London Diary – Easter Weekend in Dorset!

Apr 22, 2017

Easter weekend is one of two longer public holidays in UK, lasting from Good Friday to Easter Monday, it is an extra-long weekend. We were some of the many taking road trip this past Easter weekend, and Dorset was the destination.

Stunning coast that is part of Jurassic Coast, lovely interior of rolling hills and valleys, charming towns and villages, Dorset has plenty to wow visitors. Its literary link to Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy had been the reason for my choosing Dorcester and vicinity this time.

Fine weather was definitely icing on the cake. Spring floral abounds and you can’t miss the large patches of Rap seed and Gorse field here and there.

We stayed at Little Court in Charminster, a small village on northwest outskirt of Dorcester. It is a charming house with lovely garden and peaceful surrounding. Little Court served good breakfast. I belive I had the best scrambled eggs there, rich, creamy and moist to perfection. Nearest restaurant is Sun Inn, a nice pub several minutes away on foot. For more options, Dorcester is minutes away. We tried on the first night Duchess of Cornwall, hotel plus pub in a beautiful building located in Docester’s new neighborhood of Poundbury. Both the neighborhood and pub are pleasant.


Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door

Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door never fail to impress. First time we were there was summer of 2014 but we did not walk the coastal path in between. Back this time, we again had beautiful weather, took up the walk and fully enjoyed the scenery and people watching along the way.

Being Easter weekend with fine weather it was busy, but not more so than summer of 2014. Quite a number of families there with young children. While it is relatively easier to get to the beach at Lulworth Cove, it takes effort to safely down the narrow steps to reach the beach at Durdle Door. Some children played at the beach, with sand bucket, shovel or other beach day paraphernalia, others flew kites on the fields. It was lovely to see children and adults alike having fun.

The two attractions are 1 mile apart from each other and there is parking lot at each end. You pay for parking per car but no other admission charge. There is however more service options at Lulworth Cove, where there is the pretty Lulworth village, a visitor center, cafes and shops. We parked at Lulworth Cove, picked up some Cornish beef pasty and sausage roll from the Coffee Shop next to the visitor center and had a nice picnic at Durdle Door before heading back.

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Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis is a picturesque seaside town on the hill. Its water front area, featuring promenade, garden, and beach, was lively with visitors and holiday makers alike. Towards the western end is its harbor. Famously known as the Cobb, it owes its fame to being featured in novels like Persuasion and French Lieutenant’s Woman. From the Cobb, you enjoy lovely views of the town, sea, and Golden Cap, the highest point of south England.

Jane Austen holidayed in Lyme Regis herself. We did a Jane Austen tour with Literary Lyme. It was a 1 hour walk starting from the black metal anchor on the water by Rock Point Inn. The tour stayed mostly close to the seaside and ended at the Cobb. The material was interesting enough but the delivery and commentary by our guide was a bit of a lack luster.

The Spittles is a National Trust owned natural area located on the hill top northeast of town where you can look down to a nice picture of Lyme Regis. It is free to the public.

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Stonebarrow Hill and Golden Cap on Lagon Hill

East of Charmouth, a town east of Lyme Regis, there is Stonebarrow Hill, also National Trust owned natural area on the clifftop. There is ample parking at this site. Follow the path to the cliff, you’ll be rewarded by beautiful views, including that of Charmouth and Lyme Regis further west. Parking is free here and there is no charge to do the walk.

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Further eastward is Logan Hill. Another National Trust owned natural area on the clifftop, parking here is a minimal of 50p and there is no charge for taking the walk. A short walk will take you to Golden Cap where another set of stunning views await.

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Hardy Country

Dorset, where Thomas Hardy was born and lived most of his life, is Hardy’s inspiration and in turn most of his novels are set in towns and villages of Dorset. Hardy Trail is a circular route that features all of them. Thanks to my neighbor and friend Carole, I was armed with a detailed guide to the trail. Although we did not get to visit all featured destinations, I thoroughly enjoyed those I visited.

Higher Bockhampton/Stinsford/Lower Bockhampton

Thomas Hardy was born in Higher Bockhampton, a hamlet 10 minutes north east of Dorcester. The cottage built by his grandfather and father is now a National Trust property open to the public. In addition to the cottage itself, surrounding area has been preserved as natural area for a peaceful walk. Higher Bockhampton is featured in Hardy’s novel as Higher Mellstock.

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Stinsford is a cute little hamlet few minutes south.  While Thomas Hardy is interred at Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, his heart was and some of his family were buried at St Michael’s Church in the village. Stinsford is Mellstock in Hardy’s novels.

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Lower Bockhampton is another small hamlet a few minutes southeast of Stinsford. Thomas Hardy was believed to be one of the first pupils at the Old School.


Nestle between Stinsford and Lower Bockhampton is the grand house of Kingston Maurward House, featured in Hardy Novel as Knapwater House, and is now property of Kingston Maurward College.

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All 3 hamlets are atmospherically quiet, no sign of hustle and bustle at all.


Dorcester, Dorset’s county town and heart of Hardy country, is an interesting mix of new and old. Poundbury, west of the town, a recent urban extension to the town, is a pleasant neighborhood with handsome buildings and wide roads.

High East and West Street along with Trinity Street are where you’d find many historic buildings and sites featured in Hardy novels, The Dorset County Museum, St Peter’s Church, The King’s Arm’s Hotel, The Corn Exchange and the Antelope Hotel, etc. Trinity Street is a pedestrian only street lined with shops, restaurants and more historic buildings. Dorcester itself is featured as Casteridge in Hardy novels.

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Maxgate House east of town is Thomas Hardy’s former home from 1885 to 1928. It is now a National Trust property and house museum open to the public. It is a comfortable house that had seen many distinguished guest, including Edward VIII when he was Prince of Wale. As you learnt about the novelist and his great work, the man and his life, the not so great ending for his first wife Emma came into light. Humans are so full of contradiction!

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Thomas Hardy’s statue can be found on the corner of The Grove and High West Street.

Hardy’s Monument

This is however a different Thomas Hardy, a Royal Navy officer, Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, 1st Baronet GCB (5 April 1769 – 20 September 1839).

The monument is built on top of the hill in Portesham. The monument itself is average, the far reaching panoramic view atop of the monument is very fine indeed.

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Abbotsbury is one of the prettiest little villages I’ve ever seen. Arriving just before the last light of the day faded away, it was a charming picture of idyllic serenity. Although the only people around were a few last minute tourists like us, we were in good company of many sheep, a few pheasants, a swan and a flock of ducks.

Abbotsbury is also home to its well-known Swannery and Subtropical Garden. Alas we missed them this time.  St Catherine’s Chapel located on top of a hill is supposed to offer an advantage view of the village and surrounding area. We didn’t hike up to the hill this time. Luckily you can also get a great view of the village on B3157 approaching the village from the west.

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Weymouth is not far south of Dorcester. We made a brief stop at its water front and were pleasantly surprised by the flat, long stretch of beach, an unusual but impressive sight, the long row of buildings lining the beach front is equally impressive. After that we drove by the old harbor which was quite lively, with music wafting out of pubs and pub goers spilling out on to the street.

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Osmington White Horse

Intrigued, we drove to a look out on A353. If you want to get up and close, it is possible to do so by foot.

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Corfe Castle

Castles, ruins and treasure hunting are my husband’s fantasies and Corfe Castle fitted the bill perfectly.

With Corfe Castle towering over, the Village is picturesque and evocative in equal parts. The castle itself is impressive even in its ruined state. A National Trust property, we as members benefited a free entrance. You have to take a walk through the ruin and get close up to its various parts to appreciate its former glory and the political intrigue behind its destruction.

Being a tourist hot spots, there are nice restaurants and shops in the village center. Dinner at Grey Hound Inn was great. I had Crab Gratin with kale and mash potatoes and it was very good. I’d rate it a gourmet pub.

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How can you not love Tenerife, Canary!

Mar 20, 2017

If spring is slow in coming to London and you long for warmth and sunshine, Canary Islands, 4 hours away by flight, are perfect destination. I now totally get why the Brits flocks to Canaries. I chose this time Tenerife Island, largest of the archipelago. Warmth and sunshine I did find, plus so much more. Tenerife filled our four day island break with delight and adventures, leaving me regret that it had not been a longer stay.

An island of Atlantic Ocean northwest of Africa, steep, mountainous, Tenerife’s landscape is, to say the least, dramatic,  palm trees, cactuses and stunning scenery abound, scorched land here and there reminds one the volcanic island that it is.

It is also an island of interesting contrast. Terrain alternates between dry land and lush, green mountains. While sun drenches the south coast, opening above it a soaring azure welkin, clouds often shrouds the peaks. Communities are varied too, while Costa Adeje on southwest coast of the island is a sophisticated, beautiful resort town, there are traditional villages and banana plantations throughout.

Hard we may have tried, what we experienced is only a small set of what Tenerife has to offer.

Costa Adeje

Costa Adeje is a trendy resort town on the south coast of Tenerife. Beautiful resorts, shops and restaurants galore and stunning scenery on top of that, it is truly a delightful spot. Among others, you can eat, shop, walk on the beach, bathe in the sun, swim or just soak in the atmosphere.

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Like most others on the island, the town is spread across steep slopes. Melia Jardines Del Teide, a lovely resort hotel where we stayed, is situated on the higher end of the town. It is several minutes to the ocean but has fantastic view of the town and ocean. Instead of one single mammoth building, it is a complex of small buildings, restaurants and terraces surrounding the activity center, a set of swimming pools. It is also just minutes to Plaza del Duque, a modern shopping mall.

P.S. A practical tip on Melia Jardines Del Teide. While ocean side is gorgeous, mountain side can seem unattractive due to what seem defunct former farms next door. If possible, get ocean view rooms.

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Masca to Los Gigantes

A visit to the village of Masca and a trek through Masca Gorge came highly recommended and we took that up.

There are different options. We opted to drive to and park at Masca Village, hiked down the gorge to the beach where it ends, took a taxi boat to Los Gigantes from the beach, took a taxi back to Masca where we reunited with our car. It is best to book the taxi boat ahead of time, the boat waits a little past its last scheduled run for those who sign up. This is the web site for it:

The drive and the visit to the village was easy and highly rewarding. The tiny village is located in a stunning valley, and the scenery along the way from Santiago del Teide, a cute village itself, to Masca is breathtaking. Quite interesting too, while the road is paved, it is twisted, dizzyingly steep and narrow for a two lane road, especially when there is a bus going by, albeit a smaller sized bus.

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The hike through the gorge is a totally different ball game. It was like nothing I had done before.

You’d find the entrance to the gorge in the middle of the village, where there is a large sign that warns that the path is closed due to landslide. No idea how long that sign has been there, but we had read people mention it and said they ignored it. Somehow we followed suit. There must be a little bit of the dare devil in us.

The path, zigzagging its way through the gorge, is mostly bumpy, rocky, hard and tough on your feet. There is barely any part of the path that is level. You have to negotiate almost every step of the way.

The first 1/3 was the best, the view was fresh and exciting, presenting lots photo ops.

But it became daunting when it dawned on me that it was going to take much longer than expected and we might miss the last boat. What would be the alternative? Hiked back up to the village? What a cringe worthy thought! Doubt and vacillation, still I couldn’t give it up. So I soldiered on. There was no time for break, we had to eat our sandwich on the go.

Over the last 1/3 of the path, there are many spots where there didn’t seem to be a path at all, only big boulders for me to nervously slide down, climb over or squeeze through. At one point, we had to get through by walking the edge of a boulder, which hangs over a ravine, while holding on to cables attached to the boulder. Multiple times when it sprinkled, the rocks became slippery, extra care and effort were the order.

There are sign posts along the way, the last one I spotted was #36.

Four hours later, my knees were about to buckle and legs were about to fall off. But we finally made it to the beach. And we beat the last boat. It turned out we had got the wrong time, one hour too fast. Hallelujah! We were saved. Not likely I could have hiked back up to the village in my state.

Was it worth it? You bet! The rock formation is fascinating and every turn presents a stunning view. I’ve also got lots memory to take away with me; a tiny little boy, who was probably not more than 4, on his way up with his parents to the village from the beach and they had been hiking for 3 hours when we crossed path and he was still energetically pushing on, totally putting me to shame, or the two goats, or the colorful, calm birds, or the various, lovely floral, or other hikers we crossed path with, but most strange of all, the woman in red checker shirt who disappeared into thin air or maybe a secret path only after I had spotted her for a brief moment.

Will I do it again? Probably not knowingly. The aches and pain lingered for days after, each step was a torture, especially on the stair.

P.S. Parking at the village is limited and runs out fast. We circled around a few times before finding one that is out of the village center. It is good to get there early morning if you can make it. Taxi boat from Masca beach to Los Gigantes was €10 each person. Taxi ride from Los Giangantes to Masca was €25.

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Driving from Costa Adeje to Colonial City of San Cristobal de La Laguna

This was an interesting day full of surprises. Having done the trek through Masca Gorge the day before, we had earned our right to take things easy today.  The plan was to just drive around and making brief stops at Icode de Las Vino, Las Realejos and La Oratava before reaching and stopping at San Cristobal de La Laguna. All these points of interests are interesting indeed. But what made our day was what we chanced upon and was not in the original script.

Santiago Del Teide to Teno Mountain

We took the route through Santiago Del Teide. The surrounding became surprisingly lush and green as we drew near Teno Mountain, a contrast to the landscape we had seen prior to this.

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El Guincho

Thanks to an accidental wrong turn, we stumbled across El Guincho, a small banana plantation by the sea, cute as a button.

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We took thing further on the wrong direction and ended up at Garachio, a pretty waterfront little town on steep hill.

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Icode de Las Vino, Las Realejos and La Oratava

At this point we were back on track according to plan. We drove through all three recommended villages, they are however more like towns than villages in sizes. All are built on steep hills. Of the three, Icode de Las Vino seemed more picturesque, maybe we did not take the ride route in Las Realejos or La Oratava.

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San Cristobal de La Laguna

San Cristobal de La Laguna is the former capital of Tenerife and currently an UNESCO Heritage site. It seemed relatively the most flat town we encountered on Tenerife. A stroll through the historic center is interesting, nothing grand or opulent, still its rich history and architectural heritage are fascinating. The town’s parish church, the Iglesia de Nuestra La Concepción was built late 15th century. Another church in the historic center is the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Cristóbal de La Laguna, the stain glasses there are stunning.

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Driving through Mount Teide National Park in dark

Clouds gathered and rain started to fall, it was time to leave San Cristobal. Instead of taking the faster route to return to the hotel, my hubby would drive through Mount Teide National Park. It was an interesting ride to say the least.

Not long after we entered the park, we found ourselves surrounded by dense forest. As the road ascended and wound through the forest, heavy fog descended on the road. There are signs along the way marking the altitude, 1500 meter, 2000 meters…

The same scene continued. Then we came to a point just before the bend of the road, framed by trees on both sides of the road, as if some sort of entrance, with a couple of signs on the right, giving a tantalizing glimpse to what lays beyond. Is that a snowy peak?

We drove pass the threshold, all the sudden the environ opens up to a drastically different scene, and indeed, snowcapped peaks loomed ahead.

While the stunning sight wowed the senses, driving condition took a turn, the road was covered by slushy ice. The last light of the day was fading fast as well. Needless to say, our travel slowed down significantly. By the time we were back on dry road, it was completely dark. When we reached the junction where you’d find the road leading to Mount Teide, we simply drove past it. We had traveled in the park for 1.5 hours by now, and it was another hour from then on to get back to the hotel. Part of the journey was nerve wrecking too, road was narrow and I felt at times hanging over head spinning abyss, but it was worth every bit of the experience.

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Adeje to Los Gigantes on TF47

It is a recommended costal drive. I think the best part is the look out at Puerto Santiago and the cliffs of Los Gigantes, which are both at the end of the route.

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Mount Teide

At 3700 meters high and tallest point in Spain and of Atlantic islands, volcanic Mount Teide is one of the top attractions on Tenerife.

Normally cable cars are available to take tourists closer to the summit. Tourists can drive up to and park at cable car’s base station. Once at the upper station, there are three hiking routes, one of them gets up close to the volcano crater and requires permit. You can apply for the permit at this website:

The cables cars were however closed down, due to technical problems that happened the day before we arrived. We heard that the cables cars got stuck mid route in the air and tourists stuck in the cable cars had to be rescued via ropes.

With or without the cable cars, we were going to make the best of it. A second ride through the national park and this time up to the base station was richly rewarded. The scenery is stunning. The terrain and geology are truly fascinating. You’d see turned and churned lands that look as if some sort of natural phenomenon has recently occurred, but Mount Teide’s last explosive eruption was more than 200 years ago.

Often the peak is veiled by clouds. The surrounding can be clear in one moment but heavily fogged the next. Luckily, it was gloriously clear when were up at the base, revealing Mount Teide in its entirety.

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After Mount Teide, we drove by Vilaflor, highest village in Spain. And then it was straight to the airport. Descending the whole way, there was interesting sights on the way. Until the airport could be seen ahead, an interestingly large stretch of flat land by the ocean.

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Good bye Tenerife, I probably will be back soon!

London Diary – Queen of Cotswold!

Feb 28, 2017

Maybe it is vitamin D deficiency catching up on me. Maybe it is that the novelty has faded a bit. Maybe this second winter in London is just a bit drab. Maybe it is depression caused by the Trump mess. In any case, I needed an escape. And it was Painswick of Gloucestershire, also known as Queen of Cotswold!

So drastically different from London, it is sometimes hard to believe that it is less than 2.5 hours away. But there it is, nestled in the hills and valleys of Cotswold, Painswick is everything that a traditional English village should be. Its village center on the hill is a treasure trove of traditional houses, buildings and churches covered in the Cotswold stones of golden honey, simply stunning and magical. Walking through the village center, especially in the evening, there was a sense of Déjà vu, reminiscent of Sarlat of France, albeit at a smaller scale.

Staying at Court House Manor is one of my best travel experience. Deep in history, where Charles I stayed during the English Civil War, its rooms are named King Richard, King Arthur, Cleopatra, and etc. The library decorated in two distinct styles is gorgeous, and guests can use it when the family is not. The most impressive feature is the beautiful building itself, with a lovely garden and view to the country side, all within its gated wall. The gated environment and smaller crowd give it a private and intimate vibe and to some degree the experience of truly being the guest of a manor house.

Standing on the other side of the wall is the beautiful St Mary’s Church with a soaring spire, which can be seen from various points. A small door in the wall connects the two, providing easy access to the church from the manor house. Besides a long and rich history and the beautiful building, St Mary has a unique feature, 99 yew trees on its church yard.

Over the course of more than a thousand years, owners have come and gone, buildings have changed too, but there have always been a manor house and church on its respective lot standing side by side.

Painswick Hotel is another grand house in village center. Interestingly, as beautiful as the building, it is not quite as rich in character as Court House Manor, nor does it have a garden equal in charm and size, but a beautiful building still. Its restaurant is popular. We went for lunch without reservation on Sunday but it was fully booked. Patchwork Mouse on New Street is a nice little café for light lunch, cake and tea. I liked its Coronation Chicken sandwich a lot. Cardynham House Bistro is close by and we had a nice dinner there one night.

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Just a few minutes from the village center is idyllic countryside. The walk from the village to Painswick Beacon is an interesting one, going through mostly farms, paddocks and natural areas. Once atop Painswick Beacon, there is a sweeping panoramic view. The following link provides helpful guide for the walk,

The encounter with the sheep. On way to Painswick Beacon from the village, not long after passing Rococo Garden, I got into a paddock via the stile, a whole flock of sheep that had been peacefully grazing, suddenly came running towards me. Panicked, I climbed back to safety, and while still on the stile, I turned around, they were standing there staring at me still. Hahaha, I had to take a selfie with them, behind me, staring. They dispersed moments later. What brought that on?

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A couple other worthy mentions. For a wonderful view of the village, head south east towards Sheepscombe, a nice little village itself, turn left to Bulls X from Greenhouse Ln. Wolfpack Inn on Slad Road, Stroud is a popular pub 20 minutes south of Painswick.

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Last but not least, a visit to Painswick will not be complete without a wander in its Rococo Garden, and its carpet of snow drops.

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On way back to London, I decided we should take a little detour to Gloucester. Gloucester was unimpressive until we arrived at its Cathedral of the same name. A magnificent façade, cavernous interior, beautiful stain glasses and most stunning cloister I’ve ever set eyes on, it is breathtaking. Most felicitously, the organ was playing; it couldn’t be more atmospheric! A great end to a lovely weekend getaway.

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London Diary – A Charming, Classic English Village and a Roof Garden in the Heart of Kensignton.

Feb 5, 2017

We had a wonderful time on Saturday, visiting Amanda and Ian at their home in Essex, a quiet, lovely, English village, not far north east of London, but what a world apart.

