Monday, April 29, 2013

Maine Monday: Take it outside

Portland waterfront
We are about one month away from the official start of the tourist season in Maine. Memorial Day brings vacationers to our state in droves and the influx lasts well into leaf peeping season in the fall. Weekend dinner reservations are harder to come by in the summer, but that just means you need to plan a little bit ahead. Or use the next four weeks to get out and try some favorite places while you can still find a parking spot on Commercial Street.

The bonus to all these tourists (other than their much needed tourist dollars) is that it turns every restaurant in town into a super family friendly place to go out to dinner. People are here on vacation, they've brought their families, and they're going to go out to eat. Restaurants you might be wary of bringing your kids to in the middle of February are happy to welcome you with open arms (even better if those arms are carrying the cocktail menu) when you show up on a warm summer night. Chances are yours won't be the only little munchkins competing for booster chairs and coloring paper.

The hidden backyard at Caiola's
With the arrival of the beautiful weather comes the welcome return of outdoor tables and patio dining at some of our favorite spots around town. Outdoor tables offer the perfect family friendly spaces for dining. It's naturally loud and there's plenty of people watching to keep you all occupied. It's also much easier to take a restless kid for a pre-main course stroll when you're already sitting outside.

Someplace you might not expect to find family friendly dining is the wonderful neighborhood restaurant Caiola's. The have a lovely backyard patio and plenty of things on the menu that can be made kid friendly. Big C&G is a huge fan of their burger, while Little C&G usually gets a plain version of whatever pasta is on their changing menu. Caiola's has a great cocktail menu and Mr. C&G and I always find something interesting to toast with while the little C&Gs work their way through the charcuterie plate.

Nothing beats the prime location of The Farmers Table. With a sun drenched corner spot and upstairs and downstairs outdoor patios, this is a favorite spot for locals and tourists alike. We used to take Big C&G all the time back when he was an infant (and when it was called The Bakehouse), when goldfish and frozen peas were all he would eat. Thankfully he's branched out and now he'll eat almost anything on their menu. The gorgeous scenery, supply of high chairs, and delicious food make it a perfect family friendly spot for brunch, lunch or dinner.

The Grill Room is another family favorite with a small outdoor patio. The café tables under the trees are blocked off from the skateboarders and other teens that frequent the two parks nearby. With all that noise the other diners will never notice your little ones arguing over who gets the last of the delicious French fries. Don't worry if your kiddos aren't steak eaters, they also have yummy brick oven pizzas on their menu. Little C&G isn't a fan of the cheese they use in their mac & cheese on the a la carte sides menu, so he makes sure to ask if they can make up some plain pasta with butter.

Post lobster roll rock climbing at Two Lights
Other outdoor favorites include the Portland Lobster Company (great picnic tables, live bands, and literally on the water dining), Flatbread pizza (look out for the seagulls), and El Rayo for funky Mexican and outdoor activities (bean bag toss while you wait). Be sure to get to Two Lights Lobster Shack in Cape Elizabeth for lobster rolls, burgers, hot dogs, and all your fried favorites before the line to order wraps out the door and around the parking lot. Nothing says summer in Maine like a lobster roll and a skinned knee from climbing the rocks at Two Lights.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Cocktail du jour: Italian Meteor

Italians know their cocktails. As does Mr. C&G. With all my posts focusing on Italy this week I challenged him to give my favorite Russian cocktail, the Moscow Mule, an Italian upgrade.

We still have a bottle of the Italian liquor Tuaca in our bar and the vanilla citrus flavor makes it the perfect companion to any vodka drink. A few weeks ago Mr. C&G made my Moscow Mule with vanilla vodka, which I renamed to the more pleasant sounding Russian Meteor.

With an easy swap of unflavored vodka for the vanilla and the addition of the vanilla flavored Tuaca, my Russian Meteor landed a few thousand miles to the west to become the Italian Meteor. Attento!

The C&G Italian Meteor
1 1/2oz vodka
1 oz Tuaca
Fill glass with ginger beer and ice
Squeeze of lime and stir
Cin cin (cheers in Italian)!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Travel Tips: Start with a book

The first place I always start when I'm getting ready to plan a trip is Rick Steves' guide books. Mr. C&G and I have been following his recommendations for the past 16 years and he's never steered us wrong.

We got off the plane in Milan circa 1997, bought a phone card, found a pay phone in Malpensa airport, and called to reserve a room for that night in the Lake Como town of Varenna that Rick highly recommended. We had the most charming room with a terrace overlooking the lake that we never would have found on our own, especially in the days before the internet and email. Best of all the adorable Albergo Milano Varenna still shows up in his 2012 guidebook and is still run by the same family.

