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Rating the Family Travelling Experience

We are back at home and life goes on. It has been wonderful to reconnect with friends and family. We get to experience the things we missed (perogies, more than one change of clothes, toys) and the things we didn't miss (alarm clocks, schedules, housework). Almost everyone asks us what our favourite places were and each of us has a slightly different answer. Below are our list of the top three places we enjoyed the most:

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Neve
1) Sumatra
2) New Zealand
3) England

James
1) Australia
2) Sumatra
3) France

Arin
1) Sumatra
2) New Zealand
3) France

Simon
1) Sumatra
2) New Caledonia
3) Malaysia

But really, our entire year was full of wonderful experiences. 13 countries in all, and to put it another way, we didn't have a single negative experience - no sickness, no theft, no dangerous situations. Part of that was traveling to safe countries, hand washing and careful food choices, and choosing more cautious transportation methods. We still lived it up - ate at street vendors, hiked in jungle, swam in the ocean with sharks and jellyfish, and even managed to routinely cross four lanes of crazy traffic without aid of a crosswalk. Homeschooling was hard, but I would still recommend this type of travel for other families. Our kids were adored and pandered to everywhere. For Canadians with cold winters it was 10 years (or more) worth of winter vacations rolled into one, in places just too far to travel for a two week stint. It was also quality time together as a family that was so needed in our busy lives. Our children are better global citizens and definitely more confident. It is unlikely we'll make this exact type of trip happen again but for sure our family is going to keep travelling!

Posted by Arin MacDyer 09:40 Archived in Canada Tagged arin Comments (0)

A Year of Summer Ends in Iceland

all seasons in one day 15 °C

By Arin

Is it ironic to end a year of hot places in the chilliest destination yet? Maybe, but a free stopover on our way back home was too good to pass up!

My mom and I travelled separately from Simon and the kids. I thought travelling without the kids would be easier somehow, but they are so seasoned now that it is fairly effortless to travel along and sometimes they can act like pack monkeys and carry bags! Anyhow, my mom spent a busy four days touring as much of Iceland as we could. Tours lasted 10 to 12 hours and days on our own were packed with exploring Reykjavik, and we even managed a visit to the Blue Lagoon on our way to the airport.

We took a "Hot Golden Circle Tour" to see all the beautiful sights on the Golden Circle and finishing the day in a natural hot spring pool, relaxing the Viking way, before heading back to Reykjavik. If you haven't heard of the Golden Circle there are three impressive sights; Thingvellir, site of the World's first Parliament that met each year outdoors, beginning in 930 AD continuing until 1798; Gullfoss one of Europe's largest waterfalls; and the geothermal fields of Haukadalur to experience the original "Geyser" and the currently erupting geyser, Strokkur. The last stop was amazing, a hot spring natural bath which the locals named the Secret Lagoon because it was relatively unknown but recently renovated and opened to business. The use of geothermal energy for public pools, heating, and electricity was fascinating.

Our next tour was something special - it came with our Inspired B&B package and saw as bouncing along in a Range Rover exploring the glacier valleys and black sand beaches of the south coast. We saw two magnificent waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss a tall thin beauty of 73 meters and were able to walk right behind (so fun!) and Skogafoss, a 60 meter roaring giant with beautiful rainbows. At the black sand Reynisfjara Beach, Iceland´s southern most point, we marvelled at the basalt rock columns and couldn't get enough pictures. We also saw puffins, but not as many as the next day when we took a ferry out to a breeding bird island. We like seeing the glacier Gigjökull up close and learning about the Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption in 2010 that melted a hole through the glacier and caused all kinds of infrastructure damage, not to mention the suspension of air travel over Europe. The Icelanders are a clever bunch, the house pictured in front the eruption ash cloud trademarked the image and was paid every time their photo was used in the media!

We liked Reykjavik, bought a nice icelandic sweater from the Red Cross charity shop but really couldn't afford anything else. Food was so expensive in restaurants -$16 for soup, really!???! And our trip to the Blue Lagoon was not worth $60 euros. I think there is some tourist gauging going on...

For fellow Canadians, I'm not sure you should spend your time or money in Iceland. The landscape was very much a cross between the Arctic and Newfoundland and the weather was marginal to poor (and that is mid-summer!). Volcanic tourism was better in NZ or Hawaii. Travel to these places in Canada and save your cash and your summer vacation.

