Now that’s what I call an impromptu trip to Madrid

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I’m known in my circle of friends for my lack of planning, much preferring a dash of spontaneity than committing weeks ahead. This last-minuteness even drills down to my travels; so much so that late last month I messaged my bud N who lives in Madrid on the Tuesday if she would be around if I swung by on the weekend for five days (the perks of freelancing). Thankfully her response was ‘sie’.

I’m not sure where my inability to commit to any future plans has come from because I don’t think I used to suffer from this. So given my last-minute escape, even as the weekend approached, I was still arranging the hotels I’d be laying my head at and plotting adventures for in the Spanish capital.

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I’ve previously sang loudly about my love for Madrid (and what to do in the city), which I’ve now lapped up three times. I much prefer it to Barcelona, which tends to hog the limelight, but that might be because not only was I there for work but I managed to be gripped by a severe bout of food poisoning for two days, and was constantly harassed with phone calls by the PR who’d organised for me to be there (and when you’ve not slept during the night, I just wanted the throttle this bloody woman).

Retiro Park: where I cycled, jogged, walked and devoured an ice-cream

Retiro Park: where I cycled, jogged, walked and devoured an ice-cream

I’m scribing a piece for Elle’s travel section on what to do in this super cool city, which is graced with enough galleries, museums, plazas, parks and tapas joints that you’ll be wishing that your boss called you on the Sunday and said ‘don’t come in on Monday’, so you could extend your two-day city break, because Madrid deserves so much more of your time.

This being my third visit to Madrid, I didn’t need to stomp the museums (as glorious as they are); I could pace myself and live as a local. For me that included a cycle, jog and walk around wonderful Retiro Park, and a return visit to the extraordinary blissful candle-lit, steamy Hammam Alandalus Madrid (Calle de Atocha, 14, 28012; 34 914 29 90 20). These Arab baths transport you away from the bustling city and underground into an oasis where the only noise you hear is running water.

And damn I bloody loved a visit to the magical Opera House for the premiere of El Publico, which attracted well-heeled Madrileños  (think an entire fox around their shoulders), and perching up at tapas bars and getting rather tipsy at the most authentic sherry bar with K.

Shopping at a flea market

Shopping at a flea market

One evening I stayed in Madrid’s luxury quarter Salamanca, also home to fashion’s crème of the crème (think Manolo Blahnik and Miu Miu), but I shooed these in favour of browsing Zadig and Voltaire, cool trainer brand Ash, and Comptoir des Cononniers. I also stumbled across such a beautifully designed & Another Stories; so vast was it that I managed to get lost. On a one-level shop.

The jaunt made me hungry for another European city break. Maybe I’ll need to get booking that trip to The Hague pronto, K?

Still, it ain’t so far till June when C and I dance will be dancing away at Primarvera festival in Porto and then succumbing to relaxation for two days at the city’s super stylish spa and wine hotel, The Yeatman Hotel.

As soon as that article is live on Elle, I’ll swing up another blog post.

Me and Niki perched at yet another tavern

Me and Niki perched at yet another tavern

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New Year, New Travel Resolutions

New Orleans’ charming French Quarter

Reflecting back on last year, 2014 proved to be a stellar year for my satisfying my travel pangs. I hoofed off to Israel for a two-week adventure that brought together a slew of culture, sightseeing, delicious cuisine and pampering (I was commissioned to write a piece on the country’s spa scene while I was there).

One of the highlights was cool, vibrant Tel Aviv, which has the highest proportion of attractive people in the world* (*according to moi), and where I feasted on so much shakshuka I missed it dearly when I returned home. Another was slathering mud all over our bodies in the Dead Sea while walking into the ancient city of Petra as the sun was melting us was a memory that will never fade. The holiday was hectic – “oh, are we changing hotels again?” but thanks to partner in crime C, the holiday was a constant fit of giggles and heaps of fun.

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Next was Ibiza. Oh how I’d lusted for years to visit the island with a group of friends, dance until the wee hours, visit stunning beaches and relax by a villa with magical sunset vistas. And finally, after I’d just never quite made it happen before, U organised for a group of us to go for her birthday. It was bliss and it made me realise just how rewarding a holiday with a base is – not having to slog around that heavy grey suitcase or backpack for ever revolving hotels was a treat in itself.

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And so to 2015. An adventure to the Philippines or Burma was on the agenda for the start of the year but being such a wanderlust I’d want to take off for about a month and being freelance, it’d cause a big dent in my savings. Instead I’ll be holidaying nearer to home. Porto is all booked and paid for. C & I  will be staying in the beautiful dark and sexy Hotel Teatro (booked through Mr & Mrs Smith) while we’re dancing the day and night away at the city’s Primavera festival, and recovering the next three days at wine and spa hotel The Yeatman.

