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      07.05.2012 19:16
      Very helpful



      Fine for just one night

      We'd booked a night at the Ramada Encore Chatham as part of a family package offered by Dickens World. The package included the entrance ticket to Dickens World, 1 night in the hotel for the 4 of us (2 adults, 2 children aged 8 and 9) in a family room, and breakfast. We booked a weekend in August and the deal cost us £109, which was cheaper than booking hotel and entrance tickets separately even though the hotel seems to have some very affordable offers.

      The hotel:

      From outside the hotel is just one big concrete block, clad in wood wherever there are no windows, and looking very little impressive. Although the property is fairly new the wood already looks very weathered which gives the whole building a slightly run-down appearance. Not very appealing at all but misleading as the interior is actually well maintained and bright.
      The check-in/-out was easy and uncomplicated and the staff at the reception were very friendly and most helpful. We had a few questions about where to eat in the evening and got more than enough suggestions and descriptions how to get there.
      There is a bar located directly behind the reception, adjacent to the dining and breakfast area. Like the whole hotel it is designed in a very modern style and too bright for my taste. Before the barman got the idea to close the blinds it was a bit like sitting in the inside of an aquarium, clearly visible for all passing by. The seating areas are furnished with huge red leather sofas and coffee tables, which could be very cozy if the whole room didn't have about as much atmosphere as the waiting room in an airport. There are TVs which constantly show music videos. I have no problem with that but the music was annoying and would have probably most appealed to a bunch of teenagers. The weather was fine and we soon went to sit outside where we were save from the music - and had a prime spot overlooking the parking lot. Not great and probably also a bit of an issue for those who have their rooms right on top of the terrace, especially if they want to keep their windows open. During the time we were sitting on the several very cheerful groups who seemed to have attended weddings in the area returned to the hotel and it got rather lively.
      The bar is open 24 hours a day but after 11pm they don't accept payments any more and you'll need to open a bill to your room. Prices are average and you can use their free WI-FI connection after getting an access code from the barkeeper.

      I noticed a small meeting room next to the entrance. This wasn't of any importance to us but might be interesting if you are looking for a meeting space somewhere in this area.

      The room:

      Our room was located on the second floor and we were handed a set of electronic key cards during check-in. Make sure to ask for more than one if there are two of you because the lights don't work without card.

      The room was on the very small side. A pull-out sofa had been opened and made up ready for our kids and that made it really cramped. There was no way that we could have used the desk as the sofa reached until the chair, not leaving enough space to pull it out, so just forget about sitting on it. To close the curtains in the evening proofed tricky as they were so squeezed in between sofa bed and wall/window that we needed to move the heavy sofa-bed a bit to get be able to close them.
      There isn't a wardrobe, just a small coat rack with 4 hangers and a mirror. The few shelves beneath were filled with spare pillows and towels and the hospitality tray. Luggage had to be lined up along the wall which made the room even harder to navigate, luckily we didn't bring much for just the one night.
      The bathroom contains a walk-in shower, toilet, and a sink with a huge mirror. Soap, shower gel/shampoo, facial tissues and shaver socket are provided and there were plenty of shelves and lots of space around the sink to house enough toiletries to make a beauty queen happy. I wish the bedroom would have had storage facilities to match this !
      The shower had good pressure and there were plenty of towels but one had nasty brownish stains on it which I found disgusting.
      Apart from the towel everything else was clean and the sheets smelt fresh, the pillows were comfortable.
      The furnishings are very modern but a bit on the bland side and the bright red colour scheme seems to scream IKEA.
      There are a very limited number of Freeview channels on the TV, if I remember it correctly there were 9 channels altogether, including one children's channel and one news channel. Personally, I don't care whether there is a TV at all or if it only shows the Mickey Mouse Channel but for all those who might have to stay here a bit longer a larger choice to kill the evening might be preferable.
      There is no WI-FI access in the rooms at all, only in the public spaces downstairs, and the Internet connection they offer via modem or TV is not free. I wasn't impressed by that at all and didn't even ask how much they wanted. For one night I can survive without Internet but if I'd been here alone or on business I'd probably be rather annoyed.
      The hairdryer was working perfectly but is a bit odd to use as you need to press the button to keep it going the whole time.
      Plenty of tea and Nescafe for one evening but not enough milk.

      Food & drink:
      We checked the menu of their restaurant and found the choices rather limited , especially for children, and also weren't impressed by their prices . Apart from that the restaurant area, which serves as breakfast room in the morning, looked anything but not inviting. The furniture is made up of nasty wooden and metal chairs and tables in a light colour, the decor of the walls is so unobtrusive (boring) that I don't even remember what was there - and there is yet another TV that is running constantly blaring hip hop music into the room . Totally unacceptable in a restaurant in my opinion ! Overall more like a cheap coffee shop than a place where I'd be willing to fork out more than £15 for a steak. Thankfully there are plenty of restaurants in walking distance.

      The breakfast is served in between 7.30 and 10.00 o'clock.
      The buffet was great and offered a huge choice that should meet everybody's taste. There were a good selection of cereals, including the mix yourself kind of muesli with a choice of flakes, nuts and dried fruits. A variety of rolls, croissants, sweet pastry and toast, jams, honey, chocolate spread, butter and margarine weren't missing either, and there were yoghurt (plain or fruit), fresh fruit and a choice of fruit salads that were very nicely presented in little glass cups. You can also choose in between a for a hotel buffet very impressive choice of cheeses, ham and salami.
      Hot items included scrambled egg, 6 minute eggs, bacon, sausages, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans.
      For drinks you can choose in between a variety of coffees, teas (both breakfast or herbal), milk and two different kinds of juice. I'd opted for cafe au lait which wasn't great at all. I left most and got myself juice instead.
      The food was constantly re-filled, there was never a shortage of anything at any time and all tasted and looked fresh. We stayed until almost 10am and saw that they were still bringing out more food a few minutes to ten so probably they are not too strict with their breakfast times. Apart from the coffee this was the best breakfast I've had in a hotel in a long time and I'm really impressed !
      The breakfast and the friendliness of the reception staff were clearly the highlight of our stay and I recommend that if you are planing to visit that you make sure not to miss the breakfast.

      Easy accessible from the motorway and thanks to the dockyard and Dickens World, which both are neighbours, very well signed out. Just follow the signs to the attractions and they will lead you there. I've seen several bus stops near the hotel so getting there with public transport is probably not an issue. Parking seems to be a bit of a problem. The parking lot is L shaped and the larger part leads away from the well lit building towards the visitor parking space of the dockyards, which are of course totally empty at night. We were lucky to get one of the spaces right in front of the hotel but later on many guests weren't. I didn't feel like checking whether the far end of the other part of the parking lot was just too far or too dark or simply full but quite a few guests left their cars either directly in front of the entrance or in the narrow access road next to it (not signed out as parking areas). I have the feeling that these spaces weren't signed out for parking as they actually might serve as access for emergency services.

      At the nearby marina you can find Dickens World, a 3 minute walk, and a shopping and leisure complex with many restaurants in various price classes which cater for about every taste, from Mexican over Chinese, Italian to American Diner and more. There is also a large cinema so finding some entertainment and keeping well fed and watered is clearly not an issue.


      We clearly loved the breakfast and the staff but otherwise weren't all that impressed by this hotel. The rooms are just too small to be sold to 4 people, there are not enough storage facilities in the bedroom even for one guest, the bar and restaurant were boring and stained towels are an absolute no-no. They are lucky to be the only hotel in this area ...


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      • More +
        17.03.2012 01:40
        Very helpful



        A great day out - go for it !

        Twycross Zoo also calls itself "The World Primate Centre, which should give you a very good idea what they are specialised in. We visited them during the summer holidays as part of an offer of the Leicestershire County, which combined a hotel stay and admission to 3 out of 5 participating local attractions.

        Getting there:
        The zoo is located along the A444, just outside the village Twycross. It is well signed out and offers ample parking facilities. If you do not have your own transport you'll have to find your way to either Nuneaton or Ashby de la Zouch from where you can take a bus that will deliver you directly to the entrance.

        Getting in:
        For us it was easy as we had the pre-paid ticket from the offer, which meant no queuing up at all ! They seem to expect to get really busy as the line they have available is a very long and winding one. It was fairly busy when we arrived and we had to park our car a loooong way from the entrance but they seemed to cope very well and there really wasn't a long queue at all.
        You can book your ticket over their website if you want to avoid queuing.
        I'm not going to bore you now by adding all the admission fees, if you are interested visiting you can find them on their website at http://www.twycrosszoo.or g/buy-tickets.aspx.

        To reach the entrance or payment booth you will have to pass from their visitor centre which houses their huge shop and a food court. The food court looked interesting and seemed to offer a large variety of dishes from all around the world at reasonable prices. However cheap and lovely the food smelled, we'd arrived directly from the breakfast buffet of our hotel and weren't hungry, so didn't eat here. The kids were keen to get into the zoo, so we managed to ignore the shop also (not on the way out though!) and only paid a quick visit to the toilet before making our way to the gate.
        The ladies' room was clean and there was no shortage of toilet tissue or soap. The décor might not be to everyone's taste as there is an ant colony on display somewhere in between the hand wash basins and the mirrors, which is probably the strangest place to encounter them I imagine. It took a lot of persuasion to get my daughter, who hates creepy crawlies, to wash her hands here.
        Our visit:

        We were handed a map at the entrance and found out that there are 4 different set "trails you can follow, each named after a different animal: Gorilla, penguin, elephant and rabbit .

        Gorilla: Will lead you to all the apes in the zoo and end at the enclosure of the gorillas.

        Penguin: On this trail you'll meet the smaller monkeys, merkats, sea lions, and eventually the penguins.

        Elephant: You'll pass from the giraffes, the Uda Walawe elephant walkway and the Mary Brancker waterways and end at the Borneo Longhouse.

        Rabbit: This will lead you to the more local animals and pets, some of which you can touch, and a small funfair.

        Our family is totally without any discipline and we just wandered off - and only consulted the map after we managed to arrive at the same spot the third time. If running in circles is not your thing and you like to follow a set itinerary you'll probably love the trails, and might not even find it inconvenient that only two of the four are actually an extension of the other, while for the other two you will have to make your way back to the entrance each time to start. However way you decide to explore the zoo the map surely comes handy to ensure you haven't missed anything.

        As mentioned before, Twycross is a primate centre. This does not mean that they only have primates, but they do dominate and the majority of their animals are monkeys of all sizes. We love them and had fun watching them, at some enclosures we spend ages because they were just so entertaining.
        They have more than 1000 animals and there is a wonderful selection from all around the world, including the ever-so-cute merkats, Chimpanzees, camels, elephants, deers, hyenas, a large variety of birds, ...
        One of their stars is a snow leopard who's given birth to two adorable cubs in May 2011. Of course we were dying to see them but sadly had no luck. Both times we visited the Himalaya enclosure neither the mummy nor her babies were anywhere to be seen.
        We had more luck with the gorillas, which also had a baby not long before our visit, and managed to get a very good and long look at the proud mum and dad and their little one.
        One of the highlights of the day were the themed areas which are not to be missed. We loved the Borneo Longhouse and the Sri Lankan themed elephant walkway, both are superbly designed and offer so much to explore !.

        There are several cafes in the park, so when we got hungry we decided to visit the Gorilla Outpost Café. This café is not the most pleasing on the eye spot in the world but neither are the others I fear.
        Unlike the really impressive food court in the entrance area the choice of food we found was very limited. Not in the mood for some greasy chips and nuggets or a jacket potato we opted for sandwiches and coffee for us grown-ups and a lunch-box for the kids (sandwich, a small packet with apple slices, some carrot sticks and a small yogurt). The lunch boxes where £3.95 per child, no drinks included, prices for sandwiches start at £2.95. We paid almost £ 20, which clearly is not cheap at all for 4 sandwiches and drinks but sadly common place at attractions like this. Our sandwiches were very nice and generously filled but not enough to fill the husband who moaned that he was still hungry, and would have probably loved to have a slice of cake if there hadn't been so many wasps ! They were everywhere and made eating very uncomfortable.

        There are also several play areas, surprisingly the kids didn't ask for playtime so we gave them all a miss. The park must have been good or they'd definitely asked to go on the playground.
        The small fun fair offered a variety of carousels for smaller kids, sadly only one of them was open, and a train ride. The later is suitable for all the family. What we did like is that they do not charge you for these rides. They might be a bit dated but from our experience small children don't care about that at all. We've been to so many zoos where they charge you extra for rides, not just rides but generally for the air you breathe, and were more than just pleasantly surprised that the only thing that wasn't included in the entrance at Twycross was the food ! I really wish more attractions did operate like this, instead of charging entrance fees that are bordering on extreme, and then charge for every service and entertainment on the side on top !

        Our last stop was the pet area where we met guinea pigs, snakes, rabbits, chicken, sheep and probably the cheekiest donkey I've ever met. A nice way to finish a great day out at a slow pace for feet and minds that were getting really tired and exhausted.

        On the way out we had to pass from the shop again, and this time our kids were not distracted a bit, so we went, moaning husband included. We all were impressed by the size of the shop and the choice it offers, and there should be something for every wallet, no matter if you only want to spend a few pennies or totally blow it.
        Soft toys, mugs, umbrellas, clothes, a plethora of African/Asian/South American mementos including some beautiful handmade jewellery, stationary, books, - you name it, they have it !
        Each of our girls got something small, then a last trip to the loo with the ant colony and our visit was over.


        We all had a great day and we were glad to have chosen Twycross as one of the 3 attractions our offer included. I cannot really fault anything in this zoo and we absolutely loved it !
        Yes, the food we had was overpriced but I have seen much worse in similar attractions in the UK. We were expecting it to be more expensive than outside and were actually surprised that the sandwiches were of such a good quality, it seems more to be the norm that the quality of the food served in places like this is of extremely low standard, no matter how much they rip you off ! If we'd live somewhere in the area we'd brought our own picnic, they do offer enough tables.
        After struggling a bit at the beginning we easily found our way around, even though we did not follow the trails. All the ways are paved and even, so getting around with a wheelchair or push chair shouldn't be a problem. There are enough cafes along the way to offer tired guests a chance for a break and refreshments.

