Merry Christmas to One and All!

holiday christmas cards 2015

Merry, Merry Christmas!

I've scheduled this Christmas greeting to post at 1:00AM on Christmas morning, while we're all snuggled up in our beds with visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads, because it will still be Christmas in the Philippines and the UK. Alfie's mum and dad are here with us, and we are having a wonderful time -- we hope you are enjoying your Christmas as much as we are!

I've sent out holiday newsletters with our holiday cards for almost every Christmas we've celebrated since The Pea was born. Holiday family newsletters can be subject to as much ridicule as fruitcake, but I like to do them because we live so far away from most of our family. It's all part of the effort to stay in touch and keep everyone updated with how we are doing.  This year I couldn't get my act together in time to send our newsletter out with our holiday cards, so I thought I'd update everyone on the blog instead. I'm adding photos from our holiday cards, so consider this your virtual holiday card and newsletter:

Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Seymour Marine Discovery Center

My cousin Angie has spent the last 6 or 7 years getting her PhD at the University of Santa Cruz. During that time, she worked as a docent at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, and she has been urging us to visit, but for one reason or another, we never got around to going. Wouldn't you know it, now that she has graduated, we finally got our act together and visited for the first time!

Top 7 Experiences at Star Wars Launch Bay

Season of the Force Launch Bay (4)
The Force has Awakened! Star Wars 7 has opened, and it is well on its way to becoming a billion dollar movie. If you don't know about The Force Awakens, you must either be living on a rock or have just woken up from a coma. It was been the talk of the town (of the world, actually) for the past few weeks, with people lining up in droves to see the movie. We didn't have the courage to brave the crowds to see the movie on opening weekend, but we are beyond excited to see it!

Star Wars is everywhere, not just on late-night reruns and toys, but on clothing and food and all kinds of merchandise. At the Disneyland Resort, Star Wars has taken over Tomorrowland by way of Season of the Force, a series of limited-time experiences such as Star Wars-themed food, a Space Mountain overlay (Hyperspace Mountain), and a gigantic exhibition called Star Wars Launch Bay.

Star Wars comes to Christmas in the Park

Christmas in the Park

Today we went to Christmas in the Park, the annual holiday display in downtown San Jose that features dozens of holiday dioramas and hundreds of decorated holiday trees. We've made this an annual tradition, so we're familiar with most of the holiday displays. This year, we noticed something markedly different.... as though some strange force had invaded the displays.

Yes, you know what I'm talking about... The Force!  Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens opened 2 days ago, and you'd have to be living in a rock not to notice it. Star Wars has invaded everything from underwear to socks to soda cans to soup cans to gummy vitamins, so it's not surprising that Christmas in the Park has been touched by The Force as well. We saw so many Star Wars-themed trees and displays, proving that even Santa Claus is a Star Wars fan.  Here's my pick of the best Star Wars holiday displays from around the galaxy:

Living the Good Life: Tasting Remy Martin Louis XIII Cognac

This is sure to be one of those stories that I'm going to bore my grandchildren with. Last week, we were in the San Diego area for 3Po and Jammy's soccer tournament, staying at the Rancho Bernardo Inn in Escondido. The Inn is definitely a cut above our usual soccer tournament digs; it's got a golf course and lush grounds perfect for luxury weddings and retreats.

Anyway, that's how Alfie and I ended up joining our fellow soccer parents at one of the resort's fancier restaurants for after-dinner drinks and dessert. As we pored over the menu, one item in particular caught everyone's eye:

Louis XIII De Remy Martin     190

Disneyland Holiday Trading Pins: 2015 releases

Disneyland holiday pin trading

The kids and I have been into Disney pin trading and collecting for a couple of years now. Two years ago I made the mistake of not buying the limited edition Mickey's Halloween Party pin. I saw the $15 price and cheaped out. Of course, since was only available at the Disneyland Resort during Mickey's Halloween Party in 2013, the pin is now selling for $30 on eBay. It would have been the perfect memento of my visit, and I've regretted my decision ever since.

