Category Archives: Explore

Three Important Life Lessons I Learned at Summer Camp

In the summer of 1984, I turned nine. Finally, I was old enough to attend resident camp in the Wisconsin wilderness. For months I had been looking forward to the freedom of time away – the joys of spending my days canoeing, swimming, making crafts, and hiking in the woods, far removed from my urban landscape and typical routine.

The reality of summer camp was even better than I could have imagined. That first year, I lived with seven other girls in a rustic A-frame cabin draped with heavy canvas walls that smelled of mildew and pine needles. My bed was a thin mattress placed on top of a wooden board, where I carefully spread out my cozy sleeping bag that felt like a hug from home. A flowing mosquito net covered my bunk to protect me from things that bite in the night. At the far end of the room, I had a small cubbyhole to store my belongings, and a single nail to hang my rain poncho, swim suit and towel. My God! They were the worst living conditions I had ever experienced – and I relished every moment.

At camp I quickly learned that “the rules” were a framework for establishing order. It was up to me to choose my attitude, participate fully in the community, make good decisions, and accept the consequences of my actions. My counselor served as a guide on my journey, but the success of the camp environment truly rested on the shoulders of each young woman. At a very young age, we were entrusted with building a positive and supportive atmosphere. And overwhelmingly, we rose to the occasion. In a parentless world, we learned how to navigate conflict, manage abundant free time, and thrive without gadgets and gizmos.

Summer camp taught me many important lessons, but the three that have had the most profound and lasting impact on my life are these:

1.) Quiet moments can breed boredom or creativity. Choose creativity. 

Summer camp was a great mixture of planned activities and “downtime”. During my very first day, those quiet hours felt excruciating. I wanted to be  meeting new friends and participating in one activity after the next…I wanted to be “doing”. Funny thing, by day two, after spending hours surrounded by 100 other girls, I ached for the quiet times. It was up to me to decide how I would spend those moments….would I be bored or could I entertain myself? On most days, I would find a shady area beneath a pine tree where I would write stories in my journal or pen letters home. The solitude birthed my love of writing. And when you find a passion, you are never bored again.

2.) From uncertainty comes courage.

Though I was excited to attend camp, there was some apprehension about the experience. Would I make friends? Would the other girls like me? Would I get homesick? When my parents dropped me at the camp gates with my duffel bag in tow, I had to push away that self-doubt and make the most of my new reality. Today, I carry the confidence of that nine-year-old girl who thrived in the unknown wilderness and made friends with children from all walks of life. Because of camp, I know that most of the time, fear is a mental state that can be overcome when I confront that which frightens me.

3.) The world is mine to explore.

In the summer of 1984, I was a young girl who longed for more independence and adventure. Every path was new and waiting to be traveled. The experience made me incredibly curious about the world around me.

Fifteen summers later, I was on a plane headed to a new continent to live and study abroad. There I was, traveling to a foreign land where I didn’t know a soul, didn’t speak the language, and had no idea what was waiting for me. Just a girl and her duffel bag. However, that sense of being alone in a strange place was nothing new. Camp had not only prepared me to make the most of the unknown – it had motivated me to seek it out.

This time of year, I am always excited to see children heading off to camp with their pillows and sleeping bags tucked under their arms. In this author’s opinion, there has never been a more important time for summer camp. The experience helps kids step away from the constant noise and stimuli that surrounds them so they may develop self-sufficiency, confidence, and creativity – tools that will serve them well throughout life.

 

 

Simple Vacations Are Rewarding, Too (no matter what your Instagram feed tries to tell you)

We’ve just returned from our spring break in New England. Over the past week we wound our way from Kennebunkport to Portland, Maine and then on to Boston, Massachusetts. Our vacation was laid back and simple, filled with fresh sea food, trips to the ocean, and long walks. This journey was also educational as my daughter learned about the Boston Tea Party, the American Revolution, and the founding principles of the United States. #parentingwin

Over spring break, I saw many of my friends posting photos of their adventures – from Mexico, to Florida, to Italy – families were taking this time to get away, explore, and unwind. Travel is a wonderful way to bond as a family, gain an appreciation for the world around us, and learn about different cultures. In an increasingly global society, travel prepares us to work with colleagues, customers, and collaborators from other lands. And as Saint Augustine said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

However, to reap the rewards of travel, you don’t have to take an elaborate or expensive vacation. Jet setting families look pretty on Instagram, but most of us don’t have the funds or the time to set off on an around-the-world tour. In fact, a “staycation” or short trip can give you the same benefits. So friends, don’t fret about keeping up with the Joneses. Create a special experience that works for your family. This is something I know a thing or two about!

