Adler Thermae Spa & Resort Hotel | A Tuscan Wellness Retreat

Within the UNESCO World Heritage area in Tuscany is the 5 star Adler Thermae Spa & Resort Hotel. It stands on a grand location overlooking the beautiful countryside and dotted Tuscan villages and benefits from the warm thermal springs of Bagno Vignoni. The resort finds a balance between being a top end wellness hotel with a fine dining restaurant & grand suites, yet also allowing you to relax and de-stress in the carefree atmosphere.

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Indeed many guests do choose to spend the majority of the day in the dedicated white dressing gowns, as they move between the saunas, pools and treatment rooms. The resort is large but easy to navigate, and the layout means that despite having 90 rooms you’re unlikely to encounter many other people in the spa areas. There are a huge number of spaces to rest and recuperate, including the stylish main relaxation area with it’s leaf design and views to the nearby hilltop castle. It has views at the front to the pool area and a range of beds including the round beds that gently swing and mean that nodding off is an almost certainty. There are also fire pits dotted around giving a warming autumnal feel to the area.

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There a whole host of saunas to choose from; the Finnish sauna complete with it’s essential oil mixes at certain times during the day, and it’s miniature ice cold infinity pool which has wonderful views over the rest of the resort. There’s also the salt steam sauna with the coloured mood lights and powerful salt jets. The salt grotto which can be privately booked is a favourite with guests, and the heavily salted water and warm environment is like bathing in your own private Dead Sea, allowing you float easily and emerge with incredibly soft skin.

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Obviously the pools are a highlight for many people; the water comes straight from the thermal waters and the first pool is a delightful temperature with the second cooler pool coming complete with in-water spinning bikes.

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Dinner times are to be looked forward to all day. The restaurant is elegantly designed with a fully opening roof allowing you to dine underneath the night sky or indeed the vast blue sky for breakfast. In the evening you dine by candlelight, on tables surrounding a large fairy lit tree in the centre of the room. Before choosing from the á la carte menu there is a buffet to choose from of salads, cheeses and cold cuts, as well as an extensive wine list to choose from. I became slightly addicted to the sparkling rosé which came from Adler’s very own organic winery a short walk from the resort. It’s a fruity and refreshing tipple and one of a great collection of biodynamic wines which Tenuta Sanoner produces. It’s possible to visit the winery and enjoy a tour of the production as well as tasting some of their specialities. Currently they are working on another rosé, which has been aged for 2 years; very unusual as rosé wines are only usually aged for 2 months!

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The food options were absolutely delicious; top quality ingredients and beautifully presented. Favourites included a rich wild boar and an exceptional creme caramel. Equally there were some great stand out items for breakfast including the fresh croissants with local marmalades. I was seated on the same table for both main meals and was served by the same waiter both times, Gregario, who was friendly and knowledgable. He knew a lot about the local food and was able to suggest lots of great things for me to try. 810_6490810_6506

The rooms are spacious and light, all with great views, either over the pool area or like the room I chose, over the gardens. Each room has a balcony or patio area, sheltered from the view of other guests allowing you to relax and take in the surroundings. When you’re ready to sleep then there are black out curtains meaning that if you want to wake up without an alarm then you also won’t have the sun streaming in. Adler produce and sell their own beauty products and the bedrooms are stocked with quality toiletries including a fabulous honey infused body lotion.

810_5987810_5993The two main gym areas are filled with the latest equipment and classes are held throughout the day. The outside gym area near to the pétanque pitch is great fun, despite the Tuscan sun you’re slightly shaded by the nearby trees and it’s lovely exercising whilst taking in the countryside sights.

 

 

I left the Adler Thermae feeling relaxed and healthy, I’d been able to enjoy some incredible food whilst not only keeping up with my fitness regime but also indulging in some great treatments.

https://www.adler-thermae.com/en/

 

Environmental concerns in travel & fashion|How Zoggs are leading the movement.

As I travel a lot, for both my job & for pleasure, I have had to look at what impact my travels are having on both the environment, and also the communities I interact with on my trips. There is a well known motto; ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints,’ which phrases my mentality quite nicely. Many of the places we visit are so spectacular because they are untouched, or at least maintained by an official body to preserve it the best we can. Having said that, it’s not often that you visit places that really seem as if mankind hasn’t touched them yet.

It has also become increasingly important to me to use products & brands that are also looking to positively impact our world and who’s brand ethos is one of sustainability, environmental consciousness and fairness. Many companies still seem to view environmental sustainability as more of a PR exercise, rather than something they truly believe in, which makes its hard to decide which brands you can really trust in.

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I swam competitively throughout my childhood and teens and Zoggs has always been a brand that I have worn. They do some fantastic suits for serious swimmers which I’ve opted for over the years but it was only fairly recently that I became more aware of their leisure swim wear and holiday pieces. What I’ve been particularly pleased to learn about however is Zoggs’ commitment to protecting the world for future generations and their work in cleaning up our oceans.

Certainly after watching Blue Planet 2, I hope many more of us are aware of the damage that plastic and other debris in the oceans is causing. Abandoned fishing nets, called ‘Ghost Nets’ are one of the big killers of marine animals, with over 650,000 creatures including dolphins, whales and seals injured or indeed killed because of them each year. Often illegal fisherman dump their nets but equally many legally operating fishermen may lose their nets unintentionally but then not collect them up, culminating in around  640,000 tons of fishing gear being abandoned every year.

