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 – 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!

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!

East Sussex and Kent coast

A UK Staycation

After months of lockdown over the winter, I was desperate for a break and with Spring approaching, UK staycations in self-contained accommodation were finally to be allowed. With the opening date for holiday parks, holiday cottages and lodges overlapping with the second week of the school Easter holidays, we decided to look for somewhere to go for a few days, just looking forward to a change of scenery.

Winchelsea Beach

With Wales, our normal port of call for a UK staycation, remaining closed to visitors from across the border for the time being, we had to look elsewhere. Having family in Kent we’d not seen for a while, we started to look at availability in the south of England, thinking we could tie in a get-together while there.

Prices were sky high with everyone desperate for a getaway, especially in the more obvious holiday destinations around Brighton. Deciding to leave booking to the last minute, we eventually managed to grab a bargain 4-night stay at in a static caravan at an East Sussex holiday park.

It was a long drive from the Midlands down to the small seaside town of Winchelsea and by the time we arrived we were pretty exhausted. Not wanting to cook, we took a drive into the nearby town of Rye, hoping to grab some food from the local chippy. Unfortunately, we found both of the town’s Fish and Chip shops closed on a Monday. Not being able to find or settle on anything else, we ended up heading back to the holiday park and its local Co-op, finding what we could from the groceries we’d brought with us and grabbing a few extra items from the convenience store.

On the bech at Camber Sands

The next morning, we had arranged to meet with family at Winchelsea Beach. They were not expected to make it there til a little before midday so with Lily the dog chomping at the bit to be walked, we headed down a bit earlier. We were disappointed to find that with the tide in, the beach was pebbly, the shale stone hurting Lily’s paws so instead we had to walk her along the coast path that ran along the top of the sharply steeping beach.

Messaging our family who were more familiar with the area, we asked if there was any sandy bays they knew of nearby and they suggested Camber Sands, just a 20 minute drive along the coast. Quickly changing our plans, we arranged to meet there instead at around noon and turned around to walk back to the small Winchelsea Beach car park.

With it being a warm-for-April, sunny Easter holiday day, the main car park at Camber Sands was busy and the charges seemed a bit steep but luckily, we found some on-road parking nearby and cut across a playing field to reach the dunes backing the beach. Following one of the well-trodden paths that had been made through the dunes, we soon emerged the other side to be greeted with an absolutely beautiful stretch of golden sands to our right which gradually turned to pebbles to our left.

We made our way down towards the beach cafe where we’d arranged to meet our family members who had also just arrived then walked down towards the sea to find a space to sit out and picnic together.

A stroll on the beach at Camber

After lunch, Lily and my 6 year old niece paddled happily in the sea. The tide was starting to go out and we spent the next few ours strolling along the sand, paddling in the shallows, and, once away from the busier end of the beach (by the car park and cafe), we even found time for a family game of French cricket!

Away from the crowds, with the warm sun shining and the sea sparkling, we could have been anywhere. The beach at Camber is definitely up there with some of the best I’ve been to in Europe and further afield!

Above, and below, at Bexhill-on-Sea and, further below, St Leonards-on-Sea

3 hours later, we decided it was time to make our way back to our cars and saying our goodbyes, we returned to our spacious caravan back at the holiday park exhausted.

After dinner, we took Lily out for an evening stroll in Winchelsea around the playing field behind the beach where a local children’s football club were finishing a practise session, then up to the coast path retracing our steps from our morning stroll.

The next day, we decided to have a ride our further along the coast to explore the area further. Driving out past an extremely busy-looking Hastings, we stopped instead at the quieter Bexhill-on-Sea. Like Winchelsea, the beach here was pebbly while the tide was in but we enjoyed spending an hour or so walking along the wide, grass-lined promenade, sitting out in the sunshine on a bench overlooking the sea to eat our picnic lunch. After lunch, we briefly walked Lily down to the sea, being careful not to stay too long on the pebbles before returning along the promenade to our car and driving back towards Winchelsea.

