Tuesday, December 27, 2011

High time to get a little research in motion

So Christmas is done. We enjoyed 4 days house sitting on the Epsom Downs and I'm glad to say that we emerged from our family-combining (my parents and Mr T's sister and family all together on Christmas Day) not just unscathed but declaring it one of the best Christmases ever.

But now all the cookies are eaten, and we've ticked Christmas off the list my mind has moved firmly onto other matters. We leave the UK in just 24 days! Having spent the last 6 months here, on and off, we've found that we took a different approach to our previous jam packed visits when we tore from breakfast to lunch to dinner with friends, only to return back home feeling in need of a holiday. Anyone who has moved countries then gone back to visit will recognise this scenario. While it was nice to see people, it rarely felt like you'd spent enough time with any one person. This 'visit' has been entirely different - we were determined not to leave in the same situation and the luxury of time has made us lax and with a feeling that we had all the time in the world but a reality that didn't match, we have spent a good amount of time with far fewer people than we would have liked, and now we are jostling to fit as much as possible as we can into the next three and a bit weeks. 

But that aside, we have some other important business to address in this time. Those of you who know us will know that we're not the best planners (ahem, understatement maybe?). In 2 months time we will be in New Zealand for three months. That is the plan. But for now we have no flight to get us there. We have considered and discussed whether it would be preferable to travel North to South, or South to North, and we've come to a conclusion that for us, North to South is better. We'd always thought we'd buy a motor home at the beginning of the trip, and then sell it at the end of the trip... but now we're not so sure. Maybe the costs associated with it will be higher than we first assumed, so maybe we'd be better hiring one. Maybe it'll be too cold in a motor home on the South Island in late April//early May, so perhaps we'd be better staying in Bachs. And where do we want to see? We have a few places in mind, but I haven't even bought a lonely planet or rough guide yet, so I'm sure there's plenty more places that should be on our list but aren't.

We've been very lucky that my mums god-daughter is currently trialling a travel researcher, and we are the grateful recipients of that trial. He's come up with some suggestions that will help us on our way, but there's still much more to work out, and we've just got to that stage where we are starting to think that we really ought to do something about it. So I think there's a good few evenings on the internet ahead, looking things up and asking lots of questions to anyone who is vaguely in the know. While we're building up a bit of a following on this blog and our facebook page (woohoo!), I'm not sure there are enough followers yet that I can just sling the questions out there and wait for the answers to come flooding in! 

So our research will consist of drawing on information fom previous visits to New Zealand, searching the internet, using sites like Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Trip Advisor and Boots n All, as well as official New Zealand tourist web sites, asking questions on forums such as the sites I just mentioned and helpful people who have already offered their advice such as Sarah Bond, a Dunedin based travel writer, Lonely Planet and Rough Guides e-books, and any advice that friends and family who have been there can offer. Where do you get your information from when planning a trip? 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tractors and tinsel: meeting Santa at Bocketts Farm

For the last few days we've all been nursing horrible colds and coughs, which has meant cancelling all our plans - of which there were many, given that we're on the lead up to Christmas and we're into our final month in the UK and we've finally got that whirlwind panic on where you try to fit as many people into each day as possible.

We were supposed to be taking the littlest hobo to see Santa at Bockett's Farm near Leatherhead in Surrey. last Friday with some friends, but Thursday night was spent mostly awake, with her coming down with this virus, so by Friday morning we had to cancel. The littlest hobo was disappointed, but took it in the way that most toddlers do and was happily distracted by a plethora of other amusements, but we still really wanted to take her.

After too many housebound days, and starting to feel like we're heading out the other side of this thing, we decided that today was the day. So we wrapped up warm, picked up our niece, who is always up for a Christmassy adventure, and headed to the farm. My friend had told me after her visit on Friday that it was excellent, so my expectations were set quite high.

I'd heard it was quite popular, and the system is such that you are given a time slot for your Santa visit when you arrive, and then go off to explore the farm. I was keen to get there as early as possible, although we had a slow start to the morning, plus we decided to wait and see how we felt before we decided to go, so it was around 11.30 when we finally arrived. Luckily it was the last day of school in Surrey, so it was pretty quiet. I'd printed a discount voucher off their website, so our entry was reduced. We were offered a choice of Santa slots - we opted for 12.15.

While we were waiting we walked around the farm and fed the animals. It's lambing season, and there were several baby lambs, two of which had only been born a couple of hours earlier; it was quite magical to see. You're encouraged to buy bags of food for the animals and get right up to their enclosures - most of them were really friendly, ad it was great being able to stroke them. There's also a large amount of play equipment, both indoor and outdoor and something to please children of every age from what I could see. The littlest hobo especially loved the trampolines.

Only a few hours old!

When our time to visit Santa came, we went to the front of the barn. There was a little trailer being pulled by an elf driving a quad bike which carried approximately 15 kids, and the parents walked alongside. The littlest hobo was a little dubious about getting on the trailer without us, and as it wasn't full they allowed her grown up cousin to ride with her. The trailer ended and we were all lead through the haystacks into the barn.  In the first room the elves talked to the kids, asking them what they were going to ask Santa for this Christmas and then playing a game or two with them, which was just as well, because it kept them moving to help ward off the cold! Then we were led through a maze of tinsel decked tunnels into another hay room, where we were greeted by the big man himself.

It wasn't just the little people who were excited!

In the car, the littlest hobo had been stiff with excitement, repeating 'I'm excited, I'm excited, I'm excited' as we drove into the car park. I was still a little dubious, given this was the same little girl who had turned blue with screaming when we saw Santa from a good 50 metre distance in Westfield at Bondi Junction last year. And last week, when Santa popped by my parents house on his way to a party at the local nursery school, she was happy enough to be held near him, but struck mute for the entire time he was with us. So I was really pleased when I saw how it worked at Bocketts. we all sat around on hay bales while 'Father', as the littlest hobo calls him, talked to the children. Then he invited them up a couple at a time to tell him what they wanted and get a small gift. This was the perfect introduction to Santa visits for a somewhat timid toddler - she didn't have to sit on his knee, and she stood up there with other kids (and her cousin). She even told him she wanted a Buzz Lightyear for Christmas, which was news to me! Santa and the elves seemed really friendly and good with children, and I was suitably impressed by the whole experience.

Meeting the big man himself

The farm also has tearooms, where we warmed up and enjoyed a tasty and warming lunch, and a shop. They were also selling Christmas trees today. We were free to go back into the farm after we'd met Santa and eaten our lunch, so we wandered around for a while longer, seeing all the animals again and playing on the outdoor play equipment, but eventually the cold air got the better of us and we returned to the warmth of our car.

We've been to the farm a couple of times in the summer, and thought it was good then, but I was really impressed by the Santa  visit - if you're in the area and have kids i would definitely recommend paying Santa a visit at Bocketts Farm.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sorting out the nuts

We've known for almost a year that the littlest hobo is allergic to nuts, after a minor (coughing and rash) reaction to a satay dish, the third time she'd tried peanuts, followed by a rash where her daddy kissed her after jsut having eaten peanut butter herself the next morning. I took her to the doctors that day and the peanut allergy was confirmed a couple of months later by a skin prick test.

A few weeks before she had the test she was admitted to hospital with a spurious illness that left her dehydrated and weak. 

She'd always been a small baby, she'd never grown particularly well, had slept absolutely terribly since birth, had an abominable immune system, and she had become a fussy eater at a very young age in spite of our efforts to the contrary. When they discharged her from hospital they referred her to a paediatrician with concerns about her chest as well as her growth. It was thought that she'd had a chest infection, but as the weeks wore on and her chest didn't clear the doctors became more concerned. 

