Mission 22: Chiang Mai

Where: Chiang Mai & Pai

When: February to March 2018

What: seeing family and friends, eating amazing food, and taking advantage of having a babysitter!

After 32 hours of travelling we finally arrived in Chiang Mai, Grandad was there to meet us from the train, and the boys were super excited! After one night of being fed and looked after at Grandad’s house, we moved to a hotel in Chiang Mai centre to spend a few days with friends, John and Mike, we got a lovely room in a nice hotel with pool, which was super cheap. The pool was way too cold for the boys, but made for an amazing hangover cure. We took the boys back to Grandad’s for a sleepover one evening so we could all go out, it had been a long time since the two of us had been out together, so we made the most of it. We went to a few bars, danced to some shit music, and ended being taken to a ‘karaoke bar’, where shortly after arriving we realised all wasn’t quite as it seemed, and we had to bribe our way out to avoid a hefty bill paying for various things we hadn’t agreed to! A few days later we hired a truck and took an early drive down the long windy road to Pai, as there weren’t enough seats up front, Jess volunteered for the back, and was thrown around for about 3 hours, regretting all the Chang from the night before, it didn’t stop him having a few beers when we got there though! Pai is a beautiful town, and it would have been nice to spend a few more days there, we managed to squeeze in a few of the sites in one day though; Mor Paeng waterfall and pool, which was not at all suitable for young children, but Jess had a great time sliding down the rocks with the local kids. And on the way we found a strawberry farm, which was a massive hit with the boys.

The next day Jess and his friends had a man day; off road motor biking. First time on a motocross bike riding through the jungle he was soon speeding off without fear, until losing control and crashing his bike. Luckily John and the guide managed to fix it up so they could finish the tour and enjoy the amazing scenery (by the end the bike wasn’t the only thing that was dented, the budget took a bit of a beating too!)

Meanwhile, I researched the easiest thing to do in Chiang Mai with two kids, and that was take them to Nic’s Restaurant & Playground, which was amazing. We had lunch, the boys played on the big playground and trampoline, while I sat and had a glass of wine. In the evening I took the boys to Grandad’s (again!), for a sleepover so we could have another night out (this time much more chilled out playing pool). The next day we all visited Siam Insect Zoo, which was brilliant, the boys got to hold lots of creatures, Arto loved it, and was kissing them all, Dylan wasn’t quite so keen.

That evening we drove mopeds to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and climbed the 300 steps to the top to see the beautiful temple. We made it in time to see the Monks sunset prayer, which was very peaceful and spiritual (except when Arto interrupted to announce he had a big bogey for me!) The drive down the mountain wasn’t as relaxing as the drive up since our headlight was out and there were no streetlights, but Jess got us down safely, as always.

John and Mike left to make their way back home, and we headed back to Grandad’s, where we spent such a relaxing and fun week. The boys really enjoyed playing (fighting!) with Grandad, they loved being in a cozy home for a week, without too much travelling around.

We went out exploring on the mopeds, swam at the local pool, went to the local farm (Ginger Farm), and Jess and I had a few more outings on our own, without the kids, one to the night market, one for a dinner, a relaxing day on the lake, and another very exciting one to Tesco’s!

I tried out a Muay Thai class, which was brilliant, but slightly daunting being the only ferang and only beginner there.

Five days before we were due to leave, we had to go to the Thai Immigration Office in Chiang Mai to extend our visas, it was a bit annoying to have to pay the 1900THB/£50 fee just for an extra five days, but that was just the way it worked out with friends and family visiting, and we worked out it would have cost much more to leave and re enter the country by land to extend our visa for free. We’d heard that children don’t have to pay the fee for overstaying their visa, nor do they have a black mark in their passport, so we took the chance and didn’t extend their visas. It made for a slightly tense wait at immigration when leaving Bangkok, but we were willing to hand them over to the authorities if necessary, they’re experienced travellers now, and i ain’t going to Thai prison for no one! But luckily we all got though and boarded our plane for Sydney together.

Australia hadn’t been in our original plan, we had planned to see a little more of South East Asia, and then on to China, but having spoken to lots of people about it, and done some more research, we decided to leave China until the boys are older. We were both itching to go to South America, and so we decided to blow the budget and add on a few more flights and a few more continents to our trip. Rather than go back on ourselves, via London, we decided we might as well make it a real round the world trip and drop in on our friends in Australia and New Zealand.

 

Mission 21: Southern Thailand

Where: Ao Nang, Khao Lak, Khao Sok, Ko Phagnan

When: January to February 2018

What: meeting friends, searching for the perfect Thai beach

Ao Nang

We’re going to meet Maaartha! Dylan has been so excited about having a holiday with his friend, and she’s finally here! He’s really missing having friends to play with (he has Arto of course, but they sometimes want to kill each other!) As we’re meeting friends, we booked all our accommodation in advance, so there’s not the usual last minute search for a place to stay as soon as we arrive. Our first stop is Ao Nang, we found a place (Orange Tree House) that was a bit out to town, and a little over budget, but was totally worth it, we had a lovely bungalow (still only one bed though!), with a lovely outdoor bath (we didn’t use it, too many mosquitoes!)

We spent a lot of time in the gorgeous pool, and spent the rest of the time at the beach, our closest beach, Noppharat is a lot prettier than Ao Nang beach, though the water there is almost too warm. We took a long boat to Railay one day, the kids loved getting the boat, and Railay is beautiful, but it was so busy. We stayed here for the afternoon and the kids had a lovely time in the sea. Jess went for a long swim around the rocks and found a cave tunnel to swim into.

Khao Lak

After a few days we travelled to Khao Lak by taxi, the hotel was fine, but nothing like as luxurious as the last place, though the same price. The owners were weirdly unfriendly towards us, the other guests were all retired European couples, so they were thrilled to have 3 preschoolers splashing around next to them in the pool! The more time we spent in Khao Lak, the more we realised it is definitely more suited to the retired, there were very few other families there. We tried not to spend too much time at the hotel, so we did some day trips. We hired mopeds and drove out to Ton Chong Fa waterfall, it was amazing, a bit of climbing gets you to the second level (out of 5), which we had all to ourselves, with a lovely waterfall, plunge pool and shallow water which was great for the kids to play around, they were all quite excited by the free fish spa pedicure they got!

Khao Lak beach was okay, but not amazing, so we took a day trip to another nearby beach, the songthaew driver suggested Coconut beach, so we went along with it, we arrived to see white sand, beautiful turquoise water, and not too many other people, it was the Thai beach we’d all been waiting for. We spent the whole day there, relaxing in the shade, eating at the lovely restaurant and swimming in the gorgeous sea.

Khao Sok

Our next and final stop with our friends was Khao Sok National Park. We’d booked a lovely place (Khao Sok Morning Mist), we each had a cottage (with two beds!), and it was almost half the price of the place in Khao Lak. It was so peaceful, all you could hear was the sound of birds and insects, the river running next to us (and our kids shouting!). We saw snakes running across our paths. The boys were playing outside and we heard Arto scream, so ran out panicked, to see Dylan carrying Arto towards us, they had both stood still over a load of big ants and got them crawling up their legs, they’re both still pretty wary of ants since Arto got bitten by a fire ant in Goa. It was so nice to see Dylan looking after his little brother, since they spend every minute together they do fight, but they are also really good mates. We went on a canoe trip down the river (with a guide, they aren’t keen to let you do it alone), where we saw snakes sleeping in trees, and a big frog which our guide caught, when he put it on our canoe it played dead, it laid there on it’s back for a few minutes completely still, playing dead, with it’s arms crossed on it’s chest, until the guide gave it a little poke and it jumped back into the water, it was so weird! We decided not to take the kids into the National Park itself, when we discovered on a run in there one morning, it’s not really suitable for young children, all the waterfalls and places of interest are at least 4km walk up rocky, bumpy paths, and all of the tours that take you into the park are unbelievably expensive. But we were just happy hanging out around the hotel with friends, it was so peaceful and relaxing being surrounded by nature. It also had a lovely pool, where Dylan decided he would learn to swim, first he swam a few feet on his own, quickly followed by a whole width, we were so proud of him, and were really hoping he would learn to swim during this trip.

Ko Phagnan

After 9 days together it was time for Martha to go home, we were all a bit sad as it had been so nice to hang out with friends. Martha and family were heading home, via Bangkok, and we couldn’t decide where to go next, we were due in Chiang Mai the following week (to meet more friends and family), so should we make our way slowly up the country, or should we go to a beautiful island?! So we chose the latter, mostly because Jess really wanted to try scuba diving and searching for whale sharks. We chose Ko Phangan, it took us almost a day to get there (we’re back to budget travel now!), by mini van, bus, and boat. The boat crossing was pretty rough, hot and unpleasant. We arrived at Ko Phangan and headed to Hat Yao, having done some last minute research on the boat. We arrived in the dark and had to find accommodation, we found a brilliant bargain, a lovely bungalow one minutes walk from the beach, with two beds! Hat Yao beach was great, beautiful and not too busy, though when the tide is in you do lose most of the sand. We went to a brilliant night food market on the island, Phantip, which had all of our favourite snack food. Unfortunately, and having checked weather conditions every day we were on Ko Phagnan, Jess wasn’t able to go out for a dive, as the sea was too rough, but it had been totally worth going to Ko Phangan, anyway, it’s a beautiful place.

So after a few days of chilling on the beach, we had another mammoth journey ahead of us, travelling to Chiang Mai. We’d have to get a boat to Donsak, a bus to Surat Thani train station, wait several hours for an overnight train to Bangkok, wait another 3 hours for an 11 hour daytime train to Chiang Mai, a total of 32 hours travelling for a trip that didn’t look that far on the map. We could instead have got a flight from Koch Samui, but it would have cost over four times as much, and where’s the adventure in that anyway?!

Up4amission recommends:

  • If possible bring Thai Bath into the country, or your own currency to exchange, the cash machine charges loads to withdraw cash.

Mission 20: Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur

Arriving at KL airport was a bit of a culture shock compared to the last 16 weeks in India and Sri Lanka, everything is shiny and modern and clean, the trains are fast and quiet and cool, it felt like we’d arrived in the future. And it had the price tag to match, it seemed really expensive. We’d managed to live within our budget quite easily in India and Sri Lanka, eating really well and staying in decent guest houses, in Malaysia it wasn’t going to be so easy.

We spent a really enjoyable few days in Kuala Lumpur, at a great budget hotel (Comfort City Inn), all squeezing onto one bed of course. We spent a lot of the time at playgrounds and visited a soft play once, to dodge the rain. The playground at KCC Park is epic, it’s like ten really good playgrounds all joined together, and it has a splash pool. We ate at street food markets, and loved it, especially the one at Jalan Alor, it has the best of South East Asian food, and is all delicious. We were recommended the Heli Pad bar as a way to view the KL skyline, it was much cheaper than going up the KL/Petronas towers, in fact entry is free, you just have to buy a drink, which is surprisingly inexpensive. And the view of Kuala Lumpur is brilliant, even in the middle of a storm.

Penang

We’d already researched workaway and had found a place we liked the sound of in Penang, a guest house and café that needed all sorts of help. We travelled there by bus, the most luxurious bus we’ve been on in a long time. We arrived and met the owner, who was really nice and friendly. We were put up in the guest house, in a dorm style room and were to share a bunk bed each with the boys. There were two more beds in our room, reserved for two Russians arriving the next day, we were a bit unsure how it would work, but they turned out to be the sweetest young couple, who were travelling around with almost no money, the lady was a yoga teacher, and the bendiest person I have ever met, who gave me excellent early morning yoga lessons, and the guy was super friendly. They didn’t seem bothered about sharing a room with young kids, so that was a relief! There were about eight or ten workawayers during our two week stay there, and they were all really cool, especially Matt from Poland M Gradowski trip, who is travelling around Asia with his tent and next to no money, doing workaways, camping any place he can find, and hitching his way from one place to the next. We took inspiration from him and gave hitchhiking a go, our first attempt was very successful, waiting just five minutes for a lovely couple to pick us up, in their shiny BMW, we tried a few more times whilst we were on the island, once when we got a bit lost, once on the way home from the beach when we got a lift within seconds of putting her thumbs out, and each time worked out really well.

The work they wanted from us was Electrical, lots and lots of it, so Jess was grafting really hard for half days, to try and get it all finished before we left. He was provided with very few tools (one screwdriver, and his own penknife!), but made friends with the two Bangladeshi guys working there, who were kind enough to lend him some of theirs. While the boys and I were tasked with looking after the fish and watering the plants. In the afternoons we went to the swimming pool at the end of our street to escape the heat, it had a children’s splash pool with playground inside, and it was awesome, plus a lovely 50 metre pool. Jess was especially pleased to meet us there after work, having spent the morning working in a really hot space with no air conditioning. We also visited the playground a few times, which was pretty amazing, but way too hot to spend much time in after 10am.

The highlight of our time in Penang was definitely our trips to Georgetown, it’s so beautiful, with such interesting street art and delicious food. On our second visit we hired bikes with child seats and had a brilliant time cruising around all day.

We tried to visit one of Penang’s islands one afternoon, but the information we found on the internet was pretty inaccurate, so we were unable to get the boat across. We did visit a very beautiful beach a few days later, on Penang itself, it was deserted, the sand was soft and white and we shaded ourselves under trees, unfortunately the water was pretty dirty and not great for swimming, plus we’d been warned about jellyfish.

