Category Archives: Travel

Back to School: Cambridge

I am very very lucky to still have a big tight knit group of girlfriends from school. I moved all around the world growing up and went to lots of different schools so I feel very fortunate coming out of that experience that I’ve stayed close to my Surrey girls. But we’re not so little any more and some of the girls are even proper adults and are doing grown-up things like getting engaged! So we all headed to Cambridge this weekend to celebrate this recent exciting news.

 

Being such a big group of friends we had the UK university scene pretty well covered when we were all studying and I used to especially love going to Oxford and Cambridge to visit the girls who studied there. I went to uni right in heart of central London and whilst LSE was fantastic in it’s own way, there is definitely something to be said for the idyllic setting of an ancient university town.

So before we went for drinks in the evening we spent some time wandering through the cobbled streets, exploring the colleges and pretending to be students again. Term had just started and there was definitely an autumnal back to school feeling in the air.

On our travels we saw this little guy acting like top dog at one of the stalls in market square. Which I love by the way, it’s like Borough market, but with reasonable prices.

We all participated in my favourite Cambridge activity, buying fudge from The Fudge Kitchen; having far too many free tasters along the way.

If you’ve never been to Cambridge before, you really must visit. It’s a beautiful town and so close to London (only 45 mins from Kings Cross!), making it the perfect day trip destination. As the days grow shorter and it gets colder, I keep thinking about how beautiful it would be to visit Cambridge at Christmas time. It’s definitely on my December to-do list. Enjoy x

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Morocco Magic: Relaxing in la Palmeraie

To finish off the week in Morocco I had planned a relaxing 3 days staying at Les Deux Tours in la Palmeraie which is just outside of Marrakesh. La Palmeraie was originally just a big expanse of palm trees, but nowadays is home to lots of nice hotels and villas away from the hustle and bustle of the Medina. I found the hotel on my favourite hotel website Mr and Mrs Smith, it’s my go to reference for hotels and I’ve not had a dodgy recommendation from them yet!

Les Deux Tours was beautiful, no two rooms are the same and all are in little mini houses or riad type set ups with a couple of other rooms and sometimes an extra pool. The central pool was gorgeous though and if you were early enough you could bag the 4 poster bed instead of a normal sun lounger.

The gardens at Les Deux Tours are a bit of a treasure trove of hidden little secrets, the pond full of sunbathing turtles, four poster beds scattered all through the grounds for lounging on and big colourful lanterns hanging from the leafy trees

But my favourite thing I found in the secret garden was the organic kitchen garden! The hotel doesn’t promote it at all- and they definitely should! I only stumbled upon it by chance when I was wandering through the back of the property.

The garden has lots of different vegetables, herbs and fruits growing. There was even little goats and lots and lots of chickens, ducks and turkeys!

As part of our stay at Les Deux Tours we got a complimentary hammam treatment which was great. If you’ve never had a hammam before I highly recommend you try it- it’s the most intensive scrub down you’ll probably ever have, the traditional black soap they use smells awesome and you’ll come out feeling brand new and silky smooth!

The service was also great at Les Deux Tours, on the first day we had an issue with our bathroom- whilst the bathtub on claws was lovely, it didn’t function so well as a shower and water flooded everywhere. I only had to mention it to the manager and he offered to show us 2 different rooms we could move to.

During our last 3 days in Morocco we were really keen to try to eat at a restaurant called Al Fassia as it was completely booked up for the first few days we were in Marrakesh. It was highly recommended by lots of  websites as the best traditional food in Marrakesh and it is entirely run by women which is quite rare in Morocco.

The food didn’t disappoint- it was so delicious that we decided to go back again the next night! I had pastilla to start, which is a sweet and savoury dish of pigeon and nuts in a filo pastry type package- so yum! I then had a lamb tagine with prunes which was incredible, accompanied by the most fine and fluffy cous cous. As usual I couldn’t resist dessert and the traditional Moroccan pastries and mint tea couldn’t have been more yummy. If you’re going to Marrakesh this restaurant is a must try, just make sure you book in advance as it’s really popular!

