Haven Does it Again

Its been holiday time in our house, and again we decided to take a short
break (4 nights) at Haven Haggerston Castle in Northumberland, just south
of Berwick. Part of the reason we’ve gone there for the fourth time now is
tha its far enough away to seem like a proper break, but is close enough
that with breaking the journey up for the essential (with 2 ASD boys, this
is a big part of their holiday routine!) breakfast at Ikea Edinburgh, the
trip south seems relatively short. The boys had been looking forward to it
for ages, and after an up and down start to the year with Jane & Daniel’s
respective hospital stays for surgery, we were all ready for the time away.

The trip down was as it should be as far as the boys were concerned. We
arrived at Ikea just after 10am for breakfast. Jane & I wanted a quick look
round the store, and fortunately with Easter being upon us, there was an
Easter egg hunt for kids going on. It kept their attention walking through
the store, and they were rewarded with a freebie ice cream for finding the
eggs. We stayed long enough to have a decent stop, but short enough to make
sure we got to Haggerston Castle in plenty of time to get a trip to the
pool. Our check-in wasn’t until 4pm, so whiling away the time in the pool
was just the perfect way to relax after the journey down. Naturally,
playing some of the games in the amusement arcade was a must! A lot of the
machines give out tickets that can be exchanged for prizes, and the boys
love collecting them before their trip to the prize kiosk. For Daniel, it
started superbly with one of his favourite games, Doodle Jump. You get a
ticket for every 200 points scored, but if you can make it to the top,
there’s a jackpot of 1,000 tickets. Well this time – with onlookers too –
Daniel pulled it off and bagged his 1,000 tickets. I was so proud of him!

The caravan this time round was – as usual – very comfortable. We were
again lucky to be upgraded (last time we were upgraded to one of their
luxury lodges) to more luxurious accommodation. It was only 2 minutes walk
from the entertainment centre, so it meant that we could easily go back
without any real inconvenience if we’d forgotten anything. We were soon
settled in, and after a bit of winding down time, it was off to the
entertainment centre for games and the kids’ shows. The boys love the shows
put on by the Haven characters – the Seaside Squad (Rory the Tiger, Bradley
Bear, Anxious Elephant, Greedy the Gorilla, Polly and DJ Ned,) They’re
captivated during them, and Daniel always rushes to line up for the chance
to have his photo taken with the characters. Matthew hangs back, but
instead likes to take the picture of Daniel. The shows are long enough for
the boys, and finish about 730 – 745pm, which then allows them a chance to
play in the arcade afterwards before returning to the caravan with takeaway
for a late tea (there’s Pappa Johns, Burger King and fish & chips on site.)
Usually we fund the boys play, but this year, they’d saved their pocket
money for the holiday. We allowed them £10 a day to spend as they pleased,
and they had little purses with their change for games. Ok, I still put my
hand in my pocket for them, but it worked really well, and I think they
enjoyed the responsibility.

The routine of swim, show, games, takeaway, caravan was surprisingly broken
on the Tuesday. Matthew had spotted that their was a magician on in the
show bar at 930pm. In the end Matthew wasn’t keen. We weren’t bothered at
not having to go out again, but Daniel was keen, so off we went. The
magician in question was comic magician Martyn James. Going back out was
well rewarded with a hilarious half hour or so. It was a superb show that
had two ASD boys in fits of laughter. When you hear Matthew laugh out loud
– a sound not heard that often – you know he’s enjoying himself. They were
both buzzing!

The kids entertainments though were up to scratch. They boys still enjoy
some of the toddlers daytime activities, but they loved the traditional
morning arts and crafts, the punch & judy show, and a character “party”.
But what did catch their imagination was a new activity entitled “Nature
Rockz” – it was led by the park ranger, “Ranger Steve.” It focussed on
woodland nature, and to cap the week off, safely building a camp fire
before toasting marshmallows! I enjoyed that one too!

The week just flew in, and we all enjoyed it although with the Scottish and
English school hols seemingly coinciding, it was incredibly busy – a good
buzz really – with the pool being mobbed on occasion, and the show bar
being very busy. I think it maybe got to Daniel a bit, and he had several
little meltdowns. It gave us the opportunity to talk about time outs with
him when he felt things were getting to him. The noise and bright lights of
the amusements, along with the daily swimming in a noisy pool, and the
character shows (all led by the fabulous Funstars) was just sensory
overload for our little guy – and Matthew. But, they coped with it
reasonably well, and yet again it seemed that Haven is just the perfect
destination for them still.

