Bluestone 2021

After our trip to Bluestone in 2019, Owen regularly asked when we would be going back. It was a great holiday, so we booked a short break for May 2020, our last opportunity for a term-time holiday for a while. We all know how that ended! So we moved our booking to 2021, during Owen’s school summer holidays.

On our previous trip, we were in my BMW 120i, which was not at all suitable for a family holiday – packing was much easier with the van! We broke up the journey at Dare Valley Country Park, where we had a nice lunch outside in their courtyard. After lunch the boys checked out the adventure playground, then the new pump track – the reason that we were there! The pump track (and family-orientated downhill trail, with uplift service) only opened this month, but I had heard good things about it. I was impressed with the asphalt pump track, the only niggle I have with it is that there is not a natural exit point, without crossing the track. Both of the boys rode really well. Henry was not at all phased by the biggest rollers and berms he had ridden, despite all bigger kids whizzing around. Owen was in his element, just putting in lap after lap.

From our stop, it was another ninety minutes to Bluestone, which Henry slept for most of. In total on the way from Coventry to Bluestone we saw 124 VW Transporter leisure vans (only T5 or newer, not including panel van etc) – we only saw one MR2 Roadster.

We had the same type of cabin as our last visit – a detached “upside-down house”, just down the hill from last time. Inside it was almost identical, but with different views out of the windows, which I found a bit confusing. The house was nearer to the “village” centre, so we took the boys down in the evening to explore and burn off some energy on the playground. It only took Owen 76 seconds to run back to our front door!

Our first full day started with a three bike convoy (Henry on the Mac Ride on Jen’s bike) to “The Hive” a large soft play centre, which was new since our last trip. The boys loved it – Henry especially, as he has missed out on soft play sessions and this was his first proper exposure. We then moved on to the Serendome, an undercover, but just about outdoor, area with loads of activities for the kids. The “building” area, which was Owen’s favourite, had been replaced with an area for craft activities, but the disappointment was short-lived once the boys got to the sandpit, where they played happily until Owen’s “Wacky Racers” pedal car session. Owen had not been old enough for the pedal cars on our first trip and was very excited to drive his car, which he christened “The Crazy Giraffe”. After a brief slalom to test driving abilities, Owen led out the first drive down the hill, stopping to collect coloured discs at a few points down the hill, then full pelt into the crash-pad at the bottom. Next was a timed hill climb back to the start – Owen did particularly well on this. The last run down the hill was a test of smoothness, a small bucket of water was placed on the car, with instructions not to spill any. Owen managed to not spill any at all – which I was very proud of. The races finished with a couple of celebratory laps around the Serendome.

In the afternoon, we left Bluestone and headed to the beach – Freshwater West, as we had enjoyed our previous visit there. It is a big beach, with dunes at one end and rocks at the other. We were able to get parked at the rocky end and set up our base near the rock pools. The boys enjoyed digging and paddling, although Henry was not too keen on his hands getting sandy. Owen and I took a walk down to the sea, although as it was just after low tide it took a while! On our way back to the van we got ice cream from Cafe Mor. Just like in 2019 I wished we had been there when we were planning to eat – the burgers looked, and smelled, amazing! At least the pizzas we had delivered to our cabin when we got back to Bluestone were really nice!

On Wednesday morning I managed to escape for a solo bike ride in Canaston Woods, whilst Jen and the boys had breakfast. It was a shorter version of the loop that I did last time, as I chose to stay nearer to Bluestone and repeat a particular loop. It was good to get out and ride some longer and more technical trails that I am used to at home in Coventry.

After a quick shower to remove the muddy evidence of my bike ride, we all got on our bikes and rode up to the Blue Lagoon pool. Unfortunately, they did not have the wave machine working, but the boys still enjoyed the lazy river. Owen was not quite big enough to go on the water flumes, but did get a chance to show Jen how well he can swim on his own now, albeit with a float belt and pool noodle. It has been over a year of (interrupted) swimming lessons since Jen last saw him swim and he has made good progress! Henry seemed to be his usual happy self and particularly enjoyed splashing around in the baby pool. After swimming, we went to the “village” coffee shop for “Welsh cream tea”, which was a normal cream tea but with added Welsh cakes – something I can certainly get on board with!

In the afternoon we walked down the steep ravine to Camp Smokey, for BBQ food and s’mores. Henry could not wait for his marshmallows to be toasted, he just gobbled them up! After our meal we took the long way back to the house, along the nature trail – the boys did well, walking all the way, and they still had the energy to run around the playground for an hour! After a busy day, we retired to the cabin and watched a film and gave the boys a relatively early night.

Our last full day at Bluestone started with another trip to the Hive, then to the Serendome. Owen got to play in the water play area, which he was upset to have missed out on earlier in the week. From there we left Bluestone to explore Narbeth. On our last trip, Jen had a quick look around and had found a nice Spanish deli. Our plan had been to have lunch there, but we had chosen the day their cafe was closed. Instead, we found Oh Crumbs! where Henry ordered a huge plate of waffles with brownies and marshmallows. Fortunately, he needed some help to finish them!

The plan had been to head back to Bluestone, but Henry was sleepy and Owen was being difficult, so we decided a longer drive in the van and change of scenery may help. I had heard about Llys y Fran on the Little Rippers MTB FaceBook group. We did not really know what to expect as we followed the signs pointing us down increasingly smaller roads into what felt like the middle of nowhere. Then all of a sudden we pulled up in a big car park that was mostly full. As we drove around trying to find a space Owen spotted the pump track! Henry was asleep in his car seat until just as Owen and I were kitted up and ready to head to the pump track and a little voice piped up “Henry come too”. Unfortunately, we had not really come equipped for riding the pump track – we only had our bikes to ride from the cabin to the van, no kneepads or full-face helmets etc. So we decided to take it easy.

When we got to the pump track we discovered that it was not just one pump track, but two, and a skills area! The smallest pump track would have been great for Henry, Owen enjoyed the bigger, asphalt, track, but before long we pedalled up to the top of the skills area to see what the trails were like. The short green graded line was nice and flowy, Owen rode it well, so we went back to the start to hit what we thought was another green graded line, but turned out to be the first section of the main mountain bike trail around the reservoir. Again, it was nice and flowy, but we just had a longer pedal back than expected! Next, we tried the blue line in the skills area, Owen set off first, but failed to get over the bridge feature – which to be fair was pretty steep for a blue graded trail, especially as you came up to it blind. After some help, he completed the trail and went back to the pump track where he was happy looping around it. Jen joined us, with Henry on the Mac Ride on her bike, and after swapping the Mac Ride onto my bike, we decided to check out the mountain bike trail around the reservoir.

Owen set off first, having already ridden the first green section, he was confident and shot off into the distance. Jen struggled to keep up – at this point I should have realised that the green-graded (easy) trail was actually trickier than the blue-graded (medium) trails she had ridden previously. After his laps of the pump track earlier in the week, Henry had decided that he liked corners again, so he was giggling away as we brought up the rear of our train. The second section of the mountain bike trails was also graded green but notched up the difficulty again. Jen was not at all confident riding it, although Owen was fine. At this point, I suggested heading back to the van, but Jen decided to push on around the reservoir on the gravel road. There were plenty of other families riding and all seemed well. I had a look at the next mountain bike section as we rode past, noting that the grading had increased to blue, and it looked a lot more technical – too technical to ride with Henry on my bike and for Owen without his protective gear. A while later we crossed the stream and the head of the reservoir, I noticed that the sign indicated 2 miles back to the visitor centre via the route we had come, or 5.5 miles via the way we were going. As it had been an easy ride up until that point I thought nothing more of it. Then the steep climbs started! I just about managed to struggle up the climbs with the extra weight of Henry on my bike, but Owen needed to push (of course I had left the tow rope back at the cabin). Because what goes up must come down, we then came to some seriously steep descents. Steep enough that Owen and Jen opted to walk down them. I think Henry would have also preferred to walk, but I wanted to keep momentum up for the following climbs. This part of the ride felt never-ending – we had definitely bitten off more than we could chew. But we were not about to go back up the super steep hills we had just come down! We had to keep on going – especially as we had a dinner reservation to make! As we eventually neared the dam we stopped to talk to the ranger, who informed us that he speaks to a lot of people who think it will be a flat ride around the reservoir. He also broke the news that we would not be riding across the dam, but would be descending to the valley floor, then back up the other side. At least it was a gentle gradient on tarmac, rather than more steep gravel sections. Henry and I powered ahead, put my bike in the van, then walked back to meet Owen and Jen, so I could take their bikes back to the van whilst the boys had a brief play on the playground and we could take the selfie above – as I had not actually taken any photographs all ride!

