Sunday, 8 March 2015

Magical Mexico and the madness of in-transit travel ...

HQ has been to Mexico a number of times now and can say categorically that the only acceptable way to travel there again is via a direct flight. (That is of course, unless the plan is to stop over for a few days.) The UK based airlines all go via the USA. There are direct flights available, but not every day ... at the moment. 
Rumour has it that Virgin Atlantic will be flying to it's own airport terminal every day .. watch this space!

We'd booked to go back to the Riviera Maya on a Friday to Friday availability and our best option was to fly from Heathrow with British Airways to Miami, lay over for a couple of hours and transfer with American Airlines to Cancun. (Virgin my airline of choice had no flights on a Friday unfortunately.) This all appeared doable .. the expected arrival at the resort (about 25 mins from the airport) would have been early evening giving enough time to check in, have dinner and hit the sack at a reasonable time after a long day of travel. However, as is often the case, things don't necessarily go to plan and HQ's holiday started off on the wrong foot from the very beginning.

On the day of departure, the alarm was accidentally set an hour later than planned but as luck would have it the body clock was working and we were out the door only a few minutes late. HQ's rule is to have a contingency of at least half an hour for just such eventualities so it wasn't a problem thankfully. Driving to the airport, a wayward driver almost wiped us off the motorway! Quick thinking and reflexes on my part meant that a nasty accident was avoided. Then, whilst sitting on the aircraft waiting for departure we were informed that 3 passengers had decided not to travel, having already checked their bags in, so we had to wait while said bags were removed. Eventually we left about 90 minutes late having lost our slot for takeoff. We arrived in Miami with about 2.5 hours to spare till our next flight.

The USA require that even if you are in transit, you must clear immigration, have a valid ESTA or visa otherwise your journey ends there. Luckily we possess these things but of course the waiting lines can be long and stressful. Again, we were fortunate to have had our luggage checked through (and boarding cards for the next flight on American Airlines - thanks BA!) to Cancun so after clearing customs we could make our way to our next departure gate. Our connecting flight was subsequently delayed by 3 hours .. We missed our hotel transfer so had to wait while they arranged for another meaning our arrival at the resort was around 10.30 pm. Speaking with other travellers who had arrived on earlier flights - they told us that it had taken them 3 hours to clear as there were so many arrivals at the same time. I think the saving grace was that because we arrived late at Cancun airport, the immigration process was relatively quick. Something to bear in mind if you're planning a visit.

The return journey a week later was no less fraught with similar issues. One thing to remember about Mexico .. they deal in 'Mexican minutes' .. we booked a cab to the airport for 1pm and it arrived at 1.20pm leaving us stressing about getting there on time. When we arrived to check in the machines couldn't read our passports so we had to get someone to help. My partner had also lost the exit part of the immigration form and had to pay US$30 for a new one. Remember to keep it safe if you go - and have your ESTA to hand .. it's very important!

The bags were thankfully checked all the way through to London and we went to the departures lounge to await our gate. It never showed up on the board and we wasted about half an hour trying to find out (no one knew) and finally heard an announcement 10 minutes before departure, so we ran to the gate to find other passengers looking bewildered. We were put on a bus and taken to the aircraft .. and although it left late, we made up the time to Miami with a fast flight time of 1 hour 15 minutes. Miami again was the same as before .. immigration, customs and exit this time to arrivals as we had to check in with British Airways. American Airlines do not have the facility to issue onward boarding passes. A pizza and a beer was the order of the day .. stresses over and looking forward to getting home.

After all of the drama, it was plane sailing (no pun intended) and the flight left on time, arriving early to a beautiful sunny day in London. The final straw was that one of our bags didn't arrive with us! The downside of travel. Thankfully, with the system they have in place it could be tracked and the courier company delivered the bag the next day. 

I'm thankful to say that the week spent at Vidanta Riviera Maya was fantastic and very relaxing -
they are now in partnership with the Cirque de Soleil although we didn't see the show on this trip. As this was a complete 'shut down' holiday it was all about the pool, beach and food. The weather was perfect, the food amazing and the accommodation second to none - what more can you ask for? As I've said before, the people are friendly and hospitable and can't do enough for you. I look forward and am planning a longer stay on next year's visit! I know I said the same thing last year! I still haven't visited Tulum, Chichen Itsa and the cenotes. So much to see and do.

lobster tail and stuffed tomato
fish and chips

As I have visited and written about this region before, you can refer to my blog post of December 2013 for more info.

