London’s new trophy green space: Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

“If you go down to Stratford today, you might be in for a surprise,” she sings, to the tune of Teddy Bears’ Picnic. You will be surprised because almost two years on from that spectacular sporting event, and the grounds and area around the Olympic Stadium have been transformed – into a kid’s dream world.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park reopened earlier this month and it’s an absolute mammoth area of green space with so many play areas (it’s like nothing else for kids, for every few metres there’s a sand pit, climbing frame, playground, climbing wall – feature after feature for a child to immerse themselves in) and nature trails for visitors to explore.
There’s loads of waterways too, and of course there’s the famous stadium, Aquatics Centre, Lee Valley VeloPark, and Anish Kapoor’s famous ArcelorMittal Orbit. 
Admittedly it’s all a bit model village, with everything perfectly in place, but it makes for a lovely day out, especially for families (though I guess no-one loved the half hour wait in one of the cafes).
Once the sun’s out, I’ll definitely return for a bike ride and picnic.
I snapped a few (grey) pictures below:

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New York: Dinner with a banker-turned-monk

Rasanath

Rasanath

Talk is pretty intense for a Thursday night in New York but then instead of sipping cocktails at the coolest drinking den in hipster Williamsburg, I’m having dinner with a Hindu monk. Talk was never going to be about the New York bar scene.
The person behind this deep rhetorical question is Rasanath Dasa, a sprightly 35-year old who regularly shares his unusual story of ditching his ludicrous banking career to become a full-time monk.
We’re in a monastery, surprisingly on a main thoroughfare in Manhattan’s bustling East Village. I’m not fully au fair with monks’ dress codes but if I passed Rasanath in the street it wouldn’t immediately spring to mind that he’d chosen a life of religious asceticism. Dressed casually in a Patagonia fleece, orange scarf and black trousers, his clothes might not give off the impression he’s a monk, but sure enough Rasanath’s presence is most spiritual-like.
Despite the familiar sounds of New York life often seeping into the sparse room, I sit and listen intently, gripped not just by how he moved out of his apartment to move into the monastery, but by his aura. After being caught up in a self-imposed cram-as-much-in-as-possible schedule for the past couple of weeks, I suddenly feel unbelievably peaceful sitting next to Rasanath; like he’s waved a magic wand of serenity over me.
During the two-hour talk it transpires that quitting his banking career to live as a monk isn’t as unexpected as it first appears after Rasanath first became interested in monkhood when he was studying as a teenager. His story is interrupted just the once when another monk, donning full robes, brings in our dinner. A simple meal of soup, pasta and pesto is served up and we quietly slurp our way through as Rasanath’s mellow voice soothes us.
Rasanath is very likable; he smiles and laughs as he shares his extraordinary story. It tickles him that when he was working on a Playboy deal, guys would walk past his work cubicle, see the magazines and say, “You get to work on the all the good files!” He shakes his head laughing.
As he tells us in his soft voice about his conflict with the shallowness of the banking industry and indeed society, it’s a thought that resonates long after I’ve left the monastery.
It’s 9.45pm and the talk finishes long over schedule. Rasanath’s sacrifices, including not being able to afford insurance, are soul stirring.
Reflective, I walk out into the busy East Village, where the bars are crammed with young professionals and a group of men unbeknown they’re hanging outside a monastery, swig back beer.
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Plunging into history: Ironmonger Row Baths

Ironmonger Row Baths
It’s Friday evening, and E and I are sipping our drinks and gossiping. But instead of the usual location of the pub, we’re at a spa in Shoreditch, and the drinks consist of herbal teas and water with a slice of orange floating at the top. Friday evening has never looked so respectable.
Ironmonger Row Baths is filled with history. A former bathhouse that came to life in 1931, this is where Islington residents would come to wash at one of the 80 bathing cubicles (according to Time Out, when Ironmonger Row Baths opened, about 4% of Islington locals had their own tub).
I booked us in for a three-hour session as a late birthday present to Ms E. I thought three hours might be a bit too long and our skin might have shrivelled up by 8pm but the spa, operated by Spa London, has enough facilities to warrant the whole session. There’s two aroma steam rooms (my favourite was some lemony zest one), two saunas, a plunge pool, tepidarium, caladarium, laconium, ice fountain, monsoon shower and bucket shower. Then there’s the 1970s relaxation room with loungers, herbal teas and magazines scattered around.
A session at Ironmonger  is very affordable compared to London spas, at £25 for three hours. Apart from having to tell a few Australians to shush after they must have misplaced the steam room for Walkabout, the spa made me feel revitalised; now that’s worth skipping the pub for (once in a while).
spa-london.org/ironmonger-row-baths/
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An escape to the Cotswolds

