Saturday, July 23, 2011

This blog is a diary of our holiday to Europe in June/July 2011.  To navigate to the various days it's probably easiest to click on the link to that day on the right of this post.

To enlarge the photos, double-click on them.

The "Nuts and Bolts" of our holiday

Quite a few people have asked me who I booked various bits of our holiday through etc. so I thought I'd list it all here:


Transfers: Our airport transfers in London were done through Exclusive airports

I am a firm (very firm!) believer in private airport and train station transfers.  I know many people will argue that there are MUCH cheaper ways to get from the airport to your hotel - they are completely correct and if it works for them, cool beans!  BUT we are no good at lugging lots of luggage (and heaven knows we always have lots of luggage!) onto buses, tubes or trains and up and down stairs and escalators.  We get very grumpy.  There is shouting and cursing and sometimes there are tears…. 

Trust me, there is nothing nicer than seeing a man, in a suit, at the door, holding a board with your name on it eager to usher you and your (very heavy) suitcases into a nice clean vehicle and transport you to your hotel with the minimum amount of fuss!  It SOOO works for me! 

We did one trip (from Richmond station back to our London hotel) without a transfer on this holiday and I VOWED, through gritted teeth (and some tears) that we will NEVER, so help me, do it again!!  Next time there will be a man, in a suit, at Richmond station waiting to usher me (and my very heavy luggage) into his vehicle....

Oyster card:  We did all our travelling in London using our oyster cards.  It really is the way to go – you can use the oyster card on tubes, buses and trains – all you do is shove the oyster card against the big yellow disc that is prominently displayed as you enter the tube/climb onto the bus etc.  You can top the oyster card up via ATM-type machines in the tube stations or at many shops.  You can buy your oyster card at the visa application centre when you go to apply for your UK visa.

Hotel: This is a difficult one for me as I’m very torn about the hotel we stayed at.  It was the Luna Simone Hotel in Belgrave Rd.  This hotel gets RAVE reviews on but I’m in 2 minds about it.  There is indeed lots to like about it:  It’s a really small hotel, the location is excellent, there are lovely little restaurants and a good pub very close by, the breakfast is basic (egg, bacon, beans, toast etc) but very good, the hotel is clean, there is free Wi-Fi and a computer available, the No.24 bus stops literally at the door (The number 24 bus is brilliant because it stops at really convenient places eg Victoria station, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, Leicester square etc), the staff (I believe it’s owner run) are very friendly and helpful.  My problem with the place is that the rooms are really small and very basic (although I must say that the bathrooms, although tiny, are nice and mod) and there is no lift, so lugging your (very heavy) suitcase up the stairs is not a lot of fun.  Having said that, the hotel is very competitively priced for what you are getting.  Would I stay there again?  Probably

London walks: We LOVE the London walks.  You don’t need to pre-book, you just pitch up at the start of the Walk, pay your £8 and off you go.

Tickets for shows:  I bought our tickets for Ghost and Riverdance through Ticketmaster 


Rail Europe:  I bought our Eurostar tickets through Rail Europe (the South African site) BUT be careful, their prices aren’t always the cheapest, so check the Eurostar website as well.  Our Ellipsos Trenhotel tickets were also bought through Rail Europe, but it worked out literally thousands of rands cheaper for my friend in the UK to buy them through their UK website and for me to wire the money to her via a Moneygram. if you’re planning a rail trip, this is your go-to website!


Transfer: (Note: This was a VERY pretty "man in suit"!)

Hotel: Hotel des Grands Hommes The most fantastic hotel - it's got it all... location, decor, amazing staff.  I booked directly through the hotel's website. I had pre-booked our Paris Visite Metro cards, our train tickets to Versailles as well as our Seine Cruise and Illuminations tour through  and I found their service very good.  The envelope with all our bits and pieces was waiting for us, as promised, on arrival at our hotel and the tour we booked through them was excellent.

Paris visite cards: Work exactly the same as the Oyster cards, but come in the form of a little ticket.  Best way to get around the Paris Metro and you can use it on buses and the funicular at Montmartre as well.

Classic Walks Paris: The walking tour we did of the Latin Quarter was done with Classic Walks Paris the guide was a super chap and I would definitely do another of their walks.  They also do the Fat Bike Tours around Paris.


·         Getting there: Take the RER Line C, bound for Versailles Rive Gauche station. Come out of the station, cross the road and turn right, walk to the main road where you’ll clearly see the palace, on top of the hill to the left (alternatively follow the crowds!).  It’s best to aim to leave Paris at about 08:00 as you want to get to Versailles before the tour buses arrive.

