring scenery that includes 2,000 foot high sandstone walls, sculpted grottoes, and hanging gardens.

The High Line in New York City

Elevated High Line Railway before Renovation

The High Line, of course, is man-made. Formerly an elevated freight railroad that serviced warehouses in the meatpacking district, the historic steel structure was rescued from imminent demolition and re-purposed into a beautifully landscaped urban park. The first section, from Gansevort to West 20th Street, opened to much acclaim in 2009; the newest section, continuing the park to 30th Street, opened in June of 2011.

Still, I was struck by their many similarities:

Both Are Popular Trails with Peaceful Canyons

Zion Narrows Sandstone Canyons

High Lines' Tall Buildings Create a Canyon










Both Present Interesting Features

The Sculpted Grottoes of the Narrows

Artistic Bird Feeder on High Line

Both Allow Serene Views and Quiet Contemplation

Taking a Break on Zion's Wall Street

Taking in the Street Scene from High Line Park









Both Have Beautiful Foliage

Beginning of the Zion Narrows Trail

The High Line has Beautiful Landscaping

Both Are Dynamic Landscapes

Zion's Virgin River Flows Swiftly Through the Narrows

High Line Park Shows its Railroad Roots in Spots










The High Line Park is an Awesome Accomplishment

The fact that an urban park in New York City can be as soothing to me as a national park in pastoral Utah is a testament to the success of the design!

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Safe Playgrounds Often Too Boring

My two-year-old son and daughter positively loved the large tower slides at Play Circle in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens, so I was surprised to learn we were five years too early, according to a plaque that noted the structure’s suitability for kids seven through twelve.  I thought it was developmentally important for my children to be physically challenged, so we tended to hang out in pre-renovated playgrounds with equipment intended for older children that had not yet yielded to safety-first legislation.

Enjoying a Tall Slide in NYC's Ancient Playground








Finally, my instincts have been validated. Experts are now questioning the value of super-safe playgrounds, according to a recent article by John Tierney, “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” (7/18/11 New York Times), saying that a little danger on the playground can help children conquer fears and develop mastery.


Hanging Outside the Play Tower at Yerba Buena







I had figured this out on my own. Whenever my precocious climbers got themselves into a fix where they asked for assistance getting down, I gave them the following pep talk rather than a helping hand. “You got up there OK by yourself, you can get down OK by yourself. I know you can do it.”

Challenging Communist Era Playground in Prague










Part of it was instinct (I had survived high monkey bars, as had everyone I knew) and part of it was necessity – parents of twins have to give up a lot of control because they just can’t be in two places at once. Although a few times other parents looked at me like I was a drill sergeant, they were quite impressed at the wide grins that resulted from my kids’ exalted sense of accomplishment.

Posted in Travel with young kids | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Family Reunion on Alaskan Cruise Ship

A  November 2010 New York Times Travel Section article, 7 Caribbean Resorts that Go All Out for Families, extolled the virtues of child-friendly Caribbean resorts that provide nannies as well as plenty of kid-centric activities. This type of vacation was never our family’s style, but we put our preferences aside to take just this kind of trip on a cruise boat to Alaska when Allan’s mom’s turned 80.
Alaskan glaciers seen from the ship

For her present, Lillian had requested a trip with her sons and grandchildren. Because her mobility was limited, we wouldn’t be able to do our typical adventures. She proposed the cruise as a compromise. We could spend time with her at meals and while the ship was moving but once the ship docked at a port, we could go off on our adventures while she relaxed in her cabin. It seemed like as “win-win” an idea as we were going to get.

Kids explore Alaskan port of call with faithful friends

We were skeptical, however, when Lillian suggested the children could attend the ship’s Kids Club so we could get some much-needed alone time. Because our then six-year-olds despised going to their school’s after care program, we assumed they would feel similarly about the ship’s kid care option. Much to our surprise, they ended up loving it, eagerly going twice a day. They even went to a few children-only dinners with their group, waving to us proudly from across the room.

Kids loved their parent-free dinners

The plan was working better than we dared hope. Grandmas was enjoying both her time with the children and her time alone; the kids were enjoying time with grandma, time with other kids, and time with mom and dad. The four of us plus Uncle Martin were seeing picturesque Alaskan towns at each port-of-call.

The birthday girl happily stayed on the ship

The only problem was that Allan and I were miserable! We were seasick on top of having caught some kind of stomach bug and spent a lot of time being nauseous. This meant sometimes skipping the ship’s sumptuous buffet to subsist on saltine crackers. I remember trying to watch glaciers calving (breaking off) in the distance from the ship’s deck, and ending up flopping back down in a deck chair.We also felt very claustrophobic on a boat and very removed from the sights we were seeing.

