Preparing for Japan with “Little Passports”

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It’s hard to believe we are leaving for Japan today!  As part of our preparation for the trip, we have some fun with our Little Passports World Edition Japan kit that helped introduce the country to our kids.  This is our first time in Asia so I wanted to do things that would help prepare the kids and teach them something they could understand or and relate with.  The Japan country kit was well received by all 3 of my little ones but my oldest son, who is 7 years old, dove into it the most.  The Little Passport kits are a great way to start discussions on geography, food and culture of other countries around the world.  Here is what we got to play with this month…

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The first thing my kids want to do is use the stickers.  They love the fact that you get to put one in the passport, one on their suit case and then find the country on our world map for the “push pin” sticker.

Finding Japan on the map!

Finding Japan on the map!

Both my 5 year old and my 7 year old loved the origami!  They both chose to make the boat.  One of the tips in the booklet was to color the bottom of the boat with a wax crayon so that it could float better.  This created a great discussion about water repellant materials and we did an experiment on which boats would hold up longer, the ones with the wax crayon on the bottom and the ones without!

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Testing the first boat with the wax crayon coating.

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Making more origami while the test boats float.

One of the other crafts in this month’s booklet was making a carp (koi fish) kite like they hang for Children’s day in Japan.  While we didn’t end up doing this yet, we talked about the custom in Japan to celebrate them and how parents wish health and good fortune and success.  We also took a trip to our city’s Japanese Garden where they had several koi fish in their pond that we got to feed.  Their mouths were so big and round that the kids saw the similarities of the circular mouths of the kites.

Carp (Koi) fish at Seattle's Japanese Garden.

Carp (Koi) fish at Seattle’s Japanese Garden.

One of the biggest concerns we have as parents when traveling with kids is finding food that they will eat.  Our Little Passports Japan activity booklet talked about Bento Boxes and what kids will often eat during the day in Japan.  My oldest son is really curious about cooking and making food these days so this was a perfect activity for him!  We made traditional sushi rice and let him choose things to add according to the ratios that we read about for bento box typical content.

Forming the sushi rice.

Forming the sushi rice.

Designing the contents.

Designing the contents.

The final product!

The final product!

After testing out some Japanese food at home, it was time to take the kids to a local Japanese restaurant where we ordered a bento box and some sushi!  It was a relief to see them so excited for food they wouldn’t normally touch because they had already experimented with it at home.  I hope that this will make it easier for us to eat on our trip in Japan too!!!

Trying a bento meal and yakisoba noodles at a local restaurant in our town.

Trying a bento meal and yakisoba noodles at a local restaurant in our town.

We also used one of the online interactive programs through the Little Passports Boarding Zone to get an idea of what cool things there are to see in different parts of the country which helped us highlight some of the “not to miss” areas that we will visit by train once we’re there.  I think we’re ready for our vacation in Japan!  Sayoonara for now!

The World’s Largest Ice Cave. Our St. Johan im Pongau Vacation. Part Two

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As you may remember from Part One of our August Austrian vacation in Sank Johan im Pongau, we tried to visit the world’s largest ice cave in one hour.  Maybe I should have paid a little more attention to the fact that this was the WORLD’S LARGEST ICE CAVE! After our failure on the first day, we decided to go back the next morning, because, I have to say it again, the world’s largest ice cave!  This was not to be missed, and even though there were several other things in the region that looked very appealing, and this was our last full day, I was determined to see it.  Now, my husband was still unsure that we should attempt such a feat with the kids.  Now, I know that I told you last time that you should listen to dissension among the ranks sometimes, but this was not the time.  Why was this time different than not listening to him before?  Because I knew he wanted to go see it too, he was just unsure the children would make it up to the top.  But, we now had the whole day, not just an hour.  And we’ve been through this debate before “Let’s just go next time. We love this place so much, we’ll come back.”  And then we never do.  So, knowing that the kids actually did fine on the 1st part of the hike we tried before, I was determined that today, with the whole day open ahead of us, we would make it up to the cave.

Brochure for the Eisen Welt (Ice World)

Brochure for the “Eisriesenwelt” (World of Ice Giants).

Arriving just 30 minutes after they opened that morning, we were already parking three phases further away from the entrance, unlike the evening before when we were in the first parking lot.  The weather was gloomy and supposed to rain that day, but the temperature was still mid 50’s Fahrenheit.  We were warned however that it would be much colder in the cave. But having done the first part of the hike the day before, I knew how hot you could get just on the way up.  So, we decided on pants and short sleeve shirts that morning and jackets that could be taken off and tied around the waist.  I knew the stroller was not a good choice to go up the mountain, but I couldn’t remember how far the walk was to the entrance, and that was already up hill.  So we took the stroller up and left it in the locker rooms that were available for rent. Though we just stashed it on the side as it wouldn’t fit.  A risk, but one we figured would be ok given the area.  We purchased our tickets again and started the walk.  This time, I kept it at a pace more enjoyable for all.  With the boys and husband walking along and my 18 month old strapped to my back in the Ergo, up we went.

First leg of the walk up to the gondola.

First leg of the walk up to the gondola.

The path started out wide and remained nicely graveled, and even paved in some areas, all the way to the gondola.  At the gondola entrance, there was a snack shop with some benches for a pit stop going up or coming down the mountain with drinks, packaged snacks, ice creams and a few hot snacks.  The best part was the bottled water.  The line for the gondola started further back this time, it took us 30 minutes to get to our turn.  The ride itself was smooth but startling if you look down as you get closer to the top.  At one point we were literally being pulled straight up rather than the gradual across and upward slope direction.

The gondola to the top departing from the end of the 1st hiking trail.

The gondola to the top departing from the end of the 1st hiking trail.

