Friday, April 27, 2012

Sigh. No European River Cruising for us. Yet!

In my 30s, most of my European travels were on two wheels.  I loved the freedom to explore all the small villages and stop whenever I wanted.  I have enjoyed island-hopping in Denmark, beautiful towns in the Czech Republic and eaten more cakes and pastries than I care to admit in Austria.  Thank goodness I covered enough distance to work those off!

I must admit, now that I'm older and with a toddler-in-tow, I am not quite as gung ho on independent bike touring.  Plenty of families do it and have a great time, but honestly, I am feeling less ambitious these days and am looking for more relaxation on vacation.  I love Europe and a river cruise sounds like a good trade-off.  The ability to discover a new place each day (and most river cruises have bikes available for use), without having to pack and unpack numerous times or live out of a panier. 

Traveling so much with B, I am starting to feel as if there are no limits (bike touring aside) to the places we can travel with him.  So I was a little surprised to find traditional river cruising off the table.  Here are four of the largest and longest-running European river cruise companies, and the minimum ages for travel:

AMAWaterways - 4 years and up
Avalon Waterways - 8 years and up
Uniworld - 4 years and up
Viking River Cruises - 8 years and up

I guess I shouldn't really be surprised... the traditional demographic of river cruisers tends to be empty-nesters and seniors, and they probably don't want to be surrounded by a bunch of noisy kids.  Frankly neither do I.  I should also note that none of these lines caters to kids, so if child care, kids meals and kid-specific activities are on your agenda, it would be best to steer towards more traditional cruises.  Another thing to keep in mind if you are considering a European river cruise, is none of these companies allow more than two people in a cabin.  For many families this means having to book multiple cabins which can be a costly proposition.

Read about Cruising with a Baby and Frommer's Best Cruise Ships for Kids.

So I guess a European Christmas Market cruise will have to wait until B is in college.  In the meantime, we DO have a bike and barge adventure planned for this coming fall.  More on that later...

Afternoon Tea with a Toddler in Muscat

Tea with a toddler in Muscat, OmanYa, ok, so going for afternoon tea is not usually the best activity with a toddler... But I learned long ago through our travels that you can make fun pretty much anywhere as long as you are equipped with stickers and other activities (and an episode of Dora on my iPhone doesn't hurt either).  We were in Muscat, Oman, looking for a place to cool off and relax after a day of exploring this beautiful city and the Al Bustan Palace Hotel was the place to do it!


Dubai Double Double

On my visit to Dubai with B, I was surprised to see Tim Horton's locations everywhere!  The offerings are the same as what you'll find back in Canada - coffee and baked goods.  I was hoping to bring Mark back a Tim Horton souvenir mug with the name in Arabic but unfortunately there was nothing to be found.  It would have made the perfect souvenir for my double-double addicted husband.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Tea with a Toddler at the Taj, Mumbai

Enjoying tea with a toddler at the Taj Palace, Mumbai, India
For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed the ritual of Afternoon Tea, particularly when traveling.  From the chocolate buffet at the Sukhothai in Bangkok to the refreshing sorbets as part of the tea ritual at the Strand Hotel in Yangon, each tea brings something new and helps me relax and recharge for jumping back into my destination. Even now, traveling with a toddler, this hasn't changed.

Last month, traveling with B and my parents, we treated ourselves to Afternoon Tea at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai - a wonderful place to relax and unwind after the heat and sensory overload we encountered exploring this amazing city.  Sitting in the elegant and serene surroundings, I have to remind myself this hotel was the scene of quite something else in November 2008, when a series of terror attacks in Mumbai shook the city and resulted in the deaths of 172  - including 32 people at the Taj Hotel.

The hotel has since been restored and the Sea Lounge is the perfect place to relax and munch on a scone.  The lounge is elegant but not stuffy and B is warmly welcomed.  He loves choosing sweets (always the chocolate first!) off the three-tiered tray and sipping on his 'special' (caffeine-free) fruity, iced tea.  And the cozy couch and cushions make for the perfect place to have a cat nap while Mommy, Grandma and Grandpa finish their tea.

While the afternoon winds down, we have the perfect view of the Gateway to India and the boats along the waterfront.  The ideal way to end our day in Mumbai!

Renting a Car Seat in Dubai

B in his comfortable rented car seat
On our recent visit to Dubai and 12-day cruise to India, I hummed and hawed for weeks about whether or not to take our own car seat with us.

Pros for bringing our own seat:
  • A clean, comfy car seat that B is familiar with
  • A car seat that I am familiar with, know how to properly install and properly use
Cons to bringing our own seat:
  • On our flights, I was planning to use our CARES Restraint, so the car seat would travel as baggage which always carries a risk for damage
  • Even if I used our handy GoGo Kidz Travelmate car seat handle, the car seat would be one more item to travel with - when traveling solo with B, this would be one item too many
In the end, I decided against taking our own car seat.  With my backpack, a small travel purse, and our awesome Heys rolling suitcase, that left me with one hand free to push B's stroller (or folding up the stroller and carrying on my shoulder, a hand free to hold his).  This worked perfectly for getting through the airport and through security, but a little voice in the back of my head kept asking if I had made the right decision.

