Today is Sophie’s 16th birthday, so her mother is baking a cake. As Danyah Miller (who co-wrote the show with John Miller) mixes together the ingredients to bake a real-life cake before our very eyes, she’s reminded of a story she used to tell Sophie when she was little: about a family of mice celebrating a birthday of their own.
Kika’s Birthday is charming in places, and Miller is a very likeable performer, but the show lacks dramatic oomph, more story session than theatrical performance. Designer Alison Alexander’s menagerie of everyday objects transformed into animals, though often ingenious, are not used to their full potential. There’s very little attempt to bring these creatures to life in director Samantha Lane’s largely static staging – Miller’s own physicality is dynamic (credit to movement director Jennifer Jackson) but when it comes to the puppetry, she’s really just creating a series of tableaux and the story never really takes hold as a result.
Chris McDonnell’s lighting design is effective in switching between the cake-baking narrative and the story it frames, but the other signifier – a change from prose to rhyming verse and back again – feels rather twee.
We’re offered no sense of the world inhabited by the mice, either via the design, which doesn’t shift from the kitchen, or the Millers’ script, which is heavy on plot and light on atmosphere. Not enough heed has been paid to character either – it’s hard to care about protagonists that barely speak or move, even if they are cute puppet mice.
We took the baby girl with us to El Hierro, the smallest and most remote of the Canary Islands in January 2018. We were there for nearly three weeks, staying in a tiny village called La Restinga at the southernmost point of the island and splitting our time between diving (I was researching an article for Diver Magazine), exploring El Hierro and tag-teaming looking after the baby girl so we could both keep up with work while we were away.
It was a fantastic trip and I hope this post encourages you to visit El Hierro too. You might not have heard of it – I hadn’t – but it’s an extremely beautiful and peaceful place to spend some time. If you’ve ever been to El Hierro, please add your own tips in the comments.
You can fly to El Hierro from Gran Canaria and Tenerife North with local airline Binter in around 40 minutes (most flights from the UK arrive at Tenerife South Airport so you’ll need to leave plenty of time for the transfer). Or there’s a ferry from Los Cristianos in Tenerife to Valverde on El Hierro (the port is a 15-minute drive from Tenerife South airport), operated by Navaria Armas. The crossing takes around two and a half hours and can be pretty choppy so remember to bring medication if you suffer from sea sickness. The chief benefit of the ferry is that you can take as much luggage as you want, while there’s a very stingy allowance on the tiny planes that operate on the inter-island flights. There’s a luggage pick up and drop up service for foot passengers on the ferry.
If you’re taking the ferry from Tenerife, hiring a car at the airport when you arrive is more convenient than waiting until you arrive in El Hierro (though there is a car hire company at the port in Valverde). There’s car hire at the airport in Valverde too, and in the centre of town. Car hire firms on El Hierro and Tenerife can supply child car seats but make sure you book in advance as numbers are limited. To feel completely secure, either bring your own from home or hire one from Hire4Baby Tenerife and they’ll have it waiting for you at the airport in Tenerife when you arrive (they also have pushchairs, cots and high chairs).
There is a taxi rank at the airport in Valverde or you can book an official El Hierro taxi in advance. They can’t provide child car seats so you’ll need to bring your own. Local buses run from Valverde port (numbers 7 and 11) and airport (number 10) to Valverde town every couple of hours, where you can transfer to other routes to reach your final destination.
El Hierro is small, so your transfer from the ferry port or airport will be under an hour, unless you’re doing it by bus, which takes longer because you have to change in Valverde town.
While buses on El Hierro are inexpensive, clean and very punctual, there aren’t very many of them – most routes run 7am to 10pm on weekdays (earlier at weekends), with departures taking place only every couple of hours.
Hiring a car is a much more convenient way of getting around and works out relatively inexpensively. Not to mention the fact that there are some truly spectacular drives on El Hierro that you’d miss out on without your own vehicle. The roads are in excellent condition, so no worries on that front, but bear in mind that the island has only three petrol stations, so you need to plan ahead to avoid getting caught out.
Pavements are generally in good condition so walking with a pushchair is no problem in villages and towns all over the island. That said, almost everywhere is very hilly so be prepared for a workout. With the exception of Valverde and Frontera, the island’s biggest towns, there’s very little traffic on El Hierro – the baby girl wasn’t walking yet when we were there but I wouldn’t hesitate to let her toddle along on the pavement if we were to go back.
The staff in every restaurant and café we went to were very happy to accommodate the baby girl, whether by providing a high chair or letting us park her out of the way when she was sleeping in the pushchair in the evening. None had baby change facilities.
The supermarkets on El Hierro are all small and quite expensive, which isn’t surprising given that almost everything is brought in by boat from the mainland via Tenerife. That said, we were able to find a wide range of nappies and baby wipes in most supermarkets we visited. Supermarkets close for a few hours at lunchtime and are closed on Sunday afternoons.
El Hierro has a handful of sandy beaches, including at Arenas Blancas, El Verodal, Las Playas, Tamaduste and La Restinga (the latter two are very little), but you won’t find much in the way of amenities. Some have an outdoor shower and public toilet, but that’s usually about it.
Much more common on the island are sea water swimming pools carved into the volcanic shoreline and accessed by the sort of ladders you find at actual swimming pools. While less convenient for families with small children than a sandy beach, these areas boast open access barbecues, shady picnic tables, showers and toilets, and usually a bar or restaurant (some of which are only open in high season).
When it comes to non-seaside pursuits, we found small playgrounds in La Restinga, Valverde, at the Pozo de La Salud spa hotel in Sabinosa (the restaurant is open to non-residents) and at the Hoya del Morcillo recreation area in the forested centre of the island. There’s lots of fantastic hiking on El Hierro, so you’ll want to bring a sling or backpack carrier. The visitor centre at El Julán, which is dedicated to the ancient people of the island and has the most incredible views, has an area of floor cushions that looks inviting for toddlers, while the Centro de Interpretación Vulcanológico outside La Restinga is immersive enough to be entertaining for little ones while the grown-ups learn about volcanic activity on the island.
