Spicers Vineyard, Hunter Valley

A place to stay for wine lovers

This is an affordable boutique style hotel to stay if you are into exploring all that Hunter Valley has to offer. It’s about 2-3 hrs drive from Sydney, away from city life, quiet, intimate and not a place you can visit without a car. There are a lot of resident kangaroos at this place , and vast gardens full of grape vines ( naturally). It doesn’t process the grapes here , that is done elsewhere in HV, but still there is something rather ethereal about seeing all those lush vines around the place. The people who work here are passionate about customer satisfaction. The rooms are large ( have a look at around the website), king size double beds , a lovely comfortable lounge area with a fireplace and a whirlpool bath in the bathroom  The products on offer from shower gel to lovely soft towels / bath robes are really gorgeous .

Outside to the back of the hotel is a small lap pool and a jacquzi with lots of loungers to chill out on, surrounded  by lush grass and trees. Perfect for enjoying that glass of wine and reading a great book ( or take one of the many books the hotel has to offer)

There is an on-site restaurant called Botanica, the food is ok ( the service though is great and it’s clearly very popular with locals). The “ chain” has a larger sister restaurant about 10 minutes drive away. The food here is very good , cheaper than the Botanica, and it has unsurprisingly an excellent selection of wines by the glass ( beyond what most places have for those of us who don’t want a bottle of wine). Again service is exemplary , friendly and in beautiful surroundings.

The hotel is ideal for wine buffs exploring the area as there are so many different wine tours on offer. The hotel does have a spa attached – I didn’t use this but I feel confident it would be pretty decent for those who wanted this service going by the products the hotel uses and all the staff who work there. As an extra Brie one of the hotel manageress, would bring around a cocktail to each room for each hotel guest , which is a lovely intimate touch.

The grounds around the hotel are perfect, and again it’s the staff who make this extra special. Certainly worth staying at for a whole range of reasons, you can be assured of great service by knowledgeable staff whose sole task ( it feels like) is for all its guests to have a great time.

Blue Mountains ,Wolgan Valley NSW – tranquillity and understated luxury

I read about Wolgan Valley ( Emirates One and Only) in a travel write up from a broad sheet paper in the UK. The seclusion and beauty of this place about 4 hrs drive out of Sydney appealed to me as a lone traveller seeking luxury and space to reflect on where I am at in my life . Yes it is expensive , but I was never going to stay there for longer than 3 days. Every penny spent being here from my hard earned savings was absolutely worth it. So this is my story about not feeling out of place at what is known to be one of the best places to stay in Australia.

I had arranged a car hire from Sydney to Wolgan Valley, including sat nav ( you will need it). As you come into the Blue Mountains you might think “ not far now”. You would be wrong ! The Blue Monutain range runs for a very long way – it took 2 hrs to get to them but you need to add on another 2 hrs before you reach Wolgan Valkey. You have really got to trust your sat nav as there is no indication along the route that you are heading towards Wolgan Valley.  Wolgan Valley runs to 7000 acres of conservation land taken over by Emirates from local farmers. The landscape is incredible and will take your breath away!

Arrival to the periphery of the resort sees you parking your car in a parking area  ( my little Honda hire car parked along side Porsche’s , Range Rovers and 1 Ferrari was pure genius!). Your bags are taken out of your car and transferred to a jeep that will then transfer you to the main resort. Bar staff driving the jeeps there are no other cars allowed in the resort area at all. The drive is about 10 minutes and enroute you will see a lot of kangaroos, maybe a few wombats or a platypus ( as we cut across a pure water spring ).

At main reception you are greeted by staff who have taken the trouble to welcome you by name and take you to your villa. You have the option of walking (5-10 minutes max) or of getting into a small solar driven golf style transfer vehicle. I chose the walk. It enables you to get a grasp of your surroundings straight away. 

I think the pictures says it all about the Heritage Villa I stayed in. Sublimely clean, and being an all inclusive resort  it has an extraordinary high end minibar . The villa also has its own pool big enough to do laps in. The villa is suitable for two and they do offer bigger villas for family groups.

The villa has everything you could need, from high quality super fast internet connections ( your phone is unlikely to work outside of the resort), luxury sodashi and Ku products , factor 50 sunscreen, a ruck sack to carry provisions you might need when out walking or cycling ( every person has a Trek mountain bike at their villa plus helmet).  I think the bed which is huge is possibly one of the most comfortable beds I have ever slept in, the linen was all extremely high quality and everything about the villa was just perfect.

