Italy’s Incredible Cinque Terre: My Guide

About a year ago, my boyfriend and I sat down with a giant piece of cardboard, a handful of Sharpies and our laptops. We’d booked return flights to London to see one of my best friends get married and we had month afterwards to explore Europe! My dream was to cycle through French vineyards while my boyfriend wanted to visit Cinque Terre. I’d never heard of it. “It’s in Italy. It looks cool!” he said. He showed me some photos on Instagram. It looked incredible so it went onto our list.

Our plans progressed and in May this year, we boarded a train in Nice, France and five hours later arrived in Cinque Terre. It was a surreal moment, disembarking at Monterosso’s small train station at sunset and towing our suitcases along the beach path to our guest house. The days that ensued were absolutely magical. 

If you’re looking for spectacular scenery, dramatic architecture and a relaxed village vibe, Cinque Terre delivers it all. Bonus: Italian food and wine! 

Orientation

Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”) is on the northern Italian coastline, about two hours north-west of Florence and 450 kilometres (280 miles) north-west of Rome. It comprises a string of five coastal towns, each a few kilometres apart. Cinque Terre is a national park and was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997 for its outstanding cultural value, along with nearby Portovenere and several islands.

 Corniglia: the only hilltop village in Cinque Terre. 
Corniglia: the only hilltop village in Cinque Terre. 

From north to south, Cinque Terre’s towns are: 

  • Monterosso: the biggest, made up of Old Town and New Town (about 10 minutes walk between them). It has a large beach area. 
  • Vernazza: arguably the second most popular village, and rivalling Maranola for most beautiful. Probably the most photographed, thanks to being an easy hike from Monterosso. Vernazza has an iconic pier and castle. 
  • Corniglia: the only town without direct beach access, it’s instead perched high on a hill. For that reason, it has the least number of tourists. Considered the most quant and peaceful. 
  • Manarolo (shown in the cover photo): another popular choice, often considered the most beautiful.
  • Riomaggiore: the most southern village in Cinque Terre, so the first one you’ll reach if travelling north along the coast.
 Vernazza: the village has an iconic castle (top right) and pier.
Vernazza: the village has an iconic castle (top right) and pier.

It’s worth noting the nearby towns, as they’re important for getting your direction right on train travel: Levanto is north of Monterosso and you’ll find La Spezia and Portovenere south/south-east of Riomaggiore. 

where to stay

My boyfriend and I found this one of the most difficult things to decide when planning our visit. Thankfully, a colleague had just been to Cinque Terre and recommended we stay in Monterosso’s Old Town. He said it was beautiful, and the only village big enough to handle the influx of tourists without feeling too crowded. He was spot on! Make sure you book accommodation as soon as you can. We were travelling in the shoulder-season and had limited options when trying to book three months in advance!

 Affittacamere Irene: view looking left from our window.
Affittacamere Irene: view looking left from our window.

We got a double room at the perfectly located Affittacamere Irene for 4 nights (Via XX Settembre 16, Monterosso | €130/night). It was one of four rooms at the family-run guesthouse and very spacious, just a minute or two from Monterosso’s bars, restaurants and bakeries. Our host was running the guesthouse for her mother and personally showed us to our room, along giving us an introduction to the region. She provided some great dining recommendations too! The complimentary snacks, tea and coffee were enough for a light breakfast before hiking and the small fridge was handy too.

If you’re struggling to pick a town, consider these factors:

  • 1. How much luggage do you have? 

Make no mistake – Cinque Terre is steep. While the main street may be wide and comparatively flat, guesthouses may be several flights of uneven steps so taking a cab (if available) isn’t an option. We had a 23kg (50 lb.) suitcase each but thankfully our accommodation was a 10 minute, flat walk from the train station. Corniglia is on top of a hill but the train station is at sea level. It’ll take you at least 10 minutes to go down the stairs, let alone going up with a bag! If you’ve just got a weekend duffel, you’ve got more options. 

 Corniglia: perched on a hilltop but the train station is at sea level, via a lot of stairs! 
Corniglia: perched on a hilltop but the train station is at sea level, via a lot of stairs! 
  • 2. How many bar/dining options do you want? 

Monterosso is the biggest of the towns, so if you like to explore different venues over a few nights, this is a good bet. We didn’t actually make it to the New Town area during our four night stay because we had so many local choices! We spent less time in Vernazza and Manarola, but there were multiple dining spots on offer too, both by the water and at higher lookouts. Corniglia is the smallest town although one of our favourite bars was here (see “drinks” below). Riomaggiore is the only village we didn’t eat or drink in, but only because it didn’t work with our hikes. 

  • 3. Will you spend more time hiking or beaching? 

Monterosso has the biggest beach area, made up of public and private facilities. Vernazza and Manarola have small harbours to swim in. As Corniglia is perched on a hill, beach access is possible but not easy. The town to train station stairs would be torture after a day of hiking and there’s no ferry access. Riomaggiore has a rocky, pebbly beach but the town is an excellent base for hiking, as you can continue further south to Portovenere.

 Riomaggiore: the southern-most village, photo taken from the ferry at dusk.
Riomaggiore: the southern-most village, photo taken from the ferry at dusk.

The best advice I can give is that ultimately, it doesn’t matter where you stay. None of the villages are particularly big, they all have similar facilities and the Regionale trains between them are cheap (€4), fast and frequent. If you like bigger towns and have a heavy suitcase, go for Monterosso. If you want the most quant and least touristy village, head to Corniglia. I felt Vernazza was overcrowded with tourists, but this may change at night once daytrippers have left. Manarola was a magnet for Instagrammers but honestly, most of Cinque Terre is selfie-central. It’s shame we only transitted through Riomaggiore! I’d possibly stay there or in Manarola next time, mostly to explore alternate hiking routes. My boyfriend said he’d happily return to Monterosso. 

what to do

Hiking

If you’re mildly active, you’ve got to do at least one hike in Cinque Terre. There are popular hikes, each 1-3 hours, connecting each of the villages as well as more challenging, professional paths. These footpaths have actually connected the villages for centuries. The most popular walk is the simple, two-hour hike between Monterosso and Vernazza. It’s a perfect introduction to the region and one of the most memorable experiences of my life. 

 Vernazza (with Monterosso in the background): you'll get this view when hiking to Corniglia! 
Vernazza (with Monterosso in the background): you’ll get this view when hiking to Corniglia! 

My boyfriend and I were keen to hike as much as we could, and we did four journeys in three days (each one harder than the last!). The scenery was jaw-dropping and breathtaking at almost every step and meeting travellers from all around the world was a bonus. Our daily routine became a morning hike, leisurely lunch, an afternoon hike and apertifs (see “drinks” below) before returning to Monterosso for dinner. I’ll do a separate, detailed post about our hikes shortly but in the interim, this website has detailed, accurate advice: www.incinqueterre.com/en/trails-advice.

Beach

Make your Cinque Terre trip a real vacation by spending a day at the beach. As mentioned, Monterosso has the biggest beach area (both private and public facilities) but you can reach the water from any of the villages with varying levels of difficulty. We spent an hour or so sunbaking on rocks at Vernazza, but in Manarola it was too chilly to swim in the small harbour. The beaches are more rock than sand, so bring a towel. 

 Vernazza: the view from the castle tower.
Vernazza: the view from the castle tower.

Churches

Whether it’s a sanctuary, monument or plain old church, each village has at least one place of worship. I saw two – a church in Vernazza we awkwardly walked through to get to a beach and another on our hike between Riomaggiore and Portovenere. I’ve seen enough churches and temples in my travels for a lifetime, but if this is your thing you’ll some options in each town.

Cooking classes

I love taking cooking classes abroad and Cinque Terre would’ve been exceptional! I looked into local schools and found most classes were around €130. When researching this post, I did see the cafe Nessun Dorma (see “where to eat” below) offered a pesto making course for €35. Amazing! If you offer or have taken a cooking class in Cinque Terre, please comment below.

where to eat

 Ristorante Ciak: the best meal I had in Cinque Terre!
Ristorante Ciak: the best meal I had in Cinque Terre!

Cinque Terre is in Italy’s Liguria region which is famous for its pesto! You’ll find the short, twisted trofie pasta on most menus, as the shape is apparently well-suited to the famous basil sauce. Sadly, pesto contains parmesan so I couldn’t try any but I ate a lot of other food! Spaghetti pomodoro, minestrone, salads, bruschetta, focaccia and dairy-free gelato! The menus were seafood heavy too, with anchovies a local specialty. The meat dishes are a great option if you need a break from carbs. 

You won’t find McDonalds or sushi anywhere, and pizza is only occasionally on menus. I chuckled at the number of restaurants with signs saying “NO EGGS!,” referring to Americans’ love of a cooked breakfast. You’ll receive a bread basket everywhere – it’s included as part of the €2-3 per person service charge.

Our favourite places were: 

 Bar Terza Terra: lunch & drinks with a view! 
Bar Terza Terra: lunch & drinks with a view! 
  • Monterosso: Ristorante Ciak (Piazza Don Minzoni 6) served the most gobsmackingly delicious meal I had during my entire visit. I couldn’t finish my gnocchi (€14) so staff kindly packed it to go. Local white wine was €19 a bottle. You MUST eat here! 
  • Vernazza: We had a post-hike lunch at Al Castello, perched high near the iconic castle overlooking the town and sea. The food was fine, but it was the views and value that were impressive. We paid €14 for a bottle of house white and €8 for spaghetti pomodoro.
  • Corniglia: We walked past half a dozen restaurants before reaching the exquisitely located Bar Terza Terra. It was like we were on a private island, tucked around a corner with only a dozen other people taking in the incredible scenery. We had multiple Aperol spritzes (€6) paired with assorted bruschetta (€7) and focaccia (from €2.50). A real highlight! 
  • Manarola: I’d go back to Nessun Dorma in a heartbeat! This entirely outdoor venue is exceptionally popular due to its stunning views of the town. It was full of Instagrammers but was surprisingly good value given the setting. They had a range of drink and platters combinations from €11-20, focaccias at €6-7 and of course Aperol spritzes. This venue alone is worth a day trip to Manarola. 

drink

 Nessun Dorma: Aperitifs overlooking Manarola.
Nessun Dorma: Aperitifs overlooking Manarola.

We arrived in Cinque Terre after four days in France’s best vineyards but that didn’t stop us from guzzling Italian vino. While you can’t compare Grand Cru with the local Cinque Terre wine, we truly enjoyed everything we drank. My boyfriend and I ordered mostly local white wines, which were around €15-20 for a bottle and €4-8 for a glass. On one occasion we tried an €8 bottle of house white, which surprisingly good too. Beer lovers, there’s options for you too. 