Aside from the beautiful hotel and delicious food, the best thing about the last few days was being able to relax with some holiday reading. Over recent years I’ve becoming quite a fan of location based travel reading. Before I go on holiday I try to scout out a few holiday reads which are set in the location I’m travelling to, I love being able to find out a little more about the culture and customs of the place through the stories. I read lots of books whilst in Morocco, but the two below were my chosen ‘Morocco’ reads.

The Caliph’s House

The Caliph’s House tells the true story of a worn out Londoner who gives up the rat race and moves his young family to Casablanca where he has brought a run down Riad called the Caliph’s House for them to live in. The story is a funny and endearing account of Tahir Shah’s journey to renovate the house and at the same time get to grips with the Moroccan customs and people. I really enjoyed reading this and felt like I understood the traditions and beliefs of the Moroccan people a little better afterwards.

Hideous Kinky

I wasn’t sure about this book when I read the blurb, but through the wonders of kindle I was able to try the free sample before I made the commitment of buying the whole thing, and I’m glad I gave it the benefit of the doubt, as it was a weird but touching story. The book is told from the perspective of a young girl whose mother takes her and her older sister on the hippy trail in Morocco for a year in the 1960s. My first thoughts were that a story told from a child’s perspective would be a bit cringe- but it wasn’t at all, and you actually get a very interesting take on the somewhat distributing events which are taking place.

I was so sad when our time in Morocco came to an end, it was an amazing week and I really hope I’ll be able to go back soon. Although next time I might aim for a different time of year- June was very hot! x

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Morocco Magic: Trekking in the Atlas Mountains

Since my trip to Borneo at the start of the year I have been on the lookout for the next opportunity to be a little closer to nature and maybe do some more trekking. When I was planning this trip and realised how close the Atlas Mountains were to Marrakesh, it seemed like the ideal solution.

After two hectic but wonderful days in Marrakesh we headed out to the small village of Imlil which is at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, where we were staying at the Kasbah du Toubkal. The Kasbah is consistently voted as one of the world’s best eco lodges and it didn’t fail to impress. The Kasbah markets itself not as a hotel but as a Berber hospitality centre as none of the staff are professionally trained hoteliers. It’s a joint venture between a UK tour company (Discover Ltd) and the local Berber community with whom they have established the Imlil Village Association. The Kasbah does some fantastic work fundraising for the local community and providing employment to the villagers. Unsurprisingly, their unique approach to responsible tourism has won many accolades.

To reach the Kasbah you travel by car to the village of Imlil and then trek for about 15 minutes up to the hotel. Only a few minutes into the trek up to the Kasbah I started to realise that trekking here was going to be way harder than Borneo and wished that I could hitch a ride on the mule that was carrying our luggage.

We had a great experience at the Kasbah from the get-go, again being lucky enough to have our room upgraded to a big deluxe room with the most breathtaking views over the mountains. The food was top notch- with a 3 course set menu being served for lunch and dinner and a very generous Moroccan breakfast that comes as part of the room rate. The Kasbah doesn’t serve or sell any alcohol out of respect for the Berber beliefs, but they are very relaxed about you bringing your own. However, one of the things that I loved most about the Kasbah is that unlimited soft drinks were included as part of the room rate- meaning as much mint tea as you could drink! I got quite addicted to Moroccan mint tea over the course of our trip and drank gallons of the stuff. We even bought some to take home with us, but unfortunately the boy packed it in the same bag as some pungent Moroccan spices and now the tea is tainted with their aroma!

Apart from one particularly blustery occasion we ate all of our meals and spent a lot of time chilling in the tower at the top of the roof terrace which had amazing views of the surrounding mountains- its the little green roofed tower in the picture below.

Beautiful scenery and yummy food aside, the main reason I had wanted to come here was because of the trekking. Against all odds, I had actually really enjoyed trekking in Borneo so wanted to try it again. I’m definitely not naturally an outdoorsy type of girl and the boy is even less of an outdoorsy type of boy, so I was a little apprehensive about what it was going to be like, if we would enjoy it, and more importantly if we would actually be able to do it!

On the first day we had a short two and a half hour introductory trek to wet our appetite. We walked through the surrounding villages which were higher up than the Kasbah in the rocky mountainous areas and then down through the green valleys of apple, cherry and walnut orchards. I could just about cope with that and was looking forward to our big walk the next day.