Zoggs has come up with a brilliant way to not only help clear these ghost nets but also transform them into a new material. This material is ECONYL® yarn which then turns into Ecolast™ swimwear and believe it or not, Ecolast items start their life as plastic waste such as fishing nets and even old carpets!

The nets are cleaned and shredded before being turned back into a raw material. This new product has been put through it’s paces and outperformed competitor’s fabrics, including being ’15 times more resilient to chlorine than standard swimwear fabrics’. For me this was a big one, as being in and out of the pool daily as a teenager I know too well how quickly swimwear becomes thin and often see through from chlorine.

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Zoggs states on the website that;

  • Around 40% of our SS19 swimwear will be made from Ecolast™.
  • We’ll donate 10% of our Ecolast™ profits to a charity committed to helping our oceans.
  • We’re also dedicated to creating packaging that reduces our environmental impact. As such we’ll reduce the plastic used in our goggle packaging by 57% from 2019 with the aim to have 100% sustainable packaging (across our product range) by 2020.

This speaks volumes to me, it’s not a stunt to make headlines, this is not only a lasting committment but a leading example of how companies can become environmentally sustainable whilst still standing for the original values that customers loved in the first place. They have also partnered with Healthy Seas, a ‘not for profit’ who are collecting the abandoned fishing nets as well as raising awareness of the environmental damage the nets are causing.

Whilst I do care deeply about the values the brands I buy stand for, as I’m in the public eye on my television shows I am also conscious of buying visually appealing items too…who isn’t? Zoggs new range for 2018/2019 is full of vibrant, eye catching designs including one of my favourite styles ‘Mexicali’. I’m an active person when I travel and the fit of the suits, as well as the bikinis are stylish yet practical, you’d be as comfortable surfing in them as you would relaxing on the beach. After posting a few photos of the pieces I’ve had lots of compliments about them already, with people admiring the bright designs and in particular the unusual strap detailing on some of the backs.

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I’m so glad that a brand I already associated with has made such a commitment to bettering our planet and for me, this only means that I will become more committed to that brand myself.

https://www.zoggs.com
https://www.zoggs.com/ecolast

 


This article is in partnership with Zoggs, but as always all the views are my own.

 

Fontelunga Hotel & Villas | Tuscany’s finest boutique villa

Situated on a hilltop in Tuscany, not far from the picturesque town of Cortona, Villa Fontelunga is an incredibly stylish ‘home away from home.’ Whether you’re staying in the 9 room main villa or the two private villas, you’re greeted like an old friend and treated like an honoured guest throughout the entire stay. It’s hard for boutique locations to find the balance between giving guests privacy and yet being on call to serve their needs but Villa Fontelunga does this perfectly; the main villa and grounds are large enough that anyone wishing to have a romantic honeymoon or relaxing getaway can do so completely undisturbed, yet there are always staff members close by to top up your glass or recommend a day trip.

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The pictures posted on my Instagram stories elicited a fair few ‘OMG’ and ‘What a place’ comments and for good reason. It’s impeccably decorated, and there are well thought out touches everywhere, that on a first cursory glance you might miss, but that come together to give the full personality of the villa and the owners. The rooms are named after the Italian names for precious stones, and the room names next to the door are identified by framed samples of the materials to be found inside. My room ‘Turquoise’ or indeed ‘Turchese’ was tastefully decorated, a mix between classic Italian and modern simplistic. There are black out shutters meaning you can get a great night’s sleep, but they open up fully to allow streams of sunlight into your room during the day giving a very bright and light feel to the rooms. The rooms were full of fun details, such as the delicious welcome biscotti, and even down to the multicoloured cotton balls provided in the bathrooms that made me smile every time I entered the room.

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The swimming pool is in a peaceful area of the grounds, and as well as a sizeable hot tub there’s an honesty bar with soft drinks & beers, as well as fresh lemon water. One feature I particularly enjoyed is how every area, including the bedrooms and poolside all have subtle speakers in, allowing you to enjoy the tastefully chosen playlists throughout your stay. Of course these can be muted at the touch of a button if you so wish, but I really liked having a relaxing soundtrack to my swim, and some tunes on whilst I got ready for dinner.

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Twice weekly on a Tuesday and Friday, the villa hosts a fabulous dinner party, that guests are invited to join, and most do. Including welcome drinks and canapés, followed by three courses and wine, the dinner is a welcoming, atmospheric event hosted on the main terrace overlooking the olive trees. It’s a very social event allowing you to chat to the other guests before dining by candlelight, we had a homemade ravioli to start, followed by beef, and finished with a rich tiramisu. The villa also catered to the guest’s with dietary requirements and adjusted the menu accordingly.

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The dinner party gave me a chance to chat to the delightful owners of the villa, Philip and Paolo. They are incredibly passionate about the Villa, and their personalities shine through in not only the villa’s style but also in the way it’s run. They both know the area very well and are full of fantastic tips for days out, vineyard tours and restaurant tips. You really couldn’t ask for better hosts and all of the other guests we encountered also delighted in chatting with them and taking them up on their great suggestions.

The surrounding countryside is incredibly beautiful and the hilltop the main villa sits on commands wonderful views over the Tuscan hills. There are a selection of relaxation areas to choose from including a cosy cushioned area which is beautifully lit in the evenings, to deck chairs at view points around the property. They have a great selection of wines, beers and spirits to choose from and I loved sipping on a local rosé whilst relaxing with a book in the shade.

