Indonesia – Climbing Mount Batur

Last August a friend and I took the long flight from Canada to Bali, Indonesia. We took a 14 day tour through G Adventures that went to Bali and Lombok. Both places are amazing and more posts will follow on all we saw. One of the highlights for me was the sunrise hike up Mount Batur in Bali, and I am not a morning person or a big hiker so that is saying something.

Mount Batur is a volcano in the Kintamani district of Bali and is considered a sacred mountain by Hindus. It is a popular sunrise hike with breakfast served at the top to the various hiking groups. Our hike started with a ridiculously early 3:15am pickup at our hotel and (obviously) starts in the dark so we all had to have headlamps or flashlights.

Since it is in the mountain area of Indonesia it is quite cold and everyone was bundled up, but after about 15 minutes we were all taking off layers. This is not an easy hike, although it isn’t particularly long it is fairly steep uphill the whole way, so the time it takes to the top will vary depending on your fitness level. For most people it is approximately 2 hours to the top if you are in reasonable shape. Our guides allowed many rest stops along the way, which was much appreciated as you spend most of the time heading straight up, and even though there is a path and steps created from the rocks for the most part, it is tiring and you need to watch your footing. I recommend taking some time to look at the view along the way, even though it is dark on a clear night there are enough stars, and if you are lucky a bright moon, to provide some pretty incredible views as there is no light pollution other than the headlamps and flashlights of the hikers. It was beautiful and clear when we went up but I didn’t have a tripod with me so wasn’t able to get a photo to capture it.

Most of our group made it up in the allotted time, with one exception who needed additional help from the guides to make it up. At the top you are greeted with hot chocolate, coffee or tea and breakfast. Depending on the company you trekked with, the meal is either a boxed breakfast sandwich, cold boiled eggs and fruit, or some groups boil eggs in the steam pockets scattered around as it is still an active volcano. Dogs also appear out of nowhere (apparently they enjoy the hike too) to partake in any breakfast donated to them by the many hikers.

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As anyone who has read my previous posts involving hiking knows, it is not my favourite activity unless it is a gentle relaxing walk more than hard core hiking. Yet I will still hike pretty much any volcano or mountain if it is THE thing to do in whatever area I have travelled to. This was one of those times and it was totally worth it. The sunrise was stunning and the views in every direction were beautiful.

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I was too busy taking pictures to participate in the discussion of whether to take the easy route down or the hard route which resulted in me just following the group as everyone started to leave. How I wish I could have participated in that discussion! The decision was to take the hard route, and it is exactly like it sounds, much harder, although apparently more beautiful. I can’t compare it to the other option since I haven’t tried it, but this route was definitely challenging. The first part was the worst bit for me as it was a very narrow path we had to walk across to get to the path down. There was a steep and terrifying drop on each side and the path was so narrow you couldn’t comfortably put two feet beside each other. Plus I had a guy in front of me who kept stopping to take selfies (obviously he is not afraid of heights!) so I couldn’t just quickly get to the other side. Instead I had to keep stopping along the way, where there is nothing to hang on to and the wind is howling. The path widened a bit on the other side thankfully but not much.

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The rest of the way down was steep and covered in tiny volcanic rock pebbles, and many people lost their footing, myself included, sliding on the pebbles. There were beautiful views along the way but I found it harder, certainly scarier, going down than up even though it was daylight as the footing was so unstable.

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About halfway down, maybe a bit more, we found some monkeys that were very friendly. The guides provided them food and even a few drinks which they happily took.

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Overall it was a great experience, happy I did it despite the early wakeup and terrifying descent (at least the start of it!) and I highly recommend going on this hike if you are in Bali. The incredible sunrise and gorgeous mountain views are amazing and definitely worth making the trek up and back even if you aren’t much of a hiker.

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England – Trip to Dover Castle

I decided to take a quick jaunt over the pond to visit friends and enjoy the fabulous English culture. While this did involve a lot of time enjoy time on the patio at the pubs around Bristol (yes, the patio, in May, in England!), once I headed to London for my last few days I also managed to make it to Dover Castle to soak up some history. Not only is this one of the oldest castles in Europe, it was also important for the war effort in WWII. Lucky for us they had a WWII reenactment weekend on when we were there. Everyone really got into character with the clothes and hairstyles, plus acting the part of soldiers during that time. Lots of great information and entertainment from WWII, including the music, demonstrations and battle reenactments, in addition to the regular beauty and history provided on a regular day at Dover. Here are a few pictures from our day.

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The Desert in Bloom – Phoenix, Arizona

 

 

My favourite time to visit Phoenix is when the desert starts to bloom. I always like the desert landscape, the starkness, the cactuses and unusual plants and shrubs. But when it starts to bloom it is really beautiful. The weather is lovely and hot and the desert comes alive. Until I experienced it I never knew that cactuses flowered this way. Below are some of my favourite cactus and other plant pictures from this April.

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Iceland and the Northern Lights

I loved Iceland so much the first time when my friend and I found another amazing deal from Icelandair to go back and see the Northern Lights we jumped at it. Just a quick four day trip which included our flights, hotel and an evening tour of the Northern Lights after a stop at Fontana spa. The downside of going to Iceland when the Northern Lights are visible is you have to go in winter. Fortunately the Gulf Stream moves past Iceland and keeps the temperatures fairly mild, even in winter.

The plan was to spend the first day in Reykjavik visiting museums, in particular the settlement museum, the church and wandering downtown, and then we organized tours around Iceland for the next couple days. Our first day in Reykjavik was lovely, although a bit treacherous with the ice everywhere. We learned that Iceland uses its vast stores of thermal heat to warm the roads and sidewalks by running hot water pipes underneath the downtown area. As a result, they rarely shovel snow and instead rely on the hot water pipes to melt the snow. Normally it works very well, but the day we arrived a cold night froze the melting snow making it quite icy on the majority of the sidewalks. In spite of this, Reykjavik was as beautiful as I remember it and the people just as friendly, although it much snowier this time which in some ways made it even more lovely.  Seeing the city draped in snow with Christmas lights everywhere made it almost magical. Daylight only lasts from 10:30am to about 3:30pm which takes some getting used to! Very strange to be heading for breakfast at 9am and its still pitch black out. But it did add to that magical quality.

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On our second day, we started with a tour with Sterna Travel of Rekjanes (the smoky peninsula), the region around Reykjavik, where we drove through the volcanic lava fields and visited the thermal mud pots. The whole tour was a photographer’s dream; every place we stopped was gorgeous. I toured the lava fields last time but with all of the snow everything looked completely different.

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We stopped at Lake Kleifarvatn, one of the deepest lakes in Iceland with black sand beaches.  One of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

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The tour continued on to the Seltun hot springs/mud pots to watch the bubbling springs and walk through the area. We stopped for lunch in the pretty town of Grindavik then continued on to the largest hot mud spring in Iceland, it has a crater that is 20 meters round.

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We also stopped for a view of the coast, black volcanic rocks pushing out of the sea as water crashed on the volcanic rock and sand. Our final planned stop was to stand on a bridge that spanned the divide of the American and European continents.

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That night was our Northern Lights tour. After a stop at the Fontana spa we started the drive to find the Northern Lights. Lucky for us they were out in full force that night. We only had to drive about 15 minutes when we saw them and we spent the rest of the night taking pictures with our tripods and watching the lights dance in the sky. Below are my favourites of the many many pictures I took.

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It was amazing! Good thing I was bundled up as I was out there about 2 hours taking photos. It wasn’t too cold considering it was Iceland at the end of November, but I still needed my warm layers and even then after 2 hours my hands were cold and my camera was starting to freeze, that was the sign it was time to leave. What an amazing night.

At the time we didn’t know how lucky we were but that night a huge storm blew in with 25 cm or more of snow that started in the morning and lasted all day. Needless to say all tours were cancelled including ours to the Golden Circle. Instead we spent another day wandering Reykjavik in the storm, it was really beautiful with the snow falling and it wasn’t too cold, just under zero. We went to the fabulous National Museum of Iceland. What a great place to spend a stormy day. The exhibits were interesting and the museum is huge, to fully look at everything it would take at least an entire day. Icelandic history from the first settlers until modern day life is covered in full detail with a mix of written information, artifacts and audio exhibits where you can listen to stories about what life was like at various phases of Icelandic history.

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On our final day we took a transfer to the airport that stopped at the Blue Lagoon so we spent a relaxing few hours having facials and relaxing in the hot springs. Fabulous end to an amazing trip back to Iceland.

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To transfer or not to transfer?

I was talking to a friend the other day and we were exchanging horror stories of various airports we had to transfer through when travelling. Over time I have developed a list of favourites and a list of no-gos that I will avoid if possible and I wanted to pass it on to hopefully help others avoid some of the less fun aspects of airline travel. Here are some tips for travellers from Canada when there is no choice but to get on a non-direct flight to some fabulous place abroad.

