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Just For Fun Travel

Top European holiday destinations by rail from London

Cutting down your carbon footprint doesn’t mean that you don’t have to travel anymore. As many have said before me “the adventure is in the journey”; why not get your holiday off to a roaring start, be it a city break by rail or something a bit longer, and travel to your destination by train?

Train was once the way to travel. It was cutting edge, exciting and a downright sophisticated affair. If you have the funds, it still can be today but for many of us, trains might not be particularly glamorous but there are plenty of great reasons to go on holiday by one. Apart from the obvious win for the planet, it’s a much more relaxed way to travel – there’s no airport stress, the views out of the window, you arrive right in the heart of the action, it’s more comfortable, you can choose what you eat, it’s more romantic and on some trains in Europe there might even be a bar to prop up.

Sounds dreamy, right? Now, we all know that we can pop onto a Eurostar at St Pancras and zoom off to Paris or Brussels, but let’s think a bit outside the box here…how do these lovely places sound?

Avignon, France

Set in the picturesque landscapes of southern France, the beautiful city of Avignon is built around the dramatic Palais de Papes, a 14th century palace and fortress. A centre for food, drink and art, you can certainly get your fix of all three here, and Avignon’s small town vibe makes it even more of a pleasure to explore.

Avignon is also at the heart of Provence, so you’ve also got a breathtaking coastline, rolling vineyards (including the world famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape close by), sleepy villages and a deep history that spans as far back as the Romans to explore.

To reach Avignon, take the Eurostar from London to Paris and then the TGV onwards. It takes about 2 hours 40 minutes and you’ll traverse much of the length of France, passing vineyards, mountains and lots of glorious countryside.

Avignon, France – the Pont de Avignon and the Palais de Papes

Riems, France

The heart of the celebrated Champagne region, and home to a spectacular Gothic cathedral, (one of its three UNESCO world heritage sites) Reims is the perfect mix of history and booze and ideal for a long weekend living le bon vie.

Spend a couple of days wandering the champagne house lined streets of Epernay to really live it large. 

To reach Reims, hop on a Eurostar from London to Paris. From there you have a choice of a quick 40 minute TGV ride, or a more meandering local train which takes 1 hour 20 minutes through Paris’ suburbs and rolling countryside.

Milan, Italy

Sat in the shadow of the Alps, Milan is Italy’s modern metropolis, economic powerhouse and it’s fashion capital. Contemporary and cosmopolitan as it may be, it has rich historic roots to explore, and some to-die-for food. It’s also the gateway to Italy’s spectacular lake district, so why not tack on some time to gaze over Lake Como while you’re there.

This one is a bit of a mission, but entirely worth it! From London take the Eurostar to Paris, then the TGV to Zurich (Switzerland) then a local train to Milan. You’ll pass through the Alps, cross the Landwasser Viaduct and whoosh along the banks of Lake Como.

Cologne, Germany – Hohenzollern Bridge and Cologne Cathedral

Cologne, Germany

Overlooking the Rhine River, Cologne is arguably Germany’s most delightful city. It’s roots are Roman and there are plenty of historical sights to stumble across, as well as a huge Gothic cathedral that dominates the skyline. There’s also an atmospheric old town and a chocolate museum.

Germany’s North Rhine – Westphalia region, easily accessible from Cologne, is also home to the cities of Frankfurt, Wiesbaden and Bonn, is dotted with medieval hill and spa towns and contains prime wine country – definitely worth exploring!

Located in east Germany, not far from the Belgium border, Cologne is very easy to reach by train. Take the usual Eurostar from London to Brussels, then hop on one of the frequent fast trains to Cologne, which takes 1 hour 40 minutes.

Barcelona, Spain

A vibrant, colourful seaside city, Barcelona is a city that ticks many boxes. There’s centuries worth of history written in a wealth of spectacular architecture, the food is ridiculously good, the nightlife epic and there’s plenty of sunshine. Perfecto.

Catalonia’s beaches are some of the best, so this could be a fantastic option for those who like an ‘explore and flop’ sort of adventure.

This is one for people who like a leisurely journey, as it takes a couple of days. London to Paris Eurostar, then a slower intercity train up into the Pyrenees to Latour-de-Carol, then the Rodalies de Catalunya train down into Barcelona. Those views though!

Barcelona, Spain – From Parc Guell overlooking the city

Luxembourg, Luxembourg

Luxembourg, capital of the tiny nation of the same name, is often overlooked for its powerhouse neighbours, but that simply makes it a hidden gem! This city combines the beauty of old-world Europe with its wealth of historical buildings and world-class museums and galleries with all the conveniences of a modern metropolis.

With Luxembourg city as a base, the whole country is easy to explore – there are plenty of historic gems and beautiful nature to see and areas of Germany, France and Belgium are easily accessible.

Another easy one; Eurostar from London to Brussels then and intercity trains to Luxembourg, or take the Eurostar to Paris and hop on a TGV to Luxembourg. Both journeys take roughly the same time, but services are more frequent via Brussels.   

