Monday, 1 July 2019

Boston with a teenager: Reluctant Education

Education, education, education. An old government slogan that applies to many households of school age children. Holidays should be a break, a change of scenery, but it’s always nice to throw in the odd educational experience. For a 16 year old who has just completed mandatory schooling, a solid dose of education was in order - so off we went to Boston to explore the Universities and the story of America’s break from Colonial rule. I was also keen to get the boy into the idea of independent travelling on a budget.

Our AirBnB was a twin room in a shared house in Revere; great value but well away from the tourist sights of the city centres. Revere is a firmly residential area of white clapboard houses adorned with patriotic tributes, sprawling shopping malls, and enormous roads - in short, what some might call the “real” America. The contrast of our small European city home to the suburban American sprawl was evident as we negotiated our way across 6 lane roads to a near deserted sandy beach barely half an hour from downtown Boston.

As is often the case in the United States, public transport difficulties ended up being a theme of the trip. We had installed the MTicket app on my phone to buy transport tickets, but couldn’t work it. However the MBTA Transit App was reasonably reliable, albeit that there weren’t a huge amount of buses to show us. We also downloaded Boston CityMaps, which gave us lots of adverts and a useful map of the subway; and Lyft, but didn’t use it.

We’d booked tours of Harvard and MIT as “prospective students”, which I suppose #1 son is. I’d always thought of him as more of a nerdy MIT type, and figured the tailored tour through his preferred faculties would be jolly interesting. However, whilst the charismatic student showing us round told us dozens of great quirky stories, it was Harvard that really grabbed his attention. The cool shady squares, ancient buildings (by American standards anyway), vast multi-storey library seemed to really inspire him. The bursary system really inspired me - Harvard and MIT give away over $100 million each in tuition fees every year! Harvard even pays for crazy overseas field trips all around the world. But I could see why the boy was inspired, Harvard has no modesty about appointing itself as the world’s most eminent university, and confidently asserts itself as such. The canteen is good (and cheap) too. Boy was inspired to do a bit more work for sixth form - mission accomplished.

A scientific friend had told me that we needed to visit the Science Museum, which contains the world’s largest van der Graff generator. This seemed a good plan for the rain forecast that afternoon. I had images of my own school science lessons when van der Graff generators turned our 1980’s expansive hair into quite an alien form. However this generator was actually developed to demonstrate lightning. You can miss the rest of the museum - this really was the thing. Played out in a purpose built theatre, the audience protected by a vast birdcage-like Faraday cage surrounding the central stage, the show demonstrates a phenomenal range of sound and light effects from the sparks generated. A bizarre highlight was playing Star Wars music through differently tuned generators as sparks flew between them.  The boy is too old to be a thrilled child, too cool to be interested in the Physics, but was as thrilled as I was, and as fascinated as all the other ages in there. 

While the rest of the family basked in the hottest British day ever, the rain in Boston continued the next day, so we invested $63 each in a one day Boston City Pass which gave us free entry to dozens of indoor and outdoor venues across town, including bike hire. This accelerated our tour through the aquarium, Paul Revere’s house, the Prudential Tower to look out across the neat rows of Brownstone Houses towards Fenway Park and the hills beyond, across Harvard Bridge (curiously measured in “Smoots” by some amusing co-MIT students of the diminutive Mr Smoot who was used as a measuring rod for the occasion),

The unexpected highlight was the museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Neither of us are artists, or remotely appreciative of art. I find Modern Art to be a very hit and miss affair, sometimes we’ll see something that we really like, but have no idea why. And so it was in the MCA, in the form of a permanent exhibit in a large room with various immense screens showing films taken simultaneously in a large house, in which people are jointly playing a piece of music in a weird range of locations within the house, various states of dress and undress, obviously different instruments and singers, but with the music perfectly synchronised. Walking round the gallery is like walking round this old house with the music all around you. We stayed there a while soaking it all in.

