Wednesday, 21 October 2015

New Zealand with Kids: Family Friendly Experiences in the South Island

This travel post is written by Cayce who blogs at All Days Beautiful. She travelled to New Zealand on a 13D12N self-drive road trip with her petite traveller Lewis (2 years) in April 2015, exploring the pristine untouched beauty of the South Island.

This holiday is suitable for families who enjoy self-drive holidays, with a love for the great outdoors and seeking out extraordinary scenery.


Kia Ora!
(In the Maori language, that’s Hello!)

First up, I want to thank Candice for linking up my posts on our recent New Zealand family trip, and for this exciting guest posting opportunity!

We (just my husband and I then) first visited and fell in love with New Zealand’s South Island in spring 2011. Without a doubt, we knew we would be back again someday! This time round, we chose to travel during the fall season. It is the season we have yet to experience anywhere, and the other plus point? Right, the lower accommodation rates and tourist numbers since fall is shoulder season on the island.

With its laid-back vibe and lovely weather all year round, it’s easy to love the South Island. I dare say there is something for almost everyone – if you appreciate good food and wine, New Zealand is well-known for its perfect wine climate and fresh produce; if you love the great outdoors and stunning landscapes, there is an extensive list of hikes (easy or challenging, it’s really up to you) boasting panoramic views; and if a peaceful and calming getaway is what you are seeking, you will easily find that haven anywhere.

In this post, I’m going to share on some of our adventures in the real down-under – how we incorporated fun (we tried!) for our own petite traveller while we parents ticked off our must-do lists.

FOR SOME TIPPLES 

Central Otago is worth a day (or maybe two; it is the wine country after all!) of your time. Following the recommendations from our accommodation hosts, we focused on a couple of wineries in the Bannockburn region. Carrick Winery is one we highly recommend!



The husband did a solo-session of wine tasting in peace (I guess he must have liked the Pinots and Rieslings since he bagged a few bottles of those), while the large grounds of Carrick kept L and me busy. For him, a toy-box and running loose picking up twigs and lavender sprigs; for me, mostly marveling at the views while chasing after L. We spent a good few hours there on that gorgeously clear day.

We booked a vineyard stay at nearby Kinross Cottages as well, just to complete the whole experience!




It was surreal for us, waking up to a vineyard; those greens and golden yellows against a snow-dusted mountain backdrop was an unforgettable sight. For L too, it was a whole new experience he really enjoyed – being able to pluck apples off trees and grapes off vines right at our doorstep, and eat them!

FOR SCENIC VIEWS

The South Island is filled with panoramic vistas at every turn, but here are some we personally feel were the best from our trip.

MILFORD SOUND


The only way in to Milford Sound is from Te Anau. The journey from the small town to the sound itself is a big part of the experience, so look out for the many scenic lookout points along the way. One of our highlights of the drive was passing the Homer Tunnel – a 1.2km stretch into Milford built by cutting through mountains! We drove through the granite tunnel in pitch-black darkness for a few minutes (guided only by our car headlights); rather exciting but scary at the same time.

We opted to self-drive instead of taking a coach, and the entire drive took us slightly under 2hrs each way. Here’s a few points to note if you plan to self-drive (particularly with kids in tow) too:
  • Coaches from Queenstown/Te Anau are scheduled to arrive in Milford Sound around 12pm, so an early start from Te Anau is key to getting ahead of the traffic on the road and crowded ferries.
  • Catch the earlier ferries before 12pm; they tend to be much less crowded and it’s easier to move around during the cruise.
  • There are no petrol kiosks along the way, so make sure you have a full tank of fuel that will last the drive both ways. There is also no mobile coverage once you leave Te Anau.



It was L’s first encounter with a ferry or a cruise. To be honest, our cruise turned out to be a very different experience from what we had expected. Due to the gloomy weather all day, visibility was significantly compromised and we did not get to catch the Sound in all its glory. Apparently, this is very common in Milford Sound so come prepared with windbreakers and hoodies! The heavy rain meant that waterfalls were aplenty though. Our captain from Cruise Milford brought the vessel underneath a few plunging waterfalls, which delighted L despite him getting drenched. This kid really takes to the cold!