Everything started off well on the big walk the next day, there was one older gentleman with us and the Berber mountain guide. I thought this guy is probably older than 60 so I’ll definitely be better than him. I was so so wrong on that part, turns out he is an avid walker in the Lake District and was quicker than a mountain goat. His wife had opted to stay and read at the Kasbah for the day and I was soon thinking she was a very smart woman.

Near to the start of the walk our guide showed us what our route would be by pointing out a forest at the top of the highest mountain that looked very far away to me. Although it seemed like a joke, I just kept walking.

We saw some different villages from the day before and walked through some lovely orchards at the start of the walk where we saw gorgeous cherry trees heavy with fruit and cute little lambs grazing.

It got quite a lot harder from here… the terrain was so steep that it was more like mountain climbing than walking and given that I’m not the biggest fan of heights it was definitely a challenge. The boy on the other hand was loving it and breezing on ahead, he didn’t even get angry when I drank all of our water in the first 2 hours (it was really hot!). I was very proud of myself when we reached the highest point- the forest that our guide pointed out at the start of the walk. Mostly I was happy that hopefully it would all be downhill from there.

As we made our way down we passed some amazing rocky landscapes- and weirdly a football pitch on the side of the mountain. The geographer in me was nerding out at all the awesome rock formations!

To finish off the walk we came down the valley from the rocky barren landscape into a lush green valley with gorgeous waterfalls. There were lots of local people hanging out at the waterfalls taking refuge from the heat and the tiny cafes/food stalls looked very nice (note the natural refrigeration they use!)

I was massively relieved to see the Kasbah come back into view at the end of our walk but also really proud of myself for conquering the big mountain! The long shower and big meal afterwards were very deserved. We spent the late afternoon chilling and reading on the roof terrace with lots of mint tea. It was beautiful watching the wind whip up the dust from the mountains and then bizarrely watching it come back down again as muddy rain.

The Kasbah is a very special place mainly due to the breathtaking landscapes, but also because of the tranquil atmosphere and very friendly staff. I hope I’ll be able to return one day x

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Morocco Magic: Sightseeing in Marrakesh

I’ve recently returned from my first ever trip to Morocco and I can honestly confess that I’ve completely fallen in love with the country….
I had always toyed with the idea of visiting Morocco, main reasons being that its only 3 hours away from London and because I am a big fan of Tagines. But when you have family that live in Australia and Asia inevitably a lot of your holiday time gets eaten up by visiting them (first world problems, i know). Luckily this year I had planned for a week’s summer holiday nearer to the UK and I was finally able to go to Morocco! We split our week long trip into 3 chunks- sightseeing in Marrakesh for a few days, trekking in the Atlas mountains for 2 nights and then relaxing in the Palmaraie for 3 days at the end. Because we took so many pictures and experienced so many wonderful things on the trip I’ve split my Morocco blog into 3 different posts… first being sightseeing in Marrakesh.

As soon as we arrived in Marrakesh we wandered through the Souks to check out Djemaa El-Fna which is the main square in Marrakesh. Our Riad (more of that later) was incredibly well placed right next to the Souks and all the main points of interest so it only took us 10 minutes to walk through the Souks and get to Djemaa El-Fna. The Souks were a little overwhelming at first, they are never-ending, there are no street signs and Moroccan people, for some reason I still don’t understand, love to give you incorrect directions on purpose. Once we had conquered the Souks for the first time and knew where we were going, I was able to start soaking up the atmosphere and enjoy all the different things that were on offer. I loved the leather souk and also the fruit and nut souk- I just wish I had more room in my suitcase to take home all the beautiful homewares (I did buy the obligatory pair of leather slippers though!)

We had 1 full day and 2 half days in Marrakesh, so on the full day I wanted to visit all of the main attractions which luckily are all near each other. We started by visiting the Museum of Marrakesh which is a 19th century palace that has been converted into a museum showcasing some fab artefacts from Marrakesh’s history. The inner courtyard is absolutely stunning, with a huge fountain in the middle

Just down the road is the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa which is an ancient Quranic school founded in the 14th century. The building is so gorgeous- all the walls are made from intricately carved cedar. I loved walking around this building and looking at all the tiny rooms the scholars used to live in.

