That time I almost lost it at Great Wolf Lodge (but didn’t)

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There are several stages of Traveling with Children.

The first is, of course, excitement. We’re going on vacation! As a working parent, I especially look forward to this uninterrupted time with my family. It’s easy to fall into this trap of daydreaming about the perfect trip during the planning phase: finishing a book poolside, laughing with my perfectly-behaved children at a calm dinner, tucking them into woodland-themed bunk beds, watching HGTV in peace. Ahh.

Next comes getting acclimated. After three hours on the road, we’re here! “Here” was Great Wolf Lodge last weekend: a family-themed resort with energetic children at every turn. GWL has a cult following and festive vibe that gets even straight-laced adults to don the trademark wolf ears (myself included). Getting acclimated includes taking in all the craziness that a change of scenery entails. Our four- and two-year-old basically just … screamed and ran at full speed for the first six-plus hours on the Williamsburg property. Calling them “keyed up” is an understatement.

Once reality sets in, we hit the “ooh, was this a good idea?” stage — usually around bedtime. This phase includes being kicked in the ribs at 2 a.m. by a child who refuses to sleep in the bunk bed of the pricey “wolf den” suite, because bunk beds are cool strictly during daylight hours. Your spouse must sleep on the couch.

So, I mean, I’m not a monster; I realize that a change in sleeping arrangements can be weird for kids. And my son, an extreme creature of habit, greatly depends on his routines. The idea of crawling into the top bunk and actually resting there alone was … a hard no.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. In fact, I was a little annoyed with myself that it did surprise me. But every time, I think … this time will be different. The kids are older now, and more adaptable; we won’t have the fussing and issues we’ve had on previous trips.

While it’s true that we don’t have to worry about round-the-clock feedings and a truckload of diapers anymore, thinking that Oliver, in particular, is adaptable? Mmm. This is the kid that, on our first beach trip, screamed so long and so hard at being put in a pack-and-play that Spencer and I wound up driving the beach access road for hours to get him to sleep … then carrying him inside in his carseat. Also the same kid that required another midnight drive around downtown Bedford, Pennsylvania, because we were desperate to calm him down. We wound up finding a well-lit gas station to catch a few hours of rest ourselves, then cut our trip short.

My blood pressure climbed just typing all that.

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Sleep is at the heart of so many issues. And when traveling, of course, sleep is a major unknown … because the comfortable routines we have at home don’t directly translate. Hadley goes down relatively easy at bedtime, but Ollie is different. He struggles to settle on a regular day at home, constantly telling me that “sleeping is boring,” so traveling is just … next level.

So in the “ooh, was this a good idea?” phase, I beat myself up with big questions. Why is it so hard to enjoy something that hundreds of families are all enjoying at this very moment? Why does this feel challenging? Am I broken? Are my children? Why are we spending all this money to be exhausted and stressed in a different location? And, of course, why can’t I just relax and have fun? 

Thankfully, after the first night, this exhausting (and depressing) phase typically melts into a better scene: making the best of it and hey, this is actually enjoyable, which comes after the kids, Spence and I have adapted to staying in a hotel room — all four of us, together, with little distraction — and being out of our normal patterns.

Great Wolf Lodge has the advantage of being very obviously kid-friendly. Kids here, there, and everywhere. Kids shoving past you in Build a Bear. Just … kids.

While it got overwhelming at the end, it was refreshing not to have the added stress of feeling like we were disturbing everyone around us. Our crew never earned the familiar glares of nearby couples just trying to enjoy their crab dip appetizer in peace, thankyouverymuch. 

Camaraderie was in the air, actually — an “in the trenches” solidarity amongst the weary parents and grandparents. Wading through knee-high water in our similar tankini tops and skirted bathing suit bottoms, the thirty-something moms and I exchanged knowing smiles. These women got it. They, too, were wrestling toddlers into swim diapers and chasing sugared-up “PAW Patrol” characters through hotel halls. They were also in line at Dunkin’ because they would croak without another shot of caffeine.

Because we visited GWL during their “Howl-o-Ween” festivities, we enjoyed nightly trick-or-treating. Spence and I wound up walking the candy trail with another couple whose kids were close in age to ours, and our shared jokes warmed me up with the recognition of kindred spirits. My husband and I joked that we should have asked where they were from. Everyone needs friends. And this couple — with the dad dressed like Rocky ready to enter the ring, and his playful wife continuously “dinging” a bell on her iPhone — were definite contenders.

