Category Archives: Travels

Easter travels

I thought that time flew by when the children were young, but these days I’m finding it passing even quicker and this Easter holiday has been no exception to that rule. G and M have split their time between Over The Wall and my Mum for the most part as, for Mike and me, it has very much been a case of business as usual during our working week. However, we have made the effort to take advantage of the opportunities created by a break from performing arts and dance classes as well as the long weekend to squeeze in some fun family days out where possible. Despite their seeming reluctance to go for a walk, we’ve found that adding new locations to the mix has made the challenge of keeping our 2 teens engaged much easier and I wanted to share them with you:

National Botanic Garden of Wales, Carmarthenshire – nestled away in South Wales, this is a place that we’ve visited a few times over the years, but it had been a while since we had last ventured in that direction and neither children could particularly remember our last visit there. The Gardens are home to the largest single-span glasshouse in the world, which houses some of the most endangered plants from around the world. M really wants to travel to Australia and whilst that isn’t currently on our holiday plans for the immediate future, he was thrilled to explore the Australia area in the glasshouse. In turn, that led to a very interesting family discussion about where we’d really like to go and revealed those we already knew – Australia for M and Japan for Mike – as well as the previously unheard suggestions of Greenland and Russia from G. On the day we visited there was a display of various bugs and creatures for the children to investigate and we enjoyed the opportunity to chat to the Botanic Garden’s very own “Butterfly Ranger”, which is definitely the best job title I’ve ever heard.

Uncertain of what food might be available on-site we had taken a packed lunch with us, which proved to be the best decision as there was only a handful of gluten-free offerings available in the café. We did supplement our lunch with a portion of chips for the children and Mike to share and took advantage of the tables set up inside the glasshouse to sit inside and enjoy our lunch. Lunch finished, we then headed around the rest of the grounds, although there was a lot more we could have discovered if only we’d had more time. Both children enjoyed stretching their legs, playing in the play area and generally just burning off their energy by running along the pathways. It was a great afternoon out and one we’d certainly revisit again.

Longleat Safari Park, Wiltshire – We haven’t been to Longleat since M was a baby and as we drove past the main entrance en-route to taking G to this year’s South Siblings OTW camp, I thought it was definitely time for a return trip. Unsurprisingly neither child has any memory of being to this amazing estate before and were happy to agree with my suggestion as long as we drove through the safari park (M) and tried our luck in the hedge maze (G). Our visit started with the safari park and both G and M were delighted with all of the animals we spotted on our way round, especially the antics of the monkeys as they clambered across our car roof and down the rear window. Mike had stopped to remove the radio antenna from my car before we entered the park and the children could quickly see the reason why when the monkey on the car in front of us bent their aerial almost in half and started chewing on it! Hunger pangs hit G and M when we were about half-way around the park and so they took the opportunity of sitting in the car to munch on their sandwiches whilst trying to spot lions and tigers…(and bears? Oh no!).

Safari finished, we then headed into the main estate itself and insisted on what was meant to be a quick pitstop for Mike and me to eat our packed lunch before we tackled the challenge of the maze. However, having spotted an array of gluten-free offerings on the café menu, we couldn’t turn down the chance to feed the children a second lunch and so M filled up on yet more gluten-free chips, whilst G enjoyed GF sausages and chips. The hedge maze was a lot of fun and we were surprisingly successful in reaching the centre far quicker than we were expecting. The view from the top of the central tower was incredible on such a beautiful spring afternoon. From there, it was time for a quick runaround the castle play area, a trip to see the koalas and then back to the safari park, this time stopping at the African village near the entrance to satisfy G’s yearning to get up close to the giraffes, thereby unwittingly recreating a photo from her last visit at age 2.5!

Margam Park, Port Talbot – this was our final day out over the Easter Holidays and we picked the perfect time to visit with the glorious sunshine that bathed the country over the Easter bank holiday weekend. It was the first time Mike and the kids had been to Margam Park and both M and G have already expressed a longing to return there in the summer – though I suspect the lure of the Go Ape Rope Adventures might well be the biggest draw. Once again we had taken a packed lunch with us and we found a great picnic table near to the Castle to sit and enjoy our meal in the sun. From there, we wandered around the park: past the boating lake, through the farm and along some of the trails before arriving back at the mansion itself.

