Bluestone National Park Resort with a toddler and a preschooler // An in depth review

At the beginning of last month we were invited to stay at Bluestone National Park resort in Pembrokeshire, Wales. The last time we went on holiday was when we went to Center Parcs last May so we were well overdue a break away! So we loaded up the car, packed up the kids and set off on our mammoth drive to Wales.

This is going to be quite a long and in depth review of our stay so if you haven’t got the time to read it all now then you can watch this little video of our stay instead…

Getting there

The journey was relatively stress-free, even though it took us seven and a half hours to get there! We were coming from the north west, it takes about 15 minutes to get on the M6 at Preston from where we live and then we were off. We decided to stick to the motorways even though it would make our journey a bit longer, just because you never know when you might need to stop with two small children and we wanted the convenience of stopping at motorway services. Read more

Living Arrows 21/52 (2016)

Well, despite the pox we made it to Center Parcs and we had a brilliant week! We couldn’t do much the first day or so as Toby’s spots hadn’t completely crusted over but it didn’t really matter. We made sure we did plenty of activities in the rest of the week, and ate lots of delicious food too. I’ll be writing more about what we got up to in some other posts but safe to say we had a great time and I would definitely recommend Center Parcs to anyone looking for a family holiday.

This week’s Living Arrows photos are a couple from while we were away. Toby was a trooper throughout his week of chicken pox, he hardly complained at all, and he still slept really well which was a relief. It was a tiring week away for him though (and would have been even without recovering from illness) and we had a few meltdown moments but on the whole he just enjoyed the whole experience. It was fab to see him trying things he wouldn’t normally do and the big smiles on his face when he did them.

Smiles from Toby on holiday

Gabe spent quite a lot of his holiday napping and we did have disturbed nights from him too. He loved exploring the lodge though, his commando crawling is really getting him everywhere he wants to go now…and lots of places we don’t want him to go! He’s so determined, but still gets frustrated when he can’t do something he wants to. Just look at him though – I’m sure it won’t be long before he’s properly crawling and pulling himself up, and then nothing will be safe!

Crazy commando crawling Gabe

Living Arrows

A holiday disappointment (or why Butlins is not for us)

Butlins Skegness

A couple of weeks ago, during my half-term holiday we loaded up the car and headed to Butlins in Skegness for a holiday. We used our Tesco Clubcard tokens to pay for our 4 night stay in its entirety (apart from a £20 deposit) and I’m so glad…because if we’d paid full price we would have been even more disappointed in our holiday than we were.

The first mistake, I have to admit, was ours. Skegness is a bloody long way from Scotland! We did break up the journey with a two night stay in a luxury wooden lodge near Richmond in Yorkshire (Flowery Dell Lodges) and I actually wish we’d just decided to stay there for the week. It was lovely, very comfortable and had everything we needed (including free wifi – Butlins take note!). The only downside was the glass TV stand which of course Toby was immediately attracted to!

Anyway, after a long and windy drive through the Lincolnshire countryside we eventually arrived at Butlins on the Monday afternoon. We queued briefly to go through the drive through check-in and we’re given a map to find our apartment, wherein we had our first disappointment… (Apologies that this post is quite long (and there aren’t many photos) but we had quite a lot of disappointment and I didn’t want to leave anything out!).

Accommodation

We were booked to stay in a 2 bedroom ‘Gold’ apartment. We were actually given a 3 bedroom on the first floor of a block, about as far away from the centre of the resort as you could get.

The first thing I was worried about was that the two twin rooms were on the front of the apartment, meaning everyone coming and going would be walking right past Toby’s window. Actually I don’t think he was disturbed too much but it would have made more sense to put us in one of the top floor apartments that didn’t have the walkway right outside.

Gold Apartment Butlins

First impressions of the apartment were that it looked a bit tired and worn, particularly the carpet. I don’t know how much of this was due to the time of year, perhaps it would have looked fresher if we had gone in April. There were a few other things that let it down too; the fridge door seal was split and full of crumbs, the remote control for the TV didn’t have a cover over the battery compartment (not ideal with an inquisitive toddler), the shower tray completely filled up when you were having a shower (which meant you had to be really quick or it would overflow)…but by far the biggest problem was the bed.

