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How to See Iceland’s Golden Circle Without the Crowds

April 23, 2017

The Golden Circle is Iceland’s most popular day trip and for good reason – it’s close to Reykjavik, is suitable for those looking to drive themselves and offers an excellent variety of unique scenery.

We elected to leave our rental car parked up for the day and joined Moonwalker.

Why?

Because even though you can drive the Golden Circle, we discovered there’s a better way to see Iceland’s most famous route.  Not only did we get to sit back and relax but joining a private tour meant we were treated to benefits that would have been out of reach in our rental.

Iceland Golden Circle Tour Review MoonwalkerSee Everything at the Right Time

When you’re travelling with an expert, you will of course benefit from their expertise – it only makes sense!

Bessi understood how to best work around the limited daylight hours we faced, fitting all of the standard Golden Circle stops in alongside one extra-special-you-can’t-do-it-by-yourself one (more on that soon).

Thanks to his local knowledge (like the best place to get chicken wings – just ask him), we were also generally able to avoid the crowds and maximise our time at each location.

We’re not kidding either – check out our photos.  Each of those locations is normally jam-packed with tourists but Bessi knew exactly how to work things, often leaving us incredible tourist hotspots practically to ourselves.

Iceland Golden Circle Tour Review MoonwalkerHead Off Road – Lose Yourself in Iceland’s Back Country

As we already mentioned, it is absolutely possible to drive Iceland’s Golden Circle yourself but the one absolute highlight of our day cannot be achieved without expert help.

Iceland Golden Circle Tour Review MoonwalkerBeing greeted by a sign like this puts a halt to your average driver but not these guys!

Trekking up through Kjölur, the Moonwalker truck battled knee-deep powder with ease.  Out in what felt like the middle of nowhere, we plowed our way to Skálpanes where we were rewarded with plenty of opportunities for snow-angels and views out over the most incredible, all-encompassing white landscape.

On days with less snowfall, Moonwalker leads the charge up to Langjökull where he actually takes his customised Land Rover onto the glacier.  Unfortunately it wasn’t to be for us but the deep snow made for an exciting ride and we came down off the ‘track’ well and truely happy.

Worried about getting stuck up there?

Don’t be!

With an extensive history in search and rescue, Bessi’s the man they call when others find themselves in a bind.  He’s got the gear required to get out of a difficult situation and the experience to seldom need it.

Iceland Golden Circle Tour Review MoonwalkerRelax and Enjoy the Ride!

One of the things we love most about travelling are the challenges we face.  Getting from A to B, figuring out how each new country works – navigating these differences is all part of the fun.

Sometimes though, travelling can be hard work.

When you can occasionally hand the reins over to someone that will do an amazing job, why wouldn’t you?

Bessi’s truck comes hooked up with complimentary WiFi (because, let’s face it, you won’t be short of Instagrammable material), he’ll stop anywhere you like and does all the hard work for you.

On a number of occasions, Bessi dropped us at one location and arranged to meet us at another – this saved doubling back, giving us more time to squeeze additional photo-stops in.  Now that’s something we couldn’t have made work in our rental!

Arrive as Strangers, Leave as Friends

Before we arrived in Iceland, we’d exchanged a few emails with Bessi to organise our tours but after spending only two days with him, both Nathan and I were genuinely sad to say goodbye.

I’m not sure what it is about Bessi but he instantly made us feel at ease.  With a great sense of humour and warm and welcoming demeanour, we laughed our way around the Golden Circle, more like long-lost-friends than clients.

A quick look at Moonwalker’s TripAdvisor page makes it clear that we’re not the only ones to feel this way.

And yes, you should check out his page – we’ve never seen so many positive reviews in one place!

Iceland Golden Circle Tour Review MoonwalkerIceland is beyond gorgeous – it’s absolutely everything I had hoped it would be and more.

What better way than to see it than by avoiding the crowds and heading up into the deserted highlands with one of the best tour guides we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting?

Practical Information

As Moonwalker customises each of their tours to suit the needs of their guests and the weather, your tour may not look exactly like ours but chances are it will include a visit to the following sights:

  • Faxi Waterfall – A relatively small waterfall by Iceland standards but a lovely first photo-stop.
  • Haukadalur – A geothermal wonderland and home to Strokkur, Iceland’s active geyser.
  • Gullfoss Waterfall – One of Iceland’s most powerful and certainly its most visited waterfall.
  • Kjölur – The best 4WDing experience to be had in Iceland.
  • Þingvellir National Park – The birthplace of Icelandic government and a stunning example of continental drift (plus a beautiful place for a hike).

Bessi requires a minimum of two guests for a tour to go ahead or if you’d prefer, you can book him out for the day yourselves and make the most of a truely customised trip – either way, we guarantee your days with Moonwalker will hands-down be amongst the best of your time in Iceland.

Iceland Golden Circle Tour Review Moonwalker

Have more time up your sleeve?  Check out Snæfellsnes Peninsula or the South-East Coast of Iceland.


 Iceland is known for its natural, rugged beauty but as time goes on, almost for its crowds of tourists. Find out how to organise your itinerary to make the most of your holiday to the Golden Circle, whether you join the best tour in Iceland or self-drive. Iceland is known for its natural, rugged beauty but as time goes on, almost for its crowds of tourists. Find out how to organise your itinerary to make the most of your holiday to the Golden Circle, whether you join the best tour in Iceland or self-drive. Iceland is known for its natural, rugged beauty but as time goes on, almost for its crowds of tourists. Find out how to organise your itinerary to make the most of your holiday to the Golden Circle, whether you join the best tour in Iceland or self-drive.