M had spotted the go-karts and so we decided to hire 3 -one each for Mike, G and M – who then spent 30 minutes pedalling around and navigating more of the trails, whilst I took the opportunity to wander alongside the lake before finding a bench to sit peacefully and enjoy a little more sun. We rounded out the day with a walk to the Orangery and through the monastic ruins before we headed back to the car.

All in all, we enjoyed some magical days out together and would really recommend all these places for a fun family day out.

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Pizza and Ballet

One of the Christmas presents we were treated to this year was family tickets to go and see Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” at the Bristol Hippodrome. We have only been to a couple of ballets with the children over the years despite our love of the theatre and my Mum was keen for us to experience this unconventional retelling of this classic ballet. Of course, no family evening out can start without dinner out too and this time round, partly as we were later arriving in Bristol than we’d originally planned and partly because, well, why not, we decided to veer away from our known safe restaurants and look for somewhere new to try.

It’s always a challenge when eating out with G and M because of their dietary needs, but our decision over the last 18 months or so to relax M’s restrictions on high days and holidays in order to find a better quality of life and balance for him means that on occasions like this, we’re able to eat in places where we’re confident he can choose safe ingredients to make a tasty meal. We know that there are a number of restaurants near to Bristol Hippodrome from Pizza Express to Wagamama, so I made the suggestion that we wandered up Park Street to see what else might be available, with our end target being Pizza Express if nothing else seemed to suit.

About halfway up the hill, we stumbled across the marvellous Molto Buono restaurant and, spotting gluten-free pizza bases on the menu, decided to stop there and see how their food measured up to the children’s somewhat exacting standards. It didn’t take too long for G and M to decide what they wanted to eat and were delighted to discover that as well as gluten-free pizza bases, the restaurant also had vegan mozzarella available as a topping. Much to my surprise, G opted for the GF Marinara pizza – tomato sauce, olive oil and oregano – and M chose the GF Diavola – tomato, salami and vegan mozzarella. Mike joined them in trying one of handmade pizzas, whilst I settled on a pesto pasta. The dishes that arrived looked amazing and tasted even better with portion sizes that satisfied even the voracious appetite of the youngest member of our family. I wouldn’t hesitate recommending this restaurant – excellent food, prepared simply, served quickly and all at a great price.

Fully satisfied by our meal and with more than enough time to meander our way back towards the theatre, our evening had started in fine fashion. We all then sat enthralled for the next couple of hours as the story of Swan Lake unfolded before us. Matthew Bourne’s interpretation brings a more modern-day twist to the tale and replaces the well-known Dance of the Cygnets with an incredible male troupe of swans instead. The dancing was incredible and brought real inspiration to both G and M as they watched it in absolute awe, something that should never be under-estimated as M had expressed his concerns about watching a ballet – “…there are no words to explain what’s going on, so how do you know the story-line..?” before it even began.

I think we would all heartily recommend seeing this production, though it turns out that I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to the setting, much preferring the classic portrayal of the Swan Lake tragic love story. It was fascinating to talk to G and M about their thoughts on the production, with M uncertain as to whether the second half was a dream or not and both expressing the view that the role of the Swan/Stranger represented the 2 sides oft he Prince’s psyche. This was a performance that really challenged everything we knew and expected of a ballet and was a truly amazing experience. Despite my hesitations about some parts of this version, I am fascinated to see how Matthew Bourne has adapted and updated other ballets and hope to be able to see another of his productions soon.

Finishing the summer in style

With Christmas now just 6 weeks away – eek, where has this year gone?! – it’s hard to believe that I still haven’t finished telling the tales of our busy summer. You’d have thought our fairly last-minute plans to fly out to Canada for 2 weeks would have been more than enough to keep us all occupied, but we had even more adventures squeezed in to the final 10 days of the summer holidays before school started back.

