My Must-Do in Beijing, China

My boyfriend and I’s arrival in China was far from glamourous. We’d caught a red eye flight from Perth, Australia, had a layover in Singapore and upon landing in Beijing, I raced to find a toilet due to – I suspect – some artificial colours and flavourings in the Singaporean Slings we’d had on our flight. Beijing Airport was hot and busy compared to the wintery scenes we’d left in Perth.

We reached our hotel in the central and touristy Wangfujing area via the airport train and subway, and took in the sunset from the rooftop club lounge. Sure, there was smog on the skyline – but we were pretty damn excited to start our three week adventure. I’ve travelled to Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and India but China was different. Its capital of 21 million people was modern, organised and clean. You can read more in 10 Things I Didn’t Expect in Beijing

The city is also flat, meaning you can easily get around on foot or use the excellent subway system to explore. Even if you only have two days in Beijing, you can make a day trip to the Great Wall of China and then spend a day taking in the city. For a suggested plan, check out Our Three Week China Itinerary which includes four days in Beijing. Remember, you won’t be able to Google addresses, entrance fees or opening hours unless you have a VPN. I simply switched to Yahoo search and used the excellent offline map app Maps.Me.

Here’s my list of my must-see places in Beijing!

1. Tiananmen Square

This is probably the most well-known landmark in Beijing, the city square infamous for the student protests of 1989 dubbed the ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre.’ When visiting the square, it’s hard to imagine the scenes that played out almost 30 years ago, as it was seemingly spacious when we were there on a warm autumn day. 

While the city square is public space and therefore open all the time, there was strict security and road blocks when we accessed Tiananmen Square from the southern point at Qianmen E St. It wasn’t always clear which line to join, there are large tour groups and I felt like we kept showing our bags and passports at various checkpoints. But once you reach the actual square, simply walk around and observe.

  • Cost: Free. 
  • Tip: If you see large lines and barricades, it’s people lining up to visit Mao’s Mausoleum. Check your bag before lining up at the facility across the street. We did it, and it’s pretty special – but be prepared for a 1-2 hour wait for just seconds of viewing time. 
 Tiananmen Square: the infamous site of the 1989 student demonstrations, facing the Forbidden City.
Tiananmen Square: the infamous site of the 1989 student demonstrations, facing the Forbidden City.

2. Forbidden City

You must see the Forbidden City when you visit Beijing! This world heritage listed site is an extraordinary testament to Chinese civilisation, spanning 130,000 sqm (32 acres). Now officially called the Palace Museum, it was an imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty (1368 – 1911). It’s literally like stepping into another world, and it’s incredible such a huge space survives unchanged in the heart of the city. 

If you arrive at Tiananmen Square from the south, simply head north and you’ll reach the entrance to the Forbidden City. While some reviews said to pre-purchase tickets and allow six hours, my boyfriend and I had two hours spare and decided to chance it. We reached the entrance on a Saturday about 3pm, kept walking and reached the ticket area at 3.15pm (yes, the site is that big). There was a sign saying to buy tickets using a QR code but it was no problem to buy tickets the traditional way, although you’ll need to show your passport (do this everywhere in China). There was a short line but it only took a few minutes. We also rented an audio guide at a separate station (to the north) for 40¥ (AU$8), which helped us learn about the significance of each building and notice some features we would’ve otherwise missed. 

 Forbidden City: it's truly like stepping back in time
Forbidden City: it’s truly like stepping back in time

We walked slowly, took photos and went into a gift shop, although we didn’t see the west palace as it was closed. The imperial garden is stunning and busy, but not shoulder to shoulder. Its greenery was a welcome respite from the barren concrete of the main areas. You could buy food and drink too and rest if you need, although seating may be difficult to come by. After an hour, we’d reached the end of the Forbidden City (4.15pm), although you could stay much longer if you have a particular interest in Chinese architecture and artefacts or stopped for lunch. Again, we didn’t rush – we just kept selfies to a minimum and didn’t study every single building and object.

  • Cost: 60¥ (AU$12) high season (April – October), 40¥ low season (November – March).
  • Opening hours: 8.30am – 5pm (4.30pm in low season), closed Mondays except July – August.
  • Website: The Palace Museum
  • Tip: go later in the afternoon if you can, for fewer crowds.
 Forbidden City: the gardens offer some shade and respite from the concrete areas, but are still busy.
Forbidden City: the gardens offer some shade and respite from the concrete areas, but are still busy.

3. Jingshan Park

Why must you visit this park in Beijing? To get panoramic views of the Forbidden City and beyond! If you’ve walked through the Forbidden City from south to north, the park entrance is literally across the road when you exit. The main lookout was signposted, and you’ll need to walk up a lot of steps but only for a few minutes. Then join the crowd and enjoy the views! The remainder of the park looked lovely too, but we’d skipped lunch and it was approaching 6pm so we left. We exited the less-busy west gate and got a taxi straight away (38¥ to Beijing Railway Station, as we had to collect train tickets). The image at the top of this post is the main lookout at Jingshan Park!

  • Cost: 2¥ (AU$0.40!)
  • Opening hours: unsure, but they were still selling tickets at 5pm. 
 Forbidden City: as viewed from Jingshan Park (the smoggy skyline is real)
Forbidden City: as viewed from Jingshan Park (the smoggy skyline is real)

4. Great Wall of China

I’ve done a separate post about hiking the Great Wall of China, but honestly – go there. It’s a day trip from Beijing, with many different sections ranging from 45 minutes away by car to more than two hours. We chose the wild Jiankou section to the restored Mutianyu path. It was like stepping into a photograph and having a 360-degree view! If you only have a day in Beijing, you could always visit the wall early, return mid-afternoon then explore the city in the evening. 

5. Hutongs

When I was researching Beijing, I read about ‘old laneways’ and knew I had to visit! My boyfriend and I were lucky that my sister had lived in China and organised for us to meet one of her friends. He suggested we visit the hutongs for dinner and drinks, and boy, did we drink! The alleyways were like a dark concrete maze of houses, eateries, bars and strong-smelling public toilets. While I can’t give any reliable details about where the hutongs start and finish, I can recommend heading to Peiping Machine Taphouse and The Tiki Bungalow to get your party started. The tiki bar isn’t easy to find, but just get to Jiaodaukou Street near Beixinqiao subway station and explore the area from there. For those who prefer, there are plenty of organised hutong tours too. 

  • Cost: Free.
 Hutongs: Houses, courtyards, restaurants and bars are hidden behind the walls. 
Hutongs: Houses, courtyards, restaurants and bars are hidden behind the walls. 

7. Wangfujing Street

Every city has its main shopping street and in Beijing, that’s Wangfujing Street. I love shopping – not so much buying as looking, exploring and people watching. I always dive into book stores and stationery shops, and shoe stores. On Wangfujing Street, you’ll find the usual international clothing chains like H&M, Zara and Gap, along with MAC Cosmetics. But there are also lots of Chinese confectionary stores (great for random snacks or to take home as gifts), a good food court in the ground floor of the book store and designer stores. It’s also home to the famous Wangfujing Snack Street – marked by a large gate and the smell of food wafting down to the main street. More for novelty than serious eats, you can find bugs on sticks, noodles and what I called ‘swirly potato sticks’ – essentially skewered, home style potato chips. If you need a SIM card, head to the small China Unicom stand inside the mall closest to the snack street. 

  • Cost: Free
  • Tip: The snack street closes at exactly 10pm – don’t be idle! 

7. Temple of Heaven

It was a rainy old morning when we walked from our hotel to the Temple of Heaven, but that meant less crowds. We reached Tiantan Park about 12pm and followed the signs to the temple. It was built in 1412 and I found the architecture so striking, especially when imagining royalty travelling from the Forbidden City to the site for ceremonies. The main attraction is The Great Hall of Prayer (north) with nearby buildings containing various artefacts and information, although from memory only some of it was in English. We walked south to reach The Circular Mound Altar before exiting. We spent just over 90 minutes there altogether, but you could take some time to explore the park surrounding the temple – it’s a beautiful place to read a book, do tai chi or have a picnic.

