Month: April 2016

Why You Should Visit Fox Glacier – South Island, NZ

Glaciers. One of mother nature’s most extreme and fascinating natural wonders. Thanks to global warming, there’s a limited possibility for most people to see them, let alone walk on them. If (like me) you were incessantly bored by them in school geography lessons, you’d be forgiven for not jumping at the chance to visit one now.

As someone who doesn’t have warm hands unless I’m on a beach holiday or washing up – both of which are quite rare –  visiting a glacier wasn’t necessarily at the top of my to-do list, but I’d now tell anyone visiting any-way near New Zealand’s Glaciers to make sure they stop off and take the trip to walk on the glacier.

It’s simply a must and here’s why:

The glacial valley is pretty stunning.

Massive transit-van sized hunks of glacial ice just sitting around? Ice cold glacial river crossable only by rubber dingy? Flat-bottomed valley created by years of ice erosion?

It makes for a pretty impressive landscape and is something you really should see with your own eyes!

fox glacier valley

View of the glacier from the valley floor, once the rain had stopped!

It’s one of the most accessible glaciers in the world.

You can take a 2 hour guided tour from the visitor’s centre (as we did) which consists of a quick scenic drive in a minibus to the car park and a 45 minute trek to the terminal face of the glacier – pretty quick and great if you’re impatient like me!

Depending on the current situation of the river, you might need to cross the water on a raft tethered by a piece of string – a little bit of added excitement!

Alternatively you could take to the skies in a helicopter to get above the glacier for an arial view. Some of the helicopter trips land on the glacier further up the valley so you don’t necessarily miss out on walking on the glacier if you do that! It is more expensive though!

fox glacier river raft

It’s literally string tied to a rock on either side the prevents you getting pulled down the valley by the ice-cold river

If you’re feeling brave, you can skydive over it.

Now there’s a better way of getting that arial view!

The skydive over Fox glacier has been voted the second most scenic skydive in the world (behind Everest!) so if you bottled it in Queenstown, you’ve got a chance to redeem yourself here!

You get to wear crampons.

That’s enough on it’s own really! There’s something pretty cool about pretending to be a real-life explorer, even if you’re only ever a 45 minute walk from a van and an hour from a hot meal. String up the crampons and crunch into the ice as you climb up onto the surface of one of the few glaciers left in the world – like the badass you always knew you were!

Fox glacier Crampons

I think I did a fine job of tying the crampons with no assistance and with cold hands. Yes. Quite proud. 

You might be able to go under the ice itself!

If you can put aside the claustrophobia and the fear of being crushed under the gargantuan weight of the glacial ice then you can pretend to be Pingu for a few minutes and peek up at the sky from your own private naturally-formed ice-room!

n.b. If you’re like me and terrified by the thought of being trapped under the ice, you could hover in the entrance to the ice-cave instead (see header image).

fox glacier ice hole

The view from inside the ice-cave. Credit to Mr Spence. 

The sheer scale

We all know glaciers are big, but nothing prepared me for the sheer scale of the ice, the valley and the cracks in the glacier’s surface! It’s bloomin’ massive.

fox glacier ice crack

A big-ass hole in the ice!

The sound.

If you listen carefully you can hear the glacier creaking under its own weight as it melts and shifts. It’s pretty eerie and makes it sound like it is somehow alive.

The rush of cold air

What you don’t get from a geography lesson is the feel of standing at the terminal moraine. When you’re there, the cold air rushes down the valley- cooled further by the surface of the ice. It’s quite strange!

The photos are cool

With New Zealand’s 4-seasons-in-a-day weather and stunning natural landscape, the photo opportunities, even for amateurs like me who only know how to point-and-shoot, are not to be missed!

fox glacier valley sunset

Epic valley views? Yes please. 

 

Your kids might never have this opportunity

We know, we know. The glaciers are melting, global warming, etc etc.

It sounds like a rant, but the time to experience the glaciers is NOW! At this rate, it’s possible (according yo our guide) that by the end of this century the Fox glacier will have receded fully, so there really is a time limit on being able to enjoy it!

That’s a wrap.

So get yourself down to the glaciers edge. You won’t regret it!

glacier in ice

Toodle-pip.

 P.S. See more South Island NZ destinations here!

 

 

 

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4 Nights in New York City – Late September

Everyone should visit New York City at some point in their lives. Whether you’re a fan of big cities or not, the experience is one not to be missed. I have an ‘adventure book’ which is like a bucket list – only with a less morbid title! Having a shopping spree in NYC was on my list, so when we were planning our US road trip, we decided to stop off in the city  en route to Vegas.

There’s so much to do in New York that it can be difficult to prioritise when you only have a few days – we focussed our attention on the stuff we knew we couldn’t do somewhere else (except the shopping of course)!

Here’s what we did in our 4 nights in the Big Apple, and the approximate time we allowed for each activity!

Staten Island Ferry (25 mins each way)

Definitely take the ferry. There’s no excuse, because it is FREE! The ride over to Staten Island boasts great views of the Statue of Liberty and of Lower Manhatten and the return journey can be done in less than an hour. A cracking deal if you ask me!

