Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Menorca, Spain - A perfect family holiday in the sun

I'm used to planning  my own travel so  it was a real treat to have someone else decide on the destination for a change. My son and daughter-in-law had booked a family holiday to Menorca and invited lucky me to join them while I was visiting them in the UK.  I had never even heard of Menorca let alone been there so it was a real thrill to go on an unexpected holiday to somewhere new.
The marina at Port D'Addaia, Menorca
Menorca  is the smallest and most eastern of Spain's Balearic Islands.  It is also the quietest and most natural, making it a perfect family destination. Popular activities on the island are aquatic sports, hiking, horse riding or just chilling out and if archaeology is your thing there are more than1500 archaeological sites on the island dating from the Talayotic era. Then, of course, there is the crystal clear water lapping golden beaches, bars for sampling sangria and tapas and quaint small towns and villages to stroll around and soak up a bit of Catalan atmosphere. My diary says 'First impressions of the island - green, largely rural, traditional white, tiled farmhouses, stone walls, donkeys and hay bales, lovely."
Our villa at Port D'Addaia
As a family of five, including two young children, renting a villa seemed to be the best option for us.  Ours was in the  village of Port D'Addaia on the northern side of the island, and it was perfect. Set in a quiet, leafy street of stand alone houses  Villa Sonja has a private garden and a lovely swimming pool. Within minutes of arriving my grandson was happily splashing around in the  pool and as far as he was concerned the pool was the very best thing about this holiday.

Endless hours of fun in the pool
As for the adults, relaxation was immediate. There was wine to sample, paella to eat, books to read....bliss.  My daughter in law is a wonder at discovering all sorts of local delicacies and made sure we got to sample the local meats, cheeses, wines etc.  It was fun ticking them off her list. Port D'Addaia is a sleepy place consisting of a couple of restaurants, a gift shop, a small supermarket and a bar,  and I  loved it.  My days started with a cup of coffee on the balcony looking out on a rustic farmyard, the only sounds, bird calls and a gentle murmur  in the fragrant pines bordering the property.  Then it was off up to the village to buy the  huge, fluffy, sweet rolls called ensaimadas, the traditional Menorcan breakfast.  I enjoyed queuing up with the locals in the village shop waiting for these sugar dusted delights to come out of the oven and  saying good morning,"Bon dia"in the local dialect, to the shop assistant.
My grand daughter enjoying her huge breakfast ensaimada, hot from the oven

Some days we went sight seeing around the island, some days we stayed around the villa and relaxed or took a stroll down the hill to the marina past beautiful white washed villas, their gardens resplendent with pink and red oleander and bougainvillea tumbling over walls. 
Port D'Addaia gardens were a vibrant display of oleander and bougainvillea

One afternoon we sat at the small open air bar at the marina, sipping beer and sharing tall tales, another afternoon in the large friendly bar in the village, it was just delightful. Since our villa had no internet connection it was a wonderful excuse to head to the village bar for a cold drink and a chance to use their wifi - purely for research purposes, you understand.  So there you have it, a brief introduction to Menorca.  There is more to come.....
Delicious, authentic paella
Long, lazy lunches at our villa

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Photography and the Solo Traveller

Most of my travel photos don't include me.  That's probably not a bad thing but I have found that unless a photo is really good scenery can look a bit dull without human interest in it. Also, it's always fun to show that you were actually there when you are bragging back home. I try, when I can, to include people in my shots but preferably not me.    Nevertheless, in order to prove my adventures, I make sure there are a few shots of me included somewhere amongst my stacks of photos. In the beginning I took selfies with an extended arm.  Oh dear!  Every wrinkle looked ten times worse, or maybe there  really is truth in the saying "The camera never lies"!
As a solo traveler getting selfies can be tricky, especially if, like me, you are not a fan of selfie sticks.  From trial and error I have come up with a few tips which work for me.  Feel free to add some of your own in the comments section, I'm always keen to hear handy tips.

Puhoi River New Zealand I took this photo with my arm extended on a kayaking trip.  Yep, too many wrinkles! 


