Posts from the ‘Shopping’ category

Ireland’s Pots of Gold – driving the Emerald Isle

Our Ireland Itinerary:

  • try to find out what Justin Timberlake ordered from the Waterford Crystal factory
  • does chin-kissing the Blarney Stone still give you the gift of the gab?
  • drive the scenic Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula
  • make it back to Dublin for St Patrick’s Day

Ireland is both surprisingly drivable, and well worth it. Dublin, for all of it’s charms, is lacking in certain essential parts of the Irish experience. Green grass, for one.

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Licensed under CC.

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Licensed under CC.

So today we’re headed south in our little rental car. The city gives way gradually and then, suddenly, we’re amongst the fields. The grass truly is greener here, it seems. Thanks, Gulfstream!

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Our first stop is just over an hour and fifty minutes from Dublin. The town of Waterford is home to the famous Waterford Crystal brand, which, having seen some tough times that included bankruptcy, is now seeing a resurgence of the brand.

This is a very good thing – the skill we’re about to see proves that.

Take a look at the incredible detail in some of these pieces, and then reflect that they are made entirely by hand. Every notch, every shape, every part.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

A tribute to 9/11 from Waterford. Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

The quality, especially up close on the factory floor tour that we undertook, is palpable. Justin Timberlake had a piece commissioned, and you can see the mould below.

So what was it? Actually – we’ve no idea. It looks very close to the trophy moulds that accompany it, but who can say for sure what is in the mind of a celebrity like Justin. Waterford certainly wouldn’t tell us!

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

The tour is fascinating, and is especially enjoyable if you like smashing expensive things into little pieces.

As a part of the tour, you’re able to take the crystal pieces that quality inspectors at Waterford have declared unfit for sale – and smash them! Select a wine goblet, an almost perfect tumbler, even a beautiful vase, and watch it shatter into tiny pieces in their rejects bin. Don’t worry – it all get recycled, melted down and put back into new Waterford crystal pieces.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

SMASH! Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

 

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

The craftsmanship is truly incredible. Before the tour we had no idea how much human involvement was needed to produce even something as small as a crystal glass. It really gives a new appreciation for the work put into these crystal pieces when you know that even cut that you can run you finger across in those crystal glasses is made by the firm hand and clear eye of the Waterford master craftsmen.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

There is, of course, an incredible shop at the end of the tour. We steered away from the crystal chandeliers (next time, we said) and instead elected to have some wine glasses sent back to our home. A perfect reminder of this little hidden gem.

Do you actually have to KISS the Blarney Stone?

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

‘Tis there’s the stone that whoever kisses

He never misses to grow eloquent;

‘Tis he may clamber to a lady’s chamber,

Or become a member of Parliament.

“A noble spouter he’ll sure turn out, or

An out and outer to be let alone;

Don’t try to hinder him, or to bewilder him,

For he is a pilgrim from the Blarney stone.”

– Francis Sylvester Mahony.

We’re on the road down towards a place where millions of others have been before. With that in mind, it is a wonder that anyone actually wants to go through with this strange ritual we humans have invented – the kissing of a particular stone in a particular castle, for the purposes of gaining the ‘gift of the gab’.

The things we do…

It used to be that to actually kiss the Blarney Stone, you had to put your life at risk. There was real danger involved. Now, with guard railings and an assistant and even, remarkably, ANTIBACTERIAL SPRAYS, there is little to worry about as you lean over backwards to plant your kisser on this rock.

And for those who are still thinking about those millions of people who’ve done this before, they must be asking – does it still count if you just chin-kiss it?

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

It is quite a strenuous climb to the very top of this tower, so be prepared if your fitness is a little lacking. And it is a long way up as well, so if you’re scared of heights, tight spaces, exercise, and other people’s germs, then you may be happy just to watch the spectacle from the ground below.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

 The Ring of Kerry and the road to Dingle

On Friday evening, we stop in a small village just on the outskirts of Cork. The next morning, we’re on the road through one of the world’s great scenic drives – the Ring of Kerry.

The Ring of Kerry, in County Kerry, located in south-western Ireland, cover some 180 km from Killarney to Killorglin. We pass tiny villages with cobbled streets and lanes, leading to coastal roads with views of a vast and endless ocean.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Eventually, having stopped in for pastries, pies and pints, in nearly every village along the way, we make it to Dingle.

This little fishing village shelters us from the notion that there is a world beyond it’s borders. In the pub, a local band plays half-forgotten tunes from travelling minstrels, beating our a rhythm on a tambourine.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

The colours in the water, are, as you can see, beyond compare. Set against the order and rightness of drystone walls and farmers cottages, it is a quiet reminder that no matter what goes on in the rest of the world, life will continue here, and bring order to nature’s chaos.

Back to Dublin for St Patrick’s Day

We’ve found the green grass and blue waters of the Emerald Isle, and we will take these memories back with us as we journey back to Dublin. There’s a big party waiting for us there – but some part of use wants to stay behind and roll in the grass and watch the sun set over monuments that may outlast us all.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

Photo courtesy of afatefulhaven.com.

 

Paris When it Sizzles

by Jacob Aldridge

For day 2 of our 3 days in Paris, we start and end in the Montmartre area where we are staying.

In between, we offer five centuries of nudity, and the sweetest Parisian competition imaginable.

Today’s Experience

We’ll power it all with our breakfast and coffee from Boulangerie Coquelicot, on the nearby rue des Abbesses. Scarily, I ordered the regular coffee – and I think I got you the large!

Enjoying a french coffee in Montmartre, Paris France

It’s worth drinking London coffee, just to make French coffee even more magnificent!

Hidden from us but just ten minutes walk away is the Sacre Coeur, the century-old basilica (that’s young!) built atop the highest point of Paris. The cloudless sky means extra heat as we make our way up the hill and through the square of artists offering us caricatures; once we reach the glistening white church we are thankful for the crisp and clear blue morning.

Paris's Basilica Sacre Coeur against a blue sky

Sacre Bleu c’est le Sacre Coeur!

Most people ascend to the Sacre Coeur via the stairs – the streets of Montmartre are a much better option. The grand Romano-Byzantine style makes Sacré-Cœur an impressive construction inside and out; having experience two other churches yesterday, we’re more impressed to note the statue of St Joan of Arc on the exterior façade – and of course to take in both the elevated view and the people-watching.

Did you know Paris has such a power over Japanese love-birds that there is a disease called Paris Syndrome, created when the reality fails to meet the expectations. This article suggests McDonalds as a cure; we suspect that’s the last thing on the mind for this group of wedding brochure photographers.

Asian wedding promotional photo shoot, Sacre Coeur Montmartre Paris France

Not as uncommon a sight as you might think!

We Promised You Nudity

and we plan to deliver, as we head (by Metro this time) to Palais Royal-Musee du Louvre.

If museums bore you, then you need to be aware that you can ‘do’ the Louvre in less than 6 minutes. At least, that’s the tongue-in-cheek world record, where the rules are solely that you have to view the ‘big 3’ – the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

At the other extreme, of course, it is actually impossible to do the Louvre even across all of the 3 days we have in Paris. Some middle ground must be found – so over the next 2 hours, let’s seize this opportunity to take in those most-famous sights (and the crowds surrounding them) and whatever else takes our eye.

The mostly 'armless Venus de Milo in the Louvre, Paris

Don’t mind Venus, she’s ‘armless! #louvre #dad’sjokes #killmenow

Mona Lisa Up Close and No Crowds Louvre Paris

It is possible to photograph yourself and the Mona Lisa without crowds – just be patient.

Canova's 'Pyche revived by Cupid's kiss in the Louvre, Paris France

A heart for Cupid and Psyche.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace, well lit and shot from below in the Louvre

The Winged Victory of Samothrace – only one wing is original, can you tell which?

There’s more to the Louvre than classical paintings, of course. There’s the Ancient Egyptology

That is a Grand Sphinx!

That is a Grand Sphinx!

and the architecture, both modern and classic

The Louvre's glass pyramid from inside.

The Louvre’s glass pyramid from inside.

With light streaming in to the painted vaulted ceiling, You can see why this is the Palais Louvre.

You can see why this is the Palais Louvre.

and remnants of the medieval fortress, the original construction on the site

A helmet from the Louvre's time as a defensive fortress in Paris

The foundations and moat can also be accessed during your visit.

As for naked ladies and gents? We’ve got plenty of them

Lady looking directly at the naked archer

Follow the lady’s eyeline…hmmm…

Classic. Stylish. Nude. Painting in the Louvre

Classic. Stylish. Nude.

And just when you think you’ve seen enough painting, sculpting, and architecture for this lifetime, we exit the Louvre for a walk through the springtime Jardin des Tuileries.

Face Palm statue in the Jardin des Tuileries, gardens in Paris France

“PANTS! I forgot PANTS!”

The Sweetest Thing

Who has the best macarons in Paris? It’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves since our ‘Feels Like Home in Paris‘ hosts provided a taster set of macarons upon our arrival.

