The Good, the Badlands & the not too Ugly

Adventures in Dakota, Rapid City & The Badlands

Any trip to the Dakotas would not be complete without a visit to the awe-inspiring Badlands National Park (apparently so called because both native tribes and later French Canadians referred to it in their own languages as “land bad” or “bad lands to travel across”).

It’s understandable that this seemingly barren and endless landscape of sharp rocky formations would have been seen as a hostile area, especially for settlers and native Americans.  But for today’s visitors, it offers an incredible experience of beautiful landscapes, fantastic hikes and for me, it’s one of the most peaceful, relaxing and untouched parts of the world that I’ve visited.  If you want to escape back to nature for a while.. and experience real quiet.. this is the place. 


Getting there and things to see on the way 

We base ourselves in Rapid City with a hire car, which is the perfect starting place to explore the most popular Dakota sites (Rapid City is also my favourite airport in the world so far.. clean, welcoming and passenger-friendly :))

The drive out to the Badlands is just over an hour on East Interstate 90.  On the way to and from the park, there are a couple of sites we found worth stopping for;

Prairie Homestead, 21070 Sd Highway 240, Philip, SD 57567

An authentically restored sod house, the original home of Mr & Mrs Ed Brown, who arrived in Dakota in 1909 to homestead 160 acres (it makes me exhausted just thinking about it.. I find Homesteading my roof terrace enough)…

When you first go in, it seems like a cosy little cottage.  But you soon realise that no running water, spiders running around the walls, living in basically one room with your whole family, not to mention having to walk to the outside “toilet”, would make it pretty miserable!  On top of this, factor in a winter of constant snow storms and temperatures of -40°C, and I soon decided that Homesteading wasn’t for me!

There’s a nice visitor’s centre where you can watch films about the harsh life of Homesteading.   I found it a really interesting stop on our trip.

Wall Drug Store, 510 Main Street • PO Box 401 • Wall, SD

You literally cannot miss Wall Drug Store on the way to the Badlands, due to the hundreds of roadside billboards advertising it for miles and miles before you get there!  By the time you get there, you feel like you already know it.

It has an interesting history, which is detailed on their website, here, and is basically a huge shopping centre and tourist trap.  It accounts for half the space in the town, but, sadly for me, I still couldn’t find any chocolate milk, which I had a craving for!

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Blending in like a local @ Wall Drug 

It’s worth a pit stop to have a wander in the souvenir shops, where they have interesting Native American crafted items, as well as authentic cowboy boots, hats and tack.  

Minuteman Missile Site 

Again, full details are on the National Park website, here

Visiting a missile site wouldn’t normally be first on my list – given that; a) I’m not a boy and, b) I’m not hugely into military history.  But it’s actually a very interesting site, and the visitors centre taught me a lot about the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR which I didn’t actually know.  It’s also a very interactive centre (you can get a picture of yourself turning the keys to launch a missile!)

You can then continue onto the missile control centre, and then the actual Missile Silo itself, where you can stand right over the top of the weapon which would have been on alert during the Cold War.


Where to stay 

Cedar Pass Lodge, 20681 SD-240, Interior, SD

I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Badlands National Park twice, and we’ve stayed at Cedar Pass both times.

It comprises various log cabins, which have been recently renovated to a high standard.  Furnished with handmade log beds, chairs and American quilts, you feel as if you’re in Little House on the Prairie – luxury style!  The bathrooms are spotless and well designed, and the cabins have ceiling fans and effective air-conditioning, as well as requisite mosquito screens.  I literally sleep like a “log” here!!  The only sounds are crickets and the occasional rustling of small creatures outside.

The porches back right onto the Badlands, and sitting in one of the handmade Adirondack chairs with a cold beer, watching the sun go down, has to be one of the most  idyllic and relaxing things you can do.

 

There isn’t a kitchen in the cabins – only a small fridge, coffee maker and microwave, and no utensils.  After our first visit, we were better prepared for the next one, stocking up on microwave meals and noodles, as well as coffee and milk (and of course champagne!) on our way.

There is a small grocery area in the main reception centre, which has the basics, as well as first aid items, but I would recommend you bring what you need with you.  

If you don’t want to fend for yourself, there is a restaurant next to the reception area.  We tried it once for dinner and weren’t overly impressed, but as we’ve only had one meal, it’s maybe not fair to discount it.  Be warned though, if you order an Indian Taco, they are huge!  I only managed about half of one.

I recommend Cedar Pass for anyone staying overnight in the Badlands National Park.  It’s  an idyllic log cabin experience not to be missed 


Hikes & rattlesnakes!

Of course, one of the main reasons for visiting the Badlands is to see them on foot, just as early settlers and explores would have done.  Now, there are well signposted trails to make it easier!

On our last visit, we did two moderate hikes (around 4-4.5 miles each).  For your first hike, I’d recommend the Medicine Root Loop, which gives you some really fantastic views of the rock formations, as well as some good elevation for stunning views across the lower valleys and grasslands.  The vista spread out below you really looks like something out of a dinosaur or sci-fi movie.. as though humans have never existed on the plains.  You’ll also walk through some of the mixed grass prairie, so you’ll really get a feel for the different terrain.

NB the initial climb up the rocks at the start of the hike (and coming back down at the end!) is tricky – even in hiking boots, as the ground is slippery. 

