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Queen Charlotte Track, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

To the tune of cicadas and birdsong, we walked the 70kms of Queen Charlotte Track from 1st to 5th February 2014. We flew from Wellington to Picton with Sounds Air, who also transferred us from the aerodrome to town (for a $7 fee each way) on the Saturday morning in good time to catch our 10am boat.  We hopped onboard a Cougar Line boat in Picton, with our back packs, for the hour long sailing to the start of the Track at Ship Cove. However, our back packs stayed on board as we were taking advantage of the pack carrying service Cougar Line, as well as other carriers, provide ($105 per person & pack). Yup, we were flash-packing.

Start at Ship Cove

Ship Cove, walk start

Ship Cove, the start of the QCT

As we cruised through Queen Charlotte Sound the distance we intended to walk struck me, as I really had no comprehension how far 70kms really was!  I have ‘bagged Munros’ (a Munro is a mountain over 3000ft in height) in Scotland, so I am fine about hill walking although these would normally be day trips.

We knew we’d arrive at Ship Cove around 11am, so the initial suggestion of just walking to Resolution Bay (4.5k walk) didn’t wash with us. We decided we would continue on to Endeavour Inlet, a total distance of around 15km, with peaks of around 200+ meters along the way.  We immediately discovered that the start of each stretch of Track seems to involve an immediate, relatively steep incline so my heart got racing pretty fast, but then I am not the fittest! On our side was this stretch being nicely shaded by forest trees, providing shelter from the sun.

By the time we reached our first night’s accommodation legs and feet were feeling in need of a rest.  However, the pretty views of Queen Charlotte Sound and various bays along the way, as well as the amusing persistence of Weka (native New Zealand, wingless bird) in trying to get fed, kept us going. Fortunately, we’d planned to have a rest day after the Punga Cove to Portage (or Camp Bay to Torea Saddle) stretch of 24.5km the following day, and this turned out to be a wise plan.

A wee cheat

The second day saw us cheat, just a little!  We took advantage of the Cougar Line shuttle across the Inlet to Camp Bay (Punga Cove), to save us the 12k walk from Furneaux to Punga, as the walk was already going to be 24.5k long.  Unfortunately, Cougar Line picked us up later than the scheduled 9.30am, making a later start.  On a hot and sunny day this wasn’t great, preferring to get going sooner.  (In retrospect, we would have crossed the inlet and stayed at Punga Cove and headed out earlier from there.)

The Long day 

This is the long day, the hardest day.  This is another start from the bottom and head straight up to the top of the hill at a 45 degree angle walk. Initially we had shade of pine forest on our side.  However, even in shade it was warm. Then it got hot, it got sunny, at times it felt like torture. Then, lo and behold the most fabulous view of stunning hills and sea.  It was enough to keep you going, especially as you got to glimpse Kenepuru Sound for the first time, it’s water colour quite different to Queen Charlotte Sound.  However, there are periods on this part of the track, particularly on the Kenepuru Sound side where you are exposed to the elements, in our case full sunshine.

As I mentioned, I am not the fittest, and the ideas that ladies don’t sweat were truly thwarted that day.  Even my eyelids felt like they could provide faries with a lovely salt spa pool!  The refreshment of walking into native forest was immediate – the lovely, slightly damp, shade had an immediate impact on my energy levels and those of Mr Fitness himself, the Kiwi.

By the time we got to Black Rock campsite I was feeling sore, tired and seriously questioning what on earth I was doing! Meanwhile, there was a lovely view down the Sound to Picton.  We were almost on the downward path and it did take considerable effort – and a caramel slice – to get me going.  We finally made it to Portage around 6.30pm.  That was a well deserved long, hot shower that night!

A day off

The following day was a rest day, we slept in, had a relaxed breakfast then wandered down to the Peppers resort and hired a double kayak and went out on the Sound for a bit then just chilled out and read.  We had dinner at the restaurant, watching the sun set over the Sound.  Food was good if a little over priced.  I did mention that my dessert had clumps of gelatine in it and even had a lump on the plate for the Chef to see, and I feel if I’d mentioned this in Wellington it would have come off the bill but not in Portage.  No competition.

Day three, easy! 

On day three we were only walking for a short distance, as we were heading to Lochmara Lodge in Lochmara Bay.  We realised we should have walked this the day before, then had a rest day at Lochmara Lodge instead, however we now know for next time!  It took us just over 3 hours to walk from Portage to Lochmara.

