Wednesday, 25 February 2015

#ExploreTheElements: Need a £5k travel fund?

What would you do if you were given a £5k travel fund?

For me, mention that figure and my mind is already reeling with the possibilities. I could take that long-awaited trip to Iceland, visit the States for the first time, surprise my sister by showing up on her doorstep in Australia... And that GoPro I've been daydreaming about? It's a done deal.

Before I get entirely carried away, let me tell you what I'm on about.

Travel bloggers, Thomas Cook is offering this small fortune as a prize. Other goodies are up for grabs too, including a Fujifilm X-T1 camera, an Apple MacBook Air and an iPhone 6. Not too shabby!

How can you enter?

1) Write a blog post, sharing one of your travel photos for each element - water, air, earth and fire. Thomas Cook will choose an overall winner, as well as a winner for each element.

2) Nominate five other bloggers to share their entries.

3) Tweet @ThomasCookUK (with the #ExploreTheElements hashtag) and email them to let them know of your entry.

4) Make sure that your entry is live before 16 March.

Read the full terms and conditions for the competition. A big thank you to the lovely Char from Taylor Hearts Travel for my nomination - you can see her stunning entry here.

My #ExploreTheElements competition entry

After considering each of the elements, here are my travel photos that I feel capture water, fire, earth and air the best.


Having grown up in Cape Town, I was never far from the sea. Although I have silly phobias associated with water ie waves and deep water, this has always been the element that mesmerises me the most.

Whether it's sitting on the beach watching the tide come in or in a quiet spot by the lake, this is the element that brings immediate calm to my thoughts.

For my photo, I can't help but think of the clearest water I've ever seen: at Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. The lakes are almost unbearably blue, with small schools of fish darting between trees that fell into the lake some time ago.

The park is filled with hiking trails, and the sound of the many waterfalls and streams is a constant accompaniment. It's one of the most beautiful spots I've been to, and it holds a special place in my memories as I got to witness my sister's engagement here in 2013.


I love how none of the elements led me to an obvious photo. Almost all of these contain some form of water, including the above, but, to me, nothing reminds me more of fire (apart from, well, fire) than the sunsets I saw in Corfu.

It was my first big trip, and my sister and I were nearing the end of our European adventure. After a hectic few weeks, we decided to wind down in Pelekas, a sleepy coastal village in Corfu.

Our hosts told us that this side of the island was famous for its sunsets and, nodding politely, we gave that no more thought. That is, until we saw it with our own eyes.

The sun beginning to dip, the sky was filled with some of the most intense reds, oranges, pinks and purples I had ever seen. No photo can truly do it justice, but the colours bathed everything, including us, in a fiery glow.


Monday, 23 February 2015

An adrenaline-fuelled date at Thorpe Park

I've been fairly vocal about my support for quirky/alternative places and activities on this blog in the past. So, when the opportunity came up to do something a little different for our Valentine's Day weekend, I didn't hesitate for a second.

As part of their guide for Fun Days Out for Couples, Attractiontix invited Chris and I to have a slightly more unusual date - at an amusement park.

I know, I know - the idea of getting petrified on rollercoasters and having a guaranteed hair disaster by the end of the day may not be the perfect formula for a first date, but it presents a really fun day out with a more established significant other.

Our destination: Thorpe Park. Located just a short train ride out of central London, this theme park is perched on an artificial island in the Surrey countryside.

We're here! The entrance to Thorpe Park.

We were a bit nervous as our visit fell on the first weekend of half-term, but our fears were unfounded; it seems that the morning rain had kept the crowds away. True, many of Thorpe Park's rides (especially the water-based ones) were closed for the winter, but there were plenty of others to keep us occupied that day.

Chris had been to the park before as a teenager, and his memories involved hour-long queues. He was delighted - as was I - to find that none of the rollercoasters had any queuing time at all!

Cue: A lot of rollercoaster rides in quick succession.

Overjoyed to have the park to ourselves.

The ominously named 'The Swarm' rollercoaster.

Our first ride was The Swarm, which resembled some sort of apocalyptic/alien invasion/disaster movie landscape, complete with crashed cars and one half of a plane.

The Swarm was the UK's first winged rollercoaster, and even includes the option for the last two rows to experience the ride backwards (do it - it's strange but awesome!). There's a nail-bitingly slow climb to the top, accompanied by some amazing views over Surrey if your eyes aren't snapped shut at this point. Then there's the drop and a crazy amount of dips and spins. At one point, we were twisted upside down entirely.

Even if you don't find rollercoaster especially terrifying, that may be a good moment to feign fear as an excuse to hold hands with your paramour. Thank me later.

Getting ready to go...

...And The Swarm in action!

