Turkish Family Travels: A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Cruise

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravelThis post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul.

While the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are generally the stars of the Istanbul show, let’s not forget that the Bosphorus has made headlines for thousands of years.

Until 1973, the only way to cross the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia or vice versa was by boat. Now, for the mere price of a toll or subway ticket, you can whoosh your way back and forth between the continents.

But forget all that modern innovation – wouldn’t you rather experience the strait like a pirate on the high seas?

Okay, maybe not a modern pirate. Those chaps are mighty frighty. More like a fairy-tale, swashbuckling-yet-serene pirate. Eye patch optional.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

Since we only had a few days in Istanbul, I didn’t want to devote an entire day to one tour. If I would have had the time, though, we could’ve sailed straight up to the Black Sea. Throw in a walk up to the medieval Anadolu Kavağı Kalesi and the opportunity for a stellar picnic, and I’m sold.

Ah well, that adventure will have to wait until our next time in Turkey.

Not wanting to give up on the dream entirely, we settled for a shorter cruise. Our ship left from Eminönü right down in Sultanahmet and was scheduled to depart at 1430. We showed up about forty minutes prior to sailing, bought tickets, and boarded.

Fortunately, the boat wasn’t crowded, but the upper deck filled quickly. Expert tip: Stake out seats for your party as soon as you board. Don’t stop to use the loo or buy a drink. If you do, all the choice spots will be gone.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

From the upper deck, we were treated to a view from above of the spice market area as well as the back side of Topkapi Palace and two other mosques. All that, and we hadn’t even left the dock!

The ship chugged out of port, slipping past behemoth cruise liners and dingy fishing boats on its way out to sea. She stopped briefly to pick up another set of passengers at Ortaköy which is near the most charming little mosque (Büyük Mecidiye Cami) and nearly underneath the massive Bosphorus Bridge.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

Viewing this feat of engineering from such a close angle completely fascinated me. I learned later that the bridge took more than 3 years to build, boasts 8 lanes which can be assigned to either direction depending on the time of day and flow of traffic, costs about 4TL to cross, and is closed to pedestrians.

Apparently, it was possible to walk across the bridge in the first few years of its opening, but this is now forbidden. Too bad, because that’s definitely something we would have done!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

As we made our way up toward the Black Sea, our eyes were treated to beautiful palaces, mosques, homes, and gardens along the water. We were given a free brochure with the names of these landmarks, but no further information was provided. If you’re particularly interested in learning more about each building, it’s possible to rent an audio guide for the journey.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravelOnce we reached the second bridge (Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge), the ship sputtered around, spinning to position herself for the journey back to Istanbul. I had hoped for a bit of excitement, say nearly missing a colossal container ship, but no dice. Slow and steady she went.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravelThe unfortunate reality for both the full and half day cruises are that there’s only one way up to the Black Sea and back, so you’ll have to retrace your steps no matter what.

At this point, the constant whir of the motor, the lapping of the waves, and the sea breeze lulled me to dreamland. Docking back at Eminönü rudely interrupted my 12TL nap. Shame.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

So, was the Bosphorus Boat Cruise worth it? Eh, maybe. The answer really depends on why you want to set sail.

We had two purposes in indulging in our maritime excursion: (1) Grab a glimpse of the Anatolian/Asian side since our short stay made exploring that area impossible and (2) entertain little boys who think boats are pretty awesome. Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family Adventure in Turkey - A Budget-Friendly Bosphorus Boat Trip with Kids! #familytravel

While we did fulfill both of those wishes, I can’t say that I thought this boat trip was in my top five Istanbul favorites. Top ten, yes. Top five, no. Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected pirates, James Bond, or container ship collisions.

There are certainly worse ways to spend two hours of your life, but I can think of better ones as well.

Now before you write me off because boats are to you what trains are to Sheldon Cooper, you should know that I’m not totally a boat trip hater. We’ve had great fun at sea in Brugge, Hvar, and Berchtesgaden just to name a few.

So, tell me, are you a boat trip aficionado? Would you want to do the full-day Bosphorus tour or skip the seas all together?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

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Visiting Croatia in the Off-Season

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonWe’re bidding farewell to our Croatian Family Adventure today with a chat about visiting the Dalmatian Coast during the off-season.

My ideal travel destination is naturally gorgeous, affordable (okay, cheap), and away from the tourist crowds. If this is your cup of tea as well, then you may be considering visiting Croatia sometime other than the jam-packed summer months.

Though Paris is a beauty even in the dead of winter and Rothenburg is quiet when it rains, it’s possible to do and see almost everything even when the tour buses are absent. But Croatia? Not so much.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

It’s worth sitting down and deciding what your family really wants to experience in Dalmatia before booking flights or accommodation. Below, I’ve highlighted pros and cons to visiting during the off-season, which I would categorize as anything outside June, July, and August.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

Drawbacks of visiting Croatia in off-season…

  • Ferry service to the islands is limited. If you want to see more than 1 or 2 islands, I would recommend hopping from island to island instead of trying to do day trips from the mainland. This will require quite a bit of logistical planning on your part since you’ll need to see if accommodation is available (see the next bullet, below) while simultaneously checking ferry timetables and researching ground transportation options to get from the port to the hotel and back.
  • Many attractions, restaurants, and hotels are closed for the winter. Some are even closed in spring and fall.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

  • Even if you’re able to arrange accommodation and transportation to experience the islands, they’re rather deserted when it’s not high season. Don’t expect party central.
  • The weather can be downright COLD. In fact, we had the heat on in the first two apartments we rented… in April. If you were planning to lounge around on the terrace at your vacation rental, just know that you’ll be doing so bundled up. Croatia also has this freakish freezing wind known as the bura, or brrrrrrrra.
  • The water is too cold to swim and going to the beach is only for those who enjoy a slow form of torture involving said wind, sand, and sensitive corneas.
  • This one’s only for the carnivores, but the infamous road-side meat stands on the way to Plitvice Lakes and along other Croatian highways aren’t open. You won’t be able to watch a whole pig or sheep being roasted and then partake of the freshly cooked flesh (vegetarians, rejoice).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonNow, on to the benefits of visiting during off-season..

  • Smaller crowds! This might seem insignificant, but when you’re walking the walls of Dubrovnik or hopping over waterfalls at Plitvice, you’ll be thanking your lucky stars that even though you’re freezing your bum off, you have room to breathe and appreciate what you’re seeing without constantly being elbowed and jostled.
  • Ferry tickets are plentiful. In summer, you can be stuck in long lines hoping that the particular ship you want to sail on is not sold out.
  • You can enjoy the Croatian national pastime of drinking coffee in cafes for hours with locals instead of tourists.
  • Though the availability is limited, the prices for hotels and vacation rentals are reduced and some attractions are even free.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

  • If you’re dying to see Plitvice, remember that water levels are highest in the spring after the snow melts which translates to some pretty powerful waterfalls.
  • The heat is tolerable. I remember walking the walls of Dubrovnik in April and nearly baking in the sun. It must be hotter than you-know-what up there in August, and crowded with cruise ship day-trippers to boot.
  • Traffic!! If you’re driving to Dubrovnik from Split or vice versa, you should know that the only way in and out is a two-lane highway on the edge of the sea. Traffic on this road in summer is a total beast. Also, the lines at border crossings for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro will be much shorter during the off-season.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonIn spite of (and also because of) all of the reasons above, I still think we would have chosen to visit Croatia during the off-season had we known all of this in advance (we didn’t).

