Giant balls of steel, and a European Odyssey – review of the Atomium and Mini Europe in Brussels

 

As we prepared for our Brussels visit I kept coming across images of this massive strange looking giant atom structure. At 102m tall, this atom is magnified to 165 billion times the size of an iron crystal. Constructed out of 24,000 tonnes of steel, the nine spheres house a range of different functions. The Atomium is an imposing and intriguing structure on the outskirts of Brussels. 

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Atomium in Brussels

Not quite as high as our summer visit to the Burj Khalifa,  but with specular views nonetheless across the city of Brussels and wider Belgian countryside. We took the lift (once the fastest lift in Europe) straight to the top to see the 360 degree view. Hard to believe that this time last year Miss 11 was pretty terrified of heights. The ‘exposure therapy’ at the top of the Empire State Building last Halloween has worked its magic, as without a blink she looked out at the beautiful views across the area. It felt surreal to gaze below at these balls of steel with the sun reflecting off them. 

A number of the spheres house an interactive museum on the history of the creation. Initially built for the 1958 World Expo, the first one after the World War,  but so loved by the Belgian people that it has become a permanent feature in the Brussels landscape the Atomium feels a bit like a national treasure.

Connecting each sphere is a total of twenty tubes, some with light filled elevators that make you feel you are blasting off to the moon on a futuristic space trip.

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Other spheres host temporary art galleries and we were invited to the opening weekend of the Bruegel- a poetic experience. This immersive and interactive exhibition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel, the famous Renaissance painter.  We enjoyed exploring his paintings feeling like we were part of the oversized images. The temporary exhibition is open until September 2020, check it out if you are in the area. 

 

Miss 11’s favourite ball was the mini spheres within a sphere that allow school groups to come and stay for a night in the little sleeping pods.  She loved that idea, and thought it a good one for a school trip.

 

An unusual afternoon, but one that is worth a visit if you are visiting Brussels, it is incredible to see the scale and size of the Atomium. 

 

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Next door, is Mini Europe, an opportunity to travel around all of Europe in a few hours.  What more could a wanderlust like me and Miss 11 want? Spending our time reflecting on the adventures we have taken, and where next to explore in Europe. 

Mini Europe is a miniature homage to the 27 countries that make up the European Union at a scale of 1/25 the size of buildings. We loved it, if you like the miniland in Legoland this will be a perfect location.  It is educational as well as entertaining, and the adults seemed to be enjoying it as much as the children, sometimes more so with the miniature trains, planes, and automobiles. A family attraction in many ways. 

It opened in 1989, and has been added to over the years as the EU has expanded, now with 350 models. There is something to represent every country, no matter how small. We travelled through Belgium, explored the Brussels we had seen in our walking tour the day previous in miniature form, visited Denmark, Sweden, and checked out where we had recently been in Amsterdam.

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Crossing over water, we arrived at the United Kingdom, visiting the Houses of Parliament complete with placard waving Brexiters, both for and against!

A brief visit to Ireland, and we continued on through France, Spain and Portugal. As we wandered through Italy, Miss 11 began to plan future holidays, before experiencing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on a vibrating platform. We made our way to Eastern Europe, and I remembered that Athens is high on my bucket list! 

 

At the end of the visit, the indoor ‘Spirit of Europe’ exhibition provides interactive quizzes where you can test your European knowledge (vastly growing in this trip with our visit to the EU headquarters),  learn more about the history of the European Union and take part in the big screen movement game. It is an educational and fun visit for all the family.

Both locations are situated right beside each other at the Bruparck area of Brussels,  just beside line 6 on the metro at Heysel/ Heizel, our Brussels card (kindly gifted) took us right there. We were invited by Atomium, but paid for tickets with Mini Europe ourselves. There are options to buy a combined ticket for both locations and save yourself a few Euro. There’s a nice park right beside, a waterpark, and cinemas – a perfect location to spend a day. 

 

We were kindly hosted by the Atomium to visit, and were gifted a Brussels Card for museum and transport access during our weekend trip. 

A Chocolate Trail – walking tour of Brussels

The capital of Belgium may be known as the Capital of Europe, but it is also, at least as far as most chocolate aficionados are concerned, the World Capital of Chocolate. Ever since the praline was invented here over 100 years ago, the city has been at the forefront of the chocolate business. There are a million residents and some 500 chocolatiers, about one chocolatier for every 2,000 people, that’s a good ratio in my mind. The average Belgian consumes over 15 pounds of chocolate each year, one of the highest rates in the world, but they will be the first to tell you it is about quality not quantity.

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Over recent years, I’ve become a big fan of the city walking tour experience, especially if we only have a small window of time in a city. It’s a great way to get your bearings, and make markers of the places you want to spend more time. Gaining insight from a local is priceless too and I feel we get some great tips and suggestions so try to do them quickly after we arrive. I do however have not so pleasant memories when I was marched around Prague with my family in my teenage years for about 5 hours without a break, with my sugar levels dropping I was a shaky mess. (A situation the lovely siblings reminded me of for many a year). The promise of chocolate meant that no such a disaster would befall us. Home to fantastic beer, waffles, fries and famously chocolate you are never more than a few steps from some wonderful sustenance within Brussels. 

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Ready for some serious chocolate tasting

The Chocolate Walking Tour with Brussels Walking Tours promised great things to me and Miss 11 who was celebrating her birthday with a weekend furlong to the Belgian city. Up early and ready to walk, we meet our charming guide, Karla, in the UNESCO protected square, the stunning Grand Place, or Grote Markt. Outside the world’s first Godiva chocolate store we were ready for a taste, sight and sound adventure across the city gaining great insights into Brussels life. 

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Brussels Town Hall

We didn’t linger long — there was chocolate to be eaten, after all. As the only two guests on this morning adventure we were ready to go. 

Some history of the Grand Place to begin, we saw all the stallholders setting hope for the Festival of Folklore that would run all weekend. It was a busy hive of activity. We learnt the legend that the architect of the magnificent town hall was so disturbed when it was pointed out to him that the left and right side were not equal that he threw himself from the top. Legends abounding, under the eye, of St Michael with the slain dragon at his feet we headed off to explore Brussels chocolately goodness. 