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Breakfast is served daily, including fresh juices & pastries, local honeys, cakes & breads as well as eggs made to order. I ate out on the main terrace underneath the shady parasols whilst taking in the views. The olive groves are very picturesque but equally the main villa itself is so pretty with the blue shutters and burnt orange brickwork that even if you faced the building you’d be treated to a delightful view.

 

For those wishing to have even more privacy then there are also two private villas to choose from. A two bedroom and one a bedroom perfect for honeymooners, they share a private pool and are shaded with stylish brickwork and pretty plants. You’re welcomed to these villas with a basket of goodies to start off your stay, and your comfort and enjoyment has been considered throughout the design too, including large bathtubs with great views and fully opening doors onto the pool area.

810_6803810_6810810_6853810_6825I left Villa Fontelunga, not only relaxed and revitalised, but also feeling that I had made some great new friends. It’s a special place and one I definitely hope to visit again.

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Stoke on Trent & The Potteries |Where to visit

The city of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire became the centre of ceramic production during the 17th century. Due to the availability of clay and other required materials, large numbers of potteries opened up in the area and started producing high quality ceramic wear that was exported all over the world.

There are a number of potteries to visit, some showcasing modern working factories, others offering historical tours and traditional methods, and a number of others allowing you to get stuck in and learn about ceramics whilst creating your own. All equally have their charms but depending on your taste, here are some recommendations.

For Instagrammers – World of Wedgwood

Wedgwood is an iconic English brand. Able to count Royal Families and celebrities as fans, Wedgwood has stood the test of time with over 250 years of history. World of Wedgwood allows the visitor to learn about the craft and the story of Wedgwood  on the award winning factory tours, but what really stands them apart (particularly for anyone wishing to update their Instagram page) is the showroom & tearooms.

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The showroom is exquisitely decorated, in a theme that changes every season. In August 2018 you enter through a traditional train carriage, allowing you to peek inside to see tables decorated in pastel pinks and whites with stylish old fashioned luggage and pretty tea cups dotted around. Further inside, elaborate tables are set for tea, with reds & whites, green vines winding around British strawberries and of course Wedgwood china. It’s incredibly pretty, and classically British with a modern twist.

Towards the back of the showroom area is the delightful tearoom serving a fantastic selection of teas and cakes all delivered in Wedgwood china. The room itself is grand, with teal chairs and swirling wallpaper, while the ceiling houses vast chandeliers. The top pick of the menu is of course the ‘Afternoon Tea’, a selection of sweet and savoury treats including the buttermilk scones and a choice of Loose Leaf and Wanderlust Teas. The savoury snacks include a dry aged beef with horseradish, asparagus and crème fraîche and the Ginger cake topped with candied ginger was delicious.

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https://www.worldofwedgwood.com

 

For activity lovers – Gladstone Pottery Museum

Gladstone is the only complete Victorian Pottery factory, and allows you a chance to learn about the days when bone china was made in coal burning ovens. The interactive factory tour is interesting for all ages but the stand out parts really seemed to be the activities on offer and the enthusiasm of those running them.

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After a demonstration from the experts then you’re able to try your hand at throwing your own pot, watched over by someone that knows what they are doing! Visitors enjoyed watching each other try their hand at the wheel with a few giggles as well as encouragement.

There’s a flower making demonstration and workshop, allowing you to learn the technique to make a bone china rose, although the skilled craftswoman made it look far easier than it was.

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A further workshop provided over an hour of fun (as well as aprons in case the fun got too messy) which was decorating and painting the china. You’re able to choose from a selection of pieces, including a rose in a vase, and the china toilet, (unsurprisingly popular with children.) The large painting table makes it quite a social activity and the lady demonstrating techniques delighted everyone with her stories of Victorian painters as well as stories from her own history in the industry.

Gladstone Pottery Museum 

 

For history fans – Middleport Pottery

Middleport Pottery allows you to step back in time on a heritage trail with their original Victorian offices, one of the few bottle kilns remaining in Stoke and the steam engine which once powered the whole factory. Middleport has a great number of volunteers on hand, able to answer your questions as you tour around.

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Particularly interesting is the store for the ceramic moulds, including Winston Churchill moulds, plate designs for the Battle of Britain and a whole host of Victorian jelly mould designs. Also interesting is the information covering the larger role women played in the industry due to demand during the war: not only did they take over many key roles during the war but continued to have their talents recognised afterwards.

In between the original bath houses and heritage offices Middleport has working studios, and it’s fascinating to see both modern and historical representations of ceramics.

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At the time of writing, then Middleport Pottery was also home to Poppies: Weeping Window. It’s a magnificent sweeping design of poppies, cascading down the side of the factory onto the floor below, and representing British or Colonial lives lost at the Front during the First World War. It’s a moving piece, and a beautiful scene to see, unsurprisingly popular, as Stoke is actually the last location of it’s regional tour before it is on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.

20180827_102540http://www.middleportpottery.org


For more information & to plan your own trip make sure to visit:

http://www.visitstoke.co.uk

 

 

 

Sacha Lodge – An Ecuadorian Rainforest stay

The incredible Amazon rainforest  stretches across 9 countries, Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guiana, Peru, and Suriname.It takes up around seven percent of the entire land mass of the Earth yet incredible half the earth’s plant species can be found there. The Amazon rainforest in Ecuador is one of the most bio-diverse places on Earth, and all manner of species of not only plants, but also birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects thrive here.The Ecuadorian Amazon is mainly tropical rainforest elevated 400m above sea level and despite Ecuador being such a diverse land mass in itself, the largest portion of the country is made up of the rainforest region.

