What. A. Year. I’ve got plenty more to say about the joy and sadness that was 2016 in my first piece of 2017 (for us, as well as everyone else, it seems, it was a year of huge highs and massive lows), and my plans for 2017. But for now, I want to stay with the joy and take a look back at the highlights of a year of travel and adventure. Here’s my 2016 roundup.
I’m probably not alone in having Niagara Falls on my bucket list. It’s one of those places that everyone wants to visit, but I’m thinking that maybe it tends to have a reputation for being more of a romantic getaway. I totally get it: stunning views, beautiful restaurants, wine tours… it’s the perfect honeymoon destination. However, recently I’ve been looking at it from a family perspective, and I’m pleasantly surprised at just how many attractions are aimed at families and children in the area. As if you needed convincing, here are a few of my discoveries and recommendations for family fun at the Falls:
We’ve talked SO much about skiing it’s ridiculous. Mr E went once, with friends who could already ski. They lent him the basic bits of equipment and he just kind of hurled himself down the slopes after them. I went a couple of times in my teens – not much skiing was done, as I recall, but rather a lot of apres ski.
One of the things that I’ve vowed to do this year is give credit where credit’s due and recommend a few companies and places to you that I really feel deserve it. I’m going to start off with the APH, the parking service that I use every time I go to the airport (and that was 15 times last year – can you believe that?). Here are my top five reasons you need them in your life:
I wonder if it’s really true that time passes faster as you get older? I’ve been looking back at some of the amazing adventures I’ve been lucky enough to experience this year, and they seem like only yesterday! Here are my highlights from 2015.
Whenever I travel, I use a company called APH parking. I’ve mentioned them before, and I love them, because you basically just drive to the airport, where they meet you, whisk your car away, then keep it safe while you travel. On your return, you give them a bell when you’ve picked up your suitcase and hey presto, your car’s waiting for you outside at the airport ready for you to drive home. No muss, no fuss. They’ve recently published a really interesting article about flying when you’re pregnant and I thought I’d share some of the key facts. It makes interesting reading and is a great guide if you’re preggers and considering flying.
If you’ve been following my Alternative Florida series, you’ll know that I spent a few days in the gorgeous south western coast of Florida, exploring with the lovely lot from Virgin Holidays. Waving goodbye to beautiful Sarasota, we jumped in our bus and headed down the coast towards Fort Myers. Here, we stayed at the Virgin Holidays 4V rated Pink Shell Resort, walked in the footsteps of Edison and Ford, and even went shelling!
So this week I’ve been at Walt Disney World at the UK Culinary Showcase, discovering everything about the Disney Dining Plan (much more of this coming up shortly – including a special offer) and also whizzing around on a few rides and hugging a few Disney characters, as you do.
So you’ve heard of slow food, right? Slow food is all about eating fresh, local, sustainable food – thinking about what you eat and how your choices affect the environment and support farmers and businesses. It’s a great way to shop and eat, and it’s rewarding too – knowing that you’re eating thoughtfully, and making a difference.
But have you ever thought of applying similar rules to how you holiday? We jet off to foreign climes, race around theme parks and whizz around on jet skis (and yes, as a frequent traveller I certainly have guilt about my own carbon footprint), but it’s not just about the environment – how about considering a slower holiday?
Cycling is a wonderful way to really immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of your holiday destination. Many holiday companies will arrange for decent bikes to be available on arrival, and will either provide a guide, or plan routes and provide maps so you can make your own way around, arranging for manageable rides between hotels (you can choose how far and how challenging the ride will be – perfect if you’re travelling with kids), and transferring your luggage along the way, meaning that you can travel at your own page. Routes are well thought out and stick to quieter roads and country lanes wherever possible.
I love the idea of cycling around the Loire Valley, taking in vineyards (with a little wine tasting thrown in, obviously) and châteaux along the way (try Inntravel for cycling holidays like this).
