Travelbunny Highlights 2013

Travelbunny Highlights 2013

What started out looking to be a lean year travel-wise has somehow turned out to be totally epic!  As well as travel highs there were personal highs too – Mister and I had a wonderful day with family and friends when we married in October – and we’re still on cloud nine 🙂

Travelbunny Highlights 2013

So where did 2013 take me?  There were moments of discovery with visits to three new countries; Amsterdam in The Netherlands, San Marino as part of the Blogville project and finally Bruges, Belgium.  Ten countries, seven capital cities and eleven cities I’d never encountered before.  I’ve pretty much eaten Italy, taken thousands of photos and made some wonderful memories to treasure.

The first trip of the year in February was to Paris for a work trade show but I managed to squeeze in a couple of hours to check out St Gemain’s chocolatiers. Yum!  February brought a trip to The Shard in London on opening day and a stay at the historical Renaissance St Pancras hotel for Mister’s birthday – Marriott points well spent!

St Pancras Renaissance Hotel

St Pancras Renaissance Hotel

March saw a cheeky week in Agadir for some sunshine, flying goats and a visit to the Tighanimine Womens Fairtrade Argan Oil Co-operative.   This post was one of my most popular of the year and I’ve put the co-operative in touch with a few people wishing to buy the oil commercially – I hope something positive has come out of this.

In April I went to Belfast on a work trip and got sent to jail!  The Crumlin Road Gaol can be hired for conferences and adds a whole new meaning to ‘breakout’ rooms! We visited the Titanic Exhibition and stayed at the Lough Erne Hotel in Fermanagh where the G8 conference was held the following month.  Colin Farrell was sat at the next table to me at breakfast (!!!) and I even got to experience my first trip in a float plane.

Lough Erne and Float Plane

May arrived and with it another work trip where I was tour leader to a group of 30 incentive winners on a trip to Sorrento.  We spent a day in picture perfect Positano and soaked up all Sorrento had to offer including the beautiful sunshine.

June – my first new country of the year and a trip with a girlfriend to Amsterdam where we laughed for three days solid, explored Amsterdam’s Canal Life, learned about the gabled buildings and Alison was reprimanded by a prostitute…

I Amsterdam Sign

July and August were spent at home enjoying a fantastic British summer and a week’s dog-sitting saw us exploring our local countryside and the gorgeous Seven Sisters Country Park.  There was also a wedding to plan…

The Coastguard Cottages at Seven Sisters, East Sussex

September saw me back in Italy for Blogville based in beautiful Bologna.  I learned how gelato is made at The Gelato University, took a pit-stop at Casa Museo Enzo Ferrari in Modena, gasped at the stunning views of San Marino and was amazed by the mosaics in Ravenna.  Lots more yet to share with you from this year’s Blogville…

Ravenna's Mosaics

Ravenna’s Mosaics

October and a very special wedding day was followed by a month jam-packed with travel.   I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Venice even though it was wetter than we expected and we waded through water.

Venice Canal

Venice Canal

Cambodia and Angkor Wat entranced and the Khmer food was as impressive as ever.  The bustle of Bangkok left us ready for the clear waters of Krabi and some much-needed relaxation.

Monks at Tonle Sap Lake

Monks at Tonle Sap Lake

November came and so did my first cruise with Celebrity Cruises as a #destinationblogger visiting Kotor and Budva in Montenegro, Matera in Italy, Corfu and Valletta in Malta.  The ship, Silhouette, was a destination in herself and warranted a thorough exploration especially where the cuisine was concerned.  A diet ensued.

December and a work conference for 300 saw us back in Morocco but this time Marrakech and barely time to step outside the hotel.  Such a tease! Another work trip, this time to Bruges and a chance to explore a little; chocolate shops and Christmas markets fuelled a festive feeling.

So what’s in store for 2014?  The annual ski trip is brought forward to January this year and we’ll pack the car at the weekend and head for our friends’ place in The Alps.

Ski Lift Portes du Soleil

Ski Lift Portes du Soleil

At the end of January I’m heading for Iceland which has long been top of my travel hotlist and I’m excited beyond words…!  I don’t even dare hope for a glimpse of those lights.    Iceland is followed by a work trip escorting 18 incentive prize-winners to Lanzarote and hopefully a chance to thaw out.  In March I have a ‘big’ birthday.  Nuff said.  July we’re off to France again to stay with our friends near Poitier so lots of exciting times to look forward to.