With no other big trip on the horizon as yet for 2015, I’m toying with the idea of a kind of tri-city Spanish break, packing in a visit to see N in Madrid, then catching the train to cool city Valencia to see another friend and finally kicking back in Seville with N. If you’ve got any tips for the latter two, do post them below.

I’m also hoping for some camping and festival adventures on home turf – I’ve just booked in for local small festival Farr Festival – and a trip to the Lakes with my sister-in-law is likely to be on the agenda and I’m dying to stay over at one of The Pig’s four outposts. Also, I’m definitely going to head up north to see B in Manchester, a city that’s becoming cooler every year.

Happy travels in 2015.

S

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Paradise or party mania? Ibiza – An island of contrasts

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Amid the dark, gloomy days of January, an email popped into my inbox inviting me to celebrate U’s 30th birthday in Ibiza. The holiday was prepped for September, the general consensus was that we’d book a villa with a pool with rocking vistas and there would be a mixed group of us. I couldn’t resist. “Yes, yes, yes!” screamed my positive response, dangling a bright glow to the January blues.

With a reputation as a wild hedonistic island, Ibiza attracts those seeking to replicate their Saturday night out in their hometown but extend this into a week-long session of further debauchery. But beyond the stereotypes, Ibiza also manages to appeal to the well heeled (James Blunt) and the boho variety (Jade Jagger) – and us, a mixed group of festival friends seeking a slice of partying but also a calm, picturesque oasis to shake off the London stress.

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Damn, take us back to that delightful villa where the only sounds we could hear were that of grasshoppers or cats meandering in, or actually us squealing as we jumped in the pool (hand in hand, backwards, running – it’s funny how many ways you can enter the water when you’re blessed with your own pool to fool around in. At 2am. And intoxicated). The villa served up spell-binding sunsets, giving way to countless Instagram opportunities as we sought to soak up such soul-stirring vistas. It was here we’d often stay up until almost sunrise, whizz up a BBQ, tuck into communal breakfasts laden with breads, eggs and bacon, and spend hours listening to mellow tunes, or like me, soak up a book.

Yes, there was a whole load of activity awaiting outside the impressive gates of the villa. Ibiza old town is worth an afternoon soaking up the 2,500 years of history. Here you’ll stumble along cobbled streets, whitewashed buildings and many charming restaurants (thumbs up to El Olivo and La Olivia for serving tantalising Mediterranean fare), markets and galleries. It was also here that, following the one glass of vino tinto, I fell down two stairs and twisted my ankle. One the second night. Oh, the glamour.

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During our week-long adventure we hired a boat and explored a nearby island – a highlight here was when six of us jumped off our boat and swam to a nearby beach in a bid to find ice-creams (with C stuffing the notes in a plastic wallet) and S swimming back with lollies intact for the other two. [NB: The first version of this post suggested we all swam back with two lollies between us. In fact, it was S who powered ahead with said lollies. DTT apologies for any upset this may have caused].

VIP in Ocean Beach Club, a comp provided to us through a contact, proved to be an eye-opener – kind of like landing in an Essex nightclub but where the layers of make-up and fake tans aren’t concealed by dim lights. Phones are glued to hands as the vainest compete to take selfie after selfie. Like visiting a zoo, we were hooked.

To shake off the excess we found a secluded cove in the north-east of Ibiza where we drank red wine, met a wonderful guy who made us mojitos – and later joined us for a party back at the villa – and watched the sunset. It was soul-stirring, as was a trip to nearby Formentera – a picturesque island worth the expensive return boat trip.

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And lastly, the partying. While boys with pecs bursting out of tank tops and dancing to the same tune for five hours in the one spot wasn’t my scene, happily many of my group loved the Carl Cox night at Space. It was at Ushuaia, an open air club with tunes spun out by Armin van Buuren, that I truly kicked into the spirit of the Ibiza nightlife. Five hours of dancing and we didn’t want to retreat to the villa. And being in Ibiza, we didn’t.

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Quentin Blake: Inside Stories exhibition

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When I think of Roald Dahl’s utterly brilliant tales I’m soon transported to my childhood – and I’ve got to pay homage to this man for giving me an absolute love for reading. His books were awash with fantastic illustrations that would leap out at you and just depict the scene in such a hilarious way. The man behind those illustrations is of course Quentin Blake. The wonderful illustrator whose pen of scribbly lines is so unique, is celebrated at Inside Stories, an exhibition at his own recently launched gallery House of Illustration at King’s Cross. It’s small and perfectly curated with the images he created – sometimes from start to finish showing his development for characters such as the Wild Washerwomen and Miss Trunchbull – for not only Roald Dahl but other authors such as Michael Rosen and David Walliams. The first illustration on entering the room is of Mr and Mrs Twit, and just hearing the gasps of delight from everyone who sees this picture is a joy in itself. Nostalgia at its finest.