And for anyway who fancies an ultra luxurious train experience:

Venice, Italy

Departing from London Victoria, the Belmond Orient Express is epitome of luxury, harking back to the golden age of train travel in the 1920s and 30s. In fact, the carriages are from that very time! Departing London on the Belmond British Pullman the train passes through the lush landscapes of Kent to Folkestone, where you board a shuttle through to Paris, before boarding the Orient Express. Then you journey through the ever-changing scenery of France, spending the night on the train and waking in the Swiss Alps, before pulling into the timeless city of Venice, Italy. Food and wine onboard are of the utmost quality, and all interiors, from cabins to dining rooms are the pinnacle of art deco opulence. This is a once in a lifetime journey! 

Venice, Italy – Santa Maria della Salute across the lagoon

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Personal Travel

What it was like to travel to Sri Lanka with a six-month old

My husband and I always said that having a baby wouldn’t change the way we travelled. We love to go on trips where we’d travel around, exploring, discovering, adventuring, eating local food, drinking local drinks…you get the picture. Right, we thought when we found out we were pregnant, we’ll just keep on doing all that, but with the baby in tow, she’ll love it because we love it!

And so she was born, and the time came to find somewhere amazing to go. Holiday research being one of my major life loves, I set to work, discovering where in the world is particularly good to go with a six month old. Thailand? Easy to travel around, great beaches, bit of culture. Canada? We have family there, also easy and convenient. Mexico? A place neither of us had been there before, great food, relaxed.

But then I thought, the baby isn’t going to care where we holiday, so why should I choose a destination for her? Why not go to a place that I really want to go! And so we booked Sri Lanka.

In preparation we ploughed through web pages full of tips for travelling with a baby, bought a load of things that would either be extremely useful or absolutely pointless and planned an itinerary that would both satiate our appetite for exploring and stay in places long enough that the baby wouldn’t feel like all of her time was spent in a car seat.

And this is how it all worked out…

Our itinerary

We decided on a two week trip for baby’s first trip. I’d like to point out the fact that we had a fully planned itinerary with a car and driver, which is not the way I would usually do things, so a major concession to Little Miss straight off, but with the amount of time we were visiting for, the distances involved and the amount of stuff we had, it was the right choice for us. Sri Lanka has so much to see and do, you need a lot of time to do it justice but two weeks was about all the time we had and could afford. Lucky to, as this was February 2020 and Corona was just on the brink of really kicking off in the UK.

Colombo, the capital, is home of the international airport and where we arrived. We spent one night here before blazing a trail across to Habarana, where we spent four nights. Habarana is located at the heart of what is known as Sri Lanka’s ‘Cultural Triangle’; from here you can explore the timeless ruins of two of Sri Lanka’s ancient seats of power Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, the cave temples of Dambulla and, one of the island’s most recognisable sites, Sigiriya or ‘Lion Rock’. All of these spectacular places were on our itinerary, and we managed all of them except Dambulla, which I think was pretty good going.

Our next destination was Nuwara Eliya, up in Sri Lanka’s central highlands, where we spent two nights. We travelled by road to Kandy before taking the popular train up through the tea plantations which was a glorious way to travel, and extra good for Baby as she didn’t have to be strapped into a seat…not that she appreciated the views. Here, we visited a tea plantation in the sunshine and generally admired the beauty of the place.

Finally we spent six nights by the sea in Beruwala. This wouldn’t have been my first choice to be honest, there are far lovely seaside places we could have stayed – Galle, Marissa, Hikkaduwa, to name just a few. But as the trip down from the highlands was pretty epic, it was a case of as soon as we hit the coast, we stop and stay! In terms of sun, sea, sand and palm trees, it ticked all the boxes. There was also a lovely pool and a little restaurant selling fresh fish about 200 metres along the beach. Whilst we were there, we also took a day trip to Galle, a place I desperately wanted to visit, which ended up being a bit of a disaster with us only getting about an hour to spend there.

Did it work?

I think if Sri Lanka hadn’t been so beautiful, I wouldn’t have enjoyed myself much. I sorely missed the freedom to explore, especially at places like Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. Wandering willy nilly through ancient sites is one of my favs. The days that we were sightseeing felt quite rushed, and therefore stressful, and I didn’t feel I paid enough attention to what I was seeing. I did get to climb Sigiriya sans baby, who stayed at the base with her dad, and it gave me a taste of the old days and is one of the highlights of the trip for me.

Having said all that, on the other days it was nice to slow down, enjoy the sun and relax around a pool with our new little one – just being somewhere else after nearly six month mostly sat on the sofa feeding a newborn was pretty special.

I also suffered major mum guilt because the car seat that was provided was for a toddler, not a baby; we had debated many a time whether to take our own, but the tour company had sent a picture of an infant car seat that they had so we decided to leave it. We spent a lot of time holding Baby’s head when she fell asleep so it didn’t flop forward. It also didn’t help that in my sleep deprived state, I’d managed to leave the baby carrier on the plane, never to be seen again, so just having a pushchair was a bit restrictive in some places.

