Budapest: A chilled weekend guide for exploring culture and history in the Hungarian Capital

Budapest has been on my list of weekend destinations for some time. It is undoubtedly beautiful, steeped in history, culture and if you ignore the stag parties (Which it’s pretty easy to do!) I think it is a somewhat underestimated European city.

Towering fairy tale spires, romantic gothic churches and the pockmarked buildings bearing their war wounds; Budapest’s architecture, culture and history are enough to rival Paris or Prague. With easy navigation through the cities two halves, Buda & Pest and very reasonable prices all make Budapest a fabulous option for a weekend visit.

Our weekend in Budapest was a much-needed break from our hectic jobs, and I was looking to redress the work-life balance for 48 hours. With this in mind, I wanted a luxurious weekend with a slightly more chilled itinerary and Budapest more than delivered.

Getting to Budapest

As we are bound by our working schedules, we took a late flight, 8.45 pm out of London Heathrow and we were on the ground, transferred to the hotel and checked-in by 1 am. Although it was a late arrival, it meant that we got all day Saturday rather than losing our Saturday morning to travel. Flights to Budapest operate regularly from London Heathrow with carriers such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France and Swiss International airlines. We took a taxi from the right outside the terminal which proved no issue as there were plenty to be had. The service was efficient, clean and reasonably priced around 6500HUF (£17-£20). For flights arriving after 10 pm, I would recommend a taxi as there are limited public transport options at this time.

Where to stay

Hilton

We booked our trip as part of the British Airways Hotel and flight deal, which is great IMG_9287.JPGservice allowing you to specify star rating, dates and price for your accommodation. We opted for the five-star Hilton Budapest located in the Buda Castle District. This was absolutely the best choice. Our room was a King guest room was a gorgeous view of Matthias Churchyard. The room was spotlessly clean and the staff couldn’t have been more helpful during our stay. Late check-in, storage for bags and sorting out room keys niggles; there was no problem they weren’t willing and happy to help with.

One of the biggest perks of the Hilton was breakfast. When I have the time, I’m a big breakfast fan. The Hilton offers the usual smorgasbord of continental and hot breakfasts including some phenomenal omelette offerings from the resident egg chef. However, food aside, it’s the view from your breakfast table that can ignite your appetite for adventure. I would advise arriving fairly early between 7.30 – 8.30am to breakfast to secure one of the window tables.

What to do

Bus Tour

This was a new one for my husband and I. Normally we would opt for solely exploring the city on foot. However, after a few hours of exploration in the blistering heat, the kind of heat where you can smell the asphalt, we came across the Big Bus tour. A Deluxe Ticket came with hop on and off for three days, River Cruise, Buda Castle Shuttle return, Night Tour and Guided Walking Tour. With so many options we felt it would be beneficial in helping us see more of the city in a short space of time. The ticket cost €36 and was worth every penny.

The bus stops are easily located across the city and the historical commentary you can plug into was particularly interesting. Driving past seemingly unremarkable buildings to discover they have a detailed and fascinating history. Such things we would never have known by simply wandering past on foot.

River Cruise

Take to the water. As part of our Big Bus ticket, a river cruise was included. We opted for the sunset cruise on Saturday evening. Watching the sunset above the city from the water brought a whole new perspective on our trip. The commentary was detailed and informative and helped to make sense of the history on both sides of the river. Snacks and drinks were also available throughout the cruise.

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Buda Castle – Budapest History Museum

I absolutely recommend a walk around the castle district and Buda Castle itself. Despite various reconstructions healing the wounds of war the whole area and particularly the medieval part is still completely charming. Although Budapest is littered with museums and galleries, we opted for the Budapest History Museum. We wanted to experience a broader history of the city, and the Budapest History Museum was perfect. The exhibitions depict the 2000 years of Budapest’s turbulent history. From the Austro Hungarian empire to the horrors of World War Two.

The Budapest History Museum is open from Tuesday – Sunday between 10 am – 6 pm with an adult ticket costing 2400HUF.

Margaret Island

Imperiously sitting in the middle of the Danube is Margaret Island. Margaret Island is 500m wide and 2.5km long but, despite its small size, this gloriously green public park is packed with things to do. The island is located between Árpád Bridge and Margit Bridge and is easily accessed on foot.

For such a meagre strip of land, Margret Island boasts a varied past. From Royal hunting Snapseed - Copy (13).jpggrounds, the victim of a great flood in 1838 to the site of a Dominican Nunnery where King Bela famously sent his daughter Margaret after the Mongols departure from Hungary. Since that time the island has been known as Margaret Island.

We spent a very pleasant hour or so meandering around the park, taking in the musical fountain and availing ourselves of the various ice-cream sellers.

Buda Tower

Snapseed - Copy (7).jpgOnce part of the 13th Century Church of St Mary Magdalene, this stunning tower is all that remains after the church was heavily bombed during World War Two. A trip to the top is absolutely worth the panoramic views of the city. Be warned it is high, but the areas are enclosed and the steps although steep do have handrails.

A ticket costs 1500HUF but there are significant discounts for students or those who hold a Castle Shuttle Bus ticket. The Buda Tower is open every day from 10 am to 6 pm. Please be aware that opening times are different if you are visiting during January or February.

 

Fisherman’s Bastion

The Fisherman’s Bastion is one of the best-known landmarks in Budapest. It is located inIMG_9290.JPG the Buda Castle district; you simply can’t miss it. Stepping out of the Hilton Hotel, you are confronted with a fairy tale fortress with turrets, spires and mock Bastion features. My initial thoughts were it looked significantly different from the other historical buildings I had seen so far, beautiful, yes, but somehow artificial. The Fisherman’s Bastion was built in the 19th Century to serve as a lookout over the city. The purpose of the Bastion has never been used as an actual fortification for Buda.

As a lookout over the city, the Fisherman’s Bastian more than delivers. Panoramic views sweeping across the skyline in both directions. You’ll be spoilt for choice of which vista to snap.

Parliament

Budapest’s parliament building is hard to miss. It stands as a striking, landmark on the banks of the Danube. Any guesses as to which other famous European parliament influenced its’ design…

I had heard you could tour the parliament so as we circled the imposing spires to find the entrance, we were disappointed to find parliament was unexpectedly closed to the public due to an event. Disappointment aside a tour of the parliament is yet another reason for a return visit.

If you want to avoid our planning blunder then do book your tour tickets ahead of your trip via the Hungarian Parliament website: http://hungarianparliament.com/tours/

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Thermal Baths

So, this one is on every Budapest list of things to do I read. Public baths in Budapest have been around for centuries. Sitting on a matrix of 125 thermal springs, marinating in warm water has been part of everyday life since Roman times. Sadly, an afternoon ‘taking the waters’ wasn’t an option. With time being short and the weather being unbelievably hot we didn’t make it to one of the thermal baths. However, I had read up on which one to visit. My top three choices for thermal baths would have been

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  1. Gellert Baths: These smaller baths were top of my list. I didn’t want to go somewhere that would be completely swamped with tourists. I had also read the Gellert Baths have some of the most beautiful Art Nouveau décor seen anywhere in the city.
  2. Danubius Health Spa Margitsziget on Margaret Island: This was my second possible option. Although this modern spa lacks the old-world charm of some of its more famous counterparts, it does offer an extensive range of spa treatments. Feeling in need this weekend for a bit of pampering I put the Danubius Health Spa Margitsziget up there on my list.
  3. Szechanyi Baths: Finally, although I would have preferred a smaller bathing environment to escape the tourist crowds the Szechenyi Baths boast fifteen different pools and is undoubtedly one of the largest public baths Budapest has to offer. If a large scale, wedding cake experience is what you’re after then the Szechenyi Baths should be on your list.

Hospital in the rock

Everyone I had spoken to before going to Budapest had recommended the Hospital in the Rock. This was one attraction, firmly etched on my list of places to go. The Hospital in the Rock is part of a six-mile system of caves and tunnels used during World War Two. During World War Two it was a working hospital caring for the bombing victims and soldiers alike. The hospital was called back into service in 1956 during the revolution. The hospital was expanded to meet the potential growing threat of chemical and nuclear attacks during the Cold War.

Locating the museum initially felt like a bit of a mystery, and I sure do love a mystery. There were well-labelled maps in the castle complex, shiny billboards informatively suggesting we were but a short walk from the museum, but it did not appear. We must have walked around the uppermost part of the castle complex a number of times to no avail. I blame the 34-degree heat! Anyway, as if by magic on our second day and umpteenth loop we came across a lift shaft and staircase with a small sign indicating we were finally on the right track. At the bottom of the stairs turn right and nestled into the rock as you would assume was the museum, unimposing and humbly fronted it might easily have gone unnoticed if you weren’t on the hunt.

The museum was fascinating, horrifying and completely immersive. Photography is not permitted inside but I was honestly far too engrossed in my surroundings to think about taking pictures. Some images that stay with you without the need to scroll through your camera roll.

Nuclear war preparation films, operating rooms and wards the information and displays were informative and engaging. If you are visiting Budapest then the Hospital in the Rock should be at the top of your itinerary. My only caveat is that the tunnels are cold so take a jumper!

Where to eat & drink

New York Café

Whilst trying to ignore the sweat that was definitely turning my white t-shirt a fetching shade of translucent and listening carefully to the audio commentary on the bus my attention was piqued by the mention of The New York Café. The New York Café was a favourite haunt of writers, creatives, artists and newspaper editors. So, with literary history just around the corner, we decided we would make a beeline to the New York Cafe for dinner.

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I’m unsure what I was expecting but it wasn’t the elaborately decorated, multiple chandeliers imposing themselves on the room and intricate frescos lined walls that greeted us. Visually, it was stunning.

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The New York Café serves a variety of traditional Hungarian cuisine, more modern classics and of course a plethora of simply splendid cakes.

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Mazel Tov

Book. Book. Book. I’ll say it again…book. If you want to enjoy the gastronomical delights Snapseed - Copy (12).jpgof this Jewish Quarter garden party then you’ll need a reservation. We first tried for dinner on Saturday night to no avail but were lucky enough to grab a spot on Sunday lunchtime. Mazel Tov is a Middle Eastern restaurant set in the Jewish Quarter of the city. It has the ruin bar ambience combined with a conservatory. Cascading plants tumbling from the gallery perfectly set against the industrial interior design.

The cocktails and a Shawarma grill plate made for a perfect Sunday lunch.

Ruin Bars

Budapest now boasts a plentiful supply of these quirky secluded bars. Ruin bars litter the Old Jewish Quarter which was left to deteriorate after World War Two. The bars have popped up in the abandoned shells of buildings, shops and factories. Décor in the bars range from car boot sale chic to your nans living room circa 1970, whatever you choose you’re in for a visual and unusual treat.

Sadly, our Saturday night plans were cut short as I succumbed to the slightly less pleasant symptoms of heat exhaustion but a ruin bar beverage is up on my list for a return trip to the Hungarian capital.

Final Thoughts

Our weekend in Budapest was rammed full, blisteringly hot and proved to be a wonderful weekend escape. As with all our weekend adventures I left feeling keen to return and unearth more cultural gems of this glorious city. I would love to return in the winter months. I reckon a marinade in the world-famous baths with snow falling around you would be fairly close winter weekend perfection.

