Splashing around at the V&A Gardens

There is nothing like going to the gardens at the  Victoria & Albert Museum in the South Kensington area of London. You can have a cup of tea in a beautifully printed cup and cool your feet in the fountain on a warm day. The John Madejski Garden at the V&A is one of my favorite meeting spots in London. When the weather is warm, it’s an idyllic place to spend a few hours in the afternoon. After the many grey months you get in London, it’s probably one of the cheeriest places in the city you can be and one of the rarer instances you can splash around in a fountain! The best part is that the gardens and the museum are open to the public and have free admittance!

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Snapshots of Northern Wales — My Home Away From Home

Aside from being the former residence of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as well as some highly amusing and inappropriate sheep jokes — Wales tends to be the most overlooked country in the U.K. It’s a bit like the embarrassing relative of the family who no one wants to admit being related to but is still invited to the reunion because hey…they’re family. Some people who don’t live in the U.K. actually think Wales is a part of England. So, here I am to set the record straight for a country that is very proud, has it’s own language, it’s own flag and what’s more some of the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen. Not to mention it’s a cheap weekend getaway when you don’t want to spend tons of money to fly somewhere. Here’s a few great areas to check out in northern Wales.

Trearddur Bay

Trearddur Bay (pronounced “trather) is only a few minutes outside the small village of Holyhead, where one can catch the ferry from Wales to Dublin. The area looks a bit like something from a period drama. The bay opens up into the Irish Sea and is dotted with small white houses and Inns. If the weather is decent, it’s not uncommon to see a photographer out on the bay taking pictures of the sunset which I have been told are “some of the most beautiful in the world.” I have made it a routine to wake up early in the morning and walk around this bay with a pen and journal to write on the banks. My American accent stands out a long mile in this small area but everyone is always friendly and happy to give a “good morning” as you walk by.

Conwy

An hour’s drive away from Trearrdur Bay is Conwy. This ancient walled city boasts it’s own castle on a large bay that is always filled with colorful sail boats. The castle was originally built as a fortress as were the walls which surround the city during the 1200s as part of the English’ conquest of Wales. For a few pounds, visitors can walk around the castle and get a great view of the town and the sea. Lastly, one of Conwy’s quirky tourist attractions is “the Smallest House in Britain.” You can access the house for 1 pound, and as it only takes less than five minutes to view — it doesn’t exactly eat up much time but it wasn’t really worth looking in either.

Colwyn Bay

There are a lot of bay’s in Northern Wales (as already illustrated) but the last one to visit is the seaside resort town of Colwyn Bay. The area here reminds me a lot of Brighton with it’s posh looking little white 19th century hotels that line the beach and it’s own pier (the Victoria Pier). Colwyn Bay is a very touristy city but it’s not too overwhelming and a great place to get away for the summer.

Postcard Pick: The Secrets of Bletchley Park

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A friend in London recently posted this to me after she visited the famous Bletchley Park in Buckinhamshire, England. It is widely recognized today that Bletchley Park was a secret facility used by the British government to code and decode German messages during WWII and was instrumental in winning the war. I am a big WWII history buff, especially when it comes to the techniques intelligence services utilized during the war. So, I still kick myself for not making a trip out to Bletchley Park to see the museum of the former codebreaker school, when I lived in the U.K. It’s definitely on the list of places to visit next time I am in southern England. The picture above is of an Enigma cipher machine, used by codebreakers at Bletchley Park during WWII to decode German messages. On a side note, I am excited to see the new film “The Imitation Game” which is about Alan Turing and Bletchley Park!

A Coffee Snobs Guide to London

The first thing I do when I travel/move to a new area is to seek out a place I can get good coffee!  But, wait…you may ask “What about a certain global coffee chain that has invaded every corner of the world?!” Oh yes, Starbucks. To put it bluntly — I don’t like Starbucks. The coffee is over-roasted so that it tastes burnt and often (no matter what country you’re in) it’s twice as expensive as the local (and much tastier) alternatives. Therefore, when I first moved to London I began my arduous search for quality coffee. Thankfully, London offered numerous options that satisfied my taste buds and my caffeine addiction!

Monmouth Coffee Company (Covent Garden)

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As mentioned in my previous post —  American Favorites in London — Monmouth Coffee Co. was my go-to coffee place in London. I was lucky that it was popular enough to have more than one location and that it was distributed to several other local coffee houses. The location I frequented was, of course, on Monmouth street in the Seven Dials area of Covent Garden. The shop has a friendly, yet bare-basics atmosphere and the staff are incredibly helpful. However, the shop is constantly busy and there is often a queue (line) out the door. I recommend buying a latte to go and if the weather is nice; walk to the famous Seven Dials pillar on the junction to sit and enjoy your coffee with ease.

The Speakeasy (Carnaby Street)

The Speakeasy was the usual destination to catch up with friends who had also moved to London or were down for a visit! It’s a small cafe located just off Carnaby Street. Despite that the place is surrounded by large chain stores, the cafe manages to give a very boutique feel. The coffee is consistent and the pastries are worth a try! It’s a perfect spot to sit and rest for awhile after maneuvering around Oxford street.

