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Archive for the ‘Observations of’ Category

My friends and I have established a rather fabulous habit of heading out for a girls’ weekend twice a year; once in Summer and once in Winter. We make our travel choices based on availability of low cost airfares to European destinations, and, literally on the way home from our last escapade to Copenhagen, we booked our next adventure. How did we make the decision? Search the Easyjet and Ryan Air sales and see which city was cheap to get to, had an interesting ring, and none of us have yet been to. And so it was that we found ourselves on the way to Tallinn, Estonia.

I had very little pre-conceived ideas about Tallinn. A couple times I made the horrendous blooper of saying that we were off to Latvia. I KNOW it is the capital of Estonia, am horrified by my slip of the mind and con-fuddle with other incredible countries in Eastern Europe, but I can safely say that without a doubt, Tallinn is one of Europe’s most treasured secrets, at least for the weekend girl-traveller in search of an adventure.

I fell in love at least 10 times during my 72 hours in beautiful Tallinn. Here are the moments my heart skipped a beat…

  1. The fairy-tale maze of the Old Town

    The old town is a picture book of winding cobbled streets leading to a main square. It’s gorgeous. And it’s small, so you can literally walk from one side to the other, albeit you have to wind a little. The best way to orient yourself is to get yourself onto one of the many walking tours, which we did on our first morning. Ours met at 10.30am in Freedom Square (the tour is free but you tip a well deserving guide at the end) and was a 2 hour tour of the upper and lower Old Town. In our group (mostly comprised of Americans straight off the cruise ship) we climbed the hill to look at the old city wall and hide in the shade of Kiek in de Kok, check out the wedding cake pink parliament building and get a couple vantage points to gaze out over the roof top maze of the city from above. Our guide gave a fabulous potted history as we looked out to the various landmarks puncturing the sky between the medieval spires; the Television Tower, the Tallinn balloon, the two white columns of the “KGB” Viru hotel, and the hulking white masses of the two giant cruise ships docked in the harbour. Lute music played and the sweet smell of roasting nuts added to the medieval vibe of the Upper Old Town. We peeked into the great caverns of two fabulous and contrasting churches; the opulent and over the top orthodox Alexander Nevski Cathedral, with Russian women shrouded in headscarves kissing and crossing at the feet of boxed deities, and the oldest church in Estonia, the Dome Church, a cool escape from the blazing sun, this church simple and peaceful but with rather sinister looking ornate coats of arms hanging on the walls. We diligently followed our guide down into the Lower Old Town cutting through the “Short Leg” street, a steep set of steps cutting through the old city wall, taking in the quirky souvenir shops, cafes and other curiosities peeking out from behind the medieval windows. At the foot of Short Leg street we spotted street art by the local “Banksy” before heading back towards the big stage of the Main Square “Town Hall Square“. Here we left our walking buddies and headed to the shade of a canopied café for a well deserved cup of coffee…
  2. The hideous shot at the local bar

    On the first night we made a mini pilgrimage to a place that we have been tipped off (by one of the guide books – “quirky things to do in Tallinn”) to visit, the infamous Valli bar. We went for two reasons; it was touted as a “local” pub. And that is was. At least it seemed so, the faces all turned as we clattered through the door and I’m sure the barman had a smirk on his face when he carefully prepared the second reason we went there, for the hiddeous “millimalikas” (jellyfish) shots. These beasts taste like paint-stripper but we were determined to sample the local moonshine (although I think it’s made purely for tourists). I thought it looked rather beautiful. It was vile to drink. Some kind of vodka, zambucca and tabasco sauce concoction. I quite liked the tabasco, it was when I hit the zambucca I was struggling. Luckily we got sidetracked into conversation with a small army of Finish girls who were over on the boat for a cheap night out. None of us managed to finish our glasses of jellyfish…

  3. The blue sky at night

    We touched down in Estonia the day after Midsummer celebrations. The timing wasn’t great as we missed out on major party fun and giant bonfires, but we were amused and delighted all weekend by the fabulous blue skies that appeared to extend well into the night. Being that little bit closer to the North pole, Tallinn has longer days in the summer. We would periodically peer out of bar/restaurant windows as night crept on and exclaim “look, blue sky”. It never got old.

  4. The beach holiday moment I wasn’t expecting

    The weather in Tallinn was rather up and down, with bright sunshine one day and torrential downpours the next, but throughout it was very pleasantly warm. Luckily we decided to use the first day of bright sunshine to make the short taxi ride to the beach. From our conversations in the Valli bar the previous evening we learnt that Pirita Beach is the place to head when you want some beach time. So, after a fairly long day of sightseeing we decided to spend a well-deserved couple of hours on the sand. We jumped in a taxi and within 10 minutes we were walking out onto power sand and a beautiful view of flat calm Baltic sea. The water here is very shallow so you can paddle out a long way before taking a deep breath and sitting down to get your full body immersion in that refreshing icy water. The heat demanded it though and once you get your shoulders under you are truly invigorating and back in the world!It’s a really beautiful spot, with trees tumbling down right onto the beach, some beach apartments and a couple cafe/restaurants to keep you satiated. It seems to be mostly locals rolling out their towels and a very chilled way to spend an afternoon. Gazing over to the left you can see the spires of the old town, the Tallinn balloon making its “flight” up and down the line, and the giant ferries slowly leaving dock into the hazy afternoon

    A beach holiday in a couple hours. Complete down time. The salt in your hair, the sun
    on your shoulders and the sand in your toes. Ahhhh perfect…

  5. The tongue-tingling mind-expanding delicious cuisine

    The one thing I was not expecting what to have some of THE most delicious food I have ever tasted. And all packed into 3 days. We may have been lucky, but I can HIGHLY recommend these spots for food that will literally have you moaning out loud with food pleasure!

