Travel

Thursday Travels: Havana, Cuba

As I mentioned in last week’s post on Varadero, the real highlight of our visit to Cuba was the day trip we took to its enchanting capital, Havana. While booking our holiday, we had initially looked into dividing our time between Havana and Varadero, but it proved to be too complicated and expensive, so we went for the more straightforward option of spending the week in Varadero.

Nevertheless, we got a real feel for Havana during our day there, and it definitely was the highlight of our entire vacation. It is by no means a city of creature comforts (you can forget about shopping, and finding a decent restaurant/cafe is difficult), but what it lacks in the kind of things we take for granted in other parts of the world, it makes up for in sheer visual stimulation. I think “haunting” is how I would best describe Havana. It is by no means a feel-good kind of place (I mean, it’s not a feel-bad kind of place, but, given its troubled history, there is a bittersweet kind of energy in the air. I mean, you are in a Communist country after all). Given that we visited back in February however, shortly after Obama announced the overhaul in US policy towards Cuba, there was a real sense that this was a place on the brink of huge change.

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{View at a stop midway between Varadero and Havana. The drive took about 3-ish hours.}

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{The San Francisco de Asis Square, home to the touring Buddy Bear Exhibition when we visited (hand-painted bears from 150+ countries)}

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{Of course we had to seek out the Irish one ;)}

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{The 18th century Havana Cathedral}

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{We stopped off at an atmospheric little outdoor cafe for cappuccinos and Cuban-style hot chocolate (it was this straight-up, unsweetened cocoa mixture with sugar served on the side for you to stir in yourself. Surprisingly delicious!}

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{Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope — Cuba and Ireland}

 

 

 

 

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{As a colour fiend, I was in my element in Havana 😉 This striking salmon-pink building is the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway lived during his time in Cuba}

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{The interior of another hotel — spot the Cuban flag! Havana’s buildings are stunning, both inside and out, but there is a real sort of decaying grandeur going on; most are in pretty poor condition}

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{The Castillo de Real Fuerza — the oldest fortress in the Americas; built in the 16th century to defend against pirate attacks}

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{Revolution Square/Plaza de la Revolución, featuring the man himself, Che Guevara.}

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{Fidel Castro (who, by the way, is alive and well and just celebrated his 89th birthday)}

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{José Martí Memorial}

Stay tuned for next week’s Thursday Travels post, where I’ll be sharing our little observations of Cuba and its people in greater depth…

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Thursday Travels: Varadero, Cuba

This past February we went on a family holiday to Cuba, spending the bulk of our time in the resort town of Varadero, with a day trip to Havana (which, as you’ll see in next week’s Thursday Travels, was the highlight of our visit).

We went for an all-inclusive (pretty much the only way to go in Varadero), which was an…interesting experience. I’d never stayed at an AI before so had nothing to compare it with, but Claudia, who has been to a few in Mexico, said the standard was definitely not as high in Varadero. All I know is that I probably had the worst food week of my life while there (and that’s saying something, as I’m the kind of girl who actually likes airplane food and is a big fan of theme park cuisine). The buffet consisted of stodgy, mystery-meat stews, extremely dodgy looking fish, tasteless bread, and sickly sweet desserts, while the food at the “themed” restaurants that you had to book in advance (Italian, Chinese, Mexican) wasn’t that much better. But hey, I guess it was a bit of a blessing in disguise — this was an all-you-can-eat after all, and had the food actually been good, I wouldn’t have been able to squeeze into my bikini 😉

Food aside though, the rest of our stay was fun; largely spent on the beach or by the pool of course! The weather while we were there was pretty pleasant for the most part (high 20s), though some days were pretty chilly and breezy, and the beach would be off limits because the water was so choppy.

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{hey}

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{Totally candid, definitely didn't beg Claudia to take a covert picture of me reading ;)}

{Totally candid, definitely didn’t beg Claudia to take a covert picture of me reading ;)}

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Apart from our beach excursions, we did do other things in Varadero…

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{…like hop on the “Blue Train” to the Plaza America…}

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{…a shopping mall…of sorts}

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{Its offerings sadly didn’t tempt us, however}

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{FYI this is basically what we existed on during our stay. Also, FANTA!!! I don’t think I’d had a can of Fanta since maybe Ireland circa 1992, but it’s alive and well in Cuba}

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{Guantanameeeerrraaaaaa}

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While Vardero largely consists of dozens of big beachside resorts, there is a sort of town…and one day we decided to get the bus in (it was maybe a 20-minute ride) and investigate.

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{A Beatles-themed restaurant in the heart of Varadero. Because gringos love the Beatles!}

One of our favourite things to do was wander down the side streets, admiring the city’s dogs. Pretty much every house we passed in Cuba had a resident dog keeping watch on the roof– so cute!

