Inside the Travel Lab - A Luxury Travel Blog for People who Care
Hi, I’m Abi. I’m a writer, blogger, photographer, speaker, TV host and explorer. I’ve travelled to over 50 countries, though I only keep count when I need to write words like these. World stories from a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Abigail King runs the famous Inside the TravelLab and is one of the most renowned figures in the UK for..
The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota Florida:
thousands of tropical plants, art, research and history
Does it make sense to start talking about Florida through its flowers? Or is it too trite a cliche?
The modern state of Florida, all 66 000 square miles of it, has an inextricable link with flowers. The name, of course, means “flowery” or “full of flowers”, based on the first impressions of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon when he “discovered” the place in 1513.
And in a less smallpox-and-colonialism way, I’m here now on my own voyage of discovery, looking for the cultural, the historic and the beautiful. The real Florida, in some ways, I suppose, as part of #thinktheusa (more about that in the box below.
But driving along the oft-overlooked gulf coast of Florida, one thing becomes clear.
Whatever else we may think about Ponce de Leon through our modern day history glasses, he did have a knack for naming things.
Florida is beautiful. And it does have plenty of flowers.
From Crystal River to Sarasota, Awash with Flowers
From Crystal River, through Clearwater, Bradenton and St Pete, bright pops of pink and impossible scarlet flames peek out through the palms. Canopies cover the boardwalks to the sandy coastal paths and pelicans swoop through blue skies, playing chicken, it would seem, with car wing mirrors.
And while we went around halfway through the trip, I think it makes sense to start talking about Florida here. Surrounded by art, science, history – and flowers.
The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens:
The Only Centre for Air Plant Research
The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens are the only gardens in the world to study and research epiphytes or air plants.
What on earth does that mean?
It means orchids, ferns, bromeliads and gesneriads.
Orchids, yes, lovely. Ferns, OK. Bromeliads?! The most famous bromeliad would be the pineapple, and when it comes to gesneriads (they have their own Gesneriad Society )you either know them or you don’t.
The most famous would be the African Violet (but I couldn’t have told you that before I visited the Selby Gardens.)
In reality, though, all this air plant research takes place behind the scenes.
Views of Sarasota Bay at the Marie Selby Gardens
And the scenes themselves involve bayfront views of Sarasota, the delicious shade of a Banyan Tree and a carefully constructed rainforest playground with swinging bridges, musical instruments, dress up huts and an edible garden.
For the younger children (like mine) there’s a lovely air-conditioned playroom with plant toys, puzzles and craft kits and for the hipster-wannabes among us, there’s a cafe serving coffee and all kinds of superfoods in a bowl.
All in, more than 20 000 plants spread over 15 acres to create 10 key zones. There’s the bonsai exhibit, bamboo garden and banyan grove. A tropical conservatory, desert succulent garden, butterfly garden and a tidal lagoon. And that’s not even the half of it.
But the razzle-dazzle display amid this cool and calming escape, was the ripe and utterly spectacular Andy Warhol Exhibition: Flowers in the Factory.
Andy Warhol Exhibition at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Sarasota
Best known for his Marilyn Monroe squares and hedonistic New York lifestyle, Warhol, it turns out, had a floral fancy too.
On more than 10 000 occasions, he sat down (or stood) and created an image of a flower.
What’s even more interesting than that is how the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens have decided to showcase his work. In Payne Mansion, the Museum of Botany and the Arts, standard pictures and photographs line up on the cool air-conditioned walls.
But elsewhere, the plants do the talking as bright pops of colour and geometric designs bring an unmistakable sense of Warhol to the gardens.
And finally we come to the final mystery in the puzzle of the gardens and the symbol for the rest of my time in Florida.
Marie Selby herself.
Again, this wasn’t a name that meant that much to me at first. When I read that she had loved gardening and lived in a modest house (today’s garden cafe) the story reminded me of my grandmother, as much as anything else. She had a dream of creating a botanical paradise in the heart of Sarasota (Selby, not my Nana Dymp, who turned her eyes from Northern Ireland to southern England and a more modest garden plot instead. Perhaps because that’s all her money would allow.)
For Marie Selby, it turns out, was the hometown sweetheart of William Selby, whose father founded Selby Oil and Gas. That name sounds suggestive of wealth but the fact that the company merged with Texaco in 1948 illustrates it beyond a doubt.
And so there is the Florida paradox.
Not everything is as it first appears. Despite the state’s fame, its rich culture remains hidden, albeit in plain sight.
Plus, it really does have some truly beautiful flowers.
Trying a bit of Andy Warhol on my own image…
Disclosure – I visited the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens as a guest of Visit Florida as part of the #thinktheusa project. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, well, what on earth is the point?! There are easier ways to earn a living ;-)
10 Unmissable Parts of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
The calming views across Sarasota Bay
The humid sensory overload of the orchid conservatory
The superfoods of the low key cafe
The art exhibitions in the former mansion
Is it wrong to say the gift shop? With eco-minded merchandise, it’s fab!
The rainforest playground, no matter your age.
The indoor play area for younger children, complete with pretend plant pots, if you have a smaller child
The deep reach of the banyan grove
The fact that plants have become art
The cheeky blue frog hiding beneath the orchids. Ask for a volunteer to help point him out…
What is #thinktheusa?
#thinktheusa is a project to rethink family travel and to rethink what we think we know about America.
Building on a road trip through Louisiana last year, this year we spent two weeks driving along Florida’s “hidden” Gulf Coast followed by two weeks in Massachusetts. The goal? To really get under the skin of places we take so much for granted. To find the cultural, the historic, the beautiful and the fun. And to do so in a way that really works for the whole family. Not a chicken nugget in sight.
Artistic Sponsors and How to Visit the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
We worked in partnership with some great companies to help put this trip together, while always keeping the right to write what we want, the way we want, of course (it gets a bit pointless otherwise.)
How to Taste the Australian Outback: Travel To Kakadu National Park
Kakadu. The sound is soft yet distinctive, like a bird call that rolls and unfolds across the willows and the reeds, the waters, the low and smoky air, to reach me on the scrunched and scorched soil. On the earth that is itself Kakadu.
The word comes from an Aboriginal flood plain language called Gagudju, which flourished around here a century or so ago. And here is Kakadu National Park, an area of nearly 20 000 square kilometres and a UNESCO World Heritage Area to boot. It’s just a short drive (in Australian terms) from the less poetically named, but still raw and beautiful, Litchfield Park near Darwin.
Both bathe in colours I’ve never seen beyond a brochure. Colours so alive they bubble out of the ground and seep into my soul. Deep, thick, rich blue skies. Flaming orange soil that rises on horizons and flanks the roads like rail tracks before spilling out to touch the trees.
On the roads themselves…Emptiness. Mile after mile of emptiness.
The Australian Outback: Empty and Full at Kakadu National Park
For this is Australian emptiness. Empty tarmac roads that connect towns, creeks and billabongs together like the energetic limbs of an exuberant stick man. Roads that probe, but not too far, into each of Kakadu’s seven regions, treading the delicate balance between “access for all” and environmental conservation.
But that’s not the only reason why some places are off limits.
Kakadu is still home to people who have lived on this land for tens of thousands of years. In fact, Kakadu’s World Heritage status honours the Bininj – or Mungguy – community as one of the oldest living societies on earth.
Kakadu National Park’s Aboriginal People
To say that the relationship between the Aboriginal people and the Balanda (non-Aboriginal people) is fragile in Australia would be like describing Kakadu Park as an inner city allotment: a gross underestimation.
