My favorite family travel experiences – Part I

February 13, 2010 at 2:28 am

We’ve been fortunate to travel quite far and wide – six continents (still working on Antarctica…) with our kids over the last 16 years. It’s been hectic, fun, exciting, rewarding, challenging and I wouldn’t change it for anything. So when someone asked me recently what were my best family travel experiences and memories, it got me thinking. Here they are then, in no particular order, and with apologies only to myself for the countless great things I’ve forgotten to include.

1. Volcan Pacaya, Guatemala, 2008 : Probably the most thrilling day adventure we’ve shared. First a gruelling hike up the mountain in a torrential downpour, then a further hike across the lava field to the lava flows, helping Benjy, then 10, across the rocks. You don’t want to fall there, as the rocks are so sharp you’d be horribly cut up. And then to the flows themselves, no guards around to protect you from your own foolishness, roasting marshmallows, sneakers turning to plastic.  We arrived there soaking from a downpour, and left dry and almost fried. And still time to get lost in the fog on the way back and trekking down the mountain in sheer darkness. Unforgettable, incredible.

Tasting marshmallows on Pacaya

That is real lava burning

Finding a warm spot for cooking

As hot and close as it looks !

2. Learning Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala, 2008 and Cartagena, Colombia, 2009. In Antigua it was the whole family. We’d walk to school together, then after class the kids would either walk over to the huge local market or sit at the computer. During break, Liora and I would stroll into town for coffee. In the afternoons we’d go over to Cafe Condessa, our very favorite place in Antigua, and do our homework together. Wonderful family memories.

our 3 kids (back to camera) heading to Cafe Condessa, our very favorite coffee hangout

Main square Antigua, as seen from Cafe Condessa

In Cartagena, it was only the 2 of us and Benjy. He and I were in our own private class – how often do you get the chance to be in a class with only your 11 year old ? We’d meet up for lunch afterwards, go to the GCB (Getsemani Cafe Bar) for the incredible value lunch, discuss the class especially how our teacher kept calling Benjy ‘Reggie’  – do you say something ? – and try another of the fantastic Cartagena fruit drinks. At night, we’d do our homework together at some outdoor restaurant in a plaza under the lights and stars of this magical place. Wonderful !

One of Cartagena’s many squares, perfect for dinner and homework

Benjy getting ready for homework

3. Multi Generational FA Cup Final, May 2009 : Only those very close to us could possibly appreciate how significant this trip was – my dad had not been well and was reluctant to join us but the pull of his sons and grandson was too much of a magnet. It was a day full of joy, excitement and passion, forever etched in our collective memories. Unforgettable

Chelsea magic

More valuable than any amount of money

A great end to our fantastic day

4. Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand, 2008. Liora, myself and the boys left our B&B at 5.15 to get the bus for this adventure. Once there, we spent 6 1/2 hours conquering this 10 mile hike, considered the best one day hike in NZ (and that’s saying something in a country with the most spectacular hiking). Climbing, traversing, hiking, running, losing our footing, eye to eye with Mount Doom, then racing towards the finish, just an amazing day.

Mount Doom

Almost done

5. Halong Bay, Vietnam. Another wonderful family adventure. There is so much about this experience that makes it special for our family, and I would presume for most families. And to think I was concerned the kids would not want to stay on the boat ! Overnighting on the junk, jumping into the bay from the boat, swimming, exploring, seeing a little piece of local culture and lifestyle all combined to make this a memorable family trip.

Beach break at Halong Bay

Halong Bay scene

Shopping in the Bay

6. Zorbing, Rotarua, New Zealand  If you’re taking life a little too seriously and have forgotten what it’s like to laugh uncontrollably, try zorbing. Feel what it’s like to be a giant hamster, getting splashed while you roll downhill. It’s hard to see what all the fuss is about until you try it, and then you’ll treasure the memory. It’s just a laugh out loud, hysterical, weird experience !

Zorbing down the hill

7. Skeiding Ostrich Guest farm, South Africa

Some places are just perfect for families with small children as we were in 2000. What can you say about a Guest Farm with endless space, sheep dogs running around, drives to check on the ostriches, and the best South African food you can imagine ? (I won’t even try describe it, but it remains some of the best meals I’ve ever had). All under beautiful South African summer skies made for 2 very memorable stays.

8. Local markets, virtually everywhere

If there’s one thing besides beaches that our family loves without exception, it’s local, indigenous markets. We have found them to be exciting, interesting and safe. and if it’s not in the West, usually pretty cheap too. Most of all, these markets are not designed for us, the tourists. They’re marketplaces for the local and often surrounding communities, and we are mere guests.

We’ve been to so many that it’s hard to single any out, but three come to mind.

i. The streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Strictly speaking this is no market, just streets filled with market type wares. We did go to one busy covered market in Hanoi, but far more interesting and entertaining is the street and sidewalk life that might as well be one giant huge market. It’s quite a challenging exercise too, as you cannot step off the sidewalk for a split second in fear of being run down by a motorbike (maybe more of a perceived than real threat, but the motorbike scene in Hanoi is like no other traffic I’ve ever seen), but the sidewalks are crammed with all sorts of folks peddling different wares, setting up restaurants with kindergarten style tables and chairs, and general mayhem everywhere. It’s huge fun, and with a few dollars and some hard bargaining (my kids are much better than me at this), a lot of great deals are waiting. Great experience.

Typical Hanoi street scene

Our kids, taking it all in on Hanoi’s streets

ii. Oaxaca/Tlacolula  At the time we visited, these were far and away the most authentic local markets we’d ever seen. Partly this is because, compared with a lot of other destinations in Mexico (Caribbean coast, Pacific Coast, Baja, San Miguel de Allende), this area is not very touristy. There’s very little English and a genuine feel of real life. Oaxaca has a classic Saturday indoor market, vast and sprawling selling just about anything and with the worst public toilets you can imagine (unless you’ve traveled a lot in which case you may not have to imagine that hard); Tlacolula is about 20 miles from Oaxaca, and the whole town becomes a market on Sundays. it is huge and spectacular. Again, they sell everything to anyone who comes, and apparently they come from all the communities around to shop, sell and visit. There’s a strong Indian flavor, and thew whole thing is exotic, colorful and quite tasty (I tasted grasshoppers, which in a bun weren’t too bad). Altogether a really vivid, real market town.

Actually in the Oaxaca zocalo, outside the market

petting pinyatas

Market scene, Tlacolula

vegetables and fruit, Tlacolula

Preparing grasshoppers for lunch

iii. Solala, Guatemala

If you know Guatemala, you’re  probably wondering why not Chichi (Chichicastenango), the massive twice weekly markets which are the biggest in Central America. Chichi is incredible but there are a lot of tourists and tourist buses, and the feel is not quite 100% authentic. To me, Solala’s Friday market is the mother of all local markets. It is by and for the locals. I spotted 1 group of foreigners, us. It is an amazing, mesmeric  spectacle of color (Aldous Huxley called it a ‘ walking museum of fancy dress’), with just about anything on sale and everyone dressed in their Friday best which in  these parts is simply amazing. Just a phenomenal cultural experience.

On the way to Solala

Friday market, Solala

Benjy making sense of it all

Market scene

Friday talk