Ground Zero (30 mins without the museum)

There’s something about ground zero which makes you feel both irreconcilably sad and grateful at the same time. Visit to pay your respects and to take a quiet moment of contemplation.

Shopping & Sample Sales

Shopping is good anywhere but what sets New York apart is the sample sales and Century 21 department stores. Century 21 is a discount department store, so expect to find heavily discounted mid – high range designer clothes and bags. Think Michael Kors through to Kate Spade right through to Hermes!

Check out the dates and locations of sample sales online before you go so you can get some REAL bargains. I picked up two designer dresses and one designer bag for the equivalent of £125 from the Rent the Runway sample sale. One dress alone was worth £800 new, so it was quite the bargain!

Yankees Game (1 evening – 3-4 hours)

We were lucky enough to be in town when the Yankees played the Red Sox – a classic clash!

We only bought the tickets 2 hours prior to the game and we able to leave it so late because they were printable e-tickets that we collected from the Times Square StubHub office. We had been periodically checking prices throughout the day and saw that they were falling drastically the closer we got to the game. We ended up getting reasonable seats for $12 each – much cheaper than the $50 each the hotel wanted for tickets to the same game, in the bleachers (worst seats in the stadium)! I would thoroughly recommend checking StubHub for any ticket requirements you might have when you’re in New York.

Getting to the stadium is a doddle on the subway  and the atmosphere was great – just follow the crowds when you get to the right stop (161 street) and you can’t miss the stadium!

New York Yankees Game

Grand Central Station (20 mins-ish)

It’s a pretty nice building, and quite iconic, so if you’re in the city it makes sense to go and see it with your own eyes! Pop in, have a wander around and take some pictures!

Times Square (1 hour – ish)

This place is strange! I’d head there at night so you get the buzz from the hustle, bustle and bright lights but be prepared for a lot of people traffic! The restaurants in the area can be expensive (and I was told a little bit tacky) so we didn’t eat there, but you could if you wanted to as there is plenty of choice.

There’s loads of people about, shops and street performers. The giant babies were pretty creepy and I question the necessity of some not-so-blessed women being topless for no apparent reason, but other than that it’s a good experience!

New York times square

The bright lights of Times Square at night

 

Brooklyn Bridge (30 min walk)

Another iconic structure in the city, the Brooklyn bridge is a great photo opportunity, and if you have time to walk over there are apparently a lot of really good breakfast places at the other side. We opted to walk part-way over before turning to back because the weather was turning bad, we were hungry and we were tired!

We still managed to snap a few photos before taking the subway back to the hotel!

Brooklyn bridge

 

Top of The Rock & Empire State Building (2 hours)

If you only get time to go to the top of one of these epic skyscrapers, make sure it’s the Top of the Rock. It offers exceptional views of the city and of the Empire State building (which of course, you don’t get if you’re on top of it). Book before you go and print off the e-ticket for less queuing on the day.

empire state building

View downtown from the Top of the Rock

 

Breakfast @ Sarabeth’s (1-2 hours)

Sitting opposite the bottom of Central Park is Sarabeths’. Whilst not cheap, it’s worth spending a little more for the experience. Head there for an impeccable breakfast before wandering around the park.

Expect the fluffiest pancakes, the most perfect eggs benedict and excellent service in classic and elegant surroundings. Just lush!

Pancakes sarabeths

Amazing pancakes courtesy of Sarabeths, near central park

 

Central park (2 hours)

A visit to New York wouldn’t be complete without a wander around Central park! We saved the experience for the last day, by which time we were ready to escape the busy city and get some peace and quiet.

Expect to see lots of joggers, birds, squirrels and bikes. You might also see some filming! We observed the filming of the TV commercial for TV series ‘Two Broke Girls’, which involved people running around the park dressed as giant cupcakes!

Squirrel central park

Getting Around

From JFK, getting the train into the city is easy-peasy and in the daytime it’s probably quicker than a taxi. The locals are exceptionally friendly and helpful, so if you get lost on the way to your hotel then just ask someone! If your phone provider allows it, it’s worth signing up to overseas data so you can use Google maps when you’re out and about.

Walking is clearly the way a lot of the locals get around in New York. There were a lot of professionally dressed people wearing trainers or flip flops who would presumably then switch to heels or shoes when they arrived at the office.

We walked a lot whilst we were there – partly so we didn’t miss any views, and partly so we could use it as an excuse to eat more food. Don’t underestimate the time it takes to walk 1 or 2 blocks though, waiting for pedestrian crossings is very time consuming! We enjoyed walking and took different routes each day so we covered most of the city bit-by-bit, stopping off to look in shops and for drinks!

