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Florida and ‘doing’ Disney

‘What – no Disney?’ I asked in abject horror.

I think if Hubby had suggested cutting off my left arm I would have been more amenable.

A last minute opportunity for a week off in November – there was always only one place I wanted to go. But having ‘done Disney’ the previous year Hubby wanted something a little different. There was little time to plan anything too complex – we had to go somewhere we knew. And Florida was the obvious choice for us.

Ignore Election negotiations, proper, intense, serious diplomacy followed (actually what really happened was I put on a spectacular paddy threatening to go into work instead). Finally, after two hours of the fiercest of deliberations, we emerged with something approaching agreement. Florida it was – including one day at the Magic Kingdom.

Fly into Orlando, get my Disney fix, up to Kennedy Space Centre, one day Busch Gardens, a day shopping, then the Everglades, before down to Miami beach for the final day. Quite a bit of travelling, but a chance to sample some of the alternatives to the ‘Big Hitters’ of the theme parks.

And of course, the food.

I absolutely adore the variety of restaurants, the choice of food and the buzzing, friendly and impeccable service. But my ultimate favourite is always the Cheesecake Factory. A menu the size of your average reading book, with over 250 dishes, including about 35 variations on their signature dish – the cheesecake of course.

It had become my firm favourite ever since visiting on a business trip a few years earlier. Since then Hubby had never heard the end of ‘how we MUST visit this place.’  But going to Disney, we had previously spent every waking moment in theme parks and tended to grab something there.

Also, Hubby just loved a cheesecake. He therefore took little persuading when I suggested it for our first night in Tampa. Choosing something off of the ‘Snack’ menu, the Roadside Sliders (“mini” burgers), Hubby ignored all advice to the contrary about portion sizes at this place and just went ahead and followed this up with “Adam’s Peanut Butter Cup Fudge Ripple” (Adam clearly had a creative imagination – what a concoction!). Thinking he knew best – well we had been to America before and he had seen plates of food, so what was the problem?

As his six burgers arrived – they may have been mini in America but looked remarkably like a standard size for the UK – Hubby leaning back on his chair took a  sharp intake of breath at the challenge before him. I just smiled – knowingly.

Undeterred, he chomped through the first course, before the best bit – the cheesecake – arrived. I could see in Hubby’s eyes the size of the helping was a little more than expected, shall we say.

“Why don’t you just box it and eat it tomorrow?” his sensible wife suggested. But no, refusing to be beaten, as if now on some crazed mission, Hubby set about eating this dessert – all of it.

And it took a while…..

Emerging from the restaurant, I could tell he was struggling. But I was saying nothing. We were off to Busch Gardens in the morning.

Hubby had been unable to even face a cup of tea at breakfast. Only water and Rennie.

First stop, SheiKra. Two hundred feet high with a 90-degree drop as its starter for ten. Fab! Well unless you had vastly overeaten the previous evening. I could see that from this perspective it was looking pretty terrifying. But Hubby knew better than to expect sympathy, instead soldering on in silence. Kill or cure I guess.

From SheiKra it was off to Montu and Kumba. Hubby was hanging in there – and I don’t mean his feet dangling from the rollercoaster seat – still white as a sheet but as yet maintaining composure. He knew I was purposely doing all the largest rides first.

“Could I just have a moment before we go on,” he piped up now also somewhat shaky on his feet. Relenting just an inch, we took ten minutes.  Before we were back again, queuing for the next Monster.

But survive the day he did, and by early afternoon, with the last effects of the cheesecake clearly dissipating, he too began screaming in delight at the various twists and turns of the mammoth steel coasters.

Emerging at the end of the day, smiling at each other arm in arm, we had reached a truce. He was obviously made of sturdy stuff….

As for the overall trip itself, we did indeed have a brilliant time. An awe-inspiring visit to Kennedy Space Centre probably my second favourite day (the best was of course Disney…!). Whatever your opinion of Space Travel in ‘times of austerity’, I find the sheer abilities of the people in the space project totally mesmerising. The millions of faultless processes, the seemingly tiniest of issues that become major problems in such an environment and the courage with which the astronauts take to the sky in a rocket full of lighted fuel. And the ultimate – what it must be like to just sit in that capsule and look down upon the earth. Certainly if I won the £100m lottery, top of my list would be Virgin Galactica!

Anyway, back down to earth….

From Tampa, driving to a divine seafood restaurant in Clearwater – the Lobster Pot – and the Courtney Campbell Causeway. For Hubby, this was the ultimate white knuckle ride. No not because of speed or loop the loops. He could see me straining to see over the wall, whilst driving, to catch a glimpse of the amazing sight over the water. His white knuckles came from holding on so tight, hoping I could still drive in a straight line and not into the water I was so keen on glancing at. Florida Keys is certainly on the bucket list after that!

Then the Everglades. Often overlooked, but less than an hour from Miami, the exhilaration of the airboats, the trepidation of seeing the alligators and the sublime, rugged landscape. Definitely an escape from the commercialism and hubbub of the theme parks.

But as ever when on holiday for just a week, time may go slowly whilst at work, but it always seems to whizz by when on holiday. And this was no exception. OK so I had to get my One Day Fix of Disney. And OK, I also chose Busch Gardens for my Rollercoaster Adrenalin Fix. But other than that, it did show that it really is possible to go to Florida, enjoy the food, the sunshine, the shopping and many other sights, without getting too involved in the bedlam that often is Orlando.

 

 

When to go

The weather in Florida makes a trip here possible all year around.

However, there is a risk of hurricanes between June and November, although these will tend to pass through and ‘normality’ is quickly restored.

 

How to get there

Direct flights to Miami, Tampa and Orlando are available from London Heathrow and Gatwick with many major scheduled airlines, among them US Airways, American, Virgin and British Airways.

Flight time is approximately 9 hours.

Flights prices start at around £500 per person.

 

The Florida State Explained

Whilst for many, like me, Walt Disney World is the centre of Orlando, Florida, America and the Universe, it actually takes up just a small area of the massive US state that is Florida. Larger than England and Wales combined and split into five distinct tourism areas – Florida comprises the north-east, central, south-east, Gulf Coast and the Keys. It is a state with great beaches with more than 1,200-miles of coastline along the Gulf Coast, but also surfing and watersports, in particular on the Atlantic side.

Many also take a trip down to the Keys, the jewel-like string of islands that arc 120 miles off the southern tip of Florida down into the Caribbean before finishing just 90 miles from Cuba in Key West.

The North-East principal city of Jacksonville is a lively and modern city with a beautiful riverfront, nightlife, shopping, and beaches and for the golfers, the world-renowned golf resort of the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass.

And with the Everglades in the south-east and the Big Hitting Theme parks in the centre of the state there really is something for everyone in the Sunshine State

 

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Christmas Cruising

Home at last!

It was almost four years to the day since Hubby and I had taken a longing glance back at the Emerald Princess in Miami – not knowing if/when we would be back.
Ironic though it seems, since I set up my travel agency as a result of all of my travelling, I had spent the last four years not travelling but working to build up the business instead. Now though, something of a watershed moment. Time to take that big step and leave ‘my baby’ for a while in the capable hands of colleagues. Hubby and I were off on a pre-Christmas Mexican Riviera Cruise from LA.

I had read and heard quite a bit of feedback from my customers regarding Princess since we had last been and I must admit to a little trepidation as to what I would find.

Early onto the ship (just the way I like it!), “Tradition” dictated going straight to the Horizon Court – THE FOOD – of course. A huge beam came over my face as I read – Italian Three Bean Soup. Tick. (that was always first lunch on board!). Then glancing over to the bread counter. Rolls so fresh they were still warm from baking. Tick. And finally the all-important sweets counter. Chocolate chip cookies. Yum and tick. Well so far so good. No change there.

Back to the cabin, new luxury beds. Now there is a change that was long overdue. Tick.
Princess have gone in for Speciality Chocolate I read. Oh a huge tick. Another good change.
Maybe this was going to work out just fine after all.

Settling back to watch Il Divo on the Movies Under the Stars, as everyone started filtering on board I allowed myself ‘A moment’. I am sure in life we can all equate things we have done to the song My Way and getting to this point was one for me.
“Yes there were times… I bit off more than I could chew” “I ate it up and spat it out”, “And did it My Way”.
As I munched my third cookie and supped my Strawberry Mocktail, the emotion of it all was just a little overwhelming – for a brief second anyway.

All too soon, Muster and then Sail Away.
We were off.

