Back to school: where did the holidays go?

BackToSchoolIs it only me who’s been caught completely by surprise by the end of the summer holidays?  It seems like only days ago that the entire holidays stretched before us waiting to be filled with sunshine and memories.  There were days out to be planned, play dates to be arranged and picnics to be prepared.  And just as I’m getting the hang of it, suddenly it’s time for the kids to go back to school again.

So now we’re into a whole new kind of planning.  Every item of school uniform must be laid out on the bed, tried on and sorted into piles: a pile for clothes that fit the eldest child; a pile for clothes that fit the youngest; a pile for clothes that are too small for the eldest, but too big for the youngest (put them to the back of the cupboard); and one for clothes that don’t fit either of my children any more (donate to friends with younger kids).

Then there’s a shopping trip for anything we’re still missing, followed by an evening of lovingly sewing name tapes on everything.  And, in case you’ve never done it, sewing name tapes on is one of the dullest jobs in the world.

The final item of school uniform is new shoes.  All parents know that children make a point of growing out of their shoes as often as possible.  Trying to keep your children in footwear that fits is like cutting an enormous hole in your pocket and then continuously filling it up with £20 notes.  It is an expensive and demoralising task.

And somehow, between the last minute shopping and the final playdates, a haircut must be fitted in.  I know, of course, that within seconds of arriving at school my children’s hair will look like a bush, and it will stay like that for the rest of term, but at least they will be presentable when they arrive in the playground on the first day.

This is also the point in the holidays when I generally have a bit of a panic-up that other, more diligent, parents have been practising the times tables with their children and reading War and Peace to them at bedtime.  I have obviously left it far too late to do any of that, and my children stare at me blankly as I call out maths questions over breakfast.

So now we are ready.  My children have had their hair cut.  They have uniforms that fit and new shoes waiting to be scuffed.  It’s truly the end of the holidays and the start of the new school year. I just hope that times tables are like riding a bicycle…

Review: A watersports holiday with Mark Warner: how much fun can a family of four have?

We took our 7 and 9 year-old girls to Mark Warner’s Levante resort on the island of Rhodes for a week of water sports and fun in the sun, and here’s what we learnt…

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What is there to do?

No sooner have you unpacked your toothbrush, than you are launched into a barrage of briefings about the facilities and activities on offer.  As I can only hold three pieces of information in my head at any one time, by the time we got to the third briefing I had forgotten everything I had learnt at the first two.  Luckily by the second day, it all seemed to make sense and we even managed to establish a bit of a routine.

You can do everything you would at home, from daily gym, yoga and stretch classes, to mountain biking, tennis and running, but the ‘waterfront’ (Mark Warner’s term for all the water-based sports on offer) is where the holiday really comes into its own.  There is a constant stream of courses, events and activities that you can go to, all at no extra charge (apart from activities that involve a power boat, like water-skiing).   Or you can go it alone, and just get out on the water with a sail boat, kayak, windsurf board or stand-up paddle board.  The staff are all qualified instructors, and couldn’t be more helpful, whether it’s helping you figure out the best windsurf sail for your size and skill level or carrying the wretched thing up and down the beach for you.

They run free introductory courses for all the water sports and we went on the 3-hour beginner’s windsurfing course, which gave enough knowledge and basic skills to have a go on our own.  You can pay for private lessons if you want to, and there’s a hefty discount for booking three or more, but there is no hard sell trying to get you to spend more money, and there’s so much to do, there’s really no need unless you’re particularly focused on improving at something.

We also went on the kayak safari (free) which was three exhausting hours of paddling with not much to see, and a quick pit stop at a local café.  Although on paper this sounds quite dull, it was actually really good fun, and a good way to meet other people on the holiday.  We didn’t manage to make the snorkelling trip (also free), and I’m not sure what else we might have missed.

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I windsurf like a potato

 

 What’s the kids club like?

Kids club is included in the price of the holiday and the children are grouped by age.   Dividing the kids by age means they are more likely to have similar skills and capabilities on the water, as well as more in common to chat about.  Our girls are 7 and 9, so were in separate groups and we were a bit worried this might lead to some moaning, but each had so much fun, was kept so busy and made so many friends, that it was no problem at all.