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So … did we have fun at Great Wolf Lodge? Absolutely.

After our iffy first night, I faced a hard truth: Traveling with young children feels so challenging because I’m just as much a creature of habit as they are.

Understanding myself better as an adult, this is about anxiety. I get stressed when I’m out of my element. I thrive on predictability — and traveling with children has none of that. My anxiety kicks into overdrive and mostly-managed OCD issues flair up. The familiar fight-or-flight panicky feeling awakens, and I want to run away to feel normal again. By then? Well, I’m just a hot mess.

I’m working on all that.

By realizing it fairly early this trip, I could collect myself, pull it together, and coax my anxious brain back into neutral territory. Once I relaxed, we had a great time with my mother- and father-in-law at the expansive resort. There was plenty to do, and the water park was enjoyable even for a mom (and kids) who can’t swim!

Most importantly, Hadley and Oliver had a blast — and we have a new collection of fun family memories with their grandparents. I have a feeling that we’ll be talking about “the wolf place” for a long time to come. And who knows? Now that he’s four, maybe our GWL trip will be one of Ollie’s earliest memories.

Which brings us to the final phase: looking at photos and reminiscing about the great time you had. The hotel neighbors having a dance party at 1 a.m. and long lines behind indecisive middle schoolers at the breakfast buffet are all forgotten. We’re left with sweet smiles floating on a tube in the lazy river, joy when hitting the 1,000-ticket prize in the arcade, and happy, tired kids passing out within minutes on the drive home.

These are the days. The tiring, wild, haphazard days.

I have earned that pumpkin creme cold brew, friends … but it’s true that I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Bring on the wolf ears!

 

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Above it all

Plane ride

Oliver successfully took his first plane ride. On our way to visit family outside Buffalo last week, we opted to take a one-hour flight rather than make an eight-hour drive — a choice that wasn’t without its stresses, but was ultimately wise.

I was ridiculously nervous to fly with an infant. Much of that anxiety probably stemmed from being seated by wailing babies on multiple flights (most of them cross-country, of course), and we didn’t want to be “those people” who have a child losing it in the dense confines of an aircraft. I didn’t know how I would deal with the stares and grimaces. People can be ugly . . . especially when traveling.

But oh, our Oliver. He barely made a peep on our way to and from New York. He got upset just once, letting out a frustrated shriek before beginning to wail, but that was aboard a shuttle bus on our return yesterday — when we were just a few minutes from the car. A diaper change quickly calmed him down, as did being back in his normal car seat. So we’ll take it.

Sailing by Baltimore on our way home, we looked down at the city with its spires and stadiums. Among them is the tower, a spindly historic structure that sticks out prominently among the modern buildings downtown. I can’t see it without thinking of the day before our son was born, how we studied it as minutes bled into hours as our family celebrated at my baby shower many miles away. The tower was the only interesting thing to look at on the most stressful day of my life.

It was mid-April, and spring appeared overnight. We watched the pear trees burst into bloom from our corner room, startled by their bright contrast against the dark tower. The sun was brilliant. It was a perfect day. And it was also interminably long, waiting to see if my blood pressure would stabilize. If we could go home. If I would stay pregnant. If our baby would come.

Through those dark early days, I couldn’t have imagined a future where Oliver was healthy and so physically on track, giggling and “dancing” and smiling at the sound of our voices, the sight of our faces. Everything felt scary. Nothing was normal. I didn’t know how to have a baby, much less a preemie baby. I was afraid.

But spring arrived, brilliant and new, and soon became summer. Oliver flourished, and Oliver came home. We poured our love and attention into helping him grow. He’s now our not-so-little love, and all 17 pounds of him cry out for hugs and kisses. We give them.

He now sleeps through the night (more on that to come), so we are all sleeping through the night. I am less zombie, more relaxed mother. Summer is swiftly turning to fall, all crunchy leaves and roadside apples and steamy pumpkin drinks. We are learning to “talk” and play, to stand and mimic and grip. We are laughing. We are happy.

And I am learning, too . . . so many things since April.

Like how to let April go.

On our plane ride home, Oliver clutched Spencer’s finger in one hand and mine in the other. He watched the skies intently through our tiny porthole, dark eyes dancing across the clouds.

We encircled him, our dear child. The tower disappeared from sight.


