Posts in Cultural City Breaks
Iceland - land of glaciers, waterfalls & geysers

If you are a lover of nature and adventure then there are few places in this world that could compete with Iceland. Maryna was very fortunate to visit this beautiful country courtesy of Exsus. The beauty of Iceland is such that it was a location for many films and TV shows, the most recognisable of which is probably the Game of Thrones.

Waterfall in Iceland

Waterfall in Iceland

Although Iceland has been receiving a lot of tourism in the past few years, I was completely charmed by its unspoilt nature and, having travelled from London, fresh and clean air.

Icelanders are very protective of the environment and their dedication to recycling, reducing the consumption of plastic and conservation was very close to my heart. Iceland is not a cheap country but everything that you get there, be it locally produced clothing or food, is of the highest possible quality. In fact, foodie as I am, I was quite surprised to discover that food in Iceland was absolutely delicious. It was not only the exotic produce, like Minke Wale, wild goose and rain deer but their pairings with interesting flavours like jam and peanut butter that brought it to a whole new level. Iceland caters very well for vegans and vegetarians also, so not a chance to go hungry, as they grow many vegetables locally in green houses.

Their minimalistic approach to accommodation was right up my street also. You won’t find monstrous hotel complexes in Iceland, the hotels tend to have 60-70 rooms on the average and blend seamlessly into the landscape. Expect a lot natural materials, like wood and lava stone, very comfortable but with no bells and whistles - it is all about the view! Most hotels where I stayed had floor to ceiling panoramic windows with the views of the surroundings.

From some windows you could even enjoy the northern nights! Talking about Aurora borealis, the best time to see them if from September until the end of March, although I travelled in April, I was very lucky to see them too.

Iceland has two distinct seasons, summer and winter. Summer, from April to September, is the time for road tripping, hiking, cycling and whale watching. It is also a good time to see colonies of nesting puffins that come to Iceland in the summer. Winter is all about winter activities and northern lights, although some roads could be closed.

From my experience beginning of April is a good compromise between the two, you may already have a chance to spot wales and dolphins, weather permitting and if you are lucky, see the northern lights, like we did, although days do get increasingly longer and it is not typical to spot them past March.

April is also a good time to see two sides of Iceland, the white snowy Reykjavik and the Highlands as well as mossy green area around Vik.

Only three hours away, Reykjavik is a perfect getaway for an adventure weekend. The city itself is quite attractive with its harbour and numerous cool restaurants and bars, but there is also a possibility to jump on a whale/puffing watching boat departing several times per day or take a helicopter tour and observe Iceland’s unparalleled beauty from above.

There are several tours to chose from ranging from one hour to half a day, or even a full day private tour. The last but not the least is of course the Blue Lagoon, ideally located half way between the airport and the city and thus a perfect stop over en route to/from the flight. Or if you have 3-4 day, why not complete the Golden Circle, covering 300km loop from Reykjavik into central Iceland and back? The Golden Circle is a popular tourist route with three primary stops: the national park, Thingvellir, the Gullfoss waterfall and the geothermally active valley, Haukadalur.

If you want to avoid crowds at the stunning Gullfoss waterfall we can highly recommend taking the secret way to it with a fun and exhilarating ATV experience at Einholt farm.

If you have more time, the breath-taking landscapes of Southern Iceland and the south coast are simply incredible and an unmissable part of Iceland holiday.

You will have a chance to visit the village of Vik, Iceland’s most southern village and an ideal base for visiting the many natural gems of the area. Just a short drive away are the impressive Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, the famous Reynisfjara beach and the Reynisdrangar Pillars, simply known as the Black Beach.

I particularly enjoyed my visit to the glacial lagoon of Jokulsarlon, whose deep blue waters are dotted with icebergs and are home to hundreds of seals in winter. Icebergs then travel into the ocean dotting the beach with crystal-like pieces of ice in the process. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the beach is called Diamond beach.Another memorable experience was Falljokull glacier track and particularly walking in a deep crevass. It was fascinating to learn about the way glaciers form from our knowledgeable guide.

All in all, I can honestly say this was one of the most memorable trips I have ever taken and will gladly discuss it if anyone is planning a trip to the country. Maryna travelled in April 2019 to Iceland

Dizzy heights in Dubai

Courtesy of If Only, I, along with other travel professionals, spent a few nights checking out the sights of Dubai, Ajman and Ras al Khaimah. The Burj Khalifa was the first visitor attraction we headed to. Bringing a new meaning to the term “sky scraper”, the world’s tallest building, standing at a proud 828 metres high with the world’s tallest observation deck at 452 metres, it is not to be missed. Entrance is best pre booked and offers sensational views over down town Dubai, the Dubai Mall, the artificial lake and the Arabian Gulf as a whole. The high speed lift was an experience in its own right.