My next trip is less than 2 weeks away .. a city break in Italy with my New York sister from another mister! Happy days!

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Getting rid of January blues ..

The start of the snow fall in NYC
Wow February has arrived, the days are getting longer and lighter and it's still very cold and grey .. why are we always surprised? Winter still has a few more weeks to run and now is a great time to dream and plan long weekends and vacations .. the dull, grey days disappearing from our minds as we look forward to fun in the sun or even in the snow .. just getting away is what it's all about. This time last year I was in New York which was under a mountain of snow .. and although disruptive to those trying to go about their business, was so beautiful to observe.

Riviera Maya at sunset
My next trip is in about three and a half weeks .. back to one of my favourite places .. Riviera Maya on the Caribbean Sea coast of Mexico. I'm also busy planning a long weekend in March, possibly to Italy and another weekend in Lincolnshire at a friend's B&B. I look forward to updating you about that!

Stay warm if you are in the northern hemisphere, and for those south of the equator, enjoy what's left of the summer.  Happy days.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Three days in Dubai

Flying over snow capped peaks in Iran
When I tell people I'm flying for 7 hours each way for a long weekend, some would say "it's not worth it, why not go for longer?" My reply would be that it makes no difference to me .. 4 days is all I have available and I'm not going to let a long journey deter me. People go to New York for long weekends all the time because it's New York! If you were to drive to the Lake District, West Wales or Scotland for example from London for a long weekend the drive is going to be a fair number of hours but because the distance is not so great it doesn't feel comparable. I always factor the journey time into my enjoyment if I can .. once I'm through security at the airport, I make sure I allow myself time for breakfast (or lunch) and some duty free shopping. Then on the aircraft I catch up with the movies (at least 3!) I haven't had time to see. It's all part of the experience.

I have just spent a wonderful weekend in Dubai. I have been before as you know so wasn't in the market for the touristy things like the Mall of Emirates, Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall. It's a really good time to go as it's 'winter' and therefore the temperatures average around 24C during the day, with plenty of sunshine and a few degrees cooler at night. It's not quite my idea of beach weather but there are still people taking advantage of the pleasant sunshine. I opted to go swimming in the heated open air pool of the apartment block I was staying in .. such a great facility to have.

Driving from A to B in Dubai is a mission in itself .. the highways are multi-laned and there doesn't seem to be any rules that are adhered to .. everyone just intent on their own journey. We saw many luxury cars from Ferraris to Lamborghinis and the like to pimped up cars (left) with Swarovski crystals (or maybe they were diamonds!) on the petrol cap, logo badge and window trims .. as if you would ever do that in London! They would be gone the minute you stepped away from the car!

We wanted to see the city of Dubai as the sun set but unfortunately the evenings were a little foggy and cool. We went to Bar 101 at the One & Only The Palm for cocktails and tapas. It's a fabulous location, and we still managed to catch a view of the clearing skyline of the marina area before it got dark so all was not lost.

On Sunday .. which is like a Monday (their weekend is Friday and Saturday) we went to Jumeirah (Arabic for beautiful) Beach. There you will find hotels and apartment buildings and a shopping and restaurant area along the beachfront. All very tastefully done and spread out. We wandered through art galleries, home stores and specialty shops. I particularly liked Gallery One which featured a lot of middle eastern art. There were a myriad of beautiful prints to buy but as I don't have enough wall space, I came away with a small print of the hand of Fatima.

You can also hire loungers, towels etc for the beach but being as it was only 24C .. sunbathing wasn't on the cards for us. However, we did stop for burgers at Shake Shack .. nothing better than sitting outside eating tasty fast food with a view of the Arabian Gulf.

Other places we ate were Claw at Souk AL Bahar for fish tacos and delicious Mojitos and The Meat Co. at the Souk Madinat Jumeirah. We sat outside and were lucky enough to witness 10 minutes of fireworks (possibly in honour of a Sheik's birthday) in the distance beautifully reflected off the Burj Al Arab. A fitting way to end a lovely long weekend. 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

As we welcome in 2015 here are some photo reminders of 2014

New York - February
Barbados - March

Dubai - May

Santorini - June
Santorini - June

Edinburgh - July

Cardiff - July
Hever Castle - August

New York - August/September

Gleneagles - September
Cotswolds - November

Saint Lucia - December

Plans are already underway for this year .. some places to revisit to see family and friends and some new ones .. choices, choices!  
 Happy New Year!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

So long, farewell, goodbye to 2014...

