Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Disconnecting and Reconnecting in Wales

We're just back from a weekend away in Wales, still clinging to the complete sense of relaxation we had while there. I think what brought the most peace to me that weekend was the cottage we rented and its immediate surroundings. Which is ironic because our accommodations were a bit of a headache to plan.

I had originally thought we'd camp that weekend, but my husband had the good sense of questioning whether it would really be warm enough for that. (He's a smart guy... it rained about 75% of our trip and was quite cold... we would have been miserable in a tent!) I then struggled to find a self-catering property suitable for us. Big Arrow is becoming ever more allergic to dogs and cats and so I'm now trying to avoid staying in any property that accepts pets. Yet Wales is a popular area to bring dogs along since it's a great spot for hiking. I was also trying to stay within a 4-hour drive of our house, which meant we were limited to the Snowdonia area. At the last minute, I booked a small cottage I found through the National Trust's website. (Link to the exact cottage near Bets-y-Coed here.)

We had been quite busy leading up to the trip. Lots of commitments, busy schedules, visitors, etc. Something all families can relate to, I'm sure. I was craving time just with just the four of us more than I have since we moved abroad. What better place to cozy up for a few nights than an old, tiny cottage.

It had a bit of history, considering Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mount Everest once stayed there. But more than that, it was extremely isolated aside from a couple of neighbors and lots of sheep and lambs.

That's our cottage at the top of that hill.

If time with just "my guys" as I like to say was what I was after, that's definitely what I got. We were 20 minutes from even the smallest of grocery stores or restaurants. The only sounds were that of the sheep braying and the occasional tractor driving by. We didn't have Wifi, so our cell phones weren't constantly humming with texts and emails. And what I appreciated most was the footpath right outside our door. My favorite moment of the trip was the hour or two we spent one afternoon climbing the hillside behind our cottage and looking out at the gorgeous Welsh landscape.

The boys yelled and screamed as they ran up and down those hills. There was no need to shush them. They found sticks and had amazing sword fights. We laughed about all the sheep poop. When we got to the top, they marveled at how far we could see all around us. There were no strollers or snacks, just the key to our cottage and my camera. We looked at bugs, squished our wellies into the mud, and had no idea what time it was. What parent doesn't dream of their kids getting to experience that sort of freedom in the great outdoors? It's the kind of upbringing we all imagine in our heads when we become parents. If it's not what everyone hopes for, maybe it should be. And yet, it's so rare during the course of a normal week, month, even year.

Our time in Wales was brief. But certainly very, very full of just the type of memory with which I want to fill my life.

I'll write more about some places to see in Snowdonia, Wales next week. Because surprisingly we did drag ourselves away from that charming cottage a few times.

This post is a part of Friday Postcards at Walking on Travels.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

5 Things to Do in Norfolk, England with Kids

Of all the things I imagined doing while living in England, spending time on the beach (or even the coast, for that matter) didn't really cross my mind. But it should have. The UK has some of the most amazing coastal areas I've ever been to. Sunny and 85 degrees? Usually not. But if you can brave the elements, it's totally worth exploring.

The Norfolk area is only a couple of hours from our house, so we've been able to visit on occasional day trips throughout the past two years. When my sister's family came to visit, we decided it would be a great spot to base ourselves for a few days in order to take in even more of the family-friendly attractions in Norfolk.

Here are our favorite things to do in Norfolk:

Looking up in complete amazement at BeWilderwood.

1) BeWilderwood. I'm so glad someone recommended this park to us. Because had I just read about it in a guidebook, I might have passed it off as just another glorified playground with pricey admission. But BeWilderwood is in a category all its own. It was a gigantic playground, as promised, but nestled among gorgeous woodland. It is completely in-tune with its natural setting.

