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. 

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

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.

E0C1F759-22C0-449E-80C8-4FA4C055E9FCThe play is absolutely mind blowing, a full day in the theatre went in a flash! Keeping to the #keepthesecrets we won’t say too much. Other than go go go go!!! A little scary in places perfect for Potterheads aged around 8 plus! Miss 10 did jump out of her skin a few times but was totally spell bound! The end leaves you ready for the next part instantaneously!

There’s a few hours gap between the two performances- we grabbed a pizza and had time for a visit to the House of MinaLima. A wonderful exhibition of the graphic artwork of two of the main designers on the Harry Potter movies has been curated in a 3 story building in Greek street just around the corner from the theatre. Free to enter, and lots of wonderful prints to purchase should you desire. It covered all the movies including the more recent Fantastic Beasts. Lovely way to pass a little time.

Back to the theatre, for the second splendid part. Gripped throughout, the magical performances, wizardy set design, spell binding music, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child lives up to the high expectations. A new production, that my theatre loving one now has in her eye for future treading the boards! In our case, a short wait at stagedoor resulted in some lovely chats, magical memories and the important signed merch for the theatre wall at home! What a day- time to rest those weary legs (a different type of weary from all the sitting today).

 

Day 3
(Caveat we didn’t do this part this time, but did go 2 summers ago, but would make a perfect part to a 3 day magical weekend).

Up early and off to the famous Warner Brothers’ studios to see The Making of Harry Potter. We caught a train to Watford Junction (about 1 hour outside of Central London but easy on public transport), then we jumped on the themed double decker bus and in no time we were transported to the magical studios.

ADFFCAC1-598B-48F9-A396-4247C95C2911After seeing Harry’s under the stairs bedroom, we inspected the table settings in the Great Hall and took in the sights of the sets, props and costumes from the movies.We wandered along the cobbles of Diagon Alley, gazed at Dumbledore’s bookcases and saw many videos of the making of the movies. After a lovely cool butterbeer, we headed to peer through the windows of number 4 Privet Drive and a quick photo with the Knightbus.

A highlight for me was the model of Hogwarts itself. Built to 1:24 scale, it was used in the exterior shots for the first six films. The attention to detail is incredible- more than 3000 fibre optic lights fitted inside and turned on as the night sky darkens.74FB211D-9477-4AA5-AA10-9C919EEEF957

We met some fantastical beasts including buckbeak, flew across London on a broomstick (well with the help of a green screen), and saw Dobby in model form.

Incredible, detailed, and perfect for Potter fans of any age. The gift shop is pricey, but the chocolate frogs went down well! A great day out.

Other ideas:

We arrived into Kings Cross station on our train from the airport which was perfect for a quick search for platform 9 3/4. You can queue up for a photo- it can be super busy so go for early in the morning, or later at night. The Harry Potter Shop takes photos that you can buy inside, but we were happy snapping on our phones! Quick browse around the gift shop for any other purchases too.

Primark in Oxford street has a dedicated Harry Potter section- perfect for some cheaper inspired purchases.

77F2871A-6ECD-4940-99DB-B7653ED20A0BThere you have it, our recommendations for a magical wizarding weekend in London! Let us know what you think and if you give any of it a go.

Tickets for the cursed child, the potion room, and rooms in the Wizarding chambers all book out in advance. The WB studios also can book out so get that sorted too. So if you are planning a wizarding weekend get those reservations in place, otherwise you will be staying with the muggles in the rest of London.

Theatre with kids – review of Les Miserables, Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin

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We are big musical fans in our house, there’s always a performance ongoing with the 3 dramatic ones, so any opportunities of a ‘big show’ in Belfast or Dublin and we are there. When I saw ‘Les Mis’ was coming over the Christmas period to the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, I knew Miss 10 was just about ready. She’s been learning ‘Castle on a Cloud’ at singing  lessons for the last few months and this recently resulted in a brave moment whereby she sang for her class- even making it on to the school website. A big step for the usually shy one in class. We decided to make it an intergenerational adventure with an overnight, so Granny, Mummy and Miss 10 set off for a Dublin adventure. 