Wow 2014 is almost over and has just flown by .. the new year starts in just under two weeks! Looking back over the past twelve months I am truly grateful how very fortunate I am to be able to do the amount of travel that I do. Some of it was work related but the majority was definitely for pleasure even if only for a weekend or a few days at a time. I believe it's essential for our health and well being to take a break from the daily grind and the routine of every day life. 

If you love your work like I do it's still good to distance yourself, have fun, relax and come back fully recharged and ready to take on the challenges that present themselves in our busy schedules.

I'm taking a short break from writing and want to say that I really appreciate you all reading my blog and supporting me .. I love sharing my photos and experiences with you and look forward to many more opportunities to do so.

Thank you and see you in 2015!

Happy New Year
Buon Anno
Feliz Año Nuevo
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda
سنة جديدة سعيدة   
Ευτυχισμένο το Νέο Έτος 
(the languages of the places I visited this year)


Monday, 8 December 2014

Saint Lucia .. tropical island paradise

View of the Pitons from the air
For me, the best thing about a relatively long flight is approaching my destination in daylight and being able to see it from the air. I happened to be sitting on the left hand side of the aircraft in a window seat and watched as we circumnavigated the whole island before landing .. so beautiful and impressive with it's lush green rainforests covering the terra firma right down to the sea!

Arriving there early afternoon meant that even with our 75 minute road transfer from the south of the island to the other end, we still had plenty of time to see the first sunset and enjoy a beach side dinner.

Windjammer Landing
Our resort Windjammer Landing on the north west of the island was well spread out with villas nestled into the hillside from the beach level upwards .. accessed by stairs, walkways and roads. A shuttle service is available 24/7 for people who didn't want to walk (read climb) the hills and of course much needed if your villa was situated at the top. That would be some work out! I enjoyed the daily exertion although I have to confess that the villa was only about a third of the way up .. quite doable even though I was gasping for breath on my first attempt! It got better as the week went on and I looked forward to finding different paths to take. There was always something to notice .. colorful blooms, hummingbirds, large caterpillars, geckos .. and as dusk descended the call of the tree frogs filled the air. A mesmerizing sound to lull you to sleep every night.

The resort has just undergone an expansion .. the beach has been enlarged, new palm trees planted and there is a new spa complex which was still under construction while we were there but nearing completion. There is plenty of room to be in your own space on the beach .. never crowded or noisy .. a simple paradise to wile away the hours. There's also plenty to do if you want it .. sailing, windsurfing, snorkeling and diving .. there are qualified instructors on hand and not expensive.

Quiet end of the beach
Most days were about relaxing .. a complete shut down from London life and work. There's no regimented sunbed layout, instead you pick up a towel from the hut and go where you want.  There are also pools on various levels and we had one a few steps from our villa where we would swim before breakfast - what a great way to start the day!

Mid week we opted for a day out and took the 'Endless Summer' catamaran cruise down the west side of the island to see the Pitons. It was great value for money as the cost of US$110 per person included the boat trip, transfers and entrance fees, all drinks including beer and rum, plus a delicious buffet lunch at the Fond Doux Estate, a working cocoa plantation. 
Part of the plantation

Diamond Falls

I hadn't planned on getting wet before lunch but once I saw Diamond Falls it looked so fresh and inviting! Walking into the gorgeous cool spring water and standing under the waterfall was a first for me and an exhilarating experience. Also opting to see the sulphurous, bubbling pools in the caldera (instead of the mud baths) was an olfactory experience to say the least! 

Bean polishing
We also had a demonstration of cocoa bean polishing in a large caldron - more of an extreme workout for the person concerned - the smell that emanated was gorgeous and chocolaty - and I think his feet were clean going in!

Lunch was served in a gorgeous covered exterior setting surrounded by tropical fruit trees such as mango, pawpaw and cashew nut and the many species of birds flying freely around the rainforest canopy. My new food experience - green banana pie! Savoury not sweet and very moorish!

