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Spring in London & Paris w/ kids: Climbing, Cooking, & Cold (very cold!)


Apr 17th, 2013, 02:27 PM
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Spring in London & Paris w/ kids: Climbing, Cooking, & Cold (very cold!)

Spring Break in London and Paris with kids: Climbing (steps), Cooking (class) and Cold (very cold!)

Just back from a great trip!

Here is the Cliffs notes version:
Day 1: LHR arrival, Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio, London Eye
Day 2: slept in, Leeds Castle
Day 3: Leeds Castle maze, Dover Castle underground tunnels, helicopter tour
Day 4: photo walking tour/Muggles walking tour, St. Martins in the Fields brass rubbings, Trafalgar Square, National Portrait Gallery, Ceremony of the Keys
Day 5: St. Paul’s, Greenwich, climb O2 arena
Day 6: British Museum, Tower of London, Matilda (the musical)
Day 7: Fat Tire Bike Tour, Eurostar to Paris
Day 8: climb Notre Dame towers, Conciergerie, climb Eiffel Tower
Day 9: Versailles bike tour, Breakfast in America
Day 10: Musee d’Orsay, Musee de l’Orangerie, chocolate walking tour, Chez Francis
Day 11: Easter…spring forward, Palais Royal, THATLou hunt (Louvre), Arc de Triomphe
Day 12: Cook’n with Class (desserts), Sacre Coeur, Place du Tertre, BHV
Day 13: departure

Vacationers: surfmom (me), surfdad, surfgirl #1 (12 years), surfgirl #2 (11 years), and surfboy (9 years).

I’ll put this at the top in case anyone is interested. We loved both of our apartments and would stay in them again.


This was a Mews apartment with 2 beds/2 baths. The 5th person (ie. surfboy) slept on the couch upstairs. I have used this agency before and am very impressed with them. They meet you at the apartment to hand off the keys - making sure you understand how everything works. (There is also a nice binder in case you don’t remember in your jet-lagged state). They leave behind fresh flowers and a welcome basket with bread, jam, milk and juice – such a nice treat to start! Also, we had a few changes and they were extremely accommodating. We also arrived a few hours earlier than expected and when I called them, they were able to meet us there earlier. At the end, we stored our luggage in the apartment for a few hours before we checked out.

It is located a 3 minute walk from the Gloucester Road tube station – super easy to jump on the tube and that station has multiple lines, so it is easy to get most places. There is a Waitrose adjacent to the tube station, so it was easy and convenient to grocery shopping shopping there. There were also a number of restaurants and pubs nearby.

As to the apartment, bedrooms/bathrooms were downstairs and the kitchen and living room were upstairs. It was at the end of the Mews street, so it was very quiet. Occasionally at night, we would hear a siren or traffic in the distance, but nothing very loud. At night, we did hear the rumble of the tube below, but it wasn’t loud or didn’t disturb us in any way. In some ways, it reminded us of the distant rumble of thunder. The kitchen was one-person sized, but did have a dishwasher (which was a nice bonus). Also, I appreciated that there was a separate dryer from washing machine - it made the laundry process go faster. The table was large and comfortable to sit at. The couches were large and comfortable (for sleeping also). There were “real” window coverings, so you could make all the rooms dark. I was also impressed how there was an opening that went down to the ground floor – allowing the interior rooms to have windows. Overall, we loved this apartment and would stay there again or recommend it, without hesitation.


This was an apartment on Ile St. Louis with lots of stairs. It was about 72 steps to the door (narrow!) and more inside. However, it felt like our own secret little home in Paris. On the first floor of the apartment was the kitchen (open to living room), dining room table (again, with real chairs and comfortable to eat at), and living room – one nice-sized couch and a few side chairs. Upstairs, there were 2 bedrooms and one full bath. (Again, a separate dryer - much appreciated.) Up a narrow flight of stairs (3rd floor inside apartment) was a 3rd bedroom and another bathroom (shower only).