The cruise only lasted 1.5hrs, but for the rest of the trip L constantly brought up his ‘sit the boat’ adventure. He definitely loved this experience, quite possibly his favorite of all.

ARROWTOWN (FALL SEASON)




A visit to this little town is a must in fall, as it is the only part of the island that lights up with abundant autumn colors during the season. We started the day with a 30 minutes return riverbank walk, perfect for us to admire the hillside foliage as it wasn’t too long a distance to carry L who got tired at the end of it. We also checked out some of the town’s most photographed streets; really, Arrowtown does live up to its name of having the most gorgeous fall colors!


It was the first time L had seen leaves in so many different shades, which he happily named. He must have really liked them, as it was also a first for me to see him willingly touch the damp ground and leaves, instead of his usual distress about even a single bit of dirt on his hands.



If you have time to spare, the nearby Lake Hayes is worth a pop-by. We were there till the late afternoon, in perfect timing to catch the lake bathed in golden light. There wasn't anything much to do there.. but we had some great fun climbing trees and being silly. Oh, and feeding ducks - L's favorite activity!


The absolute highlight of the day for L though, was The Remarkables sweets shop. He only had eyes for it after we strolled past it. We tried to distract him, but eventually rewarded him with some candy after his persistence in directing us back to the shop. If you have a sweets-lover like we do, this is one shop you have to check out – it’s filled with all sorts of goodies, so you’ll have a hard time choosing!

If you are traveling with older kids who can sit through a movie, there is also a quaint Dorothy Browns cinema in town for a lazy afternoon. Just don’t expect to catch the latest blockbusters though!

LAKE TEKAPO




Even if you have not yet been to New Zealand, you must have heard of Lake Tekapo. It is breathtakingly beautiful, no wonder a top favorite among visitors. We drove up to the Mount John Observatory for a top-down view of the lake and surrounds; up here, the views were truly a 360-degree panoramic vista. There are some easy trails around, so if you and your little traveller are up for some hikes they are easily accessible. Or if you prefer to sit back and take in the views like we did, the Astro Café (Lonely Planet once called this ‘possibly the best place on the planet for a coffee’) serves some decent cakes and drinks. A toy-box is also available, which kept L occupied when he was done exploring the observatory.





In the evening, we took a stroll along the lakeside. The husband and L busied themselves with their exploration of the shore (climbing over rocks and picking up stones), while I watched the pretty dusk colors. Catch a sunset here, and it would be impossible to not fall in love with Lake Tekapo – it was that beautiful.


At night, we watched the most brilliant display of stars above our heads. The area is part of the UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, and it's not known as ‘the greatest park in the sky’ without reason. So amazed was L by the night skies in New Zealand, he was requesting to ‘see stars’ throughout and after our trip. A stay overnight in Lake Tekapo is definitely recommended for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

FOR AN ADRENALINE RUSH

If you are an adrenaline junkie, Queenstown is the place for you. Choose from an extensive list of activities – skydiving, bungee jumping, the Shotover Jet; it is the adventure capital after all.



While you're at it, there are a number of kid-friendly options in Queenstown to keep the little ones occupied. Take a river cruise down Lake Wakatipu, or if you prefer to stay on land, visit the underwater observatory to catch a glimpse of diving ducks and marine life under the lake.


For us, we made time to feed ducks at the waterfront, simply cos L loved it.


We also went on the Skyline Gondola, which was another hit with L! His first time on a cable car, L was very much intrigued by how high we were climbing. At the top, the view of Queenstown and beyond was spectacular (on a clear day, it would be even better!). L definitely enjoyed the cable car rides up and down more than the actual view.

GETTING AROUND THE ISLAND

Self-driving on the island is generally easy, as there is little traffic on most roads. The roads are very well-marked too, so even without a GPS we had little difficulty getting to most places. Of course, on some of the alpine highways, extra caution is advised as the winds can get quite strong.