  • Cost: Park entrance 15¥ (AU$3), extra 20¥ for the temple (buy outside the temple).
  • Opening hours: Park 6am-10pm, Temple of Heaven 8am-6pm in high season (July – Oct).
  • Website: Temple of Heaven (map)
 Temple of Heaven: The Great Hall of Prayer is its most iconic structure 
Temple of Heaven: The Great Hall of Prayer is its most iconic structure 

8. 798 Art District

After being immersed in imperial culture, it was refreshing to see a vibrant, youthful side to Beijing in the 798 Art District. My boyfriend discovered the area when he was researching drone stores and it looked really cool. We had limited time so took a cab there from the Temple of Heaven. We showed the taxi driver the name in Chinese using Maps.Me, and the 40 minute journey cost around 50¥ (AU$10) with Sunday traffic.

 798 Art District: You'll find large sculptures throughout the streets. 
798 Art District: You’ll find large sculptures throughout the streets. 

798 is an old factory area that’s been converted to artist studios, cafes, galleries and stores. The neighbourhood is big – not quite Forbidden City size, but definitely big enough to spend a few hours walking the streets and admiring the art, grabbing some street food and going into studios. I highly recommend heading here to check out Beijing’s art scene, and even if you’re not into art, the huge street sculptures and people watching are sure to entertain you for a few hours. 

  • Cost: Free.
  • Website: 798 Art District
  • Tip: If you see bags of rolled up, wafer-like sweets, buy them. They’re delicious! 

Next time

While we saw a lot in our three days (including a day trip to the Great Wall), we couldn’t fit in the imperial garden Summer Palace, a Beijing brewery tour or visit Hou Hai (Back Lakes) which is meant to be most impressive at night I would also love to return to the hutongs and see more of Beijing’s neighbourhoods too. It’s no problem, because I know I’ll be returning to Beijing as soon as I can! 

Where to stay

We stayed at New World Beijing, a five-star modern hotel in the Wangfujing area, Chongwenmen in Dongcheng district. It was perfectly located in the middle of all the attractions we wanted to see, only 15-20 minutes to Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven and Wangfujing Street. The club room was excellent value at AU$210 per night, including a sizeable breakfast buffet, generous evening drinks and canapés and most of all, a spacious rooftop for drinks or relaxing. Staying in a club room means you can also request a 4pm check-out.

 New World: the club lounge is excellent, offering breakfast, evening canapes and drinks.
New World: the club lounge is excellent, offering breakfast, evening canapes and drinks.

At the end of our trip, we stayed at Park Plaza Beijing (AU$114/night). Located at the opposite end of Wanfujing Street to New World, the hotel was older but still perfectly fine. The area was much more business-like, surrounded by other hotels and high-rise buildings. If you can afford it, stay at New World! 

Getting there

Beijing is well served by air and train. The airport express train was 25¥ (AU$5) and took about 30-40 minutes to Dongzhimen, the main subway hub. From there, we took the subway to our hotel (Dongzhimen to Chongwenmen station, 20 minutes) followed by a short 10 minute walk. Our departure flight was early so we took a cab – from memory, it was maybe 120-150¥ (AU$24-30) from our Dongcheng hotel heading into peak hour.

There are five main train stations in Beijing, namely Beijing Railway Station, the West, North and South railway stations and Badaling station. Be sure to closely check which one you’re arriving or departing from! 

Getting around

  • Subway: It’s fast, reliable and cheap. It was just 3¥ (AU$0.60) for most of our short, one-way journeys. Note the subway isn’t 24 hours, with most services stopping at 11pm-12am.
  • Taxis: They’re cheap, plentiful and professional but communication can be difficult. Always have your destination in Chinese, even for a big hotel. I used Maps.Me for directions when our cab driver mistakenly took us to New World apartments instead of New World Hotel (thankfully only 10 minutes away on foot).
  • Foot: It’s really easy to get around Beijing on foot. We walked 7 to 13km (4.5 – 8 mi.) most days we were in Beijing. It’s flat, and footpaths or roads are mostly wide and level (making them fine for luggage and baby strollers too).
  • Buses: We didn’t use these as subway, taxi and foot were adequate. But there were English numbers on the front and bus stops were obvious because of shelters.

Currency

The Chinese Yuan Renminbi can be expressed in a number of ways, from ¥ to CNY or RMB. It’s all the same. While we could use our credit card at major hotels, most attractions and transport were cash only or if they did accept credit card, it was only locally-issued ones. Bring lots of cash otherwise there are ATMs available. As a rough guide, 100¥ = AU$20, US$15, £11 and €13.

QUESTION: What are your Beijing highlights?

10 Things I Didn’t Expect in Beijing, China

People had mixed reactions when I told them my boyfriend and I were going to China. They ranged from congratulatory and enthusiastic, to puzzlement and even cautionary. My sister, who’d live in China for a year, was predictably the most excited for us along with a colleague who’d also visited some years ago. But more commonly, people either perplexingly asked why we wanted to visit China or worse still, told us how much they disliked the country. The descriptions ranged from “dirty” to “it’s like India, but without the warmth of the people.” Ouch.

I wasn’t deterred by the negativity, in fact, I got even more excited as the trip got closer. While my boyfriend and I had been to Europe just five months earlier, it was more holidaying than travelling. This time, neither of us had been to the country before and we had no idea what to expect. Our first stop was Beijing, which I’d been told represented old China. Just weeks before we departed, television screens were filled with a city glowing orange with pollution. Media portrayal included mass population, poverty and a dismal human rights record. 

Our flight from Perth, Australia to Beijing via Singapore landed around 3pm and by 5pm, we were exiting a subway station and walking along a footpath to our hotel in the Wanfujing district. The atmosphere was peaceful, with only a few cars and people around as the sun began to fade. The street names were in English, and we easily reached our hotel after 10 minutes. It was nothing like India.

The four days that proceeded were incredible. I didn’t fall in love with Beijing immediately, but I quickly absorbed and enjoyed all that was around me. History, culture, food, excellent transport, bikesharing, art, the absence of Western media (a true holiday when you’re a journalist), the open spaces and public places. It didn’t resemble anything I’d imagined from television or people’s stories. Many of these themes continued throughout our three week China trip, and I loved the country even more than I’d anticipated. 

Here’s what struck me most in Beijing, to the point where I began this blog post on our journey because I wanted to counter the narratives I’d heard before we left. I’ll concede we stayed in the central tourist areas, did a lot of research and preparation before we left (such as downloading city and subway maps), and also love being out of our comfort zone. But even without these things, it’s hard not to be impressed by China’s capital. 

Things I Didn’t Expect in Beijing

1. It Wasn’t Crowded

Were there a lot of people in Beijing? Yes. Train stations were busy, and roads were filled with vehicles often coming to a standstill. But I never truly sensed I was in a city of 21.5 million people (almost the entire population of my home country Australia). I didn’t see any exceptionally large crowds and never felt boxed in. Beijing was far less busier than New York for example, and train stations were no different to London’s Kings Cross. The most common question when I returned from China was “It was really crowded, right?.” No, it wasn’t. This is probably linked to my next point. 

2. Sprawling but Not Dense

While my boyfriend and I flew into Beijing, our journey into the city centre was by train. Departing the airport, there were masses of tall apartment buildings but sprawling areas of greenery between them. This became less so as we got closer to the city, but it was immediately evident Beijing is a city of highways that has developed outwards rather than upwards, much like Los Angeles or Paris. Even in the central tourist area we were staying in, our hotel only had 12 floors and was one of the taller buildings in the area. The city was also very flat, making it the perfect concrete jungle to explore on foot. 

3. Organised

Beijing had a level of organisation that rivals Ikea or The Container Store. Many places had a clear entrance and exit, even in a small area like bag check or cloak rooms. This may partly be because of security checks at the entrance (see my next point), so wanting to control the flow of people. But the subway system was excellent. Exits are clearly marked A,B, C and so on (identical to Hong Kong) and often divided further into B1, B2 and so forth so you have an exact reference point to meet somewhere or reach a location. If only more cities would adopt this system! Traffic is mostly cars with a few buses, tuk tuks and scooters. The scenes got a little hairy at some intersections, but drivers largely followed the rules. 

