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How to make the most of 24 hours in AMSTERDAM

If you don’t have long in this amazing city I hope this will give you some ideas of what to do and take in the old, new, touristy and not-so-touristy.

I’ll try and give rough timings so you can see that it is actually possible to do all this in one day.

If you’re travelling to the centre by tram then be sure, first of all, to go as far as the central railway station which is a spectacular piece of architecture and well worth a few photos in itself.

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Amsterdam Central railway station

From there it is a short walk towards Dam Square along Damtrak, where you may want to take in a light breakfast. After breakfast, let’s say by now it’s about 10am, make your way back towards the station down to the waterfront and choose your barge for your first activity.

 

 

A TOUR OF THE CANALS

To be fair, no self-respecting tourist visiting Amsterdam for the first time would miss a chance to explore the miles of canals that this city is renowned for. The commentary on board will also give an idea of the history and point out some of the famous landmarks.

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Amsterdam canal tour

Your canal trip will normally take about 1 – 1 1/2 hours so you’ll be disembarking back at the waterfront by about 11.30. Then it’s a short walk down Damrak, again to Dam Square where you will see the imposing Koninklijk, the former residence of the Dutch royal family.

Take a short walk then to Amsterdam’s Red Light district. Not as seedy as it sounds, the Dutch are far more liberal in their outlook than many other European countries, the Red Light district is an attraction in itself as the scantily clad ladies pose in the windows at all times of day and night. This is a short walk and generally, you won’t want to be hanging around for too long so allow probably 15-30 minutes for this!

From here it is a short walk past the Old Church to a charming and really fascinating building that sheds light on Amsterdam’s religious history.

Our Lord in The Attic Museum 

This amazingly preserved 17th-century merchant’s house overlooking the canal is an object lesson in how to ‘do’ a museum. The audio tour takes you through a brief history of why the church was built in the attic ( in the 17th Century when Holland gained independence from Catholic Spain and became largely Protestant, it was forbidden for Catholics to practice their religion. But in true tolerant Dutch style, the authorities overlooked Catholicism as long as the churches weren’t visible or clearly churches.Hence the need to build them in the attics of houses).

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Our Lord in the Attic Museum

The audio tour takes you through the house of a 17th-century merchant into a spectacular attic church which spans the entire roof space. Allow about 1- 1/2 hours for this fascinating and good value ( 10 euros when I went) tour.

 

 

Walk back now towards Dam Square and after all that walking you may want to take in a pancake from one of the many pancake restaurants that are on offer. Try a sweet or savoury one, on our visit I opted for bacon, banana and chillies! Not as bad as it sounds and actually pretty tasty. Allow maybe 30 minutes for this.

After a quick pit stop to refuel make your way from there on to the charming houseboat museum on Prinsengracht only a short walk away. (https://www.houseboatmuseum.nl/

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Visit the houseboat museum on Prinsengracht

This enchanting visit will give you a marvellous insight into how people live on houseboats and what use is made of every available space. The visit will only take about 30  minutes ( houseboats aren’t that big) so you have plenty of time to make your way to your next stop.

ANNE FRANK HOUSE

Our visit to this most famous of sights in Amsterdam took place at about 4.30 pm because believe me YOU HAVE TO BOOK IN ADVANCE. Don’t turn up on the day expecting to walk in. You are allowed in on a strict appointment basis and with good reason. This museum is quite exceptional. Everyone will be aware of Anne Frank’s tragic story and the house where it all took place is so beautifully preserved, it is spellbinding.

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It is certainly hard to comprehend that where you walk, the walls you touch and the windows you look through are the same ones that the Frank family saw for all those years as they hid from the Nazi invaders.

This tour is exceptionally well done and you should expect to take at least two hours as you walk around the whole house and stop to take in the exhibition at the end of the tour.

