Posts Tagged ‘travel with children’

9 rules for swimming off (almost) every beach in St Thomas in a day (or die trying)

Rule 1 – Get up early
If you roll out of bed at midday, you are not going to see many beaches. Wake your children and wife early and wake them often. Remove all sheets and duvets. Use threats to make them move, eg If you don’t get out of bed now, we will have to eat Subway for lunch rather than a fish restaurant with exceptional views across a bay. NB This threat works better on one’s wife rather than one’s children. Also, another threat that doesn’t work is to tell your younger daughter that if she doesn’t get into the bathroom before her sister, she will have to wait a long time.

Rule 2 – Rent a car
You can take taxis, but it will cost you more and take longer. There are so many cruise ships that dock at St Thomas, you have to book a rental (hire) car months before. We used Avis. There appears to be no correlation between your booking of an Avis rental car and its availability. In Dominica, we learnt that a reservation of a rental car did not necessarily mean that a car was reserved (?). We got to the Avis office as it opened. The lady looked shocked to see us. She immediately was on the phone to her boss. “I have 9 reservations and no cars. What do you recommend?” We were fortunate that a car (double upgrade) was returned as we waited. All the other families that hadn’t followed rule 1 were probably less fortunate.

Rule 3 – Travel around the island in some logical order
We went anti-clockwise or (counter-clockwise as I now must call it). You can criss-cross the island, but the roads are narrow and the traffic jams can be significant.

Rule 4 – Enjoy the beaches but move on quickly if something isn’t right.
Our first beach, Morning Star, was only a couple of miles from Charlotte Amalie. It’s also known as Frenchman’s Bay Beach and is surrounded by Marriott properties. We thought the beach was too narrow and the backdrop too built up and moved on quickly. Vessup Bay suffered a similar fate later.

Rule 5 – Be very picky about the characteristics of a great beach
Our second beach, Bolongo Bay, had lots of great things. Lots of water toys, great view out to sea. Also, any beach with iguanas is a very good beach in my view. However, there was only a single iguana on the beach….and in St Croix (Manchenil beach), a pair of iguanas walked two feet away from where we were sunbathing. Also, the water was a bit too cloudy for snorkelling. We did like the free wifi for Nancy to play with her new iPhone and another iguana who was drinking from the swimming pool.


Rule 6 – Some beaches are hard to find
Secret cove is well named.

Rule 7 – Children doing something for the first time will delay you
After years of resisting snorkelling, Nancy decided to give it a try. Who can blame her? Coki Point is excellent for snorkelling. The water is incredibly clear and you swim amongst thousands of fish. They also sell dog biscuits on the beach to entice the fish to you. You will soon have a hundred or more fish nibbling off your dog biscuit. Coki Point is not a perfect beach; for two things, it’s very difficult to park and there are too many people on the sand and in the water. There are lots of independent vendors on and around the beach. Nancy had her hair braided on this beach a few years ago and I can still remember the screams.



Rule 8 – You will end up eating in Subway anyway
We couldn’t get Nancy out of the water and we were running out of time.

Rule 9 – Make sure your last beach is the best beach
Magens Bay was meant to be the penultimate beach. We love Magens Bay (see pictures below) and it regularly appears in the top beaches around the world. There is an extreme difficulty in getting the family to move from this beach. You have to pay an admission charge ($4 per adult, but free for children if you pretend they are younger than they are), but this keeps the crowds manageable. The water at Magen’s Bay was crystal clear; the sand white and fine; the temperature in December ideal; and the wildlife magnificent. Tilly and Nancy were playing an aquatic version of American Football in the water (which seemed to be mainly an excuse for jumping on boys). The upshot of all of this was that we never made our final beach, Brewer’s Bay.



Flying to Culebra

We decided to fly from San Juan, Puerto Rico to the beautiful island of Culebra on Vieques Air Link (VAL).

Weight seemed to be extremely important for the check in process. Every bag was measured very carefully and we were all asked for our own weight. Lorna severely underestimated her own weight, no doubt the result of the cruise we had recently been on. It was somewhat unseemly to have to step onto the machine that weighed one’s luggage.

