Tag Archives: coast
July 28, 2017

Experience the nostalgic pleasure of steam train railways around North Wales

Experience the nostalgic pleasure of steam train railways around North Wales

Four steam trains in three days – what a treat. I was on on a very special trip to experience the delights of North Wales Heritage railways, sampling itineraries from specialist railway tour operators Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries.

Ffestiniog Railway

Ffestiniog Railway steam train Merddin Emrys

Engine driver Paul on Merddin Emrys

The heat is overwhelming. There’s a smell of coal dust, hot metal and sea-salt. Steam hisses and a seagull squawks overhead. Adults ready their cameras, children giggle with excitement and the sense of anticipation builds. “Keep right in to the side there and watch that pipe; it’s boiling hot and will give you a nasty burn if you touch it.” Engine driver Paul ensures I’m ensconced in my tiny corner of the cabin, gives a brief nod to stoker Andrew, a piercing whistle shrieks across the river estuary out to sea, there’s a chuff-chuffing from the steam train and we are on our way.

View from inside Ffestiniog Raliway steam engine cab

View from inside Ffestiniog Raliway steam engine cab

I’m on the very splendid Merddin Emrys, a push-me pull-you Double Fairlie locomotive built in 1879, on the  Ffestiniog Railway, fulfilling a life-long dream to travel on the footplate of a steam train. The Festiniog Railway Company, in North Wales, is the oldest surviving railway company in the world. It opened in 1836 to take slate from the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog for export around the globe. We used to holiday in nearby Llandudno and I remember seeing the little train chugging along the track and wishing we could go on it … and now I’m finally here.

Minffordd Station - Ffestiniog Railway steam train - photo Zoe Dawes

Minffordd Station

The train slowly gathers speed as we pass fields of sheep and quaint cottages. People wave as we rumble through Boston Lodge and cows stop grazing to gaze at us as we steam by. At Minffordd, where we pass another steam train going in the opposite direction, I have to leave the engine and join the other passengers in one of the lovely old wooden carriages. We slowly start the steep climb into the mountains where the scenery becomes wilder through the glorious Snowdonia National Park. Sunlight glimmers through wooded groves and we disappear into a tunnel before doing a loop-the-loop at the Dduallt Spiral.

Ffestiniog Railway Bara Brith and Welsh Cakes

Bara Brith and Welsh Cakes

Afternoon tea arrives; a plate of local Welsh Cakes and Bara Brith (fruit loaf) are most welcome. Against railway rules I put my head out of carriage window and watch the steam train puff its way round the curve of the narrow-gauge track. The sight and sound of this sturdy little engine brings back many memories of childhood and a world where time seemed to go at a much slower pace. We arrive at Blaenau Ffestiniog Station and we have a quick look at the brand new, very luxurious, Pullman Observation Carriage, with beautiful wood panelling and maps of the railway route carved onto the tables. On the platform we watch as Paul and Andrew jump on top of the engine to check it and fill it with water.

Steam train at Blaenau Ffestiniog

With its twin funnels and gleaming red livery,  Merddin Emrys is a fine example of a Victorian steam train and I feel privileged to have spent some time in its company.

Welsh Highland Railway

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

We had started the day in castle-dominated Caernarvon, boarding the Welsh Highland Railway, UK’s longest heritage railway, that took us inland, past the foot of Snowdon and on to the pretty village of Beddgelert. Our train was pulled by a mighty fine black locomotive, NG/G16 No.87, built in 1937, originally used in South Africa and rebuilt in the Ffestiniog Railway’s own Boston Lodge Works. En route we got superb views out towards the Lleyn Peninsula, beside old slate mines and tiny railway stations, past lakes emerging from steamy windows, near rushing waterfalls and on up into the mountains.

Lake View from Welsh Highland Railway steam train North Wales

View from our railway carriage

Clare, our very informative host from Ffestiniog Railway Company, outlined our route on the map and gave us some facts and figures about the company and its rolling stock. Well-equipped walkers got off at one of the halts to hike up Wales’ highest peak.

Welsh Highland Railway route

Welsh Highland Railway route

As we crossed the impressive Glan-yr-afon Viaduct I gazed up towards the summit of Snowdon, shrouded in mist. This stretch of the track is one of the steepest gradients in Britain, 1-40 and we snaked our way back down through the forest toward Beddgelert, Snowdon playing hide and seek along the way.

Welsh Highland Railway steam train Snowdonia - North Wales

Welsh Highland Railway steam train

As we disembarked in Beddgelert, the rain arrived, not so unusual in this part of Wales. However, by the time we’d got our coach to the quirky village of Portmeirion it had stopped and the sun was peaking out again.

Llangollen Railway

Llangollen Railway Station and 80072 steam train

Llangollen Railway Station and Steam engine 80072

The following day we headed off into the valleys for a ride on the Llangollen Railway, the only standard-gauge heritage railway in Wales. As with many other railway lines, this was originally built for the mining industry, but Llangollen has been a tourist destination for many years. It’s a very attractive town on the River Dee and the railway is its biggest attraction. The quaint Station Building sets the scene with old suitcases piled on the platform and uniformed guards, drivers and other staff bustling about making sure everyone gets aboard in time for departure. We had a reserved carriage all to ourselves again, with scones, jam and cream laid out on crisp white linen – very civilized. The velvet-upholstered seats and lacquered wood panelling all conspired to give that feeling of nostalgia for rail travel in stylish luxury.

Llangollen Railway reserved carriage North Wales

Reserved Carriage

We were being pulled by beautifully restored locomotive 80072, built in Brighton in 1953 to run on the south coast, but left to rot for many years after the Beeching cuts of the 1965, which is when the Llangollen Railway also closed for main-line travel. There are few transport sounds more evocative than the huffing of an engine as it builds up steam on its way out of a station. We got that experience a number of times as there were a three stops along the line, which runs beside the sparkling River Dee, to Corwen. The return journey was equally delightful and everyone thoroughly enjoyed our very special steam train journey.