Langkawi

After two weeks in Penang, our next stop was Langkawi, we found the cheapest way of getting there, by bus and then boat from the mainland (the boat from Penang direct to Langkawi is more expensive, and we didn’t fancy 3-4 hours at sea, the seasickness from the whale watching trip in Sri Lanka was too fresh in our minds!)
We stayed at a motel, which was very nice and pretty good value, less than 10 minutes walk to Pantai Cenang beach. The beaches on Langkawi are beautiful, fine white sand, and really clear calm water. We were also excited to find that Langkawi is duty free, so the beer was a quarter of the price it is elsewhere in Malaysia, and we could even afford wine! Jacob’s Creek for less than £6, yay! We were glad we chose to be in Pantai Cenang, although it’s the busiest most commercial beach on the island, we realised that the other beaches, though beautiful, didn’t have much in the way of food shops, restaurants etc, so it was much easier being here. In the evenings we bought food on sticks (chicken sausages, prawns, crab, fish, corn on the cob) from the stalls and ate it on the beach, it wouldn’t have been easy to eat so cheaply had we stayed near the other beaches.

We took an Uber out to the cable car one morning, as soon as we arrived the heavens opened, we deliberated for a while, was it worth going up when you can’t see anything?! It got a bit brighter and we made our way up, by the time we were at the top it was clear blue skies and really hot. It is allegedly the steepest cable car in the world, and certainly felt like it, the views from the top are amazing, and you can also walk over the (wobbly!) skybridge.

The following day we hired a car, we thought the boys needed to catch up on sleep so decided against a moped, we had the car for ten hours and neither of them slept until we were nearly home! But it was a treat to have the car anyway. First stop was Pantai Kok beach, which was a bit disappointing, so we went straight to the next, Pantai Pasir Tengorak. It was beautiful, secluded, not too busy, white sand and clear water. We had a picnic at the beach, and were lucky not to have been spotted by the naughty monkeys, who stole other people’s picnics. We’d been warned several times about jellyfish in Malaysia, we only saw one on a beach in Langkawi, but did feel like we were getting mild stings all over when swimming in the sea, Dylan especially, but it didn’t stop the little fish from enjoying the sea. We got back in the car and stopped at Shark Bay, said to be one of the best beaches here, but it doesn’t have much sand, and also has a cement factory in the background, so isn’t very picturesque. We kept going, to Tanjung Rhu beach, which is the one we wanted to go to the most, and where we wanted to spend sunset. It didn’t disappoint, it was definitely the best beach we’d been to here, really stunning, with beautiful trees right on the beach. The sunset here was spectacular, we had to sneak onto the Four Seasons private beach to get a better view.

Our next stop was Ao Nang beach in Thailand, to meet friends, as usual we left it to the last minute to plan our route, we asked at the travel agents in Langkawi, but it seemed (and it was) really expensive, so we got the ferry from Langkawi to Satun, the boat left at 9am and they were playing a really inappropriately scary movie, so we had to hide the kids behind the seats! An hour later we docked in Thailand! Immigration was pretty quick and painless, but while waiting in the queue we were talked into buying a bus ticket from an agent, turns out we could have got it a little cheaper at the bus station directly, but at least we saved money by not buying the tickets in Langkawi.

We hadn’t planned to visit Malaysia, but we had a really enjoyable few weeks here, our highlights were Georgetown, with it’s beautiful architecture, amazing street art and delicious food, and the beautiful beaches of Langkawi. We wish we could have explored more of Malaysia, but we had places to go, and people to see!

Up4amission recommends:

  • Jalan Alor for amazing street food in Kuala Lumpur
  • KCC Park for a huge children’s playground in Kuala Lumpur
  • The Heli Pad Bar, a cheaper way to view the KL skyline
  • Cycling around Georgetown, it’s the best way to see all the street art and taste all the delicious food
  • Tanjung Rhu beach, the most beautiful beach and the best place to view the sunset in Langkawi
  • Waiting until you reach the bus station to buy your tickets, it will be much cheaper

 

Mission 19: Stunning Sri Lanka

Where: Negombo → Adam’s Peak → Colombo → Kandy → Ella → Udawalawe → Talalla → Mirissa → Anuradhapura → Bentota → Weligama

When: November 2017 to January 2018

What: mountain climbing, riding the train, meeting family, seeing elephants, downpours at the beach, extending our visas, workaway, Christmas and surfing

Negombo, Adam’s Peak, Colombo

It’s true what they say about Sri Lanka, it’s like a really chilled out version of India, and you notice as soon as you arrive at the airport, less chaos, less people, and less noise.

While myself and the boys headed to Negombo, Jess made his way (on several buses) to Adam’s Peak. We didn’t think it was worth dragging the boys there, so Jess climbed it and we got to see the photos. It was a pretty long journey for a very brief visit, he arrived at 9pm, got up at 2am, and was at the top before sunrise. It was out of season, so there were no lights on the path, and far fewer people than there would be a month or so later, when apparently it can get so busy that there is a queue to reach the top. But he met some pretty cool people. Once he reached the bottom, he made his way back to Colombo, and up to Negombo to meet us.

Meanwhile, myself and the boys were relaxing at the pool at our guest house in the north of Negombo. We visited the beach, only to watch the fishermen bringing in their catch, as the water isn’t suitable for children to swim, due to the strong current.

We spent one more day in Negombo when the wanderer returned, before heading down to spend a few days in Colombo, where we stayed at a beautiful guest house in the south of the city. The following day we explored Colombo a little, starting of course with a playground. In the evening we went to Galle Face Green to watch the sunset and try some delicious street food.

Grandma arrived at the guest house the next afternoon, and to celebrate, we drove out to a restaurant in Mount Lavinia we’d found online, and it was closed, so the driver recommended another, on the beach, we had to cross the train track to get there. Once we were in we realised how close we were to the track when the first train sped by, it was so loud! We had a lovely meal, and very carefully crossed back over the track, after waiting for another noisy high speed train to pass.

Kandy, Ella, Udawalawe

The next morning we woke early to get the train from Colombo to Kandy, we’d already bought tickets, in 2nd class, and we all got seats together, something we would later realise we took for granted. The journey was around 3 hours long, the views were spectacular, and we were very lucky to have a group of young men in the seats opposite who were playing very chilled guitar, drums and singing the whole journey. The boys loved the mango sellers on the train “sweeet mango mango mango mango mango”. We all had a go at sitting in the open doorway, and it was a really enjoyable journey. In fact, on every journey we had on Sri Lankan railways, Dylan was always more keen to sit in the doorway than he was to sit on a seat.

We arrived in Kandy and found our guest house, which was down the steepest gravelly hill, we were very grateful not to be there in the rainy season. We were welcomed by a very enthusiastic owner, who couldn’t do enough to help us.

The following day we walked around Kandy and didn’t do too much as the boys were really tired. We found a lovely café (Café Secret Alley) and chilled there while Arto slept on the wooden table. In the evening we saw some very impressive performances at the Kandy Cultural show.

We had to get up really early the next morning, as the advanced train tickets for Ella were sold out, so we arrived at the station at 6am to buy unreserved seating, and waited at the station for a few hours for the train to come, as more and more people arrived at the station, we saw our chances of getting a seat diminish, so we discussed our tactics of how we would get a seat when the train arrived. The train pulled in, and our plan of Jess jumping through the window to nab a seat went out of the window when we saw the train was already packed, and the windows were half closed! So Jess and I bundled onto the train and found us all a tiny bit of walkway to stand in, while the boys sat on the bags, constantly moving to get out of the way of the hawkers. An hour or two into the 6 hour journey we all found a seat, and the journey was much more relaxing from there. The views were amazing again, even more so than the journey from Colombo to Kandy, as we were now in the mountains.

We got another great guest house in Ella, which was such good value, the breakfast was amazing, and we ate on the terrace overlooking the tea fields. We discovered Kotthu Roti at dinner that evening; roti bread is chopped very loudly on a board with massive knives, and stir fried with vegetables, eggs and meat, we, including the boys, couldn’t get enough of it for the rest of the trip. We were very glad the boys were into kottu, as otherwise it wasn’t that easy to feed the kids in Sri Lanka, everything is spicy or incredibly sweet, even really young children eat surprisingly spicy foods.

We visited the Ravana Waterfall, which is beautiful, but we were disappointed to hear you can’t swim in it. The other waterfalls were quite a long drive away, and since the boys had had a few long travel days, we didn’t want to push it. That afternoon, after a rest, we all climbed Little Adam’s Peak. It was quite hard work, but a few welcome drops of rain made it easier. The boys really enjoyed it and it was a great alternative to the real thing. We found a restaurant that evening that did pizza AND kottu AND beer, and had live music. So everyone was happy.

The next day we got a taxi to our next stop, Udawalawe. We could have got two buses, but we heard they get ridiculously overcrowded and the drivers aren’t keen on taking backpacks, so we decided to treat outselves to a bit of luxury, and got a taxi. As we passed Udawalawe Park we saw an elephant right on the edge of the park, so we stopped to say hello.

We arrived in Udawalele to yet another amazing guest house, and so cheap. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot else going on in the town, so we had dinner at the guest house, and it was a real feast of Sri Lankan curries. And the boys were really excited to have plain boiled vegetables and plain rice, no really, they love it!

Our safari jeep picked us up before sunrise and we headed into Udawalawe Park. It wasn’t long before we saw one elephant, then another, then another, then a family of elephants with a tiny baby. It was really amazing to see so many elephants, and some so close up.

Talalla, Mirissa

The next day we had to get another taxi to our next stop, because of sickness and pouring rain. We arrived at Talalla, to the only reasonably priced guest house we could find, it was up on the hill at one end of the beach, and it was perfect. The lady running the place, who was only 18, was very sweet, she couldn’t leave the boys alone, she really just wanted someone to play with. The beach here is great for kids; it’s in a bay, so the water is very calm and shallow, and the sand is lovely and soft. We spent as much time on the beach as possible, in between downpours. It’s really quiet at Talalla, and a great place to spend a few days, but after that we wanted a bit more variety, so we headed to Mirissa.

After booking a guest house that sounded great on booking.com but turned out to be very disappointing in real life, we found a lovely place on the beach  in our budget. Auntie Maryam booked a very last minute trip to see us, and she arrived the next day, having already done the Colombo to Kandy train ride, and then caught the train down to the south.

It rained while we were in Mirissa, A LOT! And although we didn’t let it stop us from going in the sea, it wasn’t exactly fun playing on the beach. So we did a few day trips, one to Galle, it was raining there too, but very beautiful nonetheless.

After a few more wet days in Mirissa, a few more Kottu, and many more Lion beer, it was time to leave Mirissa, we headed back to Colombo, while Grandma and Maryam made their way back to London.

We were due to travel to Anuradhapura to start our workaway the next day, but we’d decided to extend our visa and spend a little longer exploring Sri Lanka, and we had to do it while in Colombo. So we spent the morning at the immigration office, luckily we got given a priority ticket because of the kids, otherwise we would have spent the afternoon there too, it was so busy.

Ralapanawa, Wilpattu, Anuradhapura

After a long journey we arrived at our workaway late in the evening. Our host family had prepared dinner and were waiting for us. The house seemed really nice, though it was difficult to tell in the dark. There were hundreds and hundreds of tiny beetles in the house, our host family weren’t bothered, so we pretended not to be as well, apparently they’re just here following the heavy rain, so after about a week they were all gone.

Our job at this workaway was to teach English to the local children. We had thought it would be in a school, but it was actually going to be in the front of our house, and we were going to be doing it alone. So the following afternoon 20 children arrived, between the ages of 5 and 11, and we were supposed to teach them English, some already knew a few words, but not a lot. Although it was a bit daunting at first, since neither of us had any experience in teaching, we soon made a plan, it went really well and we all really enjoyed it. Nanda, who is running the academy is really passionate about teaching and providing opportunity to the children living in the villages.

We had several visits to the hospital and Dr while we were here, for various non serious reasons, the Drs and nurses were great, but quite keen to overmedicate, we got prescribed so many different medicines. Dylan was prescribed piriton one evening and it instantly made him act like he was completely hammered, i’m sure they must have got the dosage wrong.

We made great friends with our host family, and all the people in the village; we got invited to lunches and dinners, the school show, and were treated like VIPs. Everyone we passed on our moped took a double take, not used to seeing a family of four westerners riding through their village.

We visited Wilpattu National Park with Nanda and some other volunteers. We were hoping to see a leopard, but weren’t lucky enough, but we did see a brown sloth bear, which was amazing, crocodiles, lots of birds, hundreds of butterflies, and elephants. We also stopped at Kudiramalai beach, alongside the park, an incredibly beautiful, almost deserted beach, which was perfect for swimming.

Jaffna & The North

After two weeks it was time to move on and explore the north. We caught the train to Jaffna, we were very lucky that the 7 day train strike came to and end the day before we left. Jaffna and the north are really beautiful, and are less developed in terms of tourism than the rest of the country, due to the Sri Lankan civil war with the Tamil Tigers ending here only 8 years ago.

We found a good guest house when we arrived, breakfast was awesome. And the boys were really pleased to see it had a Christmas tree. We took a full day tuktuk tour of the peninsular on our first day, visiting Point Pedro, Nilavarai bottomless well (they’ve just discovered it’s not bottomless, but 52 metres deep), we were disappointed to find you can’t jump in and swim there, as the photos suggested. We also visited Keerimalai natural springs, which has a good pool for men, and a slightly manky separate pool for women. The boys had a swim, but were being bothered a lot by some young men, so it wasn’t that enjoyable.

