Aussie family’s French adventure on a road less travelled

Trying to decide on a family holiday that older children will enjoy too can be hard. In this special guest post, Philippa Shelley-Jones, creator of the family tourism app Kid Tracks, tells us about her family cycling trip in Provence.

In early April this year, my family of 5  (husband David, my 18 and 12 year old daughters and 14 year old son), took off on our 8 day family cycling trip, Provence Backroads, run by UTracks, a division of World Expeditions, but without all the frills.

Philippa Shelley-Jones and her family on their Provence Backroads adventure.

Philippa Shelley-Jones and her family on their Provence Backroads cycling adventure.

As we were meeting up with my 18 year old who was (and still is) working in a UK school on a gap year, doing something active outside of the UK for a week seemed like a great way to reconnect before visiting where she was working.

This tour was in the ‘introductory’ category which meant we were travelling an average of about 25km or so a day. It was self-guided, which is what appealed to us. However, it allowed us to cycle in comfort.

For an upfront, all inclusive fee, we were provided with everything we needed, except lunch and drinks. This included:

  • sturdy, geared bikes with panniers, repair kits plus optional helmets.
  • a set of detailed maps for each leg of the journey
  • accommodation in family-run, 2-3 star hotels (The French rating system is different, so I would put them as 3-4 star Aussie)
  • breakfast and a three course dinner either at the hotel or nearby
  • our bags transported for us each day.

Overall, it was well organised and we only had the tiniest, occasional issues relating to directions. But we always managed to work it out without too much trouble.

The hotels (with the exception of one which let the side down a bit) were fabulous and run by the friendliest people. The meals were fantastic – we ate some beautiful French food, including WAY too many croissants, pastries and baguettes.

So many gorgeous cafes to choose from - but at least the cycling made up for it.

So many gorgeous cafes to choose from – but at least the cycling made up for it.

Our trip started at a village just outside Avignon, travelling through to Tarascon, Arles, Les Baux-de-Provence and St Remy-de-Provence. Les Baux-de-Provence was definitely the favourite – just gorgeous.

We always ended up with enough time to have a decent look around our destination, either when we got there or the next morning before we set off.

The riding itself was mainly on smaller roads and lanes, including on the original Roman road Via Aurelia, which was pretty cool. Sometimes we were on busy roads, but not for very long and the French drivers were always very considerate – we were like the Von Trapp family in our long line!

Enjoying time together as a family in rural France - magnifique.

Enjoying time together as a family in rural France – magnifique.

Mostly it was not challenging in terms of slope, but getting up to Les Baux-de-Provence – wow! It was straight up! We knew it was coming, as we’d been warned and the map showed the gradient, but let’s just say there was a lot of walking the bikes up despite lots of valiant effort not to give in!

The next day to St Remy-de-Provence was no picnic either – we could see on the map that it was over Les Alpilles but we were not prepared for the steep hills that day! My 18 year old daughter was the only one who did both steep hills that day without stopping. I had my gears set to the easiest and so my legs were pumping at a million miles an hour but I think at one point I might actually have been going backwards!

There were lots of ooohhh and aaahhhh moments as you can imagine. Lots of fields of almond and apricot trees, olives and grapes. Villas and gorgeous villages galore. Castles and abbeys to visit. Pastries to eat…..and pastries to eat….and did I say, pastries to eat?

This holiday provided us with a wonderful family bonding experience. What was great was that everyone in the family could enjoy it on the same level. We laughed a lot and were together all day doing something we could all get something out of.

Philippa said their biking adventure helped their family reconnect.

Philippa said their biking adventure helped their family reconnect.

Not having to worry about our bags, accommodation and meals (except for lunch which was more often than not, you guessed it – pastries) was a real bonus. As was not having a hire car and needing to drive on the wrong side of the road.

It was really relaxing for me in particular, as the family’s driver, shopper, cook, planner, etc, not having to worry about anything the entire time other than reading the map and guiding us (and maybe which pastry to choose for lunch).

I think it was all good value too. About $1,600 per person over 12 (half price for our 12 year old) for pretty much everything – including the pastries and wine.

All in all I would highly recommend it to any family with older children looking to reconnect, but without wanting the fuss of organising accommodation, hire cars, and food preparation.

Kid Tracks is an app developed by Philippa to help children have an interactive experience at many major attractions, currently in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Hobart. As well as learning about where they are visiting, they can gain points and win prizes.