I’m incredibly grateful for your support and friendship and would like to end this post by saying a huge thank you to all you readers and fellow travel enthusiasts.  Every view, comment and like is much appreciated.   I hope you’ve had an amazing year and that 2014 brings health, happiness and fun times. So what travel plans do you have in the coming year? Come on spill the beans…

Christmas in Bruges

Christmas in Bruges

Christmas in Bruges is like stepping into your very own Christmas card. The medieval town, in the Flemish region of Belgium, has the air of a fairytale as it glows with sparkling lights, Christmas markets and gothic churches.

Shops selling the prettiest of Christmas decorations are draped in festive foliage, cobblestone streets echo with the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages and chocolate shops line the narrow streets.

A visit to the Bruges Christmas markets is guaranteed to leave you feeling warm, fuzzy and festive. Here’s why you should visit Bruges at Christmas and what to do in Bruges in December.

Grote Markt, Bruges

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Montenegro – A Photo Tour of Budva

Montenegro – A Photo Tour of Budva

The second part of our ‘Grand Montenegro Tour‘ excursion took us to Budva. With a backdrop of dramatic mountains, colourful harbour and a fortified Stari Grad (old town) it’s the prettiest of tiny towns and one of the most popular on Montenegro’s coast.

Budva was one of the last Venetian outposts and there are many clues to the 400 years of Venetian rule in the 15th century within the walls of the Medieval fortress encircling the town. In contrast, the narrow alleyways and squares are filled with modern boutiques, bars and restaurants.  So, what’s to see?  Let me show you Budva in photos…

Dancing Girl Statue, Budva

Dancing Girl Statue, Budva

The old town of Budva lies on a little island that was once linked to the mainland by a sandbar which over time turned into a peninsula.  Head out towards Mogren Beach for panoramic views of the town.

There are three churches in Budva and each one is very different. (clockwise)  A tiny single nave church, the Church of Saint Sava, is said to have been built during the 14th century. Saint John the Baptist Church was Seat of the Budva bishopric until 1828. In 1867 the belfry was added to the north side. Church of Holy Trinity is a single nave construction with a dome built in 1804 and modelled on one of two churches of the Podostrog monastery 2k from Budva.

The Stari Grad or Old Town is made up of narrow streets, alleys and small squares.

The old town was heavily fortified and today is still entered from one of five gates in the towering walls. Evidence of different Mediterranean cultures that have influenced the town can be spied in the walls.

 

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Dancing Girl Statue Budva

Dancing Girl Statue Budva

Budva, Montenegro

Budva Walled Town

A photo tour of the pretty walled town of Budva, Montenegro

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Many thanks to Celebrity Cruises UK for hosting our cruise. As always views and opinions; good, bad or otherwise are entirely my own.

Montenegro – Discovering Kotor, Njegusi and Cetinje

Montenegro – Discovering Kotor, Njegusi and Cetinje

We’re in Montenegro, one of Europe’s newest nations, and the road we’re climbing clings to the steep limestone mountains overlooking the Bay of Kotor. With every bend (or serpentine, as our guide aptly describes them) the views of the bay become increasingly breathtaking.

On the eighth hairpin the coach comes to a grinding halt as a couple of cows and a hefty bull plod up the hill in front of us; but we don’t mind – it gives us time to soak up a bit more of ‘that view’. The bovine roadblock pulls into a convenient passing point and we’re off again – onwards and upwards.

Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

It’s the ‘Grand Montenegro Tour’ our first excursion on our Celebrity Cruise and when we stop at serpentine number 25, a mighty 850m above sea-level, we can see our ship ‘Silhouette’ sitting centre stage in the beautiful bay. The Gulf of Kotor (Boka Kotorska), despite often being called the southern-most fjord in Europe, is actually a submerged river canyon and from this height we can see the route the river would have once taken. This morning I woke, as the ship edged into Kotor, to see a backdrop of green covered mountains plunge into the bay behind small monastery islands set in the deep, still waters.  Mistakenly I thought that would be the best view of the day.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

We tear ourselves away from the vista and head back to the coach for our next stop, Njegusi, which is even higher up the mountain at 1100m. Njegusi is famous for its local cheese, ’sir’, and ‘prsut’ a smoked dried ham; we sample a generous portion of each with a huge beaker of very drinkable red wine in Kadmi Ethnic Village.  It’s not even midday but, well….! The restaurant is cosy inside and reminds me of a ski chalet with its hide covered benches, gingham curtains and copper fire hoods but today is warm so we head back outside to enjoy the views of Mount Lovćen.

 Njegusi, Montenegro

Our next stop is Cetinje and we head off along the road from Njegusi which winds through a grey, rugged area of Mount Lovcen known as The Stone Sea. The view is stark but softened with splashes of autumn colour.

The Stone Sea, Montenegro

The Stone Sea, Montenegro

Until 1946 Cetinje was the capital of Montenegro, before Podgorica took over the mantle, although the small town still remains the country’s cultural and royal capital. It’s a pretty place with a quiet air about it dotted with small embassies and museums – so much nicer than Podgorica – but then I’m slightly biased as a few years ago my luggage went walkabout in Podgorica…

We visit the State Museum, on King Nicholas’ Square, which is the former residence of Nikola Petrovic I, king of Montenegro. The palace is set out with beautiful period rooms as they would have been when the palace was in use. I loved the Princesses’ bedrooms and it would seem little girls liked pink just as much then as they do now! Displays of uniforms, medals, flags and weaponry fill the building but photography wasn’t allowed. If you’d like to know more check the museum’s official website where you’ll find a virtual tour and photographs.

We leave the peacefulness of Cetinje for the thirty minute drive to the coastal town of Budva where we’ll have lunch and a wander. As the sea comes into view so does Sveti Stefan in the distance, an exclusive holiday hideaway only accessable nowadays to the rich and famous.Budva’s a pretty little fortified town and worthy of its own photo tour so for now I’ll just leave you with a taster…

Budva, Montenegro

Budva, Montenegro

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Bay of Kotor

Many thanks to Celebrity Cruises UK for hosting my first cruise. As always views and opinions; good, bad or otherwise are entirely my own.

 

A Photo Tour of Valletta

A Photo Tour of Valletta

It’s 7:15am and we’re on Silhouette’s bow; keen for our first glimpse of Valletta.  The sea is calm and as the sun creeps higher in the sky, on a surprisingly warm November morning, we edge our way into The Grand Harbour.  The rising sun paints the sixteenth-century bastion walls gold and we can see small cube-like buildings interspersed with honey-coloured domes, spires and arches.  Valletta might be small but it’s steeped in history and it’s incredibly easy on the eye.

The Grand Harbour, Malta

The Grand Harbour, Malta

Valletta covers an area of less than one square kilometre and its grid system makes it easy to get around on foot. It’s a pleasant place to wander so, in the two hours we had, that’s exactly what we did. We disembark and take the five-minute walk to the 20 storey lift which will deposit us at The Upper Barrakka Gardens. At €1 return it’s worth every cent to avoid the knee-crunching hike up the steep 280 steps. The gardens are the perfect spot for enjoying the panoramic views across one of the world’s largest, deepest natural harbours. We watch as cannons are prepared for the midday salute.

Upper Barrakka Gardens, Valletta

Upper Barrakka Gardens

Valletta takes its name from its founder, Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette and owes its existence to the Knights of St John, who planned the fortified city as a refuge for injured soldiers and pilgrims during the 16th century Crusades.

 Auberge de Castille

An Auberge is where the Knights lived. During their first years in Malta, the Knights served once a week in the hospitals – in return they lived in their Auberge for free. Of the original eight Auberges only five remain, the finest being the Auberge de Castille and Leon; severely damaged during WWII the building’s been restored and now houses the office of the Prime Minister.

Auberge de Castille

Auberge de Castille

The Great Siege Monument

Fortitude flanked by faith and hope – this bronze monument commemorates the Great Siege of 1565 when the Ottoman Empire invaded the island. The Knights, helped by 400 Maltese men, women and children and about 2,000 foot-soldiers won the siege against the Turks, one of the most fiercely fought, bloodiest battles in history.

