Our shelter for the night is a simple wooden hut, 6,560ft above sea level. We’ve no electricity, scant phone signal, no wi-fi. The dim light of a log fire and a few candles casts spooky shadows on the walls around the decorative skulls of long-dead deer. A frog the size of a pigeon hops about outside the front door. What kind of night are we going to have? We arrived in San Cassiano two days before — me, my husband, John-Paul, and our daughter, Nancy (12) — having flown to Innsbruck then crossed the border into the Italian South Tyrol, then up, up, up into the jagged peaks of the Dolomites — snow-topped even in high summer but golden in the setting sun.
We planned an active holiday, with some luxurious relaxation built in, courtesy of Hotel & Spa Rosa Alpina, a five-star in San Cassiano that’s been run by the Pizzini family for generations. San Cassiano is best known for skiing (it has an impressive 80 miles of slopes) but in summer it offers us the chance to go hiking, climbing, and to enjoy high-end cooking lessons — not to mention spend many joyous hours flying about on cable-cars and chairlifts. On our first morning, the hotel’s mountain guide, Diego, takes us on a hike into the mountains. I’ve rarely seen a man as happy as the sprightly Diego, who almost skips as he walks. In his time, he’s guided many notable people through the hillside meadows — media moguls, presidents and now, er, us.
We’re here in mid-July: perfect to enjoy the mountains in full bloom with blues, pinks, yellows and whites; clover, forget-me-nots, primulas, orchids, globeflowers, mountain avens, indigo gentians. Many of them are edible, and Diego regularly dives into the tangle of vegetation to pull out tasty morsels of wild spinach, or garlic, or violas to eat. I’d been unsure about having a guide with us — worried Nancy might get bored with endless facts. But she’s entranced by Diego, and together they walk his beloved ‘pale mountains’ and hunt the wilderness for more things to eat. This being Italy, there’s always something tasty around the corner. After a short walk, we arrive at Bioch, a mountain refuge with stripy deckchairs to relax in as you gaze at glacier-topped Marmolada mountain in the distance.
We’re greeted by Markus, Bioch’s exuberant host, who wears Austrian-style lederhosen. His wife, Suzanne, is resplendent in a green dirndl. This is border country and Diego explains how the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost the South Tyrol to Italy after World War I. Everyone speaks German as well as Italian (plus Ladin, the local language). Much of the cuisine is Austrian but with an Italian twist (or is that Italian with an Austrian twist?). We tuck into hearty barley soup and tutres (crispy pancakes filled with spinach and ricotta or sauerkraut).
Bioch is part of the Giro d’ltalia dei Sapori, a culinary scheme involving 10 mountain huts in the Alta Badia ski area working with Michelin-starred chefs. Thus I find myself lunching on steamed Arctic char, infused with aromatic herbs — a dish created by Norbert Niederkofler, the head chef at Rosa Alpina’s two-Michelin-star Restaurant St Hubertus. Diego decides Nancy has done so well hiking that she should try a climbing lesson the next day. He arranges for fellow guide Filippo to take us to the area’s highest mountain pass. “Climbing,” says Diego, “is like dancing” And he does a little shuffle to demonstrate. The next day, Filippo kits us out with hard hats and climbing shoes. It may be mid-summer but it’s freezing up here in the mountains and Filippo kindly lends Nancy his fleece and hat.
We start our climb amid snow and ice and there’s a chill northerly wind blowing. Filippo scrambles up the sheer cliff attaching the guide ropes for us. At this point, Nancy’s face becomes white and pinched. She holes herself up in a little nook at the bottom of the cliff and refuses to move. Considering it a mother’s duty not to let the side down — despite feeling pretty pinched myself — I allow Filippo to put me into a harness and I begin to climb, with another guide shouting instructions below. I’m terrified but my attempt isn’t too embarrassing: I scale half the cliff before bottling out. The second time round, I almost reach the top. Nancy, I’m afraid to say, refuses to budge. Afterwards, Filippo takes us to the Museum of the Great War.