Somehow, we just about managed to make our dinner reservation at the Bluestone Pub, where we enjoyed a well-earned meal! The boys still had enough energy left to finish our stay as it had started, with a charge around the playground on the way back to the cabin. It was good being back at Bluestone, and the boys are already asking when we can go back. However I do not feel like I am in a rush to go back, whilst it is a great place to holiday with children, as there is plenty to keep them occupied, I did not really feel like I had much of a rest. We were ferrying excitable children to various activities, then supervising them. I do really like the concept of a car-free “village” and I am sure that we will go back in a few years when the boys are older they will be able to partake in different activities, so it will be a new experience for them.

We were not going straight home from Bluestone – in 2019 we had called at the Forest of Dean and decided that we would like to spend more time in that area. Our first stop was for lunch and a bike ride at the Cannop Cycle Centre. After eating our takeaway lunch in the van we headed for the family cycle trail, with Henry on the Mac Ride, and his balance bike strapped to my back. The plan had been to do a short ride on the family cycle trail, but the boys were being difficult, so we went straight to the playground at Beechenhurst, the non-mountain biking Forestry England site in the Forest of Dean, which is just over a kilometre away from the cycle centre. Incidentally, I think having the split sites works really well, rather than the usual mix of hardcore mountain bikers and families going to the cafe/playground/GoApe. After a good run around the large play area, the boys seemed a bit happier, so we went back to the cycle centre to hit the pump track. The skills area at the Cannop Cycle Centre is perfect for families, and Owen got straight on with riding laps of the pump track with the other kids there. Henry was a bit more reluctant but ended up doing some great riding on his balance bike, starting higher and higher on the start ramp each time he went around. Unfortunately, Owen was in a foul mood again by the time we got back to the van, culminating in him refusing to drink any of his water, then dropping the bottle as soon as we had set off, then claiming he was about to die of thirst. Henry being the helpful little brother that he is kindly offered Owen his drink. Of course, this was not good enough for Owen, which Henry responded to with taunts of “drink it, Owen”. Sensibly, at this point, Owen realised that when a two-year-old is mocking your tantrum it is best to give up and stayed quiet for the rest of our journey (which was completed before he died of thirst).

Our next stop was at Ross-on-Wye, a town I had driven through on many occasions, but never visited. Tea and cake were first on the agenda, we went to The Ginger Nut Cafe, which had tasty looking homemade cakes in the window. Suitably refuelled, we had a short walk around town, well as much as you can with two small boys, before heading back to the van and our hotel. Opposite the hotel, there were two combine harvesters “eating the wheat” as Owen would put it, which were good to watch as we had our dinner. I am going to finish this post here because the next part of the trip deserves a post of its own. The boys loved being back at Bluestone and are already asking when we can go back…

Roadsters in the Elan Valley

The Elan Valley in Mid Wales has been high on my list of places to visit – the only question was, do I take the MR2 or the mountain bike! Partho and I both had a free Sunday, and with existing plans to ride bikes together in the week, it was an easy decision to take our sportscars for a much needed Sunday morning run out.

We met at Droitwich for a McDonalds breakfast, then headed west. I had not specifically chosen the route, but the sat nav picked a mix of twisty single carriageway A and B roads, the natural environment for an MR2 Roadster. With great roads and little traffic it was one of the best drives I can remember. For reference the route was A4133 – A443 – A456 – B4362 – B4356 – A488 – A44.

We spent a few hours cruising around the valley, looking at the dams and taking photos. I was surprised to see that whilst one of the reservoirs was full, others looked quite empty. The roads in the valley were mostly small single track roads, so I was glad that I was in a small car. In fact, I found the roads we took to get to the Elan Valley more fun to drive than the roads when we got there. The views were stunning however, especially when the sun came out so that we could see them! I was surprised at how quiet it was for a Sunday in the summer holidays, there were no traffic jams and we had no trouble parking at any of the viewing points. We mostly followed this guide, which coincidentally also features an MR2 Roadster.

After our lap of the dams, with many photos taken, we took the mountain road to Devil’s Bridge. Again, this was mostly a singletrack road, but was generally well sighted, so we could press on a bit and work the cars. We missed the turning for the big hotel at Devil’s Bridge, so stopped for Cornish pasties and Welsh cakes at the tea room next to the campsite. As Partho had to get back home, we did not pay to view the waterfall, and from what I have heard since, that may have been a good job!

After lunch, I turned round and drove back over the mountain road to Rhayader, then back home along a similar route. Unfortunately, the twisty roads that had been so fun in the morning meant that I was unable to overtake the three lorries in front of me, so the drive home was not quite as fun. Despite that, it was still good to get out in the MR2, which ran perfectly, other than the 12v cigarette lighter socket which no longer works.

I loved visiting the Elan Valley, it was a good drive over, and I felt that it had a good balance of remoteness and ease of access. I already had plans to return with my bike, but I will also return with Jen and the boys, as we will all be able to explore together, both in the van and on some of the lower level cycle trails around the reservoirs.

Big Sur – Throwback Thursday

Today is Big Sursday – at least to Apple geeks, like me, excited about the launch of the new Big Sur operating system for Mac computers. I though it was a good enough reason to do a #throwbackthursday post from when Jen and I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur, on our honeymoon.

Driving from Monterey to Santa Barbara was a big day on the road, but the scenery was amazing – the hype about this road does not even do it justice! A particular highlight was pulling in to a lay-by, looking out to sea and seeing a whale jumping out of the water.

Rather than writing about the whole day again, I will throwback to the blog post I wrote at the time.

Bluestone Wales

I have been visiting Croyde in North Devon annually for ten years, but last year felt different. Jen and I decided that in 2019 we would like to try somewhere new for our family holiday. As we would be travelling with a six month old baby, we also wanted to go somewhere that would be easy, with lots to occupy the boys, especially if the weather was bad! A few people had recommended Bluestone in Pembrokeshire, a part of Wales I had never visited. It seemed to have plenty of onsite activities and was fairly close to the seaside – so we booked up!

The drive from Coventry to Pembrookshire is about three and a half hours, roughly the same as to Croyde – easily the longest car journey of Henry’s life. I planned our first stop at Flyup 417 Bikepark, as I had been wanting to take Owen to the indoor pump track there for a while, which I covered on another post. The rest of the drive went well, with a brief McPitstop to coincide with Henry’s next feed, and we arrived at Bluestone late afternoon, in time to settle into our little upside down house (bedrooms downstairs/living area upstairs), check out the resort and get fish and chips for dinner.

