Baby and toddler destination guide: El Hierro, Canary Islands

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.

A woman holds a baby in the afternoon sunshine. In the background is the beautiful view of the coastline of El Hierro from the visitor centre at El Julan © Steve Pretty
The astonishing view from the visitor centre at El Julan © Steve Pretty

Getting there

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.

Getting about

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.

Eating out

A baby having its nappy change on a shelf next to a window with an amazing view of a shoreline
No baby change facilities at Mirador de La Peña restaurant but the view from the loos made up for it

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.

Essentials

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.

Emergencies

The phone number for emergency services is 112 in the Canary Islands and there’s an accident and emergency department at Hospital Insular Ntra. Sra. de Los Reyes in Valverde. A European Health Insurance Card (this post tells you how to apply for one for yor child) will cover you for emergency treatment or treatment for existing conditions. More information on healthcare in the Canaries on the NHS’s website.

Things to do

A man hikes through a volcanic seaside landscape with a baby on his back on El Hierro in the Canary Islands
Hiking through the volcanic landscape east of the natural swimming pool at La Maceta

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 carrierThe 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.

 

What you need to know to get through an airport with a baby or toddler

Air travel is a wonderful thing, but airports are a pain. I like the teeny tiny ones where you can arrive 20 minutes before your flight, but all the others make me wish I was taking a train instead. Add a baby or toddler to the mix and you’ve got the potential for a pretty wearying – not to say stressful – experience.

The key is to leave plenty of time so you’re never in rush. That might mean quite a bit of waiting around – which, let’s be honest, isn’t ideal with a baby or toddler either – but at least you stand a good chance of boarding your flight calm, contented and ready for whatever the next few hours hold (I’ll be covering flying itself, as well as airport transfers, in separate posts – sign up to my mailing list so you don’t miss them).

The one benefit of travelling with a baby or toddler is that airline check-in staff are almost always nicer to you than if you’re checking in alone. I get the sense that they’re more willing to turn a blind eye to a couple of kilos of extra weight here or there, on the understanding that babies require a lot of stuff. (Though now I think of it, the baby girl has always been remarkably cheery at check-in desks – who knows what treatment we might get if she was being a grump.)

Infant baggage allowance varies from airline to airline, but most let you check in two or three items of baby equipment free of charge, usually including a pushchair, car seat, travel cot and backpack carrier. You’ll want to check your airline’s policy before booking so you don’t get any nasty surprises before departure. Check in your pushchair and car seat at the desk or, if you’d prefer to have them with you as you go through departures, get them tagged at check in and leave them with airline staff when you reach the gate. At some airports you’ll be able to send your baby equipment through with the rest of the luggage, but at others you might be asked to drop it off in a different area.

Whatever you decide to do with your pushchair, it’s a good idea to keep a sling handy. The first time I flew with the baby girl, when she was six-weeks-old, I kept the pushchair with me until the gate and didn’t end up using it at all. Airports are very stimulating environments and the baby girl was unhappy unless she was being carried. Also, travelling alone with her, getting the pushchair down the stairs from the gate to the tarmac was a real pain – fellow passengers helped out, but it wasn’t ideal. I’ve since learnt that you can request special assistance in advance for those situations, but these days I just check everything in and avoid the problem that way.

At security they might ask to x-ray your pushchair, car seat or sling, so be prepared to carry your child through in your arms, and make sure that if you there’s anything else in the pushchair it’s easy to lift out and put through the machine too. The last few times I’ve flown with the baby girl I’ve been able to walk through the scanner with her in the sling – if only I could remember to wear the sling under my jacket so it’s easy to remove.

Formula, sterilised water for preparing formula, cow milk and soya milk for babies are exempt from the usual rules about liquids in hand luggage, so you’re allowed to take them through security, as well as gel packs to keep them cool. They need to be removed from your carry-on so they can be screened separately (incidentally, you don’t need to be travelling with your baby to carry expressed breast milk through). The rules vary slightly from country to country, but security staff have always been understanding in this regard in my experience.

My final tip relates to food. You’ll obviously need to take enough baby food or milk to cover the number of meals or feeds you’ll be in transit for, but don’t underestimate the power of snacks either. Take as many as you can fit into your carry-on, so in the event of boring delays or just general grumpiness, you’ve got distractions at the ready.

A woman in a red jacket carries a shoulder bag and a baby in a sling at airport security.
A remarkably easy passage through security at Malta International Airport on the way back from our dive trip to Gozo, November 2017.

 

 

 

Documents for travelling with children

Children require passports for international travel (read my post on applying for your child’s first UK passport), but for flights within the UK the adult travelling with them can vouch for their identity. The adult will need to carry photo ID, the more official the better (though I was intrigued to learn that the airline Flybe includes NUS cards and valid firearm certificates on its long list of acceptable forms of identification).

