Have Kitchen, Will Travel – to Europe

in Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining
Published: June 30, 2010

The McKenzie-Davison family continues their travels with life-threatening allergies, this time heading off to Europe. It’s bonjour South of France, hello England and Italy. Here they come, toting that suitcase of safe foods.

We took our first summer vacation in Europe with two children back when Kieryn was not yet 3 years old and Taya had just turned one. We flew into Toulouse in the south of France and rented a car for what should have been a simple two-hour drive on the motorway to our villa near Perpignan.

We were barely onto the motorway when Kieryn called out: “I have to go pee!” Fortunately the French have a lot of rest stops, and we pulled over briefly. Back on the motorway, we’d only driven 15 minutes more when Kieryn again had to go.

She was toilet training, and we were trying to encourage that, so I pulled over at the next rest stop. Back under way and, you guessed it, 15 minutes later, Kieryn “had to pee”. I was a bit frustrated, but once more pulled over.

While my wife Keely and Kieryn were in the bathroom, Taya, our younger daughter, woke up crying; she’d soiled her diaper and it had leaked right up her back. I got her out and began cleaning up the mess. Keely returned to help, first giving Kieryn some bread with cream cheese to keep her occupied. We had Taya cleaned up and dressed when I noticed Kieryn had just spread the cream cheese all over the front seat.

At this point I lost it, asking Keely, whose bright idea was it to go on vacation to Europe with two small children. She calmly pointed out that it was all mine, to which I replied, “That’s why I married you, so you’d talk me out of these crazy ideas.”

Ultimately Rewarding

Traveling with children, even without food allergies can be challenging, but it is also highly rewarding. Despite that rough start, we had a great first trip with two kids, and we find that enjoying new experiences as a family can be uplifting.

It does, however, take careful planning to travel with children with life-threatening food allergies. The good news is that our food requirements are complicated – so if we can do it, you can, too. Taya has multiple allergies, including peanuts, nuts, sesame and kiwi. Keely and I are vegetarians, and Keely is allergic to eggs. As well, I have allergies to dust and cats.

Our fundamental approach explains the “Have Kitchen” title of this series: we always stay in places with a kitchen, and prepare as many of our own meals as humanly possible. Not only does this keep us safe, it also saves money, especially in Europe where eating out can be expensive.

City or Countryside?

Europe has a wonderful selection of self-catered villas and apartments for rent, usually for a minimum of one week. While many people think villa vacations are for the wealthy, in fact, there are villas in every price range. Sharing these accommodations with family or friends makes them even more affordable.

If you want to spend your time sightseeing at museums, churches and landmarks, then look for an apartment in a city. If you want to spend it relaxing in the country or at the seaside, then there are lots of villas to choose from as well. For the best of both worlds, consider one week in a city and one in the country. (Remember that if you are renting outside a city, you will need to rent a car to get around for sightseeing day trips and for groceries.)

The internet is a great source for finding villas. If you can travel outside of high season, you’ll find the best selection and prices. It’s possible to rent directly from an owner, but I recommend that first-time renters book through an agent. Check that the agent has seen the properties recently, and have a list of questions ready to ensure you get a villa that suits your family.

Our European Trips

England/Ireland – England is the most accessible of the European countries for English speakers, and what better way to experience it than to stay in an historic building. The Landmark Trust is a charity that rescues heritage buildings and gives them new life as places to stay. There are 185 “Landmarks,” including forts, manor houses, mills, cottages, castles, follies, gatehouses and towers (www.landmarktrust.org.uk).

We stayed in a 17th century house called Shelwick Court near Hereford, with beautiful countryside. The Irish Landmark Trust is a similar organization with properties throughout Ireland (www.irishlandmark.com). You can also rent apartments in London and other major cities in the U.K.

France – I love Paris for its great museums, cathedrals and food, but France also has many villas in its outstanding countryside. We’ve taken three villa trips to France and my favorite area is the less touristy southwest region. In the countryside, you will see a more relaxed France than you experience in Paris.

