Welcome to our holiday blog

Welcome to our holiday blog

This blog records the daily activities on our holiday from mid- May to mid-June 2011. The main purpose of the holiday is to visit Nicky, John and Amelia in London.

We will also be going to places we have never seen before including Beijing (China), New Forest (UK), Barcelona (Spain), Croatia and Dubai (UAE).

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Day 37 - Saturday 18th June

After landing in Kuala Lumpur, we made our way to the business lounge again to wait for our connecting flight to Sydney. Unlike the lounge in Dubai, we managed to get good WiFi reception.

On taking off, we struck turbulence again. Although the seats would recline, they didn't go flat enough for a good sleep. Yet again, the entertainment system was old fashioned and next to useless. I did manage to get some sleep.

The landing in Sydney was heavy and added to my impression that the Malaysia Airlines pilots leave a lot to be desired. All in all, not a good advertisement for Malaysia Airlines.

At the duty free store, the system declined my MasterCard - just like we'd experienced at our last cafe in Dubai.

Sydney airport queues were slower than we'd experienced overseas. There was no queue at the taxi rank but the driver we got reminded me of the low standard of customer service that we often have in Sydney.

When we got home, Cleo was very happy to see us. We thanked Laura for looking after things while we were away.

I rang Westpac about my MasterCard problems and they informed me that someone had tried to use my card fraudulently a few days ago and they wanted to cancel the old cards and reissue us with replacements. I agreed and thanked them for their diligence.

We were back home to reality after a wonderful holiday.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Day 36 - Friday 17th June

The first activity for the day was to have a swim at the beach near the hotel. We wanted to do this before breakfast because the sand is too hot later in the day. We also wanted to be able to say that we'd swum in the Arabian Sea. The water temperature was very warm - rather like a bath but perhaps not as hot as we'd experienced years ago in Fiji.

After breakfast, we decided to relax around the pool. There wasn't any rush because yesterday we'd requested a late checkout and so we could use our room until 2pm rather than the standard checkout time of 12 noon. Our flight back to Sydney didn't leave until about 6:30pm.

We'd packed up and checked out by 1:30pm so we could go around to Grosvenor House which is a nearby hotel owned by the same company. It was one of the hotels we had considered staying at when planning our trip. The hotel porters stored our luggage and they organised the shuttle bus to take us to Grosvenor House.

Grosvenor House has a different atmosphere to Le Royal Meridien Hotel. It is a very elegant hotel that might be better suited to business travellers or perhaps tourists who don't plan to spend as much time at the hotel. Our hotel, on the other hand, is ideal for relaxing around the pool.

In the Grosvenor House hotel, we had lunch at a cafe called Leaves Cafe. The service was absolutely brilliant. I lost count of the number of people (including managers) who came by to ask if we were happy with our meal. When they asked us to fill out a survey, we gave them a glowing reference.

I wanted to give a larger tip than normal but paying the bill ended being harder that I expected. We concluded that there might be a problem with my credit card and so we paid by cash.

We caught the shuttle bus back to the Le Royal Meridien Hotel just in time for the car that the hotel had organised to take us to the airport. It was an easy trip that only took about 30 minutes.

Check-in and security were also easy and we were soon in the business lounge. Unfortunately we wasted most of the time there trying to get the WiFi to work consistently.

Soon after we took off from Dubai on our way to Kuala Lumpur, we struck turbulence. It was so bad that the pilot told the cabin crew to strap themselves in too. This delayed the normal cabin service.

Once again the Malaysia Airlines in-flight entertainment was old fashioned. Although the magazine showed a wide range of options, only a few were available on this flight and there was no choice for the starting time. All the movies started at the same time and so, by the time you got around to looking, they were well under way. Furthermore, the controls didn't seem to match up with the display in front of you. After checking with a crew member, I just gave up.

The main reason we'd booked this flight was to be in business class so we could sleep overnight on the leg to Kuala Lumpur. However, the seats only reclined without going flat enough to sleep properly. I eventually did manage to get a few hours sleep.

When I woke up, I naturally wanted to go to the loo but I noticed that the fasten seat belts sign was on and so I decided to wait thinking that it be turned off soon. There didn't seem to be any turbulence and the crew were acting as if there wasn't a problem. I waited and waited.

By the time Suzy woke up almost an hour later, I was busting to go. When she just got up and went, I did the same. Someone starting knocking on the door and messages started flashing telling me to return to my seat. Having got that far, I just ignored it all. It was almost another hour before they turned off the fasten seat belts sign. There didn't seem to me to be any good reason that it was on for so long.

As you would expect in business class, the crew were excellent and they tried to make the most of the trip in an old out-dated plane. I'd had good experience previously with Malaysia Airlines about 20 years ago and so I was disappointed.

I came to the obvious conclusion that you get what you pay for. If you buy cheap business class tickets on special, you get a cheap flight. If I could afford something better, I doubt if I would bother with Malaysia Airlines again any time soon.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Day 35 - Thursday 16th June

Today we planned to go back to the city to see various tourist spots we'd skipped over yesterday on our hop-on-hop-off bus tour. Although we'd bought two-day passes for the bus yesterday, we decided that we didn't have enough time to sit on the bus as it went around the loop and so, after another buffet breakfast in the hotel, we caught a taxi to fish market.

