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.

Monday, 4 September 2017

The ten best things to do in London that you may never have heard of

Forget Buckingham Palace, Oxford Street and the Tower of London. If you want to begin to get under the skin of one of the world’s most diverse and enigmatic cities, these are the things to do. They may not be as well-known as the usual tourist hotspots but they are unmissable in their own right.  This collection of alternative trips takes in contemporary and ancient London, urban grit and rural bliss, and covers the far fringes of the south to the realms of the north, with a good nosy into the east and west too.  

1)     Get spooked out at Highgate West Cemetery, Highgate
Highgate Cemetery is one of the ‘magnificent seven’ cemeteries built on the outskirts of the city to cope with the demand for burial sites. Highgate has always been a monied area of London so to be buried here represented a high social status. You can find famous names such as Karl Marx and George Eliot here. The cemetery fell into ruin in the early 20th century but has been lovingly restored by a team of volunteers who now manage the site.  

You can only visit the West Cemetery by guided tour from one of the volunteers. This just adds a further sense of intrigue to this magical, otherworldly place. Stepping into this secret garden of death will transport you back in time to a Victorian world of grand tombstones, mausoleums and jungle-like greenery. Very Tomb Raider.

2)     Take a stroll through Morden Hall Park, Morden
Morden. End of the line. Why visit? To be honest (sorry Morden residents) there would be no reason to visit Morden if the charming Morden Hall Park (see picture) wasn’t there. Similar to Highgate Cemetery in that it feels very cut off from the real world, this historic 19th century estate is cut off from humdrum suburbia by a high wall. Step inside and you step into an enchanted land of babbling brooks, old snuff mills, singing birds and breezy meadows. Morden Hall Park is now owned by the National Trust so expect a good cup of tea and cheese scone after your stroll.

3)     Marvel at John Soanes Museum, Bloomsbury
For a bit of old school bonkers in London, stop at the John Soanes Museum. Mr Soanes was a Georgian architect (and not just any old architect, he built the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery). He bought and refashioned three houses in leafy Bloomsbury, opposite the tranquil Lincoln’s Inn Field. He was a bit of a collector of stuff (aren’t we all) but his house is a masterclass of eclectic hoarding of items from plaster casts to Roman marbles – some worthless, some priceless. The way he has presented his wares seems chaotic but there is method in the madness, and the end result is a rather beautiful, never-seen-anything-like-it study of the workings of the mind of a brilliant architect.

4)     Buy antiques at Golborne Market, Ladbroke Grove
Portabello. Yawn. Carry on north, just past Ladbroke Grove and you come to Portabello’s lesser-known sister – Golborne Road. Less busy and touristy, Fridays and Saturdays are the best days to visit. If you are feeling inspired by your visit to John Soane’s home and want to buy some collectables, you’ve struck gold here. Bric a brac, furniture, clothes, vintage, antiques, jewellery. Take your pick.

5)     Take the tour on the 15 or 24 bus
This is one of the best tips out there for visitors to London. Don’t waste your money on an overpriced sightseeing bus. Take either the 24 or 15 bus to see all the major sites of London. The best time to do this is very early morning before the hoards descend and there is a rare stillness to the capital.

The 24 travels from Pimlico, near Victoria Station along the Thames, past the iconic Battersea Power Station, through Parliament Square, Horseguard’s Parade and Trafalgar Square, up Tottenham Court Road heading north through Camden to stop at Hampstead Heath, arguably London’s finest park.
Alternatively, the 15 takes in East London from Brick Lane (curry mile), the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, Monument, St Paul’s Blackfriar’s Bridge, up Fleet Street and past the Royal Courts of Justice, Waterloo Bridge, along the Strand to Trafalgar Square.

6)     Wander the trails of the buried rivers, various locations
For the more active explorer, join a guided walking tour of London’ hidden rivers. 21 tributaries flow to the Thames, and these are just the main branches. Multiple other smaller tributaries join the bigger branches before heading to their source. Some rivers do flow above ground. The Crane. The Ching. The Quaggy. Most though are hidden under the ground under houses and roads which were built on top of river systems when London became more populated. The Tyburn. The Effra. The Fleet. This is one of the most fascinating tours of London you could do and walking the hidden routes of one of the Thames river tributaries is a novel way to learn more about London’s history and geography.

7)     Kayak the River Thames
Now you’ve explored the big river’s branches, what about the Thames herself? Been on a river boat cruise? What about a kayak? Various companies now offer intrepid folk the opportunity to kayak different points along the capital’s oldest attraction. In exchange for a fair sum of money you get two hours in a kayak with a guide who will point out cool stuff and help you avoid crashing into bigger boats.

8)     Go on a midnight run, various locations
For further abstract active ways to get to know London a little more intimately, join a midnight 10km run. These runs take place at different locations but generally take in top London landmarks. Bonus points for running in fancy dress.  This really is a joyous, more playful and unconventional way to see the city.

9)     Have a cocktail in a car park, Peckham
London wouldn’t be London without food and drink. In summertime, head east to the deeply trendy Frank’s Café on the 10th floor of a car park in Peckham. Kick back with a Campari and barbeque as the sun sets over the city. See if you can spot a rare non-bearded hipster. Frank’s café doubles up as an innovative art space too unsurprisingly as Peckham is a hive of creativity and one of the best places to visit in London for a taste of different.

10)  Eat Saturday brunch at Maltby Street, Bermondsey
Forget Borough Market. You want Maltby Street for food. Picturesque railway arches and the recently-developed Ropewalk house a mash up of start-ups and old timers. Saturday morning from 9am-2pm is the best time to go. Maltby Street Market is much smaller than Borough but it’s vibrant and busy with some serious off-the-wall flavours. 

