Far Away Places: The World Got Big Again All of a Sudden

The Jumbo Jet is often attributed to making the world smaller. Allowing affordable air travel for the masses meant that previously unthinkable far-flung destinations were now potential holiday destinations.

A380

Certainly Hubby and I have enjoyed our fair-share of air travel, not just on 747’s, but also on 777’s, tiny prop planes and more recently the beast that is the A380 (phwoar – yes, I’m a plane geek).  In the past few years we’ve ticked Kuala Lumpur, Borneo, Singapore, Langkawi and Sri Lanka off our long-haul to do list.

Fire Performer Bormeo

Our parent’s are often concerned when we tell them we’re going away. Both Hubby and I come from working class families, for whom international travel still has some essence of novelty value to it. Certainly, I don’t think my mom has ever been abroad. This means we get the same response whenever we tell them we’ve booked our latest travels…

Them: Where are you off to now?

Us: <Announce name of country we’re supremely excited to visit>

Them: Tsk! Why can’t you just go somewhere normal?

Friends have experienced similar conversations with their parents. I get it. I do. Some of the places we travel to seem strange to them. Other times they’re just fearful for our safety, which is sweet. I’ve always thought this was an unnecessary worry until we recently decided to look for the perfect Autumnal break. Somewhere we can go to laze in the sun, switch off our brains and rest our weary limbs.

Sunset on Langkawi beach

Perhaps we could go back to Langkawi – our Honeymoon destination? After all we are going away around our anniversary? But then we would have to fly with Malaysia Airlines and, well, they’re not having much luck recently. I’ll be honest, it’s more the prohibitive costs that deter me on this one. If I could get a cheap deal my reservations of flying with the superb Malaysia Airlines would disappear and, in my opinion, it’s been poor luck that two of their aircraft have suffered such terrible fate. It’s difficult to say if they were specifically targeted as a brand/country but I’d like to think not and that it could have just as easily been any other carrier. Although obviously, in both instances, it shouldn’t have happened at all.

Then we thought about Thailand. I’ve always wanted to go. Hubby informed me there’s trouble brewing there. I assured him we would be fine transferring in Bangkok airport to one of the tropical touristy islands. He wasn’t buying it. Again, this was a rather expensive option, so I decided to cease my ‘visit Thailand’ campaign.

A cheap all-inclusive package would suit us down to the ground. What about Egypt? But is there still trouble there and, if so, in which parts? Again, high prices put pay to us doing too much research. Instead we stumbled on Tunisia. Prices were good, hotels looked nice and although it seemed to have a polarising Marmite effect on people we were willing to give it a try. Then the US sold Tunisia some Black Hawk helicopters and there was talk of trouble in the run up to the election, possibly throughout Ramadan, within the mountain regions where there were terrorist incidents and on the border where people were fleeing from neighbouring Syria. Suddenly we had doubts and decided to investigate safer options. Safer boring European options where we could either get culture or hot weather – never both.

I hate the feeling that I’m compromising, that I’m worried to travel to certain destinations. I love experiencing new cultures and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, but even for me I find myself playing it safe. Sadly that means the terrorists are winning. They’re making us change our everyday actions and undoing the work that the 747 did all those years ago. The world has gone from being super accessible to somewhat intimidating.

Food & Far Away Places: The Fortress, Koggala, Sri Lanka

The Fortress, Sri Lanka

We were fortunate enough to be staying at this fabulous five-star hotel, but even if you’re not, if you’re in the Koggala area of Sri Lanka you can book a table at The Fortress’ restaurant for dinner and many did.

The Fortress has two evening dining options: the main restaurant (Pepper) and wood fired pizza and al a carte Mediterranean-fare offered by Heat.

Pizza

We didn’t actually dine out at Heat during our stay. But that didn’t mean we missed out on trying their tasty dishes. A long day trip to Yala National Park left us sleepy and so we ordered pizzas and strawberry milkshakes on room service. Oh my word – they were divine!

The strawberry milkshake was just the perfect balance of thickness and frothiness, full of flavour and would have put many kitsch diner-style restaurants offerings to shame.

