One of the first things I loved about my husband, Brendan Spiegel, was the way he defined travel as “long walks between meals."
Whether we ate poutine off the beaten path in Montreal, or trekked 12 kilometers through the Czech countryside to sample local wine in the basement of a gilded chateau, Brendan and I spent the first phases of our relationship travelling without an agenda — just plug a few possible destinations into our phones and see where the day takes us.
Our travels took a hiatus when our son, Holter, arrived in 2016. We struggled to figure out how we continue to explore the world with the same carefree, eat-and-sleep whenever attitude, when we were overwhelmed by diaper changes and nap schedules.
As Holter grew into toddlerhood, however, we were eager to start exploring as a family. We planned a trip to Newport, Rhode Island, because it was only a three-and-a-half hour drive from our home in Brooklyn, but still new to us. Our nod to the practicality of travelling with a young child was booking a rental home instead our pre-kid boutique hotels or hostels.
We started the drive about an hour before Holter's usual nap time so he would sleep in the car seat. He woke just as we were enveloped by a heavy fog rolling across the expansive bridge leading into Newport, opening up into panoramic views of the town and swooping sea birds.
We checked into our rental home and did a little window-shopping, to stretch our legs and get a sense of the town. Newport is a beachfront resort town with colonial character Contently 1 and surf-side cool. The shops on the main strip are filled with sailcloth handbags and lobsterman-grade raincoats, plus salt-water taffy and fudge. Everything is either walkable or within a scenic 15-minute drive.
The fact that we have traditionally travelled with open minds and lax schedules made the transition to travelling with a toddler relatively easy. We just had to add playgrounds to our research, in addition to the local vineyard.
We also had to remember to keep our expectations for daily activities in check. On our first full day in town, we set off on the Cliff Walk, a dramatic seaside route past Newport's Gilded Age estates. These mansions were actually the summer "cottages" of monied families such as the Vanderbilts and Astors, featuring retreat essentials such as ballrooms for hosting parties starring Harry Houdini. Tours are available for many of them, such as audio tours courtesy of the Preservation Society of Newport County, but Holter's not yet to be trusted around High Victorian antiques, so it was just the Cliff Walk for us.
With only Brendan and me, we would have completed it in 30 minutes, but Holter insisted on walking too. That meant completing only about a third, in twice the time. The upside was giving him the space to tell us what interested him. While we encouraged him to marvel at the ocean and the view, he tromped away to smell the flowers (Newport's famous daffodils, in this case). He fell asleep in the baby carrier on my chest, and we finished the rest at our adult pace.
His nap lasted through lunch that day, so Brendan and I stole a date at a beachside lobster shack, savoring buttery lobster rolls and flaky fish and chips with a view of the cold-water surfers. Perhaps it wasn't as romantic as a candlelit dinner, but we've learned to use every alone moment to reconnect as a twosome.
A local tipped us off about a secluded lighthouse lookout point that's only accessible by a walk through the woods. If you're near Brenton Point State Park, you may find it as you continue along Ocean Avenue. We assembled dinner to-go at one of several great small local markets near downtown's bustling Thames Street, stocking up on Rhode Island cheeses, local berries and more, and planned an early picnic for 5 pm, when Holter has his best mood of the day.
Our cliffside picnic mostly involved Holter climbing the lighthouse steps, over and over, while Brendan and I plied him with bites of couscous and curry chicken. His energy Contently 2 spent, we enjoyed the coastal sunset as a family, the buoy bells the only sound interrupting the waves.
An easy afternoon's drive with a toddler may not feel as exotic as hiking through Eastern Europe, but we're learning that spontaneity in travel can be less about jumping at new opportunities, and more about slowing down and being open to discovery.
Most importantly, Brendan and I can still define our family travels as long walks between meals — and playgrounds.