Kruger National Park Zebra

Making the most of your Kruger safari

Very rarely do you visit a place that truly takes your breath away. Somewhere that is so beautiful, so alive and so changing that you can almost feel it’s pulse under your skin. Kruger National Park is just one of those special places, and in our first meeting began a love affair with all things African. I was hooked. I honestly don’t think you can visit Kruger at a ‘bad’ time of year.  With each season comes changing scenery, weather and yet the animals are still there going about their daily business. Each wildlife encounter is unique, and whether you stay in an exclusive lodge in a private reserve or stay in the much cheaper park accommodation, you will be amazed and left speechless as you witness Kruger’s remarkable wildlife and stunning vistas. You may not see the ‘big five’, but the flash of colour as a lilac crested roller swoops past, the dancing of a chameleon on a low hanging branch and the squawks of birds gathering to warn you of a nearby predator are guaranteed to bring delight and get your heart thumping.

All this said, there are a few things to bear in mind when planning your trip to Kruger Park that will enable you to enjoy your experience more and to optimise wildlife viewing potential. Here are a few pointers to guide your planning;

When to go: The summer months (November/December) are usually wet and humid which Impala at Kruger National Parkmeans that the vegetation is more lush but it can be harder to spot animals due to thicker bush. Bird watchers will not be disappointed if they visit between January and April which is generally drier and an excellent time to observe migratory birds. Vegetation is at it’s sparsest in the driest months from May to September allowing for prime game viewing as animals congregate around rivers and watering holes. Expect to feel a little chilly at night and on early morning game drives.  We’ve been twice; once in March and again in May.  The game viewing was excellent on both occasions, but it definitely got a little chillier in May even though it was pleasantly warm during the day.

Where to stay: There are plenty of options for accommodation in and around the park. It would be perfectly do-able to stay outside in one of the nearby towns and drive in each day for a stint of Lower Sabie Rest Camp, Kruger National Parkgame viewing if that appeals to you. I would highly recommend staying inside the park to enhance your experience, lengthen your time there and appreciate it’s ‘wildness’ -there is nothing quite like seeing an eagle owl staring at you underneath a moonlit sky on an evening game drive, or hearing the distant roar of a lion as you hunker down for the night. The main park offers a great choice of lodges to stay in at a reasonable price. Starting at around 305 rand (£16) for a basic camp site and 595 rand (£31) for a hut for two people this can be a very attractive option. Some of the main lodges also offer luxury tents and bungalows for the less budget conscious. We stayed mainly in thatched huts, some complete with kitchenette and barbecue areas that were perfect to enjoy a sundowner after a long day behind the wheel. Consider staying at more than one lodge or campsite to experience different areas of the park. Lower Sabie Rest Camp in southern Kruger was my personal favourite as it boasts fantastic views overlooking the Sabie River and we spent many an hour sipping wine to the overture of hippo’s happily grunting in the river nearby.

View from Gomo Gomo Game Lodge hutAnother option for accommodation is to stay at a lodge in a private reserve adjoining the main park. Whilst prices are generally higher (and some are extortionate), it can be a great way to experience your own little piece of Africa for a couple of nights away from some of the busier areas of the park. Gomo Gomo Game Lodge is one such place and I have to say that it was worth the money. We only had a couple of nights here due to the price but Game drive at Gomo Gomo Game Lodgethey were by far the most memorable – so much so that we went back a second time. Included in the package are all your meals and game drives. There is even an optional  bush walk in the afternoon if you can bear to drag yourself away from the pool. The biggest advantage of staying somewhere like this is that the game drives are conducted in open top land rovers that can mow down pretty much anything and they are able to track animals off road into the bush to give you a much more intimate encounter. If nothing else, it’s a lot of fun whizzing off into the night with nothing but the wind (and a few cobwebs) in your hair in search of some of the planet’s most magnificent and terrifying creatures. If this doesn’t get your heart racing, nothing will. Never have I felt so acutely aware of my surroundings as on the bush walk. Despite having two rangers and two rifles in front of me, there is something very humbling about walking in the bush and realising how vulnerable you are. Thrilling too, to see some of South Africa’s most feared beasts away from the confines and safety of the Land Rover. We actually stumbled across a herd of buffalo on our bush walk, and enjoyed watching them from a distance before making our retreat when the direction of the wind changed. That certainly tested my nerves.

Wildlife viewing: If paying a premium to stay in one of the park’s private reserves is not an option, Game viewing Kruger National Parkthere are a few different ways you can explore the park. Hiring your own car gives a lot of flexibility as you can go wherever you want (as long as you stick to the road). You’d be surprised at the number of animals you will see this way and you won’t have to venture that far before you spot something of interest. Alternatively you could join one of the organised game drives that start at most of the park lodges.  The morning drive normally departs half an hour before the gate opens to allow Bush walk at Gomo Gomo Game Lodgefor prime viewing before other vehicles start turning up. Animals are generally more active at dawn and dusk so this is a great time to see them. San Parks also offer various activities such as guided bush walks, wilderness trails and 4×4 game drives .

Whatever choice you make, your visit to Kruger will be unforgettable. Try not to get too fixed on seeing the ‘big five’, but soak it up and enjoy every second in this amazing wilderness. I know I did.