The kids look like they’re about to be blown off the face of the earth. We’re barely an hour from the coast, the sun is thumping down, but at this height, the wind comes with a kick. Everyone is wearing layers. Pulling our kids, Sam and Rosa, under our wings, we lean into it and continue our walk around the crater. We’re on Mount Etna, Sicily’s Mordor-like landmark and the tallest active volcano in Europe. Despite initial reservations about our excursion (“What if it erupts on us?” asks six-year-old Sam), the drive proves a gorgeous respite from the mid-summer heat, winding up through green forestry and yellow blossoms to the blackened landscape around Rifugio Sapienza. Here, we take a cable car and a 4WD bus to a height of 2,900m, before joining a guided walk around the crater just a few hundred metres below the puffing summit.
At €63 (£53) for adults and €42 (£35) for kids, it’s a pricey trip, but we don’t feel cheated. Gathering a few specks of lava for the kids’ classrooms, we head back towards sea level, stopping off at Murgo, a classy little vineyard taking advantage of Etna’s microclimate in Santa Venerina. We demolish a traditional lunch whose dishes range from caponata to pasta alia Nonna, Catanian specialties reflecting the mountain — aubergine evokes the black rocks, tomatoes the fiery lava, basil the greenery and ricotta salata shavings, the snow that dusts Etna in winter. It’s place on a plate, and that place is Sicily. We’ve been itching to come here. The kids were intrigued by the notion of a magical land where they could have ‘real’ pizza once a day. Their mother, who studied Italian in college, downloaded books in the language on her Kindle. And their father? Truthfully, I was just dying to get my mask and fins on and hit the Ionian Sea, to swim rather than sleep with the fishes.
LA DOLCE VITA
We’re travelling with grandparents, which helps split the cost of our villa, set among lemon groves outside the sleepy village of Santa Tecla, roughly a 45-minute drive from Catania-Fontanarossa Airport. Basing ourselves halfway between Taormina and Catania, the idea is to chill by the pool, take the two-minute walk to the lava-jagged shoreline for swims, and strike out on excursions when the mood takes us, exploring the island’s eastern nooks and crannies. Sicily gets seriously hot, well into the mid-30s in summer, so we leave our trips to towns and cities for the evenings. Catania feels grimy and industrial, though there’s a brilliantly shouty, smelly and squelchy fish market near Piazza del Duomo from 7am. Aci Castello charms us with its craggy castle, perched on a lava ridge.
Taormina’s Teatro Greco harks back to the island’s Greek heritage, encased in a mix of medieval alleyways and shopping streets where you’re as likely to find ceramic lemons as a £1,000 handbag Torremolinos, it ain’t. Prices rise notably here, but baroque buildings, belle epoque villas and a chic pedigree (Audrey Hepburn, Oscar Wilde and Greta Garbo all visited), not to mention stunning views over the Med and Mount Etna, are breathtaking In a bay below lies the teardrop-shaped island of Isola Bella. Loungers cost £10.50 a day to rent, but my wife and I walk directly past them. Leaving the kids with their grandpa rents fora gelato, we drop our towels on the pebbles and head straight for the water, taking a snorkelling safari around its shoreline.
The water is glorious. South of Syracuse, we find swim spots marked by numbers at Plemmirio marine reserve (at No.23, divers can see a sculpture of a mermaid submerged about 100m offshore). Between Santa Tecla and Stazzo, the next village north, we find swimming coves teeming with colourful crabs, rainbow wrasse, starfish and even a moray eel. We jump off piers, spot scurrying lizards, and retire to Stazzo’s friendly Blue Bar for more gelatos and a chapter of Harry Potter (a holiday tradition, this year, it’s The Half-Blood Prince).
Rain. Falling — torrentially — and flooding the boat. And then it’s over. My feet are wet. My trousers are wet. The children are wet. We are all, completely, utterly soaked through. No complaints though; we’ll wait for the passing sheets of rain to pitter patter out. This is rainy season in Costa Rica, officially from May to November (though I’m convinced it’s longer) and we’re lucky to be seeing the country in full bloom, phosphorescent green, buzzing, thriving, pulsing with life. Welcome to the rainforest. The giveaway is in the name. Walls of green and, at times, walls of water. It also partly explains why Costa Rica is renowned for packing around 5% of the world’s bio diversity, despite accounting for only 0.03% of the earth’s surface.
