Archives for category: Kids stuff

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Big family reunion as three siblings from around the world (France, UK and New Zealand) and their families converged in the ski town of Samoëns, France late in October (2013 — I’m still ‘catch-up blogging’).

The big plus?  House rentals extremely reasonable that time of year, in between summer season and ski season!  A five bedroom house for only a thousand Euros for the week!  The negative?  Well, coming from the sunny south of France, the plummet in temperatures was a bit offputting — admittedly I was hoping we’d end up in Catalonia or Tuscany for our reunion 🙂   But rain or cold couldn’t dampen the fun we and our kids all had for the week. The first time all the little cousins had been together, aged 3 to 7 years, and it was mad and LOUD!   And awesome.

I’d never heard of Samoëns before… it’s about halfway between Geneva and Mont Blanc.  It’s in the ‘Haute Savoie’ region of France (which for me means that the cuisine is heavily based on potatoes and cheese… mmmmmm!!!! Tartiflette!!)  It’s a charming town, graced with the appointment of a ‘Ville Fleurie’ which means it’s recognized as one of the most beautiful towns in the country. And it’s an easy drive to some fabulous activities and sights.

I’ll be clear up front… there were no real downsides to this trip, other than the fact that the weather back home was better, and the fact that Buddy is the youngest of his cousins, and wasn’t physically able to keep up with them on some of our walks in the mountains.

We arrived via Italy, and travelled through the long (and shockingly expensive) Mont Blanc tunnel linking Italy and France.  About 40 euros to access the tunnel!  This is the site where there was a terrible fire some years ago, many perished, and a lot of money was spent modifying the tunnel to hopefully eliminate such a terrible catastrophe again.  Needless to say I was eyeing every emergency exit we passed so I knew exactly where to go should anything go wrong!

The others came in from Geneva airport (the UK clan), and from a road trip up through Lyon and Annecy (the NZ clan), and we were all together under one roof by dinner time. And then the good times rolled for the whole week!  Planning another family reunion, hopefully in about 3 years time, because it was priceless to have the whole clan together.

Highlights from the region:

Snapshot: Aiguille du Midi.  This is the 3,843 meter peak in the Massif Mont Blanc range, and is accessible by cable car. We drove the 40 minutes to Chamonix (which is at the base of the French side of Mont Blanc), as the bro-in-law had been up to the summit several decades ago, and was quite desperate to do it again. Sadly, as we could obviously see on the drive in, the winds at the peak were so high that the snow was blowing sideways.  Cable cars were closed for safety, and weather forecast was not good for the foreseeable future. Still, we hedged our bets and got a 2 day ‘open pass’ which meant that we could come back a second day, without being consecutive, in order to take in the attractions.  They covered the cable car up Aiguille du Midi, the cable car up the Brevent peak (behind Chamonix, across the valley from Mont Blanc) and the train de Montenvers which takes you up the mountain to the glacier fields. Pricey… but we were hopeful that the weather would clear, and we made the best of the day exploring Chamonix and taking the cable car up to the Brevent peak.

And a few days later the weather cleared!  In hindsight, I’m so glad it did because this was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip!  Good thing bro-in-law was so insistent.

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Aguille du Midi is the worlds highest vertical ascent cable car. You take the first cable car to Plan de l’Aiguille (about halfway up) and then the second cable car is EXTRAORDINARY!!  It takes you up to 3877m, and the last part of it is almost straight vertical. Some of us felt a bit dizzy and lightheaded from the altitude. The views from the summit over the french, italian and swiss alps was amazing. We could see Zermatt in the distance (the iconic Matterhorn), and it truly felt like you were on top of the world. The highest peak in the European Union. The kids were delighted to have a snowball fight at the halfway station (no way the could do that up top… bitterly cold!!  But at least the cafe had decent hot chocolate!)

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As a sidenote… a few weeks ago they opened up the ‘Step into the Void’ Glass Skywalk at the summit station of Aiguillle du Midi, which has the glass floor experience of seeing straight down 1035 meters, with views to Mont Blanc peak. It was still under construction when we were there. Pity we missed it… will just have to go back!

And another sidenote… the train de Monveners was not particularly interesting (seen one glacier, seen them all) but since you pay for it with the pass, you may as well use it!  Buddy always likes a good train ride anyway… it would have been better had we been able to walk down the hundreds of stairs to get the ice fields, but no way Buddy’s wee little legs could have done that. During the season there is a gondola to take people all the way down from the viewing station to the ice fields.

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Snapshot:  Chamonix.  It’s a hugely popular ski town (which I’ve never been to).  It was very quiet end of October, as it was evident that everyone was gearing up for the upcoming ski season. But it was nice enough, with a large pedestrian center lined with (of course) shops and restaurants. But for all it’s commercial appeal, it was still charming. Maybe will have to try skiing here one day?

