Exploring Bournemouth

The next stop on our trip was Bournemouth, right in the heart of beachfront Britain. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t have made it onto my tourist map – however we came down to spend a few days with cousins I hadn’t seen for 38 years, and I am so glad we saw Bournemouth! Despite the rather inclement weather it was lovely to see the coast, and nearby Christchurch. Here’s what we loved:

Catching up with family

This was one of the absolute highlights of the entire trip – and in fact, the past few years :). I haven’t seen my cousins since I left England as a one-year-old, and the kids had never met their second cousins (or is it third cousins? I’m never really sure). We had a wonderful few days exploring Bournemouth together, and Little Miss in particular was devastated to leave them behind. This was a really emotional experience for me too, as I don’t have many cousins on my Sri Lankan side that I see regularly. It was just wonderful.

Swimming at the beach!
Fun playing board games on a rainy afternoon.
Fun playing board games on a rainy afternoon.

 

The English beach

Apparently Bournemouth is the sunny beach spot in all of England – except when it’s windy and cold, like it was unfortunately in the two days we were there! That didn’t stop the kids from swimming though – crazy!

The wildflowers growing along the coastline are just beautiful.
The wildflowers growing along the coastline are just beautiful.
A classic shot of Bournemouth's beachfront.
A classic shot of Bournemouth’s beachfront.

 

Christchurch

We had planned to spend one day in a nearby picnic and adventure playground. However it was quite cold and windy, so we left the kids to have a marathon Harry Potter movie-fest while the older folk decided to explore nearby Christchurch child-free 🙂 It is a lovely historic town, with a beautiful minster and gardens, and a bustling quay.

The minster at Christchurch.
The minster at Christchurch.
Christchurch is incredibly picturesque.
Christchurch is incredibly picturesque.
We went for a walk around the beautiful gardens surrounding the minster.
We went for a walk around the beautiful gardens surrounding the minster.

All in all, we loved out stay at Bournemouth. It’s well worth  visit!

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Chichester and Arundel

Okay, it’s official. I am in love with Chichester. It’s exactly what I pictured England to be – picturesque green hills, beautiful gardens, quaint cottages and towns and a castle within driving distance. We have been very blessed by family friends and are staying in a beautiful home while the occupants are on holidays, and the kids have loved it. Here are some pix:

Every home needs a side gate like this!
Every home needs a side gate like this!
I desperately want to live in a home where vines grow around my kitchen window!
One of the many beautiful views in the rolling green hills of Chichester.
The view from the backyard.

Arundel Castle

Arundel is a gorgeous town in Chichester with an amazing Norman Castle which is nearly 1000 years old. We spent the day here and loved it. The castle is the seat of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, and they actually live in part of the castle, while the rest of it is open to the public. It is spectacular, and has been maintained beautifully. Unfortunately we couldn’t take photos inside, but let me tell you the library is to die for 🙂 Here are some pictures of the outside of the castle, and the gardens.

This is the view as you approach Arundel Castle. It is just amazing!
This is the view as you approach Arundel Castle. It is just amazing!
The part of the castle currently lived in by the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk.
The part of the castle currently lived in by the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk.
The view from the top of the medieval keep.
The view from the top of the medieval keep.
The gorgeous gardens!
The gorgeous gardens!
More gorgeous gardens...
More gorgeous gardens…
And more gorgeous gardens!
And more gorgeous gardens!

Arundel Castle is a must see, and I would have liked to have had more time to explore Arundel town as well. I hope you make it here one day and enjoy it as much as we did!

Harry Potter tour at Warner Bros Studio

So Potter fever has been pretty rife in our house for the past six months. I’d been recommending the books to Picasso for some time, but he took a look at the first few pages and wasn’t really interested. The dense language and slower pace of the first few chapters makes Harry a bit harder for kids who aren’t voracious readers to become immersed in. So in January I read the first chapter to both Picasso and Little Miss, and they were hooked – particularly Picasso. We barely saw him as he proceeded to read all seven books and watch all eight movies in quick succession! And Little Miss is not far behind, as she is now reading book four. With all children firmly Harry Potter fans (and their parents too), a trip to the Warner Bros studios about an hour outside of London was not to be missed.

