Four Seasons Hotel, Houston

The Four Seasons Hotel in Houston rocks.

Last year when I attended the Mom 2.0 Summit, I stayed in a lovely executive suite, with a bedroom and separate small living room. It was enchanting, and one of the nicest hotel rooms I’ve ever had at a business conference.

This year, however, the hotel outdid itself.

We had booked a double room but when I checked in Thursday afternoon, they were oversold.

But we got lucky. We got upgraded to one of the Four Seasons’ extended stay apartments. Two bedrooms, two baths, an open plan living/dining room and a kitchen. This floorplan.

Thanks, Bobby at the Four Seasons. Your hotel rocks. You rock.

And we didn’t want to leave. As the oh so lovely Mir said, when we find the money tree, we’re coming back, and we may never leave.

Plus, you allow dogs.

Licorice and Reva will love it.

Viva Las Vegas – My trip to the Consumer Electronics Show

Last Friday, on what would have been Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday, I was in Las Vegas, a town that is indelibly associated with him, to attend the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

More accurately, I was there to speak on a panel at the MommyTech at CES conference, although I did walk around the show a little bit. I also participated in a “View”-like live-streamed panel about Facebook in Kodak’s booth, along with Real Housewife of New York Jill Zarin, Suburban Outlaw Pam Sherman, entrepreneur Suzanne Kantra and Kodak VP Leslie Dance. It was pretty funny — you can watch the repeat here.  I’ll have more about some of  the products I saw over on my digital parenting post at BlogHer on Wednesday.

Since this is my travel blog, this post is about the trip. Even though I am not particularly fond of Las Vegas, I actually had some pretty nice experiences on this trip.

First, I flew Southwest Airlines, and I highly recommend spending the extra $10 each way to get Early Bird Check-in. This option automatically puts you in a queue to get your boarding spot 36 hours before the flight. No more having to log-in exactly 24 hours before the flight and hope to get a decent spot in line. On both flights, I had a great A spot, just after the Business Select passengers.

Of course, it is ironic that Southwest brags about your bags flying free and charges for better seat choice, but I don’t care. It’s worth it to me, to be able to benefit from Southwest’s often lower fares and NOT have to remember to check-in at the 24-hour mark, which is sometimes impossible when traveling on business.

Speaking of my bag, on the way home, it went (free) to Boise Idaho instead of Manchester New Hampshire. It did eventually turn up, but there were some hiccups in Southwest’s lost bag procedure.

Making the report at Manchester at 11pm on Saturday night was no problem; the clerk told me the bag was in Boise and would probably make it back to NH sometime late in the day Sunday and be delivered Monday at the latest. Great. No problem. Home I went.

My concerns started Sunday afternoon when Southwest called to give me an update. A very unsatisfactory update that they were looking for my bag and hoped to have better information soon. Hullo? Saturday midnight, it was in Boise, Sunday mid-afternoon, they don’t know where it is? Not confidence inducing. We called customer service back for a better explanation. Turns out they give this very non-committal response until the bag actually turns up at the destination airport. Hhmm. If you aren’t going to give a real status report, methinks you’d be better off saying nothing.

I never heard from Southwest again on the bag, but when Dave went out to get the paper this morning, it was sitting in the driveway. The good news, of course, is that I got the bag back. The not so good news is that Southwest never called with a final update. Now, I understand that it may have arrived in Manchester very late last night, clearly it was delivered pretty early, and when I made the report, I did say that someone would be home Monday morning.  But, still, I think a call was in order. What if it had been raining or snowing?

Moving on, and back to the Las Vegas trip, I had used Marriott points to stay at the Courtyard directly across from the Convention Center. Getting around Las Vegas during a big conference can be a pain, especially at peak travel times. The monorail improves things somewhat from the bad old days (when the Sands was a hotel, not just a convention center), but being within walking distance is priceless.

When I got to the hotel Thursday night, they told me that they were oversold, but had arranged for me to stay at the Marriott Residence  next door that night, were paying for the room, and had bounced back my points for the one night to my Rewards account. Sure, it was a bit of a pain to have to switch hotels on Friday, but they are right next door to each other. Kudos to the staffs at both hotels for making things relatively painless. My only really negative comment about the hotel was that my breakfast omelet on Saturday had way too much cheese. And I love cheese.