These days our travels require much more advance planning. Thankfully Rick is still writing and still traveling, and keeping it all updated on his website. His books aren't as kid friendly as I'd like, but I absolutely trust his opinions on what to see and what to skip on your adventures. His mostly hand drawn maps will tell you where to go, how to get there, and what there is to eat nearby. Helpful walking tours and museum tours describe the highlights that you won't want to miss, allowing you to save energy (and the kiddos energy) by not trying to see it all. 

Ristorante Antica Sacrestia in Venice, thank you Rick!
Rick is very big on hostels (as you can imagine, C&G is not) and budget friendly dining (again, not), but he's also great at recommending restaurants where the locals dine. We took his advice and found a tucked away little restaurant in Venice where we were the only Americans. Almost an impossible feat for this overcrowded floating island. 

DK travel guides are best known as the weighty, full of lush color photography guide books that you don't want to carry around on your travels. I make an exception for their well researched Family Guides, worth their weight in gold. The Family Guide to Italy was indispensable on our trip last year, and even in the months leading up to our departure. Other European Family Guide titles available include France, Paris, and London

These books are the perfect resource for planning your family trips. The colorful photos and maps will help you figure out where to go and what to see (cross referenced with Rick Steves). "Letting off steam" sections will tell you where the nearest open green space is to let your kiddos run around, always key after being cooped up in a museum or similar attraction. "The Lowdown" tells you all the necessary info (hours, admission, etc.) that you wish you'd written down before you left home, along with the ever important where to get food within quick walking distance before your kiddos melt down. "Kids Corner" sidebars offer interesting facts, a bit of history, and some trivia for your little adventurers to follow along at your destination. 

Stadt Hotel Citta, thanks Family Guide to Italy!
Each chapter focuses on a particular region, and within each section you'll find truly family friendly hotel suggestions. European hotels are not known for their size and you don't want to be squeezing your travel weary family into cramped quarters. Every hotel we stayed at in Italy I found through the DK Family Guide to Italy, and all had great family accommodations. 

Our two bedroom family room in the Italian alpine town of Bolzano was a big hit with the little C&Gs. The Stadt Hotel Citta sat right on a charming square surrounded by restaurants, gelato stands, and plenty of space to run around. The family room had the perfect set up with three twin beds lined up in a row in the second bedroom. Think Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Italian version. The little C&Gs bounced back and forth between the three until they found the one that was "just right". 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hotel Review: Hotel Belvedere, Bellagio, Italy

The view from our room
The town of Bellagio was our home base for three gloriously hot days last August. If you ask the little C&G's they will tell you the Hotel Belvedere is their absolute most favorite place anywhere in the world. Outranking even the Legoland Hotel in Billund, Denmark. Praise doesn't get any higher than that. The service was impeccable, and none of us could find any reason to leave the property during our stay. Except me (of course), who made the five minute trek into town to do laundry.

There are plenty of hotels in the charming little Italian towns that cling to the shores of Lake Como, but very few with a pool. We knew after two weeks of traveling nonstop through Germany, Austria, and Italy, all four of us would be needing a break so finding a pool was a top priority. Some open green spaces to play was also at the top of the list and very hard to come by in the mostly vertical towns along the lake.

The view from my lounge chair
After seemingly endless research (although spending days looking at Italian hotels isn't such a hardship) I found the the perfect combination of pool and family friendly in the Hotel Belvedere. We emailed back and forth to arrange family accommodations, as they weren't an option on the reservation form on the website.

We had a beautiful corner room with a small terrace and a stunning lake view. The living room had a pull out couch for Big C&G, and Little C&G slept in the twin bed in an alcove off the main bedroom. I know they each appreciated having their own space after so much time traveling together. Rooms facing Lake Como are more expensive but totally worth it as the hotel is right on the road into Bellagio and that side could be a bit noisy. Apartments are also available and a good choice for families larger than four, or if you're trying to stay on a budget.

Cocktail hour on Lake Como
With drinks, lunch, snacks, coffee and gelato delivered to you poolside, none of us could be motivated to venture into town. The breakfast buffet was extensive with plenty of pastries, fruits, meats, cheeses, cereals, and yogurts. Lunch was usually pizza and paninis under the umbrella next to the pool, and a glass of rosé or bubbly around cocktail time while watching the boys play in the pool.

When we needed to get out of the sun for a bit we retreated inside to the lobby bar. The charming bartender brought the boys bowls of gelato and we had our gelato smothered with espresso (aka affogato). They played with their action figures in the front windows while Mr. C&G and I watched the stream of elegant guests coming and going through the terrazzo lobby.

The Hotel Belvedere has been in the same family for over a hundred years, and it exudes old world elegance. Dinner in the hotel was definitely a collared shirt formal affair. Each cloth covered table had an antique hotel key with your room number, indicating which table you were to be seated at. Service was impeccable, the food was amazing, and the view couldn't be beat. Not surprisingly the boys ordered pasta every night and somehow managed to make it through without sauce stains on the one fancy shirt I packed for them.

