The very first Masked Singer Live UK tour has begun
The Masked Singer is the surprise television hit that is part singing competition and part guessing game which sees celebrities dress up in crazy costumes.
Clues are given about each celebrity so you can try and guess ‘who is behind the mask’.
In our house we are avid viewers – the children love it – so we were thrilled when it was announced that a stage version was to tour the UK.
We bought tickets to the first night in Liverpool, so here is our review plus all you need to know.
The Masked Singer Live
We saw it at the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool for the very first live show.
It will also be in London, Birmingham, Newcastle upon Tyne, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Nottingham.
Who is in it?
*The host – as in the ITV show – is comedian and presenter Joel Dommett.
He got a great reception from the audience.
Joel Dommett on stage in Liverpool
*The panel is made up of singer and tv personality Denise Van Outen (Fox in Series one) and JLS star Aston Merrygold (Robin in series two), plus a different third celebrity judge in each city. Ours in Liverpool was Samia Longchambon from Coronation Street.
*Five of the favourite characters sing and dance – at ours were Panda, Badger, Dragon, Unicorn and Traffic Cone.
Sadly it is not the original celebrities inside the costumes, but other great singers. They don’t take their masks off so younger children may not realise.
*Then there are two new celebrities to sing and be unveiled at each venue in new costumes – Space Pug and Baby Dino.
Who was behind the mask?
In Liverpool we had Simon Gregson (Steve McDonald, Coronation Street), who performed as Space Pug.
Simon Gregson as Space Pug
And singer and friend of Simon Cowell, Sinitta, as Baby Dino, voted best by the audience clapometer.
*Solos, duets and group numbers from the favourite characters.
Badger, Dragon and Panda, plus Unicorn heading out on stage
*Most of the audience and all of the judges (including his Coronation Street colleague) guessing Simon Gregson to be Space Pug. The clues are much easier to guess than the television series thankfully.
*Joel going into the audience to ask people who they thought the masked stars were.
When is it?
April 2, 2022: M&S Bank Arena, Liverpool
April 3, 2022: The O2, London
April 5, 2022: Utilita Arena Birmingham
April 8, 2000: Utilita Arena Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne
April 9, 2022: OVO Hydro, Glasgow
April 10, 2022: AO Arena, Manchester
April 13, 2022: First Direct Arena, Leeds
April 15, 2022: Utilita Arena Sheffield
April 16, 2022: Motorpoint Arena Nottingham
April 18, 2022: OVO Arena, Wembley, London
Who are the guest judges at each venue
The third judge at each venue to sit alongside Denise Van Outen and Aston Merrygold will be:
We take a family holiday to Mallorca and stay at the five-star Zafiro Palace Alcudia
To land at night is to preserve the mystery of your surroundings until morning – and we were in for a pleasant surprise on our break to the Balearic island of Mallorca.
Early signs are good – we land at Palma and are out of the plane, the airport and into our hire car in a record-breaking 20 minutes.
Safely at the hotel a little later, we love our big, open-plan, ground floor room despite the partially see-through frosted toilet door!
Zafiro Palace Hotel
The huge comfortable bed and sofa which converts into two singles mean it’s easy to sleep.
And when we pull back the curtains the following morning, we are greeted with a sight befitting this five-star hotel, Zafiro Palace Alcudia.
A big terrace awaits us, furnished with a table and chairs and comfy sun loungers.
But there’s also a gate. A gate which leads on to a swim-up pool. Bliss.
In fact, most ground floor rooms here have this luxurious option while top floor suites benefit from a hot tub.
Water is a common theme, perfect for a Mediterranean island known for the aqua sea surrounding it – I count at least 12 swimming pools.
For children, there’s a pirate-themed pool with water slides and another with a ‘wet bubble’ in the middle to climb and bounce off which opens out into the biggest pool here, with a swim-up bar.
Water slides in a pirate-themed children’s pool
But as it’s October and the water is a little chilly, the warmest pool here is the busiest, with one lane sectioned off for serious swimming and double sun beds over the water on the other side for those who’d rather watch.
The warmest pool
All that swimming builds up appetites and the food here is fantastic. Thankfully the main buffet restaurant has enough pancakes, pizza and pasta to keep even our daughter happy.
Plus a good variety of Spanish favourites like Paella and fish and other international cuisine to satisfy all palates.
There are several a la carte restaurants too – an Italian, Japanese, Mediterranean and Bistro/Grill. All of them offer high quality food in a relaxed atmosphere which caters to children.
And the younger ones are also well-served by a playground, entertainment such as mini discos in the afternoons, a mini golf course and a basketball court/football pitch.
The hotel is in Puerto de Alcudia, in the north of this popular island.
It’s surrounded by mountainous scenery and is within walking distance of Playa de Alcudia, a long sandy beach with shallow waters and playground equipment.
Playa de Alcudia beach
We also spend time on other stunning beaches and explore Port de Pollensa, which inspired Agatha Christie’s story Problem at Pollensa Bay.
The beach at Pollensa
Alcudia Old Town is also worth a look as are the fabulous Caves of Drach with its stalagmites and stalactites and stunning musical experience.
One day we take the twisty mountain road up to a clifftop vantage point at Es Colomer, with fabulous sweeping views of this wonderful island.
Es Colomer – walking up to a view
We admire the keen cyclists cruising up the steep slopes – they didn’t appear to have overindulged in a hotel buffet like I had.
We may have arrived at night but we departed in the morning – just time for a final trip to the breakfast buffet.
We stay in a beautiful cottage and explore the area and discover if Cornwall is dog-friendly as well as child-friendly
Our dog is barking furiously, drowning out the sound of waves washing the rocky Cornish shoreline below, as our daughter approaches a huge, sword-wielding man.
High on a rocky headland, peaceful family picnics are interrupted by what Charlie, our nine-month-old golden retriever, believes to be an urgent life-or-death situation.
Thankfully, the rest of us can see the the sword-wielding giant is only a statue – that of the warrior Gallos at Tintagel Castle.
It’s the first day of our dog-friendly family break to Cornwall and we’re exploring the dramatic castle, mythical home of King Arthur.
It’s a site which tests dog and human stamina. There are steep walks from the village to the castle and then down to the beach which houses Merlin’s Cave. It’s a challenging spot to visit but a worthwhile one, don’t miss our full review.
In fact, steep Cornish hills are quite a feature of our break, especially at our accommodation.
The aptly-named The Valley is in – yes – a valley, near the village of Carnon Downs just outside Truro.
It’s perfect for children and dogs. For the kids, there are indoor and outdoor pools, a tennis court, brand-new playground, games room and activities laid on during school holiday periods.
Swimmng pool and play area at The Valley, Truro, Cornwall
For the dogs there’s a range of walks on footpaths around the site, a cosy bed, welcome treats and his or her own comprehensive guide of dog-friendly activities, all waiting in our holiday cottage.
A walk near our cottage
The cottage, one of 46 on the site, is clean, fresh and very well equipped. Ours is a two-bedroom Villa Gallery over three levels.
There’s two bedrooms and bathrooms on the ground floor, then a lounge, toilet and utility room on the middle tier with a kitchen-diner on the top level complete with balcony overlooking the swimming pool and green fields.
Our cottage at The Valley
Read our full review of the accommodation for more details.
The staff are happy and efficient, their reception has a treasure trove of books, DVDs and games you can borrow. Every evening, a note drops through the door of our cottage with suggestions for activities around Cornwall.
We take Charlie to a range of dog-friendly attractions. As well as Tintagel Castle, we visited Lappa Valley to enjoy his first ride on a steam train and the Lost Gardens of Heligan where he could sniff out plants from around the globe.
But could he run free on the beaches? The answer is yes on most of them. Our handy cottage guide showed more than 60 beaches welcoming dogs across the county and we found some gems.
Charlie on Holywell Bay beach
Probably our favourite was Holywell Bay with huge sand dunes protecting a stunning beach framed by cliffs. Rock pools, caves and streams kept the children happy and there was space for Charlie to stretch his legs and chase balls – mainly those belonging to other dogs unfortunately.
Holywell Bay beach is where some of Poldark was filmed
Among the other sandy spots we loved were Carne beach on the Roseland Peninsula, Porthmeor at bustling St Ives and dramatic Gwithian with acres of wide-open space.
The Valley is centrally located in Cornwall meaning none of the county’s attractions – or its beaches – are that far away.
But one of the most spectacular sights is just a few miles from our cottage via ferry.
The King Harry car ferry gently delivers your vehicle across the River Fal on the way to the pretty village of St Mawes.
King Harry ferry
Once there, the stony shoreline, working harbour and gorgeous views lead up the St Mawes Castle, which overlooks the bay and has protected the area since it was built by Henry VIII.
There are benches in the grounds where we all sit and relax with the sun on our faces, Charlie gently snoozing at our feet, finally worn out by our Cornish adventures.
St Mawes Castle
We decide to let sleeping dogs lie and reflect on the truth that Cornwall is definitely dog and family friendly – unless you come face-to-face with an eight-foot high warrior statue.
We take our children to Cofton Holiday Park and explore the surrounding beaches and attractions
“This is amazing,” says our son and we all feel the same.
The sheer joy of a family swim makes the months of lockdown seem a distant memory.