    Von Krahli Aed
    . For a romantic/cosy evening meal in the old town. Have the Roasted Rainbow Carrots and Pan Fried Trout. Don’t leave without having Magic Mushrooms for desert.F Hoone, in Telliskivi. Perfect for a lazy lunch with a large glass of wine. Could make decisions over this incredible menu, so went for two starters (and a large glass of wine). Grilled goats cheese with fig jam, beetroot pesto and raspberries, AND Spicy coconut soup with shrimp. Came back here again for brunch, and tried their beautiful (to look at and to taste) Botantist’s Gin cocktail.

    Mekk restuarant. We ducked in here to escape a torrential downpour and discovered the best rye bread in Tallinn. Classy place with sophisticated plates. I opted for delicious dumplings. The cocktails were out of this world.

    Rataskaevu 16. Just down the street from Von Krahli Aed. Stunning food in a stunning building. The service was exceptional – super friendly and welcoming. And the food was deeeeelicious!! I did two starters and a desert again here as couldn’t make decisions. Creamy tomato soup with smoked fish and lentil salad with goats cheese cream. Divine. The warm chocolate cake was the desert winner. Again, this place is perfect for a cosy evening meal. Watch out for the cabinet of moths and beetles in the ladies loo!

  6. The sinister secrets of the KGB
    The Viru hotel. Built by Russians and the only place that “foreigners” were allowed to stay during the Cold War. The hotel was built of the strongest and finest materials. The hotel had an incredible kitchen with top chefs, a hairdressers, the finest shops… all the things that you couldn’t get outside in the City. But the walls were filled with spy cameras and microphones, there were bugs in the ash trays and cooked into the crockery. The whole hotel was buzzing and humming with surveillance. The KGB ran this place and had whole floors out of limits where they were listening, watching, and sleeping. A man behind a newspaper in the bar. An old lady reading a book on one of the halls…. This short but exciting tour takes you up onto that “off limits” floor and gives you a peek behind the scenes of this fascinating hotel. Oh, and if you dare, you can stay there! Entrance to the KGB museum gets you free entrance to the
    nightclub. We didn’t risk it 😉
  7. The cool industrial hipster district

    Telliskivi is a seriously hip part of town with cafes, bars, boutique shops all nestled in warehouses covered in graffiti. Known as the “Creative City” this part of town was run down and crawling with undesirables in the fairy recent past. Now you can have lunch in a train carriage, browse the weird and wonderful flea market, take selfies along the graffiti wall, and sip some SERIOUSLY delicious cocktails at our favourite food/drink spot F Hoone. This place is super cool, photogenic and we didn’t see half of it! (our timing wasn’t great, as it was the holidays a lot was closed – so we had to window shop). Just across the train tracks outside the Old City, this place is a funky alternative spot to shop, eat, drink and be merry.

  8. The cab connectivity

    Somewhere I heard that Tallinn is the most digitally connected city in Europe. I’m not sure if it’s true but one digital experience that was noticeably superior to any place I’ve been recently is what I am referring to as the “cab-connectivity”. We had to use cabs as one of the girls was on crutches with a broken foot (not great on the cobbles!), otherwise you could easily walk everywhere. But the cabs were a DREAM. And this is because we used the app Taxify. Don’t pick up cabs on the street (if you do, check the yellow stickers and make sure the starting fare is low – they can vary from 2 Euros to 5…), use this app instead. It’s incredible. Your taxi is ordered and you are being whisked away within MINUTES (the max we had to wait was 5). You watch the taxi arrive on your map, rate your driver, and you can see the fare in advance, so no getting ripped off. They also have Uber there, which was supposed to be even
    cheaper, but we were VERY happy with this one!
  9. The karaoke bar that creates memories to inspire a movie

    I don’t know why but sometimes in these old and exciting cities, I would rather seek out a karaoke bar for a night of howling into a microphone over sticky drinks than hitting a local night spot for some dancing. Well, you can dance in karaoke bars! We randomly happened upon this karaoke bar on our Saturday night. It was down an alley and we had to pick our way over some off duty strippers who were taking a break outside a “Gentleman’s Club” at the entrance to said alley to get to the bar. It was sticky, neon, empty except for a very inebriated man who was leaning against the wall crooning badly into the mike. A group of locals looked up at us as we peered into the karaoke palace, bemused. I just knew we had to come back.

    I find those places deeply romantic. Not in the love sense of romance but in the “this feels like somewhere straight out of a novel or movie, about a girl on the run, adventuring across Europe. Meeting nameless characters and having lost conversations in sticky bars.

    So anyway, it didn’t take a HUGE amount of persuasion of my girlfriends to suggest we head along after dinner. Just for one song. We had the place to ourselves for the first 45 minutes, racking up all the power ballad favourites, ordering in the drinks. Jumping and spinning on our own private dancefloor. It was sticky-neon-singalong-heaven. Then our howls started attracting more punters and before long we had a small collection of those waifs and strays that always find their way into these kind of bars. Some boys from Austria wanting to join in our fun. A gang of Finish guys taking it very seriously, an older couple knocking our the Estonian favourites, and the bar man joined in with about 3 different versions of Wonderwall. It was hot and sweaty, we sang until our throats were raw, the movie was rolling. 4 hours passed in the blink of an eye.

