Visiting London with young children in the spring

November 17, 2016

2 young boys at Science Museum London March 2016 visit40by40For our spring break this year, we went to London and Paris with our two young boys (ages 5 and 2 ½).  We don’t get to travel in the summer because my husband’s work is too busy then, so spring break has traditionally been our big trip for the year.

London is a place very near and dear to my heart.  I’ve spent a combined total of years, since my childhood, in this amazing city.  I have family here.  And I have close friends who have moved here, so it’s a treat to visit people I love from various moments of my life.

The trip we took this past spring was more of an introduction to London for a family and we were there about 5 days.  We stayed at a serviced apartment, No. 1 The Mansions by Mansley, on Earl’s Court Road.  I cannot recommend this place enough.  We got a two-bedroom, 1 bath flat with living room, dining room with table, and kitchenette with washing machine/drier, in a great location for about the same price as a hotel. The hotel was also perfect for a family.  And there was space, which is rare in London hotels. I might also add the reservations team was easy to work with.  We needed to change things around for our vacation before we started our trip and they moved the dates without any challenges since they had openings.  I’ve known other hotels to make a huge deal of it and get a manager involved.  I didn’t have that experience here at all.

I would recommend the Earl’s Court area or Kensington.  It’s walking distance to some amazing museums.  And, since it’s a residential area, there are lots of yummy restaurants to choose from and they’re kid-friendly. It also happens that Earl’s Court Station is a great underground station because it has two subway lines to major tourist areas, so it’s easy to get around and takes less time.

As for things to do with kids while in London, I recommend the Science Museum and Museum of Natural History, both of which are walking distance from each other (just around the corner) and they’re walking distance from the hotel where we stayed.  The kids were in awe from the dinosaurs and ancient animals in the great hall of the Natural History museum.  We spent hours there.  The Science Museum was a major change of pace after lunch. With trains, cars, planes, and rockets as the theme, our boys were in heaven.  It also happens that there was a really good education session while we were there about bubbles.  And what little kids can resist bubbles?  Check the education sessions to see if you can be there during one.  It’s worth it and you might even learn something new while your kids have fun.

Since it was a beautiful, sunny day the following day, we took the underground to see Parliament, Westminster Abbey, take a walk along the Thames, and then took a cruise on the Thames. Our boys had never been on a boat, so they loved the cruise and seeing and hearing stories about places like London Tower.

Food choices are amazing in London since you can eat any kind of cuisine that you want.  If you want spots you can easily find, I recommend a few chains with locations all over the city. Wagamama serves Asian cuisine and noodles, for Italian there is Strada, and my favorite for Middle Eastern cuisine, Maroush.  Really, though, you can find amazing restaurants all over the city.  Be willing to experiment, even with kids.

Our older son had a 24-hour stomach bug the day after we arrived or we would have gone to Portabella Road, which I know would have been a big hit with our boys.  One of the treats that kids and adult alike love are the churros with chocolate sauce that you can get as you wander through the market.  Make sure to bring your camera and ask the vendors if you can take pictures because there is lots of cool stuff, that you might not see elsewhere.  And don’t forget to bring cash.

My final thought about London is the amazing parks.  Holland Park is near Earl’s Court and the adventure playground there is fantastic! There is even a zip line, which you can imagine is a huge hit with two young boys.  There are places to climb and areas to run around in an enclosed area.  If you need another park, consider walking around Kensington Gardens and looking at the beautiful flowers and Kensington Palace, or Hyde Park, which has a few playgrounds and areas to run around or look at the beautiful flowers.  Consider taking a blow-up beach ball and you can let your kids burn off energy running after a ball if you aren’t near a playground.

Check out my blog for tips making the actual travel part of your trip easier when you’re traveling with young children.

Enjoy your time in one of the most international cities in the world! More to come on our adventures in Paris as the 2nd part of our trip.

Visiting Ireland with young children

November 17, 2016

family of adults and kids in front of adare manor from 40by40 blogI had written this blog about our visit to Ireland last year and never posted it.  I guess launching a business, getting work done, and doing research for a book can get in the way of travel blogs.

