Cinque Terre with Children!

Cinque Terre…five stunningly beautiful villages stretching down the Ligurian coast, complete with pastel houses clustered above picturesque  harbours from which the landscape twists up into the grapevine covered hills.  Clear blue water…breathtaking sunsets…seaside dining…and three kids??

Rough October seas

Cinque Terre is not the first place you think of for a family holiday with small children.  For a romantic weekend away or even a honeymoon..of course.  But is this where you want to be when your youngest son announces, in his best outdoor voice, that he wiped his own bottom that morning?  That said, as a selfish intrepid travel dad, I wasn’t going to let the possibility of disrupting a few newlyweds, who (a) likely get to sleep through the night uninterrupted by a child needing water and (b) can use their bathroom without slipping (or sitting) in a puddle of urine…(who has boys…raise your hand), prevent me from visiting this amazing destination.

And the only sound at 7am was a small child eating a brioche

And the result was a great success!  The kids had a great time and were thoroughly entertained, the adults felt like they were on holiday (as much as you can with three boys…so not that much, but more than a Tuesday night at Nandos) and no romantic dinners were ruined as a direct result of our family!  So check out my Cinque Terre kids travel tips below and start planning your trip!

What Cinque Terre might look like without kids, but with a dog

WHICH VILLAGE TO STAY IN?:  We love Vernazza.  The large cafe-lined piazza, which is directly on the water, is a great place for parents to sip a well deserved glass of wine or an early morning cappuccino (or a well deserved, early morning wine…I won’t judge) while the kids kick a ball around.  The elderly residents of Vernazza seem particularly adept at dodging both children and a variety of sports equipment during their evening passegiata. There are plenty of restaurant and cafe options, many of which have sea views. Like all of the Cinque Terre villages, Vernazza is small and there are plenty of accommodations (we rent apartments typically through either Airbnb or booking.com) within a seven minute walk to the main piazza, even for our family of five (and our dog!).  Manarola is our next favourite village.  The biggest downside is less open space for the kids to run around.  Also the main piazza looks down on the harbour.  While not a safety issue, at last count we have watched three footballs float out into the Mediterranean.

Family lunch after a long hike…that view though…

OFF SEASON TRAVEL:  Ok, so a bit of fairly obvious advice….but Cinque Terre in late June through early September is best avoided with younger kids, unless waiting in a 2 hour line for gelato in the crushing heat and with a constantly whining dad child seems appealing.  We’ve now been twice in April (avoiding Easter) and once in late October.  The days are still busy in the villages with short break and day trippers, but in the mornings and evenings the villages are gloriously empty.

“Carry me” said dad

View down to Monterossa

TAKE A HIKE:  We managed to hike as a family from Vernazza to Monterosso, with our middle son, Hatcher, the kid who can’t walk the kilometre to school without whining and crying, leading the charge.  Not to be missed are some of the restaurants in the hills as you descend into Monterosso.  Less successful was my hike from Corniglia to Manarola with Hatcher and my oldest Harry.  While the views were some of the best we saw all weekend, I misread the distance and difficulty, we just missed the one bus (runs every two hours) from Volastra, and almost wound up in tears myself as I carried Hatcher and our dog through a set of unmarked trails.      

BOAT TRIPS: It is hard to beat the views when arriving at the different Cinque Terre villages by boat and the kids couldn’t be happier.  And if you’re lucky, as we were, you may even see dolphins.  There are day passes for the boats as well as single journey passes.  And you can always combine a boat trip with one of the frequent trains that connect the villages.  

Kerkom Brewery – Flanders

Does your idea of our Driving Dad roadtrips include images of our family merrily driving along the motorway, admiring the views, creating lasting memories and happily munching on carrot sticks and organic, free-range, gluten-free kale chips while we sing  the theme song to Growing Pains?  If so, this revelation may a bit of a shock to you…sometimes driving really sucks.     

