Monday, 22 April 2019

Scandi Weekend: Exploring Skansen


One of the most famous sights to visit in Stockholm is Skansen: a big outdoor museum and park. Wendy and I had heard good things and so we set out to explore! Google maps took us on yet another bizarre detour enroute. Fortunately, we found it anyway, but maps kept changing its mind about where we were and which direction we were headed, and we were haunted by the floating blue dot of indecision. Google maps was not covering itself in glory and I promptly decided to stick to Maps.me for all future excursions on foreign shores. It’s just so much more reliable.




The sun was sinking low in the sky by this point, as being further north in Europe meant shorter daylight hours. We had half an hour until the museum’s closure, but the park remained open so we decided to head on in.


And we were so glad we did! We visited the old-style, traditional houses (and enjoyed taking numerous pictures) and you could venture inside some of them to see how people lived and worked.


Although I will say that this was slightly awkward at points: are you supposed to talk to the people inside? Poke around or stand back and watch? And most unsettling of all was the chap I mistook for a mannequin, until he moved which was both surprising and disturbing. We backed out of the house hastily.





We strolled further into the huge park, sliding on icy paths, twirling around a vintage phone box, posing with my camera in a pavilion and admiring the sunset. 




The dusk drew on and we spotted some of the animal inhabitants of Skansen. We met reindeer scraping at the snow with their hooves, seals sculling around in freezing-looking water and otters burrowing in for the night. 


It started to get dark and so we made our way out of the park and went in search of a tram. With six minutes until the next one, we did hasty battle with the machine, emerging victorious and managing to hop the tram back to T-Centralen. It was nice to watch the city lights slide by, and we successfully navigated through the station on our first try to rock up back at the Radisson Blu Waterfront hotel. 



And ooooh, it was nice! They upgraded us to a water view room which was fab and it felt good to get back in the warm, get changed into a slightly nicer outfit, and chill properly for the first time since about 3:20am. Jeepers. The minibar was obviously overpriced, but Wendy had filled her pockets with free sweeties from the hotel lobby and I had nicked a few twirls off my students the day before (what they don’t know won’t hurt them) and so we supplemented the free tea and coffee with the makings of our own minibar. #travelhack #winningatlife

Kisses xxx

P.S. Stockholm is possibly one of the most beautifully photogenic cities I have ever visited. More stories and pictures will be forthcoming shortly!

Friday, 19 April 2019

Scandi Weekend: Stockholm's Vasa Museum


When Wendy and I spent our half term weekend in Stockholm, we decided to visit the Vasa museum as it had been recommended to us by several people. The Vasa museum had come recommended to us and once inside we could completely understand why: it houses a huge, 17th century Swedish ship which was sunk on her maiden voyage without ever leaving Stockholm.



For over 300 years she had lain lost and half forgotten among the waterways which divide Stockholm’s islands, but then she was fished out, drained and cleaned in one of the most impressive restoration projects I have ever beheld: 98% of the structure is original.



The structure looms out of an enormous, dim, temperature controlled vault and you can stroll around the ship as she towers over you. Massive and beautiful, it was such a brilliant experience to learn about a little of the history and see such a fantastic artefact restored to glory.


After a busy and exhilerating first day in Stockholm, we collapsed cheerfully through the door of our hotel room. However, we weren’t going to spend our precious three days holed up in our room, no matter how nice it was, so by 6:00pm sharp, we were changed and ready to head out for dinner.


Wendy had found a restaurant called Tak on the internet. The restaurant isn’t on the internet you understand; it’s in Stockholm. But it came recommended, seemed to dish up great-looking Japanese food, had chill vibes (apparently), views over the city from its 13th floor location and a rooftop cocktail bar.

She didn’t need to sell me on it, so we had made reservation for 6:15pm for an early dinner, thinking we would probably be feeling sleepy after our early start.


We wrapped up warm against the dropping night-time temperatures - despite the early hour it was completely dark - and found the right building despite being pursued once more by the floating blue dot of mystery which told us google had no clue where we were.


We rode the lift (Hiss, in Swedish, which I think is delightful) up to the 13th floor and came out into a lovely restaurant with the faint murmur of conversation, lovely soft gold decorations and tinkly music in the background.