But, when we go back, we’ll aim for September. The locals I talked to all recommended going in September because the summer crowds are gone but the water is still warm enough to swim. Just don’t tell the tour groups that…Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

My advice if you want to go to Croatia is to GO NOW. The country is fabulous, but it’s starting to realize this fact. And once it does, the danger to allow tacky tourism in for the sake of the income will be rather irresistible.

Ripping off foreigners in the form of outrageous admission fees for non-locals (which is the case already in places like Russia) is another potential problem for travelers. Some towns like Dubrovnik are already totally touristy which means expensive prices, questionable quality, and many “souvenirs” made in China. Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

But, there are still many, many places to experience authentic Croatia, and I highly recommend creating a Dalmatian family adventure of your own, posthaste!

Now that you know the pros and cons, would you visit Croatia during the off-season? Or is the warm weather and water too important for your family to miss?Signature Thrifty Travel MamaThis post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in HvarI’m wrapping up our whirlwind tour of Croatia today with notes on a place any traveler to the Dalmatian coast would be remiss not to visit – the island of Hvar. Well, one might be forgiven for skipping Hvar as long as at least one other island was visited. You simply must choose at least one Croatian island to experience. With over 1,000 of them, there’s sure to be at least one that fits your family’s travel tastes.

Getting There

Now, first things first. In order to explore Hvar, you have to, you know, get there. It is an island, after all, and attempting to swim or drive would be disastrous.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

The easiest way is to take a ferry, or a catamaran in high season. Timetables offer plenty of options in the summer but are drastically reduced in the off season. No matter when you go, I highly recommend checking times and prices for adults, children, cars, cats, parrots, and pet gorillas here.

I was nervous about the ship selling out, so I (literally) ran down to the port first thing in the morning to buy tickets. We had originally planned to visit Mljet and Hvar, but we weren’t able to make Mljet work. We were totally over the constant chorus of begging from backseat to ride on a boat, and I was afraid we’d never live it down if we didn’t actually set sail while in Croatia.

Thankfully, all my worry was for naught – plenty of tickets, and they didn’t charge me for our four year-old!

Setting Sail

The excitement hung thick in the air as we approached the ship.

“Is THAT the ferry, mama?” Our middle one pointed to a gigantic cruise liner.

“No, buddy, that one is headed to Italy.”

Wow, Italy!

“Ours is the smaller one next to it.”

“Ohhh.. can we go to Italy?”

The disappointment of not sleeping overnight en route to the land of never-ending pizza was quickly quenched by the fascination of watching the cars and trucks drive onto our ferry. The attendants packed the vehicles in, insisting that drivers park with only a few measly centimeters of breathing room in between.

Once on board, we staked our claim to a swath of seats and set up shop. The ride from Split to Hvar takes about two hours, and the only way we can keep restless boys happy for that long is with food.

Our boat set off at 8:30am, and we brought (what I thought was) a standard amount of food for breakfast. They smashed that up in oh, about 20 minutes. I should’ve brought extra rations. Always bring extra.

Our pleas to “look out the window and enjoy the scenery!” fell on deaf ears. Luckily, a friendly Polish family sat across from us; they turned out to be gracious in conversation and donating a good portion of their own personal snack stash.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

Arriving in Hvar

The ferry docks near Stari Grad (though you can sail to Hvar Town in summer), but the place everyone wants to see is Hvar Town itself.

Buses from the port to the town are timed to meet the ferries. The ride took about 20 minutes along a coastal road lined with grape vines and olive trees. Oh yes, island life, here we come!

Unfortunately, if you arrive by bus in Hvar Town, you’re automatically branded a tourist and you might be accosted by little old ladies shoving laminated photos in your face and demanding, “You want apartment?!” The fun doesn’t end when you leave the bus stop. They follow you into town and ask you again. And again. Note to self: be firm, and do your best not to be annoyed. They need to make money somehow.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in HvarThrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

But, nagging aside, my first impression of Hvar was that it was rather rustic. Many of the cafes and restaurants were shut, either permanently or just for the season. It was rather impossible to believe that this catatonic town is normally known as the celebrity-studded party capital of Croatia. Even the few street vendors that bothered to show up barely budged when we walked by.

The Fortress

Well, good thing our thang isn’t parties. It’s amazing views. And the best view in Hvar is undoubtedly from the fortress. To get to it, you’ll need to schlep your crew up the narrow city streets, climbing stair after stair (though not nearly as many as the 1,000+ we conquered in Kotor) until you reach the entrance gate. Once inside the gate, it’s an easy paved walk to the top.

We didn’t have to pay admission to the fortress (perhaps because it was off-season?), but I saw booths which I assume would be open in summer. Inside the fortress, you can explore several levels, enjoy a drink at the cafe, visit a small museum, and snap some great photos of Hvar Town and the surrounding islands.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

A small church on the way up to the fortress.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

Where there are cannons, there are boys.

Free Fun for Kids in Hvar Town

Since almost nothing in Hvar was open, we just wandered around until we finally found a fabulous playground on the north side of town. Doc Sci and I took turns napping in the sunshine while the boys made weapons and walkie talkies out of rocks and sticks.

And, speaking of rocks, no visit to a body of water would be complete for my boys without throwing some. There’s just something about searching for the biggest rock possible and following up the toss with a satisfying PLUNK and spastic SPLASH.

Inevitably, fighting about who had the biggest rock and who made the biggest splash ensues, but this is usually solved by an offer to let them stick some appendage in the water, no matter how cold. Off came the socks and shoes, and in they went. Even I dipped a toe or ten this time.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

The Taste of Hvar

Back in Hvar Town proper, we were left with about an hour before our bus ride and a burning desire yet to be fulfilled: buy a bottle of authentic Croatian olive oil.

We asked everyone in Croatia where to get the best olive oil. Answer? Buy it on the islands if you don’t have the hookup from a friend or relative with their own grove.

But, we were at a loss – where should we buy a liter or two when only a few street vendors were even open? None of them had that thick, fragrant olive oil of our dreams, the kind that’s literally clouded with flavor.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

Oh, my friend, once you have tasted real olive oil (and, it tastes like olives, fancy that), you can never go back to the store-bought stuff.

We randomly noticed a shop at the green market, one that I would’ve ordinarily considered too touristy. We popped in and the owner chatted us up, offering to let us taste the oil. First his family’s everyday use oil, then a thick extra virgin green olive oil, and then a variety made from black olives. One dip, and Doc Sci and I both agreed: simply AMAZING.

The bottle we bought was made from black olives, and it is only the oil that drips down. It’s not even pressed! It’s simply collected, so the taste is very pungent and pure. We had almost no kuna left, but you can bet we left with the biggest bottle of oil that the shop offered.. and several hundred grams of delicious olives preserved only with sea salt and flavored with sprigs of rosemary.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Tasting Croatian Island Life in Hvar

As I pour a small dish of that oil in my German kitchen and dip crusty ciabatta in it, I remember our day in Hvar and our time in Dalmatia. Long after the bottle of oil is gone, I doubt I could forget that yes, this is the taste of Croatian island life.