As if one dizzy height was not enough for one day, my next achievement was the Leap of Faith at Atlantis the Palm’s aquapark. Throwing myself down the Leap of Faith, whilst worrying about doing myself a serious injury and hoping my swimsuit was still intact, the experience of racing down the slide at what seemed like 70 miles an hour, will be a memory I will never forget.

The aquapark is another “not to be missed“ attraction. If you love speed and thrills, there are plenty of waterslides and tunnels from the Aquaconda ride, the Zoomerango and NOT for the faint hearted, there is Poseidon’s Revenge, where a trapdoor opens beneath your feet to send you plummeting over 20 metres downward before rocketing you into a double loop. The lazy river and the rapids are a God send after such action.

Our first couple of nights were spent at the new kid on the block from the Jumeriah portfolio – Al Naseem. The contemporary interior design is inspired by sand dunes, blue skies, sea breeze and Dubai's heritage of pearl diving and Bedouin traditions. From the balconies and extended terraces, there are spectacular views of the sea, the resort's landscaped gardens and swimming pools and the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah. Pretty good view from my room, don’t you agree?

From Dubai, we headed north to Ras al Khaimah, staying at the Al Wadi, managed now by Ritz Carlton. The Al Wadi Nature Reserve spans across 500 hectares, so there is privacy and peace abound. Camel and horse riding, archery, nature walks and falconry educational talks are just some of the activities you can participate in during your stay. Understanding the history and heritage of falconry in the Emirates was very interesting. Bedouin tribes used the birds to hunt in the desert, to supplement their diet with meat. We didn’t need to use hawks for our dinner that evening as we sampled the menu at the Safran Restaurant where they are serving Indian food. An evening would not be complete without a night cap in the comfy Moon Bar under the canopy of stars.

Last stop was the gorgeous Oberoi Al Zorah in Ajman. Considering it can take over 30 minutes from Dubai airport to get to the Palm area of Dubai, this new resort in Ajman is going to be a strong contender for the winter sun market. It takes the same amount of time to reach Ajman as it does downtown Dubai. The Oberoi brand is synonymous with luxury and this resort does not disappoint.

It is unique amongst the other hotels in Ajman; elegant and modern, offering fantastic sea views. Accommodation is made up of suites and for families or friends travelling together, the two and three bedroom villas with private pools are incredible. The mangrove forest and 18 hole golf course as well as the spa are all welcome facilities from the hotel. The resort has to have the best swimming pool I have ever swam in. It is 85 metres long. Sheer heaven!

We flew Emirates airlines from Gatwick to Dubai. Taking just 6 hours 30 minutes to fly from London, the airline has to be my favourite of all airlines. Coming back on the A380, we took a peek around first class – can you believe there is a shower on deck? We enjoyed mingling in the cocktail lounge with other passengers until I was reminded that we had to head downstairs to economy again.

For more information on holidays to Dubai, Ajman, Ras al Khaimah and any other of the Emirates, contact Karen at Travel Matters Email info@travelmatters.co.uk and thank you to If Only for the privilege.

Amalfi

When it comes to Easter breaks many travellers decide in favour of long haul destinations like the Middle East or the Caribbean. The Canaries are also a firm favourite, but other parts of Europe often get overlooked, as many assume it won’t be warm enough. Well…. I beg to differ having just come back from the famed Amalfi coast.

I have spent two very special days in Ravello, and think that April is a fantastic time to travel – the rates are not as inflated as in the summer, the streets are free and everything is in bloom of fragrant wisterias. We were fortunate to have a perfect t-shirt weather and some of us even needed sunscreen to keep them from burning in the sun.

I can’t recommend Ravello enough – its cobbled streets are incredibly charming and the views are spectacular. Not to mention that it is also ideal for those looking for a bit of culture, as there is a number of events held throughout the year and Pompeii is only a short drive away. No wonder that this medieval hilltop village remains one of the top wedding destinations. It is just impossible to take a bad picture there!

I had Palazzo Avino as my base – what a lucky girl I am! It is a stunning five-star deluxe hotel built in what was once a 12th century private villa for an Italian noble family and opened as a hotel in 1997. Palazzo Avino has been landed as one of the world’s finest hotels and boasts one-star Michelin dining. The views from my room were to die for and made my prosecco taste even better! Everything in the hotel is of the highest standard imaginable, starting with the impeccable service and luxurious furnishings and finishing with fine cuisine.

