Summer is here, the kids are getting out of school, and we’re looking forward to traveling with our grandkids, nieces and nephews.
Last year, we took our then seven-year-old grandson Braden to Nashville, TN and Space Camp in Huntsville, AL. We had a fantastic time and we are already planning to take Braden, (now eight) and his six-year-oldbrother Hill, to Sedona and the Grand Canyon later this summer.
While we finish planning for this year’s trip to the Southwest, and I post a long-overdue story about our Space Camp trip, I thought I’d repost an adventure we had last year with our then 12-year-old niece, and the lessons I – yes, me – learned:
Giving Kids the Gift of Travel
Over the years, we have been working to give the kids in our lives more experiences and fewer things as gifts. This year, we gave our niece a trip to Universal Studios for Christmas. I hoped she’d have fun, make memories and maybe learn a few valuable life lessons.
I planned out what I thought would be a perfect weekend that started with picking Alexandra up from school early on Friday afternoon. We flew out of Oakland International on Southwest Airlines into the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, two of the easiest California airports to navigate, at any age.
Given that my eldest step-daughter lives in Los Angeles, is the wonderful fun Mom of three kids and has fabulous taste, she gave me great recommendations for our weekend itinerary which began with dinner at Casa Vega, an institution in Sherman Oaks. It’s a funky, Mexican restaurant with Christmas lights decorating the bar area, old red leather booths, young hipsters slumming with older regulars and waiters in formal attire. It is also known as a great spot for star sightings. What a hit. The moment we walked in, our niece gasped, “I love it.”
Throughout dinner, I was hoping to spot a famous face. No luck. After dinner, my niece and I took a walk to the bathroom in hopes of snagging a peek at someone famous tucked in a dark corner. No luck. We headed for the parking lot and as I reached to open the door, it opened up and MATT DAMON and his wife walked in! Huge thrill for her – OK, for me too. Big time.
We stayed at the Beverly Garland Hotel in a Kid Suite in Studio City. I was very disappointed in the room. Turns out that the photography on the website is so good, the rooms looked much brighter, newer, and fresher than they really are. I was told that they are going through a remodel and the rooms should look terrific in real life soon. (UPDATE, June ’15: The renovation at The Garland has taken place and the rooms look absolutely fantastic – fresh, modern and airy! See photo above.) The staff was really wonderful and helpful and our niece loved having her own little “room” with a bunk bed and TV. Their restaurant was clean, modern with unbelievably friendly service and terrific food.
After Saturday breakfast, we hopped on the hotel’s free shuttle for the brief ride to Universal Studios for the day, and we had a blast. The first stop was the Studio Tour, which as a maniacal movie fan, was right up my alley. A spunky guide gave an informative, occasionally funny, well-scripted tour through the studio lot, which included an exceedingly realistic King Kong “ride” in 3D. It was interesting to see the fake city streets, and learn how the flat buildings are painted using trompe l’oeil, to give viewers the perception of depth. I would’ve loved lots more history and lore, but I’m a raging Hollywood history and trivia geek.
The Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride wasn’t open and the Water World ride was closed during our visit, but we did The Simpsons, Revenge of the Mummy (which had cool live characters wandering the streets), Shrek, Transformers, Jurassic Park and the Special Effects Stage (not as cool as it should be – what a huge missed opportunity). The rides were fun for a chicken like me because they rely mostly on 3-D to give the sensation of moving instead of actually hurtling through space. For real thrill-seekers like my hubby and our niece, the rides were fun, but a bit tame.
As you’d expect, there are countless opportunities to buy Universal Studios-themed land-fill crap. We got away with purchasing just one Minion – a little one who didn’t make this picture – and we just posed with the other stuff.
So long, Universal Studios (Notice the tiny, little Minion Alexandra did take home? She named him Joe.)
Dinner that night was at Pace Restaurant, another marvelous recommendation by my step-daughter. One step in this lovely, nearly-hidden unexpected spot in the hills and I was brought back to the days when Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash were living together in this artsy, rustic Lauren Canyon community and songs like “Our House,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Let It Be,”(oh my gosh, I was in LOVE with Paul in 5th grade – those eyes!) “Both Sides Now,” and “A Case of You” were on the radio.
It’s beyond romantic, and my nostalgia for the old hippy days of my childhood made everything all the sweeter. The food was perfect – Alexandra loved the butternut squash ravioli, I had the cedar wood grilled salmon and Patrick had his favorite, linguini alle vongole and we shared the chocolate lava cake for dessert. The one drawback was that it was so loud in this little room, conversation was nearly impossible.
Unfortunately, the gridlock traffic from the Los Angeles Marathon put an end to my plans. We sat in traffic for two hours before we finally gave up and drove back to the Valley. We were lucky and found a surprisingly good spot for brunch at Vivian’s Millennium Cafe on Ventura Boulevard.
The funny thing about hanging out with kids is that often you are the one learning the lessons. While I was sputtering and fuming about my dashed plans and about the personal injustice I was forced to endure at the hands of LA traffic, Alexandra simply lived in the present and made the best of the day. I think she had as much fun at Vivian’s and then strolling through Urban Outfitters in Burbank as she would’ve had with the day I had planned.
One thing I know is that she’ll remember our adventure together, and I’ll remember the wisdom of living in the moment and rolling with life’s punches.
P.S. During the hours we spent in Los Angeles traffic on that trip, we stopped for gas, and a helpful guy suggested I get the waze app. It crowd-sources traffic information from fellow users, so the app is able to select the fastest route to get you to your destination. I use it all the time now and I just love it. The app gives you an ETA based on traffic, it gives you a selection of alternate routes with mileage and ETAs for each, you are alerted to upcoming traffic jams, police, accidents, the cheapest gas options and hazards.