Have you tried authentic olive oil before? What does island life taste like for you and your family?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Practical Tips for Your Family’s Visit to Hvar:

  • Check sailing times and ticket prices here, in advance. Keep in mind that tickets sell out very quickly in summer. If you plan to take a car, ask around for how many hours in advance you should line up to get on the ship.
  • We sailed to Hvar from Split, and we opted not to take our car. However, if you do opt to take a car to one of the Croatian islands, make sure to check out locations of fuel stations and keep in mind that roads on the islands can be narrow and wind through mountainous terrain.
  • When we arrived in Stari Grad, we rushed to get on the bus, not knowing how many places would be available to get to Hvar Town. It looked like a few other mini-buses showed up in order to accommodate the overflow. Tickets were 27kn/adult and we didn’t have to pay for the kids. The ride took about 20 mins, but I was told in advance it takes 30 (maybe in season?).
  • You can stock up on snacks at the Konzum grocery store in Hvar Town before catching the bus back to the ferry. There aren’t really many options for takeaway food either in Hvar Town or at the port, so either eat at a restaurant in Hvar, bring your own meal, or make a picnic out of what you can find at the grocery store.
  • Toilets are expensive in Hvar Town. The only free toilets I noticed were located at the fortress (but there may be an admission charge in high season) and on board the ferry.

 Other awesome Croatian islands for planning or dreaming:

This post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Conquering Kotor, Montenegro

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of KotorMontenegro. Say it.

It sounds… exotic, feisty, mysterious.. even dangerous.

These qualities (obviously) mean I should add it to my list of places to go with three young children, right?

Wait, are we nuts?! Probably. I know there are other families that take their kids even crazier places than we do, but, man, we are so far gone from pretty little Disney holidays.

Today’s adventure takes place in slick little Montenegro, another former YU country (sorry, I know I put it on our bucket list and it’s not technically Croatia, but just go with it). Known as Crna Gora / Црна Гора to locals, most people young, rich, and/or famous know it as a fabulous place to party (Budva).

But, we know it as a (literally) breathtaking place to drink in views of the fjord-like Bay of Kotor.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Bay of Kotor.

Kotor is a popular day trip from Dubrovnik given that it’s supposedly only an hour and a half drive (see Notes at the end of this post). If you like collecting stamps in your passport from random small countries to up your count or exploring old stone cities steeped in history, Kotor might be for you.

Just don’t come here to climb up to St. John’s Fortress like we did.

No, no, no.

The city of Kotor, located on the bay of the same name, is quite small and can be explored in an hour or two. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Kotor is cute, and sweet (which is about the opposite of how Montenegro sounds). Plus, it’s less crowded than its flashy friend to the north, Dubrovnik. Cruise ships have started docking in the city, but you can check the schedule in advance and adjust your itinerary to visit on a different day.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

So, what do you do after you’ve strolled the ancient streets? You could do something normal and sane like sit down at a cafe, have a drink, and and enjoy the atmosphere. Or you could set your sights on higher and more insane things like conquering St. John’s Fortress… with children.

I cannot officially recommend schlepping kids up 1,350 stone steps, so I won’t. But I will tell you how it could be done if you thought you might be hare brained enough to entertain the idea. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Pick up a map from the tourist information kiosk just outside the city walls. Or, just walk away from the bay and toward the mountain. You can’t miss it. Bring euros for the small entrance fee as well as water, snacks, and bribes for the hikes. You’re going to need it.

The first thing you’ll notice is that you have two choices: walk on stone steps or a somewhat flattened pile of rocks, both of which are quite slick in the rain (did I mention it was raining?!).

If you’re a parent, your two options become one option. Walk on the rocks while your child walks on the steps. Well, except for the parts of the climb where the low wall that provided a false sense of protection against a nasty tumble down the hillside is, conveniently, missing. Then, you can switch places until the wall reappears.

About fifteen minutes into the climb when you’re soaked to the bone underneath your rain jacket because good golly is this thing steep or what, you’ll reach the Church of Our Lady of Remedy.

Fabulous, you’re nearly there, right? Ha, no. But you can take a rest with the chain-smoker that’s more than happy to sell you an over-priced bottle of water. People watching is, of course, complimentary.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Just passing the Church of Our Lady of the Remedy.

Try to keep your eyes on the route and not on the fantastic panorama unfolding with each step up. You don’t want to slip on those rocks and take the kids down with you. No, no. Oh, and try not to think about why you don’t see any other families along the way.

When you do reach the top, you might want to (again) watch your step. It’s not like the fortress is falling apart or anything, but, well, yeah, it pretty much is. And the edges don’t have secure railings, so you might want to embarrass your kids by tagging along when they need to take a leak so they don’t tumble when they tinkle.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

If you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back because that was one heck of a climb. And one seriously ridiculous idea with tots in tow. But the view, the view, the view, THE VIEW!Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

It’s easy to understand why this spot was chosen to fortify. From here, you can see so much of the Bay of Kotor, the city of Kotor, and the surrounding terrain.

Set up the self-timer, and burn up the camera. This is a perfect place to take a family photo. Just don’t position expensive cameras or precious children too close to the edge of anything.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

On the way back down, try to ignore those shaky legs. What are you, a weakling? You just owned that climb up to the fortress! Promise the kids they can have  a n y t h i n g  they want to eat from the grocery store if they just make it down in one piece.

Bonus: Groceries in Montenegro are CHEAP, so they can have the chips, the ice cream, and the juice for all I care.Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Why yes I did just sweat my way up and down the mountain behind me, thanks for asking.

I’m (obviously) being cheeky here, and just in case the sarcasm is lost on you (Sheldon Cooper), I don’t want you to think we didn’t enjoy Kotor. In fact, we loved it, and it goes down as one of the best days of our Croatian adventure.

Also, I probably should add that for all my groveling here for the sake of humor, actually our kids made it up with hardly any whining. Reading that statement from my trip notes and typing it again here, I can barely believe it, but it must’ve happened. Just don’t expect a repeat performance, right?Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

By the way, I’m partly blaming my desire to conquer the climb up to St. John’s Fortress on Calli and Travis of Have Blog Will Travel. Their post got me hooked on the idea, and, well, we’re suckers for a good view. If they did it, why couldn’t we? Oh right, because we have THREE LITTLE KIDS with us. And apparently I just skipped over this little line, “The hike isn’t an easy one, as many of the pathways are still a work in progress,” and instead focused on the fact that, “the views at the top are more than enough reward.”

Well said.

To see the fortress walls of Kotor all lit up at night, click here. And then tell me, what would you do for a good view?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Adventures in Montenegro with Kids - Bay of Kotor

Stuck at the border. This line took us nearly 1 1/2 hours..