The next day we visited Delft island, we got an early tuktuk for one hour along the bumpy roads to get the 8am ferry. The Sri Lankan Navy run ferry was packed and pretty hot, but it was free. We narrowly avoided being puked on by a child on the top deck above us. We took a tuktuk tour of the island with a very young man who spoke little English, he took us to the main sites, the giants footprint (slightly underwhelming!), the Fort, a beautiful almost deserted beach where we had a lovely swim, and to see the beautiful wild horses of Delft island. We thought we’d got a pretty good deal on the tuktuk (cheaper than suggested in Lonely Planet), but a shopkeeper asked us how much we’d paid, and ordered the driver to give us back 500 Rupees, as he thought he was taking the piss! The ferry ride back to the peninsular was pretty awful; they closed the doors, there was no air, and the fan was broken, the sea was pretty rough, the boat was packed, and everyone had sick bags, we were so pleased to get off and get on a local bus at the other end with all the doors and windows open. One thing we love about the local buses, apart from them being really breezy is that they always have really loud music playing. One thing we hate about them is that they drive like maniacs, overtaking everything else on the road, and honking at everything in their path.

We happened upon the Jaffna Christmas food festival, which was hosted by the Sri Lankan Navy, and it was our highlight of our trip to the north, we had the most amazing kottu, booked by the navy chefs, so delicious, and so cheap! We tried to sit and listen to Christmas songs, but the boys got impatient as they were delayed due to too much talking! So we headed to the Wall of Death, the best one we have ever seen. As we waited for it to start, standing on a rickety rackety scaffold, we watched the performers hammering nails into the wooden planks, while praying. Then two guys on motorbikes, followed by one guy on a pushbike, rode the wall of death together, while performing acrobatics, sometimes blind, it was mental!

We knew all the trains were fully booked due to holidays. So we looked at lots of options and reluctantly booked an overnight bus from Jaffna to Colombo. We stupidly booked the back seats, only to find that they were the only seats on the bus that didn’t recline. We let the boys stretch out over 2.5 seats, and were left to squeeze into 1.5 seats between us. The boys slept okay, we didn’t sleep at all. Jess tried to lie down on the floor between the seats and got stuck. The bus seemed to be driving at the speed of light, and we arrived in Colombo over an hour early, at 4am.

Bentota, Weligama

We waited a few hours for the first train to Bentota, at 6:50am. Because we’re too tight/broke to get a taxi or tuktuk! We found a lovely hotel near the beach and got a brilliant bargain. Bentota has a really nice, long beach with calm sea, so we spent a few days relaxing here and doing little else. We took a day trip to Galle, and tried to do some Christmas shopping, with not much success, they either had not very suitable but very expensive toys in the Fort, or really cheaply made toys in the toy shop, we went with the toy shop, and some of the toys were already broken by Boxing Day! 😞

We spent some time deliberating over where to go next and where to spend Christmas, we wanted more beach, but didn’t want to return to Mirissa, as we’d done that, so we opted for Weligama. We treated ourselves to a lovely guest house, which was only slightly over budget, and which had a separate bed for the boys, a real treat these days. It also had the most epic breakfast ever, it just kept coming and coming, about 5 courses, we all needed a lie down afterwards.

Weligama is a surfing beach, but is also great for kids to splash around in the shallows. Jess and I took it in turns to have an hour surf every morning, including On Christmas Day. We spent Christmas Day evening at Mirissa beach, eating delicious seafood and drinking cocktails on the beach. There were a lot of people doing the same, so it was really busy and had a very nice vibe.

A few days later we took a whale watching tour from Mirissa, with Raja and the Whales. Apparently it was not a rough day at sea, so we didn’t take any seasickness tablets in advance, we saw a few other people taking them preventatively, but assumed they were just really prone to seasickness. Less than half an hour in and we were all feeling really sick, we had to pass on the plates of lovely fruit they were handing out. Dylan was the sickest and the boys spent most of the trip asleep, but we still managed to enjoy it. We were so amazed to see blue whales, really close to our boat, spraying water out of their blowholes, and flicking their tails out of the water, and dozens of spinner dolphins following the boat along for miles and jumping out of the water.

We decided we had enough time to take a trip to Yala National Park, we were so disappointed not to have see a leopard in Wilpattu that we thought we’d try our luck here, as it’s the best place to see them in Sri Lanka. It was a long journey, we got picked up in a taxi at 1am, and got to the park entrance at 5 ish, along with all the other tourists on their Christmas holidays, as well as all the Sri Lankan tourists on their holidays, it was so packed. Alas, we didn’t spot a leopard, in fact we didn’t spot much at all, but we did see a few elephants, a few spines from a crocodiles back, some beautiful birds, lots of peacocks, but in conclusion, it wasn’t worth the trip, nor the expense, it wasn’t anything like as good as the other safaris we have been on.

We met up with our friend, Barney a few times as he was staying in nearby Dewatta, a lovely beach, nice and quiet and good for surfing, it was great to catch up with him, the boys loved playing with him and thought he was a really tall child, asking why he didn’t have any toys.

We visited the Tsunami photo museum in Telwatta. It was really heart wrenching, and very difficult to see the photos and read the stories, we took it in turns to go in while the boys played outside. It was really eye opening and we’re very glad we visited, Sri Lanka and this area in particular were hit really hard, with over 36,000 dead or missing. Most of the survivors from Telwatta and surrounding areas have moved inland, because they are now scared of the sea that they once lived right next to. We rode the trains along that stretch of coast many times, and thought a lot about the passengers on the train who were almost all killed, about 1,700 people, as the train was knocked off the track and destroyed by the tsunami, the largest rail disaster in world history.

After 6 weeks in Sri Lanka it was time to leave. We headed to the airport and stayed overnight in an excellent and really good value guest house, run by the most helpful man, who took us to a great restaurant for delicious Sri Lankan curry, it was a lovely way to spend our last evening here. We had a fantastic time in Sri Lanka, it is such a beautiful place, with the most wonderful people and amazing landscapes. Our highlights were the train rides, teaching English to the children, surfing at Christmas, spotting blue whales, spinner dolphins and a sloth bear, seeing friends and family, chocolate roti, and kottu, which we really hope to find again!

Up4amission recommends

  • Wildlife parks: Udawalawe and Wilpattu (both better than Yala)
  • Sri Lankan culture: stay with a Sri Lankan family, either through workaway, or a Home stay, they are the most hospitable, friendly people
  • Kottu roti: chicken, vegetable, egg, cheese, whatever, just eat one
  • Raja and the Whales for whale watching out of Mirissa
  • Catching the train from Colombo to Kandy, and from Kandy to Ella
  • Surfing in Weligama, Lucky’s surf school was our favourite

 

 

Volunteering with kids; WWOOF & Workaway

Originally we decided to volunteer during our travels as a means of saving money. There was no way our budget was going to stretch to one year if we had to pay for accommodation and food for the 4 of us every day.

It has certainly saved us a lot of money so far, so much so that we’ve managed to add another two months onto our travels, but it has also turned out to be much more than a money saver; some of the most interesting and enjoyable memories have been made while we were working through WWOOF or workaway.

We have been so lucky so far to have found really great hosts, who have welcomed all four of us and looked after us really well.

Our first few WWOOF placements, in Europe, we booked while we were still at home in London, as we knew more or less where we were going to be and when.

Our very first placement was at Benico Bio, an organic fruit and vegetable farm, run by two young cousins, in Mimizan, on the west coast of France. They put us up in one of their caravans, and had a great camp setup, with a hot shower, basketball net, slack line, and big kitchen and eating area. It couldn’t have been better for our first volunteering experience, the hosts were so laid back and friendly, and really accommodating to the kids. We learnt a lot about eating more organically, and about growing vegetables, and were inspired to try and grow our own when we return home (in our tiny garden!) During our stay there were about twenty other WWOOF’ers there, mostly French, or from elsewhere in Europe, it was great for the kids to be around so many other people. The work was really interesting, and pretty easy going, we harvested, sowed and planted, the boys really enjoyed helping too. In our free time we visited the beach and lakes, swam and surfed. We spent two weeks here, had a great time, met some awesome people, and ate really well.

Our second placement was just a few weeks later and was in a remote village of just 20 people, Usún, in Navarra, Northern Spain. It was completely different from the first, but equally enjoyable. We stayed for two weeks with a couple and their 10 month old daughter. They were really friendly, and we got on so well. They had been converting their 1,000 year old house for the last four years, it was almost finished, they had done an amazing job. They needed our help to build dry stone walls for the fruit trees in their garden, and also with maintaining the plants in their garden. They taught us a lot about living in a more eco friendly and sustainable way and being more self sufficient. We got to explore the beautiful surroundings in our time off, which included swimming in the local river, climbing La Foz de Arbayún to see the biggest colony of vultures in Europe, and riding horses in the local riding school.

A few weeks later we returned to France for our third placement, in Mailhac, near Narbonne, staying with a family of seven, who had gone back to basics and were living in a field, in a yurt and trailers, with no running water, and a little electricity provided by a solar panel. Their set up was only a few years old, so they didn’t have any trees in the field yet, which made camping there pretty hot! We learnt a lot from them about how to live more simply and more economically. We helped them to prepare an enclosure for the arrival of their new goats, and to build an outdoor eco shower and staircase. Our kids loved being there, they had other children for them to play with, and they also loved getting involved with feeding the horses and the chickens. They were very relaxed about when we should help, and how much, which was great, because it was so hot there in the middle of the day, we had to retreat to the shade. Luckily the family had access to a swimming pool nearby, and there was a beautiful lake a short drive away where we spent lots of time, the beach was also not too far away.

We decided to take a break from working for the summer, we’d been so hot at the last place that we thought working outside in Southern Europe in July and August would be too hard! So we looked for our next placement in Austria at the end of August, this time we used workaway.info which had been recommended to us by someone along the way. We found a couple that needed help with house and garden maintenance, some electrics and plumbing, beekeeping, and house cleaning. Jess was really interested to learn about beekeeping, and we both picked up some great cooking tips, as they were both great cooks. They live on a big estate with two huge houses, a swimming pool, and a huge garden. We had our own very large bedroom and bathroom. When we weren’t working, we had a great time enjoying their swimming pool, and exploring the beautiful surrounding mountains.

We thought we should fit in one more before leaving Europe for India, so we did a very last minute search for a place and found a weeks work in The Netherlands, with a semi-retired couple who owned a meadow that they needed help maintaining, they specifically asked for people who had experience driving a tractor and using a chainsaw, so were very pleased to hear that Jess could use both. The couple were so nice and made us feel right at home, they loved having the kids there, and were so pleased and grateful for the work that Jess did. We had a great time riding our hosts electric bikes around, and enjoyed spending chilled out time outside and finding all the local kids playgrounds. It was great to experience living and working with people who were older than we’d stayed with before, and we loved hearing all their stories.

We didn’t even look into WWOOF or workaway in India, we thought India for 8 weeks with kids would be hard enough, so didn’t want to make it harder. But by the time we got to Sri Lanka we were up for another challenge, and we found one in Anuradhapura, teaching English to young children. Originally it was meant to be just Georgie teaching the kids, but once we realised there would be around 20 of them, that they were all different ages, some hardly knew any English, and that there would be no one else to help, plus no kind of lesson plan, Georgie roped in Jess and the boys too! And it turned out to be great, we held the lessons at the house of our host family, and we managed to teach the kids for 2 hours every afternoon, and they seemed to really enjoy it, and learn a lot from it. Their parents were also all really pleased, in fact the whole village was happy to have us there, we really underestimated the impact that our visit would have on this small community, most of whom had never seen or spoken to a westerner before, they were all so friendly and welcoming and seemed genuinely sad when we left, as were we. It was very humbling to see how generous the people here are.

We’ve just booked in our next workaway, for January, it will be a new experience for all of us, helping out in a guest house in Penang, Malaysia.

About WWOOF and Workaway

WWOOF (WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms). A worldwide movement linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences.

WWOOF is a worldwide organisation, it has individual websites for each country, meaning that you have to register for each individual country where you wish to work, so it can work out expensive if you are on a world trip, but is a great organisation, with really great hosts and opportunities, so is well worth it.

Workaway the world’s leading community for volunteering, working and cultural exchange.

Workaway, on the other hand, has just one website for the whole world, so you have to register only once, which makes it a lot cheaper if you’re travelling to a lot of countries. The kind of hosts and placements you find on workaway can be a lot more varied, WWOOF is restricted to organic farming, but workaway can be pretty much anything, from teaching, working in a guest house/hostel, house renovation, to childcare, and anything in between.

Would we recommend volunteering/working while travelling with young kids?

Absolutely! It opens you up to a completely different type of travel, it allows you to really live like a local, and get completely immersed in the local culture. You get to see places and things that you wouldn’t easily come across as a tourist. You get to meet wonderful people, eat amazing food. AND you get to save money, which may allow you to travel a little longer.

Tips for finding great hosts and having a great experience

  • Create a good profile on each site, including photos, and all relevant experience
  • When searching for hosts, check the box that says, families welcome/can host families
  • Be completely honest with your host in advance to manage their expectations, if you have very young children tell them that you won’t both be able to work at the same time, as one of you will have to look after the kids (most places that advertise as being family friendly will be understanding)
  • We found that two weeks was the maximum time to stay in one place, after that we were all keen to move on to the next place, and to spend some time alone as a family
  • Be prepared to spend lots of time with your hosts, you are only required to work 4-5 hours per day, which is great as it gives you time to explore and experience the area that you’re staying in, but we found that it was always best to spend the afternoons with our hosts, rather than go off on our own, as there is so much they can show you that you might not find on your own, and so much you can learn from them.

 

 

Mission 18: Incredible India, the final part

Where: Bengaluru, Pondicherry, Mamallapuram

When: October to November 2017

What: busy Bengaluru, un petit peu de La France in Pondy, relaxing in laid back Mamallapuram

Bengaluru

Since we were passing through Bengaluru, we decided to stop for a few days. We gave the boys a break from sightseeing and let them just do kids stuff. We’d read a brilliant post by a family who live there Travelynnfamily – Bangalore with Kids recommending all the best places to go with kids, so it was really easy for us; playgrounds, soft plays, science museum, and the boys loved it!

So happy to be in a playground!

