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.

Snowdonia National Park

Following on from visits to Brecon Beacons National Park and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, we travelled north to the third and final Welsh National Park of our summer road trip, Snowdonia. Like the Pembrokeshire park, this was a park I was somewhat familiar with having vacationed near Barmouth at the southern end of the park a few times with my family and dog in the past! I had not ventured any further than the beaches close by to here though in all the times I had visited so was looking forward to explore the park more.

After a pleasant drive following the coast road from the northern end of Pembrokeshire up and through Aberystwyth and other Welsh seaside towns, we crossed into Snowdonia National Park early afternoon, driving through a mountain pass and up through a very busy Barmouth.

Visiting the town of Harlech

Continuing on, we stopped in the town of Harlech, famous for its castle. We were here to see another sight which had put this town on the map though – the World’s Steepest Street. Or at least, at this point in time, the World’s former Steepest Street as the accolade had recently been given back to the city of Dunedin in New Zealand.

A sign still stood proudly at the top of Ffordd Pen Llech, as if the challenge from the New Zealand street had never happened and tourists were queuing up to take photos with it. Few of them though, were taking on the challenge of walking down the street and, of course, back up again.

Harlech Castle

Bravely, or stupidly, though, this is exactly what we did. The initial gradient of the street was deceivingly a comfortable decline but as the road turned around a corner, we began to feel it on our knees and knew the climb back up was not going to be a breeze after all. Making it to the end of the street, we turned around and began our walk back up. Reaching the steepest section, we were glad of a breather as we stood to the side to let a brave driver slowly weave down past us, then it was onwards and upwards, still out of breath from the climb. Making it to the top, we were proud of our achievement but worried for our chances of reaching the top of Mount Snowdon if we’d found even this a challenge!!

Back at the top of Ffordd Pen Llech and in the centre of Harlech town, we took photos of the castle ruins before rewarding ourselves with an ice cream at the busy parlour across the road. Then we drove to our guesthouse accommodation, in a farmhouse not far from Portmaddog.

On the mountain train to Snowden

The following morning we were up early for breakfast before driving the short distance to the town of Llanberis, home of Mount Snowdon. Unsure about what the weather would be like – not to mention our levels of fitness! – we had prebooked seats on the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Usually, the train runs to and from the summit of Mount Snowdon but with Covid regulations in force, its final stop was currently three quarters of the way up the mountain at Clogwyn. We had bought a return journey ticket but, as long as the weather conditions were ok, planned to walk to the summit from this point and then the whole way down Snowdon.

With the weather at the base of Snowdon blue skies with the odd cloud, we were hopeful we would be able to hike to the summit. Arriving at Clogwyn though, we were met mainly by thick cloud. Still, it was dry and there were no forecasts of storms so after explaining to the train driver that we’d be walking rather than using our return train ticket, we set off following the other hikers up the Llanberis Path.

The Llanberis Path is the easiest, but longest way to the summit of Snowdon. Just before the summit, it meets with the rest of the paths with everyone following the same final stretch. Before embarking on our hike, we were warned by the train driver to pay careful attention at the point the paths met so we knew exactly which trail to follow back down the mountain and didn’t end up on a more treacherous or difficult path. We were told that alternatively, we could just follow the rail track down from the summit back to Clogwyn as this wasn’t currently being used by the trains.

Above, at the summit of Mount Snowden, and below, views descending the mountain

Even just walking the last quarter of the Llanberis path to the summit was not easy. The path was often steep and loose rocks and shale made it trickier to navigate. I’d bought walking poles with me especially for this hike and was glad I had them to support me. The cloud thickened the further we went and we soon found ourselves dripping wet from walking through it despite it not actually raining.

As we neared the summit, there was a queue of people waiting to have their photos taken with the Cairn at the highest point while others decided to push their way straight to the top, climbing up the rocks rather than waiting in the line. It took us about 20 minutes to reach the top. There was no view but we took photos with the cairn as proof we’d made it. Unfortunately, we didn’t feel we got to savour the moment as we felt under pressure to get our photos and get out of the way to make room for the next group in the queue, some of whom were already climbing up next to us.

Carefully making our way down from the summit back to the path, we decided to take the train driver’s advice and follow the train tracks back down to Clogwyn rather than the much steeper path. Many other hikers had decided to do the same so we were able to just follow other groups of hikers. Back at Clogwyn, we found somewhere to sit for lunch before following the path all the way back to Llanberis town.

As we made our way down the mountain, the cloud started to clear again revealing pretty views of glacial lakes. For the most part, the descent was easier than our climb up the final quarter of the path to the summit although the final section into the town was so steep we wondered how we would ever have succeeded walking the whole way up – we’d have been exhausted just a fraction of the way in to our climb!!

We were relieved to make it back into town and after a quick look around the gift shop for a souvenir or two, we walked back to our car (wishing that we’d parked a bit closer than we had!) and drove back to our hotel via a stop in Caenarfon for dinner.

The Italian Riviera-style village of Portmieion

We awoke the next day to aching legs but made it up and out in time to make our reserved ticket slot to visit Portmeirion village. This was one of those places I had passed many times on visits to North Wales and often had my parents tell me how pretty it was and that I should visit so I was excited to finally make it there.

Despite being in Wales, Portmeirion was built in the style of a village in the Italian Riviera. An entrance fee has to be paid to gain access unless you are staying in one of the on site hotels or have a meal or afternoon tea booked at one of the restaurants there. As part of its Covid restrictions, advance bookings were recommended which meant we were left to hope it would be nice weather on the day we had picked. Unfortunately, we arrived to dark clouds which soon became heavy rain.

