Friday, December 22, 2006

Beware of your privacy when using online booking systems!

I am in the middle of an infuriating and entirely unsatisfactory experience with Malaysian based booking agency www.MariMari.com. This company is operated by Orient Travel and Tours, which also operates www.holidayasia.com.

My father and I had plotted for months to meet in Singapore over new year, and surprise my mother for her 60th birthday. Mum knew she was going to Singapore, but had no idea I was flying in from the UK to meet them for 4 days. Bring on the chilli crab!

Dad (who's surname is also Surplice) booked his and Mum's accommodation at the Raffles The Plaza hotel through www.marimari.com. In a second and unrelated booking, and with slightly different dates, I booked into the same hotel through MariMari's site.

Marimari confirmed my parent's booking via email, and then in a second email to my parents the same day, mentioned that they were also happy to confirm the booking for a Ms Melanie Surplice. That email had the gall to ask if we were related! Do they ask all the Mr Smith's or Mr Lee's who put bookings through their system, if they are related?? Mum happened to read the email and instantly put two and two together. Thank you MariMari for stuffing up the surprise!

When it came to my attention that MariMari had compromised my privacy by disclosing my name in another unrelated booking, I sent an email to the marimari staff member who I had been dealing with. I was subsequently told that she had resigned. How convenient for MariMari...

The new reservations manager then emailed me to say that they had read all the email correspondence and couldn't understand what the problem was. ARGH!!!

I wrote another long email and pointed out exactly what the problem was...ie, that YOU DON'T DISCLOSE OTHER PEOPLE'S NAMES IN BOOKINGS THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH THEM. This is just entirely unacceptable business conduct. In many countries, it is also an illegal breach of privacy. Not so in Malaysia, I'm told. But more about that later.

I wanted MariMari to fix their gross error, and compensate me in some way for stuffing up the surprise.

I also said that if they didn't resolve the situation satisfactorily, that I would, amongst other things, blog about it, contact key travel and IT journalists about it, and notify the various tourism authorities about this unacceptable conduct.

MariMari came back and offered me what they suggested was a "token gesture" for the "inconvenience" they had caused their "valued" customer. They offered my parents and I each a refund of one night's accommodation. Pathetic I say! The surprise cost a whole lot more than the SING180 worth of accommodation they offered us, and frankly, I was insulted.

I stay in hotels all over the world and have never experienced anything like this. Were it not peak season, I'd have cancelled the booking straight away, but at the risk of not finding accommodation in Singapore over new year, it's just not worth it at this point. I will certainly never book any accommodation through marimari.com again.

I'm still in dispute with this company.

Stay tuned for the next installment...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Vinopolis - a wine-taster's delight

Wine tasting at Vinopolis is a fabulous way to spend an afternoon - just make sure you don't have to function responsibly after you leave.

We did the Vintage Wine Tasting tour and got to sample some awesome wines from all over the world. The benefit of wine-tasting at this place, is that you can try wines you may not do otherwise (I'm biased, so I tend to favour Australian wines). This particular day, we tried everything from Argentinian wines to authentic portuguese ports and some great reserve wines.



Set beneath the arches of an old Victorian viaduct, just behind Borough Markets at London Bridge, Vinopolis is a great venue for wine-tasting and corporate venues alike - Factiva held a customer event here a couple of years ago, and the unique nature of the venue makes it an unforgettable experience. Check it out!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Christmas markets in Vienna

Anne, Kelly and I decided earlier in the year that we'd like to go to some Christmas markets (Christkindlmärkte), and chose Vienna.

It was my first time in Vienna, and the stunning architecture jumped out at me as soon as we started our first day's sightseeing.



It was cold and overcast, but a cheeky early morning gluwein helped to warm us up. A festive atmosphere wafted through each of the markets we visited, amidst smells of mulled wine, hearty fried foods and various versions of boiled frankfurts.

I loved the handicrafts and hand-made Christmas decorations, which came in just about every colour and festive theme imaginable. If I ever have a white Christmas (which is still on the wish list), I'd love to be sitting around a tree decorated with Austrian decorations.



One of the most frequented Christmas markets is the "Christkindlmarkt" on the square in front of the City Hall. I loved how the old City Hall building and vivid blue sky provided such a dramatic backdrop to the already colourful markets.


























The Christmas markets and our weekend in Vienna was fab, as was the schnitzel!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A weekend in the Big Apple

"I want to be a part of it, in old New York"...

Ahh - the Big Apple never fails to dazzle. I was in the US for a work trip in early November and got to spend the weekend in Manhattan before heading down to Factiva's head office in Princeton, New Jersey.
















I arrived late on a Friday night and stayed at the centrally located Hotel 31 for a couple of nights. As is typical of New York hotels, you get tiny little rooms unless you're prepared to spend BIG bucks! In any case, Hotel 31 was clean and comfortable and most importantly, reasonably close to the big sights like the Empire State Building and 5th Avenue.

With the US dollar losing ground against Sterling, New York is a shopper's paradise, and my mission seemed to be to single-handedly fuel the American economy for two days.

The country was a few days out from its mid-term elections, so campaign-mania pretty much dominated media coverage of every one of the 10,000 cable channels (ok, so that's an exaggeration, but there is nothing subtle about US election campaign advertising). That was mildly amusing for about an hour then simply got tedious...

With a five hour difference between my body and NY time, I got up really early to a perfect autumn day. The sky was cloudless, and it was a perfect opportunity to go up to the top of the Empire State Building. The queues were minimal, and instead of taking a couple of hours to get up to the observation deck as it did last time, I got up the top in 15 minutes. It's definitely worth going as early as possible to beat the crowds.

The view was stunning, and it was also worth paying for the self-paced audio tour to get a commentary of what I was actually looking at. The view from the top really puts the island into perspective. other than Hong Kong, I have never seen so many skyscrapers! I think it's the sheer scale of the city - the towering building and the interetsing shadows they cast, that amaze me the most about New York.

Shopping was next on my agenda, and I was desperate to get to Century 21 - a huge department store that many people had recommened. I've tried to get to Century 21 on two seperate previous visits to NY, and as a result of two unfortunate unscheduled shop closures, have never actually set foot in the place.

I jumped on the Metro and headed down to the Century 21 shop located just near Ground Zero. I never saw the twin towers when they were standing, but I've been to the Ground Zero site a couple of times, and I still feel physically sick when I walk around it. It's eerie - just to imagine what it would have been like to have seen the buildings, let alone the horror of seeing them go down, and all the carnage it caused. Ugh....makes me shudder.

Fortunately, Century 21 was open, and was packed with tourists and locals. As soon as I walked in the doors, I knew that it was worth seeing this place. There were floors and floors of clothes, accessories, bags, shoes and homewares that really demanded several weeks inspection as opposed to the few hours I could spare.

Ok - it was just a department store, but everything seemed so cheap, and there was just so much choice. The queues to the change rooms were truly horrific, so it was worth getting a good solid trolley full of clothes before investing the 25 minutes in the queue to try them on.

I left with several ahem...bags, and decided to dump it all back at the hotel before heading out for the next spree. Judging by the inquisitive looks I got on the Metro, I wondered if I had gone any way to my mission of supporting the US economy for a day. It felt like it.

The fabulous 5th avenue is always worth a stroll. I would love to know how much money is spent on that strip in a single day or year, given that some of the smaller pieces in Bvulgari or Tiffany & Co. would probably buy me a couple of flats in London. *sigh*.

Drooling aside, I passed the stunning Trump Tower and had a peak inside. I reckon the Starbucks on the mezzanine level of that building has it made. What a nice little earner. Much Donald Trump merchandise was available in the foyer - DT branded pens and cufflinks, shirts and books etc. It was an impressive building, but I don't know if I'd want Trump Tower branded all over myself....

Every shop I went into the rest of the day was packed, and the change rooms queues were infinitely long. It seems like everyone in the city was there to fuel the US econony as enthusiastically as I was.

