Could Sofia, Bulgaria be your Best Value Europe City Break?

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Stop the press, travellers of the world. I come with a breaking news announcement today. After years of excavation in the holiday fields (and numerous failed attempts,) on a holy weekend in 2017 in the hugely underrated country of Bulgaria, I finally unearthed a treasure – and her name was Sofia.

This one goes out to all those of you, who have ever parted with 6 Francs for a bottle of water in Switzerland (been there), wasted 40 Euros on rubbery tapas from an overpriced restaurant on Las Ramblas, Barcelona (done that) or lost £200 on a shoebox sized musty European hotel room (that one’s happened to me a few times.)

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Sofia, Bulgaria

And the buck doesn’t stop at Europe either. Hop into a new window now, do a quick Google search for New York City hotels and no further explanation needed. NYC is my favourite city – I’ve been thrice in 8 years and it would have been double that had it not been for those pesky hotel prices, (although click here for my review on a great NYC hotel option.) I wouldn’t say I fall under the umbrella of budget traveller (my stays in the Seychelles and Oman are examples of that) but I do resent eye-watering accommodation prices, stomach-turning tube fares and the fact that it can be cheaper to spend 10 days in Asia than 5 days in Italy?!

alternative European weekend breaks

What if I were to tell you, though, that I had found a city, where you could stay in 5* hotels at 3* prices and sip cocktails on a beer budget, a country largely untouched by mass tourism, filled with ancient ruins and a growing, innovative foodie scene? This was the trip I made on Easter Weekend last year, booked at 10 days notice and proving to be one of the most delightful European cities I have visited. A travel tip I wrote about why it is such an excellent value destination was even published in the national press later in the year and today, I will fill in all the blanks in the hope it may inspire some of you to visit.

what to do in Sofia Bulgaria

A Bargain Break in Bulgaria

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Four Fabulously Fun & Alternative Phone Boxes

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The humble telephone – how it has transformed our worlds. My parents still talk of their lives here in the UK in the 1970s and the way they would try and seek a connection for a phone line back home to relatives in India. It would sometimes require up to three days notice, the line was fuzzy, intermittent and barely existent – and that was a good day. The bad days saw no lines at all, each heart-sinking disappointment widening the berth of home-sickness that they already coped with on a daily basis.

London blogs

Calls abroad were prohibitively expensive so the phone conversations themselves were more a matter of informing family they were alive and less of a chit-chatty catch up scenario. How could they have possibly ever imagined a world in which they and everyone around them would own a pocket-sized phone that could read the time, show the news, reveal the weather, take a photograph and pay a bill? Nowadays, we laugh that it is my Mum out of all of us who is most glued to her Samsung but even I, a generation beneath my parents, could never have imagined a world like this.

flat lay food photographyHand Model – @LondonKiwiEmma

Day upon day for years throughout high school, I would stand at our local train station using the last couple of coins in my purse to phone my Mum from a public phone box outside Platform 5. I would let her know my train home from school had just pulled in, my hungry appetite and impatient teenage temperament desperately hoping she would be done from work in good time. Those phone booths were the only channel of communication Mum and I had during the school run time of day (and importantly, my only way of knowing whether I had time to squeeze in a bag of peanut M&Ms from the newsagent just outside the station.)

fun phone boxes blog

It was my generation that observed the transition from a mobile phone-less world to a world in which a day without our phone becomes a (somewhat first world) catastrophe. It leads me to wonder who, now, uses the phone boxes that are still dotted around my city so affectionately and so many other cities across the world? Are they merely for the few who have left their phones at home or been the victim of phone theft ? Are they solely for the posers who hang their heads out of red London phone booths and post a gram an hour or so later – or are these iconic emblems that were once such an integral requirement on our streets, simply now being defaced and used as urinals for late night drunken revellers?

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A Weekend in Cheshire & Chester

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For a hobby that involves sitting behind a screen in silence, blogging has turned out to be surprisingly sociable. Write enough words, throw yourself into enough Twitter chats, engage in enough Instagram banter and before you know it, you will find yourself immersed within a network of blogging companions. Initially, this starts off in a virtual sense and subsequently (once you feel bold and brave enough,) you take things to the next level by arranging a rendez-vous on the other side of the screen for a real life meet up (or what has affectionately come to be known within inner circles as a Tweet up.)

I have made some genuine friends in the blogosphere and I hope they know who they are but as with new jobs and new schools, some of the people you encounter along the way fall under the umbrella of acquaintances rather than friends, people who leave an impression in your life softly and transiently, flitting in and out, leaving faint trails of nostalgia behind them.