Water literally brings with it the building blocks of life. And Costa Rica is unique in that it has an ocean — the Pacific — and the Caribbean sea relatively close to each other. Classified as tropical because of its close proximity to the equator, it doesn’t really have a winter period. The sun shines here throughout the year. Between the rain that is. We’re on an open-roof boat (crazy, I know) on a nature tour, travelling through the Tortuguero National Park with our always-smiling guide, German Rojas, a very keen and infectious birdwatcher, who stands at the fore of the boat, binoculars in hand, he’s one of two travel directors supplied by our specialist Costa Rica operator, Trafalgar.
The canals and lagoons here are teeming with life: agile howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins, scary-looking caimans, numerous exotic bird species, rare ocelots, river otters and manatees. Yet in the rain, we struggle to see them. We’ve been given thick, plastic ponchos in electric blue; impenetrable and indispensable in a way no brand-name jacket can live up to. But less than 25 minutes in, we start to hear the animals and the sun arrives almost as quickly as the rain stops. In the dry, we can differentiate green macaw, tiger heron, the kooky black-and-white piano bird, woodpecker, parrots (in a pair), vulture, caiman and basilisk. We pause to seek out the grey potoo bird, posing as part of the tree bark, with the hawk-like guides pointing out its position as we city-dwellers struggle to focus our unaccustomed eyes.
The rain continues in spells of start and stop: soft, downpours, then full-on deluge, with thunder, before stopping once again. The sun arrives, belting out rays, leaving the forest steaming in its wake. It’s not long before the howler and spider monkeys make an appearance — hollering, shouting, even seeming to sing as they swing through the forest, a highlight for many of the group. On our return to Laguna Lodge, where we’re staying, we’re rewarded with a rare sighting of an adult and baby sloth, hanging from the branches. The adult almost waves, an arm stuck mid-motion.
Their low metabolic rate means it can take days for them to digest their food and make any sort of movement. They’re also often difficult to spot and so slow, algae can grow on their furry coat, further hiding them in the trees. This is our second rare sighting. The lodge is positioned between three strips of land interspersed by two canals, a lagoon, and on to the east, the Caribbean Sea. Earlier at breakfast, we’d been rewarded with a viewing of a dolphin, unusual in a lagoon; the waterway here is bracken, a mixture of fresh and seawater. The afternoon is ours to hang out by the pool or to find out more about the wildlife with our guides. Today, there’s the chance to learn all about frogs: specifically, the little red-eyed, green (leaf) frog, the poster-animal for Costa Rica. This trip is about making the most of the destination whatever the weather.
Later, I head to the Sea Turtle Conservancy Foundation to hear a talk on the incredible turtles that nest in Tortuguero, while the children choose to stay by the pool. As the clouds swell and deliver more rain, they’re happy getting wet in a game of their own making. Still, they join us for the ‘practical’ part of the turtle experience, an evening walk to the beach to see green turtles laying their eggs. The guide leads us to the beach, red light in hand (no torches or phones). The turtle has already nested and is in the process of laying her eggs. This 100kg hulk of a turtle, ‘Flo’, as she’s nicknamed by my daughter, needs space, as we crowd round to watch. Suddenly there are cries and pounding of feet, impromptu movement, and lots of extra space is given.
Someone has trodden on a nest of red ants, a too-late reminder to wear closed-toed shoes. The children are rightly jumpy and nervous — red ants bite! Flo is indifferent, though, doing her thing, laying egg after egg, then using her large paddles to cover the eggs with sand. She soon heads back crossing the sandy beach to the roaring sea, with riptides even the locals don’t dare challenge at this time of year.
Welcome to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique,” sings out a grown woman in a princess dress. “No photos please.” Ella and I peek into The Magic Kingdom’s makeover salon, where tiny girl patrons are getting locks and frocks attended to, seated in throne like chairs. “Woah,” says Ella. “That is weird… but amazing.” I’d been worried that at the grand old age of 10, Ella would be too grownup to enjoy Magic Kingdom’s fairytale schmaltz. But from its buffed, polished castles and cobbles, to its manically in-character costumed staff, this place delivers pure Disney charm. My somewhat self-conscious tween dances with everyone from Goofy to the Incredibles family, and goes gaga for the Electrical Parade, the nightly cavalcade of brightly lit floats that’s been entertaining families since the 70s (sadly soon to be decommissioned).