Getting this far down into the article has taken hours of consultation to try to get the words right and yet still I expect somewhere offence will be taken. When it comes to writing about race, culture, nationality and religion, few words remain safe.
This particular conflict has origins in the typical and distressing footprints of history. White colonial powers arrived. They viewed the native populations as, at best, a vulnerable people in need of Christian redemption and a sturdy European education. And, at worst, as a subspecies closer to the animal kingdom who could be exploited to further the wealth of the rich men back home.
It is a story known across the world. But while tolerance and integration developed with relative ease in some countries, Australia has had a stormy time.
As late as 1967, Aboriginal people “didn’t count” in the census, while well-meaning but flawed government programmes have managed to engineer a damaging legacy. Alcoholism has become a toxic debate between individual choice, responsibility, stereotypes and community action in the wake of longstanding inequality – and the issue festers on.
It also creates an unfortunate first impression.
“I can’t believe the racism I hear,” says Dean, an eco-guide who finally opens up about the topic, which until now has seemed largely taboo. “The number of backpackers who say that ‘all the abos do is sit around getting drunk all day.’
“It drives me crazy, you know? At some point, I say to them. ‘Look. From what I can see, all backpackers do is sit around getting drunk all day.’ So what does that make you?”
After days of getting nowhere, I’m relieved to find someone who’ll talk about the subject, to help fill in the gaps.
Promise You Won’t Talk in Kakadu National Park
Before heading into Kakadu, I had to fill in an encyclopaedic collection of press access forms and undergo an interview with the authorities to convince them that I wouldn’t photograph – or even talk to – any of the Aboriginal people I might meet there.
In vain, I tried to find out why.
“Out of respect,” I heard time and again and I couldn’t move past that block.
I like to think that I am capable of treating people with respect. That I wouldn’t trample into a religious ceremony, ram a lens up someone’s nostril or pose for a racist picture.
So was there something else? Was there something about speaking to foreigners? Or to women? Or was there something intrinsic to photography that had a significance I could learn about?
“It’s out of respect,” I heard again, as if the case was closed.
The loss of my permit flashed before my I eyes and I decided to let it go.
Back in Darwin, a “unnamed source” told me some more.
“They’ve just had so many bad experiences,” he said, about both the park authorities and the aboriginal peoples in general.
“A while back, they had a TV journalist do a strip tease on one of their sacred sites.”
(As a side note, dear Readers, let me assure your troubled minds that you will never have to see me do this. Anywhere. Ever. For any reason. Feel better?!)
“They” in this case turned out to be the Kakadu Board of Management, a group of both Bininj and Balanda who work together to manage the park. The traditional owners have leased their land to the Director of National Parks and the Bininj form the majority on the board.
After a hike around (and through) freshwater waterfalls, I caught up with Dean again over a helping of kangaroo burger. (Only kidding. But it was on the menu.)
“Also,” Dean went on, “people talk about ‘aborigines’ as though there’s just one group of people. There are hundreds. With different languages and customs and territories and religions…
“Just like Europe, really.”
Aboriginal Languages and Concepts That Don’t Translate
According to the Bowali Visitor Centre stationed inside Kakadu National Park, there are around 100 Aboriginal languages spoken across Australia, with at least 50 forming a key part of everyday life.
As a lover of words, I thrill at some of the place names. Badbong Bawardedjobgeng, for example, means “the short-eared rock wallaby cut the rock.” Others, despite their juicy sounds, like Anbangbang and Mardugal, have no ready translation.
And while place names overlap with European culture, personal names do not. And the concept of “ownership” is about as far away as those English, French and Dutch courtrooms that came up with the early colonial rules.
On my first day in Darwin, I met Robbie from the Larrakia clan, who spoke a little about the customs and traditions that permeate his world. About identifying plants, chewing green-backed ants, predicting the weather and avoiding conflict through avoiding people.
“We have an ancient Cold War when it comes to that,” he said. “When I see my mother-in-law, I turn my back and we do not speak.”
He spoke about the Milkwood tree, or churra in his language, saying that each time one falls a baby is born. And that each new churra signals the death of someone else.
He touched the bark. “My ancestors are in that tree.”
Tell Stories. Don’t Write Things Down – Aboriginal Philosophies
Robbie, and the Larrakia in general, take a dim view of the majority of my work: writing things down.
“You people. Always on a screen, with a pen, on paper, writing things down. My people, we don’t need to write things down. We don’t need to keep records. We pass on our knowledge through our spoken words. Through our stories.”
I pause for a moment, pen mid-air, iPhone in pocket, wondering what to do next.
I keep the pen mid-air. “So…How do you feel about me writing things down?”
“Our culture believes in equilibrium,” he went on, ignoring the question. “We believe governance belongs to our elders, since they have experience. We believe that babies are innocent.
“We are older than the pyramids and older than the bible. We have had no dictators. No caste systems. Limited numerology. And no concept of money.”
This is all sounds rather good. But where are the problems? Surely every culture has problems? What about equal rights between men and women, for example? That’s usually a telling place to start.
The answer to my question falls by the wayside in a manner reminiscent of our dear political leaders back home.
Still, at least we were talking. And for that I was grateful.
Yet for all that, the Larrakia live on the edge of the navy base in Darwin, not on the open plains of Kakadu National Park.
What about the tribes who do still live on their land? What do they believe?
Since I cannot meet them, I turn to the next best thing. Their intriguing rock wall art – and an enthusiastic park ranger called Douglas.
How to See Aboriginal Rock Art in Kakadu National Park
On the arid cliffs at Nourlangie and Ubirr, swirls and brush strokes create two-dimensional figures in globular white and flat ochre that splash upwards along the curves of the rock. Many begin with the concept of creation, which principally involves the Rainbow Serpent splitting stone apart to form the waterholes and crevices of Kakadu. This same serpent represents the custodial duties of the Bininj people towards the countryside they live in, which would probably cover most modern conservation and ecological practice. Then there are representations of Namarrgon (Lightning Man) and Warramurrungundji (Earth Mother,) together with stories about incest bonds and other moiety principles of inheritance that I can’t quite follow.
The heat presses down and I’m almost out of water. From high on a rocky outcrop I watch the blue-tinged treetops camouflage the wildlife underneath. 10 000 species of insects. 2000 plants. 290 birds. 68 mammals. And more than 120 reptiles.
Of which there is only one that holds the record. The record for size. The record for aggression. And the record for living here unchanged for nearly 200 million years.
Can you tell what it is yet?
That’s right, folks. It’s the saltwater crocodile.
Kakadu National Park & Saltwater Crocodiles
As little as a week ago, I’d held the unexamined conviction that crocodiles only attacked when provoked. That their size, their Darwinian age (evolution-wise, not city-wise) made them slow and cumbersome.
In short, that I’d stand a chance.
How wrong you can be.
As it turns out, crocodiles are cunning predators, lying quietly out of sight for day after day until they’ve learnt the behaviour of their intended victim. When they attack, it occurs without warning. They can swim faster than the fastest Olympian on record and jump to reach a vertical height of more than 10 feet.
A single bite can crush the head of a pig, according to the Parks and Wildlife Commission NT, and fatalities occur around here pretty much every other year.
And when did I learn this new information? Why, while swimming with one of course. Dangling on a chain inside a heavily scratched clear plastic container while holding meat out of a gap in the side. But more about that another day.
