Iceland – land of fire and ice

A version of this article first appeared in the Indian Express Eye Sunday edition of 20th May 2018.

It’s tough to ignore a place that calls itself Iceland and if that part of the world suddenly finds its exchange rates falling, it becomes irresistible. So back in 2012, with a 9-month-old well-traveled baby, we packed our bags to head to the other side of the Arctic Circle.

Much research later, we decided to spend our time in Reykjavik and the southern part of the island (a good 100km below the arctic circle). Iceland is little like any expectations one might have from an island. The whole island feels more like a national park and a petri dish of where the Earth is getting made. There is much volcanic and geological activity happening all over and one gets to see geysirs, lava rocks and glaciers all around. In fact, Iceland should really be two islands by now, only volcanic eruptions fill in the gap enough to “glue” together the plates that tectonic movements pull apart.

ICELAND: Lava fields

We flew into Reykjavik through Helsinki, and decided to explore the country driving ourselves around. The capital city feels more like a pretty and friendly town with little houses, colorful rooftops and a church whose architecture reflects the local geology of volcanic lava formations. With a bit of snow, it is a landscape that shames illustrators of fairy tale stories. The city parties hard at night, and since there are months that the sun never really sets and months that the sun doesn’t really show up, pub hopping till 5 am and candle lit breakfasts are a norm. We did neither with a little bub in tow and drove off to the south coast followed by Golden Circle instead.

The southern coast drive starts off with the incredibly pretty waterfalls of Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, two hours away from Reykjavik. These are gigantic falls with so much water spray that one is guaranteed to get wet. We came prepared with our rain covers from the Niagara trip, and picked up an industrial strength rain suit for the daughter from a charming little shop called 66*N. The old lady there was quite the salesperson and upgraded us from a simple raincoat to what the Icelandic kids normally wear – rain pants with elastic to keep the leg in place, a raincoat that reached the daughter’s knees and rain boots. They all came in very handy in a hike to a cave behind Seljalandsfoss, which offered a rare behind the scenes view of the waterfall.

08-DSC_5030

From water to ice – we headed to the Vatnajokull National Park. Currently vying for inclusion in the World Heritage Sites, the park is house to glaciers, lakes and lava fields with a geography that changes often. Driving around in the area was gorgeous. Glacial tongues poked out invitingly, tempting us to hike closer.

ICELAND BLOG Hike to the glaciel tongue in Skaftafell National Park
Hike to the glaciel tongue in Skaftafell National Park

Even in the beginning of summer the air was crisp and temperatures ranged around 15 deg C. We even got to see a rare full double rainbow on the drive!

ICELAND: the rare sight of a double rainbow

Finally at Jokullsarlon, we got to see the surreal Iceland I had been expecting all along. Jokullsarlon has glacial lakes and black pebble beaches that are studded with, wait for it, icebergs! Unlike any other island experience in the world, here we were, dressed in 3 layers from top to toe, smothered in sunscreen picking up chunks of ice on the black beach. I had to pinch myself to believe it.

543284_10151221420597818_1125264552_n

ICELAND: fjords in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Fjords in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

From Ice to snow – we headed into the glacier itself for a snowmobile ride. Skidoo suited us all up in snowsuits and the 9m old daughter had to wear a suit for a 5 year old, since they’d never had such a young kid on a ride before. Her milk bottle snuggled deep in my snowsuit, the daughter snuggled tight in the baby carrier and myself snuggled nicely behind the travel crazy husband who thought this was a totally normal family adventure to have, off we went to the heart of the white. The glacier had surprisingly soft snow on top. A few snow fights and snow angels later, we headed back the base camp for hot soup and warm beds.

403553_10151221422077818_1059207226_n

The next day, a quick stop in Skaftafell to hike around and explore the turf houses that look like they are half underground, we moved onto to Vik. Vik is a remote seafront village that sits in the shadow of an unpronounceable glacier, which covers the Katla volcano. Geographic tongue twisting aside, the place has a beautiful black beach, basalt rock formations with appropriate troll legends to add a bit of cultural magic, and is home to the colorful penguin cousins – the puffin birds. We spotted quite a few nesting in the caves by the beach.

ICELAND: A puffin pair nesting in the cliffs
A puffin pair nesting in the cliffs

The next stop for us was the tourists’ delights of the Golden Circle – Gulfoss falls and the Geysir region. The Gullfoss – a 2-tiered waterfall that is the Hvita River falling 32m down into a gorge, is Europe’s answer to the Niagara Falls. Where it trumps Niagara, is in winter when the whole waterfall is a glistening mass of water frozen in motion.

ICELAND: Gullfoss waterfalls
Gullfoss waterfalls

The Great Geysir is a whole different Icelandic experience and the source of the word geyser itself. Stokkur, obligingly, erupts every 6-10 minutes providing the photo op.

We gave the Thingvellir National Park a miss in favor of a last stop to experience the Blue Lagoon Spa on our way to the airport. The geothermal waters heated to a toasty 38-40C are rich in silica and have therapeutic properties. Healing or not, floating in warm milky blue waters surrounded by ice covered lava fields is the last surreal Icelandic experience we had to have.

This little island has a truly spectacular Earth show where staring into the sky one could end up spotting the Aurora Borealis, on a simple trek one could be treading on ice or lava and on a black sand beach one could be holding chunks of ice. No wonder it is the home of the Huldufolk — elves and fairies who supposedly populate the Icelandic countryside and who are only real to those who truly believe in magic.

 

Travel Essentials For Babies & Little Kids – What Not To Leave Home Without

We’ve travelled the world with our kids since they were 8 weeks old. Sara’s first trip out was to the US East Coast, Mexico and Cuba and Kabir was out to Oman for his first ever New Years. Since then, they’ve been to nearly 30 countries and been guinea pigs for our travel planning and packing. Over the years I’ve found somethings are indispensable when leaving home with the kids. Here is a list of my 10 essentials for travel with babies and toddlers.

