Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Our Top Trips in 2018 - Mark in Australia

We're continuing our look back at our teams travels this week - Mark visited Australia on an epic three-state trip, starting in Sydney, moving to Victoria and driving most of the Queensland Coast in a campervan - here's a quick look at the highlights of his Aussie adventure. . . .

Starting in Sydney

The first time I visited Australia was 27 years ago as an 18-year old backpacker, but I'm always excited to go back - it's one of the most diverse, incredible countries on the planet. As with many visits Down Under I started in Sydney, which is a very easy city to get to grips with - for me, if you stay anywhere between Central Station and Circular Quay you can't go too far wrong, and it's such as easy place to explore. I stayed right in the middle of Sydney at the Grace Hotel, which has pretty much everything you want to see within a 20 minute walk - I took in the Sydney Tower Eye, Darling Harbour and the amazing Sydney Opera House, all on foot.

One of my highlights of my stay in Sydney was a trip to the  fabulous Taronga Zoo , located across the harbour from the city centre - one of the best aspects of a visit here is the journey, taking a ferry from under the Harbour Bridge and past the Opera House - spectacular! The zoo itself is home to a superb array of animals, with plenty of indigenous Australian wildlife - a great place to start an Aussie adventure!

Melbourne & Victoria
A quick flight took me from Sydney to Melbourne, which is such a likeable city - OK so there's no iconic Opera House or Harbour Bridge, but it's all about the lifestyle here, with superb restaurants and funky bars, amazing wines & beers, and fresh local produce. I stayed close to the excellent Queen Victoria Market at the City Tempo Apartments - staying in an apartment for a few days if you're on a longer trip is a great idea as they come with handy laundry facilities! I spent a great few days enjoying Melbourne - including a fair few beers at my new favourite Victoria pub, the quirky Ponyfish Island, in the middle of the Yarra River!

Victoria is one of the best Australian states for exploring by car, with a landscape that changes constantly and not quite the epic distances of some of the larger states. It's a very easy drive down to Lorne, for example, which is the start of the iconic Great Ocean Road, one of the world's most famous drives - spend a few days heading along the coast to Warrnambool to take in the stunning scenery, before looping back inland to the gorgeous Grampians National Park.

Driving through Queensland
Back in 1991 I spent 6 months in Queensland, working in a supermarket on the Gold Coast and camping throughout the state, so I've always had a soft spot for this part of the country. This time I decided to hire a campervan and drive from Cairns in the north all the way down to Surfers Paradise in the south - almost 2000 km, and I only had a week! A campervan is a great way to explore the more rural areas of Australia, although it's not always the cheapest way of doing it - but pulling up at a beachside park and cracking open a beer to watch the sun set is truly special.

From Cairns I took a day trip out to the Great Barrier Reef, which is a 'must do' for any visitor - I'm not a great swimmer and certainly not a diver, so I travelled to Quicksilver's platform at Agincourt Reef, which caters brilliantly to everyone from qualified divers to those who don't even want to get their feet wet - underwater viewing rooms, submarines, easy snorkelling and advanced diving are all available here - I even took a helicopter trip over the Reef, which was just amazing!

As you travel through Queensland you can see the landscape changing from the tropical north to the sugar cane plantations further south - you really get a sense of just how big Australia is! Highlights for me included the gorgeous Whitsunday Islands (OK, so the weather was having an off day and the world's most beautiful beach - Whitehaven - was in torrential rain!) and a return trip to the Gold Coast, to catch up with old friends. Lots of Brits have connections to Australia, so it's a great excuse to visit the country to pop in on old friends!

I'm a huge fan of Australia and this trip was packed with highlights and memories - for me it's one of the best countries anywhere for a driving adventure, and I'm already planning my next visit!

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Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Karen in New York, Miami & Las Vegas

We're having a look back at some of our favourite travels from last year - Karen headed to the USA, visiting New York, Miami and Las Vegas, on an action-packed trip. Here's a quick look at the highlights of her visit State-side . . . .

I've been to various parts of the States before, but this was my first trip to New York - it's one of those cities that's so well known on TV and in films that you kind of feel that you know it already, so it did feel like I was on a movie set at times - or at least in an episode of Friends! 

I chose to stay close to Penn station as I was taking the train to my next destination - the Wyndham New Yorker is in such a handy location, plus I love the Art Deco feel of the place. I used the hop-on hop-off buses quite a bit - what a great way to get around and to take in all the main sights - plus I took a cruise out towards the Statue of Liberty, which was fab! There's so much to see and do that you could go back time and time again and see new things, but as this was my first trip to the Big Apple there were some basics I wanted to do - the Empire State Building, Central Park and One World Trade Center were top of my list.

I also wanted to catch some sport and take in a bit of nightlife, but being short of time I tried to combined the two - being an avid Liverpool fan I managed to watch one of their matches at the fantastic Carragher's Bar in Midtown Manhattan, but given the time difference the match started at 8 am so the 'nightlife' aspect didn't quite work out. Still, it's beer o'clock somewhere in the world - and at least the Reds won!

I then took the train from New York to Miami - we book a lot of holidays with trains in the US but not normally this route as it's around 30 hours, but as I was travelling with my husband and he's a train nut, I didn't really have the choice! Thankfully it was great fun - we had a fab little cabin - and it was fascinating to see the US countryside pass by. If you're interested in travelling by train in the US just give me a call and I can tell you all about it!

I love Miami - I hadn't expected it to be quite so entertaining! It has to be one of the best places for people-watching I've ever been to - anywhere! We spent an enjoyable few days just watching the world go by in South Beach - Miamians love to see and be seen, so we took a seat in a bar with a view and sat back to take it all in! I was lucky enough to stay at the iconic Fontainebleu Hotel, a gorgeous Art Deco property set right on the beach - it's a resort in itself so there was barely any need to leave, but with so much going on in Miami we took the opportunity to explore. It's an amazing place, and the architecture in South Beach is fabulous - a great place for a lazy day of mooching (and people-watching!)

I also visited Las Vegas, a city that's been on my wish list for some time - and I wasn't disappointed! What an incredible place - such a buzz!  I was treated to a stay at the new-look Park MGM (if it's good enough for Lady Gaga's residency then it will suit me just fine!) and as it's in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip the location is perfect for taking in this incredible city - it really is like nowhere else I've ever been to!

 One of my highlights of my stay in Vegas was taking a hot air balloon ride over the city and Red Rock Canyon - seeing Vegas from the peaceful surrounds of a balloon was really magical, and as you drift away from the city and in to the stunning scenery close by, you start to see a different side to Nevada - Las Vegas makes a great place to start or end a driving trip through Nevada, Arizona & California, rather than just being a party town in the desert (although my big night out at Hakkasan Club at the MGM Grand was a bit on the legendary side and would have been worth the trip to Vegas on it's own!)

My USA trip finished with a helicopter flight over The Strip - what a way to finish an amazing itinerary!

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