 

By now, probably feeling a little exhausted after racking up goodness knows how many steps you will be ready for a sit down and something to eat. Dam Square is an obvious choice being packed with decent restaurants and pavement cafes, but if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle and throngs of tourists then it may be worthwhile digging deep and taking one more walk to Rembrandtplein, maybe 10 minutes from the centre. This is an altogether different experience, not as crammed as the centre and with a more bohemian and authentic feel. Again there are many cafes and restaurants where you can sit and eat and watch the world go by. By that time, after a day packed with activity you will be ready to sit, put your feet up and enjoy a slap-up meal.

From there, hopefully full of food and great memories of your short time in Holland’s capital you can make your way back to your hotel, ready for your journey home.

If you’ve any suggestions for future visits then please feel free to leave a comment below.

My top reads of 2017

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Two years ago I downloaded the ‘Goodreads’ app and set my annual reading target at 25 books a year. I know, I’m a very slow reader.

This year has been a mixed bag, I finally got round to reading some that had been on my ‘to read’ list for a while. I certainly read a varied selection of books, from Hubert Selby’s ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ (First time, ‘Last Exit’), which stands alone as a modern classic, to Harlan Coben’s ‘Home’.

But without further ado, here are my top five reads from 2017.

In fifth place ‘Lying in Wait’ Liz Nugent. This was a classy little psychological thriller with a nice twist at the end. It made me want to read more by her, so ‘Unravelling Oliver’ is on this year’s list.

In fourth place ‘Good Me, Bad Me’ by Ali Land. This was a much talked about novel from a new author and it was really worth reading. Ali Land has extensive experience in the area she is writing about and it really shows. The story rattles along at a good pace and is quite believable, underlining the author’s knowledge of child psychology and its’ long-lasting effects and impact.

In third place, ‘In Cold Blood’ Truman Capote. I finally succumbed to reading what is termed as a classic of the genre and was not disappointed. Capote’s examination of the murders that took place ‘in cold blood’ is microscopic in its detail. Whenever he refers to a shopkeeper or a neighbour’s witness statement or gives a physical description of them you have to remind yourself that he spent six months interviewing townsfolk and taking statements before producing this astonishing piece of work.

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In second place, ‘Moving’, Jenny Eclair. Well, this was a shock. I’m not a fan of Jenny Eclair the comic but boy can she write! This was one we picked up from a charity shop for a few pounds before a holiday. My wife read it first in a few days then told me I had to read it. It’s a large book both in size and scope as it covers about 60 years of the life of members of one family. The characters are so brilliantly drawn and the plotting is so realistic that you find yourself transported to their world and identifying with them, begging them not to make the wrong decisions, consoling them, blaming them when things go wrong. This is on a similar level as David Nicholls ‘One Day’ and is the book that ‘Versions of Us’ so desperately wanted to be but failed.

And now, drum roll, in first place, another book from my huge ‘to read’list and one whose title has intrigued me for years and made me want to read it. JohnBerendt’s  ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’. It is hard to describe how beautifully written this book is. It is along similar lines as ‘In Cold Blood’ in that it is an investigation into a murder but this time in Savannah, Georgia. What sets this apart is Berendt’s prose. His writing transports you to the heat and humidity of Savannah. You can see the magnificent mansions along the streets and taste the iced tea. The characters are worthy of their own book. At times it is hard to believe that Berendt hasn’t invented them for poetic licence. They are colourful, eccentric and utterly charming for the most part. You have to keep reminding yourself that this is a murder story, as the murder takes a back seat. This is one of those rare books that I think I could have read again immediately after finishing it, and there are not many in that category.

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So that’s my top five. This year I’ve included a few from my ‘to read’ list such as; ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘The Book Thief’ and ‘All The Light We Cannot See’. There will be more of course, but if there any you want to recommend then please feel free to comment below or on Twitter @glynbawden.

I look forward to it.

 

Why you owe it to yourself to try a fine dining restaurant at least once.

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Everyone loves a bit of luxury once in a while. Whether it’s wearing some classy piece of clothing or jewellery, or a nice watch maybe, or driving a nice car. There’s no escaping it, it makes you feel good.

