Saturday 18 October 2014

Exploring the Delightful Hidden Green Spaces of London

A holiday to the UK capital can be almost all things to all people. London is a city of high art, culture and storied history. But, while nature may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the great metropolis, there are plenty of wonderful, relaxing parks, gardens and green spaces to be found - and you don't even have to look too hard.

If you're arriving into London through the very popular Gatwick Airport, taxi or shuttle rides to your accommodation can double as a sightseeing tour. Most drivers are only too happy to share their insider knowledge of the city, so take the opportunity to ask them for their favourite green spaces in the city. There are so many more besides the high-profile Hyde Park or St James Park (although these should certainly not be missed), and many of these are seldom visited by the average tourist. Below are a few suggestions to get you out exploring as soon as you've settled in from your Gatwick Airport taxi or shuttle ride.

Eltham Palace

When is a secret not such a secret? When it involves the delightful south London Eltham Palace. The 19-acre gardens are an absolute profusion of colour in the spring and summer, with a carpet of blooms covering every available space. The neat, well-kept gardens are a pleasure to stroll around and you can also take a tour inside the gorgeous 1936 Art Deco house. The site has been carefully restored by English Heritage and a visit to this stately home and gardens makes for a wonderfully relaxed afternoon - without the hordes of crowds to spoil the serenity.
 If your accommodation is around the south London area, get your Gatwick Airport taxi driver to swing you past the palace to get the lay of the land, but it's also very easy to access by bus or tube.

Red Cross Garden

Hidden in the backstreets of busy Southwark, the Red Cross Garden is as charming as it is unexpected. Filled to the brim with all manner of exotic shrubbery and herbaceous borders, the garden offers a tranquil space in an otherwise frenetic urban location. The Victorian gardens and cottage have been restored faithfully to their original glory complete with beautiful ponds and lawns.

Kyoto Gardens

Although this one is rather better known than the previous two, it deserves a mention on the list simply because its peaceful, serene ambience is unmatched anywhere else in the city. Set within the embrace of Holland Park, this lovely Japanese garden may be small but it is certainly beautiful. To access the gardens, enter Holland Park from Abbotsbury Road (ask your Gatwick Airport taxi or shuttle driver to point it out) and follow the signs.
 Inside, you'll find a delightful stone bridge, waterfall and a pond with Koi carp. It was originally created by a small group of Japanese artists in 1991 in honour of a festival, and has since gone on to become renowned as one of the most tranquil green spaces in Central London.

No matter where you are in London, you won't be far from a park or green space. Take the opportunity to seek out some of the lesser-known ones and you could be in for a delightful surprise.

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Discover the Beauty of Bird Watching Tours in Belgium

Belgium may not be the first country that comes to mind when you think of bird watching tours. But despite the fact that this charming little country has much stronger associations with its medieval history and its production of delicious chocolate, it also has a fascinating array of avian life that makes bird watching tours to Belgium an excellent choice.

Birds of the Belgium Coast

The coastal area of Belgium is perhaps one of the best places to spot the migratory birds that come here in winter. The flat plains that border Holland, known as the Uitkerke Polders, coupled with the Zwin Nature Reserve, provide ideal conditions for the 30,000 Pink-Footed Geese, as well as the Great White-Fronted Geese that come to winter here. Interestingly, the Zwin Nature Reserve once connected the North Sea with Bruges, and it was only when a storm broke through the Flemish coast in 1134 that the current tidal channel was formed.
This tidal channel opened up a host of trading opportunities for Bruges and, as a result, the city flourished. Today it is unusable, however, because of the silting that has dammed up the waterway, but it is still a haven for birds, including Red-breasted Geese, Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls in particular, and plenty of beautiful salt resistant flora as well.

Outside the wetland area, in the surrounding low-lying fields and meadows, sightings of Snow Buntings and Lapland Buntings both make an interesting addition to bird watching tours.

Birding in the South

The southern part of Belgium, the Ardennes, offers the birding enthusiast even more opportunities to get the binoculars out in the hopes of sighting some of the more unusual avian species. The stunning countryside of the south contrasts dramatically with the more industrial north, and those who visit are greeted with beautiful undulating hillsides, forests, and lush valleys that are conducive to the habitation of many species.