Local village festivals, such as El Pinar’s celebration of its patron saint San Antonio Abad in January are exciting for small children, and families with babies and children of all ages come together to watch the local sports obsession, Canary Islands wrestling. Matches take place in the evening. It’s hard to find information about this sort of community event online so remember to ask in the local tourist office (only two offices are listed here but there are more than that on the island, I promise) if there are any festivals or wrestling matches taking place during your stay.
Published by Diver, May 2018, with the headline “Baby diver”.
Almost the moment my partner and I found out that I was pregnant, we started talking about the first dive trip we’d take with the baby. We had lost count of the number of times that people, on finding out that we were divers, told us wistfully how much they used to love diving too…before their kids were born and that phase of their life came to an end. We really didn’t want that to happen to us, but we knew that we would need to be proactive if we were going to continue diving as new parents.
When our daughter was three-months-old we booked a week’s diving at a Red Sea resort with some friends who have a baby around the same age. That trip, which took place when she was seven-months-old, was exhausting, but it was also an unqualified success and got us talking about where we could take her next. Two dive trips later – first to the Maltese island of Gozo, then to El Hierro, the most remote of the Canary Islands – this is what we’ve learned.
All those considerations might seem limiting, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: there’s a lot of world out there to dive and it can be helpful to have your options narrowed a bit. Being forced to shift the focus onto some of the excellent, but less glamorous, diving available closer to home can be positive too. We are UK-based, but had never thought to go the Canaries before, for example, because far flung spots like Sipadan and the Great Barrier Reef just seemed like more tempting options. But on our recent trip there, we dived on an underwater volcano, spotted bull rays for the first time and explored some of the prettiest shallow caves we had ever seen.
Family-friendly dive centres
Dealing with staff who are willing to be a bit flexible about how they do things (within the bounds of safety and not negatively impacting other divers, of course) makes all the difference when it comes to diving with a baby in tow. We really fell on our feet with the staff at the dive centres we’ve visited since travelling with our daughter. The dive guides and RIB driver at Orca Dive Club Soma Bay in Egypt were extremely patient when we arrived a few minutes’ late for the scheduled departure time for almost every dive, for example, while those at Atlantis Dive Centre in Gozo let our daughter and my babysitting brother (see below for more on childcare on dive trips) come with us in the dive truck so they weren’t stuck in the apartment.
Let the dive centre know that you’ll be travelling with a baby when you first enquire about a trip. Or if you’re booking through an agent, ask them to sound out the dive centre on your behalf. If they appear uptight at this stage, look for an alternative – travelling with a little one is unpredictable enough with having to worry about dive centre staff throwing a hissy fit if you have to opt out of a dive at the last minute.
In addition to making the diving itself more relaxing, and therefore more enjoyable, a family-friendly dive centre can also be helpful when it comes to recommending baby-friendly restaurants or activities, and some will even arrange babysitting. At Atlantis our little one was delighted to find a huge pile of toys belonging to the daughter of the couple who own it; and we were delighted to be able to sort out our gear in peace after each dive.
Get informed about your accommodation
If having the dive centre close by was important before, it’s even more so now – babies take up a lot of time and you don’t want to spend any more of it in transit than strictly necessary.
Other factors to consider when you’re choosing accommodation are proximity to shops, bars and restaurants, availability of healthcare (more of an issue at remote destinations in the developing world than elsewhere) and the presence of a pool (ideally heated) or baby-friendly beach.
The biggest accommodation decision you need to make is between resort and self-catering. The latter is certainly easier as far as flexibility around meals and snacks for your little one, but grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning take up valuable time that you might otherwise be able to spend diving. Hotel buffets are also excellent if your little one is hard work at mealtimes, allowing you to tag team eating and childcare while not letting your dinner get cold.
Make the most of childcare
Couples where only one partner dives have it easier when it comes to travelling with a baby – just make sure the non-diving partner gets some relaxation time doing what they like, too.
If both dive, the simplest option is to tag team diving and childcare, but that can feel like a somewhat sad way to spend a vacation if part of what you love about scuba is sharing it with your other half.
Many resorts have a free or inexpensive kids’ club, some of which are open to children from the age of two. This can be an excellent – and fun – solution to your childcare problem, but won’t be right for all children. You need to be prepared for your child to take a while to settle in or refuse to go altogether.
Taking a non-diving friend or relative along to babysit is a good alternative; and offering to cover some of the costs might entice more candidates for the role, if your budget stretches that far. Or go with another pair of diving parents who will be happy to look after your little one while you dive and vice versa.
Vacations are supposed to be about kicking back and going with the flow, right? Sadly not, if you’re talking about taking your baby away with you diving. Gone are the days when you can just roll up at the dive centre, do a day of diving and head straight to the bar afterwards. That doesn’t mean you won’t have a brilliant trip, it just means you need to do a bit more day-to-day planning than you used to.
On our trip to Egypt, my partner and I and the other couple all each squeezed in two dives a day every day by doing very efficient changeovers. After each dive the babysitting pair would be waiting at the dive centre with the babies, ready to hand them over the moment the diving pair were out of their wetsuits. As the new diving pair prepared for their dive, one of the new babysitters would take charge of the babies, while the other rinsed and hung up both sets of gear. We would also discuss at dinner each night who was diving and when on the following day, making use of both early morning and sunset dive options so we could pack in as much time underwater as possible.
For self-catering trips, meal planning will allow you to have as chilled out a surface interval as possible, especially if your accommodation is close to the dive centre. It’s not always easy pinning down exactly how long you’ll be out on a dive, so having something easy like sandwiches or leftovers that be quickly thrown together or heated up is a good route to go down.