Once at the top, we were greeted by a restaurant, which we noted as an ideal stopping point for the way back.  The 2nd trail of the hike up was more narrow than the first, but plenty wide enough for people to stand 4 by 4 across so you could go up and people could come down without a problem passing each other.  Some parts of the trail were covered with a nicely built awning.  The scary part was, you were winding up the side of the mountain, and it was steep up at the top.  There was a guard rail the entire way up to the mouth of the cave, however it was merely two wood logs between posts.  It was a good thing Madelyn was content with riding on my back, at one point she even fell asleep.  Our children, fortunately, are used to traveling and trusting in our guidance in new situations,  so when we’d tell them not to do something or where to walk, they listened.  But if your children are a bit more adventurous and don’t always like to stop climbing or running around when you tell them, this could be a more stressful or dangerous trip.  Just on the other side of the “fence” is a deadly drop over the side of the mountain.  This again reminded me of how lucky I was to have my husband for this experience.  Even with my daughter on my back, it was necessary to have those extra set of hands, and I hadn’t even saw what was in store for us INSIDE the cave!  After winding our way up the 2nd hiking path to the mouth of the cave, there were several terraced benches with a steep view of the valley below and surrounding mountains.  We were all happy to have a rest on the benches after the long hike.  There were a couple benches along the way to stop too.  But it was nothing like finally reaching your destination.

2nd path to the top after the gondola ride.

2nd path to the top after the gondola ride.

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A view of the winding trail up to the mouth of the cave.

While the parking lot was crowded, the wait for the actual tours once you got to the top was not long at all.  We only had to wait about 5 minutes for our English speaking tour to begin.  As we gathered around to hear the rules before going into the cave, they handed out our open flame lanterns to light the way.  Only natural light is permitted inside the cave for preservation purposes.  The guides use magnisium strips to light certain areas once inside.  After the door was open to enter the cave, you experience a huge rush of wind.  Then with your open flame lanterns in hand, you proceed on a short path to the first flight of stairs.  We were ultimately about to climb up and down a total of 1,400 steps throughout the tour.

Open flame lanterns made walking through the cave slightly hazardous with passing tours.

Open flame lanterns made walking through the cave slightly hazardous with passing tours.

We had to climb two very tall flights of stairs in the beginning of the tour.  Then there were some flat trails along boardwalks around some of the sculptures.  The ice “sculptures” as they called them, were very beautiful and impressive.  There were about 5 different main formations along the way.  The hardest part was being stressed over the lanterns and making sure that however we held them that one of the kids didn’t turn slightly into the flame.  There are also a couple main areas along the tour where you and another tour group pass by each other on the way in and out of the turn around.  There is only a bar rail separating the path and not a full barrier and some of the other tourist would just carry their lanterns in the hand next to the rail so that it risked brushing up with the tourist walking on the other side.  Several times I had to step to the side so as not to get burned by their lanterns.  Besides the acute awareness you must have while walking up and down the stairs and along the paths of this 70 minute tour inside the cave, the ice sculptures themselves are breathtaking.  One the one hand, I was really sad that I would not be able to take pictures inside the cave.  I desperately wanted to catch the beauty and magnificants of this place.  But, I will admit, being forced to experience very second with wide eyes and not camera lense, did make me appreciate what I was seeing even more.  You really got to take it all in rather than worry about taking a picture.  And in the end, that was the best part.  It was like we were lost in an exciting underground world.  I did however purchase a couple of postcards from the gift shop to remember how amazing it was inside.  Here is one of the official postcards from the visitor’s center.

This is a scanned copy of a postcard purchased at the Eisriesenwelt gift shop.

This is a scanned copy of a postcard purchased at the Eisriesenwelt gift shop.

You might be wondering how the kids did trekking up and down all 1400 stairs?  Well, the 18 month old slept through half of it in the Ergo on my back, and when she woke up, I think she was so confused she spent the rest of the time just looking around trying to figure out where she was.  As for the 4 and 6 year olds, we didn’t get much complaints at all.  During the longest stair stretch of about 200 steps, there were one or two questions of how many more.  But they got a kick out of counting the stairs and that kept them pretty amazed on those parts since it was a new thing that year to count up to 100, and now they were past that!  Our 4 year old did complain of being too cold when we got into the deepest part of the cave, but other than that, they did great, especially with the promise of hot chocolate and kaiserschmarrn waiting for them at the restaurant we saw at the top of the gondola.  Once we got back to the mouth of the cave and returned our lanterns, we look one last resting break on the terraced benches to take in the view before the walk down.

Terraced benches at the mouth of the cave provide an incredible view of the mountain range.

Terraced benches at the mouth of the cave provide an incredible view of the mountain range.

The walk back down the trail to the gondola decent post and restaurant was of course much easier and faster than going up.  We ducked into the restaurant just as we realized that we had left our umbrellas at the mouth of the cave where the tours meet (they were not allowed inside the cave and we wouldn’t have been able to carry them anyways).  Had they just been one or two cheap umbrellas that we bought at a drug store, we would have left them, but they had been gifts so my husband graciously agreed to hike back up to the mouth of the cave while I saw at a nice warm table in the corner of the restaurant.  It was very crowded and we just lucked into a corner booth table and chairs just before a big rush came in.  There were several tables with people that had reserved signs on them, so I think that you can make a reservation when you get off the gondola so that you have a table to come back to after the tour.  We did not do this and took our chances and it turned out nicely, that time.  But given the crowds, service was very slow.  In fact, it took my husband nearly 40 minutes to go up and get the umbrellas and come back and we had only ordered and received drinks.  But the kids got their Austrian, powder sugar dusted, crumbled up pancakes (kaiserschmarrn) and hot chocolate so they were all happy campers.

Delicious kaiserschmarrn (special Austrian pancakes).

Delicious kaiserschmarrn (special Austrian pancakes).

By time we got back to the car, we had been gone for 6 hours.  I couldn’t believe we had spent that much time on one attraction, and I had no regrets, including the 2 hours it took to have “snack” at the restaurant before going back down the gondola.  I was so proud, not just of my kids, but of us as a family.  We endured a fairly physical activity, supported one another through it, and got to experience a “once in a life-time” sight with the five of us all together!  It was a good day.