I'd arranged to have dinner with a couple of friends, and we had a yummy meal uptown, at BlueChili, an Asian fusion place. The cocktails and food were particularly good, although it took a while to realise that one of the funky cascading water features was actually splashing off onto one of the nearby funky white seats, to form a funky shiny puddle that changed hues as the mood lights transitioned from red to green and blue. Noice!

The next day was packed with more shopping and a very long walk from the hotel up to Central Park. It was also the day of the famous New York marathon, so the helicopters and crowds were out in force.

It was a fab weekend! You've gotta love the vibrancy of New York - the brashness of the people, and their passion for bagels, bling and all things big!

The joys of security checks!

Ugh! The new security arrangements at British airports are somewhat of a nightmare. With the additional time you now need to add to get through security checks (complete with limited toiletries in a see-though sealable plastic bag, it makes a one hour flight to Ireland a 4-5 hour deal by the time you leave your house.

In any case, it seems that the new rules afre here to stay for a while, so worth getting familiar with!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

New Explore brochure available

Drool. Several emails this week alerted me to the fact that the 2007/2008 Explore brochure is out now and on its way to me in the post. I can't WAIT to browse through its pages.

New and interesting tours that instantly caught my attention included the 15-day part-train based journey through Moldova, Crimea & Kiev and the 8-day trip through Austria, Slovenia and Italy. I know pretty much nothing about Moldova, which makes me want to visit the place all the more. And any trip that involves hiking through the Julian Alps would be stunning...I'd say Spring would be a great time to do that tour, when it's not so hot.

My dream tours from the brochure are any of the expedition voyages, which truly do look like "trip of a lifetime" experiences. My dilemma is: one lifetime, so many trips of a lifetime to fit in. Hmm...methinks I need to start saving.

The 34-day Patagonia, Pacific Islands & Panama Canal sounds entirely awesome. I have wanted to see the Chilean glaciers and fjords ever since I saw my first glacier in Norway. The fact that the cruise mosies by Argentina and Peru is an added bonus.

My ultimate dream expedition, which isn't new to the 2007/2008 brochure, but one I've drooled over in previous brochures, is the 24-day Spirit of Shackleton cruise around the Falkland Islands and then down, down, down to the Antarctic Peninsula & South Shetland Islands. My father has often warned me that the seas in that part of the world are horrific, but I think the experience of setting foot on Antarctica truly would be a "once in a lifetime experience" - and one of the things I'd like to do in my lifetime. *sigh*. One day.

Categories: Tours

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Drinking my way around Oxford...hic!

I'm spending much time in and around Oxford these days (well, weekends, anyway) and have been introduced to some lovely river-side pubs.
















The Head of the River (see pic), just near the Folly Bridge in the centre of Oxford is well worth checking out, as is the Trout Inn, in Lower Wolvercote, just on the outskirts of Oxford.

Cheers to Antony, and my new drinking buddies, Di, Andy and Rob!

PS. Just on drinking, which is a national past-time here in the UK, the Beer In The Evening website is a great resource. Foaming with features like profiles on what seems to be thousands of UK pubs, a pub crawl generator, ideas for pub crawls (I'm thinking the animal theme looks good) and a list of beer festivals, there's something for every boozer.

Travel Writing advice from Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet's Guide to Travel Writing is a great resource for aspiring travel writers. They profile a bunch of seasoned, professional travel writers and give some practical advice about how to pitch and place travel articles in markets like the US, UK and Australia.

Like any books on writing, the main theme is to practice! Write. Lots! It's the only way to refine your craft.

And in the mean time, I shall keep blogging about travel and waiting for my dream travel writing/documentary production job to come flying through the door. *sigh*....must be time to book another trip!

Categories: Books

A new way to present travel pics

For anyone that loves photography and the digital revolution, Photobox.co.uk is a brilliant site, and was a fantastic recommendation from one of my digital camera-toutin' mates.









As well as letting you upload digital prints and share albums with friends, the PhotoBook feature is hugely cool.

Creating a PhotoBook is pretty much idiot proof - simply upload your favourite pics, choose one of 5 colours for your PhotoBook's cover, and then drag and drop your pics into one of a bunch of page layouts. The page layouts accommodate up to 4 photos, and they cater for combinations of landscape and portrait shots. You can add captions too. A 20-page album starts from £20, you can add extra pages in sets of 2 for £1.20, and postage and delivery is minimal.

For my first (test) album, I created a summary of my travels in 2005. I reckon it took about an hour to create a 22-page album one Saturday afternoon, and they said it would arrive by post in 3 days. True to their word, my PhotoBook turned up on time, and I was mightily impressed. I chose a black cover, and was really pleased with the quality of the matt paper and binding.

My photos looked great! I think the presentation hides a multitude of sins, and the general "wow factor" of seeing your pics in an actual book is pretty impressive.

PhotoBooks would make beautiful gifts for weddings, anniversaries, baby memories, holidays, and pretty much any other photos that youwant to tart up and preserve in style. I was thoroughly pleased with the service from Photobox, and the quality of the albums (and reprints, which I also saw examples of). So, if you're looking for a funky way to present your next travel snaps, check it out!

Categories: Photos/WIWT Archives

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A refreshing approach from Explore

I had an experience last week that personally proved to me that companies who take the time to engage with bloggers can start to truly get to know their customers in a way that database segmentation or direct marketing campaigns could never achieve.

On this blog, I have written about some of the tours I’ve done lately with Explore. My experiences with the company have been entirely positive – the tours I did around Iceland and Croatia with Explore this year were excellent, and I would not hesitate to recommend them to family and friends. Explore tours are well organized, great value for money, FUN, and have a great combination of structured and free time. What really appeals to me is that they get to some really obscure places. I plan to do more Explore tours as time and money allow – and no, they are not paying me to say this!

What impressed me about Paul, the “ECommerce Bod” from Explore who emailed me, was that he offered help in getting me more information if I needed it, offered some information about their affiliate program (which I may or may not pursue, but it wasn’t a hard sell), and shared some personal observations about Lake Bled, Slovenia, where we’d both visited recently. It was clear he knew his stuff. He was authentic – and that’s important.

When I replied, he continued our conversation about the rather scary cable car that scales the cliffs surrounding Lake Bohinj en route to the ski resort that overlooks the entire valley. Talk about great views! He mentioned that the next Explore brochure was coming out soon, and to keep an eye out for more tours. As if I need any encouragement!

I thought it was cool. And relevant and appropriate. It makes me feel like the people at Explore are actually interested in what their customers are saying about their company – good or bad. They talk to me about stuff that interests me, and not in polished corporate speak but with a friendly, conversational tone. The tours themselves are great, but this personal touch, way after the fact, is really refreshing.

He also said he’d keep reading my blog. So, Paul, if you are reading this, thanks for your emails, and I hope you get to do one of the Explore train tours soon.

News.com.au's travel section

News.com.au's online travel section is one of my favourite travel resource sites. I like the way they incorporate "proper" travel articles, travel resources, and a travel blog, with all sorts of travelling tips and tricks.

I'm also loving the fact that they published two of my recent photos, one of the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia, and one of Split's Harbour in one of their Reader's Holiday Snaps galleries. My pics are #6 and #7 in this gallery. Well...I'm excited!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A quick zoom around Ljubljana

Day 3 of the long weekend, and we headed up to Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana for a wander round the city before the flight back to London.


We really didn't have much more than a couple of hours to wander round the Old Town, but it is like most European old towns - quaint and crowded.

Small markets lined the river, and a broader market area occupied a large square beside the Town Hall. It wasn't actually market day on the Monday we were there, but a few stalls remained opened, and we got to sample delicious honey brandy, Slovenian wafers and delicious smoked meat. The find of the day was cherry honey - it has the consistency of honey, but is a dark, rich ahem...cherry colour and tastes like cherry.

I suspect I have a huge part of latent European in me, because I love European old towns like Ljubljana's.

Ironically, we found a great Italian restaurant and had an amazing entree of pan-fried goose liver and main meal of creamy scampi pasta, which seems to be a specialty in Eastern Europe.

We then found a fabulous Slovenian chocolate shop, and sampled some delicious rose dark chocolate. Yum-O.

