Next week we're packing up the kidlets and heading out West for a family wedding.  We couldn't be more excited!  But let me tell you, trying to find 'family-friendly' accommodations was a bit of a nightmare.  I really wanted to find places that had a kitchen and laundry and, if possible, two bedrooms to make my kids' staggered bedtimes a wee bit easier. When all the bookings were made and my credit card bill came in, let me tell you, I shed a little tear.   That's why I was so excited when Penelope from Knok contacted me to tell me about the company: an international home-swap organization.  Basically, you pay a small annual fee and can swap your home with another family anywhere in the world - as often as you like!  I shed more than a few tears when I realized my hotel bookings were non-refundable...(the downside of going for the 'cheapest' deal!).

Since I haven't tried the home-swap myself (YET!), read below for Penelope's story and check out Knok's website for more details!

Ever wished to go on holiday with your family and not leave the comforts of your home, all without breaking the bank?  Knok is a new generation home swap community with thousands of homes in over 159 countries.

Before I signed up I was filled with all kinds of questions and doubts, now all I question is “Why isn’t everybody doing this?”

From the very beginning the process was simple, once I expressed interest in a home that caught my eye, we began chatting - they were so kind and helpful, immediately putting any worries I had at ease…and then suddenly, voila, the dates were set and an agreement was organized, and we were off to Paris!!

Travelling with a family can be such an exhausting task but once we arrived I instantly relaxed, how could I not staying in my “home away from home?”

The kids immediately ran off to find the toys and I was able to put my feet up in the lounge and read over all the local advice and recommendations left by my home swap partner.

PictureParis Home Exchange
Not only are you able to live in the comforts of a real home whilst on holiday, you are able to reinvest all the money you save on accommodation costs into your holiday activities, making it all the more memorable experience. No matter how many times you home swap a full years' membership with Knok, including home insurance, it is cheaper than one night accommodation at a hotel!! Insane, right?

We had a day of being the ultimate tourists heading up the Eiffel Tower, visiting Mona Lisa, the Arc De Triomphe, even a bike tour around the back streets (it was so Parisian of us),and thanks to the advice our home swap partner left, we managed to skip the queue at every single venue!!

And I will tell you something, there is nothing more comforting after a long, hectic day with the kids, than arriving back in your “home away from home,” putting the kids to bed and popping open a well deserved bottle of wine from the cupboard.

Knok is not just ideal for families, but the convenience and ease of the entire process, along with not missing those special moments around the dinner table with your children, that just makes this home exchange platform so remarkable. For once I actually returned from a holiday feeling relaxed and also satisfied that my children had a great time (the two usually don’t mix in my household). Home swap is the travel choice of the future, my only warning to you is that you will get hooked!

Now I spend all my time organizing where I am travelling next, Spain, Italy, Thailand, Germany….

This guest post was written by Penelope H. who works for Knok, a new generation ‘home swap’ platform that enables people to find the best home exchange for their holidays.
Have you ever done a home-exchange?  How did it go?  What are your top tips for traveling this way?

We recently took the boys on our first family beach vacation to Turks and Caicos.  The weather was perfect, the resort was great (more on that in another post), and the beach was simply unbelievable.  Toddler tantrums aside, we all had a great time.  But there are a few things I wish I had packed that would have made the trip go a little more smoothly...
1. More sunscreen!  Because Chuckles was just under the 6-month mark, I didn't want to put any ol' sunscreen on his precious, perfect skin, but I was too nervous about burns to avoid it altogether.  In the end, I settled on a tube of Green Beaver sunscreen.  It's certified organic and people swear by their kid's line.  Of course, when I went to our local supplier, they were all out.  But the salesperson said that the regular stuff has all the same ingredients, just a different package.  So I bought one tube and went on my merry way.  One tube was not enough for the 4 of us for 6 days.  By the end, we were rationing it.  You don't want to ration sunscreen, so pack twice as much as you think you'll need!

