French Riviera trip – Monaco

Monaco needs no introduction. I am also sure Monaco does not need another blog post written about it. The world knows that Monaco is the home of the rich and glamorous, that it hosts one of the best grand prix races of the season, that you can see fancy mega yachts that the average person can’t even imagine could be so amazing. Monaco is all that, and for the average tourist who spends half a day there on a bus tour, or comes off a cruise for a 3 hour tour, that is what they will see – the harbour full of superyachts, the old town with the royal palace, and perhaps a check in at the casino. But stay a few days and there are little pockets of the ‘average’. Go to the same restaurant a few times out of the main harbour area and you’ll meet waiters that will remember you from the day before and find you a table even though its packed with locals. Walk from Cap d’Ail and you’ll pass the hospital, the car dealerships, the mechanics, the every day mundane businesses that every city needs, even one that is all glitz like Monaco. There is even the good old shopping mall of Fontvielle, complete with McDonalds for those that need it.

We were most fortunate to be staying a week just outside of Monaco in Cap d’Ail. For us it meant that we could take our time with Monaco. We ended up going into the city nearly every day. It was nice to go early before the heat to explore the old town and its palace and narrow streets. After a day exploring Nice we went back to Monaco for dinner and take a stroll around the harbour at night. On the day that was looking a bit sketchy weatherwise we went to the aquarium. Don’t forget the exotic garden at the very top of Monaco either – its views are outstanding!

Basically, give Monaco more time than the 3 hour rush off a cruise ship if you can. It isnt all the rush and glitz of a big city. Take the time to explore the local market at Place d’Armes, enjoy a coffee nearby with the locals, stroll the streets and enjoy the spectacle of the rich and famous with their little poodle dogs decked out in Louis Vuitton.

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The royal palace

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Port de Fontveille

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Exotic Garden views

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Palace and old town from the exotic gardens

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Monaco’s beautiful train station

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Every yacht needs a basketball ring!

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Opera house at night

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You aren’t a tourist until you’ve paid 20 euros for an icecream sundae at the Café de Paris overlooking the casino!

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French Riviera trip – Cap d’Ail

It was 16 years ago when I was on one of those ’10 countries in 7 days bus tours’ that I first visited the French Riviera. I remember spending all of 2 or so hours in Monaco, in awe of the view from the quick stop the bus made so we could take some snaps and then continue on our way. We also spent 2 days in Nice, with one day pretty much being wasted lazing around on the beach catching up on sleep. I never thought I would ever get back, but 16 years later and the chance presented itself in a way I could never have imagined.

Fast forward 16 years and Mr R’s brother got a research position in Monaco’s prestigious Hydrography Institute. He was to be based in Monaco for 2 years, and he invited us to come and stay should we ever be in the area. He didn’t need to ask twice! lol. So off we went to Nice. After 11 hours to Dubai than a further 7 to Nice we arrived in his apartment in Cap d’Ail and got to see a most magnificent view! Yep, the long trip was worth it!

Our base for 7 days was in Cap d’Ail, the French town bordering closest to Monaco. Mr A’s apartment was a 300 metre stroll to the “border”, so we were pretty much in Monaco anyway. His apartment also had a bus stop in front where the 100 bus would stop. This amazing bus service will take you all along the Cote d’Azur, from Nice port, through Monaco, all the way to Menton on the Italian border. All for the princely sum of 1.5 Euro! Cap d’Ail was a fantastic base to explore from – we had the beach in front of us that seemingly locals only visited, and it is relatively cheaper to stay here then in many of the French Riviera’s more famous locations.

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cap D’ail harbour, Monaco starts at the big building on the left

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morning view

One thing I discovered through my brother in law, and is well worth the trek, is the chance to explore the Mala Beach coastal path. This path starts at the Plage Marquet (the closest French beach west of Monaco) and winds along the coast for 3.5km to the magnificent Plage Mala. Along the way you will pass beautiful rocky outcrops, hidden coves and beautifully decorated ornate villas from the Belle Epoque era. Also along the way are small plaques which tell you about the marine life and vegetation that can be found in the area, and on the walls of some of the villas there are info plaques on who built it or lived there. Sadly these are all in French, and my French is pretty rubbish, but it was easy enough to get the gist of the info. (especially with google translate lol).

