Friday, October 15, 2010

Los Angeles: A bug world at the Natural History Museum

Recently we went to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles for its Spider Pavilion (open till Nov. 7; it's housed in the same place that the Pavilion of Wings stands during spring/summer). But the pavilion was closed, due to the rainy day's puddles.

Our backup feature attraction was the dinosaurs. But, because of the construction of the Dinosaur Mysteries exhibit to open in July 2011, all that pertained to this category was the massive fossil on the first floor and the Dino Lab (where you can watch paleontologists do their paleontology thing).

So, where did preschooler Siona and I spend the most time on a recent morning - besides in the gift shop? The Insect Zoo. There, we watched a staff person feed a cricket to a praying mantis (the secret to the mantis' slim waistline: it feasts just once every two weeks). We tried to spot Vietnamese walking stick insects camouflaged amid branches; watched beetles "wrestling"; gaped at a scorpion; and peered at some quite interesting varieties of cockroaches (the ones terrorizing urban kitchen corners give this pest a bad name). And we marveled at velvet ants, which are actually wasps.

Of course, we had to say hello to the mammals, too, with the oryx, okapi, monkey, and rhinoceros exhibits being among our favorites.
Penny-pinchers: Kids 4 years and under are free. I shaved $3 off of the adult admission (usually $9) by showing my KCRW card. Parking in the lot across the street is $8.

Save some money by skipping the basic cafeteria on the ground floor (though apparently a full-service café will be there by 2011). If it's not rainy like it was during our visit, pack a picnic and lunch on the grass. There's a playground right across the street from the museum, next to the parking lot.

Photos, from top to bottom: Giant tropical cockroach; Madagascar hissing cockroach; Arabian oryx (in this exhibit hall, the mammals are "dead and stuffed," as I overheard one mother explaining to her child)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Santa Barbara weekender >> Rancho Oso Guest Ranch & Resort

I feel like I spent the weekend at summer camp. And really, a stay at Rancho Oso Guest Ranch & Resort in the Santa Ynez Mountains, just outside of Santa Barbara, is like camp for the family.

At the 300-plus-acre horse ranch, you can stay in a covered wagon (which we did), in a Western-style cabin, or in an adult-only lodge room, or you can bring your own RV or tent. Despite the fact that there is an adult-only lodge available (as well as certain hours during the day when only adults are allowed in the pool), you really should be okay with the fact that this whole place is crawling with kids. This is a very, very family-oriented place.

And, with our nearly three year old in tow, we had a blast. She wakes up at 6 a.m.? No problem. One of us (and we took turns) would take her for a walk in PJs down to the barn to cock-a-doodle with the roosters, pet the goat and sheep, gape at the massive pig, and say neigh-hey-hey to the horses.
We did, in fact, visit all of these animals (and took the liberty of naming them all) at various times throughout the day -- that is, whenever we weren't swimming (in the two pools), playing on the playground, watching the horseshoe and mini-golf players, eating, chatting with our wagon-residing neighbors around a campfire, or sleeping. Siona had her first real horse (not pony) ride one morning, and one evening, we took a short drive off property to visit a real laid-back gem of a place called the Paradise Store, famous for its tri-tip. Otherwise, what you see in this paragraph about sums up our weekend activities.
But there's lots more to do at this here ranch, partially depending on when you're there. This past weekend, for instance, we missed out on an ice cream social and a movie night, among other things. We also didn't get around to checking out a trail to a waterfall that started just over a stone's throw from our covered-wagon circle. And we heard there is lots in the area in the way of hiking, fishing, and, of course, horseback riding.

We planned this trip too last-minute to bring our own camp stove and food preparations, and, I admit, we were feeling lazy. So we ate almost every meal in the dining hall, which served breakfast and dinner, or the "chuck wagon," which served lunch. Prices were very reasonable, and how wonderful to have these meals available to us. The food was okay, though I will give special mention to the biscuits, which I thought were tasty indeed. The best part: You don't have to do dishes, and this is a big perk when camping (or pseudo-camping, like we did, in a wagon).
The wagon? It was simple, and we loved it. It consisted of a wooden floor, four not-so-comfy cots, and an electrical outlet. If you stay in one, bring a down sleeping bag for warmth, even in summer, and bring a cushy comforter to lie on. Bring a flashlight. Beware of leaving your canvas door/flap open, because -- in summer anyway -- there are flies. Lots of them.
From L.A., this place is an easy two-hour drive away, and it's such a unique getaway. If you like animals, especially horses, book a stay here; you'll have a fantastic time. I bet the ranch will lure us back soon, but I especially look forward to coming back here when Siona is a little older and we can all hit the horse trail together.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Mammoth Lakes weekender >> Thunder, tranquility & a good dose of jazz

I love ski towns in the summer, and, it turns out, Mammoth Lakes is no exception. I visited for the first time last weekend, and the place has it all -- lakes and mountains; trails for horseback-riding, mountain-biking and hiking; a charming village center with eats and treats; and a calendar teeming with all kinds of festivals, from mainstream to quirky. And all of this really isn't very far away from L.A. (it took us five hours).

