Month: June 2016

Why I Love Sydney

I visited Sydney in 2014 on route from New Zealand to Bali. I was 2 weeks into my 3 week honeymoon and starting to dread the thought of the holiday being over! I’d had an amazing time in New Zealand and was concerned that wherever we went next wouldn’t measure up!

Still to this day, I’ve never met anyone who was disappointed with their visit to Sydney. Cities can be divisive – somewhat like Marmite – so It’s unusual to find a city that has something good to offer even the most choosy of travellers, but somehow Sydney manages it.

So what it is about this city which makes it so fabulous? Here’s the reasons I loved my 2 nights in Sydney, and perhaps why you should make time to add it into your itinerary if you’re heading any way near that region!

Fitness Isn’t Weird There

I love fitness and so does Sydney. There are runners everywhere, pools dotted around and a very concentrated level of gym-honed physiques amongst the population.

Fitness isn’t a chore for these Sydney-dwellers – it’s a way of life! I can’t help but think that if I spent more time there, I’d come back home looking and feeling much fitter than when I arrived.

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running trainers aren’t out of place in Sydney!

Bondi Beach

We visited Bondi on a relatively cool day in May, yet it was still akin to a breezy but hot UK summer’s day. We ran from the hotel to the beach and back – clocking up some 8 miles on my Garmin in the process.

We did of course stop to paddle in the ocean and to indulge in some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (and a brew) before the return leg of the journey. Initially we had planned to run the route from Bondi Beach to Coogie Beach, but after a couple of weeks of overindulgence and very little exercise, neither of us was fit enough to add any further mileage to the round trip!

Real estate in the Bondi Area is incredibly expensive. It’s easy to understand why when you consider the sweeping ocean views, surf scene and general chilled out vibe of the area. Who wouldn’t want a house there?!

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A rather empty Bondi Beach!

It’s Pretty

The Sydney Harbour boasts two of the world’s most iconic structures: the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. Both of these are attractively designed and well worth a visit. We took a ferry to darling harbour which goes under the bridge. This was one of the easiest and cheapest ways to get a good view of the bridge!

I considered climbing the bridge, but after the adrenaline rush of the skydive in new Zealand, decided I wouldn’t have gotten enough of a rush from it to dedicate the time to it when we only had 2 nights to explore the city! If I went back, I’d certainly consider it – especially the evening (or ‘twilight’) climb session!

The luscious green parks and the city, and indeed the contrast between the two also makes or a very picturesque landscape. Throw in the Australian sunshine and I imagine it’s pretty hard to be glum, even if you’re walking to work! Any city has a much better vibe when the sun is out. It’s as if the sunshine brings everything to life and all the irritations from the day evaporate. Imagine that but on an almost daily basis!

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IMAX

When we visited Sydney, the IMAX there was the largest IMAX screen in the world. The theatre seated c.1000 people, so it was much larger than any of the cinemas I’d been to in the UK! Going to the cinema isn’t something I would normally recommend on a holiday, but a visit to this IMAX is worth sparing a couple of hours from your itinerary!

Paddy’s Market

This is possibly the best place to buy a souvenir in the city. Given we love a bargain, we naturally headed to somewhere we could haggle to buy some more souvenirs! We bought a boomerang and the obligatory fridge magnet.

The Shopping is Cracking!

Shopping in Sydney is predictably good. High end boutiques line the streets at the Westfield centre, where you could easily lose half a day browsing the shops! Also at the Westfield centre is a cracking hot dog stall called the ‘snag stand’. Be Sure to check that out if you’ve worked up an appetite browsing the rails.

The shopping isn’t cheaper than the UK (no particular exchange rate saving) but isn’t particularly expensive either (unless you go to topshop, which seems to be priced as a ‘premium’ store in Aus)!

The People are AWESOME!

Everyone we met in Sydney was friendly. It’s such an embracing city and the people there have such a zest for life! It’s contagious. You find yourself chatting to people in the street, who happily chat back (rather than shooting you a strange look like they would do in London).

We asked one kind gent for directions and instead of pointing vaguely in the direction we should be heading, he offered to walk with us as he was heading in that direction! No that is friendly.

Where did we stay?

We stayed at the Victoria Court Hotel  in Potts Point  which was recommended to us by our agent at Trailfinders. The couple who own and run the hotel were great – they gave us loads of recommendations for food and things to do and were super-friendly! I’d definitely stay there again!

