Thursday, September 8, 2011

Traveling with a Toddler: Last Day at The Woodlands.

After a full week of dawn to dusk family time, the hubster and I made a deal. He was going to sleep in Sunday morning in our room at the Fairway Pines at The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center -- and I was going to go enjoy the spa.

It had occurred to me the day before that except for when Paul and Hunter had gone for their swim Tuesday night, we’d been together as a family unit the entire trip. That’s not necessarily a bad thing -- but I love the spa experience and wanted to get in at least one sweat during my trip.

The sweat, though, started the moment I stepped away from the Fairway Pines to catch a cart to the main building. I’d called right before I left the room around 8 a.m. to request a pick-up. There are carts on call at all hours of the day to take you from one part of the resort to another -- which is great, since it’s huge.

Problem was, the moment I walked outside my camera fogged up. Totally. It was extraordinarily humid, and with a forecasted high of 101 I feared I’d already made a big mistake.

That didn’t keep me from taking a few photos, hoping that having my shutter open a bit would clear out the haze from my lens. I was delivered to the lobby and walked back about half the length of the building, almost to The Woodlands Restaurant, where a full buffet was underway.

There I found an elevator to the second floor. Up there I encountered no one as I followed signs further and further back. I realized the building had to be several football fields in length.

At the far back southwest corner there was an entrance to the spa. It was secluded and quiet, and there was a very friendly attendant who met me on arrival. She set me up with a locker, robe and flip-flops and showed me around the facility.

Sadly, this is the only photograph you are going to get, since it’s improper to take photos of folks in a spa. This was my locker, and I had plenty of room -- plus, I had an oversized robe, which is a rare thing for someone of my size. A very welcome rare thing.

I started out with a shower to cleanse myself before utilizing the different stations within. From there I went directly to the steam room. Now, I’ve been in many steam rooms -- both in hotels and in spas and even one on a cruise ship. This was one of the larger ones… and its most defining attribute was the fact I have never encountered one quite so hot. I mean, exhaustively hot. I usually manage 15 to 20 minutes of steaming in a single sitting, which is on the upper side. I think I managed six on my longest sitting this time.

In-between steams I took advantage of the offered cucumber-infused water. There was also citrus-infused ice water and a container of cranberry-nut trail mix for snacking. I went into the back area past the showers and had a seat on a couch in front of a roaring gas fire for several minutes, cooled down in comfort and repeated the cycle again, four times in all.

I did get a glimpse into the massage studio section of the spa. Very relaxing. The subdued lighting, comfortable tables and almost delicious music were nicely matched. I also noticed that there were fabulous loose-leaf teas available for post-massage consumption.

After the four rounds of steam-beverage-sit, I gave the sauna a single whirl. The sauna is just as big as the steam room but otherwise rather average. It wasn’t as hot as the steam room, either.

From there I went to the whirlpool, which is on an elevated deck above the front desk. There had been three women in the whirlpool when I arrived but they had all departed by the time I got my chunky butt into the water, letting the water loosen up my sore shoulder and rib. I spent just a few minutes in each time, stepping out and lounging on one of the padded chaise lounges in-between and enjoying the chance to let my mind be quiet.

Still, I had responsibilities, and around 10:30 I took one more shower to remove the sweat and chlorine and dressed again. I can highly, highly recommend the spa to guests of The Woodlands; it is complimentary with your stay and a great place for moms to retreat when dads have the kids. Also, there’s a men’s spa on the first floor underneath the ladies’ spa.

I discovered on the way back that my camera was no longer fogged up. I picked up a hot paper cup of lemon tea outside the restaurant and took some photos here and there. Of special interest to me was the game room. It contained pool, air hockey and shuffleboard tables -- which will be something Hunter will likely have an interest in when she’s older. That’ll be fun.

I also passed by a business center, the Lobby Bar and through the Lobby, which has what I can only describe as particularly Texan décor. I mean, after all, how many places do you go where you can sit in a cow fur armchair? Really?

Even though I hadn’t called for a golf cart before leaving the spa, it took no time at all for the next one to arrive to transport me back over to the Fairways. Those golf carts are everywhere.

When I arrived back at the room I discovered that Paul and Hunter were just stirring. Everyone was slow. I think we were all experiencing a little trip fatigue.

Rather than try to get up and over to eat breakfast, we took our time and snacked on what we’d brought -- our snacks and beverages and such. We still had a few containers of milk, soft drinks and packages of mandarin orange slices along with some of the fruit we picked up at Moody Gardens. A good snack and then we were getting ready to head out again.

Our intended destination had been the massive Woodlands Mall. It’s not just a mall, it also has its own children’s museum, the Xploration Station satellite location for Houston’s Museum of Natural Science and a soft indoor play area. We figured we’d let Hunter have a great time there, then grab a bite to eat before heading back to the resort.