We settled into our seats, perused the menu and accomplished the nearly impossible task of choosing a dish. The table next to us had somehow acquired miso soup which didn’t seem to be on the menu, but I determined to have some of that too. When the waitress came over, we enquired if we could get some soup; and oddly enough were told that the restaurant didn’t serve soup. They only dished up the items on the menu.


So we both ordered the chicken donburi and the waitress told us it came with a complementary starter of miso soup. Go figure; I think something got a bit lost in translation there. The food, when it arrived, was delectable: soy marinated chicken thigh with pak choi, kimchi, crispy garlic and a just-set soft egg with a gloriously runny yolk on a bed of rice and all dusted with fabulously crispy garlic. It was the idea of crispy garlic that cliched this on the menu for me and it did not disappoint!

The food disappeared rapidly and we chatted and reminisced about our day and made plans for the morrow. We also decided to make a habit of splitting dessert, following our lunchtime success.


When our dessert arrived - which we duly shared in a ladylike fashion - it was delicious and the flavours were surprisingly interesting. The base was a liqueur-soaked brownie topped with yuzu caramel, amaretto cherries, puffed rice and black rice ice cream. To die for. Or better yet, to live for, especially as the ice cream had a slightly salty, almost savoury flavour that cut through the sweetness of the other elements.

I chased my food with a pot of green tea, and Wendy ordered a fruity mocktail; but bobbing in the top were several ice cubes. Disappointing, as we have already learned that Wendy does not like ice in her water.


Dinner consumed, we wandered up to the rooftop bar in search of a cocktail to crown the night. I can’t recall the name now, but mine was apple, ginger and mint-based and an impressive shade of green to boot, served in a glass with city-skyline silhouette. We sipped our drinks, looking out over night time views of Stockholm, and giggling like school girls as we texted a new boy for Wendy. Fun!

Eventually our early start began to catch up with us, and we left, Wendy casually pilfering my pretty cocktail glass as a souvenir and hiding it in her hat.


We traversed the now-much-colder city streets and arrived back in our hotel, immediately jumping into cosy PJs and snuggling into thick, white duvets. Wendy had brought a Korean face mask for us each and we crowded the bathroom mirror, applying each of the three stages and then collapsing back onto the beds to let them work as give ourselves radiant, youthful glows. Hard work when you’re functioning on minimal sleep.


As midnight approached, we set an alarm for 8:00am (may as well get up and get cracking) and I fell asleep very happily indeed.

Kisses xxx

P.S. Reminiscing about this trip is making me keen to do another European hop somewhere. Any suggestions?

Friday, 12 April 2019

Scandi Weekend: Arriving in Stockholm


In February half term, my lovely colleague Wendy and I hopped a cheap flight to Stockholm to treat outselves to a little adventure in a beautiful Scandinavian city. We had to get up scandalously early (3:20 am, baby) to make our flight from LHR. But we met up and doodled around the airport, inhaling a much needed cuppa at Eat. We made a beeline for Eat actually, simply because last year on our Copenhagen trip, we schlepped around the whole of terminal 2 sizing up the options and settled there, so this time we didn’t bother checking out the competition.

I had a sensible breakfast at an insensible hour of fruit: an apple, a pear and 2 satsumas swiped from my fruit bowl at home. Which saved me a few pennies. I then chased it with a Twix which I had swiped from a student the day before. You know you’re on half term when you’re munching on chocolate pinched from one of your pupils and that there can be no comeback for a week.

A few sleepy selfies later, we were at our gate, boarding our plane and looking forward to spending the next three days exploring Stockholm.


This preamble is actually just a long way of saying: got up early, got on plane. Yay holidays. And also that it's totally acceptable to lean over people who steal window seats on planes but then fall asleep and fail to notice the most glorious sunrise.

The flight ran smoothly, there was a free cuppa (winning) and we dozed, trying to catch up on a little sleep. Swedish border control is beautifully calm and efficient, and we were soon negotiating trains into the city centre. Or at least, Wendy was. She established that we had about 10 minutes to cross the airport, get a ticket and find the train. Which we did but then ran aground with the ticket machine. Almost £50 for a return to the city centre? It was literally cheaper to take a cab.

However, we somehow managed to track down a special ticket with a cheap rate and then glanced at the board to discover our train left in 3 minutes. Genius here, never one to refuse a challenge, charged down the stationary, apparently broken escalator only to have it start moving.

Upwards.


