This month sees the publication of my 9th and probably most personal book, 75 Must See Places to Take the Kids (before they don’t want to go). You see, while living and writing The Great Australian Bucket List, I was also travelling with my wife and two kids, aged 2 and 5, writing and researching this one. But family travel, I was learning, is an entirely different beast. We discovered some truly incredible wonders for all ages, gathered priceless memories, and also learned a thing or two. To celebrate the launch of this beautiful, funny, inspiring and honest new book, here’s some of that hard-fought wisdom for parents of young kids, and the people and family who support them. It works for Australia, but it works for everywhere else too.
With due respect, any Mom or Dad who claims to have family travel figured out is delusional, likely fibbing, or paying someone a lot of money to look after their kids. The truth is: young kids do not give a flying crap about your best laid plans and intentions. Rather, they’ll make a crap while you’re flying (probably an explosive one, the kind that just violates a diaper). Children under the age of five are frequently erratic, inefficient, agitated, annoying, moody, and instinctively know how to push your buttons. And this is before you take them on a stressful journey. Of course, you love them more than anything in the world, and there are moments of such tenderness, magic and wonder it makes all other forms of travel – backpacking, honeymooning, grey nomading – pale. But you will work for those moments, and pay for them in blood, sweat, tears and dollars. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If there’s strategy, we tried it. Not letting the kids nap so they’ll sleep on the plane (they didn’t). Letting them nap so they’d be rested (they weren’t). Buying books, loading up devices, crayons for colouring in…the reality is that some flights are terrible, and some flights are not. Overwhelmingly, we found Jetstar’s crew to be sympathetic and helpful. Fellow passengers meanwhile could be broken down into several categories: a) We’ve been there and Thank God we’re not there any more b) How dare you bring your snotty kids on this plane and ruin my flight c) I’m right there with you and we’d chat but my kid is eating the tray that was last wiped down in 1997 …and d) Every cent I invested in these noise cancelling headphones was worth it. Never will time tick more slowly than when you find yourself on a plane with your screaming, inconsolable, jetlagged and overtired infant and toddler. The best thing that can be said for flying is that it eventually ends, you will land in your destination, it beats spending all those hours in a car, and with devices, flying today is very much easier than it used to be.
We drove almost 20,000 kilometres during our trip, and it definitely helped that we were in a comfortable Ford Everest. With direction from my toddler, I curated a playlist of 100 songs I knew my kids would enjoy, and adults might be able to stomach on endless repeat. We learned that snacks must be instantly accessible, along with wipes, and towels for sudden eruptions of projectile vomit on winding roads (watch for seismic clues like the kids being too quiet, moaning, or turning sepia). Good car seats are essential (we went with Britax) with the advantage of the kids being strapped in. Sometimes strapping them in was an easy process, and sometimes we’d lean in too close to fasten a buckle and get the open-handed slap to the face. Don’t blame the kid, you’re a sitting duck. GPS definitely takes the sting out of getting lost and provides some indication on how long the journey will take, not that this will stop the endless barrage of “Are We There Yet?” Road games help, especially for the older kids. Drugs occasionally help, especially for parents.
The restaurants of Australia seem convinced that the most important food groups for every growing child are chicken nuggets and chips, pizza, mac and cheese, fish and chips, chicken nuggets served with mac and cheese, and pizza served with fish and chips. Basically, all the essential minerals and vitamins one can get. Of course, any time we ordered something that wasn’t from the Kids Menu, the kids would take one bite, and the bill would take a bigger bite. This is why we did a lot of cooking wherever we stayed, which not only saved us money, it also saved our sanity.
Before you depart, resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to pack far more than you need. Imagining every conceivable scenario, you simply can’t help yourself. What if it gets unseasonably hot, cold, wet, dry, or buggy? If it does, you can deal with it with a quick visit to the store, mall or market. Our kids outgrew their shoes twice in 10 months. For almost a year, their wardrobe consisted of a small suitcase that seemed to refresh its garments along the way, when the holes and stains and smells overwhelmed the clothing’s usefulness. Even with a limited selection, our five year old would have meltdowns over her fashion choices, with a favourite dress or shirt cast out from one day to the next. Your best bet is to pack a travel uniform of sorts, with the same garment combo in multiples. Good luck with that.