Talking of fine cuisine, taking a cooking lesson at the famous Nonna Orsola cook school is a great activity for the whole family, that can be arranged privately as well as a part of a group. Your lesson starts with a visit to their organic garden where seasonal vegetables get picked and then transformed into mouth-watering dishes under the supervision of Vincenzo, their charming and highly entertaining chef.

I learned a tremendous amount about Mediterranean cooking and how to cook very light and simple but tasty. Or how does making your own mozzarella sound? The whole process is a really good fun, not to mention that you will be acquiring a life-long skill.

No trip to the Amalfi coast or Naples is complete without going to Pompeii, a vast archaeological site that once was a thriving Roman city and got buried in meters of ash and pumice after the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius. The site really is impressive as some parts are very well preserved and give a valuable insight into what the city’s everyday life looked like. I didn’t expect Pompeii to be quite so large with numerous streets and a huge main square.

Visitors can explore the excavated ruins freely but I highly recommend hiring a guide. How else would I found out which buildings were shops or fast food stores, bakeries or laundry rooms? Or a very interesting fact that they used fresh urine for doing laundry and there was a special person collecting it around the city. No wonder that the laundry service was quite pricy!

Maryna travelled to the Amalfi coast with Highlife Marketing in April 2017. Call us on Tel 0208 675 7878 or email info@travelmatters.co.uk for prices and availability to the Amalfi coast.  

Vietnam & Cambodia

This guest blog is written by Mark Luboff who travelled with us in March 2017 to Vietnam & Cambodia.Arranged magnificently for us by Karen and her splendid team at Travel Matters and through the good offices of their associate partner, Go Barefoot, the Luboffs travelled the length and breadth of Viet Nam and Cambodia in just over three weeks in March/April 2017.

Hanoi is a busy, bustling city, full of noise, particularly the sound of scooter horns! It has a population of 8m and over 4m scooters and motor bikes! Uncle Ho is in his Mausoleum – the Russians we were told give him a makeover every two years!

Make sure you take a cyclo trip round the Old Quarter as this gives you a fascinating view of the hustle and bustle from street level. Personally, not sure you need to see the Water Puppet Show however – maybe just so you know exactly what it involves.

Our overnight stay on a junk exploring Bai Tu Long Bay was awesome – definitely worth escaping the more crowded Hu Long Bay. The limestone crags are impressive and at the same time almost mystical to wake up to in early morning. We kayaked and cave visited but really just loved cruising the waters and watching the amazing fishing families who live on their small boats 24/7 for the whole of their lives – how amazing is that?

Hue has citadels, pagodas and tombs but could be taken off the itinerary if pushed for time.

Hoi An on the other hand has great charm with many old buildings to explore all set off by a cacophony of brightly coloured lanterns and some excellent restaurants. The live music and dance show can be missed – or perhaps just an acquired taste!

We had a lovely trip into the villages to watch fishing nets being made and were then taken out on a boat to learn how [not] to cast a net – very much more difficult than it looks!

Lunch at the Family Restaurant was excellent with course after course being produced. The basket boat (sort of coracle) session could be forgone as it is rather touristy we found. An afternoon of cycling was well worth doing to see then countryside in action.

Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by the locals) is a big city – nothing much more to say about it. Our visit to a Cao Dai temple outside of Saigon was however fascinating and well worth doing.

Caodaism claims to have consolidated the best bits of many other religions. We attended a Mass but very little happens so we did not stay to the end.

Our three days cycling though the Mekong Delta area was very special allowing us to visit the small rice growing villages and see how the locals live - women working hard, men spending a lot of time in hammocks!

The bikes were in extremely good condition – suspension and gel seats. All needed as the roads/tracks can get bumpy at times and watch out for those bridges!We were also lucky enough to be taken on a small boat right through the back water, narrow streams of the Mekong River. A night at a guest house on stilts showed us the more basic way to bed down - the Elephant Ear fish was a particular delicacy served to us that evening.

The boat trip to the Cai Rang floating market was great fun and so very different from a trip to Waitrose! Indeed visits to all the food markets are well worth doing.

The young rice fields were so green, the dragon fruit so bright pink – we also saw chocolate being made. Yum, yum. The fresh vegetable soups were amazing, we, however, resisted the offer of the live silk worm and crickets combo!

On to Cambodia and a very different feel – but then the horrors of Pol Pot were only back in 1976 – 79. The current prime minister has been in power for 32 years now and has his own 10,000 troop of personal bodyguards ! We arrived just as the Khmer New Year three day celebrations were about to start. Lots of plastic toy water cannons action and the throwing of Johnsons talcum powder over everybody!!

