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I last visited Kenya in March of this year with my oldest daughter (8 years old) for company. It is hard to underestimate the weight of responsibility in leaving the majority of your family at home, whilst you take off to a far off corner of the world with one of your beloved children. It is not something I have ever taken lightly and is something I consider deeply every-time I travel with my children, whether it be to Kenya, Morocco, South Africa or the United States. In this instance, I even got the call from my own mother, asking what I thought I was doing taking her grand-daughter to Kenya? I know Kenya well and have a good feel for the security situation. But being asked outright by my mother, made me step back and re-assess.
It is worth putting the dramatic press response to recent events into context and there is no better way to do that than with numbers; Over 1 million tourists visit Kenya every year, of which around 200,000 are British. By the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office's own admission, "185,967 British nationals visited Kenya in 2012. Most visits are trouble-free." The German and Italian package operators continue to send their clients in huge numbers to the Kenyan Coast. Growing numbers of Chinese visitors are fast filling up the Masai Mara during the migration season. Thompson, who dramatically evacuated their clients from the Mombasa area recently, themselves still operate and sell holidays to other parts of Kenya. And of course, significant number of British expats continue to live in Kenya, we have good friends with children the same age as ours who live, work and send their young children off to school in Kenya in neatly pressed uniforms – life continues as normal for these families. You can never say never, but there are very good reasons why Kenya remains the world's favourite safari destination and these reasons remain, the Masai Mara is still magnificent (and the migration is there early this year), the Laikipia region offers (in my opinion) the best all round wilderness safari experience in Africa, Mount Kenya is Africa's finest Mountain (yes it is a superior trek to Kilimanjaro) and Lamu on the Northern Coast has to be the best barefoot low key beach destination in Africa.
After my mother’s call, I sat down with my wife, discussed the risks as we saw them and came to a decision. With minimal time in Nairobi and the majority of the trip spent on safari in remote luxury wilderness locations and pretty much permanently in the care of a guide, driver or camp, we felt the risk was no greater than taking a long car journey down the M4 and M5 to Devon (a fact which was born out when my wife on that very same journey whilst I was in Kenya, saw a car spin out of control on the M4 at 70mph in heavy rain).
The fact remains that even during the terrible election troubles in 2007, no tourists were hurt and this pays testament to the extent to which the conservation areas, private reserves and National Parks that make Kenya the world's most popular safari destination are largely insulated from urban problems. Just as visitors to South Africa's Kruger National Park and Garden Route are largely insulated from the high crime rates prevalent in urban areas in Johannesburg and Cape Town and foreign tourists who visit London and Oxford are largely insulated from the inner City crime, muggings and gangs of those Cities.
The change in FCO advice for Mombasa is disastrous for those locals in the area whose livelihoods rely on tourism but it won’t have been taken lightly. As a company we have always actively avoided staying within the area the FCO recently advised against travel to, and were in the process of internally reviewing the security situation for transit through Mombasa Island and on the Likoni Ferry. Whilst undoubtedly the reaction in the British press to Thompson’s decision to evacuate their clients from Mombasa blew the situation out of proportion, we believe that security did need to be improved in this specific area and look forward to the Kenyan Government making improvements for the sake of tourists and locally in this area.
As it turned out, my daughter and I had the most incredible experience, as a closet Northerner, I’m not naturally given to over-enthusiasm, but I can safely say that some of the new camps we visited the Laikipia area of North Kenya are now safely amongst some of my favourite places in the world (and I get around a lot in my line of work). We never felt remotely unsafe (well, except for take-off and landing, which still scares me witless). As ever in Kenya we had a warmer, friendlier and more enthusiastic welcome than I've experienced anywhere else in the world. At the end of the day, we all face risks when we travel and we have to ask ourselves, what life do we want to live? Do we want to minimise risk and never explore beyond our own backyard or do we want to see the world. I choose the latter, but there is no shame in choosing the former, it is a deeply personal decision.
For all these reasons we continue to sell Kenya and recommend it as a safari and beach destination for families and couples alike. There can never be absolutes when it comes to security in any part of the world, but we continue to recommend our clients visit the National Parks and private conservancies in the Masai Mara and Northern regions around Mount Kenya and Laikipia, and on the Coast we recommend Lamu, a favourite destination, but also one which anecdotally has benefited greatly in terms of security thanks to significant international investment and security projects in the area.
I'd like to leave you with some feedback we received from a family who visited Kenya during the recent May half term. They travelled out a week after Thompson dramatically evacuated their clients from Kenya, the family chose to carry on with their plans and by all accounts had a lovely time. The family flew into Nairobi, and spent their week in the Masai Mara and Lamu on the Coast in the last weeks of May 2014.
I now have some time to write about our trip. Everyone is well, and our moving process is underway. It would be much appreciated if you could you pass along the section on Lamu to the Moon Houses. Or, I will be happy to email them myself if you could pass on an address.