Our driver was lovely and loved Baby. In fact, she got so much attention! We had Sri Lankan grannies cooing over her and local kids peering at her through her pushchair shade as she napped, which was really lovely. I also found it amusing that the driver called the pushchair her ‘go cart’ as most people in Sri Lanka don’t use one, and carry their children everywhere instead, so some of the attention could have been on her method of transport rather than her!

Our flights

We flew from Heathrow to Colombo with SriLankan Airlines. Heathrow was pretty easy – there’s actually a family room that I never knew existed, with a place for kids to play and a private room to feed. We had bulkhead seats and were able to board first, getting ourselves set up with the bassinet and everything we needed before everyone was onboard. While it was great to have the bassinet, Baby wasn’t a fan, so we ended up having to hold her for most of the flight. The airline does have a flight attendant dedicated to looking after the kids onboard, and the one we met was lovely and helpful. We even got a little pack with a changing mat and wipes in it.

The flight on the way home…I can’t remember it at all! I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve repressed it for some reason, but I do remember that we were allowed to the front of the check-in queue at Colombo airport because of Baby, and that there was also a dedicated family area and bathroom in departures for feeding.

The gear

We had had a few trips planned for 2020 – we also had two abroad weddings we were going to as well as Sri Lanka, so we bought stuff that would work for all three…thanks Corona! The major things were a new lightweight pushchair – a Joie Tourist – which folds up quite small. Not carry-on small but small enough. My one complaint about it is that the hood didn’t, and still doesn’t, keep the sun off, but from my research that seems to be quite a common complaint. We supplemented with a Snooze Shade, which Baby wasn’t happy about, as it meant she couldn’t see. She’d poke her head out of the side to see what was going on instead!

We got a pop up tent to have by the pool and on the beach as a place for her to kick about and nap out of the sun and protected from insects, which was probably unnecessary, and an inflatable pool ring for her to float about in, which she enjoyed very much. A white noise machine for nighttime and naps, and a few pouches of purees as she was ready to wean while we were away. We ended up just giving her some of the beautiful tropical fruit to try, which is probably why she only wants to eat sweet things still! 

Would I do it again?

I don’t know. As much as I wanted our travels to be the same as they were before baby, it was pretty naive of me to expect that everything would be the same. Perhaps I’m just not flexible and relaxed enough to be one of those people who can just travel with their baby – but maybe the amount of time we had was an element, perhaps the fact that my maternity leave was ending a week after we got home also played a part.

Now that she’s a bit older, and sleeps better, I would be more willing to try that sort of holiday again, but if I was to travel with a baby in future, it would be a holiday based in one place with a few, nice chilled trips out to lovely sights. None of this is down to the baby herself, she was pretty chilled out, and loved looking at all the birds and animals, and going in the pool and all the attention she got wherever she was, so whatever I was feeling was probably self sabotage!

As for Sri Lanka, I didn’t appreciate you as much as I should have done, and I will come back one day and really take the time to soak up all the wonders that you have to offer, and love you as you should be loved.

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Travel

Great Canadian Road Trips: Vancouver and Vancouver Island

Canada’s west coast is what road trips are made for.

Sandwiched between the Rockies in the east and the Pacific to the west, British Colombia is nature on a grand scale, a veritable wonderland of beauty. Think swathes of untamed forest, towering, snow-kissed peaks and an endless coastline of sandy beaches and rugged, surf-beaten rocks. Throw in the rich indigenous culture, chilled out locals and endless opportunities for all out adventure, all easily discoverable on quiet, picturesque roads and you’ve got the road trip of a lifetime!

As well as spectacular, BC is also huge, so you’ll need a good while to explore it more fully. Driving north from Vancouver along the Sunshine Coast as high as you can go then crossing to Vancouver Island to head south to Victoria before crossing back to Vancouver is the perfect 2-3 week itinerary, and one that I recently embarked on…

The Sunshine Coast

This road trip actually begins with a ferry, departing from the most picturesque ferry port you could imagine. We’d driven around Vancouver and through it’s northern suburbs to reach Horseshoe Bay where, sat in a queue of cars we pondered how utterly different to Dover this was. Bright blue sky, snow capped mountains, emerald ever-green trees backed a peaceful bay, the ferry waiting to load and take us off to the aptly named, on this morning at least, Sunshine Coast. Pushing off from shore we cruised tranquilly around wooded, rocky islands, passing the small boats of people living their best life out on the water on such a glorious day, ever watched over by mountains.

At Langsdale, we drove off the ferry with a feeling of elation. The open road was before us in one of the world’s most beautiful countries, and it was called the Sunshine Coast Highway; what glorious adventures must surely await us? We got stuck in almost straight away, turning off the highway to the little town of Gibson’s Harbour. We popped in and out of cute little boutique stores, and found our way to the harbour where we stopped at Smoke on the Water for an early lunch of amazing pulled pork and fries. After a stroll along the waterfront to the busy indoor market, our final stop was to have a nose at Tapworks Brewing Company, to get some local craft beer to take away and enjoy when the day’s driving was done.