snapseedAhhh, Christmas.  My favourite time of the year. For the past few Christmas seasons we have packed up the car and headed to the Christmas markets in Germany.  Christmas lights, gluhwein, gingerbread, singing and snow.  This year we had a relatively short drive of 3 hours and 45 minutes (from Calais, France) to Monschau, Germany, which is just over the Belgian border.  So we decided to make a quick, festive stop in Belgium on the way…somewhere that I thought would be fun for not just me, but the for entire family…a brewery.  The plan was to meet our friends at the Kerkom Brewery in the Flanders region of Belgium for dinner and a few Belgian beers.  Alas, the traffic Grinch was out to disrupt our trip from the outset.  The first snag came as we were leaving London…a traffic accident in the Blackwall Tunnel, our main route out of London, which resulted in a 45 minute standstill. Then, after a successful Eurotunnel crossing and with images of a nice, dark Belgian Dubbel and a plate of frites firmly etched in my subconscious, we hit what Catherine would describe as “ a bit of traffic” and what I would describe as “mind-numbingly painful, world-ending, tear-inducing rush hour traffic”.  In an attempt to re-route our course to avoid the traffic, chaos ensued… I vividly recall the discussion as follows:

snapseedCatherine: Oops, I forgot to tell you that we were meant to go left back there.
Me: Don’t worry, everyone makes mistakes sometimes *heart emoji*.
Catherine:  It looks like 35 minutes have been added to our journey…
Me: That’s just an extra 35 minutes we get to spend together as a family *two heart emojis*.  Can you pass the kale chips please?
Catherine: *starts singing* As long as we got each other, we got the world sittin’ right in our hands…
Entire family: *joins in singing*

However, deeply suppressed memories subsequently emerged in the following weeks reflecting a slightly different conversation…I’m still not sure which represents reality so choose your favourite:

Catherine: Oh no, I think we were meant to go left back there and 35 minutes have been added to our journey.
Me:  35 minutes! %$%^ &^& ()%$^ £$^&  *%^!!! brewery!!
Catherine: £$%^  (*& %$^^  ^$^^%& *&^!!!
Me: “£$% %^$£ (*&
Harry:  What does £$%^£$  %^^%$ mean?
Me and Catherine: ^%$ ^&* ^%$! Eat your Big Mac and stop asking questions!!

snapseedInhale, exhale, repeat…We soon recovered and after a few deep breathing exercises, strategic, focussed GPS re-routing and the smooth sounds of Usher over the radio, we continued our journey to the brewery which, as Catherine correctly predicted would “still be standing and still be serving beer, even if we were a few minutes late.”

snapseedKerkom Brewery itself was exactly as I had hoped: a red brick farmhouse brewery dating from 1878 that could not have been more welcoming on a frigid December night. There was a serious-looking, five foot high wood burning stove in the center of the pub area of the brewery that must have been as old as the brewery itself.  The menu consisted of  hearty winter fare and the waitress, who spoke only Flemish (well, to us at least), was openly unimpressed with our friend Dave’s fairly flawless French.  We ordered food – or rather the waitress told us in Flemish what we were going to have – as we sat there nodding in agreement to what sounded a bit like a minute of somebody clearing their throat. We were more assertive and successful in ordering the beer…mainly because there were pictures.  The beers themselves were great., particularly the seasonal Winterkoninkske (Winter King) Christmas beer which, at 8.5% alcohol, ruled me out of driving the last leg of the journey (thanks Catherine). Belgian cheese stuffed meatballs and a rich, meat stew arrived shortly after, a particularly pleasant surprise as I was convinced the waitress had signed us up for the chicken carpaccio tourist special.

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At least Catherine was impressed with Dave’s french.

So all is well that ends well.  I drank the last bit of my beer, handed the car keys to Catherine with a look that said “I told you that being a bit late wasn’t a big deal” and we were on our way…another successful roadtrip pitstop.

Navigating the Eurotunnel – A Tutorial

snapseedDriving Dad is all about driving from our home in London to the rest of Europe; something that would be significantly more difficult without the existence of the Eurotunnel. Many people associate travel from London to the rest of Europe with low budget flights, not road trips.  And often when I am in America, we get puzzled looks when we explain we are driving to, for instance, France for the weekend.  That said, I have spoken to many people in Europe, including people in London, who don’t really understand how the Eurotunnel works.  Fair enough…before Driving Dad became a European driving sensation featured in the Wall Street Journal  (yes, shameless self-promotion) and before having three kids, I never really contemplated using the Eurotunnel. Most people incorrectly assume we take a car ferry across the English Channel or ship our car across on a train and then take the Eurostar, picking up our car on the other side of the Channel.  So below I have prepared a basic Eurotunnel tutorial, with pictures for those of you too lazy to read my blog.

