Saturday, 31 October 2015

Sail Back: Birthday Bruges

Everyone loves being whisked away for their birthday, and I was so excited when my husband Mark revealed we would be spending my birthday weekend in Bruges in November 2011.

We started the day walking into the city from the station, the architecture quickly transforming from modern to medieval as we entered the historic centre. Amazingly Bruges managed to avoid any heavy bombing during the Second World War, preserving its medieval centre and charm.

The city was covered in the golden leaves of the beech trees, speckling the cafe chairs and tables which were waiting for the morning's coffee customers. There was something very peaceful and special about the city and we were only at the beginning!

Our first stop was for hot waffles with lashings of melted chocolate whilst we explored the day's market. The waffles were sweet and delicious; the perfect welcome to Belgium! 

Before long we were working up an appetite for lunch with a trip up the Belfry. The Belfry is an historic bell tower above the former treasury which stands 83m above the town. The view from the top was lovely, with splendid views over the gabbled rooftops and some navigational engravings to cities from around the globe.

Back at ground level we enjoyed a traditional Flemish lunch and a Belgian beer in the sunshine in Grote Markt Square. 

One of Bruges' best sights is the view of the river and the trailing trees into the water. There were boats offering trips along the river but we opted to walk slowely and aimlessly seeing where it would lead us. We found the quieter area around Jan Van Eyckplien Square framed by colourful and characterful homes along the waterfront. 

Of course we couldn't leave Belgium without some of its world famous chocolate! We hand selected a few boxes (one for now, one for later) from (chocolate shop) before strolling out hand in hand, fully in love with the city. 

We enjoyed our day in Bruges as part of a 2 night P&O cruise from Hull* to Zebrugge. 

*Bruges is actually closer to our home in Dorset than Hull!

Other blogs from the Sail Back series:

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Claire's Top 10: Rome

Having been drawn back to the ancient streets of the eternal city 3 times over the past few years, I've had plenty of time to explore the big attractions and the lesser known corners of Rome.

Whilst there's always something new and beautiful behind every corner, there are some places that draw me back time and time again!

Here are my top ten Rome experiences! 

1. The Colosseum and Palatine Hill

If there's one thing you see in Rome, make sure it's the Colosseum. Yes it's filled with tourists, but it's well worth the crowds. For a more relaxed experience, visit in the early evening and enjoy the view from one of the nearby bars at sunset. Palatine hill is often forgotten but offers a quiet setting and beautiful views of the city.

2. St Peters and the Vatican

Even if you aren't religious there's something about being in St Peters Square for Sunday mass. Enjoy listening the the Popes speech then visit the basilica, not forgetting the catacombs and the Vatican Museums.

3. Campo de' Fiori 

Mingle with the Iocals at this bustling market which runs daily. Fresh fruit, produce and flowers will fill your senses and it's great fun to buy bruschetta mix and see which country the vendor thinks you are from (I got Spanish, and was so flattered!) 

4. Villa Borghese 

Sunny afternoons are best spent inVilla Borghese away from the crowds. There are plenty of shady spots around and undoubtedly a man strumming a guitar. Grab a bottle of wine and some fresh bread and ham and make a picnic of it!

5. Mouth of truth

Re-live the classic Roman Holiday scene with a trip to the Mouth of Truth. There's usually a queue but it moves quickly, is free to visit and is the perfect place to start a walk along the river. 

6. Piazza della Rontula

This is my favourite square in Rome, and is watched over by the historic Pantheon. Horse drawn cartridges combine with suited business men and women in stilettos (on those cobbles!) giving this small square a unique atmosphere. Most tourists only pass through on their way to the Pantheon or Piazza Navona. Sit back, relax and watch the world go by. 

7. Trastrevere

The city's up and coming neighbourhood is where all the locals hangout. Nip over for dinner and drinks at one of the amazing wine bars and enjoy a street performance in the square. 