More Notes on Montenegro:

  • Driving directions will tell you that Kotor is about 1:30 – 1:45 from Dubrovnik. Don’t believe everything you read. Double that time to allow for long lines at the border (maybe triple it in summer). We were only about 12 cars away from the crossing and it took nearly 1 1/2 hours. Apparently there are problems with drugs, guns, money, and the like in and out of MNE so that’s why the checks are thorough. See? I told you, dangerous…
  • The roads were horrific – one lane in each direction, winding and twisting around the water with 40-60km/hr speed limits, slow old beaters and big trucks.
  • Bring loads of snacks and entertainment options (or practice your hand at these games that don’t require any equipment) in case you get stuck.
  • Living in Germany, we have become quite accustomed to not bringing our passports when we pop over to France or dip down to Switzerland. They’re never asked for or checked. But you definitely need your passport with you when crossing any borders in this region.
  • There’s a ferry option to cross the bay of Kotor, but it is not much faster than driving around the bay and the second option is much more scenic. Plus, if you drive around the bay, you can stop in Perast.
  • To up the awesomeness of your time in Kotor, park in Perast and take a boat out to the island of Our Lady of the Rocks. We didn’t make it out there, unfortunately, but I believe the boat costs 5 euros per person. At the very least, pull over and have a look; the two little islands are lovely to look at from the shore (see the second photo in this post). Check out Travis and Calli’s post on getting to Perast via public transport here.
  • Parking outside of the city gate in the town of Kotor is quite cheap (around 1 euro/hr) and convenient.
  • You can find small grocery stores inside the city walls or larger supermarket-type stores a bit further out.

Signature Thrifty Travel MamaThis post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes (Plitvička Jezera)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkThe scenery at Plitvice Lakes is the kind of thing travelers’ dreams and coffee table books are made of. One of seven Croatian UNESCO World Heritage sites and eight Croatian National Parks, Plitvička Jezera deserves a spot on every traveler’s bucket list.

Unfortunately, that’s also the reason it’s often quite crowded, but more on that later. No need to start on a negative note…

Getting There

While we mostly had an enjoyable visit to Croatia, a stressful ordeal with a smarmy rental car company nearly ruined our day trip out to this amazing national park (and the next few days trying to sort it all out). Wait, I said I wasn’t going to start out on a negative note.. Fortunately, our experience with Croatian roads was better than with the sleazy sales rep!

The interstate in Croatia is very modern – smooth roads, rest stops, slick tunnels, and tolls (calculate at viaMichelin). Leaving Zadar, we found ourselves wandering through terrain that reminded me of the Burren in Ireland, rocky and desolate.

We then turned off onto another local highway that meandered though villages and fields of sheep, goats, and cows. Many of the places looked abandoned, and we noticed quite a few cemeteries, some that just seemed to be plopped in the middle of a pasture (former battlefields?). Thanks to the whatever-floats-your-boat speed limit, we found ourselves at Plitvice in no time.

Getting In

After paying the (somewhat) reduced admission fee for visiting during the off-season, we consulted the map. The park has seven outlined routes which you can browse in advance here. We chose a medium-length trail, Route C, and skipped off in the direction of the rushing water.

Notes and my thoughts on our route choice can be found in the practical tips below.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkThe Lower Lakes

One of our first glimpses of the falls was this postcard-worthy photo. Sheesh, even those not that into nature would be hard pressed to not gasp at the cascading emerald waters.

We found out that the Lakes are NOT pram-friendly about five minutes into our visit when we decided to veer off from the crowd and explore some very steep, damp steps. Good thing Charlie was securely strapped into our trusty backpack carrier…

At the bottom of the steps, we realized we’d found Šupljara Cave rather by accident. Rick Steeves tells me that this site is popular with German tourists due to its use as a film location for a “Spaghetti Western” from the 60s. Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Beyond the cave, it’s pure boardwalk bliss. Walking nearly on the turquoise water, this is as close as any visitor will get to taking a dip since swimming inside the park is prohibited. The wooden paths are narrow, and beware that oohing and ahhing when it’s crowded could result in a big splash and an even bigger fine. But do keep moving, though; the “big one” awaits..

My boys squealed with delight once we reached the Great Fall in the Lower Lakes because the cascading water was spitting at the visitors as it tumbled over the cliff. Kissed by the mist, we elbowed school groups in order to get thirty seconds alone for a family picture with the biggest rush in the park.

We then made our way through the rest of the Lower Lakes, fighting the urge to photograph every last little waterfall along the way. There are just SO MANY that by the end of our visit that (spoiler alert) I was suffering a bit from waterfall overload. I know, I know, first-world problem..

An electric boat shuttles visitors between the Upper and Lower Lakes. We took this opportunity to rest and refuel. Five cheese sandwiches later (that’s total, not each), we began our tour of the Upper Lakes.

The Upper Lakes

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkIn many ways, we enjoyed the Upper Lakes more than the Lower. While the wooden walkways in the Lower Lakes seemed to be right at water level, the Upper Lakes allows visitors to literally walk over waterfalls. It’s such fun to see the gurgling foam flood out beneath your feet.. provided of course that your children aren’t delighting in the obvious lack of rails along the path…

Also, the Upper Lakes are quieter. Fewer tourists make their way here since many are day trippers that only have enough time to see half of the park. The appeal of the Upper is breadth while the Lower draws the masses with height.

Plus, we spotted fluorescent green lizards along the Upper paths, but (thankfully) no other reptiles.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkThrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Walking on Waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National ParkAfter we’d had our fill of that soothing rushing water sound, we decided to call it quits. One could easily spend two days exploring every possible footpath in the park, but a half day was enough for us to capture the best of the best.

When I think back on our day at Plivice Lakes in late April, what I remember most is the color, the sound, and the vast variety in the waterfalls. No photo, no video could do a visit here justice. One must see it to believe the jade waters are really that shade and not just Photoshopped so. So, jot it down on your list – Plitvička Jezera is THE Croatian natural wonder to see!

Plitvice Lakes can also be visited in winter (see here). Would you rather go in spring when the waters rage or in winter to see the cascades magically frozen?

Practical Tips & FAQ’s for Your Visit to Plitvice Lakes:

  • Parking is available in two lots, P1 and P2, but both may not be open year-round. We parked in P2 because it was the first one we reached when we drove up from Zadar. The attendant told me that the parking lots aren’t much different if you want to see the whole park. If youw ant to see the Lower Lakes only, park at P1. At the time of our visit, parking cost 7kn/hour.
  • The national park’s website offers seven route choices. We chose C. It appears that this is the same route as H, just reversed. Rick Steves recommends this route (C) because you encounter the falls head on. However, it is all uphill; go with H if you’d rather walk downhill.
  • You can bring your own picnic to the park or you can grab lunch at one of the cafes or restaurants. Check opening times though, because they’re not all open all year. We took advantage of the wait times for trains and the boat and ate then. Not exactly the most scenic, but efficient if you’re trying to cut down your total visit time.
  • A note on weather… We visited in April and were threatened with rain all day. However, this was a blessing because the cloud cover meant we were shielded from the blazing sun. I’d guess Plitvice is a sweltering mess in the summer with 10,000 tourists and intense heat. Bring sunscreen and a waterproof jacket in case of unexpected rain.
  • A bonus of visiting in the spring – powerful waterfalls from melting snow and spring rains. I’ve read elsewhere that visiting in late summer can be rather disappointing if the waterfalls are merely trickling. Winter at Plitvice is a totally different experience. See my note in italics above for a link to winter photos.
  • Beware the crowds in summer! If you visit during the high season, you may not be able to double back on the platforms (cheat on the routes as mentioned above) or easily pass slower groups.
  • Take note of where the bathrooms are. There’s a map on your ticket, and the potties are marked on it. Pay close attention! Across the lake from P1 at the start of P2, there’s no bathroom, so be sure to make a pit stop before you cross over and begin walking the Upper Lakes. There aren’t ANY bathrooms until you read the train station at the end of the Upper Lake path. The bathroom in the parking lot (P2) was a squatty potty, but the others we visited had proper toilets.
  • What time of day should one visit? We arrived at noon, which ended up being perfect. Most of the morning day trippers had already cleared out and we only had a few student groups to contend with on the narrow boardwalks.
  • Can I take a pram or stroller? No, you definitely cannot/should not. The pathways are uneven, rustic wooden slats. There are also stairs, and we experienced muddy paths in some places. We did not see any babies or toddlers under 3 the whole day. However, we did see tons of families with children (mostly Germans – ha!).
  • Does Route C really take 4-6 hours? Well, that depends. We cheated on a few parts of the route by doubling back and cutting off a loop here and there. Our whole walk took only 3 hours. I suppose if you walked every bit of the route and stopped a lot for breaks, a picnic lunch, etc., it might take that long.
  • Is the route strenuous? In our opinion, no. We saw many elderly people and families with children, none of whom were complaining. As I mentioned above, we did visit for 3 hours, but some of that time was spent on trains/boats and waiting. It’s more of a walk than a hike, but the route from the Lower to Upper Lakes is uphill.
  • Is it safe for kids to visit? As I mentioned, we saw tons of families with children. But, please know that the paths are without railings. I think two things helped our visit: first, we emphasized the “no swimming in the park” rule in advance, and second, the park wasn’t crowded so I didn’t need to worry about the kids being accidentally or “accidentally” pushed in the water.

 

Signature Thrifty Travel MamaThis post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Berchtesgaden With Kids: Lake Königssee

Thrifty Travel Mama | Berchtesgaden: Lake Koenigssee with KidsThe next stop on our Berchtesgaden natural wonder tour?  The Königssee, a deep and fjord-like lake near the Austrian border.

In addition to the stunning mountain backdrop and mirror-like water, the lake is touted as Germany’s cleanest.  For those who enjoy a good arctic chill, swimming is permitted in most areas.  However, if you prefer to stay warm and dry, the only way to cross the clear waters is via electric or row boat.

Fog covers the lake in the mornings, but lucky for us it melted away just as we set sail.

Fog covers the lake in the mornings, but lucky for us it melted away just as we set sail.

The battery-powered schooners ferry visitors to several ports: Seelände (Schönau), St. Bartholomä, Salet, and Kessel (on request).  Excellent hiking awaits the adventurous at each of these destinations; but if that’s not your thing, you can still stop off for coffee and cake or just a glass of fresh buttermilk.

Since we are wannabe hikers, we chose two paths to tackle in one day, the Ice Chapel (Eiskapelle) and the Röthbachfall (the highest waterfall in Germany.. for reals).

Spoiler alert: we definitely bit off more than we could chew.  If you’re in the company of short legs, stick to only one alpine excursion per day.

Goodbye fog, hello crystal clear.

Goodbye fog, hello crystal clear.

Boarding the boat at Schönau was a cinch, since we arrived early.  Lines increase as the day goes on, so get in early if you hate to wait.

The small electric ship putters its way to St. Bartholomä in about 45 minutes.  This is a long ride for little ones, so break out the snacks as soon as the skipper starts his speech.  Pause for a bit when he plays a tune on the trumpet to demonstrate the excellent echo present at the Königssee.  Heads up – the hat will be passed in a shameless request for tips.

The famous pilgrilms church at St. Bartholomä.

The famous pilgrimage church at St. Bartholomä.

Arriving at St. Bartholomä, it’s tempting to snap photos with the onion-domed church.  But the day is short and the hikes are long, so hit the trails first.Thrifty Travel Mama | Berchtesgaden: Lake Koenigssee with KidsThe Ice Chapel route starts out in the forest; our view that day was tinged with autumn.  Scarlet here, a hint of gold there.  Most impressive, though, was the looming presence of the Watzmann – a rugged, lavender mountain face gently kissed with lime.

The eastern face of Watzmann.

The eastern face of Watzmann.

Not far after happening upon a small white church (see photo), the “easy” blue trail turns challenging with plenty of rocks to scramble over and an incline that’ll have you huffing and puffing.  In case you’re wondering, this is not a job for Nike or Puma.

Let's name this one "NOT the Ice Chapel."

Let’s name this one “NOT the Ice Chapel.”

The Eiskapelle is formed by avalanches in the spring that pile snow in a corner of the valley.  When the weather warms, the bottom of the pile melts, leaving a giant hole in the ice that some say looks like the entrance to a chapel.  However, the entrance is all you’ll see, because extreme danger and the possibility of death are the only rewards for those who cross the threshold.

Unfortunately, we must have missed the glory days of the 2013 snow church.  After crossing the most challenging terrain of the hike (the path switches to red once you reach the valley), we realized that only a rotten patch of snow remained where the chapel should have been.

Ah, well, it was still a splendid place for a picnic, if I do say so myself.

That white speck to the right is what remained of the Eiskapelle.

That white speck to the right is what remained of the Eiskapelle.

My mountain man.

Doc Sci, my mountain man.  Btw, this little rock is taller than he is.. and there’s a baby on his back.

Saying goodbye to St. Bartholomä.

Saying goodbye to St. Bartholomä.

We picked our way back over the rocks and down the mountain trail to the dock where we waited only 10 minutes for the next boat to Salet.  It’s only possible to visit Salet from the end of April to mid-October, and I highly recommend timing your trip to occur between these months.

The cows at Salet.

The cows at Salet.

Upon arriving at Salet, the last stop on the Königssee boat route, an alpine fairy tale awaits.  The air is quiet, crisp.  The mountains keep a stern watch over the glassy sea.  Cows amble about as they graze, their tinkling bells breaking the silence.

But your dream world comes crashing down all around you once you realize those aren’t mounds of mud your kids are stepping in…

Cow chips the size of dinner plates.

Cow chips the size of dinner plates.

Seriously, watch the poop.  It’s somethin’ fierce.

Once in Salet, anyone and everyone strolls past the cafe and hokey souvenir hut and on toward the picturesque Obersee.  This small lake will have you oohing and ahhing at how the water mirrors the majestic jewel tones of the surrounding peaks.

Don’t be fooled by the guidebooks that tell you the Obersee is a quiet respite.  Since the path is so easy (prams are ok), those picture perfect photographs will be crowded with fellow tourists.

Obersee looking toward the Fischunkelalm.

Obersee looking toward the Fischunkelalm.

Gorgeous mirror lake.

Gorgeous mirror lake.

To reach the second destination of the day (Röthbachfall on the far side of the Obersee), follow the signs to Fischunkelalm.  The route seems easy enough at first, but check your pram at the livestock gate because things are about to get seriously steep.

Step by step, we scaled the rock stairs but with bated breath.  With each slippery stone, I fretted about falling, but it was too late to turn back.  We were halfway up, and turning around would be difficult with two-way foot traffic on the narrow, chiseled path.