The pizza had the perfect thin crispy base, topped with delicious toppings and lots of cheese. I’m not even that crazy for pizza (don’t judge me) but even I fell hard for this one.

Evening meals in Pepper varied between al a carte and buffet. On some evenings a choice of either was available.

Buffet starters

Buffet’s were generally very good, so long as you didn’t mind being a bit adventurous. Which, to be fair, if you’re holiday in Sri Lanka you probably should be! The Sri Lankan buffet night was a particular favourite giving diners the opportunity to choose from a vast range of starters (mostly salads), main courses (mostly vegetable curries) and desserts, some of which seemed to have been fancied up a bit for the five-star audiences, whereas others, like Watalappan, seemed to retain their rustic Sri Lankan charm. Sure, there were some dishes I didn’t enjoy and others I loved. But that’s the beauty of buffet.

Sri Lankan curry buffet

The selection was vast (although not ideal if you don’t like your food with some spice) and was continually topped up. It was also presented beautifully, well, where it could be anyway, it’s difficult to add beauty to a curry!

Another evening we opted for the sea food BBQ. We were slightly less impressed with this. The selection of food available is still brilliant and I really enjoyed the lobster and prawn. However, the squid was sadly over cooked and some of the dishes were so poorly explained that I decided against opting for them for fear of making a fool of myself.

Al la carte options were also good and we varied up our choice of dishes across various evenings. Sometimes opting for the fail-safe fish and chips and at other times being a little more daring. I received massive kudos from the waiting staff when I ordered the Sri Lankan curry platter, a delicious assortment of small dishes containing various Sri Lankan vegetable curries. There was one dish that was a little too spicy for me, but otherwise I coped OK and I only go as far as the Rogan Josh at the curry house in the UK!

All meals were presented beautifully and portions were huge. If you’re not that hungry consider ordering a starter as a main, or if you’re semi-hungry, go for two courses rather than three. I only managed three courses from the a la carte menu once during our entire stay and afterwards I felt incredibly stodged and I can usually eat A LOT!

The waiting staff are super attentive and nicely friendly too. Not in your face, but happy to make conversation if you want to. They can’t do enough for you and it can be a bit embarrassing when they race across the room to open your bottle of water because you were about to do it and, well, you’re their guest, you shouldn’t have to open a bottle of water. Despite our assurances that it was fine, we were relieved of water bottle opening duty!

The drinks selection was fairly comprehensive although also quite pricey. I enjoyed some nice Shiraz (Australian, I think) a couple of nights, but often stuck to the local Lion lager or soft drinks. The hotel has a fantastic range of iced teas and non-alcoholic cocktails if you’re not into the booze and a great range of premium international whisky brands, if you are.

In terms of the eating environment, it’s pretty relaxed. Fancy, but not pretentious. You don’t need to dress up, although clothing should be appropriate for an evening meal, not lazing on the beach.

The tables are al-fresco although undercover and look out to the hotel’s pool and the inky dark Indian Ocean. Some evenings a guitar player would strum whilst we ate our dinner.

The restaurant does get busy, so if you’re not a guest at the hotel you may wish to book. The hotel was at full capacity during the second week of our stay so even we decided to make a reservation one evening just to be sure.

Meals are pricey by Sri Lankan standards, more in line with what you would expect to pay in a European hotel. But that’s what you get when you dine in a fancy restaurant.

And, no, we didn’t see anyone order the world’s most expensive dessert.

To find out more about The Fortress, follow this link.

Fabulous rating: 4/5

Far Away Places: Dudmaston Estate, Shropshire, UK

Dudmaston Hall

OK, at just 12 miles away from our home,  the Dudmaston Estate doesn’t technically qualify as a ‘far away place’, but given the fact that:

a.) This National Trust property is far away from some people

b.) I’m yet to come up with a witty f-word for nearby day trips

We’ll roll with it!