Next day the rain had gone and a beautiful clear day dawned. Following some basic research of Public transport, we plotted a trip Northward to Rockport.  This took us through absolutely stunning scenery with names utterly incompatible with their British namesakes. Manchester had huge clear blue lakes on both sides of the train tracks, lined by magnificent houses with vast green lawns reaching down to the shores. Gloucester and Chelsea meanwhile looked more like... well British Manchester really. Rockport itself seemed rather genteel when we arrived. Plenty of Art Galleries lining the main streets attracted the wealthy elderly crowd more than the teenage son and his dad crowd. However we had a jolly tasty seafood lunch, and proceeded on to collect a pair of pre-booked kayaks to paddle out across to some of the islands in Massachusetts Bay. The wildlife was surprisingly abundant, there were areas of big fish jumping out of the water (although I’ve no idea why), and hundreds of birds diving from the rocky shores. We stopped at Stratsmouth Island which was occupied solely by a retired couple who were restoring the lighthouse on the island. It was a fascinating tale, there was no running water or electricity when they arrived, so they had rigged up rainwater traps and solar panels to make the house habitable as a holiday let.

Our final day involved a proper day’s sightseeing, walking Boston’s famous “Freedom Trail” incorporating places of significance in America’s battle to shake off the colonial oppression imposed by the British Government. As Brits, we have a civic duty to express some cynicism about romanticism of some of the stories. It’s really not clear why Paul Revere is revered more than the other chap who  rode another horse through the night to warn of the British Advance. But that aside, the route is well planned, clearly marked for self-navigation with or without an explanatory leaflet, and at around 3 miles on both sides of the river - is easy to walk in half a day looking at the sights. Many visitors overlook the North side of the river, but that’s a shame as the view from Bunker Hill gives some real perspective to the City, and the old dockyard is fascinating. Back on the South side, and as someone who originates from close to Boston, England; it’s surprising to me to see the names of South Lincolnshire villages on street names and gravestones.  We finished the tour in Chinatown, where we ordered some fantastic Dim Sum, familiar tasty Cantonese food in enormous American portions!

The one thing that our One Day City Pass didn’t cover was the Boston Tea Party Museum, so we took ourselves there after lunch. It’s a bit enthusiastic for my muted British tastes, and much too enthusiastic for a self-aware British teenager, but it really is very well put together. All visitors are assigned an identity of a colonial rebel, and start in a protest meeting led by charismatic actors representing some of the heroes of the rebellion. The party then processes out onto a tea clipper and ceremonially dumps the tea into the harbour. The tour guides really were excellent, staying in character but answering any questions thrown at them with a wealth of knowledge of Boston’s history. The escalating rhetoric between the rebels and Crown was well illustrated through “paintings” of King George and Sam Adams having a heated row, their words based on actual correspondence between them. An understandably different slant to that taught in British Schools, and a welcome educational finale to the trip!

Friday, 10 August 2018

Hua Hin with extended family: the Brighton of Thailand?

Thailand has such abundant supplies of perfect beaches, with such a range of high quality and budget accommodation choices adjoining them, that the expectations of visitors tend to be pretty high. We had already enjoyed this level of luxury in Phuket and Kok Samui, so this time were looking for something a little different. Coupled with the fact that we were a party of 11, with an age range in the 8-80 region, but only a few days to spare, we had a slightly unconventional set of requirements. And as a result, we settled on Hua Hin.

Where? Few westerners seemed to have heard of it. Indeed, it’s less picture perfect than the beachy islands and sun-drenched jungle scenery of the more famous resorts. Not many blogs covered it, but those that did were enthusiastic (Would recommend here). Hua Hin achieved local recognition as a Royal retreat, splendidly documented in Alec Waugh’s “Bangkok”. Not unlike Brighton is to Londoners, Hua Hin is a seaside resort, a fairly easy journey from the capital. It was (and remains)  much loved by the Thai Royal Family, despite being slightly challenged by experiences of Malaria and military coups during their historic stays there.  
Like Bangkok, development hasn’t been kind to Hua Hin. The long beach that attracted the 19th century Kings is now hidden from the main road by a long sprawl of cheap hostels and smarter resorts; supermarkets, street markets, and shopping outlets; the odd school and temple lining the busy dual carriageway. The beach itself suffers from an influx of Jellyfish during the summer rainy season (when we happened to be there). But for all that, it does have a huge amount of character as a chaotic living city. While it lacks the classic stunning perfection of, say, Koh Samui, there is much fun to be had wandering through the markets and food stalls of the town, and living in it rather than viewing as a passive observer. 