Our first full day in Wales looked like it would have the best weather, so we headed to the beach! Barafundle Bay had been recommended, but when we got there both boys were asleep and we thought that the long walk from the car park may have been a struggle, so we drove to Freshwater West, a surfing beach, instead. Owen had a great time paddling in the sea and building sandcastles, while Henry hid out in our beach tent and tried to eat sand. We finished the afternoon sat in the dunes over looking the beach eating ice cream sundaes from Cafe Mor (I would love to go back and have lunch there).

On Sunday morning I managed to sneak out for my usual Sunday morning bike ride, but Canaston Woods, next to Bluestone, was more fun than my usual trails in Coventry! Even better, I met Jen and the boys in the Bluestone village for a post-ride milkshake. The afternoon set the tone for the rest of the holiday – we visited the Serendome, Bluestone’s large undercover activity area. Owen absolutely loved both the sand play and the building blocks area – we spent a lot of time in the Serendome, filling buckets of sand or building assault courses, robots and dens with the building blocks!

The other main attractions at Bluestone were the Adventure Centre, which had a couple of softplay areas, including one for babies, which Henry enjoyed, and the Blue Lagoon waterpark, which we visited a couple of times. There are a selection of restaurants in the village, but my favourite was Camp Smokey, a Wild West themed shack at the bottom of a ravine specialising in BBQ food and with a fire pit for toasting marshmallows. The best thing about the resort was that, other than checking in/out, it was car free! You can hire golf buggies but we just walked or cycled everywhere – with Owen either on his Strider or on the MacRide. There was an autumnal theme to the resort when we were there (mid September), with Halloween themed scarecrows around the resort – with a challenge to find them all – Owen particularly enjoyed this. I think there was also a festival/parade linked in to it too. Pembrokeshire Wakepark is right next door to Bluestone, so I managed to fit in a wakeboarding lesson, which I will write about in another post soon!

We could easily have spent the whole week without leaving the resort, however it would have been a shame to visit Pembrokeshire, which is a really beautiful part of the world, and not explore further! So, on our last day we visted Tenby. The weather was lovely, so after exploring the old town, we grabbed some food from The Stowaway – a funky underground cafe/takeaway, and sat on Castle Hill for a picnic with a seaview. Then we went to the beach for more paddling in the sea, digging in the sand and eating ice cream bought from a Land Rover ice cream van! We all had a great time in Tenby and it is definitly somewhere we would like to visit again! On the way back to Bluestone we stopped in Narbeth, however the boys were both asleep, so I stayed in the car with them whilst Jen had a quick explore.

We had such a great time that it was disapointing to leave. To lessen the blow I had planned an exciting stop on the way home – at the Forest of Dean, which I have already posted about. We also took the “Head of the Valleys” road, rather than the motorway – not much longer, but far more interesting. Henry was not pleased to be heading home, it felt like he was screaming most of the way back from Ross-on-Wye.

I am a bit late publishing this post – life has been busy! However it has given me a chance to reflect on the holiday more than if I had blogged whilst I was away. It was great being able to spend time together as a family of four, with very little planned, nor needed to be planned. Travelling with two young children can hard, so I am glad that we had plenty of options, even if the weather was bad, mostly within a five minute cycle! Jen and I also had a good time, the boys being occupied goes a long way to achieving that, but we also got to do some exploring, fit in some training and ate some nice food. After wrangling the boys all day I was happy to chill out in our little upside down house in the evenings, sorting through my photos from the day etc before turning in for an early night.

I think this will be the first holiday that Owen remembers – he had such a great time, and regularly asks when we will be going back to “our holiday house with the sand play”. At six months old Henry just went with the flow, he did hit one developmental milestone while we away though – he rolled over for the first time, then quickly realised that he could link rolls together to traverse a room! It will be good to go back to Bluestone again when the boys are slightly bigger and can do more of the activites, I think Owen will also like the familiarity of it. There is also a lot more that I would like to see in Pembrokeshire, so I have a feeling we will be returning…

New York – Throwback Thursday

Yellow Cab

This time six years ago Jen and I were in New York, as a treat to ourselves for our thirtieth birthdays. For some unknown reason the photos from the trip stayed unprocessed in my Lightroom catalogue – until last week! So I decided to do a #throwbackthursday post. Neither of us had been to New York before, the closest being dashing through Newark airport on the way back from Costa Rica – it was also my first time staying in the USA, rather than just transiting through the airport.

I distinctly remember two things from our shuttle journey from the airport – seeing the huge pick up trucks on the road and that first glimpse of the iconic Manhattan skyline! After checking in to our hotel, the Library Hotel, we went straight to Times Square, which was as mad as we expected – a good introduction to NYC, but a bit much to take in after a long day travelling! Especially given that two days prior I had woken up in Tokyo. For dinner we decided to walk to Grand Central Station. We were pretty tired so we just grabbed some burgers from Shakeshack – to this day still one of the best burgers I have ever tasted! I liked Grand Central station, it seemed a lot calmer that similar large stations in London for example and I feel that it balanced the retail/restaurants better than its newer namesake in Birmingham.

Sea Lion in Central Park

After breakfast at the hotel, we spent most of our first full day in New York exploring Central Park, including the Zoo, which disappointingly did not feature Alex the Lion from the “Madagascar” film. As zoos go it was pretty small, but I particularly like that I could photograph sea lions with skyscrapers in the background. We barely scratched the surface of Central Park, but it was good to spend the day walking around, after a long flight the previous day.

Statue of Liberty

The only fixed plan we had for our trip was visiting the Statue of Liberty, as we had to prebook our trip a few months in advance – it was worth it though! On our way to catch the boat we passed the site of the World Trade Center. At the time the new One World Trade Center was still under construction, but still looked suitably impressive. Exploring the statue and Liberty Island was one of the highlights of the trip, the views back across to Manhattan were impressive, but unfortunately did not photograph well, coming out very hazy (even the new dehaze tool in Lightroom could not rescue the photos). Certainly a view that I am glad to have seen though! I also enjoyed the stop at Ellis island on the way back to Manhattan, where we learned about the history of immigration to New York. On the way back to the hotel we walked through China Town and Little Italy, stopping for a pizza – it was not a typical New York pizza, but it was still good! In the evening we visited Korea Town, which is just behind the Empire State Building, for a Korean BBQ. I was glad to be able to take Jen, as the Korean BBQ in Iwaki City is one of my favourite places to eat when I am on business trips to Japan, and until recently they haven’t been easy to find in the UK. We now have one in Coventry though!

Top of the Rock Panorama

The main plan we had for my birthday was visiting the Top of the Rock – the observation area at the top of the Rockerfeller Center. We had been advised to go up before dusk, to be able to enjoy the view in daylight and by night, so we spent the morning exploring Fifth Avenue before heading to the Rockefeller Center mid afternoon. it seemed a bit busy as we went in, but we thought nothing of it as we went up the lifts to the observation area. The views were suitably impressive, both to the north over Cental Park and to the south past the Empire State building, especially as night fell and the lights lit up. We had planned to have dinner at the Rockefeller Center, but when we came down the lift everything seemed to be on shutdown, with huge crowds everywhere. We later learned that it was because the Christmas lights were being switched on, which is a big deal in the US – it is televised nationally and they even had Mariah Carey singing! We ended up having dinner at the hotel restaurant, which turned out to be really nice.

We started our last full day in New York with a walk across Brooklyn Bridge to check out Brooklyn, I was surprised that such an old bridge (construction started in 1869) was still in daily use! I was not too taken by Brooklyn, but I expect that we did not find the cool spots, so we got the subway back to Manhattan, and ended up having lunch at a diner in Chelsea. After our lunch we discovered Chelsea Market, which had an array of interesting looking places to eat, and then the High Line – a disused elevated subway line which had been turned into a linear park/walkway. Both were great, and completely unexpected finds. In the evening we walked past the Rockefeller Center to check out the lights that had caused all the fuss the previous evening. As we were in New York it would be rude not to take in a Broadway show – we manage to get seats for the Lion King, I vaguely remembered the story, and songs, from watching the Disney Movie as a child, but I really enjoyed the show.