 Bird watching tours often take in some of the lovely rivers and streams in the area, including the Ourthe and the Semois; here birders may expect to be graced by the presence of Raven, Black Storks and Dippers.
The Ardennes opens up a whole world of exciting nature watching opportunities, and the woodlands are home to Woodpeckers and the elusive Eagle Owl that can often be sighted here. Ever heard the unique call of the Grey-headed Woodpecker? In Hertogenwald visitors may be treated to an instance of the magical call before continuing on to Hautes Fagnes, an area of large open moorlands regularly interspersed with spruce forests. Birders can expect sightings of the Crested Tit, the Nutcracker and perhaps even the Black Grouse here.

Bird watching tours in Belgium offer so many opportunities for the avid birdwatcher; they can also spend time exploring the wonderful city of Bruges, a highlight on a trip to the country.

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Discovering Paris on Foot

In terms of independent travel, there are some fabulous hostels in Paris, perfect for the intrepid traveller looking for a friendly, comfortable and sociable place to stay. From any of the hostels in Paris, this great city opens its doors and offers you the chance to explore one of the most beautiful and iconic of all the European capitals.

Many travellers wanting to discover the true heart of the city actually prefer to do it on foot. This gives them the opportunity to take their time, stop for photographs, wander down little side streets and venture into places they may not otherwise have discovered. Here are three great walks to embark on if you want to avoid local transport, stretch your legs and soak up some real Parisian atmosphere.

The Flower Market Walk

This stunning flower market, named the "Marche au Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II", is located in the Ile de la Cite, near the famous Pont Neuf. Bursting at the seams with beautiful flowers and plants, the place buzzes with locals looking for colourful ways to fill their window boxes and add a touch of individuality to their apartments. Here you can find all kinds of exotic flowers as well as many much more ordinary, but no less beautiful potted plants. This is a wonderful area to wander around before stopping for coffee in one of the many bustling cafes nearby.

The River Seine

Strolling along the river is a definite must for those who love to walk. There is something quite magical about this riverbank walk, and between the beauty of the river and the vibrant pavement cafe culture, you can easily spend an hour or two wandering, unwinding and relaxing.

Depending on which of the hostels in Paris you are staying in, you could start from Notre Dame and make your way along the banks either upstream to the Ile Saint Louis or down river towards the Pont des Arts bridge. All the way, the banks are lined with second hand bookstalls, which sell authentic old books as well as modern copies of famous texts. These eclectic little stalls are fun to rummage around, and you never know what you might stumble across!

The Latin Quarter

For a little colour and a lot of atmosphere, head to The Latin Quarter. You can lose yourself in the plethora of lively shops and boutiques, which include tourist orientated souvenir shops, antiquarian bookshops, specialist boutiques, art galleries and craft shops.

The tiny streets are perfect for wandering, and the numerous cafes and bars that entice you in for a morning coffee or an afternoon pastry are difficult to resist.

There are many more places to explore on foot in this city, and the staff in any of the hostels in Paris will be more than happy to make suggestions and recommend other off the beaten track places to visit.

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Sporty Sardinia - Holidays for Energetic Travellers!

If you're looking for sun, surf and superb gastronomic delicacies, then you should definitely want to consider booking a holiday in Sardinia. Holidays in this sunny Italian island are coveted the world over - from honeymooners looking for a special getaway to families taking a break from the rigours of everyday life.

If you want to make your visit even more memorable, you should attempt to include some fun new experiences. Luckily for you, the island is full of fun and exciting sporting activities to tempt you.


You can hire a wide variety of boats from one of the many coastal communities in Sardinia - from the northern coast of Capo Caccia to Porto Sao Paolo. You can ultimately choose your own type of boating expedition - from cruising along at a relaxing pace on high-end luxury yachts, to hiring a fishing boat to try your hand at catching the local marine life.


Ocean kayaking is a great new way of experiencing the safe, open seas around Sardinia. Holidays that include kayaking excursions are a great way to get the blood flowing while exploring the lovely coastlines of the island - with everything from sandy beaches to rocky cliff faces.


The glittering azure seas of Sardinia hide a treasure trove of sea life beneath the waves, which is why diving is so popular with tourists visiting the island. You will, however, need to coordinate closely with either your tour agency or a local diving organisation to ensure you have the gear, the knowledge and the certification to dive here.


Surfing is one thing, but surfing with the power of the wind is quite another! Windsurfing is an energetic sport attractive to the adrenaline seekers or extreme sportsmen. With the proper tuition, you'll be trying out high-flying tricks in no time - and wipe-outs are a lot softer than on dry land!

Horseback Riding

The island has a long, distinguished history of horsemanship, which is why there are plenty of ranches and equestrian centres all over the island. The beauty of the island's natural scenery makes horseback riding an even greater joy, from the sand dunes of the coast to well-worn trails leading inland.