Nowhere is this feeling stronger than the weekend Cicada night market. This had the usual selection of touristy knick-knacks, but interspersed with lots of live music, a play taking place in a small amphitheater, entertainment in the form of dogs leaping through hoops of fire. There was interesting shopping too, one stall was selling wooden home-made rubber band powered weaponry carved in the style of machine guns; the multiple elastic bands enabling it to be used like one to! The food market alongside sold a vast range of street food and drink - kebabs, curries, fruit juices, fried insects - no need for a McDonalds run here. A little further along the road is the smaller but no less variable “Grand Market”, running daily through the week and selling the most mind blowing delicious fresh fruit smoothies for pennies. 

Half an hour out of town towards the hills we found the Black Mountain Water Park. Such attractions are always a winner on hot family holidays, even better when low season meant that our family group made up most of the customers that day. Whilst the emptiness was a little eerie, no-one complained about the lack of queues for the 9water slides of varying degrees of size, steepness and downright madness. A separate lake alongside the pools contained a “Wipeout” style obstacle course complete with slippery floating bridges, inflatable climbing walls a trampoline enabling the larger of us to propel the smaller of us into the air by bouncing onto the opposite end of a semi inflated tube. I’m not sure how the facilities would cope in a busier season, but it was great for us in August!

Our final mini family adventure from Hua Hin was an ATV tour starting from a centre surprisingly close to the centre of town. After an initial half hour training and familiarisation session, we were guided into the hills by 2 of their instructors for a ramble through the countryside, and up a mountain to gaze down at the town and the sea. The more memorable part than the view was getting pestered by monkeys keen to extort a bag of nuts bought for the purpose. The instructors were great with the kids, the older ones were able to take turns to drive themselves, while even the little ones got to sort of drive with the instructors still firmly controlling the vehicles. The session finished off with a bonus air rifle shooting session, again with even the younger children having a go. However, they did reluctantly have to stand behind the line when those above 14 began the knife and axe throwing. And then back to our hotel where the more mature members of the group had endured a rather strenuous traditional Thai massage on the beach.

No story of Thailand is complete without mention of food, and the beachfront cafes and restaurants of Hua Hin cannot be missed. Simple decor and basic construction belied the delicious food produced from within. All the curries we tried had coconut milk to both take the edge off the spices and add a real sweetness that most of the kids could enjoy. The range of basic grilled food meant that no-one went hungry, and the prices were fantastic for such a large group. There was atmosphere too; romantic crashing of the waves in the background was drowned out by interesting Karaoke renditions of Western songs (I think).

Friday, 3 August 2018

Bangkok: Asian Las Vegas

There are few things more irritating than smug parents whose children always eat whatever they are given. Most children, ours included, are fussier. Travelling with them therefore needs a certain acceptance of the quest quest for familiar food, ie global McDonalds solution….. Until you get to Bangkok. For Bangkok is street food heaven. Lining main roads and back streets, on junctions and in the vast night markets, the range of child-friendly (and not so friendly) food is beyond vast. Satay chicken kebabs will do for the majority; some of the spicier chicken and pork offerings were more for the older children; wok-fried insects were a shared challenge that I really ought to repeat for the good of the planet, but won’t be any time soon. The ubiquitous Pad Thai seemed to vary hugely stall by stall. The sharpness of most of the curries was mitigated by the smoothness of rich coconut milk. Fresh tropical fruit were skewered, juiced, chopped into any sorts of shapes, mixed with chocolate, layered on waffles. Jet lag had the children awake half the night, which was great as we just ate into the small hours.

The initial exclamation of our 14 year old as we ventured out for this first evening in Bangkok was an excited shock that it was an Asian Las Vegas - he’d rather enjoyed the US version last year. Indeed it was, the advertising screens covering the entire side of shopping centres, the 24 hour artificial light, the heat, the traffic, the crowds on the pavement, the luxury shops alongside the standard 7/11. But this is Asia, there are also temples galore, street food (did I mention that?), markets, and canals. 