8. Trevi Fountain 

Dreams of Rome are made as you round the corner and are quite frankly confronted by the awesome and imposing Trevi Fountain, the city's most dramatic and powerful fountain. Toss a few coins and make a wish! 

9. The Tiber

The tree lined paths of the Tiber are great for a morning stroll and the bridges afford amazing views of St Peters basilica especially from the Ponte Umberto not far from Piazza Navona on the east and Piazza Cavour on the west. 

10. Villa D'Este

Hop the train from Termini to Tivoli (30 mins) and pay a visit to Villa D'Este. This beautiful Renaissance villa features some impressive rooms and a stunning garden filled with fountains of all shapes and sizes.

What's your favourite things to do or see in Rome?

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Review: The Ludlow Hotel, New York

I can see the ‘Hotel’ sign up the street and I know we are getting close. I’ve walked these streets on Google Maps more times than I care to admit in the weeks before our trip to New York. We booked our hotel through British Airways and were reassured by its Mr & Mrs Smith status, but honestly, we didn’t have a clue about what to expect!

I’m pleased to see when we arrive that The Ludlow Hotel is just as quirky and trendy as the pictures suggested. Dark wood gives a close and cosy vibe in the lobby, and the fire is roaring even though it’s forecast to be more than 20degrees this week.

The Ludlow Hotel lounge

Our room is compact but very tastefully decorated. The large and comfortable bed dominates the room and the feather pillows catch our weary heads like a cloud. We’re treated to a bottle of red which waits patiently for us beside the chairs and keeps our mind off the minibar, which features (amid the usual) pleasure items for couples, next to a jar of gummy bears.

Comfy bed and soft pillows make for a good night sleep

The bathroom is as big as some kitchens I’ve known, and is complete with bath, rain shower, robes and delicious smelling shampoo, conditioner, body wash and lotion which were probably better than the ones I’d packed from home.

Bathrooms dreams are made here!

We have uninterrupted views of the Lower East Side from our 13th floor room, and a statue waves us good morning and goodnight from the rooftop across the street. Sunrise is a treat which you can rarely enjoy from your bed, so we lap it up each morning.

Good morning New York!

Breakfast is served each morning in the Dirty French restaurant. Included are fresh fruit, parfait or pastries. Guests can pick one to enjoy with tea or coffee and juice and water. The parfait is large enough alone to feed 2, and the pastries option is actually a basket of 3 enormous freshly baked pasties. You won’t leave hungry that’s for sure. We mixed things up one morning with eggs Benedict which were great, but so filling we didn’t need lunch!

Pastries and Parfait (Granola and Yogurt) for breakfast

The Ludlow wins the award for best WiFi I’ve ever had, anywhere! It was quicker than at my house and perfect for planning the day over breakfast or sharing holiday snaps online from your room.

And take pictures you will! The Ludlow's hidden treasure is its rooftop terrace with amazing views over the Lower Manhattan skyline. For hotel guests only, it's the perfect place to bring that bottle of wine at watch the city light come on after sunset!

Sunset views from the rooftop of The Ludlow Hotel

The Lower East Side is an amazing part of New York to explore, and is so commonly ignored in favour of the towering buildings and sights of Midtown and the Upper East Side. The Ludlow is perfectly placed for those of you looking for an authentic, youthful and rich New York experience, as it has so many amazing places to eat, drink and shop on its doorstep and great connections to the rest of Manhattan and Brooklyn.  

5 stars! 

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Sail Back: Touring Tuscany

October is a wonderful time to explore the rolling countryside and deep vineyards of Tuscany. Vendemmia is in full swing as the wineries of the region harvest the grapes to make the delicious Chianti and Montepulciano wines. Mark and I explored the area in October 2012 with the use of a hire car and a single map of Tuscany.