1. Avoid Toronto. Last time I flew through Toronto on my way to Europe I had to walk about 2 miles and show my boarding pass/passport to about 10 different people. I wish I was exaggerating, two of the people could even see each other they were so close but when I reached the second airport employee they made me show my passport and boarding pass yet again. It took ages and was quite annoying.

2. Choose Montreal. I have flown home through Montreal a couple of times and it was easy and quick. There is a special line at passport control for people transferring flights and my next gate was not too far away. Plus I only had to show my passport/boarding pass one time past customs, that was a win for me after experiencing Toronto.

3. If you are going to South America, consider transferring through Panama instead of somewhere in the U.S. That way you do not have to go through U.S. customs, which is required when transferring through the U.S. even though you are just passing through. Also, Panama was an easy transfer, lots to do at the airport, and you stay inside the secured area so no need to go back through the security check line again.

4. Avoid Las Vegas. I was forced through Vegas once on a transfer (if only I could have stayed for a few days it would have been better) and it was a nightmare. I had to go through customs, re-check my bag, get a new boarding pass (the Air Canada readers couldn’t read the boarding pass I received in Ecuador), then go stand in a massive security line to then rush to the gate. Not fun.

5. Avoid Frankfurt. To get a direct flight to Europe there are a few main choices from Western Canada, London, Amsterdam or Frankfurt. Both London and Amsterdam are much better options. Every time I have flown through Frankfurt it takes approximately an hour to get through the customs check, another hour to two hours to get back through security and by then you are running for your gate which is inevitably far away. If you have to use Frankfurt, make sure you have at least 3 hours between flights, you will need it.

6. Use Amsterdam for a trip to Europe. Amsterdam is an easy airport to transfer through and offers flights to any other European destination.

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7. Use Minneapolis. If you do need to transfer through the U.S. use Minneapolis. It was quick, easy and there is even a Canadian/American line for customs which is much faster. The customs line for Canadians/Americans is automated, you are in and out quickly, your luggage is already there by the time you walk through and there is a separate security line for transferring passengers only that is right outside the gate beside where you drop your luggage. Perfect.

8. Avoid Los Angeles. On my way to Asia I transferred through L.A., it was busy and the transfer process was awful. As I was coming from Canada I flew into the domestic terminal and then had to transfer through the international terminal and it was ridiculously busy. People everywhere and it took forever. Better to transfer in Vancouver or another country overseas.

9. Use Phoenix. Phoenix is easy, my gates have always been close together and customs was fairly smooth, not as good as Minneapolis but nothing is.

10. Use Vancouver. It is a nice airport, lots to do, and is a great gateway to Asia as there are many direct flights from there.

I’m always interested in new transfer options if anyone has recommendations, although my preference is always to try and go direct. If only it were always possible… At least hopefully there is a good airport to land in at the end!

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Gibraltar – The end of Europe

This year has flown by so far. I’ve been so busy I have sadly neglected my blog and I need to make up for lost time. Fortunately I haven’t been too busy to travel! My year of travel actually started off immediately, after a fabulous night out in London to ring in 2015, my friend and I headed to the airport and flew to Gibraltar, a British overseas territory. We decided to stay in Spain in La Linea de la Concepcion, which is a short walk from the airport over the border with Spain, as accommodation is much more affordable and available there than in Gibraltar. I’ve also never walked over a border like that before, just a quick flash of the passport at the border patrol and we walked in. Very informal. Once in Gibraltar we had to walk across the runway. Yes, you read that correctly, a road and sidewalk go right across the airport runway. When a plane comes in the road/sidewalk are blocked off until the plane lands and then it is open to cars/pedestrians once again.

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Unfortunately since it was New Year’s Day many of the places in Gibraltar were closed. But that didn’t stop us from walking from one end to the other.  From the border we walked along the street that borders the famous rock and onto the main street. It was close to lunchtime and we found a Moroccan restaurant named Tagin which was open. It was a small place, just a few tables, with one older man cooking and serving. The food was delicious and at the end of the meal we found out it was actually famous (at least famous for Gibraltar) when he showed us a newspaper article about their famous pinchitos.

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As we continued our walk we saw both Spanish and English influences. We were told that the language is typically Spanish and many people actually live in Spain, but it is still a British territory and therefore has English signs, uses the pound (although there is a Gibraltar pound) and evidence of the typical sights from England like those red post boxes and telephone boxes.

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One of the highlights in Gibraltar is of course to go up the Rock. We weren’t sure how to manage this with everything closed when we stumbled upon a taxi about to take a group on a private tour. Luckily we were able to join the tour. The driver wound us up the Rock to the viewpoint called the pillars of Hercules. In Greek mythology it is claimed that Hercules marked this spot as the furthest place on Earth. The monument shows a map of the ancient world on one side and the modern world on the other. We could even see Africa, my first glimpse of it, just barely though as it was a cloudy day unfortunately.

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The tour continued on to the top where we had beautiful views and finally saw the famous monkeys which live on the Rock of Gibraltar, the Macaques, the only wild monkeys in Europe. They are descendants of the North African monkeys and about 300 live on the Rock. Both the adults and the babies have little fear of people, they wandered on the cars, hit the car windows and we could walk quite close to them without them running away. We were warned though that they are still wild animals and will bite if provoked. After spending some time with the monkeys the tour went to the fortress, which was unfortunately also closed so we only stopped at the entrance. There we saw more monkeys and views over the city.  As Gibraltar is a British territory the flags flown at the fortress are the British flag, the flag of Gibraltar and the European Union flag.

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It was too bad everything was closed but we had fun anyways.  The only other food places open that evening in Gibraltar seemed to be Irish pubs so we decided to go for tapas back in Spain.  We walked back over the runway and across the border. That ended our adventure in Gibraltar but started the adventure in Spain. More to follow!

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Hello 2015 – New Years Eve in London

Happy New Year everyone! Bit delayed I know but January slipped by entirely too quickly. 2015 started in a great way, with a trip to England and then a whirlwind tour with a friend to Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal which started with a 7am flight to Gibraltar from London on January 1st. Needless to say, we didn’t bother going to bed New Years Eve, what would have been the point?  So we powered through, slept on the flight and started 2015 with a day in Gibraltar. A subsequent post will follow with all the details of our Iberian peninsula tour, this post will be about New Years and the fun I had saying good bye to the horrible 2014 (although it was a good travel year!) and hello to 2015.

I have never been a fan of New Years. Everyone has such high expectations that it will be a great night and more often than not it falls flat, or is absolutely awful. So over the past few years I have made a point of traveling for New Years, at least that way it is guaranteed to be good because I’m traveling and there is nothing better than that!

This year, for the first time in years, I went to an actual New Years event and it was fantastic. The party was at the Southbank Centre in London, England and the party theme was vintage so we dressed up in 20s inspired outfits and headed out. Almost everyone else dressed up as well in outfits from various decades of the twentieth century.  I saw some tacky 80s, a really good Austin Powers, and lots of flappers.  The Southbank Centre itself is beautiful and a great place for an event. It is along the Thames near the London Eye and has a beautiful view over the Thames.

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For the event, each floor or area had a different music or decade theme, downstairs was big band and ballroom dancing, another floor had a sixties party, in another room a DJ played guilty pleasure songs of the 80s and yet another had dance music and a DJ.

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There were photo booths with props, an arcade with pinball machines and arcade games from the 80s, bars with various specialty drinks and the food theme was American food which included hot dogs and mac and cheese.  One of the girls we were with was a member of the Southbank Centre so we had a reserved table for the night on the top floor in the members’ only section. At midnight everyone went outside on the terrace to watch the fireworks over the Thames, they were amazing, best fireworks I have ever seen. They have fireworks every year over the Thames at the London Eye, although now they charge 10 pounds to watch them along the river as they close the area to traffic and have a band, but they were so fantastic they are worth it. From the terrace at the Southbank Centre we were so close ash from the fireworks fell on us.

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After the fireworks we could hear Queen playing at the top of Big Ben so we listened to a song or two then went back inside for some more dancing until it shut down and it was time to head for the airport to start 2015 with a trip to the continent. What a great New Years Eve, and a fabulous start to 2015 which will hopefully be an amazing year full of much travel.

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Christmas in Europe

Christmas is such a wonderful time of the year.  I love the lights and decorations, and of course all of the delicious food. I also enjoy the craft fairs that pop up around the city. While Calgary has its charm around Christmas, I absolutely love Europe at Christmas. They really do Christmas well over there. Typically the decorations and Christmas markets start popping up around mid-November and last until early January. When I lived in Copenhagen, one of the best days was when Carlsberg released its Christmas beer. The Carlsberg trucks would drive around the city handing out free cans of that year’s batch. I also love the mulled wine served throughout Europe, each area has its own special brew.

I have spent New Years Eve in England twice before, once in Bristol, once in London, and will be doing so again this year. There are events all over the city of course and the fireworks over the Thames at midnight are amazing.

Below are some pictures I’ve taken in Europe over the years during the holiday season. First is pictures from London.

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This picture is in Bath.

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I spent a day in Windsor in early January.

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These pictures are from Copenhagen on Stroget. At the end of the street they have a skating rink set up in the winter and a Christmas market. Sadly my pictures of the rink didn’t show up very well.

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Starting in November, Tivoli in Copenhagen is completely decorated for Christmas and it has Christmas markets set up throughout. There are also areas to have desserts and glog, the mulled wine with cinnamon and raisins traditionally served in the winter in Scandinavia.

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I was also in Amsterdam in late November. Such a lovely city.

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Relaxing Caribbean Cruise

I finished off my month in the sun with a Caribbean cruise. After 10 days of chaos at Disney World a cruise was a great way to relax. Just sat back and let the captain take me to beautiful sunny islands while I sat on a lounge chair reading and sipping pina coladas. I have heard comments from people who think cruises are only for old people, aren’t real “traveling” or are boring, but I find when you want a vacation where you don’t need to plan, just want to relax yet see different places and want to eat some really good food, a cruise is a great way to travel. The main benefit is you get to travel to different places without having to pack and repack your belongings as your hotel travels with you, which I think is a bonus when I’m looking for a week of relaxation.

I went on a Celebrity cruise with family to the islands of Puerto Rico (although we missed that port, more on that later), St. Kitts and St. Martin. The passengers were a mix of old and young people, lots of families and couples but some single people too. The ship was lovely, lots of great places to relax and tons of lounge chairs on the deck, which was really important to me, no fighting for space during the days at sea. There were two pools, one inside (adult only) and one outside, and many tasty specialty restaurants.

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For the few cruises I have been on, I have always chosen my cruise based on the ports of call, I don’t like too many days at sea (there are only so many days I can sit on the deck and hang out around the ship and not get stir crazy) and I like to try and go to places I haven’t been before. I have been to Puerto Rico before but St. Kitts and St. Martin were new for me. Unfortunately due to weather, and apparently an issue with the propulsion system of the boat (at least according to the rumors onboard), we missed the port of Puerto Rico. At least I had been there before but it was still disappointing. The propulsion system issue was known to Celebrity (the ship is scheduled to go into dry dock in January) and to some of the passengers who had gone to Cruise Critic, a site I had not heard of before but now I will use for any future cruises. It is a good resource to research information on cruising, on specific cruise ships, ports of call and itineraries, and it provides reviews from previous passengers. If I had known about the propulsion issue I might have chosen another ship.

The ports we did make it to were beautiful, I would go back to either island. I did a tour on both, one through the cruise excursions group and one with a third party, Shore Trips. On St. Kitts our tour started with a train trip along the old sugar cane route. Once the sugar cane industry collapsed the country decided to use the old railway system to create a tourist attraction that provides a tour around the island. The train is open on top with a cover to provide some shade, or you can sit inside downstairs. On the train they provide unlimited drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and a traditional St. Kitts sugar cookie. A singing quartet comes to each car and sings traditional songs. The scenery along the route is stunning and the guide provides a commentary on the history of the island. I highly recommend taking this trip if you are in St. Kitts.

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The second part of the tour was a catamaran ride along the coast back to the cruise ship port. There were spaces in front to sit on the netting right above the water. It is the splash zone so beware! Again drinks were unlimited and they even provided a bag lunch which was delicious. It was lovely sitting outside in the sun sailing along the coast. Such a beautiful island!

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The next island was St. Martin. What a gorgeous spot! The island is jointly owned by two countries, about two thirds is owned by France and the other one third is owned by the Netherlands.  The cruise ship pier is on the Dutch side. I went on a small tour that took us to both sides of the island. Our guide was funny and knowledgeable, telling us all sorts of interesting facts about the history of St. Martin and life on the island. One fact I found particularly bizarre is that it is a long distance call to phone someone from the French side to the Dutch side, but it is a local call to phone France from the French side. Another story was about how the island was divided. The legend is that the representatives of France and the Netherlands agreed to walk until they met and that point would be the dividing line of the island. The Frenchman then spiked the Dutchman’s water bottle with wine and after many swigs the Dutchman was drunk and decided to take a nap allowing the Frenchman to walk further and take more of the island. This is apparently why France owns a bigger share of the island, but the Dutch do not have it that bad as the Dutch side contains more of the industry and of course the lucrative cruise ship port.