We’ve found that a handy way to orientate ourselves around a new city is to pick a fairly spurious destination a couple of miles away, and wander in a general direction towards it, purely to have a destination in mind. Ambling through the streets is a good way to throw off the tiring feeling of travelling, and we see lots of stuff we’d probably otherwise miss in a frantic effort to tick off the sights in the guide book. The rather random arrangement of Bangkok is great for this, with its juxtaposition of temples, shopping centres, ancient shacks and modern office blocks. Our destination was Lumphini Park, which we reached after a few hours, and had a pleasant relaxing afternoon renting swan-shaped pedalboats (an ageless activity), tormenting giant dragon-like geckos, and of course dining from the range of street-side stalls.

Friends who had visited Bangkok over Easter recommended a bicycle tour. Even as someone who cycles in London every day, the traffic in Bangkok was somewhat off-putting. However these fears were irrelevant, the tour took us through impossibly narrow alleyways, suddenly opening into huge peaceful squares devoid of traffic, mostly in front of Buddhist monasteries and temples. The guides were entertaining and informative, a particularly interesting point for the 4 boys under 16 with us was the news that all Thai boys spend 3 months in a monastery without access to the outside world... no internet needed for meditation. Maybe this is why Thailand hasn’t been to war for so long.  The tour covered both sides of the river separating the two sides of the city, and finished with a boat ride along the river and back to the base.

Mrs _h likes shops. That’s the main reason that most of our travels feature a city in them somewhere (aside from the fact that that’s where the airport normally is). I wasn’t really expecting much of Bangkok’s shops, particularly following on from Hong Kong which is a more obvious shoppers’ choice. But the shopping in Bangkok is just as good, probably more so with kids for the added entertainment thrown in. The range of stores right from the super high end international designer stores, through standard local and international chains and supermarkets, via individual stores in various states of repair and disrepair, through to elderly farmers towing trailers of produce behind bicycles, the shopping is an adventure in itself. Our favourite shopping centre was the Siam Paragon, mainly due to the ten pin bowling alley on the top floor that amused the non-shopping majority on this trip.

No trip to Bangkok is complete without at least one journey by Tuk-Tuk, and even though various guide books had warned us against some of their slightly underhand ways of earning commission from tourist traps. We were completely taken in by the Tuk-Tuk salesman dressed as a security guard, complete with epaulettes and clipboard, even though he used the established pitch that the Royal Palace was closed that day. The 11 of us piled into 2 tiny vehicles to a long-tailed boat stop about a mile from where we hoped to end up. A bit of dispute and a stroll later (you can’t go far wrong with a large river on one side) we found ourselves at the river bus stop that we had been aiming for, and resumed course. We never did see the floating market, but I’m told I didn’t miss much. Apparently there isn’t even a McDonalds.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Valencia: The most chilled hot city in Spain

Imagine a sunny Spanish city within a couple of hours flight from London, with a beach, a healthy portion of child-friendly culture, including a major football team, and little chance of walking for more than ten minutes without an opportunity to sit outside a cafe enjoying top quality beer, tapas, food or ice-cream as you desire. You may think of Barcelona here, but let’s take away the tourist throngs and flatten the hills so that children and idle parents can cycle around it, and welcome to Valencia.

For a family trip, the vast sandy beach at Valencia is a huge advantage. It’s similar in scale to the little visited beaches down the East Coast of England, but with brighter sunshine and softer sand. Even with the advancing ages of our children (10 and 14 by now, the eldest having been outsourced on a school trip), it’s easy to while away an entire day at the seaside. There was rather a strong wind while we were there, which made frisbee throwing amusingly unpredictable. The sea was pretty cold as it was early in the year, but the air was warm despite the breeze, and the sun was always always in the sky. A row of restaurants line the promenade along the edge of the beach, varying in quality but improving massively a few streets back into the old fishermans’ quarter. Around the corner from the beach lies the slightly faded glamour of the marina that hosted the America’s Cup a few years ago, with the super yachts still worth a wander to see. 