Flying into Pisa airport we quickly located the hire car and set off with our map in hand. Our destination was the agiturismo Borgo Casa Al Vento, a working winery with a few boutique rooms and a specialist wine spa in Gaoile in Chianti.
Borgo Casa al Vento

Once off the motorway we were treated to spectacular views of the Tuscan countryside, it's rolling hills and line upon line of vines fit to bursting with flavours which have put Tuscany on the map. We had to stop as we caught sight of a stunning villa across the valley, which was illuminated by a rainbow. We were stopped in our tracks, and we later discovered the Villa Vistarenni is a favourite on postcards and calendars in the area.

Arriving at the winery, we were warmly greeted by the team and shown to our room, which was typically furnished and had a beautiful view of the tall Cypreese and the valley below. No TV and very weak internet allowed us to really switch off, enjoy the wine and the delicious food punctuated by walks among the vines and reading on the lawn.
Helping to sort the grapes

On our first night we were treated to wild boar and a dessert of red wine panna cotta which simply blew my mind and I've been searching for closer to home ever since.The best bit was seeing the winery in action and even helping to sort the grapes, picking out the bad ones before they get pressed.

The wines produced by the winery were called Aria and Gaoile and we spent our afternoons nipping to the co-op in the village to pick up essentials for lunch, then relaxing in the afternoon sunshine with a good book (I was reading Peter Mayle's A Good Year) and a bottle of wine.

Radda in Chani

A short and windy drive from Gaoile was Radda in Chianti. Perched on a hill above the vines, the town was blessed with panoramic views and cobbled streets, each bend more beautiful that the last. We enjoyed a drink in a local bar with a tiny window that hinted at the view beyond, before an alfresco dinner in a shady courtyard - quintessential Tuscany!

An evening in Radda In Chianti

On our final day, we checked out early and started a three city tour in one day to make the most of the car hire before our late flight home.


We started the day in Siena, about 15km from Gaoile in Chianti. The hilly city is dominated by its narrow streets and tall buildings which make you feel very small. We stopped by the Piazza del Campo where horses race twice a year for the Palio di Siena. There was no racing there that day, just the autumnal sunshine.


We walked the steep steps to the Duomo, which was simply stunning. This was the first Duomo I'd seen in such a style (similar to Milan and Florence); I could have looked at it all morning. We grabbed a pizza slice from a nearby vendor and munched through the hot bread and cheese before heading back to the car.
Duomo di Siena

Sam Gimignano

Our next stop was the picturesque city of Sam Gimignano; the city of towers. Though very small, San Gimignano draws a lot of crowds for its panoramic views and medieval architecture. The town was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1990.
Piazza della Cisterna, Sam Gimignano

We wandered the streets and had lunch in Piazza della Cisterna whilst watching the world go by. Afterwards, we sampled the world famous gelato from Gelateria Dondoli on the steps of the Duomo before exploring the town more, winding down streets and enjoying the views. Before long we were passing back through the gates of the city and off to our final stop Pisa.

Endless Tuscan Views


The sun was beginning to set as we pulled into a car park in Pisa, beside the walls of the Piazza del Duomo. Home the Pisa's most famous sight, the leaning tower of Pisa, the piazza was different to how I expected it to look - it was wide, flat and grassy with the Baptistry, tower and church all in close quarters. The sun was casting a beautiful glow and we indulged in taking some touristy photos with the tower before grabbing a quick dinner at the first reasonable place we could find on Via Santa Maria before getting the car back to the airport.

Mark and I at the leaning tower of Pisa

We had an amazing time exploring the Tuscan landscapes and cities, and certainly wet our appetite for discovering more of Italy's wine regions, which would eventually see us living in Barolo country.

Other blogs from the Sail Back series:

Sunday, 4 October 2015

My New York Diary

New York, New York! After a long wait since booking our trip to New York in January, last week it was finally time to pack our bags and explore this amazing city. So, grab a pumpkin spice latte and discover the Big Apple with me!

Landing in the Big Apple

Touching down in New York’s JFK airport, we were greeted with the longest ever queue at passport control. It took us about 2 hours from landing to make it to the subway station. Although we weren’t planning on being particularly thrifty on this holiday, we couldn’t resist making the best use of our $30 unlimited 7 day metro card (simply buy from the subway station when you arrive) straight away, and with a straight line from Sutphin to Essex Street on the J/Z train, why pay more. The subway (actually this line was over ground all the way) treated us to an amazing view of the New York skyline as we crossed the Williamsburg Bridge onto Manhattan.