Equipped with the soundtrack, we were excited for the musical adaption of Victor Hugo’s novel.  Set in 19th centenary France, ‘Les Mis’ is the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant, ready for parole after serving nineteen years in prison for having stolen a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child. Valjean breaks his parole, and starts a new life after a bishop inspires him through a tremendous act of mercy, however his journey to a new existence, is relentlessly hampered by a police inspector, Javert. Based during the revolutionary period in France, we witnessed young idealist students attempting to overthrow the government and all the devastating consequences of such a struggle.

Killian Donnelly is fabulous in his role of Valjean as he follows a righteous path through decades of war, suffering, themes of death, prison, prostitution and poverty. There are of course parts that are a little ‘adult’ in content, such as the ‘lovely ladies’ for sale. I fielded a couple of awkward questions about it on the drive home.

With fantastic musical numbers, we journeyed through the suffering and passion of little Cosette, her hardworking mother Fantine, and Miss 10 was particularly impressed with the young performers and more generally with the vocal ranges in the show.

I enjoyed the clever use of projected images at the back of the stage gave nearly cinematic feelings at times. It is long, but even Miss 10 was gripped throughout. She barely moved and we have been hearing the songs performed since!

A wonderful show.

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We followed it by a delicious ‘Les Mis’ themed meal in the The Marker Hotel in Dublin. It is a perfect location for a pre  or post theatre meal. Often with some theming of a set menu. We previously enjoyed a ‘Mary Poppins’ inspired meal when that musical was in town a few years ago, and the tasty food and attention to detail is still discussed by the two girls. We stayed in the Clayton Hotel in Cardiff Lane. Both  The Marker and the Clayton are right beside the Bord Gais theatre.

Undoubtably a wonderful classic theatre musical. Do I recommend it for kids? I think they need some maturity. For my 10 year old, it was perfect, she enjoys musical theatre, we’ve seen most of the more child aimed shows, she was familiar with some songs,  she could process the notion of war and any more risqué aspects went over her head. I would have more caution for the younger ones, and I will be leaving it a few years before bringing the two little ones in our house. Perfect post Christmas afternoon out, with the three generations.

Lapland -magical winter wonder

I’ve always really wanted to go to Lapland for Christmas time, even more so once I had kids. So last year, when we hit the perfect age for magic, wonder, awe and amazement aged 9,5 and turning 4 we planned an adventure.

Not being one for package holidays, I of course explored the DIY options. As regular travellers, I wasn’t too worried about any possible challenges, and when I compared the costs I was definitely sold. Price details below, but basically we got 8 nights in Lapland including the full length excursions we wanted for the same price as it would have been to do a day trip from Belfast. Utter madness. Book DIY I tell you, it’s so easy.

A total surprise for the kids, we prepared in stealth many months prior, buying ski suits in the summer sales. Since we met studying a Geography degree, no-one questioned when with authority we declared that it was predicted to be a very cold winter this year. Our kids know that they get the geographical answer to all weather related questions. Suitcases packed, we picked the kids up from school went on an adventure. After check in in Dublin, they worked out the surprise, we were off to visit Santa. Excitement levels through the roof.

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Ready to go on the adventure

The flight with Finnair was very straightforward to Helsinki. It was a little delayed and we had a very short gap between our next flight up to Kittila near Levi. Before the flight ended, the gates for short connecting flights were announced and we were given priority to get off the plane. Cue a quick run across the airport, they waited for us, all aboard to Lapland. Our luggage even made it too! Christmas magic at work!

We arrived very late at night into Kittila and got a taxi to our cabin in Levi, and straight to sleep before up to explore in the morning. Little eyes woke up, peered out the window at the winter wonderland and they couldn’t believe their eyes. So much snow! It was pure white, incredible, really deep snow.

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I’ve never seen this much snow!