The club runs from 9-12.30 and 2.30-5.30, and there are different activities each day, although every day includes a session at the waterfront learning to windsurf or sail and a session in the pool.  This is definitely not a baby-sitting service, as the kids are constantly active.  Mine are quite sporty (something they have definitely not got from me) and loved all the sessions on the water in particular.

Every night is ‘movie night’ and (so long as you stay on the resort) you can drop your children off at 7.30 to watch a movie and play some games and they don’t need to be collected until 11. No need to book, no need to pay.  If you want to leave the resort though, you do need to pay for the babysitting service.  Because the kids spent most of the day apart from us, we only used the movie night option once, as it was actually really fun to catch up with them over dinner and hear about their day.

How many swimming pools are there?

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If you are the kind of person who likes to boast about how many pools there were at your resort, then this holiday is not for you – the emphasis is definitely on the sports, not lounging by the pool, but having said that…

There is an enormous child friendly pool surrounded by sun loungers and umbrellas. This is the pool for people who like to keep an eye on their kids and are not averse to the sound of other people’s children screaming with excitement.  If you haven’t got your towel on a lounger by mid-morning you may find it difficult to get one.

There is a smaller and quite deep (more than 5ft) pool by the beach, also surrounded by loungers and umbrellas.  This is the only pool to have a bar area and is quite popular with teens.  We used to congregate here for a milkshake and a dip when kids club finished at 5.30.

Our favourite pool was the adult pool.  This is the most peaceful of the three and a Mecca for people who want to swim a couple of lengths and read a book or magazine in peace.  Like the children’s pool, if you want a sun lounger you need to be a bit German about arriving early and staking your claim with a towel and beach bag.

How safe is it?

I was really impressed by the rigorous approach to safety on the waterfront, from always requiring both children and adults to wear a life vest, to signing everyone out and back in again and keeping a close eye on them from the watch tower and the permanent safety boat out on the water.  At one point I was jettisoned head first off the windsurfer and floated beside it for a bit just feeling sorry for myself.  Within two minutes the safety boat was over to check I was ok, and whether I wanted to be towed in (I didn’t).

What’s the food like?

We went half board, but in reality there’s really very little option other than to eat every meal on the resort.  Breakfast is served on the hotel terrace and you can eat lunch and dinner there or at the cafe by the main pool.

Breakfast is really good, with loads of fresh fruit, omelettes and pancakes made to order (and you’ve got to love a restaurant that thinks cake should be served at breakfast!).  We ate lunch at the pool cafe every day and it’s basic but wholesome and reasonably priced. The evening meal is a buffet, and there’s a huge selection – although I would have preferred less choice but better quality. The main evening meal starts at 7.30, but there is an earlier children’s sitting, which is full of more child-friendly foods.  Even at the main meal, there’s all the standard stuff children eat like spaghetti bolognese – although nothing tastes exactly the same as at home.  This also goes for the coffee (UHT milk only), and if you like a particular kind of tea other than English breakfast, your best bet is to take it with you (I’m weird about Earl Grey, and have turned into one of those people who take their own tea bags with them wherever they go – even if it’s only a meeting in North London).

What’s the room like?

The room was basic but clean and pleasant, with a large sliding door between our room and the children’s area, allowing privacy if wanted.  The bathroom was spotlessly clean, but there was always a slight toilet smell.  Apparently the Greeks use ‘grey water’ for their loos (i.e. not water that you can drink, like in the UK), which may account for the slight whiff.  There’s also a small fridge and a kettle in the room, and a drier on the balcony – perfect for hanging your swimming stuff out to dry.  The air conditioning was very efficient, and my husband had the temperature set to ‘Antarctic’, so the kids slept with a duvet!

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What kit do I need?

In theory, you don’t need anything in particular, but in practice I would recommend:

  • Day sacks for your kids – they need something to carry their suntan lotion, towels and dry clothes in as they trek from activity to activity
  • Baseball caps for the kids – this protects their heads and keeps the glare out of their eyes if like mine, they refuse to wear the sunglasses you bought specially for the trip
  • Rash vest /UV tops and shorts for adults as well as kids – the sun is absolutely blistering all day long and no amount of suntan lotion can survive how often you’ll be getting in and out of the water
  • Crocs or similar for adults and kids – walking anywhere is like crossing over hot coals, and you want something you can easily slip on and off and rinse off afterwards
  • Loads of high factor sun lotion – no explanation needed! Bring several bottles as each child needs their own for kids club and you’ll want to keep some with you as well.
  • Board shoes for adults and kids – these are neoprene shoes with rubber bottoms.  In theory you don’t need them, but they do give you better grip for board sports.  You can buy them quite cheaply in the resort shop, although they’re not very good quality.