It had been an easy decision as to which cruise.
Princess of course.
The only problem had been fitting it into our strict dates.
“But there is a Celebrity Cruise from Fort Lauderdale dear,” Hubby tentatively suggested. “But I do not want a Celebrity Cruise,” came my insistent reply, “only Princess”.
And why?
Well all those little things. I know where the sock draw is, Hubby can unpack because he knows where everything goes, I have my favourite seat by the pool, I even know how to get out of bed at night and find my way around the cabin in the dark.
The familiarity – I just….. – like it.
Of course I won out in the end. There was just the one Princess cruise on a seven day itinerary for the dates we wanted. Sailing from Los Angeles. A further 3 hour flight to Fort Lauderdale. But who cares.
To be honest, the itinerary was irrelevant – it just had to be WARM!
We had done this exact trip a few years earlier and were not intending to get off of the ship anyway. We literally just wanted a hassle-free trip with plenty of food and sun.
And that is precisely what we had.

After two days at sea though it was clear most other passengers were just itching to get off in Mazatlan. As the ship emptied we settled in our ‘usual spot’ by the pool to watch the Daytime Movie in peace. Cookie and coke in hand.
Ah Heaven!
It really was wonderful. For a brief time you could just imagine this multi-million dollar cruise ship, with 1200 crew, was all “just yours”. With no-one else in the pool, Hubby and I took a dip. Perfect. No-one else really around, Grease the Movie blaring out some old favourites on the big screen, 80 degrees, sun shining and clear blue sky.
This really was the life.

And so it continued.
For those who got off (most of the ship!), there were plenty of things to see and do at all three port stops. Whale watching, ziplining, historic sight-seeing, you name it. This was a great cruise for getting out and about, either exploring the sights or enjoying the many activities available.
The passenger mix on the cruise ship also very much different to that of previous cruises. Generally younger (or maybe I am just getting older!) and being so close to Christmas a lot more families than we were used to. But to be fair, this did not cause any problems whatsoever. Provided they all disembarked at the ports of call (which they duly did!), I was happy!

In the evenings there was always the entertainment in the Theatres and Show Lounges. As well as music in the Piazza, the bars and even a Deck Party on our evening from Puerto Vallerta. The ship just seemed to have a real happy buzz about it.

All too soon though time to leave.
As I struggled with what I wanted for my Farewell Dinner (as on every other cruise – Meatloaf or Mussels???) I had to admit, I was looking forward to mum’s Christmas Turkey Dinner.

As for the cruise itself, oh it really had been amazing. I was a little nervous as to whether this would live up to our expectation and also the memories we had of our previous cruises. But despite our fears, we had been able to live in this ‘bubble’ for the week – no grief, no worries, great food, lovely weather and most importantly just the two of us. Given how hectic life had been for us both in the past few months and years it really was pure bliss.

And next year?
Well, this had been the other part of the fear. I had for so long supressed my travel instinct by simply going Cold Turkey (no pun intended) and not travelling abroad at all. For four years I have planned trips for others all around the world whilst managing to bury my own instinct deep – somewhere.
But it is as if the monster is once again rising. I can feel the feet start to itch.
As we left our beloved Ruby Princess there was much discussion between Hubby and I as to another cruise v the big adventure.
With a tear in my eye, I said goodbye to the ship – for now at least.
As for the rest of the world. Well it had better watch out. All I can say is – I can feel the urge although for now anyway, I have no idea where it will lead…….!

When to go
The 7 day Mexican Riviera Cruise with Princess departs most weeks between October 2018 and April 2019. Cruise prices start from just £499 per person. International flights and pre-cruise packages can be added to provide a complete ATOL-Protected Package.

Ports
The ports covered on the cruise include Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallerta and Mazatlan.

This and any other cruise can be booked through Andrea Powell at Idelo Travel.

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Intrepid Tours

 20% off Intrepid holidays until 9th January 2018!

10 day Vietnam TourFrom £668pp

Experience the best of Vietnam’s hustle and bustle of culture at Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. Visit the Beautiful Countryside of Halong Bay and the Mekong Delta. Experience the rich history and imperialism of the Hoi An.

Included Activities:

  • HCMC – Mekong Delta day trip including Coconut Candy Factory and Village Tuk Tuk tour
  • Hoi An – Ancient town walk and entrance ticket
  • Hue – Imperial citadel
  • Hue – Perfume River boat ride
  • Hue – Royal tomb
  • Hue – Motorbike trip including lunch
  • Hanoi – Temple of Literature
  • Hanoi – One Pillar Pagoda & HCM stilt house
  • Hanoi – Old Quarter Walking Tour
  • Halong Bay – Overnight boat cruise
  • Hanoi – KOTO dinner

Prices from £668pp including 20% discount + excluding international flights. No single supplement with rooms on a willing to share basis. Prices correct at time of publication and T+C’s apply.

8 day Jordan Tour – From £868pp 

Gaze in awe at the towering windswept rock formations at Wadi Rum; ‘camp’ (Bedain-style) under the stars in the desert. Experience a whole day at what is often called the eighth Wonder of the World- stunning Petra.

Included Activities:

  • Wadi Rum – Desert Jeep tour
  • Wadi Rum – Camel ride (30 min.)
  • Petra – Guided tour
  • Shobak – Shobak Castle
  • Dana – Ancient Village Visit
  • Madaba – St Georges Church
  • Dead Sea – Visit including lunch
  • Jerash – Roman ruins

Prices from £868pp including 20% discount + excluding international flights. No single supplement with rooms on a willing to share basis. Prices correct at time of publication and T+C’s apply.

10 day Cuba Tour- From £916pp

Stunning Coastline, Salsa music emanating from every street corner and that feeling of days gone by. There is so much more to Cuba than just beach and Havana.

 

Included Activities:

  • Havana – Guided walking tour of Old Havana
  • Santa Clara – Visit to Che Guevara Mausoleum and Museum
  • Informal Spanish lesson with leader
  • Santiago de Cuba – Orientation walk
  • Santiago de Cuba – Dance lesson (1 hour)
  • Santiago de Cuba – half day city tour
  • Bayamo – Orientation Walk
  • Camaguey – Bicycle taxi city tour
  • Trinidad – Orientation walk

Prices from £916pp including 20% discount + excluding international flights. No single supplement with rooms on a willing to share basis. Prices correct at time of publication and T+C’s apply.

10 day South America Tour- From £1144pp

From the historic sights of Buenos Aires, stay on a ranch in Uruguay; and visit the mighty Iguazu falls before arriving at the iconic metropolis of Rio de Janeiro.

Included Activities:

  • Welcome Meeting
  • Buenos Aires – Orientation walk
  • 3-night stay on a working estancia including meals and activities
  • Iguazu Falls – Entrance and tour of the Brazilian side of the falls
  • Iguazu Falls – Entrance and tour of the Argentinian side of the falls

Prices from £1144pp including 20% discount + excluding international flights. No single supplement with rooms on a willing to share basis. Prices correct at time of publication and T+C’s apply.

16 day Nepal Tour- From £776pp

11 day Trek at high altitude with views of stunning snow-capped peaks and amazing views from high above the ground. Discover a different side of the Himalayas trekking the Annapurna.

Included Activities:

  • Bandipur – Guided walk

Prices from £776pp including 20% discount + excluding international flights. No single supplement with rooms on a willing to share basis. Prices correct at time of publication and T+C’s apply.

13 day Cambodia and Laos Tour– From £1100pp

From the well known marvel that is Angkor Wat to the poignant stories of the killing fields. Then onto stunning landscapes and hidden waterfalls. This really is a tale of two countries.

Included Activities:

  • Siem Reap – One day Angkor ticket
  • Siem Reap – Angkor Temples Guided Tour
  • Phnom Penh – Tuol Sleng Prison Museum (S21)
  • Phnom Penh – Choeung Ek (Killing Fields)
  • Vientiane – Wat Sri Saket
  • Vientiane – COPE visit
  • Vientiane – Victory Gate (Patuxai)
  • Vang Vieng – Cycling tour
  • Luang Prabang – Kuang Si Waterfalls
  • Luang Prabang – Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre

Prices from £1100pp including 20% discount + excluding international flights. No single supplement with rooms on a willing to share basis. Prices correct at time of publication and T+C’s apply.

9 day Costa Rica Tour– From £608pp

Take a soak in La Fortuna’s lava-heated thermal springs and spot the 2000 species of plants, 320 bird species and 100 different types of mammals in Monteverde. Explore the city and surrounding area of San Jose. Even in a region renowned for diversity Costa Rica still manages to surprise.