Anyway after slogging along the path for an hour in the baking heat (be warned the path is quite exposed to the sun so bring plenty of water) you’ll end up at the magical Mala beach. I’m sure this beach would be quite busy in summer, but in mid September it was relatively quiet with local families and oldies enjoying the weekday. The cove is magnificent, with high cliffs nearby jutting out of the sea. The water was crystal clear too. From here I could have either asked a local for directions to the cap d’Ail train station (which apparently is 10 minutes from Plage Mala) but instead of catching the train the one stop back to Monaco I took the same path back so I could get to Plage Marquet where I had left husband to watch after Little Miss A, who was happily using the time to splash at the beach. (hubby was happy to watch her too instead of taking a hike with me!!!) Overall a 7km walk, a good day of exercise and an enjoyable way to explore a bit of the coastline.

I thoroughly recommend a stop in cap d’Ail if you have time on the French Riviera. While there is obviously not as much to see here (in terms of monuments or historical buildings – its not a Nice or Eze) you will still enjoy it if you like the belle epoque era, if you like the seaside, or if you would prefer a quieter experience without the hordes of tourists. Cap d’Ail is definitely a ‘local feel’ of the French Riviera.

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very generous times for the walk!

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the path

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locals enjoying a small cove

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there are little side paths from the main path if you want to explore the villas further

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plage de la mala

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I wish I had a boat moored here!

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Donnelly River getaway

Well I have just returned from a few weeks in the gloriously sunny French Riviera and the equally warm and sunny Madrid, but before I get to those posts I need to touch on my weekend away with the girls to the sunny but bloody freezing cold southwest corner of Western Australia!

Our annual girls weekend away with our little hiking loving group resulted in us staying at Donnelly River, about a 3 hour drive south of Perth. This small village was a former timber mill town, but today the old workers huts have been transformed into little chalets that can be booked for holidays. Donnelly River really is in the middle of nowhere, with barely any phone reception and no TV’s in the cottages it made for a peaceful and relaxing weekend away. The little settlement is also the midway point of the 1000km long Bibbulmun Track. For those hiking end to end this means that when you hit Donnelly River you are at the halfway point. It must be a welcome relief to see the small site, to be able to buy some “real” food and coffee at the one and only general store, and you can hire a chalet and have a real hot shower for the first time in days! For us, the chalet was a perfect base to do day walks from. We headed off on a 15km walk, admiring this section of the Bibbulman track for its outstanding forest and natural scenery. Compared to the northern part of the track near Perth, that we usually frequent, this more southern part had some HUGE trees and a lot more vegetation of a natural state. Even though it was a cold cold day (it hit 1 degree celcius that morning), it was perfect walking weather and very pleasant.

After a long days walk nothing beat going back to the chalet, lighting the fire and having a hot cup of tea on the porch, watching the local wildlife wander around from hut to hut looking for food. That’s right – the animals of the town are so tame that you will have kangaroos and emus wondering up to you and checking you out without a care in the world. It really is a unique and beautiful place, and one I would like to go back to with my own family in the future whenever we need a “time out” from the rat race that is city life!

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Gallivanting in Ghent

In honour of Belgium coming third in the world cup I thought it was high time that I wrote a little bit about my time in Belgium. To be honest, I don’t know why I haven’t written about Belgium sooner – it is one of my all time fave countries and one of my best friends is from here. But as so often happens with little ol’ Belgium, I overlooked it while writing about more ‘exotic’ destinations. This seems to be a common thing with Belgium – it is so underrated and oft forgotten about, yet really this little country has so much to offer!

My first time in Belgium was typical of the fleeting visit that so many pay to this country. I drove through it. Literally, in an hour or so it was done. Not even a stop in Belgian toilet. I was on one of those ‘party bus’ tours that visits 10 countries in 3 days and we literally drove from London to Amsterdam in one day, totally bypassing Belgium. Many years later, somewhat travel-wiser, I visited Belgium and just couldn’t understand why so many of these tour bus style type of holidays just glide on by. Even for young people – Belgium is amazing! It is party central (they have the biggest techno festival called Tomorrowland). It is a place for everyone, so why don’t more people visit?

