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Travelling with 5

Family holiday in Riva del Garda

Reclined on a sun lounger in the shade of pine trees, surrounded by lush gardens and listening to the sound of trickling water from the fountain in the middle of the pond, interspersed with birdsong and the constant thrum of cicadas, this is how a holiday should be. A few ducks waddle on by, looking for scraps of food that is no doubt plentiful despite the large population of mallards and moorhens across the tranquil lakes in the stunning grounds of this hotel.

This was me, most days, on holiday at the Hotel du Lac in Riva, Lake Garda.

The hotel resides on the busy road leading into the bustling town of Riva, on the northern-most tip of Lake Garda. It doesn’t look much from the roadside – a modern, contemporary building, not really to my taste when you compare it to the colourful renaissance buildings that are so typical of the area. That said, the hotel is immaculate, well-staffed and in an excellent location, just a stone’s throw from the lake itself.

Hotel du Lac front entrance - A Free From Life

We chose the hotel on the basis of its accommodation.

This is usually at the top of the list of criteria when you have a big family. There were six of us, so it was important to find somewhere that would give us enough space and above all else, privacy. The Hotel du Lac offered us three rooms together, two of which were interconnecting. This meant the two teenagers had the benefit of their own room whilst being close by and we had our own space, but could keep an eye on our two younger children.

Our rooms overlooked the gardens to the rear of the hotel. From there, you could hear the gentle sounds of nature, along with the occasional rally coming from the nearby tennis courts and the odd argument among the ducks!

Garden view from hotel du lac family room - A Free From Life

A walk through the gardens took you past the ponds, two swimming pools and a poolside bar/restaurant before reaching the exit gates. Upon carefully stepping out, avoiding oncoming cyclists, you were greeted by the most stunning, breath-taking view looking out across Lake Garda itself and surrounded by mountains.

Outdoor pool at the Hotel du Lac, Lake Garda - A Free From Life

Riva lies just on the edge of the Dolomite mountain region.

This area is popular with rock climbers, mountain bikers and hikers, although we barely moved a muscle during our week’s stay, so it’s not restricted to sporty or active people only!

Riva del Garda lake view - A Free From Life

From the hotel, you can take a slow twenty-five-minute walk into the centre of Riva, where you’ll find charming squares, quirky little side streets, gelaterias, restaurants and shops. The lakeside is heaving all day. There are areas cordoned off for safe bathing, manned by life guards. You can dive from lidos, take out a pedalo-come-slide contraption, canoe or paddle board or for the more adventurous, go sailing or wind surfing. The even more adventurous (or crazy) can jump into the lake from a high point (a bridge) a little further down the road towards the nearby town of Torbole.

Main square of Riva del Garda - A Free From Life

There are excellent cycle paths around the area that run alongside the lake, although they do get busy.

We booked bed and breakfast only at the hotel, as we enjoy eating out and making the most of the wide variety of places to eat. Directly across from our hotel was a mall and an excellent supermarket. There, you could find fresh baked goods, cakes deli, meat and fish, as well as a huge selection of fresh fruit and vegetables and for the gluten and dairy-free contingent among us, lots of products to keep them happily snacked-up.

The area, both within the hotel grounds, and out and about, is exceptionally clean. This, despite there being hundreds of ducks, is nothing short of remarkable!

Mountain backdrop at Riva del Garda - A Free From Life

People like to bring their dogs to the hotel too and there is even a special dog park within the hotel’s grounds. There are recycling bins everywhere. Most places we went to used paper bags and, in the restaurants, they served water in glass bottles, rather than plastic ones.

Riva is a beautiful, charming place that combined with all the fresh mountain air, made for one of the most relaxing holidays we’ve ever had. That, considering we had four children in tow, is something short of remarkable.

We had an amazing week and wouldn’t hesitate to go back.

Travelling with 5

Pine Cliffs Resort, Albufeira – Portugal with the kids

The Pine Cliffs Resort, Albufeira, has been on our list of places we’d like to go for a long time now, and though we’re not huge fans of resort holidays, sometimes you just need a break where you know there will be minimum effort required, no planning, no itinerary, no need to think about where to go each evening. This year was one of those times.

Every year, finding accommodation for five people proves tricky. Most hotel rooms will only allow four as maximum occupancy, which means booking two rooms. Any that refuse to guarantee interconnecting rooms is a complete no-no for me, so generally, we end up with some kind of apartment.

Accommodation at Pine Cliffs

Accommodation at Pine Cliffs - A Free From Life

At the Pine Cliffs Resort, we stayed in one of the Residences, a two-bed apartment with sofa bed. We had a kitchen, dining area, two bathrooms and garden access, so we really couldn’t have asked for more in terms of space. The resort, on the whole, is clean and well maintained. The swimming pools are small, but there are plenty of them, spread around the enormous complex. We were positioned just across from our nearest pool and with easy access to a restaurant, shop, gym and a concierge. It was ideal.

Things to do

Pine Cliffs is such a big resort, you don’t need to set foot off the place. There are enough restaurants to enable you to vary your evenings and more activities than you can shake a stick at. My children aren’t big on kids clubs (and they’re a bit past all that anyway), but if you have little ones, you have the choice of the Pirate Club, which also has its own pool, play area and mini golf.