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This guy would not be out of place in a Monty Python movie

To begin, I must admit that I have a mixed relationship with the Eurotunnel. Kind of like the family dog that every once in a while chews up your favourite shoes: temporary frustration, but long-term love.  When things are running smoothly, which admittedly has been most of the time in my experience, I am the Eurotunnel’s biggest fan.  That said, we tend to travel at high peak times such as school holidays, when delays are inevitable.  But unlike with the airlines, I find it difficult to get too upset with Eurotunnel about the rare delay. First of all it’s confusing…who do you blame?  The French? I feel like they get unfairly blamed for too much already. The English?…probably easier to just blame the French, right.  My kids, on the other hand, welcome with joy any delay, as that typically means we have time to get Burger King at the Eurotunnel terminal (don’t judge me please).

 

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Don’t worry, the lines aren’t always this long

Step 1 – Check in:  You arrive in at the Eurotunnel terminal in Folkestone from the M20 motorway and follow the road to a row of tollbooth-style check-in lines.  You pull up to the booth, insert the credit card (with which you bought your tickets) into the machine and your reservation appears on the screen. NOTE: You can also buy tickets upon arrival, but good luck doing that on the Thursday evening before Easter break.  You confirm your identity on the screen (your license plate is also scanned to confirm identity) and out comes a ticket with a letter that denotes your boarding group.  A boarding schedule is then shown on the large departure screens located in the parking area and in the terminal itself, just like in a train station or airport…simple so far.  My favourite part of checking in is what I call the Eurotunnel lottery…i.e., the opportunity Eurotunnel gives you, if you have arrived significantly in advance of your departure, to get on an earlier train.  That’s right, no additional fees, no hassle, just a message that pops up on the screen asking if you want an earlier departure…”ummmm, yes I do, thanks.”  This is virtually unheard of with airline travel.  Can you imagine Ryanair saying “Well since you are here early, we will be happy to put you on the earlier flight, at no charge.” Michael O’Leary would have a heart attack if he heard an employee utter that sentence.  My love for Eurotunnel is greatest when this happens and the memory of any previous train delays are completely erased from my mind.

snapseedStep 2 – Immigration: similar to the Eurostar, you go through both UK and French immigration in the United Kingdom, so once you arrive in Calais, you drive off the train after the 35 minute journey and are on your way (thanks France!).  The immigration process is set up similar to the check-in, with an immigration officer in a booth.  Pre-registering your passengers and passports online greatly speeds up this process.  On the last few crossings our family has also been required to go through an advanced car inspection, no doubt fulfilling some internal quota requiring the search of people least likely to be involved in international criminal activities. To be fair though, my youngest son is fairly devious and may have criminal tendencies –  Me:  “What’s in your mouth.”  Huxley “Nothing.” Me: “What’s in your mouth?” Huxley: “Nothing.”  Me: “WHAT IS IN YOUR MOUTH!?!” Huxley “Legos” *spits legos into my hand.  Also, the last time we used Eurotunnel, our car was searched by a drug sniffing dog.  I can’t fault the Eurotunnel employee for thinking that somebody travelling for hours in a car with three young boys could (or should) be in possession of narcotics.  As it turned out,  the drug inspection was the highlight of the entire road trip for Huxley.  I can report that the dog conducted his inspection with absolute professionalism and was completely unperturbed by Huxley tearing at his car seat straps screaming “dog, dog…LET ME PET IT!

 

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No drugs in this car, but clearly this dog is eager to read my next blog post

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Top level or bottom level; which way will we go?

Step 3 – Boarding the train:  This is where things really get fun.  Once the departures screen indicates that your group is boarding, you make your way to the train in your car, following signs “to France” (nice touch).  The train has two levels…yes two levels.  A car-train equivalent of a double decker bus; and who doesn’t love a double decker bus. One of the games we play is to guess whether we will be on the top level or the bottom level.  This is a highlight (yes…a highlight) of our Eurotunnel crossing, despite the fact that the kids that chose incorrectly typically wind up in tears resulting from the subsequent taunting and teasing.  Does this stop us from playing this game every single trip we take? No, of course not…that would be too sensible.  Once on the train, the cars are usually parked bumper to bumper with automatic doors partitioning off the individual carriages.  In a couple of rare instances, we have been the only car in the carriage, at which point we break out the football and start an intra-family match right in the carriage. So we have driven a car onto a train – that is speeding under the English Channel – while we are playing football – and the kids having an incredible time.  Seriously, who needs Disney World when you can ride on the Eurotunnel train.