What is a macaron?

What is a macaron? Ganache filled fantasticness!

We ask ourselves again as we head for lunch at Ladurée, the patisserie that’s been serving Parisians (and tourists) sweets for more than 150 years and (in some versions of history) was the site where the macaron was created; the other contenders today are:

  • Pierre Herme: A deserved reputation, and the most popular choice
  • Arnaud Larher: Absinthe macaron defines Montmartre perfection
  • Pierre Marcolini: Better known as a Belgian chocolatier, and my personal selection

Ultimately, the only winner is this competition … is you – as you choose from flavours that can sound more botanic, or floral, or like the inside of a liquor cabinet, than ganache-filled brilliance. And if you can’t choose a winner (even after a second round)?

Well head back to Ladurée to drown your equivocation in a Saint-Honoré Rose. We’ve ordered one for you in anticipation.

Sainte Honore Rose at Laduree, Paris France

You better claim it now, or I WILL eat them both.

Kick up your Heels

Disappointed that the nudity so far has only been in marble and watercolours? Tonight offers so much more, told through the art of dance at the Moulin Rouge.

The Moulin Rouge, light up in red lights at night in Montmartre Paris

Red Light District, then and now.

There’s no doubt Nicole Kidman’s film helped reinvigorate the fame of the Red Windmill, the Belle Epoque cabaret, the haunt of Toulouse-Lautrec (and it’s a little crass to mention the Australian film, though it seems half the dancers tonight are antipodeans!). But don’t come here expecting Ewan McGregor to sweep you off your feet: tonight is a cabaret, swinging frenetically from “dancey dance” to snake wrestling to laugh-out-loud mime (the latter being a speciality exclusive to France).

And since this is a family website, we can’t show you any stills from the dancing itself – just know that you can expect wall-to-wall topless dancers for most of the numbers in the two-hour main production.

Most of our group have glowing reviews for the Moulin Rogue spectacle – and also suggest that adding on the dinner package to make it a longer experience is definitely worth the extra investment.

Personally, I found the Moulin Rouge to be the most excruciating four hours of my life. Travel is all about leaping into the world with no regrets … but if I could change one thing, I would have skipped Moulin Rouge.

Especially if I could have had another Ladurée dessert instead.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Macarons are best enjoyed fresh – though the ganache filling will keep them moist even as the exterior dries a little.
  • Avoid the Louvre queues by buying your €12.10 ticket online (note: you have to collect this in advance, most easily from the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysée). Plan your visit if you wish to experience specific pieces (like the Mona Lisa) without spending the whole day wandering the wings.
  • Reserve your Moulin Rouge tickets online – the show plus a half bottle of champagne is €105; add dinner and attend the earlier performance from €175. Or don’t, I’m just saying.

Calling all francophiles – what are your favourite experiences of Paris? Let all of our readers know in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.

3 Days in Paris, Day One

by Jacob Aldridge

Humphrey Bogart’s Rick escaped occupied Paris for Casablanca. We’ve gone the other way, arriving last night super energised for three amazing days in the city of lights.

Who doesn’t love Paris in the Springtime?!

Le Tour Eiffel as seen from Montmartre, Paris

Welcome to Paris!

Today’s Experience

We’re staying in the Montmartre district, in the north of Paris. A city of stunning arrondissements, if you talk to five friends about where to stay in Paris you are guaranteed at least five different suggestions!

For us, Montmartre offers the same bohemian feel that made it famous at the turn of last century, and reasonably-priced apartment accommodation (we found ours through Feels Like Home in Paris).

The streets of Montmartre, Paris France, with the Sacre Coeur beyond

The streets of Montmartre, with the Sacre Coeur beyond

 

Conveniently located near the Abbesses (line twelve) and Pigalle (lines two and twelve) on the Paris Metro (famous for having stops only 500 metres / one-third of a mile apart) we know from New York and London that the best way to experience these world cities is to ignore the underground and set forth on foot.

Getting to Know You

For the first morning of our three days in Paris, our aim is to acquaint ourselves with this amazing city. Our first stop, then, is the Galeries Lafayette on the boulevard Haussmann – a department store with a famed interior dome, that is known to locals as the best place to escape for your lunch hour. Here’s why:

View from the roof terrace of the Galeries Lafayette to the Eiffel Tower

View from the roof terrace

Remarkably, these sweeping views aren’t well known to fellow tourists, giving us ample opportunities to view the vista and spy the sights.

Immediately in front of us in the Paris Opera; you can spy the twin towers on the facade of the Notre Dame Cathedral; and of course, breaking through in the distance, is the most famous Parisian icon of them all, the Eiffel Tower.

From here, we continue our walk through the streets, attempting to breath it all in. We’re planning a boat cruise with Bateaux-Mouches along the Seine River, which cuts through Paris.

A map of the route the Bateaux Mouches boat cruise takes on the Seine River, Paris France.

Loosely, the route the boat cruise takes.

The city is named after the Parisii tribe, which inhabited the islands in the middle of the Seine at the time of Julius Caesar. Drifting past, we see the modern day inhabitants – or, more accurately, the modern day visitors queuing for Notre Dame beside a statue of the French Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne.

View from the Seine River of the Charlemagne statue and the Notre Dame Cathedral Paris

Charlemagne is the one in green.

Our boat also takes us under the Passerelle des Arts, a bridge now famous for the many locks lovers have placed here to signify their enduring relationship. (In honesty, this has become a tourist fad – you’ll see it in cities from Paris to Cologne, and even in the hills of Italy’s Cinque Terre. Moreover, local councils are forced to fund the removal of these locks lest they overwhelm the infrastructure they are attached to. On Passerelle des Arts, you won’t find padlocks that pre-date 2011 – assuming you want your love to last more than the next two years, be a sustainable tourist and avoid this cliché.)

Bridge of Lovers - Padlocks on Passerelle des Arts, Bridge across the Seine River Paris

Bridge of Lovers – Padlocks on Passerelle des Arts.

We turn, moving back past the famous museums of the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay. In front of the Louvre, the Jardins Tuliere is just starting to show its springtime colours.

And as we sweep around the river, past the shops and streets we look forward to exploring later, the Eiffel Tower comes into view. Famously built as a temporary structure in 1889, we’re happy to admit that it’s another Parisian tourist cliché that we still suggest everyone visits at least once.

A plane flies over the Eiffel Tower in Paris

Can you ever tire of this view?

Shopping in the Golden Triangle

The shopping begins near where the boat releases us. It’s effortless to spend three days in Paris and do nothing except go shopping; for our first visit, we want to mix it up a little, and that means limiting ourselves to the best shopping in the city: The golden Triangle d’or.

The triangle is named for the three streets that form the boundary – avenue Montaigne, avenue Georges V, and the Champes Elysees. Within this pocket are the French (and Italian) names you have come to associate with haute couture – Givenchy, Chanel, Gaultier, Dior, Vuitton, and more. If your credit card is going to melt at any point during our three days in Paris, here is the likely location!

Coco Chanel Quote after shopping in the Golden Triangle d'or Paris

The Greatest Stained Glass Windows in the World

Time now for something slightly more pious, though just as bright as a Gaultier spring collection. Even tourists jaded by the quantity of churches on their European jaunts have to admit that nothing compares to the chapel Sainte Chapelle.

The lower chapel, where we first enter, is impressive in its own way – move past the giftshop here, and look for the Virgin Mary mural above the door: this is the oldest fresco in Paris.

But upstairs is why we are here.

Stepping into Sainte Chapelle. The stained glass windows are worth the money.Stepping into Sainte Chapelle.

Stepping into Sainte Chapelle.

These incredible windows, recently restored, tell the tale of the Old and New Testaments, through to the life of Christ and the ultimate acquisition of several Christian relics – including a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns – by the 13th Century King Louis IX.

Most visitors seek to take a seat and absorb the colours. The more religious may attempt to follow the stories – Christian iconography can be a fascinating field.

Those of us who like big words, enjoy pointing out that the very final window tells its story “boustrophedon style” (that means, instead of reading left to right, it flows l-to-r and r-to-l as you move upwards).

The high altar and more of the famous stained glass windows in Sainte Chapelle.

The high altar in Sainte Chapelle.

Nearby Notre Dame is perhaps the better known church on Île de la Cité – by this time of day, the queue to enter looks long, but the lack of entry fee means it moves fast. It’s also an opportunity to admire the French Gothic style of the construction – distinctive on a global scale, though common to cathedrals of a similar age in Northern France.

Quite quickly we find ourselves inside, eight centuries of history distilled into key moments – this is where Napoleon crowned himself Holy Roman Emperor (1,000 years after Charlemagne); you’ve likely heard of Quasimodo, though your age will determine whether it was through Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame book or the similarly-titled Disney film.