We stayed in Bengaluru a few days longer than planned, because we were waiting for the overnight train to Pondicherry, which only runs once a week. When Friday arrived we were quite glad to be getting away from the hustle and bustle and really excited to be moving to Pondicherry, which we’d read great things about.

Pondicherry

We arrived in Pondicherry and had to put on our raincoats for the first time since leaving Europe (I was secretly quite glad we were making use of them). Our guest house was great, which was good because for the next few days it rained, A LOT. I went out to get some lunch for everyone, it was pretty wet when I left, and by the time I walked back I was almost knee deep in water. For the rest of our stay in Pondicherry there were heavy downpours, we had a few very wet rides on the moped, with Dylan getting the wettest as he was at the front, but it didn’t stop him from whooping away while we rode around. Jess picked up a hitchhiker when he was out on the moped on his own, he gave a schoolboy a lift home from school, the boy thought it was really funny to keep reaching over Jess’s shoulder to turn the accelerator and make them go faster!

We met with a friend and old teacher of Jess’s brother, who lives in Pondicherry, they live in a stunning French colonial three storey house in the nicest part of town, he invited us to spend the day with him and his three sons, they took us for a delicious lunch in Auroville, then to see the new house and studio that they have almost finished building, which is incredible. We all travelled in their van, Dylan sat in the boot with his new friend Basile, and was in hysterics being thrown around and falling all over the place. In the evening we played football with them and the local kids in the stadium. More and more kids wanted to join the game, so it went from 5 a side to about 15 a side. Later in the week we went back to their house for dinner, and were prepared an amazing seafood curry by their cook.

We took a trip out to Auroville on the bike down a road which was much busier than we’d realised, with trucks and buses overtaking us. We wanted to see the Matrimandir, and hoped to get a glimpse of the biggest crystal in the world contained inside, but you have to book a few days in advance, so we did, unfortunately when the day came it was too wet, and the visit was cancelled.

The food in Pondicherry was amazing, we had delicious meals in French and Indian restaurants, croissants and hot chocolate in French bakeries, we stopped at an Indian bakery on the way home one day, really filled our faces, trying everything they had, sweet and savoury, it can be a bit of a spice lottery, you never know what you’re going to get! Amazingly the bill only came to 100 Rupees.

Pigging out at the local bakery

Mamallapuram

After a few more days hanging out and enjoying the food and croissants in Pondicherry, we hopped on a local bus and made our way up the coast to Mamallapuram, a laid back surfer town, famous for it’s temples and stone carving.

We found an amazing guest house, run by such lovely people. There are lots of lovely shops in the town, including a lot of shops with huge beautiful stone carved statues outside. The beach at Mamallapuram isn’t suitable for swimming unless you’re a really strong swimmer, so we didn’t take the boys in. But there were plenty of other things to do, like a visit to Crocodile Bank, where the boys were very impressed to watch the keepers feeding their huge 17ft long saltwater crocodile his dinner.

We also visited some of Mamallapuram’s famous temples and carvings. We saw a stunning view as we climbed to the top of the Mamallapuram lighthouse. We tried and failed to push Krishna’s butterball down the hill, it is a gigantic granite boulder that looks like it’s ready to roll, but has apparently been in the same spot for 1,200 years, and has survived typhoons and tsunamis.

We’d tried a few restaurants in Mamallapuram, but we hadn’t come across anything amazing, one morning we were talking with the owner of the Chai shop, and he told us he used to have a restaurant on the beach before the Tsunami, but he hadn’t reopened. He offered to make a fish dinner for us at his shop, so he bought a white snapper at the market for us to eat that evening, we sat in the Chai shop while he and his wife made the most delicious fish we have eaten in a long time, possibly ever! And for a fraction of the price it would be in a restaurant.

Amazing fish dinner at the Chai shop

After 4 days in Mamallapuram it was almost time to leave India, we got on a local bus, and headed to Chennai, to spend one night there, before our morning flight.

We had mixed feelings about leaving India, we’d been there for 8 weeks, but it seemed like longer, it seems like such a long time ago that we left Europe. We thought that it was going to be really hard taking the boys to India, having been to India before, we know what it is like, India is chaos! But we were wrong, it really wasn’t hard work, in fact, in a way it was almost easier being here with kids than without. People in India really love kids (sometimes it can get a bit much with the constant selfie requests, cheek tugging and pulling around), but everyone has been so welcoming and accommodating. It was a real pleasure to come to India with the boys, and we’re all really going to miss it.

Up4amission recommends:

  • Catching local buses when you can, they are so cheap, and much more fun than a taxi
  • Pondicherry: a visit to Auroville, stopping at one of the lovely cafés on the road leading to it
  • Baker Street café, for lovely croissants, and a taste of France in Pondicherry
  • Funky Monkey’s soft play, Bangalore; if you’re travelling for a long time, give the kids a treat, and yourselves a break! (It’s surprisingly expensive though, comparable to London prices).

Mission 17: Incredible India, part 2

Where: Goa & Hampi

When: October 2017

What: chilling, unwinding, relaxing, slowing down the pace

Goa

We almost delayed our trip to Goa as the forecast predicted heavy rain and thunderstorms every day, but we’re so glad we didn’t; in the three weeks we were there it only rained twice, both times during the night.

We started at Arambol, Goa’s northernmost beach, it was one of our favourites from our previous trip, and it is perfect for kids, with a large beach and fairly small waves. We spent a week here, before moving down to the south beaches, stopping for a few days en route in Anjuna, the beach here isn’t great for kids, when the tide comes in there is no beach, so after hanging around for the famous Wednesday flea market (where we bought a few things that cost as much to send home as they did to buy!) we moved down to Patnem in the far south, our favourite place in Goa by far.  It has such a lovely big beach, is really quiet and very chilled out.

During our 3 weeks in Goa we just enjoyed being outside and taking a break from sightseeing. The boys were so happy to swim in the sea every day, Dylan has got so confident in the sea now, at the start of our trip it was a struggle to even get him to paddle, now he’s the first in and the last out, and loves being thrown around by the waves, and Arto really loves it too. When we’d had too much sun, we retreated to the shade, played cards, made up new games, had a real laugh with each other, ate really well, and took full advantage of the fact that the Kingfisher in Goa is cheaper than most of the rest of India 🍻.

We did a lot of nature spotting, an early morning dolphin watching boat trip in Patnem, where we saw brief glimpses of dolphins, and lots of jellyfish, we saw a baby octopus bobbing around in the water near the beach, lots of crabs, a bearded dragon, tiny piglets and lots more.

Since arriving in Goa, we’d eaten at a beach restaurant for almost every meal, and even though it’s really cheap, we realise we need to try harder, to try local places and save more money. Jess finds Patnem Chai shop, and there’s no turning back! We go there for breakfast nearly every day to eat their delicious banana bread (when we’re not eating corn flakes out of the bottom of a plastic bottle in our room), for an omelette lunch most days, and Jess always finds a way to go past there to snack on their yummy 10 Rupee samosas. They also rent bikes for only 80 Rupees per day, which is much cheaper than getting a moped every time you need to go into town for the ATM, or to buy fruit or beer.

On the days when we want to explore a bit further, we rent a moped, just one for the four of us. It turns out we fit pretty well, and the boys love it, whooping away as we drive down the road. We drive to Agonda for a day, a few beaches north, a lovely beach, a lot like Patnem.

After almost three weeks in Goa, we plan our next move, and get on the wait list for the day time train to Hospet, to visit Hampi, our seats are confirmed the night before, and we’re off. Despite having been on a waitlist, our carriage is almost empty for the whole journey, and we have a very chilled out ride watching the amazing scenery go by.

Hampi

We decided to stay on the more chilled out north side of the river in Hampi, so when we arrived we went straight to catch the boat over, and were fortunate enough to catch Lakshmi the Hampi elephant having her bath.

Our guest house, Mowgli’s is perfect, it has a big space for the boys to run around, has a beautiful view overlooking rice fields, and the manager is super welcoming and friendly, and in the next few days becomes the boys new best friend.

As we only have a few days in Hampi, we plan an early start the next morning to see sunrise at Hanuman Monkey temple on the north side of the river. We drag the boys out of bed in the dark at 5am, we all get onto a moped and drive down the bumpy roads, until we arrive at the bottom of the temple steps, all 575 of them. It’s still dark so we have to go slow, but Dylan is determined to climb all the way on his own, and he does it. He does so much walking and climbing these days, his calf muscles are getting pretty chiselled! When we reach the top the boys are really excited to see dozens of monkeys jumping all around us, they barely notice the amazing view over Hampi. We give one of the boys’ bananas to a small monkey, and the other monkeys want in, a big one jumps on Jess’s shoulder, unzips the backpack (it was fully zipped up!) takes out the bag of bananas and runs off to enjoy them. Dylan got really upset, and failed to see the funny side, I think we got him up too early!

Later that day we ride out to Sanapur Lake. We see a lot of signs on the way warning that we shouldn’t swim here as there’s a crocodile in the lake, but we go and look for ourselves. We meet a group of tourists when we arrive, who have all been for a swim, and they tell us that there’s no crocodile, it’s a myth, and the signs are for the benefit of the locals that cannot swim, to deter them from going in the water. So the boys dip their feet in, and Jess swims out to a rock in the middle of the lake. Halfway over he considers what his chances would be if there really were a crocodile in the lake and he was swimming all on his own, I suddenly notice him pick up speed. I go for a swim too, but stay pretty close to the edge!

The following day we do the main tour of the temples on the south side of the river, our host organises us a driver for the day, and he takes us to the main temples, which are all amazing. We don’t try and fit in too many, as it’s pretty hot, the boys are tired, and are all templed out. We stop for lunch at the famous Mango Tree, which has changed location in the last 10 years to the bazaar, so they no longer have the big space and amazing view I remembered it for. After lunch we visit our last temple, Virupaksha, a beautiful temple where Lakshmi the elephant resides, and gives out blessings if you slip her a few Rupees.

We have an overnight train booked to Bengalaru on the next day, so, having seen all the temples, we see what else there is to do in Hampi for kids, and we head to Kishkinda Water Park. The boys are happy; it has a playground, it has water slides, it has a swimming pool, and lots of monkeys.

After almost 4 weeks of chilling on the beaches of Goa and laid back Hampi, we leave feeling incredibly relaxed, let’s hope we can stay that way during our next trip to the buzzing, chaotic, tech city that is Bengaluru…

Up4amission recommends:

  • Patnem Chai shop (Patnem, Goa), amazing banana bread, samosas, and chai
  • Renting a moped, it was comfortable for all four of us to get on one, and gives you so much freedom to go where you want
  • Renting a bicycle, for a cheaper form of transport and to get some exercise
  • Overnight trains, they are great in India, and such an easy and cheap way to get from A to B. Young children can share with an adult, and if you’re lucky they’ll sleep for most of the journey
  • Mowgli’s Guest House, Hampi. Great value accommodation, very friendly staff

Mission 16: Incredible India, part 1

Where: Delhi, Rajasthan and Agra

When: September & October 2017

What: Forts, forts, and more forts, palaces, searching for Shere Khan, and celebrating our Birthday at one of the wonders of the world

Delhi

The flight from Amsterdam to Delhi was brilliant, not because Jet Airways did anything particularly special, but because the boys were amazing! Arto had a nap as soon as we were in the air, so was in a great mood for the rest of the flight, and Dylan was in heaven with his own TV screen and remote, and 8 hours of non stop kids films and programmes. Jess and I even managed to take full advantage of the free wine and watched two films each, almost uninterrupted!

A surprisingly relaxing flight to Delhi

We arrived in Delhi at around midnight, and waited for ages to have our visas checked, as expected. The boys were both asleep in the taxi by the time we arrived in our hotel and slept until morning.

We’d written off the next day as a hotel day to acclimatise etc, but we all got ants in our pants, so went off exploring. We got a taxi for the day, first stop was Lodi Gardens, a lovely big green park, perfect for a the kids to have a run around. The gardens contain tombs of various rulers of India, which we unwittingly let the boys climb all over, until the security guard told us what they were! 😬 we’ll blame that on the jet lag! After a lovely lunch at a local restaurant recommended by our driver, we went to Swaminarayan Akshardham, a stunning Hindu house of worship, with beautiful grounds and buildings. After sunset the stepwell in the centre shows the Sahaj Anand light, sound and water show, which tells the story of the gods of the elements celebrating a victory over the demons, it was all in Hindi, but we got the gist, and it was such a spectacle, all four of us loved it. And apparently way better than the sound and light show at the Red Fort, which most tourists go to. Sadly we have no photos as cameras are banned.

The next morning we made an early visit to the Red Fort, we got there by 9am, it was pretty quiet, but already so hot! We manage a quick walk around the grounds while drinking lots of water. Arto is quite enjoying his new celebrity status, everyone wants to shake his hand, give him a cheek tug, take a selfie, Dylan is not up for it at all.

We head back to the hotel to enjoy the air con, and chill there until we have to leave for our overnight train to Udaipur. We booked the train before we arrived in India, knowing that you have to be quick in India, as the trains get booked up fast. We booked first class beds, probably the only time we can afford to pay for first class! Having been on an overnight train in second class in India pre kids, we decided we should ease the boys into it gently, by travelling relatively luxuriously. The train was on time, and so well organised, luckily we got a two bed cabin, so didn’t have to share with anyone else, we each shared a bed with the boys and everyone got a decent night’s sleep.

Udaipur

We arrived in Udaipur at 7am, and got a taxi to Nukkad Guest House. We were very pleased with it, our room was beautiful and bright, the guest house was in a great location, and the family who ran and lived in the guest house were so friendly.

Delhi was really interesting, and a great experience, but we were so pleased to be away from the chaos, and have arrived in such a chilled out place as Udaipur. The whole time we were here was a constant celebration, from Navaratri festival, to Mahatma Gandhi’s Birthday, to a Muslim festival, which was definitely the wildest of all!