Our next stop was at St Leonards-on-Sea. Unfortunately, the weather had changed for the worse and the sunny spells from the morning had been replaces by cloud, some passing drizzle and a bitterly cold wind. Parking at the southern end of the town, we took a quick walk down onto the beach hut lined pebbly beach then battled against the wind to take a stroll along the promenade and back.

On the way back to Winchelsea, we took a slight detour to the small village of Icklesham.

Hogg Hill Mill sat on top of a hill

My mother is a huge fan of The Beatles and my sister-in-law had informed her a recording studio belonging to Paul McCartney lay just outside of Winchelsea and it was possible to follow a public footpath running alongside it. After looking it up, we found our way to Hogg Hill Mill, a former post mill which had been converted into a recording studio.

Reaching the former mill

Seeing the building lying on top of a hill, we found a small pull in to park by the gate signposted as a public footpath and dutifully all marched up the hill so my mother could get a photo with the studio in the background!

Returning to the holiday park, we ventured out again in the evening to once again walk Lily around the playing fields behind the beach, this time heading up to the coast path and wandering along towards Rye Nature Reserve before looping back to the car.

Wanting to give Lily another run on a sandy beach, the next morning we returned to Camber Sands first thing.

Back on Camber Sands briefly, and below, the intriguing landscape of Dungeness

After Lily had a run around and splash in the sea, we drove east across the border into Kent to visit Dungeness. Situated on the Kent headland, Dungeness is part of Romney Marsh and is both a private estate and part of a national nature reserve. The barren, almost destitute headland was like something out of an apocalyptic movie with rusting machinery, empty shacks and rotting boats sporadically dotted across the land, paths and the occasional boardwalk leading down to a shingle beach and the sea.

Further along, a lighthouse, which can sometimes be climbed for views across the bay, lay along with a busy cafe and more boardwalk walks across the land.

Greatstone-on-Sea

After spending some time exploring, we continued along the Kent coast, stopping at Greatstone-on-Sea where we found another pretty, but pebbly, beach. Taking a walk along the grassy promenade, we then continued into the town of New Romney and along towards Dymchurch where we hoped to make our final stop of the day.

Unfortunately, we found Dymchurch to be incredibly busy and, unable to find somewhere to park, had to turn around and head back towards Winchelsea and our holiday park.

After another walk along the Winchelsea coast path that evening then again the next morning, it was time to say goodbye to East Sussex and Kent but we’d enjoyed spending a few days exploring part of the UK we’d not seen before.

The Essex Coast

A UK Staycation

On the beach with Clacton Pier in the distance

While I have missed being able to take off on a European city break at a minute’s notice or head further afield on heavily planned extended trip, the past year has at least, given me the opportunity to explore a bit more of the UK. After trips to various UK National Parks last summer, I headed to the East coast of England last autumn where I spent a few days exploring the Essex coast.

By the pier

Essex was a place I visited a lot as a child having relatives who lived there until my early teens. Although they lived inland, I remember making the odd trip out to the county’s coast while there – Clacton, Walton-on-the Naze and Frinton-on-Sea all being places I had vague, hazy memories of.

Now, all these years on, I had booked a static caravan for a week away with my parents and my dog just a few miles outside of Clacton and I was looking forward to revisiting some of these places.

We spent our first day of the trip driving the short distance into Clacton where we easily found somewhere to park along the promenade just up from the seaside resort’s pier. Despite social distancing and mask wearing advice still being in place, it was half term and the area around the pier was busy as families with excited children headed along the boardwalk towards the bright lights of the arcades and fairground rides dotted along the large jetty.

Moving away from the crowds, we headed onto the quiet, mainly sandy beach, lined with its colourful beach huts. Walking away from the pier, Lily our dog playing happily in the waves lapping onto the seashore. Returning to the car to sit and eat lunch sheltered from the cold wind, we then took a short walk in the opposite direction past the pier and onto the resort’s West Beach before driving back to the holiday park to warm ourselves up.