Dubrovnik to Mostar: A 1 day itinerary from the Croatian coast

Stari Most, the Old Town Bridge of Mostar has become a bit of a siren song for travellers in recent years. Admittedly, I had seen pictures of the exquisitely sweeping, half-moon structure with the crystal-clear blue river dancing beneath, but I genuinely had no idea where in the world this beautiful scene was.

Whilst planning my recent trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia I discovered that a day trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina was entirely possible. After a little more research on the rich history, culture and what to do in the city of Mostar I was sold.

Mostar is located around fifty miles from Dubrovnik and is a two-and-a-half-hour direct drive. Bosnia and Herzegovina is not currently in the European Union, as such your passport is essential on this trip.

Who to travel with and how to get there

Walking around Dubrovnik you have your pick of tour agencies and companies offering day trips. I opted for Laus Travel. Laus Travel has a comprehensive website, a 2018 certificate of excellence from Trip Advisor and everything can be booked online. The backing of Trip Advisor did give me a little comfort in the knowledge that I had booked a quality and reputable trip. The tour cost £43 which included travel, professional guide and all local fees and taxes.

I received confirmation from Laus Travel within an hour of booking. All the relevant details of our collection point and key information for also provided, notably “don’t forget your passport!”.

Our collection point at the Pile Gate at 7.20 am was a five-minute walk from our hotel in the Old Town. From there we were taken to the main meeting point where we transferred to a larger more comfortable minibus for the day. Our party was a small group of twenty-eight, so it never felt too crowded or chaotic. The early start was, unfortunately, necessary as you never know how long the border crossings are going to take. Thankfully there is a coffee stop around 9 am, then a brief onward journey to our first stop. Despite spending a considerable chunk of our day on the bus, Sylvia was a brilliant storyteller and historian. The time just slipped away as we were all engrossed in our history lesson.

Kravice Waterfalls

First stop of the day was Kravice Waterfalls in the Herzegovinian region of Bosnia. The waterfalls are nature at it’s very best. With twenty falls tumbling over the edge of limestone cliffs, it’s clear why this natural beauty spot has been protected by the state government.

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Entry to the falls cost an additional €5/40Kuna to your tour price although prices do vary depending on the time of year you visit. We visited late October which is off-peak close to the tail end of the season. The primary benefits of visiting in late October were the lack of tourists and the weather was still gloriously warm and sunny. Other than our group of twenty-eight, there didn’t appear to any other travellers visiting. Exploring a place without the buzz of hundreds of tourists is definitely a bonus and made our visit feel a little more intimate.

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Our tour stopped at the falls for around an hour which was plenty of time to experience the area and the falls close up. Boat trips into the lake are available for €5/40Kuna and last around twenty minutes.

Stari Most

Stari Most or ‘Old Bridge’ is probably the most iconic landmark in Mostar. The bridge has connected the two halves of the city since it’s initial construction between 1557 – 1566. IMG_0136.JPGThe gloriously curved half-moon archway, originally commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent stood the test of time until it was brutally destroyed in November 1993 by Croatian artillery. The new bridge, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was finished in 2004. The reconstruction is a delicate, sensitive and accurate restoration using original sixteenth-century building techniques. The final result is an awe-inspiring piece of engineering and every bit as magnificent as it’s sixteenth-century counterpart.

For the best views of the bridge, I would head to any one of the cafes which line the banks just off the main bazaar. Alternatively, amble down to the shores on either side and lookup.

A small word of caution when crossing the bridge – it is incredibly slippery! The beautiful stone which perfectly reflects the golden sunlight will play havoc with footwear with poor grip. My crossing in flip flops had me diving for the side rails just to retain my balance.

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Food & Drink

Before leaving the bus, our guide Sylvia gave us a list of local foods we should try for lunch. Sylvia also recommended trying a traditional Bosnian coffee.

We opted for the first and largest café on the right-hand side of the Eastern side of the bridge. There was a large outdoor courtyard with unobstructed views of the bridge. We were still confident at that point that we might catch a glimpse of some bridge diving. Sylvia was not wrong when she said your money goes a long way when it comes to food in Mostar. We ordered two soft drinks and two plates of Ćevapi and the final bill was under £10.

Ćevapi is a traditional dish, consisting of small rolls of grilled lamb or beef served in pita bread with onions, chips and salad. I’m fairly sure the chips and salad have been added to appease the hungry tourists rather than being a staple part of traditional cuisine. But it did the job and, the whole thing was delicious.

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Before heading back to the bus, we decided to try the coffee, both my husband and I are avid coffee drinkers so this was a caffeine encounter we were willing to try. Sylvia’s tip had been to put the whole sugar cube in the cup then stir, of course, the traditional Turkish option of putting the sugar in your mouth first then drinking is also an option. Liking to keep my sugar consumption to a respectable minimum I thought I’d try the coffee without any sweetener to start…bitter, grainy and oh my life that’s just not pleasant. I opted for the whole cube in the cup, and the result was a much tastier caffeine fix. To sweeten the deal further our coffee was served in an exquisitely worked copper pot with a fabulous Aladdin’s cave vibe and topped off with traditional Turkish delight flavoured with nuts.

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Neretva River

IMG_0116.JPGThe beautiful blue Neretva River runs through the centre of Mostar splitting the town in two. It is possible to swim in the river, but I would recommend visiting in the summer months when the water temperature is a little warmer!

One of the main spectacles on the river is the locals who fearlessly jump the seventy-eight feet into the depths of the river below. Sadly, we didn’t see anyone jumping on our trip but there were several local men in swimming shorts who looked ready and were waiting for the opportune moment. The Stari Most bridge and the Neretva River have drawn worldwide attention with Red Bull using the location for the 2015 World Cliff Diving Championships. Whilst it is an incredible spectacle, jumping from the bridge is best left to the trained professionals that is of course unless you are a hard-core adrenaline junkie and have some seriously good travel insurance.

Old Bazar Kujundziluk

On either side of the bridge are tightly packed, slightly tipsy sixteenth-century buildings jostling for prime position on the cobbled streets. Each building houses different handmade crafts and artisans’ workshops. From intricate works of copper to traditional woven carpets and jewellery, the Old Bazar has a lot to offer. Yes, there are some standard tourist tat offerings but in amongst that are some real gems. During the Ottoman period, there were over five hundred workshops occupying these small streets, making the Old Bazar a real hive of historical commerce. So, if like me you love a good nose around take a trip into some of the shops and workshops to really soak up the history or snap up a bargain.

Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque

A short walk down the Eastern side of the bridge you come to the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. The Mosque dates back to 1618 and is accessed from a small courtyard. Sadly, the Mosque was significantly damaged during the war but has been carefully restored whilst still leaving some signs of the devastation which befell it during the 1990s. Entry to the Mosque is 12Kuna and is available to anyone of any faith. The only time when access to the Mosque may be restricted is during prayer times. Additional layers of clothing for legs, shoulders and heads are provided for both men and women at no extra charge.

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We opted for the Mosque, Parapet and Minaret ticket at a cost of 12Kuna. Inside the Mosque the main prayer room is simple yet beautiful. Botanical motifs decorate the domed ceiling and bright coloured glass windows interrupt and juxtapose the plain whitewashed walls.

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I am not someone who is anxious about heights. However, on all our trips we end up climbing some sort of tower. I guess I’m a sucker for a panoramic view. So, climbing the Minaret seemed like an excellent idea. The inner staircase is tight, twisty and peppered with the faint scent of claustrophobia and danger as there is no handrail. This part I could handle. Upon emerging from the staircase, you are greeted with the most spectacular view of the city. East and West sides connected by Stari Most, Church spires and Minarets punctuating the horizon, a stark reminder of the multicultural origins of the city, it truly is breath-taking. My issue lay in that the parapet we had emerged onto only came to around thigh height. With no barrier or handrail I was suddenly struck by how high up I was. In the interests of safety, I would advise hugging the interior column to take in the vista. The parapet is only wide enough for one person so it’s worth checking that you are the only ones taking the trip up. After composing myself for a moment crouched on the floor of the parapet, I was fully able to embrace the view and the experience. A trip to the top is at the top of my recommendations for your trip to Mostar.

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Finally, we ended in the private courtyard behind the Mosque. This small area was a gorgeously secluded place away from the buzz of the main bazar to take in the views.

War Photo Exhibition

As we ambled back to the West side, my attention was piqued by a small sign announcing a war photo exhibition. Carefully picking my way across the slippery stone, I made my way up a wooden staircase tucked into the side of the Westside entrance. Entry to the exhibition was 6Kuna. The exhibition was laid out over two floors of the West Tower. Although there aren’t hundreds of images on display, my husband and I didn’t speak for the thirty minutes it took to go around. We were so engrossed in the stories and moments captured during the Bosnian war.

It was so easy to see geographically how Mostar became a target. Surrounded on all sides and sitting at the bottom of a valley. It must have been horrific. The photographs on display show various facets of life during the conflict; from people washing, salvaging car parts to an aid worker thrown into a gutter by the force of a snipers shot, thankfully she was wearing a bulletproof vest and walked away unharmed.

The whole exhibition although modest was incredibly powerful and thought-provoking.

Old Bridge Museum

Although our time in Mostar was limited, we didn’t get an opportunity to visit the Old Bridge Museum. The museum is dedicated to the story of the bridge including the pre-Ottoman archaeology all the way through to the devastation of November 1993 to the reconstruction after the war. This was on our guide Sylvia’s list of recommendations, so it will be firmly at the top of my list when I return.

Our day trip to Mostar was fabulous. I learnt so much about a place and time in history that I knew relatively little about. Sylvia our guide was knowledgeable, friendly and made the time spent on the bus thoroughly enjoyable. After learning about the history and troubles of the not so distant past, I am keen to explore more of the Balkan region, so will definitely be booking some visits in the future. I would absolutely recommend a day trip to Mostar if you are travelling to Dubrovnik and have time to explore.

Happy travels

Jess x

 

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Making travel more affordable: 6 Top Tips for earning Avios points

Avios points have, for me become a bit of salvation and a slight preoccupation. On long rainy days when I’m stressed out with work and desperately need something to look forward to; there is nothing more satisfying than realising a sneaky warm weekend break will only cost me a fraction of the price due to my Avios squirrelling.

Here a few top tips for earning these fabulous little travel nuggets which might help you maximise your collecting potential and help you get that next trip booked.

Flights

Interestingly flights are not the most lucrative source of Avios collection for me, 529F1DA7-8839-4AC4-966D-9A568CF88BA6.JPGhowever, they are of course a great way to collect points. Flights additionally offer you Tier points which are important for members of the BA Executive Club to help you move through the loyalty tiers. Each loyalty tier offers its own perks whether that’s access to the lounge or priority boarding. Regular flights are the key to keeping your loyalty tier. I have even been tempted to book a flight simply to bag the all important tier points.

Avois points can also be collected from flights taken with airlines in the One World Alliance. Carriers like Cathay Pacific, Iberia, American Airlines and Quantas to name a few allow you to find the most suitable flight whilst keeping your Avios points rolling in.

