Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The magic of Bruges promises to beat the winter blues

I enjoyed a trip to the historic Flemish city of Bruges in November 2012 and wrote about the experience for 50 Connect Read all about it! 

Bruges - StadhuisIf you are contemplating an escape from the English winter, consider driving your car onto the magnificent DFDS Seaways ferry at Dover, landing at famous Dunkirk in northern France and then enjoying a leisurely drive to the beguiling medieval city of Bruges in Belgium.
In weighing up the various ways to travel from the UK to Europe, I'm a confirmed fan of the  ferry trip across the Channel, which takes just two hours. You drive your car onboard, hop out and stroll around the massive luxurious vessel, tuck into a tasty meal in the restaurant, gaze out across the ocean then effortlessly drive onto the motorway and enjoy an easy drive of around one hour to Bruges (or Brugge as it’s written in Flemish)!
The enticing prospect of a winter escape gets even better. With fares as low as £19 per passenger each way, you’ll really struggle to find a better value. 
Church of Our Lady, BrugesI spent two magical days in the World Heritage City of Bruges, known as the ‘Venice of the North’. It really is like stepping into a fairytale of quaint chocolate shops, fascinating historic buildings, art galleries, unique restaurants, boat rides on the canal and cobblestone streets that resound with horse-drawn carriages and the tinkle of bicycle bells rather than the roar of traffic!

Wandering the pedestrian-friendly streets, you discover that the delightful attractions are close-by and accessible making this picturesque, compact city an ideal destination for older visitors. Three spires dominate the Bruges’ skyline; the imposing Belfry, the brick tower of the Church of Our Lady – the second tallest structure of its type in Europe- and Saint Saviour’s Cathedral while the intricate fa├žade on City Hall is a breathtaking feature of the Square.
HistoriumAnd the newest attraction of all, the thrilling Historium has just opened! What an intriguing innovation! After 10 years in the planning, almost two years under construction at a cost of Euro 10 million, this interactive multi-sensory exhibition recaptures life in the medieval city in the year 1435.
Combining a creative mixture of a compelling film of an emotional love story, life-like models and props and atmospheric smells, sounds and sensations, visitors are transported back to the bustling streets of Bruges in the Golden Age of opulence and splendour.
Our group was treated to a sneak preview of the Historium just days before the cinematic panorama was due to open. The exhilaration of this ambitious project was palpable as workers toiled to have the impressive building ready for the grand opening on November 25.
Madonna-with-Canon-van-der-Paele by Jan Van EykeWe also enjoyed a visit to the enthralling Groeninge Museum Art Gallery showcasing a lavish collection of artworks spanning five centuries including originals by renowned Flemish artists Van Eyck, Van der Goes and Memling.
Then we strolled to the Arentshuis to view the prolific and diverse works of Frank Brangwyn.
Another awe-inspiring treat was an exquisite sculpture by Michelangelo of Mary and Christ, depicted as a carefree toddler in the Church of Our Lady, offering a rare opportunity to view at close range an unusual work by the revered Michelangelo outside of Italy.
We stayed at the four star mansion, Hotel Heritage, resplendent with old world charm, plush furnishings and warm hospitality. Here is a beautiful range of places to stay Bruges hotels Winter 2013 promotion.
Our group dined richly in three leading gourmet restaurants; the Restaurant De Mangerie, the sublime Den Gouden Haryneck and the upbeat modern De Florentijnen. Bruges restaurants specialise in artistic presentation, dainty tasters and delectable desserts.
On Day Two we took a gentle boat trip on the canal, gliding past an array of attractions and under low bridges. The dappled sunshine, cascading trees and shimmering water graced with white swans capturing the romance of the city.

Since the 16th century Bruges has been dubbed the Capital of Chocolate. Let loose to explore the shops, I was spoilt for choice trying to decide between more than 50 chocolate makers with irresistible window displays of handmade delights! Chocolate heaven! If you can drag yourself away from the chocolate shops you discover stores brimming with charming handicrafts, unique home wares and fashion. 
Sadly we missed the Chocolate Museum, which gives an intriguing history of cocoa growing and extensive chocolate tasting. So now, along with the brand spanking new Historium, I have an excellent excuse for a return trip to Bruges with my husband.
If chocolate is the lure for sweet-toothed women then equally Belgian beer is a draw card for lager-loving men! We visited the De Halve Maan brewery in the city heart and were entertained by an amusing tour guide as she revealed the secrets to brewing the notoriously strong beer, replete with real hops, followed by a complementary glass of Bruges’ Fool!
For beer-enthusiasts willing to drive further afield, there’s plenty of Beer Tours throughout the Belgium countryside.
Finally if you are a music lover, medieval Bruges is famous for its polyphonic chamber music and choral recitals that reverberate through the elegant City Theatre and Concert Hall.
The 'Love Brugge' City Card gives tourists access to a vast array of attractions for free and costs just €35 for 48 hours and €40 for 72 hours. It offers a discount to entry to the exciting new Historium. Be one of the first to experience this unique exhibition where history of the 15th century meets the technology of the 21st century!
To avoid sinking into the winter doldrums in January and February, be wise and book a jaunt on the DFDS ferry across the Channel for a delightful sojourn in magical Bruges.
DFDS Seaways runs up to 44 daily sailings between Dover and France on its Dover-Dunkirk and Dover-Calais crossings.