Instead of our usual trusted Hertz, we opted to rent a mini campervan from Spaceships for our road trip. Our rental came with a whole lot of amenities like a DVD player, a mini fridge, and some portable cooking stuff (which we didn’t use), but what attracted us was the bed which could be expanded into a queen-size! This proved to be a real lifesaver for some of our long drives – we would pull up somewhere scenic, L would take a proper nap on the bed (instead of the car seat) while we had a snack and some time to ourselves; almost always guarantees a fully rested and happy L!

Oh, and remember to pack along a variety of toys for the road. The drives can be a few hours long between some places, so these will help keep the kids entertained. They will come in handy for the long flights there and back home too!

NEW ZEALAND FOR THE PETITE TRAVELLERS

Generally, we found New Zealand to be very kid-friendly. The locals are really sweet with the little ones and hardly bat an eye when they act up, and cafes and restaurants (or at least those we visited) usually have toy-boxes which help keep them occupied through mealtimes. Definitely a lot less stressful for the parents!

Unlike Australia though, there are not many playgrounds, zoos, or farms for kids around; it's understandable why it isn’t as popular a family holiday destination as its neighbour.

A tip for planning your holiday here – the trip is really all about the great outdoors with its picturesque landscapes. To make that fun for our little L, we took note to include him as much as we could in enjoying what the island had to offer together. We took the easy walks, stopped at all (almost!) the lakes we came across, set up new experiences, and allocated excess time in our itinerary for him to really explore and play. It definitely meant that we weren't able to cover as much ground or places, but our reward for going slow? - it is the most heartwarming thing to see our little guy immersing in each new place and experience, and loving it!

There is a lot more that the South Island offers, and you should need at least 3 weeks to cover all of that at a comfortable pace. Visit Oamaru and the Otago Peninsula along the coast for close-up encounters with penguins, seals and albatrosses, or Kaikoura at the tip of the island for some whale watching. Take a hike on one of the glaciers on the West Coast if you have an older kid, or if trains are to your little travellers' fancy, catch the Tranz-Alpine on a world famous journey from Greymouth to Christchurch through spectacular mountain passes. We have experienced some of these before L came along, and I know he'll love these adventures when we next visit!

In short, we love New Zealand! If you're headed there sometime, I hope this post helps you with some of your planning!

Thursday, 15 October 2015

An Adventure in Sapa with Kids


This travel post is written by Rachel who blogs at MalMal Our Inspiration. She travelled to Sapa with her husband and her petite travellers, Malcolm (11 years) and Marcus (6 years) in June 2015.

This holiday is perfect for families interested in hiking, trekking and roughing it out. It is also a great opportunity to expose your kids to the unique tradition of ethnic minorities and discover the natural and cultural wonders of Northern Vietnam.

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Sapa, located at 1500 metres above sea level, is an incredibly picturesque town that lies in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range near the Chinese border in northwestern Vietnam, known as "the Tonkinese Alps". Sapa and its surrounding region is host to many hill tribes, as well as rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam.

We have enjoyed hiking in the French and Swiss Alps when we were living in France a couple of years back and thought it would be great to visit the Alps in Southeast Asia.

We went with a couple of friends who were very resourceful in looking up for information on the internet. If you ever decide to go on a hiking trip in Sapa, this list might be useful.


1. Getting There

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I would say the adventure started from the moment we arrived at Hanoi Airport, a 3.5 hour flight from Singapore. With no nearby airport, the only option for getting to Sapa is to travel by road or rail. Despite being only 380 kilometres Northwest of Hanoi, the journey was time consuming regardless of the option you choose. I wouldn't recommend going by road due to the mountainous terrain and narrow winding roads. The journey takes about 10 hours by train and recently with a new highway, I read, it should take about 6 hours. Still, if you do the Math, that's less than 65km/hr on a highway.