Marigot Bay
The return trip up the coast was equally entertaining .. we stopped to snorkel and swim off the side of the boat in Anse Cochon and pulled into Marigot Bay (the filming location of Dr. Doolittle) just to have a look. The music was cranked up on the last leg - some people danced until we docked - and an extremely enjoyable day was had by all .. I highly recommend it as a 'must do'!

Although we mostly had all our meals on site - there are 5 restaurants which are all good - we decided to treat ourselves and eat out nearby about 15 minutes drive away in the area of Rodney Bay. We lucked out as we had an amazing meal at The Palms at the luxury resort The Landings which was quiet and beautiful.  I had my favorite .. Cajun style Mahi-mahi .. all the fish and vegetables are fresh and their menu changes to suit what they can get. That seems to be true for the whole island .. a lot of fruit and vegetables grow there and there is an abundance of fish to be had, also goat and beef. Banana trees seem to grow wild .. it was so nice to eat fresh bananas and tropical fruits knowing that they hadn't been transported in huge containers before reaching our shores.

There are of course many other things to do on the island if you have the time or inclination and you can also take day trips by air or sea to Martinique and Antigua for some more Caribbean experience.

So, Saint Lucia is finally ticked off my bucket list although I loved it so much I'm definitely going to have to go back!


Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Work hard, play in the sun!

Windjammer Landing Resort
Saturday cannot come soon enough! I'm not wishing my life away but it's been a busy few months and I am so ready to go somewhere warm and beautiful to enjoy doing whatever I want!

My destination is St. Lucia - somewhere I've always wanted to visit. Four years ago I had actually booked to go and a few days before my departure hurricane Tomas destroyed the infrastructure of many roads and resorts and made the beaches unusable. The hotel and airline were quick to advise and quickly rearranged the trip to Barbados instead which was largely untouched by the devastating storm. Thus began my love of that gem of an island and my frequent visits back!

Look out for my photo du jour on HQ's facebook page and blog post to follow on my return!

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The hotel experience

I've stayed in a few hotels in my time and I would really love to give some of those interior designers a little kick up the backside. The way some of the rooms are 'designed' tells me that they either have not had much experience of living in the spaces or they just care more about the way it looks than it's practicality. Of course it matters that it looks good and welcoming but we have to 'live' in it for a while!

For me my ultimate expectation is cleanliness and functionality. After that there could be a few things that are available and accessible to make life a bit easier.

Bearing in mind your stay may be one night or a week or two I think all the things listed below should be considered.
  • An easily reachable power point next to the bed for phone/ipad/tablet
  • A power point on the dresser/desk for laptops, ipod dock, hairdryers, hair tools
  • A mirror above the dresser plus a full length mirror near the wardrobe
  • Good lighting over the desk
  • Enough hangers in the closet to hang dresses, jackets, trousers
  • Shelves or drawers for smaller items
  • A shelf in the bathroom to put your toiletries on - quite often there is no space and I often end up putting my bag on the floor
  • Good lighting over the mirror
  • Towel rail!
  • Hooks to hang robes/towels 
  • A window that opens when you don't want to use the air con
  • A sleep button on the remote control for the TV
  • Tea and coffee making facilities
These are just the basic requirements .. not too much to ask .. is it?

As nice as it is to see a little chocolate on the bed at night it is totally unnecessary .. it's the last thing I want before bed.

I also wonder about that message that is always left in the bathroom about reusing your towels. They bang on about the amount of towels that get washed every day being bad for the environment so I hang my towel for reuse and they always replace it .. so irritating! What's the point of the message?

At the last place I stayed at even the hand soaps were replaced daily .. what a waste!  It's only me using it so I really don't mind it being there for the duration of my stay.

A sweet treat at Star Rosa Milano
Another bugbear that I've come across recently is the fluffing up of the tissues in the bathroom! I want to use tissues that have been untouched by another human hand so please don't mess with them!

You get what you pay for but a little bit of consideration for what your customers really need
would go a long way. I guess as long as you have a comfortable bed to sleep in that's really the most important thing!

The next trip for HQ is coming very soon .. swimsuit and sunglasses at the ready!!