Whilst many people are drawn to Brazil or Peru to visit the Amazon, Ecuador offers some incredible, rewarding and unique opportunities to explore this magnificent place.

For those with more than a few days to explore then staying at a jungle lodge is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the environment. Sacha Lodge stands out from the crowd as the forerunner for those who desire to really learn all about the amazing species of the Amazon.

To get there is no easy feat but that makes it all the more special. The closest city is Coca, but the lodge can arrange flights for you from Quito or various night buses head there for the more adventurous. Sacha Lodge has a base in the city where the groups meet their expedition leaders and can relax with snacks and drinks before the rest of the journey starts. A 90 minute motorised canoe ride takes you down the river, with the captain zipping left and right as he expertly steers through the water levels. Next a 30 minute walk takes you to the final leg of the journey, wooden dug out canoes for a gentle ride through the trees to the beautiful lodge.

Sacha Lodge has thought out every aspect of your stay and even pairs you in small groups according to your language and activity preference. Each group is assigned an indigenous guide and a naturalist guide, who usually speak Spanish, English and often German/Italian. The guides adapt the programme accordingly to the groups taste, tailoring walks and boat rides to what the visitors might want to see.

The rooms are simple yet delightful, with spacious wooden balconies looking straight into the rainforest, even more pleasant are the showers, that whilst private have an open side for you to view nature whilst you bathe.

Except dinner which is hosted in the main lodge area, meals are all taken together, in the open air dining room next to the lake. Meals are fresh, filling and varied, including barbecues, fresh fish and sweet treats and there is nothing quite like spotting caiman and giant otters while you eat.

What sets Sacha apart from it’s competitors however are the incredible feats of engineering erected with the sole purpose of allowing you to get closer to nature without hindering the natural habitats of the animals and birds. Firstly the vertigo inducing staircase to the top of the Kapok tree. High enough to require a stop on the stairs on the way up, the staircase leads to a giant platform with gorgeous hanging vines tumbling down to the ground twisted around it. One really feels like they have the best view of the rainforest from up there.

Secondly, and a highlight for many visitors is the canopy walkway. A 275m bridge fixed between three towers it offers a unique opportunity to spot dozens of creatures not visible from the ground. Howler monkeys swinging past, toucans and dozens of wildly colourful birds, with more and more species to be sighted as the mist lifts above the trees. The guides have keen eyes and a photographic memory for birds, noticing tiny differences in patterns to identify species.

The guides really do make a difference to your stay, spotting owls that are even hard to see when they’ve been pointed out to you, but their knowledge of the local plants is almost more impressive. Every tree and plant has a story, and a use, be that healing wounds, making rope or simply for dye, walking around the rainforest with guides is a constant learning experience.

Sacha Lodge finds an excellent balance between providing a temporary community for the visitors, and allowing you to mingle and meet new friends, yet still giving you the sense of being the only ones in the rainforest. Activities aren’t forced upon you, and plenty of free time to is given to enjoy the lodge. There’s a beautiful lake pool, perfect to cool down when the humidity gets a bit too much. It’s a securely cordoned off area of the lake so you need not fear the eels and caiman whilst you swim, but for those who do want a closer look there are canoes to explore the lake and take all the necessary wildlife photos.

For those who really want to learn about the Ecuadorian Amazon, at a place which prides itself on protecting the area and assisting the local indigenous community then Sacha Lodge is the ideal choice, and as many of the visitors were saying to their loved ones back home ‘a real once in a lifetime trip.’

5 Activities you’ll want to do in Antigua

Antigua is beautiful. Turquoise waters and enough beaches to visit a new one every day of the year, it’s fairly evident why lots of people will spend their days on the island soaking up the sun and swimming in the sea. If you’re staying more than a couple of days however you’ll certainly want to explore more of the island, and Antigua has a whole host of activities available. It’s a fairly adventurous island, with some thrilling activities and unusual outings to be had.

  1. Go off road – A number of rental outlets on the island offer out off road dune buggy style vehicles for you to explore the island on semi-lead tours. It’s a bumpy ride, up and down the many hills, including a lovely stop at the top to take in the sights, and the smells of the lemongrass. Rental companies requires a driving license from your home country, and this isn’t surprising as you’ll be on the roads quite a bit to get to some of the tracks, and these carts can move!It’s a fairly simple accelerate and brake system, so no changing of gears is required. They accelerate pretty fast and as you’re not fully covered up and have the wind rushing past you it really does feel like you’re travelling pretty quick. They are all fitted with roll cages and you’re simply told that if they do roll, then keep your arms and hands inside the vehicle and you’ll be fine.

    It’s probably not for the faint hearted, but for any thrill seekers it’s great fun and will have you shrieking and laughing throughout.

