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January 2012

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Sunset South Australia, photo from http://wandering-photographer.com

Seeing Australia isn’t not something you can rush. Well you can, you can just come for a few weeks, see the Sydney Harbour Bridge, relax at the beach and head to a theme parks, feed a kangaroo and head home. Which is all fantastic but it’s like trying to see all of the USA in a week – sure you can fit in LA and New York but what about Yosemite and the other amazing national parks, the lakes, the Grand Canyon and the desert? To name just a few.

You can spend a week exploring Australia and have an amazing time, but if you really want to see all the natural beauty of the country you need to think longer. A lot longer. You could spend two years driving around the country and still feel like you haven’t seen everything yet.

We decided to spend four months last year camping around Australia with the hope of seeing most of the east coast, around to Adelaide and up the middle. It only took us a week to realise there was no way we could cover that ground. Each place we visited we wanted to stay longer, see more, enjoy more. Each beach was that beautiful we wanted to stay longer. Each camp site offered more opportunities to get close to wildlife, ride bikes, play and explore. The outback was so stunning as it rolled by we could have driven through it for weeks … probably a good thing as to reach many spots this is exactly what you need to do! The Snowy Mountains in summer … wow we’d move there forever thanks! We ended up covering 1/3 of the distance we originally intended to.

Camping is a great way to bond with your family, but we all need a break every once and a while. If you’re traveling Australia and starting to feel the effects of cabin fever, you should consider getting a hotel at least somewhat frequently. It will give you all some much needed comfort.

That’s probably why there are so many families on long term voyages around Australia. Here’s six of our favourite blogs by families travelling around Australia (plus a few more about to start their travels!)

 

Livin On The Road

Livin On The Road are a family of 6 who have been caravaning their way slowly around Australia for the past two years. I have to admit every time I read about their adventures I get a little jealous. They really know how to enjoy the best of Australia’s outdoors. After the last year in Victoria and South Australia, they’ve just crossed the Nullabor to reach Western Australia. The father, Jarrad, also blogs at Wandering Photographer with some fabulous photos and great family destination suggestions for remote areas you’ve probably never even heard of.

Red Gorge Central Australia, wandering-photographer.com

New Life on the Road

New Life on the Road are a family of six who set off last year to explore Australia … just a little earlier than they had planned after the mother, Lisa, bought a bus off eBay sight unseen without telling her husband. That was just the start of their adventures! If you want to know more about them and why they made their decision to explore Australia in a motor-home, I’d really recommend reading their 17 reasons article. I can really relate to it.

 

Holiday Road

Anyone who can fit 11 people … yes 11 … in a bus, along with two dogs and a bird has our admiration. Holiday Road have been travelling for six years around Australia with no end in sight and still finding new places to explore. I love looking at their photos of places that seem so far away and the kids always look like they are having such a brillant time.

 

Sparkling Adventures

After exploring New Zealand in a converted horse float, Sparkling Adventures are now working their way around Australia. I love reading their insights on life, family and travel. They also seem to have a knack for finding the best spots and outings for children in each location they visit.

 

A-dventure …

After two years exploring every state and territory of Australia, this family of 6 have decided to stop a while in northern Queensland. I’m sure this isn’t the end of their adventures – school and life in a new area, lots of new place to explore and friends to make.

 

Family in a Van

Originally from Australia’s most expensive city, Sydney, we’re not surprised that this family decided to leave their life of working too hard and sacrificing time to make enough money to live in favour of a better quality life altogether. If we were to create an award on Vagabond Family for the coolest mode of family transport, their Combi van would surely be a contender.

 

twelve apostles

 

Leaving soon

A number of other Vagabond Family members are also preparing to set off to explore Australia in the next few months. We’re looking forward to reading about their travels.

 

(Thanks to Wandering-Photographer.com for the first two photographs in this post.)

The Dominican Republic (DR) may not come to mind as an obvious first choice for a Caribbean vacation with children. Compared to the publicity that other places like the Virgin Islands and the Bahamas receive for their renowned diving, snorkeling and beaches, the DR does not seem as flashy. However, for long term travelers, families and those looking for something a little different the DR can be an amazing choice. Interestingly, it is the most visited Caribbean island. Who knew?