When I was a kid, my family couldn’t afford many vacations…we usually had one getaway during the summer. My parents would cram sleeping bags, pillows, drawing pads and a box full or markers, food, and games into our 1980s station wagon and we’d drive three hours to a placid lake in northern Wisconsin. There we would pitch a tent, cook our meals over an open flame, and pee in the woods. It was simple and perfect. At night we’d lay near the empty country road that ran along our property and watch stars shoot across the pitch black sky. We’d tell ghost stories with flashlights under our chins while munching on Jiffy Pop.

At the lake, my brother and I lived in our swim suits and always smelled like a mixture of Coppertone, Off!, and algae. There were no cell phones, no flush toilets, no showers, and we were in heaven. Those rustic, “roughing it moments” – as my dad referred to them – are some of the best memories of my childhood.

Tent camping taught us to appreciate nature. My dad would take us on hikes through pine forests in search of deer tracks. We would catch grasshoppers and learn how to tell time by watching the sun. On the shores of the lake, we would find snails and my mom would tell us about the escargot served in France. My brother and I would wrinkle our noses.

Those long summer days were filled with teaching moments. It was where I learned about the glaciers that once covered Wisconsin and the importance of freshwater lakes. We learned about the logging industry in our state and toured paper mills. And usually one night during our stay, we would venture into a nearby town to partake in a Wisconsin fish fry. If we ever complained about being bored, my parents would hand us the drawing pads and markers and tell us to make art.

Next time you’re planning a trip, think about something simple and close to home. Head to a museum, a State Park, or go camping in the woods. Encourage your children to put down the electronic devises and spend time with their imaginations. Help them expand their understanding of the world through fun, hands-on learning.

Happy traveling! -Mara

Thanksgiving in Colorado

As I sit in our cozy mountain Airbnb, I can hear the crisp air whipping through the tree branches. I wrap myself in a red and black flannel blanket that feels soft on my skin. My husband is in the kitchen preparing our vegetarian holiday feast. He has purple sweet potatoes roasting in the oven. Their sweet, earthy smell permeates the home. Out of the picture window I see my daughter playing in the snow. She delights as the flakes fall around her – it is the first snow she has seen this season.

In the distance, bronze Colorado mountain tops tower over evergreens. I stop and think about how lucky I am. Getting away for the holiday has given me a sense of peace and calm. There is nowhere I have to be. There is no one I have to please. It is just the three of us, simple and perfect.

I put on my boots and join my daughter in the snow.

swing-in-the-snow

Entertaining Kids: Using Nature As A Classroom

“Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”

– Richard Louv

My little one completed first grade today! Hallelujah. I can say with confidence that summer has finally arrived in the Midwest. As I type this post, I am sitting at my kitchen island with the windows wide open. The scent of sweet peonies and freshly cut grass are drifting through my home on a cool breeze. Outside I can hear my daughter giggling as she digs for worms in the garden. School may be over, but the learning of childhood continues.

I remember loving summer vacation as a youngster. It was a magical time to explore nature, as my friends and I would play and adventure from dawn until dinner time. Neighborhood trees transformed into spaceships, front yards morphed into baseball fields, and my father’s garden became a tasting lab filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. The days were long, and friendships blossomed and grew under bright blue skies that stretched on forever.

Though I can idealize my formative years, even back in the 1980s kids were susceptible to the influence of electronic devices. From Atari to Nintendo to cable TV, I remember friends staying inside glued to a television screen all summer long. My parents set limits on those things, and I was better off because of it.

We have to set limits, too.

As parents, it is our job to give kids the space to roam and explore the natural world. In the book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes about the important role nature plays in nurturing the physical and emotional wellbeing of young people. Playing outside helps kid builds independence, confidence, creativity, and resiliency. It also teaches children about the interconnectedness of Earth’s living beings and the need to care for the world around us. And for those parents fixated on academic achievement, nature absolutely reinforces important math, science, and reasoning skills taught during the school year.

Here are some fun ways to encourage your child to get outdoors this summer:

1.) Get her involved in gardening and yard work. After all, your backyard is an ecosystem filled with birds, bugs, flowers, and trees…it’s all there waiting to be discovered. Have your child keep a “field journal” to document what she sees and learns.

