Sunday, September 08, 2013

Ask Cloud: Travel Ideas

I have a different sort of Ask Cloud question, from longtime reader Zenmoo:

My brother is getting married in Ottawa in very early June next year so we're just starting to plan our trip over to North America. I think we'll probably come over to Canada &/or the US for a 7 to 10 day holiday before heading to Ottawa so we're recovered from the travel before the wedding.

I've visited the US twice before - once when I was eight and we visited Disneyland, San Francisco and the area around Grand Junction, Colorado. The second time I was 16 and went on a school trip to New York - so not exactly recently! My husband has only transited through LAX and isn't terribly excited about repeating the experience.

I have a few ideas at the moment - but I thought I'd ask if you would do an 'Ask Cloud' for a few more!

My starting criteria are:
1. We'd prefer outdoorsy, scenic areas to large cities - our main interests are hiking & good food.
2. We'll have a four year old with us.
3. We don't want to pack & re-pack every day so we're thinking of either being based in one place with a reasonable amount of stuff to do within a 2hr drive for day trips OR hiring a motorhome and hitting the road.

My ideas so far ...
1. road trip in California (eg to Napa Valley, Yosemite),
2. flying to Salt Lake City and a road trip up to Yellowstone and back to Denver
3. A cabin in Vermont

I'm totally open to other ideas though - especially places that are less well known and might be a bit more relaxing!

Anyway, no hurry on it and only if it suits your posting schedule but it'd be great to get some advice from you & your readers!

I love thinking about travel ideas, so even though it has taken me a while to answer this question, I have been thinking about it off and on since I got the email.

One possibility is to make it an entirely Canadian vacation, and spend some time in Vancouver. I'd include a trip to Vancouver Island, both for Victoria and to visit the Buchart Gardens, which are beautiful. On the mainland, Stanley Park in Vancouver is very nice and there is some easy but nice hiking within a short drive. Mr. Snarky and I visited back before we got married, and we had a great time. I think it would work reasonably well with a kid in tow, too. We spent a couple of nights over on Vancouver Island, rented bikes and rode around Stanley Park, did a couple of hikes, and also had a good time exploring the city.

Another possibility would be to fly up to Portland, and explore Oregon. Portland is a fun city to visit with a kid, and Oregon is beautiful. You would have no trouble finding some nice hikes there. We had a great time on our visit there back when Pumpkin was about two. It rains a lot there, though, so you'd want to plan for rain and just be pleasantly surprised if you got sun.

Flying into San Francisco and exploring Northern California is a great idea. The redwoods are easily accessibly from San Francisco and they truly are awe-inspiring. I have never done the Napa road trip myself (it is on the list...) but I have several friends who have, and they all say it is a lot of fun. I know you are after outdoorsy more than city, but if you do fly into San Francisco, I think you'd be happy if you gave yourself a couple of days to explore it. It is a great city, with a very different feel from any other American city. You can plan in a trip to Golden Gate Park to get some outdoor time in the city- it is large and wonderful.

I also have several ideas around flying into LAX. Your husband is right, transiting through LAX is horrible. However, actually arriving in LAX is not so bad.

LAX itinerary 1: Rent a car and drive to Newport Beach. Stay at the Hyatt Back Bay, from which you can walk over to a kayak rental place and kayak the estuary. If you are inclined to see Disneyland, you could easily drive over to it for a day. After a few days in Orange County, drive to Las Vegas. This is a long drive, but doable in a day. Spend one night in Vegas, see the fountains at Bellagio and be thankful your child can't read the fliers advertising all sorts of things you don't really want to explain to a small child. You can definitely find some great food in Vegas, too. Then drive to Zion National Park, in Utah. Parts of this drive are beautiful, and the park itself is absolutely gorgeous with wonderful hiking opportunities. I do not think there is scenery like it anywhere in New Zealand or Australia, but I have not explored western Australia, so maybe there is something close there. It will be a little warm in June, though, so only take this option if you don't mind hiking in heat. We stayed at the Cable Mountain Lodge, which gave us lots of space and enabled us to walk directly into the park or into the village for meals. Stay a couple of nights at Zion, and then drive back to Las Vegas to fly on to your wedding.

LAX itinerary 2: Arrive in LAX, rent a car, and stay one night to get acclimated. Marina del Rey is a nice area not far from the airport, from which you can walk to Venice Beach if you'd like. Strolling the back canals of Venice Beach is pretty cool, actually. Then drive to Santa Barbara or to some place on the central coast. We really liked Morro Bay. There is a lot of beautiful scenery in that area, and you are sure to find some good hiking. You can stop in Solvang on your way up if you want to see a classic American kitsch town- it styles itself as a Danish town. Depending on how much time you Drive on to Monterey, where there are more nice hikes and a great aquarium. If you get lucky with the weather, the drive is also gorgeous. Even though you're doing it in the wrong direction (most people try to drive south, so that they are on the side of the road by the ocean), it will still be pretty. You could also choose to stay in Big Sur or somewhere near there, where there is supposed to be wonderful hiking. I've never done that, though, so can't give advice. Drive on to San Jose or San Francisco to fly out.

LAX itinerary 3: Arrive in LAX, and drive or take the train down to the San Diego area. Since you're after outdoorsy activities, I'd stay in north county, maybe in Leucadia for a beach town feel. Visit Legoland, which your daughter would be the perfect age to enjoy. Hike at Torrey Pines State Beach. If you want more hiking, you can drive inland to Julian, which is a cute little mountain tourist trap, with great apple pies and some nice hikes nearby.  If you decide on this option, write for more detailed ideas- I have a lot of recommendations for things to do in San Diego beyond the Zoo and Sea World. I should write some more San Diego posts- the Birch Aquarium, dinner in Old Town, various fun things to do in Balboa Park beyond the Zoo...

Those are my ideas. What other ideas do the rest of you have for Zenmoo?


  1. I grew up near Nor Cal, went to school in Colorado and now live in LAX area. I have strong opinions about this.

    Is avoidance of packing and unpacking really worth driving 2 hrs each way per day for sightseeing?

    SLC to Yellowstone is actually not a bad idea, especially in a RV. But, I know from renting RVs in NZ and US, that the price of RV rentals in the US is shockingly higher than in NZ. You may want to invest in some packing cubes and stay in motels instead.

    Napa valley is over-rated and terrible with a 4-year old. Actually, I'm not even sure I would recommend it to anyone. If you want to visit wine country, consider Sonoma (which is becoming over-done like Napa) or Mendocino County's Anderson valley. CA's largest wine-growing region (by volume of wine) is the under-rated Livermore valley, home of Lawrence Livermore Nat'l Labs.

    You could fly to SFO, rent a car and take a road trip northwards. My husband and I really like a loop starting in Healdsberg and heading north on west dry creek, then Anderson valley, Mendocino coast, circling back via the Russian river.

    Yosemite in June should be gorgeous. It will be high season, crowded and expensive. But it is jaw-droppingly gorgeous in May and June, when the waterfalls are at their fullest and the meadows are abloom.

    LAX is a great place to visit with kids. I have written an entire series about LA Kids, things to do with kids around LA that cost little to no money. They are fun insider type things that I discovered from living and raising a kid here.
    Also look at my general Los Angeles tag for stuff for grown-ups.
    Also look at the food tag for restaurant recommendations.

    Marina del Rey is for upscale young singles looking to marry another CV. It is NOT recommended for young kids. Venice Beach is an outdoor pit toilet (but important historically and culturally). You should visit Venice Beach someday, but just not with a 4 yo.

    Your 4 yo will be much happier in the South Bay, (South of LAX). Hotel rooms are cheaper, the pace is quieter, hotels and restaurants are more child-friendly. It's also my home and I know from experience it is VERY child-friendly. Take a look at my beach photos. There's at least one happy kid in the background of all of them. Unlike north of LAX, you can actually park at the beach, access the beach and enjoy clean public restrooms.

    Let's just say that the culture of the south bay is very different than the "great wall of Malibu", where the 1% have locked the public out of 7 contiguous miles of public beaches and hire armed private security guards to intimidate and scare the public away.

    I've blogged on and on about the difference between the reality of LA and the Hollywood version. Your family will be much happier if you come with realistic expectations.

    I think Disneyland is magical with young kids. You can book a Disney package through their website with "good neighbor" hotels at all pricepoints and multi-day parkhopper tickets at pretty good prices. A friend recommends their lowest price option, Motel 6. I've dropped her off and picked her up there and it's very clean and well-located--a real bargain.

    1. Huh. I've stayed in Marina del Rey a couple of times, both times in a hotel right on the marina, and never noticed the pick up scene. There were families playing in the sand on the beachy part of the marina, and it seemed nice. I wouldn't stay there long on the sort of trip Zenmoo is planning, but as a stop near LAX to get over the long flight jet lag, I thought it would be good. Note that I only suggested it on the itinerary where they then drive north to Santa Barbara or the like. I am not familiar enough with the parts of LA that would be "on the way" to Santa Barbara, to make a recommendation for a one night stop to get acclimated. You arrive into LAX first thing in the morning- so I'm looking for something that is a short drive but close to things that would distract them for a day.

