Whether you’re loving days at the beach or watching it snow outside, the holiday season has arrived! It’s the perfect time to reflect on the year gone by. What are you most proud of? What memory fills you with the most joy? I travelled to Europe in 2017 and had an extraordinary time visiting friends, hiking in Italy and cycling in France. My boyfriend and I also spent three weeks in China, which we agree was one of the best trips we’ve ever done.
The past year has also been full of writing. Since launching this blog a year ago, I’ve shared more than 40 posts on food, travel and fitness. Destinations include Greece and Scotland, while food included Italian and immune boosting soups. Did you prefer fitness articles? Love the travel guides? Find out which posts were most popular below!
Your 10 Favourite Posts of 2017
10. Your First BodyPump Class
It’s the group fitness workout that changed everything! The 60 minute weight training class BodyPump from fitness giant Les Mills’ turned 100 in 2017. To celebrate, I shared my tips for Your First BodyPump Class. Read what to wear, what to bring to class and what to expect throughout the workout.
Coming in 10th, people from across the world including Russia, France and Singapore have checked out this post. Here’s to a stronger, fitter planet! Click here for the full post.
9. Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Once divided, the Vietnam of today is heaven for travellers seeking culture, history, beaches, buildings and food! My boyfriend and I spent five nights in its capital Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in 2013. The colonial architecture is stunning but you can also get immersed in Vietnam’s wartime history.
My city guide covers where to stay, what to do and where to eat plus tips on currency and visas. I can’t wait to go back! Read the full post here.
8. Travel-Friendly Foods
Organisation is my super power and snacks are no exception! Skip the plane Pringles or late night room service and discover a range of Travel-Friendly Foods that are also good for you.
You’ll find ideas for breakfast, lunch and dinner at your hotel or in your plane seat (plus snacks for in between too!). It’s a must-read whether you’re looking to save cash, stay healthy or fight jetlag. Not travelling? These ideas are perfect for your workplace too!
7. Bali for Beginners
I was long sceptical of this Indonesian island for being overrun with Australians seeking a cheap getaway. But a trip to Bali in 2012 changed my mind as I discovered a tropical climate, sensational food and unique experiences. I’ve since returned to Bali multiple times with friends, family and my boyfriend.
Bali for Beginners covers everything for a first time visit, such as which area to stay in, getting around and some must-have Indonesian foods. Click here for the full post.
6. My Pre-Holiday Checklist
My boyfriend and I returned from Europe in May this year and by September, we were flying again to China! We found ourselves in a familiar pre-holiday pattern of ordering foreign currency, putting our mail on hold and buying travel size essentials.
I put our routine into My Pre-Holiday Checklist to ensure we have a stress-free departure every time, without the last minute rush! You can download the checklist as a free PDF too. Read more.
5. Perth’s Healthiest Cafes
Entering the top five! Gone are the days where cafe breakfasts were eggs, toast or porridge. Being healthy has never been more in fashion and my hometown Perth is dishing up some seriously impressive brunch fare. From beetroot hummus toast to pumpkin protein pancakes, here are some of Perth’s Healthiest Cafes.
There’s a new wave of healthy cafes which I’ll be posting about in 2018. In the meantime, be sure to check these ones out! Read the full post here.
4. 5:2 Diet – My Review
I don’t diet, rather I focus on eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables daily, along with adequate protein and nutritious grains. However, when my weight loss plateaued in 2015 I looked for ways to drop body fat in a healthy way.
Introducing the The 5:2 Diet, a type of intermittent fasting popularised in the United Kingdom. Twice a week, I ate just 500 calories. It wasn’t easy but the results were surprising. Read more.
3. The Dangers of Overtraining
Exercise is great for your body and mind, until it becomes an obsession. Spurred by successful weight loss in my early 20s, I kept increasing the frequency and duration of my workouts while eating less. The result? Illness, injury and isolation.
In third place, The Dangers of Overtraining details how my healthy habits ultimately caused more harm than good, and hitting breaking point while on holidays in New York City. Click here for the full story.
2. Essential Apps Before You Fly
When I first went backpacking in 2004, I carried a discman and a bulky Lonely Planet guide. More than a decade later, my smartphone is my lifeline that can find flights, take photos, manage money, help with language and even book a yoga class.
In Essential Apps Before You Fly, you’ll find my favourites for organising travel, keeping track of your bookings and even finding dumplings in a hurry. Best of all, every single app featured is free!
1. How I Lost 30kg
Taking out first place in the most-loved posts of 2017, is my personal story How I Lost 30kg. I almost didn’t publish it because I was so embarrassed by the old photos. But the response was extraordinary, even though it was just my own story.
I didn’t have a formula to lose weight, nor did I spend a lot of money or make any drastic changes. In How I Lost 30kg, I share how the small things added up and changed my life for the better.
and for 2018…
I’ll be taking a break for the rest of December to spend time with friends and family, celebrating the achievements of the past year and welcoming in 2018. Early in the new year, I’ll be sharing more on travelling in China plus a new round of healthy Perth cafes! You can also look forward to more fitness posts, and I’ll share how I did eventually overcome that injury from overtraining. If you have any topic requests, please add them to the comments below!
Thanks for reading over the past year. Wishing you all a wonderful holiday season and a happy, healthy 2018! Love Hayley xx
When I first heard there was an intense 30 minute abs class coming to my gym, I was excited! I’m always looking for ways to work out more efficiently and who doesn’t aspire to have a six-pack? I took my first CXWorx class in 2012 and while it was extremely challenging, I loved it. Usually just called ‘CX,’ it was the latest offering from fitness juggernaut Les Mills promising increased core strength, a toned butt, legs and abs, and as a nice sweetener – better posture.
I kept going back and after just one month, I noticed how much stronger my core was. I could plank for longer, do bicycle crunches with confidence, and also built my lower abdominal strength. While I’m yet to get that six-pack, I have definition in my abs that I entirely credit to CXWorx (in conjunction with a good diet). Five years on – I still love CX! I usually do two classes a week, mostly after RPM or BodyPump. Nothing feels as good as strong abs. Bonus? You can do it on your lunch break!
CXWorx involves six tracks, each about five minutes. As with all Les Mills classes, there are four new workouts each year called ‘releases.’ Instructors will typically do the new release for a month before mixing new and old tracks. You’ll find a mix of pop, hip hop and dance cover music including my favourites PNAU’s Chameleon, David Guetta’s Titanium and DJ Snack & Lil Jon’s Turn Down for What. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect in each track:
Track 1: Warm up – crunches, bicycle crunches and some glute bridges.
Track 2: Abs – The hardest track! A combination of planks and crunches, alternating between the two for a few rounds. There are variations of each exercise such as walking planks, planking while tapping or raising one leg, C crunches, and leg drops. See terminology below.
Track 3: Back/spine – you’ll be on your feet using the resistance band and/ or weights, likely doing regular or side lunges with arms raised, woodchoppers and squats.
Track 4: Glutes – One of my favourite tracks because you’ll 100% feel your butt working! You’ll again likely use a resistance band to do lunges, squats, single-leg squats and even just walking/tapping your foot with the band. Expect some glute bridges too.
Track 5: Obliques – in my opinion, the second hardest track. Moves include mountain climbers, oblique crunches, side hovers, rotating hovers and bicycle crunches.
Track 6: Posture/cool down – this track typically has a Pilates vibe: swimming on your stomach, back extensions and glute bridges, but also potentially some upper back and shoulder work with the resistance band such as lat pull downs or seated rows. A quick stretch at the end and you’re done!