But then, there are the other type; the friends you feel you have known a lifetime, the ones you can converse with for hours without even an utterance about your respective blogs, the ones you trust implicitly, who continue to leave a treasured imprint in your life, even if the blogging stops or the geographical distance between you grows.

A Weekend in Cheshire

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What to do during A 2 Day Layover in Doha, Qatar

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Our plane commences its descent into Doha. I yawn mechanically with the mandibles of a predator, ridding myself of that familiar, cloying, ear popping sensation that leaves me transiently deaf. The monitor ahead of me reads 1am local time and with a delayed flight under my sleeve, my yawns hardly come as a chore.

I am not sure how many feet below 35,000 I am when the borders of nostalgia and exhaustion fuse indistinctly. Every time I fly above the Middle East, I feel like I am coming home. I curse myself for the silliness of this simplistic generalisation but the sentiment persists stubbornly.

2 days in Doha

Museum of Islamic Art,Doha

Home, you see, was never Qatar. It was once Saudi Arabia, an entirely different nation albeit in the same region of the world, a different culture with different norms, different facades.

traditional markets Doha Qatar

I have no right to feel like I am returning home as I land in Doha and yet, there is something oddly familiar and endearingly reminiscent about the prospect of impossibly succulent Medjool dates and hypnotic Islamic prayer calls, the chequered fabrics of the fez sported by local men and the dry heat of the desert. There is something in the aroma of Arabian Oud concealed by the Qatari women that transports me back to the first home I knew.

Islamic Art Museum Doha

Islamic Art Museum Doha

A Layover in Doha

But Doha and I meet for the first time. I have no in-depth knowledge of the place. I arrive in jet lag and I leave in haste. I lack the tools to give you an in-depth insight into this controversial destination but I am better placed than I was a year ago to show you what you could do if you found yourself with a 1-2 day layover in Qatar.

What to do on layover in Doha

Souq Waqif, Doha Souks

To the untrained eye, the Souks in Doha feel somewhat like the social heart of the city, particularly on a temperate December day. Locals, expats and tourists, outnumbered only by pigeons, gather outside the main entrance and within the maze of narrow alleyways sandwiched within the Souq Waqif.

Doha Qatar Souks

Some meander through in pursuit of Arabian textiles and handicrafts; others arrive solely to soak up the more traditional side to Doha, away from the luxury hotels and skyscrapers and some, like us, come in search of hot mezze and pots of steaming hot Arabic coffee.

Souq Waqif Doha

If a moving wheelbarrow passes your vision, pushed forcefully by a stooping gentleman, pause to take note of the slice of history unfolding in front of you – for generations, men have made a living by wandering these very souks and transporting the purchases of the wealthy in these wheelbarrows. And those who aren’t manning shops, serving hungry diners or gripping wheelbarrows simply stand in the sun with a cluster of helium balloons in hand, drawing in toddlers with their floating, shiny eye candy.

best of Doha

The Museum of Islamic Art

To help digest all those shish taouks you gobbled down greedily, wander out of the souks and take a gentle stroll in the direction of Doha’s renowned Museum of Islamic Art. Don’t for one minute think that you need to know about art or have a vested interest in it to enjoy this space. I, for one, know diddly squat about art but this museum is so much more than portraits and paintings. Here, you will find gilded sword sheaths and bejewelled birds.

Sword Museum of Islamic Art

The princess within me longed for the 16th century rosewater sprinkler to sit on my own dressing table or even to be the kind of woman worthy of a sprinkle of rosewater. The staff were extremely strict about leaving bottles of water and foodie items outside of the exhibition rooms and photography is permitted but you must keep those pesky flashes well away. In between being dazzled by gold and gemstones, I was given the challenging of recapping some of my med school anatomical knowledge with diagrams from hundreds of years ago that gave me a newfound respect for how my predecessors must have trained back then.

Rose water sprinkler Qatar

Old anatomical drawing

Even if none of this appeals though, I still urge you to visit this free museum during your squeeze of a layover for if none of the art catches your eye (which I suspect it will,) the very architecture of the building with its external, clean, white right angles and the beautifully bright café inside that overlooks the water are reason enough to stop by.

Doha best attractions

The Corniche

For someone who had never even been in a pool till the age of eight, I am ever the water baby when I travel and not a trip goes by when I am not either in the water, on the water or by the water. Doha was no different and whilst we didn’t have the time to dabble in a Dhow cruise, we did enjoy a slow stroll along the Corniche waterfront, where the flawless white of the Museum of Islamic Art is juxtaposed vividly against the teal blue water.

Pearl Monument Qatar

The Pearl Monument, Doha

We are rarely ones to shy away from a solid walk, once clocking up nearly 20 miles in a single day in New York City but a 36 hour layover only left us time for a brief lazy amble but with more time at your disposal, you could keep enjoying the Corniche for miles.

