New York highlights

So, it’s been about a year since I blogged and I realised I never did get round to writing my NY highlights so here goes:

Food
Glaze Teriyaki – a great, low budget gluten free option. This felt like a really cool, no fuss place to eat with a really good vibe and even better when you can relax knowing they have gluten free options.

Tu-Lu’s Gluten free bakery – the food from here was SO good. Easily the best gluten free cakes and doughnuts I have ever eaten. I really wish they would open one in the UK!

Sprinkles cupcakes – they have a cupcake ATM!!! What can possibly beat that?! Also worth noting that it dispenses gluten free cupcakes.

Shops
Top Hat This is a great little shop which is worth checking out. I found a great purse in here which i’ll cherish forever. It’s not huge and some of the things can be a little pricier than other shops but it’s a great independent shop with quality goods.

Sights
9/11 Museum – this is such an unforgettable moment in World history and I think that this museum is a really well thought out way to ensure that the truth of 9/11 continues to live on through generations. The content of the museum can be harrowing which is no surprise but it brings home how desperate the people involved and who lost their lives must have felt. The 9/11 fountains are also worth a visit and a touching way to remember those who lost their lives. Please remember that this is a memorial and smiling selfies are really not appropriate!

Top of the Rock – I have done Top of the Rock and Empire State and I prefer Top of the Rock. It means you get an unrestricted view of Central Park which really allows you to appreciate the size and beauty of the park.

Statue of Liberty – this is one of my favourite things to visit in NY. Go and visit the Museum and have the audio guide. Listening to the audio guide really brought home to me what the Statue of Liberty symbolises and has meant to people for so many years. Lady Liberty is so iconic and I can’t quite believe I’ve actually seen her in the ‘flesh’. Lady Liberty represents freedom, liberty and was the first thing many people saw when coming within touching distance of the USA for the first time in hopes of a better life and new beginnings. Well worth a visit!

The high line – I love this concept. It is so great to walk (without stopping at traffic lights at each block) from one area of NY to another. You can take in the views and enjoy a leisurely stroll. The high line seems to get longer and longer every time I visit NY which is great.

There are of course so many other highlights in NY; Bryant Park, Battery Park, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central, Bloomingdales, Macy’s, Central Park, Empire State Building, 30 Rock, Flatiron building, Brooklyn Bridge, Intrepid Air Sea and Space Museum, NY Library, Times Square and so many more – all of which I would recommend seeing/visiting.

I absolutely love New York City and think that it is impossible to run out of things to do so I could go on forever but wanted to give you some of my highlights.

Rome (Gluten free)

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Rome, Italy – not the first place you look to go to if you’re unable to eat gluten! When my friends decided they were going to Rome and invited me along, I jumped at the chance. Everything was booked and then I realised that eating in Italy might be in a bit of a problem. Having never visited Italy before I was desperate to go and sample the culinary delights that Rome had to offer. All I can say is, thank goodness for the Internet!

I researched gluten free rome and came across some really great websites and blog posts:

http://www.eatingitalyfoodtours.com/blog/gluten-free-rome/

http://selectitaly.com/blog/rome/gluten-free-restaurants-in-rome/

http://www.zestbakery.com/blog/eating-gluten-free-rome-italy

I printed lists of restaurants from the above blogs/websites and prepared my friends for the daily hunt.

Our first day consisted of miles of walking and enabled us to take in sights such as Piazza Navona, the Pantheon and the Vittorio Emmanuele Monument. Our wandering had enabled us to stumble upon a vegan gelato bar, CamBio Vita. The lemon gelato was amazing and I wish I could have taken it home with me! Also trying to avoid lactose and dairy where possible meant that a vegan gelato bar was perfect!  Dinner that night took us to Trastevere and Mama!Eat where the entire menu is available gluten free. There could not have been more choice!!!
image (Photo courtesy of one of my travelling companions)

Day 2 of Rome sightseeing took us to the Colosseum, Roman Forum and the Palatine. We went back to Trastevere for dinner that night via the Basilica de Santa Maria. We ate at Ristorante dai Sandri di Trastevere. They took gluten free so seriously at this restaurant that I was given a different colour knife and fork to everyone else and the waiter was insistent that neither of my travelling companions use their cutlery any where near my food. Here I sampled both gluten free pasta and pizza. The Pizza was without a doubt the best gluten free pizza I have eaten and I don’t think it will be beaten.
image (Photo courtesy of one of my travelling companions)

