Rafting with Kids on the Animas River

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Whitewater rafting with young children? We had always wanted to take the kids out on a rafting excursion but assumed we would have to wait a few years until High Five (age 4) and Five Ball (age 6) were a bit older. However, as we started researching our trip to several of Colorado’s national parks, we came across the Animas River’s stellar reputation as an extremely family-friendly river. We looked into the rafting companies in Durango and were thrilled to come across Mountain Waters Rafting, who had great reviews, a half-day rafting trip designed especially for families, and could accommodate any child 30 pounds or more regardless of age.

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The kids had been excitedly talking about our trip for over a week by the time the day arrived. We dressed them warmly in layers as we wanted to ensure they stayed comfortable out on the water. However, upon checking in we realized we weren’t the only ones focused on the kids’ comfort, and we were really impressed with the time the friendly staff took to make sure the kids had all the gear they needed and that it all fit properly. In the end, we only opted for the neoprene boots for the kids as they each had a rain jacket and pants to keep the rest of them dry.

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Soon our guide (and co-owner) James arrived to greet us and escort us to the van.  As we were the only ones out on this particular trip, he asked if we would like one more companion in the raft, his famous rafting dog Atlas.  As the Younger Fives love dogs (and can’t have one of their own due to our travel lifestyle), the response was a resounding “YES!” We soon picked up Atlas and were on our way to the boat launch.

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The kids were excited enough just being next to the river, but getting to play with Atlas as James fitted them with their life jackets was a real treat. He then engaged the kids to review all the safety procedures, and then we pushed off down the river. After a few minutes downstream, the Younger Fives eagerly asked if they could help paddle, and once they got the paddles in their hands they didn’t let go for the rest of the trip. James added a wonderful dimension to our trip with his extensive knowledge of the river, its history, and its wildlife, and we never went more than a few minutes without him pointing out goslings with their mother, bald eagles, mergansers, or other birds.

IMG_7118 IMG_7121 IMG_7136Soon we were getting closer to Durango’s Whitewater Park, especially engineered by the city to provide rafters and kayakers with some solid whitewater in town. James asked if we felt comfortable giving it a try and explained we were welcome to walk a short path around the rapids if we preferred. We had no hesitations about running the rapids, and they were certainly quite the thrill. They’re nothing that a seasoned paddler would find unnerving, but for us they were the perfect balance between feeling completely secure in the raft and getting bounced around a little on the whitewater.

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After the excitement of the rapids we were more than ready for a snack, and James guided us onto shore for snacks and a restroom break. The kids probably couldn’t have made it the whole trip without either, so this was just what we all needed. We had a good 20 minute break on shore snacking on some complementary chips and salsa and playing with Atlas. From there, we put the life jackets back on to complete our trip down the river.

DSC09067 DSC09088 DSC09074Past the Whitewater Park the river had a more relaxed and peaceful feel, and as we floated past the city limits we had the river to ourselves. From here both Five Spice and Five String had the chance to pilot the raft and both managed to successfully avoid the obstacles in the way (though admittedly Five Spice did so with a bit more calm and composure). As we drifted past tree-covered banks and islands, some migratory swallows splashed and dove around us, and we were right in the middle of the flock for quite a while.

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When we finally reached the final landing and got back into the van, we couldn’t have been more pleased with our trip. The half-day trip was definitely designed with the whole family in mind, and the smiles on the Younger Fives’ faces were proof that this trip was a perfect match for our family. It’s a rare day when you get to experience and learn so many new things, and we all not only got a better hands-on feel for what makes Durango’s Animas River so special but also a better appreciation for its past, present, and future. We were thoroughly impressed with the enthusiasm and commitment  we found from everyone at Mountain Waters (for both their customers and for the river itself), and we weren’t surprised to find out they make giving back to the community and the environment a high priority. Looking back, our initial reservations about whitewater rafting as a family seem silly, and we cannot wait to take our wonderful introduction to whitewater rafting to the next level on a future rafting trip!

