New York, New York

Normally I take myself away at Christmas. This year, due to the financial climate and it being a tough year, I’m staying at home. The family is delighted. My intention is to use these unusual circumstances to catch up on some blog writing although I can be easily distracted. The first one on my ‘to do list’ was from a trip made two years ago to New York at Christmas time!!! Normally, I love to get away to the sun, but, due to an action packed 2016, I had left it too late to organise a trip to some exotic location. So, after some quick research, I got a good flight deal and booked an AirBnB and I was sorted.

Often referred to as the greatest city in the world, I had to see if there was any truth in this. After spending a week in between Christmas and New Year in this iconic destination, I left soul searching and reflecting at the failure, on some levels, of a failed Christmas getaway. A lover of all genres of music, sadly the one that sticks in my mind is Jay-Z’s rap ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made of’. To my mind there is no better way to describe the place. Its bright lights were wasted on me; the main island was devoid of any natural beauty and was a fitting illustration of the faceless, globalisation and destruction of the modern world. People and cars fight like animals for their ownership of the jungle; the famous yellow taxis swarm about like bees, advertisements crawl like weeds over the towering, tree like skyscrapers but shorn of any branches. As animals (and some humans) worry about their habit becoming extinct, perhaps the never-ending building works crystallises those concerns.

My arrival in America via New York was not at all friendly or very warm which, considering this is one of the most visited places on earth, was incredibly surprising. Are tourists so excited to be here that they are blinded and unable to see this unwelcoming sight? Police, guns, dogs etc.  – as cold and unwelcoming as the airport was (in particular the passport control) the complete opposite could have been said of my AirBnB hosts whose warm and friendly kindness will never be forgotten. They patiently waited for my arrival and duly welcomed me into their family home and made me a part of it as they celebrated Christmas. This is the one extremely positive side to my time in New York and must offset my lack of enthusiasm for the city itself. Maybe teenagers and wannabees can hack it, but I couldn’t.

It is sometimes described as the financial capital of the world and this is reflected in the lifestyle of the city’s inhabitants/commuters.  Comparisons could easily be made to parts of London but somehow, despite the similar, relentless, pursuit of money and the ‘benefits’ that it brings, there is a charm about London that doesn’t exist in NYC. The financial sector of any city seems a million miles from the reality of which I am accustomed. A city where money talks, everything seemed overpriced and so far-fetched. Stumbling upon the financial district after a long and beautiful stroll along the river, I had completely forgotten the tragic events that stopped, captivated and changed the world forever in 2001. Perhaps because it is relatively modern history it seems to attract more interest especially from the younger element. It was a tragic day – there is no denying that. I can recall that fateful day as an adolescent 15 year old, coming in from school and hearing the sad news beating over the radio. I was blissfully unaware at that time of the seriousness of that event; surprisingly, I found that I had little interest in the ‘ground zero’ memorial. The very title seems to demean the catastrophe. Perhaps all this is a selfish coping mechanism for the sad state of affairs that exists in this world and I care to forget about it to concentrate on the good things to enjoy.

The city is alive with hustle and bustle. This is not an attractive atmosphere as its over-crowded sidewalks is but one of its many problems. There are too many cars are on the roads and a failed pedestrian crossing system exacerbated the feeling that not enough care had been taken for those who wanted to get around the jungle by foot. The dirt and smell just adds rancour for a place that is too congested and far too big for itself.

I’m sure that people will rave about the Christmas decorations and, while I wouldn’t disagree that they were often spectacular, their appeal didn’t stretch as far as me and sadly are a confirming sign of the commercialisation and forgetting of yet another religious festival. Frankly, what have nutcracker figurines to do with Christmas?

My love for a pint is probably well known by all and the local brew is always sampled on my travels. As pubs seem to be closing at an alarming rate back home, it also seemed a real struggle to find a proper bar in NYC. Drinking on the other side of the ocean was a complete eye opener for me, waitressing/tipping etc. and one that I still can’t get my head around.

I think we can all agree that my passion for sport is second to none. I felt it was only right that I got to enjoy some of the sport the city has to offer. I was desperate to see a NFL game. I wanted to witness and work out what the fascination with this sport was. I mean they call it football but predominantly use their hands!! Instead I had to settle for a ticket to the famous Madison Square Gardens to watch the NY Rangers host an ice hockey game. Their opposition was the Ottawa Senators, the only hockey team I had really heard about, and I was a proud owner of their jersey. Sadly, my jersey stayed hidden in my bag as I was unsure whether opposing supporters mixed in.

There were 3 things that stuck out for me. Firstly the lack of atmosphere was sobering. Secondly, the need for a time out when there are 2 intervals seemed over the top and timewasting. Finally, the fact that the broadcaster could stop a game for an advert break beggared belief!!! Attending football matches back home I couldn’t understand how the NY experience lacked singing before/during/after the game and only a cheer when a goal was scored. Everything seemed flat. People were more worried about capturing the event on their phone and what little atmosphere there was had to be generated by a deafening music system, flashing lights and a DJ. It’s getting a bit like it over here now with the emphasis on money and money making. English football is going the same way as our increasing number of American owners influence our great game. Not understanding the rules of the sport I couldn’t work out why timeouts were/are needed full stop. When I was informed that the broadcasters had put a pause in play for adverts I was aghast. This confirmed my long-established opinion that, as great as TV coverage is, it has ruined sport. I left not really sure what I had witnessed but I am given to understand it was a 4-3 win for the Rangers.

Travelling has always provided the opportunity to meet new people and it was with great pleasure I could catch up with one here. My fellow traveling buddy suggested watching a show. How incredible and now I can tick this experience off the list. The choice of Broadway show was ‘The Colour of Purple’. It was a slight struggle to understand it but didn’t deter from an excellent spectacle played out by a superb cast giving a great performance. I was mesmerised as I had to concentrate so much on trying to understand the language/accent being used. Afterwards I was taken to Times Square – this gimmick may be for the modern fool, but I am not one. I obliged for the customary and mandatory photo and couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I think that, looking back, my favourite part of New York City was pier 16! What was perhaps once the arrival dock for all boats was a fascinating take on the city’s past. New York was once the arrival destination for those who harboured thoughts of chasing the American dream and in their pursuit of this had arrived on these shores.