Family golf at Pine Cliffs - A Free From Life

My younger two play golf and so most days, one of them at least, went off with my husband to the nine-hole course. It’s great that children are allowed to play and this really did mean the course had a family atmosphere. On other days, we tried tennis (though it was so hot, this made it difficult to play during the day). We did have a couple of evening sessions on the paddle tennis court though, which was great fun. This is a cross between tennis and squash and when the five of us took to the court, the only rule was that there were no rules!

Beach at Pine Cliffs - A Free From Life

Then there is, of course, the beach. As the name suggests, Pine Cliffs is situated on the cliff tops, so to access the beach, you need to take the lift down and then walk along the wooden gangway, itself not completely flat. Mobility wise, it’s not the easiest journey to get down there, but the beach is lovely and the sea reasonable warm and shallow.

Dining at Pine Cliffs

Al fresco dining at Pine Cliffs - A Free From Life

We chose ten days half board, which meant we could go to our nearest restaurant every morning for a buffet breakfast, but we had the choice of eating anywhere within the resort for our evening meal. As ever, when we go on holiday, it’s always a little worrying because we have special dietary needs and it usually takes a few days for the staff to get to know us and our requirements. This is fine when you only have one restaurant to choose from, but doesn’t work so well when you can eat at a number of locations.

Catering for special dietary needs

Pine Cliffs uses a system of labelling with codes, such as G for gluten and these labels are either in front of each dish at the buffet, or on the menus. At breakfast, there was a separate area with gluten free cereals and bread (but no separate toaster) and you could have fried or poached eggs, as well as bacon or beans.

At dinner, the majority of the buffet food contained gluten or dairy, according to the labels, but as the week went on, I started to question their accuracy. For example, one evening, there was a dessert that was apparently gluten and dairy free. However, the following night, at a different restaurant, a dessert identical looking had a label that said it did contain both of these things. I questioned it and found this to be true, so it began to ring a few alarm bells. I also found a dessert on another night that looked safe and asked the waiter. He told me it had the wrong label and wasn’t, in fact, suitable.

The staff weren’t educated about what was in the dishes and when I did ask for more information, someone would have to go and ask the chefs, and even some of these didn’t always know because the food was made centrally, at the main hotel.

If you are gluten free, you usually fair a bit better than if you need to avoid dairy or lactose. Practically nothing was suitable for a dairy intolerant person except fruit or jelly (for dessert) and main course-wise, we found it best to stick to the grill. Personally, I don’t really understand how a Bolognese can have both gluten and dairy in it, do you?

My advice would be to question everything and if you are coeliac, be extra careful. I saw someone use the cake slice from the gluten free dessert. I also saw the chef who manned the grill use the same utensil on the raw and cooked meat and also cross contaminate between the meat and fish. To say it put me off eating there is an understatement.

If you don’t want to eat in the restaurants, there is a supermarket just outside the resort. The small shop on site is hardly worth bothering with to be honest, plus it’s expensive.

Courtyard at Pine Cliffs - A Free From Life

Despite some problems with the food (something we’ve come to accept when we go away, sadly), the Pine Cliffs Resort really did tick all the boxes for the five of us. Husband was happy playing golf every day, the children had a mix of chill-out time and play and I managed to read a book and even get some writing done. We had one day of escape at the local shopping mall, when I really did feel as though I had cabin fever, but otherwise, I was quite happy to go with the flow. It truly was a much-needed relaxing break that we all benefited from after a very busy year.

Would we go back? Yes, quite possibly, though perhaps later in the year. We would also try just bed and breakfast and venture out to some local restaurants in the evenings. Perhaps next time, we might even go exploring a little more of the Algarve.

Reviews, Travelling with 5

Legoland hotel Windsor – review

If you want value for money, the Legoland hotel is NOT the place to stay

This week, I took my son to Legoland, as it’s his favourite place in the world. His school go back a week later than most, so we thought we’d take advantage of that, hoping it would be quieter.

Legoland hotel Windsor, review - A Free From Life
Image courtesy of Karen Roe/Flickr

He’s stayed in the park hotel before when he’s been with my husband, but this was my first time there and I was really excited about our little trip away together. It’s important for me, to have one-on-one time with my children if we can manage it.

We booked an adventure room at a bed and breakfast rate, with two days in the park and believe me, it was not cheap, even though it was out of the school holidays.

Accommodation
The room was a great size, with a separate bunk area for the children, including their own television. As fancy as a room may look though, a decent bed and mattress is what makes a hotel room for me. I don’t care if it’s adorned with Lego ornaments if the bed is rock hard and the pillows disappear to nothing when you lay on them.

I may be fussier than most when it comes to beds because of my back problems, but when you are paying through the nose for a room, I think it’s the least you can expect.

At the Legoland hotel, even my son, a skinny little nine-year-old, complained his bed was uncomfortable. I tested it out and it was like sleeping on concrete. Neither of us slept well.

Room facilities
My son had fun working out the code for the treasure chest in our room, in which was a prize of a small Lego pack. It’s a nice gesture for the kids, though personally, I think you should get more than that. We’ve been to themed hotels before where the kids have received their own welcome packs and loans of DVD’s. Again, it comes back to value for money.

There is a Legoland Channel on the room TV which my son watched when we returned to our room on the first afternoon. He was disappointed there were only a handful of shows playing on repeat and once he was through them (which didn’t take long), there wasn’t much else to watch.

I looked up the entertainment and movie selections on the menu, but you had to ask for those separately. I didn’t, as I presumed that meant they would incur an extra charge.