If you don’t fancy the walk or simply want to get there faster – take the subway. Tickets are reasonably priced and the subway lines run underneath the streets above, so navigating is much easier than the London tube! Expect to see ‘subway performers’ who might randomly burst into song or dance before asking politely for a donation. The ones we saw were brilliant, and quite frankly I’d rather they did that than beg or steal, so we happily put a couple of dollars in the hat!

new york subway train

 

Food (all the time…)

There’s a few must-try foods in NYC. Pizza is on the list. Buy it by the slice and try and few different toppings! Cheesecake is another – as in the NY baked variety! Also, if you’re a van of ‘Cake Boss’ get yourself down to Carlo’s Bakery to sample a Cannoli. They are as good as they claim!

pizza new york

This was apparently the best kosher pizza in NYC

 

Where did we stay?

We stayed at the Hudson, near Columbus Circle and not far off the bottom left corner of Central Park – a cracking location for exploring the city on foot or using the subway!

What did we skip?!

Broadway

We considered going to watch a show on Broadway, but there wasn’t really anything we were overly fussed about seeing. As planned, we went to the ‘Tkts’ stand under the steps in Times Square to check out the ast minute bargains, but nothing caught our eye!

Statue of Liberty

Having been on the Staten Island ferry on a clear day and had a pretty decent view of the Statue of Liberty, we didn’t feel the need to go and visit simply to climb up the inside.

Empire State Building

On the same basis, we didn’t bother going to the top of the Empire State building. We’d already experienced a cracking view of the New York skyline via Top of The Rock, so felt like it would be duplicating an experience!

Ground Zero Museum 

I simply would have found the experience too sad, so avoided it.

Would I go back?!

I would definitely go back to New York – perhaps at Christmas or for New Year, so see the city in a different season!

The 5 Week Wanderer

3 Nights in Queenstown, New Zealand

Arriving

Arriving in Queenstown is pretty straightforward, but we were very nearly diverted to Christchurch due to bad weather. There were really bad crosswinds and if I hadn’t been so jet-lagged I would have been terrified when we were approaching the runway of the tiny Queenstown airport whilst facing the nearby mountains. Although this town had been labelled the adrenaline capital of the world, I wasn’t expecting the excitement to begin before we even touched down. After that, they closed the airport and no further planes were allowed to take off or land!

Queenstown airport is just a 10 minute taxi ride to the town centre, so once you’ve wandered through the airport (which is tiny) it won’t be long until you’re at your hotel!

We didn’t do as much as we should have whilst we herein Queenstown, but we’re some of the highlights!

 

Skydive

I had only been married for a week and I was about to chuck myself out of a place. Queue marriage-related jokes.

Despite watching the experienced staff pack both my main parachute and a reserve chute, I was exceptionally nervous – the kind of nervous that makes tears form in your eyes whilst you grin like the Cheshire Cat and your legs twitch uncontrollably. Not the best look.

I don’t remember the walk to the plane, nor the ascent to way-beyond the clouds. In the blink of a watery eye, I was strapped tightly to the front of a man who – until 15 minutes ago – I had never met, then suddenly the whole left side of the small propeller-plane was pushed to one side and my new acquaintance and I shuffled awkwardly to the edge of the fuselage.

I peeled my eyes open in an effort to ensure I didn’t miss any detail of New Zealand’s legendary landscape whilst repeatedly swallowing the ball of terror forcing its way up from the pit of my stomach.

The weight of the bloke strapped to my back forced my body to accelerate much faster than my gut was prepared for. The view was ridiculous and the 60 second 200kph free-fall was such a buzz! The parachute part was much more gentle and a massive relief. My landing lacked finesse and was slightly un-dignified but I was just glad I’d made it back in one piece!

I did my skydive with the uber-popular “N-zone” and honestly couldn’t recommend the experience more!

Queenstown Skydive

Just casually dropping out of the sky!

Jet Boat Ride

For a relatively small fee, you can hop into a super-fast jet boat and be thrown about to within an inch of your life, all for fun! The trip takes you around the lake and up the rivers (through some ridiculously shallow water) and a few rapids. It’s great fun but be prepared to get wet and don’t forget your sunglasses (for the brightness and to protect from getting water in your eyes)!

We went on the KJet – a nice feature of the boat was that it had heated hand rails, which for someone like me who always has cold hands, is a huge blessing!

Kjet queenstown

Clearly I didn’t take this photo.

 

Fergburger

Queenstown’s legendary burger joint is known to have queues all the way around the block at peak times. Make sure you get yourself down there at some point to sample their cracking nosh. Don’t expect to get a seat unless you’re willing to eat at an unusual time. Instead, grab the burger to go and sit on the wall on the  water’s edge. Make sure you put your rubbish in the bin- I accidentally lost my burger wrapper and felt very guilty as it was the only piece of litter I saw in New Zealand!

Fergburger queenstown

Enjoying the first bit of my massive burger

 

Hiking Trails

There are loads of hiking trails starting in Queenstown – we decided to try and run one of them, but the uphill terrain got the better of us. We ran in and around town a few times, and round the outskirts of the lake instead, since we were clearly not fit enough to tackle the hills!