Baby Carrier – great for the younger ones under 1, carry them around and visit museums and markets alike. They fall asleep easily and are well entertained by the world outside when awake. It also helps to have both hands free at the airport or at the market! We’ve used the Baby Bjorn carrier for the longest time and been very happy with it.

Checking out Oman in a baby carrier
Checking out Oman in a baby carrier

Stroller – we took it to our US trip when the kids were 3 and 6 nearly, great for long walks, airports when the kids are jet lagged and want to not walk, afternoon or early night naps and of course for carrying all assorted bags. Stollers on board the flight need to be under 12 pounds and easily foldable. Maclaren is a good choice, though expensive. Ours has survived several years of rough use.

Stroller - often used by the older one to nap
Stroller – often used by the older one to nap. It is easier to carry the younger one!

The Stole – as multipurpose as an item can get – sheet in aeroplanes, picnic spread in a garden, sarong on a beach … a must have. For more ideas, read this.

Sun Block – so much time is spent outdoors in the full day sun. This is relevant even during winters as the afternoon sun can be quite harsh and young children are more vulnerable.

Swim-suits – whether you plan to stay in a place with a pool or not, do carry one. especially to Europe and Singapore. There are so may places for open water play where the kids can just get into a swimsuit and have a blast, even the London zoo has one!

Look, I hatched from one of the dino eggs!
Look, I hatched from one of the dino eggs! Unexpected swimsuit moment at the Universal Studios in Singapore

Sterilising tablets, wipes and sanitiser – a combo that can tackle most of the moms worries. From snotty noses to public toilets, wipes and sanitiser can make a lot of places safer. Have one hanging from the handle of your day bag for ready use.

Travel Scrap Book – one way to make good memories out of a trip and help the child imbue the spirit of the place is to have a scrap book. At the end of the day making a picture of the what they enjoyed the most, sticking in some leaves/tickets etc into the book not only helps reflection, it makes for a calm dinner time and wind down after an exciting day. I usually put together my own, but this December, I’m dying to try the Litjoys Little Collector’s Passport!

The Travel Goody Bag – This is another must have for peaceful travels. Jet lag, less sleep, too much excitement is a heady cocktail that ends in more frequent meltdowns and tantrums. One way to ward off a tantrum is to hand the child something new and different as a distraction. I carry a goody bag which has small new things ranging from Kinder Joy to new colors to a small car or fun erasers or small DIY things. It has served me well during long flights and sit down dinners.

Empty Tupperware boxes of 3 sizes. nothing like raiding the hotel breakfast spread to carry you through the day. My son is a fussy eater and the daughter and I need lots of fruits through the day. So I make it a point to pack in some grub from the breakfast buffet.

The spirit of adventure. I cannot say this enough. Travel with kids will never be the same as before. But it will always be better than sitting at home. No matter how painful the jet lag and how disappointing an early night might be, it is a great adventure to travel together.

Never loose your sense of adventure!
Never loose your sense of adventure!

And here is your printable copy of a carry on bag checklist – The Backpacking Mama Packing Checklist

The Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is one of the few active volcano systems on earth. In fact isn’t just a volcano, it is a super-volcano capable of the most massive eruptions known to man. The last such eruption wiped out a chunk of North America about 170,000 years ago and while geologists predict the next one is at least 10,000 years away, whats 10,000 years in the Earth’s timescale! So I had been hankering to get to see the park before it exploded again.

The park is an earth lover’s delight. Despite having seen the beauty of South America with its awe-inspiring scale, Yellowstone turned out to be unique and amazing. The landscape is gorgeous with multi-coloured rocks, hydrothermal bodies, lodgepole pine trees and their very own big five of the wild life.

We spent 5 days in the park, divided between the south – heart of the geo thermal wonders: hot springs, geysers and the like, and the north which is good to spot some wildlife. Since were were three families with five kids between 1yo and 9yo, we splurged on the stay with 2 nights at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge in the South and the Grand Canyon Lodge in the North. Accommodation within the park closes almost 6-8 months in advance, so book early.

South Yellowstone: stunning landscapes and geysers

The Old Faithful Lodge is a short walk away from the namesake geyser, which is called so because it will explode every 45 mins, give or take 10. The next eruption time is put up near the visitor complex and we headed straight there after checking in. The Old Faithful is amazing to watch, starting off as a small bubbling fountain and rising to the sky. Staying close by offered us the chance to watch the eruption multiple times and at different times of the day.  Being on the side of the sun at sunrise and sunset offers a nice rainbow view on the opposite side. There is a boardwalk that takes one to watch a number of other smaller geysers in the area and is worth a visit, though little ones have to be constantly monitored not to end up in hot water.

A nice vantage point to watch the Old Faithful
A nice vantage point to watch the Old Faithful

The geyser eruption

There are a number of hot-springs and geysers in the area

Kabir enjoys playing with a stick, oblivious to the Old Faithful right in front of him!
Kabir enjoys playing with a stick, oblivious to the Old Faithful right in front of him!

The other big attraction in the region is The Grand Prismatic, a short drive away from the Old Faithful. While ariel views of the basin are breath-taking, even a walk on the walkway around is beautiful. The boardwalk is pram friendly, but if your toddler is anything like mine, one who wants to run around at freewill, he will need constant monitoring. The ground off the boardwalk may look solid, but is merely a thin crust at a lot of places, plus the water rivulets are boiling hot. It gets quite windy, so best to take off hats, stoles etc that might fly away. We saw many a wise men who had chosen not to pick up their hats that had flown off.

A view of the Grand Prismatic from eye level
A view of the Grand Prismatic from eye level
The kids walking along the boardwalk surrounding the Grand Prismatic
The kids walking along the boardwalk surrounding the Grand Prismatic

It’s top view looks like a colourful eye and is worth a hike up the close by hill. The park intends to open a proper viewing point by August 2017, but in June, Mohit had to hike up a narrow and steep trail. The best time to get there is between 11am and 2pm when the sun is high up and all the colours are at their brilliant most.