  10. Serious but smiley; the friendly Estonians

    I seem to always say “the people are so friendly here”, but genuinely our experience of people in Tallinn was excellent. Most people were those who served us, so in bars, restaurants,  the dude in the Tallinn Balloon, our many taxi drivers… But all were interested in us and really helpful. The fabulous lady who met us at our AirBnB not only drove us around the local area to give us some orientation, she took us to the supermarket and waiting whilst we piled all manner of snacks into our basket and then she drove us home! The Estonians (or Tallinners) we met had an air of seriousness about them, but were incredibly welcoming. Our last encounter with a Tallinner was in the airport on the way home when we needed an escort with a wheelchair for our hobbling friend. Kaarel, a fabulous young man straight out of the army and now with his sights on University swept us through the airport, chatting about his life and dreams, Brexit, and all sorts, and got us quickly and safely onto the plan ahead of all the other passengers. With a serious face but a smiling face 🙂

Other things to do:

  • Cure a broken heart with a love potion from the Raeapteek pharmacy on the old square.
  • For the best views of Tallinn, take the 120m high flight on the Tallinn Balloon. Go before 10am to beat the crowds and get the best ticket price.
  • Stay in this very cool AirBnB. Close to all the action (walkable distance to the Old Town, Telliskivi, and two big supermarkets) and it has it’s own hammock for relaxing in the afternoon.
  • Spend a couple hours connecting to Tallinn’s recent past and the days of Russian and German occupation, at the Museum of Occupations.

 

 

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Waiting on the platform, ice cold air snakes through my clothing.
Retreat to the corner of a snug coffee shop.
Balancing on a high wooden chair.
Fridge is humming. Something is humming.
Sweet and strong liquid and a trail of heat on the roof of my mouth.
Coffee breath.

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Last weekend I headed over to Amsterdam to attend a medical conference. It’s been over 15 years since I last came here. I visited a couple of times with my best friends at high school. One New Year’s Eve we ran around the streets of Amsterdam while people threw fireworks at us. When tired of peeking into coffee shops and trying to get into glitzy gay bars we finally slept in one of the tall thin buildings that line the canals near the red light district. The house was being used by my best friend’s parents, who operated a Chinese imports business. We slept amongst boxes of freeze dried fish. We were on top of the world, everything was possible, living life large and loud and without fear. Never mind that we were all waifs of teenage girls, we could have taken on the world with the glint in our eyes.

Returning all these years later emotions stirred within as we started our descent into Schipol. Only 40 minutes from Heathrow yet years away, I was excited to see if it had changed and if it still made me feel like anything can happen.

The train from the airport takes you quickly and easily into the centre. I rode with tourists and locals and teenagers from home, taking their first intrepid steps into the world. Then a tram and a short walk led me to my home for the next few days – the self-selected Bicycle Hotel in the funky (or, as it says in my guide book, “dodgy”) De Pijp neighbourhood. I could have chosen a sterile hotel for my work stay, but this hostel had a certain charm. I was handed my key and pointed up the steep narrow staircase. Bunk beds! A sink with shared toilet and shower. This takes me back.

So by the time I settled it was time to meet my colleagues and head out for dinner. We stayed close by and ate at the Cafe Restaurant De Duvel. A very cosy restaurant with THE most spectacular Tom Ka Gai I have ever tasted. The local beers slipped down and the atmosphere was buzzing.

After that, not wanting to yet head home, we pushed onto some more bars, sampling the beers in their small glasses. Very civilised! A taxi ride took us back towards Dam Square, I hopped out and saw in front of me the great green glow of the infamous Grasshopper coffee shop. I can’t even remember if this was a place I’d visited in my past, I ran in for nostalgia sake, to have a quick bathroom stop and sniff the rancid smell of teenagers enjoying their coffee shop moment, and then dashed out to find somewhere a little more… age appropriate!

We walked through the red light district, something I was keen to see again. For some reason I was expecting moth eaten velvet curtains and an old-world charm (again, not sure if that’s a displaced memory or something I once saw on a film), but was surprised by the clinical and contemporary appearance of the “windows” and their inhabitants, looking on with empty eyes and a tepid smile.

The rest of the night became a little hazy. Punctuated with the small beers, conversations with strangers out the front of gay bars, disco, house, western music… Someone complimented me on my blue jeans and cowboy boots combo, and I was finally pushed into a taxi. 30 euros for a 10 minute drive, tipped out in front of the bicycle hotel. 3am.

I’ve never slept so well in a bunk bed (lower bunk, no one in the top!).

The next morning was a little hazy. After a breakfast of cheese, processed meat and Nutella I decided to brave the day by hopping aboard a yellow tourist bike and attempting to navigate the Sunday morning roads.

This was a little risky, head sieving out the remnants of a hangover, having to ride a foreign bike with dodgy breaks, ride on the wrong side of the road AND contend with fellow traffic in the shape of local cyclists (everyone cycles here), trams, cars, and hoards of tourists on foot. I wobbled and stop-started around the streets, bumping over the tram lines and swerving to avoid criss-crossing cyclists.

