Our kids are getting to that age (ages 4 – 11) that are the perfect age for theme parks such as Disneyland. You know. That magical age where they are old enough to walk (no baby buggies!) and go on rides fairly independently but still young enough to feel the magic of places like Disneyland without the cynical viewpoint of a tweenager/teenager. They still also like to hold our hands in public. I’ve heard that goes downhill shortly after age 12 for many kids.
This summer, we had originally planned to spend two weeks in Italy, but with two of our three sets of grandparents coming to visit in May and June, we decided to put those plans on the backburner for another year. It was a lucky move because shortly before Christmas and then in the beginning of 2016, we received news that more friends and family were planning on visiting in different groups. By the end of the summer we will have had 6 different sets of visitors between February and August – some staying in hotels and some staying with us, but all but two visiting Dublin for the first time.
Luckily, when we had heard of the grandparental units making plans for their visits, I had decided to go ahead and book a short holiday to the UK to visit Legoland Windsor Resort. I had signed up for deal alerts and a great early bird deal came into my inbox that promised that the kids would get in free and we would get a second day free plus the cost of hotel. Now, if you have 4+ kids, you know that sometimes booking accommodation (especially in Europe) can be tricky. In the US, the standard room was usually two large queen beds plus a sleeper sofa if you book a suite or a family room which was plenty of room for us because the kids could often sleep 3 across when they were smaller. A family room in Ireland and Europe usually means one small queen plus either one single bed or a sleeper sofa if you are lucky. There is certainly no room for sleeping on the floor or extra cots. Since I was booking online, I opted to book just one night since the online booking forced me to book two Triple rooms at the Copthorne Windsor Slough Hotel for the number in our party. I was hoping to ring the hotel then and see if they could accommodate us all in one room. Unfortunately, as soon as I had booked the tickets, I checked the hotel and the room rates were twice what the special rate with Legoland.
Unwilling to pay $300+ per night for our hotel, I quickly started searching Airbnb and some of the other online booking websites and settled on a lovely house nearby Legoland that boasted a hot tub, sauna, and was situated next to the Thames and close to a train station. I sent the owner an email explaining our awkward booking with our Legoland deal and she was so nice and allowed us to book the house and not charge us for the night we would be at the hotel. The house slept 6 and being so close to the train station (walking distance) plus closer to Legoland than the hotel, I quickly paid for the booking.
Next was our transport. I decided we would try the ferry and booked with Stena Lines from Dublin to Holyhead. It seemed like it might be a fun way to see England. Turns out England is not quite as picturesque travelling through the middle as I had hoped. But seeing Wales was interesting and it was a beautiful area. It turned out to be a fun experience. We woke up super early and had planned to be at the ferry dock an hour before our departure (8:20am) which turned out to be too late! There was a massive queue when we arrived there at 7:30am.
Luckily, I had booked the Stena Plus for about €20 more for all of us (it’s a €18pp upgrade if you wait until you get to the ferry) because it included free coffee/sodas/snacks for all of us. I figured that unlimited drinks and snacks for 6 people were worth the extra €20. I had been so fixated on the drinks and snacks that I had missed that it also included priority boarding and disembarkment. So, it was fantastic to roll up and then be able to get into the priority boarding line and also be one of the first cars off the ferry at Holyhead.
On the ship, we were able to find some tables and chairs (although not the most comfy ones because J had to run back down to the car as he’d left our special card to access the Stena Plus lounge – not knowing we’d need to use it to access the lounge). As we settled in with our coffees and snacks, J and the older kids decided to go down to the cinema room and watch Goosebumps to pass the time. I stayed with Lulu and we spent the next 3 hours eating a lot of crisps, trying out the beverages, and drawing pictures. It was a beautiful sunny morning and we sat right in front of the ferry with views across the water.
When we finally arrived at the port in Holyhead, we immediately started our drive down toward Windsor eating our sandwiches and snacks along the way. The drive through Wales was pretty and interesting, but the southern route to Windsor and London was long and the traffic was busy and congested. It ended up taking us 6 hours (Google Maps estimated 4.5 hours) to get to Windsor and the traffic looked much more gnarly travelling North.