Self-catering cabins at holiday parks (we had wonderful stays with Discovery Holiday Parks) and two bedroom apartment rentals (we stuck with Oaks Hotels) served us much better than a traditional hotel room. Kids need the space, you need the kitchen, and holiday parks come with jumping pillows, pools, playgrounds, and most importantly, other kids for yours to play with. We used an ultra-light, easy-to-assemble travel crib from Valco Baby which ensured our two year old had consistency. He’s a good sleeper, but our five year-old frequently ended up in our bed, and I frequently ended up in her bed, a sofa, and one time, on the floor in the closet. You do what you got to do. Kids thrive on routine, and travel is all about shaking that routine up. Everyone has to give or take to make it work on the road. By everyone, I refer to parents giving up everything, and the kids taking as much as they can.
I’ve written several “bucket list” books that investigate unique experiences, and I’ve built my career as a writer who chases the extraordinary, a Connoisseur of Fine Experiences. You can visit a beach, wildlife park, waterpark, or museum anywhere, so I had to dig a little deeper for activities that could include my kids. Stuff like standing beneath a snarling lion inside a cage or hand feeding Bluefin tuna in South Australia. Stuff like swimming with baby crocs or in natural jacuzzis (NT), being inside a glass box hanging off a building or panning for gold (VIC), kayaking off Fraser Island or feasting in a shipping container food market (QLD), sailing with dugongs and chasing quokkas (WA), petting stingrays and braving the world’s steepest railcar (NSW) and jumping on modern art and staring down ferocious devils (TAS). Of course, the kids loved the beaches (the Whitsundays, Bondi, Byron Bay), the wildlife parks (Caversham in WA, Cleland in SA, Wildlife Habitat in QLD, the Melbourne Zoo), the museums (Scienceworks and the Melbourne Museum in VIC, Questacon in ACT, the Maritime Museum in Perth) and waterparks (most of the Discovery Holiday Parks we stayed in, the Oaks Oasis). But most of all, they loved ice cream. Because in the end, it didn’t matter what incredible activity or destination we ticked off, the best part was just being together, spending quality time as a family that we’ll always look back on with joy, wonder, and inspiration.
Despite the challenges – the meltdowns, the pukes, the frenetic meals, lack of sleep, intense drives – my family managed to breathe deep, laugh, play, capture memories we might only appreciate later, and celebrate the incredible Australian opportunities that came our way.
I’ve cage dived with crocodiles, hung off the side of holy mountains in China, and vacationed in Chernobyl, but here’s the truth: the thought of travelling for the first time with my 4 year old daughter Raquel and 9-month old son Galileo terrified me. Curly-haired Raquel seems to have fallen Obelix-like into a cauldron of Red Bull, she’s a T4 bull in a china shop of tranquillity. Gali is newly teething, crawling, and hasn’t seen a hazard he hasn’t wanted to wrap his gums or baby carrot fingers around. Still, it’s time to break them in, because with a Dad like me, travel is in their future. So I thought I’d start somewhere easy and beautiful, spreading a couple weeks over a range of accommodation options. Expectations are the death of travel, and yet toddlers are particularly gifted when it comes to ensuring that no high hope is trampled under the weight of their hyper-emotional little piggies.
No matter how great your toddler vacation is, the reality is it will be bookended by a plane ride three stories up from hell. I fly a lot. It’s my chance to work, read, watch a movie, daydream at altitude. A six-hour direct flight from Vancouver to Maui should be nothing. If the kids sleep. To stack the odds in my favour, I reached out to Fly-Tot, who sell an inflatable legroom pillows. We’d be flying in late at night. How bad could it be? Bad. Real bad. Gali is chewing on the tray tables and seatbelts (and you know how often they get cleaned). Raquel is vibrating with kicks and punches. Rather than sleeping, the kids are using the Fly-Tot as a trampoline. Playing Frozen on the iPad worked, but it only worked once, and then Raquel... let it go. Like condemned prisoners at a public hanging, my wife and I gaze into the eyes of fellow toddler parents, dealing with the trauma of their own journey. Each minute of each hour has the weight of a cannonball. So frazzled by the experience, I commit a cardinal travel sin and forget our two bottles of duty free liquor – blessed late night Scotch/Baileys escape - on the plane. Air Canada’s cleaning staff relieve us of the bottles no more than five minutes after we deplane and I remember the forgotten bag. “Sorry sir, our cleaners didn’t find anything.” Aloha to them.
Welcome to Maui! Grab our bags and shuttle to the car rental, and spend 45 minutes in a late night line-up. Now the kids want to sleep. I push two chairs together and Raquel passes out. I feel like Parent of the Year. Get the van, install the car seats, strap in the kids, load in the luggage. It’s a 45-minute late night drive in the rain to Wailea. Could anything be worth this?