We arrived at Hanoi at about noon and spent the afternoon exploring the area near the hotel. It was summer and the heat in Hanoi was unbearable. A thunderstorm came through that evening and uprooted some trees and injured a few people. Thankfully we were back in the hotel room as we later found out it was one of the worst storms they've had in years. We had checked into a simple hotel room so that the 7 of us could take turns to wash up before boarding the night train at 10pm that night.

We took an overnight train, which is the most popular option among tourists. You can choose the day train, which is more commonly used by the locals. However that would mean wasting one day on a train and the journey is 2 hours longer as there are more stops along the way.

The train ride to Lao Cai turned out better than I expected. We had booked a 4 berth cabin and I was happy that the sheets were clean. Despite the violent rocking and intermittent screeching of wheels, we actually managed to catch a good 5-6 hours of sleep before reaching Lao Cai at 6am the next morning.

From Lao Cai, we then transferred to a minivan and took another hour going up winding mountain roads before arriving at Sapa Town. Caution for those who are prone to motion sickness, get ready your pills! I felt more nauseous during the 1-hour car ride up the mountain than the 8-hour train ride.

2. Accommodation

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Tourism in Sapa is booming and new hotels are slowly changing her skyline. So you needn't have to worry if you're like me, who has a fetish for clean white bedsheets. You will have plenty of options, ranging from cheap budget guesthouses to full facility 4-star hotels. We booked Amazing Hotel Sapa, which only started operation a few months, so everything was relatively new.

Our room had a spectacular view of the plunging valley, cascading rice terraces, and towering mountains in the background. The gym was however very basic and the roof top pool, despite having a breathtaking view, was a tad too small. Thankfully the hotel occupancy wasn't high when we were there and we got to enjoy the pool on the first day we reached. A clean room with a comfortable bed was really all we needed after a long day's hike in the mountains.

3. Food

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The joy of travel is incomplete without memorable food experiences and Sapa provided plenty of those. Given its French colonial history, Sapa boasts the best French baguette you can find in Southeast Asia.

Every morning, we would begin the day with the buffet breakfast at the hotel. The spread was simple with local staples such as pho, fried rice, vermicelli and french baguettes. We love their hot station which served omelette cooked in your favourite style and delectable freshly made pancake.

The day's activity would start after breakfast. A couple of hours hiking would usually take us to a local home where we would be served home cooked lunch. Famished by then, everyone including the kids would polish up whatever that was being served. Being Asians, the Hmong's cooking style is similar to ours which is mostly stir fried dishes served with rice so the kids had no problem eating their lunch.

By late afternoon we would be back in the hotel and as soon as we finished washing up, we would head out for dinner. With breakfast and lunch being taken care of on most days, the only time we got to try out the restaurants in Sapa town was dinnertime. Sapa has many good restaurants serving local and international cuisine, mainly French or Italian and some American. If you are into pizza, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from.

Our tour guide recommended The Hill Station Signature Restaurant which specializes in the cuisine of the ethnic minorities. We were told that they served authentic Hmong cuisine. Although it was a little pricey (by Vietnamese standards), we enjoyed the food there so much that we went back for several nights. Good thing that it was a short walk from our hotel because we couldn't handle anything more after a full day of walking.

4. Guided or Self Guided?

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The area around Sapa is difficult, with wild uneven terrains. There are no road signs, trail signs or markers to guide you along unlike national parks in the US or Europe. There are times when we walked on trails that didn't look like trails. So, unless you are a hardcore trekker and are willing and able to bring all the maps, compass, equipment, and food along with you, don't go off on your own outside the town of Sapa. If you are satisfied with looking at the mountains from afar or walking along the tourist traps in and about Sapa, then it is fine to go without a guide.

5. Choosing a Travel Agency or Guide

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Before going into this, there is a need to understand the socio-economic situation in Sapa.