Thank you to Bessi of Moonwalker for having us along as his guests.  As always, all thoughts are our own.  Even if we paid twice the price of his tour, we’d be singing his praises!

Remember that although driving the Golden Circle yourself is possible, venturing up Kjölur is not – do yourself a favour and get in touch with Bessi.

day trip New Zealand Oceania

Omaha Beach – One of the Best Beaches a Stones Throw from Auckland

January 12, 2017

If I had to describe my relationship with nature, my initial response would be… awkward. I don’t like the burning heat of the sun, and sand sticking to sunscreen isn’t so much nostalgic as it is uncomfortable. But that doesn’t change the fact that New Zealand lakes and beaches are just undeniably some of the best in the world. I’ve just got to do it for the ‘gram.

And while most of these amazing Kiwi beaches are situated a fairly decent distance out of Auckland, there are a couple of gems that exist within the Auckland, and Greater Auckland regions.

Praise be!

If you drive about an hour out of Auckland heading North you’ll reach the absolute stunner that is Omaha Beach, and you’ll be thankful you took that drive – trust me.

This isn’t going to be a lengthy post mind you, but Omaha Beach deserves a mention – especially this summer, when I intend to go there as often as possible.

Omaha beach is attractive to me for three great reasons – its proximity to Auckland, its soft white sand, and its aqua blue waters.

It’s popular, but not so much that you’ll feel crowded –  in fact you can easily take as many cute pictures as you desire without a photobomb in sight. It also has lifeguards, a shower, toilets, and a café and dairy right over the sand dunes. The convenience of it is almost unbeatable.

It’s also worth mentioning that the waves can occasionally be good enough to surf, but not so bad that there is much risk of drowning or other water danger. In saying this, if you aren’t a confident swimmer, or you’re with kids, there are lifeguards monitoring between the flags. Although staying in the flags should be a priority, no matter what!

If you’re wanting to make the most of this gorgeous beach, but don’t live say, within 30 minutes of it, I recommend you think ahead for what you will pack – don’t repeat my mistake and singe your skin within an inch of its life!

Kiwi Summers are harsh and unforgiving on those who don’t use sun protection so please, please, please, bring some shade, (beach umbrellas go as cheap as $12 at the Warehouse, and there’s one not too far from Omaha), bring sunscreen, and apply it as regularly (if not more) than the bottle recommends and wear your sunnies!

Plenty of water or some form of desired beverage, ideally in a cooler bag (again, the Warehouse is your friend), is also highly recommended to stave off dehydration, as well as fruit to prevent scurvy.

From there, don’t forget the fun stuff like blow up floaties (just don’t get unwittingly dragged out to sea!), perhaps some speakers to pump some feel-good tunes, and maybe a good book – I recommend ‘The Little Book of Hygge’. Once you’ve packed all this, and taken an adequate number of picturesque photos to stun all of your friends and family not lucky enough to be at Omaha, you’re well on your way to having the best day one could possibly have, and what’s more, it won’t cost you a cent.

Does life get any better?


Omaha Beach Coordinates: 36° 20′ 0″ South, 174° 44′ 0″ East

Download these diving directions to Omaha Beach to make the trip trouble-free.


Looking for some fab beach accessories to take your beach-day to the next level?  Check out these beauties!

         


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If you’re looking for another gorgeous beach not far from Auckland, check out Karekare – it was recently named as being amongst the best beaches in the world!

Activities Adventure day trip Europe Iceland Itineraries planning Tours

Bring on the Snow! Planning our Iceland Trip…

November 24, 2016
Iceland itinerary planning

Iceland – the land of puffins, fluffy wild horses, natural geothermic pools, towering waterfalls and giant glaciers.  In less than a month we’ll hit this winter wonderland and I couldn’t be more excited!

We’ve got the most amazing itinerary lined up, some accommodation locked in and an awesome Jeep with our name on it.  Snuggly warm clothes have been purchased and (with a little luck), the DJI drone that we’ve got on order might make it to us in time – we’re about as ready as can be.

I’m in the process of finalising our plans and practically burst with anticipation each time I see photos pop up on my Instagram feed.  As Kiwis, we’re pretty accustomed to beautiful scenery and exciting activities but there’s something about Iceland that’s really calling to me.

I know we aren’t the only ones obsessed with this island national though – I’ve already spotted countless fellow travellers announce plans to visit for themselves in the coming six months so thought I’d put together this list to help people undertaking their research.

So, if you’re looking to book a trip, let us save you some time – these are the best of the best that we’ve come across so far.  Each and every person that I’ve emailed has gone out of their way to help us and they all have reviews that speak for themselves.

Bring on December when we can bring you our own personal thoughts!

As if you needed any more reason to visit Iceland – here’s a set of fantastic wanderlust-fueled Icelandic photos to help get you excited too!


Adventure Activities

Ice Caving – Glacier Adventure

When winter sets in and the ice caves stabilise, adventurer seekers have the opportunity to go exploring under the ice.  The way the light defuses through the ice is absolutely mesmerising – I can’t wait to see it for myself!

Snorkeling in the Silfra Rift – Scuba Iceland

If you’re looking for an activity that’s unique to Iceland, check out the Silfra Rift.  This is the only place in the world where you can dive or snorkel between two continental plates.  Done a dry suit and jump in – you’ll struggle to find water clearer than this anywhere!


