500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up

Or, 500 Tacky Tourist Traps it might be better to avoid.

I guess you can tell from my sub title I’m a little underwhelmed with this book. It’s a disappointing offering from Frommer. I’ll cover what I think are the major flaws of the book.

First of all, it’s organised by themes. So chapter one is “awesome vistas’, chapter two is “exploring the scenery” right through “walk with animals” to “budding scientists” to “rides and thrills at the end”. Don’t get me wrong the themes sound great. The problem is that for each theme they then pick one or two highlights from each continent basically. This creates a kind of artificial selection, so that for theme parks we have Lunar Park in Sydney as the major offering (eh?) rather than focusing on the fact that the Gold Coast has a cluster of whizzie woo woo theme parks (and that maybe a park like Wet ‘n’ Wild Water World is more iconic of Australia). There are quite a few choices in the book that felt like this type of token gesture to me. I mean, really did someone pick Lunar Park of wikipedia?  I can’t think of any other plausible reason for it’s inclusion.

The other problem with themes is that it isn’t how you actually travel. You travel geographically. While there is a small  geographical index at the back, it was almost like an after thought. There were maps provided of all the major countries but while the main cities were marked, none of the actual attractions or destinations were. I’m not sure what purpose they thought these maps were going to serve but they certainly don’t help you to work out where to go.

Let’s take an example of a family visiting New Zealand. You want to know what things you must see. It’s a long way to get to NZ from anywhere, so you don’t want to miss out on anything, right? In the index fro NZ the attractions we have listed are: Fiordlands National Park, Mount Cook (ahem, correct name Aoraki or at the very least Aoraki/Mt Cook), Rotorua, Stewart Island and Wellington Cable Car. If you’ve never been to NZ before, you might well wonder where these things are. Well, don’t use the maps in this book, on NZ it has marked: The North Island, Wellington, The South Island, and Stewart Island. Now we have been to NZ several times. In fact Super Gizmo man had to take Beckham across the ditch just a couple of weeks ago. I did the planning and listed all the places they really should visit depending on where they got flights. In the end they flew in and out of Wellington. Not once, not once did it even cross my mind as a merest flicker that they ‘really should go on the cable car’. If you are in Wellington with kids, the places you should make a bee line for are Te Papa which is the fabulous national museum and the Karori Santuary. If you need a bit of public transport excitement, then Wellington has the only public trolley bus system in Australasia.

Another problematic aspect of the book is it’s US centric focus. Now I am sure that the US is an amazing place to visit but the mere fact that a whole chapter is devoted to “Settling America” is pretty telling. Especially when American places dominate the other categories as well. Maybe a better title would have been “Places American’s should consider taking their kids”.

Compounding the disappointing nature of the places selected is the fact that the selections seem to focus on major cities and traditional tourist destinations. I confirmed this with my flick through of their choices fro France and Italy. D’uh oh! We neglected to go to almost all of the places they mentioned. Give me Pienza any day over Rome for an amazing cultural experience for kids. Famous Bridges selected were the historic choices of the Tower Bridge, London and Le Pont Neuf, Paris. Where is the hair raising Millau Viaduct (France) the tallest vehicular bridge in the world? Or the Forth Railway bridge in Glasgow, the first bridge and major structure in the UK to be built of steel ? Instead the choices are those found in any travel agents brochures. There are no hidden gems waiting to be discovered. Instead this book follows a very paint by numbers approach to exploring the planet. Hard to believe this is published by the same company as the brilliant “with your family” travel series. Save your money for those or the much glossier Travel with Kids by William Gray.

Dear Mrs. Hilgendorf

Dear Mrs Hilgendorf My beloved blog readers,

please excuse Miss Maccy Pants from class, for being tardy, for not updating her blog in like, a million years.
Her dog ate her homework, Her dog ate her computer, Her computer ate itself and her homeschooling forum was attacked by mongrels who need an injection of sql themselves in the patootie. Plus with the general lack of internet in the whole of Europe and the unexpected arrival of Christmas yet again everything pretty much went pear shaped.

Hopefully things have settled down now and we can resume your regularly scheduled program.

I’m baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!

The Force is With Me

This has practically NOTHING to do with travel but everything to do with attitude. This morning I was still in a very cranky-pants mood about our budget, or lack there-of. Mrs Fussy Pants (see I have an affinity with people with “pants” in their moniker) had a cool blog about making your own Superhero. Seeing as I also have a not-so-secret-affinity with superheros, I couldn’t resist making one myself. Check me out!myhero

I laughed so hard, I had tears in my eyes! I printed off a copy and stuck it to my fridge to remind myself that I can take on anything! Tough times? Bring it on, baby! I’m armed with a recyclable bag and I’m not afraid to use it!

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Online Family Organizers

Google Calendar
Image via Wikipedia

One of the key elements of successful travel is being organized. And one of the key ways to procrastinate about getting organized is to spend a whole afternoon looking at online family organizers and calendars. Here’s my round up of the current offerings on the web to help co-ordinate busy families.