Here’s the problem. Sunday, noonish, The Woodlands. What are you going to do? Go shopping! Where are you going to go? The Woodlands Mall. Where are you going to park? Ah, that was the problem. We should have taken advantage of the free courtesy shuttle around the area, but instead we were left trying to find a parking spot for the van. And there was nothing. Nothing. Not a single parking spot. We went around the entire mall a time and a half and couldn’t find a single space to park.

Well, what now?

We decided to drive over to Market Street to the west of the mall, and found a parking spot right away. It was a lucky thing, honesty, we caught someone else pulling out. And the moment we had pulled into the shopping complex I knew where we were going to go.

We were going to a French bakery.

La Madeleine is a short-range Texas chain that offers French baked goods and inspired dishes. I’ve been meaning to go to one for years -- every time I passed on in Dallas my mouth would water. Finally I was going to get that chance.

We walked over to the restaurant and found seats inside. I had Paul and Hunter decide what they wanted, then went and stood in line for my order to be taken. They take the orders, give you what’s already prepared, you check out and they bring the rest to you. Oh, yeah -- instead of a numbered card to put at your table, it’s a numbered wooden spoon in a standing block.

That’s on one side. After I went through the line and picked up Hunter’s yogurt and my Chicken Friand I dropped off my tray at our table, and Paul got Hunter into eating her yogurt (with strawberries!) while I went and obtained our beverages. I also picked up some fresh bread. Slices of bread and butter are available to all La Madeleine customers complimentary, and I took good advantage of this. I could live on bread and butter.

I liked how they had the kids meal there. All entrees are served with a choice of fruit, yogurt or a cookie and juice, soda or milk. Since Hunter wanted pizza, it had to be cooked. So she got her yogurt first. She loved that. Hunter eats yogurt every single day, and having fresh yogurt with big fresh strawberries in it was the bomb.

Her pizza was huge -- a 10” cheese pizza all to herself, for $4.69 for the whole shebang. Yes, we ended up eating some of it, too -- later that evening. That was a lot of food for a little girl.

Paul got a special, a Chicken Salad Sandwich on croissant with a serving of Tomato Basil Pesto Pasta Salad ($6.99) -- a very good chicken salad with a nice dill flavor to it, served up on a buttery and crispy croissant. I like the pasta salad, too, what Paul let me try of it. It was very rich for a pasta salad, served cold and very tomato-y.

But it was nothing compared to my Chicken Friand ($5.99), which was just better than I can express. Puff pastry filled with a couple different sorts of mushrooms and shredded chicken in a gorgeously luxurious cream broth. It was so phenomenal I almost cried. Outside of being served something similar by French friends, I haven’t had anything like it anywhere. Why can’t we get one of these La Madeleine restaurants in Little Rock?

While Paul took Hunter to the restroom I went for desserts to share. I settled on a mini Sacher Torte served in a square-cut shot glass and a piece of Tiramisu. When they came back Hunter claimed all the chocolate she could claim, letting us feed her bits with our spoons. I thought the tiramisu was a lot thicker than I was used to, but the Sacher Torte was extraordinarily rich. They offer a bigger version of it, too.

Now full, we ventured out and down a block to head over to Borders. We don’t have Borders Books in Arkansas (at least, not to my knowledge) and since the chain was going out of business we saw a chance to score some bargains. And yes, there were bargains to be had. There was also massive craziness in the kids area, where all the Pillow Pets had been thrown in the floor and which now made a strange play area for parents and kids alike. I took a single clandestine photo of the action.

Thing is, we did find some great deals. We also had to stand in line for close to 45 minutes to take advantage of those deals, because apparently everyone else had the same idea. Well, that was our luck.

We were done with shopping. It was time to head back to the hotel and take advantage of the fantastic waterpark area. Thing is, Paul and I were both pretty tuckered out. It had been a busy week. Was that going to deter Hunter? Of course not. So into our bathing suits we changed and off we went.

Hunter was so excitred I thought she was going to come right out of her skin. It was all we could do to keep her from running away from us as we headed out that way. She wanted to be in the water right then.

We started out intending on letting her play in the little splash pool for a while, but she spied the dancing fountains and had to investigate. This is a big round area with a relatively soft surface between the splash pool and the big pool with its waterslides. There are several small spigots that shoot up water every few moments in patterns.

At first, Hunter tried to figure it out, wondering why some of the jets went off at different times while others had a different pattern. Then she gave into it, squealing with delight, running through the different jets and dancing. It was an extraordinary amount of fun for a two and a half year old girl.

She played in that fountain a good 15 minutes, and then suddenly darted towards the big pool. We got onto her about that. Paul volunteered to take her out in it and I acquiesced, knowing Hunter wasn’t going to be happy until she tried it out.