Some years ago one of my ambitions was to eat in a recognised fine dining restaurant. Not just a step up, but a HUGE step up.

For my birthday one year, my wife treated us to a weekend in London, including tickets to a show and lunch at The Ivy in Covent Garden.

I can’t even remember what I chose for my meal but I do recall we shared a baked alaska for dessert which was brought to our table and set alight. ( My Top 5 London Restaurants)

But why choose a top class restaurant?

The Service

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Service in a top-end restaurant is like nothing you’ve experienced before. These waiters are proper professionals. Chairs are pulled out for you to be seated, linen napkins are laid out on your lap.

The sommelier will advise you on the wine choices and don’t worry even though there may be bottles on the wine list for £1000’s there are always some affordable and very good wines too and don’t even think about refilling your wine glass, someone will be over to do it for you.

The food

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The people preparing the food in these places are ‘chefs’ not ‘cooks’, they are chefs and they know exactly what they are doing. These people take time to choose ingredients that are in season, complement each other and taste amazing. In these restaurants, you won’t be getting defrosted, microwaved food. You are getting freshly prepared, beautifully constructed and tasty food. And the food is seasoned properly, so don’t go covering it with salt and pepper.

I’m a real lover of trying new things, ok, maybe sometimes it doesn’t work but I’ve had some superb dishes; steak tartare, foie gras, pigeon breast, quails eggs, pheasant, lobster, partridge and guinea fowl to name a few. The sauces are also incredible, rich and unctuous.These are sauces that have been reduced and tasted until they are perfect.

The wine

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I enjoy eating in good restaurants. I enjoy drinking nice wine BUT I’m not a millionaire. I can’t afford to be doing this every week. So when we do eat in a good restaurant we want it to be worthwhile and a good bottle of wine is worth buying to add to your meal. I’m a fan of red wine, a decent Merlot or Cabernet and I particularly enjoy South African wines. Five reasons why South Africa should be your next holiday destination

 

The ambience

If you’re treating yourself and your partner it’s nice to make it an occasion and going to a decent restaurant is exactly that. I love to get into my suit and tie and make a special effort when we go out somewhere really good.

When you eat in a good restaurant, the other people there are there for the same reason. They enjoy the food, the wine and the service. Anyone can make a meal at home and some people can do a really good job of it, but what better way to spend an evening than with like-minded people being pampered and spoilt eating exquisite food and drinking good wine.

The cost

Like with anything of luxury, the cost is whatever you want it to be. Expect to spend two or three times more than you would if you were out at your local restaurant at least and if you want to push the boat out then maybe four or five times more. Personally, I have found that even the best restaurants I’ve been to will cater for someone not wanting to go overboard on price.

The experience

Life is made up of experiences and memories and what better way of creating a memory than eating out at a top restaurant. As far as luxury goes we don’t all need to drive, we don’t all need the best watches but we do all need to eat, so why not save up, have a look at what’s on offer in your area and push the boat out.

If you’re in  London here are some that I’ve tried and can recommend;

The Ivy, Covent Garden

Le Caprice, Piccadilly

Ormer, Mayfair

Galvin at Windows, Hilton Park Lane

Babylon Roof Gardens, Kensington

Roux at The Landau

Quillon, Westminster

Craft at the O2

 

My Top 5 London Restaurants

Before we start, let’s get it straight that I haven’t been to hundreds of London restaurants. This is a list based on those restaurants that I’ve been fortunate enough to eat in and that have lived up to the expectations.

5.Roux at The Landau, Park Lane

I booked this because I originally wanted to go to ‘Le Gavroche’ but found it had a waiting list of about 6 months. No bother. ‘Roux at The Landau’ was a marvellous stand-in.

The setting is very elegant and the service, as you’d expect, is exceptional. I enjoy my wine and I thought a particularly nice touch from the waiter was to compliment us on our choice of wine. ( He might have been lying for all we know but it was  a nice touch nevertheless).

We spent a good 2 and a half hours at our table and the meal was a real pleasure.