Be prepared for a slower pace
Unless you’re taking a babysitter along who’s happy to look after your little one all day every day, it’s unlikely that you will be able to do as much diving as you did on trips pre-parenthood. Chat with your partner (and whoever is helping with childcare, if applicable) before the trip about your expectations – all things considered, how many dives will you each be able to do per day? Getting into the right frame of mind – that you’re there not just for diving but also to spend some time together as a family – will ensure you have a more enjoyable experience.
With that in mind, it’s probably best to hold off on those bucket list dive destinations until your child is old enough to be left at home with a relative while you travel – or of an age to dive with you! You don’t want to fly half way round the world just to spend your trip seething with jealousy when you find out that you missed out on seeing the sardine run/marine iguanas/a shoal of manta rays because it was your turn looking after the baby.
Destinations that require long boat trips to reach the dive sites are best saved for another time too. Opt instead for a resort with an excellent house reef, or plenty of local dive sites, so you can dive a couple of times a day with a minimum of fuss. You may not see anything really earth shattering on this type of trip, but sometimes a slower pace can give new passions room to breathe, whether that’s observing fish behaviour, spotting rare nudibranchs or getting handy with a GoPro.
If all this sounds like hard work, don’t worry…I promise that it will be worth it. A dive vacation with your baby in tow is a very different beast to the dive vacations you took before you became parents but different doesn’t mean inferior – go into the experience with your eyes open and you never know what adventures you might be letting yourself in for.
Taking your little one out in hot weather can be nerve-wracking. So here are some tips on how to protect that perfect skin from the sun, whether you’re on holiday somewhere exotic or adventuring close to home.
It’s best to keep babies and children out of direct sunlight entirely, particularly at the hottest time of the day, between 11am and 3pm. Put your little one in lightweight clothing so she’s as covered up as possible and use baby-safe sunscreen on any exposed areas. For visits to the beach, swimming pool or paddling pool, a UV-protection suit and hat provide excellent coverage. A sun tent (I like this pop-up one that doubles as a travel cot) means you’ve always got somewhere shady to lay your baby down.
Choose a sunscreen with an SPF (this tells you how much protection the sunscreen offers from UVB radiation) of at least 30 and a UVA star rating of four or five to get maximum coverage. My paediatric dermatologist friend recommends the Australian brand SunSense – it doesn’t actually include a separate UVA rating because in Australia all sunscreens must screen UVA as well as UVB. An SPF50+ sunscreen will filter out at least 98% of UV radiation.
Remember that sunscreen can go off, particularly if the bottle has been left in the sun for extended periods. Have a look for an expiry date on the packaging; if there isn’t one, use it within a year. If you notice the cream has a strange consistency or smell, that probably means it’s degraded, which means it’ll offer less effective sun protection and might even cause irritation to your child’s skin.
Apply sunscreen when doing your baby’s final nappy change before leaving the house – it’s much easier to get consistent coverage when your little one is naked. Apply it all over just in case – you never know when a toddler might decide to strip off, and you want her to be protected if when she does. The easiest way to apply sunscreen to a baby or toddler is with a roll on; these small bottles are expensive for the quantity you get, so I suggest buying a big bottle and making your own roll on from an empty roll-on deodorant – just pop the ball out with a spoon, wash and refill.
Persuading a wriggling toddler to let you apply sunscreen can be challenging, particularly when you’re already out and about and she wants to be dashing around. For some reason the baby girl loves putting on cream (it might be because I used to do a bit of baby massage at bedtime so it’s got cuddly associations for her, but really, who knows?) so I tend to make a big thing of sunscreen, to make it seem like a treat rather than something tedious to be endured. Reapply every two hours, or more frequently if your little one has been in water.
Now that the baby girl is a bit bigger she hardly ever lets us put the sun canopy up, so it’s a matter of covering up with clothing, a hat (if she can be persuaded to wear a hat; and it’s a big if – I’d welcome tips on how to talk her into it!) and sunscreen.
If your baby or toddler gets sunburnt, get her out of the sun as soon as possible. Talk to your GP – they may want to see your child to check that the sunburn isn’t severe. In the meantime, cool the skin by applying a damp muslin square or flannel for 15 minutes a few times a day, give her tepid baths, and get her to drink plenty of fluids to cool her down and prevent dehydration. Apply water-based moisteriser (oil-based products can worsen burns) to relieve any itching and give baby paracetamol or ibuprofen if the sunburn is causing her pain.
Published by The Stage, 9 April 2018. Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake is playing at the Polka Theatre, London, until 13 May 2018. The show is for children aged 4+. (It’s worth pointing out though that I took the baby girl (aged 19 months) and another toddler buddy (aged 22 months) along with me to a performance open to younger siblings and both of them were totally absorbed throughout.)
By blending the everyday – household routines and the journey to school – with flights of fancy – an extremely jolly Bake Off prize-giving and monsters at bath time – Glanville and Jungr create a theatrical environment that is at once familiar and fantastical to this audience of children aged four and up.
Witty writing and hummable tunes power the show along, and even though we (the adults, and probably a lot of the kids too) know exactly what’s going to happen from the word go, the denouement of Michael waking up in the middle of the night to eat an entire chocolate cake is still genuinely exciting.
Mark Houston as Michael, Todd Heppenstall as his older brother Joe and Aminita Francis as their mum are an effortlessly likeable trio, and some effective doubling swells the dramatis personae to six. Not all the music and singing is live, but there’s enough to give the piece a vibrant feel, and Jungr gives Houston, Heppenstall and Francis some lovely harmonies.
Verity Quinn’s modular set is entertaining in itself, folding and unfolding ingeniously to evoke different parts of Michael’s world, and quirky projections from Will and Joe provide a dollop of surreal humour. Lighting designer Dan Saggars really ramps up the tension when it comes to cake-eating time, making the eponymous dessert the real star of the show.