Austria’s Saint Johan im Pongau. Truly a “kinderparadise” and a Family Vacation Gem! Part 1

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My husband loves Austria, and I don’t blame him.  The entire country is full of beautiful landscapes and marvelous cities.  While I’m a little more of a fan of places like Vienna and Salzburg, Austria is one place that a city girl can enjoy the outdoors with her adventurous husband without having to hike 10 miles with mountain gear on your back.  Maybe a 20lb toddler instead.  Here is our arrival and day one in this beautiful part of Austria that turned out to be one of our BEST family vacations!

Burg Hohenwerfen in Werfen, Austria.

Burg Hohenwerfen in Werfen, Austria.

For this trip, our destination was determined by what was available through our timeshare exchange that would sleep five people (a majority of European properties are for two to four people).  There happen to be an exchange with a hotel in Sankt Johan im Pongau.  It was a large sports hotel, next to a mini shopping “mall” and across the street from a lovely park with a playground.  The Alpine Sports Hotel lived up to its name.  It had its own racquet ball courts, a large swimming pool and a group fitness/dance room.  The staff was incredibly friendly and offered tour and vacation planning services as well as housing two restaurants within the hotel.

Immediately after hitting up the tourist pamphlet stand for the whole Pongau area, I wished we had planned for longer than three days.  Our reservation was just for three nights and four days (Monday through Thursday) as that was all that was available when we booked through RCI.  Our plan was to go into Slovenia on Thursday for two days before returning to Munich.  After our late arrival in Austria on Monday night, I came up with a proposed plan for how to spend our few days in the Pongau region.  As it turned out, the world’s largest ice cave was located just 20 minutes north of our town!  It immediately became a priority for our trip.  Across the highway from the mountain with the ice cave was a hill top castle as well.  The Tuesday morning goal was to feed the kids then head to the castle followed by an afternoon tour of the ice cave.  On the drive to the castle, I happened to read the brochure for the ice cave again and it said to allow for 6 hours! It also said that the last gondola up to the top of the mountain was going to be at 4:45 p.m. that day.  Still, I was not discouraged!

We arrived at the castle with the threats of rain looming over us and about an hour behind schedule.  To get to the castle, there was the choice of a 15-20 minute walk up to the top or quicker option, the gondola.  To save time, we took the ride.  The castle, “Burg Hohenwerfen” turned out to be a gold mine for the kids! It was well kept, had the feel of walking into a knight’s strong hold, and had marvelous programs and activities specifically for kids!  At the ticket office we were given a story book map for each of the kids.  There were stations around the castle that you have to answer the questions for to solve a puzzle at the end.  When you got them all correct, you could take your booklet to the office at the exit for a little treat.  This immediately captured the attention of our two boys (6 & 4 years old) who had grown accustom to walking around Castles and Palaces that sometimes got boring.

The ride up to the castle.

The ride up to the castle.

In order to go into the interior rooms of the castle, you had to meet in the courtyard for an official tour.  Fortunately for us, the English guided tour was to start about 15 minutes after we arrived and the line was much shorter than the German one.  In addition to the guide, we also had the electronic wands that gave added information about each room.  The kids got their own special wands with a unique children’s program that highlighted more interested points for them in a fun story book kind of way.  I listened to a few and had wished we all just got the children ones!  While there were not elaborate rooms with lots of furniture in this castle, we did get to go up into their working clock/bell tower.  It should be noted that this included some narrow and steep stair passages.  I had my 18 month old on my back in the Ergo.  Had I been alone on this particular tour, it may have been difficult to guide the two boys and balance myself with the baby on my back up and down the stair cases in very tight quarters.  One parent who had carried their child in their arms, even accidently whacked the poor little one’s head on a wood beam while trying to descend. I was thankfully with my husband on this part of our trip so we managed, and the view from the top of the bell tower was worth it!

A special kids guide in English for the tiny tourists.

A special kids guide in English for the tiny tourists.

After the tour of the castle, back in the courtyard, we played with several old fashioned games they had set up in different stations.  There were walking stilts, wooden unicorns that you tossed rings over the horn, and then a ball pendulum that you tried to knock over pins with in a circle.  All three of the kids had a wonderful time playing the games.  It was tough to drag them away, but I was bent on getting to that ice cave before the last tour and their booklets with the scavenger hunt puzzle was a nice incentive.  We didn’t sit to watch the hawking show because we wanted to finish the kids’ hunt and go to the ice cave.  This I regret.  Even though we spent about 4 hours at the castle, I felt we could have spent the entire day!  But, it was time to get on over to the ice cave in my mind.  Despite me being in a hurry, the kids wanted to walk down to the car through the trails, so we did.  It provided a nice conversation about why we stay on the path at historic and natural sites and a brief lesson in soil and root erosion.

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Top of the bell tower.

Back at the car we headed the short distance across the highway to the road up to the next mountain for the ice cave.  I didn’t know what to expect as we approached the parking lot stages.  We arrived at a place to park rather close to the “entrance” and had one hour before the last tour was going to start.  We weren’t sure if we should take the stroller or just the ergo.  Since we were in a hurry, I thought we’d try the stroller.  By time we got up to the ticket counter, we had 50 minutes left to make it to the cave entrance and they told us it was a 20 minute walk to the gondola and then another 20 minutes to the cave entrance from the top of the gondola. The whole time my husband kept telling me that we should just wait till the next day, that they kids couldn’t do it, that we wouldn’t make it.  But my stubborn self would not listen.  I knew the kids could do it, and just felt he didn’t know them as well as I did and I would “show him” that he was wrong.  So we purchased the tickets after asking if a full refund was possible if we didn’t make it.  They said yes, the ticket had 2 parts, one for the gondola and the other for the cave tour and they tear off a piece of the ticket at each stage, so which ever wasn’t torn off, we’d get the refund.

View of the castle from the ice cave mountain side.

View of the castle from the ice cave mountain side.

