2020 – a review of our year

What a year!  But we and our close family and friends are all in good health so we have very little to complain about.  Certain doors closed which resulted in disappointment and a lot of other doors opened resulting in new friendships and new experiences.

It feels like a lifetime ago that life as we knew it came to a stop when Cayman went into lockdown.  For a while (and while we were allowed to) we went for a snorkel or beach walk daily.  Amelia’s cycling improved as we would cycle between 2 and 5 kms daily.  Yes, our trip to Colombia was cancelled and the start of our travels were delayed but, as a family, we were doing things and spending time together.

Thankfully Cayman was able to test all frontline workers which enabled the islands to eliminate local transmission of the virus.  We were able to take a trip to Little Cayman with friends followed by a trip to Cayman Brac with family before the start of our European travels.

With a mix of sadness, excitement and trepidation, we boarded the flight to Heathrow.  Our adventure was about to begin.

Misty Cottage

A delay with obtaining the licence plates for the motorhome (ended up being a 3-month delay!) resulted in us spending more time in France.  When the French President was scheduled to address the country in late October, we (well, Gary) thought there would be more restrictions but not a lockdown.  Luckily, I’m not a betting man.  We had 30 hours to figure out a plan for the lockdown.  Ideas bandied around included staying in a campsite, driving to Italy, being parked in a stranger’s driveway, driving to the UK and, the option we chose, staying in a friend’s vacant cottage.  An 8-hour, 600km/375mile drive and we were in the Dordogne

Friendly neighbours helped us settle in and in the last 2 months we’ve learnt some basic French, figured out how to use a wood burner and been for walks in woods where the trees are covered in thick layers of moss and lichen.  We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Les Eyzies.  We had expected to slow travel (rent an apartment for a month or so) but not after such a short time living in the motorhome!

We are planning to drive to the Algarve (Portugal) in early January for some warmer weather.  When the weather warms, we hope to return to the Dordogne to visit the various prehistoric, troglodyte and medieval attractions (which are presently closed) before heading to Germany and other European countries.  What we have learnt is not to plan too far ahead!

Family at Château de Commarque

Despite the various setbacks, we are truly grateful for the opportunities and experiences we’ve enjoyed in 2020 (we’re working on a blog post of what we learnt and enjoyed during our 2 months in Les Eyzies).  We are looking forward to see what 2021 brings.

Wishing you a bonne année! Gary, Janice and Amelia

Our practical guide to France motorhome travel – before the 2nd lockdown

These are our notes on motorhome travel in France in September and October 2020, before the second national lockdown. Currently, recreational travel is banned – see here for updates.

Where we stayed:

France-Passion: we stayed primarily at France-Passion sites – over 2,000 farms, vineyards, etc. that allow you to park for free in exchange for looking at their products if they have anything for sale – there is no obligation but we never walked away empty handed. We bought red, white and rose wine, champagne, grape and apple juice, goat cheese, pasta, gingerbread, jam, eggs, and vegetables. All the sites we tried were open and welcoming: www.france-passion.com. An annual subscription is €30.

Aires: these are free or paid parking areas provided by the towns and cities. They often include wastewater dumping, blackwater dumping, paid electricity, freshwater, and sometimes bathrooms. We found them through the Park4Night app (can be used offline after subscribing and downloading a regional map). All of the aires we visited were open for parking, but a few had services shut off for the winter, especially high in the French Alps. We did not stay at motorway aires; they are not generally recommended for staying the night but do have services (gasoline/petrol, blackwater dumping, picnic tables, restaurants, etc.).

Wild Camping: wild camping is legal in France (with some conditions and limitations) but with a big motorhome and a small child we didn’t want to risk having to move in the night, so we were cautious in selecting a spot. We found it difficult to be sure that we would feel comfortable with a site based only on online reviews but if we found a site that looked good we used Park4Night to check if there were any reviews for the area (for example, one of our favourite sites was a quiet stretch of road on the banks of the Rhine, where we wild camped for two nights at what was originally planned to be a lunch spot; it looked like it would be OK to stay and we confirmed on Park4Night that other people had stayed without any problems).

Campsites: these range from 1-4 stars depending on the facilities available and can also be found on Park4night. We stayed in a few campsites at the beginning of our trip and then stopped using them when we had figured other solutions for internet, laundry, and dumping waste. Many campsites close for winter.

Water/Electricity/Dumping:

Water and electricity are available on some France-Passion sites (indicated in the guidebook). Otherwise we used Park4Night to find aires – often stopping en route to a France-Passion site rather than staying the night if they had paid parking or were busy.