This perfectly warm indoor pool is just one of the excellent facilities at Cofton Holiday Park near Dawlish in Devon.
Swim sessions are pre-booked and limited to an hour to ensure the pool isn’t too crowded while Covid precautions are in place.
It is the same with Cofton’s large outdoor pool, which opens over the warmer months.
The pools are at the centre of the sprawling site along with restaurants and arcade and it’s all just a short walk from our static caravan.
We are in a Tamar model and it is a superb place to stay – modern, spotlessly clean, with two smart TVs, fast WiFi, two bathrooms, good kitchen facilities and plenty of space in the well laid out lounge/dining area.
Our static caravan
There are also luxury lodges with hot tubs, holiday cottages or you can bring your own tent, caravan or motorhome.
The lounge area
Children could spend their whole holiday at Cofton – there’s also a woodland adventure park with zip line, small playground, fishing lakes and woods to explore.
It would also be pretty easy to eat here every night with three restaurants (one closed during our visit), serving good family food and drinks at reasonable prices. There is also an excellent fish and chip shop and a small store on site selling essential food and drinks.
The outdoor pool and restaurants
Plus there are children’s activities run by the entertainment team with daily activities like pond dipping, fishing lessons and pirate adventures, when we visit.
With beautiful Devon on our doorsteps we have to get out and about too.
The beaches are our main aim and the nearest is Dawlish Warren. You can walk from the site – up steep woodland, along a footpath to a walk which takes about half an hour.
Alternatively it is a 10-minute drive from Cofton to the beach’s large car park, past a popular funfair.
This child-friendly flat beach stretches along a sand spit at the mouth of the Exe estuary.
It’s good for games and sandcastle building, there are lifeguards patrolling during the summer and a cafe and ice cream shop.
We also spend time at Coryton Cove near Dawlish, a sheltered partly sandy spot with a cafe.
For an adventurous trip out, try Holcombe Beach. You can’t park there but have to leave your car in the village and negotiate the steep Smuggler’s Lane.
Once you walk under the railway line, which hugs the shore, you come out on a high sea wall path (beware, there’s a sheer, high drop) with steep, narrow steps leading down to the sand.
The beach is good for bodyboarding and offers great views with dramatic red sandstone cliffs at both ends. If you love train-spotting then you can stand inches from the main railway line as services whizz past.
For a more sedate pace of life, try Dawlish town with its gentle river running though the park and traditional seaside appeal.
Devon clotted cream ice creams from Gaye’s Creamery, eaten beside the ducks floating along the weirs on the river makes for a relaxing afternoon.
You can also enjoy the crashing waves along the sea wall and games of mini-golf.
Cofton Holdays is only 20 minutes from Exeter and a similar drive to the hills of Dartmoor.
Haldon Forest Park with its range of bike and walking trails is another good option if you want to head inland.
Back at the park
After one hearty dinner at the park’s Amelia’s Cafe, as the evening sun shines over the rolling hills, we set out to explore the area on foot.
We look down to the holiday park laid out before us. “This is amazing,” I say.
We take a trip down memory lane in Exeter and find out if it is family-friendly and good for children
A tatty white door, three overflowing bins and a weed-covered driveway isn’t the normal tourist photo opportunity.
But it’s the outside of this terraced house in Exeter which has inspired our visit.
It’s where my husband lived when he was at university in Devon – and now he’s come back with a wife and two children in tow.
His time as a student hadn’t resulted in much knowledge of whether the city was child-friendly.
But on our short break we discover there is plenty – apart from taking a trip with dad down memory lane – to entertain the little ones.
This is the best place to start – the bustling waterfront has quirky shops, bars, restaurants and wide paths for cycling, scooting and strolling alongside the River Exe and Exeter Canal.
Saddles & Paddles
We take a different mode of transport by hopping into a canoe, hired from Saddles & Paddles on the Quayside. As the name suggests they hire bikes and boats from a waterside store.
After a cheery and comprehensive briefing, the four of us are paddling, occasionally even in unison, along the river and then canal.
Family canoe ride on the River Exe in Exeter
We work as a team to travel the two miles or so to the Double Locks pub where you can moor up and grab a drink in the large garden, which has a playground and plenty of space.
We then turn round and head back to the Quay, returning via a super low bridge which you have to duck under.
The canal is very safe as no motorboats are on it, just canoeists, kayakers and paddleboarders. It is a peaceful and fun way to start our visit.
Where is child-friendly to eat in Exeter?
After working up an appetite, we tuck into giant pizzas at On The Waterfront, which is next to Saddles & Paddles. It has good outside seating and an atmospheric inside in an old customs house.
On the Waterfront restaurant
The children’s pizzas, only £6 each, disappear in a flash and even our large adult portions go down well. This is a good, friendly, relaxed family restaurant.
On the opposite side of the water, in a glass building, sits another excellent eatery.
Lobster at Rockfish
Rockfish is a chain with restaurants around the South West. It’s known for its fresh seafood and changes its dish of the day daily to reflect what’s come out of the waters around Devon.
I have a fabulous lobster and our children tuck into tasty fish and chips.
The children’s menu, well priced at £7.95, includes an ice cream dessert and a great pack of goodies to keep them entertained.
It has a puzzle book, dolphin jigsaw, card games and colouring pencils.
The activities all carry a message about protecting the maritime environment.
Once you’ve headed up the steep streets (Exeter is a fairly hilly city) into the city centre, the cathedral should be your first stop.
The Cathedral Green is a lovely space and inside the large cathedral (entrance £5 adults, children free) you can collect a free children’s activity booklet, guiding you around the building with questions and clues to answer about what’s inside. There is also brass rubbing sheets you can do at a cost of £2.
Exeter is an historic city with links to the Romans, Normans and more. You can wander past Sir Francis Drake’s favourite pub – the half timbered Ship Inn, as you walk from the cathedral to the castle.
It is more castle walls really than traditional fortress but most of the walls sit in Northernhay Gardens, the oldest public open space in Britain, which dates back to the 1600s.
Today the gardens are peaceful, picturesque and a good space for children to run around.
If you exit the gardens via the war memorial and turn left you come to Exeter’s most colourful street, Gandy Street, with coffee shops and bars lining the cobbles. It is a good spot to stop for snack or drink.
The RAMM and Underground Passages
Two of the city’s other top attractions are closed when we visit.
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) reveals the area’s rich history and global connections.
And we were sad to miss the city’s Underground Passages where guided tours have taken place since the 1930s. They were designed to bring clean drinking water from natural springs outside the walled city.
The Underground Passages (pic: Mike Alsford)
Haldon Forest Park
One place which wasn’t closed – and very much open to the elements as we discover on a wet walk – is Haldon Forest Park.
Haldon Forest Park
About four miles outside the city, this large woodland area is packed with walkers, cyclists and Segway riders.
There is a Go Ape course, cafe, playground and lots of different length trails to tackle. As it’s pouring, we take the simple green route, which is a 1.5 mile circular walk with spectacular views out towards the sea.
You could easily spend most of the day at this large park, especially if you brought bikes with you.
There are other attractions on the outskirts of Exeter like Crealy Theme Park and Darts Farm Shopping Village.
The city is only around half an hour from the seaside resorts of Exmouth and Dawlish, as well as the hills of Dartmoor.
If you wanted to you could base yourself in the city and explore all of those areas.
But our time in Exeter is up and we have created plenty of new family memories to add to the student stories from two decades ago.
Our first boating holiday takes in the famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal
I have been in charge of an 18-tonne canal boat the length of a lorry for roughly a minute.
Concentrating hard, I navigate on to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the width of our craft Askrigg, trying to ignore the 40-metre sheer drop on one side into the River Dee.
The expert, who has just given us an hour’s worth of thorough instructions, steps off the barge and we are alone crossing the longest aqueduct in Britain and the highest in the world.
As introductions to canal life goes, there’s nothing like being thrown in at the deep end as our two children enjoy the ride and my husband helps direct from the front – almost 70 feet away.
We are on a Drifters waterways holiday and our Anglo Welsh boat has just left Trevor basin near Llangollen in north east Wales.
About to depart from Trevor basin
Our four-day route is along the Llangollen Canal with overnight stops at the border village of Chirk and the Shropshire town of Ellesmere.
I quickly discover that canal boating is simultaneously very relaxing and stressful. Once we cross the aqueduct with its amazing views, there are other boats to dodge, tight turns to master and long tunnels to chug through.
There’s even a swing bridge to lift and our six-year-old gets out, armed with the windlass (the tool to lift canal locks and bridges) and starts helping turn the gauge to raise it high above the canal and allow us to pass through.
At first, bridges and locks may be daunting but they quickly become part of the fun, giving the children some activity and making them feel part of the team.
Luckily, every boater seems friendly and happy to help if you get in a fix.
Helming takes some practice, the boat is steered from the rear with a tiller. You may find yourself gently bumping the sides, glancing off low bridges or getting stuck in shallow water.
Coming out from a tunnel
It is all part of the adventure and steering quickly becomes second nature, even if you can never entirely relax at the helm.
We take it in turns so one of us can be with the children, prepare food or even relax, lazing at the front, enjoying the scenery.
There’s something pretty awesome about travelling along in a floating home but I recommend mooring up as often as possible to explore the towpath and surroundings.