Even after Sainte Chapelle, the stained glass of the Rose Window is breathtaking. Less obvious, but also grand, is the opportunity afterwards to spend a few moments in the park behind Notre Dame admiring the flying buttresses of its design.

The Notre Dame Cathedral's Rose Window. One of the most famous windows in Paris, France, and the world

The Notre Dame Cathedral’s Rose Window.

From here, it’s a leisurely walk along the waterfront to see Gustav Eiffel’s most famous creation. But we’ll need some afternoon sustenance for the journey, so we start by crossing over from the Île de la Cité to the Seine’s other island, the Île Saint-Louis.

We are search of Paris’s best known ice-cream, from Maison Berthillon. The original store is located at 31 Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île; but so popular are the sixty flavour creations that four separate stores are open here. In summer, they are easier to find because of the queues that stretch around the corner in each location – today, thankfully, there’s a much shorter wait for caramel and salted butter, lavender, or earl grey tea.

Actually, the queues for Maison Bethillon ice-cream glaces and sorbets are here even in March!

Actually, the queues are here even in March!

Le Tour Eiffel

We’ve booked tickets for the Eiffel Tower climb to coincide with sunset. Having arrived a little early, we skip the people milling around the Parc du Champ-de-Mars beneath it and cross the river instead to the Jardins du Trocadero. Here, particularly as we climb up the concrete stairs to the balcony, we have a great view of the Tower … and the city of light beginning to shine in the early evening.

Jardins de Trocadero in the foreground of an Eiffel Tower photo, Paris

Jardins de Trocadero in the foreground. You probably recognise the thing behind them!

Why climb the Eiffel Tower at sunset? Because now is an opportunity to watch the tower itself shift colour, from the silver-grey of photographs to the bronze-gold it takes as the setting sunlight envelopes it. Taking the elevator up creates a sense of being present inside history – few buildings in the world have the same effect on so many travellers.

Our first stop is the second level, best for a closer inspection of the city beneath us. It’s remarkable at this height how uniform Paris begins to look. All of those alleys of shops and ice-creams suddenly appear as matching, six-storey high buildings with white roofs.

From this view atop the Eiffel Tower you can see Les Invalides (the dome) is obvious - can you also spot the Louvre, Notre Dame, or the Musee D'Orsay

Les Invalides (the dome) is obvious – can you also spot the Louvre, Notre Dame, or the Musee D’Orsay

One benefit is the ease with which city monuments expose themselves among the sea of white. And not just the horrible Tour Montparnasse, we can spot the Arc de Triomphe, Les Invalides where Napoleon is buried, Notre Dame where we were today, and more.

Taking the elevator to the very top exposes an even grander view. Though the structures are less distinct from our height, now 1,000 feet above the ground we feel ourselves to be the centre of a grand and beautiful universe.

The last of the setting sun disappears, in the direction of Paris’s newer (and taller) business district. And this gives us a chance to turn our attention to the older Paris, the Paris of French monarchs from Clovis to Marie Antoinette, the Paris of Renoir, Rodin and of Edith Piaf.

And as if it feels us remembering its stars, the Eiffel Tower lights erupt. Night falls on Paris, and on us high above its streets.

The lights turn on le Tour Eiffel Tower

We are permitted to show you a photo of the lights. We can’t legally show you a recording of the light show, as it is protected by copyright!

There is much to consider as we end our evening walking along its most famous street, the Champes-Elysee. From the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde to the Arc di Triomphe this glittering strip is more 21st century neon than 19th century romance, but my goodness it’s grand to walk along it and feel part of Paris.

Bonsoir, à demain. (Head straight to Day Two here, or skip to Day Three’s experience avoiding the crowds.)

Arc de Triomphe, at one end of the Champs Elysees. Photographed at night

Arc de Triomphe, at one end of the Champs Elysees

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Love Parisian fashion? Every Friday you can take a seat at a genuine Paris fashion show at Galleries Lafayette – call 09 6939 7575 in advance, though, to reserve your seats (French is not necessary – but always appreciated).
  • Entry to Sainte Chapelle costs €6.50; entry to Notre Dame is free.
  • A slightly more obscure Notre Dame moment – it was on these steps in 1450 that the Wolves of Paris, allegedly responsible for the deaths of forty people, were finally cornered and killed.
  • See all sixty of Maison Berthillon’s flavours in this pdf on their website.
  • Unless you love the long queues that come from spontaneity, book your Eiffel Tower tickets in advance!

Casablanca doesn’t count as a Parisian film, but we want to know which of your favourite films does feature Paris – we’re having this conversation now on our Facebook page.

Tangier to Casablanca, Morocco

By Jacob Aldridge

Yesterday, we observed how easily you can see Africa from our position in Tarifa, Spain.

Today, we prove it as we catch a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar, from Europe’s most southern point to the city of Tangier (Tanger), Morocco – gateway to our weekend in Africa.

Ferry crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Tangiers Morocco to Tarifa Spain

Ferry crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. Photos are copyright the author unless otherwise noted.

This Weekend’s Experience

We deal with immigration on the boat, so as soon as we arrive we’re onto our day in Tangier.

For a settlement that pre-dates the Roman Empire, Tangier is a modern, vibrant city. In fact, the population here grew by almost twenty times during the twentieth century, and its economy (as its reputation as a spy town during the Cold War) is maximised by its proximity to Europe.

Arabic stop sign photo, in Tangier Morocco

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

We’re here to explore the older parts of the city, however.

Rock the Casbah

The Casbah (or Kasba) is connected to the former Sultan’s palace, and creates a protected zone at the highest point of the town.

Entrance to the Casbah (or Kasba) in Tangiers (or Tanger) Morocco

Crowded entrance – we’re definitely going to Rock this Casbah!

As Westerners, here is the first place (at least, since we left Japan) where we have felt out of place. That’s in no way reflective of the locals here, who are particularly welcoming; it’s just recognition that the culture here, from architecture to religion, is more heavily influenced by the Middle East than it is by Western Europe.

English is very much a minority first language here. Even beyond the official languages of Arabic (more specifically, Darija – or colloquial – Arabic) and Berber, Morocco’s history includes governing by both France and Spain and therefore education in either French or Spanish. Compensating for this is the importance of tourism to the Tangier economy. Despite the uncertainty, here once again we found that English is today’s lingua franca and will generally suffice (when combined with patience, respect, and a smile) in most locations you’re likely to see as a traveller.

Whether it’s the welcoming disposition of the locals, or that importance of tourism, wandering through the Kasba feels safe and spacious. There is time and opportunity to breathe in the new sights and sounds that make this an experience.

We duck through an opening on the other side of the Kasba, and find this!

The Strait of Gibraltar - you can just see the Rock of Gibraltar

That’s the Strait of Gibraltar – you can just see the Rock of Gibraltar in the distance on the left

Of course, it makes sense that if we can see Africa from Europe then we would be able to stand on African soil and look over the Europe so easily.

Still, this is a breathtaking view – being able to witness two continents at once.

View from Africa to Europe.

As I said: Breathtaking.



Off to Market

Tangier is a popular daytrip from Tarifa, and a key stop is the markets. Everything from spices to leather-goods can be found here – and while the prices aren’t ridiculously cheap, there are plenty of bargains to be had for those willing to haggle as aggressively as the merchants.

Better still (at least for those daytrippers) is that almost every shop here will take Euros.

Our tip for market haggling?

  • Come in at 10% (yes, 10%!) of the price they suggest.
  • Recognise that this is natural, and part of doing business – you’re not being rude.
  • Never, ever regret a purchase. You are unlikely to find the lowest price the merchant will accept, but you will still do very well. Be happy with your price or don’t buy it, and if you buy it then forever be happy with your price!

For those of us who aren’t returning to Europe tonight, there’s even more opportunity to get horribly lost in these markets. Feel like refreshment? You’re unlikely to find a beer (easily) in this Muslim nation, but the hot mint tea is a must!

And then there are abundant opportunities to enjoy the local Moroccan spices as part of your evening meal.

Olive merchant at the souk market Tangier, Morocco

And olives! Wow are there abundant opportunities for olives!



Cave of Hercules

Saturday offers us a roadtrip day, as we head by car from Tangier along the 3.5 hours of coast road to Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca.

But our first stop is just out of town, where the ocean empties into a cave through an opening exactly the shape of Africa!

The Cave of Hercules, just outside of Tangiers / Tangier / Tanger, Morocco. Looks exactly like a cut out map of Africa.

Looks like Africa to me. Right? Photo by Alex Lomas, CC Licence

The Cave of Hercules – in mythology, the location where Hercules rested when his 12 labours were completed – is certainly large enough to contain his enormous strength.

With the tide rising, there’s opportunity (having followed necessary precautions) to swim here or jump from the ledge that forms part of the famous silhouette. In fact, the hardest part of the stop is finding a moment to photograph the cut-out cave so that Africa is obvious but the many other tourists are not!

