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Category: Travel with teens

Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Grand Canyon

Grand CanyonThere are 1001 things to do in Las Vegas, and that’s just before lunch. Not only is there a stunning array inside the Mega Resorts, but there’s all the glitz of the four-mile, neon-drenched Strip itself, as well as the glittering Freemont Street Experience, Downtown.. and although many people visit Las Vegas and never feel the need to leave the boundaries of their hotel, it would be a shame to come this far from the UK and not visit outside of the city limits.

Nearby to Las Vegas there is the desert itself, plus the impressive Hoover dam, and a little further afield, although by no mind way out of reach, is the Grand Canyon itself.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Located 25 miles outside of Las Vegas, Lake Mead National Recreation Park Area allows a great deal of relaxation and fun year-round. With 1.5 million acres, it’s twice the size of Rhode Island and is America’s largest manmade reservoir. With 50 miles of shoreline, the park offers multiple marinas, boating, fishing, and water sports. It also caters to hikers, climbers, campers, and car tours, and there are paddlewheel cruises on the lake itself, on which they serve a wonderful champagne brunch!

Hoover Dam

The colossal Hoover Dam was completed in 1935 giving this desert region and Las Vegas a reliable water supply from the Colorado River, as well as creating Lake Mead (above). You can take a $10 tour of the facilities (print your own discount coupon from the website for $1 off) or you can just walk over the dam and view it from both the Nevada and Arizona sides of the canyon. Make sure you park your car on the Arizona side where there is plenty of free parking; parking on the Nevada side is $5. The water levels are currently 50 feet lower than they should be as a result to an eight-year drought in the region, which has resulted in the dam losing 40% of its generating power.

Lost City Museum

With the construction of Hoover Dam, Lake Mead threatened a number of original dwellings of the ancient, mysterious Anasazi civilization. The museum showcases artefacts retrieved from the flooded sites, including pottery, tools, jewellery, and arrowheads. With distinctive black and white geometric designs, the pottery and potsherds are especially beautiful and representative of the rich Anasazi culture.

Grand Canyon

Cutting roughly across the landscape, the canyon is 277 miles long, a mile deep and roughly 10 miles wide and is arguably America’s best-known natural attraction. As the star of many films and documentaries, many of us feel we know it, and yet nothing prepares you for the real thing. It is utterly, completely, and unbelievably awe-inspiring. It takes about 5-6 hours to travel to the North Rim (the nearest to Vegas) by car.

Alternatively you can book yourself on one of the many helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon (try Air Vegas, Scenic Airways or Grand Canyon Tour Company) and expect to pay about $200-300 per person, which is well worth it for what is probably the best of all views, anywhere.


To Aqaba!

The Red Sea, Aqaba

The Red Sea, Aqaba

Aqaba is Jordan’s only seaside town, perched on their tiny foothold of coastline at the north of the Red Sea, and like so many places in Jordan, it is an ancient place now bought up to date in true Jordanian style. In recent years Aqaba has evolved into a funky seaside resort with this typically Jordanian mix of old and new, all helped by the glorious weather and great diving. One day we met up with one of Suzi’s sons, Amer, and he was in surfer shorts and would have looked perfectly at home in Newquay, which is very different from the way people dress elsewhere in Jordan.

In biblical times it was a historic port, which was originally known as Ayla and was where King Solomon built his navy. It is also the site of what is thought to be the earliest purpose-built Christian church in the world. Not much of a fuss is made about it’s origins however (again, typically Jordanian, probably because of their abundance of such riches!) and we could see it’s modest remains from our suite’s window, just across one of the main (and pretty busy) roads in Aqaba.

One evening I was fascinated to see a Bedouin in full traditional dress coolly leading his camel down the pavement on the hotel side of the road. He waited for the traffic lights to change, led his camel across the dual carriageway, made it kneel so he could mount, and then off they loped across the edge of Ayla’s ruins towards the Red Sea.

Aqaba is also a tax free zone, so we bought spices, jewellery and luggage, silver charms and beautiful beads (which are bought by the gram) and, as ever on this trip, we were given lots of presents by shopkeepers. One such gentleman ran a gift shop called …  and he looked very like Omar Sharif and claimed to have been in a film with him, which was true if the picture of them together on the wall was anything to go by! However, the quality of handicrafts elsewhere was generally superior in many cases, especially in Wadi Rum, around Madaba and in Jerash in the north.