When it comes to visas to almost any destination you care to name, you can safely assume that the rules are the same for children as they are for adults. This has implications not just for pre-trip admin, but for budgeting too – fees are typically the same regardless of the age of the applicant (though they do often vary depending on the nationality of the person applying, something to watch out for if your child holds a different passport to you).

None of the above probably comes as much of a surprise – we’re all used to needing passports and visas to travel. What you might not be aware of is that if you’re taking a child abroad, you technically need permission from anyone else with parental responsibility to do so – ie if you’re a mother or father travelling with your baby by yourself, you need to bring a letter specifying that their other parent has given the trip the go ahead. To really do it by the book, the letter should be witnessed by a notary, and you should bring along proof of your relationship to the child, such as a birth certificate – the real thing, not a photocopy. Mumsnet helpfully provide this template consent letter for travelling with children to make sure you don’t leave anything out.

There are very few situations in which you would actually be asked to provide such a letter, but some countries are stricter than others so it’s worth checking in advance. Parents who don’t share a last name with their children also report more hassle in this regard (the law is designed to prevent child abduction). Sorting out the permission letter – particularly having it notarised – certainly sounds like a pain, but much less of a pain than being refused entry at the border and being sent home.

Update: a commenter on Mumsnet told me that she always travels with her children’s birth certificates because they have a different last name to her, and that she is usually asked to show them at the UK border. I think I’ll put a copy of the baby girl’s birth certificate in the travel document wallet the next time we go away, just in case.

A baby in its mother’s arms holds a new British passport
Just after this was taken the baby girl turned to the photo page and had a proper laugh at herself as a two week old.

 

A jet lag survival guide for parents of babies and toddlers

Travelling long-haul is one of the few situations where being a sleep-deprived parent comes into its own. You may grumble when your baby or toddler repeatedly wakes you up in the middle of the night, but the benefit of such training is that when it comes to jet lag, you might not really notice much difference – you were tired to begin with, and now you’re just a little bit more tired, but in an excellent new location. Unfortunately, jet lag is almost certain to affect your child. Here’s what you can do to help her ­through it.

Where possible, book an outbound flight that doesn’t require waking your baby up earlier than usual. Leaving for the airport in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn is a pain as an adult, and doing it with a baby is worse. You want her as well rested as possible before you go. Similarly, encourage napping on the plane – easier said than done, of course, but always worth a go. I’ll go into this further in a separate post, but the sling is your friend in this situation.

Make a call depending on where you’re going about whether to adjust to the new time zone. If the difference is less than four hours, and you’re heading east, keeping your baby on home time can be a good workaround – she eats with you at adult dinner time and stays up until your bedtime, meaning no need for babysitters or spending your evening sitting in a hotel room in the dark beside your sleeping child (some useful hotel room tips here).

You can prepare for a bigger time difference by moving your’s baby bedtime forward or back a bit in the days leading up to the trip. I’ve personally never got organised enough to do this with the baby girl, but a couple of friends swear by it, and I plan to try it next time we travel long-haul.

Once you get to your destination, you might find that your baby sleeps really well the first night because she’s exhausted from the journey, but is wakeful at night and grumpy in the day after that. Don’t worry, it will pass; it’ll just take a few days – four probably. (And don’t worry about getting back into a sleep routine after the trip – that too will take a little while, but it’ll happen eventually.) But bear these timings in mind when booking your trip – if you’ve got less than 10 days to play with, a smaller time difference might be a better idea.

Being easy on yourself during those first few days is crucial, including not attempting any ambitious adventures until you and your baby are adjusted to the new time zone. Nap when your baby does so you’ve got some energy to cope with additional nighttime wake ups, and spend some time outdoors – day light helps kick the body clock into line.

Try to keep your baby’s bedtime routine as close to what it is at home so she knows on some level that it’s time to sleep even if her body is telling her the opposite. She might be hungry when she wakes at night – whether or not you feed her will depend on how you manage night feeds generally. My thinking with these things is just to go with it and trust that your baby will work it out eventually.

If you’re a breastfeeding mother, bear in mind that your milk production might go a bit haywire as it adjusts to your baby demanding feeds at different times (your boobs are jet lagged, basically). Pack a few extra sets of nursing pads to deal with possible leaks, and remember to drink plenty of water. (I’ll be going into greater depth on breastfeeding while travelling in a later post, so sign up to the mailing list to make sure you don’t miss it).

When it comes to jet lag so much depends on where, when and how you travel, as well as on the foibles of your particular child, so please share your baby and toddler jet lag hacks by commenting below. Forewarned is forearmed.

A baby sleeps in a sling worn by her father, her head covered with a muslin cloth. The wheely bag and passports he carries show that he's at the airport, about to board a flight.
You want to avoid arriving tired, if possible, so napping en route is a good idea – by whatever means necessary.