Llangollen Railway steam train -photo Zoe Dawes

Llangollen Railway steam train

After lunch we went on a leisurely glide along the Langollen Canal on a horse-drawn boat – perfect end to a perfect day.

Snowdon Mountain Railway

Wyddfa steam engine Snowdon Mountain Railway - photo Zoe Dawes

Wyddfa

On our final morning we set off early to get the 9.30am Snowdon Mountain Railway steam train from Llanberis Up the Mountain. We went up and down in glorious sunshine, pushed up by Wyddfa, a Swiss-built engine from 1893, driven by Paul and stoker Robert. It was a truly epic journey – watch out for the story in another article …

Top of Snowdon with Mountain Railway train North Wales - photo Zoe Dawes

Top of Snowdon with Mountain Railway train

Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries Steam Train Tours

I travelled to North Wales courtesy of Great Rail Journeys and Rail Discoveries. Our group stayed in Llandudno at the very comfortable Dunoon Hotel, with superb food in charming surroundings. We also had an excellent Italian meal at the Wildwood Restaurant in the town centre.

Dunoon Hotel Llandudno

Our group at Dunoon Hotel

Great Rail Journeys Railways & Castles of Wales Tour includes a stay at the award-winning Dunoon Hotel, journeys on the Welsh Highland, Ffestiniog and Snowdon Mountain Railways, and excursions to Portmeirion Village and Caernarfon and Conwy Castles. GRJ Independent can also tailor make holidays to the region for those wishing to travel to Wales on an individual basis Save up to £30pp when booking on or before 15th August 2017.More details Railways and Castles of Wales.

Rail Discoveries Railways of Wales Tour includes a stay at the Kensington Hotel, journeys on the Welsh Highland, Ffestiniog and Llangollen Railways, a horse-drawn boat trip on the Llangollen Canal, and excursions to Portmeirion Village and Caernarfon Castle. Save up to £30pp when booking on or before 15th August 2017. More details Railways of Wales.

Andrew and Paul on the Ffestiniog Railway steam train - photo Zoe Dawes

Andrew and Paul on the Ffestiniog Railway

Love Narrow-Gauge Railways? Read my review of Small Island by Little Train – a narrow-gauge adventure by Chris Arnot.

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North Wales Steam Railways

 

January 9, 2017

Top food and drink in Fremantle, Western Australia

Top food and drink in Fremantle, Western Australia
Sail and Anchor beers Fremantle

Sail and Anchor beers

For a small city, Fremantle, on the coast of Western Australia, punches well above its weight in terms of great places to eat, drink and have fun. Not only does it have a great many excellent bars, restaurants and cafes, there are a number of micro-breweries, bakeries, delicatessens and quirky foodie outlets to suit all tastes. Many of them are housed in heritage buildings, for Fremantle is one of Australia’s oldest cities with a busy working port and a vibrant, creative heart.

Attic Cafe – Bannister Street

Attic Cafe Fremantle Western Australia

Attic Cafe

One of the best cafes in town, the Attic Cafe, opposite the Hougoumont Hotel in Bannister Street is a great place for breakfast, coffee or take-away. They have a tasty selection of freshly made pies, fritters wraps, salads and rolls, including honey roast pumpkin and salt beef. For breakfast you could choose baked oats with berry compote, smashed avocado with lime, feta and quinoa or more exotic Shakshouka; eggs poached in a Tunisian style sauce with white cheese. I had perfectly cooked scrambled eggs with olive oil, greens and sourdough bread. Their cakes are to die for …

Attic Cafe food Fremantle Western Australia

Attic Cafe food

A night out in Fremantle

Pakenham Street Fremantle at night

Pakenham Street

I stayed in Fremantle for two nights and loved its attractive architecture, lively vibe and youthful outlook. Rusty Creighton, Two Feet and a Heartbeat Tours, font of local knowledge, not just on food and drink, but just about every aspect of Fremantle culture, history and people, took a group of us on a historical night tour. We started off at our hotel, the Hougoumont, named after a 19th c ship which was the last vessel to transport convicts to Australia. Their names and crimes are listed on the hotel wall.

Hougoumont Hotel Fremantle

Hougoumont Hotel

After crisp-baked pizza and a drink we set off along the main street, lined with beautiful buildings dating back to the 19th century, very old by Australian standards.

The National Hotel – High Street

The Boxing Kangaroo - Swan Lager - National Hotel - Fremantle - photo zoe dawes

The Boxing Kangaroo

Rusty pointed out a mural of a kangaroo wearing boxing gloves, holding a can of Swan Lager. “The Swan Brewery has closed but the Boxing Kangaroo became the symbol of America’s Cup win in 1983, as it was used on a team flag. The original flag is now in the Western Australia Museum in Freo.” It’s on the side of the National Hotel, another famous Fremantle institution. It’s been a hotel since 1886 and has intricate wrought iron balconies.

The National Hotel in Fremantle

The National Hotel

There’s a lively bar and popular restaurant, serving decent pub grub, including good value steak and chips. We’d eaten there the night before, in the upstairs dining room. Downstairs there was a group playing covers of popular songs with impromptu dancing round the tables. A door decorated with orange and red stained glass flames commemorates a serious fire in 1975.

Bread in Common – Pakenham Street

Bread in Common Fremantle

Bread in Common display

The smell of freshly baked bread wafted all around as we entered the bakery. But this was not just any bakery, this was Bread in Common, a bakery with restaurant, bar, delicatessen counter and vegetable garden attached. Actually the vegetable garden is a couple of raised beds in the street in front of the 1898 Listed Building, growing a very healthy display of lettuces, herbs and other fresh produce. From Hansel and Gretel, the two massive wood-fired ovens, come a wide variety of breads, made using the freshest ingredients including different flours, sourdough, fruits and spices.