 

 

 

La Rochelle Harbour

Making the most of your visit to La Rochelle

I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure that I had particularly heard of La Rochelle before I booked my recent trip there. Needless to say, it certainly wasn’t on my bucket list either. On our trip to the Enjoying a croissant by the Harbour in La Rochellelovely Pitou- Charantes region of France we could barely tear ourselves away from the countryside, but on this one occasion we did, and were very glad. La Rochelle has historical and military significance, and a plethora of beautiful buildings and structures to prove it. It is a sunny, welcoming city and one that is easily navigated on foot as most of the attractions are close to each other. It would be all too easy to pass time sitting next to the harbour, or in a little café, watching the world and it’s many inhabitants go by over a café au lait or a croissant, but with so much to see and do it would be a shame to miss out.

La Rochelle AquariumFirst off, the Aquarium. Being on the shore of the mighty Atlantic Ocean, it seems only fitting that La Rochelle should have an aquarium to house a selection of weird and wonderful sea creatures not only for the enjoyment of all who visit, but serving a greater purpose too. The aquarium showcases fish, shark, plankton, anenomes and turtles amongst many other fascinating flora and fauna in it’s array of tanks, tunnels and mini rainforest. Adults and children will not be disappointed as swarms of La Rochelle Aquariumjellyfish softly and elegantly bob in a dazzling display above their heads, and will stand in awe at the impressive 10ft high shark tank. The aquarium is also a centre for research, training and awareness in marine conservation including an observation and care programme for sea turtles. An adult ticket will set you back sixteen euro’s, slightly more if you opt for the English audio guide, but it’s worth paying the extra couple of euro’s if you don’t speak French as there is quite a bit of information in French only.

Once you’ve had your fill of fish (as interesting as the aquarium is, after a while they do all start to look the same), it’s only a short stroll towards the harbour adjoining to the old town. The road here is liMacaroons in La Rochellened with restaurants and cafés, all boasting a prominent position overlooking the marina and many of them offering seafood as you would expect – we caught sight of an oyster or two as we walked by. If you make it past the tempting gauntlet of fabulous looking restaurants you will soon find yourself walking on cobbled streets as you enter the older part of the city just beyond the prominent clock-tower. Here you will find many a boulangerie and patisserie, luring you in with the smell of freshly baked pain au chocolat and a colourful display of macaroons and meringue that look almost too good to eat. La Rochelle has it’s fair share of shops too, and whether you’re in the market for clothes, shoes, perfumes or comic books- you’ll find them all here.

We had lunch at Rawcoco, a 100% vegan and organic restaurant that is committed to providing healthy, natural meals and snacks. Joining a few other inspired places Vegan Crepe at RawCoco, La Rochelleacross the continent catering to extremely health-conscious individuals (ahem, this might include me), this great little place offers tasty, nutritious food that is as good for your body as it is for the planet. The containers the food is served in are all biodegradable and compostable- even the cutlery is made of birch wood; they really have thought of everything. As such, this isn’t the cheapest place to eat but it is refreshing to have a healthy take on some of the country’s finest foods. I enjoyed a baked banana/chocolate crepe which was soon washed down with a matcha latte, complete with home-made almond milk (freshly crushed on site!). Lush!

La Rochelle CathedralA stone’s throw from here is the cathedral. Built in the 1700’s it is as impressive a sight from the outside as it is stunningly beautiful on the inside. Savour the peace and quiet from a pew as you admire the intricate details of the stained glass windows, mosaic floors and statues all around. There is no charge to enter, and it only takes ten minutes to walk around.

If visiting the Cathedral, Old Port, and Le Grosse Horloge (town clock) wasn’t enough history for you, consider visiting ‘Le Bunker’. A remnant from World War Two, this interesting exhibit houses original artefacts from the war all within the confounds of an original bunker discovered accidentally during excavations by it’s owner.  La Rochelle played an important part in the war as an Atlantic base for the Germans and was also a major submarine base. Allow at least thirty minutes to walk around this small museum which only costs 7.50 euro each.  Unfortunately most of the information is in French only, but they do have an English guidebook that they will lend you that outlines the history of La Rochelle during the war.

Other things to do in La Rochelle

 We didn’t have time to do anything else, and decided to spend our last few minutes of the afternoon feasting on freshly bought croissants overlooking the harbour (one can’t be healthy Bike rental in La RochelleALL the time!), but rest assured there is plenty more to do in and around the city. La Rochelle actually pioneered the concept of public bicycles, and everywhere you go you can find yellow bikes to rent at quite a reasonable price (starting at three euro’s for two hours). This might tempt you to explore further to one of the regions sandy beaches (Les Minimes is only about two miles from the city centre) or even as far as the Ile de Re, a small island connected to the city by bridge. There are several boats operating from the harbour which offer visitors voyage to the Island along with ‘Fort Boyard’, which was made famous by it’s namesake television programme aired in the UK during the nineties.

Top Tip

 Being a small city, I would suggest that La Rochelle could easily be seen in a day, but if you want to make more of your visit by exploring the Ile de Re also, this could actually make a really lovely multi- day trip. The Island is popular with Parisians, and can be busy during high season.