The next day we visited Saheliyon-ki-Bari gardens with fountains which the boys love splashing around in to keep cool.

In the afternoon we took a boat ride on Lake Pichola to see the floating palace and the beautiful scenery of Udaipur. In the evening we catch some fireworks 💥 to mark the end of Navaratri festival, and find an amazing rooftop restaurant called Chirag’s, the food is delicious, the music is great, and the vibe is very chilled.

The following day we go up on the Udaipur cable car to watch the beautiful sunset over the lake. On the way back to our guest house we discover that everything is closed due to the Muslim festival, and all the power is off, so that the 30 foot statues they are carrying through the streets don’t get caught in live electricity lines. Jess finds a local shop that is making samosas by candlelight, and the boys have corn flakes for dinner!

On our last day in Udaipur we visit the beautiful City Palace, it’s a big open space, so the boys get some exercise, inside it is heaving with tourists so we don’t stay long.

We find a really nice rooftop restaurant for lunch, we’re the only customers, but the food is great. The owner brings his 2 year old son along to play with the boys, and he brings all his toys, so Dylan and Arto are delighted!

For the rest of the afternoon we cool off in a fancy hotel swimming pool while waiting for our late night train to Jaipur. We pay 300 Rs per adult and the kids are free, it’s nice to have access to a decent pool if your accommodation budget doesn’t quite stretch to a hotel fancy enough to have one.

We hadn’t realised when we booked the train that we didn’t have a confirmed seat, but were on a waitlist, when this happens you have to check 4 hours before the train departs to see if you have a confirmed seat, and if not you have until 30 minutes before the train departs to apply for your refund. Luckily our tickets got confirmed. So we had a few hours to have dinner and catch a puppet and dance show before leaving for our train to Jaipur. We opted for first class again, this time we had to share with an elderly couple, who were no trouble at all! We had the top bunks and they had the bottom.

Jaipur

When we arrived in Jaipur we noticed a real difference to Udaipur, as we’d read it was much more crowded and congested, but still nothing on Delhi, so we could handle it, and we were only staying here for two nights, so we got on with what we came to see.

The next morning we found a lovely cafe, Cafe Bae, with air con, an almost entirely western menu, so it was cheating a bit, but it was so nice! The boys had waffles with chocolate and fruit, and there was a soft play area for them. After a very relaxed breakfast we booked an Uber to take us to Galta Ji Monkey Temple, an ancient Hindu pilgrimage site. The boys were very excited, there were thousands of monkeys 🐒 running and jumping all over the place. It was very quiet here and not touristy. We met the famous Monkey Man, who was very happy to show us around and introduce us to his monkeys, though Arto wasn’t very impressed when he got bashed over the head by one!

That evening we went to the Pink City, to see Hawa Mahal and the City Palace, we were a bit late, and both were closed, plus the boys were pretty tired, so we have a quick dinner before going back to the hotel.

Hawa Mahal at night

The following day we got a driver to take us to Chand Baori stepwell. On the way we needed to stop for snacks and water, the driver got out of the car and got knocked down by a cow that was racing to get out of the way of the traffic, he got hit pretty hard and was understandably a bit pissed off about it, but assured us he was fine. We arrived at the stepwell by 9am and got a local guide to show us around and tell us about the history, but it’s so difficult to listen when you have two wild boys running around, and some pretty large holes in the fence! So we didn’t retain too much of the inforamation he told us. We do know that it has 3,500 steps and was built by King Chandha in AD800/900, and was used as a community gathering place when it was really hot, err so all the time then! It is a very impressive sight.

We headed back to Jaipur and visited the Red Fort, it was amazing, but we arrived in the mid afternoon, and it just wasn’t that enjoyable in heat with crowds of people, so we didn’t stay long. The boys were super excited to see their first elephants, but they weren’t very happy looking ones as they were hauling tourists up the hill. On the way back we stopped for a photo of the fort and we saw a snake charmer, so Jess had to have a closer look.

He’s such a charmer

That evening we got a car out to Chokhi Dhani, which we’d read about in the Lonely Planet, it’s a mock Rajasthani village south of Jaipur and sounded like it would be good for the kids. It was absolutely brilliant! We managed to get the kids in for free, we all got a thali meal included in the price, which was so delicious, and so filling, they just kept piling food on our plates, even the boys enjoyed the food. There was a lot of different entertainment all around the village; magicians, acrobats, wrestlers, a puppet show, horse and camel rides, and a great kids playground. If you ever find yourself in Jaipur, with our without kids, you must come here!

Ranthambore National Park

The next day we catch the train from Jaipur to Sawai Madhophur, to go on safari in Ranthambore National Park, hoping to spot a tiger. It’s quite rare to spot a tiger, so we don’t get the boys too hyped up about it, and instead get them excited about seeing monkeys, deer, and maybe a crocodile. Our hotel is amazing, Tiger Safari Resort, we spend a little more than usual (about £25 per night). There is a pool right outside our lovely room, the staff are incredibly attentive, maybe because we are the only guests here!

The next day we get ready for our afternoon safari, we booked a gypsy, rather than a more expensive jeep, the guide lets us sit up front with the driver so the kids have a better view. We see loads of animals when we enter the park; monkeys, deer, peacocks/hens, wild boar. And about an hour in to the safari Jess spots a tiger! We sit and watch it splash around in the water for about 15 minutes, before it meanders off into the jungle. It turns out we are the only vehicle in our zone to spot a tiger so we count ourselves very lucky.

The next morning we have another early safari booked, we thought we’d book two to increase our chances of spotting a tiger, though the pressure was now off! We were lucky enough to spot another tiger having a lie down in the shade, though not as close up as the day before.

That afternoon we celebrate Dylan’s Birthday (and mine!) a few days early with a pool party, complete with pass the parcel, musical statues, party food, and a massive chocolate cake that the friendly hotel owners helped us to find.

Jess goes out to buy beer and the shop owner doesn’t have any cold ones, so leaves Jess in charge of his shop while he goes to get some. Jess has lots of customers while he’s gone, none of whom speak English, so they help themselves to what they need and put the money in the pot!

The next morning we are waitlisted for a train from Jaipur to Agra, we find out the night before that our seats are confirmed, but also that the train is a few hours late, luckily we can stay in our room until the train is due, as it turns out to be about 4 hours late, so we are very glad not to be sitting at the station for all that time.

Agra

We arrive in Agra that evening. We get up early the next morning to see the Taj at sunrise. When the security guard checks my bag she finds Arto’s tiny toy plastic frog inside, toys are apparently banned inside the grounds, no matter how harmless they appear! But after many many tears the security guard takes pity on Arto and let’s us take it in as long as we promise to keep it in the bag. We all move on and walk in to see the fabulous Taj Mahal in all its glory.

It’s such an amazing site, and a pretty awesome place to spend our Birthday, possibly slightly lost on Dylan, but I’m sure he’ll look back when he’s older and appreciate what a cool place it is to turn 4. For now he’s much more excited by the promise of ice cream for lunch. Later that afternoon we visit the Red Fort, the boys love it, it’s nearly sunset, it’s not too hot, and they can run around to their hearts content. That evening we get a takeaway in our room and watch cartoons, and Jess treats me to a couple of cans of extra strong 9% Tuborg for my Birthday, because that’s all we can find!

We spent a lot of time debating about where to go next; we really wanted to go and chill out at the beach, but the weather forecast for Goa was for heavy rain and thunderstorms, but we decide to take a chance on it being wrong, and the next day we get a car to Delhi airport and a flight to Goa.

Delhi, Rajasthan and Agra were absolutely amazing, we saw so much, and had a great experience. But we did it all pretty fast, and moved around a lot, and now we really feel like we need to slow down and chill out.

Up4amisson recommends:

  • Sahaj Anand light, water and sound show at Swaminarayan Akshardham
  • Early morning sightseeing, after 10am, we were all too hot to be walking around a Fort.
  • Nukkad Guest House, Udaipur, lovely family run Guest House with beautiful rooms
  • Chirag’s rooftop restaurant, Udaipur, chilled out place with great food
  • Chokhi Dhani, near Jaipur, just go, it’s brilliant!
  • Tiger Safari resort, Ranthambore, lovely hotel with pool

Mission 15: The Netherlands

Where: The Netherlands; Sprang Capelle, Leiden, Amsterdam, Renswoude, Hillegom

When: September 2017

What: workaway, riding bikes, seeing family, preparing for the next part of our adventure, and saying goodbye to our car

We chose our next workaway based on location, who needed help at short notice, but also the hosts; we wanted to stay with people who were a bit different to those we had stayed with before, we’d already stayed with families with kids, young couples, and a group of young people, so we were interested to see what it would be like to stay with Corrie and Albert, a couple in their 60’s, Corrie is a retired teacher, and Albert is a glass sculptor. They have a lovely house in Sprang Capelle, with a meadow 1km from their house, where they needed help cutting down trees and cutting grass, and luckily Jess has used a chainsaw and a tractor before.

One of their sons was a horseback archer, so pretty much a knight, which was pretty exciting for the boys, most of all Jess! One evening we went out to watch him practice, and Jess and Dylan both got a lesson. Another evening our hosts were kind enough to babysit while Jess and I went out on their ebikes to enjoy a local event.

We spent eight days with Corrie and Albert, they were great hosts and looked after us and the kids so well, and were genuinely so happy and grateful for all the work Jess did. Even though we were a bit worried at first that the boys were too loud in their otherwise very quiet house, they said they loved having the boys in the house. It was a great experience for all of us.

We left Corrie and Albert as we had plans to meet family near Amsterdam,  Auntie Caroline, Uncle Thibaut and Cousin Félix were visiting us from London, and we were so excited to see them!

We wanted to explore Amsterdam, but Leiden was as close as our budget could get us in terms of accommodation; Amsterdam is so expensive! Leiden is a lovely city, and the Air BnB cottage we booked was great, it was definitely good to have the extra space, rather than booking somewhere tiny just to be closer to the centre. We were only an hour away from Amsterdam Central by train, and on one of the days we did a park and ride, which was so easy, and an absolute bargain at €1 for all day parking, and €5 for two return tickets.

We spent two days walking around Amsterdam, eating lovely food and catching up after a long time apart.

After a lovely weekend in Amsterdam, our guests returned to London and we were four again.  We needed somewhere quiet to plan the next part of our adventure, somewhere cheap, to get the budget back down, preferably with a playground. We found a mobile home in Renswoude, in a camping park, which was almost closing for the summer. It was lovely, really quiet, had a nice garden, a big playground, huge trampoline, and bikes to rent. It was a great space to do some planning whilst keeping the boys entertained relatively easily and spending very little.

After a chilled out and productive week it was time for our last weekend in Europe. We packed up the car for the very last time, and headed to our Air BnB in Hillegom, for another fun weekend with family near Amsterdam, this time with Auntie Maryam and Grandad. Although it was the end of September, we were so lucky with the weather, we rode bikes and also spent a lovely day at Langevelderslag beach.

Grandad and Maryam left, and took our car with them, leaving just the four of us, with two backpacks, and a one way ticket to India…

We managed our first trip on public transport with the backpacks and the boys in tow pretty easily, but this is Amsterdam, where public transport is amazing and luxurious, perhaps it will be a little harder in India.

We stayed in an airport hotel, the Ibis budget, which was great value. The next morning we packed up again, said goodbye to Europe for a while and very excitedly headed to the airport for our flight to Delhi.

Up4amission recommends:

  • Leiden; as a cheaper alternative to Amsterdam. Amsterdam accommodation is so expensive, you can get much more for your money in Leiden, which is a beautiful place, and very easy to get into Amsterdam from
  • Riding bikes! You can’t come to The Netherlands and not ride a bike. The roads are made for bicycles, and bike riders are the king of the road, which is a nice change from London!
  • Langevelderslaag beach, near Hillegom

Mission 14: Germany

Where: Germany; Pilsensee, Wiesbaden

When: August 2017

What: a Birthday surprise, searching for the end of summer, housesitting, and visiting new friends

We booked into a campsite at Lake Pilsensee, south of Munich, Camping Pilsensee, it was the best value we could find, but also looked the nicest, and we weren’t disappointed. The campsite was almost full, so we were put in the overflow field, no set pitches, so just camp where you like, which usually works out better. We were right next to the excellent children’s playground, and also only 100 metres from the beautiful lake.

The following day we got more visitors; Auntie Maryam, and a surprise Birthday visit for Jess from our very good friend, John, who the boys were also thrilled to see. We had a brilliant few days at the campsite, the weather was great, we spent a lot of time in the lake or on paddle boards.

We made the most of Grandma still being here and had a night out in Munich. We found an amazing burger place, Schnelle Liebe, really small, packed, great atmosphere and music and delicious burgers. Then we headed to Hofbraühaus for a bit of live Bavarian music and clinking our 1 litre glasses of beer 🍺

When the weekend was over, and our visitors had gone back to the UK, it was back on with our four person mission, time to pack up the tent and move on to the next place.

After months of searching, we finally found a housesit! What a relief to have made the membership fee worthwhile. It seems as though most people looking for a house sitter are looking for a single person or couple, and are not that interested in letting a family with young kids stay to look after their house and pet while they’re away. But luckily we found a family who have young children, so were happy for us to look after their beautiful dog, Sadie, and their beautiful apartment in the pretty fancy Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt, for five nights, and all for free. As they have young twin boys, they had a playroom full of toys, which had our boys occupied for almost the entire stay. They also had proper kids beds for the boys to sleep in, so no need to surround the bed with cushions and blankets to stop the boys falling out.