Thursday, 19 February 2015

An ode to the sea at Bermeo

The road curved out ahead; to the left was a sheer drop down towards the metallic-grey sea. 

It was drawing to the end of our second full day in Urdaibai, and it was decided that we would try to take in some of the area's best views before we lost daylight completely. 

Luckily, 'try' turned out to be the wrong verb; our goal was attained without much effort at all. 

We pulled off the road into a gravel parking lot, and got out of the car to see this stretching before us.

The waves were rolling into the bay in even sets and, just across from us we could see the town of Mundaka. Beyond that lay Bermeo.

Over the course of our three days in Urdaibai, we learned a lot about this region's reliance - and the resulting conservation efforts - on the sea. But it was the aforementioned Bermeo where these lessons really began.

- Disclaimer: Don't worry; despite what the title suggests, this won't be a display of my lacklustre poetry skills.


When I heard that we were going to be visiting a fish factory first thing in the morning, I can't say that I was terribly excited. But, on the bright side, the smell was guaranteed to be the best wake-up call available.

A short journey later, Musa, our driver for the trip, stopped outside Arroyabe, which is located in the industrial area of Bermeo. 

I was part of a group of bloggers setting out to discover the Basque Country; my companions were Sara from This Girl Loves, Milou from Explorista.NL and Maider from Il Etait Une Faim. Upon arrival at Arroyabe, we were told to don overcoats, hairnets and shoe covers. I can assure you that we looked very sexy in this get-up.

While we were heading down into the factory section of Arroyabe, we were given the history of the company. Essentially, Arroyabe is a family business that began all the way back in the 19th Century when Rufino Arroyabe decided to build his own cannery.

Nowadays, Arroyabe is known for its high-quality tuna and anchovy products, and we were about to learn just how much work goes into the making of these.

I'll admit that I never really cared to think of the process beyond the supermarket-bought tuna cans I was familiar with, but this was about to change.

The tuna fish arrive at Arroyabe.

White tuna belly is placed into containers.

From the delivery to the cooking to the processing to the packing, we got a crash course in what it takes to create stock for a prestigious fish product company. 

I think all of us were most surprised by the fact that so much of this process is done by hand, especially when it comes to the cooking and preparation of the meat.

We also learned the difference between the different types of tuna, as well as the strict fishing policies followed by Arroyabe. 

White tuna, especially the belly meat, is considered the best in quality. Before this visit, I would not have been able to inform you of the difference between types of fish, but now: white tuna, I'm your fan.

The packaging area of Arroyabe.

With all this talk of fish, we came to the truly fun part - the tasting.

Accompanied by a glassful of local cider (poured correctly, as demonstrated by Monty), we got to sample some of Arroyabe's most popular products. I enjoyed the salty anchovies, but I have to admit that the white tuna belly is a favourite that I now crave after returning to London.

Cider poured correctly - from a height!

And this just sets off instant cravings on my part - some of Arroyabe's best products.

Having eaten our fill (and hastily discarding the hairnets), we piled back into the car and headed off into Bermeo's Old Town.

Now, I've gotten to see some pretty coastal cities before, but I think Bermeo would easily rival any of these. Let me demonstrate. 

Monday, 16 February 2015

London Lately #4

It's time for another London Lately and, looking back on what initially started out as a quiet month, I'm surprised at just how busy it's been!

For anyone who has been reading this blog for a while, you may have seen some regular posts called 'In the past seven days', which summarised some of the recent happenings in my life. To coincide with the launch of A London Life, from now on, I'll be writing these: London Lately.

The London Lately posts will be about just that: the recent places and events I visit/attend in the city, as well as London-related developments that I'm excited about.

Here goes.
Two trips

Not directly London related, but these were definitely two of the biggest highlights from the past month.

At the end of January, Chris and I ventured off for a snowy escape to Tallinn, Estonia. What followed were 48 hours filled with sightseeing, amazing beer and surprising (in a positive way) food. I've already shared my guide to the city's best sights, and I'll be posting a foodie version soon!

St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral - one of the many amazing sights in Tallinn.

The very next weekend, I was invited to explore the stunning Spanish region of Urdaibai with Oh My Trip. Even though we had some record-setting winter weather to contend with, we got to see some gorgeous spots. The Urdaibai posts are on their way, so stay tuned.

A very snowy Spain!

Underground Film Club and brunch in the sky

Chris spoiled me rotten for Christmas, and we got to do two of my gifts this month. We both tend to value experience gifts over 'things', so I was delighted at the prospect of a movie with the Underground Film Club, followed by brunch at Duck & Waffle a week later.

Although the Underground Film Club has finished up its latest season, we thoroughly enjoyed our screening of the film classic, Casablanca. Screened in the vaults below Waterloo station, this easily goes down as the most unusual place I've watched a movie!

