Heathrow is Now the Most Family Friendly European Airport . . . After Being the Least

srv007, Flickr

Rethink your travel plans families: if you’re adventuring with children, the best airport you can travel to, from and through in Europe is London Heathrow.

That’s a big deal if you consider the fact that only last year it was ranked as the worst.

The rankings come via Skyscanner, which did a study focusing on families with children under 4 years old and looked at travel from June to September 2013.Thirty five European family travel experts and travel bloggers judged 20 different airports based upon their baby-changing facilities, security levels and food options, as well as the general check-in process. We all know how a long line can affect a tired child.

According to Skift, here are the top 10 family-friendly airports across Europe:

1. London Heathrow
2. Zurich and Vienna
3. Dusseldorf
4. Madrid-Barajas
5. Munich and Frankfurt
6. London Gatwick
7. Moscow Sheremetyevo
8. Paris Charles de Gaulle
9. Oslo
10. Copenhagen

But not everyone loves a child-friendly space. Some airlines are even offering kid-free zones on-board for those trying to avoid the younger crowd. Ultimately, it all goes to show that traveling with children is becoming more and more the norm, whether you like it or not.

Shapinsay: Visiting A Wee Scottish Island


No trip to Orkney is complete without seeing some of the smaller islands. They offer plenty of natural and historic sights as well as peaceful solitude.

Little Shapinsay can be seen from the main harbor at Kirkwall, but visitors often overlook it. Even though it only measures six miles long at its longest and has only about 300 residents, it’s served by a regular car ferry from Kirkwall. My family and I noticed that the locals getting on board at Kirkwall harbor were loaded down with groceries. Apparently there aren’t many shopping opportunities on Shapinsay.

The boat pulled out of Kirkwall and passed some old gun emplacements on the Point of Carness. Orkney was a major base during the two World Wars and there are plenty of remains from that time. We also saw a tiny island called Thieves Holm. Local folklore says thieves and witches were banished here. It’s not too far from the Mainland, but with the water so chilly I doubt anyone could have made the swim. Then we pulled out into The String, the exit from Kirkwall Bay, and felt like we were in the open sea, with clean air blowing on our faces and seagulls wheeling overhead.

%Gallery-161148%Twenty-five minutes later we pulled into Shapinsay harbor. Like most of the islands up here, it’s been inhabited since prehistoric times. There are a couple of megalithic standing stones, including one called the Odin Stone, like the one that used to be near the Standing Stones of Stenness. There’s also an Iron Age broch built by the Picts.

It seems, though, that Shapinsay was mostly a sleepy place inhabited by farmers and fishermen. That all changed in the late 1700s when the Balfour family decided to build an elegant estate on the island. The first step was to build Balfour village for all the workmen, and then work began in earnest on a grand home that looks like a castle. Balfour Castle is now a hotel and a good spot if you want to splash out on a quiet retreat.

And quiet it is. Even in the center of town all we heard is the wind, birdsong and the distant drone of a tractor. After a minute even the tractor cut off. We had a quick coffee at The Smithy, a little cafe/restaurant/pub (you have to multitask when you’re one of the only businesses on the island) and headed out for a coastal hike.

For me, the biggest attraction of Scotland is the countryside, and Shapinsay certainly didn’t disappoint. After a gloomy northern morning, the weather had turned gloriously clear and warm. We chose a five-mile loop hike along the shoreline and through some woods behind Balfour Castle. My 6-year-old son is an experienced hiker and can manage five miles over easy terrain. Of course, when hiking with children make sure you give them a steady supply of water and snacks!

We started out by passing Balfour Village’s little pier and a crumbling old tower called The Douche, which used to be a salt water shower for the local residents. Then we tramped along the stony beach. Orkney is rich in bird life and we saw terns, seagulls, and several other types of birds I couldn’t identify. Every now and then a curious seal would pop its head out of the water and examine us. In the distance we saw a few sailboats and fishing vessels. Otherwise we saw nobody and heard nothing. That was exactly what I wanted.

After climbing a steep slope, our path cut inland and we tramped over lush fields carpeted with yellow, white and purple wildflowers. My son picked a couple for my wife to put in her hair and we headed through a little forest and ended up in the lush garden of Balfour Castle. It wasn’t long before we were back in the village, where we relaxed in the garden of the Smithy looking out over the water and doing nothing for a while except admiring a beautiful day in northern Scotland.

Orkney has plenty of islands to choose from. Do a bit of research ahead of time online and with the local tourism office and head on out. Pay careful attention to the ferry schedule, though, because on many islands the last ferry for the day leaves pretty early.

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Eynhallow: Visiting Orkney’s Haunted Isle!”

Quirky hotel amenity: Pirate tuck-ins for children at Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

ritz-carlton, amelia islandWhat better way for a child to end a day full of swimming and sea than to be tucked-in by a pirate? At the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, in Florida not only does Pirate Luis Aury provide a bedtime story, but Princess Amelia and a blue and gold macaw make an appearance, as well. Children will also be given cookies and milk as well as a treasure chest full of loot. The tuck-ins can be scheduled in between 7PM and 10PM and cost $45 per child.

Going to be staying at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, during the holiday season? Parents can opt for a complimentary Santa tuck-in instead. Not only will children get to be read a bedtime story by good old Saint Nick himself, they will also be given a holiday gift.