What was once perhaps the gateway to America, the place where all your dreams were to come true, your ship would have passed France’s gift to the New York landscape, the Statue of Liberty. Not that inspiring, but good views can be accessed from the Staten Island ferry if you don’t want to pay the fee to visit. And as for American dreams, do these even exist anymore?

So, my first visit to America didn’t make a good impression, I was very glad to leave, and let’s hope that the next time is a more positive experience.

Stunning Salisbury

If the name Salisbury doesn’t resonate with you, what bubble have you been hiding in this year? Sadly, you probably will have read/listened/watched the news about the Skripals, the policeman, the outrageous death, the consequent accusations and denials traded between London and Moscow. All this cast a dark cloud over the city and what a shame as the city is beautiful. Hopefully, those dark days are over and talk of Novichok, though it will be forever associated with Salisbury, should not deter anyone from visiting this small but stunning city. Having said that I disappoint myself in that I left it so long to revisit this beautiful, medieval, cathedral city.

I would put Salisbury in the category of small of English cities. Like neighbouring Winchester, it is easily accessible and best explored by foot. There is a mix between the ancient and modern and they live in harmony. The brilliant architecture seems to have survived and alongside it lies the modern British high street. I keep making this point but what is the high street going to look like in a couple of years or even a few months’ time. Salisbury is not immune from the problems that plague just about every town/city in the country as lots of for sale/rent signs are to be in the windows of empty shops.

Running next to the edge of the city centre is the charming river Avon. Parallel with this is a well-trodden pathway. There are various eating places providing ample opportunity to indulge in food and drink. Not hungry or thirsty then just try to keep up with the swans swimming along the river. Upon approaching the city centre the pathway takes you to Salisbury’s answer to Big Ben.

Before I reached the cathedral, I was fascinated by another church, St Thomas’s. Not a normal name for a church, it claims to have served the city for almost 800 years. It is believed that this edifice started as a wooden structure and was built for those who were building the cathedral in the city. A step inside and you are immediately drawn upwards to the chancel arch. The ‘Doom’ Painting, finished in 1593 at the end of the reformation and uncovered in 1881, it is the largest and most complete Doom painting surviving in the country.

How can you ignore the cathedral? Its spire, at 404 feet, is the tallest of any in the land. It has been the subject of wonderful paintings by artists like John Constable and prints of this work have adorned the walls of many a house in England. I judge that we as a nation are trying to find/define our identity, and perhaps we should look back to our powerful religious heritage for some inspiration. I pass a group of youngsters enjoying the gimmicky lights rather than the architectural masterpiece behind them as they work on their instagram/snap chat fame. They are more concerned about a few dangling lightbulbs than the magnificent façade of the cathedral rather than, to their considerable loss, making the effort to go inside to witness more splendour.

You will be amazed by the fact that it only took 38 years to build Salisbury Cathedral. 38 years!! I imagine that was about the expected life span of its builders. Imagine starting a job and not seeing the finished product? It wasn’t partly built then bits added throughout time. Not only is this medieval masterpiece home to Britain’s tallest spire but also its largest cloisters. Its total height is 123m, which makes getting a full picture rather challenging! Some mind-blowing facts – 60,000 tonnes of stone, 2,800 tons of oak and 420 tons of lead to build the cathedral. Inside there is a modern font with a constant stream of water that cascades over the sides. The surface is mirror like and provides unique reflections of the inside. I was slightly more taken with a map showing the diocese of Salisbury as it went as far south as Weymouth and interestingly near to my home, stopping at the impressive Sherborne Abbey. I was fascinated as my recent research is teaching me about the different types of building and hierarchy that administer the smooth running of the Church of England. My visit left me thinking about the differences between a church/abbey/cathedral and a priest/monk/dean/vicar/reverend/bishop. Then there are strange terms like suffrage bishop. I must research. The cathedral is also home to one of 4 original documents of the Magna Carta, but due to a failed robbery attempt, it, sadly, remains locked away out of sight.

I dragged myself away from Salisbury to a family outing in Winchester at the cathedral there. We attended a carol concert with 2000 others and thoughts were fresh in my mind and raised with those of the party who gave some answers. I left with some thoughts to add to my research. Forget the Novichok and the failed attempt at burglary and focus instead on the stunning delights of Salisbury.

 

Drinking Dublin

A small capital city with a huge reputation, it attracts visitors from far and wide. When the city is alive its hustle and bustle create an overwhelming sense of craziness. Certain areas of the city possess a constant, unique atmosphere. Although an incredibly touristy city, the locals are ultra-friendly and the crowds flock here to join the craik.

Sadly, my first visit here was far too short and rushed to enjoy this city to its full. Perhaps this is why I didn’t love it like everyone else appears to do. I shall return to explore further its charms and character and possibly some areas out of the main city. I only had 12hrs to explore this place, and while the city is small, trying to see everything by foot was never going to be achievable. There was a need for it to be explored by foot as my ever-increasing waist size was not being helped by the local lifestyle both north and south of the border. I was gutted not to have visited Trinity college area including the book of Kells and college library. I believe that everywhere else was at least seen, but what was missed provides me with the excuse to return.

They say that first impressions count; lets be grateful that Dublin’s didn’t. The city is ugly; it takes advantage of the tourist and, probably, the locals. The buildings look cold and dirty. The pollution and dirt make a face lift a necessity. The city attracts a lot of visitors; this clearly has its pros and cons. On the walkways this is definitely a con, due to the many drinkers/beggars and the build-up of dirt, litter from overflowing bins. The smell made for an unappealing walk. Add the fact that the sun wasn’t shining, and one can see why first impressions were poor. So much for “Dublin’s fair city”.

This the capital of Ireland sits at the head of Dublin Bay; it is a busy port, the financial and commercial hub of Ireland, backed up by its expensive lifestyle, as was pointed out to me by a local as I travelled down on the train. The first part of my walk took me along the eastern part of the river. Here one particular building catches my eye as it looks like it has a canned drink that has been misplaced and built into it. Close by it is anchored the Jeanie Johnston, whose links to the 19th century famine in these parts sheds a little light on some other parts of Ireland’s history.