·         It is a very good idea to pre-book your tickets to Versailles as the queues to buy tickets on arrival are very long.  If you have purchased your ticket on the internet beforehand you can by-pass the long queue and enter through Entrance A (you still have to queue, but not for as long!) I got our tickets direct from the Palace of Versailles website 

·         There is a little train that runs around the extensive grounds, stopping at the Petit Trianon and the Grand Canal, I would strongly recommend catching this train, or hiring a golf cart, as the grounds are HUGE.  The train wasn’t very well publicised on the day we were there (perhaps because of the rain?) but it’s worth looking for it, it’s parked a little to the back of the palace and you buy the tickets at a small booth nearby before boarding the train.  

Montmartre: So worth a visit, I still have much I want to do in Montmartre!  In my opinion, the best way to see Montmartre is to catch the Metro to Blanche station – come out of the station and you are at the famous windmill of the Moulin Rouge and the Little Train of Montmartre starts right there.  Buy your ticket, hop on the train either do an entire round-trip (which we have yet to do!) or get off at the huge dome of Sacre Coeur, stop to admire the view and then walk the short distance to Place du Teatre and wander the streets around there.  Once you have had your fill of that area (it’s yet to happen to me!) catch the funicular down the hill, turn right and walk to Abbesses metro station, stopping at the “I love you” wall right near the station.  Of course, this is just what I like to do in Montmartre, there are many other options including walking tours with various companies (incl Classic Walks Paris), guided tours and self-guided walking tours:   (this is a great one, even if you just use the map and wander at will)


Transfer:  I wouldn’t recommend the transfer company we used for our inward transfer.  Outbound we used the same driver that our tour company used to transport us to the start of our tour in Granada, who was great, but doesn’t have a website.  Next time I would probably use these people.

Top tours:  I booked our tours in Spain with Top Tours They were fantastic. 

Club La Costa:  We booked our timeshare in Spain through RCI and stayed at Club La Costa.  Prior to our holiday I had seen some rather grim reviews for CLC, so was expecting the worst, but we loved our time at the resort.  Club La Costa on the Costa del Sol is a really big resort, split into various sections, each with their own swimming pools.  There is a little “train” that goes round the resort and you can hop-on and hop-off at various stops.

There are numerous restaurants throughout the resort, ranging from more upmarket to poolside “hamburger and chips” type places.  On site you will find a small supermarket, a little deli and a gift shop.  There is entertainment provided each day of the week for children as well as adults – face-painting, quizz nights, archery lessons…. that kind of stuff.  Entertainment is offered in at least 3 or 4 of the restaurants each night – while we were there, there was a show with music from the 80s, a Latin American dancing exhibition, a karaoke night, another musical show of some sort, the Paella evening and flamenco show that we went to etc etc. 

The resort offers a full programme of excursions to various places – you can read about the excursions on offer here  There is also a shuttle bus to Fuengirola offered twice a week, another to Marbella and one to Puerto Banus, all very reasonably priced.  Free wi-fi is offered in the reception lounge as well as in some of the restaurants.

The unit we stayed in was lovely, not over the top fancy, but perfect for us.  We had 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, an open-plan lounge/dining area and a lovely big, private verandah, the kitchen was small, but had the basics there was a washing machine in our unit which was wonderful after 9 days without any laundry facilities.  Our unit was lovely and private, I think some of the units near the pools would have a problem with passers-by being able to see in.  Dad’s unit was also very nice, he had an air con, which we didn’t, but he only had one bathroom.

I really enjoyed our stay at CLC and would love to go back sometime.


Transfers:  Tour Dublin

Tour Dublin:  We did our private tour of Dublin with Kieran from Tour Dublin.  He was absolutely wonderful – friendly, knowledgeable and efficient.  He tailor-made our tour to our exact specifications… I’d highly recommend him to anyone wanting to tour Dublin or surrounds. 

Irish Highlights: Our tour of Ireland was with Trafalgar Tours  We’re great fans of Trafalgar!  


Transfers: Arabian Adventures - Booked by travel agent

Hotel: Hotel Al Manzil  This was a fantastic hotel, right next to the Dubai Mall.  The staff were the most friendly I have ever come across.  Highly recommended.

Desert Safari:  Orient tours  I booked through Viator

Half-day tour of Dubai:  Orient tours I booked through Viator

Ski Dubai:  I would strongly suggest pre-booking ski-lessons at this website.  You need to be there one hour before the lesson.

Taxis:  We got around Dubai by taxi – they are very plentiful and not too badly priced.  There is a metro, but the nearest stop to our hotel was at an awkward place, that would have involved walking in the heat, so we skipped the metro this time.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Holiday Round-up

I loved this holiday, I felt it was just the right mix of busy-busy-busy and kick-back-and-relax.  I enjoyed doing a lot of our travelling independently this time, but then the tour came at just the right time and it was so nice to hand over the organisational responsibilities to the tour director.

Highlights for me:

·         The morning Paula and I spent in Notting Hill and Portobello market – this was not only a lovely sightseeing adventure, but it was the best quality time Paulz and I have spent together probably ever! 