Ask strangers 

This is my favourite tip.  I often ask strangers to take my photo and I have found that far from being irritated they are flattered. I know there have been reports of people stealing cameras once they get hold of them so it is a case of following your instincts when you ask.  I usually look for a happy family group or an older couple but having said that I have found any age group happy to oblige and have never had my camera stolen....so far. As a part time tour guide in Auckland I am often asked to take tourists' photos.  It is a pleasure to oblige.

Den Gamle By, Denmark.  This photo was taken by a kindly stranger

Use the timer


This is my second favourite way to include myself in a photo. Most cameras have a timer option nowadays so this is easy to do after a bit of practice. Just find a ledge or stable spot to place your camera, carefully work out the shot you want, set the timer and get into position Voila!

I used a timer to take this shot at Katherine Gorge, Northern Territory, Australia.  

Employ reflective surfaces


Mirrors, sculptures, water - anything with a reflective surface can be used to put yourself in the shot

Lisbon, Portugal. This was an early, and less than successful, attempt to use a reflective surface, partly because the surface was mirror tiled and not very clean.  Lesson learned - examine the surface first.

 Ask Fellow Travelers to oblige


This is never a problem.  I have done a lot of traveling alone but have also traveled as a solo in a group.  If you offer to take someone's photo they will always take yours in return.

This photo was taken by a fellow traveler on a tour of Turkey .  I like this photo because although I am there it is the setting that counts

 Include only part of your body in the shot

Set the scene and the feeling you want to portray  by including just part of your body in the photo, as I have done in this photo taken on a recent cruise.

Ahhh, bliss, relaxing and reading on a cruise ship with only my feet in frame - setting the scene

Have fun experimenting.  Solo travel is fun and there is no need to miss out on a few precious photos with yourself in them.  And please feel free to pass on any clever tips you may have

Monday, 12 September 2016

I went up to London to visit the Queen

Well, not the Queen exactly but her house, Buckingham Palace. The palace is open to the public for only a few weeks of summer each year while the Queen is away and my daughter-in-law and I had tickets to visit, thanks to my generous son.  I was pretty excited to be setting foot inside this famous residence, something I never thought I would do. I have watched, with nose pressed against the iron railings and thousands of other tourists, the changing of the guard on a couple of occasions so it felt rather bizarre to be walking right in through the palace doors. Tickets are sold on a timed entry basis which controls the crowds and makes for a more pleasant experience.  We arrived early so killed a bit of time looking through the palace gift shop crammed with fine china and the ubiquitous boxes of chocolates, packets of biscuits, tea and assorted souvenirs.  Then through airport style security and armed with a multi media device, in to the palace. The tour covers 19 state rooms, these are the rooms  used extensively by the Queen and royal family for official occasions and to meet and entertain both subjects and dignitaries. Used as the official Royal residence only since 1837, Buckingham Palace was originally a much smaller house which was demolished then a new house was built which has been added to over many years. Much of the furniture, art and glittering chandeliers were bought by George IV to furnish his home when he was Prince of Wales.

The Queen's stunning coronation gown, patterned with  motifs from UK
 and Commonwealth countries.  Note the tiny waist.

This year, to celebrate the Queen's 90th birthday, there is a display of her clothing  from childhood  including her wedding gown, her coronation gown, both utterly stunning, and then on through many ball gowns and street wear worn for formal occasions and visits.  I was intrigued at how tiny her waist was as a young woman. Each garment was accompanied by a large photo of the Queen wearing it. Also on display were dozens of her hats. It was a fantastic display of fashion and style through the decades, showcasing top British fashion designers and all worn by one person.