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The stunning view from the Saddle Pass trail 

I’ve attached a link to the hiking trails here, to give you an idea, but you’ll pick up a map etc when you arrive at the Badlands visitors centre.

Rattlesnakes – You’ll see warnings in the visitors’ centre and signposts all around the trails in the Badlands to be wary of rattlesnakes.  At first I was taking the warnings pretty  lightly… then I walked off the trail to get a better view for a picture… almost stepping on a sunbathing snake!  I changed direction pretty quickly and I’ve been incredibly careful about where I put my feet ever since!

It was bizarre luck, or not, that I came across a rattlesnake as soon as I got to the Badlands.. you probably won’t see one as they try and keep out of our way… but you have been warned!

Snakes aside – the only footwear I would recommend for going to the Badlands are proper hiking shoes or boots!

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Be very afraid…note to self: denim mini dress not the best choice of outfit for the Badlands!

So I hope this post has given you a bit of an insight into the incredible Badlands area.  As Dakota is a very important place for me, expect more posts on recommended activities and where to stay.. including Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial – the very thing that drew me to the Dakotas in the first place.

As always, I’d love to hear your comments if you’ve been to the places I’m blogging about, or any questions you have if you’re intending to visit.

Thanks for reading & travel safe!

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That’s all folks!

Beautiful Barcelona

Roof terraces, shopping, lazy beach days, and of course, tapas!

Barcelona is one of my favourite cities in the world.   After the horrific attacks in the city less than two weeks ago, I’ll admit it was with a little trepidation that I travelled there as planned, last week.  But, when I thought about Barcelona, a place the means so much to me personally, I knew that I should and would definitely travel there.  Although still raw from the atrocious events, it’s clear to me that the heart and spirit of Barcelona will not be so easily damaged.

While perhaps a little quieter than I would expect at the end of August, it was as beautiful, sunny and eclectic as ever.

Where we stayed 

Hotel Omm, Carrer del Rosselló, 265, 08008 Barcelona

A departure from our usual hotel in Barcelona (the H10 Metropolitan), as we like to mix it up a little!  It’s in a fantastic location, just off Passeig de Gracia, one of the major avenues in Barcelona for shopping (both designer & high street) and architecture.

Opened in 2003, the design of the hotel is typically modern, with a nod to the luxury travel of the 1960s (think Mad Men style sofas, leather wing chairs, polished dark wood floors & designer lighting).

The check in process was efficient, and the staff were friendly and helpful throughout the stay.

Our room was on the 6th floor, one below the roof terrace & pool area.   The room was spacious and modern, with a large open plan bathroom (behind a partial wall), and another bathroom on the other side with toilet and shower (this room had a door!) There were two small balconies with a fantastic corner view of the Passeig de Gracia.

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Room with a view!

Aside from occasional cigarette smoke coming into our room from somewhere (possibly the terrace upstairs), and the awkward layout of toilet/bathroom areas, the room was lovely, and of the standard I would expect.

 

A big selling point of Hotel Omm is the Roof Terrace & Roca Bar on the 7th floor.  There’s a small pool area, sofas for lounging and table seating, overlooking Gaudi’s La Pedrera.  The perfect spot for sunning yourself with a cocktail and snack and watching the world go by.  I personally recommend the wild rice with vegetables, curry, coconut and shrimps.  My one bit of feedback would be that I would love to see the staff up there smile a bit more!

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The roof terrace at Hotel Omm is a pretty stressful experience…

Hotel Eurostars Grand Marina, Moll de Barcelona, s/n, 08039 Barcelona

After deciding to spend a spontaneous extra night in Barcelona (it’s very hard to leave!), we booked this hotel online, literally last minute, and hopped in a taxi.  Location wise, it couldn’t be more different than the Hotel Omm, situated right on the Port Vell marina. 

It’s also on a much bigger scale, a large complex set around a huge central terraced area. It’s almost hard to know where the huge cruise ships end and the Eurostars Hotel begins! 

The hotel has the feel of being used more by corporate or large tourist groups.  Again, very different to the slightly more luxurious, intimate feel of the Hotel Omm.

The room was again on the 6th floor, with a view over the large central area (shown above), which seemed mostly deserted at the time!  The room itself was spacious and modern.

N.B. We were initially allocated a smoking room on a smoking floor in error.  We called reception and then went back down, where they immediately found us an alternative room and were very apologetic.

I saw on TripAdvisor that this had also happened to someone else, so I would recommend you double check that they know your requirements, whether smoking or not.

The roof terrace of the hotel has a sun deck and small pool and bar, and is fantastic for a spot of sunbathing!  Again, it feels a bit like being on the deck of a cruise ship, and as you’re right in the marina, you are also overlooking the huge cruise liners.  There’s a small library of books, towels provided and a changing room.

I would recommend this hotel if you’re looking for a standard 5 star hotel experience, with good service, convenient to the beach and marina area.  It’s not for those looking for a luxury boutique hotel.  I will definitely stay there again to explore this area more, and make use of the roof terrace!  Also had excellent room service breakfast.  


Where we dined

 

Roca Moo @ Hotel Omm, Carrer del Rosselló, 265

“Roca Moo, gastronomic restaurant with a Michelin star, offers creative Catalan cuisine under the direction of chef Juan Pretel and the unconditional support of the Roca brothers” (Hotel Omm website)

The design of the restaurant is luxurious and refined, decorated in opulent dark colours.  There are around 10 tables, so it’s quite an intimate space.

