On the USS Midway

On the USS Midway

Next stop was San Diego. A great place to be and we stayed for a week.

The kids loved San Diego – much more user friendly than Los Angeles, with great places to eat, and tons to do. San Diego Zoo is one the most famous zoos in the world, while Sea World is basically a theme park, but a pretty great one at that.

Leopard cubs at the Zoo

Leopard cubs at the Zoo

Special experiences included visiting the USS Midway aircraft carrier museum, and the kids had a real live sword fight with a pirate on the replica ship used in the movie Master And Commander. We also saw a live baseball match and really had a great time at Encinitas beach.

My take: I’d go back and stay at Encinitas next time!

As we turned North again, we headed for the theme parks.

Disneyland took three days. Now, I am not great lover of theme parks, but I won’t deny that Disney do the most incredible job. I have ben to Disneyworld twice and Euro Disney once, and this was our first time in Disneyland. I think we liked it the most of all of them. It is smaller, but that just makes it so much easier to work your way around the park, and you do work when visiting any Disney park. You need to figure out what to do and when, and it takes some strategy. It was a major highlight of our whole trip. Being August, lines were long, but never so long that we became disenchanted. The kids loved the roller coasters and they went up the Tower of Terror at least 5 times – you know, the one that drops, like a dressed up hellavator.

One of the most unexpected rides was the Ferris Wheel. Why? Because we chose a car that swung freely, and it was one of the scariest rides we did in the whole park!

We also visited Cars Land a few times – amazingly, the line to get a fast pass took a massive 45 minutes, but it paid of in spades later on, when we bypassed the crowds waiting over 100 minutes for their 2 minute ride. The new cars land is great – we loved the race and we loved the Mater ride, but we thought that the Flying Tires was a failure – they just don’t work well, and  hopefully Disney will fix them up or replace them.

A few days later we visited Universal Studios – we spent one day only, but it was fantastic. The only problem – massively long lines – at least they sprayed us with a fine mist all the time.

I took the boys to Legoland – good but not great, and way too busy in summer. We also went to 6 Flags – terrible if you do not ride coasters, and even if you do, the waiting times were a disaster. We missed half the rides we wanted to go on as the lines typically took 2 hours or longer. If you don’t love coasters, DO NOT go here.

So, we learned a lot.

1) Disney work great – even in the middle of summer.

2) Six Flags is terrible – lines go on forever and unless you go in the off-season, don’t go near.

3) Legoland is ok. Probably best for kids 8 and under.
4) San Diego Zoo is terrific.

5) Sea World is good as well.

The hands-down winner by far was Disneyland.

Pluto, Mickey and Me

Pluto, Mickey and Me

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Posted by: Gideon | December 18, 2012

Roadtripping California (with Kids). Santa Barbara to LA

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At Venice Beach

Heading south from San Francisco, we made for Santa Barbara. We’d been along the Big Sur route before, so this time we headed straight down. Our target – the beach!

In Vancouver we live in a beautiful city, and we even have quite pretty beaches, but throughout the year the ocean temperature ranges anywhere from freezing to almost bearable.

Santa Barbara has some great beaches, and we bought a boogie board and headed straight for the surf. The kids took to the water immediately – and refused to come out.

Santa Barbara is a very touristy town, but it’s very expensive as well. We stayed a couple of nights and then it was time to move on.  We drove through Malibu, looked for a parking place at the beach and couldn’t find one, and continued to LA.

I have never had any interest in visiting LA, but Gal, who is now 15, has been yearning to go. The fact is, there is tons to keep kids of all ages very busy.

We did the obvious things – like checking out the stars on the sidewalk at the Chinese Theater and going as close as we could to the Hollywood sign. We also got scammed by Spiderman and someone out of Star Wars, who very kindly posed with the kids and then demanded a big fat tip! We decided to save money by buying a map of the stars’ homes, and then got so lost that we couldn’t figure out where anyone lived.  We hit the beaches – busy Santa Monica as well as seedy Venice beach. We visited the fabulous Getty Museum  – well, the kids needed to be spurred on by gory background details as to what happened to Marie Antoinette in order to appreciate her furniture, and we went to the La Brea Tar Pits and the Automobile Museum – the latter two just great for kids. La Brea is all about extinct mammals, and the Auto Museum is all about…every car you can imagine.