With tickets in hand, we started up the mountain.  Now, one would think, knowing that it was a mountain we were going up, that I would have anticipated just how steep the walk was going to be.  However, as gradual as the path up looked, it turned out to be pretty exhausting to push the stroller up the path with a toddler in it!  We pushed on, panting, and my husband incredibly annoyed at the speed I was trying to push everyone.  After 18 minutes, we made it to the gondola station, only to find a really long line.  I was still optimistic that we would make the last tour, until 5 minutes went by and no one moved.  Then 10 minutes and the gondola had then come 2 times and we barely made progress.  I’m ashamed to admit I was in a full 2 year old pouting fit.  It was clear we weren’t going to make it up in time for the tour.  I was so mad and even blaming the ticketing counter for selling us a ticket when they clearly must have known there was no chance that we’d make it.  “If they had just told us there was no chance to make it, we wouldn’t have suffered through the first leg of the hike for nothing!” I reasoned.  But in fact, my husband told me this, and the ticket counter told us what the hike times were.  Even without a wait at the gondola, we only had a 5 minute window for error on the hike times alone.  I learned a tough lesson that day, actually a few tough lessons and reminders.  1. Your attitude effects everyone on the trip. 2. Sometimes your spouse IS right. 3. Don’t rush your experiences, quality rather than quantity is going to give you the better outcome and memories on a vacation.  Had I just resided myself to the fact that we were going to just do the castle that day, we could have also learned more about the birds and scene the falcon and hawk show and, if something (like the ice cave) is important enough to visit, you will make time for it.  As we did the next day of the trip.  With so much to see and do in that area, I was so set on getting to try out as much as I could.  But the thing is, you won’t really miss getting to do the thing you don’t see, but you will miss getting to do the stuff at the place you do visit and rush through.  So, learn from my mistake and take your time!  And check out the next post coming soon about our big day in the ice cave!  We did make it, the following morning, and from parking lot start to finish, it was a 6 hour adventure that was well worth the wait!!!

The boys checking their final answers from the scavenger's hunt.

The boys checking their final answers from the scavenger’s hunt.

Victoria, B.C. Europe In My Backyard.

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Now that we are back in the Seattle area, we can’t just drive 2 or 3 hours in any direction and end up in 4 or 5 other countries. Thankfully, we have at least one that can be reached in such a short amount of time and it has a small slice of European flare too!  The city of Victoria, British Colombia.  The capital of Canada’s western province, Victoria is just as posh as any European city with more of a small town feel.  The historic downtown is very walk-able and full of friendly Canadians.  Plus it is also a great “training ground” for young children to practice walking and using their manners while going through an ornate hotel, a parliament building, a castle and museums.  There are loads of outdoor opportunities as well!

Playing on the Emily Carr monument in front of the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

Playing on the Emily Carr monument in front of the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

GETTING THERE FROM THE U.S.

We’ve traveled to Victoria two different routes, but both by ferry.  Remember, you and your children will need a passport to enter Canada.  The first several times we took the Victoria Clipper, a high speed, passenger only ferry that departs from downtown Seattle and takes you straight to Victoria’s inner harbor in just a little over 2 and a half hours. It’s reasonably priced for a ticket, but tickets have to be purchased for each passenger over the age of 1 year old. For more information about the Seattle-Victoria Clipper, click here.  The one time I took our kids on the ferry I was traveling with a German friend and our 5 children collectively, no husbands. While the Clipper is fast and direct and provides children with a chance to move around, there are not play structures on board.  The boat can get slightly choppy sometimes due to the high speeds so people with motion sickness might feel it more than a regular ferry.  But we did have luck getting our whole party together around a seat section with a table and tried to keep the kids occupied with tablets, crayons and coloring books.  If you are only going to Victoria for the weekend, the Clipper is a nice option.  The other choices are Washington State Ferries from the U.S. to Vancouver Island or drive to Vancouver and take the ferries from Tsawwassen to Nanaimo area. Here are some helpful links regarding ferry travel https://www.ferrytravel.com and http://www.bcferries.com/schedules/mainland/

The 2nd time I took the children to Victoria, we went as our whole family of 5 and we decided to drive since we’d be spending a week up in Canada.  We drove to Vancouver and took the BC ferries from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay/Nanaimo.  Just note that you then have to drive about 30 minutes down into Victoria from Swartz Bay I couldn’t have been more pleased with the B.C. Ferry trip.  It did cost us the gas to drive to Vancouver and then $95 U.S. to cross each way ($190 total), but that was still cheaper than the $425 it would have cost our family of 5 to go round trip via the Clipper.  And again, we were going to be gone a week so it was worth it to have our car with us.  The ferry had a decent food selection and two nice play/climbing areas for the kids!  Older kids could also enjoy spending their parent’s quarters in a video arcade. The trip went by so quick with the kids completely entertained by the playgrounds.

One play structure on a B.C. Ferry from Vancouver to Victoria.

One play structure on a B.C. Ferry from Vancouver to Victoria.

Another playroom on a B.C. Ferry from Vancouver to Victoria.

Another playroom on a B.C. Ferry from Vancouver to Victoria.

