A Trip To Malta

(Way back in Spring we had our last overseas adventure. I’ve been delaying blogging on it because I’m struggling to find decent software to edit my photos. Any suggestions?)

Recently I’ve been torn between taking more regular, cheaper, more local European trips, and saving up for something a bit more exotic (Asia has been giving me the eyes for quite some time…). The former has certainly been the theme of the past year. While there are a lot of cheap, sunny, honeypot tourist destinations that don’t excite my attention, there are a few golden nuggets too. Croatia and Malta were two gems we narrowed it down to for a Spring getaway, and the latter became was our latest travel pick. Initially looking for a package hol, we then found we could get a better deal doing it ourselves, and eventually got flights and a week’s accommodation within our £500 budget (bearing in mind, this was for the beginning of March, but still, not bad – considering the 5 night Cornwall trip we just returned from was only £100 less!).

Malta is right out in the Mediterranean, between Italy and North Africa. It is made up of three smaller islands, the largest being Malta, to the NW of which is Gozo (about half the size), and between the two is the very small Comino. If you arrived there blindfolded, you could be awarded a good guess for thinking you were in Greece or Italy, as it shares the same arid, warm climate and relaxed atmosphere. However, after a few days on the island, Malta’s individual personality and culture start to show through. The colourful boats of Marsaxlokk, and the balconies of Valletta are some of Malta’s trademark, unique views.

We stayed in Sliema for the week, which although is not a particularly interesting town in itself, I still consider it a good central location, with easy access to the capital of Valletta (and a great view of it – which you wouldn’t get if you were staying in the city itself!). Between a coach tour, local buses, and a few days with a hire car, we got around pretty much the whole island. A week is about the right amount of time for this, although it should be mentioned that more activities would have been available to spend our time on if we had gone mid-summer. In Spring, most of the boat trips, canoeing, and snorkeling are a no-go.

A few quick tips on travelling to Malta:

Malta reaches temperatures of 27°C in the height of Summer, although when we visited in early March, the weather was variable – we had some beautiful warm “shorts days”, but these were contrasted with colder days with a barrage of chilly coastal wind. If you’re travelling off-season it’s good to be prepared and bring plenty of layers – as well as some sunglasses!

Don’t be tempted by cheaper hotels in Gozo. This smaller island neighboring Malta is beautiful, but we had our fill of it in a day. There are very regular ferries between the islands, but these do take time and cost, and you’re much better off visiting Gozo for a single day trip, rather than visiting Malta for multiple ones. This not only comes from our experience, but that of several friends who went the Gozo way!

Local buses aren’t bad – but it’s not a quick way to travel. If you’re keen to see the whole island, renting a car is a great option. We had some reservations about driving in a foreign country on the wrong side of the road – but the benefits far outweighed these. We really enjoyed getting lost off the beaten track – ending up on some very narrow clifftop pathways, and encountering more than one “private no entry” at the end of a long dead end. But it was hugely fun and gave us a lot of freedom. I’d be very tempted to do the same on future travels elsewhere.

Don’t worry about language. Literally everyone speaks English, and don’t seem to have any grudges against doing so for you (unlike the vibes I get in some other countries).

Bring your own toiletries! I guess it comes from importation costs of island living, but certain items are not cheap. A shampoo and conditioner set me back €10!

This is the first of a series of posts on Malta. Stay tuned for more details on our favourite Maltese spots!

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Vienna Day 1: Hofburg, Riesenrad and Gluhwein

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Back at the beginning of December, we finally got around to doing the weekend Europe trip we had in mind since June! For my birthday, we booked a four day trip to Vienna. Austria is somewhere that’s been on my list since I first saw The Sound of Music (albeit that was set in Salzburg, not the capital), and Christmas seemed the ideal time to visit.

Vienna fits all the expectations – very grand, very clean, and very Christmassy in December! It’s not the cheapest location for a European break – but it’s easily accessible and works well for a long weekend.

We flew from London Heathrow into Vienna, on Austrian Airlines, at about £200 each return – not pittance, but the airline quality was good, and our flight times were really convenient and allowed us maximum time in the city over our 4 days. The flight itself takes just over two hours. A really impressive and convenient train system (the City Airport Train, or CAT) is in place to take you straight from the airport to the city – a very pleasant way to travel, powered completely by renewable energy (a combination of wind and hydroelectric). This is well sign-posted and runs every 15 minutes, costing €19 return each. You can even check in your luggage and collect your ticket from the station on the way back, before reaching the airport!