Security was less rigorous than we were used from TSA at Atlanta airport. There was no taking off of shoes, removal of iPads, disposal of liquids, or indeed screening of luggage. It was however very friendly. The announcer called passengers by Christian name.

Nancy was extremely keen to have a window seat, something that was easy to accommodate in the 8 person, 4 row plane.


Seat assignments were by weight with Lorna and I on opposite sides of the plane. One lucky passenger was chosen for the co-pilot seat. I’m not entirely sure about her level of training for the role. As the pilot on this airline was only qualified to fly during daylight hours, I’m sure she wasn’t too under qualified. A two step ladder was placed on the ground to help us embark.

I read the emergency briefing details carefully (printed in Benbridge, Isle of Wight, England). I noted the first instruction: “Locate the emergency exit”. It was by my right knee and labeled by Dymo-label “emergency exit”. As it was the only door, it was pretty easy to find. Furthermore, if I moved my right knee I could move the door from locked to closed and then to open.


We were soon flying above San Juan and then the ocean. As you can see, the views from 115 metres up (I could see the altimeter) were compelling. The breeze from the propellers was refreshing and it was only a matter of time before Lorna volunteered to do a spot of wing walking.


The landing was smooth. One week in to our holiday (vacation), I felt our trip was beginning.

Balboa Island

Usually on the second stop of a holiday, Lorna lowers the pace of the holiday and we stop at a beach or a lake. This time, she has chosen an island off Newport Beach called Balboa Island.


Balboa Island is a high density, low rise community of cute houses. The harbour is crammed full of boats and the streets full of cake shops and ice cream/frozen banana parlours. It’s extremely kid-friendly, with hundreds of kids riding bikes and attending Junior Lifeguard camp dressed in a uniform of yellow tops and red shorts.

Lorna wants to retire here. From what, I don’t know. In any case, I’m not sure she has yet appreciated the price of houses here (just a shade below those of Lower Manhattan). The truth is that we would need a big lottery win to afford anything.

So what have we done? Tilly has spent beach time with two different friends from camp. The beaches here are as good as elsewhere on the California coast. We went surfing yesterday, but the surf was strong and broke too close to the shore. Instead we watched five big guys play in the surf and soon developed the game of human ten pin bowling to see how many would be left standing after the wave hit them. It was usually none. Often, the wave would knock them all over, they would stand up and then the undertow would knock them over again on the way back.

The island has a ferry over to the beach-fringed Balboa peninsula. $2 per car and $1 per human or bicycle.


We also went sailing in the harbour area with Tilly mainly at helm yesterday. Again there were shoals of summer camp children in pico sailing boats darting in and out of much larger (and more expensive) vessels

Every night the kids cycle to the town centre and we have an ice cream at one of the many ice cream and frozen banana parlours (NB Arrested Development is set on the island). The lines are long but the customers happy


Southern California

LA is often depicted as the home to movies, celebrities and beaches. I apologise in advance, but you won’t get a different viewpoint from this blog.


It won’t surprise regular readers to learn that we have been to plenty of movies since we’ve arrived in California. We now only have the very long Man of Steel unseen, and it will have to be a very wet day before this happens.

Every region of the world “goes to the movies” in a slightly different way. In Hong Kong, the main attraction starts exactly on time; therefore, unlike the UK, you shouldn’t stroll in 30 minutes after the advertised time expecting to catch the beginning … unless it’s a Michael Bay film (when it won’t make the slightest difference to your understanding of the narrative). They sell very different food in HK too (puff balls, marinated meat on sticks). In North Africa, there is a kind of audience participation with the silver screen and food sellers patrol the aisles. Not the place to watch a sensitive exploration of Alzheimer’s, but would likely improve a Christopher Columbus film. In the UK, there are often many advertisements for nearby Indian restaurants. And somewhere else that I can no longer remember, they always had a break in the movie to allow people to buy food. This break happened at a predetermined time which could be in the middle of an action scene, emotional piece of dialogue or even joke.