Again, thank you for your help planning our wonderful holiday in Kenya. Both the Masai Mara and Lamu were a good fit for our family. Thank you for all the time you spent on the phone discussing possibilities and exploring options with me. This was a favourite family holiday. Having planned the logistics of other trips, it was wonderful to have you do this much more competently than I could have done myself.
Our transfers went smoothly. We were met in Nairobi both times by Denis from Gamewatchers. He and the drivers were personable and competent, sharing information about Nairobi and discussing our trip with interest. When our daughter got sick upon return to the airport, Denis took good care of us, interceding with security to help us get her inside as quickly as possible.
We most enjoyed our time at Masai Mara and The Intrepids. We were well looked after by the staff, our steward and waiter were personable and attentive, and the accommodations were a wonderful place to relax. The game drives were fun for all of us, and we especially enjoyed our guide, Katembo. Seeing such a concentration and variety of animals within the park was such thrill for everyone. Our teen daughter enjoyed the drives and appreciated Wi-Fi access, so she could post pictures from each day's sightings. Our 11 yr. old loved spending time with Judy in the Adventurers Club, and opted out of a couple of drives to stay back and do activities with her. Judy was excellent with her. On the last night, at our waiter's request, the chef cooked a traditional Swahili meal for us, which was the favourite meal of our stay. Intrepids was a good choice to accommodate all members of the family.
We were very pleased with the choice of Lamu for our beach stay. We stayed at Kiwandini House in Shela. We truly enjoyed the beauty of the traditional Swahili style house and the relaxed and quiet atmosphere of the town. We were well cared for by a very adept staff. Asya the manager was accommodating and helpful. Chef culinary skills were excellent on both taste and presentation. He provided us a personal 4 star restaurant and over fed us with the most delicious food. He did very well at accommodating our preferences. Sylvester, our steward, was gracious and tireless and humble. We were very impressed at the attention to detail he gave, from setting the table to preparing our rooms. He was helpful, kind, and accommodating in all things. We spent much of our time relaxing by the pool or enjoying the ocean breezes from the upper floor, but found plenty to do to occupy our three days there. The highlight was participating in the release of a nest of baby sea turtles on Manda Island. Again, Lamu was an excellent choice.
Our family enjoys nature so this was a highlight holiday. Never once did we worry about security or feel unsafe. We enjoyed the natural beauty of the country and the hospitality of the people. We loved Kenya and hope to return again. Thank you for following up with us once we were home to see how our trip went.
All photos in this blog were taken on our little father and daughter trip to Kenya in March 2014
There is no substitute for exploring the Grand Canyon on foot. The majority of tourists stay firmly on the rim on short walks or on scenic drives. With the thousands of other tourists, it is difficult to get a sense for any solitude and take it in. Hiking below the rim allows you to quickly get off the beaten track and get a sense for this staggering scenery.
There is no reason why children can’t enjoy hiking in the Grand Canyon and with good planning, then it can be an adventure to remember for the whole family. For children aged 8+, we suggest the Havasu Falls trek, which is located outside of the Grand Canyon National Park, in Grand Canyon West in the Havasupai Indian Reservation. This trek takes you to some amazing waterfalls with lots of natural pools, so there are opportunities for fun and swimming as well as walking. These trips include camping and are mule supported so you don’t need to carry your own kit.
If you don’t like the idea of over-nighting, then you might like to consider the option of day hikes. Your guide will assess the ability of everyone in your family and will then suggest a hike based on your ability. Popular options include South Kaibab to Cedar Ridge, the Hermit Trail to Dripping Spring and Grandview trail to Horseshoe Mesa.
If you want a multi-day trek without the hassle of having to carry your own kit, then a mule-supported trek is the best option for you. Our favourite of these hikes is the 3 Day Bright Angel loop which takes you to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, spending the night camping at Phantom Ranch, on the banks of the Colorado River. Alternatively, the Havasu Falls trip (3 days) is also mule assisted.
Backpacking in the back country allows you to get well and truly off the beaten track, but does mean that you will need to carry all of your gear with you. These trips require a permit, so will need to some advance planning. The ultimate in backpacking in the Grand Canyon is the rim to rim trip. Lasting 4 days, this is one of the most iconic trips in the Granmd Canyon and involves trekking from the North to the South Rim, crossing the Colorado River at the bottom. This is one of the most popular backpacking trip in the area.
We have developed our USA collection to get the optimum balance between independent and guided activities. There are some places where you don’t need a guide and you will have more fun exploring independently. However, there are also activities and places where having a guide will deeply enhance your experience. We strike a careful balance between these two and, having tried and tested the trips ourselves, believe we have developed itineraries that are unique and exciting.