 

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Tips for Planning a Multi-Centre Trip

Let your wanderlust develop freely

A multi-centre trip is the opportunity of a lifetime. Few people are able to travel extensively due to cost, time or other restraints pressed upon us in adult life. Because of these limitations, it’s important to let yourself dream.

Let your imagination run wild and fuel your wanderlust by feeding it with the pages of guide books and snippets saved on pinterest!

It’s only by this browsing process that you can truly understand what you want from your trip and what’s available to you! If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up wanting to see and do almost everything so be prepared to have to prioritise!

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Choose your ‘main destination’ (and be flexible on the rest)

When you’ve settled on a ‘main destination’ or area, nail it down. This is the focus of your trip and once you set the ball rolling, ideally shouldn’t change!

For our honeymoon, our focus was the south island of New Zealand. Hong Kong, Sydney and Bali fell into place around that destination. We dedicated 10 of the 21 days to our ‘main destination’ and agreed this time would not be compromised!

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Use a professional

Whenever I’m considering a multi-stop holiday I take a trip to Trailfinders. The travel consultants there are well-travelled (it’s actually part of their training), passionate about travelling (so can share in your holiday-booking-buzz) and best of all, they know how to put together a realistic and balanced itinerary.

Take the time to go and bounce your ideas off someone who knows what they’re talking about – they might even have some ideas to improve your trip that you hadn’t really considered! When we booked our honeymoon to New Zealand, we hadn’t really planned on going to Sydney, but our advisor pointed out that it would actually make our flights cheaper to go via Sydney back to Hong Kong and that we could make it a 2-night stop over for a relatively low cost! Win!

Be mindful of where you might want to go next

Unless you never plan to travel again, you don’t need to cram all of your dream destinations into one trip! If you’re going to be traveling long haul, consider where you might want to stop over and try not to duplicate it with your next adventure.

When we went to New Zealand, we used Hong Kong as our ‘hub’ and stopped there for a couple of nights. We could have chosen to visit Dubai or Los Angeles instead, but we knew we wanted to do a Californian Fly-Drive holiday so decided LA could wait. We will undoubtedly visit New Zealand again and I have list of places I’d love to visit which could require a stop-over in Dubai, so Hong Kong was the natural choice!

Price check every hotel and flight

I know it sounds boring, but it’s really worth doing your homework when it comes to booking hotels. Follow the tips I’ve laid out in my post to make sure you get the best deal!

For flights, check the price for booking direct and compare it to the offer your travel agent has provided. You’ll need to be more hasty with flights though as they do tend to be cheaper if you book in plenty of time (especially if you’re going long-haul)!

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Package what you can

Package holidays offer a greater level of booking protection, but the main benefit of most packages is that you need not pay for it all up-front.

Typically, when you book flights and hotels separately, you’ll need to pay at the point of booking for your flights and then on check out for your hotels.

When you book a package, you’ll need to secure the booking with a deposit (typically around 10%) and then pay the remaining balance several week before your departure date.

If you’re booking a multi-destination trip there’s good chance there will be a few flights in your itinerary and therefore if you can book as a package, it’s much better for your personal cash flow!

Each travel agent has it’s own rules regarding packaging your holiday components, so be sure to ask! We booked our flights and some hotels through Trailfinders for our US trip last year, meaning we only needed to stump up £350 at the point of booking, rather than a couple of grand!

Be diligent and organised

I work in finance, so naturally I use spread sheets for all elements of my life. I joke… Sort of.

I used a basic table to keep track of where we would be on each day, what I had booked, what I had paid for and what I would need to pay for when we were overseas (such as resort fees, taxes and hotel bills).

Regardless of whether you use a spread sheet or a notepad, you absolutely must keep track of everything you have planned and keep hold of all necessary documentation! Don’t miss payments. Don’t miss visa deadlines and check how long you have left on your passport in good time!

Group similar climates together in one trip

Packing for a multi-centre trip is hard enough without mixing winter and summer climates. Grouping warm weather climates together makes more sense than both hot and cold, because you only need to pack one concise ‘wardrobe’ for your trip.

It’s also the perfect excuse to go on two holidays – one hot and one cold! Wahoo!

Invite your friends!

If you’re visiting several different places over a 2-3 week period then you’re probably covering quite a lot of ground! It might be that you’re able to meet up with any friends who are also travelling at that time!

When in New York, our second night was also the last night for our friends who happened to be doing the same trip but in reverse!