The main difference in LA is that the movie audience stays for the credits at the end and they leap into applause or exultation when the name of someone they know appears on screen. With 125,000 people employed directly in the cinema and TV business at any one time and hundreds of thousands of others aspiring to work in the business, I guess it’s not surprising that you want to see exactly who was Best Boy Grip or Second Assistant Director.

We also took a Warner Brothers VIP studio tour. There wasn’t much VIP about the tour as they seemed to let you attend provided that you paid them the requisite amount of money. Almost all movies are now filmed on location, but it was great to see the backdrops for so many of my favourite films. The studio lot is now used predominantly for TV shows, and the sound stages were set up for all sorts of current TV programmes. We saw Ellen, Suburgatory and Big Bang Theory. Typically, there are 3 main sets and a number of side sets that they bring in for occasional use. So, for Big Bang Theory, the three main sets are Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment, the Elevator space and Penny’s apartment and these are set up in line with each other. As the show has become more established, they have brought in side sets for Walowitz’s house, Cheesecake Factory and University. Comedies are invariably filmed in front of a live audience to improve the performance of the actors, and jokes that don’t work are hastily rewritten until they do.



We did a very half-hearted self-drive tour of Stars’ houses in LA. We had bought a map from a vending machine that showed who lives/lived where and we drove through some of Beverly Hills and Hollywood Hills. It’s quite a good way of seeing different neighbourhoods, but your chance of seeing a star is extremely low as all the houses with stars in them have very high walls and gates. Large numbers of buses tour the area and an even larger number of passengers eagerly take pictures of Stars’ gates. When they get home and are showing slides of their recent trip to friends and neighbours, I very much doubt whether they will be able to distinguish Michael Jackson’s gate from Aaron Spelling’s.

It is said that you are more likely to see a celebrity in a movie line or at a restaurant. This may be true, but my ability to recognise stars out of context is about on a par with, say, Lorna’s ability to spot an error in a single particle, non-relativistic Schrödinger equation.


My favourite part of LA and environs are the beaches. As Tilly pointed out (and Mr Wilson and Mr Love before her), the girls here are different from elsewhere on the planet. Long sun-bleached hair on stick like brown as berry bodies. We couldn’t go to all of the beaches, but here is a summary of those beaches we did visit:

Paradise Cove, Malibu. Best reason to come here was the restaurant on the beach (excellent). Nancy and I jumped the waves for a couple of hours while Lorna and Tilly perfected their tans. For older readers, Paradise Cove is where Rockford Files was filmed. Also filmed here were Lethal Weapon 4, American Pie 2, Charlie’s Angels, Indecent Proposal, Baywatch, Happy Days and thousands of other productions.


I strongly suggest that you watch the parking charges. It costs $40 for four hours’ parking unless you eat at the restaurant (which you need to book beforehand).

Manhattan Beach. Home to business men and athletes, lots here are almost twice the price of Bel Air (half an acre of land on the Strand will set you back about $35m). It’s a very long and deep beach with a factory at either end. It has a great pier and has outstanding surfing and beach volleyball. We all went boogie boarding in the fairly strong surf. Manhattan Beach has featured in 2012, Against All Odds, CSI, Hannah Montana, Jerry Maguire, The O.C, Point Break and 90210.


Venice beach. This was Nancy’s favourite. A cooler crowd hang out here: skateboarders, tattooists, in-line skaters, cyclists, politically activists, body builders, yoga enthusiasts, and macro-biotic vegetarians. Beach is very deep and perfect. There’s also homelessness and strong signs of drug culture. But if you are homeless, why would you live in a crappy area of town? Films set here include Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Double Indemnity, Falling Down, Fletch, Grease, The Net, Sea Biscuit amongst hundreds of others.

