itinerary

Road Trip: California’s Pacific Coast Highway

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway isn’t exactly the most ‘original’ or trips, but I question the need to be original with travel  – at least the need to be original all of the time. I trust that the many, many travellers before me had good reason to tackle that route, be it recommendation or the mere reputation of the trip as being one worth taking the time to do.

In this blog post I’ll share with you our road trip journey, what we did and why I think the crowds of tourists – in this case – are correct!

San Francisco

Having driven over from Yosemite National Park, we spent a few days in the Bay City. I blogged about this some time ago, so you can read about my stay here.

Monterey

After 4 days in San Francisco, we took the scenic drive to Monterey. There were two things I was most excited about when we decided to visit Monterey: seafood and whale watching.

Let’s first address the whale watching situation. You can book a whale watching trip which lasts around 4 hours, either for a morning session or an afternoon session. Given we were due to continue the drive south after the trip, we booked morning tour tickets with haste!

In hindsight I’m extremely thankful that we chose a morning trip because it meant there was less content for me to throw up over the back of the boat.

Yup. Sea-sickness.

seasickness

Never before had I suffered from travel sickness. My first experience of motion sickness was in fact only 10 months prior to this – and was the result of jumping out of a plane over Queenstown, so seemed reasonable.

This sea sickness was like nothing I’d experienced before. 45 minutes into a 4 hour trip, I was barely able to lift my head off the handrail at the back of the boat without inducing another wave of retching. This was highly amusing to my husband, who was remarkably unaffected by the choppy ocean swell. It was less amusing for the other slightly sea-sick passengers, who also began to spew once they had seen my green tea soy latte expelled from my mouth at speed. Despite the sickness, I did manage to see some whales, dolphins, seals and other marine life.

monterey bay

The calm of Monterey Bay

My top tip? Take a travel-sickness pill even if you don’t normally suffer from motion sickness!

Once we hopped off the boat I felt fine within a matter of seconds, at which point I then became ravenously hungry! Queue scoffing a smoked salmon sandwich before heading to a restaurant for chowder and crab! You really must sample the fresh seafood when you’re in Monterey Bay!

seafood monterey

Carmel

Carmel beach boasts one of the best sunsets in the world. Head here in the evening, park the car and gaze out over the shore line and you’ll see the sun visibly dive over the horizon in a haze of golden orange.

We took the drive down from Monterey, taking a hot drink and sitting on the white sandy beach. We were not alone, as many of the locals walk down to the beach to witness the evening ritual.

On the night we went, there was significant cloud cover, yet the sunset was still mesmerising. What’s strange is the speed at which you can see the sun setting. It’s something you really ought to see for yourself if you’re stopping in the area. Check online for the estimated sunset time, because the whole thing is over in 20 minutes so you could easily miss it if you’re not careful!

carmel beach sunset

Santa Barbara

Before I visited the US, if I had been asked to imagine a Californian Surfer town, the picture I conjured in my mind’s eye bore a remarkable resemblance to the reality of the experience when we finally arrived in Santa Barbara. One long sweeping beach, ocean waves, a chilled out vibe and the smell of salt in the air all contribute to a feeling of relaxation and youth associated with that culture.

Arriving late afternoon, we took an evening stroll on one of two piers before settling down for an al-fresco dining experience at a charming Italian restaurant.

*We actually cut dinner short because of a minor disagreement, resulting from spending 2 weeks consistently in each other’s company, no doubt!*

Having slept off any residual marital irritation, we headed (together) to Sambo’s beachfront café. Given that it was recommended to us by a local, expectations were high!

From the moment the complimentary home-baked mini-muffins landed on the table as we perused the menu, I was SOLD! Even though ‘Biscuits with Gravy’ (flat dry scones with creamy sauce, to those outside of the USA) was a little unusual, I enjoyed my Sambo’s experiences immensely nevertheless!

sambos santa barbara

Los Angeles

Many of our friends remarked – prior to our holiday – that we probably wouldn’t like it in LA and that 2 nights was therefore plenty of time to see the sights. I’d have to say, I’m glad I heeded their advice!

Los Angeles is like no other city I’ve ever been to. It appears not to have a true ‘heart’, instead sprawling over many miles and making tourism somewhat a pain-in-the-ass.

My favourite part of LA was Santa Monica. Hours could be lost browsing the shops, padding on the beach and trying out arcade games. I left there having finally learned what ‘Skeeball’ is and having picked up a self-help book* in Kitson. How very LA.

skeeball

Griffith Observatory is also worthy of a mention. A visit after sun-down allowed us to take in panoramic views of the city and escape the traffic, noise and perceived ‘tensions’ we felt driving through Little Armenia. Take the time to queue for a view through the telescope! It’s worth the 10 minute wait!

griffith observatory

We stayed at a renovated old-hollywood hotel not far from where many of the studios are based. One thing I noticed whilst staying at the hotel is that many of the inhabitants seem to behave as if they are constantly in an audition! People walk around singing loudly, wear full make up and heels to the pool and do not appear to eat. In our 2 nights in the hotel, I saw only 2 people eating in the on-site pool café.

We took a drive out to Beverley Hills – clearly a very wealthy area and a desirable place to live – and visited Fogo de Chao for an evening meal. It’s similar to Bem Brazil or Fazenda in the UK, only with valet parking and a slightly bigger salad bar. It also had valet parking. The necessity or even desirability of valet parking is something I still cannot comprehend.

fogo de chao los angeles

San Diego

By this point in our trip we had been touring for around 3 weeks! We had already taken in the sights in New YorkVegasDeath Valley and Yosemite National Park before we hit the coast. Naturally our pace began to slow down when we reached San Diego!

San Diego Zoo is world-famous and home to one of very few remaining Giant Pandas. We visited the Zoo on a very hot day and were slightly disappointed that many of the Animals were ‘missing’ – perhaps taking cover from the intensity of the Californian Sun.

flamingos san diego zoo

Having paid a visit to San Diego Zoo, I remain conflicted about zoos generally. On one hand, I think they’re distasteful and that the sterile, unnatural surroundings are somehow cruel. On the other hand I think they’re important in terms of looking after animals (and to some extent species) who would not otherwise survive in the wild.