It’s worth noting CXWorx is not recommended if you’re pregnant, and you should also avoid doing weight training afterwards as your core will be fatigued. But cardio or yoga is fine!
Before you leave home
CXWorx is great because you don’t have to prepare a thing. Put on your active gear, grab a water bottle and a towel and you’re set! Ladies, you’ll likely be planking for an extended period so skip low-cut tops and sport bras unless you want to blind your neighbour. I also try to avoid wearing shorts to CX as your groin area can feel exposed at times, for example, when crunching your top leg during a side hover. As for eating and drinking before class, remember it’s only 30 minutes. You’ll be using your ab muscles a lot but not jumping around – I can eat a raw ball or guzzle half a bottle of water before class if I need without any issues.
As with every time you take a new class, get there 5-10 minutes early and introduce yourself to the instructor. They should point you to what equipment you need (more on that below) and also give tips for beginners during the class. You’ll be moving around a lot so keep your area clear by putting any belongings (apart from your towel and water) away in a locker or cubby, if provided. While it’s tempting to set up in the back row, aim for the middle so you can see the instructor and watch others around you if needed. If your gym has mirrors, even better!
The three main items you’ll need are a mat, resistance band and possibly weights. The resistance bands come in different levels (indicated by different colours), so it’s important to get the beginner band. If in doubt, just grab the colour most people in the class have. Weights are mostly used in CX to make crunches, squats, lunges and occasionally side planks more challenging. If you’re new to exercising or recovering from injury, you could skip them entirely. If you already do weight training, grab a few different ones. Instructors should say at the beginning of the class what weights they recommend.
Here are some of the most common words you’ll hear in a CX class, although most will be familiar if you already exercise. You don’t need to memorise this list as the instructor will be demonstrating the moves as well.
Bicycle crunch: alternating between left and right oblique crunches while simultaneously extending a single leg, similar to riding a bike.
Crunch: the most basic ab move. YouTube if you need.
C crunch: a basic crunch where you also raise your feet off the ground with knees bent, stopping directly above your hips – forming a “C” shape.
Glute bridge: lay on your back with your knees pointing up, but feet flat on the ground. Lift your butt off the ground by squeezing your glutes.
Mountain climbers: like a plank, but with your arms extended under your shoulders. Bring one knee to the same elbow, return, and do the same with the other. Increase speed and repeat.
Plank/hover: with only your forearms and toes on the ground, brace your body like it’s a plank of wood. Your butt will try rise like a teepee as you fatigue, but keep it in line with your shoulders. You can plank with your knees down too for an easier option.
Pulse: doing any exercise as a micro-move and faster. Common in crunches, glute raises and lunges.
During the class
The warm up will give you a crash course in the basic moves, while track two is the hardest. I find track five quite challenging too, but I also really enjoy oblique workouts so look forward to it. Track six is a breeze in a Pilates kind of way.
Remember to keep your core switched on at all times. When doing crunches, that means your lower back is pushing down on the ground. If it feels much harder exercising that way, you’re doing it right! Also watch for your butt sticking up when planking. I remind myself constantly to keep my shoulders and hips in line, and use mirrors to check if they’re available.
The next day & beyond
CX will make you hurt in the most weird and wonderful places! My lower abs and glutes usually feel it the most, and after a long break it can hurt to laugh the next day. Gentle stretching, yoga or a simple walk can help reduce some of the pain. But I guarantee after a month or so of classes, you’ll notice how much stronger your core is. You’ll plank for longer, use or increase weights and take the more advanced options. I particularly like CX for targetting glute muscles to support my running. At only 30 minutes, everyone has time to get a strong core!
QUESTION: What’s your favourite part of the body to train?
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how cheap the flights were. Perth, Australia to Beijing was just AU$280 return with Singapore Airlines! It was November 2016 and I’d spotted the deal at 5.30am on my way to the gym. I quickly forwarded the alert to my boyfriend, who was still asleep. I got home around 8.30am just as he woke up and I frantically asked him if he’d seen my email. He yawned and rubbed his eyes which indicated no, so I gave him the rundown.
The sale was for September 2017, so 10 months away. The date worked for us as we would return from Europe in May 2017 and have three months to save. We did our mandatory checks for booking flash sales (what’s the weather, are there any national holidays and what’s the average hotel price). By 9.30am, we’d booked two of the four remaining seats. We were going to China for 19 days!
It turns out the airfare was a company error but Singapore would honour our bookings. Six months later, we returned from Europe and sprung into action. China was just four months away!
Planning our trip
The first task was deciding where exactly we wanted to go, as neither my boyfriend or I had been to China before. Obviously we were flying into Beijing and wanted to see the Great Wall, Shanghai would be easy to get to, and my boyfriend was set on seeing the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. I wanted to eat Sichuan food so its capital Chengdu was added to the list. I’d grabbed some catalogues from a travel expo and was enchanted by photos of pillar-like mountains in Zhangjiajie, so that went into the possibles too. We had the first draft of our China holiday.
Organised tour or solo?
My boyfriend and I had limited time and wanted to see as much as possible so we looked a few organised tour companies, including Intrepid and G Adventures. However their China tour dates didn’t quite line up with our flights and what’s more, the itineraries weren’t that attractive. There were multiple long train rides (necessary to keep costs down) but also things like ‘traditional performances’ and visits to ‘local culture villages,’ which I generally loathe as entirely constructed experiences.
In the end, my boyfriend and I devised our own three week itinerary for China. It was the best decision we could’ve made! We allowed roughly four nights in each city, booked trains and flights, and then pencilled in essential sightseeing (for example, some attractions were closed certain days). While it was a physically demanding holiday, there was also plenty of food, beer, culture and luxury. If you’re considering doing a self-guided trip of China, I really recommend it! It was much easier to get around than we expected, with trains modern, punctual and organised.
I’ll share specific posts about each location in the weeks ahead, but for now, here’s what we covered in three weeks.
our three week itinerary
Days 1 – 4: Beijing
Day 1: Arrive in Beijing. Hit a rooftop bar and watch the smoggy sunset with local beers.
Day 2: Drive two hours to the Great Wall of China. At night, head to Beijing’s hutong area for dinner and drinks.
Day 3: Walk around Tiananmen Square before heading to the nearby Forbidden City. Continue to Jingshan Gardens for sweeping views of Beijing. At night, head to the shopping and food precinct Wanfujing Street.
Day 4: Visit the Temple of Heaven and surrounding park. Check out art and street eats in Beijing’s 738 Art District. Check out My Must-Do in Beijing for more details!
Days 5 – 8: Xi’an, Shaanxi
Day 5: Catch a high speed train from Beijing to Xian. Have dinner in the Muslim Quarter.
Day 6: Cycle around Xian’s city wall before spending an afternoon at the Terracotta Warriors. Craft beer at night.
Day 7-8: Hike Mt Huashan, staying overnight on the mountain. Watch sunrise and continue hiking before returning to Xi’an. *See note at end of post.
Days 9 – 13: Chengdu, Sichuan
Day 9: Fly to Chengdu. Head to Jinli Street for Sichuan hot pot and street snacks.
Day 10: See pandas at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding. Check out the world’s biggest building New Century Mall. Go on a night time food tour.
Day 11: Explore the city, taking in Tianfu Square, Chengdu Museum, the People’s Park and pedestrian street Chunxi Road. Check out craft beer and Anshun Bridge at night.