The trip on the motorway to the city went smoothly but in the city we were held up in a traffic jam in the narrow city streets. In the fish markets and produce markets we were just about the only Westerners.

Next, we crossed the main road to visit a shopping centre that specialised in jewellery and then moved onto the Gold Souk which is a traditional street mall selling gold jewellery. From there we walked to the spice market where Suzy bought a small container of saffron.

We caught a dhow along the river to the other side of the river. This is a small timber vessel that accommodates about a dozen people seated on deck under a canvas awning. The fare per person was only 1 Dirham which is about 30 cents.

On the other side, we went looking for the Dubai Museum. Along the way, we stumbled through various shopping areas including some silk markets where Suzy stopped to buy some scarves.

Eventually we found the Dubai Museum which is housed in an ancient stone fortress. The top level consists of a courtyard with canons and other displays. The main displays are in an impressive underground gallery.

We caught another taxi back to the hotel and had lunch. It was important to get back in time for our 4pm booking for the desert safari.

Our safari driver picked us up in the hotel foyer and then drove to another hotel to pick up a family of four from another hotel. The vehicle was a 4WD that accommodated the driver plus four passengers.

The other family were from the USA but had moved to Kuwait about 20 years ago. The two daughters were in their late teens and the parents had jobs as a school teacher and a university lecturer.

We went south west on the motorway for about 45 minutes before turning off into the desert.

Just off the motorway, we stopped at a parking area for a photo opportunity with three camels. There were about forty other 4WD vehicles there already from the same adventure company.

The next part was the sand dune drive. The convoy took us up and down through the dunes for more than 30 minutes. It was great fun accelerating up one side of each sand dune and then plunging down the other side.

Next we stopped for a refreshment stop before heading off for more sand dunes. Then we stopped at another sandy location to watch the sunset over the dunes. Along the way we spotted some wild animals.

The last destination was a camp area for our evening banquet. The first entertainment was a camel ride - Suzy and I shared a camel. Next we had dinner and wine under the stars and a full moon followed by a performance from a belly dancer.

Considering that alcohol is illegal in the UAE, it was surprising that they were able to serve it out there. They allow hotels to sell alcohol and so I suppose the adventure tours company has permission too. I thought there would be a limit on the number of drinks because it's included in the price of the tour but every time I went to the bar for a refill, the barman said "please come back for more".

Our driver took us back to our hotel along the motorway rather than through the sand dunes.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Day 34 - Wednesday 15th June

Today's plan was to use the Big Bus City Tours to visit many of the sites in Dubai. This is a service that uses double-decker buses that you can get on and off at twenty different places.

There are two loops: a blue loop that covers the Jumeirah Beach area and a red route that covers the city. The two loops intersect at two locations so you can change from one route to the other. If you were to stay on the bus (without getting off at any of the stops), it would take more than 2 hours 30 minutes to do the blue loop and more than 1 hour 30 minutes to do the red loop.

The buses all have air conditioning at the lower level and some have air conditioning in the front part of the upper deck. When you get on the bus, they give you a headset that you plug into a control box on the back of the seat in front of you to get a running commentary on the sites you pass. The commentary is available in eight languages of which English is option 1.

We had an earlier breakfast today at the hotel buffet so we could get the first bus at 9am. It picks up passengers at various hotels around the area and you pay at the last hotel. We decided to get a two-day pass so we could do some of the sites today and the remainder tomorrow morning.

Our first stop was at the Atlantis Hotel complex which is at the end of the Jumeirah Palm. The Palm is a huge man-made peninsula in the shape of a palm leaf. It is claimed that it's the only man-made structure that's visible from space. (I wonder whether the Great Wall of China might be another one.)

There is a branch of the metro next to the motorway running out to the end of the Palm. Towards the end of the palm, the motorway goes into a tunnel that our audio guide said was more than 1km long.

There are already dozens of hotels and apartment blocks on the palm. The Atlantis is probably the most spectacular because of its architecture and position. It contains several tourist attractions with a marine theme including a water park and dolphin show.

We skipped a few attractions and stopped next at Dubai Mall which is a large shopping centre in the Jumeirah Beach area. In fact, they claim that it's the biggest shopping centre in the world with over one million square metres of floor space.

As if that is not big enough, its centrepiece is the Burj Khalifa - the tallest building in the world. It has more than 160 storeys and is 828m high. Needless to say, it tends to dominate the Dubai skyline.

It was always one of our plans in Dubai to visit the Burj Khalifa and go up to the observation deck that's located on level 124. Yesterday we'd tried to book online but had no success because all the available time slots were booked out.

When we reached the booking counter at the bottom of the tower, we found out they had tickets available then and there. So we bought tickets for an immediate visit rather than having to come back again tomorrow.

The experience of travelling up to the observation platform was well organised with displays, walkways, viewing points and attentive staff. The elevator that took us up 124 floors hardly seemed to be moving except that we did have problems with our ears popping with the altitude change.

Originally we'd planned to book to go up the tower early in the morning tomorrow before the heat haze set in so we would have a better view. Because we went up the tower late morning, there was already a visibility problem because of the haze.