At Frinton-on-Sea

Day 2 and we drove a bit further up the coast to visit Frinton-on-Sea and the livelier neighbouring resort of Walton-on-the-Naze. This morning, the weather was a bit better and this showed on the beach here being a lot busier than the beach had been at Clacton the previous day. With the tide almost fully in, there was little beach to be seen and instead of heading down to the sand, we had to make do with walking along the concrete, beach hut-lined path behind. Walton-on-the Naze’s pier with its large yellow undercover amusement arcade in the distance brought back childhood memories of previous visits.

Returning to the grass-lined promenade, we sat out on a bench in the sunshine to eat our lunch before returning to the beach. As we walked towards the pier, the tide was slowly creeping out and by the time we reached Walton-on-the Naze, there was enough beach for Lily to have a run on and splash around in the sea.

A rainy Walton-on-the-Naze

The next day, we decided to drive a bit further along the coast to Walton-on-the-Naze itself. After stopping in the town for a bit of shopping, we parked up right by some steps by the beach just as a heavy downpour of rain began. Wrapping up warm, we braved the rain and wind to give Lily a walk on the small bit of the beach not completely covered by the sea before returning to the car for lunch.

With the weather not looking like it was going to improve anytime soon, we decided to leave the beach behind and drive along the coast to visit the Naze Nature Reserve.

Lily enjoys the view at the Naze Nature Reserve

The rain briefly stopping, we walked Lily along to the Nature Reserve’s entrance. A visitor centre and shop stands near the entrance and there are steps down to the beach. Instead, we walked along the path into the nature reserve itself past the Naze Tower. When open, it is possible to climb the tower for views over the coast. We followed a circular path around the nature reserve which took us along the cliff overlooking the coast before turning inland past some Artillerary Pillboxes from World War 2 and back towards the Visitor Centre.

We finished our visit with a walk down the path to the beach and along towards Walton-on-the-Naze in the distance before returning to the car and driving back to the holiday park.

Visiting Point Clear Bay, and below, walking around the peninsula

Wanting to see as much as the surrounding coastline as possible, on day 3 we headed south of Clacton-on-Sea past St Osyths and on to Point Clear Bay. Standing on a penninsula overlooking Mersea Island, Point Clear Bay didn’t have much of a beach, more of a shore leading down from a watersports club and hire centre and we stood watching the windsurfers hurtle back and forth across the waves in the distance before racing back onto shore. A path follows the sea wall along the penninsula and as we followed it around, we were soon met with views of Brightlingsea, another Essex coastal resort, in the distance.

Batemans Tower at Brightlingsea

The next day, we decided to drive into Brightlingsea for a better look. It was a quaint little place with its endless rows of colourful beach huts, many of them occupied with holiday makers wrapped up warm and huddled up with a cup of tea.

Lily splashing around at Brightlingsea

While again, there wasn’t much of a beach, Lily had a great time splashing around in a salt water pool at Brightlingsea Beach overlooked by Bateman’s Tower, a listed building built in the late 1800s.

A busy coast path walk at Brightlingsea

From the promenade, we followed a coast path along the sea wall then looking out over Brightlingsea Marsh National Nature Reserve.

Dovercourt Beach

Our final full day in Essex was a wet and windy day. Today, we drove north of Clacton to Dovercourt Beach, near Harwich. The dreary weather had stirred up the sea and as we walked along the promenade, huge waves crashed over the sea wall. We followed the coast path down to Earlham’s Beach, a bit of a hidden bay backed by dunes and marshland before returning to Dovercourt and making it back to our car before another torrential downpour.

Viewpoint at Wrabness Nature Reserve

After another lunch in the car, we drove to Wrabness Nature Reserve following the path from the car park out to a viewpoint then down to a pretty beach overlooking the River Stour estuary, the Suffolk coast in the distance.

Cold and wet, we then made our way back to the holiday park to change into some dry clothes and warm up!

Lily enjoying a walk at Holland-on-Sea beach

The next day it was time to say goodbye to our caravan and holiday park but before leaving Essex behind, we once again headed to the coast, this time to Holland-on-Sea, a stretch of sand just up from Clacton. Like Clacton, the sandy beach was again lined with colourful beach huts and we spent some time wandering along the shore letting Lily burn off some energy with one last splash in the sea before the long drive back to the Midlands.