There are a lot of artist references in the naming of the attractions and for good reason, the landscape is unpredictably gorgeous and colourful. From the Artist’s Paint Pots to Yellowstone River to Mammoth Hot-springs.

The multi-layered steaming hot rocks at Mammoth hot-springs
The multi-layered steaming hot rocks at Mammoth hot-springs
The viewing point at the top of the Artist's Paint Pots
The viewing point at the top of the Artist’s Paint Pots
The Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone River

We ended our Day 3 with driving down to the Yellowstone Lake for a fabulous view a quiet dinner.

North Yellowstone: the wildlife

We moved to Canyon Lodge on the next day and from here on it was all about driving around to spot the wildlife. The Yellowstone big 5 comprise – the bison, bear, elk, bighorn sheep and wolves. Like any wildlife, they are best spotted in the early morning and evening hours.

We first drove out to the magnificent view of the Tower Falls, followed by some ice-cream and then drove around with a picnic lunch in search for the bears.

The gorgeous Tower Falls
The gorgeous Tower Falls

The trick here is to keep driving around with your eyes peeled till you find a bear or a bear jam. Yes, the long line of cars which have stopped on the side of the road because they spotted a bear. Sara was clearly better at spotting the animals than we were. We saw 2 bears, a coyote crossing the road, big-horn sheep from a long distance and an eagle nest.

The lone bison
The lone bison
Spot the bear. They are tough to spot. This was a baby bear which looked more like a wolf from the distance
Spot the bear. They are tough to spot. This was a baby bear which looked more like a wolf from the distance

The elk and the eagle’s nest

The one where we spotted the bear and started a bear jam
The one where we spotted the bear and started a bear jam

Alas, no wolves though we did drive out to Lamar valley where one has the highest probability of spotting one. Elks and bison were far more easily spotted grazing around.

There were very many great nooks for a nice picnic lunch and we stopped by a stream to enjoy the view.

Our picnic by the stream
Our picnic spot by the stream
Tempted to dip our toes in the water
Tempted to dip our toes in the water

The landscape changes so dramatically between the north and the south of the park. Thick pine forests and snow cover most of the north. The region sees its fair share of forest fires and one can spot the burnt pine needles from a distance. But seeing the new shoots right among the burnt trees made me feel the power of the earth, its resilience – it will survive, we wont.