The final stretch 

The rest of the track is easier after that long 24.5k stretch, particularly the last day of walking from Lochmara Bay to Anakiwa.  More gentle inclines and more meandering through forests.  Since the majority of walkers start from Ship Cove you can feel a sense of splendid isolation as you quite often don’t meet other walkers, particularly on the long day as quite a few miss it out.  By the time we were walking to Anakiwa on the last day the sound of traffic across the Sound travelling Queen Charlotte Drive seemed a rude imposter! We did meet quite a few walkers heading from Davies Bay up to the lookout, that stretch was quite busy.

Mountain bikers can use the track, and all we came across were good at slowing down, giving way (although we gave way to them) and letting us know how many were coming behind them or part of their group.

I am so glad we finally got around to this walk!  It was beautiful, a little challenging at times but achievable and we got to see the Sounds in a different way.  I hadn’t considered the Marlborough Sounds as a destination before, just some pretty scenery you pass on your way through.  How wrong I was!  I will be back for sure.  If you feel committing to a number of days is too much out of your trip then try a day walk, which is absolutely achievable.  Boats can drop you off at different bays and you can arrange a pick up too.

Meanwhile, I feel rather smug I live in such a beautiful country!  Love New Zealand!

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Anita B&B, Agrigento, Sicily, Italy

After booking our accommodation in San Francisco via Airbnb I searched for accommodation in Sicily and found Anita B & B.  There were four of us heading to Agrigento to visit the Valley of the Temples and the B & B would meet our needs and seemed reasonably priced.
Good communication with Angela, who runs the B & B, meant we established that the Kiwi and I along with my parents would have the run of the B & B as it has two rooms, and there was secure car parking available for my parent’s car. Perfect!

View from a bedroom balcony

On the day of our arrival, I sent a text to Angela to let her know we were about half an hour away, as she asked for notice of our arrival.   Unfortunately, the text didn’t arrive so we got to the B&B to find no one there. Mama called Angela and they chatted in Italian, with Angela confirming she needed a bit of time (she was actually making tomato passata when we called!) to get there and she would also need to make up the beds.

We went for a wander to check out the town and get some lunch, returned a couple of hours later to meet Angela, a lovely, warm and friendly lady who was apologetic for the wait and preparation required.  However, we’d timed it well and she’d finished the preparation required for our stay.

large bedroom

The bedrooms are large, one with a lovely wee balcony and bright en-suite bathroom, the other with a large terrace with views down to the water.  Both have air conditioning, a necessity!  The room with the large terrace has a king bed and two single beds in there, along with a desk.  The bathroom is off the hallway before you enter the bedroom.  Both bathrooms were clean, their only down-side being the size of the shower cubicle – teeny tiny, don’t drop the soap!

Another bedroom

The lounge and kitchen area is to the front of the building, which you enter straight from the street.  It is a gloomy room and the navy sofa and navy table cloths on the two tables don’t help the cause, it’s not a comfortable space but the chances are you will spend little time here.  There is a television, a gas hob and fridge stocked with items you can purchase for a reasonable price.  A coffee machine is there for your use, Angela giving us instructions although she comes in each morning to set breakfast and make coffee if you wish.

We had a pleasant stay here and it did all we needed it to do without fuss, in a clean and pleasant environment, reasonably priced and with a very pleasant and lovely hostess.
The only issue we really had was with the secure car parking. This is a street away and down the hill, only a few minutes walk, at additional cost.  We were parking a large car in the garage but it’s an awkward L shape and with locals parking outside the doors Dad ended up damaging the paintwork of the car trying to park the car in the garage – a hassle we could have done without. Angela only charged us for one night as she understood the difficulty we had.

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Hotel Vecchio Borgo, Palermo, Sicily, Italy

Trolling through the accommodation possibilities for Palermo, the Hotel Vecchio Borgo stood out as a potentially decent resting place, all the more so due to their offer of paying up front to secure a €54 bed and breakfast rate – deal!
My parents arrived in Sicily before us, so checked in before picking us up from the airport. The secure car parking turned out to be rather complicated, with the garage being 20 minutes away and one of the staff would drive and park it and you needed to give notice of when you wanted your car back.  Too complicated, especially when it was my parents own car, not a hire car and it’s a large car.  When the staff saw it, they conceded to letting Dad park right outside the hotel, in the chained area and in clear view of the reception staff.
That sorted, onto the rooms.