After that episode, I make it a point to buy a pin every time I visit a Disney park (and thanks to the Disney Visa card, I can  redeem points for Disney dollars to treat myself and the kids to a small souvenir each time we visit). There are so many pins available at the parks, it's always tough to choose, but I pay special attention to seasonal pins because they're only available at certain times of the year, and they change every year (at least the limited edition ones do).

If you love Disney pin trading or if you're curious about what all the fuss is, you're going to love the rest of this post. If the idea of spending $15 on a pin (and buying dozens of them) mystifies you, then please accept this photo of the beautiful holiday candy apple display as a reward for reading this far! You may not like collectible pins, but everyone loves candy apples, right?

Thanksgiving Road Trip Tips: the Early Bird gets the Open Highway

road trip

Last week we drove to San Diego over the Thanksgiving break for 3Po's and Jammy's soccer tournament. Alfie has been saving up his vacation days for his parents' Christmas break visit, so we didn't want to take any more time than we needed to. We decided to drive down on Wednesday, spend Thanksgiving morning at Disneyland, then continue on to San Diego in the afternoon. After 2 days of soccer, we would drive back to Palo Alto on Sunday.

The trip from Palo Alto to San Diego takes just over 7 hours... in theory. In reality, driving through LA always adds about an hour (or more!). When people heard of our plans, their eyes widened in horror -- we would be driving through LA at the worst times ever! A quick internet search confirmed their predictions: LA has the worst traffic in the country over Thanksgiving. The worst day of the year to drive through LA is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the second worst day is the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and the third worst day is the Sunday after.

Season of the Force: Star Wars Eats and Sweets

Season of the Force food
photo credit: Disneyland News
With preparations for the new Star Wars-themed land at the Disneyland Resort, excitement is spreading all across the galaxy! Construction for the new 14-acre land is set to begin in 2016, and guests will have to wait a few years before Star Wars Land actually opens, so young Jedi will have to exercise a lot of patience. Fortunately, Disney Parks is making the wait easier with Season of the Force, a limited-time Star Wars themed experience in Tomorrowland. Not only do park guests get to enjoy new Star-Wars themed attractions, exhibits and merchandise, they also get to eat Star Wars-inspired food and beverages.

That's right, foodies and Star Wars fans! You no longer have to travel to a galaxy far, far away to get some Cantina grub. Disneyland's Tomorrowland Terrace has been transformed into the Galactic Grill, with a completely new menu featuring Star-Wars inspired dishes with clever names and delicious ingredients. Redd Rockett's Pizza Port and Tomorrowland food carts also have their own set of Star-Wars inspired dishes.

Wreath decorating 101: Tips for Beginners

holiday wreath decorating tips

The holidays are here and it's time to deck the halls! Our decorating season began early: last week the boys and I attended a blogger holiday party hosted by Balsam Hill, a company that sells premium Christmas trees, wreaths, and holiday decorations. Three of their designers were on hand to showcase some of their wreaths and offer tips on how to decorate wreaths. Afterwards, we took part in a wreath decorating contest! Bloggers were given a pre-lit holiday wreath and a choice of decorating materials, and 45 minutes to decorate.

Holiday Store Exclusives at American Girl

American Girl Store holiday display
For almost a decade, our holidays have been inexorably tied with American Girl.  The Pea got her first American Girl doll as a Christmas present, and every year since then I haven't been able to resist buying her something from American Girl. This year I'm finally forced to admit that at age 14, she has outgrown American Girl dolls -- well, playing with them, at least! You can be an American Girl doll collector and lover all your life, and I think that's the way it's going to be for The Pea and for me.

A diamond in the rough: Donnelly Chocolates

Donnelly Chocolates Santa Cruz
photo source:

When people visit Santa Cruz, they usually head for the Boardwalk, the Pier, the Wharf, downtown, or one of the many beaches and coves. They don't usually find themselves driving on Mission Street. It's one of the main arteries of Santa Cruz (it eventually becomes Highway 1), and it's full of stop lights and cars. Locals usually take side streets to avoid the traffic, and it's lined with faded-looking storefronts that you wouldn't think to look at.

But there are quite a few gems on Mission Street worth stopping for: Sylvan Music, Vasili's Greek Restaurant, Cafe Brasil, to mention just a few. One real diamond in the rough is Donnellys Chocolates, an artisan chocolate shop located near the corner of Mission and Bay. If you love chocolate, it's definitely worth making a small detour from your regularly scheduled Santa Cruz itinerary.