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If you do go to the exhibition, slope off afterwards for food at Caravan or Grain Store.

 

Quentin Blake: Inside Stories | Open from 2 July. 10:00 – 18:00 Tuesday – Sunday. 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross

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Meet Long Island City – New York’s Coolest ‘Hood

Long Island City at Sunset

Forget well-explored Manhattan. Scrap trendy Williamsburg. On your next trip to the Big Apple, get thee to the up-and-coming coolest New York ‘hood, Long Island City.

Long Island City (LIC) has undergone rapid transformation in recent years. Factories and warehouses are being converted into apartments and bars, coffee shops with exposed brick walls are filled with hipsters tapping away on their Macs, while hotels are sprouting as major chains and boutiques alike vie to be part of this up-and-coming destination, which thanks to their attractive rates, are increasingly luring in smart travellers.

What to do

LIC, situated in the borough of Queens, has become a vibrant hotspot, with a fantastic cultural scene. If you’re one for rummaging through markets, head to LIC Flea & Food, an outdoor weekend market at Hunters Point waterfront serving up wares and artisan food from a selection of sellers.

Get thee to one of its fantastic museums and galleries. Forgo MoMa in Manhattan for its little sister MoMa PS1. And while you’re there, drop in for some tasty fare at its well-acclaimed restaurant, M. Wells Dinette.

The Noguchi Museum is home to art created by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi, who wished for his former studio to celebrate his life and work. It features a beautiful garden showcasing his sculptures.

OK, so it’s more officially Astoria than Long Island City but while you’re in this ‘hood, you should visit the Museum of the Moving Image, featuring cool music videos, props from TV shows such as Sex and the City and Star Wars memorabilia.

The Noguchi Museum Gardens

Where to eat

New York serves up amazing food to please every taste bud and that doesn’t stop at LIC. Here there’s a variety of brilliant restaurants, bakeries and bars.

For delicious grilled cheese sandwiches try The Queens Kickshaw, while for brunch or perhaps a coffee and cake, stop by Sage General Store. One a night out, head to Dutch Kills, considered to be one of the best cocktail joints in the area. For a stylish setting, try Astor Room in Astoria, where you can wash down oysters and lobster with seriously good cocktails.

The Queens Kickshaw

If you’re on the lookout for comedy geniuses, head to The Creek and the Cave, or for theatre, musicals or dance productions, try the very intimate The Secret Theatre.

Where to stay

For those who have pounded those Manhattan streets a million times, and fancy a change, lay your head in LIC. Or if you’re sparkling new to New York and are hankering after a bargain, look no further – many LIC hotels offer rooms from $99, giving you more bang for your buck. Plus the key draw of this once gritty neighbourhood is that many of the hotel’s rooftops serve up classic views of the Manhattan skyline. Soul stirring.

And if you want to slope off to Manhattan, it’s incredibly easy. In fact, the neighbourhood’s close proximity to Manhattan is one of the key reasons tourists choose to stay in the vicinity – you can be shopping at Fifth Avenue in seven minutes.

This post first appeared at the Flight Centre blog.

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Bolivia – South America’s hidden gem

Bolivia may be under the radar compared to its South American sister countries like Brazil and Columbia, but what this landlocked nation lacks in press exposure, it makes up in sparkling white colonial-style cities and a landscape that dazzles. Visit and you’ll be rewarded with rich culture, vibrant markets and jaw-dropping scenery – and coca leaves aplenty.

Salar de Uyuni

The highlight of the south of Bolivia, and perhaps the entire country, is the Salar de Uyuni – otherwise known as the salt flats. Catching the mass of dazzling white salt flats against a backdrop of high mountain peaks for the first time is quite a surreal moment and so extraordinary that you’ll be running out of camera batteries in no time. And if that scenery is not enough to get you plotting a Bolivian adventure, the area is also home to the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, a nature reserve with a red sparkling lake and wandering flocks of pink flamingos. All in all, it’s sight to behold.

La Paz

La Paz, Bolivia

Bolivia’s “de facto” capital sits snugly within a deep canyon but still manages to pull off an altitude factor of more than 3,600m. It’s a city that’s bursting with paradoxes: office blocks sit tall in what appears to be a sprawling metropolis with cool restaurants and hip quarters, but there’s a backdrop of a valley slopes, mountains and ramshackle homes. Bolivians wearing traditional dress sit outside their stalls day after day, pumping out freshly squeezed orange juice or manning tables of textiles. The city has enough market stalls to suit every shopper. Get lost wandering down maze-like streets but as you do, make sure you find the Mercado de Heachiceria (Witches’ Market), where mummified llama foetuses, Andean textiles and herbs sit side by side.