We had the return journey from hell with a disrupted flight thanks to a group of rowdy French exchange students, who got into arguments and near fist fights with both the airline crew and other passengers, just rows away from the seats we were sitting in. I have never been so upset on a flight and am just grateful that the children were more entertained by the films they chose to watch, than scared by the events going on around them. This behaviour continued in the Dublin airport terminal and didn’t help the stress of a delayed flight back, which meant we missed our onward flight home by mere minutes. Mike and I were tired, grumpy and so fed up by all we experienced, that we complained long and hard, which fortunately secured us a later flight home, though it was 12 hours later than originally planned, and a hotel room for the day, which gave us the chance to catch up on some much-needed sleep, something that had been impossible on the plane.

We were both back at work the following day, whilst G and M went to my Mum’s for the last 2 days of the week. We rushed through the washing and then found ourselves packing once again for a weekend in Liverpool to see the Terracotta Warriors exhibition that we had missed when we visited back in April and what was, perhaps, the highlight of M’s summer holiday – a week at Over The Wall. Our weekend in Liverpool was a great success, especially as we managed a return trip to both of the fabulous freefrom restaurants we had discovered on our previous visit, something both children were desperate to do. The morning spent at the World Museum was well worth it and we all enjoyed seeing the amazing Terracotta Warriors that were on display. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 17 years since Mike and I first saw them in Xi’an, China and fantastic to introduce G and M to this incredible ancient tribute to China’s first emperor. They also insisted we explored every other part of the museum we could and given the rather miserable weather, it was a great way to entertain them whilst away from home.

From Liverpool, we headed back South, dropping M off at the Midlands OTW Health Challenges camp for what we had no doubt would be an amazing week for him again. I cannot begin to describe the incredible benefits that M gets from OTW and why this charity deserves all the support and praise we can possibly give it. Once again the camp chefs outdid our expectations and created meals for M that went beyond our wildest dreams – and yet again apparently put my attempts to shame. This year, however, I can take great solace in the fact that M shared with the chef that I put my recipes on this blog and he not only took a look at them, but also used them to help cook treats for M whilst he was at camp. Just as with his stay at the South HC camp 2 years ago, M was exhausted after a week of unbelievable fun and challenge and just about managed to survive the very final bit of our seemingly endless summer adventures.

OTW’s Midlands camp is based just minutes away from the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield, Staffordshire and it seemed a shame to be so close and not stop there for a relatively quick visit. The NMA is somewhere I’ve long considered visiting and we chose a beautiful day to make the trip. Both children were about studying the World Wars at school and with 2018 marking the centenary of the Armistice, it seemed fitting to spend some time walking the grounds and exploring the many memorials that are found here. It was a remarkable and moving place to visit and I’m glad we made the effort to, despite M’s reluctance and overwhelming tiredness from a week away from home.

A Canadian Treasure Trove

Whenever and wherever we travel, I also keep a beady eye out for any new foods that are safe for both children. I do, of course, take an ample supply of M-friendly snacks with us as there are no guarantees that we’ll find anything that he can eat, but I always keep my fingers crossed that his hopes are met, if not exceeded whilst away from home. This year I was especially hopeful that we might find a handful of items for them both, though our last visit to Canada showed us how challenging it can be to avoid soya and corn, which can be found in the most unexpected of places.

The good news is that we did found some great snacks and even managed to bring some of them home with us to keep G and M going for a short while at least. We discovered them all at the Independent grocery shore on the shore of Lake Huron and don’t really know how readily available they are elsewhere, but I’d definitely recommend giving them a go if you get the chance. These are just a few from this hidden treasure trove:

Soy-free Vegenaise – G absolutely adores mayonnaise and can, of course, eat “normal” brands without problem. However, M often feels he’s missing out and it’s taken a long time to find a rice-based version which he can eat and even then it’s not that easy to buy it. Discovering this brand just sitting in the fridge alongside other food items was so exciting and something I hadn’t expect to be able to replace during our holiday. M said it tasted great, G was equally happy to eat it and I was delighted to carry a jar around with us for the entire 2 weeks we were there.

Laiki Rice Crackers – another big success with M were these rice crackers, not least because he had a choice between their red rice and black rice versions, something he rarely gets in everyday life when it comes to his food. They proved to be the perfect accompaniment to lengthy car journeys, of which there were several, and were surprisingly moreish, with the pack not lasting long once opened.