A large new central station has recently been completed in Vienna (Wien Hauptbahnhof) but the airport train will take you straight to the ‘old’ central station (Wien Mitte). From here you have access to the tube trains, to take you into the actual centre of the city (or elsewhere!). We booked in to stay at Hotel Ruby Sofie. This was a fairly quirky but really enjoyable and good quality home for the weekend, and was a mere 10 minutes easy walk from this station. The rooms had good facilities, and even the option of borrowing an electric guitar from reception to plug into the amps supplied in each room!

For our first day, we didn’t plan too much – just enjoyed exploring the city by foot, and getting our bearings. It didn’t take long to come across the very recognisable St Stephen’s Cathedral, the Hofburg palace, and the Museums Quarter – all with their own Christmas markets adjacent at that time of year, the latter being by far the most large and impressive. It’s a city easily explored by foot, but equally just as accessible for touring via bus, tram or even horse and cart (a slightly steep €55 for 20 minutes if you choose the equine option!). For everyday travel, a multi-day tube pass is very well-priced, and saves a lot of hassle (and your feet!) when getting about the city (and can be used on trams too).

A mulled wine and much exercise later, we were ready for a short break after an early start. However, we ventured out again that evening to the Prater amusement park, where we took a ride on the Wiener Riesenrad ferris wheel (made famous for it’s appearance in the 1949 film The Third Man). While the area looks like a bit of a dive when first stepping out from the local tube stop, once reached by a short walk you’ll find the park located in among a little buzz of shops, and even a Madame Tussauds – and of course in December, yet another Christmas market. The wheel itself is vintage, having been built in 1897, and the wooden carriages are charming. Tickets are €9.50 each, and it was a lovely evening activity – albeit perhaps in some ways better enjoyed during the day when the views can actually be seen! A classic extortionate gift shop is attached to the wheel, and you will also be offered the opportunity to purchase an overpriced tourist photo of yourselves. If you really want to splash your cash, you could even book out a private carriage to enjoy a sit-down dinner in!

Before leaving for the evening, we joined some weary football fans drifting home from their match to indulge in the local delicacy kasekrainer (sausage with cheese infused through it – very tasty!) from a stall. Perhaps Vienna’s ever so slightly more elegant answer to a cheeky midnight kebab?

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Hofburg Palace (first three images), Mulled Wine (gluhwein), and the Riesenrad wheel (outside and in)

Hotel Review: Corinna Mare, Crete

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Let it be known that I HATE booking hotels. I am indecisive, I am a cheapskate, I am non-committal. In a typical scenario, I can spend five hours searching through TripAdvisor and my only outcome is 30 different options which all turn out to be null because I then discover I’ve been searching in complete the wrong area. Or it turns out that the hotel is actually an old people’s home.

Fortunately my husband has magical powers. He is decisive, he is a spender, he is quick to commit (I like to think that instead of personality clashes, these differences will result in us having a wide and all-encompassing skillset between us). He is good at finding and booking hotels. This here is a case in point.

The Corinna Mare hotel is based in Kalamaki, the outskirts of Chania, Crete, where we stayed earlier this summer. This location is pretty ideal – more relaxed than the city hubbub, on the coast, plenty of restaurant choice and a couple of nearby shops with all your necessities stocked. There’s also a travel agency opposite where you can book daytrips (such as our one to Balos & Gramvousa). Husband is not a fan of public transport, but honestly there is a really easy, cheap bus to catch into the centre (very regular, and just across the road), which takes about half an hour.

The hotel is a nice size – not a giant impersonal matrix filled with screaming children, but big enough that there’s always a few people around rather than eerily silent. The reception is always manned and is a useful source of information. There’s also spa facilities (we didn’t make use of these ourselves), two pools (basically a kids and an adults), a restaurant and a bar (with chess board!). There’s no real beach, but there is a lovely deck running out to sea, which you can swim from or lie on on one of the quality wooden sun loungers. It is also the perfect spot to see the sunset.

One of the greatest treasures of the hotel is the restaurant. This is currently rated #1 of 300 restaurants in Chania town! It is family run, the food was gorgeous and great value, and the service exceptional. On our first night we arrived as the restaurant was shortly due to close, yet they very happily accommodated us, and the delicious pizza we shared was made and cooked to order. Just what we needed after a day’s travel! Another night the restaurant was busy with a few large groups, so the waiter personally set up a table and chairs for us on the seaside decking – a perfect quiet, candlelit spot to watch the sunset from.