See my post on Pitou-Charantes for more information what to do in the surrounding area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to spend a week in Pitou-Charantes

Whilst looking for a bit of late September sun, I snapped up a rural cottage in Pitou-Charantes which happened to be a bit of a bargain. I hadn’t been to France in years, and whilst there are plenty more exotic and exciting places to visit – it’s hard to see past it as a relaxing, warm break that doesn’t involve having to take a flight from the UK. Not to mention the wine, cheese, bread, crepes and croissants- France is home to some of the world’s most delicious cuisine (in my humble opinion). Pitou-Charantes is a region in the mid-west of the country, with an average high of 18 degrees as early as May and as late as October, although if you are looking for wall to wall sunshine to top up your tan, you’ll probably need to head further south. That said, we spent time sunbathing in over 25 degree heat at times during our week-long visit and even the cloudier days were still warm enough to sit outside.

We could have spent all week at our country cottage, nestled in a tiny hamlet of only ten houses. It is surrounded by aging stone farm buildings with beautiful shutters, it’s flaking blue paint somehow still clinging on – making them seem even more beautiful. The grassy banks lining the gravel roads and neighbouring gardens are full of fruit trees dripping with ripe prunes, apples and pears. If you want peace and tranquility, look no further than rural France. Endless rows of sunflowers greet you as you drive past field upon field, with prominent church spires appearing on the horizon in nearly every direction. Our arrival was observed only by a small tabby cat peering at us from on top of a wall- probably wondering what the commotion was all about in a place that receives virtually no traffic. Other than hearing the occasional plane or train in the distance, we heard nothing. Absolutely nothing.

If the solitude and quietness gets a bit monotonous, here is just a taste of some of the attractions in the area;

Sample food at a local market

No trip to France would be complete without taking in some local flavours, and what better way to experience them than at a market offering local produce. Rural France is full of small-holdings and the French are particularly proud of their cuisine, so expect to find many varieties of cheese, freshly baked breads, pastries and cured meats among many other delicious foods. We visited the Tuesday morning market in Lezay, about fifty minutes from Poitiers and said to be one of the best markets in the area. There was plenty of fresh food on offer from local sellers and quite an array of less conventional items such as lawnmowers, clothes and even tartan slippers! This particular market seemed to draw an older crowd and also quite a few English ex-pats, but this didn’t detract from the experience for us. There are several markets in the area to choose from, but if visiting Lezay be sure to get there early as things tend to wrap up fairly swiftly around midday. Even if you’re not buying, this is a lovely way to spend an hour or two and experience a little French culture. There is also a great little ‘Bric a Brac’ stall round the corner selling books, antiques and cakes- all in aid of animal rescue.

La Vallee des Singes (Valley of apes)

Open from February to November, the valley of apes makes for a wonderful afternoon out. At 19 euros per adult (13 euro for kids) you really get your money’s worth. The park is home to 34 species and houses over 450 monkeys across 16 acres, and the best bit- none of them are in cages. Watch the monkeys come and go, happily swinging through the trees in what is a very refreshing environment compared with your typical zoo. They are fed at certain times throughout the day, bringing much excitement to your visit- be prepared to be amazed at how close you will get to some of these magnificent creatures. Most impressively, the gorillas, which were only separated from us by a moat about three meters wide- I exaggerate not. There was gasps as the stocky silverback gorilla strutted over towards the bank to take his pick of fresh vegetables, delighting onlookers in the process. Don’t forget to bring your camera as you will have plenty of photo opportunities, particularly in the lemur enclosure where the residents are quite happy to pose for a photograph! There are a couple of café’s onsite and a few picnic benches too.

Nanteuil and Verteuil

 A visit to these two lovely old villages has got to be on the hit list for your stay in Pitou-Charantes. A very pretty twenty-minute drive separates the two villages which can easily be explored on foot in an afternoon. Take a walk through the arboretum in Nanteuil, a quiet wooded sanctuary perfect for a picnic on a sunny afternoon, or explore the lanes lined with quaint stone houses. Verteuil is not your typical village; the quiet streets and pretty stone houses are a familiar sight, but the magnificent 15th century castle which towers over the attractive neighbouring architecture perhaps less so. Being so small, it would be easy to walk round Verteuil in less than thirty minutes but why not linger over a cup of speciality tea or an ice cream by the mill overlooking the River Charante? A visit to this café was a real highlight of our week here, we sat and soaked it up for as long as we could – next to a classic fiat 500 and a resident cat who had fallen asleep on some cushions.

Take a day trip to a city

 La Rochelle and Bordeaux are interesting cities to visit if you have time and can bear to tear yourself away from the serenity of the countryside. I haven’t personally been to Bordeaux but I’m told that it is an amazing city to visit. I can however, vouch that La Rochelle is quite delightful and you can easily spend a day there soaking it all up.

Top tip

Most transactions at Lezay market are done in cash, but only carry what you think you’ll need as there are pick-pockets about, as we unfortunately discovered the hard way.  If you are likely to find viewing animals in small cages upsetting, I would probably avoid the indoor area as we saw many rabbits, geese and guinea pigs in very tiny cages.