The Coffeeworks Project (Islington)

My Canadian friend, Andy, described The Coffeeworks Project best when we stopped in for an afternoon coffee break — “This is the most hipster place I’ve seen outside Montreal!” It’s true, the Coffeeworks Project has a very rustic yet minimalist vibe with recycled furniture and high coffee bar stools. The baristas are friendly and have their intricate coffee art down pat. The clientele is all under 30 and working away on an iPad or Macbook. Friends from Seattle: I give you your home away from home! In all seriousness though, the coffee here is up to standard and goes superbly with one of their rich brownies.

Ginger & White (Hampstead)

Located in upscale Hampstead, Ginger & White offers delicious espresso courtesy of Square Mile Coffee Roasters. This is truly a neighborhood cafe and has a very local feel. Unlike some of the other coffee shops on this list, G&W’s location is ideal for avoiding crowds.  I stopped in for a coffee on a cold autumn day before heading to Hampstead Heath and was struck by how laid back the atmosphere was. The coffee will get you in the door but the cafe itself will keep you coming back!

Kipferl (Islington)

This was a treasure I discovered right before I left London and was disappointed I hadn’t found it sooner!  Having visited Kipferl, I feel like I got a good sampling of a Viennese Cafe. When you order a coffee it comes with a small glass of still water (as is typical with Austrian coffee). The coffee is strong but not bitter and perfect with one of Kipferls homemade pastries. I enjoyed my latte with a slice of their apfelkuchen (an apple cake with lemon and cinnamon.)  Kipferl is less than a minutes walk from The Coffeeworks Project and a short way from Angel Tube station. If you’re looking for more of a European cafe experience rather than intricate coffee art and hipster baristas — this place is for you!

Next time you’re in The Old Smoke, I urge you to set aside the convenience of Starbucks and get to know a little bit of London’s coffee culture!

Photo credit to Andy Melan for Monmouth Coffee Cup image

Before New York — there was Old York

Whenever friends go to visit England, I always encourage them to try and get out of London. Don’t get me wrong, I love London! But, often visitors seem to think if they go to London then they have seen all there is to see in England and that is a travesty! There are some truly amazing and worthwhile places to visit outside of England’s capital. The city of York is simply one of many.

A little bit about York

York is located in Yorkshire, a district in northern England. It’s a historically rich city that has one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in all of Europe; York Minster. The vikings had settlements here and it was a significant city during the Roman Empire. If you need a little bit of name dropping — Constantine was crowned Emperor here and William the Conqueror made his merry little way up to York to quash a brewing rebellion against him in 1068.

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Statue of Constantine, outside of York Minster

A true walking city

York can be an incredibly cheap city to tour for one big reason — you can literally walk everywhere. The historic part of the city is only a ten-minute stroll from the train station. Then once you arrive in the city you can walk for free on top of the city walls.

In its long history, York has been under siege numerous times and seen a lot of important battles. Therefore sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries connecting walls were built around the city to completely enclose it. These walls still stand today and create a unique way to tour the city because visitors can walk along them and look down on the city below. Due to the fact that most of York’s major attractions are the structures themselves, the walls allow you a free way to view everything.

The massive Gothic cathedral at the center of it all

York Minster is a beautiful and gigantic structure that stands at the center of the city. Construction on the current cathedral began in 1210 and there have been numerous renovations in the centuries since. However, there are records of churches on the site as far back as 627 AD. I have only been into the foyer of York Minster as you have to pay to see the rest of the cathedral (I was a poor student both times I visited). But, even in the entryway you can see several tombs and alters as well as the ornate stained glass windows at the front entrance.

The most haunted city in Europe — or the world (depending on who you ask)

Paranormal enthusiasts named York the most haunted city in the world back in 2004. Whether you believe in ghosts or you just like a great ghost story — I highly recommend going on one of York’s many ghost tours. The  tours themselves are inexpensive and laid back. The different tours are generally led by one person who have a schtick (I went with the Ghost Detective) and are near the city market on the weekends waiting to take visitors around the city by foot. The tours are entertaining and a great way to walk around the city while learning more about the local lore. Be prepared to have cash on hand if you do these tours as the guides don’t tend to take credit cards.

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The Ghost Detective

Stopping for a pint in an ancient pub

After you have finished with your ghost walk, drop into the ‘most haunted pub’ in York — The Golden Fleece. Ghost stuff aside, the Golden Fleece has been in existence since 1503 and offers a great atmosphere with plenty of Real Ales (microbrews) on tap. If you are interested in staying the weekend, the Golden Fleece is also an Inn that has several rooms above the pub.

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The courtyard behind the Golden Fleece

Anything else you need to know

On a social note, Northern England offers a similar type of hospitality the southern U.S. is famed for. People tend to be very welcoming and happy to answer any questions or concerns you have.