For more information on how many Avios points, tier points or tier bonuses are available with the One World Alliance airlines check out BA’s page https://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/executive-club/collecting-avios/flights

Hotels

British Airways has an extensive range of hotel partners who you can collect Avios with without having to be a member of their specific reward schemes. Their partners include Airbnb, Shangri La Hotels & Resorts, Booking.com and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group amongst others. Earning Avios through hotels has lots of potential and is definitely one option I need to exploit further.

For more information how you can convert your hotel points to Avios the BA website offers a comprehensive guide https://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/executive-club/collecting-avios/hotels/convert-your-points

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Holidays

This source of Avios income is definitely one of my favourites. I can often be found, mostly on a Sunday afternoon; because no one wants to think about work on Monday morning busily scrolling through the BA Holiday Finder. With 1 Avios point available for every £1 spent the BA package deals can be a good option for collecting points.

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BA holidays are an easy go-to when I’ve been looking for weekend city breaks. With hotel and flight included in the price, I am free to focus my efforts on planning the activities rather than trying to sort flight and hotel logistics. Check out the BA Holiday Finder here https://www.britishairways.com/travel/holiday-finder/public/en_gb

Credit Card

By far and away the BA American Express Card is for me, one of the best ways to earn Avios points. I am not really a credit card person however we invested in the BA American Express card at a time when we were renovating our house and paying for a wedding. Naturally, neither of those things come cheaply and we had some large outgoings. With this in mind, we thought to earn Avios through our payments was a win-win.

We opted for the BA American Express Premium Plus card. This offers 25,000 Avios as a 5B5BC3CE-BB14-4BE5-963D-0B83D6F2B282.JPGwelcome providing you spend £3,000 in the first three months. The card has an annual charge of £195. However, for every £1 spend you get 1.5 Avios and with every £1 spent on BA flight and holidays you get an additional 3 Avios. We have absolutely identified this as a brilliantly easy way to earn Avios to fund our itch to travel.

One of the biggest perks has been the BA Companion Voucher. A 2 for 1 travel voucher award when you spend £10,000 with your BA American Express card. The voucher entitles you to a second seat on the same flight and class as another person. Taxes, fees and charges still apply, but you do make a great saving. We have just booked up a return business class trip to Croatia with our Companion Voucher for a mere £80. With another voucher in the stocks, I’m already eyeing up something a little more long haul!

If you are in a position to pay the annual fee and pay the balance of your credit card monthly then this is an excellent option. To find out more about the BA American Express please see their website https://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/executive-club/collecting-avios/credit-cards/uk

Shopping

1F45F6FF-ECE6-4141-8A06-D1E160F24AC6.JPGThis option is fantastic. If you’re an online shopper, you can connect with your favourite brands via the Avios EStore where you can shop over 800 brands as you normally would. You can collect up to 30 Avios for every £1 however there are always deals and offers. As of August 2019, you can snap up 10 Avios for every pound with Selfridges & Co or 4 Avios per pound with John Lewis. You’ll be surprised how quickly the points can accumulate…maybe try this one out with some of your online Christmas gift shopping?

Fuel

From June 2019 there were some changes to how you can collect Avios when purchasing fuel. However, you can still cash in the Avios with fuel purchases at Tesco, if you have a Tesco Clubcard. Scan your Clubcard to receive 600 Avios for every £2.50 in Clubcard vouchers which you then exchange to Avios. A genuinely good option if you are a Tesco shopper and are already a Clubcard holder.

Happy travels,

Jess

 

 

Fire, Plague, Rebellion and Roman ruins: A Walking Tour of London

All too often we never actually explore the cities we live in. When we think of travel and adventure, we tend to neglect what’s in our own back garden. So, with a couple of hours to spare and after some speedy internet research, I opted for a walking tour of London with London Walks. I chose a two-hour walk encompassing London’s Roman history, through the ages of great fires, plague, uprisings and rebellion to a sneak peek at London’s most modern architecture and the stories behind the buildings.

All walking tours with London Walks are £10 and there is no need to pre-book, you can simply show up.

On arrival at Tower Hill tube station, you couldn’t fail to see the meet point. Around eighteen eager and well-equipped individuals stood poised for the off around the Tower Hill Tram coffee stand. Our guide for the afternoon introduced himself as Ian, completed the expected pleasantries of where we were all from and with that, we hit the road.

Why we build the wall…

Our first stop took us through a small entry connected to the City Hotel, a few hundred metres from our start point. Unless you were clued up, one would never know that nestled at the back of the courtyard stands a section of the old Roman and Medieval city wall. The original Roman city of ‘Londinium’ didn’t originally have a city wall but after Boudicca attacked the city in the year 61 AD the Romans upped their defence game.

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The distinct layers of the wall clearly show the Roman foundations with the later, Medieval additions. The wall outlined the boundary of the City of London which today is marked by the black bollards. We were certainly off to a promising start.

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London’s burning!

IMG_9635.JPGFamed for his diary, our second stop took us to a commemorative bust outside the Four Seasons Hotel. Just off the appropriately named Pepys Street. It was at this point, Ian, our guide regaled us with the tale of the Great Fire of London. Thanks to Pepys our knowledge of this point in London’s past is so detailed.

As an official in government at the time, the diaries of Pepys which of course he wrote in code; have significantly helped paint a vivid picture of London life for well to do Londoners and the poorer classes during the years 1660 -1669.

The Great Fire of London represented a pivotal moment for the city and Ian’s gripping and engaging storytelling held the group captivated.

If you were lucky, they would hang you….

Moving forward from 1666, we headed up to the top of Tower Hill to Trinity Square Gardens. This picturesque city lunch spot with an unobstructed view of the Tower of London was home to the gallows from 1381 – 1747. Public executions were a big deal. Executions drew crowds from all over the capital and organisers even built grandstands to host the masses baying for blood.

The tower hill scaffold saw high-profile executions of Thomas Moore, Thomas Cromwell, and even the Arch Bishop of Canterbury in 1381 Simon Sudbury. The latter being executed by a frenzied mob.

Our guide was keen to describe how prisoners were detained in the tower, tortured then brought to Tower Hill for execution. If you were fortunate, you’d receive a swift death by hanging or execution. Unluckier prisoners had to endure being dragged through the streets to the gallows, hung until near death, disembowelled and finally you were quartered! Things were pretty gruesome back then. Even if you were granted quick execution there’s a good chance that the axeman was drunk, so getting a clean cut first go wasn’t always guaranteed.

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Looking at the lists of executed men it is clear that this spot played a bloody yet important role in London’s past.

‘Ring a ring o’ roses……..we all fall down.’

Sticking with the more unfortunate fates to befall Londoners, we made our way to St Olaves Churchyard. A year before the Great Fire took hold London was hit by a devastating bout of bubonic plague. The disease swept through the city and no amount of wealth or piety could keep it from your door, 15% of the London population died.

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St Olaves Church is noteworthy for three reasons, initially, it was the final resting place for many plague victims. Second against all odds the church dodged the Great Fire and finally although significantly damaged it withstood the worst of the Blitz during the Second World War.

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A plucky little church, with a considerable history and well worth half an hour of your time.

French Ordinary Court

As our tour meandered through the city, we passed through a particularly nondescript passage called French Ordinary Court. Our guide explained the passage had taken its name from a restaurant once on the site called the French Ordinary. Frequented by the French ambassadors and diplomats during the 1700s the French Ordinary was apparently the only place in London where you could find top-notch French cuisine; certainly not a problem for London foodies today.

As we wandered past countless other street names I mused on the backstories and origins. I would love to uncover the reasons behind some of the name choices. If you’ve got a good story, please let me know.

It’s all about shipping

It had never occurred to me that London had such a rich background in shipping. Ian, our guide was keen to direct our attention to a behemoth glass structure with all the industrial elements pulled from the inside out. The building at 71 Fenchurch Street is the Lloyds Register and is the architectural triumph of Richard Rogers.

Ian explained in some detail the history of the Lloyds Register and how the insurance of ships has been big business for London throughout the centuries. Lloyds even insured the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic.

Gherkin vs. The Romans

Without doubt an architectural triumph, however, the Gherkin site we learned has a Snapseed - Copy (2)much older past. The building on the site survived not only the Great Fire but the Blitz. However, an IRA bomb destroyed the area making way for the Norman Foster masterpiece we see today. During its construction, the body of a Roman girl was found. In 2012 the authorities felt it right to give her a formal funeral and rebury her as close to her original resting place as possible.

This stop was another reminder of just how extensive London’s history is and that the Roman settlement of 2500 years ago really has shaped the city we live in today and is always there just underneath our feet.

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Inside out monstrosity or architectural genius?

Ian, our guide was incredibly well informed on the architecture of the city and after leaving the mighty shadow of the Gherkin we were then introduced to another of Richard Rogers bizarre inside out structures, the Lloyds building. However, as Ian explained the Lloyds building is not all exposed metalwork and bare corkscrew shafts snaking their way up the building exterior, no, the top floor holds a secret. Apparently, for those lucky enough to be invited, there is an original Robert Adams 18th Century dining room occupying the top floor. Our guide sadly wasn’t able to tell us how to snag a dinner reservation.

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Meat, Butterbeer and Victorian opulence

Next up on our adventure into London’s past was the Leadenhall Meat Market. An opulent Victorian structure with gilded wood panels painted in rich primary and secondary colours. All very elaborate for a meat market. Outside each shop front, the old hooks for hanging the meat still remain and are even in use by one of the restaurants. Sadly, its meat market days are over but you can enjoy a decent meal and a little bit of shopping in this fabulous building.

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One of the highlights of the tour came as we were leaving the market when Ian directed our attention to a thoroughly inconspicuous section and shop which Ian informed us was, in fact, the entrance to Diagon Alley and the humble opticians was the Leaky Cauldron. This little fact nugget left my heart racing and has inspired me to check out on to the Harry Potter walking tour also offered by London Walks. Maybe my own lost owl will catch up with me over a butterbeer? Who knows?

Dickensian glory and Hellfire…but make a reservation.

The restaurant that never opens. If it’s a swift pint, you’re looking for in the City of Attachment-3.jpegLondon then the George and Vulture is not the establishment for you! But if you find your self on Lombard street between the hours of 12 pm and 2.30 pm, then get yourself to the George and Vulture. Dickens was an ardent fan, citing the restaurant over twenty times in his novel The Pickwick Papers. But the Dickensian link is not the George and Vulture’s only claim to fame. Once the home of Sir Francis Dashwood’s infamous Hell Fire Club the George and Vulture was the meeting place of London society whose who during the 1740s & 1750s.

Rum, Sugar & Slaves Jamaican trading fuelled by coffee

Turning the corner from the George and Vulture, you come to the Jamaica Wine Bar, once the Jamaica Coffee Shop. Today it’s fairly normal to have a working lunch or a breakfast meeting then return to your desk to crack on with the ‘real work.’ However, during the 17th and 18th Century, businesses didn’t always have their own office so, naturally business had to take place elsewhere. Elsewhere ended up being coffee shops. Each coffeehouse had an affinity with a particular business or trade. The lost world of the London Coffee House is definitely I am going to read up on. However, for the Jamaica Coffee House it was all about the business of the West Indies.