Adventures in Ghana

Like most caring human beings, I have always longed to make a positive difference; to alleviate suffering, to help correct some of the injustices in this lop-sided world, between the rich and poor. 
 Friendly and peaceful Ghana is considered a soft entry point to the fascinating and challenging continent of Africa. 
In 2012, I connected with a dynamic charity called Madventurer to volunteer in projects alongside young people on their Gap Year. 
Here I was a middle-aged woman doing my first trip to Africa. 
Join me as I discover the hidden charms of Ghana amidst poverty. 
Come with me and learn how to Make A Difference. The MAD adventure started in Accra Please visit my MAD Matters blog and read all the posts. Enjoy!

Magical Skye

I visited the Isle of Skye and wrote this article for the online publication 50 Connect in September 2011. I heartily recommend a visit to the far-flung enchanting island.

If retirement has given you the chance to indulge in  short breaks and you'd like a change of pace, visit the unspoilt beauty and savour peaceful village life on the Isle of Skye.
As an over 50s traveller, I was happy to take this assignment, my trip was just six days but it felt like I’d been away from the hustle and bustle for ages, such is the soothing effect of this magical, remote island off the coast of Scotland.   

Relaxing East Coast Trains

Drizzly and overcast but still warm in early September, I travelled in style from London to Edinburgh by rail with East Coast Trains. The First Class service was impeccable. I snacked on roasted vegetable and pesto sandwiches and lunched on red onion and goat’s cheese tart. There was also a wide selection of spirits, wines and soft drinks.
The journey was quiet and comfortable, gazing at the picturesque countryside and relishing my latest novel, One Day, aptly set in a variety of locations in Edinburgh and London; to add another dimension of intrigue to my foray up north. Other passengers worked on their laptops, connecting to onboard Wi-Fi.
I left at 11 am and the smooth journey took just four and a half hours; sheer pleasure all the way!
Advance return fares can be booked online and start from £33 Standard Class or £95 First Class. Book via, call 08457 225225 or visit any staffed station.

Ten Hill Place, EdinburghInspiring Edinburgh

Arriving at Waverley station in Edinburgh, I jumped in a cab and zapped straight to my hotel for a warm welcome.
The impressive Ten Hill Place hotel is unique because it is owned by the Royal College of Surgeons and all profits go to the college to train surgeons. In fact, the prestigious college has 18,000 Fellows throughout the world. The Georgian building was converted into 78 rooms in 2006 and a new restaurant wing added. The college operates three other venues including a conference centre in a converted church.
Understandably, Ten Hill Place is popular with visiting doctors but the general public also appreciate the medical connection. The Medical Museum is just around the corner and boasts some mind-boggling exhibitions including a history of surgery.
Ten Hill Place is an ideal base for a short city break or, as I did, use it as a jump off for a longer tour. It is a comfortable and welcoming hotel and has a range of excellent facilities that are sure to appeal to older tourists. 
Edinburgh is known as the ‘walkable city’ and this quiet, secluded hotel is just five minutes from the High Street and countless delightful restaurants.
The National Museum is recently refurbished at a cost of millions and three years of intensive labour and makes for a fascinating visit.
The Festival Theatre is staging the classic musical, The King and I throughout the Christmas season and of course Edinburgh is renowned for its Comedy Festival in August as well as the International Book Festival and many others.
And the Great Outdoors are as close as climbing Arthur’s Seat with panoramic views across the city to the shores of Leith. outlines the city’s countless enticing attractions including the famous castle that dominates the city, the delightful zoo, the Writers’ Museum and the Scotch Whisky Experience! There’s something for all tastes! 
SkylineI stayed in a luxurious, spacious skyline room on the fifth floor and dined at the modern restaurant, which was happy to pander to my fussy vegetarian tastes. 
The hotel currently has a special offer of Dinner, Bed and Breakfast for a couple for just £109. Now that is a canny price in anyone’s accent! 