Up quickly, suited and booted up ready to explore. We quickly found the kids land near the Levi Ski resort. A free snowy play ground, perfect for little explorers. We bought a few sledges from the local supermarket, and spend the day up and down the toboggan run, breaking for cups of steaming hot free berry juice in the little cabins. The snow, was soft and fluffy and quite dry – quite different from our snow, and didn’t make snowman in the same way at all! More geography lessons complete! We explored around Levi resort, checking out the Tourist Information, the ski school, cafes, restaurants and shops.
Temperatures were very cold, at the lowest we saw -28 degrees Celsisus. Well wrapped up the children rarely complained. It could be a bit harsh on little faces, we’ve more top tips coming soon in a blog post about how to help with those issues.

Levi Ski Resort 

Levi as a resort is perfect for all needs. It’s a ski resort, so cafes, restaurants , ski equipment are all easily available. We enjoyed exploring the resort, the free Sledging at Kidsland, warming up with free hot berry juice afterwards, taking the ski lift up the mountain, and a day in Levi Spa swimming pool. The outdoor warm hot tub in the freezing temperatures was a hit. Plenty to keep us busy and active. The girls enjoyed trying out skiing and took to the slopes well, although it was our coldest day at -28 degrees C! There was more than enough to keep us busy.

We stayed in a cabin that had a drying cupboard and sauna in it. Perfect for warming up after the cold days. We were a 5-10 minute walk from the ski slope, and bought sledges to pull around the kids when legs got tired. We had access to laundry facilities, and the supermarket was across the road. We had a few meals out, but found that with the lack of light, the children thought it was much later than it was, and with the active nature of the holiday they were in bed early. Great for some mulled wine, a sauna and relax with nice food picked up in the supermarket.

Winter wilderness with huskies

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True love

Our middle little adventurer is obsessed with husky dogs. Her dream is to be a musher. So going to visit the huskies and experience a sledge ride with them was top of her bucket list. We went with Tundra Huskies for a 5km ride. Initially we were given a safety and information briefing all about the dogs, and sledging with them. Then off we went into the darkness across a frozen lake. The kids went with the owner in his sledge and led the way. We took turns in driving our one. It was harder than it looked. They are powerful, focused animals. Gazing up at the pitch black sky on alight with the stars is something I will never forget. We then got to meet the dogs, and Miss 5 dreams came true. Following this we warmed up in a little hut with sausages cooked over the fires (well that was everyone bar Miss 5 who spent all her time with the dogs!) We also learnt why you don’t play with yellow snow!!

Winter sleigh ride

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After our tundra horse journey, needing to warm up.

Little man turned 4 during the trip, and enjoyed a sleigh ride with the black beauty horse on the frozen lake on his birthday. It was fast paced through the frozen tundra forest, no sign of lights nor any sounds over than us cutting through the snow. Cold but magical! Heated up afterwards in a warm hut learning all about the Lappish culture.

Northern Lights Hunting 

We saw glimpses of the Northern Lights from around Levi, but Miss 9 and I decided to head away from the light pollution to see if we could get a better look. We booked transport with a local tour company in Levi, and headed about 20 minutes outside the town to a frozen lake. We were appreciative of the igloo with a heater that meant you could wait in it at times to warm up. The lights came out to play! The photos don’t really capture the magic of it, and I think you really need more than a smartphone to truly capture them. Nonetheless wondrous, magic for both me and Miss 9. She’s now an expert on the aureolas borealis.

Santa Claus himself

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The day we had all been waiting for a visit to the big man. We visited him at Santa Claus Levi and it was the magic we had been hoping for. We got picked up at Levi Tourist information, and dropped off at the end of the snowy forest lane met by an elf.

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Guiding the way to Father Christmas

Our elf guided our way, past some reindeers and horses until we found a little opening with some houses. They divided us into two groups to go around the activities separately. We enjoyed just our family with our own personal elf. We didn’t even see the other family until the journey back to Levi.  First, we attended elf spy school to find out all about how they learn to be secretive and spy, then we crept across to try and spy on Mrs Claus. She spied us, and invited us in for warm berry juice and ginger cookies. We learnt all about how they have lived there for 700 years, and that Santa works hard with the elves to prepare the gifts to deliver across the world. We saw Santa’s writing desk where he reads all the letters, and we learnt all about Mrs Claus looks after him. Santa was resting.