Our first stop was at Corné, a pastissier turned chocolatier in one of Brussels’ grandest shopping arcades, of Royal standard nonetheless. Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is an exquisite shopping mall, full of cafes, chocolate shops and much more, with many windows to peruse. Eyeing up the range of chocolates, we were told of the differences between white, milk and dark and begin to learn about the amazing cocoa bean. We commenced with a delectable white chocolate Manon blanc- packed full of vanilla cream and hazelnut on top. Delicious, apparently we were starting at the lower end and the quality would rise as the tour went on. Hard to believe! 

A few more steps down the exquisite shopping gallery, we came to Neuhaus, a pharmacist turned chocolatier. Apparently, Jean Neuhaus covered his medicines with a fine layer of chocolate, the early design of a praline . We learnt how pharmacies all have something sweet still across the city. I guess it helps the medicine go down – Mary Poppins had it right after all. 

Feeling a bit like Willy Wonka, we perused the range of chocolates in a variety of shops, tasting a range of samples as we went. Chocopolis, didn’t quite have the grand names of many other shops, but it was home to delicious mango flavoured chocolate. Here began our education into the production of chocolate, seeing the cocoa beans in action, and watching a short video on the production process- a world wide affair, with beans picked in South America, making there way to Amsterdam for roasting before coming to Belgium.

Another spike in the sugar levels, and on we walked, past a few bouncer manned doors, with the beats still pumping people were going to the party at 10am! I don’t think I would have ever managed that in my more youthful days. As we walked there was plenty of time to ask Karla all about the history of Belgium, we learnt about the two main languages – Flemish Dutch and French and the development and history of these. We learnt all about the painting and art on walls, and a range of museums as we went (some notes made for our further plans over the days ahead). 

 

Miss 11’s legs were starting to tire slightly, but we were ready for a pause of the choco-botique browsing for a immersive hands on chocolate making workshop. We arrived at the tour headquarters, took our seats at a long table covered in many goodies – chocolate, fruit, nuts, spices, and more, ready to be given a lesson in chocolate making. Welcoming the coffee, and the delicious hot chocolate , we listened intently as Karla began to introduce us to a range of different chocolates.

Next was over to us, we began to craft our own chocolate buttons and decorate them with a range of toppings. We met Mia, a chocolate expert, who demonstrated how to make pralines, and then we were able to create some wonders too. It was tricker than the experts made it look.

Mia created a spectacular chocolate birthday surprise (and didn’t forget the other two little adventurers back in Ireland who were delighted with the bags of chocolate!) and Miss 11 followed the Belgian custom of standing on a chair to have happy birthday sang to her. A birthday to remember indeed! 

 

And soon we were back on the streets, pounding the pavement in search of the most irresistible chocolate Belgium has to offer. I found it hard to believe that we were likely to top the morning so far, but onwards we continued. Unsurprisingly, we passed the Manneken Pis, and he was clothed in a Spanish number to celebrate the Folkore festival ongoing in the centre.

The next location really was a wonder, home to naturally pink chocolate. Yes, you’ve read that right, not artificially induced, but a product of the pink cocoa bean- ruby chocolate. A lighter taste, slightly berry like, ruby chocolate tasted sweet yet sour. The new fourth chocolate type apparently after dark, white and chocolate. Also home to delicious macaroons, our sugar high was certainly high as we continued on from BS40 on Butter Street (even the street names are food related!)

Onward exploring the streets of central Brussels, gaining many a recommendation for museum, restaurant and bar visits. We had a brief stop at an old bar and learn about the Monks beers (more of that in a separate post!) We arrived at Elisabeths, a flower covered  boutique shop full of more delectable chocolates (some even in the questionable style of our friend Manneken Pis). Priding themselves in promoting the artisan chocolates, Elisabeth will have chocolatiers featured every week, we enjoyed some rose and raspberry infused delicacies.

All too soon, we ended back were we started in the Grand Place at Mary’s. Mary’s is a delectable high end shop, home of the Royal Belgian chocolates. These pralines are made daily, so you are getting the freshest of the freshest. I feasted on a champagne filled wonder , while Miss 11 enjoyed the chocolate truffle.

Delicious and a perfect end to our morning with the wonderful Karla. Not only had my taste buds been on a sensory journey, our minds and bodies too as we took in the sights, sounds and learnt the history of Brussels and wider Belgium. Karla and I found some commonality in our study and work areas which provided wonderful conversation. I’d strongly recommend a Chocolate Walking Tour with Brussels Walking Tour. It’s the perfect way to experience all Brussels has to offer, and leaves you equipped for how to spend the rest of your time there, along with tasting and learning about the chocolate history.  They also offer a range of other tours  including  beer and food, culinarily, myths and legends, and sightseeing. If the chocolate one is anything to go by, they will be a wonderful, unique and special occasion. Go for it!

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Thank you to Brussels Walking Tour for the complimentary tour. We had a wonderful time, a perfect birthday treat for little miss. 

Turtle discovery – spending a night on the eco reserve in Ras al Jinz, Oman

We’ve been practising quiet voices for months, not very successfully for some of the smaller members of our adventure crew. It wasn’t just to generally keep the volume down (that would be an added bonus), but in preparation for our adventure to see the turtles near Sur in the Gulf of Oman. When researching Oman as a possible holiday destination I had discovered that they have a protected area of beach where a number of species of turtles including the Green Turtle and Loggerhead turtles come and lay their eggs and return to the ocean. Most days of the year a turtle can be found, however July is turtle season. Both in terms of the Mummy turtles laying their eggs and the babies hatching and making their journey to the ocean. Our quiet voice practice was in anticipation of being lucky enough to do a beach walk and see a turtle. I had some concerns that this little adventure crew would disrupt the annual breeding of this protected species. I need not have worried, the wonderment on the children’s faces when they witnessed the incredible sight of a Mummy turtle laying her eggs in the darkness of night and returning to her ocean home the next morning ensured the quietest of whispers.

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Wonderment

Situated on the coast, near the city of of Sur, Ras al Jinz Turtle reserve is a functioning research centre that seeks to protect the turtles and educate people on how vulnerable the population is.

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Three excited adventurers about their journey ahead

Turtles don’t come on the beach during the day due to the heat of the sun. So you need to either join one of the guided tours around 8/9pm at night (check with the reserve on their timings). Or if you stay over you get to do the night time guided walk and an exclusive sunrise walk only for those resident in the facility.