The Fairmont Kea Lani
Yes, waking up on the 7th floor in a Deluxe Ocean View suite at the Fairmont Kea Lani is definitely worth it. The sun sparkles off the Pacific. Koi swim in ponds amidst manicured gardens and clear azure pools. Coconut trees rustling in warm tropical air as sweet as nectar. Stripped of the jeans and hoodies we won’t see for the next two weeks, the family hums with travel buzz. We chomping at the bit of a beach vacation. Out feet touch the reddish sand of Polo Beach, and then it starts:
“I don’t want to go to the sea Daddy!” Oh look, Gali has a fistful of sand in his mouth. “It’s too hot Daddy!” “It’s too cold Daddy!” “I’m hungry!” “I’m not hungry!” “Where’s my blue spade?” “I want a red spade!” “I want what that other girl has!” “Pick me up!” “Put me down!” “This rock is scary!” “I want to go to the pool!” Toddlers are complex algorithms that dance to a convoluted rhythm only they can hear. The first chance we have to relax is much later that night when both kids are asleep. No late night walks on the beach for us, but we do sip cocktails on our patio, beneath a planetarium of stars, a scene scored by the soporific sound of crashing waves. The flight is a distant memory. Aloha Maui. Finally, aloha.
Buffet breakfasts have ruined us. Raquel quickly gets used to her one mouthful of a dozen different dishes, and miso soup is now a breakfast staple. We tag team feeding both kids as Gali singlehandedly supports the birdlife of Hawaii who gather beneath the snow of egg that falls from his high chair. Staff give us crayons for the kids each morning, and Gali’s favourite breakfast dish becomes the colour Red. Hours turn to days as we rotate between the pool, suite and beach. Raquel is too young for Kea Lani’s Keiki Kids Club, but she can drop into the stocked daycare-like facilities in the afternoon, when Gali is napping and the sun is too strong. There were so many toys I almost cried when we walked into the room for the first time. We explore the grounds, make a run to the nearest supermarket, buy the only two things we didn’t pack while realizing we won’t need most of the things we did.
The family dines at the sensational Ko restaurant downstairs, a romantic meal of dreams invaded by our overtired, overhungry kids who care little for the chef’s inspired creations. Before the appies arrive, out come the iPad apps. My wife is afraid to let me go to the bathroom because she thinks I might run away.
Every time I meet a Dad or Mom in the knee high, pee-warm toddler pool, where Raquel spends most of her time (beaches be damned) we sport our 1000-yard stares, shrug our shoulders, and let the giggles and laughs of our kids melt our hearts. There is an Adults Only section at the Kea Lani, and I wonder how many hearts are melting with the ice in the umbrella-topped pina coladas. The Fairmont was our high-end option, a refuge of stunning views that fluff your eyes like pillows at turn down service. It’s the other end of cheap. One morning, as Gali stands up in his hotel crib beaming a two-tooth smile, he says “Dadda” for the first time. I pick him up, step out onto the balcony, and together we smile at the dreamy world before us. Cost of that, and so many other Fairmont moments: Priceless.
The bucket list drive in Maui is the road to Hana, a hairpin-winding track alongside soaring ocean cliffs. We made three turns and turned around, avoiding the projectile backseat vomit we knew would follow. This pretty much ruled out a drive to the Haleakala volcano crater too, which I’ll have to get to once the kids are a little older. We did drive to Makena Beach where Raquel flew a kite for the first time. I brought it from home and she didn’t want to do anything except fly that kite. She flew it for exactly 34 seconds, and never wanted to see it again. We drove up to Twin Falls and got some great photos amidst the giant bamboo and dual cascades. The Banyen Tree in Lahaina is unlike any tree I’ve ever seen, sporting 16 trunks and a block-wide canopy. We ate lunch in the Flatbread Company in Paia, after which I lost my wife and daughter in the shops. Raquel was having an allergic to reaction to her all-natural sunblock or the heat or the seawater, or something the Internet told us could probably be treated with a little Benedryl. New parents would spend a day in a local hospital, only to be told to use a little Benedryl. Fortunately we’re over the paranoia and worry that accompanies the firstborn. Instead we visit Baby Beach where the full-face snorkel mask I bought for Raquel is thoroughly enjoyed by all other kids on the beach. They tell me it works like a charm.