Days 14 – 17: Zhangjiajie, Hunan
Day 14: Fly to Zhangjiajie and have dinner downtown.
Day 15:Head to Zhangjiajie National Park, before driving an hour to the Glass Sky Bridge and Grand Canyon.
Day 16: Return to Zhangjiajie National Park to see the mountains featured in the movie Avatar.
Day 17: Take the world’s longest cable car to Tianmen Mountain. Walk the Glass Sky Walk and visit Tianmen Cave. Late flight to Shanghai. *See note at end of post.
Days 18 – 20: Shanghai
Day 18: Explore Shanghai on foot, visiting the former French concession, Xintandi, YuYuan and the famous Bund. Have dinner and drinks in former French concession.
Day 19: Learn to make noodles or dumplings in a local cooking class. Head to Nanjing Road for retail therapy before cocktails from the 87th floor Cloud 9 Bar in Pudong.
Day 20: Return to Beijing via high speed train.
Day 21: Depart Beijing.
Not including airfares, the trip cost us around AU $5500 plus we each spent roughly $1500 extra mostly on food, drinks and admission fees. Here’s a rough breakdown of costs:
Accomodation: $1800 (3x nights 5 star hotel, 7x nights 4 star hotel, 4x nights hostel, 1x night overnight train). Not included = 3 nights in Zhangjiajie (part of package tour).
Internal flights & trains: AU$2000
Guided/package tours: AU$1400 (four days in Zhangjiajie) + USD$300 (Great Wall day trip)
I was surprised by how expensive internal transport was, particularly airfares. There were cheaper train options, but they were often much slower and we had limited time.
My boyfriend and I agreed afterwards our China trip was one of the best we’ve ever done! There was a good mix of sightseeing and relaxing, and we didn’t feel like we were moving around too much or rushing any location despite the internal flights and some early starts. I would’ve loved more time in Shanghai but there’s always the next holiday!
I highly recommend the following websites when planning a trip to China:
In coming weeks, I’ll share the highlights (and disappointments) from each destination along with my general travel tips for China, such as which apps to download and why you should bring a thermos.
*Note: There was very little information online about hiking Mt Huashan and Zhangjiajie, and most of it was inaccurate. If you’re planning to visit either of these places, I’ll be sharing our experiences in detail in the weeks ahead. Subscribe to my newsletter to stay up to date.
I visit my local farmers’ market most weeks and I love wandering between the tables of fresh produce. I buy staples like leafy greens, tomatoes and apples and then choose a few seasonal items to inspire my meals for the week. It might be a bunch of beetroot for salads or Tuscan cabbage to put in a stew. I can fill a box for around AU$20 and love the sense of community on a Saturday morning.
A few weeks ago the rhubarb at looked irresistible but it’s hardly a fruit you bring to the office. Instead, I created this basic compote to add to breakfasts or sprinkle with granola for an instant rhubarb crumble. It was such a hit with my boyfriend, he asked me to make it again the following week.
I like the simplicity of this recipe which can be easily prepared while cooking something else. Rather than refined sugar, this compote uses cinnamon and vanilla to mimic sweetness. It’s a great, low-calorie treat that’s good enough to enjoy anytime of the day! It’s also gluten-free and vegan.
600g rhubarb, chopped into 1.5cm (half-inch) pieces ½ cup water 1.5 tbsp pure maple syrup 1 tsp vanilla extract ½ tsp cinnamon 1 tbsp sultanas
1. Put all ingredients except sultanas in a medium sized pot. 2. Bring to a boil (about 5 minutes), then turn heat to medium-low. 3. Add the sultanas. 4. Cook for a further 10 minutes or until rhubarb is soft, stirring occasionally. 5. Serve immediately or let cool and refrigerate.
This keeps in the fridge for at least a few (3-4) days. Add an extra tablespoon of maple syrup if needed, for sweetness. Serve compote warm with oatmeal, homemade custard or on top of pancakes. Or enjoy it cold with yogurt, granola, or scones. I like to mix mine with vanilla protein powder for an instant smoothie bowl – then just sprinkle with nuts, seeds and fresh fruit. Delicious!
For too long I’d scrolled through social media and been tormented by friends travelling through the Greek islands. My only visit to this Mediterranean nation was as a backpacker in 2005, when I revelled in the culture, kebabs and affordability of Athens for a week. Aside from the couple in my hostel room who got intimate most nights, I adored Greece and vowed to return when I got the chance. While I made several trips to Europe in the following years, Greece never quite happened. It was in fact only earlier this year that a friend’s wedding in London prompted a five week trip across the continent with my boyfriend. It was game on, Greece!
If you regularly read my blog, you’ll know we found a seemingly excellent route from Italy’s Cinque Terre to Santorini but our flight was diverted at the last minute. We instead spent the night in Athens and caught the eight hour ferry to Santorini the next morning. We arrived exhausted, mid-afternoon in the middle of May. In one direction were extraordinary views of the Aegean Sea, and in the other was a parking lot filled with taxis and travellers moving towards a single road up a rocky, barren hill. Our four night holiday had become just two full days, but we met our driver, checked in to our villa and opened a bottle of wine. Let the holiday begin!
Santorini is the largest of a small group of Greek islands called the Cyclades, about 240 kilometres (150 miles) southeast of Athens. The island is just 20km (12 mi) long, almost a crescent shape with the caldera (volcanic crater) on western side. The three main villages of Fira (also called Thira), Imerovigli and Oia are in the island’s north and on the western side, hence have “caldera” views. The resort-style beaches are on opposite side in the south, with archaeological sites also in the southern half. Santorini has a local population of just 15,000, but numbers swell during the peak summer season (June – August).
Did you know Santorini isn’t the island’s official name? It was given to the island by the Venetians in 1153, who arrived and saw a chapel for Saint Irene (Santa Irini). The name stuck, but the island remains Thera on all official documents. The capital Fira is a variation of Thera.
what to do
Sweeping views of the Aegean Sea and the distinct architecture are arguably the number one reason people visit Santorini. From the whitewashed buildings of Fira and Imerovigli to the more colourful townscape of Oia, seeing these villages against the backdrop of the water is unforgettable. Appreciate the different views during the day, sunset and at night when the pools shine turqoise. You can take in the views poolside, over drinks or a meal, while hiking or on a cruise (more details below). Be forewarned – the majority of Santorini is rocky, barren and doesn’t appear on postcards.
If you’re feeling energetic, there’s a range of walks on the island. The rocky but flat path between Fira and Imerovigli is an easy 45 minutes (no shade) and you can continue north on the more challenging path to Oia. The total walk from Fira to Oia is 10km (6 mi) and takes around 3 to 4 hours. Bring water and sunscreen as there’s little shade unless you retreat to a cafe. My boyfriend and I were still fatigued from hiking in Italy, so we just did the short Fira to Imerovigli section on our first day.
Those who are more adventurous should head to Skaros Rock, accessed from Imerovigli. We didn’t have time during our trip but the hike takes around two hours, and is reportedly challenging at times due to steps and some climbing to reach the top. Only about half the groups we saw from our villa during our stay reached the summit. Bring sunscreen and water, and possibly snacks if you’re going to stay out there.
Take a history lesson and visit Santorini’s two archaeological sites, Akrotiri and Ancient Thira. Akrotiri is in the island’s south-west, near Red Beach. Entry is €12 or there’s a combined pass with other attractions for €14, although there are some free admission days throughout the year too. Read more here. Ancient Thira is on the top of Mesa Vouno mountain, in the south-east side of the island near Pirassa Beach. Entry is €4 or you can also get the combined pass. Click here for more details.