We had left visiting the Empire State Building until our last morning, which turned out to be a mistake – the clouds had come in, we could barely see the ground from the top! However it was interesting looking at the architecture, especially considering it was built the same year as our house! When we got to the observation deck on the 86th floor it was sleeting! Despite the weather, we still went up to the 102nd floor, which we had almost to ourselves. After the Empire State Building, the last thing we did in New York was have lunch at the Relais de Venise – we had been to the original in Paris earlier in the year, and thought it would be interesting to check out some of the British/American clones. The New York restaurant was much bigger than the Paris one, but the food was similar. We still haven’t got round to checking out any of the British restaurants…

Overall, I thought New York was a great city to visit, with a bit of everything to see and do. A lot of it felt familiar from films and TV, but as it was my first real trip to America I picked up a lot of subtle differences from European cities. We ate really well, breakfasts at the hotel, street food lunches, snacks, cheese and wine at the hotel, then some nice restaurants in the evenings! We did a lot of walking around to burn it off though! I would love to go back to New York, probably when the boys are old enough to appreciate it and ideally in the spring/summer, as it was really cold when we were there!

Croyde 2018

Croyde, in North Devon, is one of my favourite places in the world! Ten years ago I visited for surfing trips with my mates, and fell in love with the village and beach. I have been back every year since. This year we visited again for a family holiday, with Owen and my parents. Owen has visited Croyde before, but Mum and Dad haven’t, so I was looking forward to showing them around our usual haunts.

Two years ago Jen and I drove down in the MR2, with minimal luggage, however this year the BMW was stuffed full of luggage, and a bike on the roof. I am going to need a bigger car! Traffic on the M5 wasn’t great, but Owen was a good boy, so the journey wasn’t too arduous. We met Mum and Dad at the holiday cottage, unpacked and formed a plan to head to Squires fish and chip shop in Braunton for dinner. The first of our regular haunts! After the long drive I didn’t feel like being crammed into the BMW again, so chose to ride over on my bike. I took the back roads to Braunton. It was a big climb out of Croyde, but the views down over Saunton Sands were worth it. The descent down to Braunton was fast. I was on the road, so without any tricky corners or rocks to negotiate I only had to slow down for a couple of cars coming the other way and made good time. I arrived in Braunton before the rest of the family, within twenty seconds of the time Google Maps had predicted it to take! I’m sure the fish and chips tasted even better than usual after riding over to get them! (I did wimp out for the return journey and got a lift back in the car – I didn’t fancy the narrow lanes in the dark).

We started our first full day in Croyde with a walk into the village, although Owen really wanted to go to the beach! Mum and Dad walked over to Saunton Sands, and Jen and I took Owen to the beach. He was in his element playing in the sand, digging and looking for shells! In the afternoon we walked up to Sandleigh tea room. Owen had fun exploring the garden and chatting to the scarecrow, whilst we enjoyed a lovely cream tea. Mum and Dad walked to Baggy Point, whilst Jen, Owen and I went back to the beach. As the tide was out we could clamber across the rocks from Sandleigh, rather than walking back along the road. At first Owen seemed a bit unsure, but he loved splashing through the rock pools and looking for creatures. However, he was even more excited to get back on the beach to dig some holes! In the evening he came up to me, gave me a huge hug and said “I love you Daddy” – the first time we’ve heard him say that. He is such a little charmer!

The weather forecast for Sunday was for rain, but we managed to get to the beach for an hour before the rain started. Owen did more digging and I flew my old Flexifoil Stacker kite. Owen had been captivated by someone flying a kite the previous week, so I thought he may be interested, but it was a bit too powerful for Owen to have a go with. The rain started just as we were walking home; we made it back without getting too wet, and spent the rest of the morning chilling out at the house. Whilst Owen had his nap, Jen and I escaped into the village on our own for a quiet cup of tea and a piece of cake! As we got back, Mum and Owen were heading out to the playground, so we joined them. It was good to get Owen out of the house and running around a bit. He also got to see the beach tractor – I don’t think it can get any more exciting for Owen than a tractor on the beach! We finished the day with Sunday lunch at the Manor House Inn, another Croyde tradition for Jen and I. The only problem was that due to it being a rainy Sunday the carvery had been hit hard. The roast beef, that I had been particularly looking forward to, had all gone. At least it gave me an excuse to try something else from the menu – the steak and ale pie was a good substitute! I thought it was funny that most of the other tables were also families with children and grandparents.

As I hadn’t managed to get out on my bike on Sunday, I got out on the Monday morning instead, before meeting Jen for breakfast at Blue Groove – our favourite cafe. I have already posted about my ride, so won’t fill a holiday post with bike talk. When we got back Owen wasn’t too keen on going for his nap. The weather wasn’t great either, so Jen and I took him out for a drive to Ilfracombe. Owen was looking forward to seeing boats and trains, even though I had explained that there wasn’t a railway there. We parked at the harbour, so saw the boats, then at the end of the harbour we saw a little road train! We had to go on it, even if it was just for a little tour of the town, most of which we’d seen from the car on the drive in. Owen was very happy with his train ride and it gave Jen and I the chance to scope out ice cream shops. Joey’s looked the best, so we put that theory to the test. My Bakewell tart ice cream was nice, however Owen ending up wearing most of his bright green mint chocolate chip ice cream. To work off our ice creams we took a walk around the Capstone Parade, a traffic free promenade around the Capstone, a small hill between the town and the sea. It was good to let Owen have a run around without needing to worry about traffic. I also got to do some photography, I was particularly pleased with the photo above, looking past St Nicolas Chapel and the harbour entrance. By the time we got back to Croyde the weather had improved, so we went straight back out to the beach with my Mum. Owen enjoyed more digging and filling his bucket with water from the rock pools. It really was great having the beach a five minute walk from where we were staying meaning that we could just pop down to the beach after whatever we were doing during the day. After dinner, I went back to the beach to try and do some golden hour/sunset photography, however the light was rubbish. I should have listened to my Dad, who had declined to join me – as he thought the light would be rubbish!

Owen was in a funny mood on Tuesday morning, the weather wasn’t great either, so we had a quiet morning. We popped in to Braunton to do some shopping, then I took Owen to the playground. After lunch Mum and Dad walked to Mortehoe. Jen, Owen and I drove there in the car to meet them. Then we all walked down to Morte Point. The walk was about a mile, but as it was over footpaths/parkland we couldn’t take Owen’s pushchair -this would be his first hiking experience! He did better than I expected, I only ended up carrying him for about two thirds of the way. When we got towards the headland the wind was incredibly strong – the back end of Storm Helene was battering the UK. Mum, Jen and Owen held back and looked for seals in the sea, whilst Dad and I continued to the end of the point. It was probably a good job that Owen didn’t go all the way down with us, as Dad and I were getting blown about by the wind and struggling to stay upright – Owen would not have stood a chance of staying on his feet! After all that effort we went to Bllly Budd’s for dinner. The plan had been to get pizzas, but none of us ended up ordering one. I had a massive bowl of nachos with pulled pork, which I struggled to finish! Owen seemed to enjoy his fish fingers, but playing on the playground was his favourite part of the meal. I was impressed that he’d learned to climb up a rope net to get on the slide – he is getting very good at climbing!