This good service was reflected across the hotel. On booking it, Husband added a note that we were there for our honeymoon – and we wouldn’t be offended if they’d like to give us an upgrade(!) While they replied to say they would provide us with their best room, we took this with a pinch of salt. However, on arriving we found ourselves with a large apartment with one of the best views of the sea, two balconies and a bunch of fresh roses! We had a living area with TV, small kitchen area with fridge and hob, and a separate bedroom and bathroom.

Overall we had a lovely stay and would highly recommend. Find the hotel here and on TripAdvisor here.

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An airbnb that wasn’t what I bargained for..

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Airbnb is something that’s been more and more on my radar over the last few years – and once I finally gave in and browsed the site, I could see why it has caused such a commotion. So cheap! Such nice accommodation! So easy!

My first opportunity to use it came with the August Bank Holiday. I previously wrote about my trip to Lyme Regis with two friends. We’re not broke, but we weren’t too bothered about fancy accommodation either – after all, we didn’t plan to spend any more time in our room than is required to sleep and wake up. After taking some time browsing around, it was time to bite the bullet and just book something for goodness sake. I took one for the team and booked us a spot. It had a good location, nice reviews, and was £20 a night. Winner!

Driving down to Dorset from my home in Oxfordshire was a bit of a mere on a bank holiday Friday (thankfully my good friend Mo took that burden), so it was past 8pm by the time we arrived. Having gone “old school” with a map and a geography degree (no sat nav), we reached the final destination via a series of back routes and the odd wrong direction. Eventually we reached the road we were looking for. It wasn’t a long one, and it was chocka with B&B’s – but none with the right name. The closest option was The Clarondene Residential Home. Haha funny – imagine if we were staying in a residential home.

Turned out, we were staying in a residential home.

Given it was a converted residential home, if you use the term converted lightly. Authentic features remained, such as all the signs, emergency call buttons, hand sanitisers and disabled shower. After following signs to the main entrance, we were greeted by the owner, Alison. Alison was a lovely lady (apart from when she asked if my friend was “a complete idiot?” for not realising this was the B&B and not a residential home). We were greeted with two small dogs (cute), one of which joined us as we were shown into our room, and chose a spot by the bed to eat his dog biscuit, leaving a small pool of dog saliva and crumbs (not so cute).

The windows were wide open and it was freezing. Unfortunately the radiator had been disconnected because it was leaking. A plastic beaker was left under it (“don’t worry!” laughed Alison, “it’s not there because it leaks – it’s just there in case it does leak!”). Towels were provided, although with the assumption that the user would be the size of a small child. The room was adequate, it had three beds. It came with an air freshener, which was handy because it smelt of wee.

At the end of the day, it gave us a good night’s rest, and cost only £202 for 3 people, 3 nights, over a bank holiday weekend. And it made for a good story!

Alison was actually a very nice lady, and it sounds like she gave the care home her all, and hasn’t had an easy ride. The location was very good, and I actually slept really well (the room was warm by the morning!!), so if you do want to give it a try – hit it up here (other rooms also available).

Moral of the story: book wisely with airbnb

Balos & Gramvousa

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Although it may look like a distant paradise, the small uninhabited island of Gramvousa, and nearby peninsula of Balos with it’s warm shallow lagoon, are actually part of North-West Crete.

A coach ride of a few hours, followed by an hour’s boat journey, is all it takes from the city of Chania, where I spent some time this summer, as previously written. As day trips go, this was one very lazy but visually stunning one.

While you can drive to Balos, I hear it is a journey best (or only) made by a landrover, and not one for those who suffer from travel sickness. The coach by contrast was a luxury – comfy and air conditioned, if a little slow with several stops. Once arriving at the port of Kissamos, we boarded a multi-story cruise style ship. While the boat was fairly basic, the scenery even in this harbour was enough to distract you from the crowded and not-so-comfortable seating. The mountainous horizon looked beautiful in a series of deepening blue shades, and the sea is endless..

The boat journey itself was not eventful – we had music, and food on offer such as chicken, pizza and ice-creams. Even fresh melon, which was a lovely hydrating snack (hydration is key here in the heat!). Watching out towards the coastline, you can spot a dark trace along the cliffs which marks the island’s previous shoreline, following a series of earthquakes 2000 year ago. These essentially ‘tipped’ the island, leaving the western part elevated and the eastern park dipped.