We were staying over on Coronado Bay – a retreat from the city but only a 20 minute journey by car. We stayed at the Loewe’s resort which was excellent and despite the weather being horribly overcast we spent the final day of our trip by the pool and in the Jacuzzi chatting with fellow travellers about beer, fracking in Tulsa, and what it’s like to live and travel outside of the USA!

candelas on the bay

Amazing food at Candela’s restaurant on the bay!

The Verdict

There’s a good reason why this remains a popular holiday for those who live in the US as well as those visiting. If you’re stuck for time then do as well did and cut out some of LA – don’t skimp on time in San Francisco or starve yourself of the ability to pull over and take in the views along the coastal road. The road trip isn’t supposed to be a sprint, after all! Take the time and enjoy the journey!

*the self-help book was called ‘You Are A Badass’ and was written by a very witty and non-preachy Jen Sincero. It was the beginning of a new-found appreciation for self-help, self-discovvery and provided me a massive kick up the ass, which resulted in me writing a book and starting this blog! Worth a read!

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Geneva Motor Show / Snowboarding

So for my Dad’s somewhat belated birthday present last year, we decided to take him to what might be one of the best motor shows in the world – The critically acclaimed Geneva Motor Show.

Often the place where new models are revealed, Geneva Motor show seemed like the obvious choice. Add to that cheap flights and it’s an even more obvious choice!

We decided to head out there for a few nights to see the cars and to experience the charm of the city itself.

Getting Accommodation

The first hurdle was finding accommodation. The flights may have been a bargain, but hotel rooms in the city were eye-wateringly expensive for motor show weekend, at c.£1000 per night for 6 of us in a mediocre set-up! We had only booked  few weeks prior, so I guess it was what you might call ‘last minute’ and availability was poor.

Cue a search within a 30 mile radius, for more reasonably priced accommodation coupled with 2 cars. A short search later (look here for tips) we found a reasonable apartment in France – a 20 minute drive from the convention centre and airport – for less than £400 for the entire duration of the trip. Add to that the cost of two hire cars (around £150 for both) and the cost is suddenly back within a reasonable range for a weekend away!

Getting There

Getting there was easy – the flight from Manchester to Geneva is relatively short at 1 hour 50 mins. When we arrived, we waited nearly 2 hours for our hire cars! I wouldn’t use dollar / thrifty again IN MY LIFE because of this farce. As a gesture of goodwill, they offered us a free upgrade.

Unfortunately due to being under 30, I was allocated a tiny ‘hairdryer’ car for my rental, whilst my dad was ‘upgraded’ to a large Mercedes 4×4. Whilst this initially seemed like a nice treat, it was one we accepted dubiously, when the attendant asked for £5,000 deposit for it, but only a £500 one for mine. 

14944

Saturday Night – Why Is Everything Closed?!

We arrived on Saturday night, hungry and tired from the car-saga. We drove to the accommodation, freshened up and headed out to find some food.

8:30pm on a Saturday night and even the fuel stations were closed! The only lights we saw were those on the roads, and the CERN.

2home

All we had to eat that night was a couple of snacks left over from the journey, sloshed down with some sugary tea.

The Main Event (Sunday)

We awoke the next morning, readied ourselves with our fully charged phones and cameras and set off to the exhibition centre. We arrived early, allowing ourselves the opportunity to find a little snack! Hurrah!

The show itself was brilliant. There were new models, customer builds, new technology and plenty of photo opportunities. The only criticism is that you couldn’t get in / close to some of the best models without having VIP tickets of an invitation, which made it all feel a little bit ‘us and them’ when at some of the stands occupied by the more prestigious marques.

The food on site was expensive (as expected), so we had a small lunch and then headed out from the exhibition at around 2pm. We decided to head into Geneva town centre – a 10 minute drive away – for some food and a wander around.

Geneva Centre – Pretty, but pretty dull.

OK so eating out in Geneva on a Sunday is a near impossibility. In any other city I’ve ever visited in the world, there’s at least a small possibility of being able to walk into a restaurant and get a satisfying meal. On this occasion we were surprised that we couldn’t find any open restaurants (even with the help of Google) so we instead found ourselves snacking on chicken nuggets from McDonald’s, washed down with green tea from Starbucks. You can always count on there being a Maccys and a Starbucks open.

The architecture itself is very pretty and there is a ‘fairy-tale’ look about the place. The few people who were milling about in the town centre appeared to be either homeless or at a loss for something to do.

A kind local Gentleman pointed us in the direction of the more ‘lively’ part of the town –a mere 5-10 minute drive from our current central location, so we trusted the young man – who looked very out of place walking through the old square we were occupying – and set off in that direction.

After struggling to find parking in said area, we identified an underground parking garage and I zipped down the ramp and parked the car. A few minutes later, I walked back up the ramp to find my dad awkwardly shuffling between drive and reverse as he tried to un-wedge the car from a tight turn in the ramp without touching the sides. Given the £5k excess on the upgraded vehicle, it was a particularly tense time. A worthwhile note for anyone wishing to drive in Geneva is that the streets and the car parks and relatively tight on space! Whilst initially the complementary ‘upgrade’ seemed like a bit of a ‘win’ we soon came to realise that there are few benefits to having such a large car in such a small place.

france-2013-013

Geneva centre… on a busier day… when there were people. This is from google images, but serves as evidence that there are in fact people in this town.

Finding Food 

It would have been easier to hunt and kill our own food in Geneva that weekend. Never have I found it so difficult to track down a meal!

We walked the streets of the area for 45 minutes before we noticed a small light flickering on the horizon. We shuffled towards it, only to discover a charming little restaurant. The food was beautiful, and very welcome. It was nearly 9:30pm by the time we had found food, so we were pretty hungry!

Snowboarding in Les Gets (Monday) 

On the way out to Geneva, we saw lots of snowboarding and skiing groups. Feeling impulsive, we decided on our ‘spare day’ to drive the 2 hours from our random French accommodation to Les Gets, buy some snowboarding pants and a lift pass, rent a board and catch the lift up the mountain for a day of snow sports.

Given that we’d only ever snowboarded in Manchester’s Chill Factor-e some 4 years previously, the first hour was a little bit hit and miss. Queue embarrassing ourselves on the ski lifts, falling repeatedly and making poor choices with regards to the many layers of clothing we wore and subsequently had to dump when the sun came out.

By the end of the afternoon we were battered and bruised, but we could make it down the slopes with vigour and (might I add) a small amount of style.

After the light began to dip, we ditched the boards and headed to a restaurant for our last meal before the light home the next morning.

 

Would We Go Again? 