Bread in Common Bakery and Restaurant Fremantle

Bread in Common

We watched as the bustling open kitchen prepared meals and admired the excellent wines displayed above the bar. House specialties include roasted pork belly with fermented kohlrabi, pear, radish and mustard, and salmon with baby peppers, kale and pineapple vinegar.

Fremantle Markets – South Terrace & Henderson Street

Fremantle Market

Fremantle Market

Within a purpose-built market hall, erected in 1897, are a collection of markets, including fresh fruit and veg, clothes, cooked food and household goods. You can buy enormous Indian samosas, admire beautifully carved melons, papayas and apples, buy a big, knobbly custard apple or try a guaranteed hangover cure. A ‘Stunned Emu‘ advertises quirky magnets and other souvenirs. I can highly recommend Small Batch flavoured chocolate bars.

Fremantle Market goods

Downtown Fremantle

From the market we headed off down-town, along South Terrace towards the sea. We passed cosy wine bars, noisy pubs, cool cafes and cosmopolitan restaurants serving food from around the globe. People were queuing good-naturedly to get inside Metropolis nightclub and nearby Salt and Anchor was heaving with beer-lovers quaffing over 20 Aussie and international craft beers on tap and many more bottled beers. On the pavement a street artist played jazz and Latin tunes on his electric organ and a couple we’re doing a salsa. We crossed the Esplanade and passed the skate park; my son would be very impressed with its contemporary design. At Fishing Boat Harbour is one of Fremantle’s most famous eateries, Little Creatures.

Little Creatures Brewery – Fishing Boat Harbour

Little Creatures Brewery bicycle Fremantle Western Australia

Little Creatures Bar

Entering the brewery, housed in a converted boathouse, the noise and delicious smell of food hit us full on. We made our way past the enormous metal cyclinders of brewing beers and rows of trestle tables and found a table at the back of the restaurant area. Upstairs more tables line a narrow corridor which has an eclectic collection of local modern art. It’s a fascinating place, attracting a mix of all ages who come for the excellent beer (their Pale Ale and seasonal beers are most popular), wood-fired pizzas, sharing platters and hearty mains such as slow-cooked brisket.

Little Creatures Brewery Fremantle Western Australia

We ordered a whole load of plates including pumpkin and mushroom pizzas, kangaroo and tomato chutney, marinated octopus, veggie nachos, sticky lamb ribs and sea-salty fresh oysters. It was a real feast of colourful, well-cooked food, great flavours and generous portions. We drank vast quantities of their beer and excellent wines whilst Rusty regaled us with fascinating stories ending the evening feeling very merry and full of Freo joie de vivre …

Cheers from Little Creatures in Fremantle Western Australia

Cheers from ‘Little Creatures’ in Fremantle

That morning we’d got the ferry from Fremantle to Rottnest Island and spent the day there. Read about my search for the quirky quokka of Rottnest Island here.

Rottnest Island Bus - Western Australia

Rottnest Island Bus

I travelled to Perth, Fremantle, Rottnest Island and Margaret River courtesy of Tourism Western Australia #justanotherdayinWA. I’d like to thank everyone, including my fellow bloggers, involved in making this such a memorable trip.

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Fremantle Food & Drink

 

December 13, 2016

A weekend of stargazing and sight-seeing in Exmoor

A weekend of stargazing and sight-seeing in Exmoor
Exmoor Blagdon_Cross_Startrails - image darkskytelescopehire.co.uk

Star Trails; Exmoor – image darkskytelescopehire.co.uk

“Starry, starry night …” Don McLean and Vincent Van Gogh would love Exmoor at night. I have NEVER seen such a star-studded sky in the UK, as the one I saw whilst staying at West Withy Farm Holiday Cottages. On arrival on the edge of Exmoor, the night sky took my breath away. Ablaze with a myriad of sparkling lights, it looked as if a child had thrown a huge bag of glitter up into the darkness.  It was almost impossible to make out familiar constellations such as The Plough and Orion because they were embedded within so many others. The Milky Way arched overhead in a whirling mass. With virtually 360° visibility in this area and very little human habitation, it’s not surprising that Exmoor was named Europe’s first Dark Sky Reserve.

Stargazing in Exmoor

Telescope in Upton Cottage - West Withy Farm Exmoor

Telescope in Upton Cottage

Ian, owner of West Withy Farm, showed me round Upton Cottage, a converted haybarn, which sleeps 5 in homely comfort. In the lounge a large telescope sat waiting to be used; you can hire it by the day here and the garden has a plinth on which to use it. On the second night, astronomer Seb Jay of Dark Sky Telescope Hire came over to give a talk on astronomy and the skies overhead. It was cloudy so we didn’t use the telescope, but he had a ‘live-sky’ programme on his laptop to show the constellations, asteroids and planets that had been so clear the night before. It was a fascinating evening and I learnt a great deal about our amazing universe …

Exmoor star gazing with Seb Jay

Astronomer Seb Jay

Over the weekend I visited a number of interesting places in Exmoor: here are a few highlights.

Dulverton, Exford and Simonsbath

Exmoor signpost in Exford - image zoedawes

Signpost in Exford

The pretty village of Dulverton has got a number of independent retailers, including boutiques and antique shops, plus a good variety of pubs, cafes and restaurants. I had dinner at Woods Bar and Restaurant; a warm ,welcoming place, combining a pub atmosphere with quality dining. Owner Paddy is passionate about seasonal local food, sourcing much of it off his own farm, and wine; he has over 400 to choose from. (It’s been National Wine Pub of the Year for 5 years running.) I can highly recommend the confit of lamb shoulder; meltingly delicious.

Dinner at Woods Dulverton Exmoor

Confit Shoulder of Northcombe Lamb

The next day I set off to explore more of Exmoor, going through a number of quaint villages with thatched roofs and attractive pubs. At the White Horse Inn by the bridge in Exford a horse and rider trotted by as Christmas decorations were being put up.