This was the first time we used this agency – I thought they were responsive to emails, but I didn’t get the same feeling of personal service with the other apartment. We arrived about 7pm and stopped at the office to pick up keys. There were very specific instructions how to get into the front door at the office and get into the lockbox – we were able to follow those easily. The car service then continued along to our apartment. One thing I noticed is that there wasn’t a “binder of information” like the other apartment. For example, they asked us to turn down the heat when we left for the day, but we didn’t know how to do that since there were no instructions and it wasn’t obvious. However, the agency was able to arrange car service for us (as a family of 5 people, taxi’s are difficult) both from the train station and to the airport. Car service was on time and convenient, so I was pleased with that.

It is on a side street on Ile St. Louis – very convenient and a neat place to stay. It was about a 5 minute walk to metro station Pont Marie, however, depending on where we were going, sometimes we would walk to St. Michel or even Cite for a specific metro line. We became regulars at the mini-grocery store on Ile St. Louis and each morning, went to the boulangerie around the corner. Occasionally, we would hear a motorbike or vespa on the street – because of the high buildings, it echoes through. However, it wasn’t a big deal, but after the incredibly quiet apartment in London, it was more noticeable. We would stay here again.
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Apr 17th, 2013, 02:32 PM
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hi surfmom,

sounds like a great trip.

looking forward to reading more.
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Apr 17th, 2013, 02:45 PM
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Now onto the good stuff:

Wed, 3/20 – departed PHL for LHR. Enjoyed the use of the lounge in PHL. Slept through dinner on BA (spoiled for life in Business Class). Note: We were using ff miles for Club World and debating its merits and BA announced a 25% Avios sale. Was cheaper (in miles) to take advantage of that than the original routing without the sale.

Thur, 3/21 – LHR arrival, Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio, London Eye.
Arrived LHR. Passport control was relatively fast, so we went to the Arrivals Lounge where we all showered and changed and had breakfast. Headed to Europcar to pickup our car (not an easy process and they tried to give us a manual transmission even though we confirmed automatic). I was disappointed in the service (or lack thereof) at Europcar and would think twice about using them again.

Went to the Warner Brothers studio in Leavesden (where all the Harry Potter movies were filmed) – arrived about 9:45am (they open at 10am), so were in one of the earlier groups to go through. We enjoyed this very much as the surfboy is addicted to Harry Potter right now. Spent about 2 ½ hours there going through the studios. All in all, we thought it was very well done.

If you are Harry Potter fans, this is a must do - you get to see the Great Hall, and many of the interior locations like the Gryffindor common room, the Potions classroom, Diagon Alley, for example. At the end, you see the scale model of Hogwarts used for aerial shots - the lighting changes, so you get to see it at sunrise, sunset, night, etc. During the tour, there is a spot where you can "fly" on a broomstick (green screen) and for a low low price, take home the photo of you doing just that. (they actually are kinda cool if you are a HP fan). I would recommend arriving early - we were there at 10am as they opened and when we left about noon, it was mobbed.

Met our contact at our apartment near Gloucester Road tube – I had printed out a parking map from parkopedia, so I was able to direct us to a garage nearby. Got checked in, did a little unpacking, then walked to Waitrose for provisions. Everyone was hungry for a real meal, so we ended up at Garfunkel’s next to Gloucester Road (I know… egads! A chain… but sometimes the lowest common denominator is needed). We decided to cross something off the list, so we went to the London Eye – no problems walking on – and enjoyed that. Bedtime for all.
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Apr 17th, 2013, 02:54 PM
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Enjoying your report. We did a similar trip in 2006 when our kids were 13 and 10. We too had a great time but it was also soooo cold. It was after that trip that we started looking for warmer destinations at spring break which led us to amazing trips to Morocco, Thailand/Cambodia, Argentina and Israel/Jordan. So much to see in the world!!
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Apr 17th, 2013, 03:03 PM
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Thanks for posting, surfmom. I'm looking forward to the rest of your report.

Lee Ann
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Apr 17th, 2013, 05:06 PM
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Yay! A new surfmom trip report!

I love your reports and often wish my kids were younger as you find the coolest things to do that I know they would have loved at that age.

