Exploring: Dartmoor National Park

July 31, 2010

The moors, the wild ponies, lots of ponies, the heather, the tors, the sweeping views, the rock climbing, and the home of letterboxing ...just a few of the reasons we loved Dartmoor National Park and wish we had more time to explore and wander. Our crazy wind-blown family portrait was taken after we all climbed to the top of the one of rock formations surrounding Haytor. More on letterboxing at Dartmoor soon.

California Dreamin' in England: Vacation in a VW Van

July 27, 2010

We are back! We packed a lot into our trip which means I am still sorting through photos, laundry, and stories. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have someone waiting at your house when you return from a trip...a house elf who does the unpacking AND organizes all of your photos into an amazing photobook of your trip? I have such good intentions of making photobooks from each of our trips but somehow that just hasn't happened yet...

The trip was great. Our first week was spent living and exploring southern England in a fabulous VW California Camper Van, a seriously well-designed vehicle. I wish I could say we had beautiful weather the whole week, but we didn't, which actually made me appreciate the van even more. We rented the van from One Life. I had a hunch they would be good folks to work with because their e-mails were prompt, helpful, and full of good suggestions, but I have to admit I was still a bit nervous about this whole part of the trip. I shouldn't have worried. When David and Kate met us at the train station with the van, we were blown away by their attention to details. The van was fully stocked with every kitchen item we could possibly need including a few breakfast basics to get us started, very nice bed linens (down comforters which made the whole camping thing feel so luxourious!), and they even bought towels before our arrival because we had such limited space in our suitcases. My favorite items in the van were the complete set of VW van dishes.

The van itself was perfect for our family of four. Easy to drive and set up each night. It was great to have access to a kitchen any time of the day (I am now thinking all cars should have coolers/refrigerators!). When everyone was hungry, we would find a nice stopping place, pull over, turn the seats around and have lunch...very convenient and left us dreaming about owning one of our own. Sleeping was also pretty comfortable, except for the last night when we had extreme winds and driving rains. We started the evening just as every night before but when the weather continued to worsen and rain started to blow in through the tent walls, we decided to put down the upper compartment. That wasn't too much fun at midnight. It meant we had to turn the car on (which was against campground rules), wake up and transfer two sleeping children and then spend the rest of night with four people sleeping on a bed intended for two. I am very glad that happened on our last night and not our first...but I was even happier to be in a camper van that night and not in a tent like some of our camping neighbors.

We hit three different campsites during our week:

Home Farm: This was the smallest campground we stayed in during the week and it was also my favorite with it's beautiful views of the Chilterns, the amazing Red Kites, fresh eggs, walking paths, kids playing cricket, the delicious and friendly pub down the road, and access to lots of walking trails.

River Dart: This was the kids' favorite campsite. It really is a kid's wonderland and we could easily have spent our whole week there (Noah is begging us to go back next summer). Fabulous adventure playgrounds with huge slides, tree houses, zip lines, woods and creeks for exploring. Lots of kids and lots of spontaneous soccer games (and a very emotional place to watch the final World Cup game since many of our camping neighbors were Dutch). It is a very well maintained site with beautiful grounds. Great for a family vacation with easy access to Dartmoor National Park.Green Hills Leisure Farm: This campsite is actually on the grounds of a working farm with lots of interesting animals and chickens laying eggs right outside the van. Adam's favorite part of this campsite was the soccer field right behind our pitch. Close to Oxford, the Cotswolds and Blenheim Palace. Clean facilities, including a game room and a fishing pond.

So that's the report on our first experience with a VW camper van. Stay tuned for lots more travel pics and British posts. Hope you are all having some amazing summer adventures.

British Bound

July 9, 2010

We're taking off for the land of Peter Pan, Paddington, Mary Poppins, Harry Potter, Peter Cottontail, Alice, Merlin and so many more. Thank you for all of the great suggestions. If you are planning a trip to England any time soon, be sure to read the comments in both of the recent British planning posts. See you in a couple of weeks! Cheerio!

Summer Rides

July 8, 2010

In addition to our summer schedule of pool and beach time, we have also been spending a lot of time at the horse farm near our house. Noah has been wanting to take lessons since last summer when we first visited the farm. I really don't know why we waited so long to do it. It's amazing to see him with the horses. So focused, so calm, and so happy. I am loving our summer evenings at the farm...shady olive trees, good farm dogs, chickens, geese, and even a special little goat who is a buddy for one lonely horse.

British Prep: Family Attractions

July 6, 2010

As I mentioned in my first British prep post, there are just too many choices in terms of interesting accommodations in England, and the same goes for attractions. There's no way we'll be able to see even a quarter of all the things that look interesting. I am trying to really narrow our list down which means there are plenty of reasons for a return trip. You will have to wait for our post-visit blog posts to see which places we actually ended up visiting. And same as with the accommodations post (thanks for those suggestions!), please share your favorite places to visit in England.

Before I get to our list, here are a few questions:
Regarding Stonehenge....is it worth it? or should we try to see Avebury instead? Avebury sounds a bit more appealing with kids because we could actually get closer and I have read good things about the museum, but Stonehenge is so darn famous...any advice on this?

Letterboxing? We will be heading to Dartmoor and looking forward to exploring the birth place of letterboxing, have any tips for that area? Any good boxes to be found in London or Oxford?

