Monday, 31 March 2014

A brilliant South-West day out

We have a small flat so my lovely husband didn't want *stuff* for his birthday. I scouted around the internet for an experience to give him as a birthday present and settled on a Hawk Walk with West of England Falconry. Spoiler alert: it was amazing!

We lucked out with the most gorgeous warm spring day (after a week of grey, drizzly cold weather). We managed to navigate our way out to the the falconry centre located in a ridiculously beautiful Somerset village.

Jay from West of England falconry and Harris hawk
Jay (who runs the place) was friendly, relaxed and obviously knowledgeable.

We admired some of the various birds in their aviaries then got kitted out in falconry gloves and vests with bits of meat in one pocket. There were plastic gloves for the squeamish, but having brought up on a farm, I was comfortable picking up the meat with a bare hand.

We followed Jay and Mogwai the Harris Hawk on a short walk up a pretty woodland track to a field where we took turns to hold out food and have Mogwai swoop in from a tree to our glove.

Harris hawk
As you can see, he is such a beautiful bird and such a gentleman (gentlebird?) that I never felt worried about having a bird of prey inches from my face. I even got to stroke his breast feathers. We probably over an hour in the field, enjoying the sunshine, admiring the beautiful rural views, chatting about local history and interacting with Mogwai as he got his lunch and some exercise.

Young burrowing owl
Once back at the falconry centre, we were invited in to met Arthur, the young burrowing owl. Isn't he just the cutest thing?! Evidently he snuggles up on the couch with Jay when he's watching TV. I kind of really want a baby burrowing owl...

Lake surrounded by trees in Somerset, England
We left our car parked in the village and had a short scenic walk up the Bristol-Bath cycle path to an excellent local pub for a well-earned lunch.

It was a brilliant day out and best of all, it was much more reasonably priced than many other falconry experiences (which are also usually in groups).

So, if you're in the area, I recommend you book well ahead and experience an incredible day out!

Friday, 28 March 2014

How to put on a show - updated

Recently I saw Franz Ferdinand in the O2 Academy in Bristol - it was a lesson in how to put on a show. In the last  year or so I've seen Suede, Keane and Depeche Mode (twice) live, but Franz Ferdinand had them all beat hollow for sheer showmanship. So what do you have to do to put on a great show?

1. Look like you're enjoying yourself
Alex Kapranos (lead singer and guitarist) grinned through quite a lot of the gig. In his banter, he picked out some keen audience members and even dedicated a song to a guy who was dancing wildly. The bassist scarcely moved or cracked a smile, but even so the band really seemed to be loving being on stage together and getting to play their music. They put masses of energy into the show in spite of it being a reasonably small venue in a reasonably small city. They didn't look jaded like bands can do when they've been touring too much.

2. Communicate (intelligibly) with the audience
The support act to Franz Ferdinand had a lead singer who mumbled a few awkward comments (including not saying their band name clearly - which is really important to do if you're an unknown band!). Alex was clear and confident, saying just enough to build rapport while keeping the energy of the music going.

3. Re-mix and jam your music
Suede and Keane both played brilliantly live, but every song was exactly the same as their records; same tempo, same structure, not even an extra repeated chorus. Franz Ferdinand and Depeche Mode both mixed up their music to give us something live that we couldn't have just listening to a record at home. The highlight of Franz Ferdinand was a long drum solo with all four band members to end a storming rendition of Outsiders.

4. Think about the visuals
Franz Ferdinand are well known for dressing up. For their Bristol gig they worn matching custom-made black, white and grey outfits. They looked amazing jumping about in front of the mainly monochrome images projected onto the set and screen behind them.

5. Turn an interested bystander into super-fan
Before this gig I was kind of fond of Franz Ferdinand. I had one of their old albums and had listened to their new album a few times but wasn't in love with it.

Somehow, seeing the band perform a whole range of their songs has turned me from feeling vaguely interested into someone who's been playing their music daily and raving about how cool it is. Magic.

In case you're interested, here is the set list with links to most of the videos.

Update: so this happened...

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Things to see in Auckland, New Zealand

I'm from Auckland and I left so I am bit biased about the place. However, on a recent visit I was reminded of some of the good things about Auckland. 

Feijoa drinkFood and drink

I spent the 8 days I was in Auckland eating and drinking as much as I could of my favourite local treats. In terms of food, I've already mentioned some things here but somehow I forget to mention feijoas. Thankfully it was early autumn while we were visiting so feijoas were in season. Most Auckland homes have at least one feijoa tree in the backyard. I chowed down about six or eight a day and also feijoa flavoured drink. I didn't manage to eat a piece of the feijoa tart, but I bet it was good 'cos it was at our favourite bakery where the chef is French.

Feijoa tart
Also, I forgot to mention the good old Kiwi flat white coffee. New Zealand is very good at independent cafes - a flat white and a delicious brunch is a treat that's hard to replicate in the UK. A full English breakfast and an Americano coffee is not so much to my taste.  

