Based in Tonbridge

Liz Penn

Looking for help with your business travel? Find out how I can help here

It's Nice To Meet You

Welcome to Travel Counsellors and thanks for visiting my page.

I’m based in Tonbridge, Kent and I absolutely love travel, however, I can fully appreciate that booking your holiday can be time consuming, frustrating, stressful and the choice can be overwhelming; which is where I come in.

My travel has taken me all over the world, with the latest trips being to Costa Rica, New Zealand, Singapore and the Seychelles. I have had the privilege of spending a year in Australia and, more recently, three months travelling in South America, visiting Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador (including the Galapagos) and Colombia. I combined backpacking with five-star hotels, trekked to Machu Picchu and boated down the Amazon - incredible experiences that will stay with me forever. I try to learn a few words everywhere I go and love to experiment with the local food, although being vegetarian, that has sometimes been slightly disastrous!

I put my knowledge and experience into planning your perfect trip – whether that’s a weekend away in the UK, to a week in the sun, to the trip of a lifetime, let me take care of it to get it tailored just for you. I am an independent travel adviser and I want to get it right for each and every one of my clients, so there’s no hard sell.

As well as benefitting from my expertise, you can rest assured in the knowledge that your booking will have full financial protection of Travel Counsellor’s unique Financial Trust, as well as being ABTA and ATOL protected. Our 24/7 Duty Office ensures that whatever happens, you have immediate access to help and support, wherever and whenever you are.

I don’t want you to come back from a holiday that I have helped with thinking ‘that was OK’ - I want to exceed expectations wherever possible and give you the fantastic time away that you deserve.


Liz Penn, Travel Counsellor – “Exceeding your travel expectations”

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Contact Me

Whatever your holiday needs I'm here to help you, so simply give me a call or send me an email with your contact details on and I can get things started for you:

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My Videos

Dolphins in Costa Rica!

2/14/2022

It was incredible to be surrounded by dolphins who were having a great time playing around our boat!

Did you know?

5/27/2021

A little overview of the great things we can book closer to home

‘Postcards’ – A special film from Travel Counsellors

4/12/2021

Enjoy the magic of travel with this special poem courtesy of Tony Walsh

5 Reasons to book with me

3/11/2021

In these uncertain times it's good to know your holiday is in safe hands. Here are the top 5 reasons to book with me.

The World of Good

3/11/2021

Why we can't wait to take our next holiday!

Arrival into Venice

8/15/2020

Arriving into Venice by water taxi is special; even more so when it is extremely quiet as this trip took place in August 2020.

My Blog

I absolutely live and breathe travel and I love to write about my experiences! Please take a look through my posts - you might find your own holiday inspiration.

The resort that rocks!

30 May 2022

I've just finished in the gym, showered and am about to head out for brunch at the waiter service restaurant, rather than the various buffet options I could choose from. Next up will be a spot of sun-bathing, most likely in the adult-only area, although I might have to try out the waterslides that have been calling my name all week - one of them, Green Thunder, looks pretty terrifying though. Later I might head to one (or two) of the many bars, I've not actually tried counting, most of which have some form of music to enjoy. Otherwise there's bound to be a film on that I haven't seen yet - Dune was great the other night as I missed its release and really wanted to see it on the big screen. Or there's always some top quality show in the theatre and I've really enjoyed the late night comedy club, so I might head there and sit somewhere near the back! It's great to have a day just relaxing, as the last four days have been full-on sightseeing; first to Lisbon, my second visit so I took the organised excursion to see the castles at Sintra and the town of Caiscais which was lovely. Next up was Porto, a city I have always wanted to visit and just never quite got round to it and 100% one I will be returning to, ideally on 23rd/24th June when they hold the Sao Joao fiesta which sounds like something everyone should experience. Here there was time to have a tour of a port cellar (of course), take a cruise along the Douro and soak up the lively atmosphere. This was followed by two days in Galicia, the northernmost part of Spain, visiting Vigo and A Coruna, two cities that feel relatively untouristy, with beautiful architecture and very friendly people willing to listen to my poor attempts at their language. Tomorrow it will be Gibraltar, followed by another day at sea and then Malaga before we return to our original departure port of Barcelona. You might have guessed by now that I'm on a cruise, this particular one is with Carnival and I have to say it has been amazing. I know a lot of people might not think a cruise is for them but consider what you want out of a holiday and you might be surpirsed at how much a cruise could fit the bill. It's amazed me how close we've been docking, in most instances we're right next to the city so you have plenty of time to explore. That's another great benefit - sight-seeing without your typical touring holiday - only unpack once, no living out of your suitcase! I've really enjoyed the opportunity to sample places that I will most likely return to for longer in the future, especially Porto. You can actually forget you're on a ship a lot of the time, there's just so much to do with countless quizzes, games and workshops, music all over the place, shops, an art gallery, a casino, lots of deck space for sunbathing, a couple of pools, some with hot tubs, a spa, gym with sauna and steam room, mini golf and so loads of clubs and spaces for the kids too, so next time you're trying to work out if you want something action-packed or something relaxing, why not give Carnival a try?

Pura Vida in Costa Rica

31 March 2022

I've recently returned from Costa Rica, as those of you who follow me on Facebook will not have failed to notice, no doubt! The primary aim was to see as much of the country as possible and this was achieved through a blend of accommodation and transportation that brought us into contact with the amazing range of environments and biodiversity Costa Rica is known for. Costa Rica has almost 6% of the world’s biodiversity Smaller than Scotland, Costa Rica is one of the world’s top 20 countries in terms of biodiversity; home to 6% of all species worldwide, including nearly 900 species of birds alone. A pioneering understanding of sustainability has led to the creation of a virtuous circle; conserving wildlife and its habitat attracts tourists who are willing to pay, enabling more conservation. To avoid the threat of ‘over-tourism’, numbers are limited in the national parks and reserves and much of the accommodation in these areas are eco-lodges, small-scale hotels and guest houses. What you want to see will determine when you travel Costa Rica manages to squeeze in both a tropical Caribbean and Pacific coastline, cloud forest, rainforest, wetlands, and a few volcanoes for good measure. This means if you want to know when to go you need to consider where you want to go, which in turn is likely to be led by what you want to see and do. We chose February as the ‘dry’ (slightly less wet in some areas) season tends to be December through to April. Turtles, monkeys, birds and an armadillo Our journey took us from the capital, San Jose, to the ‘mini-Amazon’ of Tortuguero, an important breeding ground for sea turtles – four of the eight species nest here. Prime turtle-watching season is July and August, so whilst we didn’t see any there was plenty of other wildlife to keep us amused, from howler monkeys to tiny frogs. From here we ventured inland to Arenal, home to the most perfect cone-shaped volcano and hundreds of birds; we hired a guide to help figure out what we were seeing. We then followed the lake around to Monteverde with its cloud forest for more birds, including the famous quetzal, plus plenty of coatis, (an incredibly cute raccoon-like animal), and we also saw an agouti (like a massive guinea pig) and an armadillo. Arenal and Monteverde are both known for adventure activities, from ziplines to white water rafting, but we chose the more sedate canopy bridge walks. Beautiful beaches and sloths hanging around Next up was the Pacific coast, first Parque Manuel Antonio, an incredible combination of stunning beaches and plenty of animals, including cheeky capuchin monkeys stealing peoples’ sunglasses and sloths hanging out. We then spent our last few days further south on the Osa Peninsula. On snorkelling trips we encountered humpback whales, a huge pod of dolphins and the occasional turtle. On dry land our guides helped us spot tapirs, snakes and my personal favourite, an anteater. An incredible country with warm and genuine people A special mention goes to the people we met. The guides were so knowledgeable and took great pride in sharing their country with us. Everyone met us with a warm and genuine ‘pura vida’, Costa Rica’s greeting and general mantra. It means ‘pure life’ and is a wonderful way of summing up this incredible country.

The A-Z of touring the USA

14 January 2022

From white-sand beaches to mountains, grizzly bears to hummingbirds and trail trekking to iconic road trips, the US is one of those destinations that has a huge amount to offer. If you’ve always wanted to explore but the idea of unfamiliar food and language puts you off, the US is the perfect first-time touring destination. New York and Florida’s Walt Disney World top the charts for US trips and they also make excellent starting points for some fantastic tours. Time it right and you can do a ‘leaf-peeping’ tour from New York into the surrounding states of Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, ending up in Boston or nearby Salem, home of the witches, to experience Hallowe’en. Florida isn’t just about theme parks, although it is home to some of the best in the world. With the Florida Keys and the Gulf Coast you have some incredible scenery and beaches to enjoy, as well as seeing more unusual wildlife, from the alligators of the Everglades to the manatees of Crystal River. One of the great things about the US is how easy so much of it is to access by car or motorhome, allowing you to travel independently. Of course, using a travel agent can enhance your trip as they can make suggestions based on their knowledge and personal experience. For example, you might want to visit Yosemite and the Grand Canyon but have you heard of Bryce Canyon or Zion National Park? Do you know what a slot canyon is and where you might find one? Do you know that driving through Yosemite before June might require snow tyres? You know someone who has and does. Me. There are some iconic drives throughout the US, from Route 66 to the Pacific Coast Highway. But if you don’t fancy doing the driving yourself, you still have options. There are various companies offering a wide range of tours, usually from major cities, featuring all sorts of experiences focussing on music, food, local culture, walking, cycling, photography, wildlife, history - you name it, there’s a tour for it. They cater for everyone, young or old, small to larger groups and range in length from one day to a month. You can even have your own exclusive guide, whatever your preference is (and budget!). There’s also a fantastic public transport system throughout the US, with Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains connecting cities nationwide. Amtrak also has some superb multi-day journeys including the California Zephyr. Travelling between San Francisco and Chicago, this epic trip takes 51 hours, crosses the Rockies and goes through seven states. The Rocky Mountaineer, famous for its scenic voyages to and from Vancouver, has recently launched its first US journey, giving those on board a truly luxurious way of travelling through the heart of incredible scenery from Denver to Moab. I hope I’ve inspired you to think about some of the incredible experiences that just one (admittedly very large!) country has to offer. If you need some help planning your US itinerary, just get in touch with me. US Travel Tips • Tipping is the first tip! In the US waiters earn most of their income from tips and at least 15% is the going rate. This also applies for taxi drivers, whilst bar staff and porters expect a buck or two per round/bag. • Retail prices might not always include sales tax which varies from state to state – currently anything up to 7.25%. • There is not really a ‘bad’ time to go to the US. However, as many Americans holiday within their own country, avoid public holidays which can result in a lack of accommodation and higher prices. • Travel insurance with emergency healthcare cover is essential for the US as medical treatment can be extremely expensive. • Also, be aware that many drugs that can be typically bought over-the-counter in the UK such as codeine-based painkillers are only available on prescription. So, if there’s a chance you might need some, it’s best to take them with you.

Eight ways Brexit is impacting the world of travel

14 January 2022

There continues to be a great deal of speculation about what Brexit means for the UK in all sorts of areas, as issues around the initial transition period have been masked by COVID to a certain degree. However, it is clear that Brexit is definitely impacting the world of travel for British passport holders. This article outlines the main eight ways for those who may not yet have travelled since the start of the pandemic as well as acting as a reminder to those who have travelled as to what is and what will be happening. 1. Passport Expiry Since the UK left the EU (officially 1 January 2021), many European countries now require at least three months validity on your passport after your planned date of return to the UK. It’s also important to note that this does not include any extra months you may have over and above the official 10-year validity, perhaps from changing your name or getting a new passport when you still had time left on the old one. If you’re not completely sure about the rules for the country you intend to travel to, ask your travel agent for advice or check the FCDO website. 2. Maximum time allowed in Europe There is now a limit on the length of time UK residents can visit the EU – 90 days within a 180-day period. Although this might seem pretty generous, it may impact regular business travellers, second-home owners and anyone choosing to study or work overseas. 3. EU Visa to be introduced Before the end of 2022 it is expected that the EU will introduce a visa. This would see Brits travelling to any of the 26 ‘Schengen’ nations, most of continental Europe, needing to apply and pay for a visa waiver, similar to the one currently required for a trip to the United States. The ETIAS scheme, aimed at tightening up border security, is likely to cost around €7 and will be linked to your passport with a three-year period of validity. This will retain the maximum 90-day maximum stay rule. 4. Queues at EU entry points It’s fair to say that anyone who has travelled during the pandemic will have experienced queues at overseas ports and airports. Of course, it is difficult to say how much of this is linked to our ‘Non EU Member’ status or to checking COVID-based entry requirements – time will tell. However, it’s not all doom and gloom, with UK Border and Customs now having UK-specific lanes upon arrival, so at least coming home needn’t be so painful. 5. EHIC replaced by GHIC Until Brexit the UK and EU benefitted from mutual healthcare through an EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) scheme. Since leaving the EU a new scheme has been introduced to replace the EHIC, called GHIC. If you still hold a valid EHIC card, you can continue to use it, otherwise apply for the new GHIC to retain the cover. This should always be used in conjunction with, rather than instead of, full travel insurance, including emergency healthcare cover. 6. Driving in Europe If you are hiring a car in Europe and only have a paper licence you may need an international driving permit – this is available from larger Post Offices but give yourself time to check and obtain one, there have been delays due to demand. Don’t forget you will also need a valid credit card as very few countries accept debit cards and you should use the www.gov.uk website to generate a DVLA ‘check code’ so that the rental agent can check your licence for points or disqualification. If you’re thinking of using your own vehicle then ensure you have a GB sticker (unless it’s on your number plate) and double-check each country’s requirements around what kit you should be carrying in case of breakdown. You’ll also need a Vehicle Log Book (VC5), your travel insurance and ensure you are carrying all these documents with you or you could get fined. 7. Mobile roaming fees are back Despite all of the big four mobile operators initially saying they would not reintroduce roaming charges, three have now confirmed these will be returning in 2022. Vodafone and EE will roll this out across their customer base from March and Three will bring roaming charges back in May. The only provider who has yet to announce bringing these unwelcome fees back is O2 – at time of writing! Although expensive fees have now been capped, it is worth checking with your provider before travelling. 8. Pet passports From the start of 2021 pet passports issued in Great Britain were no longer valid for trips to the EU and Northern Ireland. Instead, cats, dogs and ferrets need an Animal Health Certificate (AHC) issued by a vet within 10 days of entry to the EU for every trip. The AHC will be valid for up to four months for onward travel or returning to Britain. In addition, pets must be microchipped, vaccinated against rabies (at least 21 days prior to travel) and dogs must have tapeworm treatment if you are travelling directly to Finland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Norway or Malta. We are yet to see the full fall-out of Brexit as many people have chosen not to travel overseas during the last two years. It should also be noted that some things such as airport queues may well improve once we have put the pandemic well and truly behind us. It is important to be aware of what has and hasn’t happened following the end of the Brexit transition period. Quite rightly the focus has been far more on the (still very important) COVID entry requirements and some of these new rules and requirements may have been missed. If you are intending to travel in the next few months, I hope you have found the information helpful.

What's Hot in 2022?

23 December 2021

What’s Hot in 2022? Everyone loves a list and this is the perfect way to explore your dream destinations for 2022 and beyond. Whether it’s a bucket list trip or something close to home, there really is something for everyone! Lithuania An easy hop from the south east, this Baltic country is well worth a long weekend. It is especially popular during spring and summer when cafes and bars spill out onto the cobbled streets of the capital, Vilnius, and its second city, Kaunas – also one of 2022’s European Capitals of Culture – the perfect year to visit! Costa Rica Spoiler alert! You’ll be hearing more about nature’s wonderland from me soon – picture cloud forests, turtles, volcanoes, scarlet macaws and sloths just hanging about – sounds great, right? Now bear in mind it’s easy to self-drive and has both a Pacific and Caribbean coast and you can see what makes it such a huge draw. Antarctica Choosing a sustainable supplier is crucial when visiting the still-pristine environment of Antarctica and I can help you find the right one. The season runs from September through to March, although the best time to visit tends to be January onwards to see the newest arrivals. Combine this with a stay in Patagonia and this has ‘bucket-list’ written all over it. UK Islands If you’re planning on staying closer to home this year, then avoid the crowds of Devon and Cornwall and head out to our islands. You’ll have to be quick though as the Channel Islands, Isle of Wight and the Isles of Scilly are not exactly undiscovered gems, so accommodation goes fast during school holidays. Cambodia South East Asia is emerging from a tourist-free two years and is in desperate need of the funds that we bring. Cambodia has announced it is reopening to vaccinated travellers and the early part of the year is the ideal time to explore the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat. Now you can enjoy it with far fewer visitors and make sure to support local businesses wherever possible. New York Whilst the rest of the US profited from a huge boom in domestic tourism, things had a slower start in the Big Apple. However, with the influx of Brits its popularity is on the rise again. This is still a great time for some serious Fifth Avenue retail therapy, catching a Broadway show or taking a wander through the huge array of museums and galleries. The Great Migration If you’re an avid fan of wildlife, Kenya and Tanzania’s Serengeti and Masai Mara are a must for the Great Migration. From July through to October you can witness the spectacle of millions of animals crossing treacherous terrain. Stay in converted Range Rovers with tents for roofs, lodges frequented by royalty or join an overland tour – just imagine your perfect safari and book! Year of UK sport With so many schedule changes over the last two years, things should hopefully be back on track, literally, with the 2022 Commonwealth Games set to take place in and around Birmingham this summer. If that’s not enough, the UEFA Women’s Euro 22 brings top-class football to stadia across the country. Venice This iconic city is a wonder to behold without the significant numbers of tourists of ‘normal’ times. If the costumes, masks and parties of Carnevale aren’t your thing, then aim to visit in March and enjoy a relatively crowd-free St Mark’s Square, Basilica and Doge’s Palace, not to mention some incredible food, of course! Trans-Siberian Express Possibly one of the most iconic sustainable journeys on the planet, it’s a great time to start planning, even if imminent travel is problematic. This trip offers any number of detours to visit Mongolia, China and the ‘Stans’, making it a starting point for a true voyage of discovery. It’s entirely possible to organise an independent trip or go with a group. Don't forget I can help you with all of these trips and more, just get in touch for financially protected, trusted travel advice!

Long weekend in Lithuania

01 December 2021

I recently had the absolute pleasure of joining three fellow travel agents on an educational trip for the first time in two years and the destination was Lithuania. Now, I knew pretty much nothing other than to expect it would be very cold in late November and I came away with a great impression of the places we visited, the people we met and (very importantly) the food we ate! We flew from the tiny London City airport to the capital, Vilnius and set about exploring this compact but impactful city. Having finally gained independence in 1991 after successive occupations by the Russians and Nazis, the architecture of the capital eloquently tells the story of those decades, whilst the people remember the past and celebrate the present as a republic. We met our lovely guide, Lena, whose walking tour gave us a fascinating insight into the history of the city and how it was formed. We visited several important sites including the cathedral, with a stunning chapel decorated by Italian artists; the breakaway state within the city – Uzupis – an artist colony with its own constitution; and, most unforgettably, the Museum of Genocide Victims, telling the story of thousands of Lithuanians who were killed or deported under occupation. The following day we headed over to Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city and former temporary capital. We drove but it is an easy train ride from Vilnius. In 2022 Kaunas celebrates being European Capital of Culture and a huge amount of investment has gone into ensuring it is ready to welcome guests for a year-long arts programme. Similarly to Vilnius, there’s a cobbled Old Town where the restaurants and bars spill out into the streets in the summer. Kaunas is also known for its inter-war architecture, with numerous buildings showcasing the Baltic take on the Art Deco movement. While we did a heck of a lot of walking in Vilnius and Kaunas this was regularly punctuated by stops for food! Lithuania has several special dishes that everyone should try, some of which even this vegetarian can (and did) eat. Some more unusual offerings are based around local game (beaver stew, anyone?) or ensuring the whole animal is used (smoked pig’s ears and baked pig’s intestine come to mind) whilst others are a reminder of how similar food can be across countries, such as some delicious ‘dumplings’ I had that were akin to ravioli. I think our group’s favourite eating experience involved a brewery, which is hardly surprising, where we were given a tour by the owner followed by beer tasting. This was accompanied by ‘beer snacks’ which were so good we could barely manage our dinner later that evening (yes, they fed us afterwards!). Beer snacks have a staple of dark rye bread fried with garlic which is easily the most delicious garlic bread I have ever tasted, then cold meats, cheese, usually including a popular local curd cheese, pickles etc. This is also where the pig’s ears, looking a lot like jerky, make an appearance. Our last morning was spent doing another easy side-trip from Vilnius to the stunning lakeside location of Trakai, with a restored 14th century castle situated on an island. This makes for an incredibly popular destination during the summer months, with boat trips and a lakeside cycle route. The Duke who built the original castle brought over a group of people known as the Karaims from Crimea to act as his personal bodyguards. Their ancestors still live there and our final destination was a restaurant featuring their typical cuisine. Little did we know we would actually be making it! Similar to Cornish pasties or empanadas, we learned how to roll out, fill and shape ‘kybyn’ before they were whisked away for cooking and returned to us along with several other wonderful dishes. Naturally, there’s a national drink the Karaims accompany their meals with, Krupnik, although usually only on special occasions – as this was our last meal in Lithuania it seemed only fitting to give it a try before heading to the airport for our flight home. After all that eating I’m surprised we weren’t classed as excess baggage.