There’s a fairly new Marriott Suites hotel right around the corner from the Courtyard and Residence hotels. I’m wracking my brain trying to remember what used to be there. I thought it might be the old Debbie Reynolds’ Hollywood Hotel, but I checked online, and it is the Greek Isles that is there now. Anyway, the Marriott’s casual restaurant Cafe 325 is a nice place to grab a quick bite to eat. My burger was great, and the bartender let me take my second glass of wine “to go” even though I wasn’t staying at that Marriott. Viva Las Vegas!

I also recommend French bistro Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris casino. The food and service are great, and the prices are reasonable… for Las Vegas. On this trip, I had a yummy steak au poivre with frites ($24.00), which was made even better by the great company – Beth Blecherman (@techmama), Ciaran Blumenfeld (@momfluential) and Amy Oztan (@selfishmom).

Finally, getting to and from the airport. On past trips, I’ve always taken a cab, and bemoaned the long cab lines at the airport. I was on a pretty tight budget this trip, so decided to check out the local transportation offered on the Southwest website. Gray Line Shuttles was the option, with a round-trip price of $12.00.

The price was right, so I figured I could live with a little inconvenience in exchange for the savings. Except it wasn’t inconvenient in the least. Inbound, the wait for the shuttle was shorter than any cab line wait I have ever had in Las Vegas, and leaving Vegas on Saturday, my hotel was the last stop before the airport. In other words, exactly the same elapsed time as a cab. It might be a bit more hectic at other times of the day — I was arriving and leaving at non-peak travel times — but I was generally impressed.

All in all, probably the best trip I’ve ever had to Las Vegas.

Pennsylvania Weekend: Crystal Cave, Valley Forge

3978463637 477f73a18c m Pennsylvania Weekend: Crystal Cave, Valley ForgeLast weekend was the big dog show weekend in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, culminating in the all-terrier Montgomery County Kennel Club show on Sunday. I needed/wanted to go for a few dog and dog club related reasons, but did not relish the long 7+ hour drive (each way) by myself. So I convinced Douglas and David to come along with me. I’d go to my dog club banquet on Friday night and the dog show on Sunday, but we’d skip the Saturday show, and do some family sightseeing instead.

There is quite a lot to do in the Philadelphia area – art, science and natural history museums, the zoo, plus  historical exhibits like the Liberty Bell and Valley Forge.

We decided to give Doug the choice. He picked  Crystal Cave in Kutztown. Boys and rocks.

I’m a bit claustrophobic and generally the idea of being in a cave gives me the creeps. This wasn’t too bad. The tour guide did an excellent job moving us through the cave, and the cave rooms themselves were fairly large, with very tall ceilings, so I didn’t get that “pressed in” feeling. Doug absolutely loved it.

The cave formations themselves are eery. Some could easily be alien life forms from a sci-fi film.

3979234928 bac5a423a2 m Pennsylvania Weekend: Crystal Cave, Valley Forge 3978490091 e72581c56f m Pennsylvania Weekend: Crystal Cave, Valley Forge

After the caves, we decided to head back and do a quick visit to Valley Forge. We’d been a number of times in the past, but Douglas didn’t remember it. On the way we stopped for lunch at a Texas Roadhouse in Royersford.

This was our first ever visit to this chain, and we were pleasantly surprised by the hospitality — warm and gracious — and the food — excellent. As first-time guests, they gave us a free bottle of their steak sauce, and asked us to fill out a brief questionnaire about our experience. I wrote in the comments that we very much enjoyed the food and wished there was a restaurant near us in Massachusetts. One of the managers made a point to come out and let us know that there were a few, including one not far from us in Worcester.

Why so good? Everything is very fresh. Homemade rolls, lots of choices for side dishes and good steaks. Is it Morton’s or Ruth Chris? Of course not. But when you are on the road looking for a quick reasonably priced meal, it’s a nice alternative to the burger and tex-mex lite chains. I particularly appreciated the 6 ounce filet for $16.00. It’s the right amount of meat for me and the price was fair. It was also very tasty.

