Wham, Bam, Thank You, Amsterdam

Or “Hamsterdam,” as E calls it. I started this post nearly two months ago, but it got long, and I got busy. Better late than never, which was my approach to blogging about Christmas in London, too.

We had a great three and a half days in the beautiful city in the Netherlands in May. I’d been there before, when I was 20, with my parents and younger brother. Since I’d hit most of the big tourist must-dos in Amsterdam back then (Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank’s house, Heineken Experience Tour, a stroll through the Red Light District, and what felt like ALL the churches), and M had traveled there for business a couple times, we didn’t feel pressed to drag our kids to places that aren’t particularly interesting to a 3-year-old, or baby-buggy-friendly. So this trip we could just enjoy being in what is actually a very child-friendly city, despite its reputation for its Red Light District and “coffee” shops.

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Around Here Lately 

It’s hot in London. Legitimately hot, even by American standards. Sure, Baltimore gets hotter and definitely more humid, but pretty much everywhere I need to go is air-conditioned: house, car, office, stores, restaurants. I miss air-conditioning SO HARD right now. And what I would give for a ceiling fan!


I’m typing this with my feet swishing in the inflatable paddling pool I bought for the kids, which was maybe the best money I spent all year. I’m living off of sorbet and rosé. People are queuing outside stores to buy fans. The grocery stores are literally sold out of ice cream. These are dark times.

The ice cream freezer at my local grocery store: completely empty. M reported the store by his office was the same. EVERYBODY PANIC!

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Of Winnie-the-Pooh, Anne Boleyn, and Sodden Shoes: A Tale of a Weekend in the Countryside

Memorial Day Weekend in the States is also a bank holiday weekend here in England, so we had planned a getaway to the English countryside, from Friday to Monday. One of M’s business associates had recommended the Griffin Inn to him as a family- and dog-friendly place to stay. He told us to ask for the room over the pub, so the baby monitor reaches down there. Good tip!

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A Visit to the Emerald Isle

For the first May bank holiday weekend, we traveled to Ireland to visit our friends Ciaran and Emily. I met Ciaran 10 years ago when I worked for a company that had an office in Waterford, Ireland, and I used to travel there for work. (Otherwise we chatted over Skype daily.) Then a few years ago, he and his wife Emily moved to Baltimore for a couple years for his job. She couldn’t work at first, while her visa got sorted out, and I needed someone to nanny for E when I went back to work after maternity leave, so she was E’s nanny for a few months. They have since moved back to Ireland and had a baby, and all three came to visit us here in London last October, before R was born. So this was our turn to visit them. And this was M’s (and E’s and R’s) first trip to Ireland!

We flew from London Gatwick to Dublin on Thursday afternoon, checked into our hotel, and then went out for a walk and to find some dinner. We walked along the River Liffey, did a bit of window shopping, and settled on The Market Bar for dinner.

The Market Bar
Cool atmosphere, good food, and local craft beer (I ordered the Cute Hoor, seriously)… but our children had reached melt-down point. There was nothing on the short kids’ menu that E would eat, so all she ate was bread and was then devilishly hangry. And it was really just too late for R to still be up, so they were both pretty difficult dining companions. At one point I said to M, “Traveling abroad with kids… what made us think we could do this?” But I was and am determined to do it. What’s the point of living over here if we never take advantage of the proximity to so many foreign countries and cultures? Yes, traveling with little ones is way, way harder than traveling without them, and you don’t get to do everything you’d like to do, but I want to make the best of it.

With that in mind, instead of going out to the Temple Bar District for a pint and some live music, we went to bed early in our hotel room we were sharing with the kids. Maybe next time.

Friday morning we had breakfast in our hotel, then went for after-breakfast treats at Off Beat Donut Co. They were so good I actually went back later in the day and bought more to take with us when we left Dublin.