Aperitif is something I’d heard of but not experienced. Consider it Italy’s cocktail hour, enjoyed pre-dinner with snacks such as chips, nuts or crackers. 

Recommended bars: 

  • Monterosso: La Balena Blue (or “the Blue Whale”). Our host suggested this place but it took us a while to find because the signage was quite small. I liked that Italians were drinking here, and people would simply drop in and say hello. A few people had their dogs with them. 
  • Corniglia: We had lunch at Bar Terza Terra, but I’d return just for drinks. And the scenery! 
  • Mararola: I’m repeating myself, but go to Nessun Dorma. You could stare at Manarola all day.
 Corniglia: Post-hike Aperol spritz at Bar Terza Terra!
Corniglia: Post-hike Aperol spritz at Bar Terza Terra!
 Wine list: a sample of local wines and prices (click to enlarge).
Wine list: a sample of local wines and prices (click to enlarge).

getting around

The Regionale train is by the far the easiest way to get between towns. The services are fast, frequent and only €4 per trip. Be sure to check the last train times (around midnight) to avoid being stranded after dinner. Click here for the timetable.

 Ferry from Portovenere to Montorosso (€18): it stops at all towns except Corniglia and takes about an hour.
Ferry from Portovenere to Montorosso (€18): it stops at all towns except Corniglia and takes about an hour.

A ferry also connects all the towns except Corniglia, and goes further south to Portovenere. The ferries are less frequent, every hour or so, and more expensive (€18 one way Portovenere to Monterosso) but it’s a nice way to see the villages from the water. Click here for the 2017 timetable.

Of course, you can walk between the towns too with each only 1.5 – 4km (0.9 – 2.5mi) apart. The villages themselves are best explored on foot due to their small size and steep inclines. 

getting there

The nearest major cities are Milan (220km/135mi) and Genoa (130km/80mi) in the north, and to the south-east Pisa (100km/62mi) and Florence (170km/105mi). As mentioned, Italy’s capital Rome is about 450km south-east of Cinque Terre (or a five hour train ride). The simplest way to reach Cinque Terre is to fly or catch a train to one of these cities, and then catch another train.

 Train: I became obsessed with photographing Cinque Terre's railway tunnels. So beautiful! 
Train: I became obsessed with photographing Cinque Terre’s railway tunnels. So beautiful! 

We travelled from Nice, France to Genoa (3 hours) and then onto Monterosso (1 h, 15 mins) which was €24.90 each, for both journeys. We pre-booked our tickets using the excellent website Loco2. Italian trains are frequently delayed so be generous with connection times. We were delayed by 20 minutes a few times and saw others delayed by 40 minutes. You could also hire a car but we found the train services were more than adequate.

 Manarola: the main street between the station and seafront.
Manarola: the main street between the station and seafront.

money

You’ll need Euros (€) for Cinque Terre, as it’s part of Italy. I was surprised at how affordable the area was, given it’s touristy and somewhat remote. For example, a basic pasta was often €8-10 and focaccias at a bar started from €2.50. Be warned: there’s only a couple of ATMs in each town, and they were frequently out of service. You can pay for trains and maybe half the restaurants by credit card, but smaller grocers and hiking fees for example were cash only. 

language  

I used our train ride to Monterosso to brush up on my Italian (learnt in Rome, 2006 while backpacking). English was widely spoken in Cinque Terre but to varying degrees. Either way, it’s polite to know the basics. Download the free app Duolingo to learn Italian, otherwise here are some essentials: 

  • Hello/bye = ciao (“chow”)
  • Thank you = grazie
  • Please = per favoure
  • Excuse me/pardon = scusi
  • Do you have a table for two? = Avete un tavolo per due?
  • May I have..? = Vorrei..?
  • White/red wine = bianco/rosso vini

other tips

Don’t buy stamps from postcard vendors. They’ll cost you €3 each (on top of the card) and are actually part of some private courier service. Instead, search for a post office here.

I left Cinque Terre feeling I’d had a once in a lifetime experience. The walks were spectacular and the villages, although touristy, were as unspoilt as the scenery. It was a fantastic way to stay fit while travelling and inspired me to explore much more of Italy and its regional cruises. To my boyfriend – thank you for choosing such a stunning, memorable destination! 

QUESTION: Where’s your favourite place in Italy?

My Pre-Holiday Checklist

Jetsetting around the world may seem glamorous but any traveller knows it takes a lot of work. Even if you’re on organised tours, there’s still the real life stuff at home to take care of before you fly out. Will someone watch your dog? Check your mail? Will your medications last the whole time you’re away? Have you got a miniature toothpaste for the plane? 

My boyfriend and I have been home from Europe for a month but it’s almost like deja vu as we prepare for our next trip. We’re going to China in just 60 days! On top of planning the holiday itself (five cities in three weeks), we need to get our visas, check whether our travel insurance will cover some pretty intense hiking and organise foreign currency.

But there’s all this other stuff too. Like freezing my gym membership. Making sure I have enough iron tablets for the journey. Putting our mail on hold. I’m determined to avoid the last minute rush and panicking. My weapon? I’ve created My Pre-Holiday Checklist! You can download a printable PDF of this list at the end of this post too.

ASAP after Booking Flights

1. Check your passport expiry date

Some countries will refuse you entry if you have less than six months remaining on your passport. Don’t risk it! The current fee for renewing an Australian passport is $277 and more if you need a rush service. Read more on the Department of Foreign Affairs website.

2. Check visa requirements

Depending on your destination(s), you could need a plethora of visas to gain entry. Find out visa applications specifics by visiting Consular websites in your country of residence. Note how far in advance you need to obtain your visa, along with fees and any necessary documents or photo requirements. For example, our China visas require us to submit a full itinerary and apply one month before arrival. I’ve also heard of Australians forgetting to apply for their ESTA under the United States Visa Waiver Program when visiting Hawaii. If you have a criminal conviction such as drink-driving, you may be ineligible for visa-free travel in some countries so be sure to read the fine print. 

3. Check bank card expiry dates

Order replacements now if any of your debit or credit cards expire while you’re away. Be careful if you used any of them for bookings – you may need to show the original card at your hotel or when collecting tickets, for example. 

4. Organise vaccinations (if applicable)

Some vaccinations are recommended for all adults in general, but you might want extras depending on where you’re travelling too. Be aware some vaccinations can require repeated doses over several months to be effective, others may need a booster after 12 months. Vaccinations can also be expensive, so that’s another reason to plan ahead. You can read more on the World Health Organisation website or have a chat to your GP. 

One month before departure

1. Buy travel insurance

Whether I’m going away for a week or a month, I always have travel insurance. Except for one time, when I forgot to activate cover on my credit card before departing. This horrible realisation hit me while my boyfriend and I were sitting on the runway at Athens International Airport, where we were stranded after a flight diversion. Thankfully we had alternate cover but I’ll never forget to activate my insurance again! Be sure to check your chosen policy covers things like car hire, riding a motorbike or quad bike, and even cycling if applicable. 

2. Order foreign currency/ travel cards

I suggest organising foreign currency a month in advance for a few reasons: 1) you’ve ideally saved most of your holiday cash by now, 2) you’ll need some time to compare rates and fees and 3) foreign exchange bureaus can have horrible hours. While you might be fine grabbing cash from an ATM when you land, you’ll likely end up with big denominations and you probably won’t be familiar with what each note looks like. Travel cards can also take a few days to compare, activate and load. Obviously, buy your cash earlier or wait if you expect a better exchange rate. 

3. Check your medications & prescriptions

It could be asthma, vitamins or birth control. Check your quantities and visit your doctor or pharmacist now if needed! 

4. Put your mail on hold

This may not be necessary if you’re just going for a week, but most of my holidays are three weeks or longer. If you’re in Australia, it’ll cost you $24 to hold your mail for the first week and $8 each week thereafter. You can do it all online too via Australia Post. Alternatively, enlist your neighbour to mind your mailbox.

5. Freeze memberships & subscriptions

I freeze my gym membership each time I go overseas and I used to get the newspaper delivered, so I’d put that on hold too. Other examples could include grocery deliveries, language or music lessons, sports club memberships, etc. Scanning your bank statements for regular debits is a good way to remind yourself of ongoing commitments. 

6. Grab travel essentials

The sooner you get your non-perishable travel essentials, the better! My shopping list includes mini-toiletries for the flight, travel-size toothpaste, dry shampoo, baby wipes, a good book and of course some travel-friendly snacks. Don’t forget electronics – check you have travel adaptors, power packs, camera cables and so on.

7. Birthdays? Special occasions?

Have a look at the dates you’ll be away. Any birthdays or special events? Organise cards, gifts or flowers now. The same neighbour watching your mail might be able to post items closer to the special day, or why not give your little brother or sister a pile of presents and delivery instructions? Yes, I’ve done the latter (thanks sis!).

8. Donate blood

Travelling overseas can make you ineligible to give blood for a short time afterwards. Before I’m treated to the wonders of the world, I like to roll up my sleeve and give something back to the community. I hate needles and dread the appointment for days, but I always feel proud afterwards. Bonus: you can book an appointment online via the Australian Red Cross website.

One week before departure

1. Share your itinerary

I use TripIt to easily send my travel plans to friends and family electronically. If you’re Australian, register your holiday with Smart Traveller so authorities can try locate you in case of an emergency.

2. Clean out your fridge

If you’re going away for any length of time, you’ll likely be out for dinner with friends or family the week before you fly out. Eat or freeze anything that won’t last the distance. 

Download a print-friendly PDF of this checklist by clicking here.

QUESTION: What would you add to this pre-departure checklist? 

Seeing Nice, France in Five Hours

How much of a city can you see in five hours? That was the challenge my boyfriend and I faced in Nice, France during our recent trip to Europe. Our train arrived on a Sunday at 10.30pm and we were leaving 2pm the next day. Allowing for hotel check-in, a decent night’s sleep and returning to the train station, we had a blank canvas from 8am to 1pm. I wanted to see all the attractions I could!

Nice is the capital of the French Riviera, just 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the Italian border and about 900km (560mi) south-east of Paris. It has a long history of being a tourist centre, thanks to its mild climate and ideal location between the Mediterranean Sea and mountains. Many of today’s attractions, such as Promenade des Anglais, were actually built in the 19th Century to cater for aristocratic visitors. 

 Nice, Cote d'Azur: beach, history, culture and shopping! 
Nice, Cote d’Azur: beach, history, culture and shopping! 