If you imagine a walking holiday to be a nightmarish daily trudge from one hotel to another, you’re quite a way away from the reality. Walks are planned for you in advance, with routes and maps provided, and again you can choose the level of walk you’re comfortable with. Centred walking holidays focus on one or two base hotels, with planned walks of different grades provided from your base location(s) so you can explore the local area. In Croatia (an area I’ve always wanted to visit), you can explore the Dalmatian coast with walks that take in Croatia’s beautiful olive groves and medieval towns, as well as plenty of time to relax by the sea.
Now I’m not exactly known for my love of camping, but there is a lot to be said for getting back to nature on holiday. Even getting out on a walk or bike ride is somehow a detox from the pace of normal life.
In a Campsites.co.uk survey a while back, people overwhelmingly said that slowing down and reconnecting with nature was their favourite thing about camping. And we could all do with disconnecting a bit more often!
As you can see, I’m not suggesting that we all give up flying. I know that’s never going to happen, but cycling, walking and camping holidays can be a fabulous way to really slow things down once you reach your destination, take it easy and soak up more of the area you’re visiting.
You’ve got to love those Muppets. And fresh from their turn presenting at this year’s Oscars, it’s just been announced that they’ve been appointed New York City’s official family ambassadors.
For the whole year, they’ll be encouraging families to visit New York City. I only wish I’d been at that press conference – can you imagine? The poor Mayor of New York City, Michael R Bloomberg sharing the stand with Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great and Pepe the King Prawn. Hilarious.
And in the best soundbite in the whole history of soundbites, Miss Piggy had the following to say on the matter:
New York is the most fabulous city in the world. In fact, it’s almost as fabulous as moi. And trust me, that’s high praise indeed! So don’t just sit there! Get ready world! You’re about to take the ultimate diva’s tour of moi’s favorite city! Lucky vous!
For more info, you can check out the Muppets’ personal views of New York at nycgo.com/family, including my favourite bit, the Swedish Chef’s pick of New York cuisine.
My Disreputable Dad popped by for a cuppa today. He does make me laugh. He was telling me about his business trip to Santo Domingo (I don’t know either, you’ll have to look it up).
I’m really not sure he should travel alone. He was telling me about the amazing seats Iberia have in business class now – there are loads of buttons and apparently you can lie almost horizontal ‘although when I was just waking up, I pushed the button of the lady sitting next to me instead of my own and shot her bolt upright from her reclining position, in the process showering herself with hot coffee’. Oops.
He was also telling me about the nasty cut on his calf:
DD: ‘Oh, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you’.
Me: ‘Go on, try me’
DD: ‘Well, I was on one of those travelator things in the airport, and there were a load of nuns pushing wheelchairs…’
Me: ‘Rrriiiiggghhhht… empty wheelchairs?’
DD: ‘No! Wheelchairs full of old people and people with no legs and things.. So we’re all going along this travelator, and there’s a nun pushing a wheelchair in the front, then another nun pushing a wheelchair behind her, then an old man, then me, then another nun pushing a wheelchair…’
Failing to see how this could possibly have caused the nasty cut on the back of his calf, I allowed him to push on.
DD: ‘So we get to the end of the travelator, and the nun at the front doesn’t realise that you’ve got to lift the front wheels of the wheelchair over the little lip. So her wheels stick fast and her wheelchair stops dead, then the nun pushing the wheelchair behind her piles into the back of her, then I pile into them, the old man falls flailing to the floor, then the nun behind us rams into the back of me. Hence the cut calf.
Me: ‘OMG! What happened next?’
DD: ‘Well then the first nun realised her mistake, lifted the wheels of the wheelchair up and everybody started moving again and fell onto the floor in a big heap.’
‘Nuns’, he informed me solemnly, ‘are the worst drivers in the world’ (this is actually true – ask anyone who’s lived in Ireland).
You just couldn’t make it up.
To Gatwick yesterday, then, for the first meeting of the new Gatwick Passenger Panel that I told you about a while back. We took a tour through the much improved, light, airy and enormous north terminal, with its huge, covered outside area and modern glass frontage. After a slightly embarrassing journey through customs – who knew that I had three tubes of half-used handcream and four lipbalms (look, I love a lipbalm, I can’t help it. One of these days we’ll discuss the merits of Carmex vs Blistex, but not now, okay – people are looking), dropping my magazine and nearly strangling myself with my security pass when it got tangled with my scarf (I know, classy) – we arrived at our meeting room in the lovely passenger lounge.