Queenstown Remarkables

The view from one of many the hiking trails beginning in Queenstown

Steak

The fillet steak at Lone Star was so good it deserves a mention. It’s in my top 5 steaks in the world, which is currently topped by a still –on-the-bone caveman-worthy whopper steak that we stumbled across whilst we were stranded in Death Valley by the flash floods.

Lone star Steak queenstown

Cracking fillet steak.

Booking Activities

A helpful local couple pointed us in the direction of bookme.nz and we used it to book the KJet and also to look for activities further along our route. Definitely worth a look as there were some bargains on there!

What did we miss?

We were so tired when we arrived from Hong Kong that we spent a lot of time chilling out in Queenstown and we also suffered as a consequence of eating street food from the markets in Hong Kong before we flew to NZ.

Given this was our first major trip, we were also guilty of not really planning as well as we could have done! If we went back again, which I’m sure we will do, here’s what I’d have on my list:

  1. The canyon swing – a terrifying swing across a canyon, as it says in the title really.
  2. A bungee jump. Now I’ve done the skydive, I would like to try a bungee! I would only really feel confident trying it somewhere like NZ, where safety standards are high!
  3. Kayaking on the lake
  4. Snowboarding on the Remarkables. I admit I didn’t even know the remarkable were a thing until I saw them. Simply beautiful.

Would I go back?

I would go back tomorrow! Queenstown is without a doubt one of my favourite places in the world!

The 5 Week Wanderer

 

Planning a trip to Queenstown?

Check out my holiday planning page for tips on cramming in as much action as possible!

 

 

 

2 Night Stop – Hong Kong

Hong Kong is for many a destination in it’s own right, but for the time pressed traveller it can be an excellent place to stop on route to another far-away destination.

We were travelling to New Zealand, Sydney and Bali for our Honeymoon and decided upon Hong Kong Airport as our ‘hub’. We would pass through the airport a total of 5 times in those three weeks so it made total sense to nip outside of the airport and actually experience the place itself – sort of like a ‘freebie destination’ if you will!

So what does a jet-lagged, overexcited traveller do with 2 nights in Hong Kong?

If you’re anything like us, we wanted to do everything and absorb as much of the culture as we could possible manage! We had the evening when we arrived, then one full day, then the following morning to explore all that the city and island had to offer…

Here’s the low down of our Hong Kong experience – which was in fact the first time we had been on this kind of ‘exploring’ trip! The time in brackets is how long we spent on this particular activity.

How did we get there and where did we stay?

Hong Kong’s public transport is a doddle to use and excellent value for money. We wandered away from baggage re-claim and easily boarded the airport link train which took us right into the city. From there, we hopped onto the free shuttle bus (part of the ‘airport express’ service) which dropped us right outside the front door of our hotel! Easy peasy. I would completely recommend it, and even as a newbie traveller it was not in the slightest bit stressful or intimidating.

We were staying at the Eaton Hotel, which is on Nathan Road in Kowloon – a cracking location for exploring the city by foot. The room (a deluxe room) was very small, but our tour guide later explained that this is normal due to overcrowding in the city – space is at a premium!

One thing to note – possibly unrelated – is that it’s well worth telling the hotel or travel agent that you’re on honeymoon (if you are – I’m not saying make it up). You’ll find that there’s a good chance of free fizz, chocolates and fruit in your room when you arrive at your hotel. I count that as a bit of a win.

Avenue of the Stars (1 hour)

It’s worth a wander down to the Avenue of the Stars, especially in the evening when there is a vibrant atmosphere around the water’s edge. It’s worth a look, but there’s not actually much to do there apart from looking and snapping pictures of yourself with your hands in the handprints of the stars!

avenue of the stars hong kong

Obligatory Jackie Chan handprint photo.

Symphony of Lights (30 mins)

Every evening at 8pm, approx 40 buildings on the opposite side of Victoria Harbour (i.e. the island side) team up to put on a light display for 10-15 minutes which is usually accompanied by music of some kind!

Grab a seat on the wall that runs between the harbour and the avenue of the stars and wait for the show to begin! It’s free, so worth sticking around for if you happen to be in the area, but was less spectacular than it could have been due to a smoggy mist hanging in the bay on the night we were there!

Hong Kong Island Tour (1/2 a day)

We pre-booked a tour on the recommendation of our Trailfinders advisor. It was cheap as chips – like £40 each or something- so it made sense to go on the tour because it was as cheap as getting a taxi round the island anyway! Our tour was operated by Tour East and included the main island attractions: Victoria Peak, Repulse Bay, Stanley Market and Aberdeen fishing village.

hong kong jumbo restaurant

Massive floating restaurant amongst the house-boats. Pretty random.

Our guide was awesome – she told us ‘off the record’ facts like how much rent she was paying and how much more it would cost to live in the different buildings we drove past. The only thing to be mindful of was ‘up-selling’ like when we visited the Jade factory – the hosts showed us how the jewellery was crafted but then tried to sell us some. I think it comes with the territory really, but if you’re offended by that kind of thing then perhaps a more ‘exclusive’ tour would be more your thing!