Then we met the main man himself, the one and only Father Christmas. The children could barely speak they were so taken with it all, he knew their names, chatted to them about life and school, told them all about Lapland and told them stories of the antics of the elves. Everyone got a hug with him, as many photos as we wanted. Then a small gift of a Lapland elf was given to each of the children and has been greatly cherished for the past year. It was magic!

After our special meeting, we attended elf school, learnt some Finnish, saw the elves at work in their toy factory, and learnt how baby elves come from wishes into pine cones – we even wished a few ourselves and put them in elf nursery for next Christmas. We then got to meet the reindeers, and experience a sleigh ride with them. We learnt all about what they like to eat, how they survive in the harsh winters and warmer summers, and what they like to eat on Christmas Eve.

We ended the visit with playtime in the snow sledging with the elves, and a snowball fight back to our pick up point. It was authentic and magical. We never felt rushed nor part of a commercial experience. All elves, Mrs Claus and Santa took all the time in the world with the children, and we came away awe that we had met the real one!

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Lapland is much more than Father Christmas. It is a winter wonderland of scenery, adventure, culture and relaxation. We enjoyed the Finnish experience, and for our first Winter holiday has given us a flavour of skiing and snow that we will undoubtably do more of in the future. For us, it was a once in a lifetime experience for the Santa aspects, but I would consider a Winter or even Summer return to see what else Finland has to offer. Thanks for all the magical memories Lapland.

The kids thoughts:

Miss 5 – ‘The huskies were really cute. Riding on the sleigh with the huskies was the best thing ever. It was very cold.’

Mr 4 – ‘I liked seeing Santa Claus in his house. I loved turning 4 in Lapland. I liked the cutie pie huskies. I was so cold I wanted to jump into a house sometimes.’

Miss 9 – ‘It was great fun because of the snow. I loved seeing that much snow. Seeing Santa and skiing were my highlights. It was one of the best holidays ever!’

The booking details

  • Dates were 15th December to 24th December 2017
  • Dublin to Levi via Helsinki with Finn Air – these flights cost £700 for all 5 of us.
  • Cabin in Levi – booked through booking.com £700 for 8 nights included a sauna and wonderful fire.
  • One nights accommodation in airport hotel – we had a late arrival into Helsinki and early flight to Dublin on way home. We could have sat in airport, but thought with 3 little people and arriving home on Christmas Eve it was £150 well spent.
  • We booked 3 excursions through Levi Tourist Office – Santa Visit, Husky trip and Horse Sleigh – it cost £800 for them all for the 5 of us

Other costs:

  • Private ski lesson and day ski hire for the girls  £120
  • Northern Light Hunting tour – 2 of us did this as late and cold-  £50 in total through local company in Levi

Total: £2520 for 8 nights arriving home on Christmas Eve compared to £500 per person for the day trip! Easy win for the DIY. Message me if you have any questions. Go, you won’t regret it! Pure magic.

Disney disney disney…. a Paris

Disney Disney Disney. We are big Disney fans in our house and this year went to Florida for some Disney fun (blog posts coming soon) . A Disneyland Paris trip was not part of the travel plans (nor indeed the budget). However, Miss 10 got an offer too good to miss to go to Disneyland Paris to perform with her musical theatre group in the Let’s sing Christmas show. Of course, we couldn’t let her go all that way without her support team! So a pre Christmas, celebrate our 12th wedding anniversary and Mr nearly 5’s birthday trip was planned. 

