Germany with kids – Not as cold and unfriendly as you might think

family vacations

Stained with its WWII history and Hitler, Germany might easily be perceived as a very cold and unfriendly place to visit with kids. This is precisely why I think you should take your kids to Germany especially if they are aware of the history of the place and people. Present day Germany is a far cry from its brutal past and the locals are open to welcome people from different cultural backgrounds.

Think of Germany and you cannot ‘not’ think about super cars! You have the fancy factories of BMW, Audi & Volkswagen. Kids (especially boys!) would love to go through the process of car making with a guided tour and you will see the kid within ‘daddy’ come out and flaunt mesmerized expressions too!  Depending on which part of Germany you are visiting a factory visit can be easily fit into the itinerary. If you are following the Bundesliga or like soccer then you have some famous stadiums home to Bayern Munich or Dortmund.

Enough of stuff to do for boys (though I know many girls who would enjoy soccer & cars!), Germany boasts of some of the most magnificent castles and also the famed Romantic Road. The best thing about Germany is that it is very easy to get around. The rail network is superb, there are intercity buses and of course if you want to visit quaint villages, renting a car is the best option. The popular Heidelberg Castle is just 20 minutes drive from Frankfurt (one of the major gateways) and from there within an hour you are touching the Black Forest Region. Cut across to Wurzburg for the scenic Romantischestrasse (Romantic Route) from where the winding road through Rothenburg culminates at Fussen in the Bavaria region. Fussen is also home to the renowned Sleeping Beauty (Neuschwanstein Castle). Bavaria is also home to picturesque lakeside resorts if you just want to relax with a scenic view from your room. If you are visiting in June / July, a must do is a cruise on the Rhine, especially when the sky is filled with fire crackers each night.

So what are the essential German sights to see and cuisine to try? Kids can enjoy another German speciality – the pretzel while you enjoy your beer! End the evening with the sinful SchwarzwälderKirschtorte (Black Forest Cake). For meat lovers there are various kinds of Wurst(sausages).

If you have older kids there are some really interesting walks in Berlin and Munich explaining Hitler’s regime. You can also visit the Dachau Concentration Camp, an easy drive from Munich. There are some brilliant guides who highlight the past and discuss the mindset of present day Germans. Especially in Berlin, it would be interesting to take the kids to visit the remnants of the old wall, most of us parents must’ve witnessed the historical incident on Doordarshan and have vivid images of the crumbling wall.

For the little ones, there are plenty of zoos, open parks, interactive museums, theme parks and even the Forest ropeway course, which has various obstacle courses and is fun for the entire family. There are some very good biking and hiking routes in the Bavaria and Baden – Baden. The Europa Park is one of the most renowned theme parks in Europe, in case you want a theme park fix.

Don’t forget to shop for that cuckoo clock and if possible visit a workshop to show the kids how craftsmen make these unique clocks. Moms, there are some fantastic outlet malls outside main cities like Berlin, Frankfurt & Munich. In fact, there is an entire Porcelain Route where you will come across some amazing porcelain factories. You can also buy renowned brands like Nachtmann, Villeroy&Bochand get some excellent deals.

I have planned 4 itineraries this summer and when the first person approached me and said I have 7 days for Germany are they enough? I thought to myself, yeah sure… but after planning more tours to Germany I realised there is plenty to see and do Germany.

Book Review: Leap & Hop Series, great travel book for kids

family vacations

I first came across this book series by Isabelle Demenge & Emilie Sarnel sometime last year whilst researching the family vacations trips I promote. I was instantly impressed by the look and design of the book. When I saw a few pages displayed on their website (www.leapandhop.com), the copious amount of time, effort, thought process and passion gone into the making of the book was evident.