4.Quillon, Kensington

We were staying at St James A Taj Hotel next door and had read reviews on Quillon. I fancied an Indian restaurant that was Michelin starred to add to my collection!

If you are fortunate to eat at Quillon then don’t expect the usual Indian fare of chicken bhuna or beef madras. This is proper Indian cooking. We opted for the tasting menu.

The emphasis was most definitely on ‘taste’.

We visited the restaurant some time ago and I can still taste the subtle flavours and spices that run through each of the dishes. It really is a sublime experience and well worth repeating.

3. Ormer, Mayfair

This was a restaurant we saw on TV as part of ‘Masterchef’, liked the look of the food and decided to ‘give it a whirl’.

Cocktails beforehand can be taken in the oak-panelled cocktail bar should you choose to. The meal is in a room that is smaller than most restaurants we’ve been to but the quality is there through every course.

Service is excellent throughout and the food is simply exceptional. They served ‘foie gras’ which gets me every time and my wife chose the lobster raviolo. I had the duck as the main course and it was cooked to perfection.

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Souffle for dessert at Ormer, Mayfair. Heaven

This was a meal that, as fine dining goes, was hard to beat.

2. Craft, O2 .

Again, this was a restaurant that we sourced from watching ‘Masterchef’ on TV. It looked quirky and some of the dishes looked very unusual and exciting.

Its situation fitted us exactly as we were seeing a show at the O2 and this couldn’t be closer without actually being inside.The ambience is fairly relaxed, certainly more so than others we have visited, but again the food was outstanding and the wine selection was very good.

For our meals, I chose lamb belly to start and pheasant for mains and duck to start and lamb for my wife and her son. We enjoyed two bottles of South African red before a very tasty dessert.

This is one place that, because of the venue, the relaxed atmosphere coupled with very good service, I would definitely visit again.

1.The Ivy, Covent Garden

Our ‘go-to’ place in London. Never lets you down, and for somewhere that has such a well-earned and well-deserved reputation, it is surprisingly unpretentious. We have eaten here many times before the desire to branch out got the better of us and it has never failed us.

We have tried many combinations on the extensive menu but a few standouts for us are the baked alaska that was ceremoniously set alight on our first visit, pigeon breast and foie gras ( again).

I hope you agree with some of my choices. Let me know if do, or don’t. Let me know if I’ve tempted you to try somewhere new. I may need to revise my list at a later date as there were some that just failed to make the top 5, who knows, maybe a return visit is on the cards.

If there’s only one South African city you can visit, make it Cape Town.

If you’ve been assiduously reading this blog, and I know you have, then you’ll know we’ve just come back from travelling the garden route in South Africa. (Five reasons why South Africa should be your next holiday destination). But what if you didn’t have time, and fancied an 11 hour flight just to go to one place, which one would it be?

From all the places we visited there can only be one, the magnificent Cape Town.

Cape Town has everything you could need for a foreign trip bundled up in one package. There are even a few bonuses in there.

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Mist descending over Table Mountain

It has Table Mountain

First of all the skyline is dominated by the indescribable Table Mountain , Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head mountains stretching around the bay as if they are wrapping the city in soothing blankets. Table Mountain in itself is home to thousands upon thousands of indigenous flora. In fact there are more species of flora on Table Mountain than in the whole of the British Isles !

The top of the mountain can be reached by cable car , or if you are feeling particularly energetic, and have a lot of time on your hands, by hiking. We opted for cable car , unsurprisingly.

It has the views

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View from the top of Table Mountain

The views over the bay from the summit are amongst the best I have ever seen. It stretches unhindered in every direction, so camera buffs make sure you go prepared.

It has native wildlife in abundance

In my previous blog Five reasons why South Africa should be your next holiday destination I wrote about our game drives but if you are unable to visit a game park then Cape Town has wildlife in abundance on its’ doorstep. Whilst you are not going to see lions, elephants or rhinos you may well encounter a dassie on Table Mountain which is a small dog sized animal native to South Africa. At the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront you may well see seals swimming around the harbour. Dolphins and whales can also be spotted all year round from the coast looking out towards Robben Island.