Here, in the darkness, a velvety purple light is spreading across the morning. The water is still. The air is quiet. Slick, slow ripples swim across the surface, carrying the remnants of the moonlight on the crest of their curves. I lean on the rails, camera ready, scanning the horizon.
Within minutes, two curves don’t belong. They’re ridged. Fixed. And a silver halo creeps around a slight silhouette.
The snap comes so fast it is almost silent, the sound waves lagging behind the light. Mighty jaws, a writhing fish, giant scales, a crown of spray…and then gone.
The fish that is.
The crocodile remains, jaw open and teeth exposed in something of a prolonged victory gloat.
I move back from the edge of the boat. So does everyone else.
The crocodile swims towards us, eyes malevolent and amber in the lilac morning light.
Birds flee overhead, a splitting of the Red Sea in the sky.
I hold my breath. And press the shutter again. And again and again and again.
Leaving Kakadu National Park
Back on dry land and back in the car, I’m racing along the tarmac in a sprint towards the airport. But something’s wrong. Terribly, primitively wrong. I feel it, somehow, before I get to see it.
That bluer-than-blue sky so vibrant before now carries a pallid, grey haze. The sides of the road no longer meet on the horizon but merge into something darker. As I draw closer, the unease moves from a whisper to a roar, with flames spitting in every direction and dust clawing at the sky.
I pull over, uncertain. Smoke stings my eyes and ravages my lungs while the tender tendrils of panic curl around my mind. There is no-one behind me. No-one ahead. The last signs of life passed me miles and miles ago. I have no fuel to return.
There’s coughing. Mine. There’s thinking, barely. Water, I need water.
I have water. Yes, that’s right. Half a litre of drinking water from a dented plastic bottle is really going to make a difference.
Help. I have a phone! It has no signal.
I pace. Coughing more. Stinging more. Getting back into the car.
I have reached the end of the road. The only option is to read the manual. My fingers fumble through the park paperwork and paraphernalia. How to survive a crocodile attack was somewhat disappointing but perhaps How to survive a forest fire will be more, shall we say, illuminating.
I find it. The information about fires that is.
They’re deliberate. An ancient aboriginal practice, outlawed for a time by the all-knowing Balanda before various plants and animals withered and died and they realised that after 50 000 years or so, the Bininj might actually know a thing or two about land management.
The fire was deliberate. There was no-one to tell. A planned practice designed to recycle nutrients and promote biodiversity.
Burn it all down – and trust nature to start again.
What Kakadu National Park Taught Me
I remembered Robbie’s words about my notepad and iPhone. I thought back to the rock art, one image painted over another and over another.
It’s not so important to keep the painting, not to the traditional owners at least. It is important to have a place to paint. It’s the experience that counts, more than the..
These tips on how to stay sun safe come from a partnership with Soleve. As ever, as always, we keep the right to write what we like.
Ah, sunshine, you beautiful, wonderful thing you! A strange thing has been happening over the British skies this year: a great, golden orb has been blazing and basking above us, surrounded by brilliant blue.
Foreigners have mocked us but the truth remains: we are in the midst of a heatwave!
How to Stay Sun Safe Wherever You Are
Sun safe tip one: Carry sun cream
Perhaps the most obvious move is to slap on the sun cream. But to do that you have to have some with you! We often get caught out in the UK when the sun suddenly comes out to play – sitting in the park at lunch, going for a stroll or reading a good book, we don’t realise we are actually putting ourselves at risk of the sun’s harmful rays – even when it is behind a cloud! Decant some sun cream into a smaller bottle to pop in your bag, your desk drawer or in the car.
Sun safe tip two: Hat trick
The face and scalp burn easily so wear a wide brimmed hat if you are out and about or lazing in the sun. A wide-brimmed hat can reduce 50% of UV radiation to the eyes, face and neck. Remember to also wear sunglasses with a UV filter. Not only will you look fashionable wearing a hat, you will be doing yourself a big favour!
Sun safe tip three: Set a timer or a reminder
It’s easy to remember to apply sun cream before you head out for a day in the sun but is also easy to forget to reapply through-out the day. Set a timer or a reminder on your phone to reapply – the British Association of Dermatologists recommends that sunscreen is reapplied liberally ever couple of hours1. Remember to reapply immediately if you have been swimming, playing sports or towel drying.
Sun safe tip four: Lunch in the shade
The sun is at its highest and strongest point between 11am and 3pm, so take extra care between these times. Have your lunch in the shade and take advantage of a cool place to relax and enjoy your lunch away from bees, pollen and footballs being kicked your way.
Sun safe tip five: Sunburn is serious
We all do our best to avoid sunburn, but it is inevitable that at some point people are going to experience a degree of sunburn, from a slightly red face to full on sore to touch or move sunburn. To take the sting out of mild to moderate sunburnt skin try Soleve sunburn relief. It’s the only licensed medicine of its kind to combine the painkilling power of ibuprofen with a soothing moisturiser to rehydrate the skin.
If your sunburn is severe seek medical attention.
Soleve - The Only Licensed Product for Sunburn
Soleve Sunburn Relief is available in the sun care aisle from Boots, Sainsbury’s and independent pharmacists nationwide. So, if you are planning a trip abroad, consider packing it in your travel first aid kit just in case. Suitable for adults and children aged twelve and up. Contains Ibuprofen.
Disclosure – These tips on how to stay sun safe come from a partnership with Soleve. As ever, as always, we keep the right to write what we like. Thank you for supporting the companies that support Inside the Travel Lab.
America may be known for many things but its keen sense of history isn’t always one. Not so in Boston, where the Freedom Trail highlights 16 landmarks on the road from the Tea Party to the first reading of the American Declaration of Independence.
But it’s not all serious stuff.
Boston also houses the country’s oldest baseball stadium and you can sleep right next door, in a memorabilia hotel that lets you spin your own vinyl and lounge on rock star yellow sofas.
And old is becoming new again in the Sowa district, where Sundays are spent learning to paint, chatting with artists, drinking craft beer and mingling through pop-up coffee shops and vintage markets.
You can even find your own notion of a Boston Tea Party. Read on to find out more about this and other boutique hotels in Boston who bring plenty of flavour to Beantown.
The Verb Hotel: Boutique Hotel Boston with Attitude
Described as “Boston’s most radical, retro, rock-and-roll hotel,” The Verb hotel seems to sum up the city’s love affair with the past and thirst for the future.
For this is a living museum. Not to the founding fathers of the republic but to the founding fathers of rock and roll.
Black and white photos of a young Elton John, Mick Jagger and Johnny Rotten grace the walls.
A vinyl library supports the record player in every room and even the toilet roll holder says Rock ‘n’ (extra) Roll.
I found the place through a search on Booking.com, a long time favourite search site of mine because of its numerous filters, easy cancellation procedures and wide range of results.
Finding boutique hotels Boston with Booking.com: 25 off
This time, I was on assignment with both Booking.com and Lonely Planet pathfinders but it scarcely mattered. I could probably search for hotels blindfolded on booking.com by now and, of course, as ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like here on the blog.
Next up was another reinvention of the not too distant past: the Open Market in Sowa.
Boston Sowa Market: Art & Food Trucks with Indie Designer Flair
Here, more than 100 artists work in renovated warehouses, creating paintings, ceramics, couture and cut-outs, and throwing their doors open on a Sunday morning to a decidedly hipster-cool crowd.
Around 20 food trucks rock up each week to 540 Harrison Avenue to serve organic eats and smoothies next to grilled cheese and brick oven pizza beneath strands of baubly lights.