Monday, 3 November 2014

A slice of country life .. Idyllic Cotswolds charm

I'm always happy to get away and having a weekend off when there's nothing pressing that needs to be done at home, there's absolutely no reason not to. Being so close to continental Europe I could have gone anywhere .. Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam .. all fab places to spend a weekend but this time I chose to be closer to home with no trains or planes to catch. I just wanted to hop in the car and drive for a couple of hours and find myself surrounded by fields and gently rolling hills dotted with sheep .. and what better choice than the Cotswolds.

We arrived in the village of Burford on Friday afternoon, checked into The Highway Inn and wandered down the high street to have afternoon tea in the renowned Huffkins bakery and tearooms. They have wonderful produce for sale in the shop next door and I managed to come away with a bag full of goodies for gifts! Apparently their Christmas cake is 'to-die-for' .. a secret recipe made with locally sourced ingredients .. I look forward to a slice or two.

The weather was positively gorgeous for the time of year. Unseasonally warm and sunny at 21C .. it was a lovely surprise. I expected grey misty mornings and possibly rain and I actually wouldn't have minded .. I had already visualised taking walks through the woods all rugged up for the cold. I don't like to let the weather phaze me. For a city girl like me the thing I noticed about being in the Cotswolds is the quietness .. there is no motorway noise coming from the distance as is noticeable in many other parts of the country. 

Saturday morning after breakfast we went to visit the Chedworth Roman Villa which was about a 15 minute drive away from Burford. The roads were empty as we meandered the beautiful partially stonewalled country lanes through undulating hills, past fields of dying sweet corn crops and with brightly coloured pheasants flying overhead.

After spending a couple of hours in Chedworth we drove through more very narrow country roads for about 20 minutes to the village of Northleach. A friend had recommended a great place to eat The Wheatsheaf Inn. There didn't seem to be much going on in this tiny town but the Inn was very busy and we were lucky to get there a little on the early side to secure a table for lunch. We only wanted a light bite but what we had was absolutely delicious .. spicey roasted pumpkin soup and the cheese souffle .. cooked to perfection. Their New Year's Eve party looks like fun too .. rogues, wenches, highwaymen, scoundrels and villains and promising 'thoroughly disgraceful behaviour'. If you're interested I suggest you book now!

Moving on we then drove up to Stow-on-the-Wold, an ancient market town with a town square and a wide variety of shops, antiques and places to eat. It's larger and busier than Burford and we spent an hour or so browsing before heading back to relax before dinner.

The Feathered Nest in Nether Westcote was another restaurant which came highly recommended by a friend and I couldn't wait to go. We were told that cabs were few in the area so we booked one in advance through our hotel. As we waited in the bar it got later and later and it became evident that our car was not coming. The manageress at the Highway Inn came to our rescue and offered to drive us and got us there on time .. we were very grateful to her .. thank you Michelle! I didn't really relish the thought of driving myself and not be able to sample a good wine with my meal!

We had drinks at the bar which featured some unusual bar stools, probably not the most comfortable or practical (for ladies anyway) but quirky! We then moved to a lounge area (with the only open fire of the weekend) and ordered our food before being shown to our table. The wine list is extensive with wines ranging from around £30 to around £700 and there is a somellier there to offer his expert advice. The food was most delicious and lived up to all our expectations and more .. between us we had starters of monkfish and crab, to follow grouse and pork .. the dessert was the pièce de résistance .. pistachio souffle with chocolate ice cream .. light, fluffy, delicious, superb!!

However, the service on the night was not what I would call exceptional. I won't go into it but we did tell them and they took it on board so hopefully it was because they were short staffed on the night. It wouldn't prevent us going again. We did also manage to get a cab back too!

Sunday morning brought with it rain so we decided to grab a few goodies from the local produce stores and head back to London before the build up of traffic. A fabulous weekend in the beautiful Cotswolds .. would I go back? In a heartbeat!!

ps .. the food at the Highway Inn was also very good as were the breakfasts!

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Autumn weekend break in the country coming up ..

I've just booked a lovely weekend break in the English countryside for the end of the month!

The autumn colours should be spectacular as the leaf fall is later than this time last year. It's my favourite season.
I'm looking forward to quiet, long walks (even if it rains), antique shop browsing, open fires and scrumptious food. 

I'm keeping the location a secret for now but will fill you in when I get back. It can't come soon enough!