Based in Al Habtoor City

Sarah Pickford

Looking for help with your business travel? Find out how I can help here

It's Nice To Meet You

Hello there!

Thank you for visiting my travel page. I hope you like what you see and perhaps we will chat in the not-too-distant future.

Throughout 2021 and 2022 so far I have been lucky enough to travel a fair bit despite the challenges of the ever-present global pandemic. So even more than before I can speak from experience of what it is like to travel in these times and share some tips with my customers to make things easier. But the good news is, things are getting better and most places available to us to travel to again.

I've been living in Dubai and working as a Travel Counsellor for over 9 years now. That time has flown by and as my business has evolved, my experience has broadened, so I have so much to share with you. About the UAE which is such a great destination but also countries all around the world. I feel lucky every day to live in such a vibrant and culturally diverse country. There is always something to see and do here in UAE so if you fancy a visit please get in touch and I can help you plan. It's not just Dubai, the other Emirates have plenty to offer. And the location of this country makes it so easy to get around the globe. So for those of you based here, nowhere is too far or too difficult. I can get you to wherever your dream destination is whether be it the very close Indian Ocean or a far-flung destination like Fiji.

Originally I'm from Bolton where Travel Counsellors was born. But prior to moving here, I was in Warwickshire, a beautiful county in central England. From there I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time travelling both for leisure and business. I love visiting new places, both at home and abroad and over time I have enjoyed visiting over 200 cities in 67 countries including beaches, cruises, cities, and adventures. Trying new foods, meeting wonderful people, witnessing different cultures and experiencing all that the world has to offer. Like many people, I intend to travel much more in the months and years ahead. So far this year I have visited Saudia Arabia, Cyprus, Nepal, the UK, Oman, Maldives, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Italy with Portugal, India and Qatar still in the diary.

So what about you, where is your imagination taking you?

As your personal Travel Counsellor, I can speak from my own wealth of leisure and business travel experience to offer unbiased, impartial guidance when helping you find your own perfect trip. That might be a luxury romantic break, family fun, cruise, honeymoon, group travel, a unique tailor-made holiday to your dream destination or just an overnight getaway from the stresses and strains of everyday life. I recognise that no matter where you are going, it's important to you that the trip is the right one. Let me help you make sure it is.

With 30 years in customer care, it is my aim to offer the best possible service. My promise to you is to make your travel booking as pleasurable and simple as possible, taking away the headache of brochures and search engines if you don't want them. And to be as flexible as possible when things change. In 2019 I reached the status of Gold Travel Counsellor, putting me in the top 10 % of over 2000 of us in 7 countries. It was a proud achievement and one I am delighted to have retained, proving I always do the best I can for my customers.

So, if you have a holiday in mind, give me a call and we can start planning together.

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My Blog

I absolutely live and breathe travel and I love to write about my experiences! Please take a look through my posts - you might find your own holiday inspiration.

Disney Magic Cruise

25 August 2022

It was with a small amount of anxiety that I woke to board my very first Disney cruise. As a seasoned cruiser, I was eager to get back on the water. But not really knowing much about Disney I wasn’t too sure what to expect. I was travelling solo but joining a group of industry professionals from various countries, all embarking on this Disney adventure onboard Disney Magic. Research told me Magic was the first and remains the smallest of the Disney fleet with a capacity of 2,700 passengers. There are now 5 in the fleet including the newest, Disney Wish which I heard a lot about and sounds amazing. Boarding was very quick and easy in Copenhagen so within minutes of arrival at the port I was being welcomed on board with cheering and clapping whilst my case was being delivered separately to my stateroom. What a lovely welcome aboard that was, immediately highlighting that this cruise line is different from the others. My stateroom was a verandah, midship which was ideal for me as I do like to open the door and sit outside in the fresh air. There are several options depending on budget and personal choice including accessible cabins and 2-bedroom suites. The accommodation is a good standard with all the amenities you may need, with plenty of storage space and power sockets. There is a mini fridge and in the higher category suites there is a stocked bar, however, room service is 24/7 with no service charges and, both hot and cold soft drinks are freely available in dedicated places around the ship. Imagine your kids on free-flow soda! And ice cream! So, I am imagining you want to know about two main things - food and entertainment. Let’s start with food. Disney operates a rotational dining plan. So, each day your dinner will be in one of three main dining areas unless you are opt-out to a premium restaurant or to a more casual option. Restaurants are semi-formal/smart casual, and whilst we did have a formal evening on board, it was a personal choice how formal to be. I won’t spoil them for you, but each of the restaurants has a couple of different ’shows’ so you will always see something new at dinner. And honestly, I was completely mesmerized by some of them. Nice touch with this style of dining - you always retain the same table number. And the same service team who rotates with you, so they get to know you and your preferences which is lovely. By our second meal, they knew everyone’s name. There is an excellent selection to choose from and the menu does change. Breakfast and lunch also have a variety of options for diners with no reservation required. Mickey waffles seem to be the most popular dish as I saw almost every plate at breakfast had Mickey's face on it. In addition to the readily available soft drinks, ice cream and cookies are also included to the delight of many kids and adults. Entertainment. Well - it’s impressive. We used an onboard app which showed the daily schedule which was absolutely jam-packed with things to do. It was easy to highlight the things I liked the look of and then the app would send me reminders so I didn’t forget to go. Quizzes, karaoke, films (indoor and out) which may if you are lucky include a Disney premiere not yet out in the cinema. Dance classes, cooking classes, fitness and wellbeing classes, sports events, parties..you name it - Disney does it. Like with most cruise lines there is an evening ’show’ and there are two timings, so you get to see it regardless of your dinner time. The quality of this entertainment is fabulous. Not only the Disney classic performances but also specially hired for the sailing entertainers, such as magicians and comedians. They also have ‘After Hours’ which is an adults-only area in the evening with entertainment that may not be suitable for the youngsters and adults can relax without them. There are a few adult areas on board including a restaurant and pool. What surprised me is how many adults there are onboard travelling without the children. It seems Disney really is ‘for all ages.’ Disney characters are around the ship to meet and greet guests and have photo shoots all through the day. Small queues do form for the popular cast members but they are short. The first time I found myself in a queue I felt guilty about taking up a space a child should have had. I soon got over that when I saw a half of the line was adults and they are every bit as welcome to get involved. So get involved I did, loving wandering around to see the characters - and check out their extensive wardrobe as they always seemed to be wearing something new. This is a real treat and something that you don’t get to do anywhere else. Even staying at Disney theme park you may have to pay and queue for long periods to get close to these famous characters. If you don’t want to be amongst the characters you don’t need to. There are plenty of safe spaces around to avoid the full-on Disney theme and as I have already mentioned, adults-only areas too. Much of the theming is actually hidden. Disney fans love searching for ‘hidden Mickey’ but if you aren’t looking for it you just won’t see it. Or head to the tranquillity of the onboard spa which really is something special. So would I go back on board? IN A HEARTBEAT. Disney cruise is fun for everyone. But it’s just that little bit better for the Disney fans. ’That’s the Disney Magic!'

