Monday, 12 February 2018

Venice on a budget - who to book with and what to do

There was no doubt about it - I was going to stay forever. I was going to get a little apartment overlooking a cute but non-touristy canal, get a job doing interior design for quirky Venetian hotels and make a gang of Gondolier mates. Except that I had a return flight... and I don't speak Italian (unless Belissimo! and Grazie! count).

Snap back to reality - the real reality being that Venice was a place I always assumed I wouldn't really be able to afford to go to until I was a hot-shot-rich-grown-up. Until my boyfriend discovered a website called Travelzoo which works with Tour Center - an online travel shop that has deals you'd think were less likely than pigs flying in your window and doing a Highland jig mid air.

For only £159 we bought a package that included our return flights from Edinburgh, three nights in a four star hotel, breakfast and drinks on arrival. The hotel, in Venice Mestre, was opposite a bus stop line that took you into the heart of Venice island in ten minutes for just 1.50 euros.

Venice is just as beautiful at night as it is in the day

On our first day we took a trip to the colourful islands of Burano, Murano and Torcello - a must if you're in Venice for a few days. If you book in advance you'll save yourself a good 20%. You can do this through a number of websites - just google it.

 Burano, one of the tiny islands in the Venetian lagoon. It's a colourful paradise of fishermen's houses and boats. 

Also, if you're on a budget - then a Gondola ride probably isn't something you're going to be looking to afford unless you book in advance too. We saw deals for around £20 online but once you're there we didn't see a single offer for less than 80 euros. However, fear not if you forget to book before hand - you can pay just 2 euros to be taken on a Gondola from one side of the Grand Canal to the other - it's not as glamorous or romantic perhaps, but at least you can say you've been on one.

Off duty
That's amore <3

If you're wanting to eat cheaply - eat pizzas. And get off the tourist trail - essentially as far away from the Grand Canal or Piazza de Marco as possible. Get lost on purpose - I promise you'll find some amazingly authentic, beautiful restaurants for more than half the price of those that line the Grand Canal - and with a lot more atmosphere. We ate there on one of our nights trying to be a little romantic and it was over 30 euros for a basic main meal. Not so romantic when you're feeling queasy at the thought of the check.

Grand Canal by day 
Grand Canal by night

Alta Aqua Bookshop is a place that's hard to find - but worth the expedition to get there. It's nestled down a tiny laneway that's so narrow you struggle to pass others without squishing body parts into the walls, but it's one of the coolest places to visit and see off the tourist path. The walls and courtyard are lined with books and it's right opposite an Instagram famous, but elusively hard to locate picturesque 'floating house' I was desperate to see.

One of the world's most beautiful bookshops surely. Liberia Alta Aqua - in my element. 

The elusive floating house I so badly wanted to find. 

So, sadly, I did leave. I left the romantic streets and squares, left the peaceful quiet of a Venetian night free from cars and traffic, left the delicious food and wine, and the gondoliers slowly moving through the hundreds of beautiful canals. But bellisimo Venezia, I'll be back. x


Monday, 30 October 2017

Hidden Scotland - The Slate Islands

The beautiful and barren Isle of Luing seen from Seil

When I was told I was staying on a 100 year old lifeboat on the Isle of Seil for my birthday I was a bit confused. First of all, I'd never heard of Seil, and second of all - I was picturing a mouldy old ruin of a boat beached on its side in some seaweed-y shallows. Still trying to act grateful beyond these visions, I was very pleasantly surprised when I learned the true destination of my birthday treat.

Nestled in its own private beach in Cuan Ferry at the most Northern tip of the Isle of Seil, lies the 104 year old Alexandria Lifeboat, which has been restored back to life by its owners. You can stay on board the beached boat for just £50 a night through Air BnB, and it sleeps up to 6 people. It's one of the quirkiest little places I've ever stayed and it's got its own little kitchen and barbecue out on the deck.

The Alexandra Lifeboat 

Nestled in its own private bay - above and below

The neighbouring area is steeped in history and so interesting to explore too, and I couldn't believe how little I'd previously known about this rugged, wild and beautiful part of Scotland. The Atlantic or Slate Islands as they're more aptly called, are a group of islets made entirely of slate which sit just next to the Argyll Coast, 20 minutes south of Oban. They kiss the coastline, and at low tide you'd be easily mistaken thinking they weren't islands at all.

Easdale Island from Seil, with Mull towering in the distance 

The gardens next to the Alexandra Lifeboat

Connecting Seil to the mainland is the famous Bridge Over the Atlantic - a tiny, precarious stone bridge, that was built in 1792. Before this, the Jacobites used to get a boat across and use the Tigh na Truich Inn just on the other side of the water to change back in to their forbidden kilts, safe on their island home from the English.
The Clachan Bridge or more commonly named Bridge Over the Atlantic

My favourite island of the three inhabited slate islands (Seil, Luing and Easdale) was the latter, and the smallest of the trio. Easdale is found to the west of Seil and accessed by a tiny passenger/fishing boat which costs £2.05 return. The best way to describe it is probably like a real life Tellytubby Land. As soon as you disembark from the ferry on to the jetty, you're greeted by a fleet of multicoloured wheelbarrows. There are no cars allowed on the island, so if you're feeling a tad lazy the wheelbarrows and a kind pusher are all you've got.

'Main Square', Easdale Island
The main mode of transport on the island

Incase you get lost

Slate as far as the eye can see

Children playing in the main harbour on Easdale

The inhabitants of the island are very friendly. Not just the 60 humans who live there - we were treated to the aquaintance of 7 rare curly haired Hungarian Mangalica pigs who have their own secluded pen with spectacular views over to Mull. As well as pigs there are 3 cats, 10 dogs, a tortoise, a couple of rabbits, and a parrot living on Easdale throughout the year.