We love stopping where we want, discovering walks through the countryside with just cows for company. This slow pace of travel needs to be embraced.
We also make planned stops at Chirk near to the famous castle, Ellesmere with its mere, playground, sculpture trail and quaint town centre, the small village of St Martin’s and also the base at Trevor, from where you can cross the famous aqueduct, a world heritage site, on foot.
As your confidence dealing with the boat increases, so does your speed carrying out its regular checks, filling with water and tying the ropes.
And the quality of our craft Askrigg really helps make the holiday (read our detailed review of the boat). It is one of Anglo Welsh’s Bond class boats and sleeps up to six (read our full review of it here).
Inside our boat Askrigg
There is lots of space inside, two bedrooms, two bathrooms with showers, a well-equipped kitchen, lounge/dining area, television, radio, central heating and WiFi. It is also extremely clean and Covid compliant.
By the end of our mini-break it has become a home from home so as we head back over the aqueduct four days later, the view was just as stunning but any novice nerves about taking a canal boat holiday have disappeared.
We try out family-friendly activities around the lake and take a trip to Verona
We are holidaying in the beautiful Lakes – but for once it’s not our beloved English Lake District.
The waters are a clearer turquoise, there isn’t a walking boot in sight and ice creams are in greater supply.
We are in the fashionable Italian Lakes for a slightly chilly October half-term break and I am feeling cosy but a little out of place in my ‘school run coat’.
We are staying on the southern end of Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda, loved by families and affluent travellers.
And home for the trip is also a family favourite with a great lakefront location.
Bella Italia – a five-star campsite – is a 15-minute lakeside walk from the town of Peschiera Del Garda.
It has four pools (sadly closed at this time of year), the same number of restaurants with well-priced tasty food, playgrounds, a children’s club, ice cream parlour, bouncy castles, fairground rides and more.
Our three-bedroom mobile home, a Girasole Suite, is smaller than similar holiday homes we have stayed in but is an ideal base to explore the area.
And we start out on the pebbly beach in front of the holiday park before getting on to the water itself – the quickest way to get around the lake’s beautiful towns and villages is by ferry.
You can hop on and off, visiting several spots in a day. Among our favourites were the enchanting village of Lazise with its castle and playground and tourist magnet Sirmione – the most picturesque yet busiest spot on the lake.
Another busy spot is Italy’s biggest theme park, Gardaland, just 15 minutes away.
There are plenty of rollercoasters for older children but younger children are well-catered for too – there’s even a small Peppa Pig Land.
And a Sea Life aquarium next door is a good rainy day option – you can buy one ticket covering a visit to both on the same or consecutive days.
Just a short drive away lies a more relaxing day out. Parco Natura Viva is a zoo and safari park with hippos, giraffes, rhinos and bears among a lovely site.
Parco Giardino Sigurta
Another attraction worth a visit is Parco Giardino Sigurta. This 600-acre garden has a maze, small animal farm and plenty of space to run around in beautiful gardens. We explore on foot then hire a golf cart for 18 euros to get around the whole site.
Further afield, but still only half an hour away, is Verona.
Our children love the huge Roman amphitheatre, the 2,000-year-old Arena.
Others head to this city of Romeo and Juliet to leave love notes at Juliet’s balcony, linked to the fictional star-crossed lovers.
But it isn’t the most child friendly spot with a cramped courtyard full of selfie hunters taking photos at Juliet’s statue and balcony.
You are better off exploring Verona’s pedestrianised centre, the square around the Arena and its riverside walks. It is a compact city and in a day you can see historic churches, castles, museums or stop by one of countless gelato outlets.
To keep younger ones really happy, the city’s new Children’s Museum is a fantastic hands-on place where they can learn about light, water, power and science through play. It is well worth a couple of hours of your time.
Children’s Museum, Verona
We throw ourselves into the Verona experience with an authentic Veronese feast prepared for us at Locanda Ristori – one of the city’s traditional eateries.
We explore the family-friendly attractions in the city of St Albans and eat at the oldest pub in Britain
As we climb up and up, twist after twist, turn after turn, the staircase gets narrower and narrower.
The top of the Clock Tower is a particularly tight squeeze, its 600-year-old roof can only take a few visitors at a time – but the view at the summit of the 93 steps is well worth it.
Stretching in front of us is St Albans – a city where the ancient and the modern sit side-by-side.
For example, the Clock Tower was built in 1405, but on the street below, people queue up outside Darlish, the UK’s first Persian ice cream parlour, whose speciality is a deliciously sweet baklava ice cream sandwich.
The city’s park contains both a modern splash pool and Roman remains. And pubs which played host to Oliver Cromwell now serve the latest culinary trends.
And that theme of ancient and modern is clear at our first stop, St Albans Museum and Gallery.
St Albans Museum and Gallery
St Albans Museum and Gallery
Refurbished in 2018, the city’s main museum contains 2,000 years of history over three floors. Children are given an activity pack and trail to follow around.
You can visit the underground cells which used to be the city’s prison and then climb up into the former courtroom.
While your little ones pretend to be a judge or a villain in the dock, pensioners merrily sip away at cups of tea and tuck into slices of cake.
Our little magistrate sentences her big brother to life imprisonment
Upstairs there are more displays of the city’s history and on site is a tasty cafe. You can eat in the old courtroom or on the market square as we did, tucking into large sandwiches, varied salads and a wide range of excellent cakes.
Information: St Albans Museum and Gallery, Town Hall, St Peter’s St, St Albans AL1 3DH, open daily 10am to 5pm, 11am to 5pm on Sundays. Entry free.
St Albans Market
It is worth visiting on market day – Wednesdays and Saturdays between 8.30am and 4.30pm – if you can. There has apparently been a market in the city since the 9th century. 1,100 years on and the stalls are packed, stretching along the high street. You can buy everything from toys, to handbags, to Pakistani or Indonesian street food. It is a vibrant, colourful sight with more than 160 stalls.
Market day in St Albans, our view from the Clock Tower
At the bottom end of the market and high street is the Clock Tower. The stairs to the top do get very narrow but it is fun to climb and you are rewarded with views across Hertfordshire and even London on a clear day. The friendly volunteers at the bottom of the tower let children help ring the city’s 600-year-old bell, which has been clanging away since the Wars of the Roses.
The Clock Tower
Information: Clock Tower, High St, St Albans AL3 4EL. opening times vary. Entry £1 adults, children free. This is the only surviving medieval town belfry in England.
St Albans Cathedral
Even older than the clock tower is the building which dominates this city. St Albans Cathedral, known locally as The Abbey, is named after Alban, Britain’s first saint.
St Albans Cathedral
It is a huge building and entry is free. Children can get an activity pack from the new welcome centre, which has a shop, cafe and toilets. The pack contains 12 questions taking you around the cathedral, encouraging youngsters to explore the whole site.
The quiz also explains to them some of the history of this building and the story of how Alban became St Alban and met a grizzly end at the hands of the Romans.
There are also tree trails to explore the cathedral’s gardens, which takes around 45 minutes to complete.
On certain heritage open days there are also graffiti trails where children can hunt for clues on the various etchings visitors have drawn into the stone around the cathedral.
All the trails cost £2 per child and include a badge when successfully completed.
Some churches can feel a little stuffy and unwelcoming to children but this felt like a site where little ones were actively welcomed.
A short walk down the hill from the cathedral brings you to Verulamium Park, a former Roman site.
It is named after the Roman city of Verulamium on which it stands. And there are Roman remains dotted around its 100 acres. It was full of families when we visited, there is lots of space to run around, you can stroll by the lake, feed the ducks and climb trees. There is also a playground, fairly new splash park open during the summer, football goals, cafe and indoor swimming pool.
Verulamium Museum next to the park grounds has artefacts, which explore everyday life in Roman Britain.
St Albans has a wealth of options for eating out with almost every conceivable chain restaurant having an outlet around the city centre. We took a chance on something slightly different. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is officially Britain’s oldest pub, the octagonal building dates back to the 11th century.
Britain’s oldest pub
It is well situated near the entrance to Verulamium Park and has a beer garden. Inside, the low ceilings and timber beams make the pub feel medieval. Fortunately, the food is most definitely modern. There are four children’s options (£8 each) including pasta, burgers and sausages. The quality was high, as were the adult meals.
The pub becomes less family-friendly the later into the evening it gets so I would suggest trying it for lunch or an early dinner.
As we stroll back from the pub where Oliver Cromwell once stayed the night, the beautiful cathedral is lit up and it’s easy to see why this is a city is a great place to introduce children to our country’s history.
Where we stayed – St Michael’s Manor
St Michael’s Manor
Our hotel, St Michael’s Manor, is next to the park and has a lovely garden of its own – five acres to explore and its own lake.
The hotel’s original building dates from 1500, which practically makes it a modern development in St Albans.
This luxury hotel has excellent family rooms – our suite had two televisions and a huge bathroom.
Our hotel room, Sycamore
Breakfast is in a beautiful orangery-style restaurant.
We stay at a holiday park in the middle of the Netherlands with our children
Sand stretches before us. A vast expanse of gold, nothing on the horizon save for a makeshift den of withered tree branches.