2.) Allow your child to create a “kids space” outside. It could be a quiet corner under a shady tree where he lays down a blanket to read, an existing tree house that he fixes up with artwork and age-appropriate games and toys, or a dedicated space on the patio that he uses to paint and draw.

Space for Kids

3.) As a family, explore parks, botanical gardens, beaches, and trails to discover new plants and animals. Spend time teaching your child about nature. As grownups, we benefit from these experiences too!

4.) Let your child dress up in costumes as she heads out to explore. My little one loves to put on a fancy dress or cape before adventuring into the wild. Imaginative play is creative and fun! It turns the world into a story with evolving characters, settings, and possibilities.

Superhero by Masha

5.) As much as you might want to tell him to “be careful” every five minutes, children need space to try new things and test boundaries. Scrapes and scratches are to be expected. I always tell my kiddo, if you have a scraped knee, then I know you had fun.

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Wading in the Water

Enjoy this amazing time of year – it goes by so quickly!

Does your family want more adventure? On your next stop to the library or bookstore, consider exploring one of these titles with your youngster: Lady Bug Girl and Bingo by David Soman and Jacky Davis; Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel; Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton; or, for older readers, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.

If you’re looking for more inspiration from Entertaining Family, check out Family “Field Trips”.

Friends

Explore Montréal

My dear friends, today’s post is long over due! I apologize for the brief hiatus from Entertaining Family…it has had to do with our kitchen remodel, a full travel and work schedule, and a broken laptop…blah, blah, blah. Anyway, I am back and pleased to share a post about our recent adventures in Montréal.

If you haven’t been, I would highly recommend this sophisticated metropolis along the Saint Lawrence River. With fantastic restaurants, lively neighborhoods, beautiful architecture, and interesting street art, whether you are traveling solo, with a friend, a lover, or child, there is plenty to keep you occupied. The city is easy to navigate with convenient metro and bus lines, and almost everyone in the service industry speaks both French and English.

Our family flew from Milwaukee to Montréal by way of Detroit (my favorite of the large, international airports). It took about three hours to get to our destination – easy breezy, right? After a relatively short cab ride, we arrived at our hotel. As I stepped out of the yellow taxi and onto the old cobblestone street, I knew that we were embarking on a wonderful week abroad.

Streets of Old Port Montreal

Standing at Hotel Gault

We stayed at the beautiful Hôtel Gault located in Old Montréal, the historic district of the city. The hotel included a casual restaurant (open for breakfast and lunch), bar, lounge, and library. There was a wonderful photography exhibit on display, and plenty of places to sit and relax.

Martini at the Gault

Bar at Hotel Gault

Our hotel room was beautiful, with a huge wrap-around terrace that offered views of the downtown skyline. While on vacation, we were caught in a snow storm (spring in Canada!) and the terrace became a winter playland for our daughter. Thankfully, the next day was sunny and warm…

OLD MONTRÉAL

We could have spent our entire vacation in Old Montréal – there was so much to see and do. The narrow streets made getting around by foot the preferred method of transportation. Old stone paths wound us past the most exquisite architecture and sculptures.

Centre d'hisoire de Montreal

The Streets of Old Port

The Talking Ladies of Montreal 1

The Talking Ladies of Montreal 2

Also found in this great section of the city, is the Notre Dame Basilica, the Montréal Science Center, and Place d’Armes, a beautiful public square which is perfect for socializing, people watching, taking in the city, or arranging a horse-drawn tour.

Notre Dame Montreal

Science Center Montreal

Place d'Armes 1

horse drawn carriage

Food choices in Old Montréal are abundant, but our favorites were:

Chez Delmo: an upscale seafood restaurant with fresh ingredients and impeccable service – the perfect place to begin an elegant night on the town. In addition to serving beautifully plated meals, the wine list was extensive. The place is formal, but not stuffy.

Nolana: this rustic Italian eatery on Rue McGill is worth a trip. The tile pizza oven in the back of the restaurant cooks dishes to perfection! Pizza’s are served with a scissors (what a great way to self-serve!), and the seafood was fresh and tasty. In addition, the menu included a cocktail section that included wines, mixed drinks, bourbons, and other liquors.

Olive & Gourmando: laid back and lively, this popular brunch spot usually comes with a long line. If you’re not keen on waiting for a table, there is a takeout option. If you’re not in the mood for a full meal, grab a coffee and sample a fresh baked pastry. The vegan and vegetarian lunch options are delicious!

