Baltic Beauty: How to spend 4 days in Tallinn, Estonia

Baltic beauty: How to spend 4 days in Tallinn, Estonia

If Tallinn doesn’t immediately spring to mind when planning a long weekend getaway then I urge you to reconsider! I recently visited Tallinn for four days and even managed to squeeze in a day trip to Helsinki. From the moment I arrived I was totally swept up in the history and atmosphere of the city; merely wandering through the old town alleys felt anachronistic. Amongst the tightly cobbled streets, exquisitely painted houses and the steadfast and dominant towers and walls which surround the old part of the city; I was captivated. With beautiful architecture, phenomenal café culture and plenty of things to do, Tallinn is truly a destination to rival other more popular European cities.

Getting to Tallinn

Flights to Tallinn operate regularly out of London Heathrow with carriers such as Finnair, British Airways and Ryanair. The flight time to Tallinn from London is approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes, which is very reasonable if you are only planning to travel for the weekend. I would recommend getting a taxi from the airport. Our journey took about 15 minutes to the St Petersbourg Hotel in the centre of the old town and we were checked in and were ensconced by the fire with a brew in hand within 40 minutes of landing.

Where to stay

We stayed at the luxury Hotel St Petersbourg in the centre of the old town. This hotel is perfectly situated at 7 Rataskaevu which meant that all the main attractions were within easy walking distance during our stay. The hotel is charming and dates from the 14th century; it also boasts the title of the oldest working hotel in Tallinn. The décor is warm and cosy yet with a stylish edge which provided the perfect setting for our Late October trip. Roaring fires and hot beverages greeted us when we arrived in the pouring rain late on a Tuesday afternoon.

Our room was immaculate and incredibly comfortable. Although we didn’t spend much time at the hotel; the comfort and service we received during our stay is worth a mention.

Breakfast was included as part of our stay and it was an absolute treat each morning! Having chosen to visit at the end of October the hotel was quiet and we ate three of our four breakfasts just the two of us, it was blissful! The usual buffet fare was on offer and there was a menu option as well. We opted for the menu option as the chilly weather outside prompted more of a substantial start to the day. Each morning my omelette was cooked to perfection and the coffee was always piping hot and beautifully crafted.

Where to eat

16 Rataskaevu, this place is unreal! The food, the service, the atmosphere, wow! This absolute gem was directly opposite our hotel and was our first point of call after unpacking. Having not made a reservation for lunch I was dubious about our chances of snagging a table based on the impressive reviews I had read; but as luck would have it, they had one available.

After procuring drinks we were given freshly made rye bread and given the personal touch of how it was made and why it is different to other breads from the region. In short it was moist, melt in your mouth breaded yumminess….we ordered another plate!

Our starters and main courses were presented like works of art with flavours to match. We left feeling full and ready to explore the city.

tallinn 5

Wild boar soup

tallinn 6

Slow roasted wild boar with roasted root vegetables

The service we experienced, very reasonable prices and exceptional food, there is little surprise why comments such as ‘Best restaurant in Tallinn’ are attached to this place. I would thoroughly recommend making a reservation so you don’t loose an opportunity when in town. On our final day we thought we would try our luck again however this time they were fully booked; but within minutes the waiter had phoned their sister restaurant Väike, and secured us a table.tallinn 21

If I am ever short of a plan of action my go to decision is always coffee and a cake. I havetallinn 24 to say that during our four-day trip this plan was very well executed! Tallinn, I discovered has a wonderful café culture which I was not expecting. Tucked away into the recesses of the ancient walls is Café Carissimi, we made thtallinn 20 (2)an a few stops here during our trip. The coffee was presented like miniature caffeinated works of art and the cakes and tray bakes were delicious! I can thoroughly recommend the marshmallow tart and the cappuccino.

No visit to Tallinn is complete without a hot beverage and something sweet at Café Maiasmokk, the oldest café in Estonia. This establishment is worth a visit to view the beautifully opulent marzipan room but also sample the sweet treats! I can recommend the Blackcurrant mousse cake….yummy!

tallinn 15What to do

City walls, towers & Gates

For any Game of Thrones fans a walk along the city walls is what I imagine it would feel like to wander round the battlements of Winterfell particularly as we visited on a very cold and blustery day. Touring the city walls and taking in the many towers which still remain from the medieval defences are a must when visiting Tallinn. Tallinn city walls are now a protected UNESCO world heritage site, this status does bring crowds however if you aim for late afternoon or early morning you should avoid the larger groups; leaving you free to get lost in a time long since passed.

Tallinn 1

Bastian Passages

Access to the passages can only be secured with a group tour ticket. Tickets can be purchased from the desk at Kiek in de Kök, the cannon tower.

The tour began with a short film explaining the evolution of Tallinn as a city and how it was often fought over and modified by the Danes, Germans, Russians and Swedes.

Going down into the tunnels felt as though you were descending into the depths of the earth, in reality you don’t actually go down that far! However, despite the relative shallow depth of the tunnels it is worth making sure you have a coat as it was pretty chilly down there!

As we wound our way through the myriad of tunnels each section had been well adapted to show how the passages were used during different periods of history. The bastion passages were a fabulous glimpse into

Town Hall Pharmacy or Raeapteek

tallinn 14The Town Hall Pharmacy is a fun little jaunt and a nice way to spend 30 minutes before dashing off to catch your flight or make your tour time elsewhere. This pharmacy is claimed to be the oldest dispensing in Europe dating from 1422. The Raeapteek has been a cornerstone to the daily lives of the residents of Tallinn and the work which was carried out has helped to shape the Estonian pharmaceutical industry. The Raeapteek provides a detailed history into the ownership of the pharmacy and the types of work and medicines they tallinn 16dispensed across the years. For those keen to explore more alternative remedies there is a price list and some very suspect items in jars showing the common goods to be prescribed in the middle ages. Burnt hedgehogs, dried deer penis, sun bleached dog faeces and stallion hooves were all popular medicinal options during the middle ages….I’m pretty glad that medicine has moved on….dried deer penis – no thanks!

