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Should holidays be educational?

TweetWith news lately of parents being fined for taking children out of school during term time to go on holiday, and MPs debating high season holiday prices, it naturally follows to ask the question: Are holidays educational? And should they be? At base, the important thing is to spend time as a family — something difficult to do as we all get increasingly busy. But in my experience holidays — which involve exploring, seeing new places, trying new foods, doing new things — are inherently educational, for grown-ups and kids. At BritMums, we’re running the #Wales4Kids Linky Challenge, asking bloggers what their children learn on holiday, and giving away a luxury family break in Wales worth £1,000 from the Rare Hideaways collection. Naturally, I can’t win the holiday but it’s an interesting topic and Wales is the perfect place for a fun-filled family break. (You can enter the Challenge yourself but blogging about what your kids learn on holiday.) To find out what has stuck in my daughter’s mind from our travels, I asked her what she has learned on holiday. I thought she would mentions things such as: Learning about installation art at the Cadillac Ranch… This installation is a landmark in the Texas panhandle, and the best thing is you can walk right up to it, climb on the cars, even spray paint them yourself. Very hands-on and it spurred a conversation about art with the kids. Learning about street art in New York City… We toured Bushwick with the excellent guides Levys’ Unique New York. They are full of information and have loads of full-on Noo Yoik personality. We learned about the development of street art in Brooklyn, heard about the artists and even saw some of them at work. My husband thought the educational highlights would be: Challenging themselves on a climb up Wheeler Peak… It’s the highest peak in New Mexico. The walk up is steep, and we had to stop several times to catch our breath, but it was worth it to reach the lake, have lunch and feed the chipmunks. Learning how to fish in the ocean… Hours of fun, this activity. Several fish caught, all released and throwing techniques were perfected. But funny enough, none of these were the things my daughter mentioned first. What sprung to mind for her was: Riding a camel in Dubai. Funny enough, we hadn’t done that before. In addition to riding a camel, she was also very impressed with getting her first henna tattoo, holding a falcon and...

Jewelry that tells your travel story

TweetI’ve always liked the idea of charm bracelets — a piece of jewelry that tells a story. You add to it over time, each element significant in its own way. I begged my mother to buy me one when I was young, imagining the small icons that would rattle on my wrist. These days, a bracelet with little dangling Eiffel Towers or four-leaf clovers is no longer my style. But when I met up with Becki Backpacker at Traverse recently, I fell in love with her modern El Camino charm bracelet. The El Camino bracelets are a chic way to document where you’ve been or to create a wish list of your dream destinations. The bracelet looks equally stylish on the mountain bike trail and at a trendy London restaurant (I know, I’ve tested it). Instead of representational icons, you collect hand-polished surgical stainless steel “steps” engraved with the name of countries, or “small steps” of places that aren’t countries (but maybe should be) like London, New York, Bali…. You string these onto a durable woven cord (available in black, blue, green and other colours) that closes with a stainless clasp and which can withstand the rigours of worldwide travel. You can also collect the 8 brightly coloured region steps beads — Europe, Oceania, Asia, Antarctica, etc — along with oak or wooden spacers to create an utterly personal piece of jewelry. It only gets better: The small business that creates these lovely bracelets is English and it makes them in the Oxfordshire countryside. In a treehouse! The nice guys at El Camino sent me one with some steps I selected — a black bracelet with a red North American bead to highlight my home country, a New York step for my former hometown, and a Japan step to commemorate the amazing trip I took there last year. This is less about bragging rights (it’s so tiresome to hear people boast about where they’ve been). Rather it’s about creating a daily reminder of and motivator for life-changing journeys. I’ve already bought 4 additional steps and am thinking about which travel-mad friends to give them to. In the meantime, there are a few small steps they have yet to offer. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for appearance of Texas, Austin, Cornwall and, one of my personal favourites, Isle of Wight. Disclosure: I was sent an El Camino bracelet starter pack free of charge. I bought additional packages myself. All opinions are my own. El Camino Bracelets are available in 7 colours with 240 different steps....