        The animal enclosures are all of good sizes and kept very clean and tidy, and the animals seem happy and well looked after. Twycross was founded in the 1960's and some of the enclosures still seem to be the same or at least look a bit dated. Do not get me wrong here, saying this I do not mean that they do not correspondent with modern expectations of size and environment, they are just not so pleasing on the eye, the interior of the cages is modern and animal friendly, I'm just talking about the shell ! The most attractive areas of this zoo are clearly the newer "themed areas which really get your and your children's imagination going !
        The range of animals is good, much better than we were expecting from a zoo that markets itself as a specialist in primates. However, we did miss the big cats which they do not have at all.

        I have mentioned in the beginning that they had a fairly busy day which was never a problem once inside the park. The people seemed to have spread out well, there was hardly ever a moment where we had to "queue to see an animal, there was hardly any queuing time in the café, and none at all when we visited the toilets.
        All toilet facilities were clean although clearly not new and not very appealing, a bit of modernization wouldn't harm.
        We did not go to any feeding times but did speak to a few "keepers, whom you can find throughout the park, and the kids did take part in an experience where they could touch skins, horns, spikes and bones of animals from around the world and guess to which animal they belong. They found this a great experience which ranged somewhere in between "weird", "yuk" and "awh"

        The value for money you get is great. If we'd had to pay the normal entrance fee it would have cost us £ 44 for a family ticket for 2 adults and up to 2 children this summer. Admittedly, that is not cheap but for a zoo in the UK also not expensive. The good thing is that they really do not charge you extra for anything once you are inside and food is something you can always bring with you. I do hope they will never change this, it really hurts families if there are a lot of attractions within a park that cost extra and having to say "no" all the time is not much fun !
        We got our ticket as part of an offer by the Leicestershire County that included a night in a 4-star hotel with breakfast for a family of up to 2 adults and 2 children, and entrance to 3 regional attractions for £99. Next to Twycross we chose Conkers and the National Space Centre, and this must have been the best offer around this year !
        If you are interested, the offer is still available this year, although the price has gone up to £109, which is still great value for money:

        Offer or not I'd absolutely recommend a visit and wouldn't mind going back at all !

        This review has also been posted elsewhere.
        Thank you for taking the time and reading it !


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        • More +
          30.01.2012 03:26
          Very helpful



          A great budget hotel for those who don't have to fit more than 2 persons in the room

          I booked the Paris Ibis Montmartre when we needed a crash pad for a short trip. My brother-in-law wanted to fulfill his wife's dream of visiting the Eiffel Tower and we agreed to accompany them. As they only stayed in the UK for a short time the trip had to happen right before Christmas and we would only have time to stay for one night. There was no need to search for special comforts, we really only needed a bed for the night and a shower at an affordable price.
          I knew the Ibis hotels from the past and was aware that they are nothing special . They are not really geared for the family market (we were travelling with two children), but they are usually contemporary, clean and run by young and friendly personnel.

          A few days before our trip the big snow set in and news that the Channel Tunnel would be either closed and/or journeys be severely delayed came up. The brother-in-law decided that we should still try to go on the trip and so I called the hotel one day before our departure to confirm our arrival.
          The young lady on the phone spoke excellent English and I found out that Paris so far didn't have any snow at all, and that we shouldn't worry about parking as there was a large public indoor garage directly under the hotel which always had capacities available. The later was a huge relief as parking in Paris can be a nightmare.

          Either we were plainly lucky or the news about the tunnel delays were exaggerated to keep travellers away, our trip went smoothly and we made it to Paris more or less as planned.
          The hotel is located directly at the Place the Clichy, which makes it easy to find no matter if you are using public transport or your own.

          To find the garage was easy, it was exactly where the receptionist had told me, under the hotel, and signed out well too. Check in went equally smooth and within minutes after arriving we were on the way to our rooms on the second floor.
          The Ibis hotels don't offer rooms for more than 3 people and the plan was that one of our girls would sleep in our room and the other with their aunt and uncle.
          Nice plan, unfortunately it didn't work as both of our kids were tired from the journey, in a foul mood and refused to stay with anyone else but us. A change of plan was needed and we decided that the older daughter would get the spare bed and the little one would have to sleep in the middle. This was a decision we regretted as soon as we entered the room and saw the size of the bed ! As I said earlier, they don't do rooms for four and the reason why was all too obvious - there simply wasn't enough space and the bed would have been just about fine for two but not for three. Oh well, we survived it and can't really blame the hotel - they never wanted to rent this room to a family of four - but comfortable it wasn't.

          The spare bed was a nifty construction under the window that could fold away totally and be turned into a workspace. The wardrobe is just a small hanging rack and a few shelves (in which we also found the chair that would have usually stood in front of the workspace-now-bed)
          The plasma TV is fixed at the wall opposite the main bed but showed only French programmes (not too surprising if you are in Paris) but managed to keep the girls entertained with some cartoons while we each took a quick shower and got changed for dinner. There is a menu for room service which might be fine if you are travelling alone or as a couple but for us, with the only table in the room turned into an extra bed, no option. After spending hours cramped into the car the last thing we wanted was a picnic on the bed in an overcrowded room.
          The bathroom is compact with a shower, basin and toilet. Everything was compact, not really big enough to swing a cat, but also everything was spotlessly clean. The only niggle I have is that the shower gel in the shower cabin was almost empty, which was a shame as it actually smelled very nice and I would have liked to use more than just the few drops I managed to squeeze out of the spender. Good thing we brought our own or we would have had to ask the reception desk for a refill.

          About an hour later we were ready to go out and the receptionists were more than happy to give us directions towards the Moulin Rouge and Sacre Coeur. Given the fact that there was so little time we wanted to put some more sightseeing, apart from the Eiffel Tower, into the trip.
          It had started to rain by now and we dismissed the walking directions we were given and went straight for the metro, which was around a two minutes walk from the hotel. In no time at all we were at the Place Blanche and from there made our way up to Sacre Coeur. So if you want to opt for this hotel, attractions are plentiful nearby and connection to the public transport is not an issue.
          However, the neighbourhood of this hotel is about as family friendly as the hotel itself and I wouldn't necessarily stay in this area of Paris if travelling with children.
          After a lovely dinner near the Place du Tretre we opted to walk back, the rain had stopped, and this took just 10 minutes, so you don't even have to spend money on the metro if you want to see around Montmatre.

          Back at the hotel we decided to go for a drink in the bar. We were the only guests and served quickly but didn't feel like hanging around too long. The place was just too quiet and rather brightly lit. The restaurant, which is located on the same level, was already shut although it was just 8.30 pm.
          By 9 pm I took the kids upstairs while the husband and his brother ordered another drink. Being awake since 4 am we were very tired and the bed was really comfy - until the husband appeared half an hour later and space became an issue. This queen size was really not made for 2 adults and a 7 year old and it wasn't the most comfortable night of my life.
          By 5am I was very awake and decided to check out the 24-hr bar they advertise, hoping for a cup of coffee and a newspaper. Surprise, surprise the bar was closed and there also wasn't a newspaper. Not that they advertise the papers but they do state that the bar is open 24hrs a day. Not on this day though ...
          A can of orange juice from the vending machine in the reception and a tourist information magazine would have to do and I managed to pass an hour before going back upstairs. I guess I would have managed to get a cup of coffee if I'd made a fuss and bothered the night receptionist but at 5am I'm not the most talkative person in the world, and just wanted some peace without a forever turning little girl kicking me every few minutes.

          I don't remember the timetable for the breakfast, we went at 8am and all was set. There is a small reception in front of the breakfast area where you need to show your room card and then you are ready to go.
          Breakfast in French budget hotels can be a sad affair consisting of just a piece of baguette and some jam but the Ibis offered a real proper buffet with a nice selection. You won't find a Full English breakfast, not even a boiled egg, but they had a variety of cheeses and cooked meat, several types of jam and honey, yogurts and fruit. There were croissants and a really very good selection of different types of bread, and, what was a really nice extra, pancakes and tortillas.
          For drinks there is a variety of fresh fruit juices, milk, several types of coffee and a good selection of teas.

          After breakfast we were ready to make our way to the Eiffel Tower and, when we finally entered our room to get our luggage and saw it for the first time in full daylight, realised that our room overlooked the Montmatre Cemetery - no noise disturbance to be expected from those neighbours !

          A cheap and cheerful option for all who aren't looking for too many creature comforts but want an affordable hotel in an area that is not only near to some of the main tourist attractions but also offers great connectivity to the public transport. Being so close to Place Clichy means that there are plenty of restaurants and bars around, so getting bored in the evening is not something you need to be afraid of.
          The staff were all very friendly and helpful and the garage beneath the hotel was a great plus. Personally I probably wouldn't use this hotel again. Not because we were disappointed but plainly because we need a bigger accommodation for the four of us to be comfortable. I'd recommend it for single travellers and couples - for families, even with only one child, it is rather cramped, especially if you'd like to stay for more than just one night and are planing to bring more than just a small bag .


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          • More +
            13.01.2012 22:13
            Very helpful



            I'd recommend this for short stays if you are looking for a reasonably priced room

            We'd booked the Holiday Inn Express Leicester Walkers Stadium for a visit to the area last summer. Originally we'd hoped to stay at the Barcelo Hinckley Island for 3 nights but as they were fully booked for the third night we had to find somewhere else to stay. This hotel was not our first choice as an alternative but it turned out that the Marriott and the Hilton were also fully booked, and the Holiday Inn in the town centre has no on-site parking, so we ended up here.
            I'd booked a family room for us and our two daughters, breakfast included, and found out that their website is really easy to use.

            The hotel is located directly next to the stadium, which makes it really easy to find as the way to the stadium is well signed out. I've seen a bus stop around the corner but with a facility like a football stadium at the doorstep you'll probably never have to worry if you have to rely on easy access to public transport.
            We arrived by midday and were rather surprised to find lots of police around the hotel and stadium. It was the weekend right after the riots and we'd assumed that the match in Leicester had also been cancelled, which wasn't the case.
            To get to the hotel's parking lot you will have to pass from a barrier and here the police wanted to see our hotel reservations. They asked whether we were planning to go to the match, we declined and were told that the whole area would be closed for traffic later on. We weren't planning to come back until after dinner from the trip we'd planned so this would not affect us but if you stay here on a match day and are planing to get back to your hotel during the afternoon you should consider this .

            No surprise, the hotel seems to popular with football fans and we found some sitting and enjoying a few pre-match beers in front of the back entrance which overlooks the parking lot.

            Checking-in was quick and easy, there is no porter service and we had to ask for a trolley for the luggage, which was supplied quickly. Strangely, the receptionist told us that the closest restaurant is around 10-15 minutes drive away, she must have meant walk as we'd passed a few on the way that I would consider to be in walking distance. The hotel itself doesn't have a restaurant.

            Our room was on the third floor and we had to fiddle with the key card a bit until it let us in.
            I guess "compact, bordering on cramped" describes it best, at least if you take the family version. I assume that the second double bed is originally a two-seater couch, which surely is great if you arrive alone or just as a couple, when it is turned into a bed though it fills all free floor space and there is hardly enough space to sit on the chair at the desk. The room was rather sticky and we were glad that we could open the window a few centimetres; ours overlooked the stadium where more and more fans were arriving.
            The bathroom had a really nifty design as the entrance door did not just only serve to separate the bathroom from the sleeping area but also functioned to separate the toilet from the rest of the bathroom. There is only a shower, pressure was so-so, a corner sink and nice blue mood lighting. We had to ask for more towels at the reception, they'd forgotten to supply our daughters.
            Apart from that we had some shelves where we found the hospitality tray (enough coffee and tea but not milk, no cookies) and hair dryer and an open hanging rack for a jacket or a very limited number of clothes. No storage for the luggage anywhere which means the little bit of floor that wasn't covered by furniture was occupied by our bags, and the kids had to climb a bit to reach their bed.
            You could say that they really use every inch of the room to provide you with the necessary, it's functional but not exactly comfortable. On the plus side the room was spotlessly clean.

            We left and returned after a fun day out at Conkers and a Pizza. By the time we made it back the football match was over long since and fans and police troops alike were gone, what was left behind and would stay there until after we left the next morning was a collection of empty beer glasses, both plastic and glass, along the front entrance that faces towards the stadium. Nobody seemed in a hurry to clean this mess up. If it was my hotel I wouldn't want its front entrance to be decorated with dozens of half-empty/empty pint glasses.

            The kids tried the shower quickly and fell in their bed, not without quibbling a bit that they had to share one double and totally exhausted after their day out, and we made our way downstairs towards the bar.
            The bar is located next to the reception desk and has about as much flair as a Mac Donald. There was a choice of 4 beers, I didn't check any other drinks, which were sold at a very reasonable price.
            The leather chairs are comfortable but the light was much too bright, the music almost ridiculously loud and as the sitting area is not divided from the reception and breakfast areas, it feels impersonal and is not the most inviting place I've ever had a beer in. Around eleven pm the receptionist/barkeeper finally realised that he'd forgotten to put his bar stools out and placed them in front of the bar, I doubt that he needed them as the other two tables had left at this point and we had no intention to change our place. There is a flat screen TV that was turned off which we quite appreciated as the music made it hard enough already to have a conversation.
            In the far corner you can find a desk area with a PC that you can use for a fee.

            Around midnight we were still the only guests left. Some other guests arrived after a night out but nobody else stayed for a late night drink and I couldn't blame them, it's really not a great bar. If we'd had a separate sitting area in our room we'd probably rather have stayed upstairs.
            The bed was anything but not comfortable, it was sacking and you'll definitely meet in the middle, whether you want it or not. Pillows came in a choice of hard and soft and were really great but that didn't stop me from waking up several times, the husband was moaning too.

            We didn't really expect a lot from the breakfast and were positively surprised as it was better than we thought it would be. There could have been a bigger variety of cheese and cooked meats but what was there was fresh and tasty. Warm options included sausages, bacon, scrambled egg and beans. The scrambled egg was nice, the sausages lovely and the beans where as they should be. I don't eat bacon so can't say anything about it.
            The variety of cereals was fine for us but would probably disappoint a connoisseur, the juices were nicely chilled and there were rolls, pastries, fresh fruit and yogurts too.
            The coffee/tea machines were a bit tricky to work and we weren't the only guests who needed a moment to figure out how they worked.

            Overall this hotel is OK for a short stay and you can expect a clean accommodation and a breakfast for a very reasonable price. The location is nothing special, neither is the hotel, it's a no-frills place I'd recommend to couples or business travellers who only need a crash pad for the night, and fans who want to attend a match or event at the stadium . It was OK with the kids but due to the size of the room I really would not have wanted to stay here for several days, and I think my back would not have wanted to stay a few more nights in that bed either.