Other bits and bobs worth knowing

  • Shower gel, shampoo and conditioner are all provided in your room.
  • The chamber maid provides clean white towels for the room and brown towels for the beach every day – although being a mummy I religiously hung ours out to dry every evening ‘just in case’.
  • The resort shop is not very extensive, but it is reasonably priced and you can pick up most emergency items like toothpaste and sun tan lotion.  You can also buy snacks if your kids, like mine, find the gap between lunch at 12.30 and supper at 7.30 too long.
  • There is an English nurse on site, and you can just drop in. We made one visit and she got something from the pharmacy in town for us the same day.
  • There is a spa on the resort, but we honestly didn’t have time to visit it in between everything else.
  • The staff – both local and Mark Warner staff – are a delight, super-friendly and helpful, so if there’s anything you want or don’t know, just ask!

What does it cost and is it value for money?

Let’s be honest, taking a family of four on holiday is never a cheap enterprise.  The facilities and food are nice enough but definitely not delux.  What you’re really paying for is the amount of activities that are available, so if you mainly want to lie on a sun lounger, you are wasting your money going on this holiday.  But if you want to be active, then I would definitely say it’s worth it.  Prices vary enormously according to the resort and dates you go as well as the timing of when you book, so the best thing is to check the Mark warner website.

 Would we go again?

Absolutely!  The kids loved it, and frankly so did I.

Masterchef Disaster Chef: why I won’t be on the Great British Bake Off again this year

Nobody accepts a dinner invitation to our house and actually expects me to cook.  Everyone knows that my culinary skills are right up there with my ability to pedal a unicycle whilst juggling with chain saws.  And nobody wants to lose an arm.  Don’t believe me?  You’ve never tried my fish kedgeree.

Due to this skills shortfall, Mr B normally takes charge in the kitchen whenever we have guests.  And jolly good at it he is too.  Whilst he is whipping up something delicious, I am diligently emptying crisp packets into bowls and peeling the plastic top off the fancy dips.  This arrangement is tried, tested and well known amongst our friends.  But it’s nearly always me who cooks when it’s just the family.

The first battlefield is the menu.  A typical conversation goes:

Daughter: What’s for supper, mummy?

Me: Spaghetti bolognese

Daughter: Can I have carbonara instead?

Me: No

Daughter:  Why not?

Me: Because I’ve already made bolognese and this isn’t a restaurant.

Cue disgruntled snorts and children rolling their eyes at my unreasonable behaviour.

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The second challenge is the fault of the television.  My children love nothing better than to snuggle down on the sofa for the latest episode of Masterchef, The Great British Bake Off, or Crème de la Crème.  And those shows have given them what I can only describe as unrealistic expectations.  Raspberry and cardamom loaf baked in the shape of the Titanic?  I’ll whip one of those up between courses.  Life-size model of Mary Berry made out of layer cake and topped with elderflower candy floss for hair?  Give me two minutes…

‘Let’s play Masterchef,’ my children say with glee, as I carry their dinner to the table.  The other night my eldest daughter kicked off the critique with ‘I like the way the different colours look on the plate, and the sausages are lovely and juicy, but the texture of the mash is disappointing.’  At which point my seven-year-old nodded sagely, before fixing me with a steely glare and saying ‘And I was hoping it would be served with a drink…’

I would like to be a better cook, really I would, but the way I see it I am perfectly preparing my children for when they leave home and spend the first two years living off baked beans and Pot Noodles.  I am also preparing them for life’s minor disappointments – for when everything awesome and outdoors is rained off at the last minute, and for smiling politely as they unwrap of Christmas presents they don’t actually want.  In short, my children are learning to deal with life’s disappointments early, and if it also encourages them to be better cooks than I am, then it’s all good with me.