There’s a temptation, once children come along, to abandon cultural holiday experiences like galleries, historic houses and cathedrals in favour of guaranteed child-friendly pursuits like beaches, waterparks or camping. I’m certainly not knocking that type of holiday (you can read my post on camping with babies and toddlers here, in fact) – I just want to make fellow parents aware that it’s not the only option available. When it comes to unweaned babies in particular, sightseeing with your offspring is not really very different from sightseeing child-free.
You don’t even need to be on holiday to enjoy these sorts of sightseeing excursions. Parental leave is a great opportunity to get to know your own back yard a bit better, whether that’s visiting a gallery for the first time, ticking a major tourist attraction off your list or exploring the sightseeing possibilities of a nearby city or town. There are only so many ‘rhyme time’ and baby swimming sessions you can go to in a week anyway, so why not mix it up by swapping into holiday mode and taking your offspring to see something new?
Timings: feeding, nappies and naps
Travelling at nap time (the baby girl has always been a good buggy sleeper, but I appreciate that not everyone is so lucky) increases the chance that your little one will be alert, cheery and interested in whatever you’re seeing when you get there. I try and give the baby girl lunch or a snack when we arrive (read my post on eating out with babies and toddlers), but before we start the experience proper, for the same reason. Eating and drinking isn’t allowed outside specific areas at a lot of attractions, so it makes sense to fuel up before you go in. This is less of a consideration for unweaned babies as you’ll usually be able to find somewhere to feed a small baby, whether you’re nursing or bottle-feeding.
Some attractions are excellently equipped with myriad baby change toilets, but many are not – at historic houses in particular the facilities are often in an out building far away, for example. Doing a pre-emptive nappy change on arrival means there’s one less thing to think about as you’re wandering around (though obviously a code brown situation could occur at any moment, particularly if your baby is very little).
A trip to a nearby playground or soft play place after you’ve finished your visit is an excellent way of letting your toddler blow off some steam. If I’m planning an excursion and it’s a toss up between two attractions, the proximity of a playground can be a useful deciding factor.
Whatever the age and mobility of the little one you’re sightseeing with, be less ambitious in your planning than you would be if you were child-free, and factor in lots of breaks. Lugging a baby around, even a newborn, is more tiring than sightseeing solo, and you’ll need to stop to feed her every couple of hours anyway. Going anywhere with a toddler takes forever – leave extra time for those moments when she won’t get back in the buggy, walks off mid-nappy change, loses a shoe, etc, etc, etc.
You’re likely to have a pram with you, so will need to factor that into your travel planning (see my blog post on public transport with a pushchair for tips). That said, you should be prepared to leave your buggy at the entrance of the attraction you’re visiting, as not all of them are accessible to pushchairs. It’s worth calling ahead to check the pushchair policy, and make sure you’ve got a sling with you just in case. (On a recent visit to Ham House and Garden in West London, where you have to leave your buggy at the door, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they have a few slings available for parents to borrow – well played National Trust, well played.)
Don’t forget to transfer any essentials (bottles, muslins, nappy change wallet) from the pram into your bag so you’ve got everything you need with you. It’s better to take a little longer to get yourself sorted at arrival than have the faff of returning to the pram for something important later on.
I wasn’t sure about toddler reins in the past, but I’ve become a fan since the baby girl started walking. She has a little bee backpack with a sort of leash attached to it, which has come in very handy on recent visits to historic houses. It’s extremely rare that I would actually use the leash to halt her progress, but it’s comforting to know that I could if I needed to, particularly if there are stairs around. The baby girl doesn’t like holding my hand most of the time when we’re out and about (I’m pleased she’s so independent of course, but this does make me just a bit teensy bit sad, I must admit), but the backpack means I can keep her close.
Where to visit
Your options are almost limitless when it comes to sightseeing with a babe-in-arms, but there’s more to think about once your little one is crawling or walking. ‘Family-friendly’ attractions, often involving either animals or the great outdoors – I’m thinking aquariums, zoos, city farms and botanical gardens – will be almost guaranteed fun for your toddler and entertaining for you too. More ‘grown-up’ attractions need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Here are a few tips based on my sightseeing adventures with the baby girl…
Museums and galleries
There’s no hard and fast rule about which museums and galleries will make you feel welcome when visiting with a toddler, but I’d usually go for a large institution over a small one. In general, the more rooms there are to explore the more likely you are to be able to find somewhere for your child to run around/have a bit of a shout and not disturb other visitors. Smaller institutions also tend to be more tightly packed with exhibits, always a bit of a worry if your child has trouble with the notion of ‘look but don’t touch’. I’ve covered visiting museums and galleries elsewhere on the blog – you can read that post here.
Places of worship
Churches and other places of worships are always welcoming in my experience. You wouldn’t necessarily think that a church would hold much interest for a toddler but the combination of lots of space – including high ceilings, which little ones often find pretty impressive – and unusual acoustics make them a surprisingly diverting outing.
Historic houses can be great but make sure you do some research ahead of time so you don’t end up at a stately home full of priceless antiques – paranoia about your toddler breaking something doesn’t make for a relaxing experience. What you’re looking for is the type of historic house that’s all about the architecture, gardens, etc, rather than a treasured furniture collection. (We had a great time at Strawberry Hill House and Garden – I pretty much let the baby girl run around at will because the rooms were mainly empty and it wasn’t busy on the day of our visit.)
Another good rule of thumb is to go for a historic house that runs events for young children. Even if there’s nothing suitable for toddlers specifically, the fact that the team there will be used to having kids around is a good indicator that you’ll be made welcome.
A fun activity to do with toddlers at historic houses (this works for galleries and museums too) is to hunt for animals in paintings, tapestries or stained-glass windows. When it comes to your own enjoyment of the place you’re visiting, forget the idea of reading any of the information boards or a guide book if you’re there with a toddler – your attention will be too divided for such demanding intellectual pursuits. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an informed experience however – I’ve found myself chatting to volunteers at historic houses much more than I ever used to, apologising in advance for the moment when I’ll inevitably have to rudely dash out of the room after the baby girl mid-conversation.