Make sure you bring a good pair of walking shoes if you like to explore. The terrain is undulating and some of the mountains require some dexterity and sure footing ( but you don’t have to climb anything if you don’t want to). I went out exploring with my camera and a beautifully prepared packed lunch in my ruck sack.  I spent 4 hrs or so walking the 16 km route but there are much shorter ones you can choose to do. The hotel will kit you out with a radio should you experience any problems en route. I think I must have taken photos of every kangaroo ! I learnt in a heritage trail guided tour how to determine a kangaroo from a wallaby, why wombats do what they do as well as coming to understand the philosophy of  what Emirates are trying to achieve at the resort. Matt ( the guide) has an extensive and so highly impressive knowledge of wildlife and vegetation in the area. He studied biology and the environment for his degree. It was clear that he loves what he does and we had a bit of bartering at the end of the trek about what constitutes one of the most beautiful animals on the planet. He showed us the local baby possum s on the recently renovated homestead farm ( from the late 1890 or so) . I might have to acquiesce to his view – I thought sloth he thinks possum! 

What’s not to love? 💕 

Eating at the Emirates  is an experience in itself. The menu is short but what they offer will suit all tastes and preferences whether you eat or don’t eat meat. Everything is organic and probably most likely from their vast gardens. Care is taken in the way they cook food to the way they present it. I had tried their tasting menu – a few pictures of beautifully plated and delicious food

Mackerel  with aubergine and peppers


Snapper chowder with caviar

Creme brûlée with dried orange 

. There is also an amazing spa at the resort. I chose to have a 90 minute body massage and a facial the following day.

Again in beautiful surroundings overlooking the mountains and ofcourse many kangaroos 

I felt positively energised and relaxed simultaneously during my stay at Wolgan Valley. The resort lives up to its hype and it’s the staff who make it really top notch ( all locals who are passionate about the eco resort, about the environment and people). If you can afford to go , GO – you won’t be disappointed !

Getting the best of Sydney in 2 days

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I have been planning my trip to Sydney  and the surrounding area  of NSW since January 2018. At the  time of booking I got some great deals on business class flights through Emirates , due to the special offers run  at that time of year  ( and other airlines do this too ) . One of the really good other things re business class travel / special offers with Emirates is that you still get the courtesy car ( you don’t with Virgin Atlantic for example if you buy a business class seat at a special offer ). 

So on the morning of the 23 rd November ,I arrived in Sydney airport , feeling relatively ok given the long haul flight. Absolutely full credit to anyone who does that flight time in economy as I would have really struggled with the lack of space. 

BTW Emirates pick up was also waiting in the arrival terminal to transfer me to the Shangrila-La Hotel in the City Centre. I was really impressed with the driver, a very proud Australian gentleman who spoke in awe of Prince Harry and the Invictus Games. He said he had been really fortunate to meet some of the Invictus competitors , and said that what Harry had done for veterans  was quite remarkable. I thought that was really nice and felt really proud to be a Brit !

The hotel was really busy when I arrived at 8 am , they were in the process of facilitating the closing down and exit of some high ranking Indian officials ( there were a lot of local police around).  Consequently I spent just over 8 minutes waiting for a free elevator to get to the 5 th floor as it seemed that all 6 lifts were constantly on the go.

My room was big with great views across the harbour so I could see Harbor Bridge and ofcourse the Opera House. I didn’t waste much time in my room after a nespresso coffee,  quick shower and change of clothes before I headed out to the town. The hotel is right in the heart of the capital so easy access to everywhere.

The one thing I don’t do  on holiday is to check out the stores  for clothes and home ware . At the end of the day you can buy the same clothes back home . I don’t understand the preoccupation with shopping when really you should be out soaking up the culture of the city you have invested so much of your time and savings into!

I knew there was a David Goldblatt photography exhibition on at the Museum of Contemporay Art, (mca.com.au) so I headed straight for that . I have really admired his work and the integrity with which he presents images and the stories attached to them. It encompasses  his early photos from 1948  right through to 2018 .  It is a documentary of his life , portraying his photographs/ videos and the  documentaries that he has done . It is a history of the fascinating life of a man driven to understand the lives of people during and after  the troubles of South Africa.  You get to understand why and how he chooses his subjects , and what it is he wants to achieve for his audience. Taking a photo of Nelson Mandela wasn’t just about getting the perfect picture. There is a really sobering section in the exhibition of photos of ex- criminals, where he portrays the person after time spent in prison. Underneath each portrait is a story effectively of their life before, life in prison and how they have turned their lives around. If the exhibition comes to a place near you go and see it! It’s humbling and a reminder of societal change and the need to be connected and human- kind. Afterwards I had a really good lunch on the top floor balcony of the gallery overlooking the harbour. The gallery reminds me of the Tate Modern, it’s a beautiful and clever building . Really worth going to see – other than specific exhibitions, it’s free to access .

