I’m a decision-making dichotomy. Sometimes I over analyze a decision to death…think through every scenario, strategize every possible problem, weigh all of the pros and cons. Other times, especially when I’m really passionate about one of the options, I make a decision and just “make it work.”
Our trip to Beijing was the latter. I really wanted to go there. Once my family agreed in concept, I jumped on the opportunity and booked it. However, as the time grew closer, I started to panic a bit. I wanted everyone my family to really enjoy the trip, and I didn’t want it to feel like we were dragging my kids from site to site. On a practical note, I was also concerned about what the heck my kids were going to eat! As I’ve mentioned before, they are picky in North America. In China? Forget it. And finally, I was definitely worried about safety and just getting around the city.
By the time I got on the plane, I felt completely as ease, and we had an incredible trip. Here is a little insight into why I think it worked so well.
STEP 1 – HOTEL CHOICE
Normally, when I am without kids, I love to immerse myself in the local culture. But, traveling with kids is different…at least my kids. So, I decided to be a spoiled brat and choose a high-end, American hotel chain. My rationale was as follows: 1) They will understand any obnoxious touristy requests and not judge us for them (at least openly); 2) They will have familiar food that my kids will eat; 3) The environment will feel familiar and my family will be comfortable and less cranky (maybe a stretch). As a Starwood girl, I decided to go with the St. Regis. Shopping hotels in Asia in general, I learned that the maximum occupancy is three people, so a family of four needs two adjoining rooms. I was able to use Starwood hotel points for only one of the rooms (reservation policy) and had to purchase the second room. Much to my pleasant surprise, the room rate in Beijing was not nearly as spendy as in North America. So the deal was sealed!
I cannot express to you how much we loved the St. Regis Beijing. First of all, we had a butler…yes, a butler! Everything in the room was excellent…the robes, the slippers, the shampoos…even the amazing Japanese toilets. The indoor pool (connected to the gym we didn’t use) was the key to family happiness after a day on our feet. And the food was delicious. Room service…yum! The international breakfast buffet was a culinary extravaganza! The Chinese Restaurant in the hotel is still the best Chinese food we’ve ever had. Recently my daughter, after scoffing at some take-out friend rice, said, “I wish we could go eat at the St. Regis again.” Yes, dear, don’t we all! The hotel is located in the Embassy district of Beijing. We were in walking distance of a Subway, Starbucks and Haagen Dazs, to name a few familiar names. And, while we didn’t walk a lot around the neighborhood, it felt very safe. Overall, unless you want to be in a more central location (this was a bit out of the way), I highly recommend the St. Regis.
STEP 2 – THE RESEARCH
Once I secured a hotel, I dove into the research! I always start with Trip Advisor. This is not a plug, but just a fact. I find it’s the best place to get an overview of what is available and popular. Secondly, I read articles about Beijing and really focused on “Beijing with kids” as a search topic. Once I saw a sight mentioned over and over, it went on the short list for further specific research. After hours of hunting and reading, I had narrowed our visit down to the following…
The Great Wall (Mutianyu Gate)
The Forbidden City
The Drum Tower
The Chaoyang Acrobatic Show
The Silk Market
So, the first three were obvious. How can you go to Beijing and not see them? For the Great Wall there are several entrances. I chose Mutianyu Gate because it’s easily accessible, and I assumed that would be a good choice for my kids (decent assumption). Also, you can ride up to the wall on ski lifts. Finally, as an aside, we learned upon arrival that there is a Subway and a 31 Flavors across from the ski lift entrance…a suburban kid’s saving grace!
The Drum Tower and the Acrobatic Show were purely for my kids. Again, with the strategy that we needed to sprinkle in some kid-friendly destinations, I chose these two. Unfortunately, the Drum Tower ended up being closed (see below), but the acrobats were worth the visit! (as cheesy as it was) The choice to visit the Silk Market was also for my kids. I knew they would want to buy some trinkets and the Pearl Market and the Silk Market are two good locations for that purpose. We chose the Silk Market. Alternatively, if anyone wants a nice outside mall experience, we also ended up at Sanlitun Village before the Acrobat show. It will give you a totally different vibe has the largest Adidas store in the world!
The last on my sites list was Nanluoguxiang Hutong and it was my choice. A Hutong is a neighborhood (actually a Mongolian word). This neighborhood in particular had a lot of history (some buildings dating back to the 1200’s) and had become an up-and-coming district and cute shopping/eating area. I loved wandering these streets and had wished we spent more time here. There were lots of snack places and the restaurants looked hip and delicious!