Working against us was the fact we were visiting on May 8, when the French observe Victory in Europe Day. This holiday marks the end of World War II in Europe and there are formalities across the country. We’d been warned at our previous stop in Beaune that some businesses would be closed, along with government agencies and services like the post office. I was still determined to make the most of our short stay!

Here’s what we did: 

first stop: 9am – Castle Hill

I set an alarm for 8am, skipped a shower and threw on my gym gear to head to Castle Hill, one of Nice’s top attractions. This was the city’s original site until King Louis XIV ordered soldiers to dismantle the castle in 1706. 

Castle Hill Park, or Parc du Chateau, opens at 8.30am and it was 30 minutes walk from our hotel. We went via the winding streets of Nice’s Old City Vieille Ville before going up several sets of stairs in what seemed to be a residential area. There was no signage so it was almost a surprise when we reached a small, rear entrance to the park. It was only marked by a gate and had a list of rules fixed to it. There were more stairs beyond the gate but they only took us a few minutes.

 Castle Hill: a waterfall was such a surprise in a city park! 
Castle Hill: a waterfall was such a surprise in a city park! 

The air was fresh and the sky was cloudy but we had the place almost to ourselves. We followed a main path, which had signs pointing to attractions and facilities. After walking for 10 minutes or so, we could hear water! We followed our ears and discovered an impressive man-made waterfall. We continued walking one viewing platform, took some photos, then went to another. The views were such a reward for our (relatively) early wake up! 

 Castle Hill: offering spectacular views across the city to the mountains.
Castle Hill: offering spectacular views across the city to the mountains.

You get glimpses of the city and sea from the park, so it’s easy explore without a map. While our itinerary didn’t allow for a picnic, you could easily enjoy a coffee or bring lunch here as there were lots of benches with panoramic views. Entry was free too!

 Castle Hill: one of several lookouts across the city. We had a bizarre, cloudy morning.
Castle Hill: one of several lookouts across the city. We had a bizarre, cloudy morning.

How to get there

 Castle Hill: part of the main staircase down to the beachfront. 
Castle Hill: part of the main staircase down to the beachfront. 

Put Hotel Süisse (15 Quai Rauba Capeu) into Google Maps as the park’s main entrance is right next to its front door. After five or so sets of steps, you’ll be directly at the park’s main viewing area. There were plenty of fitness enthusiasts going up and down the stairs and we even saw some extreme mountain bikers, but you’ll be fine in flat shoes and jeans.

Alternatively, you can take a rear entrance via some winding staircases near Montée Menica to reach Allée François Aragon. A few times we thought we were reaching a dead end or entering someone’s backyard, but we reached the park by following our instincts – it’s hard to miss the city’s biggest hill. This route worked well for our city loop. 

Hours: 8.30am – 8pm April to September (6pm October to March) | http://en.nicetourisme.com

9.30am – Beachfront

There was no time for a swim and it was a cool 12°C (53 °F), but seeing Nice’s beachfront was awesome! We descended Castle Hill’s main staircase and reached the waterfront near a giant #ILoveNice sculpture. I actually saw one man snorkelling, despite the temperature! We took a short stroll among the runners, dog walkers and tourists before moving on. If you had more time, you could continue to the famous Promenade des Anglais.  

 Beachfront: viewed from the main staircase entrance to Castle Hill. 
Beachfront: viewed from the main staircase entrance to Castle Hill. 

10am – Breakfast

We’d skipped breakfast so by this time, I was ready for some food! I’d spotted Paper Plane cafe on Yelp the day before so we went there from the beachfront (about 15 minutes walk). Unfortunately, it was closed because of the holiday. It was also starting to rain. We grabbed a quick coffee and Earl Grey at a nearby bistro instead and adjusted our plans. We would need to get lunch before that 2pm train!

10.30am – Hotel check-out

It was time to return to our hotel near Nice’s main train station Gare de Nice Ville, shower and check-out before 12pm. Thankfully we could store our bags at reception, giving us a few extra hours to explore the city without luggage. Full accommodation details are under ‘Where to Stay’ below. 

11.30am – Avenue Jean Médecin

Our hotel was close to Avenue Jean Médecin, which is one of Nice’s main north-to-south thoroughfares. It’s lined with shops and cafes and despite the holiday, most places were open and there were lots of people out. We made a quick but necessary stop at Monoprix grocery store for some healthy train snacks. I grabbed a French lentil salad, my boyfriend got a pre-made chicken poulet wrap and fruit. The pastry selection was impressive, and there were savoury tarts too. You could skip this part of Nice sightseeing, unless you’re catching a train that afternoon too!

 Beach art: this sculpture attracted a lot of selfie sticks and Instagrammers!
Beach art: this sculpture attracted a lot of selfie sticks and Instagrammers!

12pm – Lunch

 Lunch at Place Massena: I was in salad heaven! 
Lunch at Place Massena: I was in salad heaven! 

We saw plenty of cafes along Avenue Jean Médecin but time was limited and the French don’t rush mealtimes. We’d been in serious Bourgogne meat, cheese and bread territory for three days and were craving something fresh. I spotted a few tables of people eating big salads at So Green (11 Place Masséna), so we went inside. Choose your salad base, choose your toppings and add your sauces – I went crazy over the variety! Chick peas, raisins, sundried tomatoes, beetroot, sesame seeds, chilli flakes and rocket. Lunch was around €35 for two with sparkling water, but it was exactly what we wanted. The 20 minute break in the sunshine was a welcome bonus.

12.30pm – Place Masséna

We could squeeze in one last attraction before our 2pm train. While there wasn’t much to see in the centre of Place Masséna apart from a fountain, I was glad we could tick off another landmark. Grabbing lunch nearby and people watching was the right was to appreciate the area. But our time was up. We reluctantly returned to our hotel, collected our luggage and walked to the station for our train to Italy. We’d been in Nice just 15 hours but had seen a lot! 

 Place Massena: Nice's town square, about 10-15 minutes from the beachfront.
Place Massena: Nice’s town square, about 10-15 minutes from the beachfront.

next time

If we’d had a few more hours, I would’ve loved to have walked along Promenade de Anglais and looked at the shops around Place Masséna. Nice also boasts a lot of museums, including Musée Matisse (dedicated to 20th century painter Henri Matisse), and the Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art (Musee d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain) or MAMAC. A beachfront dinner would’ve been nice too – but there’s always next time! 

practical info

Getting there

We travelled to Nice by train from Beaune, Burgundy (€62, first class). The direct journey was a pleasant, six hours on SNCF. We used the excellent website Loco2.com to book all our train travel before leaving Australia. If you’d rather fly, Nice is well serviced by air. A direct flight from London takes about 2 hours or its 1.5 hours from Paris. Nice Cote d’Azur Airport is 7km from downtown.

Where to stay

There’s a cluster of hotels near Nice Ville train station, including our choice Ibis Centre Notre Dame (41 Rue Lamartine). It was clean, modern and basic but good value for one night (€67). The location was ideal, as it was just five minutes walk from the train station and 20 minutes or so from the beachfront. Next time I’m in Nice, l’d stay by the sea for the views or Place Masséna for its centrality. 

Where else?

If you’re looking to add on to your Nice vacation, head north to Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy or venture across the border to Italy’s Cinque Terre (my guide is coming soon!).

 Nice beachfront: viewed from sea level near the #ILoveNice sculpture. 
Nice beachfront: viewed from sea level near the #ILoveNice sculpture. 

Seeing a city in five hours isn’t ideal, but when life gives you a layover… make travel lemonade! Our brief visit gave us a taste of the French Riviera, which is starkly different to the forest and villages of central France. I’d love to return to Nice and spend a few days by the beachfront, going for a morning run, having a leisurely lunch and spending my afternoons at museums and shopping malls before romantic evening meals. Merci pour un petit mais gentilé visite Nice! 

QUESTION: Where’s your favourite part of France? 

Three Days in Beaune, France

Have you ever had a travel vision you desperately wanted to make reality? For a year, I’d dreamed of cycling through French villages and drinking chardonnay. Yes, I’m utterly city-centric but vineyards don’t grow downtown. When my boyfriend and I had the chance to spend five weeks in Europe earlier this year, experiencing regional France was at the top of my list.

I didn’t know much about French wine or whether small towns even existed nowadays. I googled France’s best wine regions (particularly for chardonnay) and cross-referenced a few wine websites. The town of Beaune, Côte-d’Or in east central France was repeatedly mentioned. To be sure this is where I wanted to holiday, I typed Beaune into Google Images and immediately liked what I saw. Vineyards, villages and greenery. There wasn’t a single skyscraper in sight! 

My holiday dream was edging closer but the final element was cycling. I searched for day tours and found a highly rated company offering a full day of biking through local wineries, along with lunch. It looked perfect! We booked a three night stay in Beaune and three months later, my holiday dream became reality.

orientation

Beaune is the wine-making capital of Burgundy (Bourgogne, in French). The town is semi-walled, with most hotels, restaurants and attractions contained within or close to its 2.5 kilometre ring road. The town centre loosely comprises Beaune’s famous Hospices (also known as Hôtel-Dieu), Place de la Halle (town square) and nearby Place Carnot (park). From here, you’ll find Rue Monge and Rue Carnot with cafes and shops, while Avenue de la Republique and Rue de l’Hotel Dieu are direct routes out of the town. 

Beaune’s train station (Gare de Beaune) is outside the walled section, about 10-15 minutes walk from the Hospices. 

 The view from our hotel window: I was living my travel dream!
The view from our hotel window: I was living my travel dream!

Getting there/around

Beaune is two hours by train from Paris, stopping in Dijon (€23, 90 minutes, first class) then transferring to a regional train (€4.40, 20 minutes, to Beaune). When transferring in Dijon, don’t be alarmed if your train isn’t listed on the display boards. Ours left from a separate platform outside the station. An information officer pointed us to an exit, and told us to follow the orange line on the ground for two minutes. Sounds odd, but this will be helpful if you visit! We pre-booked all our tickets before leaving Australia via the excellent website Loco2

When in Beaune, it’s easy to get around on foot as the town centre is flat and fairly compact. If you’re towing a suitcase, be aware of cobblestones and high kerbs. I didn’t see many taxis, however we never had a need for one. There a few car hire companies near the train station which we considered, but ultimately didn’t need. 

What to do

1. Wine tasting/education

Wine is the key industry in Beaune and you’ll see it everywhere – from vineyards to wine bars, the heavy concentration of wine stores and even a wine museum! However don’t expect to visit wineries or vineyards without a tour or appointment. Many are family-run and they don’t have the facilities or time to open to the public. This is slowly changing, but like much of France, tradition here is very strong.