 

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Our VIP carriage football match

And there you have it.  Is there anybody left who would actually want to fly to the Continent from London?  If so, it would be great if you could take my three kids…and I will meet you there.  Beep beep!

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Civita di Bagnoregio-The dying city

img_6171There is a constant struggle when traveling with three young boys to, among other things, find excursions that are both fun for the adults (well, just me really) and fun for the kids.  Catherine says that I am too selfish to plan activities that are only appealing to the kids which is absolutely not true  sometimes true pretty accurate. But the medieval village of Civita di Bagnoregio, teetering on a crumbling hilltop perch in a wind-eroded valley, is a perfect example of a trip that is fun for everyone. And located only a 45 minute drive from the rustic stone house in Umbria where we were staying, it was an easy decision to go. The village is known as il paese che muore (the dying city), because the raised ground on which it is was built has been slowly disintegrating over the centuries, accelerated every few hundred years by a major earthquake (the last one was in 1695).  Having recited these facts to my sons, in the hope of expanding their knowledge and peaking their interest in the trip, their logical conclusion was that there must be dragons in this village.  So we set off in the car, the kids contemplating whether these dragons would be friendly or if we should bring them some pizza to win them over.

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Selfie 21 of 34 -Kids getting antsy but wanting to get a good shot so they could move on

Driving Dad Tip: When arriving by car to Italian villages, always find parking just outside the old centre.  Narrow streets, constructed hundreds of years ago to accommodate the barely comfortable passage of two horses, are not meant for cars built to seat seven people. My early expeditions into these medieval hamlets always resulted in me reversing the car out of the village under the disconcertingly critical gaze of the local residents. However, my rule backfired on me in this instance.  Of course Civita di Bagnoregio is only accessible to pedestrians and the odd scooter via a footbridge, but the goal was to park as close to the entrance to the footbridge as possible, particularly given our three walking-adverse (or pro-piggyback) children. Instead, I chose a safe parking spot that, unbeknownst to me, was one kilometre away, automatically qualifying me for “least popular person in my family” status, an honour frequently passed around over the course of a roadtrip. Catherine, burdened by the weight of Hatcher on her shoulders, could barely contain her criticism as we passed the five other parking areas, each significantly closer to our destination than where I parked. But the views upon arrival quickly erased the groups’ collective frustration. And the kids, seemingly forgetting how tired they were for the last 15 minutes, scurried down the stairs to the footbridge.

snapseed The crossing to the old city was uneventful and several dozen selfies later we passed though the main stone entryway and onto a street that funneled visitors into the main piazza. The perimeter of the piazza featured a striking church that started life as an Etruscan temple hundreds of years ago, and several weathered stone buildings. A few cafes dotted the perimeter of the piazza – which made this an ideal location for a sneaky coffee and, most importantly, for the kids to run around hunting for dragons. Fortunately the city was not inundated with tourists as it is reputed to be in the summer months.  Which is good because the tourists that were there weren’t particularly impressed by our boys’ wild screams and shrieks.  “Guys, can you use your indoor voices?”  “But dad we’re outside.”  “Uh, yeah, ok hmmm good point”.  So we implemented Plan B (one of our favourites) and simply pretended that these weren’t our children. To support this illusion, every once in a while I glanced their way, muttering “where are those boys’ parents” in a disapproving tone while watching the nearby tourists nod their heads in silent agreement. Unfortunately, this plan backfired when Hatcher ran up to me yelling “dad, I have to wee, where’s the toilet!”

 

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Lunchtime – can you spot the ancient Etruscan blackberry (cutting edge technology at the time)

For a tiny village, with only seven permanent residents, there were plenty of restaurant options – at least a one-to-one restaurant to resident ratio in fact – which was certainly convenient if you didn’t want to dine with  any of your neighbours. We were a bit dubious given that these places clearly catered to the tourist crowd and picked Osteria al Forno di Agnese, a restaurant with rustic, outdoor garden seating and a tolerant looking waiter, the rationale being that at least we would be in a nice setting, even if the food wasn’t perfect.  Like most restaurants in Italy, they accommodated our request for plain pasta and butter for our culinarily unsophisticated children.  Catherine and I ordered a local cheese and meat plate and some classic Italian pasta dishes.  As it turned out, the food was great, if not slightly overpriced, however given the hassle of getting food into the city, the higher price seemed fair enough.