Doha Corniche Qatar

Now those of you with longer in Qatar could venture over to the expat filled micro-cosm that is “The Pearl” but if time prohibits, the good news is that your next best bet is the shimmering Pearl Monument and water feature; not quite an entire island but enough to give any other pearl you’ve seen a run for its money.

Tourist highlights Doha

Capture the Skyline

On a pub quiz I took part in during my first ever cruise experience, I remember being thrown a question about the world’s top 5 most impressive skylines. Quite how one gathers a consensus on this I am unsure but we accurately guessed some of the stunning yet predictable world cities that featured in the answers – Tokyo, New York City, Singapore.

But while Qatar’s capital failed to make the cut then, I found myself bedazzled by the Doha skyline during my mini escapade in the city. Those of you with a penchant for Prosecco and a flair for fine dining would be best placed parking yourselves at one of the city’s numerous sky-rise restaurants or bars from where to soak up the skyline. I, on the other hand, a little jet lagged from our recent visit to the Philippines, took the lazier option of admiring it in my pyjamas with an undeniably impressive view available to us from the comfort of our hotel suite.

Intercontinenta Doha City Hotel views

Indulge and Unwind

If there is one thing I have come to learn about hotels in the Middle East, it’s that they don’t do things by halves and Qatar has adhered to that formula, just as well as Oman did earlier in the year. In summer months, these hotels stretch beyond the reams of luxury and into the territory of necessity for all those tourists unprepared for the scorching summers; but even in the winter months, it is worth freeing up some time to immerse yourself in a little slice of pampering and luxury and if your pockets allow, parking yourself at a hotel that offers some luxury.

Travel blog review Intercontinental Doha City

A quick Google search will soon prove there are no shortage of these in Doha so knock yourselves out choosing but from enormous hotel buffet brunches and swanky skyline bars to decadent dining and spacious suites, be sure to tap into the luxury dining and accommodation on offer. We gave up a whole evening and morning of our limited time in Doha to be able to make good use of the luxury Doha city hotel we had found ourselves in, using our suite to the max, munching the last of the welcome treats and dining in the newly refurbished garden lounge.

Al Jalsa Doha shisha

Al Jalsa Lounge, Doha

So, is this a comprehensive guide to Doha? No – and I’d be a fraud if I tried to pretend otherwise, having spent less than 2 days of my life there but hopefully, what this will give you is a realistic idea of how to skim the surface of some of Doha’s highlights at a leisurely pace even within the teeny time frame of a layover.

How do you usually spend a layover abroad?

Weekend Brunch at Iris and June, Victoria

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I remember when one of my colleagues caught wind of the fact that I write a blog in my spare time a couple of years ago. She asked what it was about and it came as no surprise to her, like all the others in the room at the time, when I declared my niche (or broad niche shall we say) to be travel. She went on to ask how frequently I blog and back then, unmarred by the cynicism or lethargy of a more seasoned blogger, I was fairly punctual with churning out posts once weekly, at one time even stepping up to twice weekly through means I can no longer recall (or believe) but the proof was in the WordPress and twice weekly, it was.

“Do you have enough to write about though if you’re writing that often,” she asked sincerely? I nodded affirmatively with a brief throwaway comment about how many article ideas may be conceived of one destination or holiday, swiftly averting the conversation back to the shop floor, forever uncomfortable with having too much attention drawn to myself.

Brunch Victoria London

The truth was, the truth is in fact, that my problem was quite the contrary – a stealth of ideas paragraphs, adjectives and photographs, chapters full of stories wanting to be told, waiting to be told, eventually losing hope of being told and an author, who despite her passion to write, never could quite keep up with her own heart. Speed was never my thing. Not in the 800m track run at high school and not in the blogging diaries either. It seems highly undisciplined, therefore, if not a little unhinged, to be throwing in content that falls outside of my boundaries when I am only, y’know, four years behind on the travel posts I so badly want to deliver.

Brunching at Iris and June, Victoria

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A Day Trip to Torres del Paine, Chile

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London, January 2014

Pumpkin: “Would you fancy doing a day trip to Torres del Paine from Argentina on our South America trip?”

Me: “You what? Of course I would but is that even an option?”

El Calafate, Argentina, March 2014

Pumpkin: “Straight to bed after dinner for me. I’m knackered. Weren’t we lucky the clouds lifted eventually? Are you going to blog about this?”

Me: “Yeh, it was amazing. Definitely going to share this on the blog. Might even pinch some of your photos, they’ve come out really well…”

most beautiful South America destinations

London, November 2015

Pumpkin: “Are you ever going to write about Torres del Paine? I’d love it if you did a blog post on it and I reckon people would be interested in hearing about the day trip option. I’d definitely have read a blog post like that when we were planning our South America trip.”