Dining
On arrival, I asked which restaurant it would be best for us to eat in, as both my son and I are dairy and gluten intolerant. He recommended the Bricks Restaurant, as it is buffet style, therefore more choice. He assured the staff would be able to help us and even make something specific, for example he mentioned they could do a gluten free pizza.

The reality was, they don’t do gluten free pizza, but they did offer gluten free pasta. I asked one of the catering staff what we could have and he simply handed me the allergy folder. This told me there wasn’t a great deal on offer for us, so I opted for the carvery and my son had pasta with chilli.

It cost me over £30 for both of us to eat and it was the worst carvery I’ve ever had.

When it comes to vegetables, there’s ‘al dente’ and there’s raw. The broccoli, carrots and cauliflower had barely seen a bit of hot water between them and whilst I wouldn’t mind a bit of raw veg in a salad, in a roast dinner – no thanks.

The breakfast was a little better. There was soya milk on offer and the cooked breakfast choice allowed us to have a decent plate full to set us up for the day. The only gripe I had about breakfast, was being told they were unable to toast some gluten free bread separately. Be warned if you are coeliac, as you cannot possibly use those toasters – they are the ones where you feed your bread in and it comes out of the bottom (usually barely toasted). The trays are full of crumbs and there is no way you could toast some gluten free bread without contamination. It’s hard to believe they don’t have a grill in the kitchen or even a toaster. They’re not expensive.

In the Legoland resort itself, it is difficult to find anything to eat if you have an allergy or intolerance. If we hadn’t been staying at the hotel, we would have needed to take our own food. For our lunch, we opted for the Sky Bar, as it was the only one open anyway. The menu there is small and mostly consisting of breaded things. I queried the menu, as it offered wraps with various fillings and had a symbol on there that said it was gluten free.

As it turned out, according to the allergy folder, the wraps aren’t gluten free, so I hope they amend this menu so as not to confuse anyone.

On the first afternoon, a lovely lady in the Sky Bar restaurant sorted us out some grilled chicken with chips and salad. She was very helpful and understanding and for someone with specific dietary needs, you can imagine how grateful you are when you receive service like that.

Unfortunately, when we ate at this restaurant the following lunchtime, it was a disaster.

We had a big plate of chips brought out to us but no grilled meat or salad. By the time we were three quarters through the chips, a waitress came over and said they were sorry they hadn’t cooked the meat yet and it was going to take another fifteen minutes as it needed to be cooked separately.

Whilst I am extremely understanding about the need to cook food separately in order to cater for allergies, and I’m more than happy to wait longer for my meal, I don’t expect to get my meal in stages. Would you expect that from a restaurant?

‘Here you go, Madam, here’s half of your meal, I’ll bring the rest out later.’

It wouldn’t go down well would it?

I said not to worry, we would just have the chips and leave it at that. Can you guess what happened next? We’d just finished eating the chips and out comes the meat and salad.

By that point I just wanted to leave!

Overall impression
You know why the Legoland Hotel is so popular don’t you? It’s obvious. For the kids, it’s amazing, for park access, it’s so convenient. It’s no wonder people are prepared to pay through the nose to stay there. You want to give your kids great memories to treasure, but it’s wrong, in my opinion, to take advantage of that by charging people lots of money and not giving them value for it.

If you stay at the hotel, you can get into the park at 9.30am ahead of the queues. That sounds like a great advantage doesn’t it? Except that hardly anything is actually open until 10am and half the park didn’t open until 11. In the end, we didn’t gain much at all for getting up and into the park so early.

Did you know Legoland have just recently opened another hotel right next door? It’s called the Castle Hotel and it is EVEN MORE expensive. I can only hope it’s better, considering the amount people are expected to pay in order to stay there.

For what it cost us, we could have gone to a luxury five-star hotel, where the focus is on quality and service. But, hey, that’s not the point is it?

And Legoland sure do know that.

Reviews, Travelling with 5

Italy with the kids – Viareggio, Tuscany

A typical street of Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

Just a half-hour drive from Pisa airport, Viareggio, the second largest town in the province of Lucca, turned out to be our ‘city break’ with a difference.

A typical street of Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

We just had our annual Italy fix in what started out with the intention of being a city break.

Having booked cheap flights to Pisa, I thought we would use it as a base to explore a little of the surrounding Tuscan region, somewhere we haven’t seen much of before. However, we soon realised that with temperatures reaching 30°C, it wouldn’t be practical or fun to drag three kids around areas of historical interest.

I explored the region a little more and discovered Viareggio on the Tuscan coast. It looked lovely and within easy reach of Pisa, so I based my search there. The most difficult thing about organising a holiday for a family of five is finding accommodation that will be big enough for all of you. It’s one of the most frustrating jobs that takes the pleasure out of my annual holiday search.

More often than not, when you look at hotels on line, you aren’t given the option to have more than two children and when you try to book an inter-connecting room, this is rarely guaranteed. This is one of the reasons why I will never risk booking two rooms in a hotel unless I’m sure that we can be together. I prefer, instead, to find somewhere that will suit the five of us and that obviously makes the search difficult.

Where to stay in Viareggio

I’m happy to say, that I found a hotel right on the sea front in Viareggio that offered a two-bedroomed apartment, complete with living area (with sofa bed) and kitchenette. I couldn’t believe my luck. The Palace Hotel, isn’t one of the largest in the area and it doesn’t have it’s own pool, however, the hotel has an agreement with a privately owned pool directly opposite, right on the beach, where you can pay for usage and also hire sunbeds on the beach, if you want them.