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{Sometimes they’d be so tiny and silent (see above) that it would almost become a game of finding the dog…}

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{…but there would always be one…somewhere}

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{Those “cocotaxis” (so-named because they resemble a coconut) are everywhere in Cuba}

And then we somehow wound up in what may be the creepiest park I’ve ever ventured into (the Parque Josone if you’re interested)…

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{I mean, it wasn’t thaaaaat creepy…}

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{…but this abandoned mini-golf section *did* send a shiver down my spine}

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{Chao, Varadero! You were…an experience ;)}

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Thursday Travels: Death Valley

One of the most memorable things we did on our Vegas vacation last year was take a day trip out to Death Valley. It’s an incredible place to visit — silent, sparse, and more than a little eerie; a total sensory cleanser after the bright lights of the city, and only about a two hour drive away. Amazingly, it actually rained for part of the time we were there (apparently they hadn’t had a drop of rain for the past seven years!), and even when the skies cleared, it wasn’t quite as hot as we thought it would be (kind of late 20s Celsius, when temperatures at that time of the year typically climb well into the 30s).

I don’t really have too much else to say about our trip there, so I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. It’s definitely a worthwhile trip to take if you’ve got a day to spare when visiting Vegas — the sights you’ll see are truly unforgettable.

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Vancouver Adventure: Main Street

A week or so ago, Vicky and I paid a trip to the Main Street area — a part of Vancouver neither of us had ever been to before. It was a grey, drizzly day but we still managed to have fun exploring (and eating… So. Much. Eating).

IMG_0788We had a tasty lunch at the Wallflower Diner, an eclectic little place that caters well to those who are gluten-free and/or vegan (as well as those who are neither, like me).

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{The fairy lights were an inviting touch on such a grey day}

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{Vic had a gluten-free vegan hummus melt and I went for the crispy chicken wrap}

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{It was good, but be warned — it’s SPICY!}

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{One of the surprising highlights of the afternoon was seeing this dude casually carrying a Paul Frank umbrella. What a total #tbt to 2003}

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{This clothing emporium has a vast amount of cool, reasonably priced items — well worth checking out!}

IMG_0805IMG_0802For dessert, we decided to head down to Cartems for donuts…

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{Such a cool interior — we loved the high ceilings and the bright, airy feel of the place}

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{The gluten-free options for Vicky were sadly slim when we went (she had that fun-looking donut on the left), but my blueberry fritter was delicious}

Our last foodie port-of-call for the day was the legendary Earnest Ice Cream. I’m not the biggest ice cream connoisseur myself, but Vicky (who is) loved it — she highly recommends the Blueberry Lavender flavour.

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Thursday Travels: Las Vegas

This post is a throwback to our adventures in Vegas in May of 2014. None of us had ever been to Vegas before…but it was pretty much exactly how we expected it to be: brash, bright, buzzy, and neon neon neon!!! And HOT. Each day we were there the temperatures climbed into the high 30s (except for the day we visited Death Valley, when it RAINED. I know! But more on that in another post).

One thing we maybe didn’t expect was how much walking you have to do in Vegas. I guess we thought that the Strip would be a lot more compact than it was, and that you could nip in and out of each hotel in minutes. In reality though each hotel complex is so vast that walking from one to the other can take you a whole lot longer than that, and in the extreme heat this can be unbearable. Our saviour was the Deuce bus — it drives up and down the Strip all day and you can hop on and off at your leisure with a day pass.

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{In case you’re in any doubt as to where you are}

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{Can you spot the Irish flag?! ;)}

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Vegas has got to be one of the most visually stimulating places on the planet, and the sensory overload is intense. I mean where else in the world can you, in the space of a day, basically take a (very legit-looking) trip around the world?!

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{We visited Paris…}

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{…and Venice…}

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{This was INSIDE the Venetian — they had a fake sky that would darken accordingly as the day progressed}

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{We paid a trip to ancient Rome at Caesar’s Palace…}

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{…and popped by the Trevi Fountain…}

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{…and then nipped over to Egypt for good measure}

And that was just the Strip. There’s also “old” Vegas — the Fremont Experience, where you go for a slightly more seedy, less opulent, and some would argue, more characterful take on Vegas…

10365727_10152001701947371_6981923575459831263_n10372034_10152147172293437_6256983313800089253_nDSC_0718DSC_0642So that was Vegas! Did I love it?! Ehhhh, I mean yeah, it’s Vegas after all, but I think Disneyland would still be my cheesy American destination of choice 😉

Have you been?! What were your thoughts? I’d love to know…

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A Note on Thursday Travels…

These travel posts were originally posted on my old, now-defunct blog that I wrote with my sister Vicky. The majority of them recount our adventures in Europe in May-June 2011 (in all our terrible hair extensions and Ugg-booted glory), but I thought I’d transfer them over anyway. More than anything, we wrote them to keep our memories alive and share our scattered observations — they are by no means meant to be comprehensive travel guides or anything. Just thought I’d clarify that 🙂

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Thursday Travels: Portland, Oregon

For the Labour Day weekend last year, Vicky, Claudia and I paid a south-of-the-border trip to Portland. We got the train down from Vancouver, which was fun in and of itself (as soon as we stepped onboard, we already felt like we were in the US thanks to little touches like the garbage bin being labelled “Trash.” I feel like Canadians never use the word “trash”?!).

