Wednesday, May 26, 2010

National Park Service Passports

A few years ago, I picked up National Park Service Passports for our kids. The passports are a way to "record" your visits to national parks, monuments, recreation areas, etc. Visitor centers and park gift shops usually have passport stations where you can stamp your books with their specific stamp and it'll record the date. My kids say that I'm more excited about the passports than they are. That's probably true, but I know I'm helping them create memories and someday they'll appreciate having this record.

When we're traveling, I carry them in my purse (you never know when you might stumble upon something) but usually they reside in my car's glove box. When we were walking down the street in New Orleans recently, I announced to the family that there was no need to panic since I was carrying the passports in case we stumbled upon something. You should have heard the ridicule I endured until I pointed out the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve visitors center we were walking by.

You can buy them online here.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010



What a comfortable way to travel! We hopped on a Eurostar train for a quick 2-1/2 hour ride from London to Paris. The kids read, played cards and chatted with a little French boy seated behind us. Do you already know about the Chopsticks finger game? Saved us many times while in line on this trip.

I had booked two adjourning rooms at the Hotel Residence Henri IV which is located at the dead end of a one way street on the left bank just below the Pantheon. Great hotel! It's walking distance to Notre Dame, several Metro stations and most importantly, an Eric Kayser bakery. We breakfasted at Eric Kayser each morning but one. I cannot describe how unbelievably fantastic their goodies are - I still dream about those almond croissants! No other pastries compared to the buttery, flaky ones from Eric Kayser.

Our first full day in Paris, we took Metro to the Eiffel Tower. Boy, were the lines long! We had slept in a bit, lingered over our lattes and arrived with not a lot of time to spare before our 11AM Fat Tire Bike Tour appointment. We decided to explore the Tower later that day after our bike tour.

Fat Tire Bike Tour is an American company that employs recently graduated art history majors, architecture students and France aficionados. Our tour guide was a Rice University graduate who double majored in Economics and Art History and was filling a 9 month gap between college and a job in Beijing. He particularly connected with our older son. ("Hey, ride up here with me.")

We met at the Eiffel Tower, walked a few short blocks to their shop, saddled up and headed out. (BTW, they had helmets for all of us, a backpack for my purse, water bottles and tag-along bikes for our then 6-year-old twins.) There were maybe 20 people in our group. The tour took us to the Tuileries for lunch, passed the Louvre and back in 4 hours with lots of stops in between. Great opportunity to get the lay of the land!

Our second full day in Paris was the 4th of July. We usually attend an annual barbecue at our friends' house on the 4th, so my objective was to distract the kids from missing that party. We had pre-purchased tickets for a Star Wars exhibit at the Cité des Sciences des Industrie. How American is that?

The next day, we ventured to the Musée d'Orsay. Housed in a former train station, the d'Orsay has the largest Impressionist collection in Paris. Be sure to purchase a Paris Museum Pass (available at larger Metro stations and some museums). While it's no big financial deal and kids under 18 get in free almost everywhere, many attractions have separate entrances for pass holders. That's the case at the d'Orsay where they let pass holders in a half hour early. Our Fat Tire guide had clued us in to head upstairs to the 5th floor first to see the Renoirs, Monets, Manets and Degas. It was practically empty (we returned later in the morning and couldn't get anywhere near the paintings.) It was amazing!

The d'Orsay is currently under renovation and many of their most famous paintings are on exhibit at the de Young in San Francisco. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to see these paintings outside of France. I hear it will also travel to Nashville, TN, Madrid and Australia.

After visiting the d'Orsay, we went to the Jardin du Luxembourg for lunch and some fun at a big playground. My kids had already figured out about Croque Monsieurs and baguette, butter & ham sandwiches, so they were content. The husband watched the kidlettes while the niece and I headed a couple of blocks away to the Pantheon to see all we needed to see there. A little running around and then the kids were ready to sit and watch the marionette show. Not sure they totally appreciated the French humor, but oh, what cultural flavor!