When we arrived at the Airbnb house, everything was as advertised on their listing. It was a beautiful home and location right on the Thames. It took me a couple of tries to figure out how to back the car into the property from the tiny lane. But the water was sparkling and calms and the kids were ecstatic to stretch their legs after hours (and only one potty break) in the car. The house had a lot of personality and featured a lot of interesting musical memorabilia. After arriving, we realized that the house belonged to an aging British rocker and his partner! We had no idea who he was, but he looked famous on Wikipedia!
We spent the rest of the evening relaxing and picked up some groceries at the nearby Tesco Express for breakfast stuff, and snacks and sandwiches for our next couple of days in London.
On Saturday morning, we arrived early at the train station only to realize that we’d just missed the 9am train and needed to wait for the next one at 9:30am. It gave us some time though to buy tickets at the ticket machine and enjoy the sunny morning. The train trip was easy enough and we easily switched from the train line to the tube line at the last stop to head to the Tower Hill tube station and the Tower of London. It probably took about one hour of travel and we arrived at the Tower of London at about 10:30.
We had purchased our Tower of London tickets online because it was cheaper that way and J just went up to the ticket window to collect our tickets. We then queued in a long line for about 10 minutes. But it moved really quickly as most of the wait was due to the security checking everyone’s bags before entry. At the security gate, a man in front of us asked the security what they recommended to see first and the guard said to see the crown jewels first because the queue for the crown jewels would only get longer as the day went on.
Luckily, the Monkey heard the guard and we duly took this into account for our own plans and headed straight to the crown jewels with only a few very minor stops for a couple of photos along the way.
There was NO queue for the crown jewels and we were able to go right in. I noticed that the soldiers outside were wearing dress uniforms instead of the fatigues and military looking gear we saw in 2000 when J and I visited. It certainly gave it a different feel! When we visited in 2000, it was early February and it seemed like we were the only two tourists at the Tower wandering around in the drizzly rain. What a difference with the crowds and sunshine to visit during the summer.
After we exited the crown jewels exhibit, we noted the enormous line had already started to form. So, we decided to stop for lunch and people watch. On our way to the crown jewels, we had passed a couple of fellows dressed up in armor and they were to be presenting a Defense of the Tower presentation at noon which the kids wanted to see. It turned out to be the highlight of the Tower as it was very entertaining and they incorporated a lot of interesting history into their presentation. The kids loved stomping around after the Head of The Garrison and pretending they were Garrison guards.
After the presentation and a visit to the White Tower which housed an enormous dragon made of weapons and the armoury exhibit, we stopped for coffee and the kids got ice creams. We sat along the benches and watched the large crowds queuing for the crown jewels and congratulating ourselves for listening to the Monkey and the advice of the security guard.
After a few more tours of the Medieval Castle, The Tower of Torture, and the Animal Menagerie, the kids were feeling tired and ready to go. So, we decided to head over on the tube to King’s Cross to see if we could find Platform 9 3/4 since the Monkey has just finished the Harry Potter Series and LOVED it (not a surprise).
The trip was slightly confusing, because there is a King’s Cross tube station AND a King’s Cross train station, but we were able to find it only to be dismayed to find a GIANT queue waiting for photos with the cart in the wall at Platform 9 3/4. We decided to just go into Harry Potter shop next door for some souvenirs thinking we’d come back early the next morning when there wouldn’t be any crowds. That turned out to be a complete joke because there are crowds ALL. THE. TIME. I stood in the queue to pay for the Monkey’s magic wand, the Puppy’s ear wax and vomit jelly beans, and wondered if we could get all this stuff on Amazon.
With tired feet, we headed back to the tube and train, the Monkey clutching his wand and the Puppy excitedly reading aloud the different disgusting jelly bean flavours. They would all spend an hour at the house before bed carefully dicing up the jelly beans so everyone could equally sample ear wax, grass, earthworm, candy floss. 50% of these children are the same children who cry when presented with chicken breast or any green vegetable. What the hell. They will eat ear wax and booger jelly beans but not a string bean.
I’ll have to continue this post to break it up a bit!