Snapshot:  Accrobranche in Morillon.  While the Cable Car up Aiguille du Midi was the high point for all the mums and dads… no doubt the accrobranche course in Morillon was the high point for all the kids.

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Accrobranche is a high ropes course, where you are attached to safety cables by harness at all times. There was a 1 metre high course for kids 3-6 years, a mid-height course for those 7-10, and then the high course for ado’s and grown ups. Buddy and his 4 year old cousin mucked about on the lower ropes course and zip lines, while his two older cousins (6 and 7) ventured higher up.  They had a blast, and asked to go back a second time before the trip was over.

I’m kind of wishing I’d had a go too… the grown up course looked awesome, and had a zip line across the lake!  But I have found an accrobranche course here near Nice, which is closed for the season, but will open again end of February.

Snapshot: Sixt Fer a Cheval.  Would have loved to have had more time to take some walks through this area.  Every direction you looked there were cliffs and waterfalls… it’s a horseshoe shaped canyon, and there are supposed to be beautiful hiking trails ranging from easy to advanced. But it was the end of our rainy day when we ventured here, so the best we could do was to just take it all in, and engage the kids in a game of ‘who can stomp on the most mushrooms’. (which bro-in-law from the UK totally did not appreciate)

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Tip:  The ‘Cascades de Rouget’, en route to Sixt Fer a Cheval was a great little stop. You can walk right up to the massive waterfall… expect to get a bit wet, and wear solid shoes with rubber soles!

We did loads of other lovely walks… there is no shortage of them to choose from.  One of the best, considering we had 3 year old Buddy in tow, was the Col de Joue Plane loop.  It was a picturesque walk around a mountain pass overlooking Samoëns and the valley. At the far end of the loop is a look-out spot with a cross… epic views. The walk wasn’t too steep so buddy could manage, and it had some lovely alpine flats he could run on. But it was muddy.  Very muddy! 🙂

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Geneva is also an easy day trip.  Bit of a tip?  Unless you’ve already purchase the ‘vignette’ (a pass to drive on the highways in Switzerland), then DON’T TAKE THE AUTOROUTE TO GENEVA. They’ll make you pay 40 Euros for the annual vignette, even if you’re only heading another few kilometers across the border for lunch. We should have taken the scenic route over the mountain passes…. ah well. Live and learn.

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Yeah yeah… new years, new year resolution:  I’ll really try to start blogging regularly!  But you know… we’ll see.  ‘Try’ really is the operative word.

But a fitness resolution is well underway.  My daily 15 minute morning workout since late November has yielded results, and I’ve got a group of about 50 people resolving to do it with me on Facebook!! And I’ve started running with some regularity again (once or twice a week), so I should be happy with my fitness by spring!  Hurrah!   It’s only taken four and a half years!!

The big difference this time is that Buddy is in school.  So if I’m working from home, I can drop him to school at 08:30 in my running gear, and then hit the road immediately after. Still home and showered in time to put in a good day’s work. But if I have to head into Monaco, no can do.  But once or twice a week is fine for now! I still need a few days to recover after a run anyway!

So let’s talk about school!  That’s been our biggest change over the last 4 months! And it’s kick started our involvement in real french life!

Buddy is three (four next month) and he’s started french school this past September.  Yes, it seems young, and you don’t have to legally enroll them until they’re six, but I figure that a) I need the time to work within REGULAR working hours and b) he needs to learn french sooner rather than later!  The french ‘Maternelle’ (kindergarden) lasts for three years. That’s loads of time for him to pick up a new language, non?

So he doesn’t like it, and in fact he hated it for the whole first term… but he’s got a couple of friends in his class now (one who is english/french bilingual) so that helps.  He’s singing to himself in (very incorrect) french… and by the end of the school year he should be much improved and less overwhelmed.  We’re very proud of him, and his french accent is perfect!!  Much better than mine!  He’ll be correcting me before he’s in primary school!

In France the schools are 08:30-16:30 Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.  No school on Wednesdays. However, from next September they should be reinstating the Wednesday school days (I think for a half day) and making the school day a bit shorter.  There is a lot of public opposition to this, but we don’t really care. We’re still ‘guests’ in this country, and we’ll just go along with whatever is decided. As long as they don’t reinstate a half day on Saturdays!!!!!!!  Interdit!

What I love about the French school system is the lunches.  Oh, the lunches!! Every day a 5 course meal in the cantine (buddy goes to cantine twice a week, and lunches at home with us 2 days a week).  The cost to parents is circa 4.50 Euros per day.  Starts with a salad (which Buddy NEVER eats), then a main course (fish, vegetarian or meat), a side dish (rice, potatoes, couscous, polenta, etc),  cheese (because, hey, it’s France, land of the cheese!), and then a dessert (often fruit or yogurt).  Every day it’s a different menu, and offers the kids plenty of new and interesting things to try.  Buddy has tried things that I’ve never thought of!  And it’s all pretty damn healthy. And once a year they have a week where Michelin starred chefs prepare the food!  I wish I could go to school that week….