I had originally planned just to go ourselves (you can get there by public transport and but tickets at the gate) but unfortunately left it too late, and all the tour companies had bought up the tickets on the day we wanted to go. The benefit of going yourself is that you’re not pressed for time – with the tour bus we had about three and a half hours to wander about the studio – and I’d read reviews that said you need longer. Probably an extra half an hour or so would have been nice, but I felt as though we saw and did everything we wanted to. Anyway, we LOVED this tour. This was one of the absolute highlights of our time in London, and I think our trips anywhere. It was amazing and magical and so much fun. Here’s what we loved:

The Great Hall and the studio rooms

When the first films were made, J.K Rowling had not finished writing the series. So that meant the producers (and probably Rowling herself) did now know which props and sets would need to be used again in the later films. Consequently, everything was kept – thousands of props and costumes and sets which on any other film set would have been destroyed – and it’s all set up in a giant room at the studio. It just feels so amazing to walk through it all and see the incredible detail, and the countless hours of work that goes into a film like this. Here are some pictures:

The wonderfully impressive Great Hall.
The wonderfully impressive Great Hall.
One of the stone animals in the Great Hall.
One of the stone animals in the Great Hall.

 

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Me standing in Dumbledore’s study. The detail was incredible.
No corners were cut making the sets - every painting you see was created by an oil painter, taking months of work.
No corners were cut making the sets – every painting you see was created by an oil painter, taking months of work.
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Snape’s potions class.

The Studio Backlot, Cafe and Outdoor Sets

This is where you can make your way through Platform 9 and three quarters, jump aboard Hogwarts, buy Butterbeer and see Privet Drive – just amazing!

Abbie-Rose at the Platform with Hedwig and Cruikshanks.
Abbie-Rose at the Platform with Hedwig and Cruikshanks.
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You can climb aboard the Hogwarts Express and see the cabins made up as sets.
Hagrid's motorcycle!
Hagrid’s motorcycle!
All aboard the Knight Bus!
All aboard the Knight Bus!
Butterbeer anyone? It was delicious - an ridiculously expensive!
Butterbeer anyone? It was delicious – an ridiculously expensive!

Behind the Scenes Peek

One of the most interesting parts of the tour was seeing how all the special and visual effects for the magic and the magical creatures worked, as well as getting a glimpse into how sets are put together – from concept drawings, to models, to the final product.

The first cardboard model of Hogwarts which was used to plan film shots.
The first cardboard model of Hogwarts which was used to plan film shots.

 

Various masks for the characters.
Various masks for the characters.
The finished product of one of the creatures!
The finished product of one of the creatures!

Diagon Alley

The Diagon Alley set was truly magical. Walking down the cobbled street you could really imagine being a witch or wizard!

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Truly amazing!

 

Olivander's wands!
Olivander’s wands!

The 24:1 Hogwart’s model

While many location shots were filmed at Alnwick Castle, a 24:1 model was built for wide sweeping shots of Hogwarts. This model was my favourite part of the tour. It was just beautiful.

Picasso standing in front of the model gives an idea of the scale.
Picasso standing in front of the model gives an idea of the scale.
The other side of the model.
The other side of the model.

The Gift Shop

And of course, last not not least, there is the Gift Shop! We spent an hour in here and went a bit crazy 🙂

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you simply can’t miss this tour! And if you’re not – become one! It really was one of the best days we’ve had.

London with kids

So our UK and France holiday has begun – and what better place to begin than London?

I thought I’d share my thoughts on seeing London with a troupe of kids in tow. The way our itinerary worked out, we only had two and a half days for London sightseeing, and while thankfully the long days (it doesn’t get dark here in summer until 10pm) meant we could really squeeze a lot in, if I was planning the trip again I would have allowed longer. The “underground” here is amazing and you can get around fast, but hopping onto the tube and zipping around from sight to sight is draining for kids. Anyway here’s what we did and loved!

The London Pass

These passes weren’t cheap, but we were really glad we bought them. With entry to heaps of sights included, plus the Hop On Hop Off Bus and River Thames Cruise, it was worth it. And the kids were super excited it meant 10 per cent off in the gift shops and cafes 🙂

The Hop on Hop Off Bus

Definitely a winner. A great way to see London, and while it’s a little slow due to London traffic it means you get rest weary legs, and get great pictures.

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Tower of London (including the Crown Jewels)

I think this was our favourite stop, and honestly you could spend an entire day here. We saw the medieval palace and the Crown Jewels, which the kids loved. I would have loved to have seen the Bloody Tower but you just have to miss some things!