But what if you enjoy chandelier-tinted glasses instead?
Well, hop on a cruise of Boston harbour for the history and then check in to the resplendent Fairmont Copley Hotel for the glam.
Glamour in Boston at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel
With gilded corridors criss-crossing the lobby and an unquestionably stately, address, The Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel almost qualifies as an historic institution in and of itself.
(It is actually a member of Historic Hotels of America®, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation for recognizing and celebrating the finest historic hotels across America.)
It’s just steps away from the iconic Boston Public Library and only a few steps more to some highly instagrammable bakeries and bars of Back Bay and Beacon Hill.
Since 1912, the Fairmont has ushered luxury through its heavily carpeted lobby but unlike many other grand landmark hotels, you’ll find a canine ambassador as part of the arrival process too.
Or in other words, a friendly dog will greet you in the lobby, if you like that kind of thing.
The Liberty Hotel: Boutique Hotel Boston Subverting the Past
From there, it’s a leisurely stroll to two landmarks that highlight the city’s knack for reinvention and regeneration.
The first is the Skywalk Observatory, providing a 100 mile radius view of the present if you look one way through the glass.
And a several hundred year view of the past if you turn around and look the other, as the museum explores how vital immigration has been and continues to be to developing what the world knows as Boston.
It’s easy to believe that in Boston, this name should signify some great part of the story that became the American dream.
But, somewhat subversively, it’s a boutique hotel that used to be a prison instead.
Three Fascinating Boutique Hotels Boston: The Lowdown
The Verb Hotel
Location: next to Fenway park
Vibe: rock n roll cool
What to know: you’ll find a mix of guests, from families to hen and stag dos. Don’t expect soundproofing!
The Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel
Location: next to the Boston Public Library
Vibe: cream, gold and chandeliers
What to know: almost all the presidents in office since they opened have stayed here.
The Liberty Hotel
Location: next to Beacon Hill, 10 minutes from Boston Common
Vibe: business cool in a previous prison
What to know: I didn’t stay overnight so can’t comment on some things! The Italian restaurant, Scampo, is excellent though ;-)
Pfff. It’s a mixed bag here. Some hotels I paid for myself, for others I was hosted. Booking.com are a partner for this project but I use them on a near monthly basis anyway. But the important point is this: I always keep the right to write what I like here on the blog and only recommend things I think are worth recommending for the reasons I recommend them.
Because, really. Life is just too short otherwise!
Looking for inspiration for wonderful and unusual things to do in Greece but tired of lists churned out by people who’ve never been there? Look no further! Here is a collection of beautiful, cultural things to do in Greece, peppered with a bit of soul and a lot of golden olive oil with liberal slabs of feta cheese.
What’s more, many luxury hotels are beginning to bring philosophy and culture from Athens to the coast. At Costa Navarino, for example, you can take a philosophy walk in the morning and be on the beach again before lunch.
2 – Unusual things to do in Greece:
Dine with an olive oil sommelier
It’s not just wine that requires a sommelier: if you take olive oil seriously, you’ll want one for that too. And in Greece, people do.
Olive oil is big, big business in the Mediterranean with tastings, contests and a clash between cultural history and modern farming practice that shows no sign of fading out any time soon.
4 – Unusual things to do in Greece:
take a road trip
Long before Athens built its Acropolis, the people of the Peloponnese set set stony labyrinths on teetering outcrops. They made history through the Corinthians, Olympians and Spartans and all the while those blue seas glittered, pink flowers tumbled down cafes and mountainsides and the people who tended the land knew how to make olive oil, feta cheese and seasoned meat taste the very best.
A trip to the Peloponnese allows you to relish the basics that Greece does so well: great weather, landscape, and shockingly good food away from the crowds, while gliding between names that have stood the test of time.
5 – Unusual things to do in Greece:
talk with the church on Spetses
The cry of gulls and children’s chatter mingled with the distant ringing of bicycle and church bells. The sunlight threw chevron stripes across the cotton duvet. And the white linen curtains billowed into the room like sails.
I eased out of bed and stood barefoot on the cool wooden floor, letting the curtains rise up against my face and then part to show me a breathless expanse of sparkling blue: the resplendent Aegean Sea.
The stone walls are honeyed and weather worn. The views sweep left and right across olive groves and rocky peaks dotted with fir. And the people who run it, the Vagers of the Villa’s name, are warm, friendly and very much down to earth.
What’s more? They’ll let you rent out their quadbikes…
7 – Unusual things to do in Greece:
chart your own journey on the sea
For all that’s said and done, the coastline of Greece and its islands is a wonderful thing to behold.
Swimming with no-one else around. Pulling up to a tiny island just in time for dinner.
We spent a week like this with friends, many years ago. And we did it all ourselves, a scary proposition when I look back and think about our general lack of experience.
Still, there are other options in case, like me, you don’t really know how to sail your own yacht.
Gorgeous Nafplio in the Peloponnese
Luxury Yacht Rentals in Greece with Incrediblue
Incrediblue’s team can provide expert knowledge in guiding customers to find the perfect yacht for them. They offer yacht rentals in many different countries beyond Greece (including Spain, Croatia and the Caribbean.)
They also offer full service crews – with chefs, skippers, hosts and all the rest.
(Note – unlike most companies on this blog, I haven’t tested them out so I’m not making a personal recommendation. This fact box is an ad!)
Disclosure – This post is produced in partnership with Incrediblue, a luxury Greek yacht rental company, and our artistic sponsor. As ever, as always, we kept the right to write what we like. Thanks for supporting the companies who support our work here on the Lab.
Ah, pretty city Porto, you beautiful place, you. All glowing in from dawn til dusk in a tumbly, jumbly terracotta haze and reflected Harry Potter glory.
With your giant gondolas from the port trade, your azulejo tiles and your steep streets to a thousands scenic viewpoints, you wear your prettiness with a bit of grit. A boot in the substance vs style side of the debate.
But what about the unsightly? Or the downright ugly but still important?
Never fear, I am here!
Let’s gloss over why I feel the need to do this (something in common perhaps?) and talk for a while about all of the things there are to do in Porto, pretty and otherwise.
Surrounded by skaters, the Casa’a swerving walls of white and glass play with the idea of perspective. Inside, the vision of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas becomes even more clear – and cool.
Nine storeys of an asymmetrical polyhedron blend and dip sound and sight through mirrors, open spaces, closed stairs and concrete.
Often described as Porto’s “Guggenheim,” a term with which I wouldn’t quite agree, there’s no doubting that the main art form here is music.
It houses Fundação Casa da Música and provides a base for no fewer than three orchestras: Orquestra Nacional do Porto, Orquestra Barroca and the Remix Ensemble.
If you can’t manage to catch a concert, follow my lead and chill out in the delicious basement café. Watch skaters create a different art form using the physical slopes of the wall and mingle with artists in between rehearsals.
Ribeira: UNESCO World Heritage Centre And…
At the other end of the architectural scale is Porto’s historic Ribeira, part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site Centre.
Like the Casa da Musica, there’s no mystery in the name.
Ribeira means riverside, which is where you’ll find the district.
But the river in question, the Douro, carries a little more mystique when it comes to the details of its name.
One translation of Douro means “river of gold” and on a gilded summer afternoon, the water does appear to shimmer that way.
Porto, Portugal and the Port Trade
A more likely explanation, perhaps, reflects the wealth spread from the Douro valley, the port wine that travelled along the waters to the Atlantic and beyond.
