Despite her misgivings, Belinda Henley lives through a short trip to London with her flowergirl daughters.
When my two daughters were asked to be flower girls at my cousin's wedding, it's fair to say excitement levels were high. But there was a catch — they were getting married in the Cotswolds. As in the Cotswolds, England, on the other side of the world.
The girls' hopes were crushed all too quickly, after I rolled out all the excuses I could think of; too far, too expensive, too much time off school. But a few weeks later spurred on by my impulsive workmates and cheap flights to Europe, I booked. And there was no turning back.
Six months later, after an intensive savings campaign and endless questions, we found ourselves in the Emirates lounge at Auckland airport, me downing Moet and them bottomless lemonade as we prepared to embark on their first long-haul flight. And when I say long haul, I mean very long — it's 16 and a half hours from Auckland to Dubai.
We were unbelievably lucky on the first leg, the marathon journey made so much more bearable by the fact the plane was only half full and we had a spare row to spread out in. The staff made a real fuss of the girls, giving them soft toys, blankets and activity books, I got some sleep and all was good. On the quick stop in Dubai, we fully embraced all the lounge had to offer including a hot breakfast, decent coffee, freshly squeezed juice and a shower. After a second, much shorter leg, we arrived in London.
Having not been back to London in eight years and never with kids in tow, I was worried what it would cost to entertain them during our four-day stay, and how they would cope with the crowds. But, thankfully, what I quickly learned is you don't need to spend a fortune to keep them happy. Their biggest highlights were (almost) free. Riding the double decker bus, the Princess Diana memorial playground and eating Pret A Manger sandwiches in Hyde Park.
There are however, some outings which aren't quite so affordable. Set foot in Hamleys toy shop and you may well have to sell a kidney in order to make it out without a tantrum. My youngest was quickly taken by the "build a bear" concept where you custom-make your own soft toy. Once you have selected your new best friend, it is stuffed and then there is endless selection of clothing and accessories. Two hours later, Grace had Roxy, and I needed a cup of tea and a lie down.
While building bears may not necessarily be money well spent, some activities are. Going to a show in the West End is an experience they will remember forever and well worth every penny. We went to Matilda, which was so good it left us all in tears. As was the tour of Buckingham Palace with the family friendly audio guide. Much to their disappointment, we didn't see where Wills and Kate sleep, or where their kids play, but it's still an exciting look into how the other half live.
We found some hidden treasures which we returned to day after day. Crumbs & Doilies cupcake shop just off Regent St offers different flavours each day, so we just had to go back to sample them. And we found some great, child-friendly and inexpensive pubs to dine at, like The Builder's Arms in South Kensington.
Some days we walked for hours on end as we checked off almost every major landmark on our "to do" list.
The kids were exhausted, but for the most part happy, and I realised what a great city London is to play tourist in and despite the crowds, pollution, traffic and expense, it is actually a wonderful place for kids.
From its new home at St Pancras, we took the Eurostar to Paris. The experience of travelling by train is a world away from navigating a flight from one of London's busy airports.
A quick check-in, through security, time to buy some snacks for the trip and we were on board. The thought that we could go through a tunnel and when we emerged out the other side, be in a completely new country, was completely mind blowing for two provincial Kiwi kids. I hadn't been to Paris in a decade and one of our best decisions was to opt for a "hop on-hop off" bus tour. We picked it up at the Arc de Triomphe, it was a glorious day and we spent two hours taking in all the sights, getting off at the Eiffel Tower for a crepe and a closer look. We also went for an hour-long cruise down the Seine which was included in our ticket price.
With just three days in this magical city, I was reluctant to spend one of those at Disneyland Paris. But, constant begging and pleading by the kids (along with some excellent good behaviour bargaining from me) saw us on on board for the 45-minute train ride to the "happiest place on earth".
While smaller that the California version it has just as much appeal and the kids were entranced from the moment we walked in the gate. With the obligatory mouse ears purchased, we plotted our course around the park.
They have an excellent "fast pass" system where if a ride is busy, you can take a ticket for a set time later in the day. When you return, you go straight to the front of the queue. If used strategically, this can almost eliminate queueing times. Our favourite rides were The Buzz Lightyear Ride, Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Thunder Mountain, while old favourites like the revolving tea cups and It's a Small World had lost none of their charm over the years.
We stayed for the evening parade, which features all the favourite Disney characters and is an absolute must. Covering the park in one day is a big ask and it was a quiet train trip home, with both kids fast asleep.
Paris was the end of our European adventure: our next stop was three days in Dubai on the way home. I had never been to Dubai before and had imagined it to be Las Vegas on steroids. I wasn't too far wrong, but it was classier and more cultured with some of the nicest, most hospitable people we encountered on our trip.
Everything in that city oozes money and heat. We were there at the tail end of summer, it was unusually humid with temperatures around 38C.
We were staying at the Palace in Downtown. The location is fantastic, next door to the world's tallest tower, the 828m Burj Khalifa and the mind-boggling Dubai Mall.
The Palace has spacious rooms, a stunning pool area, restaurants, spa, gym and front row seats to the regular fountain show on the Burk Khalifa lake. But perhaps most importantly, it is home to the most spectacular buffet breakfast I have ever experienced — crepes and pancakes made in front of you, fresh juices made to order, Middle Eastern delicacies, eggs every way you like and great coffee from a local roaster.
When the kids were too full to eat the donuts they had been eyeing up, the charming waiter took a plate of them to our room for us. And we had the best meal of our holiday at Asado, a South American style grill lakeside.
Our first outing there was up the stunning Burj Khalifa. The kids were fascinated by the building process and the facts and figures behind this extraordinary structure.
We went to 148 storeys and the views are mind-blowing. Getting an aerial perspective of Dubai is an amazing insight into what the city's planners have created in the middle of the desert.
The afternoon was spent at the Wild Wadi waterpark. With 30 rides and attractions there is something for the biggest wimp (Lazy River) and the biggest adrenalin junkie (Tantrum Alley and Burj Surj).
Our final day was some much needed down time by the pool as well as a trip to the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, which is part of the Dubai Mall. I am partial to a decent aquarium but this was next level, with not only sharks, stingrays and penguins, but also a 750kg "King Croc" shipped in from Australia.
The accompanying video on how they managed to get him to Dubai is fascinating. As well as creatures below the ocean, the "zoo" also features a recreated Amazonian rainforest with accompanying bird life.
You could spend hours in Dubai Mall, especially in hotter weather where the air conditioning is a godsend. As well as expensive and extensive retail offerings, there is the very best in fast food franchises, including the famous Parisian patisserie Kaiser and the New York's Magnolia Bakery and the arguably the best burgers in the world, the all-American Fatburger.
Arriving, departing and transiting through Dubai is as painless an airport experience as you can have. It's a huge, modern facility but well equipped for the millions of passengers who pass through it. And if you want an alternative to an Asian or American stopover en route to Europe, Dubai is a great option.
GETTING THERE: Emirates flies from Auckland to London Heathrow and Gatwick, plus Stansted from June, via Dubai. Return Economy Class fares from $1669.
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