Revealing the hidden holiday gems of Tassie’s North-West and West Coasts

Based on the number of web hits I get on Family Friendly Accommodation for for family holiday accommodation in Tasmania, this state is becoming a very popular holiday destination for families.

As a Tasmanian by marriage (and having lived there for 4 years, with regular visits since), I am lucky enough to have seen much of the island state, in particular the North-West and West Coasts.

Unfortunately, with the exception of a couple of big name attractions, such as Cradle Mountain and Strahan, many tourists tend to look at this area as the poorer cousin. But that’s just not the case. This region is beautiful and varied in its scenery. There is so much for your family to see and do. And best of all, many of these experiences will cost you little or no money at all.

Tullah

I’ve always been fascinated by this small, almost a ghost town, nestled in majestic mountain scenery. Originally a mining town, it grew in size as home to hydro-electric scheme workers in the 1970s.

A picture perfect day at Tullah, located on the shores of Lake Rosebery.

A picture perfect day at Tullah, located on the shores of Lake Rosebery.

We again visited Tullah in January, staying in a family room in the Tullah Lakeside Lodge – the buildings of which were once the base for many of these workers. The rooms are basic, but the location is not. We were lucky to experience some amazing weather, which allowed for swimming and canoeing.

Setting off in the canoe (Tullah Lakeside Chalet has a small number available for hire or free with some room packages).

Setting off in the canoe (Tullah Lakeside Chalet has a small number available for hire or free with some room packages).

If you time your visit right (which we did not), you can take a 25 minute ride on the Wee Georgie Wood Railway and experience what life was like on the West Coast before the road was opened in the early 1960s (not that long ago really).

The Henty Sand-dunes

Blink and you will miss the turn-off into this hidden wonderland located north of Strahan.

It's hard on the legs, but the scenery at the Henty Sand-dunes is worth it.

It’s hard on the legs, but the scenery at the Henty Sand-dunes is worth it.

Again, the weathers Gods were on our side and we had a picture perfect day to discover this scenic area, which sits between the main road and the rugged coastline.

Toboggans can be hired in Strahan, which will leave your kids full of sand, but loving every minute of it. Ask for details at the tourist information office at Strahan.

How much fun is this? sand tobogganing at the Henty sand-dunes.

How much fun is this? sand tobogganing at the Henty sand-dunes.

Macquarie Heads & Ocean Beach

Make your way out to Macquarie Heads for fishing or just to admire the scenery. If you have a 4WD, you can drive onto the beach (but this also means you have to be aware if you decide to go for a walk with the kids).

Looking back from Macquarie Heads towards Strahan, with Mt Lyell in the background.

Looking back from Macquarie Heads towards Strahan, with Mt Lyell in the background.

If the weather is right, why not take a picnic lunch and watch the sun set across the ocean.

Watching the sun set at Macquarie Heads, at the entrance of Macquarie Harbour.

Watching the sun set at Macquarie Heads, at the entrance of Macquarie Harbour.

Cradle Mountain

You cannot talk about the North-West and West Coast regions without mentioning Cradle Mountain. I love both the natural beauty and history of this place.

Cradle Mountain is spectacular whatever the weather, but encountering a day like this is rare and very special.

Cradle Mountain is spectacular whatever the weather, but being an alpine area with high rainfall, encountering a day like this is rare and very special. This picture was taken in late December 2009.

National park fees apply here. You can pay $24 for a car (up to 8 people) but if you plan to visit a couple of parks, the 8 week holiday pass at $60 might be a more cost-effective option (see Rocky Cape National Park below).

The Dove Lake loop walk is perfect for families with young children (our daughter was aged 5 the last time we did it). Your children will also love exploring the Waldheim Chalet – built by Gustav and Kate Weindorfer as a home and guest chalet in 1912.

The Dove Lake circuit is one that is more than suitable for families. When this photo was taken, my kids were aged 7 & 4.

The Dove Lake circuit is one that is more than suitable for families. When this photo was taken, my kids were aged 7 & 4.

And if you are lucky, you might see a pademelon (small wallaby) or two.

Fossil Bluff

This place is a hidden treasure. You will find Fossil Bluff in Wynyard – making your way through a fairly modern housing estate to a formation of sandstone cliffs that are more than 275 million years old.

Looking across the beach at Fossil Bluff towards Table Cape.

