A Tale of Two Cities… Edinburgh and Paris

A Tale of Two Cities… Edinburgh and Paris

Our final stop in the UK was the wonderful city of Edinburgh. We arrived right on the cusp of the Fringe Festival beginning, and the city was buzzing with bagpipes, markets and street performers. We just loved the vibe here, and wandering about the streets with the castle looming overhead was very atmospheric.

Edinburgh Castle

I love how compact this beautiful castle is. We really enjoyed discovering it and learning more about Scottish history, which is fascinating. I love how myth and history are so entwined in celtic history. Unfortunately the massive crowds meant we didn’t get a peek at the crown jewels or the stone of destiny – next time!

Edinburgh Castle, perched overlooking the city.
Edinburgh Castle, perched overlooking the city.

The World of Illusions and the Camera Obscura

This was one of those places we probably wouldn’t have bothered with if we didn’t have children, and we would have totally missed out. The camera obscura was developed in the 1800s, and would have been a marvel at the time (apparently when people saw it for the first time they ran from the room screaming in fear!). Similar to a periscope, the world of Edinburgh is captured and displayed on a wooden dish in a darkened room using mirrors and sunlight. It was fun and fascinating, and the rest of exhibits at the World of illusions are awesome too.

Bookworm after being decapitated in the World of Illusions.
Bookworm after being decapitated in the World of Illusions.
More illusion fun!
More illusion fun!

Royal Mile

The stretch of street is home to shops, cafes and street performers, and we spent a good half a day wandering through and enjoying all it had to offer. I also enjoyed seeing all the Clan memorabilia – and am proud to be taking home a Clan Mackay tartan scarf!

Little Miss enjoying one of the street performances on the Royal Mile.
Little Miss enjoying one of the street performances on the Royal Mile.

Princes Street Gardens

These were beautiful gardens, and a great place to chill out after walking around the city all day. There are also contain some interesting things to visit, including the huge monument to author Sir Walter Scott. The boys climbed to the top, but Little Miss and I stayed firmly on the ground and admired it from below.

Apparently this is the biggest monument to an author in the world!
Apparently this is the biggest monument to an author in the world!

 

 

And then… Paris!

Edinburgh was a wonderful way to farewell our time in the UK. And then it was onto Paris! After a rather stressful trip carting all our luggage on the train and then a mix-up with our accommodation which saw us sitting in the street for two hours with our bags, we finally settled ourselves in St Germain, which was a great place to stay, right in the heart of Paris. Two things quickly became apparent – you need about a month to see Paris properly, and we had only a few days. So we decided to go broad instead of deep, and enjoy just a taste of this amazing place. Secondly – if I thought London was expensive, Paris is heart-stoppingly so. You can find little croissanteries and the occasional supermarket, but a burger at a restaurant will set you back about $23 so be prepared to dig deep or forget about your health for a few days while everyone just eats loads of croissants. Another thing I found really interesting was how much French I could remember and speak after studying the language at school, which was  20 years ago! The kids thought I was amazing.

Hop on Hop off Bus

This really is the ONLY way to see Paris, and the absolute best way to get around, particularly as the sites are quite spread out. We got the two day ticket and absolutely got our money’s worth. Just gazing at this beautiful city from the bus is a highlight in itself.

The best way to see Paris!
The best way to see Paris!
Everything is just stunning.
Everything is just stunning.

With our tickets we also purchased the night tour. This starts at 10pm, so it was a late one for the kids, but totally worth it.

The Eiffel Tower at night!
The Eiffel Tower at night!

Eiffel Tower

We also saw this engineering and artistic marvel during the day, but we didn’t go up to the top because the queues were ridiculous. We enjoyed our visit though, and made it to the second level.

The obligatory shot by Picasso!
The obligatory shot by Picasso!

Jardin du Luxembourg

After the beautifully green and well-kept gardens of England, we were a little fussy when we got to France! The gardens were lovely, but not in the way English gardens are. We had fun though as you can hire little boats and sail them at the fountain.

Sailing the boats at Luxembourg.
Sailing the boats at Luxembourg.

Montmarte

Riding through the red light district past Moulin Rouge certainly prompted some interesting comments from the kids! Montmarte was crazily crowded but fun, and THE spot to buy souvenirs. We also checked out the Sacre Couer which was beautiful and provided an amazing view over Paris.

The Moulin Rouge! Note - if your kids can read, they'll find this street quite surprising!
The Moulin Rouge! Note – if your kids can read, they’ll find this street quite surprising!

Disneyland

Soul Sister had given me this advice about Disneyland Paris: take a deep breath, ignore the prices and the commercialism and rampant sexism and just go with it. That was my mantra for our day at Disney 😉 We only had the one day and just did Disneyland Park, which Bookworm was a little disappointed with as the Walt Disney Studio park has some big thrill rides. I was totally over it by 2pm but the kids had a ball.