Carschooling: Why traveling is the best education

carschoolingAs someone who loves the way travel affects and evolves language I was immediately drawn to an article by Malea, of the blog “M and J in a Nutshell“, on the topic of carschooling. While Malea shares her experience of homeschooling on the road during her family’s move across the country I couldn’t help but think just how beneficial carschooling could be to not only children, but also parents and travelers in general.

Basically carschooling is just what is sounds like, creating a learning environment while traveling. While some parents/people may find the thought of classroom-type learning while on vacation daunting, traveling can actually make education extremely accessible.

It is often said that traveling makes people more enlightened and well-rounded, so what better situation to learn in? It’s all in how you use the resources the trip gives you. Who needs a textbook (although you can still bring them along) when you can visit historical sites, art galleries, museums, and sporting events in person?
There’s also the planning phase of the trip, which can be an education opportunity in itself. For example, the maps. What route will you take? Geography. What sites will you visit? History and culture. How long will it take you to get to each city and how will this work in your budget? Math.

Then there is the natural landscape and man made structures you pass along the way. Trees, mountains, lakes, churches, farms, tools, and factories are all great prompts for an education conversation. Discuss the people of the region and how they get food. Talk about the dangers of pesticides in crops and the architecture of different buildings. Give a Biology lesson by discussing the flora and fauna of a city. And, don’t be afraid to be the teacher and the student; if you don’t know something research it or ask someone.

It’s also important to get out of the carschool sometimes and visit historical sites, museums, churches, galleries, and parks to explore them inside and out. How much more will you learn with an interactive Earth Science lesson through a mountain hike than by simply looking at rocks through your car window? And, for a dose of social skills, make sure to interact with new and interesting people. Waitresses, hotel owners, tour guides, park rangers, market sellers, and anyone else you come into contact with can be ideal sources of local information.

But, what about taking notes? While traditional classrooms often have students keep notebooks, travelers often keep journals. Diaries can help carschoolers take notes in a way that doesn’t make them feel like they’re preparing for a test. You can also give them (or yourself) an incentive or goal to work towards. Maybe you’ll make a scrapbook after the trip, so you’ll need tons of photos and facts, or maybe you’ll create some kind of travel trivia game. Whatever you decide, keep it fun and educational, just like traveling.

Exploring ancient Rome in Mérida, Spain

Spain, Roman, theatre, Merida
It’s Christmas. What do you get an avid traveler who used to be an archaeologist?
For my wife the answer is obvious–a trip to a Roman city!

So here we are in Mérida, capital of the province of Extremadura in Spain, not far from the Portuguese border. In Roman times it was called Emerita Augusta and was capital of the province of Lusitania. This province took up most of the western Iberian peninsula, including most of what is now Portugal. The city was founded in 25 BC as a home for retired legionnaires on an important bridge linking the western part of the Iberian peninsula with the rest of the Empire. Putting a bunch of tough old veterans in such an important spot was no accident. The city boasts numerous well-preserved buildings and together they’re now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s a five-hour ride from Madrid on a comfortable train. Almudena and I brought along my five-year-old son Julián to give him a bit of classical education. (No cute kid photos, sorry. Too many freaks on the Internet)

Our first stop was Mérida’s greatest hits–an amphitheater for gladiator fights and one of the best preserved Roman theaters in the Roman world.

Both of these buildings were among the first to go up in the new city. Since the Romans were building a provincial capital from scratch, they wanted it to have all the amenities. The theater was a center for Roman social and cultural life and this one, when it was finished in 15 BC, was built on a grand scale with seats for 6,000 people. One interesting aspect of this theater is that it underwent a major improvement between the years 333 and 335 AD. This was after the Empire had converted to Christianity, and the early Christians denounced the theaters as immoral. The popular plays making fun of the church probably didn’t help their attitude. As I discussed in my post on the death of paganism, the conversion from paganism to Christianity was neither rapid nor straightforward. At this early stage it was still unthinkable to found a new city without a theater. The backdrop even has statues of pagan deities such as Serapis and Ceres. Although they’re from an earlier building stage than the Christian-era improvements, the fact that they weren’t removed is significant.

%Gallery-112089%Julián didn’t care about that, though. He was far more interested in the dark tunnels leading under the seats in a long, spooky semicircle around the theater. At first his fear of dark, unfamiliar places fought with his natural curiosity, but with Dad accompanying him he decided to chance it. It turned out there was no danger other than a rather large puddle we both stumbled into.

On stage he got a lesson in acoustics. The shape of the seats magnifies sounds. Voices carry further, and a snap of the fingers sounds like a pistol shot.

Next door was the amphitheater, where gladiators fought it out for the entertainment of the masses. Built in 8 BC, it seated 15,000, more than twice the amount as the theater. This was a city for veteran legionnaires, after all! Julián didn’t know what gladiators were so I explained it to him and soon throngs of ghostly Romans were cheering as Sean the Barbarian fought the Emperor Julián. He wanted to be a ninja and was disappointed to learn that there weren’t any in ancient Rome.

These two places are enough to make the trip worthwhile, but there are more than a dozen other ancient Roman buildings in Mérida as well. The best way to sum up the experience of walking through these remains was what I overheard some Italian tourists: “Bellissimo!
If the Italians are impressed, you know it’s good.

This is the first in a new series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: More Roman heritage from Mérida!