I don’t think I have ever slept in a bed so uncomfortable, except maybe in a motel we paid $20 a night for in Vermont where I actually ended up sleeping on the floor! All the beds had metal frames with wire mesh supporting the saggiest mattress I have ever known. Barry and I both had to sleep hanging off the edges or we would be unavoidable on top of each other in the middle of the bed.

As it happened, Toby decided he wasn’t going to sleep past 1am unless he was in bed with me anyway, so Barry got kicked out to one of the single beds and Toby was in the double with me. Most of the other issues with the accommodation were minor niggles we could put up with, but the bed actually contributed to our decision to leave a day early.

There were some positives about the apartment – it had two small leather sofas which were in good condition, the kitchen was well stocked and the bed linen was clean and comfortable. Because we had a Gold apartment towels were included too and there was also a daily housekeeping service who came in and made the beds and emptied the bin. The layout of the apartment meant we could use the coffee table to block Toby into the living area so he couldn’t get into too much mischief. In fact his favourite place the whole time we were there was down the side of the sofa!

Butlins Skegness Gold Apartment

Facilities

The Skyline Pavilion is more or less in the centre of the resort and it houses a stage, theatre, shops, bars, restaurants, cinema and arcade (with lots of 2p drop machines that we enjoyed spending a pound on one day).  Around this are several restaurants, the swimming pool complex ‘Splash Waterworld’, a spa, fairground and ‘Reds’ where the Redcoats put on daily entertainment. There certainly seemed to be lots going on and I liked that you could get everything you needed without leaving the resort.

I did take advantage of the spa on the second day. I had a back massage, which I had booked the day before. The massage was great (just what I needed after the night in the stupidly uncomfortable bed!) and reasonably priced at £35. I didn’t make use of the rest of the spa facilities but it looked very inviting.

Unfortunately we didn’t have chance to visit Splash Waterworld. Toby isn’t overly keen on swimming at the moment and seeing as he was already grumpy and not sleeping well we didn’t really want to waste an hour getting him changed and in the pool only for him to have a meltdown. There are parent and toddler sessions where the slides and waves are turned off to make it calmer for young children but these were only from 4-5pm which seemed like a really daft time for me. That’s right before Toby’s teatime and a hungry baby is not a happy one in my experience. I would have liked to have seen a session in the morning too, especially seeing as it we weren’t there during the school holidays and therefore there must have been more toddlers there.

Food

The first night we chose to eat in The Sun and Moon pub. The menu was what you would expect from a family friendly pub and the food was nice enough and reasonably priced. There was a large play area outside too – but nothing suitable for younger children.

On the second night we ate at Firehouse – the newest restaurant in Butlins Skegness. The easiest way to describe it is that it’s just like Nando’s; chicken with a choice of marinades and different sides. Again the food was good, but I thought a bit on the expensive side for what we got. Alcoholic drinks were also pretty pricey – £5.40 for a glass of wine.

Firehouse Butlins Skegness

The last night we decided to try one of the buffet restaurants. We had almost bought one of the ‘dining plans’ which allows you to eat in the buffet restaurants more cheaply if you book it in advance. I’m really glad we didn’t! We chose to eat in The Yacht Club, one of the two ‘premium’ buffet restaurants. It cost us £18 each to pay on the night and Toby was free. This includes an unlimited buffet and fruit juice or hot drinks. Alcohol drinks are extra, which I would expect, but I was surprised to see no fizzy drinks were included. The hot buffet was OK but pretty uninspiring (and not very hot). I was most disappointed though that there was no sign of the Annabel Karmel kids dishes which are prominently advertised on the Butlins website and on the menu board outside the restaurant. In fact the only thing I saw was a few lonely looking jars of Heinz baby food and a microwave. I have to say the buffet restaurant was somewhat redeemed by the desserts (so much so that Barry had three!).