Great Siege Monument, Valletta

The Great Siege Monument

Malta and WWII

Malta has a solid British connection and played a key part in the Mediterranean campaign in WWII.  It was one of the most intensively bombed areas during the war and suffered terribly during during The Siege of Malta where the enemy were determined to either bomb or starve the Maltese into submission.The people were rewarded for their bravery when George VI awarded the entire island the George Cross.

Plaques on the Grand Palace, Malta

Plaques on the Grand Palace, Malta

It was Remembrance Sunday and could hear catches of music from a military band and glimpse them passing by the end of the street.  The flash of a scarlet poppy could be seen on many a lapel and on the iconic British telephone and post boxes which are still used. We felt quite at home!

Valletta with telephone box

Valletta

A walk through the quiet, narrow back streets gives a taste of everyday life and an opportunity to meet some interesting characters.

This is Gerry…

Gerry Fluffy Cat

Gerry

…and these are Gerry’s friends…

Cat watching pigeons

Not so brave Gerry

His owner told us how his furry friend will go after a pigeon if it’s alone – when there’s a few he’s not so brave and just glares!  The old man would have liked us to stay and chat for longer – they’re a friendly bunch, the Maltese.


Read More: Things you should know before visiting Malta


The sun-bleached buildings of Valletta’s streets are adorned with galleriji; the city’s traditional balconies.

Valletta Street with balconies

Valletta Street with balconies

Fort of St Elmo

We pass the fort of St Elmo on the far end of the promontory and walk back along the quiet quay towards the ship.  Some Mods on Lambrettas buzz by and we pass fishermen casting lines for their lunch – there’s a chilled Sunday vibe about the place.

The Grand Harbour, Malta

The Grand Harbour, Malta

Valletta Waterfront

Too soon we’re back at Valletta Waterfront which sits just below the city’s fortifications.  It used to be called Pinto Wharf before being beautifully renovated and is home to some vibrant bars and restaurants – the dining options in Valletta are good and varied.

Valletta Waterfront

Valletta Waterfront

Malta is saturated in history and needs at least a week to delve into its vibrant past and then maybe another week just to relax and enjoy its food, wine and hospitality.  But we’ve had a taster which will do for the time being; now we must board, pack and leave for the airport as this is where our cruise ends; but I shall return one day to explore properly and immerse myself in Malta’s rich history.

Photo Tour of Valletta

Many thanks to Celebrity Cruises UK for hosting me on my first cruise. As always views and opinions; good, bad or otherwise are entirely my own.

Setting Sail with Celebrity Cruises

Setting Sail with Celebrity Cruises

Last month after flying into Dubrovnik I visited Kotor and Budva in Montenegro, Matera in Italy, the island of Corfu and finally Valletta in Malta.  Five destinations in five days without taking another flight.  Clever huh?  Actually it couldn’t have been simpler – I sailed out of Dubrovnik on board Celebrity Silhouette, a luxury cruise ship, and spent an exciting, enlightening few days on my first ever cruise exploring some fascinating cities as well as discovering the ship and life on board which was a whole new experience in itself.

Celebrity Silhouette

Celebrity Silhouette

I’ve always booked my travels independently, figured out the logistics, the best flights and transfers, researched hotels, B&Bs and what sights and experiences to include.  I’d never considered going on a cruise before but the more I thought about it the more it made sense and when Celebrity Cruises invited me to spend time on board one of their newest ships ‘Silhouette’ I didn’t need to be asked twice.  Just think about it – lots of new places to explore but only having to unpack once – tick! No waiting around in airports or haggling with taxi drivers – big tick! Time to enjoy the swimming pools, Jacuzzi, restaurants, entertainment and even some Spa time – tick, tick, tick!  In fact the only stress would be trying to enjoy as much of the ship as possible while it transported me on my journey in complete comfort and luxury.

Of course I’ll be sharing photographs and tales of the destinations I visited but first I’d like to show you around Silhouette herself, after all she is the star of the show…

My Stateroom

Let’s start in my light and airy stateroom, the epitome of a room with a view filled with everything needed for a comfortable stay; en-suite bathroom, toiletries, bathrobes, crisp cotton sheets, white fluffy towels and turn-down service.  But the best bit was my little balcony where I loved to sit awhile just watching the ever-changing scenery and allowing myself to be mesmerised by the vastness of the ocean before me.