Actually we saw the best car outside the museum, a Bugatti on Rodeo Drive, that apparently everyone knows about. It’s car that costs more than $1 million! House or car, house or car…now lets see what’s more important in life. It was good lesson for the kids to see.

We also spent a great evening at the Hollywood Bowl. I told the kids we were going to see Tchaikovsky, but they were a bit upset when he didnt’ appear personally.

When all was said and done, LA proved to be a big hit, but with the terrible traffic, and the heat, I was glad to move on.

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With CHIPS at the Auto Museum

This week the Myanmar Times wrote about a free downloadable “book” that has just been published on how tourists should (and should not) behave in Myanmar. It’s illustrated by some of the top cartoonists in Myanmar and is lots of fun!

The link is here:

http://www.dosanddontsfortourists.com

Enjoy!

It's all about making friends!

It’s all about making friends!

A mural in the Mission

Mark Twain’s saying that the coldest place he’d ever been to was San Francisco in summer rang in my ears as we approached the city. And first impressions seemed to back him up, as a dense cloud of fog hung over the city.  We’d been in 2009 in spring and the weather had been glorious, but now it was cold. The last time we had visited all the major sights. This time round we decided to see some of the lesser known sights as we didn’t wish to repeat what we had done before.

Our first full day was spent exploring the gritty Mission district. It was apparent to us very quickly that this was a totally different area from anywhere we had been before. Predominantly Hispanic and poor, it is a real eye opener. We explored the stores, the restaurants and best of all, the murals that cover whole blocks in some areas. We ate tacos in a traditional cantina for lunch, bought the kids Mexican wrestling masks and felt as if we were in Latin America. Dinner was an intro to pupusas at a hole-in-the-wall place frequented only by El Salvadorean families.

Rodin – a hit with the kids

The following day we went to the Walt Disney Museum. Covering the life of Walt himself, it’s a great museum for adults, but not so exciting for kids. It’s really expensive too, at around $20 a ticket. It is an incredible testament to someone who really did change life for the better for millions. We also went to the Legion of Honor, a great museum in an incredible building, with a remarkable view of the famous Golden Gate Bridge. There is a magnificent collection of huge bronze sculptures by Rodin, and this immersion in culture paid off – the kids were enthralled! Apart from trying to find a place to park, it’s a great place to take the kids and then to walk in the surrounding woods.

Our final day was spent in nearby Berkeley. We were amazed that as soon as we left the city limits of SF the weather cleared up. Apparently it’s always like this. Blue sky and warm, it was like being in a totally different state. Berkeley was great – quaint streets, a magnificent university campus to explore, and then we tried our luck at Chez Panisse to see if they had space for us. Chez Panisse is an icon of California cuisine, and this was our lucky day – they had a table available and the food was fantastic.

I’m not sure I’d run to San Francisco again in summertime. Mark Twain was right!

Cruising Crater Lake

Our next stop was incredible Crater Lake National Park.

Crater Lake appears on the Oregon license plate so it’s a big thing, but its a bit out-of-the-way which is why we hadn’t made it there before. It is one of the deepest lakes in the world, and is famous for its incredible cobalt color. And it didn’t disappoint. It is truly an incredible sight! Most people content themselves with driving around the rim or taking some small hikes – we went one step further and took a boat ride on the lake. But it was a steep walk down to the dock and an even tougher walk back up in the boiling heat!

This is a Park that nobody should miss. It’s almost inaccessible for most of the year due to incredible amount of snow that falls in the area, so summer is when the crowds go. It was also really hot. But unmissable.