Published by Diver, April 2018, with the headline “Child’s play in Gozo”.
Our daughter has spotted us coming out of the water, and I can see her reaching for me as we walk back to the truck. I rush to put down my tank and peel off my dry suit as she squirms in my babysitting brother’s arms – she’s suddenly desperate to be reunited after my short sojourn beneath the waves.
My partner and I get changed and pack our gear into the truck, passing the baby girl between us and back to my brother when faced with tasks requiring two hands. We strap her into her car seat, and she’s asleep before we reach the main road.
On days like this, diving with a baby in tow feels like a breeze.
It’s all pretty new for us. This trip to Gozo is only the second time we’ve been diving since our daughter was born 14 months ago, a follow-up to a week at Somabay in Egypt when she was seven-months-old.
For that first dive holiday we travelled with some friends with a baby, and tag-teamed babysitting and diving so we were able to buddy each other some of the time.
Here in Gozo we’re trying another childcare option. My 19-year-old brother Yoji is babysitting in exchange for us covering his accommodation and transfers. My partner and I had assumed that we would leave Yoji and the baby behind in Marsalforn while we dived, but dive guides Denis Marin and Georgia Mainente – in charge of Atlantis Diving Centre while owners Brian and Stephania Azzopardi are out of town – were quick to suggest that they come with us in the dive truck instead.
I shouldn’t have been surprised really – the team had already organised us an apartment with a cot and high chair, and the dive centre is equipped with a big pile of toys belonging to the Azzopardis’ daughter.
Somehow we’ve stumbled upon the most family-friendly dive centre in the world.
We picked Gozo partly because it’s one of the warmest winter dive destinations in Europe, but also because I’ve been itching to come back here since learning to dive in Xlendi Bay just over 10 years ago.
I never made it to the island’s star underwater attractions on that trip – awesome geological features like the Blue Hole, Inland Sea and Cathedral Cave – and it’s high time to tick them off the list.
Coming here in November, and for just a week, is something of a risky move, but it’s the only time we have, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed for good weather.
We get lucky – after two weeks of strong wind, the dive sites on the north and west of the island are open for business again just in time for our arrival.
We start in Dwejra, at the Inland Sea, gearing up on the stony beach alongside tourists waiting for a fishing boat to take them out through the 80m channel through the cliff. It’s an easy entry off the jetty and, after a short swim on the surface to the opening of the tunnel, we make our descent over shallow boulders home to bearded fireworms and green spoon worms.
It’s dim and narrow here but as we step down a series of shelves to 24m, the channel widens and is flooded with beautiful blue light. Apparently infinite visibility makes this a treat of a first dive.
We turn left out of the channel and follow the algae-covered wall until we reach a narrow cave that cuts deep into the cliff, only accessible when the conditions are right. Pulled gently to and fro by the swell as I make my way in, I can see why you wouldn’t want to try this in rougher weather.
There’s a big shoal of damselfish mobbing the entrance to the channel and a few juvenile parrotfish and scorpion fish here and there but in terms of flora and fauna, this site (and Gozo in general, I’ll learn over the next few days) is really one for algae and sponge enthusiasts.
A carpet of bright green, red and purple covers the walls, providing ample grazing for the handful of nudibranchs dotted around the place.
We’re back at Dwejra bright and early the next morning to dive the Blue Hole before anyone else gets there. There are hardly any other divers around anyway – most of the dive-centres in Gozo are closed for the winter, in fact – but Denis is taking no chances.
His caution pays off – we have the place to ourselves and the entry is an astonishing experience as a result, the surface of the water perfectly still, giving way to the brightness of an archway on one side and the darkness of a cave on the other.
We explore the cave (which, at just 14m down and with a wide opening, is accessible to all), finding conger eels and shrimp hiding in gaping horizontal cracks in the rock, before heading out through the archway.
Turn right, as we do now, and you find the ruins of the Azure Window, once Gozo’s most famous photo opportunity, but since March 2017 just a pile of massive boulders on the seabed.
The collapse of the arch in a heavy spring storm was a real blow for the island, but fortunately sightseeing’s loss was diving’s gain – this is now a truly brilliant dive site.
There’s not much life here yet – just a faint fuzz of green algae on the sun-bleached rocks – but that doesn’t matter because the area is a veritable maze of swim-throughs, offering endless routes to explore.
Heading back past the Blue Hole, we head up the Chimney, going nearly straight up from 20 to 12m, then up again to 7m to find ourselves in the Coral Gardens. It’s great fun, and beautiful too, the walls of the passageway lined with yellow anemones that give way to yellow-green algae up top that glows bright in the sunshine. Coral Gardens, we discover, is sheltered and shallow, perfect for beginners.
We finish our dive in the Blue Hole – all by ourselves once again. During the safety stop, I watch tourists peering in from the rocks above and a few tiny fish skittering around just beneath the surface. If I had to choose one way of finishing every dive from now on, this would be it.
The walk back to the car park, around slippery rock pools and along a path carved into thefossil-packed coralline limestone, is arduous but nothing compared to the route we take to Crocodile Rock – another of Dwejra’s dive site – the following morning.
Snug in my dry suit and undersuit, I’m seriously warm by the time we’ve made our way gingerly across the moon-like expanse of spiky limestone pools, and it’s a relief when I can finally step into the 20° water. I can’t imagine what this walk must be like at the height of summer.
We swim on the surface towards the massive outcrop of Crocodile Rock for a few minutes before descending to discover that there’s much more of the rock underneath the water than there is up top.
Keeping it on our left, we gradually make our way down to 39m, to find boulders littering the sea floor but no sign of the large groupers we’re told sometimes hang out here.
Up above us, all of a sudden, are hundreds of barracuda shoaling in an enormous underwater valley between two steep peaks. They pour over the sheer edge of the rock towards us, circling our group before disappearing into shallower water. It’s a mesmerising sight.