Back on the road we cruised lazily but with purpose – we had another ferry to catch! It would be more than easy to stretch out your time on this first part of the Sunshine Coast Highway; there are plenty of pleasant little towns to explore, as well as provincial parks to hike, lakes and beaches, farm shops and all out wilderness. For us, the drive continued, the road winding gently through towering trees, occasionally kissing the coast for a tempting glimpse at the calm waters of the Strait of Georgia. We followed it until it and the land ran out; we’d arrived at Earl’s Cove, the next ferry terminal. Here we waited, enjoying the peacefulness of the surrounding forest, strolling down to the water’s edge for a peek at the journey to come. Other than a toilet block and a small cafe that happened to be closed, the ferry port didn’t have much going on, but this just added to the gloriousness of the spot, the feeling of wilderness and exploration.

Once again the ferry wound through evergreen islands, the downward trajectory of a spring afternoon sun giving the whole scene a hazy, dream-like quality. I stood at the front of the boat, hoping for a fearless whale to swim by and say hello. Landing at Saltery Bay, we drove the final 30 minutes to Powell River, our stop for several days. Once home to the world’s largest pulp and paper mill, the town today is quaint yet cultural, with plenty of galleries, boutique shops, a microbrewery and Canada’s longest running movie theatre, built in 1913.  

We were here to stay with family, their house high on a hill, looking down over the strait, the mountains of Vancouver Island waiting for us on the other side of the water.

An easily explorable town, a visit to the historic Townsite to peruse the lovely array of boutique shops, and an hour or two in the taproom of award-winning Townsite Brewery were musts. We also made a trip up to Lund, the very end of the highway. From here there is a single provincial road that takes you to the point where the mainland gives way to islands, waterways and unadulterated wilderness. It’s also the gateway, by water, to the bleakly but poetically named Desolation Sound, and it’s eponymous Provincial Park. Although the day was overcast, we strolled happily around the harbour gazing out over the water, admiring a colourful Tla’amin Nation welcome pole. watching golden eagles soaring and lots of hummingbirds swooping back and forth between feeders.

Part 2: Vancouver Island

A bright and sunny morning, we were back on the road, heading for Powell River’s ferry terminal. For the 1 hour 34 minute cruise straight across the Strait of Georgia we stood on deck watching the snowy peaks of Vancouver Island drawing ever closer.

When we originally planned this trip, we wanted to go all the way up to Port Hardy, about as far north as you can go on Vancouver Island, but given the amount of time we had and the other places we wanted to go, it didn’t work out. Instead we popped up as far as Campbell River, a small city strung along the seashore. It’s actually Canada’s salmon capital, which is a pretty big accolade, for anyone who is into fish. As not so into fish people we simply strolled the lovely waterfront ( and discovered the amazing Dockside Fish and Chips on the floating marina), sat on the balcony of our sea-facing motel room desperately hoping to spot whales and explored the local area.

The Campbell River Museum was a great way to while away an afternoon, with exhibitions on local history and a great collection on the First Nations who call the surrounding area home. We also took a trip out of town to Elk Falls Provincial Park, spending a morning mucking about on the well-maintained trails, sunning ourselves on rocks beside mini rapids of the most incredibly clear, blue water and loving the peace and tranquility. The falls themselves were pretty impressive, with a fun suspension bridge to cross to get an even better view.

Departing Campbell River, we cruised southwards, travelling back past the Comox ferry terminal where we had arrived a few days before. At Qualicum Beach we turned westwards, leaving the highway behind to cut across the island to reach our next stop, Tofino. The road passes placid lakes and unspoiled forest, cutting through Cathedral Grove, where we stopped to admire the dizzying heights of ancient Douglas Firs and Red Cedars that have stood here for 800 years. There’s nothing like a tree with a trunk that has a circumference of 9 metres to make you feel tiny. It was a pretty humbling place to walk around, gazing up at trees that have occupied their spot in the world for so long, and survived everything that us humans have thrown at them. Here’s hoping they survive hundreds of years more.

From Cathedral Grove, you keep driving until you hit the Pacific Ocean. At that point you join the Pacific Rim Highway, turning left to the village of Ucluelet, or right to Tofino. The highway cuts through part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, where thick, temperate forest surrounds you but for the occasional cheeky glimpse of the wild sandy beaches and the tempestuous ocean beyond.

Tofino itself is all about the good vibes and while in the past it was probably called ‘hippy’, now it’s just way cooler than that, with its farm to table eateries, trendy cafes and a fine array of places to stay. Oh and a brewery because… well, it’s BC.