Running for more than 200 miles, the Douro River may begin in Spain, but its climax is unquestionably Portuguese.
Today, atmospheric rabelo boats still bob on the water, like inky black gondolas made large for a Tim Burton Halloween movie.
The port-wine lodges (they should be called porteries!) process visitors with precision: herding queues through cool dark vaults, clinking port into tasting glasses and propelling port-hazy visitors back out to the sun with a wave and a price list.
Vila Nova de Gaia. Porto. But Not Porto.
But the port barrels and the area that surrounds them, the Vila Nova de Gaia, live on the wrong side of the tracks.
To get back to Ribeira and its curious hipster-mainstream-UNESCO vibe, you need to walk back across the utterly spectacular Dom Luis I Bridge.
Not often one to fall in love with a bridge, with Dom Luis I was Juliet to Dom’s Romeo, Torvill to his Dean, Beavis to… No, wait, I think I’ll leave it there.
In short, it was love at first sight.
The Dom: Love at First Sight
Porto and The Dom
Constructed in 1886 to connect town with industry, in and of itself, it isn’t all that pretty.
But the height of the arc and the gorgeousness of the gorge it stretches across makes none of that seem important.
You can walk over it. You can metro over it. If you come to Porto by train (as I did, from Coimbra) you can glide metal over metal over it, spilling Porto’s prettiest landscape into view before you’ve even arrived.
And at the time it was the built, it was the longest of its type in the world.
Who can ask for more from a bridge than that?
Porto: Joy in the Smaller Details
On Friday afternoons, buskers make sweet music in its shadow and on pretty much every day through the summer, revellers float beneath his curves to travel upstream to the verdant Douro Valley.
Back in the narrow, shaded streets of Ribeira, the pace of life seems as loud or as quiet as you’d like it. While the Dom and the Casa strike a pose, the joy of Ribeira is found in the smaller, quieter details.
Sure, it has its masterpieces, like the Sao Francisco church. But it’s the faded shutters, peeling posters and clean laundry hanging from small stretches of string that signal that time here is to be protected, that time here is special.
Porto has undergone a renaissance over the last few years. J.K. Rowling was inspired here, the European Capital of Culture award landed here.
And it’s easy to become overwhelmed by its postcard-pretty beauty.
By its viewpoints.
By its enviable and unenviable current position at the height of travel fashion.
But there are plenty of not so pretty things to see and do in Porto, too.
So, go, travel, enjoy.
Wear comfy shoes and tackle those steeply sweet streets.
And when you catch sight of the Dom, say hello from me.
He’ll know what it means ;-)
9 Things to Do in Porto: A Handy List
See the Dom Luis I bridge from above, below and along
Taste port within sight of the rabelo boats that bob on the Douro.
Join the selfies crowds at Sao Bento station, taking in the spectacular blue and white azulejo walls.
Sip dairy-free lattes with the cool kids at the Casa da Musica or else catch a concert there.
Watch out for the street art, here, there and everywhere.
Wander the Ribeira district, leaving plenty of time for sitting in cafes and taking photos.
Queue to catch a sight of the Livraria Lello bookshop, which allegedly inspired key parts of Hogwarts.
Take a cruise on the Douro (stay on for at least a few hours to get up valley and see the good bits.)
What is it like to travel with G Adventures in Porto and Portugal?
The first I’d heard of G Adventures was through their work with colleagues I greatly respected; the second was when they partnered with Lonely Planet.
I paused before accepting the assignment. Wasn’t G Adventures for gap year students and backpackers and wasn’t it budget-driven rather than boutique or luxury?
Well, yes and no to all those things.
G Adventures did used to be Gap Adventures (it changed in 2011) but now runs trips for all ages. Indeed, I was probably one of the youngest on the tour I joined, the Highlights of Portugal.
The accommodation is more “get the job done” than luxury or boutique but still much better than in my backpacking days. Most people on the group were repeat customers, one up to 17 times which is about a good as endorsement as you can get.
Now to the heart of the matter.
I’ve long since believed that it’s attitudes and outlook that mark out individuals and character, far more than basic demographics like age, race (budget!)and sex.
So, although we were a mixed group, the outlook was broadly the same: the desire to travel to explore a place, not simply to go shopping or flop on a beach.
And as for my concerns for privacy and solitude, there’s a “My Own Room” option and there was plenty of free time, which you could either spend in a group or alone.
It was clear to me that people had formed friendships for life through travelling this way, with many openly saying that travelling with G had changed their lives and got them bitten by the travel bug.
For those well used to travelling around Europe independently, perhaps the assistance offered in getting from A to B isn’t essential.
But already, by day three or four I realised I had found something I’d never realised was missing: the feel of company, and, though it sounds so presumptuous to say it, family.
I was the only one working on this trip, other than our guide (G calls them CEOs.) Everyone else was on holiday and in a holiday mood. That was one benefit.
But also, as a freelancer, how often do I hang out with the same people who aren’t friends or family day by day?
But actually. I liked going down to breakfast and knowing I’d have someone to sit with.
It was interesting to hear different perspectives, to see the things I was seeing through the filter of those with different backgrounds to mine, different travel experiences to mine.
And I was glad to have someone to mind my bag, to check I’d made the train, to share wine with over dinner and grab a coffee for the next day.
So should you book a trip with G Adventures?
If you’re looking for luxury, then no.
But if you’re looking to see culture and history, with a helping hand and free time, and to meet people beyond the world in which you live, then yes, yes, yes.
And what do I gain from writing this?
Nothing at all. It wasn’t part of the assignment – and in any case, I always keep the right to write what I like here on the blog.
I just thought you might find it useful, and that’s why I wrote it down.
Happy travels everyone,
Disclosure – I travelled through Portugal on the Highlights of Portugal tour as part of my work with Lonely Planet and G Adventures. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, there’s just no point. For all the pastries in the world.
Some of the other recommendations were hosted, some were not, but all were only included because I like them and would gladly do them again.
Unusual Things to Do in Cape Town, South Africa
In my little black book of travel, Cape Town always makes my top ten list of greatest cities in the world. It would probably succeed based on Table Mountain alone, a majestic flat-topped mountain rising out of the earth at almost the most southernly point in Africa, but there’s just no reason to stop there.
Mandela’s life history, quite possibly one of the most inspiring of all time, is intertwined with the city. Its landscape is extraordinary, its culture complex.
Here’s my shortlist – and as you can see it’s rather long. I’ve snuck in a few more usual activities, too, because even they seem unusual when compared against other cities in the world.
Here we go…
Meet people across Cape Town to try to understand the city
19 Unusual Things To Do in Cape Town
1) Ride horses along the beach at the edge of South Africa
Quite simply, the Sleepy Hollow Riding School took me along the most beautiful route I have ever seen in my life. And I am very, very lucky to have seen many a beautiful route. Based out in Noordhoek, the horses wade through water, pass flamingos and trot (or canter if you like) along the sand and sea breeze spray while green and charcoal mountains appear in and out of the mist.
2) Climb up Table Mountain in a day ( or else queue up for the cable car.)
Not only is the mountain itself built in a razzle dazzle shape, the quality of its landscape is outstanding too. Table Mountain forms part of the Cape Floral Region, a protected area recognised by UNESCO for its diversity. It covers less than 0.5% of the land of Africa but houses more than 20% of its flora.
