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Great ideas for family vacations

Farm fresh

Feather Down Farm Days give families a chance to get back to the land without forgoing too many comforts of home. Follow us           “There’s something you need to know about this place,” said a volunteer at Kinnikinnick Farms in Caledonia minutes after I arrived with my family for a weekend-long stay. “It’s magic.” After spending an 85-mile car ride to the northwest Illinois farm trying to convince a pair of cranky kids that three warm summer days and nights without video games and air conditioning was going to be superfun, a little magic sounded great. And when the two of them—with a few canine best friends they’d already made trailing behind—made an instant beeline to the chicken coop (where they were promised a chance to gather eggs each morning), followed by a field of wild raspberries (ready for picking), and finally the plush, multi-room “tents” we’d be calling home (tricked out with bunk beds and cubby spaces for them to sleep in), I had a feeling she was right. Kinnikinnick is the kind of dreamy, picture-perfect spot that’s an ideal fit for Feather Down Farm Days, a European outfitter that partners with working farms to offer urbanites a taste of rural life. It’s surrounded by rolling hills and dotted with wildflowers; across from a big, red barn where much of the produce is processed are two trees that form a loosely heart-shaped arch—the site of several wedding ceremonies here. Owners David and Susan Cleverdon are a warm, welcoming couple who lived and worked in

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Sunshiny days

Seasonal doldrums are no match for near-perfect San Diego. Follow us           A Chicago friend of mine who moved to San Diego when her youngest daughter was 18 months old tells a story about a rainy day there when the child was about three. “Mommy, what’s this wet stuff falling from the sky?” she asked. It had been so long since the last storm that her daughter had no recollection of rain. It does rain once in a while in San Diego, but it definitely doesn’t snow; average daily temps year-round are 70 degrees. The city is tucked between the Pacific Ocean and two mountain ranges, and close enough to Mexico that our friends sometimes drive there for dinner. In short? Kinda close to perfect.  If we can’t live in San Diego, we  think it’s an awesome place to visit right about now, when the best Chicagoans can hope for is a fluke warm day before it snows again. Most people know SeaWorld and the famous San Diego Zoo, but (save those crazy-cute zoo pandas) there’s not much different here than at other big-city animal parks and aquariums. Seaport Village, a popular waterfront complex, doesn’t feel too far off from a summer day on Navy Pier. Where the San Diego area’s charms lie—beyond its near-perfect climate and locale—are in the fun you can’t find elsewhere. San Diego Zoo Safari Park (15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd, Escondido, 800-407-9534), 35 miles from the main zoo, has 1,800 acres of free-range enclosures that offer the closest experience to an African safari you’ll get on this 

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Happy Canoe Day!

Ditch the city and the video games for a nature-filled trip down Missouri's Meramec River. Follow us           Before any of our friends had kids, we’d all load up our coolers and cars and head to Missouri every summer for a weekend of drunken canoeing, rafting, grilling and hilarity. Maintaining this tradition took on renewed importance once we became parents and began to recognize the value of a hedonistic weekend without the kids (thank goodness for grandparents!). This continued for more than a decade, until one year I began to notice the large number of happy families floating down the river. I was having fun with my friends but suddenly missed my boys and couldn’t help but think they would love this experience, too. So last year, I gathered my courage and uttered these previously unthinkable words: “What if we brought the kids on the rafting trip this year?” After considerable debate and a few ground rules (i.e., no puking in front of the children), we agreed to give it a try. In the early days of our trips, we drove down to southern Missouri, slept in tents and hit the fast and wickedly fun Current River in canoes. As our priorities shifted (beds and real toilets, please!), we moved camp to Blue Springs Ranch (800-333-8007), a picturesque spot along the slower Meramec River about 60 miles west of St. Louis. With cabins that can accommodate nearly any size group, Blue Springs was perfect for our bunch. Turns out, it might be even better for families. The big draw, of c