I got lost. It’s OK on a bike as it doesn’t take long to come back. It took a little while to get the nerve to turn left, but once I’d cracked it, all was well in the world. I may dare to imagine I blended in like a local. On my bright yellow tourist bike.

The sky was bright blue and clear, the sun shining, the water on the canals sparkling and Sunday morning life in Amsterdam in full swing. Local lads hauling boats along the water, couples sitting out on their doorsteps, smoking and watching the world go by. Locals sitting in cafes, blankets on their knees, writing in their journals. I joined them. Heaven.

I then found the PrisenGracht canal, according to my map I could cycle the length of the canal and take in the Anne Frank museum, the Tulip Museum and the Cheese Museum. Also it ends up in Jordaan, a really funky arty district, stacked with cute boutiques, art galleries, with flowers spilling over the railings at every bridge over the canal.

I was having a blast, perched on my upright yellow bike, cruising alongside the canal, weaving between cars, people, bikes, taking the time to take in my surrounds. Peeking down alleys, eyes drawn to shop windows, neon, cute flower boxes, people hoisting furniture into their tall thin houses by their external hoists. This, I thought, is Amsterdam. A far cry from my teenage memory, but a high definition experience of bliss that will sit in my mind for the next 15 years.

And with that, I glanced at my watch. Lunchtime. My night and morning in Amsterdam have passed, time to work. And with that I turned my bike and pointed it towards the convention centre and cycled back to the conference.

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Cheese factory

Missing

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Tobago. It has a far away, exotic ring to it. I never really knew where it was, somewhere near Trinidad, somewhere in the Caribbean, I think. (It turns out Tobago is very close to Venezuela). And so, it was a wonderful kink of fate that led me to this beautiful gem set low in the translucent and magical Caribbean seas. I entered a competition to win a honeymoon. I completed a simple form and popped it in a plastic box (I remember a beautiful scantily clad carnival dancer shimmying her sequins infront of the exhibition stand), then, a month later I got a call. You’ve won the competition and you’re off to Tobago!!

My observations…

  • Tobago-time must be observed. Stepping off the plane (10 hour direct flight from the grey skies of Gatwick), your head is still rushing at a million miles an hour – you try to convert the speed of dealing with the 9 to 5 from home into a new holiday rush to plan trips and get things done in your short week on the island. No, no, no, no, NO. Stop. Relax. Have a ginger shandy. Sit in the shade. Gaze at the turquoise water. Breathe. Get on Tobago-time. No rush.
  • Aside from Italy, the food in Tobago is one of the most consistently delicious food I’ve encountered on all my travels. Fish steaks bigger and more tasty than anything I’ve had, salads with delicious zingy dressings, fruit so lip-smackingly mouth watering and sweet and succulent. Coconut breads, marinated chicken, subtley spiced exotic roti, mmmmmm. And the ginger shandy is THE most refreshing drink in the 30 degree heat…
  • Having the opportunity to witness the majestic Leatherback turtle nesting on the beach under a bright starry sky. This is SUCH an incredible experience. The Leatherbacks are giants, the one we saw was measured at 1.71 metres, and watching her hour long dance of egg laying, sand patting, shuffling, turning, and heading back out to sea was an experience I will never forget.
  • Underwater love. I spent a lot of time in the water, on the water and under the water. There is something about the colour of the Caribbean that makes my heart sing. It’s the most divine turquoise water, and the light reflects and bounces off it in such a beautiful way. Aside from the extreme saltiness of the water (a killer on the eyes and nose when it gets in the snorkel mask), it’s a joy to be floating in and under. I’ve never seen such a diversity of underwater life, from the rainbows of tropical fish to the terrifying moray eel, to the gnarly scorpion fish, the biggest puffa fish I’ve ever seen (I didn’t know they could grow that big), to the elegant and bizarre octopus, and the coral gardens! Another world. Spent time snorkelling, diving, swimming, floating, sailing, speedboating. Be near the water, as much as possible.
  • Getting to see the island. It would be easy to stay in the bottom south west tip of the island. The airport is there, as are the main resorts and the capital. There’s enough to more than satisfy a week of time, especially on Tobago-time. BUT there is a lot else to see on the island. Craggy bays, fishing villages, high drives up to get views of sweeping arcs of sand. Forts, canons, trees of every imaginable fruit (and nut!), villages on the side of mountains. The Caribbean coast, the Atlantic coast (two very different places), and the people, congregating in beachside bus stops, peddling their wares in small coastal towns, going about their day to days, cruising in their cars with the reggae booming out…
  • Tobagonians like their bass. Boom box bass. Reggae, calypso, all kinds UP LOUD. Everything is turned up to 11. In the middle of the morning, in the middle of the night. I can’t imagine people complain about loud music here. They probably complain if it’s turned down too low!
  • Price. For some reason I thought everything would be cheap. I seem to think this every time I go away. I don’t know where I get this idea from, but needless to say it’s not particularly cheap to stay here. Food, drink, all on par with the UK (perhaps a little less). A lot of people stay all inclusive, I think it’s nicer to have the reason to escape the resort and check out the local places, but it doesn’t save a huge amount. Excursions are expensive, but you’ll want to do them!
  • Lack of critters. I was warned about sandflies and mosquitos. I didn’t really experience them at all. This may be because for once in my life my deet worked, or it may be the time of year or sheer luck, but I got away pretty scott free from critter bites this time.
  • People keep coming back to Tobago. We met a lot of people on our travels who had been coming back to Tobago for years. One couple had visited the same resort as us – Coco Reef Spa Resort – sixteen times! It has a real family feel, like everyone knows each other, even on the plane over and back, everyone seems to know each other. In fact the cabin crew were on the party boat cruises that happened in the week! A lot of fellow holiday makers had been all over the Caribbean, to multiple islands. Antigua came up trumps, but Tobago was close. It seems that Tobago is one of the least unspoilt and least expensive, things are changing with the recession, prices are rising and tourist numbers are falling, but there is optimism that this will change.
  • Attitude. I loved the local people. My experience was largely hotel staff and taxi/tour guides, so I appreciate this isn’t representative, but I found they had a special charm all of their own. Very laid back, not in a hurry. Some people found them a little rude, but it isn’t rudness, they just aren’t as uptight and stressed about life and react in accordance with that. Once I’d grasped Tobago-time, I found it hard to feel bothered by a lack of super sharp service. They were friendly and that’s enough for me!