Experiencing the coral reefs and getting close to the abundant aquatic residents is a must in Aqaba, and one of the main reasons many people visit (you can fly straight here from the UK). We opted for snorkelling as the girls hadn’t learnt to dive, and it was the most amazing snorkelling I have ever experienced,  just hanging over the vivid coral reefs a metre or so below and watching the fish and animals darting in and out of the coral and living their lives.

The Movenpick Hotel was, once again, fantastic. We had a suite with a balcony, and the pools were amazing, as was the beach. Our room lad was an Egyptian called Hani and he made our towels into swans and crocodiles to entertain us – bit like napkin art for dinner parties, but with towels!

Breakfast was monumental and there was a beautiful terrace on which to eat it, complete with resident black cat and her five kittens, which we soon realised they were not just tolerated but encouraged when the staff shook out a table cloth on the unused tables to get the kittens to emerge for the entertainment of the children one morning.

We had dinner at sunset one evening at the beachside restaurant, where I had grilled Sayyadiaah with a surprisingly good ‘Petra Winery’ Pinot Noir, another surprise in a country full of them.

Aqaba tips

• The town has got an international and laid back vibe near the waterfront, but this is still an Arab country, so modest dress is advisable for women, especially if you are renting an apartment in the residential areas.

• If you stay at the Movenpick in the centre of Aqaba, they run an hourly shuttle bus to Movenpick Tala Bay, where you can go snorkeling off the beach.

• The town is a duty free zone, so is a good place to stock up on jewellery, gifts and spices to take home.

• For the best diving, book yourself a day trip on a boat: contact Ash at Dive Aqaba (www.diveaqaba.com). His stepdad, Rob, who founded the school, is English and the instructors are the friendliest and most experienced bunch in town.


Wadi Rum – Lawrence of Arabia’s desert

Jebel Rum, Wadi Rum, Jordan

Jebel Rum, Wadi Rum, Jordan

“The crags are capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the body of the hill. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place, this processional way greater than imagination…vast, echoing and godlike.”

T E Lawrence

The desert which the Queen of Sheba crossed on her way to see Solomon, which the Israelites took 40 years to negotiate on their way to the Promised Land and where Lawrence of Arabia wrote the quote above and helped the Bedouins fight the Turks has captured the imagination of countless visitors over the centuries.

The hills Lawrence loved so much are today are called ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ in his honour and the area has been established as a protected area with a social mandate to promote tourism while protecting the fragile desert environment.

It’s a tall order with 100,000 visitors a year, but the authorities work closely with the traditional guardians – the Bedouin – and there are a number of initiatives to reintroduce previously abundant wildlife, such as the oryx, and boost numbers of other – increasingly rare – wildlife such as ibex, caracal, wolf and jackal.

We stayed at Bait Ali, a superior camp on the edge of Wadi Rum itself that is eco-friendly, versatile and brilliantly thought out, with a swimming pool, which felt very odd in the desert!  Our host, Suzi, is an English woman married to a Jordanian.

Suzi initially came to Jordan because of the horses and the desert racing and she competed in the annual Wadi Rum Endurance Race (120 miles in one day; about 100 horses usually start and less than 30% complete) until recently. She likens it to the Formula 1 (F1) of horse races and it takes place at the end of April/beginning of May before it gets too hot. Strangely enough, the chestnut stallion I rode in Petra (Irun) and Jarar, one of the grey stallions from the Al Noor Stables in Madabar where we rode later in the trip, were both entered in the race when we visited and it is televised and covered internationally.  I hadn’t realised it was such a huge equine event.

One day we visited the visitors centre near the Seven Pillars themselves. There was a museum and lots of locals with whom to organise guided tours in to the desert on camel, 4×4,etc, for an hour or a day or two, as well as buy local Bedouin handicrafts and view the Seven Pillars in all their glory. We then made our way to the small town of Rum for lunch at the traditional Resthouse, just across the sandy wadi from the utterly impressive sheer rock wall of Jabal Umm Ishrin.

The following day we took the camel ride and 4×4 trip arranged the day before, and explored some of the camping areas where the spice traders and camel trains would have rested on their way to and fro Petra and beyond. We had hired a Bedouin guide, the lovely and knowledgeable Aid Mohamed Soylhin, and he showed us ‘his desert’. His family had been proper nomadic Bedouin and he hadn’t ever been to school – he now drives a 4×4 (“camels are so slow and grumpy!” he said) runs his business with an email and mobile phone, and said that if his children (he has six) want to go to university, they can – Jordan is now one of the highly educated countries in the world.

As dusk fell the three of us were treated to traditional mint tea brewed over an open fire inside a goat hair tent with the Bedouins themselves, while the camels and 4x4s were parked together outside.