Following a path through the woodlands in Portmeirion

As we’d arrived early, we were able to stroll around and explore the village before it got too busy. It didn’t take long to look around and if the weather had been better, it would have been nice to take our time a bit more and stop to have tea and cake at one of the cafes there. With its Italian-based design though, a lot of the cafes and restaurants in the village had mainly outdoor seating and with the heavy rain, the parasols and small marquees erected to cover these areas were not able to keep them very dry.

Looking down at the coast from a Portmeirion viewpoint

Instead, we walked along the village’s coast path, enjoying the views over the estuary then followed the path up and into the woodlands. After seeing the Japanese Garden, Dog Cemetery and Dancing Tree, we decided to call our visit day and move on.

Taking a riverside walk

Having expected our visit to Portmeirion to take up most of the day but finding it wasn’t even midday yet, we were at a bit of a loss for what to do with our afternoon. After consulting the map, we decided to drive to the village of Beddgelert where the National Park Visitors Centre was to try and get some ideas.

Parking up in the village, we walked to the Visitors Centre to find it closed for lunch! The town looked pretty though so we decided to grab an ice cream and take a walk down by the river.

A map by the river showed a variety of circular walks of different lengths that could be taken in the area. We decided to do a loop down one side of the river, across a bridge and back up the other side however, upon reaching the bridge, we didn’t feel we’d gone very far at all so instead decided to continue along the riverside path a bit further.

As we continued, the flat, wide path narrowed and became stonier until at points we found ourselves having to scramble up rocks and edge our way along narrow riverside ledges to continue along it.

Back in Beddgelert

Unsure where we were actually heading, we got talking to some other people who were following the path who told us it eventually came out at a National Trust car park with toilets at which point you could either retrace your steps back to Bedgelert or pick up another longer trail.

It was certainly an adventure getting there and we’d enjoyed the river walk with its waterfalls along the way. Eventually arriving at the car park, we decided to turn back and follow the path back to Beddgelert. Arriving back, we found the Visitor Centre now open so after a quick look around and more souvenir buying, we drove back up to Bangor where we’d be checking into the last hotel of our trip.

Above, and below, a river walk in Betws-y-Coed

The following day we drove back into the National Park to Conwy Falls Park, just outside of the popular town of Betws-y-Coed. After parking up, we grabbed breakfast (and some change) from the cafe overlooking the carpark before paying the small admission fee to go through the turnstile gate into the park.

Here, we followed the one-way path down to a viewpoint of Conwy Falls before trekking back up to the car park and driving into Betws-y-Coed itself.

Sapper Suspension Bridge crossing the River Conwy

Parking by the river, we took a stroll through the riverside path and up into the woods following a well-marked circular path before sitting on one of the many picnic benches in the wood to eat lunch.

The River Conwy

Then we followed signposts through the town towards Sapper Suspension Bridge, a bridge built across the Conwy River in the 1930s. After tentatively bouncing our way across and back again, we explored the town a bit more stopping to grab some delicious cakes from a local bakery.

With the sun shining, we decided to leave the National Park for the afternoon and drive up to the coast. We arrived in Llandudno early afternoon and enjoyed a leisurely hour or so strolling along the promenade and along the pier before eating fish and chips overlooking the sea.

That evening, after an early dinner, we drove the short distance to Penrhyn Quarry, site of one of Wales’ multiple Zip World attractions and home of Velocity 2 – the fastest (and formerly longest) zipline in the World.

Arriving at Penrhyn Quarry

This was something we’d wanted to experience for a while and had been disappointed to find it sold out for the entirety of our North Wales stay when we went to book. Luckily, after regularly checking the website, we eventually managed to get some cancellation tickets a few days before.

Looking down on Penrhyn Quarry

After checking in, all the riders in our times lot were decked out in safety gear – overalls, harnesses and a helmet – ready to fly; and after a safety talk and instructions on how to ride (arms lodged behind our back), we were taken to a practise zip which was pretty exciting in itself and a lot of fun. Then we clambered aboard a 4-wheel drive van and were driven along the long, winding road to the top of quarry.

It was a sunny, blue-skied evening and the views from the top over the quarry and across Snowdonia were so beautiful that we deliberately hung back in the queue for our go on the zipline so that we could spend more time admiring them.

Celebrating!

When it was our turn, I was more excited than nervous as we were clipped into place. Then, following a countdown in Welsh, we were released to fly down, head-first, over the quarry. It was an exhilarating experience, it definitely felt as fast as it was and the ride was long enough that I felt I did have time to take it all in.

This was the most expensive experience on our trip but absolutely worth it and it was something I’d love to do again someday!

The next day, the penultimate day of our trip, we took a day off from Snowdonia National Park and instead, headed across the Menai Strait to spend the day on the Isle of Anglesey (post coming soon).

The impressive Conwy Castle

The following day, it was time to wave goodbye to Wales for a while but not before a couple of more stops. First up, a stop just outside the National Park – the town of Conwy where we admired its well-preserved castle and passed by Britain’s Smallest House.

Bala Lake

Then, as we headed back to England and the Midlands, it was time for our last stop in Snowdonia National Park, Bala Lake. Parking up in Bala town, we followed signposts out of the car park along a country lane and along a public footpath down to the lake.

Kayakers on Bala Lake

Enjoying the pretty views across the large expanse of water, we followed the lakeside path down to the busy watersports centre where families sat picnicking on the lakeshore, children splashed in the shallows and kayakers paddled out into the distance.

Then we walked back into town and began our drive back to England along the Milltir Cerrig, a mountain pass road with amazing views.

It had been a fun few weeks seeing a bit more of Wales and its stunning National Parks and I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned.