Driving:

Our most essential navigation tip for motorhomes is to set your GPS for the size of your vehicle – so you are not directed toward low tunnels, weak bridges, or very narrow village roads. Unfortunately, this is not possible in Google Maps. Our inbuilt motorhome GPS has this feature but stopped working during the trip so we switched to the CoPilot app. The app works offline on a cell phone and we have found it mostly reliable though it has directed us toward a few small streets; if something doesn’t look right, we do not follow it. We see fewer problems when we use the ‘easiest route’ rather than ‘fastest route’ setting. We used Google Maps to find bakeries, grocery stores, etc. and downloaded offline maps of each region so we can use it without an internet connection.

Priorité à droite: The French highway code states that a when two drivers approach an intersection from different roads, the driver on the left is required to yield, unless directed otherwise by signage. This means that a driver pulling onto a road from the right could have right-of-way. In practice, there seem to be signs overruling priorité à droite almost everywhere  – but we have seen some villages where it is in place. This article from The Local explains it quite well.

Tolls (Péage): it has always been possible for us to pay tolls by credit card however it can be expensive – one 7km tunnel cost us 17 euros! (based on the size of the vehicle). We mostly set our GPS to avoid toll roads and we have seen some beautiful country and villages (and also some terrifying narrow village streets and one-lane roads).

General:

Laundry: we have some heavy clothes like jeans and for much of our trip it was too rainy for air drying. We struggled to find places with washers and dryers other than campsites until we noticed the washers and dryers which are available in the parking lots of many grocery stores. These can be found on this website (search “a proximite” – nearby – and be sure to find a “laverie” – not a photobooth).

Shopping: large chain grocery stores tend to be located on the outskirts of towns and cities and have parking lots large enough for our motorhome. We have found most of the staples we need (sometimes only after googling “what is X called in France” or “where can I buy X in France” (e.g. baking powder is called levure chimique or levure alsacienne, peanut butter is usually in the organic (bio) aisle). The stores often have a petrol station.

The best food we bought came from France-Passion sites, speciality stores (e.g. bread – boulangerie, pastries – patisserie, cheese – fromagerie, goat cheese – chèvrerie, etc.) and local markets. Market days can be searched for on this site (select “chercher un marché” (search for a market) “autour de moi” (around me).

Grocery stores have some housewares and we also visited Ikea when stocking our motorhome.

Money: we make all of our payments using a Revolut card. Revolt is an online bank and will do currency conversions at the Interbank rate.  You get a virtual card (that you can link to Google Pay out your Apple Wallet) for free and can pay for a physical card. You can fund your Revolt account by charging your current credit or debit card.

LPG: our heater and stove run on LPG gas (called GPL in France). We also used gas designated as GPLc with no problems. Sites supplying LPG can be found on:  www.mylpg.eu Update (January 2021): We filled our LPG tank in October when France uses a ‘summer mix’ (with a higher percentage of butane). Once the lockdown in France ended and we started using the motorhome again the heater would register a ‘low gas’ error even though the tank was almost full. Only once we got to the Algarve and the temperature was warmer did the heater work again. I subsequently learnt that France switches to a ‘winter mix’ on 1 November which contains a much higher percentage of propane. So beware, you can’t use butane when the temperature falls! Details of the different mixes found in the various countries can be found here.

Internet: We purchased a sim card from a provider called Free and use it in a mifi device (which provides wifi for our motorhome). For €13 per month, the Free sim gives us 80 GB per month in France (and 10 GB per month while roaming). We purchased the sim from a kiosk (bourne) inside a tobacconist shop. You will need to put an address in France. From what we understand, there is no contract but we have not yet cancelled.  

Translations: we use Google Translate and downloaded the French dictionary so we can use it offline. The camera mode (point it at text to translate) has also been very helpful.  If you are connected to the internet, Google Translate can perform a real-time voice/dictation translation. Update May 2021: DeepL – is much better at high quality translations

Covid: We used https://reopen.europa.eu/ for information on requirements for crossing borders and this site to search for places offering covid tests in France (in case we needed to get tested before crossing a border). We use The Local for French news in English.

Attractions:  we explored Burgundy, the French Alps, Alsace, and many areas in between. We visited many farms and vineyards via France-Passion and we also enjoyed visiting some of the villages designated as the most beautiful villages in France (“Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”). They might be crowded in a normal year, but this year, and during the off-season they have been perfect. We have also – by chance – found ourselves following some driving routes such as the “Route du Grande Alpes” – there are many of these routes promoted by local tourist offices. Information on walking/hiking paths can be found on www.sentiers-en-france.eu.