Estonian History Museum (Guild Hall)

We visited the Estonian History Museum on our last day and arrived early – our early arrival paid off, as we were leaving a very large school group came in! It is worth bearing this in mind if you choose to visit outside of the school holidays. The museum was well put together and provided a well detailed account of the building and life in Estonia across the ages. The building itself if lovely and worth some time just taking in the architecture and craftsmanship. Entry to the museum costs €6 for adults and was well worth it as we spent a good 2 hours reading and taking in the information.

St Catherine’s Passage

tallinn 11This cute little passage way is worth a wonder down and provides some excellent photo opportunities! Walking down St Catherine’s passage really does feel like you’ve stepped onto the set of Game of Thrones, it is a true medieval street complete with tombstones lining the walls and some lovely little artisan shops.

Museum of Occupation and Freedom

Having visited Prague only two months prior to my trip to Tallinn my head was already swimming with information about the Soviet occupation of this area and how life had been for everyday people under the Soviet regime. The Museum of Occupation and Freedom was exceptionally well put together, it was informative, sensitively displayed and generated real feeling for the many thousands of Estonians who were affected or lost their lives during the occupation. I would suggest that you leave at least two hours to take in each part of the exhibition and take the time to listen to each part. Having known nothing about the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe it has been a sobering experience to learn so much in a relatively short space of time about a part of history which didn’t see these countries regain their independence until the 1991.

KGB museum

When my husband and I arrived at the KGB museum located inside Hotel Viru; we immediately and without foundation lowered our expectations. Our reaction was based on the hotel which seemed dated and full of overly touristy activities. First impressions can be deceiving! We had prior booked our tickets as you can only gain entry as part of a group tour, so I would advise booking in advance https://viru.ee/en

As we ascended to the top floor of the hotel it became clear that we were in for a treat and a glimpse back to life during Soviet occupation. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and had lived in Tallinn during the 1970’s and 80’s so knew about the history of Hotel Viru. As it turned out the hotel was a base for the KGB to observe foreign guests and employees. When the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991 the KGB vacated their ‘secret’ floor of Hotel Viru and much of what was left has been preserved today and turned into a museum.

The tour took around an hour and a half and it was so worth it! It was fascinating to see how established the organisation were in a seemingly average hotel and that even your dinner plate could be a listening device.

tallinn 17

St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The bold Russian architecture of St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral dominates the horizon tallinn 9at the top of the Toompea and is worth a moment of your time. I would however, advise that you don’t carve out any significant time in your schedule for a visit to the cathedral. Whilst the building itself is spectacular from the outside, inside it is very similar to most orthodox churches and you are not allowed to take photos. Inside the cathedral was busy and there seemed to be an odd juxtaposition between tourists pursuing souvenirs and those genuinely visiting to worship or appreciate the architecture.

 

 

Final thoughts

My short trip to Tallinn exceeded all my expectations and I am definitely keen for a return trip to explore outside of the city and see what the coast and national parks have to offer. If you are looking for a long weekend European city break then get booking Tallinn!

Happy travels

Jess

Hotel Review: 5* Shangri-La Al Husn, Muscat, Oman

Hotel review: Shangri-La Al Husn, Muscat, Oman

2017 was a pretty hectic year for both myself and my husband. In March we set about booking a holiday for the simple purpose of de stressing in the sunshine and get getting away somewhere neither of us had previously been to. With that pretty basic criteria in mind we found that British Airways had a brilliant deal of flights and hotel to the 5* Shangri-La Al Husn hotel in Muscat, Oman. After a quick perusal of what the hotel had to offer and some of the online reviews, we were sold and booked it that afternoon.

The main draw of the Shangri-La Al Husn is that although it is one of three hotels in a complex it is adults only. As a teacher I am surrounded by children all day so it was really important to me that our choice of hotel be suitable for couples and ideally adults only. On this front we couldn’t have made a better choice!

Getting to the Shangri-La Al Husn

We flew from Heathrow on an early evening flight and landed seven hours later in Muscat. Our arrival time was made slightly more civilised by the fact that Oman is 4 hours ahead of the UK.

Having chosen to travel in July it was not a surprise when we were greeted by a wall of sweltering heat as we stepped out of the airport. We quickly shed our travelling layers and headed for our taxi.

The journey from the airport took around 40 minutes and gave us an opportunity to take in some of the spectacular scenery Oman has to offer. Soaring rugged rocks and cliffs reminded me very much of the landscape of Tenerife. The whole process was nice and simple and having a pre booked transfer made life easy after a long flight.

First impressions

Muscat 5Driving up to the hotel felt like arriving at the Sultan’s palace Muscat 3from Aladdin. A beautiful plain façade with simply crafted archways which lead to a stunning interior. Colourful geometric patterns adorned the floors and walls and the long courtyard drew the eye all the way to the sea. As first impressions go the Al Husn is simply and beautifully striking. Our check in was quick and efficient and made even better with the addition of a glass of bubbles and a cold towel! It is these small touches that make such a difference. By the time we arrived at our room our bags were already there.

Our room, A Deluxe Sea View:

Our room was perfect. A blissfully cool retreat from the blazing hot sun, immaculately clean and tastefully decorated with a modern fusion of Western and Arabic design. The furniture was well selected to complement the style and the bed was very comfortable, it really was tough to get up each morning!