Sight-Seeing Tours

Snæfellsnes Peninsula & Golden Circle Tours – Moonwalker

Known for their adventurous, go-anywhere attitude, Moonwalker organises both private and group tours through the best parts of this Nordic country (and seriously, check out those 4WDs!)  Bessi has been awesome to deal with and we’re excited to meet him in person.

South Coast Tour – VIP Tours

Specialising in personal tours around the Southern and Western Coasts, Hörður, a born-and-bred Icelander crafts tours to suit the needs of his guests.  He’s lined up some awesome spots for us and with any luck, he’s told us we might be able to spot the Northern Lights as we head back to town too!

VIP Tours Iceland Exploring Kiwis

Northern Lights by Boat – Special Tours

When tossing up between visiting Iceland in December or March the main factor we considered was the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights.  Everything we read said that they’d potentially be backing off come March so we promptly booked for December.  Of course, nothing’s set when it comes to mother nature but we wanted to give ourselves the best chance of catching them.

There’s the option of heading out of the city by car/van/truck but to make things a little more interesting, we decided to join Special Tours on their boat trip to hunt down the Northern Lights.  It will be nice to get a different view of the capital, whether or not we manage to catch the lights.


Relaxing in Iceland

Geothermal Spa – Blue Lagoon

Swimming spots don’t come much more iconic than the Blue Lagoon!  Though it isn’t cheap and there are other geothermal pools around the country (each town has at least one of their own), there’s something impressive about the sheer scale of this one.

Have you planned your winter yet? #BlueLagoon #Iceland

A photo posted by bluelagoonis (@bluelagoonis) on

Foodies Tour – Wake Up Reykjavík

When it’s cold outside is there much better than warming up inside with delicious local food?  Iceland is known for it’s traditional food (rams testicles, fermented shark and sour sheep heads anyone?) and though that doesn’t appeal to us so much, the idea of popping into Reykjavík’s most popular restaurants (alongside the local best-kept-secrets) certainly does.  Renowned for showing everyone an awesome time, we can’t wait to chow down!

GOOD MORNING from REYKJAVIK ??? What is your favourite about Iceland?

A photo posted by Wake Up Reykjavík (@wakeupreykjavik) on


The Essentials

Warm Clothes – Kathmandu

Having spent the last year-and-a-bit living in Abu Dhabi, we’ve been caught noticeably short on clothing designed to keep us warm but Nathan’s about to bring some awesome adventure gear back from New Zealand for us and I can’t wait to try it on and get snuggly!  Kathmandu is one of my favourite shops back home – camping gear, hoodies, jackets –  whatever the product, we always find it fit for purpose and well-made.  I can’t wait to get my hands on some quality Kiwi-designed products again – especially my new jacket!  The technology they’ve managed to incorporate into it is seriously impressive.  They’ve taken the best of down and managed to waterproof the jacket which should result in us being snuggly-warm regardless of the weather.

Snow has fallen! ? @thompsonfilm

A photo posted by Kathmandu (@kathmandugear) on

Transport – Geysir

Iceland as a country is fairly compact but to make the most of your time, you’ll definitely want to get out of the capital.  We’ve booked on a number of tours (and they’re very kindly picking us up) but to get out to the ice caving (+ the abandoned DC10) and to enjoy the Northern Lights out of Reykjavík, a car was on our ‘must have’ Iceland list.  Geysir have some awesome options – lots of late-model 4WDs to make getting about really easy.

Full on moody skies. ? by @donalboyd #GeysirAdventure

A photo posted by Geysir Car Rental Iceland (@geysircarrental) on


Accommodation

Galaxy Pod Hostel

Our first night we’ve booked into a quirky little hostel in Reykjavík – far better than bunk beds, we’ll each be sleeping in a little self-contained pod.  With accommodation prices in Iceland being relatively high, we’re more than happy to be staying here.  It looks like the perfect way to save some money, meet other travellers and enjoy a unique accommodation whilst retaining the privacy that we’re used to.

Hali Country Hotel

Part of the appeal of Iceland is the ability to get out into the back-country and heading out into the wilderness means finding a spot to stay.  The Hali Country Hotel tick all the boxes for us – a great restaurant, comfortable rooms, wifi and a beautiful, remote location.  It looks like it’ll be a great place to unwind after our day out in the ice cave!

Radisson Blu Saga

After a marvellous stay at the Radisson Blu in Sohar, Oman, we’re very excited to experience the Blu hospitality again on our upcoming visit to Reykjavík.  We’ve already booked in for dinner and can’t wait to relax here between tours and activities.

Kex Hostel

Recommended by another travel blogger, Kex is known locally for being a fantastic hangout spot, popular with musicians and those looking to have a good time.  With industrial, quirky styling, Kex looks like a hostel with a real sense of character.


Stay tuned for updates from Iceland along with our experience visiting Amsterdam for the first time and touring Southern Norway in an RV.  Bring on Christmas!

Update: We’re in Iceland and absolutely loving it!  Check out our post detailing how to find Sólheimasandur’s abandonded DC3 – an absolute must-see on the South coast.  Also, our review of Wake Up Reykjavík, the Galaxy Pod Hostel and our amazing Kathmandu jackets.

Unfortunately our ice caving was cancelled due to bad weather but we managed to visit the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach along with the Skaftafell Glacier – all of which were fantastic alternatives on the South-East Coast.

Have you visited Iceland, Norway or Amsterdam before?  If so, we’d love your recommendations – especially for Norway and Amsterdam!