Leaving the Muscat area we travelled for around 2.5 hours (plus a stop in the marvellous Burham Sinkhole) down the coastline to an area called Sur. The mountainous landscape transformed to sandy desert areas into a raised coral reef with crystal clear blue waters along the coast.

Upon arrival at Ras al Jinz, we checked in and experienced a fast speed golf buggy up to our tented home for the evening. Beautifully kitted out with two glorious king sized beds, an air conditioning unit, and adjoining full bathroom with hot water, we were able to relax. Within the complex there were 12 similar tents situated on a cliff above the beach. There are hotel rooms within the research facility as well.

After unpacking, we headed back to the main centre to visit the educational museum that informed us all about turtles, their species and the perils that they experience. With handy audio guides the children were engaged in listening to all the information shared. At the end of the museum there was a little tank, with a tiny turtle that had got lost on his journey to sea, swimming there – he was going to be returned to the sea following sunset that evening. The children were enthralled with him or her, delighted that we had already seen our first turtle. There was a small additional charge for the museum visit. It was a little run down in places, but there was plenty of information and well pitched for the children.

We had time to sample the buffet on site, before preparing for our first accompanied walk in darkness to see if there were any turtles. Some external visitors joined this trip, however we were divided into on-site guests and others. On-site do seem to get priority access, remember your room key as it’s the access to the reserve instead of the ticket.

Following a briefing, about the need to be quiet and not using flashes on cameras due to the impact of confusing the turtle. Our guide led the 10 minute stony route walk to the beach, and as our eyes adjusted to the starry seascape, we began to see a number of turtles working away, digging their holes and preparing to lay their eggs. At first, I thought there was one, but quickly realised that there were numerous stretching across the beach. Incredible.

The guides ensured that visitors paid attention to the guidelines and were particularly keen to make sure that the children had a good view and knew what was happening. In the darkness, the guides used some red lights (not as harsh as the white light) and explained the behaviours of the turtles. There were two groups and it was carefully managed so that people were quiet, respectful and not shining lights. There’s no flash photography allowed and of course there were one or two who used it despite the guidelines. I was pleased to see that their phones were confiscated by the guides. In some of the reviews I had been concerned about too many people and not well managed. That was not the case for us at all.

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A mummy turtle working on digging her hole

We learnt that the turtles come on shore, and dig a large hole of around 3 metres. First we saw a turtle working on her hole, spraying sand around us she dug until she had created a large circle of around 2 meters. Next they dig down deep to create an egg cavity, a smaller little nest to lay their eggs.

 

Quietly the guide called us over in small groups and shone his torch through the darkness. Incredibly, we witnessed a turtle laying her eggs into the cavity. Up to 100 can be laid in a small amount of time. Glisining in the moonlight, the brilliant white eggs were carefully covered by the mother turtle. Burying them deep, she then set to work, creating a second hole a few metres in front of this one. This is the ‘fake hole’, amazingly it is a distraction for predators, hoping that the foxes dig in the wrong place.

There are a wide number of predators including birds and foxes, not to mention the possibility of humans trying to take the eggs hence the protection in the eco reserve. The researchers told us that only 2 or 3 out of each 1000 eggs successfully hatch and make it to the ocean. Incredibly low statistics of survival.

 

The sex of the baby turtles depends on the temperature of the sand. If the eggs incubate at temperatures of 27.7 degrees Celsius and below then the babies will be male and if above 31 degrees Celsius then they will be female. If the incubation happens in between these then some may be male and some female. Suddenly we were able to realise the crisis that is climate change even more – there will be even less male turtles.

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As we looked around the beach, in the reflection of the stars on the sea, we could see countless shapes of turtles working away on the beach. Tired, but with our minds alive of the wonder of it all, we returned to our tent and straight to sleep for a few hours, before rising at 4am for a sunrise adventure.

 

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Three tired little people ready for the morning adventure

 

This guided walk was only open to hotel guests, so at 4.20am with the day beginning to appear on the horizon, a more select number of us made our way back to the beach. It was a little colder, and very peaceful as the bleary eyed small group returned down the stony path. In the pre-sunrise brightness, it becomes quickly apparent just how many turtles had been working all night at the beach. We could also see the marks of the predators widespread with foxes footprints galore.

First we were brought over to watch one turtle dig her way out of the hole she was in. It was incredibly slow work, moving the sand to get over the ridge and return to the ocean. She looked exhausted, flapping the sand out of her way. I was struck by the sheer size of her as she looked me in the eye as she worked away. Suddenly with a few powerful movements she made it over the edge and started on a much quicker descent down the beach to the sea. With the powerful movements, she made it rhythmically down before the only remaining sight was her taking a few breathes before she dived into the Ocean deep.

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That is the last time that Mummy turtles do anything with their offspring. Job done – imagine that! When the little babies hatch they make their perilous journey across the beach and into the ocean running the high number of risks along the way. As we stood, watching other turtles appearing out of their nesting holes and making their way down the beach in awe, the researcher called us over, to see a baby turtle on his or her way. I had thought it was a difficult journey for the Mum, but then I saw this little thing with incredibly fast moving flippers working hard down the beach. He even fell into a footprint one of us had left behind and it took a lot of work to get back out again. Birds circled, but with humans watching they didn’t come near. How easily disoriented these little guys could be at night. We named him Lucky, and he made it to the waters edge. A wave came in and suddenly he was upside down, he righted himself and off he went on his lifetime adventure.

 

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Incredibly, the researchers told us that they have put trackers on many turtles over the years and learnt that they travel wide, they have picked up Omani beach turtles off the coast of Australia, around the Malaysian coastline and towards America too. When they reach around 37-40 years old and are ready to have their own babies, they come back to their beach of birth to lay eggs. Isn’t nature amazing?

 

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We stayed and watched the rise of the sun, all amazed in the wonderment of what we had witnessed. Three little minds exploding with all the information they had learned, and determined to do things diffierenlty when we get home to keep their oceans cleaner and work at stopping the rapid pace of climate change. When it was time to leave the beach, we reluctantly wandered up to the reserve, now that it was fully light, we realise that there were many little baby turtles who hadn’t made on their journey, either their eggs had been opened by predators, or one little guy seemed to go in the wrong direction and when the sun came up he didn’t survive. Cue tears from little middle adventurers, devastated to see the reality of the dangers and adversity they experience. I wonder, in many years to come whether she will be there rescuing the little turtles and ensuring they make it to their destination?