The corner bedroom

As per the website, the rooms were rather elaborate however clean and pleasant. Our room was a bit more spacious than my parents’ room but it did the job.  Staff were efficient and friendly.  There is double glazing in the rooms, which is needed as our room over-looked a small piazza where the locals liked to hang out in the evening.

The surprise came in the morning, when we went down for breakfast.  What a breakfast!  There was a selection of cereals, fresh fruit, hams and cheese, rolls, bread for toasting, yoghurt, cakes and tarts, brioches and fruit juice. You placed your order for the type of coffee you desired, as you do in Italy.
All in all, this was a pleasant hotel, well situated for walking around Palermo sites and near shopping areas as well as very reasonably priced. Unfortunately, it’s opposite shared rubbish bins, and this being Sicily, the rubbish mounts considerably and looks rather unattractive, leaving the street feeling neglected and a tad rough, but it was fine.  Continue straight up the street and in the next block you find nice apartments and good shopping!

Hotel Vecchio Borgo, Via Quintino Sella, Palermo

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The Blakemore Hotel, Bayswater, London, UK

We got a deal through wotif for a one night stay at The Blakemore Hotel, situated in Bayswater.  The hotel is in a great spot really handy to Hyde Park, convenient for the Central Line tube stations and a pleasant neighbourhood of shops and restaurants.
We arrived at the hotel early, around 12 noon after our long-haul flight from San Francisco.  Our room wasn’t ready so we confirmed that it would be ready for 2pm, per our booking confirmation.  The surly receptionist told us that the policy is 3pm access so we replied that our confirmation stated access at 2pm, she hospitably snapped back saying ‘no, it’s always 3pm where does it say that’…so we showed her!  After a long-haul flight and no sleep for 24 hrs this was the last thing we needed.  She conceded, said we would get the room at 2pm so we left our bags and went out to find some lunch.
A thunder storm downpour made sure we got soaked so we returned to the hotel a little before 2pm and the room was still not ready…by 2.40pm we were sick of waiting and enquired again, to be told we would have to wait until 3pm!  The Kiwi wasn’t having any of it, so it was sorted out and finally we got access to Room 15 feeling rather irritated.

recently refreshed room

The hotel appears to be going through a refresh and the room looked recently renovated, with a lovely big bed in a decently sized room.  The bathroom looked flash, however as we used it we realised how badly designed it was!  The soaker showerhead is placed so you end up soaking the floor of the bathroom and the loo, as the screen is too short.  The shower and bath controls stick out at the side of the wall so you end up bashing yourself as you shower.  There is no space for the loo paper holder, so it sits on the floor and potentially the paper will get wet from the shower!  Another situation where it’s style over substance, but everything worked well and it was clean.

Stylish bathroom

Breakfast was included, and it was the usual suspects for a continental breakfast.  No selection of teas though, and just big urns of prepared coffee which I didn’t touch as I couldn’t imagine it would be any good!
Really, the hotel’s selling point is it’s location and the price we paid through the wotif offer of £99 made it good value.  Had the staff been a bit nicer and more professional about access to the room I would be raving about the place, although if I had paid full price I would have been most unhappy about the staff’s attitude.  The wi-fi connection was a bit ropey and didn’t always work from the room, which was another irritation.
The UK hospitality industry may need to remind their staff what the term “hospitality” means.  I have found on this trip that the language barrier has been an issue, where Eastern European staff are employed without sufficient English to truly communicate in an effective way and hospitable way.   Certainly the Blakemore may need to remind it’s staff that a warm welcome is appreciated by customers and that there is a certain way to handle issues that may arise.

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Airbnb, Kathy George, San Francisco, USA

While looking for accommodation in San Francisco I was surprised at the rates being charged.  Exasperated, a google search ensued, where I came across the Airbnb website and started scoping out potential places to stay via this social media based accommodation site that describes itself as “a trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover, and book unique accommodations around the world”.

The Kiwi checked out the site too, and found a lady who rents out an ensuite room in her home in the Castro area of the city. We made contact, a few exchanges of emails followed, as we were new to the site we didn’t have a profile history for Kathy to check us out on, and then the booking made.