Day 3 took in the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica. We knew that we had a day of walking ahead of us so decided to stop for lunch at La Soffitta Renovatio. Again, the entire menu was available gluten free. I could not leave Italy without eating gnocchi and this was my opportunity and my god was it good!!! At La Soffitta Renovatio, a little flag is placed into your food if it is a gluten free option. Things like this can only help to reassure you that they are taking it seriously. After hours and hours of walking, we needed to find somewhere for dinner which is where my trusted printouts were vital. We walked, despite being beyond knackered, in order to spend our last night in Rome eating in a less run of the mill restaurant, Casa Bleve. My printout had led us their only to find a notice on the door saying they were closed for summer holidays.

‘Not to worry’ I thought, despite wondering how much further my legs could carry me, ‘there’s another restaurant on my list that is close by’. We dragged ourselves to Quinzi e Gabrieli only to find that they were also closed for summer holidays. We decided to walk back on ourselves and stop at the first restaurant we found and that I would just have to spend my last night having a salad or something equally as average but gluten free. We found a restaurant nearby called Pummarola & Drink and so we all decided upon our dishes and I asked if the escalope was gluten free at which point the waiter, who had been very attentive, said that they could give me any of the pasta dishes as gluten free dishes. Thankfully I was able to spend my last meal in Rome delving into a huge (the biggest portion we had had) plate of spaghetti and eating at a restaurant with wonderful service.

I was so thankful to the individuals that posted their gluten free Rome experiences online for me to use as a guide, the Italians for being nothing but accommodating and my stomach for allowing me to spend my long weekend in Rome without any problems!!

I loved Rome, the people, the historic feel, the enthusiastic language, the beauty, the architecture, the glamorous outfits of the Italian ladies and without a doubt the gluten free food! I could never taste that it was gluten free and enjoyed every single mouthful. Now I just need to go back to experience the Trevi fountain, minus the scaffolding, and of course to experience culinary delights at Casa Bleve!!

Panama Part 2

We arrived in Bocas del Toro to torrential rain, Caribbean accents and the sounds of reggae. We travelled to Bocas by boat and spent the first afternoon (when the rain had stopped) exploring the beaches.

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Throughout our time in Bocas we ate some amazing food, curried fish and coconut rice was one of my standout favourites. We walked everywhere and were constantly surrounded by reggae and friendly locals. It feels very much like you are part of the community and every evening was spent at a different restaurant on a jetty over the water.
In Bocas in December you have to be prepared for torrential downpours at some point in the afternoon/early evening but once the skies clear the weather is lovely and warm.
A day that will live in my memory forever was spent in Bocas. We travelled to ‘Dolphin Bay’ and caught a glimpse of some dolphins dining on jellyfish. Being the first time seeing dolphins in the wild was amazing and a privilege. We went from Dolphin Bay onto Isla Zapatilla, a beautiful, calm, deserted island with clear blue water as far as the eye can see. I felt like I had been marooned in the set of Pirates of the Caribbean!! We were then taken by our guide to see some sloths before heading on to a great spot for snorkelling which was a great experience. We spent the remainder of the day on the beach and I wish I could live that day again and again!!
I was extremely sad to leave Bocas and it’s heavy Caribbean feel but I went on to the San Blas islands which were straight out of paradise and provided a back to basics experience with the tranquility and amazing sunshine I was after! Seeing the 365 minute islands was amazing and I love that tourism is yet to spoil them and I don’t imagine the locals will let that happen!

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Isla Zapatilla

Bocas and San Blas are two areas of paradise that gave me experiences that I will treasure for a lifetime.

Panama – courtesy of Gadventures Pt 1

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My trip didn´t get off to the best start, my outbound flight from the UK to New York was delayed meaning that I had limited time (40 minutes instead of the 5 hours I had scheduled) to get through US security which anyone who has travelled to the US knows is almost impossible. Running out of time I sprinted to the gate on my boarding pass only to catch sight of the TV screens which said that my flight was leaving from a different gate. After a frantic ten or so minutes running from one end of the terminal to the other, I was then told that my flight was leaving from the gate originally on my boarding pass – thanks Newark with your inaccurate information – and then had to run back to where I had been originally. I was the last passenger to board and it took me a good 30 minutes to be able to breathe normally again!