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            • More +
              19.11.2011 23:02
              Very helpful



              Go elsewhere

              I've come across the Abbey Hotel in Redditch while confirming hotel data for another while ago and was impressed by their offer for a family break: It's not often that you find a 2-night including breakfast and use of the health club offer in a 4-star hotel for £ 99 and I've been waiting since for a chance to go there. They also advertise that you can book reduced entrance tickets to a nearby Safari Park through them. The kids had been begging since ages to visit one and with the end of the school holidays coming closer this seemed the perfect opportunity to offer them a treat for being good during those rainy days.
              Booking over the website was easy, a quick phone call confirmed that park tickets would be available and could be bought on-site after arrival, no need to pre-book. The last weekend of the summer holidays arrived fast and we were on our way ...

              The hotel

              The hotel is a red brick purpose built property, not extremely attractive but set in immaculately landscaped grounds, not without charm. The entrance is utterly unassuming, being set slightly below ground level and anything but not grand. You actually have to climb down some stairs to enter.

              The lobby is nice and clean with a modern decor throughout. There are some comfortable sofas and the lift to the upper floor can also be found here.
              The check in was swift and painless, within two minutes we had our key cards to our room which would also enable us to use the facilities of the health club. We got a quick briefing about breakfast times and how to make use of the swimming pool and were on our way.


              The staff we met was friendly and courteous throughout but in some aspects sadly totally ineffective. After realising that the cleanliness of our room left a bit too much room for improvement we went to the receptionist and informed her discreetly that we would appreciate it a lot if the cobwebs in our room could be removed asap.
              She apologized a few times, as expected, and promised to take a note for the housekeeping. I have no clue whether this note was passed on or not or just blatantly ignored by the cleaning personnel, the cobwebs were still there when we came back after a day out the next evening. To my best knowledge they could still be there, growing happily and absolutely undisturbed.
              Booking of the park tickets was easy and went smooth and check out was as painless as checking in.

              Bar and pub

              There is a bar next to the lobby and a pub can be found at the golf club, on top of the spa. Both offer outside sitting areas and the terrace of the pub overlooks the beautifully landscaped golf course.
              The interior of the pub is not much to write about. A kind of rustic furniture that doesn't go all that well with the too bright light and the forever running TV, the later is tuned constantly on a sports channel which is probably the link to the golf course. The pub closes at 11pm but if you don't feel like sleeping yet and if the uninspiring ambience hasn't put you in a coma yet, you can move over to the hotel's bar.
              On our second evening we had dinner in the pub.
              First thing we didn't like is that they don't offer a children's menu. They offer family deals, swimming courses for kids but no menu especially for little guests - poor but the smaller problem.
              The bigger issue is that we didn't like the food !
              The soup we had as a starter was Ok but nothing special and pretty bland. They have a selection of pasta on the menu which comes with a choice of 2 sauces (never seen that before). I settled for the tortellini with arrabiata sauce, which should have been spicy but was boring and as bland as the soup, the tortellini were limb and the whole affair was smothered in some melted cheese that clearly wasn't Parmigiano.
              The husband settled for Chicken Tikka and got a portion that was fairly small. He moaned that the rice was not only without any taste but also very watery, I didn't try but believe him as it also didn't look very appetizing.
              Both kids had opted for the giant Yorkshire pudding with Cumberland sausage, gravy and mashed potato.
              The Yorkshire pudding was fine but the mashed potatoes were cold and smothered in an extremely thick and starchy gravy . The sausage was the limpest specimen I've ever seen in my life and both girls refused to eat it. I can't blame them: It tasted even worse than it looked.
              Not a great experience at all, overpriced on top and I wouldn't eat there again if they paid me !
              The hotel lounge is more cosy and offers, next to a bar area, some comfy sofas and a few tables . There are plenty of tables outside, including a large table under a gazebo. I didn't really check what kind of drinks they offer and if there are any fancy cocktails, we just settled for a pint. All went fine during the first evening and we really liked the bar but on the second evening there was a group of golfers who were clearly far beyond their bedtime and behaving horribly.
              We witnessed one of them urinating just behind the terrace and having a quiet drink without being undisturbed was impossible. In the end we took our beers and had them in the lobby. Of course it is not the hotel's fault if guests don't know when it is time to stop drinking but an experienced barman should realise when it is time to stop serving.

              Golf and Country Club

              We didn't try the golf course. None of us plays golf, but the husband spend an hour in the gym and loved it. He found it well equipped and would have loved to return, but we ran out of time so one visit was all he got.
              On our second day we managed to squeeze in a visit to the pool and all liked it a lot. The pool isn't extremely large but sufficient and the whole pool area is very attractive. There are more than enough lockers, you'll find showers equipped with shampoo and hairdryers. In the pool area is also a steam room and there also must be a sauna somewhere which we haven't seen. We didn't have enough time for any beauty or massage treatments so I can't comment on either.


              First impressions were very good ! The room wasn't just of a decent size but really big, big enough to house a double bed, a proper single bed and an extra bed for our younger daughter, several large pieces of furniture - and still leave enough space for our luggage and all of us to move freely at the same time. The decor is modern and decent and there is a proper bathtub with a shower above in the ensuite, big enough for taking a nice hot bath. We found a small pack of biscuits on each pillow and there is a proper wardrobe to store your clothes. We were all excited, just dropped our bags and decided to explore the rest of the facilities before unpacking. The enthusiasm didn't last last long when we came back, switched on the lights and had a closer look ...
              Upon closer inspection we realised that the carpet was well used and sported several stains. The desk was more than a bit wonky and seemed to fall to pieces, God knows what got this rather heavy piece of furniture in such a state ! There were huge cobwebs hanging from the ceilings all around the room, an extremely long one right above our bed, the top of the textile pictures on the wall above our bed was covered in a thick layer of dust and there were huge stains on the inner side of the entrance door which could have been anything. The bathroom was clean but the grouting could have done with some TLC. We weren't impressed any more, not a bit ...

              There was a TV which worked but we didn't really use it and I have no clue what channels they offer. Wi-Fi is free and also worked without any problems and the storage facilities in the room were ample, not just for a weekend stay. The hospitality tray sat on the wonky desk and we were provided with plenty of tea and coffee but not quite enough milk and had to go and get some more from the reception on the second evening.
              There are no glasses for your toothbrush/toothpaste in the bathroom, not even plastic cups, which is something that is standard in houses of a much lower category. We used one of our two coffee cups from the hospitality tray and hoped housekeeping would get the hint the next day and either provide us with a glass or another cup. You never should expect too much: The cup we had used to make a cup of coffee was exchanged with a clean one the next day but the cup in the bathroom stayed and we had to ask the reception for another cup when we both actually wanted to have a coffee at the same time. Some guests can be fussy, no ?
              Our bed and the bed of our older daughter were very comfortable. The mattresses here seem to be a bit harder than what you usually find in England and we were very happy with that, although I would have probably slept better without being aware that there were massive cobwebs dangling above my head ! They did make me a bit nervous !
              The camp bed our little daughter got wasn't quite that good and she had a bit of a moan that it wasn't "comfy". It also blocked the access to the trouser press but who uses them anyway ?

              Our room was located on the ground floor overlooking the parking lot and being at one level with it. Not a great view but I guess somebody has to live on this side of the hotel too. The parking spaces are very close to the window and of course we had to have somebody parking with the rear of their car towards our open window on the second day, blowing exhaust fumes directly into the room. Nothing the hotel is responsible for but not very nice at all.


              Breakfast is served in the restaurant which is located next to the bar. The decor is OK but nothing special and the food we found wasn't very inspiring. There was a range of cereals, some pastry was squeezed in a corner, and a fine selection of juices. Unfortunately they were offered in huge jugs which were so heavy that you need to be Rambo to lift them while they are totally full.
              There was only one kind of cheese and the selection of salami looked tired. No chance to take any yoghurt, the spoon to help yourself was too small and lying in the bowl, you'd have to dig it out first. We spend 45 minutes for breakfast on our first day and nobody realised and exchanged bowl and spoon.
              The mushrooms from the cooked selection were huge and less tasteless, peeled tomatoes from a can instead of grilled tomato and watery scrambled eggs complimented them perfectly .
              On the second day we were sent to a table where we had to wait 10 minutes until it was cleaned and the butter was too hard to spread while the room was so overheated that you didn't feel like eating much, if the food didn't put you off already! I had a better breakfast in the Premier Inn we stayed at a few weeks earlier ...
              We never tried their dinner service as their prices are rather high and the breakfast we got didn't really put us into the mood to fork out that much money.


              The hotel grounds are immaculate and landscaped beautifully. I don't play golf but would have loved to take a walk around the course as it just looked so nice.
              The hotel is located to the north of Redditch. There isn't much around and, unless you are unlucky and get a room right above the bar, it is very quiet.
              The only nightlife nearby is the hotel's bar and pub, the later is rather dead. This is clearly not a city hotel with lots to do and see around but more for a quiet break. At least I think that at one point it was planned so. If you don't mind drunken fellow guests with bad manners, a dirty room and really bad food you will enjoy a stay. If you do - go and spend your money elsewhere !


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              • More +
                05.11.2011 01:13
                Very helpful



                Wonderful seafood

                Mersea Island is not far from us and we visit regularly, usually around 3-4 times throughout the year. Already the drive down to Mersea, we always take the long way over winding country lanes and through plenty of chocolate box villages, finally over the single causeway onto the island, promises that such a day will be a special for the whole family.
                Mersea is different from anywhere else in Essex: quaint and quiet, laid back and far from the hustle and bustle of Colchester and Chelmsford or, even worse, London if you happen to work there. You are looking forward to limited cars, clean air, walks along the Colne and Blackwater estuaries, bird watching, stone and sea shell collecting at Cudmore Grove, picturesque beach huts in West Mersea, marshlands, surprisingly few visitors - and probably the best oysters you will ever be able to taste !

                Our day trips to Mersea normally start early, we take some coffee and snacks for a mid-morning break and otherwise just enjoy working up an appetite in the fresh air. Once this is achieved we are off to West Mersea, down towards the marina where the Company Shed is located.

                So what is the Company Shed ?

                Tricky question! It is clearly not your average restaurant but also clearly more than just a fishmonger. A shed it is indeed ...
                The Howards are traditional oystermen, in the meantime in the 8th generation. The oysters from this area are famous; apparently it is the mud of the river Blackwater that gives the Colchester Oyster its distinctive flavour. The Gigas oyster is served throughout the whole year while the Colchester Native is only available in months with an "R". The Howards are selling their produce throughout the whole country, in the meantime also internationally, but they are not the first ones who have exported the delicious Colchester Oysters. According to the Romans they were the "only good thing that has ever come from Britain".

                25 years ago Mrs Howard had the idea that it would be nice not just to sell their fresh produce but also to prepare some directly on-site, so that customers would be able to consume the seafood right away.

                A few cheap plastic chairs and tables were put up for hungry costumers to sit down, salt, pepper, vinegar and a kitchen roll placed on top of colourful plastic table cloths - and the interior décor was ready. This is still pretty much what you can expect. Forget about china and silver, colour co-ordinated furnishings and refined lighting, a bare stone floor and neon lights is what you get, at the far wall the basins where the live produce of the family's main business wriggles along.

                Especially if you want to visit on a weekend you need to arrive early. It's a small place, around 10 tables, and if they are full you can put your name on the blackboard and wait. On a nice and warm summer's day this can take, and might not happen at all. Alas, we've always been lucky so far and never even had to wait all that long.

                Once you've secured your table it's off to order. The choices are limited, it's seafood and fish or fish and seafood. No chips, no bread, no veggies - the only other food they serve is salad. They also didn't use to serve drinks at all, however they do have a small selection of wines and soft drinks nowadays. You are most welcome to bring your own drinks and bread, but nothing else than that! So don't get the idea to visit the local chippie before and arrive with a portion of oily potatoes - you don't want them! They'd only spoil the taste ! There is a Tesco in town that is open 7 days a week and here you can get a fresh baguette and a bottle of white wine if you either have forgotten to bring them or didn't know that you are supposed to bring your own supplies.
                Once you are close the shed you'll see people walking along the road with the usual suspicious bags, a bottle and a baguette sticking out are a sure sign that they are heading the same way as you are. Some are holding Tabasco bottles in their hands while others have a glass of mayonnaise peeping out of the pocket of their jacket

                In our bag is fresh baguette, a bottle of Tabasco and sparkling water, juice for the kids.

                Daily specials are written on the blackboards at the counter, here you'll also place your order.
                The regular menu offers you scallops, grilled mussels, tiger prawns (served with an awesome garlic mayonnaise), Gigas oysters served in different varieties, smocked salmon, crab, jellied eels, smoked fish pates, lobster and langostinos and the highlight of our days to Mersea: The infamous seafood platter !
                This mixed platter offers you smoked salmon and mackerel, prawns (mixture of peeled and shell on), cockles, a green lip mussel, a crevette, and half a crab. You don't need to worry about the crab, they give you all the tools you need to get the meat out. And what a meat it is ! Simply perfect and delicious!
                Feeding the kids might proof a bit harder than in your average restaurant, especially if you have a fussy little eater. Our little one is no problem at all, she tries everything and loves her tiger prawns and smoked salmon, it's our older daughter who is a bit harder to please. The daily specials have so far always provided a solution for this problem and she's really happy to eat their salmon fishcakes, which are "the best I've ever tasted".

                The food usually arrives quickly and the portions are huge! We take two seafood platters, a few oysters, a portion of tiger prawns for the little one and the salmon cakes for young Miss - and one portion of salad . The little one takes whatever she wants from our platters to accompany her prawns, the salad plate goes in the middle and is big enough for the four of us.
                The atmosphere is as relaxed as the place is unpretentious - and eating is just pure fun and enjoyment of the delicacies in front of you. There are no hushed conversations, no piped music, just a room full of people enjoying their company and their food.

                To make things even more enjoyable, it is cheap to eat here ! The seafood platter is still less than £12, a dozen of oysters will set you back £9, and our little daughter's prawns are £3.95. The large salad bowl that feeds us all is £3.75, and the whole dining experience costs us less than £50, an amount that, if you look at what we are eating, the freshness and the quality, would easily be spend per person if we'd decided to have the same somewhere in London.

                There are no deserts and no coffee, so our visit must end here, of course not without taking some smoked salmon for tomorrow's breakfast.

