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

Day Trip to Belgium – Part I (Bruges)

imageWhen we first moved to the UK, kid and care free, a time when any discussion about an uninterrupted eight hours of sleep did not begin with the phrase “Remember when…”, we talked about how London’s proximity to the Continent would allow us to zip over to Paris for the day, enjoy some fine French cuisine and make it back to London  before the Eurostar turned into a pumpkin.  Regrettably and unfathomably, we squandered our opportunity to execute such a trip, and over a decade and three kids later, I can barely go to the toilet without a child joining me, let alone Paris.

But wait! Could there be a family-friendly trip equivalent to compensate for the missed opportunities of our pre-child days?!  Well, no, of course not.  So instead we packed up the car and headed to Belgium for the day…a somewhat aggressive endeavor and a poor substitute for steak tartare and a few bottles of Burgundy sans enfants.  But a driving day trip to Bruges, Belgium with three kids…so much family fun to be had! Uh..right?

My first misgiving hit me as soon as my alarm went off at 5:30am. “I could still be sleeping. I’ve voluntarily woken myself up. Why have I done this?” I consoled myself with the fact that our friends, who also have three children and were driving to Belgium as well, lived further away from the Eurotunnel in Folkestone and were likely feeling even more miserable than I was, having gotten 20 minutes less of sleep (I hoped). Ha! I had cheered myself up. And as my head cleared and the caffeine from my first cup of coffee kicked in, I was starting to get excited about the drive ahead.  We bundled our three groggy kids into the back seat of the car (our road trip clearly an exception to the cardinal rule of “never wake a sleeping child”), stuffed buttered toast into their mouths and off we went!

15 minutes later

Catherine:  “We forgot the stroller.”
Me:  “WE forgot the stroller or YOU forget the stroller?”
Catherine: “Don’t be a dick.  You could have packed it.”
Hatcher: “Mom, what’s a dick? Why is dad a dick?”
Me: “I’m not, mom is just angry that she forgot the stroller…and please don’t use that word.”
Catherine: *eye roll
Hatcher: “Dick dick dick dick dick”

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Almost everyone is happy to be in Bruges

With the London streets absent of cars, most people having had enough sense (or beer) to remain in bed at such an early hour on a Saturday morning, we made it to the Eurotunnel in just over an hour.  We checked in, drove onto the train (typically the highlight of our kids’ day) and were whisked under the English Channel for the 35 minute journey to Calais.  An equally uneventful and traffic-free morning in France and Belgium facilitated an arrival in Bruges, our first destination, in less than 1.5 hours.  After connecting with our friends, the group wandered Bruges’ meandering medieval streets (stroller-less, of course), the kids oblivious to their magnificent architectural surroundings and the parents only sporadically able to appreciate them, between tracking the kids and taking bets on which child was most likely to get hit by a bicycle first. When the children’s cheerful yelps mutated into whines and tears, we knew it was time for lunch.

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A rare quiet lunch moment

Now choosing a restaurant with 10 people, six of whom are kids under the age of nine, presents strategic challenges that do not exist when only adults eat out.  First, the list of requirements is much longer with six children and almost always includes an informal assessment of whether the group will even be welcome at the chosen restaurant.  After a quick recon of the area, made quicker by the increasingly loud groans of “I’m soooo hungry”, we narrowed our unsuspecting target down to a casual looking bistro called Beethoven on a square a few streets off the Grote Markt, with only a few occupied tables. After confirming, with a somewhat apprehensive waitress, that we could completely re-arrange their outdoor seating to cobble together, in tetris-like fashion, a table that could seat 10, we herded the kids to their seats.  I furtively  made eye contact with a patron seated nearby, the apologetic look on my face silently confirming the fact that we were about to ruin his peaceful lunch, and his return glare conveying a complete absence of empathy.

Dick.

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The lunch itself was a chaotic blur, but I recall that the food was surprisingly good; good food not being a top priority when “dining” with six children.  Harry and Hatcher both tried a mussel from my order of moules frites, Harry assuring me he loved it  with an enthusiastic thumbs up, while simultaneously gagging as he struggled to swallow. Huxley seemed content alternating between dipping his frites into ketchup and mayo, a meal I therefore considered to involve more than one of the four food groups.  No glasses were broken, no drinks were spilled and nobody was stabbed with a utensil.

Following lunch, in an act of supreme selflessness, the dads volunteered to patiently wait at a canal-side café in Jan van Eyck Platz with a couple of Trappist beers, while the moms took the six kids to the Chocolate Museum.  In my opinion a win-win situation for everyone although a bit unfair that the moms got to go to the Chocolate Museum.  We agreed that they should make it up to us later as we happily snacked on the chocolate that they had bought.