Safe Haven

After a hard term at school for the boys, non-stop for me and Jane at work/home, we were all ready for a break. We had all been counting down to our break at Haven Haggerston Castle near Berwick-upon-Tweed. All was prepared last week. The food was bought, the clothes were packed, and by Monday morning, the car was loaded, and we were off!

With two ASD boys in the back of the car, we had our set routine. First of all was the mandatory stop at Ikea Edinburgh for breakfast. The first time we wondered through the store, the boys were surprised it actually sold furniture. They were convinced it was just a restaurant. The food isn’t too bad though, and its great value for money. Four large cooked breafasts (omelette, bacon, sausages, beans and hash browns) and drinks for less than £10. Oh, and an ice cream when we were leaving! Once we were re-fuelled, we were off again. The drive to Haggerston isn’t too bad. Its just 8 miles past Berwick, so its only a few hours from home, even accounting for the Ikea stop.

We arrived at Haven just before 130pm. Although it wasn’t quite check in time, I popped into reception to see if maybe the keys were ready. A few taps on their computer, and yes, they were ready. We had booked a mid-range caravan, but were surprised when the girl behind the desk said we had been upgraded to a luxury lodge by their golf course. Was that ok? Oh yes! So, by 135, we were at the lodge and inside enjoying the space and warmth! It didn’t take long to unpack, and by 3pm, the boys were wanting to go for a swim. The pool at Haggerston is superb, and the boys were so keen to get there. To get to the pool, you need to go though the Fun Works amusement arcade, so cue a stop there! Daniel was desperate to play a jet fighter game he loved at our last visit to Haggerston at Easter. Matthew was desperate to win some tickets that can be exchanged for various toys, sweets, small appliances, etc – if you amass enough tickets. A quick 10 minutes satisfied them, and it was off to the pool. Daniel’s swimming continued to improve, and Matthew’s water confidence also is better, although he wasn’t keen to actually swim!

Come the evening time, it was off to the entertainment centre for more video games and ticket winning, and more importantly, the kids show in the Live Lounge. The show is put on by the Seaside Squad (Haven’s characters) Roary the Tiger, Bradley Bear, Greedy the Gorilla, Anxious the Elephant, DJ Ned and Polly. The boys were captivated as usual. The Fun Stars (entertainment crew) were – as usual – incredibly professional.

Daniel meet Anxious

They are superb with the kids, and can pitch their humour at the grown ups too. Fun Stars Ryan and Hannah were loved by the boys. Ryan loved Daniel’s Star Wars t-shirts. The height of the evening entertainment came on the Tuesday night when Daniel and I were “invited” onto stage by Ryan to play one of the games during “Go Live” Daniel loved that, as it involved putting a dozen pairs of pants over my trousers before I had to do a catwalk strut! Jane and Matthew were in fits! It was all worth it for the boys, and the Fun Stars were brilliant.
Pants!

There were the usual range of daytime activities put on by the Fun Stars. They are so engaging with the children, and deal with them superbly. Matthew and Daniel were so comfortable with all of them, which says a lot about the Fun Stars. They gained the boys’ trust so quickly and made the sessions so enjoyable for them. Matthew was so proud that he learned how to hula hoop! He’s now convinced he’s the “Hula Hoop King”!

Hula Hoop King

It was magical to see the Fun Stars give a little boy so much pleasure and confidence. Matthew was so good though. He’s a shy boy, and his autism prevents him from trusting easily. To get him up on stage at Roary’s lunchtime picnic party was amazing. He was sung Happy Birthday by all in attendance. He did brilliantly, even though there were tears afterwards. Circus skills also were a big hit with the boys – again thanks to the fantastic Ryan. Even off duty (Daniel met him in the shop) he was mobbed by kids, but was superb with them even in his time off. He’s a huge credit to Haven.

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Its not just the Fun Stars, although they are the public face of Haven, that made the break so good. The pool staff were fab with Daniel, and saved our lives when Jimmy (Matthew’s red bear) went missing. The relief on Matthew’s face when they took him out from behind the pool front desk was amazing. It kicked off an emotional reunion after 2 hours apart. Credit also goes to the amusement centre staff, the catering staff and the cleaners for making sure everything was absolutely fantastic. Haven know how to treat their customers, and their staff at Haggerston are a huge credit to them. The boys had a wonderful time (as did we!) and they have demanded we return to Haggerston at Easter. I have a feeling we’ll be giving into them quite easily!

For a great family holiday in the UK, Haven are so hard to been for a guaranteed good time. We can’t wait to come back – see you soon!

San Francisco, Music & Memories

“San Francisco Bay, past pier 39, early PM can’t remember what time.” So starts “Have a Nice Day” by the Stereophonics. Its one of my favourite songs, and is one of those songs capable of evoking strong memories. For me, the memories are kicked off by the great opening line which take me back to one of the good times for me. It’s the reference to San Francisco that does it, and is a reminder of a great long weekend I had there in 1998 with my two closest friends.