2. Sunshades.  We rented a car from Grace Bay Car Rentals for our trip.  They were fabulous and provided car seats at no extra cost.  Their promotional material says "Children's safety should not be a revenue source."   I couldn't agree more and was completely bowled over by this, so booked my car without price comparing.  Turns out, they also offer the most reasonable rates, so it was win-win.  However, we definitely could have used sunshades for the windows.  The infant seat didn't have the hood, so the poor babe had the sun directly in his face a lot of the time, as his seat is still rear-facing.  Those cheapie cling-on jobbies would have saved our kids a lot of discomfort and me a lot of worry.   They'll be at the top of my list next time!

3. Bug spray!  As usual, I was the only one who got eaten alive, so at least my neglectful parenting didn't lead to either of the kids suffering from being bitten, but I sure could've used some repellent!  There are a LOT of mosquitoes in Turks & Caicos.  Stock up on the Muskol, people!

4. Some bubble wrap or an empty jar.  Listen, if you're going to go to Turks & Caicos - or any island, really - you're going to spend some time on the beach and will probably pick up a seashell or two, or twenty.  You may even go diving for conch and want to take home the shell.  Do yourself a favour and bring some sort of vessel in which to transport all those lovely shells home!  I had to take one of my husband's favourite t-shirts and wrap the conch in it, while trying to carefully nestle it in the suitcase and hope it wouldn't get damaged in transit.  (It didn't - a miracle!) And I had to use a bunch of empty baby food jars to transport the rest!  Note: make sure you've dried your shells in the sun for a couple days before packing them, or you risk your entire suitcase smelling like something died in there!

5. DVDs.  I know this may be difficult to believe, but even JR got bored of playing with the iPad and, had I packed a movie or two, we may have avoided a tantrum or two.  When travelling with kids on different schedules, it is inevitable that there will be some downtime spent in your room. I had packed some books and toys and the iPad, but that wasn't enough.  The resort had a small DVD library, but none of the titles were toddler friendly. 

I'm sure I could list a million other things that could have made our lives easier at some point during the week, but those are the things that stood out for me.  Please feel free to add to the list of things you wish you had packed!  Together we can build one mother of a packing list!  (My underpacking nature shudders to think how many pieces of luggage we'd need to check!)
So, Italy will have to wait...we've decided to find a compromise and we're going to do a self-catering trip to Turks and Caicos instead.  This way, we get a little of the beach relaxation I so badly want and a bit of exploring too. (And hopefully loads of fresh seafood!)
My (first world) problem is this:  because of scheduling and costs, we're booked to go only 3 days after getting back from 5 days in Maryland, and I'm not sure what to do about packing?  Should I pack for both trips in advance of leaving for Maryland (as a fall trip to the eastern US coast will be very different than a trip to the Carribbean!), or come home, unpack and re-pack?
What have you done when doing back to back trips?
Or, in one diaper bag, to be more exact.  Tomorrow will be Spawn #2's first flight and just to keep things exciting, I decided to take baby and toddler together. By myself.

I also timed it to coincide with the point in time that JR:
(a) doesn't like to wear a seatbelt
(b) doesn't listen to anything mommy says
(c) doesn't like being apart from daddy

So, this should be a tonne of fun.

To try and minimize the severity of the nuclear meltdown that is sure to occur tomorrow morning, I'm filling my diaper bag with all of JR's favourite things: homemade granola bars and brownies, dinosaurs, and my secret weapon: the Octonauts.  I can't even describe to you how excited he gets when Octonauts comes on each day.  He screams each character's name as they appear on the screen with such fervor that spit flies everywhere and I'm sure his eyes are going to pop out of his head!

Because you can't get Octonauts toys in Canada, I scoured the internet and ordered some off EBay - they arrived in the nick of time, thank god!

So as I sit here wrapping them all up (every extra second that he's occupied counts!), I wonder if I was crazy to even consider this or if, once again, I'm underestimating my amazing toddler and everything will be fine.  I'll let you know next week...until then, wish me luck!

If you read my post about my newfound trepidation about traveling with not one, but two, kids in tow, you'll know that we're considering taking our kids to Italy this winter.  Italy is, hands down, our favourite place on earth...and we've been to a lot of places!  The pace, the food, the scenery, the people - just can't be beat!  But how do we visit our favourite place with a 2.5 year old and a 6 month old and actually enjoy ourselves? 