The best museum in Istanbul

TweetWith all the drinking, eating and people-watching to do while travelling, sometimes — sometimes — I find the museum-going with travel to be a bit…obligatory. Some museums are life-changing for me, like the Reina Sofia in Madrid. Others are full of important and beautiful works that leave me feeling like I really *should* read more art history. If only I could pause journeying this forkful of local delicacy to my lips. On my short visit to Istanbul last year I only had time to visit one museum but it is one absolutely no one spending time in that city should miss: The Museum of Innocence. This is no ordinary museum. It’s a monument to the relationship between Kemal and Fusun, the two main characters in the Orhan Pamuk’s novel Museum of Innocence. Turkey’s Nobel Prize-winning author and perhaps most famous writer conceived of creating an actual bricks-and-mortar museum that’s a manifestation of one created by Kemal in the book. Which is a very cool idea. But it goes even beyond that. Pamuk created the museum and acquired the objects for it at the same time he wrote the book, allowing the objects to inform the story. The historical building, built in 1897, is a small vertical structure on Çukurcuma Street, its exterior giving little hint at the wondrous world inside. Visitors first see an installation of the 4,213 cigarettes that Fusan smoked during the time Kemal knew her. As you walk through the building, you view 83 installations corresponding to the book’s chapters, each providing insight not just to the lovers’ lives and the story but to Turkey and its struggle in the 1970s for identity between traditional and European values. Audio recordings bring to life the sound of a woman’s stilettos as she walks, people eating. You could linger for ages in front of each vitrine, exquisitely curated with ephemera. I often think of one in particular that was striking and a bit frightening: black and white pictures of women, black bars across their eyes. The text with the image reads: In those days, even in Istanbul’s most affluent Westernized circles, a young girl who ‘gave herself’ to a man before marriage could still expect to be judged harshly and face serious consequences: If a man tried to avoid marrying the girl, and the girl in question was under eighteen years of age, an angry father might take the philanderer to court to force him to marry her. It was the custom for newspapers to run photographs with...

Friday daydreamin’: My favourite city

TweetI started thinking about which city I would write about in joining the Friday daydreamin’ linky by R We There Yet Mom? and realised it’s a tricky question. How do you chose just one? I’ve had to rule out American cities — the ones I like the best also have such a personal connection that they have an unfair advantage. Besides, I’ve been lucky enough to visit some amazing places lately. It’s still a close call but at the top of the list for me right now is Kyoto. We went there during a whirlwind tour of Japan. I’m embarrassed to say we only slept there one night. But in that time we were introduced to some of the exceptional elements of life in Japan. Some of the best hospitality I’ve ever experienced We stayed at Hotel Kanra, which I would urge anyone visiting the city to book. When we checked in we mentioned that we’d love a recommendation for dinner. Tabita sat with us for a good 45 minutes going over options, calling restaurants and seeing if they had availability, then discussing the differences. Then it was up to the room. We stayed in a superior room, which featured a sitting area with tatami mats and a cypress Japanese bath. It was beautiful and serene. Food that makes eating dinner a transcendent experience That evening we went to Sakura, a kaiseki restaurant. They spoke almost no English — the wonderful Tabita at the hotel had arranged it all and prepped them for our arrival. After a taxi dropped us in the vicinity, we had a drink at a local bar…then the bartender thankfully walked us over to the entrance to the small road, not much more than an alleyway, down which stood Sakura. When we walked in they greeted us like old friends and ushered us to the bar seating area, where we could watch the staff work. Kaiseki focuses on the taste, appearance, and seasonality of the food, which is presented in small courses like a tasting menu, although that is an overly simplified explanation. Each dish set in front of us was exquisite in looks and taste. It makes Heston Blumenthal’s tantalizing creations seem like child’s play. While we sat at the bar, the owner came out and talked with us, pulling a young kitchen worker out — she’d spent a month in Australia — to act as translator. The atmosphere was convivial and humorous, with him telling us stories of how they prepared the food,...