We were right in the middle of a three-week holiday in the United States, having travelled from Chicago to San Francisco by train via Lincoln NE, Denver CO, Flagstaff AZ & Los Angeles CA. All of the stops were fantastic and are memories I’ll treasure, but the weekend we had in the Bay Area will always be in my mind. It started off by arriving in Oakland at 10pm on the Friday after a 12. hour train ride from LA. The train bypasses San Francisco and continues up the west coast to Seattle (we resumed our trip after San Francisco by catching the train in Emeryville, the stop up from Oakland to get to Seattle via Portland OR & Olympia WA.) A bus service completed the journey into San Francisco. My first sight of SF was from that bus coming over the top level of the Bay Bridge. San Francisco was glorious. The view from the bridge was, to use an Americanism, awesome. Surely the city by the bay has never looked so good as it did that night.

Our first experience of San Fran was quite an exciting one. We arrived in Union Square at 1030pm or so, and we were staying at the top of Geary Boulevard, a taxi was in order. First taxi hailed stopped – success! – then when we told him where we wanted to go to, he asked, “where is that?” Not a good start! Fortunately I knew it was (roughly) in the direction of Golden Gate Park, and after a journey of nearly getting killed (he just about ran into the back of a stationary car at red light) we made it. Check-in was fine. We were in San Francisco.

The weekend was one of the finest I’ve had. After a morning or rooting about in downtown San Francisco, it was time for me to be able to indulge in one of my American passions – baseball. America’s pastime is a wonderful experience, and I’d already got myself & my friend tickets for the Giants Saturday game against the Dodgers. The afternoon was lost in a haze of Californian sunshine, Giants homeruns (2 grand slams) and Barry Bonds in an 18-4 Giants win. In the midst of it all, after a Giants homerun, beers in hand, my closest friend and I exchanged the iconic American high five. It really was a perfect moment in time, and I won’t forget that. My friend took his own life in 2003 and those memories of San Francisco will always be precious.

The Sunday was just as good. Again we braved public transport and took the BART train over to Oakland for the Raiders/Broncos NFL game. My friend was a Broncos fan, but decided against wearing his Denver shirt to the game! Probably a wise move with Denver fans there being subjected to (generally) light hearted abuse and being showered with beer. It was another great sun-kissed afternoon spent in the company of friends. Its one of life’s greatest pleasures. Denver won the game 34-17 and it topped off a true bit of Americana. Back to San Francisco on BART (the BART station was right outside the Coliseum in Oakland – take note UK!)

The weekend was extended to Tuesday, and it left us time to be proper tourists! It was a trip out to the Golden Gate Bridge on late Monday afternoon that brought the reality of it all home to me. I can still clearly remember standing on the GG bridge looking out over the Pacific Ocean when it struck me – what was I doing on the west coast of America? I was 8,000 miles from home. Although I’d had a good childhood, we were never lucky enough to experience foreign holidays, and I didn’t go abroad until I was 15 on a school trip to Switzerland. But her I was on America’s Pacific coast in the middle of the experience of a lifetime for me. I loved the baseball, and the NFL, but standing on the GG Bridge looking at the Pacific is a memory to treasure.

Alcatraz was visited on the Tuesday, our last act before moving on. We were in San Francisco for just four days, but Lombard Street (the steep windy road), Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Bridge, Candlestick Park & the Oakland Coliseum were all squeezed in. Maybe no surprise its stayed with me really, and it’s the reason I love hearing that Stereophonics song. I’m so glad my friends and I took the chance when we could and had a great road trip together. Chicago and Seattle were other highlights, but the weekend in San Francisco was unforgettable. San Francisco Bay, past pier 39, early PM can’t remember what time. What I will remember is the fantastic City by the Bay and the company of great friends. It was a blast.

Sea Life Scarborough – A Grand Day Out

As some will know, we were off on our holidays recently at Haven Primrose Valley near Filey in Yorkshire (https://theworldofneil.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/haven-heaven/) and had a fantastic time. There’s plenty to occupy anyone onsite, but there’s also a wealth of activities in nearby Filey and Scarborough. One such activity is the Sea Life Sanctuary in Scarborough, and thanks to fantastic charity Merlin’s Magic Wand (Sea Life is owned by the Merlin group – http://www.merlinsmagicwand.org/) we were off!

