Trains and Boats and Planes…

9th May 2014

Rowena Carr-Allinson explores ways to criss-cross Europe with an energetic toddler in tow…

Sometimes keeping promises makes life tricky. Starting from base in the south of France, I’d somehow committed to a brotherly beach holiday in the Netherlands, a visit to the folks in the UK and a friends’ feast somewhere in the middle of Italy, and now we had to get from A to B and C – and back home – while staying sane, functioning as a family and not boring the boy.

My mission: Lyon–London–Oxford–Sint Maartinzee (North Holland)–Amsterdam–Bisenti (Italy) and back to France. Quite the challenge – and exciting, of course (should be a doddle for a seasoned travel writer, in fact) but getting across the continent with a little one on board requires a serious amount of forward planning. We’d need a vehicle throughout, but renting one after another over several weeks would make no sense, so we’d have to drive, rather than fly – but who can keep a toddler (who was showing no signs of enjoying iPads or Bob the Builder yet) entertained for over ten hours in a car?

Exhausted already? So was I – but fear not; it can be done, and if you’re planning a family trip this summer, come with me now… I started a search for alternative means of transport and came up with a quirky, individual itinerary. My journey may not be yours, but you can mix and match different elements for your own euro-toddling extravaganza…

Planes: Flying Solo (with British Airways)

The family that stays together… travels separately. The first leg was a no brainer – an easy choice between an hour long flight or a nine hour drive. The BA flight into LHR went like a dream, except for the bit where the staff swore I’d recover my pram at the plane door on landing to avoid the 720 mile (or so) walk across the airport with a tired and over-excited 20 month old. Needless to say the pram went to the luggage carousel, and I had to chase Lennox around the passport queue as he evaded me by cunningly running under those annoying belt barriers.

My husband drove the car up, free of wife and baby, stopping and starting at will.

Overall a success, though had the staff at LHR actually read the label on the pram it would have helped immensely and made the entire experience super smooth…

Boats: Hitting the North Sea

Next: Oxford to Northern Holland. After much searching and budgeting different alternatives I booked us a crossing from Harwich to Hoek Van Holland on a Stena Sealink ferry. I’ll admit I was dreading it, and thought it might be the weakest link in our plans. Having been subjected to far too many filthy, sticky ferries crossing the channel, the prospect of a six-hour crossing wasn’t a pleasant one, but it limited the length of time we had to keep Lennox amused in the car so…

We took a chance – and how wrong my preconceptions were.

Boarding at 9am we had nearly seven hours to kill on board but little did I know (travel journalist that I am) that this gigantic ferry brand was spanking, sparkling new and equipped with all sorts of entertainment. The boat came with a kids’ play area (where we caught a show from the on-board magician with his sausage dog-balloons), an outdoor basketball pitch (encased in wire fencing in NYC Bronx style, probably wise considering its location), a cinema (a proper cinema), a quiet business lounge, a magazine lounge (where people actually left them for others to enjoy, thus obeying the instructions on the stickers), a couple of restaurants with a surprisingly good selection of food and smiling staff and even an al fresco bar on one of the several decks – but the real gem was our private cabin. A throwback to ye olden days, when travelling the oceans was terribly chic, this was a fantastic retreat with all the trimmings: a luxurious shower, a flat-screen tv, a double bed (with pristine sheets), a single bed, and a cot – for Tiny to grab a siesta in – as well as a minibar loaded with wine (a bit early; shame about that), beer (same) and juices, bottles of water and fruit basket. Bliss. Sheer bliss.

The staff were charming throughout. On realising we’d made a beginner’s mistake and left the nappy-changing gear in the car, the guest services desk swiftly produced the (right-sized) nappy with a smile, free of charge.

Even the duty free shop on board was a pleasure to browse. Far from the usual shelves of cigarettes and spirits with a few scrappy souvenirs, this store was stocked with all sorts from clothing to perfume, Dutch mugs and tons of toys.