3979286740 24a8b06150 m Pennsylvania Weekend: Crystal Cave, Valley Forge We got to Valley Forge too late for an organized trolley or walking tour (although we have done the trolley tour in the past, and it is excellent). Instead we bought the self-guided one-hour CD tour ($15.00) and proceeded to drive through the park and learn a little history on the way.

Douglas wasn’t too interested at first, but we confiscated the Nintendo, and eventually he got into it. Admission to the park and buildings is free; there is a fee for the trolley tour.

As with all national parks, there are also special programs worth checking out if you are slightly more planful about your visit than we were this time icon smile Pennsylvania Weekend: Crystal Cave, Valley Forge The park buildings close at 5pm, but the grounds are open until dusk. The last ranger-tour of Washington’s Headquarters is at 4:30 pm.

The centerpiece — literally — of the park is the National Memorial Arch. This time, we saw two wedding parties doing their formal photos. My pictures of them on Flickr.

3979295546 c35b56c622 m Pennsylvania Weekend: Crystal Cave, Valley ForgeYou’ll also see lots of deer at Valley Forge. In fact the deer population of the park is a bit of a problem; if you are interested, you can read more at the park website.

For visitors, though, it is nice to see these pretty animals up close and vertical as opposed to lying by the side of the road, a sad but familiar site along Pennsylvania highways.

On Sunday, I went to the dog show. David and Doug went to the nearby Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. They had a great time pumpkin painting and exploring the garden railway.

Other things to do in the area: We’ve also enjoyed wandering around the community of Doylestown, although we did not get up that way on this trip, and Longwood Gardens. Little kids would enjoy Sesame Place, although the weather never cooperated for that when Douglas was younger and now at nine, he’s well past it. If you like to shop, the ginormous King of Prussia mall is nearby.

Where to stay: I like the Marriott Springhill Suites in Plymouth Meeting. Reasonably priced ($89 AAA-rate), all-suite hotel. Indoor pool. Free breakfast. Free in-room Internet. Near the Plymouth Meeting Mall, which offers many restaurant choices including Benihana, another good choice when traveling with kids. The mall also has an arcade which entertained Douglas (and Dave) on Friday night while I was at the dog club banquet and on Saturday night while I made a quick run to Macy’s.

Word to the wise: Traffic in the Montgomery County area, especially on the Turnpike and its feeder roads, is awful nearly all the time. Plan accordingly.


Natural Stone Bridge and Caves,upstate New York

3871243179 682f050680 m Natural Stone Bridge and Caves,upstate New York Last week when we were up at the house in Vermont, we made the long trek over to the Lake George area in upstate New York to visit Natural Stone Bridge and Caves in Pottersville.

It rained the whole way there, sometimes so hard I could barely see the road, but miraculously, the skies cleared just as we reached the attraction, and it didn’t start raining again until we were getting in the car to drive home about ninety minutes later.

I didn’t know quite what to expect, other than that I wasn’t going into any caves. Douglas and David were quite excited about the possibility of gem mining advertised in the brochures.

In the end, it turned out that one did not need to go into any dark enclosed spaces. The nature walk through the area was lovely (pictures), although the paths were quite uneven. It’s not something I would recommend for people with any difficulty getting around. Douglas had a ball exploring all the paths; we could barely keep up with him. 3872025606 0b4c871f9c m Natural Stone Bridge and Caves,upstate New York

The gem mining was a bit of a disappointment for my husband, but Douglas enjoyed it. Boys and rocks you know. It’s basically an old shipping container with sand and strategically placed rocks. The kids dig around with a plastic shovel and a frisbee, and are allowed to keep a certain number of specific stones for their $7.95 plus tax additional fee.

There is a gift shop, naturally. The highlight for Douglas was getting a geode that they split right there for you using a special machine that makes an even cut. He also acquired a piece of Adirondack garnet and some Fool’s Gold.