The taxi ride back from Ljubljana to the airport was horrendously scary. The driver thought we were running late for our flight (we were just running late for the 2-hour check in deadline), and decided to propel us along the highway at beyond 100 miles per hour. I was watching the needle on the tacho climb beyond 100 miles per hour and decided it was best I stop looking.

Waiting in Ljubljana's airport was the usual end-of-trip yawn, but we did spy a guy (suspiciously looking like he was on a stag do), with both arms in slings, and looking rather sheepish. We pondered whether he had had a bad parachuting experience, had come off a mountain bike, or had simply fallen off a pub stool - all of which is possible in the adventure-filled Slovenia!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Beautiful Bohinj

Day 2 of the long weekend in Slovenia, and we set off for Bohinj, about 45 minutes by bus out of Lake Bled. Even in August, the flowers were still out in bloom, and it was a splash of colour everywhere we looked, with huge sun flowers springing out of almost every garden and red geraniums overflowing from window pots.

















Pulling into the the small, alpine-like town, we came across a prominent statue of some Slovenian explorers looking up over the mountains they sought to traverse. Further round the road, Lake Bohinj revealed itself, with the gorgeous Church of St John punctuating the backdrop of pine trees.

We stocked up on food supplies and set off for an easy walk around the lake. The track was well marked (and rather crowded) and we stopped in a lovely clearing for our makeshift picnic. Bees continued to dive bomb our food and drinks, although we managed to remain unbitten.


The scenery around the Lake is ahem...stunning. Sometimes it's hard to find new superlatives! What is amazing, is the colour and clarity of the water - it's a blue in some parts, clear green others, and pure turquoise in yet others. Everything was green, but I can imagine the valley would look amazing in Autumn as the leaves were changing colour.

At this far end of the lake, is a caravan park and cottages, and a range of kayak and boat hire facilities. About 2 kilometres walk from this part of the lake, is a cable-car up to the Vogel ski resort which overlooks the entire valley.

The ski resort is serviced by a rickety chair lift, which actually looked too old to be running...and it was a bit odd that it was running with no apparent supervisory staff. I guess Europeans are used to chair lifts, but it did look a tad dangerous...

The views from the top of the ski resort are fabulous. You can see right bck down across the lake and valley, and over the mountain tops in the distance. Some of my more adventurous travel buddies decided to take the near-vertical climb/track up to the Black Lake as we rode up in the cable car on the opposite side of the valley. We watched the massive black storm clouds roll in over the valley, and hoped they'd not over-committed themselves...they eventually all made it down safely.

From the cable car, we wandered through a crowded campsite and waited for the little boat to take us back across the lake to our start point.

As we waited for our travel buddies to climb back down from the Black Lake, we had a quiet grappa and watched the peaceful world of Lake Bohinj go by.

It had a very different feel from Lake Bled - it was busy, but not as commercial; less built up and probably more "rural" than the town surrounding Lake Bled.

It was definitely worth the visit, and I would go back again in a heart beat. I tend to stay in cities when I travel, and this trip reminded me that getting out into the countryside is definitely a great way of experiencing a different aspect of a country.



Categories: Slovenia

Monday, September 04, 2006

Bring on the superlatives for Slovenia's Lake Bled

Slovenia was the destination of choice for the August Bank Holiday weekend. The weekend had been planned well in advance, and the final party of 10 comprised of some Aussies and Brits, a Norwegian, a Canadian and a Kiwi – a mini United Nations if you will.

















I can’t believe I booked flights on an airline called Wizz Air…the service was entirely fine, but just the idea of getting on anything branded “Wizz Air” made me check my insurance policy a couple of hundred times. And the Wizz Air planes were painted fuchsia and hot pink…pink is my favourite colour, but somehow planes seem less credible when they’re hot pink…

Anyway, we arrived in Llubljana’s airport, stocked up on Tolar (the local currency), and found our transfer bus down to Lake Bled.

Hotel Jadran came as a recommendation of friends who had visited Lake Bled the summer before, and we were not disappointed. A first floor lake view room afforded stunning views of the lake, Bled Castle and Church of the Assumption, that make this place famous. Oh, superlative check coming up, but the scene was straight out of a postcard with the towering mountains in the background. I can only imagine how beautiful it is in winter.

















Numerous hotels and restaurants surrounded the lake, and kayaks and small punt-like boats drifted round amongst gaggles of geese and ducks.

Lunch was a simple but tasty affair - Slovenian food is similar to Croatian food, with a big dose of Italian influence. Pastas, risottos and meat dishes were the main choices everywhere, and you could get a solid lunch and a pivo (beer) for about $£10. One of the yummy specialties was deep fried cheese - we weren't sure enirely what sort of cheese it was, but served with tartare sauce, was delicious.

We continued a lazy walk round the lake, through some local markets and past the gorgeous church. A steep, windy path took us up a 100-metre cliff to Bled Castle, where we saw two weddings and had a spectacularly scenic pivo to celebrate.

Bees were rampant everywhere we went in Slovenia, but they seemed particularly enthusiastic around Bled Castle, and insisted on dive-bombing our beers all afternoon.

Categories: Slovenia

Citizen journalism and the London Fire Brigade Exhibition

















I love photography, it's importance in the news, and the way it provides a permanent reminder of a particular scene.

So the current exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery in London was a perfect way to spend an hour on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The London Fire Brigade Archive is a small exhibition at the gallery running until 17 September and features nearly 100 black and white images from the broader collection of some 300,000 images.

According to the official blurb: "The captions of each photograph will also form a prominent part of the exhibition. They document a verbal account of what happened which was recorded and attached to the back of the photograph. This documentation is a fascinating insight on how the recording and documentation of incidents has changed over the years."

Before you go into the actual exhibition, there is a smaller, equally engaging photo montage about how citizen journalism came into play during the July 7 bombings last year. It analysed which newspapers ran with some of the more shocking pictures taken with the mobile phones of commuters trapped in the various carriage and underground stations. It was still chilling to see those pictures more than a year later, but certainly interesting to see how citizen journalism did and will continue to re-shape the news agenda by providing pictures and commentary of world-changing events.

Categories: England, Photos/WIWT Archives

Sunday, August 06, 2006

A daytrip to Lokrum

July 23 (Day 3): A couple of the more adventurous tour buddies set off early morning for a bus trip to nearby Montenegro.

After a late night and a couple of shared bottles of Croatian chardy, I decided to join another bunch of more laidback tour buddies, and we headed over to the small nature reserve of Lokrum, a 30-minute ferry trip from Dubrovnik harbour.



The water is so incredibly clear and junk-free, and as the temperatures soared, so did the number of people we could see swimming off the rocks. There were clearly no inhibitions (or acceptable legal limits) about the amount of flesh and lard that could be flashed about...

We decided to go for a bit of trek around the island, and a couple of hours into it, and heading uphill in the extreme heat of the day, wondered what in god's name we were doing!

The walk afforded us though, with great views of the moored cruise ships and a view back over the city. From a distance, it really became clear how important Dubrovnik's fortress-like walls had been in the city's history. We were told that Dubrovnik had never actually fallen in any attack.

Lunch on Lokrum was awesome. We stopped at an open-air restaurant in amongst some old ruins near where we started the walk, and pigged out on ice-cold pivo and seafood risotto under shady trees. The waiter was a huge Croatian bloke who seemed slightly amused (and impressed) at our attempts to speak Croatian.



The rest of the afternoon was a lazy haze of swimming and dozing under trees. Interestingly, we came across a bunch of gum trees in the botanical gardens, and I had a wee sentimental twinge of Oz. It was easy to see why gum trees thrived in the conditions though. It was still as hot as Brisbane in summer!

Later that evening, we headed back into Dubrovnik to see the night lights, and another seafood dinner rolled by. Dubrovnik harbour has a really chilled but lively feel about it at night - the streets are lined with people dining out, and munching yet more icecream.

We kicked on for a bit longer at the local bar back at Lapad, and were later seen singing karoke-style into the night. This will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me well....

Categories: Croatia, Tours

Walking the walls of Dubrovnik

July 22 (Day 2): The warm weather continued, and it was a balmy 25C over breaky on the balcony, with temperatures continuing to head north.