Bucket List Destinations – December – Lapland

08 February 2021

As the nights draw in some of us might be tempted to head for warmer climes, as per November’s New Zealand blog but others might want to make the most of the cold and go searching for all things winter – whether that’s snowmobiling and husky-sledding, visiting Santa at home or seeking out the elusive Northern Lights. Lapland is the perfect place to combine all of these and there’s even downhill and cross-country skiing if you want to squeeze more out of your trip. Lapland is actually an area covering the northern part of Finland although you will find some trips in bordering Sweden and both countries have a mix of fantastic scenery, great activities and unusual accommodation. As the majority of the trips to Lapland last no more than five nights, to make the most of your time I would recommend pre-booking all of the experiences you want to do, especially if you are travelling during school holidays. Most of the suppliers I work with offer a pick ‘n’ mix so you can choose from a selection of ways to have fun. By December there should be plenty of snow, so now’s your chance to try out something new! Even if you’re not over-excited to go on safari the huskies will be – it’s clear they love what they do and after a little instruction you’ll get to steer through the snow following trails through the trees. You might find one of your destinations is a nearby reindeer farm, where you can speak to the local Sami people who rely on these gentle giants for their livelihood and learn all about this traditional way of life. If that’s not enough adrenaline for you there’s always the chance to go snowmobiling – if you don’t fancy being in charge you can always ride pillion. Amp it up a notch by taking the snowmobiles on an evening safari in search of the Northern Lights! Being located north of the Arctic Circle gives you the best opportunity to see the Aurora Borealis in all its splendour – try to time your visit with a new moon for even less light pollution and a greater chance to see the magic. If you’re determined to maximise your chances of seeing the Northern Lights then it’s worth considering spending at least part of your stay in specially designed accommodation, such as glass igloos, Aurora cabins or hotel rooms with glass ceilings. While you’re at it, many hotels offer a wake-up service if the lights come out so there’s no chance of missing them. Glass igloos aren’t your only unusual accommodation option – what about the real thing? If you’re visiting for a few nights you can often combine a more conventional hotel stay with an overnight stay in an igloo, a treehouse or, of course, the world-famous Ice Hotel in Sweden. Unsurprisingly this now isn’t the only hotel built from scratch every winter, so you can expect to find an option close to you, wherever you are staying. However, if you’re travelling with children there is bound to only be one thought on their minds and that’s meeting Santa, naturally! You might be relieved to know that there are plenty of ‘normal’ accommodation options including hotels and cosy log cabins, often with their own saunas, that can accommodate families of all sizes. Centrally located, these stays ensure lots of fun-filled family activities so the younger members don’t get too bored or cold, with cheeky elves on hand to make sure they are having a great time and, of course, a chance to meet the man himself. Whatever your perfect Lapland break is, trying to find the right combination of activities, length of stay and type of accommodation can be a little daunting, so let me help you put together just the right trip!

Bucket List Destinations – November – New Zealand

03 February 2021

As winter bites in the UK what better time for a long-haul trip to the Antipodes for a spot of sunshine? Try to avoid December as you’ll be competing for beach space with the locals who have an extended holiday, so November, January or February are great months to visit. I spent a year in Australia so trying to narrow it down to a trip of a few weeks is asking a lot (although I may be giving this a go in the future, so watch this space!) – I’d want to know more about your interests and build the perfect itinerary around that. Instead I’ve decided to focus on New Zealand as it’s possible to visit a lot of highlights in 3-4 weeks. We’ll be starting in the North Island and as I travelled there last year you can read more about my highlights here: https://www.travelcounsellors.co.uk/liz.penn/Profile-Blog/NZNorthIslandHighlights In a week I’d suggest flying straight up to the Bay of Islands to start with some Maori culture in relaxing surroundings before heading back to Auckland for a night or two, then Lake Taupo or Rotorua via Hobbiton if it’s of interest and then looping back to Auckland via Waitomo if you fancy a glow-worm caving experience. From Auckland fly down to Christchurch on the South Island which is where you’ll spend the rest of your stay. On arrival you have a couple of hours’ scenic coastal drive up to Kaikoura for some whale-watching – here you can see sperm, pilot, killer and humpback whales, as well as various dolphins and fur seals – book in for a slot on your arrival day if possible in case the weather isn’t ideal and the tour gets postponed. The reason that makes this spot ideal for all the marine wildlife also attracts large numbers of seabirds and fish, so a great spot for nature lovers of all kinds. From Kaikoura you could head north to Marlborough’s wine region, Nelson’s art galleries and Abel Tasman Park for walking and/or kayaking between campsites but on our journey we’re heading across to the west coast via the TranzAlpine railway, considered to be one of the world’s great train journeys as it crosses the Canterbury Plains, followed by the valleys and gorges of the Waimakariri River before climbing into the Southern Alps. On arrival into Greymouth you’ll head south to base yourself at the Franz Josef Glacier. 12 kilometres long and fed by a massive 20 square kilometre snowfield at the top of the Southern Alps, the glacier features ice pinnacles as high as multi-story buildings, deep crevasses and stunning, pristine blue ice. One of the most popular ways to explore this incredible environment is heli-hiking, taking a helicopter onto the glacier and then a guided walk through some of the most stunning ice formations. After all the excitement a great way to relax is in the hot pools, set in dense rainforest where you can soak up the atmosphere or enjoy a massage. Next up you’re heading to Wanaka, travelling with the coast on one side and the mountains on the other before skirting Mount Aspiring national park. Break up the journey with one of the walks that can be found just off the highway. I know I would be making a beeline for Puzzling World but that’s just me, normal people would probably be more interested in Wanaka’s lakeside setting with a range of outdoor activities to rival its bigger cousin down the road – Queenstown. Of course, time allowing it would be ideal to visit both, with a side-trip to Arrowtown, an old gold-mine settlement where you can try your hand at panning for the precious stuff. Queenstown is world-renowned for being a major draw for adrenalin junkies; home to a wide range of variants on the original bungee jump, other extreme activities include jetboating, white-water rafting, river surfing, mountain biking, gliding and skydiving. If none of that appeals, then there are some more leisurely options such as winery tours and river cruises. The Skyline Gondola will give you a bird’s eye view of Queenstown and the surrounding scenery of lakes and mountains. Once you’re over your adrenalin rush we’re heading to Te Anau – this is the jumping off point for famous Milford Sound and the more remote and therefore much quieter Doubtful Sound, three times the length and ten times the area of Milford Sound, you’ll need to take a tour to visit but if you have the time it is definitely worth it. Overnight cruises or kayaking adventures help get you closer to the wilderness. If you happen to have plenty of time and a desire to see Kiwis in their native environment you could head to Bluff on the south coast and from there take a ferry or fly to Stewart Island where the native birds easily outnumber the human population. Due to the lack of predators you’ll also find plenty of other birds including penguins and mammals such as fur seals. As the weather can be variable it’s recommended that you stay for a few nights. From the south head over to the Otago Peninsula on the east coast if you’re in need of more native fauna – here you’ll find more penguins, albatross, seals and sea lions, as well as the university town of Dunedin for restaurants and nightlife, making it a good place to base yourself. Take the coast road up to Oamuru and stop off at the Moeraki Boulders, perfect spheres dotted along a stretch of beach. After the photo ops head inland to Twizel or Lake Tekapo to soak up the mountain scenery and lake views before heading up to Christchurch and bringing an end to your New Zealand adventure. There are literally hundreds of ways of seeing New Zealand depending on your interests, so please get in touch to find out how I can put the perfect trip together for you.

Bucket List Destinations – October – New England Leaf-peeping

25 January 2021

This is the third time the US makes my bucket list but that’s hardly surprisingly given how vast it is and the number of incredible destinations there are. For an even more exotic alternative, autumn in Japan is second only to the cherry blossom season. Depending on where you start, this trip can be done from mid-September through to late October and I would recommend trying to finish up around Halloween – that’s worth a trip in itself! To do that you might find you want to run the route backwards, as a lot of the coastal activity winds down in mid-October. My route will start in New York, taking in the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the White Mountains and Acadia National Park before ending in Boston. You’ll tick off five states en route but it’s perfectly manageable in 2-3 weeks. There’s not much that hasn’t already been said about NYC. My advice is if it’s your first time give yourself at least three nights to get acquainted and stay central. If you’ve been before consider Chelsea or Brooklyn, get to know the neighbourhoods and visit the places you missed last time! It’s time to hit the road. Avoid Manhattan traffic by picking the car up from Newark Airport –and head out on Route 87 – your highway to the Catskills and the first signs of the autumn colours. Stop off at Ashokan Reservoir for a walk and then you’ll be following the creek up to the country inns, cute boutiques and mountainous scenery of Phonecia, Fleischmanns and beyond to Roxbury – there are several places to stop in this area if you’d like to spend a night or two before heading up to re-join the I-28 and moving into the Adirondacks. With over 9,000 square miles of national park and over 40 peaks over 4,000 feet, to say the scenery is majestic is an understatement. Head through the gateway town of touristy Lake George and drive on to base yourself at Lake Placid. Home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, the town still attracts elite athletes to train. You can even join in yourself with a partnered bobsled! The area boasts over 2,000 miles of hiking trails, as well as all the lakes, rivers and mountains you could ever wish to explore. Next up we’re heading across the border into Vermont – this requires a ferry across Lake Champlain to Burlington, Vermont’s largest city but this college town still retains a much more laid-back attitude. A night or two here wouldn’t hurt, giving you a chance to explore the lake's islands, the local brewery or, for a bit of culture you’ve got the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont housing art from Native Americans through to Andy Warhol or the eclectic collection at the Shelburne in town. We’re heading to Montpellier but en route there are a couple of quirky stop-offs that might be of interest around the Stowe area. Just after the turn-off at Waterbury you’ll find Ben & Jerry’s factory for all those ice-cream lovers. Further up is the Trapp Family Lodge, a name easily recognised by any Sound of Music fans and still run by descendants of the family the film is based on. If it’s open, head to Smuggler’s Notch, a little further up the 108 for some extra-special scenery. Following any diversions head to Montpellier, Vermont’s capital and the US’s smallest. Great for food lovers this is worth a pit-stop and a leg-stretch around the City House (see, too small for a City Hall even) before the drive east into New Hampshire. It’s worth taking the US-2 to drop you down onto the I-93 as that will bring you through Franconia Notch State Park, with a narrow mountain pass and visitor centre with details of walks in this area. The twin towns of Lincoln and North Woodstock make a good stop-off for the night before you take the Kancamagus Highway – 35 miles of New England scenery at its best, cutting through the White Mountains National forest from Lincoln to Conway. There’s very little development for the entire stretch, so enjoy the views from scenic lookouts and trails. Two highlights are Lily Pond where you might spot moose and the 20-minute hike to Sabbaday Falls. You’re now heading for the coast – first up is Portsmouth, the third oldest city in the US and proud of its maritime history. Activities here include a cruise around the harbour or a visit to Strawberry Banke’s collection of over 40 buildings in the living-history museum; alternatively you can check out the beached submarine the USS Albacore. From here you’ll be taking the same route to and from Bar Harbor (you can always fly back to Boston if you're short on time), so here's my suggested route. On the way up pass through Portland and drive the coast road to bed down in Boothbay Harbor, renowned for lobsters and incredible views. Our final stop is Bar Harbor, around a three-hour, very scenic drive. Bar Harbor is the gateway to Acadia National Park which includes the coastline and is the perfect place to base yourself for a few day’s exploration. You have the wonderful coast and plenty of water-related activities from cruises to kayaking and follow the park loop road for the highlights of beaches, dramatic cliffs and Atlantic coast scenery (don’t miss Thunder Hole), walking trails and Cadillac Mountain. As well as hiking, several miles of carriage roads allow for cycling and there are also ranger-led programmes to get the most out of the park’s natural attractions. Once you’ve had your fill of Bar Harbor we’re heading back along the coast, this time stopping at Camden before heading to Portland. This revitalised city boasts plenty of galleries and museums, including the poet Longfellow’s childhood home, as well as great food centred around the restored Old Port area. When you can tear yourself away we have our final drive to Boston – it’s an absolute must to at least do some of the Freedom Trail starting at Boston Common as this offers the perfect introduction to the many facets of the city and the huge amount of history here. Don’t miss Faneuil Hall, the fabulous market place for a well-deserved lunch before you reach USS Constitution (better known as Old Ironsides) and Bunker Hill. There’s so much to see here it’s best to get the low-down on what’s on, whether that’s basketball, opera or whale-watching and then fit in the sightseeing around your chosen events. And a final tip from me – if you are in Boston on Halloween don’t even think about driving to Salem, it’s just not worth it!! To find out more about this trip and how it could easily be tailored to include Cape Cod or Canada, just get in touch!

Bucket List Destinations – September – Italy

14 January 2021

For those of us not tied to school holidays, September is the perfect time for a holiday in Europe – the sea is at its warmest, the weather is generally still pleasant and the crowds are slimming out. You could pick any number of fantastic European destinations but I have chosen to focus on Italy. Why? Because for me it is the ideal blend of culture, landscapes, beaches and food, combining to make up la dolce vita. To make this a bucket-list worthy entry I’ve come up with a three/four week itinerary and would recommend you let the train take the stain. Some might say surprisingly, Italy has excellent train services with everything from Eurostar-like Freccia Rosa to zip you between major cities down to the local trains pootling between tiny villages. In fact, I would (and have) take the train all the way from the UK. There are several different routes but one of the most scenic would be via Zurich to Chur in Switzerland, so you can take the Bernina Express through the Alps and enjoy the scenery from the panoramic carriages. This drops you into Tirano with regular links to Milan, so let’s start there! Milan is the economic powerhouse of Italy and this is reflected in the number of banks and fashion designers that have based themselves here. In a few days you can see Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ and, of course, the hard-to-miss Duomo taking centre stage. Little hint, there’s an upmarket department store, Rinascente, and the food hall has a terrace overlooking right the neighbouring cathedral – bellissimo! From here I would hop on a train to Venice. I’ve already covered Venice in my February blog and you can read more from my visit this year here: https://www.travelcounsellors.co.uk/liz.penn/Profile-Blog/Venicewithoutthecrowds Once you’ve had your fill of museums and galleries then hit the beach – people are often surprised to find that Venice actually has a beach island, appropriately named ‘Lido’. In September you have the added bonus of star-gazing as the International Film Festival takes place here. From Venice I would head to Bologna for a couple of food-tastic nights – if, like me, you associate Italy with food then Bologna is the cherry on top. Having visited a few years ago I have already written a blog, so you can read more about it here: https://www.travelcounsellors.co.uk/liz.penn/Profile-Blog/OnthehuntfortrufflesinBologna After Bologna, a couple of nights in Florence allows you time to visit the main attractions although booking is essential. Key points of interest are the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Galleria dell’Accademia (for the original statue of David) and for free you shouldn’t miss the Ponte Vecchio – dating back to 1345 it’s a reminder of how London Bridge would have looked back in the day, lined with shops. If all of the sightseeing makes you hungry I can highly recommend the food hall upstairs in the Mercato Centrale; just grab a table and take a wander around the twenty-plus stores selling top-notch grub. From Florence it’s an easy side-trip to Pisa for the not-leaning-quite-as-much-any-more tower and if time permits, hire a car and venture into Tuscany or Umbria, exploring hilltop towns and discovering local specialities, not to mention fantastic wine. Next up has to be Rome. You definitely need a few days here – I would start with a day around the Forum, the Palatine and the Colosseum and take the second day to visit the Vatican, booking a ‘before the crowds’ ticket to see the Sistine Chapel in (relative) peace. You need plenty of time for the Vatican as St Peter’s Basilica is huge and full of riches as you would expect for the seat of the Roman Catholic faith and if it’s not in the basilica you’ll find it in the Vatican Museums – actually made up of two palaces you still need to be selective to fit this into a few hours. If all of the museums and galleries get too much, head for Villa Borghese’s huge parks along with joggers, cyclists and picnickers. Pass through Naples; perhaps visit the museum which houses many of the remains from Pompeii; and take the privately run Circumvesuviana train line to Sorrento. This route takes you past Pompeii itself (exit Pompeii-Scavi for the excavations), again this is an all-day trip, so you might want to get yourself settled in Sorrento and then pop back. Something more manageable is Herculaneum – also on this line and easy to reach from the station. Impacted by the same eruption of Vesuvius that burnt Pompeii to a crisp, it was engulfed by mud rather than volcanic matter, so items such as clothing and furniture have survived. It’s a relatively small area but a worthwhile companion piece to Pompeii. As we’ve been city-hopping for a couple of weeks by now, I would settle down for at least five nights in Sorrento. As well as being a beautiful town in its own right there are so many day trips within easy reach it makes the perfect base. Pompeii is an obvious one and you might want to visit the cause of its destruction, Vesuvius. The volcano’s not easy to reach by public transport though, so you might need to take a tour. There’s plenty to see around the Amalfi Coast and this can easily be done by just hopping on a boat from Marina Piccolo to see the gorgeous Positano and Amalfi. Over the water you have to visit the island of Capri – don’t be fooled by the rather unglamorous marina, the pretty stuff is at the top of the hill. I’d recommend queuing for the funicular unless you are very fit and fancy the 2.5km climb! While you’re here, the opposite and higher peak of Anacapri has summit access with incredible views over the Bay of Naples on a clear day and there’s also the beautiful Grotta Azzurra to be visited by boat from the main marina. If you’re still looking for more to see, at this point I would suggest heading back to Naples and extending the trip. In one direction you could visit Sicily – you can get there by train, they put the whole thing on a ferry! Or take the express train across to Bari in Puglia and from there pick up a car to explore this region – another emerging foodie hotspot and especially good for veggies. Great beaches can be found in both locations if you’ve had enough of hitting the historical monuments. I could go on but I’d better stop – just as well I limited myself to one country. Although there is a ferry (which I’ve taken) from Bari over to Dubrovnik….just saying. If you’d like more inspiration for European trips including itineraries for no-flying options then please just get in touch.

Bucket List Destinations – August – Alaska & West Coast Canada

07 January 2021

As tempting as it was to include Alaska in June’s blog on national parks, there is just so much to do here it really deserves a blog in its own right – so here it is. The tourist season is short, pretty much from mid-May to September, with snow and ice making trips longer and more difficult outside these months. This timing works well combined with a trip to Canada’s British Colombia (BC), particularly Vancouver and Vancouver Island plus heading over the Rockies into Alberta, which is the longer trip I’ll be looking at here. As it’s on your bucket list, it’s got to be special, and this itinerary includes several once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. You may not be able to fit them all in, in which case you’d better get another trip planned! We’ll start off by flying into Calgary, with your first stop in Banff. Get your bearings on an afternoon tour of the area including Bow Falls, Lake Minnewanka, Surprise Corner and the Hoodoos, followed by a day at leisure to spend exploring Banff National Park on your own. The following day take a half-day tour into Yoho National Park to view some of its natural wonders. The tour ends in Lake Louise; my recommendation is no matter where you stay during the rest of the trip, today you should push the boat out with a stop at the Fairmont on the lake – it’s in the most picture-perfect setting. Book a lake-view room for the ultimate experience. Before arriving into Jasper visit the Columbia Icefield, one of the largest accumulations of ice south of the Arctic Circle and one of the most accessible icefields in North America, as well as Athabasca Falls; by this time of year it should be in full flow. You may well spot wildlife including bears and elk in the area, so keep your eyes peeled. On leaving Jasper you’re ready to depart onboard the iconic Rocky Mountaineer – a luxury train journey offering first-class service that takes you through some of the most scenic vistas in the Rockies. Back on the train, you have an overnight stop in Kamloops before arriving into Vancouver. Vancouver is often cited as the world’s friendliest city and it’s certainly one of the most beautiful. Almost entirely surrounded by water and with huge green spaces it’s good to know that it’s not all about the looks, with a mix of museums, art galleries and a wide range of shops and restaurants. Check out Granville Island’s covered market – a foodie’s delight where you can pick up plenty of fixings for a picnic in nearby Vanier Park or stroll along the Coal Harbour seawall into the vast expanse of Stanley Park, home to a world-class aquarium, miniature railway, beaches, lagoons and even totem poles. Once you’re ready for your next nature fix it’s time to take the ferry to Vancouver Island (or fly if you prefer!). I’d suggest spending a day looking around the capital, Victoria, for some rather grand architecture, parks and the chance to take a whale-watching tour if you haven’t yet. The island suits all sorts of visitors – foodies might want to check out the Cowichan Valley farm region, surfers and those looking to chill out might prefer laid-back Tofino. If you want to up the ante even more, you can take a float plane from Campbell River to one of the more remote lodges around the area – one of the places with the highest concentrations of grizzly bears in BC. It's not just about the land-based animals, you may well also see orcas, sea lions and dolphins although sightings vary by season. Now the above trip in its own right would be an incredible one but as we’re going for all-out bucket list I’m going to add Alaska into the mix. Heading back to Vancouver, the first part of the trip involves taking a cruise up the Inside Passage, heading into Glacier Bay, passing through frontier towns such as Ketchikan and Skagway, as well as Alaska’s capital - Juneau. Many cruise ships offer this route, so I can help you choose your best fit, depending on the kind of experience you’re after. Some are great for kids, some focus on education but all will have an emphasis on the natural world and environment you are travelling through. Excursions include cultural options such as totem pole carving or dance performances or more recent experiences such as log-rolling and gold-panning. More active options include fishing, kayaking or dog-sledding. Once you’ve reached Whittier you’ll catch a train into the heart of Denali National Park – home of the Alaskan ‘Big Five’: grizzly bear, moose, Dall sheep, wolves and caribou. As hunting has never been allowed inside the park you have a fantastic chance of observing animals in their natural environment, pretty much ignoring the waterproof-clad humans. The park’s main road was built to maximise your chances of seeing wildlife, so if you’re not interested in getting off the literal beaten track you are still likely to have an amazing wildlife encounter. For those with more time and energy it is possible to jump off the shuttle buses and hike on any number of well-maintained trails although within the park the main accommodation choice is camping, so depending on how adventurous you are you might decide to stick with one of the nearby communities and their creature comforts. This is the tip of the iceberg (had to be done) outlining just some of the options available for a visit to Alaska and west coast Canada – to start planning your once-in-a-lifetime trip just get in touch!