London Museums? How do we possibly pick? There are just too many good ones. Please help. And what about the London Eye? Worth the money or skip it?

Here's a rough list of spots (mostly outside of London) that I have bookmarked over the past couple of months. I know that some of them will be geographically out of our reach for this trip, but I still wanted to include them for future planning:

River Dart Adventures
Beatrix Potter in Cumbria
Alice and Harry in Oxford
Kew Gardens with kids
Best Places to Play in London
Alnwick Castle
The Lake District with Kids (including the adventure park)
The Roald Dahl Museum
Family Time at the Tate
Fossil Hunting
Jousting Tournament at Blenheim Palace
Birdland (thanks for the suggestion, Martha)
Footscape Family Walking Trips

4th of July, 2010

July 4, 2010

Italian tomatoes, Okinawan pottery, and a very Happy 4th of July from our little American family! Headed off to celebrate the day by drinking wine, eating pasta, and hoping for an all-natural kind of fireworks display...meeting up with friends at The Murgo Winery which has a great view of Mt. Etna. Hope you all have a good 4th of July no matter where you are in the world today.

British Prep: Accommodations

July 3, 2010

We are in the final stages of preparing for our trip to England and good grief, there are just too many choices. Seriously. This has been one of the most challenging trips to plan for two reasons: cost and too many options. It started to hit me when I began hunting for accommodations several months ago. I was shocked by the cost, especially in London, and then quickly overwhelmed by all of the possibilities.

I started with our usual mode of accommodation: apartment/holiday rentals. I briefly took a peek at hotel rooms in London but when I saw the crazy costs and the super small rooms, I headed back to the apartment listings. In addition to the cost, many of the apartments we were considering required a week long stay. This is different from most places we have visited which usually just have a three day minimum. Searching for apartments, especially in big city settings is always a challenge because I am trying to juggle location, cost, kid friendly lay-out, easy access to public transportation and grocery shopping, etc. I carefully studied the info section on the websites. Our favorite sites are VRBO, Homeway, and Holiday Lettings. I searched for any and all reviews of the apartment and only rent apartments that have been reviewed. I also pulled up Google maps and studied the area, looking to see if there is a park within walking distance, a tube stop within a few blocks, and other things that might make an apartment stand out from the others we were considering. I finally found one that I think will be a good fit for us. It's a pretty time consuming search process, but so far we have always had good success with apartment stays...keeping my fingers crossed that we'll have a positive stay in our London flat.

After booking our place in London, I focused my attention on figuring out our first week in England. We knew we wanted to explore the countryside. I initially envisioned staying in a quaint cottage in the Lake District or the Cotswolds or both. But when I started to research those options, I was a bit disappointed to discover that many of the cottages did not allow kids or they required a week long stay or they were too remote to consider without a rental car. Same for many of the Bed and Breakfast options.

Things started to improve when I discovered this site. I am not sure if the site is still active because I didn't have success contacting accommodations via the site, but it does have a great selection of very interesting, family-friendly stays throughout England. And that's where I came across the concept of Glamping. I loved the idea of staying in a fancy yurt, but I encountered some issues when it came to booking any of sites. Since we are traveling in the summer, many of the spots are either already booked or have strict check-in dates which didn't correspond with our arrival and departure dates. And we still had the issue of getting to the locations...beautiful, rural settings but remote and requiring the additional cost of a rental car or expensive taxi trip.

Which led to me to the final solution: a VW camper van...accommodation and transportation all in one! I initially stumbled upon several companies that rent these cool retro vans and I have to admit I felt a strange tingling in my spine. A nostalgic tugging. Our first family vehicle was a VW van which my parents had retrofitted with a bed that filled the entire back of the van. They used that van soon after they were married for an extended camping trip/honeymoon around the United States. I was actually conceived on that trip. Guess you could say VW vans have been a part of my life since the very start!

I have very vivid memories of lounging around on that big mattress (it was essentially a box with a mattress on top and storage underneath) while my parents drove us around town. One of my favorite pics from childhood is of a past birthday when my parents loaded up several of my friends and we all squeezed onto the mattress as we headed over to my grandparents house in the country to pick mulberries and eat cake. I also lost a tooth once when I went flying off the mattress during an accident. Not the safest form of family travel, but it was fun. Fun, until the van broke down. Which happened a lot. Those childhood memories are not so cherished. Sitting on the side of road waiting for tow trucks. Having other drivers yell and honk when the van caught fire (was that our first or second VW van that caught fire? I'll have to ask my mom). And those very memories of VW breakdowns, pushed me to explore options beyond the sentimental VW vans of my 70s childhood and seek out a more modern version: the VW California Camper Van. Isn't that a cool vehicle? That's how we'll be living and traveling through the British countryside for a week. It will be a brand new experience for all of us. And even if it all goes horribly wrong and we spend most of the time cooped up inside the van watching the rain come down, it will still be memorable, right?

Here are some of the other unique British accommodations we considered:

Jolly Days
Feather Down Farm Stays
WildWise (would love to do one of their family camping programs!)
White Horse Gypsy Caravan
Military Clubs in London (only for military families)
The Treehouse
University Rooms (check for family rooms, especially in Oxford)
Cirencester Cottage in the Cotswolds

Do you have any favorite British accommodation spots to share? or tips on how to make a family trip to England more affordable? Stay tuned for a few other posts related to our upcoming trip. We are starting to get very excited.

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