I wouldn’t go back to Geneva for a weekend, purely because there was so little to do in the area. I would however, consider flying in to Geneva for the day to visit the motor show.

I know that sounds crazy, but the flight it short and the exhibition centre is a 5 minute walk from the arrivals gate. You could save yourself the cost of a hotel by taking an early flight from the UK and taking a late evening return flight.

As for snowboarding, I’m looking at going next spring! Yay!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Viva Las Vegas (A Second Visit)

It’s very rare for me to be thrilled at the thought of going back to a previous holiday destination (over a new holiday destination – clearly any holiday destination is preferable to not going at all).

Having said that, when presented with the last minute opportunity to return to one of the most ridiculously entertaining places in the world it’s even more rare that I would turn that opportunity down.

So I find myself heading off to Las Vegas for a long weekend with my Husband – celebrating our 12 year anniversary of dating. Yes, we did celebrate that a couple of weeks ago by going to a spa but there’s nothing wrong with celebrating twice… right?!

Last time I wrote about Vegas, I told you about 10 things you shouldn’t miss if you’re planning a visit to Vegas. Given I’ve now done those things, this time I’ll be writing a bit of a diary post instead. Here Goes…

virgin atlantic las vegas boeing 747

Thursday 14 July AM / PM- In The Air 

We’re flying with Virgin directly to Vegas – a 9.5 hour flight. I’m not the best with sitting still, so any flight over 2 hours can be a challenge for a near-professional fidget-er such as myself. Having said that, I settle in to the comfy seat, sip my welcome drink and find a good chick flick to kill the first 90 minutes.

In the last few days, some people have made remarks to me along the lines of “that’s too far to go for 3 nights” which I wholeheartedly disagree with! Holiday maximisation is all about getting the most out of what little time off work we actually get in a year. I won’t choose my destination based on a 5-hour flight time limit. It’s not like I’m going to New Zealand for 3 days. Now that would be a bit nuts.

Last time, we flew in from New York, so we were already partly adjusted to the time difference. This time, when we arrive it will be 10pm UK time and 2pm Vegas time. I think another power-hour nap is on the cards if I stand any chance of staying up past 5pm Vegas time!

Thursday 14 July PM – Bellagio Hotel

So we’ve arrived at the hotel and despite only passing through last time, it has an air of familiarity to go with the extraordinarily OTT luxury. We checked in – all the while hoping for an upgrade but without getting one – then headed up to the room.

We take our own bags to the room to avoid the awkwardness of tipping the bell boy. I find tipping pretty awkward and I’m pretty sure I always get the value wrong. Should it be a $2 job or a $20 job? Nobody tells you. Better to just avoid insulting them / unnecessarily overspending. I realise this is a typically British way to get around a socially awkward situation.

So what’s to do when you are jet lagged and struggling to adjust to afternoon middle-of-the-desert temperatures of 42 degrees Celsius?

SHOPPING of course.

fashion show mall las vegas

Thursday 14 July PM – Las Vegas Strip / Fashion Show Mall

We headed to the Fashion Show Mall. Foolishly we decided to make the journey on foot. It was only a ‘couple of hotels’ along the strip. Clearly I had forgotten how long it takes to walk past one hotel in Vegas.

40 minutes after we left the Bellagio, we shuffled off the escalator and dived into Abercrombie to recover from temporary heat exhaustion. My green tea frappucinno had done nothing to prevent the feeling that my eyeballs were being air dried by the hot desert breeze.

When we visited Vegas last October, it was hot but not this hot. The summer breeze is akin to turning your hair dryer around and blowing it on your face when its on it’s highest setting. This coupled with the extreme sunlight means there is no relief until you can get into the nearest air conditioned building.

I must have been over-tired, because I didn’t actually buy anything.

 bellagio roulette

Thursday 14 July PM – Back at the Bellagio  

In our zombie-like state we shuffled back to the hotel and commenced gambling. The beginner’s luck which won us $70 on the slot machines last time failed to make an appearance this time and jet lag had hit well and truly now.

Nap time. That’s what we would do! Then we could get up after an hour and go to the buffet for our evening meal! Genius!

neon museum las vegas

Friday 15 July AM – Neon Museum

The ‘nap’ turned into a ‘sleep’ and at 6am, wide awake, we found ourselves in the casino. After a couple more unsuccessful bets, we wandered out onto the strip to grab a sandwich from CVS.

There’s something quite interesting about Vegas at that time in the morning – it’s a very different place to it’s afternoon and evening counterpart. There were hoards of runners taking advantage of temperatures 10 degrees lower than they would be at 10am. There were masses of people finding their way to –or perhaps from- work and of course there were those who hadn’t quite managed to find their way back from wherever it was they’d ended up spending the previous night.

We decided to try and make the 8am tour at the neon museum, so hopped on the bus (the Deuce) down to Freemont Street and caught a taxi from Freemont to the museum itself.  You can get a 3 day pass for the Deuce and SDX (the express bus) for $20 for 3 days. The taxi cost less than $10.

neon museum las vegas signs

The ‘Graveyard of Lights’ at the Neon Museum

I was told about the Neon Museum by a friend and ex-colleague who had been looking into getting some wedding photos taken there. It’s a non-profit exhibit of iconic Las Vegas signs and includes an outdoor exhibition space delightfully known as the “Neon Boneyard”. Viewing is available to the general public only through booking a place on an hour-long guided tour. A visual history lesson, at $18 pp it’s probably one of the best value things to do in Vegas, and is most definitely recommended!

Friday 15 July AM – Las Vegas Outlet Malls

We hopped into another taxi to the Premium Outlet Malls – Las Vegas North (which again only cost around $10). Despite being tempted by an Alexander Wang bag, I managed to leave with only 2 pairs of shoes from Saks (Coach and Chinese Laundry), a long grey waistcoat from Marciano and a dress and blouse from Calvin Klein. Not quite as damaging to the credit card as that Wang bag would have been!

We had Cheesecake Factory for lunch then hopped back onto the Deuce southbound – hopping off right outside the hotel.

Friday 15 July PM – Bellagio Pool

 bellagio pool

After another spell of losing – winning- then losing again at the Roulette table, I decided to try out the somewhat well-acclaimed Bellagio pool. On the advice of our taxi driver – a Las Vegas local – I slathered on the Factor 50 and headed out with a 1l bottle of water and a book. 1.5 hours later, despite being very warm indeed, I had barely tanned as much as an overcast day in the UK. Perhaps factor 50 was overkill?!