The Palace Hotel, Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life
The hotel, with its pretty, painted exterior

The hotel was beautiful, a pleasant surprise and the room perfect for our needs. My eldest daughter took the sofa bed, whilst the two little ones shared one bedroom and we had the other. Although we were at the back of the hotel and you accessed the apartments via a side gate, not through the hotel itself, we had two balconies and our room overlooked a lovely little tiled courtyard area. I’m also happy to report, that for the first time ever, I actually slept really well whilst on holiday. With my back problems such as they are, I always find when we go away the matresses are too hard or too soft or whatever, they just don’t match up to my own one at home and it makes for an uncomfortable stay. This time, I didn’t have that problem at all.

The staff at the Palace Hotel were so amazing. They couldn’t do enough for you and that adds so much to your stay, particularly given we have a child with dietary needs. At breakfast, my son had a choice of milks: almond, hazelnut, rice, oat and soya. There was also lacto-free milk on offer (though he can’t have that). They gave him gluten free cereals, gluten and dairy free bread and a choice of cakes (though not always dairy free). That, plus the fruit and Alpro soya yoghurt, meant that my son ate like a King every morning. He was more than happy.

Dining out gluten and dairy free in Viareggio

I did some research before we left home (as I usually do), to jot down the names of some restaurants that supposedly catered for allergies and when we arrived, we showed this list to the reception staff, who matched it up to their own list of recommended restaurants. Two of ours weren’t on the hotel’s list, but they booked us in one of them for dinner and directed us towards the other one for lunch.

We didn’t need to worry too much though, as most places in this area seemed well aware of allergies and happy to cater for them. It certainly takes the pressure off when you go out for meals, especially in an area where English isn’t commonly spoken. As long as you can say ‘senza glutine’ and ‘senza latosio’, you can’t go far wrong.

Our favourite places were:

Olive e Cena

The staff at this restaurant were fantastic and more than happy to swap the menu around in order to find something to suit, not only my son, but the girls too. This is the first Italian restaurant I’ve been to that has its menu on just two pages, but despite the simplicity, we didn’t know what the food was. A very patient waiter sat down with us to explain everything, then made sure we ordered something child friendly for the girls and gluten and dairy free for the little man. Not only that, the food was delicious.

Ristorante Casablanca

This was another restaurant where we had the waitress running backwards and forwards on our behalf to make sure we could order something suitable for our allergic one. We felt guilty, but ever so grateful at the same time and it was the reason we went back to this place a few times during the course of our stay.

Amaro

This place is expensive, but if you are a fan of meat, it’s worth a visit. Amaro is a Braceria – a grill – so that means simple, meat dishes, but with maximum flavour due to the quality of the meat. The steaks my husband and I had were so enormous, I don’t know what we were thinking when we ordered them. We could have easily shared. I felt like I was on an episode of man versus food. Gorgeous though.

La Casina

We had such a feast at this restaurant, having ordered a selection of dishes for all of us to share. This restaurant, being away from the seafront promenade, was also great value for money and well worth a visit if you are taking a walk through the pine forest and fancy a stop off.

We also found the best sorbets and granitas, including a dairy free chocolate version at Gelataria Etna. This may be one of the smaller gelaterias, slightly unassuming, but it’s family run, with the friendliest staff and truly delicious gelato.

Things to do in Viareggio

The beach and promenade

The coastline of Viareggio includes over 20km of sandy beach, each section privately owned and kitted out with sunbeds for hire. The sea, although appearing quite rough, actually proved safe for the little ones, as you can wade out for a sizeable distance before it even reaches your waist.

Alongside the beach is a wide pedestrianised promenade, providing 3km of shops, restaurants and cafes. What is lovely about this area, is that the road is far enough away from the restaurants for them not to be affected by the traffic noise.

The boulevard of Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

Hire a bike

There are cycle lanes everywhere in this town, including along the main promenade and cycling seems the chosen mode of transport for most of the people who live there. If cycling in the heat of the summer sun isn’t for you, there is a pine forest right in the centre of town that provides the right amount of shade for cycling in.

Cycling in the pine forest of Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

The pine forest

The Pineta di Ponente was an unexpected find for us. Right at the end of our road, what looked merely like an ordinary forest and nothing more turned out to be a hidden gem in terms of activity. On entering the woods on the east side, we thought we’d come to a retirement community. Here, the oldies hang out at the shaded cafe, drinking coffee, smoking and putting the world to rights, whilst across from them, you’ll find a competitive game of something akin to short mat bowls being held.

The pine forest in Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

Then, as we walked further into the woods, on the wide, tarmacked avenue, we came across an inflatable slide and play area.

Inflatable slide fun in the pine forest, Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

Further on, we discovered children’s rides, amusement games, go carts and even a giant scalextrics. There is everything in here to keep your children amused for hours.

Go carts in the pine forest of Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

Giant Scalextric in the pine forest, Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

You will also find cafes and refreshment stops along the way, including these Ciambelle, we discovered at Gato Nero.

Ciambelle in Viareggio, Italy - A Free From Life

My daughters and I decided to hire a bike in the woods one day and we rode the whole length and back in just under an hour. The bikes cost 2 euros each, so it was well worth the money.

Visit the leaning tower of Pisa

As I mentioned, we didn’t book this trip with the intention of moving more than a few paces at a time. And it was right to think that way. It was so hot, that sight seeing would have been hard work. We did, however, take the children in to Pisa one early evening and going from Viareggio by train could not have been easier.