Thanks to Huffington Post for the image at the top of this blog.

Review: Everything you need to know about KidZania

The blurb about KidZania says it is ‘a real life role play experience for 4-14 year olds, blending learning and reality with entertainment.’   My fabulous friend Sarah and I are always looking for great days out to entertain our children, so we took our four girls aged between 7 and 9 on a weekday afternoon to find out what it’s all about…

How safe is it?

Once you arrive, the first thing to mention is how safe it is.  The children and their accompanying adult(s) all wear an electronic wrist band that can’t be taken off, and the children can only leave with the adult they came with.  Because it’s so safe, you can go round with your children, but you can also give them the freedom to explore on their own, or even drop them off and go shopping in Westfield (if they’re over 8).

What happens in KidZania?

Inside, it is like a child-size shopping centre built within a real shopping centre – the difference being that it’s kept really clean, and all the staff are super helpful.  There are a series of shop-fronts, with different activities happening in each shop.  There about 60 real-life roles the children can do, from reporter to fashion model, and the guide says kids normally complete 4-6 roles.  Each role takes between 10 and 20 minutes, and they run continuously.  If an activity has already started when you get there, you just join the queue for the next session.  We went from 3-7pm on a weekday and there were no real queues for anything, but a friend who went at midday told me the queues were up to 45 minutes for popular activities.  Our children managed to do seven roles and were more than happy with that, again the friend who went at a busier time told me her children only managed to do three.

Most of the roles have a genuinely educational element – training to be an airline pilot courtesy of British Airways or learning about clothes recycling with H&M stand out – but our children had no idea they were learning anything, they were just really having fun.

kidzania firemenOnly children are allowed into the activities and adults who choose to stick around can watch through big shop windows.  We went to the first couple of activities with our kids, but they couldn’t ditch us soon enough, so we showed them where the adult lounge was and told them to come and get us if they needed anything (they didn’t).

If you decide to let your children roam free, the wrist bands track them, so anxious parents can use information kiosks around the City to see which activity their child last checked into and even to send messages, but we didn’t bother.

The adult lounge is actually surprisingly pleasant, and whilst more expensive than a cup of tea at home, not shockingly priced for this kind of place (a cup of earl grey tea was £2).  As well as a selection of cakes and pastries, I was surprised to see they served alcohol.  Whilst we were there one daddy had a quiet glass of wine, and there were two mummies who knocked back several beers before heading out to find their children.  The lounge was also noticeably empty, which makes me think that a lot of parents had taken the option of checking their children in and then going shopping!

KidZania has its own currency (Kidzos) and children get a small number to start with.  For each activity the children either get paid (e.g. working in the clothes recycling centre) or need to pay (e.g. the chocolate factory).  Not only do they need to ‘balance their books’ during their visit (hurrah for secretly making them do maths!) but there is a Department Store, where they can spend any left-over Kidzos at the end of your visit. This meant our children weren’t worried about browsing in the gift shop at the end – they’d already the done their shopping.

After four hours the children can no longer participate in the activities, but you can stay in KidZania and browse the Department Store, eat, or just stroll around.  As we started at 3, after a bit of a browse, we eventually left at 7.30. Our kids were absolutely buzzing, but needed feeding straight away.

What does it cost?

The cost during weekends and holidays is £32 for kids and £16.50 for adults, but ticket combinations including family tickets are available – check the website for up-to-date details of the options and prices.  When we left we also got vouchers for free adult entry, so if we decide to go again we will only be paying for the children.

Although there are a couple of places you can stop for a snack, or even a meal, and these take real money, it is really noticeable there is not a constant demand to pay for little extras.  There are even water fountains so everyone can stay hydrated without needing to buy drinks.

There is a professional photographer going round and the photos are quite expensive when you get to the end – £12 for a single photo.  Although, in fairness, we got charged £50 (the most expensive package) for all the photos of our four children, rather than being charged separately for each family or even each child.  I’d still be surprised if many people buy them at that price.

Would we go back?

Our kids are already talking about activities they missed and want to do next time, including being in the police force and fire service. So yes, I would say we’re definitely going back.