The centre is at the north side of Scarborough, but can be easily reached by public transport. The excellent Filey Road or Seamer park and ride ( http://www.scarboroughparkandride.co.uk/) will take you to the beach front, and there’s an open topped bus that will take you to Peasholm Park where a small railway is located that can take you to Sea Life. Its not too long a walk either from there and there’s also a pay & display carpark on its doorstep, so basically, access is excellent despite its location.

There’s a wealth of education for kids and adults alike at the centre. There are regular talks and feeding sessions at the various displays where the excellent staff will go through the history of their animals, how they live, what they eat etc. The various tanks and habitats are laid out in a logical order to let you visit each in order until you’re familiar with where everything is so you can re-visit your favourites, and get to the feeding sessions on time.

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We’d been there before, and the boys knew their favourites that they had to see. Penguins and seals were top of the list for them. They’d built an affinity with penguins largely due to their love of the penguins in the movie series Madagascar. So it was a more-or-less bee-line for the penguins! But even then, there was plenty getting in the way to see! Matthew loves nature, and has given an appreciation of marine biology from the excellent Cbeebies series The Octonauts. From that, he loves to read about and see the real thing. All the exhibits at Sea Life fascinate him.

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Matthew and Daniel charge about, and you’d think they weren’t taking any of it in, but the truth is there is so much that grabs their attention that they want to see it all. Its really a bit of sensory overload for them both. There were the odd little outburst, but I think that was only as a result of their excitement. After seeing their beloved penguins, it was on to the seals. Unlike some aquariums, Sea Life don’t have performing seals. Their primary function is conservation. They rescue seals, bring them back to health in their “seal hospital”, bring them up to fitness in the seal tank before releasing them into the wild once more.

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Conservation, as I said, is at the heart of everything Sea Life does, and that take me to the high point of the visit for me. I love turtles (we’ve got four at home) and love to see the pride of Sea Life Scarborough, Antiope, the giant loggerhead sea turtle. Antiope lived in the Med before being struck in the head by a propeller. It left her permanently brain damaged, and because of a lack of facilities to treat her, it meant an eight hour road journey to get her the help she needed. Antiope is unable to recognise food, and when she does eat, it will be anything that’s at hand (or flipper.) When she starts, she doesn’t know when to stop. So, it was off to Sea Life for her where she lives the life of riley. She’s lovely and its beyond criminal how these creatures are treated.

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Of course, we had to buy a Save the Sea Turtles wristband at the boys’ insistence! But its worth it. The £1 per band go to funding the EarthSeaSky (http://www.earthseasky.org/) turtle rescue centre on Zakynthos, Greece. They carry out vital conservation and rescue work in the med, providing the treatment and help that Antiope couldn’t get.

I think seeing Antiope again made the visit for all of us, but that’s not to take anything away from the rest of the centre. The boys swallowed the educational experience whole. Matthew loved seeing the spider crabs, another favourite from the Octonauts, and Daniel was fascinated by the jellyfish.

When it came time to eat, it was off to the café in the centre. Despite it being a largely captive audience, it was reasonably priced, good quality food with a reasonably varied menu. The boys went straight for hot dogs of course, with lattice potatoes. At just over £20 for the four of us plus drinks, it was very good fare.

Finally, after we’d seen all the animals, visited Antiope several times, taken in the feeding sessions and the talks, it was time to leave via the shop after a 6-hour visit. We made our purchases to remind us of our visit, including a hand made turtle keyring for me to make another donation to the rescue centre in Greece. All in all, it was another great visit. If you’re near Scarborough, make it a must-see. The staff there are dedicated, informative and helpful, and Sea Life carry out vital conservation work. We can’t wait to see Antiope and friends again next year!

Haven Heaven

Last week, the moment the boys had been looking forward to for month came. We went off on holiday. After our great experience with Haven at Eastertime at Haggerston Castle (http://www.haven.com/parks/northumberland/haggerston-castle/) we decided to book with them again, this time at Primrose Valley just south of Scarborough in Yorkshire (http://www.haven.com/parks/yorkshire/primrose-valley/) The holiday spends saving had been done, the clothes and a gargantuan pile of snack had been packed. Come the morning of Sunday 7 July, we were ready for our week away.

Because of the long journey (its 330 miles to Primrose Valley from our house) we booked a Travelodge for the Sunday night at Gateshead, which would leave us with just 90-odd miles to get to Haven. It proved to be a success. After stopovers at Ikea Edinburgh for the mandatory start of holiday breakfast, and a 4-hour stop at East Links Family Park in Dunbar (http://www.eastlinks.co.uk/) we arrived at the hotel just on teatime. After a relaxing half an hour, the boys were ready to head to KFC just outside the hotel for tea! There was also a Frankie & Benny’s across from the hotel, which accounted for breakfast on the Monday. We were all well rested though come the morning and were ready for the final leg.