My favourite experiences were: 

  • Wine Stores

If you want to immediately immerse yourself in wine, visit Domaine des Vins in the town centre. There are six red and white wines available by the glass, or just browse the extraordinary range. We got a crash course here on local wines the first day we arrived, with one of the owners explaining the different villages and characteristics of the wines they each produced. There are many other wine stores in Beaune, but Domaine de Vins is the only one I saw offering tastings. Prices varied from €6 to €15 for a glass. Address: 16 Place de la Halle (near the Hospices). 

  • Bike & Wine Tour

We booked a full day cycling and wine tour with Bourgogne Evasion (€137/ AU$200 each). After some difficulty meeting our guide Florian (we didn’t realise the tourism office had temporarily relocated as the confirmation email went to my junk folder), we were driven 15 minutes to the top of a hill for our briefing and bike set up. It was a beautiful sunny Friday and we were lucky to be the only ones booked on the tour that day.

 Bike & wine tour: the best way to experience Beaune's wine region.
Bike & wine tour: the best way to experience Beaune’s wine region.

Over 24km, we cycled through towns including Meursault and Pommard, getting a fascinating political and social history along with wine education. We learnt about viticulture, the strict French regulations and the different appellations from regional to Grand Cru. It was like we’d biked into the National Geographic channel. 

We saw a castle, had wine tasting plein air, enjoyed a leisurely two-course lunch at a restaurant and visited two wineries. An unexpected highlight was stopping at a vineyard along the road and comparing the different rows – you could see the varied approaches taken by different winemakers. 

 Bike & wine tour: my travel dream became reality the moment I saw this!
Bike & wine tour: my travel dream became reality the moment I saw this!

There were one or two steep hills and while the website says it’s an easy ride, I would rate it as moderate. However, there was no pressure to rush your day. The number of people who greeted our guide Florian as we cycled through the villages is evidence of his popularity and experience. For both myself and my boyfriend, this tour was one of the best days of our entire five week trip. I highly recommend it! More info & bookings: http://burgundybiketour.com

  • Wine Tasting – La Cave de l’Ange Gardien

This was the most wonderful and surreal afternoon. For €10, my boyfriend and I sampled three whites and three reds over three hours with a fascinating lesson in the art of wine tasting and French wine. We booked almost by accident, walking downstairs into the modest cave  and being told they could do a lesson on Saturday at 3pm. Our teacher Nicola was witty, charming and extremely knowledgeable. If you’ve got the time, do it! Address: 38 Boulevard Marechal Foch.

  • Bar hopping 

Of course, you could educate yourself in Beaune’s wines simply by drinking them! There are plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants offering a wide variety of local wines. It was common to be given complimentary nuts, chips or other small snacks with your drink, especially when ordering a pichet (250ml). Prices varied greatly, so there’s something for every budget. See the drink section below for specific recommendations. 

Lastly, we didn’t make it to the Musee de Vin (Museum of Wine) or the labyrinth wine cellars of Patriarche, which our tour guide had recommended. But they’re on my list for next time!

 Hospices de Beaune: providing free healthcare for the poor in the town centre from the mid-1400s.
Hospices de Beaune: providing free healthcare for the poor in the town centre from the mid-1400s.

2. Hospices de Beaune (Hôtel-Dieu)

You can’t miss the hospices in the centre of Beaune. Built in 1443 as a hospital for the poor, l’Hôtel-Dieu is the heart and pride of the town. I was skeptical – how interesting could an old hospital be? But my expectations were greatly exceeded. After buying our tickets (€7.50 adult), my boyfriend and I walk through the hospices using the free audio guide and map. The history, architecture and artifacts such as uniforms, tapestries and equipment were impressive. The insight into medieval medicine was also an eye-opener. We spent just under an hour here. 

Opening hours: 7 days, 9am – 6.30pm, with last entry at 5.30pm | http://hospices-de-beaune.com

3. Saturday markets

Buying a baguette in France has been one of my life goals. I bought one at a supermarket in Paris, but the experience didn’t feel very authentic. I’d made sure our stay in Beaune included a Saturday so we could experience the weekly market! On a Saturday morning, the town centre is taken over by sellers offering everything from meat, cheese and fresh produce to baskets and clothing. The produce was excellent quality. We enjoyed fresh mandarines, berries, olives and bread along with sun-dried tomato tapenade and pastries.

 Saturday market: I bought a fresh French baguette here and achieved one of my life goals! 
Saturday market: I bought a fresh French baguette here and achieved one of my life goals! 

If your French is rusty, some sellers speak English but you could equally say Bonjour and point at items with a polite s’il vous plait. Nothing was too pricey, although we did pay €10 for a large handful of tapenade. The ensuing picnic in our hotel room was magic. Bring cash.

 Saturday market: this was one of at least a dozen cheese stands!
Saturday market: this was one of at least a dozen cheese stands!
 Saturday market: if only our hotel room had a kitchen. 
Saturday market: if only our hotel room had a kitchen. 

4. La Moutarderie (Mustard Mill)

The last thing I expected to do in France was a mustard degustation but given Beaune’s proximity to Dijon, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d actually walked past La Moutarderie without realising it on our first day, as the exterior is quite modest. There are three spaces inside – the old mill, the current production area and the tasting zone. We tried to book a tour but the times didn’t work for us, so we just did mustard tasting instead. What an experience! The range of flavours and chatty, happy staff member explaining the varieties were excellent. While I was disappointed we couldn’t do a tour, the tasting alone was worth it. And it was free! There’s also a vending machine wall of mini mustards for €1 each – perfect souvenirs or gifts! Address: 31 Rue du Faubourg. 

Opening hours: 9.30am – 6pm Monday to Saturday, closed most Sundays | http://www.fallot.com/

 La Moutarderie: we spent an entire hour tasting mustards, including walnut, blueberry and balsamic flavours.
La Moutarderie: we spent an entire hour tasting mustards, including walnut, blueberry and balsamic flavours.

Food

French cuisine dominates most of the eateries across town – this is serious meat and cheese territory. Being a lactose-intolerant vegetarian was a challenge (which I’d expected), especially as most menus were in French. As my bike tour guide explained “We are happy to do vegetarian and no dairy… but we just don’t know how to do it!.” Thankfully, the French do beautiful big salads with luscious dressings. If you’re picky or have allergies, try connect to wifi and Google Translate menu ingredients. Anchovies were quite common, as was raw salmon and of course, cheese (fromage)! The bread baskets filled with slices of fresh, delicious baguettes were constant, and quite a lifesaver. 

If you’re not familiar with French food culture, there aren’t many places with ‘grab and go’ options. I didn’t see takeaway coffee during our entire stay, and you won’t find fast food outlets or sushi to go. Bakeries are the exception, and I did surprise my boyfriend by bringing him a lemon tart one morning. 

 French cuisine: Beaune is serious meat and cheese territory.
French cuisine: Beaune is serious meat and cheese territory.

Dining out can therefore get a little expensive with restaurant salads around €12-18 and mains from €15. Meat and cheese platters were prolific and good value for two people grazing. I saw one sandwich shop which was probably more casual and affordable, but the cooler weather meant getting take away and sitting outdoors wasn’t an option for us.

You’ll find plenty of dining on Rue Monge and around Place Carnot, as well as all along Rue Jean-Francois Maufoux, which becomes Rue Maufoux and eventually Rue du Faubourg Bretonnière.

My suggestions: 

 La Lune: an exceptional dinner, fusing French and Japanese cuisine.
La Lune: an exceptional dinner, fusing French and Japanese cuisine.
  • La Lune (32 Rue Maufoux): It’s not your typical French fare, but this was one of the most memorable meals during our entire five weeks in Europe. La Lune is Japanese and French fusion: think asparagus with sweet miso, grilled mushrooms and an excellent wine list of course! Book ahead as the venue is small – you can contact them via Facebook. 
  • Les Negotiants (7 Petite Place Carnot): This venue in the centre was packed with people drinking and eating on a sunny afternoon. The staff were so happy and helpful (they smiled at my mediocre French) and service was prompt. We returned a few days later for a casual lunch on a rainy Sunday and enjoyed the cosy atmosphere indoors, along with seeing local families and friends dining. 

If you need groceries, there’s a small store in the centre called Casino Shop and there’s an Aldi within walking distance too. 

Drink

We drank a lot of wine, by the glass and by the bottle! As mentioned, you’ll often be given bread or small snacks such as nuts or chips with your order. We found this was most common when ordering a pichet (250ml) of wine. I wish I could return to Beaune just to experience its wine lists all over again! 

  • La Dilettante (11 Rue du Faubourg Bretonnière): this wine bar was full at 2pm when we arrived thirsty and a little hungry. We tried again 15 minutes later and got a table, and spent an hour or two sampling most of the wines available by the glass. There was a limited afternoon food menu – I had a simple green salad while my boyfriend had a chicken gratine, and we shared the bread basket. It was a fun spot with plenty of take away wine too.
  • Brasserie Le Carnot (18 Rue Carnot): a large bistro with a large undercover, al fresco area too. Again, it was the staff who made us feel welcome here. We ordered a few pichets and enjoyed the generous complimentary snacks.  
 La Dilettante: a cosy space for wine, food and friends.
La Dilettante: a cosy space for wine, food and friends.

shopping

Most retail is concentrated along Rue Carnot, Rue Monge and surrounding Place Carnot. The majority of stores were closed on a Sunday, but you’ll otherwise find some homewares, souvenirs and small clothing stores. Sephora is the most commercialised store you’ll find, while Minelli is a French shoe franchise (where I picked up some great ankle boots in Paris!). Of course, wine stores are everywhere.

For food shopping, the fromagerie Alain Hess boasts 200 types of cheeses, along with condiments, crackers and other gourmet items. I was astounded at the variety and would have purchased so much if we had a bar fridge or extra suitcase! As mentioned under food, you can get general groceries at Casino Shop (4 Rue Carnot) and there’s an Aldi.

Where to stay

We stayed at Hotel Abbaye de Maizières (19 Rue Maizières), a 4 star hotel in the town centre for about €200/AU$300 a night. I’d been immediately enchanted by its striking cellar and history – the property was owned by monks from the 13th Century until the French Revolution! The luxury linen, plush robes and Clarins toiletries were lovely. If the room had a bar fridge and wine glasses, it would’ve been perfect!