Up Next: Pt 2, featuring Kaanapali, Napili, and a Treat for Mom.
CBC News called to ask me what I think about a proposed Bill of Rights for airline passengers in Canada. Somewhat surprisingly, Canada trails the USA and many European countries who guarantee that passengers are compensated for delays, lost baggage and extended time on the tarmac. Passengers in Canada currently have to rely on the kindness of airline staff sorting out messes they're not responsible for, and insurance policies with print so fine you'd need a magnifying glass to claim any benefit. Throw in irate passengers foaming at the mouth and you can see how it can quickly escalate.
Personally, in countless flights around the world, my luggage has only ever been delayed three times. Not lost mind you, just delayed. We arrived in Colombia to film the first episode of Word Travels, but our bags didn’t meet us at the conveyer belt. Fortunately we had all our camera gear with us, so we just hit the ground running and bought a couple ponchos as a wardrobe change. It’s worth remembering that, according to the company behind the World Tracer System, just 7 bags per 1000 passengers get mishandled (although that does translate into over 24 million mishandled items a year). Still, there’s a 99% chance that your bag will make it through the labyrinth of airline travel and meet you on the other side, and if it doesn’t, it meets up you with shortly. Flights gets delayed. Screws need to be tightened. Weather causes havoc. It’s been my experience that patience, understanding, and a smile go a long way towards airline staff helping you out. If someone screamed at me, I’d go out of my way to ensure I help the understanding passenger behind them first. Remember, there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes!
As I explain in the interview, a Passenger Bill of Rights will help Canadian passengers feel a sense of control. The entire flying process can be nervewracking because of the control we relinquish. We place trust our trust in a lot of people (and a lot of mechanics) to work efficiently and effectively so we can get to that meeting/beach/wedding on time. There’s simply not much we can do when things go wrong. Knowing there’s some form of compensation, be it a hotel room, meal or financial compensation, at least gives the semblance that we’re in control of something. And airlines should be held to task if they slack off on performance or make promises they can’t keep.
I was staring into a black monitor and didn’t know I was live for the first few seconds. With a 3-week old baby keeping me up all night, I look like I just got off a red-eye flight from Timbutku. Before my segment were typical news reports about upheaval and chaos. I was asked to share a story of an airline mishap, and so brought up the time photographer Jeff Topham and I joked how funny it would be if the airline lost our bags on the way to Antarctica. And sure enough, Jeff’s bags never made it from Toronto to Buenos Aires. He showed up for a 10-day expedition cruise in the icy wastelands of the 7th continent with jeans and a T-shirt. But with a quick (albeit expensive) shop in Ushuaia and loaner gear from the crew, it all turned out great. His bags were waiting for us at the hotel on our return. As soon as the interview was over, I realized that I probably said the last thing people expect to hear on the news: That despite occasional frustrations and mishaps, it always works out in the end.
Since airplane cabins are pressurized, the humidity level is significantly lower than on the ground, and as such it’s easy to become dehydrated. That’s why flight attendants are always serving water. Still, on long flights your skin, eyes and lips can become uncomfortably dry, your feet can swell up, and your head can pound. Here’s some tips to avoid it all:
Stay away from tomato juice
Why do people drink tomato juice on planes, when they wouldn’t drink them on land? Cabin pressure dulls your senses, so you’re effectively tasting and smelling as if you had a cold. The strong taste of tomato juice is more agreeable in this environment, hence its popularity. Just one problem: tomato juice is very high in sodium, which contributes towards dehydration. One serving is fine, but repeated cans of tomato juice will do you no favours.
Carry a tube (under 100ml) of good moisturizer to apply to dry skin. Likewise, some lip balm for chapped lips, non-medicated saline eye drops and nose spray will help replenish moisture and make your flight more comfortable.
Both the high altitude and cabin pressure pack more punch in any cocktail. This is why drinking excessive alcohol is not recommended on flights, and while just two drinks feels like you’ve downed a six pack. Besides making you woozy and a pain in the butt for attendants, alcohol also dehydrates the body. When it comes to beer and wine, the more you drink, the drier you get. There’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine, but make sure you chase it with a glass of water.
Stay Away from Coffee, Tea and Pop
In the sky, these drink that do more harm than good. Caffeine, carbonation and excessive sugar facilitate dehydration. You’re always better off drinking water.
Lately, travellers are singing the praises of coconut water, consumed before and after a flight. It contains natural potassium electrolytes that help with dehydration, along with numerous other health benefits.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.