Plenty of options for food or to go meals were just a short walk away in town. On my trip to do laundry I noticed several small grocery stores, a few gelato shops, and pretty restaurants along the waterfront near the ferry. We easily could have skipped the formal dinners in favor of a few slices of pizza and an evening stroll, but it was nice to just stay in one spot for a few days. And even nicer to be waited on in such elegant surroundings.

The best thing about the Hotel Belvedere is it's repeat international clientele. Many European families come here year after year, and we would too if we didn't have a giant ocean to cross. In the pool the little C&Gs played with kids from England, France, and the Netherlands. They all became fast friends, and sometimes there was a language barrier but they all figured it out. The kids talked about what life was like in their countries, swapped school stories, compared football (soccer) teams, and learned so much from each other. And honestly, isn't that what traveling with your kids is all about?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Maine Monday: Con i bambini

Pesto maccheroni at Paciarino
Didn't make it to Italy last week for spring break? Non fa niente (it doesn't matter), we've got plenty of places around Portland to make you feel like you've crossed the ocean, without the eight hour flight. 

On a weekly basis Little C&G asks us when we're going back to Italy. Unfortunately not anytime soon, but when he starts to get teary-eyed, we know it's time for a night out at Paciarino. The food at this lovely cozy restaurant is authentically rustic Italian. The owners moved to Portland a few years ago from Milan and make all their own pastas and sauces fresh daily, just like they did in Italy.

The menu is small, but everything is absolutely delicious, and they will happily do half portions of pasta for the kiddos. It's a super kid friendly place, but still nice enough for a grown ups night out. We always start out with a salame e pecorino plate, which keeps the little C&Gs occupied while we sit back with a glass of vino and pretend we're back on the shores of Lago di Como.

Venice, Italy but it could be Vignola, Maine
Vignola/Cinque Terre is another favorite, with it's own farm a little up the coast providing the freshest seasonal ingredients. It's a collared shirt affair when we bring the little C&Gs, and it's always their top pick in Portland for a "fancy" night out. Chef Lee Skawinski regularly travels to Italy and his menu is truly Italian with a local Maine twist.

Lots of fresh seafood shows up on the menu, but the little C&Gs are not fish lovers. Instead they'll stick with the delicious thin crust pizzas or ask for one of the pastas with some olive oil and cheese. The menu changes with the seasons, and Big C&G is always happy when he finds pasta bolognese listed. He gives it two thumbs up and says it reminds him of his favorite meal in Venice.

Chef Harding Lee Smith has many restaurants in Portland but The Corner Room offers his Italian-inspired menu. If you're lucky enough to snag the bar seats overlooking the kitchen, your kiddos will be completely entertained by the prepping of the cheese and charcuterie plates, along with the pizzas going in and out of the oven.

It's a bustling noisy place, so the youngsters can go unnoticed by the diners in their finery on their way to a show at Merrill Auditorium. The Corner Room isn't fancy, and I prefer Little C&G not be wearing a collared shirt while he's dribbling olive oil from the focaccia down his front.

Micucci's Grocery store on India Street is where you'll find an extensive selection of imported pastas, cheeses, wines, olive oils, and anything else you miss from your Italian vacation. The little C&Gs love to go here and pick out a box or two of interesting pasta shapes to cook at home. After you've picked up some Italian necessities, don't forget to end your adventure with a scoop or two of gelato from Gelato Fiasco or Gorgeous Gelato. Or maybe one from each?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Cocktail du jour: Kiki de Montparnasse

Kiki de Montparnasse (née Alice Prin) was a model and muse for the American born Dadaist Man Ray. You've seen her as the lady with the violin drawn on her back in the iconic photograph Le violon d'Ingres, and she helped define the free-spirited culture of Paris in the 1920s.

Mr. C&G created this cocktail for me after bringing home a bottle of Cîroc coconut vodka.  Thankfully it's not sweet at all, and retains the nutty tropical flavor of true coconut. After some experimenting Mr. C&G came up with this free-spirited and carefree cocktail, which I dubbed the Kiki de Montparnasse.

On vacation recently at the C&G Grandparents HQ, Papa C&G had all the makings of a Kiki in the liquor cabinet. The Pinnacle brand has an astonishing 33 flavors of vodka (who on earth needs 33 flavors of vodka???) ranging from Atomic Hots (cinnamon) to strawberry shortcake. They must have run out of chemical sweeteners by the time they got to the coconut bottles because it's perfectly flavored with essence of coconut.

The modern Kiki de Montparnasse is known as the name of a racy brand of luxury lingerie but I think Alice Prin would be happy to toast to that. Cheers!

