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10 colourful photos that will make you want to visit Panaji

10 colourful photos that will make you want to visit Panaji

Man with bicycle outside shop in Panaji, Goa

Panaji is….a glorious architectural rainbow

Chances are you’ll be visiting Goa for the beautiful beaches but what if you fancy a change from all that sun, sand and surf? Goa’s capital, Panaji (also known as Panjim), is a brilliant way to spend a day away from the coast. The Portuguese influence is still strong in the crumbling old town; evident in the azejuelo tiles, the language on the street signs and the wonderfully distinctive cuisine. Visit certain restaurants and you could almost be forgiven for thinking that you’ve somehow teleported to the other side of the world. There aren’t any major sights in Panaji but the pleasure is in simply wandering through the sleepy, rainbow-hued streets, occasionally stopping for a glass of local wine and soaking up the atmosphere.

Yellow building in Panaji, Goa

Mellow yellow…

General store with Portuguese tiling in Panaji, Goa

I love the contrast of red walls with blue tilework.

 

Printer and stationers shop in Panaji, Goa

Wish I could have seen what’s behind this door. Such an old fashioned sign.

 

Orange house in Panaji, Goa

Could you get away with an orange house in London? Or does it only work somewhere tropical?

 

Indian women in saris in Panaji, Goa

One of the things I loved about Goa was how colourful the women were too.

 

Green building with balcony in Panaji, Goa

Green walls, tiled floors, my kind of design…

 

Tailor and pay phone in a yellow building in Panaji, Goa

I love how beaten up this looks. Also the combination of tailor and pay phone is pretty unique!

 

Old building with wooden balcony and plants in Panaji, Goa

When I move back to the UK, I’d like a colourful house full of gorgeous green plants please.

I’d never even heard of Panaji before arriving in Goa so it was an extra-lovely surprise to discover how gorgeous it is. Not only does it look beautiful; it’s a glorious mish-mash of cultures and religions, where you can find wedding cake Catholic churches snuggled up to gaudy Hindu temples and traditional Portuguese cooking with more than a dash of Indian spice mixed through it.

Panaji is basically a creative’s dream. I found so much to inspire me here – both from a design point of view and also from simply observing daily life. It felt almost like going back in time to a place where big brands, mass production or digitised working don’t exist – although much of India can do that to you. If you want an insight into everyday Goan life away from the beach resorts, Panaji should definitely be on your to-do list.

Need to know:
We took a taxi to Panaji from our hotel in Baga and got it to drop us off at the bus station. We then spent a good couple of hours wandering around looking for the old town. Either take a taxi straight there or ensure you have a map (we didn’t!). There are also tuk-tuks around but not that many comparatively and some of them will try to charge you per person. If you take one then make sure you either have a street name or specific location to give them.

Most places close for a siesta in the afternoon, including restaurants, so plan accordingly.

There’s a fish market and fruit/veg market in the main town which is definitely worth checking out.

A houseboat in Kerala: How to relax like a pro

A houseboat in Kerala: How to relax like a pro

A houseboat in Kerala, India

A houseboat in Kerala is…for people who can’t switch off (and for those who can!)

I don’t know about you guys but I’m not great at switching off. Living in London does it to you; the constant thrum of the capital means you’re pretty much always on the go. Even when I was vegging out in front of Netflix, my brain would still be processing the sensory overload of the city; thinking about what to do and where to go next. And I’m the same now I’ve left London. Contrary to my belief that giving up my full-time job would free up some time, I’m actually busier than ever, just in a different way. How would I cope staying on a houseboat in Kerala – a full 24 hours without the internet???

As the many road signs proclaim, Kerala is God’s own country. This blissed-out, palm tree-strewn southern Indian state is pretty close to paradise on earth. If you only do one thing in Kerala, you should stay overnight on a houseboat. Kerala is known for its backwaters; silent lagoons linked by sleepy, meandering channels. The best way to explore this beautiful area is by houseboat and you will find lots of different tour companies offering various packages – either online or just by walking around Fort Kochi, for example. However, you’ll most likely end up on a motorised boat around Alleppey, jostling for space on the water with a hundred other houseboats. This is not the chilled-out Keralan vibe that you’re looking for.

On the Kerala backwaters, India

If you’re going to do the whole houseboat thing in style then the trick is to escape from everyone else who wants to do exactly the same. And for that you need to avoid Alleppey. By chance, we wandered into the office of Wilson Tours in Fort Kochi where we were given a choice – take a motorised houseboat around Alleppey or a smaller, punted boat in a place where we would see no other tourists. Well, it was a no brainer really…. That’s how, one slightly damp morning, we found ourselves boarding our very own houseboat in a tiny Keralan village. And it really was all our own – complete with two guys to punt and one onboard chef. It seemed like such a treat but actually only cost around £25 each.

The houseboat contained a bedroom with an en-suite bathroom, a kitchen and a deck area complete with two lounge chairs, a coffee table and a fold-away dining table for our meals. We settled into our seats, were given a pot of tea and a plateful of freshly made banana crisps (to die for) and off we went. There was literally nothing to do but read, write and watch the sleepy Keralan countryside glide by. And that’s the beauty of a houseboat in Kerala – you’re forced into a digital detox where the only thing you can do is relax. There was no noise other than the splash of the punt or the sound of the many birds along the backwaters – kingfishers, brahminy kites, fish eagles and loads more that I couldn’t even begin to identify.

Onboard a houseboat in Kerala, India

Wilson Tours were true to their word. We didn’t see any other tourist houseboats on this trip. Occasionally we passed local people in canoes or fishermen on their way to check the large Chinese fishing nets that were dotted around. But that was about it as far as other people went. As the late afternoon light grew more golden and the shadows grew longer, I felt like I could quite easily doze off. Considering I have been on sleeping tablets for three years, this is nothing short of a miracle. Having absolutely nothing to do other than lazily float on calm, green waters while being fed incredibly well is clearly a winning strategy for relaxation.

A Chinese fishing net in Kerala, India

We moored up in a lagoon for the night and watched from underneath our canopy as rain fell gently around us. As it grew dark and we enjoyed our dinner of curry with freshly made chappatis, hundreds of fireflies darted around us; a beautiful sight I’ve never witnessed before. I was then more than ready to curl up in our cosy little wood-panelled bedroom and enjoy a nights sleep with zero light pollution. Waking up to a soft, Turner-esque dawn and settling down to watch as the morning mist gradually evaporated off the lagoon while fish eagles wheeled and dived around me beat that Tube commute any day.

The Kerala backwaters, India

For someone who doesn’t really know how to relax and who gets slightly twitchy whenever there’s no internet, a houseboat in Kerala was the perfect tonic. Spending time away from the “black mirror” of my phone and laptop genuinely helped me to switch off and decompress. There are times when my decision to escape the rat race has been hard, but this definitely wasn’t one of them.

What relaxing experiences have you had while travelling? Share them in the comments.

Fort Kochi: Where to eat great food

Fort Kochi: Where to eat great food

Fort Kochi is the perfect introduction to India. If you’re a first time visitor to the sub-continent, the chilled out state of Kerala, with its palm trees, fishing nets and spice gardens, will gently welcome you with just enough Indian verve to make you feel like you’re somewhere truly exotic, yet with minimal hustle and hassle. If you’re an old hand when it comes to the chaos of India then Fort Kochi will seem like a a long cool drink of water. This historic, bohemian town – shaped over time by the Portuguese, the Dutch, Catholics, Hindus, Jains, Jews and so many more – is a hub of local artists, colourful cafe culture and fascinating local life. It’s difficult to find bad food in Fort Kochi but you can be a little overwhelmed by choice. Here’s where to head to first.

Dal Roti
This stripped back, simple restaurant is super popular and for good reason. The North Indian food is excellent, the portions are generous and it’s ridiculously cheap. We ordered the chicken biryani and the mutton thali – both of which were incredible. I’m always a bit wary around mutton as it risks being tough and chewy, but in this instance it just fell apart. The biryani was huge and easily one of the best I have ever eaten – and believe me when I say I’ve eaten a lot. Decent lassis, warm service and a full belly for less than a fiver? Winning.
Dal Roti, Lilly Street/Elephanstone Road, Fort Kochi

Kashi Art Cafe
Like almost every tourist, we took up almost permanent residence in Kashi Art Cafe. Tucked away down pretty Burgar Street, this garden cafe cum art gallery is hot property. Their breakfasts are legendary – you can choose from the likes of French toast, turbo-omelettes, homemade granola and even cinnamon breakfast cake (yes, breakfast cake!!!) – as are their chocolate brownies. A good mix of Indian and Western dishes is available all day until 10pm. Go for the art, the vibe and the food; stay for the lovely staff, the wifi and the excellent masala chai.
Kashi Art Cafe, Dist Ernakulam, Burgar Street, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi

Oy’s Cafe
Also located on Burgar Street, Oy’s is boho, artsy and perhaps wouldn’t be too out of place in the likes of Shoreditch – only there’s no London prices or hipster wankers here! This vibrant jewel of a cafe serves up excellent all-day breakfasts and a limited, yet incredibly delicious, evening menu cooked by local Indian women. Lounge against colourful cushions, admire the art on the walls, sip on one of their powerful ginger concoctions (Cochin is known for its ginger) and pimp your social media feed at this Instagram-friendly haunt. Don’t miss out on one of their super-naughty, super-decadent milkshakes!
Oy’s Cafe, 1/390 Burgar Street, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi

Kayees Rahmathullah Hotel
We would never have found this place had we not asked our tuk-tuk driver to take us somewhere for a good biryani. Hidden away down the labyrinthine streets of Mattancherry is Kayees; a spit and sawdust restaurant that’s home to (allegedly) the best biryani in town. We were the only foreigners in the place, which was packed with Indian families – always a good sign. Expect no frills, maybe a few curious stares and plates piled high with THE most delicious biryani. I looked at mine and thought “there’s no way I’m going to even make a dent in this and then I’m going to look so wasteful” but funnily enough I cleared my plate. Our tuk-tuk driver asked me to marry him.
Kayees Rahmathullah Hotel, New Road, Mattancherry, Fort Kochi

Teapot Cafe
Another gorgeous gem of a cafe – Fort Cochin really does spoil you! This peaceful, saffron-coloured retreat is housed in a crumbling, high-ceilinged old building liberally decorated with different teapots from across the years. What would be twee in the UK somehow manages to be quirky in Fort Kochi. The softly-spoken, smiling staff guide you through their fabulous food and drink menu. The tea selection is extensive, and you can also get “tea bites” like Indian rarebit alongside more substantial offerings such as the local fish moilee (a green, coconut-based curry) or Kerala fish curry. A yummy cake selection is available too.
Teapot Cafe, Peter Celli Street, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi

Fusion Bay
It’s a known fact* that you cannot visit Kerala and not eat a fish curry. Kerala is known as the Land of Spices due to its historic spice trade routes, and curries here are flavoursome rather than face-meltingly hot. Coconuts grow in abundance in Kerala so they are frequently used in cooking, giving a milder, creamy feel to dishes. And of course, fish is a food staple around the coast. Fusion Bay feels a bit like an old fashioned curry house found in the UK but they do a mean – and great value – fish curry. Go for the fish masala or fish moilee and mop up the delicious sauce with appam – spongy bread made with fermented rice and coconut milk.
Fusion Bay, Santa Crus Basilica Junction, KB Jacob Road, Kunnumupuran, Fort Kochi

*In my world

The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

To say that we were a bit wet is an understatement. Our hike through the verdant tea plantations of the Sri Lankan highlands was cut soggily short with the arrival of the downpour to end all downpours. As we waited for our tuk-tuk driver in a nearby cafe, the thought of returning to our chilly and damp guest house did not fill us with excitement. We were desperate to get out of our sodden clothes and have a hot shower, but we knew that nothing was going to dry at our current abode. A cheeky thought occurred to us…why not treat ourselves to a night at The Grand Hotel.

The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya – former home of the Governor of Sri Lanka – is a testament to the old-fashioned British influence that still lingers in this part of Sri Lanka. The town itself is known as “Little England” and the climate is certainly very reminiscent of home! The centre of Nuwara Eliya is very much like the majority of Sri Lankan towns but the outskirts tell a slightly different story. Here, deep among the shade of cool deciduous trees and golf courses, you will find grand colonial buildings of a by-gone era. Here is where you will find The Grand Hotel.

This luxury establishment discretely whispers elegance; from the manicured lawns to the white-jacketed staff. Of course, we totally destroyed this by rocking up in a tuk-tuk with our huge backpacks, wet and covered in mud, blaring Bob Marley at full volume. Never let it be said I don’t know how to make an entrance… The staff didn’t bat an eyelid at their new, rather careworn, guests. Our bags were taken from us and we were ushered into the lounge, where we were given hot vanilla tea and handmade fudge. It was like they read my mind and knew exactly what I needed to feel 100% better.

Our room wasn’t HUGE for a five star hotel, but there was still plenty of space for two people with lots of luggage to be able to move around comfortably. Best of all there was a heater – perfect for drying wet shoes. The bathroom – yes, proper bathroom not a sodden, slippy wet room – had an actual bath and endless hot water. Hot shower, white bathrobe, dry clothes = a substantially happier me. The only niggle was that there is no wifi in the bedrooms, only in the common parts.

We’d actually visited The Grand Hotel the previous day, so already had a feel for what it offered. Next stop on our road to feeling human once again – high tea. This is offered every day at The Grand Hotel from 3:30pm in another nod to British tradition. Softly-spoken staff pour endless cups of tea as you nibble on a mixture of British and Sri Lankan-inspired treats. And if you want something a bit stiffer than tea, the same tea lounge also offers tea-themed cocktails or you can decamp to the subterranean wine bar for a sharpener in front of the open log fire.

There are numerous restaurants to choose from, catering to all culinary tastes. So much so that it was actually a bit difficult to find Sri Lankan food among everything else. We eventually found a few curry options in The Magnolia, but if Thai or Indian or Arabic is your bag – or even if you’re just craving a burger – you can find it at The Grand Hotel. Not surprisingly, breakfast is an event. A mind-boggling variety of food options are available, with a number of items made fresh in front of you. You can even find good old fashioned British baked beans. Go hungry!

The staff at The Grand Hotel were brilliant and helped push our laundry through (we really didn’t want to pack damp, muddy clothes) and organised a driver to take us on the long journey down to Tissamaharama the next day. Our tea plantation hike may have been a wash-out but our experience at The Grand Hotel made up for it somewhat.  If only I had an excuse to dry out in five star luxury every day…

The Grand Hotel, Grand Hotel Road, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Rooms start at £138 per night, including breakfast. We booked through Booking.com for a discounted rate.

Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka: What you need to know

Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka: What you need to know

I’ll be honest. I had never even heard of the Esala Perahera before, let alone considered getting in on the action. But, in one of those wonderful strokes of luck, we arrived in Kandy in time for this most magnificent of Asian festivals.

The Esala Perahera is linked to the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in the Sri Lankan hilltop town of Kandy. The temple holds the sacred Buddha’s tooth and, for 10 nights every summer, a grand procession is held to honour this relic. It’s one of Sri Lanka’s – indeed, Asia’s – biggest festivals. So that’s why it helps to be at least a little bit organised if you want to visit Kandy at this time – unlike us! For a start, hotels are more expensive and get booked up much faster. If you want to stay in Kandy but you’re not bothered about seeing the festival, choose a different date. That way you’ll get a much better deal on your accommodation.

Kandy town centre is EXTREMELY busy during the Esala Perahera, making it pretty much impossible to explore at your leisure. People start camping out on the pavement hours before the parade starts and most of the pavements are fenced off, so you either have to climb over the sardine-like sets of families picnicking on tarpaulin sheets laid over the floor or take your chances with the traffic on the road. You also get funnelled through security checkpoints where your bag is searched and you get a very “thorough” pat down. None of this makes for a particularly relaxing experience.

However, gird your loins because it’s totally worth checking out this incredible festival. For a start, you get to see a totally different side to daily life in Sri Lanka. The general sense of excitement is wonderful; people start getting into the party mood well before festivities properly kick off and the streets are filled with vendors selling balloons, flags, whistles, popcorn and other snacks. The festival attracts visitors from all over Sri Lanka and it’s fascinating to observe the anticipation building throughout the day. It’s nothing like anything you would see in the UK.

So, how do you get to watch the parade? You can join the locals on the pavements if you don’t mind making a day of it. It’s free but you’ll need to get there early to get a good spot – and bring plenty of provisions with you. However, you can also buy tickets for the numerous seats that are dotted around town. One of the most popular places for tourists seems to be the Queens Hotel. This old colonial building is located right at the start of the parade route so you will get a great view. Tickets here are very expensive though; you’re looking at paying between $95-$125 per seat! They also tend to sell out pretty quickly so you need to be a bit more organised than we were.

We had done hardly any research before rocking up into Kandy and, in fact, had only found out about the Esala Perahera the night before we arrived. So we literally had no idea what we were doing. The owner of the guest house we were based at said that he could get us tickets for the parade at a cost of 9000 rupees, but he couldn’t tell us exactly where we would be sitting. Without having seen the parade route or even the town, we weren’t confident that we would actually have good seats. However, upon heading into town we saw that there were loads of different seating options available. Pretty much every local business had opened up the front of their shops and/or constructed makeshift balconies with seating. The owners hang around outside selling tickets and most of them will approach you if they see you looking. We simply wandered along the route, checked out a few different places and eventually bought a couple of seats above an electronics shop for 6000 rupees each (about £30).

The only “problem” was that, because we hadn’t got our shit together beforehand, our seats were three rows from the front. All the front row seats tend to sell out in advance so if you want a first-class view then you need to get straight onto it. Bear in mind that you will pay more for a front-row seat, however. We were seated a couple of hours before the parade started as well – it’s basically a case of bagsying your spot. Oh and it can be a bit of a squeeze and a scramble to reach some of the balcony seats, so if you’re wobbly on your feet then look for a seat at pavement level.

Squishing in with a bunch of other tourists and locals was all part of the fun of the Esala Perahera, however. It really helped build a sense of anticipation and when we heard the distant cannon fire, signifying the start of the parade, followed by the sound of the first whip-crackers coming down the road, the excitement was palpable. The parade kicks off with the whip-crackers and incredible fire dancers, who “clear” the streets before the flag bearers arrive, solemnly carrying Buddhist flags. Next up is wave upon wave of dancers and musicians in traditional dress, who become increasingly frenetic as they process down the street. The atmosphere is intoxicating; the frantic sound of drums and pipes swells in the smoke-filled, flame-lit night. After each wave of dancers, come elephants – yes, actual massive IRL elephants. These really are an incredible spectacle. Splendidly caparisoned and covered in fairy lights, they stomp through the streets with costumed riders sat astride.

There are five phases to the Esala Perahera and the tooth relic makes an appearance during the first one. It arrives on the back of the Maligawa Tusker – a huge, magnificently decorated elephant. All the locals stood up and bowed their heads as it passed by (although these days the “relic” is actually a replica; the original stowed safely away in the temple). The other phases of the procession include peacock dancers and female dancers venerating different deities, as Hinduism mixes with Buddhism in that way that is so typical of Asia. We didn’t stay until the end; jet lag was kicking in and the Esala Perahera is very long – something else to bear in mind if you’re visiting. Getting back out of the town centre was a bit tricky and I’m pretty certain I stepped on a LOT of people!

The Esala Perahera is definitely worth it. If anyone really needs any more reasons to visit Sri Lanka, this is one of them. It’s a spectacle like nothing else and was such a wonderful way to kick off my trip to Asia. I can’t wait to see what else I’ll discover over the next few months – but hopefully we’ll try to be a bit more organised from now on!

What amazing things have you accidentally stumbled upon when travelling? Let me know in the comments!

PS. My photos are DIRE because I was sat so far back and it was dark. If you want to get good pics, bag a seat right at the front somewhere and bring the usual low-light equipment.

Travel and leaving home: A letter to myself

Travel and leaving home: A letter to myself

 

Travel photo: Women in village in Nepal playing musical instruments

It’s only a matter of days before you leave London and start your big travel adventure. To say that your emotions are all over the place is an understatement. On one hand, obviously, you’re excited beyond words. On the other, you’re absolutely bloody terrified. Dealing with change is not one of your strong points really, is it. Which is a bit weird because you hate routine as well. How many years have you sat at your desk in work and wished that you were somewhere else? How many times have you got on the tube in the morning and silently cursed the uncomfortable tedium of it? For as long as you’ve lived in London you’ve wanted to do things on your own terms and not be beholden to a boss, a corporation, set hours. And now you’re finally breaking free from all of that and everything you’ve ever dreamed of is about to come true.

Anxiety
But you’re worried. Because that’s who you are – a worrier. Actually that’s putting it mildly. You have anxiety. You suffer from anxiety. This has been medically confirmed, so don’t beat yourself up over the fact that you’re stressed out because you won’t be able to buy your usual brand of moisturiser while you travel through Asia and your skin will shrivel up and it will bug you every day for the foreseeable future. Chances are you’ll be able to find an alternative. Chances are you won’t even care. But these weird, random little things do keep you awake at night, on top of this huge sweeping change that you’re making to your life, because that’s what suffering from anxiety is like. It’s a constant dialogue tapping away inside your head going “what if, what if, what if?”

Travel photo: Man selling pizza in a market outside Camaguey, Cuba

Security
This is where your mass of contradictions really comes into play. You get easily bored, so you yearn for adventure. You long to travel the world because you understand that there is so much more out there then the London bubble. But man, you do love your security. Having your own place, your little home is so important to you. Feeling comfortable in your town – especially a constantly churning, aggressive city like London –  makes you proud. Effortlessly knowing where to go, what to do and who to do it with, gliding from one borough to the next, navigating public transport with ease… Your wonderful group of friends that you managed to make all by yourself (yep, that still amazes you even at the age of 38!). And most of all – having somewhere to retreat to. You’re an introvert so being around other people – even your friends – can eventually become exhausting. You need a place of your own and space of your own. Removing that comfort blanket is terrifying.

But, you know what? All change is terrifying, And you were stagnating and you recognised this. That in itself is an achievement. Actually doing something about it is brave. Because no-one really likes any upheaval to their lives but you went ahead anyway and turned change up to 11. You decided to burn the whole thing to the ground and build something new. Be proud. Yes, it is scary and yes, you will doubt yourself but push on. You know it’s the right thing to do.

Travel photo: Tibetan people in Dharamsala, India

Depression
The black dog. Churchill nailed it with that description. It’s always there, following you around, no matter where you travel to. For a long time you believed that you just needed to escape; that if you could break free from your small life and see the world, see how other people live, keep moving, keep discovering, your black dog would be left behind. But that’s just running away and we all know life doesn’t allow that to work out. Your black dog will follow you to the ends of the earth and there will still be times when he comes too close, when he lies on top of you and wraps his tail around you and you feel like you can’t breathe. When things get bad you retreat to your little house and hole up with snacks, books and Netflix until the storm passes. You won’t be able to do that anymore, so you’ll need to come up with a new security system. But be brave, look that dog in the eye and know that you’re bigger than it will ever be.

And so….
You’re scared. Really, really, really scared. You’re walking around feeling like you’ve stepped off a cliff, hoping that you’ll somehow be able to fly before you reach the ground. Maybe you will and maybe things will go according to plan. Maybe you won’t and you’ll just go splat. Know that is a real possibility and think about how you will deal with that. It might feel like the worst thing ever but it won’t be. No matter what happens, whether you fall or whether you do actually fly, know that you’ll have done something amazing. And that, in itself, is something to be proud of.

In Pictures: The prettiest streets in west London

In Pictures: The prettiest streets in west London

The beauty of living in such a big, old city is that there is always something new to discover. London is full of hidden corners, delightful cobbled mews, and secret squares. I love west London and its candy coloured houses, especially at this time of year when the blossom is out. It really does feel like being on the set of a Richard Curtis film. Here are a few of of my favourite streets. Now, where’s that lottery win so can I move into one of them?

Godfrey Street, Chelsea
Godfrey Street, Chelsea, London

Lennox Garden Mews, Knightsbridge
Lennox Garden Mews, Knightsbridge, London

Hillgate Place, Notting Hill
Hillgate Place, Notting Hill, London

Bywater Street, Chelsea
Bywater Street, Chelsea, London

Kynance Mews, Kensington
Kynance Mews, Kensington, London

St Luke’s Mews, Notting Hill
St Luke's Mews, Notting Hill, London

Pond Place, Chelsea
Pond Place, Chelsea, London

Ennismore Gardens Mews, South Kensington
Ennismore Gardens Mews, South Kensington, London

Elm Place, Chelsea
Elm Place, Chelsea, London

Kensington Place, Notting Hill
Kensington Place, Notting Hill, London

Cresswell Place, Chelsea
Cresswell Place, Chelsea, London

And, not forgetting…..

Portobello Road, Notting Hill
Portobello Road, Notting Hill, London
What are your favourite London streets? Let me know in the comments or send me a photo and I’ll retweet it!

5 London travel hacks all tourists should know

5 London travel hacks all tourists should know

After living in London for 12 years I’m now able to navigate this vast city with relative ease.  But I still remember how it felt arriving here as a total newbie.  London can feel like a pretty intimidating place at times.  Working out where to begin, navigating public transport and the sheer volume of people swirling around you at 100mph can be enough to make your head spin.  So here are my top 5 travel hacks to help you get the best out of your time here in the Big Smoke.

1.  Rush past rush hour 
I cannot stress this enough.  It’s called “rush hour” for a reason and trust me when I say it’s not something you want to find yourself caught up in.  For the uninitiated, this is when London’s huge workforce travel to and from their various jobs across the capital.  And, despite the name, it’s not just for an hour.  Generally it’s between 7:30 – 9:00 am and 5:00 – 7:00 pm, Monday to Friday.  The tube gets absolutely rammed and people are usually ever so slightly humourless at this time of the day – to put it mildly!  Do everything you can to avoid travelling at this time and you’ll have a much more pleasant journey.

2. Walk (but don’t dawdle)
Following on from the first point, it’s actually pretty good to avoid using the tube in general and stick around above ground.  Walk as much as you can.  London is great for exploring.  There are loads of little side streets with independent shops and eateries, enchantingly pretty cobbled mews, some of the loveliest houses you’ll ever see, secret gardens… I could go on forever.  Plus the people watching is spectacular.  I once spotted a witch selling herbs off a canal boat and a man with a giant blue parrot – both during the same walk.  Everything and anything goes in London so who knows what you might see?  One word of warning though – Londoners walk very fast and don’t take kindly to people getting in their way!

3. There’s more to life than Primark
Ok, so perhaps only a certain demographic frequent the barn-like Primark stores that bookend Oxford Street.  However, Oxford Street is not the shopping mecca people believe it to be.  It’s a busy, traffic-choked drag, containing nothing but chain stores and tacky souvenir shops.  If shopping’s your thing then check out the Carnaby Street area of Soho or Covent Garden or one of the many markets, like Spitalfields.  You’ll still find the usual high street shops – it’s hard to avoid them these days – but they’re mixed in with independent retailers and the setting is much easier on the eye – as well as being pedestrian friendly.

4. Get out more
A lot of the big ticket sights are in Zone 1 but, if you have the time, expand your horizons.  Head north to the pretty “villages” of Hampstead and Highgate, separated by the vast, green expanse of Hampstead Heath.  Venture south-west to Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park where you can wander among herds of deer.  Eastwards, you will find the Olympic Village, the Lea Valley and a burgeoning hipster scene.  Don’t limit yourself to the West End.  Explore.  Get lost.  Discover London.

5. Queue for food, but not for Pizza Hut
I work around the corner from a big, West End branch of Pizza Hut and it frequently makes me want to cry.  Every day I see people queuing to get in.  The same for Frankie & Benny’s, Angus Steakhouses, TGI Fridays and all the other bland, over-priced chains that litter the West End.  And every day I ask myself why?  The mass produced steaks at Angus Steakhouse start from £18.50 but if you walk just a little way in the other direction, you can get a blinding steak dinner at Flat Iron for a fraction of the price.  It’s tempting to gravitate towards the familiar, but there’s a reason none of the locals eat at these places – and that’s because they’re crap.  London is one of the foodie capitals of the world.  Be adventurous and eschew the chains in favour of one of the fab independent restaurants that this city is famed for.

London is brilliant, exciting, messy, chaotic, diverse, pulsing but never boring.  It’s a city you can visit repeatedly and always find something different.  It still turns me on, despite having lived here for over a decade.  I hope you love it as much as I do.

What are your top London travel hacks?  Share them in the comments below.

Rum and dancing: Valentine’s Day in Cuba

Rum and dancing: Valentine’s Day in Cuba

The best Valentine’s Day I ever had didn’t involve hearts, flowers and chocolates.  It didn’t even include a card.  The best Valentine’s Day I ever had was spent with one of my closest friends, getting drunk in a rooftop bar in Santiago de Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city in Cuba and is located in the south-east corner of the island.  While Havana is swiftly becoming sanitised, Santiago has all the faded elegance of the capital but feels grittier, grubbier, seedier.  It’s sweaty and tropical, closer to Haiti and the Dominican Republic than it is to Havana – both in terms of geography and atmosphere. Reggae mixes with salsa, the heat makes everything feel languid, yet the spirit of the revolución remains close to the surface.  It was the home of Frank País, a revolutionary who campaigned for the overthrow of Batista and who collaborated with Fidel Castro.  It was where Castro’s rebellion began, and where he eventually proclaimed victory in 1959.  It’s also where I found myself one Valentine’s Day…

Turns out that Valentine’s Day is a massive deal in Santiago.  It felt like the whole population was out in town that evening, dressed in their finest, parading arm in arm.  Heart shaped balloons were everywhere – outside restaurants, being carried by grinning girls, even in the form of giant balloon arches in the plazas.  “Careless Whisper” belted out of a huge sound system while couples enjoyed dinner out.  So popular is Valentine’s Day that it was completely impossible to get into any restaurant in town.  Everywhere was booked out.  After drifting aimlessly around town, we eventually wandered into the Hotel Libertad in the hope of at least grabbing a seat and a drink while we came up with a plan.  Little did we know that we wouldn’t be leaving until we stumbled out in the early hours of the morning.

The Hotel Libertad looked like most of the other old colonial hotels you find around Cuba.  A sky blue exterior gave way to an elegant interior, lots of marble, wrought iron etc.  Not a bad spot to kill some time.  However, my eagle-eyed friend spotted a sign saying “rooftop bar”. Several flights of narrow stairs later and we were in another sort of hotel altogether.  A makeshift sound system had been set up, pumping music videos onto a projector screen.  A simple bar contained one, slightly stressed, barman, a fridge full of beer and Coke, and lots of rum.  And best of all, we had a spectacular night time view over the sticky, pulsing city.  We were the only foreigners in the place, which did feel a little intimidating at first.  But we quickly realised that no-one cared who we were.  We were there for a good time and that was all that mattered.

As pretty much everyone knows, when you’re in Cuba, you drink rum.  It kind of goes without saying.  And Santiago de Cuba is actually where the Barcardi brand originated.  You won’t find Barcadi in Cuba though; the Castro government confiscated all of the company’s assets in 1960 and they moved overseas.  In its place is Santiago de Cuba rum, which is produced and bottled in the oldest distillery in Cuba.  I’m no rum conoisseur – unless I’m drinking the really good, really aged stuff it all just tastes like fire to me.  That’s why I prefer to drink it in cocktails.  My trip to Cuba so far had involved liberal consumption of Cuba Libres – rum, Coke and lime.  The lime didn’t always make an appearance and the rum usually filled up half a highball glass.  If you could see through the Coke, you knew it was going to be a good drink!  Valentine’s Day was no exception.  The barman spoke no English and the music was loud, but at least my basic Spanish included “two more Cuba Libres please”.  I always make a point of learning the important phrases…  The cocktails were strong and cheap.  Two turned into four, four into eight…well you get the picture.  Afterwards, we gatecrashed a party back at our own hotel, having mistaken it for a disco.  We still laugh about that night to this day.

I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day but I had felt a little sad earlier, having seen photos of my ex on Facebook celebrating with his new girlfriend.  But rum, music, dancing and laughing under the warm night sky of a Caribbean town?  Who needs romance when you have these things instead?

Taking A Bite Out Of…..Rye

Taking A Bite Out Of…..Rye

With cheap flights to Europe seemingly a dime a dozen, it’s easy to overlook the delights of our very own green and pleasant land.  For a start, travel in Britain is expensive!  So, of course, it’s tempting to forgo a trip to the English countryside in favour of something a little more…well…foreign.  That’s a real shame though, because there are some darling destinations right on London’s doorstep.  The historic town of Rye, on the border of East Sussex  and Kent, rises up out of the endless flats of Romney Marsh as if it wants to flaunt its medieval beauty to the world.  And rightly so, because Rye is movie-set stunning.  What’s more, it is a haven of independent shops, cafes and restaurants.  You won’t find a Starbucks or KFC.  Instead you get to discover the likes of Edith’s House and the Rye Deli.  Rye puts you in a situation where you have to take a punt on an unknown quantity.  And isn’t that what makes travel exciting?

I’d made a few day trips to Rye several years ago, but this time I was staying for a whole weekend.  I had booked myself into The Quarter House – a cosy medieval retreat in the heart of the town.  I was looking forward to a break after a particularly difficult few months, and the thought of escaping into the misty silence of a wintery Romney Marsh was really appealing.  As usual, though, I was looking forward to exploring new places to eat.  Even before I arrived, I had decided to treat myself to dinner at the Mermaid Inn, which is one of the oldest buildings in town (making it positively ancient).  Taking up prime position on the impossibly beautiful Mermaid Street, this hotel was rebuilt in 1420 but has cellars dating as far back as the 12th century.  Never mind the food; just spending time in a building like this is an experience.

The hotel restaurant has been awarded 2 AA rosettes and the menu celebrates local produce; something that always get a big tick from me.  However, something about the place was reminiscent of the hotel restaurants I’d experienced as a child in the 1980’s.  Obviously it was going to be dated – see above.  However, the dried hops and “Old Masters” decorating the walls, plus the rather formal service, all combined to create a weirdly “bad retro” vibe.   Furthermore, the staff were all dressed in a strange mix of historic costumes, although I’m not sure whether they do that all the time or if it was just because it was almost Christmas.  Their awkwardness was palpable.

Anyway, onto the food.  The Mermaid offers a set menu with two courses for £29.50 or three for £38.50.  I opted for a main and dessert, in a half-assed attempt to save money.  Thingskicked off with an amuse-bouche of butternut squash soup.  They may have thought that this would have been welcome on a cold, December night – and they wouldn’t have been too far off the mark.  The soup was tasty and comforting, as butternut squash should be, but also fairly average.  I’m also unconvinced by the effectiveness of aheavy soup as an amuse-bouche.

I was particularly excited about my main course: trio of Romney Marsh lamb.  Locally sourced lamb is usually fantastic and this was no exception.  Thelamb arrived in the form of a cutlet, a cricket ball of pulled lamb that was deep fried in breadcrumbs and some kind of fillet (the waitress wasn’t sure what).  It was accompanied by a potato mille-feuille, Jerusalem artichoke puree, poached apricots, green beans and a curry jus.  It was like one of those dishes you see cooked up by some hapless Masterchef contestant, desperate to show off all their skills in one go.  The lamb was cooked perfectly, the puree was earthy and the apricots added some welcome sweetness.  However, the potato mille-feuille could have done with being cooked for a bit longer in a lot more butter, and I couldn’t detect any curry flavour in the jus.  Although I wasn’t too sad about that last point.  The addition of curry probably wasn’t necessary.

Choosing dessert was particularly tricky, as there were so many tasty options on the menu.  After much hemming and hawing I eventually asked the waitress for her recommendation.  She suggested the blackberry souffle, with honey and vanilla infused blackberries and shortbread.  Now, I have a MASSIVE sweet tooth, but eating this was like licking a pot of  blackberry jam.  Don’t get me wrong, it did taste really good (albeit slightly under-cooked).  But I suspect it’s probably given me diabetes.

I was a little underwhelmed by the Mermaid Inn.  The food was ok, but the main draw is the beauty and the history of the building.  For really good food, head to another inn: The Ship Inn.  As with most places in Rye, the Ship is housed in a historic gem; the building dates from 1592, when it was a warehouse used for storing contraband seized from smugglers.  These days it’s a super-cosy restaurant with rooms, owned by the former proprietors of The Engineer in Primrose Hill.  That tells you everything.  Imagine a fabulous London gastropub transplanted into a medieval warehouse.  Squishy sofas and fairy lights mixed with wooden beams and flagstone flooring.  The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, and I could tell straightaway that this was the kind of place you could easily lose a few hours in.

This was helped by the food.  The menu consists largely of straightforward comfort food, like steak or cottage pie.  The sort of thing you can you demolish without too much effort.  I actually decided to order a couple of things that I’d never tried before, starting with potted smoked cod.  This arrived in a jar with some wholewheat toast soldiers on the side.  The cod was blended to a pate-like consistency, making it easy to spread onto the toast, and had a surprisingly delicate flavour.  They could probably have got away with a bit more smoke, but overall it was an interesting and tasty dish.

The main course was where things got really good.  I ordered ricotta dumplings with butternut squash and sage.  Again, I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but I was delighted to be presented with a dish containing ricotta-stuffed dumplings the size of my fist, smothered in a cheesy sage and butternut squash sauce.  I use the word “sauce” rather loosely as it was actually more just like melted cheese.  It was the stuff dreams are made of.  I could feel myself melting into my chair with every creamy mouthful.  Admittedly, that might also have been because this dish was incredibly rich and therefore made me feel incredibly fat.  It was pure decadence.   It also meant that dessert was totally out of the question!

Rye is really easy to reach by train from London and there’s plenty to keep you occupied for a weekend.  It’s easy to forget just how much of a tonic it is to escape from the Big Smoke, even if that’s only taking a train to somewhere an hour away.  Rye may not be as exotic as Reykjavik or Rome, but it’s hard to beat when it comes to quintessential English beauty.  Sometimes a staycation can be just as rewarding as a trip across the Channel after all.

What are your thoughts on staycation vs vacation? Let me know in the comments.