Me (hastily:) “I will, I will, I just haven’t got around to it yet.”

Pumpkin: “But surely if you don’t do it soon, you won’t remember any of it? You do write them in a strange order. That afternoon tea you’ve just blogged about was long after Chile…”

London, June 2016

Pumpkin: “Such a pity you never wrote about Chile.”

Me ( hanging my head in shame: )

No inverted commas, as no speech.

Out of excuses.

London, January 2018

Me: “Are the Torres del Paine photos on your laptop or mine?”

Pumpkin: “Dunno, why? Wait – are you actually writing about it finally?”

Me: “Yeh, I thought I might. This month’s travel link up theme is ‘once-in-a-lifetime experiences’ and this was what sprung to mind.

Pumpkin: “What’s a link up?”

best places to visit South America

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Painting your own Russian Dolls in St Petersburg, Russia

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We lay them out, side by side, on the grainy-patterned, cream kitchen surface in my parents’ hotel room. Despite my advancing age, I don’t harbour any strong views towards interiors but an open plan kitchen/living room is my first-world vice; the way it unites all within its reach, those who cook, those who eat, those who are glued to sitcoms, those who snooze after Sunday lunch. It is the first thing my eyes scan for snooping in windows of estate agents and it is where I feel most at ease in other homes.

The setup is social gold.

But today, the off-white surface assumes a new role as the judging table, absorbing a more depressing jaundiced tinge courtesy of the dim lighting suspended above it. My ladies were never going to appear their best without the natural light of day to enhance their features but their competitors are in the same position so I make no excuses and stand them proudly next to their Russian sisters.

painting Russian Dolls St Petersburg

My Dad leaps up to volunteer as lead judge, moments after my mother affectionately (if rather predictably) vows that all three offerings must be on a par and she wouldn’t possibly be able to distinguish. Ever heard of bias, Mother dear?

best Russia activities

As we lift our wooden women, Dad peers at their hair plait formations, rotates them on their axis to inspect the tidiness of their attire, their headscarves shimmering with the change of angle. Without hesitation, he moves them to reflect their ranking in the competition. In third place is the hot pink, brown-eyed girl, her bold colour choices and blonde locks failing to captivate his attention. Supposedly, the fuschia strokes are somewhat streaky and uneven. That they are – but within each sweep of the velveteen brush lay a burst of zeal and a lust for exploration.

Russian Doll Painting

In first place is the grape and lime doll, the most gorgeous of the group with a coy smile that suggests she is well aware of it. I had hardly imagined these two colours would complement each other so well and much as I want to convince myself it is her lagoon-blue eyes that propel her to the front, my Dad justifies his decision by describing her overall look as having a “finesse” and “elegance” superior to the other two Matryoshka dolls.

best activities St Petersburg

Grumpy at coming last in an arty activity yet again, I wallow in my sore-loser status whilst Pumpkin utters not a word, the silence only accentuating his smugness of taking first yet again. Sister is far less troubled by such trivial games, graciously accepting her silver medal position for the doll she has made as a tribute to our heritage, adorned with the colours of the Indian flag and proud of her long, luscious black braids.

paint your own Russian doll

Russian Doll Painting in St Petersburg

I am not one to horde souvenirs in general, as a devout worshipper of the “collect memories over materials” school of thought. However, there are a few notable exceptions to this: firstly if I can support the local handicraft industries with my purchases, secondly if I can invest in something that has a true traditional link to place and thirdly, if I have actually had a hand in creating it. Some of you might remember that on our trip to Japan, Pumpkin found us a plastic food making class in Osaka, which occupied a rainy afternoon in the city in the most quirky way I could have imagined.

painting Matryoshka Russian dolls

Well, for the St Petersburg leg of our recent Russia break, he outdid himself yet again by discovering this Russian Doll Painting Experience and suggesting I might enjoy it. Pumpkin paints as a hobby and has recreated some truly stunning scenes from our travels but it was my look of glee which confirmed to him that this activity was going in our diary.

Russia Holiday Highlights

With a simple email to Elena at Matryoshka Masterclass our booking was finalised. No deposit was required and we paid in cash at the end of the class. We had not made any specific request for a private class but much to our delight, this was what we inadvertently walked into when we booked ourselves the last slot of the day at 5pm.

making Russian dolls

A honeymooning couple were finishing off their masterpieces, as we arrived and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a healthy dose of competition breaking up their loved up ambience in the studio. From reading other reviews, it seems as if the group sizes can vary and can be much larger so if you are interested in a more close-knit painting experience, it may be worth enquiring about a private class.

best activities St Petersburg

With a background in engineering, Elena always had a passion for painting and branched out into running her own Matryoshka doll painting classes after initially starting out by teaching children her craft. Despite the fact she had spent the whole day teaching back to back classes, the level of help, support and encouragement she gave us never faltered throughout the doll painting class.