Rabbie’s Inimitable Tours

The next morning I joined a group of excited travellers for a tour led by the witty and entertaining Euan, sporting ginger hair, cheeky brogue and essential kilt. He is the real deal!
There are many rivals, however Rabbie’s Small Group Tours (named after revered poet Robert Burns) is the original and the best. Started by enterprising Robin Worsnop in 1993, the company has expanded to a fleet of 27 mini-coaches and along the way scooped an impressive array of awards for innovation, outstanding service and dedication to conserving the pristine environment. Rabbie’s is the only bus tour company in Scotland with a Gold Green Tourism Business award. 
Rabbies Tour guideDriver/tour guides are handpicked for their genuine personalities and pride and passion for all things Scottish. What Euan didn’t know about Scottish history and the landscape wasn’t worth knowing! 
I am a big fan of small group tours as there are many benefits of travelling this way. If you and your spouse were to drive yourself around, you would see some pleasant scenery but completely miss the richness of the stories embedded in those hills. Euan’s fascinating commentary vividly brought to life Celtic history and culture wrapped up in delightful humour and charm.
Travelling with a small group, rather than by yourself or with a large group, allows you to make new friends. The boutique scale is less cumbersome and more personal and it’s easier to chat with other passengers. 
Just 15 onboard proved an ideal number (the luxury vehicle holds a maximum of 16). Our group included four intrepid senior ladies from Alabama, a father and daughter from Oklahoma, a mum and dad and son from India, two pretty girls from Shanghai and us four Aussie chicks. 
Diane Priestley and CathyThe minute I stepped foot on the mini-coach, Cathy introduced herself as a fellow Aussie and we sat together and nattered like old mates and then discovered two other single girls who also hailed from Brisbane who joined us for meals! 
There’s another advantage to the small group tour over self-drive holidays. It completely removes the stress and conflict of driving and navigating your way around a strange country. You can sit back and relax and absorb the sights and commentary without a worry in the world. 
The first day we travelled through the Highlands, absorbing the beauty of the Nevis Range, the moors carpeted in purple heath, tranquil lochs and of course famous castles! 
Without giving away Euan’s colourful stories I can tell you I now know all about how Edinburgh evolved from a disease-ridden town to the dynamic, enlightened city it is today. I learned all about the legendary William Wallace, the Battle of Bannockburn, the mighty clans, Bonnie Prince Charlie and much more. It was captivating!
We stopped for lunch at the quaint village of Fort William, known as the Outdoor Capital of the world, for it’s rock climbing, fishing, snow skiing and extreme sports.
Bonnie boatLate afternoon we crossed the bridge and arrived at the misty Isle of Skye, mesmerised by sleepy Portree harbour and Euan dropped us at our B & Bs before we met up at the local pub for a feast of fresh mussels and rousing traditional music.
Friday was our main day for touring the island and I was privileged to sit up front as “co-pilot” with Euan (actually I just pestered him with endless questions!) as we toured the dramatic Trotternish Peninsula. 
On the map, the island is shaped like the claw of a lobster and just 50 miles long dotted with remote villages of close knit communities, a population of just 7000, steeped in folklore about fairies, giants and mythical creatures explaining the mysterious features of the landscape. 
Wildlife is abundant. Keep your eyes peeled for sea eagles with a massive wing span of 10 feet, playful otters, languishing seals and even dolphins and whales can be spotted in the Sea of the Hebrides. Wild deer, shaggy Highland cattle and quirky black-faced sheep graze the lush fields.
DunveganWe explored the fascinating museum of crofters thatched roof cottages, and the impressive Dunvegan Castle, the ancestral home of the MacLeod clan.
That night in the Isles Inn, I tried a vegetarian version of Haggis while the other brave Aussies sampled the real thing (and said the favourite Scottish dish was truly delicious!).
On Saturday my group headed back to Edinburgh while I stayed on to witness the arrival in Portree Harbour of the Bonnie Boat, decorated with 40,000 glittering mirrored tiles! The spectacular work of art moored in the harbour to transmit Celestial Radio is part of the Year Of Scotland’s Islands, which sees more than 300 events taking place in 42 isles until March 2012. 
Events celebrate the unique beauty, heritage and culture of the islands and are listed on, an absolute must for anyone interested in Scottish culture. The Scottish International Storytelling Festival on several islands in October, the Nighttime Tour of Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute in November and the Up Helly Aa festival at Shetland in January are unmissable highlights!
Outside TrackI was delighted to experience a concert by refreshing young band, The Outside Track and Gaelic singer Christine Primrose at the Aros centre as part of the Blas festival, a highlight of the Year of Scotland’s Islands celebrations.
Outside Track comprise four accomplished female musicians on harp, fiddle, accordian, flute and vocals and one talented Irish lad on guitar who mesh together Scottish, Irish and Canadian music and dance. The energetic group has performed around the world to enthusiastic acclaim. 
I met with Ailie, Mairi, Cilian, Norah and Fiona before the gig and chatted about how they all met at Limerick University and were united in their love of the traditional music of their homelands and brought their songs together in a unique fusion. Check them out on The Outside Track.
For my three nights on Skye, I stayed at Sandra’s cosy B & B at Stormyhill Road and enjoyed her hearty home cooked breakfasts and warm hospitality. 
I joined the effervescent Audrey on the return trip to Edinburgh and she regaled her passengers with intriguing tales of King Robert The Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots (who lost her head in a very awkward manner!) and we explored the fascinating Eilean Donan Castle at Lochalsh.
Rabbie’s offer a vast range of small group tours in Scotland, Ireland and the North of England, from one day to 16 days, priced from just £23 per adult. For a fascinating short break, Rabbie’s Small Group Tours is indeed the real deal! To book a trip,