The books are intended to take along when you travel with kids to Rajasthan, Sri Lanka, Bali, Cambodia, Paris or Hong Kong. Myanmar and Singapore will be added soon. But after going through the books, I think they can be handy even before you travel to the country / city to introduce the kids to the destination and get them excited about the holiday. The book is very attractive and colourful, hence kids will be instantly drawn to it, as it has a story / activity book feel to it. The brilliant illustrations and pictures make even the adults go ‘wow’!

However, that is not why this book is a good buy. The first half of the book is like a guidebook to the destination with interesting facts on the geographical, political and cultural aspects of the place, of course, in a very easy ‘kid friendly’ script. Isabelle is a mother of 3 boys and like I keep taunting my daughter ‘mother knows best’! Beginning with the pictures before the journey at the airport, the comparisons of home currency (bills & coins) versus the visiting place. She has very creatively included bits of creative thinking interspersed with history and knowledge on the place and the people of the country. Some really fun bits include “If you had your own imaginary country, what would your national flag look like”?

What I especially find ingenious is the time-line page where historical events of the country explained are easy to comprehend. Something I wouldn’t have thought of explaining, thinking it would be too much to absorb for the little minds. There are plenty of puzzle solving games, such as find the hidden cities (word hunt game), spot the differences, maze puzzles all involving the places or monuments. There are pages where the kids can finish or learn how to draw a statue or picture with a neat grid and instructions to help them.

The book can come in really handy to keep the kids engaged at religious or historical monuments. It has activities like finding a particular statue or carving or finding Moonstones in Kandy, Sri Lanka and identifying which period do they belong. With these kinds of activities the kids are surely going to absorb much more rather than just listening to the guide. Also this book is for keeps sake for a lifetime! I see it more like doing a school project on a place, albeit in a very cool and fun manner and actually visiting all the sights.

They have covered almost all the topics one can think of; from geographical coordinates, map of the place, modes of transport, different languages spoken and religions practiced, money, dance and music. Kids can make a comparison of prices of everyday things like a scoop of ice cream between the place they are visiting and how much it costs at home to comparison of seasons. The cuisine tasted while travelling, drawing and writing the names of the dishes and making a note of what they liked or hated most.

The sightseeing places have been written after a thorough research, for example, the book on Sri Lanka has a page explaining Buddha’s hand language, graphically showing what each mudra means or in the Rajasthan book there is a page differentiating the various techniques used to decorate the Taj Mahal. These are things, which the entire family can use as a reference point. I know this book would’ve been very helpful to us when my daughter was thoroughly bored in Agra, as we could not find a kid friendly guide and after a while we were busy playing tag at Fatehpur Sikri, while my husband absorbed boring history lessons from the guide. The last pages have a fun quiz, where the kids ask questions to parents and recollect facts and information gained on the trip.

The book is priced at HK$ 170 per book (approximately Rs. 1400) and is available on Amazon. As I mentioned, the book is made with a lot of passion and hard work, hence is almost flawless. I feel it lacks is a few empty pages in the end, to make notes of funny anecdotes or incidents experienced on the trip or to just paste some interesting pictures, to give it a more personal touch. Isabelle, maybe in your future books you should consider having a few blank pages.

Pick pocketed in Paris!

 

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Paris holds a very special place in my heart, my husband asked me to marry him on the Eiffel Tower! So you can imagine what the place means to me and hence we were very excited to visit the same place now with our darling daughter. My 8 year old was equally excited to visit Paris, albeit for a completely different reason. After watching Barbie & Monster High girls acting as fashion designers in Paris, she already knew that it is fashion capital of the world.

I had planned a whole list of experiential stuff for us to do which included couple of interesting walks in the Latin Quarter and Montmartre, taking her to the Louvre, where we had identified sections we wanted to visit before leaving India, of course visiting the iconic Eiffel Tower and taking her to either the Notre Dame or the science museum.