Fancy retailers, purveyors of alcohol and upmarket merchants

Attachment-2.jpegOur next stop brought us to The Royal Exchange which endured on the same site since Queen Elizabeth the First’s reign. Ian explained it was Queen Elizabeth the First who granted its ‘Royal’ status. The building has existed in three different guises. The Royal Exchange mark one burned during the Great Fire of London. Mark two again succumbed to fire and the third offering was rebuilt in the 1840s, still standing in all its glory today. In terms of its use, The Royal Exchange has come full circle in its lifetime. The current building is the perfect city spot for a glass of bubbly and snapping up a box of Fortnum and Mason’s finest tea and biscuits. Sadly there wasn’t built in shopping time on the tour but there was definitely a Fortnum and Mason box of Earl Grey with my name on it….one for another day.

An impregnable fortress at the heart of British finance

One of the best stories Ian told was undoubtedly the story of a ballsy sewage worker. In the 19th Century he wrote to the bank explaining that their gold vault was not secure. If they didn’t believe him, he would meet them there at a specified time and date. Never the less, when they appeared, he was waiting for them due to easy access via the sewers. Such a security oversight led the bank to sure up its defences. You certainly can’t leave the world’s second-largest gold bullion sore vulnerable to theft.

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Pray the right way or face the fine….

Our penultimate stop was Mansion House. I genuinely hadn’t realised there was an actual Mansion House and the tube stop was, of course, named after it. The Mansion House is home to the Lord Mayor of the City of London. A post which has been in existence since the 14th Century. Ian explained that the House itself now a Grade 1 listed building; was essentially, built with funds provided by non-elected city officials who were fined because of lack of attendance at the appropriate churches for prayer. Wealthy individuals were suddenly elected to the lofty position of Sheriff of the City of London regardless of their Christian denomination; therefore, they were required to either take communion in an Anglican church or pay up. As anticipated most officials ended up paying the fine, leaving us with quite the building to admire today.

St Pauls Cathedral – Version 1

We parted ways with Ian at St Stephen Walbrook church. This domed church was designed by Christopher Wren and is the precursor for his grander designs at St Pauls Cathedral.

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Once again there is a Roman connection as under the church runs the Walbrook River, a primary reason for Roman settlements position. The church site has maintained its Roman heritage as it was once the site of a Roman Temple of Mithras. In recent years the church has seen the creation of the Samaritans thanks to the vision of Rector Chad Varah.

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Inside St Stephen Walbrook there is a stillness and heavy sense of history. The main body of the church is filled with light and space and your eye is drawn to the wonderful Henry Moor alter. The church is a harmonious juxtaposition between traditional and modern. It was the perfect place to finish our tour as the church perfectly encapsulates the full breadth of London’s past and present.

The Roman Cult under our feet

After a tantalising introduction from our guide before we headed into St Stephen Walbrook church, it would have been remiss of me to forgo a visit to the Roman Temple of Mithras located underneath the new Bloomberg building just across the street from the church.

The entrance to the exhibition and Temple is just to the left of the underground sign on Walbrook Street so it’s not too tricky to miss. Upon arrival I was asked if I had a booking, of course, I didn’t but this was no issue and entrance to the exhibition was free. I was duly provided with a booklet and information on the next Temple viewing. Temple viewings take place every twenty minutes, allowing you time to digest the information before you descend to the Temple itself.

The exhibition is split over three levels. Street-level is dedicated to some of the Roman archaeological finds from the construction. Standing in front of a meticulously organised display case I was completely lost in the fragments of human life on show. But with only twenty minutes before the Temple tour, I needed to educate myself on the Cult of Mithras. I headed downstairs to the second part of the exhibition which provided a clear explanation of the Cult of Mithras and drew your attention to specific imagery which would be present in the temple. At 4.20 PM I made my way down again to the temple. It was eerily dark as I made my way along the glass walkway encircling the temple. The preservation is excellent and the way in which light and sound have been used really gives you a sense of the temple in action during the Roman period.

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If you have a spare hour during your trip to London or even a lunch break, I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Temple of Mithras and even better, it is completely free of charge.

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Final thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon peeling back the layers of London’s streets. I loved that the tour gave a real insight into the intricate and varied history of London’s past. As a typical teacher, I love learning and found the walking tour a great interactive way to soak up some knowledge of my home city. It definitely didn’t feel like I was just ticking off the big attractions. Ian, our guide was knowledgeable, had a great sense of humour and often had a personal story to help paint a more vivid image of the area or building we were looking at.

Without question, I will be stepping out with London Walks again soon. I’ve got my eye on the Jack the Ripper Walk!

Happy travels,

Jess

 

How to beat the winter blues: Top 7 destinations for winter sun

I don’t know about you, but it seems that the need for my summer wardrobe is coming to an end. I have definitely started to notice night’s drawing in and the allure of PJ’s, brew, book and bed pre 8.30 pm is a sure sign that winter is coming.

For many of us, winter can be a really depressing time. Going to work in the dark, coming home in the dark and enduring weather that feels relentless and utterly miserable. So, in my opinion, the only way to beat the winter blues is with some sunshine and an adventure to look forward to.

1.Oman

Without a doubt, Oman is growing in popularity as a holiday destination. With temperatures during the winter months sitting comfortably around 25 degrees Celsius, it makes a wonderfully attractive winter sun option.

Muscat is a vibrant and cultural city, one which I barely scratched the surface of when I visited in 2017. With the Opera House, Museum of Modern Art, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and the fierce assault on the senses that is the Mutrah Souq; Oman offers a wealth of cultural activities and adventurous excursions. However, if your winter sun trip is all about recharging and rejuvenating your tired self, then head to the beaches.

For unadulterated luxury and a true adult-only paradise check out the Shangri La Al Husn or the Al Baleed Resort Salalah. For a more detailed review of the Shangri La Al Husn see my full review; www.takemefarandaway.com/2018/11/23/hotel-review-5-shangri-la-al-husn-muscat-oman/

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  1. Tenerife

I can’t extol the glories of this Island enough. Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands, boasting beaches, mountains, vastly contrasting terrain and excellent food. The imposing Mount Teide and the surrounding National Park oversee proceedings on the island. The volcano and National Park are easily explored on foot, bike or cable car. However, if it’s a quick fly and flop break that you need then Tenerife is a very reasonable four-hour flight from London airports. With temperatures rarely dipping below 20 degrees Celsius what’s not to love? Tenerife is still blighted by a few rainy days in the winter. Best winter months to avoid the rain are October, January and February where only around 8-10 days during the month might experience rainfall.

For a proper beach break check out the Costa Adeje or Los Gigantes. My recommendation is the Ritz Carlton Abama, Guia De Isora. For an extended review of this spectacular hotel check out my earlier post; www.takemefarandaway.com/2019/08/14/hotel-review-5-ritz-carlton-abama-tenerife/

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  1. Barbados

Barbados has long been a firm favourite among travellers seeking year-round sunshine. December through to March sees the lowest rainfall so chances of long warm sunny days sipping cocktails are almost guaranteed. With a flight time of eight and a half hours from London airports, it is well worth the trip. That kind of flight time is a recommended full nights sleep, so what better way to start your trip than catching up on those lost Zzzzzz’s to arrive in paradise feeling refreshed.

Surely the winter months are for eating right? Us not so hardy Brits need the extra layer to keep warm! If you’re a foodie (like me!) then Bridgetown and the West Coast offer a variety of spectacular restaurants. My favourites are Lone Star (good portion sizes),     Cin Cin By the Sea, The Tides and The Cliff.

As for accommodation, I would recommend the Coral Reef Club, set in gorgeous gardens or The House for a more boutique yet luxurious stay.

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  1. New Zealand

Stepping off a flight to New Zealand on the 24th of December 2018 was fabulous. We had boarded in four degrees of drizzly rain and thick low cloud. So, arriving at a comfortable 18 degrees was the ideal tonic for my deeply entrenched winter blues.

New Zealand starts to hit its stride with long warm sunny days in November and temperatures peak around 26 degrees. If you venture farther north to the Coromandel and Bay of Islands, however you can see temperatures of 30 degrees and higher.

New Zealand offers a blissful escape and summer is a great time to sail, surf, kayak, mountain bike or lace up your hiking boots and take to the Franz Josef Glacier. A trip to New Zealand is well worth it if you’re an active soul seeking an adventure.

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  1. India: Rajasthan

Rajasthan; India’s vibrant, colourful, fort laden land of Maharajas. A winter visit is sure to quicken your heart rate and captivate your senses. Rajasthan is located in the North West of the country and is an eight-and-a-half-hour flight from London airports. Rajasthan enjoys temperatures between 25 and 33 degrees Celsius and minimal rainfall from October to February, so the winter months are the perfect time to book a trip.

Rajasthan has a huge variety to offer the winter sun seeker, I would say this trip is best for those seeking a cultural adventure. Whilst the beaches of the south are fabulous, a trip to Rajasthan is a different animal entirely. With forts, palaces and shrines in abundance coupled with rare wildlife in the Ranthambhore National Park and technicolour festivals to rival any 1990’s psychedelic rave, a touring trip to Rajasthan is your best bet.

I would recommend a trip with Intrepid Travel; their 15 days classic Rajasthan trip covers all the highlights of this spectacular region. With the tricky logistics and planning taken care of by the Intrepid team that leaves your free to take in the experience.

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  1. Florida

Florida will always have a place in my heart, as a young girl we would spend summers visiting our Grandparents apartment in St Petersburg. So many of my earliest family holiday memories are in this sunny corner of the Gulf of Mexico. Whether it was sitting on the dock fishing for catfish, long walks along the beach, creating my own synchronised swimming routines or playing ‘noodle warriors’* with my sister Florida will always be a happy place for me.

The affectionately named ‘Sunshine State’ sure does live up to its name. With temperatures hovering around 18-20 degrees Celsius between October and February and balmy 25-degree sea temperature, you are sure to find some sunny solace.

Orlando and its theme parks are, of course, a draw for any holidaymakers, but, if you are looking to slow the pace during your winter break then check out the beach resorts at Clearwater, St Petersburg and St George Island State Park.

I would recommend the Don Cesar in St. Petersburg. A luxury pink palace right on the beach.

* Noodle Warriors is an exceptionally competitive game whereby you sit on a pool noodle like a horse and try to knock your opponent off their noodle…simple things.

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Photo by Valentina Rossoni on Pexels.com

  1. Bali

A not so undiscovered gem in the Indonesian archipelago, but despite its popularity with tourists it is, however, a fabulous place to catch some winter rays. Bali boasts extensive sandy beaches, luscious plant life, mountains, temples and sapphire blue seas brimming with coral and multicoloured fish.

Bali is often found on many peoples list as an epic adventure destination. Having travelled there twice I still don’t feel as though I did everything. It is firmly on my list of countries to return to. If you are looking for a winter adventure then Bali has a lot to offer. Whether it is exploring the Sacred Monkey Forest, immersing yourself in Balinese culture and craftmanship with a tour of the temples, water sports in the sparkling azure sea or simply basking in lagoon beach at Nusa Dua. Bali has something to entice and ensnare the senses of all.