It has great food & wine in beautiful surroundings

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The clock tower at the V & A Waterfront

The V & A Waterfront is a must go place in Cape Town. We had meals and drinks there most days. It has been developed since the 1990’s and now houses a multitude of bars and restaurants serving reasonably priced food and drink.

The wines on offer are from some of the greatest wineries in the world and are just on the doorstep, so those costs are right down. The food too is on whole native to South Africa, you could expect to see delicacies like ostrich and kudu on the menu.

It has the beaches

Due to the city’s unique geography, it is possible to visit several different beaches in the same day, each with a different setting and atmosphere. Though the Cape’s water ranges from cold to mild, the difference between the two sides of the city is dramatic. While the Atlantic Seaboard averages annual water temperatures barely above  13 °C (55 °F), the False Bay coast is much warmer, averaging between 16 and 17 °C (61 and 63 °F) annually. This is similar to water temperatures in much of the Mediterranean.

It has tour guides with first hand experience

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Take a trip to UNESCO World Heritage site Robben Island and you will be shown around the island, that was home to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, by a former prisoner or guard. During our visit our guide pointed to a corner of the large dormitory we stood in and told us that that was where he slept when he was imprisoned on Robben Island for 6 1/2 years. It brings a whole new level of meaning when the guide asks if you have any questions.

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The District 6 Remembrance Museum

Similarly we were taken to District 6 museum which commemorates an area just outside Cape Town which was inhabited happily  by blacks and whites until the authorities declared in the 1970’s that inhabitants were to be forcibly removed and the area was to be bulldozed. Our delightful guide was living in District 6 at that time and remembers the events well.

It has a couple of bonuses

One major bonus is that everyone speaks English and another for us Brits is that they drive on the left.

Its’ unique geographical situation gives it a foot in both camps,so to speak, with an Atlantic and Indian ocean coastline. As a result the city enjoys an unusual and unique mix of flora and fauna some of which is found nowhere else in the world. The soil composition and all year sunshine makes it an ideal spot for wine growing. The mutlicultural society gives the city a fantastic ‘buzz’. Its’ recent heritage and how it has emerged from the dark days of apartheid into the open and welcoming city it is today give credit to those who live there. As it is, accidents of nature combining to make this unique setting and man’s dogged determination and tenacity in the face of adversity have all combined to make Cape Town the amazing and unique city that it is today.

I would love to hear if there are any other cities worldwide that can compare with this one. Let me know…

 

 

 

 

 

Five reasons why South Africa should be your next holiday destination

Last weekend I returned from an unforgettable 11 day trip to South Africa. This was my first ever visit and was to celebrate my wife’s birthday.

I had all the usual concerns before we  went and had no real idea what was in store for us.

So why then, should you choose to visit South Africa ?

Reason 1; The scenery is breathtaking

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The mist falls over Devil’s Peak towards the V & A Waterfront in Cape Town

We hired a car and drove the garden Route for most of our holiday and took shed loads of photos but looking back at a two dimensional snap just doesn’t communicate in any way just how immense and spectacular some of the scenery like Table Mountain and the national parks are. Table Mountain dominates the Cape Town skyline in a way that no other landmark could and just a few hours from Cape Town enormous granite cliffs stretch  into the sky  as far as the eye can see and look like they could engulf you in an instant.

Reason 2; The wine is stunning

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We are big fans of South African reds so to go to a place like this where Stellenbosch is on the doorstep is like a trip to Mecca. We booked a winelands tour with an independent guide , Hein Dornbrack of www.socialtrekking.co.za, who showed us around 4 of the vineyards near our hotel.To put this number into context, in the Stellenbosch area alone there are about 150 separate vineyards all producing wines of the very highest quality. We had to concede defeat at about 4.30pm after tasting, and drinking, some of the best wines we’ve ever had.