In hindsight, we should’ve just admired the Obersee and ditched our record-breaking waterfall aspirations.  It was the end of the day: feet tired, legs sore, protests a plenty.  But, we really didn’t think.  We just put one foot in front of the other.

The refreshment hut at Fischunkelalm.  Only stop here if you fancy spending 20 minutes in line only to find out when you order that they're out of everything you had any desire to order.  I'm not bitter... really..

The refreshment hut at Fischunkelalm. Only stop here if you fancy spending 20 minutes in line only to find out when you order that they’re out of everything you had any desire to order. I’m not bitter… really..

I'm not sure I want fresh milk from this rustic kitchen anyway...

I’m not sure I want fresh milk from this rustic kitchen anyway…  Is that Schnapps on the counter?!

Once we reached the little hut at Fischunkelalm, we still had to cross another meadow teeming with gaseous bovines and steaming landmines.  But, suddenly the towering rock face appeared and, wait, oh, yep, sure enough, that pathetic trickle that’s barely more than a leaky faucet is the Röthbachfall.

Yeehaw.

The totally-not-at-all famous Röthbachfall.

The totally-not-at-all famous Röthbachfall.

As I’m sure is blaringly obvious to you, these two hikes were more than our boys could really handle in one day.  Going in, I thought with enough food, breaks, and “boy stuff” (sticks, boats, cows, mounds of poo) we could make it happen.  In all honesty, we should’ve picked a favorite and gone with only one strenuous hike. 

Aye, but there’s the rub.  Choosing a favorite.  Perhaps if I had known in advance that the Ice Chapel had evaporated into thin air or that the highest waterfall in Germany was a dribble instead of a downpour… Eh, if I could do it over again, I really don’t know what we would’ve changed.

Okay, the tantrums.  I would’ve erased those.  But the rest of the day was.. epic.

Just one more shot...

Just one last look…

The looming peaks, the glassy water, the luscious meadows, the golden leaves, the enchanting fog.. the Königssee is one of the most impressive natural spectacles I have ever seen.  Whether you muscle your way up the trails or just mosey along around the ports of St. Bartholomä and Salet, an excursion the Königssee is guaranteed to knock your socks off.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Berchtesgaden: Lake Koenigssee with KidsPractical Tips for visiting the Königssee with kids:

  • Do NOT forget your camera!!  The area is gorgeous, even in the rain and fog.
  • If you’re staying at a Berchtesgaden area hotel, don’t forget your guest card!  It’s good for public transportation in the area as well as discounts on parking at the Königssee / Jennerbahn lot and on tickets for the Königssee boat.
  • A quick note about Jennerbahn… the view from the top is almost the same view as from the Eagle’s Nest / Kehlsteinhaus, so do one or the other (although there are trails around Jennerbahn that will obviously give you different views).
  • Decide in advance if you want to go to Salet or just St. Bartholomä.  It’s not possible to extend your ticket to Salet once you’ve reached St. Bartholomä.
  • Sit on the right hand side of the boat next to a window that slides open for the best photographs.
  • Prams are possible on the boat and at the area around the church at St. Bartholomä.  You can also push a pram from Salet to the Obersee.  Anything beyond that requires a backpack carrier.
  • Public restrooms and fresh water fountains can be found at both of the ports.
  • If you don’t want to take the boat, follow the signs from the docks at Seelände to Malerwinkel, a family-friendly trail with excellent views of the lake.

More Berchtesgaden!  The Eagle’s Nest and the Almbachklamm gorge.

Signature-Marigold

Jucker Farm: Pumpkin Heaven… in Switzerland!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandLet’s take a little quiz…  You might be an American if:

  • You count down the days until Starbucks starts serving pumpkin spice lattes again.
  • Apples are a side note, and pumpkins are the star of your fall baking line up.
  • You carve pumpkins every year, even if you’re not that into Halloween.
  • You bake a pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, even if no one in your family likes it.
  • Pumpkin soup seems weird to you, but pumpkin in ice cream, fudge, donuts, cookies, candy, cakes, pies, milkshakes, and cocktails is perfectly acceptable.

To restate the blaringly obvious, Americans are obsessed with pumpkins! 

And, Germans… are not. 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandWhen I moved to Germany four years ago, I couldn’t believe that pumpkin wasn’t sold in cans.  Nor was it sold year ’round.  With sadness, I only enjoyed one taste of pumpkin that year – pie on Thanksgiving.

Each autumn here, I’ve gone a bit more overboard in my quest to not be left pumpkin-less at any time.  Last year, I had about 20 cups of frozen pumpkin puree to last me until the next harvest.  If you’ve seen German freezers, you’ll know that this is total insanity.

And, while the little soup and baking pumpkins sold in German supermarkets are completely adorable, they just aren’t right for carving.  Imagine trying to hack a freaky face into a cantaloupe.

Yeah, that’s just not happening.

Now that the boys are older, I feel it is my duty as an American parent to expose them to their pumpkin-crazy culture (though I will hold off on the pumpkin spice lattes for as long as possible…).

And there’s no better place in Europe to go bananas over squash than Jucker Farm.  (If you know of another, please do share in the comments below!)

Juckerhof, as seen from the closest parking lot.

Juckerhof, as seen from the closest parking lot.

Gorgeous pumpkins and produce.

Gorgeous pumpkins and produce.

Jucker Farm is located east of Zürich in Seegräben, Switzerland.  It’s not a real farm in the sense that it’s mainly for tourists and the only smells wafting by your nose will those of roasting pumpkin seeds and pumpkin kettle corn.

Before I go any further, I should mention that Jucker Farm is completely, totally, 100% kid-friendly.  If you want a Swiss family outing, this is it.  You’ll find clean, free bathrooms, changing tables, kid-friendly foods, a petting zoo, a playground, and more!

Don't forget to grab a wheelbarrow to cart your pumpkins to the car.. or corral a screaming baby.

Don’t forget to grab a wheelbarrow to cart your pumpkins to the car.. or corral a screaming baby.

Every year, Jucker Farm hauls in a wide variety of pumpkins and other winter squash for visitors to admire… and purchase.  The delectable eats are piled in big bins, not scattered on the ground like a traditional American pumpkin patch.  In addition to the raw goods, the farm shop at Jucker sells pumpkin products such as wine, oil, pasta, popcorn, and salsa.

Please be advised that while prices are not unreasonable, they are, ahem, Swiss.  It’s free to visit the farm, take a leak, and swing in the hammocks, but almost every other activity (including parking) costs a pretty penny.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandAs if the pretty piled pumpkins weren’t enough, each year the staff at the farm creates giant sculptures out of the gourds according to a theme.  Who doesn’t want to see a fifteen-foot pumpkin Elvis?

Several pumpkin-themed events are held annually, and crowds are significantly larger on these days (check the website for exact dates or call ahead).

An obviously sponsored punkin boat.

An obviously sponsored pumpkin boat.

We visited the weekend after the pumpkin regatta.  This silly sport involves hollowing out a giant pumpkin, climbing inside, and racing across the nearby lake.  We got quite a chuckle out of imagining grown men folding themselves into these big slimy buckets and paddling frantically toward the finish line.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandThe other big draw at Jucker Farm is picking your own fruit.  Apples, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries are all available at various times of the year (more info here).