By contrast, Universal Studios seems brash and hungry to cash in on any film franchise going. But there’s no doubt that for high-octane virtual reality (VR) rides — including the truly impressive, if ludicrously packed Harry Potter World — Universal has Magic Kingdom beat. Beat is what we all find ourselves, running the gamut of the parks in 90-degree heat — even allowing for an essential cool-down day at the Aquatica water park (probably Ella’s most cherished memory from the trip). This was our reasoning for book- ending our holiday with a lake and beach break.
If you don’t want fried small fry, this is the smartest choice a family can make. Winter Park, an old Floridian neighbourhood of stately mansions and Spanish moss draped oak trees, is set around a chain of lakes offering boat tours and stand-up paddle-boarding. Away from the theme parks and malls of International Drive, this offers a taste of the real Orlando, including a happening food scene around the Mills SO area. Here, we eat ribs that Ella dubs the “ biggest, bestest” we’ve ever tasted, at Pig Floyds Urban Barbakoa; and go candy crazy at Rocket Fizz, a cavernous shop selling soda pop and fudge in flavours from PB&J to pumpkin pie. The white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast is where we park our weary bodies at the end of the trip, the perfect natural compliment to central Orlando’s man-made fun. We go alligator and manatee spotting in the mangroves of Caladesi Island nature reserve, and Ella cartwheels around the dunes of Clear water beach, tropical storm Colin fast building over the ocean. Who needs thrill rides?
Castle Cornet, Guernsey – Looming over Guernsey’s capital, St Peter Port, Castle Cornet is formidable: it’s guarded the harbour for 800 years. Battling up there on a rainswept day, it felt like we had made a mistake, but my daughter was soon clambering up battlements, imagining knights and princesses. We were fascinated by the history: from the garden kept by Sir John Lambert, imprisoned there for his part in the English Civil War; to the German Gothic script on the walls from when the Nazis commandeered the castle during World War II. In one of five museums, we found dressing-up clothes and a toy castle and nobody else at all. We spent an hour being kings, dragons and soldiers. It’s the castle all castles will be held up against by our family.
Durrell Wildlife Park, Jersey – The bear cub throws itself at the cage, scrambles as high as he can go before racing back down and suddenly falling asleep in the corner. I swear I can see his mother breathing a sigh of relief. Raymi, an Andean bear who arrived at the park in January 2016, is as full of energy as a toddler after a pack of Smarties. Durrell Wildlife Park is no ordinary zoo — set up in Jersey by naturalist Gerard Durrell in 1959, it concentrates on rare species and the baby bear is the latest in a long line of conservation breeding programme success stories.
Puffin Patrol RIB Cruise, Guernsey – My five-year-old squealed with delight for most of the RIB voyage from Guernsey’s St Peter Port: every time she saw a puffin or when the boat zoomed up to its highest — very fast — speed. “Why are you closing your eyes, mummy?” she yelled, as the captain made the speedboat do tight loops. Terrifying, but good fun.
St Brelade’s Bay, Jersey – It’s the busiest beach on Jersey, but it’s also huge. Even on a busy, sunny afternoon in half-term we had an enormous swathe of golden sand to ourselves. It’s south-facing and sheltered: we had to give up on another beach as the wind was whipping sand into our faces. A short drive to St Brelade’s saw my daughter splashing in the sea, leading to a considerably more relaxed afternoon for everyone. There are a few car parks around, which do fill up quickly on fine weather days, but the beach is also served by the number 8 bus.
Cobo Bay, Guernsey – A safe, wide beach with lots of parking nearby, Cobo Bay is a very nice place to spend the day with children. We also had a lovely evening here playing on the shoreline while watching the most spectacular sunset, before heading to nearby Vazon Bay to eat seafood and pizza at noisy, cheerful family-friendly restaurant Crabby Jacks.
How do you impress a family staying in a villa? “I’d send round a nanny and face painter to take care of the kids, a chef to cook up a storm, and a masseuse to work on the parents,” says Victoria Cooper-Evans of Balearic-based concierge service Deliciously Sorted. The Majorca branch can organise nights under the stars in a national park and private scuba diving lessons. “For families in Puerto Pollensa, I’d also recommend a trip to Formentor. The water is so calm and shallow — perfect for babies. We’d also arrange for an organic picnic lunch to be delivered, as well as a bunch of water sports.” Some requests, however, are just a little too bizarre. “We once had a client who requested a bearded pool boy to move furniture around in front of her with his shirt off while she sat by the pool.”