We booked our cottage in France through cottages.com which has a wide selection of cottages throughout the UK, France, Italy and Ireland. Consider visiting outside of peak season for more competitive prices.

My gear list for the UK three peaks challenge

Climbing three mountains in 24 hours requires a lot of planning – physically and mentally, but without the right gear the experience can become a whole lot less enjoyable – even dangerous.  You wouldn’t climb one mountain without having access to some basic stuff, let alone three! In order for your challenge to be successful, you have to have thought everything through carefully. A few minutes here and there faffing around trying to find things in your car boot, or looking for Three peaks challengeloose change for the car park can be the difference between scraping through the 24 hour target or breezing through it. You need to aim to have things as slick as possible.

The gear I took had some basic requirements in mind, namely; warmth, protection from the elements, nutrition and hydration.

I basically had two packs, a small day pack for stuff I needed to take with me on the mountain and a pack for the car with things I needed quick access to between peaks.

My day pack: (for taking on the the mountain)

Long sleeved base layer
Warm fleece
Water proof jacket
Gloves (all the above in a waterproof bag)
Water – in a 1.5-2 L bladder for easy access (alternatively use a couple of narrow mouthed bottles that you can drink from on the move)
Sunscreen
Nutrition – I like to take a few sugary snacks with a healthy balance of protein such as Nakd bars, fruit and nuts. For the less health conscious – any sugary treats will do!
Head torch
Sunglasses
Map
Phone in zip locked plastic bag (mainly for taking photos but may also be needed in case of emergency- assuming that network coverage is available on the mountain, which it may not be in all places).

Side note: I used the Mountainsmith Day Pack to take my gear with me on the mountain (pictured above and below). More on that to come as I will be doing a gear review of this lumbar pack.

Between peak bag: (to be kept handy in the car)

Three pairs of spare socks
Three clean pairs of shorts/leggings                                                                                                               Three clean T-shirts
A Towel                                                                                                                                                                                5 litres of water to refill hydration bladder (and extra for when driving)
More snacks for the remaining two peaks
Something more substantial to eat between mountains  (I took sandwiches)
Spare shoes
Anti inflammatory relief such as ibuprofen tablets or gel                                                             Deodorant – not vital, but kinder for your companions
Protein shake for the end
Addresses/ directions for the car parks we were headed to
Coins for the car park (expect to pay £5 for   four hours or less at Snowdon, and £6 for Scaffel Pike)

Three peaks challenge day packThere aren’t a whole load of places to refill your water at each mountain to my knowledge, and to avoid any hydration related catastrophes I would highly recommend taking more water than you think you’ll need with you, at least in the car. Not only will your body require more water than normal due to intense physical effort it takes to climb three mountains, but there are a couple of fairly long drives in between peaks where you will want to replenish your fluid levels. Running out of water is a totally avoidable problem to have, and one that will cost you time.

Top tip:
Remember not to start with too many layers on, you will soon be sweating and wishing you hadn’t put everything you own on. Similarly If you think the weather is changing or as soon as you start to feel cold, put an extra layer on. It’s better to prevent yourself getting really cold and it’s easier to put the extra layers on before you near the top of the mountain where it will be a lot more exposed.

For more information on undertaking the challenge without an organised tour or guide, see my recent post on how to complete the UK three peaks challenge unsupported.

Statford Upon Avon

A visitors guide to Stratford upon Avon – birthplace of William Shakespeare

Stratford-Upon-Avon boasts of everything that you might expect from a medieval English market town. Easily explored on foot, a stroll around the town will take you past buildings dating back to the 1400’s which are a display of the area’s history and literary significance. Most famously, the homes, school and grave of the playwright and poet, William Shakespeare – and his family. Add to this charming streets, fascinating architecture, peaceful boat rides on the river (and shopping!) and you have yourself a perfect day out. If this is not enough to entice you to visit, rest assured that there are plenty of other things to see and do in Stratford- Upon- Avon.

Take a walking tour

Every day at 11 am (and on weekends at 11am and 2pm)  a 2 hour walking tour of the town Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford Upon Avonbegins near to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and is run by friendly, knowledgeable guides. No need to book, and at £6 per adult, it’s a bit of a bargain. We went past Shakespeare’s birthplace, school (opened to the public for the first time in 2016), later residence and grave among many other fascinating places and it gave us a great overview of the town and it’s general layout. Packed full of anecdotes and stories of old, the tour left us feeling as though we had lived through it all. It was also an insight into the morbid past of the town which has a long history of fires and was hit very severely by the dreaded plague. Shakespeare himself was a man of mystery as there is still a lot that we don’t know about him- adding to the atmosphere in this remarkable town. Also, learn about Marie Corelli – a largely unknown, eccentric literary figure and previous resident of Stratford-upon-Avon,  who sold more copies of her novels than the combined sales of her contemporaries Arthur Conan-Doyle, H G Wells and Rudyard Kipling.