It was a stressful time, we struggled getting our heads around what was going on, as did the doctors, it appeared. She was so little to be going through all this and it felt like there was nothing we could do to protect her or make her better, we felt somewhat helpless, which is an awful feeling to experience as a parent. I started taking her to a chiropractor, and we saw an improvement, but they felt that there were other things going on with her health that they couldn't work against until we worked out what they were. She was put on a strong asthma steroid, and a medication to control her reflux, which made an immediate improvement, but it wasn't enough. Her growth was poor, and her eating deteriorated further, and we became more worried. She was put through a series of tests, which were inconclusive except for low iron levels; they couldn't work out what was causing them. She was given an intensive course of iron supplement, and we also decided to introduce a good fish oil, and they continued on with the tests, some of which caused us great concern due to the possible outcomes. She was also put on a wheat and dairy free diet, which was challenging and extremely limiting at times, but worth every second if it helped her health.

In the meantime, the combination of our concern over what was happening with the littlest hobo and other circumstances led to us making plans to return to the UK. While we were getting ready to leave Sydney, the littlest hobo continued to go through tests, and finally they managed to get a clear enough test result to clear her of the most concerning illnesses.

When we arrived in England we had to get her into the medical system, so it took a while, and in the meantime we managed to wean her off the reflux medication, which we were really pleased about: as she was taking a strong adult dose and we didn't feel comfortable with her taking it long term. When she saw the paediatrician he also changed her asthma medication and referred her to a dietician and for more extensive allergy testing. he was keen to do a test for coeliac disease too, but couldn't do it until she'd been eating wheat for at least 6 weeks.

Over time we could see her health, and her appetite, improving. She seemed less susceptible to every single little sniffle doing the rounds, she looked a better colour, and she appeared to have a couple of massive growth spurts too. After we saw the dietician we introduced a vitamin d and calcium supplement. We decided we were ready to try introducing wheat back into her diet. She coped with it really well and seemed to improve even more dramatically. 

This week was a big week - first she had skin prick testing, where 18 allergens were tested. We were absolutely delighted that only three caused a reaction - peanuts, nuts and dust. Wheat, dairy, soya, mustard and fruits, all of which we had suspected at times, were clear. Skin prick tests identify IgE allergies - those which cause the most severe and at times life threatening reactions. While she may still have some non-IgE allergies, we're really hoping that her problems were due to intolerances or allergies that she has or will soon grow out of. above all, we have the confidence to start reintroducing dairy too, knowing that we shouldn't expect a major reaction. We also saw the consultant this week - he was so pleased by the littlest hobo's  improvements that he has discharged her from his care; she only has to see the dietician and the allergy clinic now. 

This has been the most fantastic week in the littlest hobo's medical history! We've worried about her on and off for such a long time now, and it feels like a huge weight has been lifted. a few months ago we had a little girl with a complex set of medical issues, now she's just a regular little girl with a couple of allergies. This will give her so much more freedom in the long term, and it feels like it gives us more freedom and peace of mind in our upcoming travels too. They've given her an epipen for her peanut allergy, which is comforting to have; I'm sure that had none of the history happened, we might be fretting now about her having an allergy that requires an epipen, but given everything that's happened in the last few months we're hugely relieved that that's all it is - something that is both avoidable and controllable, and something that's being taken increasingly seriously by the world, so should be relatively easy to communicate. I'm sure the future won't be without hic-cups, but it's much brighter than it was a few months ago, and that's a worthy celebration. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An English Christmas

Some might say that my last post, Who stole my glitter, almost a week ago, was a bit negative. I wasn't really feeling the Christmas spirit. I wasn't really making the most of my current environment, but instead whining and moaning about silly little things that were neither here in the grand scheme of things.

My poor mother in law reminded me about some of the things that she's feeling sad about being in Australia, while all of the rest of us are spending Christmas here together this year. I haven't been in England over Christmas for 5 years, and that time we were 5 years ago, we just rocked up on 23rd december to our ready made celebration, so didn't really get involved in the prep. We still don't know where we'll be this time next year, or for years to come, so I really should be making the most of it and approaching it like I would any other travel opportunity, instead of sinking into the comfort of 'home' (well, my parent's home, which is really only one step removed) and behaving like a Grinch.

So I've pulled up my Christmas stockings! I'm really enjoying being a visitor to UK Christmas! Last week we went out and bought a Christmas tree. It was bitterly cold, and that seemed right. We wrapped up warm and made an occasion of it. Us three generations of girls went for lunch and then headed to a garden centre where there was row upon row upon row of trees in every shape and size. The littlest hobo made a game of getting 'trapped' between the branches and having to be heaved out. We spent about 45 minutes picking up trees which were too short, too tall, too wide, lopsided, too green, and the wrong needles before settling on our perfect tree.We took it home and dressed it up, and it was magical seeing the look on the littlest hobos face as she pulled sparkly trinkets from my childhood out of their packaging and hung them on the same branch, over and over, which was by that point starting to sag a little.

Choosing the Christmas tree

I've taught the littlest hobo how to wrap presents too. Well, of a fashion. So if you read this and then receive a dogs dinner of sparkly paper mashed together with half a ball of sellotape, please smile and tell her that you're glad she went to the trouble of wrapping your present herself :) It's actually led to hours of entertainment for her, and it's usually me, with aching back from leaning over on the floor for just a bit too long, who puts a stop to this particular activity.

As many will already know, Mr Traveller likes to Cook like Jamie, so he and the littlest hobo had a lot of fun baking some Christmas biscuits, which we wrapped in cellophane today and will deliver to the neighbours. All of this Christmas activity has been taking place to a soundtrack of Christmas music which seems so much more comfortable when we're wrapped up warm inside against the biting wind and gloomy days that are hanging around outside the window.

This Friday we're joining friends to visit Santa on a farm. I'm fairly confident that I wouldn't be going anywhere near a farm in December if it wasn't for the fact that this particular farm is supposed to do the best Santa visits in the area (I'll let you know...). We've also been looking around for a carol service that we can take the littlest hobo to - there's something magical about standing, all rugged up, under the twinkling moonlight, listening to the most familiar of songs.

And then there's Christmas itself - we'll be spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with a combination of both Mr Travellers and my own family. The frenzy of planning has begun and there's stream of ongoing discussions trying to buy the perfect presents and make sure the day itself is just right. On Christmas Eve we'll get together to have a meal. We're house sitting for friends over Christmas in a house that's kitted out in so many sparkly lights it's probably a fire hazard, and we'll probably put on our hats and scarves on Christmas Eve and take a wander around the neighbourhood and look at the other lights too - any time after 4pm, seeing as that's when it's getting dark at the moment. After the post-Santa frenzy of Christmas morning, we'll wrap up warm and walk to the pub, which I hope will have a roaring log fire to warm ourselves by while we raise a Christmas glass, before returning home to eat Christmas dinner UK style, with turkey and all the trimmings, Christmas pudding, and I dare say turkey sandwiches in the evening.  On Boxing Day we'll see more family, and probably brave the cold and go for another walk, just because it's tradition, and it's nice.

These are all things that I haven't done in the same way in the last few years. Our Christmas tree, for several years, was some silver twigs in a vase, we ate seafood and had a bbq for our Christmas lunch, and wore clothes to keep us cool. We spent time with the few members of family that were there, or with friends, and Boxing Day was all about the beach. I wonder if there'll be snow this year? It's been forecast for this Sunday....

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Who stole my glitter?