Very near to the Museum of Marrakesh and Ali Ben Youssef Medersa is a little photography museum- Maison de la Photographie which I adored. It is a small riad which has been converted into a museum displaying a frequently changing collection of photographs which reflect the diverse range of native Moroccan people. I learnt a lot about the history of Morocco here and the staff were very helpful and informative. It also has a fab roof terrace where you can have lunch or a mint tea with great views of (the many many satellite dishes of) Marrakesh

For lunch we went to Cafe des Epices in the Souks for Moroccan sandwiches. We sat on the terrace overlooking one of the market squares watching all the goings on in the market. I loved watching the Moroccan women make mint tea and we also witnessed a good old show down (we actually saw a few of these altercations whilst in Morocco- they love a confrontation and everyone gets involved)

In the afternoon we ventured a little further afield to visit the Jardin Majorelle which is an Art Deco villa and garden in the French ‘Nouvelle Ville’ district. The property was originally owned by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner when they left Paris to live in Morocco in the 1960s. The villa is painted in vibrant blues and yellows which contrast beautifully with the desert garden- it’s a must visit in Marrakesh. Just outside the property there are also a number of trendy Moroccan boutiques and cafes.

In Marrakesh we stayed at the incredible Talaa 12 Riad which I found through Mr & Mrs Smith.  I had high expectations for Talla 12, but it easily surpassed them. The property is beautiful and as we were visiting during low season we were lucky enough to have our room upgraded to a suite. The hospitality from the staff, especially the manager Laurent was fantastic and they were so helpful with any request that we had. As part of our stay we got a free Hammam (more about that in a future post!) and yummy breakfast each morning- the fresh orange juice in Morocco is particularly special.

For one of the nights in Marrakesh we opted to have dinner in the Riad. They set up a private table for us on the roof terrace (very romantic) and we had a wonderful dinner of Moroccan salads and Tagine with Moroccan Rose wine (which is great by the way).

 

I loved my time in Marrakesh and I can’t wait to go back soon x

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Borneo

Last month I was lucky enough to take a 2 week trip to Sabah, Borneo with my family. One of the (only) positive aspects of living over 10,000 miles from my family is that I get to meet them for holidays in some pretty awesome destinations which are situated anywhere between London and Melbourne.

Our trip was to Sabah, which is the Malaysian part of Borneo. Borneo is the third largest island in the world and within it there are actually 3 different countries- Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei (the geographer in me loves these fun facts…).

Danum Valley

Our first stop was Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the Danum Valley conservation area.

I knew the drive from the airport to the Lodge was going to take 2.5 hours, but I hadn’t quite prepared myself from just how remote and disconnected we were going to be. After about 45 minutes of driving through thick jungle on a dirt track with no other sign of life to be seen I felt compelled to ask our driver if there was going to be mobile phone reception at the lodge. Happily and rather oddly, the answer from the driver was ‘it’s an eco lodge, no phone reception. But we have wifi and accept credit card!’. Although his answer definitely seemed like the antithesis of an ‘eco-lodge’ I was pretty relieved that I wasn’t going to be totally cut off from civilisation as we drove further and further away from it.

When we arrived at Borneo Rainforest Lodge the view was breathtaking. The main lodge area looks out over the Danum river and the other side of the bank has the most beautiful unspoilt primary rainforest canopy which is over 30m tall. The entire Danum valley conservation area is a primary rainforest which means it has never been logged before and is completely unspoilt. The staff at the lodge, who were all Sabah locals were so friendly, helpful and just generally wonderful people. We met our guide Fred soon after we arrived and he gave us the intro into the history of the lodge and most importantly what we needed to wear for our impending series of jungle treks- aka trekking attire. It became clear really quickly that this was going to be a problem for both me and my sister. Trekking attire in Borneo requires long trousers, walking boots, all neutral coloured clothes and leech socks (yes you heard me right). The best my suitcase offered was my yoga leggings and my old trainers… my sister had one up on me as she had proper trekking trousers (from Kathmandu and everything!) BUT she only had an old pair of plimsoles for all this upcoming trekking and with the amount of mud present in the jungle I’m pretty sure I trumped her in the end!

