West Country wanderings

Dear readers,

Our most recent trip was one that we had been looking forward to for quite some time, and we had been planning it in one way or another ever since we arrived back from New Zealand. Partly because the West Country is by far my favourite area in England, and partly because Ms Lust was keen to explore more of that area after having visited Devon previously. So, in order to take Ms Lust to an area that she hadn’t seen yet, we settled on Cornwall and in particular the far southwest tip, an area that I had yet to venture into either. We found our accommodation on AirBnB (click here for a signing up discount) and immediately started planning surfing lessons, cream teas, beach visits, and all the other wonderful things that Cornwall is famous for.

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We had planned our trip for just after the school summer holidays, in the hope of avoiding the busiest periods while still catching some sunny, summer weather. For the most part we achieved the first of those goals, and there wasn’t really anywhere we went that was overwhelmingly busy. On the second point we were less fortunate, and the wind and rain that met us on the M6 (under an hour into our six hour journey) was destined to be the main feature of our holiday. Undeterred by the inclement weather (since when has a bit of rain ever managed to dampen an Englishman’s spirits?!) we drove on and before we knew it we had arrived in Painswick, a small village in the Cotswolds that I had earmarked for our lunch stop. We were running a little behind schedule and didn’t stop for too long, just enough for a drive around the village and a short walk around the village church and its famous yew trees. There are 99 yew trees throughout the church graveyard, each sponsored by a local inhabitant or business, and it is reported that any efforts to grow the 100th tree have all been unsuccessful. The village itself is a typical Cotswold village, with romantic stone houses and narrow lanes, yet close enough to the M5 to allow for a quick stop without too much hassle, definitely worth a visit if you are going past. Suitably refreshed, we got back on the road and began the next leg of our journey through the wind and rain, to our first destination in Cornwall, Newquay.

One of our absolute ‘must-do’s’ while we were in Cornwall was to visit one of the Fat Willy’s Surf Shack stores, to buy a replacement car sticker for my sister and for Ms Lust to see where her acquired hoodie had come from! As it is the original, we decided we would go to the store in Newquay and also have a quick tour of the town and beaches. With our shopping finished (Fat Willy’s t-shirts and Cornish pasties, diving straight into local culture!) and my pilgrimage to the Walkabout bar completed, we took the short walk down to Towan Beach to complete Ms Lust’s first Cornish experience. With it still not being particularly beach weather, we only stopped long enough for a quick paddle and a walk around the caves before deciding to head back to the car. I have to say that I was a little disappointed by Newquay, and it seems to have lost a lot of the charm that it had when I last visited. Maybe it was because of the miserable weather, or that I have remembered it in a better light that it actually was, but the town seems to be suffering from a distinct decline. Add to that the ever-present stag and hen parties that are attracted to Newquay’s ‘party-town’ reputation, and it no longer seems like such a great place to visit, for me anyway. In saying that, I’m sure I will return again next time we visit Cornwall, if only to visit my favourite surf shack!

On arriving back at the car we discovered that the surfing lesson we had booked for the following morning had been cancelled due to the weather, so it felt like an appropriate time to complete the last section of our journey to our accommodation so we could start planning what we would do instead. We stayed in Mount Hawke for the first three nights, a small sleepy village just a few miles from St Agnes. There really wasn’t anything to keep us in the village for anything other than eating, as we had found a nice restaurant just around the corner from our accommodation. The village was a good base location for exploring the area though, as it was not too far from the coast yet also within easy reach of the main road through Cornwall, the A30.

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We decided to start off by exploring the immediate area, and found a National Trust tin-mining site just 15 minutes away. With further research I also found out that the cafe there was famous for its ice creams dipped in clotted cream, and with that I was convinced! Although I had been to Cornwall four times previously, I had never been to the area known as the Tin Coast which is named for the old tin mine buildings that are found there. So with two excellent reasons to visit, we couldn’t say no and, after breakfast, we made the short journey to Chapel Porth beach. Again, it wasn’t really beach weather, so we began with a short walk up to the mining buildings of Wheal Coates, perched on the cliffs, in order to earn our ice creams. The walk was easy enough, although it became very windy when we reached the top of the cliffs, and we were soon rewarded with the well-preserved engine house to explore. Unlike some of the National Trust engine houses in the region, this one is not in a working condition, yet the building is fully intact albeit minus a roof. Further up the cliff were some more buildings that were obviously also part of the mining complex, however these were not in such good condition and the wind became too strong for us to linger too long. We retraced our steps back down the cliffs and to the cafe, where we eagerly ordered our reward, their famous ‘Hedgehog’ ice creams. This is a vanilla ice cream cone, with a dollop of clotted cream, and then rolled in roasted hazelnuts. I’m sure its calorie content requires a more strenuous walk to burn off, but we felt we deserved it anyway! With the weather improving, we decided to go onto the beach to enjoy our ice creams and for a bit more cave exploring. Almost every beach in this region has at least a few caves, which is what made it a haven for smugglers. We didn’t find any contraband, but that didn’t stop us checking every cave we came across, just in case!

Despite having just eaten a month’s worth of calories in one go, it was now lunch time, so we decided to go to St Ives to find more Cornish pasties. I’d never been to St Ives before, and I found absolutely nothing that would make me want to return. The town is built on the side of a steep hill, surrounding a typical Cornish harbour and its complement of fishing vessels. Seemingly the destination of every tour coach in the county, the place was overrun and incredibly crowded, and what was more worrying was that this seemed to be the norm. Undeterred, we set about battling our way through the crowds to find some pasties, which we then took down to the harbour to eat while enjoying the view. This was probably the biggest mistake we made during the entire trip, as anyone that has been to Cornwall will know, and we were barely halfway through our pasties when Ms Lust was attacked by one of the local seagulls. These are not your normal seagulls, they are huge and the abundance of unwary tourists with food has made them very intimidating and most definitely not shy! After fighting them off and finding a safer place to finish our lunch, we returned to the town to see what all the fuss is about. St Ives is a beautiful little town, yet there isn’t really anything that sets it apart from any of the other harbour towns in the area, they are all beautiful. Maybe it’s because of the poem, or because of the Tate gallery that has opened here, but for whatever reason St Ives has found fame and this is its biggest problem. As I said before, it is overcrowded with tourists, and as a result it has become very commercial in order to capitalise on its popularity, which has in turn destroyed much of its charm. Unless you are on a coach holiday and have no choice, I would definitely avoid St Ives in favour of some of the less famous towns such as Port Isaac or Boscastle. However our trip wasn’t all bad, and we managed to find a great place for a cream tea, much to my surprise! Due to the popularity of St Ives, I was expecting the cafes and tearooms to be geared towards quantity rather than quality. However we spotted that 57 Fore St was surprisingly quiet as we walked past, and decided to trust our instincts and give it a try and we were not disappointed. The place is a little quirky, and it almost feels like you’re walking through someone’s home, but the view of the harbour from upstairs is fantastic and the cream teas were delicious. If you do go to St Ives, definitely check this place out!

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It was then time to leave St Ives and we set off towards another popular tourist destination, Land’s End. The original plan had been to park at Sennen Cove and walk along the coast to Land’s End, but time and the weather forced us to alter this and to drive straight there. This was another place I had wanted to go to purely because of its reputation, and again I was left a bit disappointed. Land’s End is privately owned and a mini village full of shops and attractions, all designed to deprive tourists of their holiday money, has been built separating the car park from the main attraction. So you are forced to walk through this avenue of tackiness (fortunately everywhere had closed by the time we arrived) to reach the famous signpost and the views out to sea. It is nice to be able to say that I have now been, yet it isn’t a place I would never think to come back to. The views are very dramatic and rugged, especially if the weather is as terrible as it was when we were there, yet it isn’t any different from so many other places along the Cornwall coastline. So we took our photos of the signpost, and quickly retreated back to the car to find refuge from the wind. As darkness approached we began our trip back to our accommodation, and started looking forward to the following day. I felt like our Cornish holiday hadn’t gotten off to the best of starts, however that just meant there would be plenty of opportunity to improve!

The weather had disrupted plans for our surfing lesson again, so we changed plans and moved forward our visit to St Michael’s Mount. This is another National Trust property, and the counterpart to Mont-Saint-Michel in France. It comprises of a small island just off of the beach at Marazion, and accessible at low tide via a man-made causeway, on the top of which a castle has been built. Subsequently more buildings were added around the harbour on the island, and a small community was formed. There are still people living on the island today, both in the castle and the surrounding houses, most of which are employed in the running of the property and the island. Visits can be made either by foot at low tide or by boat, however the boat is subject to weather conditions.

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When we arrived at the car park on the mainland, we were informed that the boat would not be in operation due to the weather and that we would need to wait until 1pm for the causeway to open. Marazion is also home to a wonderful, long, sandy beach, so we decided to spend the extra time that we had strolling along it in search of a shipwreck that had been uncovered in the area. The shipwreck never showed itself to us, yet it was still an enjoyable, although at some points quite bracing, walk up and down the beach. Arriving back at the causeway in time for the opening rush to have subsided a little, we joined the train of people making their way over to the island. The causeway has been recently relaid and is quite easy to walk on, however we were warned that some of the paths on the island were quite steep and, as they are all cobbled, treacherous in some places. This is mostly likely why the castle was shut on the day of our visit as well, as the wind and the threat of rain made the walk up to the top of the island too risky. We wouldn’t be able to tour the castle after all so, determined not to have come here for nothing, we went straight to the cafe for a cream tea (do you see a pattern emerging here?!). Just as good as the one we had had the previous day in St Ives, but with the added bonus of an extra scone, again we were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the cream teas in such a busy tourist hot-spot. By the time we had finished, the weather had improved, although we were still not allowed to venture up to the castle, and it made for a pleasant walk around the harbour and the island village. It is a wonderful little place to visit, although I am sure it takes on a different light during the storms that frequent this area and there is a small exhibition that gives a glimpse into that side of island life. We stayed on the island almost until the causeway had to be closed for the incoming tide, and by the time we arrived back at the car it was starting to become late. It also seemed like we would finally be able to have our surfing lesson on the following morning, which meant an early start, so we called it a day and went in search of dinner.

After an early breakfast we set off for Gwithian beach for our surfing lesson, albeit still a little dubious of the weather conditions. It was certainly less windy than it had been the previous two days, however it still felt like a storm was never too far away. Nevertheless we changed into our wetsuits and carried our surfboards down to the beach, where we stayed for a little while for some tuition and instructions before getting into the water. This was something like my tenth surfing lesson, which have spanned over seven years in both Australia and previous trips to Cornwall, and I was yet to manage to stand and control the board. The closest I had gotten before were a few lucky moments on my feet, before the board quickly tipped me back into the waves a second or two later. So as the lesson seemed to be coming to a close, and I hadn’t managed to do any better, I resigned myself once again to the fact that I will possibly never get the hang of surfing. Ms Lust had already gone back to the beach at this point, and I have her partly to thank for what happened next. With only a few chances left to grab a wave, and the instructors wise words echoing around in my head, I looked up to see where Ms Lust was and that was all it took. I was up! Not only up but controlled and balanced as well, and able to ride the wave all the way into the shore. I could hardly believe it, all I had needed all this time was to have a beautiful woman waiting at the beach for me to grab my attention. I’d been told countless times by every instructor to keep my head up and never followed their advice, and now I saw where I had been going wrong all this time. I managed to catch one more wave before the lesson ended and, proving it hadn’t been a fluke, repeated my new found surfing skills and rode the wave once more to the shore. Ms Lust hadn’t enjoyed her first surfing experience all that much, but for me it was the best lesson I had had and why I highly recommend Gwithian Surfing Academy if you are looking for lessons in this area. I will probably never take up surfing seriously, I may never even have another lesson, but I am so glad to have finally mastered the very basics at least so I know it wouldn’t be completely pointless to go again.

The surfing had tired us both out quite a lot, so we dialled back our plans a bit and decided to find somewhere for lunch before heading to our new accommodation for the last night. We found a great fish and chip shop in Hayle and drove to the beach there to eat them, although we had learnt our lesson and stayed in the car! The accommodation was a bit of a drive away and we arrived in the middle of the afternoon, where we were met with a beautiful cabin to stay in and even some gin and tonics to welcome us! Another AirBnB find, and definitely one of the best we have stayed at, you can find it here. We got some well-earned rest in before going for dinner, and then on to our theatre plans for the evening. I had come across Minack Theatre in an article online, and as soon as I saw it I knew we had to book tickets for whatever show would be on while we would be there. That show turned out to be Cyrano de Bergerac, a play I had studied a little at school and one that I knew we would enjoy. So I booked the tickets well in advance and as a result, most of our holiday had been planned around this visit.

Minack Theatre is an open-air amphitheatre that has been built on the cliff top near Porthcurno. Resulting from the vision and hard work of Rowena Cade, she built the theatre with her gardener, Billy Rawlings, by carving it from the cliffs at the end of her estate. The first performance, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, took place on 16 August 1932 and there have been performances here ever since. The backdrop of the roaring sea crashing into the cliffs below adds to the drama of the performances, it really is a wonderful place to watch a play. There seems to be a new play every week, with two performances a day on weekdays, so you are sure to find something that interests you. The tickets are not expensive either, which is what surprised me the most as it is such a famous attraction, and I think I would be there every week if I were to live in the area!

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After a good night’s rest we found ourselves facing the prospect of the long drive home, as our holiday was drawing to an end. That in no way means that we had finished exploring however! The route had been carefully planned to include a few more stops along the way, and after breakfast we set off in the direction of home. As is so often the case on an English holiday, the weather seemed to be returning to a more summery disposition just as we were leaving. We didn’t feel too upset about this though, as there was still some rain about as we arrived at Lanhydrock Estate and we had had an excellent time over the last few days despite the weather. Lanhydrock Estate is a stately home owned by the National Trust (you’d never guess that we’re now members!), just to the south of Bodmin Moor. As such, and also because this post is long enough already, we’re going to save our views on our visit here for our next stately homes post, which will be out fairly soon.

After Lanhydrock Estate we went for a short drive to the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery and Cafe, for what would be the most disappointing moment of the entire trip. Prior to leaving, I had a spent some time researching the best places in Cornwall for Cornish pasties and cream teas. One of the places that came up in almost every list for cream teas was the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery Cafe, and with a name like that who can resist? So there we were waiting for our cream teas, and when they arrived I couldn’t help but to feel devastated. The scones resembled rock cakes more than scones, the teapot didn’t look like it have ever been washed, and worst of all was the cream. It was clotted cream, so at least they got that right, but it was the amount that was the issue. Sitting in a miniature plant pot was a scoop of cream barely big enough for one scone, and certainly not enough for the two scones we had been given. Naturally we asked for more and to be fair it was given without any issue or question (I imagine they get asked this a lot), so we carried on in hope that looks can be deceiving. They weren’t and the scones tasted as bad as they looked, the tea was ok but nothing special (you had to pay extra for anything other than English Breakfast!), and we realised that this place gets by on its name alone.

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Our final stop was another short drive away, the small harbour town of Polperro. Situated at the bottom of a steep hill, you are greeted by a huge car park and a deep sense of dread that you’ve been tricked into driving to another St Ives. Maybe it was because we arrived just as everything was closing, or maybe the town is a bit too far off the beaten track to attract too many coach tours, but it seemed relatively quiet and peaceful. A tourist tram made from an old milk float will take you to the harbour for a nominal fee, along with tales of the torrid journey that awaits you if you decide to walk back (we did it and it really wasn’t bad at all!). The harbour is small and pleasant, with a small beach and some caves to explore. The houses and shops are all still very traditional and it seems like tourism hasn’t affected these too much so far. All in all it was a nice place to have a final pasty and a stroll before leaving Cornwall, but I didn’t find anything to make me linger for too long. Well worth a visit if you are in the area, probably not worth the hassle if you’re not. So with our tour of Polperro complete, so too did our Cornish adventure come to a close. We walked back to the car and began the long drive home, already promising to return again soon.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

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Dear readers,

You may have seen a few of our pictures from our road trip to Cornwall, but here we are to tell you more about it, follow me around the south west coast for a tour of pasties and cream teas!

This is our itinerary, a bit planned and a bit modified by improvising and by the forces of nature, and I’ll take you through it in case you want to follow it in your trip. As the posts are usually very long, here is the short itinerary and here is the longer version if you are up to read more about the places.

We have a great tendency of always leaving later than planned, and this time was no exception. We were on the road at about 9 a.m. on Saturday, our day one.

Day 1

This first bit was quite plain, with a long drive through counties until our first stop, which was also our lunch break. Mr Wander had planned to stop in Painswick, which ended up being a nice decision. We initially stopped at the Rococo Gardens but we immediately decided not to visit them as it would have added two hours to our already delayed schedule; if you have time or are on a more relaxed schedule, you may add it to your itinerary.

Include a stop at St Mary’s Church. Again, if you are not on a tight schedule as we were, save some time for it as it is worth the visit. The churchyard is said to only be able to host 99 yew trees because the devil would always destroy the hundredth, although the count of the trees is always different depending on the source. In 2000, every town in the Diocese of Gloucester received a yew tree to plant for the millennium and the church was confronted with the dilemma of planting it and defying the legend. It seems that the tree is still there and healthy, as you can read here in the 100 reasons to love the Cotswolds.

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After Painswick, choose your next stop accordingly to your interest, whether it be the beach, food, or shopping. We drove straight to Newquay because we wanted to pop into Fat Willy’s before it shut. You have two shops in Newquay, but the one in Fore Street also has women’s t-shirts and we went there.

If you are hungry and it still opening time, Jamie’s Pasties in Central Square is your place. It is hard to miss, with a yellow front and canopy. Apparently, the shop has been renovated recently and is now also selling memorabilia such as t-shirts with their logo. The choice is quite good and even going at closing time we still had five or six flavours to choose from. I totally recommend the chicken and chorizo one it if you like spicy food because it hits you quite hard towards the half of the pasty. Have it by the beach for a nice sight of the house with the bridge and of the surfers.

Our AirBnB place booked in Mount Hawke, we went back on the road. The place was not bad but could have benefited from a bit of hoovering. Mount Hawke is a small town with very little to do but we were just a few metres away from the Old School Bar and Kitchen and we decided to try their menu for dinner. The place is very nice and so is the food and the music, and the pub is dog-friendly, in case you are interested, and their breakfast choice is also pretty good although only available Saturday and Sunday.

Day 2

We were supposed to go surfing but the weather was not so favourable and the lesson was cancelled, so we decided to head to Chapel Porth and have a walk around the beach and the tin mines. The beach is a National Trust location and has a little kiosk from which you can get some food and drinks. It is not the best for breakfast, the website is not very clear on that. You have a few tables outside but the options for breakfast are just some baguettes.

The walk from the beach to the Wheal Coates engine house is a short, easy walk on the cliff but the wind can make it quite difficult reaching the second half. The engine house is not in use anymore but it is just nice to have a walk around and see the scenery.

Not to miss at Chapel Porth is its famous ice-creams called hedgehogs, basically a waffle cone with vanilla ice-cream, clotted cream, and roasted hazelnuts. Another version is the foxy, which has flapjack crumbs instead of hazelnuts. Definitely thumbs up! There are more walks on the cliffs and along the beach, and we decided to explore that a bit, with the coves that make it quite impressive and give for very nice framed pictures (this is me, courtesy of Mr Wander).

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Full from the hedgehog and willing to explore more, we headed to St Ives. The town is much about tourism and it seems to be a favourite stop of bus tours, which makes it busy and chaotic. The fact that there is car park for thousands of cars at the top of the hill should give you an idea. There is a bus service to and from the car park but if you are not tired you can do what we did and walk to town and just get the bus on the way back as the road is quite steep.

If you think that a pasty by the harbour is a good idea, think twice and read the full version of the post to find out why. As it was late and all the pasty shops were closing, we got ours half price in Warrens Bakery which, quoting their website, is “one of the UK’s top three craft bakeries and the World’s oldest pasty maker”. Chicken and asparagus is a debatable choice and probably not the best combination but the quality was good. 

If instead of a pasty you fancy a cream tea (or you can have both as we did), you can walk to the end of the harbour and then back up Fore Street to stop at 57 Fore Street. It is a very nice bar with the tasty and incredibly sweet décor of a summer house. When we arrived, they were not serving food anymore but they serve cream teas all day. We sat upstairs and got our order. Definitely thumbs up, the scone was only one but soft and fresh, buttery and delicious, with our individual pot of clotted cream and jam for an average price.