Our first holiday during the pandemic - The Travel experience

07 December 2020

My story of the Seychelles trip is broken into 2 parts. This first one being about the travel experience. Part 1 On 27th December my husband and I embarked on our first holiday of 2020, thanks to the Coronavirus spoiling all of our previous plans. We had booked before the restrictions came into our lives. And whilst all year I had hoped it would go ahead, I couldn’t be sure even until the last evening before we travelled. This is because travelling to Seychelles from Dubai during this period meant being able to submit a negative covid 19 certificate and then a completed declaration. I can’t help deny the 48 hours before departure I did have a little bit of anxiety. For no other reason than I didn’t want anything to get in the way of me and the perfect white sandy beaches of Seychelles! Fortunately for us, our approval was granted, and we were heading on holiday. Whilst it was a nerve-wracking few hours, I am very glad to have completed the process for myself now, so I can advise you from experience when it comes to getting your approval. So, on to the airport. I wasn’t too sure what to expect from the check-in and boarding experience. I had already chatted to plenty of friends and customers about their own experiences which varied dramatically. For us, it was good. The perspex screens at the check-in desk didn’t negatively impact the interaction and in general, throughout the airport customers were physically distancing. There was a lot of cleaning going on all around us including the luggage belts and trays at security. Most retail and F&B outlets in the airport were open with the noticeable exception of non-airline lounges. Boarding was in zone order and did seem a bit less frantic than it can be. I was a little surprised by the appearance of the crew wearing full PPE. I knew it was going to happen, but it wasn’t the usual welcoming sight I was used to. But otherwise, the team did as they always do, which is their best to ensure everyone was happy. We had to wear our masks all through the flight unless earing/drinking, which I wasn’t looking forward to. But, since we weren’t moving around or exerting any energy, I hardly noticed it. On landing, in Mahe we found that we would be disembarking in small groups of 30, so as not to crowd the arrivals hall. This did mean it was slower than normal. But once in the arrivals hall, the procedure was efficient and smooth with everyone having the temperature checked before we got to immigration. I’d booked a VIP meet and greet service. Whilst this didn’t save us a vast amount of time, it was nice to have a welcoming face and a queue jump. I’d recommend it. I’d also recommend our mode of transport if you choose to head to one of the islands. We had booked the private helicopter transfer to our hotel on Praslin. This was a real treat. Our VIP transfer handed us over to the Heli operator who swiftly got us in the car transfer to the helipad. Our pilot was ready and waiting, despite a 2-hour delay, and within 15minutes we were in the air headed to our hotel. The return was equally as smooth, Back to the airport where the process was efficient. The flight was good and we landed back in Dubai on time. In Seychelles, we had a PCR test to be able to leave, but we didn’t pay for the certificate which is much more expensive than many other places. So this meant we needed another test on arrival. And I am happy to say this process was quick and straight forward too. Just before immigration those of us without the certificates were directed to a test area. There was only a couple of people in front of us and the whole process too under 10minutes. A bit of a queue for immigration as the e-gates remain closed at this time, but we had retrieved our bags and arrived home within 45 minutes of the plane landing. If this is travel during a pandemic – I like it!

Our first holiday during the pandemic - Gorgeous Seychelles

07 December 2020

My story of the Seychelles trip is broken into 2 parts. This second one being about the holiday experience. Part 2 At the hotel, the team were waiting for us by the helipad. I didn’t notice them at first as I was busy taking a video of our arrival. Because it was spectacular and I loved watching the daily arrivals from the beach during our trip. A very warm and friendly welcome, wave the pilot off again and a short buggy to our villa where we were shown around and checked in with no waiting around. We were staying at the beautiful 5* luxury Raffles Praslin. And I do mean beautiful. The two of us became amateur photographers for the week taking non-stop photographs. Above and under the water – testing the waterproof capability of the iPhone! This is a stunning resort with Indian Ocean and island views. Lush greenery, aquamarine water and white sand. A few ‘Instagramable’ photo spots around the resort including the lovely pool area. Along with lovely wildlife with geckos, bats and birds galore, giant tortoises to feed and a tiny little island Tenrec, which we had to 'google' as we had never seen one before. Marine life in abundance too and whilst they didn't like to be filmed we saw a lovely group of baby sharks. It is quite a small property but somehow there was plenty of space and even though occupancy was pretty high, it didn’t feel it at any stage. Like other places, we have stayed in Seychelles our villa had a small private pool. And the living space was mainly outdoors too. The large lounge seating area, dining table and sundeck area all outside with the bedroom and small seating area indoors. A lovely large, bright bathroom with a ‘bath with a view, and to my delight, an outdoor shower. I don’t think I will ever tire of showering outdoors, often joined by a few geckos. So, this area along with our cabana at the beach, and the pool area was where we spent most of our time. During this pandemic travellers to Seychelles from both UAE and UK were currently restricted to the resort for the first 7 days of the trip until in receipt of a negative covid test taken on day 6. The hotel facilitated the test for us, so nice and easy but it did mean we didn’t get to see much outside of the resort as we also left on day 7. 7 days of food at the same resort may, in other properties, put me off. But not here at Raffles Seychelles. The food was good and varied. Breakfast was part a la carte and part assisted buffet. Lunch/all day a la carte snacks and meals were available poolside or in the villa. And dinner could be a la carte too or take part in the various theme nights, such as Japanese, Creole or Lobster. We couldn’t fault the cuisine in terms of quality or choice. And the setting for our dinners was just wow. Our seventh day came around all too quickly and after a final afternoon around the pool and saying fond farewells to the team, we were whisked away again in the helicopter back to Mahe. We had arranged a driver to take us to Eden island for a few hours before our late flight home. And we were happy to see that this marina area was full of life, with busy bars and restaurants, showing us that Seychelles is definitely open to visitors. Whilst we relaxed and loved our tranquil island idyll, for may of you exploring this lively area may appeal and I'm happy to share my experience of that with you too.

Travelling to Saudi Arabia for the first time for leisure

23 December 2019

Saudia Arabia recently launched much easier access to visit the Kingdom for leisure and business travellers. So like many people I was intrigued to know more about this country and what it would have to offer me in terms of leisure. In November I took the opportunity to visit for an event. The first step - the visa. Obtaining the visa on line was very quick and easy. The website is very clear, in English and user friendly. It is pretty expensive. But, the visa is valid for 12 months multiple entry. After my experience I will use mine again. Then what to wear! It's well documented that the rules have relaxed so international, female travellers no longer need to wear an abaya. But just as the rules have changed I was anxious to understand the reality. So I called a number of friends and associates who had been travelling to the country to understand their experience. I was told not to worry. Just wear modest clothing but no need to wear an abaya or headscarf (although they all said they have one with them 'just in case.') I should say that I was travelling with my husband, not as a solo female. I didn't feel that I was treated differently though due to this. It's really strange looking out of the window when coming in to land. This is clearly the desert! I know living in UAE I am in the desert but this really looked vast and baron. The journey from the airport to the city of Riyadh was similarly just desert. I had taken a jacket to wear on landing in the airport. But my short sleeves didn't even attract a sideways glance from anyone. In fact I felt completely anonymous despite the traffic in the airport being predominantly male. Immigration was fairly slow. There was no big queue. Just an odd process. It was almost like I never had an e-visa and was doing the whole process all over again. This process was very friendly. Within the immigration area I must had heard 'welcome to Saudia Arabia' at least 5 times by each official I met with what seemed a genuine smile. Photo and fingerprint taken, I was allowed into The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The airport is pretty small and easy to navigate. There is an information desk with a good English speaker and various staff on hand to help confused looking tourists. Since we are used to it in UAE we opted to use Uber and the pick up zone is clearly marked near Careem and the taxis. Uber is more like in Europe and US in terms of the vehicles we found, being a bit hit and miss on the standard. And in the airport journey and others, we did find communication fairly hard as the drivers had very minimal English. They were all very friendly though and keen to help with luggage, so I won't hesitate to use again on the return. Despite travelling with my husband, he hates hotel check in procedure. So it was me that dealt with all of this formality. As at the airport I didn't feel out of place as a woman, and the check in staff did communicate well and were welcoming. We were at an international big brand hotel. What was interesting though, as we have different names, they were looking for 2 rooms not just one as they assumed we aren't married. So that is worth bearing in mind. On this occasion I just saw some of Riyadh. Like many parts of the middle east it is interesting to see huge malls with lots of big European and American brands sitting in some very traditional Saudi areas. It's a real blend of character. We visited an event in Al Diriyah a heritage area. What I can say is when Riyadh puts on an event, they really put on an event and we were blown away by the quality, size and scale. With thousands of people in attendance at all times I felt safe and comfortable. Never out of place and never judged for my attire. We saw groups of men and groups of woman alongside mixed groups all there to have fun. And everyone embraced the environment and performances. Certainly Saudia Arabia from what I have seen so far is very different from what I am used to. But far from uncomfortable and in fact seemingly very open to change and to international visitors. Based on this experience, I will definitely go back.

