Monday, August 28, 2017

Visiting Toronto with Kids and CityPASS

There's a lot of buzz about Canada these days, especially among Americans brainstorming travel destinations. The country is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017 to much fanfare.

But where to start? Quebec City is amazing for European charm, see my detailed post on what to do with kids in Quebec City on Ciao Bambino.

Alternatively, Toronto is another great option for families thinking of Canada. It's got an amazing multicultural vibe, skyscrapers sure to impress, and a prime location on the shore of Lake Ontario that offers green space galore. Plus, typically great flight options and price points from most US locations.

But big city travel (and Toronto is indeed big--4th most populist city in North America) takes a bit of pre-planning when visiting with children. Unfortunately for me, I was so busy helping my Ciao Bambino clients plan their own summer travels that it was only a few weeks before we were due to depart for our Canada road trip when I began sketching out our time in the city.

Here's where comes into play. This is a perennial favorite of families visiting cities around North America because it not only offers reduced entry into typically the most popular attractions (read: the places you'd be visiting anyway) but also helps you focus your time. And at certain attractions, their skip-the-line access is invaluable.

So last month, my family put CityPASS through its paces in Toronto and had a blast. We only had one full day to explore the city, with 2-3 days you could more fully maximize the value of a Toronto CityPASS.

CN Tower:

The CN Tower is THE thing to see in Toronto for most visitors. Indeed, you can't avoid it, as the tallest building it is unmissable from anywhere in the city.

A few tips:
-While the CityPASS does offer a special entrance line, everyone visiting the tower must pass through security. So I'd still advise getting there within the first hour that it is open to avoid a long wait at security. Plus, it will feel far less crowded at the top anyway and you'll have more space as a family to move around and enjoy the views. I had the false impression that with our CityPASS we would breeze right up to the top... not so. Get there early.
-There's a fun play area at the bottom after you leave the Tower, with comfy couches for parents. We used this as a time for the kids to burn off some steam and for us to plan our next activity.
-On a nice day, enjoy the waterfront area. We loved the beauty of the water in this area more so than the tower itself. (View is amazing though, and I was glad we carved out the time to see it.) It's also fun to stop at the Blue Jay's stadium.
-This is also the perfect time to pop into Ripley's Aquarium, also included in the pass. We didn't have time as we wanted to explore other areas of the city, but the convenience of having two attractions side by side is fabulous for families.

Royal Ontario Museum:

Since everything in Toronto feels "big," it's fitting that the Royal Ontario Museum is one of the largest museums in Canada. But unlike some museums, it doesn't feel overwhelming and it's easy to take a quick glance at the map and prioritize your time there based on family interests.

You could easily spend a full day here, but we enjoyed hitting the highlights during our 2 hour visit. The dinosaurs are a must. We especially enjoyed that the diagrams of each fossil display shows which fossils are real and which were recreated. My boys really enjoyed trying to see a difference between the "real" and "fake!"

A few tips:
-You may still wait in a short line to get your ticket checked and bag searched, but the CityPASS will allow you to bypass the ticket counter wait (looked to be about a 15 minute long line when we were there on a Sunday afternoon).
-Special exhibits are an extra cost, however.
-It's an easy walk to the University of Toronto campus with nice green areas if the kids need to run around after the museum.

Given that we only hit two of the sites covered by the Toronto CityPASS we didn't see a huge cost savings. But had we hit even just one more attraction (we undoubtedly would have with more time in the city), then its value would have been easily justified. In addition to the aquarium near the CN Tower, Casa Loma, the Toronto Zoo or the Science Centre are all part of the pass package as well.

Another perk of CityPASS is the time limitation is much more flexible. Whereas some tourist passes only allow you 24 or 48 hours, thereby forcing you to rush from one attraction to the next, you get many more days to utilize your CityPASS. I find this works much better with kids--it's hard to see more than 1-2 big sites each day.

Have you used CityPASS anywhere? I'd love to hear your experience in the comments!

Note: I was provided with two media passes for purposes of this review, but purchased two additional passes for the rest of my family at full cost. All opinions are my own. Links to the CityPASS page are affiliate links which help support this blog and don't change the cost for your family.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Happy 8th Birthday, Big Arrow!