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Bucket-List Moments in Iceland - Plan your itinerary 8 Activities not to miss in Iceland

Croatia day trip Europe Tours

An Introduction to the Croatian Islands – Paradise Found

October 22, 2016
Croatian Island Tour Review Viator

Ahhh Croatia, the secret is well and truly out!  Gorgeous islands, pristine beaches, lush national parks; there isn’t much you could want in a summer holiday destination that this ex-Yugoslavian nation doesn’t already offer.

Having heard many friends tout the beauty of the Croatian islands, we excitedly booked our spots on a boat tour around the islands with Viator.  We were finally off to explore the beauty of the Dalmatian Coast!

Tour Itinerary and Review

On the morning of the tour we arrived at the port meeting spot in Split bright and early.  In all there were eleven of us on the speed boat that was organised by Tripster and though there was space for everyone, I would recommend taking plenty of sun protection incase you end up sitting in the area that doesn’t have shelter.  The boat itself was comfortable with plenty of storage – let’s face it though, we weren’t there for the boat, we were there to check out the beautiful Croatian islands!

With everyone aboard we made a move for our first stop of the day, the Green Cave.  This beautiful spot, located on the islet of Ravnik, reflects the water a stunning shade of green due to a hole made in the roof of the cave during the Second World War.  After ducking the boat into the cave opening we made our way over to our next destination, Stiniva.

Stiniva was recently awarded ‘the best beach in Europe‘ which is high praise but well deserved for this little piece of paradise.  The bay is tucked away from the main tourist trail on the island of Vis (which in itself is relatively free of tourists thanks to it’s tactical use in WWII) and is accessible only by hiking track or by sea.

Our ride for the day set anchor approximately 150m back from the beach, allowing us to dive in and make our way over to the pebbly beach.  What was once a full-formed cave is now a sheltered bay – the collapse of the cave’s ceiling leaving an entrance to the bay of less than 5m.

We relaxed there for an hour or so, swimming and soaking up the sun, before swimming back to the boat in the hopes of there being good news about the tour’s namesake activity.

Unfortunately for us, the Blue Cave on Bisevo was closed for the day.  Due to the small opening to this natural cave, it is easily closed in rough seas and although the water looked calm where we were, the cave operators weren’t having a bar of it.  Though it would have been amazing to see it, we weren’t too disappointed – the rest of the day was more than amazing enough to make up for it, plus we were lucky enough to visit the Blue Cave on Capri.  With the decision made for us to move on, off we set again.

The small fishing town of Komiža was the perfect point to stop for lunch.  Given about one and a half hours, we chilled out in a nice little port-side restaurant and wandered the main street enjoying gelato (as we did on most of our trip!)

Next up was one of the surprise highlights of the day, a visit to the old submarine tunnel.  Used during WWII, this massive tunnel was eerily quiet and surprisingly long – an awesome quick stop on our tour.

The afternoon saw enjoy our last swim (and also a snorkel) at a beach on Devil’s Island – though it was a beautiful spot to stop off at, I must admit, the snorkelling wasn’t particularly impressive.  Beautiful water, a nice bar to sit for a drink should you choose, but absolutely no fish there on the day we visited.  It didn’t bother us as we weren’t there to snorkel, but it’s worth saying so you don’t pin you hopes on it!

The last port of the day was the buzzing town of Hvar.  Rimmed with super yachts, sitting around a cove, this beautiful old town is a must-see in Croatia.  At night the bars and yachts come alive but during the day, the island is a relaxed place to explore.  After a quick wander around the township, we headed for the 16th century fortress that overlooks the town.  With the most incredible views back over the port, be sure not to miss it!

Throughout the day our skipper, Franjo checked in with us, always making sure we were happy and comfortable.  He was incredibly safety conscious and worked with us to help craft an itinerary that suited us all – we had plenty of choice in regards to how long we spent in each location and he had no shortage of recommendations for us.  At the end of the day, he even let us all stay on longer on Hvar to make the most of the late afternoon sun; you can’t ask for more than that.

Is a Day Tour enough to really get a feel for the Croatian Islands?

Initially we had planned to spend five or so nights on the islands around the coast of the Croatian mainland but with a desire to add more time to our Bosnian itinerary we decided to head out on this ‘five island’ tour in the hopes that it would give us the taste of the islands we desired without the time commitment that we’d initially planned.  So, the million dollar question; did this tour tick all the right boxes for us?  It sure did!  So much so that we moved on from the islands having only seen them on this tour and enjoyed other parts of the country before moving onto Montenegro (which we had initially dropped from our itinerary due to time constraints).

Let me finish by saying, the islands we visited were everything we wanted them to be and more – it’s not that we wouldn’t have loved more time on the islands but with visits to the Greek Islands, Capri and Ibiza earlier in the summer we were looking to explore a different side of Eastern Europe – fair to say we were pretty spoilt with the amazing destinations we had the pleasure of visiting!

Whether you spend a day ducking in and out of the Croatian islands or intend on spending more time basing yourself on one or two, each island offers its own unique beauty.  They’re all worth seeing, and I don’t doubt this day trip is the best way to do it if you’re on a limited timeframe!

 


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Croatian island hopping tour review

Thank you to our friends at Viator for organising this tour for us.  Though we were guests on this trip, all thoughts are, of course, our own.  If you’re in Croatia, we highly recommend the five island tour as a way to check out the Croatian Island highlights!