My mom, my daughter, and I fit a lot into our short mountain getaway. On Saturday, we rose bright and early, ready to hit...the playground. Yep, Mammoth Creek Park on Old Mammoth Road was a big hit with my preschooler. While she enjoyed the jungle gyms and slides in the foreground, I inhaled the views in the background. We dug in sand, hunted for pine cones, and scampered up rocks.
That afternoon began with a scenic gondola ride at Mammoth Mountain. We cruised up, taking in the inspiring views, landscape still patched with snow. Once we reached the summit, we went outside to stretch our legs only to see ominous clouds above -- and was that thunder grumbling? A staff person warned that lightening was on the way. The gondola would probably shut down soon, rumor had it, so we might want to consider leaving before we got stuck. So back on the gondola we went, another staff person (a gondolier?) wishing us "good luck" as he we headed back down the hill.

We smoothed out our weekend with some jazz, catching a couple acts during the Mammoth Lakes Jazz Jubilee. We filled our bellies with lots of meals, including okay pasta (the pizza actually looked a lot better) at Giovanni's and with very satisfying, and BIG, dinners at the family-friendly Burgers Restaurant on Minaret Road.

We strolled around lakes (like Horseshoe Lake, pictured at the very top), walked about town, relaxed in our lovely, comfortable, well-equipped townhouse at Snowcreek Resort, and generally just enjoyed being with one another. It had been a while since us ladies of three generations had some good bonding time, and ever-enthusiastic traveler Siona, nearly 3 years old, made sure we made the most of every minute.

On Sunday, Siona bounded out of her bunk bed (which she adored) at 5:30 a.m. -- way, way too early for her, and everyone. Thus, the meltdowns that later occurred when we were homebound were no surprise.

"I want to go back to the vacation house!!! Mommy, stop! I want to go to the vacation house!" she screamed for a good 30 minutes down Hwy. 395.

"Siona, honey, I do, too," was all I could really honestly say. The weekender is always too short.

Accommodations:
At Snowcreek Resort, your best wallet-friendly option during summer months is a one-bedroom unit starting at $170 per night (pre-tax); also, check out current specials. On Kayak, I found accommodations in the area for under the $150 mark, such as Sierra Lodge and Juniper Springs Resort. When we were at the tranquil Twin Lakes, I took mental note of Tamarack Lodge, whose interior I didn't see but which definitely takes the cake for setting; I'm seeing lodge-room rates here that start at $178.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Long Beach >> Aquarium of the Pacific on Father's Day

We enjoyed a lovely Father's Day Picnic on Sunday at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. If they do this next year, I'll seriously consider attending again. We paid $34 per adult--aquarium admission included--for a buffet outside, and loaded up on BBQ (grilled salmon, chicken, etc.), roasted corn, baked beans, salads, jalapeno cornbread and the like, with cherry and apple cobblers a la mode for dessert. My only complaint was the lack of shade, as not all tables were equipped with umbrellas and, well, it's June.

Of course, you can't go wrong with a day at the aquarium, even on a Sunday when it can get sardine-packed. Our favorites were the seahorses, the sharks and the sea lions (we caught one of the three-times-daily seal and sea lion shows -- fun). We also spent a good chunk of time outside at the Shark Lagoon, where we touched rays as well as sharks of the zebra, bamboo, and epaulette varieties. In that same vicinity, Siona held her court as captain of a boat for probably longer than was fair for other eager kids. Those kids seemed content enough, though, to run around in the streams of water spat out by aquatic sculptures.
Normal admission for this aquarium is $23.95 per adult. Parking is $8 (cash or check), and there's just really no avoiding this if you want to park anywhere within walking distance.

Penny-pinchers: Skip this aquarium, and head instead to the Cabrillo Aquarium in San Pedro. It's not nearly as impressive or fancy, but the suggested donation is just $5 per adult, $1 per kid. And it's fun, especially for the littler ones.

