How to choose the perfect sightseeing tour when on a holiday?

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In my long career of planning customised holidays, I have seldom come across people being picky about the tours they want to include in the itinerary. Of course, that is because not many travel agents offer a bouquet of tours or an option of doing a particular tour in different ways. My clients now are often foxed when I ask them what they would like to do at a particular place, for example Paris. They would often come back saying see the popular places like Eiffel Tower, Louvre, etc. I am referring to people, who want to visit the place but have had no time to read up on or maybe their travel agent always gave them an itinerary they thought would be best, hence they don’t know what to say!

So how important are sightseeing tours? I would say, the most important, unless it’s a ‘doing nothing‘ holiday. Even more important than your hotel, as I know most people definitely do a lot of research by checking reviews online. I don’t know how many people would check reviews on their sightseeing tours, which will make them like or hate the city. To give you an example, if you were to join a regular coach tour in Paris or Rome for a city tour with kids, I can assure you the kids will be cranky & bored at the Louvre & Coliseum unless you make the effort to keep them engaged & entertained. If they are well behaved, they will just find something to gaze at, but not learn or get back anything interesting from the tour. To be honest, I got bored at the Louvre even when I went alone as our guide just kept rattling off words, which made no sense to me. Instead, how about hiring a qualified kid friendly guide for the family to explore the Coliseum & Louvre where the kids can learn history in a fun way and the visit is not wasted. Mind you, if you divide the number of hours by the amount you spend on your vacation abroad, each minute seems expensive and this is without putting a value on time & the unhappy faces! Yup, you guessed it, I am a Gujarati and know my numbers well!

 The next time you prepare an itinerary, be very picky about the tours included for you. Read the description and see if there are any places you are not interested in visiting. For example, if you visit Italy and are not interested in museums and history but would still like to see the famous monuments like Coliseum and Vatican, then ensure you do not waste your money on a guided tour where you get stuck for 4 hours visiting other attractions. Instead, it makes sense hiring an expert guide to just visit these places and will save you time to do other activities. If you love biking and have older kids, most cities offer biking tours. If you are a foodie, do a culinary walk and small workshop at a local’s place. There are some brilliant workshops offered at museums, depending on your kid’s interests, you can sign up for these workshops.

Please ensure free time at any place to just soak up the place by wandering around or sitting at a cafe and observe the locals. Take the kids to a park, this is where they will get to mingle with other kids and make new friends for a complete culture immersion. Often the most memorable moments are the ones, which are not on a planned itinerary. For me it was at a tiny village in France where we had gone for a stroll post dinner and we listened to a children’s choir practice in a small chapel, sitting on a bench near a canal! Do share your impromptu memorable moment with me from your trip abroad.

 

Feel free to contact me on info@soltrips.com

Top Sights for Kids in Macau

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When we went to Hong Kong with our daughter in 2012, my husband was very keen to go to Macau. Though he & I had both visited Macau individually before, we thought we would come back feeling dejected as we would not be able to enjoy the nightlife and also because we didn’t think there would be anything for our daughter. Now that I am dedicating so much time researching on Family Vacations, I just could not accept that Macau was just a gambling paradise with glitzy hotels.

I recently met up with a representative from Macau Government Tourist Office and popped the question “what is there for kids to do in Macau”? She seemed foxed at first, but when she opened the map, she started counting many sights. As a mother I immediately knew which ones would work and were worth visiting, here is the list:

1. Grand Prix Museum

Definitely not for my ‘girlie girl’, but I do know many boys and their fathers who would love this place. Don’t expect too much as it is not very big, however they do have some really cool sports cars & bikes on display.

2. Old Taipa Village

Macau is one of the unique places where you will find the confluence of Portuguese and Chinese cultures. While you must’ve gotten your dose of Chinese culture in Hong Kong, Macause offers an insight on the Portuguese culture at the Old Taipa Village. It houses old restored colonial houses and the life of Portuguese when they arrived in 1900.

3. Macau Tower

Lead by example! Show your kids how to be brave adventurers and bungy jump from the tower. The kids would also have fun walking across the Sky Walk with a harness securely buckled around them for safery. There is no age limit, as long as they fit into the harness.

4. Try local food

Not just dim sums, but the goodies from the local bakeries like flaky Egg Tarts and pork buns and wash it off with some vino. Peanut candies and almond cookies are other delicacies to bring back home.

5. Panda Pavilion

If you missed the Pandas at Ocean Park in Hong Kong, you can visit the Panda Pavilion in Macau. Nothing great to rave about except that you can see the black eyed beasts.

6. House of Dancing Fountain show

This multi million-dollar show on the lines of Cirque de Soleil is definitely worth every penny and one of the major highlights in Macau. The theatre is at the Grand Hyatt hotel and lasts for 85 minutes without any break. There are no dialogues just a super combination sound, light and acrobatics. You be the judge if your kids would sit through the entire show as it is quite expensive.
7. Trinket shopping:

Indulge in some retail therapy! I always give my daughter some money and ask her to buy her own goodies. She loves the responsibility of handling money and often the shopkeepers find it cute and give her a discount! The Senado Square is also a good place to shop for the Barcelos Rooster. I’ve had one in my kitchen for 3 years now and I can vouch for it; all my cupcakes have risen well, the icing has been perfect and no mishaps! Thank you Rooster or should I thank Nigella & Rachel Allen?

8. Surprise, surprise…. a good science Museum in the city known for its Casinos!

An interactive science museum catering to kids of all ages and adults too. I haven’t visited this one yet, but definitely plan a visit to Macau to visit it. The planetarium (at the same venue) has been accredited by Guinness World Records for having the highest resolution 3D in the world!

9. Chimelong Ocean Kingdom (1.5 hours from Macau by road)

With an impressive selection of aquatic species like the Beluga Whales and Dolphins, it also has rare Polar Bears, Brown Bears, Arctic Foxes and Penguins. The giant water slides are sure to be a hit with older kids and teens. Chimelong also boasts of stunning resort style hotels. Though one does require a Chinese visa to visit (a day visa can be arranged to do a day trip from Macau). This is sure to become a big draw for Indians in the coming years.

10. Themed hotels

Personally I feel Venetian is the best hotel for families with its huge indoor play area, the Venetian canals and gondolas! However, it does draw a lot of casino goers, but unlike Vegas they do not serve liquor on the Casino floors, hence the public areas are much decent compared to Venetian in Las Vegas. If you think your kids haven’t got their fill of animated characters after Disney World, stay at the Cotai Central and enjoy a ‘Shrekfast’.

Hope this blog makes you look at Macau beyond just casinos and party place. I certainly want to visit the new Ocean Kingdom and will also check out the Science Centre for your guys soon.

 

 Feel free to contact me on info@soltrips.com

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

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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

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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