When we were in Vegas, we had a 2 day overlap with two of our closest friends so we were able to visit the Grand Canyon, take the freemont street zip line, go clubbing and recover by the pool together!

I’m not saying you should change your plans to match those of your friends, but it’s certainly worth seeing if your itineraries align so you can share some of the big experiences, or perhaps even share the cost.

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Check travel insurance and visa requirements

If you’re travelling between different continents, make sure your travel insurance covers all of the areas you’re visiting. Never just assume that your cover is worldwide. This is true for any holiday, but you’re more likely to fall foul of this rule of you’re planning on continent-hopping!

Similarly, apply for all visas as soon as you can for your travel dates. If for some reason there is a problem with one visa, you’ll have plenty of time to get the problem rectified or in the worst case scenario, to change your travel plans.

Don’t forget relaxation time

Multi-destination trips can actually be quite exhausting. Whilst exploring far away lands is exciting, by the end of  few whirlwind weeks you’re probably going to be quite tired. Make sure you allocate a few days at the end of your break for winding down and relaxation.

After New Zealand, we spent 5 nights in Bali where we chilled by the pool and still explored, but at a much slower pace! At the end of the Californian road trip we spent a few days at the Loews Coronado Bay resort in San Diego where we lounged, swam, ate and read our books!

The key is balance!

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My Travel Must-Haves

Aside from the obvious stuff – like passports and a supply of clean underwear – there’s a collection of items I don’t dare travel without.

Here’s what makes my travel must-have list:

Fit-kit

Although (somewhat unfortunately) you can’t always tell by looking, I’m a bit of a fitness addict. The idea of going away for more than a few days and not being able to keep up some kind of fitness regime makes me sweat for all the wrong reasons.

I always pack my running trainers and several sets of kit. Not only is this useful when I fancy heading out for a morning jog to combat the let-lag, this kit lends itself to doing adventure-type actives on your trip because it’s so easy to wash and get dry in your hotel room. It’s much easier to dry off in your yoga pants and a gym vest than it is to dry off in jeans and a cotton cami when you’ve been on a high-speed jet boat ride or been caught in an Indonesian 2 minute downpour.

Camera

OK, so most phones have a camera in them capable of taking pretty reasonable snaps, but they’re still no match for an SLR. You simply don’t get the crisp detail you see on a photo from a good camera if you use your phone, however good the phone.

I don’t pretend to know much about cameras, and there’s no way I’d want to cart about a huge SLR with a massive lens when I’m exploring new landscapes and city spots. So what camera do I use?

My Dad bought us a Canon Eos M as part of our wedding gift two years ago. They still sell them, but the model has been superseded).

Labelled a ‘bridge camera’ it’s a good step between a compact point-and-shoot and a larger DSLR. It’s light, durable and small enough to be discreet (for those times when you feel like you need to cover your valuables)!

 

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The Canon Eos M – Small, but packs a punch in terms of features!

Make sure you take both a charger and a huge memory card so you can happily snap away! On my last 3 week trip, I took just over 3000 photos. Many of them were garbage, but lots of them made it into the holiday scrapbook and even into some photo frames!

if you really can’t be bothered carrying a camera, perhaps try a snap-on lens for your phone. I’ve had relative success using a fish eye lens which slid onto the corner of my iPhone. Don’t expect massive gains in photo quality but you can expect lots of fun snaps!

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The bright lights of Times Square at night, through a fish eye lens snapped onto my old iPhone 5

Journal

Even before I started blogging, I always carried a travel journal. I like to keep hold of tickets, receipts, maps and other bits and bobs so that I can make a holiday scrapbook when I get back. In my journal, which I tend to write daily during our evening meal, we bullet point what we did in that day.

it takes only a matter of a few minutes, but means we can tear out the page and stick it in the scrapbook when we get home, amongst the memorabilia we’ve gathered and the photos we’ve chosen to print!

It’s great looking back over the scrapbooks after a few months or years!

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Blank pages require adventures to fill them!

Teabags

Nowhere does tea like Great Britain. I tend to take a selection of teabags, but you still have to awkwardly seek out non-UHT milk to complement your Earl Grey, unless you’re one of those people who believes milk in Earl Grey is akin to Blasphemy.

Document Wallet

When you’re going on a multi-destination trip, you’ll probably have a lot of tickets and booking confirmations. I find that it’s well worth having them all printed off and tucked into an organised document wallet.

Why do that when you have electronic copies? When you arrive at the car hire office after travelling for 36 hours with very little sleep and your phone is flat, the last thing you’ll want to do is explain that you need to charge your phone before you can provide proof of payment and take the keys.