Recently, MSN Today posted an article titled "Went to Europe, loved the playground: Why travel with kids is a waste"   The title is a bit misleading because the article does attempt to be balanced and even says that traveling with your children is a good thing - it just shouldn't be "THE" thing.  You need to spend time together at home and create those strong bonds at home before whisking everyone off to some exotic island or far-flung country. 

So I began to think more seriously about Italy...will I be disappointed if we travel all that way knowing that the day after we get back my toddler will already have forgotten half of the things we saw? Or will I be frustrated spending half the day at a playground that looks like the playground that's three doors down from our own house? 
Not really.  As long as the other half of the day is spent doing a little exploring (after naptime, of course).  I suppose it might be upsetting if this was a 'once in a lifetime' trip.  But it's not.  It's just the beginning, really. 

And yes, *I* want to go to Italy.  My kids haven't been begging me.  But I don't see anything wrong with that.  The whole trip will expose them to things they just won't experience at home.

And it will serve as an opportunity for JR to practice his newfound* skills of patience and adaptability to different surroundings.  And an opportunity for us to learn how we best travel as a family.

So when Laura Davis, from Playground Parents, told me about her new site, I started thinking that maybe it's not so silly to travel a great distance with such young kids. She and her husband are building a new online resource for traveling families.  If you're away from home and your kids need to burn off some energy, you can go to their site, plug in your location and it will map playgrounds in your area.  The site is populated by fellow travelers, so if you have a favourite playground near your own home, or somewhere you've traveled, you can add it to their database.  It's a great concept and once more listings are added, I bet will be invaluable to all those intrepid family travelers with rambunctious kids!

*At 2 years old, JR has neither patience nor adaptability yet, but practice makes perfect, right?!

What playgrounds are you traveling to this winter?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...actually, it was totally just the worst.  Last week was my birthday and I foolishly decided to take both kids (let me remind you of their ages: 2 years old and 2 months old) to the Islands by myself -- even though there was a 40% chance of thundershowers.  I packed lots of snacks, diapers and an umbrella and off we went, blissfully ignorant of the tempest that was brewing.

For both locals and tourists, the Toronto Islands are a must-visit destination. 

The Islands are a network of several small islands and, according to Wikipedia, is the largest urban car-free community in North America.  Two of the islands are actually residential and have gorgeous, eclectic cottages on them, and well worth cycling through for a look.  But if you've got young kids with short attention spans and a love of adrenaline, then you'll probably want to head straight to the main attraction, Centre Island, which is home to an amusement park, called "Centreville".  If rides aren't up your family's alley, you can stroll around or rent single or tandem bikes, explore Franklin's Children's Garden or have lunch at The Rectory Cafe on Ward's Island - a wonderful little spot - or just pack a lunch and a blanket and soak up the wonderful summer weather.

The ferry departs from the foot of Bay Street (click here for fares and schedules) every 15-30 minutes and once you're across, you feel as if you've entered a completely different world, as evidenced by this sign which greets all visitors:
Oh!  Okay, then...we accepted the polite invitation and walked to a quiet place (of which there are many) under some trees, next to the lake. JR proceeded to happily chase pigeons while we waited for friends to arrive.  It was all downhill from there.  The rest of the day involved several meltdowns:

1. After buying the 'ride all day' pass (which, by the way, is a good value at $21.90 (or $19.90 if you buy online before you go as individual tickets are $1 each, and each ride is between 4 and 6 tickets). JR melts down when the cashier attempts to put the wristband on him.  I finally wrangle it on his ankle.  He spends the next 10 minutes screaming, trying to rip it off like it's actually acid being poured on his skin.
2. After trying to gently prod him toward the bouncy castle
3. After his friend decides to go on the roller coaster without him
4. After he waits in line for a pony ride but decides he doesn't actually want to ride it
5. After he drops a piece of his granola bar
You get the idea...

Less than 90 minutes after arriving I decide to pull the plug when I hear thunder.  Huh.  Guess the weatherman was right after all!

It starts raining when we're half way across on the ferry.  And by "rain", I actually mean "torrential downpour".  We dash from the ferry to our car.  And by "dash", I actually mean "clumsily careen the stroller while carrying an infant who throws up on me from all the jiggling while toddler screams from rain that is pelting his face".
A passerby was kind enough to take a photo of me:
Happy birthday to me!
So yeah, it wasn't my favourite birthday, that's for sure.  But it hasn't changed how I feel about the Toronto Islands.  It's such a great place and (usually) always feels like a mini-vacation, getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city. 