 Abbaye de Maizieres: historic and beautiful.
Abbaye de Maizieres: historic and beautiful.

The location was ideal with most attractions, restaurants and cafes within five to 10 minutes walk. We’d hoped to dine in the restaurant, but found it was mostly quiet. The hotel is about 10 to 15 minutes walk from the train station which we handled fine with our large suitcases. 

 Abbaye de Maizières: the cellar restaurant and lobby .
Abbaye de Maizières: the cellar restaurant and lobby .

Language

Do yourself a favour and learn a little French before you go. Sometimes, I would speak French and receive a response in English but my efforts were always appreciated. Here are some basics, remembering the French don’t usually pronounce the last letter or two of their words.

  • Hello/good day: Bonjour
  • Hello/good evening: Bonsoir
  • Yes/no: Oui (“we”)/Non (“no”)
  • Please: S‘il vous plaît
  • Thank you: Merci
  • I would like..: Je voudrais… (“voo-dreh”)
  • What is..?: Quell est..? (“kel-eh”)
  • Have a nice day: Bonne journée (said as a farewell)
  • Do you speak English? Parlez-vous anglais? (“on-glay”)

Other tips

Lots of businesses will close for lunch between 12pm and 2pm, including the post office La Poste. Many of the shops in the town centre close on Sundays too. Opening hours are usually in 24 hour format, such as 900 h to 1730 h. If you want to make the most of the Saturday market, get accommodation with cooking facilities. I desperately wanted to roast asparagus!

Overall, Beaune was everything I’d hoped for and it was refreshing to spend time in a place which hadn’t succumbed to modern pressures. The French approach to dining – quality produce, smaller portions and taking time to eat is a lesson we could all embrace. I loved learning about French wine, viticulture and the history of the region. After my wine tasting lesson, I’ve never looked at a glass the same way again! Merci Beaune pour une parfait vacance!.

QUESTION: Have you had a travel vision you were obsessed with? 

A Day Trip to Edinburgh, Scotland

There are several things I consider travel jackpot. A flight upgrade. A hotel upgrade. Any upgrade. Early check-in after a red eye flight. Being the only couple booked on a group tour. Lift access at a train station! But another one of my favourite holiday wins is the opportunity to see a city you hadn’t counted on. 

My boyfriend and I were visiting friends in Glasgow, Scotland last month as part of our five week trip to Europe. We had one day left in the city and were sat around our friend’s breakfast table thinking about what to do. When Edinburgh was suggested, I initially dismissed the idea. I’d spent five hours on a train from London that week and wasn’t keen for another long travel day. But then I was told Edinburgh was only 50 minutes away by train. I had no idea! I’d been to the UK before and it was, in fact, my second visit to Glasgow. I felt foolish but it was decided – we’d make a day trip to Edinburgh. A brand new city. Unexpectedly. Holiday jackpot! 

orientation

Edinburgh has two main areas – the Old Town and New Town (which, despite its name, was actually built in the 1700s). Old Town sits on top of a hill, crowned by the magnificent Edinburgh Castle. There are steep cobblestone streets, souvenir shops and it’s also home to the National Museum. 

By contrast, New Town is largely flat with neat, well-planned streets. Here you’ll find the main train station Edinburgh Waverley, gardens and the shopping precinct. It’s a short (10 minute) walk between Old Town and New Town, with The Mound being the most common thoroughfare. The Mound is also home to the National Gallery and the Bank of Scotland headquarters. 

 Old Town: cobblestone streets, old buildings and simply beautiful.
Old Town: cobblestone streets, old buildings and simply beautiful.

getting there

Edinburgh is about an hour’s drive from Glasgow or you can catch the train. You can get a return off-peak ticket for £12, allowing you to depart Glasgow after 9.15am weekdays (anytime weekends) and catch the 4.30pm train back. A peak ticket is £23 but you can travel anytime. The journey take about 50 to 60 minutes, depending on exactly where you leave from and how many stops the train makes. The countryside views are beautiful! Click here for the ScotRail website. Alternatively, there are frequent trains from London to Edinburgh, taking about 4.5 hours (from £30). 

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle was at the top of my sightseeing list and I got my first glimpse as we pulled into Edinburgh station. My friend pointed out the view from our train window was a unique angle you couldn’t get in the city. Edinburgh Castle was a 15 minute walk from Edinburgh station, via a short but steep stair case. We arrived at 12.45pm and had our tickets (£17 for an adult) within a few minutes. 

 Edinburgh Castle: stunning views of the city.
Edinburgh Castle: stunning views of the city.

We followed the crowds to wait for the One O’Clock Gun. The firing of the gun dates back to 1861, allowing ships to set their maritime clocks for navigation. At exactly 1pm, the gun went off. It was entertaining but brief. Don’t worry if you miss it and note: the gun isn’t fired on Sundays either. 

I was much more fascinated by the actual castle. I had expected one large building, with long hallways connecting different rooms and courtyards like in the movies. But Edinburgh Castle was more like clusters of individual buildings, with big outdoor areas. Some buildings had been converted into mini-museums, and others like the Grand Hall were more of a recreation. 

 Edinburgh Castle: sweeping views of old buildings, all the way to the ocean.
Edinburgh Castle: sweeping views of old buildings, all the way to the ocean.

The views across the city were breathtaking and it was easy to see why the location had such military value. I enjoyed looking out to the ocean and countryside as much as exploring the castle itself. Our entire visit lasted an hour, but you could spend much more time there if you read every bit of information. We didn’t visit the War Museum either, but that’s because we were ready for lunch.

Opening hours: 9.30am – 6pm (5pm 1 Oct – 31 Mar) | https://www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk

lunch: rose street

 Vegetarian haggis: like a Scottish take on meatloaf.
Vegetarian haggis: like a Scottish take on meatloaf.

After visiting Edinburgh Castle, we walked to New Town via The Mound. The route took us past the impressive National Gallery and the Princes Street Gardens. Our destination was Rose Street, where you’ll find plenty of pubs and restaurants offering hearty looking meals.

I was keen to try some traditional Scottish food and was intrigued by vegetarian haggis. I spotted it on a menu outside Auld Hundred so we grabbed a table upstairs. I ordered vegetarian haggis with ‘neeps and tatties’ (£7.95), or ‘turnips and potatoes’ for those who aren’t versed in local lingo. My boyfriend and our friend ordered chicken breast stuffed with haggis (£10.50) and macaroni cheese with chips (£7.75) respectively. With a round of beers, we were set! Unfortunately, I didn’t like the random beer I’d chosen so I defaulted to a pint of Tennents lager (£3.75).

Our meals arrived and we didn’t waste a minute. My vegetarian haggis tasted like a mild falafel relative, with a chewy, thick oat texture. My boyfriend said his chicken-stuffed haggis was far tastier than his initial haggis experience many years ago. All in all, a hearty and warming lunch. Don’t forget to tip 10 per cent at restaurants!

 View of New Town from Edinburgh Castle: you can see the railway line and National Gallery along The Mound.
View of New Town from Edinburgh Castle: you can see the railway line and National Gallery along The Mound.

SHOPPING

By now, we had less than an hour before our train left for Glasgow. From Rose Street we walked up to George Street towards St Andrew Square. Here I was introduced to the small but beautiful department store Harvey Nicols. If you can’t afford the designer shoes or clothing, head to the 4th floor to experience the Chocolate Lounge. It’s like a sushi train, but instead offers various chocolates and desserts along with champagne. It was beautiful! This floor is also where you’ll find a great selection of wine and spirits, along with gourmet foods. 

Next time

We caught the latest train back possible on our off-peak tickets, which departed Edinburgh about 4.30pm. Next time I visit the Scottish capital, I’ll check out the National Gallery, go whisky tasting and visit the port district of Leith which is about 10 minutes drive from the city centre. 

Edinburgh is a city unlike anywhere I’ve been before, especially Old Town. Walking through its streets is almost like time travel if you can ignore the selfie sticks and hoards of people. The level of restoration and preservation of old buildings is extraordinary, and the historic feel continues well beyond Old Town when looking out across rooftops. Edinburgh was an unexpected bonus on our holiday but such a highlight! 

QUESTION: When did you unexpectedly visit a bonus city? 

Cathay Pacific Lounge, Hong Kong

I’ve slept at airports, freshened up with baby wipes and on one unfortunate occasion, flown in day-old clothing without a toothbrush. Flying is not glamorous (at least, not the kind I do) and no amount of hot towels from stewards, mid-flight underwear changes or hand sanitiser is going to avoid that grimy post-flight feeling. That sensation is only compounded if you’ve got a connecting flight. 

Airport lounges are the perfect antidote to the polluted plane feeling. Hot showers, free-flowing alcohol and food choices beyond “chicken or vegetarian pasta?” – it’s heavenly. My boyfriend and I flew from Perth, Australia to London last month with a total flying time of 22 hours. We had a four hour layover in Hong Kong and were keen to access Cathay Pacific’s lounges. What a treat it turned out to be! 

lounge entry

If you’re flying First or Business class with Cathay, you’re in! Cathay’s Marco Polo Club members with Silver, Gold or Diamond status can also access lounges. OneWorld Emerald and Sapphire members are also eligible and can bring a guest. The OneWorld alliance includes Qantas, British Airways, American Airlines and Malaysia Airlines – so if you have regular lounge access with one of these airlines, you should be fine. We had access through my boyfriend’s Qantas Gold membership. View full admittance details on Cathay Pacific’s website here.

‘The Pier’ lounge

Hong Kong International Airport is huge and there are multiple Cathay lounges among its 80+ gates. A friend recommended The Pier lounge, near Gate 65. We discovered it was the newest of Cathay’s lounges, with renovations completed in 2016. It was by far the biggest too.

There are multiple areas to base yourself, all connected by a single walkway. I’ll start with the most important thing:

the Bar

This is self explanatory, but my personal highlight of any lounge. The staff were opening a bottle of champagne as I approached which I took as a good sign. I had three glasses of Moët, while my boyfriend enjoyed a few Jameson Whiskeys and the new Betsy Beer, brewed especially to be consumed at 35,000 feet. Granted, he was drinking it at ground level. But it tasted good!

 The Pier Bar: if only my liquor cabinet at home was stocked this well!
The Pier Bar: if only my liquor cabinet at home was stocked this well!

Showers

Cathay’s shower suites put my own bathroom to shame. The basin had a full line-up of Aesop products including cleanser, toner, facial moisturiser, hand wash and lotion along with shampoo, conditioner and body wash in the shower. There was a hairdryer, cotton buds and a shower cap, but the real treat was soft, soothing music. The rainfall showerhead was sensational and I made a note for future home renovations. 