We explored the parks of Wiesbaden while walking the dog, and spent a few days chilling out in this lovely city. We went into Frankfurt one day, to visit the India visa commission to apply in person for our visa, before realising that it was pointless because they changed the rules in April to grant 60 day e visas for tourists. But who doesn’t love a visit to a really hot Indian Commission for no reason anyway?!

We were so lucky to have found this housesit, not just because it was an amazing apartment, and it was free, but also because we had a gorgeous dog as our temporary pet, and we got to know a lovely city that we would have otherwise overlooked.

We moved on to another part of Germany, near the border with Holland, to visit new friends who we’d met in Albania, and who offered us a place to stay as they knew we were passing through on our travels. They are a lovely couple with three girls, aged 1 to 5. We were a bit dubious at first, and were being very British, not wanting to put them out, especially since we’d only known them for a few days, but they seemed genuinely very happy for us to stay. So we gladly accepted the offer and stayed in their camper for 3 nights (they did offer us space in their house, but the boys were much more excited about the camper!) The boys were so happy to have such lovely friends to play with, and we spent a few days just chilling and playing at their house. We visited Dusseldorf for one day, we saw some lovely parks, and went up to the top of the Rheinturn, a 240 metre tower, with a beautiful view over Dusseldorf. Our new friends were such great hosts and we are so glad we visited them, they believe that they should share everything they have with others, which is something that we will definitely be doing more of following this trip. We have found some great new friends and will definitely be visiting them again.

Neither of us had spent much time in Germany before, but we really enjoyed our time here, it’s a beautiful country full of very friendly people.

We had some time to kill before our next family visit, so we searched for another workaway at the last minute, we found one that we liked in Holland. So we packed up and off we went.

Up4amission recommends:

  • Camping Pilsensee; lovely campsite, on a beautiful lake, and really good value compared to campsites at other lakes
  • Schnelle Liebe, amazing burgers in Munich
  • Wiesbaden; a lovely city near Frankfurt

Mission 10: Croatia…it’s probably amazing out of season

We crossed the border from Montenegro to Croatia with all documents in hand, and it made for a pretty boring and adrenaline free border crossing (obviously they didn’t ask for the V5 document).

The day after arriving in Croatia, Jess was flying out of Dubrovnik to spend a few days in London visiting our new niece. So we decided to pre book a campsite, with pool, playground etc, to make it easier for Georgie being on her own with the boys. We didn’t do much research, and as far as we could tell there aren’t a huge number of campsites to choose from, so we went with Camping Solitudo, which wasn’t great, the facilities were good, but the management were rude and really patronising, the playground was minuscule, the pool wasn’t on the premises but at a nearby hotel, where there was constant and in your face entertainment, which is really not our kind of thing. There is a road running through the middle of the campsite, and the local authorities thought it would be okay to repaint the lines on the bumps at 2am, with a really loud machine, while 5 workmen stood by having a very loud conversation with each other.

I took the boys to Dubrovnik two days in a row, first time in the car, big mistake; parking in and near Dubrovnik is very difficult and extortionate. We went on the cable car which was very good and not too busy, nor too expensive. The second day we went in by bus, much more pleasant and fun, into the Stari Grad/Old Town. Dubrovnik is really beautiful, and much better visited in the morning before it gets crazy busy.

Dubrovnik from the cable car

We were excited about seeing Croatia, so many people had told us how amazing it was, but we picked the wrong time to go, it was so busy, so expensive, and we hadn’t done enough research.

Sunset in Dubrovnik

Jess returned that evening and we were very excited to move on the following day to…Bosnia.

Up4amission recommends:

  • Dubrovnik cable car
  • Travelling into Dubrovnik by bus, not in your own car
  • Not going to Croatia in peak summer season

Mission 13: Austria…

Where: Austria; Flachau, Traun, Reichenau an der Rax and the Lake District

When: August 2017

What: no plan, a family tummy bug, our first workaway and meeting Grandma again!

So we crossed into Austria with no plan and a sickly 2 year old. We decided not to book anything, and just to wing it, because we are über chilled out travellers now! The closer we got to Salzburg, the stupider that idea seemed; everything was booked and everything was really expensive, since it was August.

We chose the town of Flachau to stop and search for a place to stay. We found a really patronising young man in the tourist office, who immediately turned his nose up when I asked for him to look for a cheap apartment for us. Luckily his colleague was much better at her job and found us a lovely apartment for €75 😱so we booked in for one night. The most expensive nights accommodation so far, but when your 2 year old is not well, and it’s pissing down, you just have to take it. We had a lovely night’s stay here and Arto was feeling much better by the time we got in. The next three days were a write off while the rest of the family caught the bug, one day after the other, and we stayed put in Flachau, doing pretty much nothing at all, except finding the local playground.

When we were all feeling up to a car journey we moved on to an Air BnB in Traun, near Linz, which turned out to be lovely after the initial issue of not being let in by the owner.

We spend the following day at the local outdoor swimming pool. It has a big slide, which neither Dylan nor Arto have much interest in, but which Jess is very excited about, we both take turns, it’s pretty cool, pitch black inside with flashing lights! Jess has several goes to ensure he has found the optimal position for high speed.

We celebrate Arto’s 2nd Birthday here. We go to a puppet show in Linz, which we find pretty weird, but the kids seem to like. And we find a new playground for the afternoon, always a winner!

We hear back from a workaway request, and they are happy for us to come and stay from the following day. Luckily they are looking for someone who can do electrics and basic plumbing. We are really pleased as their profile looks great and sounds really interesting.

The next day we drive to Reichenau an der Rax to meet our hosts. We can’t believe our luck when we drive in; they have two massive houses, one outdoor swimming pool and a huge garden. Our hosts are Lise and Feri, a really friendly outgoing couple, who immediately make us feel welcome. 

The work we do here ranges from weeding and gardening, cleaning, to electrics and plumbing, to beekeeping.

Jess really enjoys working with Feri and his bees 🐝 and we all enjoy eating the honey. Feri is a lot of fun, quite like a child, but in a good way, as he says ‘I am chaos’, and he really is! We eat so well while we’re here, both Lise and Feri are great cooks, and really enjoy hosting.

On our day off we get the Rax Seilbahn cable car up the mountain, it’s so expensive, but is worth it, for the ride, and the lovely walk and views from the top.

The boys have a great time here, Lise and Feri are really good with them, and they have so much to play with, plus a massive outdoor space to run around in. The boys are really sad when we leave and ask when we’re coming back.

After a fantastic week we have to move on. We have an apartment booked in Bad Mitterndorf, near the Austrian Lakes, and Grandma is coming to visit.

The apartment is really nice, the views from the balcony are amazing.

Lovely view from our balcony

The nearby lakes are stunning, Grundlsee is our closest and is really beautiful, very quiet, and bloody freezing!

The next closest, and much busier lake is Halstattersee. It is impossible to park, so we head to Obertraun, on the other side of the lake, it is equally beautiful, much less busy, and has a huge grassy area with playground next to the lake. After a picnic we hire a row boat. We’re having lots of fun, Jess jumps into the lake a few times, until one of the boats stop to scream at us “that was the last time you will be jumping from this boat”,  we ask him to what he’s on about, and he says that “it’s a €500 fine”.

We go out for dinner since Grandma is visiting, Bad Mitterndorf doesn’t have a big selection of restaurants, but we find one, and it’s really good, Restaurant Kirchenwirt. The next evening, since we have a babysitter we have a night out together, we end up in the same restaurant, as its either that or the really dodgy pub that Jess is suggesting! But we do find quite a cool hidden bar almost opposite the restaurant, so we feel like we’ve had a good night out.

The following day we pack up and head to Germany, squeezing Grandma and her big suitcase into the car too.

We spent much longer than expected in Austria for one reason or another, but we’re glad we did, as after an initial shaky start, we did start to like it, but we were very excited to be moving on to…Germany.

Up4amission recommends:

  • Rax Seilbahn; cable car in Reichenau an dear Rax
  • Beautiful Lake Grundlsee

Mission 12: Sloveniaaaa….you should have seen her

Where: Slovenia 🇸🇮;  Skocjan Caves, Portoroz, Ljubljana, Lake Bled

When: July/August 2017

What: escaping the crazy summer holiday crowds and exploring another new country

En route to Slovenia we spend one more night in Croatia, in an Air BnB in Gospic, not a typical tourist destination, just the halfway point on the journey. But they have a few things to see; we visited the Nicolas Tesla (inventor of alternating current system) Memorial Centre, pretty interesting, but best bit is probably the playground! In fact the best bit about this stop was the amazing thunderstorm during the evening, and the relief that we weren’t camping.

The next morning we cross the border into Slovenia, another boring, uneventful crossing, especially since we’re now back in the EU. We turn up at a campsite, Dujceva Domacija, a very nice relaxed and informal family run farm and campsite near Skocjan. We spend ages trying to find the exact right spot for the tent on the edge of the field and next to the river that runs around the camp. Do we want sun in the morning or in the evening?! We choose evening (and remember in the morning when it’s cold and damp that that’s the wrong choice!) It’s a really basic campsite, in a massive field surrounded by a river, and it’s great. We sometimes think it will be easier to book a campsite with playground for the boys, but actually, all they want is to be outside, with a big open space to run around in.

Happy camper

In the middle of the night Jess and I are awoken by a really loud creaking sound, followed by a crash…Jess immediately knows what it is and goes outside to help, he finds a pretty big tree that has fallen down onto someone’s camp, luckily their car took the full force of it and saved the tree from landing directly on their tents. First thing in the morning we move our tent into the middle of the field, though no one else seems bothered enough to move.

We head down the road to Skocjan caves; a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest known underground canyon in the world. It’s pretty busy, and the tour takes about 2 hours. It was incredible down there, and pretty cold. Arto slept through pretty much the whole thing, which is always of a relief to me when we are walking down narrow paths and there are massive drops and a not particularly strong looking fence. Photography and torches are strictly forbidden in the caves, but obviously there are a few people who don’t think that applies to them 😡

After the caves we go on a playground hunt, we find a brilliant one, hidden right between the railway and the motorway (though completely safe), such a weird place for a playground, it’s empty, presumably because no one else can find it.

When we get back to the campsite Jess and the boys collect sticks and build a wigwam made from the fallen down tree.

.

Next day we head to the small stretch of Slovenian coast, to Portoroz, quite busy, but nothing on Croatia!

Yummy street food, Ljubljana market

Next stop is Ljubljana, we stay in C-Punkt hostel, it is a school dormitory, only open during the summer. We love it. We head straight to the centre and eat at the food market. In the evening we head to Metalkova; an ex army garrison taken over by squatters, and converted into a commune. It has bars and serves food, and was probably much cooler before it appeared in all the guide books.

Anyway, we get there way too early and there’s nothing much going on, but we loved looking around. We find somewhere to give the boys a very late dinner and settle for a burger bar, Pop’s Place, which turns out to be very cool, good food, and really cheap.

Ljubljana by night

Next day we try and find some child friendly activities, unfortunately the kids theatre is closed all summer so we head to the Experiment (science) Museum, the boys are really impressed before we even go in because they have a massive bubble wand at the door. Inside is even better, some really good experiments and really good for the boys, it’s also quite cheap and there were only two other people in there.

In the afternoon we happen upon a really cool street band, the Techno Vikings, so we sit and watch them for an hour.

After the boys are in bed Jess heads back to Metalkova as he really wants to see what it’s like when it’s busy. Not sure if midnight was still too early or it’s just not that busy anymore, but he heads home fairly early.

Next stop…the lakes. Only a short drive to our next campsite, Camping Sobec. It’s a huge campsite, there were 2,700 people camped there, and it’s so big it takes ages to get anywhere, definitely a good place to have a bike. But the campsite is great, they have entertainment that is actually entertaining; a magic and fire show, and a kids club that isn’t really cheesy and shit! And the staff, despite being really busy, are all really friendly. The campsite has it’s own lovely lake, great for swimming, and is surrounded by a seriously cold river with rapids.

We head to Vintnar Gorge the next morning, it is about a two km walk along a wooden walk away, along the river, ending with a waterfall. Jess and I both go on for a dip by the waterfall, but not for very long, it is so freezing I was actually worried that for the thirty seconds I was in there my organs were starting to fail!

In the afternoon we head to Straza Bled, a summer activity centre. We go there for the summer toboggan. We head up in the chair lift and then come down on the toboggan on rails, Jess takes Arto and I take Dylan, it’s absolutely brilliant!

Next day we visit Lake Bled and hire bikes with child seats on the back. Jess takes the mountain bike, I take the city bike, lovely to ride until I get to a hill. Jess spots a rope swing and we stop for a go. We draw a bit of a crowd, and some Irish girls have a go after us, but they both fall into the river, but good on them for giving it a go. They call us Tarzan and Jane!

Georgie gets a stand up paddle board on the lake for a bit of me time, away from the incessant questions and noise! It is pretty incredible. I paddle out to the middle of the lake, dive in a few times and have a very chilled lay down on the board.

Back at our campsite. Dylan meets a new friend, a five year old boy from Sheffield, Harry, who is here with his family in their campervan on a 4 months trip around Europe. His Mum, Dad and baby sister are also super cool, so we hang out with them for the next few days.

We stay for a few extra days as we literally have no idea where we’re going next! And we decide to leave on the day that Arto has a horrible tummy bug. By the time we realise just how poorly he is we’ve already packed the tent up, so we head to Austria without a plan.

Up4amission recommends:

  • C-Punkt Hostel, Ljubljana
  • Experiment museum, Ljubljana
  • Camping Sobec, amazing campsite, near Lake Bled
  • Vintnar Gorge, lovely walk along the river (get there early)
  • Straza Bled, summer activity centre, so much fun!