Wednesday the 19th September was mine and Jen’s third wedding anniversary – time has shot by! Owen woke himself up coughing before 5:00 – I thought it was going to be an early start, but by the time I got back upstairs with the Calpol, he had fallen back asleep and didn’t wake up until 8:00! Thanks for the anniversary treat Owen! My Mum had offered to look after Owen all day, so Jen and I could have a day out – Jen wanted to visit Dunster Castle, so that’s what we did! I’m not normally a fan of stately homes, but fortunately Dunster Castle is a bit different! The sun was out when we arrived, so we had a walk round the gardens, taking a selfie on the Lover’s Bridge. Then we visited the working water mill, which was milling flour. It was great to be able to not only see the mill working, but be able to clamber around both inside and outside the building to get a closer look at the whole system – from the channels taking water from the stream and over the wheels, to the gearing inside powering a variety of machines, in addition to the milling stones. Naturally we couldn’t leave without buying a bag of the flour we had seen being milled. After the mill we visited the tea room and had my favourite holiday lunch – a Cornish pasty followed by a cream tea! As the weather was now turning, we decided to head inside and check out the castle. First stop wast the crypt, to learn about the life of the servants in Victorian times, and the resident bats. We had hoped to do the Victorian kitchen tour, but it was fully booked – if you’re planning on visiting Dunster Castle, make sure you call at the castle reception and book on as early as possible! Instead we did the self guided tour of the castle, which focussed mostly on its heyday, around 100 years ago. I particularly liked the dining room and adjoining blue 1950’s kitchen with views over the Bristol channel to Wales. When I heard that you could try billiards, I instantly thought of a photo opportunity with Jen looking down the cue and was pretty happy that I was able to pull it off, especially given I am still learning my Fuji camera. It seemed like we had missed the worst of the weather, as back in Croyde Owen and my parents didn’t even make it to the beach – they had to turn round as the wind from Storm Ali was whipping sand into Owen’s face. They went to the playground instead, ironically it was too windy to fly the new kite that Dad had bought Owen. In the evening Jen and I went back to Blue Groove for an anniversary dinner, just the two of us. Both of us had our usual dishes, chilli beef burrito and moules frites.

The weather was rubbish for our last full day in Croyde, after Storm Helene and Storm Ali rained on us we had Storm Bronagh. I’m not sure what we did to deserve three named storms on our holiday week! Dad and I braved the rain and walked to Blue Groove for breakfast and that was it for the morning! The weather hadn’t improved much after lunch, and Owen was in a funny mood, so we decided that there was only one thing for it – soft play. Jen found Quince Honey Farm in South Molton, which sounded more interesting than normal soft play and would give Owen a chance to nap on the drive there. At the honey farm we learned about bees, their hives and tried some different types of honey. When we got to the soft play area we were the only ones there! This meant I didn’t feel too guilty about taking Owen on the big slides etc. Once again he got to show off his climbing skills and graduated from sitting on my lap on the slides to racing me down! We had saved The Thatch for our final evening in Croyde and all had a good meal, making up for the miserable day. Owen was on top form, eating most of his dinner and charming the staff.

Packing the car back up seemed to be quicker than in Coventry and we were on the road fairly early. Even more unusually the traffic past Bristol was fine! There was a bit of traffic on the M5 as we got back to the Midlands, but we were still home by early afternoon. As we were driving back Jen and I reflected on our week and both felt that Croyde had somehow lost its sparkle, it could have been down to the weather, familiarity, staying at the other end of the village to normal, the seeds sown by watching a programme on TV about how Croyde is being ruined by holiday lets earlier in the summer or simply that our needs are different now that we have to think about more than where we are going to go for dinner! We still had a great time, but the chat in the car was more about where are we going to go on holiday next year, rather than what are we going to do when we visit Croyde next year. I’m sure we will be back though, as it is such a special place to us, but maybe next time it will be a romantic weekend away just the two of us…

French Roadtrip: Days 4 and 5 – The Long Drive Home

It is a long drive from Brittany to Coventry, but at least we were on our own schedule for this part of the trip, so decided to split it over two days, with an extended stop on the first day. I had planned to stop in Honfleur, a lovely little fishing port, but realised that it wouldn’t be suitable for Owen, so decided to stop a few miles away in Deauville, so that Owen could run around on the beach and dig some holes!

After another great breakfast, we said our goodbyes to Michel and Collette, my Mum’s cousins who had been hosting us in St Brieuc, and my parents, who were extending their trip with a few days in the Massif Central. We made plans to meet Simon and Sophie in Deauville, then set off, initially retracing our route from day 2. It took around three hours to get to Deauville. Owen only slept for the last hour, despite still seeming tired from his late night previously. There were a few traffic snarl ups around the Caen ring road, but we made good time and even managed to find a parking space right next to the beach. Ideal when you have a grumpy toddler who just wants to dig holes in the sand!

Whilst Owen was building, then immediately destroying sandcastles, I went to find some ham and cheese baguettes for lunch. Deauville beach is really well set up, with a boardwalk, little cabins (named after Hollywood stars, who may or may not have visited Deauville) then little kiosks selling beach essentials – including lunch! After eating our baguettes we walked along the beach road, checking out the impressive old buildings. The Normandy Hotel, where my Mum used to work, was the highlight, with its half timbered exterior. We then walked back along the boardwalk, stopping for ice cream. I found my new favourite ice cream flavour – chestnut. I’m not sure where else I will be able to get it from again. Although I do know some chestnut farmers, so have got them on the case! Whilst we were eating our ice creams, Simon and Sophie turned up, so we spent some time with them whilst Owen played in the sand some more. When it was time to leave, he ran all the way down the boardwalk to the car – quite a long way for someone with such little legs! It was a good job he was tiring himself out, as we had almost another three hours of driving ahead of us.

Our overnight stop was in Le Touquet, and we spent most of the drive looking out for tractors with Owen – he seemed way more impressed with them than the huge bridges we went over. As we were getting closer to Calais we noticed that most of the cars on the road were British registered, which I thought was funny. Not having been to Le Touquet before I wasn’t expecting to drive through pine forests on the edge of town and was pleasantly surprised to see that everything was really well set up for cycling. We were less impressed with our hotel, which felt really tired and due to a strange layout we were in the 153rd of 156 rooms down a really long corridor. At least the location was good – right on the beach! The town itself seemed nice though! We walked along the beach, past the wake boarding pool, the beach bars, kids clubs and volleyball courts to the town centre. I wasn’t prepared for just how busy the town centre would be – there were people everywhere, shopping, drinking and generally having a good time. As we were all pretty hungry, we went to the first place we found, a little pizza restaurant just off the main street. The pizza was amazing! I love that in France you can get pizzas with an egg on – quite a rarity in the UK. Owen was a bit of a monkey during dinner, I guess he had loads of pent up energy, after being cooped up in the car most of the day. So while Jen did some last minute shopping in town, I took Owen down to the beach for more digging! This is the photo at the top of the post. Once again, Owen enjoyed himself on the beach, hopefully two beaches in one day made up for all the time stuck in the car!

The tractor and combine harvester conversations we had been having with Owen in the car must have been playing on his mind, as he work up at 5:45 asking about combine harvesters! We let him get into bed with us, forgetting that toddlers seem to have an inbuilt need to sleep perpendicular to anyone else in the bed. With only a tiny slither of bed to balance on, I didn’t manage to get back to sleep. At least this meant we were ready to leave early for the relatively short drive up to the Chunnel. When we got there we were given the opportunity to take an earlier train – result! Jen had never used the Le Shuttle, and was wowed by how seamless it all was. We were pretty much straight off the motorway and onto the train! Before long we were speeding along under the English Channel. Whilst I was stretching my legs Owen took the opportunity to commandeer the drivers seat, thinking he’d get to drive the next leg of the journey. He was so upset when I put him back in his car seat.