 Shower suite: it was better stocked than my own bathroom and had music too.
Shower suite: it was better stocked than my own bathroom and had music too.

Noodle bar

 My breakfast! Noodles and dumplings from the Noodle Bar, with Moët.
My breakfast! Noodles and dumplings from the Noodle Bar, with Moët.

After a shower and champagne, the Noodle Bar was my next stop. It’s a large space with diner-style seating, offering three noodle dishes and three dim sum, each with a vegetarian option. I ordered vegetarian rice noodles and vegetarian dumplings, and added some Szechuan peppercorn oil I’d spotted among the condiments. Wow! It made my lips tingle! Also on offer was self-service congee, fried rice and stir-fried vegetables.

Food Hall

This area serves Western foods including a variety of breads, paninis, salads and cold cuts. We were there at 9am so there were also hot breakfast items like baked beans and hash browns. I was full from my noodles and dumplings so didn’t sample anything, but it all looked good. 

Tea house

Fancy an exquisite tea brewed to a precise recipe? The Tea House is your place. Order from the extensive and descriptive menu and collect when your buzzer goes off. I had Pu-erh (fermented Chinese tea) served in a heavy, dark teapot. There were also invigorating juices, pastries, Earl Grey cookies and red bean paste dumplings. This venue could’ve stood alone in a capital city and done a roaring trade. 

 The Tea House: an exceptionally tranquil and calming space with a large range of tea.
The Tea House: an exceptionally tranquil and calming space with a large range of tea.

Relaxation zone

This area is at the very end of the lounge. It’s essentially a place to sleep, with long chaise lounges and dimmed lighting. It was very quiet and I wasn’t sleepy, so I tiptoed out back to the bar. 

 Lounge area: watch planes take off and land (with a cup of luxury tea).
Lounge area: watch planes take off and land (with a cup of luxury tea).

Runway view

By 10am, I was showered, champagned and full of carbohydrates. There was nothing to do but sit, relax and wait for my connecting flight. There’s an area adjacent to the bar where you can snuggle into large leather lounges and look out directly onto the runway. There are USB ports built into the side tables so you can stay connected too. I wrote most of this blog post sitting in this area, stopping occasionally to watch a plane take off. 

 Lounge area: when you just want to sit and have some solo time.
Lounge area: when you just want to sit and have some solo time.

other lounges

On the return leg, we went to The Wing lounge (near Gate 3) as we had less time and it was closest to our gate. It was much smaller by comparison but still offered runway views, spring rolls and champagne. 

 The Wing: the Tech Zone has comfortable, compact pods. 
The Wing: the Tech Zone has comfortable, compact pods. 
 The Wing: I didn't eat anything but there was an assortment of food available. 
The Wing: I didn’t eat anything but there was an assortment of food available. 

In both lounges, the spaces were clean and staff were polite and helpful. The Pier especially seemed immaculate, perhaps due to the renovations. I felt as fresh as could be expected in transit. Next time I’m travelling through Hong Kong, I’ll be sure to stop visit The Pier again. Whether you want whiskey, wellness or wi-fi, it’s set a new standard for meeting travellers’ needs. 

QUESTION: What’s the best airport lounge you’ve experienced? 

Travel-Friendly Foods

Hands up if you’ve succumbed to $7 Pringles on a plane? Or spent $28 on room service after a late night arrival, only to realise your body just needed a few mouthfuls? Whether you’re flying a low-cost airline or want to avoid 2am jet lag hunger, I’ve found some creative ways to eat well in transit. These ideas are particularly useful if you have food allergies that limit your on-board menu options, if you have unusual arrival times, or you simply want to avoid overpriced airport food. Some of these will work for bus travel too! 

My Top Travel-Friendly Foods

1. Herbal & green teas

 Herbal & green teas: these individually-wrapped tea bags from T2 are my favourite for travelling. 
Herbal & green teas: these individually-wrapped tea bags from T2 are my favourite for travelling. 

I first spotted this idea when flying to Queenstown, New Zealand. A woman asked the flight attendant for a cup of hot water, and then brewed a fruity tea right on her tray table. I’ve done the same ever since. It’s especially nice on long haul flights when you want to stay hydrated or try induce sleep. Yes, I feel a bit a pretentious asking for hot water on a flight. But my request is yet to be refused and it’s absolutely worth it!

My favourite: Grab a box of T2 All Sorts (AU$10) for 10 assorted, individually packaged teabags. You’ll find one for whatever mood you’re in! 

2. A granola/energy bar

It’s an obvious snack choice but for good reason. Granola bars are portable, filling and tasty. With a cup of tea or coffee, it almost feels like breakfast. When choosing a bar, look beyond marketing buzzwords like ‘natural,’ ‘superfoods’ or ‘low-fat’ and read the ingredient and nutrition labels. The healthiest options will have ingredients you recognise and not too much sugar. I prefer my granola and energy bars to have 5 grams (1 teaspoon) of sugar or less, but I allow a little more if they contain dried fruit as these will have naturally occurring sugars. A sickly sweet bar is the last thing I want before an adventure!

My favourite: I love Larabars (AU$8 for box of 5), as they contain just dates, nuts and a little sea salt. They’re gluten-free, vegan and packed with fibre. I’ll often eat half a Larabar at my hotel before a morning run if I need. For long-lasting energy, I like Clif Builders Bar with 20g protein (AU$33 for 12 pack) although it breaks my self-imposed sugar limit. 

 Travel snacks: the most common foods you'll find in my carry-on luggage or on my hotel dresser! 
Travel snacks: the most common foods you’ll find in my carry-on luggage or on my hotel dresser! 

3. Instant oatmeal

If you’re a regular High Rise Hayley reader, you’ll know how much I love my oatmeal! A sachet of quick oats is ideal for travelling as it requires little more than hot water and a mug. Just pour and cover with a saucer, wait a few minutes and voila! Oats are exceptionally good for you and budget-friendly too. If your hotel room has milk in the mini-bar, even better. I’ve also raided fruit & nut mixes for toppings. For some serious hotel room creativity, soak your oats overnight with mini-bar orange juice for a refreshing Bircher muesli. If you have food allergies though, be sure to check your oatmeal packet for potential milk powder, nuts or sulphites (often in dried fruit).

My favourite: I like Macro Organic Quick Oats (AU$4 for 10x34g sachets) as they’re 100% rolled oats, without any sweeteners or flavourings. If you must have a flavoured variety, check the sugar content. Some brands contain up to 15g of sugar in a 35g serve – that’s 3 teaspoons, or more than one-third sugar!

4. Cup of soup

 Instant soup: an easy hotel room snack for late night arrivals.
Instant soup: an easy hotel room snack for late night arrivals.

It’s midnight, you’ve checked into your hotel room and you’re a little hungry but not enough for a meal. If your room has a kettle, make soup! A cup of vegetable broth is both comforting and hydrating, and the water content can help you feel full without consuming lots of calories before bed. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of sodium in most commercially available soups. But it’s better than a bowl of room service fries, right? 

My favourites: La Zuppa’s lentil soup (just 26 calories). I also like instant miso soup, even though it doesn’t have the probiotic benefits when making it yourself from miso paste. 

5. Nut butter

Being lactose-intolerant, my plane meals usually include just half of the cheese and crackers course. Some flights I’ve been given butter with my bread roll too, which isn’t going to happen. Solution? Nut butter! Nuts are a delicious source of protein, fibre and minerals including magnesium, zinc and calcium. I bring a small sachet when travelling as a substitute for cheese or butter, or to boost my protein intake at a hotel continental breakfast. Be mindful that nut butters are calorie dense and you won’t be using much energy sitting in the sky. Luckily, I bring sachets, not a jar. 

My favourite: Justin’s Classic Almond Butter (AU$17 for 10x34g serves). I’m always on the prowl for mini peanut butter packets at cafes or buffets too. 

6. A banana

 Bananas: the original travel snack! 
Bananas: the original travel snack! 

Nature’s breakfast on the run, no packaging required! Bananas are the original energy snack, with a nutritious combination of carbohydrates, potassium and vitamin B6. I often eat a banana for breakfast in transit with a cup of tea, which gives me enough energy for the day ahead without feeling weighed down. Just make sure your banana is the last thing you place in your carry-on luggage, or you’ll find yourself with an unintended banana smoothie. 

Other ideas

  • For early flights: Cut up fruit salad and put it in a take-away container. You’ll be the envy of every other passenger and you won’t land full of starch and fat from toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. You could even freeze some yogurt to eat with it, or top your fruit salad with mixed nuts. 
  • Day time flying: The night before, put 1/2 cup hummus in a tall container and freeze. Before leaving for the airport, put some carrot sticks on top. The hummus should be defrosted yet chilled when your seatbelt sign goes off.  
  • Night time flights: I frequently BYO sushi onto planes. Being vegetarian, I’m fine with avocado rolls being out the fridge for a few hours. Bite-sized food is a total win too. 

don’t forget!

You can take liquids on domestic flights but more than 100mL (3 oz.) of liquids is a no-no when flying internationally. Coconut water is a refreshing and healthy way to keep hydrated. 

Keep all your food in its original packaging and before going through customs, toss any food that’s opened. I make sure all ingredients are listed too, in case quarantine or other authorities want to inspect. 

Lastly, don’t forget utensils and storage. I put all my travel snacks in a zip lock bag with a ‘spork’ (a hybrid spoon and fork, available at most camping stores) and an extra zip lock bag inside to store any half-finished foods. Sound like a lot of work? Maybe. But it’s better than a soggy $10 sandwich!

QUESTION: What snacks do you pack when travelling? 

A Guide to Queenstown, NZ

I’m a city-dweller. I like to holiday in big cities. I like exploring the complex jungles of concrete, bars and metro systems. Nature is something I find in city parks or on a day-trip before returning to the sanctuary of my apartment at night. I run but I can’t ski, and I certainly don’t snowboard. 

Needless to say, New Zealand was not on my travel radar. As I boarded my flight to Queenstown in 2015, I felt like a foreigner. I was surrounded by people with chunky knit beanies and snow bags. I was an imposter. A city-dweller! But two beautiful friends were getting married in the snow, so to Queenstown I went. At least I could hike! 

It turns out, I got struck with a horrible mystery virus and was bedridden for most of the holiday. But the few days I ventured out in Queenstown have stuck with me ever since. I was enchanted. There’s something magic about the city, with its pristine lake, distant snow-capped mountains and streets of adventure seekers. I missed the chance to experience the party-side of Queenstown (which I’m told is wild), but even the wine bars with log fires were gorgeous and cosy. Queenstown, you won me over!