Having had a good Disney fix this year we were quite relaxed about this one, just booking a couple of meals in advance but nothing like the scheduling of the summer in Florida. We booked on the same flights as the performers from Belfast International Airport, and headed to Charles De Gaulle in Paris. My timing is always impeccable (as you will probably see over time), so we arrived in the weekend of the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests (it’s a theme – ask me about my Argentinian protests experiences sometime!) Thankfully we managed to hop on the last train to Disneyland Paris without any issues (and apparently without paying accidentally) and we arrived. Miss 6 had been a bit unsure up to this point, I’m not sure what she was expecting, but as we arrived, she squealed with delight and shouted ‘oh it’s not a fake Disney, it’s actually really big!’. Sorted, adventure on.

We stayed in the New York Hotel while Miss 10 hung out with her performer buddies in Santa Fe. Mr nearly 5 got ever so confused, had he been brought to New York like his sister a couple of months earlier. Geography lesson complete, we settled in our room on the top floor with a great view, after a late night visit to the Rainforest Cafe of course.  The New York Hotel is getting a little tired, an exciting update is planned, in a Marvel themed way that will be open in 2020. Anyway for us, it was grand as we say in Ireland. We got a super deal for our not planned or budgeted trip. A little hint for booking- with the help of rusty GCSE French and Google translate I booked through the French website and saved a few hundred euros! 

This was our 3rd trip to Disneyland Paris. The first when Miss 10 was a little 2 and our first Disney experience with kids. It was magical and wonderful. Then we celebrated little man’s first birthday there four years ago (how tiny are they all in the pictures below!). I thought after our Florida adventures this Summer we were past Disneyland Paris, but I was wrong. We had a super wonderful weekend.

Our highlight was of course seeing the fabulous ‘Let’s Sing Christmas’ Choir. They did 4 performances over the Saturday and Sunday to a full house in the Videopolis in Discoveryland. Seeing  your daughter, singing her wee heart out on stage, with Mickey, Minne and Pluto, sure it would draw tears from a stone. They did a fabulously great job – check them out.

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We were the loud over enthusiastic support club! The performers enjoyed a workshop on the Saturday morning, their 4 performances, then got time to hit the Parks which they did hard! I’ve never seen as tired a bunch of kids at the airport on Sunday night.

Minus Miss 10, who was showing us glimpses of the future with her ditching us to hang out with her friends, the wee ones and us set off to explore. We caught the Christmas parades.  Miss 6, ever the adrenaline junkie enjoyed Big Thunder Mountain, and there was high completive battles with Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast.  Peter Pan’s ride over London was a hit once again,  and of course It’s a Small World after all, now all sing together……..  We had a lovely dinner in Cafe Mickey before enjoying the fabulous Disney Illuminations Show. Mr nearly 5 and I had front row viewing, while Miss 6 hung out under the Christmas tree for her preferred slot. We celebrated our 12th Wedding Anniversary in style by hanging around until park closing to try and get some good nighttime shots!

Sunday, after singing along twice more to ‘Let’s Sing Christmas’, we enjoyed A Very Merry Stitchmas then headed to Walt Disney Studios. We enjoyed Crush’s rollercoaster, although Mr nearly 5 remembered that he wasn’t a fan of fast rides, he preferred Cars Race Ralley, an explore around Toy Story land, and Ratatouille. We ended the day with a lovely dinner in Chez Remy which was a first for us. Most of our dining experiences we did 4 years previously when we had Christmas Brunch at Inventions, the Princess Lunch at Auberge de Cendrillon and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show yee ha.

A few Christmas decoration and soft toy purchases later. We headed to meet up with the performers and start the journey home. The big one got her Hyperspace Mountain and Tower of Terror hits, lived on sugar and little sleep, and thought it was the best weekend ever. 31CCE2F8-E50C-4155-ADFB-05B7EC53C9DA

A wonderful anniversary weekend to end our adventuring of 2018!

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The details:
Easyjet flights – Belfast to CDG Paris

2 nights in Disneyland Paris New York Hotel (booked via the French site for some serious savings)

TGV Train from CDG to Marne La Vallée–Chessy (only a 10 min ride, we hitched a lift back with the performers via bus on Sunday night and it took over an hour!)

= Magical Disney memories with lots of proud Mum moments to end 2018!