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Family Friday: Sarasota Beckons

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Two decades ago a little girl stood on a hot tennis court grumpily swatting at yellow balls, her parents' dreams of a professional tennis career dashed. She counted the minutes until she could get back to the beach with her sisters...

With that sunny stretch of sand still in my mind, I decided to give Sarasota, on the Florida Gulf Coast, another shot with my own family. It was the middle of February and we were desperate for a long weekend of much-needed sun. What we got was a record-breaking freeze. Thankfully, Sarasota has a lot more than beautiful beaches (and there are plenty). Here's what we discovered:

° An amazing aquarium. The Mote Marine Laboratory offers sea turtles, dolphins, and an adorable manatee named Hugh, that my son Miles thought looked like my dad.

° Florida's largest bird sanctuary. The Save Our Birds Wild Bird Learning Center is home to hundreds of injured owls, pelicans, and other seabirds, teaching the kids that animals get boo-boos, too.

° Some damn good restaurants. Yes, we spent a lot of time eating, and I wasn't going to let a little cold ruin my dream of lounging on a terrace with a cocktail. There's Mar Vista, hidden at the end of Long Boat Key (order the fried calamari); the Italian Salute for dinner; the Peruvian Selva Grill, with tangy Pisco Sours; the diner-like Blue Dolphin Cafe for blueberry pancakes; and my sons' favorite, the waterfront, no-frills Old Salty Dog, where all the seafood is fried--and then fried again.

° Beautiful Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. We spent an entire afternoon wandering around these 14 acres, which are filled with bamboo and banyan groves, orchids and bromeliads, and a mangrove forest. The best part: the indoor Kids' Corner, an interactive space with plant-themed books, puzzles, activities and crafts.

There's more: The renowned Ringling Art Museum, a downtown with great galleries, and of course, lots of good ice cream parlors (a must-stop for every afternoon).

As for where to stay, the Long Boat Key Club is right on the beach and ideal for families: 2 and 3 bedroom suites with everything you need—dining table, kitchen, a super-friendly staff, and a flat screen TV for movie nights if you decide to stay in.

Family Friday: Pack It Up

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I can never pack enough stuff to keep my kids entertained on the road. My bag is usually overflowing with crayons, paper, books... The list goes on, and yet, I almost always forget something. So in a world where fruits and veggies come in squeezable tubes, it's no surprise that a company had come up with pre-packaging packing.

Kidville has recently partnered with luxury travel service Portico to create ready-to-go packs for kids. Crocodile Creek puzzle games? Check. A super cute mini-pillow? Check. Melissa and Doug activity books? Check. Plus, a lot more. What I love most, though, is the actual bag, designed by Skiphop with colorful monkeys and dogs--and just the right size for my 3-year-olds. Care to checkout Portico Travel Pals for yourself? They are free for Portico members during March and on sale at Kidville.com. And no... they haven't bribed me with free products. I just like the idea of someone else packing for me.

Clara Sedlak is a mom of two and a senior editor at Travel + Leisure.

Image courtesy of Portico

Family Friday: Italian Fun for Renaissance Kids

Villa San Michele kids cooking class

The hills of Fiesole, Italy are about to be filled with the sounds of toddlers. The Villa San Michele—one of my absolute favorite hotels in the world—is launching a new kids program.

Villa San Michele

If you've ever been to the property, you wouldn't necessarily describe it as "child friendly." The 15th-Century hilltop Renaissance building was in part designed by Michelangelo and has the most breathtaking views of Florence. And while my 3-year-olds could care less about all that, now there's a reason to take them. Starting this May, the hotel is launching the "Smile Club" boutique, a complimentary program for kids ages 4-12 housed in a chapel on the property. There's jewelery- and craft-making, cookie baking, Italian lessons, treasure hunts, hikes, and even a dedicated kids concierge to direct you to the best kid-friendly spots in the city. Botticelli for you. Pizza for them. Need I say more? 

Clara Sedlak is a mom of two and a senior editor at Travel + Leisure.