November heralds the start of the wet season in Bali, but, despite the rain, average temperatures remain a very pleasant 28 degrees Celsius with sea temperature around 29 degrees Celsius. January experiences the most considerable number of rainy days so if you are looking for the sunshine then October and November are your best bet.

I would recommend the Ritz Carlton, Bali, Nusa Dua for a slice of luxury perfect, for blowing even the darkest winter blues away.

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Photo by Aron Visuals on Pexels.com

Happy travels,

Jess

Hotel Review: 5* Ritz Carlton Abama, Tenerife

Hotel review: Ritz Carlton Abama, Tenerife

I like to think of myself as a finely honed hunter of hotels, and a wanderlust predator keen to experience all the world has to offer whilst maximising my limited and precious time away from the 9-5 grind. So, in my continual quest to absorb the offerings of our beautiful planet, few places captivate me enough to continually return to year after year. As I frequently tell my husband “It’s a big world…I need to see it!”. In spite of this familiar mantra, the 5* Ritz Carlton Abama in Tenerife keeps pulling me back and I am more than happy to oblige!

Getting to the Ritz Carlton Abama

IMG_5632Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands located off the coast of West Africa. The Canary Islands enjoy almost glorious sunshine all year round. Year-round sunshine has made the Canaries a premier destination for holidaymakers for some time. Flights operate regularly from London airports to Tenerife South with carriers like British Airways, Easy Jet and Jet2. If you are looking to stay at the Abama then you should fly into Tenerife South rather than the northern airport. Be sure to confirm this as it will affect your transfer time.

The average flight time from London airports to Tenerife South is four hours, plenty of time to relax with a drink and a good book. We have always opted for a private transfer from the airport to the Abama. If you contact the hotel prior to arrival, they are happy to organise a transfer for you or I use www.suntransfers.com, who have consistently provided an excellent service. Transfer time from the airport is approximately twenty-five minutes. Alternatively, if you want to wing it on arrival taxis are in plentiful supply at the airport.

Having travelled to the Abama many times I would say the ideal arrival time is late afternoon. Arriving around 5 pm gives you plenty of time to wash up, grab a drink and enjoy a proper dinner on your first night.

First impressions

The hotel rises up out of the hillside like a glorious pink Kasbah, nestled amongst lush vegetation and tumbling down in sweeping terraces towards the sea. On first sight it is breath-taking. Yes, this term is a cliché but trust me on this one, it’s like nothing else when you first catch a glimpse. Nothing blows the cobwebs away than the juxtaposition between pink and cloudless azure sky to get you in the holiday mood…cue the cocktails!

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Clean lines and cool marble make up the entrance and your eyes are drawn to the intricate and striking floral displays presented for your arrival. Check-in has always been quick and efficient and a cold drink or a glass of fizz is always on offer to help get you in the holiday spirit.

Which room?

As a guest at the Abama, you have the luxury of choice, no more so than with the impressive array of rooms you can opt for. I have stayed in some spectacular rooms at the Abama and have a firm favourite with the Tagor Villas.

Tagor Villas: An adult-only escape

The Tagor Villas are situated slightly further down the hillside away from the main citadel making them a blissful couples retreat. The villas have their own concierge service, pool area and some even come with their own golf cart, making travel around the luxury resort a piece of cake. I have to say a private golf cart is a real perk and super fun to drive!

Our deluxe room in the villas was immaculately clean, well-furnished and complete with a welcome fruit plate and bottle of wine. Our room looked out on to the tranquil ocean and manicured gardens. We also had direct access to the Tagor Villa private pool.

Another bonus of the Tagor Villas is the option to breakfast at the El Mirador restaurant. The El Mirador serves an adult-only breakfast, so, if you are looking for a peaceful child-free retreat then this calm breakfast option is perfect.

IMG_2736Nothing beats a warm peppermint tea, omelette, the gentle lull of continuous waves lapping the mighty cliffs below and stillness in the air only punctuated by birdsong. In my opinion, there are few more pleasant ways to begin your day than this one.

 

 

Deluxe Ocean View – Citadel

I always feel that an ocean view room is the only way forward as they often tend to have more natural light compared to a garden view. The Deluxe Ocean View rooms in the citadel are bright, airy and well-appointed. The clean, sleek feel of the lobby extends to the rooms lending a tranquil and calming feel, which is often just what’s needed to help you unwind. The Deluxe Ocean View rooms all have large comfortable beds, balconies with chairs for catching those late afternoon rays and shower and bath facilities.

This last one might seem odd to note but my lovely husband and I differ considerably when it comes to washing! He is an ardent shower fan, however; I love to wallow in warm bubbly waters until I am sufficiently pruned and will only venture to the shower when I need to wash my hair. The option of both and being separate bathroom entities is a real plus for the rooms at the Abama. Finally, on the topic of luxurious bathrooms, the Abama generously provides a gorgeous range of toiletries courtesy of Asprey: Purple Water collection.

Suite – Citadel

During our stay in 2016, we were given a gorgeous suite in the Citadel. The suit occupied the top floor of one section of the Citadel and boasted unparalleled views of the sea and the Persian Garden. To put into context how special this room was is a remarkable testament to the Abama team and the splendid service they offer. Our stay in 2016 was for the purpose of our wedding. I had requested that some of our pictures be taken in the Persian Garden as it had always captured me and was visually gorgeous. The fabulous reservations team had taken this on board and made sure that our room overlooked something I found so special.

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The suite itself opened into a large sitting room with a balcony. We had a table and chairs for in-room dining and plenty of entertainment options with TV and internet access. The bedroom also had a substantial balcony as well as a gloriously comfy bed. As with all the rooms at the Abama the housekeeping team keep them spotless and their attention is detail is excellent.

We found the space perfect for hosting a drinks party with family and friends who had stayed after the wedding.

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Hotel Complex

The Abama resort complex is extensive, with a championship golf course, tennis courts, private villas, fitness centre and spa, the main Citadel and pool areas down to the Tagor Villas and the beach. Despite the sprawling expanse of the resort, it is remarkable how unique and secluded each area is.

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The resort has become increasingly busy with families during school holidays however as a teacher I would nonetheless choose to visit with my husband as there are so many areas where we do not have to around children. The Abama is extremely good at catering for adults only and family needs.

The spa is worth a mention as the treatments are excellent and the use of the water circuit is well worth an afternoon of your time. There have definitely been a few occasions where I’ve snuggled down on a warm stone bed listening to the gentle trickle of water creeping stealthily over the edge of the infinity pool only to fall sound asleep. As with all good things booking ahead is advised.

I wouldn’t say I’m a golfer by any stretch of the imagination however I like playing andIMG_3883.JPG can just about hack my way around a course. My family however including the hubby are pretty proficient when it comes to accurately swinging a club at a small ball and getting it into an even tinier hole 400 yards away. The Abama has always provided a spectacular golfing experience. The course is a tricky 72 par 18-hole course with water, sand, trees and vastly varied terrain; a day spent tackling this beast is well worth it. I would recommend a post-round beer and burger at the clubhouse with views over the complex and the sea it’s a pleasant way to dissect your round and reflect on the game.

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Pools & Beach

IMG_3845As guests of the Abama, you can freely use the beach and sun loungers. Views from the beach particularly at sunset are stunning.

The large hotel complex makes it possible to have multiple pools. If you are travelling as a family then the main pool is where you should head. It does get busy, and it is very much a family area so if you are without children, I would recommend seeking out the adult-only pool. To the left of the main pool, a smaller pool area can be found, often popular with families with smaller children. This area has lots of shady spots and a lovely shallow igloo area perfect for small ones to splash about.Attachment-1.jpegAs a resident of the Tagor Villas then you needn’t look further than your own private pool area. This area is just for residents of the villas so make the most it! The beds are well separated, so you don’t feel crammed in and due to the length of the pool, there is plenty of space for all. The Tagor Villa pool is well attended. The staff are always on hand to help out regardless if it is a new towel, cold drink or even helping you make dinner reservations from your sun lounger.

Wide cabanas, infinity pool, expansive ocean views, another adult-only paradise. The adult pool is located by the El Mirador restaurant and provides spacious seating for around eighty guests. The loungers and private cabanas are large and comfortable and all are positioned to make the most of the panoramic views of the sea or the hillside and banana plantations which surround the resort. The adult pool has a bar and lunch area available, meaning you don’t have to stray too far from your lounger to procure a cold beverage.

Regardless of where you choose to park yourself for a day in the sun, the pool staff at all locations are keen to ensure your experience is as relaxing and enjoyable as possible.

Food & Drink

If you travel with the British Airways deal that includes bed and breakfast it means that lunch and dinner are additional costs. The Abama boasts two Michelin starred restaurants Kabuki & MB and a host of other fabulous eateries. You don’t want to have your dinner reservations defined by the package you booked; meaning you miss out on the culinary experiences on offer.

The Abama has worked hard over the years to update and ensure the utmost quality of the restaurants they provide. With such high-quality food offered at the hotel, booking is imperative. Regardless if your trip coincides with a school holiday or you are blissfully unconstrained by term dates; book your dinner ahead of schedule! I would recommend making your dinner reservations before your trip and the reservations teams are incredibly helpful via email and phone. You can, of course, visit the concierge when you arrive however your ideal dining time may be unavailable. I have been stung with this one too many times and have ended up eating far too late in the evening.

If it’s culinary theatre you are after then take an evening to enjoy the tasting menu of the MB. It is a true gastronomic experience. The food pushes your senses to redefine your preconceptions of traditional flavours and unique textures. Absolute genius.

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Kabuki is my all-time favourite restaurant in the world. I love Asian food, in particular sushi. Kabuki offers Japanese fusion cuisine and with every visit to the Abama, I make sure I snag a reservation here. I have found the best option for ordering is to go with the chef’s recommendations. Let the experts provide you with a worthy feast. I have never been disappointed.

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The Abama restaurants cater for every taste with the 20/20 steakhouse serving succulent cuts of meat and perfectly paired wines. Verona offers Italian cuisine. El Mirador serves up freshly caught fish and Txoko presents a modern take on traditional Spanish gastronomy. But if it’s a low-key night with a burger and beer then the sports bar is great for a chilled evening.

Final Thoughts

It is safe to say I am an Abama regular with around nine visits and counting! The Abama offers everything I need for a holiday; whether I am with my husband and we need an adult-only escape or I am travelling with family and young children. Fabulous food, drink, service, amenities and a host of additional extras. This is a truly special place and one which I will continue to return to.

Happy travels,

Jess

 

 

 

How to spend 3 days in Prague: A long weekend guide to the charming Czech capital

Getting to Prague

Flights to Prague operate regularly out of London Heathrow with carriers such as Finnair, British Airways and Ryanair. The flight time to Prague from London is about two hours; which is very reasonable if you are planning a long weekend. I would recommend getting a taxi from the airport. You can book a taxi through www.suntransfers.com who I have always found reliable and good value. Our journey took about thirty minutes to the Art Deco Imperial Hotel and we checked in and were unpacked within an hour of stepping off the plane. A taxi was the right option for our trip as our flight arrived late so, a quick check in and sleep was at the top of our agenda.