In a nutshell: Handpicked activities and accommodation and a balance of independent vs guided
You can get direct flights from the UK to the USA. Some of the most competitive fares are from London to Las Vegas, but you can also fly to Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles direct. Flight times to Las Vegas are approximately 10 ½ hours. For this reason, coupled with the time difference, we strongly suggest you try to get direct flights as having to go via another gateway airport adds time and pain to the journey, especially on your outbound flights. In the summer months of July & August, expect to pay from £850 for return flights to Las Vegas. Cheaper deals are available for Easter and October half terms. Experience shows that it pays to book ahead with trans-Atlantic flights, as prices are prone to increase closer to the departure date.
We are ATOL bonded and can happily help with your flight booking.
British passport holders are eligible to enter the USA under the Visa Waiver Programme. You need to provide your flight information and passport details and pay an administrative fee. Applying is pretty straight forward and can be done via this official website https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/
Once you arrive in the US, you will need to queue for immigration. You will need to do this even if you are in transit. You will need to provide finger prints and eye scans (although children won’t need these.) It is well worth having extra treats to hand out to tired children as the queues are long.
Our USA family holidays start from £850 per person, based on a family of four travelling together. This price covers a hire car, all accommodation and activities as per the itineraries. On top of that, you will need to budget for flights, which are from £850 in the summer holidays, closer to £600 for Easter and October half term. Once there, you will need to budget for tips, entrance fees, petrol and food - expect to spend from $150 per day, although this price will depend wildly on where you eat and viist.
To a certain extent, the answer to that question is how long is a piece of string? It really depends on how long you have and your budget. The costs of flying out to the USA are not insignificant, so we suggest that you plan your time carefully.
Most people need at least a couple of days to adjust to the time difference, so you will need to allow yourselves a couple of rest days at the beginning of your holiday. This time, more than any, you will appreciate splashing out on some nice accommodation with a pool, especially if you are arriving in the middle of the summer; hot and tired children is not a great combination.
We have two and three week itineraries for you to choose from. If you have three weeks, then you can go at a slightly gentler pace and see most of the highlights of the area. Two weeks will not be enough time to see everything, so we have put together a range of itineraries for you to choose from.
The USA is a very family friendly destination to visit with children. The entire tourism industry is set up to deal with families; from the hotels to restaurants and national parks. The pitfalls are the long car journeys and the fact that children don’t always find admiring views and Mother Nature as fascinating as adults. This is why we have designed our itineraries to have a mixture of active and adventurous pursuits, as well as self-guided aspects, to ensure that a balance is struck on your holiday.
The South Western States enjoy a four season climate, although experience more extremes than in the UK. Winters can be cold with plenty of snow. Summer temperatures can be high (reaching the high 30’s in places) and the humidity means that there can be thunderstorms, especially in July & August.
Spring and autumn have milder temperatures, making it an ideal time for keen hikers to visit. We suggest that if you want to spend any time hiking in the Grand Canyon, then you are better saving your visit for these seasons.
The National Parks tend to be busier around the public holidays and school holidays (June / July)
Accommodation for families is usually in larger hotels which we have chosen for the facilities and location. Our experience tells us that travelling with children in the heat of the desert makes a swimming pool a necessity, especially after a long drive. Room options are usually a choice between inter-connecting rooms or sharing two large beds (which is what most domestic travellers choose to do) Many, but not all, hotel rooms have tea & coffee making facilities, wifi and a tv as a standard. Some may also have a fridge and microwave. Breakfast is not offered as a standard, although is included in some places.
It is all too easy to travel through the Cape region in comfortable lodges and not have any sense of how the majority of the country lives. On the basis that exposure breeds understanding and awareness, we think it is a good thing to learn about this magnificent countries turbulent past and present. Not all families and children will enjoy it, so it is important to understand the options and what is involved.
Generally speaking, most visitors consider two activities, visiting Robben Island and a township. Where Robben Island gives insight into the political struggles of the past, a visit to a township gives insight into the economic realities of the present.
THOUGHTS ON VISITING ROBBEN ISLAND WITH CHILDREN
Robben Island is the infamous windswept Island just offshore from Cape Town that held Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders captive for almost 20 years. The Island became a focal point for international resistance to apartheid and is now a powerful symbol of freedom. Tours last 3 and a half hours in total including a 30 minute ferry from the V&A Waterfront . On the Island itself you are guided by former inmates of the prison through the notorious B-section (which held Mandela), you’ll see exhibitions that tell the stories of inmates and take a trip around the Island by bus. There are no age restrictions as such, but given the captive and guided nature of the experience (three and a half hours in total) it is arguably most suitable for families with teenagers or ‘interested’ under 12s. Tickets need to be bought in advance and you will need to allow half a day for the experience.