      Venice is a but grungy, but walking the back canals is nice. But... we stayed right down on the harbor in Auckland and walked past "gentleman's clubs" on our way to various sites, so perhaps we have a higher tolerance for that sort of thing than others would. However, I think the boardwalk in Venice would be more akin to strolling K road, which is NOT something we chose to do with the kids!

      Santa Monica, on the other hand... Mr. Snarky loves Santa Monica because it is the LA of the TV shows he watched growing up. I think a family would have fun there- you could go out on the pier (which has some carnival rides and vendors selling kitchsy souvenirs), the beach is pretty... But the hotels near the water are super expensive.

      I agree that Disneyland is magical with young kids. When we went this year, I expected Pumpkin to have fun. I was surprised by how much Petunia loved it.

      Zenmoo- Bad Mom, Good Mom's suggestions for South Bay LA are all great. We've explored it a little, but not enough with kids to have any recommendations- so if you're tempted by that idea, definitely check out her blog.

    2. Zenmoo3:34 PM

      Bad mom, good mom - thanks for the ideas! I would have no idea where to go in LA so will definitely check your blog out for ideas in South Bay. And I agree Disneyland is magic with little kids. We went to Disneyland when my family visited the US when I was 8 and I thought it was fantastic and we took my daughter to Tokyo Disneyland when we were there at Christmas last year and it was one of the highlights of the trip! A little odd to see Mickey talking Japanese but he was working his New Year's kimono with great style.

      And right, Venice Beach - off the list!

    3. Anonymous5:03 PM

      Yeah, Santa Monica is lovely but super expensive. I'm actually staying at one of the LAX hotels for a wedding in October, but hoping to do a day trip to Santa Monica just to eat. (Santa Monica and Westwood have amazing food, and if you can drive out to the East Asian suburbs, like Roland Heights, for Chinese, you're in for a real treat.)

      My friend that I'm sharing a room with made me check the bedbug registry before we could settle on a hotel. There's some pretty sketchy places in LA.

  2. If you go to Monterey, I recommend Elkhorn Slough - sea otters! I took a boat trip with Elkhorn Slough Safari and saw tonnes of wildlife (birds, seals, sea lions, otters), but you can also see the otters and sea lions from the shore.

    1. Zenmoo4:04 PM

      Oh sea otters! That would be very cool.

  3. Anonymous5:21 AM

    I highly recommend visiting Vancouver. We went with kids and everyone had a great time. Rent an apartment instead of a hotel - it's cheaper, you get bedrooms, and a kitchen so you can eat in more often (important with kids). Regardless, enjoy the trip!

  4. One thing I perhaps didn't discuss enough in the post is the fact that someone coming from New Zealand has a pretty high baseline for coastal scenery.

    For instance, when we drove south from Monterey, my husband was underwhelmed by the coastal drive. He called it "bog standard New Zealand scenery"- and he is right.

    In terms of seeing something different, a place like Zion is more likely to work. But since much of the West is desert or almost desert, in June the temperatures are a bit high!

    One thing you could do is get a "US National Parks" guide book, and look for something with scenery that tempts you and has temps in June that you think are reasonable for hiking.

    1. Yeah, I thought of that after. The desert is amazing in the US - I love the desert, and the parks in Utah are my favorites (I love New Mexico a lot too). It's my own prejudice, though, I don't think I would enjoy them so much with a small child. My kids are great hikers, but the little one just can't do the level of walking I'd want to do. But Zion and Bryce are worth it, if you can stand the schleping (long flight + long drive + another long drive and flight).

  5. Sarah (@SarahHCarl)7:20 AM

    This suggestion is totally different from what people have said before, but one of my personal favorite parts of the US is the Appalachian mountains in western North Carolina. They may not have the wow-factor of Zion National Park, but I think they're absolutely beautiful, and in June they'd be full of butterflies, wildflowers, and small waterfalls to visit. It should be warm but not too hot yet, and in the mountains there's almost always a nice breeze...

    Asheville, NC, could be a good home base to explore the area. It's a fun small city with great restaurants, and it's close to lots of beautiful hiking areas, like Cherokee National Forest ( and Dupont State Forest ( You could also look for a cabin to rent in the area, maybe around Brevard or Hendersonville (two other cute towns).