If you don’t fancy the cost of a taxi then buses and trains are available. For more transfer options check out, https://www.prg.aero/en/transport-airport.

Where to stay

Our trip to Prague was a surprise for my 30th birthday last summer so, the hubby went all out and booked the Art Deco Imperial Hotel. The Art Deco Imperial is a 5* luxury hotel only a five-minute walk from the old town area. Knowing that all things Art Deco & Art Nouveau bring me joy; this original 1914 building was the obvious choice for our stay. My husband won some serious brownie points as the original features and quirky embellishments throughout the hotel were totally captivating; the main staircase is just gorgeous and a real focal point.

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A photo just doesn’t do it justice!

The Art Deco Imperial Hotel is also home to Café Imperial. The café has been the most popular Grand Café House in Prague for over 100 years. Boasting stunning Art Nouveau tiling and a mosaic ceiling, it is a charming spot to have breakfast. Lunch and dinner are also offered; so even if you aren’t a guest of the hotel there are plentiful opportunities to sample this famous hot spot.

Where to eat

Prague has hundreds upon hundreds of fabulous eateries serving excellent local food. It is worth trying to get off the beaten track for eating in Prague. Often, like most cities, end

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A modern twist on a Czech classic at Spejle

up paying too much for satisfactory food. Alternatively, you end up eating food purely made for tourists meaning you miss out on the good stuff and miss the chance to experience the real culinary landscape of the city. Prague plays brilliantly to its heritage and you can easily find a tavern serving good beer and copious amounts of meat. We opted for a food tour on our last day. It was such a perfect way to experience restaurants and local producers that we would never have found on our own. For the full write-up and information on our Eating Europe: Prague food tour check out this post https://takemefarandaway.com/2018/10/07/coming-soon/

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The first stop on our food tour!

What to do

Powder Tower

Finished in 1475 the Powder Tower; affectionately named as a nod to its past as a gunpowder store marks the start of the Royal Route to Prague Castle. The Powder Tower was a bit of an accidental first stop on our first day. Typically, we like to have a wander and general mooch around before committing to specific sites or attractions. However, as we approached the tower the huge wooden and iron-studded door was ajar revealing a set of narrow windy steps. The exciting unknown beckoned and before I knew it, I was firmly committed to my ascent up the tower.

powder tower inside

Be warned there are a lot of steps and they do get pretty narrow as you climb. If you do struggle with stairs, you might want to give this a miss as there isn’t much stopping room to catch your breath.

That being said, the views from the top are fab. The city stretches out in front of you in all directions and is a great way to orientate yourself with the local landmarks. To access the top part of the tower there is a 100CZK charge but it is well worth the price for the view waiting for you at the end.

Be aware that the powder tower will be closed for renovation until August 2019.

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Gallery of Art: Warhol, Dali & Mucha

On each of our weekend breaks, we often take the opportunity to visit the national gallery or museums of modern art. Upon seeing a flyer for a Warhol, Dali and Mucha exhibition at the Gallery of Art I eagerly handed over the 170CZK entrance fee and made my way to the top floor. The exhibition was laid out over three floors with each dedicated to one of the three artists.

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Before the exhibition, I was familiar with the work of Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali but Alfons Mucha was a pleasant surprise and for the hubby, Dali and Mucha were a new offering. I think of the three exhibitions it was Mucha’s I enjoyed the most. Mucha’s work is gloriously intricate and romantic conjuring nostalgia for a time and era that I have never experienced but can only imagine. I also found it fascinating learning about his professional relationship with actress Sarah Bernhardt and seeing his designs printed on the earliest Czechoslovakian stamps and banknotes.

The three artists are very different making the whole exhibition considerably varied. From Andy Warhol’s pop art, original Dali prints and sculpture to Mucha’s stunning Art Nouveau designs this exhibition is well worth an hour or two of your time.

Museum of Communism

This one was a bit of a curveball for our trip. My husband who does no research, planning or preparation for any adventure had one request whilst in Prague; a to visit the Museum of Communism. After a short afternoon beer-inspired nap, we made our way to the museum which was only a two-minute walk from our hotel.

I am ashamed to say that I knew relatively little about the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe and Czechoslovakia following the Second World War up to 1989. The museum was well laid out and incredibly informative. I am one of those people who go through a museum reading most of the information but also getting distracted by other pictures, artefacts and colourful displays. My moth-like nature was no trouble here. My eyes were glued to every plaque. The information is presented over two floors and describes the politics, economics, the media, police and what life was like for everyday people under communist rule.

We spent over two hours devouring the information in total silence. Only once we emerged into the sunshine did we debrief on the experience. Having a starting point of limited knowledge on this period in time, the Museum of Communism was an informative, sensitive and truly excellent presentation of the life of Czech people during communism.

Entrance to the museum is 290CZK for an adult ticket and the museum is open every day from 9 am -8 pm.

Prague Castle

Our second day was devoted to exploring Prague Castle and the castle complex and a full day was definitely needed!

The walk up to the castle complex took around twenty-five minutes from our hotel. We arrived around 10 am and would definitely say that the earlier you arrive the less you’ll have to queue. Queueing took to get into the complex took approximately fifteen minutes but it doubled in size whilst we were waiting.

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Tickets for the castle complex vary depending on what you want to see. We opted for circuit A as it offered access to the majority of attractions in the complex.

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We started our tour of the complex with St Vitus cathedral. Upon walking through the cathedral 2impregnable wooden doors, we stepped into the nave of the cathedral and basked in glorious technicolour. Sunlight streaming through the stained glass and the soaring heights of the vaulted ceiling was truly awe-inspiring. After a good half hour absorbing the delights of the cathedral, we checked out St Georges Basilica, ‘The story of Prague Castle’ exhibition, Rosenberg Palace and Old Royal Palace. The story of Prague Castle exhibition gave a fascinating insight into the development of Prague Castle and its grounds over the years also the history and background of the city.

 

Our final adventure of the day was Golden Lane also known as the Street of Alchemists. Sadly, this last part is pure myth. Emperor Rudolf the second did have alchemists working for him however they occupied more discreet rooms in the castle complex. However, all is not lost as Golden Lane did house the Royal Goldsmiths during the 17th Century.

Golden Lane is a small street constructed after the northern wall was built in the 16th century originally for the castle guards. The dwellings in Golden Lane are modest and

golden lane

The home of Madame De Thebes

are the final reminder of the small-scale buildings which existed in the castle complex. The dwellings were inhabited by castle defenders, servants and tradesmen until World War Two.

Some truly remarkable people chose this small section of the castle complex for their homes. Famous inhabitants included Franz Kafka, Madame De Thebes and Nobel prize-winning writer and poet Jaroslav Siefert.

It would have been easy to spend another hour purely immersing myself in Golden Lane and taking in how each little home was set up to reveal its former life.

John Lennon Wall

After reading various posts and recommendations I decided that I couldn’t visit Prague without a stop at the John Lennon Wall. After a speedy breakfast, we ventured out into the thirty-degree heatwave to find the wall. The wall is located in the old town on Velkopřevorské náměstí, 100 00 Praha 1, not far from the Charles Bridge.

Despite the early hour of our visit, I was expecting to find new-age hippies singing of peace and love against a backdrop of Lennon inspired graffiti. What I discovered was the opposite. Yes, there was someone singing ‘Imagine’ but it felt out of place juxtaposed against mindless images and random offensive graffiti. Regrettably, I felt disappointed as I scoured the wall for what lay underneath; there were snippets of Beatles lyrics and an image of Lennon himself but it seems that the original purpose of the wall and message it was designed to give is long gone.

However; disappointment aside some of the graffiti is pretty cool and it made for not only a lovely walk but some interesting pictures.

If you have a demanding schedule then I wouldn’t worry too much about carving out time to visit the John Lennon wall, I reckon we were only there for around ten to fifteen minutes. I’d like to think that some of the random offensive graffiti which was there on my visit might be repainted and replaced by something a little more akin to the message of peace, love and freedom of speech; so, if you do visit please let me know.

lennon wall 2.JPGlennon wall

Letna Beer Garden

letna .JPGPrague is known for its beer gardens and rightly so. There are some fabulous beer gardens dotted around the city. We opted for one of the bigger and more well-known ones, Letna. The Letna beer garden is situated at Letenske Sady 341 just across the Stefanikuv Most bridge. After a short yet steep walk, our trek was rewarded with picture-postcard views over the city and the river. After a long day checking out Prague Castle a cold beer and a gorgeous view was just the ticket.

Museum of Alchemy

I am definitely one of these people who strongly feel that their letter to ‘Hogwarts’ was lost or mislaid by a slightly wayward owl. A small part of me holds some hope that although thirteen years late my owl could show up at any given moment, I am a dreamer and a fantasist. I love losing myself in fantasy novels and quite often find myself snooping around unknown places in the hopes of discovering a concealed door, untrodden path or mysterious and mystical item. Who doesn’t love a mystery! In my head I am Lazlo from ‘Strange the Dreamer’ by Liani Taylor; a fabulous book if you’re looking for some holiday reading! So, when I read that Prague was home to a real-life alchemy laboratory from the 16th Century I jumped on it!

After locating the unassuming shop front, I secured places on the next available tour and waited for it to start. My husband took some convincing that this would be an enjoyable experience and not simply a tacky show for tourists. I am pleased to say that he was most certainly won over!

All-access is through the organised tour so it is worth checking this out first to avoid disappointment. The tour lasts 30 minutes and starts every half an hour.

Without giving too much away the tour shattered all my expectations and I left me fizzing with excitement to seek out my next mystical adventure. The guides brought the whole story to life and had I been sitting I would have been on the edge of my seat.

The whole experience felt genuinely magical, it’s hard to describe and If you fancy extending your magical experience you can snap up your own alchemical elixir in the shop!

Final thoughtsdoor

Our three days in Prague were fabulous, although it felt as though I had only scratched the surface of this fascinating and history-laden city. I would love to visit in the winter and check out the Christmas market but also venture further afield. Inspired by our food tour guide Neil I have been firmly sold on the beauty of Moravia; so, it’s safe to say I will be back.

Happy travels

Jess

New Zealand’s North Island Part 2: How to spend 3 days in Rotorua

Wai-o- tapu Thermal Park

Moving on from Taupo we started our journey to Rotorua. Rotorua is famed for its geothermal activity, hot springs, geysers and bubbling mud pools as well as that fantastically egg inspired sulphur scent. The first stop on our journey was the Wai-o-tapu Thermal Park. Wai-o-tapu is Māori for sacred water. Once you’ve visited Wai-o-tapu it is clear to see why this is such a special, if not a weird and wonderful place. The best way I can describe the crazy natural geography of Wai-o-tapu is as the secret love child of Picasso and Dr Frankenstein. Random bursts of colour thrown together with ominously bubbling pools which look like they could combust at any moment…it really is a mad place.

waiotapu 1

I would advise arriving at Wai-o-tapu either early morning or late afternoon. Due to our travel schedule, we arrived around 11.30am. Although the journey from Taupo was relatively short, only 40 minutes, it would have been even better if we had planned our arrival time a little more carefully. Whilst there was a small queue for tickets, the trails around the park were pretty busy at this time particularly at the Artist’s Palette pool and the entry tracks around the Devil’s Ink Pots and Devil’s Home.