 

 

An Elevated Easter

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Is there such a thing as the Easter Elk? While we can’t say for sure, we certainly found lots of Easter cheer as we spent the day out and about in the Jackson Hole area and Grand Teton National Park.

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We started our Easter adventure at the National Elk Refuge, a spot where elk and other wildlife winter before heading for higher elevation when the heat sets in. While the elk were far away from the dirt road that winds through the backside of the refuge, there were plenty of bighorn sheep, ground squirrels, and waterfowl to spot.

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DSC08756We next headed into Grand Teton National Park. The Teton Park Road along Jenny Lake and other sites doesn’t open until May, but Route 89 is open year-round and provides access to Jackson Lake and the border with Yellowstone. We had originally planned to hike part of the family-friendly Hermitage Point Trail that starts at Colter Bay and follows the shoreline of Jackson Lake past some smaller lakes and ponds. However, the lure of sledding under the lodgepole pines was too great. We found a nice spot to picnic at the shores of the still-frozen lake and caught occasional glimpses of the Teton Range as the clouds swirled around them.

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DSC08763DSC08771DSC08775Driving back south through the park back to Jackson, we stopped to take in the views from the Snake River overlook, watch some munching moose, and explore the Craig Thomas Discovery Center. This visitor’s center is very well done, and there were lots of hands-on activities teaching all about the local plants and animals, as well as the unique glacier activity that sculpted the mountains to rise so dramatically directly from the valley floor. The Discovery Center was also in holiday mode, and an inspired snowshoe hare had hidden eggs throughout the building earlier that morning. Although we never were able to uncover any of the eggs, we can certainly say Easter and outdoor spirit abound when you spend the day high above sea level.

Biking Bliss in Lucca

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After settling into our new rental for the next two months, we’ve been asked several times, “Why Lucca?” Aside from its surprising concentration of playgrounds (a rarity in Italy), its Renaissance walls (2.6 miles around) have been converted into a paved pedestrian-only biking and walking path. We had a wonderful two months biking in Prince Edward Island last year, so the thought of having access to a place on par with the Confederation Trail was too good to pass up.

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Not surprisingly, there are a lot of bike rental shops in town to choose from (open even in the off-season). After looking through others’ experiences on TripAdvisor, we decided on Tourist Center Lucca. Their glowing reviews are definitely well-earned. They were super friendly in setting up a two month rental for us, and as they are a pretty large operation they have quite a lot of bikes to choose from. When we arrived on our first day in Lucca, they had the perfect bikes waiting for us (including a pink bike for Five of Hearts), and the staff really took the time to ensure everything was tightened on the bike and that the seats were adjusted to the proper height.

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Biking on the wall each day has been purely magical. Lucca is beautiful on its own, but gliding underneath the elm trees, the autumn sun illuminating their golden leaves, is a truly unforgettable experience. The big biking news for us, though, is that Five Ball is now officially riding without training wheels! He tried it out a little last year in PEI, and it must be true that you never forget how to ride a bike. After a day of practice in Lucca, he was cruising the walls like a pro.

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We couldn’t be happier that our typical morning walk routine has now been replaced with a morning bike ride while here in Lucca. The circular route is the perfect length for little legs (even High Five can manage on his own with training wheels), and we’re just about ready to try out two times around instead of one. We know our time in Lucca can’t last forever, but we’re grateful to be Fives on the Pedal once again, if only for a little while.

 

ABC’s of Rome’s Borgo District: Angels, Bonci, and Cioccolato

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Beyond the Coliseum and the Forum, on the west side of the Tiber River, we were recently schooled on some of the finer and lesser known family attractions in Rome. From exploring dark tunnels, to sampling the most creative and delicious pizza we’ve ever tasted, to enjoying an amazing vegan chocolate gelato, the Borgo district is definitely not to be missed.

Castel Sant’Angelo

Originally built as the mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 139 AD, the Castel Sant’Angelo is a wonderful destination for kids. From the playground at the base of the fortress to the maze of dark tunnels to explore, it gives visitors of all ages the chance to soak up art, history, and some commanding views from the top. In the 14th century the Vatican converted the structure to a castle (the Pope even has a covered fortified corridor that leads from Vatican City to the castle), and the military fortifications only add to the list of things to explore during a visit.