Dudmaston marked our first foray into the world of National Trust properties, choosing to go on a Bank Holiday was perhaps a tad foolish. As we drove up the impressive (and very long) driveway we were convinced there must be some kind of massive event taking place. With the exception of a few May Day Bank Holiday celebrations (more on those later), we were wrong. We had simply chosen the day that everyone in the locality decided to descend upon the hall and grounds! To the point where we later found out that some of our relatives visited on the same day as us, also enduring the constant queuing!

We queued to pay for our tickets, which was terribly disorganised, but as most of the National Trust staff are volunteers you don’t really feel you can complain. The queuing wasn’t much better around the house, where we stood inline to move from room to room. It did somewhat spoil our enjoyment, but over-hearing one staff member telling another visitor how they had worked there for 11-years and never known people having to queue to move around the house, just proved that we’d come on an uber popular day, rather than this being a consistent issue.

Our rag on the May Tree

Our first port of call was the May Day Bank Holiday celebrations held in The Orchard, we tied a rag on the traditional May Tree and made a wish.

Morris Dancers at Dudmaston Hall

We watched Morris dancers do their thing.

And then we headed to the house, to be faced with the aforementioned queues. Were they worth the wait? Were they worth the stress? Kind of. Dudmaston Hall is still lived in by a family who allow access to certain rooms within the house, hence some slightly strange opening hours. This lends the house a unique edge. This is a ‘lived-in’ stately home where riding boots loiter on the doorstep and half-drunk bottles of whisky glisten enticingly in the library. It is nice, but it’s not really all that grand.

The history of the hall and it’s owners are recounted through various displays and you get to see into a number of rooms, including a couple of guest bedrooms, as well as climbing the beautiful staircase.

There are numerous art galleries in the final few rooms of the house tour, which, with their mix of contemporary and classical art, ensure there’s something for everyone (as well as something for everyone to moan about). When we visited there was an amazing art installation in the final room, made entirely from cardboard it depicted life in the trenches and, for me at least, was the highlight of the house tour. It has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Dudmaston Lake

It’s the grounds where Dudmaston wows, after all, there are 3,000 acres of them. The best thing about that? Even on a busy day you can still meander off and find your little oasis of peace. We walked around the large lake taking in the stunning views back to the house.

Dudmaston Hall Lake

We came across a stunning view where Big Pool meets Mill Pool.

Big Pool at Dudmaston Hall

We saw ducklings (not the best photo – look for the ball of yellow fuzz in the grass).

Ducklings

We saw bluebells in the woods.

Bluebells

We saw all that was good about spring.

Gardens

We climbed through long grass on hills just to see what was at the top. And, we eventually wound up in the gardens area. Now I’m anything but green fingered. How my long-suffering house plants are still alive is a mystery to me. But these gardens are stunning, even if you’re not botanically minded, and are well worth a stroll.

Me with a red tree

I took a particular liking to this tree. So pretty!

Heading back into the thick of the crowds we decided to grab a cream tea. Not only was it delicious, but because the cafe was so busy it meant we got to share a table with a lovely elderly couple who made us smile.

The May Tree

As we left the May Tree had been raised so our wishes could be carried away in the wind.

Worth a visit? Yes, but skip the house – unless you’re really interested – and pay for entrance to the garden and park. Oh and don’t forget the cream tea.

Fabulous rating: 4/5

Find out more about the Dudmaston Estate here. 

Far Away Places: The UK Isn’t Just London!

23 View of the Houses of Parliament from the London Eye

Seriously, it’s no wonder us Brits are so frequently asked whether we know the Queen (I don’t by the way). To those from foreign lands the rest of the UK must just seem like an extension to London. In fact, to those from foreign shores, does the rest of the UK even exist or do they think that the UK is London.

Don’t get me wrong, I love London. I really do. The hustle and bustle. The way the sunlight bounces off the polluted sky to produce some stunning sunsets across the Thames (best viewed from Waterloo Bridge in my opinion). I love that there’s so much to do. It’s a city full of opportunities. There’s exciting places to work. Trendy bars. New foods to try. Fashion is eclectic. The whole place is cosmopolitan and you’re never quite sure when you’re going to stumble across a manly man in a lumberjack shirt wearing a mini-skirt and carrying a sparkly clutch (well, that’s my experience anyway).