·         Seeing Colin Firth…. I’m childish like that!

·         Our Paris hotel, it was really lovely

·         Fete de la Musique in Paris - absolutely awesome evening

·         Seine cruise.  I love Paris and viewing it from the Seine is magical

·         The train trip from Paris to Madrid – something so different

·         The San Miguel market in Madrid GOT to go back there!

·         Swimming in the Med – loved the family time we spent on the beach in Spain

·         The village of Mijas

·         Riverdance in Dublin – wow!

·         The day we spent in Dublin with Kieran, going to all the Guinness family places

·         Seeing the Smiths…. Always a highlight.  Lis and Trev go to so much trouble for us every time we stay with them.  They drive all over the place fetching and carrying us, take us to lovely places, allow us to completely take over their house, their laundry, their lives….  AND Lis leaves our favourite choccies on our beds for us, makes the best cup cakes in the world and her special “house coffee” is the bomb. 

·         The New Forest.  My love-affair with the New Forest continues…

·         Debenhams (‘nuff said)

·         Ghost the Musical

·         Dune bashing

·         The fountains outside Dubai Mall

Biggest laugh of the holiday -  a toss up between Grant’s “wardrobe malfunction” (don’t ask!!) on the way back from Putney and Grant throwing a cushion at the head of a crotchety old woman on the train between Madrid and Malaga (unintentionally!)  Oh and let’s not forget Grant’s seal impersonation in Ireland… you see why we love holidaying with Grant!!  He keeps us laughing ALL the time!

Biggest disappointment – the weather on the day we did the Ring of Kerry

Biggest surprise of the holiday – how much scaredy cat me loved the dune bashing.  As Rox said, I was wearing my triple X “big girl panties” ;-)

Best hotel – Hotel des Grands Hommes in Paris

Best meal – Tapas at Oscar’s in Mijas

Worst meal – the lunch we had in Granada, which was unfortunately also the most expensive meal of the holiday!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Day 29

I didn’t sleep at all well last night, probably something to do with the fact that I can’t cope with caffeine, but had 2 caffeinated coffees while watching the skiing yesterday (some people just never learn!)  We had an early start as we had to be at breakfast by 06:45.  I had a really good breakfast of fruit salad, yoghurt, poached egg with tomato, mushrooms and potato cake and chocolate mousse!  I kid you not!

Our transport arrived at 07:25 and we set off for Dubai airport.  Got to the airport and Rox and I accomplished our mission of buying bottles of Baileys to bring home.  We did the usual hanging about that happens in airports and finally boarded our plane right on time.

I found flying in the day waaaay better than flying at night, I’d never do a night-time flight again if I could avoid it.

We landed right on time at Durban airport, and then waited an hour for our luggage to arrive on the carousel… not the best welcome home ever!

And that was that!  Holiday over!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Day 28

We got up fairly early and had breakfast before our tour guide picked us up for our 4 hour tour of Dubai city.  The guide was a very friendly chap and he took us on a really nice tour.  We went onto the palm island and stopped outside the Atlantis hotel,

got good views of the Burj al Arab

went to the Dubai museum (much more interesting than I had expected),

as well as the Jumeira mosque,

caught a water taxi across Dubai Creek to the Spice and Gold Souks ( I enjoyed the Spice Souk, but the gold souk just wasn't my thing at all)

this hideous ring is yet another of the world records in Dubai

and saw various other bits and pieces. 

Our guide dropped us off at the Dubai Mall where we took a walk past the huge glass wall of the aquarium (another World Record) and then went and had lunch at a Chinese restaurant. One of our silly family traditions is to have a meal in a Chinese restaurant in every country we go to…. I have no idea why! 

After lunch Paula and Grant did the "At the Top" thing (they caught a lift to the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa (it's not really at the top at all!) at a speed of 10m per second, it took 59seconds to get to the top, you do the maths!!) and Dad, Rox and I returned to our hotel for some down-time. 

Double click to enlarge:

The photos below are taken from "At the Top" - the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa

In the photo above, our hotel is on the extreme left, just above the road

View of our hotel  (zoomed right in!)

At 4pm we met Grant and Paula and we caught a taxi to Mall of the Emirates.  I had pre-booked an hour long lesson for Grant, Rox and Paulz on the ski slope there.  Dad and I went and had coffee at a restaurant with a good view of the ski slopes and got to see the family having their lesson.  What fun!  I thought they all did really well, but Rox especially seems to have a knack for skiing.

