Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Kids go wild for Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens holds the largest collection of plants on earth. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and cherished by millions who visit. Kew contains 132 hectares of astounding beauty throughout the year alongside detailed insight into the rich history of plant life. 

Monday, 15 January 2018

Feast your eyes on this neon wonderland - God's Own Junkyard, Walthamstow

Set in an industrial site on the edge of Walthamstow, this unique shop/cafe/museum/art gallery is where all the cool folk from East London gather. God's Own Junkyard is the late Chris Bracey's collection and creation of hundreds of neon and lit signs from over 35 years.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Dubai with children - safe yet glamorous or dull and overpriced?

Dubai’s the winter destination of choice for families desperate for a glimpse of sunlight to warm their weary bodies and minds. It’s safe, warm and convenient but does this actually translate into boring, artificial and sterile? We took our very young children there in early November to see what we thought. 

‘It’s not the first place on my bucket list’, admitted my husband. ‘But then watching Mr Tumble never used to be my TV programme of choice either.’ Life changes when you become parents, and somewhat lacking in sleep and gaining in dark circles under the eyes, we just wanted a holiday break that was straightforward and gave us a bit of sunshine. Our expectations were low. We thought Dubai would be, whisper it, a little classless and brash, but we needed some respite, and fast. So, like nearly 15 million other tourists, we chose Dubai.

Dubai’s fortunes have grown quickly, and exponentially. In 1966 oil was discovered, which set the path for rapid commercial growth. 12 lane roads sit adjacent to sky-high mega buildings. Billboard adverts litter the sidewalks. Impossibly glamorous Arabian and ex pat women exchange credit cards for glossy carrier bags filled with expensive goods. Everywhere shouts materialism. Dubai is obsessed with style and product and is not ashamed to shout about it from the rooftop. Building construction has been somewhat uncontrollable. Dubai does not do small. It has the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and the world’s largest shopping mall, naturally.

We took a taxi (cheap compared to how much other things cost in Dubai) from the Palm, where we were based, to downtown Dubai to visit the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall. Every day from 6pm until 11pm a fountain display (world’s largest of course) can be seen in front of the Khalifa. Our children were enthralled by this five minute display. They also loved just absorbing the sights in the Mall. Like the U.K, but bigger, and better. Shinier. Cleaner. Friendlier. Noses pressed flat on the glass wall entrance of the Aquarium watching the sand tiger sharks and stingrays (also, one of the largest in the world and housed in the Mall). For older children, there’s plenty more to keep them entertained. An Olympic-size ice rink, a 22-screen cinema. Theme parks, waterparks, Legoland, Kidzania.

Yet, Dubai is not all fashion and themeparks. If you are feeling active Kite Beach is a great spot for both children and adults. Skating, trampolines, playgrounds and unsurprisingly kite surfing are on offer here. There’s also the option to escape the glitz and glamour and head out into the desert to rough it under the stars in the Hajar mountains, ride camels and sandboard down orange-gold dunes.

Satisfied we had seen the main tourist attraction, we retreated to our resort for the rest of our holiday, and made the most of the weather, the surroundings and the outstanding service. Dubai knows how to do resorts. Our resort was Asian in style and architecture, with a sublime spa and a choice of accommodation from cosy whitewashed poolside cabins to 2-bedroom suites with spectacular views of the Dubai skyline.

We had a range of quality restaurants with different world cuisines from Mediterranean to Chinese to choose from, though we stuck to the all-you-can eat buffet. The kids could choose what they wanted, they could get up and down numerous times without impatient sighs coming from other tables, and best of all, there was a kid’s club on site. It meant my husband and I could relax and look forward to eating great food without rushing or worrying that our children were causing havoc. That alone was worth paying for. Service was brilliant, with waiters refreshing our drinks regularly, and clearing up endless piles of mess made by children.

Young children are easily amused, and so lazy days were spent by the huge lagoon-shaped poolside (shallow with sand brought in and palm trees to create shade) or in the kid’s club. My children adored the staff and activities here. The staff were amazing with children and genuinely seemed enthusiastic about their jobs. Under 4s have to be accompanied by an adult but once they reach four you can leave them with staff for a few hours, which I would definitely be happy to do, given the quality of care given. Come sunset, we would all meander a few metres to the beach, order a cocktail and watch the red liquid sun set under the calm waters of the Arabian gulf.

Dubai is one massive theme park/shopping mall with a sprinkling of beach. It’s materialistic, upfront and artificial and there is no escaping this. Yet, this is also what makes it a rather fascinating place to visit as there is nowhere else like it. We were surprisingly charmed by Dubai's unabashed need to do everything on a large scale and we had a fantastic time because of the level of care we received and the genuine friendliness we felt from people we met. In fact the biggest thing really about Dubai is its heart. If you embrace the country for what it is you can expect a warm welcome from your Dubai hosts.

When to go
November to March is considered the best time to go as the weather is warm but not uncomfortably so.

Where to stay
Take your pick from budget to luxury. We stayed on The Palm at the child-friendly Anantara Resort, from £225pn.

Essential details
Flight time from London airports takes between 7-8 hours, which just about manageable for young children, particularly if they have the treat of on flight entertainment.
Dubai is 4 hours ahead of GMT, which means some jet lag is inevitable but not excessive.
Currency is the Dirham. Rates are 4.82AED to 1GBP (November 2017). A pint of beer typically costs 40AED.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

50 things to do before you're 11 3/4: The National Trust challenge

The National Trust know what they're doing. Their properties are now so appealing to kids as well as adults and their marketing to families is A game. One campaign they have at the moment is #50things.

This genius idea encourages kids to get outside and explore nature. The National Trust have listed 50 fun outdoor activities that children can tick off in a free booklet (and some National Trusts give out stickers once a task has been completed. Everyone loves a sticker).