Golden State of mind

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I’ve spent a surprising amount of time shuttling to the West Coast in the last decade — mostly because, well, it’s beautiful. And fun. And amazing.

We’re headed back to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park to take lots of pictures, haunt delicious restaurants and generally relax. I long to breathe mountain air. I don’t really know what we’ll be up to and don’t have many expectations . . . if I’m out and away and standing in the trees or by the river or near the sea, I’ll be happy.

Like a responsible blogger, I intended to schedule posts for my absence — but I decided, you know, I should take a break. It’s important to pause, step back, think. So write meg! will go quiet until the week of June 2, but I’ll look forward to seeing (reading?) your smiling faces when I return. (Or follow the fun on Instagram.)

See you soon!


Now accepting: mini-moon suggestions

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I’m going stir crazy.

To save enough vacation time for our wedding extravaganza and mini-moon this fall, I have no big trips on the books. We’ll be heading to the Outer Banks for a handful of days in June, as per our family tradition, and also trekking to New York in August to see Spencer’s lovely family before the wedding. But other than that? No epic journeys. No life-affirming itineraries. No jaunts to other coasts or other countries . . .

. . . just uninterrupted hours at my dusty desk.

To compound my stir-crazy-ness, Spence and I are planning to take our “real” honeymoon next summer — when we have a fresh cache of time. And, more importantly, when the weather will be nicer. All of our potential honeymoon destinations wouldn’t be too pretty in November, so we made the executive decision to wait until it’s warmer to take our big vacation — and not go straight from a trip into the holidays. I also felt it would be less stressful to not rush out of town immediately after such an epic event — and more fun to have something to look forward to after all the wedding excitement dies down.

We are going to get away, though — preferably to somewhere fairly quiet and drive-able. Planes are out. I was thinking a bed and breakfast in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia, but lo and behold: everything I’ve researched closes for the season the weekend before our wedding. Because of course.

Planning a trip is half the fun, but I’m at a loss as to where we could go for our “mini-moon” (don’t you love that term?). I entered a contest to win one from the Mandarin Oriental in Washington, D.C., which would be sweet, but I realize I can’t exactly count on that. (Though I have won a trip before. So, lightning: strike here twice?)

Here is my slightly-OCD list of things we’re seeking in a mini-moon:

• Must be within 7 hours’ driving distance from D.C.;
• Would preferably be in/near the mountains, because they’re my favorite;
• Must be relatively quiet (no family resorts, etc.);
• Would preferably include meals or be near restaurants (no cooking ourselves);
• Be picturesque in some way; y’all know I need to take some pictures; and
• Not cost approximately $1,826,834 a night.

Simple.

My mom suggested the Poconos of Pennsylvania, a spot we visited on many spring breaks growing up, and I’ve found a few adult-oriented resorts that sound interesting. I say “adult-oriented” because I fear checking into a hotel with children running down the halls, screaming and splashing each other everywhere we turn, because I have been that child and the whole point of the trip is to decompress. Love kids, can’t wait to have ’em, but don’t want ’em sharing our dinner table during our relaxing getaway. Just sayin’.

So: the Poconos. Interesting. Reasonably priced. Not too far away. But nothing I’ve looked at really grabs me as the place. I’m getting antsy that the place seems nowhere to be found.

This is obviously not at the top of my priorities list at the moment, but for someone who sees vacation as lifeblood? Well, daydreaming about this mini-moon gets me through some long days. I’ve spent way too much time on TripAdvisor, combing through endless reviews of East Coast hotels and resorts, but I feel like my list is accompanied by a full-body shrug. Nothing is really exciting me.

So this is where I beg for your assistance. Where have you vacationed on the East Coast? Can I get there easily from Washington? Do you have any recommendations? West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware . . . heck, even North Carolina: I’m looking at you. Take pity on me — and give me a mini-moon to fantasize about. I’m all ears.


When in Bath — run like the dickens


During our madcap tour of Great Britain last April, there was a time I found myself running — sweating profusely, sprinting — through the streets of Bath, England, en route to The Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street.

Traveling with an awesome tour group, we’d already meandered through Wales and Stonehenge the day we found ourselves in the city. With only an hour to see the town before getting back on the coach en route to London, Bath had to be viewed while dodging fellow tourists and cutting corners down cobblestoned streets en route to the Centre paying homage to literary great Jane Austen.

I had to get there.