At Roca Moo you have a choice of two tasting menus, one slightly longer (and more fishy!) than the other.  I’m sometimes wary of tasting menus, because although the portions are generally small for each course (and I’m always hungry!), the mix of all the different rich foods and wine can just be a bit much by around the 5th course!

We chose the classic tasting menu, and we were assured that the portions were perfect, and the food wasn’t too heavy, so you would be able to eat it without feeling too full.  The staff were very helpful with the menu choice and our wine choice (we decided on one bottle of Coma Blanca 2005,  rather than the wine flight).

I can honestly say this was one of the best experiences of a Michelin restaurant I’ve had.  The food was indeed in perfect portions, with beautiful flavour combinations, and, while inventive (e.g. the “golden egg”!), wasn’t too theatrical, as it sometimes can be. Each course was well timed and delicious.

Highly recommended for a luxurious dining experience, with fantastic menu of fresh and interesting dishes.  I will be back!


Restaurant Aire de Mar @ Eurostars Grand Marina

We booked this restaurant the same evening we arrived at the Eurostars hotel.  As we were having a spontaneous extra night, we hadn’t booked anything special, and we were happy to stay in the hotel complex.

I was pleasantly surprised by this restaurant and the quality of food.  The design of the restaurant is elegant and opulent.  There were only two other diners when we arrived, who were finishing their meal, so we ended up having private dining for two!

I had a starter and main (stuffed ravioli followed by sea bass), both of which were delicious, and nice portion sizes.  The menu has some really interesting dishes, and I will definitely return to sample some more! I was too busy eating to take pictures, but take my word for it!


And finally.. anyone for tapas?!

Obviously it would be a terrible crime to go to Barcelona and not eat your own weight in tapas! I could happily live on tapas dishes, and we find ourselves going to our favourite places at least a couple of times on each visit.

Two of my favourites;

Tapas 24, Calle Diputació, 269 (just off Passeig de Gracia)

Run by Carles Abellan, this is a bustling basement tapas restaurant, serving delicious traditional dishes with a twist, as well as more unusual ones.  You can sit either around the kitchen area at the bar, watching the magic happen, or on high tables along the side.  The staff are friendly, efficient, and of course fluent in English.  We recognise most of them each time we visit – it’s nice to see the turnover isn’t too high!

We have always found the perfect time to visit is for a late lunch/early dinner around 4pm.  Otherwise it can get pretty full, especially with workers on a lunch break.

Recommended for fantastic tapas, great service and relaxing experience after a day of shopping and sight seeing- as well as a very nice Albarino!

Tapa Tapa Xiringuito, Carrer de Pontevedra, 56

Part of the TapaTapa chain, I’m sure food purists will roll their eyes, but it happens to be one of my favourite places in Barcelona.  Fantastic tapas (including smashed eggs & ham, which is amazing), great service, and a picture menu showing all the amazing food you can order – so you can just point at things and they magically appear at your table! My kind of place.  I try to do that at home but it doesn’t always work 😦

We always have a bottle of chilled Martin Codax Albariño alongside the tapas.

 

A perfect spot for a late relaxing lunch after an afternoon on the beach 🙂


 

In my next post about Barcelona, I’ll be reviewing more hotels, as well as talking about a trip to Montjuïc Castle, which is a must do! 

 

“What news on the Rialto?” adventures in beautiful Venezia; part uno

“To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself, but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius.” Alexander Herzen

Before I ever visited Venice, I had in my mind a beautiful and powerful city, of merchants and gondoliers and opera and art.  A place from a bygone era, of great beauty and romance.  I couldn’t wait to cross the quiet bridges in the evening, cutting through narrow alley ways on the way to a secret opera, dine in opulent surroundings overlooking the canals and wake to the beautiful sound of the water gently lapping outside my Juliet balcony.

Sounds a little unrealistic?  Think again.. Venice can give you all those things and more.  Especially if you visit out of season.  In this post I’ll be writing about the hotel and restaurants I recommend, as well as a very special opera performance that is a must do if you are in town at the right time…


Where we stay 

Boscolo Venezia (part of the Marriott Autograph Collection), Fondamenta Madonna dell’Orto, 3500, 30121 Venezia

We always get a private water taxi from the airport directly to the Boscolo hotel.  Previously I’ve booked these in advance online, but there’s no real need to.  As long as you’re at the official water taxi rank, they’re regulated, so can’t overcharge you.  The one way trip should cost around €120.  I’m always enjoying feeling like a Bond girl too much to notice how long it takes, but I think its around 15-20 mins!  The driver will drop you and your luggage right outside the hotel doors (stilettos not recommended for getting in and out of the boat – although I wore them and I was fine!)

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The only way to travel in Venice!

The hotel itself is set in an antique mansion, beautifully restored to a very luxurious standard, while recreating  the opulent Venetian style of the 18th century.  It’s in a very quiet part of Venice, which is lovely to walk around without the crowds.  We’ve walked back to the Boscolo many evenings and felt like we had the city to ourselves.

We have stayed in Deluxe rooms and a Superior rooms.  All were superb, and were right on the water.  One of them had its own jetty, where we were dropped off after a trip to nearby Murano!  The rooms and hotel are incredibly quiet, and very respectful of privacy.  The room service is also excellent.

