My husband had to go to Windsor, England for business, so my son and I tagged along to enjoy a holiday while he worked.
There are many ways to get to England from Belgium, all of which require crossing the English Channel. Flying or taking the train are obvious choices, but if you want to take your car, you can also take a Ferry or the Eurotunnel. For this trip, we opted for the P&O Ferry. We thought our son would enjoy the boat ride, and we would all enjoy the views.
The P&O Ferries depart from Calais, France and arrive in Dover, England. From the road, through tall fences topped with barbed wire, we could see the Calais “Jungle” migrant camp. We could see the migrant’s tents, as well as police and military patrols. This trip was prior to the evacuation of the Jungle by French and UK officials in late 2016.
This is important for me to mention, because since moving to Belgium, I have become much more aware of the plight of refugees in Europe, particularly in the areas of France that are close to us. I think it is important to shed light whenever I can on the ongoing refugee crisis in Calais and throughout Europe. I try to keep this perspective when we are travelling. My family is fortunate to be in the position that we are in and to be able to enjoy travel. Others don’t have it so good, and are forced to “travel” (flee) for their own livelihood. Our world is in the midst of an enormous humanitarian crisis. We have to pay attention. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.
The experience of riding the ferry was pleasant. It takes about an hour and a half to cross the channel. While it is a big vessel, you can still feel the roll of the ocean! There are plenty of activities to occupy your time on the boat, including arcade games, duty-free shopping, cafes, and outer decks to enjoy the views. Prime seats inside with nice window views did fill quickly. We crossed around lunchtime and a lot of people brought packed lunches to eat – a very good idea!
White Cliffs of Dover
The arrival into Dover offered beautiful views of the White Cliffs of Dover. These were so cool to see. I’d love to spend more time in the future exploring them further. Between that and Dover castle, Dover might be a fun trip for us in the future. But for this trip, we just passed through.
We stayed a week in the Windsor area, the first half just outside of Windsor in Bracknell, and the second half at the Legoland Resort hotel. In Bracknell, we stayed at the Stirrups Country House Hotel. The location of this hotel was more ideal for my husband’s work obligations than for touring Windsor, but it wasn’t a problem for us since we had our car. It is a lovely hotel with great service and dining options, so I recommend it. But, if the primary purpose of your trip is to visit Windsor or Legoland, bear in mind its distance from these attractions.
Out of convenience, we ate a few meals at the restaurant at Stirrups. The food was quite good, as were the drinks. Kudos to the bartender who introduced me to my new favorite summer cocktail: gin + Fever Tree Ginger Beer + lime (on ice).
We ate one dinner out in Bracknell at Blue’s Smokehouse. We use Foursquare a lot to find restaurants when we travel. We weren’t too worried about missing out on any classic, local cuisine, so this one, being a U.S.-style barbecue and burgers joint, caught our eye. Having lived in both Texas and North Carolina in the past, we are barbecue lovers. It had been seven months since we left the U.S. Although we actually moved our wood-fired barbecue smoker with us, it had been awhile since we had eaten good, authentic barbecue, so we thought we’d see how well Blue’s Smokehouse did. It wasn’t quite like being back at home, but it didn’t disappoint!
On this trip, we had two full days to explore Windsor and the surrounding areas, and two full days at Legoland Windsor Resort. During our time in Windsor, we spent one day in town and one day out of town to see Stonehenge, which I will write about separately.
We drove into Windsor from Bracknell. Now would be a good time to mention an obvious challenge on this trip – driving on the opposite side of the road than I am used to! Fortunately, we had our car, so I was still driving on the side of the car that I am familiar with. Navigating the major roadways and highways was actually not that challenging since the roads are divided. What gets tricky is when you have to exit to the left, turn, drive on smaller two-way roads, and most terrifying – go through a traffic circle.