Flexible Luggage

Why anyone would take hard bodied luggage is beyond me! I always take a rucksack (like this Eastpak one) and this Eastpak suitcase / holdall.

Eastpak baggage

I tend to do multi-centre trips, so being able to easily stuff things back into the hold-all is essential. Hard bodied luggage doesn’t really lend itself to disorganised and last minute packing, so having the flexibility of the expandable and flexible case is essential for me!

Kindle

I like to read on holiday – especially if I’m going long-haul. The problem is, I could get through a good fiction book in one flight. Back in the olden days, that would mean carting 5-10 books in my hand luggage or buying books in the airport and leaving them in the hotel when I was done.

In comes the Kindle. Small, backlit and books are normally cheaper on it. The only downside is you lose the ‘feel’ of reading a paper book and you’re a bit screwed if you run out of power. I never travel without it.

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Phone (+ Data!)

We’re so attached to our phones now that you’d be forgiven for wanting to switch it off and leave it behind for a few weeks.

I would argue that the phone is actually one of the best tools you can have when travelling! I usually opt in to the roaming packages so I can use my data (cost effectively) and that allows me to message, blog, instagram, tweet and use google maps as much as I want!

I also use it to check ratings for restaurants I might be about to go into, or to see what’s going on in the area I’m in!

Google’s translation app (which uses the camera on your phone to read and translate text) is great for deciphering menus and making sure you’re ordering chicken breast and not chicken eyeballs. This came in handy in Barcelona, where the menu at Tapas24 was not available in English! If only we had used it back in Hong Kong, we might have avoided the chicken feet incident.

I also use apps to help me navigate public transport and use the sat-nav to make sure the taxi I’m in isn’t ripping me off by taking me around several blocks before we go back to the hotel.

There’s no excuse for not being a savvy traveller when you’ve got the immense power of the internet at your fingertips.

Macbook Air

Not everyone wants to take a laptop on holiday, but when you have a travel blog it’s par for the course! I like to start writing about my experiences whilst I’m still immersed in them, and have also been using travel time (long flights) to write my non-fiction book.

Whats essential is that it’s light, small and quiet to type on (for the sleeping travellers around me)! The Macbook covers all that and more.

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MacBook Air – Typing machine of choice!

First Aid Kit

Not because you might need to stitch yourself up, but because you’ll probably encounter blisters, insect bites and a jiffy belly at some point in the trip. Pack there usual first-aid-kit contents (or buy a travel first aid kit) then top it up with indigestion tablets, Immodium and UK-purchased pain killers and antihistamine tablets.

The last thing you want is your request for paracetamol getting lost in translation and ending up with a laxative.

Credit Card

Nobody wants to be in an emergency situation when you’re on holiday, but the fact of the matter is – it does happen sometimes.

Be it getting bitten my a monkey and needing a rabies shot, falling off a moped in Thailand and needing stitches or getting food poisoning on the last day and missing your flight because you’re on a drip in hospital in Barcelona – it happens. I know it happens, because those things have happened to my friends!

Not everyone is a fan of credit cards, but even if you’re ‘against’ them you would be a fool not to travel with one. If you’re in the back-end-of-nowhere and you need medical assistance then the chances are you’ll need to pledge a form of payment (even if you’re going to claim it back through your travel insurance later).

Not only that, if you’ve followed the principles in my guide on how to get the best hotel deals, then there’s a good chance you secured your booking with a credit card. Present this card on arrival for faster check-in.

What I Leave Behind

Obviously there’s loads of stuff I leave behind. This section is about pointing out the things that people tend to thing they should take, but that you never end up using!

The main thing you might be tempted to take, but should definitely leave behind is your travel guide book. Yes, you read that right.

If you’ve not read the guide books by the time you’re heading off on your trip, it’s probably a bit too late. Don’t send hours of your holiday with your head in a guide book. Leave it at home and just go and get lost in the culture and scenery of the place you’re actually in. That’s much more exciting that reading about it.

Do read travel guides, but make it part of your holiday planning process rather than an afterthought.

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For more tips on packing, read this!

 

10 Things You Must do in Las Vegas

Vegas is the only place I’ve ever seen topless pensioners moshing, the Grand Canyon and a drunk singing Elvis tribute act on a scooter within the same day. It’s the kind of place where anything goes, or perhaps that should be where everything goes.