Russia Holiday highlights

There is much more to the decoration of these Matryoshka dolls than I had ever appreciated before this St Petersburg experience so if you think you can come here for a lazy afternoon, think again! The steps take focus and concentration and a certain degree of speed. Spend too long dithering over your colour combinations or whether your doll has blue or brown eyes and you will run out of time, only to be left with a half-naked Matryoshka being shown up by her better-dressed friends.

Russian Doll class

Furthermore, if you are hoping that your Russian doll will leave the building with the same illustrious shine that you have seen stacked on shelves throughout the country, then you need to ensure you spare adequate time for varnishing. As there were only three of us, Elena helped us all with drying, varnishing and even helped me with certain aspects of decoration such as the flowers (as frankly, an average toddler can paint with more skill than I can so call it cheating if you will but needs must.)

what to do in Russia

One suggestion that may be worth keeping in mind is to try and have a rough idea of colours you want to use before you arrive, as Elena has numerous different paint shades to choose from and during busier classes, this could end up wasting valuable minutes.

how to make a Russian doll

Now before you go complimenting my skills at doll painting (or perhaps that is a tad presumptuous,) I must clarify that certain elements were pre-drawn, such as the eyes and face. We did however paint the body of the dolls from scratch and received instruction from Elena about how to paint on the flowers, plaits and trim of the scarves. I am fully aware if looks like just a string of dots but if you look closely, you will spot the inconsistency between my dots and why I allowed myself a pat on the back, even for the smallest achievements.

Saint Petersburg travel blog tips

St Petersburg is a spectacular city, filled with culture, opulence and world-class ballet but if you have had had your fill of watching the arts, then why not spare a few hours to participate in them instead? You’ll be rewarded with a bespoke Russian doll, a host of laughs and memories and all for less than the cost of many Russian dolls on the market (so long as you can embrace the odd smudged petal and blurred line but we women are increasingly being empowered to celebrate our imperfections and, well, the Matryoshka Russian dolls are no exception!)

travel blogger tips Russia

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A Suite Stay at InterContinental Doha The City

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“These samosas are as good as my Mum’s,” I said to Pumpkin.

They call us chalk and cheese but for us, it works. We agree on the important issues – like how to identify a distinguished samosa.

He gave a characteristic nod, knowingly, silently. He was aware, as I was, that the brief accolade I had imparted reflected the embracing, homely environment that was about to unfold around us in Doha; ironic really, considering how far away we were from home, unravelling breakfast plates somewhere high up in a skyscraper hotel in Qatar.

Al Jalsa Doha shisha

Al Jalsa Lounge, Doha

On paper, I never could have anticipated feeling so at home in a city business hotel, let alone one in a completely unfamiliar country but the subtle parallels would soon make themselves known.

Intercontinental Hotel Doha City

Not everyone has a joyous home life but I’m grateful that I was one of the lucky ones. For us, home was a place where we never went hungry and where sweet treats would surprise us when we walked in after an arduous, scorching Middle Eastern summer day. It was a place where we felt safe, where those around us always took an interest in what we had to say and where love was manifested in dinner plates. And always, always, there were are samosas.

Best Doha city hotels

Okay, so our hotel suite at InterContinental Doha the City may have been larger than many London apartments and I can’t say I ever grew up with a skyscraper studded view whilst brushing my teeth but if you bear with me & read on, I’ll try and explain what I mean about home.

First though, the logistics: Doha has no shortage of luxury hotels but with only 2 days at our disposal and having just flow back from the paradise beach break that was the Philippines, my goal in Doha was to lap up the city life and acclimatise my way back to London. My priority was a city hotel with all the convenience of a central location without compromising on any of the pampering of a resort hotel and this was how I found myself Googling “best city hotels in Doha.”

Suites at InterContinental Doha The City

When we first walked into the lobby at IC Doha The City, we were bleary eyed and dishevelled. At any other time of day, this may have perturbed me but at 2am after a flight delay, I didn’t much care about my smudged eyeliner. Thankfully, neither did the staff, whose key priority was to get us checked in, logged in, watered and of course – rather like my Mama – to get us fed so that we could rest without any further ado.

Travel blog review Intercontinental Doha City

The unexpected upgrade to the suite was a welcome surprise to two jet-lagged adults, who were so exhausted that they would have contentedly had a kip in an empty bath tub had it been proposed. Within 10 minutes of exiting our cab, we were up in our room, our muscles willing us to crawl beneath the covers, bidding a dramatic farewell to the alarm clock.