WHERE TO STAY

We’ve only stayed in two places in Victoria.  The first time, without kids, my husband and I stayed at the Hotel Grand Pacific.  It was a nice hotel and less than 5 minutes walk from the Clipper Ferry terminal, but more on the higher end side of accommodations and price.  However, two doors down is a Days Inn, offering rooms around $80 compared to the Grand Pacific’s $280 price. But I have NOT stayed at the Days Inn.  I can only speak to it’s price and convenient location to the historic city center and Clipper Ferry terminal.  Both the Grand Pacific and Days Inn are another 5 minutes walk to the Parliament building and the Fairmont Empress hotel.  The rest of our stays in Victoria were at the Worldmark by Wyndham condos.  Part of a timeshare we owned.  They are about a mile from the ferry terminal, all walk-able side walk access.  It is about a 15 minute walk from these condos to the downtown.  There are several other small and large hotels and bed and breakfasts in this area, so you’ll have plenty of choices at the price you need,

SOME OF OUR FAVORITE ACTIVITIES:

  • Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel.  I’ve done this twice with our kids all between the age of 6 months old and 6 years old.  They put together a lovely stacked tray of goodies just for kids as part of their Prince/Princess Tea service that also allows them to choose either hot chocolate or other non caffeinated fruit teas to choose from.  At the end, they get a special certificate with their name on it. Moms and dads can also enjoy a traditional afternoon tea that is just as good as ones I’ve had in Britain.  We chose this location to celebrate my daughter’s first birthday.  It was just the 5 of us, but it was a special occasion to see her sitting like a big girl in such a fine room enjoying such a grown up tradition. My sons even enjoy it, mostly for the sweets and hot chocolate!  Do make sure you book a reservation in advance if you are planning to visit in December or the Spring and Summer time.  They can accommodate for food allergies if you give them advance notice.  I myself had a lovely gluten free meal myself.  Click here for more information on reservations, menus and prices.
Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

  • Just walking around the main marina and the immediate surrounding areas of the Empress Hotel and the Parliament house is what gives this city a European flair.  There are plenty of shops and little museums to wander into by foot.  The Parliament building is beautiful on the outside and provides some charming rooms on the inside as well.  We took the kids on the self guided tour of the inside and walked the lovely grounds.
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Royal B.C. Museum within walking distance around the inner harbor.

  • Visit the Royal BC Museum.  While it’s been several years since we’ve been to this museum, it tells an impressive story of the rich history of native inhabitants as well as large exhibit for natural and human history about the region.  There is also an IMAX that offers regular and children’s programming.
  • Visit a modern castle.  Craigdarroch Castle isn’t from medieval times, but it will definitely remind you of the refinement of Victorian England, which is the time period in which the “castle” home was built by Scotsman Robert Dunsmuir between 1887 and 1890.  The castle isn’t in close walking distance to the tourist city center, but you can access it with public transportation from the corner of Douglas and Fort Street using bus numbers 11, 14, 15, or 22.  Or if you brought a car, you can just drive there.
  • Another charming feature of the city is the horse drawn carriage tours.  While this is rather touristy, it is also a very common touristy thing you will see in the likes of Vienna and London.  We’ve only done the tour at night and with no children, but have frequently been told by the solicitors and drivers as we pass by their stands they they can fit strollers up in the carriage for families that want to ride but have some extra gear.
  • East of the inner harbor is the Fisherman’s Wharf with several cute boat houses and floating food shops.  There is also a nice park with a decent playground for the kids to explore.  One year, there was a harbor seal that would pop up and you could buy some raw fish from one of the vendors to feed it.  But I have not seen one our last 2 trips to Victoria in 2013 and 2014.
Big slide at Fisherman's Wharf Playground in Victoria, B.C.

Big slide at Fisherman’s Wharf Playground in Victoria, B.C.

  • Of course a trip to Victoria wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Butchart Gardens.  It is not within walking distance from the other major downtown sights, it is a bit of a drive, about 45 minutes, dependent on traffic.  You can go it alone if you have a car or book a tour bus through your hotel or the visitor’s information center at the marina.  Even though you are surrounded by all the beautiful gardens that will make you feel like you are on palace grounds, you can still be more relax with your kids here.  We have only been in the summer time, but I’ve seen online and been told by friends that they have story book scenes set up during the winter leading up to Christmas.
The children exploring Butchart Gardens.

The children exploring Butchart Gardens.

These are just the main things that we’ve done in the immediate Victoria city center, minus the Butchart Gardens outside of town.  Here are however, some of the things that we really want to go back and do that we have yet to experience.

  • Beacon Hill Park.  Located within walking distance behind the Royal BC Museum and Parliament, this is one of Victoria’s biggest parks complete with a petting farm for children.  I really look forward to another visit to spend the better park of the day just wandering this space.  The reviews sound great and it’s so close to the rest of the city!
  • We keep telling ourselves that we will also one day go into the Bug Museum and Miniature world, both around the Empress Hotel.
  • And of course, we still need to book a whale watching excursion one day!

The list could of course go on and on with more things to do in Victoria and the rest of Vancouver Island, but I hope this has at least shown a little why I call Victoria my “Europe in my backyard!”

Brussels, Belgium. Home of the Waffle, Fries and One of Europe’s Most Beautiful Town Squares!

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Belgium, that country Americans only associate with waffles and other Europeans, a fountain of a peeing little boy.  Even though Brussels, the country’s capital, is also home to the capital of the European Union, it doesn’t get much play on being a popular tourist town.  I don’t often hear “I’ve dreamed of visiting Brussels my whole life!” But trust me, if you haven’t, you are missing out!

Our first year in Germany we lived 2 hours by car from Brussels.  The city’s beautify and proximity to our new home made it our go to “let’s get out of town” weekend destination, much to the disbelief of our German friends who thought we were crazy to drive some where so far away just for the weekend.  One of the cultural difference between Germans and Americans, our perception of how far is too far to drive and how long even “short” get-a-ways are.  Our first trip to Brussels we did in just one day.  I had moved to Germany 2 weeks prior and I was bursting at the seams to explore and see other countries now that we were there and everything was “so close.” We literally woke up that morning, in the snow, and decided that since it was the weekend and my husband actually had the day off, we needed to go somewhere.