Daiya Cheezy Mac – It’s a well-known fact that I am a big fan of Kraft Dinner, a boxed ready meal of macaroni cheese that became a staple of my diet whilst studying at Ottawa University over 20 years ago. G similarly loves macaroni cheese and I was thrilled to find Daiya’s gluten- and dairy-free boxed equivalent for her to try. This was a resounding success with my sometimes picky eater and we brought several boxes home with us, although they’ve all disappeared now!

Made Good Crispy Squares – despite the previous successes achieved, the biggest hit of our holiday was the discovery of these Crispy squares, which came in both Chocolate chip and Vanilla flavours and made M smile for days. They came at the perfect time as we had found several gluten- and dairy-free treats for G, but the prevalence of both soya and corn, neither of which M can tolerate, was making it near impossible to find something safe for him to enjoy. I had promised to make him some banana cookies whilst we were staying at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and whilst I did that also, the addition of crispy squares to our rucksack each day made a huge difference.

Eating Out with Allergies in Toronto

There’s very little we love more as a family than finding the perfect places to be able to go out and eat a safe meal together. Having found some wonderful restaurants and cafes in both the UK and abroad since M went elemental 4 years ago, we couldn’t wait to see what Toronto might have to offer. The first part of our holiday spent near Lake Huron with Mike’s parents meant that we ate home-cooked food with a few very welcome additions that we discovered at the local Independent grocery store; whilst at the Beachwood resort we were very grateful to their accommodating chef, who agreed to whip some plain rice, chicken and bacon for M to enjoy.

It was once we were downtown in Toronto that we really had a good chance to get out and explore what restaurants we could find. I had taken the precaution of packing our usual extra suitcase full of safe foods before leaving the UK, had kept it topped up with the new treats we had found and booked to stay in a self-catering apartment fairly close to the lake – just to make sure every base was covered when it came to feeding my hungry pair. Our biggest disappointment was that there are no longer any Hard Rock Cafes in Toronto, so we had to search hard to find a great alternative.

Our day spent at the CNE meant that we didn’t venture too far to find our meals, instead heading into the expansive food building to work out what from the hundreds of offerings might be safe for both G and M to eat. Mike and G went in one direction to find her ideal lunch, whilst M and I disappeared in a different one to find his. My wonderful sister-in-law managed to secure a table in front of the Colossal Onion booth and we all eventually wound our way back there to actually sit down and enjoy some food. M was thrilled to find some apple fries dusted with sugar and I then queued an inordinately long amount of time at the aptly named Bacon Nation to buy a cup of bacon to provide his protein, where I refused to even consider the purchase of the $100 Gold Burger, though I did see someone else carrying one away from the counter. Fortunately, we were carrying a number of rice-based snacks around with us too, so it wasn’t the completely unbalanced meal that perhaps it sounds!

For our one meal out, we chose to go to Jack Astor’s Bar and Grill, thanks to some frenzied internet-searching on my part to find an allergy-friendly restaurant to try. They had a good array of gluten-free offerings to choose from and both children opted for a bacon cheeseburger, without the cheese. Decisions made and food ordered, G and M enjoyed writing and drawing on the paper tablecloths whilst they waited for their meals to be cooked. The plates of food that arrived looked amazing and didn’t last long with either child – a sure sign that the food is good. The portion was as large as we’ve come to expect with Canadian servings, but that didn’t stop them eating it all, although we had no complaints about being hungry for the rest of the evening!

Downtown Toronto

We really were trying to squeeze as much as we possibly could into our 2 weeks in Canada this time round and so decided to end our visit with just 3 days in downtown Toronto to do a little sightseeing that we hadn’t done before. When we thought we were going to be visiting at Christmas, M had been really keen to have a repeat trip to Niagara Falls, somewhere we’ve visited with the children on 2 previous holidays, as he was desperate to see the Falls frozen, though we had warned that it might not happen even during December. However, visiting in the summer changed our plans a lot and Mike was really keen to fit in a day trip to Toronto Island if we could, something that we managed to do without any problem whilst we were staying downtown.