This caused me no small amount of surprise, not having been anticipating movement, and I high-tailed it sheepishly back to the top while Wendy laughed at me. We dashed down the correct escalator in pursuit of the train and eventually came to our platform with just under 2 minutes to spare. 1 minute 57 seconds to be precise, as the platform clock was literally counting down the seconds.


The ride to the centre was only about 20 minutes and we emerged into Stockholm cheerily and commenced battle with Google maps which point blank refused to decide where we were. After an awkward 2 circuits of the station and nearby building, the nice lady in tourist information took pity on us and directed us to our hotel. Which we had somehow missed even though it was right outside the station.


The hotel proved very nice (by which I mean there were free sweeties on the reception desk) and they looked after our luggage so that we could get out and explore. Let the adventure begin!


Shrugging off our earlier tiredness, we went in search of lunch. The weather was glorious and it was nice to be out and strolling the streets. We stopped often, cameras poised and wandered into a church: S:ta Clara Kyrka. It was beautiful and peaceful and lovely to visit.


Given that breakfast had happened at around 5:00am, I was quite peckish and so when noon rolled around, we slotted ourselves into a table at tasty burger joint, Barrels, Burgers and Beer. Wendy had found mention of this particular burger emporium in the in-flight magazine and it did not disappoint. We were the first customers in and ordered quickly, playing around with cameras while we waited. Wendy uses her phone camera to get fab pics, but tends to use apps which make me look like an anime character when it comes to selfies. A little disconcerting



The restaurant quickly filled up and before long, tasty-looking buns were placed in our path. I appreciate that no-one’s main reason for visiting Stockholm is the burgers, but if it was, you could certainly do worse.


Mine was plastered with crispy onions and jalapeƱo and sriracha mayo, and oozing with cheese and it was So. Good. And also proved that if you wish really hard and your heart is pure, burgers will come to you.



So good in fact that we followed it up by splitting a dessert burger: a chocolate muffin bun with vanilla ice cream patty, caramel sauce and chopped nuts and chocolate chips.



Having refuelled, we were ready to set out and explore properly. We pottered along to the waterfront and walked along the banks. The streets were calm, wide and incredibly clean, the air was fresh and pure, and giant, cracked sheets of ice coated the water in a mosaic of crystal. It was so lovely to be outside and on half term and we strolled along admiring the city, the views and boats we could see (and of course, Captain Teddy).


Wendy was too chicken to swim in the water - I think the floating sheet ice put her off. She doesn’t even like ice in her drinks, so if figures that she didn’t want ice in her river water either. I obviously would have swum, but I didn’t want her to get lonely. Totes. Obviously. 


We crossed over a bridge into the next island and made our way passed the beautiful building which housed the Nordic Museum and pressed on to the Vasa Museum; another story for another day...

Kisses xxx

P.S. The more I see of Scandinavia, the more I love it.


Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Indonesian Adventures: Komodo Sunset, Sea and Sand


One of the best things about exploring Komodo National Park in Indonesia by boat was being able to just plop off the side at a moment's notice and snorkel in the pristine water. We could jump off the deck and swim for the nearest beach or splash around hunting for a glimpse of marine life, and it was fantastic. And then it was wonderful to unwind on board at the end of the day, tired and happy and soaking up the last few rays of the day's sun. These are a few excerpts from my travel journal over the few days we spent on board. And once again, failed GoPro means no underwater pictures! If you want to read more of our Indonesian Adventures, you can find the posts linked here.

***

The boat pootled on and we prepared to snorkel at our next stop: long beach. It was indeed quite a long beach, but more than that, it was empty. As we drew near, it was genuinely astounding to see such perfect turquoise water give way to crystal clear shallows. And the sand was pale and silky, almost glowing and tinted pink with coral dust at the shoreline. I think it was probably the most picture perfect beach I have ever seen. Better than the ones on holiday brochures, and better than most in reality as it was deserted.

It was part of Rinca island, and the little boat dropped us off on the beach so we could swim about. There was quite a strong current but we drifted about watching fish in and around the coral. A weathered log protruded from the sand up on the shore, looking for all the world like a Komodo dragon. It proved not to be though. Which is mostly fortunate but it would have been a bit cool if it was. The dragons apparently don’t like salt water though, so fair play.

We saw lots of colourful fish darting about beneath the waves, but it was Pete that spotted the huge jellyfish wafting by. Jellyfish are seriously weird: you don’t know where they’re going, what they’re looking at, what shape they’re going to be next or even what they’re thinking.