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A beautiful Murano glass chandelier in one of the bedrooms

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I highly recommend the Boscolo for the friendly staff, beautiful hotel, and location 


Where we dined 

Ristorante Fiaschetteria Toscana, Cannaregio 5719, Salizada S. Giovanni Grisostomo, 30121 Venezia

It’s easy to walk past this little restaurant on your way to or from the Rialto Bridge, without really noticing, as it has an unassuming facade.  Don’t let that fool you – the food and service are first class.  It’s become one of our favourite restaurants in Venice.

It’s been run by the Busatto family since the 1950s, and has retained its casual, family atmosphere.

The pasta dishes are some of the best I’ve had in Italy, and the fish is as fresh as it comes, creating an incredible display at the front of the restaurant.

The waiters will be happy to suggest a specific fish for you, and cook it in a simple and delicious way, with fresh vegetables.  There is also a fantastic wine list & beautiful desserts.

Highly recommended for fresh delicious seafood and pasta in a friendly atmosphere 

Bistrot de Venise, Calle dei Fabbri, 4685, 30124 Sestiere San Marco, Venezia

We first happened upon this restaurant when looking for a late dinner after an opera performance – and it couldn’t have been a more perfect setting.  We sat towards the back of the restaurant, in a window next to the canal and had some lovely food and wine in the opulent Venetian surroundings.

The Bistrot has been around since 1993, but feels as though it’s been there forever.  It’s beautifully decorated, with very attentive and knowledgable staff.

Bistrot de Venice has an incredible list of over 300 Italian & French wines (they also sell some of them online for shipment worldwide), and are recommended highly by TripAdvisor and Michelin.  And me!

We have managed to get a table twice without a reservation, but that was after 10pm, and low season, so it’s probably advisable to book if you’re heading there earlier.

L’Alcova Restaurant @ Ca’Sagredo Hotel 

The Ca’Sagredo Hotel is one of the Small Luxury Hotels (SLH) group (I reviewed the Lord Byron Hotel in Rome in a previous post), and I imagine is a beautiful place to stay.  If I ever stay there for a change, I will let you know!

The L’Alcova Restaurant is intimate and refined, overlooking the Grand Canal and opposite the Rialto Market.  We have always had the same table with a view of the water, as it’s our preferred spot.

The extensive menu has everything from traditional Italian pasta, to fresh fish from the markets, and specific Venetian dishes.  Being Venice, most of the choices are fish and seafood based, and very well presented.

We’ve had a couple of really lovely experiences here, and then one which wasn’t great. There were different staff, and the service and food just wasn’t up to the standard we had expected from previous visits.  There wasn’t anyone there with knowledge of the wine list, and, especially at this price point, we would expect better.

I gave honest feedback to the Manager about our last visit, and received a very polite response, and a promise to use the feedback and improve things.  We’re going to re-visit on the next trip to Venice, so watch this space! 


Don’t miss…secret Opera at the Musica a Palazzo

I found out about the Musica a Palazzo on our 2nd trip to Venice, and I’ve now seen two of their three performances; La Traviata and Rigoletto.  The operas take place in the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto, an incredible 15th Century palace on the Grand Canal.

The opera performers and orchestra move around the beautiful rooms of the palace with each act, and the audience moves with them.  There is a short break for a glass of bubbly after the first act : ) As the audience size is small, it creates an intimate and interactive experience, which for me adds to the emotive experience of the opera.

I’ve seen La Traviata in the Royal Opera House in London, and to me this performance was just as professional and moving.

The performances take place on set days each week.  The link above will take you to the website and full details.  You need to pay a fee for membership of the Musica a Palazzo, which is €70 per person, and covers all opera performances you see at the Palazzo for a year.

This is a must do in my opinion when you’re in Venice.  Book as far in advance as you can – the performances have been full both times I’ve been 


 

In my next post about Venice, I’ll be talking about museums, palaces and of course, the San Marco Campanile! 

Bike adventures from Amsterdam; Noordwijk aan Zee

If I’m honest, before I moved to Amsterdam, beautiful beaches weren’t the first thing that would spring to mind when someone mentioned Holland or the Netherlands.  But beautiful beaches there are – and Noordwijk is said to be the finest.  It’s a very pretty town and a lovely ride from Amsterdam – perfect for a long weekend break away from the city.

The bike ride from Amsterdam to Noordwijk is around 30 miles each way.  It’s a fair distance, which takes us around 3hrs, give or take (if we only have a small tea & snack break on the way).

It’s a nice idea to stop for lunch or take some with you, to break up the ride a bit.  Remember, I’m doing these rides on a Dutch City bike, which is built like a tank, so I’m more than happy to let the serious road bikers cruise past me with their heads down.  I don’t think I’ll be setting any land speed records!

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My vehicle of choice – my lovely green bike 🙂

When we visited Noordwijk in May this year, we rode via Keukenhof to see the tulips.  It was a beautiful way to take a break on the ride… I’ll talk about Keukenhof in a separate post.

The route to Noordwijk takes you out of Amsterdam through the Nieuw-West area (not the nicest part of Amsterdam, by any means, but you’ll soon be out in the countryside).  Then you can choose to go through Haarlem, or through Hoofddorp, and close to Schipol Airport (having tried both ways, we prefer to go via the airport route).