Los Angeles >> Griffith Park & Southern Railroad

The Griffith Park & Southern Railroad mini-trains, set up in the southeastern corner of the park, are something to delight the youngster in you. Sure, the bonafide kids love it, but I promise that you will, too.
The one-mile track runs circular -- past pony rides, and foliage, and fake animals, and miniature Old West storefronts. A ride is just $2.50 per person, and lot parking is free.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Pasadena >> Kidspace Children's Museum

There is so much for little people to do -- and yes, learn -- at Kidspace, a very hands-on, interactive playland near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. For kids from about one to nine years old, this exploratorium of sorts makes for a fantastic way to spend a day, and I must say that, though I am about four times older than the uppermost end of that age range, I can't wait to go back myself.

Siona, my 2.5 year old, wasn't so sure about some things -- like the big ant hole that she could have ventured into herself but chose not to, or the futuristic bug costume tested out by mostly bigger boys. But she immediately loved Bugsy's Diner, with one feature being its "bug drawers" of insect specimens.
We spent most of our time moving and climbing and running around. Inside, the 40-foot Raindrop Tower (pictured up top) was as much fun to ascend for me as it was for her (though I did quite a bit of head-ducking). Outside, Siona climbed up a rope "spider web," checked out a variety of gardens, explored the Rootwad Climber (pictured directly above), and watched kids tricycle around a course.

We were lucky to be there when Beethoven's Wig (pictured directly below) was performing in the outdoor amphitheatre. They were so much fun, with their wacky lyrics set to classical music.
On hot or even warm days, bring an extra pair of clothes as well as an extra pair of shoes that will have traction in water. There is a creek where kids are free to play around (and they do), so long as they have clothes and shoes on. There are fountains to run around in too.
The food stand -- a Nestle Cafe by Wolfgang Puck Catering -- sells standard lunch fare for decent prices. My veggie burger was pretty good, and Siona was very happy with her mac n' cheese. Kidspace is located in the grassy Brookside Park, so next time, I think I'll invite a group of friends and have a picnic outside, since you can go in and out of the museum once you've got a stamp on your hand. Admission to Kidspace is $10 per person (though kids under 12 months are free); parking is easy and free.

Penny-pinchers:
Visit on Free Family Night, the first Tuesday of every month from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. I've never been, but have heard it's crowded.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Ojai >> Outstanding in the Field at Rio Gozo Farm

If you haven't been to one of the Outstanding in the Field dinners, you're missing out. This experience is worth the pretty penny it costs.

We attended one of last month's dinners; it was in Ojai (May 29) on Rio Gozo Farm. Upon arrival a little after 4 p.m., we mingled with other folk around haystacks, seedlings, and wine. A few hors d'euvres moseyed their way about, but we didn't seem to be aggressive enough in reaching their bearers, so we tried to stifle our hunger with peel-it-yourself pixie tangerines.

Eventually, OTF founder Jim Denevan, stood up to welcome us. He soon passed the buck to Farmer John Fonteyn, who charmed the audience with fun anecdotes and some fancy facts about mulberries, which he had handpicked from his trees (yes, they grow on trees, not bushes!) that morning and which we would sample with dessert that night.
The big herd of us walked toward the fields, and then through the fields -- past rows of carrots and fennel and greens -- making our way to a dining table set for nearly 200. My hubby and I made the mistake of taking seats that faced west, so, on that hot late afternoon, we sat directly facing the sun. We borrowed sunscreen; luckily I had a floppy hat with me, otherwise I don't think I would have survived.

The food, whipped up by Tim Kilcoyne of Sidecar Restaurant in Ventura, was extraordinary, much of the produce from the fields surrounding us. Everything else was grown or procured locally as well. The wine and limoncello producers (Stolpman Vinyeard and Ventura Limoncello) were on hand, strolling alongside the table and chatting with guests about their products.

Here was most of the menu that night; all was delicious, though I have to say my favorite was dessert:

Roasted beets & mint, blood oranges & avocado, goat cheese, and olive oil

Grilled squash, fennel confit, wilted romaine leaves, fennel frond bagna cauda, grilled Meyer lemon
Braised short ribs, with green garlic creamed Swiss chard, Nantes carrots

Grilled brioche "French toast" with limoncello sabayon and mulberries

Tip: If you get the chance to chat with Jim Denevan, ask him about his fascinating artwork (he recently got back from a mammoth project in Siberia), or better yet, ask him to whistle -- though seemingly shy, he's very talented.

Penny-pinchers:
Our OTF dinner cost $200 a head. If that's too big a bite to swallow: stay home and grow your own. Invite your favorite farmer over. Rent Food Inc.

Families: We saw one couple with a toddler at the dinner. For a split second, I thought, "Oh, maybe I should have brought my little one." And then I slapped myself and asked for another glass of wine. This dinner would still have been lovely chasing a child around the dinner table, but it would have been...different. Yes, different.