Friday 15 July EVE – Finding Food

We succumbed to jet lag once again and ended up having a 2 hour nap. I know – bad idea. Around 9pm we made it down to the buffet, only to find that the queue was approximately 45 minutes long! Given the buffet closes at 10pm, we decided to give it a miss. It defeats the object of all-you-can-eat if you only have 45 minutes to cram in the food.

We headed over to Wahlburger – a fairly new addition to the food offering at Bally’s and conveniently just over the road from the Bellagio. It’s the newest of a chain of burger restaurants headed up by the Brother of Mark Wahlburg.

wahlburger las vegas

A blooming good burger.

I ordered one called ‘The Beast’ and had it with a rather American sounding side order of ‘Tater Tots’ which I’m pretty sure are just smaller, rounder hash browns. I’m not sure why they have a different name. Either way, it was bloomin’ good!

Saturday 16 July AM – Breakfast Buffet 

On our second morning in Vegas I managed to get my buffet fix. We had Brunch at the Bellagio buffet, which was excellent if not a little bit strange. Yes, there are breakfast items available, but there are also many, many non-breakfast items such as pizza, cakes, prime rib and chorizo – not exactly standard breakfast items but nevertheless very enjoyable!

We ate at around 8am, before hitting the casino to spend our remaining ‘designated gambling money’ which was actually only a small kitty to begin with! After exhausting any remaining luck on the roulette table, I found my way back to the pool – this time armed with factor 15.

Saturday 16 July PM – Escape the Room

We met up with our Friend who was staying at the Tropicana Hotel, then headed over to xtreme escapes for an escape the room game. We love doing these games back in the UK so when we found an offer for one in Vegas it made sense to give it a go. We did technically manage to escape, but at 1 hour and 9 minutes we weren’t breaking any records. Not a bad effort for only 3 of us, in what was a far more sophisticated game set-up than the one’s we have played in the past!

las vegas xtreme escape game

No records set, but still smiling!

Saturday 16 July EVE – Second Buffet of the Day

None of us were sure what we wanted to eat, so the natural thing to do was to head to the MGM for what would be the second buffet of the day! Given we hadn’t had lunch, this seemed completely reasonable.

2 hours and many courses later, we rolled back to the bus stop and caught the Deuce north towards the hotel.

We pondered the idea of going out for drinks, but decided we were content with being a little bit old-before-our-time and decided to call it a night!

Hardcore.

Sunday 17 July AM – Last few Hours

We decided to go out shopping for a few souvenirs (bags of sweets) before we headed back to the hotel and checked out around 9.

We then went in search of a good handbag bargain in Ross and Marshalls discount stores but sadly there was nothing that caught my eye. On the back of a handbag related failure, we headed back to Wahlburger and stuffed our faces once again!

It was then time to head to the airport. Since our tickets were still live, we retrieved the bags from the bell desk, caught the bus to the Monte Carlo (Hotel) which was closer to the airport and grabbed a taxi from there. That might sound really tight (please don’t judge me!) but it saved us $15 in taxi fare.

Flying Home

So I’m currently sat 35,000ft in the air – 2 hours into the flight, having eaten a pretty darn good curry. We’ll be landing in the UK in the morning, having returned to GMT from being 8 hours behind! If I don’t sleep on the plane, my return to work on Tuesday morning (and the raft of meetings I have on Tuesday and Wednesday) could be pretty horrific, so I’m off to catch some Zzz’s.

 

Good night Vegas.

It’s been cracking.

paris hotel las vegas

Probably won’t be seeing this view for a while!

 

 

 

 

 

36 Hours in London

Last year it came to my attention that I had never visited London as a tourist.  As an Accountant working for KPMG Audit in Manchester, I had worked and trained in London for weeks on end. Although I had seen a a fair bit of London, it was usually when I was en-route to a hotel, the client’s offices or the restaurant of choice for the evening.

I decided to go and spend a Saturday seeing the sights, tourist style and  give my own take on it.

Here’s how the day panned out, what I saw and what I thought about it. All opinions are my own and are not intended to offend!

Getting There

We left the house at around 6am, walked to the station (Warrington Bank Quay) and hopped on the Virgin Pendalino which delivered us to Euston in 1 hour 45 mins. It was a welcome change to take that train without feeling like I had to work on-route. Instead I slept most of the way apart from when I woke up needing a cup of tea and a breakfast sandwich!

London Euston Tube Station

Our hotel was only a short walk from the station. Really short – like 250m or something. We dropped our overnight bag and set off on the tube to Camden.

Score? 10/10!

Camden 1.0

Only  few of the larger shops were open as it was before 10am (apparently thing kick off a bit later in the south – not sure why… Seems unreasonable) so we walked along the river with a green tea latte and then made our way back to the tube stop. Even if you’re only there for a couple of days, sort yourself out with an Oyster card – much easier than faffing about with tickets, and probably cheaper but if I’m honest I didn’t bother to work it out. I don’t like doing finance-y things when I’m out of work!

2/10 – pretty but I’m not impressed with people having a lie in when I want my second breakfast!

Camden tube station

No people… anywhere!

Borough Market

If you like street food – you’ll like borough market. Think artisan bread, baklava, macarons and cheese. Need I say more?

Score? 10/10 – not to be missed!

Borough Market

Bread Jenga at Borough Market

st. Paul’s Cathedral

We walked from Borough market to st. Pauls. The weather was glorious so it would have been criminal to hide away on the tube (I also wanted a record-breaking day on my Fitbit so I could beat my dad).

We took a couple of photos and sat on the grass for a little while admiring the view, before wandering over the bridge to the Tate Modern.

Score? 6/10 – quote pretty but really it was more of a time filler whilst we waited for the city to wake up.

Tate Modern

Some alright art. Free entry, but donations encouraged.

To be honest after walking around in an empty space on the ground floor searching for some artwork I decided it was no surprise that entry was free.

The atmosphere was highly pretentious and a little infuriating.

Time to move on… Places to see and all that Jazz!

Score? 1/10, and only a 1 (as opposed to a zero) because of the entertainment value of some of the more obscure exhibits like the crayon bondage mask which was actually pretty cool and deserves applaud.

