2016 TRAVELLING: The year in review

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This was another wonderful year full of travel and adventure!

  • Our first trip of the year was a lazy weekend in chilly Luxembourg;
  • In March we indulged in cheap fancy hotels in beautiful Malta – pure luxury!;
  • In April we spent a rainy weekend bar hopping in Cardiff;
  • I spent a sunny weekend sipping amazing cocktails with my friend in Milan;
  • We flew into Helsinki then took the ferry over to medieval Tallinn, where we had the best vegan lunch and spent hours losing ourselves in all the little alleyways;

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  • In June we spent a week watching football and exploring new corners of Paris – it was such a great time!;
  • In July I visited friends in Cumbria – so British and so scenic!;
  • We had a little break in our travels to get married, then we hopped on a plane for a cultural break in Pisa;
  • In November we had the trip of a lifetime spending our honeymoon in the Galapagos – who knew I would love swimming with sharks?;
  • We ended the year eating delicious food in one of my favourite places: Marrakech is always amazing!

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I can’t wait to see what adventures 2017 will bring!

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MY HOME AWAY FROM HOME: A weekend in Marrakech

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I always want to travel everywhere, but if anyone asks where I would choose to go at any given time, I’d probably say Marrakech. So our last trip of 2016 was my fifth time in this magical city.

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SECRET GARDEN:

I had heard that Le Jardin Secret was a good place to visit, so we decided to check it out. There are actually two connected gardens and also a tower with views of the medina and the Atlas Mountains.

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The gardens look great, and there are interesting videos – one explaining how the water flows across the site, the other about the recent renovation (it was only open to the public this year). A guide takes you up the tower and explains some aspects of the building and points out the different highlights of the medina.

Tickets cost 50 dirhams for the gardens plus 30 dirhams for the tower (both are worth it). This is a great place for a chilled break in the medina, and there’s also a cafe inside for a meal al fresco.

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FOOD:

It was getting late, but we got to Le Jardin just in time to get a yummy dinner. We had vegetable tagine and a selection of Moroccan salads, and both were delicious. This is an expensive place for Marrakech standards (dinner for two including tip for 220 dirhams), but it’s beautiful, and great for food or just for drinks.

We also visited the Earth Cafe, an old favourite which serves delicious veggie food. It uses local flavours and ingredients, but the dishes are not your usual offer of tagine and couscous. Dinner for two including a soft drink and tip for 200 dirhams.

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We wandered off Djemaa el-fna and stopped for lunch at Bakchich, one of the many nice cafes around rue des Banques. A yummy lunch of veggie couscous and tagine plus juice for two including tip for 120 dirhams. There are lots of other places in the same area which also looked good.

Another good thing to do in Marrakech is stocking up on local food: the dates are cheap (40 dirhams for a kilo) and delicious; the orange juice from the stalls at Djemaa el-fna is always great (4 dirhams per glass); the massive pomegranates from carts around the medina are always juicy (around 10 dirhams for one); and the olive selections from the olive souk (just off Les Terrasses De L’Alhambra at Djemaa el-fna) always make it impossible to choose (20 dirhams for kilo).

We also discovered a Carrefour not far from the medina, and that’s a good place to stock up on basic supplies. They also sell alcohol.

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A TRIP TO THE HAMMAM:

I decided to visit a hammam for the first time. We chose a more touristy experience (in the authentic version men and women attend different ones) at Rosa Bonheur, which had great reviews on TripAdvisor.

I had the 45min hammam which included different scrubs and a black soap mask – it was intense! They take layers and layers of gunk from your skin and you’re splashed with lots of water. Still, weirdly relaxing. This cost 30€. You can also get massages (from 30€ for 1 hour) and combos including various treatments and a meal. It’s definitely good value and an energising experience.

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CYBER PARK:

We walked around Cyber Park, which is a nice park just outside the walls of the medina. This is a lovely area for a break and good to rest for a bit on a sunny day.

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SHOPPING:

Haggling in the souks is always great fun, but sometimes it’s good to have an idea about prices. Following on the same road from the Saadian Tombs, there’s a big fixed-price shop (you’ll know it by the big marble statues at the entrance).

This is a massive shop covering two floors selling pretty much everything you’ll find in the souks. It’s more expensive, but it’s good if you want to browse with time and get an idea of what to buy and a ballpark figure of what to pay.

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Another good place for fixed-price shopping is the Ensemble Artisanal, where you can buy handicraft directly from those who make it. The opening hours are quite confusing, so it was lucky that it was open when we visited.

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STAY:

There are loads and loads of riads in Marrakech, and my experience has always been good. This time we stayed at Riad Adika, which was close to Mouassine (my favourite area in the medina) and had good reviews at TripAdvisor. It was quite difficult to find (you can arrange for them to pick you up at the airport for ease), but it was a lovely place. We paid 138€ for two people for two nights.

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This was another lovely trip to one of my favourite places. Because I’ve visited Marrakech so many times before, we could just take our time to visit some old favourites or check out what’s new. And as ever, I left this buzzing and crazy city already plotting my return.