Cayman Bucket List ( by Janice)

No matter where we live, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day routine and miss the opportunities around us.  As we planned our “Big Trip” we jotted down a bucket list of family adventures to have at home in Cayman. This was our bucket list.

Bucket list we had on our fridge

Sailing –one of our first family adventures: we rented a small Hobie cat on Seven Mile Beach to sail with Amelia. We also had two of our farewells with friends and colleagues on the RedSail 70ft catamarans.

Kayaking – we kayaked in Bodden Town and South Sound. Amelia loves Sand Cay in South Sound (the “desert island”) – now is a safe time to visit because the endangered terns have finished their July/August breeding.

Snorkeling in South Sound – we loved snorkelling to the wreck of the Pallas; this was also one of our first adventures. My favourite was hearing Amelia say “ooooh!” through her snorkel when she saw the coral and fish. It’s important to check that the current isn’t too strong.

Snorkelling with turtles – Bloody Bay in Little Cayman is best places to see turtles without disturbing them (guidance from the DoE). Amelia however tells us that turtles are quite ‘boring’; she does this to tease me, and after helping with too many rehabs and rescues.

Tide pools – Amelia loved exploring the little pools behind the rock ledges at Surfers Beach with Wendy and the big pool at Pageant Beach with us – though we had to snorkel out of the pool toward the shipwreck to see more marine life.

Waterslides – Amelia’s favourite. Our neighbour Laima rented the best inflatable waterslide for our neighbourhood celebration when the Cayman Islands came out of lockdown.

Wakeboarding – Thank you for teaching us Rob and Dave! This was a big item on our bucket list.

Mangroves – we boated through Booby Key channel and showed Amelia and her friends about the mangroves. One day we will take Amelia snorkelling in the mangrove roots.

Bioluminescence – we snorkelled in BioBay at night – like flying through fairy dust.

Snorkelling shipwrecks – we visited other shipwrecks too, like the one at Pageant Beach.

North Side Beaches – we picked up tacos from the taco truck, picnicked in the shade on Barefoot Beach, and then walked the deserted red brick path along the top of the cliff.

Movie – Amelia saw her first movie in the cinema (Mary Poppins in New York) with Aunt Emily and Uncle Michael and had a cosy movie day with her friends when a tropical storm trapped us all in Little Cayman; one of her favourite things on the trip.

New playgrounds – many to explore but Dart Park is always our favourite.

Stargazing – we even saw the International Space station.

Hiking – thank you Dave for taking us hiking in Cayman Brac.

Body surfing – we had so much fun body surfing on a rough day on Seven Mile Beach and Amelia even had a real surf lesson with Mica – she could not stop talking about it.

Farm – we toured a farm in Bodden Town with Amelia and bought so much beautiful local produce from Patrick during lockdown.

Bonfire – we had beautiful bonfire nights on our beach with sausages and marshmallows and fireworks at New Years. The best one was when we were allowed back on our beach after lockdown.

Caves – Amelia ‘discovered’ a cave in Cayman Brac and was hooked on seeing them all.  

Riding – Amelia did a small pony ride but was too young for trail riding – definitely something we will need to do in Europe.

Thank you to our wonderful friends and family for sharing these adventures with us.

Our adventure has started!

We have hit the road in our own motorhome and, two weeks later, are starting to find our rhythm. Let the fun begin!

A de-cluttered and clean apartment

Earlier in the year, we had started clearing our closets and had believed that we whittled down our belongings to a manageable level.  Boy, were we wrong!  When it came to the last week and time to move out of the apartment, we discovered we still had so much stuff.  A final round of ruthless ‘culling’ and we ended up with a manageable pile of clothes, educational material and Amelia’s toys to pack.  In the end we consolidated our lives into five checked bags!  We need to thank Jim and Sammy for helping ready the apartment, Janice’s family for letting us stay with them and for looking after Amelia while we were busy tidying the apartment and to our friends who helped in numerous ways!

What would an adventure be without challenges?  The first ‘incident’ happened after we had checked-in for our flight to London and were about to meet friends and family for farewells at George Town Yacht Club (a restaurant 3 minutes from the airport).  We were told that as this was a repatriation flight (it wasn’t) we could not leave the airport.  Amelia burst into tears.  Thanks to Janice’s perseverance (and Amelia’s distress) the duty manager made an exception and we were able to say our goodbyes!

The flights (to Heathrow and to Paris) were uneventful; it was just a long day of travelling.  Needless to say, we slept well that first night in France.  