If you are not tired of travelling, you can do what we did and drive to Land’s End, bearing in mind that the shopping and amusement area is going to be closed by the time you will arrive, which is all positive in my opinion. We arrived when the rain and the wind were increasing and it was honestly quite hard to even hold the phone still at all for pictures. Do not miss the model village just outside the entrance.

Despite a lunch of pasty and the cream tea, we still wanted to go for some dinner and we decided to check out the Miners Arms pub in Mithian. The pub is quite renowned in the area and serves local food. Mr Wander was not impressed with the Sunday roast but my salad with brie was nice, just too generous in brie if anything, which is not bad at all. The pub itself has a varied history and the building still shows the original structure, with low ceiling and wooden beams. Unfortunately, we were too full for giving the desserts a go but the list was definitely interesting.

Day 3

Something to say is that if you want some breakfast during the week, especially Monday, you should plan ahead and have some food at the accommodation. We tried with no luck to find somewhere open for breakfast in Portreath, in two cases despite the fact that the information online on Google and on the place’s website clearly stated “open”. After a few failures and a full coffee shop, we decided to go for something fresh from a bakery and I had a bacon and cheese pasty at Portreath Bakery. When Mr Wander told me the history behind the Cornish pasty (check it here), it made sense, but when I had the pasty for breakfast I understood the power of this whole meal in a pastry case.

After this stop, we were ready to head to St Michael’s Mount. Something to keep in mind if you plan to visit Cornwall, apparently, is the wind, as our plans were shaken or cancelled a few times because of it. In the case of the Mount, if the day is too windy, not only the boat doesn’t operate, but the castle is not open to visitors either.

The rock is the British version of the French Mont-Saint-Michel and was built by the same monks that were living in the French monastery, or at least the chapel and the church that preceded the castle. The castle belongs now to the St Aubyn’s family who still lives there. The rock is part of the National Trust’s network but you have to park in Marazion and you will have to pay £3.50 even if you are a member. If you decide (or the weather decides for you) to walk, you have to wait for the tide to uncover the path. We tried to find this shipwreck that I read about, but we couldn’t, we don’t know whether because it was still covered by water as the tide was not out completely, or whether because sometimes the storms cover it again in sand. Let us know if you manage to find it on your visit.

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The walk to the Mount is pretty short but you better wear comfortable shoes, especially because the small streets to reach the castle are also of cobblestones. If you visit on a day in which the castle is closed, you have the café and the harbour to visit, which is not much, but the Island Café is nice and the food not bad at all. We had a cream tea, as you could guess, and we loved it. Two scones, with a delicate butter scent, soft and fresh, really delicious, accompanied by a pot of jam and a pot of clotted cream each. All washed with an individual pot of tea that was just perfect. Trust me, it is worth but it is a good idea to have it as a meal.

There is also the Island gift shop that sells many nice items and especially cruelty-free hand-made soaps and candle by Sapooni. We couldn’t resist a soap bar called “Wanderlust”! We left at about 5 p.m. as the tide was going up again and everyone had to leave the rock by 5:30.

You have a few choices around for dinner, and we decided to give The Unicorn a go, mainly because of the name and the fact that the sign was at the junction we turned every single time and we became curious. The place is a hostel and pub and must be pretty busy during high season; it was actually pretty busy even now that we went, at least for dinner. The menu is pretty simple but not bad, I had the vegetarian burger and I really loved it, it didn’t destroy after a bite like they usually do, and the chips were not bad at all; what you don’t want to eat, though, is the slaw. The pub also has a pool table, in case you like playing, and it is dog-friendly.

Day 4

Tuesday was the day of our surfing lesson. We booked with GAS Surf School and I believe we can recommend them (Mr Wander is the expert here as for me it was the first time). The guys kept us up to date moving our booking (originally for Sunday, day 2) due to the weather. We started at 10:30 and the lesson includes wetsuits and boards also a little after the lesson. You may know me or may have understood by now that I am happy as soon as I am in water, but you will find my opinion about surfing in the extended post.

Our instructor was definitely nice and helped me a lot. I stress on myself because I was the only one at her first intent, the rest had tried a few times before and were pretty good already. Well, he helped me with the right waves and telling me when to stand and so on, so I definitely recommend you book with them if you want to try as well. If you want, they obviously also rent the gear.

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If you are hungry, fish and chips to go at Sanders is a good idea, maybe a bit greasy, but that is exactly what you expect it to be! We had our last night booked near Praa Sands and I have to say that Lynne’s place is the best I have been in all my AirBnB accommodation, and it is so by far. The annex is just delicious and elegant, with all details taken care of and an incredible level of cleanliness. If to that you add that the host is just lovely, definitely it is a not to miss if you are unsure where to stay, just bring some coins because she has a little bookshelf and you can buy the books for charity.

We went for dinner at Sandbar in Praa Sands to have a quick bite before the theatre that we had booked and we liked it so much that we went back for breakfast the day after. Sandbar is a bar and restaurant by the beach and offers traditional pub food. The big windows open to the beach and there is an open terrace that must be lovely in summer but that night was pouring. Their soup and calamari were really good and their focaccia definitely deserves the best score, both for the soup and as garlic bread. The place is also dog-friendly, at least up to the arch that divides the dining area.

If you are in the area, definitely do your best to fit Minack Theatre into your schedule. The theatre itself is worth the effort, as it is carved into the cliff, as you can see here and it was created by the lady who lived in Minack House, Rowena Cade, for the performing of The Tempest, which would have suited the weather very much. Dating from the ‘30s, this theatre is majestic and scary at the same time, as the stage seems to be just directly over the sea and the seats are very steep. The acoustic is somehow complicated, especially in a very windy day like we had on Tuesday, and we were lucky enough to be sitting in the front rows on the left side, as we were close and a bit sheltered from the wind anyway but, mainly, we were sitting on stone and not on grass. We had our rain jackets and our blankets, but you can also get a rain kit from the theatre for a small fee. We watched Cyrano de Bergerac, as you have seen from the picture, and it was very nice, although a bit unsettling for me sometimes as I am used to both the original French and the Italian translation and I somehow missed the lines and rhymes that Rostand is famous for.

Day 5

As day 5 was the day we were coming back, we were not supposed to leave too late in order to do some visiting and manage to be home at a decent time. It didn’t happen. Our first stop was Lanhydrock, a country house managed by the National Trust. Just a glimpse of the chapel here, but we will tell you more in our post about stately homes.

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As per our plan, we left after a quick visit to the chapel and we went to The Duchy of Cornwall Nursery for afternoon tea. Do you remember when I said that I am not a big fan of fancy and trendy places because the quality and service are never up to expectations? Well, this is exactly the case. Two dry, rock-hard scones, a plain one and a raisin one, and jam and cream that was barely enough for only one scone. The tea was nice, but even the milk jug was not happy to be there, as you can see here! The service was ok but nothing to be happy about, even before we asked for a double dose of cream. Definitely not worth the little detour!

The last stop was Polperro, a nice fishing village with a heritage tram service that takes you from the car park to the actual town as cars are not really allowed in the narrow streets near the harbour. The journey is £2 return but, if you get the last tram and have to walk back, don’t be scared by the driver making it sound terrible, it is not a long walk and definitely it is not steep either, you will enjoy it. The tram journey gives you a discount on pasties at the shop next to the stop, but it seemed all sold out when we arrived, so we kept walking a bit further and got one at the Polperro Bakery. As it was late already, the terrace was not out, but the bakery has a door also to the rear square and it is nice to sit there if you have a chance. As we didn’t want to walk down to the harbour with a pasty, we just sat in the square benches until we finished. I got a vegetarian one and I enjoyed it, although I find it a bit more doughy than the ones I got the previous days. If you manage to arrive early, visit the museum and stop for cream tea in one of the nice tea rooms you find on your way, we would love to ear your feedback as we arrived after closing time. With low tide and at the end of the day, the harbour was very quiet but still nice to walk around, and the beach was covered in seaweed but also nice, especially because the sky started clearing again and gave us a perfect postcard for the end of the holidays with no need for a filter.

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We left with this sight and we got back home at about 11 p.m. but once again feeling so tired and so rich. Although these words did not bring Ulysses to a happy journey, allow me to quote Dante:

“fatti non foste a viver come bruti,

ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza”.*

Keep travelling, keep exploring, and keep pushing your boundaries,

Ms Lust

*“Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,/ But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.’” (Inferno – Dante, translation by H. W. Longfellow)

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The eighth wonder of the world

Dear readers,

This time we are taking you to one of the world’s most famous destinations, to what Kipling apparently called the eighth wonder of the world, and more importantly to Mr Wander’s favourite place in New Zealand: Milford Sound. If you, like me, are not a native speaker, you may wonder the reason behind the name. Sound, in English, is “a narrow stretch of water forming an inlet or connecting two wider areas of water such as two seas or a sea and a lake” (Definition 4 from Oxford Dictionaries online). Milford Sound, therefore, is one of the fjords of the Fiordland region and it is simply breath-taking, no wonder Mr Wander insisted on going there. He had already been a couple of times during a rainy season and I have to admit that his pictures are incredible, but even at the beginning of winter, when the water is not at its maximum capacity, the scenery is stunning. New Zealand is a not a new country but its geological position grants the country high peaks which, combined with a continental climate, creates an enormous amount of glaciers and waterfalls. But, before we arrive in Milford Sound, let’s follow the path that we followed with Mr Wander.

If you consider a straight line, Queenstown and Milford Sound are not too far away, but there is no straight access and the route goes through Te Anau, which means that the drive is 5 hours long. As I may have explained in our previous post, congestion is not a concept that is known in these roads; if you stop, it is to admire the beauties that surround you, not because of queuing. We stopped for a few photos along the road, some immediately after leaving Queenstown, but our first real stop was in Te Anau. This is a fairly big town in the South Island and its lake is the starting point of some interesting tours. To reach Milford Sound, the road is not the only option, there are also cruises that include Doubtful Sound, or there are trekking trails that start and finish in Te Anau and take you around Fiordland for five days. If you are not going to visit the North Island, Te Anau is also your chance to see the glowworms, we did that visit just before leaving the country and we strongly recommend it, not only for the incredible sights that are the caves and the worms, but also because it is extremely instructive.

As I said, we stopped a few times on the way to Te Anau as well, but the most famous stops, and also the most impressive ones, are between Te Anau and Milford Sound. The first very well-known one is at Mirror lakes. As you can see from this slideshow, the water is so calm that the surface is perfectly reflecting and it mirrors the Earl Mountains with their forest in the background. The day was not at its best, just a bit gloomy, therefore the light in the picture is a bit strange, but you can definitely appreciate the incredible perfection of this water.

Driving a bit more towards Milford Sound, another famous spot is The Chasm. Now, when I first talked to Mr Wander about my wish to visit the Fairy Pools in the Isle of Skye, he said that he could help break the wait by taking me somewhere similar in New Zealand. I was a bit sceptical, and the initial sight of the Chasm didn’t help. Between the name and the fact that the car park doesn’t offer any sights of what’s hidden a few hundreds of metres away, I was not really expecting too much from this place, but I was gladly wrong. A small path on the left of the car park takes you to some impressive waterfalls by the Cleddau River. Milford Sound was named after Milford Haven in Wales, and the Cleddau River also takes its name from Welsh. The first encounter with the waterfalls is this stunning pool. Unfortunately, it was too cold to even think of going in, that would have to wait for the Scottish Fairy Pools, but it was beautiful and peaceful.

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The whole walk is extremely relaxing, we were lucky that there were not too many people. The flora is lush and seems to embrace you, with many of the paths being just wide enough to walk on a single line. There are two bridges over the river and from where you can admire the waterfalls before closing the loop and returning to the car.

In Milford Sound we stayed in Milford Sound Lodge, basically the only accommodation you can find there. The place is quite nice, with wooden cabins and shared bathrooms, and a restaurant that served scrumptious food. When we arrived we headed to Milford Sound itself to enjoy the sunset over the fjord and have our car eaten by keas a bit more, the stop on the way before crossing the tunnel didn’t seem enough! The tide was out, so we could walk quite a bit inside before it started becoming dark and we headed back. As I said, dinner was very nice, and a hot soup was definitely welcome. The restaurant has an old piano and some music books but I didn’t manage to convince Mr Wander to give it a go, he hadn’t been practicing for quite a few years and was feeling a bit self-conscious, especially because the restaurant was full.

The next morning we went back to the fjord to enjoy our cruise trip. The scenery is simply breath-taking, you sail along the fjord to see the different rocks and waterfalls. The previous times Mr Wander went, he saw a lot of seals, but this time there were only a few lazing under a bit of sun. On the other side, though, we were lucky enough to be followed by some bottlenose dolphins who also live there and were happy to play in the wake of our boat. You know how much I love these animals, so you can imagine how happy I was. The staff on the boat were extremely friendly and happy to help, and the cakes were just scrumptious, so don’t worry about your stomach while you are there either.

In front of the pier you can take a small path just behind a few old buildings from the first settlement in the area. This track will take you up to a viewpoint for you to enjoy the beautiful sight that is the whole fjord, I am adding this collage for your reference so you can see all the names of the peaks as well.

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The drive back was a bit of a new experience for both of us, which is always a precious thing. I was there to know about the country Mr Wander had been living in for a few years, and to be able to discover something new together was very nice and important for me. The first stop, though, was Marian Falls, one that Mr Wander had visited already and even more that we managed to do, up to Lake Marian. While trying to find some information about the falls, I learnt that these one are actually cascades. Since the word for waterfall in Italian is cascata, I went to look online the difference between a cascade and a waterfall. If you are interested, according to the Oxford Dictionaries:

Cascade, 1) A small waterfall, typically one of several that fall in stages down a steep rocky slope.

Waterfall, A cascade of water falling from a height, formed when a river or stream flows over a precipice or steep incline.

I know, they use the terms reciprocally to explain the other, but it is clear I think. And yes, Marian Falls are a cascade, as you can appreciate on this picture. I have to admit it was not an easy thing for me to reach them. They are beautiful, of course, but to reach them you have to walk on a swing bridge over the Hollyford River. Here is a picture of me divided by awe for the beauty of this place and regret for walking on the bridge! The whole walk to Lake Marian takes approximately 3 hours in total and we couldn’t fit in our schedule, so here is another reason to go back to Piopiotahi!

Piopiotahi is the original name for Milford Sound. The Māori called this place Piopiotahi, which means single piopio, an extinct bird that used to live in New Zealand. The legend says that Māui, a hero in Polynesian culture, tried to win immortality for mankind and died in the attempt. When the birds heard of his death, a single piopio flew to Milford Sound in mourning. It is not just that this story is beautiful, I love how the Māori culture is attached to the land and gets from it not only strength and nourishment, but also the names of the places. Their pragmatism is refreshing and insightful compared to the invaders that had to replace the original names using others borrowed from English places to try and delete the local culture.

Driving a bit further back home, we stopped at Lake Gunn, a spot that Mr Wander missed in his previous visits because it is not as clearly signalled as the others. Lake Gunn is another beautiful body of water surrounded by mountains. We were lucky enough to have a beautiful weather that afternoon and you can see how the colours create an incredible painting that needs no filter even with a picture taken with a smartphone!

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The walk that starts at the lake is an easy one and it is 45 minutes long but you can add a bit of difficulty starting from other car parks near the mountain range or the creek. On the way to Milford Sound we also stopped near Lake Gunn on the other side of the road to discover the beautiful and pristine Lake Fergus. Less known than its neighbouring Lake McKeller, this body of water is connected to Lake Gunn just on the other side of the road. Trust me, it doesn’t matter how many places of this kind you find along your way, every single time you see the mountains and forests reflected in the perfectly calm surface of a lake in this region, you will be astonished!

Our last stop on the way back was also a bit of a detour to see Lake Manapouri. This place is famous for various reasons and beauty is one of them and definitely deserved. The lake is the country’s second deepest, hosting a huge variety of wildlife and fauna, and also includes an incredible amount of islands. With four arms, it is known for the different activities such as kayaking and countless hiking tracks and trips. The lake also hosts a power station, the biggest underground power station of the southern hemisphere, which can also be visited. The presence of this structure raised concerns for the environment a few decades ago and made the lake a symbol for the protection of the nature.

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If you love hiking and are planning a trip to the South Island, take your time to explore Fiordland. We took advantage of a Bank Holiday and it was quite busy, therefore we could only stay one night in the accommodation, having to reduce the amount of our hiking, but there is so much to do that we will have to go back and do what was was left. Stay tuned!

Ms Lust

***

Dear readers,

This post is a special one for me, as it is about my favourite place in New Zealand and, as far as our travels have taken us thus far, the world. That place is Milford Sound, in Fiordland on New Zealand’s South Island. As such, it is a place I have visited on many occasions, so instead of describing a specific trip (such as when I took Ms Lust there) I will outline my recommendations for anyone wishing to visit this wonderful place.

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There are so many quotes and inspirational messages out there telling us not to focus on the destination but to enjoy the journey, and for nowhere is this more true than Milford Sound. The sound itself is utterly beautiful, it wasn’t without reason that Rudyard Kipling described it as the 8th Wonder of the World, but there are so many equally beautiful places to stop and enjoy on the two-hour drive from Te Anau (which everyone must travel through to get to Milford). The only other option is to take a scenic flight from Te Anau or Queenstown, something that I never had the chance to do myself, and I’m sure this is just as impressive as the drive, if not more so. Each time I have made this drive it has taken me a lot longer than the four hours that Google claimed, and there are still places along the route that I am yet to have explored. For those of you without your own transport, a coach tour is the easiest option, and the places that these tours most commonly stop at will be included. So please sit back and relax, as I take you on a trip through beautiful Fiordland, from Te Anau to Milford Sound.

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Te Anau

If it were situated in almost any other part of the world, Te Anau would be a tourist hot-spot in it’s own right. But nestled amongst the multitude of magnificent vistas and jaw-dropping landscapes of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, this lake-side town feels rather ordinary in comparison. The combination of Lake Te Anau and the wonderful backdrop of the mountain range provides a beautiful scene, just not one that can compete with similar towns that are situated in the mountains, rather than close to them, such as Queenstown or Wanaka. Happily though, Te Anau finds itself at the start of State Highway 94 (better known as the Milford Road) and as such has found it’s calling as an obligatory stop for most travellers making the pilgrimage to Milford Sound. After leaving Te Anau, you won’t find any supermarkets or petrol stations until you arrive back again on the return journey. So this is naturally where everybody stops to refuel and refresh before beginning their journey through the mountains, and Te Anau has grown up purely to service these needs. There are some tourist attractions here to tempt a more prolonged stay, and the glow-worm caves on the other side of the lake are definitely worth a visit (Real Journeys operate tours, as well as Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound excursions). The start of the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, is also just on the other side of the lake, and it is common to see hikers taking advantage of Te Anau’s amenities either before or after completing the 60km trek. Yet for most visitors here, Te Anau is nothing more than a ten-minute stop for last minute supplies and a toilet break before heading off in the direction of Milford Sound.

Te Anau Downs

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The first area you will come across is Te Anau Downs, the last cluster of houses before the road leaves Lake Te Anau and heads into the mountains. Signs will point you towards Lake Mistletoe on the right, where you will find a small gravel car park and a walking track. The walk is fairly short and pleasant enough, taking you through a woodland area to the lake. The lake is really nothing to write home about, especially compared to what is still to come. I’d really only recommend doing this walk if you have a lot of time to spare, it’s certainly not worth missing out on one of the stops further along the route for this. Just a few metres down the road there is another small car park on the left-hand side, which offers a good opportunity to enjoy the lake before the road turns away from it. There is a jetty which can be walked along, and the views from the end are better than those in Te Anau. There isn’t enough here to cause you to linger too long though, and soon you’ll find yourself back on the road and heading towards the Eglinton Valley.

Eglinton Valley and Mirror Lakes

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From this point onwards, the road has a lot more twists and turns as you venture through the Southern Alps. After just over 20 km a break in the trees unveils the Eglinton Valley, and your first Fiordland photo opportunity awaits. There’s no set viewpoint, just three or four lay-bys to choose from which all offer essentially the same views, so it’s entirely up to you where to stop. The Eglinton Valley is quite wide and flat, with the fast running Eglinton River flowing between the mountains on either side. I don’t think this area was used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings, but it most certainly could have been.