Trafalgar Square

Busy and bustling as you might expect on a sunny saturday, the square on this particular day was home to a series of street performers.  A lively atmosphere and lots to see made this the perfect spot to stop and people watch for 20 minutes, given there was a high proportion of people in the area behaving in a somewhat excitable and unusual manner.

Score? 5/10

trafalgar square

Tower Bridge

Oh jeez. Good look taking a selfie here without someone photo bombing – intentionally or not! I know this is a ‘must see’ on the London tourist list but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite a busy as it was!

Crowds aside, the sun was beaming down and the view was rather pretty.

Score? 7/10

tower bridge london

Buckingham Palace

The queen was home, so the atmosphere around the palace was pretty cool. I often wonder what the perception of the Royal Family is outside of the UK. The adoration of the visitors clinging to the railings around the palace suggest that the general feeling is good!

Score? 5/10 – worth a visit but not much to see unless you see changing of the guard, which we missed!

buckingham palace london

Downing Street

As a student of politics, I used to muse about what it would be like to take residence in downing street. I thought it would feel stifling and oppressive – like you were a contestant in a terrible reality TV programme like Big Brother.

When we arrived at downing street gates my musing opinions were confirmed. It looked much smaller and darker than on the TV and access seems so much more limited. Security was so tight that there was an unseen barrier between the street and the tourists on the other side.

The whole scene was intimidating and I most definitely wouldn’t want to live on that street. It’s a good job I’m an accountant instead of PM. What a relief.

Score? 8/10 – go and see it for yourself!

Camden Market 2.0 – around 4pm

Hurrah. The hipsters finally dragged themselves out of bed! The shops were open and the stalls in the market bustling with trade. The sun was out and everyone was merrily eating and drinking.

I bought a burger and sat eating it on a ‘communal picnic bench’ type thing (probably re-purposed out of something else, like a lot of hipster stuff is). The middle-aged guy sat next to me started photographing the arse of a woman stood in front of us and making strange noises. I don’t think the woman knew, but she moved away before I could even think about alerting her to the behaviour. We swiftly finished the burger and moved on ourselves.

We had a wander round the stall. There’s a lot of random stuff, including old board games (like you’d find at a car boot but for one-hundred-zillion times the price) and mouse-based humane taxidermy.

Camden is quirky, but try-hard quirky. It’s like everyone is trying so hard to be different that they’re all in fact the same!

Score? 8/10 once open! plenty to do and see, and good food.

Chocolate churros. camden market london

Oooh yeah. Chocolate Churros.

Hyde Park

After rushing around most of the day it was time for a rest! We wandered to Hyde Park and decided to hire a Pedalo on The Serpentine lake.

As it happens, being on a pedalo against a gentle breeze is far from a rest, but lots of fun!

Score? 10/10 – fab park and hire was good value!

hyde park london

Piccadilly Circus Area & Leicester Square

We changed at the hotel before heading back out for food. Leicester Square is full of people at night and although not on the same scale, has a similar vibe to Times Square, New York.

There’s another giant guy being paraded around outside Ripleys’ Believe it or not and a massive M&Ms store.

We sat and took it all in for a few moments then headed to Jamie’s Diner for a good feed.

Score? 7/10 – a good area to visit for lazy evening food and drinks, but highly commercialised and touristy

jambs diner london

Oxford Street Shopping

It wouldn’t be a city break without a spot of shopping! We were up relatively early the next morning, so checked out and left our bags at the hotel before heading into town for retail therapy. By early afternoon it was nearly as busy as the Trafford Centre is on a Sunday so we decided to head back up North!

Shopping Score? 7/10

Home Sweet Home!

As much as I enjoyed my brief flirtation with being a tourist in London, it made me more grateful for what we have on our doorstep in Manchester, Liverpool and Chester.

Score? 10/10 – after all, it’s always nice to be home! 🙂

 

 

sagrada familia

The Best of Barcelona in 3 Nights

It’s easy to understand why Barcelona is a highly desirable city break destination. The lure of fabulous food, amazing architecture and the laid back trendy beach atmosphere is hard to resist! With so much to do and see in the city in only a short space of time you’d be forgiven if you were feeling a little bit overwhelmed.

With a little help from the fabulous Ornella and co at the Ayre Hotel Gran via I managed to combine sightseeing, relaxation and pampering with a little bit of shopping and a lot of eating – all in just 3 days in the city!

Here’s the basic gist:

Day 1: The Action Packed Day (10am – 4pm ish)

Ornella had kindly provided us with a map and the most efficient way to see the many of the main sights in one day. A lot of the sights are within walking distance of each other but depending on where you are staying, you might want to take the metro to our starting point – Sagrada Familia.

Sagrada Familia

Despite construction beginning in 1882, it’s anticipated that it will take until 2026 for building works to be completed. Don’t let that put you off visiting – the gothic architecture  is a must see and understandably Barcelona’s top must-see site!

We didn’t go inside, but for €15 you can. Get there early to avoid the masses. It was heaving when we arrived, which was around 11:30am by the time we had walked there!

sagradafamilia

Avinguda Diagonal

This 11km long avenue divides the city, running from west to east. It’s home to several impressive buildings (below), many faculties of the University of Barcelona and lots of the designer shops!

avinguda diagonal

Casa Mila

A Gaudi creation and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Expect crowds of picture snapping tourists that spill out into the road! Beware of cyclists and local drivers who (quite reasonably) drive along the road expecting the crowds to disperse from it!

casa mila barcelona

Casa Batllo

Another Gaudi masterpiece! Personally I think it looks like something off a fantasy film set – it’s quite Harry-Potter-esque! It’s one of three buildings which make up the Block of Discord along with Casa Amasser and Casa Lleo Morera.

Good photo opportunities but by this point I’ve had my share of architecture for the day, so we head off into a few shops. As a side note, the shops don’t tend to open until around 10:30am – probably because everyone seems to be up so late eating dinner!

casa batlo

La Rambla

La Rambla (or Las Ramblas) is a 1.2km tourist centric boulevard where the centre is pedestrianised and lined with souvenir shops, bars and cafes. At one end is the Columbus Monument. We didn’t stick around at La Rambla on this day, instead choosing to come back for lunch another day and to revisit ‘La Boqueria’ Market!