Feeling refreshed I then walked through the city port area out towards the Botanical Gardens. These were really beautiful and I felt like I was in the tropics , surrounded by lush  plants and trees with the chorus of birds singing all around.  A great place to go if plants and garden design is of interest to you. I always make a beeline for such things on my travels  as it gives me ideas for my own ( small) garden back home ( which is fundamentally eclectically designed around many of  the places I have been !).

I had pre- booked a twilight ticket to climb “ Harbor  Bridge “. 

( http://www.bridgeclimb.com) but by 1700 hrs I was starting to wilt a little. However I have always wanted to do this and pushed on. 

Jut watching the video about preparation for the climb which included health and safety aspects was enough to get me feeling energised. You literally can not take anything with you, all watches ( and any other wrist jewellery) cameras etc have to be put away. They provide lockers for safeguarding valuables. They will take a range of photographs for you to buy at the end ( photos are taken with a decent camera!). The climbs run throughout the day and night at 15 minute intervals. Price varies according to the time you have chosen to go. I did the twilight climb and joined several other couples or groups . Although I was on my own, I didn’t worry about this.  The climb cost £145.

We went through the safety briefing, donned the climbing suit, put on connecting headphones so we could hear the lead talk about the history of the bridge and to provide instructions as we went along  . We were ofcourse rigged up to a safety harness. If you have a fear of heights then maybe this won’t be for you- it was also an exceptionally windy day in Sydney . The day prior to my arrival had seen Sydney under a red dust cloud,so today we were lucky as the view was amazing. I can not imagine a better way to see Sydney all at once. 

High rise view of amazing Sydney!

. All in all the climb which includes the preamble takes just over 3 hrs so I finished at 830 pm. I was too tired to eat by then and went back to my hotel , climbed into a beautiful comfortable bed and slept .

The next morning I was up at 730 and after a really great breakfast in the hotel I set off to spend my morning at Bondi Beach . Yes, there  are other beaches along Sydney coastline that many argue are better such as Manly,  but for me it was about the status afforded to  Bondi, and my wanting to do a bit of surfing there !

It’s not the first time I have surfed ( amazing what you can find yourself doing when you hit 50!) . I am still a real novice at this sport, and honestly I do have some anxiety in doing it. But I love watching surfers out on the sea, it is such a graceful ( for the professionals)  and tough sport so I have always wanted to give it a go. My first time was in Newquay , Cornwall.  If you are interested in doing this don’t fret about being too old, as long as you are a decent enough swimmer and have the will power to keep trying ,  age is no barrier.  The board can really knock you for 6 out in the sea and leave some nasty cuts and bruises if you mistime your surfacing out of the water after you come off during a big wave.  It’s really important to don a wet suit whatever weather temperatures , the suit protects you against knocks and bruising. I had a 1:1 lesson. This  was important to me as I know younger people will take to sports like this much quicker than I ever would.  Watching  them take off whilst I would inevitability still be struggling to grasp the fundamentals would be disheartening !.  Yet again I loved the whole experience , even though the waves were bigger than what I have experienced before. I felt. 100 % safe with the instructor ( letsgosurfing .com.au) who was brilliant ( and very patient!).

After my stint at Bondi Beach I headed back to the hotel via cab. It is really easy getting from place to place in Sydney and the surrounding areas using either bus or trains. All relatively cheap . I chose a cab because I felt a little windswept post being in the sea! It cost me $24 ( Australian dollars). It would have been $4 by bus.

Plus added to this I  needed to get ready for dinner and to watch a performance at the Opera House.  I had booked my performance for the ballet Spartacus months ago. I really wanted to feel the atmosphere of Sydney Opera House , so the tours that they operate to see behind the scenes wouldn’t have suited me . I had tried to book dinner at Bennelong at the same time but couldn’t get a table. However the hotel concierge at Shangrila-la knew someone who worked at the restaurant , and so managed to get me a lovely table by a window, again overlooking the harbour.  The food  and service there was amazing,  and it was a brilliant starter to what turned out to be a truly magical evening.  Spartacus was dazzling , performed by  the Australian Ballet company. It is possibly the best and most moving performance I have ever been prviledged to see in my lifetime .