                Afterwards it is back to the great outdoors to burn of some calories, and to visit the Art Café for a nice cup of coffee and some of those wicked pancakes or homemade cakes. But that, of course, is a totally different review ...

                For all those who are still wondering if I recommend it : Yes, I do! If you ever get a chance to visit Mersea and the Company Shed, don't miss it! For the simple pleasure of eating some absolutely delicious seafood, go and try it, it's pure joy!

                Thanks for reading !
                This review has also been posted on other websites under the same user name.


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                • More +
                  31.10.2011 02:31
                  Very helpful



                  A fantastic day out

                  Paradise Wildlife Park is a privately run zoo with huge play areas. It is located in Broxbourne, not too far from North London, and the park can easily be accessed from the A 10. Broxbourne also has a railway station and this is served by the park's own free shuttle bus. We didn't use this service so I can't tell you in which intervals the shuttle bus arrives at the station or if you have to call them from there to tell them that you wish to be picked up. If you are interested and want to find out more you better contact them directly.
                  We arrived by car and found that the way to the park was well signed out. The parking area is located at the back of the park, a rather unusual lay-out which means that there is a road leading right through the middle of it. The pay booth is located somewhere in the middle of the access road; you just drive up, tell them which ticket option you require and pay with either cash or card. I didn't pay any attention what they expect visitors who are not arriving by car to do - and if they'd have to queue up in between the cars - but guess that there is a separate booth somewhere away from the road that I just failed to see.
                  Our kids had decided not to have a "normal" birthday party this year and opted to take one friend each on a speical day out, and the Paradise Wildlife Park had been their choice for the occasion. At the ticket booth we chose a family ticket, which covered my husband and me and two children, and two separate children's tickets. The family ticket was £50 and the two single tickets for our little guests were £11 each, which added up to a heft £72.

                  To find a parking space was easy, the facilities are ample, the park wasn't very busy and we'd arrived fairly early.
                  From here on it was walking back to the entrance area, I really can't get over this lay-out !
                  The zoo area of the park is located in one half of this divided park while in the other half you will find mainly play areas, in and outdoors, the restaurant and a forest trail. Every time you want to change to the other area of the park you will have to cross the road. There are zebra crossings and cars are supposed to go slow but I still think that this is not ideal in a place where there are that many small children running around.
                  After the long journey, it takes us around an hour to reach there, we thought it would be best to take them to the play area first so that they could let of some steam. There is a really nice big playground with lots of wooden play equipment, a "Thomas" engine to climb on and have your photo taken in, a carousel (extra fee), a train ride (also extra fee), play area for children with special needs and a second play ground we discovered later on. After some playtime we took the girls on the small train which lead us through a forest in which all kind of "Dinosaurs" are living. These are pretty good models and some looked so realistic that our little daughter asked me a few times very cautiously if I was really, really sure that they weren't alive.
                  The ride lasts about 5 minutes and if I remember it right was £1 per person, kids and adults alike.
                  As the forest trail is also located in this area we went to have a look and found enclosures with woodland animals like deer or beaver to explore. The beavers were a bit shy and we didn't spot any but some of the deer came quite close and we were all able to have a good look. We also managed to get up and close with one of the Dinosaurs we'd seen earlier on the train ride and our little one was finally convinced that these weren't really alive.
                  At the end of the trail we found the second playground, this time not with wood equipment but more the metal style climbing frames I'm used to from my childhood. This play area is very large, the equipment might be older and a bit dated but is well looked after, and of course the girls wanted to try all. By now was close to noon, our daughters and their guests had signalled that they were getting hungry and we decided to keep the zoo area for after lunch and made our way to the picnic area. This is located at the rear end of the park, next to the parking area.It means that you do have to walk all the way back again but is handy as you do not have to carry your picnic a long way. The other practical side of the strange layout was that you don't need to leave the park to fetch something from your car, no need to queue up and get an ugly stamp on your hand that shows that you've paid already.
                  The picnic area is designed like a garden, very pretty, and on the day we visited we had no problem finding a table.
                  Directly next to the picnic area is a small paddling pool with some water features. Neither of us knew of this facility before so none of the kids had a swim suit or a towel and during lunch I got quite a few complaints for not being more attentive. It was a rather hot day and the water is only a few centimetres high so the girls could have used it to cool down a bit. I did feel sorry for them, and guilty for not checking teh website better, and had to promise not to forget the swim suits ever again if we should visit again.

                  After lunch it was finally time to go and see the animals. Before we reached them on the other side of the park we had to cross some kind of fun fair area. Here you can find a few more rides, mainly again against extra fees, some stands where you can hook a duck and similar games, buy popcorn or a hot dog, or dig for gold nuggets - and spend, spend, spend.
                  By this time we'd grown a bit tired of all the extra costs on top of the park admission and were glad that all girls were eager to see the animals now. They didn't pay all a lot of attention to the few rides or sweet vendors and wanted to get into the actual zoo.
                  This can be accessed from several points and we started in the small farm animals section. Here you can find rabbits, sheep, goats and the like, touch them and feed them. Paper bags with suitable animal food is sold in this area also but there are a few more animals around the zoo which you can feed with it so you might want to keep some. They don't sell it in any other section so if you use it all here you'll have to go back if you'd like to find another animal later on,
                  The animal enclosures are kept as close to the natural habitat of the animals as possible, which is not only good news for the animals but also looks great. The downside for the visitors is that some animals are hard to spot and you might not be able to see all the animals that life here. They have a lot of walkways on elevated positions to make sure that your chances are as good as they possibly can be but still there were a few we had no chance spotting. For a small, family-run business they do have a lot of animals from all around the world and we were really impressed. If a few in between are not in the mood for visitors, there are still enough others to see and you probably won't get disappointed.
                  The big cats are especially impressive and thanks to those walkways you can get really close to some. We were able to get within a metre of a leopard, which is the closest I've ever been to one. It would go too far to mention all the animals we've seen and we were really, really impressed by the variety and the way they are kept and presented.
                  There were definitely many more species than we thought there would be, their enclosures are spacious and offer enough hiding places for them if they want to stay out of the picture and the whole park, not just the zoo area, are kept impeccably clean.
                  The reptile house, always one of my favourites, is rather small and I'd have loved to see more of them but I've seen bigger parks that do not offer any at all.

                  When you arrive you will be given a leaflet with the feeding times of some of the animals so if you want to attend you'll need to schedule your visit around those times. This can be a bit daunting and I always find it stressful to add too many of these feeding times to our visits. Nice as it is, I just don't like having to check the time every few minutes and rushing from one end to the other to make it to the right enclosure at the right time. We usually opt for just one and otherwise discover the zoos we visit at our own pace. At Broxbourne the feeding of the penguins was scheduled just half an hour after we arrived in the zoo area, so that's where we headed. Penguins don't seem to be the big sensation and there weren't many other visitors apart from us to watch how they were fed. Good for us as we all, no matter which size, had no problems seeing the event and the kids loved it !
                  They do offer a tractor ride which will take you around the zoo which we happily took. We'd all got started to get a bit tired and sitting down sounded good.
                  Toilets and stands selling refreshments or ice-cream can be found all around the zoo.
                  The aviary, where you can see lots of birds of prey and other feathery friends, is located at the far end of the zoo. Here is also a theatre for shows, not a facility we used and I can't comment on the quality or even remember what those shows are about.

                  During our visit we managed to stroke a very friendly camel, make friends with some entertaining merkats, and spend ages watching the lions. The later had just been fed and where lying lazily in the sunshine, directly under the viewing platform. It was more like watching a game of "Whoever moves first has lost" and we did get very good idea of the impressing size of a lions' mouth and teeth while it is yawning .
                  Time just flew by and by the time we left the zoo it was tea time and thus feeding time of the children was on the plan. We'd only brought lunch as a picnic, so headed for the restaurant.

                  The restaurant is a large purpose built hall with a covered outside sitting area and cheap furniture. The counter where you order your food is at the back of the building and as soon as you enter you can tell from the smell that grease is the word - and it that it will be not such a great dining experience.
                  Nevertheless, we don't judge the book by the cover or the eating facility just by its smell, and went to check the menu above the counter. Not very surprised we found burgers, nuggets, hot dogs and the like, chips as side orders, no veggies or salad anywhere. The kids all wanted chicken nuggets, we opted for hot dogs, and the orders came up fast. They were fairly busy at lunch time when we had our picnic, but now there weren't many guests left and we waited only a few minutes.
                  We ate outside and the food was, as suspected, not great. I didn't try the nuggets but my chips were very oily and the sausage wasn't very good. With lots of mustard and ketchup it all went down. Only one of our little guests was clearly not impressed at all and refused to eat her food (can't blame her) . I wished I'd prepared a second picnic for tea.
                  For desert it was ice-cream for the children and some more time on the play ground, and when we realised that there is a café in the indoor play area we decided to let them have a go there instead.
                  This a good sized indoor play ground with a large playing frame and some areas like ball pools for smaller children. One of our guests wasn't wearing socks, which is required in all indoor play areas, and a member of staff quickly delivered her back to our table. The problem was solved fast, they sell socks for such emergencies, rather nice ones even and not expensive. Within 2 minutes she was able to join the others again and we enjoyed a peaceful cup of coffee.

                  We hadn't prepared any party bags for our little guests and I wanted to buy them something from the park as a little souvenir. I left the husband in the indoor play area with the kids to sneak over to the very large gift shop on the other side of the road.
                  They have a huge variety of gifts, covering probably all price ranges and tastes, and you can find everything from small erasers, bouncy balls, postcards and pencils, over caps, mugs, bags, to T-Shirts, umbrellas and so on. Everything here is animal themed and of course many items carry their logo. It wasn't hard to find some nice stuff for the two girls to take home, and a little souvenir for our daughters too. It would be very easy to spend a small fortune in here and I was glad that I went alone without the children.
                  The stuff happily obliged to divide all the little presents in separate bags, instead of one big plastic carrier, so each girl was handed one little goodie bag when we reached the car. This of course also kept them fairly busy until we were about half way home and the first one of the girls fell asleep.
                  We all had a great day and enjoyed the visit to the park and I'd happily come back for another visit but would not eat in their restaurant again.
                  It is a bit annoying that there are so many attractions in this park that will cost extra money on top of the rather expensive admission fee. You'll need to be a bit tough and say "no" quite often, or you'll end up spending a small fortune.
                  The zoo is great and was much better than we'd hoped it would be but the many play areas distract a bit and we had one guest moaning constantly that she'd "rather be in the playground". Sigh !
                  If I'd visit without children just to see the zoo I'd probably feel pretty cheated to have to pay for more than half a park that is really only suitable for kids.

                  For all those who want or need to know, they also offer arranged children's birthday parties and "Keeper for a day" experiences. Many of the keeper experiences require a minimum age and come with a big price tag. You can find more information on the website.

                  White Stubbs Lane
                  Broxbourne, EN10 7QA
                  This review has been published on other websites under the same user name.
                  Thanks for reading !


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                  • More +
                    24.10.2011 21:52
                    Very helpful



                    One of the Disney budget options

                    The Disney Cheyenne Hotel was an upgrade to a very good offer we found for a 3-day trip to Disneyland Paris. Originally the offer included accommodation in the Disney Santa Fe Hotel but at only £ 6.00 more we thought that the expense for having a bunk bed for the children next to a double bed for us, instead of two queen size beds, was money well spend.
                    To find the hotel was easy. Once you reach Marne de la Vallee all you need to do is follow the signs along the way. With Disney being THE attraction in the area all that has to do with the theme park is very well signed out, and the danger that you are getting lost is minimal. If you are arriving by Eurostar you'll find the bus terminal from where the shuttle buses to the hotels depart right in front of the exit to the station, and if you want to take a train from the airport you'll also arrive here. Once you reach the hotel by car you will have to pass from the check in where you will have to show your reservation papers. The guy we met here was a very friendly and cheerful chap and within a short time we were making our way up the driveway to the Cheyenne Hotel

                    The hotel is designed in a Wild West Style. You can't drive up directly to the entrance, this area is reserved for coaches, there is a small parking lot opposite of the entrance to the reception area where you can leave your car while you check in. The shuttle buses stop around 100 metres from the entrance and porter service isn't privided, you'll have to manage your luggage yourself.
                    The reception area is large and the Wild West theme continues with lots of wooden beams, the odd Native American Indian model, wagon wheels and the likes.
                    We where lucky to arrive at a time of day where the reception wasn't busy and only had three more families in front of us. Nevertheless, the waiting time was around 15 minutes and is sluggishly slow. I feel sorry for all those who arrive in huge groups or at very busy times but it gives you a very good impression of what will await you during your stay in Disneyland: queuing, queuing, queuing
                    The receptionist was very friendly and explained all the offers that were available to us like early entrance to the park, booking dinners, etc. At this point we didn't pay too much attention but wanted to get to our rooms, get rid of the luggage, freshen up and finally get to the park and maybe meet Micky .
                    The hotel is fairly big and consists of many separate buildings, all two storey high and with Wild West related names. We were assigned to "Sundance" which is located at the far end of the hotel complex. Good thing I did pay attention when the receptionist explained the way to get there. There is a large
                    parking lot all along the hotel's buildings and we managed to find a space directly in front of "our" building which turned out to be a white wooden structure that could have been the pride of every Clint Eastwood Western Movie. Opposite to the entrance there is a small square with a small park which is probably very nice during the greener months as there where plenty of roses.
                    Once entering the building you'll find out that there isn't a lift, no big problem with only one flight of stairs to climb - and the explanation why such a lot of push chairs are parked in the hall way. The Wild West theme continues in the design which includes some photos of the most "wanted" men, all actors who have played Wild West villains, but it is also fairly worn and the space under the stairs is used as a storage area for neon lights and other items that might need to be replaced in the rooms. On the landing of the first floor there are some tables and chairs, very saloon like, that came handy when we wanted to have a drink when the kids were already in bed as there is no separate living area in the room

                    Entering the room you'll find a hanging rail and a shelf in the hallway, the bathroom also leads from here. The room itself isn't small at all but with the double bed, the bunk bed, two chests of drawers and a desk area it is fairly cramped and there is hardly space to swing a cat. We made sure to keep our luggage out of the way, solved the dispute which of the girls would sleep on the upper bed, found the room to be hot and sticky and opened the window, which wasn't as easy as it looked like. There is a TV with some local French channels and the Disney Channel in several languages, not a service we used a lot. The room was clean but the furniture again a bit tired and worn and the bathroom could have done with some sprucing up as. there were some cracked tiles. As this is one of Disney's budget offers we didn't expect all that much, besides, if you come to Disneyland you'll probably not spend a hell lot of your time in the room, at least not while you are awake.
                    The beds weren't the most comfortable I've ever slept in but for a short trip they were fine. Not so sure if I would have liked to sleep for a whole week or so in them but most people won't stay for that long anyway.
                    On the plus side everything was spotlessly clean and the room was tidied up daily, empty soaps and toilet rolls were replaced.
                    In the bathroom we found some soaps with Mickey Mouse wrapping and shower gel and shampoo in little bottles with Micky Mouse screw tops which we weren't allowed to use as our daughters wanted to take them as a souvenir. We'd brought our own so no big deal and both kids were happy to take their Mickey shampoos back home.
                    There is no possibility of room service, no coffee/tea making facilities and there are also no machines in the building from which you could have got a small snack or a hot drink. This was the only real downside of the hotel as the bar/restaurant were quite a bit of a walk away and we'd have loved to have a cuppa in the morning while we all got ready for breakfast.