Included Activities:

  • Santa Rosa de Pocosol – Agricultural tour
  • Monteverde – Cloud Forest hike

Prices from £608pp including 20% discount + excluding international flights. No single supplement with rooms on a willing to share basis. Prices correct at time of publication and T+C’s apply.

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Journey to Japan

This is a brief-but-wordy overview of my adventures in Japan – if you would like to find out more about this amazing country, or for help planning your own journey, do give me a call on 01473 231181;

Japan is one of those places that everybody needs to visit. It is an experience. The cities are hectic and yet make perfect sense, the countryside is wild and yet appears beautifully manicured. And the FOOD! From the cheap udon dishes at the mall food court, the karaage (fried chicken) skewers in the marketplaces, to the delicious assortment of steaks, curries and tonkatsu found in restaurants – I didn’t have one disappointing meal, so if you’re a bit of a foodie it’s definitely worth a visit!

It may look small on a map, but don’t let that fool you! Japan is home to some enormous cities (Tokyo being the largest city in the world), meaning sights and attractions tend to require quite a bit of travel. Kyoto was a particular challenge – we had two nights booked in this wonderful city, but with the timings of our flight in and onward journey, only one full day to really explore. Buses are plentiful but slow and busy, subways are better but can’t take you everywhere, and taxis are convenient but will eat into your budget if you use too many. With this in mind, we picked out our must do sights, planned our route, and set our alarm nice and early. We were doing well on our plan – walked around Kyoto Imperial Palace and grounds, were almost deafened by cicadas, explored the side streets of the downtown district, tried all the street food along Nishiki Market and picked up a couple of kawaii souvenirs along the way. Things took a bit of a turn when we headed to Fushimi Inari Taisha, an important Shinto shrine famed for its thousands of vermillion Torii gates. We started following the trail of gates, dodging spiders and stopping to take photos along the way, not really thinking about where the trail was taking us. It wasn’t until we reached the Yotsutsuji intersection that we realised we were halfway up Mount Inari! We had somehow managed to climb a mountain and not realise! With limited time in Kyoto, we decided to turn back and not complete the climb, but it was already too late – it was starting to get dark, and by the time we got back to the main entrance other sights and attractions were starting to close. Not wanting to end the day disappointed, we headed back into the city. Two crazy shopping centres and a delicious tonkatsu bento later, it was time to head back to our hotel for some well-deserved rest.

Next up: Tokyo, via the Shinkansen bullet train. This should be a must do on everyone’s itinerary. Travelling at nearly 200mph, you speed through some stunning landscapes (you may even spy Mount Fuji if you’re lucky, although it was too misty for us). There is space for luggage although it is limited; travelling with anything bigger than a medium-sized case could be an issue, so my advice here would be pack light, or utilise the fantastic luggage forwarding system throughout the country. When you arrive into Tokyo Station, be warned – it is a labyrinth of platforms, and took us a little while to actually find an exit! Tokyo, much like Kyoto, requires careful planning due to the sheer size of it. There are multiple transport companies running different lines throughout the city, many different areas of the city with sights and attractions, and if you’re not careful you can lose yourself very easily! With the city being so big, where you stay also needs to be factored in – we stayed in the Minato ward, near Hamamatsucho station, Tokyo Tower and Roppongi Hills. This worked well for us with the places we wanted to go, but there are certainly more convenient places to stay dependent on your priorities in the city.

Fresh off the bullet train, we were all set to explore – until the typhoon hit, that is. With the outer bands of wind and rain hitting Tokyo, we decided to stay close by and headed for the Hard Rock Café, only a twenty minute walk away. The hotel concierge offered us umbrellas, which we politely declined as we were wearing our rain coats. This, it turns out, was a huge mistake; we were the only two people out without umbrellas, the rain seeping through every stitch of our supposedly ‘waterproof’ coats! A couple of daiquiris and a brief Japanese lesson from a very friendly Bolivian named Cheri (kanpai!), we braved the rain again. Moral of the story – if anyone offers you an umbrella, you take it!

Following the typhoon the weather brightened up completely – it was 30-odd degrees from then on and we packed as much in as possible! The next few days were spent at Tokyo Disney. From the moment we booked the flights I started planning to go to Disney, the rides we needed to do, the must-see shows and parades, the food we just had to try. One thing I didn’t really account for was quite how busy it would be, even though we were visiting mid-week and out of the school holidays. There is no off season at Tokyo Disney, unless you plan to be there before opening each day, you will not be able to use the Fastpass system to get on the rides. Prepare to queue! That is where the negative points end. Both Disneyland and DisneySea were celebrating Halloween when we visited, which meant there were some seriously impressive costumes on display! You will want to bring your spending money too, as there is so much cute Disney merchandise on sale that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. I bought almost 10kg of things, either for myself or friends and family, thankfully I’d packed light and had flights with a high luggage allowance! Although the parks were busy, everyone was so friendly, polite and patient – the complete opposite of the USA Disney parks. For example, when it was time for the parade, everyone sat on the ground so people behind could still see. I really loved Toyko Disney, and can’t imagine not visiting both parks. If you’re really pushed for time and can only choose one, I would recommend checking out DisneySea. Disneyland is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but it’s very similar to the other Disney parks in the world (pretty castle, It’s A Small World, Thunder Mountain rollercoaster etc). DisneySea is completely unique, beautifully themed, and has some amazing rides and shows on offer – the Indiana Jones coaster is the best in either park. It’s strange seeing Indy speak Japanese, but that’s all part of the charm!

After a few days in the ‘Disney bubble’, we jumped straight back into the hustle and bustle of the city. Shopping at Shibuya was an experience – we crossed the famous Shibuya Crossing with hundreds of others and got well and truly lost exploring! We walked from there to Harajuku’s famous Takeshita Street, lined with boutiques selling everything from high-end fashion and beauty products to Halloween costumes for your dog. The street is only 400 metres long, but you can easily spend hours dipping in and out of all the shops, trying the snacks on offer and stopping for photos. Once we made it to the end, we had a walk around the side streets and stumbled onto Eddy’s Ice Cream, and had possibly the best ice cream I’ve ever had (and I’ve eaten a lot of ice cream in my time!).

Learning about life and space at the Miraikan, finding out about Gunpla at Diver City, visiting the palace and getting lost looking for a coffee shop in Chiyoda, and exploring the suburbs on the way to the Ghibli museum. I feel as though we barely scratched the surface of this rich, fascinating and beautiful country. There are so many things to love about Japan, the history, the culture, right down to the little things; the robo-toilets and ‘privacy’ noises in public restrooms, the songs the stations play when the train doors are closing, the vending machines every few hundred yards so you’re never too far from hydration, the cutesy characters advertising everything from clothes to fire safety. All too soon it was time to fly home, but I can’t wait to return!

If you want help planning your own Japanese itinerary, give me a call on 01473 231181!

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Namibian Adventure

Rhea Williams recounts her fabulous journey through the African country of Namibia (all images in the gallery © Rhea Williams);

Namibia… What a wonderful name for a country and what a wonderful place to visit. We flew via SA and the best terminal ever, where you can shower, have a meal, and generally feel human again after a long flight. We were doing a self drive holiday around lots of Namibia and had arranged to pick up a 4×4, thank goodness. Our daughter had been to Namibia the previous year and taken an ordinary family car but had told us that was not a good idea, so we got a 4×4 Amarok which was just fabulous. It sat so high that I had to swivel in the seat and slide down to get out of the vehicle. But it did us proud! We were given a phone so we could always get in contact if the vehicle broke down or we had problems, because many of the roads were not tarmacked, instead being either salt or gravel. It was really good for going through bits of river and sand dunes across the road. We had no problems with the vehicle and just made sure we filled up when we saw petrol stations. (Interestingly, when we did stop to fill up, people would chat to my husband about the vehicle, which was only just out then, despite the fact that I was the one driving and he knows nothing about cars… Bit of a macho culture going on there!).

But oh, what a journey around the country and what wonderful sights. The first non-tarmacked road we did was full of armoured crickets, creatures that look as if they have been used as templates for Dr Who. They are the most amazing creatures that you just have to drive over and squish, but believe me, you’ll not wipe them out, they are too plentiful.

Everywhere you go, there is wonderful scenery, green and verdant, and around Windhoek there are monkeys to be seen. There are fabulous lodges around where one can stay or just go for a meal. There is wildlife everywhere, if you just wait for it to come to you. The first things we saw, while sitting having lunch, was a family of wart hogs. They trundled around the place snuffling here and there and then disappeared, but what a great start.