Tobago was a real gem. I had very little expectation going into the trip, except I wanted sunshine, and I got that. I LOVED the food, the turtle watching was a huge bonus and the snorkelling and diving was fabulous. I fell in love with the spirit of the place – enjoy yourself, through food, rum punch, dancing to loud music, relaxing under the shade of a palm tree. Life is good here, don’t work too hard. The perfect antidote to my 9 to 5.

Pirate's Bay

Secluded bays…

Pigeon Point

A tobago bus stop?

Crab and dumplings

Crab n’ dumplings

Crochet pants

Crochet pants, Tobago style

Pigeon point

Observing Tobago-time

Leatherback nesting

Giant Leatherback in her nest

Christmas coral on brain coral

Underwater love – Christmas and Brain coral

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I’m only just shaking off the jet lag from my recent jaunt to the US. Part holiday, part work trip, this involved me jumping on a plane and heading straight to Las Vegas for the weekend. How I’ve longed to say that! Of course it’s not typical that you take a weekend to Vegas from the UK, but since it was (sort of) “en route” to New York and it conincided with a good friend’s Elvis wedding, how could I turn down the opportunity?!

So this was my second visit to Las Vegas, the last time being nearly twelve years ago (in 2001) as part of a six month backpacking trip around the USA, Mexico and Guatemala. I have strong memories of that first trip, including:

  • Stepping off the Greyhound bus, after hours sitting next to a large man and feeling the heat of the dessert slowing beating down the air conditioning, and thinking I must have stepped straight into the path of the exhaust as it was so hot. Nope, it was simply THAT hot there (this was August)
  • Living in a run down backpackers near Freemont, attempting to walk to the main drag in the day, but retreating back to be by the pool, under sprinklers in the searing heat – save the exploration until after dark
  • Feasting at the “all you can eat” buffets – piling plates high with all the different food you can ever imagine. And paying six bucks for the pleasure.
  • Riding the rollercoasters in the casinos – at the top of the Stratosphere, New York New York, and one other.. can’t remember where
  • Meeting an Elvis near some slot machines, with a sickly orange cocktail in hand. Feeling Vegas, 100%
  • Making the pilgrimidge to “the sign”. It was much smaller than I thought…
Las Vegas sign

Me, in Vegas, 2001

So that was 12 years ago.

This time I was staying the nicer end of town, in the very plush Vdara, no smoking, non-gaming, with a room the size of my flat in the UK and a view of the desert. This time I was on a whirlwind trip with my friend to witness her get married. This time is was winter, we used taxis, and we didn’t get close to a buffet (and they’re certainly not $6 anymore). The rollercoaster at the top of the Stratosphere has been replaced with rides that make me shudder. Here are my observations…

  • When you fly into Vegas and approach the airport, take a look out of the window to get a stunning bird’s eye view of the canyons in the surrounding area. Not everyone can afford the helicopter tours, but you get a pretty good view on the descent.
  • Las Vegas is like Disney Land, or maybe EuroAsia Land – it has these themed hotels which recreate places from around the world – Venice, Rome, Cairo, all places I’ve been, an American visiting will see the landmarks all pristine and complete (Coluseum), if they ever make it to the real place they may be disappointed in the crumbling version of the real thing
  • You can work your way along the strip through the rabbit warren of interlinked casinos, escalators, and moving walkways which move you around the hotels and across the streets. But there are no signs, or at least it’s not that clear, so you end up completely lost and spun on your head. Don’t be a hurry to get anywhere, just enjoy the madness and cruise along
  • Everyone smokes here. It’s like the eighties. Casinos and hotels all have patrons puffing away. It’s weird being back in that kind of environment. Bring water and sore throat pastilles.
  • The place smells of green. I could mean money, but I actually mean plants. Despite being in the dessert they have planted shrubs and lawns that belong on picture postcards. And it smells of green. Which is really pleasant but more than a little weird. There are also imported trees and perfect turquoise lakes. This is better than real life.
  • There is piped music at every turn (along the Strip). You don’t notice it at first, you just feel a little more bouyant than usual – why not, you’re on holiday and the sun is shining? Then you stop and realise that Stevie Wonder is coming out from a fake rock (speaker) on the road side. More weirdness.
  • People are in the party mood. Maybe it was because it was nearly “Spring Break” – in the evenings everyone carried giant plastic Eiffel Tower shaped cocktail buckets, all in neon plastic complete with mega straws to suck up the deadly concoctions within. People would whoop and holler at us (the bridal party) shouting cheer of congratulations.
  • It is expensive. Full stop. Money rolls in and out of those casinos like it’s going out of fashion. Food, drink, hotels, shows, shopping. There’s a lot to spend money on. The bus is cheap (or free if you can’t work out how to buy a ticket) and there are a couple of free shows (Belagio fountain, Sirens show at Treasure Island), you can buy really cheap tshirts as you head towards downtown, and of course people-watching is free, as is walking miles through the casinos, gawping at the ridiculousness of everything!!