It wasn’t easy, though. Temperatures in England were unseasonably warm then — you’re welcome; a little present from your American visitors — and the clothes I’d packed were way too hot. Just trying to navigate to the Centre from our drop-off point had me panting, frantic that we weren’t going to make it. People were everywhere: in line for the Roman Baths; dodging into restaurants and fast-food spots; meandering the streets; sunning themselves on benches. Of all the places we visited during our two-week stint around the U.K., Bath was easily the most populated . . . and the most tourist-friendly.

Which is to say, it was crowded as all get-out.



With Dad’s pre-planned route through the city, though, we made it to Gay Street. I knew we were approaching The Jane Austen Centre when I noticed a man dressed in historical garb greeting passersby. In all my excitement, I totally ignored the poor guy and rushed to take a photo with “Jane” herself. A life-sized statue of Miss Austen is perched in front of the Centre entrance.

Jane lived in Bath from 1801 to 1806 and is considered to be the town’s “best known and best loved” resident, according to the Centre website. Though our dear Miss Austen wasn’t overly fond of Bath herself, my favorite of her novels — Persuasion — takes place there. Northanger Abbey is set in the city, too.

The Centre is located at 40 Gay Street, though Austen once called No. 25 home. If we’d had the time, I would have loved to see the museum or take a walking tour of all the sites bearing some importance to Austen’s writings. The city is brimming with fascinating locales.

But alas, I had time for only one thing: visiting the gift shop. And that didn’t disappoint. All sorts of Darcy-themed trinkets were on display, as well as Austen’s complete works and numerous books on her life. I was so busy grabbing bookmarks and postcards that I didn’t absorb any of the ambiance, though. Still sweating and trying not to knock anything over with my big camera, I set myself back a few dozen pounds but came out with some cute things.



Since we had to hurry right back to grab our lift to London, I didn’t get to soak up Bath the way I would have wanted. There was obviously so much to see and do, and I was dying (DYING!, and we were so close!) to get to the Royal Crescent. But I’ll just filter that experience into an excuse to go back to that gorgeous Georgian city someday.

As if I need a reason.


British escape, part IV: Edinburgh, Scotland


This is my fourth post featuring a spring trip abroad.
For previous travel posts, visit here.


After leaving the English Lake District and heading north, we stumbled across the Scottish border to arrive in Gretna Green — a lovely stop with infamous roots. The sun was shining and the people were friendly — plus, I managed to grab some whisky (no “E” there in Scotland!) as souvenirs. Who doesn’t like alcohol as a “Hey, I’m back!” present?

Our first night was spent in Glasgow, where we had a late dinner and didn’t get to explore much of the city. We were on the outskirts, it seemed, and far from anything we could walk and see. But our second day in Scotland brought us to my favorite city of the trip: Edinburgh! And how alive, intriguing and beautiful it was.

Leaving America for Great Britain, you definitely know you’ve left America — but in England, a place that’s growing familiar to me, I didn’t feel quite so out-of-place or foreign. Not so in Scotland, which was so unique and interesting to visit . . . a place that really felt far away. I loved the unique mix of the old and new as you wound your way through cobblestone streets on the Royal Mile and gazed at Arthur’s Seat (at top), which is quite famous and a place of prominence in David Nicholls’ One Day. We had lunch and walked along High Street, pausing to admire the wares of vendors, ducking in souvenir shops and listening to the cackle of street performers and their audiences.



If I thought I loved photography before, this trip completely transformed me. It was the first time I’d been away with my Rebel and wow, am I in love with that baby! I could have wandered around Edinburgh for hours, people-watching and capturing the flavor of the city. Though it was a chilly and drizzly day — much colder than the days to follow, we’d learn — I was bolstered by the city’s energy and my desire to see as much as possible in a short time.

One of the coolest things we spotted there was the Scott Monument, a Victorian Gothic structure commemorating the accomplishments of Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott. My dad remarked that it “looked like something out of ‘Lord Of The Rings,'” and so it did — this looming, creepy and remarkable edifice in the middle of the city. No matter where we turned in Edinburgh, I kept a close eye out for its spires. If we’d had more time, I would have loved to stand beneath it and peered in; we saw people ascending stairs there, too.