I mentioned previously that one of the things I really enjoyed about living in Australia was that Christmas was a much more low-key affair than in the UK. Then I got a bit whipped up with the magic of dark nights and Christmas lights, endless renditions of 'Fairytale in New York' and the aroma of a newly acquired Norwegian Spruce hanging in the air. Yesterday the littlest hobo and I had a ball of an afternoon with a few rolls of wrapping paper and a roll of sellotape, wrapping up gifts.

Today was a reality check. We started off well enough. In fact, as we were sitting in the car this morning  I heard the words "A little part of me can see an argument for living back in the UK' tumbling from my mouth. I am enjoying being close to friends and family again after a few weeks away, it had awakened this new notion in me.

We decided to 'pop' into Tesco/M&S this morning, so that the littlest hobo could chose a couple of presents to give on Christmas day, to replenish our wrapping paper supplies, and to pick up a dessert for me to take when I visited some old school friends this afternoon. We found one gift in Tesco before giving up thanks to the sheer weight of traffic. It took us a good 10 minutes, and constant demands for cuddles (understandable given the amount of knees she must've been walking into) to get to the M&S coffee shop, only to find a queue, as long as Santa's list, of pensioners jostling to keep their places and beat their peers to the last seat in the cafe.

We gave up and headed to the food section to get the dessert and get out of there. I'm not entirely sure whether there were more staff (one who was frantically running around screaming to his colleagues about only having 3000 of these left, while brandishing a shiny gold box of I don't know what - biscuits?) or dithering customers tripping us up, but let's just say the overall experience intensified at this point. I made my selection and we high-tailed to the self-pay area, only to get held up again while a clearly 'here to help' employee told the elderly couple in front of us that they wouldn't be able to use these check outs with a trolley. They only had 3 items in their trolley, and I'm sure said trolley was doing a fine substitution for a zimmer frame, but she made them swap it for a basket and replace the trolley before she'd let them, or any of us standing behind them, through, wasting far more time than they would have done putting their 'trolleyful' of shopping through the checkout.

When we'd finally paid we headed towards the car, a process which took a total of ten minutes of ankle ramming trolley and dawdling daytripper hell, followed by almost being lifted right off our feet with the biting cold high winds. By the time we got back in our seats I was practically on the phone to trailfinders begging for the next available tickets 'home'.

What is it that sends people into this hair pulling consumer frenzy? And why is it that it seems to be happening earlier and earlier every year. I dread to think what that place will be like this weekend, 11am on a Thursday was quite enough of a stressful elbow fight for me. I'm so glad that I did 80% of my Christmas shopping online and I won't have to endure this scene, which somehow distinguished a degree of the spirit of Christmas in me, too much more.

I was so relieved once i got to my friend's house; there is something so comforting about people who you have known forever and always, and it was so nice to be in their company and catch up on the latest goings on. I love the way we can all do things so differently as adults (parenting, careers, lifestyle choices etc etc), yet i still feel so at peace in their company.

I did however feel a little embarrassed when they handed me Christmas cards and I had to admit I'm not sending them. I decided to stop a couple of years ago - no longer able to justify the time and cost that goes into it for a piece of card which sits on display before going at best to be recycled or at worst into landfill. In Australia, I don't think that would be a big deal, but in England I feel like I'm opting out of one of the important elements that contribute to the pomp and ceremony that is Christmas. I feel like the Grinch!

Christmas in England and Christmas in Australia are such very different experiences, and I'm starting to learn that there are parts of each that I relish and appreciate, and parts that I would rather not partake in. It's flustering me a bit, I want to shake myself, stop worrying, and get back into the Christmas spirit. I suppose that as both places are 'home' of sorts to us, I expect them to fit perfectly, like a well worn glove, when in reality, we are to some extent visitors to each. I wonder whether if I approached Christmas in the UK in the same way as I would if I were in a completely different and new to me country, I would have different expectations.

What is Christmas like where you are, and what do you love about it? Are there parts that you're less keen on?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review: Brittany Ferries Pont Aven

We made the journey from St Malo in France up to Portsmouth in the UK on Monday. We travelled aboard Brittany Ferries Pont Aven, which interestingly enough is the other vessel that does the Portsmouth - Spain route, which we did a few weeks ago, so it made an interesting comparison.

Our crossing took 8 hours - there is a 5 hour option, but it’s on a much smaller boat, and given how choppy the sea was I am eternally grateful that we were on large ferry. In fact, the Pont Aven is the largest on Brittany Ferries’ fleet and also their flagship vessel.

Our experience started well, given that we weren’t parking our car on level 1, right down in the absolute underbelly of the ship this time! And it felt considerably more roomy when we stepped out of our car. We were also greeted by an attendant who handed us a card which had been marked with our deck and stairwell to assist us when the time comes to return to our vehicle - very helpful. Their efficient loading paid off at the other end - we docked at 18.18 and were off the boat at 18.23, whereas on the Cap Finistere it took over an hour for us to get off.

As had been our original plan on the Cap Finistere crossing, before I stuffed it up, we booked the best cabin available, the Commodore Class cabin. Being a day crossing,  you’re not required to book a cabin, but as it’s quite a long time on the ferry we decided we would. They offer a reduced rate for cabins during the day, and it only cost us and extra 50GBP for this little haven of luxury, putting our total cost for the crossing at 200GBP. The cabin was lovely - on deck 8 (the top deck for accommodation) and is equipped with en suite shower, twin beds, plus a large sofa come third bed and a fourth pull down bunk if required. It had two wardrobes, a large area to rest your cases, a tv and dvd player, toiletries and a nice box of fruit and a few macaroons to accompany your hot and cold beverage selection  It also had a balcony, which we took great pleasure in waving a regal goodbye to St Malo port and the one lone onlooker standing at the entrance to the port from as we passed through. The cabin was very spacious and nicely finished, I’d put it on a par with a 4 star hotel room; I could happily spend a week in it, if it wasn‘t on a boat!.

Bed area in the Commodore cabin

On the balcony

The Commodore cabin also gives you access to the Commodore lounge, which is a nice enough area at the back of the boat with an adjoining small private deck area. It seemed nice enough, and although I can’t really see the point of it on the day when we were making the crossing, when the boat is so sparsely populated anyway, I’m sure it’s a welcome retreat, much like an airline lounge in a bustling airport, in high season.

The boat itself has a much nicer appearance than the Cap Finistere. It is more modern with a clean new feel to the public areas. There are a selection of bars and leisure areas offering a change of scenery. There are two cinemas onboard, although to our disappointment they weren’t showing any kids films as they would have been a good way to while away the hours. They do, however, have kids TV playing at a couple of places on the boat, as well as on the tv in the cabin and we were also provided with a list of DVDs that we could rent from the info desk.

The pools are located indoors, with a conservatory style glass roof , and set in a nice bar area, although for some reason it was closed- I don’t know why because it was warm indoors, perhaps due to the rough crossing.

The pool area

The childrens play area was also indoors on this vessel; in a much smaller area overall. There was a soft play/climbing area and an area with small kids tables and chairs (but nothing to do on them). There was also kids TV playing in the area. I was a little disappointed with the kids facilities on Brittany Ferries after our experience earlier in the year on Irish Ferries, where there was a large play area and a kids cinema which made the crossing go really quickly. Having said that, there were quite a few children on that crossing and very few on our trip on the Pont Aven, and when we crossed to Spain we’re fairly confident that the littlest hobo was the only kid onboard. '

As far as the food goes, we took breakfast on board with us as we’d made one last stop at a Boulangerie on our way to the ferry port. Breakfast is actually included in the Commodore cabin, although we didn’t have it. We ate lunch and dinner from the self service restaurant, and were pleasantly surprised. The food mas nicer than that which we had eaten on the Cap Finistere. There was a good selection of food available, although I was really disappointed that they didn’t offer either a kids menu, or kids portions of the adult menu,  especially as it wasn’t particularly cheap.