We took a walk through the village to work up the appetite, going by houses and fields, having two sightings of deer, where mud and wellies were all part of the pleasant experience.

We enjoyed a brief stop at the village church, which interestingly was very much reminiscent of Jane Austen’s Steventon Church. It couldn’t be more befitting, Jane Austen was after all what had brought us together. Amanda contributes her time and skill to the making of church pew cushions, and showed us one with her name sewn on it.

Delicious food, wine, lovely company and interesting conversation was the order for the rest of the day, just the way Jane would have done it 🙂

Love Amanda and Ian for their hospitality and friendship!

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Saturday Feb 11, 2017

Doing Valentine today, lunch at Roof Garden in Kensington, to be followed by a stroll in its garden.

Just as we were getting ready to head out, snow flaked down persistently.

How did it turned out?

Pretty good. The food was excellent. Getting up close to some interesting flamingos, and a Spanish garden, where they were least expected, were all part of a lovely experience.

Already thinking of coming back in spring/summer.

We also checked out Whole Food on the next block, with numerous items spread out on three spacious floors, it was impressive.

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My heart and I will go on!

Feb 1, 2017

Life does go on, and personally, our adventure in London continues. The past weekend was filled with interesting activities. But pretending that all is the same is completely futile.

All is not the same, my whole being is twanged with indignation and worries. If the US election result had been unfathomable and devastating, it became nightmarish and disheartening when it finally sank in that Trump did not do it alone, there are many who actually share and endorse Trump’s values. It was a painful disillusion.

The Trump camp is indeed a basket of deplorable, they are hell-bent on hate, division and getting their ways. Even before Trump took office, House Republicans attempted to gut Office of Congressional Ethics Oversight, stripping its independence and reducing its power.

Putting Trump in the White House is tantamount to putting powerful weapons in the hands of a thug cum lunatic. And indeed, since inauguration, it all went hellishly downhill fast.

Trump and his goons, now in power, are carrying on like dictators. They abuse power, employ heavy handed and abusive tactics towards those who voice dissent, play propaganda game, engineering “alternative fact” and bullying and threatening media and press to go along with their lies.

First week in office, more than a dozen executive orders were issued, repealing Obama care, building wall on Mexican border, banning citizens of 7 Muslim countries from entering USA, suspending refugee program, reversing course and allowing Keystone and Dakota pipelines to go ahead.

Trump and his cohort’s atrocities go on and on.

USA, once a beacon of hope and power engine for human rights and western values and ideals, is being dragged, kicking, into reversing its trajectory. This is a tragedy unfolding, “Democracy Has Gone Hellishly Wrong!”

How do you deal with something that is so wrong in so many ways and so many levels? Women’s March on London on Jan 21st was a cathartic first step. I have to go on and do my bit in making the world a little better!

Saturday was a beautiful day and cherry blossoms was starting out on this one tree in the neighborhood. Perfect way to start Chinese New Year of Rooster! It was also the weekend the France Show was on. An annual event at Olympia, the France Show showcased all things French, a little bit of fashion, lots food and wine tasting, travel and language learning opportunities, lovely French music, and an exciting Can Can dance. Amazingly, 50% of the exhibit was French real estate. At the end of the day, a delicious dinner at Golden Dragon of China Town!

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Sunday was reserved for Winter Wander with Walk London. Not the best day for walk, sprinkling most of the way, but luckily it did not start pouring until we had just finished the walk. This walk from Gunnersbury Station in Chiswick to Richmond was mostly along the river Thames, with a detour through High Street of Brentford and another to Syon Park. The first 2/3 of the path was not too impressive. It was prettier between Syon Park and Richmond. I can see though it’d be much better in spring and summer.

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London Diary – Women’s Mach on London

Jan 21, 2017

How do you deal with something that is so wrong in so many ways and so many levels – Having Trump as the president of US? Women’s March on London was a cathartic first step.

Women’s March on London carried on from US embassy at Grosvenor’s Square to Trafalgar Square, men, women, young, old and children, and so many showed up. Mr. Sun joined in too. Inspiring!! Very proud to be part of it.


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London Diary – Aurora Borealis Remains a Mystery!

Nov 16 – 20, 2016 Iceland

I set my heart on the Northern Lights and we put in an intense effort searching for it, out every night for four consecutive nights and up to 2am in grueling chill each night, a broken wide-angle-lens to boot. At the end, it remains elusive.

In spite of that, Iceland is definitely worth the trip. At first glance, Iceland’s landscape appears familiar, snowcapped mountains and more snow everywhere, like that of Alaska or Norway. But that is probably where the similarity stops. Iceland seems to be covered in rocks everywhere, earthy soil surface is almost nowhere to be seen, and all grounds are not only rocky but rough and jagged. As a result, there are few trees or vegetation around, what is there is mostly brown this time of the year. In spite of that, its surrounding at large is far from gaunt or bleak. The dramatic backdrop of the mountains and the glowing snow have done the magic.

Although its temperature dips no more than several degrees below freezing, constant wind makes it a harsh environment. Our Whale Watching Tour booked with Special Tours was cancelled twice due to strong wind and at the end we never got to do it since we were out of time for rescheduling. As one tour guide put it, the wind is too much for even wind turbines.