The Yacht Club - Butlins Skegness

 

We did experience some fairly rubbish customer service in the buffet restaurant too which didn’t help. First of all they seemed very confused that we actually wanted to pay and we had to wait for ages for someone to take our payment. Barry then had to wait another age at the bar to be served, despite there being three members of staff and no other customers!

We also had breakfast on our last morning at one of the other buffet restaurants, which apart from being very busy, was actually quite good and the man who showed us to a table was very helpful in getting us a highchair and explaining where everything was.

Entertainment

Butlins is famous for its Redcoats and their entertainment and there was certainly a lot going on. Again, it was perhaps our mistake, but Toby just wasn’t quite old enough to enjoy most of it. There was a show with Thomas the Tank Engine, dancing with Angelina Ballerina, story time with Billy Bear on the stage in the Skyline Pavilion as well as a tots disco and various evening shows as well. The story time show was enjoyable, and although Toby didn’t join in we saw lots of kids who were loving Angelina Ballerina. Our one big gripe was with the Thomas show. I thought Toby might quite enjoy watching it but we couldn’t actually stay in the Skyline Pavilion while it was going on as it was so deafeningly loud! The pavilion is quite a big place but most of the kids watching the show were gathered in a semi-circle within 5 metres of the stage. The Redcoats had their microphones turned up full and at the same time were shouting at the tops of their voices over incredibly loud music. It was unbearable.

Obviously with having Toby we couldn’t go to any of the evening shows either. I suppose you could if you have a baby who will just sleep in the buggy but Toby needs to be in bed by 8pm at the very latest, even on holiday. The only comment I can make about the shows that were on in ‘Centre Stage’ is that people were queueing out of the building an hour before it was due to start (I believe in order to get a good seat) and that was during term-time in October, I dread to think what it is like in the height of summer! You can pay extra to jump the queue but that just seems a bit money-grabbing on the part of Butlins to me.

We had a look round the fairground too – there wasn’t anything especially exciting I have to say, but it was OK considering you don’t have to pay an extra for it. There are some rides for younger children but again, Toby was just that bit too young to be able to enjoy them.

There was a lot to do for children from about two to three years upwards but there really wasn’t anything for younger children. Unless we missed it there wasn’t even a park with baby swings anywhere. We had to keep Toby in the buggy pretty much the whole time as there was nowhere that had a safe area he could crawl or practice his walking. There is a small soft play but again it was full of older kids, even a dedicated baby area in there would have been an improvement.

Overall I can see why people with older kids would go to Butlins and I’m sure it is much more enjoyable when you can take full advantage of all the entertainment and facilities. But this time Butlins just wasn’t for us. I can’t see that we will be going back again anytime soon though. Even when Toby is older and could enjoy all the activities on offer you couldn’t pay me to sleep in that bed again!!

Top 10 Tips – Taking an overseas camping holiday with a baby

In less than a weeks time we should be setting off on the long drive from Scotland to our first family camping holiday in France. Well, we will be if Toby’s passport turns up in time but I’ll get to that in a minute! I say camping, but only in that we’ll be staying on a camp site. We’re staying in a mobile home so it’s not really camping in the strictest sense. It is a kind of camping that I am very familiar with though. From 1998 until 2003 I spent every summer (and then some – our season was March to October) working in France for several different camping companies. Most of those years I was working for Canvas Holidays, I spent a few years as a campsite courier then made my way through the ranks as Site Supervisor and then Area Manager before eventually moving to Scotland to work in head office recruiting and training new staff to work overseas.

Anyway, suffice to say I know what to expect from this kind of holiday. We’re actually going back to the same campsite that I worked on my first season, which I can’t believe was actually 16 years ago (gulp!). I’m really looking forward to going back but I have a feeling that going back with my husband and baby isn’t going to be quite the same as when I spent 10 weeks there as a carefree 20 year old, spending my days cleaning tents and mobile homes, and my nights getting drunk on Desperados!

Top 10 camping tips

So with less than a week to go I thought I’d share a few of my top tips for planning an overseas camping holiday with a baby.