Our home for these 3 days was an apartment within walking distance of almost everywhere we wanted to go and, ironically, just across the road from that of another friend of ours, who we didn’t realise was living nearby. Our plans, as always, were fairly loose, though we had booked tickets for sports games and theatre trips to provide some structure for each day. We decided to visit the CNE – Canadian National Exhibition – with the same cousins we’d headed to Canada’s Wonderland with and had lots of fun wandering between the various exhibits. The day we went happened to be Veterans day and all 4 children enjoyed looking around the Canadian military section and exploring the tanks and aircraft on display. We even managed to find a stall selling Beavertails – a deep-fried dough sweet treat, shaped like a beaver’s tail – and bought a couple of us all to share. This treat was obviously not gluten-free as well as being covered in sugar, so G, M and I only took a small mouthful each, whilst Mike, his brother and the rest of the family enjoyed the rest.

Our day on Toronto Island was beautiful and started with a boat trip across Lake Ontario in glorious sunshine. The children were keen to explore what was there and we could easily have spent another day or two on the island itself. However, our time was limited and so we enjoyed more rides in the small island theme park, though nothing quite as adventurous as those at Canada’s Wonderland, before heading off for a short walk, a trolley tour of the island and the opportunity to dip our toes into another of the Great Lakes to finish off our day. We had to cut short our stay on the island as we were heading to a baseball game in the evening, but we managed to find time to walk some of the streets of Toronto to the Eaton Shopping Centre, before exploring the underground shopping concourses back to the stadium. G found the underground “streets” particularly confusing to walk and couldn’t quite believe that it was possible to walk the approximately 15 blocks from the Eaton Centre to the Skydome completely underground. All in all, it was a busy few days, but the perfect ending to our 2018 Canadian Adventures.

Her Inner Thrill-seeker

The next stage of our Canadian road trip found us driving over 5 hours east from Lake Huron to the peaceful resort of Beachwood, Lakefield to join a number of our friends and their families for a short summer break. We had been lucky enough to book a room in the main lodge for a couple of nights, which gave us the chance to catch up with these friends who we might otherwise have missed. It was also a fantastic chance for both G and M to catch up with some of their godparents, as 2 of G’s godfathers and one of M’s numbered amongst our friends staying at the resort that week.

G and M were both excited at the prospect of spending a few days lakeside and were delighted to find that they could swim in both the small pool and the lake itself. The resort was amazing and we were easily able to walk between our room and the various cottages our friends were staying in whenever we wanted. Our children were the oldest there and soon became popular, G in particular, with the younger crowd. It came as no surprise that they also befriended some of the other children on site and spent a lot of time moving between pool and lake to play games with whoever was around. As well as the swimming, the children also loved the opportunity to go out in a canoe (or should that be kayak?!) with Mike, hitch a lift on the speedboat when it took guests out water-skiing and spent a huge amount of time climbing and playing on the giant inflatable obstacle course in the middle of the lake. It was here that G started to find her inner thrill-seeker, something that came as a complete surprise to us all and was to develop even more as our holiday continued.

With our couple of days with friends behind us, we travelled south to the town where Mike grew up and our home for the rest of that week. Our primary aim whilst we were there was to visit Canada’s Wonderland, an awesome theme park and one that I had never before been to, despite my numerous visits over the last 20 years! Not only did we have 2 days of incredible fun, but we spent it with the rest of the family we hadn’t yet had a chance to see and both G and M loved every moment of racing around the park and trying out the rides with their cousins. It was here that G’s newly discovered thrill-seeking personality really came into its own as she and her cousin, H, challenged themselves to ride pretty much every roller-coaster or ride they could find. The boys were slightly less keen to ride the bigger rides, which suited my sister-in-law and me just fine, and quickly found themselves enjoying similar experiences, which were very different to those their sisters were undertaking.