The truly unique and glorious aspect of Valencia with kidsis its river; or more correctly; the space where it’s river used to be. Like most medieval European coastal cities, Valencia’s historic centre is a couple of miles inland, having developed around a port upstream from the sea. However unlike most medieval European coastal cities, the river was drained after a serious flood in the 1950’s, and the river bed turned into a huge park stretching right across town.We hired a four-seater bicycle and pottered up and down the park to see the sights. Through several miles, the wide tract of traffic-free land is the home of a range of outstanding modernist architecture housing concert halls and museums; there are Football pitches, childrens’ playgrounds in a range of styles, shady meadows, cycle tracks and footpaths, lakes and fountains. A particularly inspired playground is themed around Gulliver in Lilliput, made up of an enormous concrete statue of Gulliver tied to the ground, with his coat tails forming a series of slides for the Lilliputian children. 

In a blur it’s the final full day of our extended weekend break, so time to explore the historic city centre. We again rented bikes to potter along, not just along the river bed, but across a network of fully segregated and connected cycle tracks around the city. This gave us a better idea of the general layout, so we the wandered through squares and alleyways of the pedestrianised city centre, dropping into the renowned market for the smells and snacks essential to sustaining a family, quick tick-off of historic sights and a surprising interest from #2 son in a castle that housed the exiled national government during the Spanish Civil war that he had been studying at school and I had vaguely absorbed via Hemingway. Our target, as recommended by a Valencia-based family blogger (, was the ancient city gate of Torres de Quart. Well away from the tour groups in the central squares around the cathedral, this heavily fortified gate once guarded the main entrance to the city. It was one of those monuments with a crazily cheap entrance fee, and it’s castle-like construction with thick walls and winding staircases made it a fun excursion for all of us. We seemed to climb up, and up, and up; each level offering progressively more distant views of the squares below, the wider city, and eventually the surrounding hills to one side and sea to the other.

The vista across the flat roofs sprinkled with TV ariels was surprisingly ugly after the prettiness of the city at ground level. The occasional medieval tower poked randomly through the blocks of flats, reminding us that this is primarily a city for people to live in rather than visit. And who wouldn’t want to live in this sunny paradise between mountain and sea? And I think that’s what gives it the edge over Barcelona, less of a  tourist attraction, and more of a living breathing city for its own people. 

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Tulum with kids: Rainforest screams and beach-time dreams

Eeeeeaaaaassaaiiiiirrrrrrrggghhhhhh!!!!! The deafening unidentifiable primeval animal scream sliced through the dense rainforest canopy, hurting our ears as we stood on a tiny wooden platform tethered some 40 feet up a tree trunk. The kids laughed with satisfied pleasure. Yes, it was worth introducing Mum to zipwires.

The main coast road running down Mexico’s Yucatan peninsular is becoming famous not just for its beaches and American Student Spring breaks, but also for its adventure theme parks, with zipwires through the jungle a particular draw for tourists. We selected Selva Maya Eco -Adventure for our trip, close to where we were staying in Tulum, and smaller and more rustic than some of its larger neighbours towards Playa del Carmen and Cancun. It was a superb choice. We were greeted by Raul, who gave us a basic rundown of activities in disappointingly good English (he was a Chelsea fan and had lived in London for a while).

We acquired a couple of young New Yorkers into our family group, and piled onto possibly the most battered vehicle I have ever travelled on. It appeared to be the outcome of a romantic liaison between a long-abandoned  VW pick-up and a Thai Tuk-Tuk, with a few dots of weakening weld joints to add an element of permanence. However it was perfect for bouncing speedily along the bumpy tracks deep into the jungle. The more exclusive sealed air-conditioned minibuses pulled to the side to let us pass at our rather more adventurous pace.

The truck pulled into a clearing a few miles into the forest, where we had a bike thorough safety briefing and were equipped with climbing harnesses. And into the trees we went. The zip wiring was a truly exhilarating experience,  a series of connected cables crisscrossing the valleys that were otherwise hidden beneath the level layer of the rainforest canopy. Raul and his colleagues helped us on and off each one, and encouraged us to turn upside down, spin round, scream, as our confidence grew. 