Midway through our week in Paris, we took the train to Versailles. Fat Tire does a bike tour to Versailles, too. Our friends did it and loved the access to the gardens. When we first arrived, I remember rounding the corner and seeing a HUGE line to enter the palace. Then, I noticed a small sign to the left signaling the entrance for museum pass holders and we walked right in.

What can you say about Versailles? It's absolutely over-the-top and more than you can ever imagine. So glad we made the effort to get there. It was the first time I saw someone wearing a burqa and marveled at how she managed the heat and the less than ideal (read TINY) restrooms.

That evening, we took a sunset boat tour on the Seine from the Ile de la Cite. We couldn't have planned it better - we saw a fashion photo shoot, beautiful architecture and romantic couples on the banks all while traveling the Seine at twilight. The boat turned around at the Eiffel Tower and we enjoyed the City of Lights as we headed back. After we arrived at the dock, we made our way to Creperie des Arts for dessert.

That's our friend, Cherry Man, who worked at the corner fruit stand down the block from our hotel. He spoke not a word of English, so we did a lot of pointing and relied heavily on what little French the husband could remember from high school. We stopped there nearly every day on our way back to the hotel. A couple of evenings, the niece stayed in with the kids while the husband and I enjoyed adult dinners out. Both restaurants were delicious and within easy walking distance from the hotel: Degres de Notre Dame and Les Vignes du Pantheon where they quite literally handed us an French/English gastronomic dictionary!

Our final day in Paris, we started with a quick visit to the Louvre. We had decided ahead of time to try to see only three things: the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo (affectionally known in our family as the "Cinco de Milo") and a Vermeer or two since I had just read Girl with a Pearl Earring and Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Someday, I'll go back to the Louvre to see everything else.

Even though we had a plan, the museum as packed. When we got to the Mona Lisa, there was a huge crowd. We walked to one side of the roped barricade to try to catch a glimpse of the painting. The guards noticed our short little kids and escorted them behind the barricade and directly in front of the painting. I stood behind them and said things like "Do you think she's smiling? What do you think she's thinking about? Look at the background..." Knowing what an amazing experience this was, they turned to look at me. "Don't look at me! Look at the painting!" I know it's a memory they'll have for the rest of their lives.

From there, we headed over to L' Arch de Triomphe and climbed the stairs to the top. What an amazing view! That's where the husband took the Eiffel Tower picture posted above. Afterwards, we walked a couple of blocks away and ducked into Le Do Re Mi cafe for hot chocolate and to escape a sudden downpour.

Finally, we took Metro back to our neighborhood to visit Notre Dame. We were too late to climb the tower (something else for the next trip to Paris) but we did tour the cathedral and enjoyed all the beautiful stained glass.

The next day, we packed up and headed back on Eurostar to London. We made our way from Waterloo station to Heathrow Airport, stayed overnight at the Sheraton Skyline (the kids loved the indoor pool) and flew home the following day.

What a great trip!

Travel books I used for this trip:

English Countryside


After a week in London, we headed out to the English countryside. The kids needed to know that England wasn't only London and vice versa. We picked up a rental car in central London - the husband did all the driving and I kept him alert, talking him through the roundabouts and unfamiliar surroundings. It was harrowing, but we survived!

Our first destination was Stonehenge. It's incredible! Just a short 2 hour drive from London, Stonehenge is a good spot to stop and stretch your legs. Be sure to get the complimentary audio tour. It'll talk you through the creation of Stonehenge, what it was used for, other yet-to-be excavated area sites and the people who inhabited the area. It was fascinating!

We continued west from Stonehenge to Bath, arriving in time to visit the Bath Abbey. Bath Abbey had a wonderful scavenger hunt for the kids that guided them around the abbey to see the most important things. Our uncles visited Bath Abbey recently and took a tour which included a visit to the belfry and the roof. I want to do that next time!

We stayed at the Parade Park Hotel and it was great. It's very close to the Roman Baths, the Abbey and most importantly, parking. Parking in Bath can be difficult. The breakfast was fine - not fantastic, but I don't fully appreciate English breakfasts.