Normally I’m amazed by the vastness of the universe, this was one of the places I was moved by the power, beauty and resilience of the earth.

~~~

Things to keep in mind while in the Yellowstone National Park

Animals and safetyWhile driving around to spot the animals is a great idea, the par does advise one to stay 100 yards away from the big animals like bears and wolves and 25 yards way from all others including bison and elk. Keep children under safe watch

Preparing for the weather: though temperatures seem fine in the shade, the sun can get really warm in summers and sunscreen is a must. Keep an extra layer of clothing  – like a light jacket and tights in the bag for the evenings which get quite chilly. 

Food: we found the food option in the par very limiting. There was either the the visitor complex and its fast food area with the same burger type options everywhere or the sit down diner places where one had to wait 45 mins in line before being able to order. The other choice was cold sandwiches and salads from the souvenir shop. We did pick up fresh fruit everyday. Warm milk was another challenge, cold milk was available everywhere, but no heating mechanism was available outside or even in our rooms. 

 

 

NASA: Kennedy Space Center, Florida

“The sky calls to us” – Carl Sagan

Says the wall outside the visitor complex of the NASA launch pad, Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral, the very place which launched the first man on the moon.

My holiday isn’t complete unless I get to see the milky way, this was way better. We spent a day at the KSC understanding what really happens at NASA, admiring the height of American achievement at the Atlantis Space Shuttle showcase and giving the kids (and ourselves) a chance to get up, close and personal with rockets, science and astronauts.

The day started with the 90 minute bus tour of the entire complex that showed us the actual vehicle assembly building where the rockets are assembled, the launchpad for the shuttles all the while explaining what goes into getting to space. We stopped off first to watch the history of the NASA space program and its progress over the years, followed by a visit to Saturn V.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1402.
Right outside NASA!

The introduction was all about how the ‘man on the moon’ mission came about along with the speech from Kennedy, followed by  the actual control room from where the first successful shuttle to the moon was launched, to live the ‘race to the moon’. With a countdown timer running on the side, the relevant controls lighting up in front of us and the realistic sound and light effect of a rocket launch, I could feel the euphoria the team must have felt at the time of the real launch and almost felt like standing up and cheering at the launch.

The control room from where the Saturn V was launched
The control room from where the Saturn V was launched

The exhibit closes with one walking into a large area displaying Saturn V, at 363 feet long, the largest rocket ever built. We spent close to 2 hours exploring the place – the rockets, moon rocks, exhibits one could walk through and feel like an astronaut in and lunching at the cafe. The food court here was a lot cheaper than the main visitor complex.

The magnificent Saturn V
The magnificent Saturn V

 

Under the belly of Saturn V
Under the belly of Saturn V

Next on the list, was a visit to the Space Shuttle Atlantis building. Along with the magnificent shuttle was American marketing prowess on display.  One cant fail to be impressed with the full scale 184-foot space shuttle stack, including external tank and two solid rocket boosters, right at the entrance.

The entrance to the Space Shuttle Atlantis
The entrance to the Space Shuttle Atlantis

Inside, we saw an IMAX movie presenting the context, followed by a short 360 movie view of the rocket,  closing with a a large screen with a picture of the Atlantis Space Shuttle…and then the screen lifts to reveal the beauty itself, the real spaceship suspended mid air with its cargo doors open. A showcase that is awe-inspiring as intended. We spent close to 45 mins admiring the ship and the multiple interactive exhibits that allow kids to feel like they are navigating a spaceship!

The Atlantis
The Atlantis

 

After making our way back, we went into the IMAx theatre to watch a movie about Mission Mars. The queue gets long, so getting there early would help. The way out lead us to a number of interactive exhibits simulating some space experiences including an air slide, a transparent tunnel suspended 20 feet above the ground, space toilets etc, which the kids really enjoyed.

What do you call a poop floating in space?                     A gastronaut
What do you call a poop floating in space? A gastronaut

 

We had limited time and had to head back after about 5 odd hours, but the place deserves at least a full day. The two other attractions we would have liked to visit were the Rocket Garden and the book signing by a real astronaut. Older kids are likely to enjoy the space shuttler simulator immensely.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1482.
The Rocket Garden

Even without an engineering background I was much fascinated by the detail that goes into exploring beyond the earth – from the sheer energy required to propel a rocket into outer-space to the nuts and bolts of the launch pad. A trip to NASA is guaranteed to inspire awe and amazement. I left with a renewed feeling of wide eyed wonder at really  how amazingly expansive the universe is, and how, despite all our breath-taking achievements, we’ve only gone so far…. and the sky calls to us.

~~

Planning Tips with kids

  1. Plan to spend at least 7-8 hours at the centre, we were there for about 5 hrs and missed the astronaut meet and greet, rocket garden and space shuttle simulator
  2. Get there early, queues start lengthening after 10 am. Also, do the Atlantis Space Shuttle and Saturn V in the beginning to avoid long wait time.
  3. Use the loo; eat a snack before getting onto the bus tour since it is about 45 mins long and there may be long queues for boarding
  4. Try the space dots ice-cream 🙂
  5. Strollers are available for a nominal charge at the ($6) near the start of the Bus Tour, but if you get your own, parking is also available.
  6. While there is a children’s play dome with a NASA themed play area, we found the exhibits far more interesting and a better use of the limited time!

3 Weeks In The USA

Our big trip this year was planned for the US. Unusually enough, it did not involve any sporting event. I was really keen on getting to the Yellowstone National Park before it blows up and staying inside the park needs one to make booking about a year in advance, before any sports event dates were declared!

This trip, all of three weeks had us trooping across the US starting with Florida for 4 days, followed by a cruise to the Bahamas for 4 days, a day at NASA, onto Yellowstone National Park for another 4 days then a day in Vegas, a day driving to the Grand Canyon, a day driving back to Vegas and finally 2 days in Orlando exploring the parks.

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 9.08.28 PM

Much debate happened around whether we should do Disneyland right at the beginning of the trip or at the end – start with a bang for the kids or end with one? Finally, given young Kabir still naps in the afternoon and takes forever to get over jet-lag, we decided to push Disney to the end so we wouldn’t all be cranky.

The days in Florida were spent with friends in Davie at sun-kissed beaches between Davie, Ft Lauderdale and Miami, with a fantastic Peruvian lunch thrown in <Close to 15th and Collins, is Chalan by the sea. Do try the Saltado house meat dish and the fish in garlic sauce>.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1176.
Enjoying the clear blue skies and gentle waves on the beaches of Florida
The Miami Post Office,  apparently barely used
The Miami Post Office, apparently barely used
Cute outdoor cafes with a strong Latin American flavor
Cute outdoor cafes with a strong Latin American flavor

 

The ariel view of the state pretty much shows water bodies everywhere but I was surprised to hear that there is a piece of news every other week about a croc being sighted in someone’s house or a lake nearby! The friends we stayed with, got to see lizards of every size pretty much every week in their back-yard. So my greatest disappointment was not getting to see a croc lazing about on the road.

So while the first week was very relaxed with lazing at the beaches and cruising, the last few days were very hectic what with driving all day for 2 days, snatched tourist moments at Vegas and just about a sunrise and sunset caught at the Grand Canyon, followed by really long days at Disneyland and Universal Studios. In hindsight, we should have cut out the Vegas and Grand Canyon leg, and spent 2 additional days at the parks; or, swapped the dates for the cruise and the parks.

We drove around pretty much on every leg, except of course the cruise. The US is a great place to drive and park. Every car is given about 3 cars worth of parking space! My Indian parking sense really wanted to yell at people to move over and make space for each other rather than keep driving around in circles waiting for someone to vacate a spot so you can actually get off at a viewing point.

Flights are best for long distance travel. We flew from Orlando to Yellowstone West, then to Las Vegas and then Back to Orlando. Flying Delta was a good experience the service great but no inflight entertainment, unless one downloaded their app in advance. United was not entirely pleasant. I wasn’t too positive about them given the recent news and my personal experience did nothing to dispel the notion. They had no blankets, little and disappointing food and generally irritated staff.

I didn’t quite know what to expect a US trip to be like, in the Trump era, but there is nothing worth mentioning. The VISA and immigration formalities were no different than when I visited 10 years ago. I may have felt more visible signs of intolerance, but it could well have been confirmation bias.

Well, more on each leg in the following blogs.

 

Cruisin’ With Kids and Toddlers – Carnival Liberty

Our next big leg after Florida was a short 4 day cruise to the Bahamas on Carnival Liberty. This too, was with our friends from the US (with kids aged 5 and 1.5). I wasn’t quite sure about how the experience would be, since holiday for me means being outdoors for most waking hours and cruise means being pretty much in the hotel, gigantic as it may be, all the time. It turned out be be a mixed bag.

The fun parts:

We boarded from Port Canaveral, Orlando at noon, choosing to do an early check in so we could enjoy a good lunch and pool before the rooms got allocated. Having done our research, we’d packed a day bag with swimwear and sunscreen and most essentials that the kids would need, as it takes about half the day to get the bags after the check in. So lunch was followed by hitting the  fairly empty pools directly.

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 9.17.30 PM

There was a good kids club called Camp Ocean, where one could leave kids above 2 years for almost the whole day. With enough activities to do, the kids stay occupied; the camp team takes care of meals for the older ones and gives the parents a phone on which they can call in case the child needs the parents. We were happy to leave Sara and Kabir for a couple of hours. But mostly they spent time with the kids of the friends we were traveling with.

There were a number of really fun activities for the kids – the pools, the water slide, Father’s Day card making, Camp Ocean activities, Harry Potter quiz, build a bear (entirely missable and expensive), and some others. The highlights were Dr Seuss story reading session which was done very well and the Dr Seuss breakfast (@USD 5 per person). In both cases the kids got to meet the characters, be part of the story, dine on green eggs and ham while being served by Thing 1-82! To be honest, I enjoyed this part as much as the kids did.

The stage is set for The Cat In The Hat
The stage is set for The Cat In The Hat
DCIM100GOPROGOPR1309.
Real Green Eggs & Ham!

The evenings were spent on the deck watching a kiddy blockbuster with popcorn and hot dogs. The kids quite enjoyed the movie, and i enjoyed watching the sunset from various parts of the deck which chasing Kabir around the ship.

Gorgeous sunsets that lasted almost an hour
Gorgeous sunsets that lasted almost an hour

Our cabin was quite spacious, complete with a small wardrobe, fridge, TV, and bunk beds for the kids. We pushed one of the suitcases under the bed which gave us plenty space to move around. The window-sil was made into private spaces by the girls and the little boys spent their in-room time climbing up and down the bunk bed.

This is our space
This is the girls’ space

 

And this, the boys'
And this, the boys’

Food and drink was always available in plenty. We dined mostly in the informal dining area at meal times and picked up snacks as and when needed. There was ice-cream, tea and coffee available round the clock free of cost which made all of us quite happy. Dinner tables were reserved for each room in the formal dining hall which had good food including an Indian dish on the menu and the deserts were to die for. One could order breakfast in the room all day, which gave us a plentiful supply of fruits and snacks for the kids.

The Disappointments:

So I did get the feeling of being indoors for way too much time on the first 2 days that we were at sea, and even on the days that we docked at Nassau and FreeportI felt we had too little time to really explore the islands. We’d manage to get off the ship by 1030 and had to be back by 4.

There was absolutely no cell-phone connectivity and the internet packages were very expensive @40USD for the 4 days for non streaming connections and @16 USD for whatsapp only.

The water-play was very limited. There were 2 stamp sized pools and 4 coin sized whirlpools. There was no water play area, only a water slide where they did not allow kids to go in the lap. So while Sara thoroughly enjoyed it, Kabir couldn’t really go. Also, they had this weird policy of not allowing babies in diapers into the pool! It seemed that drunk adults in the pool were more likely to cause disasters than little kids.  While we had started toilet training Kabir before leaving, it’s hard to keep up on vacation and we did put him in with a swimming diaper on, making sure it wasn’t visible.

In the formal dining area, there are only 2 dinner slots – 630pm and 830pm, so one couldn’t dine there in between, which made it difficult.

Despite calling themselves family friendly, there is no supply of any baby products on board. So if you run out of diapers, formula or wipes – you’re on your own. Even warm milk was a challenge. Most of the milk available was cold, and one could order hot milk as part of dinner or room service, which made other milk times quite difficult.

If, the kids were older, i think we would have enjoyed a lot more. All the pools were visible for the main deck, so putting the kids in the pool and lounging on the deck with drinks or dropping kids at the Camp ocean for an evening out is very much possible with kids above 5.

Would I do a cruise again? I did enjoy seeing the stars on open waters, and with more docking days, it would have been nicer. Maybe Alaska.