 

day trip England Europe Itineraries London Stop Overs & Quick Trips United Kingdom

Out and About in London

July 3, 2016

London catches the eye and heart of nearly every traveller that ventures within – it’s up there with New York City; vibrant, exciting and full of history, but with the added bonus of being an easy point of entry to the rest of Europe.  It would seem that London offers something to practically everyone…

“You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

– Samuel Johnson

Having spent just spent four nights in London (and having visited six months ago for the first time), I’ve come away with a fresh reminder of how fantastic this vivacious English city is.  I am by no means an expert on the city, rather I feel we’re just starting to scratch the surface of what London offers, but we would like to share our mini itinerary with you in the hopes that it might help you plan your first visit to this fabulous place.

All of the following activities and locations are within easy reach of one another and manageable within a day.  This post is not designed as an all-inclusive list, but a starting point for you to build a fabulous day or two in the capital.  If you’re looking for more advice and details about how you could spend your time there, I suggest you check out my friend, Sara’s blog – Big World, Small Me (she’s a Kiwi living in London and is a total expert on the city).

It’s also worth noting that we caught the train and got off at London Bridge which is an easy 3 minute stroll down to our starting point, the Borough Markets.  Depending on where you’re staying, you may like to reverse or play with the order of this itinerary.  Have fun making it work for you for!

 

Borough Markets

Whatever your culinary inclination, get yourself to the Borough Markets when you’re visiting London!  These markets are full of life and excitement and the smells that emanate from the stalls are mind blowing.  It feels like there’s almost every type of delicious food on offer here that you could hope for.

We tucked into the most delicious Malaysian chicken curry and followed it up with a beautifully chewy piece of chocolate brownie for dessert and wandered about admiring all of the amazing looking kai (Māori for ‘food’) on offer.

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The stand out of the markets for me though are the incredible doughnuts made by Bread Ahead.  Last time I was in London my friend suggested we hunt them down and on this return trip, I did exactly that again.  We tried both the salted caramel honeycomb and the vanilla bean custard doughnuts and though they were both fantastic, it’s really worth mentioning the salted caramel flavour; it was incredible.  Nathan doesn’t normally go crazy for sweets like I do but when he’s happy to return to the markets again to stock up on these treats, you know you’re onto a winner!

The Borough Markets are open every day (with the exception of Sunday), with their main days of operation being Wednesday to Saturday.  To get there by train/tube, get off at the London Bridge station, on either the Northern or Jubilee lines.  Ensure getting there is on the top of your list – you won’t be disappointed.

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London Bridge and Tower Bridge

From the Borough Markets, it’s an easy walk to the London Bridge and Tower Bridge, both spanning the River Thames.  The London Bridge isn’t much to look at but has a long-standing historical importance and gives a great view of the Tower Bridge, my favourite of the two.  Numerous times a day the Tower Bridge raises it’s gangways and though we didn’t manage to catch it doing so, it would be worth trying to time your visit if you can (you’ll find the timetable here).

SONY DSC

Whilst you’re in the area, you may also like to head inside the Tower of London (£25 each) to soak up the brutal history of London and to spot the crown jewels.  If it floats your boat, you can also board the HMS Belfast as you make your way from London Bridge to the Tower Bridge.  Be sure to spin around and check out the towering glass building known as The Shard – if you have time, you can relax with a drink at the top whilst you enjoy panoramic views of the city too.

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After you’ve soaked up the sights by the Thames, jump on the tube at Tower Hill and make your way to Westminster.  From this point you’ll have access to a plethora of iconic landmarks all within an easy walk of one another.

 

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

Perhaps one of the most iconic old landmarks in London (and my favourite), Big Ben is even more impressive in person.  The famous clock town joins the Houses of Parliament and both buildings have an incredible amount of shimmering gold detailing; the workmanship in both is amazing and certainly worth a visit.

Westminster Abbey

Across the road from the Houses of Parliament is one of the most recognisable churches in the world.  The detailing on Westminster is remarkable and its history even more so.  The church is over one thousand years old and has strong ties to the English monarchy – every royal Coronation since 1066 has taken place here and it has provided the backdrop to no less than sixteen royal weddings.  To learn more about the history of this stunning place of worship, you might like to check out their website (there’s far too much to do justice in this single post).

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Ten Downing Street

“Number Ten” is home to the serving Prime Minster, but don’t head over expecting to catch a glimpse of David Cameron!  As you would expect, the entrance to this famous address is heavily guarded and protected by indestructible gates.  Regardless though, it is worth swinging past as you head to the palace.  Whilst we were there the guards were surprisingly friendly and willing to pose for a selfie or two – if you’d like a shot with a traditionally dressed (and heavily armed) English policeman, this could be the spot to do so.

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Buckingham Palace and Surrounds

Just down the road from Ten Downing Street, you’ll find the Horse Guards Parade to your left (look out for the mounted guards, you can’t miss them).  If you turn through this building, you’ll stumble into St James’s Park before finding yourself at the gates of Buckingham Palace.

We spent a good half hour slowly wandering through St James’s Park, spotting squirrels, geese, swans and all manner of local birds.  There’s nothing like a good park in the middle of a city and this is one that’s definitely worth spending some time in.

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At the end of the park, you’ll find the infamous Buckingham Palace.  Once a day (or every second day in the off-season) you can catch the changing of the guards; an opportunity to glimpse into royal tradition and culture.

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London is a fabulous city regardless of the time of year and a perennial favourite amongst travellers.

For those of you have have visited or lived in the city before – are there any must-sees in these areas?  What other parts of London would you recommend paying a visit to?

Have another day to spare?  We’d definitely recommend jumping on a train and heading out to Thorpe Park, London’s premier theme park.  Read more about each of the rides and our review here.