The following morning, we toured the Roman Baths. Again, the audio tour was well worth it and highly recommended. Those Romans really knew their plumbing! The uncles enjoyed afternoon tea in the Pump Room, but it was a little too fancy for us. The kids only lasted a couple of hours before calling it quits.

We hit the road again, heading north toward the Cotswolds. Quintessential rural England, the Cotwolds are filled with little stone cottages, thatched roofs, green fields and lots and lots of sheep. We stopped in Stow-in-the-Wold for lunch before arriving in Chipping Campden where we had reservations at the Lygon Arms Hotel.

During our entire 19 day trip, the only glitch we had was in Chipping Campden. The Lygon Arms had lost our reservation! I had planned our four days in the countryside based on the Lygon Arms' 2 night minimum, but they only had room for us on the second night. They were extremely apologetic and asked if we would mind staying a few miles up the road in their 16th century Elmhurst cottage in Quinton. Would we mind?!? It was one of the highlights of our trip!

From Elmhurst cottage, it was a short distance to Statford-upon-Avon. We visited Shakespeare's birthplace and Anne Hathaway's cottage. There's a small kid-friendly museum attached to Shakespeare's birthplace that gave us a good overview of his life and work.

You could easily spend a couple of days in Stratford, especially if you want to see a play or two. We tried to limit it to just enough time to get a flavor without overwhelming the kids. I think we struck the right balance.

After a quick pick-me-up ice cream across the street from Anne Hathaway's cottage, I dragged the family to Warwick Castle. They were not happy and wanted to head back to the cottage to hang out. Thankfully, they were glad I insisted. Madame Trousseau created an exhibit there of Henry VIII and his wives, as well as an imaginary "Edwardian weekend in the country with the Prince of Wales." We climbed towers, descended into dungeons and imagined what it would be like to live in a castle.

Now, looking at Warwick's website, it seems to have gotten a bit touristy. An alternative would be to visit Windsor Castle on the way back to London.

The next day, we drove back to London, dropped the car, took the Tube to Waterloo station and boarded Eurostar for Paris.

To be continued...

Travel book I used for this portion of the trip:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

London with Kids Part 2


On the fifth day of our European adventure, we made our way to the Millennium Bridge. The footbridge is an easy way to cross the Thames from the St. Paul's Cathedral side of the river to the Tate Modern in the Southwark area of London. My kids loved the Tate Modern, especially because we picked up copies of the kids' gallery guide which took us on a treasure hunt through the collection. It was well done and kept the kids interested.

We had a tasty lunch at the museum café, even though our niece had a difficult time recognizing most of the items on the menu... (For the record, I had the English pea and ham soup.)

There's a ferry available that will take you back and forth to the Tate Britain, if you choose. Instead, we headed next door to the Globe Theatre replica. We were planning a visit to Strattford-upon-Avon later in the trip, so visiting the Globe and getting a taste of Shakespeare was perfect. If you're lucky (or plan ahead), you can catch a play while you're there.

We had grand plans to visit St. Paul's before heading back to the hotel. Unfortunately, Mother Nature conspired against us. Fortunately, we had seen rain ponchos in the Globe's gift shop. Ask me how mortified the teen aged niece was on the Tube ride home.

The following day, we visited Westminster Abbey before heading to the London Science Museum in South Kensington. Ask the geek husband what his favorite thing was in the London Science Museum and he'll tell you, "the Babbage machine." If you're like me, read here to find out what that is.

Following our visit to the science museum, we headed to Harrod's, the most unbelievable department store you'll ever see! Be sure to check out the kiddie Hummer in the toy department. The china, jewelry and spectacle of the whole store is amazing, too. We picked up dinner for the kids in the most incredible food court I have ever visited and went back to the

hotel. The niece and kids stayed in that night to watch World Cup soccer while the husband and I had dinner out and saw Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace Theatre, just a short distance from our hotel.

On our last full day in London, we took a boat from Westminster Pier to Greenwich to visit the Cutty Sark, the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory and Greenwich Park. The highlight of our Greenwich visit was straddling the hemispheres. The kids still talk about that!

Travel books I used for this portion of the trip: