New York Day 2: Central Park

Sea Lion

Our day started at the breakfast buffet at the Library Hotel, to fuel up on bagels as we would be doing a lot of walking. The breakfast selection was good, the only thing missing was pancakes – what I imagine to be the standard American breakfast. Luckily, we had those at the airport, so aren’t missing out completely.

Our plan for the morning was to walk up 5th Avenue to Central Park, to catch the penguin feeding at 10:30. Due to our date with the penguins, we weren’t able to stop at any of the shops on 5th Avenue, so will have to go back.

At the zoo, penguin feeding time was actually a bit of a let down, as the penguins were inside and being fed individually. However, the sea lion feeding more than made up for it, even before the keepers arrived with their food the sea lions were showing off to the crowd. When the keepers arrived the sea lions did everything they were told and are obviously very intelligent creatures. It was quite surreal seeing these sea mammals playing in their pool with skyscrapers in the background.

Other highlights of the zoo included Japanese snow monkeys, a favourite of mine, red pandas and Snow Leopard cubs. I must admit I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t a lion, hippo and giraffe like in the film Madagascar.

After the zoo we continued through the park to Belvedere castle and through the Ramble to Strawberry Fields, the area of the park dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. The park is an oasis of quiet in the middle of a busy city, with foraging squirrels seemingly the noisiest thing. For lunch we had a hotdog from a good cart in the park, another item ticked of our New York culinary to do list, it wasn’t as good as I’d been expecting, so may have to try another one to make sure.

Leaving the park we walked down Broadway to Macy’s, where I bought a Christmas present for my Mum. Then back to the hotel, via our first close up view of the Empire State Building and 5th Avenue.

Our evening started off with cheese and wine in the hotel, before heading back down 5th Avenue to Korea Way for a Korean BBQ. I’ve been to Korean BBQ restaurants a few times in Japan and had wanted to take Jen to one, but they aren’t very common in the UK, here in New York there’s a whole block of them. The idea is that there’s a gas burner in the middle of the table and raw meat is brought out to you, at this one the meat was cooked for us and accompanied by all sorts of salads and sauces, whereas in Japan you were left to cook your own meat. We had big plates of beef and pork, both were really tasty and we left with very full bellies – it was a good job we’d spent most of the day walking around the city!

New York Day 1: Times Square

Times Square

Our day started off with a 05:30 alarm, usually I’d say that’s way too early for a Sunday, but we had a flight to New York to catch! Check in and security were a breeze, although we did have to chuckle at the guy trying to take a blender in his carry on luggage…

Starting as we meant to go on; we had an American breakfast before we boarded the flight. If you’re ever at Heathrow terminal 3 at breakfast time, check out the bridge restaurant, I was really impressed with my bacon, sausage, egg and pancakes. The flight passed quickly, the inflight entertainment on the A330 was much better than on Virgins A340s which they use for the Heathrow to Tokyo route. I was even able to text my Dad from 37,000 feet above the Atlantic. Following the sad news of Paul Walker’s death I decided to watch Fast & Furious 6, which has been one of my favourite films of 2013. As the plane approached JFK I had a great view over Long Island and then caught a glimpse of the iconic manhattan skyline in the distance; time to start getting excited!

We’d been dreading immigration at JFK, as we’d heard a lot of bad things, but it was a really efficient system – much more so than Tokyo or Heathrow. We got a bus from outside the terminal to Grand Central station, one block away from our hotel. Again the excitement grew as we caught sight of that famous skyline getting nearer (and seeing all the American cars/trucks in my case).

In all, it took us less than 2 hours from touching down to checking into the Library Hotel, our base for the week.

Our room, (themed on dewy decimal code 1000.003 – encyclopaedias) is small, but well equipped. Free afternoon cheese and wine is a nice touch too! Besed on our experience so far I’d recommend it to anyone visiting New York.

Due to jetlag, double jetlag (I was still in Japan 3 days ago) in my case, we didn’t want to venture too far from the hotel, so took a stroll down to Times Square, with neon signs, tourists, hot dog sellers and hundreds of yellow cabs it is exactly like New York on TV – a great way to start the trip. After Times Square we checked out Grand Central station, which exceeded all expectations. I’m not sure if it has been done up for its centenary year, but it is immaculate, the sort of station I’d image the Flying Scotsman or Orient Express to call at – despite being a commuter station. My thoughts go out to those involved in the crash this morning on their way in to Grand Central station.

We finished off the day with an amazing burger and milkshake at Shake Shack in Grand Central station (ironically we were served by a girl from Northampton) and then an early night, before sight seeing starts in earnest tomorrow!

New York Day 0: Brooklands

Mercedes Benz world at Brooklands

No, I don’t mean Brooklyn – we’re still in the UK and stopped off at Mercedes Benz world at Brooklands on the way to our airport hotel at Heathrow.

This was my second visit to Merced Benz world at Brooklands, after a trip with Pistonheads earlier in the year. The difference was that this time the 600 Pistonheads cars had been replaced by cars being auctioned. There were all sorts of cars from Minis to Dodge Chargers, a bat mobile and, of course, loads of Mercedes Benz cars! My favourite was a 1960s Lotus Europa, which at a hammer price of £8000 was under its reserve. It was also good to see an Alvis in the metal – Jen’s granddad worked at the Alvis factory in Coventry for most of his life.

Now we’re at an airport hotel, waiting for our flight in the morning; so going to try and get a good nights sleep. Bon nuit!

Extra Long Weekend in Paris

Eiffel Tower

I’m not really a fan of Paris, it smells and is full of rude French people (I’m a French national, so can get away with saying that), so when Partho and Marilena were at my flat on New Year’s Eve and it was suggested that we go to Paris in 2013 I wasn’t that fussed. Jen was pretty keen to go and a matter of days later had found some cheap Eurostar tickets and we were booked to go to Paris for a long weekend! Then I accepted an offer on my flat and the 119 Project started to gain pace, so I was quite looking forward to a weekend away from DIY!

The trip started well, the train from Rugby to London was busy, but on time and we didn’t have to wait too long for Partho and Marilena at St Pancras. Before we knew it we were travelling at 170mph through the Kent countryside towards Paris.

On arrival we checked into our hotel (Ibis Eiffel Tower at Cambronne) then headed straight to the Arc de Triomphe, for some evening sightseeing. Following a suggestion from “Bulldong” on the Pistonheads forum, we headed towards our chosen restaurant for the evening – Le Relais de Venise. I’d heard of this restaurant before and had been meaning to check out the London one for a while, so wasn’t too surprised to see a queue. We joined the back and within 30 minutes we were at the front looking at the hand written menu showing the only option for main course, “Streak frites”! After a few more minutes we were ushered in, the restaurant was typically French with the maximum amount of tables crammed into the small room, the food was excellent and well worth the wait. After dinner, Partho and Marilena suggested that we went for a drink at the bar on the 34th floor of their hotel which was just around the corner, their hotel was a lot posher than ours, but I was still shocked to see the drinks prices – €17 for a beer and €27 for a cocktail – the bottle of wine we had with dinner was only €14! Drinking Laphroaig (even at €25) looking over Paris to the Eiffel Tower with its hourly light show was a perfect way to spend the evening!

The second day started in the best French style – with pastries from the boulangerie! We then went back to the Arc de Triomphe to start our day of sightseeing with a walk down the Champs Élysées, we had a look in a few clothes shops etc, but my favourite thing about shopping here are the car manufacturers shops/galleries. Peugeot wasn’t great, unless you are in the market for a pepper mill, which Peugeot are the Ferrari of. Mercedes was strange, the cars all had wraps, think gold G-Wagen, snakeskin SLS and velvet CLS! Renault seemed more about the cars than any of the others, with the new RenaultSport Clio and a Redbull F1 car being the highlights, also after sitting in a Twizy they seem to make more sense. At Citroen we skipped the road car section an went to the rally display in the basement, where for €2 you can go in the “4D rally simulator”, which was well worth it, especially as €2 doesn’t get you very much in Paris. After Citroen we stopped for a drink, which was a mistake, as right at the end of the shops Jen spotted the Fiat gallery, which had a Maserati exhibition and a cafe with a 30s Maserati Grand Prix car on the top floor which would have been the perfect place to stop for a drink, The gallery also had a Ghilbi, which is a car I’d not seen in the metal before, but was curious about after reading a restoration thread on Pistonheads, and the Maserati edition 500 Abarth.

We then continued our walk towards the Louvre, stopping for a ham and cheese crepe at Place de La Concorde, which we ate overlooking one of the ponds in Jardins de Thuiles. I imagine the gardens would be a great place to spend some time in the summer, but as the weather wasn’t great it was a brisk walk through the gardens to have a look at the pyramids at the Louvre, followed by a confusing 10 minutes looking for the Apple store (for warmth and free wifi), only to find that it was actually underground! Entering the Louvre, via one of the pyramids, was quite a spectacular expreience, the way that the architects combined the modern glass structures with the palace worked really well. Once we’d paid for our tickets (€11) we did what seemingly every other tourist does and headed straight for the Mona Lisa, although I’m still yet to understand why it is so much more important than any of the other paintings in the museum. We wandered around the museum for a few more hours, the Egyptian exhibition was good, especially the tombs and the mummy, but the sheer amount of exhibits was too much for us, personally I think they should have gone for quality over quantity!

After the Louvre the plan had been to go up the Eiffel Tower, but as there was so much to look at in the museum we were there for longer than we expected and actually quite tired, so headed back to the hotel for a rest, before meeting at the Buddha Bar restaurant which Marilena had booked for us. The food was good, Partho and Marilena went for a sushi platter, Jen and I had Thai style dishes, all under the eyes of a giant golden Buddha. Rather than taking the Metro all the way back to the hotel we decided to walk the first and last parts, crossing the Seine near Place de la Concorde I was able to take the photo of the Eiffel Tower at the top of this post. As we were out for dinner I had only taken my Canon S90 compact, but I’m still pleased with the picture and no doubt would have frozen to death if I had been making sure I got the perfect shot with my DSLR and tripod.

When we woke up on our third morning the top of the Eiffel Tower was in the clouds, not ideal considering our plan for the day was to go up it! Instead we took a walk along the Seine to Notre Dame, with a stop en route for breakfast in a typical cafe where we could watch the world go by and warm up a bit! After looking round Notre Dame we went to Les Marais via Centre Pompidu. The reason for going to Les Marais was another restaurant recommendation from Pistonheads, when we got to Rue des Rosiers we knew we’d found L’as du Fallafel as it was the only one of the falafel places on the road with a queue outside! When Partho and Marilena arrived we joined the queue and were told that we would have a 12 minute wait – very precise! It was worth the wait in the rain, our falafel pittas were some of the best street food we’ve eaten anywhere in the world!

The plan for the afternoon was that Jen and I would go to Sacre Couer, then meet Partho and Marilena under the Eiffel Tower. The walk from the Metro to Sacre Couer reminded me of the walk to Park Guell in Barcelona, lots of tourist tat, but we still managed to find a nice chocolate shop and stopped at another cafe for a crepe to warm us up, did I mention it was absolutely freezing? Not fancying the walk up the hill, we took the funicular up to the basilica, which I actually thought was more impressive than Notre Dame, however, the real reason for going to Sacre Couer was the view, which I’m sure would have been better without the fog. The fact it’s where C’etait un rendezvous ended had nothing to do with going there – honest! After a few quick pictures we walked back down the hill and got the Metro to Torcadero – for more views of the Eiffel Tower, but as the weather was still pretty rubbish they weren’t great. So we crossed the river to meet Partho and Marilena under the Eiffel Tower, which seemed to be the coldest place in Paris! Due to the weather we decided we would only go up to the second level, but as I had a bottle of wine in my rucksack (bought as a gift, not for consumption up to tower) I wasn’t allowed past the airport style security, so we went back to the hotel to warm up.

For dinner, Jen & I followed yet another tip from Pistonheads and went to Chez Gladines, a Basque restaurant, we both love the Basque Country, especially the food and it was where we went on our first holiday together. We found ourselves in another typically French restaurant, with everybody packed in, sharing tables etc, as the evening went on more and more people kept arriving and crowding round the bar, making use of every possible space to wait for a table! I chose Basque chicken from the menu and Jen went for steak, both came with loads of fried sliced potatoes (think a cross between chips and crisps) and veg, on realising we were from the UK, the waiter asked if we were from near Leicester, which he described as “a bit shit”, you can’t say fairer than that!

On Tuesday morning we woke to snow, a quick check of the Eurostar website said trains were running, so we decided to go straight to Gare de Nord to ensure we made our train. When we got there it was chaos – all Eurostar trains had been cancelled due to snow in northern France! When we eventually got to speak to someone we were told to come back the next day and try our luck. We were able to get booked into a hotel at Gare de Nord, even better, we were able to check into our room straight away to regroup, speaking to our travel insurance company and eventually Eurostar to get rebooked onto the first train the next morning.

With our travel home sorted, it was time to enjoy our extra day in Paris! As it was still snowing, we wanted to stay indoors, so got the Metro to Galeries La Fayette, the French equivalent of Harrods in London, Partho and I went watch (window) shopping, whilst Jen and Marilena looked at shoes/handbags/jewellery etc, luckily we all managed to resist purchasing anything and retired to the Angelina tearoom for afternoon tea and cake, I went for their speciality hot chocolate and an amazing chestnut teacake, which also happened to be their speciality cake. Unsurprisingly, with it being the poshest shop in Paris, the tea and cake were seriously expensive, but well worth it! After refuelling, we had more energy for shopping and went to check out the food court, I love French food and wished I could have taken loads home, but wasn’t convinced I’d get the 5Kg tub of Nutella in any of our kitchen cupboards.

When we got back from Galeries La Fayette I checked with Eurostar again, their website said our rebooked train in the morning would also be cancelled and not to go to Gare de Nord! I decided to bite the bullet and book flights back to Birmingham, as my travel insurance did say they would cover this, Partho and Marilena decided they would get up at 5:00 and try their luck with Eurostar.

After a distinctly average meal over the road from our hotel we went to bed, glad that we wouldn’t be getting up early to wait around in a freezing station, just in case we could get on our train. However, in the morning we found out that Partho and Marilena did manage to get onto a train, but despite the early start they were still nowhere near the tunnel. We had a traditional French cafe breakfast, in what actually turned out to be a Belgian cafe, then battled across Paris on a busy RER to Charles de Gaulle airport. We were able to get a Croque Madame for lunch, Jen was yet to experience this French delicacy, luckily it lived up to the praise I’d given it. Looking at the big screens it seemed our plane would be on time, which was a relief given that some of the other Birmingham flights had been cancelled – consolidated with our flight it turned out. In the end we were about an hour late taking off but we made it back home safely, although our luggage did get to enjoy an extra 4 days in Paris.

I should add that we were eventually able to get refunds from Rail Europe and Eurostar, despite them being unhelpful while we were actually stuck and Natwest Advantange Gold Travel Insurance eventually paid out the rest of the extra costs, so we weren’t out of pocket for too long. The International Traveller Service I have on my phone through O2 was really useful, as despite spending a lot of time on the phone sorting out our travel back to the UK/dealing with the insurance company my phone bill wasn’t too bad at all.

Despite the travel chaos and the bad weather we all had a good time in Paris, I’m sure we will end up going back, but next time we will definitely leave it for late spring/early summer!

A39 Road Trip

Silver BMW Z4 3.0 on Exmoor, Somerset, UK (Lewis Craik/Lewis Craik Photography)

This is my friend Ali’s BMW Z4, the photo was captured near Porlock on Exmoor whilst we were on a road trip.

A group of us were renting a house in Croyde, which I’d spotted last time I was there and after spending a week living in it, it is still my dream house. The plan had been to get a lot of surfing done, but mother nature had other ideas, and there weren’t any waves the whole time we were there. After being shown an article about the A39 on the Greatest Driving Roads website about how despite being named as a major road the A39 from Barnstaple to Minehead was in places just a single lane and had 1 in 4 gradient hills up onto Exmoor, a road trip was needed!

Unfortunately, as we are taking my MX-5 to the Western Isles later in the year, I was driving Jen’s 500, Ali & his girlfriend, also called Jen, joined us in Ali’s Z4. The 500 coped surprisingly well with the hills and the views over Exmoor and over the Bristol channel to Wales were great, Minehead was less so, my advice to anyone doing this road trip would be to stop at Porlock, which seemed much nicer than Minehead and the last part of the A39 wasn’t anything special. On the return journey we stopped at the top of Porlock Hill and I asked Ali to drive the section of road a couple of times so I could take some photographs. I’m quite pleased with the final result, I’d wanted to capture the sort of image that is used in Evo magazine which I think I managed, the only thing I don’t like about the image is that the roof is up!