We also passed a large cave, which is believed to have been used as a shipyard. The area has quite a history, having hosted the Venetian trade route, and witnessed the Cretan war against the Turks. The area was even once a pirating hotspot, including the intriguing ‘Pirate Barbarossa’.

No pirates to see anymore – although the luckiest of voyagers may glimpse a dolphin, sea turtles or seal. Just birds for us though!

Our first stop was Balos, where we were transferred to the land via a small rowing boat. The water here is unbelievably blue and clear, and it is so worth a snorkel, even if you struggle at it as we did! Even with my lack of talent (and regrettably cheap equipment), I was able to enjoy the sight of some fishes. The beach is a little rocky, and can be fairly crowded once everyone unloads from the boat. The lagoon is a strange, shallow pool, much warmer than the sea albeit with a slight whiff of stagnant water.

After a couple of hours here, we were back on the boat, and within about 20 minutes had arrived at our next stop, Gramvousa island. The view from the beach is idyllic with the sea stretching out and a mountain sitting grandly behind. A fort, built in the 1500s, still exists at the peak of the island, although the 140 metre climb requires better footwear than flipflops. Lacking these, I chose to swim again instead. Once you navigate the first few metres of rocky, sea urchin armed seashore, this is a dream, especially on a baking day in Summer. Happily I still had time to dry off on the beach, enjoying a book and vast quantities of Vitamin D, before finishing our stay in this beautiful place.

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A Lyme Regis weekend & bucket list

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For the August bank hol, I was desperate to get to the sea. Life in central England has benefits, but seaside living isn’t one of them, and there’s no substitute. Cornwall is my dream location but a pain in the ass to get to when time is short, so we went two stops along to Dorset. It’s not somewhere I’ve seen a lot of, and is less trendy/expensive also, making it easier, and cheaper, and new!

I stayed with a couple of friends in Lyme Regis for 3 days. It’s a beautiful town, full of quirky and colourful houses. We happily spent a day and a half just exploring the place, poking around the bookshops, eating good food and playing miniature golf (and since you asked, yes I did win…).

We scrimped on accommodation (more on THAT STORY another time) in exchange for eating out, choosing to take a brunch, naughty lunch (ice cream or cake), and dinner out.

While the weather was crap (as per) this shouldn’t be a bummer unless you have unreal expectations (“no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing…”). A dabble in the sea is always necessary, even if you’re too chicken for a full submersion. There’s something so good for the soul about being close to the sea – invigorating when the wind and waves are up, calming when it’s flat and peaceful.


Lyme Regis Bucket List

  1. Fish and Chips on the beach. Get it in the evening, sit on the shore and enjoy the sunset. We had a glorious red one, made even more special by a candlelight festival that happened to be planned that evening.
  2. Walk round the Cobb to the Aquarium. The dodgiest, drug den of an aquarium I’ve ever seen (enter through the gift shop via a beaded curtain, beckoned by a man in the shadows). We decided not to pay for entry but still enjoyed this experience.
  3. Visit the Town Mill. We didn’t have time for a tour, and both times we tried the café was not open (who closes at 4pm on a Saturday??), but enjoyed seeing some of the pottery also made on site and the gallery attached.
  4. Window Shopping. There’s something about the seaside which seems to attract a great creative vibe – full of independent shops and homemade goods. My favourites were a little tucked away bookstore, a fudge shop with the friendliest owner, and all the places that stocked Magpie goods. I love that stuff!
  5. Climb the hill. Above the shore, there is a steep green hill, populated with a miniature golf course and woodland walk. These are both worthwhile activities, but if nothing else, just ascend and enjoy the view.
  6. The Town Mill Bakery. This was our breakfast stop on Day 2, and was a slightly unusual but wonderfully fresh change to a regular café. After pulling up a pew on one of the beautiful wooden benches, you can choose a sweet pastry (baked on site), toast your own toast (homemade – as is the Marmalade), and even boil your own egg. All very minimum fuss, maximum authenticity and taste. Highly recommend.
  7. Eat a Pasty. Always a must by the seaside.
  8. Find some live music. Another benefit of the creative scene. We stumbled across a lovely duo while having some cake in The French Lieutenant – unfortunately I didn’t catch their name.

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We also spent a day touring the local area – Weymouth, Chesil Beach, Portland… perhaps more on that another time.