Top Five Holiday Traditions at the Disneyland Resort

Holidays at the Disneyland Resort

The Disneyland Resort is always crowded during the holidays, and for good reason. No, it's not just because everyone is on holiday. It's because Disneyland has the ability to create special holiday experiences that turn into family traditions. Their imagination and creativity and attention to detail transform park attractions that you can enjoy any time of the year, into completely different. Here are my five favorite Disneyland holiday traditions (I have enjoyed four of them, so I can personally vouch for them, and I've heard so many great things about the fifth one that I've placed it on my bucket list!).

Las Vegas with my sisters

On November 4, Alfie and I celebrated 15 years of marriage. It's hard to believe that it has been 15 years since Elvis married us in Las Vegas!  And how did we celebrate this milestone? With a trip to Vegas, of course!

The only thing was, I didn't take that trip to Vegas with Alfie. I took it with my sisters. One of them lives in Manila and the other lives in London, so we don't get to do this kind of thing very often. In fact, the last time we had a sisters' getaway was about 10 years ago. I can (and do) party in Vegas with Alfie whenever I want. But Vegas with my sisters? That's a once-every-ten-years thing. Fortunately Alfie understood completely, so the day after our anniversary, my sisters and I made our getaway.

Revisiting The Cheesecake Factory

When I lived in Boston, The Cheesecake Factory was my go-to-restaurant for family meals. My sister and brother-in-law introduced me to the place, and we ate there on special occasions. You'd think I would have been happy when The Cheesecake Factory opened a branch in Palo Alto, but in the last fifteen years we've only eaten there twice. I guess the novelty had worn out by then, and the large portions kind of turned me off.

Last week I was in Vegas with my two sisters, and we found ourselves in front of The Cheesecake Factory at the Forum Shops in Caesar's Palace just as our stomachs started rumbling. My sisters looked longingly at the cheesecake display, and I agreed to give the place another shot.

Halloween at The Yahoo Lady's House

Marissa Mayer's home Halloween

The Must-Do Halloween House in our neighborhood is, without question, The Yahoo Lady's House. That's what all the kids call Marissa Meyer's home (they used to call it The Google Lady's House until she moved to Yahoo). She has a home just across the street from the kids' former elementary school, and just from looking at it, you wouldn't really think that it belonged to a multi-billionaire tech giant -- unless you happened to pass by during Halloween.

Marissa is always the subject of a lot of press, and not everyone likes her, but say what you will about her, she puts on an over-the-top Halloween show for the neighborhood. Every year the house is decorated to the nines, with cornstalks, pumpkins, and life-sized ghouls.  The highlight is always a giant carved pumpkin. She started out with just one, and now she has at least three or four. The pumpkins always look amazing at night.

On Halloween night, there are always long lines at her place, because she gives out movie theater-sized candy, as well as plush Beanie Babies! Usually parents send their kids to the front door to get candy while they hang around on the sidewalk, but not at The Yahoo Lady's House.  Here, the parents line up with their kids so they can check out the decor.... and get a glimpse of Marissa Mayer. She always hands out candy personally.

Last year, Marissa took a cue from Disneyland and created a mini hay bale maze so that people could look at stuff while they waited in line. Her front lawn doesn't have enough space for it, so she used the parking lot of the empty funeral home that she bought (she turfed up the parking lot and she uses the space to host fabulous parties).
Marissa Mayer's giant Halloween pumpkins

By the way, those are photos taken from Halloweens past.  I stopped by her house the other day to take some photos of this year's display. It's difficult to say which one is my favorite!
giant pumpkins at Marissa Mayer's home Halloween

giant pumpkins at Marissa Mayer's home Halloween

giant pumpkins at Marissa Mayer's home Halloween

giant pumpkins at Marissa Mayer's home Halloween

giant pumpkins at Marissa Mayer's home Halloween

See you at The Yahoo Lady's House tomorrow night!

