The Big Ben in London.
Me shopping in Santorini.
After returning from Turkey, Greece & the UK, I thought I'd write a quick diary of what to see, where to stay, what's cool and what to look out for. Before I left, I did quite a bit of research on the Web and through brochures, etc, and there were a few things that we down under just don't get told!The London scene
Getting from London's Heathrow airport to the city or your hotel is as easy as getting the tube. For a first-time visitor to London, I highly recommend you just walk out of the terminal and catch the Airport Red Bus. This stops at most major hotels and central bus stops. It is a little slower than the tube, but a really nice way to start your stay in London.
Tip: get yourself some English pounds before you leave Oz when you arrive in London after that hellish flight, the last thing you want to do is worry about exchanging money. And if you fly in on a Sunday, like us, nothing opens until 11am or later. For the best currency converter and foreign currency details, click here.
We all know how expensive London is for the Australian dollar, so while I was there I checked out a few hotels.
We stayed in Russell Square at the Royal National, which is part of the Imperial London Hotels group. You can email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The hotel charges £65 for a single room (including English breakfast) and £82 for a twin room per night. The Royal National is Contiki's preferred hotel. It's basic and the rooms are fine, but I found it to be not-so-clean and the staff not-so-friendly. On our last day we had breakfast next door at another of the Imperial hotels, the Tavistock (tel: 44 20 7636 8383). This hotel has an art-deco feel and is very clean. The staff were lovely and the breakfast was just that bit yummier (don't ask me why). The rates are £59 for a single and £78 for a double crazily enough, it's cheaper (and way nicer). The great thing about Russell Square is the location: the tube is two minutes' walk up the road and all major tours and buses leave from the Royal National.
While walking around London, right in Piccadilly Circus, we found a new hotel, the Regent Palace (tel: 44 20 7734 7000). They had a special on for £49 per night, which I thought was too good to be true, so I thought I'd tell you about it. It looks great: new, clean and cheap and so central. What a find!
Hop On Hop Off:
The best, cheapest and most convenient way to see the sights of London is on a Red double-decker Hop On Hop Off bus, the Pride of London. This allows you to get off at whatever stop you like, walk around and get back on at another stop at whatever time. It costs around £8. If you're keen to get off just after the Ritz Carlton, it's a lovely walk through the park and on to Buckingham Palace. At 11am you can see the changing of the guard, so you might want to time your visit with that. Walk further and head straight down to the Thames via Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.
Your ticket for the bus also includes a cruise on the Thames. One of the departure points is just next to the London Eye. A river cruise is really nice; I highly recommend it.
Visiting Notting Hill is lovely. Make sure you're there on a Saturday (unlike us) to catch the markets.
The newest attraction in London is the London Eye
, which really is great, costing £8.50. When we arrived, we asked a few people if we could get on and they said, "No, you have to book in advance." We ventured inside the main building where they officially sell tickets and they said that was not the case, we could get on the next flight (which was the last one, at 8.30pm). So it pays to find out exactly what is going on. The queue looks long, but moves very quickly and is worth it.
There are plenty of lovely cafes and restaurants down on the Thames and they aren't that expensive, either.
Tours and the touristy stuff:
As a one-day tour, we decided to go to Bath and Stonehenge. I'd never been to Bath before and when I was at Stonehenge it was dark and my camera broke, so I was very excited about going again. Bath is one of the most beautiful places I've ever visited. The drive there is lovely, past old houses with thatched roofs, little side streets and corner markets.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the London Dungeon, under Tower Bridge station. It costs £10.95 and certainly takes you back in time. It's one of those themed tours that take you underground, through the dark ages of London, through the 16th century, from Jack the Ripper to the London Fire. It's a lot of fun and a tad scary. If you're anything like me, you'll be laughing at yourself as you're screaming ridiculously.
There are a lot of half-price ticket venues. The main one is in the park at Leicester Square; they sell tickets for that day/night only. But if the line is huge, just keep walking, cause you'll find about another 10. We found one that sold tickets for the next night, etc, and had fairly good seats for Les Mis
at the Palace (£15, which was really good). Note: performances of Phantom
are a sell-out and very rarely will you find cheap tickets. You will probably have to pay full price.
Harrods you just can't go to London and not do Harrods:
I must admit I'm a sucker for Harrods. I just get caught up in the whole thing. I think I maxed out my Visa right there and then crazy, huh? But you don't' have to buy anything just walk around this huge and amazing department store. The Harrods shop is my second-favourite department, on the ground floor. My favourite department is on the second floor, the Christmas shop it is beautiful and has amazing displays.