#birmingham

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However, I also love Birmingham, and Manchester, and Bristol, and Edinburgh, and Oxford and lots of other places in the UK…

And, what seriously pisses me off (sorry I’m cross and the profanities have emerged) is that, as a country, we’re still so London-centric. Even now the BBC is mostly based in Manchester. Even though video conferencing and working from home means we can be anywhere in the country. Even though cities outside of London have so much to offer (and cheaper house prices to boot). We still fixate on London.

The most recent example to add fuel to my fire is this tweet from Robbie Williams. Don’t get me wrong. I adore Robbie. I think Olly Murs is pretty cool too. But why do these ‘guest appearances’ always seem to occur for London audiences?

Take the second-leg of Beyoncé’s recent ‘The Mrs Carter Show World Tour‘. Hubby Jay Z was watching in the wings at Birmingham, but didn’t decide to take to the stage with Bey until they reached London.

Erm, excuse me for a moment. I get it. London is the capital. But please understand, as London is the capital it ALREADY HAS SHITLOADS OF REALLY COOL STUFF (sorry the expletives and the capitals have come out now), spare a thought for us types in the smaller cities. OK, so we have the smug contentment of being able to buy a four-bedroomed house for the same price as a studio flat in the capital, but does that make us any less important in the eyes of superstars? Apparently so…

What do you think? Are we too London-centric? What could be done to redress the balance?

 

Far away places: Whale and dolphin spotting in Sri Lanka

Mirrissa

A 5am start usually has me wincing, but seeing the sun rise over the beautiful beaches of Sri Lanka followed by watching dolphins doing their thing in the Indian Ocean made it much oh so much more bearable.

Our faithful Tuk Tuk driver, Bertie, drove us to the busy Mirrissa harbour, which was bustling full of fishermen selling their wares to chefs from hotels and restaurants from all over the island.

Safely seconded on our boat we headed out to sea and kept going and kept going and kept going…

Breakfast was served, although it was an interesting concoction of  a spicy Roti, a mini banana, some bread and butter and a piece of cake that tasted of ice cream. Hmmm.

We headed further and further out and eventually encountered our first dolphins! Amazing!

As we headed further out to sea (I seriously thought we were going to end up in the Maldives) we encountered more groups of these wonderful playful creatures as they played in the boat’s wake, chased alongside us or put on impromptu gymnastics performances by leaping out of the water and spinning in the air in front of us.

Unfortunately we didn’t see any Whales on our trip. But seeing dolphins in their natural habitat was truly amazing.

I’d been on dolphin spotting boat tours in Tenerife before, but they were no where near as good as this excursion. Well worth the early start and certainly something I’d do again when we return to Sri Lanka.

Cost: Depends who you book through

Top Tip: Take your sea legs and belly – that ocean is pretty choppy!

Apologies for the lack of photos. A bouncy sea and taking decent photos don’t mix very well. I did take a few videos which are of the sky, sea, dolphin, sky, sea… variety. Ha, ha! Also that boat at the top isn’t the one you go out in obvs! 

 

 

Far Away Places: Yala National Park and Weherahena Underground Temple

Elephant in Yala National Park

Our hotel organised this as a day excursion for us. We were met at the hotel by our guide in his ‘comfortable SUV’, who took us on what seemed an extraordinarily long drive to Yala.

Weherema Templeac

On the way there we took in both modern and ancient Buddhist temples, stopping at Weherahena Underground Temple for a look around.

Buddha paintings

A whistle-stop tour of the underground temple takes in some gaudy paintings as a friendly guide explains the history of Buddhism.

Giant Buddha

We were then blessed by a Buddhist monk before emerging back into the light to take in the gigantic Buddha statue. It’s not the most tasteful of temples, but it does have its own unique charm.

Me in the safari jeep

Onwards to Yala we stopped at Refresh for lunch and to jump into the safari jeep for a further 12km until we reached Yala. On the ride there we saw locals washing their clothes in a stream and drying them on the bushes en-route. We ain’t in the ‘burbs of the Midlands now Toto!