Our brief bus journey took us along a small stretch of the coast, and the Adriatic sea was the most amazing shade of blue – that continued throughout the entire trip. The Dalmation Coast is truly stunning!



Into Dubrovnik on a guided tour, and the huge high walls that have enclosed and protected the city for thousands of years loomed large. Offset by the huge mountains we’d seen in shadow the night before, and the crystal blue waters, it was easy to see how Dubrovnik had been named the “Pearl of the Adriatic”.

More superlatives - George Bernard Shaw once said, “Those who seek paradise on earth should come to see Dubrovnik”. He’s not wrong! One step inside the huge walls, and it was love at first site with a city that has been attacked and re-built many times over.

Our guide showed a map of the Old Town that depicted where the damage took place in the siege of Dubrovnik in 1991. It was hard to believe that this World Heritage site had been bombed to bits quite recently, and eerie to know that we were walking down the very streets that had been under attack. We then walked through the cobbled streets, checking out the oasis-like Franciscan and Dominican Monasteries, the cathedral and the Rector’s Palace.

The waterfront heaved with people - a couple of large cruise ships had deposited thousands of passengers for the day, and ice-cream munching tourists weaved in and out of the streets and atop the city’s walls.



By noon, the sun was a scorching 36C. That became the benchmark for the next week! A bunch of us decided to have lunch in one of the (many) restaurants on the high side of the Old Town, and we got acquainted with the typical Croatian menu of risotto, pasta and salads, and pivo (beer) of course. It was so bloody hot that beer was the only answer. In later days we became rather familiar with Croatian wine, but for lunch, it was always a large pivo! God it was good!

That afternoon, we continued to wander through the maze of streets, observing locals and tourists swimming off the sheer rocks and occupying every square foot of water available. It’s like Australia in that it’s a water–loving country, and you could tell the English or Australian tourists by the shade of pink in their sunburn.



After the first of many awesome Croatian icecreams, most of the tour group reconvened late afternoon to walk the city’s walls – this is a must do in Dubrovnik, and it’s definitely much better done in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the sun. There’s minimal shade up on the walls, and potential to be burnt to a crisp, but the views are entirely worth it.

We could see many of the 1180-plus islands that flank the coast of Croatia, the nature reserve of Locrum being the closest.

Everywhere, people were diving off the rocks into the sea, and boats floated by, while people lounged around open-air cafes and 13th buildings – there was a distinctly Mediterranean feel to the place, but with an equally distinct and proud Croatian heritage. The Wall Walk was awesome, and gave a really good view of the city.



We headed back out to Lapad for a quiet pivo and a bit of a rest before dinner. Later that night, we walked down the very resort-y feeling promenade at Lapad, into a huge bunch of restaurants that overlooked another pebbly beach. People were still out swimming late, as we scoffed down some great seafood, and had our first taste of Croatian chardy – or whatever the equivalent there is called.

We were truly getting the hang of the Croatian lifestyle, with the biggest decision of the day, being what to do the following day…go island hopping, shopping, hang by the beach or take a day trip to Montenegro, which is one of Europe’s newest countries.

I decided to sleep on such a momentous decision, after yet another icecream…

Categories: Croatia, Tours

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Drooling in Dubrovnik

JULY 21 (Day 1 of tour): The 2.5 hour flight from Dubrovnik was painless enough, and as soon as I stepped off the plane, I knew the next week was going to be a tad warm - it was a steamy 30C at 10.30pm!

















Jo, the tour manager, welcomed me and pointed me towards the coach that would become home for the next week. Misha, our ever-smiling Croatian driver met me at the bus, and other tour buddies started to arrive.

The drive into Dubrovnik took us around a winding road, that as we would see the next day, hugged high rocky mountains that plunged into the Adriatic sea below. The lights of Dubrovnik's Old Town soon twinkled below us, and we could just make out the borders of the giant walls that have surrounded and protected this city for thousands of years.

Our short journey for the evening finished at Lapad, a residential area about 10 minutes out of the Old Town. We rolled our bags down a wide pedestrian promenade lined by palm trees and soaked up the balmy atmosphere (and strains of "American Pie" at a local bar), as we came to the charming Hotel Zagreb.

Rooms and room-buddies were allocated quickly, and we spent our first night in Dubrobnik in air-conditioned bliss.

Categories: Croatia, Tours

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

WIWT: Changing of the Guard, Buckingham Palace, London

The Changing of the Guard Ceremony at Buckingham Palace is something that I've always associated with London, and is something that I never tire of seeing!

Roll on Croatia!

2 more sleeps till I fly out to Croatia! I'm doing an 8-day tour with Explore that starts in Dubrovnik, heads up to Split and then high into the hills to the Plitvice Lakes National Park.

We'll then come back down the coast to Petracane, Zadar and Trogir, before heading back to Split.












I'm doing the tour represented by the red line on the map, although I have to say, it was a pretty tough choice between the inland tour and the cruise tour off the Dalmation Coast.

It will be my first visit to Croatia. I've heard that it was hitting temps of 40C last week...pretty warm in anyone's book. I'm really looking forward to exploring the walled city of Dubrovnik, checking out the cellars in the Diocletian's Palace, and pigging out on what is meant to be fantastic seafood!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

WIWT: Poignant Pics

This is definitely not a case of "Wish I Was There" (WIWT), but I took this photo in New York at one of the many tribute sites to the victims of September 11. Given the 1-year anniversary last week of the London bombings, and yesterday's terrorist attrocities in Mumbai, it seemed fitting to post a somewhat more poignant pic.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Visited Countries - create your own virtual maps!

A work colleague and fellow blogger, Daniela Barbosa, posted a cool resource that she'd found from another colleage - Visited Countries. You just need to click onto the list of countries you've visited, and it creates a map on fly.

Ok, there are slight limitations, in that if you click that you've been to the US, it shades the entire countrry, but it's a fab thing to play with, and has once again reminded me little I've really seen of the world.

Here's my Visited Countries map so far...South America and Africa, here I come!



The thing about Gibraltar pounds...

On the subject of Gibraltar (having visited there in April this year), I discovered that although British Pounds and Gibraltan Pounds may be completely interchangeable at an exchange rate of 1:1 in Gibraltar, they are not interchangeable back in Britain! That is, Gibraltan Pounds are not accepted as currency in Britain (as Scottish Pounds are), and it's bloody difficult to exchange them.

To date, I've tried changing my small stash of Gibraltan pounds at Citibank, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and the Post Office, to no avail. They look at me as I've asked to exchange Mickey Mouse Money. So it's off to a Bureau de Change (where I'll no doubt be hit with a commission) - or back to Gibraltar (my preferred option).

So...my tip for the uninitiated - change any Gibraltan Pound notes back to British Pound notes before leaving Gibraltar. It makes no difference to them and you won't get stuck with a bunch of notes that, as one colleague remarked, make the Queen look like she's in drag.

WIWT: Going ape in Gibraltar

Gibraltar's famous Barbary Apes scamper over the upper reaches of the massive Rock of Gibraltar. Legend has it that should the apes ever disappear, the British will leave Gibraltar. It's worth spending a couple of days in this extremely British outpost, although you'll get a better meal over the Spanish border (you have to cross Gibraltar airport's runway to get there!) at La Linea.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Heading north...to Edinburgh

* The next two posts are about a long weekend in August 2005 to see the Military Tattoo in Edinburgh.

Early on in the year, I found that Contiki ran a 4-day tour up to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and as soon as I saw the tour advertised, I knew I wanted to do it. I don't know why I became obsessed with going to the Tattoo - I was never outrageously interested in anything military, nor bagpipe-ish - in fact, when we used to watch the Tattoo on the ABC at home as kids, I thought it was about as interesting as watching paint dry.

Anyway, on the last weekend in August, me and 50 other nutters set off on a four-day Contiki tour (my shortest tour ever), on the very long drive up to Edinburgh. It’s basically straight up the infamous M1 – the main road north from London.