We lost a day in Santorini because of our flight diversion, but otherwise I would’ve been cruising! While there are mixed reviews online, a work colleague who’d recently been to Santorini highly recommended my boyfriend and I see the island from the water. There are a few companies offering tours of the caldera and hot springs before finishing in Oia for sunset. One for next time!
amoudi bay (oia)
If you cruise the caldera, there’s a good chance your vessel will end in the port of Amoudi Bay at Oia. But you can also walk or drive down from the village and enjoy fresh seafood or a drink. I’m told this is one of the best swimming spots in Santorini. We only had time to gaze down at Amoudi Bay from Oia, and my heart broke a little. I told myself there’ll be other islands.
I love the water and desperately wanted to be beachside after a mostly chilly month in Europe. You’ll find Santorini’s most popular beaches along the eastern (non-caldera) side, near the Ancient Thera site. There’s Kamari Beach, and then the resort-like strip of Perissa and Perivolos with sun beds lined up on black sand. We spent several hours lazing by Perivolos Beach but the water was too cold for me! It wasn’t busy, however it a cooler day during the shoulder season.
Less for sunbaking and more for sightseeing are Red Beach and Black Beach. We followed signage while quad biking to reach the parking area for Red Beach, which is then a five minute rocky walk to a viewing area before another 10 minute walk to reach the beach itself. I don’t recommend the path for the frail or elderly. Black Beach is also in the south of the island, however we relied on Google Maps because there was no signage. We gave up after making a few wrong turns.
Being wine lovers, my boyfriend and I weren’t going to miss the chance to drink Greek vino! We booked a tour of Santo Wines weeks in advance and added on six glass of wine tasting and a food platter for sunset (€38 each). The walking tour was around 30 minutes and we learnt about the island’s unique grape growing method, where vines are woven into a basket shape to protect the grapes. Our group then watched a short video about Santorini’s history, which was interesting if a little cheesy. The best part was sitting outside and simply admiring the caldera views with my boyfriend while we enjoyed our enormous trays of wine samples and local produce.
The wine itself was average and we weren’t tempted to buy any, but the overall experience was magical. Bring a jacket for when the sun goes down and also some spending money, as there’s a sizeable store selling pasta, olives, tomato paste and other produce. Our hotel arranged transport which was €20 return for the two of us.
The biggest collection of shops I saw were in Thira, but they were very touristy. Sometimes that’s fun though! There are plenty of stalls selling dresses, shoes and hats plus standard souvenirs. I was much more interested in the stores in Oia, which looked more artsy.
Visiting Santorini is like an immersive in the Mediterranean diet, albeit with more wine. Local highlights include:
fava: a dish made from split peas, similar to Indian dal or hummus
sesame stick: breadsticks coated in sesame seeds
capers: edible flower buds from the caper plant
olives: and luscious olive oil
Seafood lovers will be in heaven and there’s no shortage of cheese or salads either. During our three night trip, we had everything from beachside pitas, grazing boards and wine, to fine dining with caldera views. The latter was a brilliant coincidence, as our accomodation Kapari Natural Resorts (see “where to stay” below) boasted one of Santorini’s top restaurants. It was too cold to sit outside, however we spent several hours enjoying three courses and a bottle of white wine recommended by the in-house sommelier. The bill came to just €110, including €45 for the wine. Excellent value – but be sure to book ahead!
Everyone we spoke to (hotel staff, other guests) recommended a different bar but they can be tricky to find in the village mazes. In the end, we just drank whenever and wherever the mood struck us. The warm days called for Mythos beer while we drank local white wine at night.
As mentioned under things to do, head to Santo Wines and do wine tasting at sunset. This was one of the most memorable experiences during our three night stay. If we’d had longer, I would’ve spent a day simply reading and drinking while occasionally looking up at the sea.
where to stay
There are three main options if you’re visiting Santorini for the first time:
Fira (Thira): the island’s capital and the biggest of Santorini’s three towns. Good for shopping, nightlife and central location. Closest to the airport and port.
Oia: the northernmost and second largest town. It’s artsy, colourful and boasts Amoudi Bay. About 30 minutes (15km/9mi) drive from Fira.
Imerovigli: the smallest of three villages, but walking distance (45 mins) from Fira. It’s more like a cluster of cliff-side villas and restaurants than a town, although you’ll find a convenience store and some cafes at the top. In my opinion, it’s the most romantic of the three.
Here are some crude analogies if it helps. For those familiar with the Indonesian island of Bali, Fira is like touristy Kuta, Imerovigli is like the romantic and relaxed Seminyak while Oia is like the artsy and further away Ubud. For those who know New York City, you’d call Fira midtown, Imerovigli Chelsea (close by but less hectic) and Oia would be the East Village or Soho (further away but distinctive vibes). Feel free to dispute these or make your own suggestions in the comments section below! There are other towns to stay in of course, however if you’re visiting for the first-time you probably want to be centrally based with the greatest number of amenities and attractions.
We splurged for the final leg of our Europe trip, staying at Kapari Natural Resort in Imerovigli for €330 (AU$510) per night. The price included a delicious buffet breakfast with made to order dishes as well, which we enjoyed outside overlooking the caldera. Our villa was spacious, cool and well equipped. The kitchen had a stove, kettle and refrigerator although no tea or coffee was supplied. The cavern-like style meant there were few windows, so we couldn’t see the caldera unless we stepped outside. Staff greeted us by name when we arrived and gave us a brief overview of the island and facilities. They continued to welcome us back each evening.
We booked through boutique hotel website Mr & Mrs Smith which secured us free hotel transfers and a bottle of wine and welcome platter. The hotel’s pool was very small (but we soon saw this was the norm) and cold, but again, it was mid-May. Next time, I’d try find a villa with views from our room or stay in Oia for something different.
It’s easy to walk around Santorini’s villages, but the winding paths can make trying to find a specific location difficult. This is especially the case in Imerovigli, where the nearly identical white properties and low-lying walls can feel like a maze. As mentioned, Fira and Imerovigli are walking distance while Oia, the beaches and archaeological sites will require transport. Your options are buses, taxis and minivans although we only saw cabs around Fira’s main square. We were quoted €40 for a return trip from Imerovigli to Oia in a minivan, which seemed outrageous for a 15 minute journey. We declined.
Rather, the best way to get around the island is to hire a quad bike (or “ATV” as they’re called locally). We arranged ours through our hotel for €56 for the day, which included a few Euros for insurance. There were cheaper bikes but we paid more for a sturdier option. We rode to the southern tip of the island, checked out Red Beach, had lunch on the eastern beaches before heading to Oia in the late afternoon. It was a memorable day, although the weather turned cold and rainy at the end. Be warned there’s no gas station in Oia so fill up at Imerovigli before going further north.
Santorini Airport is very basic. There’s a cafe inside but after clearing security, you’ll have a kiosk and plastic chairs with one lonely person in passport control. The day we left, our flight was delayed two hours because airport workers were on strike.
Greece is part of the European Union and therefore uses the Euro (€). We paid by cash and credit card, only using an ATM once (there was one at the top of Imerovigli next to the convenience store). Santorini isn’t as cheap as you might assume. For example, I got a manicure and pedicure for €45 (AU $70) while my boyfriend got a 60 minute massage for €60 (AU $95). As mentioned, transport can also be expensive.
