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What To Do With 12 Hours in Amsterdam

What To Do With 12 Hours in Amsterdam

Stopovers can be a very strange experience. It’s as if you enter a parallel universe where water costs 5 euro a pop and it becomes totally appropriate to drink whisky at 10am. Some people relish the opportunity to kill a few hours in an airport but personally I detest it. I always feel grubby, like I need a good hosing down after getting off the last plane that was a container full of germs. And I get bored of the shops within the first few minutes (mostly because I feel like a peasant who can’t afford any of the products they’re selling!).

There is truly no look that induces as much shame as the one from the snooty cosmetics lady at an airport is there? Especially the moment when she catches you spraying yourself from head to toe in an expensive perfume, asks you with about as much sarcasm as one can gather, if you need any assistance. No I don’t need any help thanks but I guess you knew that from the fact that I’m wearing furry socks with flip flops and have a fistful of samples in my sweaty hands! Oh the shame!

 

BUT. Sometimes, if you’ve been blessed with a stopover of more than a few hours, then that strange experience can actually turn out to be one of the best parts of the trip. A gift that gives you the opportunity to escape the madness and tension of the airport and upgrade your holiday by spending a few hours in a city you weren’t expecting to see. Why suffer when you can pop in to Dubai for a bit of breakfast? Or Hong Kong for dinner? Or, in our recent case, lunch in Amsterdam?? We had half a day to kill in between flights on our way home from Bali last month and jumped at the chance to explore the city instead of just moping about its airport. It might have been a flying visit (hardy har har) but it felt like we were getting a little taste of the Netherlands for just one day and it really was the perfect way to end an already amazing trip.

Here’s a few things that we managed to cram in during our 8 hours…

Dam Square

We got the train in to Centraal Station which only took around 20 minutes on the Sunday morning and couldn’t believe how easy it was to get right in to the city centre. From there we walked down the eerily quiet main street towards Dam Square which at 8am on a Sunday morning, was completely devoid of tourists. It felt as if we had the city to ourselves, strolling through the square and gazing up at the Royal Palace wondering where all the people were. It was incredibly peaceful so we were definitely not complaining.

Nine Streets

A hop over from Dam Square are the most photogenic streets in Amsterdam. Known to locals as ‘The 9 Streets’, the area is jammed with trendy shops, cafés and restaurants that you could easily spend a whole day wandering through. What we came here for though was the opportunity to get the quintessential Amsterdam photo of canals and bikes (have you even been to Amsterdam if you don’t have that photo?). It was a beautiful walk because it was so quiet, only a handful of early risers out walking their dogs on the hunt for their morning coffee. We popped in to Pluk when we were on a stroll and I instantly fell in love, a definite recommendation for a coffee break.

Bloemenmarkt

When you’re done taking photos by the canal, potter on down to the world’s first floating flower markets just a few minutes walk away. In the summer it will be a tulip paradise but in the colder months you will see the winter flowers making appearances with the sellers wrapped up from the cold. It’s best to get there early when the stalls are full of colours and before the punters have descended.

Koffieschenkerij De Oude Kerk

I’m not even going to try and pronounce the name of this café out loud but what I will say is that it’s a spot you have to pop in to for a bit of brunch or tea and cake. It’s located within the sacristy of the Oude Kerk church in the middle of the Red Light District – a church that has seen it’s fair share of sinners I’m sure! We ate our cake in the courtyard under Autumn blue skies and feeling very much at home amongst the rest of the Sunday brunchers. A worthwhile pitstop I can assure you.

After our treats we headed towards the airport feeling conflicted because we were both wishing we had a few more hours for our stopover while at the same time, dreaming of a hot shower and finally getting in to our own bed!

Bali: A Guide to Canggu & Uluwatu

Bali: A Guide to Canggu & Uluwatu

I am one of those travellers’ that researches relentlessly before a trip. I want to discover hidden secrets, places to eat in that locals rave about, beaches that won’t be crowded all because I’m terrified that I’ll miss something fantastic. This might take the joy out of it for some people but it’s almost my favourite part of a trip, to get to know a place before I even put my feet on the ground.

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Hindu blessings which decorate the streets all over Bali

Canguu (pronounced chan-goo) was where we decided we would begin our Balinese adventure since it was known to be a bit more chilled out than it’s noisy neighbour Kuta. Kuta is a popular spot but is renowned for being full of drunken Aussie’s and having mopeds bumper to bumper so we thought we would keep our distance and seek solace at a safe distance.

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I had mentally prepared myself for Canggu before we left, imagining surfers walking barefoot down the street, surfboard in one hand and chai latte in the other. I imagined trendy shops selling clothes that were too cool for me and yoga studios filled with flexible tanned bodies. And while all of this was definitely true, I hadn’t expected to love it quite as much as I did.

Canggu has an atmosphere that immediately relaxes you. Everything is slow-paced (sometimes a little too slow-paced for my hungry belly) and you never have to stray too far to find delicious food and even more delicious cocktails. We were also surprised by how spread out the area was even though it still had that surfer-village feel to it making it fun to explore on our moped in the evenings. In fact, we loved it so much we ended up coming back to stay on our last night in Bali!

Where to Stay

During our first time in Canggu, we stayed in this Airbnb which served us very well. We had a pool right outside our door which was shared but we only ever saw one other person there so it felt very private. The staff were incredibly friendly and helpful, even dropping us to a restaurant one night to save us walking around looking for a taxi.

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We stayed there three nights and found it very handy to walk to nearby restaurants and cafés. They didn’t serve breakfast but this made us get up early and explore the area more in the mornings (always a good idea when you’re feeling a little jet lagged like we were).

My favourite part about this place was the bathroom which sadly I didn’t take a photo of. It was huuuge! The shower was open and in the middle of the room and the water felt like heavy rainfall which was perfect for washing the sand out of some tricky areas if ye catch my drift.

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On our second trip to Canggu we stayed in this joint for one night which was a little closer to Kuta than before. It was a bit tricky to find on the moped but that meant it was super quiet at night. We had our own private pool here, kitchen, two bedrooms and a massive bathroom that was probably the same size as our whole ground floor of our house!

We had staff come in and cook breakfast for us in the morning and the late check-out time meant we could swim in the pool and soak up the morning sun while we could. I loved it here and wished we could have stayed a little longer. Next time I guess!

Where to Eat & Drink

Scouting out places to eat is the best activity on holidays, isn’t it? And my oh my were there plenty of choices in Canggu!

Here are a few of my favourites:

Little Flinders

A great spot for a Nalu Bowl (I didn’t know what it was either until Bali but it’s the most colourful and delicious way to eat breakfast!). It’s an Australian-owned joint which has been finished beautifully so definitely an Instagram-worthy spot if you are that way inclined.

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Betelnut Café

Another healthy stop to un-do all the cocktails you had the night before. The upstairs area is open which makes it a great place to cool off and enjoy some kombucha or vitamin-packed smoothies. No one needs to know that you were actually a rum-swigging, table-dancing minx the night before.

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The Grass Terrace

We ate here soon after we arrived at our villa like a pair of ravenous hounds. The food was simple but really yummy and satisfied our weary bodies immensely. They also do an all day happy hour meaning 2 for 1 cocktails ALL FRIGGIN’ DAY. You can’t say no to that, can you?

Finn’s Beach Club

We spent most of our last day here drinking cocktails and watching the sun set in to the ocean which was a perfect finish to our trip. Unfortunately there is an entrance fee (around £15 for the whole day) but our accommodation gave us free passes which meant we didn’t have to pay in. The club has pools, a gym, spa and multiple restaurants to eat in as well as being right in front of the famous Berawa surf break. The waves in front of the club are easy to learn in which is what Andrew did while I read by the pool drinking multiple margaritas!

