Category Archives: Travel

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.

Why Dubai ?

 

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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.

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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.

 

The Red Flame Diner vs The Waldorf-Astoria. Like ‘Rocky vs Apollo Creed’.

On our visit to New York last December we had the pleasure of eating at both of these establishments. This was like Rocky Balboa the unfancied challenger climbing into the ring with the the swaggering , classy champ Apollo Creed. We all know how the first one ended but what about this one ?

Round one

The outside of The Red Flame Diner ,down a side street off 6th Avenue near Times Square, is fairly ordinary. A storm porch in clear glass keeps out the freezing temperatures and gives precious protection to the sub zero New York winter. The name is emblazoned on the door and windows. In midtown on Park Avenue sits the imposing and internationally renowned Waldorf Astoria hotel and La Chine restaurant. The challenger takes an early punch and sways a little but holds his own.Round one goes to the champion unanimously.

Round two

Inside The Red Flame Diner are cubicles for groups or families of four or more to sit in comfortable but unfussy seats. The tables have laminated menus listing everything available for breakfast , lunch and dinner and it is quite extensive. At La Chine on the ground floor of The Waldorf  heavy doors open onto supreme elegance and luxury in grey and black and subtle shades of brown. Tables are laid with bone china teacups and heavy silver cutlery. The menu is brought to you by a smartly dressed waiter. This could be all over by the third round, the challenger is in trouble.The champion looks in complete control. Round two to the champion.

Round three

Looking groggy the challenger takes on our breakfast order of scrambled egg , bacon and potato, toast and a coffee. A cup of iced water is brought over to our table before we start.The champion feels confident and takes our order of Imperial afternoon tea and a cocktail. A good and positive fight back from the challenger and the round is drawn.

Round four

Within minutes our breakfast order comes out at The Red Flame and it looks delicious and  there is plenty of it. At La Chine our pot of tea is brought out and also our scones , the first course of the afternoon tea, followed by savoury pastries. At The Red Flame we continue to plough our way through the tasty breakfast while the waiter tops up our coffees for free. At The Waldorf we are then inexplicably left alone for 25 minutes with our tea going colder and nothing to eat apart from the array of  cakes and finger buffet we had before us but have been told not to touch until we had our dim sum.ny dec16 009

The champion is taking a few blows now and looks unsteady on his feet.

We are asked at La Chine if we’d like another glass of water. We do but our waitress disappears never to be seen again. Meanwhile we are still awaiting our dim sum. At that point we are approached by a waitress who asks us if we’d like the cakes and finger buffet bagged up to take home. Through gritted teeth we explain that we are STILL waiting for our dim sum.

The champion is rocking.

At the Red Flame diner the service continues efficiently and effectively. We ask for the bill. And are brought the bill quickly. The cost , 24 dollars. It’s a potential knockout blow.

At La Chine Waldorf we finally get our flabby and fairly tasteless dim sum and eat our cakes. We ask for the bill and it is 200 dollars plus.

It’s a knockout !! For service , food , price and value for money the Red Flame Diner is a clear winner.

The Waldorf Astoria just wasn’t up to the steady tenacity of the contender. I for one know where I would choose to eat next time I visit NYC.

My first September holiday

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After teaching for 23 years and running a supply teaching agency for 9 and a half I have always had to suffer that most awful of things…the school holiday and its’ added expense , noise and general inconvenience. Don’t get me wrong , I know teachers have loads of holidays blah blah blah and they should be grateful etc but the point I’m making is that when you’re involved in schools and have children of your own then you HAVE to go away in school holidays.

Except now.

Now I’m in my 50’s , my children are both adults. I have retired from my business and this year I went on holiday in September ! I know. For the first time in my life I holidayed out of the school holidays.

And what a treat it was. I’m going to do it every year from now on. And this is why…

There are no kids running around the place jumping into pools , yelling and screaming.

We chose to go to Greece for the first time and in September it is still hot but it’s not so hot that you can’t bear it. Like a lot of 50 somethings I’m going a bit thin on top and have to slap the factor 50 onto my balding bonce , not this time !