From Windhook we went to Sossussvlei and Deadvlei in the Namib desert.  Along the way we saw springboks posing at the side of the road, pale chanting goshawks standing on sentry duty on the telegraph poles, and a silvery snake slithering across the road.  At the Sossussvlei Lodge where we stayed, we sat watching the mountains change colour and listening to the bird song of who knows what birds? It was magical.

In the morning, we arose early to take a dawn balloon flight over the desert. We were both anxious about this but oh, what a treat it was. Standing in the balloon basket like bottles in a wine bottle box we waited to take off as we watched the gas-lit flame. But, no sound, no sense of movement and looking down we realised that we were in the air and watching the sky lighten and the sand change colour. We were the only balloon up that morning so we had longer than we should have done, flying around. Our pilot was so amazing he took the balloon down to a few feet above the ground and then up, over a dune and around again. Looking down we saw ostriches running around but it was the shadow of the balloon that I thought was the most wonderful. And then the pilot landed that basket on the back of the following truck and out we got for a delicious champagne breakfast, laid out for us in the middle of the desert.

A trip into the desert to see the huge sand dunes is a must. The sand is red, Saharan sand and has been swept into the most beautiful shapes. It’s better to have a driver take you on this trip because you have to go through sand and they know where the holes and dips are. And if you go early, as we did, you see again the sand changing colour as the beautiful light catches facets of the dunes and they emerge from shadow into light. From there you go onto Deadvlei which is magical area of dead, 900 year old trees. It is a breathtaking area and worth just sitting there and contemplating whilst taking the pictures everyone takes.

Swakopmund was next on our trip. It’s a distance of about 400km and takes about 5 hours, but oh, what a 5 hours. The drive takes you through lots of nothing and then you come to a couple of passes that take you into what feels like another country. It could be Scotland, Austria or Rwanda with folds of hills, very uppy-downy roads, and little brooks babbling alongside you. At one point we stopped, went down to the little brook and watched a fabulous red dragon fly sunbathing on a rock. It was bizarre. And then it was miles and miles of nothing, making me wonder if we were actually still on the earth or on another planet, there was so little traffic. Seeing hundreds of pylons marching off into the distance let me know that all was well and the sand dunes across the road told us that we were near the sea. Lo and behold, here was Swakopmund.

This town was established by German colonists in 1892 and has quite a German feel about it. To be honest, it was the place I liked least in Namibia, despite being on the sea and fairly Western. There was a very touristy street market there along with a Himba lady sitting selling stuff. The Himba women are famous for covering themselves in red ochre and not washing. The clean themselves by taking a daily smoke bath.

From Swakopmund we drove on to Cape Cross, passing a group of Cow People, waiting to have their photographs taken by paying tourists.  Cape Cross was the most amazing, scary, wonderful place possible. We stayed at The Cape Cross Lodge, which was literally at the end of the road. It was on the beach and then there was the sea, and what a sea. Our fabulous room looked out over a noisy, wild sea, the huge rollers of the Atlantic Ocean. We sat on the balcony watching seals frolic in the water and in the morning, there were black-backed jackals sauntering across the beach and the front of the Lodge.

From there we drove to DoroNawas in Damaraland, to stay in one of the 16, round rooms, each private and with an indoor bathroom, an outdoor shower and a balcony onto which one could wheel the beds to sleep outside. We watched a fabulous, biblical thunderstorm from our balcony; dark, threatening, storm clouds that advanced slowly across the countryside, followed by huge rain and then a rainbow. And in the morning, my husband went off to see the ‘desert-adapted elephants’. For him, they were the best thing of the trip.

Then it was on to Etosha Safari Lodge, through ever changing countryside, so we could visit the game park. The first day we took an organised trip into the game park, in the sort of vehicle you see in films, open sides and benches. It was wonderful and we saw springbok, ostriches, oryx, blue wildebeest and red hartibeest. I said I wanted to see a secretary bird, and as if by magic, one appeared….as did a few bustards. I was really keen to see zebra and got very excited when we saw one. Our driver said not to worry, we’d see lots of them ….he was right, in spades. They were everywhere, on the road, at the side of the road, in the distance, on the road, on the road, on the road etc. I’m sure you get the picture. We even saw little ones. And then, surprise surprise, we saw a group of giraffes standing very still and looking at something. Kind of them to stand so still for photographs. We saw vultures, eagles, sociable weaver birds and best of all, the simply truly beautiful lilac-breasted roller, the national bird of Botswana. When it flies, you get to see the amazing blue of its wings. And then we saw a monitor lizard ambling across the road, several gaggles of the extremely stupid guinea fowl and a family of four ostriches, who looked as though they were out on a shopping trip, crossing the road to town.

The following day was the high light for me. We took our vehicle into the park and drove around seeing spring bok, lots of birds and then, a group of vehicles parked. I pulled up too and what did we see? A family of lions with a recently killed and half eaten, large something. They were fairly quiet, having eaten well and so it was possible to get good photos. This was truly the experience of a life time. On the drive back to the lodge we saw kudu, impala, bustards, eagles, lilac breasted rollers, chameleons and the BIGGEST spider we had ever seen. We felt we had almost seen too much to take in.

And then it was on the best lodge of all. Each one was better than the one before and this last one, the Frans Indongo Lodge was just the bees knees. We drove through lovely country side to get there, seeing lots of greenery, trees and huge termite mounds. After a short rest at the lodge, we were taken on a game drive around the land belonging to the lodge, and saw so many animals it was just wondrous.

I can’t recommend Namibia highly enough. We had the most wonderful trip but I do wish we had stayed a bit longer at each lodge, if only to enjoy the facilities of the lodges, to just sit and watch game coming and going, sky changing, birds flitting around. It is the most magical country and so worth a visit.

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A cruise ship for all!

While not everyone says they would enjoy cruising, this does not exclude them from having a perception of what it may be like. The ships are too small, too glitzy, too stuffy, too crowded. You get the picture.

If this is you then please don’t give up just yet. Here is my attempt to maybe make you think again…

Cruise on a Paddle Steamer along the Mississippi
Put your feet up, relax and soak up the scenery as you glide down one of the United States’ greatest rivers. But more than that, this is also a chance to explore the Deep South. St Louis, Louisville and of course Memphis. A taste of America that few get to see. As for the boat, with excellent food, spacious accommodation and only 150 fellow passengers, this is far from a glitzy glamour cruise but still with the highest of service standards.

 

The golden age of sailing
If you dream of a golden age of tall-masted clipper ships then this will truly be your heaven. Casual, but by no means lacking in refinement, the Star Clipper fleet, of which there are 3, will make you feel as if on-board a mega-yacht. With nautical décor – rich varnished wood and deep blue upholstery, it may nonetheless surprise to find there is more open deck space than on many large cruise ships. Evenings are all about the fine dining, maybe a drink in the Piano bar pre-dinner or a cocktail to finish the day.

Though they offer a truly varied itinerary, for me the image is either of island hopping in the Caribbean or arriving with true style and elegance into Monte Carlo.


A voyage, not a cruise
If you browse any Hurtigruten brochure, they describe theirs as voyages, not cruises. Comfy as opposed to luxurious, these expeditions are all about the destination and experience.

There is a casual atmosphere on board and no scheduled entertainment.

As for itineraries, those far off only-seen-on-the-tv destinations may finally become a reality. Circumnavigate Spitsbergen in search of Polar Bears; see colossal icebergs calve into the sea, explore long fjords, and witness the Midnight Sun in Greenland; or visit the planet’s last untouched continent, Antarctica – where you really can hear the sound of silence, marvel at the abundance of wildlife and even spend a night camped out on the ice. This really was one of my Journeys of a Lifetime.

 

Private Yacht: The choice of our Queen
Despite the decommissioning of the Royal Yacht Britannia, it seems even the Queen was keen to introduce her family to the virtues of cruising. Back in 2010, for a mere (reported) £200,000, she chartered the luxurious Hebridean Princess for a cruise around the Scottish Isles. Once a car ferry, this tiny ship carrying just 50 passengers, is now the smallest luxury cruise ship afloat renowned for its exceptional service, fine food and understated elegance. With just 30 cabins, 10 designed especially for the single traveller, she was purpose-built for Scotland’s West Islands and able to access the remotest bays and lochs. And docking in Scotland, there is not even the problems and hassles of flying to meet the ship! Chartering a yacht is definitely the way to go for the most flexibility, you’re completely free to follow whatever itinerary you wish. Stay in Scotland like Her Majesty, or head wherever your budget will allow you to!