The littlest hobo and I whiled away an hour or two in the main bar in the afternoon; there was a live singer and we enjoyed sitting at the table with our magazines and a couple of toys listening to the music. It was a sizeable bar which was probably only about 10% full while we were in there. In fact, the whole boat was very sparsely populated and this added to the feeling of space that we got from the Pont Aven. The other benefit of booking a spacious cabin was that it made a great Christmas disco venue (just add iPad for the tunes), which kept a certain mini traveller amused for a good half hour - every second counts!

I’ve come to the conclusion that any ferry crossing around this area at this time of year is going to be a rock and roll experience. But at least on the Pont Aven it was minimised thanks to the size of the vessel. I much prefer the Pont Aven to the Cap Finisiere, partly because it’s a larger ferry so the waves are less uncomfortable, but also because it’s newer and better fitted out. The Commodore cabin was excellent value and worth every penny, and I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t take this option if it‘s available, even more so during the high season when the boat is full and the public areas teaming.

I’m surprised to admit that I’ve been gently persuaded on ferry travel. I really wasn’t convinced before - I hated the thought of it, but I can definitely see the benefits now. It cost us far less than our trip would have if we had flown and then hired a car, gave us the flexibility that having a car with you brings, and with little children it’s an obvious choice- hours strapped into a car seat (or plane seat0 or a few hours running around on a ferry - I know which one the littlest hobo would pick, every time. And happy kids leads to a much less stressful travel experience

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Review: Centre Parcs - the good, the bad and the ugly

I wrote a first impressions post when we arrived at Centre Parcs, but  when I was umming and ahhing about whether to go I didn't feel like there was enough information out there on the interweb that I would have liked to have seen before we booked, so this is my Centre Parcs in a nutshell review.

We visited the Hauts des Bruyeres parc, in the Loire Valley in France. We went for 4 nights, midweek, in their low season at the end of November/beginning December. We booked it online, a few days before we went, and got a reasonable discount. On top of our cabin booking we also paid extra for towels and logs in our cabin on arrival.

Check in was from 3pm, and we arrived around 4pm - check in was smooth and problem free, we took our keys, dropped everything off at the cabin, and returned our car to the car park before hiring some bikes.

You can opt to pre-book the bike hire, but we didn't, and given it was low season we definitely didn't need to - it would have saved us 5%, but as it was only a small amount it wasn't a big deal. The child seat on the bike (at the front for under 3's and the back for over 3's) is free, or you can hire a trailer for one or two kids to ride in being towed behind a bike. There was quite a selection of different bike options, even a trailer for your dog, should you feel the need. we got one bike with a child seat and one with a pannier, which proved invaluable for carrying our swimming stuff, or little bits and pieces to and from the supermarket. We could swap between bikes really easily as the seats were simple to adjust, and all the bikes are fitted with a lock so another guest can't hot-tail with your chosen wheels while you're in the pool. They also had golf carts for hire - they were surprisingly reasonably priced but seemed like too much of a cop out for us to partake!

Our cabin was pretty good - we booked and Eden Premium with 2 double bedrooms. Our room had a king sized bed, which was very welcome to sink into after an exhausting day on the bikes/in the pool etc. The beds are made up on arrival and you're supposed to strip them before you leave. The cabin was warm and toasty with central heating, although we also enjoyed lighting the fire, because, well, it's a Centre Parcs icon, that fire! The radiators were good not only for keeping us warm, but also for drying our swimming cozzies and towels in time for the next dip. The bathroom was good, with a spa bath, although ours wasn't actually working, and we didn't bother calling them to get it fixed, so I don't know how responsive they are to maintenance issues.

'Kids' bedroom 
Main bedroom with big, comfy bed

The kitchen was small, with a dishwasher, stove top, coffee machine, fridge with small freezer compartment, but no oven. It was well equipped as far as crockery and cutlery goes, but the cooking equipment wasn't too great. I would imagine that far fewer people cook when they're on a few days visit somewhere than we do, when we're constantly on the move and wherever we happen to be sleeping that night becomes home for that time. I do think they set it up so that it's preferable for you to eat out though - I suppose that's where a large proportion of their income comes from.

Small kitchen

Our cabin was equipped with a highchair, kids toilet seat and a step, and i read somewhere that you can also request a toddler bed and toddler table and chair, although we didn't, but i was impressed with the equipment that was there.

Our cabin was set right at the edge of the park, which we understood before booking would most likely be the case, as the Eden cabins were built after the standard ones. We had trees and a tributary of the lake behind our cabin, the road, which truly was unused apart from a Centre Parcs vehicle or two, for the entire week, at the front. On the first morning we opened our curtains to find a rowdy and demanding duck, aka Zack the Quack, knocking on our window with his beak, which he kept up quite regularly throughout our stay.


Let's face it, we all want to know about the pool! I didn't take my camera in there - it was so humid that I was worried about moisture getting inside it, and there were signs up asking you not to photograph, although I'm not sure whether they were referring to the changing rooms or the pool itself, and everyone else seemed to be ignoring it anyway. It was good fun and in good condition, not at all crowded, but we were there in the lowest of low season. The kids pool always had a few people in though, I would hate to see what it's like at the height of the season. The littlest hobo complained about being cold a few times, usually before she was ready to leave in any other respect, and I did have conversations in my fumbling French, with a few other parents about it being cold. It didn't seem it when we first went in, but it certainly didn't seem to take long for the kids to become too chilly to swim. There were 4 slides, and signs up for a new one opening next year, an outdoor river rapids ride, indoor rapids, wave machine, jacuzzis, and 2 kids pools with slides and spraying water, but not as much as i had expected before we went. It was all in a very natural setting, lots of stone, trees and greenery.

We ate at 2 of the 6 or so eateries available. At that time of year, they were never all open at the same time, but I would imagine that in the height of the summer they would be. We went to the buffet style restaurant twice, once for lunch, and the second time for dinner, mainly because it was the only place open when we wanted to go. It was ok, a good selection of food and the package with the drinks included was good value, although eating there every day for a week stay could probably double the value of your holiday. Kids under 4 ate free, and there was a kids play area with a climbing structure, and a little table and chairs with a bead toy on it, but I felt it was all a bit grubby and looked like it had seen better days. It was also designed for kids aged 3-10 I think, so a bit of a struggle with a 2 year old who was keen to join in but a bit short so we spent our whole time getting up and down to give her leg-ups. We also ate at the burger place, which had the same slightly broken bead toys, kids under 4 ate free, but the food was pretty tasty.

Playing with the bead toy at the burger bar

We used the supermarket a couple of times, the boulangerie every day, and also ordered a free range chicken delivered to our cabin one night. It was all ok, the supermarket surprised me with their range, the bread from the boulangerie was better some days than others, and the chicken was great value at euro12.95 with potatoes (which were really quite inedible!) and it lasted us 2 meals too.

We spent a bit of time in the Experience Factory, in the soft play area and we also watched a kids show in there on the last night. We had the same problems with the soft play equipment in here as in the restaurant - it was made for age 3 up and the littlest hobo wasn't quite tall enough for any of it so we had to go around it with her. It was fine, as it was quiet or empty every time we were there, but she would have been bored and frustrated had the situation been different. The show was amusing - all in French, but it still kept the littlest hobo completely enraptured for the duration, especially the 'mini-disco'!