Santa Monica. We walked along Venice beach to Santa Monica pier. While the kids did the roller coasters, Lorna and I went on the big wheel and surveyed the whole area from up high. Movies filmed here include: Heathers, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, 17 Again, Species, Get Shorty, Ocean’s Eleven, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, The Sting, Ruthless People, Beverly Hills Cop III, Forrest Gump, Iron Man and Speed.

In case you want culture, the Getty Centre and Getty Villa are relatively nearby. Both free, except for $15 parking fee.


Los Angeles

The only way to do Southern California is in a convertible with the Beach Boys singing their melodies. Unfortunately, they would only squabble in the back seat of our small rented Mustang and so we are making do with their music on the stereo.

Our girls weren’t too impressed with the open top experience. It plays havoc with their hair and they have to sit on any loose paper in more cramped conditions than usual. Most importantly, Lorna and I have selected image and coolness in exchange for practicalities, and that – unquestionably – is the teenager’s role in society.

After years of underinvestment in their infrastructure, California’s, or at least LA’s, roads are in very poor condition. Cracks and holes are everywhere, and one wonders if a 4×4 might have been more appropriate. I can hear former California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, driving in our rental car and amending his catchphrase to say “Oh my back”

On the first evening, we took the girls to the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Mann’s Chinese Theatre. I hadn’t been to LA since the early 90s, and so had missed Mann’s bankruptcy in 2000 and the later purchase of the naming rights this year by Chinese electronics corporation TCL. This area seemed pretty squalid to us in 1993, and the arrival of Madame Tussaud’s and Ripley’s “Believe it or not” has not conspicuously brought it up market. Nevertheless, we had a fairly decent Chinese meal.

Some people are highly dismissive of the City of Angels: pollution; the traffic; and the way that some of its residents think differently from the rest of the planet. But I love cinema (or movies as I now need to call them), so I can forgive it a lot.

There’s much to like too:-
– Palm trees everywhere against the backdrop of an always blue sky
– The evocative feeling that one gets when one is driving on LA roads: Sunset Boulevard, Mullholland Drive; Santa Monica Boulevard, Avenue of the Stars
– Low rise buildings, many of Spanish influence in hues of terracotta and off-white
– Beaches. Hundreds of them
– Great food and thousands of restaurants
– Some pretty cool things to see and do (Getty Museum, Santa Monica pier, Venice Beach, Disney, Film Studios, Beverly Hills….)

I was a little dubious when Lorna said that we would stay in a Best Western. I’ve stayed in a few in my travels and their “independently owned and operated franchise” model has meant that the quality can vary somewhat. But Lorna found a gem of hotel. Right on Sunset Boulevard, it’s actually really quiet and our room backs onto the swimming pool and courtyard.


Bluebell’s transatlantic adventure

Today we have a guest blog from Bluebell The Dog.


They leave me for 8 months while they swan off to Hong Kong, and then come back into my life last week. They tear me from a nice seaside town in Devon where everyone knows me and the butcher gives me a daily meaty snack and take me to a hot wet place in a big forest in The South of a place called America. Oh well, it’s a dog’s life.

What a day I had yesterday. After a weekend at a dog camp, I was bundled into a prison crate and taken to the nearby airport. There were hundreds of people to look at and lots of luggage to sniff at. One human didn’t seem to be at all pleased that I beat him at the game “Hide the Cocaine”, though there were some other humans dressed alike who appreciated my victory.

I had selected a window crate on the plane. A sexy poodle had told us what to do in the event of a crash landing (howl like mad) and where the exits were (outside the locked crate unfortunately). Trixie, the poodle hostess, then provided some dog snacks. She then said that somebody had ordered me a senior doggie meal. I don’t know how that mistake was made, but I hope it’s corrected for the second flight. NB it wasn’t because – “due to customer choice” – you have to pay for food and beverage on internal flights!).

The flight was long and the view faintly monotonous. The clouds looked good to start with, but once you’ve seen one inside of a pillow, you’ve seen them all. The on-board movies were good. I watched 101 Dalmatians, Beethoven and a classic Lassie movie. The last film reminded me that I probably should have told someone about that boy that I left down the mineshaft.