Kiki de Montparnasse
2 oz coconut vodka
1/2 oz vanilla vodka
1/2 oz Rose's lime juice
2 oz pineapple juice
Combine all ingredients in a martini shaker filled with ice
Shake it up and strain into a martini glass

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Boredom Busters: Kids at the Museum

"The Scream" National Gallery, Norway
The little C&Gs are not enthusiastic museum go-ers by nature. Which I was reminded of recently when they overruled my plan of going into NYC for a trip to MOMA. Lions and tigers and bears were at the top of their sightseeing agenda and we ended up visiting the Bronx Zoo instead. They loved making up our plan for the day and Mr. C&G and I were happy taking a break from being in charge.

When we do make it to the museums, it requires a bit of work on our part to keep the little C&Gs interested and focused on what we're looking at. We've found a few games and challenges that work well and give us at least two good hours of fun and adventure. After that, we're all in need of some gelato. And cocktails.

Many museums have helpful information on how to visit with kids on their website. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has phenomenal family guides online you can look at before you go, and they are also available at the information desk when you arrive. The Guggenheim has a downloadable activity guide for kids showcasing the unique architecture of the museum. Our first stop in any museum is always the information desk for maps, activity books, scavenger hunts, or any kid friendly info they have on hand.

Crafts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a "Family Art Cart" in the atrium on weekends (and during school vacations) that caters to your little adventurers. Check out one of the activity bags filled with sketchbooks and colored pencils, and choose a scavenger hunt pack based on your interests. We picked out the Egyptian pack and navigated our way to the Egyptian wing to learn about ancient symbols and to draw our own mummies. Be sure to check at the info desk of other museums when you arrive to see what they have available for kids activities.

Postcard I-spy is always a fun game if you're up for spending a few dollars in the gift shop before heading into the galleries. We let the little C&Gs pick out a postcard or two (try and pick something you know is in the collection), then it's their job to track it down. We have to give them a brief art history lesson (Monet's Water Lilies will be found in Impressionists, not ancient Roman sculptures) while they're looking at the map and then off they go. When we've left the museum and are seated somewhere nearby enjoying cocktails, the postcards make perfect scrap paper for the little C&Gs to color or play tic tac toe on.

Harvard Museum of Natural History collection
Big C&G came up with his own game that he calls iPhone I-Spy. We were at the Harvard Museum of Natural History for the umpteenth time recently when he suddenly asked Mr. C&G to borrow his phone. "I want to take a picture", he told us and off he went. When he came back he handed Little C&G the phone, showed him the photo, and said "find this rock somewhere in the gallery". A brilliant way to keep them both occupied for a good half hour.

We played it again at the Yale University Art Gallery by sending Big C&G a few galleries ahead to find his mystery artwork. Little C&G had to keep his eyes closed till his brother came back and then the challenge was on. He got stumped looking for the giant dots that turned out to be a corner of a comic book style painting by Roy Lichtenstein. The game works especially well with modern art and the crazier the better!

Be sure to check with the guards in the galleries to get permission to sketch or take photographs of the works of art. Most museums will allow photography, as long as you turn off your flash. You wouldn't want to end your day of adventure with a trip to the police station to bail out your suspected junior art thief.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Maine Monday: Art and Gelato in Brunswick

With a lot of friends sticking around Portland for April vacation, I've got at least one of the days covered. Brunswick is at the top of our list for a fun morning or afternoon of adventure, with a fabulous art museum, good lunch spots, and of course gelato from our favorite Gelato Fiasco.

Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick has one of the oldest college art collections in the country. Built in 1894 by the renowned architect Charles Follen McKim (of McKim, Mead and White fame), the Renaissance style building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Renovations in 2007 added some interior and mechanical upgrades, along with a stunning glass entry pavilion. 

Admission to the museum is free, so you can come and go without feeling like you need to cover everything from the Pre-Columbian sculptures to the paintings of Picasso. Our first stop is usually the gift shop to pick up a few postcards for a game of I-Spy. The galleries can sometimes be overwhelming so it helps to give the little C&Gs a goal. 

If your kiddos are fans of the Percy Jackson/Last Olympian book series they might be interested in the Gods and Demigods found in the works of the Ancient Mediterranean collection. The new exhibit "Sense of Scale, Measure by Color: Art, Science, and Mathematics of Planet Earth" looks like something my kiddos would be super interested in, with vibrant and colorful photos of rocks, minerals, and landscapes from around the world. 

My favorite funky Mexican place, El Camino, is unfortunately not open for lunch. But they do have a great little place for pizza a short walk from the museum. Flipside makes their delicious pizzas with local and organic ingredients, and they have various combinations available by the slice. I always tell them not to heat up our slices, otherwise it's another twenty minutes of blowing on their pizza before the little C&Gs can eat.