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Warung Dandelion

This was an authentic Indonesian restaurant with the friendliest staff we encountered in Canggu. The restaurant is beautifully decorated and feels very romantic with candles flickering everywhere. The food is just as lovely, I inhaled my tuna which was cooked in a banana leaf in about 5 minutes! This restaurant is a good choice if you fancy somewhere with a relaxed atmosphere that serves excellent local food.

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Potato Head Beach Club

Andrew and I were recommended this place by his friend who has been to a Bali a few times and we went along for dinner one evening, not too sure what to expect. What we didn’t expect was a swanky beach club bar that blew our little tourist socks off. To be fair, the prices here are a little more than what we were used to but it is very cool and we loved the laid back atmosphere. We found a day bed pretty easily as it seems to be quieter in the evening and dined like royalty for the night. It was definitely one of the most expensive meals we had but we both thought it was worth it, especially the cocktails which were divine!

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Old Man’s

We just had a few drinks here after dinner at Warung Dandelion but this was still a fun place to check out for some dancing and people watching. It’s a popular haunt for the surfer’s who drop by here on their back from the waves so it has a very chilled out atmosphere, perfect if you fancy going somewhere in your flip flops and shorts!

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Where to Explore

We only had two full days in Canggu so we didn’t have an awful lot of time to explore. On our first day we had a late breakfast and had a nosy through the many many shops that are dotted on the main streets before spending a few hours down at Old Man’s Beach paddling in the waves and drinking some very tasty Bintang (when in Rome, eh?).

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In the evening we were hoping to catch the sunset at Tanah Lot temple but we hadn’t anticipated the sun setting so early and so we actually managed to just miss it! I was a little gutted that we missed the opportunity for photographs but the sky was still a dusty pink and we were able to take a few just before the sky darkened. The temple is Hindu and is perched on a rock that becomes an island when the tide rolls in. It is definitely worth a visit if you want to see a temple that is hundreds of years old, much older than the hundreds of temples that are lived in by families throughout Bali. There are also markets on the path to the temple so it’s very handy for picking up a few souvenirs if you’re visiting towards the end of your trip!

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What I loved most about that evening was the drive there on the back of the moped with Andrew driving. As the sun was going down the colours around us seemed to deepen with the rice paddy fields turning this vibrant green. The air was warm and I just remember smiling and telling myself to never forget that feeling. I have a few videos from that drive which I will re-watch forever!

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The following day we took the moped down to Uluwatu which was a little more of a trek than we had realised. The traffic in this part of Bali is crazy and it took us a good two hours to get from Canggu to Nyang Nyang beach which was only about 20 miles away. What I would definitely advise if you’re renting a moped in this area is to invest in a mouth mask because the fumes are difficult to breathe and my lungs were impacted from not having one – rookie error!

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We also had a little scare when we thought Andrew’s wallet had been stolen from our bag which I had been wearing on the back of the moped. Luckily for us, Andrew was just having a senior moment and had forgotten that it was actually in his pocket (this was after he nearly had a meltdown as we were buying litres of water for the beach) but it served as a lesson because it’s very easy to get pick-pocketed on a moped. We were also sure to keep our hands close to us while we were trying to work Google maps on our phones because it’s so easy for someone to just take it out of your hand and scoot off!

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Despite the few hiccups, Nyang Nyang beach made it all worth it. There are no signs so you will have to use your phone and there’s also a fair climb down the cliff to get to the beach but the views are so beautiful you can stop as much as you want. There are people selling water and snacks along the walk but we brought our own because we’re stingy and were terrified there wouldn’t be enough snacks.

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When we reached the bottom we were greeted by a herd of cows who were taking a break from the sun under the trees like they too were on their holiday. The beach itself was practically empty and we found a spot to relax and take in the turquoise waters. We spent a few hours here, bringing the sensation back to our asses (mopeds are not kind to the derrière) and going back and forth from the water.

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There just so happens to be a boat wreck at Nyang Nyang beach which just so happens to be covered in colourful graffiti which had absolutely no reason for my decision to bring Andrew there at all. Promise. But since we were there I thought we might as well have an impromptu photoshoot where I skipped about like a so-called model and had no shame in posing since there wasn’t a soul to judge me (apart from Andrew which he definitely did but he took the photos anyway – what a guy).

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Not an ounce of shame there – spot the bikini line?!

After the photoshoot we started the climb back up the cliff, taking plenty of stops because we were sweating buckets, and then hopped painfully back on the moped to make our way to Uluwatu Temple. The temple is quite touristy and is famous for it’s beautiful sunsets so we tried to find areas that were a little quiet. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any English guides and we missed out on learning a bit about the temple but it was still beautiful to walk around and see the views from the cliffs.

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There are a few rascals about the temple that we encountered and actually watched thieve a pair of sunglasses right from a man’s head. The monkeys are fairly brazen so I wouldn’t recommend visiting the temple if you are a bit skittish. They didn’t bother us but we were careful not to wear anything on our head because we didn’t want to give them an opportunity!

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And that’s the guide for Canggu, with Uluwatu thrown in for good measure! I hope you can make use of the advice but all I can say is ENJOY EVERY MOMENT. Bali is a place with extraordinary landscapes and beautiful people that will make you glow from the happiest part of your belly.

Have fun!

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A Guide to the Midi-Pyrenees: Part Deux

A Guide to the Midi-Pyrenees: Part Deux

Waking up in an antique bed and opening the shutters to see a field of sunflowers is certainly one way to start your day on holiday. And that’s just the way every day started while Shannon and I were in France in July. Our aunt and uncle’s house almost felt like we were staying in a boutique hotel except we were able to eat our breakfast in our jammies (boiled eggs, peaches and croissants – yes please) and snooze in for as long as we wanted.

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Our second full day was going to be a long one; we planned to venture a bit further as far as Lagrasse, Minerve and then back through Carcassonne on the way home. With this in mind we set off early with a basket my aunt had prepared for us including picnic blankets, bread and some beer. All the essentials for an afternoon in the French countryside of course.

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I think those drives through the valleys and alongside fields of all kinds of colours were my favourite parts of the trip. Road trips are always the best way to see a country I remember thinking as we watched how the landscapes changed from vineyards to mountains to crumbling villages perched precariously on ancient hilltops.

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We reached Lagrasse just before the markets finished which were abundant with local crafts, cheeses, meats and sweet treats. I purchased a wrap and we bought some souvenirs for the folks at home before finding somewhere to hide from the midday heat.

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We managed to find a place hidden in one of the cobbled streets called Les Trois Grâces with a wee courtyard out the back that provided us with just the right amount of shade. I decided to go very healthy with a pasta and Shannon opted for a lamb tagine which we washed down with a carafe of wine like true Europeans.

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After filling our bellies we felt like a little snooze by the river and so off we went, with baskets in hand to the river flooding with locals having a swim on their lunch breaks. We dipped our toes in for a little while but found it just as relaxing on the river banks where we could read and have a few beers (just Shannon to be fair – I was the ever-responsible designated driver).

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Feeling suitably rejuvenated and realising the time, we packed up our little Aygo and typed Minerve in to our Google maps. We left Lagrasse and turned up towards a mountain with a perilous lane curling up it’s side overlooking the valley below. I drove the car up the lane, not daring to look to my right and hoping that Google maps knew where it was taking us. It turns out the app was drunk and we ended up on a dirt track with a dead end and in very real trouble. Our wee rental was in danger of being completely ruined as we drove at snail speed over the rocks praying that we didn’t get stuck in the middle of nowhere with no signal.

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With Shannon directing me we eventually made it out of the (quite literal) woods and back down the scariest lane in the land. Once back down to a safe height, we decided to forego the plan for Minerve in favour of living and headed towards Carcassonne which was on the way home.

