On holiday with small children: Perfecting the art of ‘active’ relaxing

We were hoping to stick with our usual travel goals – experiencing food and culture of a new place while exploring and relaxing

We were one of just two families left in the Spanish airport’s baggage hall, which had been so busy 30 minutes earlier. As we lugged large bags, buggies and kids towards the exit we exchanged knowing smiles with the other parents, as if to say, “I understand why you’re so slow”.

That’s the big change of travel with a pre-schooler and a baby.

Many of our fellow passengers were probably already sunning themselves at a cafe in Valencia’s old town, and in the past we prided ourselves on seeing half of a city’s sights on our first day.

But between snacks, toilets and nappies there’s no room for hurry.


We needed a breather after surviving the flight and the four phases of on-board toddler entertainment which begin after take-off excitement.

1) “Have some food . . . stop shaking the tray.”

2) “Let’s do some drawing (not on the window blind).”

3) “Stop kicking the seat in front of you (repeat ad nauseam).

4) Okay, here’s the iPad. (This comes 40 minutes before landing and just as baby is woken up by an important announcement about scratch cards).

This was our first foray into holidays with both a baby and a pre-schooler and we were hoping we could stick with our usual travel goals – experiencing food and culture of a new place while exploring and relaxing.

Arriving at our apartment we politely nodded as our well-intentioned AirBnB host dotted our map with trendy eateries showcasing the best local cuisine. I should have asked her which ones opened before our children’s bed-time (none!), had a menu for fussy toddlers, and had tables with enough elbow room for breastfeeding (not many).

A photograph of one of our few attempts at dinner out looks idyllic . . . a glass of rioja perched on a balcony overlooking the sea. But behind the camera my first born was exhausted after a day of sightseeing and vigorously rejected the “chips” (patatas bravas) because they looked funny. My husband kept the hunger monster at bay with almonds and fruit from our bag while I fed the baby at an awkward angle while glancing up at the view when I could.

For the other nights we swapped fancy dinners out for happier kids, and our culinary delights came elsewhere. From the delicacies in the local supermarket to the joys of Valencia’s vibrant central market. The legs of pork hanging from the ceilings did lead to a sooner-than-expected conversation with our son about the origins of meat, but the abundance of ripe strawberries and mandarins meant that (for once) the three-year-old getting his five a day was not a struggle.

Cultural escapades on this trip were no longer based on the guidebook criteria of sights with the most historical or architectural value. Instead, the choice came down to questions like – will they mind if my child twirls around in the middle of the floor pretending his arm is a bucket and he is a digger?

And with this high-brow selection method we managed to see about half of the recommended top sights (and enjoy local life at the dozens of playgrounds not in the book ).

There were also lovely sunny down days relaxing on the beach. When I say relaxing, it’s not with a novel and a cocktail when you have littlies. Rather, we have perfected the art of “active” relaxing. That means two hours helping the first born dig the sand and catch waves while rocking the baby in a sling, shielding his skin from the sun . . . and preparing for a swift exit at that exact moment before tiredness, hunger, hotness overwhelm.

The most relaxing time was actually the adventuring – with an excited pre-schooler travelling on the city’s underground (a sleep machine for the baby), or sitting up on his own seat in the bus looking out the window at all the newness like the “exotic” differently coloured street-sweepers. The baby would be giving regular bursts of laughter as we walked around the city streets as if he could smell and hear the different surroundings.

And the coming home bit?

It’s as depressing now as always. Except the washing is a mountain and the three-year-old also got post-holiday blues.

Despite explanations about Irish weather, he insisted on wearing his sunglasses to the park after we got home, sadly handing them back after five minutes proclaiming: “The sun is gone.”