Rangitoto island seen from Milford Beach, Auckland, New Zealand
Rangitoto island seen from Milford Beach
Beaches and islands

Auckland being an isthmus means that it's surrounded in miles of beaches. There probably isn't anyone who lives more than an hour's drive from a beach. On the North Shore, lovely golden sand beaches are anything from a five minute walk to a 15 minute drive away.

Milford beach and Takapuna beach are popular and can be a bit crowded but they are old favourites of mine. The walk along the rocks between the two beaches makes for a good way to earn a sorbet or ice cream at the fancy cafe on Takapuna beach.

Muriwai beach, Auckland, New Zealand
Muriwai beach
Muriwai on the west coast is quite different being a very long black sand surf beach. There is stunning scenery and an increasingly large gannet colony. This visit we saw lots of half grown chicks nesting with their parents.

Tiritiri Matangi island, Auckland, New Zealand
Tititiri Matangi island
Auckland harbour is also full of islands, some of which are occupied and some are nature reserves. On our recent visit to Auckland, we took a day trip on the ferry to Tiritiri Matangi island and saw amazing native birds such as bell birds, saddlebacks and black robins which you would never see elsewhere. You can also take day trips to Rangitoto and Waiheke islands and a short ferry ride from Auckland city to the cute village of Devonport. Getting out on the water is a typically Auckland thing to do and it does show off the city at its best.

Hot pools
Hot pools are the main thing I miss about New Zealand. Much of New Zealand is set on old volcanoes so there is thermal hot water dotted about the country. I grew up close to thermal hot pools so was a regular visitor. In Auckland I recommend Parakai over Waiwera as Parakai is cheaper, less crowded and still has a more authentic 'small town' feel about it. The Palm Springs hot pools have evidently recently been redecorated so if you're not wanting hydroslides then these are the best in Auckland to my taste. You can also find motels and camping grounds with their own hot pools, including some with a private pool for each room, lovely!

Waitakere Ranges, Auckland, New Zealand
Bush (or Forest to you foreigners)
Auckland is bracketed by the enormous Waitakere ranges regional park which has "more than 16,000 hectares of native rainforest and coastline. Its 250km of walking and tramping tracks provide access to beaches, breathtaking views, and spectacular rocky outcrops."

I'm afraid (typical of Auckland) the only way to get there is by car although there are some expensive coach tours that don't let you get a decent walk in. Still, it's well worth spending a day taking a bush walk as you'll see unique plants such as huge old kauri trees and beautiful birds like tui and fantails. Titirangi village close by has some great cafes for lunch - I recommend Stripe Cafe which is just down the road from the main shopping area. Delicious food in a relaxing setting.

Most people fly into and out of Auckland from international destinations and many of them immediately head off on road trips. There are some things worth seeing if you stay in Auckland for a few days - you just have to know where they are!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The best things to do in Singapore

We recently spent three nights in Singapore on the way back from New Zealand and gosh it was nice! I've been to Singapore several times before for shorter stopovers but this time we were able to rest and relax and re-set ourselves to the new timezone.

I love Singapore 'cos it's warm, there's great cheap food and great shopping (ranging from cheap to eye-wateringly expensive), it's easy to get around, feels safe and everyone speaks English. 

I really enjoyed our hotel's swimming pool, but what else would I recommend if you're visiting Singapore?

 Singapore Zoo and/or the Night Safari
I've been to the Singapore Zoo on a previous trip and thought it was one of the best zoos I've visited. There are masses of lovely animals. Two highlights were the Malayan Tapirs (this was the start of my love for tapirs) and all three types of spotty cat to compare and contrast: leopards, cheetahs and jaguars. The only downside is that you get very hot and tired walking around in the heat. There is a hop on, hop off train with commentary which is helpful to cover some ground.

This time visiting Singapore we did the Night Safari which is where you go to a different bit of the zoo at night to see nocturnal animals. My lovely husband had been when he was in Singapore for work and seen the Fishing Cats jumping in the water after fish. I was keen to see them for myself. Fishing Cats are super-cute but this time they just sitting by the waterside or pacing about. The Night Safari had a train with commentary going around most of the zoo which was good to save the feet but didn't give you much time to look at the animals. However the bits where we walked around by ourselves were actually a bit spooky at it was quite dark and forested with not many people about and lots of strange noises. Generally, I think I prefer the daytime zoo visit.

Gardens by the Bay
This was our favourite outing while in Singapore. The outdoor gardens were huge and beautifully put together and free to visit. It was well worth paying to enter the two big cool domes, though.

 The cloud forest was particularly lovely to visit as you step into a cool, moist space after the heat and humidity of Singapore. The space is about six stories high with walkways all over the place to admire the different plants and the waterfall.