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The Grand Parade! I actually loved this and will admit I teared up at how magical it all was.
The Grand Parade! I actually loved this and will admit I teared up at how magical it all was.
They loved it!
They loved it!

And that was the end of our trip to Paris! This was one place I’ll definitely ve visiting again – and perhaps without kids next time so I can really indulge in the museums 🙂

The road to Inverness and finding Nessie…

After Skye, we travelled to Inverness and on the way stopped by to marvel at the beautiful Eilean Donan castle:

I think this is probably the most photographed castle in Scotland - with good reason!
I think this is probably the most photographed castle in Scotland – with good reason!

Then it was off to Inverness! Unfortunately, we only spent two nights here and used up a whole day doing really mundane things like buying the kids underwear and socks. So I feel as though I didn’t really see the best Inverness has to offer, although we did walk around the town a little:

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And of course we tried to find Nessie!

Loch Ness.
Loch Ness.
Found her!

 

And of course there was more gorgeous scenery to explore!

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As well as towns with awesome names:

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Don’t we all feel like that sometimes? Killiecrankie?

I was disappointed I didn’t get to Culloden, but you have to leave something for next time, right? 🙂

Lost in wonderful Wales

After leaving Stratford-upon-Avon, we figured we’d be at our next destination – the Welsh town of Llangollen – in about three hours. Sadly, that was not to be. We got horribly lost on what one local called the “gnarly” roads, and after six hours our car was the location of a high level of stress (most of it mine, I confess!) At first we marveled at the stunning countryside:

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Then we were just frustrated. Poor Souljourneyboy had to drive down roads where hedges on either side brushed the car – and we hoped and prayed no vehicle needed to come the other way! We seriously don’t know what actually happens when two cars need to use the road at the same time.

Despite the hassle, we finally arrived and got settled in, and the next day explored the gorgeous little town of Llangollen on the River Dee. Here’s what we enjoyed:

The horse-drawn water boats

These little boats are drawn up the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct by horses which walk alongside the canal. We all loved this boat trip, and our lovely horse Hercules who was quite naughty and kept stopping to eat the grass instead of pulling the boat along.

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The steam train

While it was fun to ride a steam train, I personally don’t think it was worth the 50 pounds we paid, as it just goes up and down the mountain. On the way back a tree had fallen on the track, and we were delayed quite a while as a gang with chainsaws had to slide down a 60-foot hill to get to us! I think it was the most excitement the Llangollen train crew had seen in years.

The Llangollen steam train!
The Llangollen steam train!

Enjoying the town and surrounds

We had great fun trying to pronounce all the Welsh names and words we saw everywhere. If the roads are gnarly, then the language is more so – check out the sign above the shop:

It was a gift shop - we think??
It was a gift shop – we think??

 

And where do you even begin with words that have no vowels? Truly a non-intuitive language!

Conwy

On our last day in Wales we decided to visit the walled town and castle of Conwy, and it was an absolute delight. Walking along the walls and right down into the castle is an amazing experience. I think this was my favourite of all the castles; you experience such rich, untouched history here. And with the sea on one side and Snowdonia on the other, the scenery is breathtaking. We also enjoyed a visit to Plas Mawr, the ‘Great Hall’, built between 1576 and 1585 for the influential Welsh merchant, Robert Wynn. Plas Mawr is the finest surviving town house of the Elizabethan era in Britain, and is a fascinating, interactive exhibit.

Beautiful Conwy Castle.
Beautiful Conwy Castle.
Going down into the prison tower!
Going down into the prison tower

We loved our few days in Wales – I can’t wait to come back and explore more of the Welsh countryside!

Cotswolds and surrounds

After Bath, our next stop was the Cotswolds. A collection of pretty towns with the quaintest names, there are quite a few Cotswolds villages to choose from, and our first stop was Stow-on-the-Wold. We had a wander around to soak up the atmosphere and indulged in some lunch at a quintessential Cotswold tea room:

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All the buildings are so pretty!

We didn’t really get the chance to visit any other Cotswolds villages, which I would have enjoyed, but while they are very sweet they are all quite similar, and I didn’t feel as though I needed to visit more. Instead, we decided to visit Blenheim Palace, which was truly stunning.

Blenheim Palace

This Palace is the birthplace of Winston Churchill, the principal residence of the Duke of Marlborough and the only non-Royal house to hold the title of “palace”. Set on 11,000 acres it is simply monumental. Not only is there the palace itself to explore, there are also the amazing gardens, two huge lakes, a maze, adventure playground, lavender and butterfly house, water terraces, secret gardens, formal gardens, Italian gardens, a waterfall… we spent almost a full day here and did not see everything there was to see. The great thing about Blenheim Palace is that there was something for all of us.