But those who live here have somehow made it work. Around 350,000 people call Iceland home, in towns along the coast since the hinter lands are too difficult to populate, and 2/3 live in and near capital Reykjavik.


Reykjavik, meaning smoky bay in Icelandic, is a scenic and vibrant city. The short day, cold and windy weather however made it difficult to be out for long and we were not able to visit as much as we’d like to.

We did make it to Hallgrimskirkja, the famous church in the shape of a space shuttle, which I’d highly recommend. It is architecturally intriguing and its tower offers the best panoramic views in town. The day we went up the tower, the wind was so intense, a loud howling of the wind whirled back and forth in the observation area. Not an environment to take your time and cruise around; I lasted maybe 10 minutes before having to retreat into the covered landing.

We stayed at Alda Hotel on Laugavegur, an excellently central and convenient location, right next to many shops and restaurants. It is a few blocks to Hallgrimskirkja and not far from other attractions. It makes a difference if it means you do not have to walk far to get to the restaurants in that harsh wind and chill.

Here are some restaurants we tried. Old Iceland is pricy but serves top notch food, 73 Restaurant is good overall, both good choices for dinner and right across from one aother. Svartar Kaffid touts itself as the best soup in town, and they are right on. Noodle Station is delicious too. Both offer simple menu and reasonable price.

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Secret Lagoon

What Iceland does have in abundance are its thermal energy sources.

If I had not been that interested beforehand, after a couple of days in Iceland in all that coldness, nothing seemed more tantalizing than a natural thermal bath. Several people and internet had recommended Blue Lagoon, so we called, alas, it was fully booked. Luckily we found Secret Lagoon with Sterna Travel, which we had not heard of before.

Secret Lagoon is 1.25 hours east of Reykjavik. Our first time out of Reykjavik in day time and with the sun shining, it was a nice ride through some great scenery. Secret Lagoon might be a newer, smaller and lesser known location, its natural bath was as refreshing and restoring as I’d expect of any, a peaceful and scenic surrounding to boot. Colorful sunset for the journey back completed the half day outing beautifully.

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Golden Circle

The day for Golden Circle Tour came, we were picked up at our hotel, dropped off at Gray Line’s Bus Terminal, and a whole bus load of us set off. The weather beautiful and the sites stunning, it was a day of great experience including stops at Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir geothermal area, and Icelandic horse park, Fakasel.

Thingvellir National Park, 40km northeast of Reykjavik, is a valley surrounded by amazing panoramic views. Moreover, it’s geologically important as the boundary between North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, the historic place where the national parliament of Iceland was established in 930AD, and number one tourist attraction in Iceland.

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Gullfoss Waterfall, located in the canyon of the river Hvita, is quite breathtaking; it roars and pushes on with tremendous force, its mist so wide and thick, it appears as if there is another waterfall on opposite side.

Recommended by our guide, we tried the lamb soup at the café for lunch. It is a hearty soup with lots vegies and chunks of tender lamb, great with bread and butter. Better yet, you can go back for more, no extra charge. One bowl was plenty for me though. The café is connected with a large shop with lots goodies and souvenirs.

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Geysir geothermal area includes multiple hot springs of varying sizes. In the center is the largest that also erupts quite often, about every 10 minutes.

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The stop at Fakasel was short. At around 6:30pm it was already dark, only a few horses remained outside in the paddocks, some did get to pat on the horses. I realized that we had been to this spot twice before on previous Northern Lights tours, when we had visited the restaurant and shop on site but had had no idea they were part of a horse park. The park is obviously a location used by the many Northern Lights tours.

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More on Northern Lights

The week before we arrived, there had been bad storms and “no one had come out for Northern Lights” according to one of our guides. Much better weather the week we were there and the tour resumed. But it was obviously not good enough, and no sighting of Northern Lights on our first night in Iceland. Luckily, Gary Line allows rescheduling of tours if there is no sighting of Northern Lights, for up to two years.

We rescheduled not once, not twice, but thrice, 4 tours all together. Every time, a mini bus picked us up from our hotel and dropped us off at Gray Line’s sales office near Harpa, where we were issued tickets before going to board a bus nearby. Every night’s routine was similar but the locations varied. The company monitors the weather condition and communicates the info to their drivers and guides. The last two nights we fortuitously ended up with the same driver and guide duo, Dory and Darren. Darren is a great guide, knowledgeable, funny and speaks perfect English with an American accent.

One night, we were taken to a spot where there is a church – its name I forgot, the riches church in Iceland according to our guide. And the guide from a different bus put up a little concert at the church playing some instrument solo.

Every night, our guide talked about the science behind the phenomenon of Northern Lights. Amount of solar activity and visibility of the sky are the keys to witnessing it, while humans are so much better in monitoring and predicting the conditions, alas, none of it is in the control of human’s hands. And the condition can change fast in Iceland too. We’d arrive at a location with clear sky, but it’d cloud up soon afterwards, and we’d have to move on to a different location.

The guides all gave tips for taking photos of Northern Lights. So I put their tips and advice I found on internet beforehand into practice and as long as I could stand the freezing outdoor, had fun with my camera, trying and getting a hang of shooting the night sky with manually programmed ISO, shutter speed, aperture and time exposure techniques, something I had never bothered with before.

Camera lenses are more sensitive than human eyes indeed. Later when going through my photos, I noticed on one photo what seemed to be Northern Lights, albeit a tiny spot!