 

Muscat 1.JPGOur room was also perfectly situated with a stunning view of the sea and beach. That view at 10am on a 35-degree July morning was the perfect tonic and seemed to wipe away all my prior stress leading up to the holiday.

Hotel Complex

The Al Husn is part of a larger complex of three hotels; the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah and the Shangri-La Al Waha. Both the other hotels are more family orientated and were significantly busier than the Al Husn. It is also worth bearing in mind that the whole complex became busier at weekends as local Omani families came for a weekend break. The main impact of this was ensuring that you had made sufficient dinner reservations. However, the staff were more than helpful when it came to booking restaurants and organising dinner reservations.

Despite being part of a group of hotels the Al Husn certainly did not feel like it. The whole hotel was calm and a totally separate entity to the others.

As a guest of the Al Husn you could also use the spa facilities of the Barr Al Jissah, however the Al Husn has recently opened its own exclusive spa and fitness centre. This addition in my opinion will secure the absolute luxury status of this hotel and is a driving force in my eagerness to return!

Muscat 2

Pool and Beach

As a resident of the Al Husn you have full access to the private 100m beach, restaurants and spa facilities of the whole complex. Although the Al Husn has its own private beach, the long stretch of unspoilt beach connecting the Al Jissah and the Al Waha was too good not to take advantage of and made for a perfect post breakfast walk each morning.

The main pool at the Al Husn was a beautifully appointed infinity pool looking out to the calm waters of the Arabian Sea. Having travelled to Muscat in the height of summer, I spent a lot of time in the pool! It felt truly heavenly to wallow in cool water with a good book in hand.

Muscat 8

The pool accommodated around 20 guests and there were further sun beds on the terrace above and below by the pool bar and the lower level of the pool which was more of a shady run off for the infinity pool. The sun beds were set nicely apart and you weren’t too close to any other couple. Although there was space for lots of people during our stay the pool never had more than 15-20 people sat by it, limited numbers made for a really peaceful and relaxing stay.

The pool staff could not have been more attentive, they brought round a cool box with cold towels, cold fruit drinks and water multiple times a day so you were never at risk of dehydrating! The pool attendants also offered sunglasses cleaning and worked tirelessly to ensure that the pool environment was pristinely presented and offered pure relaxation for all.

Food & Drink

The British Airways deal was a bed and breakfast package so lunches and dinners were an additional cost. Each night we ate in the hotel complex and the food was superb! The Al Husn offers 2 restaurants available for evening meals and the beach bar; however as with all other facilities the restaurants of the entire complex are at your disposal.

My particular dinner highlight was without a doubt the meal we had on our last night at the Shahrazad restaurant in the Al Husn. The restaurant offers Omani, Moroccan and Lebanese cuisine with world class wines and live entertainment. I opted for a lamb tagine which was delicious! The Shahrazad is the signature restaurant of the hotel so the prices were not cheap however the quality of the food and service were well worth the price.

If you are a fish lover then the Bait Al Bahr must be on your dinner wish list. The seafood was stunning, fresh, flavoursome and all locally sourced. Although we only had 7 nights worth of dinner reservations to play with; we decided that the Bait Al Bahr needed two nights to sample its delicious offerings. I can thoroughly recommend the Sultan Ibrahim!

Every evening in the courtyard there were pre-dinner drinks and canapes all included

oman

Pre dinner drinks & canapes!

with your stay. Beer, wine, prosecco and a range of other beverages were all available without charge. When the sun went down and the temperature dropped (only slightly) this was the loveliest way to relax before dinner, indulging in a few cold beverages, miniature bites of culinary excellence and listening to the live music.

 

With the intensity of the heat we never felt that a proper lunch was needed however; the Al Husn offered a complimentary afternoon tea every day in the Sultanah restaurant. This luxury touch provided a soothing retreat from the heat of the day and the food presented was of the highest quality, we never left disappointed!

Final Thoughts

I loved this hotel and couldn’t have asked for more of my holiday. If you are looking for a totally relaxing time away then I cannot recommend the Shangri La Al Husn enough. I returned home feeling completely rested and ready to tackle life again! My short trip has me already planning a longer more adventurous stay in Oman.

Happy travels

Jess

 

Top 10 tips for planning a skiing holiday

 

  1. Choosing the right resort:

If this is your first time planning a skiing holiday choosing the right resort can seem daunting. There are a number of things to consider; from how friendly the resort is for beginners to the range of lifts, quality of terrain and snowfall to name just a few.

Whilst there are fabulous resorts across Europe, America, Canada and even further afield it is important to consider the needs of your group when picking where to go.

My family has generally always skied over New Year; however, can sometimes go as late into the season as Easter. As a group we have always had a range of different needs from total beginners, children and non-skiers, therefore resorts offering other activities have also been necessary. Hopefully this post will give you a few top tips for planning your own ski trip!

When to go?

Early December: This is often a good time for those on a tighter budget as many resorts offer half price lift passes. Just keep an eye on the forecast as there may be poor snowfall in some lower resorts. Generally, the higher a resort the better the snow, regardless of ability you will have a better experience if there is more of the white stuff to actually ski on! My resort recommendation for early December is Val Thorens, France, Zermatt, Switzerland or Mont Tremblant, Quebec, Canada. A short pre-Christmas trip can be just the thing to de stress before the chaos of Christmas. Just be aware that aware that the higher you go the chillier it will be so… pack your thermals!

Late December & New Year: This can be a great time to go away with the family and

skiing

Mont Tremblant, January 2016

resorts put on some excellent additional offers and activities over the festive period; however, the slopes, lifts and resorts are often very busy with like minded skiers and boarders. New Year can also be an expensive time to go as it falls over work and school holidays. That being said this is usually a brilliant time for snowfall. My recommendation for skiing over New Year is Val D’Isere, France or Mont Tremblant Quebec, Canada.

