With Easter upon us, families great and small will be flocking to Cornwall, the Costa del Sol and the Caribbean. To ensure holiday success, heed the warnings of our widely travelled experts, who recall occasions when they did and didn’t get it right
Do… ensure your car is roadworthy before entering a safari park
As we entered Italy’s Fasanolandia Zoosafari, smoke started to plume from our bonnet.
“The engine’s overheating,” I said. We’d just negotiated a steep hill behind a large queue of cars and the temperature gauge had shifted into the red.
But we couldn’t not go in. The kids (eight and five years old) had been reading the brochure for 200 miles.
My wife turned the air-con off. “The engine’s working hard to cool us down. Give it less to do.”
It was August, 35C outside. It grew progressively hotter inside the car.
“Drink water,” my wife told the sweltering kids.
“But not too much,” I said. “We may need it for the car.”
Sweating, the kids opened the windows a crack as we entered the lion enclosure. A ranger blew his whistle at us.
Little Phoebe cried that she was so hot. Smoke billowed round the car.
“They’re coming,” I said.
A lion lolloped over, its nose twitching. Another followed.
“They’re surrounding the car, Ben,” shouted my wife.
A lion jumped onto the bonnet.
“They’re attracted to the smoke,” shouted my wife.
There was a jolt as we shunted forward. The ranger had taken matters into his own hands – and was using his jeep to push us towards the exit.
Do… smuggle food into Disneyland Paris
We didn’t want to be hostages to the over-priced junk food so prepared ourselves in the car park at Goofy D row 234. First, I taped baguette to Phoebe’s legs. Thin slices of St Augur cheese I then laid into my five-year old son Charlie’s shoes. Their coat pockets contained bananas, wrapped in gloves to mask their shape.
At the entrance, we passed soldiers with automatic weapons. A sign featuring a uniformed man in a peaked cap thanked us for not bringing in food.
It became tense at the bag scanning machine when I noticed crust poking out of the bottom of Phoebe’s trouser leg. I could hardly breathe, not just from fear our contraband would be uncovered, but because of the smell of cheese pounding out of my son’s shoes. But we got in undetected and later agreed the smuggling had been as thrilling as the Twilight Tower of Terror.
Don’t… take children to Terra Botanica
Terra Botanica is Europe’s sole horticultural theme park. That’s right, the French have spent £70 million on a theme park dedicated to ingredients. Rightly or wrongly, because of the words “theme” and “park”, we’d pictured something akin to Alton Towers. At Terra Botanica we sat in a hollowed-out pedal-operated giant walnut shell that travelled slowly on rails, not quite above the treetops, where we stared below at… lettuce. Not pirates, sharks or wizards. Lettuce. It turned out our children weren’t interested in a display about how to cook haricot beans. Ruined by Pixar movies featuring imaginatively animated creatures going on epic adventures, a film about what happened to a droplet of water when it was sucked up by a magnolia tree also failed to hit the mark. And, as for the story of the hydrangea in the Plant Theatre, sorry, not enough plot twists and jump scares.
Do… take trains
Some undoubted high points of travelling with my children were the overnight train journeys we did between Moscow and St Petersburg. I’ll never forget the surprise and excitement on my kids’ faces when they boarded the train at Leningradsky Terminal and discovered we were all sharing a moving bedroom that looked like something from the Hogwarts Express. There’s something so wonderful about the steady momentum, the folding beds, the shared space and the chance to give each other your full attention. It was such a hit that we repeated the experience one summer on an overnight train to Verona from London. It was just as much fun. I gather it’s also good for the environment.
Don’t… forget the first aid kit
Every parent has a nightmare tale to tell about a holiday accident. Cycling down a steep slope in the South Tyrol, I heard my daughter shouting in a thrilled voice: “Dad, my speedometer is at 30!” before she crashed spectacularly. I could hardly bear to look. Thankfully, she was more shaken than hurt, but, to my shame, I didn’t even have a box of plasters. A kind and better prepared Italian cyclist called Umberto, who was passing by, helped me patch her up and directed me to a chemist’s shop in the next town. Thank you, Umberto. Memo to self: never forget at least basic medical supplies.