So my advice is go, for a wedding, for a weekend, look around, feel the madness and the contrast of the neon with the beauty of those dessert rocks in the distance. You don’t need to stay long, but everyone needs to see it to believe it!

canyonsNew York New York Paris Las Vegas Venice Las Vegas

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Having just returned from one of my new favourite places on Earth, I think it only fit that I reflect on my experiences within the country whose mantra is “Pura Vida” – literally meaning Pure Life, or “Plenty of Life”, and yes, that it is. Here, in summary, are my observations from my trip…

  • On arriving in San Jose, after hearing many stories of pickpocketing and theft, our first experience was a very friendly and knowledgeable cab driver whose main advice was not to carry any valuables when out in SJ. He did reassure us by saying that although there wasn’t much evidence of police on the streets, that they were watching at all times as there were cameras on every corner, so not to fight the thieves, but hand over any valuables, and rest assured, the police would be with us within minutes. Not entirely reassuring as a welcome! However, we didn’t experience any trouble and throughout the trip I felt extremely safe. We didn’t spend any time in San Jose either. Co-travellers on a public bus had their bags pinched, but they were warned not to leave them on several occasions…
  • The weather was crazy and intense. Intense rain on the Caribbean, relentless pounding rain in the rainforest, winds whipping up in Monteverde, hot and humid most of the time and then heavy heat on the Pacific coast. However, Costa Rica, literally the Rich Coast (named by Christopher Columbus when he came ashore), is ALIVE with the biggest and brightest wildlife – technicolour birds (over 800 species), giant lizards, snakes, spiders, all bigger and weirder looking than any I’ve ever seen, huge overblown fruits bursting with flavour (grapefruits bigger than our heads) and plants that look like they’ve just busted out of the latest Avatar movie – without that larger than life climate scenario, NONE of this would be possible. Embrace the extremes, buy a bright and strong brolly and rain pocho and get used to being damp (with rain or humidity!)
  • Sloth spotting from the river is a lot of fun. At the time we didn’t realise that we’d get up pretty close to a sloth on the pacific coast, but whilst on the river heading to Tortuguero, it was exciting trying to spot the sloth in the branches from the boat.
  • The food is pretty darned tasty! We’ve heard a few tales that this wasn’t the case and so had set our expectations pretty low, and yes, there are a lot of meals with rice and beans, but there is also a lot of fantastic seafood, delicious chicken, creative uses of the plaintain with marvellous guacamole and various spicy salsa sauces. At every bus stop we would top up with the various different versions of cheese flavoured snack and the supermarkets offered interesting bakery goods to keep our breakfasts varied.
  • Everything is super expensive. Well, it’s priced like you’re at home (in the UK). I think this is again about expectations, it’s easy to presume it should be cheap as it has that developing country/backpacker vibe, but actually it’s a hot-bed for American tourists, so no doubt that pushes the prices up. The best thing is not to let it bother you too much – if you can – just enjoy the moment (and the constant confusion of colones to GBP conversion)
  • Everywhere has free wifi, which is fantastic as it enables blogging on the go to really capture the spirit of the live experience – I posted some of my first ever “blog posts on the road”, which has transformed my travel diary habits!
  • The people are literally some of the nicest and friendliest people I have ever met on all my travels. And I don’t like to generalise about an entire countries population, but literally everyone we met went out of their way to be polite and friendly – and everyone has the “Pura Vida” attitude – you can’t help but smile!! 
  • A big mention has to go to the wonderful owner of the Cabanitas resort in La Fortuna, he is also a doctor, and I happened to have a cold which took a wrong turn and moved into bronchitus (yuck)  – the lovely doc helped me out by giving me a check up, writing a prescription for anti-biotics, driving me to the pharmacy on a Sunday and THEN asking his wonderful wife to cook me up “mama’s soup” to make me feel better – all from the good of his heart. I *heart* Costa Ricans!
  • Travelling as part of a group we got to use a variety of interesting vehicles, from public bus to mini van to tractor to boat, which was a great way to move around a country with such variety of landscapes. I felt like I was really moving through the country, not just past it.
  • Costa Rica is definitely a place to have a lot of fun – with activities a go-go. In fact almost too many if you are on limited time (or fall ill). White-water rafting, canyoneering, ATV (quad-biking), horse-back riding, lots of hiking, kayaking, and of course the unmissable and one of the best things of the trip – Zip Lining! This is SO much fun and the BEST way to see the canopy and feel at one with the world. You zip from platform to platform through the trees gradually getting longer runs which are higher above the canopy. You are professionally manoeuvred by the staff who un-clip and reclip you onto the wire before pushing you off on your next line. The final stages include the “Superman” where you are clipped on from a harness at your back and you fly head first over the breathtaking forest below – this is 750 meters of pure joy (a little uncomfortable but you soon forget it) – you are flying, high above the canopy, you have no visibility of your harness, you are literally flying. The wind whistling in your ears, you are as a bird. Very special.
    Then the professionals adjust your harness and it’s time for the Tarzan Swing. You walk, alone, to the end of a bridge and jump off. This is terrifying, many chicken out, but it’s absolutely AWESOME (and you go crazy with adrenalin fuelled chattering afterwards). Much fun to be had.
  • The pacific coast sunsets are amongst some of the most beautiful I have seen. Each different and dramatic, from coral pink sundowns to moody grey cloud covered sets, people line the beaches staring towards the centre of our solar system hypnotized by its dramatic goodnight.
  • Traffic is bonkers. I had less of a view of it that most on our trip, the majority of gasps and shocked expressions came from my fellow travel buddies who were sitting with a view through the front windscreen. I heard of overtaking buses and large lorries on the single carriageway roads. I felt less safe in Italy, but then I was in the passenger seat…
  • Costa Rica has one of the greatest creatures on earth – the red eyed tree frog – when we found one it was asleep and looking very unassuming and camouflaged  We then woke it up and PAZZOW! It is one of the craziest, most beautiful, eye-boggling wonders of the natural world. I fell madly in love with the red eyed, red footed, blue stripy bellied chap. SO beautiful and special to meet.
  • The sky seemed to constantly be filled with vultures, circling in packs overhead. This trip redefined my idea of vultures, previously known from Jungle Book, here in Costa Rica they are majestic birds who are extremely graceful in the skies.
  • This is one of the most photogenic countries in the world. I was kicking myself that I didn’t get a new camera for Christmas ahead of the trip. Despite everyone else having a mega zoom lens for their camera I am still really pleased with my photos – because there is so much to photograph, but my advice would be if you are thinking of buying a new camera, don’t wait until you get back from Costa Rica!
  • One of the best experiences was experiencing the beauty of the pacific coast from a catamaran – we went with a family company in a smaller boat (not the big boat with the  slides and trampolines) and had 1/2 day in paradise, enjoying the crystal clear waters and bright skies, spotting a friendly pod of dolphins, and generally basking in the beautiful sunshine. We cooled off with a welcome snorkel spotting rainbow fish and a couple elusive puffas – amazing!
  • Creepy crawlies ROCK! We got to see snakes and big spiders (and hold big spiders) and huge iguanas and geckos and all kinds of bugs, and just having the proximity has made me more excited than ever about being close to these wonderful creatures, so I’m hoping that next time I experience a spider in our flat, I’ll be more likely to give it a helping hand out of the window, rather than running for the hills.
  • Finally, not really to do with Costa Rica, but the trip itself, I went along with G Adventures, who are one of my favourite tour groups (having been on 3 of their tours now) and I was part of an interesting, diverse, wonderful, supportive and fun group of people. As ever, travelling is as much about the people who are experiencing the new landscapes and cultures with you, and this group played was a huge contribution to my time in Costa Rica – it was a privilege to share the experiences with people who loved the country as much as I did!