There are at least two distinct groups of people that live there. The first group is the Viets. The Viets, as you can guess, are the majority ethnic group in Vietnam. They control the government and the economy in most of Vietnam, including Sapa. Many of them work in Sapa and are displacing the local ethnic minority groups in Sapa. They own most of the businesses including the hotels and shops. Largely, they employ Viets because the Viets are more well educated and modern.

The second group comprises the ethnic minorities - the Hmongs, the Dao, the Tay and the Giay - that have lived there since centuries ago. They migrated from the south of modern-day China hundreds of years ago and settled into the hills and lived off land through shifting agriculture (read: slash and burn).

Here's the catch. The local ethnic groups are becoming displaced in their own ancestral land and losing their livelihood. First, slash and burn has been outlawed since the government instituted land rights and demarcated public and private land. Without slash and burn and time for the land to recover its fertility, rice yields have steadily decreased over the years. Modern agricultural technology has not caught up in this area. Part of the challenge is the difficulty in modernizing and automating the agricultural process due to the hilly terrain and need for terrace farming. The other part is that nobody (including the government) is investing in modernizing agriculture. People are becoming hungry over a few months when they run out of rice and they are resorting to tourism and selling trinkets in the city to survive.

Second, the private sector has caught on the tourism drive. There are multiple casinos at Lao Cai serving primarily Chinese tourists that live less than an hour across the border. In fact, a cable car is being constructed to bring tourists up to the top of Mt Fansipan where eventually a casino will be built. Private investors are buying up ancestral agricultural land for peanuts. You have to remember that this is an inter-generational change. Most of the local tribes people cannot imagine what is a thousand US dollars. When offered a few thousand dollars for several hectares of land that can barely feed the family, the temptation is hard to resist. But that is not the end. The money is often splurged on alcohol, a brand new motorcycle, or something temporal. Nothing is left for the future and soon the family descends into extreme poverty, worse off than before. This scenario is continuously being played out today.

Thus, if you wish to help to conserve the livelihood of the local tribes people, get a tour agency that employs the local ethnic minority groups. The tribe people know the land like the back of their hand. This alone is good enough reason to choose a guide from hill tribes. What is a tough hike to us is really just a daily walk to town for them. They don't need maps or any navigational equipment to bring you from point to point. They will carry a picnic, water, umbrellas, your backpack, or even your little ones who are too tired to walk. My 5-year-old was being carried half the time on the long hikes either by my husband or by one of the local teenage guides.

Our travel agency at Sapa really considered our needs and the fact that we had little ones with us when developing our itinerary. I think that many of the hikes are original and off the beaten track because we hardly saw any other tourists along our hikes. Their guides are all from the hill tribes, and they brought us to see the real Sapa and the real tribes people. We also believe that they charged a fair price and are sincere about contributing to the local communities. They run a free school for the tribes people and a foster home for some of the teenage tour guides.

6. Highlights of our trip

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Although Sapa and the surrounding mountains were beautiful, I think what really stole our hearts were the local people of Sapa. They were real people living in the real world. They are trying desperately to adapt and survive in their rapidly changing world. We never really spent that much time getting to know the local people in all the places that we have been so far. But for this trip, I think it was all worth it.

As for the train ride, it was more comfortable than we thought it would have been. We thought the kids wouldn't be able to sleep. We thought we wouldn't be able to sleep. As it turned out, the kids loved it. It was a great experience and one of the most memorable parts of the trip.

I have to admit that the initial thought of traveling to a remote village in Vietnam sounded daunting. I worried about food, lodging, weather and how well the kids could handle the new experience. Although it all started with trepidation, it all ended well. I realized that the kids were hardier than we thought and it is often the adults who often worry too much. For them, each day was a new experience, a new adventure, and a new opportunity to have fun. I realised that if we could approach each new experience with a sense of adventure, temper our expectations and loosen up, traveling with kids needn't be a daunting task, even if it is to some remote corner of the world.

Read more about our Sapa trip:

Part 1 of our trip : A Home Cooked Meal
Part 2 of our trip : Hiking the mountains
Part 3 of our trip : Children of Sapa
Part 4 of our trip : Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls

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