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The park is fantastically set up with boardwalk trails, so it makes for easy navigation and walking. We opted for the longest trail which encompassed a good proportion of the park. Our choice for the longer trail certainly paid off as the boardwalks became much quieter and we didn’t have to jostle hundreds of other tourists to get the best views of the pools, waterfalls and geysers.

Wai-o-tapu was a fantastic trip and well worth the $32.50 dollar entry price. I would leave around 2-3 hours to make the most of your visit. It’s easy to get drawn into the steam and multicoloured waters and not realise you’ve been standing in the same spot for fifteen minutes, mesmerised by the aspect in front of you.

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No edit here….the water is genuinely that colour!

Hobbiton

Undoubtedly, Hobbiton stole my heart! I have always been a big fan of all things Tolkien and a visit to Hobbiton has been firmly on my bucket list since its existence on the tourist map. Hobbiton is situated in Matamata, a 45-minute drive from our base in Rotorua so, it’s easily done as a day trip. With our tour booked late afternoon, we still had all morning to cram even more into our day. It’s worth noting that the pre-booked tours are the only way to visit the movie set and they do get booked up. So, if you are keen to experience a little slice of movie history and share in the furry toed Hobbit love then make sure you book ahead.

Matamata evokes a quiet charm; nestled at the base of the Kaimai ranges; it is true farming country. Gently undulating hills, like something from a patchwork quilt stitched together with ranges, hedgerows, picket fences and pockets of native bush. The natural artistry of the place is unparalleled. Driving through this remarkable countryside produced one of those rare warm and complete feelings within me.

matamata

Arrival at the Hobbiton movie set was super simple, we parked up, collected our tickets and even had time for an ice-cream before I firmly established myself at the front of the 5.10pm queue, yes, I was that keen. Despite the queue being in the burning sunshine, a little-added sweat wasn’t going to keep me from claiming the best seat on the bus. Tragic, I know.

A short bus ride takes you through the Alexander farm and down to the set. Thehobbiton 4.JPG Alexander farm is still a working farm; so the partnership between Peter Jackson and the filmmakers and the Alexander family has been incredibly important to the success of the attraction. From start to finish the tour was fabulous. Our guide was knowledgeable, passionate and clearly knew her movies and her Tolkien. It was also an added bonus that as a local girl her Grandmother had actually been in the films as an extra in Hobbiton.

The set itself is phenomenal, with only minutes of footage being actually used in the films the environment, Hobbit holes and the village is exceptionally intricate. Each Hobbit hole has a particular theme from fishing to gardening and beekeeping; a glorious insight into the Hobbit’s interests and pastimes. The gardens, allotment and paths are perfectly curated in a wild and realistic way, with the tourist path gently winding its way up the hillside to lead you to the big green door of Bag End, set slightly ajar as to beckon you into the wondrous fantasy that is the Shire.

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The attention to detail and the way the tours were operated was excellent. I particularly liked the drink at the end in the Green Dragon and I can thoroughly recommend the ginger beer.

hobbiton 3

Blue Lake (Lake Tikitapu) Track

Who doesn’t love a good walk? Honestly, there are some days when nothing is better than tramping around a local landscape to get the feel of the place. The walking trails in and around Rotorua are plentiful so it would have been rude not to check out a few on our short stay.

We opted for the Blue Lake trail which was an easy-going 5.5km hike, taking around one and a half hours. I say it was easy and this is certainly true if you don’t lose the trail and go a little off-piste. In truth, the trail is clearly marked and there is a section along the road. I would recommend sturdy walking shoes or trainers as the woodland sections are not really suitable for open-toed shoes or sandals.

blue lakeblue lake 2

The trail which takes you through the native bush and woodland and is a total delight. There were moments when the path ahead was encased in Jurassic foliage, not a sound penetrating the dense bush and the scent of moist earth lingering in the air; once again I was truly captivated by the landscape. I felt as if I had been transported to the set of Jurassic Park.

An excellent way to spend a morning, working up an appetite for lunch.

blue lake 3

Lake Tarawera

Lake Tarawera is one of the largest lakes in New Zealand and used to be home to the pink and white terraces which graced its shores until the volcanic eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886. The terraces were once named the 8th wonder of the world. Mount Tarawera can still clearly be seen from the shores of the lake and it is an imposing landmark on the horizon.

lake tarawera 2

Lake Tarawera was only a 15-minute drive from our base in Rotorua so it was a great option for an easy lunch stop. The café on the lake is called The Landing Café and if you are after quality, quick and easy food then this is a perfect stop for your list. If you stick with the twisty, winding drive down to the shore you won’t be disappointed by the views or the food.

I could have stood on the edge of the boardwalk quietly taking stock for some time. It’s an easy place to lose yourself in.

lake tarawera

Zip lining at Rotorua Canopy Tours

New Year’s Day: a day for firmly enacting and living out your new years’ resolutions. Well, New Years day 2019 was incredible; I climbed big trees and jumped out of them with the Ultimate Canopy Tour from Rotorua Canopy Tours. I’m not especially scared of heights but I’m not a huge fan of the unknown and change; however, there was something hugely freeing both physically and mentally about casting my body of a small ledge into the unknown. With the wind in my hair and the forest below the 1,200m of zip line completely transported me to a happy place.

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To experience the Canopy Tour, you definitely need to book in advance. Upon booking you have a choice of two different experiences. We opted for the Ultimate Canopy Tour; a three-and-a-half-hour tour through the trees with a range of zip lines, bridges, different ascents and even a cliff edge walk – perfect to get the adrenaline going.

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Before booking you should note that there is a weight limit of 120kg and you are weighed before getting kitted out with helmet and harness at the centre. All the staff were incredibly well-trained and safety conscious before and during the tour; their advice and tips as we were going through the forest made the experience even more enjoyable. Whilst you don’t need to have an athlete’s level of fitness to take part in the tour, you should have good mobility in your knees and hips to get them up ready for landing on the platforms. There is also a steep stair climb and some walking involved throughout the tour, so a general level of fitness is recommended.

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400m zip line!

In addition to the experience, you get a range of photos taken during the day which are available free of charge after your tour is finished. You can, of course, take your own photos but there really isn’t anywhere to store a big camera and you’re going to want both hands going down the zip lines. One thing which I wish had taken advantage of was the go pro which is available for hire from the centre.

One of the most fascinating parts of the tour was actually hearing about the conservation work the organisation is doing to restore the natural flora and fauna to the forest. Their commitment to trapping pests and rejuvenating the forest is brilliant. Comparing images of the difference in the canopy over a period of four years was quite impressive. It is always good to know that the funds you put into a business as a tourist genuinely are making a positive impact on the local environment.

Kiwi at rainbow springs

I had always assumed that Kiwis were just a stable part of the New Zealand countryside like sheep or foxes are for us in the UK. In my blissfully ignorant state, I thought that these cute little furry, feathered round things just pottered about the bush with not a care or predator to bother them. How wrong I was. I was ashamed to say that my Kiwi knowledge was zero, I could definitely identify one (thanks Canterbury clothing) but that’s the extent of it.

Rainbow Springs is great for an afternoon’s wanderings with the park open all year round from 8.30am to 10.30pm, there is plenty of opportunities to fit a few hours into the day. The Kiwi burrow is a purpose-built enclosure with history, conservation and educational material provided before going into the enclosure. After 20-30 minutes reading the information I felt thoroughly clued up on the unfortunate plight of the Kiwi and other native birds such as the Moa – these chaps are sadly extinct but they certainly would have been kings of the forest.

Kiwis are easy prey for small mammals such as stoat and weasels. It was shocking to discover that only 5% of Kiwi hatched in the wild actually make it to adulthood. This startling figure makes the work of Rainbow Springs and the One Nest Egg programme even more important to securing the future for the Kiwi.

Kiwis are shy nocturnal creatures so it felt pretty special to see one pottering around in his burrow. Rainbow Springs works hard to promote and enact meaningful Kiwi conservation and the conservation of native plant life which is clear to see as you make your way around the park.

I would thoroughly recommend a visit to Rainbow Springs for the Kiwi alone, never mind the other attractions the park has to offer. It felt so worthwhile educating myself on this strange little bird with mammalian tendencies and what a treat to see one now I have improved knowledge.

Happy travels

Jess

Top 10 Tips for surviving long haul flights

Noise cancelling headphones

This one I was sceptical about at first and in truth I had always been under the impression that noise cancelling headphones were a crazy expensive and unnecessary extravagance. However, after a quick demo from a Skull Candy representative at Heathrow before boarding a long-haul flight to New Zealand; I was sold. When staring down the barrel of 25 hours on a plane the thought of being able to block out the persistent drone of the plane, crying children and general chat of other passengers is pretty appealing. Anything that helps you get some much sought-after rest is a good thing!

close up fashion female girl

I opted for the Skull Candy model reasonably priced at £95. They have a noise cancelling function so you can turn it on and off. They are easy to use and can be plugged into the ports on the in-flight entertainment. You can also use them with Bluetooth connection to your device. It is safe to say I am a huge convert and won’t dream of hitting the skies without my noise cancelling headphones.

 

Book a lounge

Long haul travel on occasion comes with hours sat in transit waiting for connecting flights. If this is the case and you don’t feel like you have time to venture into the city then I would recommend booking a lounge.

There are lots of options which can be pre-booked and you don’t have to be a member of a rewards scheme or group to get a space. If you need a shower, somewhere comfortable to sit, catch up on work or a lie down then booking a lounge is a perfect choice.

 

Comfortable clothing

If you have to sit on a plane for any length of time you need to be comfortable; that includes your footwear. Don’t forget that during the flight your feet are likely to swell a little due to the altitude – there is nothing worse than trying to squeeze your feet back blur close up coffee coffee cupinto shoes at the end of the flight only to find they are much too tight. One little tip I can always recommend is packing a pair of warm slipper socks in your hand luggage particularly if you want to travel in sandals or flip-flops.

You might be heading off to sunnier climes however the high-powered air con on the flight is going to leave you feeling chilly so make sure you pack a jumper or a longer layer even if it is just for the flight.

 

Reserve your seat

reserved signage hanging on chair

On most flights, you can reserve your seat prior to the date of departure. If you are a nervous passenger then I would recommend snagging a seat over a wing as this is the most stable part of the plane and if turbulence does strike then you might be spared a few bumps. If you are someone who likes to be up and down be sure to get an aisle seat – I am definitely one of these people and like to have the freedom to get up and move around.

For those of you who have a little more time to research your seat options then check out Seat Guru or Sky Trax as they give a full comparison of different airlines and their seat provision.

In addition to reduced feelings of turbulence, the emergency exit seats on the wing come with a little extra leg room and trust me – when you have to sit there for 12 hours straight every inch counts!

 

Snacks!