Thanks to the stop, we made it to Primrose Valley by 1230pm. We weren’t due to check in until 3pm, but as we were there, we took the chance, and our keys were indeed ready. We headed for our caravan to find it had already been prepared. We were in by 1245pm! The caravan itself was deceptively spacious. It was 12ft wide instead of the 10ft wide we had at Haggerston. 2 feet doesn’t sound much, but it made a difference. It was clean of course, and comfortable. The boys lent a hand to get our stuff inside and packed away. We were ready to explore the park.

Thanks to the helpful reception staff and the prompt maintenance crew, we were able to get changed for swimming, as the boys were desperate for the pool. The park has 3 pools. The main adventure pool – with slide, and lots of fun equipment for the kids – is located near to the entertainment centre at the bottom end of the park. Our caravan was superbly sighted, just a couple of minutes walk from the pool and entertainment centre. So keen were the boys to swim, they almost missed the fantastic entertainment centre complete with all sorts of games. Almost! There’s another adventure pool and an outdoor pool at the top end of the park too, so the pools weren’t overly busy. The main pool was fantastic. The boys were soon enjoying themselves.

The entertainment centre has all you need to occupy kids and adults alike. It has a huge array of amusements and games to keep the eye. The boys love the machines where tickets can be won, that can be exchanged for prizes at the end of the week so that was the focus. All the bright flashing lights and noise did give Matthew in particular sensory overload. He wanted to play constantly, and it was difficult at time to get him away from the games, but he was happy as long as the tickets kept coming!

There are two showbars at the centre, which are busy with activities put on by the Funstars staff at the park. Most of these are free, although there are some activities that need paying for onsite, such as archery, fencing & water activities. Still, if you don’t want to pay, there’s more than enough to occupy the kids. In the evening, the Showbars really come to life. For us, it was the Jesters showbar where the kids show featuring the great Haven characters, Roary the Tiger, Bradley Bear, Greedy the Gorilla, Anxious the Elephant, DJ Ned & Polly. The show is a must for the boys, who are glued to it. Following that, the Funstars takeover with plenty of fun and games to occupy the kids. The bar isn’t too bad regarding pricing, and there are plenty of snack on offer. It makes a great evening, although by 8pm or so, the boys have generally had enough.

If you want to eat on site, there’s plenty on offer. There’s the Mash & Barrel restaurant with its excellent pub food menu. There’s also Papa John’s pizza, West Pier burgers & Cooks fish & chips. All of them are excellent, and provide decent value for money. But for us, eating on holiday involves local takeaways! There are 3 in nearby Filey that put round menus on a daily basis, two of them delivery to your caravan door. That was for us, and that invoved burgers, chicken wraps, kebabs, nuggets and pizza! They were all superb value, with big meals for the four of us setting us back just £20 a time.

We did go off site a few times, as we had tickets to the marvellous Sealife Centre in Scarborough (http://www.visitsealife.com/scarborough/) courtesy of the Merlins Magic Wand charity (http://www.merlinsmagicwand.org/) for our visit with the lovely resident loggerhead sea turtle, Antiope. The boys love seeing her and its a must to buy wristbands that go to funding a sea turtle rescue centre in Greece. But there’s so much more to it that Antiope. The centre is an excellent resource with a varying array of sea creatures. Its not just for display though – they carry out vital conservation work here and in Greece.

We also visited Playdale Farm Park (http://www.playdalefarmpark.co.uk/) which the boys just love. There’s plenty to occupy them there, and Daniel loves feeding the goats! Needless to say there was also a visit to the beach in Scarborough for the day, including sandcastles, paddling then fish & chips and ice cream on the beach!

But there’s plenty on site at Haven to keep you there if you don’t want to head out and about. There’s a brilliant funfair that the boys were desperate to go to. They loved there visit to that! It meant Jane and I going on the waltzers and various other rides!

The boys also had a treat at the weekend. Their auntie & 3 cousins from Derbyshire came for a short break, which was an unexpected surprise for them. They hadn’t seen their cousins since last October, but you’d not know that. They were as thick as thieves immediately. Daniel was walking about hand-in-hand with our two nieces. They’re 6 and 8, so they made natural playmates. It added a great touch to the holiday.

Overall, the holiday was wonderful. Haven know what they are doing, and their parks are excellent, none more so surely than Primrose Valley. The staff there made the holiday for us, and the facilities are fantastic. At under £500 for the week, its value is brilliant. We can’t wait to visit again next year!

(NB This review was not sponsored, paid for or otherwise supported by Haven or any of the bodies mentioned in the post.)