4. Security

I’d expected the military presence we saw around tourist locations like Tianamen Square, but I didn’t anticipate the level of other checks. Our hotel had a passport scanner and staff checked our visas, we had to show our passports when entering the train station, staff scanned my body with a hand-held metal detector at most checks, and sometimes my handbag would go through an x-ray machine only to be scanned again five minutes later. There were security cameras across the city, and I later saw a news story about how China is introducing live facial scanning technology. 

5. Lack of Pollution

There’s no denying pollution is a huge problem in China and Beijing is no exception. However, I was surprised (and somewhat concerned) that at no time could I sense it. I could clearly see the dull, hazy grey band of smog across the horizon, but I could never smell it and my breathing felt the same as it did in Australia. After a day of sightseeing in Beijing, I didn’t feel any dirtier than after a day walking around New York City. When my boyfriend and I tried to raise the topic of air quality with our Great Wall tour guide, who’d quit journalism over having to write pro-government stories, he told us Beijing simply had ‘fog.’ 

 Beijing: the pollution was visible on the horizon but my breathing didn't feel affected.
Beijing: the pollution was visible on the horizon but my breathing didn’t feel affected.

6. English Prevalence 

One of the biggest shocks in Beijing was seeing numbers in English! Everything from platform numbers to bus numbers, times and prices. I felt ignorant but then recalled my experiences catching local buses in Thailand. As mentioned, we did largely stay in the tourist areas of Beijing, but the prevalence of English continued throughout our trip. It gave me confidence we could catch buses across China. Many street names had English and Chinese characters too. Spoken English was a different story, ranging from fluent to none at all. A few times we asked for help with directions, and young people would apologise for their ‘bad’ English before clearly explaining where we needed to be. My Mandarin comprised hello, thank you, water and cheers. 

7. Punctual 

As well as the clear organisation of train stations, roads and attractions, much of Beijing operated like clockwork. Trains departed to the minute, our hotel breakfast closed exactly 10.30am, lights went off in market areas at precisely 10pm and our tour guide for the Great Wall of China met us at exactly 7am. For the rest of our trip, it became a game to see whether boarding for a train opened exactly 20 minutes before departure (in almost every case, it did). A friend of my sister’s, living in Beijing, warned us that planes in China were often heavily delayed but of our four internal flights, we only were late once departing 15 minutes after the scheduled time. 

 A Beijing train station: Trains left to the minute and the train number was easy to identify, thanks to English characters. 
A Beijing train station: Trains left to the minute and the train number was easy to identify, thanks to English characters. 

8. Clean

I didn’t expect Beijing to be like walking in a trash can, but the absence of litter was noticeable. Roads, footpaths and public spaces were clean and tidy although – as with most capital cities – I suspect this wanes further away from central areas. The notable exceptions were public toilets (see below) and The Great Wall of China, which in some areas was littered with plastic drink bottles and empty food wrappers.

9. Public Toilets

I relax my obsession with staying hydrated when travelling but it wasn’t a problem in Beijing or the rest of the five cities we visited in China. Public toilets were everywhere and well sign-posted. As a local resident told us, you simply need to follow your nose. And bring toilet paper if you want some. Like the extensive labelling of exits at train stations, I wish other cities in the world had as many public toilets as Beijing did! 

10. Accessibility 

Beijing deserves a solid congratulations for having accessibility that, in parts, is better than my home city. I know this, because I’d debated whether to take a backpack or suitcase to China and I was glad I chose the latter. It was effortless to walk along footpaths, get around train stations, and enter accomodation. The prevalence of ramps and lifts was impressive and I recall hauling my suitcase up a lot less stairs than I did in Europe just five months prior.

When we left Beijing after four nights for Xi’an, I felt like I’d just begun to discover a city. I wasn’t ready to leave and was glad we’d return for a final night at the end of our trip before flying home. My expectations certainly weren’t low, but I was surprised by just how much I liked Beijing. It set the tone for the rest of our trip, which my boyfriend and I consider is one of the best we’ve done to date. Are you considering a trip to China’s capital? Check out My Must-See Attractions in Beijing.

QUESTION: Which place has surprised you most in your travels?

Your 10 Favourite Posts of 2017

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

Our Three Week China Itinerary

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!

 Great Wall of China: a must-see when going to Beijing
Great Wall of China: a must-see when going to Beijing

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.

 Chengdu, Sichuan: I wanted to eat as much local cuisine as I could! 
Chengdu, Sichuan: I wanted to eat as much local cuisine as I could! 

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.

 Zhangjiajie National Park: I saw these mountains in a catalogue and knew I had to visit.
Zhangjiajie National Park: I saw these mountains in a catalogue and knew I had to visit.

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.

Cost

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)
  • Activities (i.e. cooking class, food tour): AU$200

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! 

resources

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.

QUESTION: What’s the best airfare deal you’ve scored?

First-Timer’s Guide to Santorini, Greece

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! 

overview

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). 

 Oia: a Mediterranean fairytale, even on a cloudy day
Oia: a Mediterranean fairytale, even on a cloudy day

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

the views

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. 

 Imerovigli: watching sunset from our villa on our first night was magic!
Imerovigli: watching sunset from our villa on our first night was magic!

hiking trails

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. 

 Hiking: views on the trail from Imerovigli to Fira
Hiking: views on the trail from Imerovigli to Fira

ancient sites

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. 

caldera cruise

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: viewed from the top of Oia
Amoudi Bay: viewed from the top of Oia

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. 

beaches

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.

 Perivolos Beach: more resort style, with plenty of dining and bars opposite
Perivolos Beach: more resort style, with plenty of dining and bars opposite

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. 

 Red Beach: more for sightseeing than sunbaking
Red Beach: more for sightseeing than sunbaking

wineries

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. 

 Santo Wines: the six glass wine tasting & food platter
Santo Wines: the six glass wine tasting & food platter

shopping

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. 

food

 Pita: stuffed with fava at my request on Perivolos Beach
Pita: stuffed with fava at my request on Perivolos Beach

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! 

 Kapari Wine Restaurant: my dish of fava, capers and tomato
Kapari Wine Restaurant: my dish of fava, capers and tomato

drinks 

 Kapari Natural Resort: complimentary wine and fruit
Kapari Natural Resort: complimentary wine and fruit

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. 

 Kapari Natural Resort: incredible views in Imerovigli
Kapari Natural Resort: incredible views in Imerovigli

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.

 Kapari Natural Resort: the bedroom and bathroom in our enormous cavern-like villa
Kapari Natural Resort: the bedroom and bathroom in our enormous cavern-like villa

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. 

 Map: supplied by our ATV company (click to enlarge)
Map: supplied by our ATV company (click to enlarge)

getting around

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. 

getting there

 Santorini Airport: not exactly the paradise 
Santorini Airport: not exactly the paradise 

You can reach Santorini by ferry or plane. We attempted to fly and could see Santorini from our window (check out Getting from Italy’s Cinque Terre to Santorini) but ended up Catching the Athens to Santorini ferry instead. Our hotel included transfers from the port (about 20-30 minutes) and to the airport (about 20 minutes). I can’t speak to catching taxis or buses except to say the port was very busy. 

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. 

money

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. 

language

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

 Greek lesson: I got some tips from our waitress in Athens
Greek lesson: I got some tips from our waitress in Athens

other tips

  • 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!

QUESTION: Have you been to Santorini? If so, what’s your best tip for first-time visitors? 

Catching the Athens to Santorini Ferry

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.

 Herodion Hotel, Athens: view of the Acropolis from Point A restaurant
Herodion Hotel, Athens: view of the Acropolis from Point A restaurant

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.

Blue Star Ferries: Ph: +30-210-8919800 | Website 

Cost

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.

 Ferry ticket: €56 for a business class seat
Ferry ticket: €56 for a business class seat

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

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.

 Piraeus Port: the view at Gate 1 before boarding
Piraeus Port: the view at Gate 1 before boarding

Collecting tickets

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.

boarding

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. 

 Blue Star 2: the business lounge exceeded all my expectations for a domestic ferry
Blue Star 2: the business lounge exceeded all my expectations for a domestic ferry

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! 

the ferry 

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!

