Five destinations — Cambodia, Kenya, Dubai (twice), Singapore and Zanzibar — in 23 days. With three young children. That’s not what we had planned for our round-the-world family adventure.
Before Covid, my wife Rebecca and I had organised a ten-week holiday of a lifetime for the middle of 2020 — a global tour we’d longed to take with our children, while they were still children, that would take in several continents and teach them about different cultures. It involved seeing wild animals (Kenya), visiting far-flung friends (Singapore) and ticking off some destinations we’d always longed to see (Cambodia) — with our house rented out to help pay for it. For obvious reasons that trip didn’t happen. Now, with new work and school commitments and less time and money, we had to work out how to do a condensed version — especially as some of our Covid-issued airline vouchers had expired, or were about to. We ditched some bits (Australia and the US), and shoehorned the rest into the school summer holidays.
Key targets: stagger the journey to give our body clocks time to adjust; keep the kids occupied; and maintain the “trip of a lifetime” feel.
The One&Only Royal Mirage, Dubai
Dubai wasn’t the top of our travel bucket list — I fretted about the migrant labour that built its skyscrapers and attractions — but it’s halfway to Asia and turned out to be an amazing sensory surprise. The One&Only Royal Mirage was a treat to start our trip, with astonishing service and the nicest hotel swimming pool we have ever been in. The Aquaventure — the world’s largest water park (atlantis.com) — was a huge hit with our children — Isobel, 12, Felix, 9, and Sebastian, 6, with plenty of shade (the air was 40C) and many cold-water pools. The number of rides was ridiculous, especially for a man who had grown up knowing only a rickety half-pipe flume at Gloucester leisure centre.
We experienced the extraordinary beauty of the Arabian desert, bombing up and down dunes in a four-wheel drive before stopping at a remote tented camp for an evening of starlit camel rides, belly dancers and shawarma kebabs. “Do explorers always get to eat kebabs?” Felix asked hopefully as we flew out and he gazed down at the miles of desert below.
Next was three nights in Singapore, staying at the Barracks Hotel on the island of Sentosa, a lush tropical oasis compared with Dubai’s desert. Today the island has countless attractions and cable cars to travel between them. The kids’ favourite was the Universal Studios theme park but for the adults it was the historic hotel, originally built to house British troops stationed there. The complimentary afternoon tea, followed by a dip in the pool, however, was a hit with everyone.
Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia
Lesson No 1: express passes for theme parks and water parks may be expensive but they are worth every penny, especially in the heat.
Cambodia, a two-hour flight, followed. By the time we landed in Siem Reap we were seven hours ahead of London but didn’t feel jet lagged. Instead, it was the culture shock that hit us. Cambodia is chaos to Singapore’s order, mess to its tidy. Yet the city made up for that in history and colour. It wasn’t easy convincing the children that a day wandering around the ruins of 12th-century Angkor Wat was better than splashing in the hotel pool but zipping between sites in a tuk-tuk helped. The scale and artistry of the temples are almost impossible to comprehend, and the children were kept going by our guide’s anecdotes (plus Coca-Colas and ice creams). What six-year-old is not impressed by hearing that the temples were once knee-deep in bat poo?
The Kulen elephant sanctuary and floating villages of Tonlé Sap lake were exactly the type of eye-opening adventure I wanted our children to experience, and watching mine-clearing rats in Siem Reap was a fascinating way to learn about Cambodia’s tragic past.
Afterwards, the Navutu Dreams resort was a perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle, yet only a five-minute ride from the centre (seven nights’ all-inclusive for five from £1,666; bushbaby.travel).
Zanzibar next, and getting to the tropical island off the coast of Tanzania involved three flights, a stopover in a Dubai airport hotel and countless hours of iPad time (whether travelling by plane, train or automobile, we let our kids indulge in as much telly and games as they wanted, for our sake and those sitting near us).
Prison Island, Zanzibar
Lesson No 2: carrying only cabin-sized baggage saved us a huge amount of time in airports. We worried about being a few kilos over the allowance but no one checked.
Our base, the Mangrove Lodge was beach-bungalow perfection, family-run with superb homemade cuisine and beautiful sands (B&B doubles from £150, mangrovelodge.com). To our surprise we found there was only so much time we wanted to wallow on the idyllic beaches, so hit the capital, Stone Town, a Unesco World Heritage Centre. Everywhere was chaos, grime, poverty and noise: just what we wanted our cosseted children to see. After a hectic morning haggling in the town’s shops, a delicious meze lunch on the rooftop of the Emerson hotel restored us for exploring temples, mosques and churches, as well as the ruins of a fort built by the Omanis to repel the Portuguese in the 17th century.
The next day we visited Prison Island, with an unlikely mix of a disused 19th-century slave prison and a giant tortoise sanctuary. The prison held the children’s attention for about two minutes but the tortoises wooed them for hours. It wasn’t just the kids, 90 per cent of my phone photo album is tortoise selfies.
Every day at the camp we mixed activities such as fossil hunting, bush walks and caving, with open-top four-wheel drives to spot animals
After four days in Zanzibar, we flew just over an hour to Nairobi and were whisked straight to the Laikipia Wilderness Camp, about five hours away in the foothills of Mount Kenya. We chose the camp because instead of spending hours in Jeeps, it mixes shorter safari excursions with more child-friendly activities such as rafting, swimming and fishing. Another bonus: its altitude means no malaria. There were scorpions though, and within half an hour of arriving Rebecca had been stung. She was unlucky — apparently it was the first time it had happened to a guest in eight years — and no medical attention other than paracetamol was required: a relief because the nearest town was 70km along bumpy tracks.
All was well next morning, so we ventured into the bush. Our guide was Barend, a hardened South African wildlife expert, who within ten minutes of leaving the camp had found us a black leopard. Our good fortune didn’t stop there. We soon stumbled across a pack of wild dogs, and by the end of the morning we had seen most of the cast of Madagascar.
Elephants at Laikipia Wilderness Camp, Kenya
The kids were enthralled. When we met other guests for a bush picnic, we felt almost embarrassed by our amazing luck, particularly when one couple explained they were on their third visit to try to spot the wild dogs. We didn’t tell them that Isobel said they looked much like the ones she sees on Hackney Downs.
Every day at the camp we mixed activities such as fossil hunting, bush walks and caving, with open-top four-wheel drives to spot animals. To cool off from the lunchtime heat, we moved to a hippo-free spot of the river for a rope swing into the water and the chance to swim. More wholesome fun it would be hard to imagine, although only Isobel was brave enough to swing on the rope. “Why didn’t you do it?” she kept asking her brothers. “You get to feel like Tarzan.”
As we embarked on the nine-hour flight back to London, we were exhausted but thrilled. We had not only survived but thrived on our manic adventure. It truly was the trip of a lifetime.
Andrew Ellson and family travelled partly independently.
Their family budget included: flights £11,089; visas £439; Covid tests and forms £294; malaria tablets and vaccinations £350. In Cambodia, seven nights all-inclusive for five costs £1,666 (bushbaby.travel). In Kenya, four nights’ all-inclusive for five costs from £6,100 (african-experts.com).
Their stay in Dubai was provided by One&Only Royal Mirage, B&B family rooms sleeping five from £638 (oneandonlyresorts.com/royal-mirage). The desert tour for five was provided by Destination Insight, from £290 (destinationinsight.me)
The stay in Singapore was provided by the Sentosa Development Corporation. B&B doubles at the Barracks Hotel from £435 per night (thebarrackshotel.com.sg).