I like to write posts to the boys on their birthdays, and it is Big Arrow's 8th birthday this week (you can read his 2nd3rd4th, 5th6th, and 7th posts and Little Arrow's 1st2nd,3rd, 4th, and 5th at the links.) Maybe someday I'll carve out the time to actually write about our travels again!

The sentiment of the quote that inspired this blog's name rang so true this year. I've never shared the full poem from which it comes.

"On Children"
by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls, 
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children 
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for the gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

I have noticed you beginning to realize life beyond yourself. You ask questions about others, about their lives, about their struggles. Admittedly we sometimes tell you to stop being nosy or to quit interrupting when you need one of your million questions answered. My goal in the year ahead is to better help you with your thirst for all the details about the world around you. To share my thoughts, feelings and emotions about life, without pressuring you to necessarily share my world view.

This is the year where I found I couldn't fix all your problems the way I could a skinned knee when you were 2 or a lost stuffed animal at age 5. Your issues are taking on a complexity that can best be handled by you. All decidedly first world, but a big deal for a sensitive 7-year-old. Now 8. You seem to recognize this too, though, and you are getting adept at "handling your business" (a frequent mantra in this house).

I know that this will only increase as the months and years of growing older and more mature stretch before us. I'm confident you're ready for more independence, more self-sufficiency. I hope I am too!

And since this is your virtual baby book... you also spent the bulk of the past year missing your two front teeth and it was quite possibly your most adorable phase yet. And playing lots of sports. And thinking about sports. And reading about sports. And writing about sports. And trying to con us into letting you stay up late to watch sports.

This year, I plan to let you read all the past birthday posts I've written for you. And each year going forward from here, my birthday post won't appear on the internet and will instead just be something personal shared between you and I. As you get older, I find your stories are yours to tell, not mine.

I hope your dad and I have been worthy Bows to you, sweet boy. You are certainly a very fine Arrow to us and everyone who knows and loves you.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Happy 5th Birthday, Little Arrow!

I like to write posts to the boys on their birthdays, and it is Little Arrow's 5th birthday (you can read his 1st2nd, 3rd, and 4th posts and Big Arrow's 2nd3rd4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th posts at the links.) In fact, these birthday posts are sadly becoming just about all I have time to write these days. Sigh.

Little Arrow, I just put you to bed for the last time as a 4-year-old. I think a piece of my heart broke, but then again, I'm reminded that a few days ago, I said to my husband, "I wish I could freeze time at this very moment of parenting." I love the phase you and your brother are in right now. Old enough to be fairly independent, but still full of little kid spunk and charm. (With a little bit of frequent afterschool meltdowns sprinkled on top, if we're keeping it real.)

See, you still take baths. But then you run and put your pajamas on all by yourself and sometimes even throw your dirty clothes in the laundry. (You like a tidy room, very much a credit to your orderly father.)

You still want to snuggle at bedtime, but you also typically sleep 10-11 straight hours each night. Oh, how I wish I could tell the very-tired-mom-of-two-little-ones this miracle would someday happen round about 4-5 years ago.

Also, this is the year you learned to swim. Frankly, you were probably ready last summer but I was too lazy to really make the time for that (sorry, second kid) and a 3-year-old swimming independently just seemed absurd.

Watching you at swim lessons this summer was the perfect synopsis of what I love about you. You just look at challenges and tackle them head on. You can definitely be shy, but you're also rarely intimidated. Your comfort zone is so much wider than mine, and you're very willing to step outside it often.

As a parent, I'm trying to balance my duty to protect you from danger without holding you back. Goodness, do I struggle with this. I want you within 5 feet of me on the trail of life, but you want to be 50 yards ahead, at a full sprint, just out of my line of sight.

On the last day of swim lessons, they let the kids jump off the diving board. You wanted to jump off the high dive so badly. I was terrified. You gave me a look that said, "What's the worst that could happen?" The answer was, that you would belly flop from 10 feet up, and that's exactly what you did. Ouch. I've watched this video a hundred times and still cringe:

Guess what? You marched right back up that ladder and tried again.

I've never had to push you in anything you do. YOU push ME. I'm learning so much from you, kiddo. My heart isn't breaking because you're 5. I think it's just bursting.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Focusing on Thankulness and Hopefulness

Today, I’m choosing to focus on all the things I’m thankful for.