The kids loved the maze!
The kids loved the maze!
Just one aspect of the palace.
Just one aspect of the enormous palace.
The water terrace.
The water terraces.
The bedroom Winston Churchill was born in. There was a fascinating exhibition about Churchill's life while we were here too.
The bedroom Winston Churchill was born in. There was a fascinating exhibition about Churchill’s life while we were here too.

 

 

 

 

Stratford-upon-Avon

On our way to Wales on our last day, we stopped by Shakespeare’s birthplace. We almost gave it a miss and I’m so glad we didn’t – it’s such a cute little town which totally pays homage to the Great Bard. Another time – perhaps on the literary tour of the UK I am planning with Soul Sister – I will go into the museum and find Anne Hathaway’s actual house, but for this trip we were content to wander the medieval market town and spend up big in the gift shop 🙂 Bookworm was delighted to find a book of Shakesperian insults, which certainly made the journey to Wales interesting. The kids were also delighted to find a magic shop which apparently helped inspire J.K Rowling’s Diagon Alley. As I write this post, they are making up spells to write in the little spellbooks they bought from the shop… there’s so much to inspire the imagination here!

Wandering through Stratford-upon-Avon.
Wandering through Stratford-upon-Avon.

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.

Taking flight and first impressions of Hanoi

We’re here in Hanoi!

After two train rides, two plane trips, a 6-hour layover in an airport in the middle of the night and a hair-raising taxi ride, we are here in Hanoi. And we love it.

The kids coped so well with the travel and the crazy airport queues. I did laugh when Picasso bounded into our first plane and into the business class area and said, in awe of the large and spacious seats – “can we just sit anywhere Mum?”

Um, sadly not. We eventually found our seats and Little Miss asked – “is this third class, Mum?”

We took an overnight flight to Kuala Lumpur and then did this for a couple of hours:

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One aerotrain ride and a flight later, we were in Hanoi. While they’d been amazing, the kids were exhausted, and I think I underestimated the impact of cultural shock on them. We came to our hotel – clean and comfortable but pretty basic –  and took our first walk through the Old Quarter. The traffic really is as manic as everyone says. No one stops. To cross the road you just have to walk out in front of bicycles, cars, and motorbikes and trust that they will swerve around you. And footpaths are not for walking – they’re for eating and cooking and selling and sitting and parking.

Little Miss was absolutely terrified of the traffic and the boys were worried about the pollution. They were concerned that the food looked so different and they didn’t understand what it was. Bookworm, his lip trembling, told me he felt “out of control”. That night we had some money stolen from Souljourneyboy’s wallet and the kids were understandably scared and worried. I fell asleep knowing  we had done the right thing in choosing a holiday that would stretch and challenge them – but wondered how they would go.

I needn’t have worried. The wonderful thing about kids is how they just acclimatize. They’re so resilient. We spend our first full day exploring beautiful Hanoi – such a city of contradictions. In the middle of the chaos is the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake, where it is said the Golden Turtle God took a sword from invading Chinese to save the Vietnamese people. Tourists scams abound, and yet most Vietnamese are such beautiful people. They kept coming up to us and bringing their children to meet Little Miss. Within a couple of hours the kids were crossing roads like they were locals. We visited the water puppet theatre, a truly wonderful experience, and the kids adored it.

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Then we hit the night markets – an absolute must-do if you are ever in Hanoi. The atmosphere is incredible. Everyone is out and about and the city and lake are lit up with lights. We had a wonderful time and on the way home, Picasso announced, “this is way better than Australia, Mum!”

A pretty good end to our second day 🙂

 

 

Ups and downs in the journey

We reached a difficult bend in the road for our little family this week. Our lovely old dog had to be put down, which was incredibly sad for all of us. I gave her to Souljourneyboy as a birthday present about 14 years ago, and she has grown up with our family ever since. She lived a good life and we loved her very much – the kids were devastated, and we had a very sad couple of days as we grieved her loss.

As Soul Sister reminded me, though, grieving loss like this is actually one of the good reasons why children should have pets. It’s hard and it’s horrible, but it actually teaches them about grief and loss and how to heal in a healthy way. Very important life lessons.

Happier milestones were reached this week too – for several months, Picasso and Bookworm have been saving up for mountain bikes, and this week they reached their goal amount. We brought them home from the shop and they have been riding every spare minute! Inspired by their efforts (and not to be left out for one second) Little Miss decided she wanted to learn how to ride without training wheels. So within a day she had learned! I love that girl’s determination.

Pain and loss happen, and life moves on. That’s both sad and sweet – but it’s not as though we forget our losses, we just learn to live with them and heal as best we can. And the rest of our journey is somewhat more meaningful because those who we have left behind – whether they be loved pets, friends, or family – have played a significant part in us becoming the people we are today.

Love to all of you who are experiencing some kind of loss on your journey at this time xxx