And thanks to you, when we went to London last Spring Break, we went to St Dunstan's - gorgeous!
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Apr 17th, 2013, 06:17 PM
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You're off to another great start, surfmom. As a parent of a school-aged child myself, I have always enjoyed your trip reports and other posts.

(But secretly, I have also always harbored the desire to create a thread entitled, "Surfmom ruined my trip!". My son is NEVER as enthusiastic, engaged, or delightful as your children are when travelling. Our last trip overseas was a great case in point. And now we're preparing for a whole semester abroad. I will be reading with interest. And more than a bit of envy...
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Apr 18th, 2013, 08:11 AM
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thanks guys!

jgg, we've decided next year to visit a friend in Puerto Rico... but I'm already considering that for Thanksgiving to leave spring break open! We want to go back to Italy and do the southern parts - Amalfi Coast and Rome, so maybe next year.

amamax2, too funny that you visited St. Dunstan's - I loved it. Sadly, we didn't get there this trip.

pavot, I think you give me way too much credit. We have our fair share of meltdowns, sick kids, and disappointments. When I come back, I always feel like we skipped or missed things I would have liked to have done (ie. St. Dunstan's above)... or we should have spent longer in a museum... but yet, I feel like we are pretty active. I know my family needs a certain amount of down time - I hate when you wake up in the am and have to drag yourself out of bed and your legs are tired before you start. My goal is to avoid that! We take lots of tea and hot chocolate breaks and ate quite a few croissants, pains au chocolat, and crepes throughout this trip.

side note: I had broken my foot in January, so I wasn't sure how things would go. I was happy to find a pair of shoes that I loved and were comfortable and honestly, I wore them 90% of the time. I was slower on climbing towers and steps, but that is probably as a results of the lack of cardio training since I was in a boot. Overall, my foot was great and I had minimal pain, so I was very happy about that! I did take my boot - I wore it on the plane. My thinking if that I needed it, it was there and if I didn't need it, I'd be thrilled. and I was.

From a planning perspective, I found it allowed me more time to do research. I read a ton of trip reports, posting boards, and ideas. People ask where I find my ideas... I just start with a trip report, or reading blogs, and then follow links from there. I end up finding activities that I had no intention of when I started, but seem interesting. This trip was probably more "planned" with private tours and activities that other trips have been ... and I think we enjoyed it. We've learned - as a family of 5 people - by the time we pay for a tour or group, it isn't much more money to pay for a private tour and it is much more flexible and tailored to our needs. We were fortunate to be able to book a number of private tours throughout the trip.

I also like to have a balance of planned things and unplanned time. I try to talk through ideas with the kids before we go, so I know what they are really interested in, and what they aren't. I try to find a balance of something that each kid is really excited about so we all have something to look forward to.

anyway, enough of my rambling...
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Apr 18th, 2013, 08:15 AM
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Fri, 3/22 – slept in, Leeds Castle
Took the morning to sleep in (much needed). After lunch at the apartment, we retrieved the rental car, and headed to Leeds Castle. Getting out of London was the worst part, but all in all, it wasn’t too bad of a trip. Arrived in time to walk through Leeds Castle before it closed, but our favorite part of Leeds Castle was after everyone else had departed.

First, we stopped at the coffee shop on the grounds and got tea and hot chocolate (it was cold) and then Surfgirl #1 and I went for a walk along the grounds before dark. (Surfdad went for a run and enjoyed the scenery). The kids played another round of House Hunters International – since we had two rooms (basically the same, but minor differences), they used those as part of the game.

We stayed in the Maiden’s Tower – which is “inside the moat” next to Leeds Castle. This was recently renovated, and beautifully done. We had 2 rooms (not connecting doors) with a cot for the surfboy, and this was magical. We went to dinner at a nearby pub – The George Inn – which was very good. We had been directed out the ‘employee entrance’ but couldn’t get back in that way since it was late. We had asked directions when we left The George Inn, but it felt like we were getting lost. We were happy to get back in without too much of the “we’re lost” panic.