Revisiting Pembrokeshire Coast National Park – Part 1

Having been holidaying in Tenby, a popular seaside resort in the south end of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park since I was a child, I know that area of the park at least pretty well so when we decided to include this park in South West Wales in our Welsh National Parks Road Trip itinerary, I knew I wanted to make sure we included some places and activities there I’d either not done before, or hadn’t done since I was much younger while still revisiting what I consider to be some of the park’s highlights for my friend who had not been before to see.

Views walking along the sea wall from Wisemans Bridge to Saundersfoot

With this in mind, we planned a 5 night stay in the area. With many of the hotels in the park itself sold out or way too pricey by the time we got around to booking and many holiday parks only offering the standard Sat-Sat, Mon-Fri or Fri-Sun stays which didn’t suit our itinerary, we eventually decided on a roadside motel in the small village of Llandissilo, a few miles north of market town Narberth and, while quite a way outside of the park, a pretty central location to reach all parts of the park from with pretty much everywhere being within a 20-40 minute drive!

Arriving early on a Saturday afternoon wasn’t what we had planned – we’d expected to spend most of the day still in the Brecon Beacons but the weather had had other ideas – so we made a hasty decision to stop off at Wisemans Bridge at the southern end of the park and the closest point of the park to our motel. When we had to queue along the a-road out of Carmarthen into the park, I should have realised how busy everywhere would be on a Saturday afternoon and we arrived to find all the spaces in the free car parks at Wisemans Bridge completely full. Continuing on, we came to the car park for Coppets Hall, a small bay lying between Wiseman’s Bridge and the popular seaside town of Saundersfoot. Although busy, the car park had an attendant who directed us to park along a grass verge despite there not being an actual marked space there. It didn’t cost much for a couple of hours parking so all paid up, we picked up the coast path and headed through the old railway tunnels and on to the sea wall path back towards Wisemans Bridge.

Rocky coastline at Wisemans Bridge

The Wiseman’s Bridge to Saundersfoot walk is one of the easiest walks along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path being along flat and wide paved footpaths so it didn’t take long to reach the pebbly beach at the other end. We spent a bit of time wondering along the beach looking in the rockpools revealed at low tide before retracing our footsteps back to Coppets Hall and walked in the opposite direction to the bustling town of Saundersfoot where we treated ourselves to an ice cream and wandered around the harbour.

After returning to Coppets Hall, we drove to our motel to check in deciding to have dinner in the restaurant on site realising it was unlikely we’d find anywhere with space for us to eat out at that evening!

For our first full day in the park, we had booked tickets to visit Skomer Island. Worried about things getting booked out, we had done this quite a bit in advance which meant we couldn’t check the weather first.

Walking along the coast path near Martin’s Haven

Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side that day. Arriving in Martin’s Haven to check in for our boat trip an hour before it left, we were met by high winds and heavy rain. After checking in and looking around the small gift store,we found the rain had eased a bit so I decided to go for a walk along the coast path while we waited for our boarding time. The views were stunning as I watched the waves crash up against the rocks.

Once it was time to board, we walked down to the small bay and onto the awaiting boat. Just as we set off, the rain started to pour once again making for a rather uncomfortable crossing only cheered up by a seagull deciding to hitch a lift on the corner of the boat to save him the flight across!

Arriving at Skomer, we climbed a set of steps up to a ranger station where we were met by an island ranger who explained a bit about the island, what we might see and the rules for our visit.

Above, and below, exploring Skomer Island

Because of Covid restrictions, the paths around the outskirts of the island had been made one-way in an anti-clockwise direction from the visitor centre and picnic area at the centre of the island. We had 4 hours until we needed to be back at the ranger station and were told that that should be more than enough time to walk the perimeter and be back with time to spare.

As we set off along the path to the centre of the island, the rain finally stopped and we made it about half way around the perimeter path before it started up again. The path around the island lead to many beautiful viewpoints from the cliff tops but wildlife wise, being slightly too late for ‘puffin season’, we instead had to make do with spotting a seal frolicking in the waves crashing against the rocks below.

The pouring rain and strong winds made the last section of our walk slightly more uncomfortable than we’d have liked and with not stopping as long as we otherwise would have to enjoy the views and speeding up our pace a bit to get out of the rain, we ended up back at the centre of the island quite a bit sooner than we had expected to.

The rain sets in again as we walk the coast path on Skomer Island

Luckily, we managed to find an empty bench in the covered picnic area so spent the last hour on the island having a leisurely picnic lunch and looking around the small visitor’s centre before making our way back to catch our boat back to the mainland. Just as we were about to depart, we spotted another seal playing in the surf then scrambling up onto the rocks just off the island.

The rain had stopped again making for a much drier and more pleasant boat trip back to the mainland. Arriving back late afternoon, we drove back to our motel and change into some drier clothes before going for dinner there.

Above, and below, taking Reggie the Alpaca for a walk

The next day, we were pleased to wake up to a much drier day and a forecast of some sunny spells! We had booked an alpaca trek for that morning and tickets to Heatherton World of Adventures for that afternoon so after breakfast, drove out to a farm near Manorbier to meet our furry friends for the morning. Having never walked an alpaca before, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect but it turned out to be a really fun activity even if we were technically just walking around a field.

My alpaca, Reggie, was pretty obliging, trotting alongside me and posing for photos when we reached the halfway point in return for a few handfuls of food.