                    The hotel offers a restaurant where also the breakfast is served, and a bar. All meals are taken in buffet form and you can book an all-you-can eat dinner at a reasonable price at the concierge desk if you wish so.
                    The choice at breakfast was good although there wasn't any cooked breakfast, which means no eggs, bacon, beans and so on. There were enough cereals, cheeses, jams, cooked meats, fruit and a large variety of baked goods to keep us happy and we didn't really miss a full English breakfast. If we'd stayed a few days longer we would probably have wanted a larger choice but for just two nights it was perfectly fine. Drinks can be found in the dining halls (no joking, these are really halls with room for large amounts of people) and there was a variety of fruit juices, coffee, tea and milk.
                    The ambience again was Wild West Style, even though the size of the rooms would have exceeded the odd saloon by a mile.
                    After enjoying our breakfast we took a coffee outside where you can find some wooden tables and give the kids a chance to play in the playground - while we had some peace.
                    We booked the all-you-can-eat dinner on our second evening and here you will have to expect to queue up for ages for your food - and in a very hot buffet area ! The selection is good, there are several starters including soup and salads, a huge variety of main dishes that should suite any taste, a fantastic desert buffet and lots of cheeses.
                    From what I remember there was grilled chicken, salmon, curry, pasta with a variety of sauces, Boeuf Bourguignon, chips, rice and lovely pizzas.
                    It took ages to get what you wanted though and the kids started to eat halfway through and were nearly full by the time we got back to the table. The desert buffet is really worth mentioning as there was a fantastic selection of cakes, tarts and puddings. We couldn't really decide what to try and thus ended up filling a big plate with a variety to share. Cheeses included brie, camembert, blue cheese and goat's cheese.
                    The dinner offer includes one drink only and instead of ordering another one we decided to move on towards the bar to have coffees.
                    The weather was uncharacteristically mild during our stay so we decided to sit outside and I didn't see much of the bar. From what I could see through the window it offered several TV screens and was much smaller than I'd expected from a hotel of this size.
                    The overall ambience of the restaurant is clearly not romantic. For the amount of people these halls take, there were two of them, connected by saloon style swinging doors, the noise level was surprisingly low and tables were cleared fast and efficiently. During breakfast there was a bit of a problem with milk and juices running out and it took some time until they were refilled but the organization of feeding so many people at the same time was rather admirable and I'll happily forgive them for having to wait 10 minutes for my refill of orange juice when all went that well for me and hundreds of other guests at the same time.

                    Other facilities:
                    There was a nice shop with lots of Disney items (what else ?) which was well worth checking out. We found a T-Shirt for our little one that was actually cheaper than in all the Disney shops in and surrounding the park. The staff here is extremely friendly and was very helpful when our older daughter fell down one evening and we were in desperate need of some plasters. In the end we bought most of our souvenirs here, not because we couldn't have got them anywhere else inside Disneyland but because the staff was really exceptional.

                    There is a concierge desk where you can book special activities like dinners and shows. We used this to arrange the all-you-can-eat buffet dinner on our second evening and found the staff to be very helpful, friendly and well organized.
                    There is a play area outside that our kids used during the stay. They do offer pony rides in the morning. Not an offer we took on as it involves extra spending, 5 pound for each child for a short ride up one of the "streets". Not that I'm stingy but there are so many better ways to spend your money in Disney. The kids liked the ponies (surprise, surprise!) and also had fun in the games arcade we visited in the evening. Here you can find table football, pin ball and so on.

                    The shuttle service to the park was a great help and absolutely reliable. The buses do get very crowded during the "rush hours" and no driver seems to care about overfilling the bus, so hold on tight. The journey from the Cheyenne to the park takes about 3 minutes and buses depart every 10-15 minutes from the hotel and back. This makes it very easy to reach the parks and the station.
                    Disney Characters show up daily and you can find them outside under the cover of the entrance in front of the big post wagon. We met Goofy and Pluto and the kids, although they surely would have preferred Mickey and Minnie, were absolutely OK with this. No clue how well the more expensive hotels are served but I suspect that your chances to see the "A-List celebrities" are better there. The queues to have your photo taken with the Disney character are much smaller than in the park and both of our girls got enough time for a big hug from both characters.

                    Overall this hotel is a fantastic budget choice for families. It is absolutely geared for the family market and I don't think that's probably what they are doing best. If you are after a more romantic break or just want something more upscale than a good working basic accommodation you will be better off at one of the more expensive Disney Resort Hotels.
                    We booked this hotel at a special offer for £ 300.00 for the whole family including a 3-day pass to the park, really exceptional good value for money. Disney only does such cheap offers way out of season but we were lucky with the weather and had, apart from half an hour of rain over 3 days, bright sunshine. So it was well worth the gamble and you'll never have any guarantees for sunshine, no matter which time of the year you go.
                    My only real problem with the hotel was the lack of coffee anywhere near the room, which probably isn't a big deal for most but this cat doesn't work properly without a cuppa in the morning ! Not that this would stop me from returning to the Cheyenne hotel, I'd go back any time, but bring a kettle.

                    This review has also been published on other websites.
                    Thanks for reading !


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                      23.10.2011 23:53
                      Very helpful



                      Never again !

                      The Rainforest Café Disneyland Paris is part of a restaurant chain that owns branches at several Disneyland Parks worldwide, as well as several other international locations including a branch in London. I'd read about the London branch and had this on my list for a future visit to the capital but when we found them in the Disney Village I thought this would be the perfect time. What could be a better finale to a great day in a fantastic theme park than a great dinner in a fantastic themed restaurant ? We were soon to find out that things are not always as great as they seem to be. Oh well ...

                      Being situated directly in the Disney village it is easy to find the Rainforest Cafe, the train station is also only just a few hundred metres away and guests who are staying in one of the Disney hotels around the lake can easily reach by walk. As it is in the village you don't have to worry about entrance fees, the village is open to all free of charge.
                      Once you arrive you will join the queue of others who'd like to eat here, depending on how busy it is that might take a while. To help the staff allocate the tables you will be asked how many people are in your party right after joining the queue, after this it is just waiting and maybe visiting the large and noisy alligator next to the entrance. He might not keep you entertained for long but at least the kids have fun

                      In our case the waiting time took around half an hour. We got a ticket with the name of the waitress who would take care of us, and the hint that we would have enough time to look at the items in the shop before we would be escorted to our table. It turned out that you have to cross their whole shop to reach the actual entrance to the restaurant. They did have some fun items and a nice décor (check the anaconda that hangs out of the trees right after you step inside) and it was also cozy and warm so we didn't mind too much having a look around.

                      We found our waitress finally under an arch made of aquariums with live fish, a really great feature that will prepare you for what is waiting for you - if the the "live" anaconda that hangs out of a tree right behind the entrance to the shop hasn't done so yet.

                      The décor of this restaurant is really something and every wall is covered in tropical plants. There are trees in which you will spot all kinds of wildlife, huge butterflies, monkeys, parrots, bugs and birds - and even the odd mosquito swarm. You'll find zebras and an elephant cow with her baby at a small lake, waterfalls and probably much more I already forgot about or simply missed . The restaurant is rather larg and the lighting was a bit too much on the dark side for my taste, at least in the area where we found our table. Closer to the middle, near the elephants, it was a bit brighter. The wooden tables and chairs were matching with the rest of the décor and so was the menu.
                      The dishes feature imaginative rainforest related names and we started to choose while we survived the first tropical rainstorm - thunder and lightning included, only the rain was missing.

                      The whole menu is pretty much American style and I don't remember seeing even one French dish. Main courses on offer include a variety of burgers, pizza, pasta, steak, chicken, fish and several salads. Set menus were available but they included only main course and desert. Neither of us was keen on a sweet desert so we settled for a mixed starter plate, a Rainforest Burger for Mr Cat and the Hawaiian Burger for me. The children's menu comes separate in a colouring book and is about as health conscious as the adult version. Never mind, the place is about fun and the kids didn't mind. All children's dishes come as a set meal deal that will set you back by Euro 11.90 and include a main course, soft drink and desert. Our girls chose shepherds pie and chips and chicken nuggets and chips.

                      Drinks arrived directly after ordering but there was a small mix up. Our older daughter had asked for orange juice and got water and the drink was exchanged quickly. Oh well, it was busy and mistakes can happen .
                      The starter plate arrived surprisingly fast, we'd waited just 5 minutes - and came together with the children's main courses.
                      We got nachos, vegetable sticks (carrot, celery and cucumber), garlic bread, fried calamari, fried mozzarella, mozzarella and baby tomato skewers, a blue cheese dip and a marinara dip (mayonnaise mixed with ketchup ?).
                      The plate was huge and looked great until we realised that the calamari and fried mozzarella were not only soaked in oil but swimming in it. This was disappointing as the rest was really good. Usually we both love calamari but they were really disgusting, we each tried just one and left the rest to go back. Same with the mozzarella sticks, my husband didn't even finish the one he tried.
                      By the time we'd finished with our starter the girls had also finished with their main courses and plates were cleared without comment or asking whether we liked it or not, although quite a bit went back.

                      The service for our main course wasn't quite as fast as the starter and about half an hour later the children were, after a very long day, half asleep in their chairs. We called the waiter and asked if it was possible to have their deserts as they were very tired, which wasn't a problem. About two minutes later we got ice cream for the little one and a pancake with chocolate sauce and whipped cream for the older. The ice-cream came in a small plastic tub and didn't look like much but the pancake was lovingly arranged and looked really delicious. Sadly the waiter forgot the spoons and we had to ask for them, some of the ice cream was still solid by the time we got them. Oh well, it was busy so mistakes can happen...

                      The girls just finished their deserts when finally the burgers arrived, around 45 minutes after we'd finished our starter. The waiter had asked us three times if we wanted them medium and every time we had insisted on well done, so Mr Cat wasn't a happy cat at all after he had a big bite and found out that his was anything but not well done. We called the waiter who apologized and disappeared to exchange the burger. Oh well, it was very busy ...

                      My burger was fine and came topped with a relatively thin slice of pineapple and cheese. Some finely cubed red onions, a tomato and a large slice of gherkin were served next to it. I don't really fancy gherkin mixed with pineapple so concentrated on the tomato and onion. The chips where thin cut and not the warmest I ever had but the burger itself was very tasty. Mr Cat insisted that I started to eat without him, which was a good idea as his burger still hadn't arrived when I finished.
                      The girls were really tired now and I decided that it would be a good idea to wash hands and see some of the rainforest animals on the way to keep their spirits up. So we went to search for the toilets and found out that there was a problem and they were closed, customers were welcome to use the facilities at the Mickey Café on the other side of the road. It was late March; the temperatures had cooled down from sunny and moderate during the day to rather cold and we had started our "trip" to the restrooms without coats, which you clearly didn't need in the rainforest like tropical climate of the restaurant. At this point my patience was starting to run out and I felt like abusing the fountain ...
                      Of course it can happen that toilets break down but in a restaurant that serves mainly finger food and is geared up to a family market wet wipes would have been most welcome in such a situation !

                      By the time we came back from our visit to the Mickey Café Mr Cat's burger had just arrived and he had his first bite. He didn't look impressed at all ... Although he liked the - now well done - burger he also found his chips stone cold and thus hardly touched them. Most of them went back, again without a comment from the, otherwise, very friendly waiter.
                      At least we were asked if we wanted deserts or coffee. As we weren't much impressed by the food so far and could easily do without another sample, weren't in the mood to pay Euro 7.00 for a cappuccino and were tired, hot (the climate in the Rainforest Café matched the name) and exhausted after a long day all we wanted to do was pay and leave. The waiter was very understanding when we told him that our girls were really tired and needed to go to bed. We sat through yet another tropical thunderstorm and it took only about double as long as it took for the starters to arrive until we got our bill. Oh well, they were very busy ...

                      The whole experience cost us, including tip, Euro 90.00.

                      The planned visit to the branch in London is off my itinerary for good, there are probably enough over-priced places in the capital were they serve at least good food - and while we are still young !

                      On a friendlier note, the décor of the place is really fascinating and extremely well done. Shame the place is let down by mediocre food at an upper price range. If I order a burger for almost Euro 18.00 I don't expect cold fries with it and want it done the way I ordered it.

                      Apart from this, the Rainforest Café is a themed restaurant located at the Disneyland Park and designed for a family market. To finish a two course meal we spend almost 2 hours in the restaurant. No small child, especially not after the excitement of a visit to Disneyland and walking and queuing up for several hours, will sit through a dinner of such length without becoming either extremely tired or restless.
                      Being busy is not an excuse for a restaurant in such a location. The time we visited is clearly not the busiest of the year and they must be used to being fully booked for dinner right after the park closes. Either we were just unlucky and caught them on a really bad day or other reviewers where just too impressed by the fantastic décor to realise the failures. For us it wasn't a great experience, and most certainly not worth the price.
                      The staff was very friendly throughout, although all failed to ask whether we actually liked the food or not - but maybe it was just obvious that we didn't when large parts of the portions went back.
                      If I would go back ? Oh well, we went there once - mistakes happen and we've learned our lesson !

                      This review has also been published on other websites


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                        28.08.2008 19:39
                        Very helpful



                        A great indoor play area for children up to 12 years

                        Crazy Kids is one of the largest indoor play areas for children in Essex. Located in a former warehouse, not far from Freeport shopping village, it can easily be reached with the free Freeport shuttle bus that connects Freeport with the centre of the town. From the bus stop it is only a short walk and you might like to combine a visit to the shops with some playtime for the children.