Your ex's new gf is this way 

Rare Hungarian pigs are some of the island's main inhabitants

Come September however, the population of the island rockets as the World Skimming Championships grace the main quarry of Easdale's many flooded slate pits. They've escalated to world renowned fame in the last few years and B&Bs are booked up years in advance. We just missed the championships unfortunately but we had a go anyway on the still and turquoise quarries. The quarries ceased to exist after an enourmous flood in the late 19th century that cut the slate excavation for good. These islands roofed the world at one point, and although now not used for much except farming, they're wee gems (as well as slate) that should definitely be visited. 

A wee couple having a picnic enjoying the calm quarry waters and view across to Mull

Best seats in the house for watching the championships

New world champion


Tuesday, 12 September 2017


Ios is an island steeped in stories and legends. The tomb of Homer resides in the north and its historical theatres crumble by the roadsides on the hills meandering into the Hora. While it may be shunned as a place for school leavers looking for cheap drinks and a sunny place to get bronzed and drunk, the island's history and ancient buildings are as prevalent as its current reputation as one of the most vibrant party islands of the Cyclades.  We didn't let the hypnotic lure of five drinks for a euro, or the constant boom of dance music at our hostel stop us from exploring this often underrated island properly.

We'd heard talk of the Neverland Boys, a content creating collective who had been based in Ios and who had christened one of the secret coves 'Never Bay.' It's easy to see how Ios could be associated with the land where people never grow up: a place of ancient immortal Gods, a place constantly rumbling with the throng of the young, a place of cliff jumping and swimming in secret lagoons, a place of adventures into the dark and vast mountains, a place where time is never planned.

Much cheaper than Santorini, we stayed at the infamous Far Out Beach Club, and were picked up by a shuttle bus from our boat and ferried to the resort on Mylopotas Beach on the west of the island. We'd opted to stay in the little glamping huts the beach club has to offer as they were only £10 each for two nights, based on 3 of us sharing. They were pretty basic, but if a simple bed's all you're looking for, they do the job. If you want a little bit more comfort, there are plenty of other options to choose from. Likewise, if you want to stay a little more centrally, try Francesco's in the main village of Ios. It's more of an actual hostel, and provides a bit more of a relaxed vibe that Far Out, where most people are dancing on tables by 5pm.

Read on to find out more about the amazing spots and secret places Ios has to offer. It's not just a place for partying until 5am every night, though this certainly adds to its charm and aura of a place where anything can happen. 


  Frolicking like mermaids on the Never Bay rocks
 When you wish you were a fish so you could look at this all day, every day 

Approaching the lagoon. Note how blue the water becomes further in to the rocks.

Finding Never Bay almost lives up to its namesake. While sitting on a beach in the south of Ios, watching the sun edge closer and closer to the sea, we dishearteningly wondered whether never ever finding Never Bay was a possibility. It's certainly not easy - we spent hours driving about on quads, looking at hand drawn maps and swimming to land from a little boat whose driver had absolutely no idea what we were talking about. However, he took us around a number of lagoons and dive spots until we spotted some people frolicking on rocks in the distance.

The journey is worth it. The sea is clear straight to the bottom even right out in open water. The further closer to the coves the little boat got, the more the waters changed to deep shimmering turquoise, rocks glimmering like huge opals and diamonds beneath the waves. 

This was my favourite day on our Greek Island trip, and the adventure to get there makes it even more of an experience. Likewise, it's fun to get off the beaten track, to go somewhere breathtaking that isn't yet over saturated by Instagram or plagued by crowds. Talk to some people who live on the island and they might give you some pointers on amazing, secret, turquoise lagoons and dive spots. We managed to chat to and get tips from an Australian diver who'd been exploring the caves and coves of Ios for the past 40 years and still wasn't finished. 


One of Ios's many tiny churches, with overgrown, ancient olive gardens in the background
Another beautiful roadside church at the top of the hills in the heart of Ios

Driving to Manganari Beach from Hora is around a half hour journey. The road cuts right through the heart of Ios, taking you through the mountains that tower in the distance from the port and Mylopotas Beach. The further you get in to the hills, the smaller and smaller you start to feel. We passed no other quads, bikes or cars for a long time, and the only sign of life in this wilderness are the multiple, tiny churches that decorate the hills like little milestones.

Sweeping, winding roads traverse up and down the landscape, and the views down to the bright blue shallow waters of the beaches far below juxtapose the darkness of the arid brown soil of the mountains. Driving back to the Hora on the cusp of sunset through the hills was a spectacular sight, with light beams streaming through the gaps in the peaks, and the horizon line a hazy, deep blue you could get lost in if you weren't being a responsible driver...


Sunset from these old windmills (hidden behind a wall) provide epic, dappled views of the main town

Blue domed churches, nodding towards Ios's neighbouring Santorini, flank the entrance to the bottom of the Hora

Thanks to the aforementioned fact that a lot of Ios's visitors were up to 5am the night before, the roads, farther flung beaches and Hora are extremely peaceful throughout the day. Spend time exploring the bountiful amount of cafes, boutique shops and classic Greek streets. Shops of interest include a clothes boutique where you can paint your own designs on tshirts, and a shop selling awesome customised vintage clothes and hand crafted tshirts, singlets and bags.

If you have more time to explore, you must go to see Homer's tomb in the north of the island. More empty beaches and mountain ranges open up into views of the island of Iraklia to the east and those salty, hypnotic horizons.

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