Bucket List Destinations – July – Great Migration

18 December 2020

You might have noticed by now that a lot of my bucket list destinations have a leaning towards seeing our amazing wildlife in their natural habitat and this month is no exception. The Great Migration sees thousands of wildebeest and other savannah dwellers travelling through the Serengeti and Masai Mara following the rains to new feeding grounds. This is the largest mass movement of land mammals on the planet – more than a million animals migrate and as well as the wildebeest you can expect to see large prides of lions, elephants, giraffes, gazelles and eland, to mention but a few. You’re likely to start your trip in Arusha. Resting at the foot of Mount Meru, this sprawling city is known as the safari capital of northern Tanzania. It serves as an excellent base from which to explore the remarkably scenic surrounding area which includes majestic Mount Kilimanjaro, as well as the Manyara, Tarangire and Ngorongoro National Parks. Arusha is a good spot to take a day or two off from the safari circuit as it features a temperate climate and lush surrounds. Once you’re ready to head out on safari, you’ll take a morning flight from Arusha to Serengeti National Park. The Serengeti together with Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Park form Africa’s most famous wildlife park. The image of acacia trees on an endless grass plain epitomises Africa for many, and then add a Masai warrior and some cattle to the picture, and the vision is complete. To add to this incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience, why not take your accommodation to the migration, with unique Bush Rover Suites – working Land Rovers which open out into stunning safari rooms. The 14ft x 16ft tented bedrooms sit on a sturdy metal platform at the top of the Land Rover. Each suite has solar powered lighting and hot water, a flush loo and even a bath tub in the back! The elevation of the bedroom and balcony is key to the experience, giving guests a sense of security but also getting as close to the wildlife as possible. Drinks are enjoyed by the camp fire under the endless stars before dinner in the cosy dining tent. The private camp is made up of just five Bush Rovers in the best locations to be right in the middle of the great wildebeest migration but away from the crowds. Your next day or two will be spent on game drives, enjoying the spectacle of the migration up close and personal before returning to your relaxing accommodation. You’ll return to Arusha and a popular extension is to head to the spice island of Zanzibar. Zanzibar’s turquoise waters and white sand beaches offer the quintessential tropical paradise and a perfect place to unwind after your safari. You’re not limited to lounging around on the beaches (although who could blame you?), there’s world-class snorkelling and diving among coral reefs, sailing on a traditional dhow and absorbing the Swahili culture. In Stone Town, the hub of the spice trade for two thousand years, you can wander through the winding alleys, coming across spice markets and piles of cinnamon and nutmeg lying in the sun. This is only one of many superb safari destinations and options available at all times of the year, so if you could like to find out more, just get in touch!

Bucket List Destinations – June – US South West National Parks

26 November 2020

The US might be best known for its cities but it has some of the most iconic national parks – think Yosemite, Yellowstone and, of course, the Grand Canyon. June is a fantastic month to visit before the crowds of summer – unsurprisingly thousands of Americans descend on the parks by car and it can become very difficult to get around. It’s relatively easy to visit several parks in one trip, especially around the south-west and this is helped by an annual national park pass. A popular itinerary starts in either Las Vegas or Denver and can take in six superb and surprisingly different parks in a steady two weeks. Depending on your route you can circle round to start from or finish with the Daddy of them all – the Grand Canyon. Personally, my favourite view of the canyon itself is from Desert View Watchtower – out on the eastern entrance into the canyon. If you are tight on time a night at the canyon followed by a drive out to the watchtower gives you a glimpse into the sheer enormity created by the Colorado River. Speaking of which, if you’re up for a challenge then you might want to consider rafting the river itself! Back at the main visitor centre take note of rangers warning of the perils of walking into the canyon too late (i.e. after about 8am!) as there’s very little shade and what goes down must come up. It's not possible to reach the bottom and return in one day, so if you want to go to the bottom you need to have pre-booked an overnight stay at Phantom Ranch – around a year in advance! Route dependent you might head up through Page where I’d recommend an overnight stop so you have a chance to enjoy the truly iconic view of Colorado River below you at Horseshoe Bend and some familiar looking wavy walls at Antelope Canyon – this is ideally visited in the morning to get the best light but be prepared for short notice cancellations as flash flooding has proved tragic in the past and so no risks are taken – this is also why you must go on a guided tour. From here it’s just over a two-hour drive to Zion National Park – the park is most famous for ‘The Narrows’, a hike down the river which is usually undertaken over two days but you can just take a day hike. Not for the faint-hearted there’s also Angel’s Landing, a five-mile trail with a 6000ft summit – I have photos taken by my husband but I went horse-riding instead! From Zion it’s another couple of hours to Bryce Canyon – not actually a canyon but rather an amphitheatre of ‘hoodoos’ (if you want to show off pronounce them oo-doos in front of a ranger); these look like some kind of painted sugar confectionery steeples – in fact, Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona could well have been modelled on them. Good news if you have sore feet – you can actually see a huge amount of the main sites here without leaving your car! Having said that, taking the combined Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop three-mile trail is well worth it. And if you can make the sacrifice and get up early, the colours as the sun comes into the ‘Silent City’ amphitheatre will make up for it. Head through park number four – Capitol Reef – to see the Waterpocket Fold, described as a geological wrinkle that extends for over 100 miles. While you’re here you should be in time for cherry-picking at one of the orchards originally planted by Mormons in the 1880’s and now managed as part of the park. Things are going to start getting more like the Westerns now – the last two parks; Canyonlands and Arches; are very close to each other and have the famous flat-top mesa rocks jutting out of the ground as well as (unsurprisingly) arches. Whilst there’s plenty to see in Arches from your car and a short hike out to the Windows Trail, you should also consider booking into a ranger-guided tour of the Fiery Furnace if you’re up for a bit of scrambling. One of the best ways of viewing both parks is to take a tour in a 4WD – best left to the experts – who will get you safely into (and out of) the back-country with useful information on the geology and archaeology of the area. I know I have focussed on one fantastic itinerary but I can also vouch for this being the perfect time of year to visit Yosemite as the famous waterfalls should be in full flow and I have plenty of hints and tips for you to make the most of that trip. Yellowstone is also starting to open for the season in June and this is a great time to visit as it gets incredibly busy later in the summer and lots of calves (bighorn sheep, elks and mountain goats) are being born, plus good waterfalls! Finally, Alaska has a short season, pretty much from mid-May to early September (see my future August blog for more details). If any of the parks mentioned are of interest or if you’d like to hear about other options in the US then please just get in touch and I would be very happy to help.

Bucket List Destinations – May – Borneo

24 November 2020

Unique wildlife is a big draw for many people, so the opportunity to see orangutans in their natural environment is on a lot of people’s bucket list. Borneo is the ideal place to do this and makes for a fabulous trip of two weeks combining wildlife with beaches and starting the whole thing off with a stay in Malaysia’s capital – Kuala Lumpur. This itinerary would work pretty much anytime from March through to October, with peak season being May to September, making it ideal for families, especially those whose children have a passion for wildlife. KL has a surprisingly compact city centre and you will easily spot the influences with Chinatown, Masjid India and the colonial district. You’ll find KLCC – the modern City Centre – with the instantly recognisable Petronas Towers to the east of the original city. It’s certainly worth getting over a long flight by spending a few days sampling the different cultures of the neighbourhoods. Don’t forget to check out the markets and if the city gets too much there’s plenty of green space to escape to – try the Eco Park at Bukit Nanas and while you’re there the Menara tower offers great views over to KLCC. From KL we’re heading to Sarawak in Borneo. Basing yourself in the bustling regional capital of Kuching, Bako, the oldest of Sarawak’s national parks, offers the perfect introduction to Sarawak’s forests and wildlife. Bako is home to 275 rare proboscis monkeys, found only in Borneo, as well as silvered langurs, bearded pigs, monitor lizards and over 200 types of birds. Despite its seemingly small size, Bako contains a wide range of ecosystems – swamp forest, scrub-like padang vegetation, mangrove forest, dipterocarp forest, delicate cliff vegetation and beautiful sandy beaches – providing a natural habitat for many indigenous species. You can explore the rainforest on a variety of walking trails or arrange a one-way boat hire from the park headquarters and hike out/back from there. While you’re in Kuching it’s worth making a visit to the Sarawak Cultural Village – a living museum which the locals take great pride in as it keeps their traditions alive – you can see traditional dwellings as well as music and dance performances. Next up we move over to the east coast of Malaysian Borneo – Sabah. This area is home to the native orangutans, so head straight to Sepilok, the epicentre of local wildlife. From here you can visit several centres aimed at the conservation of not only orangutans but also sun bears and proboscis monkeys – many of the animals have been rescued, so the focus is on rehabilitation with a view to releasing them back into the wild where possible. Fully educated you’ll spend the next couple of days based on the Kinabatangan river, with opportunities to see wildlife along the riverbanks on early morning boat trips. Accommodation in both the Sepilok and Kinabatangan areas is of a more rustic nature in keeping with its surroundings but there are many family-friendly options available. Following our days observing nature it’s time to head back to civilisation and the capital of Sabah – Kota Kinabalu or KK. If you’re fit and fancy a challenge then Mount Kinabalu at just over 4,000 metres is waiting to be climbed – this is a two-day climb and it’s strongly recommended that you book in advance as the overnight stop gets booked up. For us mere mortals, or once you’ve bagged your mountain, the beach is calling. You can stay in KK or a short boat ride will take you into Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park with several hotel resorts blending into the scenery on one of four islands to enjoy some well-deserved R&R along with excellent snorkelling before heading home.

Bucket List Destinations - April - Japan

16 November 2020

This trip is sat firmly at the top of my bucket list, as I would love to see the cherry blossom in Japan. This can start in mid-March depending on whereabouts you are and will only last a couple of weeks but with different varieties flowering at slightly different times, early April is peak season. The most popular ‘sakura’ spots tend to be close to the cities, with Kyoto considered to be the prime spot. Of course, this makes for lots of tourists, so it is worth doing some research and seeking out potentially quieter places. The Japanese, as with so many things, have turned cherry blossom viewing into an art-form and it’s known as ‘hanami’. In general this consists of a picnic under the blossom in parks, often lake-side or within castle grounds, such as Himeji Castle in Hyogo prefecture or Fuji Five Lakes area. Bento boxes are often themed for the season and you can expect to find special editions of various food and drink, from pink Kit Kats to flavoured Pepsi. While you’re here it would be rude not to see the sights – your visit is likely to start and/or end in Tokyo and this metropolis of over 35 million people has to be seen to be believed. It’s a vertical city, with hotels, restaurants and shopping malls on top of each other. The number of experiences here are endless – whether you’re interested in the past, present or future, be it food, karaoke, sumo wrestling or manga, there’s enough happening here to keep you busy for weeks. Next on the itinerary might be to head to Kyoto, especially for cherry blossom as the city is the heart of everything traditionally associated with Japan, from imperial palaces to teahouses to geisha, so where better to observe sakura. Despite the 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites it is still possible to find secluded gardens and secret shrines – just make friends with the locals or ensure you have a great guide booked through me, of course! If you time your visit to coincide with the cherry blossom you may also be able to reach Takayama in time for their twice-yearly festival but even if you miss it this place is well worth a visit; located in a beautiful riverside setting the town dates back to the late 17th century and features wooden houses now boasting sake breweries, craft shops and museums galore. If you miss the festival, you’ll find some of the floats on display in one of the museums. Depending on your interests and the time of year may well dictate what else you do – if it’s winter you could ski in the Japanese Alps or head up to Hokkaido. If you like food then Osaka is known as the epicentre of Japanese cuisine and if you’re fascinated by the idea of onsen (hot baths) then Kinosaki is the place to go – the town has seven onsen and you’ll often find people walking between them in kimono and sandals. History buffs have centuries to choose from, whether it’s the age of the Samurai right up to Hiroshima and even the Fukushima disaster, there’s plenty to explore. For nature lovers there are hikes, trails and even pilgrimages to be made or visit the deer in Nara or the snow monkeys in Yudanaka. With such a diverse culture and environment don’t be too surprised if one visit isn’t enough!

Bucket List Destinations - March - South East Asia

10 November 2020

If you’re looking for the best time to visit Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, then March is right up there. Combining culture and beaches, a tour around South-East Asia is definitely on a lot of people’s ‘to-do’ list. It goes without saying that night markets, cookery classes, stunning waterfalls, elephant sanctuaries, visiting local industries and other superb experiences can be enjoyed throughout the region. So where to go? This itinerary is based on having around a month and assuming this is a first-time trip to get a feel for the area; of course, it can be tailored to suit all budgets, timescales and interests. I’d suggest starting in the north and working your way down, so you can enjoy the cities and culture before washing up on a beach to relax. With a strong French Colonial influence, the cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos are a comfortable place to start, offering a great introduction to the Buddhist temples you will see throughout your trip – with fantastic coffee on the side! For the road less travelled you can drive down through Laos towards the southern attractions of Pakse and the 4,000 islands but we’re going to head east into Vietnam instead. Fly to Hanoi to enjoy this remarkable capital and then it’s out to Halong Bay or it’s lesser-known cousin, Bai Tu Long Bay for an overnight cruise in this scenery strewn with towering limestone islands and fabulous beaches, bays and lagoons to kayak, snorkel and laze about on. Depending on time versus budget at this point take the train or fly from Hanoi to Hoi An – another UNESCO World Heritage Site with its ancient Japanese merchant houses and Chinese temples reflecting its former glory as a major port. After a relaxing few days, ideally with a side-trip to Hue, it’s time for a big city stay – Ho Chi Minh City awaits! Formerly Saigon, HCMC is the largest city in Vietnam and contrasts French Colonial splendour with modern skyscraper city living. As well as exploring this cosmopolitan whirlwind there are some important side trips to be considered. Learn about the resistance during the Vietnam War with a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels – not for the claustrophobic. Enjoy an overnight stay or cruise along the Mekong; for those with time it’s possible to cruise from here to Siem Reap via Phnom Penh; well worth considering. However you get there, next stop is Cambodia. The capital, Phnom Penh, may still bear the scars of the years of Khmer Rouge rule and it would be hard to pass through without paying your respects at the Killing Fields, but the city is now prosperous and lively, with a world-class cuisine and fabulous nightlife. Siem Reap itself may feel like a miniature Phnom Penh – it even has a road nicknamed ‘Pub Street’ due to the number of bars – but we’re here for the main attraction – Angkor. With a huge temple complex featuring immediately recognisable Angkor Wat as the jewel in the crown, you ideally need three days to explore what, in its heyday, was probably South East Asia’s biggest metropolis. After taking in enough temples to last a lifetime you’ve just got one more city to go before hitting the beach! Depending on whether you’ve done all of your souvenir shopping, either treat Bangkok as a stopping-off point en route to the coast or give yourself a couple of nights to explore. Either way, there’s a strong probability you’ll be passing back through this way. March is a great month to visit Elephant Hills in Khao Sok national park for a safari-style stay in this wonderful rainforest-based project. Thailand is pretty much famous for its beaches and, with good weather on both sides of the peninsula, there is something for everyone – so whether it’s diving you’re after, perhaps the odd Full Moon party or just lounging around on a white sand beach, this is the perfect way to end your trip. To find out more about tailor-made itineraries in South East Asia and beyond, please just get in touch!

Bucket List Destinations – February - Carnival time

03 November 2020

Surely we all need to experience the sheer joy and celebration associated with Carnival time at least once in our lives?! A few places spring to mind but three big hitters have to be Venice, New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. Venice is often cited as the original Carnival as we know it. Meaning ‘farewell to meat’, Carnevale celebrates the last few feasting days prior to the traditional forty fasting days of Lent, starting on Ash Wednesday, the day after Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras. Venice knows how to celebrate in style and their carnival stretches for over two weeks, offering a unique opportunity to dress as an eighteenth century noble, complete with mask. The mask is important as it allowed people of all social statuses to mix during the carnival. It’s possible to hire extravagant outfits when in Venice – after all, if you happen to be lucky enough to afford tickets to one of the many balls that are a feature of Carnevale then you must certainly make the effort to look the part! If you’re more of a spectator than a partaker then this is a fabulous time to see this magical city harking back to the days of Casanova, with costumes, parades, musical performances and regatta throughout the city. For something a little more contemporary, the musical epicentre New Orleans has taken carnival to heart. In fairness, they've also been celebrating since the 1700's but this has evolved into the current format with huge parades led by Krewes – the most historic parades include Rex, the King of Carnival, Proteus and Zulu. The largest parades are Endymion on the Saturday before Mardi Gras and Bacchus on the Sunday before Mardi Gras. However, there’s a parade for everyone and each neighbourhood in the area will be celebrating, so it’s worth doing your homework on parade dates and routes. It’s not all about drinking and partying – there are plenty of family-friendly options as this isn’t just for the tourists – all of the Krewes are privately operated and they usually herald from the local area themselves. If you’re in the market for collecting ‘throws’ – beads, cups and other trinkets – make sure you take a large bag for your haul and take a flag or sign so the parade can spot you’re from out of town – they appreciate those who make the effort! For the ultimate in Carnival celebrations it just has to be Rio! Around 2 million people flock to the streets to watch more than 200 samba schools strut their stuff in parades. The samba schools will have been practising all year as they are being judged on their music, dancing, costumes and floats of course, which will have been built by their community. In turn, the samba schools’ deep neighbourhood connections help support their local community economically. The event is so popular that in 1984 the city built the Sambadrome, which can accommodate up to 80,000 people, to cope with numbers and provide better viewing – the most popular parades are now ticketed events. This doesn’t stop the fun from spilling over into the streets, where you will find the local ‘bandas’ encourage everyone to join in with the dancing. Whatever your tastes, carnival time is about letting your hair down and partying – tourists and locals alike – so choose your costume and let’s go!

Bucket List Destinations - January - Antarctica

23 October 2020

As one of the last places on the planet to be ‘discovered’ by man just 200 years ago and with such a high ecological profile, it’s hardly surprising that Antarctica makes it onto so many people’s bucket lists – mine included. However, our increasing awareness of the climate crisis is enough to give people pause for thought about travelling here. In 1991, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) was established “to advocate and promote the practice of safe and environmentally responsible Antarctic travel”. There is a strong belief among partners of this association that the education received by those taking part in expedition cruises and the advocacy created far outweighs the carbon footprint of the trip. With this in mind, my first recommendation is to choose a tour operator who has signed up to IAATO to ensure your visit follows best practice. To prevent over-tourism, only 50-100 people are permitted on land at a time, and the number of ships per site per day are capped. Ships carrying over 500 passengers are unable to dock at all, so a second recommendation would be to choose smaller vessels to give you the best experience and time on shore. Expect educational and expedition style cruises – some are at the luxury end of the scale but others allow cabin-sharing to split the cost – I can advise on what’s right for you. What to expect on board can vary hugely depending on the company, as with all cruises. The things you will find in common is this is much more about the educational element, so you will learn about your surroundings and may even get involved with science projects – this is one of those times when the more you put in, the more you will get out. Depending on the type of trip you may well need a decent level of fitness as optional activities include kayaking or even camping overnight! So now you know who you’re going with and what to expect; when should you go? According to Tudor Morgan, Director of Expedition Operations at Hurtigruten, the best time of year to go is late December or early January as by then the penguin chicks will be born – go any earlier and it’s a lot cleaner but it’s just the eggs! Into January you can also expect to see a large number of whales, especially Humpbacks. One of the projects you might get involved in is photographing their tails, which act like human fingerprints, allowing scientists to track and monitor them. Of course, with such an unique environment you can’t predict what you might see on your own cruise but it will be guaranteed to be an incredibly gratifying and humbling experience. If you’d like help in planning your cruise as well as more on how to get there and options to extend your stay at the bottom of the world then just get in touch!

Venice without the crowds

26 August 2020

It seemed like a good idea to take the opportunity of a lifetime to see Venice without anywhere near the usual crowds, so we did! Quieter hotels meant more deals, the museums had reopened and were operating relatively normally (although masks were mandatory) and it was lovely to be able to sip a Spritz and stuff your face with actual Italian pasta. We flew with EasyJet out of Gatwick and, other than face masks for the bus from the airport, the time at the airport and the flight itself, there was little difference – maybe fewer people but as Gatwick is only currently operating out of one terminal it was still relatively busy. I had printed out two different forms allegedly required for travel to Italy – neither were asked for. I had also seen very late in the day a message on EasyJet’s app about Italian flights insisting on surgical face masks – no sign on the outbound…They boarded us in blocks of rows, so that seemed more efficient and, even better, insisted on people staying seated when we landed, which I’m sure meant we disembarked far more quickly. We arrived 40 minutes early (quieter airspace?) and next came our big treat - as the rest of the trip was a decent price (for Venice) I had splurged on a water taxi – always wanted to have a Bond moment and it lived up to expectations, so I would highly recommend it! The treats continued as a quieter hotel led to an upgrade, so we got a huge Junior Suite with a side view of the Grand Canal, fabulous! As we were only there three nights I felt like a stay on Venice ‘proper’ was required but if you have more time you could even turn your stay into a beach break and have a few days on the Lido or best the crowds with a night on Burano. Our first afternoon we enjoyed wandering around the city, getting thoroughly lost and taking at least twenty minutes to walk anywhere that was ten minutes away, before enjoying a canal-side meal and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes – they seem particularly virulent in August, so take precautions! We knew we were going to be taking a few vaporetto journeys over the next couple of days, so as our hotel was right next to Ca’d’Oro vaporetto stop we picked up the really useful Unica cards – you can also order these online and load all sorts of tours onto them as well as public transport, so well worth looking into. For reference, 24 hours on the vaporettos = €20; 48 hours = €30; 72 hours = €40. On the Sunday I had booked the Secret Itineraries tour at the Doge’s Palace. This is a really popular tour as it takes you behind the scenes through prison cells and torture chambers to the elaborate reception rooms of the Council of Ten and gives you an insight into the power of The Doge and the ruling classes in Venice. To maintain social distancing, it was limited to 8 people, so we got lucky. It also gives you access to visit the remainder of the Palace, including going over the Bridge of Sighs as many an unfortunate prisoner did on their way to the dungeons. We didn’t have time to take much in though as we had a meal booked on Burano, one of the smaller islands, originally known for its lace-making but now popular with tourists for its brightly coloured houses. Our meal was at Osteria Contemporanea, set in a vineyard on Mazzorbo, just over a bridge from Burano itself. The food was superb, especially the seafood and fish (according to Rich) and the setting perfect with an ‘indoors/outdoors’ feel overlooking gardens and the vineyard. As it was a Sunday lunchtime the vast majority of other diners were Italian families taking their time over a few glasses of local wine. Afterwards we walked around Burano, inevitably taking ridiculous numbers of photos before heading back to Venice. This time we took the ferry to Fondamente Nove and found Combo - a lovely bar/restaurant/meeting place set in the courtyard and surrounding buildings of a former convent which was full of students and had a very relaxed vibe. On Monday, in case we hadn’t already done a huge amount of walking, we did a self-guided walking tour of the Canareggio area, especially covering the Jewish ghetto, which has the dubious ‘honour’ of being the first recognised ghetto in the world. We didn’t have the time to visit but a return trip would definitely include the Jewish Museum to understand more about the commercial heart of Venice. Note that many places, be that museums or restaurants, are closed on Mondays, so it’s worth planning around this ahead of time. Our last day started with breakfast overlooking the Grand Canal before heading to one of my favourite things – an Escape Room! Yes, Venice is full of wonderful churches and incredible buildings but this was my third visit, so it was time for something else. I have to say it was a tough one, so I wouldn’t recommend it for newbies. We didn’t escape but we had a lot of fun trying. Following this excitement we finally did a gondola ride…well, the cheap version! If you’re stuck between bridges and need to get across the Grand Canal, look out for ‘traghetto’ stops – these large gondolas operate in the day time and require a balancing act as you stand in them as they cross. For €2 it was worth the shoe leather. That afternoon we moved into the Napoleonic era at Museo Correr which actually takes up an entire two wings of the buildings surrounding San Marco piazza. The ticket price (€25) is for both Museo Correr and the Doge’s Palace; so make sure you make the most of the ticket! Our return transport to the airport was sadly the local bus! We again found ourselves being called to board by row but this time surgical masks were required - luckily we had ours to hand! Ensure you take some disposable masks even if you don’t think you’ll need them – it’s not worth missing your flight over. Before returning we’d completed our Passenger Locator Form online as required for people coming into the UK – you can only complete this no more than 48 hours prior to arrival into the UK. As we were going through the e-passport control no one asked for the form but at least they have it on record! My overall impression of the holiday was that, with the exception of the mask-wearing, nothing felt particularly out of the ordinary. We had a fantastic time away and really felt as though we could relax and enjoy ourselves, so if you are thinking about trying to have a break I would say go for it! If you have any questions about my experience please don’t hesitate to get in touch as I’d be more than happy to answer them.

Unusual UK Stays

07 May 2020

It’s fair to say there will be a significant demand for ‘staycations’ this summer as we all want to get away for a change of scenery, even if it’s not the beach paradise we had in mind. I’ve been hearing from people that they are looking forward to catching up with friends and family, enjoying the great outdoors and recharging their batteries. UK holiday cottages and rentals have a lot going for them as they can give you independence to do what you want and they will often allow the furry family members along as well. I’ve been taking a look at some of the more unusual options that might float your boat – including boats, actually… Shepherd’s Huts & Glamping If you’re dreaming of a romantic getaway without the kids after all that home schooling and fancy something off the grid but without losing too many creature comforts then here are some fab ideas for you. Shepherds’ huts are becoming increasingly popular as they offer cute accommodation and can be located pretty much anywhere. I particularly love this one in Keswick for the views (I’m sure you’ll be able to guess which photo I mean!) although you will find them country-wide. And if you’re looking for something a little more luxurious why not book one with a hot tub – probably better suited to a UK summer than an outdoor swimming pool! The newest line in this type of accommodation is the ‘pod’ – a larger alternative to the shepherds’ huts, these are generally built to very high specifications, often including added luxuries such as underfloor heating, so definitely no need to downgrade your holiday expectations. There’s always something innovative in this range and the most unusual I’ve seen has to be the ‘Reflection’ – again, I’m sure you’ll be able to spot that in the photos – or maybe not…this particular micro home is in the Lake District, so the top-notch accommodation is matched by the sights and attractions on your doorstep. So far, so normal… OK, so they’re lovely but they’re not that out of ordinary, I hear you say. Right, how about a stay in a railway carriage then? Here’s a beautiful example situated in Horsebridge Station, on the original ‘Sprat and Winkle’ line in Hampshire that the carriages are named after. It’s even got two bedrooms, so you could take the kids with you if they’ve been well-behaved! Still too obvious…? In that case let’s opt for a second mode of transport – the classic red double decker bus. This particular example sleeps six, has goats for neighbours, a children’s play area directly outside and is located in the Forest of Dean – a fantastic place to enjoy walks from your doorstep. And I did mention a boat…of course, you might fancy a trip on the Norfolk Broads or perhaps taking a narrow boat down one of the UK’s numerous canal networks and I can certainly help with those, however, perhaps you fancy just staying put, so here’s a wonderful opportunity to stay in the heart of Liverpool and explore the home of the Fab Four for a few days – no navigation skills required! Looking for something grander? This is all well and good but you want to get the extended family together – it’s still possible to find some holiday cottages with their own private (indoor) pools sleeping larger groups, here’s one in Shropshire that sleeps up to 14 people and has limited availability (at time of writing!) in June, July and August. Perhaps you don’t need the pool but want something memorable to help mark a special occasion – what about a castle? It can be surprising that there are a number of Scottish castles to rent – this particular one sleeps up to 13 and is new on the books so has decent availability – that won’t last though, so get in touch soon! One final option… I can fully appreciate that a lot of people will be wanting to know they are safe from harm, wherever they go and, once we’re able to travel again, holiday rentals will be pulling out the stops to ensure hygiene standards are especially high and holidays are as safe as possible. If you have any concerns, you might want to consider my final property – the Bunker…. So remember… I’m here for you, whatever holiday you’re looking for – I can help you find something closer to home, something remote, something perfect for that postponed family get-together – you name it, I’m here to help. All of the accommodation featured is something you are able to book through me, however, some are very popular, so they may not be available for your dates. In that instance I would work with you to find the best alternative.

NZ North Island Highlights

02 April 2020

Great friends of mine have emigrated to New Zealand and so I couldn’t wait to go and visit. I primarily planned the trip around spending time with them, so focused on the North Island. I’m very much looking forward to returning to see for myself what the South Island has to offer. Here are my impressions of the North Island. I’ve heard people giving Auckland a hard time but I really liked it – waterfront setting, great museum (check out the pufferfish helmet, that is ingenious) and wineries within easy reach – what’s not to love? We spent our first three days here, mainly eating, drinking and catching up with our friends. If you do get a rainy day then I thoroughly recommend the museum; it was fascinating and gave us a great insight into Maori culture, more of which later. If it’s a sunny day then get out on a boat and visit Devonport or Waiheke – the latter is home to a ridiculous number of wineries, so join a tour or use the bus to get the most out of your day. Next up, our friends headed home and we set off on a short tour. The drive from Auckland to Hobbiton was relatively straightforward, although I noticed a distinct lack of sheep – they seem to have been replaced by cows! If you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings or particularly The Hobbit, then Hobbiton is likely to be on your radar. The canny farmer who owns the land smelled a profit when Peter Jackson returned to film the Hobbit series and suggested they built a permanent set. It is very well-organised and the tour is full of interesting facts but if you’re not a big fan it’s a lot of money to part with. It is just about close enough to Auckland for companies to offer tours out if you don’t have your own wheels. We visited on our way to Lake Taupo, having chosen to base ourselves here over the more ‘touristy’ Rotorua. I’d found us some lake-side accommodation and it was fabulous watching the sun set over the lake from our balcony. Taupo makes a great base for visiting some of the geothermal centres between here and Rotorua such as Orakei Karako – it’s the photo of the bubbling lake in case you weren’t sure! We also popped to Rotorua to visit some clients of mine that I’d never met in the UK who also happened to be over visiting friends – it was lovely to finally meet Doug and Angela even if it did take us travelling halfway round the world to do it! Whilst staying in Taupo we caught a bus up to Huka Falls, created by forcing NZ’s longest river, the Waikato through a narrow gap. We walked back to Taupo following the river – there’s a stop-off en route where you can take a dip in the thermally-heated waters. That afternoon we drove up to Aratiatia Rapids, which got considerably slowed down when the government built a dam over it but, to give you a sense of what it used to be like, they obligingly open the floodgates a few times a day. This is also the launch site for one of two jetboats plying their trade on the river – being a wuss I opted for the more scenic (and longer lasting!) river cruise which still took us right up to the edges of Huka Falls – nature at its wildest. Our other reason for choosing Taupo over Rotorua was its proximity to our next stop; aptly named National Park. Located in Tongariro National Park (no, really?!), in the winter it’s a popular ski area but in the summer this is the prime jumping-off point for one of New Zealand’s greatest day ‘tramps’; the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I had insanely decided that I would be fine walking the 19.4km distance and was at least accepting of the fact that I would be towards the upper end of the 5-8 hours’ walking time. It was tough, but it was worth it. Towards the top you have views back across Mount Ngauruhoe (aka Mount Doom, LOTR fans) and in front are three sparkling lakes. As you start your descent the landscape opens up in front of you and you have far-reaching views – I’m saying that as someone who fluked a day of great weather – I can’t imagine it would be anywhere near as pleasant in rain or even just cloud. The next day we were heading up to the Bay of Islands to stay with our friends but there was just one more thing to do. Having recommended Waitomo Caves to all of my clients visiting North Island it would have been remiss of me to avoid it even though I get claustrophobic and don’t really like the dark! Renowned for its glow-worms (please don’t ask me what they really are, you won’t like the answer) you can take a sedate walk through the caves or ramp it up a bit and go blackwater tubing. Hence the beautiful picture of the two of us in wetsuits and white wellies clinging onto rubber rings for dear life…There is a moment of pure bliss as you float in a chain under a high ceiling lit by glow-worms; that made it worth my mild trauma. Things slowed down a little once we were in the Bay of Islands; we had a few lovely walks, including a solid all-dayer (about 15kms) from Paihia to Russell – once lovingly known as the ‘hellhole of the Pacific’ from its days as the first European settlement. It’s a bit more genteel now and we enjoyed a satisfying beverage at the Duke of Marlborough, which has been ‘refreshing rascals and reprobates since 1827’. We also returned to Paihia to visit Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the Europeans and Maori came together to agree terms governing New Zealand. Visits here include an in-depth tour providing the background to the treaty, a cultural performance including the haka (ours seemed to go slightly off script but that made it even more interesting!), as well as entry to two museums. I would say this is unmissable if you find yourself in the Bay of Islands. One thing I had yet to tick off my list was to see a Kiwi. This is easier said than done, although tireless conservation work is paying off in some areas. Having done some research, we found a place on the west coast offering a guided walk with a 50% chance of seeing a Kiwi. I also found a Kiwi nursery in case that failed! We took the coastal route through Kauri forests, visiting some of the most ancient trees on the planet. It’s hard to get across the sheer scale of the trees in photos – one of them is nearly 14 metres wide and over 50 metres tall. That’s roughly the height of Nelson’s Column if that helps. You say ‘wow’ a lot, trust me. Get on with it, I hear you chunter, did you see a Kiwi?…call me and I’ll tell you.

What's Hot in 2020?

16 January 2020

As a new decade begins, I’m looking at travel trends for 2020 ranging from the mystical, the magical, the cultural and the scenic. As we leave the last decade, which certainly saw a shift to lowering our own carbon footprints, I’m expecting this trend to continue this year with eco travel expected to rise. The Silk Road This network of trade routes connected the East and West in ancient times, crossing three continents, Europe, Asia and Africa. It has been thrust into the limelight recently thanks to Joanna Lumley’s TV show, where she travelled the 12,000km of this ancient route starting in Venice and ending in China. This is a must for anyone with a sense of adventure, incorporating the spectacular architecture of Samarkand in Uzbekistan and the breathtaking steppe plains of landlocked Kyrgyzstan. It is a trip that perfectly highlights three of this decade’s key travel trends: • No flying - you can simply take the train from the UK to join a tour • ‘Slow travel’ - with the breathtaking scenery on view, there really is no reason to rush • Authentic experiences – opportunities to stay with local families, sleep in yurts and barter for goods in bazaars that date back to the time of Marco Polo East Coast USA It’s going to be a great year to visit Maine, as it celebrates 200 years of being a state and a trip in the autumn is a must if you are set on leaf peeping – those vibrant colours have to be seen to be believed. You could combine your trip with a visit to Plymouth in Massachusetts, which celebrates 400 years since the Mayflower arrived on its shores. One of my favourite hotels here is the John Carver Inn; the swimming pool features a replica Mayflower with a hot tub ‘Plymouth Rock’. Plymouth is also home to the incredible Plimoth Reservation, showing how the settlers and native indigenous people lived alongside each other. Northern Croatia There’s set to be a change in Croatia. Previously most visitors to this beautiful country have plumped for the south around Dubrovnik or the Istria peninsula, using Pula as a base. In 2020, travellers will be heading to this year’s European Capital of Culture, Rijeka, Croatia’s third largest city. The award has brought a real buzz to the city, with former industrial complexes being transformed into art spaces with new bars and restaurants springing up alongside the Austro-Hungarian palaces, the baroque cathedral and Roman fortress. Both Rijeka and its sister town Opatija boast stunning Habsburg empire villas from the Austro-Hungarian heyday when the wealthy came to the area to take the water. If the great outdoors is more your scene, why not visit the islands of Kvarner Bay or head inland to pick up hiking trails in two of the country’s protected parks – you might even spot a bear! Unusual Cities Bari, Kaunas and Katowice City breaks are always popular and now a perfect storm of new flight routes combined with concerns of over-tourism and the search for authentic experiences has led to an increase in more unusual choices. So if you have already been to Venice, Paris and Prague, it’s now time to try out Bari in Italy, with its stunning old town and traditional harbour, Kaunas in Lithuania, a medieval fortress city or Katowice in Poland, famous for its industrial past and excellent art scene. If time isn’t an issue, then an Interrail pass will give you the perfect opportunity to travel around Europe with country-specific passes or several global pass options to give you the best bang for your buck. Puglia & Basilicata Puglia’s been on the rise over the last few years thanks to direct flights to both Brindisi in the south and Bari to the north. I stuffed my face there in September with some of the best vegetarian food I’ve come across anywhere in Italy, and that’s saying something! This area is now being joined in popularity by neighbouring Basilicata, a region of mountains and forests, due mainly to last year’s capital of culture, Matera. The ‘Sassi’ districts are a huge complex of cave dwellings carved out of the cliffside dating back more than 7,000 years. Previously featured extensively in Mel Gibson’s, “The Passion of the Christ”, it’s also about to be in the spotlight again in the upcoming James Bond film, “No Time To Die”. UK & Republic of Ireland Southern Ireland’s Galway takes centre stage as another European Capital of Culture, with lots of festivals expected to celebrate this. It’s also a great time to visit Northern Ireland with Belfast’s Titanic Experience providing a fascinating insight into the ship and for those Games of Thrones fans, there are numerous tours taking in the filming locations. Lonely Planet has chosen England and specifically our beautiful coast as second in their list of top countries to visit in 2020, as further sections of the planned 3,000 mile England Coast Path will be opened, making it the longest continuous trail of its kind in the world. So, where’s next for you? I’d love to hear what you’ve got planned this year and, of course, if I can help in any way don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Kicking our heels in Kefalonia

30 August 2019

I absolutely love Greece and Kefalonia is somewhere that has certainly featured in my wish-list for some time, so when I was fortunate enough to receive a travel agent offer from Sunvil I seized the opportunity! We chose the Kaminakia apartments, within walking distance of Fiskardo, as we wanted to be close to town but also wanted a pool to enjoy. The apartments are basic but comfortable and were perfectly suited for our needs – after all, we were there to explore Fiskardo, Kefalonia and the neighbouring Ionian island of Ithaca, so who needs the Ritz? I was curious to know more about Sunvil as a tour operator, after all, they are experts in Greece, with 50 years’ experience in the country. With this is mind, we went along to the orientation meeting, something I actively avoid a lot of the time! It soon became clear that many of our fellow travellers were loyal Sunvil fans, so the hints and tips went beyond the level of first-timer orientation as Anna and Maria provided personal and invaluable information about the island. After the meeting we decided to sign up for their one and only tour offer, more of which later. We spent the rest of our first full day exploring Fiskardo, which attracts a disproportionate amount of attention for its small size, largely as it was untouched by the most recent earthquake and much of the original Venetian architecture remains. I have to admit, day time in the high season would undoubtedly be relatively hellish, however, come down in the evenings and it’s a wonderful blend of boutique-browsing, cocktail-sipping, waterfront-dining, whilst first thing in the morning you can watch the harbour wake up, with locals hailing each other as they brush down their doorsteps. The following day was my birthday and we hired a small motor boat to pootle around the coast, checking out local coves. This is absolutely one of my favourite ways to spend a day on an island, as you can so often find a deserted little beach that can’t be reached by road or even on foot and we found several to enjoy. The company we hired from provided a cool box and refreshments and we picked up a picnic from one of the two mini-markets plus some goodies from a lovely deli, so we had a marvellous time. After a day recuperating around the pool and more pottering around Fiskardo we decided we really should see more of the island and Anna pointed us in the direction of the local car hire agency. The next morning we picked the car up and headed down to Skala, right on the south-eastern tip of the island, known for its incredibly long, sandy beach, something of a rarity in the north. En route, we stopped off at a viewpoint overlooking photogenic Assos and then took the winding road down to have breakfast at the equally photogenic harbour. We then passed one of the most photographed beaches in all of Greece, Myrtos. It looks stunning but you’ll need to get there early to bag one of the parasols! We wound our way through the mountainous countryside via Agia Effimia, a lovely, sleepy harbour town and an accidental drive the wrong way down a one-way street, but we were following a lorry, so no one could argue with us…eventually winding up at Sami, a working harbour with a huge number of water-side restaurants and a ferry over to Ithaca. The afternoon was spent lounging around in Skala and enjoying the novelty of sand between toes, before the drive back to Fiskardo. I would certainly recommend getting out and about and I think Skala would be an ideal base for families. Before leaving the beauty of Kefalonia behind we had one last treat in store. Sunvil charter a boat and take a small group over for an evening in Ithaca. For those looking for authentic Greece this is hard to beat. On arrival into Polis Bay you feel like you’ve stepped back in time as you wind your way up from the harbour full of colourful fishing boats to the top of the island. Here we visited the Monastery of Katharon, learning about the monks who used to live here and why it is still a place of pilgrimage. It’s super-windy up there but the views over to Ithaca’s capital, Vathy, are truly panoramic. From here we were taken to tiny Anogi, a village with a shop that reminded me of Granville’s from the original ‘Open All Hours’, with boxes of Tide and bags of sugar. In these unlikely surroundings we were treated to a Grecian feast – too many appetizers to mention followed by communal servings of a local chicken dish or vegetable moussaka – delicious! If this wasn’t special enough, we were then shown the remarkable church next door, dating back to the 12th Century and covered in extraordinary murals. The church was originally built without windows, to avoid attracting the attention of pirates who would regularly raid churches for their valuable religious artefacts, so once the threat of pirates had vanished and they decided to add windows they bored holes right through some paintings! Our time on Kefalonia was up and it was one of those trips where a week felt both incredibly long, as we had seen so much and yet all too short. It is without doubt somewhere I would return and recommend and I can certainly advise where and when you should think about going yourself, so you know where I am when you want to find out more.

Epic tour of Africa!

06 November 2019

This summer clients of mine undertook an epic journey across five countries in Africa. They have been kind enough to share their travel journal with me and I have used that for the basis of this blog. Huge thanks to Peter & Ruth. Starting in Cape Town, South Africa, they didn’t have the best of weather, so that prevented a trip to Robben Island. I always recommend going up Table Mountain as soon as you can, as weather conditions often close the cable car and they managed to do this on their first afternoon. After a few days exploring Cape Town, highlights including the District 6 Museum to understand the impact of apartheid, Cape of Good Hope and the colony of penguins in Simon’s Bay, they took to the road for a self-drive adventure. They first headed North West to the West Coast National Park, known for its wildflowers in Spring. They next headed to Stellenbosch in the winelands area before driving to Mossel Bay and embarking on the famous Garden Route, staying in Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and Tsitsikamma National Park. Along the way they visited townships and game reserves, enjoyed some walks and ate some fabulous food! Next up was Zambia, flying into Livingstone to experience the power of Victoria Falls – ‘the cloud that roars’! They recommend wet weather gear if you want to get up close and personal – they also saw the lunar rainbow; a phenomenon that can only be seen around full moon. From Livingstone they flew to Mfuwe and spent a few nights at Flat Dogs Camp in South Luangwa National Park where they enjoyed fantastic game viewing and excellent food, plus Peter had memories of volunteering in the area in the seventies – one of the reasons he wanted to undertake this trip. They saw leopards on 3 out of the 4 days and most amazing of all, a pack of wild dogs hunting impala from start to finish. They also saw large groups of elephants with young crossing the river, and 7 lionesses devouring a large waterbuck in the dark watched by hyenas, waiting their turn. As well as twice-daily safaris, Flat Dogs offers walking safaris and village visits – the camp, along with several others in the area, give part of the money raised from tourism to help 600 orphaned or neglected children with their schooling and other local projects. Peter and Ruth were delighted to see their money being used in this way so effectively. More safari was to follow as my intrepid clients flew on to Kenya via a too-lengthy stopover in Lusaka thanks to an all-too-regular flight change by Air Kenya – not ideal. They got off to a shaky start at Basecamp in Masai Mara with their first tent being of poor quality and feeling unused and unloved. Fortunately, the following day they were transferred to the best tent on the camp, used by Barack and Michelle Obama on their visit to the Mara in 2009. This was quite different – large and spacious with a lovely view of the river from a big balcony with comfy sofas. It was almost worth the previous day's disappointment. That is until they found a snake in the outside shower..... Following their stay in the Mara, Peter and Ruth’s next stop was Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Their highlight was a 2-hour walking tour of the city, with an impressive local man who turned out to be the designer of all tours. He ended up taking them around for 3.5 hours and they were exhausted! However, it was very interesting and uplifting to see the positive changes and new modern development going on in the city, only 25 years on from the appalling genocide which brought the whole country to its knees. He was so proud of his city and Peter & Ruth were very impressed with how clean and litter-free the city is. They also visited the Genocide Museum, obviously a painful place to visit but with a clear message of hope and reconciliation in the explanation of how Rwanda has begun the long and difficult process of healing and rebuilding trust in the years since. The grand finale of the trip was two nights in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, to visit Mountain Gorillas in their natural habitat. The trek through the mountainous forest took one and a half hours and was pretty difficult at high altitude in the heat and humidity along steep, muddy, very slippery paths (Ruth fell over twice). It was worth $15 extra to have a porter to carry her rucksack and Ruth was very grateful for his assistance. The trackers found a gorilla family feeding and partially hidden in the long undergrowth. They were allowed one hour to watch and photograph them, following their movement down the steep hillside through the vegetation. There was a large silverback, a female carrying a tiny one-month old baby, and various others including a youngster learning to climb and play in the branches. It was such a privilege to be there with these beautiful endangered animals. My deepest thanks to Peter and Ruth for giving me such wonderful feedback on the trip and how I can help with improvements for future clients looking to visit these areas. I thoroughly enjoyed researching the trip and ensuring they were looked after throughout their journey.