Photos courtesy of Orient-Express Hotels Ltd. | Genivs Loci

Family Friday: Affordable Ski Deals

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Is there anything better than spending $500 dollars a day to be clocked in the face by a miniature ski boot? Ah, yes, I'm talking about the joys of a family ski trip. (My back is still killing me from last month's adventure with my sons.) But truth be told, the physical suffering is well worth the ear-to-ear grins. What really gets me is how much I have to shell out for the pleasure. So last weekend, I decided to do some digging for deals. I'm not talking about the "Ski 7 days and get a free hot chocolate" variety. I was in search of some real money savers—and I found them. My three favorites, below:

• It turns out that if you stay at one of Keystone Colorado's mountain resorts, your kid can ski/board for free for the entire season, with no blackout dates. There's no fine print here. Trust me. I triple checked. Even better, you don't have to stay in some hole-in-the-wall condo 20 miles from the slopes. The accommodations are pretty luxe.

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Family Friday: Cozying up to the Catskills

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The symptoms were reaching dangerous levels. After being cooped up with our twin three-year-old boys in a 900-square-foot NYC apartment in the dead of winter, my husband and I had a serious case of co-op-cabin fever. The cure: Get out of dodge—and burn off some energy—as quickly as possible. My only prerequisite: BRING A FULLY CHARGED iPAD WITH US IN CASE OF A MELTDOWN.

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More Airlines Allowing In-Flight Cell Phone Use

200910-b-cell-phonejpg Is there anything more annoying than being forced to listen to others chit-chat on their cell phones? (Truth be told, I don’t care if your brother’s friend’s girlfriend’s sister broke up with you know who…) So I’m holding out that US airlines will keep in-flight mobile use out of the air.

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Across the Atlantic, it’s another story. Passengers flying Emirates, Royal Jordanian, and Ryan Air, are already free to make calls and phone use agreements have recently been announced for Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, Hong Kong Airlines, and select British Airways business-class only flights.

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Cool Hunting: New W Hotel Washington, D.C.

200910-b-w-dc-sky-terracejpg First there was the Donovan House. Then the Park Hyatt. Now the W has set up shop. It seems Washington, D.C. is swapping its white-shirt-and-khaki image for a little New York edge. And on a recent pop-in to the new W property, I found myself thinking, ‘D.C. is kind of cool.’

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A Parisian Boîte in Montreal—Mais Oui!

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Is Montreal really the “Paris of the North?” Sitting in a tiny new bistro called Barroco on the western edge of the city’s old town, the marketing slogan rang true. As my husband, sister, and I sat back and enjoyed glass after glass of burgundy, hip tattooed waiters—all francophones—hustled to and from the kitchen placing comfort dishes of cotes-de-boeuf and gratin dauphinois on our candelabra-laden table. Raw stone walls, a low wood-beamed ceiling, and Serge Gainsbourg on the sound system only added to my disbelief that I was just an hour and half flight from New York City.

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Do You Know "The Block"?

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Block Island? Isn’t that somewhere off the coast of Canada? Or one of the Thousand Islands? Nobody knows The Block. And that’s precisely what makes it so special (and what makes me hesitant to post this). Just off the coast of Rhode Island, this secret gem is a throwback to the mid-1800s: antique-filled Victorian inns, miles of pristine rolling hills, and towering cliffs with stunning views of the Atlantic.

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(New) Secret to a Flight Upgrade

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On a recent trip, I was desperate to upgrade to premium economy on a Virgin Atlantic (VA) flight from New York City to London. But since I had bought the lowest class fare available (N Class), I wasn’t allowed to use points to do so. Who knew?According to the VA reservationist, the airline states this rule clearly under “fare restrictions” on my ticket. (Oops, I missed that one. Next time, I’ll make sure to read the fine print.)

In order to upgrade, I was told I’d have to pay upwards of $1,000.  I called the airline every day for two weeks leading up to my flight, hoping that the rule would miraculously change. But on the day of my trip, I was still stuck in economy.

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