Another thing about northern England — you MUST have cream tea. Cream tea is a pot of tea and fresh-baked scones with clotted cream (a sweet cream) and homemade strawberry jam.

Overall, you can’t go wrong with visiting York!

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On the city wall

Originally visited: October 2007 and November 2011

2012: A year of travel in review

While it is still the beginning of 2013, I wanted to take the chance to look back on all the amazing trips I have had over the last year. Some of them have not yet been featured on this blog but hopefully I will begin to catch up with the details of those journeys. In the meantime here is to a fantastic year and I’m looking forward to an even better one!

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh is one of the best cities I have ever visited. It is one of those places that just feels like home. My favorite thing to do in this ancient Scottish city is to get up early in the morning on a sunny day, pick up a cup of coffee and walk through the streets of Edinburgh until I end up on top of Calton Hill. It’s the best way to see the city wake up.

Madrid, Spain

Quite opposite from Scotland, it’s ideal to wake up late in Spain along with the locals.The earliest you should be eating breakfast is at 11 a.m. and it should be churros con chocolate with a strong iced coffee. Once you make it through the sprawling urban city of Madrid it will be 3 p.m. before you know it and time for lunch with a nice glass of tinto de verano.

Salamanca, Spain

After a few days in the massive city of Madrid, it’s good to take a vacation from your vacation and head to Salamanca for a weekend. The historic city is alluring with it’s two massive cathedrals and the most beautiful main square in all of Spain. In addition you can see the oldest university in Spain — the University of Salamanca.

Venice, Italy

Venice looks every bit like the postcards and posters you have seen of it. It’s a city that exudes history, magnificence and a massive tourism industry. Get caught up in the sinking cities infamous piazza’s, glass shops and canals. There is no other city in the world like it.

Prague, Czech Republic

The fairy tale like city of Prague has it’s own unique culture that includes a history of communism, a preserved Jewish quarter untouched by WWII and a steady German/French influence that has shaped it’s architecture. Walk over the river Vltava on the beautiful Charles bridge towards Prague Castle. Then hike up your way up to Strahov Monastery where you can drink amazing Czech beer that has been brewed by the monks there for centuries.

American Favorites in London

When people ask me what I miss the most about the the States, my answer is immediate — the food. Unfortunately, my adopted country isn’t filled with many flavorful options (with the exception of really good curry and cream tea) and it has caused some homesickness. Thankfully, since moving to London, I have discovered a few places that serve some of my favorite things.

Espresso

The U.K. takes its tea very seriously but i’m from Seattle — a city that takes it’s coffee seriously. Note that when I’m talking about coffee — I’m not referring to Starbucks. Bearing all this in mind, the first thing I set out to look for when I got to London was some good espresso. After several unsuccessful finds — a fellow coffee lover put me onto Monmouth Coffee Co. Located on Monmouth St in the Seven Dials area just a stones throw from Neal’s Yard. There is always a queue out the door, but the service is fast and friendly and the coffee is spot on.

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Donuts

Electric Donuts in Notting Hill serves up delicious donuts made fresh daily. It’s based in the lobby of Electric Cinema, one of the oldest cinemas in London, on Portobello Rd. Electric Donuts run a small operation that only has four flavors of donuts at a time which are alternated every week. The flavors come in traditional chocolate and vanilla and venture into some more interesting varieties such as Maple Bourbon and Mexican Chocolate.

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Red velvet cake

It is true that there is red velvet cake in Britain — but it’s made with buttercream icing. True red velvet cake has sweet cream cheese icing. After complaining to an English friend of mine about the blasphemy of British baking over this icing issue, she pointed me towards Hummingbird Bakery. It’s a small chain in London that is known specifically for it’s red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese icing. In fact, they are Hummingbird’s best seller.

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Burgers and floats

Nostalgic 1950’s style soda shops and diners are not difficult to find in the U.S. They always sell thick milkshakes, good burgers, and there is always a jukebox with old hits playing. It’s an iconically American franchise, so I was surprised to walk into Ed’s Easy Diner in Soho on a rainy afternoon looking for lunch. I was thrilled to sit at the counter and get a good burger and a root beer float. Root beer is not available in most places in Britain and usually has to be imported by specialty shops, so the float was a rare treat. Ed’s even has the old rock n roll playing jukeboxes at every seat. All the money that goes into the jukeboxes are donated to charity.

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Pancakes

L’Eto Caffe was a recent find when a friend came to visit. We were on the hunt for a breakfast place we had heard about but when we arrived, the queue was wrapping around the building. Thankfully, we stumbled onto a great alternative — L’Eto Caffe. The place was one of those charming yet quirky cafe’s where everything is homemade and the prices are cheap. My apple pancakes came fresh made with real apple slices and creme fraiche as well as a side of fresh fruit. The best part is they weren’t heavy and cakey like a lot of pancakes I have had in the past.

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Photo credit: Monmouthcoffee.co.uk, electricdonuts.com, Andy Melan