Pisa, Italy - a Free From Life
The leaning tower of Pisa – it really does lean that much

The journey, just one stop to Pisa San Rossare (not Pisa Centrale), took fifteen minutes, followed by a five minute walk to the famous tower and cathedral complex. We looked around the museum and cathedral, but didn’t go up the tower itself, before buying obligatory Pisa relics from the market and then heading back to Viareggio for dinner. Easy.

The verdict

To say we were a little taken with Viareggio is an understatement. As we’ve now been to Italy with the children a few times, they are becoming as obsessed with the country as we are. We all fell in love with this lovely town and it’s people and I have no doubt that we will return there.

My Travel Monkey
Travelling with 5

Visit to National Trust Scotney Castle, Lamberhurst, Kent

We’re lucky where we live in Kent because there are so many National Trust properties within easy reach. My nearest is Knole, which I visit in all weathers to walk the dog, however, with the poor weather we’ve been having recently, we haven’t been much further.

Thank goodness that summer finally seems to have arrived (for this week anyway) and what better excuse than that to get out and about and visit some of our local National Trust treasures.

Scotney Castle is located just the other side of Tunbridge Wells and literally just off the A21. You get two for the price of one at Scotney, with a Victorian manor house and a medieval castle to explore. Built by Edward Hussey III, when he inherited the estate, Scotney is an imposing building set high on the estate and overlooking spectacular views.

National Trust Scotney Castle

We explored the house in all it’s glory, imagining the lives of those who lived there over the generations, before taking a pit-stop break at the cafe. No visit to a National Trust property would be complete without trying out the culinary delights and who could ignore the rhubarb and ginger scone of the month?

Rhubarb and ginger scone from National Trust Scotney

Well, you just have to, don’t you?

I’m so thrilled at how well National Trust cater for food allergies and intolerances. When we’ve visited properties, we’ve been able to get soya milk, gluten free bread and imagine my son’s eyes lighting up when he saw this gluten and dairy free chocolate courgette cake:

Scotney Castle, Lamberhurst - A Free From Life

Sufficiently rested and restored, we ventured down to the ruins of the beautiful, moted, medieval castle:

The castle ruins at National Trust Scotney

You can explore part of this castle, the only remaining standing area, as well as the grounds. There is an interesting story about a priest who hid in the priest hole there, protected by the family until someone gave him away. When they occupants were jailed for a short time, the priest escaped with his servant by jumping in to the moat.

What I found difficult to understand, was that Edward Hussey III, upon building his dream home, decided to purposely ruin this old castle in order to create a romantic folly. I mean, what’s romantic about that? Those Victorians had some crazy ideas and what a shame. I actually found this medieval ruin more interesting than the main house.

Scotney Castle, Lamberhurst - A Free From Life

There are acres of grounds to explore at Scotney, but it was a little too hot for us on the day we visited. Instead, we went in search of shade and the hidden away children’s adventure playground:

Scotney Castle, Lamberhurst - A Free From Life

I love the way National Trust are able to blend these play areas in with the surroundings. This one, you couldn’t even see when walking down the main paths of the estate grounds. Can you see those pipes, fixed to wooden posts? Those were cut open pipes and you could roll a tennis ball down them so it landed in a bucket at the bottom. Simple idea, very cool.

Scotney Castle, Lamberhurst - A Free From Life

On our walk back up towards the exit, we came across the Discovery room, whereby the children were able to do a spot of bird watching and make some leaf and insect brass rubbings. There were animal firs and skeletons and all sorts of things to identify in here.

Scotney Castle, Lamberhurst - A Free From Life

Having brought some pocket money, the children found some interesting little knick knacks to spend it on. Squidgy slugs and bouncing putty balls aren’t my thing, but they seemed to go down a treat!

Scotney Castle has something to please both young and old and is well worth a visit. I know we will be going back to explore more of those amazing grounds, perhaps when it’s not so hot, not that I’m wishing this lovely weather away…

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

My Travel Monkey
Travelling with 5

In-flight special meal request that made my gluten and dairy intolerant son ill

Airlines traveller's guide to In-Flight Meals - A Free From Life

Why we always have problems ordering a special meal when we fly

Airlines traveller's guide to In-Flight Meals - A Free From Life

If I’ve said this once, I’ll say it a thousand times again and will keep saying it until such a time that things change. Why can’t airlines get it right when it comes to catering for food intolerances?

We’ve just been abroad and flew with Ryanair and whilst I detest this airline because the ‘cheap’ flights come at a cost of sitting in the middle or back of the aircraft, having no room to store your luggage in the overhead locker because you didn’t get on early enough and not being able to get any food because they’ve sold out by the time they get to you, what I do prefer is that you have a menu, with a key, so that you can choose something suitable for your dietary needs (if they have it, that is).

The non low cost airlines might provide you with a sandwich if it’s a short haul flight, or a full meal if you’re going further afield, but apart from guessing what will be the best option for you (do I go gluten free and hope it’s got no dairy in it, or do I go low lactose and hope it’s also gluten free?), you have no way of knowing what food you will be presented with.

This ‘letter’ to British Airways highlights our recent experience and it’s not an isolated incident. Unfortunately, something like this happens every time we travel.