We based ourselves in Sens (approximately 1 ½ hours south of Paris) as we had a day to spare before collecting the motorhome.  Sens is well-known for its gothic cathedral which we managed to miss in December even though we had walked within 100 metres of the cathedral (I’m putting it down to jet-lag, being tired and the cold weather)!  This time we didn’t miss the cathedral!  When Amelia saw the square in front of the cathedral, complete with pigeons, she commented that this city must have been based on the cities in Guatemala as they are made the same way!

And then the big day arrived, Monday, 22 September 2020!  She looked (and is!) a lot bigger than expected (the upside is that there is that we haven’t used all the storage space … yet).  We had planned an ‘easy’ day (collect the motorhome, drive back to the hotel and unpack) and it worked out well.  If we had tried to do more, we would have run out of time and most probably had more than our two incidents.  Prior to our departure, it had been confirmed that all the vehicle registration paperwork was complete but something felt amiss as I had not been asked to pay the insurance premium.  It turns out, due to a backlog with the French authorities, the motorhome has not been registered in our names.  We are driving on temporary licence plates.  The downside is that sometime in the next month when the registration is complete, we need to return to the dealership to get our licence plates fitted.  Luckily, we have time to bimble around France!  And the other incident was when we were driving back to the hotel, I got too close to a bush and hit the passenger-side mirror.  The impact cracked the plastic casing of the mirror (luckily not the mirror itself)!  My first drive and look what I did!  A little epoxy repaired the damage.

The first brand new vehicle any of us have owned

It took about two days to unpack everything and buy the essentials which at the time seemed like a long time (I mean we have a country to explore). But, in hindsight, two days to set up a completely new, albeit small, house is quite reasonable.

There have been a few pleasant surprises.  The GPS has a function that allows you to set the size of the motorhome so no more going around a corner and finding a bridge that is too low for us to go under (yes, it happened).  And, I can control the air heater from my phone; very useful in the mornings especially after the three days of gorgeous weather ended.

One of the many picturesque towns along our route

We are generally heading south and have been enjoying the open fields interspersed with quaint, picturesque old villages.  The motorhome is living up to expectations as were we able to spend 3 nights without any hookups before the fresh water tank runs low and the grey & black tanks become full. We have been making use of our France-Passion membership; farmers, artisans, etc. who give you a place to park and in return you are expected to say Bonjour and consider buying something they produce.  Highlights are that we’ve camped next to a field of ostriches and bought some farm-fresh vegetables but now that we are in wine country it might start getting expensive!

Until next time, au revoir!

And this time I know it’s for real

Let us hope Freddie Mercury can predict the future! We have our tickets booked and an appointment at Euro Camping Cars to collect the motorhome! We depart Grand Cayman on 18 September, arrive in France the next day and collect the motorhome on the 21st! Exciting times!

Dave_Showing_Amelia_The_Brac_Bluff

For the last couple of years we had visited Little Cayman (the smallest of the three islands) for a family vacation. The family holiday didn’t happen this year due to the lockdown. When the travel restrictions to the Sister Islands were lifted we decided to take a ‘late’ holiday before our ‘big trip’. We spent a weekend on Little Cayman with friends and a week on Cayman Brac with family. We got stuck on Little Cayman for an extra night due to bad weather associated with Tropical Storm Laura. Laura would become a major hurricane by landfall in Louisiana. It was Amelia’s first trip to the Brac and its bluff and caves.

Now it’s back to reality and getting ready to leave. “And this time I know it’s for real” or do I? I feel my apprehension levels rising; doubt is knocking at the door. Deep down I know it’s right to start our travels but this doubt character is a persistent knocker!

We have formed a rough plan for the first few days after we take delivery of the motorhome. I think the combination of jet-lag, excitement and adjusting to driving a 7.4m long vehicle (as comparison my Toyota Hilux is 4.8m long) could be a recipe for disaster so we’ll take it easy. The first night that we have the motorhome will still be spent in a hotel, followed by a night in a campsite and then we’ll test the self-sufficiency of the motorhome by spending a night on a France-Passion site.

We are re-working our route (doubt it will be the last time!) as we will try and avoid Covid hotspots. I had envisaged we would criss-cross France, head to the Mediterranean before heading to Italy. With cases increasing along the French Riviera we are likely to head to the castles and mountains (southern Germany , Switzerland and Austria) before heading to Italy.

I have found The Local and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control websites useful for monitoring the new cases. I have added a new page to the website that has a list of resources that we have found useful and/or interesting.

Are our stars aligning? Or déjà vu?