When we got back to Leeds Castle, it felt special to be walking into the castle at 8pm. (We were the only guests in the Maiden’s Tower that evening). They were setting up the Castle and the Maiden’s Tower for weddings for Saturday evening, but when we came back after dinner, we were the only ones there. Loved Leeds Castle!

Sat, 3/23 – Leeds Castle maze, Dover Castle underground tunnels, helicopter tour

We were a bit discombobulated this morning – it was dawning grey and threatening rain, so we weren’t sure if the day would go as planned. After a bit of shopping at Leeds Castle (it was a fun gift shop), the surfboy and surfdad went through the maze. The females in the family thought it was a bit cold and spitting rain, so we patiently waited. At this point, we weren't even sure if Dover Castle would be open due to the winds (I noticed they had not opened about a week before for this exact reasons). We then drove to Dover Castle and went through the Underground Tunnels. This was very well done and explained the history of the Dunkirk Evacuation extremely well. They used a variety of techniques – a guide, videos, audio recordings, and walking through the tunnels. We took a break and had a late lunch at Dover Castle and then set off for Ramsgate.

One of the really fun things we had thought about doing was a helicopter tour around Dover Castle – primarily to see the “White Cliffs”. After some searching, I found a company that could do exactly that. As mentioned, though, the weather was not cooperating and we talked to the pilot about the forecast and the plans. Unfortunately, we were somewhat limited with regards to schedule, so today was the day or it was canceled. We decided to go for it – it looked to be clearing and the rain would stop. Being a family of 5 people has its costs – and this was one. The weather cleared enough that they were able to go, so I sent everyone else on the helicopter tour and read a book while they were gone. It was almost exactly an hour – they flew south over Dover Castle, and then saw Leeds Castle from the air, Salisbury, and then back. The kids had a great time and the pilot was very nice.

We drove back to Heathrow, dropped off the car, and took the Piccadilly line back into London. Dinner was at the apartment and we were done for the night.

Overall, the trip to Leeds was a lot - I think if we had done it in 3 days instead of 2 days, it would have been better. Or maybe gotten motivated a little bit earlier on our first day. I didn't want to take an extra day though away from London. However, we enjoyed it and found it worthwhile.
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Apr 18th, 2013, 08:26 AM
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Apr 18th, 2013, 10:22 AM
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Nice idea, surfmom, to do an overnight away from the apartment. I don't know why more people don't think about doing that sort of thing, using the apartment as a base just like you would at home.

I've only been to Leeds Castle once and that was for an evening visit when everyone else had gone home. it was also high summer so the gardens were spectacular!
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Apr 18th, 2013, 11:52 AM
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Sounds like everything turned out great - looking forward to the rest! The mews cottage is gorgeous and the helicopter tour sounds amazing.
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Apr 18th, 2013, 12:22 PM
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Great reading so far!

Tell me - and forgive me if I'm mistaken - but was it you who wrote a family-to-Paris trip report a few years ago and took a day trip on your own to Giverny, seeing along the way some strange creature like a giant hedgehog/porcupine/muntjac?

Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this! I'm glad you had a good time.
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Apr 18th, 2013, 01:50 PM
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Enjoying your report! Loved the "House Hunters Intl." game
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Apr 19th, 2013, 11:53 PM
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Please surfmom, can we 'ave some more? Sounds like a great trip. ~k
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Apr 20th, 2013, 05:51 AM
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Surfmom, your family always seems to have a good time and your planning pays off. Love hearing about travel with kids! I am looking forward to reading the rest of the story. thanks for sharing!
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Apr 21st, 2013, 05:40 AM
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Enjoying this.
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Apr 21st, 2013, 03:33 PM
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annhig, it really worked out well to sneak in our night at Leeds even though we double paid with the apartment. Much easier than moving an extra time and was easier to know where we were returning to at 7pm instead of checking in for the first time. Obviously, the transportation from Heathrow was much easier with small backpacks rather than everything (like my boot, which we were carrying!).

janisj, it did work out very well! Thanks for your advice - we actually did less on Friday than we might have otherwise tried, but we needed that 'down time' as time-adjusting sanity measures.