The journey around Yala is bumpy, very bumpy. My arse felt like I’d been beaten up the day after our safari! But it’s so, so worth it.

Sri Lankan leopard

We might not have spotted Sri Lankas native leopards, but we did see elephants (lots of elephants), crocodiles, water buffalo, various species of deer and lots and lots of birds.

Crocodile

Water Buffalo

Deer

Pelican

Sri_Lankan_Beach

There are beautiful vistas and the opportunity to stretch your legs on the beautiful beach which neighbours the reserve is a fitting finale to the tour.

Tsunami Memorial

The tribute to the tsunami victims is humbling and makes you appreciate the enormity of the waves that hit Sri Lanka on 26th December 2004.

Elephant family

On our way out of the park we were fortunate enough to encounter  a family of elephants, complete with four-day-old baby and then, later, a friendly elephant who was literally so close to us that I couldn’t fit him in my viewfinder. Amazing!

Cost: Get a quote from your hotel it depends on seasons (and again you might be able to haggle)

Top Tip: It’s a long day, so try to have a restful day either side of this trip.

Far Away Places: Our Hotel in Sri Lanka – The Fortress

The Fortress

By the time we pulled up to our hotel in Sri Lanka we’d been travelling for a good day and a bit, across various time zones. We’d set off from home in the UK at around 6pm on a chilly Monday in January and now here we were on a balmy Tuesday evening the other side of the world. We’d arrived via Dubai (where we ended up in the cargo area due to a rush hour induced lack of stands) and the Maldives (sadly we had to stay on board the plane at Male airport). So, yes, needless to say by the time we arrived at The Fortress we were almost delirious with jet lag and had both fallen asleep in the back of our transfer ride from the airport. We were so sleepy that the guy who checked us in at the hotel cheekily asked if we remembered him the following day. He was shocked at how tired we were considering we should have got to sleep on the plane. He thought everyone got lay flat beds, even in economy – if only that were the case!

The Fortress Doors

Anyway, despite the tiredness, the first thing that struck us about The Fortress was the large imposing doors. I don’t know if I’ve got a weird door fetish or what, but seriously they were some seriously impressive pieces of timber – which for some reason made both myself and hubby smile. After months of anticipation we were finally here!

The Fortress room

A welcome iced tea and a cool flannel later and the staff were showing us to our room. Even through the jet lag we were amazed at how spacious it was. I exclaimed that it was bigger than our apartment at home. The staff thought I was joking – truth be told – it probably was.

The Fortress

That evening we ordered room service, poured ourselves a glass of wine, ran a bath and slept, ready to explore the following day. And we were super impressed by what we found! The Fortress is a resort hotel which backs onto the Indian Ocean. That said, it doesn’t have a private beach area. You can step onto the beach down just a few steps from the hotel grounds, but that’s a public beach where you’re open to be politely harassed by the locals. Not an issue for us, but for others who are used to resort hotel having its own private beach, this might be a surprise.

The Fortress is a boutique hotel, so it’s not massive, with just 53 bedrooms, even at full occupancy it never feels massively over-crowded.

Sri Lankan desserts

Breakfast is served al fresco (although there is the option to sit inside if you’d prefer) and the selection is good – everything from curry, through fruit, cereal, toast and the chef will even prepare omelettes and other eggs to order. Likewise, dinners and lunches are also al fresco and offer a good choice of different cuisines, alternating between themed evenings (we really enjoyed the Sri Lankan buffet evening) and an al a carte menu. Prices aren’t cheap and because you’re a fair distance from Galle you’ll either have to stump up the cash for food, or for a Tuk Tuk to find a cheaper alternative. That said, portion sizes are massive and I got into the habit of only ordering starters from the lunch menu as a result! As well as the main restaurant, the room service food is impeccable (try a strawberry milkshake – you will not be disappointed). Plus, there are also pool snacks available (served to you at your sun lounger), freshly stone-baked pizzas and even afternoon tea served in the upstairs bar.