It’s also the kind of place where time just disappears, so if you’re a bit like me only have few days in the ‘entertainment capital of the world’ then you’ll need to make sure you don’t miss these top 10 Las Vegas experiences.

1. Clubbing

Clubbing is something which is typically pretty low on my list of things to do on holiday, but given that we had free entry and that the club was in the same hotel we were staying at, it made sense to give it a go.

We were lucky enough to have a 2 day overlap with two of our close friends as our first two days overlapped with their last two days in Vegas, making clubbing a much more attractive prospect than it would be as a couple!

The club was probably the best club I’ve ever been in – good music, good atmosphere and surprisingly reasonable drinks prices. We saw Burns live at Hakkasan @ MGM Grand. Check out the line up at hotels and then tweet or text promotors (or speak to them around the pool) to get yourself on the guest list.

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2. Grand Canyon

I’ve written a separate post about this telling you exactly why you should book yourself a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon. You can read that post here.

In short – dramatic views, champagne breakfast and a chance to set foot in the Canyon itself are amongst the reasons you SHOULD NOT miss this!

grand canyon

3. High Roller Wheel

For an epic view of the strip, get yourself a ticket for the high roller at the Linq. Not only will you be elevated on the largest ferris wheel in the world, you’ll have 360 degree views and plenty of time to take it all in! Well worth the ticket price and a chance to take some epic photos!

We took the wheel ride at night, which I would thoroughly recommend so you can see the true glory of the strip and it’s dazzling lights!

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4. Cirque du Soleil

I’ve never been a fan of the theatre – I hated panto when I was a child because I couldn’t understand how someone could be so stupid that they would not notice someone behind them after it had been repeatedly pointed out to them. My frustration carried on into adulthood and I tarred any theatre-based show with the same brush.

By the time we reached Vegas I had successfully managed to avoid seeing a Broadway show. Somehow the appeal of an acrobatics based show had more allure than the musicals of Broadway did, and I found myself buying a ticket to Ka.

I must admit, it was pretty darn good. I’d even go again, actually!

5. Shopping malls

Ahhhh! I love shopping.

The malls in Vegas are incredible. Make sure you don’t miss the fashion show mall, right on the strip – it’s like the Trafford centre but in Vegas! There’s definitely some deals to be had – especially if you catch the Macy’s sale at the right time! Set yourself a reasonable shopping budget and let yourself loose! Wahoo!

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6. Casino Crawl (Including Bellagio Fountains)

Start at one end of the strip – mid morning – and take a gamble in each of the casinos on your way to the other end of the strip! It’s like a pub crawl, only with the potential to win! Personally I didn’t gamble that much – just enough to be on the slot machine long enough to be offered a free drink!

Make sure you pause outside the Bellagio to witness the world-famous fountain show. It ain’t too bad!

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7. Freemont Street

Fremont street is an experience not to be missed, despite it not being to everyone’s taste! It’s home to motorbike gangs mixed in with tourists and opportunistic exhibitionists out to make a quick dollar by flashing their aged bodies at anyone willing to look (not that you can not look).

It’s also the place where you can visit the Golden Nugget (one of the most famous old casinos in Vegas) and the ‘Slotzilla’ overhead zip line which is worth taking a go on!

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8. The Container Shopping Park

A nifty and quite quirky shopping park constructed using shipping containers piled on top of each other like lego. Unique shops, a free outdoor cinema and some respite from the hustle and bustle of downtown Las Vegas make this a great spot for a quiet evening.

One tip – despite it’s appeal, it’s not the best idea to go down the slide in the middle of the play area. The turns might be exhilarating for a small child, but for a 5’10” adult they’re rather violent. That slide quite literally ripped my shoes off.

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9. Hotel Pool

It’s blooming hot in Las Vegas and very rarely cloudy, so if you’re partial to topping up your tan, take residence by the side of the pool at your hotel. Drink, snack and be merry whilst you take a rest – Vegas can be non-stop if you want it to so it’s good to stop and recharge, even if only for a couple of hours in the afternoon!

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10. Buffet Food

What better after an exhausting day shopping and gambling, than an epic buffet for tea? Load that plate and sample everything. Vegas is all about excess and surely there’s only so much damage you can do in a few nights?! right?

What Else Could We Have Done?

There’s a few other things we probably would have done had we stayed another night or two in Vegas such as shooting, nascar experiences and going to one of the paid-entry pool parties like Wet Republic at MGM.

Will We Go Back?!

Yell yes.