Our host, Kathy, is a great communicator and has anticipated her guests questions and the information they may require so you know exactly where to find her apartment through a variety of options, what will be available to use in her home and some ‘house rules’ of thumb to go by while you stay. We received emails in advance of our trip advising of websites to use for deals on things on in San Francisco, was given advice on the necessity to make bookings in advance – and she was right, we were too late to get a trip to Alcatraz as it was fully booked!

Bright bedroom

On arrival, Kathy is warm and friendly and her home is just gorgeously homely and stylish. The sunny, spotless guest room is a good size with a new bed, a desk and chair, two armchairs and a decent wardrobe space. The bathroom is gorgeous, with a fabulous shower over the bath, with lovely towels and a hairdyer provided for guest use. The wifi connection was fab, the hub is in the room!

Excellent en-suite

The apartment is on the top floor – what I would call the third floor – of a converted building and is well located for public transport with a stop for the F streetcar around the corner on Market Street and the Metro stop is about two minutes walk away. I am a light sleeper and the room was quiet, despite the proximity to a busy road. Kathy has information to hand and plenty suggestions for guests should they need it. In particular she has cards with recommended walks, including one in her neighbourhood which we did on our first afternoon there, and it was a great walk to get a feel and introduction to San Franciscan life,…including the naked dudes who wander around the ‘hood! Our stay was comfortable, relaxed, pleasant, reasonably priced and a great introduction to this different approach to finding accommodation. I look forward to staying with Kathy again next time we visit!

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East Cape, New Zealand

When friends visiting from the UK drove down to Wellington to see us via the East Cape it brought to the Kiwi and my attention that we had yet to visit the area. So, this summer we set out to rectify that.  We drove up to Gisborne, spent a few nights there then headed up round the Cape to Bay of Plenty.  It seems the typical journey is to start from Bay of Plenty, but we like to mix it up a little!

East Cape is often billed as the place where you see the real New Zealand, the place that time forgot and were you get to see many Maori settlements.  There is also suggestion that you may not feel welcome as Pakeha (Maori word or name for non-Maori New Zealander, specifically a white person) so I must say at the outset we didn’t find this at all.

What we did find was beautiful, unspoilt beaches, peace, tranquillity and relaxing vibe.

Anaura Bay

One highlight was when we visited a beach at Waipiro, which has a Marae located right by the beach.  We were the only ones there on this stunning, white sandy beach with beautiful turquoise water lapping it’s shores.  Then suddenly all these local kids hooned down from nowhere and spent over an hour mucking about and playing games, slowly their parents wandering down to either join them or have a siesta in the shade of the pine trees.  It was lovely to see locals taking advantage of the beauty on their doorstep.

Waipiro Marae by the beach

Rush hour at Waipiro Bay

Another special time was a lovely, long walk we took along the beach before breakfast whilst staying at Tokomaru Bay.

On the journey around the Cape we stopped at the Lighthouse on the most easterly point on New Zealand’s mainland, stood under what is considered the world’s largest Pohutakawa Tree, visited the Manuka Centre and saw lots of lovely vistas and quaint churches, not to mention ‘historic’ wharfs.

Quaint church

Another NZ must do.

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The Post Office B & B, Tokomaru Bay, East Cape

We pulled up in front of the bright and cheerful Post Office B & B, then read the note asking us to call the hosts to let them know we were there.  As I searched for my mobile phone a lovely, local man pulled up in his car, gave us a beautiful toothless smile and asked if we needed help or if he could call Bill for us.  What a lovely start to our arrival in Tokomaru!

Lounge, with one bedroom off of it

Bill arrived and gave us a warm welcome and offered us the choice in rooms as we were there for two nights, then gave us a lovely glass of home made ginger beer.  The charming Post Office is homely, with a large living area for  guests to share and a small kitchen offering the opportunity to self-cater.  A selection of provisions are available to make yourself breakfast in the morning, from fruit and cereal to eggs and bread.

Cosy bedroom

The bedroom we selected was smaller than the other double, but cosy and comfortable and closer to the bathroom than the other rooms,  although lacking in hanging space for clothes.  Due to the historic nature of the over 100 year old building, there are no en-suite bathrooms but you do get your ‘own’ bathroom to use with an excellent shower, although the bathrooms could do with modernising to get rid of that utilitarian feel and add a bit of comfort.  A shelf to put toiletries on would have been handy too!