We’d worked out that it would only be a twenty minute detour to visit Jen’s sister, Heather, in Hackney. So as it was her birthday it would have been rude not to call in! I love the drive into east London, with the Canary Wharf skyline, Olympic Park and the O2, then through the 120 year old Blackwall Tunnel. At this time on a Sunday morning it was a pretty easy drive too. Owen was very excited to see Heather, especially as this was the first time he had been to her flat. We had brunch at the cafe around the corner from Heather’s flat. As I was in East London I felt that it would be rude not to have smashed avocado on toast (and of course post it to my Instagram story).

I was surprised at how easy it was to get from Heather’s flat to the M11 for the start of the final leg of our journey – two hours back to Coventry. I was back on familiar roads, and driving on the left, so it was the easiest drive of the trip. We were home by 14:00, exactly five days since leaving, having covered just over 1,000 miles!

French Roadtrip: Days 2 and 3 – Brittany

We woke up to rain, not ideal on holiday. After a good breakfast at the hotel in Coutances, we loaded up the car for the drive to Brittany. It was still raining. At least it was a good opportunity to test the new wipers and RainX on the windscreen of the BMW. My main niggle with the car since getting it, is that there is no intermittent setting on the wipers, only an “intelligent auto” setting. Which isn’t that intelligent. Even on the most sensitive setting it waits until you can’t see anything ahead, then wipes the screen. I found an old bottle of RainX in the garage and thought it would be worth a try. I wish I’d thought of that a few years ago, as it worked a treat! Even in the heaviest rain I could leave the wipers set to auto and I could see the road ahead clearly!

Just because I could see where I was going didn’t mean that the journey went smoothly. Our first stop was in St Malo, and we had been sent directions to the car park we were meeting everyone at. However the directions opened in Google Maps, and we find that whilst the directions are usually spot on, they aren’t communicated well. It seems to be a lottery if it tells you the road name/number to turn on to and doesn’t show the number of the exit from roundabouts. To be fair we also didn’t have the audio mix tuned, so I could barely hear the turn by turn instructions, so we took a few wrong turns. I think I’ll stick to using Apple Maps.

When we arrived in St Malo the car park that we were looking for was full, so ended up parking somewhere else anyway. It was still raining. The plan had been to have a walk around the old town, but no-one really felt like it, so we followed my Dad straight to his favourite ice cream shop – Sanchez. He seems to have a favourite ice cream shop in every town we visit! 11:00 isn’t really ideal ice cream time, but it was somewhere we could sit in the dry, and I’d heard Dad saying how good this place was for a few years,. So we had to try it out. I had a giant sundae, with coconut, white chocolate and banana ice creams. It was good, but even I struggled to eat it! The plan had been to get “galette saussice”, for lunch, but I was so full of ice cream I couldn’t face one, so shared with Owen. For those that don’t know, a “galette saucisse” is a buckwheat pancake wrapped around a sausage. It is a typical Breton street food and one of my favourite lunches in France.

From St Malo we drove an hour along the coast to St Brieuc, where fortunately the weather was better. We were staying with my Mum’s cousin Michel and his wife Collette. We saw them in the UK last year, but it is probably 25 years since I last visited them. I didn’t really remember their house, but it is lovely, with the living areas (and a massive garage, with workshop) downstairs, then the guest bedrooms upstairs. The downstairs is very modern, with each of the guest bedrooms decorated with a different theme. Jen, Owen and I were in the historically themed room, with a Louis XIV wardrobe that Michel restored in his workshop. The wardrobe was an ideal place to hide all of the breakable ornaments from Owen – as it is very much the sort of house that a two year old could cause trouble in! Michel is also a petrolhead and has a lovely classic Simca 1000, that was manufactured in the year he was born, so we did some tyre kicking. Owen liked the “old car” too.

We drove into the centre of St Brieuc for a walk around, then down to the harbour, where the Rosengart car factory used to be. We had a little walk around, looking at the boats and one of the cars made in the factory. On the way back, we stopped at the supermarket to pick up some essentials: milk for Owen, chestnut puree for me and wine for Jen! Owen was disappointed that this supermarket didn’t have a tank of live crabs/lobsters, unlike most other French supermarkets. Michel did a BBQ in the evening – french sausages and merguez (a spicy north African sausage), which was one of the foods we particularly wanted to eat on our trip – result! Michel and Collette are great hosts (they used to run bars), and we had a lovely three course meal, with the sausages/merguez as main course. Owen loved watching the sausages being cooked on the open fire, and wolfed his sausage down. Then stole some of my Mum’s merguez too! We had to break our “no iPad after dinner” rule, as toddlers and extended French meals are not an ideal combination – something I remembered from when I was a little boy. He sat happily on my Mum’s knee playing tractor/digger games whilst the grown ups chatted, mostly in French.

After his late night Owen had a short lie in, and when we got downstairs Michel had just arrived with croissants for breakfast from the local bakery – they were still warm! They were the best croissants I have ever eaten, they were so light. Nothing like the croissants you get in the UK. The bread was amazing too, and this is just from their local neighbourhood bakery. After breakfast we went to the beach at Les Rosaires, as we hadn’t really done anything aimed at Owen and digging holes at the beach is his favourite thing to do. We were there about an hour, Owen made sandcastles, paddled in the sea, explored rock pools and generally had the time of his life! However, we had to leave, as we had to fit in a three course lunch before our afternoon excursion!

Collette made us an amazing lunch – cockles, pot roast pork and raspberry panna cotta – I think they also grew/caught everything in the dinner apart from the pork and the milk! As is the way with French meals, it took a wee while, so we were late leaving for the pink granite cliffs at Ploumanach. The drive took just over an hour and Owen slept for most of it. When he woke up we were in a little seaside town that reminded Jen of Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and me of 17 Mile Drive in California. We had to carry him past the ice cream shop and the beach (“sandpit” in Owen’s words), then up the hill to the pink granite outcrops. He absolutely loved it there! Climbing on the rocks and posing for photos. I also like to think he was taking in the amazing views and wondering what geological and ocean forces were at play to form these amazing rock shapes. As the grown ups were taking their time walking back, I sat Owen on my shoulders and carried him to the beach, to do more digging in the sand. I’m not sure where he learned to do it, but he has taken to using my head like a steering wheel if I’m not walking the way he wants to go. Then if I mention it, he tries to steer me off the path or into something. He is such a cheeky little monkey!

Michel led us back the scenic route to St Brieuc, so it was already past Owen’s bed time when we got back. Collette made him egg and toast for dinner – his favourite. He had also asked for baked beans, not understanding that you don’t really get them in France. As we’d had a large lunch I was expecting a light dinner, but it was a 6 course job, including the aperitif and cheese! Aperitif (nibbles), mackerel pate, mussels, cod in white sauce, cheese and fruit salad! We were all stuffed after that. After his dinner, Owen had perked up a bit and didn’t want to go to bed, he sat quietly on his iPad, until the fruit salad came out. He took a liking to the homegrown blackcurrants, stealing them from my Mum’s bowl, then requesting more from the serving bowl! He actually stayed up later than his grandpa!

French Roadtrip: Day 1 – Normandy

We are in France for a few days visiting my Mum’s family. As we are visiting a few different places we are roadtripping in my BMW – our first proper road trip as a family of three! Our ferry left Portsmouth at 9:00 this morning, so we travelled down to the south coast yesterday.

As I was loading the car Owen asked to sit in the drivers seat, it is one of the few places where he can sit still for ages, so I took advantage. The only problem was that he thought he was going to be driving us down the motorway. He was absolutely gutted when eventually removed him and strapped him into his car seat. He had a proper tired two year old tantrum. Luckily within a few minutes of setting off we saw a tractor, which cheered him up. Then before we even got to the city centre he was asleep!