Victoria peak and the tram down should not be missed. I’m not sure I’ll ever be on a tram which descends a mountain at that angle ever again. Unfortunately the hong-kong-smog had descended again and the ‘spectacular view’ from the Peak was significantly obscured for the whole duration of our visit. Thankfully there was a poster up there showing what the view was supposed to look like. No stunning photograph opportunities for us, but well worth making the trip up there for a wander around and to take the tram down.

Victoria Peak Hong Kong View

Dammit, mist!!!

Another funny thing about the tour was the fact that  everyone on the coach had a picture taken at some point during the day by ‘Simon’ who was the secondary tour guide. We only realised what it was for when we arrived back at the coach for the return journey to the hotels – the tour guide had printed everyone’s faces onto customised china display plates, and was attempting to sell them to the relevant people for HKD 250 each – around £20.

Not a single person on the coach bought one, so the poor bloke had around 20 awful looking plates to take back to the office that night. I do wonder whether he has more success usually.

Afternoon & Evening Markets (3-4 hours)

I love a good market, especially those which include food. Despite warnings from friends and more experienced travellers, I was keen to taste the local food and that included sea urchin dumplings from a corner stall. Perhaps not the wisest decision given I would be on another long flight to New Zealand within 48 hours, but worth it for the taste! Excellent nosh.

The hustle and bustle of the markets at sunset was brilliant. We bought a few small souvenirs (little porcelain cats) for our friends and family. I also bought two tops from the ladies market which came to a grand total of HKD 20 after I put to work my excellent haggling skills. When I worked out later that this was the equivalent of £3.30, I did feel a bit bad for the stall owner!

hong kong ladies markets

Hong Kong Ladies Market at night. Note the low canopies not designed for tall people.

After wandering around the markets for several hours, we decided to grab some more street food. This time is was some fish balls, grilled octopus, cod roe dumplings and a large sausage-type-thing! All of it tasted amazing.

hong kong street food tasting

Thinking “not sure this is a good idea before a long flight” and eating it anyway.

Jade Market (2 minutes if you’re not one for the hard-sell!)

We went to the jade market to check out some of the craftsmanship having heard good things from the locals. We were in there for all of around 30 seconds when we were pounced upon by several stall owners at once who were trying to put jewellery on any uncovered part of my body and pull me over to their stall whilst giving me their best sales pitch.

I’m not one for an infringement of the personal space rule, so I politely (obviously) shook off the jewellery, said thanks and shot back out of the market gate. Phew. Never again.

hong kong jade market

Pretty pleased with myself having escaped the grasps of over-enthusiastic jewellery sellers in the jade market.

McDonalds (!)

I don’t normally eat fast food, and McDonalds wouldn’t be my first choice of food back in the UK. McDonalds in Hong Kong though – totally different! It’s like a proper cafe (McCafe, in fact) and served excellent coffee and delectable cakes such as macarons! My favourite hot drink – a green tea latte- was cheap as chips, so I was happy to grab breakfast there when we slept in… again.

Expect to be troubled at your table by ‘beggars’ asking for food or money. This was something I wasn’t prepared for but quickly because accustomed to in the fast food places in the city.

Green tea latte

A nice surprise from ‘McCafe’ – a green tea latte!

Kowloon Park (1 hour or so)

Just off Nathan Road is the somewhat calmer Kowloon Park. Head there for a welcome break from the craziness of the city. There’s often groups of people practising tai chi  which is quite interesting to watch!

If you’re feeling up to it, try the Kowloon Park fitness trail – a 500m route with 8 exercise stations dotted around it. It’s designed so that it can be used by the young through to the elderly, so you can imagine how crappy I felt when I couldn’t do the ‘easy’ versions of the instructed moves!

hong kong kowloon park

Trying to look professional at the monkey bars. Unfortunately, that’s as far as I got.

Dim Sum (2 hours)

love dim sum. We asked one of the hotel staff where we could go to sample some good local dim sum and he pointed us in the direction of the ‘Cheers Dim Sum‘ restaurant.

We fundamentally didn’t grasp the idea of dim sum (being that it is more of a light snack than a large meal) and ordered enthusiastically from the menu. The menu wasn’t in English, so we relied on the pictures heavily.

Our server laughed when he placed down the 10th plate on our table. We were looked upon by the locals as if we were a museum exhibit as we waded our way through our tremendous feast of dim sum. It was incredible, and an absolute bargain!

What Else?

The remainder of our time was spent generally wandering around, taking pictures, stopping for drinks and food – typical touristy things! It’s not the kind of place where you would be short of things to do for a few days but I can’t say I would stay much longer than 2 or three nights because I think that was enough time to see the main attractions!

If we had another day then we might have gone to see Mickey Mouse at Hong Kong Disney, but we were so excited about getting to New Zealand that after 2 days were ready to move on.

Two Giants

At 5″10′ without my afro hair, I’m used to having to buy my jeans from the ‘Tall’ section of Topshop and used to sitting with my legs at an angle on every form of public transport. Despite this, when I’m at home I’m actually comparably small since my husband is 6″4′.