The trail finished at a climbing wall -  really not my thing now that rain was falling. However kids are lighter and stronger, and shimmied up easily. Raul then guided us to rappel down, something that I had never realised was different to abseiling, and is actually quite a bit harder. However gravity was on our side for that. 

The thrilling part was that rather than simply rappelling back to the ground, this side of the structure descended into a “cenote”, a flooded cave that’s apparently unique to the area. Raul explained to us that when the enormous meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs struck Yucatan, the effect was to “lift up” the limestone floor leaving a vast network of interconnected subterranean flooded caverns. Some are half open where the cave roof had collapsed in the intervening 60 million years, others are accessible via smaller openings, and others only through scuba diving through connected underwater tunnels. We made our way to one of the covered caves, donned snorkels, and with varying degrees of trepidation leapt from a rock into the clear, refreshingly cool water. It was magnificent. The rock formations under the water viewed through our snorkel masks were a spectacular combination of shapes and colours. Shoals of tiny fish darted to and fro, perfectly synchronised as a group. 

We proceeded on to another cave, this one with a much higher ceiling, every inch of which  reached down to us through vast stalactites. We stepped into the water more confidently this time, and saw the huge array of stalagmites covered by the water, mirroring the ceiling above with dozens of tiny fish weaving between them up. This was the highlight saved till last. There was a beautiful awestruck peace, quite a contrast to the terrified yell that opened the tour.

Tulum is renowned for 2 things: its peaceful hippyish retreat culture, and its Clifftop Mayan ruins. The setting of the ruins is quite breathtaking, overlooking the beautiful clear blue sea from its high vantage point. Turning the other way to look landwards, the amazing scale of the complex becomes clear. Stone remains clearly mark out the routes of ancient streets and squares, long since abandoned. However get there early, even at 9 am when we arrived the crowds were getting quite oppressive.  As a family day out, be ready to hit the eject button before it gets too wearing on hot, bored little minds.

The town of Tulum itself was rather disappointing, basing my expectations on a story from an elderly relative of trekking there in the 1960’s, and a series of travel blogs emphasising its hippyish retreat-style sanctuary atmosphere. True - there were plenty of bicycles, small independent hostels and pleasant cafes to tick the backpacker boxes. However the 4 lane highway through the middle of it, and the plethora of gaudy souvenir shops made it far from my idea of a peaceful retreat. 

Our hotel on the other hand, was a stunning retreat. Situated on the beach a ten minute bus-ride from Tulum itself, it was a blissful haven of tranquility and luxury. The 3 swimming pools, choice of international restaurants, and attentive staff made it a perfect base to spend our time relaxing between days out. The beach, equipped with  a selection of games, kayaks and snorkels included in the (not inconsiderable) price, was a truly beautiful Caribbean idyll. The sea was crystal clear, the waves big enough for some fun body surfing, small enough to not frighten the kids - or ourselves. The kids club entertained our youngest on the days that she was bored of us, but the rest of the family spent most of the time reading in the sunshine.

As an East coast, we didn’t have the opportunity to watch beautiful sunsets over the sea over dinner and cocktails, with or without kids. However that means beautiful sunrises that few people bother to get out of bed for. And neither did we until our last day, when Mrs _H and I woke early, crept out of the rooms leaving the children asleep (remember the eldest is 14, it’s fine), and walked down to the deserted beach in the moonlight. We took a couple of sun-loungers, and waited for the sun to appear. We weren’t disappointed. Over the course of half an hour the clouds on the horizon lit up with brilliant pink and yellow hues, the broad sun rays spreading upwards from the sea itself. As the sun itself appeared over the mighty Atlantic, the clouds turned briefly red, before the sky abruptly changed from a plethora of colour into the clear blue Caribbean sky. It was a beautiful way to start the day, but end the holiday. 

Because really - shouldn’t every family holiday be more ahhhhh! than Eeeeeaaaaassaaiiiiirrrrrrrggghhhhhh!!!!! ?