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At the end of the valley the trees return to obscure the landscape, and, after only a few kilometres and a couple of bends, signs for Mirror Lakes come into view. This is the first of the stops that is on every tour company’s itinerary, and if you’re unlucky to arrive at the same time you will be greeted by a road half-blocked by the convoy of buses parked here and you’ll have to fight your way through the crowds to see the lake. Mirror Lakes is exactly what it sounds like, a small lake just by the side of the road which is usually sheltered enough by the wind to provide stunning reflections of the adjacent mountains. The water is also incredibly clear, allowing all of the hidden treasures (mostly fallen trees!) in its depths to be viewed by all. If it does happen to be too windy at the time then it will be an incredible anti-climax, as the lake itself is not all that impressive. But don’t despair, as there’s always another chance to see its famous reflections on the return journey.

Lake Gunn

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This lake is a little bit further up the road, about another 20 km, and by this point you are more than halfway to Milford Sound. The second half of the journey is definitely the more interesting half however, as the road becomes more and more mountainous, the views get more impressive with every kilometre, and the stopping places are ever more frequent. If you manage to spot the sign in time to make the turning (I missed it twice and only managed to actually stop here on my last trip to this area, when I took Ms Lust to Milford Sound), there is a small car park with a very short walking track through to the lake. I can’t comment on how it would be on a more windy day, but when we visited it was very unclear why this lake hadn’t been given the title of Mirror Lake instead. The water was as flat and clear as glass, and gave perfect reflections of the surrounding landscape. It was difficult to see where water gave way to sky, as even any floating driftwood was perfectly reflected. The lake is a lot bigger than Mirror Lakes, so I imagine it would need to be a very calm day for it to be like this, and that we were just incredibly lucky. Once you have seen the lake, there isn’t too much else to keep you here (although it is a great spot for a picnic if you arrive around lunchtime) and it’s then time to head into the very heart of Fiordland.

The Divide

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From here until you reach your destination, there are stops at less than 10 km intervals if you choose to see them all. I would highly recommend all of them, but it will depend on the amount of time that you have. As such, The Divide is only suggested if you have a lot of time in hand, as it is quite a lengthy stop and not worth missing any of the following places for. The Divide is the start or finish point (depending on which direction it is traversed) of the Routeburn Track, a 32 km walking track from Paradise near Glenorchy to The Divide. In case you hadn’t guessed already, this is a stop for those that like hiking, and the purpose of stopping here is to get a feel for the Routeburn Track by walking the first section of it, the Key Summit Track. This track is a steady climb up to the top of Key Summit, and you will need to allow for three hours to complete the walk out and back again. Once you reach the summit, you are rewarded for your efforts with wonderful views of the Lower Hollyford Valley and the surrounding mountains. Low level clouds hindered the views somewhat when I completed this walk, however the snow capped mountains peeking through made up for it instead. There is a short nature walk that can also be completed at the summit, I recommend it if you have an extra 30 minutes to spare, which passes a variety of natural vegetation including bogs, alpine tarns, and shrubland. There are boardwalks through the wet areas around the bogs, so don’t worry too much about getting dirty! After this, and once you have finished enjoying the views, take the track back down to the car park and head off once again in the direction of Milford Sound. Don’t get too comfortable though, as the next stop is just around the corner!

Pop’s Viewpoint and Falls Creek Waterfall

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About 2 km further up the road from The Divide, you will see a viewpoint signposted on the right-hand side. This is Pop’s Viewpoint and the red metal gantries give another opportunity to see the Lower Hollyford Valley. Down below is the Hollyford River, and the hanging valley to your left is home to Lake Marian (more on that shortly). You may also hear road traffic from down in the depths of the valley, and if you look to the road you will see that it now starts to descend and soon you will also be driving along the valley floor. Once there, a small bridge passing a waterfall signals that you have arrived at Falls Creek Waterfall. Unfortunately every time I have driven past here there has been construction work on the bridge and it has been very difficult to walk along to take photos. The bridge is only one lane and you really have to time it well in between passing vehicles from both directions! An easier place to stop is a gravelled area on the right just beyond the bridge. It still isn’t possible to walk back to the waterfall, but from here you can clamber down to the river rapids below. The water is fast flowing here, and a scattering of medium size boulders in the water provide some great photos and allow you to get right into the river without getting wet (hopefully!). Here is also where you are most likely to first meet Milford Sound’s most notorious residents, the sandflies. Similar to the midges found in Britain, these are small biting flies which will happily use you as a feeding station and leave you with many, very itchy, bites. Insect repellant is the must-have item for anyone travelling to Milford Sound at any time of year, you will thank the heavens if you have it and curse yourself if you don’t. The Māori legend is that sandflies were created by the goddess Hine-nui-te-pō after the creation of Fiordland. People were so stunned by it’s beauty that they stopped working and just stood around gazing at it instead, so she created the sandflies to bite them and to get them moving again. This story makes perfect sense to me, as from here on it will probably be frustration with these little terrors that will encourage you to move on from each place.

Marian Falls and Lake Marian

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In between Pop’s Viewpoint and Falls Creek, you may have noticed a sign for Lake Marian on the right. This is another stop for hiking enthusiasts, however there is a smaller walk that is definitely worth 30 minutes or so out of your journey. After turning off of the main road, you will need to continue down a gravel track for about a kilometre before reaching a car park for the Lake Marian track. The walk to the lake itself requires at least three hours and a lot of effort, however the falls are just a short ten-minute walk from the car park. Some raised boardwalk sections signal that you have arrived to the falls, which are somewhere between waterfalls and rapids. A series of small drops create a cascade in the river and the large boulders that have fallen into the water’s path create some dramatic currents. The surrounding vegetation here is thick and lush, this area of the world sees a lot of rainfall, and it really does start to feel like you are stepping into a prehistoric world. If you decide to continue along the track to Lake Marian, you will not be disappointed. It is a hard, uphill walk through forest, landslips, and open shrubland, which eventually brings you to the lake at the top of the hanging valley. This lake is perfectly nestled within some of the larger peaks in the area, and its remoteness creates a true sense of tranquility. It seems that not too many people make the effort to climb this far, and I only saw a handful of other hikers when I completed the walk. Again, the views were a little spoiled by some low lying clouds, but the rain held off so I was happy! I would have loved to have returned for another go in sunnier weather, but unfortunately the opportunity never arose.

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Monkey Creek and Homer Tunnel

The last stop before the tunnel is Monkey Creek, another favourite of the tour buses. A car park on the left-hand side of the road gives access to a small creek, where tour guides encourage their guests to fill their water bottles and sample the pure water as it makes its way down from the mountain tops. It’s also a great chance to get some photos of the valley and the road winding a path through, but other than that there isn’t any need to linger for too long. If you haven’t had the pleasure already, here is also where you will most likely encounter keas, the world’s only alpine parrot. They are large, green parrots, most easily recognised by the bright red colour of the underside of their wings. These cheeky birds are certainly not shy, and they are commonly found in Fiordland destroying cars (they have a strong affection for rubber and plastic) and harassing tourists for food! As the signs state, please do not feed them as it discourages their natural behaviours and you may also get a nasty bite from their extremely sharp and powerful beaks. There is no need to be scared of them however, and I always enjoy watching their cheeky antics wherever I come across them.

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Following Monkey Creek you will be heading through the Homer Tunnel, a 1.2 kilometre long tunnel through the mountains which was opened in 1953. This completed the Milford Road and provided a route through to Milford Sound. The tunnel is one way only, controlled by traffic lights at either end. You may find that you have to wait for quite some time for the lights to change, there is an information board to tell you how long the wait will be, and in some cases you may even have enough time to get out and explore the immediate vicinity. The tunnel itself is very much as I imagine it was when it first opened, simply a hole cut through the mountains without any of the dressing-up (smooth walls, lighting, etc.) more commonly found in Europe. As you exit the tunnel, you will be presented with a fantastic view of the valley before you, and the road heading down to the valley floor. There is a gravel car park just on the left to allow for a photo opportunity, and it’s well worth stopping even just to play with the keas for a few minutes! After this, I hope your car has good brakes, as you are now heading straight down to the valley floor for the final stretch into Milford. There is still one last stop to come before that, and this one is one of my favourites and definitely not to be missed.

The Chasm

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Just as you reach the bottom of the descent into the valley floor, signs for The Chasm will appear on your left. This is another staple of the tour bus itinerary, however they rarely stop here long enough to allow guests to explore the best part. A short ten-minute or so walk from the car park takes you to two boardwalks. Prior to even reaching these, the thundering sound of crashing water echoing through the forest should tell you that there is a waterfall here. The first boardwalk passes a hole in the rock to give a view of the waterfall itself, and then the second boardwalk takes you over the waterfall and allows views of how the water has carved a unique artwork into the rocks. Swirling eddies have created many bowls and holes in the surrounding rocks and have turned the area into something that resembles a Swiss cheese. The holes vary immensely in size, most probably determined by their age, and create a truly unique environment. The waterfall itself is impressive as well, due to the sheer force and noise of the water.

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If you are here on a bus tour, this is likely to be all that you will have time to see. For those with their own transport, a slight detour should be taken on the way to the waterfall. Just before the donation box there is a path cut into the shrubland on the right. This leads you down to the lagoon formed at the base of the waterfall. Very similar to the Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye (full report here!), this is a secluded, calm, beautiful waterhole which feels extremely remote and isolated from the hordes of tourists above. The water is beautifully blue and clear, and incredibly enticing. Due to the sheerness of the surrounding rocks it isn’t possible to walk round to the base of the waterfall, yet it is possible to swim there instead. Having only visited in winter I wasn’t brave enough to do so myself, but I can imagine that it is an absolutely incredible sight to behold. As for returning to the main path, you have two options. Either retracing your steps back through the shrubland, or clambering up the rocks to the top of the waterfall and back to the boardwalks. Someone has attached a rope to the rocks to enable the climb, yet it is still only advised for those who are sure on their feet and able to pull their own body weight up the rock face. This isn’t a very well-documented place and I am very grateful to the person that informed me about it, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone that passes through here with their own transport.

Milford Sound

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So, after a few more kilometres through the valley, this brings you to the end of the Milford Road and your journey, as you arrive at Milford Sound. The Sound is actually a fiord which was carved out by a glacier as it passed through. This created a deep basin with almost vertical sides which over time has filled with water. The result is this stunning landscape of a vast sea inlet surrounded by tall mountains and waterfalls, all almost completely covered in lush, green vegetation. It is said that the landscape changes dramatically depending on the weather at the time of visit or just before, as the number of waterfalls goes from a dozen or so to hundreds after significant rainfall. The only way to really see the fiord is to go on one of the many boat cruises that leave the jetty throughout the day. I have been on three cruises with three different operators, and I can honestly say that there isn’t much difference between them. They usually last for about 90 minutes and they all follow the same route, taking you right through the fiord and out into the Tasman Sea before heading back to port. Along the way you will see evidence of the glacial erosion that formed the fiord, as well as the chance to get up very close and personal to some of the permanent waterfalls (bring a waterproof jacket!). The views are simply stunning and my words could never do them justice, it is a wonderful, tranquil, and immensely beautiful environment. It is also an environment rich in wildlife, and you are likely to see a variety of marine creatures on your cruise. Seals are very common here, and there is one rock in particular that they seem to enjoy lazing about on. Unfortunately there was only a few there when I took Ms Lust, usually there are a good number of them fighting for their own sunbathing spot. Fiordland crested penguins are also residents here, although a lot harder to find, and you may be as lucky as we were to see bottlenose dolphins swimming alongside your boat.

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After, or before, your cruise, there are some short walks in the area that are worth doing. The pier close to the jetty is a good spot for some photos of Mitre Peak and start of the fiord, while the lookout that can be reached via a path behind the cafe is another beautiful vantage point from which to enjoy the scenery. If you came with your own transport, there is a walk that starts behind the main car park which takes you around the shore to enjoy some less crowded views. This is definitely worth taking 30 minutes or so to do, and, if you are staying overnight, this is the perfect spot from which to enjoy the sunset. Although you are facing in completely the wrong direction to see the sun setting, the changing colours of the sky create a wonderful backdrop for the prominent Mitre Peak. If you do stay overnight, and I would highly recommend it as it is the only way to see the sunset here and it permits a more relaxed journey, then you will have to stay at the Milford Sound Lodge, the only accommodation in the area. The lodge caters for all tastes and budgets, and the restaurant on site is very good.

So that about sums up my experiences in this fantastic corner of the world, and I hope it has been inspiring. From here, there is nowhere else to go other than to retrace your steps back along the Milford Road to Te Anau, stopping at any places you may have missed on the way there. Then, it’s time to start planning the next visit, as this place will keep you coming back for more and more. I certainly don’t think I could ever get tired of it!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside!

Dear readers,

It has been almost a year now since we returned to the UK from New Zealand, and in this time we have spent many wonderful weekends and holidays exploring the island that we now call home. The bank holiday weekends are a perfect opportunity to venture a little further away from home without having to take any extra days off from work, and this post is all about our trip to Portsmouth and Winchester during the Spring Bank Holiday weekend in May. It was only about a week before the actual bank holiday that we realised that we hadn’t yet booked anything, and I quickly went about searching for places we could visit. Originally we set our sights on Durham, I had found available accommodation and knew that it is a beautiful city to explore. However, on the very next day, the news headlines were full of stories claiming that the bank holiday weekend was set to see some excellent sunny weather, and the weather forecasts were all similarly upbeat. So that was all it took, the plans were quickly changed, and we found and booked accommodation in Portsmouth instead, ready for our first British seaside weekend. Unfortunately, with about two days to go, the outlook changed and it seemed that the prospect of an early start to summer had been a little optimistic. The weather forecasts, as they invariably do, had made some swift u-turns and were now predicting a very wet weekend. Still, it was now too late to change our plans again, so we prepared for the worst and devised some plans for making the most of the weekend.

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A final check of the weather report before we left home showed that the wet weather wasn’t due to hit the south coast until mid-afternoon, so we had a brief window to try and fit in as much “seasideness” as possible! A trip to the British seaside could never be complete without tucking into some fish and chips on the beach, ideally without being washed away! As we would be arriving around lunchtime, that looked like the perfect way to start the weekend. After much research, a suitable fish and chip shop had been found and we made a beeline straight there after having checked in at our accommodation. Only a short walk to the seafront, it gave us plenty of time to arrive at the beach before the storm, which was now visibly approaching on the horizon. Although I’ll never turn down the opportunity to have fish and chips anywhere, it always seems so much better at the seaside. I’m not even sure that the quality of the fish is any different, it is the smell and sounds of the sea that just makes it seem like a more authentic experience. Juggling the tasks of eating and guarding your food from greedy seagulls, accompanied by the soundtrack of screams from individuals brave/stupid enough to go into the sea, brings back so many memories from my childhood, and I was extremely happy to be able to now share this experience with Ms Lust. We managed to finish our lunch on the beach without any sudden downpours or unwanted attention from the local seabird population, but it was now very clear that the rain wasn’t far away.

South Parade Pier was just a couple of hundred metres further along the beach so we decided to head there for another British seaside tradition, the amusement arcades. Happily we are both suckers for the two-penny machines and we were content to spend an hour or so playing with these while the weather battered the coast. Once we had become bored of the amusements, we ventured back outside to find the rain still coming down heavily. As there was an ice cream shop conveniently located next door, and under the same canopy so there was no need to go out into the rain, we popped in here for an ice cream, we were determined to stick to seaside traditions even if the weather wasn’t! It was clear by the time that we had finished our ice creams that the rain wasn’t likely to stop any time soon, so we donned our waterproofs (another British tradition, never leave home without them!) and walked back to where we were staying. Both tired from the day spent travelling and a heavy lunch, we ended up falling asleep for a few hours and were delighted to find the sky a lot less foreboding when we woke up.

Up until this point, having spent all of our time in the suburb of Southsea, Portsmouth hadn’t felt any different to me than just another generic British seaside town with nothing to really set it apart from anywhere else. However, as we walked along the seafront to Portsmouth harbour, and its plethora of bars and restaurants, it was clear to see that I had been wrong. The first glint of hope had come as we walked past Southsea Castle, a coastal fort dating back to the 16th century. We didn’t have time to visit the castle but the walk past was pleasant enough for it to stick in my memory, the surrounding parkland provides an excellent distraction from the nearby reminders of the tackier side of the British seaside. The real treat was still yet to come, and as Portsmouth’s harbour came into view I immediately realised I had been too quick to judge. The area has clearly been recently modernised and redeveloped, into a vibrant waterside complex. There are bars and restaurants everywhere, but not in any way overwhelming, and the most impressive of these is the Spinnaker Tower, which must have incredible views from the viewing decks and restaurant at the top. We also weren’t able to enjoy this ourselves as we had a dinner reservation to get to, and the weather still wasn’t great and would have limited the view, but it is definitely something I would like to do if we went back to the area. As I said, we had reservations, at the Loch Fyne restaurant. Being a national chain and fairly well known, I won’t go into too much detail about it, all I will say is that we had a fantastic meal and would definitely eat at Loch Fyne again whenever we get the chance.

After dinner, we went for a bit more of a stroll around the harbour before deciding on a suitable place for an after dinner drink. Although we weren’t too sure whether it was a pub or a brewery from its outside appearance, we decided on The Old Customs House and we couldn’t have made a better choice. The exterior was fairly plain and unimpressive, hence our confusion, yet the interior felt more like something that should be found in a stately home. A large double staircase greeted us as we entered and we made our way through to the bar. The bar area is separated into a number of rooms, each resembling a library or a drawing room. The room we chose had only four tables in it, with armchairs and stools dotted around, which made it feel very cosy and homely, and it was the perfect place for a relaxing, after-dinner drink. As we left, we had to decide whether to walk back to our accommodation and brave the weather, or to see if we could figure out where and when to get a bus back. In the interests of simplicity we decided to walk, and fortunately it only rained lightly during the half hour or so that it took. We took a more direct route back, through Portsmouth’s university area, which gave an interesting insight into the nightlife of Portsmouth. I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much, but it actually seemed like a really cool place to go for a night out, and there didn’t appear to be much trouble or fighting going on. Certainly not what I had anticipated from a naval town such as this!

The following day, we decided that we had probably seen the best of Portsmouth already and that, as it still wasn’t ideal beach weather, we would head to Winchester after having had breakfast. We looked up where would be best for breakfast in Portsmouth, and on arrival to The Parade Tea Rooms the queue suggested that it had a well-earned reputation. Unfortunately, the food didn’t live up to the hype and I can only really judge it as satisfactory, certainly not anything to write home about. This wasn’t helped by being seated directly under the air conditioning and next to a very loud, large group, and we were quite happy to be leaving once we had finished eating. Refuelled, we then hit the road again and made the 50 minute journey to Winchester, of course taking the more scenic route through the South Downs National Park.

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On arriving in Winchester, we found somewhere to park and set about exploring the city. There are a number of suggested self-guided walking tours of the city and we initially began with one of those. The first stop was the magnificent Winchester Cathedral, which houses the equally magnificent Winchester Bible. Believed to have been commissioned in 1160, it is considered to be the greatest Bible ever made in England. Each page features vivid, detailed illustrations and historiated initials, although the illustrations were never completely finished. At the time of our visit, the area of the cathedral where the Bible is usually housed was undergoing restoration, and a temporary home for it had been provided. It was still possible to see the Bible behind its glass casing, and some of the most colourful and impressive illustrations had been recreated on wall banners around the room. Its new home, when completed, will provide visitors with even more information about the Bible and a better viewing platform for it, while the Bible itself is also undergoing restoration and rebinding.

The cathedral’s other claim to fame is that it is the final resting place of Jane Austen, she passed away in July 1817 after travelling to Winchester to seek medical help. At the time of her death, she was mostly unknown as a writer and many of her novels were still yet to be published. Because of this her funeral was a very low-key affair with only four attendees, and her original gravestone makes no mention of her writings. This has now been resolved with a brass plaque on the wall opposite her grave, paid for by her nephew in 1870 from the proceeds of his memorial to his aunt. Above this, a stained glass window was also erected in her memory in 1900, which was paid for by public donations.

