Before You Go
Best time to go: June - August
We went: July
Book the Eurostar as early as possible for the best deals - www.eurostar.com - also organise your car rental and your parking spaces at all hotels in advance. You will often need to book them months ahead so be organised. If you prefer to travel without a satellite navigation system, print off Google map routes for all of your destinations. It will give you quickest route and an accurate estimation of times between locations.
Have plenty of change on you for tolls around Europe, and in the correct currency. Also check out all of the different rules that apply to each of the countries you are visiting. Speed limits and laws vary so make sure you have a good guide book - for this particular trip we used the Lonely Planet Western Europe guide book which was fantastic.
If you are all planning to go scuba diving on this trip and especially if for the first time, I can not recommend highly enough the benefits of organising a sample dive in the UK before you go. If you enjoy your experience you can then decide to do your full PADI certificate on your holiday, in the UK before you go or a combination of both, which is what we did. Doing the paperwork and exam here means that you can complete your certificate with the diving in a beautiful setting. We had superb help through a London based dive centre called: www.scuba-zone.co.uk - ask for Toby as he is very very helpful and great with children too.
Up early to start adventure. Eurostar from London St Pancras to Lille, only an hour and half away and you find yourself perfectly placed for a road trip for all to remember. We collect our car and travel through France, in and out of Belgium and head for our first pitstop... Luxembourg. En route we stop in Belgium at La Grotte De Hans - www.grotte-de-han.be - Amazing grotto, discovered in 1962 featuring fossil galleries with a full range of beautiful formations. Huge stalactites and stalagmites, with the largest towering 5 meters above us.
A stunning (although chilly) place to explore, the sights that you will see leave you wondering how so many colours can be created and enjoyed in the darkness. A light show at the end of the tour is a little over the top, although the 'freckles' seem to enjoy it. Well worth breaking the journey up with a trip to this hidden gem.
Later that day we arrive in Luxembourg at our first hotel, Hotel Simoncini, which is lovely - www.hotelsimoncini.lu
When booking Hotel Simoncini, ask for the apartment rooms at the top of the hotel, perfect when travelling as a family. Luxembourg is a really lovely city, for supper head five minutes around the corner to a lovely open square, Brasserie Guillaume can be found here - www.brasserieguillaume.lu - known to offer the best seafood in Luxembourg, we all loved the moules and frites.
Today we are heading for Germany and the delights of the Black Forest (German: Swarzwald). Situated in the south-west of Germany, 160 kilometres long, 60 kilometres wide and with peaks reaching heights of up to 1500 this leafy lush forest is a must visit when driving through Western Europe. We are staying in Freiburg which sounds fun with its many bars but also with its unique canals that run up and down the streets, the locals walk with their shoes off and cool down by dipping their feet in!
We drop off our bags at our eccentric hotel and head for the local swimming lakes in Titisee. Great ice creams and beers here too and we are all happy. Stunning scenery in every direction too.
Stop off for lunch in Strasbourg en route from Luxembourg to Germany. This lovely town has traditional french bistros serving delicious food alongside a beautiful cathedral and a tranquil river.
Today we wake up and head straight into the Black Forest... so much to see today, Hexenloch (Witch's Hole), the famous waterfall in Triberg and not forgetting sampling the traditional recipe for black forest gateau. We start by driving to Totdnau to locate the suggested cycle hire shop. As we approach we all gasp as we see a roller coaster coming down the side of the Hasenhorn mountain. 2.9 km of railed track with waves and bends that speedily deliver you exhilarated (and in my case, petrified), back at the bottom of the mountain. Ride the chair lift to the top and strap yourselves into your double seater car (you can also ride alone if you are tall enough) - www.hasenhorn-rodelbahn.de/index.php?sprache=eng&site
The Witch's Hole (German: Hexenloch), which is supposed to be a very dark and cold scenic descent turns out to be nothing more than an alternative road to Triberg via Totdnau. Triberg however did not disappoint with its stunning waterfall. Triberg lies in the middle of the Black Forest between 500 and 1038 metres above sea level and the waterfall has a total vertical drop of 496 feet, stunning to view as you walk up alongside it's gushing waters.Top Tips
The original Black Forest Gateau (German: Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte), can be sampled at many of the tea houses in Triberg and as they all use the original secret recipe, you will not taste a gateau like it anywhere else in the world.
To eat out in Freiberg, head to any of the outdoor restaurants in the Obermarkt. As you enjoy your Alsatian pizzas (German: Flammkuche) in this cobbled outdoor square you can watch the sunset over the cathedral. The 'freckles' can play without the worry of cars in this pedestrian square and they inform me that the green apple ice cream, served in the ice cream parlour here is the best!
Up early today and ready for our journey to Lake Lucerne. We are staying at a lovely spa hotel called Post House Weggis, set on the edge of the lake itself and we are all keen to get there and make the most of its pool, sauna and spa - www.posthotelweggis.com
We decide to spend the whole day relaxing...Top Tips
Try to arrive in time for lunch, the hotel has a stunning terrace overlooking the lake where you can sit and enjoy the delightful lunch that they serve whilst enjoying the views. No need to book if you are staying at the hotel.