A few weeks prior to our trip, I arranged a car seat rental from Rentacrib, a Dubai-based baby gear rental company.  In addition to being a safety essential, car seats are required in all vehicles (except taxis) by law for all children under 6 years of age, so I knew it was important to have a car seat for each ride on our journey.  In addition to our travels within Dubai, we would also need a car seat for cruise stops, so I arranged the rental for the entire duration of the holiday.

Unlike a number of things on this trip which did NOT go to plan, I was thrilled to arrive in Dubai to find a representative from our hotel (The Qamardeen) waiting for us with the hotel shuttle - and even better still, with our rental car seat installed and ready to go!  Realizing the hotel's own car seat might be too small for a toddler, The Qamardeen's clever concierge brought along our rented car seat (which had been delivered as scheduled to the hotel that morning) installed and ready to go in the shuttle.  Hurray!

The car seat provided was a light-weight Safety 1st brand seat in pristeen condition, and fully equipped with the LATCH system and belt clip for securing with a seat belt.  The lightness of the model was a blessing throughout the trip, as I needed to carry it on and off the cruise ship at each port (often with one arm, and B in the other after a long, tiring day out and about).  Through the course of our travels, I didn't encounter a single vehicle with LATCH anchors, so in each case, I secured the seat using the seat belt and belt clip.

At the end of the cruise, B and I spent four nights at the Sofitel Jumeirah Beach Walk, and Rentacrib had no problem picking up the car seat from a different location at the end of our holiday.

The rental for 17 days ended up being approximately $75 CDN (including delivery and pick up!), far less than it would cost to purchase a seat locally, and far less than it would cost for me to replace our own car seat had it been damaged in transit.

Rentacrib is based out of Dubai and serves the Dubai and Abu Dhabi areas.  They offer rentals of car seats, booster seats, travel cots and strollers, plus safety items such as baby gates and monitors.  I highly recommend them!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Best Views in Dubai - Beach-side at Beachcomber Restaurant

The beach at the Burj Al Arab
How is this for an amazing beach view!  The Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai was out of our budget for a place to stay, but it was well worth it to head over to their Beachcomber restaurant for the delicious buffet and for the view of the neighboring Burj Al Arab.  When B was finished eating, we could watch him play in the sand from our beachside table.  And when the sun set, we were treated to the amazing changing face of the Burj Al Arab.

Burj Al Arab by night

Snow Tubing in the Desert at Ski Dubai

We've put on our snow suits, we've strapped up our boots, and B is excitedly putting on his helmet.  It's almost 100 degrees F outside the door of The Mall of the Emirates, and we are about to step into a world of snow.
Everything about Dubai is larger than life, and Ski Dubai is just one of the attractions that makes the city a great destination for kids.  With 5 ski runs for skiers and snowboarders, a freestyle zone, snow park, a quad chair lift, and two alpine-themed restaurants, there is lots to see and do.

Even the most hard-core skiers (who might tire quickly of the short runs) would have a hard time not being 'wowed' by the sheer magnitude of this place, and the success to which Ski Dubai has created a mountain resort atmosphere in the middle of the desert.  I wasn't feeling ambitious enough to get B onto skis, so we spent our time playing in the snow and zipping down the gentle snow tube runs.

The Basics:
  • Snow Park Admission - Adults 130 AED, Children 120 AED (approx $30 U.S.) including use of a snow suit, boots, warm socks and helmets for kids.  The only thing not provided are hats and mitts which can be purchased inexpensively at the Pro Shop
  • Children under 3 are not permitted. (I admit I fudged about B's age at the ticket booth since he isn't quite 3 yet)
  • Snow suits and boots are available in the smallest of kids sizes, and are clean, comfy and warm
  • The process of picking up our suits and boots was quick and efficient and there were plenty of room in the change area and lockers for use
  • Strollers can be safely stored at the security desk
Quick Facts
  • The 22,500 m2 area is covered with soft powdery snow year round
  • Temperature maintained at a comfortable -1º to -2º
  • Quad chairlift and tow lift
  • Mountain resort theme
  • Ski lessons are available
  • Changing areas with locker rental
After having one of the warmest Toronto winters I can recall, it seems crazy we've had to travel halfway around the world to the desert to play in the snow. I had my hands full trying to pull B away when it was time to leave.

