We are back from the Central California Coast today. Actually, we got back yesterday, but then spent the afternoon and evening in a sort of exhausted daze. Paul reminded me last night that we need to take one of them “relaxing vacations” one of these days. I pointed out that we won’t get one of THOSE for another ten years. But today, we’re recovered, mostly unpacked, and gearing up to return to our respective workplaces

This was our third camping trip with Ben, and the first one that was more than one night. Paul, Ben and I all decided back in May that we would spend the 4th of July weekend camping, preferably on the coast. Because I failed to book camping space in a state park back in January, we had to look at privately owned campgrounds. I picked Flying Flags in Buellton, because it was listed in my Moon Guide to California Campgrounds as a “good family option” (read: “not real camping”). After looking at the website, and seeing that it was more “sleeping outdoors” someplace with a pool and playground, I was happy to snap up one of the last “basic” campsites. It’s difficult to entertain a three year old at a state park once he gets tired of chasing squirrels.

We arrived at the campground a little after 6pm on Friday, after a somewhat trafficky drive up from L.A. It wasn’t all the way up to full Rush Hour On Holiday Weekend levels, but was sticky enough that it was a longish drive. Long enough for Ben to take a nap AND watch most of Toy Story 2 AND still manage to spend ten minutes insisting that he wanted out of the car. By the time we got to Buellton, he was complaining non-stop, so I took him with me to check in. He then ran in circles in the lobby area, until he spotted photos on the wall of kids with their DIY sundae creations. “I want ice cream,” he announced.

I scanned the events flyer I had just been handed. “There’s ice cream tomorrow night, Ben…and a movie!”


“Yes!” I pointed to the movie title. “Look at this. What number is this?”

“Three…Toy Story Three!”

A very cheerful Ben and I then walked across the campground to find our site, while Paul drove the microvan around. We arrived in the “no hookup” area (read: tents) to find that it wasn’t like any campground we’d been to before. There were no actual sites, but rather, a big field, with “sites” marked in white spraypaint, that everyone was just pulling their cars and RVs in to. Paul cheerfully remarked that it was more like Coachella than a campground. Only without music, drugs, or any element of hipsterness. There were clean restrooms with flushing toilets though, and dish sinks attached to them (so I didn’t have to heat water and wash dishes at our campsite), and at this point in my life, I’m willing to trade cool for comfort and convenience.

On the way though, we passed a pool (“I want to go swimming, Mama. Can I go swimming?”) and a giant freaking play structure (“PLAYGROUND! I want to go to the playground! I want to go NOW. Playground!”). This was about the point where I realized that we were “camping” in a preschool paradise. Flying Flags had the two storey tall, metal and plastic playground, full of chutes and ladders. It had a swimming pool. It had a that Make Your Own Sundae activity on Saturday night, which was followed by Toy Story 3. AND it had big kids next door to us who were playing with a foot-pump air powered Iron Man rocket. We also introduced Ben to the arcade, where he learned to play air hockey, and shoot rampant dinosaurs in Jurassic Park: The Video Game. And finally, it was close to some of Ben’s favorite things. It took us twelve minutes to get to Gaviota State Beach, and ten minutes to get to the elaborate, amazing, medieval-themed Sunny Fields Playground in Solvang. Ben was ecstatic about everything, the whole weekend, and it made me so happy that I had found a place that had so many fun things for him. Not least of all because it tired him out so much that he hit the pillow each night and fell asleep instantly.

This really was a perfect family weekend. Ben spent every spare minute he could either on the playground or in the pool, in between meals and trips off site. We went to Gaviota State Beach, where we camped with Ben last year, on Saturday, and spent the morning playing in the waves and digging sand structures. (Paul and I got sunburned. Ben did not. We are more careful with him than with our own skin.) We took him to Sunny Fields Playground in Solvang, which I explained as the “Viking playground”. We had pea soup at Pea Soup Andersens, across the street. We saw miniature animals (two miniature horses, a few small black sheep and a pygmy goat) at the Buellton “Arts on the Avenue” town festival. We went back to the beach again on Sunday to get out of the heat. We had a fantastic time together as a little family…and Ben got to eat a bowl of ice cream the size of his head AND stay up until 11pm watching Toy Story 3 on Saturday.

But despite all the fun stuff, the pool and the playground and the beach, the special treats and the movie and the air hockey, the Viking playground and the Ben sized horses and MORE time in the pool, I asked Ben what his favorite part of the weekend was yesterday, and he said, “the tent.”

“You mean you liked sleeping in the tent with Mama and Dada?” Ben sleeps in a small one-Ben tent, inside of our bigger tent, next to our air mattress, when we’re camping. It makes him feel like he’s in his own space, so he stays in there all night, but also makes him feel safe because we are right there. And he confirmed that he liked being so close to us, by telling me “Yeah! I liked sleeping in the tent with Mama and Dada!”

And there you have it. A family vacation, sleeping in a tent, at an RV resort. I never would have seen myself at such a place before I became a parent. But I’m realizing now, what makes me happiest, is being able to share happy experiences with my son, and my husband. And this was a very, very happy weekend. It will be a few years before we can go on a relaxing vacation, but in the meantime, even going to someplace as Middle American as an RV resort, can be a happy weekend when you have an exuberant three year old who just loves being with his parents.

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