Our next big stop was in Redding, California. I’m not sure why anyone would have visited Redding in the past, but these days it is home to the incredible feat of design engineering that is the Calatrava Sundial Bridge. It’s a wonderfully impressive white pedestrian harp-like bridge across the Sacramento River, that throws a shadow that amazingly tells the time like any ancient sundial. Designed by the famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, it apparently took teams of programmers to work out the sundial part. A really off the beaten path sight that probably most people have no idea about. Go on a sunny day and be amazed by the fact that this bridge is actually a working clock – we could tell the time to about the closest minute or two.

Crater Lake Rimview

The Sundial Bridge

 

Steam powered vintage cars.

While we usually travel to very exotic destination in summer, this year was different. My daughter Gal, who is 15, really wanted to visit California, so we decided that for once, we’d skip the exotic and try get under the skin of the classic road trip. Vancouver to San Diego is about 2250km one way, and we’d be driving both ways.

Now, we’ve traveled to various parts of the West Coast many times, as any reader of this blog will have seen. So this time we would be driving straight through Washington State, and then spend a few days in Oregon before heading for San Francisco.

Heading out, we made good time down the I-5 and ended the day in Salem, Or. Salem is the state capital and apparently is a cool town to visit, but instead we headed through bucolic countryside to Silver Falls State Park, widely regarded as the finest park in the State and well known for the Trail of Ten Falls.

As we arrived, we noticed a very strange procession of vintage cars and their drivers , all dressed up as if it were the 1920’s. Amazingly, these cars were all steam powered – so very “green” and incredibly unusual.

Even the best laid plans can go awry, and Daniel had been stung by a wasp between his toes, so three of us went hiking instead of the five of us.

 

The hike was great – we took a short cut and only hiked to 7 of the falls, but they were really beautiful, and we could even go behind a few of them.  This was very much off the beaten path America, and it was awesome.

Trail of Ten Falls – Silver Falls State Park, OR.

Posted by: Gideon | November 20, 2012

Myanmar Travel Updates – November 2012

Myanmar continues to feature in the international news almost on a daily basis.

I’m not a political commentator, but in the case of Myanmar tourism and politics is often 100% intertwined, and yesterday’s visit to the country by President Obama confirms the dramatically positive change in the attitude by  the USA and indeed the whole Western World

Downtown Yangon

towards Myanmar. These changes over the past year have been huge, and my guess is that we will see Myanmar rapidly absorbed into the international community in a relatively short number of years.

Along with  this, we will certainly see a massive rise in tourism. The numbers of tourists entering Myanmar over the past year are expected to show a dramatic increase over 2011 and as a result the tourism infrastructure is struggling to keep up. I continue to hear reports of infrastructure shortfalls – lack of hotel rooms and the consequent repricing upwards of the hotel’s that do exist, and a huge increase in tour groups and individual travelers.

So, my suggestions to prospective visitors are the following – go in the off-season – I took my family in August last year, and hotel rooms were easily available. The only popular regions that don’t work in the off-season are the coast and Golden Rock – but the other main tourist regions are open and easily accessible.

Also, history tells us that from time to time there will be regions in Myanmar with unrest and violence. From my experience, this should not necessarily put off travelers, simply because it’s virtually impossible to get anywhere near regions that are suffering unrest. The government simply does not allow tourists access – you won’t be allowed to board public transport headed for anywhere near these regions, and military road blocks make sure that private cars with tourists don’t have access either. Perhaps this will change one day in the future, but for now, there is no real freedom of movement for tourists in Myanmar, unless the government wants it to be that way. I expect this control to be maintained for years to come, until eventually tourist are free to travel wherever they like, as we saw happen in Vietnam over a period of a decade or so.

To summarise, the world is heading to Myanmar, and if you are thinking of going, best to do so earlier than later, while it is still relatively untouched and authentic!

Posted by: Gideon | July 13, 2012

Travel, kids and food: Spain

Churros and hot chocolate – kids’ favorites in Spain

Spain is a country that offers incredible sightseeing – world-class cities, great museums, fabulous architecture, history, culture, beaches and more. So what about its food?

We found Spain a fairly challenging destination – not because of the food – which was fine, though seldom outstanding, but rather because of the cultural difference when it comes to mealtimes.