A Dash To Paris

Christine had soaked up exciting travels in rural France, Italy and Ireland and her holiday was coming to an end. But she still hadn't seen Paris. She tried not to be too disappointed, however when I surprised her with the news that we could squeeze in a dash to Paris by Eurostar, she was thrilled!  
So there we were two excited old girls off to the city of romance. Join us on the Eiffel Tower!

Back Home Again in Ireland

In our early 50s when some people are winding down to retirement, we opted for a new beginning! 
Leaving behind the sub-tropics and surf beaches of our home on the Sunshine Coast, we migrated to the bustling city of London. That was mid-2009. 
My sister-in-law, Christine had worked hard all her life and raised a family of four beautiful girls. At 60 she had never travelled. But in September 2010 she mustered the courage to endure the long haul flight to visit us in Ealing and experience London and take as many trips as humanly possible.
Our little band of Aussie tourists comprised Andrew and me, daughter Justine and boyfriend Andy and Christine as we explored the south west of Ireland and enjoyed warm Irish B&B hospitality, stunning scenery, colourful history and rowdy craic! 
Come along with us for a  Jaunt Around Ireland

Discovering My Inner Country Girl

I blame those evocative novels of Nicholas Evans for my infatuation with Montana. First there was The Horse Whisperer, then The Loop (all about wolves) and finally the epic love-adventure story of The Smoke Jumper. I defy you to read these novels and not fall in love with the grandeur of Montana. 
And so our road trip of 2000 miles from the north down to awe-inspiring Yellowstone was the experience of a lifetime that unleashed my Inner Country Girl. 
Montana is a slice of Heaven on Earth. Saddle up and join us Take Me Home Country Roads  

True Colours

The locals call the splendour simply "the colours". However the natural vivid beauty of the trees of Vermont in Fall has to be seen to be believed. 
After our five months stay in London, we flew to New York City then drove upstate to tour the north-east corner of America, fulfilling a long-held dream. 
Join Andrew and me as we immerse ourselves in a shimmering riot of red, orange and yellow leaves in the forests of idyllic New England.  Vermont in Fall 

The Road to Inverness

It was August 2008 when we ventured from our tiny loft flat in West London up north to explore the picturesque Scottish lowlands in full bloom. Join Andrew and me on the road to Inverness adorned by purple heather. click on this link

Delightful Devon & Charming Cornwall

In true Aussie style, Andrew and I can drive for miles and still consider it a "short trip". The UK is just 600 miles long and 300 miles across; that's a tiny island compared to the massive spectacular continent of Australia. 
During our stay in London in 2008, we would take off for weekends and explore the English countryside. Driving down the Cornish coast was a delightful road trip through quaint seaside villages and craggy cliffs overlooking the mighty Atlantic ocean. Come on this little trip with me  to Delightful Devon & Charming Cornwall    

Roaming in Rome

We lived in London for five months in 2008, trying it out before making the life-changing decision to migrate from Australia to the UK the following year. 
During our exploratory stay our beautiful daughter, Justine who was 19 at the time, came over and the three of us did a quickie trip to the ancient capital of Italy, the wondrous holy city of Rome. It was the height of a sweltering summer and the busy tourist season. 
I become pre-occupied not only with the masterpieces in the Vatican museum but the mundane concern of my sore, swollen feet!
Be amused by my unholy mishaps. click on this link to No Place Like Rome

A Heart of Green

I had yearned to travel ever since my 20s but raising a family and forging a career delayed those dreams until I was 44. 
In 2001, Andrew and I took our first major trip OS and I was jumping out of my skin! 
After the whirlwind Trafalgar tour of Europe, we hired a car and drove around England and Scotland. 
However the highlight of that trip was Ireland. I fell in love. It was a homecoming. Something deep inside clicked into  place. It is only fitting to launch my new travel blog with my story of Ireland. 
Click on this link to take you to the glorious Emerald Isle.