Exford and river Exe Exmoor

Exford

In Simonsbath, a tiny hamlet, the smell of sawdust filled the air as a young man cut up logs beside the River Barle. The moor spread out all around as I headed towards the coast and two of Exmoor’s most well-known towns.

Lynton and Lynmouth

Lynmouth Exmoor - photo zoedawes

Lynmouth and Cliff Railway

I remember visiting Lynmouth with family on a hot, sunny day a few years ago. It was really busy and delightful. In winter the museum, chippie and souvenir shops may be closed but you can wander along the jetty overlooking  the river mouth and get a real feel for its historic and literary past. In the early 19th C the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley stayed here briefly with his young wife, Harriet. The Rising Sun Hotel is a picturesque sight with its thatched roof and excellent position overlooking the boat-bobbing harbour. Above the excellent Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre is the Pavilion Dining Room with great views over the Bristol Channel.

Lyton Town Hall Exmoor

Lynton Town Hall

The Cliff Railway, open between February and mid-November, connects Lynmouth to Lynton. It fits the ‘eco-traveller’ remit as its two carriages use the weight of water to pull them up and down. Lynton has a genteel Victorian air with some decent touristy shops and a splendid Town Hall, somewhat larger and fancier than you’d expect in such a small town. Not far away is the Valley of Rocks, a fairy-tale collection of rocky towers and hillocks with a splendid cliff-walk. It’s exhilarating and uncrowded in the winter months.

Porlock

Porlock Exmoor

Porlock

Apparently Coleridge was interrupted in the composition of his epic opium-induced poem Kubla Khan, by a ‘person from Porlock‘. On the day I visited, the people of Porlock were more intent on getting ready for Christmas, than visiting poets. It’s the heart of Lorna Doone country, as the local hotel indicates, and Porlock Bay Oysters are in great demand. They are the first Pacific Oyster site in England & Wales to achieve the top A classification. Sadly none were available when I was there; a good reason to go back.

Dunster

Dunster by Candlelight Exmoor - image zoedawes

Dunster by Candlelight

Possibly the most famous festival in Exmoor, Dunster by Candlelight is a glorious event held over two evenings in the run-up to Christmas. The medieval town opens its doors to visitors from around the world. The shops are brightly-lit, candles decorate the streets, performers entertain the crowds and a procession of costumed revellers carries a stag shoulder-high, accompanied by musicians and enthusiastic participants. I got the Park and Ride from nearby Minehead and spent a magical few hours watching the fun, wandering round the shops and enjoying carol-singing in Dunster Castle.

Read more about Dunster by Candlelight here

Exmoor Ponies

Exmoor ponies at Foreland Point - image zoedawes

Exmoor ponies

No visit to Exmoor would be complete without seeing the hardy Exmoor Ponies. Living all over Exmoor National Park, there are particular places you’re more likely to find them. I saw them on Haddon Hill, overlooking Wimbleball Lake and also at National Trust Foreland Point, on the rolling moorland road between Lynmouth and Porlock. They roam freely across the moors, but are not truly wild, being owned and looked after by various people. You can get fairly close but don’t try to touch them. In winter their thick coats give them extra protection against all weathers. Exmoor also has herds of wild red deer and plenty more interesting wildlife.

Exmoor National Park Visitor Centre

Exmoor National Park

Many thanks to Visit Exmoor for hosting my weekend, and to Ian and Lorena of West Withy Farm for their warm welcome, hospitality and invaluable advice on what to see in this beautiful area in south west England. Check out their website for details of stargazing weekends – a whole new world could open up for you …

Quirky Travel Guide to West Withy Farm 

November 27, 2016

Historic Heysham: off the beaten track in Lancashire

Historic Heysham: off the beaten track in Lancashire

OK, so Heysham may be more well-known for being home to a nuclear power station than for its historic attractions. It’s an ugly blot on the landscape of glorious Morecambe Bay. Visible from virtually any point around the coastline, one good reason to go to Heysham is that you can’t see the power station from here, unless you peer round the point. So, now you know the worst, let’s look at the reasons why you should visit Heysham Barrows.

St Patrick's Chapel at Heysham towards Morecambe Lancashire

St Patrick’s Chapel towards Morecambe

This little promontory at Heysham provides an escape from the suburbs of Lancaster and Morecambe, with stunning views across the Irish Sea towards the Isle of Man, the Lake District fells and the Lancashire coast. It’s had visitors going back to time unknown. Evidence of Stone Age (Neolithic) man has been found around the headland including stone axes and hammer heads (now in Lancaster Museum) and Barrows (burial places) can be found in the area. The curious Heysham stone graves near the chapel ruins are thought to date back to the 11th century. Four of the indents are body-shaped and two are straight-sided, cut into the rock and often now filled with water.The holes at the top were probably for wooden crosses and it is possible that they could have been used not for one body each but for the bones of many dead people. They are some of the earliest known graves in Christian England.

Stone graves at Heysham overlooking Morecambe Bay

Stone graves overlooking Morecambe Bay

According to an excellent article by Sandhak, ‘Evidence is too abundant for there to be any doubt that St Patrick was the first to preach the gospel in Heysham. St Patrick was a Roman, the son of a Roman and grandson of a christian preacher … The date of the Chapel at Heysham can be assumed to be about 445 AD … ‘ You can read more about St Patrick and the history of Heysham here. Others think the chapel may date back to about 750AD. Whatever the truth, the chapel, with its curved Anglo-Sazon style arch, adds a romantic, gothic feel to the headland, overlooking Morecambe Bay.

St Patrick's Chapel, Heysham Lancashire - image zoedawes

St Patrick’s Chapel across Morecambe Bay

This area is owned by the National Trust and the noticeboard has information on St Patrick’s Chapel. It shows an artist’s impression of what the chapel and graves may have looked like may have looked like hundreds of years ago.