Lovely client feedback about South America trips!

02 May 2019

I really wanted to share the great feedback and wonderful photos (I especially love the traditional costumes!) I had from some lovely clients who have travelled as a group of four on two lengthy trips to South America in the last couple of years with me. I'm sure they won't mind me saying they are (slightly) older than the average back-packer but their wanderlust and enthusiasm has given me the opportunity to suggest all sorts of outlandish ways of getting them well and truly off the beaten track, including 20-hour bus journeys, 4 x4s and stopping off at places many people will never have heard off. I very much look forward to their next big trip! Here's the feedback: "My husband and I plus two friends have used the expertise of Liz in the planning of two month-long trips to South America. The first to Peru, Bolivia and Northern Chile and most recently to Argentina with an end destination in Brazil. We have all had ideas of sites to visit and Liz has been adept at co-ordinating our requirements. Transport and accommodation booked in interesting venues; from comfortable hotels to a fairly basic Refugio (our choice) where we oldies received puzzled looks from the other very young guests. Our transport was always comfortable, bearing in mind that roads in South America are often of the track variety and journeys between places can be long. Guides were always of a high standard, very informative and generally helpful. Liz is very knowledgeable and will point you to activities you may not have thought of seeing or participating in - We had a brilliant time learning to Tango in Buenos Aires. She also takes into consideration the physical aspects of some of the experiences and will plan things accordingly for the travellers. This includes giving old bones some restful meandering days among the early starts. Any problems are dealt with and sorted immediately. In all, a really good person to have on call."

Singapore Fling!

13 March 2019

I had the wonderful opportunity of spending 5 days in Singapore with Singapore Airlines (fabulous by the way) and the Tourist Board. They were determined to make sure we sampled the best of everything Singapore has to offer, so we packed a lot in! Most Brits are likely to visit Singapore on a stopover, sometimes just a touchdown and sometimes for a day or so. My suggestion is to give yourselves a little bit longer and really get to know this fascinating city state. Here are some ideas of how to spend your stopover… One Day 24 hours in Singapore, where do you start? Well, I think that’s quite an easy one. The river is the epicentre of Singapore proper, so taking a 40 minute ‘bumboat’ cruise gives you the perfect orientation, gliding past both the old and new sights of Singapore, learning more about the history and culture. You’ll start and finish in Clarke Quay, which really comes to life in the evening when the old shophouses (shops at the bottom, living quarters at the top), now open as restaurants, bars and shops. Evening cruises are also available if you land later during the day. Following this wonderful introduction, I’d recommend building up a bit of an appetite and walking (take it easy with the humidity!) to Lau Pa Sat food market. This Grande Dame of Victorian architecture houses a fabulous array of local cuisine as once provided by the hawkers of the city; just do as the locals do and ‘chope’ a table by placing a tissue packet/business card, whatever ‘claims’ it – essential when you’re joining the fun in the CBD at lunchtime. For the afternoon I’d suggest heading back to the civic district and up to Haji Lane and the Kampong Glam area. Kampong Glam is Singapore’s oldest urban quarter, and one of its coolest. Start at the Sultan Mosque; its gold-leafed dome making it impossible to miss. Take a good look at the base of the domes and you’ll see glass bottle ends – these are old soy sauce bottles donated by the poorest Muslims so they could contribute to the construction. You can learn more with one of the guided tours. The area is full of shophouses featuring boutiques, craft shops, perfumiers, textile shops and Haji Lane is at the heart – a colourful mural-clad alley, home to numerous watering holes and restaurants, including the rather incredible ‘Selfie Coffee’ where yes, you can have your face immortalised on your own frappe. If you’ve only got one night in Singapore, then the world’s first Night Safari would be on my list. Take a tram ride or walk through the 35-hectare reserve, observing the nocturnal habits of the resident animals; the mission of the reserve is to protect biodiversity and the park focuses on the captive breeding of species which are threatened in their natural habitats. For all devotees of ‘The Secret Life of the Zoo’, this is the chance to see it in action! Two Days On your second day a more in-depth tour of one of the cultural areas should be on the cards - perhaps Chinatown, Little India or the Perankan culture in Katong. You’ll find plenty of options available and most of them will involve markets and food, so don’t eat too much breakfast! After a morning delving into the cultural past of Singapore, bring things bang up-to-date (or even a little further into the future) with a visit to the exceptional ArtScience Museum. Located in a visually stunning building on Marina Bay Sands, the permanent exhibition Future World was an absolute highlight; effortlessly melding traditional art forms with new technology to create something I’ve never seen before. It brought out the little kids in all of us and I challenge anyone not to be mesmerised by at least one of the installations here. The tickets are on a timed basis, so pre-book for the popular afternoon slots. Your next stop is Gardens by the Bay, the perfect tribute to Singapore’s vision to move from being a ‘Garden City’ to becoming a ‘City in a Garden’. The gardens feature biodomes with an ever-changing flower display and cloud forest but are most famous for the Super Tree Grove and Skyway – a series of ‘trees’ ranging up to 50 metres tall, man-made but with planting panels so that orchids, ferns and other suitable plants can grow on the super-structures. They look great during the day, but the real spectacle comes later, with a twice-nightly ‘Garden Rhapsody’ show of sound and lights – truly spectacular and a fitting way to end your time here. Three Days Lucky you! For me three days or more would depend on who you’re with. If you’re with the family, a day out on Sentosa Island would be a lot of fun, riding the luge, having a go at the high ropes or even the zipwire unless you’re a wimp like me. There’s also a Universal Studios here, so plenty to keep the kids entertained. Older ones might appreciate the beach clubs and resort feel of Sentosa. Couples might prefer to spend their time visiting some of the art galleries or museums, such as the Asian Civilisations Museum where you’ll find out more about Sir Stamford Raffles. Speaking of whom, if you haven’t found a way to fit in a Singapore Sling at the Long Bar then now’s the time to do it! It might cost $37.50 but YOLO, right? I would also recommend a stroll around the beautiful botanic gardens. If you’re here on a weekend you’ll find half of Singapore is with you, enjoying some fresh air and exercise, visiting the national Orchid Garden, picnicking and maybe even taking in a free concert. However long you have in Singapore, I can help you get the most out of your time there with some personal recommendations of tours, restaurants and hotels, so please get in touch to find out more.

Sustainable Travel - how we can help

10 January 2019

I’ve recently completed training with the Travel Foundation – an organisation determined to put sustainable tourism at the top of every country’s agenda. This is about more than single-use plastic; although that is a great place to start, this encompasses the impacts of the travel industry on the local economy, communities and the environment, to ensure it contributes positively. The Travel Foundation works with countries and the tourist industry to bring stakeholders together, identifying opportunities to improve knowledge and skills and support best practice. Recent examples include working with local suppliers to provide hotels with local produce in the Mayan Riviera, Mexico and Fethiye in Turkey; training local stallholders how to sell more effectively in Montego Bay, Jamaica, training local tourist guides in Sal, Cape Verde to implement best practices – all of these projects increase the tourist spend going directly into the local economy and improve the perception local communities may have of tourists. Other projects focus on environmental impact – training local hoteliers to reduce plastic and waste which in turn can reduce their overall costs. For my part, I always enjoy those holidays where you can interact with the local communities and I encourage my clients to have these experiences wherever possible. Buying local products, taking excursions provided by local guides (providing they are licensed!) and treating the local environment with respect are all things we can do to play our part. Simple things such as taking showers rather than baths, carrying a reusable water bottle and taking a bag-for-life out shopping with you will all help minimise your footprint. Travelling should be an enriching experience – not just for the traveller but also for the local community. If you’d like to find out more about the work of The Travel Foundation visit their website: www.thetravelfoundation.org.uk

Where to go in 2019

31 December 2018

A New Year means new opportunities to travel to new and exciting destinations but where do you start? I’ve put together my Top 5 to give you a few ideas but the world’s your oyster, so get in touch wherever you’re planning on travelling in 2019. 1) Sri Lanka Sri Lanka packs a lot into a relatively small island. Travel to the northern cultural triangle of Buddhist shrines in Anuradhapura, the rock fortress at Sigiriya and the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa, visit Kandy’s sacred Temple of the Tooth, hunt for leopards in the national parks, step back in time at Galle’s historic fort and then relax on one of the wonderful beaches. There has been a raft of new hotel openings, including some in the previously hard-to-reach north and lesser-visited east and new train line openings have helped reach them, although a driver is still the most likely form of transport for independent travellers. Its weather system with two distinct monsoon seasons means there’s never a really bad time to go – so long as you plan your trip accordingly. 2) Jordan You might think you’re on a film-set – and you’d probably be right. Jordan’s highlights have featured in everything from Lawrence of Arabia to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, so if the landscape looks familiar that could be why. The ancient city of Petra was lost to Europeans for centuries and this vast site is still being reclaimed from the desert. The desert is also responsible for some authentic experiences such as staying in a Bedouin tent and even recreating the epic journeys of Lawrence or the Romans before him (Hadrian of ‘wall’ fame) or get more active with hiking, biking and climbing all available. It’s not just about the desert – the Red Sea coast offers fantastic diving and snorkelling, whilst the Dead Sea gives you the unsettling sensation of floating without effort due to the high salt content. However you like to travel, Jordan really has something for everyone. 3) Uganda Once described by Winston Churchill as the “Pearl of Africa,” Uganda is a wildlife-rich destination in East Africa and with stability restored and a safe environment for foreigners to visit, 2019 is the perfect time to go. Trek to see the majestic mountain gorillas of Uganda, one of the world’s most endangered animals, or head out on safari and spot zebras, springbok, lions and rhinos. In addition to these animal encounters, there’s Murchison Falls National Park, which offers great mountain hiking opportunities, boat trips on Lake Victoria and the Source of the Nile in Jinja, as well as the opportunity to have one foot in each hemisphere along the Ugandan section of the equator. Uganda combines well with other African countries including Kenya for some beach action – I’ve recently put together an itinerary travelling to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda so if coming face to face with mountain gorillas is on your bucket list then get in touch. 4) Cuba This fascinating island-nation blends stunning beaches and landscapes with a compelling past and lively present-day culture, making it perfect for a touring holiday followed by a relaxing beach stay. Starting with Havana is a must; with centuries-old pastel buildings, vintage cars and a selection of fantastic bars serving up rum cocktails and the country’s famous cigars. One of the best ways to see, and capture, the city is on a photography tour, where your guide will take you to the capital’s most iconic shots such as El Malecon and Old Havana. Up until very recently has been notoriously hard to find quality accommodation in Havana and demand often outstripped supply, but new hotel openings have put paid to this and with our in-country support we can now confirm hotels within 24 hours. Moving on from Havana you can travel to Vinales and visit tobacco or coffee plantations, take in the faded grandeur of Cienfuegos, the ‘Pearl of the South’, learn more about Cuba’s militant past at the Bay of Pigs and Santa Clara, where Che Guevara was laid to rest and peel back the centuries in Trinidad’s well-preserved colonial heart. Finish with the white-sand beaches of Cayo Santa Maria and you might never want to leave. 5) US National Parks The sheer scale of the US can be off-putting, so themed holidays are a great idea. With over 100 national parks to choose from even this might seem a little daunting but look for those that are grouped together, and you can plan a great trip. In June 2018 I visited the Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Bryce and Zion National Parks and then headed over the Sierra Nevada to Yosemite via another park – Death Valley. That was a two-week trip including time in Las Vegas at the start and San Francisco at the end and with enough time to explore and get some hiking in. June was a great time to visit – there was still snow on the eastern side of Yosemite and the waterfalls are in full flow – they often slow to a trickle by the end of the season. I’d certainly allow longer around Yosemite than you might have thought as the park is very large and has distinct environments from almost Alpine scenery in the east to lush meadows and redwood groves – there’s a lot to see here. One of my top recommendations would be the drive up to Glacier Point – it takes about an hour, but the views of the famous valley are incredible. I’d also suggest visiting some of the lesser-known parks and avoiding weekends where possible as they do get very busy – get in touch with me for more hints and tips on travelling to the US.

US National Parks

04 January 2019

Following a couple of nights in Vegas (see previous blog) we picked up our Mustang convertible (what else?) and hit the road. First stop was the Grand Canyon but less than an hour out of Vegas is an equally awe-inspiring site, albeit a man-made one. The Hoover Dam is a genuine feat of engineering – I was a little bit unnerved to discover it’s pretty much held in place by gravity. The visitor centre is well worth it, even for a completely unscientific person like me. We finished the day in Tusayan, just half a dozen miles from the Grand Canyon. The next day we headed to the South Rim and drove east to the Desert View Watchtower – the furthest point before the road moves away from the rim. The views out here are stunning, and I would recommend anyone driving to the Canyon to make this trip. The shuttle service doesn’t go this far so you will need your own wheels. If you’re visiting the park for the day my recommendation is to either take the shuttle from Tusayan or get there early, park up and leave your car until you’re heading home. Another tip – don’t expect to be able to walk down to the floor of the canyon and back up – that’s a two-day hike! After a couple of days absorbing the sheer scale of the Grand Canyon, we followed it round to Page, location of more stunning landscape. There’s the famous Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River (you might not recognise the name, but you will have seen the photos) and the magnificent swirls of colour created by nature in Antelope Canyon – another instantly recognisable image. There’s no need to spend the night at Page although there’s plenty to keep you occupied – we were on a tight turnaround and headed straight onto that night’s stop in Bryce Canyon City. It’s certainly not a city and it’s not even a canyon; it’s actually best described as a series of amphitheatres and the hoodoos (weird rock formations) look particularly fairy-like at sunrise, so the next day had an early start! Bryce is a little different from the other parks as a road runs the entire length, about 20 miles, and it’s an easy day’s drive from one end to the other. I’d recommend starting at the furthest point and heading back towards the entrance as most of the overlooks will then be on your side of the road and you can park up around Sunset Point to stretch your legs and see the strange formations up close. The next day took us to Zion and yet more fantastic scenery. We stayed on a ranch which felt like it was straight out of Little House on the Prairie but most of the action centres around Springdale and that would be my recommendation for people wanting to explore the park thoroughly, especially as it felt busier here and you are much more reliant on the shuttle service. My husband did the Angel’s Landing trail and I went horse-riding, having seen some video footage of Angel’s Landing I think I made the right call! We then had our longest drive, taking us through Death Valley and following the Sierra Nevada north to the eastern entrance of Yosemite National Park. Death Valley has a reputation for being tough on cars, so I was a little concerned, especially as the temperature gauge hit 45 degrees (113 Fahrenheit)! The landscape was lunar, and this sense was heightened with sandstorms and mirages – a very odd place for sure. There are a few places you can break the journey between here and Yosemite and you can get to the park on either side of the Sierra Nevada – we’d chosen the east side as we wanted to travel through the Tioga Pass. From the sublime to the ridiculous, we were in snow the next morning! It takes about two hours to drive from one side of the Yosemite to the other and the landscape changes dramatically, from Alpine-like scenery with meadows full of flowers to the granite peaks and waterfalls the Valley itself is known for. My top tip is to give yourself plenty of time to get around and visit Glacier Point – it takes about an hour to drive up there, but the views of the Valley are incredible. There are hundreds of trails, ranging from easy boardwalks for the whole family to tough backcountry trekking but unless you’re doing the latter be prepared for plenty of people – from June to September the park receives more than 2 million visitors! I would highly recommend getting out of the Valley and exploring some more of the 1200 acres of park, we loved it so much we stayed an extra night. Four states in 15 days and 2,000 miles driven but what a trip – such different landscapes and eye-popping scenery. I can highly recommend visiting this area and US National Parks in general as they are well-managed, reasonably-priced (get the annual pass if you are visiting a few) and showcase the natural world at its best.

Viva Las Vegas!

27 December 2018

I’ve always assumed Las Vegas is very much like Marmite – you either love it or hate it. I wasn’t sure which camp I would be in and there was only one way to find out! As part of a trip designed to visit several US National Parks we were starting with the Grand Canyon, a mere four-hour road trip from Vegas, so that decided our starting point. On arrival it looms out of the desert like some kind of neon-lit oasis – totally unlike anything else for miles around. To try to get our body clocks back on track we’d booked a Cirque du Soleil performance on our arrival night – sure to make you keep your eyes open! With six different shows currently in residence there’s bound to be one that takes your fancy. Otherwise, choose from the huge range of singing megastars and musicals available at the hotels – tickets can be pre-ordered before you travel. The next morning I’d (deliberately) booked an early tour of Downtown Vegas – a 15-minute taxi (we used Lyft rather than Uber) which would have taken us 45 minutes to walk, just to give you an idea of the scale of the city. Rick from Urban Adventures gave us the insider’s guide to all things Downtown, from the original Strip to the mob influence and even Winston Churchill’s billiard table – after all, Rick was responsible for founding the Neon Museum there, so if he didn’t know something it wasn’t worth knowing. It was at this point we realised you might not love all of Vegas, but you will certainly find something to like about it. Downtown is enjoying a bit of a renaissance right now, with the revitalisation of the canopy on Freemont Street, local street art and the Container Park featuring local stores, bars and restaurants – we loved it so much we came back that night to check out the more low-key nightlife you’ll find here – there’s no escaping the neon though!

Child-friendly holidays with a difference

11 January 2018

If you’re a mum with school-age children, the chances are you’ll have heard of the Algarve resorts of Martinhal and Pine Cliffs or the Greek mainland choices of Sani or Ikos. They are fantastic resorts offering a huge range of accommodation and activities aimed at creating memorable family holidays and long may they continue to do so. However, you might be looking for something different. Maybe you think it’s time for the kids to be introduced to new cultures. Maybe you don’t want to spend a week by the pirate-themed swimming pool. Maybe they’re a bit older and you can push the travel time a little further. Whatever your reasons, I’ve put together some ideas of alternative child-friendly holidays. Thailand Thailand might not spring to mind as a summer holiday destination and this one might be best to keep for Easter, May half-term or Christmas but as you’ll be spending a few days in a rainforest, you’re going to get wet at some point anyway! Elephant Hills offer luxury tented jungle camps in Khao Sak, part of Southern Thailand’s stretch of primary rainforest. The camps offer a fully inclusive experience giving you an intimate opportunity to befriend the resident elephants through bathing and feeding them (no riding). In between your elephant encounters you can enjoy the beautiful jungle surroundings by kayak, visit local markets or take a hike through the rainforest – experts estimate Khao Sak has a higher biodiversity than the Amazon. This safari-like experience is open to children aged four and over and I can help combine this with a beach stay to create an unforgettable family holiday. Costa Rica Another choice for Easter or May half-term, Costa Rica is seeing a rise in popularity thanks to direct flights from Gatwick and the option of a self-drive holiday. One of the safest countries in Latin America (it has no army) and one of the most bio-diverse, if you time it right you’ll get to see turtles egg-laying, sloths hanging around and enjoy beautiful beaches on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts – all in two weeks or less. If you’re not comfortable with the idea of a self-drive then I can put together private tours with shared transfers or you could join a small group family adventure specifically designed with children in mind. The Family Adventure Company (part of the Intrepid group) and Exodus both offer great options including all sorts of activities for children aged 5 and up. Morocco If that’s all sounding too far to go, then Morocco offers an experience of the other-worldly at a short-haul distance. From the craziness of Marrakech with its souks and snake-charmers, to a walk in the Atlas Mountains, a camel ride in the Sahara and a night under the stars in a Bedouin tent or lounging on the beaches – the experiences you can cram into a week in Morocco will make it feel like you’ve been away for a month (in a good way!) Perfect for a bit of winter/spring sunshine, with plenty of flights from regional airports this is a break that can suit all budgets. European Activity summer holidays If you’re thinking Mark Warner or Club Med right now, then that’s one approach but there’s an increasing call for child-friendly activity holidays where you can get out and about to explore. Perfect summer holiday options for the whole family range from pizza-making on the Amalfi coast to cycling the Danube; hiking, biking and rafting in France, Portugal or Croatia; or swimming with wild dolphins in the Azores – there are a wide range of choices available for all ages. I hope this helps gives you some inspiration for where you could explore with the kids in tow whilst finding plenty to enjoy together as a family – if you’d like to find out more about these or any other family holiday options then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.