Afternoon tea

A visit to Hathaway Tea Rooms is a great way to rest your weary legs after the tour. Claimed to be one of the oldest tea rooms in Stratford, this cosy little cafe is situated inside a grade two listed building thought to date back to 1610. Established in 1931, Hathaway Tea room has a long history of it’s own – originally built as one of the town’s many Inns, then later used as an apothecary and a shoe shop. A traditional English afternoon tea will set you back £15.50 per person which includes sandwiches, scones, cakes and tea- or for a mere £6.25 you can indulge in a more modest, but equally delicious cream tea. I’m a sucker for herbal tea and was particularly excited by the lavender tea on offer here- which was very refreshing. They even have a take-away picnic menu complete with table cloth, glasses and cutlery -for £20 two people can enjoy a slap-up feast in one of the town’s many grassy areas overlooking the river Avon.

Stratford upon Avon chain ferryTake the Original Old Chain Ferry

Said to be the last of it’s kind in Britain, the Original Old Chain Ferry built in 1937 is a fun way to get across the river. Costing only 50p each, you can sit comfortably whilst the operator winds the lever to get you from one side to the other. This convenient and quaint ride makes is easier to do a walking loop of the town to incorporate both sides of the river.

Shopping

Nutcracker Christmas shop, Stratford Upon AvonStratford has plenty to satisfy the retail enthusiast, with an array of boutique clothing, jewellery and gift shops on offer. You won’t leave empty handed if you’re in the market for some unique gifts. Look no further than the Shakespeare Gift Shop and the Nutcracker Christmas Shop – the cutest Christmas shop I’ve ever seen, just opposite Shakespeare’s birthplace.

Visit the oldest pub in Stratford-upon-Avon

The Garrick Inn, Stratford Upon AvonLocated along Stratford’s Historic Spine, The Garrick Inn thought to date back to the 1500’s has a checkered history – and is thought to be home to at least forty ghosts. Not daunted by this, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to eat in this beautiful, half timbered building which we booked shortly after our visit to the pub on our walking tour. Serving a variety of traditional English pub classics, I naturally opted for the steak pie and was not disappointed (I’m no pie connoisseur but to my mind a pie is not a pie without being enclosed in shortcrust pastry!).

Theatre

Many visitors to Stratford take advantage of the town’s plethora of theatres. In the summer months, the Royal Shakespeare Company put on free open air theatre in one of the town’s parks.   The Royal Shakespeare Company itself is based in Stratford, and it’s main theatre along with The Other Place and The Swan Theatre provide regular performances of popular plays- not just Shakespeare. Their stages have been frequented by some of the UK’s most loved actors including Judi Dench, who I’m told lives in the area- along with various other celebrities, as we found out on our walking tour.

Top tip

The Dirty Duck is another favourite pub in Stratford, both with theatre-goers and actors. Richard Attenborough and Kylie Minogue are amongst some of the celebrities that have been here, and it’s proximity to two of the town’s main theatres make it a popular choice with visitors. Book well in advance to avoid disappointment.

 

 

 

 

Should you go abroad for Christmas this year? – my take on spending the festive period overseas

I’m no Christmas grinch, in fact I love the festive season- from mince pies to setting the Christmas pudding ablaze; the tinsel to the turkey – I EVEN like the tacky presents you get in Christmas crackers (who knew you needed another set of mini screwdrivers?). Nothing screams yuletide cheer more than stuffing yourself with transfatty acids and sherry whilst watching Mr Bean trying to force a giant turkey into a microwave with hilarious consequences on TV. This must of course, be done surrounded by copious amounts of wrapping paper and ribbons -or better still, from peering through eye holes in a giant box that you’ve managed to salvage from a newly opened present (sniggers). I’m not the only one, right?

Well every now and again it all gets a bit much and after three solid days of being physically unable to move due to having managed to eat my entire body weight in mincemeat and leftover turkey – I had started to question whether there is a better way to do it.

Going abroad at Christmas for many, may seem like an expensive and unnecessary hassle. For some, an unobtainable dream- to be able to leave the cooking, clearing up and granny-sitting duties to someone else for one glorious year. Some may find the thought of leaving family or loved ones behind inconceivable.

Well we took the plunge a few years ago and booked ourselves into a resort on Cape Verde, a tiny island off the coast of West Africa, leaving on Christmas Day morning for a week. As strange Cape Verde Beachas it was arriving on the island to thirty degree heat, beautiful sandy beaches and Christmas songs being played out of loud speakers- it was a welcomed change to our usual festive routine. We substituted time on the couch for time on our sunloungers, Christmas dinner for a sumptuous all you can eat feast of seafood and our usual Boxing Day walk for quad biking on voluminous sand dunes.

A big draw for us was the weather, the thought of lapping up the sunshine whilst thinking of how terribly miserable the weather might be back home was strangely appealing. Of ditching the presents to just enjoy and savour the moment. For making Christmas less about ‘things ‘ and more about having unforgettable experiences. It was, in some ways, a welcome relief to avoid the ritual of hours of present giving, shortly followed by clearing up, only to discover that you now own thirteen pairs of reindeer socks and about three kilos of chocolate. How lovely it was to sip cocktails whilst watching the sun go down over the sea, blissfully (and literally) miles away from the present induced carnage back home. No panic buying gifts on Christmas Eve, no bustling through shoppers to buy the last remaining bag of brussel sprouts in Sainsbury’s, no pine needles to clear up from the floor beside your ‘non- drop’ Christmas tree. Instead, the only thing we had to worry about was which restaurant we were going to dine in that evening.

