We planned our dream vacation--six weeks in Britain and Ireland--before the children were born. We saved money and leave time, decided where to go and what to see. The only thing we failed to plan was having twin daughters, age almost 4 by the time we left.
A few weeks before departure, I began to think we had gone berserk because of the question I kept hearing:
"You're taking the children?"
Yes, we were taking the children and it had not occurred to us that we should not.
We had, after all, traveled with them before. Surely they would find things to enjoy on this trip, even if they remembered little of it later.
We planned to accommodate their interests. We would make more stops on the road and would look for activities especially for them. Giving up the night life and meals in special restaurants seemed insignificant.
But kids have a way of altering even the most careful plans, and while Sarah and Megan changed the way we adults traveled, they also gave us a bonus. Because we took the children, we had two trips: theirs and ours.
We looked at castles and cathedrals, reveled in the early spring countryside with its tulips and daffodils, and talked about history. Sarah and Megan saw cows on the road and cavorted with baby lambs. Their presence was a great conversation-starter with adults we met. They made friends with every child we saw in six weeks, and they introduced us to the inside of every other bathroom along the way.
Sarah climbed rocks and hills, earning the nickname "Mountain Goat." Megan learned to identify cars by looking at their wheels: They were at her level.
During our two weeks on the road in Britain, the girls were happiest in the countryside, less pleased by cities. Perfectly content crawling over Hadrian's Wall with a flock of newborn lambs, they balked at walking in Edinburgh on a cold day.
We drove through the Lake Country in a horrendous traffic jam that distracted us from the scenery, but a visit to Beatrix Potter's house was worth the trouble. From then on, Sarah and Megan wanted to hear "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" every night and asked if each stand of trees we passed was Peter Rabbit's forest.
At first, they were game to try almost anything, but after climbing countless castle towers, Megan began to complain when she saw stairs. We learned to use a judicious bribe. In Chester we bought a Paddington Bear book and promised Megan we would read it at the top of yet another castle in North Wales. It worked.
Many British villages have public playgrounds. Since restaurants close early and spring evenings in the North are long, we had time after dinner to let the girls play outside while we unwound.
Both children enjoyed driving around more than we expected and they napped after lunch in the back seat. Most nights, we stayed in small guesthouses, asking for a "family room," where the girls could sleep at either end of a single bed.
The best nights were in places with resident children to play with. Many guesthouses were small enough so that we could go to the TV lounge after the children fell asleep.
Meals were a problem. We could picnic at lunch, but finding a place where the girls would eat happily at night sometimes strained our patience. About one week into the trip, Megan decided she wanted no more french fries or peas, served with virtually every meal in Britain. It was easier in Ireland where we rented a cottage in a fishing village on the Dingle Peninsula for four weeks.
Again, we were on parallel trips. While we marveled at the beauty of the area, explored antiquities, and took turns hiking, Sarah and Megan made friends with our neighbors and established a normal routine.
We shopped every day for groceries, making our excursions to the butcher shop, the fish warehouse, or the local post office a part of the adventure. After their nap, we often dropped in on a local pub where children were welcome.
A farmer took his cows to pasture in the morning and escorted them home at night, passing our front door in each direction. His dog followed him as he wheeled his bicycle. The girls never missed his trip.
One day a cow wandered into our yard and Sarah went out to make friends. She discovered a snail in the road and insisted we take a picture. Megan picked wild flowers and brought them home for the table.
They were surprisingly indulgent toward us. One night when we discovered a pub with traditional music, the girls stayed up contentedly until midnight, sipping innumerable soft drinks, and mesmerized by the uillean piper pumping his elbow as he played.
They were invited to spend a day at the local Irish-language school and came home with a good idea of what another language is, even if they could not understand it. In the meantime, we spent a glorious morning climbing a mountain and had an elegant lunch in one of Ireland's best restaurants.
The greatest adventure on the trip was more fun for Sarah and Megan than for us. A freakish late-April snowstorm coincided with our ferry crossing to Ireland and everything was delayed. After taking three trains to connect with the mid-afternoon ferry, we arrived in Fishguard to discover that the previous ferry had not yet landed in Ireland. We were stranded.
British Rail took us to a local motel and left us with 200 other travelers in a large lounge. It was cold, the seats were hard and we had no idea how long we would be there.
Unlike their crabby parents, Sarah and Megan were delighted. They had plenty of room to run around in, the place was filled with electronic games and there were other children. They still refer to the 15 hours we waited as "the night we went to the party."
Months later, I am still surprised by what they remember. They talk about their friends, about the jaunting cart we rode in Killarney, about the "old pub" and the "new pub" where adults drank pints of Guinness.
Not long ago, Megan saw a picture of a rainbow and said that must be Ireland. She was right. They both want to return to Scotland to see their friend Dugald, but are not so sure about Ireland "where it rains too much."
Perhaps we were crazy to take our children on that kind of trip for six long weeks. But I don't think so. We had our dream trip, but we also had Sarah and Megan's trip. I'm not sure which was better.