The Jet Airways day flight to Paris was just ok, as we were in the economy class. The inflight entertainment had only Despicable Me 2 movie for kids and some TV episodes. In the 9 and a half hours long flight they served lunch at 2.30 pm (IST) and until 7.30 pm (IST) there was no other service. With an 8 year old who eats everything, I had not packed any snacks for the flight. After asking them twice for food, I just lost it and they gave her an ice cream to eat. About 30 minutes later they served some kind of vegetable roll and ice cream to all. The roll was a bit spicy, so they gave her another ice cream. She wasn’t complaining at all, but I was a furious mom.

Arrived all excited in Paris and enjoyed the sunlight at 8.30 pm en route Adagio ApartHotel with a view of river Seine and the Statue of Liberty saying hello to it’s twin in New York! The apartment had a sofa -cum – bed in the living room, an oven, a hob, mini fridge & a microwave. Exactly what we hoped for.

The guided walks were very good, I was afraid my daughter would get tired and bored, but she enjoyed it thoroughly. She took bits of information, which were a bit ‘spicy’ or controversial in nature and kept asking me more about it. The weather God was kind throughout our stay. Louvre was also very fascinating for her and she saw the most talked about Mona Lisa and thought it was a picture of a man! A long discussion followed… We were heading to the Eiffel Tower next and this is when our trips had an interesting twist. My husband’s wallet was flicked on the metro. While kept running like a headless chicken, I was just too upset as he has was carrying a lot of money, like he was going to buy me an LV or Hermes bag! Which I know wasn’t the case. He then revealed that his driver’s license had gone in the wallet too. I now donned my Kaali avtaar and was ready to throw him down from the Eiffel Tower!

I had planned an amazing itinerary in the Loire Valley where we would pick up a car (an Alpha Romeo which they show on Masterchef Australia!) from Paris and explore the Loire Valley. We were to visit many chateaux where my daughter could dress up in Renaissance clothes and have a kid friendly guide take us around the place. Take her to a fencing school to try a bit of fencing a la Barbie & the 3 musketeers. Go to Les Machines, which has rides based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s machines, but all these places were only accessible by car. I had booked a charminggîte (countryside cottage), in a very small village devoid of any public transportation.

He spent the rest of the evening going to the cop station etc., we had a long argument as our holiday was ruined and that I wanted to go back home. I later realized, that the little one was thoroughly lost, so I fed her, explained her what had happened, that mamma / papa are not fighting but just venting out and put her to bed so that we could resume the blame game. I was really upset, as holidays mean a lot to me, if it were up to me, I would sell my apartment and spend all the money on a round the world trip! Thank God, he’s sane more practical. I just wept and slept and woke up with some real grit, determination and positive outlook. Got straight on to work, figured out how to get to the gîte using public transportation and asked my daughter if she wanted to visit the Cité des Sciences or the Notre Dame, to my surprise she chose Cité des Sciences.

 

Cité des Sciences is easily an entire day affair for all ages. They have 2 wonderful interactive areas based on various aspects, which are hands on activities. My 8 year old absolutely loved it and was the highlight of her Paris trip. For example, they can measure how fast they run, test their balance, have a makeover, work with a friend to complete a mission, learn to write “house” in Chinese… play a television presenter, appear in a film’s special effects or lip-synch to the music of Vincent Malone… produce the energy to power a television…

After the Cité des Sciences, we went to the Eiffel Tower, this was just the day after we lost our wallet and we had loads of fun laughing and joking about the incident, with my daughter adding her two bits and reminding us how violent we looked the previous day. As they say ‘all is well, that end’s well’!

Au revoir Paris, we were off to Greece and you guessed it, my next blog will be about our wonderful adventures in Greece.

Things my 8 year old daughter enjoyed the most & will never forget:Swimming pool at the hotel, buying tickets for the metro ride from the vending machine, buying some goodies from the vending machine, shopping at the super market, playing at the neighbourhood park with local kids, the process of posting a card for bestie (weighing the envelope, buying stamps and posting in the box), watch a musician play the accordion on the metro, the science museum where 3 hours at the interactive area with a group of French kids was also not enough, having fun posing at the various sculptures at Louvre and of course eating crepes. Of course mamma / papa throwing a fit after we were pick pocketed!