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  2. Visit the floating bar ‘Kon Tiki’, in Dickenson Bay. Antigua has plenty of bars but the floating bar shouldn’t be missed. A fairly new edition to the island, it’s off shore and requires a ride in the bar’s little canoe to reach it. The owners are friendly and chatty, and when I visited (and they had only just opened) they had thrown a party almost every evening so far.They serve up cold beers and spirits & mixers including the local ‘ting’. It’s a laid back place, with people dipping in and out of the water to cool off between beers. Sunset here is really beautiful too, with the bar making a lovely silhouette.
  3. Go zip lining through the trees – Antigua Rainforest zip lining tours offer an adventurous day out, with zip lines of varying lengths criss crossing through the forest. It’s a lot of fun, and the staff are all so nice which makes it even more enjoyable.They have lines starting comparably low down right up to a great long one across the canyon. You fly across strapped on to a friendly instructor which will make you feel safer stepping out, and there are some fantastic views to be had. Even the walk from line to line through the forest is lovely, although a little hot.
  4. Understand the history of the island at Betty’s Hope – Betty’s Hope was a sugarcane plantation established in 1650 when Antigua was part of the colonies. Betty’s Hope is named after the daughter of General Christopher Codrington who’s family owned it during it’s operation. It’s no longer operational but is one of only a few original mills left standing.It has been converted into an open air museum and visitor centre. It’s now a peaceful memorial, with a lot of history and some of the original train carriages left on site.
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  5. Overcome your fears at Stingray City – One of the island’s most popular sites is Stingray City, a natural sandbank a few hundred metres out from the coast that attracts tens of sting rays to the area. It takes some getting used to, having the rays swim so close to you, and you’re told to shuffle your feet rather than stepping in case you tread on one, so if you’re particularly nervous this activity may be a bit too much. The rays do sometimes take a little nibble on you, which is actually more like a slight suction, which isn’t pleasant but doesn’t hurt.

    The location itself is incredible, gloriously blue water and despite it usually being quite popular, it doesn’t feel too crowded.
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A day on board Independence of the Seas – Royal Caribbean

Having never been on board a cruise ship before; approaching the Royal Caribbean ship The Independence of the Seas, I was blown away by just how huge it was. Grand, and multicoloured at one end; as the popular top-deck water park Splashaway Bay could be seen even before I reached the terminal.

 

 

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On a ship this size it only made sense that we were greeted by the largest cake I’d ever seen, but I was saving room as there were plenty of food options ahead such as the amusingly named ‘Fish and Ships’ bar, and the pool side ice cream parlour. I had done some research into the ship before I boarded but I didn’t quite realise how many options for things to do there were. For example, did you know there was an ice rink? On a cruise ship? Crazy fun right?

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The Independence of the Seas is like a giant floating city, and indeed it has more to offer than many towns. Even the harshest of cruise cynics wouldn’t run out of things to do. Everywhere you look there are signs to fun activities, places to eat, or simply areas to relax and take in the views. Even in Southampton there were some great views to be had on the top-deck, so one can only imagine what it’s like when approaching a beautiful port in the Med.

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There’s a full undercover shopping mall, reminiscent of the grand Dubai centres with their designer shops selling Michael Kors, and brightly coloured sweet shops sure to draw the attention of the kids.

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Of the many dining options I chose to eat in Chop’s Grille, a smart steakhouse with a refined menu. I started with the prawns served with a spicy horseradish salsa, as it felt appropriate to eat seafood being ‘at sea’. I followed that with the Filet Mignon, which was rich, tender and generously portioned. Obviously just for this article’s purpose I had ALL the sides, asparagus, a tasty ‘Mac n Cheese’, chips & mash. If you’re not feeling like steak, the options are plentiful; a trendy sushi bar, coffee shops and bars along the ‘shopping street’ and a number of top deck eateries to serve you by the pool. Even on the ‘shopping street’ there are cute cafes and diners with street art style designs above them.

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As well as the colourful Splashaway Bay with the numerous loungers surrounding it so parents can always keep an eye out, there are a number of pools and Jacuzzis. Some of these areas host live music, and speakers pumping out Ibiza chill-out tunes make for a fun atmosphere to drink a cocktail in while cooling off in the water.

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For those wanting a little more strenuous activity there’s a top deck marked jogging and walking track that heads round the ship, as well a large gym, a basketball court and a climbing wall. No need to worry about eating all the delicious food when there are so many sporting options to keep you busy.

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For the kids there are numerous brightly coloured play areas, vibrant climbing frames with netting around so parents need not worry, plus a huge arcade on a lower level spanning numerous rooms. The arcade area is large enough to keep kids (and big kids) occupied for hours, with old classics such as Sonic and a dance mat as well as new games and prize claw machines.

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For when the kids are asleep there’s a giant flashy casino, with favourites like roulette and blackjack along with the Vegas style slot machines. There’s even a full sized theatre. The ship is clearly designed to keep guests entertained throughout the day and night, yet it’s not too in your face. Those just wanting to relax are able to do so in great comfort, in the plush lounges and the jacuzzis dotted around the ship.

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I didn’t want to get off and a turnaround day isn’t nearly long enough to experience all that the ship has to offer, however it was a lovely taste of what to expect on board. I’m positive those lucky enough to have been sailing off that day will be smiling just as much as I was.

https://www.royalcaribbean.co.uk

https://www.royalcaribbean.co.uk/our-ships/independence-of-the-seas/

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Portsmouth – Bilbao on the Cap Finistère with Brittany Ferries

When I was younger and holidaying with my parents we would travel by ferry all the time, as we would take long camping & motorhome trips in France and Spain, and the ferry provided a convenient way to get further South without requiring as much driving.

There were a couple of routes that I was always wanted to take, one of which I finally got around to experiencing last week; Portsmouth to Bilbao, which I can only conclude 6 year old me was so desperate to take purely for the fact it was longer than the general channel crossings and therefore I got to spend more time on board!