Building with the giant blocks in the Experience Factory

There was a small petting farm, with goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs, mostly roaming free. The littlest hobo enjoyed it, but it was a bit of a 10 minute wonder - i think they could definitely improve it a bit. She also loved the merry go round, which, inevitably, you had to buy tickets for, but they weren't too expensive.

We all really enjoyed our stay at Centre Parcs, 4 days was just long enough that we didn't feel like we were leaving before we'd done enough, but we hadn't got bored of doing the same things every day yet. We did go out one afternoon to buy oat milk and soya yoghurt, and I have to admit, we did feel a bit like we'd escaped from the institution into the real world! Overall the quality was fairly good, although there was a definite sentiment that you were constantly parting with more cash - if you're considering a visit and want to know how much it will truly cost you, expect that the initial booking is likely to be about half of your final outlay, or you could expect to spend a bit more still if you have older kids who want to do more of the paid activities. as much as i enjoyed it, I think i might resent going in high season, when you are paying a lot more to be there and the facilities are being shared with so many more people.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Christmas is coming, now what d'you think of that?

When we moved to Australia I revelled in the fact that there was much less fuss over Christmas. I loved the fact that there weren't Christmas songs playing in the shops in September, that there didn't seem as much fuss and frenzy surrounding 'the big day'. We didn't even buy a tree until last year.

It wasn't something I was particularly looking forward to when we were contemplating Christmas in Europe this year, I was looking forward to spending time with family, but I didn't really relish the thought of weeks and weeks of shopping and a whirl of social engagements that leave your head spinning and your liver ready for the obligatory January detox.

But a strange thing has happened. When we were in the exploding house, with it's English TV channels, we found ourselves favouring the music channel that's playing Christmas carols 24/7. On our car journey days, there's been a definite shift in the songs we're teaching the littlest hobo to sing towards 'when santa got stuck up the chimney' and 'jingle bells'. I bought craft paper and cotton wool to do Christmassy crafts with the littlest hobo, and even made her a (chocolate free - for our allergy avoiding pleasure) simple advent calendar which I took great pleasure in introducing her to this morning - being home-made by yours truly, it was one door short of a full advent, so we started at 2 and hoped she wouldn't notice; she didn't. We've talked about Father Christmas (or just 'father' for those 2 year olds who believe they are on first name terms with the big guy with the gifts), and explained that he'll bring some gifts; now we're just hoping he'll remember that every toy she treasures will need to be squeezed into a 25x40cm backpack that she can manage to carry herself come mid-January.

I'm actually feeling quite excited - seeing the lights and decs at Centre Parcs sent me into a tailspin of anticipation, and I've already asked my parents to wait until we're there so we can all help with the tree. There's even a part of me that wants to buy the littlest hobo some great big gifts, just to see her little face light up on Christmas morning, even though my sensible side knows that we can't, because we will simply have no room for them in our bags three weeks after she gets them. We've been talking about going to see the Christmas lights, and even thinking of booking a panto (is two and a half too young, even if that two and a half year old will happily watch a whole movie, or sit through an entire Centre Parcs show, in French, mesmerised and jumping up at every opportunity to join in with the dancing etc?). We've even been considering going to Lapland in January, for goodness sake, albeit much more for the northern lights and the snow than for Santa, but still... Something, somewhere, somehow, seems to be knocking the Scrooge out of me, and I'm actually quite enjoying getting into all these festivities.

Reaching out to feel the magic

So pull up a yule log, set fairytale in new york on repeat, grab a glass of winter pimms and don your silliest red hat and tinsel. Join me in the festive spirit, and lets see if we're still humming this tune after our eighth turkey sanger.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Centre Parcs - first impressions

When Mr Traveller first suggested Centre Parcs a couple of weeks ago I was of mixed opinion. I'd been as a child, and again as a teenager, and loved it on both occasions. But I'd heard more recently about how overpriced it was, and a quick visit to TripAdvisor confirmed that, as well as reports of tired old damp accommodation (a huge no-no with our allergy-ridden gang), and rude, surly staff, and I became quite skeptical. But I had a look on their website and saw some reasonable last-minute, low season deals and got swept up in the romantic notion of riding bikes through the forests and swinging a giggling littlest hobo around in slow motion to a tinkly floaty soundtrack etc, and before I knew it I'd booked it.

So here we are, and first impressions, not so bad actually. The check in staff were great, polite, helpful, and really speedy. Our cabin, although one of the furthest points from the dome - a good 15 minutes walk at least - is warm and damp-free, and after the exploding house, quite a relief that we could be warm and cozy without constantly tending to a temperamental log burner. We've got a 2 bedroom Eden premium cottage, which sits just on the upper side of average within their ranges, and is the smallest size available. It's quite a cozy size, but it's plenty big enough for the three of us. The layout is a bit odd, and slightly annoying, with the littlest hobo's bedroom off the kitchen, and ours on the other side of the cabin, off the dining room - cue banging into the dining table in the middle of the night. The bathroom is off the kitchen too, through a door which on first impressions we assumed was a large kitchen cupboard (there isn't enough room for a large kitchen cupboard) and to get to the toilet from there you need to go through the kitchen, dining area and across the cold front porch. Again, fun at 2am. And while I make that sound like a logistical nightmare with a toddler in tow, it is all quite compact and relatively close together and the living areas are all open plan, so it's not as huge a chore as you might expect.

We hired bikes the moment we had dropped our car off in the car park, given the trek from our cabin to the dome. It was really easy and the littlest hobo loves riding on the seat in front of her daddy. Our first challenge was finding our way back to our cabin down the trails in the dark... a couple of wrong turns but we made it in the end, and laughed so much on the way. We were trying to imagine another scenario where we'd have the littlest hobo out on a bike in the dark in the cold riding round a lake. We couldn't!

The swimming pool is great, pretty quiet, as you would imagine at this time of year. They provide free flotation jacket thingies which all children without their own flotation aids and without a swimming certificate are obliged to wear. They're good, but a little big on the littlest hobo, who is still only around 10kg.

We also went in the experience factory, which is a giant warehouse typed space filled with bowling, mini golf, a huge indoor soft play area, a stage, squash, tennis and badminton courts, etc etc. It was pretty impressive, although you have to pay for most of the activities on top of your stay and they're not particularly cheap. I also noticed that there are quite a few things that are from age 3+, which is a bit of a pain with a 2 year old. I noticed people around who were clearly bending the age restriction rules though. and nobody seemed to be stopping them.

So far, I think we've been pretty impressed with our experience, everything has been clean, well run and we've had a lot of fun. There are a few little niggles, but nothing major, and it's probably worth putting up with them for the overall experience. We're feeling very virtuous after 4 bike rides (6 for Mr T) and 2 swims today, and looking forward to more of the same tomorrow.

10 days in Duras

I think it's about time I wrote an update! I've finally finished my assignment (keep your fingers crossed for my result) and we've left the incredible exploding house today and we're heading to Centre Parcs for four days.

While we've been in Duras, we've been on some great sightseeing trips, enjoyed feeling a little bit like a local in this little country town, spoken lots of French, and even managed to just relax and do nothing for a while. Sound idyllic? It was pretty good!

Our time in Duras started off with warm bright sunshiny days, followed by much cooler evenings, which required us to light the nerve-wracking fire then just wait to see if the house would feel like it was falling in on us again. Thankfully it didn't. Their second repair job seemed to do the trick and in spite of a few breath holding moments, everything has remained structurally sound for the rest of our stay.