Where is this extraordinary landscape? The Sahara? Outer Mongolia?
Try central Holland, the Dunes of Loon.
This natural phenomenon was created by sand drifts 10,000 years ago and its 30km of desert are fun to explore.
Dunes of Loon
You experience it by walking just five minutes from our family campsite at Duinhoeve (read our full Duinhoeve Holiday Park review and tips here).
And we certainly feel like explorers as we unzip the door to our glamping lodge at the park.
Our glamping lodge at Duinhoeve
From the outside it is a huge tent, but through the zipped entrance you find a fabulous, modern interior.
There are three bedrooms, a den/storage area for children, spacious shower and bathroom, TV, well-equipped kitchen and large dining table. See our video below.
The park is ideal for younger children with three playgrounds aimed at under-7s and two swimming pools – one large and heated by solar power, the other for toddlers complete with pirate ship.
There’s a restaurant/cafe selling hot and cold meals every evening.
There’s also bike and go-kart hire. Very useful as Duinhoeve is well located to explore what the natural world has to offer with cycle paths and walks through the dunes and woodland.
If you want to experience further afield then the small medieval city of Den Bosch is less than 30 minutes away.
If you are browsing its ancients streets, squares and markets don’t forget to try the local delicacy Bosch Bollen – a type of giant profiterole sold in every bakery.
Bosche Bollen, yum
The city was home to the medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch, famous for his fantastical imagination.
And if it is a wild imagination you want to witness, then just 10 minutes from Duinhoeve is the fairytale themed theme park of Efteling (full review and top tips for visiting Efteling here).
Efteling Theme Park
Think Disneyland minus the schmaltz, the sky high food prices and super-long queues.
Not that Efteling is quiet, it is still Holland’s largest theme park and draws visitors from around Europe.
The best place to get a feel for Efteling is the Fairytale Forest with recreations of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, Pinocchio’s workshop and the witch’s gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel, which even smells authentic.
The park is broadly divided into two halves, to the left of the entrance is mostly aimed at younger children. Head right if you have roller-coaster loving tweens and teens who are seeking plenty of thrills. See our exclusive video below.
With our younger ones, some of the best rides are Symphonica – a theatrical indoor adventure and the Pirana River Rapids Ride.
If you need a break, there are plenty of places to sit and rest. You can hop on a steam train around the park, take a leisurely boat ride on a lake, or head up the pagoda viewing tower to see Efteling from above.
When you are hungry you can pick from plenty of food options with more than just the usual expensive fast-food.
A day at Efteling ends with a 15-minute fire and water show called Aquanura, set to classical music.
Efteling is a reminder that this area – capable of extraordinary landscapes is also pretty good at man-made mythical lands as well.
Aquanura water show
There’s more water and drama back at our glamping lodge that night.
After days of humidity, a terrific thunder storm breaks out. As we look out across the park, enjoying the sight and the sound of the rain hammering on the canvas roof, we are very glad to be in safe and secure in our very, very posh tent.
We take our children via mini-cruise to Amsterdam in Holland
Amsterdam may be a stag and hen do favourite – but there is much more to the city than its infamous seedier side.
We head to the beautiful Dutch capital with our children, in search of a family-friendly break.
It’s just a short, 45-minute plane journey from the UK. So we decide to travel by ship. Obviously.
Billed as a mini-cruise, our overnight ferry crossing is with DFDS from Newcastle.
The children love it and it doesn’t feel like part of the journey – more a highlight of the holiday.
It sets sail at 5.30pm, so enough time to explore the ship, eat and enjoy the entertainment.
Then most of the journey is spent asleep in our cabin, before waking up for breakfast and disembarkment. Read our review and tips for taking this ferry crossing here and watch our video below.
Our visit to the Netherlands is in two parts so it’s a bonus to have our car and lots of luggage.
Part 1 Amsterdam
There are bicycles EVERYWHERE we look. I’m expecting this but am still staggered at the sheer volume of cyclists, their confidence and the natural way they rule the road.
All ages are on two wheels, children too young to pedal themselves ride on a seat or in a trailer with an adult.
And NOBODY wears a helmet.
It’s a stressful city for car drivers to negotiate – it’s also difficult and expensive to park.
So we use a cheap park and ride car park on the outskirts (read our Amsterdam park and ride guide here) and take a couple of trams to our hotel.
NH Amsterdam Center is a good base to explore from plus it was great value when we booked. (See our full hotel review and pictures here).
Our hotel room
It’s a well-positioned hotel next to Leidseplein square in Amsterdam, across the road from canal cruises, within five minutes’ walk of Vondelpark, Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. Plus, our room is huge.
Then, armed with an I amsterdam city card, which gives free access to attractions, public transport including ferries and a free canal cruise, we start our exploring.
We tick off Nemo Science Museum, a great hands-on attraction, where our children even get to be scientists in a lab.
Nemo Science Museum
We take a pancake cruise – a 75-minute cruise – with all you can eat pancakes and toppings. None of us get near to the record of 15. Then, part of the boat’s floor opens up to reveal a ball bit below deck.
The Pancake Boat
We pop to see the outside of the real-life Hunter Street house from the Nickelodeon programme of the same name.
And we get close to nature at Artis Zoo – a beautiful attraction, with some species you don’t get to see in English zoos.
Less child-oriented but a must-see for art lovers, is the Van Gogh Museum which houses the biggest collection of the Dutch painter’s work in the world. Even his famous work Sunflowers is there when we visit.
We use our cruise tickets (free with the I amsterdam card), with the Blue Boat Company. The cruise really caters for children – they have their own Pirates commentary on headphones and goody bags.
The Blue Boat Company
Read our complete reviews and guides to Amsterdam’s children’s attractions here and watch our video below.
Walking is a great way to see the city and the canals but it’s a challenge to negotiate the roads and crossings with children, remembering to check the cycle lanes and look out for trams as well as other traffic.
Amsterdam is fascinating, brilliant and intensive and when it’s time for part two of our trip, all four of us are ready to head south.
We stay in an idyllic spot near Chipping Norton and visit Cotswolds Wildlife Park, Blenheim Palace and a crocodile zoo.
Violet is an enthusiastic tour guide. Energetically sprinting down woodland paths, she throws herself on to a trampoline and encourages our children to do the same. Violet is five. One of three generations who live and host visitors to Heath Farm Holiday Cottages.
Our daughter tries out the trampoline
Our children are wowed as she carefully points out the farm’s facilities, views over golden fields and the honey-coloured cottage which will be our home from home.
Heath Farm has five cottages on a 70-acre site on the eastern edge of the Cotswolds, near Chipping Norton. The views and atmosphere make you feel like you could be in the Tuscan countryside rather than the heart of England.
The Barbour family converted the site 25 years ago and still play a hands-on role welcoming visitors – owners Nena and David are there to answer questions and give tips on exploring the area.
Our children love doing their own exploring of the farm’s trails, trying croquet on the lawn and enjoying the pool and table tennis tables in the games room.
Our cottage, Cobnut, is traditional yet modern – wood furnishings mixed with modern appliances. There are two good-sized bedrooms with en suites, a dining room with spectacular views overlooking the farm’s pond and an outside table looking on to a colourful floral courtyard. We feel happy and comfortable there straight away. Read our full review of the accommodation plus see pictures and a video here.
We are hungry and we’ve brought our own supplies but you only need to travel a mile to find a good pub. The Boxing Hare is a modern restaurant with large garden for outside dining. There’s a good selection of freshly cooked children’s meals and the friendly staff make our two feel welcome with colouring books and pens. Plus the food is delicious.
The next day it is time to head out further into the surrounding area. First stop, Cotswolds Wildlife Park and Gardens.
The sun is shining as we wander the beautiful grounds, spotting rhinos, lions and wolves. It is a large site, which takes the best part of a day to get around. Highlights for us include the adventure playground, the train which tours the park giving weary legs a rest and the clever fencing design which makes you feel close to the animals as you walk around. Read our full review and tips here.
Cotswolds Wildlife Park and Gardens
Later in the day, at Crocodiles of the World, we get close to a three-metre slithering saltwater reptile. The UK’s only crocodile zoo has 160 different types of crocs, alligators and caimans to see. The enthusiastic staff talks are worth catching as they explain all you need to know about these rarely seen creatures. See here for our full review and tips.
Crocodiles of the World
Unfortunately, the Tuscan-style weather doesn’t last for our visit to Blenheim Palace the next day. One of the country’s finest stately homes, even on a rainy day there was more than just ancient artefacts to entertain our children.
This was the birthplace and home of Winston Churchill and for the first time, we tried our two with audio guides. They are aimed at adults and the commentary is detailed. But they loved wearing the headphones and operating the guides, which kept them interested in the stories of paintings, pictures and life of the Churchill family as we walked around.
Once you have explored the palace and magnificent grounds you can hop on a small train (50p per person each way) to the family pleasure gardens. This area has a butterfly house, maze, playground and small model village. Read our full review and tips on Blenheim Palace here.
Then we couldn’t wait to get back to Heath Farm. Our children urgently seeking out their on-site guide.
As they and Violet took turns on the swings hanging from trees, we couldn’t help but wish that every holiday home came with a fantastic five-year-old expert.