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Carcassonne is one of the biggest cities in the Occitanie region but the main attraction is La Cité, a medieval fortress which looks over the modern city which has grown around it. The castle is a stunning piece of architecture that was saved from dereliction in the 19th century and became a UNESCO  World Heritage Site in 1997. The streets are a labyrinth of shops and restaurants, very easy to get lost in which is exactly the best way to explore the grounds.

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The fortress has two outer walls and the best place to escape the crowds is between these two walls. Here you will find a space to roam in peace, admire the architecture and get the best views across Carcassonne. Shannon and I were completely enchanted, imagining the stories and lives these walls must have seen over a thousand years.

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After we ate some pizza and managed to recover from our near-death experience (slightly dramatic but we are a dramatic pair), we decided it would be best to get home to our aunt and uncle’s where we would be safe from cliff roads and less likely to suffer a tragic fate. Turns out driving on the opposite side of the road is even harder in the dark and my knuckles we white gripping the wheel for fear of drifting in to the wrong side of the road!

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On our arrival home, we were given some delicious hot chocolate (made with the really good stuff) which we took outside to drink under the night sky, spying a few shooting stars to wish upon before heading to out long-awaited beds. It had been a long day!

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The following morning we decided to keep close to the house, only nipping out to grab some roast chicken from the local stall in Castelnaudary and then to the Sunday markets in Saint-Michel-de-Lanès. Here I got to see just how cheap French antiques can be and I had to hold myself back from purchasing a huge vintage suitcase which I am sure wouldn’t have made it to Ireland on a plane. Instead I settled for 4 beautiful carafes which I stole for an eye-watering 5 Euro and 2 pipes for a Euro each because I liked the idea that they had been cherished by someone for a long time.

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After a Sunday roast that was eaten mostly with our hands, we finished the day lying outside watched the sun go down over the sunflowers and showering golden light over everything around us. We ate our desserts on the grass, not wanting to move inside because it meant our last day was over. Eventually the chill forced us inside to get changed in to something warmer as we took a spin to the canal for a few drinks by the water, swapping stories until we couldn’t avoid sleep any longer.

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We were awoken the morning after by the sound of gentle rain on the terracotta roof. Our flight was in the early afternoon and we soaked up the morning in our beautiful bedroom, packing half-heartedly and sitting on the windowsill to watch the rain. With a touch of Autumn in the air, our uncle decided to light the stove in the sitting room and brought the dining table inside so we could eat breakfast by the fire. It was the sweetest gesture and cemented our decision to return to this beautiful hideaway next year. Although next time I ain’t drivin’!

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A Guide to the Midi-Pyrénées: Part Une

A Guide to the Midi-Pyrénées: Part Une

Growing up as one of three girls meant that family trips were anything but calm. Someone would be breathing too loudly in the car, someone would be sitting too closely to someone else or a mass riot would ensue if a sister was seen wearing another sister’s dress/shoes/anything that wasn’t their own.

Nowadays we’re mature adults, you might find it hard to believe that I ever broke her nose when we were kids. Twice. But those turbulent times are over and now we are more than capable of surviving a short holiday together especially when that holiday involves eating our way through the villages of southern France and taking lots and lots of pretty photos.

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So with that confidence in mind, we decided to take a quick trip last month to stay with our aunt and uncle who have spent the last 10 years converting an old barn in to the most beautiful chateaux by the Pyrénées (trés middle class, I know). As they are fairly rural we decided to hire a car and after an hour long process (why do I always get the employee who has just started the job the day before?) we finally hopped in to our beautiful Toyota Aygo that just about fit us along with our carry-on bags.

The French drive on the right hand side of the road which made for an interesting journey to our uncle’s house. It took a few attempts to leave the airport (and Shannon couldn’t even bring herself to look out the window when we eventually joined the motorway) but we made it in one piece to Maison de Donnelly in the late afternoon. After we were hugged and my uncle commented on the rental (“that’s some wee yoke there” – typical Irish man review), we were shown around their humble abode which wasn’t so humble and moved me to real-life tears. They have managed to create a home that is warm and still so full of character, each room decorated with gorgeous French vintage market finds at prices that made me shed even more tears. I immediately promised myself that I will be a regular pest of theirs for as long as they would have me.

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My aunt Bronagh is an incredible cook and once we were settled, we sat at a table overlooking the sunflower fields (am I making you sick yet?). The food was glorious and the wine even more so. We sat chatting until Shannon and I could barely speak with tiredness and so with heavy heads, we retreated to our beautiful bedroom to sleep in our beautiful beds. Turns out we are still kids at heart and we fell asleep in the same bed, talking until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer. 

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On our first morning I trotted down to the village to get croissants for breakfast because that is what one does in France. We planned our route for the day over our crumbs and then set off for Fanjeaux, a little hilltop village with views for miles. The rain decided to show up for the first hour or two but I was ferocious in my cheeriness that the rain would soon clear off. I’m one of those travellers that vehemently believes that rain should never dampen sprits but really all that it does is convince my fellow traveller that I’m a bit mental (picture me in the pouring rain with a manic smile screaming “WE ARE HAVING FUN, AREN’T WE?!).

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Fanjeaux is an old Cathar town with crumbling medieval walls surrounding the Dominican chapel. It was beautiful despite the drizzle with plenty of cobbled streets to get lost in (or do circles like we did). It was so quiet and felt a little eerie in places because we hardly saw a soul save for a few damp tourists. We didn’t stay too long as we didn’t have an umbrella but it’s a place I would love to go back to on a clear day.

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Luckily for everyone the skies cleared as we were headed to Limoux and as the clouds parted we could spy the Pyrénées in the distance. The valley between Fanjeaux and Limoux is covered in vineyards which makes it a little difficult to be the chief/only driver. The area is famous for a sparkling wine called Blanquette which is sold by the vineyards alongside the road or in all the local shops. If Shannon had have been driving I would have been making a pitstop at every vineyard but being the ever-responsible big sister I stuck to caffeine and saved the wine-tasting to the evenings when I could guzzle guilt-free back at the barn.

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As we approached Limoux we could see that it didn’t quite have the same charm as Fanjeaux. It was a little busier and there were plenty of roadworks which don’t really scream rustic tranquility. However there is a lovely square there which was perfect for soaking up the delayed sun rays and drinking the first coffee I have ever actually enjoyed. After years of trying to like coffee (and failing), it seems all it took was a mocha in Limoux to win me over. I feel more grown up than ever now.

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After a charcuterie feast which was mainly eaten by moi, Shannon and I dawdled back to our car crossing over a very pretty bridge with fantastic views across the river. On our way we dodged a few lengthy gazes from French men who we soon discovered were unashamedly comfortable with staring. Oh how different they are to the typical Irish fella who would look anywhere but the woman he is interested in for fear of coming on too strong…

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Back in the wee Aygo we made our way to Mirepoix with a quick stop off in Luc-sur-Aude. Oh my, this drive was so spectacular. Trees seem to line the entrance of every town in the Languedoc but this road was truly special. Mountains seemed to appear out of nowhere with sheer cliffs towering over the winding roads. Shannon and I had our noses to the windshield as we gazed upwards in awe, not speaking save for tutting to ourselves like old women.

We pulled in to Luc-sur-Aude to give our necks a break and again were so surprised at how quiet the little village was. We walked through the streets wondering where the people were or if there was some apocalypse we hadn’t heard about as we ascended up a hill to check out the view. There were vineyards for miles surrounded by mountains and despite my attempt at taking a photo of the view, I couldn’t do it justice.

 

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The late afternoon sun was burning above us as we headed up the mountains towards the fairytale town of Mirepoix. Our ears popped as we snaked up the hills and we pulled over to drink in even more beautiful views. The roads were so quiet and when we sat overlooking the valleys below all we could hear were the cicadas buzzing in the heat. 

