The real secret to a civilized vacation

Times Staff Writer

About 150 years ago, when I was young and single, a girlfriend and I went camping in Yosemite. We were hearty, bare-bones campers -- a tent, two sleeping bags, one Primus stove and a couple of flashlights. What more did you need?

Driving through Yosemite Valley, we sneered at the cabin campers, at the RV rats, at the lethargic lodge dwellers. How could you come to a place like Yosemite and even think of sleeping indoors? Eating French fries? Watching television? It would be heresy.

Two children later and I'm on the phone booking a condo at Yosemite West. Yes, a condo.

In my defense, we were going in winter so tents were not really an option. And the cabins in Curry Village, though snug enough, have no kitchens, and many have no bathrooms. We need both. Although there was room at the lodge and motel rooms aplenty, we have found that if you want a trip that is happy, joyous and carefree, you should stick to self-catering.

We have taken the children to hotels, motels and even one semi-posh resort. (In most cases, you can forget B&Bs; with little kids -- too many tchotchkes, too little space, and how are you supposed to yell at your kids when the people who live in the house are just downstairs?)

For a day or two, a hotel or motel is fine. It's fine, that is, if you get a really big room, preferably one with a real refrigerator, a mini-kitchen and a separate bedroom. With a door. Oh, they call them suites or junior suites, but they're really apartments, and in most cases they cost an arm and a leg. So why not rent the real thing?

Renting a cabin, house or apartment is usually cheaper than staying in even a moderately priced hotel, and if you do give up a few amenities -- room service, maid service and perhaps a pool -- the benefits you reap are manifold. Most important, you get space. Children take up a lot of space. And they require surfaces, sweetie, many surfaces. Tables to draw on, floors to race cars along, counters where they can eat and spill things. They require places to hide during hide-and-seek. You will play many games of hide-and-seek because most children don't like to go to nightclubs. It's nice to have more than one place large enough to at least minimally conceal an adult.

With this space also comes privacy -- not only the possibility of a few stolen locked-door moments for you and your spouse or partner -- but also a sort of reverse privacy: The kids can get as loud as you personally can stand and you don't have to worry about irate fellow hotel guests banging on the walls.

Having a real home-away-from-home also means you can cook and assemble lunches without having to hunch over the tiny top of some mini-bar you have denuded -- stuffing miniature Scotch bottles and sacks of macadamia nuts into various drawers but keeping count desperately so you won't get charged for them -- to keep the American cheese, bread and milk you never travel without at least cool.

When you are childless, you expect to do most of your travel dining in restaurants. This is a beautiful thing. But when traveling with children, you need to know your limitations. And many children, especially my children, do not do well in restaurants.

Oh, they can color while waiting 15 minutes for their burgers in a diner. If there's a fish tank handy -- we're always on the lookout for eateries with a fish tank -- they're good for a full half-hour. Anything more drawn out than that and the experience tends to devolve. They are too young to consider the act of dining a pleasure, and they tend not to finish their meals. Just what Mommy needs: five more chicken nuggets. And some fries.

A more settled feeling

A house or apartment also gives the family the feeling of being settled into a place, participating at some level in its daily life. After one long day touring Venice, Italy, Fiona collapsed in her father's arms and asked if we could go home now. "Home where Blackie is?" I asked, referring to our dog back in the States. "No, home where the zebras are," she answered, referring to the oddly charming zebra motif of the apartment we had rented for three days on the Grand Canal.

So whenever we start planning a trip, I go directly to Google and hit "self-catering accommodation." (It sounds fairly grand, doesn't it, with the "catering" thrown in like you're going to be whipping up baby potato skins stuffed with sour cream and caviar?) All sorts of places will come up. Here are a few of the things we have learned over the years:

The Internet is great, but it is good to actually talk to a person who has been to the place, if only to find out if the hosts or owners speak English or any language you also speak. This is very important, as we discovered en route to that Venice apartment with only the cellphone number of a handyman who spoke Italian so fast it was an auditory blur. There also are many agencies that will help you find self-catering accommodations, and in most cases, their fee is paid by the establishments, not you.

Most places will indicate whether it is not suitable for small children, but it doesn't hurt to ask. I always make sure that whoever is in charge of the rental process understands that I have two very active young children and I absolutely take them at their word if they say, "Oh, this would not be a good fit, then." In fact, if they even sound hesitant, I cross them off my list.

There are some obvious red flags -- places that stress their many antiques and pieces of original artwork or "serene and sedate" settings -- but it's also good to know whether there's, say, a very steep and highly polished wooden staircase that ends at a flagstone floor. This created problems in the Irish house my parents had unthinkingly rented for us all when Fiona was just learning to walk. You also would want to know if the house or apartment is on a terribly busy street or mere feet away from a body of water. It's great to be able to let the kids run outside on their own for a bit.

Most places supply linens and towels but, again, it's good to ask. In many European countries, no one, not even hotels, has facecloths. Which turns out to be more important than you might think.

Some places will want a deposit, the full fee on arrival and a safety deposit. The deposit can be a problem: Decide how much you are comfortable leaving as a deposit and be clear on when and through whom it will be returned.

For trips longer than four or five days, make sure there is a washing machine. If there are more than three potty-trained people in your party, two bathrooms will make life a lot easier. Also, an actual bathtub is a must for trips a week or longer.

If you are staying in a romantically remote place, remember that this means you should stock up on medicines (in most small towns, pharmacies are closed on Sundays) and take safety devices (like outlet covers) you might need. We tried to find a baby gate for that staircase in Ireland and were told, "Ah, no, you'd have to drive into Belfast (several hours away) for something like that."

As soon as you get to your accommodation, open every door, drawer and lid, because your kids certainly will. Isn't it better that you find the rat poison or box of 100 marbles or attic cubby with a straight drop through rafters before they do?

It's not 5-star service

For those who revel in room service, complimentary shampoo and furniture with no nicks, self-catering can be a shock. But for my family, there is something exciting and reassuring about entering a rental cabin, condo or house.

Although every place we have stayed in has been very clean, it was not the sterile clean of a hotel room. Instead, there are shelves full of paperbacks left by previous guests, bookmarked by receipts and brochures from their travel, and stacks of games. The edges of the Monopoly board are worn fuzzy, and the deck of cards has gone as soft as flannel with use.

It's a bit like playing house, rummaging through the cupboards to see what sort of pots and pans are there, what food has been left behind, finding extra jackets and boots, bicycles and fishing tackle in the mudroom, and then pretending, "Oh, we live here now. What would that be like?"

But it's also very real; the detritus of other travelers reminds us that we are not the first or the last to discover this place, that even in our private cottage or cabin we are engaged in what is a very public behavior.

Travel is a mark of civilization -- taking a journey for sheer pleasure, expressing curiosity about other cultures, restocking our interior worlds with new things found in the shared exterior one. When you stay in a house or cabin, you learn about the sort of soap people use, the way the irons work, the way the sky looks first thing in the morning and late at night. Which allows you to feel less of a tourist and more of a traveler. If only for a week or so.

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