The Cantillon brewery in Brussels, Belgium

The Cantillon brewery in Brussels, Belgium

 

A friend of ours, who had met up with us from her travels in Italy, mentioned a really old Belgium brewery that she wanted to see in Brussels.  It is the oldest continuously family operated brewery in Belgium, over a 100 years.  The name of the brewery is Cantillon.  So, off to Brussels we went.  To be sure we got there before they closed, we went to the brewery first.  At the time, my oldest son was just 22 months old and my other son was just 2 months old!  The brewery was charming, not very big, but just what I had expected in my mind when I imagined a quaint family owned European brewery.  At the end of the tour you got a sample of their beer, which is actually bottled in glass bottles that look more like champagne than beer bottles.  It is also more of a fruity beer too, which was wonderful for a person like myself who isn’t as fond of beer as I am wine.  While all three of us adults were starting to enjoy our free refreshment, my little toddler started reaching up towards our glasses and indicating that he wanted some.  Apparently the server noticed this before I did as by time I figured out what my son wanted and started to tell him “no you can’t ha…..” the server had already poured him a small glass and then held it up to his mouth so he could take a drink! I was shocked.  Not so much in the fact that my toddler just took his first sip of alcohol, but because someone just gave it to him without asking.  It was definitely one of those things that would have never happened in the U.S.  The server just smiled at him then set the glass down on the table as to indicate that we could then do what we wanted with it.  My little guy of course wanted some more of the “juice” as it was rather sweet.  I looked at my husband and we agreed we would let him have one more sip.  I’ve always maintained a bit of the attitude that if you don’t make a big deal out of things you don’t want your kids to have they will be less likely to want them.  So after his second little sip we gave it back to the server, thanked him, and told him we were done with it.  All I could think the rest of the day was “Welcome to Europe Heather. We’re not in Kansas anymore!”

The small taste of fruity Belgium bier the server gave our son to taste.

The small taste of fruity Belgium bier the server gave our son to taste.

After our tour of the brewery we headed into the city center.  Even with the gloomy and snowy January weather with the sun barely cracking threw, I almost lost my breath when we entered the square.  The Grand Place (or Grote-Markt in Dutch) lives up to it’s name.  We were surrounded by tall, detailed buildings, some painted with gold accents, with the clock tower of the Town Hall building reigning supreme over the square.   It was what I imaged the rest of Europe to be like, each street doused with palace like building facades.  However wrong I was about all of Europe looking this way, in Brussels, you can walk through the square and feel like you are royalty and that this is your private court yard and the hustle and bustle around you are simply your courtiers carrying about the business of the land on your behalf.

The Grand-Place (Main Square) in Brussels, Belgium.

The Grand-Place (Main Square) in Brussels, Belgium.

Of course to make the city center even better, as you wander the little alleys that shoot off in all different directions, you encounter tempting chocolate shops and the ever popular waffles!  Restaurants galor also occupy the surrounding streets around the Grand-Place.  Brussels is also famous for mussels and traditional restaurant food is described as “French quality with German portions!”  We came across what looked like a more traditional French restaurant and decided to stop there for lunch.  I was looking forward to trying out my rusty French since my German was non-existent at the time.  Belgium has three official languages: French, Dutch, and German.  Of course many people also speak English.  We had a nice meal in a crammed booth, but were excited to get in given the size of our party (5 is considered large, especially with a stroller to tuck away).  But we managed and my oldest son even got his own dish of “frites.”

Learning to be a sophisticated little boy in a French restaurant in Brussels, Belgium.

Learning to be a sophisticated little boy in a French restaurant in Brussels, Belgium.

We wondered back to the town center for dessert, we HAD to get a waffle!  Somehow you are supposed to eat all the piled high yumminess that is a Belgium waffle with an itsy bitsy tiny fork.  I was willing to try, despite my Celiac and the risk of being sick for the next few days, I took the plunge right into the whip cream and ate the waffle.  I did of course share with my older son.  We lingered about the square as we finished our waffles before breaking out the map and seeing what else was near by.

Beligum waffles, they do actually exist in the real Belgium.  Just don't expect syrup!

Beligum waffles, they do actually exist in the real Belgium. Just don’t expect syrup!

I noticed the royal palace with a park that looked within walking distance so we headed that direction.  The snowy park wasn’t exactly covered enough for a beautiful winter wonderland, but it provided enough sliding fun for my toddler with the palace providing a regal backdrop.  As we were approaching the end of the day, and the temperature was starting to drop, we headed back.  Had we ventured just a little further away from the palace, we would have found a nice playground, which we did visit on our next trip.  We also did not make it over to The Atomium, from 1958 when Brussels hosted the World’s Fair.  Paris got the Eiffel Tower, Seattle got the Space Needle, Brussels got The Atomium.  While it is a tourist draw, we drove by it and sadly it seem like Seattle and Paris got the better deal for long term landmarks.  There is so much more to explore in Brussels than we were able to do in all of our trips.  Mostly because each time we go we get mesmerized by the city center and just want to hang out in the beautiful scenery and chocolate shops.  By far the best times to go is in August when they have the annual Flower Carpet in August, and in December for the Christmas markets.

In the "Parc de Bruxelles", in front of the Palace of Brussels.

In the “Parc de Bruxelles”, in front of the Palace of Brussels.

(This trip was from January 2010)

Making the Most of Your Local Library to Prepare For Travel

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Our countdown to Japan has begun! In, just shy of, two months we will be heading off to the land of the rising sun.  Since this will be our very first trip ever to Asia, I wanted to familiarize our kids with the country, it’s language and some of it’s customs. The hope is that it will help them get more out of our time in Japan and to teach them a little more about Japanese culture.  The first place I turned to was our local library or libraries.

Some treasures we found at the library!

Some treasures we found at the library!

I started off just by checking out an introductory language DVD that the kids could watch at home, or in the car during our unfortunately high number of hours we have to spend each week driving around between schools, the store and extracurricular activities.  There was only one DVD at our local library, and it was the 2nd volume of a two disc collection.  I wasn’t too concerned that we weren’t starting with volume 1 because the goal was just to expose them to the sounds of the language, to get them used to here something completely different from the English, German and Spanish they already had practice with.  The result…wonderful!!! The very first time I put the disc in the car to drive down to my middle son’s pre-school, I was grinning ear to ear listening to my 5 year old and 2 year old actually repeating the words they heard on the DVD! A few minutes in and a cute song with a familiar melody broke out and my 5 year old was bebopping away to the tune.  It was a hit.  The DVD was called “Japanese for Kids: Learn Japanese, Beginner Level 1. Volume 2”   Volume 1 wasn’t available at our branch so I had place it on hold to be sent over to ours from another branch.