Activities day trip England Europe London theme park United Kingdom

Thorpe Park Review – One for the Adrenaline Junkies!

July 3, 2016

We woke yesterday morning to pouring rain in London City – though we were led to believe summer had started, it seems someone missed the memo.  Regardless, we donned our gear and set off for Thorpe Park on the outskirts of London; no amount of rain was going to stop us from checking out their coasters!

Thorpe Park is the closest theme park to the capital and makes for a great day trip out of the hustle and bustle, offering something for those new to the theme park experience right through to hardened adrenaline junkies.  We initially considered making the trek out to Alton Towers but decided on Thorpe Park based on positive reviews online and the closer proximity to the city – having then spoken with others inside the park, it became clear that we made the right choice.

 

The Main Event – Roller Coasters at Thorpe Park

The park is based around a number of large, world-class rollercoasters and is supplemented by dozens of smaller thrill rides, water rides and family rides.  It was of course the big coasters that drew us in though, and those same coasters that will see us return again.  For the purpose of this review, I’m going to break down our thoughts on each of the main coasters.  Hold on tight…

 

The Swarm

The clear favourite of the day for us!  We rode the Swarm back-to-back three times and only moved on because we thought we’d better give some of the other rides another go.  The theming in and around this coaster completely immerses you; unsure of what’s caused the destruction, multiple explosions have been noticed within Thorpe Park and chaos fills the park (or so the theming, fictitious news reports and sound effects would have you believe).

The coaster itself is a towering charcoal structure that guides riders, perched either side of the tracks, legs dangling, through countless twists and turns.  The ride is incredibly smooth and picks up tremendous pace through the loop, treating rides to both positive and negative g-forces throughout.  The Swarm features a number of ‘close calls’ where you weave in and under a variety of debris – under a plane wing, through a billboard, right past a crashed helicopter – all adding to the thrill of the ride.  Alongside the quick pace, The Swarm plays upon your nerves by putting you through a number of turns at a painfully slow pace (painful being a relative term, I love the anticipation!), the most notable of which, the slow barrel roll at the top of the first drop – not for the faint of heart, this first inversion sets the scene for the rest of the rollercoaster.

In our opinion, The Swam rivals the big players in the U.S – this ride alone warrants the trip to Thorpe Park from London!  Do yourself a favour and check it out if you’re in the United Kingdom.

Stealth

As you enter Thorpe Park, Stealth will probably be the first coaster to catch your eye.  It towers over the others and is amongst the fastest in Europe (reach speeds of 130km/h) – a lethal combination.  The ride itself is themed after a retro drag race, with everything from the queue to the cars themselves matching this style.

Once riders are ready to depart the loading bay, the countdown begins and the starting lights begin to change.  Before you know it, you’re blasted off the starting line and headed for the mountain of track laid out ahead of you.

The most impressive part of this coaster is without doubt the incredible acceleration.  Using powerful electromagnets, riders are shot from 0 to 80 miles an hour in under two seconds – an amazing rush!

Though we loved this ride, if we were to be critical, we would have liked for the coaster to continue on a bit longer.  We’ve ridden a similar track in Los Angeles that raced up the big hill and the continued over a sweeping corner and through a couple of air-time inducing camel humps, whereas Stealth hit the breaks soon after the main hill.  With that said, the acceleration and massive track rise are the main appeals of a ride like this and Stealth definitely delivered in these areas.

Stealth was our third favourite coaster of the day, only marginally behind…

Nemesis Inferno

Set within a tropical volcano, Nemesis Inferno didn’t excite us much on first view, but with time on our side, we decided to give it a go and we were incredibly pleased we did!  This coaster which drops into the first sweeping bend right out of the station and blasts you directly into the mist-enveloped volcano, ended up being one of our favourite rides of the day.  Riders are suspended beneath the tracks and weave in and out of the tracks themselves.  Again, this coaster is beautifully smooth and quick with a series of inversions.

Apparently the ride has gotten better with age, picking up speed after the first few seasons it ran – it has matured into a fantastic coaster.  It was so good that we rode Nemesis Inferno twice and could have very happily continued on but of course the other rides were calling out.

 

Saw – The Ride

We’d never had the opportunity to ride a coaster like Saw and for this reason, it was probably the ride I was most excited to try out.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with this ride, it includes a vertical lift hill (that’s right, it takes you directly to the top) and then brings you back in for a ‘beyond vertical’ drop of 100 degrees.

The theming inside Saw is fantastic; eerie music, text scrawled across stained wooden walls and the iconic creepy puppet all work together to help set the scene for this unique ride.

Eight at a time, guests are loaded into the small coaster cars and ride into the dark part of the ride.  A surprisingly big drop into the darkness (my favourite moment of the ride) is followed up by a slow corkscrew inversion – the kind the leaves you hanging right out of your seat.  As you come back into daylight, you’re confronted with the terrifying lift hill.  Surprisingly, we both found the lift hill to be scarier than the drop on the other side of it.

Racing around the rest of the track, Saw has a number of inversions that it completes at speed.  We were a little surprised by this ride as the portion after the drop wasn’t as smooth as Nemesis Inferno or The Swarm, but the first half of the ride warranted a second ride on it.

As we were loading onto Saw for the first time, both Nathan and I experienced a good dose of nerves – something that many others face on a great scale so it would seem.  Both times we rode, the ride had to be temporarily halted for ‘essential cleaning’… our suggestion, try to settle your nerves and don’t have a big lunch and then jump on Saw!

