Lake Garda

Lake Garda was not a destination on my radar until fairly recently but after seeing photos of the crystal clear turquoise lake and charming little Italian villages on a friend’s Facebook page, it became a must-see for me. So when we noticed the August bank holiday fast approaching, Alex saw no other option but to book some flights!

After a grim early morning flight, we arrived in Verona after just 2 hours and went to pick up our hire car at Buchbinder. If you plan to travel around the lake during your trip to Lake Garda, there are a number of alternative transport options including ferries to and from most of the main towns but as the nearest airport (Verona) is an hour’s drive away we thought we’d hire a car for ease and to give us the opportunity to visit some of the more remote towns on the lake. The drive from the airport to Torbole was interesting as soon as we merged on to the main highway. To enter the highway you had to first approach a toll booth and take a ticket from a machine. Keep hold of this ticket as you will need it to be able to exit the highway! It was around an hour’s drive to Torbole, the north end of the Lake and it cost us €4.00 in toll charges which we thought was pretty reasonable considering the majority of the journey was on the highway. As we entered Torbole from uphill, the view of the lake was spectacular. The water glistened the most brilliant blue colour and you could just make out the outlines of the windsurfers bobbing up and down on its surface. We stayed at the Hotel Residence Torbole, situated right on the lake and with free on site parking which is a rarity apparently. We paid a little extra for a lake view room which I would highly recommend. Even though we didn’t spend a lot of time in the hotel, the times we were there were spent sitting by the window, watching the windsurfers and fisherman. The hotel was more like an apartment as it had a bedroom, bathroom, seating area and kitchen complete with a fridge and hob. We didn’t use the hob while we were there (instead choosing to eat our body weight in pasta at the traditional Italian restaurants scattered along the harbour) but it was a good space that gave you the option to have lunch in the room. The little town of Torbole is not huge but has everything you need if you’re just looking to chill out. Around five restaurants line the pretty little harbour, all serving a menu of pizza, pasta and the freshest sea food around, sourced straight from the lake.

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Driving into Torbole

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Swimming in the lake
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Swimming in the lake

Top of our list of things to do while we were in Lake Garda was to visit Monte Baldo, a mountain range known for its great hiking trails and beautiful views over the lake. If you’re not feeling too adventurous (and haven’t got a full day spare to climb it!), you can get a cable car to the top that starts in either Malescine or San Michele. San Michele is at a higher altitude and so it only requires one cable car to the top but Malescine is by far easier to reach by car and provides ample parking. We started our day fairly early and got to Malecine just before 9am, parking our car in the multi-story car park located just below the entrance to the cable car. It cost us 5.50 euros to park there for 4 hours but it increases by a euro for each hour you spend there. The timings of the cable car are every 30 mins from 8am at Malescine and every 30 mins from 8:15am at San Michele depending on the season but more information on this can be found here – http://funiviedelbaldo.it/en/timetable-rates. I can’t stress enough just how important it is to catch an early cable car (ideally before 9:30am). One reason being that if you purchase a cable car ticket before 9am and use it before 9:30am, the price of the ticket is significantly reduced. But most importantly, you must beat the crowds!! We ended up catching the 9:30am cable car from Malescine and the 9:45am car from San Michele. There was no wait and we were straight on. However, when we came back down the mountain at around 11:30am, the queue for both cable car stations were out the door and when we asked a member of staff they told us the wait was now approximately 3 hours! The cable car from Malescine holds 45 people and the second one from San Michele holds 80 people. The cable car from San Michele is world famous as it has been engineered to rotate 360 degrees to enable a magnificent view of the ascent up the mountain. All in all, the ascent takes 20 minutes (not including the interchange at San Michele). Once at the top there are a couple of cafes and giftshops, all serving decent but rather expensive meals and snacks. Also at the top are opportunities to paraglide and visit the alpaca enclosure where you can pay to take them for walks! Needless to say, we didn’t partake in either of these activities but we saw a lot of people that did! The view of Malescine and the surrounding lake is incredible and so we made sure to get lots of photos. Alex even managed to fly his drone over the edge which provided us with some amazing footage and a different perspective from above. One tip is to make sure to wear sensible shoes, i.e trainers or walking boots. It sounds like common sense but we saw so many people in sandals and flip flops, struggling to walk on the uneven terrain. We found out at the top that in the winter, Monte Baldo is a lively ski resort with excellent beginner and intermediate runs. The ski season starts in late December and finishes at the end of March if you fancy it, even if it’s just for the cool views après-ski!

During our time in Lake Garda we visited a number of towns, all charming for various reasons. One of our favourites was Salo which has the largest promenade on the lake, stretching a whopping 2km! Salo is home to charming little cafes and boutiques that sit on the promenade, making it an ideal place to venture out for dinner in the evening. Parallel to the promenade is also a maze of shops selling a variety of things from women’s fashion to souvenirs to the best Limoncello around (make sure to visit the town of Limone while in Italy, where the delicacy originates!).

Another of our favourite places was Sirmione. Sirmione is a picturesque town that juts out on the lake, famous for the Scaliger Castle, thermal baths and the ruins of Grotte di Catullo. We parked in a large car park called Viale Guglielmo Marconi 42, just on the right before the drawbridge that you have to cross to enter the town. It cost around 20 euros to park there all day. Sirmione itself is virtually traffic free as you are only allowed to cross the drawbridge in a vehicle if you are staying at one of the hotels. We had every intention of having a look inside the Scaliger Castle but as we approached the entrance, a sign read that last admission was 2pm on a Sunday. We checked our watches and it was 2:10pm…on a SUNDAY! We were a bit gutted but soon got over it when we found a huge ice cream parlour serving 50 different flavours! I’m not an ice cream lover but even I couldn’t resist a scoop of italian gelato in the burning 30c heat. Next on our list in Sirmione was a walk up to Grotte di Catullo, ruins of a Roman villa built in 1st century AD! We were interested to take a look seeing as it topped all of the lists we had seen for things to do in Sirmione but we had also heard that the panoramic views of the lake were worth it alone. It was quite a walk from the centre and we were beginning to get a bit hot and bothered by the time we found it! We paid 6 euros each for a ticket which included access to the ruins as well as a museum showing artefacts discovered throughout the years. It is certainly worth a look as it doesn’t cost a fortune to get in but I wouldn’t say it was the highlight of Sirmione. While we were there and admiring the views over the lake, Alex thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try and get some drone footage. There were no signs to say it wasn’t allowed (as we had seen previously around the lake) but we were soon collared and told to bring the drone down IMMEDIATELY(!) by staff working in the museum! We begrudgingly put it away and left the sight of the ruins. By this point it was mid afternoon and the sun was burning down on us. The walk back to the centre (and where we had parked the car) was a good 20 mins and we had run out of water and so we were beginning to get a bit melodramatic until we spotted a little train that would take you back to the centre for 1 euro. We hopped on and even found a water fountain to fill up our bottles – happiness restored!

Feeling slightly adventurous, we decided to book an excursion not far from our base in Torbole – an activity they call canyoning – with a company called SKYClimber. Alex had researched it and said it sounded like a lot of fun and so I was up for it. The way Alex had explained it, I thought he was playing it up to be a lot more adventurous than it actually was going to be – boy was I wrong! We were picked up in a mini bus from a car park in Limone and immediately started to ascend up one of the mountains until we were travelling up a road with sickeningly steep drops on either side. After a hair-raising ride, we pulled over and were instructed to change into wetsuits that the company had provided. We squeezed into them excitedly, and started the hike to the top of the Gumpenfever waterfall. When our guide discussed a ‘hike’ in the car journey up the mountain, I kidded myself into thinking that he didn’t know the correct words to use in English and it would be a nice little stroll, admiring the views over Lake Garda. 30 minutes later, pouring with sweat and with my thighs feeling as if they were going to explode, we arrived at the top of the waterfall and were given a few minutes to catch our breaths before a safety briefing. The safety briefing included words such as ‘death’ and ‘serious injury’ and so this was the point in which I started to panic slightly! It was an adrenaline-filled hour of jumping off rocks into rivers, abseiling down cliffs and sliding done sheer rock faces(!). By the end of the afternoon, I was absolutely exhausted, bruised, battered and even rather embarrassed after a slight misjudgment when jumping from a rock which resulted in the most unladylike belly flop (which unfortunately for me, was all caught on camera) but it was great! Our guide was brilliant and made the experience even more enjoyable. We undertook one of the easier excursions so I dread to think how difficult the more challenging ones are. You can find details of prices and the different itineraries they do on their website – http://www.skyclimber.it.

After exploring a few of the other little towns, we discovered that Lake Garda was halfway between Venice and Milan. We tossed a coin and it was decided that we would plan a day trip to Venice. We left early and were on the road at 8am and our sat nav said it would take us 2 hours to the port where we would pick up the ferry to Venice. Unfortunately, we got stuck in horrendous traffic due to an accident and so it took us over 3 hours! Still, we were at the Terminal Fusina port just before 11am and caught the 11am ferry. It cost us 10 euros to park for the day (which is reduced to 5 euros if booked online in advance) and 13 euros each for a return ferry with boats every 30 mins until 10:30pm, ideal for spending a day in the city. We arrived in the city at 11:20am and using the map we got free with our ferry tickets, headed straight to St Mark’s Square to start our day which was a 15 min walk. When we emerged into the square, I was overwhelmed by the amount of people around. Hordes of people surrounded St Mark’s Basilica and a queue to enter snaked right back to the river! A feeling of annoyance swept over me, this is not how I imagined it would be! Nevertheless we started to queue to enter the Campanile for the best view over the city and while we were queuing, bought our fast track pass for the Basilica using my iPhone. The fast track passes were 2 euros each which I would pay 20 times over to skip the 3 hour plus queue that snaked from the entrance and all you have to do is google fast pass to St Mark’s Basilica and it comes straight up! The view over Venice from the top of the Campanile was brilliant but again, it was so busy at the top that we were fighting with people for access to the edge to take the pictures. We got there in the end and took a few, including a 360 photo using our newest gadget – the Samsung 360 Gear. Arguably, one of the best cameras we have! We then headed in to the Basilica and it was beautiful but I feel that after seeing the Vatican in Rome and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, it was one of my least favourite churches I have seen. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the city and went to see the famous viewpoint over the Grand Canal. Again, this experience was stressful. It was swarming with tourists all fighting for the best spot and it completely ruined it for me. We decided that the only thing to do was to hunt down the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner and drinks. This was the highlight of our visit! We contemplated taking a gondola ride as the sun was just beginning to set when we left the Hard Rock but after being quoted over 100 euros by a couple of people for a 30 minute ride, we decided against it and headed back to the ferry. We couldn’t help but be really disappointed by our day in Venice. I had such high hopes and have always dreamed of spending time in such an amazing city but the number of people at every tourist spot was just too much for me. It could possibly be the time of year that we visited – mid summer – but even so, it has put us off ever going back which is such a shame. We got some great pictures (cleverly cropping out all the other tourists!) and saw all the main sights so in that respect it was a successful trip.

Overall, Lake Garda is a place you MUST visit. From the adventurous to the foodie to the sun-worshipper, there is something to do for everyone. Stop whatever you’re doing, get yourself on SkyScanner and book yourself a flight – you won’t regret it!

Dubai

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I don’t tend to use this phrase much as it’s so overused but Dubai really is like Marmite – you love it or you hate it. Considering I keep going back, it’s safe to say my opinion is the former! A combination of flashy cars, oversized shopping malls, thrilling theme parks and enough sun to last you a lifetime, Dubai is a place like no other. There’s no denying that the heat can sometimes become uncomfortable, especially in the summer months when it climbs to a sticky 50c at times, but the ice cold air conditioning that blasts you at every indoor opportunity is nothing short of heavenly and makes things bearable. This year, we went away with a big group of my family at the end of July, one of the hottest times of year to visit the United Arab Emirates. A lot of people said we were crazy but with promises of an extensive all-inclusive cocktail list and 5 refreshing swimming pools to choose from at the Jebel Ali Golf Resort and Spa, we happily took our chances! After a 7 hour flight from London Heathrow, we arrived at Dubai airport, one of the busiest airports in the world. We then had a 45 minute transfer before we stepped into the oasis of the Jebel Ali, around a 30 minute drive from downtown Dubai. Downtown Dubai is not necessarily a very busy city but it was nice to stay slightly further out. I first came to the Jebel Ali with my parents in 2004 and we like it so much here that we don’t tend to stay anywhere else. The staff are friendly, the hotel and grounds are beautiful and with 7 different restaurants to choose from, all serving different cuisine, it’s safe to say we were never hungry! The hotel also has a shooting range where we each had a go at shooting a 9mm pistol with guidance from a dedicated instructor. Not wanting to blow my own trumpet but getting 4 in the bullseye wasn’t bad for my first attempt whilst wearing 6 inch heels! 😜

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Aerial shot of Jebel Ali

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Volleyball on the beach

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Hotel grounds

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Infinity pool

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While in Dubai we went on a couple of excursions, one being a Desert Safari and the other being a Penguin Encounter at Ski Dubai (yes, you read that right – SKI DUBAI – but more on that later!) which were both based outside of our resort. There are a number of things to bear in mind when out and about in Dubai. The culture and religious views of people in this part of the world say that it is unacceptable for women to show their bare shoulders or legs in public. Any public display of affection between couples is also frowned upon. There is no need to refrain from showing a lot of skin or holding hands within your hotel, but it’s important to abide by their laws when at the shopping malls or in downtown Dubai as you may be stopped by police if they feel you are not being respectful. Saying this, it has never affected our time spent outside of the resort and I think in recent years, the people of Dubai have actually become a lot more relaxed and tolerant of the English culture. After reading a lot of great reviews for Desert Safari Dubai, I enquired about a trip for 6 of us via their website (www.desertsafaridubai.com). After a few emails back and forth I decided to spend a little extra and upgrade our ride to a Hummer which in my opinion was well worth the money. All in all, we were in the Hummer for around 4 hours and were grateful for the extra space it gave us. We arrived in the desert after an hour’s drive from the Jebel Ali and were ushered into a row of gift shops while our driver let all of the air out of his tyres before our dune bashing session. There were a number of pushy shopkeepers mulling around trying to get us to buy traditional costume in the form of head scarves and robes which made us all feel slightly uncomfortable. It was a side to Dubai that I hadn’t seen before and it wasn’t a place I would want to visit again. After around a 15 minute wait, we piled back in the Hummer and edged forward into the desert. Our driver wasn’t much of a talker but he sure knew how to ride the sand dunes! We had a 20 minute thrill-ride going up, down and sideways(!) along the dunes at stomach-churning speed before stopping in the heart of the desert for photo opportunities. As we stepped out of the Hummer, cameras in hand, I was surprised at how windy it was. So much so that I lost my sunglasses, hat and scarf all with one huge gust of wind! This paired with the ridiculous heat made it quite an unpleasant environment to be in. Nevertheless, we climbed the tallest sand dune (with much effort I must add) and the view was fantastic, all you could see was desert for miles and miles with no other cars, people or even landmarks in sight. We pumped the tyres back up and drove to base camp, around 25 mins from where we did the dune bashing. Base camp consisted of cushions on the sand for you to sit on, a small shack that served drinks and an undercover area where a lady was carrying out Henna tattoos; not the most luxury of sites but it certainly felt as if you were in the middle of a desert! Here we rode camels and were given the opportunity to do some quad-biking but after an afternoon of adrenaline, we decided to sit this out, choosing instead to get a drink from the shack and wait for the traditional arabic entertainment to start. We watched the blood-orange sun set on the horizon and settled down to watch the dancers, one being a very scantily-clad belly dancer which I was surprised to see in a country like Dubai who impose such a strict dress-code for women. A BBQ was included in the price of our excursion and although it looked perfectly fine to eat, we chose to wait until we got back to the hotel to have dinner. It’s definitely an experience I would recommend, even if it’s just to say that you have spent a night under the stars in the middle of an Arabian desert. It’s certainly an experience I will remember.

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Now onto my favourite experience I had in Dubai…! This took place within the second largest shopping mall in the world – The Mall of the Emirates. The Mall of the Emirates is huge with over 700 shops, an indoor theme park, a 500 seat theatre and of course, the main attraction, Ski Dubai (https://booking.skidxb.com). Ski Dubai is an indoor ski centre, boasting 22,500 square meters of fun in a – 4c environment. With skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing and snowy adventures to be had, it’s not an experience you would necessarily associate with the skyscrapers and deserts of the middle east but that is part of its appeal. While we didn’t do any skiing on this trip, we did visit Ski Dubai to meet with the 3 ft tall residents that live there – penguins (Gentoo and King penguins to be exact)! We booked an exclusive encounter, which at just over £100 each, wasn’t cheap but this package ensures that it is a 1-to-1 experience with your group and the penguin trainer (if your group size is 4 persons or more). It’s an experience that can only be done in Dubai and nowhere else in the world gives you the opportunity to cuddle, feed and play with penguins in such an intimate environment. We were first kitted out with Ski Dubai snowsuits before making our way to the Penguin meeting point and being introduced to our dedicated trainer. He then proceeded to take us into the freezing cold habitat where the penguins live, 19 in total including a number of chicks that were born this year. We were given a behind the scenes tour before we were introduced to all the penguins by name (McFatty being my personal favourite!). We were told lots of interesting facts before we were given opportunities to stroke, cuddle and feed the penguins. It was the most amazing experience, all captured by our own personal photographer who followed us around the habitat. As part of the price we paid for the encounter, we received 1 photo per person and then they offer photo packages for you to purchase afterwards. These are not cheap though – before we bartered the price with them they asked us for another £100 for all the photos on a disc! I won’t go into too much detail of what happens during the encounter as I don’t want to ruin the fun for anyone else but it’s something that I can happily tick off my bucket list. Find out more about the Penguin habitat here – http://skidubaipenguins.com. There’s even a package that allows you to swim with them!

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The largest shopping mall in the world is also located in Dubai – The Dubai Mall. With over 1200 shops, an ice rink and an underwater zoo and aquarium (that you can see by going on a glass-bottom boat ride!) among other things, it really is a monster of a mall but a very impressive one at that. Walking through the indoor Souk here is mesmerising with 220 jewellery outlets that are full to the brim with gold and rare jewels (including the biggest diamonds you will ever see) – you’ll be sure to fall in love with something! The original Gold Souk can be found in an area called Deira and is open 7 days a week. This busy outdoor market is the place to go for bargains or if you are in search of a momento to take home with you. Just next door is also the Spice Souk – just as interesting a place with a rainbow of weird and wonderful spices on display for you to purchase or taste. Dubai Mall is also home to the Dubai Fountains, the world’s largest choreographed fountain system in the world set on the 30-acre manmade Burj Khalifa Lake and designed by the same people that built the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas. The shows are scheduled at 1pm and 1:30pm during the day and then every 30 minutes from 6pm in the evening. The musical displays definitely have the wow-factor, especially with the Burj Khalifa soaring majestically above them. The Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building (we’re beginning to see a bit of a theme here…) at 830m tall meaning it’s three times as tall as the Eiffel Tower and nearly twice as tall as the Empire State Building. It was made famous in the latest Mission Impossible film and believe it or not, Tom Cruise was granted permission to climb up and have a seat at the very top of the spire. Rather him than me! Entrance to the Sky Observation Deck can be accessed through the shopping mall but it is extremely pricey (see prices and information on peak timings here – https://tickets.atthetop.ae/atthetop). However, discounts can be had if purchased in conjunction with tickets to the Aquarium or if you visit outside of peak hours so it is definitely worth looking into this before booking your visit. There is no real need to purchase tickets in advance of visiting the shopping mall as you can book a time slot for entry every 30 minutes until closing. The only slots that tend to get booked up are at the time of the sunset as the views are pretty spectacular. You have to go through a security check, similar to the ones at an airport but this doesn’t take long and the lift travels at 10 metres per second, meaning it takes just under 1 minute to reach the 126th floor! The view is fantastic and as it’s the tallest skyscraper in the world, it’s a must-do in Dubai.

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One thing to bear in mind when you leave a shopping mall – there are organised queues for taxis with staff pointing you to available cars when you near the front of the queue. The staff will automatically point you towards an unmarked taxi who will charge you double the price of a normal one! The staff here obviously have some sort of deal going with the unmarked taxi drivers and although it is perfectly safe to get in one, if you are on a budget make sure you refuse and ask to ride in a marked taxi!

There are a number of different water parks in Dubai but Wild Wadi next door to the Jumeirah Beach hotel is my favourite (http://www.jumeirah.com/en/hotels-resorts/dubai/wild-wadi/). It’s not as big as some of the others in Dubai but the rides have got some serious thrill-factor with signs telling you not to ride if you’re the sort of person that eats your pizza with a knife and fork or if you always safely eject a USB!

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View from the Jumeirah Sceirah waterslide – not for the feint hearted!

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If you are staying at the Jumeirah Beach, entry is free. As my little brother was a bit older for this trip, we decided to take him on some rides with a hilarious outcome – our favourite ride being the Burj Surj.

Saying this, the Aquaventure waterpark at the Atlantis hotel on Palm Island is a lot of fun too. Again, if you are staying at the hotel, entrance is free of charge. With a Leap of Faith waterslide that takes you through a glass tunnel within a shark-infested aquarium and a Dolphin lagoon where you can swim with them, it’s a unique attraction to visit. While we didn’t go to the Atlantis during this trip, it’s worth a visit if you’re a bit of a big kid at heart! (https://www.atlantisthepalm.com/marine-water-park/aquaventure-waterpark)

The other main thing to see in Dubai if you’re into ticking off all the sites is the Burj Al Arab. Built in 1999, it has prided itself in being the world’s only 7 star hotel. The distinctive shape of the hotel that mimics a sail is arguably the most recognisable structure in Dubai, known for it’s ridiculously luxurious interiors and services that it offers. It sits on an artificial island that is 280m from Jumeirah beach and you also gain free entrance to Wild Wadi waterpark if you stay here. Rooms can cost from anywhere between £2,000 and £4,000 per night and it seems to be more of a statement to stay here than anything else. When I was a bit younger, I went to the Al Muntaha restaurant positioned on the 27th floor with a magnificent view of the Arabian Gulf. It’s a once in a lifetime experience with menu prices that also reflect this! A visit to the Burj Al Arab should be on your list of things to do in Dubai but take along a credit card with a high limit if you plan on stopping for a drink! This short video uploaded to their official YouTube account should give you a feel for it!

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Dubai is fast becoming a tourist hotspot, especially for the English and it’s easy to see why. When I need to recharge my batteries or fancy a (LARGE) dose of vitamin D, it’ll be my go-to holiday destination for many more years to come.

Paris

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For our anniversary this year (7 years! Eeek!) we decided to travel back to the first city we had ever explored together – Paris. Planning it over a bank holiday weekend meant that we didn’t need to take any leave from work which is always a bonus! We packed our hand luggage and drove to Ashford International to pick up the Eurostar. After a somewhat embarrassing security incident which involved someone emptying my whole case – knickers and all – only to find that what they thought was a bullet was in fact my Louboutin lipstick (see pic below), we arrived in Paris at around 10am.

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It was drizzling outside and it was so tempting just to jump in a nice warm cab to our hotel but we always like to use the public transport when navigating a city as a) it’s a hell of a lot cheaper and b) it helps to familiarise yourself with the layout of the city and the locations of all the major sites. In Paris the main public transport that we used were the Metro and RER trains but there are also frequent bus services that take you all over the city. All the ticket machines in Paris allow you to choose a language so it’s really easy to understand the different ticket options on offer. We chose a T10 book which gives you 10 one-way tickets that you can split between any number of people. Each ticket allows one single trip on the Metro and RER trains. For €14, it’s great value and in the 3 days that we were there we purchased two books, meaning that we spent €28 euros in total on travel. I would also really recommend the Paris Metro app available to download from the App Store – it was a lifesaver as it included a map of the Metro/RER network, a journey planner and live departure times (https://www.mapway.com/apps/paris-metro/). 

It took us around 30 mins to travel from Gare Du Nord to our hotel that was positioned around a 3 min walk from the Eiffel Tower. The location of our hotel was fantastic, directly opposite the Bir Hakeim Metro station and just around the corner from the Champs de Mars – Tour Eiffel RER stop (and right next door to a Crepe cafe!! 😍). I would definitely recommend staying here (hoteleiffelseineparis.com) as it was relatively inexpensive considering the quality of the room and location. Our room wasn’t quite ready yet so we dropped our bags off and headed to the Eiffel Tower (which you could see from the Metro station). The weather was quite miserable and wet meaning that the streets and the area surrounding the Tower were not as busy as usual and so we took the chance to get some photos.

We then wandered back to our hotel to check in and decided that while the weather was a bit miserable, it was the perfect opportunity to do some shopping at Galleries La Fayette. We hopped back on the Metro and arrived in less that 15 mins. I think everyone had had the same idea with regards to finding something to do that was inside as it was swarming with tourists and locals alike. Upon entering the shopping centre my bag was searched and waved with a security wand, something that I’ve never had to experience whenever I’ve been to Lakeside or Bluewater but I soon saw why it might be a target. The stained glass dome roof was beautiful and each galleried floor was much prettier than any shopping centre I’ve visited before. After browsing all four floors of beauty products, clothing, shoes, homeware and jewellery I found myself in Swarovski and bought myself the same bracelet that Alex had bought me for Christmas a few years back and I had stupidly dropped down the sink last year in Rome!

We then took a walk up quite a sickeningly steep hill to visit the Moulin Rouge. When we arrived I was slightly disappointed, I had imagined it to be huge and glamorous but instead it looked quite dated and even a little sleazy. Nevertheless we took some photos outside and went inside to enquire about booking a dinner show. We were quoted €200 per person! I did want to go for the experience but in the end I couldn’t justify spending all that money just to watch half naked women dance about the stage – Alex seemed to be well up for it though! 😉 

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That night we wandered around the area we had stayed in on our first visit to Paris, taking a walk along the Boulevard Montmarte. Nothing seemed to have changed and it was so lovely to relive some of the memories we had made here. Of course, being only a 3 min walk from our old hotel, we had to pay a visit to the Hard Rock Cafe as well! 😉

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The next morning we pulled back the curtains in our hotel room with our fingers and toes crossed for nice weather and thankfully it was glorious outside, not a cloud in the sky! We had breakfast in our hotel for a very reasonable €12 per person and then headed off nice and early to try and beat the swarms of tourists that gather at all of the main sites. We started off by taking the short walk to the Eiffel Tower in the hope of  avoiding the long queues that form to take a trip to the top. Unfortunately by the time we arrived just after 9am the queue already wrapped right around the tower with huge crowds formed at each entrance. Disappointed, we decided to try and come back later before Alex spotted an entrance with no queue whatsoever. We went over to find that this was the entrance to use the stairs only. After regretting eating such a carb-heavy breakfast of bread rolls and croissants, I changed into my trainers and approached the ticket desk. We paid €5 each for a youth entrance ticket (you have to be 14-25 years old and be able to show a valid ID to claim this price) and were directed towards yet more security (bag checks and metal scanners) before we began our ascent. We reached the 1st floor, took a short break and then continued up to the 2nd level. The view was great and after numerous photos taken on our various different cameras and a short pit stop for refreshments at the Eiffel Tower Summit cafe, we headed back down (managing to sneak into a lift this time!).

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Next on the agenda was the Arc de Triomphe. After a short ride on the Metro we got off at Charles de Gaulle Etoile, the closest station. On previous trips to Paris we had never visited the Arc de Triomphe, so after taking some photos outside we then decided to cross over the infamous roundabout to go inside. We were well and truly baffled for around 10 mins trying to find a pedestrian crossing and were almost ready to just shut our eyes, run across and hope for the best when Alex spotted a subway! Unfortunately when we got across we were informed that as it was Labour Day in Paris, entrance to the inside of the Arc de Triomphe and upper levels was closed. We hadn’t even realised that it was Labour Day but we now know that it’s a public holiday in the city that brings attention to workers’ rights and celebrates their hard work meaning that most of the museums and sites are shut to visitors.

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So after looking around the outside we made our way down to the Champs Ellesyes for a spot of lunch and several glasses of wine which was much more relaxing! Feeling slightly tipsy we decided to carry on with what we had planned for the day – visiting the Louvre, Notre Dame and the Pantheon. We had visited these sights before on previous trips and so we weren’t too bothered that we wouldn’t be able to venture inside. Paris is quite an easy city to navigate and if you are visiting for a reasonable amount of time, it’s worth trying to walk to a few of the sites, especially if you have good weather. There are daily art stalls positioned along the river that are fun to have a browse through.

On this trip, purely because of the length of time we had in Paris, we decided not to go and see the Sacre Cour. We would definitely recommend going to visit it but make sure to do your research when travelling to it. The Sacre Cour sits at the highest point in Paris and although it may say online that a certain Metro stop may be technically the closest, it doesn’t factor in the climb up one of the steepest hill and stairs I’ve ever climbed! 🙈

After a busy day and 24,000 steps according to my iPhone pedometer(!), we went back to our hotel to sort through our hundreds of photos before heading out for dinner and to see the light show at the Eiffel Tower. The light show happens on the hour every hour from sunset until 1am and lasts for around 5 – 10 mins. Watching the show is really magical and has a slight Disney feel to it if you have ever been to watch the fireworks over Cinderella’s castle.

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Selfie at the Eiffel Tower light show

Something to watch out for at night are the guys wandering around at night with roses to give to ladies watching the show. They will approach women in quite an aggressive manner and insist that they take the rose. If the woman does take the rose they then proceed to ask for a price of around €20-30 and follow you persistently until you agree to pay them. There are a number of scam artists in Paris, including the 3 cups game that is often seen at the Eiffel Tower and surrounding areas. A man can be seen placing a ball underneath a cup and playing the classic game of switching the cups around and asking his audience to bet money as to which cup the ball is under. The scam is quite convincing itself as there is often quite a big crowd surrounding him, all betting big money. There are a number of different things done here to make sure the punter (you) will not win. 1) as you go to get money out of your wallet and are not fully concentrating, the man will swap the cups around again. 2) the crowd of ‘locals’ you see surrounding the man are more often than not friends of the scam artists who are betting using fake euros. Don’t fall victim to this scam – we witnessed a few tourists bet a few hundred Euros on this ‘game’!

On our last day in Paris we ventured to Parc Andre Citroen on the outskirts of Paris to ride in the Baloon de Generalli, a tethered hot air balloon I had read about online that provides an unrivalled view of Paris. It was another beautiful day and only took us 15 mins on the Metro from the stop outside our hotel. After paying €14 euros per person (much cheaper than any other balloon ride I’ve looked at), we boarded the balloon with a couple of other people. The view was amazing but I didn’t enjoy the experience. I suffer quite badly with motion sickness and I didn’t feel great up there so after a 15 minute ride, I was quite happy to be back on the ground! If hot air balloons aren’t really your cup of tea I would still recommend visiting Parc Andre Citroen. It’s a really lovely park with a few cafes and lots of places to relax.

Our last stop of the trip was back at the Eiffel Tower. We visited the Eiffel Tower quite a few times on our trip this year for two reasons, one being that our hotel was a stone’s throw away and the second reason because it’s our favourite monument in Paris. We still had a couple of hours before we had to leave to catch the Eurostar so we decided to lay on the grass and have a snooze in the sun. It was the perfect way to end our trip and as always with Paris, even after 3 visits to this city, we left wanting more!

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Romantic Rome

Rome is without a doubt of the most beautiful and picturesque cities I’ve traveled to so far. The whole time we were there we felt as if we were walking around a movie set as we took in sites such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon. The weather was fantastic and at 25c was even a bit too hot at times for our liking! After just under two hours on a very uncomfortable Ryan Air flight (especially for Alex – see pic below!) we landed at Ciampino airport in the early afternoon.
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We had purchased a bus ticket in advance using sitbusshuttle.com for €8 euros which took us right into the city centre, dropping us off at Roma Termini, Rome’s biggest station. The journey took around 40 mins with the traffic but the bus had great aircon and leg room for Alex. It was only a 10 minute walk from the train station to our hotel, Hotel Miami butit was an absolute nightmare! As we’d been in two other cities before Rome we hadn’t packed lightly – I had a handbag and small suitcase and Alex had a heavy large suitcase and a backpack. Let me tell you, trying to navigate through the cobbled streets of Rome with all of that in tow is challenging to say the least! Pouring with sweat and feeling rather traumatised from it all we arrived at the hotel and were shown to our room on the second floor. We always tend to book hotels in a central location when we’re visiting a city so that we don’t have to spend ages using public transport to get around and so were pleased when we found out that all but one sight was in walking distance. However, I’m not sure I would stay at this hotel again. It was perfectly clean and the the receptionists were really friendly and helpful but the rooms are in serious need of a refresh! The shower in particular was a problem as it was so tiny and Alex being over 6ft tall needed to bend his knees and leave the door half open to shower – not what you expect from a hotel that  wasn’t cheap!
The first thing we did was collect our Roma and Omnia passes that we had bought online prior to arriving in Rome (https://www.romeandvaticanpass.com). You can collect them from 4 central locations within the city – we arranged to collect ours from Piazza di Porta S.Giovanni. It is definitely worth buying these passes as they give you entry to all the main sites and attractions in Rome as well as a fast pass to skip the queues. The passes also allow you to ride the yellow open top tour buses and other methods of public transport in the city for 3 consecutive days including the metro which was a godsend on a few days where it got really hot! At roughly €100 per person they’re not cheap but you definitely save money when you add up the admission prices of all the sites. With the passes you also get big map of Rome that shows different routes between different parts of the city as well as a list of all the different places to pick up the open top bus.
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Alex putting his map reading skills to good use!
After collecting our passes we headed towards the colosseum. It was late afternoon by this point and we wanted to try and catch a glimpse of it as the sun was beginning to set. After around a 20 minute walk it appeared as if out of nowhere ahead of us. It was a stunning site, it almost didn’t look real! We walked around in awe. It was around 5pm at this point but there were still lots of people roaming (no pun intended!) around the site so we asked some people to take some pictures of us.
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I already couldn’t wait to have a look inside, something we’d planned for the following morning. We wandered back towards our hotel and found a lovely looking bistro restaurant down a side street where we enjoyed traditional Italian cuisine – pizza and pasta – all washed down with a few glasses of wine!
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On the walk back to the hotel we went via the Spanish steps. I had read everywhere that whatever time of day you visit you need to expect crowds and boy were they right! There were people everywhere and the steps were full to the brim with tourists and locals alike, some reading, some painting but most taking selfies with the selfie sticks that are sold on EVERY corner in Rome! We took some pictures in front of the steps and had a wander around the Piazza de Spagna, one of the most famous squares in Rome that sits at the bottom of the steps.
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The following morning we were up bright and early and headed straight back to the colosseum. My heart sank as we approached the entrance and found a queue that wrapped right around the colosseum and back again! However on flashing our Roma pass we were whisked straight to the front of the queue, skipping the 2 hour plus waiting time that we’d been told! Spending the €100 on the pass is worth it for this alone! We paid an extra €5 for some audio guides and walked up some uneven stone steps to the first level. (If needed there is a step free entrance and lifts to the upper levels which is great if you aren’t quite steady on your feet or have disabilities). I honestly felt as if I was in Gladiator and I would definitely recommend getting the audio guides as it really brought the history to life, telling you all sorts of facts about the building of the amphitheatre and the games that used to be held within it until around the 6th century. After exploring all the different levels, we headed to the gift shop and bought some typically touristy items (although we resisted buying gladiator costumes!). The colosseum is a MUST see for anyone and I’m so pleased I’ve ticked it off my bucket list!
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Next on the agenda was a visit to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, two of the most ancient sites in Rome. Palatine Hill sits 40 metres above the Roman forum and offers one of the best views in the city. After a little hike that seemed to go on forever in the heat we arrived at the top and took it in turns with other tourists to have our photo taken in the best spot. We then took a little stroll through parts of the Roman Forum, a rectangular-shaped area surrounded by ruins of important ancient government buildings. It was really impressive to see. 
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View of the Roman Forum from Palatine Hill

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Selfie in the Roman Forum
That night after heading to dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe (you didn’t think we’d forget did you? ;)), we went to find the Trevi Fountain and I can’t tell you how disappointed we were when we arrived to find it cordoned off and surrounded by ugly scaffolding. Even the water had been drained! Apparently it is being restored thanks to a generous $2.1 million dollar donation from Fendi – lucky fountain!
Trevi fountain
We then took a stroll to the Piazza della Rotonda, another famous city square where the Pantheon is located. At night it is illuminated and in my opinion it looks even more magnificent in this lighting. We sat on the edge of a pretty fountain for a while, people watching and observing the many forms of entertainment in the square including singers, magicians and artists. It was so much fun and we didn’t return to the hotel until the early hours of the morning. 
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The Pantheon

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Exploring the streets of Rome in the evening

Rome street

The following day we had booked to visit Vatican City. The Vatican City is mainly made up of the St Peter’s Basilica, St Peter’s Square, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican museums. We had booked an afternoon slot to visit St Peter’s Basilica and so took it easy in the morning before heading there on one of the yellow open top buses as it’s a bit further out and not in central Rome.
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Open top bus in the glorious weather!
This was by far the hottest day of our trip but as it is a place of worship we had to cover our legs and shoulders meaning that Alex was in a jeans and polo and I was in a t shirt and trousers – it was hell! (All around the Vatican City are people selling scarves and shawls to tourists that have forgotten to abide by the strict dress code so it’s never a major issue if you do forget). We took the opportunity to have lunch in an air-conned cafe nearby and then headed to join the queue for the Vatican museums. We joined the back of the queue feeling rather sorry for ourselves in the heat but soon discovered that our Omnia passes came to the rescue again and we were transferred to a much shorter queue in the shade – result! We had been told that we would need at least 4 hours in the museums but as both of us are not really lovers of art we visited the main highlights including the Rafael rooms and the Sistine chapel and were out in around an hour.
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We then spent some time taking a look around St Peter’s Square, the design is amazing and we used our Marco Polo guide book to read about the history of it.
St Peter's Basilica
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The best selfie we managed of St Peter’s Square!!
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Fountain in St Peter’s Square
After around 30 mins and several hundred selfies later (trying to get the whole of the square and Basilica in the photo is quite challenging!) we entered the Basilica. It was absolutely stunning and Michelangelo’s dome was beautiful!

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Michaelangelo dome
Michelangelo’s dome
Peter's Basilica
We then paid an extra few euros to go up into the Cupola but there are two things to bear in mind if you plan to do this:- 
  1. You can choose to take the stairs for 5 euros or the lift for 7 euros but even if you choose to take the lift it doesn’t take you all the way to the top. It’s 871 steps to the top and the lift takes you up to roof level which is 320 steps up – you have to cover the rest on foot! Personally, I think it’s worth paying to use the lift! We were gasping for air when we finally made it to the top – you definitely have to be fairly fit and so unfortunately it means that wheelchair users or people that are not physically fit won’t be able to visit the very top viewing platform.
  2. Climbing the last 551 steps is extremely claustrophobic. At one point you are climbing within the dome itself and it’s very narrow and the ceilings are quite low. I can see how easily people could begin to panic up there, especially when it’s hot.
When you arrive at the roof level you are given the opportunity to explore the walkway that overlooks the altar and is directly underneath Michelangelo’s dome. Being much closer to it really makes you appreciate just how detailed and intricate the art is.
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View of the altar from the walkway beneath Michelangelo’s dome
After more steps than I care to ever climb again, we finally made it to the top. We caught our breaths and took in the famous view which is often portrayed in artwork and photographs of Rome. It was spectacular.
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At the top is also a gift shop where we both bought some rosary beads which now hang above my dressing table at home. We’re not a particularly religious couple but it seemed the perfect thing to buy from one of the most famous religious sites in the world!
After a long (and hot!) day we went back to our hotel and sorted through the hundreds of pictures we’d taken at the Vatican city before heading out for dinner at the Piazza Navona, arguably the most famous square in Rome. Contrary to it being called a square it is in fact an oblong shape and dozens of cafes and restaurant sit around the edges. In the middle are several fountains. We had read in our guide book that in ancient Rome they used the fountains to deliberately flood the square in the summer to create a swimming pool for the rich and wealthy to splash around in! There was something about this square that was incredibly romantic and we watched the entertainers and artists as we enjoyed more pasta and wine. One artist used spray paint to create delicate paintings of famous sites and views in Rome – we were so impressed that we bought a picture of the colosseum at sunset that we watched him paint for €15! Again we didn’t get back to the hotel until really late (or early depending on how you look at it!) as there is so much to see and do at night in the city.
Rome is definitely a city that I could visit again and again and always find something new to see and do. It’s interesting, beautiful and extremely romantic. Although Paris is known as the city of love, I believe Rome could definitely give it a run for its money!
 
M x

Beautiful Barcelona

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Alex and I usually like to plan our trips quite a way in advance in order for us to familiarise ourselves with the top things to see and do in each place. However, last summer we couldn’t decide between visiting Barcelona or Rome. On one hand I’d heard that Barcelona was a beautiful city with gorgeous cobbled streets and lots of rooftop bars serving delicious tapas. But on the other hand drinking wine and watching the sunset over the colloseum was a tempting thought also. After much deliberation we decided that we’d much prefer to visit both! So after much planning we booked last minute flights to spend a few days at my parents villa in Menorca, then flights from Menorca to Barcelona and then finally flights to Rome. I’ve visited Menorca almost every year since I was 5 and it’s one of my favourite places to go and relax for a few days. I’m currently working on a blog post with the top things to see and do on the island so keep an eye out for that!

Barcelona certainly did not disappoint. The weather was perfect for almost the entire time we were there and the architecture was stunning, even if architecture isn’t your thing it’s hard not to appreciate the city’s design.


  

Exploring the Gothic Quarter

After landing in Barcelona we bought a T10 rail ticket for €9.95 (this allows you 10 journeys on all the main transport links which can be shared between multiple people) and took the RENFE train to Passeig de Gracia which is 4 stops. These trains leave the airport around every 30 minutes and it provides a very easy way to travel into the city centre without spending a fortune on a taxi. At Passieg de Gracia you can change for the Metro to get around the city but our hotel was only a short walk from here so we jumped off and arrived at our hotel where we were grateful for the ice cold air con that filled the reception. We stayed at a boutique hotel called the Constanza which was in an ideal location as it was so central to all the major sights in the city. http://hotelconstanza.com

We spent our first day getting to know our way around the city (and eating tapas and drinking wine – come on, we were on holiday!) and started our proper sight seeing on the second day with a visit to the Sagrada Familia. Now don’t get me wrong the Sagrada Familia is an impressive sight to behold as it comes into view but I was slightly disappointed when we arrived to see ugly scaffolding fixed to the upper towers. However as you get closer to the church itself you are able to really appreciate the incredible detail that has been carved into the stone. It was amazing to think that something of this grandeur had been designed and built in the 1800s. After we bought our tickets we had to wait 30 minutes for our time slot and so we took the opportunity to try and get a picture outside that captured the whole church without cutting off the top of the spires – something which proved rather difficult!


  

I had been advised that women must cover their shoulders to enter as it was a place of worship and so even in the sweltering summer heat, I wrapped a cardigan around me. We entered through the front doors and were even more amazed at the inside. The light bounced off the walls and stained glass forming beautiful colours and patterns in the vast space. It was without a doubt the biggest church I’ve ever seen and definitely the most impressive – even more so than the Notre Dame in Paris which I thought couldn’t be beaten. Bravo Gaudi!


  

As mentioned in my previous blog posts, Alex is a major sports fan so it was always in our plans to visit Camp Nou. We bought a ticket that allowed us access to the trophy room, the dressing rooms and all around the main stadium – Alex loved it and it’s a must-do for any football fans out there.


  

Among other things we stumbled upon as we walked around the city,  we found a lovely little courtyard and orangery in a place that used to belong to an old hospital for the patients to use. It’s now open to the public and is a nice place to relax and escape from the busy city streets.


  

The next stop was the famous La Rambla. I’d read up on La Rambla before we got to Barcelona and was slightly wary after reading about tourists constantly being scammed and mugged here. I have to say our experience was entirely different. It was one of my favourite places in Barcelona. The pretty street is lined with various shops, stalls and cafes selling anything from potted plant fridge magnets to fresh gelato. We also went to a food market in a side street just off is La Rambla selling fresh fish, meat, fruit and lots of sweets. 😁


  
  


  

After managing to tear myself away from the various temptations on offer at the market, we carried on walking until we reached the Barceloneta boardwalk. Unbeknown to me before I did my research – Barcelona has a large beach! The sand stretches for miles and by the time we got there at around lunchtime it was packed! There were people sprawled everywhere, lapping up the sun both on the beach and in numerous bars and cafes that sit just adjacent. We managed to find a table and ordered a pizza to share with an Estrella (the local beer out there) and a fruity cocktail – I’ll leave you to decide who had what! 😜

After lunch we took a walk over the bridge to Port Vell, a marina where there are luxury yachts and boats aplenty.


    

We took a walk along and admired them all before heading back to the hotel to get ready for dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe (another location to tick off the list!).
Just a couple of tips if you plan to visit Park Guell:

It’s a famous park featuring the work of Antonio Gaudi, the artist that also designed the Sagrada Familia and it’s situated at the highest point of Barcelona on Carmel Hill. We took the Metro to the closest station and were told it was only a 20 minute walk after that. While that was true, what people failed to mention is that the walk is up one of the steepest hills I’ve ever climbed and what with the 28c+ heat and my choice of flimsy footwear, it wasn’t a good combination! About 5 minutes from the top, both of us very sweaty and beginning to get quite moody with each other, a bus with the destination ‘Park Guell’ plastered across the front zoomed past us and straight to the entrance! Lesson learnt – the Metro is not always the best option for travel around Barcelona! There are bus stops at many central locations in the city and it’s definitely the best way to get to Park Guell. Second tip is to book your tickets well in advance as it’s such a popular attraction for tourists and they only allow 400 visitors in every half an hour. We arrived hoping to queue for a ticket but were told that all the time slots had gone and we’d have to wait 3 hours till the next available one. Safe to say we weren’t in the best of moods for the rest of the afternoon as we boarded the bus back to our hotel!

Overall we spent 3 nights in Barcelona and we felt this was right amount of time to enjoy most of the things the city has on offer – sightseeing, tapas and sangria being the main things! 😉 We really enjoyed our time here and would definitely return for a long weekend in the summer.
M x

Jamaica – everything irieeee!

Jamaica will always be special for Alex and I. It was our first 2 week holiday together and we had a blast! We travelled in September which is during shoulder season, just after their hurricane season. I was slightly apprehensive when we booked it but all my worries disappeared as I realised that when we were told that there would be thunderstorms every day, what that actually meant was that at around 4pm every afternoon it would rain very heavily for around 45 minutes before the sun would appear again in time for the most brilliant sunset I’ve ever seen. It didn’t make our holiday any less special and in fact I quite liked going back to the hotel room for an hour in the afternoon as the rain helped to clear the humidity that built throughout the day. We certainly wouldn’t hesitate to go back at that time of year and it certainly didn’t mean any less sun, Alex and I returned to England the most tanned we’ve ever been!
We booked our holiday through Thomson Holidays and chose an all inclusive package so that we could take full advantage of all the rum and spirits that were on offer! We were staying at the new Azul Sensatori hotel in Negril (http://karismahotels.com/Hotels-Resorts-Villas/For-Everyone/Azul-Hotels/Azul-Sensatori-Jamaica) which sits on the picturesque 7 mile beach. We flew on Thomson’s new Dreamliner which I thought was fantastic. I usually get really travel sick on planes but I felt fine on the flight, even though it was a long 10 hours. The cabin pressure on the Dreamliner allows more oxygen to be absorbed into the blood which is meant to help with travel sickness and the lighting mimics the time of day outside which is said to ease the feeling of jet lag. As for leg room, I don’t usually have any problems (being barely above 5ft tall) but Alex who stands a whole foot taller than me struggles so we booked ourselves seats with extra leg room which was a god send for him.

We landed in Montego Bay at around lunchtime and felt tired but not as tired as we thought we’d be after a long flight. We jumped on the coach we had booked and after an hour and a half bumpy transfer through the rocky roads of Negril, arrived at the Sensatori. We were given ice cold towels to freshen up and a fruit punch cocktail as soon as we set foot in reception. The reception area of the hotel is amazing as it opens up right onto the beach. We could see the waves lapping up on the white powdery sand as we were checking in which made us even more impatient to dump our bags and change into our beach attire. We were taken to our room really quickly and just when we thought we couldn’t be anymore impressed with the hotel we were even more amazed. The room was a fresh white and blue combination and we had a balcony overlooking the pool and sea with a ‘love seat’.


  

Even though we were tempted to relax in the room we quickly changed into our swimwear and headed out. We wandered along the beach for a few miles, passing other resorts including the Sandals Couples hotel which looked amazing before returning to the Sensatori’s private beach and settling on one of the day beds where we both had a little snooze .

  

The next morning jet lag woke us up really early and so we sat on the balcony and watched the most beautiful sunrise over the hotel. While we were there we utilised the many watersports the hotel had on offer including kayaking and a snorkelling trip to the nearby coral reefs. While on the snorkelling trip we made friends with an American couple who had been in Jamaica a little while longer than us and who recommended various trips and excursions that we booked later on. The snorkelling was great and we saw hundreds of tropical fish.

 

 
  

Back on the beach we found several starfish in shallow water and were encouraged by other guests and hotel staff to pick them up for a photo. It took me a while to buck up the courage to touch one but eventually we both had our photos taken with it – me being the bravest and picking it up first I hasten to add!


One lunchtime we took a boat ride to Boobycay island, a private island where the locals set up their food stalls in the morning, grilling freshly-caught lobsters for you. We got one to share and spent the whole afternoon snorkelling and sunbathing on the beach. We mostly got the island all to ourselves – it was paradise 😍


  

  

Throughout the two weeks, our favourite place to be was the swim up bar where we made friends with the bartender. We made it our mission to work our way through the entire cocktail list and whenever we chose what cocktails we wanted next he’d yell a “yah mon!” and slide them along to us. The alcohol measures in Jamaica are insane and so be careful when you’re ordering drinks – one day we had a few too many and in a rush to get out of the pool during one of the afternoon storms, I ever so slightly misjudged the number of steps to exit the pool, ending with me falling in a very dramatic fashion out of the pool and into the shower area. Certainly not one of my classier moments of the holiday!



A short taxi ride from our hotel was Rick’s Cafe (http://www.rickscafejamaica.com), a bar made famous by the daredevils that go there to jump from the tall cliffs into the crystal clear blue sea that surrounds it. It’s also well known for it’s optimal location to catch the best view of the sunset. We arrived an hour before sunset, something we were advised to do in order to get the best view and also to give us time to join in with the locals in jumping from the cliff 85 ft above sea level. I was full of bravado before I arrived but felt slightly more cautious when I saw people somersaulting off the edge! After watching for a little while I decided against it but Alex was keen to give it a go so off he went and I watched with baited breath as he launched himself into the sea. Of course I didn’t hear anything else other than what a wimp I was for the rest of the evening as he soaked up the glory of people clapping and cheering him! Alex dried off and we grabbed a Rick’s World Famous Rum Punch and Sex with Rick (a cocktail of course!). After watching the sunset, we had dinner overlooking the ocean and listened to the Bob Marley tribute band before heading back to the hotel. It was a perfect evening and one that I will never forget.


  
  
  
We went on a few excursions on the holiday – one being to dolphin cove in Negril. When we arrived we regressed to being 5 years old as we were so excited! We were told lots of facts about the Dolphins themselves and were given an insight into a typical day of a dolphin trainer. It was fascinating and we were told that as the Dolphins were not in a pool but in a lagoon within the sea, they were free to leave anytime as they could easily jump the barriers that enclosed them within the lagoon. Apparently Dolphins, as creatures, crave attention and so that is what keeps them there. It was brilliant. We each got kisses, a ride with the Dolphins and they performed various tricks for us. Only on the way back to our hotel did I realised that it was a Monday. As far as Monday’s go, this was one of the better ones I’ve had!


  
Our next trip out of the resort was to Mystic Mountain, a zip-lining and Bob-sledding adventure in the rainforest near Ocho Rios (http://www.rainforestadventure.com/jamaica-mystic-mountain). It was here that I really felt like I was in Jamaica! We ziplined through the trees (and giant spider webs!!! 😁), rode the bobsled (inspired by the famous Jamaica bobsled Olympic team) and ate typical Jamaica cuisine for lunch – jerk chicken – delicious! Alex wore the GoPro head cam while we took part in all the activities which meant we got some great footage of us zooming through the jungle at high speed! We also got a ride in the sky explorer, a chair lift that takes you 700ft above the rainforest which gave you the most amazing view of Ocho Rios.


  

After lunch we took a coach to the nearby Dunns River Falls (http://www.dunnsriverfallsja.com). This was my favourite experience while in Jamaica. We started right at the bottom of the waterfall and climbed up the rocks to the top, stopping to relax and have pictures taken every now and then in the various rock pools and lagoons. The water was absolutely freezing but our guide was great – energetic, full of enthusiasm and totally in love with his country – something we found was true with all the locals which was so nice to experience!

 

  

  
The relaxed vibe of the Caribbean islands is like no other and the people of Jamaica are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Everything about our holiday was IRIEEEE!!! and we will definitely be returning in the not so distant future.

 

Take a look at our brand new video – part 1 of our Jamaica adventures – over on our YouTube channel! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVIIY8UxNoA

 

M x

New York City, baby!

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When I left work on the Friday before my 21st birthday, I never imagined I would by flying 3,440 miles across the world to New York City the next day. After a lovely meal with my family on Friday night, I was woken up on Saturday morning by Alex who wished me a happy birthday and told me he’d made me breakfast. Groggily I rolled over to check the time – 6:30am – why on earth had he woken me up so early?!  I got up and noticed that there was music playing. It wasn’t unusual for Alex to be playing music but the choice seemed a bit odd considering it normally doesn’t differ from Kiss or Capital radio.
“Start spreading the news…I’m leaving today…”
As I started to navigate my way down the stairs, I noticed that each step had a dollar bill on it. Collecting them all as I went, I realised what song was playing – 
“I want to be a part of it….New York…New York”
I practically ran down to the kitchen and asked Alex what was going on and he presented me with my breakfast – Nutella crepes with the letters NYC written on the top in chocolate sauce. I burst into tears for a good 10 mins! I had absolutely no idea and was completely shocked, so shocked in fact that I couldn’t even eat my crepes and that is unheard of! Alex had sorted everything, flights, hotel, visas, attraction passes (http://www.citypass.com/new-york) …he’d even contacted my work and booked the time off in secret. I have definitely found myself a keeper!  As we only had a few hours until we had to be at the airport I started panic-packing, which basically consisted of me throwing my entire wardrobe in a suitcase and hoping for the best! Thank god for Virgin Atlantic and their 23kg luggage allowance!
After an 8 hour flight we landed in JFK, tired but excited. The time difference meant I got to have an extra 5 hours where it was still officially my birthday – result! After collecting our bags we made our way to the taxi queue and were in an iconic yellow cab in no time at all – I resisted the overwhelming urge to tap the roof of the cab and tell the driver to step on it, much to Alex’s relief!  The drive into the city took about 40 mins and then we hit major traffic as we entered Manhattan but we didn’t mind, it gave us extra time to hang out of the cab window with the GoPro!
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We were staying at the Hotel Edison (http://www.edisonhotelnyc.com/) which was in a perfect location – a 30 second walk from Times Square. So after arriving at the hotel, we dumped our bags and headed straight out in search of bright lights and fried food, things we found almost immediately as we entered Times Square. It was swarming with people, both tourists and performers and the atmosphere was electric! After taking in the main iconic billboard and taking a few selfies (priorities!), we proceeded to eat at Bubba Gump – not exactly the most adventurous of options but after a long day of travelling, french fries and a soda were just what we needed!
The next morning we woke up feeling much fresher. The sun was shining as we wandered back onto Times Square searching for an IHOP or Wendy’s to fuel us for the long day ahead.
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Sadly, we couldn’t find either of these so we settled on the next best thing and found ourselves in America’s largest McDonalds! Set over 3 floors and serving an all day breakfast – what’s not to like?! I played it safe and ordered a cheese bagel whereas Alex decided to try something new – a sausage and egg biscuit. It was basically what we in England call a McMuffin but instead of it being served in a bun, it came within a scone! Scones, as in the sickly-sweet cakes you enjoy with afternoon tea. And we wonder why more than two thirds of adult Americans are obese…!
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Alex also has a stack of pancakes here!
The first stop of the day was Central Park. After walking down 5th avenue and looking wistfully into designer shop windows, we arrived at the Plaza hotel which sits just adjacent to the park. The Home Alone films are some of my favourites to watch at Christmas and so it was great to see the hotel all decorated for the holiday season, just like in the movies! We entered the park by the famous rock and so, being the selfie champions that we are, decided to climb to the top to get a view of the city. The view was great and the buildings almost seem like they’ve been photoshopped in behind us in the photos we took. We spent a good hour and a half exploring the park’s many features including an ice rink, a castle and various statues and fountains but could easily have spent more time here. It was lovely and the weather was perfect – the leaves on the trees were beginning to turn an autumnal copper colour which meant everything looked stunning against the backdrop of the silver skyscrapers that gleamed in the sunlight.
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Next on the agenda was the Empire State Building. We followed the map downtown and using the passes Alex had bought, we were able to jump the queue and get the lift straight up to the 102nd floor observatory platform for the most incredible 360′ view of the city. The temperature up there was sub zero and so we were glad that the sun was shining! On the 86th floor there is also a small museum telling you all about the history and construction of the most famous skyscraper in New York.
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Along with passes to the famous sights and attractions, Alex had also booked a tour of ground zero and the memorial through the 9/11 tribute centre.  Every tour is led by guides that recount the events of 9/11 and also share their personal stories as they are all either survivors of the attack, first responders on the scene or families of victims. I’m so pleased we did this tour as it was an incredibly interesting and poignant experience. We both found out so much more information on not just the day itself, but all the hard work that went into the clear up of the site and building of the memorials and new trade centres. I really recommend that everyone who visits New York does this tour and so I won’t give too much away but the memorials themselves are beautiful. The foundations of each tower have been transformed into waterfall features and when you approach either of them you are encouraged to be quiet and respectful, meaning that all that you can hear is the calming and serene sound of running water. After the attacks, trees were planted all around the memorial with the aim that when they grow to their full size, the trees will block the sounds from the hustle and bustle of the city, making it an even more tranquil place for families and friends to come and reflect and remember their loved ones. Our guides were fantastic, both were first responders on the scene and their stories were incredible. We left Ground Zero feeling very moved and grateful to have experienced such an insightful account from the 9/11 tribute centre. Please take a look at their website for more information or to make a donation to a very worthy cause http://tributewtc.org
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After a nice lay-in the next morning we decided to try and book tickets to watch some American sport. From the moment we set foot in the city, Alex was eager to get us tickets to an NFL game. I told him I was definitely up for it on the condition that I could get a foam finger. 💁🏼 so we took the bus to the MetLife stadium in New Jersey. When we arrived we were surprised to see everyone had parked up in their trucks and were all enjoying BBQs and beers – something we found out is called ‘tailgating’ in the USA! Some families were even playing rounders and swing ball around all the parked cars – it was really strange to see! The atmosphere was great and everyone was in great spirits for Game Day. The match was the New York Jets vs the Miami Dolphins and as we were visiting NYC we had to support the home team, so quickly purchased a scarf from the merchandise shop to show our support. We made our way to our seats and settled down with our hot chocolates and popcorn. We were amazed at the scale of the game. Considering it just was an ordinary league game, it was comparable to an FA cup final in English terms! The Jets cheerleaders were out for almost the whole game dancing around and doing impressive acrobatics and for every touchdown that was scored, fireworks erupted into the sky with a bang. It was a brilliant day out, even for me who is the most anti-sport person out there.
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For Christmas I bought Alex a personalised New York Jets jersey

Upon returning to Manhatten, we made our way down to the Hudson River to catch a ferry over to the Statue of Liberty. It was absolutely freezing but we arrived on Liberty Island in no more than 10 mins – me a similar shade of green to Lady Liberty herself! (Me and boats just do not get on!) We took a few photos of the impressive NY skyline from the island and then spent some time FaceTiming home to show our family the view. We took some selfies, visited the gift shop and then headed straight back on the ferry.

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After a busy day and no lunch, we found ourselves making a pit stop in Dunkin’ Doughnuts and joined the queue behind some NYPD cops. They ordered a ‘doughnut and cwwoffee to go please ma’am’ much to our amusement! We decided to walk back via the Avenue of the Americas to have a look at the Christmas lights and decorations – this city certainly knows how to get you feeling festive!

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Alex’s parents had bought us tickets to see Chicago on Broadway for my birthday that evening (jazz hands at the ready!) and so we headed to a pre theatre dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe (Alex and I have made it our mission to visit all the Hard Rock Cafes in the world and so far we’re not doing too badly!). After yummy nachos and burgers we walked to the theatre and took our seats. I loved every second of it! The production was brilliant. We left the theatre in the pouring rain but thankfully we only had a 5 minute walk to our hotel as I couldn’t cope with walking any further in my heels after all that jazz! 😉
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Picture taken the morning after our visit to Broadway!
On the morning of our last day in the city we headed to Madison Square Gardens where we had a guided tour of the arena and my foam finger ambition was fulfilled!
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After a tour of the arena and backstage areas we headed to Macy’s to do a bit of shopping. Now let me tell you, shopping is one of my favourite activities but shopping in Macy’s was the most stressed that I felt in my whole time in New York! It’s spread over two buildings meaning you have to walk to a new building if you want another department. It was all too much, so we settled on buying some designer towels for our new home and left pretty sharpish!
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Our last stop of the trip (boo!) was Brooklyn Bridge. It was a pretty grim day weather wise and there was a lot of rain and fog about so the views we had from the bridge were not the best but we got the selfies we could before heading back to the hotel to collect our bags.

Considering I didn’t even know I was going on this trip until a few hours before our flight I’m so pleased we managed to see and do so much on our visit to the Big Apple. When we returned to the UK, Alex and I put together a short video of our time in the city with a very fitting soundtrack (!) – please take a look below and check out my Youtube channel.

 

 

I loved every minute of our magical trip to NYC and Alex certainly made sure I had a 21st birthday that I’ll never forget!

 

M x