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No wonder french kids have such a good reputation for being good, healthy eaters.

And my absolute favourite thing about school… I get to actually do my lion’s share of work during normal working hours, and I’m rarely ever working until past midnight anymore. It’s awesome.  I can watch a movie, or even go to bed nice and early.  Ahhhhhh.  It’s been a long 4 years to get to this point!

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Just found this post in my drafts folder!  Whoops!  🙂  From August 2013

I’ve got a pretty great life here in the south of France, but sometimes I have the opportunity to see how the other half lives, and my life just gets richer (and perhaps a wee bit more decadent!!)

A client has a house up the coast in Port Grimaud. They only summer there, so when it’s off season there are things that need to be done, whether for security or maintenance. So it made sense that I finally make my way out there to see it first-hand, so I know what I’m actually responsible for.

So they invited us up, en famille, for the weekend.  And oh, la la!

A generous offer on their part, but I was still prepared for a ‘working weekend’ while hubs and Buddy banged around Port Grimaud a bit, and enjoyed the atmosphere.  Not to be. We were spoiled from the minute we arrived, until finally in the late hours of the weekend we did a couple of hours of ‘work’ before heading back home.  The housekeeper and nanny just took care of anything we (or Buddy would want).

The fellas were all treated to an afternoon at the GoKart track — Buddy’s first time in a GoKart and we were shocked he wasn’t too scared to try!  He’s shedding his scaredy cat ways, and becoming an adrenaline junkie like his mumma!!!  Of course he’s too young to pilot it himself, but he cheered on the big boys, and co-piloted when it was daddy’s turn. Wish I could have been there to see it, but the mum’s stayed behind to make sure the champagne didn’t go to waste! 🙂

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We were taken for dinner in a fabulous little restaurant in Grimaud, where we merrily ate, and drank our way through three bottles of wine with our hosts (had a bottle of Chateau Miraval, from the Jolie-Pitt estate — meh.  Don’t quit your day jobs guys, it was only ‘okay’ The Minuty was unanimously far better!)

The next morning, three ibuprofin and a huge bottle of water later, we enjoyed a large breakfast before heading out to sea… they were taking us across to the beaches of St Tropez for lunch.  Yeah. Doesn’t suck!

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An absolutely enjoyable afternoon at sea and at the beach, and one that stick’s in Buddy’s memory!  Some work was eventually done… but mostly it was a ‘play’ weekend!  I really do love my job!

About Port Grimaud & St Tropez:  It’s a tiny village in the gulf of St Tropez, known a the Venice of the Riviera because of all the canals and bridges.  All the houses are old fishing houses (beautifully and luxuriously restored). Every house is on the waters edge, and almost all of them have at least one mooring for a boat.

St Tropez, across the bay, is the ultimate riviera town.  Glamourous and glitzy in summer, but with a genuine ‘small town’ feel.  It’s difficult to get to St Tropez. It’s far from the autoroute, and the massive traffic jam during the season is discouraging to so many. You wouldn’t fight that traffic just to go for the day!!  And accommodation is costly in St Tropez!  And booked well in advance, especially for the more ‘reasonably’ priced places.  I do love St Tropez, although I would prefer to go early season (May/June) or late season (Sept/Oct) to avoid the heaving crowds, overpriced and underwhelming service, and traffic jams.  And the beaches?  Surely you’ve heard of the Pampelonne beach of St Tropez? A sweeping long, wide sandy beach. Dotted with some of the most famous beach restaurants in the world? Divine.  Top beaches in the Cote d’Azur, to be sure.  But worth the effort to get there?  That depends. Maybe 🙂

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It’s insane that I’ve been here in the south of France for over 11 years, and still haven’t been to Corsica. We talk about it yearly. But we never quite go (it’s not as easy as it sounds, when Italy is just always beckoning from across the border!!)

But Buddy is three this year. Can handle the travel. Walk on his own for decent distances. And it’s about frickin’ time we got there.

So we hopped a ferry to Corsica!

Okay, maybe not hopped, as the whole trip was planned 6 months in advance to figure out which part of the island to visit, book the ferry (well in advance, as the prices tend to skyrocket as you get closer to your departure date!), and find a decent, charming B&B to call home for the week.  That all done, we had settled on the Calvi region, assured by many who knew that it was a good base for a holiday with a kid in tow.

And you know what… it really was!  We had some last minute anxieties  as Buddy had recently developed some motion sickness in cars… and one thing we were sure of, was that there would be an abundance of windy roads on the island. And so, armed with acupuncture wristbands and homeopathic medicines, we set out for our summer holiday. Enfin, la Corse!