  1. Apply for your baby’s passport in plenty of time. I would say at least two months before you’re due leave unless you want to spend the last week before you go massively stressed about whether it’s going to turn up in time! As I mentioned at the top of this post we are still waiting for Toby’s passport. It is supposed to take three weeks and has currently been nearly four weeks since I sent the application. I am so annoyed with myself that I didn’t apply for it earlier, I am usually so organised about these things but somehow time just crept up on me. I had to send my passport off to be changed to my married name before I could apply for Toby’s but then after two weeks realised there wasn’t enough time to wait for mine to come back before applying for his…so had to apply for Toby’s anyway but because I didn’t have my passport I had to send my birth certificate, which was in Blackpool at my parents’ house…and blah blah blah. Basically, what I’m trying to say is apply for those passports early!!
  2. Make sure you have travel insurance, and an EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) if you are going to Europe. We get travel insurance through our bank account but I had to add Toby on to it and I had to apply for an EHIC for him too which you can do online.
  3. Pre-book as much as you can so you don’t have to pack as much. We have booked a cot and highchair so we don’t have to take our own. We have also booked linen hire so we don’t have to take bedding with us either. we will be taking Toby’s sleeping bag and cot sheet so things are as familiar as possible for him. You can book a buggy with Canvas (and most other camping companies) but seeing as we have quite a small stroller, which will be useful on the journey, we’re taking our own.
  4. Plan to do washing while you’re away. With the best will in the world I cannot pack enough clothes for me, Barry and Toby to last the two weeks we will be away. I know there are washing machines on the campsite and I plan on using them! I’ll try and pack one week’s worth of clothes and then to one or two loads of washing while we’re away. I might even do washing a day or two before we come home – it’s not that much effort and it’s so much nicer to come home and unpack clean clothes than have to wash everything when you get back. (Of course for us there will be a bit more washing as I’m planning on taking our cloth nappies, but it won’t be any more than when we’re at home).
  5. Try and plan your journey to make it as stress-free as possible. For us this means having two overnight stops in the UK before we even get on the ferry. We have got a long way to go and Toby isn’t that keen on being in the car for a long time at the moment so we are breaking our journey down into manageable chunks. We always try and drive so at least part of our journey is during nap time. We also have to plan for plenty of stops. Toby isn’t really old enough that we can entertain him with games or DVDs in the car so if he gets really grumpy the only thing we can do is stop and get him out for a bit. If you are going to France then you could try an overnight ferry but I decided we’d be better to stay in a hotel in Portsmouth the night before getting a morning crossing to France. Hopefully that means we will all get at least some sleep!
  6. If you have overnight stops then pack a small separate bag with your essentials so you don’t have to unpack the whole car to get to your tooth brush and pyjamas!
  7. Make sure you have everything you need for driving in Europe. You will need to let your car insurance company know and check you have appropriate cover. European breakdown cover is also pretty essential. Check the regulations for anything else you need for the country you are going to – in France we need headlight deflectors, a warning triangle, hi-vis vests (one for every passenger and they have to be in the car with you, not in the boot) and breathalyser kits. If you are planning on using satnav to find your way then it sounds obvious, but make sure yours covers Europe!
  8. You might want to take baby food/formula/nappies with you. There are of course supermarkets overseas but they might not stock your favourite brands so it’s worth taking them with you. We’ll be taking formula and some fruit pouches and snacks for Toby. Other than that I’m fairly confident he’ll be able to eat the same as us, just like he does at home.
  9. Take some food and drink basics – if you like tea then definitely take tea bags as they are one thing you really can’t find in France (not decent ones anyway!). Also remember, you might arrive late on the campsite so it’s worth having some supplies for the first night and following morning with you.
  10. If you can, take baby sitters with you! My parents are coming on holiday with us. They are staying in a separate mobile home and we aren’t travelling together, but hopefully having them there will mean Barry and I will get to have a little bit of time to ourselves and feel like we’ve had a holiday too. Of course it will also be lovely for Toby to spend some extended time with his Grandparents – with them living so far away he only gets to see them for a few days at a time usually.