English is widely spoken but be polite and learn some Greek. My head was already filled with French and Italian, but our waitress at Athens was kind enough to teach me the following:
efcharisto (ef-ka-RIS-to): thank you
parakalo (parra-kar-lo): you’re welcome/ please
Don’t expect all of Santorini to look like the postcards. The three main villages are small and beyond them, you’ll find mostly barren rock and the occasional industrial area.
There’s not much privacy either. You’ll be able to see the rooftop, paths and balconies of almost every other property around you from your doorstep.
Dress codes are very relaxed. Think maxi dress and sandals for ladies, while guys will be fine in button-up shirts and shorts even for higher-end places. Leave the heels at home.
There’s no shade and the sun will radiate off the white buildings. My boyfriend and I can handle sunshine but we got seriously burnt on the return leg of our Imerovigli to Thira walk.
I didn’t want to leave Santorini, and losing a day of our trip meant we barely saw Oia. The weather in mid-May was also too cool at times to lay by the pool. If we had more time, I would’ve climbed Skaros Rock, cruised the caldera, dined at Amoudi Bay and explored the beautiful art stores of Oia. But I’m grateful we made it to Santorini at all! It was 12 years since my first visit to Greece but I loved it just as much. And I guarantee there’ll be a third visit, although I’ll head to different islands and stay much longer!
My daily goals are to eat well, work, exercise and get seven hours sleep. Sometimes it feels like mission impossible, and I’ll race from place to place leaving a tornado of clothing, kitchen utensils and gym gear in my wake. My boyfriend deserves a medal for all the times he’s cleaned our Vitamix after I’ve made a smoothie on the run. He’s also brought socks, hair ties and shirts to the gym when I’ve flown out the door without them. He’s amazing.
Needless to say, I don’t spend a lot of time on beauty. I do the basics and cleanse, tone and moisturise each night. But I envy those women who always look glamorous, with styled hair, flawless makeup and manicured nails. I tell myself they probably don’t run 10K before work but if I’m honest, these creatures exist at the gym too. They’re catwalk ready at 6am while I’ve still got pillow creases on my face. I silently congratulate myself on at least brushing my teeth.
This post therefore isn’t about the latest beauty trends or techniques. Rather, it’s my lifesaving, time-saving beauty essentials that help me race from a workout to workplace or event and meet basic presentation standards. I’ve also included products that let you postpone beauty appointments or skip them entirely – saving you not only time, but money. Hooray!
1. MAC Powder + Foundation
This two-in-one compact is unreal. The formula glides on smoothly, giving excellent matte coverage while being completely weightless and breathable. It takes just 30 seconds to apply a full face – ideal for getting ready at the gym or doing touch ups after a lunchtime or evening workout. I have dark pigmentation so I can’t wear this as my daily foundation, but it’s perfect for casual catch ups and travelling. M.A.C. Studio Fix would be adequate coverage for anyone with even tones. Bonus: it comes with a mirror and sponge, so it’s easy to apply on the go.
M.A.C. Studio Fix Powder + Foundation, AU $50 | website
2. OPI Nail Strengthener
I originally bought this product to strengthen my nails but I discovered it’s much more than that. OPI’s Nail Envy also acts as a clear polish that dries within seconds. Literally, your left hand will be dry before you’ve finished your right hand. With a quick file, this polish is glossy enough to instantly give your nails a groomed look. You’ll often find me doing an express manicure while waiting for my bus! Because it’s clear, it’s easy to apply in a rush and you won’t notice if any chips off – saving you maintenance time too. Yay!
Between the gym, my job and a blog, it’s a nightmare trying to book appointments. Skip the beautician and buy Palmer’s Natural Bronzer instead. It works in 6 to 8 hours, and while it’s designed for daily use it’s actually strong enough to use just once a week. I apply it before bed and wake up a shade or two darker. You can be a little more careless when applying this tanner too because the result isn’t as dramatic as others (although still wash your hands thoroughly afterwards!). The smell isn’t too strong either and the fornula feels really hydrating thanks to the cocoa butter. For special events, I apply three days in a row to get maximum glow. It’s so much cheaper and convenient than booking a spray tan.
Palmer’s Natural Bronze Body Lotion, from AU $9.99 for 250ml | website
4. batiste Dry Shampoo
I was a few years late to the dry shampoo party but now I’m hooked. A few sprays, gently rub your scalp and you’ve scored another 12 hours of clean hair. It saves time on both washing your hair and drying and styling it. It’s perfect for a post-gym refresh or if you need to mask an oil slick before a class. I use Bastiste Dry Shampoo in Original scent and despite plenty of other brands on the market, I don’t see any need to switch. This is another product I swear by when travelling.
Batiste Dry Shampoo, from AU $4.95 for 50ml | website
5. Dyson Supersonic
This is more of a beauty appliance than a product, but it’s a lifesaver. My old hairdryer blew up a year ago (sparks literally came out of the wall socket) so I invested in a Dyson. What appealed most was it being less noisy – I wanted to be able to blow dry my hair in the apartment without waking my boyfriend. It’s not exactly silent, but more akin to a fan with a low piercing noise like the Dyson vacuum cleaner. I can still talk to people while drying my hair and with the bathroom and bedroom door closed, you can barely hear it.
The Dyson hairdryer is also extremely efficient. I have short, fine hair and it’s completely dry within 3 to 5 minutes. I’d forgotten how fast it was until I used regular hairdryers while travelling earlier this year. The Dyson also avoids that burning hair smell, as it checks its air temperature 20 times a second. It’s not cheap, but this hairdryer saves me at least 10 minutes every day and in my books – that’s worth it. Especially with all the cash I’ve saved on spray tans!
The sun was rising, the air was fresh and the water was calm. It was mid-May in the Greek capital of Athens and under any other circumstances, the scene would’ve been beautiful. Except my boyfriend and I had barely slept five hours and we were never meant to be in Athens. Let me rewind.
We were nearing the end of five blissful weeks in Europe. We’d spent months planning our itinerary, taking in everything from a wedding in London, to cycling through French vineyards and hiking Italy’s Cinque Terre. The trip was meant to end with four luxurious nights on the Greek island Santorini. While there hadn’t been an obvious way to get there from Cinque Terre, we eventually worked out a route that had minimal transfers and maximum sightseeing. We were extremely proud of ourselves (read more in How to Get from Cinque Terre to Santorini).
arriving in athens
Just 24 hours before seeing Athens at sunrise, we’d woken up in Florence, Italy and caught a train to Rome Airport to then fly to Santorini. Everything was going to plan! Except the moment we began descending towards the Greek island, the pilot announced it was too windy to land. Our hearts sank. The plane was diverted to Athens, touching down around 3pm. We frustratingly sat on the tarmac for hours, being told various messages from “We’re flying back to Rome,” to “You can disembark in Athens but your bags will be sent to Rome” before eventually “You can get off the plane in Athens with your bags, but find your own way to Santorini.” It was nearly 6pm and we’d been in transit for 12 hours, so my boyfriend and I got off the plane and began making alternate plans.
There were no more ferries to Santorini that night so our first priority was finding accomodation. Secondly, we wanted to get to Santorini and resume our holiday as soon as possible – mindful that a few hundred people were seeking the exact same thing. I felt like a competitor on the Amazing Race, making phone calls, checking websites, and evaluating our options while waiting by the baggage carousel.