Addendum:

Simon and the kids travelled to Reykjavik in June and had similar experiences. Except I will note that they found that kids were treated very well - free food, headphones and blankets on the flights (adults had to pay for all that), free entry into the Blue Lagoon, and coach tours were generally free for children. They loved the public hot pools and were happy to dine on $5 hotdogs and food packed in from England for the week.

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Posted by Arin MacDyer 08:46 Archived in Iceland Tagged arin Comments (0)

To Spain and back again...

sunny 25 °C

We've been weaving back and forth between France and Spain along the Pyrenees. To cross the mountains we either drove over or under. One tunnel was over 5 km long and the snowy mountain passes were topped with ski hills (our first snow in a year!). The scenery was spectacular and we were glad that pretty much stumbled into this part of France.

Simon, as is his thrifty nature, found a camping discount card online that gave 50% off hundreds of European camp sites in the shoulder seasons. We stayed for 15€ to 25€ a night plus perks next to some amazing attractions. The campground in Barcelona provided a free bus into the city center, a shop to buy fresh baguette and a petting zoo. The campground in Ax Les Thermes was a short, pleasant walk along the river to yet another quaint town. It was set up for tourists with a gondola that went from the town up to an area of three ski hills. It is famous for its hotsprings but we couldn't go into the posh thermal baths because they didn't allow men to wear loose shorts, only tight speedos. I think its a weird french hygiene thing because we saw the notices posted at other swimming pools. In the village we had a rare meal out and resisted the temptation to have raclette, because not only was it expensive but so unhealthy, the cheese wedge they melted onto potatoes was the size of James' head! But we all had delicious three course meals and once again the wine was cheaper than water (1.50€ per glass). Campgrounds here are a legitimate tourist draw, many have waterparks and other fun activities. They are well-supported by the community, one had a bar that catered to campers (see below). We quite enjoyed camping except that doing schoolwork and eating were a bit tricky as most of the campgrounds expected you to bring your own picnic table. We got tired of sitting on the ground so for the last week we rented another bargain gite near the town of Oloron-Ste-Marie. We were deep in the country-side tucked up next to the mountains but still got fresh baguette delivered to us every morning :)

As we drove through both countries the evidence of warfare between the two was quite obvious - castles and lookout towers perched on each peak. We hiked up to one in France that was famous because it held up to a nine month siege (Montsegur, if you are curious). The hiking was really good in this region, lots of trails and we were able to drive right up to the alpine. On our hikes we saw an isard, european vultures, a super worm, and many hawks circling in their mating dance. Mqost of the other native wildlife we saw in zoos. We stopped at the Parc D'Ours thinking it was a bear sanctuary (this is one of only two places to find brown bears in europe) but it was a small zoo with four grizzly bears in a large enclosure and a collection of the native ungulates In enclosures you could stroll through. Nice, but we are nearing our threshold for visits to zoos.

That said, our final day in France was spent at Zoo La Fleche. Remember how we let James and Neve watch lots of french TV in order to practice their french? Well, their favourite show was a reality show filmed at Zoo La Fleche detailing the lives of the zoos animals and their keepers. We offered them EuroDisney but they both wanted to go and see the stars of the TV show. It was a great experience! Sealion, parrot and raptor shows combined with some unusual and exotic animals. Neve was thriled to get autgraphs from her favourite keepers. The next day we said a fond farewell to France and boarded the Eurostar in Paris, excited to be on our way to England.
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Posted by Arin MacDyer 11:46 Archived in Spain Tagged arin Comments (0)

Getting Fat in France

semi-overcast 18 °C

We've chased the good weather to the south of France and are nestled into a little gite in the garden of a vineyard.We are surrounded by vineyards, a few smalll wheat fields and a peach orchard yet are only a ten minute walk from the town of Pezenas. Exciting news, Neve has learned to ride a bike! So in reward for doing her schoolwork we've been on long rides throughout the countyside. James has not forgotten his french and has been putting on his best accent to order crepes in town, buy food and spices from the market, and talk to people we meet on our outings.