We are heading for Lake Orta today and the delights of Hotel San Rocco - www.hotelsanrocco.it/en - Lake Orta is a hidden gem, just eight miles long and less than two miles wide. Lake Orta lies to the west of Lake Maggiore and is the least known of northern Italy's sub-Alpine lakes. Hotel San Rocco is set on the edge of Lake Orta looking out onto the breathtaking island in the middle, San Giulio, dominated by it's thirteenth century basilica and convent, there is nowhere better to sit and relax with a book whilst the kids snorkel in the refreshing lake.Top Tips
Take the scenic route and drive over the Alps via The Simplon Pass, check out the website for best routes - www.myswitzerland.com/en/travel/.../simplon-pass-route.html - amazing breathtaking scenery makes the extra travel time well worth it. Also remember to pack your snorkel gear for Lake Orta as there are plenty of fish to be seen in the lake.
Today we are not going anywhere near a car. The amazing pool lined with padded sunbeds, all of which face out toward the lake, is our base for the day. Lunch under an umbrella at the hotel is perfect fol lowed by a dip in the lake. Outside the hotel is a pedestrianised area with a tiny street that takes you past many quaint shops leading to a square with an array of delicious trattorias and restaurants. We find a table overlooking San Giulio and tuck into perfect pizzas and local red wine. You will not go wrong with any of the restaurants here as they are all specialise in traditional italian food.Top Tips
Take the road out of the hotel up the steep stairs to find the mini golf course! Only five minutes away and great fun. Wait until the sun goes down as it can get very hot and there is very little shade.
Three hours of gorgeous Tuscan scenery later and we arrive in Florence. We are staying at an amazing hotel/apartment equipped with outdoor pool, communal living space and honesty bar. The apartments are stunning here and we all agree that we would like to return here for a longer stay than the two nights we have booked - www.rivalofts.com - although a 20 minute walk into the city centre, the hotel do offer bicycles to make a speedier journey into the heart of the city. To be honest the hotel is so lovely you will not rush to leave it's pool and welcoming gardens.Top Tips
The hotel will recommend the best places to suit your needs. We ate at a delicious restaurant - www.acquaal2.it - amazing food with tasting dishes so that you can sample a little bit of everything, delicious. When travelling with the 'freckles', sightseeing in a city like Florence is always good to do when the sun has gone down. After dinner we walked around enjoying the must visit sights in Florence. From the Piazza della Signoria, Palazzo Vacchio, Il Duomo, Boboli Garden and Pitti Palce to the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery (to name but a few), the freckles loved every moment of it and I know they will not forget this experience in a hurry, neither will I.
After a day of swimming and sunbathing at the fantastic Riva Lofts, we head to the Hotel Savoy - www.hotelsavoy.it - to meet friends for drinks before dinner. Located on the Piazza Repubblica the outdoor terrace where drinks are served is perfect for the whole family. The 'freckles' can explore the pedestrian square and be seen at all times whilst you enjoy the delights of the local vineyards. A short walk way is - Trattoria 13 Gobbi Sri - www.casatrattoria.com - delicious restaurant, especially if you love red meat. Fish is served but beef is their speciality. Florence is also full of delicious ice cream shops, look out for cinnamon, which I highly recommend.Top Tips
Wake early and set your satellite navigation to take you to Space, Localita Levanella, 52025 Montevarchi where you will find the best kept fashion secret - the Prada Outlet. Selling not only Prada but also Mui Mui this outlet store is full of classic Prada pieces at great prices. Get there at 9.30 am to avoid the queues. Maybe worth calling ahead as opening times do vary depending on when you go: 011 39 55 978 94 81 - Be careful not to tell too many people :-)
The ferry for Portoferraio, Isola d'Elba leaves from Piombino. The only place to stay on Elba is Hotel Hermitage - www.elba4star.it - set directly on an idyllic beach in its own secluded bay and surrounded by the Mediterranean sea, you really need at least 10 days here to relax and unwind The kids will not want to leave, however long you stay. Three salt water pools, tennis, golf, water games a mini club and an amazing diving centre there really is lots to do. To stand a chance of getting into Hotel Hermitage you need to book well in advance. Families return here year after year and it truly is a special place.
Diving in Elba:
The diving centre situated in the bay and grounds of Hotel Hermitage is second to none - www.divinginelba.com/en/home.asp - the staff are fantastic with kids and gave the perfect balance of safety and fun, really professional and knowledgable, brilliant! Riccardo, Allesandro and Sandro were the 'freckles' favourites. Be sure to visit them as soon as you arrive to book yourselves onto a dive. You will be pleasantly surprised with the number of dive sites available and the variety of sea life that you will see.
Book your ferry well in advance - www.mobylines.com - if staying at our favourite hotel then they will help you pre book your ferry. Should you be interested in tennis lessons at Hotel Hermitage, book well in advance as the only sensible time to have a lesson is early or late, it gets very very hot in the summer. The cool slots get booked up quickly, be organised!
You will not want to leave Hotel Hermitage but for a change of scenery and a great walk around the bay, (you will see the restaurant it in the distance to the right,) dip your feet in the sapphire sea as you stroll and before you realise it you are at a lovely local trattoria selling fresh fish and pasta.