Once Aid Mohamed Soylhin had finished his prayers at the other end of the tent he bought over a traditional Bedoin woman’s headdress and face mask (complete with fringe) for me to try on. It was the most bizarre feeling, very claustrophobic and hot, and bought my view of the world down to what was basically a camera aperture. He laughed seeing my reaction, and said traditionally they would only have been worn outside the tents, and were designed to keep the hot sun off the skin and sand out of eyes, ears and skin creases.

It all left my teenage girls wide-eyed and very conscious of different cultures and ways of life.

Magical stuff.

Wadi Rum tips

• Come prepared for temperature fluctuations even during spring and autumn, when it is in the top 20°Cs/low 30°Cs as it can still get chilly at night.

• Bait Ali (00962 202262 suzi@baitali.com) offers eco-friendly, versatile and brilliantly thought out accommodation (including a swimming pool), as well as a wealth of local knowledge and contacts – English owner, Suzi Shinaco and her Jordanian husband, Taheen, know pretty much everyone and can organize anything you fancy, from horse trekking to hot air ballooning.

• Bring cash – it’s a desert and there are few electronic payment facilities and no ATMs.

• Buy local indigenous handicrafts – made by the local women it forms an important part of their economy. Look out for their depictations of antelope and hunting scenes made from beaten tin cans and placed in glass (see picture).

• Hire a Bedouin guide – ours was the lovely and knowledgeable Aid Mohamed Soylhin – 00962 795 624671 badouin_lifestyle@yahoo.com) and get out and explore the desert’s secrets. Whether you ride on a Arabian horse, a camel, or a 4×4 (or all three) or simply hike, spending time in the desert lets you see the hidden treasures, such as a natural rock arch; hanging gardens of melons near an oasis; rock carvings of camels and goats; a ruined Nabataean temple and experience it up close and personal.


White Hot and Cool

The original Ice Hotel, Sweden

The original Ice Hotel, Sweden

As technological advances push the boundaries of what is possible, our ability to enjoy the winter cold wherever we are increases apace. We now have the largest igloos ever known, carved from the ice and erected anew every year, machines that blast out snow where there isn’t any so we can ski whenever we want, and a London bar totally built and furnished from ice transported from Lapland.

Surreal? Yes, but very hot and very cool. See you there…

Would you like ice with that…?
The world’s first ice hotel, and still the most famous, is the one near the village of Jukkasjärvi in Sweden, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in Lapland. In the winter of 1989, Japanese ice artists visited the area and created an exhibition of ice art and that spring, French artist Jannot Derid held an exhibition in a cylinder-shaped igloo in the area. One night there were no rooms available in the town, so some of the visitors asked for permission to spend the night in the exhibition hall. They slept in sleeping bags on top of reindeer skin – the first guests of the ‘hotel’.

The entire hotel only exists between December and April and is made completely out of ice blocks taken from the Torne River – even the glasses in the bar are made of ice, something that is replicated in the Absolute IceBar in London, see ‘Chill Out Zone’. The river is covered with an exceptionally clear meter-thick ice layer in winter, and it is this that is used to build and sculpt the ice hotel and the chapel anew every autumn. The latest incarnation has more than 80 rooms and suites, a bar, reception area, and church, and each room is unique, having been designed by a different designer.

Although the hotel itself has become very famous, it stands in what is still pristine wilderness. Around Jukkasjärvi there are vast forests and unclimbed mountains and in winter the white blanket of snow show the footprints from wild reindeer, moose, and wolves. Lapland stretches across four countries and is still the ancestral home of the Sami people, the original inhabitants. In the area around the Icehotel their traditional way of life continues relatively undisturbed by the amazing feat of engineering and technology that rises on the banks of the River Torne each autumn.

The experience of actually staying at the Icehotel is a surreal one, and pretty uncomfortable, truth be known. The hotel is never warmer than -5°C to -8°C inside, which actually feels warm compared with outside. The unique rooms are decorated with ice art and sculptures, and since it is a museum during the day (between 10am and 6pm) the rooms don’t feel ‘yours’ like they do in other hotels, especially as you can’t take your luggage in as it will freeze (the porter takes it to a special heated luggage area) and, apart from in the deluxe rooms, there are no doors, simply curtains. Thermal sleeping bags are provided, and you actually sleep on a bed made of a giant ice block topped with a thick mattress covered in reindeer skins.