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Brittany Ferries runs this route with the ship I opted to take (the Cap Finistère), twice a week, leaving Portsmouth on the Sunday and returning the following Thursday. Although I do enjoy flying, travelling by ferry felt like the holiday had already started the moment we got on board. There was no rushing round like there is at airports, just a smooth boarding onto the ship, which was so quick I was sat in the bar with a prosecco taking in the views within a matter of minutes.

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I stayed in the Club Finistère two birth twin cabin, which had a huge window offering great views. It was tastefully decorated with little surprise touches including a box of macaroons, a fruit basket and luxury toiletries. The shower in the en suite was powerful and hot & there was plenty of space in the room, more than enough for a couple with lots of luggage to relax and enjoy themselves. The twin beds were comfortable and all linen & towels were provided, there was even a TV, although with so much to offer on board I didn’t have time to watch it.

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The bar areas are generally quite popular, serving a range of beers, wines, cocktails & soft drinks at really reasonable prices. As well as the top deck cafe, there is also a large bar in the middle of the ship and the two story Planet’s Bar at one end with a lively atmosphere, helpfully showing the football during the World Cup.  Outside the Planet’s Bar there was a list of entertainment for the crossing and almost every hour had something to offer. There was a pub quiz & bingo, both with great prizes, plus ‘Say What You See’, and a few other gameshow style events that entertained children and adults alike. The pub quiz was a fun affair, with teams competing with a little friendly competition throughout, and music rounds leading to amusingly bad sing-alongs.

There was a cinema, showing a range of current blockbuster films, and a lovely little pool on deck 10 complete with chairs to relax in and a hot tub. The pool is heated sea water and usually quite quiet meaning I was able to actually swim some lengths as well as relax when the sun popped out.

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The staff on board were helpful and friendly from start to finish, even when after approximately 8 minutes on board I managed to lose both the keys to my room the staff were patient and helpful, replacing them and politely ignoring how soon I had lost them. The other staff on board were jolly throughout, smiling and informative and seemingly happy to be there, it’s such a nice environment though its easy to see why.

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On the return journey from Bilbao the timing was great to go onto the top deck with the ORCA wildlife officers to try and spot some whales. The watch started at 430 and went on until 8 with the two officers on board becoming welcoming and informative. The ORCA officers now only operate on the Brittany Ferries ships, rather than their own vessels, as apparently in the route I was taking it’s actually possible to see a huge percentage of the world’s whale species.

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There are a number of options for dining including the Petit Marche, serving sandwiches, cakes, drinks & other snacks and a pool-side cafe with tasty hot meals, wines and cakes. I chose to dine in Restaurant du Port, a classy à la carte restaurant with refined menus serving French cuisine and daily specials. The food was high quality and beautifully presented; including a rich beef bourguignon, pollock with mussels, a spectacular Grand Marnier souffle, and the head turning profiteroles, followed by a cheese board. The restaurant is clearly popular and it’s recommended that you book in advance if you have a specific time you’d like to dine. It’s up there with one of the nicest meals I’ve had this year, with dishes coming out of the kitchen looking so splendid that other diners crane their necks trying to see what it is.

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810_8901810_9181If you’re all tired out from pool swimming, fine dining and whale watching then there is an onboard spa, a fairly new addition to the ships. It’s fairly small but offers a range of treatments from manicures and anti-aging masks to massages & facials. Obviously purely in the name of research I felt I needed to try out one of these treatments and opted for the back massage. The spa boasts a relaxing environment with skilled therapists and I came out feeling revitalised and ache free.

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One of the most impressive things was purely how much space there was on board. Considering the large numbers of passengers the ship can take, there were no points where it felt crowded at all, and there are a great range of options when it comes to deciding where to relax. The Planet’s Bar has wall to ceiling windows stretching from end to the end, and the top decks cafe bar allows you to feel like you’re taking in the views from outside, without the wind.

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It was a fantastic crossing, and a popular route with many returning customers, hopefully I’ll take another route soon.

http://www.brittany-ferries.co.uk

http://www.brittany-ferries.co.uk/ferry-routes/ferries-spain/portsmouth-bilbao

 

 

Visiting Casa del Arbol – Banos

Banos is famous for it’s outdoor activities, swimming in the thermal spas, mountain biking, hiking trails and waterfalls, but probably it’s most famous attraction for backpackers is Casa del Arbol; the treehouse with it’s swing on the edge of the world.

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It’s technically only a few km from the centre of Banos but the surrounding terrain is so mountainous that it would make an incredibly tiring uphill slog to walk or cycle. Indeed, many tour operators offer daily cycling excursions to the treehouse, but for the majority of people, that seems like far too much effort.

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Taxis are easily available but the most fun, cost effective and probably convenient way is to get the local bus. It leaves from 3 streets to the right of the main bus terminal on the corner of Rocafuerte and Pastaza but if you see the bus coming down the street the driver will be happy to slow down and let you hop on not at an official stop. The bus costs a dollar, which for a long, uphill, winding journey seems very good value. The buses are usually packed and often blast out loud seemingly random music all the way up into the mountains. Banos is already at quite a high elevation so if you suffer from altitude sickness remember to take some tablets before you leave. The bus stops at the car park next to a small cafe and then sits there for usually an hour before heading back down.