We had booked a 10 a.m. tour at the Little Museum of Dublin, which we figured was a short enough tour in a small enough museum that we could take the kids. The museum promises “the story of the city in under 30 minutes.” A tour guide walks you through the middle floor and tells stories for half an hour. I wouldn’t say I got the full history of the city, but the stories he told were interesting and entertaining.


What struck me about Ireland is that for a country that has such an incredibly long history, modern Ireland’s history is very short. So much has changed for the small country in the last century, and really in just the last few decades. It went from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest. It went from giving women very few rights in the early 1970s to electing a female prime minister less than 20 years later. It’s pretty fascinating how quickly a whole country can change in one lifetime.

The museum is in a Georgian townhouse and everything in it was actually donated by the public. They put out an ask for donations, and the people of Dublin really came through. There’s a whole room dedicated to U2, and let me tell you, you just haven’t had an experience quite like breastfeeding in a pod chair that’s being spun around and around by a 3-year-old, U2 songs blaring and coloured disco lights flashing. That was a new one.

Yes, that’s who I want watching me breastfeed

After the museum, we walked across the street to St. Stephen’s Green, which is a beautiful park. We found a great playground tucked away in there, so we gave E some play time.

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Then we went to lunch, where Emily met us. She’d driven up from Tramore to pick us up, bless her. We needed to get on the road before Friday-afternoon-of-a-bank-holiday-weekend traffic got bad, but we made time to go to a pub for a proper pint. When in Dublin…

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Tramore is about two and a half hours away from Dublin, and is right on the sea. Ciaran and Emily’s house has a view of the sea, of which I am incredibly jealous.

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Just the sea view from the baby’s changing table, no big deal

On Saturday, they took us driving along the Copper Coast (there’s copper in the rocks there, and used to be copper mining), stopping at viewpoints and, of course, a playground.


Then we went to the newly opened Greenway, which is a 45-km stretch of old railway line between Waterford and Dungarvan that has been converted into a nice flat path for cycling and walking. We walked a portion of it, through an old tunnel.

Children had decorated fairy doors and left them along the rock walls, which was fun for E to hunt for. (Fairies and fairy doors are a big thing in Ireland.)


On Sunday, we went into the city of Waterford, which I’ve stayed in several times—but it has been a decade since then!

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We went to Reginald’s Tower, to learn about the city’s viking past. The round stone tower building has been in continuous use for 800 years. I mean, they just don’t make things like they used to, right?


I explained to E that vikings were kind of like pirates… so then she ran through the tower yelling, “Arrgh! Shiver me timbers!” So yes, I’d say she got an excellent history lesson out of the experience.

That afternoon, we went to Waterford Castle for tea. It’s a beautiful little castle that’s now a hotel that also does a lot of weddings and events. We drove the car onto a small ferry to cross what is essentially a moat around the small island the castle is perched upon.

Not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon

It was a rainy day, so we were happy to sit in front of the grand fireplace and enjoy tea and scones. Then the sun came out, so I walked around the castle gardens a bit, before we headed back to Tramore.


Back in Tramore, we went to a pizza restaurant right on the beach for dinner. It was absolutely gorgeous out, and we enjoyed walking along the beach for a while after dinner.


Monday we walked to a place for brunch, took E to another great playground down by the beach, actually ran into my former boss there, ha!, and then it was time to drive back up to Dublin to fly home.

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Thank you, Ciaran and Emily, for the kind fáilte, for being such wonderful hosts and friends, and especially for driving to and from Dublin twice for us. We look forward to our next visit with you, whichever country it’s in!

Sláinte!

Easter Holiday in the New Forest

Well, it was new in the year 1086 anyway, when it received the moniker, set aside by William the Conquerer as hunting ground. Easter weekend in England is a long holiday weekend—everyone gets Good Friday and Easter Monday off—so we decided it was a good time to plan a getaway, even though we’d just gotten back from a two-week trip to Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey merely four days before. We decided on the New Forest as our holiday destination, which is just about an hour and a half or so from London by car.