Trail Hiking

The island is absolutely ideal for hiking and trekking, with plenty of well-marked trails available. Ramblers will enjoy hiking up the mountains - savouring the solitude and tranquillity of the experience. Those looking for a challenge may want to take a closer look at the Supramonte Massif. The rough and rugged terrain will test the mettle of even the most experienced hikers.

Segway Touring

Believe it or not, there are actually Segway tours in Sardinia. Holidays can become significantly more fun when you explore the island's sites on these quirky vehicles. Not only will you be able to explore some rich historical treasures, you'll also create unforgettable memories of doing so while riding on a Segway.

Keep these fun and exciting activities in mind as you plan your travel itinerary for your visit to Sardinia. Holidays are, after all, much more memorable when you expand your horizons and try something brand new.

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A Flavourful Tour of Sicily's Ragusa Province

Although Sicily is perhaps not the first place that comes to mind when it comes to fine food, it can definitely stand its ground against the more famous and renowned regions of Italy. If you're booking a stay in one of the fabulous villas in Sicily and you're planning an itinerary, you should seriously consider a few days of exploration of the Ragusa province - it will provide a gastronomic agenda that won't leave you disappointed.

Bounties From the Sea

You can thank Ragusa's location in the southeastern corner of the island for its array of succulent, traditional dishes that make full use of the bounty from the sea. If you're staying in any one of the wonderful villas in Sicily, you won't have to venture too far to find the bustling waterfront, with fishermen bringing in their catch of the day. Ragusa has an excellent array of dining places, serving all sorts of delicious seafood delights. One particularly notable restaurant is a quaint little place called Trattoria da Carmelo, where you can enjoy a meal of fresh seafood and pasta overlooking the Mediterranean. But that is only one delightful option; there are a number of other dining places along the waterfront strip, each one with its own unique way of bringing out the local flavours. Try them all if you have time!

A Haven for the Sweet Tooth

Those booking a stay in any of the villas in Sicily will quickly discover that chocolate and chocolate-flavoured concoctions are commonly found throughout the island. But there are certain towns where chocolate is not just created and enjoyed - it is celebrated. The Baroque town of Modica - popularly referred to as the 'town of a hundred churches' (we'll leave it up to you to count them!) - is one such place. Simply wandering along its streets and alleys is a heady experience, as the whole town is redolent with the fragrance of chocolate. There are many speciality chocolatiers here that have perfected the art of transforming chocolate into a diversity of scrumptious creations - forget those international candy or chocolate brands, as none of them can hold a candle to the signature creations of any shop in this town! Don't pass up the opportunity to sample the most amazing hot chocolate you'll ever taste while you're here.

Cheesy Get-away

And by cheesy, we don't mean tacky or overly cloying - we're referring to the real cheese! If you're staying at one of the villas in Sicily near the province of Ragusa, you won't have to look far or hard to sample its traditional cheese. The province - and each of its towns - has its own special cheeses, renowned throughout the country. For example, the cheese called 'Caciocavallo Ragusano' is an intense, yet delicately flavoured one, which was first created 500 years ago. This cheese is ripened in caves (only in the town of Ragusa) and it's a must to visit these sites to witness the fascinating process of creating this fine cheese. The island has many other local cheeses and, accompanied by a good bottle of local red wine, it's an unforgettable adventure trying to sample each and every one!

Helen Forbes is from Essential Italy, a company specialising in Italian holiday villas, apartments and hotels. If you're looking for the perfect villas in Sicily we can help. Our handpicked accommodation offers distinctive Italian qualities, great comfort and convenience.

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Practical Tips for a Safe and Memorable Ski Holiday

If you book a winter holiday in one of the many charming ski chalets, La Tania, in the French Alps, makes for an unforgettable experience. But while skiing in and around the resort is generally a very pleasant and safe endeavour - even for beginners - you can avoid any unforeseen trouble by keeping these tips in mind.

Set Up Meeting Points 

If you're travelling with a group and you're based in one of the wonderful ski chalets, La Tania's attractions can easily make you forget the planning side of your holiday. Sometimes, the impulse to just get out and on to the slopes is just too powerful to resist! But make no mistake - accidents and unforeseen circumstances can and do happen, so it's best to be prepared with a contingency plan.