So that’s my Top 10 Tips for taking an overseas camping holiday with a baby. I’m sure there’s lots of other things that I’ve forgotten and I’ll do another post when we get back home of any other things that come up during our holiday (assuming Toby’s passport turns up and we actually get to go of course!). Have you ever taken your kids overseas on a camping holiday? Or did you brave flying and staying in a hotel? (which I wouldn’t contemplate at this point!) If you did I’d love to hear how you got on and if you’ve got any tips to make our holiday go smoothly.

Using cloth nappies on holiday

I know one of the things that often puts people off using cloth nappies is the thought of having to deal with them when you are out and about. Maybe you could be convinced to use cloth nappies in the house when you knew you weren’t going anywhere but don’t fancy the idea of having to bring your dirty nappies home with you when you’ve been out. Or even worse – what about using cloth nappies on holiday? Doesn’t that mean a lot of work when you should be relaxing?

Well, I thought I’d share our experiences of using cloth nappies on holiday and when we’re out for the day at home, because it really isn’t that difficult! I wrote last week about how we were coming away to the Lake District for the best part of a week and that I wasn’t sure whether to use our cloth nappies while we were there. We’re back home now and I’m happy to report we did use cloth nappies all week and it was really no more effort than it would be at home. It certainly didn’t make me feel like I wasn’t on holiday.

I made sure I did a nappy wash the day before we were going away so that most of our nappies would be clean and ready to use. As well as the clean nappies though, I also took our nappy bucket with the remaining few dirty nappies with us. There were a couple of reasons for this; firstly it meant we had all our nappies with us. We have enough nappies to wash every three days but if I left some at home then I would need to wash more often while we were away. Secondly, it meant I wasn’t leaving dirty nappies sitting at home for the whole week.

We then just used our nappies exactly as we would at home and I did two nappy washes while we were away. I probably could have managed just with one but the second wash meant I was bringing mostly clean, rather than mostly dirty, nappies home with us. The only tricky part was figuring out the right programme to use on a different washing machine to the one I’m used to. The first wash I used the machine to dry the nappies but it didn’t seem to have a low setting so I was a bit worried about damaging them. They were fine but the second time I just hung our all-in-one nappies on the clothes airer and only dried the night time bamboo nappies in the drier. I also took our washable wipes with us – it’s not much extra to take or wash and if we’re using the nappies we might as well use our wipes too.

Drying cloth nappies on holiday

The only thing that was a bit more difficult than at home was going for days out while we were away. We use cloth nappies all the time at home but even if I do take Toby out somewhere we’re only likely to need one nappy change at the most while we’re out. Cloth nappies definitely do take up more room in my changing bag than disposables would, but when I’m only carrying one it doesn’t matter too much. I have a couple of disposables in my changing bag too in case of emergencies but I have never had to use one yet! I have a small wet bag that I take few of our washable wipes in and then another zip up wet bag to put any dirty nappies and wipes in to bring home again. If we’re out all day then it does mean carrying more nappies so the changing bag can get a bit full, but other than that it really isn’t too much of a problem.

The only other small problem I have come across when using cloth nappies away from the house is when we have a dirty nappy and the baby changing facilities we are using don’t have a toilet. With our cloth nappies we always flush any poo down the toilet before putting the used nappy in the bucket to wait for washing. But if there is no toilet in the same place as the baby changing then there are only a couple of options; either put the dirty nappy, poo and all, in the wet bag and bring it home, wrap the poo in something and put it in the bin with the disposable nappies, or take the dirty nappy into the toilet afterwards and deal with it there. To be honest we have never actually had this situation but it is something I do worry about when it’s time for a nappy change out and about.

So, having said all that, if you use cloth nappies at home (or you are thinking about doing) then there really isn’t any reason why you can’t use them away from home too (as long as you can wash them – I’m not sure what you’d do if you were staying in a hotel with no washing facilities). Having this week in the Lake District has pretty much convinced me to take all our cloth nappies to France for our holiday at the beginning of next month. I know we have access to a washing machine and hopefully the weather will be nice enough that the nappies will dry quickly outside. I have taken advantage of some Real Nappy Week discounts to buy an extra night time nappy (we use the Tots Bots Bamboozle) and a few extra day time nappies too so I should be able to stretch the nappy wash to every four days rather than every three. And when it comes down to it, I love our cloth nappies, I know they work for us and I just don’t think I could bring myself to put Toby in a disposable now!