We are certainly enjoying the food and wine in France. The bad weather in the north encouraged long brasserie lunches, three delicious courses spread over two hours. Before Al Mac and Cindy left we a particularly memorable meal on a patio in the heart of the medieval city of Carcassonne-the starter salad was chicken gizzards on top of lettuce, duck cassoulet, and crepes with creme for dessert. Yum. There are picnic spots everywhere so now that spring has arrived we bring our baguette and stinky cheeses every time we leave the house. I am so happy to be having fresh Pain au Chocolat with my morning coffee. Simon can't leave the grocery store without Creme Caramel desserts in the cart. We've tried fantastic local wines and can't believe the quality for less than 5 euros a bottle. But don't worry too much for our health, the fresh produce is also fantastic and way cheaper than we expected it to be.

We've spent a fair bit of time catching up on schoolwork but each day have headed to a different highlight in the region. Pezenas itself has been really lovely to walk through with its 16th century buildings filled with artists and other quaint shops - no tourist crap here! The Saturday market was nearly as lively and interesting as those in asia. I've discovered a love of ornate doors and have found kindred spirits here who collect and display doors in a museum, free for everyone. Pezenas is noted for its sweet/savoury petite pies and berlingot, which are handmade boiled candies. We biked over to the factory and got to watch them make a batch of lemon candies, samples gratuis...

Its not far to the Mediterranean so we spent an afternoon birdwatching along the coastal salt marshes and were thrilled to spot wild flamingoes. In the other direction we drove the Cirque de Navacelles, a large canyon with (of course) a village built at the very bottom of it. In that range of hills there are hundreds of caves carved out of limestone and we toured a very grand one called the Grottes de Demoiselles. Because it is very low season for tourists we had a privite tour and got to hear music in the central cavern called the cathedral. It was huge and had amazing stalactites and stalagmites. The acoustics are so good that they hold church ceremonies and classical concerts here regularly. This region has some really interesting roman relics in betwen a market and a long lunch (ha ha) we were able to check out an underground warehouse built 2000 years ago to store wine and oils. It was a museum, but could still be used today it was so well crafted. The exposed stones on the ancient roman superhighway that runs through Norbonne were good too.

Its Easter and for Albertans used to mostly snow still on the ground, or brown at best, it is post-card spring outside. Daffodils and irises are in bloom, the trees are budding or are full of blossoms, baby lambs in the fields, and we even got to do an egg hunt outdoors today. Neve paid her allowance for the privilege of walking a lamb on a leash, James learned how to steer a go-cart down a hill. Chocolate eggs are really tasty here...Life is good.

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Posted by Arin MacDyer 12:35 Archived in France Tagged food arin Comments (5)

Last impressions of South East Asia

overcast 35 °C

We are on our final few days here in Thailand and will soon be flying onto France. Our two months travelling through parts of Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand have really been a dream come true for me as i've always wanted to experience this part of the world. Culturally and linguistically it was the most different for the kids and hopefully will be remembered as a meaningful experience.

One night we sat down at dinner over a bowl of green curry and made a list, all four of us, of our favourite things in SE Asia. The kids loved the night markets and shopping for souvenirs. Snakes, and particularly the snake-man in Indonesia, made the top ten. We really really enjoyed our time at Bukit Lawang - the river, wild orangutans and macaques, and EcoTravel Cottages was definitely the nicest accommodation we stayed in. Travelling in Tuk Tuks in Siem Reap and visiting Angkor Wat was special, it is truly a wonder of the world. The Escape adventure centre in Malaysia was so much fun. Simon loved playing afternoon football in the park with the local men. I loved seeing orchids everywhere we went in Thailand. The food was wonderful in each of the countries (although James ate mostly spaghetti and Neve prefers white rice with ketchup), but we really liked dining on the beach in Ko Samet with the waves lapping at our feet under the table. Fresh pineapple shakes were only slightly more expensivve than water and beer actually cost less than water. Everywhere we've travelled people have been kind and friendly, especially to the kids.

Not everything was perfect, we were bothered by the pervasive air pollution in all of the countries. Probably a result of slash and burn practices and large numbers of motorbikes creating choking exhaust. The old white men hanging out withThai "bargirls" gave me the creeps. Elephants are revered in Thailand yet there are few left in the wild and the rest suffer the indignity of performing for tourists day in, day out. We wish all of the national parks we visited didn't have such denuded nature. We are definitely "templed-out", we've seen big grand ones to small shrines tucked into city sidewalks and even ones in the woods by the side of the road.

Some photos from our last couple of days in Thailand and the most beautiful waterfall ever (according to James). Look for him on the suspension bridge!

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Posted by Arin MacDyer 05:02 Archived in Thailand Tagged arin Comments (2)

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