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We got to Mirepoix in the evening and as we hopped out of our car and walked towards the main square, we looked at each other with immediate glee, silently agreeing that we had definitely saved the best place to last. The town looked like something straight out of a Disney movie set and I half expected people to burst in to song at any moment. Shannon and I grew up on these movies and you can imagine how giddy we were to see such a place in real life. We strolled through the market stalls and circled the old town walls before picking a spot in the square where we could soak all of the colours in. We sat with the golden light on our faces, barely speaking a word but feeling incredibly content with ourselves.

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Drunk on the day we just had, we headed back to the barn for another feast until the sky. Desperate not to finish the day just yet, we dandered down to the village to watch the locals play bowls (or boules if you want to get technical) and drank coffee while the stars came out. Finally shattered, we fell in to our beds, thoroughly satisfied that sisters really do make the best travelling companion. Even if their driving might terrify us.

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Stay tuned for another French post coming soon…

A Weekender’s Guide to London

A Weekender’s Guide to London

Just over a month ago, Andrew and I scooted over to London for a long weekend to celebrate his 29th birthday. He had been feeling a little wary about marking the occasion since he was starting to mourn his twenties like he was already an elderly man but I left him little choice!

We had both been to London a few times before but not as a couple so it was lovely to explore new parts of the city together. There is such an amazing energy in London, an atmosphere that picks you up and runs with you. Through streets heaving with the stories of millions. A few people were surprised at us deciding to visit after the horror the city has experienced in recent months but it’s resilience and the spirit of the people there is palpable. Fear just isn’t an option.

Our afternoons were spent lazily strolling from one park to another (with plenty of coffee and cocktails thrown in to save our wee hooves) and evenings were for catching up with old pals. Getting around London is so easy and now you can just swipe your debit card in the Underground cutting out all the hassle of getting train tickets and Oyster cards. We flew in to Gatwick Airport and just hopped on the Southern Rail to London Victoria for a standard rail price. Quick tip: don’t get the Gatwick Express because it’s £15 more expensive and is only 5 minutes faster.

We discovered lots of new places on this trip so I thought I would share a few that really stood out for us. London is huge but we packed in a lot without feeling like we were rushing around. We also got really lucky with the weather so we tried to stay outside as much as possible, avoiding most of the museums I would normally visit on a cloudy day. Of course there is so much to do but this was a great itinerary for a sunny weekend. Feel free to pick and choose a few things from it and I hope you have just as good a time as we did!

Where We Stayed

London accommodation can be super expensive so to save a little cash we stayed with Andrew’s friend our first night. As much of a life saver it can be to have a friend in the big smoke, it’s not hugely romantic so we checked in to the Grange Hotel at St Paul’s on the Saturday (a surprise birthday present for Andrew!). It was such a treat to stay somewhere a little swanky and they even had some wine and cupcakes left out as a birthday gift – so thoughtful!

 

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The room was super cosy to come back to and the bed was almost too good to leave in the mornings. The breakfast made it all worthwhile – there was so much variety you could take hours over breakfast if you wanted! We loved being able to come back to such luxury after a day exploring on our feet and we headed straight for the spa in our dressing gowns to soak our weary bones. I would definitely recommend this place if you can book it. Weekends tend to be cheaper because there’s less business-folk around so make sure to look out for deals then!

Where We Ventured

Friday

We landed in the morning so after leaving our bags off we went searching for some late breakfast. We tried to get in to The Breakfast Club in Soho but the line was ridiculous so we dandered off to Carnaby Market instead for a huge diner-style brekkie.

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After eating and strolling through the decorated alleyways, we walked towards the Natural History Museum. I’ve been to the museum before but Andrew hadn’t so I knew it couldn’t be missed. It’s easy to spend a whole day in there (especially if you have kids) but because the weather was so good we didn’t want to stay inside for too long.

 

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When we had managed to see both the life-size T-Rex and the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition we reemerged in to the sun and made our way to Hyde Park. Visiting parks is my favourite thing to do in a new city because even tourists can blend in as locals. Bodies were lazily strewn across the grass basking in the afternoon heat and we found the perfect spot to have a nap.

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Feeling energised after our siesta, we headed towards Notting Hill via Kensington Palace. The street behind Will and Kate’s gaff has some of the most amazing mansions I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t help but peak through the fences or over the walls to catch a glimpse of how the other half live (pretty well apparently). It was a fair walk from the Palace to Notting Hill but watching the buildings change from ordinary brick to candy-floss heaven made me glad that we were on foot.

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We kept going towards Portobello Road to check out the market and refuel i.e. welcome in happy hour. I also made sure to check out St. Luke’s Mews which is just parallel to the markets and an absolute Insta delight. You will recognise the buildings I’m sure since every London Instagrammer worth their salt has snapped the houses before and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re a fan of super delicious houses!

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Saturday

On Saturday we were in a mad rush to meet my cousin and her new fiancé for brunch in Hoxton which wasn’t easy since we were coming from Clapham Junction and the heat was already melting us. We managed to just be a half hour late (sorry Camille!) and then wandered around the Hoxton Markets towards Brick Lane.

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I loved Brick Lane despite the fact it’s revered as a hipster haven. There is such a great energy around and the vintage shops were incredible if a little overwhelming (I’m not used to such high-end vintage delights!). There is music filling every alleyway as well as the smell of food from all of the carts dotting every corner. After exploring the area and sinking back a much needed Pimm’s we headed towards Spitalfields Markets. I honestly could spend a weekend just exploring London’s markets and come home a happy woman!

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We had one last pitstop before heading back to the hotel which was Dunstan-in-the-East, one of my favourite spots of the trip. It’s a bombed out church found amongst skyscrapers that has been reinvented as an urban garden, providing a sanctuary for those looking to escape the hustle outside it’s walls. If I lived in London I could be found here often I think.

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Sunday

We were feeling a little dusty after our night out on Saturday (home at 4am!) so were a little slower to start. We managed to peel ourselves away from our cloud of a bed and headed towards the Sherlock Holmes’ Museum around lunchtime. Now, I freely admit that the museum is an absolute tourist trap and the admission at £15 is a little steep but there is such attention to detail here I couldn’t help but feel impressed.

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After exploring Sherlock’s house we escaped to Regent’s Park to rest our hangovers and find shade from the heat. We walked over the bridge and past the pedalos towards St. John’s Lodge Gardens, a secret haven within the park that is without the crowds of a sunny day. We made daisy chains and waited until we felt ready for a little more walking.

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Feeling a little bit more alive we hopped on a quick journey on the tube towards Little Venice, a canal network that is found in a quiet leafy suburb that feels a million miles away from the city. There are canal boats here that are of different sizes and colours but all equally beautiful. It’s evident that many of them are used principally as homes with mini gardens on the roofs and flowers everywhere. I would imagine it would be stunning in the autumn when the leaves that hang over the boats turn bright orange before disappearing in to the river.

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Monday

Our last day was another scorcher which made it that bit harder to leave. We managed to score free tickets to St Paul’s cathedral from the hotel (win!) and hopped across the road for a quick tour. It was a lot bigger that I had thought and so beautiful, especially the ceilings which sparkled in the sunlight and made my neck ache from all the craning. Andrew was even brave enough to go to the very top of the dome while I waited outside like the wimp I am!

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We headed towards Covent Garden via the Thames to enjoy a little bit more of the cityscape before our flight. We strolled through the shops and listened to the classical music reverberating across the walls from a quartet in the basement and took a break from the heat in one of the cafés.

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Our last stop was Neal’s Yard, another Instagrammer’s delight despite it being so tiny. It’s gorgeous and I wished I could’ve stayed there the rest of the afternoon but alas we had a flight to catch. Next time, maybe.

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Where We Ate

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Boqueria, Brixton

My mouth filled up with water as I was writing this just remembering the suckling pig alone. It’s a tapas place with the best service we had throughout the trip and it made for a lovely birthday dinner for Andrew. I would definitely come back here the next time I’m in London.

