6 Amazing Destinations for Christmas this Year

December 1st is officially the start of the Christmas festive period. For many it is a great time to catch up with friends or spend quality time with family. For some, it is time to travel. The weeks around Christmas provide a chance to get away, explore and have a break from normal life.

This year we are doing something a little different, we are spending Christmas at home! Normally around this time of year we have been either on opposite sides of the world, separated by work, or travelling through some far flung land. So this week we are looking at some of our favourite locations where we have spent Christmas.

1. The Holy Lands, Israel and The Palestinian Authority

Why not visit where the stories of the Bible actually took place? Wandering through the ancient cobblestoned alleyways of Jerusalem is an experience you will not forget in a long time. Watching the daily life of three of the world’s biggest religions intermingling also gives you hope that perhaps one day conflict based on different faiths may eventually be a thing of the past.

Looking down over Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Visiting the Holy Lands gives you a different perspective at Christmas

Looking down over Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Visiting the Holy Lands gives you a different perspective at Christmas

Of course that hope is almost dashed when you take a trip out to Bethlehem to where the Christmas story all took place. Situated in the Palestinian Authority, the journey is one of armed guards, tensions and large barbed wire fences. However, standing in the Church of the Nativity is, much like a visit to Jerusalem, an amazing experience.  Thousands of Christian pilgrims make the journey every year, and even if you are not religious you cannot help but be moved.

The Church of the Nativity in the Palestinian Authority

The Church of the Nativity in the Palestinian Authority

2.Rome and Vatican City, Italy

Thousands of people crowd into St Peters Square in Vatican City every year to celebrate Christmas Mass. The Vatican is an incredible mix of art, religion and politics but should be high on everyone’s travel bucket list. So much of the city of Rome was crafted by the Church over the centuries so a visit to the eternal city is the perfect destination over the festive season.

Looking down towards St Peters and Vatican City from the Bridge of Angels in Rome

Looking down towards St Peters and Vatican City from the Bridge of Angels in Rome

You can walk in the footsteps of the early Christians, former Popes and incredible artists all culminating in a tour through the Vatican Museums. The whole Roman Catholic world turns to St Peters over Christmas, and you can be a part of the celebrations.

The incredibly ornate interior of St Peters Basilica

The incredibly ornate interior of St Peters Basilica

3. In Search of Santa, Lapland Finland

One of Natalie’s favourite Christmas’ abroad was up into Lapland. A trip north of the Arctic Circle puts you deep into Reindeer territory and the perfect place to search for Santa. In fact the “Official” home of the big guy in the red suit is the town of Rovaniemi right on the Arctic Circle in Finland. The Santa Claus Village sells everything from local handicrafts and toys to the finest leather ware made from reindeer (you now know what happens to them if Santa is late!).

When in Lapland, reindeer boots are the height of Christmas fashion!

When in Lapland, reindeer boots are the height of Christmas fashion!

A trip to Lapland also gives you the chance to husky dog sledge or perhaps go in search of the magical northern lights! A true winter wonderland.

4. Somewhere Warm

Growing up in Australia meant for me that Christmas was normally at least warm if not hot. A summer  Christmas is a totally different experience than a winter one and could be the perfect change you are looking for. A walk along the beach, BBQ action and a celebratory drink in shorts and flip flops is about as foreign an experience as you could get for many people from the northern hemisphere, but it sure beats shovelling snow right?

Surf is up for Santa, it could be for you too!

Surf is up for Santa, it could be for you too!

5. In a culture that doesn’t celebrate Christmas

Why not immerse yourself in a culture where Christmas is not celebrated? Last year we spent the festive period travelling through China, and while many of the markets surprisingly sold Christmas lights, tinsel and inflatable Santa Claus’, Christmas is not really the done thing. In fact the majority of our Christmas Day was spent sitting around a rather isolated train station in Yichang waiting for our evening train.

Some of the markets in China trying to get festive

Some of the markets in China trying to get festive

Natalie spent Christmas in Egypt a few years ago (sadly for work not for fun) and again is a totally different experience than being back home. Imagine staring out over the pyramids which were already considered ancient 2000 years ago when the Christmas story took place!

Natalie at the step pyramid a few Christmas' ago

Natalie at the step pyramid a few Christmas’ ago

6. Home

For many travellers your home city is their exotic destination for Christmas. So instead of getting bogged down with the mad rush of Christmas shopping or the stress of trying to catch up with everyone you have ever possibly known, get out there and enjoy your hometown. From Christmas Markets to local Christmas Carols events, there is bound to be something amazing in your local area to help get you into the Christmas Spirit! Even for experienced travellers there is no place like home…

Where is the most random or exotic place you have spent Christmas? Drop us a line and share your Christmas travel stories.

– Merry Christmas, Dean

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Our Favourite Wildlife Experiences So Far… Part 2

Last week we began looking at our favourite wildlife experiences around the world, if you missed part one you can catch up by clicking here.

This week we round out our list with five more of our best experiences around the world.

6: Snorkelling with Whale Sharks, Tofo Mozambique

While we have been lucky to see them several times now, our first experience of the world’s largest fish really stands out. Their amazing markings and huge gapping mouths are stunning as they glide by almost in slow motion. Almost oblivious to your presence the grace with which they swim by looks out of place when compared to their size. When we were in Tofo the Beach Club had weekly seminars about whale sharks and manta rays, well worth sitting on if they still run.

The beautiful markings of the world's largest fish

The beautiful markings of the world’s largest fish

7: Chasing the Big 5 in South Africa

You can’t compile a great wildlife list without mentioning Africa and the Big 5. There are some great National Parks and reserves in South Africa to see Africa’s incredible wildlife. We loved Ado National Park for Elephants, we were almost trampled by a family when we couldn’t get our car started! Hluhluwe for Rhino spotting and you can’t miss out on Kruger. The best bit of advice we can give you is to sty in the parks overnight. We didn’t on a couple of occasions and really missed out, but when we did we had breakfast with elephants one morning and were woken by the roars of lions another!

One of the many elephants in the Kruger National Park

One of the many elephants in the Kruger National Park

8: Australia’s Unique Wildlife along The Great Ocean Road Victoria

It is easy for me to pass judgement and say how amazing Australia’s wildlife is but I still get excited when I see kangaroos or koalas in the wild. From our ‘home base’ in Australia (thank you Mum and Dad) we can see kangaroos from the balcony at happy hour or a short drive sees them grazing on the local golf course! Koalas in abundance live along the great ocean road and there are some fantastic reserves and shelters for native wildlife.

Kangaroos on the local golf course along the Great Ocean Road

Kangaroos on the local golf course along the Great Ocean Road

9: Orang-utans in Borneo
This is one of Natalie’s suggestions and unfortunately Borneo is still a place on my ‘to-go’ list.  Natalie said, “The famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Borneo is known across the World for their efforts with Orang-Utan rehabilitation.  This fantastic centre provides a base to rehabilitate injured or orphaned animals, before a staged approach to reintegrating them into the 43 sq KM reserve begins.  As you walk through the reserve you see the Orang-Utans staring back at you – equally as interested in you as you are them!!  It’s impossible to forget their bright orange coat and distinctive stare.  Such beautiful creatures who so deserve to be protected”.

Minding his business - a snoozing Orang-Utan at Sepilok (taken on a film camera)

Minding his own business – a snoozing Orang-Utan at Sepilok (taken on a film camera)

10: THE WISHLIST: Manta Rays

While we have been incredibly lucky with our travels to see so many amazing animals in their natural habitat there is one that has eluded us, the Manta Ray. Whether it has purely been wrong place at the wrong time or adverse weather conditions they remain at the top of our animal bucket list. Guess that’s the beautiful thing about travel, the more you see the more you want to see, and that list never seems to get any shorter!

– Dean

South Africa 610

Just remember to watch where you go!

Just remember to watch where you go!

The Australian Grand Prix: Not Just for Petrol Heads

When most people think of motor sports they imagine beer bellied, mullet sporting,  booze swilling petrol heads standing around discussing engine capacity, top speeds and which driver has betrayed loyal fans by swapping drives. When you think of Formula One you also add the glitz and glamour of the world’s biggest PR circus, Monaco living multi-millionaire playboy drivers, celebrities on the grid and the ridiculous sums of money that are thrown at the sport. Fair to say motor sport and Formula One is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Vroom....

Vroom….

I however am a fan. I love Formula One racing, sure the races have become a little boring and mundane over the last decade or so, and you almost need to be a rocket scientist to understand the new rules that are introduced every year.  Combine that with Bernie Ecclestone hogging the spotlight more than the drivers and teams themselves and I understand why people have switched off and turned their backs on the sport. More than anything I love the engineering and the science and physics behind the cars, call me a nerd, but I bet many fans of Formula One would say the same thing.

So therefore how convenient was it that the Australian Grand Prix almost perfectly coincided with our visit to Australia, how could we not go! If you ask many of the teams, drivers and associated ‘hangers-on’ in the F1 paddock they will all tell you the race in Melbourne is one of, if not, their favourite. Close to the centre of town, close to some great bars and pubs and combined with Melbourne’s famous restaurant scene what is not to love? So with my Dad in tow (or as Natalie would put it with her in tow!), we headed down to the Albert Park track to enjoy the first race of a new season and our last day in Australia.

Go Red Bull!

Go Red Bull!

It has been 11 years since I last went to the race and things have certainly changed. As I mentioned in my previous blog about Melbourne, the city loves a sporting event, not only that they know how to host an event. The atmosphere around the track felt less like a motor race and more like a carnival or fun fair. There was so much to see it would have been very easy to miss all the action on track.

The event catered for everyone, with an enormous ‘Kid’s Zone’ filled with rides and entertainers for the children, to an extreme sports area with everything from legendary skateboarder Tony Hawke giving demos on the half pipe to motorcross riders braving the ‘Globe of Death’.  Of course there were the stock standard souvenir shops selling event merchandise and each of the major F1 teams had their own dedicated shops selling everything you may ever need to support your team of choice.

Plenty to spend your money on!

Plenty to spend your money on!

Strolling around the track there were entertainers to keep us all amused. Small three piece jazz bands in racing jumpsuits, military bands, and even two guys in racing kit on mobility scooters angrily chasing each other waving their walking sticks at anyone who got in their way made sure the day had a fun element.

The picture says it all!

The picture says it all!

Several of the support races, the old restored cars and the Porsche racing cars, allowed you to walk right up to them, pose for photos, or see the cars being prepared for their respective races.  A rare insight and a chance for the petrol heads to get up close and personal with their beloved machines.

Porsche's on display

Porsche’s on display

Of course the reason we were all there was for the action on track, and this was also very well organised. There would be a break for 15 to 30 minutes and then something to entertain you. Everything from parades of restored cars, a celebrity challenge race, parade laps of drivers in nearly all categories and even a ‘drive by’ by country fire brigades that had helped the state of Victoria during the recent bush fires.  Whether you were walking around or watching the action on track there was never a dull moment.

The pre-race entertainment concluded with an aerobatics display from the RAAF Roulettes, an incredible fly over by a FA/18 Super Hornet fighter jet (probably Dad’s highlight) and finally a QANTAS flyover with their brand new Dreamliner (which was flown by a distant relative of Natalie), all helping raising expectations and excitement.

Fantastic flying machines

Fantastic flying machines

The race itself was pretty one sided but plenty of fighting for position further down the grid. The one thing that stood out to us was how many families were there as well as how many people who either didn’t know much about F1 or who you wouldn’t expect to see at a car race. I guess that comes down to how well organised the event was. It was a day out for friends and family.  Sure there were some people who were purely there to make their partner happy, but the race was set up to appeal to everyone, get people involved and expose people who normally wouldn’t be interested to the complexity, politics, engineering and excitement that is Formula 1.

Walking the track after the race

Walking the track after the race

Melbourne you have done it again!

-Dean

P.S. For anyone who was interested Nico Rosberg from Mercedes won the race.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 12: Post Party Chill… or that was the plan!

After the excitement of the party, we thought the pace of our time in Oz might slow down…. But we were wrong!  Mum and Dad were still around until the Thursday and the six of us spent many a happy hour together.

It is rare that we get time to spend with both sets of parents, at the same time and we really enjoyed the opportunity that this presented.  Ray took Mum and Dad out to see his plane.  It was a shame that the weather wasn’t good enough to go up in it, but Dean and I were lucky enough to return with him later on it the week to do a couple of laps (not to be confused with loop-the-loops!).  We are both so proud of Ray’s efforts in building the plane (yes you read that right) and I was proud to be the first female to fly in the plane!  Mum and Dad will just have to come back and have a go next time!

Just looking with Mum and  Dad as windy weather stopped play...

Just looking with Mum and Dad as windy weather stopped play…

... Later in the week flying with the F.I.L (Father-in-Law!)

… Later in the week flying with the F.I.L (Father-in-Law!)

We then went out for lunch to celebrate Ray’s birthday and it was lovely to be back for that.  Just before the wedding party I had taken Mum and Dad along the Great Ocean Road again, but we’d rather rushed bits of it so we went back and made several stops between Torquay and Apollo Bay.  For me I love Airey’s Inlet and it is a real must see stop.  We dipped our toes in the water at Anglesea – such a beautiful beach.  On the way back many a photo was taken of the wild Kangaroos on the Anglesea Golf Course!

Airey's Inlet

Airey’s Inlet

Roos!

Roos!

The last day was spent taking the ferry from Queenscliffe to Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula.  It’s a great ride and the sun came out to play.  We all stopped at the amazing Mubble Ice cream (Owned by Dean’s Cousin) and sampled some of their finest flavours.  One of the six of us liked it so much they went back for seconds… but they will remain nameless!  The back beach there was as speculator as ever and we really had a lovely day.

Another great photo thanks to yet another passer by!

Another great photo thanks to yet another passer by!

Dean will tell you all about the Grand Prix separately, but we enjoyed the rest of our week and we were so sad to be leaving.  In hindsight two weeks was never going to be long enough in Australia and we said our goodbyes vowing to come for longer next time.

Boy time on our last night... Maree and I left them to it!

Boy time on our last night… Maree and I left them to it!

Australia you truly are my second home and never fail to disappoint.  It was a wonderful visit, and we can’t wait until next time!

–          Natalie

Second time around…. To the same man!

Right from the first moment of planning our wedding last April, we knew some of our nearest and dearest wouldn’t be able to make it and so we wanted to have a second wedding party in Australia.  It was important to us both, and it had to be within the first year of marriage.  The party turned out to be the driving force for this trip and in turn, one of the best parts of it!

Happy Wedding Day two!

Happy Wedding Day two!

So we set the date – the 9th March, which was coincidentally the anniversary of my hen weekend.  Now we have two wedding anniversaries to celebrate, but Dean isn’t convinced that it means two presents!  In reality, we set the date, compiled a list of invitees and distributed an invitation.  At that point we disappeared overseas and Dean’s parents kindly picked up the baton with the party planning and made sure no stone was left unturned!

Fast forward to the day itself and it was everything we wanted and more.  Maree and Ray had absolutely gone to town with making sure there were lots of touches from the UK wedding included in the Australian party.  The industrial sized hire fridge in the garage hid the Pavlova cake, we had a purple and white theme with, balloons, Pimms on arrival and feathers taking centre stage.  Some of that sound familiar? Also special was the fact that I got to wear my wedding dress for a second time.  Mum had very kindly nursed it all the way from England as her hand luggage (and its currently cruising round South East Asia with them on their way home!).  We nervously opened up the rolled bundle when it arrived, to find her just as good as new (with a few authentic grass stains from the day itself!).  Thank you Mum for making it possible and Mum and Dad for coming all that way!

For our actual wedding last April I found it so overwhelming (in a good way!) to have so many of our nearest and dearest in the one room – almost a bit surreal!  The 9th March was almost more surreal, but it was so wonderful to have two weddings!

I had ordered a Vanda orchid for my hair, like my bridesmaids had in April.  On the Sunday morning I dashed into town and was transformed by the hair dresser!  When I got back Dean had to help me get into the dress (!) but we managed just in time to whizz down to the beach to take some photos.  I had wanted some of us on the beach, and we were really pleased with the result.  Being a long bank holiday weekend in Victoria and with the sun really out to play, the beach was packed.  From posing in a photo with a man in his budgie smugglers (speedos) with is camera to being surrounded by entire families of well-wishers the ostrich feathers in my skirts made quite a stir.  Although our photo session was brief, it was great to have that opportunity.

A picture speaks a million words

A picture speaks a million words

The six of us.

The six of us.

Back at the house and guests started arriving.  When we looked at the acceptance list, we felt so honoured that so many people were coming from interstate.  It’s not possible to list them all, but we know a lot of people made a huge effort to be there and we are very grateful.  As Dean said, we really do have some amazing friends, and we just wish we could see them more often!

Best Man Matt and his gorgeous family

Best Man Matt and his gorgeous family

Lucy and Sam - my two British friends

Lucy and Sam – my two British friends

Maree and her team of ladies (Carmel and Mrs T) had cooked up a storm and we nibbled all afternoon.  We then really appreciated both Maree and Best Man Matt’s speeches, both so heartfelt and meant a lot.

When people started saying goodbye I looked at my watch and realised five hours had zoomed past. For the select few remaining, we sat out in the back garden and chatted away.  The trouble with big parties is you never have long enough to spend talking to people, however sitting back at the end gave us chance to do that with lots of Dean’s friends who were left.

Last ones standing!

Last ones standing!

Thank you everyone for coming – you really made the day super special and we loved seeing you all there!  For anyone else in multi-national relationships… we thoroughly recommend having two parties!

– Natalie

 

 

Melbourne: Seeing your home town differently

Having lived and worked in Europe for the past 11 years, married to Natalie and armed with my UK Residence Permit I guess I would now be considered to be an ex-pat.

While I am lucky enough to live in one of the Worlds most amazing cities, London, a part of me will always call Melbourne home.It is only when you live away from, and then return, do you truly appreciate your home town.

Working in Europe I always wondered if Parisians strolled down the Champs Élysées and gave the Arc d’Triompe a second thought, or as the Romans wizz past the Colosseum on their Vespas they realised what an amazing piece of history their city had, even if Londoners appreciated having the greatest public transport system in the world, the Tube? (I can tell you the Londoners don’t!).

So over the last few years I have had the opportunity to experience Melbourne in a different light, I have had the chance to be a tourist in my home town.

Melbourne's Flinders Street Station

Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station

Put simply, I love Melbourne, it really is the best city in Australia. OK, city rivalries aside, Melbourne doesn’t have the ‘Big Ticket’ wow factors like Sydney does, such as the Bridge, Opera House and Bondi, and probably needs a little more exploration but once you do it is an incredible city.

One thing Melbourne is famous for is its cafe scene and it’s love affair with coffee. We can thank the Italian immigrants after WWII for really kick-starting this. One of the best places to experience Melbourne’s cafe culture is in Degraves Street. A small little pedestrian alleyway running between Flinders and Collins streets, it is filled with outdoor cafés and has an amazing energy and ultra cool vibe.

Degraves Street in the Melbourne CBD

Degraves Street in the Melbourne CBD

The Yarra River is the heart and soul of Melbourne and a stroll from Flinders Street Station down to the Casino and docklands area is also a must. Great restaurants, quirky bars and modern art awaits you, but it also gives you a great feel for Melbourne’s redevelopment over the last 20 years.

Natalie with one of the modern art pieces along the Yarra River

Natalie with one of the modern art pieces along the Yarra River

Now if you are more adventurous you can head out to various suburbs for a different taste of Melbourne. Carlton is the ‘Italian’ district and Lygon Street plays home to some of the best Italian restaurants in the city. Or perhaps down to St Kilda for some city beach chill time. Every inner suburb has a different feel and is famous for something different, and only after exploring a few of them do you truly understand what Melbourne is all about.

Of course Melbourne is also famous for its love of sport and if you are lucky enough to visit during a major event you quickly learn Melbourne loves sport almost as much as coffee!! We finish our visit coinciding with the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix – one of the jewels in the city’s sporting crown. Much like Kevin Costner’s movie Field of Dreams, in Melbourne, if you host it, they will come! In fact half of Melbourne will still turn up to watch a sport they know nothing about.

Gearing up for the Grand Prix

Gearing up for the Grand Prix

Great shopping and great museums also contribute to the Melbourne experience. Every time I visit now I see something different and I have a greater appreciation for my home town. It makes me want to get out and explore London more, a promise Natalie and I have made repeatedly on this trip.

Now while I love Melbourne I am the first to admit it is not perfect, but no city is. Apart from the trams, in particular the Circle Line Tram which does a loop around the city and is free, yes free, ask any Melbournian and they will tell you the  public transport system is not great, (Londoners take note). Australia, not just Melbourne in particular is very expensive for tourists but these are small considerations. It is no wonder that Melbourne is regularly voted one of the world’s most liveable cities.

Melbourne's famous old trams

Melbourne’s famous old trams

If you have never been a tourist in your home town get out there and explore, visit the famous sites, eat at the famous cafés and restaurants, go and see that show or museum you have always said you would, who knows, you might just discover you live (or have lived) in a pretty incredible city and you never knew it!

– Dean

Dining with a difference – The Colonial Tram Car in Melbourne

Restaurants and bars are constantly trying to come up with something different, and Melbourne has something that tops them all.  You might not think that a tram car is anything special, but think again.  In Melbourne you can dine on one, watching the city past by as you dodge the scheduled trams and sip your Australian wine.  An amazing experience for both locals and tourists and one not to be missed.

 

Anyone for dinner?

Anyone for dinner?

You could say I’m a bit of an addict… but I don’t care!  Back in 2006 Mum, Dad and I spent a wonderful evening on the Colonial Tram Car and the seed was sown.  This was long before I knew Dean, so when we came back together, I suggested we do it with his parents.  This reminded me about how good it was!  So with Mum and Dad coming over I gave them the choice.  Try something new or re-live old haunts.  On this occasion they choose the latter and so we set off!

Back together!

Back together!

We boarded tram number 4 and were immediately looked after by the team.  The Restaurant trams are from about 1938, but the first of the fleet was only restored for restaurant use in the early 1980s.  They boast not only the smallest loo in Melbourne, but also a five course meal (for the late sitting) and an extensive list of drinks that is all part of the price.

 

A touch of class

A touch of class

Now the Cole girls love a glass of Champagne, and not only did the waiter make sure our glasses were fully topped up when we got on, but he continued to serve the bubbles throughout! The trams have to fit in with the schedule of the Melbourne public transportation system, which means you get an interesting ride along the way with a few stops and switchbacks in between. Those people choosing a forward facing seat are quickly surprised when they find themselves going backwards, but it’s never long until they switch back.

 

Beautifully kitted out

Beautifully kitted out

After the initial dips, the starters emerged.  Then it was time for the steak.  Bearing in mind the size of the galley (kitchen) it seemed impossible that the on board chef could prepare a steak with such precision, but sure enough out came a perfectly rare steak that was delicious.  Yum yum yum.  The trio of desserts were equally as good and we were grateful for the ten minute break to walk around in time to make a bit more room for cheese and biscuits.  I had by this point moved onto the Jim Beam although the Baileys was not far behind.  You are beginning to get the picture!

With Mum and Dad by Tram number 4

With Mum and Dad by Tram number 4

 

We had paid upfront and so all drinks were included.  For a five course meal and bubbles, wine, spirits and liqueurs nothing beats both the value and experience of the tram car.  We past Albert Park (all ready for the Formula One Grand Prix) and travelled down to St Kilda before swinging by Port Melbourne and travelling the streets of the CBD.  The ride really did take us everywhere.

 

Dinner!

Dinner!

Every time I have done it I have been impressed that both locals and tourists try it out.  I overheard one lady saying how good New Year’s Eve on board is and so that is next on my list.  They say you shouldn’t repeat an experience as it is never as good.  In this instance it keeps getting better and better.  Watch out Tram car – next time I’m back I’ll be heading your way again!  It’s simply amazing!

 

–           Natalie