 After the skiing fun was over we headed back to Dubai Mall for a pizza supper and popcorn dessert (Weird, but that's what we felt like!) We timed it just right to see the fountains do their thing at 9pm.  This time the music was Arabic, the fountains were awesome, but I definitely preferred last night’s show.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Day 27

Although our flight from London to Dubai was fairly short – just over 6 hours, there was a time difference to contend with.  According to our body clocks, we landed in Dubai just after 3am, Dubai time was trying to tell us it was after 6am!  Shew, we were tired!  I clearly don’t cope well on only 3 hrs of dozing time…

Anyway, we got to our hotel, the Al Manzil, and it was really stunning and the reception staff were outstanding, so that brightened things up somewhat.  We grabbed some breakfast at a cafĂ© attached to the hotel and then made our way to Dubai Mall (a very short walk away) via a bridge that gives the most awesome view of the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building/man made structure in the world!) 

Dubai Mall is something to behold – it’s huge (the largest shopping mall in the world I gather…. Dubai is simply bursting at the seams with World Records) and beautiful, full of all the major shopping names from around the world. 

We had a wander around and then made our way back to our hotel, where our rooms were ready for us. 

By this time it was HOT!  It’s a very different sort of heat, dry and the air feels quite thick, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected and we coped fine as long as we minimised our time out of the air-conditioning.

We all headed up to our rooms to shower and catch a nap before our trip out into the desert.  To be honest I was not looking forward to the Desert Safari at all… I was really tired and it was not my scene, or so I thought!  As it turned out, it was sooo much fun and something I would recommend to anyone who goes to Dubai.  We were collected at 4pm in an air-conditioned land cruiser and then drove out to a central meeting point, where all the other people going on the safari met us – there must have been about 8 other vehicles in total. 

Having all gathered, we set out in convoy driving along a tarred road until we got to the desert “proper”.  And then the fun started!  We stopped so that the drivers could let down their tyres and then we hit those dunes with a vengeance.  I have never been more terrified in my life, but I loved it!  We went roaring up dunes and skidding down them this way, that way and every which way.  Our driver wasn’t satisfied until we were all shrieking! 

We stopped for a really nice photo op, deep in the desert and then set off again, next stop was at a camel farm, and then we made our way to our dinner stop. 

We came to a sort of oasis in the desert, huts set out in a circle, with large cushions to sit on and tables, as well as a few little “shops”.  The girls and Grant did some dune-boarding and Paula and I got mendhi on our hands (all complimentary.)  There were also camel rides available, you could watch a chap doing sand art (amazing!) and there was a guy with a falcon.

We were free to help ourselves to soft drinks, but alcoholic drinks had to be paid for.  The supper was really good: salads, flat breads, dhal curry, basmati rice, chicken and beef.  There were Arabian sweetmeats for dessert as well as coffee and tea.  After supper there was entertainment by a belly-dancer – she was really good, much better than the one in Egypt!

After the camels had done an amazing walk past, it was time to go back to the hotel for some much needed sleep! 

On the way back our tour guide suggested that he drop us off at the fountains at the Dubai Mall (they’re conveniently situated directly between our hotel and the Mall)  I am so glad he suggested this as the fountain display turned out to be one of the highlights of our holiday.  We got a really good spot and waited for about 20 minutes for the display to start, more and more people were gathering as time went by, so I’m glad we got there early!  At 9:30pm the Burj Khalifa started to twinkle with lights and then the fountain display began.  The Prayer by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion was playing and the fountains moved in time to the music…. You had to see it to believe it, it was the most beautiful thing I have seen in the longest time!  It literally brought tears to my eyes….. (and anyone who knows me well will know that that is a rare and wonderous thing!)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Day 26

We slept in after our late night and managed to miss breakfast! Not a huge problem as we stopped in at the local Starbucks on our way to Victoria station to catch our tube to the Globe Theatre.
The Globe Theatre tour was intended to be purely an educational outing – just to ensure that our holiday is not only about shopping (in excess), eating (in excess), drinking (in excess) and laughing at stupid jokes…. we try to pack at least one educational outing into (I’m SO tempted to say “each day” at this point, but that would be an outright lie, even “each week” would be stretching the truth a little (OKAY a lot!), so I’ll have to settle for…) each holiday. Turns out the Globe was a lot more fun than we had imagined, maybe we’re becoming culture vultures after all!!

After the Globe we hopped onto a tube and set off for Abbey Road, we were determined to capture a Beatles moment on camera! This was a whole lot more difficult to do than it looks… there are LOTS of people who want to capture their Beatles moments and there are many poor motorists trying to go about their business, having to dodge the silly tourists…. There is a web cam  up in the tree that captures all this silliness on camera!

Having strutted our stuff, we got back on the tube for a final time and went and had lunch and a couple of pear ciders in our “Local”.(…. you'll notice that the minute the Cultural Moment was over we reverted straight back to our wicked ways!)  Then it was time to pack and get our transfer to Heathrow. Charlie met us at the airport for a drink, it was so good to see him again! And then it was onto the plane and the Europe part of our holiday was over!! It went SO fast….