Given our previous enthusiasm for self-picked strawberries and apples, I was quite excited to go after the last of the blueberry harvest.  Unfortunately, the season closed the evening before our visit (which only makes me more determined to go next year!).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandThrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandOther fun things for kids include giant hay bales for scaling, hammocks for swinging, and apple mazes for solving.

The boys and I did have fun following Doc Sci to the middle of the three leafy labyrinths  (Mr. Smarty Pants is not only good at solving puzzles, he’s great at cheating.. just follow the most traveled path, he says), but I think they were too young to really understand or try to figure out what we were doing. Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in Switzerland

At the heart of the most difficult maze... want to know the prize?  You'll have to solve it yourself!

At the heart of the most difficult maze… want to know the prize? You’ll have to solve it yourself!

A little tip for cheapskates, er I mean thrifty, visitors.. you are not allowed to bring your own picnic and sit at any of the tables to eat it.  But, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice brown bag lunch.  Just take your budget eats down to the lake, and take advantage of the benches there.Thrifty Travel Mama | Visiting Jucker Farm with Kids: Pumpkin Heaven in SwitzerlandBy the way, the lake looked like a super place to swim.  We’ll have to come back in summer and bring our suits!

A diving board in the middle of the lake.. abandoned in autumn.

A diving board in the middle of the lake.. abandoned in autumn.

As if you couldn’t already tell, we had a fabulous time at Jucker Farm.  If you’re anywhere within a two-hour drive in the fall, I highly encourage you to pack up the kids and fill your day with fun (fruity?!) memories.

But, before I go, I just want to mention that Moms Tots Zürich has done a fine job of introducing visitors to Jucker Farm and sharing super helpful details for first-timers.

In fact, I emailed Tanya and asked her at least a dozen questions prior to our trip.  She was gracious in answering each one, so I’d like to repay the favor by sending folks her way.  For more details on Jucker Farm, or to just say hi, click here.

Headed to Switzerland? Don’t miss our Swiss adventures with kids: Schilthorn, Rhein Falls, and Stein am Rhein!Signature-Marigold

Rhein Falls with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Rhein FallsI have to admit, I’ve never been one to go gaga over rushing water.  The sight of water falling doesn’t thrill me as much as, say, castle ruins.  Victoria Falls is on my lifetime bucket list, but Niagara strikes me as total kitsch.  But, after checking out the Rhein Falls in Switzerland, I think I may have changed my mind.  There’s something elusive, even alluring about the formidable power of an imposing waterfall.

Just south of Schaffhausen in northern Switzerland lies Neuhasen, the closest city to the falls.  The Rhein Falls are an easy drive from Stein am Rhein, Hohentwiel, Konstanz, Mainau, or even Basel or Zurich.

Visitors can access the falls on both sides of the river either through Schloss Laufen or Schlössli Wörth The Schloss Laufen side charges 5 CHF per adult for admission, but parking is free.  Schlössli Wörth, on the other hand, does not levy entrance fees but the car park costs 6 CHF for 2 hours.  We voted Schloss Laufen; well, okay, the GPS chose for us.

Schloss Laufen - not much to see in this castle except the inside of your empty wallet.

Schloss Laufen – not much to see in this castle except the inside of your empty wallet.

View old photographs of the falls while walking through Schloss Laufen.

View old artistic interpretations of the falls.

Part with your Swiss francs or euros at the ticket office.  Take advantage of the free, clean bathrooms around the corner.  Gaggle at the exorbitant food prices as you make your way to the castle.  A cinnamon sugar crepe for 6 CHF ($6.50) or a bratwurst for 7 CHF ($7.50) anyone?  Hey, at least parking is free!Thrifty Travel Mama - Rhein FallsSpeaking of free, cheapskates should know that it’s impossible to see anything from the castle without an entrance ticket.  However, Doc Sci and I theorized that it is entirely probable that one could take advantage of a decent view from the boat ramp.

From Schloss Laufen, follow the signs for the train/boat.  Walk all the way out on the dock, but don’t board.  You should be able to catch a glimpse of the falls from there… but you didn’t hear that from me!

A stained glass turret at the beginning of the descent.

A stained glass turret at the beginning of the descent.

After scanning our tickets and walking through the turnstile, we descended via stairs to the first of several platformsWikipedia described the way as “steep and narrow.”  In my experience, they were neither… at least not to the point of annoyance.

Screech kept saying wow, wow, wow.

Screech kept saying wow, wow, wow.

However, families with babies will find the steps a point of contention.  Though an elevator exists, it does little good for those who wish to experience the various platform views.  I noticed one or two parents with prams.  Frustrated, they had folded up their strollers and were lugging them around while the children walked.

Psssst!  If you haven’t caught on by now, I’m a huge fan of backpack carriers for little ones!

The elevator - all visitors exit the falls this way, but those with wheelchairs or strollers can enter here, too.

The elevator – all visitors exit the falls this way, but those with wheelchairs or strollers can enter here, too.

As you climb lower, the falls’ force and your fascination increases.  At one point, the water seems to be rushing straight at your face.  In a small cave near the bottom, you can even stick your hand in the stream.Thrifty Travel Mama - Rhein FallsThrifty Travel Mama - Rhein Falls

Thrifty Travel Mama - Rhein FallsThrifty Travel Mama - Rhein FallsFor serious thrill seekers, a boat ferries visitors from the Schlössli Wörth shore to an observation platform sticking straight up from the center of the falls.  Hats off to the skippers who must maneuver the torrid waters several times per hour.  I personally wouldn’t take small children on this excursion; but, if you’re interested, more information can be found here.

That yellow thing is the boat that takes visitors to the rock in the middle of the falls.  The only thing between you and the water is a thin, metal railing!

That yellow thing is the boat that takes visitors to the rock in the middle of the falls. The only thing between you and the water is a thin, metal railing!

Thrifty Travel Mama - Rhein FallsAfter you’ve had your fill observing the force of nature, head back up to the schloss and have a look around.  Kids can amuse themselves for a few minutes on the small playground; parents can decide if they’d like to splurge on an expensive fancy meal at the restaurant.

I can’t say I’ve been converted to a waterfall chaser, but I will admit that my interest in them has somewhat increased.  One thing Doc Sci and I have come to learn about ourselves in this expat experiment is that we love exploring all that the natural world has to offer.  So whether it be water or wind or forest or fjord, you can bet we’ll investigate anything once.. kids in tow.

Taking the family to Switzerland?  Check our adventures in Stein am Rhein and Schilthorn with kids!Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Stein am Rhein with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsStein am Rhein is a stunning small town that – in the words of a traveling friend – really must be seen to be believed!  Straddling the Rhein River in Switzerland, this Altstadt is a gem.   With countless intricately frescoed and half-timbered houses, you won’t want to miss it! Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsAt the end of July, we dipped in to Switzerland after a morning at the impressive Hohentwiel ruins.  Stein am Rhein is so small, you won’t need more than half day to explore it, but you’ll want to stay longer to soak in as much charm as possible.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsOther than the intricate frescoes, the water is the main draw.  Visitors can take a river cruise, but we observed a more DIY way to experience the Rhein.