Dear British Airways,
We’ve been here before haven’t we? In fact, this is the third time now: the last three times we’ve taken a flight to go on holiday.
Our requests are simple, but they don’t seem to meet the criteria for importance. Let me say it again though, my son is dairy and gluten intolerant. The pairing of these two intolerances is where the problem lies. As I have said before in my letters of complaint, we are unable to order him a suitable meal when we fly.
Like most other airlines, you offer a low lactose option or a gluten free meal, but no option for both. On our first long haul flight two years ago, I rang customer services prior to flying in order to explain the predicament. I told the operator my son was only 5-years old, so was there an option that would suit him (meaning, something age-appropriate). Unfortunately, this was miss-interpreted and he ended up with a child’s meal, containing macaroni cheese, a yoghurt and a chocolate biscuit.
On our flight home, I ordered him a gluten free meal, which came with yoghurt and some other dairy-containing breakfast items. Since then, I’ve tried a vegan meal (salad sandwich and vegetable pasta) and a low-lactose meal.
The low-lactose meal, which in itself is a risk as it may not be completely dairy free, caused my son to be sick four times. Whilst I can’t prove that the meal made him ill, he was the only one who ate it, no one else was sick and the poor boy had to endure a ten-hour flight to America feeling rotten. On the return flight, I was worried about him eating anything at all, but the crew to their credit were wonderful and managed to put together some chicken and bacon, with salad and a gluten free bread roll.
What do I do next time we fly though, as I feel like we have run out of options?
I’m afraid I’ve lost faith in the catering system of your flights. I don’t want to put my son in the position where he might get ill and I don’t want to risk ordering a meal when I don’t know what is in it: I was amazed to discover that the crew is not given details of the ingredients of the special meals ordered. They have the allergy information for all the other food on board, but not those. Surely, this is crucial information that both the crew and consumer needs.
British Airways, we may be in the minority, but please listen to these requests. Many people have multiple food intolerances: gluten and dairy in particular being a common pairing. If only you could provide more information regarding on-flight meal offerings, it would allow us to make informed choices about which special request meal to choose.
Food intolerances are not life threatening, but they can cause a great deal of discomfort for an individual, should they consume something that their bodies cannot deal with. My son, to his credit, did not complain one bit about feeling sick and vomiting on our latest flight. That’s why I’m complaining on his behalf and I will continue to do so every time we fly until hopefully someone will get the message.

What do you think? Time for a change?

Reviews, Travelling with 5

Tips for planning a trip to Disneyland

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

Planning a trip to Disneyland Florida can be a daunting task. I know, because I’ve recently done it and I’d like to share a few tips to help make your trip run as smoothly as possible.

Booking

Are you going to go for a package holiday or book flights and accommodation yourself?

When we checked prices, we found a much better deal by booking separate flights and accommodation. Advanced planning meant that we booked everything a whole year in advance. Yes, you read that right, we booked as soon as we could get on there as that’s the only way to get the best deals.

You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to hotels and villas in Orlando and around the neighbouring areas. Whether you want to stay on site or further afield is up to you and what sort of accommodation you are looking for. Disney hotel guests can get entrance into the parks an hour earlier than everyone else during what’s called ‘Magic Hour’, plus you can easily get to the parks via the monorail system or shuttle bus. Everyone else has to wait until offical opening times and if your accommodation doesn’t provide a shuttle transportation service, you have to make your own way there.

We stayed at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek. This is not a Disney resort, but is only a short 10-15 minute drive to the parks, depending which one you were going to (it’s nearest to Magic Kingdom). Apparently, the hotel is built on the only piece of land that Walt Disney was unable to purchase. I chose this hotel for the accommodation it offered, as well as the location.

As a family of five, we always struggle to find accommodation big enough. Many hotels only allow up to two adults and two children in one room and will not guarantee that a second room you book will be interconnecting. I will never risk booking anything if this is the case. I like to know what we are getting before we get there.

The Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek had a few options and we went for a King room, interconnecting with two Queens. This meant we had one room for us and the children in the other, with the girls sharing one bed and my son in a bed of his own. They had their own bathroom and we could shut the door between us so they could go to sleep earlier and we didn’t need to disturb them.

Overlooking a golf course, the setting is stunning and when relaxing by the pool, you feel a million miles away from the hectic theme parks. The hotel is ajoined to the Waldorf Astoria and between them, the two hotels have a number of different restaurants to choose from. Both have a pool, but the Hilton has a lazy river, particularly popular with the kids. In the evening, there was often a poolside Disney movie playing and during the day, craft activities. For the grown ups, the Waldorf has a spa.

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

The Waldorf is more upmarket, but the Hilton felt more relaxed and family friendly.

Getting About

There is a shuttle bus that runs to and from the theme parks and the hotel all day. If you want to get a cab, it’s easy to pick one up right outside the hotel door (the concierge will see to this for you). Cabs are reasonably priced and we used them a number of times, given that we were so close to the parks.

If you stay near to the theme parks, you don’t need to hire a car. We had an airport transfer arrange for us by the hotel and we booked one ourselves for the return trip. We also booked transport to take us to the Florida Mall for an afternoon of shopping.

For going further afield, car hire would be a good option.

Tickets

Take advantage of the ticket offers on this side of the Atlantic rather than waiting until you get there. It will be much cheaper that way. You can buy a seven day or fourteen day ticket to cover six parks (that’s four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot, plus two water parks: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach).

You’ll get an on-line confirmation, then on your first day, you can pick up tickets from the Will Call kiosks at the entrance to the parks.

Itinerary

This is probably the most daunting part of booking your trip. I like to know my trip is organised to an extent, but I don’t like the idea of every hour of every day being mapped out. It can feel as though you are doing that when planning your Disney trip, but I can assure you that any planning you do will be worth it to save the aggravation of queues.