I almost tricked myself before we left into thinking that we were being less materialistic, but in fact splashing out on a holiday somehow felt even more self indulgent- and was accompanied by feelings of guilt that we had left our families behind, surrounded by wrapping paper watching Mr Bean on their own.

Practically speaking, avoiding the Christmas Day shenanigans meant that everyone still got presents and cards, and that our celebrations were a bit more toned down than normal when we got back. We were still able to meet with friends and family before and after our trip, and enjoyed the run up to Christmas in December as usual. We just broke it up with a week of fun in the sun, and who wouldn’t want that?

Christmas in Cape VerdeWould i do it again? Yes. Did i enjoy Christmas more than I would have back home? Not sure. It seems to me that Christmas takes on a different meaning for each person, and whilst like me you may get tired of the usual routine – ultimately it doesn’t feel like Christmas without it. However I can’t say that for that one year I missed any of it, and I was quite happy dosing up on vitamin D and sunshine before returning to the much colder British winter-  where loved ones were waiting to wish us festive greetings and cook up a belated feast.

(We’ve stayed at home for Christmas ever since).

Making your first attempt a success without paying for the privilege

Having successfully completed the UK National three peaks challenge five times between us, my husband and I are certainly no authority on the subject but have learnt a few things along the way.

A lot of people undertake the challenge as an organised group tour with support from a guide and/or driver. This is largely down to individual preference but for the purpose of this post I will Three peaks challenge - Snowdon viewbe focussing on organising and completing it without any back up. A daunting prospect for some, but achievable with the right planning, training and determination.

The challenge involves climbing to the top of the highest mountains in England, Scotland and Wales (and back!) in 24 hours or less. Not for the faint hearted, the hike takes in stunning vistas from the start – and whilst you won’t have much time to stop to admire the view, the sense of achievement is worth it. A good level of fitness is needed, however you will also need to carefully plan your route, gear and nutrition in order to be successful. Every minute counts!

Quick facts:

Mount Snowdon (Wales)- Elevation 1,085m ~8 miles

Scafell Pike (England)– Elevation 978m ~ 6 miles

Ben Nevis (Scotland)– Elevation 1,345m ~9 miles

Total distance to drive between mountains: 472 miles

Training
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of training for an event like this. Just going for a few Three peaks challenge - Ben Neviswalks won’t cut it, unless you are a seasoned hiker you will need to get yourself up some hills – the toughest part of the challenge is the sheer elevation gain  and you will be out of breath within the first ten minutes of starting if you haven’t prepared your body for it. I would suggest if you’re starting from scratch, taking a long, hilly walk with a day pack at least once a week for two to three months – gradually building up the distance.

When to go
July and August are popular months to complete the three peaks challenge, and for good reason. Temperatures are generally milder and conditions more favourable. Snow can be found at high elevation even as late in the year as June, making the climb more challenging.

Direction                                                                                                                                                                                 Most people go North to South rather than South to North. However there are merits to doing both. Whilst it may be mentally more challenging to finish on Ben Nevis, the toughest and longest climb, you can also get ahead of schedule pretty easily on Snowdon and Scafell Pike, which is a nice feeling.  The other advantage of going South to North is that you will typically be climbing on Ben Nevis in the dark, as opposed to the more difficult to navigate Scafell Pike.

Timing                                                                                                                                                                             The general aim is to spend as little time hiking in the dark as possible. Walking at night is slower Three peaks challenge - Snowdon viewand requires more concentration to avoid tripping or taking a wrong turn. Having got lost on Scafell Pike in the middle of the night, I can vouch for this – and it is about as fun as it sounds. Practically this means timing your climbs so that you drive between Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis overnight.  If going North to South, start climbing Saturday evening so that you come off Ben Nevis at dusk and begin climbing Scafell Pike at dawn.  If travelling North to South, start climbing Snowdon in the morning so that you finish climbing Scafell Pike just as it gets dark.

Choosing your route                                                                                                                                                        To my knowledge there are no rules about which route up the mountain you can take. With this in mind it makes sense to take the shortest maintained trail up each mountain. There is only one route up Ben Nevis unless you fancy a bit of rock-climbing.  Scafell Pike has several routes, but the shortest and simplest is the route up from Wasdale Head.  Snowdon should be climbed from Pen y Pas; from here you have a choice between the shorter, rockier Pyg track or the longer but easier Miner’s track.  We usually go up the Pyg track and down the Miner’s track, but there is some merit in going up and down the Miner’s track as 3/4 of it has a very gentle gradient and you can travel pretty quickly.

Getting there
Part of the challenge is to get to each mountain in a timely fashion, and by car is the only feasible way to do this. On our combined trips we have either had a designated driver who has not done the challenge or we have driven it ourselves. The latter is perfectly doable, particularly if you can take turns although a lot of it depends on how well you cope with sleep deprivation and driving at night.