Skyline views from The Ludlow roof

We were welcomed warmly at our hotel, The Ludlow, and our bags were tagged and looked after whilst we enjoyed a drink at the bar and waited for our room to become available.

After freshening up we grabbed a quick slice of pizza for $2 from a place on our street before a happy hour glass of wine at No Fun, one of so many trendy spots in our Lower East Side neighbourhood which we’d explore whilst we were here. Hungry and tired from the jet lag, we ate early at Masala Wala, a highly rated Indian restaurant just a street away. The food was delicious but sadly we ordered far too much. We learned our first lesson about watching out for larger portions!

Midtown and Yankee Stadium

Being up at 5am wasn’t so bad – I got to enjoy the beautiful sunrise from my bed and plan the day ahead. There as so many things to see and do in this city. We’d booked tickets to watch the New York Yankees play the Chicago White Sox at 1pm, so we had the morning to discover the city.

From our hotel we walked along the Bowery to Union Square and past the Flatiron Building. What an amazing sight! The triangular Flatiron Building us a feat of architectural design and is a sight to behold. It also symbolised the start of the Midtown skyscrapers and sights which also include the Empire State Building and Macy’s - we'd arrived!

We quickly moved onto Bryant Park and the New York Library. The park was tranquil amongst the hustle of the streets and has a tiny carousel which was playing an instrumental version of La Vie en Rose. It felt like we briefly slipped into Paris for a short second.

Bryant Park

At Grand Central Terminal we caught a connection to Yankee Stadium. The station didn’t disappoint. The ceiling was painted a gorgeous blue and dotted with constellations around the arches of the windows which would have flooded the room with light before being blocked by neighbouring taller buildings.

Arriving at Yankee Stadium there was the familiar buzz of excited fans and anticipation for the game ahead. Having never seen a baseball game before, but knowing was it was going to be long, we found our seats and settled into a beer and fried chicken whilst the game began.

The game was peppered with songs and soundbites, introducing the players at each bat, during the innings changes and to keep people amused during slower periods. This broke up the silence of make time fly. The best bit was the grounds team doing the YMCA after the 7th innings.

We cheered along with the rest of the supporters, foam finger in hand. It was a great experience which I think many people wouldn’t consider on a regular trip to New York.

Yankee Stadium

Central Park, Top of the Rock and a sunset sail

Our third day began exploring Central Park. This was one of the things I was most excited about seeing; the Mall, fountains and aimless wonderings were all I dreamt of. All that was missing was a little autumn colour, but it was still early in the season. The park is a perfect place for a little respite from the city, especially important for a country girl like me.

Bethesda Terrace, Central Park

Afterwards we took the weight off our feet at Rockefeller Centre and ate amazing steak sandwiches covered in cheese and sauce from Tri Tip Grill. A heart attack in a sandwich, but we earned it. With an hour to spare, we enjoyed the balmy weather with iced coffee in The Channel and indulged in a little people watching before it was our time to take in the views from Top of the Rock.

We chose to see the Manhattan views from Top of the Rock instead of The Empire State because we wanted to make sure Empire was part of the view as it’s such a symbol of New York. Once we arrived at the top, I was so pleased to see there was a glass barrier, not a wire one. This meant amazing views and no chilly wind! The views were amazing and really helped but the size of the city into perspective.

View from Top Of The Rock

Another great way to see the city is by water, and we’d booked onto Manhattan by Sail’s Twilight Cruise from Battery Park. The evening was warm so we were able to chill on the deck and watch the city lights come on as we sailed out to Liberty Island and back over 2 hours with a few beers. The crew even let us help raise the main sail, perfect excuse for a workout!

Me at the helm!

The Manhattan skyline at night is something everyone should see and this being the evening of the lunar eclipse it felt especially special.