My walk takes in all the areas detailed on my tourist/bus map. All the sights were very commercialised, and they were a huge disappointment, Christ church cathedral in particular. Crowds flock to them like bees to honey, and I couldn’t get out of them quick enough. I set off in search of other areas of interest, only to find bus loads of people arriving at them.

Guinness is perhaps Ireland’s biggest and most famous export. Personally, I can’t stand the stuff, even after trying it again over here. On arrival at those famous black and golden gates, I couldn’t be bothered to waste my time and money queuing for a view and perhaps a pint I wasn’t going to enjoy. Instead I headed to a local pub for a drink I would and did enjoy. Not understanding the man behind the bar, I still managed to order and a buy a drink.

From here I took on more walking as I pursued the further sites on my map. I discovered a charming building with quadrants all around; it was much more appealing and photogenic than that of Dublin Castle. From here I found some peace and solitude in the war memorial gardens whilst enjoying my daily packed lunch. From here I ticked off the Wellington monument. An old school bus provided some interesting photo opportunities before I decided to head back to Templar Bar. In no rush, I decided on a pub crawl back towards Templar Bar. Any pub that looked attractive or lively was entered to savour a pint but in each one that was visited the price rose as I got closer to that illustrious place.

Just before arriving at Templar Bar I discovered Ireland’s oldest bar!! Is it true? We may never know! Crowds flocked here and not for a pint but for the “I was here photo” for which people just strolled in and quickly left. Surprisingly I took no such photo; instead I enjoyed my pint as I photobombed everyone’s shameless pictures. Support these pubs!!

I left this pub in search of a more atmospheric location and by that I mean local, musical atmosphere. More by chance than by plan I came to Templar Bar, established 1870. I was drawn in and captivated by the two guys playing their tunes to the hoards of drunkards. Not coping well with the crowds inside I took comfort with the smokers outside. Conversation was struck up with people from far and wide as we all enjoyed each other’s company.

Dublin – I shall return; Trinity college, library and the book of Kells looks like a silly missed opportunity. And perhaps I’ll return to enjoy the evening of Templar Bar once more. Apart from maybe coming across to watch the rugby, my interest in this place is sadly lacking.

City of trees!

 

My latest adventure has been across the Atlantic to the southern state of Georgia, and to its capital city, Atlanta. Atlanta was established and expanded on a railway terminus, burnt and buried during the Civil War, and raised and resurrected into one of America’s leading cities. It has played a role in both its own country’s and international history and it looks like becoming America’s largest city in the near future. Travel has been at the very forefront of its existence, although the railway barely exists anymore and in its place is the world’s biggest airport. I left this place with more interest than when I arrived. I wonder should I have spent a little longer there.

Atlanta’s layout puzzled me. I am used to cities that expand from their centres. Atlanta was so much different. It is so vast, so separated, its communities seemed to be so far apart, with trees spread in between.  Perhaps this is evidence of segregation (maybe something to do with its past history). These partings were clear from any view point as trees separated the skyline of each part of town. An initiative to help protect the trees has led to it being called ‘city within a forest’. I guess that as cities have expanded at an alarming rate they have become a cluster of cities rather than just a city on its own.

Atlanta, and perhaps the rest of America seem to be light years behind in terms of looking after the world in which live. We should all be doing, much more to look after this world. There was so much waste, and when I offered to put stuff in the recycling I was told that we don’t have that here! I was more than a little amazed. The city has finally started to embrace the cycling craze that seems to have taken over Britain as it starts to build the BeltLine, currently in its infancy, which I believe will circle the entire city at some point and offer the chance to explore on bikes; such a brilliant idea.

My trip was a combination of southern hospitality, entertainment and activity in the city and surrounding areas. I was amazed and surprised at so many things – the amount of natural wildlife living in the city, the fact that the escalator takes a trolley on its own, you can get a cup cake from an ATM and you can leave your car on the motorway when broken down for a number of days – are but a few of the surprising things I witnessed.

I participated in the local activity of ‘shoot the hooch’ on the Chattahoochee River although before my arrival I had christened it ‘Chase the goose’. I got that wrong. I prepared for my day of chasing the goose but I ended up shooting the hooch. I eventually embraced the cold water, riding my Lilo christened Penelope and fuelled by some wine. We bumped and beached our way down the Chattahoochee River. We watched the locals get stuck which made our amateurish appearance seem okay. It calmed down and I was able to fully enjoy an Atlanta tradition – Dilly Dilly (see Budweiser advert).

On reflection, perhaps the best moments of my trip weren’t those that involved paying out money for entertainment, (although it was pretty cool to experience a drive through cinema), but those adventures spent outside, hiking and exploring. Taking the less travelled path, proved to be true as our unexplored pathway was blocked by a wild tortoise. I am still bewildered at the vast amounts of nature on display everywhere I looked.

As the football craze takes over in America (I refuse to call it soccer), I was lucky enough to attend a MLS game. The standard of football was poor, but the crowd did their best to generate a lively atmosphere in what was an impressive and enormous stadium.

If you are going to spend money on one of the many attractions the city has to offer, take a trip to the Civil Rights museum. Its neighbouring giants didn’t tempt me in, and probably wouldn’t have given me the educational and powerful experience that this place did. It opened my eyes to a part of history, of which I was blissfully unaware and that still seems to crop up in the news these days. It left me wanting to know about this rather than just knowing those famous words – ‘I have a dream’.

North Island Appreciated!

View from Henrys Peak – Mt Egmont National Park

As I find seat B in row 68 and try to get comfy for the long flight back home, I have sadness in my heart that this trip to New Zealand (NZ) has come to an end. The end of any trip is always a bag of mixed emotions, and I guess this time is no exception.

As I look out of the window and get my final view of Aotearoa (land of the long white cloud) our ascent takes us out of and over Auckland, I have to admit that Auckland isn’t the best memory with which to leave. Auckland was one of the disappointing places we visited on this trip; maybe if the flight path had taken us over New Plymouth or East Cape I would have been reminded me of happier times. The memories I have created on this trip to both the south and north islands will last with me for a lifetime.

My return home doesn’t excite me; ~28hrs flying time and a 4hr stopover in Hong Kong Airport gives me enough time to realise that I’m leaving behind my escape from routine and returning to the mundane daily grind full of busyness and gridlocked roads. The lack of excitement is also because I don’t have my next adventure planned as yet. Thinking about it, though, it may be that this is a good thing for all the plans that one makes may mean that one misses out on whatever opportunity arrives tomorrow. Planning was a big part of the preparation for this trip but changes to plans meant that unexpected alternatives were enjoyed.