~~~

 

Airport Review – Munich & Frankfurt

The Munich Airport has been given a 5–star rating by SkyTrax and with good reason and Frankfurt Airport boasts exclusive kids’ experiences. Shweta Markandeya agrees.

Here is her review from having traveled through there with her young daughter.

Play areas and open areas available for kids – everyone wants to stretch their legs during a lay over, and open spaces work very well. These don’t necessarily have to be “play areas”, but any safe, cordoned off area where the kids can toddle around with tolerance for their antics. Installation art, exhibits and a clear view of the airplanes landing and taking off can keep kids and parents engaged for quiet a while. Munich Airport’s award winning Terminal 2 (which serves Lufthansa & partners) has a clean and open design and installations and local shops that kept me and my daughter engaged on a 10 hour lay-over.

The Frankfurt Airport has unusual play areas located conveniently near the gates, a place to rent a stroller if you need one, and yummy food options with big and small portions.

Not your average play area - Munich airport
Not your average play area – Munich airport
Not your average play area Frankfurt Airport
Not your average play area – Frankfurt Airport

Availability and location of family rest rooms – Separate and roomy family rest rooms are a boon, especially for families with multiple kids and very young ones. It is a pain to change diapers or breastfeed a baby in a normal ‘loo’. A family rest room provides a dry space to change diapers and a clean and private space to feed the baby. Both Munich and Frankfurt airports have baby changing rooms. Germans are also very accepting of the fact that mums need to feed their babies, so breast-feeding in public is not a problem at all.

Mommy down time at Frankfurt Airport
Mommy down time at Frankfurt Airport

Preference for families in immigration and security – no one likes endless queues, but taking a squirming, frisky 18 month old through an immigration or security line is a pain for all – the baby, parents and everyone around. German airports score on these counts for immigration and transit security checks. The staff is trained to divert families to a separate queue. What is also helpful are hub airports and allied airlines that don’t through check in the stroller, but allow you to pick it up during transit – after all that’s one of the reasons why you are lugging the stroller!

Most helpful of all was the general attitude of the airport staff as well as the staff in restaurants and shops. At the Munich airport, all the shop staff was welcoming and usually had some kids activity book to offer the little shoppers

Shopping fun Munich airport
Fun being German

Some ideas to keep little ones occupied at the airport, that work for us

  1. Books – always a hit with all ages
  2. Activity books and sketch books
  3. Read up on airplanes and aviation, and watch the various systems in place
  4. Read the signages and the floor maps, and have a little game of treasure hunt
  5. Watch the planes take off and land

**update from the backpacking mama**

The German Airports have recently been a little difficult for Indians with a couple of cases of random checks based on racial profiling. I know of 1 person who missed his flight due to the checking and received no support from the airport staff. I would recommend reaching significantly early.