Las Vegas: Diverting kids from the Sin of Sin City

Want to visit Vegas but worried about losing your shirt? Concerned that Vegas is rather prone to leading the impetuous types like yourself into debauchery? Well here's the solution, take the children along and they can divert you from some of the sins of Sin City. We managed to spend five busy days there completely devoid of drink, drugs, prostitution or gambling, much to the disappointment of the teenagers.

We spent most of our family holiday in Las Vegas simply ambling up and down the strip. We wandered through the casinos and hotel foyers stretching from the Luxor where we were staying up to the Venetian at the other end. One day we blew $8 each on a 24 hour bus pass to take us right up to the zipwires above Fremont Street at the Northern End.  

In "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", which I chose to read whilst staying there, Hunter S Thompson wrote "No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.” 45 years on, this quote seems even more apt. What made an architect think that Venice would be enhanced by re-arranging its major sights, adding travellators to the bridges and propellers to the gondolas, then dropping it all onto the strip? Where better to site a flamingo-themed nature park than as the centrepiece of another casino?  Why had no-one previously thought to pack the square beneath the Eiffel Tower with slot machines? Why did Italian Renaissance sculptors leave their artistry open to the skies rather than painting some white fluffy clouds on the ceiling above them? Don't pyramids look better when clad in blue glass rather than the blocky sandstone familiar to traditional archaeologists? Is a swimming pool not exciting enough unless its separated from an adjacent shark tank by a Perspex screen? Why should there be any water under the Brooklyn Bridge? Where else is Trump Tower the plainest building on the street? Why should a fountain simply spurt water straight up into the air when it could be one of 1,000 synchronised dancing jets of water?

 Each hotel, casino, shopping centre and pool resort seemed crazier than the one before it. This is the extreme nature of Vegas, and it's fascinating for the whole family. The continuous bombardment of incredible sights kept everyone's mind occupied, the air conditioning providing welcome respite from the intense heat outside. And best of all – strolling through it is all free.

 A trip to Vegas isn’t complete without a show, and there is plenty of choice even when you are limited to family friendly performances. We opted for tickets for Criss Angel, an illusionist apparently much better known in America than Europe. Whilst there were aspects where our 9 year old daughter had to cover her face – the lady being cut in half by a massive circular saw being one memorable interlude – the overall show was magnificent. It varied from close-up coin tricks, to spectacular transformations of people and objects, all moved along swiftly by a varied cast of entertainers. The climax of the show was the most incredible levitation trick, it simply defied belief. He tactfully weaved in an appeal for childrens cancer charities, and seemed to use the levitation to show their dreams lifting them into the air. This was a show that was really worth seeing.

We might have missed out on the sin, but we can always go back later. Our 13 year old is already planning a boys trip when he’s old enough to drink in the US, perhaps he’ll take his parents. In the meantime, taking away the bad habits unveils a fantastic eye-opening experience.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Grand Canyon: Its a very Big Gorge

The one pleasant aspect of jetlag when travelling West is that the whole family wakes early the next morning. We took advantage of this on our Vegas trip and headed off in a hire car into the desert as the sun was rising. We stopped at the fantastic South West Diner in Boulder City for our first proper American breakfast since New York last year. As usual, we hugely over ordered pancakes, one portion being plenty for 2, even without the accompanying bacon and eggs. It was delicious food, and the kind of service and attention that small-town America really excels at.  

We could have spent hours there, but our target was really the Grand Canyon, so we headed back onto the road, past "Guns & Burgers", past the world’s largest monster truck (isn't America marvellous), up into the mountains, eventually getting to the Hualapai Reserve mid morning. From here a fleet of buses distributes tourists around five suggested stops along the canyon; of which we selected the two that appeared to offer the best views. One of these includes the famous "skywalk", a U-shaped glass bottomed walkway stretching out above the canyon. Below our feet there was nothing to interrupt our line of sight, 3,000 feet down the cliff sides to the tiny trees below, and the seemingly minuscule trickle that is actually part of the mighty Colorado river. 