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Five Must-Do Attractions at Great America's Halloween Haunt

We've been going to Halloween parades and festivals since the kids were babies, and now that they're older, we're starting to get into the spookier side of Halloween. This year we visited our first honest-to-goodness haunted house. To be more precise, we visited five, and all were at California's Great America Halloween Haunt. I fully expected to hate it -- not that I think any of those monsters are real, but I hate getting startled -- so it was a pleasant surprise to find myself having fun!

For Halloween Haunt, Great America offers ten haunted mazes, three Scare Zones, and about half a dozen entertainment stages. I've covered the bare bones in a post over on Bonggamom Finds, so I won't repeat it all here. If you want to find out what Halloween Haunt is all about, go to my post: Everything You Need to Know about Great America's Halloween Haunt. Keep reading for the scoop on our favorite attractions at the event:

Guac-O-Lantern Dip

Guac-o-Lantern Dip

Want to hear something scary? October is almost over, and I haven't written a single Halloween-themed post!  Usually my blog is filled with Halloween costume how-tos, recipes, and decor. It's not even that I've been doing my usual Halloween stuff and haven't had time to blog. I haven't even done my usual Halloween cooking/crafting/decorating extravaganza in real life. I guess life just happened (that's my standard excuse for 2015).

Well, better late than never. I've got two days left to turn the front yard into a graveyard (thanks to the drought and lawn watering restrictions, the dead grass will make the perfect setting). We'll definitely be carving pumpkins. And I did find time for to make a disgustingly un-appetizing appetizer for Alfie's office Halloween potluck. I like to call it my Guac-O-Lantern Dip!

Pumpkin Food and Drink at the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival

Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival pie sign

Before I came to the Bay Area, I didn't really like pumpkins. I hated the calabaza (squash) and spinach broth that was a fixture of my childhood dinner table, and I figured pumpkins didn't taste any better. All I really knew about pumpkins was pumpkin pie, and I can't stand pumpkin pie.

I still hate pumpkin pie, but over the years I've fallen in love with pumpkins. Not only are they a symbol of my favorite time of the year, they also make for some really good eats! I've discovered a ton of pumpkin foods that I love -- and I've discovered that the best place to get them all in one place is the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival.

In case the name hasn't given you a clue, the festival celebrates all things pumpkin, including pumpkin crafts, merchandise, food, and drink. You could feast for days on nothing but food made from pumpkin!  Allow me to whet your pumpkin appetite by listing down all the pumpkin food and drink I saw at the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival:

Five Tips for enjoying the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival

Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival crowds

Free weekends are a rare and precious thing for our family. We're constantly carting our kids to soccer games, dance rehearsals, band performances, birthday parties, and Girl Scout campouts. When the stars align and we no events scheduled, more often than not we end up crashing on the couch, grateful to rest and watch TV and do nothing.

We're enjoying one of those free weekends right now -- but we're not staying home! Tomorrow we're making our annual pilgrimage to the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival. The festival is so popular, it brings huge crowds every year, which can be stressful and exhausting. We hate crowds, but we've found ways to manage the crowds and have the time of our lives. Here are five tips to help everyone make the most of the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival:

A letter to the parents of the losing soccer team


To the parents of the opposing team,

My sons' soccer team played your sons' soccer team today. It's a game that you might not want to remember, because the score was 12-0.  The gap would have been wider, but our team's coach instructed our players to stop scoring. Possession was 90%-10% in our favor, and 90% of the match was played in your half of the pitch. To put it bluntly, it was a thrashing.

Easy black bean salad

I'm so thankful that my kids love salads. We got them started on Caesar's salad pretty early on, and since then they've learned to love practically every combination of fresh veggies and dressing. On busy weekday nights, having a salad dinner is an easy way to feed the family in minutes.

One of our favorite salads also happens to be one of the easiest to prepare -- just toss tomatoes, sweet corn, black beans, lime, olive oil, cilantro, crumbled gorgonzola cheese and seasonings into a bowl.  Sometimes I give the salad a bit of a kick by using a more peppery oil. Sometimes we'll substitute goat cheese or feta cheese, depending on what's in the fridge.

This salad goes great with a quesadilla and mashed avocado; you can also toss in some lettuce and have it with a wedge of buttered bread. The cheese and black beans are so filling, you might not need a main course!