If you would like to charter your own ship but have something a little less than £200,000 to spare, then maybe try Luxury Gulet Cruising in Turkey instead. With gulets ranging from 7 to 10 cabins, friends and family can experience complete freedom and flexibility. And with a Captain to guide the boat and a complete crew to sort the catering, it just leaves you to max out on enjoying yourself with lazy days and leisurely lunches and dinners!


But cruising is not for families – how do we all fit into a cabin?
Families on cruises is fast becoming big business and cruise companies are all realising it. They are now paying more attention to the teen age group; Megaships, such as the Royal Caribbean fleet, have a myriad of activates for all the family; some are teaming up with well-known entertainment brands – such as Carnival and Dr Seuss Entertainment; and there are more dining options to suit families with children of all ages.

With regards to cabins, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Carnival all have cabins that sleep up to five or six. And on price, many are now introducing FREE child places for children up to 18.

However, for me, there really is only one choice – Disney Cruise Lines of course. You can pretend to go for the culture of the Med, or the turquoise blue of the Caribbean Sea, and you can even tell your nearest and dearest that you are ‘doing it for the children’, but just imagine bumping into Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse around the corner of your cruise ship? Now I appreciate that this may send shivers down many people’s spine – and not for the same reason as it does for me. But WOW!!

So next time you think cruising is not for kids, whether young or old, maybe think again!


And finally, one for those with time on their hands…..
See the world. No really, I mean, see the world. Many cruises you see will market long voyages as ‘World Journeys’, but without circumnavigating the globe you may feel that is cheating a bit! One that certainly is not is the 180 Day Voyage aboard Oceania’s Insignia. Departing and ending in Miami, you’ll start by heading through the Caribbean to South America, then on to Africa, then the Indian Ocean and Asia… I hope you will forgive me for not listing all the ports of call!

For those more pressed for time, a lot of cruise companies will do voyages from 100 days or so – Take the Pacific Princess world cruise from Fort Lauderdale, heading through the Panama Canal, the South Pacific Islands through to Australia and New Zealand, then through Asia and up into the Med. The price for an interior cabin starts at ‘just’ £15,300, but when you consider that includes all of your travel between destinations and visiting all of those fantastic locations, food and drink onboard (including 24 hour room service), entertainment and shows, exercise classes, kids clubs and activities… It works out at just under £138 per night, which is incredible value for money!

As a Princess person myself, this is the one I am dreaming about (maybe one day – large sigh……!)

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Experience Uzbekistan

ALL IMAGES © RHEA WILLIAMS

Our customers are constantly going on amazing adventures to every corner of the planet, but every now and then someone will go somewhere really unique, and it’s amazing to hear about their experiences. Dr and Mrs Williams did just that when they went to Uzbekistan during the summer. Here Mrs Williams, Rhea, recounts her journey along with some of her fantastic pictures of the country (found in the gallery below);

On June 20, my husband and I flew to Uzbekistan with Uzbek Airlines. It was a long walk from the shops in terminal 4 to the gate, but the advantage of flying to Uzbekistan in June is that the plane was half empty so many of us could have a whole row. This was wonderful for those who can sleep on a plane, but for the rest of us, it just meant not having to share an arm rest. It’s an 8 hour-ish flight going east so you get a sunset and a sunrise in 3 hours, and it’s beautiful. One gets through customs fairly quickly, which fills you with hope that you’ll be through with speed, but the hour’s wait for the luggage is somewhat deflating.

We do bespoke touring these days, so there is no worrying about finding a bus or a taxi when we arrive. We are met by a guide and a driver who speak the language and have done this before.

In Tashkent we met Tahir, our guide, and Andrey, our driver, who were both to be with us for the duration, which was lovely as we became a bit like a family, especially when Tahir’s 22 year old son, training to be a tour guide, joined us.

On arrival we were whisked to a bistro for breakfast and then driven straight through Tashkent to go to Kokand, in the Fergana Valley. We didn’t see Tashkent until later but we did notice how clean everywhere seemed to be and once on the open road, we saw an abundance of fruit trees, apricots, peaches and almonds… and storks. We played spot the stork; Andrey, our driver, won.

FERGANA VALLEY

It seems that tourists don’t really go to the Fergana Valley, where we were headed, so the road wasn’t busy but was a good highway, even though the driving is not like in the UK. There are many long, straight bits of road that look as if the Romans have been there, and the scenery is just lovely, verdant and glorious. You drive through a huge, flat area that really lets you know what the word ‘valley’ means, as there are mountains on both sides, but miles and miles away.

The road stretches for an awfully long way before you start to climb, but then it’s quite quick, zig-zagging up to the top. There is a look out just before the top from where one can get wonderful photos of the road you’ve just done. In many bits there are no road markings and people drive where they want, but although we saw many dented cars, we never saw a pile up. There are several police check points, as one is driving very close to Tajikistan and photos are not allowed so the camera needs to be hidden.

We drove to the city of Kokand where we stayed in Hotel Khan, the best hotel in town! It was basic but clean. We were on the third floor and there was no lift. After a quick shower we went out to see the Palace of Khudayar Khan, which was shut but beautiful in the early evening light. Set in a huge park and with few people around, it was just lovely. We had a drink and then went to the Hall with Wooden Timbers, a disused mosque with 99 pillars, fabulously arranged. There is a beautiful minaret in the middle of the grounds and here was the first of many, many places we were charged for taking photos. From there we went to a cemetery to see how people here are buried; above ground with tomb-like things on the top. Impressive, but a huge waste of space.

After an unexciting breakfast we went to Rishtan, stopping en-route to admire a man-made canal that had been made in 45 days by 150,000 men. Everywhere ceramics were being sold, and we were taken to a ceramics ‘factory’, where it appeared that everything was handmade. There did seem rather a lot of it for that to be the case, but we saw things being painted with such delicacy, it was wonderful.

From there we went on to Margilan, to a silk factory. This was really interesting and we saw the silk being garnered from the silk worm cocoons, saw it being dyed using natural ingredients and then being woven into wonderful patterns and colours. There is, of course, a large shop there and you can buy to your heart’s content. I did!

Then, at our request, we visited a huge market, which sold mainly food but also hardware. People were fascinated by us and kept asking our guide where we came from. I suspect he got a little tired of constantly saying ‘Anglia’, followed by London, so sometimes we came from Manchester or Leeds, or any other town he could think of. One elderly chap followed us around and gave us fruit he washed in front of us, in bottled water. That was really kind, and seemingly typical of the kindness and interest of the Uzbeks. The two words I learned of Uzbek, Rachmat, meaning thank you, and Balik, meaning ok, came in very useful and were much appreciated. I had meant to learn numbers to 10, but with no language I know being similar, it was hard to keep the words in my head.

The next hotel was the Hotel Asia Fergana, which would have been lovely had it not been full of arrogant Russians. The hotel is the one used by the International Tennis Federation, so it’s full of aspiring tennis stars working their way up the rankings.

In the morning, after an incredibly sugary breakfast, we drove to Chust, via some ruins from the 15th century, to go the cleanest market you have ever seen. It is famous for its knives, from penknives to huge sword-type things which we saw being made and sold. We also saw, right at the end of the market, a couple of hardware stalls selling the strangest looking objects. They are called sumaks, and go inside the baby’s swaddling instead of a nappy; it’s a kind of wooden pipe used to channel the urine downward into a small pot. To look at, you’d think it was something you’d use to blow bubbles, but believe me, it’s not!

Lunch was in an open-air plov restaurant set on steps in a park. Then we went to see some ladies who sew the black hats that the men wear. The good ones are all done by hand, though the stitching is so fine you’d think it was machine done, and then we had the long drive back over the pass to Tashkent, where we spent the night.

TASHKENT to SAMARKAND

What evocative names those are, so full of promise and romance.

We were up early to catch a rather lovely, smart and extremely clean (even the windows!) train from the amazing Tashkent station to the beautiful Samarkand station. The train was spotless. The seats are like airline seats, they recline and there is lots of legroom. People come round selling food and for me, the whole experience of two hours-ish, was not long enough. I love trains and although the scenery was not spectacular, hey, we were in Uzbekistan and how many people do you know who’ve been there?

We were taken to The Grand Samarkand Superior hotel where we were to stay, and it really was a bit grand. It had the cleanest chandeliers I have ever seen; they were huge, sparkly and beautiful. The hotel itself was fairly small, but oh, those chandeliers!