Lower Manhattan lights

The Lower East Side

On our fourth day we meandered through the Lower East Side and Lower Manhattan, taking in Little Italy, China Town, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Lower Manhattan is a great place to hangout and discover a side of New York with a little edge, and makes a change from the Gossip Girl and Sex and The City scenes of the Upper East Side. The Lower East Side is older, and has a lot of character, not to mention some of the best neighbourhoods.

Brooklyn Bridge

We also visit the 9/11 memorial. At the memorial, I was astounded as the first memorial pond we approached had the name of a victim of the tragedy which was the same as my brothers. Suddenly the sadness of the tragic events what took place become all the more real.

In the evening we headed back north for a sky bar experience at Spyglass. We were toasting a success of mine with bubbles overlooking a slowly illuminating Empire State building before a steak dinner.

We finished the day in Times Square. Everything you’ve heard is true about Times Square. It’s unreasonably busy, the lights are blinding and you’ll love it! If there’s a centre of the city this is it!

Times Square

Chelsea Market and a hidden Speakeasy

Heading back off the tourist track again, on our 5th day, inspired by the Yankees game, we go to Chelsea Piers batting cages. There’s nothing like having baseballs lobbed at you to get your heart rate up, and I think we did a pretty good job! The piers have great facilities for sports and kids and I certainly recommend it as a way to blow off steam!

After, we joined the new High Line for the walk to Chelsea Market. The High Line has been created using an unused over ground rail line, which is now an oasis of grasses, trees and flowers. It’s becoming a cool hangout spot and is great for enjoying a walk without having to watch out for traffic.

The High Line

Chelsea Market is a foodie heaven, and is packed with international shops, artisan products and some amazing places to eat. For a quick lunch we grabbed a taco filled so much we could barely pick it up. We succumb quickly to the saucy mess and lap up every last morsel before hopping in a cab across town.


Mark is a big beer fan (no surprise) so we’re off to The Ginger Man, with its ‘changes by the day’ amazing selection of beers from around the world. Taking our seats at the bar I get a ‘Beer Flight’ of 4 smaller sampling glasses and Mark indulges his penchant for Bavarian style Beers.

My turn comes later at Amuse, where we make the most of Happy Hour at this lovely wine bar with the world’s best waiter and a rose wine flight with cheese and charcuterie. Mark goes with red wines and we chat UK/US mannerisms and politics over a free glass of prosecco with the barman.

Wine time at Amuse

Our night of drinking continues at one of New York’s speakeasies. I won’t give away its location, but it was in the Lower East side, and entry is only granted to those who know where to look and aren’t too scared to knock. There isn’t a menu, so you get a personal service from the bartenders who ask about the flavours you like then mix you a drink. They won’t be cheap, but the experience it worth it!

Liberty Island and the last bite of the Big Apple

On our last day the weather changes from the dizzying heat of the past few days to the cool autumnal chill we were expecting. Both refreshing and perfectly welcome!

After checking out we head down town to Battery Park to board a Statue Cruise to Liberty and Ellis Island. We don’t get off at Liberty Island we’ve enjoyed the view from the boat and time is of the essence today. At Ellis Island we do get off though to see the Immigration Museum. I’m surprised to learn that until fairly recently the gateway to America was left for ruin after closing in 1959.

The Statue of Liberty

It’s the perfect ending to our trip though to discover the process so many people went through before being welcomed to the United States. The US is proud of the immigrants and their cultures which have found a home and shaped modern America, which seems particularly poignant at the moment with the migrant crisis in Syria.

Back in Manhattan, we spend our remaining hours shopping in Soho and enjoying a Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks before slipping out again the same way we came in.

We had such a fantastic time in New York and this barely touched on some of the experiences we had and everything we couldn’t do! I’ll be writing more about New York in the coming weeks so watch out for:
  • The Ludlow Hotel Review - coming soon
  • Central Park - coming soon
  • The Lower East Side and Lower Manhattan - coming soon