                        Crazy Kids offers ample parking facilities but still it can be hard to find a parking space if they are very busy. An alternative would be the overflow parking at the backside of Freeport.

                        The entrance fee for your child depends on the age. For under 2 year olds you'll pay £2.75, 2-4 year olds £3.95 and 5 - 12 year olds are £4.25. My girls are 5 and 7 , so we have to fork out £ 8.50 which is pretty average for this sort of play centre. You'll have to add some for drinks and snacks to this, they don't allow you to bring your own, so for us a visit usually adds up to around £15. Not cheap but average for an indoor play area. Usually they can play as long as they want, so theoretically you could come as soon as they open at 10am and stay the whole day, but during peak time, when they get really busy, the playtime might be restricted to 2 hours. In this case your child will receive a colourful wristband and when the playtime for your child's colour is over this will be announced over the speaker system. So far we have always been lucky and, although we did arrive during a time that was regarded as "peak" and got wristbands, the place emptied later on and we could stay longer than the two hours.

                        The play areas:

                        There are two main play areas: one for children of up to four years old and the one (which is one of the largest indoor play-towers in the county) for older children of up to 12 years old.
                        I have seen children playing here who were probably a bit older than 12 though but officially it is restricted to 12 years maximum. Of course it also happens that the age groups mix and smaller children want to explore the giant play-tower and older ones want to play in the smaller children's area, especially if they are accompanied by a sibling of the other age group. Here it is the parent's responsibility to make sure that no older child will get too wild in the small area (if necessary the staff will get involved and ask the child to return to the "big" area).
                        Of course vice versa you should make sure that your little one is able to cope with the "challenges" of the big tower. If needed, you'll have to go with them. Like it or not - we've all been there (LOL!) and at the end of the day you don't want to get your little one hurt.

                        The small area offers a small two tier play-tower which is very soft and features a wavy slide, ball pool, swing and soft climbing frame. Apart from that there is a pirate's ship that can be taken more or less totally to pieces and consists of many soft parts that can either be put back in place (it's a bit like a giant, soft puzzle) or enjoyed just by themselves. There are also some soft see-saws or rings, the later are lovely for babies as they offer support to sit up while the little one is playing with the balls. Ball pools can be found in both play areas and generally you could say that the balls can be found everywhere all over the place. Watch your step and don't let your kids throw them around in the eating area, it's not much fun to get one of those in your full coffee cup, trust me!

                        If you have a very small child, I'd recommend to come during the day when the older ones are at school and to avoid busy times like weekends. The small area is for children up to four and even while they are still small themselves they can get very wild here.

                        The giant play-tower offers several levels and really looks impressive. All levels are connected with each other and can be reached from various locations. There are several ways to get up with varying difficulty levels. Inside the frame there is a multitude of activities to enjoy, from huge balls that can be used to balance on, a soft football pitch, punch bags, slides of varying lengths and shapes, soft-ball canons and more.
                        It's certainly enough to keep my kids busy for hours.
                        A favourite is the huge mega-slide. Kids need to use a mat to slide down otherwise there is a danger that they might get "burns". They have changed those mats a few months ago and while the old ones went down really fast, the new ones are very slow and even sometimes stop in the middle. Of course the kids don't enjoy this as much any more as they used to and it is tempting for them to go down without mat. The staff will tell them off if they realise, and they have every reason to, but I can somehow understand that the children are a bit disappointed. My girls certainly hope that they will exchange those mats soon again and that they will be able to slide down in the speed they used to.

                        Due to the fact that this is a very high warehouse it can get very, very hot on the upper levels of the play-tower. Especially on top of the slide it always seems a bit too tropical for my taste. As the children are constantly on the move in here they can get really hot, so we always make sure that they just wear a T-shirt. Even in winter, they can put their jumpers back on before we leave.

                        Eating/grown up area:

                        The eating and grown-up area is perfectly located in between the two play-areas. So you are able to watch your children, no matter on which side they are playing. Very helpful if you have one or more on each side! There is also huge TV screen that shows the big play area which will help you to supervise you little ones without having to get up all the time. It would be more helpful if the TV would not only show the top of the slide though as this is usually where the camera seems to point on.

                        Seating is ample; if all tables are taken there is a second sitting area on the mezzanine that overlooks the small children's area. The only downside here is that you won't be able to see the big play-tower at all. For that it is quieter and more peaceful (which is a word that generally doesn't really match with Crazy Kids) as you don't have the kids that are running in between the two areas passing from your table all the time. Apart from watching and drinking coffee there isn't really much more for grown-ups to do. There are usually some newspapers and magazines lying around that have been left behind by other visitors or been supplied by the centre.

                        The Food :

                        Now this is the only real disappointment at Crazy Kids. They offer a quite big range of hot and cold snacks for children and grown ups, but in my opinion the food there is just horrible. The snacks/dishes consist mainly of fast food, such as hamburgers, chicken nuggets, chips, pizza, etc and even the other food available seems to be either out of the can or just warmed up. Nothing tastes really fresh and everything is very greasy. Once my husband and me decided to give the tuna salad a try. What we got where a few leaves of lettuce on which a huge blob of tuna in mayonnaise (the same stuff they use to fill the tuna sandwiches with) and an equally huge blob of rather greasy coleslaw were placed. To round up the experience we've got each two slices of soft white bread with the salad. Not quite what we expected.
                        In the meantime we don't eat there anymore at all and just stick to coffee/ juice and a donut in between and eat afterwards either at home or somewhere else. The prices though are reasonable; it's just the taste and quality that we are not happy with. I'd rather pay a bit more and get something that is really freshly prepared and healthier than Maccaroni Cheese out of a can or a salad that will send your cholesterol levels up to the sky.

                        The staff:

                        We have never had any problems with the staff at Crazy Kids at all and have found them always to be very friendly, attentive and polite. Many of them are still very young, which is no surprise in a place like this, but the place is run very professionally and if there should be a problem with misbehaving children they will make sure that nobody gets harmed. I have nothing but praise for them. The tables in the restaurant are cleaned regularly, the toilets are clean. Well, they don't have an attendant in there and the customers are mostly very small, so there can be paper lying around sometimes but usually it is tidied up quickly.

                        The parties:

                        Crazy Kids offers a variety of themed parties to celebrate birthdays or other occasions. We've had one birthday party there and we can't complain about the organisation. We didn't need to do anything, the guests were greeted at the entrance, parcels collected in big bags and the kids entertained the whole time. The food included in the offer was more than enough and all of the children, our birthday child and its little guests, were happy and enjoyed their time. All we needed to do was bring a cake and candles and make some photos. Prices vary; depending on which party you are interested in, all offers can be seen on their website.


                        I'd really recommend Crazy Kids to everybody who has children in the age groups that apply. It's a great place to have fun for them, lots of activities and you will really get them moving. Ours are usually totally knocked out by the time we leave and sleep like angels once they've been put in bed. The number of activities in here is really great, the play items seem clean and well maintained and the staff is friendly. If they'd only change the menu a bit ...


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                          05.06.2008 13:13
                          Very helpful



                          A great toy museum

                          The House on the Hill Toy Museum is located in Stansted Mountfitched, directly next to Mountfitched Castle. It is home to the largest privately-owned toy collection in Europe and features more than 80.000 exhibits.

                          Originally we had planned to visit Mountfitched Castle and I didn't even know that there was a toy museum right next to it - both attractions can be visited with a combined ticket. The day we went we found the castle closed and our two daughters, who had been looking forward to see the animals in the castle, made very disappointed faces. As there was a sign pointing towards the museum we decided to change our plans and try our luck at the museum. Now if there is anything that can brighten the mood of a 4 and a 6 year old it is the word "toy"...

                          As the name already implies - the museum is located on a hill and to reach it you will have to climb the narrow food path that leads along the fence of the castle. You can see some of the animals that roam freely in there from here and also pass from the first attraction of the museum - the talking tree. Our girls found it hilarious that a tree would talk to them and we had to pass three times from this spot before we could continue to the entrance.

                          You enter the museum from the museums shop/reception hall. Here you find all kinds of toys and knick-knacks to buy, like old fashioned paper dolls to cut out, jack-in-the-box, colouring in sheets, etc.
                          To be fair, the only other toy museum I had ever seen before is the museum in Nuremberg, which is by no means a private collection but features toys dating back to ancient times, high and brightly lit rooms, all exhibits neatly behind glass and in orderly fashion and with play areas scattered over the exhibition halls. The experience in the House on the Hill is something totally different.

                          The House on the Hill is no purpose built museum and the rooms are not overly large, in the lower exhibition room there is no window at all and the walls are painted in a bright colour. The exhibits here are a mixture of pop and rock memorabilia, dolls, dolls houses and accessories, teddy bears, model planes, tin toys and old tins and so much more. The items are crammed into display cabinets, slightly chaotic and it is hard to take it all in. There is just so much to see and two over-exited little girls pulling at our sleeves didn't help. You should really have some peace and time to have a real good look at everything. There is a puppet show which the children can bring to life and a pair of legs is dangling from the ceiling - creating the image of Rambo just entering from the upper floor. On the first floor you can find every boys dream - a huge toy train. Of course there are buttons to press to activate it and all my kids (the husband had turned into one temporarily) spend a long time marveling at it. Which gave me a bit time to look at the collection of Barbie and Sindy dolls - and meet some childhood friends again, as I recognized two of the dolls which I used to own myself when I was a little girl. Of course there are also some of the inevitable accessories of both brands. The Barbie version for boys, action man, is also present and there is a large collection of children's annuals, some of which dated back to before WW2.

                          Before we left we stopped for a while at the old arcade machines. Most of them are working and you can have a go yourself. Even our kids, who are used to the more modern machines they've seen at diverse sea side resorts, liked them and found them "lovely" and indeed - they possess much more charm than any of the money-eating machines you can find at the pier in Brighton, Southend-on-Sea or wherever else.

                          Of course we also bought some small toys for the kids before we left and had to pass from the talking tree another three times on our way down the hill.
                          All in all we had spent roughly one hour in the museum and I would have loved to stay a bit longer. With so many items on a not too big space it is easy to miss quite a bit. For our children it got a bit too much to take in and they were starting to moan that they could look at the toys only and not actually play with them. What they have clearly learned on this day is, that the toys mummy and daddy did play with when they were small were totally different from their own and that their grandparents had even stranger things to play with.

                          It wasn't the trip we had planed but we all enjoyed it at the end. If you go to Mountfitched I'd really recommend you to take advantage of your combined ticket. When we came back a few months later to finally visit the castle we also went back to the museum and enjoyed it as much as the first time, only that this time we had seen it before and could concentrate on exhibits we had missed the first time round completely. Of course we also had to pass from the talking tree another six times. A truly remarkable collection in my opinion.

                          The museum can be found easily. If you are coming from the M11 you will have to leave the motorway at Stansted airport and turn towards Bishop's Stortford. From the next roundabout on you will find signposts that will point you in the right direction and lead you straight there. The museum and castle are right in the middle of the pretty little town, right next to the train station. Ample parking is available.


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                            29.04.2008 21:49
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                            A great place for a special day out

                            Honestly, before we arrived at BeWILDerwood I had no idea what to expect. I had never heard of the place before and only went there because I had seen a small advert in a brochure that we had found in the cottage we had rented.
                            "A curious tree house adventure" it read and that sounded like a fun place for the girls to me. I envisioned the tree house I had made with my friends when I was small and thought it would be some kind of adventure playground.

                            BeWILDerwood is easy to find, off the A1062, in between Hoveton and Horning. The park is signed out and there is really ample parking. In fact, the parking lot is that big that we immediately had doubts whether this would be just a playground or not maybe something much bigger. As we went on a weekday in September, after the official school holidays, the parking lot was more or less empty and there were only 5 or six more cars.

                            As soon as we reached the entrance our suspicions were confirmed, as the slightly bored looking young man in the shack that serves as ticket booth asked £45 for a family ticket from us. At this point we almost changed our mind but the girls had spotted the first "tree house" at the entrance and were begging to go inside.
                            Those tree houses are hard to describe and surely don't compare to anything I've ever seen before: A number of small little wooden houses (similar to bird feeders), decorated in bright colours hung from a huge tree. They did look lovely and the kids obviously were very taken by them.
                            My husband finally gave in and paid, the offer to buy the book after which the park has been created was declined quickly though.

                            The first attraction that you reach once your inside the park is the gift shop - not so strategically great as we were still in shock over the admission fee. From here you can choose to either take a short walk through the marshland, the "Treacherous Trail", or queue up at the Boat Junction and take a trip in a small rowing boat along the "Dismal Dyke". We decided to go for the boat ride and had to wait for 2-3 minutes. The park was totally empty at this point and we were the only customers waiting but I can imagine, that it gets rather busy on a weekend or during the holidays and that queues can build up quickly.
                            The boat trip only lasts a few minutes but the scenery it takes you through is really remarkable. The surrounding marshland and the lush vegetation that comes with it really make it easy for the kids to believe that they are in some kind of fairy land. At the end of the small river you reach the "Scaaary Lake" and here you'll meet one of the characters from the book: Mildred the Crocklebog.
                            This funny creature seems to be a kind of crocodile and is waiting in the water, half hidden behind some bushes.
                            You disembark at the snack shack but as none of us was hungry yet and the place looked rather deserted we decided to continue with the adventure.

                            A few meters away we finally found out what makes this place so special and why it is so expensive. The "treehouses" turned out to be massive constructions that connect several trees with each other. You reach them over wooden climbing frames and they are connected with normal wooden bridges and jungle style bridges. They are quite high and you do need to accompany smaller children. Our older one, 6 1/2 at the time, loved it from the first second, but our younger daughter, who had just turned 5 a few weeks earlier, was a bit scared first and it took some convincing until she agreed to set food on the first bridge. At each end of the bridges is a kind of "station", or tree house, and those are not only huge but also lovingly decorated. One is made up like a witche's room with all sorts of "scary" pictures on the wall, like spiders, magic potions, etc. This was the one our girls liked most, screeching at every picture they found.
                            There are also monstrous slides and here we encountered a problem - our little one refused to go down and I had to return with her and go down the way we came, while Anna and my husband took the slide.
                            There are several of those tree house constructions, each a little bit different, and even we enjoyed the climbing. All of them end with one of those long slides and after a while my little one decided to finally try it, as her sister obviously had fun and came to no harm, and from that moment on we didn't have to return to the beginning any more and I had the pleasure to try some of the slides too. Whoaah ! I'm glad I you can't see the photos ...