Looking across the beach at Fossil Bluff towards Table Cape.

According to the Australian Heritage Database, Fossil Bluff “contains an unusually rich combined fossil fauna and flora, including terrestrial and marine vertebrates and a wide range of molluscs, leaf impressions and a pollen flora.”

Go exploring with your children and see the amazing sights at Fossil Bluff.

Go exploring with your children and see the amazing sights at Fossil Bluff.

My children loved discovering this area and were fascinated by the shapes they saw in the rocks and by the many different shaped stone on the beach too. But please, make sure they don’t pick at fossils in the cliff-face.

Boat Harbour

Boat Harbour is a favourite destination in summer – an idyllic white sand bay surrounded by national park and farm land.

But white sand makes for damn cold water and in all my visits, I have only ventured into the water twice (not that kids mind).

Crystal clear waters at Boat Harbour Beach.

Crystal clear waters at Boat Harbour Beach.

The usually calm waters make it perfect for toddlers and in winter, it is a lovely spot for a beach stroll.

Stanley and the Nut

Yet another stand-out natural formation is The Nut at Stanley, a quaint historic town about an hour and 45 minute drive from Devonport.

While your children might not like the thought of walking up to the top of the Nut, there is a chairlift available for most of the year (it is closed from about late June to late August).

The Nut at Stanley - a lovely historic town with plenty to see and do for the whole family.

The Nut at Stanley – a lovely historic town with plenty to see and do for the whole family.

Stanley is also about history and you can stay a night or two in a charming historic building and visit the historic farming property, Highfield House.

For those interested in history and politics, visit the restored 19thC settlers cottage in which Tasmania’s only Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons was born in 1879 (and if you want to take this theme a step further, you can see his family home in Devonport, where he lived with his wife and 12 children)

Aboriginal heritage

Another hidden treasure is Rocky Cape National Park. It is an area that is rich in Aboriginal history, with middens and caves, but also an area of rugged natural beauty. There are a number of walks in the area, including short walks suitable for children.

National Park fees apply (or you can use the 8 week holiday pass (as I detailed in the Cradle Mountain information).

Paper making tour

This is one of the most expensive things to do on this list – at $40 for a family of 4). But it is also a unique one where your children can learn how paper is made using traditional methods.

They will also learn how many different sorts of fibres can be used in the process – including roo poo, which I know your children are bound to find either hilarious or horrifying!

What is great about this tour is that it is also hands-on and your children can make and keep their own sheet of paper.

The tour runs at the Makers Workshop in the Burnie Visitor Information Centre.

Little Penguins

If I had any advice for tourists wanting to see fairy penguins, it is that I believe Tasmania offers a much more exciting, close-up experience than what you can see at Victoria’s famous Phillip Island Penguin Parade (but don’t tell them I said that).

The penguins arrive back on land around dusk from September to March. At Burnie’s Little Penguin Observation Centre at West Park, the Friends of Burnie Penguins have free interpretative tours.

North-West Tasmania is one of the best places to see Little Penguins up close.

North-West Tasmania is one of the best places to see Little Penguins up close.

There is another official viewing area at Lillico Beach near Ulverstone.

But here is my top secret viewing tip. Make your way to Ocean Vista Beach on the western side of Burnie. Here the beach is close to the Bass Strait Highway. Sit quietly in the shadows, and the street lights will provide just enough light to see the penguins as they make their way out of the water.

In nesting season, you may be lucky enough to see babies come out of their burrows, impatiently waiting for their food to arrive. This is a magical experience and if you still really still, they may come quite close to you.

But please, please, please respect these beautiful, timid birds. Do not sit in front of burrows, sit quietly and still.

Stay in one place (penguin footprints in the sand at the back of the beach will give an indication of well-trod routes) and do not walk up and down the beach waiting to see one. You will only annoy people doing the right thing and delay the penguins reaching their young.

The Parks and Wildlife Service has a guide to penguin viewing.

I know I have just touched the surface with what you and your kids can enjoy while visiting Tassie’s North-West and West Coasts

Chances are you will take a Gordon River cruise cruise or hop on the West Coast Wilderness Railway. These are amazing experiences, but they do cost a bit of money.

But what these other places offer is a wide range of cheap and cheerful additions to add to your holiday itinerary that will have you experiencing so much than expected from your Tasmanian holiday.

