So….Cruise vs DIY?

So did we do it better than taking a cruise?

Well, if you take out having to lug our suitcases everywhere, on and off trains, to and from airports and up and down all the steps we ended up having to navigate, then we obviously would have had a better time of it on a cruise.

BUT, we were able to immerse ourselves a lot more in the cities we stayed in and this, to me, is invaluable.  We were under no time constraints when it came to most of the things we wanted to see and do (unless it was those imposed by ourselves when we chose to do guided tours).  It was particularly lovely in spots like Venice and Capri to enjoy the place once all the day trippers had left.  We ate what we wanted, where we wanted and when we wanted.  We could stop when and where we wanted.  We got to use all sorts of public transport and we got out of the cities too.  We saw so many more countries and sights on our itinerary than if we had been on a cruise.  And there’s nothing like staying in a place for a few nights to get into its groove.

I loved the fresh markets we came across – being able to buy and cook with fresh local produce was a great experience, not to mention being able to interact with the locals.

I’m not saying don’t go on a cruise, they definitely have their place and there are people who absolutely adore cruising, but for us and the way we travel, d.i.y is the way to go.  Maybe just with less luggage next time….

The main thing I learnt out of this trip was that while it was great to tick off some of the major icons of the world, I actually much prefer going to a place that is quieter and where you can appreciate it for being itself.  I much preferred Barcelona and Lisbon over Paris and Florence.  Those flag carrying big tour groups were so annoying and I got so sick of being harrassed by people trying to hawk me stuff whenever I came near a popular sight.  I hated having to line up for everything, although to be honest, we didn’t have to do very much of that, we just moved on if there was a huge queue.

Where would I go back to?  Lisbon and Barcelona.  For sure.

I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to my Laos trip in November.  Even more so, because I know it will be a much more intimate experience.

If you’re interested in any of the facts from our trip, here they are:

We stayed with:

Parkroyal on Pickering, Chinatown/CBD, Singapore

Citadines La Ramblas, La Ramblas, Barcelona

Hotel Convento do Salvador, Alfama, Lisbon

Villa Montmartre, Montmartre, Paris

Citadines Lyon Presquile, Lyon

Chateau de Trigance, Trigance

Private Residence (AirBNB), Vieille Ville, Nice

Locanda Ca’Amadi, Cannaregio,Venice

Villa Il Mosaico, Florence

B&B Antico Monastero di Anacapri, Anacapri, Capri

Casa Di Eddy, Termini Station, Rome

We flew with:

Singapore Airlines Perth to Barcelona and from Rome to Perth

TAP Airlines from Barcelona to Lisbon and from Lisbon to Paris

HOP Airlines from Nice to Venice

We took trains between all other cities, a waterbus in Venice and the high speed ferry between Naples and Capri

We drove with:

Sixt (between Aix en Provence and Nice)

We bought these city cards to help save us money – they included free public transport:

Lyon City Card

Lisboa Card

Roma Pass

We used these tour companies (everything else we did ourselves):

Urban Adventures in Barcelona (Tapas Walking Tour)

France Tourisme in Paris (Versailles)

Tour Azur in Nice (Monaco Evening Trip)

Florencetown in Florence (Pizza and Gelato Making)

Dark Rome in Rome (Vatican Tour)

Coop Culture in Rome (Domus Aurea)

If you have any questions about our trip though, please ask me!

Hunting for White Lions

Australian-born comedian Jonathan Atherton, a regular on the Singapore comedy scene, once joked that he loved Singapore and that he couldn’t wait to see what it would look like when it was finished.  He’s of course referring to Singapore’s ever changing sky (and shore) lines.  I had to laugh – because Singapore reminds me of a game I recently became addicted to on my phone called City Island.  You get a plot of land, build some houses, some shops, attractions and facilities, then buy some more land, build some more houses and some attractions and then you start to upgrade and replace them – a never ending game of upscale.

There’s always something new happening in Singapore.  I worked out this is my tenth trip to Singapore in just over a ten year period and every time I return, which in some cases has only been six months apart at most, there’s always a new attraction or some new upgrade, new restaurants or new shops.  And I think that’s why I love it so much.

From the minute I depart the airport, I anxiously scan the world outside the taxi cab windows for new gems.  For me it means the list of things to do in Singapore just never seems to near its end.  I’ve done loads of things in Singapore, and I always think “I’ll just relax this time”.  But then I start reading and next thing you know – well, there’s just not enough time to do everything, which means that I’ll simply have to come back again!

But for now, my plane has landed and the familiar landscape twinges at my heart and head with excitement.  For this trip, I am not alone, travelling with the lady who’s idea it was to come in the first place – Erin, and meeting up with my sister and brother in law, who arrive tomorrow, and will be undertaking their first international trip ever.  So I’m looking forward to whatever this trip will bring.