Reminder about Rabies for Travelers

My favorite Toronto travel doctor is Dr. Mark Wise.  Not only is he a helpful travel doctor, he has authored the highly recommended Travel Health Guide: Everything You Need to Know Before You Leave, While You're Away, After You're Back and also writes a humorous and informative blog about staying healthy while traveling.  His latest blog entry Rabies Returns to Toronto is a good reminder about rabies for travelers.

According to Dr. Wise: "Rabies is a viral infection transmitted via the bite, or perhaps a lick through broken skin, of mainly dogs, though bats, monkeys, foxes, racoons and cats may also be responsible. Giraffes and elephants aren’t a problem, so pet them! Rabies in travellers is thankfully rare. But all of my travellers receive the advice “Don’t play with dogs and other furry animals. If you get bitten, wash the wound thoroughly for at least twenty minutes, and seek good medical care … and call home to make sure that your medical advice is correct.” Vaccination against rabies is very effective, whether it be given in advance, or after the bite. But if it is not started until after one has symptoms of rabies, it is usually too late."

Being old enough to remember Old Yeller (who in the movie became irritable and was foaming at the mouth), I've always had the impression you could tell a rabid dog from a healthy one.  But this is NOT always the case.

Dr. Wise's advice is simple:
  • Avoid dogs and other furry animals
  • If you are bitten, wash the wound thoroughly
  • Go for the best available medical care
  • Call home to make sure you receive the proper treatment

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Flying the Emirates A380 to Dubai

As soon as we boarded, I knew this wouldn't be like other flights.  We were flying to Dubai on the Emirates A380, one of the new double-decker jets with the first class private suites and showers.

I admit it, though excited about our Mom and son adventure, I was a bit nervous about flying solo with B for the 14 hour flight from Toronto to Dubai.  Would he sleep?  Would he get really unruly being cooped up in an airline seat for so long?

Though we've flown together many times, this was going to be our longest flight, so I made sure to set B's expectations well in advance.  Though it is not always possible to choose, our flight thankfully began at B's regular bedtime.  On previous overnight flights, I've found it helpful to keep with our regular bedtime routine as much as possible, and we talked about what to expect many times leading up to our flight:  "Once the airplane has taken off, we will read stories and then it is bedtime.  After bedtime, we can do crafts and watch lots of movies together."  

Prior to boarding, B got into his pyjamas, and once on board, we read all of his favorite bedtime stories (or at least the compact ones that fit into my backpack).  All the preparation worked like a charm, because as soon as I closed the last book, B declared it to be 'nap time' and went off to sleep.

After a good sleep, B was up again so we kept with his normal morning routine - potty time, getting changed out of his pyjamas, and breakfast.  With all the sounds and activity in the airplane, neither of us got the same amount of sleep as we would in our own beds; but this slight fatigue, temporarily counteracted by the excitement of travel, made it is easier for us both to fall asleep at our destination even when bed-time came 8 hours earlier than normal with the time change.

It would be untruthful to say B did not have his 'moments', but all in all, both our outgoing and return flights went really well.  I came armed with lots of toys, books and stickers, and taking in naps, meals and the wide range of family movies, there was lots to keep B occupied for the long flights.

Here are some features of the Emirates A380 (and Emirates Airlines) that I really appreciated, particularly when flying with a toddler:
  • With the steadily decreasing weight limits for luggage these days, I often find it hard to keep even my small suitcase under the limit.   On both our outbound and inbound flights, my suitcase was slightly over the limit - but rather than making me pay a hefty fee, the check-in agent let it go since B and I had only one small suitcase between us.  Not sure if this happens in all cases, but I really appreciated it!
  • Economy seating on the A380 is surprisingly roomy, and there was lots of space under the seats ahead of us for all of our belongings, meaning no jockeying for overhead bin space and our things were accessible at all times.  On our outbound flight, we were fortunate to have all three seats to ourselves so we had lots of space to spread out, but even on our return flight (and with a pleasant gentleman in the third seat, hurray!), I found we had plenty of space to be comfortable.
  • The A380's entertainment system works even during take-off and landing - the system is paused during announcements and safety videos, but otherwise is available from the moment you board to the moment you get off the plane.  You can also forward through the commercials that appear before the start of movies.  If you've ever had to sit through 10 minutes of ads with a toddler before 'Toy Story' begins, you will know why this is a blessing.
  • There are a couple of washrooms tucked a few steps up next to the cockpit - because they were less obvious to other passengers, there were minimally used and stayed quite clean even after many hours in flight.  This is glorious, particularly when traveling with a potty-training toddler!
  • Even in economy, passengers have the ability to help themselves to water, juice, chocolate bars and (gasp!) fresh fruit in the galleys throughout the flight.

A little familiarity along the way...

I can totally relate to this fantastic article from the latest issue of National Geographic traveler.  When I am feeling out of my comfort zone while traveling, a little bit of familiarity helps me recharge for jumping back into the unfamiliar.  And there's no place like Starbucks to enjoy a favorite beverage (and clean toilet) along the way!