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Music City for kiddies

Spending 48 hours in Nashville is cheap and easy. Follow us           Photo: Courtesy of Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau Photo: Courtesy of Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau My kids and I were crestfallen when one of our closest family friends opted out of Chicago winters and relocated to Nashville, where the temps don’t often dip near freezing. And while forecasts in the 40s and 50s didn’t scream tropical vacation during our first wintertime trip to see her, our family quickly realized we had a new resource for fast and cheap (90-minute flights on Southwest are often less than $100 one-way) getaways from the gloom of Chicago winters. Here’s how we spent our weekend in Music City: FRIDAY A late-afternoon flight had us hungry for barbecue the moment we landed. We made a beeline for the “pit to plate” goodies at family-friendly Jack’s Bar-B-Que (416 Broadway, 615-254-5715) to fill up on brisket, smoked chicken and meaty pork ribs. The kids made themselves a feast out of mac and cheese and baked bean sides, so everyone was happy. I managed to sneak out of dinner (under the guise of a bathroom visit) for a quick run down the street to the Hatch Show Print shop (316 Broadway, 615-256-2805) to browse some of the iconic letterpress country-music posters and pick up a souvenir. We took an after-dinner stroll around Music Row (16th and 17th Aves South) at dusk, just as it started hopping with street performers and, as my kids observed, “lots of cowboys!” SATURDAY

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Take a Peak

Hit the slopes together during family weekends at Wisconsin's Granite Peak. Follow us           The problem with taking kids skiing is their nearly endless amount of energy. The problem with taking adults is sometimes they just want to sit the heck down. Granite Peak at Rib Mountain State Park (3605 N Mountain Rd, Wausau, WI, 715-845-2846) offers Family Festival Weekends that aim to split the difference with great skiing plus low-impact activities. The resort—about 280 miles from the Loop—hosts three family weekends every winter. Packages include lodging in a Wausau hotel, lift tickets, ski or snowboard rentals (hang on, the sitting-down part’s coming up), horse-drawn wagon rides, children’s entertainers, a brat cookout and a fireworks display. For a family of four, the cost is around $500, including tax. Vicki Baumann, operations manager at Granite Peak, says it’s become a popular family destination. “We have people who come year after year; they’ve made this their family vacation.” The 700-foot Granite Peak features 74 runs, more than closer Wisconsin standbys Cascade (36 runs) and Devil’s Head (28). Trails range from beginner to expert and include three mogul runs and five terrain parks for snowboarders. Two-hour or all-day lessons are offered by age group, beginning with the Teddy Bear program for three- to five-year-olds; prices start at $49. A Wonder Carpet conveyor even makes the ride up the hill fun for little kids, and a tow rope and dedicated chairlift for beginne

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Nature calls

Head into the Wisconsin woods for an Olympic-worthy adventure. Follow us           Urban cycling can be an adventure no matter what your age, thanks to roadblocks ranging from cars and potholes to dogs and pedestrians. But a different kind of two-wheeled excitement is just a three-hour drive away in southern Wisconsin, near Mount Horeb, where families can hit the paved paths and dirt-road trails at Blue Mound State Park, one site proposed for cycling competitions if Chicago lands the 2016 Summer Olympics. The whole area would likely be involved in the Olympics. Time trials could be held in Madison with some mountain bike events unfolding at the nearby Tyrol Basin ski area. Several high-profile (and high-intensity) cycling events already take place in the area, including the Horribly Hilly 100, which climbs up the tortuous, legs-will-scream Mounds Park Road in the park. Beloved to mountain bikers thanks to six miles of dirt trails offering scenic views of the surrounding countryside, the 1,153-acre Blue Mound State Park is perched on the tallest hill in southern Wisconsin and offers other activities such as swimming, a nature center and shaded picnic areas. There’s a $4 per day trail-pass fee for cyclists over 16. Hiking is free. Introduce kids to off-road cycling with three dirt paths: The flattest, shortest loop—the John Minix Trail—is an easy one-mile trek over mostly hard-packed dirt and gravel. The Willow Springs Trail and the rolling Pleasure Valley Trail are two mile

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