As spectacular as this was, it was the wildness of the Canyon itself at the next stop that was truly breathtaking. Every aspect of its scale was immense, in every dimension. The harsh beauty of the brown rocks, the jagged cliffs with seemingly no base to them left us awestruck. No photograph could do justice to the vastness of the landscape, the vista filling all directions from the rocky outcrop protruding into the canyon where we stood.

From an overwhelming natural wonder to an immense man-made wonder; we paid a fleeting visit to the Hoover Dam on the way back to Las Vegas. On any other visit this would have stunned us for the immense feat of engineering that it is. However, it was going to be tricky to follow on from the Grand Canyon. Even so, it's an incredible sight, and despite missing out on the full tour, the information boards provided a good explanation of the dam's construction and its immense electricity generating capacity, enabling the development of vast cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Behind it stretches the magnificent arc of the Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge providing another superb feat of engineering.

We rarely drive when travelling, mainly because it causes us to bicker rather than for any principled environmental stance. However while we had a car for a day, we stopped off in a shopping outlet on the edge of Las Vegas, actually spending a few hours there rather than the few minutes I had in mind. Shopping is just so much easier in America than Europe, the shops are big enough to cope with lots people, and the staff are invariably knowledgeable and helpful. So fully kitted out with sportswear for the approaching school year, we returned to Las Vegas as the sky grew darker and the lights grew brighter.

For kids dealing with Jetlag, the answer is simply to get up early and get on with the day. And do something interesting. Our 4 stops that day were different yet individually brilliant, but we would have struggled if we'd started later. 

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Edinburgh Fringe, Live Stand-Up Comedy with teenagers

"My name is Stits, Gloria Stits. That sounds like a line from Oliver." This quote from an improvised spoof James Bond themed stage show was Probably one of the more memorable lines from our week at the Fringe. The best thing about shows like this being that they're rib-hurtingly funny for me and my teenage boys, without the more adult content of most stage comedy. The range of shows is stupendous, starting at all hours of the day and night, with dozens of categories by age suitability, genre, type of show, location, and times to select. A convenient App accompanies the phone book sized Fringe Guide to lead visitors to the optimum show for the moment.

Our kids are disappointingly sporty. Arts are really not their thing. None of them act or play musical instruments. So their enthusiasm for the worlds biggest arts festival was a little muted. Despite some enthusiasm from the boys for super-hero themed shows, and from our 8year old daughter for crafty stuff, the overall sense of anticipation was mainly around the possibility of Scotland playing a friendly at Murrayfield (I lied about that one).  But luckily with some bribery, and the choice of a show each, they were willing to give it a go.

The boys both went for super-hero things - one a comic lecture on comic-book heroes, and the other a hysterically funny debate between two stand-up comedians about whether Star Wars was better than Star Trek. Fantastic stuff - here was a whole pub basement full of nerds who knew more than they did about whose father killed whose brother in whichever episode. My highlight was my daughter's decision for her and me to run away to join a circus - in the form of a circle skills workshop. This started early one morning before the real shows started in the same big-top style circus  tent. This was part of a general children's area close to the University known as the Underbelly, with a large inflatable upside-down purple cow-shaped tent as its centrepiece. It's all a bit surreal.

Aside from the organised shows are street performers every few yards, mostly with superb crowd participation.  I was unlucky enough to play the role of "Englishman" In a slightly uncomfortable trick about our colonial heritage; the boys were an unexpected backdrop for a slightly odd dance think about climate change.

Any visit to Edinburgh leaves you coming away thinking that we really need to return to see the city itself away from the Fringe. There is plenty to see. When it rained we dipped into the National Museum of Scotland, and later on the fantastically scenic castle. When the sun came out we took in the incredible views from Arthur's Seat, passing the Scotttish Parliament on our return. We dined well, as well as soaking up the culture of a deep fried mars bar (popular with the teens) and Haggis (much better than I remembered it). We arrived for our train home in plenty of time to laze around Princes Gardens with our luggage and a picnic, rolling down the steep slopes under the splendid backdrop of the castle on its mount. 

This was a very short trip, only 5 days, but so much packed into it. We saw dozens of shows, mostly free entry where the audience pays what they think it's worth. By the time we flopped onto the train home we were exhausted. Trips, glorious trips.