Once we’re back in the car, there’s no need to rush – and plenty of reasons to stop and take in the water views. The nearby hills of Europe are gone – replaced with a seeming infinite ocean, North America not even imaginable beyond it.

Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean, from Rabat Casablanca between Tangier and Casablanca.

Sunset over the Atlantic Ocean, from Rabat Casablanca between Tangier and Casablanca. Photo by David Stanley, CC License



Play it Again, Sam

Casablanca may be the African city most famous in the west, but for all the wrong reasons. While the film Casablanca is legendary, the tale of Rick’s Café Américain and its love triangle (mirrored by the political triumvirate of neutral USA, independent France, and Nazi Germany) bears no relation to the modern city of 3.5 million people.

The Lighthouse in Casablanca Morocco, by night.

The Lighthouse in Casablanca, by night. Photo by Palindrome6996, CC license

Chief among today’s things to do in Casablanca Morocco is the Hassan II Mosque. The tallest building in Morocco and one of the largest Mosques in the world, a guided tour inside (and in English) is an opportunity to better appreciate and respect Islam. Sadly, the tour references but doesn’t show us the glass floor out over the ocean – this mosque was built largely over land reclaimed from the sea; 25,000 worshippers can here appreciate the Qur’anic verse “the throne of Allah was built on water”.

Hassan II Mosque - the tallest minaret in Morocco. One of the largest mosques in the world, the Hassan II Mosque can fit 25,000 inside and 80,000 in the courtyard.

Hassan II Mosque – the tallest minaret in Morocco. Photo by Papa Lars, CC License

There are plenty more souks to visit – if markets are your thing, head over to the Habbous District of town for even more shopping. You’ll find us enjoying yet another Moroccan tea in the Square of Mohammed V where the traditional flavours of modern Morocco blend with the historical colonial buildings.

No doubt, three days is only just enough to taste Morocco – and barely to scratch the top end of Africa. Based on what we’ve seen here, however?

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • How quick is the ferry between Europe and Africa? With FRS (http://www.frs.es) it takes literally no time at all! (Which is to say, you arrive in Tangier at the same time you leave Tarifa, given the 1 hour time difference.)
  • The cave isn’t exactly Africa, but it’s pretty close. Africa also looks a little like the human skull – is that a coincidence for the continent that was the birthplace of humanity?
  • ‘Play it again, Sam’ is the most famous line Humphrey Bogart never said, a misremembering collective audiences have popularised through the 70 years since Casablanca was released. Perhaps the greatest movie of all time, Bogart’s final speech is now about 70% cliché – but the original source of all those incredible sentiments and sentences!
  • Had a chance to practice your French in Casablanca? You’ll need it this week…

Have any fabulous Moroccan memories? Share them for all our readers in our comments below, or over on our Facebook page.

3 Days in New York, Day Three

By Jacob Aldridge

The city that never sleeps also means an early morning rise and shine, but only for a good reason: we’re going to be on TV!

Maybe.

Today’s Experience

If you really, really want to feature on the Today Show - win a hotdog eating contest or similar. Otherwise, arrive early.

If you really, really want to feature on the Today Show – win a hotdog eating contest or similar. Otherwise, arrive early.

There’s every excuse for more American coffee this morning, as we find ourselves outside Rockefeller Plaza in the early morning. The Today Show is a New York institution – while the telecast starts at 7am, we’re here just after 6am and we are far from the first people here. Quirky signs (and comfortable shoes) abound. We’re all hoping to find ourselves in the background of this program, broadcast coast to coast in the States and also across Europe, the Middle East, Australia and the Philippines…honestly, we’re also a little star-struck just being this close to Al Roker!

We make it to the first weather segment – and then it’s time for bagels. As we wander down Fifth Avenue, admiring the commuters because it’s still too early for most tourists, the choice of an easy breakfast location is easy. We turn left onto the famed 42nd Street … and find ourselves in the food court of Grand Central Station! Bagel in one hand, fresh coffee in the other, we stand as a group inside the main concourse.

Just trying to take it in.

An amazing photograph inside Grand Central Station's Main Concourse. Grand Central Station is strictly called Grand Central Terminal.

Immense. Photo by Diliff, CC License

Can you believe in the late 1960s multiple plans were drawn up to demolish this cavernous space and replace it with a tower block? Jackie O was among the more famous New York personalities to rail against it, referring to New York’s “proud monuments … and beauty to inspire our children”.

Empire State of Mind

Few places in the world are more beautiful and inspiring than this, atop the Empire State Building. Two days ago we climbed 30 Rock during the evening; now is an opportunity to see the New York vistas in full daylight (although the cold weather up here doesn’t make it feel like full daylight!).

Walking around the observation deck is made all the more impressive by having had two day’s experience walking around the New York streets below – we can see where we crossed Central Park; up Fifth Avenue all the way to Tiffany’s; across to the Brooklyn Bridge; and down past 1 World Trade Centre to (just, in the distance) The Statue of Liberty.

Balloons flying over Central Park. View from the Empire State Building.

Balloons flying over Central Park.

View of Downtown New York from the Empire State Building

You can always go – Down town! (Wait, we went yesterday.)

From here we can also look down at Midtown – Chelsea, the Meatpacking District, and Greenwich Village, where our feet will take us next.

Empire State Building shadow, as seen from the observation deck.

A Shadow of Itself.

Just as we prepare to depart, there’s a final moment to take in this majestic spot. From An Affair To Remember to Chuck standing gilted in Season 3 of Gossip Girl, the top of the Empire State Building holds a place in our cultural heart. And here we are!

Living the High Line

New York’s most famous mode of transport has to be its subway system (though we’ll admit the yellow cab – WATCH OUT! there’s another one about to take you out as you cross the street! – is more iconic).  Imagine our surprise to learn that among the most popular tourist (and, on weekends, local) destinations is an abandoned stretch of above ground rail!

Walking the High Line.

The narrow gauge can make this crowded on weekends.

The High Line was built for rail, mostly freight, just before the Great Depression. At the time, it eliminated 105 street-level rail crossings in the growing city, but as rail was replaced by road and Manhattan industry was replaced by proto-Hipsters (we called them Baby Boomers back then), the line grew seldom used. There were moves to tear it down in the 1980s, but over the past 15 years it has increasingly been re-crafted as a meandering path of greenery above the hustle and bustle of the naked city.

Where else would you get this view along one of New York’s numbered Avenues?

There are seats here as well, on the High Line so you can watch many New York minutes pass by.

There are seats here as well, so you can watch many New York minutes pass by.

We can see why the High Line is popular with city lunchers – and as we descend, we stumble into the equally-popular Chelsea Market. I’m going to struggle to choose between a ‘Hale and Hearty Soup’ combination lunch, or the offerings at Amy’s Bread – are you just eyeing off Elini’s New York Cookies??

Shopping, Eating, Sex and the City

There’s an Anthropologie store at the far end of Chelsea Market, and it sets the scene as we wander into New York’s Meatpacking district. We have an afternoon of wandering ahead of us, and with the funky bars only just opening it’s the boutique shops that can’t help but grab our attention. Who would have thought some of the world’s best brands – Ted Baker! Kate Spade! – would be clamouring for space in one of the 250 former slaughterhouses?

To give a focus to our wandering, we decide to head for another New York institution: Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street. Having now walked more than two dozen blocks, all of a sudden our senses are confused: New York’s famous grid system, created by the Commissioners 1811 Plan, is thrown out of whack in Greenwich Village – by 1811 this area was already a popular holiday spot for New Yorkers living downtown, and the existing streets clashed with the Grid Plan here. We double back on ourselves. Eventually.

We know we’re back on track when we see a small square with park benches full of people eating cupcakes … and across the road, a queue out the door of this – the original Magnolia Bakery location. We’ll let you in on a little secret – the cupcakes are famous, but the banana pudding is the real star. If you (or your fear of a sugar coma) limit you to just one thing, definitely choose the banana pudding. (I’ll let you have a taste of my Red Velvet cupcake.)

Banana Pudding or Banana Custard? When it's from Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker St, who cares!

This is my banana pudding face.

A favourite of Sex and the City fans after it featured in Season 2, many of the same fans fail to realise that just around the corner … onto Perry Street … we can actually photograph ourselves in front of Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment!

If SATC is not your style, let’s head a few blocks further south to the corner of Bedford and Grove, where we can look up to the Friends apartment building. Don’t get caught up on which apartment is Monica’s – in the early series they were living in the top floor of a six storey walk-up, but later on they definitely had an upstairs neighbour! Strange things happen in the big city.

The Friends Apartment, Bedford and Grove New York City

Don’t even ask about the balcony. Photo by Rob Young, CC License

Soho, Noho and Bye-Bye NYC!

Powered by a cupcake and custard high, our feet are immune to pain as we walk into the final afternoon of our 3 days in New York. The districts of Soho, Noho, and Nolita provide a contrast of styles and moods – before venturing through these neighbourhoods (and Steve was right on day one, this is a city best seen on foot) we had imagined Manhattan to be a homogeneous city dominated by commercial property. In truth, and our first glimpse at the top of Central Park made this clear, this is a bigger city than we ever could have imagined, and the neighbourhoods really are distinct – and each worth exploring.