Staff wake you in the morning with a mug of hot lingonberry juice, and there are heated washrooms and changing facilities, as well as morning sauna facilities, in the adjoining buildings, all of which is included in the package. The hotel has permanent chalets as well as the Icehotel, so you can stay for longer than a single night (trust us, one night in the Icehotel itself will probably be sufficient), and the hotel specializes in organizing winter adventures for their visitors, such as dog and reindeer sled trips, ice fishing, moose tracking, and the legendary winter ptarmigan hunt, which is conducted entirely on skis.

The ephemeral chapel has become a popular place for children to be baptized and couples to renew their wedding vows, and you can even choose to get married here if you want a wedding day that is truly memorable.

Chill Out Zone

Fancy that, but want a taste of it without having to pack up and travel to Lapland? Then you’re in luck, because the recently opened Absolute IceBar in Mayfair in London offers just that. A collaboration between Absolut and Icehotel, the IceBar is a -5°c vodka bar where everything from the bar stools to the glasses is carved entirely of crystal clear ice imported from the Torne River in Sweden. The £12 cover charge gets you entrance, one drink and 40 minutes in the bar. And there’s no need to wear your skiing gear because thermal parkas with attached gloves are provided. Fashionable they are not, but essential if you don’t want to be shivering within minutes of being allowed in through the air-locked entrance, which is specially designed to maintain the -5°C environment inside the bar.

The bar area is rather small, but that’s not an issue since the number of people inside at any one time is regulated (you’ll need to book in advance). The walls are all made of ice, as is the furniture including the telephone booth, and there are photo-opportunities galore, from kissing the statue of a man carved out of ice to toasting the bar staff in their Russian fur hats. The vodka-only menu (there are some alcohol-free drinks) is short, but all the drinks are quite complex (mine had blueberry liquor among other things) and are served in a hollowed-out cube of ice. While the allocated time span might seem short, it is actually quite generous because by the time you’ve finished your first drink (and no, the ice glass doesn’t melt when you hold it), the cold starts to set in and  you need to decide whether to grab a second (iced) drink or move on, perhaps next door to the more chic and warm Below Zero, the lounge and restaurant adjacent to the IceBar.

And yes, it is a bit gimmicky, but let’s face it, where else can you drink perfectly chilled vodka out if an ice goblet while wearing a giant thermal poncho and entombed in ice from Lapland while standing in the middle of London? Hats off to technology and go and experience it at least once.

The White Stuff

Whether you are a seasoned snow-bunny, have baby bunnies in tow, or are strictly aprés, we have rounded up 10 of the very best places to indulge your passion for the white stuff. You can go for black-run thrills, beginner’s lessons, a bespoke chalet party, or just about whatever takes your fancy so long as it involves snow. Santè!

1. Borovets, Bulgaria
Best for families on a budget

Situated in venerable pinewoods of the Rila mountains and the oldest Bulgarian winter resort, with a history dating from 1896, today Borovets is the biggest and most modern resort in Bulgaria. Brilliant for families on a budget, Borovets offers crèches and kindergartens, ski schools, and free lift passes for children aged 8-12, as well English-speaking instructors, traditional folk music and ‘horo’ dancing, barbeques, wine tasting, oh, and good value, very good, skiing for all levels and tastes, including a World Cup run behind the village, night-skiing and ski jumping. See www.inghams.com for more details.

2. Chalet La Sonnaille, Chatel Portes du Soleil, France
Best for a family house party

The Chalet La Sonnaille is a small, owner-run chalet in Chatel, an unspoilt village on the French/Swiss border that still has its Savoyarde farming village charm in shovel loads, with pretty, rustic looking chalets and hotels. The Chalet La Sonnaille is a favourite destination with families in the know, who describe it as “fabulous ‘bespoke’ skiing in a house party atmosphere”. Sleeping up to 12 adults and 12 children, if you go with just your immediate family the owners will make sure you are sharing with other families with kids of similar age, although it’s obviously much better fun if you fill the place with all your mates, especially as there is an outdoor jacuzzi, indoor sauna, adults-only lounge, and separate children’s playroom.

Childcare is provided in the chalet for young children and on the slopes with qualified instructors for older kids, with a flexible mix between the two. Book direct at www.snowfocus.com.

3. Bacqueira-Beret, Spain
Best for chilling out

Famous as the resort where the Spanish king and his family come to ski, the resort takes its name from the neighbouring traditional Spanish villages of Baqueira and Beret, and is hidden in a secluded Pyrenean valley some 160km from the nearest main airport. Once you’ve survived the hair-raising drive along narrow mountain roads amid spectacular scenery complete with shaggy ponies and cattle, you find a perfect gem of a skiing village. Stunningly beautiful and renowned for the wildlife and sunshine, it’s small, but perfectly formed, with intermediates having the best of the skiing – although for true snow bunnies there’s the infamous Escornacrabes run from the top of Cap Baqueira, a steep and narrow downhill plunge with a name that translates rather ominously as ‘the place where the goats die’! Once there, there’s a range of top class hotels to choose from, including one of the ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’, La Pleta, where you can relax in the on-site Spa Occitania. See www.exsus.com for details.