3) Revisit and rethink the history of slavery
Cape Town’s Slave Lodge represents the history of slavery from within the walls where slaves were once held and sold. The modern make-up of Cape Town reflects the huge population shifts that took place during these dark hours and the museum broadens its scope to examine the practices of slavery across the world, with a focus, of course on South Africa.
4) Zoom around on an unusual flower safari
Yes, flowers are a big deal here in the Cape but they’re far from dainty. Head to Groote Post to bounce around in a jeep amid springbok on a rugged flower safari. (There’s a vineyard here too if you’d like to show your appreciation for the grapes of the Cape through wine tasting.)
5) P-p-p-pick up a penguin on Boulders Beach
When I first visited, ten years ago, you had the penguins pretty much to yourself. Now it’s a much more structured affair, for better and for worse (better in that it protects the beach from the crowds. Worse because you’re now behind a fence, with the crowds.) There’s still something adorable about getting up close and almost personal with these fluffy waddling cuties though. And you will be checked for penguin theft on exit…
6) Dive with sharks
Now, I haven’t done it but it is possible to fling yourself into the water with some bloody meat and a great white shark. Oh yes – and a cage. One thing to stop and think about, though, is that there are some environmental concerns about “training” sharks to get used to swimming close to humans and following the scent of blood. Your choice…
Unusual yet authentic art can be found all across Cape Town
7) Take an unusual jazz safari
Make sure to check out Coffee Beans Routes, a characterful small tour company in Cape Town that specialises in getting away from the gentrified side of the city and getting under its skin. They offer several different tours (see the next point!) but all involve in- depth information, small groups and proper, meaningful interactions with locals. The jazz safari takes in a visit to a musician’s home in one of the townships, dinner there, and then an evening in a late night jazz bar.
8) Take an art tour
Another Coffee Beans special, this afternoon sees you visiting art galleries and studios in stylish parts of town, regenerated parts of town and beneath corrugated iron roofs part of town. You’ll meet artists at each place and learn something different about the city along the way.
9) Cycle through Masi
I have mixed feelings about tours through townships. Some can feel voyeuristic but others bridge gaps, help local businesses and enlighten those who visit. Having tried a few, I’d recommend AWOL’s cycling tour through Masiphumelele. The cycling itself is pretty low key and you get to spend time in a children’s day care centre, a witch doctor’s waiting room, a women’s sewing cooperative and then you finish up with a hearty Masi lunch.
Unusual things to do in Cape Town – talk with with doctors in Masi
Long believed to be the most southerly point in Africa (spoiler – it’s not, that’s actually Cape Agulhas) the way the rocks slice into the water, dividing the Indian and Atlantic Oceans apart, is one of the most thrilling sights on earth (alright, the technical division of the oceans also takes place somewhere else but when standing on the windswept edges watching the tumult of the waves below, it’s easy to see how people imagined that this was the end of the earth.) You can cheat and take the funicular up but the highlight of the visit involves striding through the vegetation, making the most of those spectacular views.
12) Follow the footsteps of Madiba
The extraordinary life history of Nelson Mandela is one of the most inspiring stories in the world – and plenty of the key events took place in Cape Town. Track them down yourself (through a visit to Robben Island and walking past the balcony where Mandela gave his first speech as a free man after 27 years in prison) or else have Footsteps to Freedom round them up for you through their Footsteps of Madiba tour. (NB – For more on this incredible man, don’t forget to visit Lilliesleaf farm on the outskirts of Joburg where Mandela hid for many months and of course the township of Soweto in Joburg, the crucible of many of the fights against apartheid.)
13) Remember District Six
At the end of the 19th century, Cape Town’s District Six was a vibrant, mixed community of merchants, artisans, free slaves and labourers. Forced migrations began with black South Africans at the turn of the century and then in the 1960s more than 60 000 people were forcibly removed and their houses destroyed as the government relabelled District Six as a White Only area. While events like this took place across South Africa, District Six has become a symbol for the entire process, perhaps because much of the flattened area remains a wasteland in the heart of the city today. Visit the District Six Museum to find out more (and get chatting to older drivers, cooks and artists, many of whom were children evicted during the District Six reassignment and who have their own stories to tell.)
14) Taste the flavours of Africa
First up, let me warn you that locals say this place is for tourists. Second up, let me say that the food tastes great, the entertainment’s upbeat and until you’ve had your face painted with beautiful tribal dots, well you’re just missing out on the fun that life has to offer! Zoom around the continent on your tastebuds with Nigerian cassava bread, peri peri from Mozambique and spicy butternut squash from Kenya. Best of all is the interactive Djembe drumming session at the start of the evening. It’s demanding and surprisingly addictive. Find all this at the Gold Restaurant in Green Point. Relax and enjoy.
15) Browse around Greenmarket Square
Formerly a slave market, vegetable market and car park (although not all at the same time) Greenmarket Square now hosts an eclectic flea market amid this network of streets in Cape Town’s historic centre.
16) Stroll along Camps Bay
If you’re looking for white sand, blue water and a stylish line-up of bars and eateries then Camps Bay is the place to go. It’s also a beautiful low-key area if you’re looking for a place to stay for a while.
17) Get your design on at the Old Biscuit Mill
Once a biscuit mill (how did you guess?) this red brick urban edifice now hosts experimental restaurants, designer boutiques, art galleries and more. Plus it hosts the tasty and uplifting Neighbourhood Goods Market each Saturday morning. If local produce, organic food and lashings of balsamic vinegar are your kind of thing then this will be the market for you. Visit the Old Biscuit Mill.
18) Paint pottery and get dancing in Langa
The Guga S’Thebe Arts & Cultural Centre in Langa injects a pulse of community spirit in Cape Town’s oldest township. Shop for coloured pottery or sit back and enjoy a musical performance as this part of town deals with its past hostel history at the nearby museum and takes steps toward a brighter future within the arts centre.
19) Dine at the V & A Waterfront
Yes, not exactly unusual. It’s Africa’s most visited tourist attraction, after all. But the V& A Waterfront is definitely worth a visit, and the yellowtail tartare at the Harbour House Restaurant just oozes with freshness and flavour.
So, yes. Do visit Cape Town’s V & A Waterfront. Just don’t let that be the only place you see.
What did I miss? What unusual things to do in Cape Town do you know about?
Disclosure – Some of the items on this list were hosted, some were not. Not every hosted attraction made it on the list. In short, I’ve only included things that I’d recommend to friends, no matter who paid on each occasion. As ever, as always, I’m free to write what I like on Inside the Travel Lab. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Breathless, sweaty and most definitely ready for food, I pushed open the glass door and stumbled inside.
“Are you still serving?” I asked, the words more direct than I’d have liked.
A man walked towards me, in black against the bright white walls, clear-varnished wood and chic-hipster vibe I’d pretended to ignore in case we didn’t fit in.
“But of course,” he replied, before catching sight of the pushchair and paraphernalia behind me.
“Oh…” he took a breath and paused. “Perhaps you’d prefer to sit by the box of toys. She can use our trike if you’d like. It used to belong to my daughter.
“And perhaps you would like some green wine? Some tosta de queijo mel e nozes? It is bread with cheese, honey and nuts.”
Finding Lisbon Restaurants Where Locals Eat
This wasn’t how it was meant to be, of course.
Relishing a few days in the foodie city of Lisbon, I’d scribbled suggestions, pinned pictures on Pinterest, flitted hearts across instagram and whatever else we’re supposed to do in this social media age before taking our taste buds anywhere.
I had the additional perk of knowing not one, not two but three food writers familiar with the city and, quite literally, ran into a woman who wrote the book on travel and eating out in Portugal only a few weeks before.