Aaaanyway, the eight or so hours on the train went by pretty quickly, and we were in Portland by late afternoon. I know it’s got a reputation for being one of America’s rainiest cities, but for the few days we were there, the weather couldn’t have been more perfect: sunny but not oppressively hot. I really think that the weather you have while visiting somewhere new can really cloud your perception of it; had we seen Portland in grey, rainy weather, we might have not liked it so much.

DSC_0186DSC_0185DSC_0184As a city, it’s definitely got that very West Coast vibe going on. It reminded us of Seattle, but I think I probably even preferred it to Seattle…it was obviously more compact, and I found the attractions there more enjoyable (I thought Seattle’s Pike Place Market was incredibly overrated, and I could take or leave the Space Needle).

We got a 2-day pass on a hop-on, hop-off Big Pink sightseeing trolley, which worked out perfectly, allowing us to see 12 of the city’s major sights at our leisure.

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{This may be very basic of me, but I actually love visiting different Starbucks’ around the world, and this one in Pioneer Square might be one of my favourites (alongside the one adjacent to Canterbury Cathedral in England)}

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{On the trolley!}

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{View of the city from one of our stops…can’t remember which one}

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{One of our favourite stops was the International Rose Test Garden at Washington Park…}

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{…they don’t call Portland the City of Roses for nothing!}

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{We also loved the leafy streets of the Alphabet District (where all the street names progress alphabetically)…}

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{…and don’t even get me started on my love for Powell’s Books: 68, 000 square feet of book heaven}

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{We paid a trip to the Saturday Market…}

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{…and we had a look at Voodoo Donuts (but didn’t have the patience to line up. Ditto the city’s famous Stumptown Coffee)}

All in all, we loved our time in Portland. Now that we’re living apart, it’s rare for us all to be able to take a trip together, and Portland just happened to be the perfect backdrop for spending some quality sister time 🙂

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Vancouver Adventure: Nicola Street (West End)

Even though I’ve lived in Vancouver on and off for over a year, I still feel like a newcomer, and one of my favourite things to do is explore random little pockets of the city. For this new series, I’ll be sharing some of my adventures in Vancouver…and I can tell there will be a lot of them! Seriously, this city is crammed with the most intriguing, eclectic little neighbourhoods, and I can’t wait to discover them all. 

Vicky and I went for a stroll around the charming Nicola Street in the West End a few weeks ago — just a stone’s throw from where we live, but somehow a street we’d never ventured to before. The West End, in my humble opinion, is one of the most interesting places in the city to walk around, for the simple reason that it’s so architecturally diverse: shabby, ’60s apartment buildings stand alongside gorgeous, turn-of-the-century ones, and you’re bound to stumble across the odd beautiful little church or of-another-era corner store. 

{The intriguing-looking Niloo Hair Salon and House of Jewels}

We had lunch at the Greenhorn, a hipstery little place with delicious soups, salads, sandwiches, and a daily special (a mouthwateringly tasty truffled mac and cheese the day we were there). The exterior was under renovation when we went, and didn’t make for a terribly photogenic picture, but here are some interior shots…

{Bottles of soda and the menu written on rolls of brown paper}

{Wall of records on the second floor, where we sat. While seating isn’t exactly limited (it’s a fairly capacious place as far as cafes go), it gets super busy on weekends/holidays. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!}

After all that rich food, it was time to walk off some calories…

{The West End is beautiful in autumn (preferably on a sunny day, but hey, we’ll take a grey one too!)}

And then, wonder of wonders, we found a secret little tucked-away park…

{As Vicky aptly noted, the place felt very “Blair Witch.” Eeeeek! }

{The eerie vibe was definitely accentuated by the dark trees and this lone, forlorn-looking see-saw}

So those were our adventures on Nicola. Definitely an interesting little area to check out if you’re in the vicinity. Hard to believe it’s literally a block away from the bustle of Robson Street!

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Thursday Travels: Amsterdam

Amsterdam is kind of a love/hate city…at least, that’s what we’ve concluded on hearing people’s views on the place. It’s easy to see why some people aren’t crazy about it — unlike many European capitals, it doesn’t have strikingly grand buildings; it’s kinda grungy throughout the whole city and exceedingly seedy in parts (ie. the Red Light District); and you’re in perpetual fear of being run over by a cyclist (the bicycle culture there is incredible, by the way — we’d never seen anything like it. There are virtually no cars, and absolutely everyone gets around by bike, from young children to the elderly. Instead of parking lots, they have bicycle lots!)