I loved how it almost seemed to defy gravity, with treetop attractions as far as the eye could see. Yet I was never overly worried about my kids tumbling from a tree branch and it was fairly easy to keep them in sight. It all felt rather safe and comfortable. Besides, all the adults were so amazed by the play features that we were right up there with the kids. (And if you can figure out that Sky Maze in less than 20 minutes you are far smarter than us!)

Tips: Bring a picnic lunch, the food available was pretty average. Ditch the stroller, too. Your kids will be running from play area to play area. Better pack your energy just to keep up!

Seeing seals in their natural habitat off the coast of Norfolk
2) Boat ride to see seals. This was another unexpected find. Who knew there were seals in England? I certainly didn't. I loved giving our group of kids the chance to see these somewhat exotic animals in their natural habitat, not just at a zoo or aquarium. Plus the boat ride itself was good fun. I was concerned our motion-sickness-prone group might feel the effects but everyone handled it perfectly fine and the ride was relatively smooth.

We went with Beans Boat Trips, which departs from Blakeney Point, but there were other vendors and they all seemed to follow a similar route. Be sure to book your tickets ahead, and don't forget to pack the binoculars and/or a zoom lens for your camera to enhance the viewing of the seals. My only complaint was that it was really difficult to hear what the guides were telling us about the seals.

Tips: Be prepared to get splashed a bit on the boat. I wished I had a plastic bag to cover my camera with when I wasn't taking pictures. Dress warm, once you're out at sea the wind will be even stronger (and colder) than whatever the conditions are on land.

The George in Cley-Next-The-Sea was a perfect lunch spot after our boat ride. Great kid's menu and quick service.

The beaches of Norfolk are perfect for playing

3) Beaches. Maybe its the Midwestern in us, where miles of sandy beaches are a luxury not to be taken for granted. But I love that a beautiful beach is just a 90 minute drive from my house. Our favorite is Brancaster, mostly because it is as simple and as beautiful as it gets. No amenities here other than a small coffee and tea stand and some toilets. But the views of the sandy dunes and the gentle water is unbeatable.

There's also something to be said for the more built-up, developed beaches, like those found at Hunstanton or Sheringham, where you can have your toes in the sand one minute, and be elbow deep in some fish and chips or devouring an ice cream cones minutes later.

Tips: There are times when the sand is more muddy than it is fine. For that reason, I always bring beach chairs along with a beach blanket. If it's too cold to go barefoot, then make sure everyone has a pair of wellies, too!

This may be the first and only time I recommend arcades on this blog

4) Arcades. Just about any beachside town in the Norfolk area will have an arcade or two. I normally cringe whenever I step inside this type of place. I think it might be due to residual nightmares from the first time I took Big Arrow into a Chuck E. Cheese. But there's something kinda kitschy and fun about the ones I've been to in Norfolk. And they make a great place to duck your head in when one of those pesky British rain showers pops up. Many of them have 1-pence machines (the equivalent of a penny slot, I suppose), so you can spend an hour in one of these arcades and still have some cash left in your wallet.

Again, not normally the type of activity I'd suggest, but then I watched my very determined (perhaps a bit head strong?) niece defeat "the claw" and win the stuffed animal of her dreams at the arcade in Sheringham. The whole place erupted in cheers, and seconds later the most gorgeous rainbow appeared just outside the front door. If there had been a bar inside, I probably would have ordered a round of drinks for everyone inside to celebrate. And with that memory made, my snobbishness about arcades vanished.

Tip: Cash is king at places like this.

A taste of transportation history aboard a steam train

5) Steam train. Truthfully, we've done little exploration into the historical side of the Norfolk area. But we did take a wonderful step back into the past by way of a real steam train ride through the countryside on the North Norfolk Railway. We hopped aboard our train in Sheringham, and made a stop in Holt before our return voyage.

Tips: Perhaps bring some coloring books or a small activity for the return trip. While it was all smiles and excitement on the first leg of our ride, we found the children's interest in the journey back to be a bit limited. And bring a stroller, the walk into Holt from the station takes about 15 minutes.