Other than a few stops, and introductions of everyone on the bus, the 10-hour bus ride was as boring as hell. But…at 6.30pm or so, we reached Edinburgh, where it was a balmy 12-13C (quite noice for “summer” weather), and were shown to our accommodation in Pollack Halls – part of the student accommodation arm in the University of Edinburgh, about 15 mins walk out of the city.

Bags stowed, we hit the town, which, in the final weekend of the Edinburgh Fringe festival, was going off. The festival is a month long celebration of everything and seems to be one of the largest combined festivals in the world.

Despite the wet, freezing weather, my first impression of Edinburgh was that it is a beautiful city – quite like anything else I’ve seen in the UK. The buildings are stunning – old and grey/black, with loads of character. Like the Scottish people, the buildings stood tall and proud, as if not taking any crap from anyone.

It was surprising to see girls walking round in the near arctic conditions in micro skirts and ugg boots – seems to be the fashion in the northern parts of this country….speaking of nutters. Perhaps I’m getting prudish in my old age.

A date with 1000 pipers and haggis

Anyway, we partied hard into the wee hours of the morning and fronted up some time later at the food hall for a canteen-style breakfast. Black pudding was on offer, but the prospect of pig’s blood and guts for breakfast didn’t bode well after a night on the razzle. I settled for the far more comforting bacon and eggs.

We spent the morning exploring the historic Edinburgh Castle – a massive old fort perched on top of the highest hill in the city. It afforded great views of Edinburgh, out across the mountains and sea. It was blowing a gale and bloody cold, but very scenic.

I headed down into the Royal Mile, which is the heart of the city’s Old Town. I find when I’m travelling these days, I avoid the hideous High Streets and shopping malls, and seek out the old, quaint parts. The Royal Mile stretches from Edinburgh Castle at the top of the hill, down to Holyrood Palace at the bottom. Holyrood Palace is one of the royal residences in Edinburgh, and while not as flash as Buckingham Palace, it’s not bad for a wee cottage up north.

All sorts of quaint boutiques lined the streets, together with loads of Scottish paraphenlia like kilts, fake bagpipes, tartans and all sorts of warm wooly stuff.

I found fantastic little arts and crafts markets in an old cemetery in the streets below the castle and wandered back up the Royal Mile, checking out the many buskers and street performers that were there as part of the festival.

I recently heard a comedian describing the Edinburgh festival, and how “every corner is home to a bloke with bagpipes in a kilt” – and that was certainly the case. It was a scream!

After a mid-afternoon backbash, the group headed back into town and had a quick dinner and beer before joining the massive queue for the Military Tattoo. Here’s the thing with the Tattoo…it was the final night of the Tattoo, which had been playing for about a month, with two performances each night. They jam about 10,000 people into a purpose-built stadium in the car-park of Edinburgh Castle. Police line the streets, and they close of many of the main access ways into the castle, and pretty much filter people in, while also doing security searches. When the early show finishes, they have to get 10,000 people out, and let another 10,000 people in, which equates to a truck load of people in the narrow cobbled streets around the castle.

I spose it took about an hour to get in, but when we eventually got seated, the atmosphere was electric. By 10.30pm, when the show was due to start, the sky was pitch black and the castle was illuminated with flaming torches. It was even colder and windier than it had been during the day, but at least the rain held off.

The first pipers burst into the stadium and for the next couple of hours I sat mesmerized by what the Scots consider to be a deeply traditional and proud celebration of their military might.

Pipe bands from around the world performed various songs, and when the Scottish band played Scotland the Brave, the crowd went completely nuts. My favourite part of the show was when the entire 1000 or so performers played Mull of Kintyre – one of the best songs ever! And then they played “Sailing”, which again, with the strength of several hundred bagpipes, was awesome.

The grand finale was a haunting rendition of the Last Post, played by a loan piper at the top of the castle. Throughout the show, the wall of the castle had been used as a huge projection screen, and lit various colours – but for the last song, they turned out all the lights, had huge flaming torches on the castle’s main pulpits and focused a spotlight on the piper.

It actually moved me to tears – the whole Last Post thing. It was an extraordinary setting, and having spent the day in Edinburgh, it became very clear that the Scots are intensely strong, proud people. The show concluded with huge fireworks over the castle and the predictable rush and crush to get out, but it was one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen – and well worth it if you’re able to get tickets.

We kicked on at one of the many overflowing nightclubs and once again, partied our little hearts out.

The next day, I wandered round some more, before meeting Iain, an old IR colleague, who lives in Edinburgh, for lunch. We hadn’t seen each other for yonks, and it was a great to catch up. Cheers Iain!

The atmosphere in the city was fantastic, and the people-watching opportunities were spectacular. I spent the rest of the day pottering round the streets and checking out the main points of interest.

That evening, there was an option restaurant visit for what, we were promised, was a traditional Scottish meal. I had been debating whether to try haggis (mashed up, cooked offal), and decided that out of respect to the locals, I should give their celebrated delicacy a go. Holding my nose and shutting my eyes, I threw it down the hatch and managed to keep it there. The morsel I had was well cooked, so I couldn’t taste any of the potentially gross stuff…so there you go. I can at least say I tried haggis. Probably not likely to give it another go however…

After the main meal, we were treated to Andy the Piper/Comedian – a solo piper, who cranked up his bagpipes and between tunes, chatted about the history of the pipes and heckled everyone in the room. He was rude, completely un-PC and thoroughly hilarious. His finale was to play the theme song from Star Wars, which was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever heard.

We kicked on at one of the many overflowing nightclubs and once again, partied our little hearts out. One travel buddy partied so hard he wound up in Edinburgh hospital at 5.00am with a torn ligament. This was of course, the morning we had to drive back to London. With an 8.00am departure, we all (somehow) managed to make it back onto the bus for the long drive home.

Things were predictably quiet for the first few hours, then the natives got restless, talked crap, asked if we were there yet (10 thousand times), pondered the horrors of M1 traffic, talked more crap, and finally, some 10 hours later, pulled into the now familiar Bedford Way at Russell Square – Contiki’s drop off point.

As we said our goodbyes, Scotland the Brave was no doubt ringing loudly in our minds, after one truly awesome long weekend.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Around the World in 80 Dates

Ok - I'm on a bit of a roll with travel books! But one of the truly most enjoyable travel books I've ever read was Around the World in 80 Dates, by Jennifer Cox.

After a good dose of introspection, the former Head of PR for Lonely Planet, decided to embark on a global search for her perfect man. Jennifer composed a "soul mate job description" and farmed it out to her geographically scattered "date wranglers". Their mission was to set her up on dates with any suitable blokes they knew - anywhere in the world. Her mission was to get through 80 dates...

The story sequentially diarises the dates and cities and the inevitable adventures and horror shows that ensue. As our intrepid heroin churns her way through the 10th, 20th, 30th and 50th dates, you start to wonder if she's actually going to meet the ideal man.

Around the World in 80 Dates is a fantastic travel adventure, and an inspiration to chics everywhere who are on the search for Mr Right.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

To be sure - it's Dublin!

* The next six posts are about a driving trip Mum and I did through Ireland in May 2005.

TO BE SURE!

Mum and I arrived in Dublin mid-morning, and collected our trusty Toyota Corolla (an automatic). I haven't driven in over 6 months, and that combined with the less-than-clearly signed Dublin roads, extreme traffic, no detailed map of the city's surrounds, and rain, made for a nervous drive into town. But we got eventually there with some kamikaze navigating, a few u-turns and some near misses...:-)

Once we actually found the Tourist Information Centre, we were able to get a map that showed roughly where our first B&B was - at Clontarf, just 4kms from the city.

We had a typical oyrish lunch in a typical oyrish pub, and were quite surprised at the number of people out drinking on a Monday lunch time. Apparently any time's a good time to drink in Ireland.

After walking down O'Connell Street, the main street, we jumped on one of the city's tourist buses and checked out the main attractions. Highlights included Trinity College - a stunning old building that's home to the Book of Kells; then the Guiness Storehouse (although how people can drink that stuff is beyond me!). The Guide pointed out at this part of the tour, that Dublin's largest alcoholic rehabilitation centre was right opposite its largest brewery. Irish logic for you!

