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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
You got to hand it to London. Its brunch scene is continuously developing, with new restaurants coming along vying for that brunch crown.
My brunch blog post from last year continues to be one of the most popular on the site. But since then I’ve conquered a good few more brunch spots so it’s high time for an update on where to kickstart your weekend.
Grain Store, King’s Cross
My, my, my. This corner of King’s Cross is turning into a haven for culinary delights with the n’hood home to Shrimpy’s and Caravan. And then what happens in June? Grain Store (pictured above) opens and manages to become as popular as its neighbours. With hanging lights and exposed brickwork, it’s a little reminisce of Caravan, but the bar here triumphs over its neighbour and Grain Store just lends itself to just hanging out and spending the afternoon ordering more and more. Which is what we did. What started with brunch ended up with cocktails, wine and erm, pudding. Greedy, moi? No, it’s just the attentive staff, tasty food and the stylish decor make for a place to plonk on a Saturday (or Sunday). Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Duck & Waffle, Bishopsgate
Glamorous setting with a view overlooking the City? Duck & Waffle ticked all the boxes when I celebrated my birthday high in the air on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower back in January. If you’re hankering after heaven on Earth then look no further than the duck egg en cocotte.
Workshop Coffee, Clerkenwell
Hands up. Before N suggested I flip flop it over to Workshop Coffee (pictured above) for a catch up, I’d never heard of this joint. But N’s suggestion was spot on. Join the crowd and order a cocktail or two to have with the inventive brunch they serve up.
Burnt Toast Cafe
If you’re coming on a weekend, there’ll be a queue at this corner shop cafe in the lovely Brixton village. But don’t worry, patience is a virtue and you’ll soon be rewarded with the best eggs in town. Baked eggs are the order of the day. Be warned though: you’ll be surrounded by passersby with food envy. Go go go. And remember to bring cash – you can’t pay by card.
The Hackney Pearl
Admittedly, like Counter Café, The Hackney Pearl can be a bit of a trek to get to if you’re not living around Hackney Wick. You may think you’re in no man’s land but you’ll soon be greeted with a little gem of a place serving up consistently damn good scrambled eggs and an excellent Portobello mushroom dish with ricotta and walnuts on toast.
Hoi Polloi (pictured above) attracts a stylish crowd. God, it was so cool I felt like I was transported back to Ace Hotel in New York. With its wood panelling and softly lit atmosphere, it oozed glamour. Substance-wise the food was good (note: not amazing) and the portions were far too small. I’ll return for the experience, not for the food.
Caravan, King’s Cross
The last time I knocked out the brunch post I’d visited Caravan at Exmouth Market. Caravan at King’s Cross goes one better and puts brunch on a bigger, more stylish scale. There might be a longer queue, but it’s brilliant. I must return. And soon.
You can lose yourself wandering along Toledo’s pretty, cobbled streets. In fact, I did. Several times. Navigating in general, never mind windy, narrow streets, will never be my strong point, but at least Toledo is small enough to never be properly lost.
So what brought me to Toledo, the former capital of the Spanish empire? Truth was, I was eager to see more of Spain while I was in Madrid, and Toledo is just a paltry 30 minutes away by fast train.
Usually pre-planning, researching all the local hotspots is my forte, but Toledo was even more last-minute than my trip to Madrid so I let it slip. Anyway, it appeared that a lack of guidebook flicking and online browsing is bien when it comes to this UNESCO heritage site. You can’t walk a couple of hundred yards without coming across a grand mosque, church or synagogue, and Toledo is the kind of place that just calls for an aimless wander, ice-cream in hand, along the web of streets taking in the beautiful churches, the mesmerising views and stopping to soak up the rays in the plaza once in a while.
And besides wandering these labyrinths (and taking a peek inside the churches), there’s very little to actually do in Toledo. So expect to be just be bowled by this very attractive city.
However, there is one big drawback to visiting Toledo and that’s us – the tourists. There’s just too many roaming around to really enjoy it for what it is. Think dozens of tourist groups with their guides holding up umbrellas and then add some. In such a tiny place – the city can be crossed from one side to the other in 45 minutes – the crowds become unbearable at times.
Advice: Best to get off-the-beaten track and find some paths leading away from the key sites.
More pictures below.