sheepTouring the English countryside might not sound like the most fun family vacation to tweens and tweens until a creative traveling mom adds a few castles and a couple of go-karts. Our family of four spent a week-long family vacation in Northern England and Wales, where we visited my sister and her family. Although it was not your typical “week at the beach” holiday getaway, we did indeed have a lot of fun. I credit two essential travel necessities for the success of our trip: planning and flexibility. Planning allowed us to maximize our relatively short holiday time, and flexibility allowed us to tweak our schedule so that everyone, including the tween and teen, got to do something fun along the way.

Since we were going to spend most of our time at my sister’s home, planning ahead consisted mostly of Internet research on Wales. I used my favorite search engine, Google, to find various resources for car rental, lodging and tourism. One of the best was www.castlewales.com, which help to make my decisions regarding the best castles to tour and how to map out our travels. I recommend Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) for car rental info. Be sure to consult a good currency converter (try http://finance.yahoo.com/currency) before you book, so you understand what you will really pay for that rental, and bear in mind that your U.S.-based car insurance carrier probably will not cover European rentals.

Our destination was Manchester, U.K.. Luckily, some U.S. carriers offer direct flights to Manchester from the New York metro area. Unluckily, the additional (short!) leg between our home in Albany and New York City added almost $1,000 to our round-trip cost. Since most trans-Atlantic flights leave between 6 and 9 p.m., we decided to try driving to Newark and leaving the car in long-term parking. This actually worked out wonderfully – the drive was only three hours (including a rest stop), and it was all highway. No problem. In fact, all of the long-term parking lots were full when we arrived on Friday afternoon, so we were able to park in the garage adjacent to the AirTrain (shuttle to the terminal) for the regular long-term rate of only $12 per day. An added stress-reducer was the fact that eliminating the Albany leg of our flight also removed almost any chance of losing our luggage, as there was no change of planes involved. Excellent.

Beating jet lag

Flying to the U.K. is about a seven-hour trip, so coupled with the fact that England is five hours ahead of the East Coast meant that we would arrive exactly 12 hours from our takeoff time. I provided some electronic entertainment for both boys (some iPod book downloads for the 14-year-old and a couple of new GameBoy games for the 9-year-old), but they actually managed to sleep fairly well. Even my older son, who is inching close to 6 feet in height these days, slept well for a few hours. Son No. 2 can sleep anywhere as long as he has a blanket. My husband and I dozed on and off until the cabin lights were turned back on. I used my blackout eye mask for added darkness, and found that tuning the headphones to the “ambient beat” music station helped to block the random noises onboard. We left at 8:30 p.m. and arrived at Manchester International at 8:30 a.m., GMT. FYI – You can still expect to be fed on many trans-Atlantic flights. We were served both dinner and breakfast, with plenty of beverages in between.

I have found that when traveling eastward, jet lag is beaten best by staying awake upon arrival and trying to keep somewhat active until lunchtime. Have everyone eat a regular lunch and then take an early afternoon nap until 3 p.m. or so. This worked especially well for us, as my niece and nephew (2 and 5 years old, respectively) still take afternoon naps themselves. After naptime, we took a walk, had a bit of a cocktail hour and dinner around 7 p.m. (takeout fish ‘n’ chips – yum!). Continuing this schedule had us going to bed right on time with our hosts, and by the next morning we were almost completely acclimated to Greenwich Mean Time.

The Sights

Once we were on track with time, we were ready to start sightseeing. Our first agenda item was the historic town of Chester, a former walled Roman city that is loaded with beautiful black and white buildings (full of excellent shopping opportunities), something that we here in the States often refer to as “Tudor style.” I recommend that you stop at the Chester Visitor’s Center and purchase a map of the Walls. Just £1 GBP allows you to take a self-guided walking tour of the town via the walls, including nice descriptions of all nearby points of interest.

The starting and ending point for the walk is the Eastgate Clock (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastgate_clock), a beautiful, Victorian-era clock that is perched atop the wall right in the middle of town. We also spent an afternoon at The Groves, a waterfront park on the River Dee (bring some stale bread if you want to feed the swans). The Groves are adjacent to the Grosvenor Park (that’s a silent ‘s’), which is full of beautiful foliage, a playground and a miniature railway where you can purchase rides on Sundays and holidays. The Groves and the park also offer more than a few ice cream stands, which are another key feature in keeping the kids happy when on tour.

We took a 30-minute narrated boat tour of the Dee, which I recommend highly. The top deck of the boat has plenty of bench seating, and is enclosed in glass, perfect for those damp English afternoons. The lower deck also has windows, banquette seating and offers full bar service and restrooms. I was told that the boating company also offers longer (2+ hrs) dinner tours. After the tour (here comes a “flexible” part), we rented a small motorboat so our older son could drive us up and down the Dee himself. The motors are held back to a very tame speed, but nonetheless, he was thrilled to be able to navigate the river on his own.

On to Wales

Later that week we had decided to brave the short (30 miles) drive to Wales and tour a couple of large castles. Our itinerary was to leave Chester around 11 a.m., stop in Conwy (CON-way) for lunch and arrive at our bed & breakfast in Caernarfon (CAR-na-fon) in the early afternoon.

My husband was brave enough to try driving himself, and my brother-in-law gave him a quick primer on U.K. driving before we left. Key point to remember if you decide to rent a car in the U.K.: Be sure to specify an automatic transmission! It’s hard enough to get used to driving on the opposite side of the road without having to deal with left-handed shifting as well. Anyway, my husband says the driving really wasn’t that hard, and I have to agree that he really took to it well. We were told that if you can master the roundabouts, you are all set, and that turned out to be true for us. Most major intersections feature roundabouts (some even include traffic lights), so learn the rules and you can get around just fine.