Across the street from Flipside is our favorite spot for gelato. Gelato Fiasco in Brunswick is a little bigger than the one in Portland. There are more tables to sit and hang out, but no little window in the back to watch the magic being made. On the next block is Frosty's Donuts if you're looking to branch out (or you're in Brunswick in time for breakfast). We've never been but rumor has it they're delicious and they disappear quickly.

Work off all that sugar with a stroll around the Bowdoin campus where there are plenty of open green spaces for the kiddos to run around. Challenge them with a bear hunt and see how many of the Bowdoin polar bear mascots they can spot. We found our way into the sports center and watched the student athletes hard at work in their beautiful new gym. The gelato calories miraculously melted away just from watching them on the workout equipment.

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art is located at 245 Maine Street, right in downtown Brunswick. Admission is always free and they're open Tuesday through Saturday 10:00 to 5:00 and Sunday 1:00 to 5:00. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Cocktail du jour: The Hudson Clover

It's Friday, which can only mean one thing at C&G. Cocktail time. This week we have two guest bartenders who have worked very hard to recreate a drink they discovered at the wonderful waterfront restaurant, MP Taverna in Irvington. Grandma C&G fell in love with the spicy Manhattan and its key ingredient, clove infused bourbon.

Infusing your own alcohol is pretty easy to do. Grandma C&G put a handful of cloves into a bottle of bourbon and after about five days it was ready to use. Papa C&G took care of the rest of the experimenting and came up with this tasty version.

The C&G Grandparents Hudson Clover
2 1/2 oz clove infused bourbon
1/4 oz red Vermouth
1/4 oz Triple Sec
Stir in a cocktail shaker filled with ice, strain into a martini glass
Garnish with an orange slice

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Cuisine of Cambridge

Sidewalk slices from Otto's
Students love their cheap eats. Which means there are plenty of family friendly places to eat around Cambridge. After you're done exploring the Museum of Natural History and your kiddos have zigged and zagged their way across the Harvard Campus, head towards Massachusetts Ave to hunt down some food.

For the best burgers in town (and the country, according to the Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal), follow the students and get on line at Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage. The line moves pretty quickly and soon you'll be squeezed in at the crowded communal tables. The kitschy Boston decor will keep the kiddos occupied while you study the menu, trying to decide between the Mitt Romney burger (with Swiss cheese, grilled onions and onion rings) or the Mark Zuckerberg (Zuckerburger? with boursin cheese, bacon, and sweet potato fries).

Mr. Bartley's, world famous burgers
There's a kids menu (less complicated) and a huge milkshake menu that the little C&Gs are working their way through. Pick your cookie or candy and they'll mix it into your choice of milkshake. Little C&G loves his Oreo vanilla milkshake and Big C&G's fave is a Nestle Crunch chocolate milkshake.

Be warned that Mr. Bartley's doesn't take credit cards, it's absolutely cash only. There is an ATM in the back or the restaurant (not sure of the fees), or the TD Bank ATM is on the next block towards the T station. Also be warned there are no bathrooms. Not even for little boys who are about to pee their pants. But if you head in the same direction as the TD Bank ATM, you'll find a Panera's and I'm sure they wouldn't mind. Mr. Bartley's is closed on Sundays and check their website for closings during college breaks.

Grafton Street Pub around the corner is also a great place for lunch. It's a little fancier and definitely has more space to spread out (and bathrooms) than Mr. Bartley's. There isn't a kids menu, but if you go during the week there are pizzas on the lunch menu. Brunch is offered both Saturday and Sunday and their bloody marys are pretty amazing.

When you find you've all eaten too much and are too full to move very far, stop into the Harvard Book Store right next door to Mr. Bartley's. A good bookstore is getting harder to find these days, and the little C&Gs always love to browse around for a while. They have a nice kids section all the way to the left (as you walk in) and in the back.

If it's just a quick slice you're after then head to Otto's Pizza across from the T station and next door to the Harvard Coop. Otto's is based in Portland and we are huge fans of their unusual combinations of flavors. They bake up a selection of pizzas all day in this tiny storefront and sell them by the slice (or you can get a pie) to go. Grab a few and head to one of the benches out front on the sidewalk and watch the busy students rushing by.

Fabulous fire station pizza at Cambridge 1
Another favorite stop for pizza is around the corner from Otto's and up Church Street. Located in the home of a former fire station, Cambridge 1 has an open kitchen where the kiddos can watch them make super thin crust pizzas. Salads are also on the menu and I've always been impressed by their great wine list. It can be pretty loud (from their tall fire truck accommodating ceilings) so no one will notice your noisy kids while you enjoy a glass of wine (or two).