Bournemouth Beach has been voted Britain’s best for two years running by TripAdvisor so we take our children on a trip to Dorset to see it for ourselves
Children start digging their first sandcastles, surfers ride the morning waves and a little land train sounds its horn as it heads along the promenade.
Bournemouth Beach is gearing up for another day doing what this resort does better than most.
And despite its large green spaces, genteel buildings and bustling town centre, it is the beach which remains the big draw here, a beach officially recognised by TripAdvisor, as Britain’s best, in both 2018 and 2019.
You can see why – soft sand, gentle waves and family-friendly activities stretch along the seafront.
The best way to get a feel for the area is to head for its pier. There you can ride the Observation Wheel to get your bearings, enjoy some traditional amusement arcades and set foot on the sand.
The pier itself is home to zip wires, climbing walls and other action-packed activities, which is another example of how this resort is modernising its appeal to families.
The popular land train pootles up and down the promenade, a Red Arrows simulator is available for those who like to move a little quicker and deck chairs to hire are luring those who prefer a leisurely pace.
The seafront runs for miles from surf haven Boscombe at one end to the millionaires’ mansions of Sandbanks at the other.
But what if it is raining? As it was for part of our visit.
It’s a busy aquarium complete with shark tunnel, penguin enclosure and a small children’s play area. There is enough to pass a pleasant hour or two especially if you visit when one of the fish-feeding sessions and talks are on. See our full review of Bournemouth Oceanarium here.
When it does dry up, we head for the beach. It is perfect for young children because the sand is soft, there are no hills or dunes, the tide doesn’t go out too far and the sea suits a paddle. Wild and rugged it isn’t but safe and secure it most certainly is.
It is well worth heading to Boscombe’s seafront too. A couple of miles along from the centre of Bournemouth, they have just as good a stretch of beach here as well as a pier with mini-golf and a musical trail.
Boscombe also has surf schools and volleyball courts on the sand. And it is home to the superb family-friendly restaurant Urban Reef.
Urban Reef restaurant
We ate here during our stay and it has a perfect blend of an informal seaside feel matched with fine food for the adults. Plus, a fabulous sea view.
Urban Reef’s beach setting
There’s a restaurant upstairs and café downstairs and there’s plenty for children – the kids’ menu is designed by eight-year-old chefs, there are books to read, quizzes to do and menus to colour in.
Head to the other end of Bournemouth’s 10 miles of beach and you come to somewhere with a different feel entirely – Sandbanks.
This peninsula has its own pleasant beach but people and property watching is almost as much fun. You can take one of the ferries to Poole Harbour or Brownsea Island to get a glimpse of some of the mansions with their own jetties.
Homes in Sandbanks, view from our ferry
Alternatively, just take a stroll around the streets of Sandbanks, home to the likes of footballer manager and I’m a Celebrity winner Harry Redknapp.
We had our own taste of luxury with an overnight stay at Bournemouth’s Orchid Hotel.
The Orchid Hotel in Bournemouth
This stylish venue has 31 rooms and is set just a few streets back from the beach between Bournemouth and Boscombe.
We had the choice of family rooms or two interconnecting rooms. We enjoyed the latter along with its comfortable beds, quality furnishings and a tasty breakfast with lots of good options for small children. (Read our full review of the hotel here).
And filled up with a hearty breakfast it was time to explore again.
Our Famous Five adventure
As this area has three resorts – Bournemouth, Boscombe and Sandbanks – on the same stretch of beach – it was hard to leave.
But we were off on a fabulous Famous Five adventure elsewhere in Dorset – read all about it here.
*Bournemouth was hailed TripAdvisor’s best beach for 2019, is your favourite among the top 10?
Bournemouth Beach, Bournemouth, Dorset
Luskentyre, Isle of Harris, Scotland
St. Brelade’s Bay Beach, St Brelade, Jersey
Woolacombe Beach, Woolacombe, Devon
Barafundle Beach, Stackpole, Wales
Filey Beach, Yorkshire
Rhossili Bay, Rhossili, Wales
Gorleston Beach, Norfolk
Perranporth Beach, Perranporth, Cornwall
Newborough Beach, Dwyran, Anglesey, Wales
(Our hotel, restaurant meal and aquarium access were supplied by Bournemouth Tourism and Tourism South East for the purposes of this review. All opinions are our own).
We spend a day exploring the spiritual home of the Famous Five in Enid Blyton’s beloved Dorset
“Dick,” shout my children, calling to their dad as we climb the hill to ‘Kirrin Castle’.
“DIIIIICK, come here!”
I fare best when our children ask us to pretend we are the Famous Five for I get to be feisty cousin George (Georgina).
My son is Julian, my daughter, Anne and Timmy is our imaginary dog.
Today’s game feels far more real, as we are playing at the very locations in Dorset which inspired the Famous Five stories.
I devoured Enid Blyton as a child. Night after night I’d stay awake until all hours reading book after book, series after series.
So, it’s been magical to revisit childhood favourites with my own children from The Magic Faraway Tree through to the Adventures series.
The Famous Five stories may be old fashioned with some outdated ideas (I take the opportunity to explain this as I read). But with more than 100 million copies sold they remain as popular today.
The daring children have remarkably grown-up free adventures, finding treasure and smugglers and, it strikes me these days, never needing the toilet!
All amidst a rural backdrop of blue skies, sea and countryside, bicycle rides and lots of deliciously described picnics.
Today we are exploring the Dorset Enid Blyton loved and visited with her family for over 40 years, on the Isle of Purbeck, (which is more a peninsula than an isle).
The first Famous Five book, Five on a Treasure Island, was published over 75 years ago, in 1942.
In it, we are introduced to Kirrin Castle, on Kirrin Island, which belongs to George, near her home in Kirrin Bay.
“It had been built of big white stones. Broken archways, tumbledown towers, ruined walls – that was all that was left of a once beautiful castle, proud and strong.”
The inspiration for Kirrin Castle is said to have been Corfe Castle in Purbeck, so this becomes our first stop.
It is not on an island but our children are thrilled as we near the fabulous ruins which loom over the surrounding area.
Corfe Castle, the inspiration for Kirrin Castle
They race up the grassy slope to explore the 1,000-year-old castle, which survived the English Civil War when it was partly demolished by Cromwell’s troops and now belongs to the National Trust.
We explore all the hidden nooks and crannies and remember the adventures the Five had here, such as finding lost gold.
Even without the Blyton connection, we would have had a great time.
(Tip: If it is a school holiday get there early as parking in the small village of Corfe can be difficult. The small car park opposite the castle fills up quickly and the other option through the narrow village is a five to 10 minute walk away and was almost full when we visited).
Enid Blyton first saw Corfe Castle when she arrived by steam train.
The steam train at Corfe
And this is something you can still do today – Swanage Railway runs steam trains between Swanage and Norden. There is a picturesque stop at Corfe Castle so you could arrive or depart from here on your Famous Five adventure.
Of course, the Famous Five often travelled by steam train – particularly to return from their boarding schools ready for the holidays and more adventures.
Bathing – Swanage Pier
Next stop is the pretty seaside town of Swanage where Enid Blyton enjoyed swimming around the pier with her husband.
It was too cold for a swim when we went but we enjoyed a picnic, sadly no hard-boiled eggs, lashings of ginger beer or lemonade for us though.
On quiet days – if you are in the car – you can park on the seafront, alternatively there are large car parks a short walk from the beach.
Brownsea Island, in Poole Harbour, is said to have been the inspiration for Whispering Island, described by Enid Blyton as Keep Away Island in Five Have a Mystery to Solve.
In Enid Blyton’s day, visitors were not allowed – but now it’s owned by the National Trust.
The ferry to Brownsea island
We caught a ferry over from Sandbanks to explore. Brownsea Island Ferries run regular services from Sandbanks and from Poole Quay to the island. Greenslade Pleasure Boats also run a ferry service from Poole. Departures are about every 30 minutes with the last boat leaving at 5pm.
Once you have landed on the island there is lots to explore, the wildlife there includes rare red squirrels and we were lucky enough to spot three.
A red squirrel we spotted on Brownsea Island
There are also clifftop walks, which lead down to rocky beaches. If you explore the far end of the island you can see where the first Scout camp was held by Baden-Powell in 1907.
Exploring Brownsea Island
A trip to an island, always led to an adventure for the Famous Five and we wished we had longer here. But our only adventure was nearly missing the last boat back!
This is a fabulous way for Enid Blyton fans to spend their ‘hols’ with lashings of fun.
You can base yourself in the Isle of Purbeck but it is only a 25-minute drive to family-friendly Bournemouth which has more accommodation and activities for children if you want to make your Famous Five day into a mini-break in Dorset.
Read our review of a beach hotel stay near Alcudia in Mallorca and a visit to the magnificent Caves of Drach
The Spanish Balearic island of Mallorca (or Majorca*) was a favourite holiday destination for my family when I was growing up.
I have hazy, happy memories of golden sands and learning to swim in a warm, blue sea.
Then there was the Spanish keyboard player in our hotel who inspired me at the age of three to take organ lessons.
He’s probably retired now but the seas and sand remain so 30 years after I last visited it was time to make new memories of the island with my own children.
And so we found ourselves joining hoardes of other British families in August heading to this Mediterranean hotspot.