Our leaping hearts, however, thrilled like children at Christmas Eve, had us glued to the windows, as we gazed on at the panoramic views of Doha’s sparkling skyline. Awoken by its appeal, we could have headed straight for the Nespresso machine to revive us further but that didn’t get a second look once we saw those tasty welcome treats lurking beneath a glass dome and asking to be devoured.

Where to stay Doha

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My 10 Epic Travel Experiences of 2017

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Mental arithmetic is not my forte, not by any means. I may have fluked my way to some decent maths grades in high school but that, essentially, was where my expertise ended. And then with the advent of phones, smart phones, smarter phones and smartest phones, my brain no longer felt the need (or desire) to mathematically figure out anything but in place of that, the words started to flow unapologetically, both here on the blog much to the bane of you lovely people, my readers, and in real life, to the annoyance of my loving family and husband.

My 2017 in Travels

While division and subtraction might remain a challenge, one thing I can always tot up accurately is the number of flights and adventures amassed in a year. In 2017, a year in which I feel I could have potentially squeezed in more if I had been more organised, I still made it to….drum roll please…

  • 8 countries (5 new and 3 previously visited countries)
  • 22 flights
  • 15 hotels
  • A 3 Michelin starred UK staycation
  • Around 30 boat trips (if you go island hopping in the Philippines, you really will lose track of the exact number)

I am by no means breaking any records but for a full-time NHS employee, I think this proves just how much globetrotting is achievable if you use your pennies wisely and exhaust your annual leave to the max.

Rather than a boring chronological recap of my year in travels (because frankly, no one other than my Mum will enjoy reading that,) instead, I thought I would sum up the trips of 2017 by telling you what made each one so memorable, annotating my travel tales with the Instagram updates that accompanied them. Is it lazy blogging? Quite probably but it’s Boxing as I start to draft this and the blood flow that usually supplies my writer’s brain has been diverted towards my gut to digest the festive turkey dinner so you get what you get.

The Best Party of The Year– New Delhi, India, February

When you start off 2017 with the best party of the year you’ve ever attended, surely your social life can only go downhill from there? Thankfully not but that was the very real risk we took when we flew abroad for the first time this year for a family wedding in New Delhi, a glittering, gleaming function of epic proportions, which also happened to fall during my own birthday week.

Why celebrate one occasion when you can celebrate two right, so whilst the bride and groom jetted off on their honeymoon, we used the opportunity to dine at Indian Accent, one of World’s 50 Best Restaurants with a menu worthy of the accolade. If the London foodies among you are tempted but can’t justify flying all the way to New Delhi to sample it, I have good news for you – they’ve just opened up a brand new shiny branch of it in London.

The Laziest Holiday of the Year – Oman, February

When you spend 3 consecutive days eating afternoon tea (in my defence, it was complimentary,) you don’t leave your resort for your entire time in the country (in my defence, I was unwell) and you spend most of your waking days quite literally on the lazy river (ok no defence for that one,) you pretty much have all the essential ingredients for the laziest trip of the year.

Our brief stint at the adult-only Shangri La Al Husn resort in Oman was the ideal peaceful and romantic antidote to a week of non-stop parties, celebrations and hopping between relatives’ houses in India; it was just a shame I wasn’t feeling a hundred percent healthwise but hey, what’s room service for right?!

The Most Gourmet Break of the Year – The Waterside Inn, UK, April

When it comes to Pumpkin’s birthday presents, you could say that I had a bit of making up to do, considering his gift from 2016 was nearly 10 months overdue. In the past, he has been the (less than) proud recipient of chocolate-flavoured ketchup and pizza cutters at the hands of his wife so this year, I compensated for this by splurging on a one-night 3 Michelin star dinner & hotel staycation at the legendary Roux establishment, The Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire.

The location for the break remained a surprise right until we pulled up outside, when our car was whisked away from us. A little valet? Don’t mind if I do. Despite the weather having been atrocious just a day before, we were thrown a lifeline for our Sunday night stay with a day bathed in warm sunshine, worthy of sleeveless clothing. It also meant that we could enjoy the eponymous waterside deck, where we spent a couple of hours sipping coffee ahead of our 3 Michelin star tasting menu. After a decadent in-room breakfast the following morning, loaded with handmade French pastries, we burnt off the carbohydrate load with a walk around the world-famous nearby royal town of Windsor.

The Best Value Destination of the Year – Sofia, Bulgaria April

Of all the destinations we explored this year, Sofia was by far the best value for money and considering that we flew out on Good Friday and returned Easter Monday, it proved to be the most economical on the annual leave front as well, deeming it one of the best last-minute bargains of the year.