Let’s start with Ghent. A fun compact city oozing history and beautiful lowland architecture. Set on the river Leie, start at the Graslei, the historic quay at the heart of the city. Along its banks are the gorgeous medieval buildings which today house patios with cafes and shops along the front. It is a great place to hang out and enjoy some Belgian beer!

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The city also has some stunning churches and a castle. Be sure to check out St Bavo’s church, St Nicholas’ church and St Michael’s church – they are all stunning gothic style churches that will leave you in awe. The Gravensteen castle is also fantastic. This 10th century castle still has a moat around it and you can climb on top of it for some views of the city as well.

For me though, the best part of Ghent was just strolling along the cobbled streets, passing through and admiring the squares, and sitting at a café/bar with a glass of champagne and some oysters. It was a glorious summers afternoon when I visited, and I was so pleased to be able to spend an afternoon in this city with my wonderful friend!

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St Nicholas

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Gravensteen

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The Eagle View Trail

Located half an hour out of the city proper, John Forrest National Park is a perfect chance for city slickers and visiting tourists to get out and sample what the typical bush scenery of Australia’s south west is all about. With its proximity to Perth, this of course means that the park is one of Perth’s most busiest, which for those seeking solitude might not be welcome. But if you are a solo hiker, or someone hiking for the first time, than this park is perfect as the trails are superbly maintained and there is always someone close by enough should you need a helping hand.

On the last warm days of autumn before winter kicked in, our hiking group decided it was time to start the season again. 3 of us went and explored the Eagle View trail in the park. We have done this trail numerous times in the past, but it never disappoints, and at 15km it is the perfect length for a practice hike. As always the view at the rocky outcrop over the city was fantastic, but we prefer not feeling like we are too close to the city so we kept going to delve more into the park (many tourists walk in and out to the eagle view lookout point as it is a great viewpoint to see the whole city). As we got more into the park we noticed a small burnoff, which is a ‘controlled burn’ by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services. This is done in the cooler months to burn leaf litter on the ground which can cause huge problems with bushfires in the summer months. This led to a small section of the trail being very smoky and irritating to the eyes/throat for me, but overall nothing major to be concerned about.

Another great thing about this hike for those who are first timers, or for those who just want a treat at the end of a long day, is that there is a tavern (pub) at the carpark! So for those wanting an ice cold beer, or a nice steak and salad after a long days walk, you can get it at the end of your hike! I would definitely recommend this hike for anyone visiting Perth and wanting to see a snippet of the aussie bushland, or for those who want to get more into hiking/outdoor fitness and are not experienced at it.

 

 

 

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A Day Trip to Milford Sound

There is a good reason why Fiordland National Park is a must see destination for anyone travelling to New Zealand. The mountains soar all around you, the lakes and forests are pristine and so beautiful, and the road trip itself to get to Milford Sound is an epic journey that will have you in awe with every crest in the road.

From Queenstown it is a long drive to get to Milford Sound. Since I didn’t have a car, and I had just hiked for 3 days, I decided to entrust in a company called the BBQ Bus Tour. They were fantastic, with a smaller minibus (there were only 14 of us this day, instead of the 50 or so you see on the bigger tourist buses). We made numerous stops along the way, our driver Nigel was packed full of information, and he had a wicked sense of humor to boot making the long drive alot more enjoyable. He also cooked us an awesome BBQ lunch before we continued on to the cruise boats.

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Early morning clouds

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The valley heading towards the sound

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Mirror Lakes

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I like how they signed this.

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Lunchstop views

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The Chasm

Once we got to the cruise dock, there were people everywhere! Luckily for us as well our boat was pretty quiet, so there was no arguing or jostling for good positions. Everyone had space and could take the photos they wanted. The boat, once onto the fjord (even though its called a Sound Milford is technically a fjord)cruises all the way out to where it meets the Tasman Sea. It was freezing on the water – never think because it’s warm on the shore that the ocean will be the same! It was pretty windy, but the boat wasn’t too rocky which was good. The captain shows you various points of interest, including seeing seal colonies and driving the boat into the waterfalls that cascade off the steep rock. We were also fortunate to see a group of dolphins behind the boat.

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yay for no rain!

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a cloudy and atmospheric day

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waterfalls

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it was windy on the boat!