Ten minutes out of the airport, the cab driver informs us there is a new MRT line (the Downtown line), and a new expressway, part of which runs underwater and cost $4.3 billion, both of which have opened in the last week.  Work has already commenced on the second part of the Downtown line.

After checking into our hotel, the Carlton Hotel, we head for food paradise, stopping into the Tiffin Room at the famous Raffles Hotel for Christmas High Tea.  The Raffles Hotel is a stunning jewel in Singapore’s crown.  First opened in 1887 and immortalised by famous writers Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway and Alfred Hitchcock, the Raffles is a beautiful glimpse into Singapore’s regal, British Empire past.  Of course, as with most things during this time, the common population was unable to afford to visit the Raffles, and this much has not changed – with rooms at the Raffles starting at around $800 AUD per night.

High Tea 1

High Tea 2

So I am glad to be able to afford to fork out the cash to at least attend the high tea.  We are shown to our little table by the window and bought a three tiered tray littered with an assortment of finger sandwiches, pastries and desserts.  Which would have been enough, except there was also a buffet table scattered with fruits, more pastries and an assortment of Asian specialities such as pau, gyoza and dumplings.  The food is really good, and the atmosphere lovely, given we are seated behind a harpist.  Our glass of champagne completes the meal nicely.

I am glad that we have an evening of sitting down to follow this food fest, because I’m not sure I could spend much time walking around.  We have arranged to do the Christmas Lights Night Tour of Singapore this evening.  We are doing the tour with City Tours, which is a new thing for me, as I usually tour with Tour East in Singapore, so I’m interested to compare the service between the two.  We have a hotel pick up organised, which runs smoothly, however, when we get to the meeting point at the Flyer, it all seems so unorganised!  People are just milling around everywhere and there’s not much direction.  We seem to sit around forever, partly because we didn’t partake in the meal included with the ticket, due to our afternoon’s indulgences, but mostly because it just seems unorganised.

First stop on the tour is Gardens by the Bay.  I have visited here in the daylight, taking in one of the bio domes and wandering through the Supertree Grove, but this, all lit up against the night sky, is a whole different experience.  It is nothing short of stunning.  Each evening there is a light show which takes place (free) which attracts tourists and locals alike.

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The evening air is remarkably cool for Singapore, something I’ve not experienced here before.  Although I can tolerate the humidity of Singapore in return for the amazement I get from this city, this cooler Singapore is a welcome change.  Back on board the double-decker, open top bus, with the air blowing in our faces, our next destination is a drive down Orchard Road to glimpse the last days of Singapore’s annual Christmas light up.

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I’ve seen these Christmas lights twice before and didn’t think they held the magic of previous years, but for visitors from Perth – you’ll certainly be amazed at what Christmas holds in the tropics, and you’ll find the Christmas streets of Perth naked in comparison.

Our last stop for the evening is a cruise on the Singapore River, which is always a relaxing experience.  Tonight though, instead of the regular bumboat ride along the river, we board flash-looking new cruise boats, though still skippered by age-old Chinese captains – yes folks, Singapore has changed again.

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The night colours of Singapore just keep on improving, with each visit.  It’s an awesome sight to behold which adds to the magic of Singapore.  I couldn’t have thought of a more relaxing, carefree evening, but I think there are two girls who will sleep very, very well tonight!

Round Up

Here’s a bit of a round up of my travels – what I liked, what I didn’t, what worked well, what I’d do differently next time and just other general bits and pieces.

London

London in late June (early summer) is light.  It’s light at around 3.30/4.00am in the morning until around 10pm at night.  I found this a little difficult to get used to, especially coming from winter in Australia.  My advice if you like your sleep, make sure your windows are closed, blinds pulled down and perhaps invest in some earplugs and an eye mask.

Find a Waitrose, M&S or local fruit stall to stock up on fresh fruit.  Pret a Manger is a great cheap place to find breakfast or a sandwich and they are everywhere.

The underground was really easy to use.  I would suggest getting an Oyster card before you arrive in London.

I would definitely stay at the Rydges Hotel Kensington again.  It wasn’t really walking distance to all the action, but it was a few underground stops away and there was definitely enough in the area to not need to be.  It was close to the underground, supermarkets, plenty of restaurants etc.  I ate at the Hotel restaurant, the Jam Cupboard and was really impressed with the meal.  And of course, Kensington Palace and Hyde Park were just down the road.

There are people out late on the streets, but a lot of stuff doesn’t open til later in the morning.  So use it to sleep in or explore the streets while its quiet or go for a walk through Hyde Park.

