How to Show your Kids the World
Some years ago I was in the line for St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, trying to keep my six year olds from getting bored. Despite all entreaties as to the antiquity of the mosaics, the prospect of mummified relics, and the sheer beauty of the interior – they are begging for pizza. Who could blame them? I realised how pointless it was taking young children and expecting them to absorb any worthwhile culture.
Experience since has taught me that eight – or thereabouts – is the watershed. From then on they become like sponges. It set me thinking – with twins of nine and one of eight, I calculate I have seven prime years of showing them the world, trying at least to introduce them to some of the wonder that touched me. From their mid-teens, they don’t want to travel with you anymore. It’s not the church, but you who are boring.
So where, in an ideal world, money no object etc, would I take them? Assuming one proper two week trip a year, here’s my top seven list:
A Walking Safari
There are safaris, and there are safaris. A group safari, with convoys of landrovers chasing each other around the same thin tracts of land, following the game, may have the merits of showing you the Big Five at the end of a telephoto lens, but it can feel little more exciting than San Diego Safari Park. No, what you want to show your children – at the risk of sleepless nights listening to the hippos tramping around next to your tent – is the magic of remote bush, the garden-of-eden feel of walking without seeing other human beings for several days, just you, your guide, and a support vehicle (and staff – let’s not forget them) to set up your camp for the night. Drop bucket showers under trees, and doing your business beside a pile of stones. It can be expensive, but it’s an experience that will stay with you, and them, forever. Read about Fly Camping in the Selous
The Northern Lights
I have a confession to make – I have never seen the Northern Lights, at least for real. So how much of me there is here, I’m not sure, but the sheer power and awe-inspiring ‘other-worldliness’ of these shimmering green gases high up in the earth’s atmosphere will help remind me, and my children, of how small we are in the Universe – both frightening and somehow comforting at the same time. I remember once showing one daughter the rings of Saturn through a telescope – that mysterious green light show has to be every bit as stunning. A trip to see the Northern Lights also is something of an achievement in itself –you have to travel hundreds of miles into the frozen tundra of the far north of Norway to see them to best effect, and moreover they don’t always perform. So when you do see them it’s one concentrated hit of ‘wow’ that will leave me, I suspect, perhaps more breathless than my children, fed as they are on a diet of Doctor Who. Read about the Northern Lights
You have to take them to China. Given where the world is headed, and that Mandarin is now taught in many schools, a two week trip to China is important for their cultural understanding. The Great Wall will blow their minds (can you really see it from space?), as will the sight of all those terracotta warriors guarding their dead emperor who, by the way, is still lying under that unexcavated mound. There’s also a huge amount to be gained by showing them the food markets (dogs, snakes, rodents), the crowds of bicycles, the stunning scenery of the Guilin River, and the snake-like lines of toiling navvies in that most Conradesque of cities on the Yangtse, Chongqing. Read about the Terracotta Warriors
My next choice can easily backfire. I would probably leave it until they are in double digits at least. But a trip to India to show them how large swathes of humanity live in utter poverty, but at the same time in a kind of spiritual equilibrium that is humbling to witness, will leave an indelible impression on them, and remind them that they are amongst the most fortunate children in the world. To best effect you need to spend at least a week in one place, with another week or two travelling the country – and at the risk of overdoing it, I would choose Varanasi, where they burn bodies on pyres beside the river, and where the festivals are like no others in India, with a trip to nearby Banaras (sometimes spelled Benares). For more gentle cultural enrichment I would reward them with a trip round the palaces and forts of Rajasthan where their grandfather kept the Raj in business, staying in plush palace hotels – just to ram home that contrast. Read about Banaras
America is still the land of opportunity, of potential, of what can and can’t be achieved. What better place to start than California? Personally I bribed them NOT to go to Disney, and we spent time in Hollywood instead – but wherever you go to soak up West Coast culture, you should ensure you include two experiences: teach them to surf on one of the large wide beaches on La Jolla and points south to San Diego, where the whole surfing culture originated, and take them on the stunning coastal drive up to San Francisco, stopping in Carmel for the Monterey Aquarium, Big Sur for the relics of hippydom, and Hearst Castle for a big dose of American weirdness. And if you still have time, take off East, and drive across the mountains, desert and Midwest plains towards Chicago and the East Coast, and fly back from New York. This is a true road journey, but eye opening as an introduction to all strands of the American psyche. Read about Route 101
Euboia and the Aegean Sea
Apart from some surfing, we haven’t done much in the way of activities. I haven’t included skiing on this list, as once you start, you’re on an expensive annual treadmill –a great holiday and fantastic for most children, but not to be considered as a one off. Instead I would take the family Greece for a sailing trip around the Aegean to the coast of Turkey. It’s the perfect mix of sun, fresh air, significant culture and activity. Significant not because it is as concentrated as elsewhere, but because this is where our western civilisation was born. I would start with a week in Euboia, renting a villa overlooking the sea, with olives and vines and a small taverna to eat in. I’d teach the children about how the alphabet and the art of writing first landed here in the boats of Phoenician traders, and then we’d read stories of Agamemnon and Helen of Troy – before setting sail in a chartered yacht towards Troy and the coast of Turkey. If you’re not a sailor, you have two options – a flotilla holiday, where you get a boat to skipper but in convoy, after learning the rudimentary basics; or, if you have the funds, hire a yacht with crew and do it in comfort. Read about Euboia
The Cloud Forests of Costa Rica
For my final experience, I would go west. The Monteverde reserve in Costa Rica is one of the most spectacular natural environments in the world. The forest hosts over 100 species of mammals, over 400 species of birds and 2500 species of plants - including jaguars, tapirs, ocelots and the upside-down olingos, plus humming birds and over 420 types of orchids. This is eco-tourism at its best - teaching the children about the rich diversity of the planet, while at the same time showing them how threatened it is. This might sound like a 'PC' choice, but purely from a wildlife point of view there are few locations that beat Costa Rica. Moreover, tourism has been developed here in a sensitive fashion, with sustainable resources and avoiding the pitfalls of unregulated growth. Read about the Cloud Forests
By this time they are 15 and I am bankrupt. I will sink back into a life of comfortable cruising or quiet holidays in Ireland and read about my children’s exploits in the tabloid press. Whatever they get up to, I will know I have done my best.
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