St Patrick's Chapel National Trust Information Board

St Patrick’s Chapel Information Board

Behind the chapel is a walled section which rises up to a rounded peak; this may have been part of a small monastery. I love to walk up the hill and sit on the wall looking out across the sea and simply enjoy the fresh air and lovely views. In autumn the gorse is a vibrant yellow, adding a welcome dash of colour. I was there in September for a photo shoot with photographer Clare Malley. It  was rainy and overcast when we arrived but the skies cleared for a while and the gorse positively zinged against waters of the Bay and the misty mountains of the Lake District.

Gorse bushes on Heysham Barrows overlooking Morecambe Bay and the Lake District hills

Gorse bushes overlooking Morecambe Bay and the Lake District hills

Nearby is St Peter’s Church, a simple Victorian building used by the local inhabitants of Heysham. The old village has a quaint atmosphere with attractive cottages, a decent pub and a couple of very good cafes. It’s benefiting from the regeneration of the area, following the opening of the new M6 link road. Heysham Port provides ferries and freight shipping to the Isle of Man, Ireland and UK ports and this road is speeding up connections to the rest of the country.

St Peter's Church Heysham Lancashire

St Peter’s Church

Of course, this means it is now easier for tourists to visit Heysham and hopefully get up on the Barrows for a bracing walk in some of the loveliest scenery in Lancashire. Just make sure you keep your eyes ahead and don’t look at the hideous carbuncle round the corner; it’s well worth the trip.

The Quirky Traveller on Heysham Headland

On Heysham Headland

 

November 4, 2016

To Western Australia in search of the quirky quokka

To Western Australia in search of the quirky quokka
In search of the quokka - Rottnest Express - Fremantle - image zoedawes

The Rottnest Express in Fremantle

What on earth is a quokka?

Aye, that is the question. I get an email outlining the itinerary for our blog trip to Western Australia and there, on Day 1, it says we’ll be visiting Rottnest Island, with its ‘casual atmosphere, picturesque scenery and some of the world’s finest beaches.‘ Sounds lovely but I’ve never heard of Rottnest Island. As soon as I type Rottnest Island into Google, the words ‘quokka‘ and ‘animals‘ come up. I am intrigued. I need to know more …

Parker Point Rottnest Island Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Parker Point on Rottnest Island

Western Australia website says, ‘… you’ll meet the cutest mini marsupial, found only in Western Australia, the world famous quokka, as well as many unique plant and animal species. Apparently, Rottnest Island Golf Course is being ‘plagued by an explosion of quokkas.’  It’s described as the ‘happiest animal in the world’ and the internet is alive with photos of grinning quokkas.  Good heavens. What on earth is a quokka?

The quokka - happiest animal in the world.

The quokka – ‘happiest animal in the world’. Photos from internet

The Quokka

The quokka is small macropod about the size of a domestic cat. Like other marsupials in the macropod family (such as kangaroos and wallabies), the quokka is herbivorous and mainly nocturnal. It has a stocky build, rounded ears, and a short, broad head. Although looking rather like a very small kangaroo, it can climb small trees and shrubs. Its coarse fur is a grizzled brown colour, fading to buff underneath. Wikipedia

Even more intrigued, I am now really looking forward to seeing one of these quirky creatures.

Quokka eating a leaf - Rottnest Island in Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Quokka eating a leaf

Rottnest Island

We board the Rottnest Express in Fremantle on the west coast of Australia and in less than half an hour we’ve arrived in another world, where life moves at a more leisurely pace, bicycles replace cars and the elusive quokka has taken over the golf course …

Thomson Bay on Rottnest Island Western Australia - photo zoedawes

Thomson Bay

We get on our hired bikes and pedal off towards the Visitor Information Centre. Whilst a helfpful guide shows us where to go on a map, all I want to know is where the quokkas are. Will I get to see one easily? Are they shy? Where’s the best place to see them? ‘Oh they’re all over the place. You’ll see plenty in and around town and they’re not at all shy. You can take photos but please don’t touch them or feed them.’ I’m starting to feel quietly excited …

Rottnest Settlement and quokka - collage zoedawes

Rottnest Settlement and quokka

Downtown Rottnest (the Settlement) is a short tree-lined walk of shops, cafes and a bakery. We leave our bikes and there, next to the bike stand, is a chubby quokka fast asleep under a tree. I stoop down to take a photo and the quokka wakes up. It gives me a quick stare then starts grooming its tummy. Looks cute but definitely more rat than cat-like! Outside the bakery a quokka is on the table eating crumbs, surrounded by ooohing and aaahing admirers. In front of the supermarket, one is hopping along looking vaguely shifty; there’s a big sign saying No Quokkas.

No quokkas here - Rottnest Island

No quokkas here

I set off with the other bloggers on a bike ride round the island, but it starts to rain so I decide to go to the little Museum, housed in one of the Victorian buildings left from the days when Rottnest was a prison island for Aboriginal People. There is an excellent exhibition telling the sad story of these prisoners, as well artefacts from the days when the island became a holiday resort. In the middle of the room is a cabinet with a stuffed quokka, bearing the title, The controversial Quokka. 

Stuffed quokka in Rottnest museum

Stuffed quokka in museum

Rottnest Island (known as Wadjemup to the local Noongar people and Rotto by many), was named Rotte Nest (Rat’s Nest) by a Dutch explorer in 1696. The island was overrun with quokkas but the introduction of foxes and destruction of their natural habitat meant their numbers dwindled almost to extinction. The island is now a designated protected area and there are about 12,000 quokkas living on Rottnest.

Quokka on the town - Rottnest Island - photo zoedawes

Quokka on the town

When the rain stops, I get the Hop-on, Hop-off Explorer Bus which goes round the coast. The island is ringed with gorgeous, sandy beaches and enticing bays. I get off at Parker Point and go for a paddle in the shallow, translucent waters of the Indian Ocean. It’s a bit chilly but the sun’s out and I can imagine how refreshing it must be in the height of summer.