We used our air miles (see here for more information) and flew with BA City Flyer.
Once again, we were really impressed with the service, the planes (2-2 seating) and the leg room.
Leg room on our BA City Flyer flight
The flight at just over two hours was perfect for our children, they enjoyed the taking off and landing with just enough time in between to eat, read and watch iPads.
My first impression after landing was how enormous the island’s only airport Palma is now. My parents remember it as just a ‘hut’ in the 1960s when they first went.
There is an extraordinarily long walk to collect your suitcases, something to plan for if you have young children.
We collected a hire car, fitted our children’s car seats (see here for our car seat advice) and headed north to our hotel.
It took 45 minutes to reach the Prinsotel La Dorada, a four-star resort in Playa de Muro near Alcudia.
Prinsotel La Dorada
This aparthotel has all the benefits of self-catering and a hotel stay combined.
The rooms are like apartments with mini-kitchens but you can choose to eat at the hotel or mix and match.
Our living area
The resort is a great size – just big enough. And really well designed. The rooms are located in five blocks around the pools so everybody is in a good position.
Our room overlooked an adjacent nature reserve so we had a beautiful view. Other rooms overlook the pools.
The view from our room
And the pools are gorgeous – beautifully designed in different sections to keep the interest up for children, with varying water depths to suit all.
There is also a pool for babies, toddlers and younger children with a slide and other water fun.
The entertainment was great – we all enjoyed the evening shows and entertainers were busy in the day as well, leading aqua aerobics and other games and activities.
The pools kept ours entertained but there is a miniclub for children aged four to 12 with a programme of activities. There’s also a playground and a mini disco in the evenings. Our two tried one of the activities – pony riding around the grounds (an extra €6 per child), which was a highlight, even when my daughter’s horse stopped to relieve itself on the pristine hotel gardens!
There is also a maxiclub for older children, who have access to a PlayStation.
Then there’s a crazy golf course, pool and table tennis tables for adults and children.
A nice touch in the main buffet restaurant is a children’s section set inside a train where they can help themselves to food displayed at their height.
It is a five-minute walk (200m) to the lovely, sandy Muro Beach. Here, the sea remains shallow for quite a way out – great for children.
We hired a pedalo one day for €15 and although I never made it to the hotel spa (or obviously the gym), I enjoyed two foot massages on the beach for €10 each, while the waves crashed in front of me. Bliss.
You can stay self-catering or half board or you can pay as and when you fancy for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
For evening meals, we did a mixture of cooking in our room, eating at the hotel buffet restaurant and sampling the local restaurants – a great variety which really suited us.
For more details of the hotel, click here.
Cuevas del Drach
I was keen to take my children to the Caves of Drach which I had enjoyed as a child (apart from the year we went to the wrong caves and didn’t realise – apparently this still happens now so check the website for the exact location as there are other caves nearby).
The attraction is on the east coast of Mallorca in Porto Cristo and we were glad to escape the August heat to the 21C temperature inside.
It is incredible – there is a long path and lots of steps through the caves, which are dimly lit and bursting with stalagmites and stalactites.
Finally, you reach one of the largest underground lakes in the world, Lake Martel where you sit down, the lights go off (some children may not like this) and three lit rowing boats appear, the first with musicians in, for an unforgettable 10-minute classical music concert. See here for more information on this attraction.
We also visited Alcudia old town on market day – a Tuesday morning – and haggled for a few bits before a welcome stop in a restaurant for tapas (and pizza).
It is a pretty, walled town with lots of atmosphere and lots to see and buy.
Alcudia old town
We went to a couple of other beaches, Alcudia and S’illot, but preferred the Playa del Muro by our hotel.
Mallorca was as lovely as I remembered. August was a touch too hot for us, so we are keen to try it out at a different time of year.
*Finally, Mallorca or Majorca what is the difference?
The Spanish spell it Mallorca, the British started to call it Majorca as they struggled with the double L sound, although both are pronounced Ma-yor-ka. So now you know!
York with children – the City of Chocolate is rich in history, but will it prove a sweet treat for this family?
Our children jumped up and down in excitement when we said we were going to York.
When our daughter asked about the aeroplane and our son mentioned Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, we realised they thought we were spending our two-day break in the Big Apple.
Thankfully they were still pleased when we explained that York is walled city in northern England.
Our Harry Potter-mad son was especially keen when we said we would visit the real-life Diagon Alley.
Shambles – Diagon Alley
Shambles – the oldest shopping street in Europe – was the inspiration for the wizarding street in the films and it didn’t disappoint.
A few businesses in this narrow medieval lane have capitalised on the link – The Shop That Must Not Be Named and other wizarding stories were selling Harry Potter wands and other goodies.
The City of Chocolate
York is also famous for chocolate. Its popular products include Rowntree’s Kit Kats, Smarties and Aero and Terry’s Chocolate Orange and All Gold.
So, a guided tour at York’s Chocolate Story was top of my wish list (make sure you book in advance, it’s popular).
We learned about the city’s famous chocolate-making families and how to eat chocolate like an expert.
Best of all we had some ‘free’ samples along the way and got to make chocolate lollipops!
For our full review of York’s Chocolate Story read here.
York is great to explore on foot – all the attractions we did were within walking distance and lots of the centre is pedestrianised.
Presiding over it all is the city’s huge 13th-century Gothic cathedral, York Minster.
It is magnificent but we feared our eight and four-year-old might still find it dull. Thankfully, they were given a treasure trail and binoculars which saved the day.
On a treasure trail
Also go armed with facts if you can – ours liked hearing that it took 250 years to build and is 160 metres long, for example.
York Castle Museum
Most of the activities we enjoyed celebrated the rich history of this city, which was founded by the ancient Romans.
York Castle Museum doesn’t go back quite this far but it does showcase 400 years of York’s past.
The Victorian street
Our son’s school topic this term is the Victorians. So, a replica Victorian Street here really grabbed his interest.
A Victorian sweet shop
Toy exhibits were also a highlight, along with old prison cells which held criminals including highwayman Dick Turpin.
For our review of York Castle Museum and tips, click here.
National Railway Museum
Another place with a huge collection is the National Railway Museum, home to around 60 vehicles
National Railway Museum
Our favourites here included the collection of royal train saloons. You can peep through the windows to see the lounge and bedroom carriages on trains used by monarchs from Queen Victoria through to Queen Elizabeth II. For a full review and pictures, see here.
Entry here is free but you have to pay for extras – a ride on a miniature train cost £10 for the four of us. For our full review and tips, click here.
Jorvik Viking Centre
Next we had to travel further back in time to discover The Vikings.
Jorvik Viking Centre is built on the site of amazing archaeology finds.
It tells the story of an excavation in the 1970s which pieced together the story of the Vikings of Jorvik.
A ride takes you around recreations of 10th century York, then you can see 1,000-year-old artefacts from the dig on display.
Jorvik Viking Centre
There was a long queue to get in when we visited – apparently it is quieter first thing and around 3pm.
Our eight and four-year-old were not as interested in this attraction but their eagerness to get around quickly may have had more to do with the fact it was nearly lunchtime.
City Cruises York
We found a nice warm place with a great view to eat our picnic – aboard a York City Cruise.
This 45-minute ride up and down the River Ouse was accompanied by excellent commentary from the driver.
City Cruises York on the River Ouse
And it was nice to relax for a bit amid all the activities.
Staycity Aparthotel York
After a day of history we were able to enjoy the modern comforts of our base – Staycity York.
This aparthotel was built in 2016 and has studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments.
Our lounge/diner/kitchen area
We had a roomy two-bedroomed apartment with a lounge/dining/kitchen area and two modern bathrooms. It was fully equipped with everything you could need including a cooker, microwave and dishwasher.
But it also has he benefits of a hotel – there’s a gym, café, laundry and 24-hour reception. Plus there’s a nearby multi-storey car park where you get a discount – we left our car here for the whole trip.
Staycity York is in a good spot next to the Barbican theatre (for our full review click here). We could even see part of the city walls we had walked earlier from our room.
York City Walls
The walls are the longest medieval walls in England at over two miles.
York city walls
There are some good views but make sure to keep hold of little ones as only the higher drops seem to have railings.
Cobbled streets, tea rooms, a city steeped in history and a bit of Harry Potter thrown in made for a magical two days.
New York can take a back seat. Our children love old York.
For more ideas and information go to the VisitYork website.
A York Pass is the city’s official sightseeing card. It gives you free to more than 40 attractions in York and beyond. For more information see here.
We were given York Passes for the purpose of this review (all views are our own).
If you want to see some of Britain’s best known ships up close then it’s a short walk from the tower to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
This huge site, which is still home to the Royal Navy, has enough attractions to occupy an entire day.
Out first stop was HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship from the Battle of Trafalgar.
It is amazingly well preserved with a well thought-through route that takes you right down into the bowels of the boat.
Where they slept on HMS Victory
You can follow in Nelson’s footsteps and also experience life below deck where the sailors had to eat, sleep and be treated for war wounds.
Also at the dockyard we sampled the Action Stations hanger which has a climbing wall, rope course and a helicopter simulator giving children the chance to act like Royal Marines.