Part of the observation deck is open to the sky. It consists of a timber decking with glass walls that are about 3m to 4m high. There is a handrail at about 1m above the floor and so I held onto it while I was taking photos of the city below and into the hazy distance.

The other half of the observation deck was inside the structure of the building with floor to ceiling windows. I still felt better when I was hanging onto something. In this area, there was (as you might expect) a souvenir shop. There was also a toilet area and so I decided to go to the loo so I could say I'd been there at the highest loo in the world.

Looking down on Dubai was an amazing feeling. The skyscrapers below us looked tiny and many of the features below us looked like toys. It was also surprising to see so many empty areas of sand between all the buildings and other developments.

Back on ground level, we enquired at one of the many information counters about the famous Dubai fountain which is part of this shopping mall complex. They told us that, although most of the fountain performances are in the evening, there is one during the day at 1pm and they suggested that we should have lunch at one of the cafes that overlook the fountain.

We took their advice and had a nice lunch at a cafe one level up from the fountain. Just before 1pm, I went out on their terrace to admire the fountain display and to take photos.

The information desk had also told us how to find our way back to the spot where the hop-on-hop-off bus would pick us up. We stayed on the bus until we reached the stop where we could change from the blue route to the red route.

The plan was to catch the bus to the river that runs through the centre of Dubai to catch the river cruise that runs up and then down the river to see the sights of the city. It turned out that we only just made it to the wharf in time to catch the ferry - although I suspect that they were waiting for the bus to arrive.

It was a great way to see the city. The ferry was air-conditioned at the lower deck where we were. The top deck had better views but all the seats were taken by the time I discovered it.

After the cruise, we continued on the red route bus circuit. At the end-point of the route, we waited for almost 30 minutes before the bus set off again. Perhaps they were getting back on schedule. It would have been better if they had told us what was going on rather than the driver just disappearing for all that time.

At a subsequent stop, we changed back to the blue route to head back towards the Jumeirah Beach area. We swapped to the blue route because we wanted to stop at the Jumeirah Mosque.

When we got to that stop, we were the only ones getting off. The driver told us that he was the last bus from that stop and that the mosque was closed today. When we told him that we knew all that and we only wanted to take a few photos, he looked at us as if we were both mad.

After taking photos, we had ice creams from the nearby mall and hailed a taxi to take us back to Dubai Mall. To fill in time at the mall, Suzy checked out the shops while I looked at the indoor ice skating rink and the indoor waterfalls.

The reason for going back to the mall was to see the Dubai Fountain at night. Although it was only 7:30pm, it was dark enough to appreciate the difference from the daytime fountain we'd seen at lunch time.

We caught a taxi back to our hotel and had a buffet dinner with wine at the hotel. It had been another busy day.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Day 33 - Tuesday 14th June

Since we got to bed so late last night, we set the alarm for 9am this morning to catch up on some sleep. We would have preferred to stay in bed longer but the hotel's buffet breakfast closes at 10:30am. Like everything at this hotel, the breakfast was excellent - plenty of choice, beautiful setting and great service.

After breakfast, we explored the hotel and grounds. There are several swimming pools in the vast grounds between the hotel and the beach. Between the pools, there are well-kept lawns, palm trees and gardens. The beach is made of sand - we read somewhere that it is man made. The sun glare off the sand was so bright that it hurt my eyes and so I soon retreated to the lawns and palm trees instead.

We went back to our room to change into our swimmers and then spent a couple of hours in and around the main pool. We pulled a couple of lounge chairs back under a nearby palm tree. You needed your sandals to walk from your lounge chair to the pool because the paving was so hot. The water was nice and warm - a perfect temperature for me.

Mid-afternoon, we decided to catch a taxi to the Mall of the Emirates - one of the largest shopping centres in the Dubai area and not too far from our hotel. It has a wide range of shops - everything from Debenhams to Gucci. The layout and structure is very impressive because it has large domes and skylights. Some parts reminded me of the structures covering famous European railway stations except here they are modern and spotlessly clean.

One of the reasons for going to the mall was to find somewhere to have a late lunch. That wasn't hard because there were so many to choose from. We settled for a cafe right near the entrance. Like so many of the cafes, it had a unique theme for its decorations and menu options. It turned out to be a good choice.

This mall is famous because it contains the Dubai indoor ski fields. It wasn't necessary for us to go inside the ski area because there were large viewing windows where the public could see what was going on inside. You could see the chairlift, ski slopes and kids play area. There was plenty of snow and a digital thermometer said the temperature inside was -2C.

It seems as though you can hire your ski gear there because all the skiers were wearing the same coloured clothes. Not many people would bring ski gear to a city where the outside temperature rarely falls below 30C.

We caught a taxi back to the hotel because we had a booking at 7pm this evening for drinks in the Skybar at the Burj Al Arab Hotel. This is one of the most famous landmarks and attractions in Dubai. It is 7-star hotel on the Jumeira Beach coastline and is shaped like a boat or a sail. Near the top of the hotel, there is a helipad suspended off the side of the building.

Inside the entrance area, you see a multi-level waterfall and fountain straight in front of the entrance doors with escalators on either side. The centre of the hotel is a vast atrium that ascends to the peak of the hotel with guest rooms overlooking the atrium. Another key architectural feature is the curved gold columns for the full height of the atrium. Everything about this building says style and opulence.

The skybar is also near the top of the building. It offers panoramic views of the sea, beach and city. You get to the Skybar using a lift with glass sides so you can take advantage of the view on your journey up the side of the building.

Everywhere you go, there are smiling staff waiting to welcome, help and guide you. It is clear that they recruit and train their staff very carefully.

We'd booked to go there at 7pm because the sun sets at 7:10pm. Our hostess showed us to a small table next to the window looking north along the beach. Soon after we sat down, we saw the sun set out to sea through the haze. There's a minimum spend limit on drinks and so we decided to try some exotic cocktails.

For dinner we caught a taxi back to our hotel and, after checking out most of the restaurants, we decided on the pizzeria next to the piano bar. It was a good meal but, because alcohol prices are so high, I just had a single glass of wine.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Day 32 - Monday 13th June

Most of today would be spent travelling from London to Dubai. We'd booked a car to arrive at the B&B at 9:45am to take us to Heathrow and so we had breakfast at 8am at the B&B and got ourselves packed and ready to go.

After the problems at Stansted Airport a few days ago with the London Airport Transport car not turning up, we tried British Airport Transfers this time. It turned out they arrived early - before 9:30am. Suzy had gone out to buy flowers for Jackie, our B&B hostess, and she was still out when the car arrived.

The 9:45am booking time was intended to allow plenty of time for traffic delays etc but everything went smoothly and we were at the terminal at about 10:15am. Furthermore, there was no queue at the check-in counter and only short queues at security and passport control.

Suzy wanted to do some duty free shopping for cosmetics. I found an external battery for my iPhone that cost me about half as much as the prices I saw yesterday in the Apple store at Westfield London. Bargain!

When the indicator board said our flight was starting to board, we went to the designated gate and found there was a bus to take us to the plane. We've encountered buses at airports before but this one took almost ten minutes to reach the plane - standing up in a packed bus. When we got to the plane, there were two sets of stairs and no airbridge. It seemed pretty primitive for an international flight.

The flight was due to leave at 12:50pm and we were seated by 12:30. It was surprising to see so many empty seats around us. Most of the other passengers didn't board until after 1pm and the plane didn't leave until about 1:45pm.

For this leg, we'd booked British Airways Premium Economy with Qantas Frequent Flyer points. The seats had more legroom that normal economy and the service was OK. The flight was less than seven hours and, because it was a daytime flight, there was no need to sleep.

There is a 3-hour time difference between London and Dubai. The flight was due to arrive at 10:40pm Dubai time but it was about 11:30pm before we landed. The Dubai terminal is huge and modern. It was a long walk to get through the corridors to customs and baggage pickup.

Once we got out of the terminal, we were hit by the heat. Although it was after midnight, the temperature was still above 30C. It was easy to get a taxi - a woman driver in a head scarf and long flowing robes. Although she spoke good English, it wasn't  so easy to explain which hotel we wanted to go to but she got us there OK in the end.

Our hotel, Le Royal Meridien, is in the Jumeira Beach area. Like other buildings in Dubai, it is very new and big. The entry area is vast, elegant and amazingly grand. The service is exceptional - there are very helpful staff everywhere and they all speak excellent English. You might compare it to living like a king - it's perhaps more like living like a sultan. In fact, the elevator shows there is a royal suite on the top floor of hotel.

It was 1:30am before we got to bed - a very long day.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Day 31 - Sunday 12th June

Today the plan was to have brunch with Nicky, John and Amelia and so we didn't need to get to their place until 10:30am. Later the plan was to go to Westfield London at Shepherds Bush. The forecast was for a cool rainy day.

After I got up, I went for a walk in West Hampstead Heath. There were a few spots of rain but not enough to send me back inside. This end of the Heath is only about 300m from our B&B and is also called Golders Green Park.

I was expecting a nice green park with trees and ponds like the other parts of Hampstead Heath that I'd seen before. It had all of that plus tennis courts, a cafe, exotic gardens and a mini zoo. To my further surprise, the zoo had animals from all over the world including kookaburras, emus and wallabies. I was annoyed with myself that I hadn't brought my camera.

After my walk, I went to Costa Cafe for a coffee and muffin because I didn't think I would last until brunch without any food.  Next stop was the laundromat to pick up my ironed shirts. The lady at the laundromat told me yesterday that they open at 9am on Sundays but it was 9:15 before she arrived. By that time, it had started to rain.

When we got to Jack Straws Castle, Nicky and John were still in their dressing gowns. Nicky had not gone to her exercise class in the Heath because of the weather.

John drove us to Westfield so we could have brunch there instead of the original choice. Nicky and John like to use the valet service at the Westfield shopping centre. It's a separate entrance from the general car park. You drive right up to the entrance under cover and an attendant literally comes running to take your car for you.

This entrance is in the part of Westfield called the Village which contains all the expensive stores like Gucci and Prada. We walked through the Village and to an area where there are a row of cafes.

The cafe we went to turned out to be a good choice because the food and service were very good. Nicky said they hadn't been there before and I'm sure they'll go back again in future. It was about noon when we got there and so I was pleased I'd had something to eat earlier.

The girls then went shopping. The first task was for Suzy to buy a new suitcase for our trip home tomorrow because one of her suitcases had fallen apart on the trip to London. Then they went to the dress shops. I was pleased that I'd downloaded the Westfield London app on my iPhone before I'd left Sydney because this made it easier for us to find the shops they wanted.

John and I took turns to push Amelia around the shopping centre so she would get a sleep.

At 3pm, just before we left Westfield, they had a stage show in the atrium near where we were having coffee. The entertainer was Alexandra Burke who I'd never heard of but apparently she is well known in the UK because she won the British X-Factor TV show one year. She managed to attract a big crowd.

When we went back to the valet parking to pick up the car, we were able to wait in a comfortable lounge area until the car was delivered.

We were back at Jack Straws Castle by 4pm. The weather changed from passing showers to steady rain.

For dinner, Nicky and John suggested an Italian restaurant in Golders Green. John drove us there at about 6pm. It was a good meal. As usual, Amelia played up to the waitress. I suggested to the waitress that she should ignore Amelia's requests for high-fives because by that time Amelia's hands (and face) were covered in meat sauce from her ravioli.

Afterwards John drove us back to our B&B a few blocks away and we said goodbye to Nicky, John and Amelia. It was sad to say goodbye.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Day 30 - Saturday 11th June

Today Nicky and John wanted us to babysit Amelia while they went out for lunch with friends. They didn't need us to get there until 12:30 and so we managed to sleep in. We went for breakfast at Costas Cafe at Golders Green just after 9am.

Suzy then caught the bus to Nicky and John's while I went to the laundromat to do our washing. I got to their place at about 12:15. It turned out that John was still in bed because he was recovering from an exhausting week at work.

Nicky put Amelia down for a sleep at 1:30pm and they left for their lunch engagement. Amelia slept for over two hours. At about 4pm, we took Amelia in her stroller for a walk in Hampstead Heath.

Although there were some dark clouds around, it was sunny most of the time. My iPhone said it was only 18C. Most people were only wearing T-shirts and some people were sunbaking. Various groups were having picnics while other people were walking their dogs.

Amelia seemed to be enjoying the walk. We were heading for the children's playground and when we got there, Amelia's face lit up - clearly a favourite location. She enjoyed playing on all the activities in the playground such the swings, sandpit, slippery dip and wobbly bridge.

On the way back, we walked along the main street of Hampstead past the shops and the railway station. It was good exercise for me pushing the stroller up the hill.

When we got back to Jack Straws Castle at about 6pm, Nicky and John had just got home. Although Nicky and John were not feeling hungry after a big lunch, we decided to go out to dinner early so it wouldn't be too late for Amelia.

So we set off at about 7pm to go to Spaniards Inn which is a pub next to Hampstead Heath. This pub is more than 400 years old and is one of the oldest pubs in the UK. Regular customers in the past have included Shelley, Byron and Keats.

Although it's only one or two stops away, we caught the bus there. The pub has lots of character and good food and wine. Initially we sat at a table in the beer garden but after we'd had main course, it started to rain and so we moved inside.

We walked back to Jack Straws Castle because the rain had stopped. Later Suzy and I caught the bus back to Golders Green.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Day 29 - Friday 10th June

It was yet another magic start to the day in Dubrovnik - having breakfast on the terrace of our hotel on a warm sunny day overlooking the brilliantly blue Adriatic, the island of Lukrom, the old town of Dubrovnik and a large cruise ship anchored offshore. As usual here, the service and food for breakfast was exceptional.

This a fabulous hotel in an idyllic location. It's about as close to perfect as you could ever hope for. Why would anyone ever leave? The only problem was that we were due to fly out this afternoon.

This morning we decided to go for a swim at a beach just a short distance along the coast from our hotel. When we asked the hotel reception for directions, they forewarned us that there were more than 200 steps down to the beach.

On the way there, we made things harder for ourselves by going down the wrong set of stairs down the cliff face and having to come back up again. The stairs we needed were about 200m further on past a small church. The view from both sets of stairs was spectacular. "Spectacular" is just about the only type of view that they do in this corner of the world.

The beach was a mixture of sand, pebble and stones - so it was better than the pebble beaches we've seen in some other places on our travels. The water was warm and salty.

Because we had to check out of the hotel by 12 noon, we knew we only had an hour at the beach and had planned to leave by 11am. After chatting to a young American man on the beach for a while - the only other person on the beach apart from staff at the beach cafe and some workmen building a bar on the beach - Suzy looked at her phone to check the time and was alarmed to find that it said 11:50am. We couldn't figure out how this could be right. Eventually we concluded that the phone must be picking up the wrong time zone from a nearby country.

We managed to shower, change and check out of our hotel by noon. They agreed to store our bags for us until we had to leave for the airport. Suzy went down to the hotel pool while I went back to the centre of town to catch the cable car to the top of the mountain overlooking Dubrovnik.