Does your city have an 'escape from it all'?  Tell me about it, I'd love to know!
Sadly, finances and schedules prevent us from being in a perpetual state of planning our next big adventure.  So, when I was half-way through my last pregnancy, we agreed to not plan any trips until Spawn 2.0 arrived and we had a chance to settle into our newly expanded family life. 

Luckily, I had another project to occupy me: a "big boy room" for JR.  Since he was being shunted from the bigger room and was losing the undivided attention of his parents for pretty much the rest of his life, I was determined to make it really special.  You know, bribe him.

After some deliberation, I decided on a travel/vintage airplane themed bedroom.  Planning his room turned out to be almost as fun as planning a vacation! I got a lot of inspiration (read: full-on stole ideas because I loved it so much and am totally not creative enough to think of this stuff on my own) from this great blog.

I'm super happy with the results!  And so is JR.  He especially loves the balsa wood models Daddy made for him and loves blowing on the propeller to "make it go".

Have you done a travel-themed room for your kids?
When people find out they're pregnant, they often "accept" the fact that they won't be able to travel like they used to - or at all - once the baby is born.

When I found out I was pregnant with my first son, I started planning all the places I was going to take my little zygote to.  I had hiked the Inca Trail the year before I met my husband and the whole time I was gasping for air, I thought to myself "I can't wait to come back with my husband and kids some day!  What an amazing adventure this would be for a young child."  So now I'm counting down the years until JR and C are strong enough to handle the hike and altitude (because lord knows, I ain't carrying either of them!).

Likewise when my husband and I were whitewater kayaking down the White Nile in Uganda -- my husband started talking about teaching our yet-to-be-conceived son how to paddle before he started to crawl...

And just after JR's first birthday we boarded a plane to Vietnam and revisited some of the places we'd seen a few years earlier. 

But now that we've got our 2nd baby on board, I find myself hesitating to book the trip to Europe that we'd been talking about for the last year.  Suddenly, I'm a bit nervous and uncertain that bringing TWO kids across the ocean is a good idea.  It's not the flight..at this time last year, we were in the midst of a 25 hour journey to Vietnam with a 15-month old. I consider myself the Toddler Distraction Queen.  It's not the packing...I'm notoriously militant about packing.  There is nothing I hate more than schleping around backpacks and bags filled with stuff you don't need - so I know I'll be smart about what to bring. 

I think the biggest obstacle for me is wanting to find a balance between fun for me/my husband and fun for the kids.  Weekends don't exist for me to sleep in and watch chick flicks anymore (confession:  I've never actually done this) - they exist to find something that the kids will enjoy.  My husband and I really think of nothing else in our spare time.  Because watching them have fun gives me more joy than any cheesy rom-com airing on the Women's Network. So will our 2-year old really have fun if we rent a house in southern Italy for a couple weeks?  Or will it be exactly like being at home, but without all his toys/books/playground? 

And this is why, for the first time in my life, my husband and I are actually considering an all-inclusive to a family resort.  There.  I said it.  We are likely going to sit our bums down on a beach, eat bland food, and watch annoying Sesame Street stage shows every night.  And we're going to love it. 

We've never done this type of vacation before as we've always leaned toward more 'adventurous' travel. Our best travel memories are usually from meeting the locals, finding that amazing, tucked-away food stall, or standing in a spot that is unreachable by any method that requires an engine.

Basically, the opposite of what you experience at an all-inclusive.  

But in addition to working our butts off this year, we also have another set of feet on the ground. So we both think that doing nothing somewhere warm where you don't have to worry about finding someone that speaks enough English to tell you where the nearest bank is, or decide where you're going to eat your next meal or do anything resembling thinking at all sounds mighty nice.

So we'll save the family hike in the Andes for our next vacation...