After a couple of days playing with the baby on the beach of the Inland Sea, my brother is keen to see some other areas of the island. So after one more dive at the Blue Hole, Denis takes us to the Salt Pans, location of a handful of dive sites to suit various tastes and levels of experience.
To reach Dwejra from Marsalforn you have to drive into Victoria, the main town at the centre of Gozo, and out again, a journey of around 25 minutes, but the Salt Pans are just a short hop along the coast.
Gozitans have been harvesting salt from shallow pools on this beautiful patch of shore since Roman times. In the summer you have to be careful not to step in the pans on your way to the water, but it’s not an issue in the winter, so we stomp straight through.
Our first stop is Reqqa Point, right at the far end of the pans, necessitating a slow, bumpy, off-road drive that I feel sure is going to end in disaster, but somehow doesn’t.
Steve is looking after the baby girl this afternoon so I’m buddying Denis, while Yoji takes the opportunity to do some snorkelling along the rocks above us.
Denis and I turn right after a giant stride in, descend 10m and duck down, feet first, into a chimney I would never have spotted on my own.
Popping out at the bottom, we double back to Reqqa Point and follow a sheer algae-covered wall west.
Denis points out the entrance to Bubble Cave, a favourite with technical divers, at 36m, before leading me to the top of a sea grass-covered plateau, from which we “jump” off into the blue.
There’s quite a swell at the end of the dive and the rocks below the exit ladder are slippery with algae so Denis signals for me to put my fins around my wrists and get ready. An unceremonious shove from below and I’m sliding up the rocks and grasping the ladder with both hands – not exactly a graceful way out of the water, but a whole lot of fun.
The next day we all return to the Salt Pans, Yoji and the baby playing in the rock pools in the sunshine while Steve and I dive Double Arch with Denis.
The arch itself is stunning – appearing out of the blue to one side of a large natural amphitheatre – but doesn’t warrant the tedious 10-minute swim on the surface to get there from the shore.
If you’re going to make an effort to get to a dive site in this part of Gozo, save your energy for Cathedral Cave. There’s supposed to be a ladder at the far end of the Salt Pans that puts you in just the right spot for the cave, but it’s been washed away by the time of our visit and won’t be replaced until the spring.
Which means that the only way to get there is down 100 steps cut into Wied il-Ghasri gorge, followed by another 10-minute surface swim – this time in rather more picturesque surroundings.
Under water it’s the usual mix of juvenile scorpionfish, nudis and algae, until all of a sudden I get lucky and spot a little octopus hiding in a hole in a wall. From then on it’s marine life a-go-go, Dennis pointing out a slipper lobster and a Swiss cow nudibranch, while a cuttlefish lurks in a crack at the opening of the cave.
Cathedral Cave is enormous, both above and below the water, entirely justifying its name. A small window lets in fresh air and enough light that we don’t need our torches to see by, and when we duck back under the water to make our way back out, the mouth of the cave is bathed in blue.
On the swim back to the gorge, the waves are smashing powerfully against the rocks above us, a sign of the arrival of a weather front that means that this will be our last visit to Gozo’s famed north and west coast dive sites this week.
The climb back up the gorge is exhausting but I’d do it all again in a shot for another glimpse of Cathedral Cave.
We head to the south of the island for our final dives, trying out the sheltered bay of Mgarr ix-Xini and the scuttled passenger ferry Karwela. The wreck-dive is nothing special – with its deck at 33m down, there’s not enough time to explore properly on a no-deco dive.
Added to that, Karvela is dived so frequently that there’s barely any life there, even after 12 years submerged.
The opposite is true of the marine meadow area we pass over on our way back to shore, where I spot no fewer than four octopuses, plus my first ever long-snouted sea horse.
Mgarr ix-Xini, meanwhile, hosts a riot of cuttlefish and flounders, an opportunity for Steve to get his macro lens out after days taking spectacular wide angle shots, and a suitably rewarding spot for my brother to give diving a go for the first time.
Needless to say, he’s hooked, and keen to come along on another diving/babysitting trip the next time we need him.
It’s all been a resounding success. My partner and I have both dived a little less than we would have if we’d been travelling without our daughter – nine dives each over the course of the week, rather than the 12 you might hope to pack in – but that’s OK.
Taking things a little slower has given us the chance to relax in a way that we don’t normally get to do on a dive trip. We’ve even got to see something of Gozo’s topside attractions, checking out the ancient temples at Ġgantija, the impressive Citadel that overlooks Victoria, and pretty Xlendi Bay.
We’ll be booking our next dive trip with the baby as soon as we can work out where to go. And who we can persuade to babysit for us of course.
GETTING THERE: Direct flights to Malta from multiple UK airports with airlines including BA, Jet2.com and easyJet. Taxi or bus to the ferry terminal at Cirkewwa, then ferry to Mgarr in Gozo.
DIVING: Multiple dive centres operate in the two resort towns of Marsalforn and Xlendi – Jo highly recommends Atlantis Diving Centre in Marsalforn, atlantisgozo.com
ACCOMMODATION: Basic apartments near Atlantis and five-minutes’ walk from the centre of Marsalforn are cheap. Atlantis has a lodge and can arrange villa accommodation.
WHEN TO GO: Diving is possible year-round, though strong winds can be a problem between November and February, and it can get very hot in midsummer.
PRICES: Return flights from £130 (May), Atlantis Lodge costs 60-80 euros per room per night (two sharing), a 10-dive package with Atlantis costs 220 euros pp.
VISITOR INFORMATION: visitmalta.com
I’ve never really considered myself much of a camper – my parents didn’t take me camping as a child and the one trip I did with school was awful – yet in 2010 my partner and I decided that an 1980s VW campervan would be a much better investment than a boring old hatchback. Since then we’ve been all over the UK in it (and the newer one we bought when the first one got too unreliable), as well as to France, Sweden and Norway, squeezing in camping trips when we can alongside my work trips, touring with my partner’s band, and myriad friends’ weddings.