If you have any room left for sweet treats, you don't have to send the kids searching beyond Harvard Square. J.P. Licks on Mass Ave has ice cream, but sorry, no gelato. Sweet Cupcakes on Brattle Street has deliciously creative cupcakes. Little C&G loves the red velvets, and Big C&G loves the mini cups of frosting. Frosting, sold in a small chocolate cup, is such a brilliant idea. Because who ever has room left for the cake part? Certainly not any of us after eating our way through Cambridge.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

History at Harvard

Boston is a very popular destination for us New Englanders. It's an easy day trip if you're looking for a quick getaway without the hassle of planning a real vacation. We've driven down in the morning, picked one or two things to do, stopped by Del Frisco's for a delicious waterfront dinner (and plenty of parking), and been back at home by the little C&Gs bedtime. It's amazing how a quick adventure can make you all feel like you've spent a long weekend away from home.

With spring break, Patriot's Day, and the Boston Marathon (go runners!!) all converging on Boston this weekend, I would highly recommend heading across the bridge to Cambridge for something a little different. The campus of Harvard University and the surrounding streets are filled with fun museums, open spaces to play, interesting shops for browsing, and some excellent restaurant choices.

When Little C&G isn't busy studying astronomy, he can be found going over the contents of his rocks & minerals collection (sadly lacking diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other goodies). Which makes the Harvard Museum of Natural History the perfect place to spend a few hours.

Thousands of sparkling gems, ancient meteorites, and dazzling minerals are on display in the newly renovated Mineral Hall. We make a game out of trying to find everyone's birthstone, and the boys love being able to touch a billion year old meteorite. The museum is famous for it's glass flower sculptures, but the small dark gallery isn't appealing to the kiddos. Instead they head right for the dazzling colors found on the displays of butterflies, beetles, and creepy crawly insects in the Arthropods Gallery. On weekends staff members have a few live insects out to show the children, which of course is a huge hit. We've seen tarantulas and Madagascar hissing cockroaches far too close for my liking.

The Great Mammal Hall is the highlight of this museum with it's vast collection of animals on display, vintage style, stuffed and stored in glass cabinets. It's the last gallery in the museum, so your little adventurers might be losing steam at this point. Wake them up a bit with some Harry Potter challenges. A few years ago the museum had a Harry Potter scavenger hunt to tie in with a Museum of Science exhibit. We had to track down Hedwig (easy to do in the owl section) and a small mammal similar to Dobby (over with the lemurs).

The Harvard Museum of Natural History is just a ten minute walk from the Harvard Square Red T line. It's open every day from 9 to 5, admission for adults is $12, children (3-18) $8, and free to Massachusetts residents every Sunday morning from 9-12 and Wednesday afternoons from 3-5. The museum is next to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, which we've never been to but admission is included with your Natural History tickets.

If you're ready for some fun shopping, head over towards the T station where you can't miss the big yellow and red signage of The Curious George Store at the corner of JFK and Brattle Streets. It's the world's only Curious George store, and as expected they have ever size George you or your child could possibly wish for. I love their selection of books, which branches out beyond the ones with the yellow cover and the curious monkey looking for trouble. They have beautiful picture books along with chapter books for every reading level. At the back of the store is a small section of baby (and toddler) toys, with an emphasis on well designed toys from Europe.

Across the street is my favorite gourmet food store, Cardullo's. They have the best selection of international candy I've found outside of an international airport candy counter. They have every possible gummy candy from Haribo of Finland, all the best British sweets (like my absolute favorite Flake bars), and the Freia chocolates we all became addicted to in Norway. The little C&Gs each get to pick out one thing, which keeps them distracted from the giant pile of goodies in my shopping basket . . .

All that walking and shopping will make you hungry and in need of some cocktails. Next up I'll share the best places to refresh and revive your weary troops, with a little something for everyone. Oreo milkshakes or spicy bloody marys, award winning burgers or slices of pizza, Cambridge has it all within a 2 block radius.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Maine Monday: Sea Bags

Our Houston houseguest (aka the Cocktail Cowboy) was on the hunt for a gift to bring to his native Texan girlfriend. She's never visited our scenic state, and normally I'd send guests off with an LLBean tote filled with Stonewall Kitchen goodies. But she's an interior designer so we had to up the style factor.

Lucky for him Sea Bags has their workshop and retail store right on one of the busy piers in downtown Portland. Inside are worktables piled high with old sails just waiting to be sewn into chic tote bags, travel duffles, wine totes, and more. We got to watch a few being made and the Cocktail Cowboy picked out a very cool looking Breton striped tote to bring back.

Most of the designs are nautical with anchors, sharks (which he informed me were actually marlins), waves, and racing numbers from the old sails that are used. With not much sailing going on in Houston we thought the stripes would be at better match for her. I couldn't let him leave without a souvenir for himself, so we found the brown and black very manly shave kit (perfect for cowboys).