We all agreed we had enjoyed our trip to the Essex coast and would definitely visit again if the opportunity arose.

Lake Garda and Verona

Having spent a few days in a rather quiet Milan for a summer city break, we were off to the Italian Lakes for the second part of our trip.

Not having a car, we had found ourselves quite tied down with where we could get to in the region using just public transport. Rather than having to work out how to get ourselves and our luggage to a resort by boat, we had taken a friend’s advice to visit Sirmione, a resort town on the southern banks of Lake Garda.

Views across the lake

From Milan, we caught a regional train eastbound to Desenzano del Garda. From here, we planned on catching a bus to Sirmione then find our way to our hotel once in the town but after departing our train to a deserted station, we couldn’t find any information on the buses. Deciding to go with our backup option of a taxi also proved more difficult than we expected it to be as none were around to meet the train and there was no one around to ask! Finding a payphone, we managed to call a taxi service and get someone to understand us and finally, a good half hour or more later, we were on our way.

Watching the sunset across Lake Garda

Our problems getting to our destination didn’t stop there though. Sirmione is at the tip of a peninsula and there is one road in and one road out of the town. With it being August, peak tourist season, and a Friday afternoon, it seemed the whole of Italy was heading that way and what should have been a 15-20 minute journey, took over an hour as we sat in a long line of traffic leading up to the town gates!

Spending the evening in Sirmione

By the time we finally arrived at our hotel, we were definitely ready for a relaxing few days and were glad we had upped our budget a bit to stay in a nice 4* hotel. Once settled in our room, we wandered into town, finding a small pizzeria for dinner and watching the sun set over the lake before heading back to our hotel for drinks at the bar.

About to depart on a boat tour, and below, exploring the Lake and Sirmione

The next day we planned to spend exploring Sirmione a bit more so after breakfast sat out on the hotel’s sunny veranda, we once walked down to the town’s centre. After familiarising ourselves with the small town’s layout, we made our way to the lakeside.

It was a beautiful, sunny day and we decided to take a boat tour out on the lake around Sirmione. The views across the lake, of Sirmione Castle jutting out from the town and of the mountains in the distance were really pretty and it was interesting to find out a bit more about the area we were staying in.

Lakeside in Sirmione, and below, Gelato!!

We spent the rest of the morning in Sirmione, sitting out on the shingle beaches leading down to the lake’s edge, wandering along the lakeside paths, looking around the bustling town, sat out at the cafes and bars and enjoying gelato before returning to our hotel in the afternoon and relaxing by the pool and cooling off with a dip.

A day in Sirmione, and below, views from the castle

That evening, we took a stroll back into town for dinner, first walking along to Sirmione Castle which we paid the small entry fee to go and explore. The ticket price was more than worth it for the pretty views over Sirmione and Lake Garda.

View over the lake

The next day, we caught the Sirmione land train to the Grottoes of Cattulus, the ruins of an ancient Roman Villa.

View from the top

The entrance to the Grottoes was on a hill top and in the heat we were glad of the land train to take us there. There were pretty views over the lake from the top and after our visit, we walked back down the hill into town.

In Desenzano del Garda

While Sirmione was a lovely place, there is not a lot to do outside of relaxing by the lake so we decided to catch a bat across the lake to the town of Desenzano del Garda.

An afternoon in Desenzano del Garda

Arriving around lunch time, we found somewhere in the main square to eat before spending some time wandering around then catching the boat back to Sirmione that evening.

The amphitheater in Verona

We had one final day left of our trip and with the overcast weather forecast, we decided to use the day to take a trip out to the city of Verona. Enquiring at our hotel, we pre-booked tickets for the bus the day before then walked down to the pick up point the next morning.

Above, and below, a day in Verona

It took just over an hour to reach the city of Verona and we were dropped by the city gates. The weather there was much better than what we had left behind in Sirmione and we had a lovely day exploring the city in the sunshine.