Sure – we realise that we’re both tall but never have I felt taller than walking the streets of Hong Kong! This was compounded by locals telling us we were ‘very big’ and pointing out that we might benefit from their tailoring services as we would probably struggle to fit in the clothes from the shops. Thanks guys.

Would I go back?

I really enjoyed my time in Hong Kong and it was an excellent stop-over but for us but not a destination in it’s own right. This is especially true if you have to travel 12 hours to get there! For that reason I probably wouldn’t go back unless I needed to visit somewhere nearby and had some time to kill. I’d probably try flying through another long distance hub (maybe Dubai?!) and see what they had to offer!

ARE YOU PLANNING A TRIP?

Head over to my travel planning page for hints and tips on how to maximise the benefit of your annual leave!

The 5 Week Wanderer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Not to Miss: San Francisco

If you only have a few days in the city by the bay, make sure you spend them in the best possible way. Boom. Poetry.

Here’s a some of the un-missable San Francisco experiences (and an indication of the time we allowed for them when we did them)…

Tree Hugging Anyone? (1-2 hours)

If you’re coming in from Yosemite then it’s a good shout to take a small diversion to Muir Woods on the way to the city. There is free parking, friendly deer and it is home to some pretty big-ass trees. Stop at the visitor’s centre for a small dose of local history and then take the small boardwalk path around the forest and try-but-fail to wrap your hands around a massive tree trunk, like every other tourist before you.

muir woods tree

Bloomin’ Massive Tree – Muir Woods

Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge (2 minutes)

What better way to arrive in the city than by driving over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge?

Given that it is one of the city’s most iconic structures, it felt only right to arrive in the city by driving over it, despite the fact that you have to pay for the 2 minute privilege. The view was well worth the toll charge which is around $7 and is payable online or through your car hire company later who will automatically re-charge you when they get the bill (yes, unfortunately they had my credit card details).

Golden Gate Bridge

Oh Heyyyy, Golden Gate bridge!

Shopping. A must-do in any city. (2-4 hours)

We arrived mid afternoon and set out to explore Union Square almost straight away. Whilst the shops in Union Square are good it is worth noting that they are mostly chains, so if you’ve come from New York and/or Vegas (as we did) then you’ve probably seen most of the stock already! That didn’t stop me looking again, much to the joy of my Husband…

Head to Marshalls for significant discounts on brands. I got myself a rather snazzy Michael Kors Leather Jacket for less than $230 and a pair of Michael Kors shoes for around $50. I had to trust that I would lose my ‘America weight’ when I got home and that the jacket would then fasten at the front.

It’s a good idea to end the shopping spree in Macy’s so you can work your way up to the Cheesecake Factory. It lived up to it’s reputation for having a huge menu, as well as a huge array of cheesecakes…and a huge queue for a table! We waited approx 30 mins at around 7pm, which isn’t too tedious when you’re clutching a mojito and taking in the views over the square at night.

shopping san francisco

The Haul, including the one-size-too-small leather jacket.

The Exploratorium (2-4 hours)

Ever wished museums were actually fun? Consider your wish granted. It’s as if The Exploratorium was the brain child of Willy Wonka and Inspector Gadget. Think mind-boggling, touchy-feely interactive exhibits which assault your senses and have you wishing you’d taken science more seriously at school. If geeking-out could ever be cool, this place is a close as it comes.

There are many reasons why a visit to the Exploratorium is a must if you have a couple of hours free – especially if you can get yourself there on a Thursday night for the after dark session, when entry is permitted for adults only and alcoholic drinks are available for purchase!

If you’re lucky, you might find yourself there on a night when one of their ‘Pairings’ events are on. Pairings is an innovative way of bringing science and food together, with guest speakers and free tasters of food and drink! It’s included in the entry price and is well worth checking out! The theme on our pairings night was apples, so we tasted a delicious apple based salad and a variety of Ciders (or ‘Hard Cider’ as it’s referred to stateside).

Alcatraz Island Tour (2-4 hours)

Normally the idea of getting up early, boarding a boat in the cold morning mist and wandering around derelict buildings on an island designed to deter people wouldn’t be my cup-of-tea. Alcatraz is the exception. All of the guide books suggest a visit here and I wouldn’t disagree. The tour is guided with a headset so you can roam freely without having to stop to read things all of the time. That’s great, but in busy spots there was a bit of a wait to see the exhibit (like a specific prison cell) so we did have to pause the tape on occasions.

Unfortunately for me, cups of tea and sweets inside the prison grounds are not permitted. Be prepared to scoff or bin your snack stash when you get off the ferry! Book at least 6 weeks in advance to avoid tickets being sold out.

Pedal Power! (1-8 hours)

I don’t have a bike in the UK because I don’t have anywhere to store it, but that didn’t stop me or my Husband hopping on and touring the bay on two wheels. Once we remembered how ride, we cycled over the bridge and back again. Another option is to cycle over, head to Sausalito and get the ferry back to the city. We chose to cycle back and used the bikes to explore some of that end of the city (we got lost).