Where to stay

More information on the West Coast

More information on the North West Coast

 

Food, fun and football – our St Kilda ‘staycation’

As any parent of school-aged children knows, sports commitments, birthday parties and play dates means getting away for the weekend is a lot harder than it once was. That is where a ‘staycation’ comes into its own – having a night away in your home town to refresh and re-charge the batteries.

It really is the ultimate holiday solution for a busy family – Dad can travel to and from work if he can’t get extra time off and family members can arrive and leave and different times, working around social and sporting commitments. It is also a great option for families who want to experience a holiday, but have a limited budget.

Novotel Hotels recently invited Family Friendly Accommodation to learn more about their Family& Novotel promise – which is a perfect option for a family staycation.

Along with 3 other families, we stayed at Novotel St Kilda. As any Melbournian knows, St Kilda is a great family friendly location, with bike paths, playgrounds and great places to eat – not to mention the beach and the iconic Luna Park.

Given it was in the depths of winter, a dip in the water was out of the question, so we all headed to Luna Park. And what a perfect time to visit. Queues were short and the kids (Master 11 & Miss 9) got to go on their favourite rides over and over.

St Kilda beach in winter - too cold to swim, but still beautiful and great for a walk with the kids.

St Kilda beach in winter: too cold to swim, but still beautiful and great for a walk with the kids.

It might be a cold Melbourne winter's day at Luna Park - but that means less queues and more rides.

It might be a cold Melbourne winter’s day at Luna Park – but that means less time in the queue and more time for rides.

I still love the Scenic Railway. Operating since 1912, it still offers enough dips to be thrilling, although it was harder on the back & butt than I remember. It also offers amazing views of the local area.

Luna Park is a free entry, pay for rides amusement park, which means it is easy to pop out for lunch in nearby Ackland Street. We stopped at Zenith Bar & Restaurant, which proved a good choice for both us & the kids, with its kids menu (supplied on a colour-in sheet & pencils). We then headed across to the road was award-winning 7 Apples Gelato. What can I say but yum!

Studying the kids menu at Zenith Bar & Restaurant in St Kilda

Studying the kids menu at Zenith Bar & Restaurant in St Kilda….

 

 

...followed by ice-cream from 7 Apples Gelato. Yum!

…followed by ice-cream from 7 Apples Gelato. Yum!

But back to Novotel. How does it add to the family friendly weekend? Well, considering a child to be up to 16 years of age, as opposed to 12, is a great starting point. That means all children aged under 16 stay free when sharing a room with their parents or even their grandparents.

Plenty of room to spread out and relax in the family suite at Novotel St Kilda.

Plenty of room to spread out and relax in the family suite at Novotel St Kilda.

The family suite at the Novotel St Kilda features two separate beds & Miss 9 quickly chose hers.

The family suite at the Novotel St Kilda features two separate beds for the kids & Miss 9 quickly chose hers.

While many of Novotel’s spacious rooms can sleep 2 adults and 2 children, if you have more children or want to spread out, a second room can be booked for the children at 50% off the best unrestricted rate.

Children can also enjoy a free breakfast when eating with their parents – ours eaten amongst some NSW rugby players and Queensland netballers who had stayed prior to their Sunday games

Little kids are looked after with a welcome gift (such as an activity kit or soft toy) and some Novotel properties also have dedicated play areas for small children.

Kids receive a free toy or novelty pack when they stay as a Novotel guest.

Kids receive a free toy or novelty pack when they stay as a Novotel guest.

And to me, one of the best features is a 5pm late check out on Sundays. That means you can arrive early afternoon on Saturday and not have to leave until 5pm the next day. That means no rushing for 10am check-out.

Unfortunately for us, we had to leave by just before midday so we could get our son to his football match on time. But this again shows the benefit of the staycation – Mr 11 changed into his footy gear after we had wandered through the St Kilda Esplanade Market (right across the road from the hotel) – and just half an hour after checking out we arrived at the oval, earlier than expected.

The fact it was the wrong football ground has nothing to do with Novotel and everything to do with his mum, who is not very good with the fine details. But we got to the right oval before kick-off and his team won. A perfect end to a perfect weekend.

To book your family escape, visit this website to find your closest Novotel. For extra peace of mind, as I always recommend when travelling as a family anyway, I would also personally ring the hotel direct to confirm your family booking, including the late Sunday check-out.

 

 

 

New App will help get your kids on track these holidays

When I read about a Sydney mum’s new App to help enhance children’s experiences while museums, galleries and local attractions, I was interested to know more.