    That's my pitch! It may not be one of the biggest draws for international tourists, but hey, you'd be off the beaten track and get to experience a bit of Southern food and hospitality, too :)

    1. Zenmoo4:09 PM

      Thanks! I'll check those websites out. I would never have thought of North Carolina - the only place I know of there is Duck from my university coastal engineering lectures about beach profile experiments. It could be an option if we flew from Western Australia rather than New Zealand (the flight from Perth to Ottawa is about equal if you fly east via Asia or Sydney or west via the Middle East/Europe).

  6. Personally, I like to minimize the amount that I schlep around when traveling, especially with kids in the mix. If I were coming to North America and interested in the sites, I'd opt to fly into Vancouver, hang around there for a few days - maybe drive up to Whistler to see the mountains, and then take ferry over to one of the Gulf Islands. The Gulf Islands are full of easy, child friendly, but lovely hikes, and plenty of shore for collecting sea glass and spying wildlife (bald eagles and seals, sometimes orca, little crabs that the kids love). But it will cool and rainy in June. I like cool and rainy in June, but I live in the hot-humid belt of the east Coast. Alternatively, I would vote for a cabin in VT near Lake Champlaign. Burlington is a super cute little town in the area, with a little pedestrian mall. You could do a day trip to Montreal from there if you wanted to a sight.

    1. Zenmoo5:01 PM

      We'll be coming from cool and rainy with winter - so it's not that appealing a weather condition for a summer holiday! But I have heard so much about how nice Vancouver is (it's where my brother & his fiance met)

      I'm glad I've got a vote for a cabin in VT though! It's my first choice at the moment but my husband just looks at me a bit blankly as to why Vermont and all I can come up with is that it looks pretty and sounds relaxing. And has craft breweries and cheese...

    2. As New Zealand who's spent some time in New England Vermont is a great place to spend time pottering around cute little towns, hanging out by lakes etc. This definitely lots of scope for walking and outdoorsy stuff. However, the scenery while lovely in a bucolic sort of way but it is fairly monotonous - trees as far as the eye can see.

    3. @Zenmoo, there's also an area of B.C. coast north of Vancouver called the Sunshine Coast, which would probably be warmer and sunnier than either Vancouver or Victoria.

      I'm from the East (Coast of the US). I love the West, but I think New England is really beautiful. From Vermont you could always dip over to Maine, hang out at Acadia National Park (Forest?).

    4. (PS, My BC-native husband says Desolation Sound, up on the Sunshine Coast, is gorgeous, and one of the few places one can swim in ocean, though I don't know about water temps in June.)

  7. I haven't read the comments, so sorry if this has been suggested, but I would keep is as a Canadian tour too...but do the other side of the country. The Maritime provinces are gorgeous, and are definitely road-tripable in the time you're thinking (except, perhaps Newfoundland). A great thing about doing that trip is you can start/end in Ottawa, so it makes planning much easier. I would suggest renting an RV or a car with camping equipment.

  8. As a former resident of Vancouver, and a current resident of Victoria (Vancouver Island) I have to second both of these places. Both cities are extremely family friendly and have great things to see with kids in tow. For Vancouver: Stanley Park (has the Aquarium); the Capilano Suspension Bridge, Maplewood Farm (so much more than a petting zoo); the Gondola up Grouse Mountain - or go a little bit further and drive up to Whistler; playgrounds everywhere, and lots of restaurants that are friendly to kids (like the Rocky Mountain Pizza co which has a central play area and kids can make their own pizza). The definitive guide on family friendly Vancouver: Transportation in Vancouver is great since they had the Olympics.

    For Victoria: Butchardt Gardens and Butterfly Gardens, the Victoria Bug Zoo, inner harbour boat rides, the Royal B.C. Museum which has great exhibits that you can walk through and play in (like a First Nations Village); the Galloping Goose Trail which you can hike or bike ride for miles on. Victoria also has really temperate weather (most hours of sunshine per year of any Canadian City). Vancouver it will likely be raining early June. Victoria will be sunny.

    1. Zenmoo5:06 PM

      Thanks! I hadn't thought of Vancouver Island/Victoria as an option.

    2. I second @Jac's Canadian trip recommendations. The random city parks in Canada are so much nicer for kids, and it feels much safer than the US (and I say this as an Amurrikan).

      That being said, I love Portland. Love all the food trucks and OMSI and Powells Books. I also love Cannon Beach, OR. Love wine tasting in the Willamette Valley. Love Multnomah Falls. But if I were flying halfway around the world with kids, and wanted to explore nature, I'd probably choose Canada instead.

  9. For those who have mentioned Whistler - the last time I was in the rockies was in early June and it was snowing (!!) so maybe bear in mind that early-season hiking conditions there can be unpredictable. Also Montreal is a 2.5h drive from Ottawa, so that might be a good day trip as well.