I read something well known that challenged me while I was away, and I feel applies to me more than anything else that I have read of late – work to live, don’t live to work. Some people aspire to be successful in the workplace and devote their lifetime to the pursuit of position and status – that isn’t me. Yes, I work hard but only so that I can fulfil the dream that I have, which is to discover as much of my homeland and to learn and appreciate as much of this beautiful world as possible. It strikes me that until one travels one does not realise what a wonderful world it is we live in. Travelling has been the greatest education I’ve ever had; it has shown and taught me life, opened my eyes when I was ‘blind’, and for that I can only be grateful to my parents for instilling this travel lust in me and for friends who have been prepared to share my experiences.

I thrilled in an action-packed adventure, some of the best scenery this world has to offer, witnessed nature enjoying freedom, have endured endless miles of driving, sipped on some beautiful wine, met and partied with some delightful people and I wouldn’t have wanted to change a thing. I have covered more than 5500 miles in the 5 weeks spent on both islands. The NZ roads are tailored for road trip lovers and driving enthusiasts. Being neither, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the almost regular occurrence of having the road to myself for most of that particular part of the journey and with outstanding views around me – how different from driving from city to city and within cities back home. 5 weeks probably wasn’t long enough to do the country justice. It feels that I just scratched the surface, and probably didn’t spend enough time enjoying this incredible country.

The North Island is almost a different country from its neighbouring South Island. My feelings are so mixed and torn about this island. It is light years ahead of the South Island in commercial terms and its similarities to the rest of the world make for my lack of enthusiasm for the North Island compared to the South Island. The modernity of the world in which we live with its commerce and technology, necessary though it may be, can be depressing. I make no secret of my belief that we find far too much entertainment and pleasure in modern technology, lack the ability to communicate with the gifts we were given (ears and mouths rather than fingers and thumbs), and have little enthusiasm to get outside and enjoy the free things in life. We’re more concerned with what other people are doing rather than living our own lives. It is probably only a matter of time before the fear of doing anything other than checking Facebook finally takes over. Parts of the North Island are, in this respect, like the rest of the world, and as I flew out I found no desire to return to these places. The next trip to NZ will bypass certain places. Perhaps this is why I fell in love with Havana in Cuba and appreciated the South Island so much more.

The North Island, apparently fished up by the demi god Mauri, is replete with rolling hills, lush green land, wonderful coastline and dense forests. Parts of it resemble rural England or Sweden. As a whole the landscapes are less dramatic than the South Island but there are some wonderful volcanic mountains to be seen especially in the centre of the island. Wonderful displays of culture may be witnessed in places like Rotorua.

Over 75% of the country’s population live in the North Island, and 60% of the nation’s population live in Auckland!! Like London in England, Auckland is almost its own country within a country, and so completely different from the rest of the land.

Travelling the west coast led to the discovery of New Plymouth, one of my favourite spots on the North Island. It is home to the usual NZ power icons, an impressive mountain, beautiful beaches, endless treks and incredible surf. It was easy to see why this part of the North Island soon became my favourite. Almost undiscovered by international tourists it is more of a holiday destination for locals. It was charming, peaceful and provided everything I need for how I would love to live my life.

Forgetting my stop in disappointing Raglan and Auckland, the next part of my trip took me to the Bay of Islands. We were lucky to avoid a massive thunderstorm (what would the boat trip have been like had we been caught up in that?) and I was able to enjoy a truly wonderful day, blessed with unexpected sunshine, exploring one of NZ’s iconic locations. This pleasure was made even more so by the brilliance of Captain Billy, not a Kiwi by birth but clearly has adopted the nation’s passion for the outdoors. His knowledge and skills were truly incredible, and my appreciation can’t be put into words. When you see nature in the raw one cannot help but feel a slight anger towards these waterparks and zoos that trap these animals. After seeing so many species on this trip and recalling previous encounters on a safari, I never want to visit a zoo/aquarium again. There is something truly wonderful about experiencing these animals in the wild but, to be fair by not forgetting how blessed I was to be able to get to the other side of the world for a third time, to get to see them may cost more than going to the local zoo. Sighting dolphins was a small part of this whole day trip and all too brief, but Captain John and the wonderful coastline made for more than adequate compensation.

I fell in love with the East Cape just like I had the west coast. It has been a long time since I have stood a while and appreciated the sunrise. What an experience it was in this location.

It was here that, again, I realised what an incredible world we live in. Standing on the beach, filling my lungs with fresh air, watching the sun change the colour of the sky almost like evolving art, the birds singing in the trees behind, the fresh sea water running over my feet as my toes dug into the ground, I was whisked away into a semi trance. Not disturbed by anyone, a smile and happiness on my face at that moment, thankfully not captured on camera (resisting the temptation to take the ubiquitous selfie) this was unbridled joy. Wherever we find ourselves shouldn’t we all really take the time to ensure that we start each day with the realisation of its newness and freshness, how blessed we are to be alive and enjoy that alone, forgetting about all the worries and problems in the world and get lost in that moment in preparation to go out and live. We should be grateful for each day – we do not know if tomorrow will come. Carpe diem and all that.

This blog gives a brief insight into a few of my favourite moments of this island. I could talk and talk about each and every day, but there is no need to bore you all. I haven’t even covered the discovery of Tauranga, delightful Doubtless Bay, the geothermal wonderland of Rotorua, brilliant Gisborne nor criticised the disappointing Hawkes Bay. The memories are etched in my mind forever and ever. Perhaps these will be shared one day, in a blog or over a pint, but for now they will remain in my memory bank. Until the next adventure!!

Spectacular South

Star jumping at Monkey Creek – Fiorland National Park

Kia Ora. This is my first blog on New Zealand. My whole year has been dedicated to this trip due to its cost, annual leave entitlements and seasonal conditions. My final itinerary for this trip, tried to cover everything that this country has to offer – its culture, cities, lifestyle and scenery.