Rottnest Island Beaches Western Australia - collage zoedawes

Rottnest Island Beaches

Walking on round the coast, people pass on bikes, waving hello as they glide by. I flag down another bus at Salmon Point and we head off past Wadjemup Lighthouse towards Cape Vlamingh at the western end of the island. At the bus-stop a group of tourists are gathered round a quokka on its hind legs, begging for food. Cameras and videos capture the moment; these little creatures are real super-stars of Western Australia.

Quokka near Cape Vlamingh Rottnest Island - photo zoedawes

Quokka near Cape Vlamingh

The bus winds its way past the Salt Lakes and holiday homes before arriving back at Thomson Bay. I get off and have a look at the historic buildings. As well as the old prison Quod, there’s a chapel and a quaint little Picture House, showing Roald Dahl’s ‘The BFG’. Quokkas are everywhere, particularly under the Island Tea Tree and Rottnest Island Pines, where they find their favourite food. I see a group of them in a wooded area near the Picture House and sit down to watch them. One wanders over to have a look at my rucksack, which has some fruit inside. This curious chap clambers all over my bag and camera trying to get at them. He’s very close and the temptation to reach out and stroke his furry back is almost overwhelming. I grab my iPhone and video him (or maybe it’s a her?). I take a photo; my hand is shaking at being so near, not wanting to scare him away …

Up close with a quokka - Rottnest Island - photo zoedawes

Up close with a quokka

Eventually he gives up and potters off. It’s time to meet up with the others at Hotel Rottnest for a bite to eat before we leave the island to return to Fremantle. I’ve not managed to get the famous ‘quokka selfie’ but I have got VERY close to one of the world’s rarest and cutest wild animals. It’s our first day here and already I’m a bit in love with this part of Australia, but even more, I’m totally besotted with the quirky quokka.

The Quirky Quokka of Rottnest Island Western Australia - photo zoedawes

The Quirky Quokka of Rottnest Island

You can see more of beautiful Rottnest Island in this Quirky Travel Guide video, which also features the quokka clambering over my rucksack!


I travelled to Perth, Fremantle, Rottnest Island and Margaret River courtesy of Tourism Western Australia #justanotherdayinWA and would like to thank everyone, including a great bunch of fellow bloggers, involved in making this such a memorable trip.

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In search of the quirky quokka - zoedawes

 

October 30, 2016

Brilliant #LightPool illuminates Blackpool in artistic style

Brilliant #LightPool illuminates Blackpool in artistic style
When the Red Rose by Steve Messam Lightpool Blackpool - photo zoedawes

‘When the Red Rose’ by Steve Messam

The large red balloon glows like a radioactive tomato, enticing visitors with its voluptuous beauty. Children run up to it and gaze in amazement. Photographers try to capture its scarlet vibrancy, cyclists glance at it as they whiz past – and an unobtrusive guard ensures no-one damages its fragile form. Artist Steve Messsam created ‘When the Red Rose’ one of a series of beautiful artworks he’s making for Lancashire. It’s all the more impressive as it’s only here until November 2nd 2016.

When the Red Rose Steve Messam - Lightpool - Blackpool - photo zoedawes

‘When the Red Rose’ in daytime

I’m in Blackpool for the launch of LightPool, a festival of light and joyfulness running from October 29th to November 2nd. Barry McCann, Visitor Ambassador, explains what #Lightpool is all about. Lightpool is a wonderful celebration that ties in with Blackpool Illuminations. It was decided to expand what we offer at this time of year to include art installations along the promenade, live performances and also a special exhibition of Neon at the Grundy Art Gallery. We’ve also got brilliant 3D videos projected onto Blackpool Tower including Chasing Stars: our adventures in Space from British astronaut Tim Peake and a very quirky one called, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole‘, loosely based on ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Yoko Ono has a couple of installations including ‘Imagine’ at the head of the North Pier.

Imagine by Yoko Ono - Lightpool Blackpool - photo zoedawes

Imagine – by Yoko Ono

“At Lightpool Village, you get a drink and watch the live performances that go on every evening on the Comedy Carpet in front of the Tower. You can even have your photo taken and projected onto the Tower!  The festival is FREE, as of course are the illuminations and it’s bringing loads more visitors who are spending more time here. We’ve got so much to offer, and it’s great to have a bigger cultural offering for the town, but still linked to our seaside heritage.” Barry offers to show me round; our first stop is Neon; The Charged Line at the Grundy Art Gallery.

Neon Exhibition - Grundy Art Gallery - Lightpool Blackpool

Neon Exhibition – Grundy Art Gallery

Bringing together one of the biggest collection of Neon artworks ever seen, it’s a feast for the eyes. There’s a ballerina wearing a tutu of neon tubes, a trio of art-deco style moving panels, a bright red triangular installation that gives a dramatic 3D effect and much more. Upstairs in the Rotunda Gallery are ‘images of original designs for 1930s neon Illuminations, taken from Blackpool’s unique and historic archive of working drawings,’ including some by Georges Claude, inventor of Neon. Education Officer Taneesha Ahmed says the exhibitions appeal to all ages, especially younger children.  One of the big draws is  ‘I Know, I Know, I Know’ created by Tracey Emin in 2002, but every exhibit is a delight.

tracey-emin-i-know-neon-exhibition-lightpool

‘I Know, I Know, I Know’ by Tracey Emin

We leave the Grundy and walked down towards the Promenade. It starts to drizzle but nothing serious. I’ve not been to Blackpool for a couple of years and the town is looking a lot smarter than it used to. It’s mid-afternoon on a half-term Friday and there a loads of people, mainly on the prom but also in the shops, bars, restaurants and cafes. As we near the North Pier I can see ‘When the Red Rose’, its redness brightening up the grey day. Steve Messam has taken one of the Victorian shelters that line the Golden Mile and enveloped it in a red ‘balloon’ of material. No idea how he has done it but the effect is delightful.