What's your family's favorite salad?

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13 Reasons you'll love Halloween Time at the Disneyland Resort

Halloween Time at the Disneyland Resort

Fall is here, and it's once again Halloween Time at the Disneyland Resort! This really is my favorite time of the year to visit. I've already written about why I love fall at Disneyland so much.  This year, I'm just going to bombard you with gorgeous photos of the resort, because a picture is worth a thousand words. Here are 13 reasons (all photographic!) that you should go:

Three Perfect Days in Seattle: The first-timer's version

Seattle Skyline

We've just returned from a whirlwind 3-day trip to Seattle! The kids had never been to Seattle before, and the only other time I had visited was a half-day stop, 20 years ago, so it was essentially everyone's first time. As with all our trips, we left the city wanting to spend more time there, but for a first visit I feel like we hit everything Must-Do list (well, the top half, at least!)-- namely Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, Puget Sound, and Chittenden Locks.

I'll be writing separate posts about some of the attractions we visited, but for now I wanted to list down what we saw and did (with a few suggestions for alternatives, aka the stuff on our list that we didn't have time for). Here's what our perfect 3-day Intro-To-Seattle itinerary looked like:

Art that's educational and fun: Art In Island 3D Museum

Art in Island 3D museum

Art can do many things for many different people. It can inspire. It can educate. It can spur people to action. It can calm them down. It can do all of those things, but art doesn't have to do any of them to justify its existence. Sometimes all art has to do is entertain!

Entertainment, not education, was foremost on our minds when we visited Art in Island, a 3D art museum in Quezon City. Unlike most art museums, visitors are encouraged to touch and explore -- in fact, that's where all the fun comes from! But we also managed to learn a thing or two about optical illusions and how your brain works.

Levi's Stadium: The good, the bad, the ugly.

Levi's Stadium

This weekend Alfie is watching Manchester United play FC Barcelona in the International Champions Cup. I'm green with envy! These are two of the biggest football clubs in the world, and even if only a portion of their first team plays, it's going to be an amazing match. Hopefully he'll get to see the (un)holy trinity of strikers -- Messi, Suarez, and Neymar -- match skills against Van Persie, Rooney, Mata, and more. What's more, they'll be playing in one of the best new stadiums around: Levi's Stadium.

Palo Alto's Magical Bridge Playground: a place for everyone

One of the reasons I love living in Palo Alto is that we're living in a place that values innovation and change. Traffic lights and potholes and internet access (hello, city council, when are we getting city-wide free wifi?) notwithstanding, Palo Alto and Silicon Valley is always on the cutting edge. And we're not just talking hi-tech: check out Palo Alto's newest playground, the Magical Bridge Playground. It's the only playground in the Bay Area designed to accommodate kids of all abilities, and one of the few playgrounds in the country that is 100% wheelchair accessible.

I've already published write-ups on the playground on Silicon Valley Mamas, Red Tricycle (the article even got picked up by SF Gate!), and Mommynearest, but I had a few more photos of this wonderful playground that I wanted to share.

What to do in Bodega Bay

Bodega Bay is one of those places that people know because of the movies -- it was the setting for Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds. Don't worry, unlike the movie, Bodega Bay isn't a creepy place at all! It's a great place for Bay Area families to spend the day.

Practice makes Perfect: Introducing the Skills Bros Jr

Ball control is one of the most basic soccer skills, and my boys have been practicing keepy-ups (kicking the ball up with one or both feet without letting the ball touch the ground) since they were in first grade.  I remember when doing 5 keepy-ups was a challenge. They were so frustrated and impatient to do more, but Alfie and I reminded them of their experiences with the Shred Sled -- that they would only improve with practice.

So they practiced.

Where to find Dole Pineapple Whip in the Bay Area

If you read my blog or follow my Instagram/Twitter/Facebook feed, you'll know that I'm obsessed with the Dole Pineapple Whip Float. It's my favorite Disneyland treat, and I have one every time I visit the park. I love it so much I even searched high and low to find the perfect recipe for homemade Dole Pineapple Whip Float so I can make it myself when I'm craving the taste.