The Green Dragon Inn, located in Cowley, Gloucestershire

Do you fancy a weekend in the Cotswolds? When Mother Hen, my nickname for A, posed this in an email, I jumped at the chance. Yes, yes, yes, cried my over-worked self. When she asked me what I wanted to do, my list was pretty simple: walk, pub lunch, visit a few boutiques and head out for dinner. Of course, being a cracking Mother Hen, she fulfilled all of my demands – and more.
Three years had somehow swept by since I last retreated to the Cotswolds. It’s so much closer to London than I remembered, making it just the perfect destination for kicking yourself out of the big city, grabbing your Hunters and Barbour jacket and making the most of one of Britain’s best natural beauties.
Just over an hour from Paddington and I’d arrived in Kemble, where A picked me up and drove us through some country lanes to pretty Cirencester. Soon enough we were perched at the bar in deli-restaurant Made by Bob’s watching the chefs kick up a storm in the kitchen and drinking a glass of wine. The food, the staff, the atmosphere – all delightful.
Stomachs full, we turned our attention to browsing the town’s adorable shops. Boutique 3 and Sue Parkinson were two standout indies, both stocking a brilliant selection of premium labels, including Eileen Fisher, Joseph and Chinti and Parker.
Later, after A cracked open the prosecco for me and P, who had joined us for an overnight jaunt, we grabbed a taxi into Cheltenham and into two-storey bar No 131 where the barman crafted the perfect pisco sours. Dinner was at a brasserie called Flynns, which also got the thumbs up from this hungry threesome.

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The next day, after A whipped up scrambled eggs on toast for all three us and we said out goodbyes to P, A and & I donned our walking gear and hiked Cleeve Hill for a couple of hours, taking into breathtaking views and some muddy pathways, along the Cotswolds Way (and stopping for a breather, as pictured).
Our reward? A booked us in the most picturesque country bolthole (complete with not one, but two roaring fires) that is The Green Dragon Inn in Cowley where lunch was polished off with a fine apple and crumble pudding.
Cotswolds WayWith late Sunday afternoon soon creeping upon us, A dropped one revitalised Londoner back off at the train station. A short but very sweet, and memorable, weekend in the Cotswolds. Just what this city girl needed.
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Luxury on a shoestring: How to inject some style into your travels

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It might appear to be well nigh impossible to add a slice of chic to your travels when you’re on the road, sleeping in dorms and taking overnighter bus journeys instead of forking out for a flight but with a dose of savviness, there’s a few ways to inject a touch of glamour to your trip.
You see I’m a big fan of hip hotels. I love a roll-top bath, being served breakfast in bed and there’s no chance of me jumping out of a king-size bed, complete with fluffy pillows, at 7am. However, when I’m travelling, rather than jetting off for the weekend, I’m swapping the likes of Babington House and crisp Egyptian sheets for a bunk bed in a Buenos Aires hostel.
Once in a while on my travels, I like to ditch the khaki trousers and rucksack and particularly the hostel to feel like more of a stylish jetsetter than dishevelled backpacker. But how do you do it if you’re on a tight budget? One way, especially if you’re travelling in a couple, or even with a friend, is to book in for one night at a hip hotel (found at a reasonable price of course. This could just be £50 each, cheaper in some countries). To make your money go further, find one that includes breakfast, allows an early check-in and here’s what makes it worth its salt – hunt one down with extra facilities and I’m not just talking about a tea and coffee machine. Find a hotel with a spa that’s free for guests to use. Just think of being able to hit the sauna, soak in that jacuzzi (especially if you’ve just been doing some serious hiking) and test out the swimming pool. If you’re on a round-the-world trip, perhaps you could afford just one night a month in such a place. Hostels can be fun but I know from my big trip around South America, sleep can be disrupted and bathrooms, erring on the grotty side. At least this guarantees some much-needed R&R.
High Road House
If your budget can’t be stretched to a hotel room, there’s still other ways to add some style to your trip without blowing the budget. You see most cities have at least one grand hotel with eye-watering nightly rates, but don’t let this knock you back from checking it out. Such hotels usually allow non-guests into its restaurant and bar. Cue cocktails in somewhere classier than the hostel bar (just remember to smarten up).
Three years back, A visited me while I travelled through Brazil and although we were staying in a boutique B&B in the arty neighbourhood of Santa Teresa in Rio de Janeiro, we wanted to end our night out in Brazil’s sexiest city in style. So instead of blowing the rest of my travel budget on one night at Copacabana Palace, a grand hotel overlooking the famous sandy shores, we sat and sipped cocktails by the outdoor hotel pool amongst some of Rio’s finest ladies and gentlemen. Cocktails were about £10 a pop but we limited it to two each, enjoyed the atmosphere and the cool lighting as waiters plied us with helpings of nuts and crisps. The staff, the ambience and the backdrop made us feel like a million dollars. Even if we weren’t.
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Do Date a Girl Who Travels