The guide then pointed out Kilmainham Gaol, the largest unoccupied gaol in the UK - how's that for a promotional tagline...

We drove through the lovely Phoenix Park, which is the largest urban park in Europe. As well as being home to Ireland's President, it's also home to Dublin Zoo. The guide pointed out that the Zoo has actually had quite a successful lion breeding program, most likely he thought, as a result of the similarity of Ireland's climate with that of the Serengheti.

Winding back along the River Liffey, we passed a pub at an average rate of 1 every 5 seconds. I was starting to feel at home.

After doing the loop on the bus, we found the car and yet again attempted to find the B&B, this time somewhat better equipped. More kamikaze navigating, swearing, squinting at the map, and a phonecall to our B&B hostess for the evening, we found our quaint little B&B and the even quainter Moira.

Moira looked like she was nearing 95, although was probably only 75, had the thickest Oyrish accent, and to be sure, she was lovely. Grand. It was all grand! Moira's house contained the largest collection of sentimental sh1te I've seen in a long time. Absolutely every surface was covered with photos, kitch little souvenirs, dusty antiques, stuffed animals, quaint signs and collections of god-knows what.

She showed us to our room upstairs, which was certainly neat and comfortable. And small. The "ensuite" actually consisted of a moulded shower no bigger than 40cm square and a wash basin. But it as warm and cosy, and had at least three pictures of the Virgin Mary looking over us, plus one of the Mona Lisa for good measure.

Moira helpfully gave us instructions on how to catch the bus back into town (I was *not* driving anywhere near Dublin traffic again that day!), and we got there in about 10 minutes. It helps when you know where you're going!

Even at 6.00pm it was still sunny - the nights are light until 9.00pm and later at this time of the year.

Mum was bent on finding a pub with Oyrish music, and the ever-trusty Moira had given us some tips. The Temple Bar area, just on one of the banks of the river, is great for pubs and restaurants, and within minutes, we were skulling the first of many cidars and listening to two blokes on guitars playing Irish music. Ahh....we were here.

Funnily enough, after several pints of cider and a good dose of Irish accents, you actually start to believe you are one of them. Mum and I started babbling in Irish, and were starting to be very sure of everything...the catchcry became "to be sure", and I guess we must have said that at least a thousand times each during the next five days.

Irish Stew and a typical fry-up completed our first very Irish day in Dublin. The copious amount of cider also meant that we had a few problems finding the right bus home - but that was only because Mum didn't trust my navigating abilities....we got there...eventually...to be sure!

Cork-ed!

DAY 2: The beds in Moira's cramped little rooms were surprisingly comfortable, and the light came streaming in at some very early time. Breakfast was at 8.00am, and this was where we met some of the other guests - an elderly English couple who seemed to think they were about to miss their flight back to Dublin, an American couple with a cute kid, and a Swedish couple who didn't say a whole lot. Oh, and a strange English bloke who also didn't talk a lot but sounded Australian. He was a bit offended when I asked if he was Australian...

Moira's breakfast room was more crammed with s*** than the rest of the house, including a photograph of Pope John II in a crowd - presumably on one of his many trips to Ireland. Anyway, Moira's brilliant breaky fry up hit the spot, and we started the tea-drinking odyssey that is Irish breakfast. I reckon we had about fourteen gallons of tea over the next five days.

We said goodbye to Moira, and with a few "to be sure's", we were off. The plan was to avoid Dublin and its notorious traffic, and head in exactly the opposite direction of where we were aiming to get to for the day (Cork), to get onto the M50 (a ring road around Dublin), which would theoretically bypass the traffic and eventually hook us up with the N7 - the main road down to Cork.

The plan kind of worked, and again with much swearing, kamikaze navigating, squinting and pointing, we somehow made it onto the N7, which turned into the M7 (a real motorway), and out onto the open road.

First impressions were of the green green grass and rolling hills. Buildings rapidly made way for sheep and cows, and we started to see the many ruins that dot the countryside - an old castle here, a bit of a wall there etc...some chunks of rock were probably just that - chunks of rock - but others were quite impressive, and probably had a long history attached to them.

The plan was to head down to Cork, via Kilkenny and Waterford. We sailed through County Laois, which we'd never heard of, and into County Carlow and the sleepy little town of Carlow. Looking back, Carlow was one of the divier places we visited but as we had to drive right through the centre of it anyway, we couldn't help notice the brightly coloured buildings and quaint pubs. Little did we know that almost *all* Irish towns are like this...

So we oohed and ahhed over cute Carlow, got the hang of the car (blinkers and windscreen wipers were switched, so there was much windscreen wiper action inadvertently going on for the first 100kms), and had a cuppa tea. Mum asked for a latte and got a blank look, then asked for skim milk in her tea, and was told that there was only real milk...clearly latte hysteria has not reached Carlow just yet.

We hit the road again, marvelling at the green grass, rolling hills, old chunks of rock, cows and sheep etc, and sailed into Kilkenny. More brightly coloured buildings paved the streets, but this was by far a prettier town than ugly ducking Carlow. It was quintessentially quaint - it probably helped to define the word. The doors on buildings were no taller than 5.5 feet, and there were barely any buildings over three storeys - well, accept Kilkenny Castle, which dominated the entire city, perched atop the local hill. It was quite a substantial chunk of rock.

The guide book deemed Kilkenny to be "one of Ireland's finest cities, full of medieval treasures and lined with brightly coloured painted Victorian style pubs and shopfronts", and indeed it was. Mum and I both thought this was one of the prettiest towns we visited.

We traipsed up the hill to the castle, along with hundreds of other tourists, and entered the very green grounds. We had to walk a good few hundred metres back from the castle to get the photo on this page. We then pottered around the Design Centre, which is actually a big tourist shop (although surprisingly good value), and I decided it would be fitting to spend the rest of the week driving round with Irish music bellowing around us.

For the next 700kms, "Timeless Irish Classics", a double CD containing hits like, "Danny Boy, Molly Malone and the Black Velvet Band" provided endless entertainment as we drove through many of the places referenced in the songs.

Next stop was Waterford, home of the famous Waterford Crystal Factory - this we avoided, but the township of Waterford itself was quite pleasant, and had quaint little cobbled streets and more brightly coloured shops.

From there, we sailed though County Waterford, through yet more green rolling hills, and out to the coast at Dungarven. This was our first citing of the coast since Dublin, and barring the vast mudflats, it was fairly scenic.

Timed to perfection, we arrived in Cork City bang on peak hour, but I did actually have my bearings pretty well sorted, having been there in February. The B&B was actually on the city map we had, which made things much easier - accept for the weird Irish house numbering system and the fact that street names on the streets bare little resemblance to the street names on maps...

Anyway, John, the B&B host for the evening welcomed us, outlined the breakfast schedule and pointed us on our merry way, into the city.

We were keen to hear Irish music, which doesn't actually seem to start before 9.30pm-ish in any given pub. Dinner this night was in a very oirish pub called Clancey's, and again cider featured prominently. I also introduced Mum to tot hoddies...or hot hoddies..whatever...the barmen understood.

To wile away time before the band started, I challenged Mum to a limerick competition. We each had to come up with limericks that mentioned the other person's name, by the time we got to County Limerick in a couple of days. This she accepted, and we began working on our limericks there and then. Here's a taste of our literary talent....we'll add more soon:

** From Robyn **
I do have a daughter called Mel
Who had too much cider and fell
She got up again and said
"Oh what a pain,
Do they have this great stuff in hell?"

** From Mel **
There once was a woman called Robyn
Who flew RyanAir into Doblin (go with me here!)
She saw Waterford, Cork and Kinsale
Her navigatin' never did fail
Although her head in the cider was bobbin'.

Funnily enough, all of our limericks revolved around alcohol. To be sure. Anyway, it kept us amused till the band began to play.

And they were excellent - possibly better than the Timeless Irish Classics if the truth be told. They did some jigs, sang some songs, and then got the audience up to attempt to do some irish dancing. Imagine the consequences of copious cider mixed with rapid dancing and lots of counting, tricky steps (like turning your partner), and foreign tourists not being able to understand the band dude's thick oirish accent....somewhat disastrous, but very very funny. We tripped our way through the rest of the evening, and headed back down through a very crowded high street, and back to the comfy B&B.