After returning Reggie to his pen and saying our goodbyes, we drove on to Heatherton, an activity centre just outside of Tenby. This was a place I’d always go on a cloudy day with my family when I was younger. Back then, it was a much smaller affair and billed as a ‘country sports’ and golfing centre. We’d spend our morning on the pitch ‘n’ putt course and our afternoons trying out archery, pistol shooting, laser clay pigeon shooting, croquet, boules, and, of course, take a few trips round on the bumper boats. Now the park has extended to occupy a site across the road from when the original activities are still housed and the list of activities on offer has more than doubled to include baseball, ropes courses, slides, a hedge maze and many many more. I mainly just wanted to revisit all my old favourites for nostalgic reasons so we bought an 8-credit pass which we calculated to be enough to spend on all these with a couple left over for anything else that took our fancy.

Upon arriving, we couldn’t quite believe how busy the centre was, especially as passes had to be pre-booked due to ongoing Covid restrictions and were supposedly limited each day. We struggled to even find a parking space in the overflow but once we had, went to pick up our passes from the main reception. Seeing that there were long queues for everything, we went with the one that currently seemed to be the shortest/moving the quickest and that was the bumper boats. Within 10 minutes we were sat in the boats – which didn’t seem to have been updated at all in the slightest since my original visits in the late ’90s – racing (well, more like crawling) around the small course trying to bump into the other boats. Great fun!

Having forgot to take our lunch with us that day, we grabbed sandwiches from the on-site cafe before our next activity. We went with pistol shooting next. Although we were the next group to take part when we joined the queue, there was a loong, tedious wait as the group before us had their safety talk then slowly worked their way through their 20 pellets but once it was our turn, it was a fun activity to try out and when I collected my target after our session finished, I hadn’t done too badly!

It was another long queue next, this time to try out laser clay pigeon shooting. This was always my favourite when I was younger as I was always pretty good at it but not today, as I failed to hit all but 2 clays as they flew through the air! At this point, having only averaged one activity an hour since our arrival and with still over half of our credit to use up, we were slightly worried we wouldn’t get through everything but as we headed across the road to try out the park’s new Dragon Slide – where you sit in a giant rubber ring, a bit like a water park slide but without the water! – we found a much shorter queue time and were on and off in 5 minutes. The slide was so much fun that we decided to use another credit up to ride it again!

Crossing back under the tunnel to the other side of the road again, we found the crowds had started to empty out a bit. We had 3 credits each left to use, 2 of which we knew we wanted to spend on the still extremely busy Adventure Golf, the other, we originally planned to use on archery but seeing there was still quite a queue for this and no queue at all for the bumper boats next to it, we decided to jump on these again instead!

Having left Adventure Golf to the last hoping the crowds would clear, we decided it was now or never and went to get our clubs and golf balls and were warned that we’d have to queue to play each hole. As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad with just one group in front of us to wait for each time. Seeing how busy the park had been put us off booking to go to Oakwood, a nearby theme park, over the next few days as we worried we’d just be spending the whole day queuing so instead we decided to use the day we would have spent there exploring the coast a bit more.

It had been a fun start to our time in Pembrokeshire and we still had a few more full days left to explore the park as well as the morning before we left for Snowdonia. With the weather forecast not looking too bad, we were looking forward to spending a bit more time out on the coast.

Brecon Beacons National Park

After a few weeks of planning, we were starting a 2-week tour of Wales concentrating our time mainly on the country’s three National Parks. First up was the Brecon Beacons, situated in the middle of South Wales. The park was one I’d driven along the outskirts of many a time, bypassing it on an A-road at least once a year for the last 25 years as we headed on family holidays to South West Wales and I’d visited the town of Brecon as a ‘halfway to our destination’ stopping off point many times over. But I had never crossed that busy A-road to see what lay on the other side!

At the trail head to climb Pen y Fan

We arrived at our motel for the next three nights early evening on a Wednesday. We were staying in the town of Merthyr Tydfil just outside the southern end of the park as prices were a lot cheaper here than to stay in the National Park itself but in just a 5 minute drive, we were across the park boundaries.

After settling in to our room, we went out in search of dinner thinking that we’d have no problem getting a table anywhere on a Wednesday evening.

As restaurant after restaurant told us they were full though, we began to realise we were once again going to have to plan ahead for our meals this trip, pre-booking and making sure we were back in time rather than seeing where the day took us and grabbing something wherever we ended up. Finally finding a Pizza place that could squeeze us in, we had dinner a little later than we’d hoped but still found time to fit in a walk around town after our meal.

Sheep near the top of the mountain

Our itinerary for our stay in the park was more a list of ideas and suggestions than a definite plan. A walk up Pen-y-Fan, the highest mountain in Southern Britain, was top of that list and we were keeping an eye on the weather to decide which day was looking best for it. The weather looking to be ok and expecting the National Park to be pretty full with the August summer holidays in full swing, we were up early for our included breakfast at our motel the next day, aiming to be at the car park for the main path to the top of Pen-y-Fan by 9am to beat the crowds.

While the car park was by no means empty when we arrives, we did comfortably find a space and when we returned later to find cars parked everywhere in the main car park, along the road and in lay-bys within a mile or so either way, were glad we made the effort for an early-ish start.

View from the top

The weather was pretty clear for the most part, the sun shining as we set out. The path was easy to follow and the instructions I’d downloaded from a National Trust circular walking route helped us work out which of the two peak we were aiming for when the path split – and it’s a good job it did, We reached a very windy peak of Pen-y-Fan just as the cloud started to move in, some kind of view still visible to us from the top but just minutes later, we made our way across to the peak of Corn Du, the second peak to find ourselves completely immersed in fog and cloud and unable to see Pen-y-Fan, or anything else, anymore!

On top of Corn Du in a cloud!

From Corn Du, we retraced our steps back down the path we had walked up rather than taking the circular route down an alternative path to the road. Exhausted, but feeling a sense of accomplishment, we collapsed into the car feeling grateful that we had a space so close to the path entrance so that we didn’t have to walk any further, and treated ourselves to our packed lunch and a nice hot cup of tea from a flask!

