I don't know if it was itchy-feet, a desire to "see the world", a wish for our children to get a bigger picture of this place we inhabit, or realising they had reached the perfect age - but something made us decide to go on a "round-the world" adventure. "Us" being Joe (13), Rachel (10), Simon and myself, Jeanette. After a brief flirtation with backpacking for a year, we settled on a more practical, comfortable and school/work-friendly 9 weeks. Thanks to understanding schools who saw the educational benefits, plus an equally understanding employer, the next step was to get planning.
A list of all the places we were really keen to visit was drawn up ... and then whittled down to something manageable. We were keen to make sure we not only saw the sights but would also get to explore off the beaten track and learn about the people and culture of each place. With this in mind we decided to book several small, family adventure tours and combine these with some DIY time. Although I usually do all my own holiday research and booking of flights (love the internet!), it soon became clear that expert help was needed - which is where Travel Nation came in. They guided me through the complicated world of round the world air tickets and booked the tours I wanted. So, this is how our trip went...
We were only going to be here for 4 days and this was mainly to visit Angkor Wat (high on my list of "must-see-places"), so I'd decided on an Intrepid Independent trip called Angkor Explorer where we had our own local guide and transport for 3 days. This is a great way to explore the area. With our charming and knowledgeable guide, Moni, we were introduced to the wonderful and truly inspirational temples and ruins scattered through the jungle, as well as a boat trip to visit the floating villages on Lake Tonle Sap.
There was plenty to interest the kids (even with lots of history and temples!) and we had time in the afternoon and evening to recover from the heat and humidity and explore Siem Reap. Here we could sit sipping local Angkor beer, watching a very different world go by - dusty roads full of tuk-tuks and motorbikes carrying whole families and market stalls selling exotic food.
There is evidence of a troubled past here, with landmine victims and small children trying to earn just a few coins any way they could. As we sat and talked about all we'd seen with Joe and Rachel and listened to our guide speak with real hope about his country's future, I knew we were doing the right thing in trying to see and understand a little more about the world.
We were here for just for 2 days, with the Grand Palace as the main draw. This didn't disappoint (what a fabulous glitzy set of buildings!), but we all found the city hard to really get to grips with - perhaps a few more days would have allowed us to acclimatise to the traffic and hectic atmosphere. The kids really appreciated the swimming pool at our hotel - it never fails to revive hot, tired children.
Here we were booked onto Intrepid's China Family Adventure - a 14 day small family group tour that would take us from Beijing to Hong Kong via Xi'an (home to the Terracotta Warriors) and Yangshuo (with its stunning scenery). "Small" was correct, as there were just 6 of us in the group - my family plus an Australian mother and daughter (aged 10, an instant friend for Rachel!) - along with our very likeable young Chinese leader, Huang.
This really was an experience that we will all remember: not only did we see many of the highlights of this fascinating country, but we also had plenty of chances to meet local people and find out about life in modern China. Perhaps travelling with children makes more opportunities for interaction - certainly many local people wanted to talk to us (and were fascinated by my daughter with her long blond hair).
Joe says: These 2 weeks were the best bit of the whole trip - I found the people and the history fascinating. Highlights included walking along an empty stretch of the Great Wall, visiting Imperial tombs in Xi'an, cooking lessons in Yangshuo, and sampling the food in Beijing (in fact, the food is what I enjoyed most - Peking Duck, lots of spicy dishes, and even their version of pot noodles are great!). Hope to go back there one day in the future.
Of course not everything went as planned. The tail-end of a cyclone meant we had a couple of days of torrential rain in Yangshuo, which led to an epic 31 hour journey on the sleeper train to Hong Kong (due to tracks being washed away!). But in many ways, the unexpected things are what make a trip memorable and more of an adventure - after all it's not every day you buy noodles through the toilet window of a train!
From Hong Kong, we flew down to Cairns, Australia. The next two weeks I'd planned as a relaxing do-as-we-like time, beginning with a week in a self-catering apartment on Trinity Beach. Very pleasant it was too, and I have to admit we spent rather a lot of time just "chilling-out" on the beach rather than exploring... but then the sea was warm, the sun was shining, and Aussie wine and beer needed sampling! Of course we took a trip out to the Barrier Reef, which to be honest was a bit disappointing and "mass-produced".