This was our first trip within England as a family of four, and also the first time M tried driving on the left side of the road. I was quite a bit nervous about that (though I would have been much more nervous if I was the one driving!), especially since he opted for a manual car, which requires shifting with the left hand. Definitely not second nature to do it with the non-dominant hand! But renting an automatic car is much, much more expensive, so he took the risk. He ended up doing fine. We also had to navigate foreign roads (lots of roundabouts) and decipher what the signs and lines painted on the roads mean, but we made it! We have a UK carseat for Baby R, but we don’t have one for E. She’s fine to sit in a taxi without a carseat, and we really don’t take one that often. But one of our neighbours told us about this clever invention, the Trunki Boostapak, which is a backpack that turns into a booster seat for a child, so you don’t have to worry about not having a carseat. So brilliant!

We had to google what the fields of yellow flowers we kept passing were. Rapeseed, apparently, used to make rapeseed oil. Which we later dipped our bread in at dinner.

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Our destination was New Park Manor, one of the eight properties in the Luxury Family Hotels group. These places are incredible. They are amazing old buildings (like manor houses, hunting lodges, and even a castle!) converted into family-friendly hotels.

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New Park Manor

And when I say family-friendly, I mean specifically catering to people with young kids and babies. (If you don’t have young kids, you don’t have any business being there.) They’ve thought of nearly everything. You can leave the kids in the crèche for a two-hour session each day; there’s a game/cinema room, and play sets and toys in the garden; daily activities for kids; bicycles and bike seats for all ages; a family dining room with a big children’s menu; and a baby-listening service, which is essentially a baby monitor in your room so you can put the kids to bed and then go down to the adult dining room and have a nice dinner. They even provide things like a bottle-sterilizing service and offer to puree anything into baby food. And a TV in the tub, what a treat!

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Watching Teletubbies on the telly in the tubby–seriously

Oh, and they’re dog friendly, too, so Wren got to come along!

We arrived a bit later than planned, and had the children booked into the 3-5 p.m. session of the creche, so we dropped them off first thing. I was concerned that E wouldn’t want us to leave her there, but she was actually fine! It looks like a big, friendly nursery school room, with lots of nice people leading the kids in craft projects and activities, and lots of toys, of course. Both girls did great. All weekend E kept asking when it would be time to go to the “kids’ club”—she loved it!

Our room was small for the two of us adults, E on a futon-type bed, R in a travel cot (Pack’n’Play, provided by the hotel), and the dog. It was quite tight. But there was an elephant made of towels on E’s bed, a changing pad and nappy bin for R, cookies on a plate with the girls’ names by them, a pillow and bowl for Wren, and ponies grazing out our window!

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The view from our window

More than 5,000 ponies roam free in the New Forest. They’re considered wild, but what they really are is free-roaming. They’re technically owned by local people known as “commoners,” who have often owned several generations of the same family. There are also cows and pigs, but I’m not sure how many. We didn’t see many cows or any pigs. The ponies are everywhere, though. They’re called the “architects of the forest,” because their grazing is what makes the forest look the way it does.

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Meeting the locals

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While the kids were in the crèche, we relaxed in the lounge with a drink. How civilized! We all had dinner together that night in the family dining room. Our table was all set up with a highchair for R, kids’ utensils, and a dish of hummus and dippers set out as a kids’ appetizer. Dogs aren’t allowed in the dining rooms, but they are happy to dogsit at the reception area just outside it, which was nice.

On Saturday, we had the girls booked into the creche for the morning session, so after a nice breakfast (we were able to have it in the lounge so Wren could join us—she even got her own order of bacon, best holiday ever) and a bit of playtime outside in the garden, we dropped them off and then had two hours of free time! I went for a run with the dog, and M just relaxed in the room.