Reviews: Four Seasons Toronto with kids

TweetYou’d be forgiven for thinking that the new Four Seasons Toronto hotel, opened in October 2012, would have gone the grand diva route that lets you know just how fabulous it is. After all, it’s the flagship hotel in the hometown for the entire Four Seasons chain, which itself is a collection of wish fulfillers and pampering providers in exotic locations the world over. And make no mistake, the 55-storey newly built tower is gorgeous with artistic flourishes. But when we visited, we discovered a hotel tha’s less about trying to impress, more about being your friend. Walk through the front doors and you’re immediately in a lounge area with practically regular-home proportions: sofas, flowers, coffee table. You’re in a space where the person, not the echoing space, is central. Around the corner is the big “wow” moment: a registration desk with dandelion sculptures floating overhead and screens that soar upwards. The dandelions are part of a motif throughout the hotel. There are also 1,700 works by Canadian artists are featured — a touch I really like. We stayed in room 1614, a suite that could easily house a family of four (including our growing teenager), with us in the ample bedroom and the kids on the sofabed. This room also connects to the one next door. That meant instead of sharing the sitting area, we could actually throw them in a separate room, where we could occasionally hear them rushing from room to room and cackling between themselves. Upon arrival they promptly made coffee for daddy with the in-room Nespresso machine (sadly, no George Clooney provided), clambered into their round bathtub (ours was a regular rectangle), tried out the in-room iPads and started devouring their edible welcome message from the hotel with their names spelled out on a dish along with candies and goodies. Throughout our stay, the staff really engaged with the kids. While we had a couples’ massage, the hotel had booked the kids in for a mocktail lesson with the bartender. When we met up afterwards for a swim they were full of advice on how to properly shake a cocktail, what’s a good garnish and their favourite drinks — virgin versions of classics like strawberry daiquiris with names they made up themselves. Start ’em young, I say. They love mixing fruit juice drinks at home and so were chuffed to have professional knowledge. A bonus for us: they wanted to visit the Daniel Boulud dBar lounge as frequently as we did. The spa, usually...

Silent Sunday

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Beautiful women who make you feel good

TweetOne of the people that I met on the #ONEMums trip to Ethiopia was the amazing Karen, who blogs at Chookooloonks. The site is hard to spell but beautiful to see. Karen had been on a previous #ONEMums trip and was the official photographer for our trip, so when we wanted to put down the camera or the phone and just concentrate on the stories of the people we were meeting, we could. Karen’s involved in seemingly 101 projects, but her core message is that everyone is beautiful and we should all find the beauty inside ourselves. It’s something I saw a lot of in Ethiopia. I was there with ONE, the campaigning organisation founded by Bono, to see the differences that our foreign aid actually makes on the ground with people who need it. We met women and children who were struggling to get enough to eat, to educate themselves, and to keep their families together. But through it all they were smiling and energetic. You could sit in a mud hut alongside some sheep and a meagre cooking area and feel joy. (Go to our #ONEMums Pinterest board to see some of the gorgeous folks we met.) Also, check out this video Karen made: one of the few videos of gorgeous women that actually makes you feel good about yourself. You can see the original on the Upworthy site.  ...

The Greatest Journey Meme

TweetI was tagged by Liz from The Mum Blog for the Greatest Journey Meme. Liz explains: I want to hear about your most memorable, incredibly journey so far – not just because of where you went but because of the emotional experience. Here’s my Greatest Journey: The two couples didn’t speak English but they gestured with their camera and my friend T stepped forward to take their picture at the Uluwatu Monkey Temple overlooking the ocean. Just as she snapped the shutter, a thin furry arm reached from the tree over one of the men’s shoulder, snatched his sunglasses off his nose. It was a split second, then the monkey retreated to a safe distance on the roof of an adjoining building, in accessible. We all laughed in surprise and the man made coaxing noises, until one of the other tourists said, “You have to give him peanuts,” available to buy in the temple. Sure enough, this monkey knew the score. The man tossed a peanut, which bumped over the surface of the roof. The monkey darted forward to claim it, at the same time carelessly tossing the sunglasses toward the man. He retrieved them and all of us laughed before saying goodbye in our respective languages. It was our first day in Bali and the trip turned out to be significant not only because of what I actually saw and experienced but also because of what I realised about travel. It was my first non-European holiday, the first time I invested “real” money to fly so far afield to a place so different from anyplace I’d been before. There were monkeys and jungle edging right up to civilisation. Small Hindu offerings stood outside practically every doorway and we donned sarongs to visit Balinese temples. We took pictures of chickens dyed pink and orange and children practicing traditional dance. We saw very poor people and wrestled with our role as “moneyed” tourists (although back home we struggled to pay rent and cover all our bills). We stayed in the most sumptuous hotels I’d ever seen (a perk of travelling with friends who were travel agents) and I recognised that staying in a luxury hotel is every bit as valid a way of travelling as renting a bargain basement room. (In Ubud, we stayed at the Begawan Giri, now the Como Shambhala Estate – which went a long way to helping me form this opinion.) I also learned these three very important lessons that have shaped my travel ever since:...