One of the things that makes the Dole Pineapple Whip Float (and the ice-cream-only version, the Dole Pineapple Whip) so special is that it's only available at Disneyland or Walt Disney World. Sure, I've heard of places outside the parks that claim to sell it. Apparently there's even one in San Francisco called Pineapples. But does it really taste like the real thing?

Totoro Claymation Movie

The Pea loves creating stop-motion animation videos, but I think this is one of her best yet.  She filmed during our recent visit to the Children's Creativity Museum. Their Animation Studio lets kids create figures out of clay, and provides sets, backdrops, cameras, and software so they can create a stop-motion video.

This was the longest we've ever spent inside the Animation Studio -- three whole hours! Even though Totoro is a relatively simple character, The Pea took her time and spared no attention to detail, so the results are truly adorable. I'm so proud of her!

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Muir Woods: Best place in the Bay Area for a beginner's hike

Redwood groves are all around Northern California, and they're great places to take family and friends. One of the easiest to get to, is Muir Woods. It's just 12 miles north of San Francisco, but when you get there, it's like entering another world. We spent a couple of hours at Muir Woods over spring break, and it reminded me of how lucky I am to live in this area. The redwoods are truly majestic, amazing, awesome, and every other superlative adjective you can think of.

5 Things Tweens and Teens Will Love about the Children's Creativity Museum

Children's Creativity Museum

Today I took the kids to the Children's Creativity Museum for a blog event. It has been a couple of years since we last visited, so I wasn't sure whether they would be bored. They did want to go to the Animation Studio exhibit, so I figured we could stay for a couple of hours, have lunch, then leave.

We ended up staying at the museum for SIX HOURS.  I guess playing with cool technology never gets old!  It's true that a large portion of the museum appeals to younger kids (the puppet theatre, the soft play area, the art center, the reading nook), but there's still so much that kids of all ages will enjoy. Here are our top 5 choices for exhibits at the Children's Creativity Center for older kids:

Good bye, grade school

Yesterday we said goodbye to the end of an era.  The Pea has graduated from middle school; next year she'll be starting high school.  3Po and Jammy have graduated from grade school; next year they'll be starting middle school.  We've closed the chapter on the elementary school years.

10 Things on my To-Do List for the Disneyland Diamond Celebration

There's never enough time to do everything I want to do at the Disneyland Resort. Next week I'll be there during their 24-Hour Celebration, but even with all that extra time in the parks, there's no way I can experience all the special events and celebrations they have planned.  I have the full list of 24-Hour/Diamond Celebration happenings and goings-on over at Bonggamom Finds, but I have to prioritize and decide which of them I really want to do.

So, after much agonizing, I've come up with a Top 10 List of things I have to do during our visit to the Disneyland Resort next week.  I'm not talking about eating a Dole Whip Float -- that's something I do on every visit.  These are things I'll only get to do during the 24-Hour event and during the Diamond Anniversary Celebration.  Without further ado, here's my list:

Wordless Wednesday: Grilled Cheese

This Sunday, April 12, is National Grilled Cheese Day!  Grilled cheese is one of my favorite comfort foods, and thanks to our beloved panini maker, it's so easy to make.  Whether it's grilled ham and cheddar, bacon and cheddar, tomato and cheddar, gorgonzola and fig, chevre and cranberry, brie and pear, swiss and mushroom, or any other combination of cheese and flavor kicker, there's nothing like it

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Parenting Advice for parents of grade school kids, from a 5th grade graduating parent


In less than three months, my oldest will be graduating from middle school, and my youngest will be graduating from grade school.  It's the end of an era.  My kids are growing up.

Even scarier is the speed at which everything happened. Those nine years seem to have gone by so quickly, and the four years I have left till The Pea graduates high school will pass even more quickly. It will go by in the blink of an eye, and I'm actually starting to panic.

Bixby Bridge

Bixby Bridge

If you're planning a drive down California's Highway 1, make sure your drive takes you across Bixby Bridge. It's one of the most iconic landmarks of Northern California, Big Sur and the Pacific Coast.  It has been a while since Alfie and I have been to Big Sur, so we took the kids there in November and had a great time enjoying the fresh air, the ocean view, and the sunset.