Colossus

This is a coaster that seems to divide opinions amongst riders – people seem to either love it or hate it.  When it was first opened in 2002, Colossus had the most inversions of any rollercoaster in the world; an impressive 10 inversions that twists and turns riders along it’s lengthy track.

Colossus is quick but over the years has apparently changed the way it rides (which is not uncommon) – whilst come coasters get better with age (Nemesis Infero, we’re looking at you), we found Colossus to lack the smoothness that the other rollercoasters at Thorpe Park provide.

It does however have a nice little surprise at the end where the track twists counter-clockwise catching first-time riders off guard.  Colossus also has a long track that seems to keep going and going – whether this is a blessing or a curse, we’ll leave you to decide.

I don’t doubt that this coaster was amazing when it first opened – it was ground breaking and the start of Thorpe Park’s foray into massive thrills.  The ride has a cult following and there are plenty of riders that absolutely love it!  With that said though, it is a polarising ride and that fact that neither of us felt inclined to ride it again suggests it wasn’t a favourite of ours.

 

The Rest of the Park

Thorpe Park offers a lot more than just roller coasters (I’m assured there are some people that aren’t keen on them?!) so whether you’re travelling with younger theme-park-goers or need a break in between the big rides, there are plenty of options to keep you entertained.

Thorpe Park Map

We didn’t venture onto the water rides as it was wet enough already but on a warm summers day, they would be the perfect way to cool down (and there are enough of them to ensure you’re not stuck waiting in a long line).  If you’ve got a young family, be sure to take your swimming gear too as there are some great little water slides and a couple of large (but shallow) pools designed to look like a beach which will help keep the kids busy.

The most exciting new addition to the park, Derran Brown’s Ghost Train, was tantalisingly close but just out of reach for us.  During our visit technical rehearsals had begun but by the time we’d realised the ride was open, it was closed again to iron out a couple of issues.  We knew the ride hadn’t officially opened yet but had hoped to sneak a peek at this innovative new offering – unfortunately for us, it wasn’t meant to be.

There’s very little that’s been made public about this ride (which makes sense) but from what I understand, it’s a combination of an indoor coaster, virtual reality, special effects and interactions from live actors.  It sounds like an incredibly unique ride, certainly unlike anything we’ve experienced to date.

If you manage to ride Ghost Train, we’d absolutely love to hear your thoughts!

 

Food

We were pleasantly surprised both by the quality and price of the food and drinks being sold around the park.  Some of our past theme park experiences have left us wanting when it comes to food, and have resulted in us practically taking out a second mortgage to pay for it!  This wasn’t the case at Thorpe Park though.

For less than £7 we shared a meal of potato wedges and pulled BBQ pork (yum!), with coleslaw and a drink – you’ll find the pulled meats next to The Swarm, to the right of the park.  We also noticed Mexican, Italian, Burger King and KFC onsite to name just a few.

You’re able to take your own food and drink into the park too, so if you are travelling on a budget or have special dietary requirements, Thorpe Park has you covered.  It was so refreshing to visit a theme park that wasn’t trying to nickel and dime you every step of the way!

 

Getting from London City to Thorpe Park

The park is easily accessible via public transport and of course offers onsite parking for those of you that would prefer to drive out to Surrey.

If you do decide to catch the train (which we’d recommend), take a look at Plan a Journey or Google Maps to help determine your best route.  We caught a train from Streatham Common (near where we’re staying) and transferred at Clapham Junction onto a South West train headed towards Reading.  We got off after 4 stops, at the Staines station and were then directed to bus 950 which was clearly labelled for Thorpe Park (and took about 15mins to get to the park).   The bus was £3.70 per adult return and had a variety of return times throughout the day – in the last few hours of the park being open, the buses run on continuous loops so you’ll be guaranteed a timely connection.  It also runs for an hour after closing, so if you would really like to maximise your time there, you can.

It is worth nothing that if you have an Oyster Card (the public transport card in London), it will get you as far as the stop before Thorpe Park… we weren’t quite sure what to do when the message came over the loud speaker, explaining that the Oyster Card wouldn’t be accepted at the next stop but got off and spoke to one of the station attendants, explaining our confusion.  She very kindly let us through at Staines and when we returned, we just purchased the cheapest fare (which was just shy of £3 each) to ensure we were covered to get us one station along, after which point our Oyster Card kicked in again.

 

What Ticket Should I Buy?

If you’re planning a trip to Thorpe Park, try to buy your tickets online a week or more before your intended visit.  If you’re able to get in at least seven days prior, you’ll only pay £27.99 (per adult), whereas giving 1-4 days notice will bump your price up slightly to £30.99 and buying at the gate will be £51.50.  With savings like that, it’s definitely worth getting in their earlier if you’re able to.

Of course, if you’d rather wait to judge the weather on the day or decide on a spontaneous visit, you can pick up tickets at the gate.

We’d also highly recommend adding some ‘fastrack’ tickets to your normal entry ticket.  The pricing at Thorpe Park is very competitive so we’d suggest putting a little extra towards beating the queues, especially if you’re planning a weekend visit to the park.  For only £32.99 you’ll get both your entry ticket and a fastrack pass to use on a ride of your choice.  To learn more about the different fastrack options, check out the details on Thorpe Park’s website – the more fastracks you have, the more you’ll benefit from multiple rides on the big coasters.

 

What If It’s Raining?  Is it Still Worth Visiting Thorpe Park?