 

Mission 11: Beautiful Bosnia

Where: Bosnia; Mostar, Blagaj & Kravica

When: July 2017

What:  jumping from the old Mostar bridge and realising that Bosnia has a lot more to offer

We hadn’t planned to visit Bosnia, until Jess saw a video of people jumping from the 26 metre high old Mostar bridge, so obviously we had to come so he could join in the madness. We crossed the border from Croatia into Bosnia, another uneventful one, and purchased car insurance, €40 this time for two weeks.

We booked an Air BnB in Mostar for a few nights. We headed straight to the bridge when we arrived, mostly because Jess was excited, but also because Georgie really wanted to get it over with so she could (hopefully!) stop worrying. We saw a few men doing the jump, the trainer made them stand on the jumping spot for ages while he went round to the crowds collecting donations, it seemed a bit unfair to make the jumper wait for so long, but it turns out these guys worked there.

So Jess arranged to do the jump there and then. He went down to do a practice off a 10 metre board into the river, with a few young Aussie guys. Nobody else was keen to do the bridge jump after this, I guess they all saw sense, so Jess was the only one to go through with it.

Georgie, Dylan and Arto waited at the bottom with the crowd waiting for Jess to jump, and he did it! And thankfully emerged from the water relatively unscathed, to the applause of the crowd of tourists watching.

So it turns out Mostar isn’t just about jumping off the bridge, it’s also a really beautiful place, with lovely restaurants and shops and really friendly people.

We visited Blagaj, at the suggestion of our super friendly and helpful Air BnB host. It was definitely worth a visit, but not in the early afternoon when it’s about 40 degrees and you have two young kids.

Blagaj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our next stop in Bosnia was Kravica waterfalls. We decided to get there early, by 8am, as assumed it would get really busy and too hot later in the day. It was so stunning, much more beautiful than we’d imagined, and we managed to miss the crowds, so it was also really peaceful. It is such a relaxing place for a swim, the water is so clear and fresh.

We have really enjoyed Bosnia, and so glad we decided to add it into our itinerary, but it’s time to move on again…

Up4amission recommends:

  • Mostar bridge, beautiful area with lovely restaurants (just don’t jump from the bridge, that would be mental!)
  • Blagaj, beautiful place, but very hot in the middle of the day
  • Kravica waterfalls, stunning place and great for swimming (go early)

 

Mission 9: Marvellous Montenegro

Where: Montenegro; Ulcinj, Budva, Kotor, Tivat

When: July 2017

What: exploring Montenegro, our second new country of this trip. And, please can we have our car back?

We our very lucky to be staying in a wonderful apartment with sea views, for free, courtesy of friends of Jess’s Dad.

Breakfast with a view

And not only are they letting us stay there, but they are also incredibly welcoming and helpful. And it turns out to be very useful to have contacts when you need to get your car over the border without the correct documents, and we’re not exactly sure how they did it, but that’s not important, the next morning Jess returns to the border and is let through with the car, no questions asked. As Montenegro is another country not usually covered by UK car insurance, we buy insurance at the border (and in the mean time get the V5 couriered to us in Montenegro). Such a huge relief to have the car back, and not only that, but we get news that Jess’s brother has had a baby girl that morning. Our mood is instantly lifted and we have a chilled out day on the beautiful and quiet Valdanos beach.

Ulcinj beach is lovely, but best avoided during the day, it is one of the most packed beaches I have ever seen, hardly any space even to walk into the sea. Much more pleasant in the evening.

Ulcinj beach, lovely in the evening, crazy during the day

The next day we treat ourselves to lunch out, at Teuta, in the Stari Grad/Old Town.

Chill out steps, Ulcinj Old Town

The restaurant is owned by a friend of Jess’s friend, the food is amazing, and the views of Ulcinj bay are stunning.

The owner arranges a private boat trip for us for the next morning with his brother. Albert takes us for a ride along the coast and shows us all the different beaches and tells us a bit about the history of the place. Jess spies a place to jump in from, so we take a quick detour.

Arto just loves being rocked to sleep on a boat so misses the whole thing.

The family whose apartment we are staying in recommend visiting Long Beach, a kitesurfing beach, which is open to swimmers until midday, at which time it is exclusively for kite surfers. It’s perfect for the boys, shallow warm water and lovely soft sand. And way too hot to stay there after midday anyway. Another family we meet spot a snake bobbing it’s head out of the water, it turns out not to be a sea snake, so one of the locals comes to rescue it and show it to the kids.

The mother of our host family comes to visit us in the evening with her daughter. The mother doesn’t speak English, but her daughter is fluent, and turns out she studied at our local Uni where I also studied. She’s very smart. The mother is besotted with the the boys, they soon warm up after being given biscuits, and shells that the mother has collected at the beach that day for them.

We take a day trip to Budva, the Stari Grad/Old Town is really beautiful, but it’s just too hot, around 40 degrees, so we head back to our local beach to cool down.

Having waited one more day for our car documents to arrive, we give up and head north, to Tivat. We have booked an Air BnB, it’s slightly more than we would usually pay on this trip, around 32 euros! But it is so luxurious. The host is the most friendly, smiley woman you could meet, and the apartment is so clean and new, and even had air con 💨.It was very close to the the port of Tivat, full of very flashy super yachts. But there was also a pretty amazing playground in the form of a pirate ship, a boat that we felt more comfortable boarding!

We spent one day in Kotor, a lovely walled old town, full of narrow lanes with little shops, cafes and restaurants. There was an old wall along the mountain side with 1,350 steps leading to the top, only one of us could do the climb, as it was too much for the boys, so I let Jess do it, while myself and the boys stayed at the bottom and ate ice cream.

The next morning we were due to check out of our luxury Air BnB. Jess drove to Podgorika to try and intercept the DHL package before it left the depot first thing on Monday morning (it had been delayed, mostly because they have a really terrible service in DHL Montenegro, but also because the previous Thursday had been a national holiday, which causes chaos for days). Thankfully he got there just in time, and collected us on the way through to cross the border into…Croatia.

Mission 8: Amazing Albania

Where: Albania; Durres, Tirana, Drymades, Shkoder

When: June-July 2017

What: Discovering Albania for the first time

We were so excited about arriving in Albania, mostly because it was the first country that we had never been to before, because we had to get an overnight ferry there and it felt like more of an adventure than all the other places we had visited so far.

We caught the overnight GNV ferry from Bari, Italy to Durres. It was pretty plain sailing, we left at 22:00, went to sleep, woke up at 7, and arrived just before 8. Before we were allowed into Albania we had to buy car insurance as we are not covered here by our UK insurance. It was €49 for two weeks, and we bought it from an office before heading through customs, they asked us for our V5 car registration document, but weren’t at all concerned when we said we didn’t have it.

Jess has an Albanian work mate, Mondi, and he put us in touch with some of his friends and family and arranged for them to meet us and show us around.

After spending the first few hours in Tirana, we met with Ray, he gave us a quick tour of Durres and took us to his family beach house where we were welcome to spend the night, for free. It was a lovely apartment in a private complex with it’s own private beach, and just a few doors down from the President’s beach house. We sdpemt the next day at the beach, but it was so windy that there was a massive sand storm, so much so that Jess couldn’t find us when he returned from getting a coffee. We couldn’t stay another night as they had family coming to use the apartment, so we moved on to our next stop…Drymades beach, 5 hours drive south.

We’d done a lot of research on Albania, thanks to Lonely Planet Eastern Europe, and Jess’s Albanian work mates. We’d read about a campsite near Drymades beach that sounded brilliant, so we headed straight there. We arrived at the Sea Turtle and met the owner, we loved it so booked ourselves in for a few nights. They provide the tents (2 man), with bed, mattress and linen, they also provide breakfast and dinner, electricity and wifi, all for 1,000 LEK per adult, and only charged us 250 LEK for each child. It was such an amazing place, the owners and staff were all so friendly and helpful, the food was great and the vibe was super chilled. It was very child friendly, and they were really accommodating to the kids.

The beach was about 10 minutes walk from the campsite, and it was so stunning, lovely pebbly beach, and the clearest water we’ve probably ever seen. It was the most relaxing place to swim ever.

We tried a few more beaches further south, Jale and Lahmides, they were great, but Drymades was our clear favourite, it just had a more chilled vibe about it, and was closer to home.

We booked into The Sea Turtle for another few nights, a we were just way too comfortable to move on yet, and spend a few more days chilling on Drymades beach, before heading back up north to Shkoder.

We found a great campsite, Lake Shkoder Resort, right alongside the lake. We loved it, it had loads of open space, and a big open grass field. We had a bit of trouble setting up as Jess hit a water pipe with the tent peg, the lady owner came along and looked a bit pissed off about it, but surely it’s a bit silly to run water pipes only 3 inches under the ground where people will be pitching their tents, anyway they fixed it! The lake was lovely for a swim, paddle board, and putting the boys in the dinghy.

The following day we met a lovely German family who parked their caravan in the pitch next door. They had 3 little girls, all under the age of 6, and the boys loved playing with them and their toys, every morning Dylan woke up he couldn’t wait to go and see them. Their parents were really friendly, their Dad is ex NATO so Jess was really interested to hear his experiences, and their Mum is a super bubbly super Mum who was great to talk to.

We met up with the parents of Jess’s Albanian work mate, Andy one afternoon, they also live in Shkoder. They didn’t speak much English, so they sent along a translator. We thought it might be a bit awkward at first, not knowing each other, and not speaking the same language, but it really wasn’t. Jess’s work mates were really insistent that we met up with them, and they were actually really keen to meet us. Albanian’s are super hospitable, friendly, welcoming people. They treated us to a delicious lunch on the lake, and then invited us back to their beautiful home, where they spoiled the boys with puddings, fruit, TV, and loads of attention.

On the last day in Shkoder we decided to get on the Lake Komani ferry, it was a 1.5 hour drive from our campsite, and rather than book a tourist ferry we just turned up and got on a car ferry. It was totally worth it, the views of the lake were stunning, it was the kind of thing that would have been really relaxing if you weren’t travelling with a 3 year old and 1 year old who can’t sit still and can’t stop whinging!

We got off the ferry at Fierze and drove along the winding mountain roads to get back to Shkoder. The roads were pretty sketchy much the entire way, all loose gravel roads. Knowing that the tyres would soon need replacing anyway, we really winced every time we went over a big bump, and then Jess turned to me and told me we had a puncture, we were hours from anywhere, and hadn’t seen anyone in a while, on pretty dodgy mountain roads. I thought he was joking…he wasn’t!

A puncture with a view

We pulled over by a lovely waterfall with mountains in the background, the view was amazing. After a bit of a struggle getting the wheel off, Jess managed to get the spare wheel on.  We carried on tentatively, knowing that we really couldn’t afford another puncture, back to Shkoder, where we bought two new tyres, putting rather a large dent in our budget.

The next morning we were saying goodbye to this beautiful country and crossing the border into Montenegro, but not as straight forwardly as we thought. It should have been 1 hours drive from our campsite in Albania, to our apartment in Ulcinj, Montenegro. We queued at the border and presented out documents when requested, they border officer asked for our car passport, which we did not produce, he got pretty upset about it and smacked the windscreen. We explained that we don’t have our V5 registration document with us, and that it’s actually at home in London. How did we get into Albania they asked, the officers in Durres just let us in, we said. They were not at all happy about that. They said that the only thing we could do was to drive back to Durres, catch the ferry back to Italy and drive back to the UK that way. Erm…shit! We spoke to the border officers on the Montenegrin side and they said they would accept a copy of the V5 document. So we waited a few hours until we could get a copy scanned to us, got it printed, and back we go, expecting to be let in. But no such luck, we speak to the same border officer on the Montenegrin side and he says of course he can’t take a copy of the document, he could have made this himself. So we spend ages deliberating, deciding what to do, and having spoken to Jess’s Albanian and Montenegrin friends, who try and fail to convince the border officers to let us through with the car, we decide to ditch/park the car on the Albanian side and carry on on foot. Friends of Jess’s Dad in Montenegro organise us a taxi and take us to their apartment in Ulcinj, where they kindly let us stay for as long as we like.

 

 

 

 

Mission 7: Italy, sorry, we can’t stop…

Where: Sanremo, Senigallia & Bari, Italy

When: June 2017

What: just passing through…

We really didn’t have a plan for Italy, and didn’t really have a list of places we wanted to go. We’d done the Amalfi Coast on our honeymoon, we loved it, but didn’t think it was time to go back yet, and didn’t think the boys would be that interested in the cities. So we just sailed on through, with the aim of getting to Bari to get the ferry to Albania as soon as possible.

First stop in Italy was Sanremo, we booked an Air BnB, again a last minute booking. Poor Dylan had a horrible tummy on the motorway en route, so it was quite a stressful drive through a lot of tunnels over the border from France to Italy. We arrived, looking forward to getting into our apartment, but the host was being pretty shady and delaying our check in. We finally met him, he was even more shady in person, telling us that the previous guests had trashed the place and broken the light and he didn’t think we could stay?! I convinced him that we could. He was still sweating profusely. He lead us to apartment, which was fine, the light wasn’t broken, the floor was just dirty, nothing to get in such a sweat about! Sanremo was very nice, but we didn’t see that much of it as it was time to move on through Italy to our next stop…

Senigallia. A lovely Air BnB, with such a lovely and relaxed host, a real contrast to the previous one. The town is really nice, we were very pleasantly surprised, and the beach was another one that was great for the kids, lovely soft sand, shallow water, that was so warm it was like being in the bath, as well as playgrounds all along the beach.

But after two nights it was again time to move on, we had to catch a ferry from Bari to Durres, Albania, and we were pretty bloody excited about it!

Mission 6: More WWOOF’ing, getting back to basics in Mailhac

Where: Mailhac, France

When: June 2017

What: WWOOF’ing with a family of 7 in Mailhac, near Narbonne, who have gone back to basics and are living in roulottes (trailers) and a yurt in a field.