So Costa Rica has left quite an impression, I would have loved to have spent a few more days in each of our stopping points – especially Puerto Viejo, La Fortuna, Monteverde and Manuel Antonio, and we didn’t get out to the Guanacaste peninsular, which I need to save for another time. But time is always against us, work and “real life” beckons. I need to work on my cunning master plan to be able to travel the world forever and get paid for it, and then I can return and of course, report back!

The trip I took was Costa Rica Adventure offered by G Adventures. The route was San Jose > Puerto Viejo de Talamanca > Tortuguero > Sarapiqui Rainforest > La Fortuna > Monteverde > Quepos/Manuel Antonio > San Jose.

Caribbean beach

Wild beach of the Caribbean

Seafood soup

There’s a crab in my soup

REd eyed tree frog

One of my favourite Costa Ricans – the Red Eyed Tree Frog!

Beach life

Beach life

Sloth

SLOTH!!!

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Our grand tour of Italy started in the Capital of the World, the mighty Rome, and then we made our way through two of Tuscany’s treasures, Florence and Siena, before acquiring some wheels and heading south for a beachy retreat to Sperlonga to catch our breath. Then started the second half, our Amalfi Adventure, hugging the coastal road down to wtiness some of the most incredible history, geography, natural beauty and outright crazy cityness of the trip so far… My observations…

  • It takes a long time to drive along the coastal road, you hit towns and have to pass through them, and we managed to time this with rush hour on a Saturday lunchtime! It looks a shortish wiggle on the map, but it takes time, the traffic gets progressively more “fun” the further south you head, having to dodge, swerve, brake heavily, and check all mirrors at all times to keep a beady eye out for pedestrians, motorcyclists, other vehicles, dogs… Signposts come very late and even if you have a navigator (my job), it’ll be a “quick, exit now!!” right at the last minute that sends you careering off in perhaps the wrong direction. Be patient, or invest in sat nav…

  • Pompeii is utterly incredible. It’s huge. There are several suggested itineraries, ranging from a speedy 2 hours up to 6 hours. We did 3 and felt a little rushed, but it was enough to explore the streets and cover most of the ground. We didn’t linger though. It’s truly amazing and incredible to imagine it as it was two thousand years ago. You’ll get caught up in the tourist traffic though, of which there is a lot. I just imagined it was 79AD and all the tourists were locals from Pompeii, having just read Robert Harris’s book, tricksters, prostitutes, swindlers, traders… much more interesting to use your imagination here.