Have you ever used cloth nappies on holiday? I’d love to hear if you have any experience of using cloth away from home.

Self-catering with a baby in the UK

Self-catering with a baby

We’re going on holiday tomorrow for five nights in a cottage in the Lake District. This will be the first time we’ve taken Toby away and not just gone to stay with one or other sets of grandparents. I am looking forward to it but I don’t think it’ll be the kind of relaxing holiday we were used to pre-baby (especially since Toby seems to be heading back into teething hell today)! Will self-catering with a baby be even more tiring than just staying at home?

Before Toby was born we went on a few cottage holidays in the Lake District. When I was searching for a property a pub within walking distance and a log fire were always top of the list of requirements. This time it was a second bedroom with enough room for a cot and a washing machine! The place we’ve found is not far from Kendal, it’s a barn conversion and it sounds perfect so I’m hoping it lives up to expectations.

We both spent a lot of time in the Lake District when we were growing up, we love it there and go back as often as we can. The reason for this trip though is that Barry’s parents have recently moved to the south Lakes, we’ve not seen their new house yet and they haven’t seen Toby since Christmas so it seemed it was time for a trip. We didn’t want to stay with them as they are still getting the house sorted out and we had some Tesco Clubcard vouchers that got us £100 off our booking so it wasn’t too expensive to stay in the cottage.

We’re looking forward to visiting a few of our favourite places while we’re in the Lakes, and also trying out a few new ones. We’ll definitely be making a visit to The Apple Pie cafe and bakery in Ambleside (which is actually owned by someone my parents know – I’ve been going there since I was tiny) for THE best apple pie ever. The original Lakeland store in Windermere is also high on my list of places we have to go (although Barry isn’t so keen on this one). We’re also hoping to go to the South Lakes Safari Zoo as long as we get some decent weather. I’ve been there once before and thought it was great and I’m hoping Toby is old enough to enjoy looking at some of the animals.

So, we’ve got plenty planned for our five nights away but I’m just hoping that I do manage to get something that at least feels like a holiday. I am a bit worried that it’s just going to be like being at home, with all the cooking, washing and general baby-looking-after that I usually have to do but just more annoying because we haven’t got all the stuff we usually have at home! Whenever we’ve been away previously Toby has slept well in the travel cot so I’m hoping that continues. We’re going to take our Gro Company Gro Anywhere blackout blind with us so we don’t have to worry about light nights and early mornings. I’m a bit worried though that if we disrupt Toby’s nap routine by going out and doing things that he’ll be super-grumpy and won’t sleep well at night. He never sleeps in the buggy any more, there’s too many interesting things to look at (even with the Snoozeshade on), but he does still sleep in the car and usually in the baby carrier so I’m hoping we can still make sure he gets some daytime sleep even if we are out and about. I’m not too worried about feeding – Toby pretty much eats what we eat so if we want to eat out I’m sure we can find something suitable.

The last thing that will make it just the same as home is that I’m planning on using our cloth nappies while we’re away. I know you might think I’m bonkers not to just give myself a break and use disposables but after eight months without a single disposable I don’t think I could do it (although I am considering eco-disposables for our summer camping holiday in France). Plus next week is Real Nappy Week which means I would feel doubly guilty if we didn’t stick with cloth! We’re only away five nights and if I get the timing right I’ll only have to do one nappy wash while we’re away so it really shouldn’t be too bad.

If nothing else it’s week when we’re both going to be around to look after Toby so I should get a bit of a break. And what is it that they say? ‘A change is as good as a rest’. Here’s hoping – and I’m sure I’ll be blogging all about it when we get back.

What do you reckon? Have you ever been on a self-catering holiday in the UK with a baby? Did it feel remotely like a holiday or just the same chores in a different place? Any top tips for making the most out of our time away?

Now I’m off to start my first challenge of the whole escapade – remember to pack everything we need and then try and fit it all in the car!