Thankfully, the rest of my trip was much smoother than the start of it. We started our trip in Panama City and met our Gadventures tour guide Andrea at our first hotel. The weather in December was humid but with beautifully warm evenings. We went for dinner in a traditional restaurant in a beautiful old square in the Casco Viejo. I can’t take about Panama City without talking about the Panama Canal and Miraflores lock. I was amazed to learn about the history of the Panama Canal and to see Miraflores lock in action was something else. The feat of engineering is absolutely outstanding and I feel lucky to have witnessed it. Work is currently being undertaken to build a second canal and I hope that it is magnificent as the first!!

The next day we left early to travel to the mountainous Boquete. There was a drastic drop in temperature and an increase in rain but it only made our surroundings even more beautiful. In Boquete we did a waterfall hike through the mountains which although was far muddier than we were prepared for, I really enjoyed doing something a bit more active, especially after our 8 hour journey in a minivan on bumpy roads the day before. I don´t know how we made it down from the hike without any injuries and only plenty of shoes caked in mud because it was so slippery because of the rainfall in the mountains. In Boquete we experienced our first Panamanian local restaurants which offer cheap, fresh, typically Panamanian food – very similar to the Sodas of Costa Rica.

A Panoramic tour of Boquete took in coffee plantations, a minor earthquake, a volcano – Volcán Baru, winding roads, luscious green foliage and local communities. Here is where I tasted a coffee bean before it goes through the coffee making processes, saw even more waterfalls and bought some of the strongest bags I own from the locals using only natural materials. It was Boquete that really made me realise how untouched by tourism parts of the world can be. In more remote parts of Boquete they speak their own local language and have very few belongings. One house had no windows and only a breeze block shell for a house. The children had an old worn out football and a teddy bear which was hanging on the washing line made from natural materials. The thing that struck me was how the community had such a strong community feel and had no idea how poor in monetary terms they were but how rich in community spirit they were. I had to admire their work ethic, how they retained their own language, dress and philosophy and how they lived hand in hand with nature. I felt so sad that they had very little but hope that their community never loses its roots and stays untouched from outside influences.

Boquete is small and so a couple of days was enough time to spend there. We managed to fit plenty in and ate plenty of fresh food including lots of fish and amazing bread and cakes from the local bakery. I was sad to leave the mountains of Boquete because it is absolutely stunning and the local people are amazing and welcoming of so many tourists. Next stop was Bocas del Toro which deserves a whole post of its own….coming soon in Part 2.

My Costa Rica adventure

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After being desperate to travel to somewhere new and exotic, I started to look online for Spanish speaking countries where I could learn but also see a new country. Travelling alone meant that I wanted something to occupy my time and a Spanish speaking country meant I could continue to improve my Spanish.

I stumbled across ´Go Learn To´ who had a listing on their website for a Spanish and Photography course in Costa Rica. I booked months in advance and proceeded to spend months planning my trip and making sure I had all the necessary vaccines. This is when I found out that the institute offering the course was ´School of the World Costa Rica´ and so I did some research online and found rave reviews.

Having decided that I wanted to try and get some sun during the UK winter, I decided to fly to Costa Rica in December of 2013. I was greeted by scorching sunshine and a fair amount of humidity but was so thankful to be avoiding British weather. The locals told me at this point that they couldn´t wait for summer to arrive despite it being well over 30 degrees!!

I chose to stay with a homestay family who could not have been more welcoming and helped me so much with my Spanish and helped me to feel at home more than I could have imagined. They were a family who didn´t have very much except each other and a few belongings but they offered me their time and attention and gave me an insight into their world and to me, they seemed richer and had more to offer than anyone I know because of it.  Admittedly, the only thing I missed during my homestay was hot water but a cold shower every morning reminded me of how much we take our home comforts for granted.