  • We went in through a back entrance rather than the main one, it lead to quieter streets, and the necropolis, from where you get a stunning view of Vesuvius, silently watching over Pompeii. Smiling secretly about it’s dark history.

  • Don’t buy the book from a guide outside. We spent 6 euros on a book and map only to get hugely frustrated that the numbers didn’t match up with the maps inside the ruins. We gave up in the end and I decided I’d read about it afterwards. There are plenty of tours, if you can handle them (I can’t), or it’s fun just to wander and imagine…

  • Drive to the top of Vesuvius if you can, especially after visiting Pompeii (if you only do one, do Pompeii). It’s so intense to walk up the volcano and gaze down on the city from above. As you peer into the slightly steaming crater, you feel that you’re in a dark and mighty place. The view of the Bay of Naples is stunning.
  • Sorrento is beautiful and as you drive and get closer, winding around the roads (channeling Bond), you get peeks over the cliffs of the craggy coast below and the beautiful towns clinging to the rocks.

  • The side streets in Sorrento are CRAZY thin, in our hire car (i.e. no dinks allowed) we accidentally turned down a street that we were convinced was not for cars. We were stuck (and stressed) a local says that yes of course cars could pass – simply pull in both your wing mirrors and drive slowly. With a 5cm clearance each side, we crawled along this “road” sweating profusely and swearing like troupers..

  • Sorrento is HUGE! I thought it would be tiny, but there is a whole labyrinth of beautiful streets adorned with tourist shops and boutiques, lots of lemon shops, fake belts and bags, even a Christmas shop!

  • We caught the Hydrofoil over to Capri for an outrageous 78 euro return (2 tickets) – so expensive! 40 minutes later on the isle of Capri, we jumped in a boat and motored around the island. I love being on a boat and had a lovely 1.5 hours getting the best views of the island, checking out beautiful cliffs, natural arches, blue, green and white grottos (at the Blue Grotto we paid the overpriced ticket to get into a small wooden dingy and go into the cave. It was beautiful but I could tell others were hugely unimpressed, especially by the ticket price!). We cruised under the lover’s arch, past houses belonging to millionaires (Georgio Armani, Swarovski..). The sea was the most incredible mix of deep royal blue and turquoise – so inviting!

  • Caught a crazy little bus up to Ana Capri for the best views from the top of the island – down to the harbour and out to Naples and Vesuvius in the background. Cute little town on the top to wander through, pop into church and grab a lemon slushi.

  • The final hydrofoil from Sorrento to Naples is now around 4.45pm, unlike the timetable we had that said it was 6.45pm. So we missed the last boat and had to head to the train station. Despite the drama this worked out well. In less than an hour and 4 euros lighter, we were in Naples. Cheaper and quicker than the boat!

  • I wish we’d had more time in Naples, and I wish it wasn’t our last night. We were exhausted and this is not a city to experience exhausted! It’s like no other Italian city I’ve seen (or European for that matter). It’s loud, fast, dirty, busy, crazy… people shouting, scooters zooming by, there is definietly an edge here. Taxi driver told me to hang onto my handbag.

  • After getting a taxi to our lovely hotel we were feeling a little spun out from the trip from Sorrento. We also didn’t had a guidebook. I remembered that Naples featured in Eat Pray Love, so I sought out some info from that book instead (my alternative travel guide!) – Naples as described by Elizabeth Gilbert:

    “I instantly love Naples. Wild, raucous, noisy, dirty, balls-out Naples. An anthill inside a rabbit warren, with all the exoticism of a Middle Eastern bazaar and a touch of New Orleans voodoo. A tripped out, dangerous and cheerful nuthouse… The city is decorated with the laundry that hangs from every window and dangles across every street; everybody’s fresh-washed undershirts and brassieres flapping in the wind like Tibetan prayer flags...”

    YES YES YES. It is JUST like this, and I happily forwent the Lonely Planet and just rattled that beautifully accurate (having been to both New Orleans and a Middle Eastern bazaar) description around in my mind as I lay on my bed and listened to the noises coming from outside my window… deep within the rabbit warren.

  • We did go out to eat but we didn’t venture far, I didn’t get my famous pizza or napleotean icecream, instead we had our final carbonara of the trip whilst watching the locals thunder up and down the streets on their scooters and finally headed back, exhausted and ready for an early night… We had a 5.45am taxi to the airport. Time to leave Italy and go home…

So, the trip is over. It had been a real adventure, a sensory invigoration, tasting the most delicious food, seeing picture perfect countryside and beautiful coastal scenes. I’d travelled back in time to Ancient Rome, exploring Medieval cities with incredible architecture and renaissance art, and those buried in firey lava at the start of the century. I’d climbed to dizzying heights and gazed down on the labyrinths of those ancient cities, and peered up at towering church domes and felt overwhelmed by the scale and opulence of the past. I’d walked the rim of the most dominating and awesome natural feature on the landscape, Vesuvius and bobbed over waters of sparkling turquoise. Had my ears battered with the beep and buzz of scooters, listened to the sing song italian voices, always animated, always in drama, smelt the richest coffee to tantalise my tastebuds and felt soft sand between my toes. It’s been a blast Italy, and one day, I’ll be back!

PompeiiPompeii victimSorrentoSorrento StreetsTop of VesuviusPompeii

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