The Caribbean is always calling me

09 June 2019

In the new year, Travel Counsellors ran an incentive for all TCs to win a place on an educational trip to Antigua. An educational trip is a travel Trade visit to understand a location and properties to enable us to promote it more knowledgeably. The Caribbean has been a favourite destination of mine for many years with my husband regularly being told that’s where I want to retire to. So imagine my delight on finding that from over 1600 Travel Counsellors in 7 countries, I won one of the 20 spaces. The trip was planned for mid May and all I needed to do was arrange to get to Gatwick in readiness for my Virgin Atlantic sponsored flight. After an evening getting to know some of my fellow travellers in the restaurant at Sofitel Gatwick, a firm favourite airport hotel for me, I met the larger group the next morning at the Virgin check in area. The group was split nicely so half travelled economy and the other half premium economy and we would switch on the way back so we got to experience both. It’s 6 years since I last flew Virgin but after this experience I am sure I won’t leave it so long next time. The economy experience was comfortable and with some nice surprises as we were presented with ice lollies, afternoon tea and then sweeties before landing. The kind of thing many airlines used to do in ‘the good old days’ but have stopped in times of cost cutting. The premium economy seat coming back too was a great experience with a comfortable wide seat, good menu choices and a 2 way leg/foot rest for added comfort. Whilst the flight was good it didn’t prepare us for the very warm welcome on arrival. It’s good to know the treatment I can expect for my guests once they disembark. The Antiguan tourist board ensured we were fast tracked through immigration so that once we were reunited with our luggage we could meet our hosts in the arrival hall with refreshing cold towels and water. A swift transfer to the waiting vehicle and we were on our way to the first hotel. I won’t give too much away about the properties we stayed at but if after reading this you want to know where would be best for you, do get in touch. We stayed at 3 hotels and visited 4 more so I have plenty of information. The first property was our base for 4 nights. Hodges Bay the new, stunning, contemporary design hotel on the north coast. The second was Curtain Bluff. A more established property with Antiguan character and charm welcoming repeat clients as they have fallen in love with the location and easy lifestyle. We ended our stay at Carlisle Bay. An all suites property on the turquoise blue water with the backdrop of the forest which was simply beautiful. Having visited these and other properties one of the things I learned whilst in Antigua for a week is there really is something for everyone. I had never really associated Antigua with tennis. But if you want to learn this new skill or develop your existing game, courts and professionals are readily available for you. As are beaches. One of my favourite facts is that Antigua has 365 beaches. One for every day of the year. It makes retirement sound even more enticing! Something else I never knew about the island was that it has mangroves. The North Sound Marine Park is home to beautiful mangroves, calm waters, starfish, sea cucumbers and upside down jelly fish. A fantastic afternoon was had kayaking. With a rainforest those that wanted to could head out for a hike. And some of the more adventurous in our group chose to zip line at Antigua Rainforest Zipline which we had passed a couple of times whilst touring the island. We did the 4x4 island tour which was great fun and really informative. Also colourful, as we found the locals are lovers of colour so the houses are pained in interesting combinations such as purple and yellow, green and pink...you get the idea. On our tour we visited Shirley Heights lookout with fabulous views of English Harbour. We were a couple of weeks late for the Antigua Sailing Festival, but if you are a keen sailor that would be a great time to visit. We went back to Shirley Heights to party. In typical caribbean style the locals do like to dance, eat, drink and be merry. So the Shirley Heights Bar-B-q nights with the rhythm of the steel band whilst watching the sunset is a really good place to get started. Snorkelling, swimming and watersports galore are on offer all around the coast so there is fun to be had everywhere. And those that want to understand more of the country’s history, I’m sure you will enjoy a trip to Betty Hope sugar plantation. One of many old sugar mills dotted around the island but this has sympathetically been turned into a museum so we had a somber few hours learning of Antigua’s past. Our visit in May coincided with the published ‘rainy season.’ But having seen 5 minutes of rain only twice in 7 days I think it’s fair to say that Antigua is an all year round destination. So something to consider next time you are considering your next getaway. Let me know.

Mixing business with pleasure in Malaysia

18 March 2019

When I was invited to attend an event in Langkawi about luxury travel, I jumped at the opportunity. It's somewhere I had never been to and having only been to Penang in Malaysia before I figured it was a great time to do a little more. So after a brief discussion my husband and I decided to start my trip with a short break in Kuala Lumpur. Choosing a hotel was quite a daunting task as I didn't know the city at all. In the end we decided on something mid range in the city's 'Golden Triangle' which is basically the commercial, shopping and entertainment hub. Shopping wasn't on the agenda but seeing the sights and having fun was so the location was perfect for us, walking distance to most things including the Petronas Twin towers and the Menara KL Tower. Both towers offer great viewing opportunities and worth doing even though we are used to the height of the Burj Khalifa! For the most part we walked around the city to see Chinatown and the Sultan Abdul Samad building, but we did also venture further afield - just 25minutes in a cab - to see the famous Batu Caves, the site of a Hindu temple and shrine. It's only 272 steps to the top, it's much easier coming down. It was fun to watch the monkeys here, stealing drinks and food off the unsuspecting tourists. As dedicated 'foodies' we decided to use a guide to walk us around some of the city's vast array of street food vendors. This was a great decision. A gentle pace over 4 hours with stops to try lots of interesting foods produced by the locals. Most of it we loved but there was the occasional 'interesting' snack. We completely filled our time in KL and we didn't get to use the lovely large pool at the hotel, bigger and more inviting than seen at most city hotels. Next stop was Langkawi. Just an hour hop on a plane for KL, I did get to use the pool and the beach in Langkawi. With a clear island feel the pace was slow and relaxed. With a number of hotels to choose from I had always thought it was really just a 5* luxury location but actually found there was a really good range of properties with something to suit everyone. My first hotel wasn't beach front but it was just a 5 minute walk and the view then was simply beautiful. Pantah Tengah I felt was the perfect location for anyone not wanting to spend all the time in a resort hotel. There was a little stretch of bars, shops and restaurants frequented by locals so a real authentic feel. Wow, the spices in the food are hot! After a couple of days R&R here it was onwards to the area of Kuah. Here I was staying on the lovely beach front and enjoyed a long walk when I wasn't working or watching the local monkeys fight. This area is around 45 minutes from one of the main attractions of the island which is the Skybridge and Langkawi cable car. I am scared of heights but not one to miss out I quickly got myself first in line to board vertiginous 15minutes ride to the top of mount Mat Cincang. Here I joined the Skybridge, the longest free span and curved bridge in the world. I shocked myself by walking along it, but I did, suspended from a 82m high single pylon hanging 100m above the ground. Not for the faint hearted! Up here viewing the beautiful landscape was a further reminder of how lush and green Malaysia is. It couldn't be more different from Dubai.

Alaska - The Last Frontier

20 September 2018

WOW. WOW. WOW. This is the word of the trip. Alaska is wonderful. Spectacular. Interesting. We spent 11 nights sailing the Inside Passage on Seabourn Sojourn. And to be honest, I don't know where to start on writing a blog. So I am going to let the photos do the talking. Some of them aren't great quality as my camera can't see what my eyes do. But trust me, it was sensational. Please contact me to know more. sarahpickford@travelcounsellors.ae +971 55 438 6868

Krakow in the Cold

10 April 2018

We visited Krakow very briefly tagged onto a business trip. It was February and there was snow on the ground although we managed to escape more in the time we were there. At the time of Travel we had to fly via Warsaw which is available with Emirates from Dubai but now there are direct flights available with FlyDubai and it’s just 6hrs direct. If you travel from UK there are lots of options at about 2.5hrs. The city is around a 30minute easy journey from the airport and we had checked into a lovely little boutique hotel between the Jewish quarter and the main old town market square. This meant that most things were in easy walking distance for us. We put in a lot of steps during our short trip and we wanted to walk as much as possible so we didn’t miss anything. Krakow is a really pretty city with a lot of history and historical buildings to explore. One of which was the old Schindler Ceramics factory now housing a museum telling the story of Oskar Schindler and the Jewish prisoners. A visit here was a sobering experience as was a visit to to the Ghetto Heroes Square monument with 33 memorial chairs symbolising the plight of the Polish Jews. Following these visits we chose not to visit Auschwitz but this is very easily accessible from Krakow around 1hr away. Another worthwhile trip is Wieliczka salt mines which is listed in the UNESCO register. We chose to stick closer to the city and enjoyed our frozen walk up to medieval Wawel castle in a dominant position looking down and protecting the city. Also Krakus Mound, the pagan ritual site, which is the highest point I the city with wonderful panoramic views. So there were we enjoying seeing the sights in the snow so we did need warming up. Enter the Polish food and beverage outlets! As always when travelling we did want to try some traditional fayre which is still very popular and available in most bars and restaurants. We were amused to arrive on the day of an annual “Fat Thursday’ celebrations so were offer a sweet treat wherever we went which was lovely. Borscht, a hearty sour soup was a winner for me along with a variety of dumpling dishes such as Pierogi. All washed down with a Polish hops brew or wine learning that whilst it’s not a massive industry, the country does have good local wineries. The trip was very short but we packed a lot in and really enjoyed ourselves. If you get the opportunity Krakow is well worth a visit.