Last year, when we figured out that we could travel to Ireland over St. Patrick’s Day during our boys Spring Break last year, we jumped right on it.  We didn’t realize it at the time, but Ireland is also incredibly affordable for family travel in comparison to most Western European countries.

My husband and I traveled with our two young boys (ages 4 and 16 months at the time) to Dublin and then hopped on a train on our way cross-country to Adare, a small town outside of Limerick.  I don’t usually talk about airlines, but I will here.

We’re big fans of JetBlue, which was the airline for our Austin to JFK leg.  From JFK, we flew Aer Lingus, which we’d never flown before.  It was such a pleasure.  No question that international travel is not nearly as fun as it used to be.  We had an easy trip on Aer Lingus with amazing flight attendants.  In fact, our 16-month old wasn’t going to sleep unless I was doing the mommy rock with him in my arms. For 2 hours, I did the mommy rock and I chatted with a flight attendant, who shared all his knowledge about Adare.  He was very kind and understanding and kept me company instead of joining the rest of the crew in the galley while everyone on the plane slept, including our 16-month old.

We hopped on a train from Dublin to Limerick and then grabbed a bus to Adare.  It was a bit of planes, trains and automobiles, but we knew our boys would be conked out, so might as well kill some time on a train while the boys rested from jetlag. And the boys loved the return trip to Dublin on the bus and then train.  We don’t travel via train and bus in Austin, so it was a new adventure.  For the record, train and bus travel are easy and affordable in Ireland.  And we avoided taking car seats on our trip.

We stayed in Adare, a really lovely town.  You can walk from one end to the other in about 20-30 minutes with a stroller.  There are cute parks, cool thatched roofs on all the buildings, lovely churches, ruins at the outskirts of town, and great restaurants.  It’s a popular tourist destination for the Irish as there are weddings here and it’s quite picturesque.  It’s easy access too, since it’s about 20 minutes via bus outside of Limerick, which is the main city in the area.

We chose this spot because we have friends in a nearby village and we wanted to experience St. Patrick’s Day in a small Irish village.  For the record, there is nothing going on in Adare on St. Patrick’s Day, but the nearby villages have their celebrations, which we all four so enjoyed.

We stayed at the Dunraven Arms, which I highly recommend. One extra perk, which we weren’t prepared for, was that they have a pool for hotel guests in their gym.  Cold outside and heated pool. Yay! Our boys LOVED pool time after a day of sightseeing.  The food for kids was great, reasonably priced, and didn’t come out of a box.  The weekend brunch is fantastic.  Their homemade flapjacks (not pancake, but local flapjacks – think Irish version of a granola bar) were delicious.

We made sure to make the most of our trip, even with some down time and time to recoup from jetlag.  Our boys loved Bunratty Castle, near Limerick.  There is a whole village that allows visitors to see how people lived within the castle walls on top of how the aristocracy lived in the castle.  And they did a LOT of renovation and restoration to make the castle even more authentic. To get from Adare to Bunratty took 2 buses, but it was an easy and fast trip.

In Limerick, we visited King John’s Castle, with its cool river views and interesting story.  It was a big hit.  We also had a short visit to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick. Our boys showed limited interest, so we didn’t stay for long.

And, hands down, the highlight of our trip to Ireland, if you ask our boys, was going to high tea at the Adare Manor.  It’s a manor, essentially what most Americans would consider a castle, which has been converted into a 5-star hotel and restaurant.  The hotel and grounds are beautiful (this is where we took the picture above).  And tea for adults and hot chocolate for kids is fantastic.  Both adults and kids get all the yummy food on three-tier trays with their hot beverages. The food is delicious.  The setting is beautiful. The experience is fantastic. Make reservations or you probably won’t get in. And, I will add our boys loved the room and all the things in it.  They were incredibly well-behaved, so it’s doable with young kids.

We took the train back to Dublin and spent 3 days exploring the city.  We stayed at the Herbert Park Hotel, which is in the Ballsbridge area near the US Embassy.  The hotel is more of a business hotel, but it’s near parks and great restaurants because this area is more of a residential neighborhood. It’s what we wanted because it wasn’t load and overflowing with tourists, but it also wasn’t walking distance to sights.  It’s an easy bus ride to the tourist area, though, so that wasn’t a problem.  They have a great breakfast buffet with all sorts of choices, which keeps young boys happy.  We were in a family hotel rooms, which was two connecting rooms, as well as DVDs for kids and easy meals that are delivered to your room as part of a package.

We went to the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, which was yet another big hit for all four of us.  There are amazing areas of antique gold with primitive workmanship, which our boys had never seen before, and loads of swords, suits of armor, and “treasure.” The only thing for you to consider is that there is no elevator, which was surprising to us. If you have a stroller, either be OK with leaving it downstairs or know that you won’t visit the upstairs of the museum unless someone stays downstairs to watch the stroller.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral is one of the most important religious sites in Ireland. The physical structure is amazing and the history is interesting.  From a kids’ perspective, it’s great because it also has a green around it with play areas.

We did a lot of walking in Dublin to see different things without necessarily going in.  We walk in Trinity College, but didn’t have the chance to go to the library.  We saw Custom House, Dublin Castle, Christ Church Cathedral, and walked along the water front.  The weather was beautiful, which is rare for that time of year, and our boys had a bit too much energy, so we didn’t end up going in to any sites that day and that was OK.  The sun was out, even with the cold, and it made us happy to have new places and things to see and learn about.

One of the best parts of Dublin for kids is the greens.  There are little parks throughout the city that often have playgrounds.  We could do some sightseeing and then go play on a playground and then grab a bite and then do a bit more sightseeing and then play on a playground.

Since our flight out was late in the day, we went to the Dublin Zoo.  It’s a bit out of the way, but easily reachable via bus.  It was an easy way to use up energy and let our boys see something different from all the historic buildings.  I would recommend it for families.  Check the schedule because we were able to see them feed the lions because of the right timing.  Our boys loved that!

We spent about 9 days in Ireland and we only saw a fraction of what there is to see.  We will definitely go back when the boys are older and have more endurance and stamina for travel.  If you’re looking for a place to go with your family, Ireland is one of my top picks.  You won’t be disappointed.

Trinidad and Tobago

November 29, 2015

16033525259_f9cefe8c33_o

I’ve been meaning to post this forever and literally almost a year later I’m finally getting to it.  Sigh.  Country #39 was Trinidad & Tobago. We were in Trinidad only and stayed in or near Port of Spain. It was our first major trip as a family of 4 and the first country for our youngest.

First off, a major thing to note is that Trinidad is not really a tourist destination (Tobago is the tourist side). Trinidad hasn’t been built up for tourist needs and it’s much more focused on business (while doing research right before we left, we found out TNT exports oil – who knew?!!?!?). The big thing they do each year, which does draw people, is carnival. We weren’t there during carnival, though.

Second, the people are uber friendly, but that doesn’t always translate to service. While we were out on a walk checking things out, we even had people in their cars who were stopped at lights ask us if we knew were we were going. When it came to restaurants and our hotel (see note below on the hotel), service wasn’t always up to par, especially in comparison to other Caribbean countries.

Third, I would not recommend staying at the Hilton Trinidad. It was the worst Hilton I’ve ever experienced. The property is a bit rundown, the service is SLOW, and the prices are high for what you get. The first answer for everything was “NO” and only in some cases did hotel staff come around. When you’re traveling with children and you need something for a child (e.g., a sauce on the side), you make simple requests. The hotel staff was constantly challenging and just a bit ridiculous at times. I found out that the hotel is unionized, through a knowledgeable third party, at the end of our trip. That means people keep their jobs, even if their service is sub-par. And managers actually seem to know about the issues. We hear the Hyatt is a much better experience.

In general, our trip was OK. Port of Spain is a relatively easy place to walk around. It’s very mellow (except for during NYE with parties until 4am and during Carnival from what we understood)). We were able to walk around and take a look at things at a slow pace.

Maracas Bay, the closest beach to Port of Spain, was lovely and definitely the highlight of our trip. It’s a completely underdeveloped area, which means there are no hotels or condos on the beach. The only thing there is food shacks and places to rent chairs for the beach (bring your own towel). The beach is clean and there are only a few random vendors trying to sell their wares. It’s rare in the Caribbean to have an undeveloped beach so near civilization, so we really enjoyed that day.

We were going to venture to the Tobago side, but apparently last year the rainy season started late.  It was still rainy season when we got there, which is not usual.  It was too hard to plan a trip in a puddle jumper with two young boys and a daily forecast of rain for a few hours.  It didn’t rain long each day, though, and we ventured out, stroller and all, even in the rain.  Our boys didn’t mind.

As we’ve done in the past, we got a junior suite, which made travel with two little ones under 4 much easier. It helps to be able to close the door for a bit to deal with naps or early bedtimes, especially on New Year’s Eve. Another thing to note is that we flew through Fort Lauderdale. We had been through Miami before kids. It’s a really hectic and spread out airport, which I would avoid with antsy kids (like ours). Fort Lauderdale was a much better experience, especially with kids. Lots of different airlines fly to the Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale. We chose JetBlue and had a great experience on the airline! We will definitely fly them again, especially as a family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m now done with my goal of 40 by 40 — yay!!

March 30, 2015

My family was fortunate to travel when I was young and I’ve always been interested in international travel. Well, not always, but definitely since I was a teenager. My parents have loads of pictures when I was a pre-teen rolling my eyes as we saw yet ANOTHER historic site – castle, church, etc.

Forever and a day ago I read an article in which a woman had a goal to visit 40 countries by her 40th birthday. I decided to take on the 40 by 40 goal as well. I set an additional requirement to stay at least a night (although I have usually stayed several) in a given country and actually interact with locals and spend some time seeing the local sites. Essentially, I couldn’t have a connection in an airport or a quick stop on a cruise and count that as a country visited.

In order to complete my goal, we traveled to 2 countries recently – Trinidad and Tobago in December and Ireland in March. We traveled to both with our young boys, both under 5. I turn 40 in less than two weeks, so the goal of 40 by 40 has been fulfilled. Now to decide if I try to do 50 by 50…

It’s important to have time to wander when traveling

January 4, 2011

Although I am generally pretty specific about my time and schedule at home, I am a wanderer while on vacation. And I think it’s important to wander a bit on every trip, especially when you travel internationally. It’s important to know the sites you want to see and make sure you get to them, but I suggest you take an afternoon or a morning at least to just wander around. You’ll generally see some pretty amazing things you might not have seen if you stayed on your planned path. And it gives you a chance to soak up the culture as the locals experience it instead of what tourists get to see.

Traveling alone

November 19, 2010

I am currently pregnant, so I won’t be traveling internationally any time soon. I decided to write some posts about topics that are related to international travel. The first post is going to be on traveling alone. Many people don’t like the idea of traveling alone, but I loved it.

I have traveled to various places by myself, all over Central America, parts of South America and a few places in Europe. Although it was hard to make the first reservation, I have really enjoyed each trip. Truth is that I usually had more vacation time then my friends and significant other. I wanted to go somewhere and explore a new place, so I just went. I will admit, though, that I am pretty social and am willing to talk to people.

What I discovered was that you always meet people along the way, people you probably wouldn’t talk to if you had a travel companion. I met a group of doctors while traveling in Guatemala. They were doing work in villages and didn’t really speak Spanish, so I helped them with their travel. We ended up traveling together for a week. Fun group that I really enjoyed traveling with.

On another trip, I ended up getting turned around in a Mayan temple site. The park rangers helped me as I was wandering around. One got called away, so I asked if I could join the other who was going to lunch. While we ate, he told me his life story. I was a random stranger that was willing to listen. It was a very personal moment between strangers that was interesting and touching.