The start of my journey began in charming Christchurch and has finished with the delightful ferry across to the North Island through the Marlborough Sounds. It also took in the unforgettable Stewart Island plus many more memorable stops along the way. This first half of my 5-week adventure has blown my mind and opened my eyes to some of the most spectacular scenery, met some of the proudest people and participated in many awesome activities. There were emotional post-earthquake scenes in Christchurch, the amazing Milford Sound, the spectacular Aoraki Mt Cook and the surprising Stewart Island are to list just a few of the highlights. Beauty comes in many forms (people, scenery, buildings, are just a few) and this country has delivered so many beautiful “post card moments” I’m sure if we all look at our own countries we could find such other amazing areas of beauty. But as one of the hostels I stayed in says, “Travel changes your perspective”. As a result I have set myself the challenge of finding that beauty back home, before I go off exploring on my next adventure.

The South Island is so diverse, full of myth and mystery, such different dynamics in every region. It’s so rich in everything it has to offer, I have been well and truly spoilt in the weather and everything I have seen. The east coast so dry and well populated (the two major cities are here), the west coast in complete contrast is wet and remote (feels like a million miles from anywhere). The north so pleasant and warm, in complete contrast to the south

where it’s generally cold and chilly. The middle of the island has been sculpted to leave some of the most panoramic lake and mountain views I have ever seen. My time here has been limited, due to my work commitments but I have tried my hardest to view as much of the country as physically possible in my time. If only I had longer?!

The South Island’s reliance on tourism is increasingly evident the more you travel around it. There is proof that the lay of the land has been reliant on agriculture, but not as much as I first expected. The native people realise this, they are proud of what they own and are only too glad to show it off to anyone who visits it. Maybe something we could learn from back home in the UK?! The NZ government also has a huge part to say in this and is ensuring that the legacy of this incredible country lives on.  The Kiwi people have an adorable charm about everything they do, which has been manifested in the time spent with them. It has also highlighted that time also seems to evaporate with them. Something about tourism here is so completely different to other parts of the world, comfort issues, the begging for tips, passion in every person, etc. are noticeable differences.

The main tourist activities of the TranzAlpine train ride, Milford sound, Queenstown and Kaikoura were wonderful in their own way, but were expensive and overcrowded. Take yourself off the normal tourist track and discover a true New Zealand. Find cascading waterfalls, many national park walks, visit the sound of silence and escape reality, and finally visit Stewart Island one of the highlights of my trip!

Some of the main tourist activities referred to above have generally been too commercial to appreciate fully, and this is reflected in my loving them less than the other places I have visited. Like back home, and the rest of world, the need to capitalise has overtaken the beauty there is to appreciate. Maybe I could have been a little braver and tried to find a way of doing these things on my way or terms. The days I’ve loved the most have taken me on a voyage of discovery, that has somehow taken me out of my comfort zone and has rewarded me in riches that will never ever translate into monetary value. The way I feel now is that I am the richest man alive.

Nature has created so many of the things that I have been able to appreciate on this exploration. It’s created and defined a lasting legacy, and is still trying to have an effect. The recent earthquakes have clearly destroyed parts of this land, but the people accept it as part of who they are. They live and deal with it. They don’t hide behind it; they accept it and move on. I found myself wanting to join them with a respect for it and doing my best to preserve it. Perhaps we should all look at our daily lives and think how we could reduce the impact we have on the environment? It was heart breaking that the one thing I wanted to complete on this trip was to see whales in their natural habitat, sadly that was deprived of me due to nature speaking itself in gale force winds. Hopefully I will be able to see that in the second half of the trip.

It’s with sadness in my heart that the first half of my trip has concluded. It’s been more than I expected, the stuff of dreams and fantasy, and has been achieved through desire, passion and hard work. I look forward to some rest and family time over Christmas before tackling the second half of my trip this time around the north island.

Where time stood still!

Street entertainment in Havana

In what is rapidly becoming a depressing era in which to live, how refreshing it was to visit Havana. This escape from my real world was so magical that I wish I’d stayed longer. There was history at every corner. I was able to enjoy the city’s famous rum and cigars, and its music and dance entertainment.

Havana stole my heart!

Of course I had images of what to expect, but I hope never to have these again on all future trips as they often leave you disappointed. Havana itself didn’t disappoint; it blew my mind and it is without doubt the best city I have visited so far on my travels. It had always been a dream of mine to get there; I had heard so much about it that I was intrigued to go to experience it and prove that dreams can come true.

After visiting this capital, it is my opinion that everyone should visit Havana at least once in their lifetime, and visit it as soon as possible. I’m torn as the place needs some TLC (probably more now after the recent hurricanes that affected the area), but a huge part of me hopes that modernisation doesn’t destroy the unique beauty of this place. Time has almost stopped on this city and as the rest of the world develops and loses it soul and identity, Havana has retained its own. The spirit of the city lives on. Unlike the rest of the world nothing is fake. It is real; it lives and breathes as you admire and experience this iconic city. Havana is Havana; it doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to be something it is not and if there are other cities around the world like this then I want to see them.

As I continue to blog, you will learn that I like to walk. I experience everything that a place has to offer by foot. I reckon that I see so much more than one does on the open top bus tours. I get to experience the real city; I get lost; I stumble upon those unexpected views, unearth those gems, discover those fascinating people, plus the health and environmental benefits are incredible. The everyday hustle and bustle isn’t there, you can relax and enjoy yourself, the sound of music galvanises and entertains. The non-existence of iconic designer shops, coffee and food outlets that have proliferated so many cities around the world adds to Havana’s unique charm. Walking the streets of this famous city, I’m not having to fight with people for my piece of pavement; it is so refreshing to be ​​able to enjoy the city by foot, to look at people and see the twinkle in their eyes, the smiles on their faces as they enjoy life, everyone is polite and friendly, smiles greet you wherever you look, nobody is distracted, people mingle and enjoy each other’s company, there are no tears or sadness around.

One cannot ignore Cuba’s history or present situation, I did try to understand its fascinating history, but I feel I just scratched the surface. There is much to learn of its relationship with America and Western Europe, its revolution, the Castro family etc. The former presidential palace is now a museum (Museo de la Revolucion) and displays some evidence of Cuba’s intriguing past. It is constantly guarded by the nation’s soldiers and is worth the entrance fee. I cannot forget to mention its relationship with America – the rest of the world can’t seem to live without America – Cuba seems to have managed without one!! When I arrived the the Americans had just got their embassy, situated on the famous Malecon. I have never seen a building so well fortified, so much so that I felt a little scared as I wandered by.