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Monty’s Deli, Hoxton

This is a fairly new joint and very popular so be sure to book a table! We ate brunch here with my cousin (I had the scrambled eggs with lox – so good!) in one of the booths that made me feel like I was in New York even though I’ve never been to New York.

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Honest Burger, Liverpool Street

When we go on holiday we need to fit at least one burger meal in to keep old Andy happy and man was he happy after this burger. It was perfect, not a thing wrong with it but afterwards we were in the mood for something sweet and it turns out they don’t serve desserts!! WTF? Wouldn’t hold it against them though. Oh, and their cocktails are the bomb-diggity.

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Bill’s Cafe, Baker Street

We had brunch here on Sunday and I was so happy because it was the perfect Sunday brunch spot. The atmosphere was so welcoming and relaxing I could’ve stayed all afternoon. The menu was perfect and I wanted to go for everything on there (that could have been the hangover though) but settled on avocados with poached eggs on toast. Never a bad decision!

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Leong’s Legend, Chinatown

Our friends took us here on our last night and although Andrew wasn’t a huge fan, I adored the dumplings. I fell in love with dumplings when travelling in Australia (Chinatown in Adelaide specifically) and Leong’s reignited that long lost love. Next time I would just order a few different dumplings with rice since they were by far the best thing I ate there.

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Wahaca, St. Paul’s

I will never say no to a quesadilla especially the chicken club quesadilla at Wahaca! Holy Moses it is delicious and super filling too which makes it a fairly cheap lunch. We ate in the St. Paul’s branch which is in the One New Change building. If you go there for lunch you should definitely pop up to the rooftop terrace where you can get uninterrupted views of the city with St. Paul’s cathedral towering overhead. Just don’t go on a Friday evening because we heard there are queues from the ground floor which is a little much.

Where We Drank

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The Distillery, Portobello Road

The Distillery was a gin bar we stopped in to on our walk up Portobello Road which was beautiful on a sunny day. The interior is stunning however the drinks were on the more expensive side. Not a huge shock when you’re in London but my drink was tiny and for £8 I thought it was fairly steep. A nice spot for one drink though!

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Hope & Anchor, Brixton

We hopped across to this spot after our delicious meal in Boqueria. It has a great outdoors area out the back with beach huts perfect for a group of people on a summer’s afternoon. The beer garden closed at around 10pm though (we weren’t too sure why) and the bar turned in to a club then which was too much for us oldies so bear this in mind if you go during the evening.

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Boiler House Food Hall, Brick Lane

We didn’t eat here but had a drink out the back in the beer garden which was buzzing with people. I had a Pimm’s to get in the spirit of things and felt really wild drinking at 12pm. Beer gardens are the best on holiday especially when the sun is out so would definitely recommend this spot on a good day.

Translate, Shoreditch

No photo for this place since we were out with a group of friends and fairly well oiled but I had to include it for the music alone. It has the best cheesy 90’s music so if you’re not in to that sort of thing steer clear at the weekends! We loved it though and sang our wee lungs out in between sips of our cocktails.

 

And that is the round-up for London! I hope you can make use of some of the knowledge we picked up on our quick break and if you have any insider trips of you’re own, please feel free to share in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hot Pink Wellingtons
8 Ways I Prepare For A Trip

8 Ways I Prepare For A Trip

Andrew and I are in the midst of preparing ourselves for a week-long break to Croatia and I could not be more excited. We both need an escape so badly, especially one that delivers heat! We have been feeling incredibly restless within our jobs. Miserable actually. Getting up every morning to drive in to a job that doesn’t fulfil you and you get no enjoyment from is a draining process. Thankfully we have new jobs in the pipeline and we both start on the same day after we get back – sweet relief!

 

I also found my hospital admission to be pretty difficult and a bit of an isolating time, despite the fact I have been through this so many times. I was able to finish off IV antibiotics at home which was great because I was out of a ward that was full of elderly people making all kinds of noises from dusk until dawn, but it also meant that I was on my own throughout the day until Andrew got home. It was a stressful time for us both; me frustrated with myself for feeling tired and useless and Andrew worried about me. I’m feeling back to myself again and I look back on those 2 weeks as if there was a little black cloud over our house. It’s well gone now and Croatian blue skies are right ahead of us!

 

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We fly in to Split and plan to spend a couple of nights there before heading to the island of Hvar where we will base ourselves for day trips and island adventures. It will be a holiday filled with sunshine, the sea and not much else! Before we go though I always like to make sure to make a few lists to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything because I am notorious for being a scatter-brain (on our last overseas trip in January I left my wallet on the plane…with all my money in it…d’oh!).

 

If you’re heading away soon and you’re a fellow forgetter then you might want to have a lend of my list here and check a few things before you go…

 

  1. Clothes

OK so you obviously won’t be naked on your holiday (unless you are going on a very different kind of trip) so you need to plan ahead. A few days before I go, I like to plan every outfit for every day and make sure I can alternate different items across for different looks. This means you will bring less stuff which is essential if you’re only bringing carry on. You should try everything on to make sure it still fits which can be an emotional process. You will also need to make sure everything is clean too so it’s always best to leave time to get everything washed and dried!

 

Clothes I like you bring along to for a week in the sun are:

  • 3 x day dresses (all they need is heels for the evenings)
  • 1 x pair of shorts
  • 3 x tops
  • 1 x maxi dress (always)
  • 2 x bikinis
  • 1 x heels
  • 1 x comfortable flats
  • 1 x flip flops
  • 1 x wrap (great for the beach, sun lounger and picnics)
  • 1 x cardigan for the chilly nights
  • 1 x hat
  • 1 x handbag
  • 1 x beach bag
  • 1 x towel

And that is it! I do pack underwear but I’m sure I don’t have to list that although do make sure to pack a strapless bra in case you need one for your outfits!

 

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2. Toiletries

I only like to bring the absolute bare essentials with me and things that I know I can’t buy cheaply over there. My bare essentials tend to be:

  • Moisturiser
  • Few make-up items (concealer, mascara, eyeshadow, bronzer, blush, lip balm)
  • Cleansing wipes
  • Deodorant
  • Dry Shampoo
  • Nail Polish Remover (sand can really mess those little tootsies up)
  • Nail Polish
  • Shampoo & Conditioner
  • Toothpaste
  • SPF (face and body)
  • Hair Oil
  • Soap

We’re carrying on our luggage so I’ve bought wee containers for my suncream, shampoo, conditioner and nail polish remover. It’s good to get the liquids already separated out in to a clear plastic bag and leave it at the top of your case so it’s easily accessed when going through security.

 

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3. Do Your Research

Before I go anywhere I like to do plenty of research on the area I’m staying in; where to eat, where to drink, activities available to us. Of course there’s lots of room for spontaneity but I always like to have a back up plan in case we get lost or have no idea what to do. Before we went to Cuba I printed off restaurants, bars and excursions I had read about so we knew where to go and how to get there – our Spanish was so minimal that this saved us a lot of stress!

I like to search travel blogs because I enjoy reading a traveller’s perspective with honest accounts of where they recommend to go and places to avoid as well.  I like to check out Tripadvisor too for the top rated places to eat and drink for all price ranges so, depending on how much we want to spend on a particular day, we have lots of choices.

Another great tool is a Lonely Planet guidebook. I love these guides because I feel like a proper traveller flicking through the pages during breakfast on my holiday, dog-earing areas of interest. It’s nice to collect these guides as mementos from travels and displaying them on shelves at home.

 

4. Get Your Money Sorted

The whole EU debacle has meant that the sterling has dropped and we’ll be losing out on some money when we convert our cash to the Croatian kuna. It’s a pain but we try to avoid losing out on more by choosing the best credit card that won’t charge us a fortune when we use it abroad. To be completely honest this area is Andrew’s forte, I don’t own a credit card because a. it terrifies me and b. it terrifies me.