Hiring bikes was easy on the pier front despite it being a busy weekend. It was good value and cycle routes are clearly marked and easy to follow.

cycling san francisco

After cycling for a few minutes, I figured I’d earned those nachos.

China Town (20 mins +)

We walked through China town a few times during the morning markets. There were lots of shops offering ‘touristy’ type souvenirs, so we bought a Golden Gate Bridge fridge magnet for around $3 (it might be a bit sad, but we always buy a fridge magnet from the places we visit).

The atmosphere was a little bit chaotic and exhausting with the heat and the hills, so we didn’t stop there for long despite having heard that there were some fantastic buffet restaurants in the area! Despite not sticking around, it’s definitely worth nipping to this part of town for a splash of alternative culture.

Fleet Week (1 week event)

We happened to be in town for San Francisco’s 2015 Fleet Week. This was actually unplanned, but a massive stroke of luck. There was a carnivalesque atmosphere the whole time we were in the city and there were air shows on Saturday and Sunday, including a star appearance from the Blue Angels which we were able to watch from the bridge!

There were live bands on Pier 39 and the whole Fisherman’s Wharf area was filled with military vehicles and personnel. The bay was packed with military vessels and spirits were high! If you’re heading out there in October – it’s well worth checking whether you could align your stay with fleet week!

The Embarcadero & Markets (1-2 hours)

If you’re a fan of food and craft markets, check out what’s going on down at the Embarcadero Centre. It’s the kind of place where you struggle to decide where to grab breakfast from because all of the food stalls and cafés pull you in with aromas of sausages, bacon, artisan breads and cheeses.  Grab a little snack from a few places to-go and wander down the waterfront enjoying the view.

Pier 39 & Fisherman’s Wharf (1-2 hours)

This is the main ‘touristy’ area of the city and where you’ll find a host of bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. We ate there twice for lunch.

The first time we went to the Eagle Cafe where we ate AMAZING seafood. When asked what type of oysters we wanted we asked for a surprise because we didn’t know what any of the options were, and given it was only the second time either of us had tried oysters – we quite frankly didn’t care.

The second time, we ate at Bubba Gump Shrimp, where we failed the Forrest Gump quiz in a tremendously bad fashion. Stunning views, seaside smells and good food make it worth a visit.

Oysters at Eagle Cafe, Pier 39, San Francisco

The ‘Surprise Me’ Oysters courtesy of the oyster bar at the Eagle Cafe

 

Palace of Fine Arts (30 mins+)

For it’s sheer beauty, this place is worth more than a passing glance. Tag it on to your cycle trip over the bridge as it’s not far off-route, but be aware that you’ll have to dismount your bike when you arrive as cycling is not permitted. You’ll want to make sure your camera is charged for this one!

Palace of fine arts san francisco

Apparently one of the most romantic places in the world. Wit-woo. 

What about the trams?

We didn’t need to get the tram anywhere, and I think you see more of the trams when you’re outside the carriage so unless you’re desperate to go on one, don’t worry about missing out on the tram experience. You’ll have plenty of photo ops when a crammed carriage passes you in the street!

How could you leave out the famous Lombard Street?

We went. We saw. We were somewhat underwhelmed.

It took us 30 minutes walking up and down hills in the heat to arrive at Lombard Street and although it’s very pretty and very wiggly, I wouldn’t go again unless I happened to be passing. In a taxi.

Considering a late night?

Don’t bother. Unlike Las Vegas and New York, San Francisco is a city which does sleep, and it turns out it goes to bed pretty early. We tried to get dinner reservations at 10pm and the hotel concierge sort of politely chuckled. He came through though, by sending us for one of the best (and best value) meals of the holiday – a curry at Punjab Kabab House, who were more than happy to feed us after a long day exploring the city. Definitely one to check out!!

A quick nod to the less fortunate.

It doesn’t take a detective to realise that homelessness is a real problem in the city. We were surprised by the amount of people ‘begging’ on the streets everywhere we went in the USA but it certainly seemed more prevalent in San Francisco. If you don’t feel comfortable giving people loose change (well, you don’t know what they’re doing with it to be fair) then perhaps a little compassion could be extended in some other way.

Each time we left a restaurant without finishing the meal (pretty much every night), we asked for the leftovers to be packaged as a take-away and then gave them to the next homeless person we came across. Not once was the gesture rejected, and there’s something extremely humbling about hearing a homeless man declare “Oh Yeaahhhhh – fig rolls!!” as you continue the walk back to your 4* hotel.

Are you planning a visit to the city on the bay?

Head over to my travel planning page for hints and tips on how to maximise the benefit of your annual leave!

The 5 Week Wanderer

 

Holiday Maximisation Part 1.0

Sounds like a bullshit term. It probably is, because I made it up and I’m not in marketing – I’m in Finance. In fact it sounds like something fraudulent and if it said anything other than ‘holiday’, I probably wouldn’t read it. And at this point I don’t know whether there will ever be a ‘2.0’…

So what the hell does it mean?