The one feature of the cathedral that has really stuck in my mind is the crypt, one of the earliest sections of the cathedral which would have been built in the late 11th century. The crypt itself isn’t open to visitors, but there is a small viewing platform which can be reached via a few stone steps. You are then presented with an eerie scene, as a sculpture of a man looking into his hands has been placed in the middle of the crypt. Due to the cathedral having been built on land which is very prone to waterlogging, the crypt often floods during rainy periods and the water can reach as far up as the waist of the sculpture. Fortunately it was dry when we visited and it was possible to see the full extent of the crypt, despite the rain that had scuppered our beach plans! In the early 1900’s, the cathedral was in danger of being completely destroyed due to it’s waterlogged foundations, and is only standing today due to the immense efforts of a diver named William Walker. Brought in to help with work to underpin the cathedral’s foundations after large cracks started to form throughout the cathedral, he spent six years working underwater to excavate the existing foundations and to place concrete sacks to strengthen and seal them. Only once he had completed this task could the water be pumped out and further work completed to safeguard the cathedral from subsidence and subsequent collapse. In honour of his efforts, there is a statue of William Walker in the cathedral along with his diving helmet.

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On leaving the cathedral, we had a quick walk around the Dean Garnier Garden. Situated just beside the cathedral, it was a pleasant distraction for about fifteen minutes but as neither of us are particularly horticulturally-minded we didn’t linger for too long. We continued our stroll and then came across Wolvesey Castle, also known as the Old Bishop’s Palace. Built for one of the old Bishops of Winchester, it has now been reduced to ruins and is in the care of English Heritage. Entry is free and there are some information panels dotted about to help understand the functions of each room. There isn’t too much to see here, but it’s definitely worth spending an hour to visit.

Following this we felt that we had managed to see the major attractions in Winchester, so we continued our walk along the river until it brought us back into the city centre. All that walking had given us an appetite, so it was definitely now time for lunch! We found a nice pub for lunch, which was then followed by a final walk through the rest of the city centre to bring us back to where we had parked the car.

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So that basically brings us to the end of our trip to the British seaside. Unfortunately it wasn’t as ‘seasidey’ as we would have liked, but I think we’ve both been in the UK long enough now to not rely on the weather too much. We still managed to have a great weekend despite the rain, and I’m certainly looking forward to returning to this part of the country again at some point, hopefully with the sun shining!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

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Dear travellers,

A very famous Italian song says something like “winter at the beach is an concept that the mind cannot conceive”. I find my strength in water, but I have never understood the beauty of visiting the seaside in winter and I have always quoted this song to those that claim that the beach in winter is extremely romantic. If you go to the beach, you need to be able to dive, snorkel, pretend you know how to do synchronised swimming, and all those things of the same style that tell everyone that you are an adult only according to your passport.

With this introduction, please feel free to ask what on earth I had in mind when I suggested to go to the seaside for May bank holiday when I knew it was going to rain. The answer will be that I have no idea. The previous week was incredibly hot and that, in a Sardinian brain, equals going to the beach, and so we did. We packed our flip flops and sandals, our strapless tops and dresses (or whatever Mr Wander’s version of that is), and we drove down to Portsmouth for the weekend to have a full British seaside experience. Of course, that also includes torrential rain. Anyway, let’s not go that far yet.

As usual, Mr Wander took care of the booking and found one of the best places we have been in so far. According to AirBnb, it was a lucky find as it is usually booked. The room was huge, with a very tall but comfy bed and all one can wish for, namely a dresser with mirror and a majestic bow window. The bathroom was tiny, more reminiscent of the ones that you find in a boat than of anything else, but it was brand new and with a decent size shower enclosure, so no problem at all. There was also a small separate kitchen with all the essentials and, in hindsight, we should definitely have had breakfast there, as the place we choose was disappointing to say the least.

As we arrived just before check-in time, we just left the car there and left for exploring. Lunch was sorted, if we want to say so, as we were planning on having fish and chips on the beach just before the storm. We headed to the Southsea roundabout where our research said we could find one of the best fish and chip places in town. Well, all I can say is that:

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While waiting for the food, just in front of the shop is a mural with the map of the city. it is an interesting project that was unveiled in 2012 and uses the technique of the trompe l’œil (literally, trick the eye). From a balcony at the top, a few people unroll a map of the city with some of the business listed. Around the map, more characters that are famous for the city (the founder and other renowned people), pop in from the windows or the street. Some important British people, such as most recently Henry VIII and Robin Hood, are painted in the likeness of Portsmouth residents. I say most recently because the peculiarity of this mural is that it is an ongoing work of art, with characters and places added every year.

We got our lunch and we headed to the sea, as the sky seemed to be holding off for the moment. We had time to enjoy our fish and chips while trying to understand what the huge platforms were that we could see offshore, but we had to leave soon after as it was starting to rain. We went to the arcade, the seaside quintessential attraction. We tried to win a cuddly toy, we played at the 2p machines for a while, and we left with some tokens in our pockets that were not even enough for a Chupa Chups. At this point, it was raining without mercy and we just walked next door to have a handmade ice cream at the Ice Cream Emporium. We chose it because we didn’t want to get wet but we didn’t regret it. The place is tiny, with a decent choice of flavours. All in white and aquamarine tones, it is decorated with ropes and boat-like gizmos that make it quite happy. At the back there are a few tables in perfect 1970’s American diner style. We could have probably stayed there for a while longer but the rain was not showing any sign of wanting to end soon, so we gathered all our courage and left anyway. We were less than 10 minutes walk from the accommodation and we tried to be as fast as we could. We were a bit tired after the trip and the undesired shower and we just fell asleep for the whole afternoon. We may have not explored too much, but we woke up to a sort of clear sky.

We decided to try our luck again and we walk to the harbour for dinner, also because we wanted to see a bit of this island city. Oh, yes, do you know that Portsmouth is the UK’s only island city? We hadn’t planned any cultural visit, we are not ashamed of admitting it, but now we feel we should go again for a bit of visiting rather than just relaxing. We just went for a walk along the coast and had a glimpse of the castle while walking to Gunwharf Quays. We had booked a table at Loch Fyne and we had plenty of time. The Quays are pretty distinctive, as they are modern and crammed with restaurants and pubs, but the most surprising feature is the Spinnaker Tower that makes you feel like you are in Dubai for a moment. Almost in front, is a huge figurehead from the HMS Marlborough. This figurehead represents the Duke of Marlborough and was used on the ship built in the second half of the XIX century. After being the flagship of the fleet for many years, the ship passed to be used for training engineers and then for the Torpedo School. When the ship was broken up in 1924, the figurehead was placed in its current position and, with the Spinnaker Tower on its side, it provides a perfect shot in perspective.

I have to admit that I often avoid restaurant chains and I usually prefer to go to local pubs. Probably because I have worked in a few places of this kind and I know that quality doesn’t come automatically with the name of a chain, I’d rather try small businesses and independent restaurants. For this reason, I had never been to any Loch Fyne in all my years in the UK. I am glad I trusted Mr Wander this time, because we had a really nice dinner. As it had stopped raining and it was not supposed to start again before 10 p.m., we wanted to sit outside, but we had to go inside anyway for dinner, and that was the only downside of the night, I would say. Before actually ordering for dinner, we had a Spritz outside enjoying the nice quiet between storms.

The dinner was good in general, but I have to say that my happiness arrived with dessert. By rule, you know, I don’t trust pubs that don’t offer sticky toffee pudding, but I am more flexible with restaurants, they can offer Eton Mess instead. Well, they did and I loved it, the cream was simply scrumptious! Mr Wander opted for whisky instead, in preparation for our tour of Scotland.

After dinner, hoping for a longer truce from the weather, we went for another drink at the Old Customs House, a pub just in front of the restaurant with a huge terrace and also plenty of space inside, definitely our choice as it was starting to become quite chilly. The building was used as the administrative headquarters of HMS Vernon until the late 1980s and dates back to 200 years earlier. When it was acquired by Fullers, it was not refurbished until 2012, when it went through a massive renovation in record time. As it is now, the place shines without having lost any of the old style fashion. With a huge double staircase to go to the toilets and a few small rooms with comfy sofas and armchairs apart from the main rooms with the bars, the pub makes you think of one of those gentlemen clubs that you imagine when reading Sherlock Holmes adventures. The atmosphere, together with their selection of beers, made us immediately agree that we made the right choice, judge for yourselves:

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The walk home was not bad, even if it started raining, as it was not much. Despite the cultural offer, we were not keen on staying in Portsmouth the following day after breakfast, and we decided to go to Winchester. Before leaving, we stopped for breakfast at The Parade Tea Room and we regretted it quite a lot. The place was full with a queue at the door but, as everyone was waiting for big tables, we could sit down immediately because they had one for two people. After all my work in restaurants I should have known better: If a place is full, don’t stay, the service and food will be bad. I didn’t listen to my experience and we ended up with a horrible breakfast. The room does not receive enough fresh air, therefore the air conditioning was trying to compensate by blowing cold air in the corner. The result was that the quality of the air was still bad and we had to eat with our jackets on. The wait was as we were told but the food was far below average. I had the vegetarian breakfast and the sausage was dry and tasteless, probably reheated a few times, definitely not fresh. The toasts came already buttered, which is a horrible habit. I understand you don’t want to waste your butter by putting some on each plate, but I don’t want butter on my toast, so I should be informed and given the choice. The egg was dry and overcooked. The cutlery was dirty, with old food stuck all over it, and after changing two knives and a teaspoon from the self-service desk, we gave up. To complete the picture, the need for tables was so bad that they were obviously trying to take stuff away as soon as possible to make people leave. Overall, definitely a thumbs down and I place I would never suggest!

We drove to Winchester without really knowing too much because, as I said, we didn’t really plan to go there. The place was a great surprise, I loved it very much and I was quite relaxed at lunchtime when we chose a pub that seemed not too bad but, as the rest, seemed to have suffered from a shortage of staff during the bank holiday. The main feature of the city is the Cathedral without any doubt, and a visit to it won’t disappoint you in the least. The cathedral is undergoing some major refurbishment but even with some parts being closed, it still takes your breath away. Pure Gothic style, the building dates back to XI century and is the longest Gothic Cathedral in Europe. The stone vault is more recent as it replaced the wooden ceiling in XIV century and it creates an incredible perspective that goes from the main nave to the choir, a beautifully chiselled wooden structure that, at the time of our visit, was used by the Danish choir for practice for the evening concert. We sat for a while, listening to them, before resuming our visit. Several famous people are buried in the cathedral, but no one deserved in my eyes more interest than Jane Austen. The author moved to the city hoping to find a solution for her condition but passed away soon after and was buried there. Her nephew, later, dedicated a plaque to her recognising her talent and her work.

One of the most important features of the cathedral is the Winchester Bible, a precious copy of the Bible in four volumes that dates back to XII century. Written by a single scribe, it was decorated by several artists with illuminations, which are decorations made with gold and silver leaves, and precious stones. For the fact of being the largest and best preserved example, the specimen is extremely precious and it is kept in special display cases that keep constant temperature and light. To protect the volume on display, photography is not permitted, but you can find out more about it and the rest of the cathedral on their website. The Bible is usually on display on the right side of the transept but that area is currently closed for refurbishment and the book now has its installation on the left, near the crypt. Here, a modern exhibition features a life-size statue of a man looking at the water in his hands. The crypt gets submerged during rainy months and offers a peculiar mirror effect.

Next to the cathedral and offering a beautiful view of it, there was a monastery and what was the monks’ dormitory is now the Dean Garnier Garden, a walled garden maintained by volunteers and open to the public. A short walk away from the cathedral is Wolvesey Castle, also known as Old Bishop’s Palace, a medieval castle that was the residence of the Bishop of Winchester for a few centuries up to the English Civil War. The building doesn’t exist anymore and the ruins of the ground floor are now an English Heritage site that can be visited for free. As the ruins are near the river, a short walk along the water will take you to the city centre again and took us to our late lunch at about 4 p.m.

That was all for our first trip of the year to the glorious British seaside and we are still waiting to repeat the experience. I am actually longing for some sea water on my feet but the weather doesn’t seem keen to cooperate. Will we be able to repeat before we go to Cornwall? Stay tuned to our profiles to find out!

Ms Lust

Stately homes and castles – part 1

Dear travellers,

We were planning this post for a while, but we were not sure how to shape it. As we have several visits still planned and we didn’t want to cramp too much information all in one post, we decided to split it into a series and to post as we go so to say.

I guess you have already seen our general post with the links to all the openings. I have to admit that we didn’t go to any of the first openings as these usually are very crowded, and also we have been busy on other trips for most of the spring, so we are now trying to fit in as much as we can before some of the homes close for winter. But let’s go back to our main subject and start with our first visit, for this post we will have little paragraphs divided as usual in two points of view. Please, follow us in our tour!

Kimbolton Castle

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We’ll start with the closest to home, which for us is Buckden Towers, located in Buckden, Cambridgeshire. Replacing a previous wooden structure from the 12th century, the current brick building dates from as far back as 1475 although some parts have been added more recently. Looking like a cross somewhere between a castle and a stately home, it must have been a formidable fortress when it still had its original moat.

There have been many notable visitors to this site, many monarchs included, and this area has a lot of connections with Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. This is where she was first held during their famous divorce before being moved to nearby Kimbolton Castle, which we will get to shortly. Unfortunately the building is not open to the public, however the grounds are open every day during daylight hours and it is free to enter. The coaching inn next door, The Lion Inn, dates from a similar period and it is entirely possible that King Henry VIII may have stopped here for a drink during one of his stays at Buckden Towers! Still providing accommodation and refreshment to travellers and locals alike, I would highly recommend The Lion Inn for lunch, dinner, or just a drink if you are in the area.

Kimbolton Castle, Catherine of Aragon’s next and final home, is unfortunately not as accessible. Currently owned and used by Kimbolton School, the building is only open to the public on two open days held during the year, usually one in March and the other in November. As it spends the vast majority of the year as a school, the interior of the building is understandably lacking in the fine art and treasures that you would normally expect to find in an English stately home. However that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a visit, as the volunteers that organise the open days provide some very interesting insights into the history of the house, both through guided mini-tours and informative displays. Some of the rooms of the house also warrant a visit even without any artefacts to bolster their appeal, most notably the chapel, the courtyard, and the Headmaster’s Office (originally the room that Catherine of Aragon was kept in). Unfortunately the weather wasn’t being too kind when we visited, and we weren’t able to fully explore the grounds without risking an unexpected shower. I’m sure we’ll be back for another one of their open days to finish off the tour!

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This stately home, as many of them do, has an interesting history. It was originally built as a Norman castle but nothing of that remains today. The actual town of Kimbolton was built as a marketplace for the castle and still thrives. The Tudor castle that was built afterwards had some famous guests, Catherine of Aragon being probably the most known. The current building partly saved the building the queen lived in but has mainly been rebuilt and is now a school. It usually opens a couple of times a year and the volunteers are eager to tell you everything about the history and the ghosts!

On the left of the entrance, where is now the Headmaster’s office, were Catherine of Aragon’s chambers. The Queen, who was married to Henry VIII for 24 years, never accepted to be called “Dowager Princess of Wales”, the only title that the King would accept for her as his brother’s widow. Before being confined to Kimbolton, she stayed a few months in another building very near to us, Buckden Towers.

Going back to Kimbolton, as I said, the building is quite modern and keeps evolving with the times in order to provide an adequate environment for the students, and several of the rooms have been modified. The old servants area still presents some of the old features, including some old windows, although some that were external are now part of the internal walls due to the extensions added to the building. In the internal court, some of the hooks for the buckets used to extinguish fires are still visible but are now just part of the decorations.

Do not miss one of the next opening days:

Sunday 5 November 2017, 1-4pm

Sunday 4 March 2018, 1-4pm

Burghley House

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The first true stately home that we visited, Burghley House is a grand mansion just north of Peterborough. Built during the Elizabethan period of the 16th century, it is a very good example of the large homes of this period. The house is still lived in today by the Cecil family, so not all of it is open to the public however there is still a large number of rooms that can be viewed. The tour of the house starts in the kitchen, which has been recreated into a scene of life in Tudor times. From here you are taken upstairs and through the main body of the house. The rooms that are open to the public are mainly state rooms used by guests, most notably the rooms that Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria used on their visits to the estate. As would be expected, the rooms are furnished beautifully and filled with many fine artworks and artefacts, although it has a more functional atmosphere than more extravagant places such as Waddesdon Manor.

The tour of the house didn’t take as long as expected, as not all of it is accessible, and we then went to explore the grounds. Originally designed by Capability Brown, a famous landscape designer of the time, the grounds are extremely vast and impressive. The highlight for me was the river and bridge at the rear of the grounds, a very pleasant setting which would have been perfect for a picnic. We didn’t explore the grounds as much as we would have liked, so we’re already planning a return visit! Fortunately a ticket for here is valid for the calendar year, so it gives plenty of opportunities for visits.

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One of the most incredible examples of an Elizabethan house is definitely Burghley House. Built in the XVI century, it still conserves its original exterior. The family who built it, the Cecils, still live in the house but a big part of it is accessible for the visit. While you walk through the rooms, called by their colours, you can learn about the famous visitors who stayed in them, including Queen Victoria, both when still a princess and after her coronation, and Queen Elizabeth I.

The works of art in the house are incredible: Hundreds of paintings by great European masters such as Caravaggio just to name one, frescos that cover entire rooms floor to ceiling, ornaments, furniture, everything has an inestimable value. What I can say, and you can understand by looking at the pictures, is that it feels quite cramped, as if the room were to fall on the visitor. Of course, I had that impression especially in the kitchen, which is full of copper tins everywhere and, after living in my Sardinian home, I am immediately disturbed by these objects. The fact that there was a real-size copper turtle as well definitely didn’t help.

One thing that I definitely loved was to see all the bells for the servants. As a big fan of Downton Abbey (we will come back to that soon), I can’t help but remember the opening every time I see the panels with all the wires and bells. They are not just in Burghley House, of course, but they were in such a peculiar position in this case that they stay in my memory as iconic. Walking out of the kitchen, we are soon in a small, dark room that then leads upstairs; the walls are covered with wood panels, and the bells run all around the walls just over the wood. Standing under there makes you feel amazed and trapped at once, as if they could start ringing and you were forced to start your day of work. A few flights of stairs, the first one still covered with wooden panels and then more elegant, all stone and with round arches, take you to the chapel and then all the main rooms.

As one who doesn’t like gardens, I have to admit that Burghley House’s gardens are beautiful. Not just walking along them to see the beauty of the building from outside, but the gardens themselves. there is a river along them and they are immense. They were originally built by Capability Brown, an eminence of the time, and now include also the Garden of Surprises with fountains, sculptures, water shows, and a little maze. They are something not to miss.

The ticket gives you access to the House for the whole year and a 50% discount on some other listed buildings, which is not bad. The Christmas market is very famous, so we are looking forward to go back again a few times before the end of the year!

Hedingham Castle

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This one is slightly different to the places above, as the purpose of our visit was not for exploring. My cousin had her wedding here in the spring, and in my mind she couldn’t have chosen a better, or more interesting venue. The most well-preserved Norman keep in England, it is the embodiment of all those castles we used to draw when we were kids. Four square walls with some battlements on top, this is a true castle that was built for function rather than show. Still a formidable fortress to this day, it’s easy to see how it has managed to survive for so long.

As I said, the exterior is fairly plain. The few windows it has are small and give little insight into the goings-on inside, and the only real feature is the steps up to the entrance. Once inside however, it is a completely different story. Obviously it has been dressed up a bit for the wedding, yet I could see how it would have been impressive nonetheless. With the exception of a few modern amenities such as flushing toilets and a bar, it still feels like a Norman castle inside as well. There are three floors that are still accessible to the public, each containing a large, singular room. We would be using all three during the course of the day, much to our delight! The first room you enter is the reception room, which is the middle room of the three. This is where we found the modern creature comforts, the other two floors are purely medieval. A large room with chandeliers and a few artefacts here and there, it is a good introduction for what is to come. For the ceremony we went upstairs to the Great Hall, which is like something out of a movie. A huge fireplace, a balcony at the rear (from which the ring-bearing barn owls came from), and ancient weaponry on the walls, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Robin Hood himself had gatecrashed proceedings! It really is a beautiful setting for a wedding ceremony, but my favourite room was yet to come.