 Business class menu: click to enlarge
Business class menu: click to enlarge

 Menu (page 2)
Menu (page 2)

 Menu (page 3)
Menu (page 3)

Facilities

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. 

 Restaurant: the ferry dining options exceeded expectations! 
Restaurant: the ferry dining options exceeded expectations! 

Food

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.

 Restaurant: wine, salads and fava for two for €32
Restaurant: wine, salads and fava for two for €32

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. 

disembarking 

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.

 Disembarking: get your luggage early and prepare for the mass exodus
Disembarking: get your luggage early and prepare for the mass exodus

 Santorini Port: not exactly a postcard
Santorini Port: not exactly a postcard

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. 

Overall

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! 

QUESTION: What’s your most memorable ferry ride? 

One Night in Florence, Italy

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

 Pana e Toscano: getting a Tuscan sandwich is an experience not to be missed! 
Pana e Toscano: getting a Tuscan sandwich is an experience not to be missed! 

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: a grand, imposing cathedral in the city centre.
The Duomo: a grand, imposing cathedral in the city centre.

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.

Address: Piazza Duomo| Opening hours: Generally 10am – 5pm | Website

3pm – mercato centrale

 Tuscan sandwich: my bean-heavy vegan option (€5).
Tuscan sandwich: my bean-heavy vegan option (€5).

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

 Signorvino: resting our feet at a wine bar overlooking the Arno River.
Signorvino: resting our feet at a wine bar overlooking the Arno River.

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

 Giardino delle Rose: this small garden is worth a stop when visiting nearby Piazza Michelangelo (free entry).
Giardino delle Rose: this small garden is worth a stop when visiting nearby Piazza Michelangelo (free entry).

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. 

 Palazza Vecchio: sweeping views of Florence at night from the Battlement area. 
Palazza Vecchio: sweeping views of Florence at night from the Battlement area. 

9pm – Palazza Vecchio

 Palazza Vecchio: the main hall's exquisite ceiling.
Palazza Vecchio: the main hall’s exquisite ceiling.

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

 Borgo Antico: delicious food and perfect for people watching.
Borgo Antico: delicious food and perfect for people watching.

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! 

Address: Piazza Santo Spirito, 6-red, 50125 | Website

Florence at night: viewed from the top of Palazza Vecchio (“Town Hall”).

1am – Bed Time 

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.

practical info

Getting there

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). 

Getting around

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. 

Language

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! 

QUESTION: When did you maximise a stopover? 

 

How to Get From Cinque Terre to Santorini

They say half the fun of a holiday is planning it and I completely agree. Pondering destinations, gushing at hotels and restaurants, weighing up attractions… all against the backdrop of counting down to your departure date. But the excitement can wane when you hit a logistical glitch. Something you thought would be simple becomes a Rubix cube of combinations, dead-ends and frustration. My boyfriend and I had a five week trip to Europe earlier this year, and Italy’s Cinque Terre and the Greek island of Santorini were both essential destinations. We planned to visit them as late as possible into our holiday to try get the warmest weather. How hard could it be to get from one Mediterranean paradise to another? We were about to discover it could, quite frankly, be hell. 

We’d mapped out a rough itinerary while in Australia that would take in the UK, Scotland, France and Cinque Terre so it made sense Santorini would follow. But a few quick Google searches revealed there was no easy route between the two places. Cinque Terre’s nearest airport is Pisa (150 kilometres/93 miles) but the airlines are limited. My boyfriend and I broadened our search to Florence (200km/125mi) and Venice (270km/168mi) airports without any luck. We reluctantly looked at backtracking to Nice, France but didn’t work either . Not a single airport had a direct flight to Santorini. In fact, we couldn’t even find connecting flights with a journey time under 12 hours or costing less than AU$500. At one stage, we even considered flying to Santorini via Barcelona, Spain and spending the six hour layover in the airport lounge. 

A month before our holiday was due to start, it was time to tackle this dilemma. My boyfriend and I sat in our kitchen, post-gym on a Sunday morning armed with laptops, notepads, smartphones and pens. We were like a pair of code breakers during World War II, trying different combinations of trains and planes from Italy to anywhere in Greece. Blogs and travel forums didn’t have any answers. While we could theoretically stop in Athens or Milan, they were significant detours that would cost us precious nights in Santorini. But tea, toast and and three hours later I yelled out “I’ve cracked the DaVinci code!”

The breakthrough was discovering a direct train from Florence to Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport. From there, you could catch a direct flight to Santorini which took just over two hours. The fares were reasonable. The times worked with our itinerary, and in fact, we’d get a night in Florence which I’d never been to before. We booked everything in the following hour and a few months later, we made our way from one paradise to another.  

This route isn’t the quickest way to get from Cinque Terre to Santorini, but it gives you maximum sightseeing with minimal transfers and backtracking. 

Here are the full details:

1. Cinque Terre – Florence 

We were staying in Monterosso, the biggest of Cinque Terre’s towns, so we looked for trains departing here. Using the excellent ticketing website Loco2, we booked:

  • Monterosso to Pisa Centrale (Intercity train 651): departing 9.07am, arriving 10.17am (1 hour, 10 mins) 
  • Pisa Centrale to Firenze S.M (Regional Veloce 3114): departing 10.32am, arriving 11.32am (1 hour)
  • Total time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
  • Cost: €18.30 each (Monterosso to Pisa €9.90, Pisa to Florence, €8.40)

Unfortunately our first train was delayed 15 minutes, meaning we missed our connection. However, we caught the next Pisa to Firenze train which left 20 minutes later.  Our tickets were still valid and conveniently, we didn’t have to change platforms.

 Monterosso Station, Cinque Terre: Our train to Pisa was delayed 15 minutes so we missed our connection.
Monterosso Station, Cinque Terre: Our train to Pisa was delayed 15 minutes so we missed our connection.

2. Overnight in Florence 

I considered any sightseeing in Florence a bonus, but this walk-friendly city was easy to get around and lots of attractions were open until 9pm or later. We reached our hotel around 2pm and stayed out past midnight. Check out my post One Night in Florence for full details.

3. Florence – Rome Airport

Our late-night sightseeing in Florence meant we slept five hours before our early train to Italy’s capital Rome. As mentioned, we found a direct, high speed train from Florence to Fiumicino Airport which arrived three hours before our flight. Again, we booked using Loco2:

  • Firenze S.M. to Fiumicino Aeroporto (Frecciargento 8401): departing 7.38am, arriving 9.55am
  • Total time: 2 hours, 16 minutes 
  • Cost: €27.50 each

If you need breakfast at Firenze station, Moka Cafe has healthy and allergy-friendly options including vegan croissants and paninis, quinoa salads, fruit salad (“macedonia” in Italian), yogurt and rice/soy milk drinks. There’s an impressive bookstore open from 7am too with English books and magazines, plus a busy cafe. Click here for the station’s website. 

 Moka Cafe, Firenze Station: vegan croissants, soy milk and the New York Times. 
Moka Cafe, Firenze Station: vegan croissants, soy milk and the New York Times. 

4. Rome – Santorini

Spanish airline Iberia (in partnership with Vueling, pronounced ‘velling’) was the only carrier we could find offering direct flights from Italy to Santorini. Vueling is a budget airline, so the usual precautions of checking baggage limits and bringing your own food apply. If you’re particularly tall, consider booking extra legroom. My boyfriend is 175cm (5′ 9″) and his knees hit the seat in front of him. We booked directly with Iberia: 

  • Rome (FCO) to Santorini (JTR): IB 5403, departing 12.50pm, arriving 3.15pm
  • Total time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
  • Cost: €125 each, which included 23kg checked baggage per person.

Looking for lunch options at Rome airport? I had a delicious, make your own salad (“insalate”) for €11 with quinoa, chick peas, tomatoes, carrot, dill seeds and olives at Bistrot (Terminal 3, section C) . They also sell focaccia by the kilo. Seriously.  

 Vueling Airlines: the only carrier we could find with direct flights from Italy to Santorini.
Vueling Airlines: the only carrier we could find with direct flights from Italy to Santorini.

but then…

We boarded our flight and the plane took off on time. We were both tired but couldn’t wait for four nights of Greek island luxury! I actually wrote most of this post on the flight and then the plane began to descend. I could see Santorini from my window. The ocean looked incredible! 