With a hip, edgy and innovative foodie scene and magnificent monuments within easy reach both within the city and beyond, all travellers looking to explore a city still relatively protected from mass tourism should put this on their must-see lists. And if you do as we did by travelling over Easter, be sure to try out the traditional Bulgarian Easter bread – Kozunak. Trust me on this one – it is worth the carbs 😊

The “I feel like I could live here” Trip of the Year – Berlin, Germany, June

When I was asked to participate in the #CheapflightsChallenge in Berlin earlier this year, I went in with the mindset of exploring a new city and proving to you all that it is entirely possible for two adults to go on a 3 day holiday abroad for less than the cost of a designer wallet and prove this, I did.

What I was not expecting, however, was to find a liberal, easy-going, multi-cultural city filled with free-spirited individuals, colourful street art murals, countless food markets, green open spaces, live musicians on every corner and quaint neighbourhoods easily explored on foot. It was basically everything I love about London without the stifling crowds, with friendlier locals and with less ludicrous prices. Anyone want to join me on a move to Berlin?!

The Unimaginably Scenic Trip of the Year – Azores, June

When one of my best friends shared her photos of the Azores a little while ago, I only needed to scroll through three or four before I had already made my mind up that I had to see these mystical islands for myself. Pumpkin is an avid lover of the great outdoors so just as soon as I threw in the words, “mountains, lakes, hikes and nature,” he needed no further persuasion.

Little did we know that this cluster of islands scattered in the middle of the Atlantic but technically part of Portugal was akin to a gallery, showcasing the best of Earth’s magic. I have only managed to write about Ponta Delgada, the capital of Sao Miguel island so far but there will be plenty more posts coming your way in 2018 to entice you to visit this beautiful destination – only 3-4 hours away from the UK but worlds apart from any other European destination I had ever experienced before.

The Funniest Trip of the Year – Edinburgh, Scotland, August

I have to say, when planning my travel adventures, of all the specs I tend to think about (hotels, activities, excursions, climate etc,) “funny” is not one of them but in 2017, that changed, when Pumpkin’s more timely birthday gift this year was a long weekend in Edinburgh for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

As our maiden visit to the festival, we booked ahead for 3 live stand up comedy shows at intimate venues, during which we laughed so hard that our abdominal muscles ached for hours. When we weren’t at pre-booked shows, we took in the sights of this quaint, charming city, found ourselves eating high tea in a library, soaked up the atmosphere of all the live entertainers and performers on the street and stumbled upon food festivals, cocktail festivals and even snuck in a retro Ferris wheel ride, which allowed us to watch over this bustling city by night.

The Most Opulent Destination of the Year – Russia, September

Russia might have seemed like an unusual choice for our first big family holiday in four years but when we put together everyone’s individual preferences for a September holiday, it was the one country that floated straight to the top of the list.

If you have any ill-conceived notions of Russia being a grey, dreary or uninspiring destination, then one snoop inside museums like the Winter Palace in St Petersburg or The Armoury Museum at the Kremlin in Moscow will soon eradicate those once and for all. Never before have I seen such unparalleled opulence and glamour from sexy skyline bars to ornate, regal Faberge eggs. If you don’t like gold trimmings, picture perfect manicured gardens and fairytale palaces, don’t go to Russia.

The Favourite Destination of the Year – The Philippines, November

I am a travel writer, traveller and I love exploring this planet. I am not supposed to have favourites. Do parents have favourite children? (OK, in reality, I suspect some do but you get my point!) Every country carries its own unique quirk and charm and it is both naïve and short-sighted to rank them in an over-simplified hierarchy; yet here I am shamelessly declaring the Philippines to be my favourite destination of the year – but it utterly and sincerely was.

The impossibly white beaches paralleled if not exceeded those that I had seen in the Maldives, which I had always imagined would be the most spectacular shore lines I would ever set foot on. The balmy, teal sea water, shallow enough to wade through and laden with rainbow shoals and pristine corals did little to alter that view and the friendliness of the loving, patriotic and hard-working locals only consolidated our infatuation with the islands of the Philippines. We wore swimwear almost every day for a fortnight and of the 5 pairs of footwear I packed, pretty much only the flip-flops were necessary, revealing just how relaxing, laid back and idyllic our island escape was.

The house reef at our hotel @elnidoresorts is one of the best for marine life in Palawan so we aren't allowing a small thing like jellyfish season to stop us snorkelling. Into the blue I went on day 1 here but after just 2 minutes in the water, I'd acquired 4 separate stings, the irony being that it happened 5 minutes after I''d purchased a rash guard (for my top half & arms) – looks like the jellyfish took a liking to my legs & cheek! The stings are nothing like as bothersome as that episode of Friends had led me to believe & we're still snorkelling away happily (if a little more covered up.) What's weirder, though, is that Pumpkin swam in the same water for the same duration yet didn't get stung once – seems I'm as popular with the Filipino jellyfish crew as I am with the global mozzie ones!