The site also has HMS Warrior, the biggest ship in the world when it was built in 1860, Henry VIII’s famous Mary Rose and plenty more.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate its scale is to go on the museum’s 45-minute harbour tour. This takes you around the Royal Navy’s current warships and onto The Solent. You can hop on and off at Gunwharf Quays near the Spinnaker Tower to cut down on walking (and enjoy a shop if you have time).
We stay in a Thomas-themed hotel room before trying out Thomas Land at Drayton Manor Theme Park in Staffordshire
I wake to find a giant Thomas the Tank Engine staring at me.
Then my son’s excited face pops up over the top.
What a wonderful way for a boy to wake up on his birthday – in the top bunk of a Thomas bed.
We are at Drayton Manor Hotel near Tamworth in Staffordshire. It is on the same site as Drayton Manor Theme Park and our stay-and-play package includes breakfast and tickets to the park.
Our Thomas-themed room has no less than four television screens and a railway line printed on the floor which continues into some of the corridor.
We choo choo our way along it and make our way down to breakfast before skipping into the park.
A Thomas-themed room at Drayton Manor hotel
First stop – and our main reason for the visit – is Thomas Land. Having heard tales of long queues over the holidays, on this term-time day, the place is blissfully quiet.
James and the Red Balloon Ride
And with the sun shining, we go quickly from ride to ride, enjoying such delights as Cranky’s Drop Tower and Jeremy’s Flying Academy. And the quite exhilarating Troublesome Trucks Runaway Coaster is clearly enjoyed by us adults as much as the children.
The rest of the park
Then we climb aboard a Thomas the Tank train at “Knapford Station” and ride to another part of the park. Here, our two children enjoy all the birds and animals at the zoo and take the Dino Trail where there are model dinosaurs.
We then try out the handful of bigger rides suitable for younger children in the rest of the park, like the big wheel and the water rapids, which I scream my way through, much to everyone’s amusement.
Daringly, we board the very fast (I think) Accelerator (formerly known as The Ben 10 Ultimate Mission Coaster), suitable from aged four.
We alight full of happy laughter.
And it is this, not just Thomas, which is the theme of our stay.
Drayton Manor is also home to the stand-up roller coaster Shockwave
Accommodation: We stayed as guests at Drayton Manor Hotel for the purposes of this review. All views are our own.
We take our children to review the all-inclusive Clubhotel Riu Oliva Beach in Corralejo, Fuerteventura
“Everybody is naked,” said my brother in a mock whisper.
The glorious beach at our hotel in Fuerteventura is full of surprises.
Not only is Corralejo bigger and sandier than any beach I can remember. With gently crashing turquoise waves, perfect for the children to try out their new bodyboards. And camel rides along sands which stretch for miles from the front of our hotel, the Clubhotel Riu Oliva Beach Resort.
Bodyboarding in the sea on Corralejo beach
But one day as we turn right out of the hotel and venture further along in search of rock pools, we unwittingly gatecrash a naturist section.
This eye-opening experience was not part of the plan for a family trip away to celebrate my mum’s 70th.
My embarrassed mum picked up her pace, I tried not to snigger like a child while the actual children with us didn’t bat an eyelid, except my eight-year-old nephew who asked if it was legal.
While I had carefully dressed my son and daughter in their UV swimsuits, the youngsters in this area were in their birthday suits, while relaxed adults strolled in and out of the sea.
And the giggle we had about it later (apologies to naturist readers) confirmed this as a holiday to remember.
The Riu Oliva Beach is a huge, all-inclusive resort set back from the sands.
We are Riu regulars and love the good food, child-friendly pools and fun feel of their hotels.
We knew this one was soon to be refurbished but the location more than made up for the slightly tired surroundings.
One of the pools at the Riu Oliva Beach hotel, next to the beach
The hotel is divided into a main tower and a lower rise annexe area better suited to families, where we stayed.
Our family room had a lovely large balcony, double bedroom and two single sofa beds for our children.
There are two swimming pools – the fish-shaped one was where we spent most of our time. It is well designed for children with varying depths and an island to swim around.
The fish-shaped swimming pool at Clubhotel Riu Oliva Beach Resort
On one side is a handy shop, filled with temping inflatables for the children and buckets and spades.
On the other side of the pool is the smaller of the two main buffet restaurants.
There is also a restaurant specialising in Asian cuisine and another boasting Canarian favourites.
Our party of 11 – aged from three to 70 – all found something to their taste.
There is children’s entertainment daily with a party at 5pm, plus an adults’ show every night at 9.30pm.
A children’s disco would also have been welcome in the early evening which we have had at other Riu hotels.
All-inclusive here means just that, all we paid for all week was a camel ride along the beach. And our inflatable dolphin for the pool!
Having all your food and drink included certainly makes it easier when you are in a big group as we were.
The nearby town of Corralejo has a pretty square, markets, a water park plus a ferry to nearby Lanzarote.
But we found plenty to entertain us at the hotel.
A camel ride along Corralejo beach
Mornings in the pool, afternoons at the beach and evenings enjoying the food, drink and entertainment.
One magic show for children was especially good.
You might find plusher venues in the Canaries but I doubt you will find one in a better spot to enjoy the landscape.
Just remember to watch where you walk if you want to explore the sands.
Or pack extra sun cream.
*For a more detailed review of the hotel, see here.
Accommodation: We stayed as guests at Clubhotel Riu Oliva Beach Resort, an all-inclusive hotel in Corralejo, Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, Spain, for the purposes of this review. All opinions are our own.
We plan a three-day itinerary for children in London and become secret agents at St Ermin’s Hotel
“Sir. We’ve been expecting you.” The receptionist slips an envelope marked Top Secret into my son’s hands. He becomes the latest ‘spy’ to take up residence in St Ermin’s Hotel, opposite Scotland Yard and next to St James’s Park, just a few hundred yards from the heart of Westminster.
The hotel’s budding Bond’s package
This hotel was once home to MI6 and was where the famous Communist double agents Burgess and McClean met their Russian handlers.
The spy theme is being continued by the budding Bond package for families which encourages little ones to scour the hotel for clues as part of their trip.
And this elegant Victorian hotel is a joy to explore.
St Ermin’s Hotel
It might have some of London’s top attractions on its doorstep, but as you walk down the tree-lined entrance, it’s easy to forget you’re in the heart of the city.
And following a £30 million refurbishment a few years ago, the interior is stunning.
The hotel interior
We enjoyed a delicious breakfast here every day and one fabulous afternoon tea with sandwiches and cakes, beautifully presented, but soon demolished by us.
Our lovely family suite boasted two big beds and the added luxury of two bathrooms.
But we were not there much as there was so much to fit in.
So, what is the secret to a successful trip family break to London?
With our two young children in tow, we decided the answer was to keep it short and simple. We broke it up into three manageable days. Each one in a specific part of the capital:
London Eye – this big wheel and a half is a great way to see the capital from above. An iconic way to start a visit to London and get your bearings.
The London Eye
Sea Life Centre – the aquarium is a good rainy day option or in our case, a welcome escape from the heat outside. The penguins and sharks were particular favourites.
Big Ben – children won’t want to miss seeing and hearing this famous landmark.
St James’s Park –a lovely oasis near to our hotel. We ambled through this Royal park to Buckingham Palace to watch Changing of the Guard.
Natural History Museum (or the Dinosaur Museum to our children) and the neighbouring Science Museum followed by fun in Hyde Park, paddling in the man-made stream.
Three fabulous and free activities in one corner of the capital.
A great history lesson at the Tower of London, touring the cobbled streets and towers and viewing the Crown Jewels.
From here we had a great view of Tower Bridge which my son and I were hurtling under a couple of hours later on a river tour with a difference.
The Thames RIB Experience took in all the sites with great commentary but became less ordinary once the James Bond music kicked in and our boat sped and bounced along the Thames in an adrenaline-filled trip.
An adrenaline-filled trip with the Thames RIB Experience
Back at the hotel and our own 007 son had completed his mission and collected his prize.
He’d uncovered the secrets of St Ermin’s and we’d all discovered the secret to a fabulous family break in London.
*For more ideas see the official visitor guide www.visitlondon.com.
I have a real soft spot for the Lake District. We lived here for two blissful years and it was on the shores of one of its more remote and beautiful lakes where my husband proposed.
It is the quieter spots which fill me most with joy. Like Ullswater, which despite being the area’s second biggest lake, attracts nowhere near the hordes which flock to its largest, Windermere.
As well as being more peaceful, it’s arguably more breathtaking – framed by peaks which include Helvellyn.
And at only 10 minutes from the M6, it couldn’t be easier to reach.
The Quiet Site
Our accommodation in this part of Cumbria reflects our tranquil surroundings – The Quiet Site is a campsite half way up the western side of Ullswater.
Various levels of luxury are catered for from bring-your-own tent to a luxury cottage.
Their latest option are intriguing hobbit holes – underground spaces four times bigger than their insulated wooden camping pods – built into the side of a hill.
A hobbit hole
Camping pods at The Quiet Site
But we are firmly above ground – our home for three nights is a spacious three-bedroom cottage.
This former smithy is full of character, with high ceilings, exposed beams and equipped with everything we could need. Plus extras like a playhouse, toys, books and shelves groaning with children’s DVDs.