 

Make sure you know what your bank charges are when you use a card abroad and if they’re extortionate, think of getting a travel card from the Post Office. It allows you to transfer money across easily with an app, there are no charges and you can withdraw using an ATM. The only thing is that there are only 8 currencies available so it means we can’t use it in Croatia.

 

5. Medication

Having CF can be really inconvenient sometimes, especially when I’m travelling! I’m lucky that I keep quite well so I don’t have to take a lot of medication with me but I do usually have to pre-empt and order some extras in case of emergencies. Fortunately for me nebulisers are small and easy to transport these days, the old ones would have been a nightmare to travel with!

 

I know most normal people don’t need to take as much on holiday as I do but it’s important to plan ahead – there is nothing worse than trying to sign out with your hands that you have diarrhoea in a foreign pharmacy crowded with people. Nothing.

 

A few things I pack as well as my own prescribed medication include:

  • Painkillers
  • Ibuprofen
  • Rennie’s (or any other heartburn remedy)
  • Imodium
  • Dioralyte (especially if you’re going to a hot country!)
  • Anti-histamines
  • Anti-histamine cream (the only thing that helped my mosquito bites)
  • Plasters

 

6. Insurance

Boring I know but so important because I’ve heard too many horror stories to wing it. Health insurance is obviously an important one for me but everyone should have it no matter how long they’re away for. At the very least and if you’re travelling through Europe, make sure and apply for the European Health Insurance Card. The free card enables you to receive medical treatment on the same basis as residents of the country you’re in including treatment for pre-existing medical conditions and pregnant women – #win. The UK leaving the EU has led to questions about the validity of these cards however the NHS is still distributing them and they will work until we are told otherwise.

 

7. Prepare Your House

This is also a boring one but it feels so wonderful to come home to a clean house that doesn’t reek to the heavens of stale milk and damp! A few things to remember when you’re heading away are:

  • Chuck out anything that will go out of date in your fridge and cupboards
  • Water all your indoor plants and herbs and place them outside where they might get some rain
  • Put some fresh sheets on your bed (not necessary but feels great after a long journey home)
  • Wash and put away all dishes
  • General tidy up

You will say a massive thank you to yourself when you come home and can just rest your weary bones in fresh sheets!

 

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8. Save room!

Last but not least try and make room for little souvenirs you might pick up on your travels because you will kick yourself for bringing those extra pair of heels instead of making space for those handmade gems. Oh and make sure to bring a wee notebook for a diary too – sometimes better than photos when recalling a holiday!

 

At the moment I am frantically trying to follow my own advice and get everything ready for tomorrow! Can’t wait to post a guide to this amazing country and give you some great tips!

 

Take care!

What Life in Australia Taught Me

What Life in Australia Taught Me

I lived and travelled through Australia for over 2 years after I graduated from university and there are times when it feels like my life there was all a dream. My memories are of days spent under the hot WA sun, swimming in the ocean chasing turtles and waves and not having a care in the world.  No shock that these memories tend to intensify on a rainy Tuesday morning in February while sitting at my office desk trying to warm up against the radiator – Irish problems.

 

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Driving Through a Hailstorm in the Southwest WA

 

The majority of my time in Australia was spent in Exmouth, a small town found on a peninsula about half way up the WA coast. The town’s population is about 2500 people, many of whom are from other parts of Australia or far flung corners of the world. It’s a special place that has managed to stay under the radar of most travellers because of how isolated it is (it’s an 11 hour drive north of Perth and the nearest town is nearly 4 hours away) but those who do stumble upon this little gem amongst the desert rarely leave. My life was simple during this time; my biggest worry was what I would do on my days off – camp, snorkel, fish, surf, sunbathe.

 

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Sauntering Between Dunes in Exmouth, WA

 

Exmouth will always have a place in my heart and I suppose I do look back with rose-tinted glasses because why would I have decided to leave? The truth is I surprised myself with how much of a home bird I actually was. I have always been a traveller (Croatia will be country #29 next month!) and I’m used to moving from place to place. But after a while I realised that although I love exploring new places, I craved the feeling of soft fluffy grass under my feet and the smell of rain.

 

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Looking Across The Blue Mountains, NSW

 

Australia wasn’t to be my forever home but it did change me forever. I came away with a different perspective on life and knowing the importance of doing what makes me happy. I’ve listed a few things that I learned during my time in the red dirt and how everyone should get off the beaten track and enjoy this amazing country at some point in their lives.

 

Lesson 1 – How Much I Love The Ocean

 

I was born in Armagh, a ‘city’ (the population is only 15,000 but because there are two cathedrals this somehow warrants a promotion) found in the middle of Northern Ireland and about an hours drive from the coast. My childhood memories of beach days were typical Irish seaside holidays; a handful of days each year spent between wind shelters (to protect us from a torrent of sand grains), eating crisp sandwiches (usually containing sand) and, if we were feeling extremely brave, running in and out of the Atlantic screaming with a mixture of sheer delight and horror.

 

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Green Pools, WA

 

I never thought of myself as an ocean lover because I had never really experienced the magic it had to offer. That was until I lived in Exmouth and had the world’s longest fringing reef right on my doorstep. My love affair began after swimming with whalesharks on a day off from work. Exmouth is lucky enough to host these gentle giants in their winter months and I’ve swam alongside them several times. Each time felt more special than the last and even though they can be intimidatingly large when they get close, they’re completely harmless to humans. Watching them glide through the water instilled such a peacefulness within me that it felt akin to a religious epiphany. I was in love with the ocean from then on.

 

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Swimming With a Gentle Giant, Exmouth, WA

 

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Turquoise Bay, Exmouth, WA

 

My love affair with the ocean and I learned to surf (poorly), got dunked a thousand times and lost my temper until I finally stood up and nearly passed out with happiness. I snorkelled above corals of all colours following a lonely turtle or spotting a reef shark nervously out of the corner of my eye. I saw two manta rays performing the most intimate and graceful of dances. I swam close to a humpback whale and her calf, hearing her calls to make sure her baby didn’t stray too far. I caught my first fish!

 

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Baby Humpy Says Hello, Exmouth, WA

 

All of these things impacted me profoundly and since coming home I know how important it is that I base myself as close to the ocean as possible. I walk along the beach barefoot at Helen’s Bay and look out towards the Irish Sea and, even though I don’t see any humpies breaching out of the water, I feel happy and calm.

 

Lesson 2 – I’m a Small Town Girl

 

Growing up in a smallish town was at times a frustrating experience. Everyone knew you who you were and your business so gossip was rife, especially in all girl Catholic school! When I moved to Exmouth I quickly spotted the similarities; seeing the same faces every day, getting to know who was breaking up with who and who was pregnant. It wasn’t long before I was the subject of a rumour myself which I found out at a trip to the Newsagents:

Newsagent: Oh Alex, you’re really starting to show!!

Me: Em… Do you think I’m pregnant? *sucking in as I say this and thinking I am never having pasta for lunch again*

Newsagent: *colour drains from face*

 

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At Least the Crabs Don’t Gossip

 

While rumours might not always be fun (and might make you drastically change your dietary choices), being welcomed in to a community when you’re far away from your own home can be incredibly comforting. I worked at the Council in Exmouth (i.e. Shire of Exmouth – sounds like a town of hobbits I know) and I got to know so many different locals. I realised that I actually love smaller towns, especially when I’m new, because you can create a little family of your own.

 

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Mr. Koala on the Great Ocean Road, Victoria

 

Now that I’m home, I live in Belfast and that sense of community isn’t quite as strong. However I am a 5 minute drive from Holywood which has a lovely small-town vibe with a local butchery, florist and health food shop. I always end up striking up conversations with people and feel just like a local again.