Lunch over, we drove north and seeing the National Park Visitor Centre signposted, decided to use the facilities, get some more park information and buy some souvenirs. There were a number of walks signposted from the visitor centre of varying lengths and difficulties but deciding we’d done enough walking for the time being, we moved on to do a circular scenic drive through the east side of the park.

Above, and below, Gospel Pass drive

Driving up towards Brecon, we turned off back into the park and followed an extremely narrow, steeps, twisting and turning track which, judging from the grass growing up the middle of the road, is rarely used. Thankfully, we didn’t meet any oncoming traffic and just as we were wondering where the sat nav was taking us, the road opened out to reveal Gospel Pass, the road we were aiming for, in front of us.

This mountain pass is seen as a ‘must-do’ drive in the Brecon Beacons for it’s stunning views and we made our way along it past pretty countryside and wild horses roaming the hills. We pulled up at Hay Bluff, a parking area from where we could admire the views.

Llanthony Abbey ruins

After taking in the scenery, we continued along gospel pass, the road again narrowing and heading through woodland. Eventually, we reached Llanthony Abbey. The abbey ruins are free to visit and there was a cafe on site run by neighbouring Llanthony Priory Hotel for refreshments.

From here the road continued to a main A-road which we then followed west back to our Merthyr Tydfil Hotel giving us a few hours to relax and freshen up before our dinner reservation in town that evening.

The next day we were once again up early, this time to drive out to the car park at the start of the Four Waterfalls walk. As the name suggests, here there is a circular path with paths leading off it at various intervals to see four waterfalls!

Above, and below, on the Four Waterfalls walk

Finding the car park almost empty at around 9am, we chatted to the car park attendant who explained to us that none of the waterfalls are visible from the main circular trail and that the paths leading down to each of the falls were quite strenuous. He recommended we did the loop in reverse to see the most impressive waterfall first so if we were to decide we’d had enough at that point, we could just retrace our steps back still having seen a pretty good waterfall!

Although we were pretty sure we’d not give up after one waterfall, we decided to take his advice so we could at least get the waterfall with the most steps up and down out of the way first!

The main path to the waterfall exit was easy but we could straight away see why we were warned over the path to the waterfall itself. The steps down were often uneven, made of slippy blue stone and way too deep for our short legs to manage easily without grabbing onto something for support as we lowered ourselves down – and often there was nothing to grab on to! But it was worth it once the waterfall was revealed. It was possible to scramble across some rocks to go behind the waterfall but seeing as we’d had a tough time just getting down to that point, we stayed to admire it from the base of the steps before climbing back up to the path again – surprisingly, it was easier going up than down!

We continued along the path which narrowed, had frequent unpaved sections and rocky sections and was in itself, not an easy walk anymore, until we reached the next branch off to another waterfall. Again, we found a steep path with loose gravel sections, muddy areas and even a few boulder sections! It certainly made the walk more interesting though. It took us about 3 hours to complete the full walk with stops for a bite to eat along the way and taking our time across trickier sections of the path and we made it back onto the main paved section of the path back to the (now packed) car park just as it started to rain, grateful that it hadn’t rained while we were scrambling over already slippery rocks to see the falls!

Pretty views from the lay-by opposite Crai Reservoir

After a lay-by late lunch stop, we looked at a map and consulted our list of itinerary ideas deciding to loop around to the centre of the park and visit one of the park’s many reservoirs. We decided on Crai Reservoir which would put us back on a road heading towards Merthyr Tydfil again rather than taking us out of the way. We had read that there was a path you could walk there towards the reservoir dam with great views across but upon pulling up at the car park across from the reservoir, we couldn’t actually find this path!

There was a bridge across a valley stream leading off from the car park which offered a pretty view of the hills and some footpaths signposted up into the hills but across the road, we walked along the grass verge alongside where we could barely even see the reservoir peeping out from behind dense hedgerow, never mind find a path to access it.

Carreg Cennen Castle

Giving up and returning back in the other direction, we walked a bit further south of the car park to a driveway down to a house where there was a public footpath sign which seemed to be pointing along the side of the house’s grounds but a path was barely visible and overgrown with nettles to the point that we weren’t completely sure if it was even there or if the sign was pointing along the road we had just walked along instead.

Not wanting to end up walking across private property, we instead returned to the car and, as it was now nearing 3pm anyway, took a scenic way back to the southern end of the park looping background to our Merthyr Tydfil motel.

Nearing the castle

With no rush to get to our Pembrokeshire National Park destination the next day, we had planned to spend the majority of the day still in the Brecon Beacons but checking the weather, we saw there was heavy rain forecast the next morning. We checked to see if there was any availability at the Dan yr Ogof Welsh National Showcaves but fond all the timed slots already sold out so decided to see what the weather was like the next day and take it from there.

We did indeed wake up to heavy rain and cloud and decided our original loose plans to hill walk to a view of a glacial lake Llyn y Fan Fach or to drive along Black Mountain Pass at the west side of the park were probably not worth it as the views wold be obscured by cloud.

Exploring the castle ruins

Instead, we decided to begin our drive to Pembrokeshire making a stop at Carreg Cennan Castle on the edge of the Brecon Beacons along the way.We had downloaded instructions for a circular walk around the castle providing views it without having to pay to go in but once there, the weather still not great, we decided to pay the small fee to visit the ruins instead. Luckily, the weather started to clear just as we were about to leave so we got to see a bit more of a view from the top!