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A few practical tips

Dress warmly. Pack heavy duty warm jacket and gloves, hat, scarf and/or ski mask to cover your face too. Layer appropriately so you can be comfortable inside and out. While it is freezing outside, the indoors can be hot. As you go about, in and out of places and between activities, there will be lots bundling up and stripping off layers, again and again.

Take into consideration that Iceland has become more expensive. Some said price has almost doubled in a year’s time.

Good luck if you are out hunting for Northern Light!

London Diary – Cornwall Never fails to Excite me !

Oct 20, 2016

A year ago today I arrived in London.
Today I am taking a road trip to Cornwall. Yes Cornwall again!

Oct 20-23, 2016

After about 6 hours on the road, we reached Land’s End Hotel in the early evening. Our journey had seen clouds and sunshine in alternation but luckily the rest of the evening was perfect, a lovely welcome back to Cornwall indeed. Cornwall never fails to excite me. Once we pulled into the hotel parking lot on the ocean side, we were surrounded by stunning views that made my heart leapt. Literally pulled on by the force of nature, I jumped out of the car and started toward the cliff. From then on, our visit was a feast to the wild Cornish beauty.

Land’s End

South west tip of England, Land’s End’s enduring attraction is its beautiful surrounding, Atlantic Ocean, rugged rocky cliff, jagged rock towers, light house and promontory afar. Icing on the cake are a small visitor center with shop, restaurant, playground and amusement for children and Land’s End Hotel with view that few others can rival, making it a lovely place to stay, for day trip or base for walks to Sennen Cove or Porthcurno in the other direction. We booked a premier double with sea view, which we were very happy with, to make it sweeter, a nice surprise awaited when we checked in, we were given a 3 for 2 deal.

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St Michael’s Mount

In France there is Mont Saint-Michel, in Cornwall, there is St Michael’s Mount, 30 minutes east of Land’s End and south of Marazion, a nice little seaside town.

It is no wonder that I had at a time mistaken St Michael’s Mount for Mont Saint-Michel. Although St Michael’s Mount is smaller, the images are strikingly similar, both of conical shapes, and they were historically linked at one point, both belonging to the same Benedictine religious order, having been awarded to the Benedictines in 12th century by Edward the confessor. The island and church was however confiscated by Henry VIII like many other monasteries in the 16th century. Until the St Aubyn family purchased it from the crown in 17th century and it has been the family’s primary residence for 12th generations. Currently National Trust co-own and manage the island and castle.

It is a fantastic visit. The castle is grand and the interior is rich.  As you climb up by foot, you are surrounded by lovely views that change by every turn and a beautiful garden by the rocky seashore located on south east side of the island can be seen from the Sun Terrace.

Little chat with the guides, we discovered that the St Aubyn family also owns properties outside the island including some in Marazion. While the only way to get up to the castle is by foot, there is an underground tram entered from the harbor that is used to carry things up and down between the castle and the harbor.

As it was the only option, we left our car at a seaside car park at Marazion, which has a stunning view of the little island. A causeway links the island with the mainland, but tide was high at around 10:30am, and we had to take the ferry. Leaving the island at 1:30pm, the tide was low enough to clear up the causeway, with the exception of several feet in the center that was still covered by a shallow puddle. A little more than 5 minute, but it was a fun walk; kids of all ages were making the most of it.

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Porthcurno is a village on the coast south east of Land’s End. A couple of the main attractions we visited are Minack Theater and Porthcurno beach. Minack Theater is a divine outdoor theater carved out on the face of the cliff with a stunning view to Porthcuno beach and Logan Rock promontory. The beach is one of the beautiful locations featured in BBC TV series Poldark.

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A Beautiful Walk to Sennen Cove

Sennen Cove is a seaside village north east of Land’s End. The foot path by the cliff linking Land’s End and Sennen cove is 1.5 mile and according to the hotel staff a 30 minute walk. It took us 3 times as long. With beautiful views at every turn the walk was exhilarating! Around midway, you’d also find the remains of a ship wreck.

Something very cool happened that day too. We spotted from afar someone climbing the cliff near the Coast Guard’s lookout. She, with a long ponytail, was navigating nimbly and quickly through the rocks. She beat us in reaching the lookout tower but we caught up with her and realized the pony tail had misled us. It was a boy, probably in his late teens. He was about to ride away on his bike and helmet, which was the only protection he was wearing while scaling the rocks. I commented what he did was very impressive. He replied he grew up in this area, was used to that sort of thing and today he was out exploring. Just exploring by scaling the rocks, couldn’t be more casual for him.

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Levant Mine and Botallack Mines

Copper and tin mining was an important part of Cornish economy during 18th to 19th century and a number of mines dotted its coast. You can still see a number of chimney stacks tower over the landscape driving around the right spot.

I learnt of these mines for they are the filming locations of BBC show Poldark. BTW I was a fan before the episode that aired on Sunday Oct 23rd. What happens in that episode however greatly disappointed me. Captain Poldark is no longer one in my list of literary heroes.

Nonetheless I am glad I visited these mines for it was more treat to the beautiful coastal scenery and an interesting lesson in Cornish mining history.