                            There are also zip-wires and a maze and some normal playground items like swings. Several benches along the trail allow the grown ups to sit down and take a rest while the kids are busy climbing and exploring, but for us that was out of question. Our kids were simply too small to be left alone up there. Those frames are so high, I don't think that any child under the age of 7-8 should be allowed on them all alone. In between the attractions there are some more of those small tree houses, just for decoration and as part of the story the trail follows, and they are really cute and nice to look at.
                            Once you reach the end of the trail you will find the "Yummy Yurt", one of the snack bars of BeWILDerwood. We had worked up quite an appetite but, after having a look at the prices, decided to have just some sandwiches, crisps and drinks and to have dinner somewhere outside. There are plenty of wooden picnic tables around and after a short break we made our way back. By now it was around 4.30 pm and we were the only visitors left.

                            This time we didn't take the boat but tried our luck on the "Treacherous Trail", a very nice little walk through the marshland, mostly over wooden planks and bridges and with more tiny tree houses along the way. The gift shop was still open but we still weren't in the mood to spend more money here and so we left with two very happy and very exhausted little girls.

                            All in all we really enjoyed our time and we grown-ups had as much fun climbing the frames, walking over shaky jungle bridges or whooshing down slides and zip wires.
                            For the girls it was the highlight of our trips to Norfolk and this is now, after more than 6 months, the only place to which we took them they are still talking about. They definitely would love to go back.
                            If it wasn't that expensive I'd happily agree but £ 45 pound is really a bit steep. Especially if you consider that neither my husband nor me, or probably most other grown-ups, would ever visit this place without being accompanied by children. This place is made for kids and although we had a good time, I'd never go there just by myself (if you are interested: an adult ticket is £10).

                            If you have smaller children, think twice if this really is the right
                            place for them yet. As mentioned, our little one was first scared from the height and the bridges and wouldn't want to go on even one slide all by herself. Generally I'd say children in between 7 and 13 will enjoy this place most and can, depending on the abilities of your child, be left alone on the tree houses. Smaller kids really need to be accompanied at all times, so if you don't like climbing on tree houses or going down mega long slides you might just want to give this a miss.

                            So thumbs up for the park itself but thumbs down for the prices there. For us this will have to stay a special treat for rare occasions.
                            Please also note that, although this is an open air attraction, due to security reasons, smoking is not permitted anywhere throughout the park: everything here is made out of wood.


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                              23.04.2008 18:25
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                              A great day out if you are interested in ancient sites and like walking

                              "What happened here?" asked my husband as soon as he got out of the car and had a look around. "Looks like Swiss Cheese!"
                              And right he was, the pockmarked landscape at Grime's Graves really resembles an Emmental cheese with all those holes in the ground abd exactly those holes were what we had come for - at least one of them. The shape of this strange landscape is nothing that has grown naturally and all those holes and hills are man made - about 5000 years ago, the oldest ones probably about 3000 BC.
                              Back in Anglo-Saxon times they must have thought that they were looking at ancient burial mounts and so they named the place after the pagan god of the underworld "Grim" (also known as Woden), which brought the site the nickname "Devil's holes". It took until the late 19th century that one of these holes was excavated and people realised what they really were: flint mines that date back to the Neolithic Age.

                              Once my husband found out that I had made him to drive 1 hour just to take a walk in scenery that resembles the moon (just in green, very green!) and to see an old mineshaft, he wasn't very amused. "You've just got to be kidding!" was his remark and he looked as if he'd loved to send me straight to the aforementioned pagan god. He should have known better...

                              Nevertheless, we walked up to the small visitor centre and found out that there was no admission fee to the grounds but that the entrance to the mineshaft would cost £7.50 for a family ticket. Not too bad for an English Heritage site, if you are a member you can enter free. We had our two little daughters, aged 5 and 7, with us and if you are traveling with small children please bear in mind that the entrance to the shaft for children under 5 is not permitted.

                              Next to the small reception/shop is a museum room with some displays of findings from the area. You can see what the flint was used for; there are some examples of clothing and items of daily use as they would have looked like during Neolithic times and some information on how the flint was excavated. All in all this is a very small exhibition and it won't take more than a few minutes to see everything. The actual mine, the only one of the more than 300 that has been fully excavated and restored, is located just a few metres behind the visitor centre. It is the only Neolithic flint mine that is open to visitors in Britain. "If you want to take a walk please stay on the paths as there are snakes around" warned the young lady who is in charge of the visitor centre. Not too keen on a live encounter with a snake we happily obeyed and walked on the paths that surround and connect the "holes" instead of climbing right through them. Most of them are very overgrown with shrubs, small trees and bushes in their lowest, middle, point and some of the shrubs have thorns, so even without the warning we probably wouldn't have been tempted to explore them too closely.

                              Travelling with kids is not always easy and if they don't like where you take them they can give you a very hard time. Now Grime's Graves is not exactly Disneyland and by the time we'd reached the shaft I started to wonder whether it really had been a good idea to come here, as both our girls made long faces. I didn't need to worry as the mine sold itself to them.
                              As soon as we entered the small hut that has been built on top of the entrance their faces lit up - they'd spotted the big box with bright yellow hard hats in the corner and the long ladder leading downwards. The very friendly and chatty young man in charge confirmed that they were not only allowed to wear a helmet, but that they would have to and that they also would need to climb down the ladder to reach the mine. Their faces lit up and, after a quick glance downwards, my youngest commented "Wow! What a big hole!"
                              They only let a certain amount of people down into the mine at one time and so we had to wait a bit. To shorten the waiting time the young man told us how the flint was mined and how those holes have been created and this is exactly what makes this place so fascinating. Each and every of those many hundred mines has been dug by using such primitive tools like red-deer antlers and bone. Now imagine the sheer size of those mines: the shaft leads 9 metre (30 ft) deep into the ground, there is one large chamber and from this lead several galleries even deeper into the earth. Once a dig was exhausted or it got too complicated to get the flint out the holes were filled up again when the next mine was opened. This explains the strange landscape. By the time the young man had finished his story and other visitors had left we were able to ascend into the mine. Even my husband looked more than just a bit impressed by now.

                              To get down the ladder wasn't a big problem. 9 metres sounds a lot and it gets darker the further down you get, but even our girls managed without any trouble. We each had to go right before one of the children to be able to hold them in case they had slipped but thankfully this didn't happen. The main chamber of the mine was surprisingly high and standing up wasn't a problem. They've put lights down there, during the times the mines were in use the people had to rely on natural daylight from above and only had primitive oil lamps for use in the galleries. These galleries are very narrow and not very high at all and whilst the girls had a great time exploring them it wasn't quite that easy for us. They only lead a metre or so into the ground and are blocked by bars but you can easily see into the illuminated chambers behind. You don't need to be claustrophobic to break into cold sweat at the pure imagination how it must have been to lie in those tiny tunnels, digging even further into the ground, with the full knowledge that there are already 9 metres of ground above you and that the whole construction could cave in. As fascinating it was, I was glad to be above ground again. I'm not too keen on enclosed places, especially if they are under ground, and if I hadn't been that impressed by the achievement of those people from 5000 years ago, I'd never had considered climbing down that mineshaft.
                              Well, it was worth every minute and I can honestly say that these mines are one of the most amazing things I have ever seen !

                              As it was a lovely and sunny day we also took a walk around the site. It covers around 90 acres and is, even with its strange outlook, or maybe because of it, a great place for walking. The whole site wasn't very busy when we were there, apart from ours there were only 4 more cars in the car park, and we didn't meet anyone at all on our walk. There are many different plants and shrubs and it all is surrounded by Thetford forest, so plenty of scope for all those who like to walk a bit further distances than we can convince our daughters to do.

                              There are some picnic tables in front of the visitor centre but you'll have to bring your own food. They only sell ice-cream and chocolates, coffee and water and although we did enjoy the ice-cream it would be a bit meagre for a picnic. There are also no toilets for visitors on the site (they advice you to disappear behind a bush as we have found out when one of the kids needed one) and, apart from the visitor centre, Grime's Graves are not accessible for the less mobile.

                              The mines are easy to find if you have your own transport. They are located just of the A134, in between Thetford and Brandon, and are well signed out. If you don't have a car it gets a bit more difficult, as the next bus stop is about 2 miles away.


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                                16.04.2008 02:57
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                                Great day out

                                Following a rather disappointing visit to the castle in Falaise we were on our second sightseeing trip in the Normandie. The destination would be another chateau, this time the one in Vendeuvre, and to say that my family was less then enthusiastic would be the understatement of the year. The girls were still upset from the visit of the day before and stated that they would "never want to see a castle again" and even my husband made a long face. Well, I was on a mission...
                                We all had enjoyed visits to stately houses and castles so far and I had no intention of letting one misfortunate choice to get in between that. I promised them all that this one would be more fun and started to pray to my lucky stars that the information brochure in our cottage was right about what we were about to experience.

                                How we got there :
                                The chateau is located in the small hamlet of Vendeuvre, in between Falaise and St Pierre sur Dives. Falaise, Lisieux and Caen are all not far and we found the castle to be signed out very well. There were roadworks on the day we went and even we had to take a detour we had no problems in finding it. As we went with our own car I cannot comment on public transport but I have seen a bus stop close to the entrance. Albeit, it is a very small village and I can't imagine that buses pass from there very often so would recommend to rely on own transport.

                                A bit of history :
                                The castle was built from 1750 to 1752 after plans from Jaques Francois Blondel. It is very much a typical French country estate and has been owned by the same family since its completion. The owners, the family Le Forestier de Vendeuvre, are descendants of the Counts of Flanders which came to France as part of the entourage of Queen Mathilda, the wife of William the Conqueror. The family has settled down in the area of Vendeuvre in the early XVIII century and took on its name. They still live in the chateau.

                                Our visit :

                                The car park of the chateau is located right in front of the very impressive main gate. The whole castle is surrounded by a wrought iron fence and we got a good view on the formal Versailles-style gardens that lead up to the house.
                                Upon entering to the site your first visit will be to the Orangery were you can buy your ticket and can also purchase a guide book. The fee for the whole site, which includes the orangery, the chateau, the kitchens, the surprise water gardens, the grotto and the mazes was Euro 8.5 for us and Euro 6.5 for the kids, the guidebook was Euro 2. It always amazes me how much cheaper the entrance to attractions like this are compared to similar ones in the UK.
                                Right next to the Orangery is a small playground were I had left the family behind while I went to get the tickets. It only consists of a set of swings and a see-saw and both are very old and didn't look very inviting. The swings were so shaky that, concerned about safety, we decided not to let the girls go on them. If you want to avoid a discussion with your kids whether they will be fine or not I recommend to give the whole playground a miss.

                                The Orangery

                                As we were right in front of it we decided to start our visit from here. Here one gets a chance to view one of the most famous collections of miniatures in the world. Apparently it was Countess Elyane de Vendeuvre who started this collection at the age of 7 when she received the miniature of a writing desk as a present from her aunt.
                                This absolutely marvellous collection includes many masterpieces of craftsmen who, to obtain their mastership during the trade-guilt era, had to present the members of the Guild with a masterpiece. There are countless little objects like a miniature staircase, chests of drawers, grandfather clocks and much more on display. Further we've seen one whole room filled with silver miniatures only which included the tiniest set of cutlery I've come across so far. There are also "models" which had been used to advertise a new piece of furniture that had been designed by a master craftsman of times long gone by. These tiny replicas of the original had been send to the courts in order to make it easier to make a purchase decision without having to send the full-size item. Again the collection is made mostly of small items of furniture and I was very taken by some of the tiny cabinets, which had small drawers and doors to open, ornate handles and were made with such an eye to detail. I found them fascinating.
                                There are hundreds of miniature items including tiny versions of books, doll-house size ceramics, glass and oh so much more. Of course children's furniture, dolls houses and toys weren't missing either.
                                All in all this was a visit that especially my older daughter and me enjoyed a lot. Our little one didn't quite get the idea why they'd put all these lovely things behind glass and was rather annoyed that she couldn't play with them. My husband found this all "a bit too girlie", but did light up a bit when we reached the miniature musical instruments and weapons.

                                The Chateau

                                Just a few steps away from the orangery you reach the sweeping stairs that lead to the entrance of the chateau itself. As impressive as they look, I fear they would prove to be an insurmountable obstacle for wheelchair users.
                                Once inside we were greeted by a friendly lady who handed us some plastic folders with information about what we were going to see. There weren't many rooms to visit, it isn't exactly a huge castle and only the lower floor is open to public, but what was on display was lovingly furnished and the furniture and accessories were exquisite.
                                The rooms that you can access are the dining-room, were the table is laid out for dinner and you can admire a very old and odd looking automaton which serves coffee to the dinner guests, the drawing room with its magnificent views over the formal French back-garden and several games tables. Gin rummy anyone ?
                                The next room we found ourselves in was the state bedroom. This was a bit cramped as they had put that much stuff in there that it was hard to see the items that were a bit in the background. The strangest item of furniture we've seen here was certainly the wig-stand which was used by the owners of the house to place their powdered wigs on over night. Apart from this there is also a library, another bedroom and a smoking room. Quite nice was a lamp that had a glass bowl underneath in which a gold fish is living.

                                The kitchens

                                To reach the kitchens we had to leave the house and walk around to the back-entrance at the basement level. The first thing we've passed when entering to the corridor was the only toilet on site. As we were already there we decided to pay a visit. The toilet is located in a small room under a staircase with massive stone walls and also home to the largest spider I have ever come across outside a zoo. The room generally wasn't very inviting and could urgently do with a revamp but it really took some persuading to get the girls to use it as they were so scared of the spider. Well, at least no-one will be tempted to spend even one second longer in there than necessary while the crowd waiting outside gets bigger...
                                The kitchen and the laundry room, which can be reached through the kitchen, are fantastically furnished and look as if they are still in use. Both rooms have vaulted ceilings, there are several ovens in the kitchen which were used either for roasting, braising or to make pastry, loads of copper pots and utensils (like a tripe warmer), pottery earthenware and some fake vegetables and sausages completed the illusion. One can take a glimpse in the well filled pantry and in the wash-house is an indoor well and some dishes are standing in the racks to dry. I would have loved to stay a bit longer as there was so much too see, but a bus-group of tourists came shortly after us and they were not only a bit loud, but also a bit unruly for which I assume the consumption of too much vin the table with the lunch is to blame.
                                We left this jolly crowd behind us and escaped to the kennels which are just opposite side. Now I have to say that I have never seen anything like this before in my life. This room contained a huge collection of old kennels for cats or dogs and most were just replicas of a bigger piece of furniture (the owners ?) and looked like small beds or chaise-longues. Some were travelling kennels which looked incredibly luxurious and one had the shape of a little tent and was used to assure that the dog who was lucky enough to call it his own didn't get too much sun if taken to the beach. The kids were absolutely fascinated by this small pieces of furniture - some had cuddly toys in them to make it a bit more clear who they were made for whereas my husband had a less romantic view of those pampered doggies and just thought it was all a bit weird and crazy.