Placa Reial

Just off La Rambla, this pretty square is flanked by bars and restaurants and is a little bit quieter than La Rambla itself. Nice for a momentary retreat, but be mindful that there are a lot of street performers in the square. If you’re anything like me you will probably find ignoring their requests for loose change tiresome and decide to move on fairly quickly!

placa reial

A bit of shopping…

At the top end of La Rambla there are more shops. Mango, Zara, Bershka and Pull & Bear fans rejoice – Prices are around 20-30% cheaper than in the UK! We spent a couple of hours wandering around the shops and getting a couple of drinks as we walked back to our hotel, some 1.5 miles away!

Day 2: Spa, Sun, Sand and Shopping

Aire de Barcelona Spa (allow 2-3 hours)

When you imagine a spa in the middle of a city, this isn’t what initially comes to mind. Most spas are in a hotel or health club and lack individuality, but Aire have managed to buck the trend completely!

The spa is based on a modern revival of ancient Roman baths – meaning it is immensely stylish and a real treat for the senses. From the moment you walk through the door the high arched ceilings, ambient lighting and fragrant air put you immediately into relaxation mode. This spa has won many awards, including accreditation as the best international spa from Conde Naste Traveller Spain and a certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor (as well as being the number 1 spa in Barcelona).

There are 6 different ‘baths’: one around body temperature, one slightly cold, one ice bath, one hot bath, a jacuzzi and a salt pool where you can float more easily!

We opted for the somewhat luxurious ‘Hammam experience‘ treatment which included a lime scrub and a full body massage as well as access to the baths and steam room.

The place is so clean I would happily eat my lunch off the floor and as a tea worshipper, I was also ecstatic to discover that there was complimentary unlimited hot sweet minty-fresh tea. The cherry on the cake, you might say!

If you’re in the city, make time to come here – you WILL NOT be disappointed!

 

are spa barcelona

One of the baths at Aire Spa Barcelona

The beach!

Having a beach in a city is a real luxury and one of the reasons Barcelona is so popular for city breaks, stag and hen parties and locals playing sports. The beach is big and sandy so it’s not too crowded and there are plenty of bars and restaurants so you really could spend all day here basking in the sun!

barcelona beach

Shopping

A 10 minute walk from the W hotel (at the end of the beach) takes you to to the Maremagnum shopping centre, so if you’re in the area it’s worth nipping in there for a bit of a ‘mooch’ (as my mum would put it)!

Day 3:

Mercat Del Encants (1-2 hours)

Head to the market which is only a stones throw from the ‘Glories’ stop on the L1 red line of the Metro for an eclectic mix of antiques, tech, fabrics and fashion. Expect to see lots of Zara seconds and other branded shoes in piles on the floor. Good luck finding a matching pair after 10am, when everything has been thoroughly mixed together! Some pairs were as cheap as €3 and had very little damage, so there are definitely bargains to be had if you have the patience!

If you fancy more of a ‘geek-out’ head to the shop called ‘Dacasa‘ in the market for some interesting gifts and nik-naks.

fleamarketLas Ramblas (1-2 hours including lunch)

Since we were in this area again, we stopped for coffee and a snack in one of the many food places on La Rambla. Expect to be ‘treated’ to entertainment by yet more street performers who may then ask for a tip and to be invited into every restaurant along the road. If you want less hassle, carry a bag of sweets very visibly – eating or drinking is the biggest deterrent for the restaurant ‘marketeers’!

Whilst there is a buzz about the place, La Rambla is clearly tourist-centric and can be a little bit less ‘authentic Barcelona’ as a result! Worth visiting for a drink, but not my favourite part of the city as I hate being hassled!

Similarly, it’s much less relaxing when you’re in a bustling crowd. There don’t appear to be many locals here at peak times – possibly because it can be a bit overbearing and slightly tacky compared to the other areas of the city we visited. When I say tacky, I mean relative to the rest of the very sophisticated city. The tackiness rating would be a 1/10 where Blackpool is a 10.

 

La Boquera Market (allow 30 minutes -1 hour)

La Boquera is an indoor market just off La Rambla which dates back several hundred years. It’s packed full of food stalls including a couple of bars where you can sit and eat at the counter.

The stalls on the outer ring of the market are aimed at tourists and the prices reflect it. Walk into the centre of back of the market (away from La Rambla) for a bit of a quieter experience and up to 50% off prices you’d see on the La Rambla side!

The market is very busy, so pay special attention to any valuables!

dragonfruit

Fruit from La Boquera Market

Gothic Quarter (allow around 1 hour)

I love the Gothic Quarter! Coffee shops, architecture, narrow passages and small shops with lots of little trinkets make it a lovely place to take a bit of time out and wander around!

It’s still quite touristy, but much less in-your-face than La Rambla!

gothic quarter barcelona

The Olympic Stadium

For a great 1-2 hour stroll and fab views out over the city, head to the Fira de Barcelona area and take the many escalators up to the parks and olympic stadium. It’s tranquil, pretty and ambient in contrast the the busy city below.

This was the last thing we did before we left for the airport, and I’m glad we managed to fit it in!

Other stuff:

Where we stayed:

We stayed at the Ayre Hotel Gran Via. I booked this hotel for the following reasons:

  1. The positive reviews on TripAdvisor
  2. Proximity to public transport and the fact it was walking distance to all the major attractions in the city
  3. It was away from La Rambla, therefore better value and less likely to be noisy!

The hotel was fab – the staff were amazing, very friendly and welcoming without being overbearing! The closest metro station was a 2-3 minute walk away and the AeroBus (to and from the airport) stop was 20m from the front door of the hotel!

Food:

The best Tapas we ate was at Michelin starred chef Carles Abellan’s  Tapas 24. Quite simply, it was incredible food. It’s extremely popular – as you would imagine – but doesn’t take reservations. You instead walk-in and stand and wait for a table!

We only waited around 20 minutes and it was well worth the wait! This restaurant shouldn’t be missed on a trip to Barcelona! The only caveat would be that if there are more than 4 of you, it might be a long wait for a table!

Try the McFoie Burger for something a little different, and the ham croquettes for an immensely good version of a classic.

 

mc foie burger tapas24

The ‘must try’ Mc Foie Burger

The next best meal was actually at our hotel! We ate in the bar there on the first night (when we arrived at 10:30pm) and were pleasantly surprised by the very tasty tapas – so much so that we ate there again just before we left for the airport!

I was much less impressed with the somewhat oily pizza we had on La Rambla – that was distinctly average!

Getting around:

We walked a lot when in the city because the weather, atmosphere and architecture make the views stunning.