#bliss #koggalabeach #thefortress #ocean

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The infinity pool over looks the Indian Ocean. Do I really need to say more? It’s beautiful. A sight I could happily sit and stare at for hours on end. Often my book would lay unloved on the floor whilst I gazed out to sea. Sun loungers are also available away from the pool, but be careful where you pitch up. The hotel attracts a lot of crows, so if you’re nestled under the shade of a tree you might get pooped on! It’s also worth bearing in mind that the place is over-run by little Sri Lankan squirrels. They’re cute, mischievous buggers, but if you’re not a fan of furry creatures this mightn’t be the place for you! In our experience people do tend to reserve sun loungers by placing their books on them and then disappearing off for an eternity – annoying, especially considering the hotel is mostly frequented by us Brits, who I thought knew better! We took an ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em attitude’ to sun lounger reservation in the end. Oh and a tip, at sunset locals tend to wander the beach vying for Tuk Tuk trade. If you’re near the edge of the pool by the beach and you accidentally get eye contact with one of them, it can be a tad awkward. For this reason we preferred the sun loungers a little further back or off to the side of the pool.

Sri Lankan Squirrel

It’s worth mentioning that the pool was equally impressive at night, lit up by a multitude of tiny lights in the floor. Truly stunning.

Turtle

If furry creatures aren’t your thing, but amphibious ones are. The hotel houses its own turtle sanctuary and whilst we were there we got to experience releasing baby turtles into the wild – an amazing experience.

Wedding at he Fortress

Something else worth looking out for is if someone in the hotel is getting married. An English couple got hitched while we were there and the entrance of the bride and groom was amazing.

Wedding at The Fortress

The random Speedo wearers watching the nuptials on the beach a little less so, but hey!

Entertainment at The Fortress

As for nightlife, the hotel is pretty quiet on an evening. Once a week they host a managers cocktail evening where you get a free cocktail and get treated to a show of Sri Lankan dance. This is well worth going to.

DSCN5212

Service at the hotel is out of this world. I’ve never been somewhere where the staff have been so friendly. You do start to think that it’s because they want a tip, and perhaps they do, but even if you don’t tip they’re still equally lovely to you. They also have a fantastic sense of humour and are a delight to chat to. A lot of them have previously worked in hotels in Dubai, so they truly understand high service standards. Not least the room boys who not only clean the rooms everyday (seriously I nearly smuggled one of the guys home with me – my cosmetics were rearranged in height order every single day!) but also spend time decorating the bed with petals and burning cinnamon oil as part of the turn down service.

Fortress room

Back to the rooms. We were in the standard room. OK, so we didn’t really have a view, but the room itself was massive and kitted out with a 7ft by 7ft bed, a Bose sound-sytem and pre-loaded iPod, TV, a well-stocked mini bar with complimentary fresh fruit on arrival, tea and coffee-making facilities (including an actual tea-pot), a cocktail shaker, more storage than you would need at home and… possibly the world’s most complex lighting system. It fooled us the first couple of nights, on nights after that we chuckled as we could hear switches being frantically turned on and off in adjoining rooms as they attempted to master the system.

The Fortress

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The bathroom was pretty impressive too, with a free-standing bath (ours was a little wobbly), a massive walk in shower, his and her sinks and practically a book-case for your cosmetics (seriously I need one of those at home).

DSCN5205

In terms of facilities, there’s a pool table and books in the upstairs bar which offers fabulous views out to the Indian Ocean. There’s also an amazing looking, but expensive Ayurvedic spa, a gift shop, a small but well kitted out gym and a jewellery shop. The hotel is also able to offer excursions, which perhaps aren’t the cheapest, but are well organised. In all instances our driver was always waiting for us way ahead of departure time.