They swam in the big pool for over an hour. I went out after a while with them. They were particularly enamored with the enamel lizards that graced the side of an island in the pool. Hunter wanted to name each one and pet it.

The water in this area was surprisingly deep -- and made me realize that everywhere we’d gone, we hadn’t been anywhere where the water was over our heads. Not at Schlitterbahn -- at least, not where we’d been at the park. Not at Moody Gardens. Not at Galveston, where I’d waded out the length of a football field and the water never got over my chest. Not even at the Embassy Suites, where the water in the pool only reached about four feet deep.

This pool… well, it was different. There were shallow sections but there was also this one deep section near the island where I could not touch bottom. It might have only been six feet, but I’m 5’9” and it was deep enough I had to tread water.

That made it perfect for older kids -- who donned goggles and went looking underwater for “buried treasure.” And they could find it, too. The Forest Waterscape includes those lizards, different items on the bottom to categorize and even a “sunken chest” that can all be goals for the kids to find.

Hunter? Not quite there yet. But she’s getting there. On our trip she’d learned the rudimentary bits of floating and dog paddling. I’ll be getting her into swim classes next summer for sure.

Once we’d had enough of the big pool, Paul and I took Hunter over to the splash pool to relax. Hunter spent a good portion of the time picking up the tiniest pieces of debris (mostly bits of leaves) from the bottom of the splash pool and made a pile.

She also met other kids, some of which were close to her age. I discovered she could be a bit bossy with them. She was directing them around here and there and they were paying attention. But they all seemed to be having fun, trying to figure out which of the jets in the splash fountain were going to go off next.

She also played with a younger child in the splash pool. The boy’s mom had floats and toys and gladly shared them with Hunter… I wonder if part of it was this look my daughter was giving her son. My daughter can be pretty scary sometimes.

We were out there until sundown, and even then it was hard to pry Hunter away. She was starting to turn into a little raisin. If I’d had the energy, I might have spent more time out there with her. But we had to get ready for the next morning. She tearfully left the swimming area to head back inside with us.

When we returned, we found our beds turned down for the night. Mats had been put down for our feet (our wet feet? Maybe) and on each bed there were cards with the forecast for the next day and a couple of chocolates -- which Hunter claimed, of course!

After we’d showered, we turned on a movie on the TV and let Hunter watch while Paul and I started to pack. There was so much to take back with us; despite having left a bag of dirty clothes from each destination in the van and not taking about a quarter of the rest of our stuff, we still had plenty to put up. We went through it all -- the clothes, Hunter’s toys, my press materials, everything. Paul went and took two loads to the car -- he had wanted to grab a cart so he could make it all in one trip but there wasn’t one available. We sent everything to the car except my computer (I wanted to work right up until we left), a change of clothes for the each of us, the cooler, Hunter’s bag and our toiletry bag.

We ate leftovers -- Paul ate Hunter's pizza, she ate her leftover half of burger from Coal Burger and I ate the leftover bread and butter from La Madeleine, and we kicked back and watched Three Men and a Little Lady, which I had forgotten included the fantastic and underratred Fiona Shaw.

It took a lot for us to get drowsy early. I think Hunter and I fell asleep around 10 p.m., Paul a short time later.

The following morning I managed to actually wake up when the alarm on my phone went off at 2 a.m. So worried we wouldn’t make it back to Little Rock in time for Paul to get to work, I was instantly wide awake.

Our planning had worked fine. By taking everything except a few easily carried items to the car the night before we were able to leave without multiple trips. Paul scooped Hunter up and carried her out while I pulled along the cooler and carried my computer. She woke up about halfway down the length of the hotel and quietly watched what was happening.

We got out to the van, slid her in and she was out like a light. Everything fit in the back and I took the first stretch. It was 2:30 a.m.

By 3:30 we were back in Cleveland, TX and to Highway 59. Paul took over, now knowing the way back home, and I crawled into the back seat with Hunter, where I slept until we got to Texarkana.

We stopped in at the Broadway Railroad Café in Prescott for breakfast, then boogied on up to Little Rock and made it in right after 11 a.m., just enough time for Paul to help me unload and shower before he had to be in at work at noon. My intention had been to spend the afternoon writing about our trip, but I fell asleep not long after Hunter asked to crawl up into my lap, and pretty much the rest of the day was spent snoozing and doing laundry. It had been a tiring trip.

Up next: What I took from my experience.

La Madeleine on Urbanspoon


  1. Sounds like a fun trip:). I'm for starting a massive petition drive to get La Mad in AR! We went many times when our daughter was I'm residency in Dallas. I love their tomato basil soup and have what was reported to be their recipe. I'm a bread lover myself.

  2. You'll have to tell Hunter she has great taste. I love Hello Kitty! and I collect all sorts of HK things.


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