Just like me, Philippa Shelley Jones, got an idea while on holiday with her children. Visiting Westminster Abbey with her three children, she was impressed with an activity program rewarded them with giant gold chocolate coins.

Five years on, she has launched Kid Tracks, a unique new App to engage children in sight-seeing via mobile devices.

Kid Tracks is an App which offers tailored multiple-choice activity ‘Tracks’ for museums, galleries and local attractions in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

kidtrack1

Philippa said she developed the app with two things in mind.

“The first was that children, whether we like it or not, are driven by incentive. The second was that, whilst some cultural and historical sites have activities to keep the children occupied, there is nothing linking them all together with some sort of cohesive set of activities.

“Both of these factors become particularly significant in those places some kids might consider ‘boring’, but which their parents want to see, such as historical houses, galleries, and National archives and libraries.

“So Kid Tracks was born – an incentive based children’s activity App which I created and developed to link all historical and cultural landmarks together under the umbrella of an ‘across the board’ approach to sightseeing.”

Children download ‘Tracks’ (.99c each) for each site visited and then use their device on site to answer simple, multiple-choice observational questions.

An example of a question in Old Melbourne Gaol would be: What sort of hood was worn by prisoners held in solitary confinement when outside their cells? (Cell #11)

kidtrack2

A digital ‘pet ‘accompanies them on their way around and responds excitedly with a correct answer and despondently with an incorrect answer. At the end, reward points are awarded (in the form of ‘feet’), which accumulate along a trail with each site visited, ultimately earning them certificates and prizes.

Philippa said various other incentives are offered via the website.

“I am providing some major prizes these school holidays which will be notified via the website and the Kid Tracks Facebook page, things such as Smiggle vouchers, Luna Park passes and iTunes cards.”

The App, which is free to download, currently covers over 50 sites in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney and is being expanded all the time. ‘Tracks’ include attractions like Questacon in Canberra, historical houses like Vaucluse House in Sydney and museums like the National Sports Museum in Melbourne.

“I’ve also included galleries, walks and even on-off events –  such as Sculpture By the Sea, a two week event in Sydney,” Philippa said.

The Kid Tracks App is available now in the App store for iPhone, iPad and iPod. For more information visit www.kidtracks.com.au

Small gifts can make a huge difference

As focussed as I am on finding perfect accommodation for a family holiday, I am equally passionate about what I want to do while away. I believe a holiday should be an educational experience – especially for my children.

On our recent holiday to Fiji, visiting a local school was on my bucket list. I wanted my children, aged 7 and 9, to see a school and understand how fortunate they are.

Luckily, I had read somewhere that it was a nice gesture to take some small items to donate during your visit. It is this advice that I now pass to you.

I am so glad I sat down with my daughter, going through her drawers and pencil cases to sort out a bag full of items to take with us – pencils, textas, erasers and even a small pair of scissors.

I must admit a felt a bit embarrassed giving them to the grade one teacher – I handed them over, smiled as the teacher thanked me, before turning away. It was then that others saw the teacher had tears in her eyes. I know now there was no need for me to be embarrassed. I was not being patronising in handing over these items. I had genuinely made this teacher – and I am sure her students – very happy.

It was now I wish I had brought more. Why had I not thought of notebooks? Photocopy paper? Simple things that can make such a difference. Why did I not think to buy some other items that would make someone’s day – hair clips, lip gloss. All the things my daughter takes for granted – and has too much of.

My daughter with students from Malolo District School’s Grade 1 class.

Unfortunately, I had not thought of this, so when we visited a second school in a mountain village, I had no more to give. Luckily the tour organisers had biscuits for us to buy, and I had grabbed all the small toiletries from the hotel room, the shampoo, conditioner, moisturiser and soap.

I gave these out to young girls, but the most heartening moment came when I pulled out a lip gloss for an older woman from the village. A beautiful pink Elizabeth Arden lip gloss I had got at the airport duty free on my way over. I know she was touched to receive this small gift. I told her she would be the prettiest lady in the village. She grabbed both my hands and squeezed them. The smile she gave was her gift to me.

So next time you are packing for a holiday to Fiji – or any country less fortunate than your own – please throw in some basic stationary items for local school children, as well as some small gifts that will make such a big difference in someone’s life.

Have you had a similar experience while on holidays? I would love to know.