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

toy's hill

Set in 200 acres of peaceful ancient woodland, Toy's Hill is a idyllic place to come for a short walk. The area forms part of the Lower Greensand Ridge and is the highest point of the Kent Downs, meaning glorious, rewarding views can be found across the Weald of Kent.

There are a few different options walk wise ranging from a half a mile pushchair-friendly option to 6 miles of tramping through Chartwell country. The pushchair route is a nice half hour amble. There is a good viewpoint at the site of the old Weardale Manor plus a couple of dens for the kids to explore.

The 145 room Weadale Manor site is fascinating. All that is left now is the line of one wall but you can imagine how stately it would have been in its time. It was built in 1906 by Lord Weardale, a former MP and opposer of war and suffrage. After his death in 1923 his wife rarely visited, preferring to stay up in London. After her death in 1934 it fell into a state of disrepair and was demolished in 1939. Just 33 years of use.

The natural landscape has also been influenced by history. The old economy at Toy's Hill was based upon charcoal burning, churtstone quarrying and livestock, and its mark can still be seen on walks here. Charcoal pits and quarries can be found and many of the ancient trees have been pollarded, which was done for grazing purposes.

Toy's Hill contains plenty of nature for little ones to spot including bats, dormice, grass snakes, woodpeckers, bluebells, stag beetles and marigolds.

Monday, 14 August 2017

The 10 best places for the family to get outdoors in Surrey

Summer holidays are in full swing and holiday camps are a go-go, but are you tired of the same old playgrounds and farm parks? Want to escape with your family to somewhere a little more wild, but just as fun? From shady woodland to sandy beaches, we review some of the top spots in Surrey to get outdoors and go wild with your family.

1) Box Hill, Tadworth, KT20 7LB
Managed by the National Trust, and now famous for being part of the 2012 Olympic road racing event, Box Hill is the summit of the North Downs. If you fancy a day out kite flying or blowing the cobwebs away with a hilly walk and a top-of-the-world view this is the place to come. Orchids and butterflies are easy to spot here too. The site has an excellent natural play area, café and multiple self-guided walks that make exploring the big outdoors easy for all ages. 

2) Staffhurst Woods, Grants Lane, Oxted TN8 6QR 
Ancient Staffhurst Woods is one of the best places in the UK to see bluebells in spring, though it is very pretty all year round. The woods are remains of the old ‘wildwood’ which covered much of old England in Saxon times. The Woodland Trust have created a self-guided woodland walk of around 3 miles long that is wheelchair and pushchair-accessible. Parking is available at two sites. The Grumpy Mole pub is just down the road for a well-earned lunch afterwards. 

3) Alice Holt Woodland Park, Farnham GU10 4LS
A stalwart favourite with families, Alice Holt Woodland Park can be as high octane or relaxed as you like. There are bikes to hire, a play and habitat trail to follow, horses to ride, and walking paths to explore. Alice Holt is managed by the Forestry Commission. 

4) Limpsfield Common, Ridlands Lane, Oxted, RH8 0TW
Rustic and enchanting, the rangers and volunteers of the National Trust have built several ‘Peter Rabbit’ houses and wooden dens for children to find and explore. A short walk takes in the houses and there is a welcome tree swing mid-way for all to enjoy. Take a picnic as there is no café at the site. Parking is available. 

5) Frensham Great Pond, Churt, GU10 2QB
It may be man-made but it’s no less fun. Frensham Great Pond is in the depths of rural Surrey, but its beach happily mirrors that of one right on the coastline. Built in the Middle Ages to provide fish for the Bishop of Winchester, it now hosts calm waters, shallow edges, plus many shady walks to take in the woodlands around the pond. Parking is available as is a café and a small museum. 

6) Chipstead Downs, Holly Lane, Banstead, CR5 3NR
Engage your make-believe and walk through a wardrobe into the land of Narnia. Chipstead Downs and Banstead Woods have recently carved out C.S. Lewis’s magical world into a nature trail. Children can meet many of the characters from the story including Aslan the lion. This new feature marks the launch of the Downs as a Local Nature Reserve, for its preservation of ancient woodland and chalk grassland – both rare and in decline across the UK. 

7) Wey and Arun Canal, Loxwood, RH14 0RH
Billed as ‘London’s lost route to the sea’, the Wey and Arun Canal originally provided a route from London to Portsmouth for goods travelling to and from the dockyards. The Canal links up the waterway from Guildford to Pulborough. Although derelict until 1970, it now is one of prettiest places to go walking or cycling (traffic free) in Surrey, and an abundance of wildlife can be spotted including herons and kingfishers.

8) Wisley Common, Old Lane, Cobham, KT11 1NA
A very special 800 acres of lowland heath and woodland that is home to many rare birds and a wide range of aquatic life, including dragonflies and damselflies. A wonderful place to explore for the bug and bird lovers in the family. There is a useful café with baby changing facilities and parking located off Old Lane. 

9) Chobham Nature Reserve, Staple Hill Road, Chobham GU24 8TU.
Chobham Common is the largest nature reserve in the southeast of England and one of the best places to spot a variety of creatures big and small. In this ancient landscape you are likely to see insects, spiders, birds, deer and foxes, as well as swathes of purple-flowering heather or coconut-perfumed gorse. 

Old railway tracks
10) Downs Link, runs from St Marthas Hill in Surrey down to Steyning in West Sussex. 
This 37 mile old railway route is traffic-free heaven for walkers, cyclists and horseriders. As it’s a mainly level route it’s great for younger cyclists. Exciting nature finds include bats and glow worms. The route links the North Downs Way to the South Downs Way. There are multiple entry points onto the route including St Martha’s Hill and West Grinstead.