For background, I had originally thought about trying to do something in London on Friday morning (ie. Tower of London, British Museum, etc.) and leave central London about 4pm. janisj talked me out of that ... which was much appreciated!

julia_t, sorry can't help there : ( but sounds like an interesting trip report!

dorfan2, they *love* this game. It is actually somewhat amusing to hear them assume the tone and manner of critical adults!

skatterfly, irishface, amelie ... thanks so much! been a crazy weekend, but I'm finally getting caught up.
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Apr 21st, 2013, 03:38 PM
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Sun, 3/24 - photo walking tour/Muggles walking tour, St. Martins in the Fields brass rubbings, Trafalgar Square, National Portrait Gallery, Ceremony of the Keys

A few years ago, I had done a photo walking tour and wanted to do it again – surfgirl #1 is expressing an interest in photography, so she came along. We met at 9:30am at Westminster and wow… was it cold! I won’t tell you his secrets, but I thought he did a really nice job explaining some basic camera functions and helping you get the exact shot. We ended up leaving about 11:45 (bailed early) because she was cold but I was happy with what we accomplished. We were close to Trafalgar Square, so we went to Café in the Crypt and got tea and croissants to warm us.

The other half went on a Muggles walking tour – they started at London Bridge and walked some and then took the tube to Westminster and went from there. Surfgirl #2 got cold in the middle (it is the surfboy who is the Harry Potter addict), so I met them near No 10 Downing Street and she came back to Café in the Crypt with me to get hot chocolate and warm up.

From surfdad and surfboy’s description, this was a great walking tour and they shared lots of fun facts over the next few days. The tour guide even engaged them on the tube with trivia questions. They found us at Café in the Crypt and the girls were busy doing brass rubbings while the boy got some tea to warm him up. (yes, I have tea drinkers… a bit odd, but convenient and easy to make happy!)

After brass rubbings were complete, we walked to Waterstone’s and did some serious book shopping. We were prepared and had some English books scoped out before we got there (for example, we had books 1-4 of the Mr. Gum series, so we got the next four books of those). There also was a very knowledgeable employee who made some suggestions of books we couldn’t get at home.

By this time, real hunger was setting in, so we walked over to the Lord Moon of the Mall on Whitehall. We had to stalk for a table, but the service and food was fast (you go up to a central ordering site but they deliver food to the table).

We stopped at Trafalgar Square and took some photos and then walked back to the National Portrait Gallery and walked around a bit – they had some good family trails that the kids enjoyed. We were feeling worn out by this time, so we headed back to the apartment. In general, I am impressed with all the kids’ booklets and activity guides for them. Much more options and kid-oriented guides than in France, for example.

Made some dinner… had some downtime and then it was time for Ceremony of the Keys. We decided to go to The Dickens Inn at St. Katharine’s Docks for dinner (adults), but the kids ended up eating a second dinner (cold and walking will do that). We walked over, waited patiently until our names were called, and watched the ceremony. (I felt bad – there was a group of 5 people waiting – their tour guide wasn’t there and she had the tickets.) I even got to yell (in French) at a woman who refused to stand on the curb where they ask you to stay. I found it rude that she was moving over and standing directly in front of a 9 yr old boy and told her so. I don’t think she appreciated it, but sometimes Mama Bear comes out. Surfdad and surfgirl #2 had decided not to come to the Ceremony (“it creeps me out” surfgirl #2 told us), so they got a chuckle out of the fact that surfmom yelled at a lady (in French) for not following directions. We wondered if they were getting disapproving looks while surfdad sat in a bar at 9:30pm on a Sunday while his 11 yr old daughter sat there coloring. Figured we made someone’s “bad parent” story for the night!



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Apr 21st, 2013, 03:41 PM
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oops, forgot the Dickens Inn link. In St. Katharine's Docks and extremely convenient for the Tower of London. I find St. Katharine's Docks a neat place and at night, when the lights are sparkling, it is really beautiful.

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