Getting there is a short 3 hour flight from Melbourne or Sydney or 10 hours from Perth (via Sydney, Melbourne or Auckland). It’s not exactly a weekend away, but it’s a winter wonderful that makes for a special week’s vacation.

Here’s my guide to Queenstown! 

Orientation

Queenstown sits along the shores of the mighty Lake Wakatipu, about 15 minutes from Queenstown Airport. It’s hard to take your eyes off the stunning water views, but if you gaze up you’ll see snow-capped mountains forming an almost distant fort around the town. The city centre is small and fairly flat, with just a few main streets and a pedestrian mall where most eateries, shops and hostels are. A little further around the lake (between 10-30 minutes walk) is a stretch of hotels, including Rydges and Mercure. You’ll quickly hit inclines once you leave the lake and CBD area. 

 Lake Wakatipu: the stunning natural centrepiece of Queenstown
Lake Wakatipu: the stunning natural centrepiece of Queenstown

Where to stay

My first instinct was to book a five-star hotel along the lake. However my boyfriend, who’s been to Queenstown before, said the majority were slightly out of the CBD (up to 30 minutes walk). Not far, but not ideal for a group or walking home from the pub. Instead, we booked Novotel Queenstown Lakeside for four nights (NZ$200/night). It was perfect! Just metres from the lakefront, and you literally cross a street to hit bars, dining and shopping. 

The hotel itself was modern, clean and staff were fantastic. It was no problem to park our hire car but from memory, it was cheaper to park it on the street if we had multiple trips out. I didn’t eat at the bar or restaurant but everything looked good when I walked past. Being ill, I was so grateful for room service and free wi-fi! I had the minestrone soup delivered most days which helped bring me to back to health. But the absolute luxury of this hotel? It had a laundry!

What to do

1. Hit the Snow

The long, skinny bags carried by many as they touch down at Queenstown Airport gives you a good idea of why people come here. Whether you ski or snowboard, you can easily spend a week in Queenstown hitting plenty of different spots. The bigger mountains are Cardrona, Treble Cone, Coronet Peak and The Remarkables. The ski season generally runs from early to mid June until October, but of course each year will vary. To get to the snowfields, you can hire a car and drive or catch one of the buses that leave several times a day from central Queenstown. Some offer hotel pick up too. 

 Mineret Peaks: only accessible by helicopter but worth the effort! 
Mineret Peaks: only accessible by helicopter but worth the effort! 

If you want to splurge, go heli-skiing. You’ll be flown to a spot only accessible by helicopter, have a guide and be spoilt with untracked runs. You want to be at least an intermediate to advanced snowboarder/skier to do this. The price varies on how many runs you want to do in a day, but it’s around NZ$1000. My boyfriend went with a group to Wanaka and he was ecstatic (and exhausted!) when he returned. If you can afford it, it’s a must-do.

2. Hike

 Tiki Trail: I was shocked to see snow near the top! 
Tiki Trail: I was shocked to see snow near the top! 

Not a skier or snowboarder? Neither am I! My plan was to hike and trail run in Queenstown while my boyfriend was on the slopes all day. That didn’t to go plan, but I did manage to hike the Tiki Trail on my final day. The trail starts in central Queenstown at the bottom of the Skyline Gondola. Just follow the signs and walk up! It’s fairly steep most of the way and took me around two hours, but I was still sick and took it really easy. The highlight (apart from reaching the top) was seeing snow. The sun was out and it was maybe 6°C (42°F) – I didn’t expect snow at all! Clearly, because I was wearing Lululemon crops and sneakers. 

Once you reach the top, there’s a cafe, restaurant, restrooms and a souvenir shop. Grab a cup of tea and take in the expansive views of Queenstown and The Remarkables mountain range! There’s outdoor seating too. Don’t want to hike? For NZ$33, you can catch the gondola to the top and back. I took the gondola down the mountain, but it was nowhere as rewarding as the hiking feeling!  

 Tiki Trail: the reward when you reach the summit of Bob's Peak!
Tiki Trail: the reward when you reach the summit of Bob’s Peak!

3. Shop

I was sick as a dog, but I still got my retail fix! With The Remarkables as your backdrop, shopping in Queenstown is a unique way to spend a few hours. You can find plenty of stores selling New Zealand artisan foods and wine, along with retailers like Lululemon, Peter Alexander, Witchery and Quiksilver. You can also pick up hiking or snow gear from places including Kathmandu and Macpac. There are bigger shopping centres on the city’s outskirts too. You wouldn’t visit Queenstown solely to shop, but I happily enjoyed an afternoon exploring the stores. 

 Central Queenstown: a compact shopping area with mountain views
Central Queenstown: a compact shopping area with mountain views

4. Day trips

There are some cute towns near Queenstown and you’ll encounter spectacular views throughout the journey. I’d recommend Arrowtown (20 mins) for an afternoon or drive through the stunning Crown Range to Wanaka (1 hour), where we stayed three nights. On the way to Wanaka, stop at the Cardrona Hotel for lunch (40 mins from Queenstown). It’s one of New Zealand’s oldest pubs and one of only two remaining buildings from the Cardona Valley gold rush era. You probably need to double these travel times though, because you’ll constantly stop to take photos! 

 Arrow Junction: just a short (20 minute) drive from Queenstown en route to Wanaka. Spectacular! 
Arrow Junction: just a short (20 minute) drive from Queenstown en route to Wanaka. Spectacular! 

food & Drink

 Fergburger: 'Holier Than Thou' and yeah, it was.
Fergburger: ‘Holier Than Thou’ and yeah, it was.

What do tourists do after hitting the snow all day? Shower, eat and drink! There are heaps of dining options in Queenstown, from classic pubs to Mexican, Japanese and Starbucks. I didn’t eat out much (like I said: room service minestrone) but the few places I did go were reasonably priced with very sizable portions.

Do NOT leave Queenstown without having a Fergburger! My sensational man delivered one to me at our hotel room when I was bedridden, insisting it was a must-have Queenstown experience. He wasn’t kidding. My ‘Holier Than Thou’ (NZ$11.50) with tempered tofu, coconut satay sauce, bean sprouts, fresh cucumber and tomato was truly a spiritual experience. O-M-G. 

While my trip to Queenstown was tame, I did make it to a few wine bars. It was heavenly to sit by a log fire, in dim lighting with a glass of a New Zealand white. You’ll smell the distinctive woody smoke in almost every place you go to. It’s easy to bar hop across the city as you’re never far from a drop!

getting around

If you’re staying centrally, you can get around Queenstown on foot. We booked a hire car and collected it at the airport, as we needed to get to Wanaka for our friends’ wedding. It was handy for checking out nearby towns but certainly not essential for Queenstown. As many people come to New Zealand to explore the landscape, there were plenty of hire cars at the airport and largely affordable. As mentioned, there are regular buses to the snow fields and some offer hotel pick ups.

 Arrowtown: a small but cute and cosy town 20 minutes from Queenstown
Arrowtown: a small but cute and cosy town 20 minutes from Queenstown

Currency

The New Zealand Dollar (NZD) is pretty close to the Australian dollar, with NZ$1 buying about 90 Australian cents. I convert it mentally by adding 10 per cent to the Australian figures. Here are some examples (as at March 2017):

  • AU $10 = NZ $10.80
  • US$10 = NZ $14.50
  • EUR 5 = NZ $10.60
  • GBP 5 = NZ $8.80

While I didn’t explore as much of Queenstown as I wanted to, my limited trip was still magnificent. New Zealand is truly a land of jaw-dropping beauty, and the areas I saw were pristine, clean and sparsely populated. I’ve already recommended Queenstown to family looking for a week long holiday somewhere different, and who can resist a winter wonderland with wine? I’m looking forward to returning and conquering those trails – and experiencing the party town vibe!

QUESTION: When have you been struck by illness on vacation? 

A Weekend in Las Vegas


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mso-ansi-language:EN-US;}As my 30th birthday approached in February, I knew I had to address a serious oversight in my life. Despite eight trips to the United States, I had NEVER been to Las Vegas. I’d always been attracted by the bright lights and party scene but somehow, I just kept flying straight to the east coast.

I was determined to make amends. My boyfriend and I had a three week trip planned to California, so it was then or never. We booked our flights to Las Vegas in the neighbouring state of Nevada and just a few months later we boarded the one hour flight slightly hungover on Valentines Day.

It’s true. There are slot machines at the airport and there’s no shortage of limousines, newlyweds or party-goers. Something in the air made me want to drink and gamble immediately. We collected our baggage, caught a cab to our hotel (US $10) and were playing Blackjack within hours. The next three days were a wonderful, surreal and tipsy experience. 

Everyone needs a weekend in Vegas at least once in their lifetime. Here’s my crash course on how to do it:

ORIENTATION

Las Vegas couldn’t be any easier to navigate. There’s “The Strip” – a long stretch of hotels and casinos where the majority of tourists go and “Downtown” – which is the old part of Vegas. For a first-time visitor, stay on the Strip for the classic Vegas experience. One block back isn’t the same!

WHAT TO DO

1. Gamble

This one’s obvious but did you know casinos give you free drinks while you play? Bottled beer, spirits and wine were hand-delivered at our request, even when I was on a $1 slot machine or just watching my boyfriend gamble. Be sure to tip waitstaff at least $1 per drink. Each venue has its own music, performers and atmosphere and it’s all basically open 24/7. Be prepared to lose track of time because there are no windows. Even if betting isn’t your thing, walking from hotel to hotel and putting a few bucks in a slot-machine is still an experience. Gambling was actually a fun way to meet other people too.

 The Vegas Strip: view from our hotel room
The Vegas Strip: view from our hotel room

2. Walk The Strip

Whether you’ve lost your winnings or just need some fresh air, walking along the Strip is a fun way to spend a few hours. The hotel exteriors are impressive and the atmosphere of other happy (and occasionally drunk) tourists is pretty lively. You may or may not be offered a stripper. Be sure to head to the Venetian Hotel on your stroll and check out the interior. I’ve never seen anything like it – it’s like you’re actually in the streets of Italy! Walk the Strip again at night to see all the hotels lit up. It’s incredible.

 Fountains of Bellagio: There's a show every 15 minutes at night
Fountains of Bellagio: There’s a show every 15 minutes at night

3. Fountains of Bellagio

When my boyfriend said we had to watch the Bellagio Light Show, I was skeptical. But it was gorgeous! We watched the 10 minute display outside the Bellagio Hotel at night and it was fantastic. The atmosphere was quite romantic and there were plenty of other tourists equally in awe. The show is free and happens every 30 minutes during the afternoon and every 15 minutes at night so it’s easy to check out anytime. 