Wales is a lovely place, and although it is adjacent to England, the weather is actually quite a bit milder there. Wales is also densely populated by sheep. Fortunately, they are all very photogenic sheep grazing on picturesque pastures and hillsides. Be sure to stop along the way and get a few shots of the colorful Welsh hills.

Castle gazing

We missed the Conwy exit on the drive out (there’s only one – silly me, I expected more). However, it was simple enough to find a roadside diner once we got hungry. The kids were fascinated by the bathroom dispensing machines there that sold “edible toothbrushes” for travelers. We had to purchase two, which later came in handy as projectiles for the miniature trebuchets that they each purchased as castle souvenirs.

Caernarfon is a pretty little Welsh town on the Menai Strait, and is dominated by a massive castle at water’s edge (www.castlewales.com/caernarf.html). The castle was built by King Edward I beginning around 1283 and ending about 50 years later. It is in absolutely wonderful shape, and was the site of the Investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales in 1969. The boys had a great time climbing the spiral staircases in every tower. Husband and I followed, using the mantra of “good exercise, good exercise” as we struggled to keep up with them. They delighted in various medieval features such as the “Murder Gate” and a variety of other defensive accoutrements.

We capped off the tour with a stop in the gift shop, where they chose the aforementioned trebuchets. I bought a pretty pin with a brightly colored Welsh dragon painted on it, and a jar of orange marmalade for my brother-in-law.

Back to the B&B

At closing time (5 p.m.), we headed back to our B&B (www.caernarfononline.co.uk/brynhyfryd/), which was a short 10 minute walk through town from the castle. It was located on a hill overlooking the strait, so we had a nice ocean view from the bay window in our room. If you decide to use a B&B, be sure to find one that offers “en suite,” which means a private bathroom within the room itself.

Although not common, I did manage to find a nice B&B that had an en suite “family” room that slept all four of us. The adults had a full-size bed, while older son slept on a twin and younger son used the twin-sized trundle underneath his brother’s bed. Although it was quite “cozy”, it had all the comforts of home – including a blow-dryer for me. The boys and I were enchanted with resident Poppy, a very friendly lhasa-apso who came to visit with us as we unpacked and decided to stay and visit for a while.

For dinner, we walked back into town to try an Italian restaurant on the water. The proprietress of our B&B had recommended it, and it was quite good. It rather reminded me of an episode of the BBC series “Fawlty Towers,” as the place was virtually empty when we arrived. However, the hostess asked us (and everyone else who entered afterward) if we had reservations! Although they did not offer a kid’s menu, they did serve “children’s size” pizzas, and that was a big hit. Husband and older son had lasagna, and I tried the broiled marlin steak. They also had a decent wine selection, which was much appreciated by me after a long day of walking and stair-climbing in those castle towers.

Go-Karts Trump Castles

Our plans for the next day were to head back to Conwy for another castle tour – but the B&B had been full of brochures for the area, which we read with interest. The boys found one for a nearby Go-Kart track so we decided to be flexible again and head 15 miles south to Glasfryn Parc instead of north to Conwy (www.glasfryn.co.uk/index.htm). The boys (dad included) had a great time, and I met a nice family from the area who were rather impressed that we were visitors from New York.

We bought a few drinks and snacks from the really nice farm shop, and then headed back toward Conwy at around 11 a.m. Bear in mind that once you are off the interstate in Wales, the roads are really narrow and often have high walls and hedges on both sides! Kevin did just fine driving, but it was a bit intimidating at times when the oncoming traffic was heavy.

We arrived in Conwy (www.castlewales.com/conwy.html) just in time for lunch, and found a nice-looking pub on the main drag of Castle Street. The menu (posted outside) offered cheeseburgers, and since none of us was really interested in trying the local specialty of leeks, sausages and mash(ed potatoes), it sounded perfect.

Thus fortified, we attacked castle No. 2, which was also built by Edward I. Conwy castle is impressive and lovely, but is not in nearly as good shape as Caernarfon. However, once again there were plenty of towers to explore, including one called the Prison Tower. A big hit, of course. I enjoyed watching the local jackdaws, a variety of raven that live in the nooks and crannies throughout the castle. We also visited the Smallest House in Britain, which was a short walk from the castle. The boys got to go inside for 50 pence each. One more stop at a shop selling replicas of medieval weaponry (didn’t buy any of those!) and we were on our way back to Chester, just one hour’s drive from Conwy.

Packing Light

Now for some packing tips – I limited everyone to one 18-inch suitcase on wheels and one duffel/shoulder bag. We checked the wheeled cases and each brought a duffel as a carry-on.

All travelers are limited to two pieces of carry-on luggage, and a purse counts as one. I preferred to keep my purse stashed in the duffel bag, and I made sure to wear a jacket with pockets large enough for our passports and boarding passes. It’s a real pain if you have to keep opening your bag and rooting through it for travel documents.

I also recommend that everyone wear slip-on shoes if possible, for ease in removal and replacement when going through security. The signs at security say that shoe removal is optional, but it isn’t. You will be required to remove your shoes or you will not pass go. Here’s one more important tip – you MUST remove your jacket when going through a metal detector, so be sure to keep passports and boarding passes in hand (not pocket or purse!), when you remove your jacket.

Our flight home, although delayed, was again uneventful. However, we did not get quite as much rest on the return, as we left Manchester at 11 a.m. GMT and arrived back in Newark at only 1 p.m. EST. It was sunny for the whole flight, so after our trip through customs and the three-hour drive home, it was a very looong day.

The timing was good, though, and we were home before sundown. A call to the local pizza parlor for delivery capped off a very successful family vacation.

Stephanie lives in Albany, NY with her tween and teen.