On the hunt for truffles in Bologna

08 November 2017

Bologna has many names – La Dotta, referring to the number of educational institutes that can be found there, La Rossa, for both its ubiquitous roof tiles and communist sensibilities and, my personal favourite, La Grassa – the fat one – for the sheer magnitude of superb cuisine – just don’t ask for Spaghetti Bolognese (read on and I’ll explain why). I’ve visited a fair bit of Italy and absolutely love it. Friends of ours have a particular penchant for truffles, so we decided to visit this slightly under-the-radar town to check out what has drawn leading writers, philosophers and chefs (hello Rick Stein) here for centuries. Let’s start with the sights. It seems obligatory in this part of the world to have as many towers as possible – in fact, this was the way the noble families chose to demonstrate their wealth and for their own protection, so this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Bologna even has its own leaning tower – in fact, from my perspective at the top of the Basilica its neighbour was also looking decidedly wonky! The Piazza Maggiore is the heart of the city and we walked through it several times without realising the reason we couldn’t find the famous Fountain of Neptune was because it was the huge shrouded thing currently under renovation – I’m sure it will be fabulous once it’s completed. The square is also home to the city’s main Basilica – if you’ve seen the ornate, marble-facaded cathedrals in this area, such as Florence or Orvieto, then you have an idea of what it should look like, but construction stopped for the building of a university (of course) and it is unfinished – in fact, I found that pretty fascinating as it gives you an idea of what the skeleton of the great Italian churches actually look like. I mentioned the view from the top – there’s a terrace with views open until 6pm and worth the trip – mind you, I am not much of a fan of heights, hate lifts and hate anything where I can see down several stories, so maybe bear that in mind! From there, the panorama was outstanding and one of the buildings that caught my eye appeared to be a church where each new generation had decided to tack their own building on. So we went to have a look and it turns out that Basilica di Santo Stefano is pretty much that! It’s known locally as the seven churches, with an original Roman temple being added to over the last 1900 years – well worth a visit. Now our main attraction was the truffle-hunting, so the next day we headed out on a fantastic tour, starting at a truffle factory, where the local truffle hunters still bring their prized findings (white truffles are the expensive ones and the going price is currently around €5000 per kg) for the brothers who own the factory to grade and then use in their wide range of products. The factory has been built with one eye on the American export market and complies with FDA requirements, so it is shiny, spotless and expensive-looking – a lot like the Ferraris not that far away in Maranello. After an interesting tour from our enthusiastic guide, Ellenore, we headed off to hunt for truffles with Maurizio and his amazing dog, Macchia, certainly sounds exotic but it means Spot! We learnt how the dogs were trained to hunt for truffles, when’s a good time to find them, why they don’t use pigs (have you tried moving a pig out of the way?) and other fascinating facts, including the many things that no one knows about them. Macchia did her best and found a couple of tiny truffle nuggets, nothing that could be used but it was great to see her doing her job and evidently loving it – in fact she pulled that old doggy trick of sitting down and not budging when we were heading back to the car as she clearly hadn’t finished looking yet! Following the thrill of the chase (although I doubt truffles move fast) we went to a local vineyard for wine-tasting before our Michelin-starred meal to top the trip off. I made a classic mistake at the vineyard as they had put out cheese and ham nibbles to pair with the wine and, having been asked why I hadn’t tried the ham, I explained I was vegetarian. Out comes a pear, an apple and an entire plate of different cheese for me. Just before our dinner. Oh well, it was all absolutely lovely and we were busy mentally totting up our luggage allowances to work out how many bottles we could get home with us. The truffle-inspired meal at Amerigo 1934 in Sauvigno uses local ingredients, in season only, to create authentic and innovative dishes from the region. It’s a recipe for success that has earned them high praise for the last 80 years and I was thrilled that they didn’t bat an eyelid at my vegetarianism. A memorable five-course meal ensued, with accompanying wine – a wonderful way to complete the tour. Rolling out of bed the next morning it seemed a sensible idea to spend half an hour on a train and have a mooch around Florence. As it was all spur of the moment there was no chance of getting into any of the many museums or art galleries but we could still admire the scenery and passed a few pleasant hours checking out Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo and copies of various famous sculptures such as Michelangelo’s David. However, we all agreed that we wanted our last night’s meal back in Bologna and the hotel duly booked us into another great local restaurant. Which brings me back to Spaghetti Bolognese. The town is famous for this dish but their ragu sauce is never combined with spaghetti – you have to eat it with the wider ribbons of tagliatelle, which holds the sauce better – so don’t ever ask for a Spag Bol in Bologna!

No reason to feel Blue…

18 October 2017

Our stay on Crete was drawing to an end and I had opted for a serious dose of luxury to provide an appropriate send-off. This took the form of the truly magnificent Blue Palace Hotel, based just outside Plaka on the Mirabello Gulf, overlooking the famous (thanks in large part to Victoria Hislop) former leper colony on the mysterious island of Spinalonga. The island provides a haunting backdrop for the Blue Palace, and one you can enjoy from each of the 250 rooms as they are all positioned with a sea view, as are the restaurants and other facilities. More than half of the rooms also come with their own private plunge pool and we were very fortunate to be upgraded to one of these lovely spaces. You’ll discover an authentic feel throughout the hotel, something the local owners were passionate about; so that, despite the luxurious trappings and modern amenities you would expect from a 5*, it also has a soul and a true sense of place. If you can drag yourself out of the room you’ll find this authenticity everywhere, even including the beach – there’s no sand in this bay so the beach is stone, as it should be. There’s also a Greek taverna, offering a Cretan feast once a week as well as mezedes and local dishes during the day. Other restaurants cater for broader tastes but use local (some from the hotel’s kitchen garden) ingredients. They include Flame, a steak restaurant, the glorious Italian Isola, a firm favourite of mine and Asia Blue, a fusion restaurant inspired by Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Polynesian cuisine. It’s not all about the food (apparently) – if you need to work off some of the food then there are three pools, a fitness centre, sunrise yoga on the beach, a water sport centre, tennis or you can head out and enjoy horse riding or quad biking. For something really special, the hotel has its own traditional caique upon which you can enjoy fine wine and good company as you sail around Spinalonga and the Mirabello Gulf. We took time out from our busy schedule of eating and lounging to visit Spinalonga (by the ferry from Plaka, not the caique!) and admired the ruins of the Venetian fortifications, as well as the various buildings that had been occupied into the late fifties by the leper colony. The speed with which nature had reclaimed the island is also to be marvelled at. Plaka is also worth a visit, with plenty of craft shops, restaurants and bars to have a wander around. If all that excitement gets to be too much for you then it’s probably time to pay a visit to the incredible, huge spa. Built over three floors and with 24 treatment spaces, the spa offers a full thalassotherapy experience and the treatments use highly regarded Valmont, Anne Semonin and Cinq Mondes products. Spa treatments are also available for kids aged 8 and upwards, and families will find they are well catered for, with a kids’ club, children’s pool and flexible accommodation. This was the perfect way to bring our holiday in Crete to an end and thank you so much to all of the staff who provided such excellent service during our stay.

The Cretan Odyssey continues...

18 October 2017

After a few days of essentially walking and eating, we headed out to explore a little more of this part of the island. Arkadi Monastery is a poignant reminder of the resistance of the local population to invasion by the Ottomans. As the battle was lost, the women and children who sheltered here chose to ignite the gunpowder store rather than join the Turkish harems – the storeroom has been left unrestored as a final testament to their sacrifice. As we found with most of Crete, the drive from Rethymnon to the monastery could be tackled in different ways, so we took a scenic route back through the mountains, stopping in a tiny village called Thronos, to eat at Aravanes Taverna, a restaurant with a beautiful view. The whole village seemed to be made up of enterprising locals inviting you to see how they make raki or olive oil, taking you for treks or getting your help with the grape harvest. Further south, we came across the seaside resort of Paleochora. The novelty here is the fact that there are two beaches on either side of a small promontory – one sand and one pebble. We were staying on the sandy side and enjoyed walking into town via the beach of an evening. The central spine of Paleochora comes to life at night, with all the restaurants spilling out into the street, creating a festive atmosphere to enjoy plenty of fresh dishes. I was particularly excited to find a vegetarian restaurant, the Third Eye, with a daily menu – heaven for me! Not too far along from Paleochora you’ll find the Samaria Gorge, one of the longest and deepest in Europe. You can take an organised trip or do it yourself and get the bus to the start and then collect the ferry back from the end at Agia Roumeli. Or, you could do what we did and decide it was too hot so we chose one of the other big attractions in the area, Elafonisi beach. This is a real stunner – a South Pacific, pink-sand lagoon. If only no one else knew about it, then it would be paradise! A little advice – take a picnic and a parasol, head out early, walk as far as you can be bothered, then a bit further. It is really worth the effort. One more thing; don’t whatever you do, take the ‘shortest route’. It will be unpaved road and truly terrifying! Even if it looks like you are going miles out of your way, the ‘fastest route’ does at least involve tarmac. You’re welcome.

Rethymnon - the ideal introduction to Crete

18 October 2017

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have sent clients to Greece this year, and Crete is one of the perennial favourites – fabulous beaches, lots of culture, great food and wonderful weather – at least, that’s what I’ve always told people even though I’d never been! It was clearly time to practice what I preach. It’s been some time since my last visit to Greece, specifically Skiathos, mainly because of a fascination with Croatia and a love of Italian food that has taken me elsewhere in search of sunshine. This year, with the sunshine on hold until September, I didn’t fancy risking anything further north and Crete’s moment had arrived! I was later told many times by the locals that September is the perfect month to visit, as the summer wind calms down and there is still beautiful weather, so we were onto a winner. We based ourselves in Rethymnon for a few days, choosing a boutique hotel (Casa Vitae) in the old town, although for those who can’t tear themselves away from the beach there’s a long strand either side of the peninsula and plenty of hotels to choose from. Our hotel was sensitively formed out of an old Venetian townhouse, with sumptuous rooms and the breakfast courtyard was a peaceful way to start the day. Rethymnon is a beautiful town with labyrinthine streets, providing some of the best examples of architecture from Crete’s former rulers in the form of a stunning Venetian harbour and fortress as well as Ottoman houses and the occasional mosque. Getting lost was all part of the fun, as you’d stumble across cute cafes and bars and try to remember where they were to come back later. Eating out was a joy, with plenty of choice and delicious Cretan mezedes (mezze). Don’t forget to leave room though, as we found many places traditionally ended the meal not just with the obligatory raki but some sort of dessert.

A long weekend in Lisbon

09 October 2017

I try to make a point of going away for my birthday every year and, as it falls in June, I can usually expect good weather. This year we headed to Lisbon, which was in the middle of a heatwave so the weather was perhaps a little too good. We’d pre-ordered Lisboa cards which we collected at the airport – this gave us discount or free entry to a number of top sights, free travel for our chosen length of stay (72 hours for €40), and also gave us a smug feeling as we swanned past the crowds at the airport metro station. If it’s your first time to Lisbon then the card is likely to be worth it – we certainly felt we got our money’s worth. I’d heard great things about the city and wasn’t disappointed. It’s very hilly and this probably adds to the sense of distinct neighbourhoods, so even in a short visit you feel like you’ve been to several different Lisbons. Our chosen hotel was the Mundial, conveniently placed for the start/end point of the famous Tram 28 – one of the cheapest ways of touring the key sights of the city without the leg work. We took the tram as a means of orientation, heading up to the Alfama district and the Castelo de Sao Jorge to enjoy the fabulous views over the city and soak up the atmosphere of this Moorish neighbourhood with its many alleys and miradouros. The castle offers free guided tours – I’d suggest the 4pm one as it may well be a little hot for the midday option. The Alfama area is the place to come for Fado – the nostalgic and emotional soul music that is at the heart of this special barrio in Lisbon. You’ll hear it pretty much everywhere in some shape or form, so choose your poison and enjoy. We then sloped back to the hotel to admire the views of Alfama and the caste from the rooftop bar – magical, even in a sudden downpour! Our second day started with a tram ride out to Belem, one of Lisbon’s outlying neighbourhoods but famous for some superb buildings. We started with Mosteiro dos Jeronimos and realised that we should have made the effort to get there when it opened at 10am! Again, the Lisboa card did at least let us skip some of the lines, so not all bad! This is an incredibly ornate monastery, built to celebrate the achievements of Vasco de Gama discovering the sea route to India, in 1501. At the time we visited there was a fascinating exhibition charting the timeline of the monastery alongside the timeline of Portuguese and world events, providing useful context. Belem’s beauty doesn’t end there – the Torre de Belem was designed to protect the harbour and now provides excellent views but if you prefer something more 20th century to 16th century then the Museu Coleccao Berardo offers huge selection of modern and contemporary art, with Warhol, Pollock and Miro just some of the famous names represented. Even more surprising than the location and lack of awareness of the gallery is the fact that it’s free admission thanks to Mr Berardo, Portugal’s biggest art collector and billionaire. If all of the sightseeing makes you hungry there are some lovely restaurants lined up alongside the park or around the marinas and you simply cannot leave the area without queuing to get your hands on at least one (OK, three) pasteis de nata – heavenly custard tarts – from Antiga Confeitaria de Belem; they’ve had nearly two hundred years to perfect the recipe and it shows. As my idea of art is a little more turn of the century, we spent our last full day checking out the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian (I particularly enjoyed the great collection of Rene Lalique’s work) but there was no avoiding modern art as the gallery is right next door to the Centro de Arte Modena – both are located in superb gardens where we came across quite a few locals enjoying a picnic and paddling in the stream. That evening we decided to head to another of Lisbon’s neighbourhoods via one of the elevadores that take over when trams find the going a little too steep. Aptly named Bairro Alto is where you’ll find both tourists and locals go for a good night out, with plenty of bars and restaurants spilling out onto the pavements. By now we’d covered a good five or more of Lisbon’s distinct districts, so we decided that before we left we should fit one more in (good use of that Lisboa card, after all) and visit Parque das Nacaoes –built for Expo ’98 and very much with a sense of modernity to it. It’s also conveniently on the metro line to the airport. Here you’ll find the business hotels, exhibition venues and….Europe’s second-largest aquarium of course. This place is a knock-out and I’d say an absolute must if you have kids in tow, especially if you dragged them round the ‘boring’ museums already. The huge central tank allows you to get up close and personal with rays, sharks and other pretty fish that I should know the names of whilst the penguins and sea otters are another big attraction. Check out the feeding times and book online to jump the entry queues. I do usually find I clock up a decent mileage on a city break but I’m pretty sure Lisbon topped the lot, and that was in 40 degree heat. It’s a stunning city from all angles, and there are a lot of them thanks to the hills. I would love to take a return trip at a slightly less frenetic pace just to soak it all up a bit more and relax into the sights and sounds of this fabulous capital city.

Nice and Monte Carlo

05 October 2017

It’s been a long-held dream of mine (well alright, fantasy and it has always involved watching from one of the super yachts) to go to the Monaco Grand Prix and I finally bit the bullet this year. One of our fabulous partners, BAC Sports, had an offer on for five nights in Nice and grandstand tickets to the race, so I just couldn’t pass it up. I won’t bore you with the race details (F1 fans, get in touch and I’ll bore you directly) but this is a truly spectacular event. We met plenty of people who had little or no interest in Formula 1 but recognised it as one of those ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trips – in my opinion it should be on everyone’s bucket list. Not surprisingly, Saturday and Sunday were taken up with all things noisy and colourful, leaving us a couple of days left to explore our local area. We were in a 2* but comfortable hotel in a good location in Nice; very close to Place Garibaldi with its many restaurants and beautiful facades, not to mention an ideal spot for the tram and entry point to Vieux Nice. We got our bearings in Nice by heading uphill to the Matisse Museum for a bit of culture and some fantastic views over the port and a hidden gem of gorgeous rose gardens at the Franciscan Monastery nearby. The hill is pretty steep so we had to take a couple of breathers but the architecture in this part of the city (Cimiez) harks back to the Belle Epoque, so there were plenty of beautiful buildings to gawp at en route. Heading back down, we took in more art at the National Museum of Marc Chagall including huge and incredibly vibrant stained glass windows and enjoyed a drink in the café located in the lovely museum gardens. It’s fair to say that Nice has plenty of art, whatever you might like, so it’s ideal as a city break if you’ve done Paris and Amsterdam and are looking for an alternative. Our last day was spent back in Monte Carlo where they were still clearing away the last of the barriers from the race. A hop-on-hop-off tour was a great way to get around as it’s all on different levels (very confusing!). We visited the Palace Princier, with an excellent audio guide, plus Prince Albert’s private car collection as part of a combined ticket – for any petrol-head this is a must-see as a lot of the F1 teams have kindly donated cars to him. Of course, no visit to Monte Carlo would be complete without a trip to the famous and ridiculously ornate Casino – visit in the morning and you can take a fascinating self-guided audio-tour. They did say our ticket entitled us to come back and place a bet that evening but I’d left my diamonds and Leboutins at home…saving them for my return, on a super yacht, naturally.

Luscious La Palma

25 April 2017

Where are you going this time? La Palma? Oh I love Majorca. Nope, that’s Palma, this is one of the Canary Islands. Oh yes, Las Palmas is on Gran Canaria, isn’t it? Well yes, but it’s not that one either. This pretty much sums up one of the main attractions of staying on La Palma – no one’s ever heard of it, let alone been there. It’s one of the smallest of the seven main islands and is out to the northwest, which makes it a little more prone to cloud and rain, making it incredibly green and luscious and absolutely nothing like the other three Canaries I have previously visited! This verdant and vertical island is dominated by the Caldera de Taburiente – a huge volcanic crater. In fact, the entire island is littered with volcanoes and this is one of the major draws for the tourists who have made it out here – the extreme landscape lends itself to stunning scenery, perfect for mountain biking and walks. That explains why on day 2, instead of lounging by my pool I found myself lacing up my walking shoes. The previous day had been the usual ‘orientation day’ – we were staying in Los Llanos de Aridane, the most populated town on the island and had visited the Sunday flea market, held in a square of old buildings just outside the town centre. To find this, we first had to find the tourist office, as the flea market wasn’t where we thought it should have been and, to find the tourist office, we ended up in the middle of the weekly farmers’ market, so it had been a thorough introduction to the sights of Los Llanos. The tourist office had an excellent map and guide to the many ‘senderos’ (footpaths) of the island. On such a mountainous landscape it’s clear these footpaths have been vital links for the communities living here – there are 1,200kms of road on the island and almost 1,000km of footpaths. And that brings us back to Day 2. We picked an ‘easy’ route out of the guide, one that should take about 3 hours and off we set. What I had failed to notice and what the guidebook had pretty much skirted around was that the first half hour was entirely, breath-takingly, relentlessly uphill. I had plenty of time to consider other appropriate adjectives for both the hill and my husband on suggesting this walk in the first place as I took a number of strategic ‘photo opportunity breaks’ on the climb. When we finally got to the top, it went down, then up. In fact, after a week on the island I calculate there’s roughly 6 miles of straight road and absolutely nowhere is flat. This was confirmed the next day when we took the hire car up to the highest point on the island at 2,400 metres; Roque de los Muchachos. This involved an awful lot of hairpins, the usual fraught encounters with local drivers overtaking you on said corners, compounded by meeting the occasional bus. However, it is worth it. There’s a weather-related phenomenon that keeps the clouds below the summit (and incidentally they usually stay on the eastern side of the island, so keep to the west for the best weather), so you should have plenty to see at the top and this has also led to one of the world’s biggest observatories setting up shop here. This is another major attraction of the island – it has very little light pollution and is an official ‘Dark Sky’ location, making it perfect for anyone with an interest in astronomy. You can visit the observatory during the day to get an idea of the sheer scale of the projects going on here. If you fancy a go yourself, you can do a star-gazing tour with experts with slightly smaller telescopes to make sense of the night sky for you. A day’s tour of the island showed the huge amount of banana plantations that cover pretty much every available (not quite flat) surface and it looked as though the locals all had their own avocado trees as well. The beaches are the expected black sand and there are some lovely natural swimming pools dotted about the coast, so a hire car is a must for exploring. After another day of walking I put my (blistered) foot down on our last day there and acted as support vehicle when my husband chose to walk the island’s most famous footpath – the Volcano Route. This is an eight hour trek through lava flow, calderas and cones, ending at the sea. There was something about the first two hours heading steadily uphill that was enough for me to choose the sun lounger this time.

Paradise found in The Seychelles

03 April 2017

Mention the Seychelles to most people and it immediately conjures up images of perfect white sand beaches fringed by palm trees with unusual boulders jutting out of the turquoise sea. And that’s just about spot on. The second thought is probably along the lines of ‘expensive’ or perhaps ‘exclusive’, which is where I beg to differ. I was one of a very lucky group of six Travel Counsellors fortunate enough to visit some of the granitic islands of the Seychelles (there are also the harder to reach coralline islands) in December, and was impressed with not just the superb 5* star resorts that you would expect to find there but also the comfortable and homely 3* and 4* properties that put these islands in reach of more budgets. It might not be the easiest place to get to as there are currently no direct flights, but either a short hop to France or Germany or breaking the journey in the middle via the Emirates brings you to Mahé, the largest island of the group. Mahé boasts 65 beaches, including Beau Vallon, a 3km beach that is the only one in the Seychelles offering motorised watersports and considered to be ‘busy’ by Seychellois standards – in other words, there were maybe as many as 50 people stretched out along the pristine sand when we checked into the Savoy Resort & Spa, located directly on the beach. It would be easy to spend a week or more here visiting the gorgeous beaches – all of which are public, by the way, so at weekends and in the evenings you can find yourself mingling with the locals having cook-outs. There are many beautiful hotels on Mahé, including some that are ideal for couples, such as the Hilton Northolme or the Banyan Tree but there are others that are perfect for families, my favourite being the Constance Ephelia, with fantastic villas offering families great accommodation with all of the benefits and services of a 5* hotel. If you don’t fancy spending your entire week on the beach then take a day trip to the capital city, Victoria, complete with its own mini Big Ben. Have a walk around the colourful local market and check out the amazing Hindu temple nearby or, to get a sense of the history surrounding Victoria, take a walking tour of the Bel Air cemetery, where many mysterious characters have been buried, including the alleged son of Louis XVI and a 9ft giant! It would be a shame not to check out more than one island whilst you’re there and a fantastic network of inter-island ferries and internal flights means there’s no excuse! The Seychelles are famous for several exclusive island resorts, with North Island possibly being the most renowned as a celebrity bolthole. We stayed at Hilton’s Labriz resort, the only hotel on Silhouette Island, a 45-minute ferry from Mahé. Silhouette Island is very unspoilt and has great nature walks or just enjoy the wonderful beaches. The villas of the hotel are either mountain or ocean side and are very well-equipped and a great size so families would be just as at home as couples here. Maximising our island-hopping, we also visited Praslin, an hour from Mahé by ferry. It’s home to the Vallee de Mai, a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring the Seychelles famous Coco de Mer trees and their indigenous and endangered Black Parrot. The tree got its name as sailors saw the nuts bobbing to the surface (they sink to the ocean floor and it’s only when the husk decays that the nut is light enough to float) and assumed the trees grew in the sea itself. A tour of the Vallee is truly fascinating and well worth the hour or so away from the beach. Praslin has a good variety of hotels and we visited the 3* Indian Ocean Lodge; a lovely 32 room hotel with ocean views from the contemporary rooms. The hotel is owned and run by locals and has a very friendly feel to it. Interconnecting rooms make it a viable family option. We then went on to our hotel for the night and, I have to say, my favourite of the 13 we visited! Constance Lemuria has recently completed a renovation and it is a truly stunning hotel. The location is fabulous, with several beautiful beaches and the rooms were also large and of a very high standard. It does have a kids’ club and villas are available for families or groups. It is also home to the only 18 hole golf course in the Seychelles and certainly one of the most scenic ones I’ve ever seen. From Praslin we took a 15 minute ferry crossing to La Digue. This island is famous for the Anse Source d’Argent beach – you might not have heard of it but if you have seen a photo of the Seychelles then this is probably that photo – it has huge granite boulders set amongst palm trees swaying on a beautiful white sand beach…the epitome of Seychelles glamour. It also had a dog walking on water when we were there, but that’s another story! La Digue is tiny and has a very laid-back, almost Caribbean vibe – this, coupled with small hotels such as the 9 (soon to be 19) room Le Repaire makes it a great option for those wanting to spend a few days somewhere that takes relaxing seriously, even be Seychellois standards. And that’s really what it’s all about. Come to the Seychelles for two weeks and visit a couple of islands; experience the beauty of the beaches and the warmth of the local people as well as learning more about the flora and fauna that call this island paradise home; pure bliss.