As you approach Noordwijk, and turn into the dunes, you’ve done around 25 miles, and you’re probably feeling pretty tired.  Don’t give up though – this is the best part of the ride!  You’ll ride on tracks through sandy dunes, beautiful evergreen forest and past a golf course, almost certainly spotting some of the resident herds of deer up close.  Then finally dropping down into the pretty town of Noordwijk.

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I use the MapMyRide app to track our trips – not sure it’s light intensity all the time though!

Where we stayed 

Hotel van Oranje, Autograph Collection, Kon. Wilhelmina Boulevard 20, 2202 GV Noordwijk

A stunning example of one of the Marriott Autograph Collection hotels, this comes highly recommended for a genuine 5* star experience.  The reception staff are obviously fluent in English and very professional.  There is a nice pool area with a wave pool, sauna & steam room.

The first time we stayed here, we were upgraded to a suite, which had a spectacular sea-view terrace running the length of both rooms (perfect for champagne time while relaxing and watching the sunset!), and was the height of luxury inside.  Soaking in the huge bathtub after a long ride before dinner was bliss!

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A view from our balcony @ the Hotel van Oranje

Grand Hotel Huis ter Duin ,Kon. Astrid Boulevard 5, 2202 BK Noordwijk

Translated as “House on the dune”, this is a huge 5* hotel complex, enjoying stunning views across the North Sea, and with its own private access to the beach and beach club.

Don’t be put off by the fact that you have to ride up a hill to get there (after a 30 mile journey!).  It’s well worth it!  With our waterproof camping bags in hand (which we carry on the bikes as our overnight bags), we walked straight into the beautiful marbled lobby of a bygone era.  It’s easy to imagine that Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor have stayed here, as have many of the rich & famous over the years.

After a shower and change for dinner, we had washed the road off us and were ready for a glamorous dinner at the Beach House…

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A room with a view @ Huis her Duin 

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Eating & drinking 

Breakers Beach House, Koningin Astrid Boulevard 5, 2202 BK Noordwijk

Part of the Grand Hotel Huis her Duin, the website states that this is the finest beach house in Holland.  It’s accessible both from the beach and directly from the hotel.  Please note, there are quite a lot of steps down to the beach house, so flat (but sparkly of course) sandals are recommended!

The restaurant itself is spacious and elegant, with pale wood, nautical designs, and large windows which make the most of the sweeping ocean views.   There is a large open fire and cosy sitting area, perfect for after dinner drinks.

The food and wine were delicious, and it was the perfect relaxing end to the day.  So far this has been my favourite dining experience in Noordwijk 

I recommend making a reservation for dinner before you go to Noordwijk, as Breakers gets very busy. 

Beach Club O, Kon. Wilhelmina Boulevard 106, 2202 GW Noordwijk

Beach Club O is part of the Hotel van Oranje, and we dined here on our 2nd trip to Noordwijk.  It’s very different to Breakers, with more of a party atmosphere (but still not overcrowded or too loud)

On their website, they compare themselves to beach bars in Miami, Saint-Tropez and Ibiza, so that’s more the crowd they want to attract.  Although I didn’t think the food was comparable to Breakers, it was still well presented and tasty, and if you’re looking for a more lively place for cocktails and dinner this is for you!

There are plenty of restaurants to choose from along Koningin Wilhelmina Boulevard, for all tastes, so it’s worth just heading out in the evening along the seafront and seeing what takes your fancy.  We had some lovely and pretty authentic Italian food at Fratelli.  However, the service took ages, so not recommended if you’re in a hurry!


Don’t miss..

Atlantikwall Museum

on our 3rd visit to Noordwijk, we finally made it to this incredible museum, stopping on our way back out of town.  It’s set in a series of actual bunkers which the Germans built in WWII as part of the Atlantikwall, which ran from Norway up to the French/Spanish Border.  You can read about the museum on the link above.

Our knowledgeable Dutch guide was one of the volunteers who helped to literally dig the bunker back out of the dunes by hand (they had been filled in with sand decades ago to prevent accidents after local youths decided they were a pretty fun place to hang out!).

The volunteers have put in an incredible amount of effort to return the bunkers  to how they would have looked when they were in use.   There is another part of the bunker which is also going to also be restored, but at the moment they are waiting for the correct permissions, as there is a protected species of bat living down there.

I’d really recommend visiting the Atlantikwall Museum if you have time and are interested in WWII history.  As it’s cold, damp and in very close spaces, not recommended if you are claustrophobic, and a good idea to have a jumper with you!


Top tip: Noordwijk is especially popular with both German and Dutch tourists for a long weekend break, so can get incredibly busy during bank holidays or school holidays.  To avoid higher hotel rates, and make sure you can get a dinner reservation, it would be a good idea to avoid these dates if possible!  


I hope this gives you some useful info if you’re planning a bike (or road) trip to Noordwijk.  In my opinion it’s a must see place if you’re visiting Amsterdam or the Netherlands, and it’s somewhere we will return to as much as possible. 

Unmissable tours of Rome; minus the queue!

“skip the line” & private tours in Rome

It’s well known that we Brits don’t like to queue!  Visiting the beautiful museums, seeing the architecture and learning about the history of a city can often mean long waiting lines, and hours spent moving between locations.   In this post, I’ll talk about my favourite “skip the line” tours in Rome.