If I have unlimited time to complete a task, typically it will take me much longer to complete than it needed to because I am an excellent procrastinator. If I have a list of chores and a week to complete the tasks then it will take me a week. If you tell me I only have 10 hours then 9.5 hours later I will have finished my chores.

By no means am I likening the trip of a lifetime to household chores, but I am trying to explain how it is that I know I can plan a kick-ass trip and make sure I see everything I want to, despite my limited time-frame!

Of course, it would be great to have several months to spend wandering around, discovering new places – who wouldn’t like to have more time on holiday?! The point here is if – like me- you only have three weeks for each trip, then you need to connect with your inner Monica Geller and put on your organising hat. Holiday maximisation requires advanced planning. You need to become an expert vacation planner!

Aren’t all holidays planned in Advance?

Obviously holidays are planned in advance, but the difference for the 5 week wanderer type is that in order to be able to enjoy more of the things you want to see, the travel planning needs to be a little more involved.

It’s a nice idea to ‘wing it’. I find the idea of just arriving in a place and scoping it out quite romantic, but in reality it often ends up with half a day wasted, tickets being sold-out and a meal in a crap ‘restaurant’ because you simply don’t know that you’re round the corner from the best food in town.

Holiday Planning Bali

That time in Bali when we ‘winged it’ and got in a taxi to a random place for the day, got a Starbucks and went back to the hotel. See confused face.

Holiday Maximisation Steps

The below list is a summary of how I’ve planned my last two 3-week holidays. I’ll be writing some more detailed posts in the travel planning section of this site and the below is not a comprehensive guide on how to plan a trip, but for now consider the following a ‘blueprint’:

  1. Agree timings and budget with fellow travellers (if there are any!). Check whether there are events in the area that you might want to go to (Carnival anyone?!) or avoid (world cup?! No thanks) and be mindful that these events change the price by quite a bit!
  2. Obtain authorisation for annual leave from work (this bit can take a while!)
  3. Get all the brochures, maps and guidebooks you can. Browse them and make notes. Highlight, doodle and sticky-tab the shit out of them
  4. When you have an idea of where you want to go, visit an appropriate travel agent (an expert in your type of trip, regardless of the price) so you can benefit from their knowledge and expertise
  5. Take away the quote and draft a rough holiday itinerary – can you fit in everything you want based on the dates / flight times they suggested and still have some ‘down-time’?
  6. Consider travel blogs and the advice of people you know who have already visited the place you’re travelling to. Remind people that you only have a short time so that they  recommend things in order of priority! Utilise TripAdvisor for travelling tips and reviews.
  7. Research online for price-competitiveness and select the best deal to save on travel. Don’t be afraid to book a trip in chunks, but understand the difference between packed holidays and non-packaged.
  8. BOOK IT! Tip – ask to purchase the flights and at least 2-3 nights accommodation together so it can be packaged so you only need to pay a deposit now instead of the full price for the flights.
  9. Sort out insurance, visas, passports, credit cards and the other boring stuff. You really do need these things to be a safe and legitimate tourist!
  10. Record everything in some kind of ‘trip planner’! I use a spreadsheet to record the total amount payable and what we have already paid, but you could doodle it on a napkin as long as you can refer to it later!
  11. Start booking your activities, especially the type which sell out (e.g. Alcatraz). Be mindful that things like sports events can actually be much cheaper on the day if you’re willing to take a gamble on them being available through a site like StubHub. If you are willing to wait until the day of the event, you could save money!
  12. Update your itinerary for the activities you have booked in advance.
  13. Become uncontrollably excited and begin the countdown to your trip!

Other ways to make the most of your limited time

You need to make sure that impact of the boring parts of the holiday is limited. Moving myself from place to place is the part of the holiday that I typical greet with much distain.

When I’m on the move, I want to make sure I spend the shortest amount of time possible in ‘joy-less transit’. By this I mean I want to take the most direct route possible to my destination (unless a scenic drive is part of the appeal of the trip).

An example is when we visited the Grand Canyon. We went from Vegas with two friends who were in Vegas at the same time we were.  We had two options if we wanted to put our feet down in the canyon itself: a 12 hour round coach trip through the desert or a 3.5 hour round helicopter trip with champagne breakfast in the canyon.

The coach trip was around £150 cheaper but we would have seen much less (no aerial view) and would have been out for 1 of the 4 days we had in Vegas, as opposed to being back by noon ready for a day out-and-about!

Untitled design-2

This was the view as we dropped down into the Grand Canyon in the Helicopter – Yes, the tiny red dots are the other helicopters!

It simply made sense to pay the additional £150 each to benefit from that view, the experience of being in a helicopter for the first time and to have the extra 8-10 hours that we then used to have a few drinks at the pool, visit the shopping malls, go out for food and have a nap before we hit the tables and ended the night in Hakkasan.

The underlying principle of  holiday maximisation is therefore getting the best value for money but also the best value for time…