Sri_Lankan_Beach

In terms of location, The Fortress is in Koggala to the south of the island. The beaches around this area are beautiful, but there’s probably not as much to do as there is in areas such as Kandy. This hotel would make a nice indulgent and relaxing break for a couple who were looking for some R&R time at the end of a jam-packed tour of Sri Lanka, or offers a good base if you want to explore the south of the island and have some well deserved chill time. Local amenities are few and far between. Galle is about twenty minutes away by Tuk Tuk (there’s a rank opposite the hotel), there’s also Unawanatuna Beach a short Tuk Tuk ride away if you want an alternative place to eat out. In terms of things in walking distance to the hotel you’ve got Koggala Lake, the Folk Museum, the Turtle Sanctuary and a couple of very small stalls (selling coconuts, crisps, water and small snacks) and some equally small eateries.

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For us it’s not a case of will we go back, but more a case of when.

Fabulous rating: 5/5

Far Away Places: Birmingham – Because Sometimes You Don’t Have to go Very Far at all

I have to be honest. I have a love/hate relationship with Birmingham. When I was a child it was an exciting, bustling city (that I pronounced Burning Ham – ha, ha!). That was back in the days of the original Bullring, which, to be frank, was a hideous mess. Back then, going to Birmingham meant adventure; a trip to the Museum to see the scary dinosaur; perhaps some new clothes, or a new toy and most definitely a day rounded off with a McDonald’s. Not to mention the opportunity to take a train or bus journey (that was back in the days when people could still smoke on the top deck of the bus, god, I’m old!).

As a teenager and in my early twenties I still loved Brum. It was a mecca for fashion and alternative clothing that I couldn’t source more locally. It was more daring and out-there. Soon I discovered its night life and was drawn in to the world of house music – fluffy boot covers from The Oasis and all!

I even lived in Birmingham for a short while. Just after I moved back to the Midlands from London, I found my home town too suburban, and missed the buzz of living near a big city. I had visions of living in a swanky apartment, going for post-work cocktails and shopping in Selfridge’s. Unfortunately the job I had at that time paid very poorly, so it was more nights down Liberty’s and clothes from New Look, but hey, it was an experience – albeit a short-lived one. It was probably around this time that I started to fall out of love with Birmingham. I couldn’t put my finger on quite what it was. The people seemed rude, there was hustle and bustle but not of the right sort, gangs of youths hung around menacingly in the city centre. All in all it wasn’t somewhere I looked forward to visiting.

As a result over the past few years I’ve found myself venturing into the city less and less and sometimes dreading it when I do need to make trip ‘up town’. In fact, earlier this week we begrudgingly headed into the city as Hubby wanted to purchase something from the Fossil store in the Bullring. Now, don’t get too excited, there were still parts of it we disliked. The urban tangle of New Street (the actual street not the station) still makes me shudder and the Bullring is poorly designed with too few escalators. Some of the people are still intimidating. But… for Birmingham-phobes, like me, there’s a glimmer of hope…

Starbucks

On our way back to the car park (we always park at Brindley Place) we grabbed some Mocha Coconut Frappuccinos from Starbucks (we got them on the half-price offer, even though it was after 5pm – I certainly wasn’t going to argue!) and, as it was a nice day (I was wearing flip flops in England for chrissakes!) we headed over to Centenary Square where we parked our butts to drink them.

Centenary Square, Birmingham

Now, to me, Centenary Square has always had a bit of an identity problem. When it was first built it literally did just seem like a huge, well, square. Like a massive patio extension to its neighbouring Symphony Hall, ICC and Birmingham Rep. Sure, they held some events over there. But it didn’t seem to have any real purpose and just felt a bit like an urban wasteland. However, all that has changed since the opening of the new Birmingham Library. First up, just look at it, isn’t that a sexy beast of architecture? Phwoar. But it’s photogenic looks (seriously I’ve never seen so many people with DSLRs in Birmingham) aren’t the only thing that has revolutionised the area. It’s something deeper than that.

Birmingham Library

As we sat supping our scrummy Frappuccinos we watched a group of lads playing Table Tennis in a sunken area of the library. How cool is that? A library with an area for Table Tennis?! Inside we could see funky chairs and people congregating and having fun, whilst researching. Outside groups of people were sat catching up with each other, strumming guitars and generally soaking up the atmosphere. And that, my dear fabulous readers, is the biggest thing that’s changed. The whole atmosphere of Centenary Square has been taken up a notch. It’s no longer a soulless space. It’s now got an artsy, creative vibe akin to the South Bank in London. I sat there and felt like I’d been transported somewhere different, somewhere inspiring.