But clearly, the travel gods had never intended our journey from Cinque Terre to Santorini to be easy. I could practically taste the olives when the plane suddenly shot up, making my stomach lurch. My boyfriend and I looked at each other worryingly. It wasn’t a good sign.

 Santorini, Greece: the plane suddenly shot up shortly after I took this photo. 
Santorini, Greece: the plane suddenly shot up shortly after I took this photo. 

The pilot announced it was too windy to land in Santorini, so we were diverting to the capital Athens. It was already 3pm so even if the weather improved, our chances of a Greek island sunset that night were gone. Our hearts sunk. We’d worked so hard to avoid having a layover. Where would we stay that night? How would we get to Santorini? Would we get there at all? We’d been in transit for nine hours on five hours sleep. All that planning. All that pride. Pointless.

Our plane finally landed in Athens and we sat on the runway for at least an hour. Then, the pilot made a jawdropping announcement. We were going back to Rome.

Find out how we eventually got to Santorini and stay tuned for my travel tips for the island!

QUESTION: When have you nailed (or failed) travel logistics? 

A Night at Crown Towers Perth

When you think of a family vacation, what jumps to mind? A camping trip or a week away in Bali, Florida or Spain? In my family, we can barely meet for dinner without a month’s notice. It was therefore a rare and special treat when my family and I stayed at the brand new Crown Towers in Perth, Western Australia. Granted, it was only for one night in the middle of winter. But we were going on a family holiday!  

The 500-room hotel opened in November 2016 at a cost of $650 million. It’s reportedly the most expensive hotel ever built in Australia and is the largest in Perth. It’s strategically located in Burswood alongside the greater Crown complex, about 10 minutes drive from Perth’s CBD and 15 minutes from Perth Airport. 

Our stay at Crown was devised months in advance by my youngest sister (a travel agent) and her boyfriend. We sat around the Christmas tree last year and they gave us mysterious gift wrapped packages with our names on them. We took it in turn to open our gifts, revealing cardboard clues with images of keys, some numbers and a crown. After 15 minutes or so, we solved the puzzle. We were having a night at Crown Towers in July 2017! A week before our booking, my sister and her man sent an an elaborate email detailing room inclusions, dinner reservations and breakfast. My first staycation was looking exceptional!

arrival & check-in

My boyfriend and I caught an Uber from our city apartment and arrived at Crown Towers within 15 minutes. Like most West Australians, we’d been to Crown complex before but driving up to Crown Towers’ entrance was distinctly different. Perth’s humble skyline looked world class alongside the sweeping Swan River views. Equally as striking was the Crown Towers’ building itself. It was tall, glistening and commanded your attention. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in my own city. 

We arrived at 2.30pm for a 3pm check in but it wasn’t exactly smooth. Reception were confused as my sister had booked four rooms but we’d arrived separately (albeit within an hour or so of each other). I didn’t think this would be an uncommon situation but the issue was resolved within a few minutes. I was surprised when we were told our room wasn’t ready. It may have been because of our request for adjacent rooms but it was only 30 minutes before the official check-in time. Staff told us they would call or text when the room. Again, confusion arose about whether to call me or my sister who’d made the booking (and already had her room). I was beginning to doubt whether Crown could live up to world class standards. 

 The Waiting Room: my underwhelming cocktail ($18).
The Waiting Room: my underwhelming cocktail ($18).

The delay provided a perfect chance to head to the The Waiting Room for a cocktail. It was a beautiful, art deco style space adjacent to the lobby that would’ve fit neatly in The Great Gatsby. Tables of mostly women were enjoying afternoon drinks, and I spotted a few people enjoying the bar’s signature “High Coffee” which consists of a coffee-based cocktail and four matching desserts for $35. I’m not a coffee drinker but I made a note to take friends. 

I ordered a spiced winter cocktail ($18) while my boyfriend had an expresso martini ($20). His drink looked and smelt wonderful, but the presentation of my drink was underwhelming. It tasted fine though. A moment of redemption came when I inquired about one of the ingredients in my drink, Lillet. The waiter explained it was a French aperitif, mostly made from white wine and some citrus. I was happy with the information but then he returned with the bottle a few minutes later so I could see the label. My afternoon cocktail had become a liquor lesson! I was very grateful (and I’ll be buying some Lillet for my liquor cabinet too). We got a text that our room was ready at 3.15pm. As we left, I noticed one of the television screens was showing live football. The 1920s ambience was suddenly very 2017. 

the room  

Memories of the awkward check-in and my average cocktail were washed away the instant we walked into our room. The Perth skyline and river views filled the floor to ceiling windows. I felt as far from home as you could with a 15 minute drive. My boyfriend and I spent at least 10 minutes staring out the window. A family holiday had never looked so good! It was time to crack the complimentary bottle of sparkling wine, which was included with our booking. Except it wasn’t there. I made a quick call to the front desk and it arrived 10 minutes later. It was another slip in customer service, but the view was so good I didn’t care. 

 Crown Towers: Perth skyline and the Swan River from our Premier King room. 
Crown Towers: Perth skyline and the Swan River from our Premier King room. 

It turns out we’d been upgraded to a Premier King room (hence the view) although we only discovered this later when speaking with family. I explored our abode for the night, which featureda huge bathroom (with a television by the bath), an iPad to control room settings, and thick, luxurious bathrobes. The mini-bar was excellent and showcased local goods, including Hippocampus gin and a wide range of Koko Black chocolates. There was time for a quick soak in the tub and if it wasn’t for our dinner reservations, I wouldn’t have left the room! 

 Crown Towers: the bathroom was spacious and had a television by the bathtub.
Crown Towers: the bathroom was spacious and had a television by the bathtub.

facilities

 Crown Towers: the mini-bar is perfect for chocaholics.
Crown Towers: the mini-bar is perfect for chocaholics.

Crown Tower’s outdoor pool is as much about striking aesthetics as it is about leisure. However, it was a cloudy 17 °C (62 °F) during our winter stay so I didn’t make it out there. The fee for renting a pool-side lounge started at $65, and rose to $375 for a luxury cabana on weekends. The pool is strictly for guests only, so no chance of making a day visit in warmer months. It was taunting us from our room!

I didn’t have time to check out Crown Towers’ gym, despite it being open 24 hours. I didn’t visit the day spa on this occasion either, although I’d previously been for some birthday pampering over summer. I used the Aqua Retreat area for about 20 minutes before my treatments, which consisted of a Wild Kashmir Purifying Facial ($200, 1 hour) with turmeric and lavender and a firm relaxation massage  ($180, 1 hour). The facial was soothing yet detoxifying while the massage was calming but also addressed tight spots. I felt liked I’d had a full night’s sleep when I left! While hotel spas can be known to take advantage of their captive market, Crown Spa truly stands on its own. 

dinner  

Our family had booked a table at Crown’s premium Chinese restaurant Silks. I’d dined here a few years earlier with my boyfriend, but we’d both agreed it was a venue better suited to groups so you can try more of the menu. Silks was about 10 minutes walk from our hotel room and it was much more ornate than I’d remembered. Our party of seven included chilli lovers and chilli haters, a vegetarian, some serious carnivores and my mostly vegan self. We were promptly seated at a round table with a lazy susan in the middle – my favourite setup for group dining. 

 Silks Restaurant: Crispy Bean Curd with chilli and salt, marinated cucumber and three serves of Signature Dim Sum. 
Silks Restaurant: Crispy Bean Curd with chilli and salt, marinated cucumber and three serves of Signature Dim Sum. 

We ordered white wine (Shaw & Smith Sauvignon Blanc $65) and some beers while we looked over the menu. We decided on a few small dishes to share and each chose a main, making sure there were no duplications. The feast that ensued was incredible. The Crispy Bean Curd with chilli and salt ($18) was devoured by all. My Sweet & Sour Gluten Dumplings ($28) were a delicious, chewy main that had all the flavours of childhood takeaway elevated in mock meat. My vegetarian mother declared it her favourite dish. The carnivores were seriously impressed with the tofu, and also said the Signature Dim Sum ($25 for three pieces) was a highlight. The Fried Egg Noodles with Barbecue Pork ($28) and Peking Duck ($11) received praise too, while the Stir-fried Chicken with XO Sauce & Cognac ($48) was reportedly satisfying but not sensational. There was a second bottle of wine (Plantagenet Riesling $55) and some spirits and cider as our chatter and chopsticks continued. There was no room for dessert.