Next, we stayed in a lovely tree-house lodge hidden away in a protected patch of ancient rainforest, where the most amazing wildlife would come and visit us every day - from parrots and possums, to a rather scary cassowary, an elusive tree kangaroo, and a tree-frog in the bath! I've never known a place before where the kids didn't even turn the TV on once.
Finally, we flew down to Sydney for a few days that went by very quickly, what with shopping for a few warmer clothes for the second half of our trip (Sydney was chilly), catching up with a cousin I'd not seen for years (doesn't everyone have a relative in Sydney?), and spending many hours gazing at the gloriously alluring Opera House.
We took a very long flight from Sydney (via Auckland) to Santiago, Chile where we had an overnight stop (with a quick look at the city), followed by another flight up to Lima, Peru. Of all the long time-zone hopping journeys we took, crossing the Pacific was the only one that caused us serious jet lag - how I hate waking up at 2am and feeling like the day should start! At least we had a couple of days to get over it before embarking on our next tour.
This time we were booked on the Andes and Incas tour - another small family group tour that promised to take in the highlights of Peru. This time "small" meant 21 people (too many in my opinion) - consisting of families from the UK and USA, with kids from 9 to 15 years old. It was a good trip and very well organised by our efficient and ever-cheerful guide, Louise. We explored colonial Arequipa surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes, visited the Uros reed islands on Lake Titicaca, marvelled at Machu Picchu and thoroughly enjoyed the laid-back town of Cusco.
We managed to avoid any side effects from the high altitude, apart from my inability to speak after climbing more than 2 or 3 flights of stairs! And then there was trying the local cuisine (word of warning - if you decide to try Guinea Pig, it will still look like a Guinea Pig on your plate!), lots of shopping in the colourful markets, white-water rafting on the Urubamba River and the wonderful train journey across the Altiplano from Puno to Cusco. Unforgettable!
There were some long days travelling by coach or train - for me, this is how you get a feel for such a vast country, but don't expect your kids to appreciate it. Here there was perhaps a bit too much history and culture for their liking too (although this was balanced by more "fun" activities like rafting, soaking in the hot baths at Aguas Calientes, and visiting the creepy catacombs in Lima).
Here the plan was to spend a week in the Galapagos Islands followed by a few days in the countryside of Northern Ecuador. For our time in the islands I'd booked us onto Intrepid/GAP Adventures "Galapagos Family Adventure" trip, which would give us 2 nights in Quito as well as 7 nights on a boat. This trip seemed to me to be good value in a notoriously expensive market and with a maximum of 16 passengers, just the right size.
The boat was great - comfortable cabins, good food, a crew who got friendlier as we got to know them (a bit of Spanish comes in very handy), and an expert naturalist guide. Each day we would visit different islands and also get the chance to snorkel with plenty of time in between to read and snooze while looking out for whales and dolphins.
Rachel says: The Galapagos must be one of the best places I've been in my life! I didn't want to leave. The young sea-lions liked to play with us when we were snorkelling - and we swam with a sea turtle and saw sharks, stingrays and lots of beautifully coloured fish. We also saw giant tortoises, marine and land iguanas, penguins, flamingos, and lots of other great birds - the best was the Blue-footed Booby, they were really good at dive-bombing into the sea. Our guide, Roberto, was really funny and was always telling jokes. Definitely a perfect trip for families who enjoy watching wildlife - and we are fortunate in that none of us get seasick (unlike a few of the other passengers!).
We then had just a few days before finally returning home, which we spent staying at an old Hacienda in the beautiful countryside a couple of hours north of Quito. We shopped in the famous market in Otavalo, went horse-riding, generally relaxed in very pleasant surroundings - and experienced some of the world's worst driving on the Pan-American Highway!
After a long flight via Madrid, we were finally home and reunited with family, friends and the cat and a day later, with our luggage! I suppose our bags had to get waylaid somewhere - ironic (and lucky) that it was on our very last flight. So, was it worth it? Was it a trip of a lifetime?....Of course it was - just wish we could all set off again right now!
Don't forget: We're happy to help you choose family-friendly destinations and tours for your trip - find out more on our Family Gap Year Inspiration page. For more advice in booking your family trip, call us on +44 1273320580 or