It’s coming towards the end of the season, for the Greeks at least, and they are trying to squeeze every last euro out of the tourist trade before they pull down the shutters and curl up for a nap till next March or April. So , there are some bargains to be had on excursions and the like as there are fewer tourists.

Restaurants , bars and tavernas are not as crowded as they are in the summer. We ate in a different restaurant most nights and didn’t need to book any of them. We did our research and as we enjoy eating good food we found some really lovely places.

The cost of accommodation is A LOT cheaper. We spent less than 300 euros for a whole week in a spotlessly clean self catering apartment. During the summer it is more than double that.

You find the people who go away at that time are very similar to you. They are of a similar age and outlook probably because they’ve all cottoned on to the magic of the September break.

It’s so quiet everywhere and that’s not just because of the lack of children. Even round pools and on the flights you notice a sense of calm and tranquility around you, as if everyone is party to some special secret.

So all in all , I have to say ,for a first time September holidaymaker, I am a convert. I will be back and I will see if my theory holds true for Malta which was booked for a week next September about 2 days after coming home !

A Health and Safety break in Skiathos

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Skiathos from the old port

In early September we spent a week in Skiathos , a tiny island in the Aegean sea.It was , to all intents and purposes , a chance for us to relax after a particularly stressful house move. So avoiding stress was high on the agenda.

It appears to be quite high on the Greek agenda too.

What we first noticed was the volume of mopeds whizzing up and down tiny streets , on main roads , dirt tracks , everywhere. Not only were they whizzing about but they were whizzing about with riders with no helmets and generally no protective gear at all. In some cases they were used to pick up children from school by slightly overweight dads who then precariously balanced up to three small children on the moped and proceeded to whiz up and down streets as before.

As we sat down for a few pre-dinner cocktails looking over the picturesque old port we perused our menus and saw that there was a lack of any indication or notification of the calorie content of any drink , no indication of whether anything contained nuts , gluten or other additives. Their one consent was to state if a dish was suitable for vegetarians. But you did get a feeling that it was done grudgingly.

Wherever we went on the island stone stairs wound up hills with alarmingly irregular steps. There was an absence of warnings about the perils of getting too close to the edge when enormous ferries came in to dock.

Best of all however is the cafe that caters for aeroplane spotters with a difference. The airport runway in Skiathos is alarmingly close to the road. So close in fact that if you stand on the roadside while the plane is turning before take-off you can see pilots and passengers clearly waving to you. You are kept from harms way in all of this by a 3 foot high barrier and a sign saying `Be aware of engine blast when planes take off `. As the planes were a mere 100 yards from us blasting hot air at a rate of knots into our faces it was hard not to be aware of it.

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Precariously close to the runway

Similarly when planes landed , flying over the road at a height of no more than the average house , there was no warning to anyone of engine noise or potential danger of planes not quite making it to the runway and landing unceremoniously on your head.

The point of all this is that no-one cared. No-one cared a jot that motorcyclists had no helmets and were transporting small children clinging on like baby chimpanzees. It was their responsibility. The children seemed perfectly happy.

No-one cared that the meals weren`t labelled telling us of every possible allergy and how many calories we`d be consuming. It was our responsibility.

In fact during our whole week there the Greeks showed a refreshing disregard for the Nanny state mentality that we suffer in the UK on a daily basis. What they were saying was , “This is how it is. We know it might be dangerous , it probably is. But hey, you`re grown-ups. Take some responsibility. If there`s a motorbike with a dad and three children coming down the same street as you , get out of the way.”

The Greeks on Skiathos seemed extremely content and happy with their lives. They were , as far as we could tell , being left to get on with things like adults and to make decisions like adults. If they got hurt because they were too close to an airplane taking off then that`s their problem. It`s an airplane , what do you expect.

In the UK the balance has tipped too far the other way and we are led through our lives each day with everyone too petrified to do anything that would endanger anyone. Maybe the Greek way is too far the other way , but from our short time there I think I know which I’d prefer. I’m just off to get my moped.