Big tip for the travel:  when booking your ferry, book a cabin. It was totally worth the extra cost just to have a quiet place to chill out, and at the very least leave your toddler-packed hand baggage (blankie, bunnies & books…. and ipad!!)

-We chose Calvi because there was an abundance of different things we could see & do, to keep the holiday feeling varied, but not repetitive.  A day to explore Calvi, and have an ice cream. A day exploring the small artisinal villages in the back country. A ‘relax at the B&B’ day (until the wasps chased us from the pool). A beach day.  A drive up to St Florent to take a boat to the ‘secret beaches’ that aren’t accessible by road. Honestly so much to do, with no more than an hour and a half drive anywhere.

Highlights and lowlights, for those thinking of doing the same:

– Gites de Paradella, a few km inland from Calvi, and our home for 7 nights. Beautiful, rustic, charming… it ticked all of our boxes. Lovely grassy courtyard for a game of footie, or just lazing about listening to the birds. A decent sized pool with a gentle slope, great for all ages (not that the wasps or the winds really let us enjoy the pool as much as we would have liked). Fantastic hosts. The website and photos actually do not do this property justice, and it was a perfect base for our day trips in all directions. paradella

– I Scalini restaurant at the top of the village of Saint Antonio.  This was our day of ‘village hopping’ to explore the back country and see what artisanal products we could find.  After wandering the beautiful village with sweeping views towards both Calvi and ile Rousse, we found a beautiful restaurant, perched over the mountain, with open 360% views. The food was mediocre (big-ass salads though) but the atmosphere and views made up for any shortcomings. If only it wasn’t so windy!!!!IMG_0460

– Which brings me to our overwhelming lowlight. It’s really, really windy in Calvi!! We didn’t know this, and it really affected the temperatures every day… and made beach days a bit less enjoyable. Not to worry, we had a grand time regardless!!

– the town of Pigna.  Totally charming (and tiny), but with a couple of great artisan shops — I was quite taken with their music box shop, where we bought two of these adorable little (expensive) crafterpieces (Scata Musica).  Also enjoyed another highlight lunch in Casa Musicale, a restored mill house turned hotel-restaurant (and hosts a variety of concernts and music courses and seminars) — apparently the whole villages is devoted to the love of music! Casa Musicale only serves food from Corsica, so you can be sure it was grown, cultivated, caught and prepared locally. It was light, simple and delicious… and the views over the coast were, again, astounding.

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– The beaches off St Florent:  only accessible by boat or quad car. They (there are two) are wide, pristine, shallow, clear and not at all crowded. Buddy could walk out so far, and he was so proud of himself! We had mild moments of panic if a wave caught him off balance though!

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– the Beaches of Calvi. Wide and sandy. Windy though!  Cute little local train runs through from time to time… and there is an accrobranche / ropes course there (that buddy was too small for this time). We lunched at Octopussy, and buddy was so pleased with it that he asked to go back again before our trip was over.

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– The town of Ile Rousse?  Surprisingly disappointing. Not much of a town, just feels like big resort. We had considered having our base there… so glad we didn’t!  However, the salted caramel gelato buddy had was the best of the trip!! Perhaps best ever!!

– And our final highlight: We tacked an extra day to our holiday to head a bit further down the coast to a tiny town called Porto. Not to be confused with Porto Vecchio!!  It’s only 70-odd kilometeres from here to there, but it’s agonizingly twisty and windy, and we were a bit car-sick anxious the whole way there (buddy was fine!!  I don’t care if it’s placebo effect from the wristbands and medication, as long as I don’t have to clean up a bucket of vomit). The views were extraordinary. Photos do not do it justice. The town of porto was tiny, new, and completely void of anything other than souvenir shops, restaurants, and shops selling boat tour tickets.  So you will not need more than 2 nights there — any more than that and you’ll go squirrely!!  But do go. And do take a boat ride out to the Scandola Reserve and Calanques do Piana — natural rock formations of feiry red rock blazing against the deep blue mediterranean. We didn’t make it all the way over to Scandola reserve as that would simply be too long in a boat for Buddy, but the Calanques were breathtaking, and well worth the drive down the coast.

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Not a whole lot of lowlights from our perspective!  There was more than enough to do within easy driving distance from our base. And we didn’t encounter any place that was not tolerant or even charmed by our little fella. In fact, on our last night in Porto, two of the servers requested kisses and hugs from him, and the entire restaurant — at least all those on the terrace — waved him goodnight (after he polished off mumma’s lobster pasta!)

Will we go back again? Yes.  Probably to explore the south next time. Bonifacio, Porto Vecchio, and perhaps a day trip (or two) across to Sardinia. But that’s for another year… still a lot of other places to see and do!  🙂

Bon aventure!