P.S. Since I'm completely unfamiliar with resorts, I'd love to hear your suggestions for great family all-inclusive spots! 
It's been an embarassingly long time since my last post.  Nearly a year!  I started the site as my mat leave was ending, and the return to full-time work outside the home really did me in.  Not only was I dealing with the emotional stress of leaving JR in the hands of a virtual stranger while I sat in an office all day, but I was also facing an hour+ commute by transit each way to get to work, which meant that every extra moment in my day was dedicated to my son and husband and weekends were split between finding something fun to do as a family and dealing with all the un-fun things that got neglected during the week (cleaning house, paying bills and the never-ending laundry - where does it all come from?!).

Then, a few months later I decided my life wasn't hectic enough and I really needed to add another layer of stress...err...joy...to my life by getting pregnant. :)   Five weeks ago, our second son, C, was born and I find myself once again itching to do something creative and social.   Writing this blog helps me connect to the outside world.  Hopefully it helps you connect to your inner travel bug -- so let's get going!   

I look forward to telling you about our travel plans and hearing about yours!  Thanks for reading...
In the last 17 months, I have learned that there is almost nothing more rewarding than a child who is napping from sheer exhausted joy.  That's what JR is doing right now....bliss...

The day started off rather drearily...after a late night, JR decided to wake up earlier than usual and the sky had been threatening rain since the day before.  After lunch I saw some sun poking through the gray clouds.  I perked up at the sight and decided that we needed to get out of the house.  

One of the great things about living in a city like Toronto is that you are never short of things to do.  JR is now at the age where animals and animal noises are fascinating to him.  His vocabulary is still pretty sparse, but he can moo and squwak like a champ, so I figured that a return trip to the fabulous Riverdale Farm was in order.
Riverdale Farm is a true hidden gem.  Nestled in the middle of the Victorian neighbourhood of Cabbagetown (so named for the poor Irish immigrants who dug up their front yards to grow cabbage), this compact farm in the city is a working farm with all the animals you'd expect: cows, donkey, chickens, pigs, goats, sheep and a beautiful Clydesdale horse.  (Sadly, "Dolly" the other Clydesdale passed away last week due to old age.)   

Just inside the entrance is there's a small tuck shop which sells fresh baked goodies (I can't resist the oatmeal raisin cookies), and, if the stars align and you're there at the right time, you can even score some fresh farm eggs.  Having just filled up on lunch - and noticing that the ray of sun I had seen earlier was now hiding behind some menacing-looking clouds - we by-passed the cookies and headed straight for the animals. 

As it wasn't yet raining, most of the animals were outside and the look of excitement on JR's face as he saw the sheep and goats was priceless.  He was practically jumping out of my arms, frantically "baa-ing" and pointing.  He dutifully made each animal noise as we went from pen to pen.

Once we'd seen all the animals, we wandered down the stroller-friendly pathway, which leads to two buildings.  One is a volunteer-run museum, housed in "The Residence", and details the history of Cabbagetown and the Farm.  Across from the museum is "The Meeting Place" where events are held all-year round. In front of The Meeting Place are a few toys for kids to play with when they get bored of following mom and dad around the museum.
And if you're just not ready to head back to the car yet, just behind both buildings is a pathway which connects to the Don Valley Hills & Dales Discovery Walk (click here for a map and more info).  The path is well maintained and is not strenuous at all.  Within minutes you'll forget all about the busy city around you and find yourself enjoying the butterflies flitting about, and even stopping to smell the roses.
Still not convinced that you should hop on a streetcar and visit the Farm?  I've been saving the best for last:  It's open year-round and admission is free!* 

Because this amazing resource is free and so accessible, it means that you can pop in for a quick visit any time, or you can while away a whole afternoon if you like. Riverdale Park is adjacent to the Farm and is the perfect spot to enjoy a picnic or those fresh-baked cookies from the tuck shop. The farm is located at 201 Winchester Street (east of Parliament, south of Wellesley and north of Carlton/Gerrard Streets) and is easily accessible by TTC.

For more information on the Farm, visit The Friends of Riverdale Farm website.

*For now anyway: the Farm is currently on the Mayor's chopping block since he made campaign promises to 'cut the gravy' from City Hall and couldn't find any.  He's now looking for ways to find all that money he promised his voters.  For more on this, click here - and sign the petition to keep Riverdale Farm accessible to everyone!  Political rant over.  :)