We were getting the hang of this place called Ireland.

Anti-clockwise around the Ring of Kerry

DAY 3: The day began with grey skies and drizzle, so we decided not to do a walking tour of Cork city, but headed straight out to the Blarney Castle, just north of the city.

The castle was built in the 15th century and is in pretty good condition for such an old chunk of stone. The grounds surrounding the castle were green and gorgeous, and there were far more flowers than when I was there in February.

We climbed the cramped spiral stairs to the top of the Castle, which gives a great view of the countryside, and the very cute township of Blarney. Having already kissed the Blarney Stone, I didn’t feel the need to do it again, but it was amusing listening to some of the American tourists talking about how unsanitary it was to have several hundred (or thousand) people kiss a small bit of rock embedded into the side of the castle. Mum also passed, but did manage to get some completely unflattering photos of other people doing it.

There’s a coffee shop in Blarney that does the best hot chocolate, so we camped there for a while as the rain really started to fall.

It rained pretty much the whole day. The cows, sheep, cute coloured buildings and old ruins out in the fields kept us amused, and our Timeless Irish Classics bellowed through the car. We were starting to learn the words, and they seemed so fitting:

“Oh grey and bleak, by shore and creek,
The rugged rocks abound.
But sweeter green the grass between
Than grows on Irish ground.”

We drove through the small town of Macroom and into Killarney, which is one of the biggest towns outside of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick. Its proximity to the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula mean it’s perennially packed with tourists and coaches. But its narrow cobbled streets, great little pubs and craft shops give it heaps of character. Coincidentally, almost all of the towns starting with K were the nicest.

After a long walk through Killarney, lunch and some souvenir shopping, we headed on our merry way round the Ring of Kerry, anti-clockwise. We’d been told that the roads around this area were crap, and that we were likely to have to share them with the bwzillions of coaches that take tourists on day trips. Our plan was to get halfway round The Ring that afternoon, and beat the coaches that would start from Killarney the next day.

It was a shame that it was such a drab day, and that the fog was low – because it was obvious that the scenery would have been spectacular. We drove round windy little cliff tops where green hills met the North Atlantic Ocean off the wild west coast. Not being able to see much, we kept driving to a little town called Cahersiveen (pronounced car seveen) and decided to stay there for the evening. It was a quaint little town where the “highway” rambled through the main street. It’s quite extraordinary to see buses and trucks pass each other in these narrow little passageways.

By about 4.00pm, it was windy, wet, freezing, and time for a cider. The barmaid gave us tips about the best place for dinner – a pub just down the road from hers. We found the B&B, which our host had pointed out, was on the “car ferry road”.

The B&B was great – it had a large glass conservatory as the guest’s sitting room, and the room was warm (although you had to run around in the shower to get wet – Irish water pressure is not so good). We got chatting to a British couple who were staying there for the evening, and then a scary looking German family (think middle age punk rocker types with one child) came in too.

We didn’t realise that seafood would be plentiful in Ireland (despite it being surrounded by water….duh!), but we had the yummiest salmon dinner that night. In fact, Mum had salmon every night.

The old pub was cold and dimly lit, but we parked ourselves in front of the fire to thaw out, and asked the barmaid how her town’s name was pronounced. The Irish people are awesome – so friendly, and much less formal than the English…

With a few more ciders under our belts, we called it quits and had an early night, keeping our fingers crossed for better weather!

County Clare and Ladies View

DAY 4: To be sure, the rain stopped, and although it was cloudy, the view of countryside around Cahersiveen was much better than the day before.

Brigette, Eilish’s daughter, was a cute little kid who served us our full oirish breakfast. Mum asked what she usually had for breakfast, and she said in an even cuter oirish accent “Aww, cereal or sometimes rashers (of bacon).” The temptation to ask silly questions just to hear Irish people talk, was often too great to resist.

After breakfast, we made friends with Brigette’s cat Bingy. Bingy was a very affectionate cat, who wound itself round our legs and demanded to be patted for 20 minutes. Mum, who was suffering cat withdrawal symptoms (having not seen her “girls”, Misty and Pixie, for over two weeks) gave Bingy all the attention he demanded – to the point where he was doing that weird cat-going-sideways-in-ecstasy thing. They actually needed to be separated with a crowbar.

We set off for a quick squizz of the small pier where ferries take passengers over to Valencia Island, about a kilometre off the coast of Cahersiveen.

Then it was back onto the Ring of Kerry and onto some more bendy cliff-top roads. If you get stuck behind a truck or coach on these roads, you’re more or less stuffed – or at least reduced to a snail’s pace.

Fortunately there wasn’t a lot of traffic on this road, and other than a few sets of roadworks, we had a pretty good run. The landscape got rockier, and a couple of times we had to stop to let sheep cross the road. This was the clich√©d Ireland I was looking for!

We stopped for a cuppa at a lookout called Ladies View. It looked out to a scenic valley where some of County Kerry’s biggest lakes converged.

Earlier, we had decided that if we could get a decent drive in today, and get quite a way up the coast, we could visit the Cliffs of Moher and Galway the following day.

We completed the Ring of Kerry loop and bypassed Killarney this time, heading north to Tralee for lunch. It was a larger town than Killarney, perhaps with a little less character and more traffic.

Parking in most Irish towns is a complete disaster. This is without doubt one of the country’s biggest problems – there are simply too many cars on the roads for the cities to cope with. Parking stations are packed, streets are crammed with cars parked on the sides, and it’s really quite tedious to get across town.

The green hills of County Kerry sailed by, as we drove up to the Shannon River Estuary, and to a car-ferry at Tarbert. We only had to wait about 20 minutes for the next ferry to take us over to Killimer in County Clare.

County Clare seemed even greener than County Kerry, and we stopped in the cute little town of Kilrish for the ritual afternoon cuppa. I guess the greener a place is, the more rain they’re likely to get, and as if on cue, it started drizzling again.

We then headed further west and up the coast road via Kilrush, Doonbeg and Kilmurry, through Milltown Malbay, and into what we thought was the pick of the villages for the evening – Lahinch.

Lahinch’s beach makes it a popular resort town for surfers, and it’s also known for its traditional music.

The B&B was about a kilometre out of town, so we backbashed for a while before heading back into town for a pub dinner. Another pub across the road had an Irish band playing that night, and a few hot toddies kept us going until the band started. I’d never really been into traditional Irish music, but listening to it for 8 hours in the car each day, and then again in pubs at night has really changed my mind. I’m an Irish music convert!

The band was excellent, and as we left the pub, the heavens opened up and the green green hills of County Clare were watered once again.

Roaring winds at the Cliffs of Moher

Day 5: The plan for today was to check out the Cliffs of Moher, head inland and north up to Galway via Kinvarra, and then down to Limerick.

We'd checked out the B&B book, and Mum happened to spot a castle in a town just out of Limerick. I didn't think we'd have a snowflakes chance in hell of getting a room in a castle for the night, but when I rang, they said they had availability. So we booked, and spent the rest of the day wondering what this castle would be like.

The day was fairly fine, although windy, and as we crawled up bendy narrow country roads behind another heavy truck bound for roadworks, the wind really kicked in. The poor moos were walking sideways...

We got to the Cliffs of Moher carpark and donned jackets and scarves. It was blowing a gale - I guess the weather on this very exposed coastline copped a lot of rough weather and high winds.

The Cliffs of Moher were awesome, and we ploughed through the wind up to an old light-housey sort of structure on the top of the hill. I really thought we could have been blown off that hill! But the view was worth the chill factor.

To the strains of increasingly familiar "The Irish Rover", we drove down into lush green countryside, through a funny little town called Lisdoonvarna and into a picturesque seaside town called Kinvarra. I liked it because it had pink buildings. Mum liked it because she got to play with a ginger cat, and we had a hot chocolate.

Just out of Kinvarra, was the relics of yet another castle - Dunguaire Castle, which perched atop a hill overlooking the colourful little town.