Hong Kong to see in the New Year

17 January 2018

I cannot tell you how excited I was to be going to Hong Kong for New Year. Kong Kong had been on our 'must visit' list since arriving in UAE and somehow we just hadn't got there in 5 years. So we decided to treat ourselves and visit in style for New Year. Business class flights and a high end hotel stay. So we were booked on Cathay Pacific business class and into Mandarin Oriental hotel. We left on a night flight at almost midnight arriving late morning into HKG. The airport was fast and efficient and within 45 minutes of landing we were in our pre-booked car en-route to the city.Everyone had told us to use the train for transfers but after a night flight we thought we would just want a simple solution. But having taking the train on the return it is true to say we found it very easy and fast. On arrival at the hotel I was shocked. It was SO noisy in the lobby. It was bustling with people and they all spoke very loudly. I had to get used to this as I found that everywhere we went people were really loud talking to each other or even just into the mobile phone. Check was was great. Friendly and efficient and thats how we found all of the Mandarin Oriental team to be throughout our stay. Nothing was too much trouble, they wanted to make sure we were happy all of the time. We loved the handwritten notes and gifts of sweets received in our room each day. On NYE we had a chocolate champagne bottle containing chocolate truffles. It was Amazing! We both only have positive things to say about the Mandarin Oriental. Despite our night flight we were keen to get out and about so after admiring our view (we chose a Marina view room with a huge window) we headed out to Victoria Peak. It was a very busy time of year so we did have to queue for the tram for quite some time. But it was worth it as it's a really steep climb with fabulous views. The tram is now just a way to get to the peak but used to be a standard method of transport and the original old stations and still marked.The view from The Peak is spectacular as it's the highest point in Hong Kong and we could see 360degrees views of the vast city. We spent the whole afternoon here before heading off for a sumptuous Michelin Starred Chinese dinner at Man Wah back at the hotel. Walking back we couldn't help but be in awe of the location - surrounded by all high end shops such as Cartier, Harry Winston and Gucci, and immediately across from the harbour, central district was perfect for getting around. On Saturday we went to meet some friends living in Hong Kong for brunch in the Lan Kwai Fong area which is a famous area for drinking and nightlife. This area was buzzing with people having fun and we managed to get a table at a roof top bar with great city views. The thing were learnt was when walking along a street looking for fun places to be, instead of looking straight ahead - look up. So many outlets are high up in the buildings, they could easily be missed. Later in the evening we headed off to the Kowloon night market to see what the locals were buying. It was chaotic; busy and noisy and fun of life. We sat and had some refreshments in the middle of the market to watch the comings and goings all around us. Later we went off to a fortune teller, but that's another story! We were in Hong Kong for a very short time so we had to pack in the most popular attractions, the most famous probably being the 112ft high Tian Tan Buddha statue reachable by the 360 cable car on Lantau island. We opted for the glass bottomed cable car so we maximised what we could see. It's not for the feint hearted though. Once again we had to queue for a while but again it was worth it as it was a stunning journey. Looking down we could see the walking trail up to the Big Buddha. It would be brilliant to do for those who enjoy good walk, the trail will take around 6hours. The cable car was a more reasonable 30minutes between Tung Chung and Ngong Ping arriving into a cultural village with shops and restaurants and roaming cows- really! We strolled through the village before climbing the 268steps up to see the Buddha. The 268 down again to visit the Po Lin Monastery was much easier! OnNew Years Eve itself the city was buzzing. People were coming in from everywhere to the harbour front in readiness to watch the fireworks display at midnights. The bars and restaurants including those at the hotel had various countdown parties and tables with good viewing were booking several months in advance at premium prices. We had planned ahead so we stayed in the hotel doing a bit of a bar crawl before heading off to see the fireworks from our Marina View room at midnight. And what a view it was. We saw (and heard) the whole display which was spectacular as expected and lasted for several minutes celebrated by everyone watching along the harbour front and on the boats in the water. It really was a lovely way to start a new year.

Armenia in Winter

07 January 2018

I was lucky enough to go and visit a new country in December with some colleagues from the industry arranged by our preferred tour company. It was a bit of a whirlwind trip visiting lots of hotels so we could see what was offered by both the city of Yerevan and also the mountain destination of Tsaghkadzor. We travelling on FlyDubai direct from Dubai to Yerevan. These are great value flights and it was a comfortable trip of just 3hours. FlyDubai offers business class as well as economy service. We arrived to find it around 2degrees. Cold! There was snow on the ground in many areas and we were told that the main snowfall would land arrive in just a few weeks. Preparations for this were in progress particularly in the mountains for start of ski season. If you are after a winter holiday with guaranteed snow, Armenia is one to consider particularly in January. Following the cold the very noticeable thing was how festive everywhere was. A huge Christmas tree was being erected in the main square and there was a small Christmas market. Every hotel had a lovely Christmas display and advertising Christmas menus. Interestingly we learned that the Armenians celebrate Christmas Day on January 6th as in history tells all Christian churches did until 4th century. Christian history is evident all over the city with a variety of churches, temples and monasteries which are all open to visitors and quite beautiful including Garni & The Temple of Garni, Garni Gorge and the Monastery of Gerghard. Even on the short journey to the city from the airport there were numerous historical monuments to take note of and revisit. One of the finest and most visible is the stairway of limestone 572 steps housing the Centre of Arts and there are some great pieces of art available to be viewed at the bottom to tempt visitors in. In Victory Park at the top of the Cascades we saw the 'Mother of Armenia' monument looking down and protecting the city. This park is in commemoration of Soviet Armenia's participation in 2nd World War and hold a museum to this. Also beautiful is Lake Sevan which is the largest lake in the country, at high altitude which great fishing opportunities and relaxing along shoreline beaches. On the final day we visited the ski resort of Tsaghkadzor. Whilst we were there to see the region in ski season the mountains come alive in the summer with lots of outdoor, family activities. This is where the city dwellers go to spend their weekends and time off. It's just about 1dr drive from the airport so an easy destination from UAE. The resort has 27km of slopes on elevations of 1,800 - 2,800m for a variety of abilities.The types of accommodation here vary from self-catering style chalets to 5* hotels with all kinds of activity on offer for apres-ski with a bowling alley and a shooting range amongst the options along with heated swimming pools in most. In all the areas we visited we found the food to be simple and delicious. Everything is locally sourced and if the fast food takeaway chains are your preference you will struggle to find them in Armenia giving way to locally grown vegetables. English is widely spoken so it is very easy to communicate with the very friendly people who are happy to have a growing tourism industry, very proud of their culture and keen to show off what they have to offer.