 

Lesson 3 – I Need Girlfriends

 

I have had the same group of girlfriends since I was 13. We were, and still are, a fiercely tight knit group and so when I lived away I desperately missed them. I’m a slightly neurotic person and need girls in my life that I can talk about my fears and passions with, run free with and dance my little hooves off with.

 

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The Girls

 

In Exmouth, bonds can be quick to form and friendships are intense, as is this case with most travellers. I met an incredible bunch of girls there who I will always be in touch with because they helped me through tough times when I felt a million miles away from home. There was Holly, the Kiwi who made me laugh every day and was always there to feed me junk food; Mia, who mothered me and gave me unapologetic advice when I needed it most; Alice & Vasia, the earthy ones who I practiced yoga and how to drink a beer while riding a bike with; Cat, the ocean girl who helped teach me the wonders of the ocean; Kirby who taught me so much about being kind; and Jo Lee, the wild and fierce musician who serenaded me on nights I didn’t want to end.

 

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Holly Making Me Laugh As Always

 

Every girl needs another girl that will let her know how much she can shine, that whatever decision she decides to make, they will always be there to back her up. And to also tell her that she’s a maniac when necessary.

 

Lesson 4 – Always Keep a Travel Diary

 

Before I settled in Exmouth I travelled along the east coast and south west and learned how Australia was a country of contrasts. I drove through vineyards between Adelaide and Melbourne; I saw how the eucalyptus trees gave the Blue Mountains their name in NSW; I saw the tropical rainforests of Queensland; I saw a rainbow rising over Uluru.

 

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Beautiful Uluru, NT

 

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Sadly I Was Too Busy Looking At The Rainbow & This Is The Only Photo I Have

 

Although all of these sites have been etched in my brain forever, I really regret not documenting little details down and funny stories from my different road trips. Since I have been home I now keep diaries of all my new adventures no matter the destination. There’s nothing like recalling a memory that you had completely forgotten about and either recoiling with the embarrassment or beaming with happiness that you experienced it.

 

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Sydney Harbour Bridge on New Years Eve

 

Lesson 5 – Everyone Has To Backpack Through A Country At Least Once

 

I know it’s easier to backpack after or before university, before life gets serious and you join the ladder along with your peers. The thing is, getting away for weeks or months to explore a country doesn’t have to be so difficult. Or expensive.

 

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Great Ocean Road, Victoria

 

Australia was a great country to explore because it wasn’t entirely intimidating; it was English speaking, easy to get a work visa to fund the trip and well connected. I think it was the best way to see the country because it’s just so massive and to really visit and explore all these amazing places, a few weeks just isn’t enough. However I would recommend backpacking to anyone and everyone no matter what stage of their lives they are at because it doesn’t mean you have to go away for months and months.

 

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Wave Rock, WA

 

Smaller countries can be explored with a backpack in just a few weeks. I went to Cuba and explored the island (which was surprisingly much bigger than I expected!) in just over 2 weeks. Flights were only £420 return from Dublin and I spent around £800 on everything else – a bargain! However it was Australia that introduced me to my love of backpacking and for that I will always be grateful.

 

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Canberra, ACT

 

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Pit Stop On Our Way To Uluru

 

A little piece of me will always call Australia home because it taught me a great deal and introduced me to people who, even two years later, I still call family.

 

 

A Cuban Adventure Part 4 – Remedios

A Cuban Adventure Part 4 – Remedios

We got another taxi from Trinidad to Remedios; this seemed to be our preferred method of travel because the costs were pretty low and it meant we had more freedom to stop when we wanted to. Unfortunately our taxi driver couldn’t understand us any English and it was the first and only time in Cuba I doubted whether we were completely safe to travel on our own. The driver was VERY serious and blasted salsa music for 6 hours straight and by the time we reached Remedios we were on the verge of insanity!

 

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We had booked to stay in Hostal Buen Viaje after seeing some great reviews online before our trip. The hosts were Lester and Naty who were so accommodating that I felt like I was home. The room was airy which was great because we felt the heat up on the north part of the island a bit more. We also felt the mosquitoes too so I would recommend a net when you’re visiting these parts! I was running about like a mad woman one night trying to find the buzzing culprits.

 

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The Casa had the most beautiful courtyard where ate our breakfasts and dinner. Our hosts even placed a little St. Patrick butter knife out for us which had been a gift from their Irish friends – such a thoughtful touch! The food was amazing too. Naty cooked a local fish (I stupidly didn’t write it down) which we both devoured and Andrew isn’t even a big fan of seafood.

 

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Remedios also provided the best sunsets we saw in our entire trip. On our first time we were sitting in the town square drinking wine and the sky was the colour of electricity. A storm was brewing within the clouds the sun was setting in which produced the most intense orange colours. No photo would ever be able to do it justice.

 

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We only had one full day in Remedios which we spent on Cayo Santa Maria, a key which is just off the mainland and connected by bridge. When we were dropped off, we had to walk about 700m through mangroves which felt like a hike in the midday heat. However when we arrived on to the beach and saw the water we were awestruck. This was by far this most idyllic out of all the beaches we visited mainly because there was barely a soul there.

 

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There was little huts to sit under out of the sun although I never wanted to leave the water. It was shallow enough to just sit and watch the dark storm clouds gather in the distance. A hotel was located up the beach so we could grab drinks when we needed to because there was nothing else bar the huts. A full day in the heat began to take its toll on us after a few hours and we started to make our way back to the hut to meet our driver. Through the mangroves an Italian couple were startled by a snake and had stopped in their tracks. We felt so knowledgeable when we told them that there were no poisonous snakes in Cuba – a wee tip our guide Eddie had told us in Trinidad!

 

I wish we had have been able to stay longer in Remedios, especially at our Casa because it felt like a retreat after all our travelling. If we ever come back to Cuba I know we would definitely make sure to return to see Lester and Naty.

A Cuban Adventure Part 2 – Viñales

A Cuban Adventure Part 2 – Viñales

We planned on getting a bus from Havana to Viñales but realised too late that you had to pre-book (small piece of advice!). We managed to find a taxi driver that could take us all the way for $80 and for the convenience of having a car all to ourselves we were sold. The driver was an English lecturer and we had a great chat with him during the 3 hour journey through Piñar del Rio.

 

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It amazed me how the car managed to make it up the hills as we began to rise over the mountains. The roads were incredibly twisty which wasn’t doing Andrew or his car sickness any favours. The views were breathtaking, deep lush valleys and horse and carts carrying the produce. We arrived in to the town which is basically one street and fell in love with the place. We had booked to stay at Casa Nolo which was a bright pink house on the edge of the town and cost $25 per room per night. We sat outside waiting for our hostess Vana, watching the hens run about loose and local girls doing each other’s hair on the porches.

 

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Vana arrived and was the loveliest ball of energy. We were staying on the top floor which was so spacious and we had a massive terrace all to ourselves. The bathroom shower was a bit unique in it’s plumbing and electrics but we didn’t get any shocks so can’t complain too much. We had dinner on the roof which was a complete feast – soup followed by lobster with salad and homemade crisps and only $10.

 

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The next day we had booked a horse trek through the valley and tobacco fields. We met our guide Lazaro in the morning and he looked at our attire and shook his head. We stupidly hadn’t brought long trousers and he told us in broken Spanish that we would suffer for it later. We also met another couple who would be joining us – Walter and Innes both from Belgium. Innes was fluent in Spanish and proved an absolute lifesaver in translating Lazaro’s mumbles and the guide at the tobacco farm.