About a week later was my eldest son’s school Spring Break. I had been looking around at story times at the different branches and found that the library in Kirkland, one town over from us, had a Japanese Story Time on Monday mornings at 10:00 a.m. Since we were actually going to be home for this Spring Break, all three of the kids would get a chance to participate.  Story time was right when the library opened so we poured in with the rest of the patrons and followed a couple other Japanese moms with their toddlers into the story room.  As more and more people arrived, we quickly noticed that everyone else there was Japanese, except my son’s friend who joined with her mom and brother and a Swedish grandmother with her 2 year old grandaughter.  There was a big turn out!  My first thought was “how can I get to know these ladies and would it be too weird to try to talk to them later about Japan?” I didn’t know who had been born in the U.S. and was just keeping their culture alive for their kids and who might have actually immigrated from Japan.  The second thought I had was “Wow, we are now in a room full of people and kids and are clearly the minority.  This is exactly how I have been told Japan is going to be for us.  I was glad that my kids were getting to be the minority and still have so much fun doing the same activity..  I want them to grow up feeling comfortable in a variety of situations and to learn that being around people who look differently from you doesn’t have to be bad or scary and is actually just as fun as being with people who look just like you do.

Japanese story time at the library.

Japanese story time at the library.

The story teller was fantastic!  She opened with a simple Japanese song that went around the room asking all the children their names and how old they were that was set to a clapping rhythm.  It took my older ones a while to catch on but when it was their turn she did both English and Japanese and they said what they needed to say with confidence and even repeated the Japanese after the English once she told them what it was.  A highlight was the first story, which was geared at the very young toddlers.  A rather cute book all in Japanese with different fold outs.  All of the different children went running up to get a closer look at to be able to touch the flaps that the storyteller brought to life.  My daughter jumped up after a couple minutes to join in after she realized it was allowed.  It was so cute to see her playing along to the story just like the other little Japanese toddlers.  There were two more books read after that and then a few interactive partner songs.  It was a great morning getting to share this experience with the kids and to see them so comfortable in such an unfamiliar setting!

Trying to sound out a few Japanese phrases.

Trying to sound out a few Japanese phrases.

To cap off the trip to the library, we looked through further options at that branch and we excited to have found a “Little Pim Fun With Languages: Japanese For Kids” DVD and checked that out.  We also got 3 books: “My First Japanese Phrases” by Jill Kalz, “Japanese Nursery Rhymes, Carp Streamers, Falling Rain and other Traditional Favorites” by Danielle Wright that came with the music CD in Japanese and English, and finally “Teach Me More…Japanese: A Musical Journey Through the Year” by Judy Mahoney with accompanying CD, unfortunately it only had one of the 2 booklets (the 2nd one again but not the first!) and the layout was not as learning friendly as the other ones.  The nursery rhymes book with a cd was awesome!  And I really liked the “My First Japanese Phrases” book compared to other my first word type books.

The library proved to be a great way to get your kids interested in another culture and language in the familiarity of their own home and comfortable settings like the children’s section of the library.  Plus it’s a great way to be able to try out different resources before you commit to buying some.  I can’t wait to see how their activities at home will affect our trip in June!

5 Favorite European Cities for Family Vacations

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When my husband and I first started traveling with our children, and later as I traveled alone with them, we never really picked out a place based on how “kid friendly” it was.  My three children all took their first international trips before the age of 2 years old, and since we were living in Europe when they were all under the age of 5 years old, they went to several different countries at very young ages.  At first, they were just along for the ride.  We went to places that we wanted to see, and then just found something cool for them to do once we got there.  What we found during those toddler years was that the kids just want to be like us.  If we’re excited about something, they are too.  It’s all about how you present the activity.  Amidst our hit and miss journeys with the kids, I chose to highlight 5 of the city vacations we took as a family that stood out the most for being enjoyed equally by parents and kids.

1. Budapest, Hungary.  I’m putting this charming capital city right at #1! It earns its spot not just because we enjoyed our time there so much, but because we didn’t have enough time to see everything the city has to offer and I long to go back.  We visited in January, so our winter experience will be a little different from a trip in the summer.  We chose to do the Hop-On-Hop off tour that left from a park across the street from our hotel (Le Méridien Budapest).  At the time of travel our two boys were 2 and 3 1/2 years old.  They got a big kick out of the large bus and listening to the headphones.  Highlights of the trip included: Buda Castle and the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Hungarian Parliament Building, the Szechenyi Baths,  and the Városliget (the main “City Park”).  The Városliget has so much to offer families – both the zoo and circus are located here – but we did not make it to visit either of them on our 3 day trip.  Since we were there in the winter, we were able to ice skate outdoors on the lake in the Városliget.  It was a magical setting with the beautiful Castle Vajdahunyad in the background.  Our dining highlight was at the New York Cafe. It’s as glamorous inside as any palace in Europe.

Ice Skating in Budapest

Ice Skating in Budapest

2. Paris, France. I know, typical tourist you’ll say.  But who can resist the city of lights.  There’s a reason our travels have taken us back there time after time.  There is always more to see, and yet I often end up back at some of my favorite 3 or 4 spots each time.  Plus, Paris has an abundance of playgrounds that are really cool and very close to all the other “adult” attractions.  As awesome as the Metro is for getting around, I now find walking and the bus much more enjoyable with the kids than the smelly underground that is constantly posing a risk to theft from pick pockets.  While visiting, make sure to take the kids to the playground on the side and back of the Notre Dame (get wiggles out before you visit the cathedral or as a bribe for good behavior after the tour).  Spend your lunch in the Tuileries at the large playground in the middle of the park next to the carousel.  Then take the kids to the Lourve after they’ve had some fun running around.  For parents that are nervous about art museums and kids, try going on a Wednesday or Friday night if your little ones will sleep in a stroller, the museum is open until 9:45 p.m. on these nights.  The Jardin du Luxembourg and the Jardin des Plantes are also favorites of ours with enough to keep both adults and kids entertained for days.