~~

After 10 years of climbing the corporate ladder in investment banking and corporate strategy roles, Shweta decided to call it quits and just “chill” with her now 5 and a half year old daughter. When not wandering on foot, she wanders in her mind by reading, writing and planning yet another trip! She de-stresses by running and sipping her glass of Riesling. She lists Greece, Northern California and Prague as her favourite destinations – she’d be happy to run a book cum coffee shop in Oia!

 

Munich Airport Facilities

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 11.54.46 AM

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 11.55.09 AM

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 11.55.25 AM

 

Frankfurt Airport Facilities

https://www.frankfurt-airport.com/de/faszination-airport/kids—family.html#map_copy

 

**update from the backpacking mama**

The German Airports have recently been a little difficult for Indians with a couple of cases of random checks based on racial profiling. I know of 1 person who missed his flight due to the checking and received no support from the airport staff. I would recommend reaching significantly early.

~~

After 10 years of climbing the corporate ladder in investment banking and corporate strategy roles, Shweta decided to call it quits and just “chill” with her now 5 and a half year old daughter. When not wandering on foot, she wanders in her mind by reading, writing and planning yet another trip! She de-stresses by running and sipping her glass of Riesling. She lists Greece, Northern California and Prague as her favourite destinations – she’d be happy to run a book cum coffee shop in Oia!

Top Tips When Traveling To Iran

**

A follow up from the lovely piece on Iran from Fabian, incase you do plan to go there

**

Things you should know before you head to the country as a tourist.

1) It helps if you can speak or understand Farsi, or are travelling with somebody who does. Compared to most countries, the prevalence of English is a lot less amongst the average person, and this includes broken, half-gesture-quarter-funnyface-quarter-mutualfrustration English. You may think this is not that different from a lot of non-English-speaking countries, especially the rural areas, but even in such places you are likely to scrape by using basic words. In Iran, it was sometimes difficult to explain ‘sandwich’.

Also, except for roads and the tourist spots, the signage is all Farsi.

Our suggestion: Do keep a handy list of essential items and services you may require, or keep a translation app at the ready. It also helps if you know Urdu or Hindi, because once you account for it being a different language, it’s amazing just how many words you can understand (and through it, sentences).

2) Iran was also the first country we had been to which almost completely ignores the Georgian calendar. Except for official and international stuff, they just use the Persian calendar. It was astounding how often people had to stop and think for a moment to remember it was ‘September’ or ‘2016’.

It was doubly surreal for us because that is the same calendar the Parsis follow in India (for religious purposes), and which nobody knows about except the Parsis. Here, everybody did.

3) Things aren’t cheap as you might expect. Thanks to the sanctions, Iran’s inflation has been running fairly high, and while there are some bargains to be had, foodstuffs in particular are at par with more expensive countries.

Also, we were regularly and insistently informed that it’s cheaper to buy Persian carpets outside the country, so sadly our Aladdin fantasies didn’t come to fruition.

4) The cabbies don’t use meters. Be prepared to bargain. It was like being in Dilli or Bangalore, except the drivers don’t scratch so much.

5) If you’re going to be eating out, and you’re a vegetarian, be prepared for finding one option in main courses (if you’re lucky). If you’re a vegan, givvup only. Although it’s possible to live just on the fruits (oh yes!).

6) US dollars beshht (although pounds and euros come close). All major currencies are changeable officially, of course, but if you’re stuck without local money and need to exchange some/make an urgent payment, it helps to have some dollars handy.

7) The inter-city buses are quite good. There are flights, but not so many, and the trains run on some bizarre schedule of their own. The buses, however, are the lifeline for those without personal transport – they are relatively cheap, are airconditioned, have reclining seats, and you’re served a full snack-kit at least once. Unfortunately, they do insist on playing at least one film during the journey, and there’s no real way to mute the sound.

8) Women do need to be dressed in a certain way. If you’re travelling from India, you can get away with wearing kurta-pyjamas/ salwar-kameez – although it will mark you out as a tourist immediately.

**

Seema and Fabian Bhatia-Panthaki are the new parents of twin canine girls, whose demands mean long-distance travel is now a luxury. This Iran trip may have been their last joint foreign outing for some time to come. To keep their scampering scamps in the manner they have become accustomed to, Seema works in the field of International Development, while Fabian functions as an editor. 

Iran Unshrouded

You likely have some nascent impression of Iran, probably aided by the occasional report that pops up in the media when something big happens in the country. The Revolution of ’79. Religious orthodoxy. Persepolis (the city, the graphic novel). Sanctions. Its nuclear ambitions.

Before our visit, we read a lot of current-news stories and followed a few blogs about the country to get some idea of what to expect. Despite this, we imagined that all the years of wars, sanctions, and religion would have resulted in mid-level infrastructure and a conservative public culture.

But the country turned out to be quite different. Yes, it lives up to some clichés, but it belies many more.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

A lot of Iran is unpopulated, hardscrabble terrain – either mountains or semi-arid scrubland – and dotted with lots of small towns and very few villages. And, most strikingly, few farms. But at least the highways were awesome.

The big cities however are a different scene altogether.

For starters, they’re quite modern. The buildings are well-designed, well laid-out, and spacious. There are swanky shops everywhere that stocking international brands (with an almost-zero presence of malls and hypermarkets, which made shopping that much more interesting).

Who needs ugly malls when you have bazaars like this (Teheran)
Who needs ugly malls when you have bazaars like this (Teheran)

Public transport is widely used (if not as widely available as it should be). There is new construction everywhere, but there are far fewer ugly-glass monstrosities than you would expect, and far fewer high-rises as well.

Most startlingly, the roadworks were some of the best we had seen anywhere in the world. Seriously, anywhere. Mostly because they’re well-thought out and, well, typically Persian – graceful flyovers, benches everywhere on proper pavements with ramp access, little drain-lines across alleys and roads running downhill to carry off excess water. As a bonus, the actual roads are also really good.

Proof that urbanisation and beauty are not mutually exclusive
Proof that urbanisation and beauty are not mutually exclusive

And most importantly, there’s an attempt to green whatever open space is available. You certainly learn to value plants and trees when you have a water crisis and desert all round. The riverbed in Isfahan was completely dry when we visited, yet the city somehow managed to cultivate lush gardens that looked like they were rained upon every other day.