Budapest birthday

22 June 2016

Being at work on your birthday is over-rated, and the last couple of years has seen me jet off somewhere as the UK's weather gets increasingly unpredictable in June! This year (due to far too many other holidays) we only had time for a long weekend and, after a bit of research (also known as asking people on Facebook), Budapest beat Copenhagen. Surprisingly quick to get to (about a two-hour flight), this wonderful city of Buda on the left bank of the Danube and Pest on the right bank is relatively compact, with decent public transport and certainly has enough to entertain you for four days. It's renowned as a stop off for river cruises and for its Christmas markets, but what else does it have to offer? During my research three things really jumped out at me - one, the number of romkocsma, or ‘ruin bars’ to me and you - where enterprising locals have used the shell of incredible edifices left hollow from war and revolution and created bars filled with gardens, music venues and other spaces such as, (and this is number two) escape or exit rooms. I don't know whether this originated in Budapest, but with over 60 of them springing up in the city they are a fantastic way to spend an hour - imagine Crystal Maze with your mates and you've got the general gist. The third thing and actually my primary reason for choosing Budapest, was their version of art nouveau - secessionist architecture. We based ourselves at the Hotel Nemzeti, an elegant 4* a little way out of the centre of Pest but perfectly located next to a tram and metro stop, so getting about was a doddle. We like a good walk anyway and the area we were in gave us easy access to Erzsebetvaros, home of many a fabled ruin bar (the photo with the kangaroo is one of the rooms in Szimpla Kert, considered to be the mother of ruin bars); as well as only being about 20 minutes from the banks of the Danube. We spent the first afternoon getting our bearings, which involved scrambling to the top of Gellert Hill on Buda, past the famously grand Gellert Baths and taking some out-of-breath photos of Budapest lying out before us from the top by the Liberty Monument. That evening we sampled a ruin bar (or three) along with half of Budapest and the odd stag do - and I mean odd. My birthday was spent enjoying the extensive breakfast (including sparkling wine) offered at the Nemzeti before visiting the nearby Jewish Quarter to see one of the world's biggest Synagogues and to read about the ghetto created by the Nazis. Maybe not everyone's idea of what to do on your birthday but I'm a bit of a history buff and I thought it was incredibly interesting, not to mention moving to find out more about the resilience of the city's residents in their darkest hours. Onto lighter stuff; that afternoon we trusted some very detailed instructions to reach our very own escape game. I obviously can't tell you too much (find the clues and work out the puzzles). But I was very surprised and pleased that my husband and I managed to escape with more than 20 minutes to go - a good team effort and I think I've got the bug! The next day we took the ‘Hop-On, Hop-Off bus’ to get around with a bit of commentary and visited the Castle Hill, swung past the truly stupendous Parliament building and headed to the City Park. This is a huge green space with a world-class zoo, circus, ice rink and boating lake, but the reason we were there was to visit Szechnyi Baths. No visit to Budapest is complete without stopping off at one of the thermal baths and this was a wonderful experience. These particular baths are in a purpose-built palace and have three outdoor pools with a further 15 inside - everything about the place was impressive. The beautiful weather drew out locals and tourists alike to soak in the water, soak up the sun and soak up the atmosphere - a great people-watching opportunity, that's for sure. Throughout our time wandering around Budapest I'd been struck by the beautiful architecture, so I'll be adding another photo album to my Facebook page just on that - some buildings shouted art nouveau from top to bottom, while others just had the occasional nod to the movement. You get the impression that nothing stands still in this city - if something lies empty for more than a couple of weeks I imagine someone will move in and turn it into something special. I also imagine this will make it difficult to keep guide books up to date, so I'll have to keep visiting on a regular basis so I can pass all of the best places onto my clients - all in the name of research, of course.

Louisiana - Cajun Country & Nola

12 April 2016

Recently I was very lucky to be one of a group of fellow Travel Counsellors who got to take a cruise courtesy of Carnival. We were fortunate to start our trip with a couple of days in Louisiana in the capable hands of Neil Jones from the office of tourism. After a slightly bumpy start to the trip involving various flight and luggage issues we were underway! First stop was Lafayette, staying near the airport as we were late arriving. The Homewood Suites were very comfortable and had everything needed for a longer stay – they would even do your shopping for you if you had the time and the inclination to make the most of the kitchen in your suite! We left early as we were on a mission – first, a true Cajun breakfast at Johnson’s Boucaniere – shame that being veggie I couldn’t try the famous Boudin (no idea, some kind of sausage?!) so I stuck with the much healthier grilled cheese biscuit…after a whistle-stop tour of Lafayette, we headed out to the swamps to go hunting for ‘gators with Champagnes at Lake Martin. Sadly, there’s no champagne but we did find ourselves a few reptiles, not to mention a lot of great bird life. On our way to Baton Rogue we made a stop at Avery Island. Never heard of it? Me neither but go and dig out the Tabasco sauce in your cupboard – yep, not made in Mexico, made on what’s essentially a salt island in the middle of Louisiana. I came home with some Raspberry Chipotle which they added to ice cream to give you a raspberry ripple with a kick – yum! Next stop Baton Rouge, a university town with a history of eccentric governors and some excellent places to eat, drink and be merry. We stayed at the gorgeous boutique Hotel Indigo and had a great time visiting the sites and trying out a few watering holes. The view from the Tsunami restaurant and bar was fantastic and I had a lot of fun trying to explain the concept of vegetarianism to the waitress at Poor Boy Lloyds – luckily not an issue for President Obama when he dropped in. Still, I knew I was in for food overload on the cruise so a green salad wasn’t an issue! The next morning we were up bright and breezy to head out in the direction of New Orleans via a couple of antebellum plantation houses. First up, Houmas House, where a lady straight out of Gone with the Wind showed us round. It was stunning and a very popular place for weddings, with rooms on site for guests and gorgeous grounds. Next was Oak Alley, another impressive property strategically located next to the Mississippi with the most incredible – wait for it – alley of oak trees. Upon arrival at New Orleans (or Nola as abbreviation-loving residents call it) we headed out on a must-do walking cocktail tour to see the sights (OK, bars) of the French Quarter. It was love at first sight, I’ve been wanting to see New Orleans for a very long time and you could feel the history exuding from every wrought iron balcony. Antoine’s and The Court of Two Sisters were great places to drink it all in (literally) and the latter does a very popular Jazz Brunch on Sundays that’s enough to make me want to return. However, it was time to embark and, thanks to our Carnival rep, Luke Smith, we had the VIP treatment, whisking us through embarkation in no time at all so we could get unpacked and enjoy the Sailaway party as the Carnival Dream got underway – see the next blog for more details!

Funtastic time with Carnival Cruises!

12 April 2016

Following on from my blog about Louisiana and New Orleans, here's what I made of Carnival Cruises... Our first two days were at sea, which gave us plenty of time to acquaint ourselves with everything the Carnival Dream had to offer. The first thing that springs to mind is the amazing food – so fresh, tasty and plentiful but such a variety of options – you simply couldn’t get bored and that’s coming from a vegetarian! The sit-down dining had daily choices as well as a set menu. At an extra $35 per person the steak restaurant was well worth it for meat lovers – I think it was the first time the group went quiet! I must admit I really enjoyed the buffets – everything you could possibly think of, often cooked right before your eyes – I’m still waiting for a personal chef to cook my morning omelette now I’m home. Talking of breakfasts, Carnival is partnered with Dr Seuss for its kids’ clubs and they host a very amusing Green Eggs and Ham breakfast for an extra $5 per person, well worth it if you’ve brought the children along. Carnival struck me as the perfect family holiday option – the kids’ clubs covered all ages and they seemed to have a great time with professionals teaching them street dance, lots of socials and organised sports and games using the amazing outside space – maybe the mini-golf or the basketball court. If that wasn’t enough, there were always the waterslides to race each other down. Parents know that their children are in safe hands and they can’t wander off anywhere – they can also keep an eye on what they’re spending by putting a credit limit on their room cards, although if you’ve opted for the soft drinks package then the only cash they can splash is in the amusement arcades. In the meantime, this gives parents the chance to relax around the decks in one of the hot tubs or maybe head to the adult only Serenity deck or spa to chill out. If that gets too dull there is a full programme of events; from art appreciation to cooking demos; from bingo to music quizzes; from the casino to the Broadway style shows to the comedy nights – if you’re bored, it’s your own fault! We stopped off at three ports of call – Roatan Island (Honduras), Belize and Cozumel. Roatan had a very chilled vibe, you could try out the local beach but a small group of us took a taxi round the island which gave us a bit of an insight into the area. In Belize we joined a Carnival excursion to Xunantunich (the Stone Lady) – a Mayan ruin just inside the Guatemalan border. Cozumel was in full ‘Spring Break’ mode when we arrived – some of the group decided to take full advantage of this while others headed for some of the beach areas away from downtown Cozumel – Paradise Beach and Money Bar Beach Club. The latter has excellent snorkelling and a lot of boat and catamaran tours stopped here – it was nice to see so many locals coming along after work, too. The former was geared up for families, with a lot of inflatables and a pool and bar area to relax by. This was my first cruise experience and all in all, Carnival achieved what they set out to – you have a lot of FUN! Thanks Luke Smith and Laura Hall plus my amazing group of TC travellers. Come with a sociable attitude and you’re guaranteed a great time!

Lanzarote

16 February 2016

I have to admit I'm a little bit of a Lanzarote fan - enough going on to keep all of the family interested but plenty of places to find some peace and quiet. Couple that with one man's successful crusade to limit the impact of development and for me it's the perfect example of a Canarias island. As much as I love Lanzarote, I invariably find myself both returning to and recommending clients visit Playa Blanca. This pretty little town is named after its beautiful beaches as, despite the volcanic nature of the island, the beaches are surprisingly golden, if not actually 'white'. A couple can be found within the town boundaries itself and the more expansive sands of the Papagayo coves are just a short drive away. On this visit I took the opportunity of visiting some of the hotels that I regularly recommend to clients. H10 White Suites is an all-inclusive, adult-only hotel, a short walk from the sea front and offering all suites accommodation. Styled as a small village around the pools, the hotel offers a tranquil oasis just 10 minutes' walk away from both the town centre and the Marina Rubicon. Just in front of the White Suites, 5* Princesa Yaiza is situated right on the sea front, with direct access to Playa Dorada. This imposing hotel has such wide corridors, palatial rooms and expansive public areas, plus a similarly impressive ratio of staff to guest, ensuring that even when full, you have a true sense of space and service. The grounds have been cleverly divided to offer an adult-only area with separate pool, the largest spa in the Canaries and an a la carte restaurant; the main area where many rooms overlook the sea and the majority of the restaurants and other facilities can be found; and a third family-orientated section close to the children's area - Kikoland. Dream Gran Castillo is set in Las Coloradas, within a stone's throw of those famous Papagayo beaches and close to Marina Rubicon. The Marina is well worth a visit for its waterside restaurants and bars as well as some envious yacht admiration opportunities. Back to the Gran Castillo, another superb 5* hotel with a fantastic sea view and extensive grounds - there's a very helpful map for first-timers to find their way around and I can see why! The initial lobby area opens out onto a terrace with sea views and the clever pool design actually creates 11 separate pool areas for both adults and children, whilst maximising privacy. If you want to go the whole hog you can rent a Balinese bed in child-free areas including some with beautiful sea views. There's also Castleland - another fantastic children's area with great facilities and rooms for families, including themed Merlin rooms with sliding doors to give families their own space. I can't recommend Lanzarote and particularly Playa Blanca highly enough - I know we Brits tend to think of it as a great spot for winter sun but the islands have a relatively stable climate year-round, so even during the summer holidays it is still a great place for a family holiday or a relaxing couples' getaway. If you would like to know more about any of the hotels or see more photos just get in touch and I would be happy to oblige!

South African Safari and Jozi

29 December 2015

In October this year I got the chance to take part in my first educational trip – 10 nights in South Africa. I was thoroughly excited as this was somewhere I had never visited, but I must admit to having a degree of trepidation at the thought of visiting Johannesburg, largely thanks to sheer ignorance! Our Virgin Atlantic flights were great (I was lucky enough to be upgraded to Premium Economy but that’s another story) and thanks to the lack of time difference and a bit of kip I felt good to go when we got there. Just as well, as no sooner had we settled in to the beautifully sumptuous African Pride Melrose Arch hotel with its quirky features, such as a café/bar area within the swimming pool, than we were heading straight out to experience Johannesburg. During our two days, we visited local food and craft markets – Neighbourgood Market and Arts on Main where I was introduced to random South African delicacies like bunny chow (does NOT include bunnies) and very cheap champagne – I think I know where I might retire to now. We also visited the fascinating Apartheid Museum and took an incredible bike tour around Soweto – an absolute highlight and something I will be recommending to future visitors to Jozi. All too soon it was time to bid adieu to Joburg and head for the hills of Hazyview – our gateway to the Kruger Park area. Before we got stuck into four days of safari we took the time to see what this area had to offer – for those driving to Kruger (especially if they do so from Joburg) it’s a great place to break the journey. I have to admit, I was worried about breaking something else when we spent a day ziplining at Skyway Trails followed by white water rafting at Induna Adventures (you’ll note there are no photos of these exploits but that was out of sheer terror), but I lived to tell the tale and even managed to enjoy some of it! Still, if you’re going to do these crazy things I can think of worse places and we were rewarded with fantastic food and wine at the beautiful Rissington Inn and additionally enjoyed a night of traditional dance at Hippo Hollow, which duly lived up to its name by providing us with our first hippo sighting! Very soon we were heading out for our safari stays but to get there we followed the aptly named Panorama Route. This relatively short stretch along the highway packs a scenic punch. First stop, God’s Window, a beautiful walk through the bush to what promises to be stunning views – if you get lucky and it’s not too misty! Waterfalls abound in this river canyon area and we went to check out Berlin Falls, an 80m drop. Next up was lunch and after a rather winding path seemed to lead us into the middle of nowhere we reached Potluck Boskombuis Restaurant. It’s very hard to describe just how random this place is! Next to a riverbank and with very limited resources, the owner decided it was the perfect spot for a restaurant. It feels like a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of place and if you’re in the area you have to see it to believe it! As lovely as it would have been to satisfy our inner hippo and wallow in the river all afternoon, we had to get to our safari reserve before nightfall and were only halfway through the Panorama Route – onwards! Next stop was Bourke’s Luck Potholes – apparently the poor guy had no luck as he was looking for gold in the wrong place, but the massive cylindrical potholes, caused by stones of all shapes getting caught in currents are well worth the stop just to remind you what Mother Nature can get up to given enough time. Our last stop was by no means least. When I first heard about the Panorama Route I had seen photos of the Three Rondavels but just assumed they’d been taken by someone with an incredible camera from a helicopter. Then we got there. I’m not sure I want to spoil the surprise for anyone interested but for goodness’ sake don’t miss them – absolutely amazing! It was dark by the time we reached Kapama Reserve, a truly stunning 13,000 hectare reserve complete with the Big Five plus many more! I got particularly lucky with a stay in Karula Lodge, the top end of the four wonderful places to stay on the reserve. For those of you thinking that safaris are all about tents, best check out the photo of my suite with private pool…tough job but somebody’s got to road-test the goods. Kapama is one of those places where a week wouldn’t be too long – it has a spa and wellness centre and a romantic sleep-out station where you can experience true immersion in your surroundings – after you’ve had your own 5 course meal cooked for you and secure in the knowledge that the wardens are only a radio call away! The guides were amazing and our sightings fantastic and I haven’t even started on how good the food was yet. Needless to say, this place sells itself, but I will certainly be recommending it. Our final safari stop was Thornybush Game Reserve. Similarly positioned just outside Kruger, Thornybush also proved that you don’t have to be inside the famous park to have a great safari. Not only did we see the Big Five, we actually saw them all in one morning drive! Our home for the last two nights of our stay was Jackalberry Lodge, one of 12 different sites on the same reserve. This works really well, as there are varying levels of accommodation and service all with access to the same wildlife – from a self-catering bush camp through to a five-star luxury lodge with conference centre! My impression is that quite a few of the camps or lodges here would work well for a large group or extended family, so if you like the idea of having an authentic bush experience all to yourself, then I couldn’t recommend it more. Overall, South Africa exceeded my expectations and I still can’t get over how much you can fit in in a relatively short space of time. I love the fact that you’re on the same time zone, it made a long distance bearable. So what did I enjoy the most? There’s something so special about a safari and the vibrancy of Johannesburg is not to be missed. Would I go again? In a heartbeat.

Venice in September

19 December 2014

Having been to Italy several times I couldn't quite believe I'd still not been to Venice, so when I found I had an opportunity to go in September, I grabbed it with both hands. I arrived on train from Trieste via Croatia and only had two days and one night to see as much as I could. The train station delivers you directly onto the Grand Canal and your first sense of the timelessness of this floating architectural wonder. The incredible architecture surrounds and dwarfs you as you float to your hotel either in the comfort of a water taxi or the sometimes sardine-like experience of the vaporetto. Once you're settled in you can follow the yellow signs and the masses to the magnificent sight of St. Mark's Square with its campanile, basilica and palazzo or simply meander around the tiny streets and side canals and get lost in the six districts that make up the main island. With such a short amount of time in Venice I made sure I was centrally located near the Accademia Bridge and only ever went out armed with a good map. I had highlighted a few galleries and museums that I didn't want to miss and lunch consisted of street food Italian style (so a slice of pizza then!) before taking a No. 2 vaporetto from San Marco (S. Zaccaria stop) via Guidecca, admiring the views as the sun set over this wonderful place. There are so many wonderful places to eat in Venice, from Michelin-starred restaurants to pub-like osterie. Being veggie is easy in Italy so it didn't surprise me that the very cute Ristorante La Bitta served up superb gnocchi, fantastic cheese and wine by the glass that was cheaper than the sparkling water! Everyone knows that Venice can be expensive but there are things that can help. Here are some of my top tips: - The famous Basilica di San Marco on St Mark's Square is free to enter. To save queuing twice, make sure you drop your bag off at the (somewhat tricky to find) free luggage storage, Ateneo di San Basso, before you head to the basilica. - Get yourself a timed card for the duration of your stay so you can hop on and off vaporettos as you please. Sometimes you're quite a distance from any bridges and the easiest way to cross the Grand Canal is the vaporetto - you don't want to pay €7 for the privilege! - Standing up at the bar when you're having your morning coffee is the cheapest option, followed by sitting inside, followed by the most expensive option of sitting outside. - Cicheti are the Venetian form of tapas and are great for a snack at lunch or early evening. You'll find them in bars and each small bite will cost anything from €1-5 dependent on the ingredients. A trip to Rialto's fruit & veg and fish markets will show you where they get their fresh ingredients from.

Inspirational Iceland

16 April 2015

It's hardly surprising that Iceland's landscape has been inspiring people for centuries - from Jules Verne using the glacier of Snaefellsjokull as the base for Journey to the Centre of the Earth to the world's biggest TV series, Game of Thrones using a range of Icelandic backdrops - it truly is a stunning and unique natural beauty. I visited Iceland with the hope of seeing the Northern Lights. Big mistake. Visit Iceland to see Iceland - if you happen to catch a glimpse of aurora borealis whilst you're out there doing your thing then count yourself incredibly lucky. It can and does provide an incredible light show but there is so much more to Iceland than the Lights! Reykjavik is a wonderful small city, full of incredibly friendly people who, rather conveniently, speak impeccable English. Even in the middle of winter it's a fabulous place to visit, with an attention-grabbing church, fabulous shops, stunning concert hall/cultural centre (Harpa) and lovely harbour not to mention the usual museums and art galleries, some of which offer free entry. The food is a true smorgasbord of Icelandic delicacies (reindeer anyone?) including superb seafood, lamb and skyr, a low fat but full flavour dessert. Of course, international fare's readily available - I had some of the best fish and chips at the appropriately named 'Icelandic Fish & Chips' down by the old harbour. Outside the city the first-time traveller shouldn't miss the opportunity to see some of the fantastic landscape for themselves by following the Golden Circle, a route which takes you to Pingvellir, the site of the world's first parliament and the shifting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates; Geysir, the original hot water spout which gave the world the name and Gullfoss, a spectacular waterfall which I saw half frozen over. The route shows off the highlights of Iceland - you can take a guided tour but it's just as easy to hire a car and do this yourself if you'd prefer. Before you head home - in fact, on the way to the airport - you have to stop by the Blue Lagoon. In a surreal thermal setting the experience can only be enhanced by a surreal massage; outside and exposed to the elements, floating face up on a lilo and being dunked like a giant digestive to keep warm - well worth the (rather hefty) price. And the Northern Lights? Get out into the countryside - extend your Golden Circle tour by staying in a lodge near Hella in the South or follow the Ring Road to find a seclude spot elsewhere. Many hotels offer a wake-up service so you can just roll out of bed in time to see them. Want a guarantee? Consider the Hurtigruten cruises, some of which offer a further free cruise if you weren't lucky enough to see them the first time. Get in touch and I'll happily put the perfect package together for you to visit this wonderful country.

Lake Como packs a scenic punch

08 May 2015

OK, I admit I was basically going in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a certain Mr George Clooney who has a place down the road but the Italian Lakes offer lots of alternative eye candy if he proves elusive! I stayed on Lake Como, in a small village called Argegno with the most wonderful tiny piazza incorporating a few restaurants, an enoteca and a highly noteworthy gelateria – I recommend the hazelnut – yum. Although we hired a car to get there, there are regular bus services and it’s also on the main ferry route, so the ideal way to get around is actually on the lake, especially as the road around the lake can often turn into one long traffic jam. Nearby Villa Balbianello featured in Casino Royale – it is absolutely stunning and, of course, the best way to get there is by boat, so either hire your own or take the taxiboat from Lenno. The former owner, who bequeathed the property and grounds to Italy’s version of the National Trust, was fortunate to spend a lot of his time on expeditions across the globe and the fruits of his labours can be found in exhibitions within the house. Don’t forget to take your National Trust cards – you’ll pay a reduced price here and at other FAI properties. The ferry travels the length and breadth of the lake, including Como itself which is worth a visit (look out for the silk products the town is still renowned for) but my favourite spot was Bellagio – lovely higgledy-piggledy stone staircases, beautiful waterfront gardens and fantastic shops! We were there in August and nearly all of the Christmas shopping was done by the time we left! If you get up into the surrounding hills, the views across the lake are wonderful – we went for a fabulous walk taking in local sights through some stunning scenery and there are also cable cars at nearby Pigra and a funicular railway at Como to give you a different perspective. I never did spot George Clooney but there’s so much more to see around the lakes it certainly wasn’t a wasted journey!