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Thames River Cruise

This was included in the London Pass and was a real treat. The young English tour guide gave funny and lively descriptions as we passes various sights and under bridges, and it was lovely seeing Westminster for the first time from the Thames.

Westminster, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey

Little Miss was so excited to see Big Ben and it did not disappoint! It’s much larger than you realise from pictures. And the Abbey was incredible, although by that time (it was one of the last stops) she was pretty tired. We had afternoon tea at the Abbey and it was delicious.

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The Science Museum

The kids loved it, even though I wouldn’t have bothered if I’d been on my own. It was interesting, but I would have preferred the Victoria and Albert Museum. When you are travelling with kids that’s just the way it is!

Buckingham Palace

We missed the Changing of the Guard but the kids really enjoyed seeing the palace. It doesn’t really take very long either.

Harrods

One simply must go to Harrods in London! What an incredible place. Of course I could only afford some tea, cards and a half-price carry bag but it’s absolutely amazing. You have to see the cafe, dining hall and patisserie, even if you don’t buy anything.

Hyde Park

We were so lucky to have had perfect weather, and Hyde Park really is the jewel in London’s crown. The gardens are stunning, and the squirrels are delightful. A great place to stop and rest and eat an ice cream.

 

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Poundland

Kids being kids, they were just as excited to find Poundland (where everything is, as you guessed, one pound) as they were about seeing Buckingham Palace. I had pooh-poohed Poundland, and then had to eat humble pie. You can get snacks, bottled water, sundries and other items  – all for one pound! It was exciting.

All up, we absolutely loved London. A note of caution – apart from Poundland, it is expensive to eat, so budget accordingly. Also the coffee is not very good and you have to pay for public toilets! And I’d allow a few more days if possible (we lost a day to the Harry Potter Tour, which I’ll write about separately). But make sure you go! It is such a wonderful city, and even the normal houses and buildings are so interesting and beautiful to see.

Enjoying Koh Lipe with kids

Sometimes when travelling, the anticipation of a place can be more rewarding than the destination itself – I remember as a kid I was really excited about seeing a black sand beach, only to be pretty disappointed when I actually got to see one. A friend of mine had the same reaction upon finally viewing Stonehenge – she didn’t realise it would be next to a highway, and so protected it couldn’t really be enjoyed. Sometimes the reality doesn’t live up to the postcards, or the hype. I had a lot of hype in my head about Koh Lipe. One of my favourite things to do is research beautiful islands to visit, and Koh Lipe trumps many of those “Top 10” lists you find on the internet. When I realized how easy it was to get to from Langkawi (a short ferry ride away) I was really excited, but couldn’t help wonder – would it really be as beautiful as those possibly photo-shopped pictures on the internet?

The answer, my friends, is yes. Koh Lipe is EXACTLY how it looks in the pictures. Here are some of my snaps (completely untouched!)

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The two orange spots in the water are Souljourneyboy and Bookworm snorkelling, while Little Miss and Picasso built sandcastles on the shore. Here’s a couple more:

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It is basically paradise on earth. Powder-white beaches, and the clearest water I’ve ever seen, rivalled only by the Whitsundays – that stunning, breathtaking turquoise. My only regret was that we came for just three days – next time we visit Koh Lipe we will make sure we stay for at least a week. Here are some things we enjoyed:

Pattaya Beach

The main stretch of beach, lined with most of the island’s resorts, bungalows, cafes and bars . The beach is beautiful, and the vibe is just so wonderfully chilled. There are fancy resorts, but there are charming little bars with bean bags and sofas stretching out onto the beach, and in the evenings, there’s music and people milling around and sandcastles with candles and fire dancing and its just fantastic.

Walking street

There aren’t very many streets on Koh Lipe, and Walking Street is the main stretch of concrete road bordered by little shops, cafes, restaurants, massage lounges, juice bars and tourist spots. Little Miss got her hair braided, island-style, and we spent each night exploring. Lots of fun.

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Sita Resort

We stayed at the Sita, which fronts directly into Pattaya Beach. With lovely rooms, a decent breakfast buffet and two pools, we loved it here. We lazed by the pool reading, then swam when we got too hot, then ordered freshly squeezed juice, then walked five metres to swim in the sea, and then did it all over again. It was also in a nice spot for a family– close to Walking Street, but far enough away from bars and restaurants so the rooms were very peaceful at night. And we met a lovely Australian couple here too! I do love that I have met so many great people on our trip.