It was great to finally see what lay on the other side of the busy A-road bypassing Brecon that I’d driven down so many times in the past and as it turned out, our 3 nights in the Beacons was nowhere near enough time to see anywhere near all the park has to offer but it was a start. I was glad I had the chance to visit and definitely plan to return sometime!

A Wales National Parks Road Trip

Who’d have thought when our US National Parks Road Trip planned for last summer had to be cancelled that we’d be unable to reschedule it for 2021 either?! But with Covid still dominating new headlines around the World, the US still not allowing UK visitors and strict rules on entering and exiting the UK still in force over a year on, we realised pretty early into the year that making any plans to travel out of the UK was not a good idea. Despite some travel being allowed out of the UK to the few ‘green/amber list’ countries who will have us, with all the uncertainties over how long countries will remain on these lists for and all the complicated – not to mention expensive – testing rules to travel, we decided we were best to make summer travel plans a bit closer to home again.

In the beautiful Brecon Beacons

We had a few early discussions about possibly travelling to Ireland, a country I’ve seen very little of, for a road trip around the coast but not being sure if we’d both be fully vaccinated in time to go there, that idea was soon put hold for the future and our thoughts returned to the UK National Parks.

After a successful 2-week trip to the National Parks of Northern England last summer, we narrowed this year’s options down to the parks in Southern England, a trip up to Scotland for a mixture of National Parks, isles, highlands and cities or heading west into Wales. We eventually settled on visiting the 3 National Parks of Wales, a country I am very familiar with having holidayed there at least once a year for the last 27 years. In fact, my annual family holiday is usually taken in Tenby, a seaside town in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park but as this is mainly spent as a beach holiday with the occasional trip out to other nearby beaches, there was plenty of the National Park I’d not seen as well as some activities and attractions I’d not visited since going as a teenager which I wanted the opportunity to relive. I figured I could then play tour guide on the day we planned to spend in the southern end of the park which I know and love.

Regularly visiting Snowdonia National Park too with a friend having a holiday home at the southern end of it as well as often taking out of season trips there with the dog meant I was somewhat familiar with this area too although once we started looking into what to do there, I soon realised I’d actually seen very little away from the southernmost tip where the seaside town of Barmouth is located.

One of the many waterfalls in the Brecon Beacons

The Brecon Beacons was a National Park I was totally unfamiliar with outside of the town of Brecon itself where my family would often make a pitstop at en route to Tenby so I decided to concentrate my initial research here.

Looking at a range of websites, blogs etc on each of the parks, we eventually came up with a plan to split our time with 3 nights un the Brecon Beacons and 5 nights at Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and Snowdonia National Park respectively during which time we’d tackle some of the big hikes including Pen-y-Fan and the Four Waterfalls Walk in the Brecon Beacons and, of course, Mount Snowdon in Snowdonia National Park.

On Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire National Park

Despite pretty much having our trip all planned out, we put off booking longer than we usually would as we waited to see what restrictions would or wouldn’t be eased. Then, just as we were starting to think about booking hotels for our stay, our plans had to be briefly put on hold as my friend suffered an injury which could have put an end to any hiking and long days driving followed by a death in the family.

When we finally came to book some places to stay we found very limited availability and extremely high prices, especially as we’d decided to book fully cancellable options just in case things changed before we went.

Walking an alpaca

We eventually settled for a pub/motel room in the town of Merthyr Tydfil, a few miles south of the Brecon Beacons National Park and just a short drive from some of the walks we planned to do. The motel was within our budget and included breakfast and its location was also convenient for eating out in the evenings as there were plenty of cheap and cheerful chain restaurants just a short drive from the town centre.

For Pembrokeshire National Park we had to stay quite a way out of the park in a roadside motel near the town of Narberth. The motel cost us a lot more than we’d wanted to pay but was still the cheapest place we could find. It did include breakfast though and although being a bit out of the park, was at least pretty centrally located meaning we never had more than a 40 minute drive to the north or south end of the National Park from there.

Snowdonia proved to be the most difficult and expensive park to find accommodation for and we ended up having to split our stay between 2 places, choosing a small farm guesthouse just outside the south-west end of the park for the first 2 nights and a chain motel in Bangor, a seaside town north of the park for the final 3 nights.

Visiting Snowdonia National Park

With our accommodation finally sorted, we moved on to the activities. Whereas many of the activities and attractions in the park are usually turn up and go, many of them currently had pre-book only rules which can be difficult when you’re going somewhere with very unpredictable weather! We had the National Welsh Showcaves at Dan-yr-Ogof pencilled in as a rainy day activity for the day we left the Brecon Beacons in case it was too wet to hike but decided to hold off booking in case the weather did turn out to be ok.

As soon as we realised it was almost certainly going to pour down that morning, we went to book only to find we were too late and it had sold out. That wasn’t our only booking failure – we also left booking activities at the popular ZipWorld attractions in Snowdonia way too late, finding the Velocity 2 zipline and the mountain coaster we really wanted to do both sold out until the autumn (we did eventually manage to get a cancellation slot on the ziplines at a later date!)

We did manage to pre-book a boat trip to Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire National Park – something I’d wanted to do for years – but pre-booking weeks in advance meant it was pot luck with the weather and, of course (spoiler alert!), it ended up absolutely pouring down that day.

About to zipline over an old quarry in Snowdonia

We were luckier with the date we picked to walk Alpacas or that would have been miserable too. Other activities such as visits to Heatherton World of Activities and Oakwood Theme Park both in Pembrokeshire, we decided to leave til the last minute and check on the weather and luckily, when we did decide to attend Heatherton, there were plenty of tickets left booking the day before we attended.