I had a few stressful moments while driving. I did a lot of talking to myself (“stay on the left, stay on the left, stay on the left”) and a tad bit of cursing. I definitely irritated one man in a traffic circle and he was sure to let me know. That was around the time I was trying to find public parking near Windsor Castle. I ended up getting so flummoxed, I pulled over into street parking to take a breather. It ended up being a lovely little spot along the River Thames.
We got out and enjoyed the view for a few minutes, and I got my pulse and stress levels down a bit. Regrouped, we drove back toward the castle and found a nice public parking deck near a shopping area, just down the street from the castle. My son loved the parking deck. Because I was on the wrong side of the car, he got to help me take and insert the garage tickets in order to open and close the entrance gates. I am sure we were an amusing sight.
Our next stop in Windsor was Windsor Castle, a royal residence of Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family. While there, we toured the grounds, the state apartments, and St. George’s Chapel. The Chapel was gorgeous and my favorite part, but unfortunately, photos were not allowed. We opted to skip the additional tour stop of Queen Mary’s Doll House. Not really my thing, or my son’s! We also enjoyed the changing of the guards which occurs near the Chapel. And, of course, the gift shops.
You can purchase your entrance tickets to Windsor Castle in advance, which I always recommend in order to reduce waiting times. We opted for the free audio guide tour, but there are also personally guided tours available. The audio guide tour takes an estimated 90 minutes to complete. The Windsor Castle website has a lot of great information that you can review before you visit, including a really nice section for visitors with disabilities and special needs, including autism. I think this is a nice touch for accessibility.
One last tip for Windsor Castle: before you leave, you can have your ticket stamped and converted into a one-year pass for free admission. This is the case at most Royal Collection Trust sites, if you purchased your ticket directly from the Trust site.
After leaving the Castle, we strolled on Castle Hill and found a nearby spot for lunch at Clarence Brasserie and Tea Room. After lunch, we passed by and admired the Windsor Guildhall. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the design and construction of the Guildhall was done, in part, by Sir Christopher Wren. As alumni of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, my husband and I were married in the Wren Building on campus. The Windsor Guildhall was the site of the marriages of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, and Sir Elton John and David Furnish.
Our next day in Windsor was devoted to a day trip out to see Stonehenge, which I will write about in a separate post. The rest of our trip after that was at Legoland. We opted to stay two nights at the Legoland Windsor Resort, which I recommend for the convenience it provides. The service was great, the food was okay. We took advantage of a “second day in the park free” offer, which seems to be offered regularly.
The experience of staying at the Legoland resort is definitely catered to the happiness of children and convenience for parents. Our son loved being there, so much so that he has not stopped talking about it.
Legoland, like any resort amusement park, can get expensive with all the package upgrades, add-ons, food, drinks, stores, toys, gadgets, toys, and more toys. This can be tough to navigate as a parent. We had to set some limits! I did appreciate that, as a guest of the resort, anything purchased at any of the stores could be couriered to the hotel so we didn’t have to lug it around all day.
One expense that felt worthwhile was the Q-bot, a handheld device which is a ride reservation system. There are three levels of Q-bots available, all which let you reserve your rides and reduce ride waiting times. Legoland also offers a free smart-phone app that helps you navigate the park, which I found helpful.
Back to Belgium
This was a really fun summer trip for us as a family. We were able to blend historical attractions and monuments with newer, fun activities for our son. Despite driving challenges, it is nice to spend time in England, back in a land of other native English speakers. I’ve actually gotten so used to the challenges of not speaking the local language, it has become a bit of a shock to remember how easy it is to be in a place where you do speak/read the native tongue!
We finished our trip with a quick stop in Slough, England on our way back to the Ferry. We shopped at a Tesco for some road snacks and over-the-counter medicine that we can’t find in Belgium. (This is actually a super fun thing for expats to do. At least for us it is!) We were pleasantly surprised to find a Krispy Kreme donuts shop there, too. Krispy Kreme originated in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and their donuts were a blissful part of my childhood diet. A few glazed donuts were a nice, decadent reminder of home as we headed back to Belgium!