The journey south was uneventful, we called in at Itchen Valley Country Park in Eastleigh, to let Owen have a run around and stretch his legs. The drive took us two hours and Owen woke up just as we pulled into the park. Owen enjoyed both the playground and the play trail, which had animal themed play equipment dotted around in the woods. It also looked like there was a decent, albeit flat, bike trail, but there wasn’t room for my bike on this trip. Only a few minutes off the motorway it makes a much better stopping point than a service station!

All the fresh air made us hungry, so we tackled the rush hour traffic and drove to Whiteley for dinner. It is a nice little out of town shopping/leisure area, which seemed to cater well for kids with animatronic dinosaurs and sand pits to play in. We ate at Bar + Block, a steakhouse which I think may be coming to Coventry soon. Jen and I enjoyed our steaks, but I’m not sure Owen was too fussed about his – he still has a lot to learn!

In the morning we woke up early and called into McDonalds for breakfast on the way to catch the ferry, on the basis it would be cheaper and probably better than what was on offer on the ferry – we were right! Despite the early start, we only just got to the port in time. It has been well over ten years since I last caught a ferry from Portsmouth (I think it was 2005, when I first had my mk1 MX-5!), but it seemed strangely familiar. Owen was very excited to get on the ferry, looking out of the window at all of the activity on the Solent and waving at the boats.

The crossing wasn’t great, Jen and I don’t really have sea legs – I suppose that is because we live about as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK! Owen didn’t seem too bothered though, wanting to explore the ferry. It was funny watching him wobbling around as the boat pitched and rolled. We were definitely glad to dock at Cherbourg and that we will be coming home on the Chunnel!

The first stop of our trip was a very small village called Gonfreville, where my Mum grew up, to visit her friend Christiane. Gonfreville is about an hour south of Cherbourg, slightly longer with a boulangerie stop for lunch. The French really know how do make a perfect ham and cheese baguette. Jen’s theory is that it is down to the butter, and Normandy butter is supposedly the best in the world. Owen slept the whole way, only waking up when he heard my Mum’s voice, as they had arrived at Christiane’s a few ays before us. The excitement of being on a farm, with rabbits and an excitable dog meant that Owen woke up quickly and was soon practicing his French, by saying “bonjour” to everything!

We worked out it must have been seventeen or eighteen years since I was there, as I remembered Christiane’s granddaughter being about Owen’s age – she’s twenty now! My brother Simon and his wife Sophie also joined us, which made both Owen and Lola, the dog, even more excited. We had a drink, ate some cake and looked at old photos, including one of me as a baby. Owen and Jen thought that was funny. I’ve seen photos of me at around nine months old and I looked exactly like Owen did at that age, but at a few months old we looked nothing alike.

Leaving Christiane’s we had a tour of Gonfreville, my Mum showing us the houses she’d lived in and her old primary school. We drove in convoy to Coutances, which was our overnight stop. Our hotel was on the edge of town, so we dropped our bags and walked into town, down a steep hill and then up the other side. It was hard work in the sun, especially pushing Owen’s pushchair, so our first priority in town was to get an ice cream! Suitably cooled down we had a wonder around town, Owen particularly liked the public gardens, with ponds, a playground and a maze. We also went to see my Mum’s secondary school before walking back down, then up the hill to the hotel. I haven’t been to Coutances for over twenty years, some bits of it seemed familiar, but I’m glad my Mum knew where we were going.

We had a bit of downtime before all meeting for dinner. As is the French way, dinner seemed to last hours, so whilst Owen was well behaved to start with, he was getting grumpier and grumpier as the meal went on. Jen and I both had melon and parma ham to start, chicken tagine for main and apple tart for dessert. All the food was really good, Owen seemed to enjoy his too and seemed keener to try new things than he was in San Sebastian a few months ago.

I didn’t manage to take any photos in Normandy, so the one at the top of the post is of Owen, whilst I was loading the car back in Coventry.

San Sebastián

Jen and I visited San Sebastián on our first holiday together, way back in 2010, when we’d only known each other a few months. It was only a brief stop en route from Biarritz to Bilbao, but we absolutely loved the town and vowed to return. So when our Australian friends, Nicki and Mat, told us they were going to be in Europe for the summer a plan was formed to meet up for a week in San Sebastián.

The run up to our trip was more relaxed than Owen’s first foreign holiday – for a start our airline didn’t go bust a few weeks before we were due to fly! We must have been excited about the trip as we all woke up naturally before the alarm and were even early setting off for the short drive to Birmingham airport! Owen was on his best behaviour, and without any stress or rushing we were on the plane bound for Biarritz. Or at least we thought we were… About half an hour into the flight the captain announced that there was a problem with the plane and that we were on our way back to Birmingham! Fortunately Flybe were pretty good about things and we were back on a spare plane and on our way less than two hours after the announcement. By this time Owen was due for a nap, and managed to fall asleep as soon as the engines had started and slept through the take off and a good chunk of the flight. This second flight was uneventful, Owen was well behaved, as were the large group of school kids we’d spotted at check-in that I’d been dreading having on our flight.

The delay wasn’t really a problem, as Nicki and Mat weren’t due to land until the early evening, so we had less time to hang around in Biarritz. Just enough time to pick up our hire car and pop to the supermarket for some essentials (and a photo with the tank of crabs). I’d never realised that French supermarkets all shared the same smell, but as soon as we walked in, I was taken back to family trips to visit relatives in France as a child.

We returned to the airport to pick up Nicki and Mat, loaded up our Peugeot 5008 hire car and headed for the Spanish border. We took the slightly longer route, avoiding the motorway tolls, but got caught in the rush hour. The Airbnb was easy to find, and our host Laida was waiting outside to guide us into the very tight underground car park. At this point I was slightly regretting not opting for the excess waiver on the hire car…

The flat itself was really nice and was even equipped with some toys for Owen to play with. After unloading the car, we headed out for pintxos (Basque tapas) near the Airbnb. The bar was next to a playground, and all the local kids seemed to be out playing, so it was ideal for Owen to stretch his legs after a whole day of travelling. We all spent a lovely evening catching up.

Nicki and Mat started our first full day in San Sebastian with a run to explore town, whilst Jen and I got Owen ready for the day. After breakfast we went out to explore the city centre, a 15 minute walk down the river from our Airbnb in the Amara area of town. Rather than head into the old town we crossed the last bridge and visited Playa Zurriola Hondartza – the surfing beach. We had planned to just have a look, but Owen really wanted to have a play in the sand and a paddle in the sea! The sea was colder than I was expecting, considering how warm it was on the beach, but it still made me want to go for a surf! After washing the sand off our feet we crossed back over the river and walked round the headland to the aquarium. All the running around on the beach must have tired Owen out, as he fell asleep in the pushchair, only waking up when we stopped outside an ice cream shop. We escaped the midday heat by wandering round the narrow streets of the old town, stopping for a pintxos lunch in a cafe. As we were eating our lunch the ice cream shop next to the cafe opened – so of course we had to get an ice cream for dessert!

From the old town, we walked past the harbour to Playa de la Concha, the main town beach. We hadn’t planned on stopping at that beach either, but Owen really wanted to try out his new bucket and spade, so we had an hour on the beach, digging holes and building sandcastles. The sea was still cold at Playa de La Concha, but unlike the Playa Zurriola Hondartza, it is in a sheltered bay, so the sea was much calmer for swimming. Once again all the excitement of the beach tired Owen out and he was asleep by the time we got back to the Airbnb. We had only popped out for the morning to explore the town, but ended up spending the whole day out! Mat and Jen made a great tapas dinner and we just spent the evening chilling out.