The Pantanal
There’s a travel article doing the rounds at the moment and it stopped me pretty dead in my tracks (which means, I read it all the way to the end. And again). Why? Well, it’s not often that I read an article and think “STOP! This is about me! Has this person actually met me? Did I get drunk with this writer at the weekend and forget all about it?”
Actually, I don’t like and don’t agree with the whole premise of the The Huffington Post article, which puts forth that female travellers are pretty much undateable because we’re independent, can be hard to impress (especially when it comes to material goods), and we’re always jumping on the next plane. I disagree, and think because we’re so free-spirited, interesting and spontaneous we’re even more dateable.
But the article, sent to me by a guy I met travelling in Argentina few years back, was like someone holding up a mirror. It’s the stuff my obit could be made of.
Illha Grande
These pars especially ring true:
“She is hard to please. The usual dinner-movie date at the mall will suck the life out of her. Her soul craves for new experiences and adventures. She will be unimpressed with your new car and your expensive watch. She would rather climb a rock or jump out of an airplane than hear you brag about it.”
“Chances are, she can’t hold a steady job. Or she’s probably daydreaming about quitting. She doesn’t want to keep working her ass off for someone else’s dream. She has her own and is working towards it. She is a freelancer. She makes money from designing, writing, photography or something that requires creativity and imagination. Don’t waste her time complaining about your boring job.” – Hands up. Yes, I did quit my job three years ago to go freelance. And in the past three years I’ve spent quarter of every year living in New York or travelling South America.
This one hits the nail on the head: “She doesn’t have a plan or a permanent address. She goes with the flow and follows her heart. She dances to the beat of her own drum.”
And finally, yes, I do chat to everyone: “She’s busy living in the present. She talks to strangers. She will meet many interesting, like-minded people from around the world who share her passion and dreams.”
Here’s the link to the post:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/adi-zarsadias/dont-date-a-girl-who-travels_b_4704794.html
Ellie and I on cobbly street in Cuzco

Ellie and I on cobbly street in Cuzco

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2014 Travel Wish List

New York skyline

New York skyline

Thanks 2013, you were quite a charmer. Another year, another homage to New York. In March I packed my bags (three in fact) and chanced it once again at JFK immigration. After some tough questions (how can a young woman afford to travel in the States? Yes, seriously) I was through and lapped up another stint in one of my favourite cities. New York was already familiar to me but there was so much I hadn’t done – Rockefeller, Empire of the State, a cruise around the island and Guggenheim Museum, so on my fourth visit, I succumbed. But I also saw plays in small theatres in Williamsburg, got involved in an interactive play with my friend K and oh yes, tried to intervene to stop an assault.
While in New York I had a couple of brilliant and unforgettable vacations. I caught the equivalent of the Megabus and took off to Boston for five nights, where the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, housed in a 15th-century Venetian-style palace with a beautiful interior courtyard with tropical hanging flowers, sculptures and Roman-style columns, was worth the visit alone. The trip itself proved to be as interesting as ever, when I opened the door of my Airbnb host and found him to be a stonehead.
If I was to pick my best trip it would have to New Orleans. What a great,  jazz-fuelled, friendly and happening city –  just a downright brilliant place. P & I ate so much, drank cocktails and danced until the early hours (and even managed to go to the mighty JazzFest).
Back on British turf there were the usual festivals and fun in London. A week-long trip to see N in Madrid proved to be just the respite I needed.
And so to the year ahead. I always do these travel wish lists with such good intentions but I never do fulfil them all. Still, I’d love to take a few more trips. I bought mother hen a trip to Bruges for Christmas so hopefully we’ll have a weekend break there in April. Towards the tail end of last year I was lucky enough to win flights to Tel Aviv so I plan to take 10 to 14 days to savour Israel, where I’ll party in Tel Aviv, visit the holy city of Jerusalem and jump in the Dead Sea.  That’s the plan anyhow.
With S emigrating to Kuala Lumpur soon, I’m tempted to visit her in November before flying to Burma for a couple of weeks. I’m also contemplating another trip to see N in Madrid again and to finally make it to Ibiza for a combination of partying and sightseeing.
Here’s to a year filled with adventure.
 
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