Three peaks challengeTime efficiency
At the risk of sounding like a kill-joy, and as much as it would be lovely to stop at every peak for a picnic and a photo shoot – this is not the time to do it! Unless you are a super athlete who is running the entire thing, you definately won’t have time. Eat on the move or in the car, and certainly take a few quick photos on the way- but if you want a leisurely hike with lots of stops,  this is not for you.

Safety
It goes without saying that you must check the weather forecast before you set off (at any time of the year) as conditions on the mountains can change rapidly and may become dangerous if you are not adequately prepared. Make sure to take plenty of layers including a waterproof – just because the weather seems ok at the base of the mountain does not mean that it will be the same two or three hours later at the summit. Go careful underfoot, particularly at night, rocks can become slippery and you will have to negotiate a river crossing on Scafell Pike.

Be aware of the dangers of driving when tired – pull over and give someone else a turn. Don’t be tempted to power through, it’s dangerous and definately not worth it.

There is safety in numbers and whilst we did see the odd lone climber, who I can only assume were very confident in their ability and experience, I would suggest going as a group of four or more. This is for two reasons; more drivers to take a turn at the wheel, and in case of emergency one person to wait with the injured person and two to go for help.

Top tip
You will be shattered and probably sleep deprived by the end of the challenge. Aim to stay near to your finish point to avoid a long drive after your adventure.

River at night in Kurokawa Onsen

Hot spring hopping in Kurokawa Onsen

Hot springs (or onsen) are synonymous with Japanese culture and for many, a part of every day Kurokawa Onsenlife. In fact thermal springs are so abundant in Japan that there are many dedicated onsen towns  that lend themselves to ‘onsen hopping’ – a rather charming way to sample a selection of the town’s best baths. Kurokawa Onsen is one such town, and whilst it is more difficult to access via public transport, it’s historic baths and rural location in the heart of Kyushu make this picturesque onsen town well worth a visit.

Kurokawa Onsen townEasily explored on foot, Kurokawa Onsen’s steep cobbled roads are lined with little gift shops and restaurants. Nestled among them are several ryokan which you can stay in for a small fortune, or for a much more reasonable price you can spend an afternoon making use of their onsen by purchasing an ‘onsen hopping pass’.  You can buy your pass at the visitor centre or from any of the twenty- four participating ryokan, which gets you into three baths of your choice and is presented on entry in exchange for a stamp.

It is customary to wear a yukata throughout town between bathing and most local hotels or ryokan provide these when you stay with them, along with a belt, jacket and small modesty towel. If you need to store your luggage there are lockers at the visitor centre in town. Just don’t forget your towel and camera!

There are maps displayed in town and you can find a helpful free English onsen guide at the Kurokawa Onsenvisitor centre explaining about each onsen clearly numbered on the map. Some are more sulphuric, acidic or alkaline and may be reputed to have specific health benefits.  You will find that some onsen may be closed due to maintenance – check at the visitor centre before you go.

Most of the onsen are gender separated although some are mixed.  We tried two that were gender separated, one of which was accessed by walking through a beautiful moss garden and we both had the onsen all to ourselves.

Cave bath at Kurokawa OnsenWe did also visit quite a unique but very popular mixed onsen in a cave. I enjoyed the onsen and it was possible to find a private spot away from other people, however I did feel a little exposed when dressing as there did not seem to be an obvious separate changing area for ladies. There seemed to be mainly men in the onsen, some with children, and not many of them used their modesty towels!

I believe it is possible to reserve certain onsen in the town for private bathing for an extra fee. If Foot bath at Kurokawa Onsenthis still doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, why not take advantage of one of the free foot spas dotted around town? Just take your shoes and socks off at the entrance and roll up your trousers to enjoy the hot springs and rest your feet.

There is something peaceful and very  Japanese about watching people strolling around the quaint streets of this beautiful rural town in their yukatas. Onsen hopping is a must for anyone that loves bathing in natural hot water and wants to enjoy an interesting cultural experience.

Note: Your onsen pass will set you back 1300 yen (£9) per person and is valid for up to six months.

Top tip: Kurosawa Onsen is accessible by bus, however getting there by car gives you more options for basing yourself slightly out of town where you can find less exclusive accommodation at a more reasonable price.

For more advice on what to do at a Japanese onsen, visit my blog post on how to onsen in Japan!

Azalea's on Kyushu, Japan

A day hike in Aso Kuju National Park

Hoarfrost in Kuju MountainsThe Aso Kuju National Park lies roughly in the centre of Kyushu and is made up of the Aso volcanic plateau and the Kuju mountain range. This range has several peaks over 1700m and remains volcanically active today. It’s ever changing scenery is most popular in June when the hills are littered with bright pink kyushu azaleas. However each season brings beautiful colours as trees turn white in winter with hoarfrost and the leaves of the white enkianthus  become red in October. We visited in early spring when there was still a bitterly cold wind and evidence of winter lingering on the trees at higher elevation.

A good place to start your hike is at the Chojabaru Visitor Centre in the north east section of the park, on the road to Beppu. If approaching the visitor centre from the south you will drive to it via the scenic Makinoto Pass. Entrance is free and there is information to read, maps and leaflets in English. An interesting twenty minute film about the area (with English subtitles) is available to watch if you have time. The staff at the visitor centre are particularly helpful and were able to suggest a hiking route for us on the day. You can purchase a very good hiking map of the area here for 300 yen.