THE FOOD – Turn a blind eye to the usual resort rubbish and you’ll discover fantastically fresh seafood, quality tapas and cracking local wine. And the best news? The Spanish love kids and will not only welcome them, but attend to them as if they were the bill payer. Start with a coffee at Cappuccino, the town’s prime people-watching spot — even at 7am. For breakfast, head to El Pozo for tostadas — tomatoes, olive oil and salt rubbed on toast. For lunch, escape the heat and wolf down artfully constructed pintxos at Norai Pintxos &Wine Bar (Paseo Saralegui, 6). Cocktails by the beach is the order of choice at Hotel Miramar, while the seafood paired with modern Mediterranean flair at Na Ruixa (Mendez Nunez, 3) is hard to beat.
THE EVENINGS – From five-ish each evening, there’s a whirlwind of baby dinner, bath and bedtime. That’s the thing about avilia — the kids can be tucked up, while the parents can while away an evening on the terrace. My tip? Rather than cooking every night, order in from Al Fresco Deli (Calle Mendez Nunez, 10) with its Spanish-style dishes such as suckling pig and salt cod. Alternatively, make the most of having grandpa rents on tap and head out without the babies.
Choosing the right app can be just as confusing as deciding where to stay or how to get there. So we’ve combed through dozens of the latest travel apps (and a few mobile websites) to determine which tools are the most useful for planning a trip, getting around, finding friends, and saving money along the way.
The $9.99 per month members-only airfare tracker finds low-cost flight deals and sends notifications when it detects massive price drops, error fares, or flash sales.
Register your flight on this website up to two days before departure, and if it gets canceled or delayed by four hours, book a new ticket on any airline. Fees start at $19 for a one-way flight.
Find “hidden city” one-way tickets with a stopover where you get off the plane instead of continuing on to the destination on your ticket — they’re often cheaper than a nonstop fare.
If you’ve only got a few minutes for a meal before boarding a flight, Grab will let you look at airport restaurant menus ahead of time, map them in the terminal, and in some locations order in advance and pick up your food on the way to the gate. The app currently serves 174 eateries at 17 airports in the U.S.; by early 2017, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport will offer Grab’s mobile ordering at all of its 200 dining outlets.
This slick reservation app offers a highly curated collection of the hottest restaurants, such as Drunken Dragon, in Miami Beach, or Petty Cash, in Los Angeles. You can also use it to pay your bill or split it with your dining companions. Coming soon: popular nightlife spots in Aspen, Colorado, and Gstaad and Verbier, Switzerland.
HappyCow lists vegan and vegetarian restaurants in nearly 10,500 cities worldwide, from major cities like London (Book & Kitchen) and New York City (Blossom du Jour), to obscure places like Vatra Neamului, in Chișinău, Moldova. Each restaurant listing comes with a short description of the menu and user-generated reviews. $3.99.
When it comes to keeping the peace among the entire clan, hunkering down at an all-inclusive resort or a family-friendly villa is a smart move. Here are a few of our favorites.
Grade-schoolers can hang with Dora the Explorer and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles during character breakfasts. And with a water park and a clubhouse, the child-centric activities are nonstop. If you really want to blow their minds, book the two-bedroom, 2,292-square-foot Pineapple Villa: the foyer looks just like SpongeBob’s home under the sea.
HYATT ZIVA CANCUN – MEXICO
The free kids’ club at this year-old resort has a game room, a pool, and waterslides, which means grown-ups can spend the afternoon at the resort’s tequileria, brew-pub, or three infinity pools guilt-free — especially if you take the family for gelato and pastries at the on-site Pasteles dessert parlor right after you pick them up from the club.
JUMBY BAY – ANTIGUA
At this luxe Rosewood resort, parents can give older kids freedom to roam. There’s only so much trouble they can get into on a 300-acre private island, where activities include volleyball, mocktail mixology classes, and turtle walks. At night, everyone comes together for dinner at the Estate House, an 1830s mansion that just underwent a $6 million restoration.