 

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We arrived back for a well needed buffet breakfast, and began to contemplate the amazing sights we had witnessed. I’m not normally emotional about much, but as we reflected on our morning and previous evening activities I was struck by the incredible planet we live on and how nature works. I’d really recommend this experience if you ever go to Oman. It was one of those unforgettable and ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences that I’m sure the children will remember for a long time. I’d really encourage you if you go to Dubai, to take the adventure, go a bit further, explore Oman and get to visit the turtles. Let us know if you make it that way!

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We booked through booking.com although you can book directly and do chose one of the tents (well worth a few quid extra in my opinion) and booking was inclusive of the two tours on the beach and a lovely buffet breakfast afterwards. Prices are between £160-300 for the night depending on party size and time of year.

 

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Arabian nights- Camping in the desert with kids.

Travelling towards the desert area during our Oman road trip, suddenly the landscape seemed cloudy and overcast with poor visibility. From inside the car looking out it felt cooler, however the temperature gauge was increasing steadily. The wind picked up slightly and we realised that the cloud was indeed sand. We were in a sandstorm.  Thankfully not a big or long lived one, but amazing to see how the whole sky transforms. 

Our desert adventure began on the petrol station forecourt,  as all good adventures do, learning how to deflate your tyres before driving across sand dunes. A necessary step to ensure we did not get stuck en route. We met some fellow explorers on the way to our camp so set off in tandem or perhaps in caravan is the way to describe. Much like driving in snow, Daddy the driver declared. Though I’m not sure how much we take that seriously since he also declared upon arrival at our camp that, and I quote, ‘there’s more sand in the desert than I expected’. Hmmm the Geography degree may need revisited. 

Anyway we journeyed first through what seems like a sandy road but then quickly were directed up a steep sand dune and off road we went. This is why I hired the 4WD. There would be no chance without it, you would be stuck. A 14km journey took about 30 mins through the spectacular  red sands of the Wahiba or  Sharqiya Sands as it is known. Dunes after dunes, red sand as far as the eye could see, with a few hardy desert bushes and trees thrown in. A few solo camels wandered past and we found a few families of them at various routes. Nestled in the flat plain surrounded by dunes either side we arrived at our destination the Sama Al Wasil Desert Camp. If you are feeling a little more cautious or don’t have a 4WD you can arrange that the camp meets you at the nearest town and transports you. 

Sama Al Wasil – our home for the night

We were met by friendly and helpful staff who showed us our room. We had a little house, with 2 bedrooms and a bathroom and the all important air conditioning. We would not have survived the 47 degrees centigrade temperature otherwise! The camp is set up with small houses surrounding a central tent for relaxing. There’s some tents further back and dining tent. All meals are provided with the fee. It’s well set out, clean although as it’s situated in the desert there are some creatures that appear at night. The children were not fans of the large beetles that scuttled across the floor. We were given bug spray in our room but didn’t need to use it and no one seemed to get any bites. 

We headed off up the sand dune to witness the sunset. It was hard, hot work clambering up. The two little ones didn’t make it the full way to the top. There was a handy rope provided to help pull yourself up. I discovered Miss 10 is much fitter than me! Roasted, soon the winds picked up and a small rain shower cooled us down. It was strange to see and feel the large raindrops coming down the sand dunes. As quickly as it started it ended. Standing at the top of the dunes, all you can see is sand dune after sand dune across the horizon. The silence and the emptiness struck me, other than the sight below of our little desert camp. The view of the sunset was spectacular- the golden sun reflecting over the red and golden sands. The most fun part – running down the warm sand with my feet sinking in up to my waist.

The darkness dropped quickly, and we retired to get ready for our evening meal in a Bedouin styled tent below a tapestry of stars. Traditional Omani fare, the children enjoyed experimenting with grilled camel, curries, bread and rice. There was plenty to choose from, and the little adventurers got stuck right in. Mr 5 declared the camel delicious (tough as anything it was). Miss 7 tried it, and since the camel ride the following morning has now become a half hearted vegetarian. The Bedouin people are nomadic desert dwellers who have travelled across the region. With modernisation and urbanisation, there are concerns that this way of life is eradicating. Little bellies full, and tired after our drive, and our desert exploration we headed to bed before an early start.

We stayed in the family accommodation, a two bedroom chalet with comfy beds and a good bathroom. It was clean, cool and perfect for our requirements. The little adventures slept well, with dreams of nights and the stories they have heard.

We were up not long after sunrise, to meet our new travelling companions, three camels and their young guides. First, the fascinating prints of all the nocturnal life of the desert was evident around the camp. We wondered and guessed who had been exploring, David Attenborough eat your heart out! Mr 5 and I went together, and the girls had their own camel each. It was a jerky transition from sitting to standing, but we were off. We went on a 30 minute ‘safari’ around the flat plain, then across some sand dunes. Again muscles that are evidently not used regularly made their presence known as I gripped on. Skinny Mr 5 declared a sore bottom after a while, and Miss 7 delighted beamed throughout. Thirty minutes was long enough for most of us, I think Miss 7 and her camel could have continued under the sweltering sun for much longer.

We worked up a healthy appetite for breakfast, and returned to our tented dining area for delicious and filling buffet breakfast. We said goodbye to our desert friends, and set off to the next destination in our road trip, with pockets and shoes unintentionally full of seemingly half the Wahiba desert that we continued to find for days afterwards, and our hearts full and memories a plenty of our magical escape in the middle of the desert.

There are other activities you can arrange for the desert including dune bashing for extra costs. There are a number of other camps in the area, with different degrees of luxury. As summer is not peak tourist season there were not many operating. We would recommend Sama Al Wasil, they were very attentive and made it a memorable experience. If you go to Oman, do not miss out this experience, it is something you and the children will never forget.