The tour of the Palace was extensive and wonderful.  Things that stood out for me were:
The White Drawing Room. The large mirror to the left is hinged to conceal a door which allows the Queen discreet access to the room

  • The sweeping staircase leading up from the front entry designed with deliberately shallow steps to make it look longer and grander
  • The throne room, familiar from formal and wedding portraits of the royal family
  • The White Drawing Room which is absolutely magnificent and is where the Queen meets visiting heads of state.  It is familiar from television shots. 
  • The Art Gallery bursting with paintings by Rembrandt, Van Dyke, Canaletto, Reynolds, Rubens and many others
  • The sculpture gallery including works by Canova
  • The glorious chandeliers, incredibly ornate ceilings and rare, fine china by Sevres
  • The feeling that this is a palace with life in it.  I have been to many stately homes and there is usually a  lifeless, museum quality to them.  Buckingham Palace was different, it felt lived in but nevertheless fresh and immaculate.
  • The Throne Room - where Royal wedding photos are taken

I absolutely loved this tour.  The personal commentary was perfect and every time I felt I had seen all the wonderful rooms there were to see, there was another one.  I was fizzing about it for days afterwards. Photography inside the palace is not permitted , the photos here are copyright free via the internet.  You can take your own virtual tour if you go to You Tube and key in this address:


Outside the palace we had the opportunity to admire the beautiful and extensive park like grounds, complete with lake and I think if I lived in the palace that is where I would spend most of my time, so quiet, so peaceful and right in the heart of London. Photography is permitted in the grounds so the following photos are my own.

Do take this tour if you are in London in August or September, you won't be disappointed.  It was certainly a highlight of my trip to London.

The rear of the palace, overlooking the grounds

Left: Part of the gardens and lake

Right: That's me at the rear of the palace
Cute little ice cream shop in the Palace grounds

Sunday, 4 September 2016

The Hive - Kew Gardens' stunning new attraction

There is never really any need for an excuse to visit Kew Gardens, London, or to give it it's correct title The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Every season brings a new delight and a new perspective to this incredible showcase for the world's plants. A Unesco World Heritage site, Kew is home to 30,000 different living plants and 7 million preserved specimens of different kinds of plants.  It is a botanist's dream but more than that it is simply a beautiful serene, verdant park to stroll and picnic and enjoy being at one with nature.
Flower beds form only a small part of Kew gardens
I have visited Kew many times, as it is conveniently close to my son's home, and always find something new to enjoy.  On my last visit I had relished the climb up to be among the trees on the treetop walkway.  This time I was completely entranced by The Hive.

The Hive is a sculpture by Wolfgang Buttress, built as the centrepiece of the UK pavilion at the Milan Expo in 2015. It has been reassembled at Kew where it will remain for just 18 months so I suggest you get along  to see it smartly.  It is incredible.
Like bees buzzing around a hive
17 metres high, suspended above the ground and made up of 170,000 pieces of aluminium , the inspiration behind the sculpture is the role and plight of honeybees which, although they play an essential role in pollinating most of our food crops, are becoming increasingly endangered. From a distance the sculpture looks like swarming honey bees but as you get closer it takes on the appearance of a hive. As you walk towards The Hive you pass through a one acre flower garden planted with all types of wild flowers particularly attractive to bees, their buzzing helps set the scene for your experience of The Hive.

The path takes you right inside The Hive which is connected to accelerometers, or vibration sensors within a real beehive elsewhere in Kew Gardens. These pick up the activity of the bees and are then transmitted to The Hive where they are converted to lighting and sound effects as a representation of the activity in a bee colony. 

Inside The Hive
 The haunting and atmospheric sound track, the work of the band Spritualized, is a combination of recordings of a 40,000 strong bee colony plus instruments and the human voice while 1000 LED lights flicker and glow to show the movements of bees in and out of the real hive. 
Lights go on and off to reflect the movements of the bees in the real hive nearby
 Wolfgang Buttress said that "My approach to a sculpture seeks to frame nature so one can experience it more intimately" He has certainly achieved that goal.  I found the whole experience to be quite wonderful and completely mesmerising, worth visiting Kew Gardens for this alone.

The Orangery, a great spot for people watching.
But, do enjoy the whole of Kew Gardens, there is so much to see.  I rounded out a happy day with lunch at the Orangery and a quick browse in the excellent gift shop. I know I'll be back.