Crete a different region altogather

Though, Crete is part of Greece and is Greece’s largest island; the people, food and feel is very different than the rest of the country. The Cretans are  warriors with very high self esteem and pride a bit bruised with the bloody past and war with the Ottoman Turks.

After our fiasco in Paris, we were quite looking forward to a relaxed beach holiday with our friends from UK. We reached Athens a couple of days before they arrived with their 3 year old as we wanted to see the Acropolis and museum in Athens. My daughter loved walking on the glass floor, where we could see the excavations underneath and then after touring the museum we hiked up to the Acropolis. I expected them to be majestic & enigmatic like the Pyramids in Giza, instead there was a lot of scaffolding work around due to restoration work. Nonetheless, it is a site to behold, the icon of Greece and a place rich in history. My daughter is a big fan of Egyptian, Greek & Roman history and of course thanks to Disney movie Hercules, she knew a lot of characters from the Greek mythology. We had also read a book on the Acropolis which showed the site in its glorious past. It always helps empowering ourselves with some basic knowledge on historical sites, else they just seem boring and worthless and we return discarding them as a ‘waste of time’, not fair at all! Also a good guide matters a lot at these place, we had a child friendly guide and hence he weaved a wonderful story, which my daughter could contribute to and hence all the walking up and spending 3 hours at the monument didn’t seem like a big task.

Our next stop was Crete. A very practical, nothing fancy, overnight ferry from Athens got us to Crete the next morning. A lot of people asked us why Crete instead of the very popular Santorini & Mykonos? There were 2 reasons: Crete is much cheaper than Mykonos & Santorini and secondly, the beaches are lovely. Our agenda was to make the most of the lovely Mediterranean waters, lovely food and a good 4* family friendly resort with swimming pools. That is exactly what we got. Our resort was bang on the beach, it was an all inclusive resort (all food and drinks (including alcohol) was included in the price), it had 3 swimming pools and lots of European families with kids. Each night we could dress up and unwind at the resorts ‘disco’ with the kids in tow and not feel deprived of the party scene. Most of all, it was absolutely relaxing.

I get withdrawal symptoms if I do not go inspecting hotels and hence I spent an entire day scouting the best hotels on the island, which also gave me an opportunity to see the entire island. Gosh, it is a BIG island! It is quite hilly and hence there are plenty of adventure activities like trekking, hiking, rock climbing, etc. and also some historical sites like Knossos Palace. The Cretan food is delicious and the locals proclaim that it is the best in Greece. We thought so too. Our resort used to have local as well as continental delicacies and always ensured there were fries and pizzas for the kids. The best part is Santorini can easily be visited as a day trip by sea. If your kids like theme parks, there are 3 big theme parks to keep the kids busy. Honestly for us the sea and the pools were all we needed.

We absolutely enjoyed our holidays in Crete, it was sunny and the weather was just perfect, even though the sea was a bit cold in end of May. If you are looking for a good beach holiday, I would definitely advise you to look at Crete as an option. If you need more information, write to us at info@soltrips.comKreta-Matala07.jpg

Authentic Vietnam

I am an absolute sucker for authentic experiences. From accommodation, modes of transport, eating out places and touring sights. Hence I always tend to pick boutique hotels owned and managed by locals over branded chains, trust me if you choose a 4* option or above you won’t have any complaints with boutique hotels. They have a more homely feel to it and are characteristic of the local culture, plus we are contributing to the local economy which matters a lot especially in Asia.

When I was planning a tour to Vietnam, I was absolutely conscious of all the above mentioned factors and had decided to go a bit off the beaten track to visit some lesser known places too rather than just visiting Hanoi, Halong Bay & Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Of course, I ensured they had good accommodation and opted for places where I could see the real natives rather than the westernised lot we see in the cities. To my surprise these places didn’t require much travelling and could be done as an easy driving option from Hanoi or Saigon. Places where kids could interact with the local kids and play their version of hide n seek and catching games. Visit a local school, to see how other kids in different parts of the world study and compare their learning techniques and infrastructure. Needless to say try local cuisine.