If you want to make sure you see the most important parts of Rome, while still having time for other important pursuits (shopping and a bottle of bubbly!), read on!

Colosseum Night Tour with Exclusive Underground Access (Walks of Italy)

When researching tours in Rome, Walks of Italy frequently pops up, as one of the most popular and well established tour companies.  They’ve been awarded the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence 4 years in a row, and have close to a thousand 5 star reviews on their website, so I was confident in booking this tour, even though our usual preference would be a more private one (website and full details in the link above).

We met around 8pm, just in time for sunset (we did this tour in August 2016).   The website says that the tour will have a maximum of 24 people, which is a relatively small size.  There were around 15 on ours (an interesting mix of all nationalities – mainly couples & families).  You are given headsets to hear the guide the whole way round.

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The Vittoriano, aka the “Wedding Cake” (some say it’s a monstrosity, but I think it looks pretty cool at sunset!)
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Piazza Venezia – we were lucky with the weather!

The initial walk around Piazza Venezia and up to the Capitoline Hill is a route I’ve walked before, but with a knowledgeable guide, it’s given a more interesting and historical context.  The climax of the tour, and my reason for booking, is of course, being able to walk under the Colosseum at night.  I won’t ruin your experience by describing this too fully, but in my opinion it’s a must do.

Because of the special access required, and small size of the tour group, it creates a very quiet atmosphere, which allows you to enjoy the majesty of the actual arena at night, and the macabre history of the tunnels underneath.  You’ll see where the tigers in the movie, Gladiator, would have come up through the trap doors!

Overall – highly recommended and one of the best ways to experience the Colosseum.  The tour finishes around 10:45pm (in the summer) – just in time for a late supper and a glass of vino 🙂

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The Colosseum deserted for once!

Visits to the Tomb of Saint Peter and the Necropolis under the Vatican Basilica 

This tour can only be arranged through the Excavations Office (Ufficio Scavi) at the Basilica of St Peter’s, Here

The tours are set by the office at specific times when they have been granted the required permissions, so it seems to be hit and miss as to whether you will be able to do the tour during your trip.

We were lucky to get to do the tour in December 2016, after I emailed the office ahead of our trip.  I was very flexible, and was prepared to do the tour on any day of our trip.  If you have an idea of when you want to travel, and can book your travels around the tour, even better!

The tour size is maximum 12 people, which is quite small.  The meeting point is at the Excavations Office, and you need to show your confirmation of your visit to the colourful Swiss Guards nearby.

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The guide we had for the tour of the Necropolis is an archaeologist, who has specifically worked on this project, so was obviously very knowledgeable!  The mausoleums have remained incredibly well preserved since the 2nd and 3rd centuries, with beautiful frescoes & mosaics, and the experience really feels like a walk through time.

Towards the end of the underground tour, you are given the opportunity to look through to what is known as the “graffiti wall” and view the glass case holding what are believed by many to be the bones of St Peter.   You can have a look at a virtual tour of the Necropolis on the Vatican website before you go here: Virtual tour of the Vatican Necropolis

The total tour of all levels of the Basilica is around 1.5 hours – a fantastic experience which literally walks you through centuries of buried history,  coming up through the Grottoes and finishing on the main floor of the current Basilica, for you to explore as you wish.

Please note:

  • as per the note on the Scavi website, if you are at all claustrophobic, I wouldn’t recommend this tour!  One lady who came down to start the tour with us was too uncomfortable even in the initial underground area, and decided wisely not to continue.  The tunnels get a lot smaller as you go along!
  • It gets warm in the tunnels of the Necropolis, so wearing layers you can remove, and carrying some water would be a good idea
  • This is an excavation – so the ground is uneven! Wear walking or flat shoes.  One lady on our tour did it in heels, which, while impressive, isn’t recommended!

Private tours of the Vatican Museums & The Galleria Borghese

On my first ever visit to Rome, In October 2015, we had a private tour of the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica.  We booked it through Rome-museum.com (link & full details Here)

In November the same year, we did an incredible private tour of the Galleria Borghese, booked through City Wonders, Here (€199 for 2 adults)

For both tours, we had very knowledgeable female guides, who spoke fluent English, were well-travelled, and of course had a degree or two in Art History!

If this is the first time you are visiting the above locations, I think its well worth doing a private tour.  They are quite expensive, but can’t be beaten for the detailed descriptions of the artworks and history, and being able to learn alongside someone who is so passionate about the museums and art.  Aside from this, you will be skipping the lines for tickets, avoiding crowds, and moving a lot more quickly between locations.

Even with some history of art behind me, I would have found the Vatican Museums & Galleria overwhelming if we hadn’t been expertly guided through them.  Having gained a better understanding of the art & artists I’m now be more confident going back to these locations and exploring them more in my own time.

Apparently if you stood in front of each single exhibit in the Vatican Museum for a certain number of seconds, the vast amount of objects would mean that you would be lost in there for years! (I can’t remember the exact amount, but I would rather have an interesting tour, see the most important art, and be finished in time for lunch :))

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Incredible view from the Bramante Staircase, Vatican Museum
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Possibly my favourite Bernini sculpture @ the Galleria Borghese, The Rape of Proserpina
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I was lucky enough to see the Azzedine Alaia “Couture/Sculpture” exhibition @ the Galleria Borghese, where the sculpted dresses seemed to blend seamlessly in with the ancient artworks

I hope this gives you some inspiration for fantastic tours to integrate into your next trip to Rome. Feel free to contact me Here for any more info

Travel safe : )

Mercury Rising in Rome; part due

Il Falchetto, Sapori Lord Byron, Casina Valadier

Following on from my previous post where I talked about our stay in Rome last weekend, here are some of our dining highlights for you to try!