Setting up meeting points at certain times of the day (agreed upon by all members of your group) is important if you want to enjoy a carefree day's skiing. The logic is that if you've come to the resort as a group, and you want to stay that way, you'll need to put some plans in place. There may be instances when some members of the group may want to check out a different attraction to the rest, or maybe some want to relax at one of the town's cafes, thereby breaking up the group. The last thing you want is to be spending half the day trying to track everyone down! The smart solution is agreeing to set meeting points and times beforehand. Choose a spot somewhere that is accessible from all parts of the resort, such as at the bottom of a major lift at a particular time, and everyone will be clear about the arrangements.

Be Prepared for All Weather Conditions

The weather can really make or break your ski holiday when you're staying in one of the chalets La Tania is so famous for. Out on the slopes, weather conditions can change in an instant, and the ill-prepared skier runs the risk of bearing the brunt of such weather changes. It is therefore in your best interests - no matter how annoying it might seem at the time - to ensure you always carry essential and emergency items. A sunscreen or a powerful sunblock, for example, might come in handy if the clouds suddenly part - and any case, even with thick cloud cover, a fair percentage of the sun's ultraviolet rays get through. You should also be ready just in case a blizzard or storm suddenly whips up by carrying a pair of goggles, some safety gear, and proper telecommunication equipment. This will significantly allay any pre-emptive worries and will allow you focus more on enjoying your time on the slopes - regardless of what the weather may throw you way.

Respect the Risks

As the saying goes, 'safety is no accident', and this certainly rings true on the ski slopes. When you book into one of the excellent chalets, La Tania can appear an idyllic resort where you needn't have a care in the world. Of course, this is true to a certain degree, however when it comes to skiing, there are always risks. The slopes here are generally safe and suitable for all levels of expertise, but to a careless or "show off" skier they can pose a certain amount of danger. It is essential not to stray off the pistes without a guide who knows the terrain well. If you do want to explore off piste, there are plenty of great guides available in the resort that can take you and your group on a safe adventure.

Danielle Hodges is the Marketing Manager for Ski Amis, a specialist ski travel agency and booking service offering bonded holidays in La Tania and other fantastic locations. If you're looking for catered or self catered ski chalets, La Tania is ideal. For a luxury or good-value skiing holiday call Ski Amis.

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Travel 101 - Travel Must-Haves For Family Trips

Think of some of the greatest books and movies of all time; now think of how many of those great books and movies involved travel - from Fievel travelling to America to Frodo Baggins travelling to Mordor. This is no coincidence; travel is one of the greatest adventures in life, and in this modern age anyone can do it! Gone are the days when only hardened adventurers risked life and limb to explore just a few hundred miles.

Today's technological advances in transportation and communication mean that even with children in tow, heading off for a short break or a long odyssey doesn't have to be fraught with difficulty.

Below, we list a few must-haves - the most important of which is travel insurance - for family trips in order to ensure you make most of the experience.

A Plan

No holiday is without its challenges, and for family trips abroad the most likely challenge will be logistics. The key to a great trip is making and sticking to a plan. Schedules (from leaving for the airport to coming back home), packing, budgeting, accommodation, your itinerary (with regards to attractions to visit), and keeping track of which suitcase belongs to whom are just a few of the things you need to juggle in the planning of your trip. You also need a contingency plan in the event of emergencies, such as lost or stolen luggage, cancelled flights, or even unforeseen accidents. Fortunately, having travel insurance for family trips means that you'll have access to the help you may need in the event of emergencies and, depending on your policy, compensation for lost property, cancelled trips, or medical expenses incurred.

A First-Aid Kit

Let's face it, adventures always involve a certain amount of risk, whether its eating cuisine you are unfamiliar with or paragliding in the Alps. As always, being prepared is always key to being able to fully enjoy your trip; knowing you're prepared for minor emergencies such as skinned knees from biking through the Tuscan countryside or a bellyache from eating too much gelato can give you peace of mind, as well as contribute to a speedy recovery and ensure things are back to normal as soon as possible. In the event that you or a family member needs more than just first-aid, having travel insurance for family holidays helps ensure your access to immediate and appropriate medical and emergency treatment - including medical evacuation if necessary.

Having travel insurance for family breaks also means you can be compensated for financial loss related to cutting your trip short due to the emergency.

A Good Camera to Capture Memories

Naturally, you're going to want pictures of your holiday and a good camera is one of the most essential pieces of technology to take along. While nearly everyone has access to a camera on their phone these days, a digital camera is definitely the best option as they can shoot hundreds of photos with one battery charge, as well as store thousands of photos on a single storage card. Good digital cameras can be pricey, though, so make sure you've includes your camera (and those of any other family members) under your travel insurance. For family holidays, memories caught on camera are the most precious souvenirs you will bring home - make backups of the files and sure you don't lose them.

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