The Malecon, the 8km road that stretches around the north of the city, is probably one of those ‘famous drives’. By day nothing is going on apart from some locals fishing off the sea wall’s edge as it is battered by the Atlantic. Stare out towards the sea and see nothing but ocean. The lack of boats and freight ships creates a unique sense of calm. Only one big ship making a delivery was seen in 3 days and a harbour doesn’t really exist apart from 1 or 2 boats moored in an inlet. The Malecon by night is the hub of activity as people flock to meet likeminded people in search of love and romance. What a contrast to the digital dating that now has changed our world. Sit here and enjoy some local rum and lookout almost into a black abyss.


Leave here and head towards some of its squares, each one a complete contrast to the other. Plaza de Armas, peaceful and quiet, is dominated by a local market or book sale. Plaza de la Catedral is dominated by the Catedral de San Cristobal, and the others, Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Veija, are lively being filled with bars and restaurants. Everyone flocks to these places and enjoys companionship. One cannot ignore the Revolutionary square either though it is more than a little walk away. It is worth the visit – walk through Vedado district to get there. It is home to the Cuban government, and has various monuments to key revolutionaries with their images wired on the tall buildings almost signalling their importance to its history. I was hoping to be able to get to the top of Memorial Jose Marti but I was sadly rebuffed by soldiers.

My time here was all too brief. It should have been a longer visit, and hopefully I will return one day, or find another city that offers an escape from this so called digital world. For now, I will live in this farcical digital era, with accusations and confessions and wonder what on earth will happen next.

Awesome Autumn!

 

We have been so blessed this autumn with glorious weather. Those that haven’t been out to appreciate the display that nature affords have missed a trick. The colours of this season make it my favourite of the four seasons and when the sun makes an appearance in autumn one is compelled to grab the opportunity to get out and explore.

With this in mind I took myself out to Forde Abbey. The abbey and gardens are stunningly beautiful at this time of year and so much more impressive than the display at Stourhead, a near neighbour. I had been to both sites before but the contrast between them is marked. The crowds flock to Stourhead with its reputation of beauty, its use as a film location and it being part of a National Trust (NT) property. These benefits make it a busy, popular and well-known choice of destination especially for those with annual NT membership. Many, including myself, enter Stourhead at the presentation of their annual pass but here an opening of the wallet is required. Forde Abbey is unknown to many, privately owned, off the beaten track, in an area of the country not known for its beauty (though this should be robustly disputed) but proved to display autumn in all its glory.

After eventually navigating my way to the abbey (it had been a few years since I had been there), the approach brings the visitor in along its main drive. Either side tower trees that shield from the sun and create a natural green and orange tunnel. After parking up and buying my ticket, I wander through the kitchen gardens. It is clearly evident that it is the end of the season; there are deserted flowerbeds being prepped for the winter but there still remains an abundance of flowers and colour that makes me stop and take it in.  Even more noticeable are the unexpected bees and butterflies enjoying the delights that these flowers still have to offer and the late sun burst.

Leaving the kitchen garden, I make my way through the shaded and cold courtyard, and round to the front lawn. There is no immediate wow factor at first sight of the south face, but as you walk around and get a full view from differing angles it is truly beautiful. The dew is evident and a clear sign that autumn is truly upon us. Entering at 11am the ground was still dew sodden and the effects of the burning sun were yet to take effect. The rest of my day was spent with soaking wet trainers (need to invest in some waterproof shoes).

The gardens have been designed superbly and are in close proximity to show off the house. There are ponds and their locations provide photographers’ dreams. The reflections they create are breath taking. It is as if the house basks in the autumn sunshine. These reflections are interrupted every now and again, firstly, as the house takes a little respite as a few clouds drift in front of the sun and, secondly, from the gimmick water show in the mermaid pond. This powerful eruption of water only happens 3 times a day and lasts for 15 minutes on each occasion. This disturbs the pristine, mirrored pond and draws a small audience to watch. The ‘crowd’ disperses and allows a little opportunity to get that perfect shot.

Drag one’s self away from the main focus and walk to the upper pond (the great pond) to see there autumn in all its glorious beauty. On the way catch sight of a lonely tree, almost like a bonfire with its leaves radiant red and with the blue sky behind it only enhancing its fantastic colour. Moving on from this mesmerising tree one encounters and is bowled over by the upper pond. The setting is picture perfect from whatever angle it is viewed. The winds die, and the sense of calmness is only disturbed by the odd sound from an excited child. Reflections are a thing of beauty here, and everywhere one looks autumn is still alive for a few days yet until it dies for another year. Even the wildlife can’t disturb this calm and peaceful haven.

Finishing the walk around the grounds, one is always drawn back to that pond and its reflections. The same is true for the adjacent long pond. Captured once already you feel that it needs to be photographed again and again to get that ‘money shot’. It doesn’t look real, surreal even. No angle, no skill with the camera can do it justice. Whoever designed that house and garden should have been given enormous praise. Even now, 500 years on, it still delivers; a truly remarkable achievement.

 

I finally tear myself away and return to normal life, still captivated by the beauty of this fantastic garden. At £10 for entrance to the garden (entry inside the house requires another £3) first impressions are that it’s a little over-priced, but for the hours spent there and that ever-lasting image one leaves with the feeling that this was the cheapest day ever.

Continue reading “Awesome Autumn!”

Beautiful Bath

I don’t quite know how to go about my second blog but I decided to write about a place that seems to be capturing more of my heart every time I visit. To my way of thinking I haven’t been to a more charming, peaceful or romantic place in all of England or the world. Perhaps I ought to get out more.

I had been to Bath as a youngster but just cannot remember anything about family visits. My memory of my first visit as an adult is of being distinctly underwhelmed by any beauty that the place possessed, but, slowly, mostly as a result of time spent with those who have graced me with their company when visiting, or even when exploring on my own, I have been captivated by its (unique?) charm.

