vacation planning

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 They still sell them, but the model has been superseded).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!

New York times square

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!

 

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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!

 

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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!

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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

 

 

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!

 

4 Nights in New York City – Late September

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

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

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

Staten Island Ferry (25 mins each way)

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

Ground Zero (30 mins without the museum)

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

Shopping & Sample Sales

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

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

Yankees Game (1 evening – 3-4 hours)

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

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

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

New York Yankees Game

Grand Central Station (20 mins-ish)

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

Times Square (1 hour – ish)

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

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

New York times square

The bright lights of Times Square at night

 

Brooklyn Bridge (30 min walk)

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

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

Brooklyn bridge

 

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

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

empire state building

View downtown from the Top of the Rock

 

Breakfast @ Sarabeth’s (1-2 hours)

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

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

Pancakes sarabeths

Amazing pancakes courtesy of Sarabeths, near central park

 

Central park (2 hours)

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

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

Squirrel central park

Getting Around

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

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

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

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

new york subway train

 

Food (all the time…)

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

pizza new york

This was apparently the best kosher pizza in NYC

 

Where did we stay?

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

What did we skip?!

Broadway

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

Statue of Liberty

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

Empire State Building

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

Ground Zero Museum 

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

Would I go back?!

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

The 5 Week Wanderer

3 Nights in Queenstown, New Zealand

Arriving

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

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

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

 

Skydive

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queenstown Skydive

Just casually dropping out of the sky!

Jet Boat Ride

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

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

Kjet queenstown

Clearly I didn’t take this photo.

 

Fergburger

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

Fergburger queenstown

Enjoying the first bit of my massive burger

 

Hiking Trails

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

Queenstown Remarkables

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

Steak

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

Lone star Steak queenstown

Cracking fillet steak.

Booking Activities

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

What did we miss?

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

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

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

Would I go back?

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

The 5 Week Wanderer

 

Planning a trip to Queenstown?

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

 

 

 

What Not to Miss: San Francisco

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

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

Tree Hugging Anyone? (1-2 hours)

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

muir woods tree

Bloomin’ Massive Tree – Muir Woods

Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge (2 minutes)

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

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

Golden Gate Bridge

Oh Heyyyy, Golden Gate bridge!

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

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

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

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

shopping san francisco

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

The Exploratorium (2-4 hours)

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

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

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

Alcatraz Island Tour (2-4 hours)

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

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

Pedal Power! (1-8 hours)

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

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

cycling san francisco

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

China Town (20 mins +)

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

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

Fleet Week (1 week event)

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

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

The Embarcadero & Markets (1-2 hours)

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

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

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

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

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

Oysters at Eagle Cafe, Pier 39, San Francisco

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

 

Palace of Fine Arts (30 mins+)

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

Palace of fine arts san francisco

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

What about the trams?

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

How could you leave out the famous Lombard Street?

We went. We saw. We were somewhat underwhelmed.

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

Considering a late night?

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

A quick nod to the less fortunate.

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

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

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

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

The 5 Week Wanderer

 

Holiday Maximisation Part 1.0

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

So what the hell does it mean?

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

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

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

Aren’t all holidays planned in Advance?

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

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

Holiday Planning Bali

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

Holiday Maximisation Steps

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

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

Other ways to make the most of your limited time

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

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

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

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

Untitled design-2

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

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

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