Our new home in Mailhac

Olivier, our host, came to meet us at the church in Mailhac, as I’m not sure they have an address as such, we drove down the very bumpy track and into their field. When we arrived we saw horses, chickens, trailers and a yurt. We got out of the car and it was so hot, around 40 degrees celsius and no breeze. There was a distinct lack of shade in the field, and we wondered where we were going to pitch our tent. We decided on a field where they sometimes put the horses, it was pretty bumpy, and not surprisingly, full of horse manure. Jess pitched the tent, making a few holes in the bottom from the sharp twigs in the ground. We met our hosts and the family, and also two German girls, who were also WWOOF’ing. It was a bit awkward at first perhaps it was the language barrier, perhaps we were both checking each other out, or maybe everyone was just really bloody hot! We actually discussed leaving there and then, we just didn’t think we could cope with the heat and no shade, oh, and no running water. But we decided to stick it out one night, and we are so glad we did. In the morning we found a better spot for the tent, so weren’t stepping in horse poo every time we came out of the tent door.

Each morning Dylan had the job of feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs, and giving the horses their hay, he couldn’t have been happier.

Our first job was to remove the old wood from the goat enclosure so they could electrify the fence before the goats arrived. They got the goats from a local goat farmer, because they had stopped milking, so the family made use of them to cut back the trees and wood to help avoid forest fires, which is a big problem. Our next and main job was to complete a staircase and build a new outdoor eco shower.

One evening Jess helped Olivier move the bees from their current enclosure, near to the house, to the mountains, where there are more flowers for them. Georgie’s main job was to do the washing up, for 12 people, after every meal! But it made me feel useful and like I was contributing.

We really needed to cool off, so spent our free time at the local rivers, at the amazing Lake Olonzac, at the family pool in the town, and a few visits to Narbonne plage, which despite being pretty commercial, is a really nice beach and so good for the boys, the sand is soft, and the water is shallow, calm and warm.

Grandma came to visit for her Birthday weekend, because, well, any excuse for a visit to France! We went out for dinner, and the following evening took her for a wine tasting at a vineyard owned by a friend of Marielle and Olivier. The wine is all made by agriculture biologique, with no pesticides. They had loads of toys for the boys to play with to keep them out of our hair for an hour and the wine was really good.

A bit of quiet time in the shade

Very cool cave

Perfect spot for a nap 😴

Chilling

We are so glad we gave this place a chance and didn’t just give up, it was such a great experience, the boys had an amazing time, they loved hanging out with the other children. They loved having the responsibility of feeding the animals every morning. And we really saw a change in them, mostly Dylan, who is becoming more and more confident. We learned a lot staying here, it was so interesting to see such a different way of living. The family have given up their huge house with swimming pool in town, to live the simple life, and spend more time as a family. It is really hard work, but they all seem to be loving it.  Good on them.

Mission 5: Brilliant Begur

Where: Begur, Costa Brava, Spain

When: June 2017

What: chilling on the Costa Brava and meeting Auntie Maryam

We found a brilliant campsite in Begur; Camping El Maset, 10 minutes walk to a lovely beach, great outdoor pool, which was actually open, playground that the boys loved, great facilities and friendly and helpful staff.

A rare family photo, Castell de Begur

There were lots of good beaches nearby, Sa Riera was our closest and it was perfect; beautiful clear, shallow water, sandy beach and not too busy. The next beach over is Pals, it was a long walk up and down a lot of steep, slippery steps, past the nudist beach, it’s nice, but nt really worth the mission! We also tried Fornells and Aiguablava, both a short drive away and really nice, but Sa Riera was still our favourite. Sa Tuna was another lovely quiet beach, the best bit about it was when you drive away from it you come to some steep steps which take you down to a rocky cove which was amazing for swimming, the water was so clear and blue.

Auntie Maryam arrived a few days after us, the boys were so excited to see her. We spent a few days chilling at our favourite beaches, she did a very impressive flip out of the dinghy over a wave!

Maryam moments before stunt flip!

We treated ourselves to a rare meal out, which was much more fun than usual as we had Maryam to chase the boys around while we sat down and enjoyed our food.

Managing to finish our dinner while Maryam chases the boys!

We spent one day in Barcelona, 1.5 hours journey in the car. We wanted to go as Jess had never seen La Sagrada Familia, because Georgie fancied a trip to Parc Guell, and while we were there, why not pop in to Georgie’s favourite bar ever, La Xampanyeria/Can Paixano. We failed on almost all counts; the boys were not in the mood to queue to get into the Sagrada Familia, though Jess has now at least seen it, Parc Guell has really changed since I was last here, you now have to pay and queue to get into all the good bits of the park, and it just feels like a big rip off, and Can Paixano was closed 😭 thanks to a Catalan holiday. On the way out of town, we caught a Catalan festival in the narrow streets of Barceloneta. There were a dozen or so different bands playing really loud, energetic music, there was a really great vibe, and it was great fun to watch, and made our trip worthwhile.

Catalan festival, Barceloneta

We had a great time on the Costa Brava, and not a full English breakfast in sight! But time to head back to France to help on another farm, WWOOF’ing.

Mission 4: WWOOF’ing in remote Navarra, Spain

Where: Usún, Navarra, Spain

When: June 2017

What: WWOOF’ing with a family in a remote village in Navarra

We were a bit apprehensive about our next WWOOF’ing place as it is so different to the last, we are staying with a couple and their 10 month old daughter, helping them with their house renovation. What if we don’t like each other and we have nothing to talk about, how will we escape?!

When we arrived our host, Imanól came out to greet us with the biggest smile, he immediately made us feel welcome, we then met our other host, Carmen, his wife, who was equally friendly, and their daughter was so cute. He showed us around our home for the next two weeks, a beautiful 1,000 year old house that they have been renovating for the past 4 years. It had huge windows with amazing views onto the mountains of the pre Pyrenees. They built an indoor tree house/castle for their daughter, with the help of previous WWOOF’ers, so Dylan and Arto were thrilled.

They have done a huge amount of work, converting the house from more or less a shell to make it look as amazing as it does. They’ve built the house to be as eco friendly and sustainable as possible. They grow a lot of fruit and vegetables in their garden, with the aim of being more self sufficient, and they eat only bio/organic foods. We ate so well here, and Dylan suddenly became open to trying anything, he tried a total of 15 new foods in the two weeks that we were here.

Carmen and Imanól needed dry stone walls to be built in their garden around their fruit trees, which would involve a lot of heavy lifting. So, no surprise, they chose Jess for the job, he did most of the work while we were here, Georgie did some work in the beautiful garden.

The village they live in has only 20 other inhabitants. The surrounding area is so beautiful, but not at all touristy. They live right next to the river Salazar, with a few lovely secluded beaches for swimming. There was a bridge over the river that was perfect for jumping from, and rocks nearby for those who don’t think the bridge is high enough. Jess wasted no time and jumped off them both. And after a beer Georgie jumped off the bridge too. It was pretty amazing, the water was so fresh, cool and clear.

Nearby to the house is the Foz d’Arbayun. Our hosts took us there one afternoon for a short hike. The views of the valley below were stunning, and circling above us were dozens of vultures, part of the largest vulture colony in Europe that live here. We were near the edge and the drop was certain death, Arto had been asleep on the way up in the carrier, once he woke up Georgie was pretty keen to go back down, toddlers and sheer drops don’t really go together well.

Every day we took the boys to the nearby horse centre, to look at the horses, which the boys loved. We arranged a horse ride, Dylan was really up for it, and managed a canter, Arto wasn’t too keen to go for a ride on his own.

We had such a great time staying with Carmen, Imanól and Ineka, and we saw a lot of things that you wouldn’t necessarily see as a tourist, so it makes the WWOOF’ing even more worthwhile.

Pintxos with our hosts

Olite Castle

Olite castle

Olite Castle

Mission 3: Northern Spain

Where: Castro Urdiales, San Sebastián

When: May 2017

What: Exploring Northern Spain (a bit) and meeting Grandma

We hadn’t done a lot of research and booked a campsite at the last minute in a rush (Camping Zumaia). Though there doesn’t seem to be a lot of campsites to choose from around Bilbao. The website made it look great, but when we arrived, having driven through an industrial estate by the front entrance and arrived at a pretty bland looking and almost completely empty campsite at the top of a hill surrounded by pilons, and Dylan then falling off a wall…we decided to find somewhere else to sleep. So we lost a small deposit, lesson to Georgie, there really is no need to pre book campsites out of season. We found a pretty cheap Air BnB about an hours drive away in Castro Urdiales, so for the first time, and because they were bored and starving, we put the iPad on for the boys in the car 😱. It took us about another two hours to get into the apartment as the lady had lost her phone and we didn’t have the exact address, so we sat outside in the car, boys watching iPad and Mum and Dad drinking beer! 😱😱

The apartment was lovely, it was advertised as having a pool, but it’s not open in May, as with many other outdoor Spanish swimming pools, because 20 degrees Celsius isn’t warm enough to swim outside maybe?!

Grandma arrived the next morning to spend a few days with us, the boys were very pleased to see her,  and very glad to have someone else to play with!

Castro Urdiales is really pretty with a lovely seafront, and more importantly a couple of really good playgrounds.

Castro Urdiales beach playground

We spent the next day in San Sebastián, wow, what an amazing place, I had no idea how beautiful it was. We visited the aquarium, and had pintxos in one of the crazy busy pintxos bars in the narrow streets. We caught the funicular up to Monte Igueldo, with it’s amazing views of the bay, and rode on the mini boat.

View of San Sebastián bay from Monte Igueldo

Very surprising boat trip at the top of Monte Igueldo

Grandma left after 3 days and we decided to spend a few more days exploring San Sebastián, at Camping Igueldo, a really good campsite, if you can put up with the moody staff/owners, pool closed again obviously, as it’s not really summer yet is it?! So we spent a few days relaxing on San Sebastián beach.

Spinning on San Sebastián beach

We really enjoyed Northern Spain, it was a shame we couldn’t explore some more and go further west, but we had another farm booked through WWOOF’ing, so we’re off again.

 

 

Mission 2: Our first WWOOF’ing experience

Where: Mimizan, France

When: May 2017

What: WWOOF’ing. WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Volunteering and learning on organic farms in exchange for accommodation and food.

We arrived at Benico Bio farm on Saturday evening to find that Sunday is their day off…result! We are shown to our caravan, pretty rustic and looking very much like they have bought it from Mickey in Snatch! But we love it.

Home Snatch Home

The rest of the camp is really cool, they have a trailer with a hot shower, a huge kitchen, a basketball net and slack line, chickens, a peacock, sheep and pigs, one of whom roams freely around the camp, she doesn’t like kids and is a biter!

The owners of the farm are super chilled and really nice, they tell us we’re here to enjoy ourselves and can do as much or as little as we like. They were really understanding that one of us would have to look after the kids while the other worked.

Planting at Benico Bio

Daily tasks, with the 20 or so other WWOOF’ers consisted mostly of planting, sowing and harvesting. The boys helped with some of the jobs; their favourite was to remove the beetles from the aubergine and tomato plants and collect them in a pot. We worked about four to five hours per day, usually in the mornings, and had the afternoons free to spend at the beach, surfing or swimming, or at the stunning Lac d Arjuzanx. Jess also paid a few visits to Mimizan skate park, having it pretty much to himself in the middle of the day. It’s a sick skate park, with great street section and massive bowl. The weather was amazing the whole time we were in Mimizan.

Especier plage near Mimizan

Mimizan Skate Park

All our food was provided while we were here, and was mostly made by Tommy, the amazing resident chef, who prepared delicious meals with the vegetables from the farm.

One of the memorable moments was being interrogated by the gendarmes, who were doing an investigation into the farm and working conditions. They paid a surprise visit one morning and questioned us all for hours, then made us go to the station the next day for further questioning. They were clearly barking up the wrong tree, as it’s such a great place to volunteer, and the owners couldn’t be nicer and more chilled out. But it was an interesting experience anyway!

We met some great people at Benico, not only the owners, Beni and Nico, but all the WWOOF’ers too. Everyone was really welcoming and friendly with the boys and included them in everything. It was great for the boys to be around so many people, they really grew in confidence during our stay here.

Benico Bio was a great intro into WWOOFing for us and a great experience, we learned a lot from them. And it was a brilliant way to save money and keep under budget.

 

Mission 1: The first week

Where: France

When: May 2017

What: Getting into the swing of things and just chilling out

And we’re off, woo hoo! We’ve been planning this trip for two years, and it’s finally here!

We catch the ferry from Dover to Calais and drive to our first stop; Val de Loire, France. We opt out of pitching the tent for just two nights, and instead stay in a ready made mobile home/tent. The campsite is very kid friendly; playgrounds, indoor and outdoor pools, bouncy castle, so the boys are pretty happy, and wrongly assume that every day over the next year will be this much fun for them!

Our tent Coco Sweet at Parc du Val de Loire

 

 

 

 

 

After a few nights we move on to our next stop, Maurs. En route we spend a few hours at one of the Loire Valley’s beautiful castles, Chateau Chenonceau. Dylan tells us ‘this fountain is not interesting, this castle is not interesting, and this holiday is not interesting’, this could be a very long year.

The beautiful grounds of Château de Chenonceau

We arrive in Maurs in the evening, to stay with our in-laws. The boys are very excited to see they have two older boys to play with; their cousin’s cousins. Stéfanie and Rodrique’s house and garden are beautiful. We have our own room and bathroom and they could not have been more welcoming and hospitable. We visited the local river where the boys caught frogs, we found the local horse market, the boys played in the huge garden, and we drank wine and ate cheese and bread, lots of it.

Grenouilles!

Stéfanie & Rodrigue’s beautiful house in Maurs

A pretty good first week!