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Breakfast in the lounge
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Actually, we’re the ones fenced in
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You’ve really got quite the infestation here

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That afternoon, we went into the picturesque village of Lyndhurst for lunch, then set out for Hurst Castle, which is an old military fortress on the sea, built by Henry VIII (completed in 1544). It later served as a prison for King Charles I, and was manned during WWII, with coastal gun batteries and searchlights. Now an English Heritage site, it’s right out on a spit, across from the Isle of Wight. We took a small ferry boat to get to it (yes, even our water-hating dog, poor thing).

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Lyndhurst
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Lyndhurst
One of the many thatched-roof cottages in the area
Waiting for the ferry

We wandered around the castle for a while, learning some of the history, taking in the sea views, and doing some Easter crafts with E. She even got into playing “princess” with me, which was pretty entertaining.

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Crossing the moat into the castle
View from Hurst Castle

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View from Hurst Castle
View from Hurst Castle
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Princess E on top of her castle–with bunny-ears crown

We caught one of the last ferries of the day back to the mainland, and headed back to New Park Manor for dinner. E had her “tea,” then we put the kids to bed, made sure they were asleep, and headed down for our civilized adult dining experience. And it was lovely. A bottle of wine and a three-course meal in a quiet, candlelit atmosphere, how proper of us!

The next morning was Easter, so we did Easter baskets from the Easter Bunny in our room for the girls (apparently this isn’t really a thing here), then went down to breakfast. There was a letter from the Easter bunny, along with some chocolate eggs and bunnies, on our table.

Easter breakfast at New Park Manor

There was also a special Easter egg trail hunt you could do out in the garden, so we did that after breakfast, along with our own Easter egg hunt.

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We asked the kitchen to make a picnic lunch for E, and we did a family “hike” into the forest, which was… slow. We didn’t get all that far. And there was quite a bit of whining. Our city kid is not that great at nature, apparently.

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But you has a sammich, and I has NO sammich!

Eventually she got into doing some “exploring” with me, which I enjoyed, but the walk back was still whiny and involved a fair amount of carrying. Sigh. At least I had my reward coming…

That afternoon I had a massage booked at the spa while the kids were booked into the crèche. I hadn’t been to the spa yet, and that was a big mistake. The spa is amazing. Guests can use the facilities, which include a pool (kids are allowed in this part), a sauna, a steam room, hydrotherapy pools, a therapeutic foot spa, and a “Canadian hot tub” outside on the deck.

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The kids are in the creche and I am in heavennnn
Herd of fallow deer grazing just outside the spa

I did it all. And then took M back with me Monday morning when the kids were at their last crèche session.

Sunday night’s dinner was less relaxing than Saturday’s, as R kept waking up crying, so I would have to leave the dinner table and go back to the room. I determined later she has an ear infection, but at the time I didn’t know why she kept waking up and screaming. I got several sympathetic looks from the other parent diners, whom I’m sure were all praying that the next cry wouldn’t come from the baby-listening device on their table. Dinner took several hours that night, and the chef actually completely remade our entrees because the first ones got cold. A big thank you for that!

After alternating morning jogs through the forest, breakfast, taking the girls swimming, and then one more trip to the spa during crèche time Monday morning (we really packed it in during our last few hours), it was time to leave. But because our family likes to go out in a blaze of glory and leave ’em wanting more, E threw a massive tantrum right in the lobby, which carried out into the car park as we were loading the car. If you want to know why I said you don’t want to go here if you don’t have kids, there you have it. I don’t care how nice the spa is.

We decided to drive around some of the nearby towns and villages to find a pub with a kids’ playground in the garden (this is actually pretty common) for lunch before heading back to London.

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Mind the cows
The Beaulieu welcomooing commootee
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The entrance to the Drift Inn pub
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Watching a cow munching away on the bushes next to the pub garden
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Peekaboo with a pup and a pint at a pub
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Cheerio, ponies!

All in all, it was a lovely holiday weekend in the country, and I am looking forward to our next adventure!