Playground in the Tuileries. Paris, France.

Playground in the Tuileries. Paris, France.

3. London, U.K.  How can you not love London, except for the perhaps the prices?!  We had so much fun on our first trip there with our kids that we ended up extending the holiday an extra 2 days!    An entire day can be spend just roaming Hyde park.  Its 3 major playgrounds are wonderful stops in between wandering rose gardens and memorials.  The favorite was the Peter Pan themed, Diana Memorial Playground next to Kensington Palace.  No wonder Prince William and Princess Kate decided to make Kensington their family home.  While we didn’t take our kids to the Tower of London or Windsor on our family trip, we’ve always had success with castles and kids so a trip to these sights would be worth it for the whole family.  After you’ve watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, walk through St. Jame’s Park where there is a small playground as well as an abundance of different types of birds walking around, you’ll then end up at the Horse Guard Parade next to the British Cabinet offices and the famous 10 Downing Street.  After watching the horse changing of the guard it’s a quick walk over to the beautiful Westminster Abbey and Big Ben at the Parliament Building.  A ride on the London Eye is well worth the wait and the money.  We did it with a 3 and 1 year old.  There is also a wonderful playground across from the London Eye.  Use these different playground stops to get get rid of some energy in between some of the more formal sights and museums that “mum” and dad want to enjoy.

View from the London Eye.

View from the London Eye.

4. Munich, GermanyI may be a little bias to Munich because I actually lived there for 2 years, but I think most tourists who have visited the city with kids would agree that it’s a gem for families.  Munich in general is a very clean and safe city with an excellent public transportation system.  Beyond the traditional tourist attractions mentioned in guidebooks, a few things make Munich stand out as a fabulous family destination.  Beirgartens with playgrounds!  Yes, you can bring your children to the “bar” so to say.  Munich is full of wonderful biergartens that serve traditional Bavarian food and the all famous Mass of beer.  Outdoor seating is first come first serve and, besides being able to bring your kids to play on the playground while you have a “cold one”, you can also bring your own food!  You must purchase your drinks there, but while food is available for purchase, it is perfectly acceptable to bring your own picnic lunch to eat at the beer garden while enjoying a nice Helles or an Apfelschoeler for the kids.  We spent most of our beirgarten hours at Hofbräukeller (not to be confused with the Hofbräuhaus) and The Chinese Tower in the English Garden due to the proximity to our home.  However, the Hirchaugarten on the other side of the city is also extremely popular for families.  Additionally, Munich has several restaurants that will offer an indoor play area for kids and often includes child care workers to watch them while parents enjoy their meal.  It’s typical to tip the workers 1-2 Euros per child for this service.  Brenner Grill is a great Sunday brunch spot with this service.  And since it is right next to the Residence (city palace), you can feed them and let them play before taking a tour inside the palace.  Munich has several world-class art museums for adults as well as the famous Deutsches Museum that is a hit for the whole family!  All these attractions have playgrounds nearby.  And no one can mention Munich without emphasising the Englischer Garten.  Spend the day there for loads of fun with the whole family! You’ll also find numerous activities at the Olympia Park where the 1976 Olympics were held.  You’ll find activities such as putt-putt (mini-golf), ice skating (indoors), boat rentals for the little lake in the summer and the BMW Museum (BMW Welt).  Plus lots of green park to explore! This city is definitely one of the most relaxed urban environments in Europe!

Playground at the Chinese Tour Biergarten in the Englischer Garten, Munich, Germany

Playground at the Chinese Tour Biergarten in the Englischer Garten, Munich, Germany

5. Vienna, Austria.  Austria continues to be one of our favorite countries in Europe overall.  We took a trip to Vienna in November and then again in December for Christmas.  To even our own surprise, we did the most “adult” things on our visits with our boys (ages 3 and 4 1/2 at the time) and yet they still had a blast.  We visited the fewest number of playgrounds; I am pretty sure we only went to one the whole time.  Yet even their young eyes were fascinated by the glittering gold and paintings in St. Peter’s Church. We took them to the Albertina and Belvedere Art Museum and had fun asking the boys to tell us what they saw in each painting.  At the Schloss Schönbrunn, you can tour the remarkable grounds of the palace and the imperial apartments, and then let the kids get a taste of what it was like to be a royal child in the children’s museum.  This offers a whole wing of the palace dedicated to hands on child-centered museum activities and dress up.  While we visited the palace at Christmas, we got to experience the Christmas market that featured extra craft huts for kids and games in the market center.  The most memorable experience for me was taking our boys to a classical music concert in the very room where Mozart performed for his first time in front of the Empress Maria Theresia at The Auersperg Palace.  It was too cute seeing them listening and watching the music and some dancers and then occasionally pretend to be the conductor with their arms.  While we did not see the performance of the Spanish Riding school, it was a big regret and it is highly recommended by other travelers.  Also recommended by others but missed by us is spending the day in the Prater.  We did sneak in a tour of the Hofburg (main palace), though. Overall, half the fun was just walking through the beautiful streets of Vienna and letting the kids see the horse drawn carriages and delightful cake and pastry shops, and of course sampling a few!

Sharing Vienna with other children via the Flat Stanley/Flat Sarah project.

Sharing Vienna with other children via the Flat Stanley/Flat Sarah project.

Clearly there are more things to do in each of these cities than we were able to fit in. However, the experiences left a lasting impression on our whole family and we found it quite easy to see many of the sights one wouldn’t normally think to take children to.  Europe in general is a great place for children, and it was quite difficult to narrow it down to 5 favorites to highlight.  Some other cities in the running were Edinbourgh, Scotland; Brussels, Belgium; The Hague, The Netherlands, Berlin, Germany and Valencia and Barcelona in Spain.  Keep checking back for more posts on our trips to each of these cities!