And, finally, being by yourself can prove to be more interesting too. I have been able to slip into a location as the place was closing. That one last person of the day. Or I get my questions answered by a guide or local. People are willing to answer your questions if you are willing to ask. Just something to think about.

Are there places you’ve enjoyed traveling to by yourself?

London in the spring

August 6, 2010

We went to London in April for a family wedding and, since it was my husband’s first time there, we made sure to make the most of it. Even though I had been to London many times, it was nice to explore the city again, especially with someone seeing it for the first time. In fact, we were stuck for 6 extra days because of the volcanic ash, so got in extra days. And, unlike usual weather, we got 11 of 12 beautiful days with sunshine and pleasant temperatures. It was a great time away.

My favorite part of the trip was the British Museum, specifically, the Ancient Egypt area that has mummies and other incredible artifacts that are literally thousands of years old – amazing. We also made sure to see the Rosetta stone.

The next thing I really enjoyed, but this one I had never been to, was the Wallace Collection. It’s a converted private home with a collection with well known international painters whose other paintings live in places like the Louvre, the Met, and London’s own National Gallery (another of my favorites). The real difference is that these paintings are all in spaces with original furniture so it’s more intimate– not to mention naturally beautiful and up close.

We also went to some other typical spots: Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park (including time at Speakers Corner), Marble Arch, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Parliament, St. Paul’s, Millennium Bridge, The Eye, and the National Gallery.
Another unusual thing we did was go to Bunhill Road that has a cemetery that dates back to the Black Plague. My husband does photography as a hobby, so this was a good stop for interesting photographs. We even went at sundown, although I must admit I didn’t want to stay too long after the sun started going down – got pretty creepy fast.

London is beautiful in the spring. Everything is in bloom and the British love their gardens, so there are flowers EVERYWHERE for public and private gardens. Just walking around in London in the many parks and squares is nice.

If you’re heading to London and don’t want to take a tour, but want to wander…here is a thought on places to see/visit that are close together in London. Also, I highly suggest getting a multi-day underground/bus pass for the time you’re there. And, if you kind of want a tour, you can do the hop on/hop off tours. Really easy. Just a few ideas below, but, but no means, the only way to mix things up.
• National Gallery , Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Column, Covent Garden
• Buckingham Palace (ask your hotel about the changing of the guard times), Parliament, Westminster Abbey, The Eye
• Tower of London, All Hallows by the Tower (really old church with an interesting crypt), Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tate Modern
• British Museum (incredible mummy exhibit on 3rd floor and Rosetta stone on 1st floor), Wallace Collection (incredible collection in what was a private home)
• Harrods, Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History Museum

Do you have area in London that you’re most interested in or most enjoyed on your last trip? Let others know about it here.

Wild Hog CookOff in Cotulla, Texas

April 5, 2010

Wild Hog Cook Off in Cotulla, Texas
Every year the second Saturday of March my extended family gets together at the Wild Hog Cook Off in Cotulla, Texas. This is the annual county fair for Cotulla that raises money for scholarships. While I realize this blog is for international travel, I feel like this annual trip is like traveling to another country in comparison to my usual city life. For those of you who don’t know Cotulla (which is most people), it’s roughly the mid-point between San Antonio and Laredo. It’s two exits off of I35.
The event is the typical small town county fair that you would see in a movie set in Texas, except for one big difference. I assume because of the name, half of the attendees are now Harley-Davidson bikers doing their weekend ride. Very interesting to see the difference between the two audiences.
On one side, you have people who generally grew up in the area. Some of those usual attendees decorate their booths according to the year’s given theme – this year it was Wild Hog American Style. Families and friends meet to barbeque and spend time together. Some people enter the wild hog barbeque contest. This year over 120 teams competed to see who could impress the roughly 20 volunteer tasting judges. There is live music, so people can show off their dance moves. Others head over to the rides. Little kids run back to their parents to show off the goldfish they’ve won from a game. And there is always some sort of show for livestock show as well. There is even a parade through town before the fair kicks off, although I’ve never seen the parade or the livestock show.
On the other side, you have the people who drive their bikes into town, generally Harleys, and enjoy the many food booths, hang out with their buddies, ride the fair rides, do the dancing.
Two difference audiences having a different experience at the same event – all in the name of raising money for local scholarships. Maybe next year you can check it out. ; )