Bikes: Going Dutch

Our rented cottage at the Villa Park Anzelhof in Sint Maartinzee was ideally located a couple of kilometres away from the beach, just beyond the dunes. The whole atmosphere was very family-friendly and quite low key. The property was a new build, easy and convenient, and everything worked, though a big minus for toddler-management was the lack of an enclosed garden which led to much running into the, luckily very quiet, road.

On Day One we went Dutch and hired a bike, complete with baby seat on the back. Sadly the cute baby ‘carts’ complete with tenting were all out, so we went for the traditional seat. It was a big hit with the little one, who loved it straight away. A bit wobbly to start off with, I was less enamoured, but once I got the hang of it – and my thighs got used to the workout – it was actually a fantastic way to get around. Peddling along the beautifully flat bike paths, we took our time looking at cows, windmills and tractors – a little boy’s paradise.

We continued our two-wheeling in Amsterdam where it was maybe a little more stressful because of the increased traffic, but still a delight to cycle into the Vondelpark daily and easily hop on and off, rather than put up with the faff of parking and car-seats.

Trains: Overnighting on the Auto-Slaap-Trein

Loading the car for the journey from Den Bosch to Livorno was tedious, to be fair; waiting with bags and a tired toddler, who wanted very badly to ‘drive’, wasn’t made any better by him pouring an entire can of juice over the driver’s seat. Once we were on board, though, the fun started.

The first big plus for our son was running along the narrow corridors. A very social train, each neighbouring compartment kept their doors open, so we were soon making friends. The second big plus was the delightful hostess who looked after our carriage. Our little lad was smitten instantly and, luckily, she seemed to feel the same way. Sanja even offered to keep an eye on him while we had our dinner. Our cabin was teeny tiny, without a spare centimetre for any cat swinging, but the three berths were perfect for us. The inclusive ‘airplane tray’ style food was impressively good, the service full of smiles – and the views as we travelled along the Rhine were stunning. Who knew that Germany could be quite so fairy-tale like, packed with romantic castles, rendered more beautiful in the setting sun?

We installed a protective bedrail to stop Lennox from rolling out and, on his first night in a ‘proper bed’, he fell asleep instantly, rocked by the motion and oddly soothed by the incredible racket of the wheels. I slept a little less soundly, being awoken at various stops by ear splitting grinding but, fortunately, it seemed our tired boy couldn’t have cared less. I made a mental note to stop whispering at home after he goes to bed…

The next morning, after breakfast and more toddler socialising, we were unloading in Livorno before we knew it. Again, a trip that we had our reservations about turned out to be a delight, and a big hit with the chief Tiny Traveller.

Cars: The Long Drive Home

We’d forgotten the fact that everyone and his cat, dog and his in laws seems to be driving back up North from Italy on the last day of August… We will not forget again. After all our efforts to minimise the amount of time strapped in a car seat, we fell at the last stretch.

A journey that ought to have taken eight hours, with an overnight break at an Agriturismo farm (complete with horses, cats and pigs and ride-on tractor) took twice that. Thankfully, in Italy, Lennox’s older comrades had introduced him to the joys of the moving screen, and, armed with a few episodes of 'In The Night Garden' on the iPad, we were able to keep him happy, stopping every couple of hours for a break. With a good batch of sticker books, picture books and a selection pack of naughty snacks, he found the long, long drive back home a lot more fun than we did. Just as well.

But, our lesson is well and truly learned. In future – and it’s a recommendation I’d make to anyone travelling with a child or children in tow – we will always endeavour to put our car ‘on’ another means of transport to cover the maximum amount of kilometres with the maximum freedom for all concerned.

The Overnight AutoSlaapTrain: Return prices start from £846 for a family of three and £891 for a family of four in May; from £1569 for a family of three and £1649 for a family of four in July/August. Includes your car, private sleeper/couchette and an evening meal/breakfast. Special offers also available this year • • 01253 595555

The Ferry: Stena Line offers twice-daily return six-hour crossings between Harwich and the Hook of Holland. Fares from £118 return for an adult and car. Additional adults from £24; children (four to 15 years) from £12 return. Infants (under four years) free. Cabins from £15 each way • • 08447 70 70 70 • Rail/sail tickets from £68 per person return •

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