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The boys were trying to figure out how to collect all the coins at the bottom of the well

After lunch I promised the boys gelato.  In fact I had been promising the boys gelato all day…I think “bribing them with the promise of gelato” is the correct phrase. I was relieved to see a quaint café carved into a rock wall, which peaked my interest because their gelato was ricotta cheese-based. It sounded amazing (to me) and I ordered four small chocolate cups of gelato…or at least that is what I thought I was ordering. It turns out it wasn’t gelato at all, but actual room temperature ricotta cheese covered in chocolate sauce, a fact my rudimentary Italian did not pick up.  My enthusiastic pitch to the kids didn’t work. I even got them to try it:  Huxley deemed it “disgustin’”, Hatcher, the best eater of the bunch, just said no thanks, and Harry said nothing but I assumed from the gagging that he didn’t want another bite. Even Catherine didn’t like it. So fortified by 4 bowls of chocolate sauce-covered ricotta cheese and Hatcher on my shoulders, I began my descent to the main town and the long, slow walk to the car.

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Champagne in the Trees

A champagne bar in a treehouse.  Paying attention now, aren’t you?  I’m hoping I’m not the only person who didn’t know that tucked beside the vineyards of Champagne, just minutes off the motorway, is a champagne bar…in a treehouse. I’ll admit that I hesitated to publish this post, worried that I would be doing the travel equivalent of a dad dance by not knowing about this hidden treasure. To be fair, I don’t know everything I don’t always know everything, despite what my two year old thinks and despite what I tell my wife.  But something as interesting as the existence of a treehouse champagne bar seems like a fact that would have come to my attention at some point in our travels.

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Treehouse toasting

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The vineyards of Verzy

The name of the bar is the Perching Bar and it is in the Forêt de Brise-Charrettes (just saying that makes me feel French…Forêt de Brise-Charrettes…go ahead…grab a baguette and say it again), which is part of the national park.  La Montagne de Reims.  Let me summarise…a champagne bar…in a treehouse…in a forest…in France. Things just keep getting better. The bar is located in the outskirts of the village of Verzy, lesser known than the major Champagne towns of Reims and Epernay, but one of only 17 grand cru villages in Champagne (the more you know…). Verzy is just south of Reims and right off the A4 motorway, which means we have passed within kilometres of this town on our numerous European roadtrips, making it even more egregious that I was unaware of its existence.

snapseedAs it happened, Catherine and I were planning the return journey of our child-free, weekend roadtrip to Burgundy and I was scouting places in Champagne to stop for lunch on the way back to London (via Calais).  A few clicks later and I was directed to this blog post (thanks guys!), at which point eating became a secondary priority.  That said, I was not completely convinced that the Perching Bar was real or, if it was, that it would be open, however we thought we would try our luck. After driving through the center of Verzy, we took a sharp turn onto a rough dirt road that ran along the top edge of one of the vineyards. A few turns deeper into the forest later, and we had reached a dead-end, open space that suggested a parking area, but was ominously still. There was only one car, that looked like it hadn’t been driven in months, parked nearby and a hand-painted, red sign pointing us in the direction (I hoped) of the bar. If someone needed to bury a body, this location would have worked well. I checked the sign to the bar to confirm that it was paint (and not blood) and, like a gentleman, let Catherine go first up the forest path.

snapseedAs we continued deeper into the forest, promising signs of infrastructure slowly emerged: a wooden bridge, some stairs built into a hill, a bright pink wine barrel with a champagne house logo and finally a small wooden hut manned by a French hobbit (just kidding, but that would have been AMAZING…and not at all out of place). For the fairly steep price of €16 each (glass of champagne included, though), we were admitted to a series of suspension bridges leading to our ultimate destination, the treehouse bar. Shortly after our arrival, we were given a 2 minute instructional talk by the resident champagne expert about the champagnes on offer that day, and settled on a Louis de Sacy champagne from Verzy.  The champagne was great…I won’t to digress into some pretentious diatribe about the size of the champagne bubbles or how the finish had hints of freshly mowed grass and under-ripe gooseberries.  And honestly, sitting outside on a stool overlooking the vineyards and surrounding forest, I could have been drinking warm mayonnaise and still felt completely content.