Thus ended our day in Bruges, and I couldn’t help but think, as I was contentedly pushing my youngest son in the stroller carrying the dead weight of my dozing youngest son in my arms, that the day had been a success.

But our day in Belgium wasn’t over, and we piled into the car and headed out to our next Belgian destination- the beach town of of De Haan.

TRAVEL STATISTICS:

London to Folkestone: 1 hour 15 minutes (0 stops)
Eurotunnel crossing-8:20am (Folkestone to Calais): 35 minutes with a slight delay
Eurotunnel ticket (Short Stay Saver): £56
Calais to Bruges: 1 hour 25 minutes (0 stops)
Getting lost/wrong turns: 0
Car sickness: 0

 

Driving Dad – Meet the Team

 

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HARRY

Age: 10
Road trip quote: “Cool kids don’t smile
Type of eater: Very picky; but will try food for money
Music preference: Top 40
Bladder control: 8/10 (strong)
Car sickness probability: 2/10 (low)
Favourite country: Spain
Pros: Eats his crusts

 

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HATCHER

Age: 5
Road trip quote: “I’m soooo hungry
Type of eater: Will try anything once; loves oysters
Music preference: Whatever Harry likes
Bladder control: 8/10 (strong)
Car sickness probability: 9/10 (high)
Favourite country: France
Pros: Can fall asleep anywhere

 

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HUXLEY

Age: 4
Quote: “That’s disgustin’”
Type of eater:    Cheerios, milk, french fries, pasta, ice cream
Music preference: Could listen to “Hello” by Adele for 5 hours straight
Bladder control: 1/10 (weak)
Car sickness control: 6/10 (medium)
Favourite country: TBD
Pros: Good at spotting animals from the back seat of the car

imageCATHERINE

Age: Beauty is ageless
Road trip quote: “Here’s the ipad” or “I just need a little nap
Type of eater: Hesitantly adventurous; no fish
Music preference: Any music that drowns out the screams of our children
Bladder control: 10/10 (perfect…like all moms)
Car sickness control: 10/10 (perfect)
Favourite country: France
Pros: Keen directional sense; and ability to change a nappy at 75mph

 

 

imageMATT (aka DRIVING DAD)

Age: Above driving age
Road trip quote: “No, you may not watch the ipad, just enjoy the scenery
Type of eater: Will eat anything, local delicacies preferred
Music preference: Anything but “Hello” by Adele
Bladder control: 9.5/10 (strong…but you never know)
Car sickness control: 10/10 (perfect…so far)
Favourite country: Italy
Pros: Late night driving; restaurant selection; can yell at children while changing lanes

Driving Dad – The Beginning

That is ridiculous” was my first reaction upon hearing that our friends, instead of simply hopping on a two-hour flight from Heathrow Airport to Geneva and renting a car upon arrival, were instead going to drive from central London to Switzerland for a ski holiday; 12 hours on the road?…“Why would anyone do that? We will never do that.”

And now we do that…all the time.  And we love it.  In this context, “we love it” describes how I feel and how I think the rest of my family should feel.

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Who’s ready for a road trip?!

Having moved to London over a decade ago, the easy access to Europe has been, and continues to be, just too tempting.  Throw in the cost of plane tickets for two adults and three children and driving becomes a more logical option for frequent travelers who like prefer back roads to the beaten path.

I can’t get enough of our European road trip adventures despite the numerous pee break requests, the inevitable vomiting and the incessant whining and complaining; sometimes my kids can be annoying too.  Actually, my wife is hesitantly supportive and enthusiastic of our European road trips, and our three sons (ages 8, 3 and 2) if properly bribed, can feign excitement about anything…for at least 7 minutes.

For the last few years we have gone on road trips every chance we get; long haul trips (12 to 20 hours) from London to the Continent and shorter day, overnight or weekend trips within 4 to 8 hour radius of London. Driving Dad and family are constantly on the move.  I was told, by less adventurous friends (*yawn), that having one two three kids would be the death knell to our frequent travels.  But they weren’t, we just changed our mode of transportation.

Driving to a destination 15 hours away is probably appealing to very few people.  Throw in three active kids and that number of people gets even smaller. But all you have to do is sit back and read about our travels.  And who knows, maybe you will be tempted to hit the road yourself.

As featured in the Wall Street Journal and on the Wall Street Journal’s Lunch Break with Tanya Rivero