Paddleboarding in Brighton

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The best stories and life experience come from trying new things. Most recently, I was lucky enough to get a lesson in paddleboarding with some of my good friends.

Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP), or ‘hoe he’e nalu’ in it’s native Hawaiian language, is almost a cross between surfing and canoeing, using a large, wide board and a long paddle. It’s one of the newest trends in watersports, attracting high numbers of first-time participants.

A degree of balance is needed and some upper-body strength, but most of us picked it up quite quickly in a couple of hours. Once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s pretty relaxing, and a great way to enjoy the outdoors from a different perspective.

Paddleboarding is often done on lakes, although we went to an estuary in Brighton. It can also be done in the sea, and some participants even go a step ahead to Stand Up Surfing. It’s unusual in that it can be enjoyed as anything from a zen meditative activity, to a competitive race, while others have turned it into a tourism opportunity, as a novel way to explore and enjoy local scenery. If you really want to stay on trend, the latest variation to emerge is Paddle Board Yoga, where participants practice classic yoga moves whilst on board. Something for everyone!.

A quick google reveals SUP opportunities across the UK, from the typical watersports locations of Cornwall, to the more unexpected, in the heart of urban Bristol. You can even try it in the capital, as this journalist did.

My friends and I are already planning another excursion!

Honeymooning in Chania, Crete

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Greece has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently: debt, protests and desperate refugees. These are not normally the things I look for in a holiday, but it was where my now husband and I had already chosen to honeymoon – and with absolutely no regrets!

Our original choice was Asia – but due to time and cost limitations, we stuck with Europe in the end. I’ve been to a couple of Greek islands before – Kefalonia and Paxos – and have always come away wanting more. This time we went with Crete, sticking to the West side of the island to avoid the party areas. Being on a larger island definitely had a different vibe – busier and more built up, yet still not crowded or over-commercialised. Being near a larger city, Chania, certainly gives advantages in terms of activities and sight-seeing, but we enjoyed the best of both worlds by picking a hotel on the outskirts just an easy bus ride away (we were so happy with our hotel… more on that another time).

Chania is a city of two halves – modern and old. Speaking with limited authority (as we spent minimal time there), the former seemed to have little to offer, certainly in comparison with the beautiful and interesting old city. Here, we spent several days just exploring by foot the visually stunning and Pinterest-ready winding old streets, packed randomly with gift shops of handmade goods, and saturated with gorgeous tavernas. The harbour is the perfect centre point – packed with seaside restaurants and other interests such as horse drawn carriages, street artists, masseuses, boat trips and museums. It’s the perfect place to end the day with a view of the sunset, which is well enjoyed in the comparative peacefulness offered by a walk around to the lighthouse.

We enjoyed several meals at Soul Kitchen, which is a little away from the harbour but one of the best restaurants in the city. We also took a horse-drawn carriage around the city, a lovely way to spend half an hour and with a charming driver (albeit with limited English skills!). I am always wary of the welfare of animals in those settings, but the horses appeared healthy from what I could see. The drivers were all friendly amongst themselves, and waited patiently in a queue to provide rides, meaning the horses gained plenty of rest.

Unlike the horse and cart drivers, the boat trip vendors are very much up against each other, vying for your custom. One or two appear to be large, commercialised operations, with big boats and higher prices. We tried a smaller, glass-bottomed boat – but to some disappointment. We circled Kri Kri island, and managed to spot one of the wild goats, but the sailors had some trouble locating the airplane wreck they had promised, which we never got sight of. The snorkelling time was limited – especially for us n00bs who spent half the time trying to get the hang of it (with no teaching offered), and the equipment provided was limited (no fins left in my size!). All in all probably best to go with a more established boat.

We bought our souvenirs in a shop opposite our hotel with a lovely friendly owner and slightly cheaper prices. I even bought my own plane-ready baby olive tree, which the owner insisted I named (‘Manolis’, if you’re wondering, after our taxi driver). However, similar gifts are available in the city – chopping boards, spoons and bowls made from olive wood, olive oil soap, and coloured plates are common. The Agora marketplace is also a good place to stop by, and where I was happy to snap up some great pom-pom slippers, as well as enjoy a baklava.

Other activities in the city include bus tours (although with poor quality sound – some nice views but not worth the price), Segway tours, and a botanical park. However, some of our best memories are simply from exploring, window shopping, and devouring copious amounts of crepes, gelato, moussaka and coffee.

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