I was also amazed by how comfortable I felt in Scotland. The hustle and bustle of London is one of the things I love about it, but it can get overwhelming — as any major city can. New York and D.C. are like that, too, but I’ve grown used to those. Edinburgh is a giant, sprawling place, too, but it didn’t feel quite so hurried. Maybe I was in a different frame of mind then, too. Our time in London was my responsibility to plan and adapt and change. Having never been in charge of an itinerary with my family, the pressure was on. But in Edinburgh? Well, I could just hang out and let someone else worry about the plans.

So much to see there, and so much I’d love to see again — including the view from Arthur’s Seat. Though we only spent about six hours in the city, I’m looking forward to returning . . . and doing more shopping on the Royal Mile. And maybe consuming some whisky. And, more than anything, just roaming around and maybe getting lost. I’m learning that, above all, that’s what travel means to me: losing track of time and yourself and your worries and scattering. Edinburgh is definitely a place I could scatter and peruse and daydream about and love.


British escape, part III: Grasmere and the Lake District

This is my third post featuring a spring trip abroad.
For previous travel posts, visit here.

Ever been somewhere you stopped and thought, Wow. This is living. And then the world you normally inhabit — “home,” wherever that place might be — just colors in comparison to this crazy, awesome neck of the woods you had the pleasure to visit?

Well, that’s how I felt about Grasmere, England. Our third day on a travel tour in April brought us to this gorgeous spot in the Lake District, which I’ve read about in Jane Austen novels for years but never researched. Um, the Lake District? Incredible. Really heart-stoppingly gorgeous, and a place I can’t wait to return to someday.

But I’ll have to wait. Because I have zero idea how we got there.

I was so zonked out on this trip, friends, I can’t even tell you. Jet lag has long been an issue for me, but I was still struggling to stay awake days after arriving in England. It was a challenge to keep my eyes open anytime we straggled onto our tour bus, and what a shame — because I know I missed some of the most breathtaking views as we drove from Leeds to the Lake District and up to Scotland. I’ve teased you with photos from this region before, but nothing does it justice.

We arrived in Grasmere around lunchtime, which was perfect — just in time for my first round of fish and chips! An old-fashioned steam train picked us up in the countryside and deposited us near a ferry, which took us across Lake Windemere. Our bus was waiting on the other side. It was brisk, like much of the trip, but the air was so clean and fresh! It felt like your lungs got a good scrubbing. Mom and I got hot chocolate and coffee drinks aboard the ferry, and our steaming beverages were served in real porcelain cups. Aboard a moving, swaying boat.

Oh, those fancy Brits!

The view from the ferry was incredible. Sailboats were framed by giant, rising hills, and we were close enough to the shore to see folks out for a leisurely stroll. It was one of those moments where you actually stop and think, “Someone lives here.” It seemed too lovely to be real — a vacation spot for foreigners, like us, and not somewhere you could actually establish roots. But, like many of the gorgeous spots I’ve seen, folks do live there — and they’re happy to see you.

It was just that way in Grasmere. Our tour guide, Steve, took us first to see the grave of William Wordsworth, famous poet, and discuss the time in which he lived in the village. One of the Lake Poets, Wordsworth lived and worked at Dove Cottage in Grasmere for many years, and the town’s famous resident is still present everywhere. On our ride away from Grasmere, Steve recited Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” — a great close to our afternoon there.


I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze . . .


Like everywhere we traveled, we didn’t have nearly as much time in the village as I would have liked. A quick lunch of fish, chips and mushy peas was washed down with Diet Pepsi — the first time I’d seen that particular drink on our trip. We could occasionally find a Diet Coke, sure, but Pepsi products seemed non-existent in England! I’m not big on the whole Pepsi/Coke debate, but it was strange not to have options. Also, they had iced tea in a case at the restaurant — something else that got us over-the-top pumped. Because, you know, you can’t ask for iced tea in England . . . they think you’re crazy. Or sacrilegious.

Just don’t do it.

Awesome beverage selection included, we had a wonderful time in the Lake District. I was too taken in by the scenery to snap many photos, but I did document the homemade gingerbread my sister snagged. Unlike our death march through Italy, we were well-fed on this vacation . . . and I’m still fantasizing about some of the meals we enjoyed abroad. Especially when, you know, I’m reminiscing about this following a measly lunch of salad with a fat-free dressing in the office.

Ack.

If you ever find yourself in the Lake District, don’t miss out on Grasmere and its incredible surroundings; I’ll be thinking about this leg of our journey for a long time. And from there, it was on to Scotland . . .

Tune in next time!