If you are seeking an all inclusive resort experience, the DR has plenty of those to offer. But for a real taste of the DR it is entirely possible to get off the beaten track with your family and enjoy a safe and fun low key week (or several) in this tropical paradise.

Unwind in Low Key Las Galeras

At the far end of the Samaná Peninsula in the northeastern corner of the country there is the sleepy little fishing village of Las Galeras, literally located at the end of the road.

Las Galeras is a wonderful place to rest tired traveling bones and to do not much of anything. Of course the children won’t want to slow down and they’ll be able to burn some energy chasing after plentiful and speedy geckos that hide in every nook and cranny. If they are persistent they will eventually catch one and they’ll be thrilled beyond belief at their luck.

There are plenty of wonderful beaches to choose from where the water is calm, warm and gentle enough for swimming. Also, the white sand is perfect for building monster castles.

La Playita, or “the little beach” is a wonderful scenic 30 min walk on a small one lane gravel road out of town and one of the best in the area. The beach is a serene, beautiful spot where the kids can safely splash in the gentle waves while the parents relax close by with a nice cold drink in hand. There is a simple Dominican restaurant right on the beach that serves fresh whole grilled fish and traditional rice, beans and fried plantains. Wash it all down with tasty young coconut water. The kids will watch wide eyed while the local chef skillfully hacks the coconut open with several swipes from a large machete right before their eyes.

Near Las Galeras is also the scenic beach of Playa Rincón which is most easily accessed by boat. It’s a lovely quiet spot to spend a day and a 15 minute boat ride adds to the fun.

For something different, you can organize a horseback riding excursion to the remote beaches of Playa Fronton or Playa Madama. Karin from La Rancheta is highly recommended for her responsiveness and kid friendly trips. The trail to the beach is rocky so the horses must go slow and they are gentle enough even for small riders.

When you want a break from the beach, wander over to Grand Paradise Samaná – the unobtrusive all inclusive resort that is only a 10 minute walk along a beach trail from the town of Las Galeras. This sort of place may not be up the alley of many long term budget travelers but the kid’s pool is fantastic! There is also a playground and you can get a day pass which includes meals and drinks where the whole family can easily enjoy several hours or all day. The beach is very nice as well.

During the months of January to March, the Samaná Peninsula comes alive with the arrival of the migrating humpback whales. Tours are plentiful and can be arranged from just about anywhere on the peninsula.

Head to the Hills

When at last you do tire of the sun, surf and sand it’s time to head to the mountains. La Cordillera Central is a formidable range and is home to Pico Duarte. At a surprising 3,087 meters, it is the tallest peak in the Caribbean. Independent hiking is difficult here as there is not a well developed trail network. But there are plenty of opportunities to explore the lush tropical mountains and to go out and enjoy some of what nature has to offer.

Just outside the town of Jarabacoa, Rancho Baiguate is locally owned and is the leading company providing adventure excursions in the area; white water rafting, climbing, canyoneering, horseback riding, etc. It is also a wonderful lodge to spend a few days at because of their sprawling grounds and many family focused activities. In fact, there’s so much for kids to do here you may never leave the property.

On the grounds there is a nice swimming pool, a pond where you can fish using a traditional cane pole and a mariposario or butterfly garden where you can join an informative guided tour – all of this free of charge. Additionally, there is a small playground, parakeets to admire and ping pong and pool tables to while away the hours.

If the kids are too young for whitewater rafting or canyoneering, a nice alternative that includes water is a day trip by horseback or jeep to the local waterfalls.

Exhilarating Cabarete

On the north coast, Cabarete is the self proclaimed water sports adventure capitol of the country. At first glance it does not appear to be a very kid friendly destination. Most wee ones are not quite ready to don kitesurfing gear and hit the frothy water. Waves can be big and swimming is not the best. But here’s why you should at least consider it.

Cabarete’s beach scene is really fun. Kids love watching the kite surfers jump, flip and fly and it’s the perfect place for families who have been together 24/7 for a long time. The restaurants on the beach are superb and parents can actually sit and enjoy a cocktail and a meal while the kids play in the sand only a few feet but worlds away.