Our first visit here was to Registan Square to see the world famous mosque and madrassa; these are the pictures that everyone sees of Samarkand and the square is truly breath-taking. You know you’re going to be taken to see these famous buildings, but nothing, and I mean nothing, prepares you for the size, grandeur, splendour and blue-ness of the place. People are absolutely dwarfed by these beautiful buildings arranged on three sides of a square. We wandered around, in and out of the three buildings, which now also house little shops and a museum. The decoration on the buildings is out of this world and one oohs and aaaahs at the beauty of it all. It’s all a bit much to take in and we actually went a second time, in early evening when the light was better for taking photos.

From there we went to Tamerlain’s mausoleum, which was also very blue but doesn’t take long to look around.

SHAKRISABZ, aka KESH, founded more than 2,700 years ago

It’s a long drive from Samarkand to Shakrisabz because it involves a mountain pass that is not accessible to buses or minibuses because of the tight turns, so you have to go around a mountain rather than over it.  I wanted to stop for a coffee and a loo on the way. We found a 3* hotel, very western looking, and went in. Well, they had western loos and we could have had coffee, but not with milk; it seemed there was NO milk in the entire hotel. It transpired that this was because it was the end of the tourist season, as it was getting progressively hotter each day. So, no coffee but endless water, which you absolutely do need to keep drinking.

Here are the remains of the Ak Saray palace. It is set in wonderful grounds with a 2km walkway, down which one can amble and admire the surrounds. There are now apartments on either side of the walk way but they really don’t diminish the whole thing; indeed, they add to the serenity of the place. It was very, very quiet when we were there which made it an absolute joy, one could admire the statue of Tamerlain and the palace in which he never lived in peace. There is also a shop belonging to the chap who actually discovered how the palace had looked. It took him 2 years to build an exact replica. We also did a couple of tombs there, but by then my brain was on overload so nothing went in. I blame the heat!

Back we headed to Samarkand, ready to go to the Bibi Khanum Mosque the following day. There is a lovely story about this mosque, but I’ll let you Google it. In the middle of the courtyard here is a huge stone book rest for a Quran. Following this, we went to the Shah-i-Zinde Necropolis, accessed by climbing some huge steps up to a ‘lane’ where all sorts of famous women were buried. We also visited the Ulugh Beg observatory, or what remains of it, and the museum that is there. Ulugh Beg features in many of the stories we were told; he was a seriously clever chap.

SAMARKAND to BUKHARA

This is a drive through not a lot, except for the wonderful Rabati Malik Caravanserai on the Kyzyl Kum desert highway. This was built originally in the 11th century and has been heavily restored, but is none-the-less impressive. The caravanserai on the Silk Route were like coaching inns that existed here. The caravan would stop there, people would exchange news, ideas, trade goods and so on. You can often see the remains of rooms behind the grand entrances. This one was lovely, especially as we saw a European Roller there, a very beautiful bird.

On the road we stopped off at the Avicenna museum, at my husband’s request. This was really lovely, a wonderful museum with a very knowledgeable curator. There’s lots of good stuff in there about Ulugh Beg and other scientists who were making amazing discoveries centuries ago.

BUKHARA

Although we were really keen to go to Bukhara it felt a little like Blackpool. We stayed in a ’boutique hotel’ which although interesting, wasn’t really our sort of place. Bukhara is quite small and a walking tour takes in everything. We went to a functioning madrassa but by now, they all look the same though the patterns on the walls may be different.

But here we went to THE carpet factory. Oh, Bukhara carpets, they are just wonderful. We saw the girls making the carpets and were impressed. They employ no-one under 18. There are a set number of patterns and each girl can choose which pattern she wants to do and then chooses the colours she wants to use, so although there may be many carpets of the same pattern, each is different because of the colours. And the carpets are made of camel wool, sheep wool and silk and vary from about $200 to $40,000. We were wowed by the carpets and I confess, I bought a little silk one. It is incredibly beautiful, far too beautiful and small to be walked on, so it sits on my piano stool and only my bottom may sit on it. Supposedly it will last 6 generations, which it certainly will if I’m the only one that sits on it. My children will have strict instructions that even if they don’t like it, it’s not to go out of the family, not after the price I paid!

We also went to a bazaar which was very like other bazaars, though cleaner and definitely just for tourists.

Finally, we went to the The Ark. This seems to be a town within a town and has huge walls that go for a long way, encompassing the town that was within. Interestingly, this is now a great tourist attraction but when my mother went to Bukhara, 34 years ago, she never mentioned it and it wasn’t anything to go and see.

BUKHARA to KHIVA

This was a very long road through the desert. We saw the odd prairie dog as we drove along this terrible road surface until we got to the Russian concrete block road, with gaps in the middle rail where one could do a U-turn to turn left off the road. We did 250km on the good road, with temperatures rising all the time. We had to actually cross the road, 2 lanes on either side, to get to the oasis stop for lunch, which meant going down a very gravelly dip of unmade road to go up again to the restaurant. It was huge and they must feed hundreds in tourist season. We had a very thin soup followed by somsa and the ubiquitous watermelon.

We travelled alongside the distant Freedom Bridge that separates Uzbekistan from Turkmenistan, drove through Gazli with its gas field and onto Urgench, where our driver got more and more worried by his inability to find any petrol. In the morning we had seen a double queue of about 200 cars waiting for a delivery of petrol to the garage. Finally we got to Khiva, a small town, and found our madrassa where we were to stay.

KHIVA

We were staying in the Khiva Madrassa, a madrassa turned hotel, which was interesting. It has an enormous half built minaret beside it which serves admirably as a landmark. The rooms were arranged around a courtyard that got the sun most of the day. It was incredibly quiet and peaceful and the 40 rooms are smallish without a window, but with a grill and air con. It was very comfortable and the restaurant, which was huge, did a lovely breakfast.

Khiva is also quite small so one can walk everywhere to see everything. We did the Ark, a fortress within a fortress with lots of handrail-less steps but fabulous views from the top. Sadly by now we were getting really ‘mosqued-out’ so the beautiful blue and white designs didn’t excite quite as much, and the heat didn’t help. The temperature reached 47 degrees.

We visited a harem and a wonderful wood carver, who carved the huge wooden pillars for mosques, palaces, and so on. They cost a fortune but look stunning.

KHIVA to NUKUS

This road goes through the Karakalpakstan desert, and it really did feel deserty. We stopped off to see some really old forts dating from the 2nd century BC, with mud bricks still recognisable and beautifully preserved. The air was incredibly dry and hot, and water was vital. Few people stop at these forts, which is a shame because they are really worth seeing.

There were many new chunks of carriageway, so we had to keep crossing to the other side as the old road was gravelled and waiting to be tarmacked.

We arrived at Nukus, which looked huge and flat. It has trolley buses, which was a novelty and looks really modern. There is a wonderful huge museum with real security to get in, and a $20 charge for taking photos, which we didn’t choose to pay. The ground floor had artefacts and the first floor had paintings of variable quality. It didn’t take long to do, though crossing the huge square outside in the heat was quite a task. The square was so huge that there were three sets of weddings photos being taken and no one got in anyone else’s way.

Our hotel was interesting in that we had the whole top floor, the fourth floor, to ourselves as it was the deluxe floor and I guess Uzbeks couldn’t afford it. There was a courtyard in which to eat that was so big it had a yurt in it, which people actually stay in. I suspect they would suffocate in the heat though!

From Nukus we did the 200km drive to go to Moynaq, where the Aral Sea used to be. Again the road was very straight and long through the desert. We saw many carts pulled by donkeys. There were also many cyclists on the wrong side of the road, but the roads were so bad that we also had to drive on the wrong side quite a lot. Moynaq has a museum that we hoped to visit but it seemed to be closed. They did open it for us, I guess visitors were a novelty, but everything had been put into one room and included some fairly scabby stuffed birds.

We drove to the car park where the Aral Sea used to be, but it is now 200km away. One can go down the many steps and along the walkway to the beach on which are stranded some sad, rusting fishing boats. The 41 degree heat settled on the shoulders like a dead weight and within 30 minutes, I was parched. Not difficult to imagine someone getting lost there and being desiccated rather quickly.

It was a sad place and we were not sorry to leave. Moynaq is empty, there’s no work there and few people live there now. No-one would move there. Driving back to Nukus just meant going through miles and miles of nothing with the odd village around.

TASHKENT

We flew back from Nukus to have a whole day in Tashkent, which is the most amazing city. It was mostly destroyed in 1966 by a huge earthquake and the Russians rebuilt it in wonderful, really grand style. It has huge, wide boulevards, many parks, trees and fountains everywhere and gloriously beautiful buildings. It looks prosperous and amazingly clean. Lots to see there, including the market and the oldest Quran in the world which dates from the 7th century and weighs 22kgs because it’s written on deer skin, though 15 pages are missing.