Greenwich Village Streets, New York

Doesn’t look like a cliche of New York, does it?

Indeed, with 3 days in New York, we’ve not had a chance to venture far afield – uptown above 100th, across to The Bronx, or Queens, or out to Brooklyn. And changing ferries on Staten Island doesn’t count. So we’ve barely scratched the surface of only one Borough!

Our final New York dinner is back on Greenwich Avenue, at the newly opened and already cool Rosemary’s. A ‘no reservation’ policy means we are rewarded for arriving early (we blame our evening flight for not being fashionably late), and the reward is an eclectic combination of flavours that are best shared as a group … and with whichever wine the server suggests – they’re all the same price at $40 / bottle or $10 / glass.

It’s going to take something impressive to better our 3 days in New York. And as we head to the airport for our very short flight, we have a suspicion that upstate there might just be something sizeable enough.

The Empire State Building, at night, with an American Flag

Now Spreading the Sad News – We’re Leaving Today…

Want to go? Need to know!

  • There are no tickets to the Today Show – finding yourself on TV is a combination of good planning (arriving well before 7am, and preparing a sign so you are ‘ushered’ into a prime position for the outside crosses) and good luck.
  • Tickets for the Empire State Building start at just $25, which gains you entry to the 86th Floor main deck. Buy online in advance to skip the ticket queues, and review options for the 102nd Floor top deck and express ticket add-ons that allow you to skip additional queues for the lifts. (Or just go early in the morning, the best time of day to climb the Empire State Building.)
  • Magnolia Bakery is a definite draw for tourists – we wanted to see where it all began, but to do so we have ignored the locations near our apartment on the Upper West Side, and this morning at Grand Central Terminal (when it was definitely bagel o’clock).
  • Residents have chained off access to the stoop of Carrie’s apartment, and many Sex and the City Tours New York have stopped visiting here on their request. This is understandable – and please, no repeating the drunk nighttime rantings of recovering alcoholic Patrick Casey in Season 2.
  • New York Taxis have a fixed fare of $52 to JFK Airport from anywhere on Manhattan. During peak hours (roughly 7am to 7pm), it’s probably more reliable to take the train out from Penn Station to Jamaica Station, and change there for the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) to JFK. For our evening flight, the taxi made perfect sense.

OK New Yorkers and New York fans – what were the most amazing things we missed in our 3 Days in New York. We’ll definitely be back! Let us know in the comments below, or come start a discussion on our Facebook page.

3 Days in New York, Day Two

By Jacob Aldridge

Tuesday starts with our NYC local Steve at the door with great news – there’s bottomless coffee at the nearby Hi Life Bar and grill for breakfast. Plus, the french toast is amazing, and every meal comes with a free side of cinnamon toast and blueberry muffins. The American diner style feels right at home here and (one more cup of joe first) it’s the perfect start to kick off our second New York day.

Hi Life Bar, on Amsterdam Street, New York City. Bottomless Coffee, great cinnamon toast and muffins, and New York's excellent brunch.

Hi Life Bar, on Amsterdam Street. All photos today are Copyright, All Rights Reserved, used here with permission.

Our first stop is the Frick Museum, which we highlighted yesterday. From there, it’s time to go … DOWN TOWN!

Today’s Experience

We’re on the Subway again, this time heading downtown on the Green lines (we let the number 6 pass; it’s the local, and we wanted an express to go this distance) to Wall Street. Back when New York was still called New Amsterdam, a wall here marked the northern edge of the settlement – 150 years later, it became the trading hub of the growing colony. What would the earliest traders, operating underneath a tree, have thought about sub-prime mortgages and a global financial crisis?

Across the road from the New York Stock Exchange (which is actually on Broad Street) is a building most tourists traipsing through here pass right by, the Federal Hall National Memorial. It was on this site in 1789 that George Washington was inaugurated as the United States of America’s first President – and there’s a grand bronze statue of him to mark the spot.

George Washington stares down the New York Stock Exchange. We know which institution America is more proud of!

George Washington stares down the New York Stock Exchange.

The original Federal Hall, which was also home to the Congress that passed the US Bill of Rights, was demolished in 1812. Its 1842 successor is now a free museum dedicated to the earliest national history of this country, including the Bible Washington used for his swearing in.

Lunch time today is another US culinary institution, Chipotle. We get there wandering down Broadway, and past Bowling Green, another historic site although more famous today for the giant bull statue at its apex. The bulls are back on Wall Street, and this anatomically-correct statue is always popular for photographs!

The Statue of Liberty

Our mexican fix satiated, it’s time to see that icon of immigration and New York’s melting pot culture, The Statue of Liberty. It is possible to catch a ferry out to Ellis Island, even organise to climb inside Lady Liberty, but when time is tight on your 3 days in New York the best option also happens to be the free one!

New York downtown skyline, as seen from the Staten Island Free Ferry.

New York skyline, from the Ferry.

The Staten Island Ferry runs from the very bottom of Manhattan along the 30 minute trip to New York’s fifth borough, Staten Island. A vital commuter line, at this time of day it’s also very popular with the tourists who know that this is the free (yes – completely free) way to take a cruise right past the Statue of Liberty.

We grab a seat at the back of the boat, the better to appreciate the receding Downtown skyline as well, and prepare ourselves for the obligatory photograph!

The Statue of Liberty, as seen from the free Staten Island Ferry.

The Statue of Liberty, as seen from the free Staten Island Ferry.

At the other end, there’s a bit of a scramble – we all have to disembark the boat and go around to re-enter for the trip back to Manhattan  There are things to see and do on Staten Island … they’re just not as interesting as the afternoon we have planned.

Ground Zero

The Sphere in Battery Park, with the eternal flame also in shot. This is a memorial to the 9/11 Terrorist attacks, part of our 3 days in New York experience

The Sphere in Battery Park, with the eternal flame also in shot.

We come off the Staten Island ferry, and head left to Battery Park. The defensive front of the earliest settlements, the most striking feature of today’s park is The Sphere, a sculpture by Fritz Koenig that once stood in the plaza of the World Trade Centre, and was moved here – unrepaired – and placed beside an eternal flame, in memory of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

No trip to New York city is complete without acknowledging that day, and also now witnessing the birth of the new World Trade Centre site. Our next stop, then, is St Paul’s Chapel on Broadway, between Fulton and Vesey Streets. This 250 year old building survived the Great New York Fire of 1776 … and as the oldest public building in the city, it has hosted four Presidents (Washington’s pew is still on display), a future King of England, and played a central role in New York’s darkest days.

St Paul's Chapel New York, from outside on Broadway. Washington's chair inside, among the September 11 memorials.

St Paul’s Chapel from the outside, and Washington’s chair inside

Located just 400 metres from where the Twin Towers fell, St Paul’s was undamaged. It immediately became a focal point for the rescue efforts. Firemen changing their boots would leave one pair atop the fence spikes of the small cemetery behind the chapel. In the days after, those boots marked many of the 343 who entered the burning buildings and did not return.

As we enter this active church, we can see the impact of September 11. For eight months after that day, this was a place of rest and refuge for the Ground Zero recovery efforts. Now it is a memorial – part solemn, as could be expected; part uplifting, as we are reminded of the best humanity can offer through the stories told here; and throughout, you are only one story, one exhibit away from tears.

A note on the boots of September 11 firemen, outside St Paul's Chapel New York

A note on the boots, outside St Paul’s.

At Ground Zero itself, a phoenix has risen. 1 World Trade Center is once again New York’s tallest building, and is just the largest in a complex that will be under construction until 2020. A dedicated memorial is now open.

Insightful Steve suggests an option to liven the mood a little. Two blocks away, from the balcony of the Living Room cocktail bar of the W Hotel, we can see down into the Memorial, and over the World Trade Centre construction site. It’s an opportunity to experience the activity, without having to queue, and over cocktails there’s ample time to discuss the rest of our afternoon.

Shopping or Scenery

Some people come to Manhattan to walk the streets and feel the atmosphere while wearing out their shoe leather. Some people come to Manhattan … mostly just to buy new shoe leather.

If you’re part of the former, Steve has a plan – we’re going to cut across Downtown, and take in the New York City Hall, see the Supreme Court Building, and cross to the centre of the Brooklyn Bridge for another almost-uninterrupted view of the Manhattan skyline.

View uptown from the Brooklyn Bridge.

View uptown from the Brooklyn Bridge.

The alternative, should you wish, is to make the most of some of New York’s most famous bargains. We’re just a few blocks away from Century 21 … and from there you’ll have ample opportunity to wander through Chinatown and the shops of Canal Street. Keep some cash in reserve for tomorrow, however, when we hit up the fancier Midtown … and be prepared to ask yourself this question: Do you risk passing this shop buy??