For little ones who know how to swim, Ali’s Surf Camp offers kid’s surf lessons at Playa Encuentro in a calm shallow area. Even beginning swimmers can participate.

Playa Sosua is a short bus ride away and is one of the best swimming beaches on the north coast. Calm teal blue waters, beach side restaurants, a fun family vibe and all the trinket shops you need to purchase those Dominican souvenirs.

The Caves at El Choco National Park just outside of town are a nice break from the beach and a good way to spend a day. You must hire a guide in town to enter the park and you can visit one or several of the great fresh water swimming caves on horseback or on foot.

Ocean World Adventure Park, near Puerto Plata is easily reachable for a day trip from Cabarete. Though a bit on the pricey side, it is a world class facility that will surely thrill kids and adults alike. A day pass will give you the opportunity to snorkel in the tropical reef aquarium, learn about marine mammals, feed exotic tropical birds, meet tigers, walk through a tropical rain forest, observe a dolphin, shark, sea lion or tropical bird show and swim in a pool with a water slide. For an additional fee you can also swim with the dolphins, sting rays and sharks or be a trainer for a day.

Safety – Things to Consider

Overall the Dominican Republic is a safe place for families to travel. However, like most places, there are a few things worth noting before you go.

Tap water is not safe to drink but water in restaurants and hotels is generally safe as the vast majority of people in the country get purified water in 5 gallon jugs. If you are staying in place that does not provide drinking water, the refillable 5 gallon jugs are readily available at supermarkets and colmados for about 20 pesos (50¢ US) plus a refundable deposit.

The biggest safety concern is transportation. Large comfortable buses operated by several companies (the most prominent one being Caribe Tours) have various routes that cover the distances between most larger cities. These buses have on board bathrooms. From there the options, though plentiful, have varying levels of comfort and safety.

You can always get a taxi, though this option gets pricey fast. The local “gua-guas” are much more economical small minivans designed to seat 12 people – but usually carry 20 or more. Unfortunately, the vehicles are likely to be in poor condition and sometimes the sliding door will even be wired open. Seat belts are unheard of and car seats are non existent.

Motoconchos are another popular way to get around short distances in town. These are motorcycles that carry passengers on the back. When we first arrived we stared wide eyed, mouth open at these things. The most outrageous was a man with a toddler seated in front of him, holding a propane tank and somehow still steering. Behind him was a woman cradling an infant. Phew. In Las Galeras where there is relatively little traffic we did give in to the temptation of this thrilling form of transportation. It probably goes without saying – the kids loved it.

In Cabarete though, the roads and traffic were much more dangerous and it was just too risky. You’ll obviously need to decide for yourself but if you do choose to “go local”, good luck getting the kids back into car seats and seat belts when you return home. I’m not looking forward to this myself!

For the Mama’s out there, you’ll find great benefit in having your kids in tow in the Dominican Republic. While mostly harmless there is quite a culture of machismo and on the rare occasion I left our cabina without a kid, I was hassled with whistles, winks and kissy faces galore. When I had the kids with me though, men of all ages were just as polite and helpful as could be. The moral of the story is… don’t leave home without ’em.

Helpful Links

Horseback riding trips in Las Galeras:
www.larancheta.com

Two recommended lodging options in Las Galeras:
www.la-isleta.com
www.casadoradodr.com/index.php

In Jarabacoa:
www.grupobaiguate.com

Surf lessons and lodging in Cabarete:
www.alissurfcamp.com

Ocean World:
www.oceanworld.net

Good transportation information:
www.hispaniola.com/dominican_republic/info/transportation.php

General DR info and forum to post questions:
www.dr1.com

Our blog with several Dominican entries:
www.lustingforwander.wordpress.com

If you’ve looked into the possibility of visiting Hawaii in the past, only to let out a deep sigh when the costs present themselves; it may be time to give it another shot. Too long have the prospects of Hawaii vacations been crippled by the idea that in order to enjoy the islands, you need to take out a second mortgage and cash in your life savings. With a bit of planning, a sense of adventure, and an open mind, you can forge unforgettable Hawaiian memories on a budget that you’ll be able to manage!