THOUGHTS ON VISITING TOWNSHIPS WITH CHILDREN
Safety is undoubtedly less of an issue than you would think, however a visit to a township should not be considered lightly. Some are fantastic uplifting projects, others are exploitative tourism at their worst. Done right, you’ll be guided by a local from the township, you’ll learn about the history and struggles of the people and get to participate in some inspiring projects. Like anything in life, no two townships are the same, some are absolute no go areas, some have developed well and are safe for visitors.
With children involved, it is important to have a focal activity. Two of our favourite projects meet both of these briefs:
Township Tour by Bike in Masiphumelele: I took my 6 year old daughter to Masiphumelele and whilst it wasn’t an unqualified success (at least for her), I’m glad we did it. Cycling through the township is a wonderfully relaxed way to explore the township and an excellent way to break down barriers with the locals. We stopped to visit a couple of community projects including a nursery and library, met a local spirit healer and enjoyed a very local lunch of pap and chicken at Nonny’s superb road-side café. Whilst the conditions in the formal township area (where the government has installed infrastructure) were good, as soon as we abandoned the bikes and walked into the informal township (where new arrivals to the township live), the sights of families washing in the squalid waste water and flooded shacks constructed from little more than card-board in places was hard to stomach and a real eye opener. Still there was a very real sense of order, progress and pride. What’s more, the meeting of nationalities was intriguing. The Somalis tend to keep shop (and are welcomed by locals thanks to their low prices) whilst the Nigerians are apparently the best barbers. Both myself and my daughter found the hardest part of the experience the visit to the nursery, where we were both met by a universal cry of teech-ah and were mobbed by scores of kids. Being grabbed and climbed upon by scores of kids was not surprisingly intimidating for the 6yo. From my perspective, I felt uncomfortable intruding into these children’s class rooms and worried about the values it might teach the children at such a young age. Approximately 80% of the cost of the tour goes into the community and the tour is run in partnership with the Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN) which imports and renovates used bicycles and trains locals in their maintenance. We drove our hire car to Masipumelele and met our guide, Zwai, in the car park of a supermarket in a more gentrified area near-by. Masipumelele is well located to then head on to Boulders Beach and Cape Point.
Township Cooking Tour: Eating and learning about local foods is one of the best ways to get a feel for a local culture, but you’ll be lucky to spot local staples such as Pap, chakalaka, samp and African stew on the tourist route. The class is based in a cooking school that is teaching the catering trade to locals in the townships with a remarkable success rate in terms of end employment. Although ostensibly an African cooking class, the cooking part is really just a great opportunity for you to taste the local food and to spend some time meeting the local people. This African cooking class tends to start with an introductory low-down on African cuisine and culture accompanied by a refreshing glass of homemade ginger beer. The class itself involves learning to cook dishes like pap, chakalaka, samp and African stew. For lunch, the dishes are served up in the restaurant - a building crafted from old shipping containers. Cooking classes are typically small scale affairs arranged for individual groups so can be tailored to suit families very easily. On the way to the cooking school we recommend visiting the District 6 museum to get an insight into the history of the forced removal of blacks from their communities.
Broadly speaking, the Southern, Eastern and Western Cape of South Africa enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate in reverse order to that found in the Northern Hemisphere. Whilst the regions spring and autumn are our favourite times to visit (Sep, Oct, March, April & May), visits during their winter (June – August) are not to be ruled out.
Spring (September to October) is a lovely time to visit, temperatures are around 15 -25 Celsius, it is usually relatively dry (with only moderate chances of rain) and the Fynbos flowers are blooming. October Half Term is one of the best times of year for a family to visit the Cape. The weather is improving but not too hot and there is a good chance of seeing the spectacular whales of the Coast of Hermanus and around (the whale season runs July – October).
Summer (November to February is generally dry and hot with day time temperatures of 25-35 Celsius and plenty of sunshine (10.5hrs a day on average). The Christmas Holidays may offer the best weather but are generally best avoided as the area gets over-run with domestic tourists and prices are vastly inflated. February Half Term is the most popular time of the year for British families to visit South Africa, with the advantage of great weather without the peak crowds of Christmas / New Year.
Autumn (March - May) is also one of the best times of year to visit the region. If you can put up with cooler overnight temperatures, you’ll find the country much quieter with very pleasant warm days in the gentle autumn sunshine. Easter Holidays and May Half Term are therefore perfect times to visit South Africa.
Winter (June – September) is the least favourable time of year to visit from the perspective of the weather. However the appeal of seeing the Southern Right Whales, low season rates and generally mild sunny days grants a certain logic to visiting the Cape during the UK summer holidays. The big drawback is the strong chance of blustery wet conditions around Cape Town and the winelands. The Garden Route and Eastern Cape is very dry during winter, but expect very cool overnight temperatures, you will need to pack some warm clothes, especially if you are going on early morning game drives.