CHINATOWN

Chinatown is relatively small, but worth a visit. It is within walking distance to downtown and Old Montréal. In addition to housing some great food options, there are wonderful shops, a pedestrian street – perfect for sightseeing, and lots of public art.

Window Eating in China Town Montreal

China Town Mural Montreal

PLATEAU MOUNT ROYAL

The Plateau neighborhood is definitely the cosmopolitan, hipster, artsy center of the city. If you are looking for a bustling neighborhood filled with shopping, coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and exciting nightlife, then this is your spot! A quick Metro ride from downtown, this area of the city engages all of the senses. In addition to a great street scene, Mont Royal Park is an expansive green space with hiking trails, playgrounds, and wide open areas. As the highest point in Montréal, it offers beautiful vistas of the city.

Plateau Montreal

View from Mt. Royal

Our time in Montréal seemed too short. With so much to see and do, we could have spent another week exploring. My daughter has decided that this is her new favorite destination and she has already requested a return trip this summer. Relaxing, casual, friendly…this city is divine!

If you enjoyed our post about Montréal, check out some of Entertaining Family’s other travel stories. Here are some of our favorites:

Camden, Maine

Photos from San Francisco

An Italian Inspired Dinner Party

Wine Tasting in Wisconsin

 

Vacationing in Maine, Part 3: The “Other” Portland

More often than not, when I tell people that I love spending time in Portland, they assume I mean the city on the west coast. I’ve been there too, but my favorite happens to be the original, on the other side of the United States. This waterfront city in Maine is full of exciting things to do! It is walkable, has beautiful parks and other open green spaces, and has an exciting food scene.

For our family, no trip to Portland, Maine is complete without a visit to the Eventide Oyster Company. The casual raw bar and eatery is my favorite restaurant. Ever. Anywhere. The seafood is always fresh and delicious, and the preparations are innovative and exciting. You can’t go wrong with a dozen east coast oysters, and bonus, they often shuck them right at the bar while you watch over a cocktail. My six-year-old can gobble up a dozen on her own! And then she follows it up with a battered hake sandwich. My husband and I recommend the greens, broiled jumbo winter point oysters, and tuna crudo.

One of my other favorite spots to relax in Portland is Zapoteca Tequileria which has delicious margaritas, an extensive tequila menu, and fresh, modern Mexican dishes. It is a great place to linger over drinks and shared plates. The interior is dark and romantic and the food is consistently good.

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In terms of places to stay when we’re traveling, my husband and I are usually huge fans of Airbnb and Vrbo, but our most recent visit to Portland we stayed at the Press Hotel which opened in May of 2015. It is housed in the former Portland Press Herald headquarters, which is the state’s largest newspaper. Today the interior of the boutique hotel pays homage to its printing press roots. The walls are covered with typeface paper and you can find antique typewriters throughout the hotel – our daughter loved playing with them…as did so many of the guests. The lower level houses a small art gallery.

Our room in the Press Hotel was very spacious and the finishes were luxurious. And upon our arrival, they brought my daughter a children’s book (Blueberries for Sal) and some fresh-baked cookies. She felt like Eloise living at the Plaza.

Our family also really enjoyed dinner at UNION, which is located on the main floor of the hotel. The setting was formal enough to feel special, but casual enough to make our child feel welcomed. One of the lovely servers brought over some “play” dishes and spoons so that our daughter’s dolls wouldn’t starve. Very thoughtful! Seriously, it is these little touches that elevate an experience to something truly special.

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Portland one day, and you have brought little ones along, they will love this city! Try the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum which offers short train rides along the water’s edge, the Children’s Museum of Maine with three floors of interactive exhibits, Eastern Promenade Park which has two miles of walking trails, a playground, and great views of Casco Bay, or walk the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Port. For a kid-friendly, low-fuss lunch spot, head to the Portland Lobster Company and grab a seat along the waterfront. Then help your kids find the statue of the Maine Lobsterman!

If you missed my earlier posts on our travels through Maine, check out Augusta Day Trips or Fun in Camden. Maine is a beautiful state – one of my favorite vacation destinations. If you haven’t made it there yet, I hope you will consider visiting this special place. It’s perfect for families who love outdoor adventures, great food, cultural experiences, and waterfront living. Take time to tour a few of the smaller, quintessential New England towns like Bath, Hallowell and Camden, and don’t miss an opportunity to see that “other” Portland. You will fall in love!

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on Montreal!