First thing’s first – Download the My Disney Experience app

This will be your go-to app for the whole trip, believe me. You can link your Disney park tickets to this app, so it includes all your party’s details. Then you can use it to book FastPass+ tickets (more about those in a minute), dinner reservations and check queuing times, amongst many other useful things (location of characters, facilities and photographers).

Decide where you want to go each day

I initially had the idea that we would do one day in a park and one day off. I think that works well if you are staying further afield, but if you are closer, you might want to consider doing half days everyday, which is what we did. Here are the reasons why:

The time difference – being five hours behind meant that we were up and ready to go bright and early every morning and so able to get to the parks for opening time. This worked well to take advantage of the slightly quieter first hour. The disadvantage was that by lunch time, we were all shattered, so an afternoon lazing by the pool at the hotel was welcomed by all of us.

Busy time of year – we went at Christmas and although not too bad in the mornings, by lunchtimes the parks really did fill up and it can become a bit unbearable.

The weather – although unseasonably hot, we were experiencing weather in the high twenties/early thirties. The mornings started out cloudy, but warm and when the sun burnt those clouds away by lunchtime, it was hot, hot, hot – not conducive to traipsing round a theme park with children in tow.

Half days means you can spread out your visits over two days, so it’s less hectic/stressful/tiring. We had ten days altogether and here’s what our ininery looked like:

Day 1: Magic Kingdom

Day 2: Magic Kingdom

Day 3: Animal Kingdom

Day 4: Animal Kingdom

Day 5: Magic Kingdom (For a couple of hours, as it was Christmas Day – it was heaving though)

Day 6: Hollywood Studies

Day 7: Hollywood Studios

Day 8: Epcot

Day 9: Day off

Day 10: Home

As you can see, we only did one day in Epcot because we were getting ‘theme-parked out’ by then. We managed to do all the rides we wanted to do in the time we were there. One day was enough for us in this park. We also didn’t fancy going to the water parks. One was closed for refurbishment anyway, but we had a lovely pool with lazy river at our hotel and that was enough for all of us.

Look at the park maps

You don’t want to book three FastPass+ tickets that have you trailing from one side of the park to the other and back again, so plan to book them within the same area. For example, Magic Kingdom has four areas: Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Adventureland and Frontierland. If you look at a map of the park, you will see that it makes sense to split it in half, meaning that you can do Tomorrowland and Fantasyland on one day and Adventureland and Frontierland on the other.

Do the same with the other parks by picking out three rides or attractions that are close together.

Make a list of all the things you want to do in each park. Remember, you can book FastPass tickets for shows and even for seeing characters (in Magic Kingdom only).

Booking FastPass+ tickets

You can book up to three FastPass+ tickets per day. Each ‘ticket’ gives you an hour’s slot for a ride of your choice. Turn up at any time during this hour and you bypass the main queues. This service doesn’t cost anything and it is well worth doing, especially if you have young children.

This is another advantage to visiting a park over two days. You can book three FastPass+ tickets for each day and by doing so, you can cover most of the rides or attractions that you want to visit.

Book your FastPass+ tickets up to one month before you go

Set your alarm on your phone to make sure you remember to do this. Tickets go quickly, especially during busy periods like Christmas and once they are all dished out, that’s it. Using the Disney app, you can pick out your three rides or attractions and it gives you time slots to choose from.

If you have a lot of rides and attractions you want to do, my advice would be to book your three FastPass tickets from around 10am and do some of the rides you haven’t booked tickets for before then. Getting in at opening time and heading to the back of the park first, will ensure you get on a ride with minimal wait times and without a FastPass. We did this at Epcot with a ride called Soarin. When we got to this ride, the wait time was ten minutes and by the time we came out from the ride, the wait had gone up to 45 minutes.

Magic Bands

These are an optional extra, but well worth it, in my opinion. When you go to the Will Call kiosk on your first visit to one of the parks, you can purchase Magic Bands for each family member (around $12 each) and get all your ticket and FastPass+ information put on them.

Entrance to the parks and all the rides requires scanning of tickets or Magic Bands and for ease (and reducing the risk of losing tickets) the Magic Bands fasten securely around your wrist and all you need to do is touch it to the scanning machine. Each family member wears their own band, which contains all their ticket and ID information. You can use them on subsequent visits too (if you ever decide to go back), for up to ten years.

The Magic Bands also have another use. If you get any photos taken in the park, or on the rides, you can scan them to your band and keep them all in one place. At the end of your stay, you can purchase any that you want to keep, which leads me to another pre-purchase option – the Memory Maker.

Memory Maker – all your photos in one place

We bought this via the Disney app before we left the UK and at first, I wondered whether I had done the right thing. However, we ended our trip with over 300 photos, so I think I can safely say it was worth it. You can scan every photo from the rides you go on, plus in every park you’ll find official Disney photographers stationed at various points. If you don’t go to the first one you see as you walk in, you will find another one within a few minutes’ walk where there’s little or no queue and you can get a photo souvenir of you and your family. Every character photo taken can also be scanned to your band and linked to the Memory Maker.

I don’t know about you, but it’s not often that we get many photos of all five of us when we go on holiday. Usually, it’s one of us taking the photos of the other four, so in that sense, it was a great opportunity for lots of family portraits. Making use of the Memory Maker also meant that we got some surprise shots like this:

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

And this:

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

Dining

I come to this section with a particular emphasis on catering for food intolerances. Regular readers will know my youngest can’t eat gluten and dairy. Whenever we go away, I spend a good deal of time researching suitable places where we can eat. You don’t need to worry about that when you go to Disney I’m happy to report.