A quick trip to Azerbaijan

09 July 2017

I have had a few conversations recently with people telling me they didn’t even know Azerbaijan existed until they saw it represented the Eurovision song contest a few years ago. But more and more people are keen to get to visit the city. Having now visited myself it is somewhere I would highly recommend and I hope to go back. In early June the city was bright, sunny and warm. I actually visited with friends during Ramadan. Interestingly for a Muslim country, there were no restrictions on entertainment or consumption and the city was alive with people enjoying the beautiful parks and the old walled city. The old town is gorgeous! Mainly pedestrianised and very easy to navigate on foot, visitors can take a walking tour (with a guide or self guided) to take in all of the history. There is so much greenery, a real change from Dubai and both locals and tourists take time to sit and enjoy the well tended floral displays and trees. On the banks of the Caspian Sea, if you are a fan of Caviar this is where to try it or buy some to take home being sure of it’s authenticity. The authentic Azeri food was also one of the highlights for me. We visited a tiny restaurant offering traditional fayre and the host was so keen that we got to try plenty of dishes, he served us a feast. Flavours that we had never tasted before were delicious and we washed it down with locally produced wine which was so so good. We didn't speak each others language but the host did his best to share with us details of the Azeri traditions surrounding the dining culture which we were very interested in. What's more, it's such good value and the hospitality we encountered was wonderful with all restaurant and bar owners keen to share their story and introduce us to new flavours. If you are more about the new than the history, Baku offers this for you too. With a lovely modern city centre with all of the brands a shopaholic could wish for and all of the modern entertainment venues and eateries you want from a big city. Indeed those of you who are fans of motor sport will find it is relatively good value to visit for the Baku Grand Prix. Getting around is easy. For Uber users it is available at a very low cost as are taxis. And those of you preferring to walk will be happy with the well done underpasses that go deep underground but have escalators to save the legs and take you to street level again. Then when you want to get out and see a bit more, there are some really interesting tours available to places such as Gobuststan nation park with historical petroglyphs, caves and mud volcanos or perhaps Ateshgah Fire Temple. Only 3 hours direct flight from Dubai, if you are looking for somewhere a little different, give Baku a try.

A lovely weekend in Athens

23 February 2017

I’ve visited Athens a couple of times previous but only on my way to or from a Greek Island or a cruise. This time I decided I wanted to really see what the city had to offer. Visiting in February meant that the tourist season hadn’t kicked in so thankfully no long queues to any of the attractions. On the other hand it was pretty chilly so I was glad of boots, gloves and a scarf. One of the things that attracted me to Greece was food. Simple yet delicious is how I had remembered it and thats exactly what I got. My first meal sat alone waiting for my friends to arrive was a bowl of olives, a plate of feta and a carafe of red wine. Perfect! Over the course of the next 4 days I tried the traditional Moussaka, vine leaves, fresh fish and halloumi dishes, amongst others and was never disappointed. Sitting there alone on that first day in Athens I realised how infrequently I get to do that and experience places alone. It was actually lovely to be able to watch, see and explore a little by myself and whilst I was delighted when the rest of the group arrived I would say this is a city that a lone traveller would really enjoy. We were lucky and were staying in a hotel with fabulous views of The Acropolis. It really is a wondrous sight. And of course getting closer to explore is a ‘must-do.’ Whilst it is high on a hill it certainly isn’t a strenuous walk so very easy for everyone to visit. And there is now a fabulous museum to explain more about it’s history. Great when it rained! There was a lot to pack into the few days we were there but 2 more attractions really stood out. We did a walking tour with an audio guide of the original Olympic Stadium. It was an incredible insight into athletics of old. And also we loved watching the changing of the guard at the Parliament Building. Very different and intriguing to watch. Athens is a really easy city to navigate and get around. There is a very good public transport network which is clean, cheap and easily accessible. For those that prefer a car taxis are easy to hail and even Uber has an established operation there. Just 5 hours from Dubai and 3 from London it’s a perfect place for a meet up and I will definitely go back. Ps…Halloumi or feta with honey and sesame is not to be missed!

A girls getaway to Romania

13 September 2016

After quite a lot of planning, in August I headed out on a girls weekend to Romania. I flew into Bucharest directly from Dubai with FlyDubai. The flight times were good and we arrived mid afternoon. I wish we had pre-booked a car transfer, the taxi system is chaotic and the ticket machine that runs the system didn't work properly. Not many people had much English language so it was difficult to communicate. On the plus side, there was a cafe/bar where we could get refreshed whilst getting organised. The airport was about 25minutes in the car from the city and the journey was pretty trouble free. Unlike being a pedestrian. Even on the zebra crossing, cars appeared to have a right of way. So we had more than a couple of near misses! I advise caution and care crossing the roads. The city of Bucharest we found to be quite grey and uninteresting whilst walking around so we took the opportunity of the frequent and good value Big Bus tour to see the sights. We had some great restaurant tips and found the food to be largely hearty, meaty dishes washed down with some lovely, and very cheap Romanian wine. Just what the doctor ordered! After a couple of days in Bucharest we took a train to Brashov. On arrival at the station we were amused by how old the trains were. But ours was spacious and comfortable. I do recommend 1st class which didn't cost too much more. The journey was lovely and we saw some beautiful scenery as we passed through the countryside and mountains. After finding our lovely hotel and freshening up, we headed out into the old part of the city. It was lovely with a real medieval feel. Fountains, outdoor cafes, street vendors and pretty architecture has our attention. Like Bucharest we found the service a little slow but everyone was friendly and keen to please. On our second day here we headed to see Dracula's Transylvanian castle. Bran Castle is quite an attraction and the queues were long so we were pleased with our decision to have a guide with Q-jump. The tour is interesting and the grounds of the castle are lovely so it's an easy way to spend a day. And, if you fancy a little shopping for souvenirs, there's also a little market for buying gifts to take home. Perfect!

Andalusia and Gibraltar

23 August 2016

I cannot lie, 3 days without luggage because the airline lost it wasn't a good start. But, I didn't let that ruin the trip. We started in Gibralter which is the island known as 'The Rock' due to the huge rock that's the landmark. Separated from Spain by a small border it really is England in the sunshine with high street shopping, pubs and fish'n chip shops. The island is known for the Barbary Apes upon the rock that can be very cheeky and will steal your belongings of you don't watch out. We stayed on a docked cruise ship so our room was a cabin which was quirky and fun. Great service and lovely harbor views too that we enjoyed and we would definitely stay there again. It's really quite interesting to be able to walk in and out across the border between Spain and UK. From Gibralter we drove to Cadiz. We decided to avoid the highway where possible and we drove along the coast road. We were in no rush and wanted to see the sights. We some some lovely villages and clearly good surf towns based on the number of surf shacks and surfers around. Cadiz is an interesting mix of old and new. We walked along the old city wall and along the long stretch of white sandy beach at La Victoria. We had wonderful tapas served in cafes where very little English was spoken. We had no idea what we ordered as none of us speak Spanish, but it was fabulous. The reason for the trip to Cadiz was to see the Tall Ships in the 2nd stage of their 3 part race from Antwerp to A Coruna. They were a pretty spectacular sight and the bonus was we could actually board the ships and take a look around. There was a real festival spirit in the town over this weekend with parades, music and parties. After Cadiz we visited Torrox. The town centre is very pretty with white-walled houses clinging to the steep slope on which the town is built. From the top the views are pretty spectacular as they are on the cliff road through Frigiliana which is the coast road we took back down to the coast. Torrox Costa is a tourist hotspot particularly for the Spanish who visit as it is widely considered to have the best climate of Europe and it's also known for regular festivals and traditions which are celebrated throughout the year. For our final night we travelled inland to Ronda which is a mountaintop town. The journey offered stunning scenery as we drove through the mountains before arriving in the pretty town set dramatically above a deep gorge. Here the views were spectacular and I did enjoy simply sitting on the balcony of the hotel room and looking out over the countryside. We didn't go in, but the Plaza de Toros, (18th-century bullring), is one of the key attractions in the area. And people were clearly enjoying the trips around the town in the horse and cart that could be hired close by. We strolled through the very pretty park with the well maintained duck pond that was the focal point. And enjoyed fabulous traditional food with local wine in one of the many pretty little restaurants with stunning views. And then it was back home to Dubai for a rest!