The town’s small and compact footprint is appreciated best of all by standing on one of the surrounding hills which provide a stunning backdrop to this delightful town. Alternatively, a climb to the top of the abbey gives the view from the other direction. It is, without doubt, best explored by foot, allowing one to feel the energy that flows through its streets, its wonderful squares creating a sense of calm amid the excitement popping up elsewhere, usually associated with street performers of various energies and abilities. Every square is surrounded by cafes and restaurants which are normally full, have outside seating for one to feel the buzz in a detached and inactive way. Sit back, and soak up the atmosphere as the world passes by, those pockets of excitement coming from some street entertainment, more often than not a musical player or singer.

My favourite of the many is the main square though finding a suitable place to sit is often a challenge as these popular hotspots can’t cope with the demand. Seating is provided outside, but taking a place means to rely heavily on the British weather which, as Britons often remark, is unpredictable. When the sun is shining, though, it’s great to sit back and appreciate the view of the Abbey and the atmosphere it creates. This results in it becoming the main hub of activity as people flock to admire this fantastic building and the Roman Baths which are located on the edges of this square. I sit, admire the architectural lines and wonder how these buildings were ever created; how much time went into building them; the levels of dedication and devotion required; how they have managed to stand the test of time, etc. By this I mean that some people must have spent their whole lives just building them. As we all marvel at the architecture around us we are joined by street artists and buskers, trying to earn their living from the obliging tourists. They add something very special to this electric atmosphere as these musicians are generally more talented than the wannabees you see on TV. Then there is the bird man; he captures the rats in the sky; and manages to coax them down, his targets being those people so determined to have the perfect Instagram photo.

Drag yourself away from the square and wander towards the river. It is here that the only part of Bath that disappointments – I refer to the iniquity that one is forced to pay to enter Parade Gardens – a travesty. I can’t understand the need to pay to enter, so as a matter of principle I’m left to enjoy the view from the walkway above. After appreciating the gardens on a five minute elevated walk, one follows the path around to get a first view of the famous Pulteney bridge. This iconic bridge, unique and famous just adds to the romance of the town or is it a city? When one walks across it one is blissfully unaware that there is water 15m or so below such is the abundance of shops and cafes to distract. Armed with a camera means that a different view is recorded by shifting a few metres each time and then clicking. Try to freeze the water in the photo as it cascades down the semi-circular weir or, conversely, try to capture moving water by an adjustment to the settings – what joy loaded with a single regret in that a tripod has been left at home. The bridge connects the main town to the Great Pulteney Road, a superb street packed with Georgian buildings, in a straight formation leading to the Holburn museum. The beauty of this house parade is, sadly, spoiled by the large number of cars parked on either side of the street – surely there is another way? Cars are such an important part of modern life but ruin the appearance of this historic and wonderful street.

As mentioned the Holburn Museum sits at the end of the street. Free entry is claimed by the literature although, understandably, a small donation is requested and best to pay as the frowns are palpable. Paying up front was a mistake as, sadly the museum, was wasted on me. I don’t understand art! The museum is situated in Sydney gardens, a small park with not much going for it. On walking through the park, I’m not drawn to anything else other than the fact there is a closed down and abandoned bowls club, a painful reminder of the current issues facing grass roots sport. If this country has more and more elderly people living in it and is struggling to run a bowls club, how are other sports going to survive? We have more and more older people – they can’t all be sitting at home playing computer games.

Upon leaving the park and crossing the railway line, I pick up part of the canal path – well worth the walk -giving spectacular views across the town dominated by the Abbey. Again, only as a result of visiting with someone, was I introduced to this pathway; it weaves its way around the edge of the town and furnishes brilliant views. There are many locks on this canal as it climbs out of the town through the surrounding hills, further evidence of this being a relatively modern town. I leave the path and follow the signs for Prior Park. I had high expectations for Prior Park gardens (National Trust), all the pictures I had seen had portrayed a mirror lake, rare bridge and gardens. Maybe it’s the long and steep climb to get there or the dingy lake (were those pictures photoshopped?) but I was not impressed and the walk did not seem worth it (800 metres at 1 in 10). I appreciate the work that goes in to preserve these places for us to enjoy but it appeared that green algae had troubled the efforts this year.

After completing this part, I return to the Abbey and main square. It’s here that I plan my next route which is to head towards Victoria Park via the circus. As one leaves the square and wander along the high street, I’m drawn to the alarming number of ‘to let’ signs in abandoned stores. Is it a sign of the ever-changing society in which we live? Are commercial juggernauts and the internet taking over and killing this country? How many pubs and shops cannot survive anymore due to a lack of business? One only has to walk along the high street and everyone is glued to a phone, blissfully ignorant of all the beauty around them, whether it be people, shops, pubs, etc. The ability to only communicate through a phone deprives many of the beauty of both people and places that surround us as we live in a cyber world.

The high street is short enough that I don’t have to worry about it for too long before arriving at ‘the Circus’. Not formed in a square, this circular masterpiece is a gem. Houses surround a circular middle green all looking at each other like numbers on a clock face. Cars are the only caveat. Removing myself away from this circular wonder and making the final walk to Royal Victoria

Park, I am fascinated by the view of the ‘most majestic street in the UK’, the Royal Crescent. It is hard not to argue with this statement. This is the masterpiece of the younger of the John Wood architects that had such a influence on this town’s design. Sit on the green and marvel at the view in front of you and let your mind wander through yesteryear (ignore the cars).

In my opinion no visit to Bath is complete without some time spent in Alexander park, a free beauty spot which is known to the locals but not to many outsiders. It provides exquisite views of the town. I would recommend driving up to it, but walking up would be worth the not inconsiderable effort.

Perhaps its location has meant that no one has wanted to fight over it and why it has become a place for relaxation and pleasure seeking. All that is needed is for folks to wrench themselves from their phones to lift eyes, move their legs and see what is around them.

The Unexpected Bodmin Moor

This had never crossed my mind, but someone suggested that I blog about my travels / adventures. I’m little scared of this as my writing may not be of the greatest standard but I’ve decided to take the plunge.

With that in mind I was invited on holiday this past week down to beautiful East Cornwall. When I was told where I would be staying, this didn’t make my heart purr with enthusiasm. It gave me an opportunity to explore a part of my country that in my memory I had never visited. I do have memories of parts of Cornwall most recently when cycling across it as part of my Lands’ End to John O’Groats tour. I cycled across Bodmin moor on the A30. After driving this road, my heart skips a beat at how mad a thing that was. It also highlighted to me that, although I cycled through the heart of the moor, I hadn’t explored it.