Do… get to the restaurant before they’re hungry
Here’s a recipe for a terrible evening: take a tired and hungry family with small children, place them in a crowded restaurant, sprinkle with just too few well-meaning but overworked staff and simmer until everyone goes ballistic. This has happened to me quite often and it’s usually been my fault for not getting to the restaurant soon enough. It’s taken me too long to realise that holidays with children are no longer the follow-your-nose, I-wonder-about-the-next-taverna improvisation that they used to be. The best restaurant is the one where the kids like the food and it arrives before they’re weepy or enraged.
Don’t… take a baby to a romantic restaurant
It was the perfect Provençal hilltop village, with a perfect medieval centre of cobbled streets and courtyards. And we’d found the perfect restaurant: small, charming, with a leafy terrace overlooking the pine-clad valley below. We had our four-month-old with us, so we were sensible and booked for 7pm, her bedtime. I’d feed her beforehand, and then she could drift into a peaceful slumber in the buggy while my husband and I tucked into daube de boeuf and a glass or two of rosé.
Our daughter had different ideas. She screamed as soon as we arrived, and carried on screaming as the worried-looking maître d’ led us to the table. “I’ll just wheel her about for a bit,” my husband whispered as I took my seat. So off he went, her wails becoming quieter as he headed deeper into the village, and then getting louder again as he came back. I darted out and we swapped, letting him have a sip of wine and a bite of food. And then we swapped again. We tag-teamed dinner that night, taking it in turns to eat and to wheel about our angry daughter, while old ladies leaned out of flower-festooned windows giving well-meaning but unwanted advice, in French.
Do… carry a change of clothes on a plane – for yourself
The flight over had been so simple. Our one-year-old had settled on my lap and slept for most of the eight-hour journey. My husband and I read and dozed and watched movies. What an angel, we said. What a breeze. We didn’t say that on the flight back.
It was just after take-off that my usually cheerful daughter started grumbling. She fidgeted and fussed, then gave a little frown, turned to my husband and vomited down his front. The crew rushed over with tissues, while we mopped up and apologised to our neighbours. Everyone was terribly kind. The baby gurgled and smiled, while a smell of curdled milk and rotten apples drifted through the cabin.
Then she did it again, on my lap. More tissues, more apologies. I changed the baby’s clothes and tried to clean myself up in the loo. And then she did it again, back on my husband. This time, the cabin crew wordlessly handed us a spare blanket. Our neighbours avoided our eyes. The smell worsened. Then she was sick on my shirt.
This continued, all night. The baby was fine. We, on the other hand, were disgusting. The crew ran out of sympathy – and blankets – and we were left to stew in our baby’s juices. I still feel bad for our neighbours.
Don’t… take small children on safari
I couldn’t wait to show my children Africa. I’d lived there in my 20s and the thought of opening their eyes to the wonders of the bush – those vast skies, those breathtaking plains, the mind-blowing majesty of nature at its most raw and powerful – it would be the experience of a lifetime.
We opted for a malaria-free national park in South Africa, somewhere easy and safe to take a seven- and four-year-old. And it was mind-blowing. We bounced through the veld, marvelling at herds of wildebeest and impala, the children’s eyes like saucers when we spotted our first rhino. We tracked buffalo and they learned about poaching and conservation. We walked alongside giraffes, my daughters’ short-legged hops comical beside the animals’ elegant gait.
My husband and I cherish those memories. But my children? We recently asked them what they remember. Rhinos, impalas, giraffes? The mind-blowing majesty of nature at its most raw and powerful? No. They both remember just one thing: the brown, very ordinary cow we saw in a field on the way to the airport.
Do… ensure the restaurant has adequate baby-changing facilities
Restaurants and tots, like sugar and sparks, are a potentially explosive mix. But sometimes on holiday, a restaurant trip is unavoidable. Thus it was in Nice for my daughter and her nappy-age twins. The posh brunch café looked certain to have decent loos and a changing area. Except it didn’t. The owners let her change her small son on the bread shelves behind the till. She explains: “The owner is manning the till with his back to us. Nano-seconds before closing the new nappy, Paul pees a four-shelf high jet. This is impressive. Less impressive is that it descends onto the freshly laundered pile of napkins the café staff hand out to customers. All this in full view of customers waiting to pay.” The lesson is unambiguous: if an establishment can’t set aside a little space for babies, it doesn’t want young families. Indulge them. Go elsewhere.