A wonderful tour of Sri Lanka

12 May 2016

I had visited Sri Lanka before. Just to Negombo area on a long girls' weekend which was perfect with some lively bars and restaurants for our evenings out. On this, my second trip, there was a whole different experience planned. Travelling with colleagues to learn more about the history, culture and geography of the area. 6 nights and 6 different hotels and another 9 for lunch and dinner. It was a packed schedule with some long journeys and a lot of walking, but what a fabulous experience. On day 1 we visited the Pinnawela elephant orphanage. We watched baby elephants being fed milk and we watched the older ones enjoying playing in the river. It was interesting to see these fabulous animals up close and take a selfie or 2! We also headed off to the Unesco World Heritage site of Dambulla cave temples. The view from the temple at 350ft is pretty spectacular. Waking early on day 2 we were faced with climbing the Sigiriya Rock Fortress. My word that was good for the legs! Only a couple of colleagues were fearless enough to go right to the top of this famous fortress built in the 5th century, and the sense of achievement they felt afterwards was visible. We had all earned our lunch by then. Onwards to Kandy the cultural centre where we were shown the Dalada Maligawa- the Temple of the sacred Tooth relic of Buddha. The ceremony with dancing and drums is quite unique. On day 3 we had a very long drive along mountainous roads seeing tea plantations and waterfalls along the journey then stopping to watch tea being made. There was some stunning scenery so the cameras were put to good use. All the way to Hatton we drove - 'little England' to experience the hospitality of a private bungalow. Then the rain came so we didn't get in the pool. Day 4 was hosting the highlight for me: a jeep safari into Yala National park to see Sri Lankan wild animals at home. We saw peacocks, elephants, wild boar, flamingos, deer and even a leopard taking a nap in a tree. Dinner in the evening was the icing on the cake at a jungle retreat. Whilst enjoying our main course a water buffalo wandered past us just 50ft away, although some of the girls were less keen on finding the Cobra that had been spotted in the bushes. Off to Galle on day 5 driving along the coast and spotting all the surf spots. We visited Galle fort with the 350yr old Dutch church and the old lighthouse. Whilst we didn't have time to go and watch the famous art of masks being made we could see the factories and outlets everywhere. Our final day dad us taking a look at some of the popular resorts in the coastal towns of Hikkaduwa and Bentota, and seeing the turtle hatchery which is ever so popular with visitors to the region. Then we headed up to the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo for a city tour seeing the merging of the old and the new. Also understanding the true multi-cultural society when we could see Christian churches, Muslim mosques and Buddhists temples all in close proximity. Having spent 7 days there I know that's it's just not long enough to enjoy everything that Sri Lanka has to offer. So I am already planning when I can go back.

Mini Safari in the UAE

29 October 2015

Having visited lots of beautiful hotels in UAE since I moved here, it takes quite a lot to impress me. Well this place did. It's the only place we have visited where my husband said he could stay for several days, a week even, as he really felt 'on holiday' and there was so much to do. We decided to drive from Dubai and there is no doubt, it's a long drive. But once arrived at the jetty which is around and hour and a half from Abu Dhabi, the stress dissipates. We checked in at the jetty quickly and our bags were taken, we were told to relax. So we did. And we did until the time we left again 2 days later. The ferry trip is around 20minutes and they show a video of what to expect from the island. It goes very fast and at the other end we are met by an air conditioned coach for another 20minute drive time. Along the journey we are all wildlife spotting and we are all a bit overcome by the rugged landscape. We arrived at Desert Islands by Anantara and were warmly greeted. After the initial introductions we didn't pass by the reception area again during our stay without being greeted by name. We were shown to our room which was lovely, with one of the best hotel showers I have ever had experience of, and a pretty garden terrace. And then we retired to the lovely pool with great drinks service. The activities desk has plenty of things to offer guests to do. Watersports, sandsports, sailing trips and perhaps the most exciting for me, the wildlife drive. We opted for very early in the morning as we had been advised we had more chance of seeing more animals. Great advice! Our informative guide pointed out various interesting facts about the island and landscape but most importantly took us to the animal 'hangouts.' Giraffes, cheetahs, oryx to name a few. And not from a distance - from right next to our vehicle. It was amazing. Again the guide was really very informed about each of the animals and could answer all of our questions. She, and all of the other staff we encountered were very enthusiastic about their work, the resort and the island. It was infectious enthusiasm, and I cannot wait to go back!

Experience cool mountain air in the height of summer

27 August 2015

We had dinner outside. Outside in August! If you live in the Middle East you will know how wonderful that is. On checking in to this wonderful hotel, the hostess told us that the temperature in this part of the world rarely goes above 33 degrees. Bearing in mind that on Jumeirah beach in Dubai on that day it was 47 degrees this was brilliant news to us. We were shown to our room pointing out the hotel’s gym, spa and restaurants en-route. We didn't use the very well-equipped gym but we did use the spa and it was bliss. It was very tranquil with all Balinese, expert therapists and we found ourselves not wanting to leave. But we did. How could we not make use of the glorious pool? It was a beautiful temperature, slightly cooled and the views were spectacular over the mountain and gorge. And surrounding the pool were plentiful loungers and daybeds with optional curtains for privacy and to block out the sun. Below the pool is a stone Jacuzzi and once inside you can't see or hear anyone else. If the Jacuzzi was too hot and the pool too cold (they weren't) we could always pop inside to the slightly warmed indoor Jacuzzi pool. Nothing was too much trouble for the hotel team. If we wanted or needed anything they were there. Unobtrusive but observant and friendly, we knew that they really wanted us to enjoy our stay. The chefs were pretty impressive too. There is just a main dining room and a lounge offering lighter meals. Both are spacious and well designed. The menu is fairly limited but the quality is excellent and we were delighted to find that the prices weren't 5* hotel inflated. I cannot deny that it was a little odd having dinner without a glass of wine with my meal. As yet the hotel doesn't have an alcohol licence so cannot serve, but they were happy to let us take our own so we could keep wine in our fridge in the suite and they kept us topped up with ice. They also kept us hydrated all day with plenty of complimentary bottled water. For us the hotel was pure relaxation. But for those that prefer to get out and about seeing the sights or enjoying the terrain, the hotel has bikes available and will happily help you discover the area with outdoor pursuits or discovering the cultural and culinary traditions.

Qasr al Sarab - there is sand all around me

20 April 2015

So many people know that the Anantara brand represents good quality and exceptional service. This is certainly what we found at Anantara Qasr al Sarab, desert resort. This is a resort that many of my clients aspire to visit and the feedback made me want to go. So when I found a free weekend in the diary, I was booked, packed and ready to go. I hadn't anticipated the long journey. It took around 3 hours from Dubai Marina. That's not so bad but there was not much to see on the way. So my advice is take snacks and drinks and if you are travelling with kids, plenty of games. The approach into the hotel was something else. There is a gate through which we drove to find ourselves on a path through the dunes. Not a short path though. Several kilometres of sand dunes rolled out before. It was the kind of image that you see of postcards and photographs. On the way back we stopped the car for a photo. And our four wheel drive almost got stuck as the soft sand sunk, so bear that in mind if you fancy a picture too. We arrived hungry and thirsty and just wanting to chill out. Not a problem. The staff at this resort were on hand to make sure that's exactly what we could do. We were welcomed and guided into the lavish reception where instead of going to a desk we were seated with refreshments and were introduced to our hostess. Once the formalities were taken care of we were taken on a buggy by our hostess to our beautiful room. It was of a high standard with everything we might consider. A large balcony with great views and in the bathroom, a party sized bath! And on the bed kissing swans made of towels and a scattering of rose petals. A lovely touch. Down at the pool we received more efficient and friendly, unobtrusive service. Complimentary water, sunglasses cleaning, cold towels, ice lollies and fruit. We wanted for nothing. We enjoyed some food and some drinks and were treated like VIPs around the large, busy but relatively quiet (volume wise) pool. Out of the pool and on a lounger we couldn't help but smile at the view. The water with floral border was lovely with the backdrop of a typically Arabian style building and around us more of those impressive orange, rolling sand dunes. Unfortunately for us because it wasn't windy enough we couldn't go sandsailing. But this was just one of the activities that was available to us when it wasn't just relaxing that we wanted. And no matter what we wanted, there was always someone on hand to help. The restaurant choices are lovely. If you really want to go for Romance you could try Dining by Design, where a table for two will be served exclusively in the dunes. We preferred the Suhail rooftop steakhouse where we had a choice of beautiful dishes in a gorgeous setting and received attentive service. We loved that because it was dark we had illuminated menus. It made us giggle but made choosing from the extensive wine list much easier. Bearing in mind the location it wouldn't have surprised us if the drinks were overpriced and not great offerings. But in fact we found good quality red at a very reasonable price. So in summary we had a lovely weekend. Next time, I'd like to go for a few more days to make the journey more worthwhile. And I think a nice 2-3 bedroom villa so we could share a bar-b-q on our terrace with friends is a definite must.