January: After the crazy Christmas and New Year rush, mid to late January is a good time to get a new year deal, the slopes are generally quieter as schools go back so you can have your pick of the resorts and all they have to offer. If you aren’t tied by school holidays this is your time go! Recommended resorts are Tignes, France, Val D’Isere, France or if you fancy a little further afield check out Beaver Creek, Colorado, USA.

February: Whilst the draw of a half-term get away might be pretty strong to escape those long dark days at home, this is peak time. The slopes will be busy and prices will rise. If you can avoid school half term holidays do so. February half term is also prime school ski trip season!

March & April: Warmer weather = slushy slopes however there are plenty of days when nothing beats perfect sunny but chilly conditions at some of the higher resorts. March is usually a better time to go for cheaper deals as prices rise again for the Easter break. Top resorts for March & April, Zermat, Switzerland or Tignes, France. Obergurgl, Austria is often recommended however from personal experience the snow conditions haven’t been great, Icy in the morning and slushy by the afternoon.

Skill level for your group

Whenever I have skied there has always been a range of abilities within the group, so it is important to choose a resort which caters for all levels. There is nothing worse than being a new skier and finding that the resort you have chosen only has a limited number of beginner slopes or being a little more adventurous only to find that the slopes are too simple and lack challenge.

Best resorts for beginners and improvers:

Tignes, France: Loads of beginner and intermediate slopes with easy access to the Val D’Isere slopes – just make sure you buy the right lift pass! Top runs for beginners to gain their confidence Henri (blue) & Borsat (green).

ski sign

Which way to go? Val D’Isere January 2018

Val D’Isere, France: –The Espace Killy is the highest extended ski terrain in the Alps and offers a really good range of slopes to suit all levels. Val D’Isere boasts 83 beginner runs, 46 intermediate runs and 25 advanced runs. Access to Tignes is possible with the appropriate lift passes. Personal favourites for easing into the day and gaining your confidence, Diebold (blue), Grand Pre (green), Col de la Madeleine (blue) & Verte (green).

 

Best resorts for intermediate & advanced:

Zermatt, Switzerland: Zermatt has 200km of well crafted piste and offers lift links to Cervina, Italy. Zermatt truly has something to suit everyone! Zermatt has extensive off piste skiing and two thirds of the runs are red, some have even been affectionately classified as ‘dark red’, hinting at the extended difficulty. Zermatt is undoubtedly a resort for more confident skiers looking for a challenge.

St Anton, Austria: St Anton is located in the Arlberg region of Austria. Renowned for the quality of the snowfall St Anton offers 340km of challenging slopes for intermediate and advanced skiers. Whilst there is some beginner provision St Anton lends itself to skiers looking for difficulty and those who are keen to hone their technique. There is also the world cup downhill slope or the seriously steep and testing north face of the Valluga…so if you’re looking to push yourself St Anton could be for you!

val d'isere

Beautiful wide open piste’s in Val D’Isere

Val D’Isere: If the thought of taking on a piste fit for Olympians is your cup of tea then give La Face a go in Val D’Isere. Val D’Isere also offers a huge range of lift served off piste skiing which should appeal to the more adventurous skiers! In addition to the variety of more challenging runs Val D’Isere offers wide intermediate runs to help you build your confidence and a good array of challenging red runs if you want to extend your skillset! My personal choices for challenge are Plan & Piste M (red), Santons (red) and if you’ve got tired legs then Piste L (blue) can be a tricky one to navigate!

All round resorts:

Vail, Colorado, USA – A great range of wide-open slopes and from experience excellent snow conditions. The terrain is enormous with back bowls, the front side and Blue Sky basin any skier has choice and challenge. Additionally, the Vail resort offers a huge range of additional activities so if you have non-skiers or just fancy an afternoon break to rest your legs there will be something to take your fancy. A brilliant resort if you are looking to change things up and venture outside of Europe.

Avoriaz, France – Great for families with ski in and ski out providing easy uncomplicated access to the slopes! Avoriaz has large ski school provision but do book in advance. There is a good range of runs, lots of blues, greens and reds to suit all levels. Avoriaz is also a great resort for those groups with non-skiers as there are walking trails, snowshoeing and Nordic walking all offered within the resort so your Après ski or afternoon off is well and truly taken care of.

When considering the skill level of your group you may also want to consider what other activities the resorts offer such as walking trails, gyms, snowshoeing, spa days or shopping. So, when picking your resort, do your research!

Hotel or Chalet?

Deciding what kind of accommodation, you would prefer is also a consideration. I would recommend a catered chalet for travel as a group as the chalet vibe can be much cosier and nicer when you return after a day on the slopes. Being able to chill in your matching family PJ’s and chat around a fire offers something a little more personal than a hotel. VIP Ski offer a good range of ski chalets across a variety of resorts.

However, if you do opt for the hotel option make sure you do your research as some resorts such as Avoriaz have a limited number of hotels. Whichever type of accommodation you go for I would always suggest that you go for ski in ski out. The ability to go down to basement get your boots on and hit the snow is a big plus and will make your days more enjoyable if you don’t have a 10-15min walk in ski boots with skis to the slopes.

2. Pack appropriately

 

Inappropriate packing is definitely something I have fallen foul of on occasion particularly if you are planning to ski in December-February when the weather can be very cold. Here are a few crucial items I would definitely pack for any ski trip:

– Merino Wool thermals.

– A good quality pair of gloves. Make sure that the gloves fit you properly and if you are prone to chilly hands then I recommend a liner glove to help keep in the warmth.

– High quality ski socks. I can honestly say that there is nothing more miserable than having cold feet at the top of a mountain whilst wearing rented boots! Aim for thick, warm and padded socks where you can. I get cold easily so often put a liner sock on first and this helps retain some of the heat.