I began my school week bright and early the day after arriving in Jaco, Costa Rica. Everyone at the School was welcoming and everyone was treated the same regardless of whether you were staying for one week or four months. I had one photography and one Spanish class a day and feel like I gained a lot of knowledge in both areas thanks to the teachers at the school and how well everything was organised. Classes are also offered in Yoga and Surfing which in hindsight I wish I had also done!!

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When I wasn´t studying, the pool area was available to relax in, as was the hammock and lounge area and the kitchen area. It is easy to follow the ‘Pura Vida’ (Pure Life) motto or mantra that belongs to Costa Rica because the locals (Ticos) have an amazing quality of life because they are so relaxed and live in a beautiful country.

I visited a private beach for photography class, zip-lined through the rainforest, woke up at 4.30am to see sunrise and help baby turtles take their first swim in the ocean, visited Manuel Antonio National Park which was the most beautiful place I have ever visited, watched a surf competition and experienced sunset on the beach, saw sloths and crocodiles up close, photographed local fishermen while they fixed their boats, ate amazing tacos, experienced local sodas (amazing local food establishments for really good prices), experienced Costa Rica life firsthand and improved my photography and spanish skills along the way.

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My only regret? Not staying for more than one week and not managing to fit in time for a surf!!! I have no doubt that I will return to Costa Rica and discover even more beautiful places because Costa Rica, you have stolen my heart. Pura Vida!!!

Independent travel v travelling companions

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(Albufera, Valencia)

I always know that starting a solo adventure and starting an adventure with my friends/family will be totally different.

Without a doubt travelling with others gives you a bit of a safety blanket. Someone to help if you’ve packed way too many things, someone to feel safe with when getting a taxi or public transport or walking late at night. Someone to talk to while you eat in restaurants.

Travelling with my family is always comfortable and enjoyable. We all know each others habits, fall into a routine quickly and generally all want to do the same things or spend the same amount of time in museums!

Travelling with friends is usually always fun although can definitely make or break a friendship! If they forget they have set their phone alarm for 4.30am and somehow sleep through it while you’re trying desperately to find the phone in the middle of the night after a long journey and then they have no recollection of it in the morning and seem to not care about your efforts to silence the alarm then maybe it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the trip!

Travelling solo is totally different and definitely where I have learnt the most about myself. It gives you time away from everything you know and throws you in at the deep end. You have time to reflect, to become independent and to become comfortable with your own company. It also means you only have to really think about yourself and it can also put you in situations where you meet people you probably wouldn’t have met had you been with people you know.

Travelling alone as a woman can mean you are much more alert to danger which can be tiring but the important thing is to stay in contact with your loved ones (thank god for wifi) and don’t put yourself in any dangerous situations like walking through deserted streets alone at 2am.

I have travelled to Europe and Central America alone and now feel comfortable flying alone and doing everything else alone that comes with solo travel. You can have some amazing experiences and find out about an inner strength or inner adrenaline junkie or whatever else it is that you didn’t know you had as you hadn’t stepped outside your comfort zone.

For me travelling solo was a great way to see different parts of the world at a time when my friends and family didn’t want to go to the same destinations as me or couldn’t afford to. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to travel for the sake of travelling alone.

Now I prefer to travel with my loved ones so that I can share amazing experiences with them but would always consider solo travel again in the future!

Travel tips Part One

1. For those living in London, the best foreign currency rates are Thomas Exchange Global Ltd followed by Covent Garden FX.

2. Backpacking and short on space? Instead of taking a beach towel, take a shammy leather – it’ll dry you off immediately after a swim in the ocean, dries out quickly in the sun, can be rinsed out immediately and takes up minimal space.

3. Those with older style GHD hair straighteners, unscrew the plug to reveal a pin plug ready for use in Europe without the need for an adaptor.

4. Need somewhere to put your keys/phone/wallet while on the beach? Get an old tub, possibly a tub that your shammy leather came in that has a lid and put your belongings in this when going for a swim. Not only does it protect them from sand but makes them less obvious to thieves (unless they are reading this).

5. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS leave enough time for your stopovers at US airports, a slight delay to your first leg flight plus the long queues at US immigration mean you could be pushing it to make your connecting flight. Remember, you have to collect your bags, re-check in your bags and go through security again before you make your next flight.

