Going To The Museum? There’s An App For That!

museum
British Museum

Museums have a lot to compete with these days. With so much information available for free online, many people who are less than enthusiastic about going to museums may think there’s nothing new to be learned by peering into glass cases full of ancient artifacts.

But museums are fighting back. Museum apps are available for most major and many lesser-known museums. Generally they give a walk-through of the galleries and what’s on display, such as MoMA’s app, while others offer closeup views of famous artworks you can’t get in real life, like the Louvre’s app that helps you push through the crowds around the Mona Lisa.

Often museums create special apps for major shows, such as the British Museum’s app for their exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. This app has interactive maps and timelines, detailed studies of more than 250 objects and heaps of information about the excavations.

As an incurable museum junkie raising a Mini Me museum junkie, I’m of two minds about museum apps. On the one hand, they’re great for enhancing a visit with all those flashy gadgets that kids love so much. It’s yet another way of beating museum fatigue while actually learning something.

On the other hand, it’s a grand distraction. A good museum can spark the imagination without needing extra technology. Take the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, my vote for the coolest museum in the world. The display cases are jam-packed with everything from Melanesian war clubs to witches trapped inside bottles. The lights are turned low and the guards hand out flashlights so you can peer inside the cases and spot hidden treasures amid the jumble. Beneath the cases are drawers that pull out to reveal Indonesian cut-out puppets and scarab beetles from Ancient Egypt. My son and I love creeping around this place, pretending to be explorers and always discovering something we never noticed before even though we’ve been there countless times.

This is the kind of museum that kids pester their parents to visit. Does the Pitt-Rivers have an app? Maybe it does. I didn’t check because it doesn’t need one. Take note, museum directors: be cool and they will come.

Why Ban Children From Hotels? In Defense Of Bringing Family On The Road

child cryingNo dogs, no children, no lepers please. It’s hard not to feel like an undesirable when a hotel you want to bring your family to says, “Sorry, we don’t allow children.” In America, and many other countries, it’s illegal for hotels and other public establishments to deny service based upon a client’s race, color, religion or national origin.

And it would be unthinkable for any business to exclude senior citizens, homosexuals or the disabled, for example. But it’s perfectly legal for hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, resorts and even restaurants to ban children. A growing number of childless couples, singles and empty nesters are seeking out hotels and resorts that exclude children, but are kids really the greatest threat to rest and relaxation?

These issues came to the fore for me last week while I was planning a trip to Costa Rica for my family of four, which includes two boys, ages 3 and 5. Almost every nice hotel anywhere near a beach in this country is booked over the long President’s Day weekend, and several of the places I contacted, including a couple that had vacancies, noted that they don’t allow small children (though most allow teens).A website called Leave Them Behind has a modest list of adults-only establishments and according to stories that have appeared in Yahoo, ABC, Ad Week and other media outlets, the travel industry is moving to meet a growing demand for child-free holidays. According to Ad Week, there are more childless couples in the U.S. now than ever before, and 20 percent of American women never have children, compared to just 10 percent in the 1970s.

Moves by Malaysian Airlines to ban children from first class in 2011, and from the upper deck of its Airbus A380 in 2012, also promoted debate on the issue of traveling with children. Spud Hilton, travel editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, defended the move and went so far as to claim that “with the exception of a family emergency and moving to another state, there is almost no good reason to take a baby on the road.”

Hilton referred to babies, not children in general but I think that a lot of parents don’t travel, or for that matter even bring their kids to restaurants or other public places, precisely because they fear that other people will find their children annoying. But I’ve found that the more you expose your children to hotels, restaurants and the like, the more they learn how to act in public. If we shut our children off from these experiences, they’ll never learn how to act in polite society.

I’m a parent but I can understand why some people want to patronize establishments that ban children. And I agree that in some ways, our kid-centric culture, where some parents allow their children’s activities to rule their lives, is out of control. But I question the notion that children are so disruptive that one can barely enjoy a holiday with them around and I can’t help but wonder what truly motivates those who seek out places where children aren’t welcome.

I estimate that I’ve spent somewhere between 500 and 1,000 nights in hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and inns around the world over the last 20 years. Out of all those nights away from home, I’d say that I’ve been disturbed by another guest or guests at a hotel perhaps a few dozen times. By disturbed, I mean occasions where someone caused me to lose sleep, made me want to leave the pool or other common area, or something along these lines. Out of these few dozen incidents, only one of them involved a small child or baby.

Several years ago, at a bed-and-breakfast in St. John’s, Newfoundland, a crying baby kept us up half the night. That incident occurred before we had children and it has colored our own travel habits – we never stayed in small bed-and-breakfast places, especially ones with hardwood floors where noises seems to echo, when our children were very young.

Of all the other instances of annoying and obnoxious behavior I’ve encountered in hotels, I’d say about 25 percent of the offenders were teens, most of them members of school or sports groups, and the rest were adults. Most of the obnoxious adults that have caused me to lose sleep or sanity on the road were also parts of groups – wedding parties, teams, family reunions and the like – and many were intoxicated.