Admission: $12.98 adults, $8.00 ages 5-12, under 5 free. There is a $1.00 off Internet coupon. I think some of the tourist flyers must have coupons too, so if you are in the Lake George area, check those out before you go to perhaps save a little money. We also got a coupon for discounts at Ausable Chasm and High Falls Gorge, so presumably if you went to either of these other Adirondack attractions, you’d get a coupon for Natural Stone Bridge.


In the neighborhood: Barnard to Boston

3822841817 6c7cf28b33 In the neighborhood: Barnard to Boston We spent the first week of August at our home in Barnard Vermont so Douglas could attend day camp at the Vermont Institute for Natural Sciences in nearby Quechee. For me, it was mostly just a different window, but we did go on a couple excursions.

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park in Woodstock — Laurance and Mary Rockefeller spent summers at their home in Woodstock, and the Park Service offers daily tours (in season) of the home, as well as a couple of special tours. The most recent addition to the schedule is the Fallout Shelter tour, which seems to be offered about once per month.

There are two fallout shelters on the property, one under the house itself and another underneath the Belvidere, an outbuilding that houses pool changing rooms, activity room, soda fountain and  two-lane bowling alley. The one underneath the Belvidere is the shelter open to visitors.

The tour is about 70 minutes, and a good half of it is a ranger presentation about the Cold War that preceeds the tour of the shelter. After all, how long does it take to tour a one room fallout shelter?

Our verdict: If you only have time for one tour of the mansion, take the regular house tour. It’s offered a few times a day and reservations aren’t required, as they are for the special tours. It was fine for us, because  we’d already done both the regular house tour and the special Hidden Spaces tour.

If you do decide to take the Fallout Shelter tour, a true highlight was the private bowling alley, but younger kids may get restless during the ranger presentation. Consider starting your day across the street at Billings Farm, tire them out a bit looking at cows and chickens, and then take the mansion tour of your choice. A combo-ticket is offered.

As part of Doug’s summer camp week at VINS, the kids put on skits for the parents on the last day. We were so proud of Douglas, who played the part of narrator for his team’s skit. Photos are in this Flickr set.

We stayed to watch the afternoon raptor show at 3:30pm.  If you are in the area, it is well worth the time.

A camp highlight for the kids was getting to hold the American Kestrel.

3823620274 849c222060 m In the neighborhood: Barnard to Boston

This weekend, we went into the Museum of Science in Boston to see the National Geographic Crittercam exhibit, which ends August 30th. We also stopped by the Black Holes exhibit and saw the Omni film Mystic India.

Our verdict: Crittercam was terrific. Hard to believe  that they are able to securely attach the cams to such a variety of animals, terrestrial and aquatic, and it is truly amazing what  researchers have been able to learn about animal behavior by looking at life through their eyes. Best part of the exhibit: I loved the whales’ bubble net cooperative feeding and the lion cubs investigating the camera on their mother.

Black Holes has a web-component, but otherwise seemed very similar to previous astronomy exhibits we have seen, although to be fair, I didn’t spend much time in the exhibit.

Mystic India wasn’t quite what I expected. The narration retraces the steps of an 11 year old yogi who walked across India in the late 1700s. In adulthood, he became an important religious and political figure, and it was clear from an audience full of Indian families that his story has profound religious and cultural resonance.

For Westerners like me, unfamiliar with his life, it was at times hard to embrace the storyline.  Barefoot and wearing nothing but a loin cloth for four years in the Himalayas? Of course, it’s a parable and I have no wish to be disrespectful of another’s religion or icons. I have just as much of a problem with certain elements of the Jesus Christ story when played out on the screen. Somehow, the translation to film highlights some of the improbabilities that we just have to get over in order to believe.

The scenery however was magnificent, and in the end, the film-makers made their point about cultural diversity, community and tolerance. Funnily enough though, for me, it was as much from the fact that the legion of volunteers who participated in the making of the film  didn’t take individual credits. It was the collective that made the film and told the story. You just can’t argue with that depth of belief.

If you are in Boston, get thee to Crittercam before it leaves at the end of the month.