Sea bags are great travel bags, they're made from recycled sails, waterproof and virtually indestructible. Sticky little handprints or ketchup from your poolside fries will all wipe right off, so they're perfect for the beach or the pool. I don't have one myself, but after looking at the bag all week (and looking ahead to lots of upcoming travels) I think I'll have to swing by and pick one up.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Cocktail du jour: The Livorno

Livorno is the Italian town where the brandy based liqueur Tuaca was made for hundreds of years. With hints of citrus and vanilla, it's an ideal mixer for any kind of bourbon or whiskey. Which could be why it was bought by an American company and production was moved to Kentucky. In May of 2010 the Livorno plant closed it's doors and the secret recipe was exported to the US.

In an odd twist of fate Mr. C&G tells me that Italy no longer has an import license for Tuaca. So there will be no drinking of Livornos in Livorno. If you've got a bottle in your liquor cabinet, stir this one up and be sure to raise a glass to our Italian friends.

The C&G Livorno:
1 1/2 oz. Buffalo Trace Whiskey
3/4 oz. Tuaca
2 dashes orange bitters
Stir together in a glass filled with ice
Strain into a glass with a Luxardo cherry at the bottom
Cin cin (cheers, in Italian) and enjoy!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Boredom Busters: Kids at the table

Recently I was asked how do the little C&Gs stay so well behaved in restaurants. I have to give some credit to the French. And the Germans. And the Danes.

Somewhere along the way the little C&Gs became obsessed with the plastic medieval action figures by Papo and Schleich. They can be found almost anywhere and usually aren't more than $8 a piece.

We've collected quite a few over the years and they've been sourced from as close as our local toy store and as far away as the Swedish Royal Armory gift shop in Stockholm. They're easily carried in a pocket (or in your purse if you're feeling generous) and virtually unbreakable.

Killing time (with sword and shield) in the airport.
Collections from both Papo and Schleich include animals, dinosaurs, dragons, elves, knights, and just about anything your boys could want. I'm sure there are some girlier ones too, but as you can imagine I've never noticed that part of the display.

The boys will usually bring one or two with us to dinner, unless it's an extra special super fancy collared shirt affair. Then they know there won't be any toys on the table, but I'm sure they could make up a game with just a cloth napkin and the contents of the bread basket. Whatever they bring with them (or con me into storing in my purse) must be small and they are responsible for remembering to bring it back home.

Legos, knights, and cars. Recipe for a buona notte.
The little C&Gs use the knights to fight ongoing battles, wage war across the table with swords and shields, and generally create their own long running version of Braveheart. We aren't really sure what their "movies" are about, but we do hear a lot of "cut" and "action" while we're ordering cocktails. Along with "pow" and "I cut off your arm".

Another thing to keep them busy at the table are crayons and coloring books. If I were more prepared I'd keep a supply in my tote bag, but I never seem to remember. Plus who wants to be carrying extra stuff around all day? Restaurants often have kids menus to color, and even hotel bars can provide coloring supplies if you ask nicely. One of our favorite fancy hotel bars, The Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons in Boston, has a wonderful Boston activity book to keep them occupied while you relax on the comfy leather couches with drinks and snacks.

And when they've run out of "movies" with the knights, colored all there is to color, and finished off the charcuterie platter, there's always a handful of Lego mini figures that can come out to play.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Spring Break in Philadelphia, part three

Combining sightseeing with good food is very important to us, and in a city like Philly a great meal (or cocktails, or gelato) is never too far away.

You could easily spend an entire day around Independence Park so be sure to plan ahead for a lunch break. It's a good idea to leave the crowds behind (the visitors center seems to be the center of the tour bus universe) and head a block away on Chestnut to Jones for lunch. Across the street is La Scala's if your crew is looking for pastas or pizzas. We've never eaten at La Scala's (the siren song of the Jones cocktail menu lures us in every time) but it would be a good alternative to Jones, as they only offer the brunch menu on weekends.

On a visit a few years ago we saw the Liberty Bell and toured Independence Hall, and the boys were too young to be impressed. There were long lines at both sights (free timed tickets are needed for Independence Hall, available at the Visitors Center) and very little interaction for kids. If you really want to get them excited about the Liberty Bell, take them to Franklin Square park nearby where they can play a round of mini golf which ends right under the bell.