Where we ate 

Il Salotto Lounge bar & Restaurant Sapori del Lord Byron, at the Hotel Lord Byron (for my full review of the hotel, please see my previous post here)

After arrival, we headed downstairs to the lounge bar for a pre-dinner bottle of bubbly.  The lounge is beautifully decorated, as with the rest of the hotel, with sumptuous furnishings & paintings in an Art Deco style.  It is restful and cool, in dark, rich colours.

Taking advice from the barman (who later told us he has worked at the Lord Byron for 15 years), we chose a bottle of  Cuvee Annamaria Clementi Ca’ del Bosco, 2004, an elegant and mature Franciacorta.  This came expertly served with the perfect amount of elegant nibbles & blinis.  If you would like more details of the wine, click the name above which will take you to the data sheet on the Ca’del Bosco website.

It was the perfect relaxation time in a cool quiet lounge after our flight from Amsterdam and taxi ride. 

When we came down for dinner, we basically had the whole place to ourselves, which was an unexpected luxury for us – maybe not so good for the restaurant business!

The menu has some interesting dishes, with a mix of traditional and more contemporary options.  I had the beetroot carpaccio salad to start, then a lovely spaghettoni dish.  I usually find two courses are enough for me in Italian restaurants, especially if I have a dessert! Everything was fresh, perfectly cooked and tasty.

The barman I mentioned is friendly, relaxed, and very knowledgable around the wine cellar and list, as well as an excellent host at dinner.  Unfortunately even he couldn’t persuade us to drink grappa after the meal!

We discovered that this restaurant was once Michelin starred, and very popular with the rich and famous in its day.   I hope that it returns to this status at some point under Executive Chef Jean Luc Fruneau.  It’s well worth a visit whether staying at the Lord Byron or otherwise for a luxurious dining experience.


Casina Valadier, Piazza Bucarest

This was our second time dining at Casina Valadier, a beautiful 19th century building in the Villa Borghese park.  We previously dined in in the Restaurant Vista, which has incredible views from the third floor.   This time, we were on the first floor, the Terrazze floor, in an outside area, with a view over Rome and St Peter’s Basilica.  It was the perfect spot in such balmy weather.

After a cold glass of Pommery Brut, I had a baked buffalo ricotta, which was really good, but I hadn’t really looked properly at the menu and later realised that it had courgette flowers in it.  It was a bit too floral for me!  We shared a first course of delicious fusilli pasta, and then I went for the sea bass medallion.  It was all well presented and delicious.

The recommended wine pairing of Venica & Venica Ronco delle Mele Sauvignon 2016, went perfectly with both main courses.

I would highly recommend Casina Valadier for dinner with a view in a beautiful location. 


Ristorante Il Falchetto, Via di Montecatini,12

We first discovered this restaurant in late 2015, when looking for a lunch spot after sightseeing and shopping.  It is now one of our firm favourites in Rome.  We will never go to Rome without stopping in for a late lunch.  You’ll see one of their friendly waiters at the end of Via di Montecatini with a menu, trying to entice you off the crowded hectic shopping street of Via del Corso.  My advice is to definitely go in!

Il Falchetto recently celebrated its centenary, and I don’t think it will be going anywhere for the next 100!  We love it for the friendly and professional staff, excellent food & drinks, and relaxing family atmosphere and location.  We can easily while away 3 hours here ordering various things from the menu and enjoying their impressive wine list!

The menu offers the traditional Italian dishes such as strozzapreti carbonara or lasagne (catering for tourists like us!), made with delicious home-made pasta, as well as more interesting modern twists on dishes from Rome and beyond.  One of my favourites is the spaghetti with pecorino cheese and black pepper.  I’m getting hungry just writing about it!

 

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Our favourite table @ Il Falchetto

 

 

The staff mostly know us as we have become regulars whenever we visit Rome, and we always feel welcome!  I’ll talk more about them in future posts, but if you see Francesco, definitely mention you know me! 🙂

 

We had an incredible franciacorta here last weekend, Brut la santissima 2010 (Castello di Gussago / lombardia).  If I drank it with a blindfold, it could almost be a champagne, it was so rich and with very soft bubbles.  For €35, it’s well worth trying.

Overall – potentially our favourite restaurant in Rome – I’ll be talking about it more in future posts.  Do not leave Rome without paying them a visit!


Other eateries worth mentioning on this trip!

Spice & Wine Bistro, Via della Lungaretta

One of those places we just happened upon during a warm evening stroll in the Trastevere area.  Tucked away from the main streets in a corner with a nice outside area, which gives the impression of a secret garden.  We were given a delicious starter with various Italian meats and cheese.  They have a great menu, including pizzas, and the service was very good.  They have a surprisingly large wine “bible” and extensive cellar.  We chose a nice Flaccianello Della Pieve 2011. 