So the fabulous evening brought an end to my very short time in the city.  The walk back to the hotel along the harbour front showed a city full of life, glitz and glamour . I felt perfectly safe out late at night on my own. The lights all around marking the iconic structures that are Sydney twinkled in the surrounding waters.  Sydney is truly a city of magic and well worth a visit on anyone’s travel to-do list! The next day I was all set to pick up a hire car and head out to the blue mountains for 5 days.


Travel Alaska: It’s a quiet life out here in the mountains

78F5D2DF-6811-46AA-A93F-71397C2BF991John Denver penned a song called the Wrangell Mountains ( I have quoted one of the lyrics for the title of this post) . I first heard the song a long time ago when I lived in North Carolina where country music was ( and it may still be!) very popular. I heard it again this year when our guide played the song during one of our long car journeys through the rugged and beautiful terrain that is Alaska. It stirred memories of childhood and living in Asheville in the 1970’s. We were at the time approaching the pass through the Wrangel mountains, so a highly appropriate song to listen to.

Why did I choose Alaska , it’s a big wide open country for a single woman to holiday in for sure .It is a long flight from the UK, 17 hrs pending route chosen, necessitating a change of flights part way through and some pre planned connecting of flights to avoid hanging around for excessive periods of time in an airport, requiring a lot of on line searching for the right flight route. I chose to get a travel group to sort that out for me – I used Round the World Travel Experts for this, as my patience for coordinating flights and dates is zilch! Getting here and staying requires a deep wallet.  Flights currently are around £1000 return from London and the best times to go are from May through to end August / beginning September. If you want to see the grisly bears at their best fishing for salmon then you should go end June / July.  Alaska has been on my “book it list” for a long time, and being able to take almost a month out for this trip due to retirement meant I could realise my dream.

Alaska is the 49 th State in the northern part of America bordering the Canadian Yukon border. It has a fascinating history particularly around the oil and mining industry – and global warming. Do listen to the brilliant Midnight oil podcasts . I have learnt so much from these fascinating accounts about Alaska- well worth the effort and good to put on when you are doing long journeys in the car.

I flew with Virgin Atlantic Business ( my grandmother always said shrouds don’t have pockets) from Heathrow to Seattle , and then onwards to Anchorage using Delta Airlines.  This meant that I had the luxury of stretching out and sleeping en route arriving at my destination refreshed after a long journey without swollen ankles and crook neck!

Arriving in Anchorage was relatively easy as the chaotic passport issues that are part of travelling to America were resolved in Seattle. I still to this day don’t understand why the passport service in all major airports in the states is so poor for such a developed and rich country . When you arrive you complete a series of questions about your trip, do finger print and face recognition processes electronically , but then you still have to go through another passport check with passport control. When you have a 2 hr turnaround to your next flight and this checking in process takes over an hour , a lot of completely unnecessary anxiety is created. They do not give any concessions to people in transit . And passport control guards are seriously surly and frightening . Thank god for our British passport checks , a smile and hello make all the difference to weary travellers. I know I am not alone in this as the fellow travellers who I met up with in an anchorage hotel all report the same frustrating experience.

For my first 3 nights in Anchorage I stayed in the Sheraton , about a 10 minute walk from the town centre.  It’s a fairly comfortable hotel with an apparently good steak bar that I didn’t eat at. It would be easy to just go there and avoid going into town on the evening on my own. As uncomfortable as it may be I always force myself to eat out and away from the hotel! Anchorage as a town was quite a down trodden and somewhat neglected place. I hired a bike and did a lot of walking around. It’s an easy town to get around, and a decent stop over place before you move on to touring Alaska .

Eateries were surprisingly good , given the above, and I highly recommend for brunch The Snow City Cafe – great pancakes and blueberries and the Simon and Seafort restaurant . Be aware to book the latter and note it is difficult to find as it is situated in an office building. I walked up and down the street looking for it before I realised this,  as did some others.  I had an amazing  cod stuffed with crab , cooked to perfection with mash and a light creamy dressing for the fish. I also had baked Alaska for desert ( well it is Alaska) which was the best one I have had ever. I actually felt very comfortable eating out on my own and neither restaurant tucked me away in a corner ( this does happen, I think people can feel sorry for singletons!)