1. Google Calendar
OS: Online – any 
Price: $0
Shareability: 10/10
Prettiness: 7/10
Ease of Use for Kids: 5/10
Additional features: planned iphone sync, integrates with gmail, create invitations, reminders (including mobile phone notifications), agenda view and *surprise* search
Comment: Is there anything that google can’t do? In terms of functionality and price they are the rulers of all they survey. You can share calendars as a family including creating specific calendars for events such as travel. Of all the calendars this one is the most customisable actual calendar. Kids need their own google log in to view, or you need to create a family log in. 

Cosi 2. Cozi – probably pronounced like “cosy” as in snug, not “cossie” as in Aussie slang for bathing suit. 
OS: Most downloads aimed at Windows users, although online aspect can be used by everyone.
Price: $0 (ad supported)
Sharability: 10/10
Prettiness: 10/10 (although it is quite orange)
Ease of Use for Kids: 8/10
Additional features: lists, reminders & messages, mobile access, family journal, syncs with outlook
Comment: Beautiful to look and and easy to use. I just want it to import my calendar data. Not Mac friendly.

Glubble 3. Glubble
OS: Online – any
Price: $0 although premium edition coming soon (supported by Amazon Store)
Shareability:  10/10
Prettiness:  10/10
Ease of Use for Kids: 9/10
Additional features: Safe internet browser with safe sites for kids to access.
Comment: Create a private family homepage with shared calendar, message wall and photo albums. Calendar not very configurable, only displays dates as a list of events. I was very impressed that it auto added Birthdays but SGM nearly had heart failure when it informed him how ancient he was.

Famundo 4. Famundo
OS: Online – although grrrrr – didn’t like Safari
Price: $0 (ad supported – and ugh, not the most family friendly ads), ad-free is $50 US per annum
Shareability:  10/10
Prettiness: 9/10
Ease of Use for Kids: 8/10
Additional features: photo sharing, to do list, shopping list, address book, files, vaults, blogs
Comment: Fantastic calendar – looks like they’ve tarted up google cal, great options for importing and exporting both calendar and address book details but the ads are the most painful and intrusive of the lot. If you are prepared to pay for the extra features, this would be great. 

Qlubb5. Qlubb
OS: Online – any
Price: $0
Shareability:  10/10
Prettiness: 9/10 (What is it with orange?)
Ease of Use for Kids: 5/10
Additional features: shared to-do lists, group invites / RSVP’s, file sharing.
Comment: this could be very useful for co-ordinating more than one family when travelling 

iparents6. iParents.com
OS: Online – any
Price: $0 (supported by ads and classifieds)
Shareability:  6/10
Prettiness: 10/10
Ease of Use for Kids: 0/10 (Not intended for kids to use)
Additional features: photo sharing & printing, to do list, ask the experts, interactive family calendar
Comment: Aiming to be more of a community of parents / social networking site than a site for sharing within own family. Allows you to share photos with selected friends.

Family Details Website7. Family Details
OS: Online – any
Price: from $5 per month (US)
Shareability:  9/10
Prettiness:  3/10
Ease of Use for Kids: 4/10
Additional features: Instant messaging / chat between family members, basic games (space invaders, tic tac toe), photo sharing, family forum

My Home Point8. My Home Point
OS: Online – any
Price: $6 per month or $55 per annum (US)
Shareability:  9/10
Prettiness:  7/10
Ease of Use for Kids: 4/10
Additional features: Address book, home inventory, shared family notes, tasks and chores, ability to import and export calendar data
Comment: You can try a demo account without signing up

30 Boxes9. 30 Boxes
OS:  Online – any
Price: $0
Shareability:  10/10
Prettiness:  7/10
Ease of Use for Kids: 4/10
Additional features: Calendar, to do list, events, tags, rss & ical feeds, sms reminders, photo sharing
Comment: Facebook app integration (as well as other blogs and social networking sites) – this may be the way to go if you all have Facebook accounts. If the words “life stream” are important to you, you will like this app. Although the calendar itself is easy enough to enter data in real words, fiddling around with themes and settings is a bit more advanced.

Fircle10. Fircle
OS: Online – any
Price: $0 – currently free, soon to be invitation only
Shareability:  7/10
Prettiness:  7/10
Ease of Use for Kids: 5/10
Additional features: Job and allowance tracking for kids, family rules, growth charts, recipe collection, shopping lists, play groups, import and export ical data

Keep And Share11. Keep and Share
OS: Online – any
Price: $0 (advertising supported?)
Comment: Bored with registering for online calendars now – so if you like the look of this you’ll have to try it out yourself.