After the ceremony, we made our way down to the bottom floor which is home to the banqueting room. This room is everything you would expect a medieval banqueting room to be, right down to the metal goblets provided for our drinks. There was none of the usual round tables dotted around a room found at most weddings, here there are three long tables stretching the length of the room. As such there is no head table either, and it was a really nice touch for my cousin and the rest of the wedding party to be seated in the very centre of the room. The darkness caused by the small, high windows only added to the atmosphere, and I’m glad that the artificial lighting was also kept low. Again, I couldn’t think of a better place for a wedding, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first medieval banquet (of many I hope!!).

The castle isn’t just used for weddings, and it is possible to visit when there isn’t a function being held here. I would thoroughly recommend it, especially when one of their many medieval-themed events are taking place.

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A bit of a different experience has been our time in Hedingham Castle, as we were invited there for a wedding. The difference in this experience is not just due to my personal opinion on wedding ceremonies, although it is part of it. This castle is a private property that is owned by the heirs of the family that bought it in the XVIII century. The family lives in the country house also in the grounds and the keep is the only surviving part of the castle that was built in the XII century. Visits are limited, on their website it seems like they open on Wednesday and Sundays or, as in our case, you have access when the building is hired for events. These help financing the building maintenance, which is not supported by any institutions and it is paid for by the owners.

Going back to the building, it is surrounded by wonderful gardens and a lake. The tower has four levels:

– The lower level, where the banqueting hall was installed in this case. This part has access from one side of the tower through a huge portal which made it easy for the catering to install the marquee and reach us at the tables. In the case of the wedding, all the table was dressed in style, with metal goblets and Venetian style masks, which was a detail that completed the picture.

– The two levels above were probably the Guardroom and the Great Hall. An external staircase grants you access to the Guardroom, where seats and the bar were installed. From here, access to both the lower and the upper levels is granted by my nemesis, the spiral staircase, which is even less loved when wearing a tight dress and 10 cm high heels. I guess I am glad I didn’t drink too much!

The Great Hall is dominated by a majestic chimney. Although all the rooms follow the same plan, the fireplace in the Great Hall, with a cuirass and two axes over it, is quite a sight. A balcony runs along the sides of the rooms at another level granting a privileged position to those looking down at the Hall. In our case, the ceremony was officiated in this room and we had the plus of a bird of prey diving into the hall to entrust the rings to the best man. It was a perfect fit to the surrounding and an incredible surprise.

The location is impressive, definitely worth a visit, and we wish we had more time and more comfortable shoes in order to wander around the gardens, but the ceremony added some details that made the visit quite exquisite, definitely not what I was expecting by a wedding. Due to the restrictions on visiting days, plan your visit wisely but definitely give it a shot!

Lyveden

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Ah, the stately home that could have been! The dream of Sir Thomas Tresham, Lyveden New Bield was designed as a summerhouse for entertaining his guests. Unfortunately the construction was hindered by his poor financial credentials, and the fact that he spent a lot of time in prison due to this. However construction continued until Sir Thomas’s death when, realising that they would now never be paid, the workers downed tools and the estate has been left in this unfinished state ever since. This makes this building rather unique in that in original inspection it would appear to be ruins, however it doesn’t take long to realise that the building is actually in very good condition despite never being completed. This was the first National Trust home that we visited, and I have to say that they have done an incredible job preserving this site. Every single thing about the house and the grounds is in such good condition, it feels like the workers stopped work only a few days prior to your visit. It really is incredible that this building has remained so intact despite not even having a roof or floors, and that it has stood for so long without damage. Most complete stately homes and castles of this age aren’t in such good condition!

As I mentioned, the construction was halted before walls had been completed, and the roof and floors had yet to be started. From the outside it is easy to see how the house would have looked if it had been completed, but it is a different story once you head inside. Entering through what would have been the servants’ entrance (the main entrance required steps which hadn’t been built yet), it is hard to imagine where you are and what each room was designed for. The house was designed in a cross shape which means that a lot of the rooms are very similar to each other, and their lack of furniture or other adornments means their functions are not obvious (with the exception of the kitchen where the fireplace and larder were obvious features). This is why I would highly recommend the audio tour that the National Trust provide as part of the entrance fee. Highly informative, it gives a fantastic insight into the history of the house and explains what each room was intended for. This makes it a whole lot easier to imagine how it would have looked if completed, and Sir Thomas’s dream starts to come alive.

After exploring the house, it was time for a walk around the grounds. Again these have been preserved to the exact state that the workmen would have left them in. Seemingly closer to completion than the house, yet there are still obvious signs that it was abandoned. The most obvious of these is the moat. Three sides of the moat had been finished, which then ends abruptly where the fourth side should have been. Strolling through the grounds, with the help of the audio guide, really gives an insight into the mentality of Sir Thomas Tresham and the motives behind his dream. As with all stately homes, it was driven by ego and showmanship. The summerhouse was to be his masterpiece, and every aspect of the grounds had been designed to showcase the house for his guests’ admiration.

I really enjoyed exploring Lyveden New Bield, as it gives you the chance to admire the building rather than being overwhelmed with all the treasures inside. It was really interesting to find out the story behind it as well, and to be able to see Sir Thomas’s vision. If you do visit here, make sure to bring your imagination with you! Oh, and also leave some time for a cream tea at the National Trust café on-site, you won’t regret it!

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The start of our National Trust membership in June was celebrated with a hike in the Peak District and a visit to Lyveden New Bield. This building is unfinished and yet the visit is extremely interesting. Not too far from us in Northamptonshire, the estate was the dream and ruin of the Tresham family. Ruined by the taxes requested from the followers of the Catholic faith and by the participation of some members of the family to the Gunpowder plot, the Treshams never finished the construction of this home.

Although inside it was never completed, the external walls are still perfectly standing as they workers left them when they abandoned the project after hearing of their employer’s death and understanding that they were never going to be paid for the job. The audio guide takes you through the rooms and makes you imagine what is missing and how the house, once completed, would have hosted guests and parties.

The walk through the grounds is both interesting and pleasing, with the guide explaining the projects of the original owner through the messages to his workers. The National Trust has recreated what was in the original design, planting the same fruit trees and keeping alive the decorations that were thought for the amusement of the guests. We went on an extremely hot afternoon and some comfortable shoes and insect repellent are a good idea, but even with ballerinas you can enjoy the visit without struggling.

Two highlights of the visit: The red kite flying over us during our visit and the National Trust café. They seem two bizarre things to list together, but it was a sweet sight to see the bird of prey cutting through the perfectly blue sky while we were enjoying our cream tea in the garden surrounded by little finches that were trying to make the most of all the crumbs left on the tables by the scrumptious scones. After this visit, we already thought that our membership had paid off, and we still are on the same page!

Waddesdon Manor

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The most recent of our visits was to the National Trust owned Waddesdon Manor, a Rothschild family home which is truly unique. Commissioned and built in the late 19th century, it was purposefully designed to be reminiscent of a French château. Perched on top of a hill in the Buckinghamshire countryside, it manages to look completely out of place yet perfectly presented all at once. This really sets it apart from all the other stately homes in the UK, most likely the reason why it is one of the most visited National Trust properties. It is recommended that you book in advance as tickets are numbered, and each is allocated a specific entrance time to the house. We only booked a day or two in advance and there was plenty of time slots left to choose from, but I would suggest booking as far in advance as you can to avoid disappointment.

The house is on top of a fairly steep hill, with the visitor car park situated at the bottom. There is the option to take a free shuttle bus up to the house, or to take a walk along one of the many walking tracks through the grounds. We opted for the sensible option, and decided to take the bus up and then to take the downhill walk back! The shuttle bus drops visitors off at the North Fountain, with an incredible view of the house through the grounds. We had arrived a little early to enter the house, so we took a short walk around the grounds and discovered the aviary. This building is more reminiscent of the period in which it was built, a very Victorian style structure housing many species of birds that I had never heard of before. The most famous of these is the Rothschild’s Mynah, named after Lord Rothschild. Most of the species here are critically endangered and some are even extinct in the wild, and although it isn’t ideal for them to be in captivity it is reassuring to know that the birds here are being used in breeding programmes to help reintroduce them to the wild.

After our short walk it was time to enter the house, and it doesn’t take long for the decadence of this place to be apparent. Starting in the Oval Hall, there are three options for which route to take. There are volunteers to help lost visitors and to keep everyone heading in the same direction, and fortunately we had an audio guide to direct us as well. The audio guide can be purchased with the tickets, or it can be downloaded for free onto a smartphone (although it would seem that it does need to be smarter than my phone!). Every single room is chocked full of treasures in the form of artwork, fine furniture, pottery, and many other very expensive artefacts. Most of the furniture and collections are from the French Renaissance period while the artwork is mostly of English origin, combining in what has become known as the Rothschild style. As the house is no longer lived in, the vast majority of the rooms are open to the public. There are many drawing rooms, bedrooms, and dining rooms, all filled with precious items. This was a place built solely for entertaining and as a showcase of their wealth, and this is evident everywhere you look. The house is so extravagant that Queen Victoria actually requested to stay here on numerous occasions. She was also taken by the fact that Waddesdon Manor was quick to install an electricity supply, and she was fascinated by the electric lighting in the house.

After exploring the rooms, including those favoured by Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and other notable guests, it was time to head back outside to continue exploring. There are a couple of other buildings that are open to the public and included in the entry ticket, the stables and the powerhouse. The stables feature a courtyard with a cafe and ice cream stall, and at the time of our visit part of the stables were open for an art exhibition. The powerhouse was originally used to control the electricity supply of the house, and the original equipment is still in place along with the small electric elevator that had also been installed in the house. Now the building is also used to show short videos explaining the background of the property, worth ten minutes or so to view them if you have time. After this our explorations were finished and it was time to head back to the car park. As we had walked quite a long way around the house and through the grounds, our original plan was abandoned and we opted to take the bus back to the car park. They are very frequent, and just too convenient!

On the way to Waddesdon Manor we had noticed signs for a number of other National Trust properties nearby, so we decided to try and fit one more in while we were in the area. The perfect choice seemed to be Ascott House, a Tudor building that had also been a Rothschild family home. Unfortunately we didn’t quite make it in time to enter the house, but we were able to view it from the outside and to explore the grounds. Certainly not as grand as Waddesdon Manor, Ascott House has a more homely feel to it. Reminiscent of all those houses we imagine from Shakespearean plays, it is also very well-preserved. The grounds are large, yet not grand with only a few sculptures and fountains located in hidden gardens around the periphery. The main area of the grounds is a large open space more familiar to parklands rather than stately homes. I would love to be able to tell you more about it, but you’ll just have to wait until we can go for a more timely visit, or visit for yourself!

Well, that’s all the visits we’ve managed so far, but you can be assured they will be plenty more in the best future. So stay tuned for part two!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

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Another beauty in the list of the National Trust, Waddesdon Manor has a completely different story. This building was created from scratch at the end of the XIX century by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild who wanted his own French château in the middle of the British countryside. Thought to be a showcase for his art collection, the manor grew with the times, both with additions to his original plan and with improvements to adapt with modern times, being one of the first places to install electricity (for great amusement of Queen Victoria when she visited) and to have a lift. The collection keeps growing with more additions in the present time, and Waddesdon Manor goes through deep cleaning every winter when closed, a cleaning that follows the rules established by the Baron’s sister.

The tours follows a very organised path and is easy to follow, and when you buy your tickets online you are suggested to download the app with the audio guide. We followed the suggestion and it is a great idea, you can choose what you listen to and see the images and videos on your phone in a very handy app with lots of extras. The furniture is incredible, with real art pieces in every room. The care for the objects is extreme and many pieces of furniture and fabrics in general are covered with fine nets to preserve them from further deterioration. The paintings and the clocks, in particular the big musical clock in the conservatory and the elephant clock, are definitely the most beautiful objects in the collection for my taste, but you can find many fine porcelain objects and full sets of plates that will astonish you as well.

The gardens around the manor are definitely reminiscent of the ones in Versailles, often cited as an example. In the grounds you also have a few interesting diversions. First of all, the Aviary, with cages with different birds, all set in a semi-circle with a fountain in the middle. Another interesting part is the Power House, a small building with a screen with information about the activities such as the wine nights and the foundation activities, the old power units and the original lift. About the wine nights, the manor produces some fine wines and organises dinners and wine tastings for all tastes and prices, have a look at their website for the dates scheduled up to the end of the year. Further away in the grounds are the Stables. You know my issue with horses, but this place is not used as stables anymore, it is instead partly a café and partly a small exhibition centre for modern art. I fell in love with these dresses showcased there!

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The carpark is located at a certain distance from the manor but shuttle buses run every 7-8 minutes to take you to two stops, the actual building and the stables. You can also choose to walk back, but you will have a fair share of walking in the actual house and in between places through the woods if you want. That’s what we did and we were glad for the bus there and back.

Near Waddesdon there is another National Trust place, Ascott House, a Tudor house with extensive artistic grounds. Unfortunately, we arrived late for the last entry (or on time to be more precise) and we didn’t get in, but we had a walk around the grounds to enjoy the views and the fountains. I guess we should plan a wine and cheese escape to Waddesdon Manor soon and combine it with this visit.

There are so many other splendid buildings in the UK, symbols of luxury and squanders of the old times, but many of them are living a second golden age thanks to foundations and trusts and are actually working in different ways for the community. This second half of the summer should be pretty busy again and we can’t wait to tell you more about our next visits, we have some special ones already booked, stay tuned!

Ms Lust

Scottish fairies, Islands, and Highlands

Dear readers,

If you have read the post about our trip to Rome, you’ll know that we like to buy holidays for each other rather than presents for our birthdays. So in June, I have the pleasure of planning and taking Ms Lust on holiday for her birthday. As I did in January, Ms Lust had given me a shortlist of three destinations, and it was then left to me to choose which of these we would go to. Although they had been given in no particular order, it was clear that Ms Lust’s top choice was to go to the Isle of Skye in Scotland. This was more due to a particular place on Skye rather than the island itself, but we’ll come back to that later. I’d wanted to visit here myself for a long time too, so it was an easy decision to make in the end and I was soon looking into our options for visiting the Isle of Skye.

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As it would just be me driving, I had decided to book a flight to Glasgow and then hire a car to drive the rest of the way. It didn’t really make it any quicker or cheaper, but I didn’t fancy 10 or 11 hours of driving each way, especially with only a few days to make the most of or in which to recover. So we arrived in Glasgow after our morning flight from Stansted, and went to pick up the hire car. I was pleasantly surprised that we didn’t have to wait too long, but my delight soon faded. Why is hiring a car in the UK such an arduous and complex process? I don’t want to start moaning already though, we had a fantastic time and I’d rather be talking about that!

With the hire car sorted, we set off on our way to Skye. We still had approximately five hours of driving before we would get there, but we also had plenty of time to stop and go exploring along the way. I’d planned a rough route to take, not the most direct in order to take in as many sights as we could. After leaving Glasgow, we first made our way through Loch Lomond National Park. I had visited here before on holiday many years ago as a child, and was curious to see how much I would remember. We found a place where we could park and eat lunch, and we were able to walk down to the loch from here.  In all honesty it reminded me of standing by the lake in Queenstown more than anything else, the landscapes are so similar although I have to say that Loch Lomond is a lot more peaceful!

As we drove further through the national park, we then found an unexpected treasure, the Falls of Falloch. Located on a river that feeds into Loch Lomond, a short walk from the car park past some smaller falls led us to this amazing place. I always prefer places which require a little bit of effort to reach, rather than simply parking the car, stepping out to take a few photos, and then getting straight back on the road again. I feel that it makes you appreciate it more and that the destination is somehow improved by the journey to get there. Definitely worth the walk, the falls erupt from the surrounding woodland and provide some stunning views. A viewpoint has been constructed at the end of the track, but there are plenty of other spots which give spectacular views of their own.

Back on the road and continuing our journey north, there were so many places that we wanted to stop at but it simply would not have been possible to stop everywhere. The weather was also beginning to turn on us, with the frequent showers becoming heavier and heavier, and we didn’t want to risk getting caught in a downpour so early in the holiday! We did manage to fit in a few quick photo stops before reaching Glencoe however, where we would also stop to see the famous Three Sisters.

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At this point I realised that we would be unable to complete part of my planned route, which created more decisions to make. Although we weren’t going to be staying on the Isle of Skye itself, I had wanted to take a ferry from Mallaig to the island and to drive through the Sleat peninsula on our way. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t on our side and strong winds had meant that the ferry had been cancelled. As for our route, this now meant that we would have to stay on the mainland and leave Skye until the following day. However this meant we would not now be going past a couple of places that I had wanted to visit, and we had to decide whether to take a detour to still be able to visit them or not. In the end we compromised to make sure we wouldn’t be arriving too late at our accommodation, and we would drive out to Glenfinnan and back but the coral beach at Morar would have to wait until our next trip to this area.

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Glenfinnan is originally famous for being the site where the Jacobite uprising began, when Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard here in 1745. The Glenfinnan Monument was built in 1815 to memorialise those that lost their lives in the battles that ensued, and it is still standing today by the banks of Loch Shiel. Today however, it seems it is more famous for its viaduct, used as a filming location for the Harry Potter films. Fortunately the two sites are a stone’s throw from each other, and we were able to see both in between the increasingly frequent rain showers.  Now time was starting to run out and we set off for the last leg of the day’s journey to our accommodation in Craig, near Plockton and a 10 minute drive from the Skye Bridge onto the island.

Another one of my AirBnB finds (click here for a signing up discount), we were staying in a lodge on a farm that seemed to be used more for tourism purposes rather than agriculture. We didn’t have much time to see the animals, but the setting was incredible and made for some fantastic views as we were leaving and returning each day. We arrived with time to spare and took the opportunity to freshen up before heading out again to find somewhere for dinner. As I mentioned before, Plockon was the nearest town and we had been told that it has a good reputation for food. This was to become our destination for dinner a couple of times, and we were never disappointed. Most of the restaurants in this area take advantage of the local produce available, especially seafood, and we were able to try some wonderful Scottish dishes during our stay (including the odd haggis here and there!).

The next day would be the start of our explorations of the Isle of Skye, and also the first of two days that I had planned more thoroughly. For this day, we would be travelling around the most northern peninsula of Skye, the Trotternish peninsula. A huge, 30 km long landslip here has created some of Skye’s most famous and dramatic landscapes, and it was our intention to try and see as many as we could. Our first stop was the Fairy Glen near Uig, probably the least well-known of the day’s excursions and therefore the least crowded. Located a few kilometres down a single-track road unsuitable for tour buses (hence why it was so quiet!), I was glad I had looked up directions before leaving as there were no signs for this attraction until we actually arrived and I would never have found it otherwise. Fairies feature heavily in Skye’s folklore, and there are many sites on the island that are attributed to these magical creatures. The Fairy Glen doesn’t really have its own story, it is simply named due to the landscape found there looking like something straight out of a fairy tale. Everything in Skye, and the Scottish Highlands as well, is incredibly green. The mountains, lochs, and waterfalls make the scenery so beautiful anyway, but I guess living in New Zealand had made me a little less awestruck by this than I otherwise would have been. What is different to New Zealand is the greenness that covers absolutely everything. It may have been because we visited at the start of summer, but it really does make every landscape look magical. And with the unique shape of the land at the Fairy Glen, it really is easy to see how it got its name.

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This was our only stop on the west side of the peninsula, so we made our way eastwards to our next destination, the Quiraing (I have yet to find out how this is pronounced, any help is greatly appreciated!). This is the first of the landscapes created by the famous landslip, which has exposed some wonderful geological features. When seeing the sign directing us over ten miles down a single-track road to such a well-known tourist spot, I had horrifying images of having to stop every two seconds to let the constant convoy of hire cars and tour buses past. Luckily I was worrying for nothing, and the road was reasonably quiet. I had been tempted to continue on the main road around the top of the peninsula, in retrospect I am glad that we didn’t as I would probably have missed the Quiraing altogether! There is a car park just on the side of the road, with a walking track starting on the opposite side. How far you go and how long you stay here is entirely up to you. The main features of the Quiraing are actually visible from the car park, and after walking approximately 200 metres down the track the landscape really opens up into some stunning views. For the more adventurous the track continues, and there are walks of various lengths and difficulties that can be completed from this starting point. For us, our itinerary was too busy to stay for too long, and we were content with just completing the first section of the walk before heading back and continuing down the east coast.