When the Red Rose by North Pier Lightpool Blackpool - photo zoedawes

When the Red Rose by North Pier

We walk along the shore to Blackpool Tower, that icon of British seaside exuberance, visible from all over North West England. We go upstairs to the Tower Ballroom where we watch couples of all ages dancing and enjoying afternoon tea, and I dream of appearing on Strictly Come Dancing

Afternoon Tea Dance at The Tower Ballroom Blackpool - photo zoedawes

The Tower Ballroom

From the window we get a great view of the beach and people starting to mill about for the start of the main #LightPool events this evening. I’m getting peckish so we queue for ages at Harry Ramsden’s, but it’s worth it as the fish and chips really are very good. It’s going dark and soon the Illuminations will be turned on and #LightPool will come alive. Barry takes me over to SnapCast, where Manager Tom Westcott explains how visitors can get their photo taken, as if turning on the Blackpool Illuminations and other poses. If they buy a photo souvenir they can then get their photo projected onto the Tower. Barry and I have our picture taken – what do you think?!

Lightpool Snapcast - Blackpool Tower

Lightpool Snapcast – Blackpool Tower

The Illuminations come on and Blackpool is doing what it does best; giving its visitors the best light show in the country. The Tower suddenly bursts into a rainbow of light announcing LIGHTPOOL in glowing neon. A band starts to play lively music. People jig about in time to the music. A brightly-lit heritage tram trundles past, looking like a gaudy old American steam-train and LightPool Village does a roaring trade in light sabres and fluorescent wands. Barry’s colleague Annette clears a space through the audience to make way for the first performance: Captain Kronos: Return to Planet Earth. There’s a carnival atmosphere that is enhanced by the dramatically innovative attractions that Lightpool brings to Blackpool.

LightPool Blackpool - collage by zoedawes

LightPool

All too soon I have to leave to get a train back to Carnforth. As we walk back along the Promenade, we pass a memorial for Remembrance Day. The face of a young sailor gazes out at us from a huge poppy. In the distance, When the Red Rose, glows in the dark beside the sea. Only in Blackpool, only at LightPool …

We Will Never Forget - Blackpool Remembrance Day Memorial

We Will Never Forget

More about the LightPool Festival, on until Wednesday, November 2nd. Blackpool Illuminations are on until November 6th 2016. Thanks so much to Visit Lancashire for inviting me to experience this unique festival and to Barry McCann for showing me round and sharing his knowledge and love for his home town.

Another Steve Messam incarnation of ‘When the Red Rose’ was at #LightUpLancaster Festival over the weekend of Nov 4th and 5th in Lancaster.

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#LightPool Festival of Light Blackpool - image zoedawes

August 16, 2016

Quirky Travel Guide: top things to do on Aruba

Quirky Travel Guide: top things to do on Aruba
Eagle Beach and Palapa Tree Aruba - image zoedawes

Eagle Beach and Palapa Tree

Famous for its white sands and sunshine, Aruba is popular with couples, honeymooners, families and visitors of all ages looking for a relaxing holiday or action-packed break. Just off the coast of Venezuela in what was formerly known as the Dutch Antilles, Aruba has more sun than most other Caribbean islands and many visitors return year after year. I spent a relaxing week exploring the island with a group of fellow bloggers, soaking up its friendly, lively atmosphere. Yes, there are lots of gorgeous, sandy beaches on Aruba but there are plenty of activities if you fancy a change from sunbathing.

Fun things to do on Aruba

Aruba #onehappyisland - Baby Beach

Aruba #onehappyisland

With international resorts, year-round festivals and sport competitions, a wide range of restaurants and bars, many tours and activity centres, an intriguing history, unique natural landscape and a vibrant night-life, there really is something to suit every age and taste.

Watersports and Boat Trips

Kitesurfing on Palm Beach Aruba - zoedawes

Kitesurfing on Palm Beach

Refreshing breezes blow most days (and sometimes much stronger winds) making Aruba a windsurfer’s delight. The Windsurfing World Championships were being held whilst we were there and it was wonderful to see both windsurfers and kitesurfers whizzing across – and above – the water like enormous seabirds. My fellow travellers had a go at stand-up Paddle Boarding with Dennis Martinez of Aruba Surf and Paddle School and did very well, especially as a rainstorm hit just as they were getting into their stride. (Turns out the island has been suffering a drought and more rain fell in that half hour than in the past 18 months. It was the only rain we saw all week.) Frigate birds and pelicans add an exotic touch to the scene.

Aruba Paddle boarding on Aruba - zoedawes

Paddle Boarding lesson

Swimming on Aruba is a joy, as is snorkelling. I’ve never seen so many colourful fish. Irridescent pink and purple, lime green, zingy yellow, scarlet, apricot, sapphire … stripes, spots, splodges … opalescent scales glimmer and flicker in the shadows. Drifting slowly over a coral reef is to enter another world of rainbow silence. I went snorkelling over the wreck of the WWII warship SS Antilla during our Jolly Pirates Boat Trip along the coast of Aruba.

Jolly Pirates Boat trips Aruba - zoedawes

Jolly Pirates Boat trips

You could try SNUBA, an underwater breathing system that combines snorkelling and swimming. There are many Diving Schools with expert tuition for every level from beginner to advanced and other watersports include wakeboarding, kayaking and paragliding.

De Palm Island - Aruba - image zoedawes

De Palm Island

On De Palm Island, not far from the airport, you can try their underwater Sea Trek and Power Snorkelling and lots of other activities, with plenty to keep children happy. I braved the Banana Boat – never again! I much preferred lying back on one of the sun loungers …)

Off-road Safari Tours

De Palm Tours 4x4 Safari Aruba

De Palm Tours Land Rover Adventure

One of the most popular ways to see the island is on a 4×4 Safari Tour. We did the half-day Natural Pool Land-Rover Adventure with De Palm Tours. They pick-up from all the major hotels in downtown Oranjestad up to Palm Beach; check time and place so you don’t miss the start like we did! Travelling in convoy with four other vehicles our tour included California Lighthouse, Alto Vista Chapel, Wariruri Beach, Bushiribana Gold Mill and and the ruins of Natural Bridge, which had been the largest natural bridge in the Caribbean until storms destroyed it in 2005.