Reason 3; It’s very inexpensive

When you live in a country like England you become used to paying £5 for a pint of beer, £6 for a glass of mediocre red and anything from £50 plus for an average two course meal. It’s a real eye opener to sit and eat a delicious three course meal in a restaurant with superb views and enjoy a bottle of great wine and to be charged £30 ! Going out for a drink in the evening costs £4 for a glass of wine and a beer. To fill the car up with petrol cost only £35. Are you listening England ? It can be done !

Reason 4; The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming

I realise that we were tourists and were seeing people in restaurants, hotels, bars and tourist attractions but you cannot feign that friendliness.Everyone we met, from taxi drivers to petrol pump attendants were smiling and accommodating and willing to go the extra mile for us. What was also noticeable was the pride they have in their country and where it has come from since the days of apartheid. Everyone we spoke to was knowledgeable about the history, the habitat, the flora and fauna, the politics and wanted to share that knowledge with us.

Reason 5; The wildlife is unbelievable

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Up close with a lioness on our game drive

We were fortunate to go on a few game drives in a private game reserve during our time there so we were pretty much guaranteed to see a wide variety of wildlife. But South Africa is teeming with wildlife everywhere. On our first afternoon in Cape Town we saw a seal taking a leisurely swim at the V & A Waterfront , we saw a dassie ( a small dog sized animal) at the top of Table Mountain, we saw baboons on a rooftop on our way along the garden route, ostriches in a field along the road. We were sadly out of season for the spectacle of whale watching at Hermanus ( September-December) but can only imagine how breathtaking that must be.

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South Africa is an immense country and we have merely scratched the surface but what we saw and experienced of the people, the scenery, the wildlife I think we can say with some certainty that we will be back.

First time, ‘Last Exit’

 
Since downloading the ‘ Goodreads ‘ app a while ago Hubert Selby Jr has been on my ‘to read’ list. This month I finally got round to completing his first work ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’.

It’s safe to say that ‘Last Exit’ is not like anything you’ve ever read before. Structurally, grammatically it goes against anything you’ve ever read before. Speech marks are dispensed with and conversations, such as they are, run into one another so you are unsure who is speaking. The rhythm of the language is paramount. Shelby expertly captures the speech patterns and linguistic nuances of the various characters with words you have to read aloud to understand. 

The characters are for the most part the most thoroughly desperate, despicable, vile bunch ever created. They all seem to be clamouring for something that is not there, love, attention, romance, happiness. Whatever it is Selby makes sure they don’t get it. 

Two of the most memorable Harry Black , the strike leader and Tralala the prostitute come to particularly grisly ends. Harry has just come to terms with his sexuality and seems to have found happiness, of sorts, when Selby tears it away in an instant. Tralala is left for dead by her cackling and mocking ‘friends ‘ after a horrific experience.

This world is not for the faint hearted. It is callous and brutal. There is no happy ending. It is inhabited by lying, cheating, self centred, amoral monsters. But what makes it more disturbing is that you can sense that it is real. These characters existed then and they exist now. The world Selby has painted is one that is played out around the world wherever people are trapped and strive to escape but hopelessness drags them back time and time again. 

Did I enjoy it ? Yes, to an extent. Would I read anything else by Selby? Hmmm, not sure. By all accounts ‘Last Exit’ is pretty upbeat compared to ‘The Room’ and others. I love his writing style and his characters not so much the lack of structured storyline…so we’ll see. Watch this space whydoncha.

Why Dubai ?

 

dubai

Wow , wow , and yes, another wow. That’s what it’s like when you arrive in Dubai and are transported to your hotel along the six lane highways.

Get yourself a thesaurus , look up the word ‘luxury’ and then apply all the synonyms to this place. Our suite at The Grosvenor House Hotel was sumptuous. The decor in the hotel reception was opulent. The food in restaurants run by celebrity chefs was magnificent.You soon tire of excitedly pointing at luxury brand cars like Bentley’s , Porsches and Ferrari’s . In Dubai they are as commonplace as Ford Fiestas and VW Polo’s.