The second half of our visit here brought a thick mist which hung in the air until approximately 3.30pm, when it would miraculously clear for the whole hour and a half or so before it got dark. It's only now, as the kilometers of Tarmac build up between us and Duras, and we travel over peaks and through valleys, all the while experiencing dramatic fluctuations in the weather, that we realise that perhaps the mist was just cloud, trapped in a basin where Duras sits. Anyway, it wasn't the sort of weather that encouraged you to venture out and explore your surroundings much, especially with the narrow country roads with sharp bends and deep ditches, frequented by many an elderly French gentleman in a flat cap and a beaten up old white van or 2CV, who would appear from nowhere and drive down the centre of the road to counteract the effect of one too many vers du van rouge at lunchtime.

Duras is a really pretty little town, surrounded by rolling hills covered in row upon uniform row of vines. The region is well known for wine aling with prunes, fois gras and duck amongst other things. Duras has everything I love about a town; a great market on Mondays, which we spent about 45 minutes walking around, and I'm told it's much bigger in the summer. I'm sad that the Christmas market doesn't happen until mid December, because I'm sure it would have been good. It has a reasonable butchers, and a fantastic boulangerie - I'm ashamed to say I can't remember the name of it, but if you ever find yourself visiting, it's the one that's away from the town square, near the war memorial and the town clock with an arch and a road running below it. It was a mere stones throw from the exploding house, so we were regular customers most of the mornings of our stay.

Duras from the top of the Chateau

Duras has a few restaurants and cafes, a reasonable sized supermarket as well as a small independent market and a tourist office. We found a small children's playground, hidden somewhat, near the schools, and not in the most impressive state of repair, but somewhere to swing and slide, non the less. After San Sebastian, where there was a playground every 100 metres or so, I think the littlest hobo was a little bit disappointed though.

It's a great place for English-speaking tourists to visit - I never quite worked out whether the French dialect spoken there is beautifully slow and easy to understand, or whether the locals were just particularly kind natured, but I enjoyed speaking French here, and there is a large British expat community who are eager to interact and help out, should you require. There's a strong feel of community, and a friendly nature to the town too - we felt welcome!

The jewel in Duras crown is the Chateau. It stands on the edge of the main town, an imposing landmark watching over the valley below. We visited with low expectations and were most impressed by what we found. A self-led tour, following the guide card you are given on entry takes you through the depths of the chateau, where the servants would have worked, up through the opulent living space above, to the top of the tower, where we enjoyed a 360 view of the town and the surrounding valleys. There were a couple of surprises along the way, and the littlest hobo really loved the whispering room, where two people stand in opposite corners and can chat away, hearing each other clearly, while anyone else in the room is oblivious to their words.

Shhhhh, it's a secret! What a novel way to get a toddler to practice whispering.

Duras was a great base for visiting Bergerac, the unique and exceptionally picturesque St Emillion, and some of the surrounding Bastide villages, but I think I've bored you enough for now, so those are a story for another day!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Baby, it's cold outside

I'm in the depths of trying to submit a module for my photography course at the moment, so not a lot of time for blogging between that and our sightseeing excursions, but I am saving up lots of exciting things for the coming days. In the meantime, I just wanted to share this with you:

Yesterday afternoon.....


This morning

Brrrrrrr - The thick fog hung throughout Duras right up until about 3pm, when we had bright clear skies but still pretty cold temperatures for about an hour. Thank goodness the heating system was fixed the other day!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Things that go BANG in the night

After our restless final night in the San Se apartment, we all gave a huge sigh of relief when we arrived at our current accommodation - a beautifully renovated house in the small town of Duras in the French countryside.

The house felt immediately welcoming, if not a bit chilly, having been locked up with nobody staying in it for a good few weeks. In the lounge is a log burner, which powers the central heating, so after a quick call to the housekeeper to work out how it all worked, we got everything toasty and cosy, and if anything we felt a bit too warm that night.

We spent Saturday getting to know our new surroundings, doing some washing, visiting a Christmas market, and a couple of friends of the owner of the house dropped by to welcome us. We  found out that the property was very new to the holiday rental market; they had only finished renovating it a couple of months ago, and we were the first people to rent it, which didn't come as a surprise to us.

On Saturday evening, we got the fire booted up again and made the most of the satellite TV, watching x-factor (I know, I know) while doing a bit of research online for our travels over the next year. We were marginally aware that the room was feeling pretty warm, and even went to check the radiators in the rest of the house, which were roasting.

Suddenly, there was a strange noise from the kitchen end of the room - we looked at each other and came to the conclusion it was the ice maker in the fridge. But the noise grew, and within a few seconds the deep rumbling felt like it was shaking through the entire house. There was an explosion in the roof space above the kitchen end of the room, and before our eyes water started pouring from the ceiling, down the walls and even from the fuse box. The whole house was still rumbling, pipes clanging and we weren't sure exactly what was going to happen next.

I ran up the stairs and grabbed the Littlest Hobo out of her bed; a rude awakening from her deep slumber, then raced back down the stairs, just as a second explosion happened in the floor below the cupboard in her bedroom - by this time the water was pouring down in that bedroom too. Then the lights went out in half the house too.

Mr Traveller threw water into the logburner to put the fire out apparently not the done thing, we now know, but he didn't do any damage, and he did stop the fire, which was the main thing), while I took the Littlest Hobo outside and phoned the housekeeper, who showed up a few minutes later with her husband. They were greeted by the sight of Mr Traveller in his bare feet with trousers rolled up to his knees as he mopped up all the water. Amidst fraught calls between plumbers, the owner back in the UK and who knows who else, we managed to clean up and make the house safe, or as safe as we could, given we didn't know where exactly the water had gone to within the walls. The housekeeper offered to take us to her maison d'haute for the night, until the plumber could come in the morning, but we opted to stay in the house, concluding that there'd been enough upheaval already for the Littlest Hobo that night, and apart from the possibility of being a bit cold, it should be fine now that it was all turned off.

The plumber arrived early on Sunday morning to survey the damage. He confirmed that the central heating system had exploded (it didn't actually take a plumber to work that out, once we had established that the world wasn't ending, and the house wasn't falling down). and set about mending it. I was quite impressed - I'd been all set with a second possible house lined up in the town, but he actually dealt with it quite quickly and we all crashed into bed for a lunchtime nap to make up for being up half of the night.

All was well until about 5 tonight, when we lit the fire and checked the radiators every few minutes for the next half hour - nothing. Something wasn't working. We decided to call the housekeeper, who in turn called the plumber. While we were waiting to hear back from them, the rumbling and banging started again. I took the Littlest Hobo outside, and Mr Traveller put the fire out. So now we sit here, slightly chilly, and wait for what tomorrow will bring. I really hope they can fix it - it's such a gorgeous house, I don't really want to move from it - we're supposed to be here another week and the Littlest Hobo is so much more settled with less moves. We're lucky that it's not too cold here yet - 18 or 19 in the day, 8 or 9 at night, but I think it might be too cold to manage the whole time without any heating.

So much for a relaxing couple of weeks - I'm really ready for a  bit less drama now, it's been a rough few months, and I think we're all longing to just relax for a while. We've also been talking about whether the night time call from the man from the water board was an omen - was it a warning that this was going to happen, or is this a second (or third, if you count the Littlest Hobo's adventure into the chest deep sea as one too) warning, or the thing that we were being warned about? Ugh, it's a nerve-racking business, all this!

So, a demain...

Friday, November 18, 2011

San Se spooks

I'm in the process of pulling together a full San Sebastian update, but just had to share this in the meantime....

The apartment we stayed in in San Sebastian was pretty funky - a slightly run down looking art deco building which had been recently renovated inside. It had some really original old features, but appeared mainly modern inside. When I first walked into the room that the Littlest Hobo would be sleeping in I had a slight shivery feeling but brushed it aside and got on with getting it ready for her to sleep in.