You see, people sit down to eat in Spain late, really late. Lunch seldom begins earlier than 2pm, and so tourists looking for a restaurant serving lunch at midday are most likely to find “tourist’ restaurants open – which are most likely to serve mediocre food at high prices. Authentic Spanish restaurants, where the Spanish themselves eat, won’t be ready for their lunch business so early.

Same with dinner – which can be expected to start around 9pm and continue long into the night.

For singles, or couples without kids, this is completely fine, but for parents with kids, one needs to either plan well, or get used to the fact that the meals that you are going to eat are  just not going to be so great, as you’ll undoubtedly be missing out on the best Spanish restaurants.

When I took my kids we stayed in an apartment in Barcelona – this gave us our own cooking facilities which were extremely useful – we weren’t tied to anyone elses eating hours. Out of the big cities, we often stayed in small villages or in rural accommodations with little or nonexistent nightlife, and as a result we found food was much easier to obtain at times that suited us.

Spain is a great place for kids – people are friendly, and even sights that one wouldn’t immediately think would be interesting to kids turn out to fascinate them. Think of the Gaudi buildings in Barcelona- they are so weird and unusual that kids find them fascinating, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao turned out be super kid friendly – well it should, with a massive flower bedecked statue of a dog outside.

Gaudi’s buildings are natural playgrounds for kids.

As for food, we found that it was good but not great. We struggled to find a memorable paella, and the sweet dishes and pastries were only ok. The best food we had by far was at a small “Pazo” – a rural castle – in Galicia in North-West Spain. Galicia is studded with the most incredible accommodations, typically noble houses and estates that have been in the same family for centuries, and we really hit the jackpot at Pazo de Souto, an incredible manor house somewhere on the way to La Coruna. It was amazing for the kids – it even had its own maze in the huge estate gardens. The food we had there was simply outstanding – wonderful “rape” (monkfish) and incredible steak. I would probably go all the way back to Spain just to eat there again.

I guess the one problem with our food experience in Spain is that we are not pork eaters – and if there is one product that Spain prides itself on it is its ham. Throughout our journey, we would see huge hams hanging from the ceilings in restaurants and specialty food stores, and I have no doubt that Spanish ham is outstanding – perhaps the best in the world for all I know. But we didn’t try it.

So, if you’re thinking of taking the kids to Spain go by all means – they’ll love it and so will you. But perhaps don’t expect to be blown away by the food, at least not in the main tourist areas. As soon as you get off the beaten path though, the chances are high that you’ll hit some fantastic places to eat. And make sure you have snacks on hand for the kids – chances are neither you nor they are going to get used to the Spanish eating times while you’re there.

I plan great family trips to Spain. For more details click here:

Pazo de Souto – a noble manor house in the middle of rural Spain with the best food we had in the country!

Daniel trying his hand at Khinkali – it’s piping hot and filled with soup!

I always tell families that no matter where they travel to, they’ll always find something for the kids to eat.

But in some extreme cases this may be more difficult to achieve. Definitely the most challenging destination that we have traveled to food-wise was the Republic of Georgia.

This former Soviet Republic was in days gone by a famous vacation spot renowned for its incredible food and famous wines. Things have changed though. While it is certainly one of the most fascinating destinations we have ever been to, we found eating a huge challenge!

Georgians regard their food very highly – it is a mix of West and East using  plenty of pomegranates, walnuts and other exotic ingredients. The Khachapuri cheese bread is famous as are the Khinkali dumplings.

But for us the challenges were many:

1) Language – we like to know what it is we are eating. Outside of the capital Tbilisi, it was almost impossible to find a menu in English (or any other language for that matter) and most Georgians don’t speak anything other than Georgian or perhaps Russian. The Georgian language has its own alphabet so even recognising familiar words is impossible.

2) Salt and salt and salt. Most things, especially salads, were doused in salt. It was mighty difficult to eat.

3) cholesterol – what’s that?