From below ground to the highest restaurant in the UK, my wish to eat at Duck & Waffle was fulfilled. You can read my review (spoiler: I LOVED IT) of our brunch there.

Chris and I at Duck & Waffle.

Shake, Rattle and Stir Gin Journey

This was my festive present to Chris, and, on a chilly Tuesday evening, we set off on our Gin Journey with Shake, Rattle and Stir.

Over the course of the evening, Leon, SR&S' founder, guided us through the history of gin, as well as the key elements in the making of this popular spirit. Of course, the biggest part of the fun is the tasting.

I'll be posting about this experience soon, but I'm happy to hint that I may have won a prize that evening... All will be revealed!

Friday, 13 February 2015

A Tallinn Takeover: The sights

Towards the end of last year, Chris and I decided that we wanted to have a wintry weekend away. Since London wasn't having a particularly hardcore winter (at that point, anyway), we thought we'd seek out snow elsewhere.

After doing some research and pestering some of our fellow travel bloggers, we decided to book a weekend in Tallinn, Estonia.

I admit: I didn't know a lot about this city before we got there. And we didn't have a long time to explore - only just over 48 hours, really - but we were determined to see and do as much as possible within that short amount of time. 

The pretty streets of Tallinn.

What followed was a truly surprising - in the best way possible - weekend. Indeed, we got to do so much that I've decided to split up our little Tallinn takeover into two parts: this post, which covers the city's best attractions, and another post dedicated to Tallinn's food and drink scene (watch this space).

We kept most of our sightseeing to the Old Town - the entirety of which is an official UNESCO World Heritage Site - although one of our sights took us beyond the walls. Without further ado, here are the places you should see when in Tallinn.

The city walls

The view from the city walls.

As soon as I get to a new destination, the first item on my agenda is getting to a good vantage point. 

We came upon the city walls by chance and, once we realised that we could access them, this was the very first thing we did in Tallinn. Tallinn's walls were first built in the 13th Century, and these were extended and modified over time. 

Nowadays, almost 2km of these walls remain, and you can climb to the top of a section located on Muurivahe Street for a couple of euros. Up here, we took in the views of Tallinn's rooftops, with placards placed along the walkway to help us identify the spires of the city's major attractions. The Hellemann Tower, located along the wall, is also worth a visit just for the extra views.

Chris takes in the views.
The view from Hellemann Tower.

Kiek in de Kok

You there, stop giggling! Kiek in de Kok, apart from bringing out the immaturity in most travellers (including us), happens to be one of Tallinn's most popular attractions.

The-tower-of-humorous-name: Kiek in de Kok.

This 15th-Century 38-metre structure is one of Old's Town's best-preserved defense towers. Why the strange name? Kiek in de Kok translates to 'peek in the kitchen'; when the tower was built, the soldiers there used to joke that it was so central that they could look down into the chimneys (and kitchens) of the houses below.

Entry to the tower costs 4.50 euros, although you'll have to pay an extra euro if you want to take any photos. It's worth the extra coin, though, as you'll want to capture the views seen from the top of the tower!

Throughout the different floors of the tower, there are exhibits explaining Tallinn's military past, as well as the history of the tower and city walls. 

And you thought your high heels were uncomfortable? - One of the exhibits at Kiek in de Kok.

And the unmissable view from the top!

The Bastion Tunnels

During the Swedish reign of the city back in the 1600s, it was decided that bastion walls would be built around Tallinn (just for a wee bit more defence). Since then, the man-made tunnels beneath these walls have been used for a variety of purposes: protection against medieval military attack, a prison, World War bunkers, a gathering point for the city's underground punk scene and as a refuge for homeless people. Talk about a varied history!

You can only access the Bastion Tunnels via a guided tour (5.80 euros), which you can book at the Kiek in de Kok reception area (both attractions are conveniently housed within the same building).

Our tour started with a rather quirky introductory video before we went down into the tunnels themselves.

Over 400 metres of the tunnels are open to the public, and we worked our way through these, with our guide pointing out interesting spots within. I may have giggled nervously when we heard that the tunnels are haunted, but my facial expression turned to horror when I heard that a rare type of cave spider calls these tunnels home.

Some parts of the tunnels are still being cleared out, but are scheduled to be open to the public soon.

Arachnophobes, don't let that stop you (the spiders have their very own section of the tunnels anyway) - we found our tour of the Bastion Tunnels quirky and fascinating.

Old Town Square

Raekoja plats is the main square within Tallinn's Old Town and it's inevitable that you'll land up here while traversing the area.

When we first got there, we were stunned at just how big it is. With cobblestone roads leading up to it from all directions, the square is dominated by the tall town hall. 

Dancing locals at Tallinn's Town Square.

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