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Bare in mind that there are a few swings at the top; one more for the thrill seekers and one for ‘that instagram shot’. The closest one to the bus stop is high up a hill, requiring a steep climb using a rope to get to, and is more nerve wrecking. You’re tightly strapped into what looks like an old plane seat, before being enthusiastically pushed off the edge of a cliff sending the chair rocking back and forth. It feels like something your mum would advise you against doing, and isn’t for the faint hearted but is fun nevertheless.

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Further along the path is the main attraction, 2 dollars to get in, giving you access to a few zip wires and a range of swings along the edge of the hilltop. The swings don’t actually go very high and are suitable for children and adults, but give the illusion that you’re swinging out into the sky. There’s the famous treehouse too allowing for lovely photos which would make viewers think you’re alone on the cliff edge and not actually in a queue of backpackers & families.

With so many tourist attractions massively overcharging and being a let down, Casa del Arbol is a cheap day out and very much does what it says on the tin. Recommended.

Casa en el Agua – The coolest hostel in the world?

Casa en el Agua has quickly become one of the most famous hostels in the world. It’s an eco hostel, completely surrounded by water in the middle of the Caribbean sea.

Two hours from Cartagena by boat are the ever beautiful San Bernardo Islands, an archipelago of 9 coastal coral and one artificial island, with the hostel floating next to Isla Titipan. The hostel is so popular that they strictly only take bookings 60 days in advance and by day 59, most of the beds are already full up. The hostel organises a boat daily, back & forth to the main port in Cartagena, which is the easiest, and in the end probably most cost effective way to arrive, (unless you’re very good at haggling with local boats.)

It’s a backpacker paradise, multi coloured green & blue water surrounding the hostel, complete with donut and unicorn floaties. (Instagram shot anyone?) If you’re a keen seasoned traveller you’ll find like minded people here, with everyone exchanging stories about sailing over from Panama, or terrifying night bus tales from Ecuador.

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It’s worth noting that for those who desperately need their home comforts the Casa may not be an ideal choice, as it’s low key and casual, with only a couple of charging points for phones in one spot on the lower level; meaning no hairdryers, no laptop charging points, and not a mirror in sight for anyone worrying about their appearance. For most people, this is part of the attraction, getting away from it all and back to basics; fresh food, conversation, and swimming. There are two toilets which require a step to reach, both compost toilets complete with slightly amusing diagrams as to how to use them properly. There is technically a shower area, and everyone is allowed one bucket of fresh water a day to clean themselves, but with the sea all around most people just opted for a quick rinse in the water.

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All accommodation is on the second level; there are a couple of double/twin rooms which book up immediately, a dorm room and then numerous hammocks spread around the upper deck. The hammocks are comfortable and make for a good nights sleep with the breeze rocking you to sleep, but it can get a little chilly in the night so take a towel or sheet for some warmth. There are lockers to put your valuables in, but the hostel asks you not to bring large rucksacks with you as there is limited space, and instead leave them at your hostel on the mainland. In reality though you don’t need much with you, you’ll spend all day in swimwear, with a vest and shorts thrown over it in the evening.

Meal times are a social thing, with the conch (as in Lord of the Flies style) blown to alert everyone that it’s time to eat. It’s around 30,000 for the set meal, usually some kind of seafood/fish with rice and vegetables, a soup, and fruit juices, with a vegetarian option as well. There’s also specials, including freshly caught lobster, crab, and mixed seafood platters. There’s plenty of food, and it can’t be beaten on freshness, although once again perhaps not ideal for any fussy eaters. 20180320_192950.jpg

In terms of activities, it’s mainly swimming, floating on the floaties, reading and drinking. They do however offer a number of mini tours including the evening trip to see the incredible plankton, glittering in the water. It’s a short tour but one that people came back from grinning ear to ear and talking about it being a highlight of their time.

Other tours include a short boat ride to the nearby Santa Cruz del Islote famously known as one of the most densely populated islands in the world. It’s a self policing community, a very tight knit group of people both physically and emotionally. The tour took place at the end of the day and the lively islanders had already had a few drinks when we arrived which cultivated in a enthusiastic dance off between them to Paul Simon’s ‘Call me Al’, but I can’t guarantee this will happen on every visit! The island has the only nearby shop, so if you’re desperate for your daily supply of Oreos then this is the only chance you’ll have to get any.

 

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Evenings are a fun affair, with the staff tailoring the vibe of the night depending on how raucous the guests are feeling. Sometimes the hostel turns into a club, with guests & staff from the few nearby hostels coming by boat to join in the dancing. There’s a bar serving up tasty cocktails and reasonably priced beer. Of the two nights I stayed the first one was wild and into the early morning, with loud Spanish hits pumped out to the dancing crowd. The second evening was much more laid back; a few drinks and card games before a midnight bedtime.

For most visitors, Casa en el Agua is a highlight of their Colombia trip, it’s ridiculously photogenic, unique and the stuff that backpacker dreams are made of.

Casa en el Agua

 

Casa Cool Beans – Santa Teresa

Santa Teresa is an area of Rio de Janeiro, high up on the hill tops with incredible views over the city. It’s a bohemian district, full of street art, cool shops, independent clothes boutiques and some fantastic restaurants. It’s also linked well to other districts with the famous tram, as well as being an easy location to get a bus or taxi from.

I stayed at Casa Cool Beans, a trendy boutique style B&B close to the centre of Santa Teresa. It’s a short walk to the main street, in a quiet residential area with great security.