Our next stop was our first real experience of how busy Skye can get, and the car park at the Kilt Rock viewing area was jam-packed when we arrived. Kilt Rock is a cliff where the unique geology has created a sheer face that resembles a kilt. Also just in front of the cliff is a small waterfall called Mealt Falls. There isn’t much here to keep you too long, just a couple of viewpoints which are only about 20 metres from the car park. So after taking a few photos from each, we were soon back on the road and feeling like it was time for something to eat. My biggest piece of advice for anyone travelling to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland is this: plan everything as well as you can. Unfortunately in terms of when and where we would eat, I hadn’t done so and left us with very few options. Skye is a very rural area and although it has become a busy tourist destination, some things still operate at their own pace. As such, not realising that everything would be shut on Sundays, we were left with nowhere to have lunch until finishing our trip around the peninsula and returning to Portree.

So we carried on and proceeded to our next stop, Rubha nam Brathairean or Brothers Point, another often overlooked beauty spot. Again this is probably due to the lack of signs, we also only found it due to my earlier research. Basically just a layby on the side of the road with a footpath on the other side, it would be easily missed. I even missed it on the first pass, noticing the footpath sign just as it was too late to stop and we had to turn around to go back. We were very glad that we did go back, as after a walk along the footpath we were rewarded with some great views of the Skye coastline. It would have been easy to have spent a few hours here exploring, but our stomachs were becoming angry and encouraged us to head back.

The last stop on our itinerary was possibly the most disappointing, the Old Man of Storr. Similar to the Quiraing, this is a landscape formed by the landslip. The Old Man of Storr itself is a natural obelisk that was left protruding from the landscape. This is another of the main tourist spots in this area, and even when we arrived late in the afternoon it was still very busy. The footpath up to the Old Man of Storr is a long, steep slog which we were told would take two hours to reach the top and back. With no time nor inclination for a walk of that length, we decided to start and see how far we would get or if we would find a good viewpoint on the way. The truth is, the view from the footpath is particularly disappointing. The whole way up you are directly in front of the ridge and the Old Man of Storr, which makes it very hard to identify where it actually is. To be completely honest, the views from the road both before and after the car park were much better, thanks to being able to view the landscape from a different angle. It may be that it is truly wonderful once you reach the top, but we weren’t prepared to spend so much time and effort to find out and after about fifteen minutes of climbing we decided to head back down.

After this we really did need to find somewhere to eat and we parked up in Portree, unfortunately it seemed that everyone else had had the same idea. Every restaurant we tried was full, with waiting times all being about an hour, so in the end we gave up and drove on to the next town, Sligachan.  Here we were more fortunate, and we found somewhere to satisfy our haggis cravings on only our second attempt. It had been another very long day, but we had seen some fantastic landscapes and we were ready for more!

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The next day was Ms Lust’s birthday, so she was in charge of what we would do. I had made some suggestions but there was one place that was absolutely non-negotiable. The place that Ms Lust had wanted to visit, and basically the whole reason we were visiting Skye, was the Fairy Pools. Another of Skye’s enchanted areas, this is a cascade of waterfalls on a stream of incredibly clear water that has run down from the mountains. Again this isn’t very well signposted from the main road (I think the locals are trying to keep some of these spots to themselves!), it really is worth doing your homework beforehand to be able to find these places. The Fairy Pools really are spectacular, and one pool is particularly beautiful. Two pools, one with a waterfall dropping into it, connected by an underwater arch, provide reason enough for the name. These were the pools we had also earmarked for a swim, which we had brought wetsuits along for. The climb down to the pools is fairly dangerous, especially once the rocks have become wet and slippery, but the advantage of this is that you get the pool more or less to yourself if you are willing to make the descent. We did, and instantly were thankful that we had. It is such a beautiful place and, despite the water being so cold, swimming here is something I will remember forever.

After our swim, we dried off and continued a little further up the path. It is possible to walk all the way back to Sligachan, marked as a 4.6 kilometre walk. We didn’t go that far, even just a few hundred metres further gave us the chance to see so many other pools that were equally as beautiful. Plus we hadn’t started the day as early as planned so we now needed to get back on the road. Our next stop was to be Dunvegan Castle, after Ms Lust had decided she would prefer a cultural stop to break up all of nature and landscape stops we had been making.

Dunvegan Castle was originally a medieval castle built in the fourteenth century, and the ancestral home of the MacLeod clan. Since then, various clan chiefs have made their own additions and, although they have been made in the same style as the castle, it now seems more like a stately home. The castle sits on the shores of a loch and offers great views of the loch and the surrounding countryside. Inside there wasn’t too much to see, the main draw is the infamous Fairy Flag which is said to bring good luck. An heirloom of the MacLeod clan, it is said to have been raised in battle at times when defeat seemed inevitable, and every time the clan have gone on to be victorious.

Included with the ticket is access to the castle gardens, which we had a short walk around. With neither of us being particularly interested in horticulture, we were there mainly for the views it offered of the castle. As a result, the price of the ticket seemed a little expensive as we were only there for about an hour, but it was an interesting visit nonetheless. Once we had finished at the castle, we only really had time to head back to our accommodation to prepare for dinner. Naturally we made a couple of quick stops along the way, one of which was to finally take a photo of this bridge that we had passed so many times already! As we made our way back, we said our goodbyes to the Isle of Skye as the next day we would be heading back south.

After going for breakfast at our new favourite cafe in Kyle of Lochalsh, we set off on the road back towards the lowlands of Scotland. We hadn’t gone too far however before it was time for our first stop of the day, at Eilean Donan Castle. I had found out about this castle while researching the holiday, and as soon as I saw it I decided we had to go. I instantly recognised it as the castle from The World Is Not Enough, and later found out it had been used in the filming of Highlander as well. A truly iconic, typically Scottish castle, it just had to be worth a visit. And it really was, a lot more of the castle is open to the public than at Dunvegan Castle, and it is wonderful to be able to explore both the inside of the castle and the ramparts. I guess the fact that it costs only just over half as much to get in as well is what makes the ticket for Dunvegan Castle seem a lot.

The location of Eilean Donan Castle is just perfect, protruding into the water at the meeting point of three lochs. The piper playing by the shore to greet visitors finishes off this perfect setting, it felt like a true Scottish experience. We spent a lot longer here, but we had to be wary of time to make where we would have enough spare for some stops on our way to Stirling. So after exploring the castle to its extent, it was time to continue heading south.

I had made a slight detour in order to be able to see Loch Ness, which didn’t really live up to my expectations. I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but it really is just like all the other lochs we had seen on the trip. I guess I was always going to be disappointed unless I had actually seen Nessie’s head poking out of the water! With my curiosity satisfied, our next port of call was one we had been putting off since the first day on Skye. We had decided we should visit a whisky distillery while in Scotland, and our first choice had been to visit the Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye. With all the other visits we wanted to make here we simply hadn’t had the time, so out next choice was to stop at the Edradour distillery near Pitlochry on our way to Stirling (I came here with my parents and it has been my father’s favourite whisky ever since, so felt I needed to get it for myself!). Unfortunately we weren’t going to make it here before closing so we had to find another option, which turned out to be the Dalwhinnie distillery. I had never heard of this whisky before, but I’m certainly glad we stopped here. After a tour around the distillery and the storage sheds it was time for the important part, the tasting session. I personally prefer the pasty taste of west coast whiskies, and after smelling the malts of both Dalwhinnie and a west coast whisky I wasn’t expecting too much. I was pleasantly surprised and have certainly found another whisky to add to my drinking list, it is very smooth and flavoursome, give it a try!

After a brief stop in Perth for dinner at a great restaurant, we finally arrived in Stirling and found where we were staying. I had some reservations about the place I had booked, as I knew it was part of the university’s halls of residence, but it really was a great place to stay for the night. Considering it was also basically free as a package with our flights to Glasgow, I can’t praise it enough!

So our final day in Scotland was to be spent in Stirling, and I have to admit I hadn’t planned too much. Apart from the National Wallace Monument and Stirling Castle, I didn’t really know what else there was to see here. So we began the day at the National Wallace Monument, a huge tower that was built in 1815 in memory of the great William Wallace. It sits on top of a hill overlooking Stirling Bridge, the site of Wallace’s famous battle with the English, and there are fantastic views to be had of Stirling and the surroundings after climbing the 246 steps to the top of the monument. We were also lucky to have gone on a day when they have presentations to explain more about William Wallace and how he came to be the symbol of freedom in Scotland. Another very interesting visit, I really thought I would only be taking memories of fantastic landscapes away from this trip, however I learnt a lot about Scottish history and whisky as well!

After getting a bit lost waking back down through the woods from the monument, we had to decide where to go next. Stirling Castle seemed a bit expensive, and warranted more time to visit than the couple of hours we had left before having to head back to Glasgow for our flight home. So we ended up exploring the old part of Stirling city, and discovered some more interesting places to visit. Unfortunately the Old Jail was closed, but we had a look inside the Church of the Holy Rude which is the only church in Britain to have held a coronation other than Westminster Abbey. We also walked up to the castle for a walk around the grounds, and then by this point it was time to be grab some lunch and head to Glasgow.

So after battling our way through Glasgow’s rush hour traffic to reach the airport, it was time to say goodbye to Scotland for now. We have seen so many amazing places while we were there, and also so many more that we need to come back for. But by this point we really were weary travellers, trying to fit so much in to only a few days had left us very tired and, although we had had a fantastic time, the call of home was becoming very strong!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear readers,

Or should I say travellers? I guess I should, I take you on a new trip with me, so… dear travellers, today I want to tell you about our most recent trip, so I want to apologise for overwhelming you with details, but everything is incredibly fresh in my mind. Two years ago, in July, I read one of those articles about holiday destinations, you know, one of those “10 holiday destinations out of a fairy tale” or similar. There I saw the Fairy Pools and I started dreaming of visiting them. As they are in the Isle of Skye and not too easy to access, I postponed the visit until now. I know, there are tours available, but I honestly could not find the information about them. I actually emailed some of the touristic websites and was basically discouraged about doing it without a car. The situation might have changed in the last two years, but now there were groups exploring Skye, so I cannot understand why this lack of information.

Anyhow, when I said that to Mr Wander, he started looking up our options and planning everything. Living in Cambridgeshire, driving up to Skye would have taken about ten hours, so we decided to fly to Glasgow and then rent a car there. The time was about the same, but a lot more relaxing. Also, with all our love for our Delilah, a brand new car, even of the same size, was a much better experience for a trip like ours and all the hours of driving involved. Not to mention that I have no idea how much we would have spent in souvenirs and memorabilia if we had not had the limit of a hand luggage allowance to keep us at bay!

So, landed in Glasgow and collected our car, we immediately headed towards the Islands. The weather was not great but it was so quintessentially Scottish that we cannot complain. Actually, it rained a lot while we were driving, which made it perfect for exploring during moments of rest. Monday, the day we had planned for the Fairy Pools, was dry and nice, and our experience was perfect, but I will go back to that soon. On Saturday we drove from Glasgow to our accommodation in Craig with a few random stops on the way, first of all in Loch Lomond for a quick bite, we got our lunch at the airport but we were anxious for being in the road so we hadn’t eaten yet. It was only about 11 a.m., but we were up since 4 a.m., so it was more than fine to have lunch then, and that spot was a perfect excuse for a stop.

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Soon after that, another unplanned stop came up when we saw the sign for the Falls of Falloch. We had no idea what was there (well, falls, of course, but what to expect) but we had a nice surprise, as you can appreciate from our shots. As this was at the beginning, just after a bit of rain, the paths were a bit muddy and required a bit of care sometimes, but some people were there with simple trainers, so our beloved trekking shoes that accompany us since Australia were not afraid of sinking in there. Something we realised there was that the water in Scotland has a distinctive yellow-reddish colour, not just there but in the other waterfalls and rivers we saw during our five days there.

Something we wanted to do on our way to our accommodation was to see the steam train going over the Glenfinnan viaduct as this is the one that was used for Harry Potter’s Hogwart Express, but we were a bit late. We still managed to take a shot of the viaduct from the National Trust parking as then is when it started raining heavily and we decided to give the walk a miss.

We arrived fairly early in Craig and we had a bit of time to settle in before going for dinner. We were staying in a farm that has a few cabins rented through AirBnb. The place was overlooking the sea and it was beautiful to look out of our terrace every day. They had plenty of animals that we could feed. I don’t find this activity so incredible because of my origins, so we gave it a miss as well. Coming from a small town in Sardinia, it is nothing special for me, as we always had farm animals at home. Hens and rabbits were always there, and we often had geese and turkeys; we even had a baby goat and a lamb for a few months.

For dinner, we went to Plockton, one of the bigger towns near us, and we had some haggis and fish at the Plockton Hotel. I was not too keen on haggis, but as a starter, and accompanied by whisky, I decided to give it a try, and I was not disappointed. The fish was obviously good, as there is always fresh supply around there. As a matter of principle, I don’t really trust a British pub that doesn’t include sticky toffee pudding in its menu, and  I was happy to see that all the places we chose for our dinners had it at the top of their list. Of course, as a result, we had had it every night apart from Sunday. I am sometimes disappointed when they warm it up too much and the sponge becomes a bit bitter because it is slightly burned, but I have to say they were all quite good there. If I had to choose, I would probably say that I preferred the first one, because the sponge was quite soft and not dry at all and there was so much caramel sauce. Here is a collage of the three, sorry for the bad quality of some pictures, when tasty food is involved I can’t focus (pun intended!).

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Sunday was all dedicated to exploring the natural beauties of the Isle of Skye and we were lucky enough to arrive at the different locations in between rain showers, although it was quite windy the whole day. Our first stop was in Kyle of Lochalsh for breakfast at Hector’s Bothy, a place so nice and with such a good quality of food that we repeated on Tuesday as well, while we got take away cakes on Monday. We then headed to Fairy Glen, where there actually was a girl dressed like a fairy posing for a photoshoot, or something like that. All we know is that it took her and the photographer half an hour to choose the spot and then they were gone immediately, I didn’t even see her without a coat, but maybe they only needed one shot and I missed that exact moment. We went hiking a few hills and I started climbing this rock that from a certain perspective, looks like Harry Potter’s sorting hat. Of course, when I arrived to the top I realised that the path was very narrow and I had to look down to climb down and I regretted my choice. When I pointed out to Mr Wander that I am an idiot and he shouldn’t follow an idiot, he wisely said that at least he is not afraid of heights. Taking in all the wisdom of that reply and realising that I am actually a bigger idiot than I thought, I started climbing down pretending I was fine.

Our second stop was the Quiraing, a mix between the Monument Valley (from what I can see from pictures) and the Sella del Diavolo in Cagliari. Then it was really windy but we fortunately only had planned a short walk to see it from the distance and we were not planning on going through it and doing the whole walk. All along the way there are several scenic spots that were on our list, so we stopped at Kilt Rock (you can easily guess the reason behind the name just by seeing the photo with the layers of rocks and sediments), Brother’s Point (Or Brothers’ Point, can’t find a definitive spelling), where we went on a short hike down to the rocky beach surrounded by sheep eating grass and seaweed, and the Old Man of Storr. Here is where I gave up, the walk is too long, I am not fit at all for walking up a mountain, and all we could see from there was a rock blending with the rocky slope behind it and disappearing to our eyes. It was actually a lot more impressing from the side of the road where it was distinctly visible.

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Dinner time saw us in Portree, where the restaurants were all booked and the waiting time for a table was one hour. When at the last place we were told that we could sit at the bar and grab a table when someone got up, I had two seconds to imagine myself fighting with people to sit down first as in musical chairs and I just walked out with a frowned face and a scorned “No, thank you!”.

Monday was the day we had planned for the main thing of our trip: Swimming with the fairies! We had a quick breakfast at home and we headed towards the Isle of Skye once again. The walk to the Fairy Pools is short, but then we had to climb down a little cliff to reach the famous location. I was not pleased with that, but there are worst things done for a lesser reward, so there I went, screaming while sort of jumping down, but immediately happy when down. As always when I see water, I have to rush, so I put on my wetsuit as fast as I could, I tried to rush Mr Wander to stop taking pictures and to come, and I went in. The water was freezing, so much so that I had to go in twice and go back out before actually finding the strength to go to the end. As I explained in an earlier post, I don’t know why my body floats so much, but between that and the freezing water, I didn’t feel too comfortable going under the arch, so I decided to climb on top of it, and there I was, swimming with fairies under the waterfall. The legend says that, as I am clumsy and I had a mouthful of water while swimming, I am now slowly becoming a fairy as well, or so I like to tell myself.

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Call it hypothermia or nice weather, getting dressed again and walking back to the car was not half as hard as I expected it to be. I forgot to mention that, on our way to the pools Mr Wander managed to take his longed for picture of a Highland coo in all its beauty and fluffiness, see his profile here for it. After the pools, we headed to Dunvegan Castle, a building that is a mix of an actual castle and a stately home. As it is still inhabited by the owner, just a small part of it is open for visits. It is very nice, with some interesting pieces of furniture and the fairy flag. This is a piece of silk that, according to the legend (not one I just made up, a real legend, forgive the oxymoron), was used by the fairies to cradle the baby of the chief of Clan MacLeod when the nanny left him in the room to go partying. The gardens are also very nice with different styles in different parts of it, but I have to admit that half hour is more than enough for the visit, which makes the price of £13 a bit too much for a ticket.

Back home, after a quick shower, we headed to Plockton again for a delicious dinner with langoustines, seabass, and salmon cakes… and sticky toffee pudding, of course! Only bad side was that we thought we had to wait half hour for our table and we got a beer for the wait but our table was available in five minutes and we had to stick to our beer instead of wine to accompany our seafood.

Tuesday we left our accommodation and we headed to the Highlands as we were going to spend our last night in Scotland in Stirling. On our way, we stopped in Eilean Donan Castle, the castle that featured in Highlander and 007 – The World is not enough. Totally in love with Queen and Sean Connery, you can imagine how happy it made me to be able to visit this place. As in Dunvegan Castle, photography is not allowed inside, but there are plenty of beautiful spots outside for great shots, and the visit is absolutely worth the price. You can hear about the reconstruction, as the castle was in ruins until the beginning of the XX century, and of the history of the MacRae, the owners of the castle, and their allied. Outside, you can see Lea MacLeod playing the bagpipe and it is wonderful with the castle as a background.

Driving to Stirling, we quickly stopped in Loch Ness for a few shots, and then we tried to arrive on time for a whisky tour at Dalwhinnie Distillery. As it closes at 5:15 p.m., the last tour starts at 16:30 and we were spot on. I have recently discovered whisky as a nice drink, because I finally tasted some good ones. As any other alcoholic drink, when we are young, we start with the cheap, commercial stuff and we decide we dislike it a lot. It happens with beer, initially too bitter for young taste buds, especially when confronted with common lager (that was my experience). I had a similar experience with wine, hating red wine for a long time, until I realised that it is not just about pairing it with food, which is extremely important, but also about finding the ones you like. In my case, it is mainly Cab-Sauv. With whisky it is the same, Jack Daniel’s is cool, and it was the one the guys I liked in school liked, but it is nothing special if not mixed with something else. I know, JD is whiskey, but that makes little difference, both words were used in the beginning and then whisky settled in the UK while whiskey is the one used in the US and Ireland. Anyway, in this visit I found out something else: Mr Wander and I totally disagree on whiskies, as he likes the more peaty ones (the one from the West Coast, we learnt at Dalwhinnie), while I like the smoother ones, like Dalwhinnie itself for example, but we both enjoy the visit greatly and we loved the tasting with chocolate truffles. We learnt the dos and don’ts when drinking whisky and we also got our tasting glass as a souvenir, so we happily headed to dinner.

We stopped in Perth in a fancy restaurant called The Bothy in which we were not ashamed at all of walking in with our hiking shoes and our gym bags. The service was a bit slow, but the food was of incredible quality, so we had more haggis with neeps and tatties, some meat, and our beloved dessert, of course. Dinner was quite relaxed and gave us time to plan a bit what to do the next day in Stirling before heading to the airport. Our accommodation was a room in the halls of residence of Stirling University, a compact, brand new room that was perfect for the night.