The bill came to $625 for the seven of us ($90 a head), although the final total was closer to $550 once we used our Entertainment Card discount. Would I return to Silks a third time? I find it hard to separate Chinese food from memories of plastic takeout containers and pyjamas, but I’m yet to find anywhere in Perth that can rival Silks’ crispy tofu. Combined with the lure of sweet & sour dumplings, I’ll likely revisit with my mum in another year or so and truly tackle that wine list.  

casino

Half my family went back to Crown Towers to enjoy their rooms while the rest of continued our night at the casino. Crown’s gaming area is much like any casino in the world (I’ve been to several in Las Vegas and oddly enough one in Zimbabwe). It’s a labyrinth of bright lights, felt-covered tables and slot machines without a clock in sight. I quickly lost $20 in Blackjack and my boyfriend had a few wins before losing at the same table. My sister and her partner were on a winning streak but lost shortly after. It was an expensive hour but a novelty. By now, we were full of food and alcohol, and some of us had work the next day. It was time to say goodnight. 

turndown service 

My boyfriend and I returned to our room to discover two boxes of Koko Black chocolates and breakfast menus on the bed. A pair of slippers had been placed on a small mat each side of the bed too. It’s the most attentive turndown service I’ve ever seen. We took some time to enjoy the night time views before sinking into the luxurious bedding. I slept until our alarm at 8am, a reluctant but necessary measure to ensure we made it to breakfast. 

 Crown Towers: the turndown service included two boxes of Koko Black truffles (one set was dairy-free too!).
Crown Towers: the turndown service included two boxes of Koko Black truffles (one set was dairy-free too!).

breakfast  

Our family met at 8.30am in Crown Towers’ buffet restaurant Epicurean. This venue has been on my list of places to try since the first photos from its opening day flooded Instagram. The space itself is at ground-level and it’s light, bright and airy. The combination of marble and rose-gold features is fun and classic. It wasn’t very busy but it was also a Monday morning. I was excited. 

 Epicurean: Hot section on the left, fruit in the centre and a chocolate fondue tower to the right! 
Epicurean: Hot section on the left, fruit in the centre and a chocolate fondue tower to the right! 

I’ve had buffet breakfasts at five star hotels across Asia and Europe, and Epicurean is up there with the best of them. Even at breakfast time, you could choose from antipasti, cheeses and an extensive salad bar to fresh pretzels, tortilla chips and guacamole. The continental section included sweet and savoury breads, bagels, crumpets, cereals, yogurts, four types of poached fruits and even healthy bliss balls worth several dollars at any cafe.

 Epicurean: The hot section had an array of Indian dishes and breads, along with Asian and Western options.
Epicurean: The hot section had an array of Indian dishes and breads, along with Asian and Western options.

Epicurean’s hot section boasted multiple Indian curries and breads, noodles, and Western options such as Tuscan potatoes, bacon, scrambled eggs and baked beans. There was a dedicated meat section too, with delicate individual pieces lined up in a window. Then there was desserts! The standout was a chocolate fondue tower (both milk and dark varieties) with bowls of churros and an entire cabinet of fresh fruit. You’ll also find trays of croissants, cakes, pastries, donuts, pancakes and muffins.

 Epicurean: you'd need to stay a week to sample all the breads and pastries! 
Epicurean: you’d need to stay a week to sample all the breads and pastries! 

I chose Indian dahl and paratha for starters, plus hummus, guacamole and crispy wafers. My second bowl was poached figs and granola, which were both packed with cinnamon and spices. I was tempted to have a fresh pretzel but my buffet strategy told me no. Instead, I rounded out breakfast with a churro, dark chocolate and fresh pineapple for good measure. I was impressed by not only the extraordinary range of food, but also the quality. My sisters adored the jaffa cake, while my mum said the super fluffy scrambled eggs were an unexpected highlight. 

 Epicurean: cheese, assorted crackers and fresh pretzels.
Epicurean: cheese, assorted crackers and fresh pretzels.

My sister had pre-paid breakfast when booking our room for $36 (it’s usually $42 Monday to Saturday). Given this includes endless cups of coffee and tea, it’s exceptional value. I left for work very full, but very happy. I will absolutely be returning to Epicurean for lunch and dinner. 

departure

We delayed check out as long as I could, but by 10am I had to get to work. One night wasn’t enough to feel fully refreshed or appreciate all the services at Crown Towers but it was a luxurious way to hit ‘pause’ on life and make some lovely family memories. I’m already dreaming of my next staycation! If Crown Towers can raise all guest experiences to the heights we saw, this hotel will be strong a drawcard for international tourists and locals alike. 

 Crown Towers: the view from our room as we reluctantly checked out. 
Crown Towers: the view from our room as we reluctantly checked out. 

more details

Crown Towers

  • Cost: A Deluxe King starts from AU$268 per night on Sunday and Monday nights, but I’d highly recommend the Premier King room for the dramatic city views (from $322). Access to Crown’s Crystal Club with breakfast and evening drinks and canapés starts from $448 in a Deluxe King room or $508 for a Premier King. Prices climb mid-week and hit a peak for Friday and Saturday nights. 
  • Address: Crown Perth, Great Eastern Highway, Burswood | Ph: +61 (08) 9362 8888
  • Website: www.crownhotels.com.au/crown-towers-perth

Dining & spa 

QUESTION: Have you had a staycation? If so, share below! 

Cinque Terre’s Hiking Trails in Detail

I’ve shared My Guide to Cinque Terre and my Tips for Hiking in the region, but the final post in this series covers exactly where my boyfriend and I trekked over three days. We were staying in Monterosso, the biggest of Cinque Terre’s five villages, and our approach was to start with easier hikes and finish with a full day trek. This was both to ease into hiking after three weeks of holiday indulgence as well as familiarise ourselves with the terrain, signage and how accurate estimated times were. 

We did four hikes in three days and each one was impressive but in different ways. They were:

  • Day One: Monterosso to Vernazza
  • Day Two: Vernazza to Corniglia, then Riomaggiore to Manarola
  • Day Three: Riomaggiore to Portovenere, via Pass of Telegrafo and Campiglia.

 

I recommend reading my Tips for Hiking Cinque Terre for an overview of the different trails (Blue Path versus High Path), along with general advice on what to wear and what to pack. As I’ve said in earlier posts, my boyfriend and I are two active people in our early 30s and didn’t do any training for these hikes. We do occasional leisure hikes around our home city, but nothing wild. There were easy sections and challenges in Cinque Terre, but nothing was impossible. 

Here’s what we did: 

Day One

Monterosso to Vernazza

  • Time: 2 hours (moderate pace but stopping for photos)
  • Distance: 3.5km (2.2mi)
  • Difficulty: The easiest you’ll find, but there are still steps! 
  • Path name: Blue Path, 2d.

This is the most popular with tourists and for good reason: the coastal views are stunning, the track is obvious and it connects two beautiful villages. We started in Monterosso, simply because it’s where we were staying. The path begins at the base of Old Town, just a minute or two from the waterfront.

 Monterosso: the view from the trail to Vernazza after 10 minutes or so. 
Monterosso: the view from the trail to Vernazza after 10 minutes or so. 

Going from Monterosso towards Vernazza, your hike begins with a steep staircase but it only takes five or 10 minutes. It’s a good warm up! You’ll get your first ‘wow’ moment soon after, looking back at Monterosso.

 Monterosso: viewed early on from trail to Vernazza.
Monterosso: viewed early on from trail to Vernazza.

There’ll be some flat sections and you’ll reach a checkpoint, where you can buy a one or two day trekking pass (€7.50/€14.50 adult), with an optional train pass. I suggest buying a one day, hiking only pass as this path was the only one with checkpoints. Payment is cash only and you definitely don’t want to go back down that initial staircase! 