Staying Central Is Key

While Honolulu is a favorite for tourists looking to spend big, its vast layout and myriad activities means opportunities for fun at a reduced cost as well. The capital city features plenty to take in, and many of the most popular attractions are extremely budget-friendly.

  1. Grab a bus out to Pearl Harbor, where the USS Arizona Memorial and Museum offers a reverent tribute to those who fell in 1941 completely free of charge.
  2. For one measly buck, take a hike up to the peak of Diamond Head crater for unparalleled views of the Pacific and the rest of the island.
  3. The first Friday of the month in Honolulu brings people out to Chinatown to showcase the unique culture of Hawaii. You’ll be surrounded by art, music, and a load of fantastic restaurants that you can enjoy.

Explore the Corners of the Island by Bus

If you’d like to get out of the city for the day, the bus service on the Island is a cheap and easy way to do so. If you’d like to feel the smooth sand of Kailua between your toes, or are hoping to watch some surfers brave the waves of North Shore, the bus routes are comprehensive and can deliver you to a number of places worth exploring. Once you’re there, find some local shops that will allow you to taste the flavor of Hawaii, like some coconut ice cream!

Natural Beauty is Endless (and Free)

People come to Hawaii for relaxation brought on by sights, sounds, and smells. For the budget-conscious traveler, serenity (and a tan) is easily achieved without spending a dime. The world famous Waikiki Beach is easily accessible, as are other flawless stretches of shore to the North and South should you care to go for a bit of a walk.

With luxurious, and more importantly, affordable Oahu hotels awaiting you, and the famous natural beauty that is free for all to enjoy, you won’t pay a premium to soak in the rays. A bit of preparation and research will reveal that Hawaii features an endless amount to do without the expensive frills.

“Why? Why are you going to Europe in winter? Are you insane?”

That was the common response when we started telling people we had decided to spend three months in Eastern Europe and south-eastern Europe in winter.

The answer? Well … yes it’s possible we are insane. You’ll probably notice that it’s really only crazy Australians or people from countries that never experience true winter that think heading to somewhere cold “just for the fun of it” is a great idea.

But we’ve discovered that there are a lot of reasons why travelling through Eastern Europe in winter was actually a great idea.

There is no bad time to go to Europe!

Let’s face it, Europe is amazing no matter the weather. The history, the museums and gallery’s, the different cultures, the people, the food, the landscape: these are all wonderful no matter the time of year. Eastern Europe and south-eastern Europe is a fascinating blend of cultures with a rich history spanning thousands of years.

There is no bad time to travel in Europe with kids.

Belgrade Fortress

Winter in southern Eastern Europe, along with Greece and Turkey, is about as mild as it gets in Europe, well except for Spain. That was one of our primary reasons for spending our time here over say Germany and France. The bulk of the days that we’ve struck have been sunny and wonderful. It doesn’t get as dark as early here as the rest of Europe in winter so there’s plenty of daylight hours to explore outside on a nice day.

Obviously your family travel experiences are going to be different in winter than in summer because of the weather. Spending all day everyday picnicking in parks is mostly out but that’s OK. You can overdose on museums when the weather turns bad.

And once it starts to snow the castles and historical cities are in many ways more beautiful than in summer. There’s something special about traipsing around the ruins of a 1000 year old castle in the snow that you’d just miss out on experiencing if you were there in summer.

Tsarevets

It’s still Europe, it’s still amazing regardless of whether it’s hot and sunny or snowy and cold! It’s still magical and a fantastic family travel experience.

Accommodation is even cheaper than usual

Family accommodation in many areas of Eastern Europe, particularly the Balkans, is inexpensive. But in winter it can be even cheaper.

Most hostels and hotels are quiet during winter so you can get fantastic discounts, particularly if you are staying more than three nights and ask for a discount.

On average we’ve paid 25% less per night on accommodation than we would have in summer in Eastern Europe. In summer holiday towns you can also rent apartments on monthly basis for a fraction of the cost of their summer rates.