– Ski jacket & Salopettes. Again, go for quality and find something which is going to keep you warm and is comfortable to move in. Don’t forget that whilst a tight fit might look cute you need a full range of movement.

– Ski boots. If you are looking to ski regularly then invest in your own boots. Find some that are comfortable and fit your foot well. Boots which are comfortable will make a big different to your enjoyment and your skiing. This is also 1 less thing to rent when you arrive.

– Thin layers. You can wear these over your thermals and they can easily be removed if you find yourself getting too warm throughout the day.

– Sun cream. This one is often forgotten about, however if you are skiing in March or April then the sun reflecting off that beautiful white snow can leave you with some impressive google burn!

– Helmet & hat. Helmets are a must have nowadays and can be rented at all resorts, however make sure that they are fitted properly and are secure. You may also want a thin hat for underneath your helmet. A hat is also perfect for keeping your ears warm wandering around the resort when the lifts shut.

  1. Health & Fitness

Skiing is fantastic fun but it does take a level of fitness and leg strength to really get the most out of your trip. It is always worth investing a little time prior to your trip to get ski fit. Even if you just go for a 20 minute walk each day or you decide to build in some weights to your normal gym routine it will pay on the slopes and you’ll more able to ski for longer and tackle some of those steeper routes.

If you have any prior injuries make sure they are properly checked out before you go. Skiing can be hard work on the knees and ankles so if you have old injuries which could flare up make sure you have packed a few support bandages just in case. Even a small niggle is worth supporting to prevent any greater injury.

4.Book ahead!

Wherever you can aim to book as many aspects of your trip as far in advance as possible. Booking in advance will save you time when you arrive at the resort. The last thing you want to think about it having to spend your first precious morning organising lift passes, getting children enrolled in ski school and sorting out ski hire.

Using a company such as VIP SKI can ensure that all your lift passes are ready for you when you are met at the airport. VIP SKI will also help you pre-arrange ski school and ski hire so that your arrival and first few days are as simple and as stress free as they can be.

https://www.vip-chalets.com/

  1. Transfers

The main gateway to the alps is Geneva airport. For those of you who have flown into Geneva airport during peak ski season you will know that it can be chaotic and slightly stressful! I would suggest that a private transfer from the airport is the way forward. This will allow you and your group to leave the airport quickly and will ensure a more pleasant journey up the mountain rather than waiting for one of the large group buses.

I would recommend www.suntransfers.com from previous experience the vehicles are clean and the drivers are knowledgeable, friendly and most importantly on time! VIP Ski also provide airport transfers and are again efficient, friendly and a good option for group travel.

If you choose to rent a car be sure that you check out the snow conditions and are prepared to drive in potentially tricky conditions if the weather turns on your way up the mountain. If renting a car is your preferred choice check with your hotel or accommodation what the parking options are. Many hotels won’t have a designated car park however there is normally plenty of parking within the resort.

  1. Boots

Ski boots, which ever way you look at it they will never be the most comfortable footwear! Whether you are renting boots or looking to buy your own make sure you always try them on with your ski socks. Thick ski socks will have an impact on the correct size of boot you should go for. Also like most shoes different brands and types will fit your foot differently so don’t just assume that the first one you try in your normal shoe size will be the best fit for you.

If you are considering making your ski trip a more regular event then I would recommend investing in your own ski boots. You can get some great deals and offers out of season and often the variety of boots you can buy compared to those for rent is considerably better.

  1. Route planning

Which ever resort you choose full piste maps can be found and downloaded online. It is worth spending some time before your trip looking at your options and planning out some of your time; this way you don’t have to stand at the top of the lift and work out which run you want to do or where you want to go! Route planning can be really valuable particularly if there are options to ski across to other resorts or there are different aspects of the resort such as back bowls or different sides of the mountain. Similarly route planning can also help you familiarise yourself with the runs available and can make navigating some of the trickier intersections where you have multiple routes crossing much easier.

  1. Forecast & weather warnings

Everyone has access to a weather app and it is worth keeping an eye on the changing conditions of the resort you are travelling to. Most hotel’s and accommodations will display the day’s weather and inform you of any warnings such as avalanche risk.

Take heed of warnings and make sure you follow all the signage at the lifts particularly if certain runs are closed. From experience injuries tend to occur when you decide to do ‘just one more’, the light is going and visibility can quickly disappear particularly if it decides to snow. Always finish the day on a high with a glÜhwein in hand!

tignes.JPG

Tignes, January 2018

  1. Ski school/ private lessons

Whether you are new to skiing or looking to refresh some of your skills, lessons can be a good place to start. Here are a few things to consider before you book your lessons:

– Does the ski school have a good reputation? What are the reviews like?

– Do the instructors speak your language? From experience it is really frustrating trying to learn a new skill when you are not sure what is being asked of you.

– How big are the groups?

– What qualifications do the instructors hold?

Also bear in mind that if you choose to go during school holidays know that ski schools will get pretty busy so book as far in advance as you can.

If you are skiing with a group and a few of you are on the same level then a private lesson can work well. I took a private family lesson in Vail, Colorado. I think I learnt more about improving my skiing in this half day lesson than I had in a 4-day ski school in Austria. For me; making mistakes around my family was a lot less stressful and as the instructors were fluent in English, I knew exactly what I was being told to do to improve.

  1. Enjoy & relax

Lastly remember to enjoy your ski trip! Often you will only book for 1 week so make the most of it, take each day at your pace and have fun.

Happy travels

Jess

The Lyngen Alps… a paradise in the Arctic Circle

If travel to the Arctic Circle conjures up evocative feelings of beautiful isolation laced with just the hint of a wild and honeyed siren song; then a stay at the Lyngen Lodge in the Lyngen Alps, north Norway will not disappoint.