Practical tips

  • It’s very warm in the desert, bring long sleeved light clothes to give you as much coverage as possible. We used our head scarves that we had bought early on in the trip which protected the children’s heads and necks.
  • Book your camel ride for early in the morning before it gets too hot. We found 30 minutes plenty, I think any longer would have been too much.
  • Hire a 4WD car, and do some research into desert driving. Go to a garage just before you go off road and get your tyres deflated. Remember when you come back from the desert to re-inflate them. If you are not feeling so adventurous, then request someone to meet you and guide you or pick you up from the local garage
  • Sama al Wasil is situated near Bidiyah in Oman. It’s a 2.5 hour drive from Muscat, but we came from the turtles in Ras al Jinz. Route coming soon to the blog.
  • Pack a small overnight bag with your essentials for the night – you can safely leave everything else in the car.
  • We didn’t need to use it, but insect repellant could be necessary at other times of the year.

Harry Potter in Scotland – the Ultimate Muggles Guide

Harry Potter’s Scotland

While many parts of the United Kingdom try to claim that they have influenced the writing of Harry Potter, there is no doubt that Scotland holds an important influence, and indeed homes the actual cafes were pen was put to paper by JK Rowling . As you probably know if you have seen any of our blog, we are big Potterheads. Miss 10 leads the current charge, but her mother is more than happy to follow suit, still being a big fan and remembering her first readings of each book. This year has been a Harry Potter filled year, we saw the exhibition of JK Rowling writing in New York Historical Museum, and we have stayed in London in a Harry Potter themed hotel, and watched the Cursed Child in our Magical weekend. We’ve also previously adventured to Studio Tour outside London, and last year been to Universal Studies for some Harry Potter wonderment! Phew, it has been magical indeed. 

Anyway, Scotland holds some wonders in Harry Potter themed adventures that you can take. Here are the highlights for us!

Glencoe and the Scottish Highlands

Exploring the dreamy Scottish Highlands it feels like you could be anywhere in a Harry Potter Movie. Glencoe is just that, Harry Potter’s Scotland. Not only the filming location for Hagrid’s Hut, you may also recognise it as the place where Hermione punches Malfoy and the moment when Xenophilius Lovegood calls the Death Eaters on Harry, Ron, and Hermione in Deathly Hallows Pt. 2. Spellboundingly magical. 

Harry Potter Walking Tour Edinburgh

We joined Jonny in the free Harry Potter walking tour around the sights. You book the tickets online for free, then at the end give  a donation on what you feel it was worth. All 5 of us enjoyed a hot (for Scotland) afternoon, exploring and listening to Jonny tell us all the magical tales.  Starting  on the Royal Mile, you can see JK Rowlings handprints in the ground at City Chambers!  

Victoria Street 

Victoria St in Edinburgh is what inspired Rowling to create Diagon Alley. A claim quite a few streets of the UK have made, including in London and in York. As we stood on the diagonally (get it?) set street up a hill, the rainbow of colours stand out amongst the older traditional Edinburgh landscape. There’s plenty of coffee shops, magic shops and Harry Potter souvenir shops. We enjoyed seeing the joke shop nestled at the end of the street-just like going into the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Some happy purchasers enjoyed their shopping adventure. 

The Elephant House 

We finished our walking tour nearby the ‘birthplace of Harry Potter’ and rested the weary legs with a bun and coffee afterwards.  It is claimed that JK Rowling spent most of her time writing her first Harry Potter books in this location and therefore is an essential rite of passage for any Potterhead. It is a bright cafe, full of elephants statues in all shapes and sizes. The food went down well, but the highlight is the bathrooms. Covered from floor to ceiling with graffiti crafted by other Harry Potter fans. Apparently at the start they used to paint over the graffiti, but finally gave it and let it stay. So many quotes and jokes inscribed over every inch of the bathroom, hopefully we’ve not inspired a graffiti phase for these three! 

When Rowling needed some peace to finish off the final Harry Potter book,  she checked into the Balmoral Hotel, apparently the afternoon tea is worth a trip! 

Find Tom Riddle’s grave

Located in the eerie Greyfriars’ Kirkyard is the real grave to Thomas Riddle Esquire. Apparently, JK Rowling used to stroll through the graveyard and gated inspiration for some of her characters from the gravestones. Along with Tom Riddle’s grave, you can find graves of Elizabeth Moodie, William McGonagall, James Potter and the tomb of Peeves the Poltergeist. Happy grave hunting!   You can also peek through the gates at George Heriot’s School – a prestigious primary school, that has a certain Hogwarts feel around it? 

Now for the big excitement and a bucket list trip for me……..

The Hogwarts Express, otherwise known as the Jacobite Steam Train

Miss 10 (and me too if I’m being honest) have dreamt of getting our Hogwarts letter, running through Platform 9 3/4 and taking off on the Hogwarts Express this is the closest any muggle will get. Commencing in the gateway to the Highlands, Fort William, we  boarded the Jacobite Steam Train and spent 2 hours through the scenic countryside to Hogwarts, or actually the fishing town of Mallaig. From Mallaig we headed on our wonderful Isle of Skye adventure. The magic of this steam train is that it crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct – from the actual Harry Potter movies. Amazing. On board, when asked if you want anything from the trolley, resist the urge to scream ‘we’ll take the lot’ and content yourself with a Butterbeer Hot Chocolate or chocolate frog. These tickets sell out fast – so book  months in advance at West Coast Railways. It was such an adventure. Sad faces to arrive in Mallaig and not Hogwarts , but Haggard’s Alley Shop cheered everyone up once again.

Another recommendation is to see the train cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
In our case, we sent the husband on to be our official photographer of us crossing! It’s about a 10 minute hike from the viewing station to get the perfect view, and there’s quite the crowd so get there in good time to get your picture perfect stop! 

There you have it, our guide to a wonderful Scottish Harry Potter Adventure. Enjoy! 

Isle of Skye – Top things to do with kids (or without them)

Isle of Skye is the land of magic, nature and wonder. It has sparked the little imaginations, and we’ve enjoyed learning to hike and explore the countryside more. To the extent, they all want the proper gear, and are ready for their next walking adventure, Irish mountainside here we come. It takes its name from the old Norse sky-a, meaning ‘cloud island’, a reference from the Vikings due to the oft mist covered Cuillin Hills. It’s the second largest of the Scottish Islands, 50 miles in length. Since we met doing Geography degrees, it was the perfect adventure – the children are much preferring the folklore stories regarding the landscape formation than their parents tales!