Unfortunately, some people have no regard for other guests in a hotel and think nothing of slamming doors, shouting in the hallways, partying in their rooms, and blasting their television sets at odd hours. Two years ago, I stayed at a Westin in Mexico that allowed wedding receptions to rage until 6 a.m. with music loud enough for a rock concert and drunken guests rampaging around the hotel on consecutive weekends. This summer I stayed at a Westin in suburban Chicago where a family reunion got so out of control that the police had to actually make arrests in the middle of the night. And at an upscale hotel in Philadelphia last winter, members of an out-of-control wedding party actually brawled in the hallway outside our room at 3 a.m.

A certain percentage of all travelers – children, teens and adults – are going to behave poorly at hotels but I would argue that children are no more likely to cause other guests grief than teens or adults. In fact, I might assert that small children are less likely to be disruptive than teens or adults because they don’t get drunk and they aren’t up late at night when other guests are trying to sleep.

I’m not one of these blind parents who is incapable of seeing that kids can be annoying and I hate clueless parents who fail to control their children as much as anyone else. I know that kids can be disruptive and downright infuriating and I recognize that some businesses, especially intimate bed-and-breakfasts, aren’t a good choice for families with young children. But I think that most children are pretty well behaved and the adults-only movement is a kind of collective punishment that penalizes parents who do a good job with their kids.

Even before I had kids of my own, I never felt the need to seek out hotels that ban children. For me, kids are an integral part of the world and I wouldn’t think to try to avoid them any more than I’d try to avoid birds or squirrels or any other living thing.

I don’t tend to take these kinds of trips, but if people want to spend a week sitting by the hotel pool and can’t bear the thought of having kids splashing about, then by all means, go to an adults-only resort. I certainly wouldn’t legally compel all businesses to welcome children, but I find the ban-kids trend a little misguided and indicative of how intolerant and self-absorbed we’re becoming as a society.

I’ve noticed when we bring our kids to other countries, like Mexico and Greece, for example, that they are valued, cherished and fussed over. Those societies still view children as a blessing, not a nuisance. Yes, there are unbearably annoying kids out there, and we’ve all sat near crying babies on planes, but in most cases, it’s their clueless parents who are to blame. And if you’re looking for R & R, watch out for youth sports teams, wedding parties and drunks, not little kids.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, Pink Sherbert on Flickr]

Parenting On The Road: How To Connect With Your Kids When You’re Traveling

parentingParenting is a tough job. It’s even tougher if you have to travel a lot for work. Being away form home doesn’t mean that you have to be away from your child’s life, however. Here are eight tips on how to keep connected to the rugrats while you’re on the road.

Skype. The greatest aid for the wandering parent ever invented. Why miss story time when you can pack a few of their favorite books and read to them over the computer? One guy I know even puts on puppet shows for his two boys. There’s also a fun coloring tool where you and the little one can paint each other’s faces.

Email. If you want something more old school, get them an email account and send them messages. Attach some photos of yourself on your travels. You can stay current with their schedule too. If you know they have a history test coming up, send them an email the night before wishing them luck (and reminding them to study).

Postcards. Or go classic with postcards! Nothing is more personal than getting a handwritten note from mom or dad with a cool picture on it. Once you’re back you can share your own photos with them.

Studying Maps. Show them where you’re going with an atlas, globe, or Google Earth. My son loves Google Earth and likes to zoom in on the places I am, and he often goes to sleep with his illuminated globe shining Africa or Asia over his bed. You can also use programs like Tripit to show your itinerary so the kids know where you are. One friend also shared that her son has a “huge world map and every time I take a big trip I text him often on the way and he marks my progress. This was a lot of fun when I circumnavigated the globe. He learned about flat maps in a round world!”

Planning for the future. Figure out what to do together once you’re back under the same roof and mark it on a calendar in their room. This gives the kids something to look forward to.

Online Games. Hey, you know they’re playing tons of video games while you’re gone anyway, so why not join in?

Hide things. Gadling’s Chris Owen shares, “I hide things for them to find later, when I am away. Once I folded very tightly a permission slip one of them needed for school and put it in their cereal box..” Libby Zay says, “My mom and I used to tuck notes into each other’s bags/coat pockets/lunch box/purse/wherever. To this day she’ll sometimes put a coat on that she hasn’t worn in awhile and find a note in the pocket from little Libby!” My son does this to me too. I always end up finding one of his toys hidden in my bags. One has even made it onto Gadling!

Put them to work! Give them a complicated puzzle or Lego set to work and challenge them to get it done before they come back. Dave Seminara’s two boys like to be given titles. “Leo, 5, is the man of the house while I’m gone, and James, 3, is the ‘associate’ man of the house. They like these roles and if they do a good job they get souvenirs. Actually, they get souvenirs either way.”