Dry river bed in Isfahan
Dry river bed in Isfahan
Lush gardens of Isfahan (despite the drought)
Lush gardens of Isfahan (despite the drought)

And yes, there were lots of women wearing the full chador, but they were outnumbered by the number of women with gold-painted fingernails, leggings, floral Manteaux, and translucent headscarves. Fashion seems to have become the primary form of rebellion for women – to assert their identity, confidence, and a love for all clothes light and bright. It seemed that the future is at least orange and will expand to prints and other colours. With the election of the current government, women have become bolder and more willing to take fashion risks. The standard uniform for young Iranian women consists of tight jeans or leggings, multi-coloured sports shoes, an unbuttoned manteaux, and a headscarf casually flung over your head. Tops layered with cropped tees (yes, you read that right) have also started to pop up.

The manteaux is no longer that long, austere, shapeless coat designed to slaughter your inner temptress – it can simply be a long shirt dress, sometimes made risqué by its flimsy material or lace insertion that lets a viewer see what lies beneath. Or it can be a fitted trench coat style jacket.

Yes, most men are bearded, but these are beards that look like they were groomed for a fashion show in Milan. And yes, alcohol is officially banned, but there’s a thriving underground market and who needs it when there’s Istak Lemon. Besides, much as we hate to sound prohibitionist and pro-government, but not having to worry about leery and rowdy drunks made evenings in public places a far more enjoyable experience. And yes, there’s non-stop propaganda on state TV, but everyone has satellite dishes and is instead watching BBC and CNN on their giant LED screens.

Astonishingly, the thing that struck us most was that five days in, we realised how relaxed everybody – including ourselves – were in terms of worrying about the possibility of a public terror attack. For the first time in a long, long time, we found ourselves not looking over our shoulders, not scanning for exit points or keeping tabs on suspicious-looking characters, and not being subconsciously tense in expectation of such an event. And it wasn’t as if there was a heavy security presence. The whole thing was particularly surprising given all the chaos going in neighbouring Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

It was truly a moment of staggering realisation, that this country that is seen as such an unsafe zone was in fact the only country we had been to in decades where we were most at ease.

Yes, a lot of this is nascent liberalisation grown over the last few years, and Iran does remain quite conservative overall. And there was a sense that the momentum could shift back any time if the old guard feels too threatened, but Iran felt like it was at the cusp of a cultural shift.

What it needs is a lot more people from a lot more different countries and cultures to keep touring it and interacting with the person on the street. It’s the only way to break down the decades of distrust and misinformation, and perhaps encourage more of them to fight more for their liberties.

If you have ever dreamt of visiting the country, or were planning a trip, don’t give in to the fear – just go. Because a country is not its government.

Iran in pictures

A regular evening at Nashq-e-Jahan (Isfahan)
A regular evening at Nashq-e-Jahan (Isfahan)
They sure love their gardens (Tehran)
They sure love their gardens (Tehran)
Zoroastrian Dharamshala - Shiraz
Zoroastrian Dharamshala – Shiraz
The intricate designs true to Persia
The intricate designs true to Persia
These gorgeously intricate designs
These gorgeously intricate designs

**

Seema and Fabian Bhatia-Panthaki are the new parents of twin canine girls, whose demands mean long-distance travel is now a luxury. This Iran trip may have been their last joint foreign outing for some time to come. To keep their scampering scamps in the manner they have become accustomed to, Seema works in the field of International Development, while Fabian functions as an editor. 

The Great Indian Road Trip – Rajasthan

People think twice about a Rajasthan road trip with a kid in tow, but here is a fellow travel happy mom, Shweta, showing you how its done with a special recommendation for Suryagarh.

~~

The plan to visit Jaisalmer has been on the cards for the past 8 years, ever since we moved to NCR. But never happened since it demands more than a long weekend. And with a child who hates car rides and is only open to overnight train rides, it increasingly looked difficult. And then, when the plans finally got in place like a neat stack of cards, I was overjoyed! My husband, R and I were going to do Jodhpur – Jaisalmer – Bikaner by road, while my in-laws with daughter would fly in and out of Jodhpur. Everyone is happy…well, almost.

The pre-planning to get all the 5 suitcases in our SUV required military attention, but it got done. We started off at about 715 am to make the best use of the morning time. Our first stop was directly in Jaipur, where we reached at 1130 am. We had planned to eat at Sharma dhaba, and catching up with a cousin of mine. She informed me, though that no dhaba would be serving lunch at that time. So we ended up at a relative’s house to enjoy a veritable feast for lunch, not a smart idea when about 340 km more needs to be done. We finally left Jaipur at 130 with enough gajak, mathri and kachori packed for the next 7 days! That’s marwari khatirdari for you J

Jaipur – Kishangarh – Beawar – Jodhpur – this route suggested on google maps takes one through excellent roads, even though there are some 7/8 odd places to stop for toll. I wanted to take a coffee break around 5 pm at Chatra Sagar in Pali. But putting pali dam in google maps took us to a private property near chatra sagar, with almost an hour wasted, we turned and continued onto Jodhpur. Pali has to wait for some other day. The evening drive for an hour after sunset (at about 6 pm) was the toughest, with no street lights and oncoming vehicles using high beam. We reached our hotel in Jodhpur, quite exhausted at 7 pm. Shower – dinner – sleep.