Celebrity Silhouette Stateroom

Celebrity Silhouette Stateroom

I’m not usually a morning person but the excitement of waking up to a new view and sailing into a different city each day got me up and out on my balcony shortly after sunrise every morning.  I’d even leave the curtains open so I could sneak the first glimpse from my pillow!

View of Bay of Kotor

Bay of Kotor from my Stateroom

What to do on a cruise ship?

There’s so much to do when you’re not out on a shore excursion you’re are truly spoilt for choice.  Maybe start with a bit of shopping in the designer shops or an art exhibition.  There are trivia contests, cooking and dance classes, a gym, fitness sessions and a craft area for painting and drawing.  Join in pool volleyball, basketball or Zumba on the deck is just as entertaining to watch as it is to take part.

Aqua Spa and relaxation

If all of that sounds like too much hard work then head to Aqua Spa and instantly unwind on one of the heated beds whilst gazing out into the vast expanse of ocean.  On our day at sea I booked myself in for a bit of pampering and chose a blissful Elemis facial from a long list of indulgent treatments.  I walked on air all the way back to my state-room afterwards – I haven’t been that relaxed in months!

Aqua Spa on Silhouette

Aqua Spa on Silhouette

Of course there are countless other ways to relax.  There’s an outdoor pool lined with Jacuzzis,  loungers for sunny days and the same amenities in the solarium area for not-so-sunny days – and because there are full-length windows you won’t miss out on the views.

Celebrity Silhouette's Pool

Celebrity Silhouette’s Pool

The Lawn Club was a favourite place to spend time and feel the grass between my toes or have a game of croquet or bowls.  There are hammocks and cabana-style alcoves – perfect little havens.

The Lawn Club, Celebrity Silhouette

The Lawn Club

Did I mention that Celebrity Silhouette is a huge ship?  I mean really huge….!

Tiny Travelbunny!

Tiny Travelbunny!

There are havens and hidey-holes all over the ship – I loved this area with quirky little pod chairs. There’s even a library and card room.

Pods on board Celebrity Silhouette

Pods on board Celebrity Silhouette

Entertainment

The theatre is the venue for evening entertainment and hosts some excellent shows – we saw Steve Hewlitt a very funny ventriloquist from the UK, a mentalist who somehow managed to infiltrate my mind and plant the word ‘juxtaposition’ (I know!) and a fantastic acrobatic troupe who performed a Cirque-style show.  There’s also a casino, slot machines, dancing and live music.

Dining on Silhouette

You’re probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned the food yet? The food on Silhouette was exceptional.  With six speciality restaurants, the main Grand Cuveé dining room, Ocean View Café and Sunset Bar among others.

Glazed Strawberry

Outstanding Celebrity Service

From the time I was greeted at the gangway, totally over-awed by this huge ship looming above me, to the time I was waved off I was amazed at the outstanding service.  The staff were more than happy to help with any request, they were interested, attentive, friendly and provided some of the best service I’ve experienced – and I’ve stayed in some top-notch hotels.

Think cruise holidays aren’t for you? Think again.

In the past I’ve been sceptical about cruises, despite never having experienced one(!) and thought it would be full of elderly people, overly formal and maybe even a teensy bit boring.  How wrong was I!  There was a complete range of ages aboard including some children, it wasn’t formal at all except for Saturday nights when you could dress up a bit more – I spotted some long gowns and the odd tux or two – but there were more casual dressers as well and it’s a case what you feel comfortable with.  As for being boring – NO CHANCE!    Having been on my first cruise I’d recommend Celebrity Cruises without hesitation.  Taking a cruise is the ideal way to satisfy the wanderlust whilst enjoying exceptional cuisine, superb accommodation and sparkling entertainment – the perfect combination of exploration, recreation and relaxation.

Huge thanks to Celebrity Cruises who kindly hosted me and Mr Jones for five nightsAs always views and opinions – good, bad or otherwise – are entirely my own.

A photo tour of Silhouette