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The Fly-By Trip of the Year – Qatar, December

My final trip of the year was a complete fly-by visit to Qatar en route back from the Philippines. We could have flown home directly to London without stopping off but after reading so much about Doha from all the adventures that Polly from Follow Your Sunshine has had out there, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to explore the city ourselves.

With just one full day and night and one morning at our disposal as well as a luxury hotel to experience, there was no room for tardiness so even with our limited time there, we managed to squeeze in a visit to the souks, the iconic art museum in Doha, a stroll along the Corniche and a blogger lunch date with Polly herself, which was a delightful way to end the travel year and a fitting way to end the travel blogging year as well.

About last night – the Al Jalsa Restaurant & Lounge Bar @icdohathecity. If you've been following my travels in the Philippines over the last couple of weeks, then you'll have seen that island life suited me rather better than I would have imagined – living in flip flops & swimwear, travelling from A-B on boats rather than crowded tubes & living life at a slower, more laid back pace. BUT, with my imminent return to London, a reminder of the allure of city life & city lights was very much in order. It started with the Nobu dinner & hotel experience in Manila & I am very pleased to report that this whirlwind adventure of a trip has ended on a complete high with our final meal being held at this mellow, sexy lounge & outdoor city garden, where we feasted on some of my favourite Middle Eastern mezzes & grills amongst locals, who smoked fragrant shisha, mingled with friends & caught up on their correspondence over miniature cups of aromatic Arab coffee & trays of tempting Baklava.

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The Hometown – London

But just in case you think I’ve been sitting on the sofa lacksadaisically in between travels, I better give you a quick recap of the adventures that have taken place closer to home, which have included breakfasting in an ingloo, eating my weight in tapas at the Taste of London festival and finding ancient ruins and Totem poles in my childhood home county of Surrey at Virginia Water.

This is the year that has seen me return to the London Olympic stadium to watch the World Athletics Championships, a sporting venue that I was last at during the London Olympic Opening Ceremony, this was the year that I took in a final glimpse of Big Ben before the scaffolding took over and most bizarre of all, a year in which I played cricket with a former professional England player!

 

A huge thank you to all of you for being part of my blogging babbles this last year (and to the many of you who have been following along long before that.) I really am grateful for all the supportive comments and love and the travel inspiration you all give me. Hope you have all had a wonderful and restful festive season and wishing you a happy, travelicious 2018. Long may our collective global adventures continue!

Original Gift Ideas for Travellers & Travel Lovers

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It’s that time of year again; I’m not entirely sure how but it is. 2017’s blogging schedule may have been somewhat inconsistent but it seems like only yesterday that I was packing for my first adventure of the year, a brief but long overdue February return to the motherland that saw me attend the most epic wedding I have ever been to (including my own!)

festive Christmas places New York City

In the aftermath of the Christmas festivities and falling right in the centre of birthday month, I vividly recall feeling a little overly plump to be sporting a slinky evening gown for the wedding functions. Yet somehow, the months have rolled on in the tumultuous way they always seem to and I find myself here, on a particularly frosty November night, distracting myself with trashy TV, whilst I endeavour to complete the self-enforced task of compiling this year’s travel gift guide.

Marina Skyscraper Views Singapore

This one’s for all those live-for-the-moment, travel-mad jetsetters in your life. And as per my previous travel gift ideas post, all of these items/experiences have been tried and tested by yours truly and most of them are gifts that other people have rather thoughtfully given to me for previous birthdays, Christmases etc. There are no affiliate links in this post so I won’t be making any dough if you pinch these ideas. My goal today is simply to share the love, hopefully making it that little bit easier for those of you of you tearing your hair out for original travel gift ideas. Just call me travel Santa.

Christmas time Bruges

If, however. the overly commercialised, billion-dollar industry that is Christmas shopping ain’t your scene, then feel free to ignore my gift guide and do what Pumpkin and I are doing instead – we have scooted off to the other side of the world just before the mayhem starts so that we can live in blissful ignorance of the Christmas shopping chit-chat engulfing the high streets and avert our eyes from the archetypal English drizzle engulfing the atmosphere.

Sorry Ma and Pa, BFF and colleagues, this year, you’re all getting duty-free M&Ms (fear not though, we’ll treat you to those cute tins with the big grinning M&M,  perched garishly on top.)

Views of Singapore at Night

My 2017 Travel Gift Guide

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