Sunset Beach

We found this delightful cove hidden behind the Sit Resort and spent the day here. You can snorkel about 1 metre into the ocean, the water is just that pristine. Bookworm and Souljourneyboy snorkeled for hours. It was practically deserted – nothing here except a few tents, and a cute shack that doubles as a cocktail bar/café. It was fabulous.

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The cocktail bar on Sunset Beach. You can order food too – they jump on their motorbike, head over to Walking Street an buy whatever thou want, then deliver it back here. What else could anyone want?

Koh Lipe is definitely a place I will visit again. It’s obviously a tourist island, but not dominated by huge, characterless all-inclusive resorts – its beauty is as yet unspoiled by overdevelopment. I hope this lasts. Apparently the military coup that happened in Thailand last year resulted in the new government cracking down on hawkers approaching sunbathers, and hotels scattering sunbeds all over their beachfronts to claim them as “private”. I was glad of both. Part of me worries what the former hawkers are now doing for money (although there seemed to be five people employed to do one job in the Immigration Office, so maybe they’re all working there), but after Vietnam it was nice to just enjoy the beach without being asked to buy things every five minutes. And I liked that the beaches are being kept clear of the hotel sunbeds – these beautiful beaches should be public, not just for guests of specific hotels . All in all, Koh Lipe really is the perfect place to chill out. We cannot wait to go there again – and the kids have made me promise we’ll stay at least one week 🙂

 

Fun for the family in Langkawi

When I was organising our itinerary in the early stages of planning, I did loads of research on tropical islands, trying to find the perfect place for a 5 lengthy relaxation stop after 5 weeks of hard travelling. After much research, I landed on Langkawi – and I am delighted to say this beautiful island has not disappointed us! Here’s how we’ve spent the last six days…

 Relaxing at the Bon Ton Resort

A colleague of mine visited Bon Ton earlier last year, and had raved about it. It was certainly far more pricey than any of our other accommodation (which had been super-budget) but a fortuitous tax return enabled us to splurge a little, and we have absolutely loved it here. I think what I liked most is that it’s not your typical big resort, which can feel a little characterless. It’s not large – a handful of beautiful 100-year old wooden Malay villas situated around a lovely but simple pool, beside a lake. The restaurant is superb, the food delicious – the best I’ve had in this entire trip. There are gorgeous touches everywhere – old statues, a boutique shop, lounge areas with daybeds, fresh towels always available by the pool, free water and fruit delivered to your daybed while you’re swimming… and cats. Loads of cats! The Bon Ton operates a cat sanctuary which desexes and houses stray cats, some of whom live at the resort. The kids loved playing with them. The only drawback is that there is a vet clinic with dogs next door, and sometimes a plane overhead will set them barking. This didn’t happen often though. The staff are super friendly and are happy to organize anything for you. Adding to the chilled vibe was that you didn’t have to go anywhere for breakfast – the staff pack it into your fridge the night before. We loved that, and no one got out of bed before about 9:30am each day! Our villa was gorgeous too, two huge rooms, a kitchenette and two bathrooms, one with an enormous timber bath. It was also next to a sister resort – the Temple Tree, and you were able to use their pools and restaurant too. Highly recommend!

Chilling out on Pantai Cenang

The main beach strip in town is a great place to eat, drink and be merry, and just a few minutes’ drive from the Bon Ton. It didn’t feel as touristy as Nha Trang – it has a really great, relaxed beach vibe but without the sleaze. Probably because Langkawi is a Muslim island. The beach itself is nice and there are heaps of water sports you can do. Souljourneyboy took Bookworm and Picasso out on a jet ski – Bookworm loved it, but it was a little bit too much for poor Picasso.

The Andaman Resort

We’d heard that the beaches on the north of the island are amazing, and so we headed out in our rental car to the Andaman Resort, which is an incredible place right beside the beach and hidden in the jungle. We bought lunch there and asked to use the private beach, which wasn’t a problem. This was one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve been to – powdery white sand, and crystal clear water. We swam for ages. Then we used the resort-style Andaman pool for a while before heading back to the Bon Ton. It was a lovely outing, though I probably wouldn’t want to stay there – it was a little too far from everything else. Apparently you can do a similar kind of trip to the Four Seasons hotel as well, and their beach is just as lovely.