How does Disneyland maintain the magic for modern families?

TweetOn our recent visit to Disneyland Paris for the launch of the 20th anniversary celebrations, my 8-year-old and I were dazzled by all the spectacles that go along with the celebrations – from new costumes and choreography to a new evening light, music and, um, fire show. But it got me thinking about how a company like Disney keeps its gee-whiz, goodnatured, wholesome appeal going. After all, while Disneyland Paris is 20 years old this year, Walt Disney World Resort opened in 1971. Since then, not only has our love of polyester print shirts faded, but kids have become a lot more sophisticated – some might even say jaded. I have to admit that I was surprised at how wholeheartedly my daughter got into the Disneyland spirit – she loved meeting the characters, riding all the rides (even ones she deemed “too young” we rode on several times) and browsing the shops. Everything is clean and tidy, and all the employees have a level of chirpy friendliness that borders on manic, but in a good way. When I was a single, I used to roll my eyes a bit at Disney. “Haven’t we all moved past that?” I thought, as I tossed back cocktails and read important literature. People who hadn’t “moved past it” needed to wise up, I thought smugly. Now that I have children and have, y’know, actually visited a park, I understand the appeal. There are timeless characters, peppy singing and dancing — that gets me every time and I’m not kidding — dazzling displays and parades. You can tell that the company works hard to make it unlike the outside world. Of course there are things that I would like to see at Disneyland Paris. I wish the old-fashioned themed Main Street featured not just shops but old-fashioned-style businesses as well – a cobbler demonstrating the traditional way to make shoes, a mustachioed barber, maybe a blacksmith. Even without those things, the magic does endure at Disneyland. My daughter didn’t ask to play on the iPad once during our visit — she mainly fell into bed and immediately to sleep each night. At lunchtime, she wanted to discuss what we’d done and seen and plan our next move. We were there with some other Disney-philes of all ages and I realised that there’s nothing unsophisticated about getting excited about a family experience that’s unashamedly earnest. Plus, it turns out you can drink cocktails at Cafe Fantastia. Bring our own important literature. Below, I talked to...

Travel news: the only in-ocean scuba course for 8-year-olds

TweetI’ve written about (and loved) travel for years, so today I’m launching a new feature on my blog, Travel Fridays. I’m going to be writing about travel news and cool ideas for family travel. Look for regular posts every, er, Friday. For kids, learning to dive is a big leap, usually into an unglamorous cement swimming pool, to learn the basics. My stepson, who’s now mad for diving, took classes in the rather unglamorous surroundings of the local leisure centre pool. But now – for the first time –parents can get kids as young as 8 hooked on the idea of diving in classes in the Maldives that take place in an aquamarine sea, with fish darting around their feet. The Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru is the only resort in the world that has the waiver from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) for early in-water instruction for kids. Its new PADI Seal Team programme for children aged 8 to 12 teaches kids in the resort’s sheltered lagoon, giving them the basics they’ll need to become divers. (Seal Team instruction everywhere else takes place in a pool.) They learn navigation and search and recovery and go on “missions” set by the instructor. Children 10 and over can take part in a 3-hour taster session and ones 12 and over can take part in the PADI scuba diver certification program that includes two ocean dives and is credit toward open-water certification. It’s all part of the resort’s philosophy to both marine conservation and education – along with its sister property the Kuta Huru near Male) it has 12 marine biologists on staff – and also family-oriented activities. I met the General Manager Armando Kraenzlin in London not long ago where he talked excitedly about the Maldives being the only country in the world that has banned shark hunting and snorkelling lessons run by marine biologists so kids know what they’re seeing. “Diving has become a bit like skiing,” he said. “A diving family stays together and holidays together. It’s not just hitting the beach somewhere.” Although, of course, in the Maldives they have that too. Picture: www.padi.com...

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