A better sightseeing activity would be the new National Constitution Center at the far end of the park. We did this last April and the little C&Gs really enjoyed the 360º multimedia presentation "Freedom Rising". It's a short (less than 20 minutes) history lesson about the Constitution narrated by a live actor. It definitely grabbed their attention and got them excited about the rest of the exhibits. The finalé of the Constitution Center is a room filled with bronze life-sized models of all 42 of the founding fathers. Big C&G got a kick out of sitting on Ben Franklin's lap, but Little C&G and I were a little weirded out so we headed for the gift shop. Everything in the Center was very well put together and I think it all made a big impression on the little C&Gs. Much more so than the other various museums and exhibits that surround Independence National Park.

When you've had enough of the history lessons, nearby Franklin Square is the place to go to get out some energy. Home to one of the city's best playgrounds (so says Philadelphia Magazine), there's something for kids of all ages to run, jump, swing, or climb on. I love that the ground is springy and free of annoying wood chips. Nobody needs those in their shoes when they're out sightseeing. The mini golf course gives you 18 holes of Philly landmarks to tour around ($9/adults, $7 kids), and the carousel ($2.50/person) has Philly themed icons to ride on (bald eagle instead of a horse if you so choose). The Philly famous Starr Restaurant Group operates the Square Burger shack in the park, and they're known for great burgers and delicious shakes. The lines might be long but they move quickly and there are tables, benches, and plenty of green space nearby to spread out and wait for your order to be ready.

At the other end of town is Rittenhouse Square and an ideal place to escape for dinner. This beautiful park is surrounded by great restaurants, chic shopping, and a giant Barnes & Noble perfect for browsing in after dinner. Bronze sculptures throughout the park offer plenty of activity for the kids to climb on, along with some great trees with low strong branches for the more adventurous. On warm nights the park comes alive with music, dancing, and young families just hanging out. One night we found a tango lesson going on and nearby kids were drawing with sidewalk chalk in an empty fountain.

The restaurant Parc brings Parisienne style to the beautiful outdoor square. If you're lucky to grab an outdoor table (or grab an indoor one next to the open doors) then the entire family could be entertained for hours just watching the parade of people go by. The French bistro has a classic menu, but you could finagle a few things to work for the kids. The burger was really good, as were the pastas which I'm sure they'd be happy to cook up plain. Little C&G is a fan of omelettes (which happen to be on the dinner menu, bien sur!) so add in some frites and he's a contented little diner. Parc also has an amazing breakfast and brunch menu, and the sidewalk tables are just as lovely in the morning with a bowl of café au lait as they are with cocktails at night.

Just one block off the square is the quaint British pub, The Dandelion. The little C&Gs loved the kitchy English decor, it's tiny rooms are filled to the brim with odds and ends straight from a car boot sale (aka flea market). They have all the traditional favorites (bangers & mash, fish & chips, shepherds pie) plus a mac & cheese that they were happy to de-Brit for Little C&G. Both boys were obsessed with examining every little thing on the wall so we were free to sit back with our cocktails and enjoy the evening. As expected The Dandelion has an excellent beer selection, but they also make a pretty darned good Pimm's Cup.

A five minute walk from both these restaurants is our favorite Philly spot for gelato, Capogiro Gelato Artisans. They are the home of my absolute all time favorite flavor, which I've only seen there once. Sea salt. Just plain sea salt gelato. Amazing. Other creative flavors include avocado, cucumber sorbetto, and star fruit. They are happy to give you a taste, but they do have a limit on how many different flavors they'll put in your cup. Which just means you'll have to keep visiting their various locations around Philadelphia.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Maine Monday: Peeps Gelato

Peeps S'mores, Robins Egg, Cadbury Creme Egg
THIS is why we love Gelato Fiasco. Around any holiday associated with candy, it's a guarantee that they will find a way to turn it into a gelato flavor. Halloween was amazing, as was the breakfast in December specials with their bacon and maple syrup gelato. But nothing is as brilliant as chopping up boxes of peeps and sticking them through the gelato maker machine.

Of course the little C&Gs are very attuned to this and knew there would be something special waiting for them on Easter Sunday. When our friend and house guest for the week arrived yesterday, they insisted we head right for Gelato Fiasco as soon as he dropped off his bags. He arrived fresh off the plane from Houston, wearing cowboy boots, and right on time for gelato & cocktails. So we've given him a cool C&G alias and dubbed him the Cocktail Cowboy.

Big C&G and the Cocktail Cowboy
The Cocktail Cowboy and I both agreed the Cadbury Creme Egg gelato was the best. Chunks of chocolate eggs were blended into vanilla gelato along with the yummy creme filling. Big C&G's favorite was the robins egg gelato filled with malted eggs. And who wouldn't love Peeps s'mores; cinnamon ice cream with graham crackers, chocolate, and chopped up yellow Peeps. Brilliant!

Sadly I don't think the flavors made it past Easter. You can always sign up for their email alerts to keep track of upcoming special additions. Or better yet, mention it to your kiddos and they'll be sure to remind you!