4. Krvavec, Slovenia
Best for snow bunnies

If short transfer times and maximum time on the slopes are the only things that really matter to you for a skiing break, then Krvavec in Slovenia beats other resorts standing. It has one of the world’s shortest transfer times from any city airport, at around 15 minutes from Ljubljana by taxi, followed by a seven minute gondola ride right on to the mountain. The wide open, varied alpine meadows at the edge of the Kalška mountain range, do not require a deep blanket of snow to create ideal skiing conditions, and with snow guns to ‘assist’ nature covering up to 90% of the trails, the season normally lasts 150 days and 100 days are guaranteed. See www.inghams.com for more details.

5. Banff, Canada
Best for sheer luxury

Pure unadulterated luxury seems strangely out of sync with the bustling and friendly little town of Banff in the Canadian Rockies. Set in the beautiful Banff National Park it’s not unusual to see elk and the occasional moose wandering the streets. However, luxury is provided in no small measure by top flight hotels including the five star Fairmont Banff Springs and the five star Rimrock Luxury Hotel, both offering spa treatments, steaming outdoor pools and hot tubs, and relaxing chill-out lounges. See www.igluski.com for more details.

6. Seefeld, Austria
Best for cross-country skiing

Seefeld is the home of cross-country skiing (“langlauf”) and is Austria’s leading cross-country resort, with an impressive 250kms of marked trails including the course designed for the 1976 Olympics and the 1985 world championships. The gentle incline to the slopes of Seefeld also make it a superb place to learn to ski. Seefeld’s position above the Inn Valley, close to Innsbruck, means you can get there is about half an hour from the airport, and there are excellent après facilities, including a huge selection of restaurants and the casino. See www.innsbruk-tourismus.com for more details.

7. Ischgl, Austria
Best for après ski

Set high up in the stunning Silvretta mountains, Ischgl has become the Alps’ party central. Concerts in the resort routinely feature A list performers, the nightclubs and bars are excellent, and it is true to say that the aprés-ski here is probably the best you’ll find anywhere – once you find out they have their very own Pacha nightclub, you know exactly what to expect! Top spots include the nightclub at the five star Trofana Royal and, obviously, Pacha at the exclusive designer hotel, Madlei, a mere 100m from the skiing track. See www.crystalski.co.uk for more details.

8. Soll, Austria
Best for beginners

Söll forms part of Austria’s large 250km linked ski and snowboard area, known as the Ski Welt, in the Wilder Kaiser mountain range, and is one of the best places to go to learn to ski, although experts find thrills hard to come by. Many good UK ski operators include it in their ‘Learn to Ski’ tuition and equipment-hire packages. A lively and good-value former Tyrolean farming village, it has an abundance of things to do when ski legs tire, including a large sports centre, tobogganing, squash courts, sleigh rides. See www.igluski.com for more details.

9. Chamonix, France
Best for snowboarding

Chamonix is legendary amongst the snowboarding community. A traditional Alpine town set against breathtakingly spectacular scenery at the foot of the majestic Mont Blanc (Europe’s highest peak), Chamonix’s long-standing reputation with skiers has been enhanced over the last couple of decades by the growing band of dedicated Chamonix snowboarders, many of whom just went there on holiday and never wanted to go home again. The amenities in Chamonix are excellent, the après ski very good, and you can book yourself into the snowboarding school if you want to learn or improve. See www.alpinelements.com for further details.

10. Sainte Foy, France
Best for style

Exquisitely pretty, traditionally-built French ski resort, Sainte Foy is currently the in-place to go if you want to ski with the in-crowd. Rather lacking on the apres ski front, it more than makes up for it in sheer attractiveness, with charming vistas and sweeping runs, not to mention the style and luxury of the accommodation. Here you will find log fires, saunas, jacuzzis, and every luxury you can imagine, regardless of whether you choose to stay at one of the internationally-recognised hotels or a catered chalet.

There is a concierge service that will help you organise everything you need for the perfect break, from a qualified nanny to reflexology and husky rides, and the restaurants are also superb. See www.saintefoy.net for further details.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you

First published in WTF magazine, 2008


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