G’s confidence in trying out so many different roller-coasters and rides – there’s only 1 I can remember her refusing to go on which the rest of us did – came as a complete surprise to us all. Our trip to Florida 4 years ago found M being slightly more adventurous than his big sister and I really hadn’t expected things to change as much as they did. It was fantastic to see G and H really enjoy the time they spent together, usually with Uncle Dave, though Mike found himself on some rides that he perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise chosen! It really was an amazing time with both family and friends and we could barely believe that we were heading into the final few days of our holiday as we packed up and moved on to our final destination in downtown Toronto.

Back to Canada

Getting to Canada was not quite as straightforward as we had expected it to be. As I said in my last post, our decision to go had changed fairly last-minute and whilst I had managed to find a great deal for us to travel via Dublin, we had some unexpected last-minute stress when a work colleague mentioned that the rules had changed and Mike and the children might need Canadian passports to be able to enter the country. Fortunately, after a few extremely stressful hours as I anxiously trawled through the pages of the Canadian High Commission’ website, I discovered that we could apply for special authorisation to travel without the correct documents as there wasn’t enough time to process them before we left.

Bags packed, we arrived at our local airport and made our first pit stop in Dublin. Our layover wasn’t long enough to allow us to venture into the city itself, much to the disappointment of G in particular, so instead we explored the airport terminal and managed to find one of the airport restaurants that could make gluten-free bacon sandwiches for both children to help assuage their inevitable hunger. I had naturally packed more than enough food to satisfy their appetites during the flight, but was pleasantly surprised when the Aer Lingus meals arrived for lunch and had made a reasonable stab at providing the plain rice and chicken I had requested, despite the email I’d received telling us that they simply couldn’t accommodate M’s dietary needs at all.

We had left the UK in glorious sunshine and arrived in Toronto to hot weather, but pouring rain, which didn’t impress the children for their first visit in 5 years. However, M in particular was delighted with the huge Ford Explorer that was to be our vehicle for the duration of our 2 week stay and that went a long way to keep them cheerful despite the miserable weather. We headed north, on our way to Lake Huron and Mike’s parents’ house, stopping overnight in Orangeville for some much-needed sleep before we reached our final destination.

The next 4 days were spent with Mike’s parents in their beautiful town on the shore of Lake Huron and we enjoyed a whole host of activities, doing things we’d never had the chance to do before. Walks along the shore and the harbour; swims in one of the Great Lakes; a boat trip to the lighthouse on Chantry Island; stock car racing and time spent making precious memories with both their grandparents and some of their cousins. We did enough to keep us all entertained, but also enjoyed some great time just relaxing with family.

 

Finding Gromits and Owls

Summer feels like something of a distant memory now and, I have to be honest, it passed in something of a whirlwind once again. As the children get older, we seem to squeeze more and more into every spare minute we can find, creating precious memories that I hope will last a lifetime. This year we had the added bonus of exploring just how to make the most of having introduced bananas into M’s diet as well as pushing the limits with a few more trials along the way too.

Our summer plans were originally to stay close to home, with my Mum helping out by looking after G and M for much of the time whilst Mike and I both worked. Things changed just after Easter and we found ourselves having to bring forward our plans for a Christmas trip to Canada and head back in the summer instead. However, between the end of the school year and our long-haul flight to Toronto, G and M took part in a rowing course and touch-typing course respectively and we also managed to find the time to head to the beautiful cities of Bristol and Bath for a day in each to explore their summer art trails – Gromit Unleashed 2 and Minerva’s Owls. We’ve enjoyed taking part in an incredible variety of sculpture trails over the years, including the Shaun in the City trail in 2015, so it was great to be able to dip into these 2 challenges, although M in particular was disappointed that we didn’t have time to find all of the sculptures that formed part of the trails.

The glorious weather made it a real pleasure to spend time outside on our feet, though M might disagree with me after our very hot day in Bath, where we had to resort to searching out a supermarket to find some allergy-friendly ice-cream and ice lollies to cool us all down. Food-wise, we enjoyed both eating dinner out at our all-time favourite, Wagamama and an idyllic picnic lunch catered by Marks and Spencer. One evening M even commented that it was just like being back in Syros because he was happily walking through the city in the evening wearing shorts and a t-shirt. All in all, those first couple of weeks of our summer were busy, but amazing and a great start to what the rest of the holiday would bring.