The sign says "We are probably the lowest priced in the city". What an interesting shop sign!

Down near the WTC – what an opportunity! Probably.

New York’s Best Wine List? (And More Cocktail Secrets)

We’ll all use the Subway to head back uptown, but our destination is only to go as far as Union Square. While famous for its demonstrations, both radical and otherwise, this square was actually named because it was formed as the Union between two streets during the Commissioner’s street Plan of 1811 (that was also the one that created some sharp angles, made famous by the Flatiron building and Times Square).

We have dinner reservations at Union Square Cafe, known by the locals not only for its excellent food but also the wisdom of the wait staff when it comes to matching any of their extensive range of wines to the specific palate and food choices of each diner. Listen to their advice and, as long as your budget stretches beyond $60 bottles of excellent red, enjoy the experience.

After an exquisite meal, it’s tempting to avoid the crowds. But Times Square awaits – what to do? Listen to the advice of our New York local, of course, as Steve guides around the crowds and up to the Renaissance Lounge. Here there are cocktails and bar snacks and all the lights of Times Square, without being bumped around by out-of-towners (or New Yorkers in a rush!).

Looking for a cocktail bar overlooking Times Square New York? The R Lounge is perfect - here's the view and how to get in.

Cocktail Views of Times Square

Hover just right and … yes … we’ve secured the lounge space right by the window, where we can watch the New York evening turn into New York night.

That calls for another round of cocktails I think. And it wouldn’t be proper for me to come all the way to this island, and not order the Red Stag Manhattan. What can I order for you – the Cucumber Gin Martini or the Strawberry Caipiroska? How about the conclusion to our 3 days in New York – you can read about our final day here.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • If you do wish to experience the 9/11 Memorial, entry is currently free but you must reserve a space in advance.
  • Union Square Cafe is now open for weekend brunch – we’ve had experience of walking in off the street (admittedly, early in the evening) and been seated. Haven’t book ahead? If you’re happy to sit at the bar, walk on in and ask – you might get lucky.
  • The ‘R Lounge’ in the Renaissance is another of those little locals-only secrets that amazing travel newsletters like ours keep ruining. Still, even if it gets a little crowded up here it’s still more relaxed than down on street level.
  • There are loads of reasons to cross the Brooklyn Bridge completely and dine in a different borough. I suspect we’ll be back come Baseball season, to watch the Yankees and explore the boroughs that aren’t Manhattan – maybe even some of the State that’s not New York City!

We’re almost through our 3 Days in New York. Is there anything we haven’t visited so far that you want to make sure we add to tomorrow’s plans? Let us know in the comments below, or come start a discussion on our Facebook page.

September 11 Memorial Plaque - May We Never Forget.

September 11 – May We Never Forget.

3 Days in New York, Day One

By Jacob Aldridge

It’s an early flight, but as we descend over Manhattan with the sun still just rising there’s no doubt Alicia Keys and Jay-Z are correct: “These streets will make you feel brand new.”

Our flight from Florida to New York actually takes us into Newark, New Jersey – but from there it’s an easy train journey into Penn Station, right in the heart of New York, New York!

Start Spreading the News!

Overlooking Downtown Manhattan, New York, from top of the Empire State Building

Author Jacob Aldridge overlooking New York City. All photos in this article are Copyright, All Rights Reserved, permission granted by the artist.

Today’s Experience

If the idea of a New York subway ride terrifies you, then we’ve got great news – you’re living in the past, and we’re going to help you face those fears right now! Penn Station is on 34th Street, part of the famous New York grid system that makes exploring this enormous island so easy. We’re staying in an apartment on the Upper West Side, and 96th Street is a long walk from 34th!

View of the East River from the Upper West Side, Manhattan, New York, New York USA.

View of the Hudson River from the Upper West Side.

Like the great underground railways of other world cities, the key to New York’s subway success is frequency. No checking timetables, we walk down to the Red line Uptown and two minutes later we’re on an express car north. At the other end is Steve – a southern-boy-cum-New-York-local, and the man behind our magic for the next 3 days.

“Leave your bags,” he says. “The city is meant to be seen above ground, and on foot.”

Central Park

Central Park is a ridiculous oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle where dreams are made, yet this $528 billion real estate opportunity is the beating heart of the city. Our walk through the park, with spring greenery just starting to show in places, takes us past the top end of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. This is an overwhelming moment, the first opportunity to fully appreciate the size of New York (well, really, just the size of Manhattan – we have to remind ourselves this is just one of five boroughs).

Around most of the city, the tall buildings allow you to feel insulated, part of this block, this neighbourhood, this community. Even entering the park, the trees have a similar, insulating effect.

New York city views over the Jaqueline Onassis Kennedy Reservoir, Central Park.

New York city views over the Jaqueline Onassis Kennedy Reservoir, Central Park.

Suddenly, at the top of the reservoir with nothing to block our view … we are confronted by size. By space. By magnitude. Way, way off in the distance, across this expanse of water, are the first of the skyscrapers. Trump Tower. Rockefeller Centre. The pinnacle of the Empire State Building. We know these buildings, we know their size, we know that beyond them, way beyond them in face, is downtown, where more skyscrapers stand, where the World Trade Centre stood, but we can’t even see that far from here.

This city is enormous. And yet, also, so very quiet.

Museum Mile

Steve is just taking us across Central Park right now, and before long we find ourselves on Fifth Avenue. It’s the fancy Upper East Side, and as we turn south toward the city we enter the Museum Mile – a stretch home to many of the city’s (nay, the world’s) best museums.

Our destination is the one museum most travellers miss; it’s the one that offers the most to people like us who like good art … but really have no idea what we’re talking about!

The Guggenheim Museum stands out along the Museum Mile, Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side, New York

The Guggenheim Museum stands out along the Museum Mile, Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side, New York

So we pass, and appreciate the bold architecture, of the Guggenheim. We see the masses of art students sketching on the stairs of the grand Metropolitan Museum of Art (yes, even on a Monday when it’s closed!). And we stop to note a building that’s more house than museum – because that’s exactly how it was originally built.

The Frick Collection, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 70th Street, is housed in the home of the industrialist Henry Clay Frick. A collector of art, particularly European masterpieces in paint, porcelain, and sculpture, after his death in 1919 Frick’s wife and their daughter Helen worked to open the works and the home up to the public.

The Frick Collection is an impressive experience. It is not as overwhelming as a large museum, and unlike collections created by a succession of curators this very much represents the varied interests of one man. The audio guide, which is free with entry, allows you to pick and choose to learn more about the works that impress you most, from Rembrandt to Rodin. While it’s closed Monday, we’ll be back here to take it in later in our trip.

The Frick Collection, formerly the Frick family mansion, upper east side New York City.

The Frick Collection, formerly the Frick family mansion.

If you don’t want to wait, you can take the virtual tour right now. Look for the paintings by American artists – only two of the 137 masterpieces Frick acquired were painted in the New World.

Strawberry Fields and Chocolate Concretes

We could follow Fifth Avenue further down, but Steve is pulling us back into Central Park. We’re crossing over it again, and 27 blocks further south it’s a lot busier here. The buzz of the crowd seems to increase as we approach the west side of the park once more – suddenly there are more people, more bikes, and more touts selling sketches they’ve made and city photographs they haven’t.

Steve reveals why – this is the area of Central Park now known as Strawberry Fields, dedicated to John Lennon who was shot dead in front of his nearby apartment. The focal point is the ‘Imagine circle’, a mosaic almost continually filled with flowers left by fans of Lennon, and those who continue to spread his message of peace.

The Imagine Circle, Strawberry Fields, Central Park New York City. No 3 days in New York are complete without it.

The Imagine Circle, Strawberry Fields.

For lunch, we’re heading to the nearby Shake Shack – for an experience that’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t been to a burger joint that was created by a fine dining chef (in this case, Union Square Cafe’s Danny Meyer). Let’s just say, this ain’t McDonalds, the vegetarian option is actually as sensational as the bacon-laden SmokeShack, and you’re a fool if you don’t also order one of the Concretes (frozen custards) as part of your meal.

Muppets and Diamonds

Manhattan has featured in countless films – we’re running a question on our Facebook page about which New York films you think are best. One of our favourites is The Muppets Take Manhattan, so we figured if they’re here … then we must find them!

The WhatNot Workshop, FAO Schwarz New York.  The best New York Souvenir.

Found them! The WhatNot Workshop, FAO Schwarz New York.

So after a longer wander to the bottom of Central Park we find ourselves standing in front of the life-size toy soldiers at FAO Schwarz. Tom Hanks fans will be rushing inside and upstairs – yes, the big piano that featured in the film Big is here … and yes, you can have a turn on it if you want!

Big, the Tom Hanks film, featured this very piano.

You may have to wait for the kids to get off first!

Just some of the WhatNot options at the Make your own Muppet Workshop.