The trail continues to hug the coastline and there are plenty of photo opportunities. This is the busiest path, so you may have to go slow or wait at times. Occasionally we got a section to ourselves for a few minutes. Continuing towards Vernazza, you’ll encounter more steps but none of them last too long. After about 90 minutes, you’ll get your first glimpse of your destination. Seeing a town for the first time is the most magical moment in Cinque Terre! 

 Vernazza: our first glimpse of the villge on the trail from Monterosso. 
Vernazza: our first glimpse of the villge on the trail from Monterosso. 

We continued towards Vernazza and encountered loose rock and mud. I was grateful I was wearing good quality sneakers. We passed the Vernazza checkpoint and arrived in the village about noon. My legs were a little jelly as we descended into the town centre, but I felt okay. There wasn’t any signage pointing to the main square, but we just followed our instincts through the narrow laneways in between tall buildings. We grabbed lunch at the perilously perched Al Castello and would’ve hiked again that afternoon if it hadn’t rained heavily an hour later. Instead, we chatted with an American couple as we finished our wine, enjoyed limoncello and explored the town. 

When in town

Check out Vernazza’s castle for a unique view of the coastline. Relax on rocks by the pier, eat gelato (ask for ‘senza latte’ if you want dairy-free options) or fuel up at any of the restaurants around the harbour or higher up. Read more in My Guide to Cinque Terre

Getting there/back

There’s a train station in both Monterosso and Vernazza, with the fare only €4 to or from any other village in Cinque Terre. Trains are fast, just five minutes between each town and fairly frequent (every 20 minutes or so). Alternatively, you could turn around and just walk back or catch the ferry (see ‘resources’ below).  

Day Two

Vernazza to Corniglia

  • Time: 2 hours
  • Distance: 3.2km (2mi)
  • Difficulty: Still easy, but slightly harder than Monterosso to Vernazza due to longer ascents.
  • Path name: Blue Path, 2c. 

We caught the train to Vernazza to start this hike around 9am but realised we didn’t know exactly where the trail started. Thankfully there was a map at the station which pointed us in the right direction (which was away from the town centre). We walked up the main road past the post office and soon saw the iconic red and white symbol painted on a wall, letting us know we were on the right path.

My legs were resisting the steps, even though the path was just gently winding upwards through people’s backyards. After 5 or 10 minutes we reached a cafe we’d seen the day before from Vernazza’s castle. You could stop here for a picturesque breakfast but we’d hardly earned a break so early on. 

 Vernazza: the trail roughy follows the power line before going into the forest (top right). 
Vernazza: the trail roughy follows the power line before going into the forest (top right). 

 Vernazza to Corniglia: an easy and pretty section. 
Vernazza to Corniglia: an easy and pretty section. 

Soon we were surrounded by forest instead of coastal views, still making our way up. There were some awkward stone staircases, sometimes steep, sometimes uneven and often both – but you just have to keep going. At one point it was my turn to carry the backpack “for this hill” but my boyfriend and I kept laughing as we’d finish one section, go around the corner and realise another round of steps awaited us. I carried that sweaty bag uphill for at least 20 minutes! Only twice did I see people give up and turn around, which I don’t understand as you can go slow or rest at any time.

What I liked about this trail was that it was less busy than Monterosso to Vernazza. There were still congestion points, but we more regularly had the path to ourselves. That said, more of the trail is set back from the sea so there are less coastal views. 

The last quarter of the path is a gentle descent into Corniglia and we were lucky to have a man playing accordion as we approached the town. The sound carried through the trail and while it was totally for tourists, I loved it. Trek two completed! 

When in town

Corniglia is the smallest of Cinque Terre’s villages but you’ll still find a range of lunch options. We were famished and walked past several restaurants before finding Bar Terza Terra, which had endless views of the dramatic coastline! I almost felt like I was in Greece. 

Getting there/back

I’ve said this my two previous Cinque Terre posts but it’s worth repeating. Corniglia is on top of a hill and its train station is at the bottom. There’s a long set of cement stairs, and going down took us about 10 minutes. I did see a sign for a shuttle bus at the bottom with a few people waiting, but it was unclear whether this was a public or private service. Corniglia is also the only town not serviced by the ferry, as it’s on top of a hill.  

Riomaggiore to Manarolo

  • Time: 50 minutes
  • Distance: 1.35km (0.8mi)
  • Difficulty: Intense but short. You’ll climb non-stop, steep steps for 25 minutes and then go down the other side.
  • Path name: 531.

With the Blue Path closed between Corniglia and Manarola until 2019, we looked at alternate routes. We chose a one hour, intense hike figuring that like the other trails, we were moderately fit and could stop rest or go slower at any time if needed. 

Fuelled by a few Aperol Spritzes and foccacia, we caught the train from Corniglia to Riomaggiore to begin our second walk of the day. There were others doing the same hike so we just followed the path but soon saw our steep ascent. You are literally walking directly up and over a mountain! Maybe it’s just a big hill. Either way, it’s steep.

 Riomaggiore: our destination was clearly marked, along with the iconic red and white paint which marks the trail. 
Riomaggiore: our destination was clearly marked, along with the iconic red and white paint which marks the trail. 

As our research had warned, you walk up steps non-stop for 30 minutes. They’re uneven and many were so high, I was practically lifting my knee to my chin to climb up them! I’m 163cm (5′ 3″) but it was easier for my boyfriend. 

 Riomaggiore: can you see the hikers? Click to enlarge!
Riomaggiore: can you see the hikers? Click to enlarge!

 Riomaggiore: the steps close up. 
Riomaggiore: the steps close up. 

It was on this path I told myself that pain quickly gives way to numbness and it’s true. My quads were tired but we kept going. After 25 minutes, we were at the peak! It was a great feeling and we were rewarded with the below view of Riogmaggiore.

 Riomaggiore: looking at the town on our intense, 50 minute hike to Manarola. 
Riomaggiore: looking at the town on our intense, 50 minute hike to Manarola. 

 Corniglia: approaching on descent from Riomaggiore.
Corniglia: approaching on descent from Riomaggiore.

Going downhill was easier but still not easy. The steps were still uneven, but with much more loose rock. Occasionally my boyfriend would help by holding my hand, and I helped a few hikers going uphill too. I felt going from Riomaggiore towards Manarola rather than Manarola to Riomaggiore was a wise choice, as there was a lot of downhill rubble. We got closer to Manarola and the scenery went from backyards to buildings. We’d reached our destination! As usual, we headed towards the waterfront and grabbed a cocktail.  

When in town

Put Nessun Dorma at the top of your list! This outdoor cafe is perfectly placed to admire Manarola all day long. Food and drink prices are also very reasonable given the view. A few people were swimming at the waterfront, although it’s entirely rock. For those who are lactose-intolerant, I found a small store by the train station selling soy milk. 

 Nessun Dorma: the perfect place in Manarola for post-hike cocktails with a view! 
Nessun Dorma: the perfect place in Manarola for post-hike cocktails with a view! 

Getting there/back

You can easily reach both Riomaggiore and Manarola by the regionale train (€4) or by ferry. See ‘resources’ below for links to timetables. 

Day Three 

Riomaggiore to Portovenere

  • Time: 4.5 hours (not including our 1 hour lunch break)
  • Distance: 12 km (7.45mi)
  • Difficulty: Moderate. The path isn’t always clear, and I scaled a few boulders. 
  • Path names: 593V (ex. 3a). Riomaggiore – Pass of Telegrafo & 1/a Pass of Telegrafo – Portovenere

My boyfriend and I wanted to end our three days of hiking in Cinque Terre with a big one. We’d read reviews from other hikers and travel websites, and chose to do Riomaggiore to Portovenere. It would take us along more of the Ligurian coastline and beyond Cinque Terre, and we could enjoy an hour-long ferry ride back to Monterosso. We allowed six hours for the hike, as the last ferry left Portovenere at 5pm but we wanted a few hours to explore the town beforehand. If we missed the ferry, we’d need to catch a bus to La Spezia and then a train to Monterosso. We set off at 9am at a steady pace. 

Riomaggiore – Pass of Telegrafo

We arrived in Riomaggiore by train and looked for the red and white painted symbol. There are a few trails out of the town centre, so it’s important to get the right one. The Cinque Terre hiking app was really helpful, as was an elderly Italian woman who pointed up at a huge staircase and said “Portovenere.”