Sucre

Oh, beautiful Sucre.  With its colonial architecture and burnt orange rooftops, the city is a pretty place to recharge for a few days. While you’re there, head to the rooftop of San Felipe Neri, where you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of Sucre.

A good spot to spend an afternoon relaxing with a panoramic view of Sucre is Cafe Mirador, La Recoleta. If you want to spoil yourself, then order the chunky tiramisu. If, like me, you enjoy wandering amongst grand tombstones then just 20 minutes’ walk from the city centre lays Cementerio General. The cemetery holds mausoleums of former presidents and famous people, as well as more regular folk.

A good day trip from Sucre is Tarabuco, which takes one and a half hours to get to from Sucre, and hosts a colourful market every Sunday. Textiles, such as blankets, wall decorations, hats and bags, are available to buy. Perfect for those scouting out unique gifts to bring home.

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This article first appeared on the Flight Centre blog.

 

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Brazil: The game’s over (for us) but the country’s still worth your extra time

With a diverse heritage that blends together African, European and Indian cultures, and a spectacular landscape of rugged mountains, swaying palm trees and of course, its world-famous beaches, Brazil is quite simply a tropical paradise. With the country firmly on everyone’s radar after watching the World Cup, Suzanne shares with us where to visit in Brazil.

Rio de Janeiro

It’d almost be a crime to visit Brazil and not visit Rio. The spectacular and seemingly endless golden beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema are enough to persuade you to kick-start every morning with a jog along the glorious waterfront. The beaches – all 40km of them –offer a wealth of entertainment: here you can watch kite surfers, beach soccer or envy all the fit Brazilian bodies as men and women alike play beach volleyball. And at a weekend, the people-watching opportunities swell up as the thoroughfare comes alive with joggers, strollers and rollerbladers.

Apart from its world-famous beaches, Rio holds its own when it comes to dizzyingly high attractions, in the form of Sugar Loaf mountain and Christ the Redeemer, which both offer dazzling views over Rio.

In Rio you’ve also got one of the world’s wildest cities, known as much for its soul-sizzling nightlife as it is for its spectacular beaches (well, it is home to one of the biggest – and most colourful – parties on earth, Carnival). So do what locals do and enjoy Brazil’s national cocktail, caipirinhas, made up of cachaca, sugar and lime, and head over to energetic Lapa for a spot of samba before hitting a grimy club. (Note: pickpockets are notorious in this area so don’t bother wearing any jewellery and keep your cash well hidden).

One of my favourite neighbourhoods in Rio is Santa Teresa, a rather affluent and boho community perched on a hill, where artist studios reside, charming boutique hotels and cool eateries sit alongside each other.

Iguazu Falls

Most of us have probably come across a waterfall or two before. But probably not as captivating as Iguazu Falls, where the widest waterfalls in the world crash down and spray out at you from magnificent heights. They’re intoxicating to watch. If you get a chance, it’s worth trying to pop across to the Argentinean border to see the other side. Try going on a sunny day to catch a rainbow or two.

The Pantanal

The Pantanal was an unexpected trip during my four-month journey around South America. After hearing a number of travellers rave about this marshy land – said to be the world’s largest freshwater wetland – I was sold and soon enough booked flights to one of the nearest airports, Campo Grande.

The Pantanal is known for bursting with wildlife and for being a better place to spy on some of the world’s most incredible animals and birds than its nearby wildlife rival, the Amazon. Here I spotted howler monkeys, master deers, caimans, otters, anacondas and capybaras alongside a variety of birds including herons, ibis, owls, kingfishers, woodpeckers, macaws, toucans, eagles and storks. During my visit, I was forever sloping off to go tubing, horse riding, night spotting for jaguars, or taking a boat ride or walk around the wetland. Each activity was based around spotting some of the hundreds of different species living in this lush setting. At times it was truly jaw dropping.

Morro De Sao Paulo

This picturesque island, just south of Salvador, is the perfect place to recharge the batteries. While the main square is filled with restaurants, tourist agencies and pousadas, walk downhill and you’ll find pristine beaches and a calm sea delivering postcard-worthy views. One of my favourite golden sands was Segunda Praia, where the day’s agenda would consist of sunbathing sessions followed by a swim in the calm waters. On an evening the island comes alive as vendors sell an assortment of colourful fresh-fruits such as mangoes, strawberries and limes to mix with whichever spirit takes your fancy. The beaches provide a dash of romance with candlelit tables scattered across the sands. But soon enough, the atmosphere changes and partygoers are dancing the night away until sunrise at one of the many beach parties.

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Suzanne Bearne is a freelance journalist specialising in retail, fashion and travel. She’s also a travel blogger and can be found blogging at www.devotedtotravel.wordpress.com and tweeting at sbearne

This post first appeared on the Flight Centre website.

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