If you've got children, the Children's Garden had a brilliant free water feature for kids to splash around in with sensors and timers causing shrieks of delight as buckets of water tipped over or jets shot out of the ground. There were several adults getting in on the action too!

We ate masses of delicious little satay sticks with peanut sauce, clumps of rice and slices of cucumber at Satay by the Bay which is a little outdoor food court set in the gardens, overlooking the Singapore river.

Lucky Plaza food court
Lucky Plaza is one of the old style Singaporean malls full of odd cheap stores selling freshwater pearls, electronics, tailors hawking for business, re-packaged make up samples (I got a Clarins cleanser sample and an Estee Lauder Pleasures sample) and more. I like it much better than the ridiculously expensive and glossy malls which clump around Orchard Road. The best bit of the Lucky Plaza mall is the food court in the basement. There was a range of cheap, authentic Asian food. They have a good food rating system in Singapore so you can be confident that food is safely prepared. We got delicious and filling main meals for lunch or dinner for about 2 or 3 pounds each.

Hotels and transport
Hotels in Singapore are expensive, but I do think it's worth finding one that's a short walk from Orchard Road and that has a swimming pool. An afternoon swim was just the ticket after getting hot and tired walking around and it is such a luxury for it to be warm enough for wimps like me to dive into the water.

This visit was the first time that I'd used the MRT train system, but I can highly recommend it as a cheap and easy way to get around. It's very similar to the London underground but less busy and cleaner. If you're arriving with just hand luggage, the MRT from the airport is much cheaper than a taxi. With luggage, it seems a taxi to your hotel is the only choice but it was only about 10 pounds for us from the airport to a central hotel so that's fine, I think.

So, if you haven't been to Singapore and you're heading anywhere in that direction, put a few days stopover on your itinerary and make time to check out some of the attractions. Let me know if you've got any other tips as I'm sure I'll be back there at some point. 

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Eleven things about me and eleven great blogs

Sunshine over cosmos flowers
Ooh, so excited! First time ever being nominated for one of those blogger award things - thanks Highland Fashionista! (Also, go and visit her excellent blog right after you finish reading this post!)

So, for the Sunshine Award one must acknowledge the nominating blogger, share eleven random facts about oneself and  nominate another eleven bloggers, who may (or may not) wish to carry the torch. If you're nominated by me and don't feel like carrying on this round robin thing, that's just fine.

1. I'm a mezzo-soprano who has sung things ranging from opera and leider to jazz and rock.
2. I don't speak any languages other than English but I'm willing to give it a go with a phrase book when travelling.
3. A good haka in the right circumstances makes me tearful. I once saw a spontaneous haka at a wedding - very cool.
4. I don't like cooking - I generally can't be bothered with the fiddling about and waiting.
5. I'm a water baby who loves baths and swimming (but only in warm water these days) and being on boats.
6. I'm excited to have a new nephew.
7. My favourite animal is the tapir (though it's a close-run thing as I love lots of animals).
8. I sit on my couch far too much. I've just joined the gym (again) - here's hoping I actually get around to using it this time!
9. I don't read nearly as much as I used to but when I do read, I get through about 100 pages of a novel an hour (and no, it's not skimming or speed reading).
10. I love my mother-in-law and get on well with her.
11. I've tried and tried to learn to play the piano. I'll have another go at some point...

So... eleven bloggers who I admire:

Cherry Sue - doin' the do
Passage des perles
Wardrobe Oxygen
Not Dead Yet Style
Grasping for Objectivity
Beauty tips for Ministers
Bacon and Jack Russells
Essex Eating
The Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor
Lady of Style

There, now you've got some bedtime reading!

Monday, 17 March 2014

Just too much!

duty free shopping at airport
I have some cheery travel posts lined up, but right now it's 6 in the morning (I've been up since 4) and I think the word that best describes how I'm feeling is surfeit: "To feed or supply to excess, satiety, or disgust."

I've just slept for twelve hours so I have a headache. I've had two busy weeks of eating whatever (including plenty of junk food) and doing little exercise. I've had days and days sitting squished into a tiny, hard plane seat snuggled up to strangers being fed more or less revolting food at random hours of the day and night.

I've seen SO much 'luxury' junk on Orchard Road in Singapore and in airports. Why is it that they think the main thing you want when totally exhausted and nauseous from travel is to buy a Gucci bag or a Hermes scarf or a Chanel perfume? Nope, nope, nope!

I'm looking forward to a virtuous period of healthy food, exercise, keeping my spending down and making sure I get outside and look at trees and grass and flowers as often as possible.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Off to New Zealand!

Milford beach and view of Rangitoto Island, Auckland, New Zealand
Hi All,

Just a quick note to say that I'm off visiting family and friends in New Zealand for the next couple of weeks. I'll catch you up with all the news when I get back.

I've got to finish packing now so au revoir!