Grand Cayman Island

The Caribbean Ocean is stunning.  However, it is very salty.  It played havoc with my hair, hats and clothes.  My suggestions would be to travel with a small container of hair treatment or at least wash your hair after every beach visit.  Rinse anything that you wear into or around the water so that the salt doesn’t ruin it.  Don’t pack overly good clothes.  Make sure it’s beach friendly, because truly that is where you will spend half of your time.  I reckon I didn’t use 1/4 of the clothes I packed for this very reason.

Sunscreen is a MUST.  I can’t stress this enough.  Even coming from Australia, the sun was so bitey.  Please be careful or you will end up very, very burnt.  And make sure you drink enough water.  Dehydration can happen rapidly.

Take an underwater camera, disposable or otherwise.  Schools of fish, stingrays and starfish can all be found in stunning clear water less than 1/2 meter deep.  So even if you aren’t into snorkelling or scuba diving, you can be assured to see sealife somewhere!

This is the place for water sports.  And because the waters are so calm and warm, it’s the best place to give them a try for the first time too.  Snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, scuba diving – just give it a bash.

Despite the fact that Cayman is not huge, it is not really that easy to get from one part of the island to the other.  A lot of the attractions are spread across different parts of the island.  My advice would be to either hire a car, or if you want to hit up numerous attractions pick up a tour.  Generally the tours visit the same locations, so choose between what you will see on the tour and what you can get to by local bus or taxi easily.

I would definitely stay along 7-Mile beach again.  A self-contained room, like what you’ll find at Sunshine Suites is perfect.  That way you can prepare the majority of your meals and then just splash out on the odd one.  There are some great value buffet meals around – like XQ’s and the Marriott’s Buckaneer’s feast.  But don’t forget to try some local specialties.

New York

If you are happy with a not so close up snapshot of the Statue of Liberty, just catch the free Staten Island Ferry.  If you want a better close up, I would suggest taking one of the paid ferries, which travel closer to the statue.  Of course, if you actually want to access Ellis Island and climb the statue, then that’s another option again.

The museums are huge.  Central Park is huge.  A lot of the time, you will need to decide whether you have time to dedicate a whole day or whether you want to fit more into your day.  I chose to do a little of each thing, rather than one or two things, but that’s just me.

New York is an easy city to walk around.  I walked most places, but I found that cabs were affordable and used them on occasions such as late at night or for further trips.  Bring good walking shoes.

New York is a noisy city.  Earplugs did not work for me.  Get yourself good and tired during the day and then have a few glasses of wine before bed, perhaps go to bed with the TV on snooze and hopefully that will give you a few good hours before daylight.

I found it easy to eat relatively healthy in New York.  There are plenty of shops such as Pret a Manger, Fresh & Co, Hale & Hearty where you can get fresh salads, sandwiches and fruit and they are open all day serving breakfast through to dinners.

New York is literally the city that never sleeps, but the city doesn’t sleep in either, so if you are into getting out there and seeing all the sights you can stuff into your visit, plan on some long, long days.  There are people out on the streets until late at night, and you can dine at any time of the day.

I wouldn’t stay here any less than 4 nights next time.  I stayed at the Affinia Manhattan in Midtown, across the road from Madison Square Gardens and a 10-15 minute walk from Times Square.  I felt this was a perfect location.  The hotel, whilst old, had been recently renovated.  The rooms were large and funky, if not still showing some signs of age.  Niles Restaurant had great meals and hotel guests were entitled to a 20% discount on dining in.  There were a load of restaurants around the area in any case.

Seattle

I stayed in Belltown and I don’t reckon I could have chosen a better place.  Walking distance to the Space Needle/EMP, Pike Place Market, the shopping district and the waterfront, loads and loads of restaurants and bars to choose from – what more could you want.  Seattle is an easy city to walk around, and its such a pretty place, there’s no reason you wouldn’t want to.

Get out and visit Mt Rainier – it’s worth it.  I chose Mt Rainier over Yosemite, as Mt Rainier is only a 2hour trip each way.  I chose Evergreen Escapes and although I probably paid a little more, the service and quality of the day was well and truly worth it.

Things don’t get going that early in the morning, so go for a walk around the markets, sleep in or do breakfast somewhere nice.

I wouldn’t stay here any less than 4 nights next time.  And I would definitely stay at the Ace Hotel again (I had a private room, but you can book otherwise).  The free breakfast was awesome.  The place smelt so clean and fresh and the staff were awesome.  The bed was the most comfortable I stayed in the whole time I was away.  FYI – Ace also have a hotel in New York.

San Francisco

San Francisco is not really an easy city to walk around.  A lot of the streets are actually at a 45 degree angle.  Obviously if that’s what you’re into, then go for it.