Pizzarium by Gabriele Bonci
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If you are looking a pizza that is creative, delicious,and reasonably priced, then Pizzarium is the place for you. Chef Gabriele Bonci uses a dizzying array of vegetable (and also meat and cheese) combinations to make the mouths of vegans and non-vegans alike water. The pizzas coming out of the oven are constantly changing and always a surprise; we had the pleasure to sample a pumpkin cabbage pizza as well as a roasted eggplant and basil pizza. While there is no fixed seating, there are plenty of stools available for an impromptu pizza picnic on the sidewalk.

Chocolate Fondant Gelato at Lemongrass
DSC05670-picsayWe’ve had some good vegan gelato while in Rome, but the chocolate fondant flavor at Lemongrass rises above the rest. There were lots of flavors of dairy and vegan gelato to choose from, and combining the fruit flavors (banana, strawberry, etc.) with the chocolate fondant can’t be beat. And given its strategic location between the Pizzarium and Castel Sant’Angelo, there are many opportunities to sample different flavor combinations while in transit between these other sites and/or en route to the Cipro or Lepanto Metro stops. 

 

Mosaics and Monuments: A Day at Rome’s Ancient Seaport, Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica, Imperial Rome’s bustling seaport where the Tiber River once ran into the Mediterranean Sea, is a short metro ride from Rome but feels a world away. It is an ideal place to get lost in the Roman world without all the modern intrusions.

Mosaics: One of the most striking features of Ostica Antica is its wealth of mosaics. From the epic depiction of Neptune on the floor of the public bath house to the more modest mosaics announcing local businesses (taverns, bakeries, etc.), the mosaics give a glimpse into what life was like for the Romans of Ostia.

Sculptures and Frescoes: While only a fraction of the original public and private art has survived, what remains still impresses. Contemporary artists have also been commissioned to recreate some of the marble sculptures that have been lost to time.

Buildings: One of our favorite parts of our trip to Ostia was wandering around the ruins. Some sections like the necropolis form a maze of dead-ends (pun intended), while others like the theater dramatic vistas (ditto) of the former glory of the city. The Younger Fives especially enjoyed scrambling up the buildings for better views and exploring dark corridors in an attempt to find treasures from the past.

 

Fives’ Facts About Ostia Antica:
* Rome’s Ancient Seaport
: Originally established as a settlement to take advantage of the nearby salt marshes, Ostia Antica grew to become Rome’s principal port. Its location was ideal for moving goods from the sea up the Tiber River to Rome. It flourished in the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E., reaching well over 50,000 inhabitants. Eventually in the second half of the 3rd century the city began to decline. However, no modern city was ever built atop the ancient one, so there is really an unobstructed view into the past.
* Operating Hours and Fees:
The ruins open every day at 8:30 a.m. and close at 4:30 p.m. in the low season and 6:30 p.m. in the high season (final admission is an hour before closing). The site is closed on Mondays and on December 25th and January 1st. Admission is 11 Euros for adults; children under 18 are free.
* Getting There:
Ostia Antica is easily accessible by Metro and local train from downtown Rome (about 40 minutes). Take the “B” line to Piramide, which connects with Porto San Paolo regional rail station. Take any train on the Roma-Lido line (they all terminate at this station), and get off at the Ostia Antica stop. From the station, it is an easy and well-marked 10 minute walk to the ruins. Just take the pedestrian walkway over the highway and follow the signs from there.
* Spend the Day:
The archaeological site covers a lot of ground, so set aside several hours. We spent over 5 hours at the site and still didn’t fully explore everything. Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy among the ruins or grab a bite to eat at the on-site cafe. There are water fountains on premise and bathrooms at the entrance and also at the cafe.
* Learn More: 
We followed up our visit to Ostia with this informative, eight-part series on the ancient city.