Most importantly, I’m thankful for parents who not only told me, but SHOWED me, that through hard work anything is possible. But that when you get where you’re going, you don’t forget the people who haven’t been as fortunate. Their generosity humbles me every single day. It’s through this lens that I have formed every value I hold dear. I hope I’m a sliver to my kids what they’ve been to me.

I’m thankful that I just brought my 4 year old to a school that looks like a rainbow of humanity. So that he is continued to be reminded that no matter what country you’re born in or what you look like or who you love, we’re all equal and worthy of love and respect. We’ve been treated with that same dignity when we left these shores for a new country and I’ll never forget that compassion. It changed me to my very core. But I know that the color of our skin, the money in our bank account, and the nature of our accents affected the way we were treated, and I know that for far too many immigrants those differences make their existence an incredible struggle.

I’m thankful for a husband that sees me as his equal in every way. I know now more than ever that this isn’t something to take for granted. I’m thankful for his parents who raised him in this way. I will devote myself more than ever to raising two boys into men who will stand up for women’s rights with all their hearts. And so help me God, if so-called locker room talk ever unfolds in their presence, may I have instilled in them the courage to end it.

I’m thankful I’m a part of a religious community that stands for peace, love and justice. I’m thankful for this space where I can continue to work on being my best self, as can my family.

I’m thankful for all the friends in my life. But today in particular, I’m thankful that the way I’ve lived my life has brought me friends of every sexual persuasion, race, ethnicity, religion and more. You’ve opened my eyes to just how privileged I am. And the real, genuine challenges we face. You make me want to work incredibly hard for a better world. Because it’s so very personal.

I’m thankful for the power of the pen and the freedom to travel. It’s not only been my livelihood the past 7 years but it soothes me. I hope I never lose these rights.

I’m thankful that each day I wake up and all my life’s basic needs are provided to me with little thought. Shelter. Food. Clean water. Adequate healthcare. I know this instantly makes me ridiculously privileged and fortunate. I know so many don’t have this and I hope we can all work toward changing that.
For everything I find myself thankful for today, I am renewed in my commitment to make sure all people can experience these same freedoms and joys.

I’ll continue to live my life with gratitude, open-mindedness, and love. And I’ll try harder to be the change I wish to see in this world.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

5 Half-Day Adventures in Malta with Kids

My family's feelings toward our trip to Malta are best summed up in a recent conversation we had with the boys about whether or not we should get a turtle. This comes up frequently in our house... Big Arrow is allergic to dogs and cats so they're angling for alternative pet options. In an effort to steer clear of the inevitable, "So can we have one?" question, I raised my own question. "If we got a turtle, what would you name it?"

There was some chatter, some silliness of wildly inappropriate names (relating to private parts and bathroom talk). And then one of the boys said, "We should name it Malta. Then we can think about that trip all the time." And we all agreed that was a perfect name. And it almost makes me want to seriously consider getting them a turtle just so we could have a pet named Malta.

That's when you know a trip has reached legendary status.

Our trip to Malta was all about combining sightseeing with relaxation. We knew it would be our last European trip for quite a while so we wanted to make the most of it, but we were also smack dab in the middle of an international move so we all desperately needed some R&R. (Little Arrow was also fresh off a bout with a terrible flu, so even if we hadn't wanted to go at a slow pace, his lessened energy required it.)

We tried to balance our days with outings that took 2-4 hours, and then relax by the pool or on the beach for the rest of the day. We also did a spectacular day trip to Gozo, an island off of Malta. I'll devote an entire post to Gozo in the next couple of weeks so stay tuned.

After a week on the island, there was still more we wanted to see, but these were our highlights:

Option 1: Rolling Geeks Tour

If you do one thing in Malta with your kids, make it this. We rented an electric golf cart that had
an iPad that was pre-programmed with a historical tour of the Three Cities in Malta. The scenery was stunning, the commentary was really helpful for folks who don't know anything about Malta's history (like us), and the ride was a total thrill, especially for the kids.

If your kids are still a bit too young for tour guides, this was an ideal way to learn all about what we were seeing, but in a way that was just right for our children. Truthfully, most of the recorded commentary on the iPad was over their heads, but they didn't mind at all because they were completely distracted by the excitement of the golf cart. Plus, we could stop whenever we wanted (like at a beach, a park, a clifftop overlook, etc.) to let them run around and take a break.

We saw some amazing areas of the country that we would have never thought to visit on our own. I can't say enough about it. At only 75 euros for all four of us for 2.5 hours, it was an exceptionally good value.