We enjoyed a 2 night trip to the Island in the Easter Holidays. We were totally spoilt with the weather, it was warm, no need for a coat and we all got a tan! However, be more cautious I do think it is more common to experience some (a lot) rain and wind. These are our top suggestions for an adventure with kids (or indeed without but in that case I’d add some distillery experiences for sure!

You can arrive in Skye by Ferry or by bridge, we did one each way, which brought with it adventure and exploration. Book the ferry in advance from Mallaig with CalMac.

The Fairy Pools 

Nestled in the Cuillin Mountain range, and down a long single track windy road, past the numerous breath taking views, and two waterfalls,  is the hike to the magical Fairy Pools.  It’s about a 30 minute hike (well at our pace) from car park, to the pools, and up some  hills. Little legs were tired along the route but as Miss 6 said herself, it was more than worth the hike at the destination. It’s not a difficult at hike, but we saw someone carrying a pram back – not to be recommended at all. Through stream crossings, and over bumpy terrain it was perfect adventuring. 

At your destination, there’s crystal clear pools, with some waterfalls and it’s easy to imagine the magic of fairies playing around them all. All three enjoyed dipping their toes in to the freezing cold water and splashing a little. With the sun beating down, the water sparkled blue, and we relaxed taking in the incredible scenery around us.  When they were finally plucked away, they running through the gorse back to the valley, before the steepest climb back up to the car. Little tired bunnies by the end, and glad to rest for the drive to our accommodation. 

Note there’s no visitor centres, or toilets. It is a very popular spot and you can swim so bring a towel, your swimsuit and water/ snacks that you need for a couple of hours. Enjoy it is pure magic. 

Sligachan Bridge

This is a famous bridge with the Cuillin Hills in the backdrop. The Cuillin Hills are Britain’s most spectacular mountain range. There’s an alpine nature in the landscape, with steep knife edged ridges, naked rocks and scree-filled gullies. It is very picturesque and there’s many an instagram photo from the area. We enjoyed exploring through the rocks, and climbing over the stream. It’s a good starting point for more adventurous trip up the mountains , not for us, we are a bit wee yet for such adventures. There’s a hotel right beside it, with a wonderful pub and traditional Scottish restaurant called Seumas Bar – I enjoyed my vegetarian haggis!

The Fairy Glen – near Uig

Exploring the magical Fairy Glen

Nearby where we were staying was the Magical Fairy Glen. It is situated on the Trotternish Peninsula, but for some reason not that many people venture there. I’m really not sure why, as I think this ranks as one of my top things to do in Skye. There’s lots of fun hills, and valleys to explore, and lots of little stone circles – the kids were enthralled. I was mightily impressed by the just married couple, who where up the top of the rock in full wedding dress (plus hiking boots) getting their photos taken. It was a lovely day, they are going to get some great footage from the drone they had flying overhead!


Quiraing – is situated close by on the way across to the Staffin area. It is a fascinating basalt formation. There’s a 4.5 mile hike to get up close to the cliffs, that is recommended – unfortunately it was a bit much for us this time with all the other things we were doing. Something for next time!

Portree

The main town of Isle of Skye – with the postcard picture along the seafront, we visited for a few hours to get some supplies in the shops, enjoy a fish and chips on the shore, and purchase some lovely artwork for our house! As we enjoyed our fish and chips, a man pointed out the Golden Eagle circling above our heads- amazing!


Old Man of Storr

A short drive from Portree is the picture postcard iconic view of the Isle of Skye, with the spiky pinnacles of rock set up against rolling green hills. We didn’t get to hike up to it, but it is a strong recommendation for a visit if you can manage it.


Kilt Rock, Mealt Falls and Brother’s Point

On further from Old Man of Storr towards Staffin there’s some spectacular coastal scenery. From the viewpoint, if you look north to see Mealt Falls and Kilt Rock, then look south, the scenery is almost as beautiful and you can see Rubha nam Brathairean (Brother’s Point) off in the distance – there’s another interesting easy hike to Brother’s Point.

Staffin Dinosaur Museum

Nearly by Staffin, there’s a really interesting little museum- Staffin Dinosaur Museum. The kids were fascinated with the fossils and history of the dinosaurs of old in Skye. They even have tours to find the often difficult to find dinosaur footprints in Staffin Bay. It is an excellent collection well worth a stop.


Claigan Coral Beach 

This beach is another contender for my favourite location on Skye. A short hike (of around 1 mile) and through the now typical Skye coastline and you come across this beauty. It’s not really coral being in Scotland after all, it just looks like it! Fascinatingly it is made from crushed bleached skeletons of Red Coraline seaweed. It makes the water look tropical blue when the sun shines and has a finely crushed white beach. Full of wonderful shells and on a low tide day you can cross over to Lampay island on a causeway! Pure magic!

Dunvegan Castle

On the way to the coral beach you can find Dunvegan Castle and Gardens. There are good reviews about it, due to the gorse fire, we didn’t have enough time to spend to justify the cost! However, would be a good rainy day activity if you need inside for a while.

Also in this general direct is Neist Point – thanks to the fire we didn’t make it this far, but it is recommended as a nice place to visit if you are in the area.

Accommodation in Skye 

We stayed near Uig in the wonderful Clouds B&B which has a perfect space for a family room. The details were incredible, it was comfortable, with a delicious simple start breakfast of cereal, yoghurt, breads, cheese, fruits, juice and coffee, and spectacular views especially  of the epic sunsets. The little details like toys in the bedrooms, a record player, outside swing and slide set, and comfy blankets made us feel perfectly at home. The family were welcoming and informative. An excellent find – do check it out. 

In terms of planning your route, coming from the boat from Mallaig, towards Uig, Sligachan Bridge, and the Fairy Pools are close by each other, and the Fairy Glen is nearby Uig. Dunvegan Caste, Claigan Coral Beach, and Neist Point are the same side of the Island. From Portree the Old Man of Storr is en route to the Staffin area which has Mealt Falls, Brothers Point, Kilt Rock and the Dinosaur Museum. Out of the whole Skye trip, we didn’t pay anything other than £5 for the Staffin Dinosaur Museum.