The views from the platform at the top of the cable car are . . . well, er, spectacular. A great opportunity to take more photos. Up there I got chatting to an Australian couple from Melbourne. It turned out they'd a problem recently in Spain with pickpockets too. In their case, someone slashed the tyres of their hire car and then stole her handbag. Another couple overhead our conversation and told us the story where her handbag was stolen after withdrawing money from an ATM.

After going back down the cable car, I took more photos of the walls of the ancient town from a different perspective and then walked back to our hotel.

I was worried that the scheduled pickup time of 3:30pm to go to the airport might be rushing things too much as so we rang Florio to ask to make it earlier. He didn't think there was a problem but said he would come at 3:15pm instead.

Just as he arrived we heard an ambulance siren. We were held up by a traffic jam as we went down the hill and I started to wonder if we should have left even earlier. However, we saw the ambulance drive off after a while and we got to the airport in plenty of time. At the check-in, there was a long queue for the flight to Paris but there was no queue for our flight to London.

The plane left on time at 5:30pm and most seats were taken. There must have been favourable winds because it landed ten minutes early.

We'd booked a car to take us from Stansted airport to our B&B at Golders Green and so we'd expected to find someone standing at the exit holding a sign with my name on it but there was nobody there. After ten minutes I rang the car company and, after waiting on hold for a while, was told that the car had been held up and wouldn't be there for a further 20 minutes.

We cancelled the car and decided to catch the National Express bus instead. We found a machine to buy the bus tickets and were pleased to find out that there was a bus leaving at 8pm - in only 10 minutes time. The fare was only 16 pounds compared with 55 pounds for the car service.

The next challenge was to find the pickup location for the bus. As we searched, I received a phone call from a supervisor from the car company apologising for the car not turning up. He gave me a few feeble excuses but I told him it was too late because we'd already decided to get a bus instead.

When we found the bus area, they reminded us that the Golders Green depot is being rebuilt and they would drop us at one location and provide a shuttle service to Golders Green. When we reached the drop-off location, we got conflicting advice about where the shuttle bus went from. By this time, it had started to rain and so we hailed a taxi instead. It turned out to be only a few km to get to our B&B.

When we arrived at our B&B, Jackie said we looked exhausted. It was good to be back at our home away from home.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Day 28 - Thursday 9th June

There were no commitments this morning and so we slept in. It was about 9:45 before we went downstairs for breakfast. The weather forecast today was for clouds and showers but once again the forecast was wrong. It was warm and sunny all day except for a cool breeze on the terrace at breakfast time.

After breakfast, we walked down to the old town in Dubrovnik. Suzy went shopping at a market in one of the plazas in the old town whereas I walked the full length of the ancient walls of the old town. Apparently the walls are about 2km long. It took me about 100 minutes and I took more than 100 photos.

Most parts of the walkway are quite narrow and the sides aren't very high. Thankfully it wasn't too crowded. Although you are supposed to walk in an anti-clockwise direction, there were a couple of Japanese tour groups who wanted to go the other way. I just grabbed onto the wall as they pushed past.

I was pleased that I did the walk. The view was spectacular - especially since it was such a beautiful sunny day.

By the time I'd walked back to the hotel, Suzy was already at the pool - sitting on a lounge chair enjoying the sunshine and the view. When I found a waiter to order some lunch, he suggested a hamburger and a secret special drink that turned out to be Bacardi, Coke and lime.

The appointed pickup time for our afternoon tour was 2pm. When Luka didn't turn up, I checked with reception and they said they'd just got a message from him that he was held up in traffic and will be with us soon. I wondered where there could be a traffic jam in Dubrovnik. Luka arrived at 2:15pm and told us he had left a message with reception at 8:15 this morning that he would be 15 minutes late.

He took us first to a tourist resort near Dubrovnik that had been destroyed during the war in the 90s and never rebuilt. There were shells of several 4-star and 5-star resorts overlooking an idyllic bay with a sandy beach. Let's hope that someone redevelops this area one day.

Along the coast, he stopped at a viewing area so we could take pictures of the coastline.

Next we went to a town called Cavtat. I guess it's possible that you could get tired of driving along stunningly beautiful coastlines and visiting fascinating old towns in beautiful settings but we haven't reached that stage yet and hopefully never will. The town is built on two bays that were a glistening blue colour and were filled with the yachts of wealthy people and lined with open-air cafes.

Yesterday we'd mentioned to Luka that we like visiting vineyards and so he'd arrange to take us next to a vineyard, Dubrovacki Podrumi, in a nearby valley. There we were welcomed by the owner who proudly let us taste his red wines such a merlot and a plavac, a Croatian grape type. As we sat around chatting, he explained the Croatian view of the war in the 90s.

The final item on the itinerary was a visit to an old mill in a bushland setting. Luka took us for a walk past the streams, channels, aqueducts, water wheels and waterfalls. Then we had dinner at a restaurant in a garden setting next to the stream. Our table was in the garden, some were on a small platform above the stream and others were on a platform under the nearby stonework bridge.

The chefs had prepared a traditional meal (peca) of lamb, veal and potato cooked slowly for 3 hours under a heavy steel dome over an open fire. Before the meal, they served us a selection of brandy liqueurs of different flavours. Next was a platter of meats and cheese followed by the peca with a carafe of red wine. A beautiful meal.