Wednesday morning we had a filling breakfast at Café 33 before going exploring. check this place out if you are around, it is small but the food is delicious and the staff very friendly, like everyone else we encountered in these days in Scotland. The walls are covered with motivational and funny messages that are for sale and it feels kind of crammed, but the place was not too busy. After breakfast we went to the National Wallace Monument, where we learnt more about the Battle of Stirling Bridge and William Wallace. If you watched Braveheart, you must know what I am talking about. Every 45 minutes on specific days, you have an actor in costume telling you the history of the battle and then you can climb up the monument. There, confronted with one of my not so natural enemies, a spiral staircase, I climbed up all the levels up to the crown to enjoy the view of the actual battle grounds. There are four levels in total, with history boards, memorabilia, and activities for kids (and us). To reach the monument we took the complimentary bus shuttle, but we walked down through the parks before doing some final shopping.

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As it was still a bit early, we headed to the city centre and we visited a few more spots, the Holy Rude Church, where you can find an interesting panel about King James’s Bible, Mar’s Wark, a building in ruins in front of the cemetery, and Stirling Castle. As we didn’t have time to visit this one, we just enjoyed a quick walk around the entrance and one of the guards shouting: “GET OFF THE WALL, SIR!” to someone that we couldn’t identify.

Our time was over, not just the parking ticket, but in general, and it was time to go back to the airport and fly back home. I have to admit that this trip was a wonderful treat and that Mr Wander spoiled me more than he usually does, so I will always treasure these memories, but the celebrations were not over, as my self-present was a ticket for Shakespeare’s Comedy of errors in the forest on Thursday, so the holidays may have ended on Wednesday night, but partying was still on the rest of the week!

Thanks for travelling with us, see you in two weeks,

Ms Lust

The Rock Tour

G’day readers!

I really hope you enjoyed our post When Wander met Lust, however we have to be honest and say that this wasn’t the first time we met. This was the first time we met intentionally and started travelling and living together, however the very first time we met was almost four years earlier in the remote outback of Central Australia. In fact it was almost five years ago to this day in June 2012, hence the reason for posting this now. We had both been living in Australia for a number of months already, just not in the same place. I had spent the previous four months living with my sister in Newcastle and my travels so far had mainly been limited to New South Wales, in particular the Newcastle, Central Coast, and Sydney areas. But I hadn’t come all the way to Australia just to spend two years working in Newcastle, there was a whole continent-sized country out there waiting for me to explore. So in an effort to avoid anything resembling wintry weather, and as the six month limit on my job was approaching, I decided to book a trip through Central Australia from Adelaide to Darwin. On the way I would be stopping at Alice Springs in order to take a tour to Uluṟu and the Red Centre, and this is where the story begins.

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I’d booked the tour before leaving Newcastle, and would be taking a three-day camping trip with The Rock Tour. A couple of days after arriving in Alice Springs, and already having exhausted most of the sightseeing opportunities, it was time for the early morning pick-up from my hostel. Patiently waiting with the small group of other backpackers that were also congregated outside the front of the hostel, it was soon my turn to leave as the bus pulled up. I was one of the first to be picked up for this tour, so after the introductions with our tour guide, Myles, we were soon on our way to collect the rest of our travel companions for the next few days. I’d like to take the opportunity now to say how awesome Myles was as our guide. It was obvious that he really enjoyed his work and that he had a true passion for the area and its culture, and this made it so much more enjoyable as a whole. The stories he would tell, not only on the long journeys between stops but also at the sites themselves, were entertaining as well as interesting and informative, and I really did learn a lot from him in those three days. Not only about Uluṟu and the other places we would visit, but also about their importance to the indigenous people, the issues caused by tourism on these sites, the local flora and fauna, and much more. I believe he is still in Alice Springs working as a tour guide, so if you’re planning to visit this wonderful place I’d definitely recommend booking a tour with him as your guide.

After a quick tour around the hostels of Alice Springs, we were soon all loaded up and ready to begin our journey. I’m sure many of you will have already guessed this by now, and yes, Ms Lust was one of my travel companions for this tour. But please don’t expect this to be a deeply romantic post about our first enchanted meeting, as you will be sorely disappointed! There was nothing too extraordinary about it, sure she had grabbed my attention, but she was travelling with her boyfriend at the time and there was nothing more to our interactions than friendly chit-chat. In saying that, she must have made a good impression on me as nearly four years later she was still on my mind and it was then that it started to become romantic!

So there we were, 14 eager backpackers on a bus embarking on our journey across the outback and into the heart of Australia. I had always thought that Uluṟu was reasonably close to Alice Springs, and it is true that Alice Springs is the nearest town. The term nearest tends to take on a different meaning in Australia however, particularly in the outback, and this translated into a six-hour journey, covering over 450 kilometres (280 miles), to get to our first destination, not so close after all! After having spent over 24 hours travelling across the outback by train just to get to Alice Springs, the prospect of another six hours in a bus was less than exciting. The Australian outback, like most deserts, is incredibly barren and there really isn’t very much to see. But I have to say that the bus trip was a lot more interesting than the train had been a couple of days prior, and I was pleasantly surprised. We made a couple of stops along the way, at a service station to stock up on fuel and other necessities (mainly beer!), and at a place called Mount Conner. Often referred to as ‘Fooluṟu’, you can see how easy it would be to confuse the two landmarks. It is believed to be part of the same geological formations that include Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa, and it is almost as tall as its more famous relation. Mount Conner is visible from the lookout just off of the highway, however there are private tours available organised by the landowners of the cattle station it is located on (that’s right, farms in Australia are large enough to have their own mountains!).

After a brief stop to unload supplies and set up camp, our next destination was the one that we had all been waiting for, Uluṟu. Nothing can quite prepare you for the wonderful moment that you first see Uluṟu with your own eyes. Being one of the most famous landmarks in the world, there is no shortage of images out there showing its magnificence and beauty. But none of these manage to capture its remoteness, something that you only truly appreciate after a six-hour journey across the outback with very little else to disrupt the emptiness, natural or man-made. If Uluṟu had formed in the Amazon Rainforest or in England’s Lake District for example, it would barely have raised an eyebrow. And that’s because it isn’t just Uluṟu’s size, colour, or shape that makes it so extraordinary. It is the location that it finds itself in that makes Uluṟu so unique, something that can only be fully appreciated by physically being there. Seeing such a huge, natural landmark erupting out of such a barren and infertile environment forces you to accept that nature really is in charge here. After this, Uluṟu takes on an even greater sense of significance and it becomes incredibly obvious why it is sacred to the aboriginal people of the area, the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu. I think visiting Uluṟu affects everyone differently, but I find it hard to believe that anyone could come to this special place and not feel moved by it in some way.

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There were still plenty of daylight hours left in the day, so the iconic moment of seeing Uluṟu at sunset would have to wait. In the meantime we drove right up alongside the great monolith, and set off for a walk around a section of the perimeter. This was where we had the opportunity to see Uluṟu for more than just a rock in the desert, and to explore some of its smaller details. There are some unique areas of Uluṟu which showcase how the area has been able to support the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu for so long. There are numerous waterholes around the base of Uluṟu, although these were mostly empty as our visit was during the dry season. These have been formed by rainfall draining off the rock during the wet season and forming gullies, waterfalls and pools. As there was very little water in these pools at the time, this gave a perfect opportunity to see the results of the erosion that the water has caused. Cascades where the water would flow are easily identifiable, even more so due to the black algae deposits that have been left on the rock face by the flows such as here at Mutitjulu waterhole. Other rock formations have been created by further erosion, such as an area known as Wave Cave (pictured above) which has been created by wind erosion. This was also the moment when I had been hoping to see some of Australia’s desert animals as we made our way around the perimeter. Unfortunately although it was still reasonably warm for us during the day, it was obviously too cold for any reptiles to be out and about and the only animals I saw during our walk were a rabbit and a cat! Luckily we had seen a few camels and plenty of eagles on the bus journey so I wasn’t completely disappointed.

We finished our walk at the area where the Uluṟu climb starts, which I’m glad to say our tour did not allow us to do. I’ve never seen the point in climbing Uluṟu, it really is in the middle of nowhere and I struggle to fathom out what it is that people are hoping to see from up there. There is very little to obstruct views of the horizon even from ground level, so anything that can be seen from the top of Uluṟu can probably be seen from the ground anyway. After having been there, I now feel even more strongly about not climbing. Not to mention the dangers of climbing (the rock is like sandpaper and will shred the skin of anyone that slips), this is a sacred place for the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu so what right do we have as tourists to desecrate it by walking all over it? You wouldn’t try to climb onto the roof of the Taj Mahal or the Sistine Chapel, and I don’t see how this is any different. There are many reasons why I believe the climb should be banned, but fundamentally none of my opinions really matter. I read an article that summed it up perfectly, which stated ‘The way I see it I am on someone else’s land and therefore respect the owner’s wishes’. I couldn’t have said it better myself, and I don’t think there was a single person on our tour that was disappointed that we couldn’t climb. I really hope the wishes of the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu are honoured soon and the climb is closed for good.

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With our walk completed, it was time to drive over to the sunset viewing area for the main event. The viewing area was a lot less crowded than I had anticipated, and it was easy to get a good view of Uluṟu as we waited for the Sun to descend. The way that Uluṟu changes colour as the Sun becomes more and more intense really is a treat for the eyes. It looks incredible in photographs, yet it is a hundred times better to see it with your own eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever taken so many photographs of a rock in the desert, and I doubt I ever will again, but I couldn’t stop in an effort to capture it at its best. It truly is an amazing experience and one that you simply have to see for yourself to fully appreciate it.

After the excitement of sunset had subsided, and dinner had been digested, it was time to head back to our campsite for the night. This was the first real chance we had in the group to bond and get to know each other properly, and it was great to hear everyone’s stories. I went on quite a few similar tours during my stay in Australia and I have to say that this group was definitely the best of them all, even more so now that it brought Ms Lust and myself together. Most groups have become a bit blurry in my memory except this one, and I can still remember every single person on this trip. There was also a fantastic mix of personalities and nationalities, which made it much more interesting than the usual mix of solely English and German backpackers (no offence intended, but it’s nice to mix it up now and again!).  Everyone got on really well together as well, which gave me the added bonus of having people to meet up with on the days I had left in Alice Springs after the tour.

Eventually it was time to get some rest, and we all prepared for our first night under the stars in the freezing desert. We each had a sleeping bag and a swag, which is a thick canvas outer sleeping bag. After building up the fire as much as possible, and placing our backpacks to use as pillows, we all turned in and hoped we’d drunk enough beers to get a decent sleep! I still remember waking in the morning to find my bag covered in frost, but luckily the beers had done their job and I was ready for our second day of exploring.

We had woken up early to catch sunrise, and it was just as incredible as the sunset had been the day before. Although the colour of Uluṟu didn’t change too much, the sky put on an equally impressive light show of its own. After breakfast, we then went back to the base of Uluṟu to complete another section of the base walk. This section included Kantju Gorge, where the rock sides are almost vertical and have created a natural gorge. Eager now to head to the second stop on our tour, we all made our way back to the bus for the journey to Kata Tjuṯa.

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Kata Tjuṯa and Uluṟu are part of the same national park, and the journey between the two was a lot shorter than getting to Uluṟu from Alice Springs. I hadn’t heard of Kata Tjuṯa before booking the tour, so I wasn’t too sure of what to expect. It had been visible in the distance from Uluṟu, yet it wasn’t until we got close that I was able to see how beautiful it is. Part of the same geological formation as Uluṟu, yet formed by different processes, Kata Tjuṯa looks like a grouping of domes of which some almost look like ancient houses. We only had half a day to spend here, as we had to drive to our second campsite near Kings Canyon before nightfall, which gave us enough time to complete the Valley of the Winds walk. This walk took us through one of the gaps between the domes to reach the other side of Kata Tjuṯa. It was fairly hard work but also good fun to be able to be so close to this magnificent place without feeling like we were trespassing. This is still a sacred place however, which is why we haven’t included any photos from here in keeping with the requests of the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu.

The walk is one-way, so after retracing our steps we boarded the bus for a short trip to a viewing area. Situated to the side of Kata Tjuṯa, this gave us the opportunity to see it from a different angle which was a complete contrast to the usual views of this wonderful place. Unfortunately that is all I can really recall of the time we spent here, it seems very short but as I said the walk was quite long and tiring. So we were soon back on the bus again, and on our way to Kings Canyon.

After a long journey we arrived at our second campsite, on a camel farm near Kings Canyon. We would have to wait until the following day to see the canyon itself, so the rest of the evening was spent setting up camp and preparing dinner. I had been allocated the job of Fire Marshall for the second night, so it was the responsibility of myself and two others to light the fire and keep it burning. We decided to take this honour quite seriously and nearly stayed up the entire night, although at one point we decided to wander off into the distance a little way for some stargazing. It was probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but there was something incredibly peaceful about laying in the grass, staring at the stars, and listening to the dingoes howling in the distance. Again the beers may have had a little part to play in that, and their effect soon led us into a few hours sleep. Ms Lust told me that she found the second night a lot warmer and had slept a lot better, so I’m glad that out efforts were not in vain!

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Kings Canyon was our last stop before heading back to Alice Springs, and I’m sorry to say that this is where my memory starts to get more and more patchy. Kings Canyon is part of Watarrka National Park, and has walls approximately 100 metres high which have been formed by Kings Creek. There are three walks that can be done here, and we were to complete the Kings Canyon Rim Walk. This is a three- to four-hour walk which combines paths along the top of the canyon walls with some leading into the canyon itself. The first part of the walk has been aptly named Heartbreak Hill (or Heart Attack Hill, depending on the source), a steep climb up to the top of the canyon wall. From here we walked along the canyon wall, being careful of the sheer drop into the canyon just metres away. The views from the top were spectacular, with some very interesting stopping points along the way. My personal favourite was Pride Rock, reminiscent of its namesake in The Lion King. Myles had even brought Simba along with us, so we took turns having our photos taken recreating the famous scene!

Further along, the path dropped back down to the bottom of the canyon, and an area called the Garden of Eden. It is easy to see how it got the name, it really is an oasis in an otherwise barren environment. Again it becomes clear why places such as this are so sacred to the local aboriginal people, not just for their beauty but also for the life-giving resources they provide. As the saying goes, what goes up must come down, and for us that was true just in reverse. So we made our way back up to the top of the canyon wall to complete the rest of the walk.

Weary and tired, we all clambered back into the bus for the final leg of our trip back to Alice Springs. After the long journey back it was nice to arrive at the hostel, but also sad to say goodbye to the friends I had made over the last few days. Luckily our tour also included meeting for dinner at a local pub, so we all met up once again before going our individual ways. We had a great evening sharing the plans for where our next travels would take us, but at the end of the night it really was time to say goodbye. As I said before, I still had another four days in Alice Springs and it was very nice to now have some people to spend that time with. Most of our tour companions were leaving almost immediately however, and it wasn’t too long before I was the last one left in town. But then my turn to leave also came, and I was honestly very doubtful that I would see any of my new found friends again. Fortunately I was wrong, and four years later I would be picking Ms Lust up from Christchurch Airport, another wonderful day that I will never forget (Sorry, I couldn’t finish without being soppy at least once!).

So that’s pretty much it, my story of an incredible three days in the remote outback of Australia which gave me the greatest gift ever. Before I sign off, I just want to say hello and a massive thank you to everyone I met on this tour, it really wouldn’t have been the same without you all. Special thanks also to Myles for being such a great guide, and most importantly to Ms Lust for putting her faith in the skinny English guy she met all that time ago in this magical place.

Happy travels 🙂

Mr Wander

***

Dear readers,

I have already told you that there are some places that have been in my dream holiday list since I was a kid, and more and more are added almost on a daily basis. In fact, I would like to visit every single place on the planet, so what makes some places more special than others? There are many reasons, it may be a book that made me dream of a city or a site, it can be a movie, sometimes a song, and even a comic book. In this case, it all started in 1992, with a story in Topolino, the Italian comic strip about Disney characters. In one of the episodes, Uncle Scrooge rents Uluṟu to win a competition with his rival John D. Rockerduck.

Comic

This is the reason why, in 2011, when the plan to visit Australia started getting some shape, two things were listed as unmissable: Swimming with dolphins in the wild and visiting The Red Centre. If you are wondering why it is called The Red Centre, here you can see why. Australia is a country that has seen an extremely fast development and, as a consequence, a terribly fast deterioration of its natural resources. In response to this, in recent years, a lot has been done to repair as much as possible, and the companies that offer tours and activities are often very respectful of the environment and the well-being of the animals. But let’s go back to 2012, ten years after the reading that triggered the desire to visit Uluṟu. Soon after arriving in Adelaide in March, I found a job, but as I already had a return ticket to Europe for July, I decided not to extend my stay. I was going to leave this beautiful country after only six months there. I still had three months to make the most of it and I started planning the final tours. Adelaide is one of the most common starting points for those who go to The Red Centre, so it was not difficult to find something interesting. My eye was immediately caught by The Rock Tour, which seemed to offer everything I was looking for at a great price:

– Bus journey. I had already travelled by plane (Sydney-Melbourne) and by train (Melbourne-Adelaide), and I was only missing a bus journey with Greyhound to call it a full experience.

– Things that scare me. I am acrophobic and mysophobic, but I try overcoming these fears every time I can. Mountains, hiking, two nights camping in the desert. It was going to be the perfect test.

– All details covered. One booking for everything, the bus, the hostel before and after the tour, the swag, the sleeping bag, the food, all included and planned for me.

Check it out, you have several options for starting and finishing locations and you can also add a night in the underground mining town of Coober Pedy. I opted for a direct trip without stopping in the opal town and I am glad as I ended up with a horrible fever two days before leaving and fortunately I arrived in Alice Spring without any delays. I guess fate helped in this case and made me end up in the right place at the right moment to meet Mr Wander. I have to admit that the twenty hours in the bus helped me sleep off the fever and I arrived feeling a lot better. The hostel was quite nice, also because after that trip a nice shower and a clean bed are the best things in life.

The tours start early, at 5:30 a.m., and there are actually two groups that follow two opposite itineraries, either seeing Uluṟu first and then Kata Tjuṯa (that was mine) or vice versa. As I said, the bus picked us up quite early and was ready for everything. Myles, our guide, was the best we could hope for. Of all the good things, what I admired the most was his incredible respect for the place and the local people. As for the group, we were a colourful bunch of guys from a good mix of countries and we started immediately getting to know each other through a few games. Well, immediately… let’s say as soon as we started really waking up. Our first stop was in the last outpost before getting completely lost in the desert. We filled up and bought beers for the whole trip. Back then, I would not drink much, so it seemed easy to decide how many beers to buy for the next three days, but it was not. In that case, it is like going on a weekend trip: You still over pack just in case! Anyway, in perfect Australian vernacular, here are the toilets we found on our way, for sheilas and blokes.

The Rock Tour

A few tips to be shared that I learnt while on tour:

  • As we said, we went in June, which is the beginning of winter in Australia. It was a great choice because, although it is cold at night (it was 0⁰ C for us), during the day it is a pleasant 25⁰ and allows you to explore without suffering too much from the heat. Some hikes are tougher than others and require you to be fit, such as Heart Attack Hill in Kings Canyon. We climbed it at around 9 a.m. and the temperature was already reaching 20⁰.
  • Again, the nights are pretty cold, and you will be sleeping under the stars so some things are worth keeping in mind. You will have a swag, the Australian symbol of camping, a sleeping unit made of a mattress and canvas. The sleeping bag goes inside. Apparently, the secret is to sleep naked in the sleeping bag because the thermal material keeps the temperature released by your body, while clothes prevent this from happening. As I rented the sleeping bag for the tour, I preferred not to do that and I ended up freezing the first night, when the fire was 50 cm high and, therefore, far away from us. The second night was a lot better because the fire was on ground level and the earth underneath our swags was also warm.
  • It may seem obvious, but pack wisely: sunscreen and insect repellent, hat and sunglasses, wet wipes and wound wash, layers of clothes from t-shirts to fleece hoodies and a wind-breaker, trekking shoes. Bring a small bag for your belongings for the whole tour and a small backpack to carry water and essentials on the walks.
  • If you just bought them, use your trekking shoes before the tour, let them shape around your feet and let your feet get used to the sturdy material, you won’t want blisters.
  • Make sure you have enough charge on your devices and possibly a spare battery, you won’t have too much access to electricity but plenty of pictures to take.