Despite everyone staycationing leading to accommodation prices shooting up and activities selling out way in advance, our trip was, overall, a success and while it still wasn’t quite up there with our US adventures, we were grateful to be able to get away at all and had a pretty great time.

Uluru

A quick visit to Ayres Rock

A brief stop at Alice Springs airport en route to Uluru

Having been to a lot of the main Australian cities including Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, the obvious ‘attraction’ to visit next was the huge monolith that is Uluru, or Ayres Rock in Australia’s Northern Territory. Travelling from Perth in Western Australia to Melbourne, Victoria on the East Coast, we decided make a 2-night stop along the way, everyone telling us that this was ample time for us to see the rock at sunset, sunrise or both.

Stopping briefly at Alice Springs airport to change planes we were soon on our way again, spotting the huge rock rising out of the carpet of red below us as we began our descent into Ayres Rock Airport.

When visiting Uluru, there is pretty much just one option of where to stay – the Ayres Rock Resort of Yulara -so, the dry heat hitting us as soon as we left the airport, we wandered out to meet our shared van transportation vehicle and were taken the short distance to this ‘township’. Yulara was like a holiday village rising up out of nowhere. A circular road running around the park with hotels, motels, campsites, stores and eateries dotted around it.

We were staying at a low-budget motel – although even low budget at Yulara is expensive! After checking into our room, we battled our way through a sea of flies to the nearby bus stop. Buses travel on a continuous loop around the resort allowing you to hop on and off at the stores, restaurants and other hotels etc. Needing some supplies, we hopped off at the nearest convenience store, unsurprisingly finding prices hiked up to more than we would usually expect to pay but as there’s nowhere else to go, they can pretty much charge what they like across the resort.

Sunset at Uluru, and below, the photos show the change of colours a lot more noticeably than when we watching

That evening, we had booked a tour out to Uluru for sunset and having had numerous people raving to us about this ‘must do’ Australian experience, we were pretty excited for it.

Again battling through the hoards of flies (it was April and we were told these temperatures and flies were nothing compared to other months!), we hopped back on the bus – finding ourselves with the same driver we’d had every time that day so far and wondering how many laps of the resort she’d done that day! – and made our way to the resort entrance.

Rows and rows of coaches were already pulled up outside and soon, tour companies were calling for their groups to board ready to leave for Uluru in time for sunset. Once on board, we were told how the evening would run – that we’d have a special sunset viewing area to stand in and where to meet the coach afterwards. It didn’t take long to reach the park and we soon found ourselves stood in front of the rock behind a rope.

Now, for some reason, we had both expected the sun to set behind the rock but we soon realised this would not be the case and in fact, it would set opposite the rock, reflecting off it.

Right before the sun disappeared

It was a beautiful evening without a cloud in the sky and there was a really beautiful sunset as we watched the rock waiting for this spectacular event we had heard so much about to happen. As it turned out, the sunsetting was so gradual that we didn’t really notice much change stood watching the rock and it was all a lot less dramatic than we had been lead to believe. In fact, it was a bit of a let down and as the sun finally dipped out of sight, with a ‘is that it?’ shrug of our shoulders, we made our way back to the coach.

Looking back at our photos now, it does look pretty amazing but while we were there, we hardly noticed the changes in the colours as the sunset reflected off it.

Sunrise at Uluru, and below, the colours of the rock changing as the sun rose

The next day, we were up at the crack of dawn to head back to the rock having booked a sunrise tour as well. Bleary eyed, we repeated the previous day’s process of making our way to the resort entrance and boarding a coach to the park, this time arriving in the pitch black. The viewing point for sunrise was at a different place to the sunset viewing point and rock seemed further away.

Again, it was difficult to really see anything happening as it all happened so gradually but at least it was less of a disappointment this time knowing what to expect from the night before.

After watching the sunrise, we had the option at staying in the park as long as we wished to explore some of the trails, walk the circumference of the rock or visit some of the museums and galleries.

Trying to vary my photos!

We followed a trail through the dust towards the rock walking along the perimeter for a whole then we walked towards the cultural centre where we spent some time looking around the visitors centre and galleries before catching a bus back to Yulara resort early afternoon.

Exhausted after our early start that morning, we spent the rest of the day lazing by the motel pool, going for regular swims to cool off.

That evening, we made our way to the nearby backpackers resort where there were a few restaurants and takeaways and ordered pizza, sitting out at the picnic benches to eat it- and almost having the shock of my life when an enormous spider climbing up a wooden post right next to me caught my eye!

The next day, we returned to the airport to wave Uluru behind and fly to Melbourne.

Walking around the edge of the rock

I’d been left slightly underwhelmed by my visit but was glad I could tick it off my list of things to see in Australia. I wonder if I’d have appreciated the experience more if I’d visited as part of a tour of the Northern Territory or had taken part in different type of sunset tour with the entertainment and barbecue included.

Looking back, I also wish I’d spent more time exploring the surrounding area as there’s much more to see than Uluru – the Olgas, Kings Canyon National Park or just spending more time in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Maybe one day in the future I can return.

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 – Port Douglas, QLD

I was travelling with my family – my parents and my brother and sister-in-law on a Round the World ticket with multiple stops in Australia before we returned via Los Angeles having circumnavigated the globe. After an enjoyable start to our adventures in Melbourne, it was time to briefly leave city-living behind as we flew north for a few days on the coast.

We were flying to North Queensland and Cairns Airport but rather than staying in the city of Cairns, had unanimously decided to venture further north to the small coastal town of Port Douglas. We had arranged transfers to and from Port Douglas in a shared shuttle and quickly found the company upon arrival. It took about an hour to make the journey along the Captain Cook Highway and our driver happily pointed out crocodiles lazing roadside near the river and hunting birds nesting at the top of tall telegraph poles as we travelled. Our apartment complex near the beach end of the main town was the last drop off. After settling in, we went for a walk up the main high street, finding a supermarket to get some groceries from then, after dropping our shopping off back at the apartment, took a stroll down to Four Mile Beach.