DREAMS PLAYA MUJERES – MEXICO
Along with a water park that includes a lazy river, the brand-new Dreams property has a teens’ club, so kids ages 13 to 17 can try their hand at archery, golf, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and rifle shooting by day and get together for foam parties and bonfires at night. (The club stays open until 1 a.m.)
FOUR SEASONS RESORT & RESIDENCES – ANGUILLA
The 24 villas at this rebranded property, formerly the Viceroy, all have infinity pools and are just steps from the beach. If that’s not enough to entertain your brood, the Kids for All Seasons program changes its activities constantly: one day they’re decorating cupcakes, the next doing a scavenger huntor a three-legged race on Meads Bay Beach.
FOWL CAY RESORT – BAHAMAS
Get the best of both worlds at this all-inclusive private island with one-, two-, and three-bedroom villas. Not only does your fridge come fully stocked but you’ll also find a restaurant on site, plus plenty of diversions (snorkels, wake boards) to keep busy. Bonus: each villa comes with its own powerboat, so you can take a quick trip to feed the pigs on nearby Pigs Beach. Again. And again.
GEEJAM COLLECTION – JAMAICA
Considering that Katy Perry, Drake, and Rihanna have all recorded song sat this Port Antonio resort, a stay at one of the three villas won’t be a hard sell. (Ask to take a tour of the studio.) For the ultimate bragging rights, book the four-bedroom Panorama Villa, once a favorite spot of Audrey Hepburn, and take the gang for a spin in a restored Alfa Romeo.
PIET BOON BONAIRE – BONAIRE
Masterminded by famed Dutch designer Piet Boon, these 10 minimalist villas, each of which has a private pool, were built to take maximum advantage of the island’s cooling sea breezes. Which means that this is the trip where your kids can finally learn how to windsurf and kite board – both are popular activities here.
For designer Phillip Lim, Cambodia always seemed shrouded in secrecy. “My parents never talked to me about it,” he says. “I remember asking to go and they’d say, “Oh, no, you don’t want to do that.’ ” They’d spent a decade there before he was born, fleeing to Thailand as the Khmer Rouge tookpower, and their memories were painful ones, of a country embroiled in civil war. Still, friends said he’d love it, so when he decided on a whim to take his first true vacation in years, Siem Reap was an easy choice. With no firm plans beyond a hotel reservation, Lim spent his stay meandering through temples, cooking with locals, and soaking in the slower pace. Here, he shares a few favorite moments from the trip.
Spending– seven days rather than seven hours to get to the same place might seem like an extravagance to today’s travelers. But that’s exactly the point. The 2,691-passenger Queen Mary 2, which spends much of the year ping-ponging between New York and England, is the only passenger ship still making regular transatlantic crossings. It’s a throwback to cruising’s golden age, when starlets and statesmen traversed the Atlantic by ship.
Until recently, the grandeur was undercut by confining layouts, and decor that once seemed stately had begun to look dated. So last year, Cunard doubled down on early-20th-century glamour with a stem-to-stem renovation inspired by the original Queen Mary, the 1934 grande dame that was retired in 1967.
The result is a ship that feels both nostalgic and totally fresh. In the Grand Lobby, two elevators were removed to open up the space, which is now furnished in a creamy palette instead of the old burgundies and browns. The once-cramped Kings Court has shed the cafeteria-like ambience; marble panels and Art Deco tiling give it a brighter feel.
Gone are the tropical-themed Winter Garden, with its palm motifs, and the Todd English restaurant.
They’ve been replaced with the Carinthia Lounge, where guests can select among port vintages that date back to 1840 — the year of Cunard’s founding — and the Verandah, an upscale French restaurant that nods to the Queen Mary’s Verandah Grill.
The QM2 added go cabins, including 15 singles. Upper-tier Princess Grill and Queens Grill suites feature bespoke rugs that recall those on the original ship; the two Grill dining rooms echo the suites. Formality and tradition reign, in service as much as in decor.
Despite all that’s new, the Queen Mary 2 remains a ship for those who prefer black-tie dinners to waterslides, who’d rather spend an afternoon perusing the library’ or chatting over black-and- tans in the pub than be tethered to a screen. It’s admittedly old- fashioned — but these days, there’s nothing more novel.