But this trip wasn’t about us. After five days,the ship reached its destination and we said goodbye to Lillian and Martin. They were going back home and we were heading to Anchorage via a rental car. Allan and I were finally feeling better and were certainly more comfortable traveling about on our own.

But we will never forget how happy we made Lillian–giving her exactly the birthday present she wanted.

Posted in Travel with young kids, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

Getting Around with Young Children While Traveling

Getting around with young children comfortably takes equipment. Following are our experiences with gear we found essential when traveling with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.
Getting Around with Babies
My husband and I were truly surprised at how happy our three-month-old babies were seeing the city of Vancouver from the comfort of their Baby Bjorns. The padded fabric front carriers left our hands free for securely holding onto a public transit pole or consulting a map and our kids loved looking at tall buildings and the people on the monorail. At the very least, both babies loved being snugly attached to their happy parents! 

Babies Love Looking Out from Front Carriers
Getting Around with Toddlers
The amount of bulky baby gear we took to visit Prague and Budapest for two weeks with two eighteen-month-olds was staggering. We took two car seats, a folding McLaren double stroller, and two backpack child carriers. When the small taxi sent from our hotel arrived at the airport, we were actually glad the airline had misplaced one of our bags (which was delivered to our hotel later) because it wouldn’t have fit in the tiny trunk.
We absolutely used every bit of equipment. The car seats we used in the plane to keep both kids (and us) comfortable on a long flight; the stroller was good for naps on the go, served as a high chair in a pinch, and enabled one parent to take both kids on solo jaunts. The backpack child carriers were very useful when walking on ancient cobblestone streets or unpaved roads.
Backpack Carrier in Front of John Lennon Memorial in Prague

Getting Around with Preschoolers

When traveling around Turkey with two-year-olds, the double stroller allowed both kids to easily get out and run around to kick the soccer ball we kept in a string bag draped over the handles of the stroller.  (Having kids burn off energy increases parents’ chances of being able to sight-see peacefully.) 

Stroller in Front of Budapest Parliment
Although we still used a stroller occasionally in Australia with our three-year-old preschoolers (finding that streetcars allowed open strollers to board in the rear), we found that the backpack carriers were indispensable because they enabled us to take many spectacular hikes in national parks on remote dirt trails. We also carried booster seats to use when driving around the country and to facilitate naps on the long plane flight to and from America.
Lugging all the baby gear (front carriers, car seats, backpack carriers, double stroller, booster seats) on vacation was surely cumbersome, but each piece served its purpose and allowed us more flexibility while traveling.
Posted in Eastern Europe with kids, Getting around with kids, kid equipment | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Taking Kids on Public Transit is Easier Outside the United States

My mother routinely took three kids and a large clunky carriage on the New York City subway by herself, waiting at the top of the stairs for kind fellow travelers to help carry it up and down. You would think that taking a compact, twenty-first century stroller on the Muni Metro in “Transit First” San Francisco would pose no problem.
Sadly, even in a city where buses have been retrofitted to carry bicycles on the front, many transit operators (and fellow passengers) act like any parent taking kids on the bus must have left the SUV at home for the day. 

The good news is that it is usually far easier to take kids on public transit once you leave the auto-dependent United States. Countries that impose heavy taxes on gasoline understand that citizens of all ages have little alternative to relying on transit, so they are much more accommodating to families traveling via bus, subway, or streetcar.

Streetcar in Australia

We found this to be the case everywhere we visited. On streetcars in Prague, we saw a decal of a baby in a carriage near the rear door. Even though we didn’t speak the language, we understood it meant that caregivers with strollers were welcome to board there. Traveling on the elevator-free subway in Budapest, we were stopped by a couple of humorless fare inspectors who asked us to show proof that we paid our fare. Of course, they had no problem with us taking an open double stroller on the Metro.
Taking young kids on public transit is a great way to see a city. Parents avoid the stress of driving and parking in a congested area, children get exposed to an environmentally-friendly form of transportation, and everyone benefits from one less car on the road.
Posted in Australian with kids, Eastern Europe with kids, Getting around with kids, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Customer Service in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a great vacation destination with kids. We went for two weeks in 2006 and relaxed on its warm, beautiful beaches; explored the flora and fauna of the cloud forest at Monteverde and the area near the Arenal volcano: and enjoyed thrilling adventures such as zip lining through the jungle canopy.