We ‘supplemented’ the walking with a T10 multi-trip metro ticket. Basically you buy one ticket and can use it up to 10 times – or 5 times each if you’re sharing one ticket as a couple (which isn’t sneaky – it’s actually permitted)!

Pick-pocketing:

The tourist areas of Barcelona have a terrible reputation for pick-pocketing, but you don’t need to be afraid. Just be sensible! We carry a backpack when we go exploring but we use a combination lock to make sure nobody can get in it except for us!

Keep wallets and phones in front pockets only (not loose ones) and beware of being stopped for ‘surveys’ or being walked into when there is plenty of room as these could be moves engineered to swipe your valuables – but this is fairly obvious and you should be operating this level of scepticism in any busy place rather than just when on holiday!

That’s all for now!

If you have any questions or just like to chat about travel, drop me an email on the5weekwanderer@gmail.com, follow me on twitter and Instagram or subscribe to the blog and comment on here!

If you’re planning a trip, check out my planning page for more tips!

The 5 Week Wanderer

 

 

Death Valley and Yosemite National Park – 3 Nights

When we decided to take our US road trip, we were well aware that the route we’d chosen was a well trodden path. Luckily for us, some of the feet that had recently trodden it happened to be sat at the same bank of desks I was, and were more than happy to tell me what was a must see and what could be missed.

When we had three weeks to fit in New York, Vegas, Death Valley, Yosemite and the drive from San Francisco to San Diego – it’s quite important to prioritise. It was holiday maximisation in it’s purest form!

With the help of colleagues and our pal Neil at Trailfinders – we decided on 1 night in Death Valley and 2 nights in Yosemite (to allow for one full day hike).

Driving from Vegas to Death Valley (2 hours)

The drive is relatively short and easy and most people do it without stopping. The only added complication for us was that we were racing against a storm in the desert which would ultimately (although we didn’t know this at the time) close all roads in and out of the park!

death valley sky

The sky before the storm started to gather!

We chose a Dodge Challenger for our car but any car would cope perfectly fine with the terrain. Some people think you might need a 4×4 to take through the National Parks, but from what we saw a scooter would have coped, so don’t be up-sold on your hire car through fear of not getting up some small hills (unless they are expecting snow or something where you need chains,in which case you should listen).

Dodge Challenger

The hire car!

Staying in Death Valley:

We chose the Ranch at Furnace Creek as it was right in the middle of everything and directly on route.

It has it’s own diner, restaurant, pool and even a museum! It’s a stones throw from Death Valley visitor’s centre too, which is good because that’s as far as we could go once the roads were closed – and where the rangers are based.

 

The freak weather:

Death Valley is one of the driest place in the world, but obviously my ability to attract non-afro hair friendly weather isn’t unique to the UK.

The storm we raced past on the way to Furnace creek caught us up after lunch having caused flash floods which washed away significant portions of the park’s roadways. Everyone in the creek was grounded whilst the grey skies blocked most of the sun!

Death Valley floods

Those poor folks were trying to get back from Dante’s View when the mud slide decided to block the road! 

What we missed in Death Valley:

We had planned to go and see Dante’s view and Scotty’s Castle – both a 20 minute drive from the ranch, but both were closed off due to flood damage to the roads!

A Foodie’s Highlight!

We stayed in the ranch for our evening meal – partly because there are few other options. Being a captive audience, my expectations for the evening meal were relatively low!

As it happens, The restaurant at the Ranch is home to possibly the best steak in the world ever (that I have tasted, at least – I’m happy to be proven wrong should someone fancy feeding me even better steak)!

This steak comes on a plate the size of a Christmas turkey plate, still on the bone! Although our waiter advised it would serve two (much to Spence’s scepticism), it could easily have gone three ways! It was cooked to perfection – medium/rare, obviously – and was seasoned beautifully!

Excellent nosh.

Death Valley Steak

 

Driving to Yosemite (5-6 hours)

If it’s open, take the Tioga pass for some epic scenery and amazing views. The drive itself is pretty easy going, with a bit of a winding climb and some steep drops by the side of the road which might cause some vertigo sufferers’s to throw a wobbly.

The road is wide though and well maintained – if you’ve driven over the snake pass in the UK or around the mountain roads in New Zealand then this will be a walk in the park!

 

Tioga Pass snow

Snow on the mountains on Tioga Pass Road

Arriving in Yosemite

If you come in from Death Valley side, you’ll know you’ve properly arrived when you pass through the archway in the rocks – be prepared with your cash or park pass at this point so you don’t hold up the queue!

Yosemite Gate

There are plenty of car parks in the park itself which was handy given we had chosen to stay outside of the main park. Expect to walk 5-10 minutes from the car to the visitor’s centre.

The Hikes

Yosemite is a hikers dream! Much like the Lake District in the UK, there are several popular and well trodden paths you can choose to walk with little to no hiking equipment or experience. We chose the badly-named “4 mile trail” which is actually over 5 miles long and very much a ‘climb’ rather than a wander!

One of my colleagues said he had been up and down this path in around 3 hours, but when it took us 4 hours to reach the summit, we decided to take the tour bus back down to the car. We decided this was useful (rather than lazy) as the tour guide explained some of the traditions of the area and talked about the local wildlife, including mountain lions and bears!

It turns out that ascending the 4 mile trail was the equivalent of climbing over 350 flights of stairs – no wonder my glutes were on fire! The reward at the top is the amazing view of Half Dome and the valley from Glacier Point, which is well worth every step!

Glacier Point View

The view from Glacier Point

 

If you fancy a more leisurely stroll, try getting the bus to the top and walking down like most of the people we passed were doing!

If you’re feeling brave, you could try the 12-hour-round Half Dome hike, but be sure to check accessibility before you travel as the availability and safety of the route changes drastically with the seasons.

Novice Hikers Tips

Yosemite is a National Park and a place for wildlife so you need to be mindful of that fact. If you see a bear, quietly retreat if possible and drop your bag if it contains smelly food. It shouldn’t, because you shouldn’t have any smelly food on you!!! If you see a mountain lion, again retreat if possible but if it approaches the advice is to make yourself as big as possible so as to make yourself look scary. Think Scully from ‘Monster’s Inc.’.

If you’re not sure about anything – ask at the visitor’s centre before you set off for your hike!

Do not feed the squirrels, despite the fact that they brazenly court any human with any type of food. There are signs everywhere explaining why we shouldn’t feed them, but a surprising amount of people ignore them!