Stunning Sevilla

29 May 2014

My trip started on a train journey from Malaga. The scenery was stunning. Miles after miles of undulating fields, oranges and olive groves with very few people in sight. It took just under 2 hours into SANTA JUSTA station which is modern and easy to navigate. I visited Seville just for 2 days and it wasn't enough. It's just lovely. We were helped out most certainly by beautiful sunshine and blue skies in May so sitting outside one of the many pavement cafes was easy and fun. We went as a couple and it felt so romantic. As an animal lover I usually hate seeing horses being forced to cart people around but here in Seville they all appeared to be well cared for and loved. Gardens were lush green, there are lots of parks and flowers were in bloom every where we looked. The city was noticeably colourful and happy. We were surprised to find how big the city is. But we were delighted with how easy it is to navigate. Lots of areas are pedestrianised and there is a tram system to help the legs if required. There are also lots of easily accessible bikes for hire, which is a popular choice of transport for the locals, I guess because it's so flat. We chose to wander around on foot and we were pleased that we did as we felt we saw lots more than we could have done. The union of modern architecture into the glorious, historical buildings work well, particular as there are very few high rise structures. We enjoyed a one hour trip along the River Guadalquivir which was lovely and relaxing although we were unimpressed with the commentry, so do make sure you challenge the guide if you choose to do this. The Cathedral offered a much better experience despite the long queue to get in. Buying a city card will reduce the queue time so worth considering. We enjoyed sitting with some Tapas and a glass of local wine. I've visited a number of places in Spain and enjoyed a wide variety of tapas, but I have to say that in Seville it was the best I've had. It was great value and large portions so don't order too much! Although we found the vendors, who spoke very little English helped us out and told us if they thought we were over ordering. The menus are very varied and it was easy to try many wonderful dishes we've not had before but will seek out again. Similiarly for the wine, try the house offering which we always found to be delicious and cheap. I can't beleive it's taken me so long to visit Seville. I'm already looking forward to next time.

An unexpected jaunt to Al Ain

22 May 2014

I recently found myself enjoying an unexpected weekend in Al Alain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It took exactly 1.5hours from Dubai Marina to reach the centre of the town, and we filled our time of the journey watching lots of camels in the desert either side of the road. I'm not sure what I expected from Al Ain but I was pleasantly pleased with what I found. It's known as 'The Garden City' due to its greenery and following my visit this now makes sense as I saw trees and plants, perfectly manicured wherever we went. Other noticeable factors were the lack of high rise tower blocks, as there are controls over the height of new buildings. The only thing imposing over the city is the Jebel Hafeet mountain, which makes a stunning backdrop. And, the history of one of the world's oldest permanently inhabited settlements was clearly visible as we saw a number of historical monuments and forts, quite unlike the tourist attractions of nearby Dubai. For those who really want to know more about the heritage of Al Ain there are a number of museums and an Arts Centre. My visit was brief so I didn't get chance to take a look, but maybe next time...

Holiday shopping Mistakes

09 April 2014

I've been looking around my house at some of the souvenirs I have from my travels. I love bringing reminders back from my holidays but sometimes I make mistakes. Have you any holiday shopping disasters? Here are a few of mine- 1, Istanbul tall lamp. I toured the Grand Bazaar many times and then haggled extensively to get the exact coloured glass shades that I wanted. Finally price agreed and I was free to take my purchase home. It was a huge and heavy bundle consisting of a box of glass and a large metal frame wrapped in black bin bags that not only looked ridiculous but I struggled to carry. The haggling with the merchant was nothing compared with the debate with the airline to let it on the plane! Eventually I did though I enjoyed it's beauty for a couple of years in Warwickshire before the lamp had to move home again. Shipped to Dubai amongst furniture and shoes, it now looks slightly less at home in our very contemporary lounge. How funny did I find it though to find the very same lamp available in all of the souks here. 2, Marrakech rug. Better known in my house as the 'rug of death' as every time someone stepped on it, the grip was lost on the floor underneath and balance was tested. A group of friends and I went on a day shopping in wonderful Marrakech. I went into the rug shop with no need nor desire to buy a rug. However after being plied with tea (which I hate) and biscuits I appeared to forget who I was and parted with several hundred pounds for a "beautifully hand made, genuine wool" rug in a size big enough to carpet an entire lounge. Too heavy to lift and carry, I parted with yet more money to have it shipped to UK. I was delighted when it arrived at my house in Yorkshire. Until the first slip. By the 3rd slip the rug was relegated into a largely unused room, and it didn't make the cut when it came to shipping to Dubai. I think it's now flooring in another friend's tent! 3, Dubai camel. On my very first trip to Dubai in 2002 I decided I loved the place and I didn't want to leave. I'd done little shopping though surprisingly for me, so at the airport it was important to me to buy a souvenir of the trip. Sand pictures, fake handbags and pashminas were everywhere but really not what I wanted. So I was delighted when I found in a 'high end' gift store some ornamental camels made from camel hair and decorated with blankets and baskets just like we had seen on the beach. I chose one with a friendly face and home with me he went. How I have been mocked about my 'trashy' ornament since then. It appears this is the tackiest possible item to buy and I'd him proudly displayed for years. I did bring him home to Dubai...but he hides away in a bedroom to avoid being mocked again! 4, Spanish cheese knife. Wandering around the small streets of Nerja for about the 100th time on one of my many visits I found a shop I hadn't seen before with lots of lovely trinkets and niknaks in the window. Particulartly eye catching was a stainless steel knife in the shape of a mouse. But shop was closed so I had to return the next day en route to the airport because I NEEDED that knife. For a frequent traveller though I had forgotten a basic fact: I was flying with hand luggage only. On arrival at the airport still happy with my early shopping experience, I turned red in the face when asked if I had any banned items in my bags. That knife was not getting on the plane. Fortunately my mum lives near Nerja and was able to purchase a second knife for me which was successfully shipped to England and then later it was shipped to Dubai. I don't even eat that much cheese! Fortunately I've made some good decisions too and have lots of fun reminders of my amazing trips. Hopefully I'll collect more over the years to come on many more adventures.

A quick weekend retreat from Dubai

25 March 2014

We decided that we needed a break away from the "Bright Lights of the Big City.' After pouring over pages and pages of short breaks and trying to make flight times work we decided to go closer to home and opted for a the short drive to Abu Dhabi instead. We narrowed down the search and based on pure reputation alone we decided to try Eastern Mangroves by Anantara. Many would be put off by this hotel not being on the beach, but as we have access to the beach all of the time we didn't think we would mind. And we didn't. It made a lovely change to sit at the pool looking at greenery and birds instead of sand and high rise buildings. And we were stunned by the quiet. On driving in we were nervous as it was straight off the main road. But once inside you wouldn't have known the road was there and it was very peaceful. A couple of planes came overhead but we hardly noticed them although our ears did prick up at the sight of a low flying helicopter. We still don't know what it was doing! Staff appeared to glide rather than walk and everyone spoke in smooth and calming tones, rather like in a spa. Eastern Mangroves by Anantara is a small hotel, but we never found it to seem busy or be falling over other guests. All of the staff were excellent making a real effort to know us and to ensure we had a great time. There are only 2 restaurants but the food quality was excellent and there was a great selection. We joined in Friday brunch on the terrace which was very impressive and it was nice to watch other guests going out on the boat trips or in Kayaks from here. Our room was very comfortable. We didn't pay extra for the Mangroves view - we should have because the view of the road from our room didn't entice us outside! But the balconies on the rooms with a view had plenty of use as it was a stunning scene. The room itself was large and well decorated with neutral relaxing tones and the black out curtains ensured we had a great night's sleep. We left after our stay feeling refreshed and relaxed, so we will definitely return next time we need a little break away.