We’ve taken the baby girl camping in the van several times now and here’s what we’ve learned so far,* divided into 10 sections: tent or campervan; packing; choosing a campsite; choosing a pitch; setting up camp; sleeping; feeding; nappy changing and potties; bath time; and insects. I’m sure there will be things I’ve missed, so please add your own tips for camping with babies and toddlers in the comments below.
Tent or campervan
Clearly I’m biased, but a campervan is definitely the way to go if your budget will stretch that far. I’d recommend owning one, but there are places to hire them all over the place if you’re not up for that sort of commitment or financial outlay.
The benefit of vans over tents is that they’re warmer, quieter to sleep in, more secure and you can bring more stuff with you. Many vans will also have a fridge, hob and sink – much easier than setting up a camping kitchen outside a tent and useful for storing baby food and milk. A drive-away awning, which is basically a large tent that you attach to the sliding-door side of the van, provides extra space, and is particularly handy as a self-contained play area once your little one is crawling. Inflatable awnings are more expensive but much faster and easier to erect and strike than traditional tents with poles.
The major downside of a campervan (much as I hate to regret that a downside exists) is that you have to pack everything up if you want to go off exploring in it, whereas with a tent you can just jump in the car and go, leaving your whole camping apparatus in situ. Tents are also much less expensive than campervans to buy or hire of course.
When it comes to choosing a tent (or indeed a campervan awning for that matter), get the largest you can afford: large tents are slightly more time-consuming and complicated to erect than small ones, but not exponentially so, and if you’re stuck inside with a baby or toddler on a rainy day, you’ll want as much space as you can get. Essential elements are a covered porch area (ideally with a ground sheet) so you’ve got somewhere to cook and eat without getting food smells in your tent, as well as a place to store your pushchair and muddy shoes. An internal room is useful so you can sleep separately from your child. As with awnings, an inflatable tent will save you a lot of time.
Don’t bother with suitcases and pillows. Designate a different colour pillowcase for each family member and use them to pack clothes into instead. Then cram all your pillow-suitcases into a black bin bag so they don’t get grubby in transit or when setting up camp. Half way through the trip you’ll need to consolidate clean clothes into one pillowcase and dirty clothes into another.
Choosing a campsite
Tastes vary – I like my campsites relaxed, peaceful and in wild and beautiful locations, and am not too fussed about the state of the toilet facilities, while some people value a neatly maintained shower block and aren’t bothered by the immediate surroundings. The good news for new parents is that camping with a pre-crawling baby is much the same as camping child-free, so you can choose your campsite based on the same criteria you would have done in the past, whatever your priorities happen to be.
Once your baby is heading towards toddlerhood, facilities like a play area, beach or on-site petting zoo are a major boon.
Choosing a pitch
Again, tastes vary. We usually prefer to be as far from the toilet block as possible, as this tends to be the least busy area of a campsite, but there are benefits to being closer to the facilities once you’re camping as a family. Bear in mind though that if your baby is sensitive to noise, somewhere without a lot of passing traffic will give you all a better chance of a good night’s sleep.
Setting up camp
If there are only two adults in your party, try to time your arrival for when your child is sleeping – unless you’ve opted for a small tent, pitching camp single-handed while your other half holds the baby is challenging. Other options are for one person to wear the baby in a sling as you pitch the tent together, or to set up a travel cot to serve as a play pen. Going camping with friends or family members offers the distinct advantage of there always being someone else around to hold the baby while you get things done, of course.
Dress your child in extra layers to minimise the chance of them waking up cold in the night. A 3.5 tog sleeping bag on top of a long-sleeved vest and all-in-one sleep suit or pyjamas will keep your baby toasty in temperatures as low as 14 degrees centigrade. If you don’t have a sleeping bag that thick, doubling up lighter weight ones will work just as well.
Noise is trickier to deal with but choosing a quiet pitch will help. White noise could come in handy too.
In campervans with a pop-top roof, the bed in the roof is a good place to put your baby if you don’t want her in your bed with you. The baby girl’s pop-up tent travel cot fits our roof area perfectly, and it means she’s in no danger of rolling out. When she outgrows the tent we’ll start using the safety net that came with our van (it was converted from a panel van by a guy who went camping a lot with his children) to keep her safe in the roof at night. We sleep in the rock ‘n’ roll bed (see picture below), leaving the awning free for any friends or family camping with us.
As already noted above, a large tent with an internal room will enable you to sleep separately from your child, and more importantly, it’ll give you the option to hang out comfortably inside after your baby has gone to bed and while she’s napping.
As far as I’m aware, there isn’t really a way of feeding your baby while camping that isn’t a bit of a faff. There are lots of options available, but none are without their drawbacks.
A foldable camping high chair is very lightweight and packs away small but the tray is so flimsy that your child will end up covered with food (even more so than they already do). Standard travel booster seats (we have this one) come with sturdier trays, but you’re unlikely to have a chair with you that you’ll be able to attach such a booster seat to safely. That means feeding your child with the booster seat either on the ground or on a table, neither of which is ideal. A lap belt will keep your baby on your lap but means you’re stuck in one place until she’s finished her meal – you’ll also end up covered in food, which is more of an issue that it would be at home because you probably won’t have access to a washing machine. On balance, we find the lesser of these evils is the inconvenience of feeding the baby girl on the ground, so we use a booster seat.
Jars and pouches of readymade baby food come in very handy while camping, since you probably won’t have the space, utensils or storage options available for making your own. Now that the baby girl eats most things we just plan our meals so they’ll appeal to her too, but when she was smaller we always made sure to have a packet of couscous with us on camping trips that we’d add to readymade baby food for extra texture and bulk. That and bits of cucumber, bread and yoghurt mostly formed her diet on those early trips.
For bottle-fed babies, cold water sterilising is your best bet. You’ll need sterilising tablets or liquid and a large plastic container with a lid. See this post for how to do it.