Luka dropped us back at our hotel at about 7:30pm.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Day 27 - Wednesday 8th June

For breakfast, we went down to the terrace on level 1 of the hotel. There was almost nobody there and we sat at a table on the edge of the terrace with the old town in the background. It was a little hazy and cloudy but this was better than the predicted showers.

Today we'd be going to Montenegro which is a small country on the coast just south of Croatia. It has a population of only about 700,000 people. The name Montenegro means "black mountain" because most of the country consists of rugged mountains with dark vegetation. Just like Croatia, its rugged coastline consists of beautiful bays, islands and quaint towns in beautiful locations. Although it is not part of the European Union, it uses the Euro as its currency.

Our tour guide and driver, Luka, picked us up at 8am in a large modern Mercedes sedan. Luka and his brother have a small business offering tours for visitors including adventure tours. As with the other guides we've had, he was very professional, polite, courteous, knowledgeable and informative. Suzy noted that he had the added advantage of being very handsome.

Luka said he comes to Montenegro twice each week with a mate to do Salsa dancing classes. He said that the women greatly outnumber the men at these classes.

Our first stop was at a nearby lookout so we could admire the coastline and take pictures. When we crossed the border into Montenegro, there was one checkpoint for leaving Croatia followed by another for entering Montenegro. More stamps for our passports.

John and Gaye had told us that we should go to an island near the town of Perast in the Bay of Kotor. This wasn't on Luka's original itinerary but he was happy to take us there. He organised a small boat and driver to take us across to the island. It's a very small island with only two buildings - one of which is a cathedral with a painted ceiling. It is referred to as a mini Sistine Chapel.

Next we stopped in Kotor for a walking tour of old town. We admired the marina and the expensive boats and visited the cathedral. We drove further south and stopped at at a lookout to see St Stefan Island from the cliff top.

In Kotor we walked through the old town and stopped for coffee at a cafe that was a favourite of Luka's because of the cakes it sold.

The final destination was the town of Budva. We visited the old town and had lunch in a cafe next to the beach.

It started to rain as we were leaving the town. During the day we had some showers but, luckily, they mainly happened when we were in Luka's car.

On the way back to Croatia, we used the car ferry to cross the Bay of Kotor rather than taking the road around the bay because this would save time. The ferry was designed to take cars - rather like the punts we used to see in Australia but without the guide ropes. The view from the ferry was great.

Luka dropped us back at our hotel soon after 5pm. For dinner, we went down to the old town of Dubrovnik After checking out a few restaurants, we ate at Domino Steak House.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Day 26 - Tuesday 7th June

This morning we would be catching the 7:45am catamaran ferry back to Split. We set the alarm so we could pack up, check out and be at breakfast when they started serving it at 7am. The porter took our bags around to the wharf on the other side of the marina.

It had been windy when we were having breakfast on the hotel terrace and we'd wondered whether the seas would be rough. As it turns out, it wasn't too bad. However, a few people looked unwell. Perhaps the wind helped because the return trip to Split was about 20 minutes shorter than the trip to Hvar a couple of days ago.

After we disembarked, we were surprised to find that nobody was waiting to take us to Dubrovnik. A few minutes later after most other people had left the wharf area, our driver, Florio, drove up. He said he'd been waiting at a different wharf where the ferry normally docks and had to drive around to our wharf when he saw the ferry had pulled in there.

The trip to Dubrovnic took us along motorways for about half the trip and the old highway for the remainder. Florio said that the government decided to build a system of motorways after the war in the 90s. Much of it has already been completed but the section near Dubrovik is still under construction.

We stopped at a roadside restaurant for a coffee break after about two hours. We noticed that they had an open fire in an outside area. Florio explained that they were preparing a traditional Croatian meal called peca for their lunchtime guests under a heavy steel dome on the fire.

About 100km from Dubrovnik, the road crossed into Bosnia-Herzogovina for about 20km and then back into Croatia. At each border crossing we had to show our passports. Florio said that the motorway would eventually avoid this excursion into Bosnia because they would be building a 2km long bridge across the bay next to the sea.

The scenery on the trip from Split to Dubrovnik was amazingly beautiful. We had a great view of the coastline, villages and islands - especially when travelling on the old highway.

Our hotel, Villa Dubrovnik, is a short distance south of the centre of the city. It is built below the road next to the sea and so all you see at street level is an elevator that takes you down the cliff to the reception level. The hotel is very new and very modern.

The guest rooms face the sea. Directly ahead is the island of Lokrum. To the right, you can see the old town with its city walls and fortress. Our room is on level 4, the same level as the reception. Although it's not as big as the spa suite we had at Hvar, it is plenty big enough.

When we checked in, they told us that they have WiFi throughout the hotel and even down on the beach in front of the hotel. This works well. Even better, when I was plugging in my laptop I found they also have a cable internet connection. It was good to have a fast reliable internet connection.

When we left our room to explore the hotel, a staff member was walking down the corridor. She cheerfully answered questions we had. Next to the pool, we noticed a young couple we'd seen at our hotel in Hvar. It turned out that they are from New York and on their honeymoon. They'd already been here for one night and think it is a wonderful hotel.