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Champagne swinging

But hold on…it gets better.  I know you are thinking, Driving Dad, how could this possibly get better? I am drinking champagne in a treehouse with incredible views. Well let me tell you. In addition to a treehouse champagne bar, located in the forest (or, as I say, the Forêt de Brise-Charrettes), there is an outdoor adventure park,  with rope courses, zip lines and suspension bridges. So while you are happily  sipping your champagne, you can watch your children soar above the forest canopy on a zip wire; the one thing protecting them from a fall and inevitable broken bones being a safety cord, the quality of which is subject only to dubious French health and safety regulations.  But at that point you aren’t worried because you are on your third glass of champagne. Santé!

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TRAVEL STATISTICS:

Champagne to Calais: 2.5 hours (1 stop for gas)
Eurotunnel Crossing: 6:06pm (35 minutes, no delays!)
Folkestone to London: 1 hour 50 minutes thanks to weekend traffic
Number of screaming children in the car: 0
Number of children in the car: 0

 

 

 

 

Cornwall Surf Trip

img_5153Yeah, I’m just going surfing this weekend,” I said nonchalantly to my colleague, hoping to subtly insinuate that not only do I surf all the time, but that I’m really good at it. I could see the wheels spinning; “Do you surf a lot,” he asked skeptically, eyeing the large chocolate muffin in my hand. I nodded my head in a way that could have been interpreted as a yes, but could also be played off as an involuntary twitch if pressed further on the subject. “Nice one, well have a great trip,” he said, and walked away thinking Kelly Slater when, from a surfing standpoint, Kelly Clarkson was probably closer to the truth.

img_4992I was off for a surf weekend though – a road trip to Cornwall with my oldest son Harry and my friend Mark and his two sons. This was going to be the highlight of early Autumn; a boys’ weekend…a couple of days surfing,  a little sunshine and a few beers on the beach. I couldn’t wait! Sadly my enthusiasm for surfing is only distantly related (3rd cousins) to my ability to actually surf, having started less than three years ago. However, I felt no need to advertise that minor fact, preferring instead to have my friends and colleagues greatly overestimate my athletic prowess.

If there isn’t traffic, the drive to Cornwall can take as little as 4 1/2 hours from central London. But if I’m honest, that’s a bit like saying, “if it doesn’t get dark at night I don’t have to turn on the lights.” There is always traffic. But I think everyone who has driven from London to Cornwall numerous times has had one experience where they’ve made it there in under five hours. Therefore it can happen again, right?  But no, it never does. Maybe because that sub-five hour drive was made at 3am…on a Wednesday…in January. But naively hopeful, we grabbed our wetsuits, beach gear and roughly six grocery bags of food, my wife Catherine having confused “surf weekend” with “six-month Antarctic excursion.”

snapseedThe two dads were in the front (with Mark generously offering to drive), two boys in the back and one in the way back. Still three kids in the car as per our usual family road trips, but two of them were not mine and all of them were over the age of 7. Jackpot! Absent was the endless teasing, the glass-shattering shrieks, the tears, the dirty nappies and the fighting over what to watch on the iPad and who gets to hold it. This drive, compared to our usual road trips, was like the difference between a hot oil massage on a beach in the Maldives and getting hit directly in the nuts by a Lionel Messi free kick from 10 yards out. Having experienced neither of these things, this comparison is a bit speculative, however my point (if you’ve missed it) is that the latter is significantly less preferable…I guess unless you’re a huge Messi fan or are contemplating cheaper vasectomy alternatives.

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The drive flew by. All six and a half hours of it (“you know I’ve done this drive in 4.5 hours once?“… “yeah me too.“). Catherine called me en route and asked if I was critiquing Mark’s driving. No. Was I yelling at him when he took a wrong turn. No. Was I telling him to speed up? slow down? change lanes? No, no and no. “Well, I’m glad that you are controlling yourself,” said Catherine, in a very not glad tone.  “Or maybe Mark is just a better driver than you,” I didn’t say out loud. The thought of a nice cold Cornish brew got us through the last hour of the drive and at 7:15pm we pulled into the parking lot of the Cornish Arms in St Merryn. While the kids ran around outside, we made a beeline to the bar, grabbed some drinks and caught the last few minutes of light while sipping our beers in the garden, a world away from London.

img_5130Saturday morning: we were all up early and ready to hit the waves, despite the cloudy skies. But first we had to get kitted out in our  wetsuits. Getting on Harry’s wetsuit is never fun. I would describe it simply as the opposite of fun. There is a lot of lifting and pulling, whining and accusations of intentional pinching, until the process is complete and we are both left mentally and physically drained. But getting on Harry’s wetsuit is relatively enjoyable compared to getting on my own wetsuit (think OJ and the glove). I find it hard to squeeze into skinny  straight leg jeans without injuring myself, so imagine (well, maybe not if you’re eating) the difficulty I experience when trying to put on a skin tight body suit. In ten minutes I had sweated out two kilos of water weight and was ready for a nap, not for surfing…and I’d only gotten the right leg on.  “Seems like my wetsuit shrunk,” I muttered as Mark came over to help me. Did he just pinch me on purpose?

