Star Parties, Night Classes and Dark Sky Adventures.

Almost every summer vacation activity requires sunscreen but not star parties. Even better for those who are not morning bunnies, star parties conveniently occur after sunset.  Stargazing with an astronomer as a guide has a magical quality in spite of the real science and history involved and the use of red pin lights makes everything seem authentic. The fascinating myths associated with the night sky and the location of constellations by season makes for a great, perhaps slightly geeky party experience to share with your kids.

Arizona star party time with real telescopes.

Arizona star party time where families have fun sharing real science in real time with real telescopes.

So where’s the party? Remarkable programs span the continent from Virginia, Minnesota, and Arizona to California, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah, each experience varying in scope based on geographic location. In the past few years I have had the opportunity to stargaze with my family several times. My list of suggestions is short but well vetted.

McDonald Observatory West Texas star party

A McDonald Observatory West Texas star party is a celestial trip with no sunscreen needed.

  1. Sky watching in West Texas at McDonald Observatory offers unimaginable views of the planets and constellations from several telescopes of varying sizes.
  2. Night sky safaris from Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson will amaze even the most jaded teen. Like MacDonald, Kit Peak is an active astronomical research complex and a place to view what scientists view daily.
  3. The night sky is strong at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. From June through October each year rangers at Carlsbad conduct a series of free night sky programs that pack an extra WOW!
  4. Astronomy Rangers rule at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. Organized star parties are held each night facilitated by Astronomy Rangers who monitor more than 40 telescopes scattered around the park.
  5. The free monthly star party at Griffith Observatory above LA is inspiring. If none of the star party dates fit in your schedule, no worries because free public telescope viewing is available each evening the Observatory is open and weather permits.

As always I welcome feedback. Do you have a favorite Dark Sky spot?

Nancy Nelson-Duac

Curator of the Good Stuff for the Family Travel Files.

Grandparent/Grandchild Authentic Vacation Ideas – Doing Cool Stuff in the Real World.

The grandparents I have spoken during the last few months with are looking to share authentic experiences with the maximum memory-making potential. They are looking for vacation places and activities not seen on TV unless of course as seen on National Geographic, PBS or the Discovery Channel.

A comprehensive list of suggestions is included in the TravelPhases folder dubbed Generation Bonds. The file includes examples of some delightfully authentic grandparent – grandchild vacations. Destinations include old standbys from Pigeon Forge which combines Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Dollywood to Virginia Beach with whale watching and the living history of Williamsburg.

London hotels are most adept at grandparent-grandchild needs offering airport pickup and day excursions. For effortless yet authentic holidays with less jet lag eco-friendly Flamingo Bay Resort in Costa Rica offers guests all-inclusive beach vacation options with turtle watching and iguana encounters.

Grandparents looking for more free range experiences to share might consider sleeping in a lighthouse or spending a night in a tree house.  It is possible to stay in a safari tent in California or sleep with caribou in Quebec.  The details for all of these ideas and more may be found in TravelPhases which divides family travel by age.

More terrific family vacation ideas have been posted in Generation Bonds at For the latest family travel news follow The Family Travel Files on Twitter (@FamTravelFiles)

Counting shells on Indian Rock Beach.

A slow day by the sea counting shells on Indian Rock Beach south of Clearwater, Florida.

#WestVirginia: Zip-lining & rock-climbing with @ACEadventures

ACE Adventure Center - Zip LineHeights are not really my thing – I don’t like roller-coasters, cliffs or suspension bridges. Increasingly in recent years, I’ve had many friends (and family members) tell me how great zip-lining is, and how it’s “not-to-be-missed.” Who can pass up that sort of recommendation? Continue reading

WOW! Factor Family Adventure Vacations Naturally Loaded with Fun, Energy & Memory Making Value.

Whitewater rafting @ ACE Adventure Resort near Oak Hill in Southern West VirginiaFor active families summer family vacation time is precious and it is pointless to spend a minute or a dime on predictable and boring activities in vacation places without a natural WOW! Factor.

Here’s the scoop. Vacations with a natural WOW! Factor deliver not-to-be-missed moments and one-of-a-kind thrills often seen on the Discovery Channel. Things like surfing a river rapid; hearing the roar of the incoming tide; watching a geyser explode; creating echoes from a mountaintop. I know of dozens of amazing family vacation ideas guaranteed to amaze, thrill, and yield unique family vacation memories. My list includes places where Mother Nature will impress even the most jaded adults and generate a WOW! from the kids. I am sharing a few examples on a short list below. For more ideas browse our Family Adventures lifestyle folder and see just exactly who delivers adventures with a natural WOW! Factor? Continue reading

#Maine – @KingsleyPines #FamilyVacation Camp – Waterskiing, Tennis, Swimming, Free Time, and Great Food.

Maine Kingsley Pines HikingSummer camp by definition is pure fun, so imagine a summer camp for the whole family. A place with no schedule conflicts, no dishes to do, no chores to complete, forget the laundry – a place where everyone gets in on the fun. Each summer Kingsley Pines provides just that – a family camp. Continue reading

California: San Jose, Family Vacation Ideas – NASA, Raging Waters, and STEAM.

San Jose Obon FestivalSan Francisco’s South Bay area is the ideal spot to share fun and learning. From lively festivals and events to inspirational theater and live music, the area is loaded with ways to share fun with kids.

Here’s the scoop. When I think of Mountain View I think of Stanford but the San Jose area offers dozens of opportunities for young families to share fun and learning including watery adventures, shopping, and ways to interact with science and nature. From the tranquility of the Japanese Friendship Gardens or shopping excursions at San Jose’s Santana Row to discovering mammoth bones at the Children’s Discovery Museum or watching movies taken of Mars, there’s something for everyone. For planning purposes I have assembled a list of sure bets – some of them free and the rest worth the coins.

Continue reading

Spring Break Plans Anyone?

Winter breaks have passed and it is officially on to spring breaks. This means, if you are a parent with school age children then it is likely – “good grief … the kids are out of school (fill in your dates here). I need a plan.”

Henricus Living History

Time travel Henricus style.

For some it is as simple as shipping them off to the grandparents but if that is not your case not then I have a few suggestions to make the time count and still have fun. Think about it. The school year is not over so this break time is a prime opportunity to combine learning and fun. Take advantage of the time to encourage learning about other places, people and things. Share unique activities with your kids (or grandkids) and have fun.  The “what” is not as important as the sharing of time learning together.
For example I like the exceptional 17th century living history recreated at Henricus Historical Park near Richmond, Virginia and they have added history and conservation tours along the James River on Discovery Barge II. Combine that with the new Children’s Garden at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden complete with tree house and international village.
Southern California has oodles of possibilities. I like Shark Lagoon Nights at Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. The free Friday night activity includes the chance to touch bamboo sharks and see large sand tiger sharks feeding. Combine that with a kayaking adventure on Alamitos Bay with Kayaks on the Water.
I like Pigeon Forge and Dollywood’s annual Festival of Nations because it’s a chance to have fun and share interesting cultures without the hassle of TSA. Combine that with a few hours of hiking in Great Smokey Mountains National Park or horseback riding near Cades Cove. Wait for it! If rollercoasters make your family happy, you need to know that Dollywood will literally launch “Wild Eagle” on March 24, 2012. It will define flying free.
Checkout Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and share The Science of Storms exhibit with your kids. It will be memorable. Combine that with time Lincoln Park Zoo. It’s free and open every day.

Better yet checkout the pre-planned urban adventures available with a CityPASS. Share great museums in world-class cities and enjoy substantial savings and avoid long lines. All the fun is included. Need more spring break ideas?  Click here.