This was the most amazing trip, though I’d possibly not call it a holiday. There is much to see and enjoy in Uzbekistan. You should try it!

UZBEKISTAN FACTS

FOOD

Plov is the national dish and is rice cooked in lamb fat with veg and meat.

Mstava is the national soup and is delicious. They do a good line in soups which are really a meal in a bowl, many with noodles in one form or another.

Flat bread is the bread that is everywhere and is served with everything. Each area makes its own bread with a different stamp in the middle. It looks like those pizzas that have a raised, rounded edge and a flat middle. For me, the ones in Shakrabasz were the most delicious.

Coffee is a common drink, but black and strong.

Fruit is abundant and fabulous though not citrus or bananas. Watermelons are everywhere and delicious, much more flavoursome than those we get. Apricots, cherries, peaches and plums are all wonderful.

MONEY

The currency is called is called s’om, pronounced sum. There are no coins, it is all paper money and at the time of writing, there are 5000 s’om to the dollar if you change money with your guide.

DRIVING

I love driving but I’d not like to drive in Uzbekistan. Signs are not over abundant and often don’t include distance. On two lane roads people drive in either lane and over take on either side. Many big roads have no road markings so it’s a free for all.

You’ll see lots of huge signs saying HAQ JOL or OK YOL which means happy road/safe journey.

TEMPERATURES

End of June onwards, 35 degrees and rising.

CLEANLINESS and SECURITY

The country is extremely clean and western toilets are available. I was taken to a garage to use their loo once and had to walk through the work shop. The floor in there was spotless and you could have eaten off it! It was amazing. On the other hand, one eastern loo I was taken to was so disgusting, I couldn’t use it. Oh, and take loo paper and hand wash/gel, there is often neither paper nor soap.

Security is not taken lightly. There are umpteen security checks to get into the county and into various places, making the whole country feel very safe.

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Married in Vegas: Our West Coast Adventure!

It’s always exciting for us in the shop when a customer has a really unique holiday idea. Our customer Lilly had just that; getting married in Vegas. It happens all the time in the movies, but not so much with real-life travellers from the UK, so we were really excited to hear all about it when the newlywed Mr and Mrs Belsey arrived back from their trip! Here Lilly tells all about her special day (and of course some of the other amazing places they visited along the West coast of the USA):

Me and Pete got engaged in 2011 and quickly realised we wouldn’t be able to afford a wedding at that time. We played around with the idea of getting married abroad, but our priorities changed and our focus was on buying our first house. Over the years we joked about when and where we would get married, and as you can imagine Las Vegas came up a number of times.

We started planning our trip to the USA before we thought about it being an ideal place to get married. Our first stop was Vegas and we thought it was the right time for us.

Organising the wedding day couldn’t have been easier – we used a company that specialise in this kind of wedding, to take place in the Special Memories Chapel. We also booked a helicopter trip to the Grand Canyon, which we did the morning of our wedding. After our flight over the canyon, we headed back to the hotel and changed into our dress and suit, which we had brought in our hand luggage over from the UK. We got picked up from our hotel at 4pm and the limo took us to the court house, where we had to sign some documents. This part took no more than 10 minutes! From there we headed straight into the chapel. There was only us there and our witnesses were the staff of the chapel. The ceremony started at 5pm and we were done by 6pm. We had a slight wait for a copy of the DVD and images, but other than that the entire process was really quick. Afterwards the limo driver Bobby (the most lovely guy) took us the Las Vegas sign so we could get some images of us in our wedding attire next to it. He was so nice, he took the images for us and was really accommodating! It was 100° Fahrenheit that day and we were sweltering, I almost passed out – no exaggeration!

The ceremony itself was completely surreal. Pastor Steve married us, even though it was a non-religious ceremony. Watching the wedding DVD back is quite funny because of the things he was saying.

After going to the Vegas sign, Bobby took us to The Top of the World restaurant in the Stratosphere hotel! Walking around the casinos in our wedding attire was crazy, but everyone was so kind. Our meal was delicious and seeing Vegas at that height from dusk to darkness was incredible!

But we didn’t just stay in Vegas; after four amazing days in the famous ‘Sin City’, our three-week adventure through Death Valley, San Francisco and Los Angeles was just beginning! On our fourth day we picked up a car, a Ford Mustang, and drove to Death Valley where we spent the night. I had hoped to see the beautiful night sky from Death Valley but it was overcast during our one night stay, however the surroundings were just spectacular at 280ft below sea level. We drove from here to Mammoth Lakes, which was at an elevation of 7000ft – that drive was crazy! From the heat of the desert to snow-capped mountains, we had three nights in Mammoth Lakes and planned on using it as a base to visit Yosemite National Park. Sadly, Yosemite passes were closed due the heavy snowfall and avalanches. I was, and am, still gutted we didn’t get to see Yosemite. We spent a day playing in the snow and exploring the area, but realised that we’d get bored there quite quickly as Mammoth Lakes was between the ski and summer seasons; there wasn’t much to do. We only ended up staying there for two nights, and booked one night in South Lake Tahoe, which was beautiful and a great little stop off.

After Lake Tahoe we headed along the interstate to San Francisco. I loved San Fran and everything we did there. Following this, we headed down the Pacific Coast Highway but we could only travel a small part of it due to a mudslide, which is another thing I’m gutted about! We had three unplanned days to travel the length from San Francisco to Los Angeles, so we took full advantage and stopped at Monterey, Pismo Beach and Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara was so beautiful!).

After Santa Barbara we had four nights in Hollywood where we explored the area, had two days in Universal Studios, and did a mini bus tour of the Hills, Hollywood sign and celebrity houses. We also took a day trip to Santa Monica (the final or first destination for anyone travelling Route 66). Our last four nights were in Long Beach, where we just chilled out and relaxed.

We did so much, the above is really only a snap shot as we did something awesome at every destination. The last four days resting in Long Beach were definitely needed! Of all the places we visited, I would have to say San Francisco was probably my favourite destination out of the bunch. We only had two nights there but did so much, whale watching, visited Alcatraz, biked the Golden Gate Bridge, and headed to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. Mr Belsey would say Vegas though; with so much to see and do there, all day and night, you could spend months there and still miss out on something. Vegas never sleeps and time doesn’t matter there, you can go out at any hour of the day and find something awesome! Along with San Fran and Vegas, we visited some of the Big Sur Pacific Coastal Highway (although some of it was closed), the Hollywood sign, Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive, the Walk of Fame… We did loads!

The thing we worried about most was the long drives between destinations, having only ever driven in the UK before, but it was super easy! In fact we both thought driving in the US was easier than here. We both got to drive, but Pete did most of it. Driving across the state of Nevada and through California was one of the best bits about the trip; the pictures we have don’t do any it any justice.

 Our advice for people hoping to do a similar trip? Don’t be too afraid of the driving – it’s amazing to have so much freedom. Don’t be so concerned about booking a hotel at every destination. Do have a rough itinerary in mind, but don’t be afraid to be spontaneous too.

Looking to plan your dream American road trip? Give us a call on 01473 231181 😄

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Hand Luggage Essentials

Whether it’s a short hop over to France or a 22-hour flight with stopovers, packing your hand luggage so it’s within height and weight restrictions is an art form. It can be so easy to overpack (who DOESN’T need 10 books for a four hour trip??) and as a travel agent, we feel our expertise could be of help here!

CHOOSING THE RIGHT BAG
Firstly, the bag itself – I personally find a backpack is the easiest and comfiest option, leaving your hands free to deal with your holiday documents, grab a cup of coffee etc. Getting one with nice padded straps is essential, and preferably with two compartments: the main part of the back big enough to pack clothes, toiletries and entertainment, and a front pocket to store your phone, money and documents that require quick and easy access.

TICKETS AND OTHER IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS
Obvious choice is obvious! You’ll need the holy trinity to even make it through to security – Passport, boarding pass and visa confirmation. I also like to carry a copy of my trip itinerary and confirmation from my booking agent/tour operator, making sure it has a 24-hour emergency helpline should anything go wrong. My ticket wallet from Paperchase is probably the best purchase I’ve ever made, find your own and more here: http://www.paperchase.co.uk/gifts/bags-and-travel/travel-accessories

WALLET
Another obvious choice, but you’d be surprised how many people pack their money on their suitcase, thinking they’ll get a meal and drinks on the flight so won’t need to buy anything until they reach their destination. What if you’ve forgotten something urgent? What if your flight is delayed and you need food? What if there’s an entry tax at your destination that you weren’t aware of? Always make sure you’ve got your money to hand, you never know when you’ll need it!