So where did I go wrong?
Opening times, that’s where.
The many flavours of Lisbon
Planning or drifting through the flavours of Lisbon?
Or perhaps the blame lay in abandoning my more natural happy-go-lucky spontaneous traveller vibe (we’ll call that the optimistic description) in favour of something more organised.
Still. I had a hungry toddler on my hands and a list of recommendations that ended in closed doors.
Until now, at Banca de Pau, a tapas-oriented restaurant specialising in food from Tras os Montes in the north near the Douro valley.
There comes a level of exhaustion and hunger that can make anything taste good. And thankfully, I wasn’t yet there.
But good the food did taste, all brimming with top ingredients, minimally messed with.
We ordered bread, olives. Tomato salad with vinaigrette and toast with pistachio.
And it turns out there really is such a thing as green wine (vinho verde from the Minho province in the Portugal’s far north.)
Faith and full belly restored, I was ready to try again.
The Cool Cat Restaurant in Lisbon: The Time Out Market
It has an ear for a zingy slogan: if it’s good it goes in the magazine (yes it’s that Time Out) if it’s great, it goes in the market.
The idea is cool, showcasing the city’s different flavours, and the execution is clearly cooler. Stalls use matching fonts on monochrome fabric and diners throng together on shared tables in the centre of the hall.
Ironically, this made it trickier for travel with baby, but a playground outside eased the congestion of that.
Uninspiringly described as egg custard tarts, these Portuguese sweet treats don’t look much better either.
But don’t let appearances fool.
Even for non-pastry lovers like myself (I’m more of a “meh” girl when it comes to croissants,) they won me over.
The pastry is light yet tough, the filling delicately flavoured.
You’ll find them everywhere, more or less, and having tasted some so incredible at an underground chain kiosk, I don’t really think you can go wrong.
But Pasteis de Belem is the famous one and rumoured to be the best, so if you have an appetite for queues and a hunger for pasteis then fire up your Google Maps and go.
Pasteis de Nata in Lisbon
Tangy Sweet Cheese and Ham: Ovelha Curado and Presunto
The other staples of Lisbon dining are ovelha curado and presunto. Commonly brought out with while you choose your main dish, they taste amazing but come with an irritating trait: they’re presented as though they’re a gift from the chef but actually there’s a hefty fee.
On the rebound from pregnancy-related soft cheese bans, I relished every chance I could get.
The best came at the seafood restaurant café at the five star Tivoli Avenida Liberdade. The ham melted softly, the cheese bore the salty-smooth twang that most certainly is not to everyone’s taste but that had run off and eloped with mine.
Lisbon Restaurants with a View
For a city clustered over centuries around seven steep hills, Lisbon’s a place that excels in vistas and rooftop bars. And though the Tivoli’s Cervejaria Liberdade lives at street level, its Sky Bar and executive breakfast lounge offer views across the city that make you forget about the food.
The Sky Bar is open to all, serving cocktails like the Snowberry with port, lime juice, egg white and cinnamon. The sea glittered to order on the horizon and the leaves of Lisbon’s “Champs Elysees,” Avenida Liberdade, fluttered with self-conscious glamour below.
The Sky Bar at Tivoli Avenida Liberdade
It’s a bright white, cool cat kind of a place, but for “rooftop views” with a casual feel, head deep into Alfama or take a tram or steep stride uphill to Jardín de São Pedro de Alcântara.
The former is the oldest part of the city, where streets are even narrower, even steeper, even more cobblier than the rest.
São Pedro de Alcântara, however, rustles up standard tourist fare with a happy tourist vibe. The scaffolding was up when I met my companions for the Highlights of Portugal G Adventures tour, but with the sunset, the music and the stands that looked like mulled wine, it scarcely mattered.
And then there was the tomato salad at the Banca de Pau.
With its fresh, great flavours and the man who lent his daughter’s trike.
It was like finding friends in the city. An experience so good we went there twice, once bringing our Lisbon-local friend with us.
And the whole thing reminded me of a long-held truth: no matter how hard you plan, sometimes it pays to make travel mistakes.
Cafe Versailles in Lisbon
More Notes on Lisbon restaurants Where Locals Eat
Café Versailles – yes, it has a French vibe and we’re talking about eating in Lisbon but it’s an atmospheric haunt and beloved by loyal locals. Pastries galore, character in fin de siecle abandon.
A Padaria Portuguesa – Am I recommending a chain on a travel blog specialising in unusual and thoughtful luxury? Yes, indeed I am. A chain it may be but it’s certainly a Portuguese chain that provides plenty of Lisbon restaurants where locals eat. A good stop for breakfast or a mid morning snack.
Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Hotel – for the view. The breakfast buffet is top notch but it’s the view that steals the show.
The Ones I Couldn’t Check: Lisbon Restaurants Where Locals Eat
Cervejaria Ramiro – near Independiente. The queues were like Oxford Street on Boxing Day and although solo by then, I had to move on. Recommended by Eat Like A Girl and Celia Pedroso.
I spent a few days in Lisbon with my family and then travelled north through Portugal on the Highlights of Portugal tour as part of my work with Lonely Planet and G Adventures. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, there’s just no point. For all the pastries in the world.
Some of the other recommendations were hosted, some were not, but all were only included because I like them and would gladly do them again.
How does food work when you travel with G Adventures? On this trip, most meals were not included so that you could test out whatever took your fancy (the group size means that some of the smaller sized places aren’t suitable if you’re all eating together.) Occasional dinners were included and plenty of suggestions were made.
Where should a first, or third or long time visitor begin?
Things to Do in Bristol from a Visitor and Former Resident
Well, having been each of those things, I thought it was high time I spilled the chic vegan beans about your pretty gritty city charm.
So here’s my list of unusual things to do in Bristol, with a baby or toddler, and without.
Right, let’s get started.
Unusually Mainstream: Make a day of it along the Bristol Harbourfront
Yes, this area is a strange place for a list about unusual things to do. These renovated docklands are a key part of town and feature clearly on every tourist map.
Yet, it’s hard to find too many tourists in Bristol. It’s just not that kind of place.
It’s not like Bath or Cambridge or the area around Westminster Abbey. It’s a living city and you’re more likely to find coffee-coiffing creatives sketching out their next great idea than big tour groups led by a flag and a stick.
This area also happens to be perfect for travel with young children. It’s flat! There are spaces they can run around! There are loads of museums with changing facilities and cafes designed for babies to sleep.
There’s also a host of vegan restaurants which makes it easy to find healthy food for baby weaning or breastfeeding.
Oh yes. And many of the attractions are designed with children in mind ;-)
Unusually Arty Things to Do in Bristol: Arnolfini
Relish the open access library and reading area as well as the twinned restaurant, unspectacularly named the Arnolfini Cafe Bar. The green plants hanging from the ceiling are quite spectacular, though, and the Bristol Beer Factory have created an interesting blend of craft beers and gourmet health foods in a picturesque setting.
The art can be interesting but, ahem, you know, it depends.
Unusually Everyday Things To Do in Bristol: The M Shed
This free to enter museum gathers together the story of Bristol through local paraphernalia. Whether you love Bristol or don’t know it at all, it makes a good place to stop off. If you’re already on Facebook friends terms and in a bit of a rush, then this would be the one to skip.
Unusually Interesting Things to Do in Bristol: We The Curious (Formerly At Bristol Science Centre)
Terrible name, lovely place. This is a science museum filled with light, air and space for children. Its bookshop makes a good stop for adults, too, with inspiring titles like Women Who Dared and Great Women of the World.