I would say though 1 night in the town is more than enough , the “ tours” they have within the local town aren’t worth the money required to visit them.

So onto the trip, having travelled a total of around 1300 miles from start to end of trip.

I joined a group of 6 on a tour run by Grand American Adventures – see the tour schedule below 

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Our tour guide was a young woman who was amazing and a  very safe driver of a large mini bus , along some very remote and long drives.

Going on these escorted tours is a good thing to do if you travel on your own, particularly when visiting such a vast and sometimes remote country.  The groups are small enough ( maximum of 12) for you to relax and get to know your fellow travellers . You can decide to take a single supplement at additional expense ( as I did) . Or take pot luck as to who will share your room with you on your journey.  I have had one incompatible room mate previously and it put me off sharing, but I know many people who have had no problems. So it’s something only you can decide. It would not have been possible on this tour to change your mind if there is an issue with your room mate ( and that would also create tension) . If you get on with the person then it’s possible you will have made a friend for life. I met a lot of really nice people on the tour , 4 of whom were Brits.

Highlights of the trip can be explained in the pictures attached. I have never hiked glaciers, or done kayaking let alone in the sea among icebergs! Nor have I had a BBQ on a small boat and eaten salmon literally out of the sea and cooked there and then with a few bears in the back ground! But I did all of this and more and it was a truly exhilarating experience. If you love the idea of wilderness and remoteness , incredible scenery ,trekking around mountains ( or gentle walking)  , white water rafting, kayaking, wild life and pure clean air  this is a place to go to. Bear in mind accommodation varies considerably because sometimes there is no choice about where you lay your head for the night. And blissfully your WiFi is fairly unlikely to work in many places around Alaska.

 

 

 

 

 

Memorials and why they matter

pexels-photo-551616.jpegOn the 17 May I will be attending the opening ceremony of the memorial for victims killed by terrorist acts outside the UK. This is a significant event in Staffordshire for my two sons and myself as we are one of many families who lost a loved one in the InAmenas terrorist atrocity in 2013. Sadly there have been many other senseless acts of terrorism before and after In Amenas. The memorial will reflect this.

People will have many different views on whether memorials are important and of value .   Grief, after all , is largely a private event relevant for families and friends .People will question the cost of designing and creating sculptures / works of art for public memorials when there are so many other needs in society. There may be some truth in this, and people have a right to express their views.  I do think this memorial is however very important . Acts of terrorism affect us all either directly because we have lost someone we know , or indirectly in the way we live , where we go and what we say or do. This memorial is symbolic of the countless many wonderful people who have been killed whilst they were going about their own everyday lives, who were British and who were killed abroad. It’s a recognition that they have been caught up in crimes by small groups of militants who fight against British values and way of life.

My husbands death ( and those of so many others) was a very public event. You can not imagine the trauma of being the family who are actually living through the media portrayal of such events. You watch as events unfold and somehow it is all so surreal , but it is happening to you. My heart goes out to every family who has since gone through the same thing. I don’t know them but I understand the horror, the grief and powerlessness in these moments. In my view Stephen died because of political and ideological point scoring – from a small band of militants who don’t understand love , hope and aspirations of society ( the desire in the main to live well together and respect personal ideologies). Utterly  senseless and so very painful.

Through memorials we reflect on how people were affected by loss and pay tribute to those who fought in world wars as an example. I travel and observe ancient artefacts, memorials in effect that represent key people in societies past and a world littered by savage wars long gone . They remind us of our challenging past history and how things have changed for the better.

Thus the memorial “Still Water” is an opportunity for society to reflect on the present and past loss of life through acts of terror .  For me it will serve as a reminder not only of Stephens untimely death but also of the many other families who have lost loved ones. It reminds me that I am not alone, my sons and Stephens parents, brother and sister are part of that reality . I will no doubt see others at the memorial there too over time . The sculptures will provide an opportunity to talk with others affected by loss. life is precious and short . In the words of Maya Angelou we can not un-live  history but each of us can make the decision not to be reduced by the events that have befallen us. My hope then , is that in the forthcoming years generations will look upon “Still Water” has being representative of a period of time they have not had to live through. That in time the hatred of a small group of militants dissipates, that they see there is so much of life to embrace and they become more accepting of diversity. For now the least we can do as an individual is keep chipping away , playing our part for the good of others – and try to be that rainbow in someone else’s cloud by reaching out.