There are homeless people everywhere, as with all cities, but I didn’t feel threatened anywhere else.   I didn’t do my research thoroughly enough and ended up on the edge of Tenderloin (well I knew there were homeless people around, but just not quite the extent).  In saying that, Macys, Saks Fifth Avenue, the Hilton and the Westin were all about two blocks away and they weren’t immune either.  I probably would have felt more comfortable staying in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, seeing as that’s where I spent most of my time. There’s loads of restaurants here and most of the tourist attractions are here or leave from here.  Because I didn’t feel safe here by myself, I would suggest the city sightseeing buses or guided tours with hotel pickup/dropoff.

I chose to stay at the Best Western Hotel California.   The vegan restaurant at the hotel, Millenium was fabulous.  Don’t let the fact that its vegan put you off – the meals are so hearty that you probably won’t even notice.  But I wouldn’t stay here again.

If you want to go to Alcatraz, book in advance if possible.

Pack warm.  Even in ‘summer’.  July (summer) is the foggiest month.  I would say it was more akin to winter in Perth.

Singapore

Let’s face it, I don’t think there’s many parts of Singapore that you could go wrong for accommodation.  But that said, I like indulging in everything that Singapore has to offer.  The only thing that would determine my accommodation is this – if you want to relax by the water, have kids or want to indulge in water sports – head to Sentosa.  If you are keen for shopping – stay on Orchard Road.  If you are into luxury – head to Marina Bay.  If you like Museums and great food, perhaps head for Chinatown or the Raffles area.  If you want a quieter, greener area, try around Cuscaden Road.  Keep in mind, nowhere on the island is more than a 10-20 minute taxi ride and Singapore’s MRT system is fantastic.  So you really can’t go wrong.

There is always something new to do in Singapore.  Keep an eye out on www.yoursingapore.com, www.timeoutsingapore.com or even just make sure you pick up the tourist brochures at the airport like Where and you will find out all you need to know about where to go and what to do.  I can recommend any tours by Tour East (www.toureast.net), especially the Night Safari with dinner, which I find to be the best value.

Singapore is not just about tourist attractions though, so if like me, you had no idea how much history Singapore had particularly in relation to World War II, make sure you check out Fort Siloso (on Sentosa), Changi Prison & Chapel, Fort Canning or the Old Ford Factory for starters.

Culture vultures will not want to miss the Chinatown Heritage Museum and the Peranakan Museum.  There are also numerous walking tours through Chinatown and Little India.  And for art lovers – you must stop by SAM or the Art Science Museum.  But sometimes, the best thing about Singapore is that even if you just stroll around the streets, you will get a really good picture of the country, its food and its people.  And don’t be afraid to try anything here – the food is amazing.

Again, things don’t get going until around 10/11am in the morning, so use the time to enjoy brunch, sleep in or just explore the streets or Botanic Gardens while it’s quiet.

Hotel 1929’s terrace rooms are the best.  That said, I would only chose one of these if I were by myself or with a boyfriend etc, simply because the rooms are on the small side and the toilet is situated in with the shower, surrounded by glass.  The hotel itself is in a great location, the staff were amazing.  Free wifi, good coffee, free breakfast, free cookies and drinks.  Well worth the price, which was much less than a lot of the other big name hotels

Don’t bother with a transfer here, just grab a cab from outside the airport.

Overall

Whilst there’s lots of conjecture over what works and what doesn’t when trying to combat jet lag, what worked for me was a) following the time clock of the city I arrived in (ie. even if you are tired, make yourself go out for dinner or even just sit on a city sightseeing bus and go to sleep when the sun goes down) and b) try Jet Ease (or No Jet Lag), they may be called something different in your country, but I found this homeopathic remedy to work a treat.

Book transfers.  I know you can catch taxis, but I prefer to know that I don’t have to bothered thinking about where I’m going and how I’m going to get there after a long flight.

I booked a lot of tickets on line which saved time queuing up.

When you are budgeting, make sure you include for tipping – I found this added incredibly to my bills in Cayman and the US.

Everyone will tell you this – but don’t over pack.  You won’t use it all.  And if there’s something  you need while you are there, if you need it bad enough, you can buy it.

Buy a second battery for your camera.  I take lots of photos and the best investment I made was in a second battery.  I find there are lots of days where I spend all day snapping away and not having to worry that I’m running out of battery is a relief.  Obviously make sure you have lots of spare cards if you are also this way inclined.

My best flights were with Emirates, Jet Blue and Singapore Airlines.  I was surprised that you had to buy food on the six hour Virgin flight from New York to Seattle.

Order a low fat meal for the flight home!

Any questions?  Please drop me a line and I’ll be more than happy to share my point of view!