Vacationing in Maine, Part 2: Fun in Camden

This story was originally featured on Entertaining Family in August of 2015. In honor of spring break, we are sharing some of our favorite travel posts.

Camden, Maine is a picturesque harbor town with great food, lovely views, and terrific hospitality. From fishing boats, to open green spaces, to white churches with tall steeples that seem to touch the clouds, this town is breathtaking. In fact, the place is so beautiful, that it was the backdrop for the 1957 movie, Peyton Place starring Lana Turner. Sigh.

While vacationing in Camden, we stayed at the Hartstone Inn, a quaint bed and breakfast in the heart of downtown. It was a terrific location within walking distance of everything we wanted to do (hike, shop, eat really delicious food, sightsee…), and the accommodations were charming. Our suite was spread over two floors, making it spacious enough for our family to stretch out and relax (in fact, our daughter and her toys had their own bedroom on the top floor).

Camden is definitely a foodie’s paradise. The restaurants are plentiful, but here are some of our favorites!

1.) Fresh

Close to the waterfront, we chose to eat at this simple, elegant and understated restaurant not once, but twice. The food is prepared using local, seasonal ingredients and refined spices. If you go, you won’t just be delighted with the food, but taken with the service. Rada Valkova, the Owner/Manager who runs the front of house is a pro! She checks in on all of the guests, sets lovely blankets on each of the outdoor tables in case there is a cool breeze, and ensures that you are well cared for even after the check has arrived. The beer and wine lists are simple but well curated. And if you’re looking for recommendations, you can’t go wrong with any of the following dishes: oysters on the half shell, panko crusted green bean fries, quinoa falafel, tabbouleh salad, and the Balkani sandwich.

2.) Hartstone Inn 

Located on Elm Street in downtown Camden, our bed and breakfast also had an amazing kitchen. The proprietors of the Hartstone are a well-traveled husband and wife team who have published gourmet cookbooks with recipes tested in the Inn’s kitchen. Michael Salmon, owner and chef, was trained at the CIA and has worked in many different culinary settings. Today he runs his own kitchen and offers cooking classes to guests of the Hartstone. We found the dishes comforting, well seasoned and beautifully plated.

3.) Primo

A short drive from Camden, is this phenomenal farm/restaurant in Rockland, Maine. The farm is spread over four acres of land and visitors are able to walk the grounds and take in the sites. There are greenhouses with lettuces, micro greens and heirloom varietals, garden beds stretching for as far as the eye can see, and dedicated open spaces where the free-range chickens and pigs roam. Our daughter was in heaven, and quite honestly, my husband and I were too.

The restaurant is in a two-story farmhouse with a welcoming wrap-around porch. Having child in tow, we ate on the second floor which is the more relaxed dining area. There are cozy booths, warm tables, and a casual bar that serves a paired down menu. Whether you choose casual or formal dining, this place does it right and the chef is a two-time James Beard award winner.

This isn’t just a restaurant, it is an experience!

Aside from all of the great food, Camden also offers wonderful opportunities to explore nature. One of our favorite excursions was a gorgeous three mile walk that took us down scenic Bay View Street to Beacon Avenue and back on Chestnut Street. On the way we passed an ocean-front park, a picture-perfect lighthouse, a historic cemetery, and colonial homes that were build in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Just outside of the city is beautiful Camden Hills State Park with 30 miles of hiking trails. We parked the car, put on our walking shoes and ventured up to the top of Mount Battie. We were delighted with the breathtaking views of Camden in the distance. It is the perfect spot for a picnic or, like our daughter, a journaling session to capture the scenery!

After a few days of traveling, sometimes it is nice to spend a quite evening in. Towards the middle of our trip, we decided that rather than eating out once again we would sample some of the gourmet stores in town and have a picnic at our bed and breakfast. Our first stop was Lilly, Lupine and Fern, a well stocked wine shop that also offers imported cheese, crackers, nuts and sweets. We loved the owners, who were very patient and knowledgeable. I think they had a nice chuckle when our six-year-old daughter asked for some of their “softest, stinkiest cheese”. In addition to this wonderful store, there are plenty of shops along Elm Street where you can pick up groceries and specialty items.

Summer in Camden, Maine is magical, and we enjoyed our time exploring the city. We left feeling much more relaxed. It is a family-friendly and laid-back town, and we can’t wait to return. We were so grateful to all of the local residents who gave us tips on things to do and places to see! I hope you will consider putting it on your list of travel destinations.

Next Time: Portland, Maine.