Though we considered postponing our day at the park due to rain, we made the decision to go ahead with our visit.  When faced with the choice of getting wet but spending less time waiting in lines, or the potential of better weather the next day but contending with weekend queues, we decided we’d rather don a poncho and get on with it.

Having spent a little time in London now, we’re starting to understand just how changeable (and sometimes rubbish) the weather here can be… showers sometimes turn quickly into downpours but on the day of our visit they disappeared as quickly as they came.

We would definitely visit again in the rain – many of the lines have trees and structures to help shelter guests from the rain (and sun on the odd occasion that it comes out) and the benefits of shorter lines far outweighed the discomfort of getting a little wet.  We were there to have fun and a little rain wasn’t going to stop that!

If you do decide to go ahead and prebook your tickets online, Thorpe Park offer a ‘rain guarantee‘ which is worth checking out.

 

We had an awesome day at Thorpe Park and would highly recommend it to others that enjoy theme parks.  It isn’t the biggest park that we’ve ever been to but it does offer a great selection of rides, big thrills, great theming and good food, all at affordable prices – all in all, a great option for an exciting day out!

Thank you to Thorpe Park for hosting us, we had a fantastic, adrenaline-filled day!

Africa day trip Eco Tourism Kenya Stop Overs & Quick Trips

Nairobi’s Elephant Orphanage – The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

May 9, 2016

Africa is top of practically every animal lovers travel wishlist and with even a short stop in Nairobi, you can get up close and personal with a number of gorgeous orphaned elephant calves, making your quick break in Kenya even more memorable.

The calves come from all around Kenya and are picked up by the Trust in response to the poaching or natural passing of their parents.  The team do an amazing job of providing medical assistance to elephants in the wild, and of course bring the babies into the sanctuary should they require help.  Once in the facility, young elephants will spend five or so years being fed up and looked after, before being transitioned back into the wild with a new family group of wild elephants.

To protect the best interests of the ellies, viewing is limited to between 11am and 12pm each day so be sure to arrive early enough to pay your entry fee (5,00KSH or approx. USD5 per person) and get yourself a good spot.

The MC gave us lots of information over the speaker, clearly explaining how the foundation works and sharing a great deal of specific information about the elephants and their background.  We enjoyed listening and learning as we watched the elephants (and even a couple of orphaned ostriches) getting fed and splashing around in the water and mud.

The team at David Sheldrick clearly had very close bonds with these animals and I don’t doubt, go out of their way to look after their elephants.  All the interactions that we observed were loving and respectful and it was a real pleasure to watch the elephants engage with each other, their keepers and occasionally one of the visitors.

If you’re planning a trip to Nairobi, we’d strongly suggest you consider supporting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – your nominal entry fee will be put to good use whilst you learn a whole lot about these beautiful creatures.  We’ll certainly be back if we manage to return to Kenya!

How do I get there?  Taxi fare will of course depend on where you’re leaving from, but from the Wildebeest Eco Camp (in Karen) to and from the Orphanage, we paid 2,000KSH (approx USD20) for our driver to collect us, wait until the visit was over and then drive us back ‘home’.  The taxis in Nairobi don’t have meters but operate on a set fare from area to area which makes it pretty easy to ensure you’re getting a fair price – just be sure to check with your driver first.  If you have time, you may also like to combine your trip to the Trust with a visit to the Giraffe Centre – they’re generally open all day though, so be sure to plan your schedule around the 11-12 elephant visit.

Abu Dhabi day trip Middle East United Arab Emirates

Grab a paddle, let’s go!

February 7, 2016

Living in the Middle East means summer is really too hot to even dream of venturing far outside.

The solution? Wait ’till winter to head out into the great outdoors.

We’d been waiting on the weather to cool down and for most of our Abu Dhabi friends to be in the same place at the same time to head out into the mangroves; this weekend was finally the time!

We arrived at the Eastern Mangroves at 2.30pm, ready for our 3pm trip. Following our crash course on kayaking we piled in and set off – the current was minimal and though 1.5 hours of kayaking is never easy on the body, anyone with some degree of fitness would manage absolutely fine.

As we had a group of 10, the company we booked through very kindly dropped the price of our kayaking tour from 150ead each to 130aed so be sure to ask for a discount if you’re able to get a number of people together.  For that price, all gear is supplied, along with a bottle of water and guide.

The iconic Abu Dhabi skyline and clear blue sky provided the perfect backdrop to the mangroves. The water was a little on the chilly side at the start of February but it didn’t slow us down as the sunshine was just glorious.

There have been a number of reports of whale sharks around Abu Dhabi in the last few months and though we had our fingers firmly crossed that we might finally see one, it wasn’t to be our day.  Our guide advised us that on a good day they sometimes see dolphins and dugongs, along with needlefish and the standard crabs and local birds. The lack of wildlife was somewhat disappointing but not particularly surprising (if I were a bird, I’m not sure I’d choose the UAE as my home base either – it gets far too hot!). We were, however, lucky to see a flock of flamingos across the channel and a couple of little grey herons, plus some jellyfish and crabs.

All in all, we had a fabulous afternoon out on the kayaks. It was awesome getting out and into the sun whilst the weather’s still nice and was a great change from what often ends up being our weekend routine over here – a trip to Yas Mall.

If you’re in Abu Dhab for a decent length of time, I’d definitely consider a trip out into the mangroves… Without doubt, it’s a great way to see Abu Dhabi from a different angle.

Next time our fingers are crossed for a dugong or whaleshark!

PS: Whilst you’re at the mangroves, be sure to stop by one of the many restaurants for lunch; it’s a beautiful spot!

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