Well worth visiting for a late evening meal and great wine after a stroll around Trastevere 

Ristorante Panzirone, Piazza Navona 73

Foodies and purists I’m sure will tell you that the many pizzerias and ristorantes dotted around Piazza Navona are “tourist traps” and not really worth blogging about.  In fact, I am a tourist, and we have found some of our favourite meals in Rome by stopping in random little places as we take in the sights.

This is one of our favourites on the Piazza, and we’ve been back a few times.  It’s a perfect spot to watch the world go by with a backdrop of the beautiful fountains and the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone (I’ll be covering my favourite churches in a separate post)

Good food, friendly staff, and a nice selection of Italian wines & drinks.  They also have water misting fans, which are a godsend in the hot weather!


So.. I hope this gives you some initial ideas of where to eat when in Rome.. Im signing off now for Saturday night champagne time at home, with a lovely bottle of Arteis & Co Extra Brut!

I’ll be posting again soon with details of incredible tours for you to do in Rome (including going under the Colosseum at night!)

Travel Safe

Mercury Rising in Rome; part uno

Hotel Lord Byron, Rome

Sitting at my desk on a pretty gloomy Amsterdam day, its hard to imagine that a few days ago I was in Rome, attempting not to melt in an average temperature of 41°C!  I visit Rome on average probably 3 times a year, but this is the hottest I have known it.  Apparently they have been having daily average temperatures in the mid to late 30s since July.  While it’s nice to experience as tourists for a couple of days, I think the restauranteurs and wait staff are desperate for a break in the heat!

On this trip to one of our favorite cities, we took it easy and did less sight seeing than normal, heading out later in the afternoon, as at times it was just too hot.  And not just for English people.. I saw a couple of Australians wilting as well!  Of course, then, there’s nothing to be done but pull up a chair at a nearby ristorante and watch the world go by over bruschetta and a nice Chianti. 

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trying not to melt @ Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune), Piazza Navona

Where we stayed

The Hotel Lord Byron, Via Giuseppe de Notaris

This was our first stay at this hotel – a departure from our usual choice of the Boscolo Exedra (one of the Marriott Autograph collection – which I’ll review in another post).

The Lord Byron is a 1930s villa which has been refurbished to an incredible 5* standard, with gorgeous Art Deco style furnishings, sculptures and detailing.  The first thing we noticed is how quiet the area is – at the Northern side of the Villa Borghese park, in a quiet enclave opposite the Belgian Embassy.

The entrance to the hotel not so much screams but firmly states that this is a place of luxury.  The wrought iron gates, with travel quotations on both sides, give way to an immaculate carpeted stairway to the main door.

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The stunning entrance to the Hotel Lord Byron

The check-in experience was welcoming and efficient, and we were presented with our huge brass antique-style key to the room.  Whenever we left the hotel, we left the key at reception as suggested, since it would be clunky to carry around.  We were only given one key to the room, but I’m sure you can request another if needed.

The lift in the hotel is just as antique & Art Deco as the rest of the building – beautifully designed but tiny and slow.  Expect to be waiting a while if you’re on a higher floor!

Our room had been upgraded to what I think was a junior suite, with a separate living room and walk in wardrobe.  It was beautifully presented, spacious, with a gorgeous bathroom, incredibly comfortable bed and most importantly, very efficient air conditioning!  (this isn’t always the case – even in upscale hotels.  It’s either too hot or too cold for me).  Once we set the temperature we were able to just leave it ticking over.  With soaring temperatures outside, the room was our oasis of cool decadence.

Any decor which includes pictures of Audrey Hepburn gets the thumbs up from me!

The housekeeping was efficient, and as with the best hotels, obviously performed by actual fairies.  When we came back to our room after dinners in the evenings, a magical turn-down service had taken place, with slippers laid out and the room tidied.  This hotel really respects the privacy of its guests.

 

Location & transport 

We organised a private car transfer from the airport via email to the concierge prior to travelling. The car was on time and efficient, costing €80 each way.

The hotel is a nice 10 minute walk into the actual Villa Borghese park.  Turn left out of the hotel, then right onto Via Adolfo Cancani.  You’ll walk past the British School and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea.

Both because of the location at the North of the park, and because of the heat, we mainly used taxis to get around.  If you visit in cooler temperatures, you may prefer the walk, taking in more sights on the way.  To give an indication – the hotel would be around a 30-40 minute walk to Piazza Navona or the Pantheon.

The reception staff will have a taxi for you within 2 minutes outside the hotel, so there is no need to book in advance.  Taxis around Rome are reasonable (around €8 from the hotel to Piazza Navona) and for the most part, the drivers know exactly where they are going!

We didn’t use the local trams to get around but the concierge or reception staff can provide you with all the details and are very helpful.  There is a tram stop a short walk from the hotel.

The only slight issue at the hotel was that the pin machine didn’t accept an ABN AMRO bank card from the Netherlands, which had been accepted all over Rome.  The Lord Byron have said that they will look into the issue and try and resolve it with their bank.  I’ll update you on this on our next visit.  Just to be aware, especially if you’re travelling from the Netherlands, you may need to carry some extra cash in the meantime.

Overall, this hotel comes highly recommended for a luxurious and decadent stay in Rome in a beautiful and peaceful part of the city.  

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Feeling like a 1930s film star on the beautiful steps of the Lord Byron

We booked the Hotel Lord Byron for 4 nights through lastminute.com

I’ll let you know about the restaurants I visited in the next part of this post.. coming shortly..