Just some of the WhatNot options at the Make your own Muppet Workshop.
Keep reading to see what I will make – yes, given all of these choices and an infinite Muppet world, I’m chosing to make a WhatNot that looks like me!

When you’re done, we’ll be downstairs at the What Not workshop. What Nots are the Muppets you see in the background – they were the audience for the Muppet Show, and they joined the famous Muppets (like Ernie and Bert) for the wedding scene of Manhattan. This workshop is the only place in the world where you can make your own Muppet.

Yes, we said it … You. Can. Make. Your. Own. Muppet.

The recommended ages of 5-12 are ridiculous – this is totally an adult experience, and before we know it we’re consumed in the debate about whether to go with an oval or pointed nose, and whether to dress our What Not in the Princess Outfit or the Statue of Liberty costume!

Undoubtedly the most awesome souvenir you can acquire on your New York Trip, but not the priciest. For that you have to head two blocks south, and back onto Fifth Avenue. What were we saying about great New York movies? That’s a list that isn’t complete until you add the most fabulous movie of them all, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Outside Tiffany & Co, on Fifth Avenue. Grab your croissant and coffee, and make your own Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Outside Tiffany & Co, on Fifth Avenue.

We’re sure the great folk at Tiffany’s won’t appreciate us saying this, but after you get your requisite photo outside, it’s worth walking inside just to take in this experience. Nowadays, when there’s a Tiffany store on every corner (Tiffany’s Bondi Junction, seriously?) it’s nice to breathe in the rarefied air of the 176-year-old flagship store that started it all.

There’s plenty more shopping down here on street level, but night is falling … and we have an appointment much higher up!

Top of the Rock

Most tourists head to the top of the Empire State Building, the only vista of New York where you can’t see its most famous building (because you’re standing on it!). So we’ll let you in on a little secret – Rockefeller Centre, made famous most recently as the home of TV show 30 Rock, offers a ‘Top of the Rock’ experience where you can head to the summit of this 259m high building…and see it all.

Preparing to enter 30 Rock before our climb to the Top of the Rock, Rockefeller Centre New York

Preparing to enter 30 Rock.

Wow – be prepared for the bracing breeze as you step outside at the top! February in New York is colder at night, and 70 stories up! And then take in the panorama – first, looking out across Central Park where we walked today. Again, the size of Manhattan becomes apparent when even from this view we can barely see the other end of the park.

And then walking around, the geography of the city becomes clearer. Heading to the right, we can see past the Chrysler Building to the East River that separates Manhattan from Queens and Brooklyn. The East River Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge now come into sight, exposing us for the first time to Downtown Manhattan.

Then there’s the Empire State Building itself, lit tonight in Red, White, and Blue. MidTown New York becomes obvious here, the expanse of smaller, more residential buildings that fill the space between the Empire State Building and the towers down toward Wall Street at the the bottom of Manhattan.

View Downtown in New York, from the top of Rockefeller Center. The Empire State Building is lit up.

View Downtown in New York, from the top of Rockefeller Plaza

The brightness of Times Square stands out as we keep moving around, and beyond it over the Hudson River we can see the lights of Jersey – including Newark Airport where we arrived what feels like a lifetime ago. Returning to where we first began, and the night is setting in. Central Park is now most noticeable as an empty blackness in the heart of street and building lights. We feel you New York.

Broadway

And there’s only one more experience to make this day complete, and that’s taking in a show along the world’s most famous theatre stretch – Broadway.

We have tickets to the current Broadway sensation, Newsies. Centring a Broadway musical on a mostly male cast and based on a Disney film whose success is best described as ‘cult following’ was a gamble … and this production is a jackpot!

Times Square Advertisement for Newsies, the Musical. Currently a Tony Award Winning Broadway Sensation, and we loved it!

Times Square Advertisement for Newsies, the Musical

The story of the 19th Century strike by newspaper boys against the capital excesses of the time has struck a chord in the middle of this global financial crisis. But this is not just right story, right time – this is a production that will have you humming the tune to The World Will Know and King of New York before you even realise it.

Our takeaway is also the power of male dance – put a group of guys on stage and dress them in khaki and grey and the audience has no choice but to marvel at the strength and technique these guys have.

Jaws drop. Feet tap. And as the audience empties onto the street at the end of the performance we get a feeling for why this is a city that never sleeps.

We could do anything. Mostly, we just want to play with our FAO Schwarz Muppets!

We could do anything. Mostly, we just want to play with our Muppets! (And yes, that is the Wedding Scene from The Muppets Take Manhattan playing in the background.)

There’s so much more we could be doing, right now. And you can do it, right now – click here to read Day Two in New York…

Want to go? Need to know!

  • New York is serviced by two major airports – JFK (out past Brooklyn) and Newark, New Jersey. You don’t want to spend time in either. Worse still, you do want to allow yourself plenty of time to get to either – public transport is more reliable than a taxi (in case of traffic issues).
  • Get a Metro Card (valid on both Subways and buses) and download a copy of the Subway map. If you’re staying for more than 5 days, just get a weekly card – sure, you want to walk around the city as much as possibly, but having unlimited weekly travel means never having to think about whether you can take that subway ride to squeeze in dinner at that great restaurant people keep telling you about.
  • If you have more time, or museums are a more important part of your travelling, take in the Met. Entry is free BUT they will try to force you into the standard donation of $25. If you can afford that, make the contribution to the future of this institution – but if you can’t, you are able to let them know that and walk right in.
  • Accommodation in New York is not cheap. If you ever meet a New Yorker in your travels, befriend them immediately! (Firstly, because they’re likely friendly and fabulous; prime real estate is a secondary benefit.) Airbnb was actually created in response to finding New York accommodation.

Have you decided which New York movie you love most yet? Tell us over on our Facebook page.

From Glico Neon to Geisha Style: The beautiful madness of Japan

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

The hardest part about early morning international flights is often the cold, yet somehow just the thought of leaving Harbin makes us feel warmer. Our flight with China Southern (not heard of them? They’re actually the 4th largest airline in the world!) lands in Osaka, Japan just after midday.

Now, “lands in Osaka” is somewhat misleading – Kansai International Airport is actually an artificial island inside Osaka Bay. Completed in 1994, engineers excavated 21 million cubic metres (27 million cubic yards) of soil from three separate mountains to create this international hub. (And they did a fantastic job – it’s already survived an earthquake and a typhoon.)

Kansai International Airport, from the air!

Kansai International Airport, from the air! Photo by mrhayata, CC Licensed

Japan can be an overwhelming destination if you don’t come prepared. Thankfully, we’re under the watchful eye of Leah, a tours and activities expert for travel.com.au, and a former resident of this enticing archipelago. Minutes later, we on the airport train ‘Nankai Limited Express’ for the 45 minutes (7 stop) trip to Nipponbashi.

Better know by its local name ‘Den Den Town’, Nipponbashi is like 1980s Japan on steroids. Every electronic need you may have can be met here (and feel free to bargain with the vendors), and with districts shifting from gadgets to anime and eventually fashion, Den Den Town can be seen as a cultural immersion first and a shopping opportunity second.

Of course, Japan’s cultural heritage owes more to the samurai than to manga. Leah navigates us onto the subway for the six minute journey from Namba Station to Tanimachi (changing at Honmachi half way through). It’s Osaka, not Tokyo, so we don’t have to be squeezed into the carriages by guards.

We come back into daylight in the metaphorical shadow of Osaka Castle. From this location Hideyoshi Toyotomi unified Japan, but when the Shogunate later moved to Tokyo the region lost power – the original main tower was destroyed along with the Toyotomi family in the Summer War of Osaka in 1615. The current main tower may be twentieth century, but the artefacts and emotional history it displays are far older; so too are the immense gardens (106 Hectares / 250 acres of them) which boast cherry blossoms and 95 kinds of apricot flowers in the spring, while the highlight of our winter wander is the Great Stone Wall on the inner moat.

The brooding Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle and the Great Stone Wall. Photo by Joop Dorresteijn, CC Licensed.

Evening calls, so we head back to Dotonbori for food and neon wonderment. This is not Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, as the Glico Running Man (“a postwar symbol of Japan emerging as an economic power”, says Leah) indicates. We could walk for hours taking in the neon signs of Ebisubashi and the madness of Dotonbori Arcade, powered only by takoyaki octopus balls (or maybe a stop at one of the many izakaya, where good and drink are often served in equal quantities).

Glico Running Man, Ebisuba

Glico Running Man, Ebisuba. Photo by yeowatzup. CC License.

But our mind turns to Saturday. An hour east of Osaka by train, Nara is the cradle of Japanese civilisation and home to the UNESCO listed Todai-ji complex. We’ve seen some overwhelming temples on our everydaydream holiday so far – but nothing prepares us for the 500 tonne, 15 metre high ‘Big Buddha’.

Daibutsu, Naro

That is a big buddha. Photo by David Offf, CC License.