The gorgeous view from our spooktacular apartment. 

The first 4 nights were okay, but last night was interesting... She woke up at 3am and was sobbing when I got to her, I assumed it was because I'd taken a while to get to her, cajoled her along, took her to the loo then got her back into bed and persuaded her back to sleep. 20 minutes later there was an almighty scream followed by sobbing and cries for mummy. she clung to me the moment I got there, and wasn't keen to let go. I lay down next to her and resigned myself to be there for a while. A few minutes later Mr Traveller appeared in the room too, offering to swap rooms, but I sent him back to bed and said I'd be fine. he lingered a while longer than I would expect then disappeared off back to bed. I untangled myself from the Littlest Hobo's arms and jumped into the other bed in her room. Then she started saying, over and over, 'ít's okay, it was just a person, don't worry, it was just a man'. Suddenly the shivers that I'd had when we first arrived started up again. I told her it was just a dream and to go to sleep, all the while silently asking my Gran to protect us!

We fell asleep, and I woke an hour later to knocking, like someone was at te bedroom door - it was ajar, and clearly nobody was there, but the knocking continued for maybe 20 seconds, then stopped and I eventually dropped back off to sleep.

In the morning, all the Littlest Hobo could talk about was this man. I asked whether he was in her dream or in her room, and she was adamant that he was in her room. She was desperate to get out of the room and shut the door behind us. But she didn't stop talking about the man that had been in her room. When Mr Traveller woke up I started to tell him what had happened, and before I'd got any further than mentioning the screaming when she woke, he told me that he'd come into her room because he'd had a dream about a man who was trying to push his way in through the door, and claiming to be a water inspector. He'd woken up and felt frozen and scared - that was when he came into the Hobo's room. while he was telling me this I had the same blood freezing feeling that I'd had both the night before and when we first arrived.

It was a cool apartment, but I'm mighty glad we're tucked up in the French countryside tonight instead!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Donostia San Sebastian: a full tummy, a great view and a happy toddler too!

San Sebastian, what can I say. I think I've fallen in love with this pretty little city. We weren't even planning to go there (planning, what planning?), but a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned that we were getting the ferry into Bilbao, my friend Sarah said that her husband had proposed to her in San Se (as the locals call it), and it was really pretty, and then I mentioned it to my uncle, Roger, who's pretty well travelled when it comes to Spain and he agreed. So that was it, we went to San Se.

View of La Concha beach at sunset, taken from the harbour

And what a treat we've had. Situated on the northern coast, with an uninterrupted view out to the Bay of Biscay, only 20km from the border with France, in the Basque region, San Sebastian enjoys a mild climate, and is a favourite holiday spot of the Spanish. It's mid November, and we've experienced temperatures of between 16 and 24 degrees. You can't often say much better than that for the Northern Hem at this time of year.

The city is sprawling; with three beaches and numerous suburbs. We stayed in the Gros neighbourhood, in a cool but spooky apartment overlooking the Zurriola beach, the one favoured by surfers, as it's out of San Se bay. I reckon it could give Bondi a run for it's money, and we enjoyed building, and destroying sandcastles there, as well as a quick and unplanned, fully clothed, dip into the surf by a certain miss Hobo, who stepped off an ankle deep sand shelf and landed in water up to her chest. It probably wasn't my best parenting moment when I laughed once Mr Traveller had whipped her up into his arms, but thankfully, true to character, she took it all with a smile.

The centre of the city is made up with a shopping district, with some pretty good shops (well, it was my birthday while we were there!), the working harbour/beachfront, and the Parte Vieja (old town) which was full of spectacular medieval architecture, and had me walking around with a crick in my neck, it was so amazing to look up at.

Looking through the Parte Vieja to the cathedral
But the Old Town has another reason to bask in it's utter brilliance, and that is one of the big reasons that SanSe is often referred to as the gastronomic capital of Spain: Pintxos.And loving food in the way that we do, us Travellers couldn't get enough of these magnificent morsels that we found on bar after bar after bar.

Jamon pintxos with huge legs of Jamon hanging behind the bar in the background

Most people will be familiar with tapas, and pintxos (pronounced pinchos) are the basques version of tapas - rumoured to be the best on offer. The bars in the parte vieja offer a veritable feast of pintxos; some just a simple piece of bread or a croissant filled with the delectable jamon, others much more elaborate, such as the Mackobe - a mini kobe burger in a ketchup bun served with plantain chips.

Classic pintxos include a piece of bread and a 'spear'to hold the topping in place. This one had goats cheese, walnuts, and, according to the barmaid 'sugared fruit', I suspect it was quince, but any pintxos expert who can verify would be most welcome!

The done thing in San Sebastian is a pintxos crawl - visiting a succession of bars, having a drink and one or two pintxos in each place. We took sandwiches for the Littlest hobo (no room for allergies at the bar, but children were very welcome) and managed three bars in any one session - I think we would probably be classified as pintxos lightweights.

The whole bar area was covered with pintxos - at a guess 20 varieties to choose from

San Sebastian was a really child friendly city. Not only did we enjoy the beaches, but there were play areas around every corner too, and the Littlest Hobo's particular favourite, a merry-go-round, built in 1900, complete with groovy Spanish pop music, right on the sea front. Handily enough, it was right next to the Parte Vieja, so everyone was happy! There are also a couple of great attractions for kids - the funicular railway, which we walked to, but sadly it was closed for refurbishment, and a hands on science museum that we read a lot of positive reports about, but didn't actually make it out to. The Spanish take their children everywhere, which means that they are always made welcome. The biggest problem we experienced was with timings - the littlest Hobo is used to eating dinner by 6 and being in bed sometime between 7 and 8, and the playgrounds are still heaving at that time; culturally, they just shape their day to the beat of a different drum. This wasn't a big issue per se, but it made eating out in the evenings near impossible; by the time the restaurants were open (it seemed to be 8pm onwards) the littlest Hobo was ready to flop into bed. This made me thankful again that we stay in self catering accommodation and we can make our days work for us. 

San Se merry-go-round
Romantic San Se takes you in and envelopes you in warm fuzzies. For somewhere that wasn't even on the radar until 2 weeks ago, I really enjoyed our time there. We originally only booked for three nights, but decided to extend after we arrived. I would definitely go again, although might book a different apartment next time, lest our night time visitor felt the need to return!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Crossing the language barrier

I didn't think that much about language issues when planning our trip to Spain until a friend asked me a few days before we left 'So, do either of you actually speak any Spanish?' 'No' I replied, still not giving it much thought. I'd been to Spain twice before, and to the Canary Islands several times and had always got by with a meagre Ola and the odd Por Favor. And Mr Traveller can speak near on fluent French, and can do a wicked Spanish impersonation. And, well, Spain shares a border with France, and they sound kind of similar, so um, we should be fine. Then she reminded me of the story another friend had told us, about her time travelling in South America when she tried to buy a torch, and became the spectacle of the store when it turned out that she was asking, repeatedly, for the Olympic flame. And she too was fluent in French, in fact her husband, who she was travelling with at the time, is half French, so that whole close proximity and sounding similar to my naive ear thing, well, clearly it doesn't stand the test. But still, for some unknown and slightly odd reason, I heard what she was saying, but the alarm bells did not ring.

Maybe my mind was still relatively absorbed with my Gran. Maybe I had been assuming that terribly ignorant and unattractive trait that the British are famous for, believing that everyone should speak English. Maybe it's been way too long since I visited a non-English speaking country, after years of living in Australia and America, and using up our major holidays on trips to visit friends and family back in England, or else exploring said countries (plus the odd trip to New Zealand, where lo and behold, they speak English) and I had just forgotten what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land. 