What do you do to stay connected with your kids? Share your advice in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy user woodleywonderworks via Flickr]

Shapinsay: Visiting A Wee Scottish Island


No trip to Orkney is complete without seeing some of the smaller islands. They offer plenty of natural and historic sights as well as peaceful solitude.

Little Shapinsay can be seen from the main harbor at Kirkwall, but visitors often overlook it. Even though it only measures six miles long at its longest and has only about 300 residents, it’s served by a regular car ferry from Kirkwall. My family and I noticed that the locals getting on board at Kirkwall harbor were loaded down with groceries. Apparently there aren’t many shopping opportunities on Shapinsay.

The boat pulled out of Kirkwall and passed some old gun emplacements on the Point of Carness. Orkney was a major base during the two World Wars and there are plenty of remains from that time. We also saw a tiny island called Thieves Holm. Local folklore says thieves and witches were banished here. It’s not too far from the Mainland, but with the water so chilly I doubt anyone could have made the swim. Then we pulled out into The String, the exit from Kirkwall Bay, and felt like we were in the open sea, with clean air blowing on our faces and seagulls wheeling overhead.

%Gallery-161148%Twenty-five minutes later we pulled into Shapinsay harbor. Like most of the islands up here, it’s been inhabited since prehistoric times. There are a couple of megalithic standing stones, including one called the Odin Stone, like the one that used to be near the Standing Stones of Stenness. There’s also an Iron Age broch built by the Picts.

It seems, though, that Shapinsay was mostly a sleepy place inhabited by farmers and fishermen. That all changed in the late 1700s when the Balfour family decided to build an elegant estate on the island. The first step was to build Balfour village for all the workmen, and then work began in earnest on a grand home that looks like a castle. Balfour Castle is now a hotel and a good spot if you want to splash out on a quiet retreat.

And quiet it is. Even in the center of town all we heard is the wind, birdsong and the distant drone of a tractor. After a minute even the tractor cut off. We had a quick coffee at The Smithy, a little cafe/restaurant/pub (you have to multitask when you’re one of the only businesses on the island) and headed out for a coastal hike.

For me, the biggest attraction of Scotland is the countryside, and Shapinsay certainly didn’t disappoint. After a gloomy northern morning, the weather had turned gloriously clear and warm. We chose a five-mile loop hike along the shoreline and through some woods behind Balfour Castle. My 6-year-old son is an experienced hiker and can manage five miles over easy terrain. Of course, when hiking with children make sure you give them a steady supply of water and snacks!

We started out by passing Balfour Village’s little pier and a crumbling old tower called The Douche, which used to be a salt water shower for the local residents. Then we tramped along the stony beach. Orkney is rich in bird life and we saw terns, seagulls, and several other types of birds I couldn’t identify. Every now and then a curious seal would pop its head out of the water and examine us. In the distance we saw a few sailboats and fishing vessels. Otherwise we saw nobody and heard nothing. That was exactly what I wanted.

After climbing a steep slope, our path cut inland and we tramped over lush fields carpeted with yellow, white and purple wildflowers. My son picked a couple for my wife to put in her hair and we headed through a little forest and ended up in the lush garden of Balfour Castle. It wasn’t long before we were back in the village, where we relaxed in the garden of the Smithy looking out over the water and doing nothing for a while except admiring a beautiful day in northern Scotland.

Orkney has plenty of islands to choose from. Do a bit of research ahead of time online and with the local tourism office and head on out. Pay careful attention to the ferry schedule, though, because on many islands the last ferry for the day leaves pretty early.

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Eynhallow: Visiting Orkney’s Haunted Isle!”

Video: The Prehistoric Cave Art Of Cantabria, Spain


One of the advantages of living in Europe is that you can visit lots of historic sites with your kids. This fosters an interest in the past, reduces museum fatigue and is a great way to learn together.

I live in Cantabria, on the north coast of Spain, a region filled with historic sites from Napoleonic forts to preserved Roman towns. Cantabria is most famous for the prehistoric cave art in ten caves that have been given UNESCO World Heritage status. From about 17,000 to 11,000 years ago, people decorated Cantabria’s many caves with pictures of bison, horses and other animals. They often used the natural contours of the rock to give the animals a three-dimensional look. In addition to the animals, there are strange patterns of lines and dots. Archaeologists have spent generations arguing over what these mean, but of course we’ll never know for sure.

My son is going on a school trip this week to Cantabria’s most famous cave, Altamira, and he’s looking forward to visiting a place that Dad has never seen. Yes, my 6-year-old is already competing with me for travel stories! And now he’s reminding me that I haven’t been to the Madrid train museum either. OK, kid, you win.

For more on the Paleolithic cave art of Cantabria, check out this video by Turismo Cantabria, which only has 267 views on YouTube. Sounds to me like Turismo Cantabria need to do more marketing. This is a great part of Spain for hikes, beaches and food, and makes a great alternative to the usual tourist circuit.