Moby Ferry back to mainland and on our way to the Cinque Terre. The Cinque Terre is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera. The Cinque Terre, "The Five Lands", is noted for its beauty. It really is a stunning place with its five villages perched on the coastline overlooking the azure sea below. We were a little disappointed as it was very overcrowded and touristy and we therefore could not enjoy the beaches and walkways as they were packed so tightly, we could not even see sand for people, towels and sun beds! Our hotel and the restaurants that we ate at were over priced and disappointing here too.Top Tips
Do not visit when the Italian school children are on their holidays as this is their holiday destination of choice. The beaches are packed solid. Also be prepared to pay for the walkways that take you between the five delightful villages. No credit cards so have cash if you want to walk between them. To see it at it's best, visit out of season.
Genoa is a lovely town to visit, with it's superb aquarium, pedestrian streets and lovely setting, it really is a great place to spend a few days. We stayed at a great hotel called Locanda di Palazzo Cicala which looks out over the San Lorenzo cathedral - www.palazzocicala.itTop Tips
Driving into Genoa is virtually impossible. Most of the city is pedestrianised and you will find that your satellite navigation system will take you disown roads that you really should not be driving down. Make sure you tell the hotel that you are staying at that you have entered Genoa city centre. They will take your registration number and ensure that you are covered by the local congestion charging system. If you forget you will end up with a fine on your return to the UK once the hire car are contacted.
Spent the day checking out the amazing aquarium - www.acquariodigenova.it - whale watching tours can be organised here too. The sea was unfortunately too choppy for us, although we had booked ahead, which is advisable in high season. Many hours later and satisfied by seeing dolphins, manatees, seals, turtles and much much more in this huge aquarium with it's spotless tanks and seemingly happy occupants we leave for a spot of shopping around the pedestrianised cobbled streets. For dinner we have read great reviews on Le Cantine Squarciafico next to the hotel so decide to give it a go - www.squarciafico.it - we are not disappointed as the meal is superb and loved by all. The 'freckles' asked me to mention the coconut Creme Brulee... best ever, apparently!Top Tips
Lunch at I Tre Merli situated next to the aquarium is recommended - www.itremerli.it - serving classic Ligurian pasta dishes, it will be a hit for the whole family. Trofiette di Recco al pesto con patate e fagiolini - Baby dumplings, classic Genoese pesto sauce, potatoes and string beans is a favourite. (Large portions so one will work for two small children).
After dragging our cases 15 minutes through Genoa to the nearest car park, (although this hotel is lovely and has spacious rooms and friendly staff, be warned it is not convenient with luggage). Once in the car and having paid the extortionate car parking fees we are on our way back into France for the beginning of our journey home.
Having never been to Monaco we decide to detour and have a look for future reference. It does look lovely and we all decide to begin researching for a return trip to South of France to further explore the surrounding area and Monaco in detail. Tonight we are staying in Arles and we are all looking forward to this destination as the hotel, hotel restaurant and hotel pool look and sound amazing from our research. We arrive at L'Hotel particulier and we are delighted, stunning hotel - www.hotel-particulier.com - now one of our all time favourite hotels.
Drive the Grand Prix grid whilst in Monaco. It is marked out and you can even stop at pole position as the markings are very clear and easy to see on the roads. Popular with the 'teenage freckles'.
Stop off at the Matisse Chapel, 40 minute drive away from Monaco. Be warned, entry is only permitted with a cash paid ticket. No local cash points so do have enough euros on you for entry - www.south-of-france.com/matisse-chapel-at-vence/
We wake up to an amazing breakfast in the hotel courtyard and after eating our way through croissants, crepes, french bread, ham and cheese we decide to walk some of it off. Arles is an amazing place to explore, not only is it closely connected with Vincent Van Gogh but it also full of history with it's Amphitheatre which was built in the first century. It can seat 25,000 people and bullfights are still held here in the summer months.Top Tips
Book Room 7 at L'Hotel Particulier as it has a superb outdoor terrace and view of the pool.
To break the long journey up we decided to stay in Dijon. The hotel that we choose is not a great hotel but it does have a Michelin star restaurant attached that we all agree will be a great way to end a great holiday. The hotel is a Best Western - Hostellerie Du Chapeau Rouge (French: Red Hat) - www.chapeau-rouge.fr/hotel/accueil-top.htmTop Tips
Book the restaurant well in advance. It really is the perfect way to end the holiday and a great one off experience for the 'freckles'. www.chapeau-rouge.fr/ The Chef is William Frachot and his food is innovative, delicious and actually very child friendly.
Top Trip Tips
As you are travelling through so many countries it is great for the 'freckles' to see how Europe is made up and just how easy it is to pass through from one country into the next. Having a large map with the boundaries marked in makes it really easy for the 'freckles' to see how Europe maps out. A great hands on geography lesson!
Try to be organised with using toilets in hotels and restaurants as opposed to the road side facilities, (especially in France), they can be very basic and it can be hard persuading the kids to use them. You also have to pay for the pleasure of entering them, whether you end up using them or not!