Because we were hungry, we went looking for somewhere to eat but instead lunch found us because a chef and waitress appeared from a nearby doorway and told us they could prepare anything we want for lunch. They cooked us a nice seafood meal with beer and wine. We were starting to get the impression that the service here was outstanding.

We noticed that the hotel is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group. It is a 5-star boutique hotel - much more fancy than anything we normally stay in.

Alan, our agent, had organised a walking tour of the old town in Dubrovnik. Our guide, Ivana, was waiting for us in the hotel reception at 4:50pm. Initially I thought that this was an unusual time for a tour to start but it all made sense when we found out that we'd be using the hotel's 5pm shuttle service to take us down the hill to the town.

I was watching out for a bus or a van. As it turned out, the shuttle service was in a large Mercedes sedan and we were the only passengers. A very fancy shuttle service.

The walking tour of the town lasted two hours and took us through most of the streets and plazas in the old town. It didn't include a walk around the walls of the old city and so I resolved to do this walk on another day. Ivana was a very knowlegable and personable guide.

We had dinner in one of the many open-air restaurants in the old town and then walked back up the hill to our hotel rather than using the shuttle service. The walk took about 20 minutes.

Day 25 - Monday 6th June

The hotel serves breakfast on the same level as the reception. We ate ours on the balcony next to the promenade that runs around to the marina. It was yet another warm sunny day and so it was a very pleasant setting for our breakfast.

After breakfast we walked around the path by the sea to the next bay to look at the Amfora Hotel where were originally going to stay. It is a much bigger hotel with the guest rooms built on the hillside and set around several swimming pools next to the beach.

Later we strolled through the shops in the town and then had lunch at the Riva Cafe where we'd had pre-dinner drinks last night.

The main event for today was a wine-tasting tour. Our driver and guide, Drazen, met us in the hotel foyer at 3pm and walked us to his van which was parked in a parking area behind the hotel. He said cars are not allowed within the marina area and the town.

After travelling on sealed roads for about 10 minutes, we turned off onto an unsealed fire trail that was cut into the side of the mountain. We continued on this road for about 30 minutes but to me it seemed like an eternity because I was convinced we were going to slip off the edge of the cliff at any moment and roll down the cliff and into the sea below us.

The van often seemed to slip on the loose rocks on the road surface. Somehow he managed to keep it on the road. As we proceeded, he kept chatting and telling us about the countryside and the vineyards. From time to time, he would take his eyes off the road and point out items of interest. I would have been much happier if he'd kept both hands on the wheel and watched the road.

It became even more complicated when we met a car or truck coming in the opposite direction. One vehicle needed to back up until there was enough room to squeeze by. The road is so narrow, I still can't figure out how we did it.

When we'd left Hvar, he'd pointed out where my seat belt was. As we drove along the fire trail, I felt that I needed a helmet and a parachute rather than a seat belt. Suzy was quite calm - partly because she was sitting on the side nearest the cutting whereas I was looking straight down off the edge of the road on my side.

Eventually we got back onto a sealed road. Suzy asked him if we'd go back to Hvar on the same road. To my great relief, he said no. When we stopped at the first winery, I told him that I'd found the trip on the fire trail frightening. He apologised and said that he usually asks if anyone is scared of heights.

On the way to the first winery, we passed through a tunnel through the mountain in the centre of the island. The tunnel was more than 1km long and was only wide enough for traffic in one direction at a time. At each entrance to the tunnel, there were traffic lights that operated on a sensor. It would use the sensor to determine if there were any cars waiting and whether there were any vehicles in the tunnel. The tunnel itself was unlined and so it was like driving through a mine shaft. This didn't worry me because I'm used to being in tunnels as part of my job.

The first winery was an old-style cellar with earth floors in a stone building with no windows - to maintain a steady temperature for the wine. The winemaker didn't speak English and so Drazen gave us the explanation of the wines. We tasted white, red and dessert wines.

The second vineyard was very different from the first. It was a new building with a tasting room built in the basement area. This was a long room that could probably accommodate a banquet for 40 people. It was constructed in stone with vaulted ceilings to imitate an ancient Roman structure.

Clearly they were big on marketing. One of their staff, a very tall man, presented the wines to us and allowed us to taste several of them. Between each wine, he provided us with different foods, such as cheeses and meats, to complement the taste of the particular wine we were sampling. The owner of the winery, a man called Tomic who only speaks French, hovered and spoke to us and other small groups who arrived from time to time.

The last destination was different again and very special. Drazen stopped the van in the middle of nowhere on a quiet dirt road and we then walked about 100m up the slope to a stone building overlooking the valley. There we met a chef who was busy cooking a barbecue for us on an open fire. It was a very peaceful location with the sun slowly setting over the mountains. It was an excellent meal with plenty of wine.

By the time he dropped us back at Hvar, I was feeling the effects of all the wine we'd consumed.

The hotel still hadn't been able to lower the temperature of the air conditioning in our room and so we asked them to provide us with a top sheet for our bed so we didn't need to use the quilt again.