FullSizeRender - Copy (4)

The view from the breakfast table

Lyngen Lodge is a beautifully appointed luxury hotel sleeping 16 guests in eight bedrooms. The décor is stylishly Nordic with a rustic twist. Every detail of the lodge has been considered for the utmost comfort whilst providing the full arctic experience. From the handmade slippers you receive on entry (they are unbelievably comfy, like a small arctic fox is giving your foot a cuddle!) to the outdoor suits which offer practicality and warmth for all your outdoor excursions. The charm of the lodge isn’t simply limited to slippers and adventurous outings; every afternoon on your return from a chilly mornings activity you are greeted with afternoon tea. Delightfully baked goods are varied, plentiful and combined with a hot beverage (my personal preference being a well brewed Earl Grey) overlooking the fjord, wrapped in a thickly knitted blanket I truly felt that I had perfected the Scandinavian art of hygge. Each afternoon spent at the lodge with a tea in hand and a moist slice of homemade cake left me feeling truly happy. I can honestly say that our stay over 4 days in February 2017 was the trip of a lifetime.

The lodge is located 2 and a half hours from Tromsø Airport. Direct flights are available with Norwegian airlines from London Gatwick and can be found for as little as £50. Luftansa, SAS and KLM all fly from UK airports to Tromsø, with the most common flight route having a short stop in Oslo.

IMG_4259

Views from the fjord crossing

With transfers pre-arranged and provided by the lodge the often-feared ordeal of airport transfer was remarkably stress free and provided a great opportunity to meet our fellow travellers. Our transfer took us via road and two fjord crossings providing the chance to savour the spectacular scenery which bombards the senses from the moment you step off the plane.

 

 

What to expect from a 4 day stay:

The beauty of the service offered by Lyngen Lodge is that each day’s itinerary is tailored to what you want to do. Activities range from dog sledding to a sea fjord safari. The choice and variety of activities offered played a big part in our choice of accommodation. Anyone who is lured to the arctic circle by the prospect of those elusive green lights should know that the Aurora Borealis do not always put in an appearance. If the lights do appear they are often shrouded in cloud so visibility can be poor, as we discovered on the first night. I eagerly stood outside in my pyjamas and ski jacket frantically snapping away at what can only be described as a faintly Absinthe coloured cloud – the hours went by with visibility not improving so I reluctantly took myself to bed. Therefore, it was important that the trip of a lifetime didn’t hinge on the hope of seeing the northern lights; although we were lucky enough to be dazzled by a wonderful display on our final night.

We opted for the dog sledding, snow shoeing and use of the mountain hut and the high frozen lakes adventure but other guests took part in Nordic skiing and a visit to local landmarks. All activities were run in groups of eight with the other guests at the lodge, however the snowshoeing and the mountain hut were run for just the two of us with a guide.

Dog sledding:

FullSizeRender

Speedy pooches!

I was totally unprepared for the overwhelming cacophony of noise which greeted me at the dog sledding venue. It was the loudest most excitable chatter of over 50 dogs chomping at the bit to get running and boy can they run! Our guides got us organised in pairs and gave us thorough demonstration of how to drive the sleds ourselves…. there was me thinking that I’d be sitting back taking in the view from underneath a warm reindeer pelt, how wrong I was! Doubts aside driving the sled was exhilarating; those dogs are immensely powerful and clearly love the chance to run through the endless expanse of snow-covered forest. My biggest issue when steering the dogs was I was all too easily distracted by the scenery and found myself face first in the snow on two occasions! After about an hour of being snuggled in the sled we stopped for lunch at an outdoor camp. Before this trip my relationship with salmon was limited to the smoked variety and generally only eaten at Christmas; for some unknown reason I had it in my head that I didn’t like it! After eating freshly caught and made salmon burgers perched in front of an open fire I am a true convert. That afternoon also introduced my senses to glØgg. GlØgg is the Scandinavian equivalent of mulled wine but, so, so much better. The glØgg we had that afternoon was warm, sweet and spiced all at once. There were layers of nutmeg, cinnamon and citrus which provided the perfect accompaniment to the food. Additionally the warm wooden cups got my numb fingers moving again and ready for the return journey back to husky HQ.

High frozen lakes adventure:

On day 2 of our arctic adventure we awoke to a huge dumping of fresh powder, the temperature had plummeted and we were heading up the mountain to the frozen lake for a spot of ice fishing.

Our transport up the mountain was on snowmobiles, this in itself was brilliant fun particularly when you get to sit back let the guides do the driving and you can take in yet more breath-taking scenery (the fresh snowfall dusting the fir trees up the mountainside really did make a wonderfully festive scene.)

I have to admit when we arrived at the frozen lake I had no idea. I didn’t see it at first until I was told I was standing on it! Overnight snowfall had completely covered its surface and it was perfectly camouflaged with the rest of the snowy gently undulating landscape. Simply finding the lake in those conditions was a testament how knowledgeable and experienced our guides were. Once we were set up on our individual

IMG_4368

Ice fishing is not my forte…

reindeer skins, we watched in awe as the guides drilled holes through the thick ice for us to fish in. I am not sure if it just wasn’t our day or the fish had relocated but none of us showed much aptitude for ice fishing, I managed to catch a stick….after much excitement thinking I’d caught a big one! However, our lack of a catch did not deter from the group banter and fun that was had that afternoon. From snow mobile driving on the frozen lake to races on small sledges towed by the snow mobiles all topped off with homemade salmon soup and a small snowshoe walk before our decent.