The village spreads along the end of a small peninsula, with Clayoquot Sound on one side and the Pacific on the other. Our base for our time here was the Tofino Resort + Marina, which is perfectly located a few minutes’ walk from the village centre with its eateries and shops. The hotel’s marina is a playground for otters and seals, and beyond are the waters of the sound, speckled with islands packed with evergreen trees that are the eternal image of Vancouver Island.

On arrival we popped into Jamie’s Whaling Station to book ourselves on a bear safari, and made plans to walk the Wild Pacific Trail, which follows a glorious stretch of coastline close to Ucluelet.

The bear safari involved buzzing about Clayoquot Sound by small boat to access the true wilderness that Tofino is the gateway too. While we simply stumbled across a pod of orca mucking about in one of the many bays, finding a bear was a little harder. The local bears like to pop down to the rocky shores to snuffle out a snack whenever they get peckish, which is often. On the day we went looking for bears it was sunny but windy, and it seems the Tofino bears aren’t keen on a stiff breeze and preferred to stick to the shelter of the trees. Just as we were about to give up scanning the shoreline for a furry friend, our captain swung into a small, sheltered cove, and there it was. A black bear flipping stones looking for a bite to eat. We were able to get about 20 metres away from it, and spent a good 20 minutes watching it before it slunk off into the trees. Yeah, ok we did only see one, but in the end a bear is a bear, and it was an honour to see one having a snack.

There are several sections of the Wild Pacific Trail and to be honest I’ve no idea which bit or bits we actually did. There was a lighthouse, a lot of rugged, rocky outcrops that the waves hit dramatically, and whales flopping about out to sea, all of which was flipping spectacular! The whole area is popular for storm watching in the winter; the horizon becomes heavy with  black clouds and the wind picks up (poor bears!) causing the ocean to rage and huge waves to crash spectacularly against the land. As we stood and watched it wasn’t hard to imagine the majestic power of the Pacific riled up by a storm, when it already seemed pretty angry on this calm, sunny day.

We followed the coastline around rocky ridges and sandy bays, and passed through dense rainforest, before returning to Ucluelet to hunt for well-earned snacks, which we found at the delightful Ukee Dogs Taqueria.

Heading back to Tofino, we stopped at Long Beach for a stroll on the sand. The surf immediately gave it away as a great surfing spot even though there weren’t many people out catching waves in the late afternoon. Instead we had to watch golden eagles soaring above us and, at one point, landing close-by, and getting quickly miffed by the wind-borne sand that was swirling about. On our final evening in Tofino, we heard about Tonquin Beach being a great spot for sunset, and headed there on foot just in time to catch it. Trails through old-growth forest took us to this tiny cove where we just caught the finally reds and oranges of the setting sun. As soon as dusk fell, we remembered that we were in a country where there are bears, and hot-footed it through the darkening trees to get back into town in a slightly unnecessary panic, unlike the hardened locals, who sat on the beach smoking weed (legal here) as the stars began to appear in the sky.

There’s only one way in and out of Tofino, so we had to drive all the way back the way we had come from Vancouver Island’s main highway to get to our next destination, Victoria. Just before we hit the east coast where we would then turn southwards, we stopped at the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre. Here there are 60 non-releasable native creatures, some of thousands and thousands that have been rescued, including bears and lots of different birds. It was a heart-warming break to the journey, and a reminder of the fragility of nature here, even in a place where so much land remains wilderness. 

We joined the Trans-Canada Highway to travel south, driving on the road’s final section to its western terminus at Victoria. Behind us, this single highway stretches 7,821 kilometres across the whole of Canada, from St John’s Newfoundland in the east. But that’s an adventure for another time. 
Except for a quick stop for Nanaimo bars in Nanaimo, we pushed on for Victoria. It was a sunny early evening as we arrived at our hotel, so we checked in and made the short walk into town. Victoria is one of those cities that doesn’t feel like a city, with an easy-going charm and a quaint aesthetic that makes you feel right at home. We found ourselves at the inner harbour, with the impressive structure of the Fairmont Empress Hotel on one side, the majestic, domed Parliament buildings on the other, and the 1960s edifice of the Royal British Columbia Museum straight ahead. We followed the calm waters of the harbour along Wharf Street, passing the Old Customs House and found our way to the atmospheric Chinatown – Victoria’s is Canada’s oldest – and passed through the spectacular Gate of Harmonious Interest, now a historic monument. Of course we ended up at another brewery, this one an easy staggering distance back to our hotel room. Phillips Brewing had a lively, quirky tap room with a wide range of beers, as well as sodas that were also made in house. 

