by Lisa Oppenheimer
It's hot, it's humid and it's raining. The air-conditioning is broken, and the kids are activity-less for a whole week between camps and the start of school. That's five days: 120 hours; 7,200 minutes; 432-thousand seconds (not including weekends). An eternity.
For those not lucky enough to be in possession of plane tickets to points elsewhere, it's time to get creative. Let's face it: Play dates, board games, and the great outdoors will only get you so far. Sooner or later, someone is going to let loose with that all-too-familiar call of the child, "Mommy, I'm bo-r-r-r-r-ed."
Despite the overload of free time and togetherness, I have managed to enjoy a school vacation or two. And that's without a lounge chair and a margarita. One of my favorites in recent memory was spent as a tourist in my own backyard.
Think Like a Tourist
I've lived near Boston since long before I had children and began answering to the title, "ma'am." But until desperation sent me screaming for the trolley tours, I hadn't so much as visited the Freedom Trail, let alone Fenway Park. Other families actually use their coveted vacation time to visit here. What were we missing? Being a tourist in your hometown means more than just acquiring local tchotchkes. You have to think like a tourist. Plan ahead, make reservations, research as if you were from out of town. Most important: Don't turn your nose up at an activity just because it's considered -- egad -- touristy.
Here are some other things to consider:
Convention and Visitors Bureaus: Most people don't readily think of their local CVB as a resource. That's not surprising, since such organizations spend their money advertising to out-of-towners. As a local, you probably don't need info on local currency and time zones (let's hope you're not that out of touch), but you will want up-to-date information on attractions. Many CVBs have phone lines staffed with vacation planners. Tourist booklets, available for free, will detail the most popular places of interest, as well as some you might not have heard of. They may even have money-saving coupons. Use an eagle eye to scan for the unusual. I would never have known about the local canoe rental (or in winter, the cross-country ski resort) had I not called the CVB. You'll also hear about discounts offered by individual institutions, as well as citywide offers such as the City Pass, currently available in many U.S. metropolises.
Guidebooks:You probably skip the travel portion of the bookstore that pertains to your home city. But you shouldn't. Guidebook authors spend months pounding the pavement in search of little-known facts and points of interest. Why should out-of-towners be the only beneficiaries?
City Park Rangers: As a group, these people are exceptionally knowledgeable about local lore. In addition to detailing interesting (and perhaps little-known) facts about local sites, they can direct you to walking tours (often free) that can make an educational trip more fun. In Boston, the local park service has a handout that turns the Freedom Trail into a treasure hunt and quiz: Return the completed packet and get an official ranger's badge. Like Convention and Visitors Bureaus, most park services have maps and brochures you can either pick up in person or have sent to your home.
Museums: Obvious city choices are going to be children's museums and other such institutions. Call ahead for a schedule of activities -- many facilities plan special events for out-of-school kids, some of which require pre-registration. Occasionally, you'll find a drop-off program that provides parent and child with a break from each other. Fine-arts museums might be less crowded (not to mentioned air conditioned), so don't rule them out. I'm often surprised by the number of so-called "grown-up" museums (Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and L.A.'s Getty Center to name two) that welcome -- even cater to -- children of all ages.
Tours: Bus and walking tours can help you get to know your city in a whole new way. Until last year, I had dismissed the local trolley tour as hokey. That it was -- but it was also a ton of fun. For 90 minutes, we rode around in a bus dressed up as a cute trolley, listening to our driver dispense the city's legend, lore, and a few corny jokes. With on-off privileges, we also had a ball stopping to walk around different sites. In nice weather, check around for local walking tours (again, the CVB and park rangers can help you here) that can take in anything from famous battle sites to local hauntings.
Public Transportation: If you're lucky enough to live near a city with good public transportation, ditch the car at the nearest train station and enjoy. The bedroom community we live in has nary a bus or train, so my kids think Boston's "T" is the city's equivalent of a Disney ride. We spent one entire vacation day gleefully riding the rails between junk-food stops. We had a ball.
Hotels: While it's a pricey addition to your sojourn at home, a hotel is the thing that makes a retreat a vacation. Not only can you revel in room service, but you can enjoy the benefits of being in the heart of the action. To make it a real treat, look for a hostelry with a pool (we once made an overnight vacation out of a stay in a pool-equipped hotel that was practically in our neighborhood). Check local travel-section ads (in your own city and others) for overnight deals that sometimes include shows and attractions.
Finally, act like a tourist, but remember you're a local. Extensive walking tours (like the Freedom Trail) don't have to be tackled all at once. And refrain from trying to do all of the city's attractions in a couple of days. After all, you live just around the corner.