Three months ago if someone had of told me that a holiday in Eastern Europe could be as cheap as South East Asia I would never have believed them. But we’ve discovered that if you choose the right country, watch your budget, stay in places that include breakfast and don’t overspend on accommodation, many regions of Eastern Europe can make for very cheap family holidays during winter.

In Greece we saved even more – probably a good thing as Greece is actually one the most expensive countries we’ve visited (we found it actually easier to do the UK on a budget than Greece). We paid 40 euros for a triple room with breakfast in Athens that is normally advertised at 80 euros. In both Greece and Turkey you can get some fantastic monthly rental deals in locations like the Greek Islands or Turkish summer resort towns that you’d probably never be able to afford in summer as a long term traveller. Sure you won’t be swimming in the Aegean but these regions are still gorgeous.

It’s quiet

Quiet is wonderful.

Tourist attractions are less crowded. We’ve had museums to ourselves. Many major attractions like the Acropolis had a fraction of the number of visitors. We have fantastic photos of these sites with no people in the picture at all. I can’t imagine getting these shots in summer.

Parthenon

We often stay in hostels to save on accommodation and meet people. But a busy hostel can hard at times with young kids that don’t have a noise volume. That’s where winter comes in – hostels are generally quiet. There are usually just enough guests for you to talk to but otherwise you have the place to yourself. And if you are lucky you might strike a few nights with the place entirely to yourself and the staff. That can be a great chance to chat to locals and learn more about the region you are staying in.

Restaurants are also incredibly quiet. Empty restaurants are wonderful when you have children. No need to worry about the kids making too much noise and disturbing other guests when you have restaurants to yourself almost every night.

Most buses and trains that we’ve caught have only been half full. Every train we’ve caught we’ve had 6 berth cabins to ourselves and spare seats galore on buses. Since it’s quiet there’s generally no need to book buses and trains in advance. The same day is usually fine. That’s perfect if you are as rubbish at planning ahead as we are.

The education and fun of winter

If your children have grown up in warmer countries like ours have, winter is a wonderland of fun and educational opportunities. Watching puddles and streams freeze over successive days is a great way to talk about temperature and changes of state. They’re also fun to walk on and break. Forget about getting anywhere quickly, a simple walk down the street is going to take forever with all these puddles to crush. 

Playing in snow for the first time is guaranteed to keep the kids occupied for days as they explore and learn about all the fun of snow. Not to mention watching icicles form and doing your own experiments as a science lesson. Or how about doing a unit of art based on seeing the landscape transform over night from brown plowed fields to white landscapes. Even simple things like learning to put on gloves and tie up boots. And then there’s the whole topic of the seasons and talking about why it’s summer on one side of the world and winter here, why the sun sets so early.

Velikotarnovo

Even if your children are used to a snowy winter, travelling around Eastern Europe over the holiday period is a wonderful chance to learn about how different cultures celebrate Christmas. Christmas markets, special Christmas foods, the variations in the dates that Christmas is actually observed even in a very small region …  the kids (and us) have learned so much about how different cultures celebrate Christmas.

Enjoy a ‘budget’ family ski trip

Skiing in Eastern Europe is a lot LOT cheaper than the rest of Europe. Accommodation, lift passes, equipment hire, restaurants, ski lessons … everything is a lot cheaper.

We’re currently staying at Bulgaria’s most expensive ski resort (it’s the most expensive but it also has the best facilities), Bansko. Hiring ski equipment is as little as 5 euros per day for children. Two 2 hour group lessons – less than 45 euros at the most highly respected ski school. Lift passes are 28 euros per day. And of course all these prices drop significantly if you take out 3-6 day hire/tickets. And remember Bansko is an expensive ski resort!

 

So there you have it!

We’ve loved the past few months in Eastern Europe and south-eastern Europe. When we first started planning our trip we were lamenting the fact that we couldn’t experience summer in this region as well. Now we’re looking forward to coming back to experience another winter and hopefully stay for summer. Everything about this region has exceeded our expectations. Perhaps we’d enjoy summer here more but I can definitely say we’ve enoyed our here NOT despite of the weather but BECAUSE of the weather!