img_5175Wetsuits on, we walked down to the beach where we were all taking a surf lesson at the Harlyn Surf School. We met our two instructors, who looked like they probably didn’t have any trouble getting on their wetsuits that morning (or ever), and after a little stretching and a few safety tips, we were in the water. The instructors were encouraging, giving out advice like “bend your knees” and “you’re too far forward on the board“, but I knew they were silently thinking “maybe skip dessert once in awhile” and “go for a run“, while promising themselves that they would never let their twenty-something bodies deteriorate to my physical condition.

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Post-surf hot chocolate

When the lesson was over, I summoned my last bit of strength to carry the surfboard back to the surf school, a significant distance given that the tide had gone out. Despite being physically crushed, I did feel pretty confident in my wetsuit with my belly sucked in and  the surfboard tucked snugly under my arm like in the movies. I walked up the beach feeling like a pro, vaguely aware that my wetsuit made me look like the illegitimate son of the Michelin man and a sea lion, but pushing that realization to the far reaches of my subconscious where it was replaced with visions of Johnny Utah.  And I was definitely getting some looks from the ladies…the fact that they were all over 65 didn’t make me feel less special.

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Padstow Harbour

With morning surfing over, we headed into Padstow for lunch. We decided on Rick Stein’s fish and chip restaurant because, well Rick Stein. For those who don’t know him, he is an English celebrity chef (no, not Jamie Oliver…no, not Gordon Ramsey either…fine, just google him) who dominates Padstow with his restaurants, cafe, store and cooking school. It’s hard not to admire the guy…he has his name on everything including wine, beer, sea salt, cheese and plates. Some people judge success by wealth or power, however I’ll know that I’ve made it when my signature is boldly etched into savoury oat biscuits.

 

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Success

Mark and I motivated to surf in the afternoon, possibly refreshed by a “light and healthy” meal of fish, chips and mayo and the promises of slipping on the cold, damp wetsuits waiting back for us at the house.  After another two plus hour surf session in the water, I resigned myself to the fact that I might be sleeping in my wetsuit, potentially on the beach, in lieu of the five minute walk to the house I was convinced I simply could not make.  Bedtime (which was 8:30pm for kids and adults) could not have come sooner.

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The best pasties in Cornwall

We managed one last surf session on Sunday morning, having been energised by a breakfast consisting of the ubiquitous Cornish pasties bought at Chough Bakery in Padstow, a store that, over the years, is partly responsible for the difficulties I experience in getting on my wetsuit. Showered and packed, with four bags of unused provisions in the back seat, we made our way to London.  I arrived home completely spent, but still considerate enough to ask my lovely wife how her “weekend off” was. “Surfing is exhausting,” I said as crawled into bed…still wearing my wetsuit.

 

TRAVEL STATISTICS:

London to Cornwall: 6.5 hours (0 stops)
Cornwall to London: 6.5 hours (2 stops – 1 emergency bathroom break, 1 petrol stop)
Getting lost/wrong turns: 0
Car sickness: (0, but with one false alarm)

 

 

 

 

 

A Day Trip to Belgium – Part II (De Haan)

“Wildcard trip”: A side trip, typically spontaneous, that deviates from the planned itinerary.

imageWith early evening approaching and over six hours left until our Eurotunnel crossing back to the UK at 10:20pm, it was decision time.  We could continue our tour of Bruges and eat another three kilos of frites washed down with some strong Belgian beer while the kids devoured their purchases from the Chocolate Museum.  Or, alternatively, we could head to the seaside town of De Haan, which was a manageable 25 minute drive.  Tiring out the kids at the beach was an appealing prospect but it was, as I sagely pointed out, nothing that a couple of spoonfuls of NyQuil could not also accomplish, and in significantly less time.  Surely an extra beer or two at a rustic canal-side café would be as equally as enjoyable for the kids as for the adults?  But having a late-night drive back to London to consider and the fact that our friends thought I was joking about the NyQuil (I wasn’t), responsible parenting prevailed over fun (i.e., reality triumphed over fantasy) and we opted for the De Haan excursion.  So with an indifferent “sure, I’m good with whatever” masking my crushing disappointment, we headed to the car.