  10. Anonymous3:20 PM

    I am absolutely aching to show my family the redwood forests. I want to take them to Mt. Shasta too. I've already taken them to Mt. Tamal Pias.

    My vote is Road Trip in California. And personally I'd skip LAX and SoCal and just stick to SJO/SFO/OAK and parts north. Alternatively you can go East and explore the Tahoe area, which is also really lovely. Lots of cabins to rent in Tahoe.

    My mom's childhood house is now a B&B in Napa. :) Personally I find Napa fun for like a day (now that we're no longer having family reunions there).

    What we *actually* do (and what we're going to be doing in October) when we visit CA, is settle into Mountain View, CA and take day trips to Mt. Tam, Muir Woods, SF, Napa, etc. You cannot beat the food in this area. It's just amazing. As is nature.

  11. @Cloud, how are you feeling about Sea World these days, in light of the bad press it has received from the ex-orca trainer's documentary film "Blackfish" (which I have not yet seen)?

    1. About the same as I've always felt... deeply ambivalent. My kids love it, and it does some good work rescuing sick animals, etc. But I suspect that someday humans are going to learn how to understand dolphins and feel like major schmucks for making them jump through hoops for us all these years.

      I haven't seen the documentary either. I don't see many movies.

  12. We recently did the Seattle/Mt Rainier/Olympic Peninsula area, and would have loved to add Portland and the Oregon coast, Columbia Gorge, etc. if we had more time. That would make a great hiking trip.

    And as you know (I got to meet Cloud in person!) we did San Diego last summer. I second the LegoLand for kids. I wasn't sure if it would be awesome or not, but for a 4-year-old it would definitely be awesome. We opened it up and shut it down.

  13. fizzchick8:33 PM

    I would second either the CA road trip ideas or the Appalachians, either north (VT/Maine) or south (NC/Tennessee). Big Sur is beautiful, with lots of good hiking/camping, and the Monterey Aquarium is fabulous for a kid that age. If you don't mind some heat, though, a road trip through some combination of Bryce/Zion/Arches, Grand Canyon, and/or Painted Desert/Petrified Forest might well be worth it. Also, in most of the US, 2 hours won't get you very far. Particularly in the national parks, 2 hours may not even get you from one side of the park to the other!

  14. I can really relate to the hiking/outdoorsy and stay-in-one place mentality, so here are my suggestions.
    First, I second the suggestion of Atlantic Canada road trip. The only downside is you would have to go further east, so out of your way a bit. But Cap Breton, PEI, Newfoundland are just gorgeous, very relaxing and would be totally different coastal scenery to what you would get in NZ. And my all time favourite place is Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy. If you want to get away from it all and really relax this is the place.

    Another suggestion closer to Ottawa is Algonquin Park. This is a provincial park, and it's stunning. You would be sure to see moose, and really beautiful water/forest scenery. You could rent a cottage near there and do some canoeing maybe even canoe camping. There would be a lot of mozzies though in June.

    1. Zenmoo4:40 PM

      In a perverse way, I'm almost tempted by the idea of mozzies - I don't normally react to mosquito bites (thanks desensitization during childhood in tropical Asian country) so I'm almost curious to find out if I'd react to Canadian mosquitos.... Almost.

      The Atlantic Canada road trip does sound pretty good. I'm adding it to the short list to consider further.

  15. I live in New England. June is hit or miss weatherwise. Sometimes it rains for the whole month of June (like it did this year). Fall is better weatherwise and scenerywise for New England but there's so much to see in that area. You have the mansions of newport and boston and cute little seaside towns like Portsmouth, NH, plus loads of hiking in both the green and white mountains.

    California and Colorodo are safe bets if you want nice weather the whole time as are the Carolinas. I also think flagstaff arizona might make a good base too.

  16. Zenmoo4:36 PM

    Thanks so much everyone for all the ideas - there are some places I hadn't really thought of that sound like we'd really enjoy. I'm really looking forward to planning this trip!

  17. Anonymous12:13 PM

    Hi there,
    considering your brother's wedding is in Ottawa and you hoped to have recovered from travel before the wedding, perhaps it would make sense to stick close to Ottawa. Seeing as travelling from the West Coast to Ottawa can take half a day or quite a bit longer by plane depending on your connections, you might find you aren't recovered for the wedding.
    There are many places to be and things to see near Ottawa, not to mention Ottawa itself. Montreal is a lovely city to visit, just 2 hours drive away.
    Cheers and have fun!


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