Home from Home

05 January 2014

I spend a lot of time in Torrox near Nerja on Costa del Sol. My mum live's there so it means I get to be looked after for a while! Over the years it's become like my own second home. 44 kilometres east of Málaga between Vélez-Málaga and Nerja, protected by the Sierra Almijara and Tejeda mountains, it has a very temperate climate. In fact, Torrox is widely accredited as having ‘the best climate in Europe’ which is a key attraction for many visitors including myself before I moved to Dubai. Torrox Costa is a beach resort overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The impressive Ferrara Playa is a frequent recipient of the prestigious EU Blue Flag with numerous bars and restaurants of all types as well as Roman ruins and a lighthouse, ‘El Faro’. Further inland is Torrox Pueblo, a picture postcard village of white-washed houses nestling on the hillside and with a character all its own. A great place just to wander aimlessly, enjoy a nice refreshing drink at one of the pavement cafes or sit in the square, Plaza de la Constitución, and watch the world go by. There is accommodation and dining to suit all tastes in this area, from luxury hotels and fine dining to serviced camping site and beach snack bars. Whilst Torrox is a magnet for European tourists it still maintains a traditional Spanish feel with many of the locals speaking only Spanish and menus not translated into English. It makes choosing lunch a lot of fun!

NCL Cruise

13 June 2013

My partner and I cruised on Norwegian Sky in the Bahamas. I had never cruised with NCL before so wasn't sure what to expect but I wasn't disappointed. In the weeks before we set sail I was able to check in online to speed up the boarding process. It worked very well and embarkation was quick and easy. Unlike other some other cruise liners, this was casual and relaxed without any 'fanfare' as we boarded. We were able to quickly go and check out our cabin. We had a balcony cabin mid ship. It was exactly as we had expected with plenty of storage and space saving designs. The bathroom, whilst small, had a powerful and good sized shower. When we had checked in online we also took the opportunity to pre-book the speciality restaurants. Each night of our cruise we dined in these restaurants rather than at the main buffet. Each of these restaurants, whilst having a limited menu, served excellent food and there was a very good wine list to choose from at prices to suit all budgets. With so many bars to choose from it was hard not to keep moving around. It was great to move around the ship taking in the variety of entertainment available. We also made use of the very good spa facilities. Prices were similar to any 4* hotel spa and the treatments were a similar standard. We enjoyed each port around the Bahamas on our cruise so we weren't on board much during the day. But when we did stay on board we had no trouble getting a space out on deck or a seat in the bars. This was a small ship for a short cruise. But no quality of service has been lost and we look forward to cruising NCL again.

Singapore

19 June 2013

I visited Singapore with some friends to celebrate my birthday. There were 14 of us in the group and each and every member of the party found something about Singapore that they loved. For some it was the glamour and opulence of the hotels. I particularly loved The Fullerton which was grand and imposing. We enjoyed the most spectacular brunch here with a vast array of the fresh seafood and exquisite sushi. Others preferred the wonder of the more modern and elaborate buildings. Such as the spectacular three tower Marina Bay Sands with 'Skypark' across the top. Many loved the historic and cultural elements of Chinatown, a bustling area with small shops and restaurants serving cheap and tasty dishes. We also enjoyed the culinary delights of the Hawker centres. Local food stalls in a collective area a little like a food court. Not 5 star but a feast for the eyes! All of us were wowed by the Singapore Flyer, the world's largest observation wheel. As it was my birthday we had a private capsule and a champagne toast. The service was as good as the views. There was so much to do we couldn't fit everything in. We were there for three days but I wish we had gone for more. I will next time. We'd been told that it would be horridly humid in September but we actually found it quite comfortable and we spent a lot of time walking. However, most people take the cheap and easily accessible cabs. There are hotels to fit every budget and the room standards are very good. Location makes a big difference to the cost, but from my experience it is so easy to get around, hotel location wouldn't be my biggest priority.

Istanbul

13 June 2013

I hadn't expected Istanbul to be so cold! A friend and I visited in April and hoped for sunshine. Instead we wrapped up warm and instead of walking to the sights, we hopped on a city tour bus. What a good decision. The bus took us to all of the main historical attractions and many less known sights. Mosques, museums, monuments and towers galore. The operator was friendly and the multi lingual commentary meant everyone is catered for. We managed to lose ourself for an entire day in the Grand Bazaar. There are over 60 streets and 5000 shops selling a variety of local goods, gifts and jewellery. Every stall holder wants visitors to go and look at what they have to offer. They do everything then can to entice you in but they remain friendly and will leave you alone if you ask them to. We dined in local restaurants where we were entertained by traditional, folk musicians. Then later we found plenty of bars and nightclubs to suit all tastes. After the hustle and bustle of the city we then moved for a couple of days on Princes Islands. We took a ferry which was comfortable and fun. It was a great experience to walk or explore in horse and carriages as no cars are allowed on the islands. It was like stepping back in time and a complete contrast to the city. Boat transfers around the islands are frequent and inexpensive. This gave us an opportunity to hop around and try a number of beach clubs and beaches. We had a very relaxing time on the islands. No nightclubs here!

The Algarve - Albufeira

19 June 2013

Visiting The Algarve in July means long, hot days. Not a cloud in the glorious blue sky from 7am to 7pm. There is something for everyone here. Young or old, wanting to party or relax, The Algarve is a playground of luxury hotels to more affordable apartments and stunning villas with private pool. If you don't want to spend time relaxing on one of the many sandy beaches in rocky coves, there is shopping, watersports, sailing or what about a game of golf on beautifully manicured courses. Meander around the Marina at Villamoura having lunch in the many excellent restaurants all around the water. Rummage around the tiny streets of Albufeira picking out somewhere to try the local port. Or maybe nip to the waterfront at Portimao to have sardines from the fishing boats cooked fresh for you straight from the daily catch. I stayed near Praia da Oura, which gave me great access to both old and new town Albufeira. Albufeira is an old fishing village with a relaxed feel with a lovely central square surrounded by places to eat , drink and shop. The ‘Strip’ in the new part of town is not for the faint hearted! Full of lively bars, partying visitors and neon lights, this is the place to go if you are in the party spirit. Lots of other towns are villages are a short drive from Albufeira. I found them all interesting each with their own style and character. There are also lots of different beaches around the area. Some with lots of activities for children and others more secluded and quiet. I would recommend hiring a car to explore the area more. Car hire is good value and the roads are easy to navigate.

Lapland

13 June 2013

Do you believe in Father Christmas? You will by the time you leave Lapland! What an amazing adventure for children. I have never seen such excitement before. As the plane started to land and the kids saw snow out of the windows, the atmosphere started to build. But nothing could have prepared me for the giddiness of the little ones when Elves, yes Elves, greeted us as we reached the terminal. First stop was collecting everything we needed to keep us warm. Well it was -20 degrees! Then the journey to the hotel keeping an eye out for Rudolf in the bushes as we passed. Many of the hotels offer chalets away from the main accommodation. This is where we stayed. Small but comfortable and very cosy. We had a wet room and a sauna which was great for relaxing those aching muscles after a full day of fun. And fun it was. Skiing, sledging, reindeer riding, skidoos, husky dog rides, snow games, and of course snow ball fighting. The highlight for the children though was a visit to Father Christmas. The real one of course! With Rudolf and his helpers, and gifts for everyone. We were lucky enough too to witness the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) whilst we were there. A spectacular natural light show. Whilst this can't be guaranteed there is a high chance of witnessing this phenomenon when visiting in Dec/Jan. The plane journey home was quiet. Almost everyone slept, exhausted after such a wonderful adventure.

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