Our bags finally turned up and we made a last minute booking for the 4 star Herodion Hotel in Plaka (€180). Our taxi driver got lost but we checked-in around 9pm, hit the mini-bar, showered and had dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant Point A. It had a view of the Acropolis, which was a slight consolation given we should’ve had sunset in Santorini. We set an alarm for 5am (the second day in a row) and collapsed around midnight.
choosing a ferry
There are several ferry companies operating between Athens and Santorini. The vessels differ in size, speed and frequency of service. We chose the Blue Star ferry as it runs daily, departing Athen’s Piraeus Port at 7.25am and arriving in Santorini at 3.10pm. The journey takes eight hours but it’s reportedly the most sturdy of the ferries so it can handle rough weather and offer a fairly smooth journey. Given our flight was diverted because of strong winds, we also wanted the most reliable vessel. The Blue Star ferry stops at multiple ports (Paros – Noxos – Ios) before terminating at Santorini. There’s also a high-speed ferry which takes five hours, but it’s apparently more susceptible to poor weather.
How to Book
I tried calling Blue Star Ferries while we were at Athens Airport but their English was limited (and my Greek is non-existent). We instead bought tickets online for the following morning using the airport wi-fi. There were seats available in every class, despite approaching the high season (June – August). Unfortunately, there’s no option for e-tickets so you’ll still need to collect your paper ticket at least 60 minutes before departure. Note that you can’t buy tickets onboard.
The Blue Star ferry can cost as little as €20 for a super economy ticket, but it can’t be booked online. An unassigned economy seat is €40 or for €45 you can have a reserved “aircraft style” numbered seat. I recommended choosing that during high season to be guaranteed a seat, as our ferry had a lot of passengers in mid-May.
My boyfriend and I opted for business class seats at €56 each, as theoretically we should’ve been sunbaking poolside at our Santorini resort by now. These tickets gave us access to a large lounge area, which was quieter and more comfortable than economy (see more under ‘facilities’ below). Cabin options are also available. Click here for all Blue Star ferry ticket prices.
Getting to the port
From a hotel in central Athens, it takes about 25 minutes by taxi to reach Piraeus Port. We took a cab (€18) as we weren’t familiar or confident in Athens’ pre-dawn public transport. We left our hotel at 5.30am and arrived at 5.50am. It’s important to know which gate your ferry leaves from so your taxi driver can take you there directly (see “port” below). Alternatively, it’s 45 to 60 minutes from central Athens to Piraeus by bus or train/metro (both €1.40).
The port is HUGE. Do not think you can simply get a cab to the first gate and walk around. That could take you 30 minutes or more, and time is precious when you’re up at dawn. Find your gate by working out which vessel you’re on (this should be on your email booking confirmation or ticket). We were catching Blue Star 2 which departs from Gate 1, while other Blue Star ferries for Santorini left from Gate 6. Click here for a map of Piraeus Port with gates and their corresponding vessels.
Our cab dropped us at Gate 1 and I waited with our bags while my boyfriend collected our tickets from the kiosk opposite. It’s a large building so you can’t miss it, and it only took a few minutes. The email booking confirmation states to collect tickets at least one hour before departure but I’m not sure how strictly this is enforced. Obviously, bring ID and have your email confirmation ready along with the credit card you used for the booking.
Having left our hotel at 5.30am, I was surprised to have travelled to the port, collected our tickets and be boarding at 6.05am. We put our luggage in metal racks in the hull, alongside vehicles that were also making the voyage. It seemed risky to be leaving our bags with no tags or receipt, but it worked out fine. Just remember where you put your luggage. We then followed the signs to business class and got seats by the window.
Boarding at 6am may sound early for a 7.25am departure, but by the time we’d stowed our bags, found our lounge and got comfortable, we didn’t actually wait too long (maybe 30 minutes). I’d recommend getting to the port by 6.30am, especially if you have luggage or you’re in unassigned seating. If you just have a carry-on bag, you could allow less time – but know which gate you’re going to!
I’ve caught ferries in Australia, Mexico, New York and perhaps the most memorable – from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar in Tanzania. They ranged from standing room only to plastic chairs, with varying amounts of shelter. But the Blue Star ferry was surprisingly modern, huge and well equipped. It’s 176 metres (577 feet) long and can take 1,800 passengers. The economy class area resembles a typical ferry, fairly noisy but comfortable enough and enclosed. You can access open deck areas if you want. Our business class area was like a floating airport lounge with waiters, carpet, comfortable seats, televisions and a full-service restaurant. Staff were wonderful and just as well – because we ordered quite a few coffees, snacks and drinks during our eight hour journey!
The Blue Star 2 is fully air-conditioned and has a reception, ATM, souvenir shop and food/drink outlets (see more below). Wi-fi was available for €5 from reception but it was incredibly slow. You could access a few emails, but forget Facebook or Instagram. My boyfriend found it faster to use data from his French sim card. You can connect to Blue Ferry’s free in-house entertainment @sea from your smartphone or laptop, which offers some movies, games and travel information.
Economy class has a range of food options, including fast food (burgers, fries, etc) and a cafe. I didn’t look at prices but all the venues were busy. In our business lounge, there was table service and a range of food and drinks available. The offerings were similar to what you’d expect at an airport. Consider bringing cash as the EFTPOS machine only worked intermittently – we just set up a tab and paid when we were closer to shore.
A surprising highlight was dining in the ferry’s a la carte restaurant. It was quite an experience to have waiters, white tablecloths and a two-course lunch while sailing through the Greek islands. My boyfriend and I had a large salad each, fava dip and a bottle of wine for €32. It was a great way to spend an hour.
Each stop is clearly announced but be warned – the ferry will only stay in each location for a few minutes. People began moving as we got closer to Santorini so we followed the crowds and collected our luggage from the hull. Lots of people were impatient and there was a bit of pushing and shoving, but we retrieved bags in time and waited for the doors to open.
at the port
We finally arrived in Santorini, 24 hours later than expected and exhausted from two days in transit. We were met by a driver from our hotel and could finally begin our Santorini holiday! Subscribe to my e-newsletter to get my highlights from this stunning Greek island in the weeks ahead.
The Athens to Santorini ferry exceeded expectations and while eight hours is long, you’ll be amply entertained if you bring a book or iPad and have a meal or two on board. The ship was much more comfortable than expected and while I usually feel nauseous if I read or write on a bus for too long, I was perfectly fine during the journey. As you’d expect, business class was much nicer than economy but the vessel had good, clean and comfortable facilities throughout. It was still disappointing we lost one of four nights in Santorini, but the ferry was far from the wild, windy ride I’d imagined. Six months on, our travel insurance claim is still being assessed but at least we made it to Santorini eventually!
I’ve always had a reluctant relationship with muesli. Unlike its sweet, roasted cousin granola, muesli has mild flavours and goes soggy far too quickly for my liking. And as opposed to oatmeal, a serve of muesli is over just a few mouthfuls after it begins.
However when I returned from China last month, I was craving something fresh and light. After three weeks away, my cupboard was bare and it was too warm for porridge. I had some frozen bananas but didn’t feel like a smoothie. I stared at my pantry, summoned the scant ingredients on hand and created this recipe in 60 seconds.
The rolled oats provide a high-fibre, low GI and low-calorie base while the walnuts add a rich, caramel-like flavour with the benefit of omega-3 fatty acids. The cocoa nibs are like nature’s chocolate chips and a good source of iron and antioxidants. They won’t get soggy either! The sultanas add a little sweetness and bulk while the coconut flakes are just plain YUM.