After a lazy morning breakfast at the hotel and a second one for local treats at Janta Sweet Home, we picked up parents and daughter from the airport and started onward to Jaisalmer. We weren’t expecting a 4 lane highway like the one from Jaipur to Sikar, but the road to Jaisalmer was worse than expected, with a lot of construction going on in parts. We took a much needed break at about 5 pm at Heritage resorts. They have a nice garden and clean loos. We crossed Jaisalmer town and I got the first view of the Jaisalmer fort. It looked beautiful, all lit up in the evening. Our hotel was 15 kms away from the town towards sand dunes. And much before we reached it, we got our first sight of a fort palace on a hill top. Even if you have visited Jaisalmer before, Suryagarh is reason enough for a re-visit. It is a stunning newly built fort palace hotel.

suryagarh-pretties-itself-with-lights

<The evening, when Suryagarh pretties itself up with subtle lighting>

K loved Suryagarh. Her favourite part was the morning lavish breakfast spread. The hotel has many pets, all of who come to the courtyard and she delighted in that – petting the baby donkey, seeing the sparrows (non pets!) come to the table and drink water from our glasses, getting close to the resident peacock strutting about and playing with the white masakalis (pigeon-like).

 

We spent the next 2 days leisurely soaking in the desert atmosphere and hospitality there. A visit to Jaisalmer fort is a must. However, what we didn’t anticipate was the strong sun and the heat even in the third week of December. We hired a guide to show us around one of the largest inhabited forts in India.

jaisalmer-fort

<Jaisalmer Fort, the largest inhabited fort in India>

jharokha-in-the-fort

< The fort has lovely jharokhas with jaali work>

Then we went to Trio for lunch, spicy and decent food. I couldn’t convince everyone to see the patwon ki haveli and we came back to the hotel after the fort visit. The evening cultural program, the leisurely meals in the open courtyard, the endless nooks and corners to read a book, the organic garden behind with rows of neat herbs and other plants – so many ways to relax at Suryagarh that the night and the next day quickly passed by.

sunrise-before-cycling-trip

<Sunrise the next morning, just before our cycling trip>

The next morning, we did end up having a small adventure. The hotel does have few unadvertised bikes for guests, and while the staff said they couldn’t be taken out of the hotel premises, the hotel manager was perfectly fine with our request. So, dressed warmly and with 3 small water bottles stuffed in our side pockets (since the bikes have no holder for a bottle), R and I left for a cycling trip. The idea was to do a short trip, not more than 10 – 15 kms. I googled Bada Bag, a picturesque cenotaph and the map gave me couple of options. I selected the closest one and after cycling for 5 kms, landed near a stone quarry. The weather was nippy and it was lovely to see the open wide landscape, with nothing but gigantic windmills dotting all over.

bada-bag2

cycling-across-a-windfarm

<cycling across a windfarm>

We asked a local near the quarry and got redirected to Ludarva, another site that showed as about 10 km away. We gamely cycled till there. What we didn’t realise was that the route back to the hotel would be another 25 – 27 km!! Soon, we ran out of water and enthusiasm to cycle. R who is used to cycling was game for this, but the last 5 km was sheer torture for me. We had started our trip at 710 and my watch showed 1010 am, the only thing that kept me going (for the last 5 km) was the thought that the lavish breakfast spread at the hotel would end at 1030!

roads-maintained-by-bro

<beautiful straight empty roads in most parts, maintained by BRO>

balcony-at-suryagarh-fort

<Breakfast at Suryagarh in the open courtyard was a sublime experience with this artist playing from one of the balconies>

The last day in Jaisalmer was spent at Damodra Desert camp, an excellent choice to spend the night in the desert. We had an early light lunch at Suryagarh and left for Damodra. We reached the campsite, we were shown into our tents; had some tea / coffee and set off in a jeep towards the dunes. Half an hour later, we were transferred to camels which I loved, so much so, that after getting off everyone on the dunes, I asked the camel guy to take me solo with the camel running. Exhilarating, a bit scary only when the camel decided to run down a dune in full speed!

My daughter, K loved the Thar desert as well. Not every kid (or adult) enjoys a camel ride and K hated it. But no child can resist running up and down the dunes, trying sand boarding and enjoying the dramatic sunset.

 

It’s a great way to spend the evening. We were back at the camp post sunset. All the rolling around in the sand required a bath, which delayed us for the evening cultural program. The camp hostess had mulled some wine in true Christmas spirit and gave it to all the guests. Great way to start the evening. Good food, great cultural show and the most magnificent sky with a canopy of stars that I had seen in a while.

The next morning, post a quick breakfast, we set off back to Jodhpur. A quick lunch at Samsara resorts (much grander than our stop en route to Jaisalmer), and we reached the city around 330 pm. We decided to visit Mehrangarh fort before checking into our hotel. The fort perched on its own hilltop looms majestically and can be seen from almost everywhere in the old city. The entrance gates, the vast expanse within, the artefacts showcased in the palace rooms all make for a stunning experience. But it is quite a walk and we were really tired after the journey from Jaisalmer and the tour of the fort.

Since this was our last night in Jodhpur before going back home the next day via Bikaner, my husband and I wanted to make the most of the night. Dinner was at Pal Haveli rooftop, with stunning views of Mehrangarh fort lit up in the evening. (Another great spot in the old city is the restaurant at Raas, but that was all reserved for in-house guests).

mehrangarh-fort

<view of Mehrangarh Fort from Pal Haveli roof-top restaurant>

Another quick stop at Janta Sweet Home, this time with parents and my daughter, and then we were off to Bikaner.

K loved Rajasthani sweets especially the halwa at Suryagarh and jalebis at Janta sweet home (besides the firangi chocolate pastries). But She found Rajasthani food at restaurants quite spicy. We usually ordered pasta or pizza for her outside the main hotels.

A bit of the earlier day repeat – 4.5 hour car trip to Bikaner city, parking the SUV in the old city then a mad dash in an auto to reach Junagarh Fort before the last entry at 430 pm. We made it! After the crowds at Jaisalmer and Mehrangarh forts, this one seemed almost empty at that hour. Which is a shame – this is one of the most beautiful palaces from inside, with stunning work done on the walls and ceilings in several rooms – anoop mahal, music room etc. We then made our way to the newly opened Narendra Bhawan, a beautiful residence of the last king of Bikaner, now converted into a hotel.

And finally the long journey back to Gurgaon.
Suryagarh is worth a trip in itself. Check out the detailed review at the Zest In A Tote blog. 

~~

Shweta also shared her Vietnam adventures with us, you can find that here.