After the photoshoot we went to Lynmouth for a cream tea and walk along the harbour, before heading back to Croyde. So even though we didn’t get to surf a road trip to Minehead was a great way to spend the day!

Costa Rica: Hoffmann’s Woodpecker

Woodpecker

When we were in Santa Teresa our afternoon usually consisted of chilling out on the veranda of our cabin, one afternoon I was woken up from a nap in the hammock by a tapping noise, which turned out to be this Hoffmann’s Woodpecker on the tree next to our cabin. I don’t normally take photographs of wildlife, but I was able to get my camera and grab a few frames, including this one which I am quite pleased with, especially as it was taken on a relatively short 200mm lens.

As mentioned in my posts from Costa Rica, we actually managed to see more wildlife in the grounds of the Funky Monkey Lodge, where we stayed in Santa Teresa, than on some of our wildlife excursions. I think the relaxed vibe in Santa Teresa must have affected the local animals too.

Costa Rica: Tamarindo Sunset

Tamarindo Sunset

I’m still working through images from my trip to Costa Rica (renovating a house, is taking up most of my free time at the moment), but I’m getting there! This sunset was captured in Tamarindo, the last place we stayed and there’s just something I really like about it, so I thought it was worth blogging. The photo isn’t technically perfect, in fact it was taken on my Canon Powershot S90 compact camera, but I really like the colours of the sea and the sky (I did accentuate them a bit when processing the raw file) and it just makes me want to be back in Costa Rica on the beach at sunset.

Costa Rica: Cloud Forest Abstract

[photoshelter-img width=’375′ height=’582′ i_id=’I0000AizrfIU3t.Y’ buy=’1′]

I am working my through the images I took in Costa Rica over the last few weeks, and this one has jumped out as probably my favourite.

We were on the “Hanging Bridges” walk in the Selvatura Park, which is in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve and I saw these trees and knew I could do something with the symmetrical lines. However, on their own I wasn’t happy with that shot, it was too messy, so I added in a bit of movement and as soon as I saw the preview on the back of my camera, I knew I’d be really pleased with the final result.

Costa Rica Days 14 & 15: Travelling home

Our journey home didn’t start too well, our shuttle to the airport didn’t show up, meaning we had to get a taxi to get to the airport in time to catch our flight. Liberia Airport was suitably chaotic, probably not helped by one of our airline’s flights being cancelled or everyone having to go to a separate queue to pay “departure tax” before they could even check in.

The chaos continued when we got on the plane, as not only was the air conditioning not working (with the outside temperature well over 30c) but the pilot couldn’t get the engines started, which wasn’t exactly confidence inspiring. In the end we took off over an hour late and got to Newark without any problems, we even got a good view of Lake Nicaragua.

In the end the flight was 40 minutes late into Newark, leaving us less than an hour before our flight to Heathrow took off, with us needing to clear US immigration, collect and recheck our bags, pass through security again and get to the furthest gate away from where we started. It was a bit tense, especially in the queue for immigration and we needed to run most the way after that, but we made it onto our flight just before they shut the doors.

Again, the flight was fine and passed quickly, we landed early and even got through passport control without having to queue, but after waiting ages for our bags it became apparent that they hadn’t made the transfer at Newark, which wasn’t too much of an issue as anything important was in our hand luggage. We were met at the airport by my parents and it was good to be driven in a nice executive saloon on smooth motorways after two weeks of minibuses on unpacked roads.

As I type, my first memory card is being imported into Lightroom, so expect a few more posts over the coming days/weeks.

Costa Rica Day 13: Tamarindo

Tamarindo Sunset

Our last full day in Costa Rica started well, with Huevos Rancheros for breakfast, overlooking the beach. We then walked to the estuary end of the beach as we hadn’t explored that end of town yet, it didn’t take long to get there, but as we were walking we were approached my street sellers trying to get us to buy everything from ceramics to cocaine, then when we got to the estuary someone tried to sell us a boat trip. So we decided to walk back along the beach, which was much nicer as that part of the beach was almost empty.

The afternoon was spent chilling on our terrace back at the hostel, before heading out again late afternoon to walk along the other end of the beach and catch the sunset. As there were clouds on the horizon the latter part of the sunset was gorgeous, but too dark to photograph without a tripod, so I enjoyed it with Jen, drinking an Imperial beer and reflecting on a great trip.