The drive back to Queenstown was a long one, with a quick pitstop in Te Anau to toilet and grab a coffee. Overall the day is a long one (7am pick up to about 9pm drop off). But it was worth every minute! The scenery along the whole way is stunning, and the banter with Nigel from the BBQ Bus made the time fly by. I would definitely recommend doing a tour with this company if you don’t have a hire car or just don’t want to make the long drive yourself.

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and the sun came out for the drive back…

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The Routeburn Track – day 3

On our last morning we woke up to dry conditions – the rain had stopped overnight and it promised to be an awesome day! It was also to be the easiest day, with only 9km to the road that would take us back to civilization. This 9km was all downhill and flat too, which made for an easy pleasant stroll compared to what we had been through the first two days!

The morning started at the falls, and from there it was a reasonably steep downhill to Routeburn Flats, another campsite with facilities about 2.5km away. The flats is obviously the base of the valley floor, and it was lovely being inside the bottom of the valley, sitting by the meandering river, skimming some stones taking in the views.

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leaving the falls and going down

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and then the sun came!

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checking out Routeburn Flats

After a while we got to a little clearing where there is a ‘beach’. The water was crystal clear and absolutely beautiful…. and absolutely freaking cold! There was no way this wimp was going in, but a few of the hardy souls decided to wade in and jump off the big boulders which had found their way down from the surrounding cliff faces. It was a lovely spot, and through some patches of clouds the sun came out just in time. After lunch it was a relatively short walk through some wonderful beech forest to the roads end. It was a bittersweet moment…. I could have kept on hiking! I wanted to keep on hiking! 3 days out here didnt feel like enough! I was walking alone at the end, enjoying my own company, when on literally the last corner on the trail before the carpark there was a beautiful little bush robin just sitting on a rock. He sat there for so long, I could take plenty of photos. I admit, I “talked” to him. I was in this hippyish ‘I love trees I love nature’ moment and I spoke to him, calling him a cute little guy and thanking him for giving me one last surprise on the trail. Definitely not me usually! But that’s what nature does right?

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a great lunch spot

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absolutely glorious colours!

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the new zealand bush robin – such a poser!

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feeling accomplished!

And so ended one of the greatest walks I have done (not that I’ve done many, but you know, this was great!). They don’t call it a “Great Walk” for nothing! It was such a fantastic trip, I walked towards the carpark (and masses of day walkers) with a huge grin on my face which could not be wiped off. I had done it!!

Now as mentioned on day 1, I did this walk with a company called Ultimate Hikes, because I had left it late and couldn’t get reservations one needs to make online to walk this trail independantly. (book early folks!) This had some pros and cons, but definitely mostly pros! While at time I sometimes felt like a bit of a ‘cheat hiker’ for getting into a bed at a lodge at night, and having a hot shower after a rainy day, at the end of the day you still walk the EXACT same path as anyone else on the trail who huts or tents does. I still experienced the wonder of this trail like anybody else. I was worried with a big group (20+ people) that I would never get to walk alone, but that was nothing to worry about. I actually walked more alone than with anyone – our group was often very spread out and you could be very independant during the day. It was definitely nice after the second day of rain to get to a lodge that had a drying room. Yes, a drying room, which was this super heated room where you could hang your wet clothes and they dried in a matter of hours. Nothing beat putting on dry boots the next day! Because of the dry room, you really could keep clothing to a minimum, which meant a lighter pack. Also of course, being served food and having a bed meant no food to carry and no sleeping bag, which meant a lighter pack. All of these weight savings definitely help for those of us with bad backs/shoulders (me!) or for those of us doing our first multi day hike where we had to carry our own bags (me!). Doing this hike with Ultimate Hikes was definitely a good first tester for me to see how my back would hold up, and with only 7kg in the pack it felt great!

Overall I am so glad I still went ahead and did this hike with Ultimate Hikes. They are definitely a reliable and professional outfit who have the right balance of care for their hikers, while letting those who want it to have enough independance. Having said that though, now that I know what a great walk trail is like, and knowing I am strong enough to do it, I would definitely save my money and challenge myself more to doing it by myself. New Zealand do such a great job with their trail and outdoor network in general, with good signage, excellent information online and at DOC offices, that anyone could do an NZ trail independantly. The next time I go back I will definitely book early, get my hut/camp sites, and enjoy all that the NZ outdoors has to offer!!!

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