1/3 cup (30g) rolled oats (*use gluten-free oats if needed) 1 tbsp (40g) walnut pieces 1 tbsp cocoa nibs 1 tbsp sultanas (raisins) 1 tbsp coconut flakes (optional but delicious) Fresh fruit to serve (blueberries, banana, or strawberries)
1. Combine all ingredients in a cereal bowl 2. Add fresh fruit and serve with your choice of milk (soy, almond, dairy) 3. Enjoy!
You can easily scale the recipe up by multiplying ingredients by 10 and storing in a large container to have during the week. I enjoyed my muesli with fresh blueberries and soy milk – there’s something about the combination of fruit, cocoa nibs and coconut that makes this taste luscious! Check out my post Perth’s Top Health Food Stores for where to buy ingredients in bulk.
I’d heard the most wonderful things about Florence. Called Firenze locally, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region is 280 kilometres (170 miles) or three hours drive from Rome. Friends everywhere had told me how beautiful the city was, filled with Renaissance architecture, paintings and sculpture. I was therefore thrilled when my boyfriend and I’s journey from Italy’s Cinque Terre to Santorini, Greece would include a night in Florence. To be precise, we’d have just 12 hours to see all we could.
Given we hadn’t planned on stopping in Florence, I considered any sightseeing a bonus. However, the city is easy to get around on foot and lots of attractions are open until 9pm or later making it surprisingly easy to see a lot in a short amount of time. Here’s what we covered in one night:
2pm – hotel check-in
A friend who’d lived in Florence recommended we stay around the Duomo area as it was central, there were lots of eateries and attractions nearby, and it was close to the main train station. Given our short stay, we booked the mid-range Residenza d’Epoca Borgi Albizi (AU$190/night) just 15 minutes walk from the train station. We found the address without any problems but inside it was a little tricky to find reception. Our room was also up several flights of stairs (post-Cinque Terre hiking!) but such is Europe.
The room was spacious although it looked partially refurbished – the wardrobe was modern and huge, while the bathroom revealed the building’s true age. Staff were helpful in recommending good nightlife spots (see ‘dinner’ below). Address: Borgo Albizi, 14, Firenze | Website
2.15pm – sandwich
For every person who raved about Florence’s art, there was another who said our visit had to include a Tuscan sandwich. Think of a thick slab of focaccia stuffed with as much antipasti as you can handle. We’d been recommended the famous All’Antico Vinaio in “sandwich alley” (Via dei Neri), but told to expect long lines. Instead, we went to the less busy but (according to our hotel) equally as good Pana e Toscano (Borgo Degli Albizi 13). I was ecstatic to see a vegan sandwich on the menu (€5) while my boyfriend went for more traditional fillings. Either way, you’ll be stuffed!
2.30pm – Duomo
The Duomo is the most famous landmark in Florence. The 15th century cathedral dominates the city’s skyline and is the third largest church in the world. It’s free to visit the cathedral or for €15, you can access all areas (the dome, museum, crypt etc). If you want to climb the dome’s 463 steps, you’ll need to make a reservation (free). Visiting in mid-May, there were long lines everywhere so we simply walked around the outside. It was still impressive! There were lines gathering at another nearby attraction too – you can create your own ice cream at the Magnum Pleasure Store for €4.50.
My boyfriend and I were still full from our lunchtime focaccia, but we wandered to the Mercarto Centrale anyway. The first floor is full of Italian meats, cheese, pasta and fresh produce. There’s a few liquor outlets too. The second floor is a vibrant food hall, complete with wine bars and a flash cooking school. This place was a gastronomic heaven! I made a note to book a class if I’m ever in Florence again (and to get accommodation with a kitchen!).
Address: Via dell’Ariento, 50123 Firenze | Website
4pm – Ponte Vecchio
Everyone said I had to see the famed Ponte Vecchio bridge. Honestly, I wouldn’t bother unless you’re seriously into medieval history or architecture. It’s not particularly attractive from a distance and the walk across is brief, crowded and lined with jewellery sellers. I had a much better time two minutes away at Il Papiro. This paper store has several outlets across Europe but the Florence store has been in the same family for five generations. Be sure to visit the room at the back for a paper printing demonstration. You can buy hand printed paper by the sheet, or grab a packet of offcuts for €17. Address: Via Guicciardini, 47r | Website
5pm – Aperitif
By now, my boyfriend and I were pretty tired. We’d drank a lot of vino on our last night in Cinque Terre and then caught a 9am train and travelled five hours to reach Florence. We rested our feet and minds at Signorvino, overlooking the river. The venue sells take away wine as well as a range of wines by the glass and bottle. Staff didn’t judge me for ordering a much-needed Diet Coke before returning to wine. Its location between Pinto Vecchio and Piazza Michelangelo (see below) makes it an ideal stop before sunset. Make a reservation if you go at dinner time as the venue is relatively small and got busy as we left.
Address: Via de’ Bardi, 46R, 50125 Firenze | Website
6pm – Piazza Michelangelo
One thing I seek in every city is a lookout. Florence boasts Piazza Michelangelo, a large open air area on a hill where you’ll find performers, a restaurant, some souvenir stands and a few food vans. It’s a beautiful spot to watch the sun go down and enjoy an Aperol Spritz. I’m sure you could bring your own beers and picnic if you wanted. To get there, follow the signs along the river and roads. When you see steps, you’re close! There’s also a rose garden next door that’s free and pretty.
8pm – Hotel
We walked back to our hotel to change before dinner. It was only 30 minutes walk from Piazza Michelangelo and we could walk to our next destination too.
9pm – Palazza Vecchio
A friend in London had given us the heads up many Florence museums and attractions were open until 9pm or later. Perfect for a couple trying to see it all in a night! We reached Palazza Vecchio (Town Hall) just in time for a 9.30pm tour of the ‘Battlement,’ a fortress on top of the building. The nighttime views of Florence were a beautiful contrast to the scenes we’d seen from Piazza Michelangelo just hours before. You can peer five floors below through glass too and imagine medieval knights and battles. After our rooftop tour, we wandered through the museum for another 45 minutes. The map room, showing continents as imagined in the 15th Century was an absolute highlight, as was the elegant ceiling in the main hall. The museum (“museo“) entrance was €10, with an extra €4 for the battlement. Address: Piazza della Signoria | Website
10.30pm – dinner
Both our hotel reception and a friend had recommended we head south of the river for dinner and nightlife. We literally had a map with a circle drawn on it, but it’s roughly an area just below Ponte Santa Trinita (or around 10 minutes walk from the Ponte Vecchio). We followed the sounds of people and music and grabbed a table at Borgo Antico, facing Piazza Santo Spirito. It was perfect for people watching!
We ordered a bottle of white wine (€19.50) and scanned the food menu. There were big pizzas, plenty of pastas, large salads, and seafood and meat dishes. My boyfriend chose pizza with spicy salami, capers and mozzarella while I ordered a main of grilled vegetables (exactly what I wanted after days of spaghetti!). Our meals came with delicious wheat bread, olive oil and black olives. The bill was just €51 including the vino. Nearby restaurants began to wind down at midnight although the square stayed busy with people drinking and chatting. I can’t remember whether we caught an Uber or walked back to our hotel, so clearly it was a good night!