 

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Andrew had never ridden a horse before and I highly doubt I will ever see him on one again. When we met our horses there was this beautiful big black horse called Negreto and another smaller brown one called Dancer. Common sense made me assume I would be getting the smaller one but it turned out Lazaro had a great sense of humour and saw an opportunity. Andrew was assigned to Dancer and he quickly realised the reason for his name. Dancer didn’t trot like a normal horse but danced about the trek throwing Andrew every which way causing him to howl with pain when we burst in to a canter. We all laughed an awful lot, Lazaro included. Andrew was less impressed!

 

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Being able to see the valley while riding a horse was incredible. Looking up to see dramatic cliff faces and lush green crops against the red earth was something I will never forget. The tour of the tobacco farm was great and the guides were so knowledgeable about the land. We felt extremely cool lighting up the cigars they had just rolled for us and because they had dipped them in honey, they actually tasted really good.

 

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After the tobacco farms we were brought to a natural pool hidden in a cave. I think they oversold this place a tad because when we got there it was actually a dark pond with murky brown water. They had the cheek to ask us for an extra $2 to get entry but luckily Innes was able to tell them where to go in Spanish. The walk through the cave was a health and safety nightmare with a few random torches. We braved the water although I wasn’t sure what the hell was swimming beneath me! I would recommend asking to see photos of these ‘natural pools’ before you visit them!

 

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We a fantastic steak at El Olivo this night followed by several Ron Collins. We sat on the terrace sharing a cigar and thought we were the bees knees. Cue an embarrassing conversation with our hostess when we got back with Andrew repeating ‘Me llamo Andrew’ – cringe!

 

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The following day was one of Andrew’s favourite trips of the holiday. We had booked an old Chevy to take us to Cayo Jutias, a beach on the coast about an hour and half away, with our new friends Innes and Walter. The car didn’t travel above 30mph the whole journey although it was hard to tell because the speedometer didn’t work. It didn’t matter because the drive was so beautiful.

 

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What we didn’t expect was how stunning Cayo Jutias would be. The sand was white, the sea was the most amazing blue and there was a beach hut nearby ready to supply us with food and some cocktails – absolute heaven!! We were told that this was a great place to snorkel however this isn’t all that true. The water is crystal clear but the sea grass didn’t offer a wide variety of marine life and we gave up after about 20 minutes. There were some terrific walks along the beach though and we didn’t have to go far to have the beach all to ourselves. It was such a wonderful day.

 

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On the way back we ran in to a thunderstorm which proved how old the Chevy was. Andrew’s passnger window only went up half way and the driver had to cover the rest with a plastic bag. This didn’t work too well and it wasn’t long before Andrew was ankle deep in rainwater. The sound of the thunder and the intensity of the rain was such a sight though we loved every second.

 

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Despite us lathering ourselves in suncream we still got burned. Andrew’s feet were practically purple and only added to the injuries he had accumulated on the horse trek the day before. Note: bring plenty suncream with high SPF and effective aftersun!

 

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Our last night was spent with on the terrace watching the sun set and eating more of Vana’s great food. The conversation was starting to dry up with the Belgians and we were finding ourselves in the holiday predicament of being stuck with another couple. Unfortunately we we were spending the next day with them in a car travelling to Trinidad so we had to be as polite as we could!

 

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A Cuban Adventure Part 1: Havana

A Cuban Adventure Part 1: Havana

We flew in to Havana at night with lightning illuminating the clouds around us, letting us know we had officially entered the tropics. Usually I’m not a fan of arriving in a new place at night because it’s a time you might see it’s dirtier dodgier side but driving through Havana at night was a great introduction to the city. There was such an energy about it and these beautiful buildings were lit up on the corners of palm tree-lined cobbled streets – amazing!

 

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We were staying at Casa Pedro-Maria in Habana Vieja (Old Havana) which was absolutely stunning. It was one of the most expensive places we stayed but we had decided we wanted to land somewhere comfortable that wouldn’t overwhelm us – it was $80 per room per night. There was a spiral staircase in the courtyard where we had our breakfasts that brought you to the rooftop of the Casa. Here you could sip on your breakfast smoothie with a view of the Revolution Museum and the surrounding terracotta roofs- not a bad start to the day!

 

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On our first day we took a bus tour through the city although we didn’t get much use out of the guide – the speakers weren’t working so we couldn’t hear a thing from upstairs. It was only $2 for the tour though and it was a great way to find our bearings and get our first taste of the Caribbean sun. Think we drank about 2L of water on the bus tour alone because it was so hot!

 

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We went straight to the San José markets after to purchase the obligatory Cuban military cap for Andrew to protect his head. This is a good place to pick up some souvenirs for home but I found it to be the most commercial part of Cuba. I preferred picking up little things across the whole trip like cigars from the tobacco fields (although I didn’t buy enough!).

 

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We were coaxed in to the La Familia restaurant on our first night which was a very lovely paladar on a terrace. It was a bit on the pricey side for Cuba – I think the whole meal cost about $20 but the live music was fantastic and the portions were massive. With full bellies we strolled to O’Reilly 304 – how typical of the Irish to be drawn to a bar with an Irish name. This bar was very very cool, it felt like we were in a major metropolitan city and they served the most delicious cocktails. It was a great place to meet people too and get tips on where to find great places to carry on the night.
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The following day it was raining which was a nice relief from the scorching sun and allowed for us to escape inside to the Revolution Museum. The building used to be the Presidential Palace and you can view the original office and the escape route Batista took when he fled the rebels in 1957. The scars from the bullets can be seen dotted around the Museum as a physical reminder of the the building’s past.

 

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The dilapidated museum was impressive although we should’ve taken an English tour because some of the notices weren’t translated. It’s definitely a worthwhile visit and to have the opportunity to be in the rooms where Cuba was reformed by Castro and Guevara was pretty special.

 

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After the museum we took a walking tour of Habana Vieja courtesy of the Lonely Planet guide we borrowed from the Casa and explored the many many plazas. The buildings are so beautiful and look completely battered by the salty sea air and years of neglect. Everyone seems to live on the streets, sitting on their doorsteps and balconies shouting out to one another and buying food from the mobile vendors. The buzz is incredible and welcoming although sometimes too welcoming. Another little tip: you will be harangued by jineteros trying to sell tickets to a “big festival” – it’s a massive con and you will hear it every day you’re in Havana.

 

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On our way back to the Casa we stumbled upon the Havana Club museum. Andrew’s staple booze at home is Havana Club rum with coke and lime so he was beyond excited about visiting this place. While we waited for the tour to start, we sat in the bar and had a few Cuba Libres and mojitos. There was a full salsa band playing and I felt I was very much in Cuba. I got pulled up by the band and learned how to salsa in dungarees, extremely embarrassing but very entertaining for Andrew. It was a fantastic tour although after all the cocktails my memory gets a bit hazy!

 

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That night we ate pizza in a little place close to our Casa (unfortunately I forget the name!). The tables were out on the cobbles and we ate the most delicious bruschetta. After the food and avoiding a few overly friendly cats at the table, we headed for La Floridita – the supposed birthplace of the Daiquiri. Hemingway is boasted as being a frequent customer to the bar and it seems insistent on clinging on to that era. The air is thick with cigar smoke when you enter and the band are crammed in to a tiny corner by the door. The whole bar looks like a set from a movie and it could be viewed as slightly cheesy but we loved it.

 

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After our last night in Havana we were destined for Viñales. We arrived back for one more night before our flight home and stayed with Casa Isel e Ilena. Isel was such a lovely woman and the private room had it’s own bathroom and balcony. It was a great chance to experience the loud streets of Habana Vieja one last time and we had the biggest breakfast with her at 4am before our flight home. We would definitely recommend staying with her however our limited Spanish meant we couldn’t understand most of what she said BUT she told the greatest stories with actions that made us laugh so much. She was the best host to give us a farewell from Cuba and it made it that bit harder to leave.

 

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See my other posts for stories from Viñales, Trinidad, Remedios and Varadero!