The next morning dawned overcast, however the surf forecast for Zurriola beach was looking good – the best conditions it would be during our stay. So when Nicki and Mat got back from their run, we had breakfast, then went down to the beach. I hired a board and wetsuit from Bluemotion surf shop – they had changing rooms and showers downstairs, which was very useful. The surf conditions were a lot like Croyde at low tide – best described as punchy. I got pummelled a few times, but eventually found a slightly mellower part of the beach and managed to catch a few decent waves. Owen was mostly digging holes on the beach, but did come down to where I was surfing to watch for a little bit.

After surfing, we picked up some supplies for a picnic and took a boat trip around the bay and over to Santa Clara island, which is in the middle of the bay over from Playa De La Concha. We climbed up the hill and had our picnic before exploring the island. It was pretty quiet – I think there were more little seagulls, butterflies and little lizards than people there. We got back to the dock just as the boat was pulling away, so we retired to the cafe, then the beach to wait for the next boat back to San Sebastian. It was late afternoon by the time we got back to the Airbnb, time for a quick shower and nap before heading out for pintxos.

On the way into town we came across a big protest, I assume about the “wolf pack” being released. After some wandering, we found a pintxos restaurant that looked suitably child friendly. It turned out to be a bit strange, but the food was lovely, albeit not as substantial as we were expecting, Owen started to get fed up in the restaurant, so I took him for a walk and checked out the pintxos at nearby bars. I spied some interesting bacon/egg pintxos, so had to take a couple of them for the walk home. These were probably my favourite pintxos of the week. Looking at my iPhone later that evening, I had managed to set an all time steps record of 23,363, beating my previous record which had been set in Las Vegas!

Friday I had a days mountain biking booked with BasqueMTB, which is a whole other blog post!

On Saturday we went to Bilbao, which is just over an hour’s drive from San Sebastian. We started off with a walk along the river, on the opposite bank to the famous Guggenheim museum. We found a playground for Owen, and made our plans. We didn’t think Owen would appreciate the art in the museum, and Jen and I had visited on our previous trip, so Mat and Nicki went off to the museum on their own. We stayed at the playground for a while, then went for a walk around town to try and find somewhere for lunch. Once again lunch seemed a bit confusing, but was very nice. Jen and I ended up with a whole grilled turbot to share, which the waiter filleted for us at the table. It was a bit posher than we were aiming for, but the food was lovely. After lunch, we met Mat and Nicki at the “Puppy” sculpture outside the Guggenheim. We all went for an ice cream, before checking out the sculptures on the outside of the museum, including the new Joana Vasconcelos “Solitaire”, which is a giant engagement ring made from gold alloy wheels and whisky tumblers. Of course the whole building itself is also a work of art!

From Bilbao, we followed the coast road to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, an island hermitage accessed by 241 steps. I’d originally seen it on BasqueMTB’s bike hire page and thought it looked like an interesting place to visit, and it didn’t take much to convince Nicki and Mat either! We were prepared for the 241 steps to climb to the hermitage, but hadn’t been expecting the two kilometre walk down a steep hill to the bottom of the steps. The walk down was hard work, especially in the heat and with Owen in his pushchair. For the climb up to the hermitage and small church, we took Owen out of the pushchair and started off with him on my shoulders. I must have looked like I was struggling a bit, as Mat offered to take him the rest of the way to the top. The church at the top is dedicated to John the Baptist, who allegedly visited back in the day. Our visit was the day before Saint John’s day, when a big pilgrimage had been planned. It is said that ringing the church bell three times will cure you of your ills and ward off evil spirits, so of course, we each had to ring the bell three times! What ringing the bell didn’t do, was make the walk back to the car any easier! Going back down the steps with Owen on my shoulders wasn’t too bad, but the climb back up to the car park was brutal and we were all ready for dinner by the time we got back to the car.

The plan had been to call in at Mundaka, a famous surfing town just down the coast, for some food. However, when we got there the whole town seemed to be out celebrating in the street, so we figured that we would carry on as the restaurants would either be closed, or about to be very busy! We stopped in Guernica instead, a town that Jen had wanted to visit anyway. We walked into town and found somewhere to sit outside for dinner, I went for the speciality, which was a bun-less burger, with peppers. While we were waiting for our food, another protest march came past. I’m not sure if it is just a coincidence, of if they just have a lot of protests in Spain! The food was good, although I spent most of the meal wrangling a wriggly Owen. On the drive back to San Sebastian, we noticed a lot of bonfires burning, which we later learned were related to the festival of San Juan. It was quite a sight seeing the smoke rising from bonfires along the coast.

After spending most of Saturday in the car, we thought we should do something Owen wanted to do on Sunday – so we went down to Playa de La Concha to build sandcastles and play in the sea. It was a lovely warm day, and the beach was already busy by mid-morning, but we managed to find a space to lay our towels. On our previous visit, I’d looked at the pontoons floating in the bay and thought it would have been cool to swim to one of them, so this was my chance! The water was cold at first, but lovely once I was in. I was surprised to see fish swimming close to the bathers, including some fairly big fish. The pontoons were only a few hundred metres from the beach, it was an easy swim. I climbed onto the pontoon, bomb dived in, then swam back to the shore. By the time I got there, the beach looked busier, probably a combination of more people arriving at the beach and the tide coming in. I dug holes and made sandcastles with Owen, then took him down to the sea for a paddle and to look at the fish. Owen didn’t seem too convinced by paddling in the sea, possibly as it was colder than in Cyprus last year. We came back from the beach, with the idea of Owen having a nap, but he was too excited, so it was much later in the afternoon before Owen fell asleep. Jen took the opportunity to head out and explore on her own, whilst I caught up on blogging and had a nap myself. We went out for dinner by the cathedral, calling in at the park on our way home.

After the excitement of the previous evening, Owen had a lie in, so it was already past 11:00, when we set off towards the aquarium. We had been saving the aquarium as a rainy day activity, but we were lucky with the weather all week, so we saved it for the last day, despite the glorious sunshine. It was only a small aquarium, but Owen enjoyed looking at the fish, especially the octopus. From the aquarium we walked into town to hunt down some pintxos for lunch. We were successful – I think we found the best pintxos of the trip in the old town. We followed that up with the best ice cream of the trip at Gelateria Boulevard. I also treated myself to a pair of Havianas flip flops, as with all the walking on this trip my feet had been cut to shreds by my old pair.

Once again we went back to the Airbnb for a siesta. The plan had been to visit the Iguelda theme park, overlooking the town, but Owen was fast asleep and we ran out of time. Instead, we walked along the promenade to the Miramare Palace gardens. The beach was so busy, my theory was that the locals were calling in after work, as the weather was so good. We had a lovely time chilling out in the gardens, watching the world go by. Not getting covered in sand was a result too. We walked back along the beach to town, then to a bar near the Airbnb for drinks and pintxos (and a run around on the playground for Owen).

I am always a bit sad waking up on the last day of a holiday, but also looking forward to getting back to Coventry and all the comforts of home. The trip wasn’t ending for everyone though – Nicki and Mat were moving onto the next stage of their trip! They are running across the Pyrenees, on the GR10 trail. You can follow their blog and be sure to check out Nicki’s San Sebastian post. On our way back to the airport we dropped them off at the start point – in Hendaye, just over the border in France. As we had a bit of time before needing to be at the airport we parked up on the promenade and found a cafe/boulangerie for second breakfast.

The flight back to Birmingham was uneventful, Owen was well behaved and slept for the last hour, including the landing! It was strange getting home and the weather being as nice as it was on holiday. It made me want to go to the beach, then call in at a bar for pintxos, but unfortunately you can’t do that in Coventry – it was only the weather we had brought back from San Sebastián.