Someday I might write up my complete guide to Marrakech, but for now you can see all my posts here.

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HONEYMOON STOPOVER: 3 days in Guayaquil

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For our honeymoon in the Galapagos, we decided to go via Guayaquil (the other alternative would be Quito), and we didn’t have many expectations around it.

We arrived in Guayaquil on a Saturday afternoon. Our hotel picked us up from the airport, which made things a bit easier. We discovered there was a shopping centre right next to where we were staying, so we decided to check it out (the kind of thing I only ever do on a holiday).

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We found a supermarket and bought some supplies, then went for dinner at Piola, where we had veggie pizza and two for one mojitos ($20 including tip) – there weren’t many vegetarian options in other places, so we ended up going back there a few times.

We had the whole of Sunday to explore Guayaquil, so we went to check out the sights. We started at Las Penas and Cerro Santa Ana. This used to be a dangerous neighbourhood, but it went through a regeneration programme and now it is a nice area to walk around and get views over the city and the river Guayas.

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Our next stop was a big Ferris wheel which has recently been set up by the port (tickets at $5 per person), which also had nice views over the river. This was right next to the famous Malecon, Guayquil’s most popular attraction. This is a nice promenade by the river with lots of view points, cafes and restaurants along the way. It was extremely hot, so a nice bar with cold beers would have been a welcome sight – unfortunately it was not to be.

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Our final stop in the city centre was Parque Centenario, or Iguanas Park – a public square where iguanas hang out with tortoises and squirrels. The iguanas lounge about being fed lettuce and climbing trees. This is a nice and fun place to visit.

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To escape the heat we went back to the hotel and enjoyed the swimming pool!

We had another free day in Guayaquil before our flight to London so we headed to the city centre for a walk. We visited a handicraft market which had lots of shops selling alpaca blankets, wicker baskets, artworks and all sorts of other things. Prices were good and you can haggle a bit (we bought t-shirts for $5 each).

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For lunch we went to Fenix, which we found through Happy Cow. For only $2.50 you get soup, a main course (rice, vegetables, a banana dish and soy meat pattie) and a drink! The food was simple but delicious, and it was great to find a veggie place to eat.

This restaurant (and most places in the city centre) only opens for lunch and caters mostly to locals, but we were immediately served in English by the manager who explained how the menu worked and what was the day’s special.

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Go: Getting to Ecuador from the UK is a bit tricky as there are no direct flights. We flew via Miami to Guayaquil, which is not the best choice: you need to go through the immigration process in the US even for connecting flights, and that in itself is enough reason to choose a different route – worse still was the 14-hour delay to our flight which was a bit painful. On our way back we flew via Madrid and that is definitely an easier option.
  • Stay: We stayed at Sonesta, a good hotel located 5 minutes from the airport. They offer free transfers to and from the airport, and the service was very good. Their prices vary a lot – we got a good deal on our first stay there but not so much when we returned from the Galapagos.
  • Taxis: You can’t avoid hearing horror stories about taxis in Guayaquil, so it’s important to only get taxis from official rinks and to agree on a price before you get in. Fares were very cheap at around $3.50-$4.
  • Food: Veggie food is definitely not the norm, but there’s lots of great local produce, including loads of exotic fruit.

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HOW TO PLAN YOUR GALAPAGOS TRIP: Tips and reflections

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SPOTTING WILDLIFE:

Spotting tortoises, iguanas and other animals is the main reason why people visit the Galapagos. But still we were often surprised by how abundant and friendly the animals were.

Sea lions rest in benches at the port, rays swim next to you by the shore, sharks can be spotted in any snorkelling trip. There’s so much to see that sometimes you don’t know if you watch a colony of marine iguanas or focus on the sea turtles swimming in the distance.

Unlike any other place I’ve visited, in Galapagos you can always be sure that you’ll see lots of animals close by anywhere you go – from beaches full of sea lions with pups to tortoises grazing next to a main road. Time and again we were surprised by the wildlife everywhere we went.

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PUERTO AYORA:

There are three main towns in Galapagos – we stayed in Puerto Ayora in the island of Santa Cruz. The main road is Charles Darwin Street, which has some souvenir shops, tour operators and a few bars and restaurants.

Charles Darwin Research Station is a short walk from the centre and the main thing to see in Puerto Ayora. At the main port water taxis drive tourists to their hotels while reef sharks and sea lions hang around.

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WHERE TO STAY – Finch Bay Hotel:

Because this was our honeymoon, we splashed out and stayed at the Finch Bay, which is a lovely hotel with a beach at its doorstep.

We booked the 8D/7N package which included boat trips to four nearby islands and land excursions to the highlights around Santa Cruz – you really don’t need to do any planning of your own with this package.

It included all meals (breakfast, lunch either aboard their boat or in the hotel, and a 4-course dinner every night) and not only did they know from the start that we were veggie, but also they were happy to adapt the menu to accommodate for vegans.

In the evening we often had a cocktail by the swimming pool, taking advantage of their happy hour deals on daiquiris, caipirinhas and other drinks from South America. Our room was bright and spacious and had a beautiful view of the bay.