Places still on my to-do list in Norfolk? I'd love to make it to Sandringham Estate, the Queen's Norfolk retreat. I'd also love to visit Holkham Hall Estate, mostly because I hear the beach and playground at this stately home are spectacular. Luckily, we have a whole summer of fun ahead of us!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Tips for Visiting Legoland Windsor (and Legolands Around the World!)

As a way of culminating a 10-day visit with my sister's family, which took us from our house to Norfolk to London, we planned an overnight at Legoland Windsor. We were a traveling entourage of 8 people, including 4 kids age 7 and younger. Needless to say, we fell right into the Legoland target market.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Happy 6th Birthday, Big Arrow!

As you may know, I like to write posts to the boys on their birthdays, and it is Big Arrow's 6th birthday. (You can also read his 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th posts or Little Arrow's 1st, 2nd, and 3rd posts.) I'll resume my normal travel tales and tips in a few days... In fact, I'll be writing about his birthday celebration at Legoland next week. But a mama's just gotta love on her boys sometimes.

The thing I've observed more in the past year than ever before is how strong your passions are, and how your enthusiasm is so contagious. And more importantly, how much I love that about you.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A York Kind of Birthday

I'll never forget Little Arrow's first birthday party. I held back tears through the entire night, not because my baby was turning 1, but because my husband and I had recently learned that we'd likely be moving to England. I was excited about the move, but we hadn't yet told our families, and as they gathered around our dining room table to sing Happy Birthday, I knew it would be his last family party for a while.

That's the trade-off on this expat thing. Leaving the life you know and love behind for a few years of incredible, exotic moments. We traded birthday parties with the family we miss so much for foreign museums and medieval gardens. Like Little Arrow celebrating his third birthday this past winter by spending the day in the beautiful, ancient city of York.

Our first stop (and quite frankly, what could have easily been our only stop of the day, as it's so big and so much fun) was the National Railway Museum. This is one of those museums that marries children's activities with adult fascinations extremely well. There was plenty for the boys to see and do that they found completely interesting, yet things my husband and I could learn from and enjoy also. Hands-on, but not in a way that deters grown ups without children from also visiting.

Friday, March 6, 2015

A Reason to Return to the Algarve: Ponta da Piedade

As we embarked on our move to England, our list of places to see in Europe while we lived here was long. We quickly came to the realization that we wouldn't get to see it all, especially if we wanted to travel at a pace that allows us to actually enjoy the experience. So there was an unspoken rule that we wouldn't go somewhere more than once while we were here.

Rules are meant to be broken though, right?

Of all the trips we've taken in the last couple of years, I came home from Portugal last December overwhelmed by how much I loved it there, and yet somewhat unfulfilled, knowing we hadn't seen as much as I wanted. The cover of my Frommer's guidebook called out to me... that majestic site, Ponta da Piedade, was only 30 minutes from our resort in the Algarve but we never saw it.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte near Paris

Like kids all over the world, my boys opened up a brand new tub of Legos on Christmas morning. I  read the age description on the box: suitable for 4-99, and thought, how rare to find something that can be enjoyed by such a wide range of ages.

And that's the task I had ahead of me when trying to find a day trip destination from Paris suitable for a multigenerational group of nine during our Christmas trip. I knew a break from the city during a week-long trip would be both pleasant and necessary. We all crave an escape from the crowds and the fast pace after a while. So I read up on a lot of the usual suspects. Versailles sounded way too big and unmanageable for our crew of nine to navigate in a few hours. Given the typical weather in December and January, Giverny and Normandy didn't sound like good options with young children either.

I somehow stumbled upon Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte's website. And I just had a hunch it was a good fit for us. It was probably my favorite day of the trip, as it was so peaceful and beautiful, and yet still decidedly French from beginning to end. We barely had to share the place with anyone else. The Christmas d├ęcor was unlike anything I'd seen before. Gorgeous, but not gaudy. The kids were pretty mesmerized by the whole experience, too.