There could be so many things to say about this tour and The Red Centre, but let’s see what I can show you through my eyes. Having lived in Adelaide for almost three months, I had time to get in touch with aboriginal culture before arriving to Uluṟu, but I investigated further just before taking the trip. The landowners of Uluṟu and the surrounding land are Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, or Aṉangu, and they ask visitors to respect their land and traditions. This means that they also ask visitors not to climb the rock. Uluṟu is their sacred mountain and they ask everyone to respect the cultural importance of the monolith. Climbing is not forbidden, but this must be seen from the point of view of Aṉangu to be understood. The lack of ban apparently comes from a lack of use of negative sentences in their language and culture; this does not mean that they are pleased with people doing it, just that they won’t directly say don’t do it. Respecting the local culture should be reason enough to make people stop climbing, but there is more. The climb is extremely challenging, we are talking about a rock that is steep, over 300 m high, and beaten by strong winds; the temperature can easily go over 40 degrees and the climb is dangerous. As Aṉangu people mourn and feel responsible for everything that happens on their land, accidents and fatalities are a heavy burden for them. Moreover, there are no facilities at the top, which means that some climbers have no respect and do their necessities when they arrive, then the rain washes it all down. It is disrespecting the site twice. Due to the extreme conditions, the climb can often be closed when it is too dangerous but the day we went it was open and I was really glad to see that we were surrounded by like-minded people and none of us wanted to climb anyway.

The walk around the base of Uluṟu is 9.4 km long and includes water holes, incredible geological formations, and caves with ancient graffiti. Some parts of the rock are not to be photographed because they are dedicated to gender-related rituals, so the opposite sex is not allowed to see them. As you can imagine, photographs would violate this taboo. In the same way, people’s name are not to be written because aboriginal people do not name someone who has passed away, but writing the name would invalidate this point as the name would be pronounced every time it were read.

The first night we watched the sunset over Uluṟu, and there are no words that can fully describe the sight. The monolith changes colour so many times until the sky actually becomes dark and it is a breathtaking view, only compared to sunrise the day after. We collected some firewood, prepared our dinner, and stayed around the fire for as long as we could before going to sleep. The second morning was another early rise as we had to catch Uluṟu before sunrise, another experience that has to be lived because it cannot be explained.

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This place is sacred to the owners of the land, but visitors can feel the magic and power as well. It may be special to me now because there I found my soul companion, but it has always been special, with an inexplicable feeling of divinity that simply comes from the earth and that permeates everything. During those three days the concept of time was a bit relative and it is hard to recall exactly what we visited before and after.

After leaving Uluṟu, we went to Kata Tjuṯa, the other rock formation that is part of the national park. We are not talking about a monolith as in the previous case, but of domes. The era in which both were formed is the same but the materials are different. The materials created by the erosion of mountain ranges ended up underwater and being compressed. In the case of Uluṟu, it was sand and that is why now we see a solid rock; Kata Tjuṯa, on the other side, was originally gravel and that is why it is now a conglomerate that just looks like a gigantic group of pebbles.

Mother Nature is usually a genius but she seems to have worked her best in Australia. The landscape is mind-blowing, the animals are unique, and the plants are able to survive impossible conditions. I had already learnt how some trees grow branches and leaves all over their trunks to use all their surface to breathe when they have been attacked by fire, but climbing to the Valley of the Winds we found a tree that had a black branch that seemed burnt and I learnt something even more incredible: In the desert, when a tree senses that there is not enough water to provide for its whole body, it just cuts a branch out from the supply in order to have enough for the rest. This part is not dead, the tree can resuscitate it when there is more water available. Animals are also amazing. We all know about marsupials, but reptiles are also perfect machines. Some of the Australian lizards are quite big in size but pretty slow, which makes them easy prey for any predator. Some of them, like the blue-tongued skink, drop their tail to fool the predator while they keep fleeing. The tail of the blue-tongued skink will grow back until they reach a certain age, but it is not nice when they lose it, which is why at reptile centres they ask you to handle them carefully and not to touch the tail.

Talking about reptile centres, plan your tour wisely. Alice Springs is not that big, as Mr Wander must have told you already, but there are a few interesting things to see. I was glad I had my plane to Cairns in the evening on the day after coming back from the tour, as it gave me time to visit the Alice Springs Reptile Centre, a place dedicated to indigenous reptiles and that also works as an educational centre and as a snake call centre for those who may need to remove snakes from their houses. There I had a chance to see many wonderful specimens, including the thorny dragon (see below). I first heard of this animal on the tour, as it was our guide’s favourite. This creature is able to drink from any part of its body so, if it needs to drink, it just needs to step into a puddle of water or drop its tail in it. Isn’t that amazing?

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A part of the tour that is blurry in my memory is Kings Canyon, I guess because it involved a lot of heights and precipices. Nonetheless, it was worth it, the views are stunning and some spots are pure heaven. Well, actually, one of them is called the Garden of Eden, so I am not exaggerating. None of us swam in this beautiful place, as it was the beginning of winter and the water was freezing, but we all took our pictures down at the lake and up the rock with the little lion cuddly toy in pure Lion King style. Even I did it, but standing far enough from the edge and unable to bend my knees even a tiny bit!

On our way back, we stopped to find witchetty grubs, a type of larvae that used to be part of the diet of Aboriginal people. I think we only found one that half of the group shared. We then headed to the camel farm, where we rode racing camels, and that is not a good idea, read more about that in comparison to my Egyptian experience in our previous post about the Red Sea.

Once back in Alice Springs, we separated for a while to get ready and then meet again in the pub for our farewell dinner. I was heading to the Great Barrier Reef the next day and Mr Wander was going to stay in Alice Springs a while longer. No worries, as you may guess, after lots of chatting we met again and we have many more trips to talk about in our future posts.

Ms Lust

 

When Wander met Lust

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Dear readers,

This post is a bit of a special one, of a story dear to our hearts, and I truly hope that you enjoy it. That’s because exactly a year ago today was the day that Ms Lust and I started our lives together. Now this isn’t a story of how that happened, although a little bit of a backstory is required, but instead a story about when that happened and the events immediately before and after. So please, make yourselves comfortable, relax, and let me take you back to the wonderful days of May 2016.

Prior to this moment, I had been living in Queenstown, on New Zealand’s South Island, for two and a half years, and Ms Lust had been living in London for the last three and a half years. We started chatting online and in April 2016 Ms Lust decided she would come and join me in New Zealand, a decision which I was obviously thrilled with! With that decided, the next job was to book the flight. Queenstown Airport is not the best airport to fly into, the location and surrounding topography cause a great deal of turbulence on approach and flights are frequently diverted elsewhere. Added to that is the fact that it is such a popular, yet still reasonably small, airport to fly into, and flights usually incur premium prices. So I suggested it would be better for Ms Lust to book a flight into Christchurch instead, and I would drive across to pick her up. This also meant we could spend a few days travelling back together, and Ms Lust would have some time to acclimatise before plunging into Queenstown life.

So, on 7 May 2016, it was time to drive almost 500km from Queenstown to Christchurch Airport to pick up Ms Lust after her trip across the globe. On the way back we would split this trip up into a few sections, but, as I had already made this same trip a number of times before, I drove almost non-stop for about six hours to get there. Just as a quick side note, although all of the photos that are either on this post or posted as links are my own, some are from previous trips and not this one in particular. With a pounding heart and a body overflowing with adrenaline, I was definitely not in the frame of mind for sight-seeing anyway! My only real concern was making sure I could stop in an area with network coverage when Ms Lust arrived in Sydney, as I had had to leave before she had even arrived that far. At this point, I would like to say a huge thank you to my boss at the time, who very kindly lent me his company car to make the trip in. As suggested, it certainly was more comfortable than my beaten-up old Honda Civic ‘Shrek’, and I’m sure it gave Ms Lust a much better first impression! So I eventually arrived just in time, and hurriedly checked in at the hotel I had booked for our first night. With this done, I walked the short distance over to the airport and waited for Ms Lust to arrive.

As I said, the hotel was literally just over the road from the airport (we both felt that we’d done enough travelling for one day!), so our travels together didn’t really start until the following day. When travelling through the South Island of New Zealand, especially for the first time as Ms Lust was, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the landscape. It really is how the travel brochures and documentaries make it look, not just in the national parks but literally everywhere you look. In particular, the route from Christchurch to Queenstown is one of the more scenic drives, passing by some of the country’s most famous landscapes. Even with this in mind, I had made a couple of detours from the main route in order to make sure Ms Lust was blown away and fell in love with New Zealand the same way I had done previously (I also needed a back-up in case my charms weren’t enough to convince her to stay!).

I didn’t want her first impression of New Zealand to be Christchurch City itself (no offence to Christchurch, but there was still a lot of evident earthquake damage at the time and I had found it a little depressing to see), so our first stop was the beautiful Rakaia Gorge. I had discovered this spot about six months earlier on another road trip, and I really hoped Ms Lust would be as amazed as I was when I first saw it. The colour of the glacier-fed rivers in New Zealand have always been one of my favourite features of this country, and I honestly think I would have to travel to a tropical island somewhere to find waters that look more inviting (and they would probably be a bit warmer too!). Up until now, the scenery along the way hadn’t been too impressive as we made our way out of the suburbs of Christchurch and crossed the Canterbury Plains. But now, as we left Rakaia Gorge, we were heading towards Mt Hutt and into the Canterbury High Country where the scenery would become a lot more dramatic.

The vast majority of the South Island is mountainous, yet it is the Southern Alps, draped along the entire west coast of the island, where most of the postcard perfect landscapes are found. And it is in winter, when the snow covers the tops of every single peak, when they are looking their best. Which is exactly the conditions we found ourselves in now, although thankfully the weather had been very kind so far to help Ms Lust acclimatise. After driving through a couple of mountain passes, with the snow-capped peaks ever present, we came to our next overnight stop, Tekapo. One of the two most common stopping places on this route (we’ll get to the other one later), I had chosen to stop in Tekapo for our second night mostly for the scenery, but also as it is one of the largest towns around the mid-point of our journey. Having left the hustle and bustle of London and now finding herself in an extremely rural and remote area of an already sparsely populated country (at the time of writing New Zealand has only just over half of the population of London, of which over three quarters live on the North Island), I didn’t want Ms Lust to feel too isolated and a town of approximately 370 residents was almost the best I could find (I told you it’s extremely rural!). Only Twizel has a higher population in the area, but I felt the scenery in Tekapo deserved more than just an quick stop along the way.

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We arrived just in time to check-in at the hotel and to head down to Lake Tekapo for sunset. As I said, this is one of the most popular stops on this route, and for good reason. A huge lake surrounded on all sides by mountains, this is a truly iconic South Island landscape. We were still being fairly lucky with the weather, but that is another reason that makes this area so beautiful. Nothing the weather does seems able to detract from the beauty of the landscape itself, each different set of conditions just adds its own individual character to it. On the side of the lake is the cute Church of the Good Shepherd (pictured above), a tourist attraction in its own right, and a great spot to admire the views that the lake and the surroundings have to offer. So this is exactly where we went, to join all the other tourists and photographers waiting for the ever-important sunset to occur. I’m a bit of a sucker for a good sunset, and, although they’re not quite a match for the vivid colours I got used to in Australia, the addition of the unique landscapes give the sunsets in New Zealand that special touch. There is also a small monument nearby to honour the working dogs of the Mackenzie Basin, just a short walk east along the lake and definitely worth checking out. After this it was time to retire once again to the hotel, before continuing our road trip the next day.

We had decided at some point beforehand that we would drive all the way back to Queenstown in two days, so that I could spend a day showing Ms Lust around the place she would now be calling home before I had to go back to work. So we had a little over halfway to cover, but still with plenty of time for some exploring. Our next stop would be Lake Pukaki and Mt Cook, not too far down the road from Tekapo. Mt Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand, and was one that Sir Edmund Hillary used as a ‘training mountain’ to prepare for his expedition to climb Mt Everest. Now Mt Cook, at 3724m, is not even half the height of Mt Everest and most definitely not in the same league, but it towers over and dominates the landscape nonetheless. Unfortunately the weather was being less kind to us at this point, and the clouds had rolled in to prevent us from seeing Mt Cook in all it’s glory. However the drive along Lake Pukaki was worth it just for the lake itself, which was the beautiful shade of blue that only a glacial-fed lake can be. Once we realised that the clouds weren’t about to lift any time soon, we returned to the highway and continued on our way to Queenstown.

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The next town along our route was Twizel, which as I mentioned before is the largest town in this area, with a dizzying population of about 1200 people! We stopped here quickly for the chance to visit some shops that weren’t run by farmer’s wives(!), but it wasn’t long before we were on the road again. We passed through Omarama, the last town before we would leave Canterbury and enter the Otago region, and shortly after this we decided to stop to see a place that I hadn’t been to previously either. This was the Omarama Clay Cliffs, a geological formation which, through erosion, has created impressive cathedral-like structures. It was really stunning to see, especially as you can walk right up to them (well more of a trek I guess!) and fully appreciate the size and scale of them. This place will also always be special for me, as I consider it the first place that Ms Lust and I truly explored together. I’m not sure if my boss has the same affinity for it though, as the rough gravel road leading to the cliffs caused his car to get a puncture (sorry Boss!).

After putting on the spare wheel, we then decided that we should get to Queenstown with as few stops as possible. We drove through the Lindis Pass, onto Cromwell and Lake Dunstan, but any sight-seeing here was destined to wait until we would make this exact journey in reverse three months later. From here there was very little between us and our final destination, and it wasn’t much longer before we arrived in Queenstown. Having lived there for a while I could now go on and write another ten pages about Queenstown itself, but I’ll save that for another post. For now all I will say is this, we arrived in the hours of darkness and it was such a pleasure to see the reaction from Ms Lust the following morning when she saw the surrounding scenery for the first time. I’m sure many of you will have seen photos of Queenstown before, but this is a place that really does have to be seen to be believed and fully appreciated. So the advice I would like to leave you all with is this, at some time in your lives you should definitely find the time and money to go to Queenstown (if you haven’t been already of course, although I would still recommend to go again!), I guarantee you won’t regret it. Like I said, there will be more on this later, but it really is the most beautiful town I have ever visited and it has something for everyone.

Well that’s all for now, I really hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our first travels together. As you are reading this, we are busy holidaying so that we can bring you more content, so stay tuned for more!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Dear readers,

As you may have noticed, we are posting on a Sunday this time. It seemed quite appropriate to wait one more day and to post our first article about New Zealand the very day I arrived to the land of the long white clouds one year ago. Having had a bad start of the year and taking Mr Wander’s invitations to visit more seriously, at the beginning of April last year I booked my ticket, tied up as many loose ends as I could, and I took a plane (well, three) that took me to the exact opposite corner of the globe. Those who know me, also know that flying doesn’t scare me, what I don’t like is packing, so imagine me trying to fit my life in a baggage allowance of 30 kg with only winter clothes without going through a nervous breakdown!

Back to us, I was lucky enough not to have had to plan anything for my arrival, as Mr Wander (back then just Hottie) was settled there and had planned it all for me (yes, he is an angel in disguise, I know!). Not happy about that, I decided not to look anything up about New Zealand, I was going to go there only with what I already knew; it may sound lazy, but it was important for me, he had been living there for a while and he was a local, I had been following his trips on Instagram, and I wanted to discover New Zealand through his eyes, I wanted to see Mr Wander’s New Zealand, and so I did. With 27 kg shared between a suitcase and a duffle bag, plus a laptop and a handbag, I left my flat in East London at 2pm on 5 May and I landed in Christchurch at 2pm on 7 May. In between, a taxi ride, almost falling on the escalator with all my stuff, a tube journey, and three planes, of which two were so empty that I basically slept the whole time stretched on the four seats of my empty row, and the last one with free Wi-Fi. Incredibly enough, I barely felt that trip (I would pay that back on the return journey, trust me!)

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So, there I am, having left the UK at the beginning of May, where the weather is still not sure whether to keep winter going or to finally start welcoming spring (basically the same that is happening this year,) and landing in a country where the autumn is still pretty nice but where winter will soon come and strengthen my belief that nothing under 18 degrees Celsius should really be legal! But that is going too fast, all that has not happened yet and I am still trying to find my way out of customs and possibly not to look too trashed. As you can see here, I found my way out but I didn’t succeed in not looking trashed!

I have to admit that Qantas and Emirates provided a good service and the food was not too bad, but trust me, that shower and room service dinner at the hotel felt like heaven nonetheless. As many of you may know, Christchurch still shows a lot of the damage of the recent earthquake and Mr Wander decided that we were not going to visit that first, we just rested and started our trip back the day after. Queenstown, where Mr Wander was living, is about 500 km away from Christchurch, and that allowed for a nice road trip as he was not going to be back to work until the following Wednesday.

I was just mind blown by everything I was seeing, I was expecting something like Australia but there is nothing like New Zealand, or I haven’t seen anything alike yet. One thing is like in Australia: the sky. There is something special about the sky down under, that makes it so immense and so distant, something that is impossible to explain and that just strikes you when you are there and look up. Even with the long, low clouds, the sky in New Zealand still looks like that. The idea of immensity is magnified by the fact that the country is young and empty, which means that the mountains are new and tall, the roads are wide, and the cars are almost non-existent. At first, it is refreshing, to leave a place like London and to land somewhere where everything is emerald green and bright blue, where the air is pure, where you don’t have to queue or to be surrounded by countless strangers. As I said, that is the first impression, but that peace and quiet goes hand in hand with other aspects that I discovered later in the three months that I spent in the country. By the way, in this shot (from our bedroom window, not taken during the trip) you can see why Māoris called their land Aotearoa, the land of the long white clouds:

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Back to our road trip, we left Christchurch and headed somewhere whose name was unknown to me and also hard to pronounce or remember, I was yet to be acquainted to the beauty of Māori language and culture. Our first stop was Rakaia Gorge, the first place where I saw New Zealand water. I say New Zealand water because the lakes and rivers have a distinctive colour that I have only seen there, a turquoise nuance that looks like clean and impenetrable as if you were looking through a cut section of glass, I hope the picture conveys part of what I mean and what I saw then.

A lot of that trip is driving, because it all becomes a tight schedule when the distances are so stretched and you can’t stop whenever you are tired in the first hotel that you find. The first hotel that you find is the one you carefully booked because there is a lot of wild nature in between the two points. As I said, a lot of time was spent in the car, trying to pretend it was not strange to finally be 30 cm away in flesh after so much texting and the little video calling time the we could fit in with full time jobs and a good twelve hours time difference. That kind of experience teaches you to talk and enjoy the other person’s conversation, if you want to spend some time together long-distance, you have to talk, you have nothing else to distract you, no movies to watch, no jigsaws to build and hate together, no activities to share, just talk. It is how the relationship is blessed or doomed, there is no escape if you don’t like each other’s company. As we have always loved talking to each other, we were so lost in conversation that very few pictures were taken on the road. When we arrived at Tekapo it was already quite late and we just had time to drop off our stuff in the room and have a tea and as it was already getting dark, we had to go to the lake for sunset. Tekapo is a little town in the Mackenzie District. The main attractions are the Church of the Good Shepherd  and the Monument to the working dogs that represents Friday, a border collie that belonged to the shepherd Mackenzie who gives the name to the district. As Friday kept driving the sheep without the shepherd, he was then used as a symbol to commemorate all working dogs. After a walk to the lake and a quick visit to the monument, we headed back to the hotel and now here comes my most important advice if you visit New Zealand: Buy a sim card with internet plan or use roaming, but don’t rely on the Wi-Fi because it rarely works. Sometimes it is limited to a very low amount of data, but in general it is not accessible on foreign cards or doesn’t really work even when available.

The following day was the day we planned to arrive to Queenstown and we had another early start. We stopped a few times, but definitely to remember is our first stop in a shop and my indescribable happiness when I saw how many kinds of sweet potatoes they have. There I learnt my first, and now also my favourite, Māori word: Kumara, sweet potato. On our way home, there was something that Mr Wander had never seen, the Clay Cliffs. Glaciers have worked wonders in the country’s landscape, and the Clay Cliffs are just one example. As the name says, they are pinnacles of clay formed by the glaciers. It is a stunning sight and it is not too hard to walk through them, and the view of the surrounding land is also breathtaking. As this is in private property, there is a honesty box at the gates for donations,  so keep some spare change.

I would tell you more of our arrival at our place, but there is not much about it, the morning after, seeing the town and the views from our window and our road is another story. Life in Queenstown was not easy, but the place is beautiful. Stay tuned for more of our trips down under.

Ms Lust