On our first day in Batumi, we ordered the specialty Adjara kachapuri cheese bread – it came with at least a pound of butter and a few eggs floating on top – if we had ordered one to share between the family I think it would have been ok, but we ordered five!! Live and learn.

Fruit stall Tbilisi style – I wonder what the trunk of the car will hold tomorrow?

So how did we cope? We went back to basics. We found grocery stores and made our own meals whenever we could. We bought fruit and took it back to the hotel. We stayed in homestays and guesthouses where someone spoke English and we could explain exactly what we wanted. In Tbilisi we found a Thai restaurant we loved and a local Georgian chain of restaurants that even the kids found they liked, and we even ate at McDonalds, something extremely rare in our family. Ask the kids today what their favorite meals in Georgia were, and invariably they’ll say McDonalds.

When all else fails…

As for drinks, this was no problem. Georgia produces all kinds of incredible lemonades – and the kids loved these. Fruit juices and sodas were common, though we didn’t like the very famous mineral water, which was naturally salty.

And what about the local food? I enjoyed some of it a lot – the cheese bread was excellent most of the time, the yoghurt that we ate in the guest houses was incredibly fresh and seemingly came straight from the cows – it had clearly never seen a pasteurization facility, and the dumplings were outstanding. It’s just that by and large, the kids didn’t like any of it very much. As for the wine, the Georgians still make incredible wine – and I’d never heard of any of the varietals!

So, my advice if you find yourself in a similar situation is this:  use local supermarkets and create your own meals, and if that doesn’t work, at least find someone who speaks English to help you!

Posted by: Gideon | June 25, 2012

Travel, kids and food: Turkey

Pide anyone?

Turkey offers one of the best travel experiences for families of any country. Above all, it’s a great place to eat!

Hotel breakfasts are typically Mediterranean – you’ll get cheese, eggs, salads, olives and sometimes cold meat. You’ll also get fresh bread, honey and jams.  There is no reason for anyone to leave the table hungry.

By the time your kids are asking about lunch, the traditional “lokantas” are opening up. These are typical restaurant that you’ll find throughout the country – in the front entrance the chef will be standing in front of up to twenty steaming pots of food, vegetables, rice, fish, chicken, lamb , beef and more. You can see what every dish looks like and then after ordering, your food will be brought to your table within a minute or so. What is so great about this is that your kids can see immediately what appeals to them so there is no reason for anyone being upset. Vegetarians are well catered for – rice and beans are a very common and very cheap dish, and you even get to choose what kind of beans you want as well. Outside on the street, the most common fast food on offer is doner kebap (much like you’ll see all across the western world these days) and kofte – meatballs that are often eaten in a baguette sandwich. Just steer clear of Cig Kofte – these are raw meatballs, wrapped in lettuce leaves. The stall holder will take a chunk of raw mincemeat and form the meatballs there and then, and serve them. I’d stay clear! Pide is Turkish pizza and a popular snack or meal everywhere  – a boat shaped base covered in cheese or meat. No tomato sauce – this isn’t Italy.

One can happily eat during Ramadan as well – lokantas stay open and often one will see local families feeding their kids – while the parents stand by.

Amazing “maras” ice cream.

Dessert is an absolute highlight. You’ll find many stores specialising in baklava and other sweet pastries, while a “muhallebeci” is a pudding shop – specialising only in different kinds of puddings.  Turkish delight is seen as a candy, not as a dessert. Ice cream is a popular way to finish the meal – from typically Turkish “Maras” style which is ice cream with a mastic gum base – you can turn the cone upside down and it’ll stick, and regular ice cream of course.

Drinks wise, soft drinks are everywhere, though typical Turkish drinks include ayran – a salty yoghurt drink served very cold and liked by most kids, and salep , a delicious warm winter concoction that is impossible not to love. However, since most people visit in summer, they seldom come across salep, which is only served in winter.

Finally, you’ll find the golden arches, but with a Turkish twist – ever tried a kofte burger?

My kids loved the food in Turkey – it’s very rare to come across anyone who doesn’t!

I plan great trips to Turkey. For more info click here.

If all else fails – the KofteBurger!

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