With our stomachs full of wine, pizza and vegetables, we packed our bags and collapsed. It wasn’t easy when the alarm went off five hours later, but I’m glad we had a night in Florence! It’s a gritty city excentuated by a lot of smokers, but its rich and prosperous history is evident everywhere. I would’ve loved to visit more museums and art galleries, and more wine bars! But we had a 6.45am cab booked for our 7.30am train to Rome Airport, so we had to say farewell to Firenze. You can read what happened next in How To Get From Cinque Terre to Santorini.
As with most European cities, you can reach Florence by air, rail or road. Florence Airport is 10km (6mi) from the city centre or around 30 minutes drive. An alternative is to fly to Pisa which is 80km (50mi) or about 90 minutes from Florence. As mentioned, it’s about about three hours drive from the capital Rome. We caught a train from Cinque Terre to Florence via Pisa, pre-booking through the excellent ticketing website Loco2. The fare was €18.30 each (Monterosso to Pisa €9.90, Pisa to Florence, €8.40).
It’s easy to get around Florence on foot, otherwise taxis and Uber are readily available too. The main train station is Firenze Santa Maria Novella (often “Firenze S.M.”). It has a restaurant, several cafes (including an allergy friendly one!), and a great bookstore. See my post Getting From Cinque Terre to Santorini for full details.
It’s helpful and polite to know some Italian before you go, although not essential to navigate the city or order food. Check out my post Italy’s Incredible Cinque Terre for some handy phrases, or download the free language app Duolingo to practice your Italian before you go!
My first indoor cycling experience was horrible. Lured by the promise of a toned butt and legs (and a 45 minute workout), I jumped on a bike in a dimly lit room and followed the teacher’s commands. The music boomed but I felt doomed. I was uncoordinated, even on a stationary machine, and I couldn’t keep up with anyone else in the class. It was years before I gave indoor cycling a second chance.
It was actually my boyfriend who motivated me to try cycling again. He occasionally did a class called RPM at our gym and couples who workout together, stay together right? This time the bike was much more comfortable and I found myself able to sprint and stand at the appropriate times. I did another class the following week and my endurance way much better. That was five years ago. Now, I do RPM once or twice a week depending on my schedule. I like the fact I can target my legs, the workout takes minimal coordination (great if you’re tired!) and it’s only 45 minutes.
Different gyms may offer similar cycling classes, such as Spin, Pace or “freestyle” riding where the instructor determines the workout. The general tips below still apply to these classes, although the format and fitness goals can differ.
If you’re thinking of taking an RPM class, here are my tips for before, during and after your workout:
RPM is part of the Les Mills group fitness offerings, which also includes BodyPump, BodyAttack and CXWorx. You’ll find the RPM format is similar around the world as the workout is pre-choreographed to music. You’ll be mostly listening to cover music, with anything from Fat Boy Slim, Rudimental and David Guetta to Justin Bieber. Different releases come out every quarter, but instructors will usually mix the tracks up after a month (and they usually take requests!).
The format is 45 minutes although you’ll find 30 minute RPM Express classes. Don’t assume they’re easier than the longer ones – the tracks are all high intensity with minimal recovery time. The track names below are unofficial, but used by most instructors I know:
Track 1: Warm up
Track 2: Mixed terrain – you’ll be sitting and occasionally standing
Track 3: Hills – mostly standing, heavy resistance
Track 5: HIIT (high intensity interval training) – bursts of energy, alternating between sitting and standing
Track 6: Sprint – (usually recovery first) mostly sitting, with sprints of up to 90 seconds
Track 7: Final track – often the most challenging, up to 7 minutes long with heavy resistance
Track 8: Cool down & stretch
Depending on whether you’re better at speed or strength, you’ll find different tracks more challenging. I push myself most in Tracks 5 and 7 as I love cranking the resistance up, while the sprint tracks are hard too but I find they’re more manageable because of the recovery time at the start. You can do a “smart start” and leave after Track 5 if you need – just tell the instructor.
Before you leave home
Try to have fresh legs for your first class, i.e. don’t attempt a personal best run beforehand or do squats. Because there’s minimal impact and jumping around, I find I can eat before class without feeling sick (unlike BodyAttack or a run). Don’t apply hand moisturiser, but you can do you legs if you need.
What to wear
Fitted, stretchy pants that are at least knee-length are ideal. Long baggy shorts can restrict leg movement while short shorts might creep up when you stand up and sit down quickly. A shirt with some length at the back is good too, as you’ll be leaning over and may feel self-conscious if your lower back is exposed. Regular sneakers are fine too – you can upgrade to shoes with “cleats” (studs) later if you get hooked.
Several gyms have UV lights in their cycle rooms, so anything white will glow while other gyms will just dim the lights. Occasionally, I’ve done a class with full lighting so make sure you check how sheer your pants are check before you leave home. As always, bring a towel and water bottle. Your towel will be over handlebars so bring a small one (rather than a bulky beach towel).
Aim to be at least five minutes early so the instructor can help you setup your bike. If you arrive late, you may find yourself setting up in the dark! Each gym will likely have different bikes so I allow extra time when I visit new venues too.
If you have to set up your bike up yourself, start by adjusting the saddle to hip height. When you’re seated, spin your legs a few times. Your knees should be slightly bent when your feet are at the bottom. You can move the seat forward and back, along with the handlebars. If needed, you can adjust the bike between tracks throughout the class.
Obviously, there’s a bike. As mentioned, the models will differ between gyms but essentially you can adjust the following:
Seat height: aim for your hip
Handlebar height: personal preference, but lower will work your abs more
Handlebars horizontally: move closer or further from your body
Seat horizontally: move closer or further from the handlebars
Resistance: a dial that dictates how hard or easy your legs spin
Brake: usually a push-style button, in case of emergency
Pedals: you may be able to secure your sneakers in the cage by tightening straps
Thankfully most of the lingo is self explanatory. Here are the the most common terms:
Aero: Short for aerodynamic position, simply lean down, move your hands to the “D” or upside down “V” shape in the middle the handlebars and bend your elbows so you’re “tucked” in.
Racing load: Instructors will refer to this a lot. It’s a resistance level you’ll find in the first or second track, where you can spin your legs with moderate pressure. It should be slightly challenging but manageable.
Resistance (also load, gear): Make the workout easier or harder by adding or reducing resistance.
Ride easy: A time to catch your breath but don’t “free spin”.
Seated climb: Sit in the seat with resistance cranked so it feels like you’re cycling uphill.
Sprint: Spin your legs as fast as you can with “racing load,” i.e. keep some pressure.
Stand: Turn the resistance up and stand while keeping your hands on the handlebar.
during the workout
Drink water. Adjust your seat or handlebar position between tracks if you’re uncomfortable or if your lower back hurts. Watch how fast or slow others are spinning their legs as a guide, and listen to cues about adding or reducing resistance. Be sure to sit up and stretch your upper body by putting your hands behind the saddle a few times too (one of my favourite stretches!).
The next day & beyond
You’ll probably have jelly legs when you get off the bike, and you may feel stiff or wobbly as you walk out the gym. That’s normal. I guarantee you will have a sore crotch the next day, and you might even feel like it’s bruised. Rest assured, the pain will subside and over time your groin will get used to cycling. If you’re really struggling, you can buy padded pants for future class. Once, I was in such agony when returning from an extended holiday that I had to put a towel over the seat for cushioning.
Like every workout, you’ll get more comfortable over time as you become familiar with the moves and learn to push your limits. I love seeing how heavy I can take the resistance in climbing tracks and challenging my legs to get stronger. It’s also given me the confidence to try a triathlon one day, although I’ll need to practise swimming first! Les Mills recommends doing two to three classes per week for best results.