We were in Korea only 4 months ago; we weren't just the only non-Korean speakers, but also the only Caucasians, to the point that the Littlest Hobo became a novelty spectacle wherever we went. But I didn't feel so much of a fish out of water as I did yesterday morning, when I wandered around San Sebastian desperately seeking contact lens fluid, clutching my trusty iPhone with google translate app all set up and ready to go. I didn't feel as embarrassed as I did when i pulled open the lift door today and nearly knocked my neighbour flat, but I couldn't think of the Spanish word for sorry. We actually gave up on having dinner out tonight, and headed back to the apartment to reheat left-overs from yesterday, despite the fact that it's my birthday today, because it all seemed a bit too difficult trying to order allergy friendly food for the littlest Hobo when we couldn't read the menu and would have to rely on good old google translate to tell the waiter/waitress what our constraints were.  

We're considering ditching Spain and taking a slower meander through France, mainly because we've learnt from earlier trips that less is more and taking it at toddler pace is an absolute must, but also because we can speak the language. 

At least sorbet is sorbet everywhere... I think.

It's not that we're having a terrible time - we're having a fantastic time actually; we're revelling in each others company, doing everything we want to do (with the exception of dinner tonight, which, in fairness probably also had a lot to do with having been out for hours and hours and feeling ready to flop in our pj's), stuffing our faces with delectable tapas, and San Sebastian is an amazing city - it's romantic, full of history, a gastronomic delight, superbly toddler friendly, and moderately warm for mid November in the Northern hemisphere. I was delighted this evening, when we walked into the bakery and the Littlest Hobo chanted Ola with the rest of us without a second thought, but that's only one very small step. But I think, if I'm truly honest, we are a little embarrassed by our naivety, by our lack of preparation and ignorance that makes me feel somewhat green around the gills at this travel business, when in reality it's something that we've been doing for years, just by a different name, because it wasn't a permanent, everyday state. I feel that we should have known better, and now it's too late to do much about it. Our best option is to tuck it under our wings as a lesson learnt for next time, and go and drown our embarrassment and celebrate our next challenge, whatever it may be, in a glass or two of Spain's finest Rioja. Ole!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Any port in a storm - 24 hours on the Cap Finistere ferry

Brittany Ferries Cap Finistere

When we first planned to head to Spain from the UK our trip was going to be 7-9 weeks long so it made sense to take the car. Being a bit cautious of sea-faring vessels, I initially assumed that we would take the short ferry crossing across the English channel to France and then drive, but after our 4 hour ferry crossing from Roslare to Pembroke in September I admitted that Mr Traveller might actually be on to a winning idea. Primarily, the Littlest Hobo would have the freedom to roam around and explore in a way that appeals to any toddler and makes far more sense than having them strapped in a seat for hours and hours on end. .

Cost wise, it was probably about even - to drive we would’ve had the shorter ferry crossing, fuel costs for 14 hours driving (not cheap with European prices) and probably two overnight stops with that length of journey, possibly three if the thought of 3 days of constant travel just seemed too ridiculous. Flying and then hiring a car would’ve taken us way out the ballpark. The ferry to Spain took 24 hours, and cost approx £400 give or take £50 depending on the date we crossed and the cabin we chose.

Our Outside 2/4 birth en-suite cabin

Now that P&O have discontinued this route, Brittany Ferries offer the only option from the UK to Spain - they run two ferries - Cap Finistere and Pont-Aven, and a couple of different routes. We opted for a Portsmouth to Bilbao crossing on the Cap Finistere, which is the smaller of the two ferries. Initially we booked a luxury cabin, the top one offered, which came with a double bed, a tv and a lot more space than any of the others, and planned for the Littlest Hobo to sleep on a fantastic kids air bed that friends lent us. After a bit of a stuff up on my behalf though, (and for those who know us, yes honestly, it was all my fault and nothing to do with Mr Traveller!), we ended up with a 4 birth outside cabin and a refund of £40! I was pleasantly surprised by the cabin, which was on the 8th deck, although there wasn’t a lot of floor space, there was enough room to move about, the beds were a decent size, and Mr Traveller only felt marginally claustrophobic up there on the top bunk. The Littlest Hobo’s bed side even fitted, which was a big plus once it got a bit choppy! The room was en suite, with a surprisingly good shower. The room was well lit, with two plug sockets and piped music available. There was a thermostat to adjust the temperature as you wished, and a large port hole with great black-out curtains.

Dinky-di shower

En-suite bathroom

I couldn’t find much about our ferry online, apart from what Brittany Ferries had on their own site, and a single review on trip advisor which was pretty negative, so I didn’t have high expectations. The food in particular had received bad press, and if our experience on Brittany Ferries was anything to go on, I wasn‘t expecting any sort of gastronomic sensation, I was just hoping it wouldn‘t lead to any gastroenteritis either! The first evening we ate at the Salad Bar which was up on the 10th (top) deck, as the main restaurant couldn’t serve food until 6.30, which proved to be too long a wait for the Littlest Hobo. It was actually surprisingly tasty, if simple, fare. For breakfast, the Littlest Hobo and I had a full cooked brekkie in the main restaurant which was great value given that under 5’s eat free, then took Mr Traveller some breakfast bits and pieces that we’d bought in the Bon Marche café shop. All in all, I thought the food was okay, given we were, after all, on a ferry not a cruise.

The other thing I’d been unsure of was the children’s facilities on board - I knew there would be something but not sure what. We quickly discovered the children’s play area on the top deck, which claimed to be for supervised 5-12 year olds, but was perfectly suited to our two-and-a-bit year old and I can’t imagine any twelve year old comfortably using it. The area is covered, but it was a bit too chilly when we were leaving the UK to stay out there for any length of time, although it was great in the warm sunshine the next day. I had been hoping to see an indoor soft play area for small kids like we’d experienced with Irish Ferries, but there wasn’t one. As the Littlest Hobo appeared to be the only child on our crossing (really, I’m not exaggerating for dramatic effect, she really was the only one) she was able to choose which movies we watched in the children’s area, although a few adults gathered around to watch with us once Toy Story 3 was rolling. They also gave her a kids toy box with any food ordered, which contained plasticy, easy to break toys aimed at kids who were a few years older than the Littlest Hobo, but they kept her so happily amused that we barely broke into her backpack of toys that accompanies us on our travels.

Childrens play area on the top deck
Somebody was enjoying it

Mr Traveller has been known to get a bit queasy when out on anything more than a millpond, and the Littlest Hobo had projectile vomited on our last ferry journey (which we suspected to be for reasons other than the ferry, especially given she’d known ferries as a regular form of local public transport for the first 20 months of her life in Sydney, but weren’t sure), so I was curious to see how we would get on going  across the notorious Bay of Biscay, especially as we’d ended up travelling in mid November as opposed to our initially planned early October departure. When we first left Portsmouth all was well, and by the time we went to bed some 3 or 4 hours into the journey, things were getting a little bit rocky, and we’d identified that bending over forward was definitely best avoided, but we all went off to sleep without too much hassle. As far as I recall, the horrendous rocking started at around 11pm - 6 hours into our trip, and reached it’s peak around 2-3am when we were all awake and feeling the brunt of the extreme rocking and rolling. At that point I was thinking never again, but in hindsight now it seems less dramatic, although I am glad we’re driving up through France on our way back, and I won’t be rushing to suggest another 24 hour ferry in the near future. We got off the boat about 4 hours ago and I still feel like I’m bobbing about as I lie stretched out in my wisely booked room on my comfortable bed in Bilbao.