So weird. But kind of ethereal, drifting along.

I also saw what I think were a little band of squid or cuttlefish. They were swimming wrong which was what made me peer at them and then I realised their eyes were way back on the sides and they didn’t seem to have tails. They frilled about a bit as they swam and so I went to hunt out Pete to get his opinion. I think they were minisquids.


Eventually, I figured I’d probably absorbed enough direct sun. We stood on the beach and waved and the little boat came back to ferry us over to the good ship what’s-her-name once more. And it was, of course, time for lunch, on the boat where the food never stops. Lunch was enormous: fried tofu, spicy squid, battered prawns, noodles, rice, a vegetable dish and a salad. Plus melon and watermelon for dessert. Yikes. Once more, two platefuls only just put a dent in the offering.

Full (or even over full as my breakfast hadn’t even finished digesting) we relaxed for an hour or so as we made our way to pink beach, another snorkel site. On the upper deck, there was a pile of mattresses and I collapsed onto them to read. But reading soon turned into pure lounging which finally evolved into dozing, as I hovered in the dream-like place between sleep and wakefulness, aware of the warmth of the sun, the cool breeze, the gentle motion of the boat and sounds of water and the engine as I floated along on the edge of sleep. It was blissful.

I was almost disinclined to get up for snorkelling again. But get up I did.

We were dropped off at a little jetty and walked round to the beach barefoot. The wooden boards and sand were scorching hot underfoot and made a brisk half-trot necessary to avoid contact with the ground.

The water felt beautifully cool after that, but sadly the visibility proved to be pretty poor. There was a surprisingly strong tide washing in and out, stirring up the sand and fragments of coral. Further out we were able to make out some fish and coral, but I think I had been spoiled by some of the other places we had visited! It also made it very hard to see other people; snorkellers would pop out of the blue every so often, and I lost sight of Pete altogether. Pete is hard enough to locate at the best of times while snorkelling as he spends as much time under the water as he does on the surface, so it’s no good scanning the waves looking for him He did tow me along while I held his flippers which was quite entertaining. He also gave me a ride on his back, but that failed when he dived down and couldn’t pull me down with him. All the bubbles came out of his snorkel into my face and it made me snigger and inhale salt water.

He’s lovely though so we forgive him.


With snorkelling done, dinner pitched up once the sun had gone down in a blaze of glorious colour. The evening’s feast contained skewers of BBQ chicken, fish stew, tempeh and courgettes in a tasty, sticky sauce, a salad dish, a veg dish, pasta and rice. Yikes. Oh, and watermelon to finish. I managed 1 proper plateful and 2 smaller ones and called it quits. Pete had been feeling the sun a bit and so he went as easy as he could on his stomach. There was really no escaping the heat.

After dinner was pure lounging time. Travel journal time, if you will, book time and podcast time and cuppa time. I loved this aspect of boat travel: it was very soothing. Slightly less soothing was when the cockroaches appeared. One or maybe two big ones and a handful of little ones and so I moved respectfully from the stern to the chairs at the front of the boat.

***


The next morning, having slept for hours, it was hardly surprising that I woke shortly after six. And I couldn’t drift off again: the promise of sunshine outside the cabin windows was too inviting, so after reading a bit, I dressed, snuck out of our cabin and went to enjoy my book and a cuppa on deck (I hoped the sleep would do Pete good).

Breakfast appeared at eight and was a moderate affair. By which I mean it was a large meal for breakfast by anyone’s standards but small for the feast the ship’s chef kept laying on. I offered Pete breakfast, but he didn’t feel up to it, so I returned to the upper deck and demolished my tasty fried egg sandwich, along with some banana fritters and several slices of watermelon. And tea. Always tea.

And then I ate half of Pete’s fried egg sandwich as well to show willing, and because I'm great at sharing.

In theory, our last day on board would be spent hopping between 3 snorkel sights and then making course back to Labuan Bajo. However, once we reached the first one, I explained to Alex that Pete wasn’t feeling great - we thought by this point it was overexposure to the sun - and that we’d prefer not to snorkel. I suppose I could have but I think it’s quite intimidating to plop into open ocean by yourself. Let’s just say my mind starts to see sharks where there aren’t any.