Yosemite Squirrel

Don’t be fooled into feeding this cheeky little b***er!

 

Yosemite Food and Drink

There are plenty of food outlets in the park, including a shop and cafe at the top of the 4 mile trail – near Glacier Point. There’s also the ‘Curry Village’ where you can find further food outlets. We didn’t eat there though so I can’t comment on the food!

Where to Stay

Staying within the park is significantly more expensive than staying slightly outside the park, hence why we chose the latter. We were not interested in camping so there was little benefit to being in the park itself for us.

Instead we chose to stay in nearby El Portal, a 15-20 minute drive from the middle of the park and very peaceful! We chose the Yosemite View Lodge which has two restaurants, large rooms, an on-site convenience store, several pools and great balcony views over a stream at the back of the lodges. Whilst not modern or particularly luxurious, the rooms were clean and well-equipped and the staff were great – all in all, pretty good value!

 

Yosemite View Lodge

The view from our balcony at Yosemite View Lodge

Other Top Tips:

Buy a park pass- either separate or multiple-multiple usually better value if you’re doing more than 2 parks. We didn’t realise this until we had been to 3 parks and the guy selling us the third pass thought that it was a good time to highlight the fact we had essentially overpaid.

Had we done our homework, we could have bought the multiple park pass and used it for Yosemite, Death Valley and Muir Woods)

Make sure you check the status of the Tioga pass on the internet or by asking at your hotel (who will receive road information from the park rangers). If the weather is so bad that there is a risk of road closure, they might advise an alternative (but quite a bit longer) route!

Over and out.

That’s a quick round up of what we did, but there’s loads of options when it comes to spending time in the national parks.

Here’s some of the best resources I found when planning our visit:

National Park Site

Good 4 mile trail overview

Dante’s view

Yosemite Hiking

Bye for now!

 

To Tour or Not to Tour?!

When is it worth booking a tour guide?

Visiting a new place can be daunting. You’re putting yourself in a foreign land, with only the knowledge acquired through Google, family, friends and your travel agent.

It’s easy to feel intimated or overwhelmed with the opportunities to explore. Just this morning I bobbed onto TripAdvisor to finalise my Barcelona 3 Night itinerary and  I was met with 558 things I could do as a tourist in Barcelona. That’s a lot to cram into a short city break – so how don we whittle it down?

One way to make sure you see the main sights is to book a tour, but with so many tour options covering so many different interests, it can be very difficult to decide whether to bother at all.

So when is it worth booking a tour? Let’s consider the pros and cons of organised tours… and the I’ll decide whether to bother booking one or not!

The benefits of a booking a guided tour

You don’t miss a thing

If you’re a bit lazy when it comes to pre-holiday research or you have serious FOMO, then booking a tour ensure you’ll see the main tourist hotspots and get an overview of the historical, artistic or natural significance of each site. Easy win!

The tour guides have geographical knowledge 

Being on a tour means you don’t need to concern yourself with the location of the places you’re going to visit. Be it a walking tour or a bus tour, if you’re a crappy navigator you could save yourself a lot of frustration by leaving directions to the experts.

If the places you’re visiting are quite spread out then a tour can actually be a cost effective way to transport yourself between them, so it’s still worth considering a tour even if you got your orienteering badge from the guides when you were 10.

History and Narrative

You get more from being guided by someone who has in depth knowledge of the cultural significance of a tourist attraction than by simply walking to it, looking and snapping pictures.

If you’re less inclined to read tourist information or buy a paper guide, then booking on a tour is a great way to get some background whilst you snap away on your camera and upload pictures to Instagram. Multitasking. Boom.

Exclusive access & Special treatment

Sometimes the tour companies have a deal with the attractions so you can effectively cut the queue and therefore see the attractions faster. Similarly, they might have access ‘behind the scenes’ so you might be able to get closer to some art, artefacts or simply a better view.

Security and safety

I’m not encouraging anyone to visit somewhere which is ‘unsafe’ but there are certainly places I would like to visit where there is economic deprivation and a higher risk of criminal activity. If I wanted to explore these areas I would book a tour because local knowledge and security would be important to my experience and would let me relax a little bit more (which is what I want from a holiday)!

guided tour

Some tours simply need a guide for safety reasons!

It’s efficient, and requires little to no planning!

Book a tour in a few clicks, turn up and let someone else do that hard work for you. It certainly sounds attractive!

When is it best to go it alone?

Irritating People

There are some really annoying people in the world and it’s very possible that you’ll be stuck on a bus with at least one of them for the duration of the tour. I’m a sociable person, but being forced to socialise with random people in a confined space is not everyone’s cup of tea!

Price

There are some tours which are ‘free’ or request only a small donation at the end of the tour. Others are pre-bookable with varying fees depending on the inclusive activities and the size of the group.

Either way,the decision to book a tour is obviously swayed by budget.

Sometimes you don’t want to see everything in the tour

If you only really want to see 50-75% of the places and attractions in the tour, is it really worth it?

When we visited Hong Kong, we took a half day tour and there were some things we weren’t that bothered about seeing (such as a jade showroom). Lesson learned? Only book tours which contain everything you want to see, but not much else.

Want to hang around somewhere longer?

When on a guided tour, you’ll typical jump off the bus and then spend a limited time at each ‘destination’ or ‘hotspot’ meaning you have to whizz round or at least be selective in what you do at each place.

Need a toilet visit? Might want to hold it in, or you could miss a priceless art exhibit.

When you want to ditch the watch

Spontaneity is something we often crave and cannot establish in our day to day lives. The constraints of our work schedules, workout schedules, meal times and fitting in family and friends lends itself to routine.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but when on holiday it can be nice to dance to your own tune. A tour is sort of more like a line dance than a freestyle twerk-in-the-kitchen whilst you’re emptying the dishwasher. I’m much more inclined to do the latter!

Ditching the tour and wandering around a city yourself means you can leave the watch in the hotel room and just wing it, which can be quite liberating in itself!

So what’s the verdict?

For Barcelona, I’ve studied the content of the top 10 tours (per TripAdvisor) and plan to visit them in my own time. The city is small enough to navigate easily myself and I want this break to be leisurely!

That’s not to say I wouldn’t book a tour again – just not this week!

Planning a trip? Head to the holiday planning page for more tips and tricks – or check out what I got up to in the places I’ve visited!

 

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!

 

 

 

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

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…