A friendly cockatoo

On our first full day in the area, we decided to make use of a voucher we had for discounted entry into the Port Douglas Wildlife Park. Catching a shuttle bus which ran from the main street to the park, we only planned to spend the morning there before having an afternoon relaxing at the beach but there was way more to see and do at the park than we had expected. It was great to have a bit longer to spend hanging out with the kangaroos and other Australian animals after our flying visit to Moonlit Sanctuary while in Melbourne a few days earlier and before we knew it, it was 3pm!

The beach closes after a croc sighting

The sun still shining on our return to town, we still ventured down to the beach – only to find it closed after a crocodile sighting in the ocean, something which sounded quite bizarre to us and was a bit of a novelty!

That evening, we made use of the barbecue facilities at our apartment complex for some outdoor dining then took an evening stroll into town for some ice cream desert, boysenberry ice cream instantly becoming my new favourite flavour!

Above, Port Douglas marina, and below, on the way to the Great Barrier Reef and getting ready to snorkel and spending a day on the reef

We had booked a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef the next day, something I had always wanted to do. Opting for the pontoon based trip to the outer reef over the island based inner reef trip on offer, we made our way to Port Douglas Harbour early the next morning. It was another beautiful, hot day, perfect for a boat trip. On the way there, we were shown a video about how the day would go and given safety advice. We were told it was ‘stinger’ season but having a bit of a jellyfish phobia after being stung as a child, I decided to take up their offer of a stinger suit anyway!

Once we were docked at the pontoon, we could collect our stinger suits and snorkelling equipment and the rest of the day was at our own leisure. While my brother, sister-in-law and I happily spent plenty of time snorkelling, my parents who are not confident swimmers, mainly stayed on board the pontoon looking at the reef and the many fish from an underwater viewing platform and taking a narrated trip out on a semi-submersible vehicle between plenty of sunbathing out on the deck. Lunch was buffet-style with plenty of meat and salad options to fill us up and towards the end of the day, a selection of cheese and crackers were brought out.

It was an amazing day and we were all really sad when the siren went to signal we had to re-board the boat and leave the pontoon behind. The boat journey back proved to be exciting though when we spotted whales swimming in the distance!

Above, and below, a crocodilecruise down the Daintree River

It was another day of excursions the next day with my parents heading off on a Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail trip while my brother, sister-in-law and I took a tour to the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation. Our trip included a stop at Mossman Gorge before we headed to the Daintree River for a scenic cruise spotting lots of huge crocodiles lazing on the banks as we went.

Above, at a Cape Tribulation lookout point, and below, a rainforest lunch spot

Then, after a quick stop at a Cape Tribulation lookout point and a barbecue lunch at a rainforest picnic spot, it was on to the beautiful Cape Tribulation Beach itself, right on the edge of the rainforest.

Above, and below, on the beach at Cape Tribulation

We were given a bit of free time to laze on the beach or paddle in the crystal clear waters before a stop in Daintree Rainforest where we followed a boardwalk through the forest as our guide talked to us about some of the many trees and plants around us. After one final stop for some exotic fruit tasting on the way back, we were dropped back in Port Douglas where we met back up with our parents to swap stories.

Above, a final stop in the Daintree Rainforest, and below, my parents’ trip to Kuranda

We had decided to take different tours due to the description of our rainforest tour saying it involved plenty of hiking and needed a moderate amount of fitness – I was unsure my father, with his 2 replacement knees would be able to cope with that. But as it turned out, the amount of walking on our trip was very little and was mainly along flat boardwalks so my parents would have coped fine.

Luckily, they both really enjoyed their day out on the scenic railway and skyrail, had a lovely time in Kuranda itself at the market and enjoying tea and cake at a cafe there and had a great time visiting Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure, a crocodile farm open to the public near Cairns, which was included in the trip.

The Sunday market at Port Douglas

The next day was our last full day in Port Douglas. Being a Sunday, there was a market on in the town so we began our day there wandering around the many stalls and sampling some of the Sugar Cane juice we’d heard so much about. Then, with it being another warm, sunny day, we spent the rest of the day on the beach enjoying the sunshine and swimming in the sea to cool off.

Above, and below, at the Cane Toad Races

That evening, we walked to a local bar to see something we’d heard a lot about since we arrived – Cane Toad racing! These toads, introduced to Australia in an attempt to control a crop-eating beetle, have since spread rapidly and have become pests themselves but in Port Douglas, they have found a use for them with Cane Toad Racing Nights at a local bar.

Upon entering the bar, we were given a raffle ticket. 5 numbers were then called out, one of which belonged to my dad.

He was invited up to the racing area along with the other lucky participants and allocated an amusingly-named toad which he then had to encourage to race across a table and into an awaiting bucket.

One last visit to Four Mile Beach

I’m not sure how much the toads enjoyed the experience but the noisy, enthusiastic audience certainly did as the whooped and cheered the toads on. After the race, we were even given the opportunity to meet and greet the toads. A bizarre way to spend our last night in the town!

We were sad to be leaving the beautiful town of Port Douglas the next day. We’d had a lovely few days enjoying the sunshine and taking excursions out to the reef and the rainforests.

After breakfast at a local cafe overlooking the beach though and a final walk along Four Mile Beach, it was time to meet our shuttle back to Cairns Airport where we’d be catching a flight to the final Australian destination on our family trip – the city of Sydney!