Levant Mine is substantial in size and located between St Just and Pendeen, 9 miles north of Land’s End. It was a joint venture and the investors certainly struck gold, eventually having their investment grown more than a thousand folds. It is a National Trust property. Visitors can roam about the ground free but the underground part of the museum is closed that day, albeit a Saturday. Geevor Mine next door appears substantial in size, not a National Trust property and also entirely closed that day.

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Closer to St Just are more mines at Botallack including Wheal Crowns Mine, Grambler in Poldark, and Wheal Owels, Wheal Leisure in Poldark. Botallack is National Trust property. There is a small office building with café and toilets available. Visit is free to all and you can get a map for self guided tour.  Some of the remaining structures were narrow tunnels, a few small kids were crawling through them.

The most striking is Wheal Crowns. Its building is a typical mine engine house like others. It is the location that gives it the stunning edge. The best view of both of these mines is on a terrace towering over the sea. The path to it, as narrow as a sheep’s intestine, is a precarious one; one misstep could cause one to tumble down the dizzying height of the cliff. Fortunately, it isn’t too long, we made it forth and back safely.

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Pendeen Light House

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Cape Cornwall

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Lizzard Point and Kynance Cove

Last day in Cornwall worked out most efficiently and happily. We visited Lizzard Point, Kynance Cove, and had a nice, big meal at Top House, a pub in the cute little village, Lizzard Village, before leaving around 4pm.

Lizzard Point is the Most Southerly Point in England, about 30 miles south east of Land’s End. Leaving Land’s End on a regular day, little did I know it’d be the most intensely windy spot I’d ever been to. As soon as we reached the parking lot next to a light house, I felt the strong wind. But most intense was when walking the short cliff path between the light house and the café and being around the café. My skin was pulling away from my face, my hair was slashing my face left and right, there was fine grits in the air, at times I had to hold on to something to steady myself and even doors of shop and café were rattling. I wonder how those little buildings had withstood the intense wind year after year.

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Kynance Cove is a dramatically beautiful cove with fine sandy beach and interesting rocks. There is also a café right by the cove.

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Both Lizzard Point and Kynance Cove are National Trust property. The foot path on the cliff top between both points should be beautiful. But at more than 5 miles long we did not have time to cover it. Luckily National Trust has parking lot at either end, making it possible for us to visit both points. Parking is free to members. Otherwise it is £3.

London Diary – Autumn Amble Highgate to Stoke Newington

Oct 2, 2016

It was a perfect autumn day for an autumn amble.

The walk started out of Highgate, which is known to be a nice suburb, but we got no more than a glimpse of its High Street on the way to Highgate Station where we met the group. From there we quickly tuned on to Parkland Walk, which is a local nature reserve converted from a former railway. The railroad track has been gone and replaced by dirt and gravel pavement. Overall it is a narrow long strip of wooded path and the branches so thick, we were shielded from the bright sun most of the way.

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The walk became more interesting after that. Finsbury Park is a nice big park. New River is a manmade waterway opened in 17th century to supply London with fresh water. Woodbury Down is new neighborhood of modern apartment buildings with great view of New River, West and East Reservoirs and London. Clissold Park is beautiful. Finally, the walk ended at Stoke Newington.

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London Diary – Autumn Amble City Hall to Canary Wharf, Fortuitous River Cruise and Decorative Art and Textile Fair at Battersea Park.

Oct 1, 2016

London offers free guided walks throughout the city 3 weekends a year, Winter Wander in January, Spring into Summer in May, and this weekend’s Autumn Amble. There are a number of choices on each of the weekend days, all great opportunity to explore London. Not only new comers but long time Londoners participate as well. We’ve got ourselves on the email list and received invitation to sign up weeks before the walk. This time I choose City Hall to Canary Wharf for Saturday and Highgate to Stoke Newington for Sunday.

City Hall is south of River Thames across from Tower of London and Canary Wharf is further to the east. It is a great route, half of the time we were right by the river, the other half we had to go around buildings that are right on the river.

Both City Hall area and Canary Wharf are highlights of London. In between are many less known but still interesting spots. Among many others are old wharfs that have been converted into flat buildings, St Catherine’s Dock and Marina, St John’s Church, Wapping Wall that is a lucky spot with fantastic views to both The City and Canary Wharf, Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant Narrow near end of Regent Canal, and many pubs along the way, of which, Prospect of Whitby from 1520 is the oldest on the river Thames.

The weather was however not so lovely. It rained on and off. Luckily it didn’t go too hard at us and we were able to carry on with umbrellas, rain coats and jackets.  The sky was as grey as lead but chose to clear up just as the walk was coming to an end.

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We had dim sum at Royal China right at the wharf. It was very good, no wonder that place was fully packed. To return to the city center, we decided to try the ferry boat Thames Clippers instead of tubes or buses. By then, the weather had turned around 360 degrees, and the ferry ride from Canary Wharf to Westminster turned out a fantastic river cruise.

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There was one more program for the day, Decorative Art and Textile Fair at Battersea Park. Antique, design and art fairs and trade shows that take place in London come in great numbers and quality. Imagine the endless opportunity for decorators and shoppers. Impressed by a few others, ADFL, LAPADA and Masterpiece, I wanted to check out this one too. Not to mention I’d been given an invitation that would admit two, more than happy to make good use of it indeed. It was nice, lots beautiful things to see. The fair ran a shuttle bus between the park and Sloane Square, which is close to Knight Bridge and Harrods. We ended the eventful day with a dinner at a pub nearby, Antelope.

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