Recently it was announced that our airport would remain shut for an additional 30 days to 30 September but that bi-weekly flights to Gatwick were in the works. The press release from the Governor’s office stated “My team is actively working with BA about a fortnightly flight for the next couple of months starting in mid-September. As the press release said, discussions are at an advanced stage.”

So we have a tentative departure date (mid-September) and Europe is managing its increased cases. It also means we have approximately five weeks to complete all our To-Do List items. While progress has been made in the last few months, it’s still a daunting task!

Or will we get close to departure only to find that lockdowns are announced and that we are back to square one?

Keeping following us (we’re on FaceBook and Instagram too) to find out what happens!

We have a motorhome

Motorhome arriving in Veron

Our new motorhome has arrived at Euro Camping Cars today! We have a motorhome!

This means that the itchiness to start our travels increased 100%!

But at home we still don’t have an open airport. And we still have a lots of loose ends to tie up at home. So it will still be a while before we see the motorhome for ourselves.

As soon as Amelia saw the photograph she pointed to the area above the cab and exclaimed “My bed!”

Enough posting on our blog, I have a To-Do list to work through; I don’t want to be the one who is responsible for delaying the start of our travels!

As Europe opens up so we have been thinking about our route

Our original route had us starting in July and heading to Portugal, Morocco and Spain during the first few months. As we are likely to start in October, it is looking like we will tack these countries onto the end of the European leg.

We had hoped that the Brexit transition would be extended but that has been acknowledged as not happening by both the UK and EU so we will still be doing the Schengen Shuffle from the end of March 2021.

The draft map that is now forming looks as follows:

  • October 2020 to March 2021 – France, Italy and Greece (black)
  • April to June 2021 – Turkey and eastern Europe (maybe a visit to Egypt?) (red)
  • July to September 2021 – Germany, Scandinavia and across to the UK (black)
  • October 2021 to January 2022 – UK and Ireland (quite possibly a trip back to Cayman) (red)
  • February to April 2022 – Portugal, Morocco, Spain and prepare to ship the motorhome to southern Africa (blue)

But, let’s see how the opening of Europe progresses before we get too ahead of ourselves.

As we come to the end of May

We still in our holding pattern; some things have changed but many have not.

Before the end of the pandemic, Gary had submitted his resignation effective 31 May so he is in his last week at work. He plans to enjoy being a stay-at-home Dad before taking on his new responsibilities of chemical toilet emptier and chief chauffeur!

The production date of the motorhome has been pushed to early July as the factory had been closed for a while.

Playing in the rain
Playing in the rain

Amelia has been taking the shelter in place restrictions. Yes, there was disappointment when the complex’s pool and followed by the beaches were closed. Luckily those have re-opened. Amelia had been looking forward to being home-schooled so her education has progressed well. Her maths, writing and reading have all come along well and she has developed a sense of humour! Plus she and Daddy have been riding bikes most days so her cycling skills have improved too. Did I mention she is also an expert on Zoom (she has 3, sometimes 4, school Zoom calls a day).

We are waiting to see when Europe opens its external borders and to see how the different countries fare as they ease the lockdown restrictions. We are hoping that we can depart sometime in September or October.

We’re in a holding pattern

Wow! How the world has changed in the last two weeks since the last update! And unfortunately the vast majority of the change has not been for the better.

The Cayman government has been very proactive. Schools were immediately closed and cruise ships were not allowed to dock. This has been followed by shutting the airport, asking people to work from home and banning gatherings to an evening curfew (which will run for 2 weeks) to a 2 1/2 day lock-down. The lock-down eases tomorrow and we will have a 10-day ‘shelter at home’ order (soft curfew).

This hammer approach appears to have worked and we have one potential local transmission of Covid-19.

The motorhome is scheduled to be built in Germany and collected from a dealership in France. Plus to fly to Paris we need to transit through the US.

So it is looking like the trip’s commencement date will be delayed. Given how fluid the situation is and how quickly things change, we are not thinking about when we will start the trip. Luckily the trip will be long enough that a few months delay isn’t the end of the world. Image if we had only decided to travel for a year.

Flightfeeder tracking
Drop in number of planes spotted is remarkable

In the attic I have a FlightFeeder , a device that listens for radio signals from ADS-B aircraft transponders and decodes them to determine aircraft positions. The global airline shutdown can be seen here in the Caribbean. The FlightFeeder recorded 439 aircraft on Saturday, 14 March (Saturdays typically record the most aircraft) to a low of 71 aircraft today! Cayman shut its airport on Sunday, 15 March, and other countries in the Caribbean and Central America shut their airports over the next week.

Let’s do our part to help the world and flatten the curve before we worry about travelling.