Victoria has plenty to do, so we dived right in. The Royal BC Museum is packed full of British Columbia’s natural and human history, with three main exhibitions – Natural History, Becoming BC and First Peoples. The room that housed a towering collection of totem poles particularly sticks in my mind. From the museum we wandered outside to Thunderbird Park, which housed more of the museum’s totem pole collection – outside in the sunlight their colours and imagery were extra striking, and in what seemed to be a much more fitting place for them, out in nature at one with the elements. Walking on we stumbled into Beacon Hill Park where, as if the day had a theme, we found ourselves standing at the foot of one of the world’s tallest totem poles, which towers to 37 metres. For me, this trip was certainly a journey of discovery in terms of learning about the First Nations; coming from the country that initially repressed and destroyed their land, populations and heritage it was a big kick in the teeth. On travelling through New Zealand I felt that, compared to other countries, the Kiwis were making a huge effort to embrace and respect the culture of the indiginous Maoris, and I felt that the same had and was happening here and it’s refreshing to see. This is the opinion of a possibly naive outsider who isn’t clued up on much of the politics around this issue, and I hope that I am at least right about a more positive relationship between First Nations populations and other Canadians.

Speaking of locals, we also ventured out onto the waters of the Salish Sea – close enough to the US to get ‘Welcome to the USA’ messages on our phones – to spot whales. We were lucky enough to have close encounters with resident orcas, who popped close to our boat to give us the eye and say hello. Our Prince of Whales (of course, how could I resist such a pun!) vessel also swung us by a rocky outcrop, complete with lighthouse, to see huge sea lions sunning themselves, and gorgeous fluffy sea otters bobbing about on the kelp forests that have flourished in the sheltered waters around the rocks.

After a hard day at sea, Italian food was desperately needed, and there was no better place to dine than Pagliacci’s. Having to queue for a table just made sitting down to eat even more enticing, and the pasta here did not disappoint – the full house, kitsch decor and live music made for a brilliant atmosphere – definitely one of the best meals of the trip.

Part 3: Vancouver

And then it was onto our last ferry, travelling from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen on the mainland. Having mainly experienced ferry journeys across the channel to France, our BC ferry experiences had been spectacular – the water was actually blue, the route winding between small, tree-crowned islands allows you to occasionally spy on people’s plush holiday homes, and there were tasty snack options onboard…what more could you ask for?

Back on the mainland we headed for the big city. Canada’s third largest metropolis, and regular in the top 10 of the world’s most livable cities, Vancouver sits in a spectacular panorama, backed by mountains and fringed by ocean. Our first stop was the airport to return our car before hopping on a train into the centre of the city. It was easy, and our Downtown hotel was then a quick walk from the station, tucked down a side road off the main drag of Granville Street. From here we could easily explore the city on foot, and spent a lot of time wandering the streets to see what we could find. It felt safe, comfortable and there was plenty to see. Our first discovery was the Gastown neighbourhood, which was the original settlement, before the city grew up around it. Today it is all boutique shops and trendy restaurants, but is an atmospheric place to stroll – the quirky steam clock is a famous image of the city. In the same area we stumble across the fabulous Marine Building, a confection of an Art Deco building that is worth a visit if you’re in the city. Also neighbouring Gastown is Vancouver’s Chinatown, one of North America’s largest. At one point, so many ethnic Chinese emigrated to the city that it picked up the nickname ‘Hongcouver’. Excited to try the food, we found our way over to W Pender Street and walked around the area, admiring the Millenium Gate and attempting to pick a restaurant from the many amazing looking ones that lined the streets. 

We spent a day in and around Stanley Park, hiring bikes to cycle around the sea wall, a nice easy 9 kilometre trail that encompasses the park. This route gives you views of the city, views of the mountains, a glimpse at the city’s beaches, and the Lions Gate Bridge which is a historic monument. You’ll also pass the parks collection of nine totem poles, which stand tall, representing some of the many First Nations that call BC home, at Brockton Point. Also located in Stanley Park is the Vancouver Aquarium. I often feel wary of aquariums, but after a bit of research found that most of the larger residents are rescued and rehabilitated, and only stay if they are not able to be re-released. So we spent a lovely few hours learning about the coastal habitats around the city and Vancouver Island, meeting Helen the rescued dolphin, sea lions and the most gorgeous collection of sea otters, all of whom were rescued as babies. Watching them swim and play was a highlight, you couldn’t help but feel their joy.

Close to our hotel, we found a water taxi that hopped across False Creek to Granville Island where there is an incredible food market, as well as a brewery (Granville Island Brewing) and lots of little shops and restaurants. It was the place we decided to save for our very last day of the trip, and it was a really delightful way to finish, sitting out in the sunshine, sampling all the delicious foods we could get our hands on, from pierogies to fresh fruit to pastries to sushi. The market perfectly reflected the welcoming international city that Vancouver is, and made saying goodbye extra hard, as there was so much more food to try.

But departing wasn’t all that difficult, because I know for sure that we’ll be back. On this trip we barely scratched the surface of all the wonders that BC has to offer, but even the experience of just this small part of the province, I’m already head over heels in love.

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Travel

UK breaks that will make you feel like you’re abroad

If you’re anything like me, you’re pretty desperate to go somewhere, ANYWHERE right now. Us Brits are known as world travellers (is it an island thing?), and love nothing more than exploring interesting places and sunning ourselves in tropical climes.