Into the Amazon

14 September 2016

As part of our time in South America, my husband and I spent a few nights in the Ecuadorian rainforest on a tributary of the Amazon. The trip down was on a motorised canoe and the sheer width of the river amazed us – of course it’s the main mode of transport, so we passed by all sorts of boats; some taking children to school and others carrying heavy equipment for the logging industry. Upon arrival at our dock we still had a short hike through the (unsurprisingly) damp undergrowth on a raised walkway before reaching the lagoon the lodge was on. It was a truly stunning setting and we eagerly jumped into canoes to be transported to our temporary home. As jungle lodges are usually relatively remote, you need to spend at least two or three nights and you can enjoy all of your meals on site. The thing that surprised me most was that, having travelled out of Quito on a plane for an hour and down (or up?) the river for an hour and a half, there was still WiFi! Our rooms were beautiful, with a very luxurious shower and a balcony area. TV is most definitely not required when you can listen to the jungle around you. We soon had our first visitors – some cheeky spider monkeys – and enjoyed watching the weaver birds flying in and out of their unusual nests. Jungle lodges will give you a programme of activities, including walks around the area, usually in the morning and evening when there is the most to see. We also had the opportunity to visit a parrot lick (the photo that looks like a load of green leaves – look again!) with a hopeful looking boa lurking in the branches above; we visited a canopy tower to watch toucans and other birds and we took kayaks out on a hunt for sloths (we found one, as you can see!). You can also swim in the lagoon if you don’t mind the resident piranhas – something I decided to do as a birthday treat. There’s also a huge fish called an Arapaima that can be found in the lagoon – they can get up to 3 metres long and yes, I swam with that too – we saw the fins occasionally and they were real beasts. I have no idea what they eat but slow English women clearly aren’t part of their diet. As incredible as the wildlife was, one of the stand-out experiences was a visit to a local village, where everyone was preparing for a football match. It turned out that one of our guides came from the village and he proudly showed us around his old school and explained some of the farming techniques – now I know how a pineapple grows! In case you’re wondering, being vegetarian I had to pass up on the local delicacy but my husband gave the grubs a go (once cooked!!) – the verdict was ‘a bit like Danish bacon’. Good job the food in the lodge was a bit more up my street – they even arranged a birthday cake for me, so I felt thoroughly spoilt. We also met some fantastic, interesting people from the US and Canada and it really made the stay feel very special – I wouldn’t hesitate to go back or to recommend this type of stay to clients.

Ticking the bucket list in the Galapagos

27 April 2020

As part of our three-month trip around South America, my husband and I got to visit a real bucket-list destination – the Galapagos. Firstly, here are a few tips from me: 1) Unless you get seriously sea-sick don’t opt for a land tour; the absolute best way of seeing as much as possible is by boat. 2) You ideally want at least a 10-night tour as these tend to actually mean 8 nights out in the islands in reality – the first and last night will most likely be in Quito. 3) On the subject of boats, in my humble opinion I would choose a smaller vessel as the fewer the people the shorter the amount of time it takes getting people on and off the islands you’re visiting – the landing areas are deliberately small to keep numbers down. We went with G Adventures on their West & Central tour which covers half a dozen islands and carries a maximum of 16 passengers. 4) I strongly recommend going as part of a tour rather than trying to do the trip independently – you’ll find it hard to organise transport to the remoter islands and you will need a guide to get the most out of your visit. Essentially, a tour pretty much guarantees you will get the experience you want and splits the cost between fellow travellers. 5) One final thing to consider is what you actually want to see – this may determine the route and the time of year to go. I can certainly help you plan to get the most out of this once-in-a-lifetime trip. Everyone knows what to expect from the Galapagos but it still doesn’t prepare you for the sheer volume and proximity of the wildlife. A little like my safari and zebras experience, the first time you see a Sally Lightfoot crab or a Marine Iguana you’ll probably take hundreds of photos until you realise they are the sparrows of the Galapagos (although the islands do also have sparrows but you get the drift). I still couldn’t get used to seeing an iguana swimming though, very weird. Most days started early (7:30am was the norm but it did get even earlier) and consisted of breakfast before heading out in dinghies to visit an island before going snorkelling (wetsuits can be hired and you may well need them), heading back for lunch, perhaps moving to another spot while we’re eating and then repeat the above. Our guide, Pedro, gave a briefing the day before so we knew what to expect – what we needed to take with us, what kind of landing it would be (wet or dry) and what wildlife we might see. He did a very good job and we soon decided he’d paid the wildlife to be where he said it would be…. On Isabela we got to see some of the islands’ most famous residents, the Giant Tortoises, at the National Park’s Rearing Centre. One of them was nicknamed Houdini as he’d made several escape attempts and they had to lock his pen. Later in the trip we visited the reserve on Santa Cruz where Lonesome George lived, the last of his kind who sadly didn’t find a mate. Most excitingly for me, we even came across them in the wild on Santa Cruz. Of course, the Galapagos is just as much about the birds as it is the land lubbers and we got lucky, seeing Galapagos Penguins, countless finches that helped Darwin with his studies, Flightless Cormorants – I felt sorry for them when I saw them drying out their tiny wings – not to mention Blue-Footed Boobys and Magnificent Frigate birds carrying out their mating rituals. Rich did more snorkelling than me and, typically, most of the more exciting encounters were just after I’d got out. He swam with sea lions playing around him and saw a Manta Ray – still one of my bucket list critters, so I really kicked myself missing that one. However, there was one magical day when we were practically ordered to do the snorkelling as the bay was renowned for its group of Pacific Green Sea Turtles and within minutes we were surrounded. I still don’t know how such cumbersome looking animals can be so agile but despite there being around 40 of them swimming amongst us they didn’t touch us once. It was a magical experience. I’ve included more photos on this post than usual as it’s really what the Galapagos is all about – getting up close and personal with so many different animals. Any photos with a human in is to give perspective – there are tracks you stick to but the animals don’t know that and it wasn’t that rare to have to pick your way through a group of sunbathing iguanas. I wrote a more in-depth blog at the time of the trip, so if you’d like to read more and for a lot more photos, you can take a look here: https://lizardtracks.blogspot.com/2013/07/in-galapagos-footsteps-of-very.html

The Inca Trail

10 December 2014

My husband and I had been planning to have a go at the Inca Trail for about the last ten years, but life got in the way. So, with the opportunity of a lifetime to spend three months travelling around South America, this experience was top of our list. We had acclimatised as we travelled through northern Chile and into Peru, so by the time we got to Cusco, the starting point for the Inca Trail, we only really found ourselves out of breath when we were tackling any of the monster stairs to be found in town. Things didn’t get off to a great start, having had three days of solid rain in Cusco, it was with some trepidation that we arrived at the hotel to meet the rest of our fellow trekkers. The group consisted of four Brits, four Canadians and six Americans, with us being somewhere in the middle in terms of age and near the front (Rich)/middling (me) in terms of fitness levels. Following the prerequisite early start, our first day was spent at a nearby weaving project set up by the tour operator, G Adventures, aimed at providing local women with independent livelihoods. It was really interesting and involved llamas and alpacas, so all good. We visited a nearby Inca ruin, Ollantaytambo, which gave us a good idea of what we were letting ourselves in for regarding height and steps. The next morning was the start of the Inca Trail proper. We met our guides, Roger and Saol and got underway. They took it easy to start, but the first day's terrain was easy-going and, most importantly, the sun had come out. Day two was always going to be tough, considering it included the infamous 4,200m 'Dead Woman's Pass'. Of course, I had to keep stopping to take photos; nothing to do with not wanting to live up to the name...What goes up must come down and, in this case, that involved a heck of a lot of Incan steps, known locally as Gringo Killers. The third day was a beautiful mixture of high altitude followed by cloud forest, giving us an opportunity to see a different side to the trail. En route were more Incan ruins, tunnels and, of course, more steps! We then camped tantalisingly closely to Machu Picchu, our ultimate destination, more of which in the next blog. It can’t be overstated how amazing the porters and guides are and how invaluable on a trip like this. Roger and Saol would take the time to explain flora and fauna we came across on the trail and used this as an opportunity to keep the group (roughly) together, with one always at the front and one at the back. The porters’ day would consist of helping prepare our breakfasts (two of the porters were also chefs and carried their chef’s whites with them, including a toque!), whilst we were eating they took down our tents, packed up and headed off to the next site. The ones looking after the food tents (cooking and serving) would head to the lunch stop. Lunch was invariably delicious but always different and even an awkward vegetarian such as myself was well catered for. Three square meals a day and they even managed to bake a cake at the top of a mountain for our last night. When we arrived at our overnight stops, our tents were already set up for us, we got hot water and soap for washing and a cup of coca tea, repeated when they woke us up in the mornings. We carried a day pack and the porters can carry up to 30kg. And they were always ahead of us! A group of amazing men and they did it all with a smile.

La Paz

10 December 2014

La Paz is an incredible place. It was with some trepidation that we headed there, having heard the horror stories about drugs and crime. It sounds as though that story has reached the ears of the Bolivian government though, as every tourist area has a clear police presence. I didn’t once feel even remotely worried for my safety, but instead absolutely fell in love with the vibrancy and people. It’s worth noting that they love a good strike though, usually involving a blockade at the top which stops anything getting in or out of the city - bear in mind when considering short stays and connections. Geographically, it’s an amazing phenomenon, starting with the suburb of El Alto (that’s now got a bigger population than La Paz proper) at 3,900m, travelling down into a bowl with a lowest point of 3,100m. Culturally it was our first taste of what was to come; heavily influenced by the indigenous Aymara population, we were moving away from the western influences seen in Argentina and Chile. We survived the infamous World’s Most Dangerous Road (64km bike ride where you lose 2 miles in altitude!), then spent a day visiting the archaeological site at Tiwanaku before moving on to Lake Titicaca. At this point, we were so exhausted that the floating islands were ignored in favour of a couple of days R&R in our small hotel. We then headed over to the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca so we could take our next journey via train. This was not your average train – trains are few and far between in South America, and this one was part of the Orient Express Group. We took full advantage of the observation carriage for photos, not to mention the happy hour for the Pisco Sours.

Northern Chile - Humberstone & Putre

17 November 2014

San Pedro is where we decided to deviate from the well-worn gringo trail through the salt flats on Uyuni, as stunning as it looks, all because I wanted to visit a ghost town…ever since I read about Santa Laura and Humberstone I’ve wanted to go there – a saltpeter mine and attached town in the middle of nowhere which, thanks to becoming a World Heritage site, has been remarkably preserved. It was built when the nitrate industry was in its infancy around 1858 and went through various people's hands until it closed for good in 1961, leaving a fascinating mine and related buildings not to mention a wonderful art deco cinema, church, marketplace, plus oodles of social history. When you’re in the middle of nowhere it’s hard to imagine that nearly 300 other sites have totally disappeared as the locals have appropriated the machinery and expensive wooden buildings for their own uses. Our last stop in Chile before crossing the border to Bolivia was Putre. At an altitude of over 3,500 metres it made perfect training for La Paz. This is well and truly off the beaten path, so we hired a local coca-chewing guide to show us the sights. Its situation on the edge of the Lauca National Park gave us even more spectacular scenery, wonderful wildlife and woozy heads!

Northern Chile - San Pedro de Atacama

17 November 2014

After a few weeks in the southern part of Chile, we travelled up the country (with a detour over to Mendoza for the wine, of course), passing Mario Irarrazabal’s Mano del Desierto, a giant hand in the middle of nowhere. We were heading for San Pedro de Atacama, situated within the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. San Pedro is a very chilled out, quite hippy-ish sort of place. We stayed in one of the typical single storey adobe buildings, converted to a hostel with rooms around a central courtyard, featuring a hammock so you could take in the night skies. If you get a clear night I would recommend one of the stargazing tours or even visit the observatory. For such a small place there’s a lot to do! We saw the salt 'flats', most of which weren't that flat, we went to see volcanoes and lagoons at an altitude of over 4,000 metres, plus a visit to a local village for a meal involving purple potatoes. The Valley of the Moon and the Valley of Death showcase some spectacular lunar-like landscapes and, when we visited, the ground looked like it was covered in snow but it's a mixture of salt and other minerals. If you're quiet in certain places you can actually HEAR it, as the salt dries out.

In Patagonia – around and about Puerto Natales

17 November 2014

As I mention in the Torres Del Paine entry, Puerto Natales is a fantastic base for a number of wonderful sights in Patagonia. Having completed the trek and celebrated with Patagonia’s very own Baguales beer, we thought it was high time to detour over to Argentina to take a look at one of their own biggest Patagonian draws – Perito Moreno Glacier. It’s really difficult to do it justice in photos but here are a few facts – it’s one of the only glaciers that is still growing, the face is between 50 and 60 metres high and, in the main photo shown here, the rocks showing at the back are about 10 miles away. It’s a truly impressive sight and the sound when ice drops off is also pretty incredible! We found the easiest way to get to the glacier was on a day trip out of El Calafate, a lovely little town with wooden buildings giving it an almost alpine feel. It was totally geared up for a broad selection of tours ranging from day trips to the glacier, visits to local estancias and the more adventurous heli-skiing. If you stayed in town there were some great restaurants and shops, plus a small wildlife reserve where we saw our first South American flamingos. Back into Puerto Natales we just had time for another Baguales before starting our journey north. And what better way than by boat through the Chilean fjords? You spend the first night of the four-night journey in the harbour at Puerto Natales, ready for an early start next day. We booked ourselves into the most expensive cabin because it's a long trip and we didn't fancy having to share! By the way, don't get the idea that this was some sort of luxury liner - until about ten years ago this was (and still is) a cargo ship.... We had a good time but the weather wasn't too kind to us, which meant there aren't many photos. It also meant that when we reached the section that is open to the Pacific (known as the Golfo de Penas) we hit 50 knot winds or, to the less nautical among us, 100kph. This in turn resulted in incredibly rough seas and a delayed arrival time as the wind was against us – something to bear in mind for those with tight onward connections.

In Patagonia - Torres Del Paine National Park

17 November 2014

After spending two weeks trying to learn something resembling Spanish in Buenos Aires (a truly stunning, very European city), we flew down to Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia. We spent a few days visiting the area my husband’s granny grew up in and then headed by bus to Puerto Natales. This was a great jumping off point for some wonderful experiences, not the least of which being the National Park of Torres Del Paine. There’s a famous five-day ‘W’ trek that follows a w-shaped route through the park. You have to carry all of your own equipment but you at least have the choice of the lodges dotted throughout or the campsites. Being hardy folk (cough) we chose to rough it. Following an excellent briefing we decided to add another day on, as the guy giving the talk was so enthusiastic about the extra section. Despite his use of the word ‘sheltered’ a few times, if I’d been worried about the pumas then at least the 87kph winds whistling through the tent gave me something else to focus on! The trek was hard work, especially as we were reaching the end of the season and they were beginning to close the more remote sections of the park as the weather set in. Having said that, it was truly stunning and the camaraderie from the fellow walkers was immense. I can only show some of the pictures here but to immerse yourself in spectacular Patagonian wilderness this is a must. Maybe stay in the lodges though!

Winter in Istanbul

27 January 2015

Everyone seems to think that Istanbul should only ever be visited in the summer but I beg to differ. For Christmas 2011 my enterprising husband surprised me with a long weekend in Istanbul...for Valentine's. He's cheeky like that. I let him get away with it as it's somewhere I've always wanted to go and I do love a good city break out of season. We arrived accompanied by a small flurry of snow to a picturesque and largely tourist-free Istanbul. I'd not really known what to expect from the anticipated 'East meets West' location - for some reason I'd got it in my head that mainly meant West! On the journey into the city itself (via train and tram) we got to see the heady mix this meant - conference centres and business hotels near the airport giving way to incomprehensible signs in Turkish and countless minarets. Our hotel was in Sultanahmet, location of the vast majority of the famous sights and the best place to stay for a long weekend. If you're thinking of doing the same, then the must-see sights are the Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace but there are many other experiences near the top of the list. Sights can get busy on Sundays when the Turkish come and join the tourists. I've listed below when things are closed. From our base we visited Aya Sofya (closed on Mondays) and the Blue Mosque on the same day. Since its construction in the 6th century the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia) has served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, followed by a Roman Catholic cathedral, then as a Mosque for nearly 500 years before becoming a museum in the 1930s. You can't help but gasp when you first enter the building and look up - to think that such a huge dome has been standing for nearly 1500 years is nearly as impressive as the mosaics and marbles. The Blue Mosque (actually the Sultan Ahmet Camii if you're struggling to find it on your map) is so-called because of the blue tiles lining its interior. It's been a mosque since the 17th century and only worshippers can enter during prayer times, so try to plan your visit accordingly. It's particularly beautiful to photograph the exterior as the sun sets from the park whilst listening to the calls to prayer. If the weather's against you, this is the day to visit these two wonderful buildings. You can always drop into the Basilica Cistern if you're getting a bit chilly - this original water storage tank seems to retain heat and is a fascinating place to get some eerie pictures and play spot the biggest fish. You'll need at least half a day to visit the incredible Topkapi Palace (closed on Tuesdays) and don't miss the Treasury. The Harem makes for an interesting addition although as you can buy a ticket once you're inside the main palace, so I'd see how your feet are feeling! The Palace was the opulent home of the sultans for the best part of 400 years and the wealth both within the Treasury (try to find something that's not jewel-encrusted) and in the incredible decoration of the building itself is excessively apparent. I was particularly fascinated by the costume collection on display but there's something that catches the eye at every turn. It's also strategically located with especially wonderful views over the Golden Horn. As a fair bit of the palace and, of course, the grounds are open to the elements, a dry day is best for a visit. Another fantastic experience is to take a wander around the bazaar district - the Grand Bazaar warrants its own map as there are areas dedicated to different goods, especially carpets, jewellery, gold, copper and leather, alongside the obligatory electronics and market tat which seems inescapable. Not far away is the Spice Bazaar (head towards the Golden Horn) where you can marvel at the displays and varieties of the lokum (Turkish Delight). If you want the best, then you need to seek out Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekkir at Hamidiye Caddesi 83, running close to and parallel with the Golden Horn. The shop's been there since 1777 and it reminds me of an old-school pharmacy. Of course this isn't everything to do in Istanbul. A cruise along the Bosphorus is a great option if the weather's behaving. Leaving from Eminonu and taking around three hours for the round trip, you'll see well-preserved summer retreats and fortresses. You can get on and off if you want to explore further. Another option are the city's many hamams. Some of these Turkish baths still operate in the original Ottoman buildings, such as Cagaloglu and Cemberlitas. Alternatively, try the modern version at any of the 5 star hotels offering the experience. I have two dining experiences I would strongly recommend, although I'm veggie, so I'll have to take it from other authorities that this is the place to have a kebap. Recommendation number one - if you've still got the energy after all of the walking you'll have done, hop on a tram to Karakoy on the other side of the Horn and take the funicular up the hill. Once you arrive on Istikal Caddesi you'll feel transported back to the West. This is the place to come for casual lokantas and meyhanelers (taverns) through to high-end, top-notch Anatolian cuisine and for pretty much everything in between. If you'd like a drink (and in some cases meal) with a view, then check out 5 Kat, 360, Mikla or (as I did) Leb-i Deyra (good luck trying to find it!). For a meal you'll probably have to book on Fridays/Saturdays but the view over to the old city is captivating. The second recommendation is for when you really don't think you can go any further than your Sultanhamet hotel lobby. Try to make it to Cooking Alaturka - a cooking school run by Dutch-born Eveline Zoutendijk. She specializes in teaching and preparing wonderful local cuisine and you'll get a four-course meal. She can adapt it for pesky vegetarians like myself and the results were wonderful. You'll find her on Akbiyik Caddesi 72a and is well worth the visit. Try for lunchtime though as she's not always open in the evenings. Of course there are many other foods to be sampled in Istanbul. I've already mentioned the infamous kebap and it is also renowned for its fish, so meat-eaters will be spoilt for choice. Enjoy - and if you'd like to know more, please contact me!

The magic of Dubrovnik

15 April 2015

I've had the fortune to visit Dubrovnik twice and it truly is the Pearl of the Adriatic as Byron once said. The walled centre is dazzling marble with a shock of red roof tiles and can often be wall to wall with people, but there's usually somewhere quiet you can escape to. If you are able to stay within or just outside the town you get to experience it once the day-trippers have left - in the summer evenings it's often an assortment of music and parties mingling together, in the early mornings it has a peace and tranquillity that borders on the mystical. Whilst the old town (Stari Grad) is relatively tiny, within the walls everything else seems magnified to compensate; the enormous entrance gates - now displaying information relating to the devastation of the city during the Yugoslavian civil war; the regal Placa - Dubrovnik's promenade that cuts a swathe of marble through the centre; the ornate domes and facades of the many churches, convents and palaces; and, of course, the walls themselves which are definitely worth the entrance fee to walk around. There are a lot of sights packed into Dubrovnik; an ancient pharmacy, a monastery, synagogue, the beautiful Onofrio fountains, Venetian style churches (Dubrovnik was once under Venetian authority) and palaces. The thought-provoking War Photo Limited is most definitely worth a visit. Outside the walls you can find a spot to sunbathe (if you're able to find the fabled Buza bar you can even go through the wall to do this!), take a tour by kayaks or take the ferry over to Lokrum island for an escape to a bit of greenery. The old town has a wide number of places to eat and drink and the general rule of thumb is to get better quality move further away from the Placa - for fresh fish the old harbor is clearly the way to go. And the best place for a sundowner? Has to be the Buza. And how do you get there? If you ask me nicely, I might tell you...

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