Snowshoeing & Mountain hut:

After a brief snowshoe taster the previous day, my husband and I were keen to go out venturing again. It wasn’t a problem for the lodge staff that we were the only two as there were ample guides to cover the other activities going on that day and it gave us a nice opportunity to spend some time together just the two of us. After being carefully fitted into our snowshoes we set off the lodge and heading up into the mountains behind. Whilst there was a significant amount of snowfall on the ground, it was actually quite a mild day and within the first 20 minutes I was regretting the number of layers I had opted for. Snowshoeing is a blissfully romantic way to take in the surroundings however it is hard work! I like to think I am a relatively fit person, but my legs knew they were working and the many layers were quickly shed as we forged a path up the mountain! This is such a brilliant activity but a good level of fitness and wellbeing is recommended. Our guide was knowledgeable about the area giving us snippets of the history and insights into the local community and he took us at a pace that was right for us. After we had looped back round towards the lodge, we descended to the mountain hut. A blissful snow-covered oasis with wisps of smoke beckoning from the chimney. The mountain hut offered a warm respite with glØgg, toasted marshmallows on an open fire and a panoramic view of the lodge and fjord down below. It was sitting in the mountain hut wrapped in a blanket that we witness the true majesty of the arctic weather. One moment it was bright, chilly and a few white clouds dotted the horizon the next moment the snow clouds lowered, they stalked along the edges of the fjord claiming all in their path. It was remarkable to watch. It was as if the world in this small microclimate was imploding in a frenzy of thick cloud and swirling snow. As quickly as it had occurred the snow laden clouds passed through our little part of the fjord and moved right along.

The food:

I couldn’t write this without a nod to the wonderful three course cuisine presented each night. The Lyngen Lodge website states that “our aim is for your food to look and taste as good as the view you’ll be looking at across the fjord at the table” and they did not disappoint on either front. The fare offered at each meal was superb; evening meals were three courses of hearty, warming goodness ranging from reindeer to halibut. However, all dietary requirements could be catered for. All the ingredients are sourced locally which added yet another special layer to this already fantastic trip. The food was fresh, beautifully prepared, mouth wateringly tasty and most importantly was of the environment; giving us a better understanding of the flora and fauna from this magical place.

All the food is included in your stay aside from alcoholic beverages which are additional. The lodge offers an excellent range of wines and spirits and the staff were incredibly knowledgeable about which wine would suit the food they were serving.

Lunches are provided on the go and were always suitably warm and substantial to keep you going with your adventurous activity. Although lunches are mostly eaten alfresco at whichever activity, you are doing they are always freshly prepared and when served with a warm glØgg and stunning scenery it is pretty much perfect.

FullSizeRender - Copy

A lunchtime feast in the forest

What to pack:

For those of you looking to capture the perfect shot of the dancing lights as they waltz through the night sky then you will need some sort of photographic device. I am not a techy person, so I was armed with my trusty iPhone. On the first night our hosts gave us a short presentation about the lights and helped everyone set up their cameras with the best settings. For those of us with iPhones, they recommended the best apps for capturing those all-important moments. The brilliant thing about sharing the lodge with other like-minded people over 4 days is that you bond pretty quickly and where photos were concerned everyone was happy to air drop and share their beautiful snaps when the aurora finally lit up the sky on our final night.

FullSizeRender - Copy (6)

Northern lights….absolute magic.

February in the Lyngen Alps can see temperatures as cold as -11 degrees so if you are planning to visit in the winter months be prepared for some chilly weather. As well as merino wool thermals I packed as if I were going on a ski trip, lots of thin layers, good quality socks, salopettes and of course ski jacket, the latter was essential on the fjord crossings as I didn’t want to miss a moment of the beautiful scenery so opted for a spot out on deck. The clean icy air cut through the fog of all-day travel and provided a blissful relief from my winter sniffles.

However; if you don’t already have ski wear then the lodge does provide all in one Arctic suits and, to be honest this was the option I chose for all of our daily outings. The lodge also offers sturdy water proof footwear and all specialist equipment.

The service, sense of adventure, activities and warm friendly environment created by Lyngen Lodge and its staff was outstanding. With an ever-growing list of summer and winter adventures on offer I know this is a place I haven’t quite got out of my system, it is totally infectious and certainly gets under your skin. I will definitely be back!

Happy travels

Jess

 

Eating Like A Local in Prague

Normally when I book a trip I like to do a little research on the best restaurants and local places to eat. I have always been a firm believer that if you want to get a real feeling of the place then eating local food, in restaurants frequented by the resident population is a good place to start.

After some careful reading and research on the various food tours offered in Prague I chose the Eating Europe, Prague Food Tour. I selected the four-hour tour which promised “Old world charm & local history told through cuisine”, on all fronts I was not disappointed. Four hours spent in the company of Neil our guide was both delicious, insightful and left me feeling like another trip to the Czech capital was needed!

The trip to Prague was a surprise for my birthday this summer so I booked rather late on to the tour however, we managed to snap up 2 places on a Monday morning commencing at 11.30am. I would definitely recommend booking as far in advance as you can, particularly during the summer months. Although this is a mid-morning start time I would hold off on the big breakfast as four hours of food, even with bite sized portions left me feeling very full and in need of a nap!

  • Dreams are made of…gingerbread:

 

gingerbreadWe arrived at what can only be described as a real-life gingerbread house, it looked super cute with beautifully baked and iced treats adoring the doorway and the aroma was incredible. As soon as we walked in we were met by our guide Neil; although originally from Scotland his knowledge of local history and food was detailed and brought to life with stories from his Czech wife and in laws of their experiences living and growing up in the Czech Republic. We were lucky enough to have Neil to ourselves for the whole tour!

The shop is called Pernickuv Sen, located at Hastalska 21 which is approximately a ten-minute walk from the Powder Tower. Pernickuv Sen is owed by two sisters in law who create and ice some of the most beautiful gingerbread creations.