4. Grand Canyon

My boyfriend surprised me with a sunrise helicopter flight to the Grand Canyon for Valentines Day and an early birthday gift! We went with Sundance Helicopters who were really professional and friendly. A limousine picked us up from the hotel at 6.30am and took us to the airport. Once we (and about a dozen others) had checked in, we met our pilots and got in the helicopters. There was an awkward moment where we thought we’d be sharing our helicopter with a heavy smoker but a quiet word with staff meant we were able to switch helicopters last minute and fly with a couple who didn’t reek of cigarettes.

The views on our 45 minute flight to the Canyon were incredible and really made me appreciate how much Vegas was a city in the desert. The moment we actually flew into the Grand Canyon was unbelievable – I wanted that sensation to last forever but in reality, it was only 15 seconds or so. Upon landing, we had time to take it all in with photos and a champagne breakfast pack of pastries, granola and yogurt. Unfortunately my dairy allergy wiped out half of it, so give staff a heads up if you’ve got special dietary needs. But mostly, my boyfriend and I just stood in the Canyon in awe.

I really wanted to hike or explore once we were there but after about 40 minutes, it was time to fly back. A limousine returned us to our hotel and it was all over by noon. It felt like a dream! The trip was about 4-5 hours all up and cost around US $450 (AUD $620, based on 0.72 cent exchange rate). Is it worth it? Yes – if you have the money. But if you can’t splurge on your visit, Vegas is still worth going to. Chances are you’ll even catch some of the Canyon on your flight in or out.

 Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian: this is inside - that sky isn't real! 
Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian: this is inside – that sky isn’t real! 

5. Shop

Even if you don’t want to spend money, you’ve got to at least walk through the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. It’s stunning! If you want to indulge, you’ll find a great range of stores including Barneys, Banana Republic, Coach, Pandora, Steve Madden and Kate Spade New York. Here’s the full store directory

I never miss a chance to stock up on American brands and our trip to the Las Vegas North Premium Outlets didn’t disappoint. We spent about three hours here, shopping sportswear like Nike and Asics along with staples including Steve Madden, Calvin Klein, Kate Spade, GAP and American Apparel. The mall is modern, mostly outdoors and only a short, 10 minute Uber ride from the Strip. Bonus: you can see downtown Vegas on the way! 

There was an Urban Outfitters and Sephora next to our hotel too.

6. See a Show

During our visit, Britney Spears was in town and there were heaps of other shows including Stomp and a few musicals. I’d never seen a live magic show so we splurged on two tickets to David Copperfield (US$240 / AU $340). It was a huge disappointment. He had great reviews but I couldn’t follow some tricks and others were so tech-laden it didn’t feel magical at all. I’d recommend heading to a same-day show discount seller on the Strip. There were a few booths and plenty of shows on offer.

 Gordon Ramsay BURGR: I ordered something vegetarian at 2am.
Gordon Ramsay BURGR: I ordered something vegetarian at 2am.

FOOD

There’s no shortage of restaurants in Vegas! I guarantee any cuisine you want is there. We had gorgeous Mexican along the Grand Canal at Canonita, Chinese at P.F. Changs in our hotel and even a boozy 2am dinner at Gordon Ramsay BURGRs. We didn’t have a bad meal once and it was all pretty affordable too. Especially when you’ve been knocking back free drinks (but tipping!) in the casino for a few hours.   

 Planet Hollywood: view of our hotel from across the street
Planet Hollywood: view of our hotel from across the street

WHERE TO STAY

We stayed at Planet Hollywood for three nights, which was perfectly located in the centre of the Strip. Our Hip Room (AU $170/night) had a king bed, massive bathroom and sensational views of the Bellagio Fountains. Breakfast was included and came in the form of a $10 Starbucks voucher per person each day that could be used anytime. It proved really handy for times we slept in or just wanted fruit and coffee to go. We liked the Hollywood theme throughout the rooms and casino, as opposed to other accommodation which had a more European vibe or catered for an older crowd. 

Overall, I LOVED Vegas and have vowed to return for my 40th birthday with as many friends and family as I can! It really is mind-blowing how an entirely man-made city can thrive in the middle of a desert on entertainment, booze and tourism. Despite its representation in movies, Vegas was really good value and far cheaper than a comparative three night stay in New York. If you haven’t been and you love a good dose of consumerism, make sure Vegas is on your list!

QUESTION: What’s your Vegas travel tip for first-timers? 

Three Days in Santa Monica, California

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Santa Monica is the absolute embodiment of California culture. Health foods, sunshine and bohemian beach fashion are everywhere. My boyfriend had been there before and assured me I’d love Santa Monica. He was right!  We stayed three nights in February as part of our three week California-Mexico trip. Despite being winter, each day was glorious and sun-soaked and Santa Monica formed some of the best memories of the holiday. If you’re looking for a base in Los Angeles and want to be beachside, I can’t recommend it enough.

Three days would be plenty, although my “do it in a day” suggestion is below too. If you’re not a shopper or sun-lover, you could sub a day with other LA sightseeing, like Hollywood Strip or Universal Studios. More on those another time. For now, here are my Santa Monica highlights!

 Santa Monica Beach at sunset
Santa Monica Beach at sunset

DAY ONE 

Santa Monica Beach

The sandy shores of Santa Monica Beach span far and wide. Embrace the Pacific Ocean with a surf, swim or stroll before paying homage to Muscle Beach, which spurred the US fitness revolution from the 1930s. There’s some equipment if you feel like a work out, otherwise watch the talents of athletic types, circus folk and ordinary citizens. It was too cold to get in the water during our February visit, but people watching and having sand between our toes still felt pretty good. 

Santa Monica Pier 

It’s the most iconic feature of Santa Monica and you can’t miss it! Santa Monica Pier boasts a ferris wheel, rollercoaster, arcade, plenty of restaurants and a few stores. There are historical walking tours on weekends but I adore the atmosphere of carnivals after dark, and the Pier is perfect for an old-fashioned date night. We walked the length of the Pier one mild evening and rode the famous ferris wheel. To be honest, the ride was a bit disappointing as it only went around a few times and didn’t reach that high. But it sure was romantic to snuggle up and take in the night lights.

If you haven’t experienced American fair food, you can get your funnel cake fix or root beer float right here. If you prefer sit-down dining, restaurant options include Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Read more about the Pier here: http://santamonicapier.org.

DAY TWO

Go Shopping

Repeat after me… THIRD STREET PROMENADE. Every retailer you could ever want is in this glorious street and when I’m in the United States, that’s exactly what I want! This pedestrianised, open air mall spans about three blocks and features Urban Outfitters, Banana Republic, M.A.C., Victoria’s Secret, Apple, Lululemon, Zara, Tiffany & Co., Free People and Anthropologie, along with Barnes and Noble, Paper Source and Papyrus. I literally spent an entire day here, stopping briefly in Starbucks to refuel around 4pm when my hotel buffet breakfast had worn off. 

Most stores are open until 9pm so you can literally shop all day, all night. There’s also a movie theatre and plenty of dining options around too, along with a valuable set of public restrooms near Athleta. Click here for a directory of Santa Monica Place, and here for another broader list.

All that shopping is bound to leave you thirsty, so head to West 4th and Jane and sample the best local beers. It was this venue where my boyfriend and I first discovered “sours,” a type of beer that’s tarty and almost cranberry like. Staff kept replenishing the paddle with other feature brews while we played a fierce competition of Connect 4.  

 Cycling the Santa Monica coast
Cycling the Santa Monica coast

DAY THREE

Cycle the Coast

Whether it was the sunshine or exercise endorphins, cycling along the Santa Monica coast was an absolute highlight of the trip. We rented our retro bikes from Santa Monica Beach Bicycle Rentals on 4th Street for US$15/each for the day (and yes, it’s right near the aforementioned West 4th and Jane pub).

From there, we cycled on the grass-lined, coastal footpath of Ocean Avenue before making our way down to the beach path. We continued at a leisurely pace past runners, families and tourists to another famous LA beach, Venice. Cycling was such a good way to take it all in, and we kept riding until Marina Del Ray (about 4 miles or 6 kilometres). Getting across the Marina looked like it’d take some time, so we turned around and had lunch in Venice.

  Simmzy's:  Beer served in skateboards
Simmzy’s: Beer served in skateboards
  Simmzy's:  Quinoa, edamame and peanut bowl plus BEER
Simmzy’s: Quinoa, edamame and peanut bowl plus BEER

There was a huge line outside Venice Ale House so we went to Simmzy’s, which had great online reviews and importantly: BEER. The daily selection was served to us on a skateboard (yes, a skateboard) and the food was great as well. We asked staff if we could try another round of beers and they were happy to oblige. I think we went a third round too. The cycle back was a bit wobbly but we survived.

ONLY HAVE ONE DAY?

Start with hiring bikes and cycle along the coast to Venice Beach. Try some beers and food, cycle back and check out Third Street Promenade. As the sun sets, head to Santa Monica Pier.

GETTING THERE & AROUND

Santa Monica is about 30 minutes by car or cab from LAX Airport. Once you’re there, you can easily get around on foot. We relied on buses, trains and ridesharing to get us to other parts of LA as the Santa Monica Metro station was still under construction during our visit (it opened three months later, in May 2016).

WHERE TO SLEEP?

We stayed at the DoubleTree Suites on 4th Street, mostly because of its location. The hotel is 10 minutes walk to Third Street Promenade and 10 minutes walk to the beach. My boyfriend also had Hilton Honours Diamond membership, meaning we were guaranteed an upgrade, free Internet and free breakfast. We had a 10pm flight so baggage storage was also important to us, something not guaranteed with Airbnb.

Our king bedroom suite (US$250/night + 11% tax) was bright, spacious and while the style was a little dated, the fit out felt fairly new. The breakfast buffet was huge – cereals, breads, pastries, fresh fruit, cold cuts, hot items such as beans and sausage, and made to order omelettes. It was for this reason we hardly ate lunch during our stay! The gym was also near new (although I did most of my cardio on Third Street Promenade). 

Staying in Santa Monica was a real insight into just how diverse LA is and gave me such a real appreciation for Californian lifestyle. Given flights between the US and Australia are so cheap lately, there’s a good chance I’ll be passing through this city again soon. I know where I’ll be staying! 

QUESTION: What’s your favourite ‘hood in LA?