Option 2: Marsaxlokk

In the era of modern supermarkets and fast food, you must bring your kids to the Sunday market in Marsaxlokk at the southern tip of Malta. Here, the seafood is brought directly from the brightly colored wooden ships to the market vendors and the restaurants and cafes that line the main street along the marina. It's hot, stinky and crowded, but its a scene that will blow you away in appreciation that places like this still exist. Time has stood still in this place in the best possible way.

Arrive mid morning and stroll the market, then grab the first open table you see for lunch (it will be absolutely packed by 1 p.m. at all the waterside restaurants). Enjoy a leisurely lunch and then stroll the market again. By mid afternoon most of the delightful boats will be tied back up and you can get incredible photos of the bay.

Option 3: San Anton Gardens and Presidential Palace

I've never met a botanical garden I didn't like, but I'm not sure I would have carved out time for this one in Malta if it hadn't been directly across the street from our hotel. But go figure, our kids were up early our first morning and it seemed like a great place to burn off some energy and get some fresh air.

The gardens themselves are quite pleasant and well maintained. There's even a small aviary with fancy birds. Challenge your kids to count up how many cats they see wandering about. I think we spotted at least a dozen.

From there, we wandered through the Presidential Palace (you'll be stunned by how little security there seems to be). Just past the Palace is a coffee shop with incredible playgrounds and play spaces, even a small petting zoo. Just don't come here first, or you'll never drag the kids away.

Option 4: Valletta

As Malta's largest city, Valletta truly deserves a full day. But we passed through en route from changing from one hotel to another so we only had a few hours. We mostly just enjoyed wandering the streets, especially the pedestrian only Commonwealth Walkway.

We did make a stop to watch a 5D movie about Malta's history at Malta 5D (near St. John's Cathedral). Worth doing if you want a nice, kid-friendly introduction to Malta's significance in the history books (and it IS very significant, despite being a somewhat lesser known destination).

I wish we had made time to step into St. John's Cathedral. I've never seen such a large structure tucked away amid normal buildings quite like this anywhere else in Europe. It was spectacular just admiring it from the very hilly streets around it.

Option 5: Mdina

This was a spur of the moment half-day adventure for us, we were actually en route to another destination and realized the drive was going to take longer than we anticipated so we stopped here instead. With absolutely no pre-planning about one of Malta's most ancient villages, we happily accepted an offer from one of the horse carriage drivers at the ancient entrance gates.

We spent the next half hour enjoying the ride and exploring the most narrow alleys, beautiful churches, incredible views of the Malta countryside, etc. Then we had a charming lunch in a little cafe, marveled at the strange foods our experienced expat kids now happily ate (if you had told me 3 years prior we'd be ordering our kids chorizo platters that they would then devour I would have fallen over). And then we stopped at the playground near the city gates and watched our boys enjoy their final European playground.

I don't know when we'll take the kids back to Europe. Perhaps they'll be well past playground playing age. Maybe they'll be driving electric golf carts themselves. And we might even have a turtle named Malta by then. Regardless, Malta was the perfect last hurrah.

Ciao Bambino has some great articles about Malta here. This was my starting point for planning our trip.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Back in business!

It's been a little quiet around Arrows Sent Forth these past six months. I could offer you a list of excuses reasons, like the fact that I started a new career after 7 years as a mostly stay-at-home mom, executed an international relocation back to Indiana from England, and resettled two kids into new schools. Oh, yeah, and I wrote a book.

All settled back into U.S. life, like the joy of front porch swings on summer days.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Happy 7th Birthday, Big Arrow!

I wasn't sure what I wanted to write about for your 7th birthday post until just a few days ago. We were curled up on the couch, watching "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," the slightly creepy Johnny Depp version. I was already feeling warm and fuzzy, listening to you and your brother compare the movie version to the play we saw in London last Christmas Eve. I was feeling thankful we had the chance to do that and provide you with such an experience (and who am I kidding... me too! I loved it as much as you did!). I was mentally reflecting on all those many memories from the past few years for which I'm grateful.

And then one of Charlie's grandmothers says to Charlie as he dreams of winning a golden ticket, "Charlie, nothing is impossible."

And that's it. That's what I want to tell you this year. Anything is possible. And it truly is. I hope your short yet amazing life has taught you this already.