The homestay option gives one an opportunity to visit local arts and crafts workshops and learn their skills (bring home some souvenirs too), but also rent a bike and go off road to the most remote lands passing by paddy fields. In the night, most of them have a little bonfire and there is a small dance performance where you can show off you moves too. Quite a fun evening for all.

Since farming is one of the main occupations of rural Vietnam, it is interesting to know more about their farming and fishing techniques by participating in the activity. The food is superb as it is farm to table and organic. You can also learn a few recipes from the chef by doing a small course. They are very accommodating to vegetarians too, so don’t worry if you don’t eat fish or meat.

first hand the struggles of life in wartime Vietnam when you go below ground in the notorious Cu Chi Tunnels. See how soldiers and civilians lived through the conflict and the ingenious methods used to conceal themselves. Quite interesting, the kids particularly love it as they can go peek-a-boo in the tunnels. A bit claustrophobic for some, but nonetheless a unique experience. Adults can fire a few rounds of a real AK rifle!

Another interesting experience would be taking an overnight train journey. The trains are very comfortable with air-conditioned coupes and the pantry sells not just food but beverages too (alcoholic & non alcoholic). It is not the Palace on Wheels or the Orient Express or even a Eurail, but definitely worth a journey. The locals are very warm and accommodating and it is easy to chat up with them.

If you need day wise details of the itinerary, write to me at info@soltrips.com

Binh Tien

Why I love walking tours

Maybe it is my age (only in my 40’s, but still!), I have now reached a point whereby ticking off a list of places and things to do are not on my priority list on my holiday. I do my research before I travel and figure out things I would like to see / do and spend time doing them well. I do not like wasting my precious holiday time on things I know I would not enjoy. It certainly has something to do with my profession too. I am in the travel business and to give honest feedback to clients I do have to try out all the sightseeing tours. My friends often comment sarcastically “things you HAVE to do for a living”. Don’t mean to sound pompous, but I do find it cumbersome and needless to say quite tiring.

The one good thing that has come out of these endless inspections, is that I have realised how much I love walking tours. They are quite common these days and they do seem expensive when compared to the regular ‘seat in coach’ city tours, however I have become a big fan of these tours. I particularly like them for the following reasons:

  1. I can decide the area I am most interested in. For example in Paris, I can decide between Marais, Montmartre, Saint Germain and so on. I can do multiple walks over a number of days and just chill after the 2 or 3 hour of walk to soak up the atmosphere in that area. Also, one doesn’t waste their time in Latin Quarter if they are not into Roman history and architecture.
  2. I can also pick the walking tour based on my interests, like in Athens one can pick from food walks, political / historical walks, street art, daily life of the Athenians and more.
  3. You get to walk with an educated and aware local. As per me, the best experience. My husband and I had done a food walk in Athens, he being a vegetarian got hardly anything to eat. But he loved it as he kept asking the guide a lot of non-food questions, which the gracious guide patiently replied. Of course, the organic 99cents olive oil soap bar from a local store was the bonus too.
  4. You burn calories….. he he!

 

As I mentioned above, some people find them expensive, not me. I find them absolutely value for money. Of course, it all depends on the guide. Like in Toulouse I tried the same walking tour from 2 different companies and realised the stark difference. My travel colleagues thought I was stupid to go for the second walk the very next day, but I wanted to know the difference. I was so glad I did. The second guide, though not a native from the region, was way better. She did not rattle off facts, was smart enough to gauge my response and divert the conversation accordingly. That is what smart guides are supposed to do, gauge the response and be crafty enough to change the spiel. She was brilliant, she knew that and hence charged more. I would pay EUR 10 more to her rather than get bored after 30 mins of the walk and lose my money paid for 2 hours of the walk.