However, with the sun breaking through the grey clouds that had dominated the Bruges skies all day, I had to acknowledge that the beach trip might not be a bad idea.  That said, nothing required me to acknowledge this out loud, thereby preserving my ability to complain at a later time.

The drive from Bruges was a short, but picturesque one, and with enough grazing cattle and sheep to keep Huxley fully entertained for the entirety of the trip.  You would think he had spotted Peppa Pig herself the way he shrieked with delight every 30 seconds as we passed another grassy green field filled with livestock.  We rolled into De Haan at around 5:45pm, found some convenient beach-side parking and piled out of the car.  Harry, Hatcher and the other kids made a beeline to the pirate ship playground on the beach and Catherine made a beeline to the store for a few cans of Jupiler beer; everyone having their priorities in order.

imageThe tide was out and the beach was dotted with sandy tide pools stretching for hundreds of feet.  The sun was shining brightly and the temperature had risen enough that I shed my sweater. Things were looking good.  After a while, the six kids, either detecting adult contentment or growing bored with dry land, surged towards the tidal pools like the Serengeti wildebeest migration.  What started as tentative toe dipping turned into more confident wading (with trousers rolled up…sort of) and quickly culminated in a fully clothed free-for-all soaking where no child was left dry.

With the kids all happily playing in the distance, the adults were left in peace to reflect on the day as the sun slowly dipped behind the English Channel.  For all the chaos of the day we were rewarded with an incredible sunset at the beach on a warm Autumn evening and 90 minutes of kid-free conversation. “We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men. Hell, we could have been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the Lords of all Creation“ –  Red

There must be a term for when something really good happens and erases the memory of all of the bad things that happened immediately prior. Selective amnesia maybe? Whatever that term is, that is what happened this evening.

Did any of the kids even cry today?…I don’t think so
And nobody misbehaved as far as I can remember
The kids must be so energetic because of the healthy lunch they ate
Matt you look really slim in those jeans, are you sure you ate three orders of fries at lunch?
“See, I told you guys the beach was a great idea”

And in my mind I HAD told them…and I was right.

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Posing or huddling together for warmth?

But just like that the calmness was shattered as the kids, with moans and whines echoing from De Haan to Dover, let us know they were simultaneously cold, hungry, wet, dry, sandy, tired and thirsty.  Oh well. After we changed them into the extra sets of dry clothes Catherine had sensibly packed (nice one Catherine!) we only had time for a quick dinner.  So we chose a simple looking Friterie right off the beach, just in case our kids had forgotten what fried food tasted like in the last six hours.  We were the only group sitting at the outside tables and may have been the only people to ever sit at this Friterie …or eat at this place sober.  While it’s hard to go wrong with fries, I would guess this establishment was a at least couple years out from achieving its first Michelin star.  Although their burgers were very Michelin-esque in the sense that  they tasted like rubber.  But “the kids were happy” which really seems to be the gold standard of multi-child family travel.

Well, I broke my leg and punctured a lung, but the kids were happy, so overall a great trip.

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We ordered a few baskets of frites for the table and what the waiter claimed to be chicken fingers, but really could have been actual fingers or some types of edible or non-edible deep fried animal parts.  The kids ate them and are still alive today, so I guess it worked out.  We thanked the waiter for the wonderful meal, paid and headed to the car, readying the car sickness bags in anticipation of retribution from our gourmet fried dinner.

The beach, salt air, exercise and the heavy fried food worked its magic, with the kids passing out within minutes of departing De Haan.  With the kids sound asleep, we were unfazed by our one hour delay at the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais and chatted about how easy it was to do a day trip to Belgium.  “Do we have a free day next weekend? Day trip to Spain next?”  We made it back to London before midnight and seamlessly transferred our exhausted children into their awaiting beds, reveling in our successful trip.  And to anyone who asked what we did over the weekend we told them “oh not too muchwe went to Belgium…for the day”.   image

Travel Statistics:

Bruges to De Haan: 25 minutes (0 stops)
De Haan to Calais: 1 hour 15 minutes (0 stops)
Eurotunnel crossing  10:20pm: 35 minutes (1 hour delay):
Folkestone to London: 1 hour 25 minutes
Getting lost: 0
Car sickness: 0