Table Tennis

The rest of the city could do a lot to learn from this new area of development.

Have you been to Birmingham recently? What did you think of the city?

Far Away Places: Our Return to Edinburgh

I thought we’d take a break from the Sri Lanka themed posts for a week (yep, there’s still more to come!) and head to the less tropical shores of Bonny Scotland. Edinburgh to be exact, where we returned for my birthday in March. We decided to take my mom with us this time. We knew she’d love the Scottish capital and she hadn’t been on a plane since she was pregnant with me (airport security has changed a lot in that time, apparently!).

Here’s what we got up to…

National Gallery Edinburgh

After a slightly bumpy landing we caught the 100 Airlink bus from the airport into the city centre and stopped off at the National Gallery for coffee and cake.

Edinburgh Castle

Then it was off to the hotel to check in. We stayed in the Novotel Edinburgh Centre and were pretty impressed with the view from our window…

Mini Cakes

and the birthday goodies they gave me.

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh

On the evening we took a stroll along the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace.

Haggis, Neeps and Tatties

Before grabbing some grub in Whiski on the Royal Mile. I went traditional and opted for Haggis with Neeps and Tatties (it was scrumptious).

Later that evening we joined a Mercat Tours Ghost Tour where a cloaked guide told us sinister tales of the city before leading us into the infamous vaults for some more spooky stories.

Royal Yacht Britannia

The following day was my birthday, so after a satisfying breakfast we caught a cab to Leith and boarded the Royal Yacht Britannia. I was pleasantly surprised with how interesting it was, giving a sneak peek not only into where the Royals would have stayed (glam but now rather dated) but also where all the other servicemen would have bunked-up. It really was a floating town.

Sam with a pint on the Royal Yacht Britainnia, Edinburgh

There were some unmissable photo opportunities.

Chair, Royal Yacht Britannia

I fell in love with these chairs.

Ahoy there! All aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia for my birthday! #Edinburgh

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Then we grabbed a scrumptious lunch on board, with some yummy tea.

Leith, Edinburgh

I then bullied  encouraged my fellow travellers to walk back to the hotel along the Water of Leith. There were groans at first, but once we started on the walk everyone seemed pleased we’d done it, walking along tree-lined, picturesque river banks certainly beats getting stuck in a traffic jam.

On the evening we headed to Jamie’s Italian for dinner, which was nice, but not as good as other Jamie’s that I’ve visited previously. Still enjoyed it though.

Holyrood House

Rain was forecast for our final day so our initial plans of conquering Arthur’s Seat were scrapped in favour of visiting Holyrood Palace, which was beautiful and full of history.

Calton Hill, Edinburgh

Then we climbed Calton Hill. I love the view of the city from up there.

Before heading back to the airport.

Good times.

Far Away Places: Places to Visit Sri Lanka: Part 5: Galle Fort

Galle_Fort_Lighthouse_Sri_Lanka

Wander the walls of the historic Galle Fort at sunset, or indeed at any time, and you won’t be disappointed by this impressive Unesco World Heritage site. The sheer scale of it is amazing, not to mention the stunning views out to sea.

Galle_Sri_Lanka

You can while away the time peering into Galle International Cricket Stadium, noticing how twee the British-built Butterfly Bridge looks and gasping at the damage done to the wall by the Tsunami of 2004. Then there’s the picturesque lighthouse and the indulgent people watching of the locals on the beach. It’s all just so pretty and charming, which is its saving grace really, being as there’s little to no information about the history of the fort, or what it’s various ramparts are.

Galle_Fort_Sri_Lanka

Galle makes for a very handsome town too. Very artsy with lots of fabulous craft shops, eateries, religious buildings and museums.  Galle truly is an enchanting way to while away an afternoon.

Cost: Free

Top Tip: Galle is best appreciated at a leisurely pace. If that means re-visiting a few days later, so be it.