The boat excursions were done aboard the Sea Lion, Finch Bay’s nice yacht. We were always accompanied by a naturalist guide (sometimes two) and travelled in small groups.

The staff at the Finch Bay were absolutely fantastic – not only was the service very good, but they were genuinely friendly and helpful. The Finch Bay is very expensive though, so it’s definitely a choice for special occasions. We booked it through Metropolitan Tours, a travel agency that manages the hotel.

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GALAPAGOS BY BOAT:

We chose to stay in land as a week on a boat seemed a bit much for us, but visiting Galapagos by boat is the best way to see more islands and cover a bigger distance. There are lots of options to choose from with many different itineraries.

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MONEY:

Galapagos is an expensive place to visit, and no matter how you do it, you need to be prepared to spend. Everything is quite expensive, as places are full of tourists and there aren’t many options around.

Tipping is welcome at tours and for services, but it’s not mandatory. Although the currency of Ecuador is the US Dollar, you should take small notes only, as it’s hard to change larger notes. Tours are usually all inclusive, so once you’ve paid for those there isn’t much else to spend.

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FOOD:

Ecuadorian food is definitely not veggie, but in the Galapagos they are used to vegetarians. Even in Ecuador mainland people are always happy to adapt dishes and keen to ensure that you have a proper meal, so there are always good alternatives (and speaking Spanish goes a long way).

There’s lots of exotic fruit which is great, and of course Ecuadorian coffee and chocolate are world-famous.

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GETTING THERE:

Getting to the Galapagos from the UK is quite the journey: firstly, there are no direct flights from the UK to Ecuador (we flew via Miami on the way there and Madrid on the way back). You can get flights to Galapagos from capital Quito or the country’s largest city Guayaquil (most flights from Quito have a short stopover in Guayaquil), and it’s safer to allow at least one day each way in Ecuador in case there are problems with flights. Flights from the UK to Ecuador start at £550 return; from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos it’s about £250 return.

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Our Galapagos adventures are here: Day 1; day 2; day 3; day 4; day 5; day 6; day 7.

IGUANAS ON A PRISTINE BEACH: Honeymoon in the Galapagos, day 7

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For our last day in the Galapagos we went to nearby beach Tortuga Bay. From Puerto Ayora the beach is accessible by a mile-long trail through a dry area covered in cacti. Along the way you spot lots of lava lizards and mockingbirds.

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Arriving in Tortuga Bay is amazing, the beach is picture perfect by itself, but there are also marine iguanas walking around, which makes the scenery even more remarkable.

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Walking to the end of the beach we reached Playa Mansa, a quieter beach which is good for swimming and snorkelling. We rented a kayak ($10 per person per hour) and went exploring the mangroves. We spotted herons and marine iguanas, a few fish, and a shark. Just as we were leaving on our boat, we saw a sea turtle in the distance!

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This really was the trip of a lifetime. Galapagos is a unique place and it was a great choice for our honeymoon. Every place we visited had something different to offer, and tourism restrictions mean that most of the time the only people you see are those in the same (small) tour as you.

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More on our Galapagos trip: Day 1; day 2; day 3; day 4; day 5; day 6.

DOLPHINS FOLLOWED OUR BOAT: Honeymoon in the Galapagos,day 6

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We were back aboard the Sea Lion for our last trip – this time we sailed to Bartholomew.

On the way there we passed the small islet Daphne, where we could see Nazca boobies nesting. The boat continued its journey and we were soon joined by dolphins that swam right next to us and jumped out of the water – amazing!

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After a couple of hours we reached Bartholomew, a young volcanic island that looks very impressive, with jagged rocks contrasting with the deep blue sea and sandy beaches. We were greeted by sea lions on landing as per usual.

We followed the steps up to the highest point of the island, where we had the most breath-taking views.

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We then went snorkelling around the Pinnacle, an impressive rock formation which is also an ideal home for lots of fish. We spotted starfish, a colourful parrot fish and – as usual – a reef shark! This was a unique site for snorkelling, a fitting place four our last island trip. And so it was back on the boat and to the hotel.

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Our Galapagos adventures are here: Day 1; day 2; day 3; day 4; day 5.

ALONE WITH A SEA TURTLE: Honeymoon in the Galapagos, day 5

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We got back aboard the Sea Lion and headed to South Plaza for a hike. We were greeted by playful sea lion pups swimming by the pier.

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We walked across this small island stopping to look at sea lion and iguanas along the way.

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We stopped near the cliffs on one side of the island where we could see lots of birds: Nazca boobies, shearwaters with chicks, pelicans and frigatebirds which were manoeuvring impressively trying to get some food off the cliff.

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This is a small but very pretty island, and the day was just beautiful! We went back to the boat to find a good place for snorkelling in Punta Carrion. We were a small group this time, which was good because we could do lots of exploring by ourselves.

We saw loads of colourful fish, some in large schools, spotted a shark, and were greeted by a sea turtle swimming nearby – amazing! Then it was back on the boat and to the hotel.

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More on our Galapagos adventure is here: Day 1; day 2; day 3; day 4.