The entrance to the B&B is a leafy green tropical garden providing a shady area to relax with a great view of the property itself.

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There’s a fantastically colourful pool area with great wall decorations surrounding it. Rio gets pretty hot as you will be well aware and it’s so lovely to be able to have a dip in the pool to cool down. 810_3279810_3307

There are some sunbeds and comfy sofas to relax on, and throughout the day guests lounged under the umbrellas with a book or a drink and got away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Rio. The breakfast in the morning is served poolside and is really something to look forward to. There’s a friendly breakfast chef, cooking up daily omelettes and daily specials like ‘pancake day’, as well as local suggestions. There’s a selection of meats, cheeses, breads, pastries and cereals as well as juices and coffee. The breakfast area is social and overlooks a lovely church so you can sit and hear the bells ringing on some mornings.

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The staff went above and beyond right from the moment I arrived. On top of the helpful notice board with local attractions and maps, the manager printed out information about events we might like, including directions and timings, as well as suggesting local restaurants to try. I also arrived well before my check in time, but they were flexible and allowed to me check in straight away, as well as storing my luggage for the final day after check out.

The rooms themselves are spacious, cool and decorated in a fun yet simple way. My room had a lovely balcony with pool views and a big bathroom with luxury toiletries. There’s a mini bar stocked with drinks and a super comfy bed to look forward to at the end of your day exploring.

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The whole B&B is colourful and vibrantly decorated, from the front of the building to even the crockery used at breakfast time, and matches Rio’s colourful image perfectly.

http://casacoolbeans.com

What to do in Derby?

I recently spent a weekend in Derby as I’ve been trying to explore more new places within the UK, and I found it friendly, fun and historic, with so much to offer for all ages. I had an action packed few days including a lot of delicious food, historic buildings, shopping  & beautiful landscapes. Here I’ve put together a few of my highlights to help you plan your visit.


Visit Bluebells Dairy Farm

It’s hard to actually pigeonhole Bluebells Dairy Farm as it has so much to offer. Obviously as the name suggests it’s a Dairy Farm but it’s also a tea rooms, an educational centre, a fun day out for kids (and big kids) and somewhat an interactive petting zoo.

Let’s start with the ice cream! Bluebell has 26 flavours of ice cream and sorbet, I’m proud to say I gave many a try, as you can see below! They have some recognisable flavours as well as individual specialities including my favourite; the lemon curd! The creamy milk for the ice cream comes from the cows grazing the fields at the farm, and Bluebell uses only the finest ingredients to blend into their award winning ice cream. The ice cream is so good, that it’s stocked in other high end retailers/restaurants and has won numerous awards.
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When you’re suitably full from all the delicious food and ice cream then there’s so much more to do on the farm itself. The friendly farm workers run sessions where you can interact with the animals, feed lambs, meet Arthur the giant rabbit and generally learn about the animals & how to care for them. It’s educational fun and people of all ages were enjoying it greatly.

There’s even more fun to be had on the giant inflatable pillow, something very unique and family friendly, but I must admit I probably had more than my fair share of a go! There’s also a new go-kart track and play areas with sand pits!

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Derby Cathedral

Derby Cathedral and it’s 212 feet tower stands proud in the centre of Derby. Construction finished in around 1532 but it’s had numerous renovations over the years. It’s beautiful inside, with a bright, open entrance and a light & airy feel quite different to other churches of it’s time. Visits are upbeat and lively with welcoming staff and fun stories about the building and those involved in it’s conception.

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The cathedral is still very much keeping the spirit of community alive, holding movie nights and other events. It’s also famous for being the nesting place for 15 consecutive years of nesting Peregrine Falcons. 41 hatchlings have been born here, and the nest is streamed online all over the world, with thousands tuning it to see the amazing birds.

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On the first Saturday of every month it’s possible to take a tower tour. The top of the tower commands some fantastic views over the city, it’s a steep climb so not for those who tire easily, but for anyone who loves a good view, well worth the effort. It’s breezy at the top and I had the fortune to arrive there just as the flag was being changed so I was able to assist (read; make the while process a lot slower.) but nobody seemed to mind.


Kedleston Hall

Kedleston Hall is a magnificent 18th century mansion which may be familiar to some as it was as a key location for the film ‘The Duchess’, starring Keira Knightley. It’s grand beyond belief, designed for lavish entertaining, complete with golds and turquoises and impressive painting collections.

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Since the 12th century the Curzon family have lived here and Lord Curzon’s Eastern Museum contains a collection of items from his travels in Asia while Viceroy of India (1899 to 1905). This includes the famous peacock dress, complete with the wings of green beetles adorning it to give the appearance of emeralds.

The grounds are just as lovely as inside the buildings, and as it was such a lovely day I spent quite a while walking around the grounds and relaxing in the sun to enjoy the views. Look how incredibly green the landscape is!

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Dine & drink

I’ve actually written an entire article about the food in Derby; (see below) as there was so much choice. Derby has a great range of eateries from the traditional Pyclet (a flat crumpet) sold at the Pyclet Parlour in the market hall, to fine dining at Masa in The Old Wesleyan Chapel.

There’s also a whole host of trendy bars around town including the cool Rowley’s Gin Bar & Wine Cellar and The Brooklyn Social with it’s fun cocktail list and quirky interior.

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https://alifewelltravelled.co.uk/2018/05/10/dining-in-derby-where-to-eat/


http://www.visitderby.co.uk

Derby is 1hr 36 mins on the train from London.