Honeymoon in Thailand 2010

March 15, 2010

Thailand is often considered a party place – between the chaotic pace of Bangkok and the party scene at Phuket, it’s developed its reputation over many years. We were there as part of our honeymoon, so my husband and I chose to take it easy in Thailand. We spent about 3 days in Phuket and 4 in Bangkok and relaxed and explored the sites.

We got to Phuket, a beach town, late on the first day. That night we got caught in a rain storm after dinner, even though it wasn’t rainy season. The torrential downpours, even in the dry season, are intense and you want an umbrella or a poncho handy. Needless to say, we didn’t have anything with us, so we were sopping wet by the time we got back to the hotel.

We relaxed by the beautiful pool that overlooked the ocean one day. So relaxing and the perfect way to catch our breath. We took a tour of James Bond Island another day. I am a HUGE James Bond fan, so I really enjoyed seeing the area where The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed. The day tour took us to James Bond Island, sea kayaking, the floating city nearby, and another island where we spent the afternoon relaxing. It was a beautiful, sunny, happy day.

Bangkok is pretty much controlled chaos. If you go to Pat Pong, you will see all the things that you hear about in movies – those things that in part give Bangkok its reputation. We didn’t spend anytime in that area and, instead, we spent literally the entire day walking around the city. I really liked the Temple of the Golden Buddha, although my favorite part of the day was spent at sunset, watching the sun go down behind the Temple of the Dawn. Just be ready to see a total sensory overload in all the temples. Quite impressive structures.

We took a day excursion to the floating markets and the train market. We did some shopping from the boats and took some great pictures. The train market was interesting – a market literally on train tracks. As the train approaches, the vendors pull their booths back and leave the area free for the train to pass. Really interesting to watch.

My favorite unexpected stop was Jim Thompson. I won’t give a history of this interesting character from Thai history, but I will say his legacy in regards to the Thai silk trade is fabulous. It’s a store with the highest quality of material that you can imagine. You pay the price for that quality, though, so don’t think it’s Thai silk at Thai prices. We bought a few things in the store that we’re excited to have in our new house.

Biggest surprise in Thailand was the incredible Italian food in both Phuket and Bangkok. We live in a city where good Italian restaurants are expensive and rare. We don’t have neighborhood Italian-type restaurants. We literally had to travel half-way around the world the wrong way to get some yummy neighborhood style Italian.

Honeymoon in Cambodia 2010

March 15, 2010

We were in Cambodia for about 6 days.  We spent a night in Phnom Phen, which is really all you need to wonder around and see a few sights and catch your flight to Siem Reap.  We were in Siem Reap for 4 days, including New Year’s Eve.  Must admit, that is probably the worst New Year’s I have ever experienced.  Many of the hotels have a celebration and require you to buy a ticket if you’re staying there on the 31st.  It was abysmal – we can laugh now, but it was sooooooo cheesy it was painful on the night of New Year’s. 

My favorite temple of the six we visited in the Siem Reap area was Ta Prohm.  For Tomb Raider fans, this is where the first movie was filmed. The ruins are eerie with massive roots and trees in the middle of the complex that literally hold up the walls in various places.  It’s very cool to see in person.  The largest and most well-known temple site is Angkor Wat, which is impressive and unique.  And, my favorite touristy thing that we did was ride an elephant near Angkor Tom.  I felt like a kid.

 The buffet breakfast at each hotel was great with so many choices and the stir-fry we had from the smallest restaurant to large spots was really good as well.  Service is super slow pretty much everywhere you go, so order a beverage and something to snack on and be ready to wait a while to order and actually get your food. 

And make sure to take a bunch of singles since so many items cost one US dollar.  Take toilet paper and hand sanitizer.  You won’t regret it.