We decided to hike up Mount Minimata, at approximately 12km and 1700m elevation which in total took us around 4.5 hours including pausing for the obligatory photos and a lunch stop. The path begins at the visitor centre and winds gently up a concrete path for 2 km or so before turning into a gravel path. The views from quite early on are breath taking.

About half way up the path becomes very rocky and you begin to see steam billowing from a neighbouring volcano. The path going up through the rocks is quite difficult to miss as there are painted yellow dots lining the way. Shortly you will come to a covered rest area with benches which is where we decided to break for lunch. Note that there are no facilities here at all, but the remains of an old concrete shelter provided a much needed respite from the wind.

After this begins a steep and rocky trail towards the summit which we found to be very muddy and slippery, so do be careful if the ground is wet.
A ‘false summit’ near the top of the mountain brings temporary elation until you realise you’re not quite there yet. From here you can see the top of Mount Minimata and a further thirty to forty minutes through similar terrain takes you to the summit.  From here we were rewarded with a glimpse of the large caldera viewed occasionally through the shifting clouds.

After reaching the summit there is a circular route that takes you to three other peaks and back to the top of Mount Minimata. We did not do this due to time pressure but followed the same track back down towards the visitor centre after taking a few snaps.

Be warned that the weather can change very quickly on the mountain and you should be prepared for all conditions. The hike does not require technical experience but a fair level of fitness and agility are required to navigate steep uphill climbs over rocky and slippery terrain.

There is a myriad of hiking trails in this mountain range and I would recommend staying for at least a few days if you are a keen walker and time allows. We barely scratched the surface of this beautiful region which provides a welcomed escape from the expanse of Japan’s busy cities and an opportunity to reconnect with nature. The region is also known for it’s fantastic hot springs and within an hours drive is the much loved onsen town of Kurokawa Onsen – a great place to soak your tired muscles after a good day’s hiking!

Amish people on buggy

Staying with the Amish

I’ve always had a fascination with the Amish because of their distinct lifestyle, discipline and commitment to a simple life without the complication and entrapments of modern living. Drawn from principles outlined in their Christian faith,  the Amish are reluctant to embrace modern technology to varying degrees, and their seemingly more ‘back to basics’ existence focuses on the practices of rural living, manual labour and raising families.

The States of Ohio and Pennsylvania house the largest population of Old Order Amish and over Beacon hollow farm guest house, Pennsylvania35,000 settlements lie within Lancaster County, Pennsylvania alone. Whilst the Amish retain a reputation of being fairly insular and wary of outsiders, it became clear to us from visiting Lancaster that not only are Amish people extremely friendly towards non-Amish, but are in fact very accommodating towards tourists also. Amish-made merchandise, baked goods, tours and even buggy rides are easily stumbled upon in some of the more built up areas of Lancaster County. We only had one day in the area which happened to be a Sunday, so as you can imagine most attractions were closed. However we still managed to get our Amish ‘fix’ by staying with the Riehl family on their working Amish dairy farm.

Beacon hollow farm guest house, PennsylvaniaI couldn’t believe my luck when I happened upon a website that enabled you to book a stay with the Amish. Beacon Hollow Farm Guest House, nestled in the heart of Amish Country, can be reserved by telephone or online through a booking agent who will provide details for your check-in. Typically this involves paying in cash upon arrival to the property, as was the case here. A quiet cottage on the grounds was our home for the night, complete with all the sounds and smells you expect from a farm, and somewhat surprisingly – electricity! The cottage was quaint and it felt like we had stepped back in time by about a hundred years (in a good way). Taking a pleasant evening walk around the farm meant that we were able to observe some of the animals, farm equipment, and crops growing in the fields. I will never forget sitting outside our cottage as the Corn fields on Amish farm, Pennsylvaniasun went down, a most serene moment, with nothing but the sound of crickets chirping happily in the grass. Somehow, it felt like home.

After an amazing night’s sleep in a creeky old bed, interrupted only by the falling rain, we were woken to Mrs Riehl knocking on the door with some fresh eggs from the farm, some homemade bread and a delicious strawberry smoothie. I struggle to think of enjoying a heartier breakfast at any other point on our trip. She offered us a tour of the cow shed whilst they did their morning chores, but sadly time was short and we had to hit the road again.

Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, a stay on this fairly remote, rural farm offered us a tiny glimpse into the way of the Amish. Seeking simplicity and quietness was high on my agenda but what I found was much more fascinating. We were made to feel welcome in a most unassuming and gracious way by a family from a culture so different from ours. I felt truly humbled to have shared in a small piece of their peaceful existence and gained a deeper understanding for what it means to be Amish .

Beacon hollow farm guest house, Pennsylvania

Top tip: Unless you’re into heavily processed, greasy food (as was our experience at a local restaurant) I would recommend a trip to the local store and using the kitchen in the cottage. You will want to maximise your time here anyway, as words cannot express how tranquil it is.

Check out the nearby quaint village of Bird in Hand which I’m told is worth a trip (not on a Sunday as everything is shut) if you are interested in all things Amish.

Feature photo courtesy of Clark Young/Unsplash