The activities are:-
Climb a tree
Roll down a really big hill
Camp out in the wild
Build a den
Go on a really long bike ride
Make a trail with sticks
Make a mud pie
Dam a stream
Pick blackberries growing in the wild
Explore inside a tree
Visit a farm
Go on a walk barefoot
Hunt for bugs
Find some frog spawn
Catch a falling leaf
Track wild animals
Skim a stone
Run around in the rain
Fly a kite
Catch a fish with a net
Eat an apple straight from a tree
Play conkers
Play in the snow
Make a daisy chain
Set up a snail race
Create some wild art
Play pooh sticks
Jump over waves
Make a grass trumpet
Hunt for fossils and bones
Go stargazing
Climb a huge hill
Explore a cave
Hold a scary beast
Discover what’s in a pond
Make a home for a wild animal
Check out the crazy creatures in a rock pool
Bring up a butterfly
Catch a crab
Go on a nature walk at night
Try rock climbing
Cook on a campfire
Learn to ride a horse
Find a geocache
Canoe down a river
Plant it, grow it, eat it
Go swimming in the sea
Build a raft
Go bird watching

Nothing like starting them young so I'm going to try and get these ticked off. Plus I love a good bucket list.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Camping with a baby and a toddler

Camping can vary from glamping it up in a swanky rustic fairy-lit bell tent to roughing it on a Scottish beach with nothing but a sleeping bag, a fire and a bottle of plonk. Having kids shouldn't prevent you from camping how you want to camp, though it might be wise to adapt a little to begin with if you prefer the wilder end of the scale.

Start local. 
Camp in your garden or a local campsite for one night as a trial to see what works and what doesn't. If it all goes horribly wrong (it won't), you can retreat to your cosy bed no problem. Then branch out a bit. Try two or three nights, or go further afield.

If wild camping is your thing, there's no reason why you still can't do it. Take a car and hike in maybe only half a mile or so rather than 10. Children do get tired easily and walk slower so half a mile may well all you manage. And bear in mind you will need to carry all the extra kit that comes with children, particularly younger ones. And that's fine. Make sure it's still enjoyable for everyone. Alternatively, book one of the wilder campsites where you are much more likely to have a pitch all to yourself.

Scale back your expectations. 
Things will be harder to do, as is everything in life once you have kids! The tent will take longer to put up. You will not be able to sit still for long. One night may be enough. You know your children. Go with what you think they will like and manage.

Do go when they are really little. 
They are not mobile. They stay where they are put! Things get all the more tricky (but still fun) when they start to move around. Between 8 months and 2 years are the hardest as they are mobile yet you cannot reason with them like you can do with an older toddler. If you are worried about co-sleeping there are many things you can do such as bringing a moses basket or sleepyhead carrier with you.

Think about where you are pitching your tent.
An open field is going to be more practical than a wooded area or hill with a younger toddler or a crawling baby. Check too for any poisonous plants, nettles or thistles. Ideally you want a space where you would feel happy leaving your children to ferret around in without worrying every two seconds. For younger children a bumbo or bouncer is a great idea to bring to keep them in one place, particularly when a fire is lit or you need to feed them.

Let them help. 
They will love it. Putting up the tent, taking it down. Going on a bear hunt. Going on a firewood hunt. Fetching water. All part of the adventure for toddlers and gives them something to do. Teach them about fire and fire safety.

Bring layers, a first aid kit and lots of wipes. 
Probably what you would have brought anyway, but even more important with children.The weather can be so unpredictable and kids are going to attract ALL the mud. Prepare for rain even if the weather forecast doesn't say it. Don't get caught out. A wailing wet toddler is no good for anyone. Babies can overheat quickly so better to use layers and remove/put on, than tog up in a too-hot sleeping bag.

Don't forget some toys.
Namely a ball and bug hunt kit. Maybe one of your child's favourite toys from home. Children of all ages love throwing and catching balls. They also are all fascinated by bugs and butterflies. Taking a kit, or just printing out a sheet of paper identifying the main creepy crawlies will provide tons of fun. Plus, you get to wear the smug wholesome parent badge.

And a nightlight. 
Another key items to pack. Maybe some batteries too in case the nightlight decides to die on you. If your children don't mind sleeping in the dark at home, they may find the tent is a bit scarier so want a bit of light to comfort them. Makes breast or bottle feeding at night a little easier too.

Make it cosy.
If you're taking the more luxe route of camping, make it as cosy as possible. Bring duvets and pillows. There is honestly nothing better in this world than snuggling up as a family in a tent under a warm duvet, listening to the gentle breeze and hoot of an owl outside. Bliss.

Don't worry too much about routines. 
Toddlers are just going to be too damn excited to go to sleep at 7pm - sorry. Just embrace it and let them stay up. You never know, they may sleep later too. Just bad luck if you have a younger baby who will still wake up at 5am whatever!

Bring fast food and lots of snacks. 
Good options include quick cook pasta ravioli, beans on toast, boiled eggs, pre cooked stew or ratatouille that just needs heating up. Plus breakfast cereal and croissants for breakfast. If your baby has formula milk and still needs to use sterilised bottles, you can get disposable ones, or just take a few sterilised bottles with you if you are only going for a short period of time. You'll need more snacks than usual as the fresh air does something to children to make them ravenous. Breadsticks, raisins, fruit. All good.

Go explore!
Enjoy your environment. After all, that's why you camp. Make the most of the wide open field, shady woodland or shallow ice-cold stream. Scramble over logs, go pooh sticking, jump in muddy puddles, run through swishy grass. Find a grasshopper, eat a gooey marshmellow, fly a kite, listen to the birds. Do all the things you normally do, just add a sprinkling of kids, a bit more mess, and a lot more fun.