Whether it was my exhausted quads, mild hunger or the deadline of the last ferry, I didn’t enjoy this section. It was the first time in three days the trek felt like a chore, despite being so privileged for what we were experiencing. My boyfriend and I walked up steps, more steps, crossed a road and saw cars for the first time in three days, and then went up more steps. My legs were crying out for relief.

After about 45 minutes, we reached the Sanctuary of Montenero. Other hikers were resting but we didn’t stop. I didn’t feel the view or ordinary building was photo worthy either. I had a granola bar and my spirits lifted as the path went from steep steps to an even, but still ascending trail. 

We reached a large tour group about 15 minutes later but there was no room for overtaking as there were vineyards and shrubs on both sides of the narrow path. It turns out they’d missed a turn off and they turned around anyway. A little further on, our path became a paved road and we continued the uphill walk. We didn’t see another soul. 

 Riomaggiore to Portovenere: the path around Pass of Telegrafo, about 90 minutes before Campiglia. Easy! 
Riomaggiore to Portovenere: the path around Pass of Telegrafo, about 90 minutes before Campiglia. Easy! 

 Around Pass de Telegrafo: we were on track! 
Around Pass de Telegrafo: we were on track! 

After about 90 minutes into our hike, I finally got the relief I’d wanted. A beautiful wide, flat path where we simply walked in the forest. Mindful we needed to catch the last ferry, our pace quickened and I almost began trail running because my legs were so liberated! We reached the Pass of Telegrafo (marked only by a sign and cafe) and felt a sense of achievement. But on we hiked! We passed a military exercise area too.

Pass of Telegrafo – Campiglia – Portovenere

As much as we wanted to hike Cinque Terre, my boyfriend and I didn’t want to miss the chance to see a new town either. Campiglia is a bit over than halfway between Riomaggiore and Portovenere so it was a natural stopping point for lunch. Our goal was to get there by 12.30pm and break for an hour maximum. We continued on the forest path before beginning our descent into the town.

 La Spezia surrounds: as viewed from the path into Campiglia. 
La Spezia surrounds: as viewed from the path into Campiglia. 

You’ll get your first glimpse of greater La Spezia on the left as you approach Campiglia. There are a few picnic benches and we saw a couple in hiking gear taking foccacias out of their bags to enjoy the view. We weren’t that organised. We continued into Campiglia and saw an open air restaurant, but staff were sitting outside smoking and didn’t look enthusiastic. I’d read about Campiglia’s oldest restaurant La Lampara, which had opened in the 1800s. I soon saw a sign for it. 

 La Lampara: Campiglia's oldest restaurant, which apparently opened in the 1800s. 
La Lampara: Campiglia’s oldest restaurant, which apparently opened in the 1800s. 

The venue was empty, silent and straight out of the 1980s. An older man wearing a full suit appeared us and showed us to a table inside. I apologised for our hiking attire and sweaty appearance. My boyfriend ordered the saffron gnocchi and a beer, while I ordered the fish (view the menu here). Bread quickly arrived and about 15 minutes later, a whole fish was placed before me! Our waiter offered to fillet it and he took four to five minutes to painstakingly but skillfully debone the fish with just a fork and spoon. It was art in motion. We ate our food in the silent venue and took in the view. After using the restrooms and applying more suncream, we continued our trek. 

As we left Campiglia, the open air restaurant we’d seen earlier was now bustling with diners and further along the path was a venue with hammocks and bean bags, possibly a beer garden. I slightly regretted our lunch choice but also felt we’d had an authentic, if not bizarre, experience. 

 Approaching Portovenere: the path becomes part dirt, part rock along the mountain ridge.
Approaching Portovenere: the path becomes part dirt, part rock along the mountain ridge.

 Approaching Portovenere: what scenery! 
Approaching Portovenere: what scenery! 

The next section became coastal and rocky. A magical moment was when we reached a lookout, seeing what I think was the island of Palmaria. We stopped and chatted with a group of Norweigan hikers and they were kind enough to take our photograph! I think the selfie best captures how happy we were though. 

The path will then take you back in the woods, where you’ll see La Spezia again. This time, the view is much less obstructed than the one from Campiglia. You’ll continue slightly downhill, seeing rocky ruins that may have been homes or shelters, and then it’s the home stretch. I was shocked and thrilled to suddenly see a castle! 

 La Spezia: the biggest town we'd seen during our four day stay in Cinque Terre. 
La Spezia: the biggest town we’d seen during our four day stay in Cinque Terre. 

 Portovenere: I didn't expect to see a castle in Italy! 
Portovenere: I didn’t expect to see a castle in Italy! 

 Portovenere: looking over the town from the trail.
Portovenere: looking over the town from the trail.

We were ecstatic once we reached the outskirts of Portovenere, although after three days my toes were starting to hurt in my sneakers. We navigated our way down the rocks and found a path alongside the castle. The downward steps were an awkward height and length, but after five or 10 minutes we were spat into the centre of Portovenere. We high fived each other and were so proud that we’d finished, hadn’t gotten lost, and we had 90 minutes before the final ferry left! We bought our ferry tickets back to Monterosso, and then walked to the waterfront to grab a cocktail. 

When in town

I was struck by how touristy and developed Portovenere seemed to Cinque Terre’s villages. The crowd was much older and I suspect the town is popular with cruises and day trippers. Portovenere is much flatter and better paved than Cinque Terre, so it’s probably more attractive to less mobile visitors. 

 Portovenere: the waterfront area with plenty of outdoor dining and shopping options. 
Portovenere: the waterfront area with plenty of outdoor dining and shopping options. 

We chose Bar Gelataria Doria for its prime waterfront location. Our waiter was grumpy and birds tried to eat our snacks, but for €24 we had two Aperol spritzes each and complimentary chips and nuts. If we’d had more time, I would’ve toured the castle and walked the entire waterfront. You can also catch a ferry to three nearby islands, which along with Cinque Terre and Portovenere, are UNESCO Heritage Listed. 

 Portovenere: waterfront near the ferry area. 
Portovenere: waterfront near the ferry area. 

 Portovenere: not my usual post-workout recovery! 
Portovenere: not my usual post-workout recovery! 

Getting there/back

There’s no train station in Portovenere, hence our need to catch the ferry back to Monterosso (€18). You can buy tickets from a booth at ferry. Alternatively, buses run between Portovenere and La Spezia (30 minutes) and then you can catch a train to Monterosso (22 minutes). You can plan your journey with Google Maps, but remember Italian trains are often delayed. 

Resources

I highly recommend the website In Cinque Terre for a detailed description of all routes in the area along with trail statuses. We found the estimated hiking times more or less correct too.

Download the smartphone app Trails of Cinque Terre (AU$4.49) if you attempt the Riomaggiore to Portovenere route. It uses GPS to track and guide your journey, and is helpful at points where you wonder if you took the correct path or have missed a turn off. 

For general information such as what to wear, what to pack and just how much your legs will hurt, check out my Tips for Hiking Cinque Terre. As for where to stay, language tips and how to get to the region, there’s My Guide to Cinque Terre

You can view the train timetable here or click here for the ferry timetable. 

 Portovenere: the castle viewed from the ferry back to Monterosso. Incredible! 
Portovenere: the castle viewed from the ferry back to Monterosso. Incredible! 

on reflection

My boyfriend and I left Cinque Terre feeling lucky to have explored such an unspoilt part of the world. The feeling of reaching a lookout or town after hours of walking is magical, and we had several moments where we stood in awe of the spectacular scenery. While Monterosso to Vernazza is stunning, hiking from Riomaggiore to Portovenere was especially rewarding as it was longer, more physical and far less crowded. Our legs shuddered on staircases for days afterwards (I’m looking at you, Florence!), but nothing was unbearable. 

If you have the chance, hike Cinque Terre at least once in your lifetime. It’s perfect for anyone seeking an active holiday, looking to jump start a fitness program or just wanting to explore nature among quaint, coastal villages. Next, my boyfriend and I head to China and we have plenty of hikes planned! Just 40 days until we fly. 

QUESTION: Have you hiked Cinque Terre? What was your favourite trail?