Changing at Chicago O’Hare airport was tough. The queues (sorry, lines) at immigration were long. A guard dog asked me what my reason for entering the USA were and whether I planned to bite the President’s dog. I then had to pick up my bowls and blankets from a baggage carousel (didn’t see any horses for the kids to ride on) and clear customs. They asked if I had been near livestock recently, but i didn’t tell them about chasing and eating those chickens the other day.

Of course, the connecting plane was in a different terminal. It was quite a long walk but I left my scent at every food joint along the way. The customers at Panda Express seemed to think it was a considerable improvement.

The Dog Lounge was excellent actually. As many snacks and drinks as you wanted, free whining and some space with other pedigree dogs away from all those mongrels, cats and guinea pigs.

With doggy passport and ticket in mouth, I then got on another flight to a place called Atlanta in Georgia. It turns out that I’m collecting frequent flier miles which can be redeemed for free flights in the future. This confused me; people actually choose to fly on these planes?

After hours of delay at 1am, he finally picks me up from Cargo, a kind of reception centre for VIPs. He’s got a new car with a sliding side door. I got a great view between the two front seats out of the front window. Atlanta appears to be mainly trees and neon.

The house they have is in the middle of a forest and is quite scary. There are lots of noises outside that I have never heard of before. On the positive side, they have a river at the bottom of their garden (sorry, yard).



A cruise in Halong Bay

Vietnam is a long way off being able to compete genuinely with China. The labour may be cheaper, but the transport and port infrastructure is far below that of China. It’s not many miles from Ha Noi to Ha Long Bay (95 miles), but it is a four hour drive. We did our journey there in the driving rain in a minibus full of South Africans who spent the whole journey discussing the price of everything they had ever consumed (and they weren’t young). Despite this backpacking tedium, there was a lot to see outside of the minibus: factories; lots of people; livestock; street hairdressers; and food to name just a few things.

Our destination was Ha Long Bay, a Unesco World heritage site. Essentially, this is is a x km2 body of sea filled with Karsts, conical-shaped mini-mountains protruding from water. Traditionally, its population is of fishermen who live on floating villages. The bigger population is now from travellers taking mini cruises. It has not (yet) been ruined however and this place definitely merits its Unesco status.

Lorna booked a one night cruise on a high class junk in the less frequented area of the Bay. I think there is a two night cruise you can book and I wish we had. We had two cabins, beautifully set out with most of the luxuries you would expect. The meals were a particular highlight. There were too many courses to count; the food was excellent and they even accommodated my dietary peculiarities.

But we came for the scenery. The weather had transformed itself from monsoon to sun. The view from the sun deck was exceptional and endless.


We stopped at a karst island and kayaked around some other nearby islands. The girls learned something about teamwork from kayaking together. Lorna and I renewed our Zambezi kayaking experience. The sea was flat and the kayaking easy.


We spent some time on the beach; it was also lovely. We visited some caves. We have a high threshold on caves, which was not met by these largely stalactite-less caverns. We visited a fishing village. It seemed traditional. Dogs and children lazed away their lives.

Should you make this trip? Absolutely. Book it today.

On the way back to Ha Noi, we broke the journey for 3.5 hours by visiting a Vietnamese village. They didn’t really have all of the elements of this sidetrip right yet. We marched around the farming area of this village for over an hour in the summer heat. Our guide regularly – certainly every 60 seconds or so – asked us if we knew what a particular plant, fruit or berry was. We played the game for 15 minutes or so before realising that the questions were rhetorical. He was going to tell us anyway.

We spent some time with an old guy who had plastered his family tree on the wall of his very decorative house. I’m not much interested in my own family tree (OK, not at all interested), but it is amazing how low this interest could go with someone else’s tree.

The best part of the trip was the traditional singing from a villager. It was great, but – judging from the interest from the local youth on their bikes who periodically stopped by to see what was happening – it was already dying here too. If I were a Vietnamese villager, I would be leaving for Hanoi (see previous blog).