Aruba De Palm Tours 4x4 Safari - collage zoedawes

Adventure Safari Sites

The final stop is the Natural Pool. After a breath-taking bumpy ride over the rocks and sand dunes of Arikok National Park, we walked down a long flight of steps to a large rock pool on the north coast. It is not quite as idyllic as it may sound as there were many other tours at the same time. You’re given a snorkel and life-jacket and enter the pool in a big group; it’s difficult to enjoy the fish when you’re worried about being being kicked by a nearby swimmer. I’m assured that going early in the morning or later in the afternoon you can avoid the crowds and then it is no doubt lovely.

Natural Pool Aruba - photo zoedawes

The Natural Pool

 

Arikok National Park

One of the surprises on Aruba is how dry it is. Due to its southerly position, it has much less rain than some other Caribbean islands, meaning it’s a hot, sunny destination all year round. In Arikok National Park, which comprises 20% of the Aruba’s surface area, you can see examples of the island’s geology, flora and fauna. They include rattlesnakes, lizards, iguana, many exotic birds, cactii of all shapes and sizes, the wind-hewn divi-divi tree, aloes and wild flowers.

Arikok National Park Guide Aruba

Guide in Arikok National Park

Book a guide to make the most of your time and to learn more about the park. There are also historic sites including 1000 year-old cave paintings by the Caquetio Indians. The island’s oldest cactus (150 years) towers over other spiky monsters and in the restored adobe farmhouse bats flitter across the ceiling.

Adobe farmhouse and divi-divi tree Arikok National Park Aruba - image zoedawes

Adobe Farmhouse and Divi-divi Tree

 

The Bon Bini Festival

Every Tuesday evening there’s a lively show in the courtyard of Fort Zoutman, the oldest building in Oranjestad. Now home to Aruba’s historical museum, the Fort was built in 1798 by the Dutch and is the oldest building in the capital. A cheery compere introduces local singers and folk dancers, along with marching bands and there’s a wonderfully informal Carnival Parade complete with sparkly costumes and splendidly ornate head-dresses.

Aruba Bon Bini Festival - collage zoedawes

Bon Bini Festival

The audience is mainly tourists but on the evening I was there, the compere shone the spotlight on one of the island’s Ministers, casually dressed, enjoying the show with friends. He looked quite embarrassed to be picked out but smiled and waved to the crowd.

Fort Zoutman in Ornajestad Aruba

Fort Zoutman

Fort Zoutman Museum is well-worth visiting during the day. It has some interesting Aruban art and exhibits covering the early history and development of the island, including the story of weaving and hat-making. If you ask, it is possible to get up on the roof, where there’s a great view of Oranjestad and its charming Dutch Colonial buildings from the Clock Tower.

Oranjestad, capital of Aruba

Oranjestad, capital of Aruba

Eating Out

Sitting at a table on the beach, cocktail in hand, silky-soft sand between your toes, watching the sun go down as you wait for your dinner, being serenaded by the resident singer … what’s not to like?

Passions on the Beach cocktail - Aruba - image zoedawes

Cocktail on Eagle Beach

This is the dining experience offered by Passions on the Beach, a restaurant on famous Eagle Beach, just one of the many excellent eating-out experiences to be had on Aruba. Whilst we there, we saw a wedding on the beach; perfect place to tie the knot.

Celebrating wedding on Eagle Beach - Aruba

Celebrating marriage on Eagle Beach

Another great place to eat is the quirkily named Screaming Eagle Restaurant.  As well as indoor and outdoor dining you can be pampered with a ‘Dinner-in-bed’ experience on their very comfortable lounge beds. I had the best food on the island here. Chef Erwin Hüsken serves a superb variety of French-fusion cuisine. The Caribbean Journal voted Screaming Eagle the #1 Restaurant in the Caribbean on their Top 50 list for 2015.

Screaming Eagle dishes Aruba

Food photography by Screaming Eagle Restaurant

Other places I ate at include Moomba Beach Bar on Palm Beach (delicious seafood chowder), Papillon Restaurant in the Village Mall near Palm Beach (salty oysters),  Seasalt Grill in the Renaissance Marina Mall, Oranjestad (tasty Caribbean and seafood dishes), Pinchos Grill & Bar on Surfside Beach (super steak and grilled fish) and for breakfast and great pastries, Huchada Bakery in Santa Cruz.

Huchada Bakery in Santa Cruz, Aruba - image zoedawes

Breakfast – and more – at Huchada Bakery

Top of the Caribbean dining experiences for me was lunch at The West Deck on Governor’s Beach. Set on a wooden deck overlooking the sea and airport, it’s very popular with locals and tourists. Informal and fun, they serve freshly-caught fish, shrimp, crab and lobster as well as chicken and steak cooked simply with a strong Caribbean influence.

Oh yes, there are pelicans too …

Pelican at The West Deck Aruba - image zoedawes

Pelican at The West Deck

Aruba Travel Facts

I travelled to Aruba with KLM, which flies daily from UK airports via Schiphol Airport. I stayed at the luxurious Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino, which has a great roof-top pool overlooking Oranjestad Marina. The hotel has excellent amenities but its unique attraction is the Renaissance Aruba Private Island. You get there by launch from INSIDE the hotel lobby and it’s home to the island’s only flamingos. It truly is a little piece of Caribbean paradise.

Flamingos on Renaissance Aruba Private Island - image zoedawes

Flamingos on Renaissance Aruba Private Island

If you’d like to find out more, visit Aruba website and follow their hashtags #discoveraruba and #onehappyisland on Social Media. Special thanks to our host Amayra Boekhoudt, who looked after us on behalf of Aruba Tourism with kindness and good humour all week.

Lunch at The West Deck Aruba

Lunch at The West Deck with our host Amayra

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Quirky Travel Guide - fun things to do on Aruba

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