On my first proper day there, I ventured nowhere near it, but took a local train down to the coast to enjoy the rare and record breaking bank holiday sunshine. My destination was Looe, a beautiful fishing town on the Cornish coast, could be described as being a typical Cornwall destination. As beautiful as this town was, bathed in sunshine and with crowds flocking to it, it had sadly lost its charm. Standing on the edge of the harbour looking back up into the town you had the beauty on one side, picturesque houses overlooking the town and down to the sea and river, but the other side of the river a commercial hub of activity that wasn’t appealing. Tourist shops overflow onto the pavements as visitors cram to get their essentials for a day at the beach, blissfully unaware of the beauty that is around them. Coming away from the Hustle and Bustle there were some beautiful narrow, winding streets, where it was lovely to walk through as you were it was great to escape knowing that you walk without getting mowed down by a car and avoid the crowds. I may have a different opinion of this town on a cooler day but, sadly, on a hot bank holiday Monday with a very hot and bothered dog I was glad to leave.

The next few days were by far my favourite; these were spent exploring Bodmin Moor. This isn’t a national Park and didn’t raise any alarm bells as a place that I must visit, but after closer inspection was stunning and that at moments took my breath away. Maybe a challenge for next year is to read an OS map so that I can plan a few more walks. Sadly, and it pains me to say it, I was left in the hands of google search and the results it delivered which were spectacular. I had a day dodging the intermittent

showers to walk the dog up Stowe’s Hill. The views from the top of this hill showed an unspoilt wilderness, stones and rocks almost camouflaged by an abundance of heather and accompanied by a lonely tree every now and again. The backdrop to this wild haven was the noticeable bits of its history dotted around.  You could actually see the history before your eyes, from the beginning of time and the ancient stones circles, to the ruins of mills used during past industrial years, but the evidence of modern industry with quarries (some of them disused) and local farm life. At the summit of the hill is “Cheesewring”, a towering formation of large rocks balanced on top of each other to provide the perfect view point. Not great with heights and with the wind blowing forcibly I managed to climb these rocks to truly appreciate the view. On returning down the hill, it was a fitting reward to indulge in a Cornish cream tea in the small village of Minions. Well deserved, and thoroughly enjoyed-did have to check with the waiter what was the correct way to eat the cream tea. He ensured us that the Cornwall way, was to spread the jam on the scone and cover this with an unhealthy helping of clotted cream.

The next day I was greeted by unexpected sunshine, going against what the weatherman had forecasted. I was not going to waste the opportunity and navigated my way to Golitha Falls. It was a pleasant surprise and great pleasure that all this was free. This put an extra spring in the step as I set off with the dog. He was in Heaven, spending a day jumping in and out of water and as for me it was likewise though I wasn’t swimming in the waterfall. As we set out the path started off naturally following the river bed, but as we got deeper into the falls it became apparent that this wasn’t going to last and that we had to make our own path. This just built up a truly wonderful experience, climbing rocks, trees, doing my best not to slip or fall over in pursuit of those perfect pictures of flowing water. It was amazing to get close and personal with this natural flow of water. Sadly, with so many waterfalls that I have visited in this country, health and safety has got involved or the opportunity to make money from it deters you from experiencing the true emotion.

The next day was an unpredictable English summer’s day which they promised to be dry in the north of the county and wet everywhere else. The best part of the day was first thing, so got the dog out and headed back to Minions to try and get a better shot of the stone circles and to allow Rolo to run around for as long as possible in the dry. For the rest of the day, I drove through the moors in search of some other ‘dry’ activities to occupy us. This lead me to find the Trevethy Quoit, Dozmary Pool, the village of St Neot, Jamaica Inn and we ended up in Bodmin. One felt the need to visit Bodmin after enjoying the beauty of Bodmin moor.

On arriving in Bodmin and being deterred by roadworks, the signs all pointed to the steam railway line. Another part of this country’s past has become a real attraction to these lands as old lines and engines are restored to give you a feel of what transport used to be like. I planned to enjoy an open-air theatre showing of Macbeth in the evening and relive some of my youth. Sadly, I never made it due to persistent rainfall.

My final day of this week, was blessed with wonderful sunshine which was surprising as we were now in the first day of autumn. I took the car, dog, camera and picnic and went off on an exploratory drive along the coast. We followed the railway line used on Monday from Liskeard down to Looe, crossed the river and climbed out of there towards Talland Bay. This was a wonderful discovery because I had followed the signs for an abbey, which on the outside proved to be disappointing. Spent an hour walking up the cliffs out of Talland bay to get a stunning view of the Cornish coastline. The picture here doesn’t do the view justice; turquoise waters; almost felt like you were in a foreign country and not England. Left here and headed towards a ferry route that was going to take me to Fowey. This was a stunning find. Immediately after the river crossing and disembarking the ferry I found a car park. Paid up, Rolo on a lead and camera in the other hand I explored, the narrow winding streets of Fowey. This was a beautiful Cornish town located on the river. I would compare it to Dartmouth in Devon, just lacking the steam train coming past every now and again. After a whistle stop tour, back to the car, and onwards towards Charlestown. On the way stopped at the top a hill to get fantastic views of the St Austell Bay and beaches whilst hoovering up a well-earned picnic. My final stop took me to Charlestown, a historic Georgian port. Beautifully maintained, although a sense of commercialism appears to be taking over. Moored in the harbour were a couple of tall ships, maybe recognisable from some TV shows. The dog didn’t appreciate the harbour as much as I did, so off we went in pursuit of some dog friendly water for him to enjoy. This gave me the fantastic view of the harbour looking down from the hill we climbed.

Any place on earth is worth exploring. This beauty, although not on my door step, was an unexpected pleasure. Cornwall is always a fantastic place if the English weather is kind to you. I managed to make the most of what weather was dealt to me. It was with a little sadness that I left to return to the daily grind. What it has done is made me appreciate more the country in which I live, and how much of it there is to explore. As someone very wisely said to me, you could spend a year’s travelling in this country and not see it all. The challenge is to ensure that I don’t leave it another year before exploring part of my country again.