So we trundled on through the waves to the second option: manta point. There were quite a few ships moored in this otherwise unremarkable patch of sea all looking for manta rays. However, it seems the mantas were having none of it as we didn’t spot any. And according to Alex, there’s nothing else to see at the site if there are no mantas. No worries then: it meant Pete could stay snoozing in bed and we didn’t miss out by not snorkelling.

So we put out for the third site: Alex was very keen for us to visit this one as turtles have been known to swim there. We bobbed along quite merrily and I enjoyed riding along on the ocean, reading and inhaling cups of tea.


I knew we’d reached the right place when the noise of the engine died. The sea was impossibly, perfectly, alluringly blue and the already scorching sunshine rippled slightly on its surface. I roused Pete who felt able to get up and was willing to try a little bit of snorkelling.

Alex called me while Pete was getting ready: the crew were throwing handfuls of rice overboard and fish were swarming around trying to be the first to pluck the grains from the water. It was amazing what you could see just hanging over the side of the boat and made snorkelling look very promising. And who knew fish love rice? It puts sushi in a whole new perspective.

We applied a thick layer of suncream, added toothpaste to our masks (it keeps them from misting up somehow; science could be involved) and hopped in the water. We immediately saw all the fish from earlier now skulking underneath the boat. What kept them there I have no idea, but there they were, swarming and swerving about. We swam out, away from the boat, eyes scanning the sea. The water was extremely clear, and we could see coral on the ocean floor metres and metres below us, dotted with fish. I spotted my little squiddies again and swam through schools of littler silver, flickering fish.

Pete spotted the first turtle though. It was lying on the sea bed, extremely calm and relaxed, safe in the depths. After observing it for a while, we paddled away to explore more of the site. Pete swam off one way and I another; I put my head out of the water to see where I was and a fellow snorkeller gestured at me: something big. He pointed towards a group of three other swimmers. I asked what it was and got an exciting answer: a turtle.

I swam in the direction he’d indicated, calling to Pete and waving. But I also kept my mask in the water scanning for life.

And then I saw him, floating serenely along, flippers barely twitching as he rode invisible currents. He was so calm and beautiful and I floated along after him at the surface, peering down on the graceful form.

I had finally managed to attract Pete’s attention and wave him over and we swam along behind the turtle. The other snorkellers persisted in diving down after it, crowding around and shoving cameras in its face. Which made me annoyed and frustrated: why not just leave well alone and observe? However, when the turtle smacked one of the cameras with a flipper, the others fell behind, leaving just me and Pete twitching our flippers to meander along after him. Cowabunga, dude.

He bobbed up to the surface a couple of times to take a breath, and I popped my mask out of the water to see his face break the waves. And then he would drift along again, happy in his own little world, scaly front flippers occasionally waving gently to steer or move him along. We followed him for quite some time before letting him drift off into the blue, gradually fading into the enveloping depths. Magical. (But oh how we wished the GoPro had worked!)

We swam about to explore another area of water, looking down over a patch of coral. And then Pete waved me over: not far from our boat was another turtle, hovering over the coral. A number of smaller, black fish were bumping into his carapace, perhaps cleaning it as the turtle touched down briefly.

Moments later, the turtle rose straight up to the surface for a breath, smoothly, dignified, without even seeming to bend a flipper. It was marvellous. The buoyancy control in his shell put every BCD ever designed to shame. We watched him dive again to head back to his cleaning station and then, satisfied with the job the fish had done, he moseyed away. (Didn’t leave a tip though.)

When we put our heads out of the water, we realised we were right by our boat’s steps and so we climbed out, dripping but happy. I don’t think we could have topped that as a snorkelling experience.


Lunch followed soon afterwards: tofu and egg in a spicy satay sauce, a whole fish each, squid in a yummy sauce, prawns, noodles, rice and a vegetable dish. And watermelon. Far more than we could manage but I did my best with 2 platefuls, hoping that snorkelling burns off a million calories an hour. While we were eating, we had begun our voyage back to Labuan Bajo. Time to pack up and leave the little ship we had called home for the last three days.

A couple of hours later, and we were back on dry land. Alex took us along to our hotel, we bade him goodbye and dived into a good shower - hot water and double shampoo to get three days and at least five salt water adventures out of my hair. It felt gooooood!

Kisses xxx

P.S. You can find other stories from our time in Indonesia linked here: Indonesian Adventures.