Amy Knapp12. Amy Knapp’s Family Organizer
OS: Windows only – a download not online
Shareability: 0/10
Prettiness:  10/10 Although there’s that orange again. Included it because it truly is a work of art. Check out those page turning animations. Would sell at least one major organ if they made this as an iphone app.
Ease of Use for Kids: Depends if they can hack into your computer account or not.
Additional features: Weekly menu planning & grocery lists, weekly inspirational quotes, to-do list

Conclusion: I successfully procrastinated doing anything else for pretty much the whole day. After all that, we’ll probably stick to our current situation of using a combo deal of  ical events and google calendar. I’m considering stalking Cosi and Amy Knapp and sending them relentless emails until they become Mac compatible. 

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How fragile life is

I don’t have the words to express what a horrific weekend this has been for so many in Australia. The bushfires in Victoria have been the worst ever and the devastation is massive. If you haven’t seen the news, there are accounts on all of the major Australian online news sites:

Herald Sun Frontpage
The Age Frontpage

This is a map of the fires

View Larger Map

Another interactive map here.

This is a terrifying and wrenching account of being caught in the bushfire and surviving

While we ourselves have been safe it is a very surreal feeling to have been so close and yet to have come through unscathed. (For which we are eternally grateful). We live about half an hour away from the closest fires. It has been like watching a huge rock being dropped in a pond and watching the ripples spread further and further out. At the centre you have the people who have lost their lives or families and their homes. They have suffered the most and are the ones counted by the news reports in the terrible tallies. But then you have the ones next to the epicentre, the ones who have suffered terrible burns and injuries, who fill up the emergency departments. Then there are the people who don’t live where the fires are but who have lost relatives or friends. There are the people who can’t contact their relatives or friends and who don’t know what has happened. And there is the huge toll on animals that is so easy to overlook, including farms being wiped out, and Healesville Zoo evacuated. On Saturday when temperatures reached 46 degrees (115 F) one of our hens died just from the heat.

And then you have the people who are tourists or travellers who have been affected. My Aunt and cousin are over here visiting from New Zealand. They went to stay with another Aunt over the weekend who lives in rural Victoria – they haven’t been able to get back to Melbourne because the highways and back roads have been closed. The train isn’t expected to run again until later this week. Yea and Healesville are very popular tourist destinations with lots vineyards. On Saturday there were weddings planned to take place in these locations that were severely impacted. In Yea the town was cut off on three sides by fires. A good reminder that travel insurance is a really good thing.

Notes here on Bushfires for Tourists

The fires are still going and the toll is rising all the time. I am sure the ripples will continue to be felt for quite some time to come.

Links are here for people wanting to help survivors:
Bushfire help
Bushfire appeals

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Flattery will get you everywhere

I got such a buzz when I logged on this morning. Obi-Mom Kenobi has written a post about me!!! And I’m mentioned in the same post as a Han Solo quote *swoon* (ahem, sorry about that SGM). Excuse me while I take a little ego trip – I’m going to have a smile on my dial all day long. Right, back to regularly scheduled super hero business.

Han Solo
Image via Wikipedia

The Holy Grail of Family Travel Guide Books

After Christmas I went and did the rounds of our local libraries, I have to confess I was hoping to find a guide book along the lines of “Where to Stay in Europe if you Accidentally take Your Children”. It became painfully obvious that our local libraries are not inundated with families travelling to Europe, hmmmm. One of our libraries had a copy of the excellent Take Your Kids to Europe, 7th: How to Travel Safely (and Sanely) in Europe with Your Children

This is a fantastic book which I can’t recommend enough. After I finished reading through the library copy I realised I had bookmarked every second page and so it was necessary to buy our own copy. It is absolutely loaded with information and is a fantastic resource in planning a trip in general. However, there are a few areas where I wanted even more specific information. Although Harriman encourages families to travel “off the beaten track” because of the scope of the book, she does not go into details about specific locations. There are recommendations scattered throughout the book but for the most part, the book is about managing the trip. Also Harriman’s emphasis is on going for as long as you can rather than squeezing as much as you can into a short space of time.

Young Rick Steves convert
Image by eugene via Flickr

Another guide book series that is excellent in terms of getting off the beaten track are the books by Rick Steves and Co.  These are great in that he is all about travelling very economically without necessarily backpacking (and you can find location specific advice). He does include information for families in each book but overall his target audience are “mature travellers” and those requiring standard accommodation for one or two people. Plus guidebooks for specific locations.

The best guidebooks for details about sights to see are the Eyewitness Travel Guides by DK.  These are stunningly beautiful books with illustrations of all the best sights and loads of historical information. They are like having a tour guide on tap and I think particularly helpful in deciding which sights you want to see in a particular area. However, I wouldn’t rely on them for affordable accommodation or even eating recommendations.

All of these guidebooks are great and I’m using all of them, however none of them could be classified as Family Travel Guidebook Nirvana. But I did not despair. Well, ok, actually I did despair, quite a lot. But I did not give up and my intrepid searches on Amazon were finally rewarded by finding the Holy Grail of Family Travel guide books. Frommers have just published an entire series of books for families and they are brilliant!!!

You can find the list of Frommer’s with Families guide books here: