Discovering the beautiful city of Porto

Chapel of Souls

Setting off for the city of Porto was the most unprepared I’d felt for an upcoming trip in a long time. Being pre-occupied with work and some recent family issues had meant I’d not done my usual research on a city. I had no idea what there was to see or do, no activities booked – my friend had even booked the hotel so I had no idea where we were staying even!

Annoyingly – but perhaps conveniently – we had plenty of time to research things at the airport that morning as we found ourselves in the now expected lengthy queues to get through security. Leaving us with little time to grab breakfast and a couple of essentials from departures, it did, at least give us plenty of opportunity to flick through a Porto guidebook a friend had lent us and to look up how to get from the airport to our pretty central hotel once we arrived.

After a quick flick through tripadvisor and a few travel blogs, we also made a hasty booking for a highly-recommended walking tour of the city for the morning of our first full day there in the hope that this would throw up some ideas for places to visit or return to in more detail.

Five minutes after finally clearing security, our gate was being called and we were soon on board and ready to go. A speedy 2-hours later, we were landing. Clearing passport control quickly, we soon found ourselves in arrivals and easily navigated our way to the station to pick up the metro line which would take us to the Bolhao area of the city where our hotel was situated. Once checked in, we took a stroll, heading straight away to a nearby church which had caught our eye as soon as we exited the metro station earlier. What made the Chapel of Souls church so striking was the blue and white tiles covering its exterior. The church was just as stunning inside and definitely worth a visit.

After visiting the pretty church, we wandered down Rua Santa Catarina, a pedestrianised street lined with shops, restaurants and cafes. Here, we couldn’t resist stopping at Fabrica da Nata, supposedly one of the best pastry shops in the city to get a Pastel de Nata – the popular Portuguese custard tart-style treat – from. After enjoying our sweet snack, we continued to explore Rua Santa Catarina. Turning right further down the road, we found ourselves stumbling across the entrance to Mercado do Bolhao, a huge food market with stall selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to cooked meats, pastries, traditional sweets and much more. We spent a bit of time enjoying the hustle and bustle of the market and picking up some healthy fruit snacks for later before continuing our walk, heading south towards the Douro River.

Tired from our early start and travelling, once riverside, we found a cafe bar to sit outside at for drinks watching the World go by for a bit before making our way back towards our hotel. From the riverfront, we walked towards the Luis I Bridge before turning away from the river to climb a series of steps tucked away up the narrow back streets passing small local cafes and bars hidden from the tourist trail along the way. From here, we wound our way back to Rua Santa Catarina.

After a bit of time relaxing and freshening up at our hotel, we went looking for somewhere to eat, settling on a nearby Italian restaurant for a pizza dinner followed by gelato from one of the many dessert stores along Rua Santa Catarina.

We awoke the next morning to rain. Armed with umbrellas, we set out anyway to find the meet point of the walking tour we had booked.

Above, and below, Bolsa Palace and Infante Dom Henrique Square

We made it as far as Sao Bento station before having to turn around as the rain became torrential and despite our umbrellas, we were soaked to the skin. Deciding we probably wouldn’t enjoy a walking tour in this weather, we contacted the tour guide to apologise for our absence and transfer our booking to the next day then sheltered in a local cafe grabbing chocolate croissants and hot drinks for breakfast before a quick return to our hotel to change into dry clothes and rethink our plans for the day!

Typically, at this point the rain stopped but worried more wasn’t far behind, we decided to take a tour of Bolsa Palace, Porto’s impressive stock exchange building. Luckily, despite nt pre-booking, there were tickets left for the upcoming English-speaking tour. With a bit of time to spare before the tour began, we took a stroll around the pretty Infante Dom Henrique Square in front of the building and across to St Nicholas Church, another pretty tiled church we had spotted from the steps of Bolsa Palace.

After a quick look around the church, it was time to make our way back to Bolsa Palace to begin our tour. We were taken in a group of about 50 around the building by an informative English guide who told us a bit about the building, its architecture and its uses over the years. Our guide also gave us a bit of background on some of the history of Portugal and the city of Porto.

Sampling a Franceshino

The tour lasted about 45 minutes and after, we made our way towards another, larger church we had seen nearby, the Monument Church of St Francis. Entrance to this church and its museum was ticketed but after stepping inside, we could see it was worth every cent! The church’s ornate, intricate interiors, gilded in gold (and giving the church its nickname “The Golden Church”), are breath-taking.

After our visit to the church and its museum, we were pleased to see the sun was now shining so we walked the short distance back to the River Douro to find somewhere to sit and have lunch.

Above, riverside again, and below, on the Six Bridges river cruise

We had decided that today would be the day we tried Franceshino, a (rather large) Portuguese sandwich which originated in Porto and, traditionally, contains layers of meat including ham, bacon, sausage and steak. The meat is topped with a fried egg then sandwiched between 2 pieces of white sliced bread before being wrapped in cheese and served in a bowl of a spicy tomato sauce!

Finding a local cafe with some outdoor seating, I ordered a traditional Franceshino and my friend a vegetarian version. While I’m glad I tried it, and managed to eat a large portion of mine, it definitely sounded better than it tasted, the spicy tomato sauce especially not being to my tastes!

Full from lunch, we took a slow stroll along the riverside towards the Ribeira area and with the weather now being so beautiful, decided to take a Six Bridges River Cruise along the Douro River. This short sightseeing cruise was offered by numerous companies with booths along the river front, all selling the cruises at similar prices. Some companies offered combo tickets including Port tasting or cellar tours but we opted to just buy a ticket for the cruise.

St Ildefenso Church

Despite not pre-booking, we were sold tickets for a cruise departing in the next 5 minutes and hurried from the ticket counter to board the awaiting boat. As we sailed along the river, there was a commentary telling us about the various bridges spanning the Douro in Porto as well as some information about Porto and the city of Gaia which lies on the other side of the river. The views of Porto with its colourful buildings were really pretty from the river.

Having walked up a long flight of stairs from the river front back into the city centre the previous day, today we decided to take the Ribeira inclined railway to the top of the hill. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped to visit the Church of Saint Ildefenso, another pretty church with a blue and white tiled facade. There was a small fee to enter the church but this gave us access to the church museum as well.

After a bit of down time back at the hotel, we went for a walk towards Praca do Municipio, a square overlooked by Porto’s impressive town hall then on to Rua de Galeria de Paris, a street famed for its nightlife. Being a Thursday night and not particularly late yet, it was quite quiet out and we found a nice cocktail bar to sit inside at for a few drinks before calling it a night.

The following day, we finally made it onto the walking tour we had delayed our attendance on from the previous day.

Passing through Jardim das Oliveiras on our walking tour

Our excellent guide took us on a detailed 3-hour-plus tour of the city, showing us many places we probably wouldn’t have thought to have known about or visited otherwise – such as a McDonald’s set in a former grand art deco cafe and now said to be the most beautiful McDonald’s in the World and Sao Bento station which we had passed a few times but not though to go inside – and gave us some ideas for places to return to later including the so-called “Harry Potter” bookstore, Livaria Lello.

There was also a lot of interesting information about the city, its buildings and UNESCO World Heritage status and about the history of Portugal itself.

The tour finished back by the river and after a snack from a nearby cafe, we decided to walk back to Livaria Lello bookstore. Along the way, we made a quick call into another beautiful church, St Antonio Church just across from Sao Bento station before hiking up a steep hill to reach the bookstore again. There was a huge queue outside the store with a 2-hour wait to enter but staff explained that if we booked online, we could probably get a timed ticket to enter within the next half an hour. Luckily, we had some phone reception and managed to get online and book tickets quickly; 10 minutes later we were showing our barcodes and entering the store!

A Pastel de Nata from Manteigaria

The store was really beautiful inside and its carved wood staircase is especially worth seeing. However, it was so busy inside, it was at times, difficult to move around the store, especially along its narrow upstairs corridors.

Following our visit to the bookstore, we returned to our hotel via a stop at Manteigaria, another patisserie whose Pastel de Nata came highly recommended.

With one final day in Porto, we still had lots to fit in, including returning to a few more places we had stopped at on our walking tour and now wanted to see in more detail.

Above, making our way to the cathedral tower, and below, enjoying views over the city.

After stopping at Mercado do Bolhao to grab some fresh pastries and fruit for breakfast, we made our way back to Se Cathedral. We had stopped outside the Cathedral on our city tour but wanted to see inside. With it being a Saturday morning, everywhere was a bit busier and there was a bit of a queue for entrance tickets but this moved quickly and we were soon entering the Cloisters.

From here we climbed some stairs up one of the towers for views over the city and looked around the small museum before entering the main chapel of the Cathedral.

Above, and below, Douro River views crossing Luis I Bridge into Gaia

Next up was a walk back towards the river where we finally crossed Luis I Bridge from Porto to the city of Gaia on the other side of the Douro River. The bridge has two pedestrian walkways, one at ground level and one higher up. As advised on our tour, we chose the higher walkway and this offered stunning river views as we made our way across although we did have to be careful of the trams which also used this level to whizz back and forth.

Once in Gaia, we took a walk along the river front from where there were beautiful views across to Porto with its colourful building facades.

Porto view from Gaia

Gaia is home to most of the region’s Port Houses and we had hoped to do a tour of one the cellars but we hadn’t thought to book in advance and with it being a busy weekend, everywhere was sold out.

Above, looking across to Porto from Gaia, and below, at Sandemans Port House

Instead, we popped into the foyer of Sandemans, one of the most famous Port Houses where there was a small museum which was free to look around before visiting its bar where we sat outside in its large courtyard area overlooking the river to purchase a glass of Port to sample for ourselves.

Crossing back to Porto along the lower level of Luis I Bridge, we walked to Clergios Church and Tower. The tower is visible from points across the city and for a fee, it is possible to climb a series of steps to the top to enjoy the views.

The joined churches of Carmo and Carmelitas

As we had been to the top of the Cathedral tower earlier that day, we decided against climbing this tower but the church was free to enter so we did have a quick look inside.

Not far from here was another church which had caught our attention on our walking tour, the Churches of Carmo and Carmelitas so we stopped by for a look in here as well.

The churches of Porto had all been so beautiful and this one didn’t disappoint either. Like many of the others we had visited, there was a small museum of church treasures to look around inside too.

Having eaten a large dinner in Gaia earlier that day, we decided to visit Majestic Cafe that evening for a smaller bite to eat. Not too far from our hotel, on Rua Santa Catarina, this cafe is said to be one of the most beautiful in the World with its decor reminiscent of Parisian Cafes from the early 1900s. It is also one of the oldest cafes in the city.

Being a popular tourist attraction, the prices inside are not cheap with a tea and a slice of cake costing me as much as a full meal in many Porto restaurants but you’re paying for the experience of dining there as much as the food so as a one off, it was worth it.

I was sad to say goodbye to Porto the next day. Having no expectations of the city before my visit, I was more than impressed by what I found and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a city break.

A summer city break in Athens

Strolling through the Plaka district

After planning a summer island-hopping trip to Greece, we could see the only way of making our way between the Sporades islands we were starting at and the Cyclades islands where we would be spending most of our time in would involve passing through the country’s capital city, Athens. With it being a city neither of us had visited before and one that had long been on my ‘must-do’ list, it seemed silly not to extend our stay there to a few nights.

Crowds lining up to get ticlets for the Acropolis Museum

We both knew that temperature and crowds-wise, late July/early August was probably not the best time to visit this city but weren’t sure when else we’d get the opportunity so we planned in 4 nights there, staying in a budget hotel in the Omonia district – walkable from many of the main attractions and also near a metro line.

Taking a flight out of Skiathos to Athens at the break of dawn, we arrived in the city early and were surprised and extremely pleased to find that our room was ready for us to check in.

After freshening up and dropping our bags, we set straight out, walking towards the Plaka area stopping at a local cafe along the way for a pastry snack.

The narrow, bustling streets of the Plaka district were perfect for a spot of souvenir shopping and – with temperatures reaching their late 30s – grabbing an ice cream.

Passing by the Panthenaic Stadium on our evening segway tour of the city

We eventually found ourselves in the shadow of Athen’s most famous attraction, the Acropolis where we had our first glimpse of the Parthenon perched on top of the hill. Opposite, was the Acropolis Museum, a long queue of tourists winding its way out of the museum grounds and onto the main thoroughfare.

Luckily, we had pre-booked timed entry tickets to the museum and were able to waltz past the hoards of people waiting and straight through the main doors into the lovely, cool air-conditioned building.

The museum houses artefacts found on the archaeological site of the Acropolis as well as providing background information on the site making it well worthwhile visiting before heading up the Acropolis hill itself.

Views of both Mount Lycabettus and Acropolis Hill at sunset

After spending some time exploring, we exited the museum and walked down to the visit the ruins of a Roman village being excavated beneath the museum – something included in the museum ticket price.

Above, and below, exploring the ancient cemetery Kerameikos

That evening, we had a segway tour of the city booked which we hoped would help us to get our bearings and possibly give us some ideas on things to do and see in the city. Being unfamiliar with the city still and short on time before our tour, we opted to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe rather than hunt around for restaurants. Then we went to meet our segway tour guide.

Despite it being high season, we found ourselves to be the only people to have booked meaning we got a private tour. As it was just us, our guide asked us what we were interested in seeing, how long we’d spent in the city so far and tailored the tour to us rather than following the usual route.

The sprawling archaeological site of the Ancient Agora

Segways were a quick and easy way to get around the city and highlight of the extensive tour was riding uphill to a viewpoint over the Acropolis that we would never have found or thought of seeking out otherwise! Taking the tour in the evening meant we didn’t have the sun beating down on us although it was still uncomfortably hot at times.

Exhausted from a long day by the time the tour finished just after 10pm, we decided to head straight back to the hotel and continue our exploration of the city bright and early the next day.

In the museum of the Ancient Agora

Day 2 we ate breakfast at the hotel and caught the metro to the Monastiraki area of the city from where we would be spending most of the day visiting the city’s many archaeological sites. We had pre-purchased a combo-ticket giving us access to a variety of sites and we began with a visit to Kerameikos, the site of an ancient cemetery and well worth a visit if you have plenty of time in the city.

After spending some time exploring the ruins here, we walked the short distance to the Ancient Agora, one of the most important – and larger – archaeological sites in the city and a must see. The site includes a small – and thankfully air-conditioned – museum on its site and we spent a good few hours wandering through ruins of the old market area and up to the Temple of Hephaestus, one of the best preserved temples in the city, still with its roof intact.

The Temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora

There was little shade from the midday sun at the Ancient Agora site so when we left, we decided it was time for an ice cream from one of the many cafes and stores lining the streets of the Monastiraki district.

Once we’d cooled down a bit, we walked to the third site on our combo ticket, Hadrian’s Library, the Roman ruins of a library created by Roman Emperor Hadrian. This was much smaller site than the Ancient Agora and didn’t take long to walk around. Close by was the site of the Roman Agora, another smaller but still interesting archaeological site.

Needing a break from exploring Greek and Roman ruins, we made our way back to the Plaka district where we came across the Church of Panagia Kapnikarea, one of the oldest churches in Athens. From here, we found ourselves in a more modern area of Athens, Ermou Street, a typical high street lined with all the usual stores. After visiting a few stores – mainly for the aircon! – and grabbing a drink from McDonalds, we found ourselves at the other end of Ermou Street in Syntagma Square.

Above, one of the oldest churches in Athens, and below, watching the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Passing the pretty square with its central fountain, we made our way towards the Old Royal Palace where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies. Traditionally-dressed palace guards constantly stand in front of the war memorial and on the hour, every hour, crowds gather as the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard takes place.

It was interesting to watch the solemn ceremony and as we wilted in our flimsy summer attire, I wondered how the soldiers coped stood in the summer heat in their heavy ceremonial garb.

Indulging in a peinirli at SMAK

After watching the Changing of the Guards ceremony, we wandered back through the Syntagma area towards Monastiraki stopping at SMAK cafe for a Peinirli or ‘pizza boat’ snack before heading back to our hotel for a few hours to rest our feet, cool down and freshen up.

Traditional entertainment at Greek night

That evening, we had booked a ‘Greek night’ – a dinner accompanied by traditional entertainment – in the Plaka district. Making our way back to Monastiraki, we wandered through the pretty, narrow streets of the Plaka and up a set of winding steps to the restaurant indicated on our dinner confirmation. Showing our confirmation to the host outside, there seemed to be some confusion after which we were eventually led up some stairs to a rooftop veranda where we were seated at a table with Acropolis views. It was not what we had expected – we had imagined the night to be some kind of group thing with everyone sat at group tables for the meal and entertainment – and when we were brought over our menus, we again showed our confirmation to check we were in the right place and to check what we could order.

Above, beginning our climb up Acropolis Hill, and below, visitng the site of the Acropolis

We were told what drinks we could have as included in our package and that we would be brought a selection of traditional starters then asked to order a main off the menu, both going with the pork souvlaki. The starters were all delicious but as our mains arrived, we could see into another part of the restaurant below where cheers and singing made us notice some kind of entertainment already going on.

Confused, we finished our mains before attracting the attention of a waiter and again questioning that we were in the right place for the package we had bought and specifically pointing out the ‘show’ part of our itinerary. After going to speak to someone, we were asked to move and lead back down the stairs and into the room where the dinner show we should have been in attendance at was in full swing! There was an empty table in the corner where we were told to sit but as we’d already eaten and food was just being served here and with everyone else at communal tables where they’d already had time to chat and get to know each other, we felt a bit out of it. We stayed for a while as traditional Greek songs were played and various dances including Zorba’s dance were performed with some audience participation (the one moment we were glad to be seated in the corner at the back out of the way!) and when we enquired about the dessert we had not yet had, we were bought a couple of baklava-style pastries on a plate but after a while, decided to leave feeling a bit like gate-crashers of a party we hadn’t been invited to!

Views from Acropolis Hill

An earlier night than planned did at least mean we were up bright and early again the next day and after another adequate hotel breakfast, we were up and out ready for a final day of sightseeing in the city. With it being early, we decided to head straight to the Acropolis thinking we might beat the crowds. We thought wrong as it turns out 9am is when most of the tour groups from the cruises come in and it was absolute mayhem!

A heavily scaffolded Temple of Olympian Zeus

Our archaeological sites combo ticket did at least mean we got to skip the lines and walk straight through the main entrance at the base of the hill and the walk up to the top wasn’t too crowded either but we soon reached the spot where the crowds entering at the ‘groups’ entrance merged with the rest of the visitors and the last few metres up to the Parthenon involved just being swept along in a throng of people while being barked at by the staff to ‘keep moving’ in a variety of languages.

Visiting the Panathenaic Stadium

The main site itself was at least large enough for the crowds to disperse across the space available so it was still easy enough to access the information boards available, get close to the ruins and take photos although there was a bit of a wait to find spaces at the viewpoints over the city below.

We then had to queue to exit the area and make our way back down the hill. It wasn’t quite what I expected and if I was to visit again I think I’d either aim for the very moment the site opens in the morning or at the very end of the day.

We still had a few archaeological sites to visit on our combo ticket so from the Acropolis we walked to the Olympieion or the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Unfortunately, the remains of the main temple here were under renovation and heavily scaffolded with just a few lone columns standing freely.

Visiting the Lyceum of Aristotles

Nearby was the Panathenaic Olympic Stadium, not included on our combo ticket but somewhere we had passed on our segway tour a few days earlier which looked interesting and worth a visit. The entrance fee to the stadium included an audio guide and rather than follow the instructions to look around the stadium as we listened, we instead found some shade to site in at the very back of the stadium and listened to the guide in one go enjoying the views over the impressive structure, site of an ancient Greek race course and host to the first modern Olympic games. The ticket also included entrance to a small on-site museum containing paraphernalia from the modern Olympics.

The Alice in Wonderland themed Little Kook cafe

The final site on our combo ticket was the Lyceum of Aristoles, a site which although it has a lot of historic significance, did not have much to see! After a quick stroll around, we caught the metro back to the Monastiraki district and from here took the short walk to the neighbourhood of Psiri, where we wanted to visit another place that had caught our eye on our segway tour of the city, Little Kook cafe.

Tucked away up a back street, this cafe spread out over multiple buildings is covered in Alice in Wonderland decorations with staff dressed as either the Mad Hatter or Alice herself. It was not the kind of place we expected to come across in the historic centre of Athens but it looked a fun place for a sweet treat. With ice cream, waffles, crepes, American-style pancakes and various delicious looking cakes on offer, it took a while to decide what to order but eventually, I went for a crepe with hazelnut spread and strawberries and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. What came when the order was served was that and so much more, marshmallows and colourful wafer pieces scattered over the creation.

Full of sugar, we waddled away from the cafe and back to Monastiraki. We had one more ‘must do’ sight on our list, a trip to the top of Mount Lycabettus, the summit of which is the highest point in the city. We had seen the hill from afar from various viewpoints around the city and now we wanted to see the city from here.

Above, the Mount Lycabettus funicular, and below, views from the top

Catching the metro to Evangelismos, the closest stop to Lycabettus, we then began our initial ascent uphill through a residential area of the city. We had no intention of hiking all the way to the top in the blistering heat but instead would be taking the funicular that ran at regular interval to the summit and back. Unfortunately, it was still quite a long, uphill walk to this point but we made it with plenty of rest stops along the way.

Once aboard the funicular railway, we were at the top in no time. It was relatively quiet at the summit and easy to find room to sit and admire the 360 degree views. Also at the top was a small church which we visited and a restaurant and bar for anyone that wanted to extend their stay.

Having taken all our photos of the city from above, we caught then funicular back down to the station and walked back downhill to the station, catching the metro back to our hotel for a well-deserved rest before heading back out for dinner in the Monastiriaki area.

The next day, although we would once again be staying in Athens, we would be taking an excursion out to the Saronic Islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina and the following day we had an early ferry out to our next stop, the island of Naxos so for now, our time in Athens had come to an end. Despite the often stifling heat, we had managed to cram a lot into our stay. I had really liked the city of Athens and would love to visit again some day.

A summer island-hopping adventure in Greece

My ‘big’ summer trip this year was supposed to be stateside to finally tick my final state of Hawaii off but it was something that needed to be planned and booked well in advance and when that point in time came, things were still very uncertain in the World as the pandemic continued to rumble on. Hawaii seemed a very big gamble when coming all the way from the UK – long haul flights, internal flights, car hire on multiple islands, hotels and condos all to book and while we could have gone through a specialist such as Trailfinders or Flight Centre to organise it all for us as a package giving us a bit more peace of mind should we have to cancel, we weren’t sure we’d get exactly what we wanted this way being so used to planning everything just how we liked it independently. It was a lot of money to lose should it all go wrong again.

Evening by Skiathos marina
Visiting Lalaria Beach on Skiathos

So we begrudgingly made the decision to put off the trip another year and swapped Hawaiian island-hopping for Greek island-hopping. We knew we wanted to get out of the UK this summer as much as we’d enjoyed our UK National Park trips of the last two summers and Europe felt less of a risk than the US, somewhere we could easily return from mid-trip if needed, somewhere we didn’t need to test to enter even at our point of booking quite early into the year.

Wanting to island hop meant we still couldn’t book as a package trip. With flying in and out of different islands, we’d even need to book our main flights as separate bookings as the (mainly) package holiday carriers that flew there didn’t allow for open jaw bookings but we decided to go for it and hope for the best.

Having never been to Greece before, it was hard to know where to start. Who knew there were so many islands to choose from?! My friend who had been many years ago suggested Santorini and with this being an island in the Cyclades, we decided to concentrate on this area. After some googling, we saw lots of suggestions of mixing Santorini with a less ‘touristy’, more traditional island. Milos, Paros, Naxos and a few other islands I’d never heard of before all came up as recommended in various searches and we eventually settled on the much-praised Naxos island.

Athens
Historic Athens

With those two islands only taking up a week of our 2-3 weeks available, my friends suggested looking into going to the ‘Mamma Mia’ island. She was a big fan of the film and wanted to visit some of the locations if we could. A bit more research lead us to find out this was filmed in Skopelos, one of the Sporades Islands and not really anywhere near the Cyclades! However, the neighbouring Sporades island of Skiathos was somewhere you could fly to directly from the UK and from here it was possible to do a ‘Mamma Mia’ boat trip to Skopelos. To get to the Cyclades from here, we’d have to fly via Athens and as neither of us had visited Greece’s capital city before, it seemed silly not to add a stop here into the mix!

Our trip was finally coming together – we’d fly to Skiathos for a few nights, fly to Athens and spend a few days there and then on to Naxos and Santorini by either plane or ferry – whichever worked out cheapest/least time-consuming.

Sunset on Naxos

With a few days still to fill, we looked at adding one more island. Wanting somewhere with plenty to do and some history behind it, I suggested the largest of the Greek islands, Crete. Being the most southerly of the Cyclades, it fitted perfectly into our into our itinerary as our last stop and with it being a popular package holiday destination from the UK, there was plenty of direct flights back to regional airports in the UK available, even one direct to Norwich, the closest airport to my friend!

Santorini

Researching what we wanted to do at each of our stops, we carefully worked out how much time we’d need at each destination settling on a 2 night stop in Skiathos (just enough time to use our full day there on the Mamma Mia tour), 4 nights in Athens, 3 in Naxos, 3 in Santorini and 4 nights in Crete – a 16 night stay in total. After booking our main flights, we debated internal flights over ferries deciding by the time we added in time to get to the airport, checking in, collecting luggage after landing etc etc, a 4 hour ferry ride would be just as quick as a flight. For the most part, the ferries were cheaper too especially as we didn’t have to pay to take our luggage on board and it seemed like a more authentic option if we were island-hopping!

So, other than Skiathos-Athens where a flight was really the only viable option, we opted for ferries between the islands.

Chania, Crete

Accommodation-wise, we tried to stick with budget options, mainly using guesthouses or, with Athens, hotels in less touristy and therefore cheaper areas. Other than that, free cancellation was our non-negotiable and where possible, we tried to get some kind of breakfast included. Santorini was the main challenge here with many places being either already booked up for the summer or super expensive meaning we had to go above our £100 per night budget despite staying a 15 minute walk out of Fira town centre but we did at least have a hotel with a pool for that and we managed to save elsewhere.

Goats in Crete

Flights, ferries and accommodation sorted, we moved on to activities. With it being the height of summer, we knew Greece would be busy and wanted to save time by pre-booking tickets to museums and archaeological sites allowing us to skip the lines. We both decided that driving Greece would not be something we’d be confident with, especially with the language barrier, so instead we booked some organised tours on the various islands so we could still see as much of them as possible making sure, like we had with our hotel choices, that everything was cancellable until the last minute just in case.

Spinalonga Island

In the run up to our trip, we began to wonder if we’d done the right thing booking such a short stay in Skiathos, mainly because of the airport disruption with airline delays and cancellations constantly in the news. Our flight already arrived relatively late into Skiathos, just after 7pm, and with just one full day there followed by a very early morning flight out to Athens the following day, any delays or worse, cancellations, would make our stay there pointless and possibly have a knock on effect on our transfer to Athens from there.

As it turned out, we were worrying over nothing. Flying out of the relatively small and quiet East Midlands Airport and with Jet2, possibly the least disrupted UK airlines this summer, was a good decision. Everything ran smoothly with our departure and before we knew it, we were arriving into Skiathos ready to begin our summer island-hopping adventure in Greece!

A day in Monaco…

… and an evening in Antibes

Having won a 5* trip to Cannes in the South of France, it wouldn’t be complete without a trip to one of the most luxurious and expensive places in the World – the Principality of Monaco. Sandwiched between the French resorts of Cap d’Ail and Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the French Riviera, Monaco is actually its own country.

View of Monaco

Leaving our Cannes’ hotel bright and early after another delicious breakfast, we walked to the station and caught a train along the same line as we had to reach the city of Nice the day before. This time we continued a few stops further on until we reached the sprawling Monaco station.

From here we followed signposts pointing in the direction of the Prince’s Palace, stopping along the way to gawp in the windows of the various airplane, super-yacht and mansion-selling stores along the street – prices all on request, of course, because if you need to ask, you probably can’t afford it!

The Prince’s Palace, Monaco

We soon reached a pretty and rather bustling square with a range of cafes where we crossed the busy road to the bottom of the hill leading up to the palace. As we made our way up the hill, we stopped to catch our breath and enjoy the picturesque views over Monaco’s waterfront, the built up city rising up into the hills behind it.

Crowds gathering for the Changing of the Guard

Along the way we passed the statue of the late Prince Rainier III, who famously married Hollywood star Grace Kelly before the path opened out into the courtyard. We arrived just in time to witness the changing of the guard, a daily ceremony held in the palace courtyard although with just 15 minutes to go til this began, it was difficult to find a place to stand from where we could get a clear view.

After watching the guards march and change places, the crowds started to disperse and we spent a bit of time in the courtyard from where there were more pretty views over the country. Leading off the courtyard were a series of narrow roads leading into Monaco-Ville, Monaco’s Old Town. The streets were lined with souvenir stores, cafes and restaurants – it was a shame we were still full from our breakfast as this would have been a perfect place to grab something to eat and drink, especially as the prices here seemed quite reasonable.

After weaving through some of the old streets, we followed signposts to Monaco Cathedral which stands across from the interesting building of the Palace of Justice. Although it was a Sunday, we arrived at a time when there were no services on so were able to have a look around the inside of the Cathedral.

The Palace of Justice and Monaco Cathedral either side of Rue d’Eglise
The Palace of Justice

The Cathedral faced out towards the sea so from here we crossed the road to the clifftop path and followed it in the direction of Monte Carlo, leaving the path to enter Jardins de Sant-Martin, a clifftop park with pretty views over the Mediterranean Sea, sculptures, ponds and fountains which lead out to the popular Monaco Museum of Oceanography.

Above, Monaco Cathedral, and below, wandering through Jardins de Sant-Martin

Unfortunately, we did not have time to pay the museum a visit and instead continued to follow the path back down to sea level and the Monaco marina.

Public toilets, Monaco-style!

With our visit being just a few weeks before the Monaco Grand Prix, preparations were already being made for that and the preceding E-Prix with many roads cordoned off to vehicles and bleachers already set up for fans to watch from.

This meant we were able to walk along part of the Grand Prix track as we made our way down to the marina area.

Above, and below, super yachts and views at the Monaco marina

The walk along the seafront was most notable for the abundance of super yachts docked in the marina. We thought the boats docked in Cannes looked expensive but they were tiny compared to some of the mansion-sized boats we saw docked here!!

Designer stores in Monte Carlo

From the marina, we found our way into the city of Monte Carlo where the streets were lined with designer stores.

After a bit of window-shopping, we found our way to the famous Casino of Monte Carlo, the setting of many a Hollywood film including a couple of James Bond films.

Outside the Casino of Monte Carlo

Unfortunately, we didn’t have our passports with us, a requirement of entry into the main casino, so instead we had to settle with a look round its grand foyer.

The infamous Fairmont Hairpin bend of the Monaco Grand Prix race track

With my friend’s husband being a big Formula 1 fan, he had requested photos of the infamous hairpin bend on the Monte Carlo racetrack. The bend was just a short walk from the casino and it was fun to watch cars carefully wind their way around the sharp turn.

Hungry by this point, we failed to find anything affordable restaurants in the area or any cafes at all so, not wanting to walk all the way back to the old town, we instead headed back to the station, grabbing some snacks from a store there to tide us over.

The city gates, part of the city ramparts

Instead of going straight back to Cannes, we decided to stop off at the town of Antibes, just a few stops before. From the train station, we wandered until we reached the Old Town where we found more narrow cafe and boutique store-lined streets opening out onto busy squares. Finding ourselves at Place Nationale, and hungrier by the minute, we decided to take a seat in the sunshine at one of the restaurants spilling into the square for drinks and pizza before walking down to the seafront.

While the restaurants here were squarely aimed at the tourists, there was a good atmosphere as everyone sat out enjoying their Sunday evening.

Dinner eaten, we continued our look around the Old Town stopping to browse in the stores and for ice cream along the way.

Walking along the city ramparts – view of Plage de la Gravette

Eventually, we found ourselves at the old city walls and walked through the city gate out towards the marina where more expensive (but slightly more modest than what Monaco had to offer) looking boats were docked. We followed a pathway along the front and up onto the city ramparts where we found ourselves overlooking the pretty beach Plage de la Gravette, still busy despite the sun starting to disappear.

Above, the Picasso Museum, and below, Antibes Cathedral

Continuing to walk along the city walls, we reached the former Chateau Grimaldi, which now houses the town’s Picasso Museum, and Antibes Cathedral.

As it was starting to get dark, we decided we should probably return to the station and make our way back to our Cannes’ hotel but we both wished we had had more time to spend in Antibes.

The next morning, due to another British Airways cancellation leaving us on an earlier flight than originally planned, we were up early for one last 5* hotel breakfast before being met by our private car driver returning us to Nice Airport. Here, our business class flights once again gave us access to the lounge before our flight was called for boarding and despite it not being long since breakfast, we certainly made the most of the buffet food on offer! It had certainly been an experience getting the 5-star experience on our trip and the attentive service, super-comfy beds, business class flights and delicious food was something I could definitely get used too.

A Liverpool City Break

Liverpool was one of those UK cities I’d been to multiple times but never really seen anymore than my hotel room and the concert arena due to always being short on time. Visiting again on a pre-Christmas concert break, I was determined that this time would be different. Despite having just the one night in the city, we had made plans to drive up early so we could have most of the day exploring the city.

Arriving too early to check in at our hotel near the docks, we dropped our bags off and walked straight into the city centre.

Road trip to Liverpool!

Our first stop was at Liverpool One, the city’s large outdoor mall for a spot of shopping. The mall has all the usual high street stores and a range of well-known restaurants on its top level. After working up an appetite shopping, that was exactly where we headed, settling on Zizzi Italian restaurant a pizza and pasta lunch.

Liverpool One shopping centre

After lunch we wandered further into the city towards the Cavern Quarter. Passing the city’s famous Hard Days Night Hotel (where I’d had an excellent afternoon tea on a previous visit to the city!), we found our way to Matthew Street, home of historic live music venue, The Cavern Club.

Turning into the street, we were met by themed bar after themed bar and with the Cavern Pub and Cavern Restaurant also bearing the famous bar’s name, it took us a while to work out which venue was the one we were looking for!

Inside the Cavern Club

Finally spotting the Cavern Bar’s entrance across the street, we paid our £5 entrance fee and began our walk down the staircase to the basement, stopping to view some of the pictures lining the walls showing some familiar (and in some cases unexpected) faces who had performed there over the years. The bar was a lot smaller than I’d expected it to be with low ceilings and stone walls. We spent a bit of time looking around finding a larger, more open room with a stage at the back of the venue and a smaller but busier room at the front.

The main stage at the Cavern Club

Memorabilia from the Beatles’ career as well as from other famous rock and pop acts covered the walls and a gift store sold a range of Beatles and Liverpool-themed souvenirs while Beatles’ hits were performed by live acts in each room.

After buying drinks from the bar, we found a free table in the smaller room. The structure of the room with its archways and stone pillars meant there wasn’t a clear view of the stage from many of the tables but video screens dotted around showed a view of the stage and it didn’t matter too much anyway as there was such a great atmosphere as everyone sang along to the Beatles’ and other popular 1960s’ hits.

Highlights of the afternoon included mass singalongs to Let It Be and Hey Jude and after the latter, the singer took a well-earned break. We decided that was our cue to leave having spent a lot longer there than we had planned to!

Above, and below, down by the docks and the Liverpool Tate

Before heading off to explore more of the city, we stopped to get photos with the sculpture of John Lennon outside the Cavern Pub and then went on a search for the Cilla Black sculpture. Unable to find it where google maps said it should be, we stopped to ask a local who informed us it had been temporarily removed for renovation. Guess we’ll have to return to see that one another time.

We’ll also have to return to visit the Beatles Museum. Spending longer than planned in the Cavern Club meant we didn’t have time for this, or any other, museum.

Albert Dock and the Wheel of Liverpool behind it

Retracing our steps back through the Cavern Quarter and through Liverpool One, we made our way towards Liverpool’s docks area. Passing Salthouse Dock, we walked along Hartley Quay, past the Maritime Museum and towards the Tate Liverpool where a giant colourful sculpture stood aloft outside.

It was now early evening and after stopping for windswept photos beside Albert Dock, we took a stroll around it passing the currently quiet cafes, bars and restaurants. With the winter sun already going down, the dock was lit up with lots of twinkly lights. We were hoping to end our day with a ride on the Wheel of Liverpool, the city’s equivalent of the London Eye but despite it being a Friday evening and the city filling up with weekend visitors, it was closed.

The view across the Mersey from Kings Dock

So instead, after enjoying the sunset views across the River Mersey, we returned to our nearby hotel to get ready for our concert over at the M & S Bank Arena at King’s Dock.

It had been a brief but fun trip to the city and it was nice to finally spend some time there being a tourist but there was so much more to see and do and I’m really looking forward to returning.

A family trip around the World – Los Angeles

I was on the last leg of a Round-the-World trip with my family. Having spent the last 2 weeks touring Australia, visiting Melbourne, Port Douglas and Sydney with my parents, brother and sister-in-law, we were now catching a very long flight to the USA where, with the time difference, we were all amused to be landing at LAX two hours before we had taken off in Sydney!

An evening stroll by the beach

Exhausted and jet-lagged, we could have done without the usual long queues at LAX. Once through passport control and customs, we caught a taxi to our Santa Monica motel where we’d be staying the next 4 nights. Trying hard to stay awake that afternoon, we took at walk down to the beach then along Third Street Promenade where we called into a sports bar to grab some food. Back by the beach, the pier now lit up, we struggled to keep our eyes open so decided to head back to our rooms to relax and have an early night.

The next day, feeling refreshed and a bit more awake, we walked to a local cafe to grab bagels for breakfast.

Passing a Beverly Hills shield on the hop on/off tour bus

With the new Santa Monica metro line yet to be opened at the time and LA’s transport system appearing a bit too complicated for my parents at least to manage, we decided to use the hop on/off bus to get us around the city. Buying a 48-hour ticket, we boarded the yellow route open air bus across the road from Santa Monica Pier and sat back to enjoy the commentary as we headed towards Beverly Hills.

In Beverly Hills!

Disembarking at the Rodeo Drive stop, we wandered across the road to Beverly Hills Park, taking pictures with the large Beverly Hills sign and buying lemonade to cool us down from a stand set up by some local girl scouts. We then took a stroll down Rodeo Drive itself, window shopping but not being brave enough to actually enter any of the designer stores lining the road.

After grabbing ice cream from a local parlour, we returned to the bus stop to await the red route bus which would take us to Hollywood.

Above, passing an art installation outside LACMA, and below, spending the day in Hollywood

As we neared Hollywood and the famous Hollywood sign came into view, my family were very excited but that excitement faded slightly when we jumped off the bus at the Pantages Theatre, at the slightly run down end of Hollywood Boulevard! Despite Hollywood Boulevard’s first impression not living up to the idea they had in their head, their enthusiasm soon returned as we walked towards the Hollywood Highland Centre and they soon got into the swing of things shouting out names of celebrities as they passed their Hollywood Stars!

Back in Santa Monica

Lunch was at Mel’s Drive In, a 50s style diner where everyone was impressed by the portion sizes and then it was back to sightseeing as we took the obligatory photos on the “Oscars’ steps” at the Dolby Theatre and compared the size of our hands and feet to Hollywood stars outside the Chinese Theatre. To get back to Santa Monica, we had to catch the red route bus back to Beverly Hills then transfer back to the yellow route bus to complete the journey.

It took almost 2 hours to get back with the rush hour traffic but at least we had the commentary to keep us amused along the way.

Back in Santa Monica, we spent the evening down on the pier. Still full from our late lunch, we grabbed fast food from the pier then shared a funnel cake drowned in chocolate sauce for dessert. We ended our day taking a ride on the ferris wheel.

With nothing really planned for our second day in LA, we decided to make the most of our still valid hop on/off bus tickets and head back to Hollywood.

Back on Hollywood Boulevard

When we reached Beverly Hills, my brother and sister-in-law decided to stick around a bit to explore more while my parents and I hopped straight on to the next Hollywood bound bus. Having to listen to the bus commentary again was a bit tedious but at least it was a hassle free way to get to Hollywood Boulevard. Once there, we hopped off at the Hollywood Highland centre grabbing a mid-morning cupcake snack from one of the stands there.

Eating a huge cupcake!

Our hop on/off bus tickets came with free tickets for Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and with temperatures soaring that day, we decided to take advantage of these purely to get out of the sun and into some aircon for a bit! While I’d never pay full price to go to Madame Tussauds, it did turn out to be a fun way to spend and hour as we posed with wax statues of various celebrities.

After grabbing a sandwich from a nearby cafe, we decided to do a Star Homes Tour. With so many companies offering these tours, it’s difficult to know which one to go with and as we started to look along the boulevard, we began to be approached by the various companies each trying to get us to book with them. Playing them off against each other we managed to haggle some money off a tour leaving soon.

While I’m sceptical of whether the houses pointed out along the way on this kind of tour actually do belong to the said celebrities, it’s a great way to see the Hollywood and Beverly Hills and some of the huge mansions.

Most of the tours also make a stop along Mullholland Drive at a Hollywood overlook too and this tour was no exception.

Back on Hollywood Boulevard

Back on Hollywood Boulevard, we grabbed ice cream and met up with my brother and sister-in-law who had now also made it into Hollywood. As we sat back on the open top bus heading back to Santa Monica, they filled us in on their adventures that day – walking from Rodeo Drive up into the Hollywood Hills to see some of the mansions and the hiking from Hollywood Boulevard up towards the Hollywood sign to get a closer view!

That evening we all went for a stroll along Third Street Promenade then for dinner at the California Pizza Kitchen, planning how to spend out final full day in LA and the last full day of our entire 3-week trip.

On Santa Monica beach

Deciding to stay local for the last day of our trip, we headed to the beach the next morning. We soon found we were ill-prepared for the scorching sun on a beach with little to no shade, the sand too hot to walk on, never mind sit on for long, even with a beach towel beneath us.

We took to the ocean to cool down having fun in the waves on a body board gifted to us from some departing holiday makers no longer in need of it but after lunch, decided we couldn’t take sitting in the sun anymore and made other plans for the afternoon.

Venice Beach

My brother, sister-in-law and I decided to hire bikes and take a leisurely cycle to Venice Beach and back while my parents decided to walk there, asking me how they’d know once they’d reached their. “Oh, you’ll know!” I replied. Having been to Venice Beach on a previous trip to LA, I knew the eclectic beach city couldn’t be more different from Santa Monica.

We enjoyed our bike ride along the cycle path, stopping drinks at a beach bar half way then for ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery in Venice before cycling back again. My brother and sister-in-law both liked Venice, comparing it to the London borough of Camden “but by the sea”, and analogy also used by my parents once they’d arrived back from their stroll.

For the first time all week, we were back in Santa Monica in time to watch the sun go down so after returning to our motel for a bit to cool down and freshen up, we walked to the pier to find a spot to watch the sun set over the Santa Monica hills.

That evening, we took one final stroll along Third Street Promenade, everyone more subdued than usual as we contemplated our amazing three-week adventure coming to an end. We enjoyed one final holiday meal out together at Barney’s Beanery before strolling back to our motel.

The next day, after a pancake breakfast at Denny’s, we just about had time for a final stroll along the pier before catching a taxi back to LAX ready to fly back to the UK.

It had been an epic trip, making memories we all knew we’d be talking about for many years to come.

A family trip around the World – Sydney

Upgraded to a penthouse apartment

I was half way through a 3-week trip around the World with my parents, my brother and sister-in-law. So far, we’d spent a few days exploring Melbourne and the surrounding area before heading to the sunshine of tropical Queensland for a relaxing stay in Port Douglas, just north of Cairns. Now we were on the final part of the Australia leg of our trip, a few nights in Sydney before we flew to the USA.

We flew from Cairns Airport into Sydney late-morning, arriving mid-afternoon and got a maxi-taxi to our apartment at World Tower, situated somewhere between Museum station and Darling Harbour.

A stroll to Darling Harbour

We were delighted to find upon checking in that we’d upgraded to a Penthouse apartment and when we walked in to find a spacious, modern, 3-bedroom apartment with beautiful views over the city.

That afternoon, we stayed in the local area visiting the Coles supermarket in the mall beneath our apartment block and taking a stroll to the nearby Darling Harbour that evening.

Stopping at a viewpoint on our tour – Sydney skyline in the distance

The next day, we had a tour booked to the beach cities of north Sydney. Our reason for booking this tour was that it’s main stop was at Palm Beach, the filming location for long-running Aussie soap, Home and Away. Both my parents and my brother were fans of the show and after looking into it, we decided taking a small group tour would be a hassle-free way of getting there rather than attempting pubic transport involving multiple buses.

Arriving at ‘Summer Bay’, the lighthouse in the distance

We were met by our tour guide outside our apartment block and boarded the minibus along with a few other passengers then set off driving across Sydney Harbour Bridge as we headed north out of the city. Along the way to Palm Beach, we made multiple stops, first at a view point from where we could see Sydney’s skyline in the distance then at a small cove which we were told was once used for filming in the soap then it was on to ‘Summer Bay’ itself.

Above, and below Palm Beach aka Summer Bay in Home and Away

As we arrived, it was clear from the various vans and RVs parked everywhere that filming was taking place that day, making my parents very excited. We were told that the cast were usually happy to take photos with fans between filming and given tips on the best place to go to see filming take place or meet the cast then we were given a time to meet back at the van to pick up our lunch and sent off to explore.

We headed straight for the beach, strolling along the golden sands before taking photos with Summer Bay Surf Club then walked along the path behind the beach spotting a few cast members setting up to film a short scene. After watching them film, we continued along the path, bumping into a couple of the other passengers from our tour who told us they had just met a few cast member and pointing us in the direction they had come from. Sure enough, just down the path was a winnebago with cast members stood in front of it happily meeting and greeting fans. My parents recognised the actors and managed to get photos with them, making their day!

It was then time to pick up lunch from the van – chicken, salad and bread – and we set out on picnic benches all discussing who we’d managed to see so far.

Manly Beach, the last stop on our tour

After lunch, we had some more free time so we wondered down to the beach on the east side of the penninsula where ‘Alf’s Bait Shop’ and the pier is situated. We’d been told that the bait shop sometimes opened as a souvenir store but unfortunately, it was closed today. After taking photos on the jetty, we walked back to the main beach were we found more filming going on, this time on the beach. We had a bit of time left so watched them film for a while before it was time to wave ‘Summer Bay’ goodbye and return to the minibus.

The final stop on our Northern Beaches tour was at Manly Beach. Manly is just a short ferry ride from Sydney Harbour and our tour included ferry tickets so we could spend as much time as we liked at Manly Beach then catch the ferry back to Sydney after.

Above, on the boat back to Sydney, and below, back at Circular Quay

After spending some time at the beach then walking down Manly Corso for some souvenir shopping and ice cream, we caught the ferry back arriving in Sydney Harbour just as the sun started to go down. This was my parents, brother and sister-in-laws’ first glimpse of Sydney Harbour and the Opera House so we spent a bit of time wandering around Circular Quay before walking through Sydney back to our apartment early evening.

The bridge at sunset, and below, enjoying a day at Bondi Beach

It had been a long day and my parents were tired and decided to stay in that evening so the three of us decided to take another walk to Darling Harbour and along to Star Casino before returning to our apartment.

Despite it being the Australian winter, the next day was warm (for us Brits at least!) and sunny so we decided to head to the coast and the most famous of Australia’s beaches, Bondi.

Catching a bus from our apartment to Bondi Beach, we spent the day relaxing on the relatively quiet long stretch of sand and playing in the waves to cool off.

That evening, we took a stroll to Circular Quay and The Rocks area by the Harbour Beach to see the bridge and Opera House all lit up.

Skyline views from the Botanic Gardens

On our final day in the city – and in Australia – we split up with my brother and sister-in-law going shopping and exploring by themselves while my parents and I caught the Sydney Hop On/Off Bus to do some last minute sightseeing.

At Mrs Macquaries Point, and below, exploring the Botanic Gardens

Hopping off at the Botanic Gardens, we walked past colourful flower displays overlooked by the towering city skyline and then along to the sea wall to Mrs Macquaries Point to get photos with both the Harbour Bridge and Opera House in shot. Then, we walked back along the sea wall towards the Opera House, dodging the many joggers that were out in their office lunch break!

Above, driving under the Harbour Bridge on our tour of Sydney, and below more sightseeing on the hop on/off bus

Hopping back on the bus, we completed our tour of the city before walking back from Circular Quay to our apartment just in time to watch the sunset over the city.

With it being our last night in Australia, we decided to eat out rather than cook so that evening we walked to a nearby Italian restaurant and sat reminiscing about our trip so far before taking another stroll down to Darling Harbour.

Taking my family with me on a trip to Australia, sharing some of my favourite places and discovering new things with them had been a lot of fun and we were all sad to be saying goodbye to this amazing country. But our adventures weren’t quite over yet, we had one more stop to make, this time in the city of Los Angeles in the USA!

A family trip around the World – Melbourne

Having unexpectedly come into a bit of money, I decided to use it to involve my family in some of my travel adventures, offering to put it towards flights for myself, my parents, my brother and sister-in-law to visit Australia.

On Melbourne’s South Bank looking across to Flinders Street Station

Having visited myself a few times already, I was eager to take them to some of my favourite places there but also wanted to include at least one city or area I hadn’t visited before. Sitting down with them, we managed to map out a 3 week itinerary starting with a stay in Melbourne where I could meet up with a friend that lives there and we could also see family, then flying up to Cairns from where we’d travel to Port Douglas – somewhere in tropical Queensland I’d not been before – for a few days and finally heading to Sydney. We decided to make it a round-the-World trip by adding in a stopover in Los Angeles on the way back.

The trip was to take place in the UK summer holidays meaning it would actually be winter in Australia. Melbourne was likely to be the coolest stop on our trip but even there, winter temperatures were akin to a good Spring or bad summer’s day in the UK so we weren’t too worried.

Excitedly, we all met at Heathrow airport ready to check in for our flights with Qantas. The first leg of our flight was a long 13 hours to Singapore and we passed the time watching the in-flight movie and making good use of the self-serve snack bar in between the in-flight food and drink services.

At the Docklands

Once at Singapore Changi Airport, we only had a couple of hours to spare before boarding our second flight so spent our time stretching our legs wandering around what is one of the largest airports in the World.

We finally arrived in Melbourne in the early hours of the morning and, after briefly losing our parents after they went the wrong way at security (my mother apparently being told off for fussing the security dogs!) we boarded a ‘maxi taxi’ to take us all and our luggage to the apartment we had booked in the CBD.

Despite arriving early morning, we had booked the previous night so we would be able to check in at 4am and sleep for a bit but we made sure to set our alarms for a reasonable hour so we didn’t waste the day.

Artwork at Melbourne’s Docklands area

Feeling groggy from the long flight and the jetlag, we managed to drag ourselves out of bed by noon and down to the nearby Coles supermarket to buy something for breakfast and other groceries for our stay. We’d decided staying in apartments rather than hotels for the majority of our trip would be the most cost-effective way of living for 3 weeks and we could take it in turns to cook and keep things simple meal-wise, occasionally eating out as a treat. Even when we got to LA, our Santa Monica motel had in-room fridges and microwaves should we need them.

Groceries bought and stored away, we ventured out again. We were staying not too far from Federation Square and Flinders Street station so took a walk down to the Yarra River, crossing it to Melbourne’s South Bank. From here, we jumped on to the free bus which took us out towards the Melbourne Cricket Ground and back to the South Bank then after a walk along the South Bank to the impressive Crown Casino, we caught the free city circle tram over to the up and coming Docklands area. Once there we did some early souvenir shopping at some of the outlet stores before catching the tram back to Federation Square.

It was a lazy evening in and early night once we were back to catch up on lost sleep and fully recover from the jetlag!

The next morning, we were up early to meet up with relatives who had flown down from New South Wales to see us. After a nice morning catching up, we headed our to meet our lunchtime pick up for our trip out to Phillip Island to see the little penguins.

Once on board our minibus, we were driven south towards Mornington Peninsula and made our first stop of the day at Moonlit Sanctuary. For my family, this was their first chance to see Australian wildlife up close and it was amazing to see their faces as they got up close feeding kangaroos, emus, wallabies and seeing a host of other native creatures.

After our flying visit to the wildlife park, it was back on board the minibus to continue our journey to Phillip Island. After a quick pit stop at the island’s Amazing World of Chocolate attraction to use the conveniences and visit the gift store, we drove out to The Nobbies where we strolled along the headland’s board walks enjoying pretty coastal views.

Then, as sunset approached, it was time to make our way to the beach for the main attraction – watching hundreds of little penguins make a dash from the sea, along the beach and up into the dunes! It’s an amazing experience watching the cute penguins escaping the waves and waddling along the sand, and again, having already visited Philip Island before myself, it was lovely to see my family enjoying themselves so much.

View at the Nobbies

Walking back to meet our minibus, we kept our eyes peeled and spotted a few of the penguins hiding in the dunes just off the boardwalk and stopped to silently watch them from a distance before making our way back to the car park ready to return to Melbourne.

Day 3, we headed into the CBD for breakfast at one of the local cafes before going our separate ways for a few hours.

Out and about in Melbourne’s CBD

I was meeting up with a friend who lives in one of the suburbs of Melbourne and was travelling into the city for the afternoon, meanwhile, I was sending my family off on the infamous ‘Neighbours’ tour which I had been on twice before.

My parents are huge fans of the show and while my brother and sister-in-law aren’t avid viewers, they’d both watched the show at some point in their lives and were keen to see ‘Ramsey Street’.

After a nice afternoon in the city shopping, catching up and eating lunch out, I waved goodbye to my friend and met back up with my family. They’d had a fantastic afternoon visiting the ‘Erinsburgh’ set then visiting ‘Ramsey Street’ and were keen to show off all their photos posing with the street sign.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking back to Melbourne’s South Bank and then into Victoria Park and the botanic gardens.

That evening, after dinner back at our apartment, we walked back to the South Bank, this time to take a trip up the Eureka Tower to its Skydeck observation platform, looking down at the city lit up below us.

The next morning, we decided to use a coupon we had found in a tourist booklet to have breakfast at the Pancake Parlour. With nothing specific planned for the day, my brother and sister-in-law decided to spend it exploring Melbourne CBD and shopping while my parents and I took the tram out to St Kilda, a beachside suburb. Once there, we enjoyed the sunshine as we strolled along the front, past Luna Park’s closed amusement park and down to the pier from where there were great views of Melbourne CBD in the distance. Lunchtime approaching, we then took a walk along cafe-lined Acland Street choosing somewhere to stop for coffee and a light bite to eat.

Above, and below, at the Shrine of Remembrance

Catching the tram back towards Melbourne city, we hopped off a few stops early at the southern end of the Botanic Gardens and visited the Shrine of Remembrance, the national war memorial of the state of Victoria. Then took a leisurely walk back to the city to meet back up with everyone for dinner.

We were up at the crack of dawn the next morning for our last full day in Melbourne. Not that we’d actually be spending it in Melbourne itself. Instead, we had booked a one-day tour of Great Ocean Road.

Above, a stop at Bells Beach along Great Ocean Road, and below, more stops along the way

I’d been along Great Ocean Road on a previous trip to Melbourne but that time my friend and I had done it completely using public transport. While we’d got to see the highlights, we found it a very long day and quite stressful at times making sure we were back at bus stops in time to catch our ride to the next point and make it to our finish point in time to catch the train we had booked back again!

This trip proved to be a very long day too but I found it a lot more enjoyable with lots of little stops along the way both on Great Ocean Road itself and at interesting places just off the road. It was also nice to have a commentary from our driver and to learn something as we went along.

Our first stop along the way was at Bells Beach where we had time to enjoy beautiful views over the bay from an overlook. It was then on to see Split Point Lighthouse, famously featured in cult Australian kids show ‘Round the Twist’.

Other stops along the way included one at a Great Ocean Road marker, at various beach and seaside resorts, a walk through a rainforest and a lunch stop at Cape Otway where we climbed the lighthouse and spotted plenty of wild koalas sat high up in the eucalyptus trees lining the roads.

Then it was on to the main event – The Twelve Apostles rock formations.

Above, spotting a koala in the tree, and below, at the Twelve Apostles

Unfortunately, the mainly sunny weather we’d had in the morning had given way to wind and rain at this point but it just made the scenery look more dramatic.

Whereas we’d gone on to see ‘London Bridge’ and the Bay of Islands rock formations on my do-it-yourself Great Ocean Road trip on my last visit, this time, the next stop at Loch Ard Gorge was our last stop before we returned towards Melbourne, not arriving back until almost 10pm.

Despite the long hours sat on the minibus on the way back, it had been a really enjoyable day and we were all glad we got to take the trip.

Melbourne had made for a great place to have a few family adventures and we were now looking forward to heading north to tropical Queensland for what we hoped we be a relaxing few days in the warm sunshine!

Milan

One of the last trips I took last year before everything shut down and freedom to travel became a thing of the past, was a short city break to the Italian city of Milan. It was right on the cusp of Corona Virus getting a grip and at the time, all those things that we’ve now grown accustomed to – arriving to temperature checks and seeing many members of the public masking up on public transport etc – seemed a bit of a novelty. Milan and its neighbouring areas later became a hotspot for the virus in Italy and a week later I found myself to be the subject of a debate at work as to whether, having recently visited the area, I needed to be sent home or not! I wasn’t, if you’re wondering, but had I been sent home, it would have been worth it for what was a great short break away.

That was my third trip to Milan but only the second of which was planned in advance having once found myself stuck there for a day unable to get a train out of the city to Florence, and while it has never been my favourite Italian city to visit, it still has plenty to offer for a short break.

Closed designer stores – August in Milan

Picking when to visit Milan can have a huge effect on impressions of the city. Being a teacher, my first visit was in August during the main summer break and as part of a longer, city-hopping trip to Italy. What we didn’t realise was that in August, with the heat in the city, many of the businesses there close down as everyone takes off to the nearby Italian lakes. We had trouble finding any restaurants open other than the touristy ones in the centre and many of the designer stores had ‘closed until September’ signs in their windows. The whole city felt like a bit of a ghost town!

Walking towards Sforza Castle in Milan

On that first trip to Milan, I stayed at a small hotel on the edge of the Zona Buenos Aires area. From here, we were able to walk to all the main sites and, choosing to use the hop on/off tour bus as well, found we didn’t need to use the public transport system at all.

On my most recent visit, as we were visiting the city for a concert, we stayed further out of the city towards the arena in the Morivione district. As Milan has an excellent and easy to navigate metro system, this didn’t hinder our sightseeing at all as trains into the city centre were regular and quick.

The impressive Milan Duomo

The main must-see attraction in Milan, and in my opinion, worth the trip alone, is the stunning Duomo di Milano or Milan Cathedral. No matter how often I see this impressive building, the elaborate facade with its intricate carvings never fails to take my breath away. Entrance to the cathedral is by ticket only and these can be purchased online or on the day from the nearby, well-signposted ticket office.

If you have plenty of time, then buy a combo ticket allowing you entry into the church, archaeological area, museum and rooftops.

On a clear day, the views over Milan from the rooftops are pretty good and it’s interesting to be able to get a bit closer to the gargoyles and other carvings decorating the cathedral’s exterior. My visit to the rooftop last February, on a surprisingly warm and sunny day, was punctuated by hearing sharp blows on the guards’ whistles as they reminded visitors to be respectful and not treat it as a rooftop terrace to sunbathe on!

I followed my visit with a trip to the nearby Duomo Museum which houses various artefacts and original works of art from the Cathedral.

Piazza del Duomo

The busy Piazza del Duomo in front of the Cathedral is a bit of a tourist attraction in itself with crowds fighting for the best spot to get a photo of the Cathedral and paying locals for bird seed to feed the square’s famously friendly pigeons. Its also home to various touristy bars and restaurants which, while not as expensive as I was expecting, unsurprisingly don’t offer the best food you are going to find in the city. Around the square, you’ll also find a few high street stores.

Above, and below, a visit to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

If it’s designer shopping you want then Milan is definitely the place to go. The elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, said to be one of the World’s oldest shopping malls, is full of designer fashion boutiques and, even if the prices are out of your budget, its fun to window shop. The mall is home to a range of bars and restaurants too and we enjoyed a delicious pizza lunch at Sorbillo restaurant followed by gelato from Venchi!

Milan is also home to the famous opera theatre, La Scala. If you want to see a performance here, it’s best to book in advance. Guided tours of building can also be taken.

La Scala Opera House

While not the most obvious place to visit in Italy if it’s museums you’re after, Milan still has plenty to offer with many small galleries and exhibits to visit. The most famous work of art found in the city is Da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper. Tickets are needed to view the painting and often sell out well in advance. On all my visits, I’ve left it too late to book and have yet to get a ticket to visit.

Above, and below, exploring Sforza Castle

The Sforza Castle complex is home to a variety of museums all housed inside the 15th century building. It is free to visit the castle complex itself but there is a small fee for a ticket to visit the museums, the price of which depends on which rooms and exhibits you want to explore.

One of the museums is the Museum of Pietà Rondanini Michelangelo displaying Michelangelo’s last piece of work, the Rondanini Pietà, an unfinished marble sculpture.

Arco della Pace at the entrance to Parco Sempione

Parco Sempione, with its impressive archway entrance, lies directly to the rear of Sforza Castle and is also worth a wander through if you are in the area. Other pretty parks in the city include Giardini Indro Montanelli, Milan’s pretty public gardens.

On my last visit to the city, we found ourselves in the Navigli district, an area of the city we had not visited before.

Above, and below, contrasting daylight/nighttime visits to the Navigli area

The Navigli are a system of canals. Currently, bars and restaurants line the walkways along the edge of the canals. We first visited in the evening. The area was lively but with a great atmosphere as people sat out enjoying drinks and aperitivo. After wandering round for while and stopping for a few drinks, we chose one of the many restaurants to eat at.

We returned to the Navigli district the following morning to find it just as busy with people shopping and sat out at the cafes enjoying the sunshine. It was definitely a fun place of the city to visit!

There’s still plenty of things for me to do and see in Milan and I look forward to the next time I find myself in this exciting city.

24 hours in Boston

Ending our 5-week road trip with a day in Boston, MA

After 5 weeks on the road, it was time to say goodbye to our trusty hire car. Pulling up at the Alamo terminus at Boston Logan International Airport, we scrambled to get everything we needed from the various compartments of our vehicle before making our way to catch the free shuttle from the car rental centre to the main terminals.

Swan Boats docked for the evening in Boston Public Gardens

Then we hopped on to the Silver Line bus to shuttle us into the city. With it being early evening, traffic into the city was heavy but we eventually made it to Boston’s South Station, transferring here onto the Red Line to reach our Back Bay area hotel.

All checked in and not wanting to completely waste the evening, we went for a walk finding ourselves in the Boston Common-adjacent Boston Public Gardens.

George Washington statue in Boston Public Gardens

The sun was starting to set and the sky was a beautiful red colour as we wandered through the grounds past the Swan Boats all docked for the evening and then out of the park past the George Washington statue. We then walked along Newbury Street down to Copley Place stopping to grab a drink and a snack before looping back round to our hotel.

Leaving Boston Harbour

The next day, we had a late night flight out of the city back to the UK meaning we had the full day to enjoy in the city. Having both been to Boston before – this was my third stay in the city – we’d seen a lot of the main sights before. So, wanting to do something a bit different, we had pre-booked a whale watching trip with Boston Harbor Cruises.

The Boston skyline disappearing in the distance

Getting up and out early, we made a pit stop at a Starbucks for breakfast then walked through the city past Boston Common following the Freedom Trail markers down to Boston Harbour. Arriving at the harbour area a little are than needed, we took a stroll along the waterfront until it was time to check in for our tour and board our boat.

It was a large boat and we took a seat inside by the window, staying put for the first few minutes as we left the harbour, a commentary from one of the crew members explaining to us all how the morning would run and a little about what we could see looking back at the Boston skyline.

We soon decided to make the most of the beautiful weather and head up to the open deck where we could move about more freely and enjoy the skyline views unobstructed.

Everyone trying to get a glimpse of our first whale.

As we moved further and further away from the city, our guide continued to give us information on our surroundings and we when far enough out to sea, we eventually slowed to begin our search for whales. Even without the excitement of spotting some marine life, it was the perfect weather for just cruising out at sea watching the World go by. But as it turned out, we didn’t have long to wait before our first whale spotting.

A whale in the distance

Suddenly everyone onboard seemed to be out on the top deck as we all tried to find a space to get a look at our first whale of the day! Luckily, it was the first of many sightings and we even came across a pod of whales floating at the surface as they enjoyed the sunshine before seemingly showing off to us waving their fins and splashing around!

After spending some time watching these magnificent creatures, it was time to turn around and make our way back to Boston harbour. It had been a really exciting way to spend the morning though and we were really glad we’d decided to book the activity.

With a few more hours to spare, we walked to Boston’s Hard Rock Cafe for a late lunch then followed the Freedom Trail markers back towards Boston Common stopping to look around in Quincy Market and passing Boston landmarks including Faneuil Hall and the Old State House.

Arriving back into Boston Harbour

Finally finding ourselves back at Boston Common, we enjoyed the last bit of sunshine before walking back to our hotel to collect our luggage and making our way back to Logan Airport ready to fly back to the UK.

It didn’t feel like 5 weeks had gone since we arrived in Miami.

The Old State House

Since then we’d certainly had a lot of adventures – my first ever trip to Walt Disney World, exploring Savannah, visiting Charleston and Congaree National Park in South Carolina state, learning about the history of Coca Cola in Atlanta, line dancing the night away in Nashville, encountering black bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, enjoying the beautiful views along Blue Ridge Parkway, segwaying in Washington DC, visiting Baltimore city, returning to New York, enjoying a sunset sail in Rhode Island, becoming a Junior Range at Acadia National Park in Maine, visiting New Hampshire’s White Mountains and learning all about ice cream production at the Ben & Jerry’s Factory Tour in Vermont to name just a few.

While I was sad to say goodbye for now, with a few more States still to tick off and plenty more to see, I knew it wouldn’t be long until I returned for another epic trip.