On our first trek of the trip we were lucky enough to see an orang-utan really close up. He was quite a large and intimidating looking male orang-utan who the guides had nicknamed Abu.  It wasn’t until we moved to our next stop on our trip that we realised how lucky we were to have seen orang-utan so close up. At Borneo Rainforest Lodge I got the impression that up close encounters with Abu were pretty much a daily occurrence as he chose to live right next to the lodge and was clearly very comfortable around people.

Happily every trek at Borneo Rainforest lodge is followed by a meal of some form and surprisingly, considering the lodge is about 3 hours drive from the nearest shop, the food was actually really good. Our room was simplistic but gorgeous at the same time. There was no tv or air-conditioning (its the eco-lodge thing plus the fact that the entire lodge runs off a diesel generator) but our room had the same stunning view over the river and rainforest, and there was a sizeable balcony complete with hot tub.

Borneo Rainforest Lodge has a canopy walkway which boasts to be the largest in Borneo. I definitely would not recommend it to anyone with a fear of heights- its over 30m off the ground and the bridges are really just planks of wood connected to some steel cables. We saw lots of beautiful birds on this walk and although I would never have considered myself the slightest bit interested in birds before this trip you do get into it scarily quickly (watch out for my next post on birdwatching…just kidding!).

On our second day at the lodge we did the burial ground and waterfall trek, which involved climbing a small mountain- a fact our guide didn’t socialise with us until we set out. The view from the top of the trek was spectacular, you can see over the entire Danum valley and the lodge. On the way back down the mountain we stopped to swim in a waterfall pool which was like an oasis, until you got in and encountered the extremely aggressive little fish who live in the pool! Our guide Fred tried to sell the fish to us as like a fish pedicure, frankly they were just downright uncomfortable so the swim didn’t last too long!

After our epic trek we went tubing in the late afternoon which was really relaxing going down the river which is quite placid. The only downside was getting to the starting point involved trekking for 20 minutes through the very muddy jungle with your tube, life jacket and helmet in flip-flops whilst trying really hard to avoid getting bitten by a leech. A dutch woman in our group had the right idea by wearing her leech socks under her flip-flops (for something which really shouldn’t have been a hot look she pulled it off well!).

Sukau River

After 3 beautiful days in the Danum valley it was time to move to our next destination which was Sukau Rainforest Lodge. This involved way too much driving for my liking- if you have any propensity for travel sickness at all you should pretty much prepare yourself for an awful few hours driving out of the Danum valley. I’m not sure why it was worse on the way out than going there, but it wasn’t a fun experience. After about 4 hours drive we reached the pier to board the little boat which would take us to Sukau. Sukau was very different to the lodge at Danum valley, mainly due to the fact that it was on a river. All the activities and wildlife spotting involved river cruises rather than anything on foot.

I had really high hopes for the Sukau lodge, admittedly solely because Sir David Attenborough had stayed there while he filmed his documentaries about Borneo. Truthfully I think if we hadn’t arrived directly from Danum valley we would have been more impressed, but compared to the stunning beauty of our first destination it would have been pretty hard to top it. Sukau is not a primary rainforest area for a start. The area has been logged in the past for palm plantations, and whilst the jungle has now been replanted, its more of a lower level bush type jungle than the tall canopies we saw in Danum valley. The lodge was quite basic in terms of accommodation and food but it did the job for the few days we were there.

One thing Sukau had which Danum valley did not was Proboscis monkeys- and lots of them. These monkeys are really odd looking- they have a nose which is like an elephant’s trunk, or whatever other connotation you might make from this Proboscis monkey toy I found in the hotel gift shop.

We went on multiple river cruises for the 2 days we were at Sukau and saw lots of different types of monkeys, birds and even a crocodile. Both places we stayed claimed they had seen elephants ‘just a few weeks ago’, which  is decidedly vague timing in my view. Sadly we didn’t see any elephants, and I think however much the locals go on about them they must be a pretty rare spotting.

Kota Kintabalu

After 5 days of activity we headed to the Nexus resort in Kota Kintabalu for the relaxing part of our trip. I would definitely recommend the villas at the resort for accommodation.  Check out the Shangri-La Rasa Ria for some good food and an epic buffet! I loved the chance to be able to relax, read some good books and not have to wake up at 5am for a morning trek. But after a day or so I was missing the activity and adventure…. who knows, my next holiday might even involve more trekking xxx

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