There are over 300 exhibits inside – and the one that stood out the most (perhaps for obvious reasons) was the lifesize stages of pregnancy exhibit. And the indoor pink earthquaking trampoline with audio that “simulated” labour.
Unsually Amazing Things to do in Bristol: The SS Great Britain
This place deserves an article in its own right. I can’t believe how many times I saw the name advertised everywhere yet still hadn’t understood what it’s all about.
Folk, it’s about travel history. And engineering, yes, but this ship revolutionised the way people crossed between America and England. And beyond. And the results of that can still be felt today.
If you’re lucky, you may spot Isambard Kingdom Brunel taking a stroll above the dock…
Where Are Some Unusual Places to Eat in Bristol?
Bristol’s history leaves it with a wonderfully diverse range of eating options (plus every chain restaurant you can imagine.)
But for some different flavours and unusual places to eat in Bristol, here are the highlights (all personally tested, of course…)
The Glassboat Bristol
A Bristol institution, this cute little place gets its name on account of being a boat. With a lot of glass. It’s a lovely atmospheric spot made for special occasions with a French bistro menu. Oh, and highchairs and a lovely approach to young children so head along early in the evening for all of you to enjoy the place.
Its sister property, The Lido, also looks intriguing, housed in a former open-air swimming pool. I’ve had coffee there but am yet to taste their dinner menu.
St Nicholas Market, Bristol
A weekday wander through the narrow lanes of this indoor/outdoor market is absolute bliss with a babe in pushchair (or without.) So many colours! So many scents! So many flavours!
Beautiful clear glass overlooking the water, with swirling sausages and flavoursome veggie options too.
Watershed Cafe Bar Bristol
Part art house cinema, part pub-cafe, part digital nomad workstation, I’ve spent more time than I’d care to admit typing away in the Watershed. Look out for the flower-cakes, moist carroty sponge with instagrammable purple petals.
Things to do in Bristol Beyond the Harbourfront
Clifton Suspension Bridge – and Clifton Village
Another of Brunel’s legacies, the Clifton Suspension Bridge was designed for horses and carts but now transports thousands of vehicles across the Avon Gorge every day. It’s a symbol of the city and has a modest visitor’s centre at the top. The grassy area around the bridge is lovely to visit on a good day and Clifton offers a gentrified choice of places to eat and drink too.
A new museum for Bristol, Being Brunel will be devoted entirely to the life and works of the remarkable Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Located alongside the SS Great Britain, one of his finest achievements, the museum is scheduled to open in March 2018 and will invite visitors to immerse themselves in Brunel’s story, brought vividly to life with never-before-seen personal possessions, documents and artefacts, including his last cigar and cigar case, and his 1821 school report. Brunel’s Grade II* Listed Drawing Office where he originally designed and built the SS Great Britain is being restored to how it would have looked in the 1840s.
Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Appeal has revealed details of a third Bristol arts trail planned for July 2018. And for the first time, there will be not one, but three characters taking part: lovable canine Gromit will be joined by his old pal Wallace and arch nemesis Feathers McGraw. Two previous trails were hugely successful: Gromit Unleashed, which scattered 70 large-scale designer Gromits all over Bristol in 2012, and Shaun in the City in 2015, which pulled off a similar feat with a flock of 120 spectac-ewe-lar sheep. These hugely popular events, and the subsequent sale of the sculpted Aardman characters, raised over £6 million for Wallace & Gromit’s Children’s Foundation while introducing a fun way of discovering Bristol.
Where to stay in Bristol when travelling with children
On our last trip, we stayed in the Premier Suites Serviced Apartments in Cabot Circus and it was a genius idea. Why? Well, because the location was within walking distance of the Harbourfront but, arguably as importantly, it made travel with a young toddler easy.
With a separate lounge area, once baby Lab was in bed, we could stay up and enjoy each other’s company instead of hiding out in the bathroom or going to bed at 8pm. The kitchen made breakfast quick and easy for a weaning toddler, which meant that we could enjoy lunch or dinner out, safe in the knowledge we weren’t going to be asking baby Lab to sit still and wait for longer than she could handle at this age.
We were also impressed by the little touches, which smoothed over some of the bumps that sometimes arise in self-catered stays. They provided mini dishwasher tablets and a small bottle of washing up liquid, for example, plus a welcome pack of common breakfast bites. Towels and sheets were also provided and the beds were already made. They made life easy and made us feel welcome.
Disclosure – We paid a reduced rate to check out some of the attractions on our last visit to Bristol and were hosted by Premier Suites.As ever, as always, we kept the right to write what we like. Otherwise, the whole thing becomes too depressing for words…
A barely there spa setting that makes the most of the stunning surroundings
Enjoy every aspect of the Maldives Islands with a stay at the W Retreat & Spa. Not only does the Indian Ocean surround the rooms but frosted glass portholes reveal its shimmer and shine beneath your feet as well.
Accessible only by sea plane, the spa itself has no walls nor windows: just bright air, sea breezes and yet more views of the unbelievably brilliant blue.
Pine-scented relaxation with views of the Adriatic ocean and hiking paths nearby
The Lafodia’s spa’s signature treatment, the Aemotio, focuses on the theme of water in these Elaphiti islands. Positioned beneath an octopus of pulsing jets, the therapist begins with an exfoliating treatment on a luxury water bed before moving on to a mud mask and finishing off with a water vibro-massage. A 21st steam hammam takes place, as does treatment with gel drainage masks and infra red.
Elsewhere, steam rises up in vapours of citrus and pine – and of course, there’s always an ice bath for the bold and, er, foolish brave.
Perfect massage technique with a backdrop of roaring surf
Only 30 minutes from the main airport, the chunky boulders that surround the soft white sand create a world away from stress and strain. A palm-fringed path leads up the hill to the spa, whose treatments blend poultices made from indigenous herbs with traditional Thai techniques.
The waves of the Indian Ocean provide a thunderous chorus through the open-air walls while therapists melt away aches and pains with ease.
Precision treatments that will change the way you think about sake forever
If you’ve decided that the rice wine sake is not for you, then a trip to the Hoshinoya Karuizawa Spa may change your mind. Rooms bring a contemporary touch to traditional Japanese ryokan living but the essentials remain: low level furniture, cleanliness, immaculate design and piping hot baths.
Relax in the aromatic cedar wood bathtubs of the room or head to the spa for the full sake scrub.
Walk back, nay float, beneath the clear light of the stars.
Dreamy white sails and spice on a private island in Borneo
In the name of research, or course, I tried out several spas in Malaysian Borneo – and the Gaya Island Resort won easily. Accessed by a short trip on a private boat, the island itself acts as a research-based turtle sanctuary with snuffling wild boars, as well as a prime honeymoon destination.
The spa village, a tranquil arrangement on stilts amid Borneo green, incorporates Sabah’s spices and indigenous customs into its treatments.
The results are heavenly.
Disclosure – At some of these spas I received complimentary treatments for review purposes – and in some of them, I did not. In any case, I always keep the right to write what I like and to choose which spas make the cut in my best of the world list.
Typically, I only publish my own photos here on the lab but in certain situations (spas, business class etc) I’ll use stock images to protect people’s privacy. Let’s face it, few of us want photos of us asleep or in our swimsuits on the internet…right?!
Which do you think are the best spas in the world? Go on, I’m aching for some recommendations!