Scratch that, more like in any climes. Just look at any park when it’s slightly warm and sunny and shirts will be off and bikinis on. You know what they say, “mad dogs and Englishman go out in the midday sun’. Oh, that’s actually from a 1931 Noel Coward song, so might not be as profound as I originally thought. Anyway, I digress…

Having been locked away for nearly a year, many a thought has turned to the coming summer. Will we be able to get away? With travel restrictions, it’s not looking good for going abroad, but maybe we’ll be free to enjoy UK holidays, exploring our own green and pleasant land. I am someone, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, who has often overlooked the UK for lands much farther away. Up until a couple of years ago, I’d been to New Zealand, but not to Scotland. It’s not just covid either, there’s also a moral dilemma involved – climate change. Air travel isn’t doing our planet any favours, especially flights that whisk you over to the otherside of the planet. Perhaps then, it’s time to explore closer to home.

But hang on a second, you didn’t come here for moral debates or to read about such depressing things! As much as going abroad on holiday is just extra special, the UK is a fabulous destination in it’s own right. I mean, we have a 7,700 mile coastline, there are definitely some decent beaches in there somewhere right? We need to look for the best of both worlds, where you can stay in the UK, but feel like you’ve flown/sailed/driven to another country entirely, to make summer 2021 just that little bit less rubbish and a little more magical.

So here they are, the UK breaks that will make you feel like you’ve ventured abroad:

Views of the boats in the harbour of St Mary's, Scilly Isles

Isles of Scilly
Sat just 28 miles off of the coast of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly get the balmiest weather in the UK. With a slow pace of life similar to that found in hotter lands, the Scillys are also home to beautiful white sand beaches, turquoise waters and lush tropical gardens. If you try really hard, you could kid yourself that you are in the Caribbean.

The Wine Garden of England
Once just the Garden of England, Kent has had upgrade! The county encompasses a large area of chalk down, just like France’s champagne region, and has gained a reputation for excellent sparkling wine as well as it’s beautiful scenery. Come in the summer and embark on the Wine Garden of England trail of seven wineries, including England’s largest, Chapel Down, and Domaine Evremond partly owned by the Taittinger Champagne family, and you’ll fancy yourself in the south of France.

Mike McBey, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Portmeirion, Wales
A little slice of the ‘Bel Paese’ on the Welsh coast, Portmeirion is a fanciful resort village modelled on the coastal settlements of the Italian Riviera, with palm trees, colonnades and pastel hues a plenty! Begun in 1925 it took Sir Clough William-Ellis 50 years to complete his homage to Italy at the age of 90. Beautifully set on a forested peninsula, Sir Clough’s creation is a unique and whimsical beauty; many of the buildings are holiday lets so you can stay and explore the village and the gorgeous surrounding countryside and beaches for a few days. 

Looking along the tidal road to St Michaels Mount

Cornwall    
Obviously, Cornwall is already a top destination for UK breaks, but there are many aspects of this extraordinary county that will give you the feel of being in another land. The mysterious St Michael’s Mount is a great place to start, especially as it has a sister tidal island, Mont St Michel, just across the channel in Normandy. Then you’ve got the beaches; Kynance Cove channels the Med, whilst Sennen,with its wild Atlantic waves has South African vibes, and Porthcurno smacks delightfully of the Algarve.

Looking along a wooden bridge over a stream towards the hills of Snowdonia.

Snowdonia and Ben Nevis
The UK’s mountains (kind of want to put mountains in inverted commas…) are on a somewhat smaller scale than the likes of, say, Canada. In the end, though, who’s to say that one snow-capped peak is more or less spectacular than another? Driving towards Snowdonia you could be forgiven for thinking you had been transplanted over to New Zealand’s South Island, or when hiking around Ben Nevis that you fell through a portal into the Alps. The views will still be awesome, the air fresh and the walking flippin’ hard going.

Sea cliffs with waterfall on a cloudy day on the Isle of Skye.

Isle of Skye
Scotland’s second largest island, off of it’s west coast, Skye’s epically spectacular scenery is akin to Iceland or Norway. Rugged and moody with rolling mists, jagged peaks, waterfalls and towering sea cliffs galore, you’ll even find some Scandi-style architecture around Quiraing. It’s a great place for those who love hiking and if you visit at the right time and you might even be lucky enough to spy the Northern Lights.

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Personal Travel

I love Cambodia’s Angkor, and you should too.

I adored the Indiana Jones films as a child and always harboured a (still unrealised) desire to be an archaeologist when I grew up – even after I found out that it isn’t all priceless relics and dodging rolling boulder booby traps. I think that’s why I love Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so much, because it is one of those places that, if you let it, will do all that it can to bring out your inner Indiana Jones. The jungle that swallowed this once great city conspires to draw you in, offering tantalising glimpses of grey stone through thick green foliage. The light, dappled and hazy, creates intriguing silhouettes, luring you for a closer look, the oppressive heat pushing you into the shady interior – there really isn’t any choice but to succumb and embrace the adventure wholeheartedly.