At least you get fed on long haul flights….right? Yes, you do but often you end up eating ice-cream and noodles in the middle of the night or a roast dinner for breakfast. Whilst my body generally tends to go with the flow there are certainly times when I have declined the meal to try and sleep only to wake up two hours later completely starving! So, to prevent any mid-flight cravings make sure you pack a few slow energy release snacks in your hand luggage. Nuts, seeds or dried fruit are a great way to go. Alternatively, if you are in the mood for a mid-flight midnight snack, I can thoroughly recommend the Cathay Pacific midnight noodles, delicious!

variety of brown nuts on brown wooden panel high angle photo

 

Pick your airline

airplane wing towards clouds

When choosing an airline, you have a huge amount of choice. Whilst timings or location may narrow down your suitable options you still have a decision to make on which airline to travel with. When flying long haul your choice of airline can really make the difference in your travelling experience. I would recommend choosing an airline with a seat width of 17.2+, you can compare this information on Seat Guru. Consistently good airlines for long haul travel are Singapore Airlines (Winner of the Telegraph Travel Award for Best Long Haul Airline) Emirates, Qatar Airways and Air New Zealand who were also crowned best airline 2018 by AirlineRatings.com. This was a fifth consecutive win for Air New Zealand so it’s safe to say they are doing something right!

 

Move around

Moving around seems like one of those things you’re told to do, know you should but in

people sitting on plane chairs

reality, you have just got comfy, don’t want to disturb the person next to you or you are simply too engrossed in a ‘Friends’ marathon to get up and walk up and down. However; if I can stress one thing about long haul travel is that you should get up and move about. If getting up isn’t possible then try a few simple exercises in your seat – that way you don’t have to pause your movie! Try some ankle circles, knee lifts or foot lifts just to get the blood moving.

Our bodies weren’t designed to sit still and vegetate for 12+ hours so even if it’s just every few hours have a little wander up and down or even just stand and stretch out and get your legs moving.

 

Upgrade

If you are a member of a reward scheme such as Avios you might be able to use your points to upgrade for a more comfortable flight. Upgrading not only gives you the benefit of more room, better food and the option to lie flat in some cases but, you also get access to the lounge before departure. Lounge access before boarding your long-haul flight can really help ease you into your journey. Be sure to check out offers and deals when you are booking as it might be possible to upgrade to for a small fee.

Finally, if you choose to fly off-peak; avoiding school holidays, weekends and Mondays (the busiest travel day!) then you might be able to use those additional pennies to upgrade to premium economy, business or first class.

 

Plan your in-flight entertainment

Prior to your flight, you can check out your in-flight entertainment options online. The majority of airlines will publish their movie and TV schedule a month or two in advance so you can fully plan your in-flight TV binge with relative ease. Whilst the entertainment options on most airlines are pretty wide and varied these days, I make sure that my Kindle is fully loaded with new books to read and I always keep a paperback in my hand luggage if technology fails.

woman in white bed holding remote control while eating popcorn

If you are using a smartphone to access E-books, audiobooks or music it is also worth have a portable charger to keep your battery topped up throughout the flight.

 

Hydrate

70% of our body weight is water based – this is huge! It is a well-accepted fact that flying can significantly increase your risk dehydration. Dehydration can make you feel miserable with headaches, increased lethargy and dry eyes just to name a few symptoms. If you are on a long-haul flight, noclear disposable bottle on black surfacet getting brilliant sleep you don’t want to throw dehydration into the mix as well. Whilst you are flying make sure you are constantly sipping on water to keep your liquids topped up. Remaining fully hydrated will have you stepping off the plane feeling fresh!

 

Happy travels

Jess

 

 

 

New Zealand’s North Island Part 1: How to spend 3 days in Taupo

How to spend 3 days in Taupo

Many people have a spot firmly reserved for New Zealand on their bucket list. Whether you are an adventure seeking backpacker, family travellers or just looking to uncover some of the fabulous culture and landscapes New Zealand has to offer; there really is something for everyone.

After making the mammoth effort to get here it is easy to approach your travels with a checklist of things to tick off, because, let’s be honest when is the next time you will be making this trip again?

In December 2018 my husband and I flew out to Palmerston North to visit family over the Christmas period. Due to work commitments we had two full weeks including travelling days to explore this beautiful country. Itineraries were created, reworked, scrapped and tinkered with for some time before the final plan was in place. With only 12 days to work with excluding Christmas day and boxing day we wanted to get the most out of our trip without countless hours in the car; only getting out to take a quick picture then onto the next thing. We opted to stay on the North Island and complete a road trip. Our trip took us from Fielding to Taupo to Rotorua and finally ending in Opito Bay on the Coromandel Peninsula before heading back to Auckland for the trek home to the UK.

Our slightly more laid-back approach to the trip definitely enabled us to immerse ourselves in the culture and places we discovered.

This road trip itinerary takes in Taupo, Rotorua and Opito Bay. There are recommendations for thrill seekers, outdoor enthusiasts and a few gems for those who hunt for opportunities to get off the grid and take a step back when travelling!

Day 1-3: Taupo

Setting off from Fielding to Taupo didn’t start the way we had anticipated; after only 20 minutes we were forced to make a speedy U-turn to reclaim our winter coats which were stowed away on our arrival…lucky my husband remembered as his passport was conveniently stashed in his coat pocket! Who keeps their passport in their coat pocket?? Anyway, with disaster averted we were on our way.

Within 30 minutes of leaving Fielding I was like a child on their first trip to Disney World. Eyes as big as saucers, completely enthralled by their surroundings and silently mouthing ‘Wow’ every five minutes, as I pressed myself closer to the window to make sure I had the best views. gorgeMy husband fell asleep!view!mountain

 

 

Our drive took us through gently rolling hills, far better than anything I’ve seen in the UK! Past volcanoes’, rivers, gorges and mountain ranges. Every aspect was a picture worthy of capturing. I couldn’t get over how green everything was. New Zealand is pretty subtle at letting you know that their country is breath-taking. Every now then there are gravel laybys and viewing points where you can get out of your car and take in the view. I can definitely recommend the views from Stormy Point look out and the roads through the Tongariro National park.

It is safe to say that Lake Taupo crept up on me, I was so enthralled by the cutest little church (Waitetoko Church) that I completely missed Lake Taupo sneaking up on my left-hand side. It most certainly took me by surprise. Lake Taupo is impressive! The lake was created almost two thousand years ago during an enormous volcanic eruption. The crater left by the eruption, now Lake Taupo is roughly the size of Singapore….insane!

lake taupo.jpg

With such a brilliant natural resource Taupo is an excellent place for all things water based. From cruises to kayaking, Māori rock carving to beautiful riverside walks and trails not to mention excellent café culture, Taupo has a lot to offer.

Travelling in a group of six and opting for a more relaxed trip, we had decided that we would rent a home for our stay rather than stay in a hotel. This option enabled us to have the freedom to work around our own schedule and we had the run of the loveliest house right on the river. Booking was done through http://www.bookabach.co.nz/baches-and-holiday-homes . The whole process was simple and worked brilliantly for our needs.

What to do

We couldn’t visit Taupo without spending some time checking out Huka Falls. Huka Falls is the most visited natural attraction in New Zealand and it sure is worth a stop. I would recommend walking along the river for the best views and appreciation of the falls. This is not just a jump out of the car take a picture opportunity – trust me, it’s worth taking in a little more of the landscape. I have never seen water so perfectly and exquisitely turquoise.

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You can park at Spa Thermal Park and begin the walk from there. The trail takes you along the river winding its way up to give you a bird’s eye view of the river before meandering back down to culminate at the mighty Huka Falls. The power, speed and ferocity of the water reminded me of some elemental water dragon thrashing beneath the surface. Leaving time for photos and general wallowing in its beauty the trail takes about 1hr 30mins -2 hours. Also, as a little bonus you can take a dip in the hot springs at the start of the trail. The Spa Thermal Park is well equipped with changing rooms and easy walk ways to make access to the springs simple – so pack your swimwear!

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Whilst hiking is lovely and gives you a great opportunity to take in the views it isn’t exactly adrenaline fuelled. If you’ve come to New Zealand seeking action and thrills then I can thoroughly recommend the Huka Falls Jet. The Huka Jet takes you along the river, cliffs and to the base of the falls at 80 kilometres per hour! Our skilful driver weaved, spun, dodged and narrowly missed all the obstacles the river had to throw at him…..top tip – hang on! I stepped off the boat buzzing and with my heart in my mouth but it huka jet.jpgwas a brilliant way to get up close and personal to the falls. I should also mention that you will get wet, possibly VERY wet! Come prepared wearing a quick dry t-shirt and shorts as, particularly if you’re sitting on the outside edge you are in the firing line when the jet completes its breakneck 360 turns.

Sitting in the Pacific Ring of Fire it is no wonder that New Zealand harnesses the benriver 6.JPGefits of geothermal activity to generate power. If you’re visiting Taupo it is worth checking out the Aratiatia dam and rapids. The dam opens at 10am, 12pm and in the summer months 4pm. Along the dam there are various viewing platforms where you can watch for free as over 90,000 litres of water burst through and fill the gorge below. We arrived at around 9.45am and river 5.JPGwere able to get a spot with a perfect view of the dam opening. I recommend getting a spot below the bridge to see the full effect. It is worth arriving before 10am so you can see the tremendous change in the gorge as it becomes a rapid filled rushing river. Seeing the transition from unrelenting river to empty gorge really does make you appreciate natures incredible power.river 7.JPG

Continuing with the water-based activities we finally headed out one evening onto Lakemaori carving.jpg Taupo itself. We booked tickets on small boat with Ernest Kemp for an evening cruise to see the Māori rock carvings. Whilst the carvings aren’t as old as you might expect they are still pretty impressive. The giant Mine Bay carving of Ngātoroirangi is an excellent modern example of Māori artwork and took four summers to complete. Despite the grand splendor of the Ngātoroirangi carving; I think my favorite was the tuatara (giant lizard) which is sprawled across one of the lower rocks. The tuatara appears like a real-life dinosaur and could easily have been prop on the set of Jurassic Park. The carvings can only be accessed by boat

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Can you spot the Tuatara?

or kayak so it’s worth booking a trip. Our cruise with Ernest Kemp was very chilled with beer, wine, soft drinks and pizza served as we glided across the lake. Once at the rock carvings there was also the opportunity for a dip in the lake. A thoroughly enjoyable evening.

 

 

 

Finally, if you need to take a break and catch your breath then Replete café and store https://replete.co.nz/ is the perfect place to do so. Once you’ve snagged yourself a seat take a moment to fully study the huge glass cases of food and snacks also don’t forget to check out what’s on the menu! Whatever your choice I have no doubt it will be excellent! Top recommendation, the Moroccan chicken sandwich with an iced mocha went down a treat. It is easy to see why this cute little café has won numerous local and national awards. With a stellar reputation Replete is a popular place so try to beat the morning and afternoon rush to secure a table!

Although we managed to achieve a lot in three days, I would say that Taupo still had more to offer. On a return trip in the future I hope to get in some kayaking, complete the full hike from Huka Falls to the Aratiatia Dam and maybe check out the bungee jump over the Waikato river if I can turn my brave on!

Part two: Rotorua coming soon!

Happy travels

Jess