While I had been researching these sites, my daughter decided to start practicing Chinese with an app on her iPad. The app included games to practice pronunciation, specifically the tones. She scored pretty well in these games. I was terrible! I couldn’t hear the differences in the tones…and I couldn’t remember them. I don’t know if it’s my feeble brain or the fact that kids can just hear these things better than untrained adults (hence why kids learn languages more easily). Either way, reality came crashing down on me. Holy crap…how are we going to get to all of these places I want to visit in Beijing?
Now, as an aside, my husband and I have traveled a lot in our lives. Others have traveled more, but we have done our fair share. We dabble in multiple languages between us. I even traveled in the Soviet Union in the early 90’s, and after memorizing the Cyrillic alphabet, I was able to recognize signs and subway stops enough to get around. So, as a rule, my husband and I DO NOT go on tours. We take public transportation. We walk. We rent cars. The only exception is when we truly need a guide; but no busses and only in small groups. Ultimately, we like to do our own thing.
The last time I had gone to China was in 1997. I was by myself in Hong Kong (still British) and went to the Chinese consulate’s office to get an entry visa for China. No one spoke English. The man behind the counter just kept saying “tour.” Ultimately, I learned that the only way this white capitalist girl was allowed to enter the country was on a tour. So, I begrudgingly agreed and signed up.
I had told myself that things are different in China now. The Olympics were in Beijing so the city must be tourist-friendly. However, when you travel with your kids, it’s different. Experiences that are considered adventurous as a 20-something can be very stressful to a child (and a parent). Also, we only had two days to see some major sites and didn’t have time to get lost in the subway. Beijing is very spread out. It’s not a walking city. And the Great Wall is an hour outside of the city. So clearly, with one month to go, I had a major gap in my plan.
STEP 3 – THE SOLUTION I DIDN’T KNOW I NEEDED
In walks (well actually types) my savior. My high school friend Julie works for a travel/tour company called Distant Horizons. She reached out to me and told me she could help with my trip. Hallelujah! She knew what she was doing and set us up with a guide and a driver for our entire time in Beijing. She and I worked in advance to plan the daily itinerary with the sites I had chosen. She, fortunately, had access to information I did not. For example, the drum show at the Drum Tower was closed during the time of our visit and there had been nothing posted on any of the travel websites I had used. She also encouraged me to go to the Temple of Heaven, which hadn’t been on my list. She said that the park outside of the Temple was one of her favorites. I have to say, it was one of my favorite spots as well! See this week’s #TBT for a photo and explanation!
We prepaid much of our visit through Distant Horizons and our guide, named Carl, pre-purchased many our tickets. As a result, we weren’t standing in lines and messing with our own money. Upon arrival, Carl met us at the airport, got us loaded in the car and dropped us at the hotel. He had a cell phone so that we could coordinate meeting times when we were on wifi in the hotel. Because he had a phone, we were able to get away with not purchasing a cell plan. He was super flexible and even started early our first day because we work up at the crack of dawn. Having a separate guide and driver were key! The driver would drop us off and disappear into the sea of Beijing traffic. We never had to worry about parking, which I think gave us a major advantage and kept the stress low.
To say that Carl and the driver helped us logistically is a total understatement. However, being with him also gave my daughters an incredible sense of security. Beijing was the most different place they had ever been, and outside of the hotel, they were very out of their comfort zone. Case and point, one of the nights we didn’t have Carl and the driver with us, and we ventured out to a restaurant I had found in my research (which was a total flop!). We struggled to find a cab to get back. When we handed the cab driver the hotel card with directions, he looked at us totally puzzled. (“Just hand this to the cab driver, and they will know how to get here” the concierge had said.) Just to be clear, my husband and I were totally calm, and all of us are still alive, so the story has a happy ending. However, our kids were freaked out! They will still tell you the story if you let them.
In addition, Carl made sure that my kids ate! Both days he found us kid-friendly food and stopped to eat on our stomachs’ schedule. For that alone, he was our hero! Having familiar food helped my kids to enjoy their experiences and made everyone happier!
So, I will pat myself on the back for choosing the St. Regis as it was a total win. However, how can you ever lose with the St. Regis? So, I suppose I get the award for doing the obvious. In addition, advanced research helped to really narrow down our choices and ensure that our trip had something for everyone. However, I am so grateful to Julie and Distant Horizons for taking care of the details and connecting us with our guide and driver. That was truly the key to our successful Beijing trip!