Don’t… ignore infants when they’re eating ice cream
Cut to the Lake District. Nathalie was in the café’s high chair. She’d been patting down her two scoop-fuls of vanilla ice cream with a spoon for some time. Drumming it, really. We were lulled into a false sense of security. Then, at a quite astonishing speed, she dug her spoon into one of the ice-cream balls and hurled it backwards over her shoulder. The ice landed on the bald head of an old chap two tables away. Had we planned it that way, it would never have worked. Some 85% of the café’s clientele thought this a terrific turn of events. The remaining 15% included the old man and his wife. They were little mollified when I went across to clean his head (“No! No!”). Nor did buying him another coffee and offering to pay for the cleaning of his jacket (for ice will drip when melting) put him on our side. “You are raising a hoodlum!” he shouted as he and wife made for the door. An irascible fellow, then, but, my word, prescient.
Do… ensure that, when left in charge, grandparents understand your easily confused, bilingual children
My French wife and I were working. My parents took our daughter for a couple of days. Together, they went to the seaside and, mid-morning, to a seaside café. They bought Nathalie an orange squash. “I’d like a pie, too, please” she said. It was 10.15 in the morning. “It’s too early for a pie,” said grandfather. “I’d really like a pie,” said daughter. “Get her a pie,” said grandma. So grandfather went to the counter and returned with a pork pie. Nathalie was puzzled. “Can I have a pie, please?” she said. As grandfather was saying: “What do think that is? A unicorn?”, so she went to the counter herself – and returned with a drinking straw. “Straw” in French is “paille”, pronounced “pie”. The orange squash was drunk, but the pork pie remained untouched. My parents were £1.40 down, but one word wiser.
Don’t… take potties to nice restaurants
Alas, toddlers don’t usually switch from nappies to using grown-up toilets in one seamless transition. There’s an in-between stage, involving potties, toilet steps and training seats. And lots and lots of chat about pee and poo: “Ooh that’s a big one, well done, poppet.” After a week’s self-catering in a Cornish cottage (and cleaning the floor ourselves at the end of every meal), we ventured out to a seaside bistro in Port Gaverne for our final meal, my not-so-stylish accessory a pink potty in an orange carrier bag. I had dreamed of slowly sipping a cocktail watching the sun set over the little sea cove, my rosy-cheeked children snacking on the bread basket. But while the ice in my cocktail melted in the glass, I made multiple visits to the restaurant’s toilet with my young daughter, praying for a successful mission out of sight of other diners. However, a fear of Monster Machines (more commonly known as hand dryers) caused my toddler to experience stage fright in public toilets and each visit ended with us trooping back to the table, nothing to report. We left prematurely, sheepishly apologising for the food littering the floor under our table, and made our way back to the cottage… where the mission was finally accomplished.
Do… carry age-appropriate drinking cups
I have never yet been to a restaurant that has produced a suitable water cup for a toddler, one who is beyond the bottle stage but not yet ready to handle glassware. Toddlers may love to get involved with a round of clinking glasses (“cheers”) at the table… but too often servers have nonchalantly poured water into a wine glass and plonked it in front of my three-year-old; a scene of carnage prevented only by our swift parental reflexes. A toddler-friendly drinking beaker is such a simple thing to have tucked away in a restaurant – and an item that would immediately impress parents as soon as it was brought to the table, sending a message: “we welcome toddlers here”. (A message that would also convey, yes, we do actually bother to wipe our high chairs in between occupants).
Don’t take the kitchen sink
There can be a tendency, when travelling with a very small child, to pack every single baby aid you have lying around your home. The amount of kit that came along for the ride on my son’s first flight looked like it was underpinning a hike across the Sahara rather than a long weekend in Granada. Inevitably, every second item remained in the bottom of the bag(s). One of my defining memories of the trip is waiting for what felt like several years for a car-seat to emerge from the plane, at each end of the journey – while the nine-month-old who had used it only briefly in Spain howled his head off at the delay.