SUMMARY

  • It’s really safe, so you can keep as close an eye on your children as you want or leave them to enjoy the freedom and independence of exploring on their own.
  • The children absolutely loved it, didn’t notice that they were learning(!), and were still enjoying it at the end of the four hours.  I would say our children – aged 7 to 9 – were the perfect age to get the most out of it.
  • The price you pay at the door is all it needs to cost you, there is no need to spend anything once you get in there – in fact the only things you can spend real money on are food (if you want it), photographs, and the gift shop when you leave.  For this reason I would say it’s good value.

 

How to get there

It’s based in Westfield Shopping Centre in West London, which is really well connected by public transport, particularly by tube.  It’s actually very close to four tube stations: Shepherds Bush and White City on the Central Line and Wood Lane and Shepherd’s Bush Market on the Hammersmith and City Line.  I would say it’s a six or seven minute walk to Westfield with kids from each – a bonus since at least one of mine moans incessantly about any walking at all.

The photo at the top comes from an article in the Standard about Kidzania.

How to host an awesome garden party

 

Last summer, after too much sun and possibly a number of pina coladas, I decided to host a garden party for my mother’s birthday.  Full of enthusiasm (me more so than Mr B), we carried the kitchen table and chairs onto the patio and set the fridge up on an extension cord.  We swathed every bush and shrub in bunting and tied balloons to the garden gate.  The finishing touch was a beautiful vintage tea set with hand painted cups and saucers borrowed from my fabulous friend Sarah.

Oh, the naivety!  As the oldies arrived, not a single one of them wanted a cup of tea.  All they wanted to drink was Pimms and prosecco.  A lot of prosecco.  In fact, they drank so much prosecco that it’s a wonder they all got home safely.

So I was a bit surprised in January when my eldest daughter asked for a garden party to celebrate her ninth birthday.

‘Hmmm,’ I said, ‘February is a bit cold for garden parties.’

‘How about March?’ she said.

‘Still too cold.’

‘April?’

We eventually settled on July.

Based on the theory that the more children there were, the better they would entertain each other, I let my daughter invite as many as she wanted.  This was a tourist mistake.  All parents know that more children is not better.  More children is just, well, more.  More fussy eaters to feed, more hysteria to control, more danger of harm to life and limb.  And I don’t always mean their life and limb.

garden partyOnce everyone had arrived, expectations of the entertainment to come were riding high.  The party guests powered through my carefully crafted treasure hunt faster than Usain Bolt runs the 100 metres.  The butterfly cakes that took me hours to create disappeared quicker than Mr B when the dishwasher needs loading.  The ‘pin the cherry on the cupcake’ lasted longer but was much less popular.    And then we were pretty much out of things to do.

The crowd became restless.  Mr B began to panic. ‘What’s the plan? What’s the plan?’ he asked in a shrill voice as he eyed the mutinous mob.  And then he had a brilliant idea.  He organised the kids into groups of 4 and told them to prepare for a talent show.  Suddenly the party was running itself.  Children were huddled in groups around the garden planning what they would do.  For the first time since 9am that morning (the party started at 2), Mr B and I were able to sit down with a cup of tea.  Happy days.

The talent show took us all the way through to the party food.  The candles were lit and blown out, the cake was cut, party bags were distributed and the children were sent home on a sugar-high.  Through sheer cunning we had snatched triumph from the jaws of disaster.

So these are my hard-learnt tips for hosting a stress-free garden party:

1)  Stock up on alcohol. Older people are basically like students – they will drink until they fall over.  Or until you run out of booze. Whichever happens first.  Of course, you shouldn’t serve alcohol to party guests under 10, but you will definitely want to drink it when they leave.

2)  Always keep an extra party game up your sleeve.  A spontaneous talent show is like a get-out-of-jail-free card for under-prepared parents.  For older party goers a competition for who remembers the most from the 1960s will work just as well.

3)  Quit while you’re ahead.  There is only so much prosecco and cake even the most hardened garden party enthusiast can consume, and at some point everyone will have had enough of a good thing.  The trick is to send all the party-goers home while their dignity and your sanity are still in tact.

Good luck!

Thanks to canvasevents for the gorgeous photo at the top of the blog.  Those guys are reaching garden party heights I can only dream of!  And to designorbreakfast for the photo of the lovely table setting.