You can look closely and observe the combination of periods that make up the Daibutsu – a head from the Edo period, while the hands are much older, all housed in a 300 year old hall that until 1998 was the world’s largest wooden building. If you do observe changes forced by earthquakes and fires, then be mindful of this quote from the Buddha himself:

When I was a young man, near the beginning of my life, I looked around with true mindfulness and saw that all things are subject to decay. Thus all things are subject to death, sorrow and suffering. I became aware that I too was of the same nature, the nature of beginning and end.

Too much spirituality? Then go and enjoy watching the Sika Deer which freely roam the temple gardens, before we take another train journey north to Kyoto. Once here, we head for dinner in the Gion – Kyoto’s main restaurant, shopping … and geisha (geiko, in the local dialect) hub.

An authentic geisha experience is exclusive, no dream holiday or wallet size will gain you access to the Ichiriki Ochaya, for example. While a tourist geisha experience is now an option, the thought of paying a premium to eat and watch in a tourist trap is the antithesis of our everydaydream holiday. So instead, we wander down Shirakawa Canal, select a restaurant full of locals, and enjoy some genuine Japanese cuisine (while also keeping an eye on the street for any geisha who may walk past).

See a Geisha in Kyoto

Please – if you see a Geisha in Kyoto, be respectful. Photo by This Particular Greg, CC License

Sunday dawns with a promise of comfortable shoes and quality photo equipment. We head two stations back towards Nara for the amazing 4 kilometre (6 mile) meander around Fushimi Inari. The only photographic subject more Japanese than cherry blossom has to be the red gates, and today we will see hundreds of them – large and small, isolated, and built together to created shaded paths that lead to the various shrines on this site.

Red gate Fushimi Inari

One Red Gate. Photo by Daa Nell, CC License

Many red gates Fushimi Inari

MANY Red Gates! Photo by SteFou, CC License

What an amazing weekend in Japan … and we still have Monday to see more!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Japan’s rail and subway infrastructure is superb – and clearly colour coded, even if you can’t read kanji or kana.
  • A quick rule of thumb – you can divide Yen by 100 (just remove the last two zeroes, so 3000 becomes 30) to give you an approximate amount in US Dollars. The exchange rate isn’t quite that bad (unless you buy currency at the airport!), but you try dividing everything by 89!
  • Shinto and Buddhism are the two most common religions in Japan, although (by western comparison) both are more ‘harmonious ways of living’ than an orthodox dogma.
  • Here’s a link to a collection of real Buddha quotes – but if you’re looking for laughs, go to the home page and explore their fake Buddha quotes!
  • Want a glimpse inside the madness of Osaka (and Leah)? Enjoy this personal video she took on her most recent trip to Japan (when she wasn’t dragging around hundreds of everydaydreamers).

Which part of Japan’s diverse culture interests you the most? What would you like us to do in Kyoto on Monday? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Find the best view in Hong Kong. Twice.

By Chris K

Today’s Itinerary

  • we reveal the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant
  • what else can you do in Hong Kong? That’s right – shop
  • there’s more to our hotel than just amazing food
  • find the most incredible view of Hong Kong
  • and then beat it with an even better view!
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Photo by Roger Price, Licensed under CC.

Yesterday our expectations were changed by a surprising experience in Hong Kong that we didn’t know you could do in such an urbanised, cosmopolitan city. Today, we’re going to throw ourselves into the intensity of Hong Kong’s cuisine and shopping experiences – because when a city does something well, it’s a shame to miss out.

There’s a secret that we don’t want to tell you

You know the place – everyone’s got one. That little cafe or pizzeria, just around the corner, down the alleyway, past the mean-looking bikers (they’re actually really nice), right at the abandoned liquor store – there it is – that hidden place; your secret.

We all have that little place we like to think is our own, and we pass it on in whispers to our friends and family – because we want to share the secret (but not too widely).

Goodness – it might become popular! And then the tourists will come, and the queues will get longer, and it just won’t feel quite the same.

We feel a little bit like that about our first recommendation today. It’s been passed along to us through that grapevine, that circle-of-keeping-awesome-places-to-ourselves, with the implicit bond to “Keep it secret! Keep it safe!”.

But we have to break that bond today. This place is just too good.

And let’s be honest – once CNN Travel covers a place, it isn’t so secret anymore.

The cheapest Michelin Starred restaurant in the world

Tim Ho Wan is the cheapest Michelin Star restaurant in the world - right in Hong Kong. Sign up for our travel email!

Photo by Chika Watanabe, Licensed under CC.

So here it is.

Tim Ho Wan is not only the world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant, but also has possibly the best dumplings in the world – and it’s our first stop today.

We’re here at 9:15 AM (yes, that’s in the morning) because the secret is clearly out. The queue starts building before the restaurant opens at 10AM, and we don’t want to get stuck in the rush – there’s too much to do today.

How good are the dumplings at Tim Ho Wan’s?

Tim Ho Wan’s is so good that Lady Iron Chef had this to say;

Can you imagine paying just SGD$12 for top quality dim sum? It’s dirt cheap! Is Tim Ho Wan really worth the hype? Yes, I’ll willingly queue up for their dim sum every time I’m in Hong Kong.

For the full blow-by-blow account of just how amazing Tim Ho Wan restaurant is, read Lady Iron Chef’s amazing Hong Kong article.

And for a visual reference (don’t get lost – there’s dumplings to be eaten!) have a look at this Hong Kong article from artofbackpacking.com.

Oh, we’re in Mong Kok? I suppose we may as well get some shopping in while we’re here


As our intrepid Hong Kong travel advisor Gabriele mentioned yesterday, Mong Kok is not only the location of those incredible dumplings we just ate in frightening quantities (we don’t feel so good. But they were so tasty!) – Mong Kok is also the home of markets, open day and night.

Shangai local Nick, who makes frequent trips to Hong Kong, had this to say about why Mong Kok markets are so good;

they block the streets off and sell just about anything – clothes, bags, watches, shoes, hats, electronics – and at a fraction of the price of the air conditioned shopping malls in TST.

Personally, we’re suckers for discounted photography equipment, so that’s what we’re looking for – what would you hope to find?

Hong Kong Shopping

Some other options for Hong Kong shopping are;

  • the Landmark shopping mall – take at look at their website and be gobsmacked by the assortment of brands
  • the Ladies Market on Tung Choi Street, for basically everything
  • the Temple Street Night Market, for a display of a typical Chinese market
  • the Page One bookstore chain, recommended by the BBC, as “one of Hong Kong’s best selections of art and design magazines and books”

Really – you won’t have to look too hard to find an incredible assortment of shopping options in Hong Kong.

But remember to bargain!

Now find the most beautiful view of Hong Kong

Yesterday we said there were lots of reasons why we chose to stay in the Intercontinental Hong Kong. One of them was obviously the incredible variety and quality of their restaurant offerings. But there was another reason, and today we intend to enjoy it – weather be damned!

That secret is this – a pool with an most incredible view of Hong Kong. Although it’s typically not swimming weather in Hong Kong in January, some days hover around 18 degrees Celsius, and even relaxing by the pool deck is a pleasant experience.

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Is that boat sailing into the pool? An amazing optical illusion. Photo by Intercontinental Hotel Hong Kong, Licensed under CC.

We can’t linger here too long though – there’s somewhere we have to be for sundown.

The cocktails will have to wait.

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What a dream destination! Photo by Intercontinental Hotel Hong Kong, Licensed under CC.

Or the cocktails can come early. It’s really no problem either way.

Waiter?

That was a pretty good view. But we can do better

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Photo by Ryan Li, Licensed under CC.

Better?

Surely not.

That’s what we thought – and then we made it to the top of the The Peak (that’s right – THE Peak).

Just have a look at this spectacular view of Hong Kong. We’re looking down onto this city of seven million people and from up here, it feels like you could walk out onto those skyscrapers.

Can you just imagine how beautiful this would be at sunset…

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Photo by Mike Behnken, Licensed under CC.

Wow. That is actually really beautiful. Thankyou, photographer Mike Behnken.

One last tip for Hong Kong

Finally, one last tip from Shanghai local, Nick, who says;

ok….a MUST DO IN HK – take the 2.2HKD Star Ferry from TST to Central. (or vice versa, but I much prefer the TST to Central route). The view is spectacular on the ferry, especially at night. The ferry closes at 11pm.

What. A. Trip.

There aren’t many cities that so effortlessly combine such effortless culture, cuisine, and commerce, as does Hong Kong. There are so many places that we didn’t have time to fit it, we’re going to have to come back. This really is a city you could explore for weeks on end.

Luckily – we’re on an endless vacation. So we’ve got time.

Hong Kong Travel Tweeps to Follow

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Evocative Hong Kong at night. Photo by Mitch Altman, Licensed under CC.

HEY!

NEXT TIME we’re in Hong Kong – where should we go? What should we do?

Tell us in the comments, or on Twitter!