Monday, October 18, 2010

My Top Pick

Big cities like Rome, Madrid, Munich or Amsterdam may not be the best place to start with very young children.  Ruins, cathedrals, palaces and art museums are too immense, too crowded, too incomprehensible for a pre-schooler or even an elementary school child.  Great destinations at this age include small, relaxed storybook villages such as Mittenwald, Brugge, Volendam, Feldkirch, particularly ones with kids’ activities such as Hallstatt, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Gouda; lakeside or seaside towns such as Riva del Garda or Zandvoort or, in my opinion, any place with water.

May I then, in my first extended recommendation, suggest a seaside town that very few guidebooks find notable but I find unsurpassed in Europe for children under 10?  Blankenberge, Belgium.  You will find no American tourists here (read:  no inflated prices), but the Belgians love to vacation with their families at this little beach resort.  Yes, Blankenberge has sand and water for endless hours of sandcastle-building for kids and relaxation for mom and dad, but that’s not all I love about it.  The city is an absolute playground for children!  (Note:  few of the Blankenberge website links have an English language option.  Don’t be afraid, upon a little reflection it’s easy to figure out basics like operating hours and prices.)

Above all else for fun is the Kinderautodroom on the strand by the pier.  Here, kids of all ages rent pedal go-carts to ride around an enormously long and wide track that weaves under the pier and back.  Along the way are traffic signals, roadside phones and gas pumps.  When I drove this course as a child I felt an incredible rush of independence as my parents disappeared out of sight behind me.  (Parents can observe the whole track when standing on the pier.)  Added bonus:  the foot-pedaling tires out the kids for an afternoon nap or a good night’s sleep.  For only 3€/person for 30 minutes, this activity can’t be beat.

With a smaller but more charming track, Blankenberge’s Kid Carting at Leopoldpark offers sports cars, fire engines, and dump trucks to pedal.  I realized what very authentic pretend-play this course was when my 6 year-old son got out of his cart to berate another child (who didn’t understand a word of English) for running a red traffic light!

Families can ride around together in beach pedal cars, which can be rented all along the strand, or watch dad look really silly on a crazy bike in the Lustige Velodroom.  Blankenberge has miniature golf, a permanent mini-train expo, a Marine Park and Sea Life Center, and a Serpentarium (that would be reptiles), too.

The city is small and you can walk to the beach from virtually any hotel in town.  However, even the beach-front hotels on the promenade are relatively affordable, and we stayed at Hotel Helios.  Any size family can be accommodated by their suites, junior suites, extra beds and cribs.  Half-pension and full-pension are available, also.  (I know, that one always throws me off, too.  Why don’t they just say “dinner” and “lunch and dinner”?)

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