The meeting was hosted by the gorgeous BBC News 24 presenter and all round lovely lass Penny Haslam (bit like herding cats, frankly – the poor girl did well to keep us all in order). We are a random bunch: John Carter (travel journalism LEGEND – who incidentally was a top bloke), the wonderful Jasmine Birtles from MoneyMagpie.com, incredibly knowledgable business travel journalist and editor Mike Toynbee and the Disabled Living Foundation’s Philippa Bromley with, of course, Gatwick’s CEO, Stewart Wingate (not forgetting the lovely Sarah from Gatwick and PR Ellie).
Times are a-changing for Gatwick. No longer under the umbrella of the BAA, they are free to be competitive and want people to actively choose to fly from Gatwick. They are investing hugely and are keen to provide a service second to none (the Apple effect, as Penny called it). The positive outcomes from these panel meetings, though, will benefit all travellers and, hopefully, improve the experience for passengers at all UK airports. No pressure, then.
We started off our panel discussions by listing the one thing for each of us that really makes or breaks our airport experience. Considering our diverse backgrounds and specialisms our answers were similar. It seems what most of us want out of an airport is information (but not an overload of it) and a general flow (as John eloquently put it) from checking in, through security, into departures and off onto our flight. We don’t want to get lost, we don’t want massive holdups through security, complicated technology or surly immigration officials. What we’d love is to see a friendly, helpful face or two – a nice light airy environment and an all-round pleasant experience.
From Stewart Wingate’s perspective, he was very open and honest about our views, telling us the feedback he’d received from other passenger surveys/complaints etc and he was, most importantly, really interested in what we all had to say.
From my own perspective, representing parents, the pitfalls of family travel are many and it was easy for me to list them: after setting off at 4am to the airport, your child has just fallen asleep in the buggy when the surly man at security wants to turf them out so that the buggy can go through the x-ray machine… You’ve just come off an 8 hour flight, with a child desperate for the loo, only to find a mile-long queue for just two toilets…
But then consider the business traveller – they don’t generally care so much about shopping or duty free – they just want to get to their destination as quickly as possible. Things that would make the business travellers’ life easier aren’t so different to those of, say, parents, or the disabled – but maybe a day room where they can grab a quick shower between connecting flights would be nice – places to charge laptops, meeting rooms…
John also made a really valid point about older travellers – frustrated with huge queues, complicated check in procedures and invasive security checks, it seems that they’re moving away from the airports towards other forms of transport: the Eurostar being one of the major ones. I found this fascinating – and a bit disturbing.
But the biggest eye openers for me were the points raised by Philippa Bromley of the Disabled Living Foundation about the very diverse challenges faced by the disabled traveller: imagine how upsetting it must be, when travelling with a disabled child, to be confronted by a massive queue for security when you know your child will shout out and make noises, and other travellers will stare and make comments. Consider also how terrifying a disembodied automated voice could be for someone with, say, Autism or Alzheimer’s. Think how daunting it must be for a person with learning difficulties when confronted with an automated check-in. All these people must be considered, and Gatwick are determined to make travelling better for everyone.
All in all, it was an enjoyable, enlightening – and exhausting – day. My journey home was delayed in a rather comic fashion when our train appeared to have no driver. After a 20 minute hunt (and a bit of giggling during the announcements) a driver was found and I eventually got home safe and sound. I do admire those that rely on trains and tubes to get them to work every day – I’ll need a sofa day tomorrow to get over it.
More information on Gatwick Airport is available on their website: gatwickairport.com – and if there’s anything you’d like me to bring up at the meetings, feel free to contact me or leave a comment below.
My buddy Taralara runs an online gallery with a different theme every week. Not being much of a photographer, I tend to dip in and out a bit, but this week, the theme is ‘travel’ – how could I not join in!
This picture is the ceiling of the Dubai Mall, which took me by surprise when I looked up to see it filled with thousands of delicate paper butterflies. It took my breath away.
For more entries to this week’s gallery, just click here.
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