Our first tasting comprised three different traditional cookies, my favourite was definitely the poppy seed kolache however my husband preferred a crumblier vanilla flavoured cookie. As we devoured the cookies we heard how they were made and some of the stories behind their creation.

  • 2 slices of bread are overrated:

 

FullSizeRender - Copy (7)Having visited Norway, Sweden and Denmark open faced sandwiches are a common place food however there are few which rival the taste and careful craftmanship of those presented at the Sisters Bistro. The Sisters Bistro takes classic Czech flavours and brings them into the 21st century with stunning presentation and bold flavour combinations.

Our guide liked to see how many flavours we could identify in each of the mini sandwiches, needless to say my taste buds were far superior compared to my husband! We tried three different offerings, my personal favourite a beetroot and goats cheese sandwich. There was also a ham and boiled egg and a shredded cabbage with fresh tomato. When presented with the ham and boiled egg morsel Neil informed us that this was the height of Czech party food, good to know!

  1. Meat, meat, meat:

Without even moving from our little table Neil whipped away the empty sandwich plates and returned with a platter of meaty goodness from the butcher Nase Maso. Naso Maso state that they are a “Small butchers with a big heart” and it is clear from the bustling huddle keen to get in and snag a lunchtime hotdog that this small local butcher is attracting a lot of love from local Praguers. Not only does Naso Maso serve pre-cooked meat products but you can also select your meat have it cooked in front of you and you’re good to go. The owners have also sweetened the idea of waiting for your meat to cook by installing a beer tap so; with a cold one in hand you are free to thoroughly enjoy the whole experience.

The smell from coming from the plate in front of us was intoxicating, sweet, juicy and lightly caramelised. Neil carefully directed us first to the ham then onto the sausage. Whilst the ham was delicious, soft and melt in your mouth it was the sausage which truly reminded me why I am not a veggie! The first sausage we tried was affectionately called the ‘little fat boy’; reason being that it is a small, short, fat filled sausage. This little delicacy burst with flavour and the mustard accompaniment provided the perfect balance to the rich flavours. After devouring the ham, sausage, bread and gherkins I needed a walk!

meat.jpg

As we left Nase Maso we were able to walk past the long window showing the butchers in action, this visual spectacle seemed to be getting as much attention as those eagerly waiting for their food.

  • Soup in the bell tower:

 

After a short but much-needed walk (despite the 30 degree heat!) we arrived at a rather imposing yet unassuming venue for a restaurant. Our walk to Restaurant Zvonice was filled with insightful glimpses into times gone by helping to give a really good background to the city.

Restaurant Zvonice occupies two floors of the Gothic bell tower. The bell tower comes complete with 15th century bell and enormous yet characterful oak beams. As we sat down Neil informed us that we would again be guessing the ingredients of our soup. We were presented with a generous portion of steaming hot soup; not quite the dish of choice for a swelteringly hot August day but this reimagined Sauerkraut soup was a true and unexpected treat. The sauerkraut was mixed with potato, ham and cream, the result was a lightly pickled warming and hearty soup.

Even if sauerkraut soup isn’t your thing then the view from the bell tower is pretty impressive and worth the trip!

  • Czech Tapas:

 

Next on the menu was a tapas restaurant with a twist. We arrived at Špejle at lunchtime and already the tables were filling up. Špejle are small wooden skewers mostly used for shish kebabs. Špejle use these little wooden skewers in all of their delicacies. Their concept is brilliant; you choose whatever delights you like hot or cold, you are then charged for the number of skewers you accumulate over the course of your mczech tapaseal.

Our tapas treat was a beautifully cooked duck breast partnering a dumpling loaded with cranberry and red cabbage on the inside. The dish was topped off with crunchy fried onions and washed down with crisp, sharp Czech cider. Although it was bite size this was more than enough to satisfy any lunchtime munchies.

I would recommend prior booking at Špejle as their growing popularity for flavoursome food presented in a new and quirky way is gaining momentum.

  • Svickova; a Czech tradition:

 

As we made our way to our final destination we stopped for a while in Wenceslas Square where Neil gave us a brilliant insight into what had occurred there during the Soviet occupation and why it was such an important place. It was fascinating to stand in the square which we had read so much about at the Museum of Communism and join together some of the dots.

Our penultimate dish was in Neil’s opinion worth waiting for and was set to be the highlight of our tour. We arrived at Café Louvre; a beautifully grand building with a significant history. After learning that Einstein and Kafka used to frequent these rooms I was eager to get inside!

Our first dish was Svickova, a traditional Czech dish made with a spiced root vegetable sauce, beef steak, cranberry sauce, slice of lemon, 2 fluffy dumplings and of course a generous dollop of whipped cream. When the curious dish was presented in front of me I wasn’t quite sure where to start it seemed to be a strange combination between main course and dessert. However, Neil stepped in and advised that everything should be mixed together into the vegetable sauce (which I was reliably told when cooked properly should have more of an orange/yellow colour rather than the much darker alternatives often served in some of the more touristy spots). Well my first taste blew all my scepticism away, it was delicious! The only down side being that after so much food and drink that afternoon I struggled to finish it off.

food tour

  • Finale:

 

cafe louvreOur tour concluded with a final course at Café Louvre; traditional apple strudel with whipped cream and vanilla custard. Now, I am not a fan of cream or custard however the pure unadulterated strudel was warm, lightly spiced with melt in your mouth pastry. The Czech’s really know how to make a strudel, you can find this staple dessert on most menus across the city.

The Eating Prague tour was an excellent way to spend our last day in the city and I would thoroughly recommend it.

Food tours can be booked on the eating Europe website https://www.eatingeurope.com/

Happy travels

Jess