And I don’t know who was happiest about the giant trampoline in the garden – but it started the holiday on a high for us all.
Enjoying the trampoline in the garden of our cottage
The site also has a playground and an indoor soft play area, conveniently adjoined to the bar in a cosy barn.
I can see why The Quiet Site was recently the top-rated holiday and glamping park on Tripadviser out of 190 listed in the Lake District.
We crammed lots into this summer break – around the lake and on it.
Ullswater Steamers, which sail between Glenridding in the south and Pooley Bridge in the north, are the popular mode of transport in these parts.
We caught one to Howtown, in the middle, where we climbed part of Hallin Fell and enjoyed a memorable picnic with the lake glistening in the sunshine below.
Ullswater Steamers are a familiar site on the lake
You don’t need to be an expert map reader to find a rewarding spot by the lake but tackling the directions on the nature trail at Askham Hall Gardens, east of Pooley Bridge, tested and thrilled our son and daughter.
The trail winds through gorgeous gardens, with farm animals at the end. Completion brings you to a play area, plus a cafe with a pizza oven and delicious cakes. All the ingredients for a perfect few hours for us.
Other family-friendly trips include the wonderful waterfall Aira Force.
I kept a firm hold of our children by some steep drops on the woodland walk up but they were both suitably impressed by the spectacular sights and sounds.
We were lucky with the weather but if you need undercover fun, head to Rheged. Sadly, the fabulous Lego exhibition we enjoyed was only temporary but there is plenty of permanent entertainment here for little ones. Choose from pottery painting, soft play and an outdoor playground.
Throughout our stay at Ullswater, we found plenty of quiet coves with flat water ready to be disturbed by children’s stones. They were also the perfect settings for picnics, making up adventures and taking in the glorious views.
William Wordsworth was inspired to write the poem Daffodils after seeing the flowers growing on the shores of Ullswater.
“It is the happiest combination of beauty and grandeur, which any of the lakes affords,” he said.
And I may just agree.
For a more detailed review on The Quiet Site, see here.
*For more ideas, see Cumbria’s official tourist board website.
Accommodation: We stayed as guests of The Quiet Site, Ullswater, for the purposes of this review. All opinions are our own.
We took our two LEGO fans to Billund in Denmark where it all began – read our review here.
How to do LEGOLAND in style.
Step 1. Don’t settle for LEGOLAND in Manchester. Or even Windsor. Go one better and head for the original LEGOLAND park itself in Denmark.
Step 2. Arrive in style in your own personal jet.
Step 3. LEGOLAND not enough entertainment for you? Stay at a neighbouring water park, to really keep little thrill seekers happy.
Check. Check. And check!
Billund in Denmark is a small town with a lot going for it.
It is THE home of Lego.
It was here where the company made its very first toy brick in 1932 and then built the first LEGOLAND park in 1968.
The entrance to LEGOLAND when it opened in 1968.
Flying in style
We flew direct from Manchester with Sun-Air (which works in partnership with British Airways) on a tiny plane.
Its motto “Not bigger – but better” was true of our flight – the 32-seater was carrying only eight other passengers so felt like a private plane.
The 90-minute journey was short enough for our excited children to pass as quiet and well-behaved.
Fares are on the higher side but you can use Avios air miles to make tickets more affordable and this is really travelling in style.
There was no waiting around in our seats at either end and ours were the only bags on the carousel at the sleek and modern Billund Airport.
A five-minute taxi journey later and we’re ready to get wet in northern Europe’s biggest water park.
Lalandia tropical holiday resort – just across the road from LEGOLAND – is our home for three nights. It is bursting with entertainment, all under one roof (for our full review of Lalandia click here).
But the Aquadome is the number one reason to stay here. A huge indoor water park which really puts Center Parcs in the shade.
There are slides for all ages and bravery levels, warm toddler pools, a wave machine, gentle rapid ride and a giant splash zone where a 1,000 litre bucket of water loudly deposits its contents every few minutes.
The other main sound we heard was our children shouting “again, again, again” as they raced from the bottom of one slide to the top of the next.
You could easily spend all day in the Aquadome. But that would mean missing out on the impressive soft play area, small winter wonderland ice skating rink, tenpin bowling and mini golf.
And there’s a “town square” of shops and restaurants, all underneath a beautiful indoor sky, reminiscent of Las Vegas hotels.
The town square at Lalandia
We stayed in a fantastic two-bedroomed lodge in the grounds, kitted out like an IKEA showroom and with everything we needed.
Our holiday home at Lalandia
Lalandia is a holiday in itself but we still had LEGOLAND Billund to enjoy, a theme park created using 65 million of those toy bricks, which still rate among the world’s most popular toys.
It is divided into themed areas with Miniland at its heart. Recreations of old Amsterdam and Danish ferry terminals may have passed our son by – but the Star Wars section, depicting scenes from all the films, did not.
His highlight was a ride where you race your own fire engine, pump out water and then hose down a (pretend) blazing building. We did that four times.
They both also loved the NINJAGO World where visitors can test out their Ninja skills.
The park isn’t huge so if the queues are short – as they were for us – you can pack it all into two days with ease.
Rides are mainly aimed at pre-teens and families so suited us perfectly. There wasn’t much we couldn’t go on.
In fact, that’s the beauty of Billund. From airport, to accommodation, to attractions, everything is geared for families to enjoy.
The town has built its success on the back of those little bricks. And it has built a near-perfect short break.
Accommodation: We stayed as guests at Lalandia tropical holiday resort for the purposes of this review. All views are our own.
Travel: Flew from Manchester to Billund with Sun-Air.
We take our children to Florence, Pisa, San Gimignano and Volterra in August and try out Airbnb for the first time, read our review of our Italian adventure here.
Famous landmarks around the world are a remarkably hot topic of conversation between our children.
This is thanks as much to the Cbeebies programme Go Jetters as educational efforts on our part.
So when the Leaning Tower of Pisa comes into view, even the sweltering August Italian heat doesn’t cool their excitement.
Children under eight aren’t allowed up the tower and the streets are heaving so we stop just long enough to take it all in.
Posing in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Alongside thousands doing the same, we get the all-important pictures next to the extraordinarily slanting building, before we grab some pizza and hot-foot it back to our hire car.
We’ve already managed a day in Florence, taking our two on a whistle-stop tour of the city before their legs got tired.
The Duomo cathedral, Ponte Vecchio bridge and glorious Boboli Gardens were ticked off in a morning, before another rewarding pizza and gelato.
The Duomo cathedral in Florence
We’d bagged a cheap deal in an airport hotel for our first two nights to tackle the cities but now it was time to leave these bustling hotspots in search of the tranquillity of the countryside and the Dolce Vita.
Off to the country and the Dolce Vita
Our home for the next five nights is atop a hill, very much off the beaten track. Literally. A 10-minute dusty, bumpy, beaten track.
We wondered where our first foray into the world of Airbnb had taken us.
This global phenomenon lets people rent out their properties or spare rooms to guests, from small rooms, to shared houses, villas and even entire castles, across more than 65,000 cities. Don’t miss out full guide to Airbnb here.
There were hundreds of appealing options at decent prices, even at peak season and we narrowed down our search using the list of criteria, map view, photos and reviews.
La Farneta with Airbnb
We finally chose an intriguing property on a large private estate in the hidden hamlet of La Farneta in central Tuscany.
Here there are a dozen or so apartments in a classic Tuscan setting, surrounded by olive trees, scorched fields and forests as far as the eye could see.
Exploring the grounds of our accommodation in La Farneta.
The only sound – apart from our children in the shared swimming pool – was that of crickets in the towering trees of this 230 hectare estate.
The pool was the big draw here. The weather can get so hot in summer I would say you have to have one if you have children in tow.
The outdoor swimming pool at the apartments on the private estate in La Farneta
The owner Gianfausto gave us the authentic experience Airbnb has built its success on – welcoming us to his home, giving us a guided tour and even playing his piano to provide some pleasant poolside accompaniment.
The accommodation wasn’t luxurious but it was authentic and I can’t remember staying anywhere as peaceful.
It may have been 15 minutes from the nearest shop or restaurant but two Tuscan treasures aren’t far away.
The walled towns of San Gimignano and Volterra provided entertaining excursions. Our children loved the narrow alleys and the nooks and crannies of these picturesque places while the adults could enjoy the sights and sounds of Tuscany.
We visited San Gimignano, an Italian hill town in Tuscany, south-west of Florence
Pizza and pasta time!
With every second shop seemingly selling pasta, olive oil or wild boar, food is a big part of any Tuscan trip.
We found several places for a plate of pasta including Osteria Del Borgo in the pretty village of Mensano.
Staying in a remote location meant it was easier to have lunch out and dinner on our terrace with views over the rolling hills as the sun dipped below the trees.
The perfect evening temperature was ideal for a family walk around the estate, roaming the land and spotting the occasional wall lizard or deer.
We knew Tuscany in August was a gamble.
But we discovered it is possible to beat the heat and the crowds and enjoy complete tranquility.
And we ticked a landmark off that rather demanding wishlist.
For more details of how Airbnb works, read our guide here.
Accommodation: Via Airbnb. We received a discount from Airbnb for the purposes of this review. All opinions are our own.
Travel: Flew with British Airways to Florence Airport.