We ended up with an unscheduled change in our plans when we came across a road closed due to an ongoing gorse fire! It was significant, and there was considerable smoke in the area. Some panic from some nameless little people, the adults were very interested in the whole situation. The next day you could see vast areas scorched. A common problem in summer but apparently this was early on in the season for one!

We had a magical stay, and would really recommend it for those with kids (and indeed anyone!) We will be back! Thank you Isle of Skye.

Oregon Girl Around the World

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – fly away with a wonderful Mary Poppins themed afternoon tea at the Shard

Much like Mary herself, we flew into London on a blustery day (with a rather bumpy plane landing). Smart shirts on, and even smarter manners ready, off we headed  to a story book afternoon tea extravaganza at The Shard, Mary Poppins style. A mirrored menu was shared with us all, any special dietary requirements consulted. 

We began with a choice of fruity teas, coffee or proper hot chocolate. Adults could choose from some medicine bottles full of champagne. Solo in charge of these 3 for the afternoon I didn’t partake, tea it was.

Napkins tucked in, the first course arrived. Miss 6 was delighted with the delectable crumpets and smoked salmon, Mary’s choice of course. A selection of classic English sandwiches- cheese and pickle, crab and cucumber, ham salad and egg mayonnaise served on a range of breads. 

Mary Poppin’s bag itself arrived, and from it fresh hot scones appeared. We all smothered them in fresh jam and clotted cream. Delicious! 

Then, a wonderful cake stand floated in to the table, standing on Mary’s boots and topped by a wonderful umbrella, three layers of delicious sweet treats. We enjoyed a ‘strike me pink’ sponge, Mrs Corey’s gingerbread star, a ‘back to front zoo’ golden syrup tart and Mary’s cherry filled chocolate mousse hat with an edible flower on top. Practically perfect! 

Finally, when it was nearly time to descend from the epic citywide view from the 32nd floor of the Shard in the AquaShard restaurant, freshly spun raspberry candy floss. Our ever smart waiter offered everyone who wanted a second candy floss stick. 

The children made a good go of the full range, I was beat! So a little doggy bag came away with us. The views from the aqua shard across London are fabulous. Miss 6 was taken with the bathrooms and the fancy sofa. The attention to detail was fabulous. A pricey but special treat enjoyed by my 3 who had strangely impeccable manners throughout!! 

Mary Poppins Afternoon Tea

Broadway Disney Theatre Tour and Broadway shows – the home of bright lights and dreams

NYC with kids

If you’ve had any sort of a look at our blog or insta you will know that we are big theatre fans in our house. Musicals are life for the kids (maybe a bit for me too!) So getting to see Broadway was high on the list. In fact, Miss 10 birthday cake was all about the shows. 

Times Square ready to explore Broadway

I came across the Disney on Broadway walking tour on Viator, so signed us up. We met our wonderful guide Jocelyn and off we headed (we were a small group of about 8 which was perfect) around the different theatres in Broadway. Broadway is the name of the street in Manhattan which has become the world leader of theatre entertainment. As we walked the streets, we learnt about the first NYC stage in the 1700s in Massau Street. Standing in the midst of Times Square look down at your feet and you will see a handy map of all the theatres in the area. The 2.5 hour walking tour is pitched just right, enough history about the growth of Broadway in 1800s, the impact of the Great Depression, and the more recent growth again. It was active, and seeing the range of the theatres kept the interest, even on a cold NYC morning. A good balance of history and modern day knowledge pitched for all ages- perfect. 

Then, what Miss 10 had been waiting for, a visit to New Amsterdam Theatre, where Aladdin is currently showing. We got a VIP tour of the beautiful and majestic theatre, then got taken to the stage to stand, look out at the lights and dream of being on Broadway. Well for Miss 10 anyway. She was totally taken with seeing how it all worked and getting that backstage view after her summer performances with the touring company of Evita in the Grand Opera House in Belfast. We were then taken to a room and shown a fantastic array of the props from a range of Disney shows  including The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. We got to try on the costumes, learn all about the props and take lots of photos. It was a fantastic, inspirational morning! I strongly recommend it for any one with a love of Musical Theatre and of Disney, and if you love both like us it is a dream come true. 

Since we were staying a few days in NYC, we used the opportunity to ourselves experience the wonderment, excitement and spectacle that is Broadway. 

Frozen the Musical – just ‘Let it go’ and enjoy the show

Miss 10 was obsessed with Frozen a few years ago, now a big 10, is a little past it, but still was keen to see the show. Frozen is a story inspired by Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Snow Queen of two sister princesses, one with ice making powers. They are close until Elsa accidentally hurts her younger sister Anna while playing. Anna’s memory is erased by some trolls, and the two are separated by their parents. Tragically like many a Disney story, their parents die, and Queen Elsa is crowned. Overwhelmed by her magic Elsa turns the town to ice, and takes off. Through an icy kingdom, Anna seeks out her sister accompanied by iceman Kristoff and Sven the Reindeer. Elsa learns to ‘let it go’ and sisterly love saves the day. It’s different than the traditional male prince saves the day storyline.
It was a good show full of music, dance, likeable characters and lots of ice and snow. It was transformed to the stage well, close enough to the movie and with some extra songs thrown in. Miss 10 enjoyed it, was engaged with the music and impressed by the set design. A perfect introduction to Broadway theatre for any little Disney fans, and a good adaptation of the movie that will engage older kids (and adults too).


School of Rock – super talented kids

Miss 10 was super keen to see this one, anything with kids on the stage makes her want to get up there too! We had great seats in front row of the dress circle, and we were so impressed by the talent of the children in the show. A great energetic production, telling the story of Dewey, a musician recently banished from his band. Living with his long term mate Ned and his wife Patty, Dewey is told to get a job and pay rent or he’s being kicked out. Desperate, Dewey poses at Ned to get a job as a substitute teacher at a posh private school. No idea what he is doing, he uses music to get his way through preparing the pupils for a battle of the bands competition. The kids are phenomenal and steal the show – amazingly talented.