Scores of college students could be seen along the banks inflating large dinghies.  The first raft ready was placed in the river and filled with two or three inches of water.  Cans and bottles of beer were submerged in the cool water.  Apparently, they were chilling their beverages while the rest of the party pumped up their rafts.  Nice idea, eh?Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsAnd speaking of ideas, I couldn’t come up with very many when it came to figuring out how in the world these rafts could be any match for the Rhein’s current.  None of the rafts had motors, and many did not even have oars.  Given the busy boat traffic on the water, I don’t think I’d want to be stuck in the middle of a rushing river with no way to navigate.  Perhaps these young ‘uns know something I don’t…?

For adrenaline junkies in Stein am Rhein, the thing to do is jump off the bridge into the cold river below.  We saw a handful of people partaking in this risky activity, and even a boy about 12 years old.  Apparently diving from the bridge is so popular, that the town has erected a sign warning of potential danger.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsAnyhow, we explored the north shore first.  The famous Rathausplatz (town hall square) and the most beautiful frescoes can be found here, as well as some very expensive restaurants.  One of the nicest surprises in Stein am Rhein was the lack of obnoxious tourist traps.  The town didn’t have a kitschy feel or oppressive crowds.

Swiss army knives were the big draw here.  T-Rex wanted one with a "necklace" (lanyard) attached.

Swiss army knives were the big draw here. T-Rex wanted one with a “necklace” (lanyard) attached.

After strolling the picturesque side streets, we headed toward the river bridge.  On our way there, we impulsively ducked in to a small courtyard.  Here we happened upon the first of two delightful discoveries.

A convent museum (St. Georgen Klostermuseum) sits in a charming courtyard just off the main traffic street.  Shortly before we reached the museum entrance, we found a gigantic wine press and several large barrels.  Doc Sci went all nerdy on me, explaining the physics of the press to the boys.  Bored, I left to soak in the atmosphere of the quiet hof.  The smell of lavender in bloom, the breeze from the river, the warm rays of sunshine… absolutely lovely.

The Kloster courtyard.

The Kloster courtyard.

The press.

The press.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsOn the south side of the Rhein, we climbed some steps up to a quaint little church (St. Johann Kirche).  Opposite the onion dome, we feasted on a fantastic view of the town and surrounding hills.

From here, we could see Hohenklingen Castle keeping watch from high above Stein am Rhein.  We were burg-ed out that day, but should you have more energy to conquer the climb, visitor information can be found here.

St. John's Church.

St. John’s Church.

From here you can see the Burg.

From here you can see the Burg on the hill high above Stein am Rhein.

Then, on a whim, I decided to follow a touristy-looking sign to something called Badi Espi.  I guessed it might be a museum or at least a photogenic building.  Nope – Badi Espi is an area of the Rhein fenced off for swimming!

The boys had left their swimsuits in the car, but that didn’t stop us from stripping off shoes and socks and wading into the river.  Cool, refreshing, and clean – we couldn’t believe our good fortune!  Even Big Foot dipped his toes.  I was relieved to find a decent free bathroom on site, though I bristled at the food stand prices.  Five euros for  a single hot dog!  We didn’t bite.Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with Kids

To the right in the picture, you'll notice a diving board for bathers wanting to take a dip outside the fence.

To the right in the picture, you’ll notice a diving board for bathers wanting to take a dip outside the fence.

Back at the parking lot, we noticed two great attractions for children – a large wooden playground and small kiddie train.  Want to ride?  Find fares and a timetable here.

In regards to parking, the lot adjacent to the old town seemed adequate even for a sunny Saturday.  Machines accept credit cards, Swiss francs, and euro coins.  I didn’t notice any free parking; every inch of the road leading in to town required motorists to pay up. Thrifty Travel Mama | Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, with KidsThe quaint Swiss town of Stein am Rhein deserves a spot on every traveler’s Bodensee or northern Switzerland itinerary, especially in summer.  Pack Swiss money, passports, and swimsuits, and treat the family to a picture perfect day on the Rhein!

Taking the family to Switzerland?  Check our adventures on top of Europe at Schilthorn and on the river at Rhein Falls with kids!Signature-Marigold

Exploring Brugge by Boat

Thrifty Travel Mama - Canal Boat Tour, BruggeEverywhere I looked, the guides all insisted the same thing – explore Brugge by boat!  Or by horse drawn carriage.  Pick your pleasure, but either way a tour of the city must be taken.

I don’t normally spring for expensive tours in new cities.  I prefer walking, taking public transport, wandering about on my own and at our family’s pace.  But, I couldn’t get away from this advice no matter where I turned.  And, let’s face it.  Little boys love boats and water.

My boys also love horses, but we could only afford one splurge and the budget choice (though not exactly cheap) ended up the winner.  Plus, I can walk where the horses trot, but I can’t swim where the boats glide.

One of the many Brugge boat tour operators.

One of the many Brugge boat tour operators.

I couldn’t find any concrete information (as in a credible website, exact address, phone number, GPS coordinates) as to where exactly I should find said boat tours.  The only clue?  Head down the Wollestraat, and keep your eyes peeled for the skipper.

Our captain/guide - and a view of the Belfort!

Our captain/guide – and a view of the Belfort!

Well, whaddya know, those imperfect directions sufficed.  Several boat tour companies have set up shop in this small area.  We picked the only one open at the time we visited, plunked down some cash (€ 6,50 adults / children 4-11  € 3 / free for children under four), and climbed aboard.

Behind this house is the Lake of Love.

Behind this house is the Lake of Love.

Beautiful Brugge.

Beautiful Brugge.

Boats are small, so little ones should be closely supervised to avoid swimming with the sharks (just kidding, no fin friends here).  The captain offers gossipy and historical tidbits about the charming houses and occupants lined up along the water.  Not too dense, not too dull.  Our guide spoke English, but other languages were available.

Brugge through young eyes.

My boys couldn’t get enough of the giant swans.

Careful you don't take the wrong exit in this building!

Careful you don’t take the wrong exit in this house!

The whole shebang lasted about 35 minutes, just enough time to absorb a few facts but not long enough to drive little ones over the edge.  Tips will be solicited at the end of the ride, so keep your euro coins handy.

Fish eye view.

Fish eye view.

Speaking of tips, here are a few weather-related ones… Tours do not run when the canals are frozen.  Duh.  However, just a little ice doesn’t scare these fellas; our boat crunched its way through Brugge during our visit at the end of March.  Also, no tourists, no tour.  The captain waits until the boat reaches capacity before sailing off.  If you’re the first to arrive, you may find yourself shivering under the open skies waiting for the rest of the frozen folks to show up.

The Church of our Lady - constructed entirely of bricks.

The Church of our Lady – constructed entirely of bricks.

Brugge is full of canals, and known as one of the European “Venice of the North” cities, so no wonder all the experts insisted on seeing it the way residents have for centuries.  Our whole family enjoyed taking in the unique scenery that a boat tour affords, soaking in the atmosphere of this beautiful old city.

Fantastic!

Fantastic!

Would you rather experience Brugge by boat or horse drawn carriage?  If you’ve had the privilege of either one, share your experience in the comments below. Signature-MarigoldLooking for more about Brugge?  Check out the best things to do in Brugge with kids, and tips on eating out in the old city.