Perfectly located for the beach and a walk to the Toko Tavern (the only eatery in the village), the only downside to the accommodation was the noise of traffic all through the night – heavy vehicles carrying logs to Gisborne for shipping screech their way down the hill and break outside the B&B before turning the corner just past it on the way to Gissy, … light sleepers beware.

Bill is an outstanding host and an interesting man to chat to.  On the way out of the bay we stopped outside the school he teaches in to admire the scarecrow he’d told us about.  We got an invite to pop in but in city-slicker mode we refused as we had a bit of a trip ahead,… and needless to say 10 mins later we both conceded we should have taken the opportunity to pop in and say Kia ora to the kids!  Opportunity missed, lesson learnt.

P.S. Bring cash to pay, or do an online payment – they don’t take credit cards or eftpos.

Te Poutapeta – The Post Office, 8 Waimana Street - Tokomaru Bay - Eastland  - 06 864 5411

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Gisborne Wine Centre, Gisborne

Melting in the summer warmth, unsure which wineries were open we headed to the Gisborne Wine Centre to check out the local wines under one roof.  Offering flights of a selection of Gisborne wines, we decided to take a different flight each so we could compare and compete for who had the best selections.

Sitting outside under the protection of a sun umbrella by the marina, we made our way through the wine flights, reading the tasting notes, deciding what we thought, comparing and scoring.  A great way to get a flavour for the local wines with little effort and driving around required!

Flights and food

Flights and Food

Then the munchies set in so we ordered some olives, bread and oil and the most delicious Manuka Smoked Lamb with smoked mushrooms and peach chutney – wow! Fabulous.

Gisborne Wine Centre, Shed 3, 50 The Esplanade, Gisborne

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Cafe Ruba, Gisborne

On a sunny Sunday morning we went out in search of breakfast in Gisborne, struggling to find somewhere open!  We found Cafe Ruba tucked at the end of the street, hiding behind a lovely tree which provides lovely protection from the sun.

Fruity breakfast

Muesli and fruit brekkie

With a delicate tummy from being ill the night before, I was looking for something fresh to eat.  I chose the Muesli with fruit and fruit toast, which turned out to be toasted ciabatta with jam.  The muesli had large bran flakes and lovely dried fruit through it, with a healthy topping of beautiful fresh strawberries, plum and banana on top, with a side of yoghurt – perfect.

The Kiwi went for the cooked breakfast and got a decent plate of food with the usual suspects.  All washed down with a good coffee, seated outside in the shade of the lovely tree this was a great start to our day!

Cafe Ruba, 14 Childers Street, Gisborne

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Fettuccine Brothers, Gisborne

After a long drive from Wellington and two recommendations received from locals, without question we headed for the Fettuccine Brothers restaurant in Peel Street. With a bar on one side and restaurant on the other, at 9.30pm we got a table easily, although with it being the holiday weekend perhaps it may have been more quiet than usual Saturday nights.

Lamb RumpStaff were efficient and the room pleasant.  The Kiwi ordered the Agnello Codrione which is Rosemary marinated Lamb rump with braised cabbage & minted peas, red wine sauce and roasted pumpkin cannelloni ($32).  The Lamb was cooked well and tasted great, the veg was nice although there was confusion on the cannelloni front as the Kiwi thought it was kumara, regardless of that it wasn’t cannelloni as my Nonna made it!

I ordered the Orrechiette Con Manzo, pasta with braised beef in a Chianti gravy with mushrooms & caramelised onions ($26).  It was a good plate of food, although the pasta was overcooked – it seems pasta al dente in restaurants goes in the ‘too hard’ basket – with a nice, rich, beefy sauce but the more I ate the more I got an overwhelming taste of saltiness.

Pasta with beef The dish had a generous shaving of Parmigiano over it – despite my Italian heritage I can’t eat parmigiano – and whilst it may be traditional to have the cheese over pasta, I think it wise to state it will be in the dish so we can say hold the parmesan, if we wish.  Aside from my taste, I wasn’t convinced it really would add to this rich beefy dish anyway.  Parmesan lovers may wish to disagree!

We skipped dessert, opting to finish off the meal with Limoncello – a very light, translucent drink arrived, in contrast to the lemony yellow I am used to, but it was delicious.

I can’t say for sure whether this is connected or not, but shortly after returning home from this meal I was violently sick.  Saltiness.  The Kiwi was fine.

Fettuccine Brothers, 12 Peel Street, Gisborne, New Zealand

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