In a city that has sprung up from virtually nothing over the last 25 or so years everything has been thought of for your comfort. Air conditioning is the norm. Want to go to a gigantic shopping mall ? A short walk from wherever you are takes you to the simplest metro in existence ~ basically one straight line connecting the whole of Dubai. It is, of course , air-conditioned and spotlessly clean.

The malls are enormous sprawling temples to consumerism and underline the fact that whatever Dubai wants , Dubai gets. Ski slope ? Sure , no problem.Tallest building in the world ? You got it. Fastest lift to get to the 127th floor ? Sure thing. Tell you what , we’ll have a water slide at the hotel but let’s put sharks in a covered tank at the bottom. Dubai is excess. Even five star luxury isn’t enough for Dubai , here, a whole new level of luxury had to be invented for the Burj Al Arab. It has to go one step further than anywhere else I’ve been. Even toilets in the malls are marble floored , touch free , leather sofa equipped and look more like they belong in a five-star hotel than a shopping mall.

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In a city built on tourism , and the most lavish and extreme tourism there is , the service is second to none. We were waiting for a pick up one morning for a trip we had booked and it was 5 minutes late. Nothing too worrying. Within seconds, a member of staff asked us what we were waiting for , got the name of the company , called them and asked why they hadn’t arrived.

But do you know what….

There’s something not right. Not for me anyway. Dubai is sterile. It’s perfect. Nothing happens. Crime is virtually non-existent. Everything is just so. Eating dinner or drinking cocktails in Dubai is like eating or drinking in an operating theatre. It just seems so false.

In a way you can understand the nouveaux riche loving this place so much. It is created out of nothing. There is no substance to it. You want it ? You’ve got it. If you’ve got the money.

We have been to Las Vegas and where Las Vegas is like a friendly old uncle who lets you stay up late watching telly and lets you have a sip of his beer , Dubai is a maiden aunt with a house full of ornaments. You just know  that once your back is turned everything is going to be put back in its’ place and dusted down.

The only time we got a feel for the ‘real’ Dubai was on a trip to the gold souk and the markets. You get there by boat across Dubai Creek on a rickety old dhow with the water splashing onto the floor.

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You get a feeling that if new Dubai had anything to do with this then you would be transported across the creek on a solid gold bridge which would emerge from the water at the touch of a button.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked Dubai. I can understand why people go there time and time again. It is a place where , if you can afford it , you don’t need to think of anything. Everything is catered for. Well, I’m sorry Dubai , while I like what you do,  I prefer my holidays with a bit more realism.( A Health and Safety break in Skiathos )

 

 

 

Planning , coincidence or luck ? Whatever it was we had a great time.

the-o2

 

We’d been looking forward to this weekend since March 2016 when we booked tickets to see The Impractical Jokers live at the O2 in London. Just me , my wife and her 24 year old son. The O2 arena , if you didn’t already know is stuck on the end of a massive loop in the River Thames in London. It’s a devil to get to. We booked a hotel in Chiswick which seemed to be very nice and sat and waited for the date to arrive.

As the date drew closer the drivers of South West Trains decided to start having a series of one day strikes which threw travellers plans into chaos. We simply had to sit and hope that they didn’t choose Saturday 14th January as one of their strike days. They didn’t. But we weren’t out of the woods yet. On my way to collect the tickets I was told that the very journey we had planned was subject to engineering works which would add 30 minutes onto our journey. I checked at the ticket office , yes , it was true said the clerk. The train would be diverted around Havant and the trip would take an extra half an hour. This was a nuisance because as a treat we’d booked a very nice restaurant outside the O2 and as the time was already tight getting to London , then across London , then to the hotel we could ill-afford any delays in getting to our booking.To add just a little more spice into the journey that day, the UK had severe weather warnings of massive snow falls due over the weekend which would cause huge disruption for all travellers. Don’t make any plans , they cried. Well, too late , we’ve already made our plans , we’re in too deep. We got up on Saturday morning expecting the worst drew the curtains and saw scenes of……well, nothing really. Just a completely normal day.Not even that cold.