Island hopping

The staff at the Bon Ton organized this for us, and it was so much fun, except for Little Miss, who unfortunately had a bad cold. We went out in a small boat to visit one of the outer islands with a freshwater lake, which was fun until we were attacked by an enraged monkey that wanted our bag and towels. It was seriously terrifying, and Picasso and Souljourneyboy were the only ones to keep their heads. (If ever I saw proof that Picasso will make an excellent nurse, I saw it then – quick, cool, calm and collected, even when a monkey was chasing him, screeching all the way. Bookworm and Little Miss were completely hysterical 🙂 ). We also visited a mangrove and watched wild water eagles diving for fish, and then went swimming on an uninhabited island on the way back. Heaps of fun, and less than $100 for the five of us on a private boat.

 A note on car rental for Langkawi and Penang

 You really do need to hire a car when you visit Langkawi. There was no public transport I could see, apart from taxis. It wasn’t expensive – about $30 a day, and we really enjoyed tripping around the island. You organize the cars through the hotel where you’re staying, and it’s very easy to do.

We also hired a car in Penang, which was a LOT more expensive, probably because we got it from one of the companies at the airport. I don’t think it’s worth it if you are travelling alone or as a couple – there are excellent hop-on/hop-off buses that go to all the tourist spots. As a family though I think it was worth it. We could keep our own schedule, leave stuff in the car, and enjoy good air-conditioning as we travelled around. I will say though that driving in Georgetown is very stressful (and caused some raised voices on more than one occasion!) For some bizarre reason, the same road will be one-way up to a half way point, and then switch directions to be one-way, but going the other way. The directions meet in the middle, and the road just veers you right off onto some other road, so before you know it, you’ve turned twice and you are ages away from where you need to be with no idea how to turn around. Quite odd!

We’re heading to Koh Lipe next for a few more days of beachside fun, before flying back to Kuala Lumpur for a couple of nights as our last stop. I am so sad our wonderful trip is nearly over! We have just enjoyed it so much.

Great things to do in Penang for the whole family

Penang! Where to start? Only to say – I think I could live here!

One of the best things about travelling with kids is that you visit places you might not normally visit – and you are so glad you did. And the great thing about Penang is that I didn’t feel like the attractions were either for grown-ups OR for kids – they were just fantastic for everyone. We were there four days and we barely scratched the surface, but here’s what we loved:

 Little India

Butter chicken. Need I say more? We had it three days in a row and Picasso was in heaven. Little India is in Georgetown and is, indeed, Little India. We enjoyed the food, the music and the atmosphere, bought some gemstones and just soaked it up.

 Penang Municipal Park (Youth Park)

This is one attraction we probably wouldn’t have visited if we didn’t have kids and we would have totally missed out! It’s beautiful – positioned beside a waterfall and in the jungle. It has playing equipment, exercise equipment, three pools, soccer field, skate park, chess sets, archery range – and it’s ALL FREE. Yes, that’s right. There are monkeys everywhere and one cheeky fellow stole the bag of crisps from right under my nose and sat under a bush eating it, mocking me 🙂

 Penang Butterfly Farm

With 3,000 species of butterflies to see, this is one amazing place. They flutter all around you in the enclosure, and there are also other insects and spiders to see inside. The kids learned a lot and loved it.

Batu Ferringhi

The beach strip in Penang. We found a quiet little beach near Hard Rock Hotel and had a lovely time swimming. The water was so warm and the waves small enough for Little Miss to really enjoy.

Penang Hill

This was amazing. We took the funicular to the top, which provides breath-taking views over Georgetown and Penang. There’s heaps to do once you’re there, including a jungle walk where we saw a Giant Black Squirrel, an Owl Museum and places where you get Henna art done – which Little Miss was very excited about. There’s also a temple and other attractions but we didn’t have time for everything. It probably deserves a whole day on its own. My only advice would be to NOT eat at Bellevue Hill Hotel, which was an expensive and horrible lunch.

 Georgetown 3D Art Museum

Again, something we wouldn’t have done if we didn’t have the kids, and it was awesome. It’s an art gallery of trick images, which look like they are coming out if the wall. You can have your picture taken and it looks very cool. The kids LOVED this. Here’s an example:

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All in all, I highly recommend Penang as a family destination. I would definitely come again and this time stay for longer. We had such fun as a family here.