6. Always check airbnb for accommodation. Often it can be much cheaper than staying in hotels and gives you the opportunity to pick the brains of your hosts who are likely to be locals.

7. Use Quidco for booking travel – you can save so much money and this is absolutely one of my favourite websites.

8. Sign up to hotel chain loyalty schemes such as Hilton Honours or Marriott Rewards. This can often lead to free wifi at their hotels which you would otherwise have to pay for.

9. Look out for loyalty schemes such as hotels.com which offer one night stay free after paying for 10 nights.

10. Always take advantage of airmiles. This can save you lots of money and get you trips worldwide if you build up enough airmiles.

More hints and tips coming soon!

Cultural Differences

I have grown up in the UK and seen how society has changed drastically over the last 20 or so years. It used to be common for people to hold doors open for those walking behind them, to say please and thank you and to let others off public transport before getting on. It was also rare for people to have their music so loud it can be heard down the street and prevent neighbours from getting sleep. Unfortunately now this seems to be how a lot of people act, showing no respect for other people or even their belongings.

Travel has opened my eyes to how different cultures can be. Of course not everyone in the UK acts like the above but it is becoming more common place and my experiences around the world reflect my experiences and as in people and as in everything there are good and bad.

When I visited the US, I was amazed at the level of service in New York. Every member of staff whether it was on the subway, in a restaurant or in a shop, they all had impeccable customer service skills. I guess a lot can be said for commission but even so, this makes your day that little bit brighter and makes society that little bit nicer.

In Central America, some parts of the countries I have visited have been reasonably wealthy and reflect a lifestyle similar to that of the UK (but with more sunshine). However, other parts of the countries I visited have few belongings, no internet, no hot water and live three or four children to a room. This made them value everything they have and even the smallest gift seemed like you were giving them the world. In the mountains of Boquete in Panama, I saw a building of breeze blocks and holes for windows with a teddy bear and a small toy car out on the makeshift porch.IMG_9184

This was in contrast to the skyscrapers and Hard Rock Cafe of Panama City but it made me wonder, who is happier? I like to believe that it is the child with very few belongings but a close knit community working in the coffee plantations of Boquete who cherish everything they have and live so remotely that they are unaware of how the other half live.

In Spain, family is cherished more so than in the UK and maybe other parts of the world. Life revolves around family and the closest of friends are considered family. This is a nice way of living and appreciating those closest to you who have probably given you the most in life and provided you with the best start in life that they could.

Travel really does broaden the mind and although, like many, I am guilty of being too materialistic, I have learnt to appreciate those things and my family and friends more than I did before. I appreciate that I can turn on the shower and warm water comes out. Independent travel especially makes you realise the things that matter to you. When you leave your family and/or friends to travel for any period of time, you look forward to that moment at home or at the airport when you will see them there waiting for you. Certain countries have stolen little pieces of my heart and I am sure that some of the new countries I visit in the future will also steal my heart but home really is where the heart is and the majority of my heart lies where my family are.

UK travel

IMG_0123(Photo taken by me in London June 2015 during a tour with photography tours at night London)

Often the UK is overlooked as somewhere to travel. London of course is the exception to this. In the past few years I have begun to explore the UK more with trips in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. I very much love the sun and Scotland and Ireland were a little too rainy and cloudy for my liking but have beautiful views and landscapes with much more to be discovered.

York has recently been a great surprise and delight for me. I went with no specific expectations and left feeling like I discovered a lovely city steeped in history and boutique shops and restaurants. York was busy yet I never really felt rushed or claustrophobic, the people there but almost unnoticed. The charm for me was the boutique restaurants and shops each offering something slightly different. The York Roast company was a welcome sight to get my roast dinner fix and very much reminded me of Oink in Edinburgh – I can’t believe London and other cities haven’t caught onto this type of restaurant yet!! My highlight of the trip was seeing the beauty that is York Minster and the York Chocolate Story which was a couple of hours extremely well spent. I can’t recommend the Chocolate story enough for all ages.IMG_0282 (Snapshot from York Chocolate Story museum – I don’t want to give away too much of the tour!)

It just shows that although it is great to travel the world, it is equally as important to discover the (not so hidden) treasures a few hours train ride away.