The drive up to Galway was uninspiring, as we hit a motorway and lanes of traffic, all streaming into what we suspected was the 3rd largest city in Ireland.

Galway's a great spot - once you can park your car! Once again, traffic was rife and carparks were completely chockers. Driving round Ireland on a daily basis would be a complete nightmare. Galway has all the facilities of a large city like Cork or Dublin, but the charm and quaintness of Kilkenny or Killarney. It's old town weaved through the centre of the CBD, and heaps of people were out, walking the streets. It was a beautiful day - unbelievably sunny!

It would have been easier to spend more time in Galway, but we had to get back down through County Clare and into the midlands by that evening.

We passed through the towns of Gort and Ennis and stopped for a quick beer in Limerick, Ireland's 4th biggest city. We were both surprised at how big some of the cities were. When we entered the Squire McGuire pub for a drink (it was Friday afternoon after all!), a roomful of blokes looked at us as if to wonder what we were doing in their pub. To be sure!

The karoke continued as we drove south through County Limerick and into Tipperary (It's a long Way to Tipperary!). The small town of Bansha was another 20kms or so out of Tipperary, and we started to look for our castle.

Out in the fields, a large manor loomed and a sign pointed to Bansha Castle. Our bed for the night! Ok - so it was smaller than Buckingham Palace, and even Kensington Palace - but in much better condition than Blarney Castle - like it had electricity and carpet.

We drove into the large property and up a well groomed track to the main house. John, the host, was out mowing the enormous lawns, and came over to welcome us. He introduced us to Paddy, his gorgeous black boofy labrador and showed us into the house. It was without a doubt the best place we stayed in Ireland.

Our room was huge and there were about another 10 we could make use of - the lounge room, which was a vast sprawling luxurious room that backed onto a billiards room with a full size billards table.

The furnishings were perfect and small reminders of the castle's past dotted the walls. Hanging in one room, was a scroll addressed to Dr Russell - a former owner of the house and Doctor for the town of Bansha. The townsfolk had presented him with a scroll in 1945 on the occasion of his marriage in 1945 - it wished him well and talked about how fine a man he was. They were probably crawling,and trying to get into his will to get their hands on the gorgeous chunk of house we were standing in. I was certainly trying to work out how I could make it mine.

Dinner that night was down the road in the little village of Bansha. We had a choice of two pubs, and were fortunate enough to pick the one where a local wedding party was celebrating. I went to the bar to get drinks, and this leprechaun-looking little old man at the bar started chatting to me through a gummy smile. He asked if I was travelling...yes, I was from Australia, living in London and travelling with my Mum. Then he asked if I was married - the cheeky b*****! I said no. Then he asked if I was looking for a bloke - I told him it depended who was asking...Mind you, if he had had any direct ties to Bansha Castle, it might have been another story....

As Mum and I tucked into yet more salmon and cider, people from the wedding party started traipsing through the pub in their best wedding clothes. To give you an idea of how ridiculously inappropriate their clothing was - we had each worn our woollen coats to the pub. It was COLD! But these guests had strappy dresses and shoes - or the ones who bothered to dress up did. Others had jeans and shoes that looked suspiciously like sneakers...it was quite the country wedding! I didn't manage to get a look at the bride, but Mum did, and reported that she was about the size of a house and gave a speech.

There was also a fair in a park opposite the pub, and as we left, we saw several of the younger wedding guests tottering through the mud in those strappy shoes...really quite bizarre.

Bansha Castle at night was not at all drafty or cold. Much renovation work had made it warm and cosy, all in keeping with the style of its 18th centure structure.

I drifted off to sleep that night dreaming of dashing Irish princes...

County Tipperary and the castle

DAY 6: My prince didn't show up, but it was very pleasant to wake up in a castle. As we expected, the breakfast room was as grand as the rest of the house. All the silverware was out and breakfast was indeed a very civilised affair.

The breakfast room looked out to the back gardens, which were actually surrounded by the ruins of the original 17th Century castle. It was all spectacular. We loved the castle and everything about it. I want one.

Setting off, we did a quick lap back through Tipperary in case we'd missed anything as went sailing through the day before. We hadn't.

Then we set off to Cashel to see the Rock of Cashel. Rising 200 feet above the surrounding land and topped by a cluster of ruins, the Rock of Cashel is an impressive site.

A friendly guide called Moira explained that the kings of Munster ruled their lands from the top of this limestone outcrop from around 370 until 1101, when it was turned over to the church.

We walked though each of the five buildings - all religious sites - and through the cemetary. Moira explained the various legends associated with the Rock of Cashel. It is said to have been formed when the Devil, flying across Ireland in a great hurry, took a bite of the mountains in his path and spat it out in the Golden Vale.

A gap to the north, called Devil's Bit, is said to be a perfect match to the dimensions of the rock. St Patrick arrived in 450 to baptise King Aengus and his brothers. During the ceremony, the saint accidentally drove his sharp-pointed staff into the king's foot, but the king didn't flinch, believing that the pain was part of the Christian initiation rites. From then on, Cashel was also called St Patrick's Rock.

So...that's a very brief history of that particular chunk of stone. The rain started to fall once again - big drops this time...bloody torrential, in fact...so we decided to end our tour of Cashel and continue driving north-west back to Dublin.

This was our last day, and we attempted to play our 60 songs worth of irish hits in one day. I think some of my fondest memories of Ireland will be driving through the green countryside, belting out Irish tunes with Mum.

Compared with County Clare and Country Kerry, County Tipperary is a bit sparse in terms of attractions, and even it's towns seem a little more bland than other places we'd passed through. Abbeyleix, however, was a cute little town, that made for a good lunch stop. We had our 10,000 cup of tea and headed on our merry way back up the M7. We had planned to stop in Kildare to kill time before the flight back to London, but a quick loop through that town encouraged us to keep going into the airport. There was a bar there, after all!

The traffic going into Dublin was abysmal, and probably made us appreciate all the quaint little towns a million times more, now that we were back in the big smoke.

We dropped the car off and headed into the usual nightmare that is a RyanAir check in queue, and then headed for the bar. We had about 2 hours to kill before the flight, and fortunately, the FA Cup final between Liverpool and Arsenal happened to be playing. The whole airport was practically squashed into the bar, and flights seemed to being delayed all over the place as people craned to see the last few minutes of the game. It was hilarious! I've never heard so many announcements... "Would Mr Paddy Smith please go straight to gate 47. Your plane is waiting". This went on and on until the game finished (Liverpool won), and the second the final bell sounded, the whole bar emptied out as people rushed to their planes.

And so ended our six days in the Emerald Isle. To be sure, Ireland is a wonderful place and I would go back in a heartbeat!

WIWT: Ice Caves on Fox Glacier, New Zealand

Fox Glacier's ice caves provided a stunning playground one winter's afternoon in July 2004. Flying up to the glacier by helicopter, we spent several hours hiking over the ice. Click here for details about New Zealand's glacier flights.

Tales of a Female Nomad

While I'm on the subject of great travel books, Rita Golden Gelman's Tales of a Female Nomad, was a book I read some 5 years ago.

It tells the story of Gelman, who, despite having lived a privileged existance, felt trapped in an unhappy marriage. She courageously decided to follow her dream and take off to see the world by herself. Little did she know far she would travel, or that she would continue to be travelling some 20 years later.

Gelman's inspiring journey through places like Mexico, Guatemala, Israel, Indonesia, and the US provides close-up glimpses of everyday life in other cultures, while inspiring readers to question their notions of "freedom" and the fear that most often holds them back from being "free".

Thirteen luxury hotels, five months...no money

Travel books are a great way of killing time on long-haul flights. Absolutely Faking It, by Tiana Templeman, is an hilarious story about a couple who won what was billed as "the trip of a lifetime".

Tiana and her husband set off on a five month adventure through fourteen countries, incorporating their prize of a three-night stay at each of 15 of the world's most luxurious hotels.

From the Ritz in Paris to the Peninsula in Hong Kong, Tiana recounts amusing anecdotes about how two self-confessed backpackers "faked" their way through a world of enormous suites, Chanel toiletries and ultra-discreet butlers.