VALUABLES
If I’m travelling with something expensive or anything of sentimental value, I try to put it into my hand luggage (weight/size/restrictions permitting). It feels safer to keep the important things nearby.

PHONE
I know you can’t make calls etc. on a plane, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need it at the airports on either side! Always keep your phone handy, even if it’s just for those last minute goodbyes and plane selfies before take-off.

MEDICATION
ALWAYS travel with important medication in your hand luggage, and remember to bring a note from your doctor. Take enough in your carry on for a couple of days – If there’s a delay or your suitcase is lost, you might need that supply. Over the counter medication is usually fine without a note, but make sure you check the security restrictions with the airport first or it might be confiscated. I get a headache on long flights 99% of the time, so paracetamol and ibuprofen are musts!

SNACKS
If you’re on a long flight you may want something to satisfy cravings in between the in-flight meal service, but on shorter journeys any kind of food on board can be expensive, so save a bit of money and grab a Boots meal deal before you board. This is especially important when travelling with children – it helps to keep them occupied and stops them causing a nuisance.

SPARE CLOTHES AND SUNGLASSES
If I’m travelling to a hot country, I like to dress in layers so I can be prepared to change in the toilet cubicle before landing. Same if it’s a cold country – keeping a cardigan or scarf in your hand luggage is a handy way to battle whatever the weather is at your destination. I also try to pack a spare top, leggings and some underwear too, just in case my case is delayed/lost and I need to get changed the next day.

ENTERTAINMENT
Take it from someone who had a 9-hour flight to Canada with nothing to do because the in-flight entertainment system was down. Yes, 99% of the time there’s no issue with the entertainment on board, and with hundreds of movies, TV shows and games you can easily pass the time, but that 1% of the time you can just stare out of the window… Mind melting! Entertainment essentials for me would be: headphones to use with in-flight system or mobile phone (see point 4) – I download a couple of movies and a Spotify playlist to keep me going, a book or magazine, a notebook and pen, and maybe a stress ball or something if you like to keep your hands active. The last time I flew I took an adult colouring book, which helped pass some time also.

FACE WIPES AND HAND SANITISER
Because travelling on a plane is gross, and it’s the best you can do without a shower handy.

TOOTHBRUSH AND TOOTHPASTE
See above – After a 20-hour flight and a few glasses of wine on board, I like to clean my teeth when we’re about an hour away from the destination, makes me feel fresh again.

LADIES: MAKE UP/TOILETRY BAG
Or men, we’re not here to judge! Always wanting to look your best, but struggling to get round the liquids rule? I find the following, along with the face wipes mentioned above, are all you need to step proudly into your destination airport:

-Hand cream: Because flying really dries out your skin
-Lip balm: See above
-Suncream: If you’re travelling anywhere from the UK, you can almost guarantee the sun will be out when you arrive, so don’t get caught! Many facial moisturisers now have SPF protection – perfect for hydrating and protecting the skin after a long trip
-Mascara: Not essential per se, but if you’re meeting someone straight at the airport and want to look your absolute best, a bit of mascara is all you should need to look human again
-Deodorant and perfume: Deodorant speaks for itself surely! And for perfume, as long as it’s under 100ml, you can take whatever fragrance you wish. Lots of perfumes already come in either 50ml or 100ml, but it’s easy to find smaller bottles to decant into if necessary

Having a see-through make up bag is a lifesaver when it comes to getting your bag through customs, as it saves you having to unpack and repack. This set of three from Superdrug are fantastic and great value – I usually use the medium-size one for my make up essentials: https://www.superdrug.com/Superdrug/Superdrug-Make-Up-Bags-Clear-x3/p/202319

What else would you normally pack in your hand luggage?

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Tokyo: City in Review

Tokyo is one of those iconic cities, which a lot of people have added onto their ‘must see’ lists recently. Francis Street spent an amusing few days there but absolutely loved it, and he’s given us his top tips for getting the most out of your trip!

I flew from Heathrow with Qatar. As it was such a long trip, we decided to push the boat out and go business class, which was definitely worth it. One thing to consider however – Qatar has two types of plane, which has two different types of business class, one where the beds lay flat and the other where they’re at a bit of an angle. Go for the fully flat beds if you can, you really notice the difference! I would also recommend connecting through Doha if you have the option, the business lounge was lovely with full showers and luxury toiletries, a few nice shops and places to eat.

We stayed at the Mandarin Oriental (http://www.mandarinoriental.com/tokyo/) which was a beautiful hotel. It was in an amazing location with stunning views of the city skyline. The first thing I noticed were all the earthquake drills – Japan has quite frequent tremors, which we actually experienced while we were over there, but they are so well prepared and they ensure that you, as tourists, have nothing to worry about. For example, we were in the hotel for the tremor I mentioned above, and nothing in the room moved an inch – life just goes on as normal.

Another thing to mention here are the toilets. Japanese toilets are quite something to behold, with heated seats, automated seat linings that spin round the ring, and a whole host of other features that I had no idea how to use. One feature to look out for is the in-built bidet, which can take you by surprise if you’re not expecting it, and lead to one of my travel companions being sprayed in the face!

Tokyo is the place to go for food lovers, as long as you’re not too fussy. All the food is very fresh, cooked minimally and sometimes served raw or even still alive! One restaurant we went to I tried a local delicacy, which ended up being a live sea urchin. You crack the shell and eat it while it’s still moving – probably not something I would try again, but quite the experience!

Considering it is the largest* city in the world, with thousands and thousands of people everywhere you go, we felt incredibly safe. Everyone is so polite and everything is ordered and organised, down to trains leaving the exact second they say they’re going to. Everyone also seemed so small – I’m not a particularly tall gentleman, but I could see over the top of just about every other person’s head. Bear this in mind if you’re looking to shop while you’re over there – there is a huge variety of shops, but not a lot that will actually fit, an XL over there is probably a S/M in the UK.

We saw lots of the famous sights in Tokyo, including the iconic Skytree and the Samurai Museum, which was a very entertaining day. The highlight was dressing up and being taught the basics of Samurai fighting – a must for anyone to do. If you’re into films, you’ll want to visit the Gonpachi bar in the Nishi-Azabu district. This bar inspired the House of Blue Leaves, the setting for “that” fight scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1 – the Bride v the Crazy 88s. Although the actual scene was filmed on set in Shanghai, the moment you step through the door of Gonpachi you’ll feel as though you’re in the film, just waiting for Lucy Liu to appear on the upper balcony.

If you get the chance, do go and see a sumo match. It was the most bizarre arena, a small circle in the middle surrounded by towering rows of seats. Sumo wrestling in Japan is like American football in the US – there is a huge build up before the match and the wrestlers themselves are superstars. The match begins with two men in the ring, an awful lot of grunting and throwing chalk to psych out your opponent, before both slap, push and throw each other, the goal being to get their opponent out of the ring first. Such an amazing experience, you’ll have never seen anything like it before.

After a busy few days in Tokyo, we decided to stop off in Kyoto on the way home, and instead of flying we opted to go via the bullet train. This ended up being the highlight of my trip, something I would recommend to everyone. As I mentioned above, everything is incredibly efficient in Japan, and the bullet train is no different. You get your ticket and are directed to a platform, where you’re given 45 seconds to board the train. A clock actually times you, you see the seconds counting down, and once the timer hits zero the doors shut and the train is off! Travelling at 200mph is something I never thought I would do on land – the cabin you’re in is pressurised, like a plane, and you just fly through the countryside. The journey is smooth, there’s no bumps or ‘chug’ noises as you get on a regular service, it’s so nice to just sit and take in the scenery. The line from Tokyo to Kyoto passes some beautiful sights, including the famous Mount Fuji. You’re in Kyoto in no time!

Kyoto is the exact opposite of Tokyo. Whereas Tokyo is neon skyscrapers and modern technology, Kyoto is traditional buildings and natural beauty. Rich in heritage and cultural sights, there are temples and shrines to visit, lush gardens to enjoy and Geisha join you for dinner! We stayed in a ryokan, a Japanese guesthouse, which was a very enjoyable experience. That is, until I wanted to wash and discovered all the men shared the bathing facilities – I didn’t think ‘having a bath with 20 other men’ would be something I would ever do in my life, but there you go, ‘when in Japan’!

This is just a brief overview of Francis’ trip to Tokyo. If you want to plan your own adventure in the Far East, give us a call on 01473 231181.

*Sources: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/asia/11238010/The-worlds-biggest-cities.html?frame=2663666 and http://www.citymayors.com/statistics/largest-cities-population-125.html

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