Buuuuut, despite all these flaws, we fell into the love-Amsterdam camp. There’s just something about the place…it’s so eclectic and vibrant and cultural and…European. Although it’s a surprisingly compact city, and very easy to get around, it still has a bustling, energetic, “big city” vibe to it.

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{So quaint!}

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{Typical Amsterdam canalside view}

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{We love Amsterdam!}

We wandered the streets, admiring the tall, narrow houses overlooking the canals that are so typical of the city. We browsed around the various markets dotted around, including the colourful Bloemenmarkt (flower market) where bright tulips (of course!) abounded. We took in a few museums, including the magnificent Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, as well as the Anne Frank Huis, which was fascinating, though so, so sad.

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{I amsterdam!}

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{Rijksmuseum}

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{The canalside houses were originally built for wealthy merchants in the 17th century}

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{Anne Frank Huis}

The Anne Frank House is located on the Prinsengracht canal, and opened as a museum in 1960. It was formerly a warehouse where Anne, her parents, sister, and four others, hid from the Nazis from 1942-44 before they were tragically discovered and sent to concentration camps. Anne’s father, Otto, was the only one to survive the war, and published his daughter’s diary in 1947.

It was a very sad, but completely moving experience. We were worried that it would feel kind of wrong to eat in the museum cafe but we decided that Anne would have approved of all the attention her home has gotten — she wanted to be a Hollywood star, so she would have loved all the fuss made over her 😉

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{Carrot cake overlooking the canal}

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{Seriously yummy hot chocolate}

Later on, we went on a canal cruise — perfect for gliding past all these lovely buildings while resting our weary feet! We got a real feel for Dutch architecture and learned some interesting stories about the city’s history…and then it was farewell to Amsterdam ;-( May we return soon!!!

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{Larger houses, like this one, would have been owned by very wealthy merchants}

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{Cruising}

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{Say cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeese!!!!!!!!}

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{We stayed in a boat! Yes, it was a biiiit out of the way, but cool nonetheless}

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{Goodbye, Amsterdam!}

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Thursday Travels: London

LONDON-12Today’s Thursday Travels takes us back to our trip to London (only one of our favourite cities ever). We (Vicky, our mum and I) were there in June, around the time of the Queen’s Jubilee (and a month before the Olympics), and the city was brimming with national pride: lots of Union Jack bunting and special British-themed window displays everywhere. I had been to London a few times before, but the levels of patriotism were definitely higher than usual.

Vicky and I both really loved London — she loved it way more than Paris, but I think I’m a fan of them both in equal measure. While Paris has that certain je ne sais quoi that makes it just so charming and enchanting, London, for me, is a far more liveable kind of place (chiefly due to the fact that it’s English-speaking, I guess). When it comes to big cities, it’s the one place I’ve visited  that I’d actually want to live in at some point. Weirdly enough, I’m not the hugest fan of New York; it just didn’t do it for me as a city, much to my disappointment. Maybe the fact that the one time I was there was in the dead of winter had something to do with it as just I found it dark and dingy and strangely depressing… But London?! London I instantly loved

Here’s a little recap of what we got up to in our few days there:

{We went to the Natural History Museum…}

{…where we saw lots of dinosaurs…}

{…and birds!…}

{…before taking a break to re-fuel.}

{And then it was on to Harrod’s; the Food Hall, specifically…}

{…where I nearly got thrown out for taking these illegal photographs.}

{And then we wandered into a souvenir shop where we saw the ghost of Princess Diana!}

{We paid a trip to Kensington Palace…}

{…and saw Queen Victoria’s dolls’ house…}

{…and these beautiful gardens…}

{…this was before Vicky dropped a tray of china cups on my foot at the cafe (I still have the scar to this day)…}

{We visited my favourite museum in London, the V & A, and fell in love with this 15th-century Islamic minbar. (Of course I misread it as “minibar” and got really excited that not only did the Islamic world have minibars in the 15th century, but that they were of such magnificence!)}

{And then the following day we went to the Ritz…}

{…for a spot of Afternoon Tea…}

{…we’re so fancy, you already kno-ow…}

{We hit the shops on Carnaby Street…}

{…and the stalls of Portobello…}

{…where we stopped for a Hummingbird Bakery cupcake break.}

{Please can I live in this pink house?…}

{…or any of these little gems, I’m not fussy.}

{Last random outing: the Leighton House in Kensington. A bit off the beaten tourist path, but worth a visit if you like that whole Victorian Aesthetic thing.}

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