Do… acquire a taste for bottled formula in Spain
Or any other country in southern Europe. It is not that you cannot buy formula in – in the case of this recollection – Andalusia, but most shops in Spain tend to stock the powdered version rather than the full product you find so easily in the UK. All of which means that a peevish airport security official – suspicious of a bottle of gloopy liquid, and impervious to a father’s protests that the drink it holds is essential for his baby’s flight home – will make said father unseal the bottle and take a hearty swig. But only after “inviting” said father into a side room, where he and a grumpy mate will prod said bottle and shrug a lot.
Do… book an AirBnB
Or anything else on a short-term rentals platform – just as long as it is more elaborate than a simple hotel bedroom. Nothing is more valuable, when away with a very small child, than a second space, with a closeable door, where your bundle of joy can doze undistracted for all the minutes it can muster, while you party the night away in the next room. Of course, by “party”, I mean “watch nine minutes of television before passing out exhausted, leaving two barely-sipped glasses of wine on the coffee table”. Or, if you are really hardcore, “cook something hot, assuming the apartment has a kitchen”. The alternative is sitting in silent darkness at 7pm, trying to open a pack of meat cold-cuts and a grocery-store yoghurt without the noise waking the light sleeper in the cot in the corner.
Do… book airport parking
How to get to the airport with a baby? Taxi? Train ride? Tube? Bus? Good lord, none of those. Drive your car as close to the departure gate as is physically possible, and leave it there until you return. No matter how bad the traffic in either direction, the “chats” about whether the car-seat is definitely, properly fixed in place, and the discussion on whether the trip is a stupid idea in the first place, the glorious convenience of being able to climb into your own vehicle as soon as you land is worth each of the many pennies Bespoke Deluxe Solutions @CarParking Dot Com will charge you to leave it in a field for a week.
Don’t… attempt to drive the length of France in a single day
We once drove from Calais to my mother’s old place near Bergerac with a husband who acted more like a contestant on Top Gear than a father of three. It took about nine hours and very nearly ended in divorce.
Whatever you do, don’t attempt a long road trip with small children without factoring in multiple stops for the loo (my kids have an infuriating habit of needing it five minutes after we’ve left the service station), more snacks, dog walks…
Also, if you are potty training one of your children, don’t forget to empty the potty thoroughly after each stop, and if you’ve bought one of those ones with a lid, make sure it’s firmly closed. Don’t, whatever you do, put the potty in the boot with the dog if you have one.
Do… avoid medieval villages in summer
A few years after the disastrous road trip to France we decided to fly instead, so wanted to keep our luggage to a minimum. No mean feat when you have young children. In a moment of madness, we decided to ditch the buggy but when we visited the beautiful Bastide towns we really regretted it.
Steep hills, cobbled streets and sweltering heat are not a good combination when you have two small boys who refuse to walk another step (and you have to carry their baby sister in one of those slings.)
If your children are anything like ours, they will just want to spend all day in the pool and cultural hotspots will be mostly lost on them.
Don’t… take a baby to the beach
Most six-month-olds seem capable of doing only one thing, and one thing only, incredibly well: grabbing objects with their hands and stuffing them into their mouths. Which, as I discovered in Zakynthos over the summer, makes a day at the beach with a baby about the most idiotic idea devised by man. Have you ever tried to remove a fistful of sand peppered with cigarette butts from a child’s mouth? It’s a thankless task. Next came an application of sun cream which, when combined with a second handful of sand, became a sort of scouring gel that turned our usually cheerful tot into a screaming devil. Stick with the swimming pool.
Do… embrace the poolside cabana
Zakynthos also introduced me to the wonders of the poolside cabana when it comes to keeping both father and daughter content. After a liberal scattering of plastic toys and teddies – and with a nearby table propping up one novel, one bottle of wine and one bottle of milk – it serves as a giant playmat for babies and adults alike. “Look darling, I’m doing childcare.”