So far , so good.

We got to the station and boarded our train hoping that the engineering works wouldn’t take up too much time. As the announcements were made by the guard during the trip there was no mention of the diversions and it looked like we were going to arrive on time. Strange. The clerk had seemed so sure ! As it was we arrived in plenty of time and caught the tube to the O2. From their we caught a taxi to our hotel , a short 10 minute drive away. As he dropped us off we asked what would be the best way to get back as there was no taxi rank around. With that the driver gave us his personal mobile number and told us to call him in 10 minutes and he’d take us back once we’d checked in. What a star !!

We got the the restaurant ‘Craft’ outside the O2 in ample time for our booking and enjoyed what I can only describe as one of the best meals I have had. Lamb belly to start and pheasant for mains for me and duck to start and lamb for my wife and her son. The service throughout was impeccable and the day was getting better and better.

Still quite early we made our way to the arena and enjoyed a relaxing drink before the show. The one part we weren’t looking forward to was the fact that when we booked we could only get row H seat 665,666,& 667 or something, which by my reckoning was the best part of half a mile away ! We would have needed super powered binoculars to even see the stage  never mind who was performing on it.

However, as we donned our oxygen masks and made our way by escalator to the rarified atmosphere of the upper levels we were stopped in our tracks by a man in a white anorak, one of the ‘O2 Angels’.

” Are any of you 02 customers ?” he asked

As it happened we all are.

“I can upgrade you.” And thinking he meant our phones , we duly produced them.What he actually wanted was our tickets because he was allowed to upgrade 02 customers to better seats and so he gave us there and then three seats about 10 rows from the front and to the left of the stage. Seats which , if they had been available, we’d have chosen anyway.

We settled in and enjoyed a brilliant night of comedy with The Impractical Jokers.

After the show , because we were only a short taxi ride away we managed to avoid the crowds pouring from the 02 and went and had a relaxing drink while the crowds thinned out. We then took a leisurely stroll to the taxi rank and back to our hotel.

The weekend was a huge success , partly because of planning ,we chose a nearby hotel and a good restaurant and we knew how busy the 02 would be , partly because of coincidence , with our 02 Angel and partly because the weather, strikes, engineering just didn’t happen.

And in the end all these things coming together in a perfect storm created a weekend to remember.

 

First light, first skate in NYC

We had visited New York a few times before our visit in December but always during the summer months.We wanted to experience the full new York winter and a part of that was to go ice skating in front of The Rockefeller Centre. As we only had a few days there we decided it would be more sensible to book tickets for the skating so had a look at online booking. It turns out you can’t book any skates except for the ‘first skate’ of the day each day at 7am.

And so it was that on a chilly Monday in December only a day and a half after landing at JFK and seeing the first snow of the year we groggily got up to the alarm in darkness at 6am and headed off to The Rockefeller Centre.

We have never been around NYC this early as it gets light and it is quite a different experience. There are cars , taxis and buses and pedestrians as always but it all seemed eerily calm. The wind was bitingly cold down 5th Avenue as we turned into the Rockefeller Plaza and saw the spectacular Christmas tree.

treeWe were joining 148 other freezing people who all had nothing better to do on a cold morning at 7am than to don ice skates and go skating around in front of The Rockefeller Christmas tree.

We are definitely not Torvill and Dean, more Bambi on ice, and were more than a little concerned that we would feel very inadequate as people sped by doing loops and triple axles and whatever else ice skaters do.

There was no need.

Everyone bar the odd handful displayed the same game ‘I’ve paid for this so I’m going to damn well do it if it kills me’ face as we did and it was great fun. The hour sped by. We didn’t fall over but as my confidence increased I came dangerously close as I tried a crossover turn.

We had booked too late to benefit from the breakfast on offer as part of the package but we did however enjoy a warming and complimentary cup of hot chocolate when we came off the ice and shared smiles and comments with the other intrepid members of the 7am ‘First Skate’ group.