Phantom of the Opera – a classic

This one was my choice – I saw it in London years ago and loved it so was keen to introduce Miss 10 to it and see it on Broadway.  It’s based on the classic novel by Gaston Leroux, the story of a man born with a horribly deformed face. He hides in the bowels of a Paris opera house where he torments the occupants. However, when he hears Christine Daae sing he dedicates himself to nurturing her talent. Soon the Phantom is overtaken by his desire and love for her, and he becomes reckless. He reveals his love for her, and she responds well to him until she sees his face. She then falls for Raoul, resulting in the Phantom declaring war on the Opera house. The music, the staging, the fantasy, hopes and dreams draws you in. It is a stunning production, totally and utterly engaging, even for a 10 year old. She was transfixed throughout.

Anastasia – fantastic Russian spectacle

Set in the beautiful and grand Broadhurst Theatre, Anastasia and her royal family are captured by the firing squad of Romanov, who kills her entire family. The girl is said to be dead, but the truth is that Anastasia survives. However, she has lost her memory, and is wandering the streets of St. Petersburg. Her grandmother, who left to Paris before the family murder, offers a reward to anyone who finds Anastasia- so she becomes a living legend without any awareness. Many a girl pretends of be her, and two tricksters, Dmitry and Vlad are plotting a scheme to secure that money. Through this these meet Anya (Anastasia’s name now) and finally realise that there are memories there that she did not know she had. It is enchanting and the set design feels truly Russian and French. The costumes are fantastic, and the music enthralling. A wonderful musical, that is well worth seeing. Miss 10 loved it.


Top tips to getting Broadway tickets 

Tickets for shows are never cheap. You need to weigh up are you happy to go with what is available and on offer, or if you have certain things in mind you may need to prebook. Super popular shows like Hamilton and The Cursed Child are sold out for months ahead. Many of the Disney ones such as Frozen, the Lion King and Aladdin will need pre-booked. I’ve outlined other tips to get discounted tickets.


1. The classic visit to TKTS (Under the red stairs in Times Square) 

The classic way to get discounted tickets is to wait in line, on the day of the show at the TKTS booth under the red stairs in Duffy Square (47th Street and Broadway). Most are 50% discounted. However, there’s also two other booths in the city – one at Lincoln Centre’s David Rubenstein Atrium which is only 15 blocks away from the original one , and South Street Seaport. Generally the earlier you get there the better, and often less queues in the non Times Square ones, so head that way. You can buy up to 6 tickets, and fees are around $5-$6 per ticket. 

2. Online 

Rather than standing in a queue, you can get discounted tickets from your phone from TodayTix.app up to a month in advance. There’s discounted ones alongside regular priced one. There’s a few other websites too  New York Show Tickets (it’s a membership one costing $4 per month). Good discounts can be also be found at BroadwayBox, TheaterMania and GoldStar, and there are even some discount deals Time Out New York Do shop around these options – but there are online ticketing fees of around $10 to $15 which you need to take into account. 

3. Rush and lottery tickets 

Many productions offer same day rush tickets – which can be the only way to get reasonably priced tickets for shows that are otherswise sold out. Sometimes they are as little as $20 a piece. You need to get to the theatre for 10 am (Sundays 11am) on the day of the performance for them. School of Rock is a good one for Rush tickets. Wicked holds a in person lottery but most others have digital lotteries – you can sign up online for them. Hamilton offers 36 $10 seats per day, and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has the Friday forty. Playbill and Broadway for Broke People has the full line up. 

4. Buy at the box office 

If you are trying to see a popular show right now, you probably won’t get a discounted ticket. However you can save a few dollars by buying at the box office and not having to pay as much in fees and you might get good seats. 

For us, we were quite particular about what we wanted to see so pre booked Frozen and School of Rock. We kept an eye on numbers of tickets available, and bought Phantom of the Opera a few days in advance from  Broadway Box, and Anastasia on the day. 

A Wizarding Weekend – a Harry Potter magical filled 3 day London itinerary

We’ve just returned from the most magical weekend in London, perfect for the biggest wizarding world fans. Miss 10 is a big fan of everything J.K Rowling has created, and in essence of our continued gifting of experiences not stuff, she received some tickets for Christmas this year. Together we’ve designed a magical other worldly itinerary for any wannabe witches or wizards in London Town!

Day 1

Start the day with a wonderful walking tour exploring all the actual and inspirational places for the Harry Potter movies. We toured with Tours for Muggles accompanied by Ellie Lovegood (Luna’s cousin of course). We went around many of the key sites from the movies- learnt about the challenges in filming in central London with all the crazy potterhead fans. Starting around the Tower Bridge area we saw the Borough markets (a good spot for lunch even if the Leaky Cauldron doesn’t quite look the same) we explored the area. Now experts on the range of bridges and the inspiration for Azkaban (well the English inspiration in Clink prison anyway), we took a tube to Westminister and retraced Mr Weasley and Harry’s footsteps on the way to the Ministry of Magic. A dander (walk for all you non Northern Irish) through Trafalgar Square to the inspirations for Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley before ending near Leicester Square. Ellie was able to answer all questions, and full of great wizarding knowledge.

An afternoon well spent is at the Potion Room in Soho’s Cutter and Squidge. A magical interactive afternoon tea- with potion brewing (I make a mean galaxy drink), a crackling cauldron to blow your head off, and a full spread of very English magical inspired savoury and sweet delicacies. Dressed in robes, in the beautifully adored basement, seated at school desks, our potion making class was delivered by a fabulous in character wizard. Full to the brim, we ended with a lovely treat from the sweet trolley! Great fun, immersive and delicious- a great afternoon out.

 

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Reading Harry Potter in the Wizard Chambers at the Georgian House Hotel

Then to retire to the Wizard Chambers in the Georgian House Hotel. Situated near Victoria station, the hotel has dedicated a number of rooms to detailed wizarding theming. Through a secret bookcase, we came up to our magical room, with potions, brews, old style furniture and lighting we were transported to a different time. There was even a secret passageway to the Ministry of Magic down the toilet if you dared! A comfy 4 poster bed meant for a good night’s sleep after walking all those steps! Sweet magical dreams.

 

 

 

Day 2

Next morning, following a delicious wizarding breakfast (included in the stay) head for the Palace Theatre in the West end for the enthralling Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It is split in two parts – we did them both in the same day, some people choose two consecutive nights. Tickets must be bought well in advance, but there’s also the weekly Friday Forty when 40 tickets are released for the next week’s shows for the total price of £40.

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