My first glimpse of the most significant and magnificent of the temples, Angkor Wat. Though it happened 15 years ago it still plays in my head like a film, it was that memorable for me.

A long, hot ride on a rickety and seriously uncomfortable bike lead to a rather tempting looking moat. The ride continues, a little faster now as anticipation takes over, my eye finally coming to rest on a stone walkway bridging the water. My eyes travel along it and there, rearing up out of the jungle, is Angkor Wat, stark and magnificent against the blue sky.

It took my breath away. Every inch of the old grey stone screamed ‘explore me’, and so I did, extensively. And a few more times since.

No matter how many people you share the Angkor Wat experience with the sense of tranquillity it still manages to exude is quite extraordinary. This could be people respecting the fact that it’s of huge religious significance, the facts it’s so large, or the fact that visitors are awed into speechlessness. A hush descends as you wander the cool stone corridors and admire the intricately carved bas reliefs, the surrounding jungle blocking out the outside world. Here day to day troubles melt away leaving you to admire the heart and soul that went into creating such a masterpiece and all you have to worry about is dodging that pack of book-selling kids who you stupidly said ‘”I’ll think about it” to.

But Angkor isn’t just about Angkor Wat. There are a great many buildings, temples and constructions on the complex to discover (we are talking thousands), some in reasonable nick, some merely piles of rock and others spectacularly reclaimed by nature, riddled with roots, trees thrusting out of roofs, walls and windows. One of these is Ta Prohm, which you may recognise if you’ve watched Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. It would take a lifetime to fully appreciate what a great city Angkor must have been and to see all that this place has to offer. That is where the bike comes in. The beauty of exploring this way is being able to come, go and discover as you please. That’s how you can truly get into explorer mode and to the few still off-the-beaten-track places.

There are huge gateways marking the four ‘compass point’ entrances to Angkor’s main walled city ‘Angkor Thom’. Each entrance is flanked by guards, wonderfully intricate in their creation right down to their toes. Passing through them, the exhilaration mounts and a sense of adventure begins to buzz (or could have been the mosquitos) right through your body. Gentling cycling these old thoroughfares, silent, admiring, maybe dodging the occasional monkey, the occasional cry may go up as someone, glancing into the foliage, catches a flash of a hidden temple held hostage by the jungle. On closer inspection, you might find that you have this particular temple completely to yourself, whilst you can hear buses and tuk tuks of tourists humming in the distance. That is the ultimate beauty of Angkor. It is a place that is timeless; it is so easy to believe that you are the first person to have set foot there for hundreds of years, to run your hands over the warm grey stone, to shelter from the sun in a shady corridor.

While you won’t have such moments in the most popular temples, they are so eerily beautiful, so shrouded in mystery, that you can’t really blame the masses for flocking to them.

The Temples of Angkor are located close to the town of Siem Reap in central Cambodia. The area was once a grand city of the Khmer Empire, the complex of temples boasting thousands of ruins and relics from between the 9th to 15th centuries.

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Just For Fun Personal Travel

Meeting Charlie: an awkward encounter in South Africa

Do not run, do not run; the words echo around my head, words spoken a few moments earlier in a rushed hiss by our ranger. Easier said than done when a fully-grown bull elephant with pointy looking tusks is, for lack of a better term, starting on you. Honeymooning amongst South Africa’s glorious nature, we had arrived at our spectacular safari lodge in a haze; partially excitement, partially the welcome glass of wine. This moment was supposed to be the crowning glory of my first ever safari: sundowner drinks as Charlie, said bull elephant, meandered past at a comfortable distance. I now see that I was a little too eager, perhaps another side-effect of that welcome glass of wine, to step away from the safety of the jeep, as nature, in her wily way, gave things an unpredictable twist. So here I am, huddled penguin-esque with four other people, three of them new acquaintances and one a new husband, marooned 30 metres from any form of shelter. Heart pounding, my panicked litany screams through my head. Do not run, do not run! Five tonnes of Charlie advances slowly, pausing often to glare at us. It turns out that most animals can sense your fear, and elephants are particularly sensitive, so you have to do your best to appear confident and fearless…fat chance of that, Charlie is big and unimpressed by our, somewhat quaking, presence. Our ranger, cool, calm and collected takes charge, stamping a foot towards the bewildered elephant and opening his arms wide. “Back away slowly” he commands, almost dancing in his intimidation tactics. Inch by inch, step by step, as one we claw our way back to the jeep, heave ourselves in and release a collective breath that’s been held for who knows how long. Held at bay, Charlie watches warily, only starting forward after our ranger has swung himself back into the driver’s seat. Cautiously, curiously Charlie saunters around us, trunk reaching and waving as he inhales unfamiliar scents, investigating what he finds before him. Satisfied, or unimpressed, he loses interest, turns his back and plods back into the grasslands. Over our much-needed sundowners, we could only assume that he was having a bad day.

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