We only ate in the parks once, opting instead for snacks, before heading back to our hotel. We found a ‘free-from’ kiosk in Animal Kingdom (opposite Starbucks, just before the bridge going in to Africa) and on the occasion we did eat, at the counter service eatery ABC Commissary in Hollywood Studios, I was able to order a gluten and dairy free children’s meal for my son.

The quick service eateries in the parks are fine if you don’t mind fast food. If you want to eat in one of the restaurants though, it’s best to book in advance, particularly if you want to experience a character meal.

Eating in the parks isn’t cheap either. If you can, take your own water and snacks. You can always refill your water bottles at one of the water fountains.

Where to eat

Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney) has a range of restaurants to suit all budgets and tastes. Undergoing extensive development, this area is set to double in size once it’s finished.

We ate here a number of times and anywhere we went to, we were asked if there were any special dietary requirements amongst our group. Following this, the chef (usually the head chef) would come to see us to talk through what we could have and help our son with his order. It was all very easy, never an issue and made eating out a relaxed and enjoyable experience.

My top picks

  • Bongos Cuban Cafe
  • Rainforest Cafe (there is another one in Animal Kingdom if you have difficulties getting into this one) – fun themed restaurant, where you are surrounded by sounds of the jungle
  • T-Rex – Dinosaur themed restaurant. Not for those wanting a quiet meal!
  • Paradiso 37, Taste of the Americas
  • Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC – if you can’t get dessert in your restaurant, treat yourself to something from here. You can even pre-order your baked goods to be delivered to any restaurant in any of the parks. We also ordered a gluten and dairy free birthday cake from here, which was delivered to our hotel.

Our hotel did a good job of looking after my son when it came to eating. On our first day, one of the chefs from the Harvest Bistro sat down with us and went through everything. They couldn’t have been anymore accommodating.

Highlights

There are so many great moments, that it would be impossible to list them all. Here are a few of our favourites from each park.

Magic Kingdom:

  • Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin
  • Tomorrowland Speedway
  • Space Mountain
  • Peter Pan’s Flight
  • Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid
  • Splash Mountain
  • Thunder Mountain

Animal Kingdom:

  • Primeval Whirl
  • Kilimanjaro Safaris
  • Festival of the Lion King
  • Dinosaur
  • Expedition Everest
  • It’s Tough to be a Bug

Hollywood Studios:

  • Lights, Motor Action – stunt show
  • Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular
  • Beauty and the Beast – Live on Stage
  • Toy Story Mania
  • Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (a favourite of my eldest daughter)

I swear, you have no control over your face when this ride sets off (it’s that fast!)

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

  • Star Tours – The Adventure Continues

My youngest son loved this. He also enjoyed the Jedi Training Academy

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

Epcot:

  • Soarin
  • Spaceship Earth
  • Test Track
  • The Seas with Nemo and Friends
  • Project Tomorrow: Inventing the World

Of course no trip to Disney would be complete without meeting your favourite characters. We have shots with Buzz and Woody, Cinderella and Rapunzel, the Jungle Book crew, Monster Inc, Sophia the First, to name but a few. Our favourite had to be this pair though:

 

Tips for planning your Disney trip - A Free From Life

 

This has been an epic post, but it was an epic trip and deserved a full-featured write-up. If you have any tips you’d like to share, please let me know in the comments section.

 

Sharing for Monday Escapes

My Travel Monkey

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Reviews, Travelling with 5

Birthday celebrations in Orlando, ‘free-from’ style – Erin McKenna’s Bakery review

Gluten and dairy free birthday cake - A Free From Life

My son is a Christmas Day baby and we normally spend the morning opening Christmas presents and doing the Christmas ‘thing’, with the afternoon then reserved for Birthday. We have lunch at midday, with Birthday cake for pudding instead of traditional Christmas pud.

I usually make a cake because gluten and dairy free cakes are difficult to come by, so I was wondering what we would do for his Birthday this time, as we had booked a trip to Orlando over the festive period. To say I was over the moon to find out that Erin McKenna has opened a bakery at Disney Springs (formally Downtown Disney) is somewhat of an understatement. We first came across this bakery (formerly known as BabyCakes) in New York a couple of years ago, as it was somewhere I particularly wanted to take my son. Imagine, an individual who can’t eat gluten or dairy being able to walk into a bakery and chose whatever they wanted?

Babycakes’ products are completely allergen free and the only thing that has changed is the name. Now Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC has a branch in Orlando and this lovely little understated shop sells sweet treats that are free from refined sugar, wheat, gluten, egg, soya and dairy, plus they are vegan and kosher.

I ordered my son a chocolate frosted chocolate cake (may as well go all out I thought) and had it delivered to our hotel. What a surprise it was for him when our server brought it out, complete with candles and balloons, whilst they sang happy birthday to him (that was the hotel staff not the bakery people!).

Gluten and dairy free birthday cake - A Free From Life

The cake was moist and fudgy, plus not too sweet, which is just how I like it. Luckily, so did my son and whenever we took a trip to Disney Springs for dinner, we knew that we would have no problem getting him something for dessert (not normally an option when you go out). He can officially report that as well as the chocolate birthday cake, the chocolate donuts are amazing!

Gluten and dairy free birthday cake - A Free Fom Life