On our first vacation to France, we took a short trip to a small town nearby to see a 300-year-old fort. We stopped to ask some locals, who were playing pétanque (a popular form of lawn bowling), where the fort was. They invited us to join their game instead, suggesting it was much more interesting. We spent a lovely afternoon, and it’s hard to imagine getting the same invitation in Paris.

Spain – Spain is my favorite European country for beach villas. The sea is warm, the people friendly and there is a large selection of villas with pools. We’re fortunate that one of our friends who often travels with us is fluent in Spanish, and therefore a great help on allergy questions. We have rented two villas in Spain, and the better area was the southeast corner around the town of Mojacar, which is hotter, drier and less touristy than the Costa del Sol. But it is still close enough to do a day trip to Granada, which should not be missed.

Italy – What’s not to love about fabulous architecture and great food everywhere you go? Near the Tuscany and Umbria border, a group of 16 of us rented a 400-year-old farmhouse with a pool. The villa was at the end of a long narrow road in the middle of nowhere with gorgeous views of the rolling hills in the surrounding countryside.

One of our friends spoke Italian, which was a big help when we took day trips to the small towns around the villa, and allowed us to ask questions about the few packaged foods we bought. There was a hospital less than 30 minutes away which we had to use when our older daughter spiked a fever on the first night. Now we always check where the nearest hospital is, but this was the only time we have ever had to use one.

Portugal – Our first-ever villa trip was with four other couples to Portugal before we had kids. The villa looked OK in the photos the owner sent us, and my research suggested this area of the Algarve was not too built up. Still, we were a bit apprehensive when we first got there. But the pictures had not even done the place justice: it was six bedrooms with gorgeous marble floors, huge bathrooms, a beautiful pool and an ocean view (http://www.homeaway.co.uk/Portugal/Algarve/holiday-house-Burgau/p392.htm). We had such a great time with our friends on that trip that we have done a villa trip almost every year since.

Go Small, but Try It!

If you’re intrigued by travel but still nervous about the food allergies, make your first trip for one week only, and stay in a single place that has a direct flight connection. Take some time to find the villa that’s right for you and ensure you bring your allergy-free foods with you.

Your children will get a sense of history and see things that they can’t see at home. When your children are asleep and you are enjoying a glass of sulphite-free wine while gazing at the sunset over the European countryside, it will have all been worth it.

Tips on Sharing a Villa

Here are some tips to make sharing a villa with family and friends go smoothly. It’s best if everyone starts with the same expectations.

1. Agree up front on how to divide up costs. We usually charge one share per adult, a half share per child and free for infants sleeping in their parents’ room.
2. Agree on how the bedrooms will be chosen before you get there since some bedrooms will be larger. Our rule is that the person who found the villa gets first choice.
3. Set up a “kitty” at the outset for daily expenses such as food and gas and have everyone contribute an equal share. That way, you don’t have to try to sort out who spent what at the end of the vacation.
4. Agree on what the rules are for allergens in the kitchen. We like to make sure there are no peanuts, nuts or sesame in the villa at all, but you need to plan such rules ahead of the trip.
5. Agree on a plan for the cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping. Take turns so that each family gets some “nights off”.

Be Prepared

We took our first trip to Europe with a child when our oldest, Kieryn, was six months old. We were supposed to fly from Ottawa through Montreal to Paris, overnight at a hotel in Paris and catch a train to the town where we had booked a car to drive to our villa. Unfortunately, our first flight to Montreal was delayed and we instead ended up rerouted to Toronto where we were to catch a morning flight to London. From London, we were to fly on to Bordeaux.

We got to London, only to find that all flights the next day were cancelled because of a computer malfunction. We had to spend another day and night in London.

Thank goodness for my sister-in-law Kendel’s positive attitude: “we’re on vacation and I get to do more shopping in London, woo-hoo”.

Despite the stuttered start, it turned out to be our nicest European vacation to date, but I did learn that, especially when traveling with allergies, you need to both prepare for the trip and prepare food contingencies in case plans go wrong.

We recommend reading: Scott’s Rules for Traveling with Food Allergies

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