Siem Reap is of course extremely well known for its Angkor Temples. We were rather surprised to be slightly underwhelmed by Angkor Wat itself – a lot of it in very poor condition and suffering from temple robbers liberating a lot of the statues – particularly Buddha heads. . Indeed we both rather preferred Bayon (masonic faces) and Ta Prohm (jungle temple – a la Tomb Raider).

The one hour foot massage included in our itinerary was quite an experience – my feet have never been so pummelled and caressed before !I suppose you probably have to visit Phnom Penh but apart from the Royal Palace compound which is definitely worth a visit we found little else of interest. Do have a drink at the Foreign Correspondents club which is full of history (you can almost hear the gun shots) and supper at The Titanic restaurant (do not be put off by the name) which has a great location and bags of atmosphere.

On our last night of the trip we went on a sunset cruise for two hours with supper included. A peaceful way to sip sundowners and enjoy the coastline which I am sure will be ‘chock a block’ full of new high rise hotels over the next few years. Nice to cool off after temperatures of 36 degrees and 85% humidity!

What a great trip, an amazing experience with many very happy memories. The people are the true stars with their welcome, their big smiles , their openness and frankness to talk about their countries and the recent history. The food is also great – morning glory with garlic and oyster sauce, the lobster and soft shell crab, the green peppercorns crème brûlée, the red snapper – the list goes on and on.

And all so well organised by our travel teams – great guides, great logistics, great hotel choices.

For more ideas about Vietnam trips, check out Travel Matters inspiration page.

Genoa for a long weekend - don't mind if I do!

When thinking of a long weekend away in Italy the city of Genoa doesn't immediately spring to mind, which is one of the many good things about a visit to this historical city : fewer tourists than Florence, Venice or Rome, and a shorter flight time to get there too. I went there almost by chance, having been invited to a special birthday party, and just marvelled in delighted surprise at the magnificent buildings : old palaces dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, whose walls are hung with  paintings by Tintoretto and Van Dyke; and cathedrals oozing with gold and beautiful marble statues.

Originally founded by the Phoenicians, this port in the northernmost gulf of the Western Mediterranean is described as a "vertical" city, stretching way up from the bustling port to the surrounding verdant hills. Entrance doors to houses are often on the balcony, and cars are sometimes parked on the roof.  To get a magnificent view of the city and the harbour you can either take a gentle hike up through the narrow streets or take a local bus (not forgetting to buy your ticket from a "tabac" kiosk beforehand - either a 100 minute ticket or for a couple of euros more, one that gives you the option to take as many bus rides as you like over two days), or-  even more fun - take one of several old  funiculars. I took a funicular from Staz Zecca ( right in the centre of the old city)  right to the last stop, turned left and found the most wonderful restaurant serving excellent food and offering a magnificent view of the city and harbour.

The old city centre is easy to navigate and small enough to wander around on foot. You might get a little lost at first in the many little alleys full of spice shops and fresh fish or meat kiosks, but "down" always leads to the sea, and no matter which corner you turn there is another fabulous  building to be investigated. Of course these palaces were mostly built at vast expense with the enormous amount of money made in the days when Genoa was a huge commercial trading centre. Never a great political power, Genoa however played a vital role in the European financial affairs in the 16th and 17th centuries. The influential Banco di San Giorgio that helped finance the doge's palace actually dates from 1407.

Apart from palaces and cathedrals, in a totally pedestrian area in the port there is a splendid Aquarium, where you can find sharks, penguins, dolphins, rays, alligators and hummingbirds. In contrast, a short bus-ride away there is the cemetery, with row upon row of funerary monuments, plus hundreds of well tended gravestones covered with fresh flowers - the many flower stalls by the entrance to this huge cemetery do a great trade. Among the tombs, there is that of Mazzini, one of the main heroes of the Risorgimento and a founding father of United Italy.

No holiday in Italy is complete without a certain amount of indulgence in  food and drink, and there is no shortage of cafes and restaurants where you can find whatever you want at whatever price. Pesto is one of the most traditional "tastes" of the area, and basil is considered to be the "King" of Ligurian cuisine, and both meat and seafood is plentiful. For breakfast "focaccia" (a tasty oven baked bread similar in style to pizza dough) is favourite along with a cappuccino, then topped with onions, olives and filled like a sandwich it makes an ideal afternoon snack. In my experience local wines were all good, certainly very drinkable, along with - of course - Prosecco, which I was lucky enough to be able to indulge in on the terrace of the beautiful Gran Hotel  Savoia. So, why not give Genoa a go for a long weekend? Like me you will probably decide you absolutely  must return and explore more.

Our guest blog is by Pat Pearson who travelled to Italy with Travel Matters in April 2016.