Nappy changing and potties
We try to keep nappy changing to one area in the campervan or awning for the sake of convenience and hygiene but inevitably end up changing the baby girl here, there and everywhere. We just take her nappy change wallet and stow extra nappies, wipes and biodegradable nappy sacks (important in this context to keep odours to a minimum) in an easy-to-access place in the van for refilling when necessary.
I’m not usually a fan of one-use cleaning products, but antibacterial wipes are an important bit of kit when it comes to camping with a baby or toddler still in nappies. We keep bottles of hand sanitizer all over the place too, as with the best will in the world you’re not going to be washing your hands on a camping trip as frequently as you would be at home, and sanitising is better than nothing.
Don’t forget to pack a potty if your toddler is potty trained, as well as some biodegradable potty liners. Your child will most likely use these on camping trips long after she’s toilet trained – far preferable to a long walk to the toilet block in the middle of the night if she wakes up needing a wee.
Bath time is an important element of lots of babies’ bedtime routines but you’d be hard pressed to find a bathtub at most British campsites. The solution is to pack a small inflatable paddling pool, which you can either use in the shower block or in the porch of your tent if the weather is warm enough. Option two is more labour-intensive as you’ll need to carry water from the nearest tap and heat it up on your camping stove, but it’s nicer being able to do nappy and pyjamas within the quiet and privacy of your own tent, rather than in a bright shower block.
Parents of toddlers who don’t require a bath to get into sleep mode but are grubby enough to need hosing down before bed can experiment with taking their little ones into the shower with them, though I’d only recommend it once your baby is a confident stander. As with showering after swimming, this requires a bit of forward planning to make sure you can get your toddler dry and dressed before they get cold, while also getting dressed yourself. (I’ll be covering trips to the pool in another post, so sign up to the mailing list if you’d find more tips on swimming with a baby or toddler helpful.)
Insects are more of an issue in some areas of the UK than others, so look into this before you decide on a campsite if you know your family is likely is be bothered by bugs. Wherever you go however, it’s a good idea to take child-friendly insect repellent with you, and to keep tent doors zipped up at all times, especially in the evening. We learnt this the hard way during a camping trip in the Yorkshire Dales in summer 2017, ending up with an awning full of midges and a million bites each – not fun.
If you have a child, you’ll have read Dear Zoo – many, many times probably. First published in 1982, this simple story of a child writing to the zoo for a pet and being sent all manner of inappropriate animals, has sold over eight million copies worldwide.
It’s a surprise therefore, given the bankability of such an endeavour, that this is the first time it’s ever been staged.
The set and costumes, by Ian Westbrook and Anne Hewitt respectively, are lifted straight out of the book, and while such a tactic succeeds in creating a familiar environment for young audiences, it’s disappointing that director Michael Gattrell has played it so safe.
The script, written by Dear Zoo’s original writer and illustrator Rod Campbell, is also faithful to the book, filling out its plot with lazily written songs for the animals and inane chitchat by its three human characters. There’s not a moment of drama to be had.
Aaron Spendelow, as Sam the Zoo Keeper, Harrison Spiers as Ben, the boy who wants a pet, and Sally, his friend, are engaging enough to get the children out of their seats for a few fun moments of gentle audience interaction, but all three performances are irritatingly one note.
It’s not their fault – Gattrell, who specialises in directing pantomimes, seems to be of the opinion that children must be talked to very loudly and very shrilly if they’re to understand anything that’s going on. Emma Longthorne, voicing the various animals, offers some much needed relief on this front.
Don’t get me wrong: lots of the two-to-six-year-olds in the audience enjoyed the silliness of this production. It’s just a shame that it has so little else going for it. Young audiences deserve better.
The good news is that the standard vaccinations your baby will receive at the age of two months, three months, four months and 12 months will protect her from a lot of the diseases you might come across when travelling. That said, there are of course plenty of further flung destinations for which additional travel vaccinations are recommended. The advice for older children, as for adults, is to make an appointment with your GP or practice nurse six to eight weeks before departure to ensure that everyone is up-to-date with travel vaccinations, but for babies and toddlers it’s worth having that conversation before you book the trip as some vaccines can only be given above a certain age.
Here are a few common travel vaccines and antimalarials, along with their lower age limits (helpfully provided by a doctor friend – thanks Anna!), that I hope might be helpful for the purposes of advance trip planning. For example, if hepatitis A is a major risk in a destination you’re considering visiting, but your baby is less than a year old, you might want to postpone that particular trip until she’s old enough to be vaccinated for hepatitis A. It’s important to stress here that I’m not a medical professional so this information is for guidance only.
Hepatitis A – from 12-months-old
Typhoid – from 24-months-old
Yellow fever – from six-months-old; given between the ages of six and nine months only during major outbreaks
Japanese encephalitis – from two-months-old
Combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) –from nine-months-old
Malarone – not recommended for children weighing less than 11kg
Doxycycline – not recommended for children
Mefloquine (Lariam) – not recommended for children weighing less than 5kg
Travelling without vaccinations
If you want to travel with your baby before she’s received the standard NHS vaccinations, it’s a matter of weighing up the risks of the trip against its benefits. When planning our first proper adventure with the baby girl – to the northern Spanish city of Santiago di Compostela when she was six-weeks-old – we reasoned that although she would not have been immunised by the time of the trip, she was at no higher risk of infection in Santiago than she was in London. By the time of our next adventure – 10 days in Goa a few months later – we had to do that risk/benefit calculation again as we considered the dangers of taking the baby girl away before she had received the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Again, we decided that the destination didn’t present very much of an increased risk, so away we went.
In the case of trips to destinations where a particular disease is a risk but a vaccine isn’t available, talk to your doctor or nurse about preventative measures. This might mean only drinking and brushing your teeth with bottled water, for example, or protecting against mosquito bites with the help of repellents and nets. I’ll be covering how to deal with mosquitos in an separate post – sign up for the mailing list so you don’t miss it.