                                Well, now it would have been the right time to get something to eat, but to our surprise there was nothing. Although we had read about a refreshment centre this turned out to be closed and the small gift shop that is also located in the basement didn't sell any food. At least they had cold drinks a it was a very hot day and we also found some overpriced cookies. We really would have preferred something a bit more substantial and the only ones who were happy were the girls. So if you would like to pay a visit don't forget to bring some sandwiches, as the visit will take a few hours.

                                Leaving the house behind us we finally came to the part of our visit that really makes Vendeuvre something special :

                                The gardens

                                There are several gardens on the grounds of the chateau which all have different themes and purposes.
                                The French garden : Located right behind the house. This is what we already had a glimpse of from inside of the house and were we had our little snack. It is a typical classic French garden that overlooks the meadows of the Dives valley and the hills of the Pays d'Auge.
                                The kids quickly got bored here and we went on to see the main attraction of the castle - the surprise water gardens. Here you can find all kinds of fountains or little pieces of art created with water. There is a tree where the illusion of a rainbow is created as soon as you walk by, man-made waterfalls, bridges over the little river with water displays, a pavilion where you have to expect to get wet as soon as you try to enter and several other "surprises". All in all it was great fun but we were more or less soaked at the end. Luckily it was such a beautiful and hot day and we didn't mind and I can only recommend you not to wear your best clothes and not to come on a cold or rainy day or you will miss out. The kids a great time in this part of the park and it was really fun for us too as you cannot guess before from which direction your next "shower" will come.
                                In other parts of the garden you can find a maze in which you are supposed to follow the trail of a rabbit, there is a shell grotto which is lavishly decorated with sea shells only and several garden rooms with very imaginative themes. The gardens are huge and I could've spend much more time exploring them as there just was so much to see. It didn't get boring for one minute and whoever is responsible for their creation has invested a lot of time and imagination (and money) in realising them. Every part is perfectly maintained and we all enjoyed our walk. In the end we left not because we had enough but plainly because we were hungry.

                                I'd come back here anytime again, although only on a warm and dry day and with enough food for a picnic in the garden. The fact that the restaurant is only open for lunch and closes early and that there wasn't anything to buy on site was really the only down point of our visit. That there is only one toilet could have been a bit of a problem with two relatively small kids if it had been busier but as there weren't many visitors when we were there it was ok and the waiting times were acceptable. Vendeuvre is perfect for visitors of all ages and you can easily spend several hours here. There is a lot of walking involved and I am not sure how well the castle would fare with wheelchair users as I also haven't seen any disabled toilets and am quite sure that I haven't seen any other entrance to the house apart from the stairs.
                                All in all it was a great day, good value for money and my daughters can't wait to see the next castle. I've got my work cut out - it will take a bit of research to find anything that will beat this !


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                                  20.10.2006 18:26
                                  Very helpful



                                  Not if you are travelling with small kids

                                  This year we have travelled to France, the Normandy to be more precise, for our summer holiday. As none of us had ever been to this part of France, we were quite keen on exploring the area and to see some of the sights.
                                  Thankfully our cottage was exceptionally well equipped with tourist information and, after searching several guide books and masses of information leaflets, we found out that we were spoiled for choice. One place that we agreed on very quickly that we wanted to see was a castle in the town of Falaise, named Chateau Guillaume-Le-Conquerant.
                                  This Castle happens to be the birthplace of this Guillaume, who is nobody lesser than William the Conqueror.

                                  Location :

                                  Falaise is about 40 km southeast of Caen and can be reached from there by following the N158. Once you reach the town you can follow the sign-posts, of which there are plenty.
                                  The castle is pretty much in the middle of the town, located high above on a rocky hill, which must have been the perfect position to defend it against attacks.
                                  There is a parking lot at the foot of the hill which bears a huge statue of William and this is where we have left our car during our visit. Parking is free, but we were lucky to have found a space, as the spaces available are limited and obviously very popular with the employees of the local council offices, that are located right next to it.
                                  We did go on a weekday and out of season, so I guess it might not be that easy on a Saturday during the summer holidays, when there is the weekly market going on the same time.

                                  A bit of history:

                                  The castle, as it is to be seen today, mainly dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries and there is little left that would have been existing at the time William the Conqueror lived here. It is believed that there has been another fortification before, probably dating back as far as the 9th century, but no written proof of this exists and the earliest a castle in Falaise is mentioned was in 1027.
                                  Most of the castle that you can visit today has actually been built under Williams son, Henry I. Beauclerc, who took the castles his father had built in England (which include the Tower of London) as an example.

                                  It is a typical "motte and bailey" castle with three square keeps. A round tower, named the Talbot, has been added later on in the 13th century, as well as the semi-circular towers which were constructed to reinforce the outer walls of the castle.

                                  In the 17th century the castle was abandoned and started to fall to pieces, until in 1840 the first minister for fine arts of France acknowledged it as a national heritage monument and restorations began to save at least the surrounding walls and the keeps - whereas the help came too late for the roofs and floors, which had caved in by then.

                                  During WW2 it was severely damaged, restorations started in 1980, and it only opened up for the public in 1997 again. Restoration still continues. With the castle itself done, the curtain wall, gate house and ramparts still need a lot of work and from what we've been told, will be finished in ca 6 years.

                                  Our visit

                                  Climbing up the steep hill towards the entrance gate of the castle we got a first chance to marvel at how big this fortress is - and how imposing it looks.
                                  The way leads through the main gate, past a guard-house that is still untouched from the works and can only be called a ruin.

                                  The inner bailey is huge and it is easy to imagine, that this has once been the bustling heart of the castle, with plenty of inhabitants, trades-people, etc.
                                  You have a good view over the city from up there but, being afraid of heights, I rather enjoyed to have a look around than a look down.

                                  From here I also had the first proper look at the castle and realised that it had some strange metal frame around its entrance. It could be reached over a metal suspended bridge that didn't look very authentic to me either. I was wondering a bit but thought that the bridge might be a temporary solution, as we only knew that the castle had been finished and this might well not include the bridge.

                                  Once my husband and the kids returned from exploring the walls we started to look for the reconstruction of the chapel. The original chapel was destroyed in 1944 and we found what we had been looking for relatively easy. It is right next to the reception building and a bit of a stunner. Exactly on the spot where the choir of the old church had been stands the reconstruction - made out of living vegetable !
                                  A splendid idea in my book, but my husband declared it to be "nonsense". Now that I know what they have done to the castle, I am even more convinced that they've done the right thing, as it would have, designed by the same person who's responsible for the castle, probably more have resembled an Ikea store than a medieval church.

                                  The reception :

                                  A very modern building with lots of glass. Apart from obtaining your ticket (entry to the bailey is free), they have also a little shop here (books about William the Conqueror in several languages, t-shirts with William print, mugs, umbrellas, bags, cookie tins - I guess you get the picture). There is no cafe in the castle, but they do have a vending machine for soft-drinks.

                                  When you pay for your ticket, € 4 for adults, they'll hand you your headset, which will be your guide for the trip. Kids under six are free (ours are 4 and 5 1/2), but they will also get a headset, especially adapted for kids, as the very friendly receptionist told us.

                                  Before you finally make your way towards the bridge you can view a model of the town in medieval times or sit down and view a documentary about the history of the area and the castle. I would have loved to see this, but our daughters had a different opinion and were keen to see the castle.
                                  So of we went and the closer we came to the entrance gate - over the ugly steel bridge - the more clear it became, that the steel frame around the entrance had nothing to do with building works at all. It seems to bear a clear warning to me, that visitors to this place might find something a bit different from what they are expecting.

                                  The castle:

                                  Once in the forecourt behind the gate, you have either the option of climbing up the stairs to the door, or to take the elevator. Why there is an elevator is a mystery to me, as inside there aren't any, but lots of stairs - and even their website states, that only the bailey of the castle and reception hall are wheelchair accessible. It is placed there very prominently and is yet another steel construction. It reminded me of the lift in the Ikea we visit from time to time...
                                  The stairs, by the way, are metall too. At least, the castle itself is still made of stone...

                                  Great Hall:
                                  As soon as we entered to the Great Hall and the door behind us shut, automatic blinds came down and it became dark. There were some chairs lined up at a wall and we sat down, while a projector started to put some medieval pictures at the wall opposite site. Apart from that, the huge room was empty. The roof is a construction that reminded me a bit of a tent - or an Ikea store again - lots of metal supports and canvas.
                                  Our friendly guide from the headset started to tell his story. It was all about chess and what it meant for the people living in medieval times and how the figures of the game could be compared to the living persons of the time and what their meaning was then. Not what we had expected and certainly interesting in a way - if we didn't have two little girls, who were anxiously waiting for the exhibits, the interactive displays, colouring sheets, ...
                                  Well, first and mostly they were anxious to get the light back !
                                  Our little one was terrified by the dark room and actually sat very still next to her father, clinging to his arm for good life. She even listened to the whole story over her headset, as it is supposed to be, but I doubt, that it was of any interest to her - or that she understood much.
                                  Anna, our older daughter, took her specially adapted headset of after seconds because it hurt her ears.
                                  When the show was over and the light came back it took some persuasion by us to convince the kids, that we shouldn't just leave, but see the rest.

                                  The Petit Donjon:
                                  Over some stairs, which where again so modern that they looked strangely out of place, we reached the small keep. In here we found some wooden statues of Henry II. Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine, his wife. There are also two wooden chairs that are probably meant to be thrones and a wooden statue with the head of a horse, which is representing the poet Bernard the Ventadour. All statues were very modern and looked like out of one of these modern nativity scenes they sell at the Christmas markets.
                                  Again it went dark, although not quite as dark as in the Great Hall, and the guide in the headset attempted to tell us the story of Eleanor. Well, he didn't have much success. Our kids both refused to put the headsets back and my husband was the only one to listen, as I was busy the same time to come up with a more child-friendly explanation of what the room was once and who the statues were. If I remember it right, I messed it quite up with the poet, as I just told them that this had been the kings favourite horse - well, they bought the story...

                                  Talbot tower:
                                  Reached over a long corridor where we found some very old graffity. Now, at least something that was old and that kept us busy speculating, who this Pierre from 1876 and others might have been.
                                  The tower itself offers a small exhibit of wooden figures. They are all soldiers and show what kind of weapons have been carried over the centuries. Apart from that, they looked like puppets without strings. The tower has its own well, nothing spectacular - just a deep and dark hole.
                                  The upper room, where the guide tells another one of his stories, this time about soldiers, can be reached over stairs . By now, we all had given up listening and so we went outside to the balcony, from which we did not only enjoy a very nice view over the hills behind the castle, but also the day-light.

                                  The Camera:
                                  Is reached over the aforementioned balcony and was once the most private living space, chamber, of the king and his family. Now it is an empty room, just some chairs and some very modern standing lamps that seemed to come straight out of the catalogue of an Italian designer shop. A heavenly living room for a minimalist probably, but a bit sparse for our liking.

                                  The Chapel:
                                  Is right adjacent to the camera and has plenty of daylight - if not much else. No story here and we quickly went back, as the next room could only be reached over some granite stairs that led from the camera.

                                  The Salle Basse:
                                  These are the rooms underneath the Great Hall and in here we could see some of the original stonework in the foundations, dating back to the 12th century.
                                  This room is also reserved for changing exhibitions and at the time of our visit there were some paintings about medieval life there and the statue of a horse( which was beautifully done).
                                  At the back of the room we found a model of a sea-battle and finally the kids had at least some fun, looking at the small boats.

                                  From here you leave the castle and either stairs or the lift will bring you back to the forecourt. All in all our visit took half an hour.

                                  My thoughts :

                                  You might already guess, that we weren't too thrilled with the visit. The way the renovation has been done is meant to avoid confusion about what is new and what isn't. So it was explained to us. Well, I'd rather have been confused!

                                  The very modern materials that have been used to make this castle accessible again have, in my opinion, destroyed the whole originality of it and none of us could get a feeling for it. I've read in the meantime that this refurbishment has caused quite some controversy and I can understand why.
                                  It just didn't do anything for me.

                                  The lack of exhibits has been explained as it being very hard to find anything from this specific period. Now, I can understand that.
                                  A few weeks before our visit in Falaise we had seen the Castle in Colchester, that dates back to roughly the same time. They must have faced the same problem and so have just gone back further in time and closer to now with their exhibition, covering several thousand of years. Something similar could have been done in Falaise.
                                  Too make matters worse, this place is not interesting for children at all. There is nothing in there, that might appeal to them and even they found, that the entrance gate with its metal frame looked "strange". Both complained that the headsets hurt them, my little one got scared and when we wanted to go for another trip to another castle a few days later, they didn't want to go. We have taken them to many castles and other historical sites before and never had a problem and this is rather unforgivable . So, if you want to put your small kids off from visiting castles - try Falaise !

                                  Would I recommend it ?
                                  Now, that I had a few weeks to reflect on our visit and had a good thought, I'd say it depends.
                                  If you have no problem with the way, in which this castle has been refurbished and the idea of the audio-visual displays, instead of exhibits, appeals to you, than you'll certainly like it. If I had gone there without the children, I might have found the stories interesting, although the look of the castle, as it is now, would still not have been my cup of tea.
                                  If you have to take children, especially very small children, than I wouldn't recommend it. Maybe they should have warned us at the entrance, but I don't think that this place is suitable for children under eight at all.
                                  Even if you have children that are older than that you might find, that it all goes far beyond their understanding and that they get very bored. Well, at least they probably won't get scared any more when the lights go out.
                                  If I had a chance to visit again I'd probably give it a miss.

                                  Place Guillaume le Conquerant
                                  14700 Falaise

                                  Tel: (+33) 2 31 41 61 44


                                  Thanks for reading this, Sandra


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