However it was divided, the two countries have lived peacefully on the island ever since. The capital of the French side, Marigot is full of lovely restaurants and delicious pastry shops, very French.  We stopped at one beach and it was gorgeous white sand, but unfortunately there was an influx of seaweed that week and it was all over the shore and in the water. So instead of spending some time there we headed back over to the Dutch side and went to Maho beach which is right beside the airport. When the planes land or takeoff they go right over the beach, it almost looks like they are about to land right on the beach, or on the sunbathers! I’ve never seen anything like it. You can get some great pictures though as they fly overhead, but one warning is that it is a small beach and therefore can be very crowded.

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St. Martin is also a good spot to use as a jumping off point to other nearby islands. It is only a short ferry trip to Anguilla, St. Barts and Saba. St. Martin is now on my very long list of places I would like to spend more time in and hopefully next time I will have time to explore the other islands too.

Overall it was a nice relaxing trip and just what I needed after running around after my nieces at Disney.

Being A Kid Again At Disney World And Universal Studios

I just spent a fantastic week with my family, including my two adorable nieces, at Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. It was like being a kid again, racing to the best rides and screaming on the roller coasters. Watching a four year old and one year old experience it for the first time made it even better. I haven’t been to Disney since I was 16, wish I hadn’t waited so long! The trip was amazing and I don’t think I will ever be too old to enjoy Disney. Disney World is huge, there are so many parks to experience it is almost overwhelming. We went to Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Blizzard Beach water park. To fit it all in we had a 6 day park hopper, 3 days at Magic Kingdom and one each at the rest. The only two I didn’t make it to were Animal Kingdom, I spent that day at Universal Studios touring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter instead, and Typhoon Lagoon because it was closed. To do the water parks you do need a special pass so if that is something you are interested in make sure to get it added to your package.

There is so much to see and do at each park. If you have the time do one full day at each park, plus an extra at Magic Kingdom. We were there in low season (although the Magic Kingdom was still very busy) which made it easier to go on a lot of rides. Also, all of the parks were set up of Christmas, and Disney does Christmas well. They even made Cinderella’s castle into the Frozen castle.

The highlights for me were:

Magic Kingdom: Thunder Mountain railroad, Space Mountain, watching my one year old niece meet Anna from Frozen (she was so excited and went right up to her, she is her favourite princess), and going to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas which is a special evening event with fewer guests, free hot chocolate and cookies and lots of time to go on the rides.

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Epcot: The rides Soarin and Test Track. Walking through the country displays to see how they made their space represent their country. Below are pictures of Italy and Canada.

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Hollywood Studios: The Christmas light show and the Rockin Roller Coaster.

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Blizzard Beach: The longer tube ride and the toboggan slide.  There is also a great kids area with smaller slides for young kids.

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As I mentioned, we also went to Universal Studios, which was amazing. We did a 2 day park to park pass so we could ride the Hogwarts Express between the parks (without park to park you cannot do this). Universal is worth the trip, if you have the time or if you love Harry Potter. They did an amazing job on both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, the detail is fantastic and the rides are really well done. Just walking into either area brings to mind the movies, and fans will recognize most of the shops. Plus the amount of great merchandise you can buy will make any Harry Potter fan swoon. The interactive wands were my favourite, you can choose either a character wand or a wand based on the Celtic calendar, and the wands can be used to cast spells in both areas of the Wizarding World, although they do work better in Diagon Alley. The two main rides, Forbidden Journey and Escape From Gringotts are amazing, even for non-Harry Potter fans, and fans will love the detail in Gringotts and Hogwarts. Dragon Challenge is also a great roller coaster, the concept is two dragons chasing each other so there are 2 separate tracks. Make sure you go twice, once on each side as the two rides are different. The two main restaurants, the Three Broomsticks and the Leaky Cauldron, serve British food and the signature Harry Potter drinks like butter beer (tastes similar to cream soda but better) and pumpkin juice. The atmosphere in both is well worth a visit.

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Aside from the Harry Potter sections, there are many fun rides at Universal, some classics like the Hulk roller coaster, plus some great 3D movie/TV rides like the Simpsons Krustyland, Spider-Man, Transformers and Men In Black. You can cover most of Universal in one busy day in low season (we rarely waited more than 10-15 minutes for a ride) but in high season with longer wait times you probably need 2 days.

It was a fabulous, but busy, trip and a great place to escape and be a kid again!