I was quite sick when I arrived, so I just wanted to mention this quickly. Don't order a house call doctor most hotels charge £70. Just hop to the closest public hospital, it's free, the wait isn't that long and there is a pharmacy on the premises. The doctor said that when flying put cotton balls in your ears, as that is where infection starts from air-conditioning so there you go.
On our last day in London, the Royal National was evacuated after a fire alarm we thought we weren't going to make our plane (not impressed). The traffic is horrendous, so give yourself enough time to get to the airport. We lined up at the British Airways counter for two hours, as they were down 29 staff (hmmm, again not impressed). We asked twice: "Are we in the right line to go to Istanbul?" and were told we were. Finally got to the counter, happy campers now, to be told that we were not in the right line, not even in the correct terminal! What? So there we were, running through crowds with already-overloaded backpacks and cases (I knew I shouldn't have gone shopping in Harrods)... We finally made it to the right terminal and boarded our flight for Istanbul.
The scoop on Turkey
Turkey is one of those places that stays in your mind forever. When describing Turkey, I have to say it is where east meets west and every day is an adventure. We were very worried about travelling in Turkey, being single western women, but we were very aware at all times and it was fine.
Istanbul or Constantinople:
We had already organised our accommodation in Istanbul, staying in the Old City at Grand Yavuz Hotel www.grandyavuzhotel.com
. Very clean, really nice staff, three-star and a great location. They have a rooftop bar and restaurant with a wonderful view. Our transfer to the hotel was through Kompas Holidays, we could not have been in safer hands. The Turkish people are beyond hospitable, so welcoming. Our friend Umit from Kompas was our personal guide while in Istanbul. Through them we organised some tours, but you can walk around and see all of this on foot if you like.
We were only there for three nights and managed to go to St Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Hippodrome and the Dolmabahçe Palace and take a Bosphorus cruise. No trip would be complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar. Tip for women: wear your sunglasses this way, no eye contact can be made and you'll stretch your day shopping just that much more. They love to drag you into their shops, so it's fend-for-yourself here. There is no shortage of Turkish carpets on sale and you'll get complimentary apple tea.
Another tip for women: be aware of how much skin you're showing. When travelling, I always try as hard as I can to respect the surrounding culture. I wouldn't wear clothing that was clingy or showy; believe me, you don't want to attract any unnecessary attention. If you are visiting the Blue Mosque and are unsure of how much skin you're showing, they will give you a wrap, so don't worry.
There are plenty of places where you can have a Turkish bath, or hamam. Just ask at your hostel or hotel for the recommended bathhouse. We booked ourselves into a Turkish dinner and dance night, but upon arrival, the place had been evacuated by fire, again. (Now I was beginning to think trouble was following us). But I heard they are great, so try to get to one if you can.
From Istanbul we pretty much had no plans, so our good friend Umit led us in the right direction, to a local coach company at Taksim Square called Kamil Koc (pronounced camil coch), and we headed for Gallipoli.
It's about an eight-hour bus ride from Istanbul to Cannakale and we didn't find any English-speaking travellers at all on the bus, so that Lonely Planet phrase book came in handy. We found ourselves quite exhausted from resorting to body language just to ask what time the toilet stop was. A lady sitting next to us was eating way too much food and, sure enough, it all came up ... and it all came our way! My friend was the one to cop it, so I was just in hysterics after that very grown-up behaviour, huh?
We arrived in Cannakale and booked into our hotel (Hotel Akol: three-star, beautiful view, pool, large rooms, only four blocks from the centre of town where Anzac House is). We made our way to Anzac House, which is the preferred travel lodging for backpackers. It is a fantastic hostel and a great place to meet loads of travellers. Every night they show Peter Weir's film Gallipoli
and you can book tours from here to Gallipoli. Next door is another Kamil Koc agent.
We chose a morning tour to Troy and an afternoon tour of Gallipoli. On our tour to Troy there were only three other Australian guys, our Turkish guide, the driver and another guide who was learning the ropes for a job with Hassle Free Tours. Granted, the roads were wet that morning, but when our bus skidded and slid ... and slid ... and nearly went into a ditch on its way to rolling, we were kind of screaming! I was amazed to find out how odd my reactions were I never moved from my seat, bewildered, with my face close to the glass for a better view, as my other travelling companions Wayne, Phil, Steve and Nat were all surfing the bus! The driver, thank goodness, saved the day and we were ever so grateful for that. After we calmed down, shook and got the nerves back to normal, I couldn't stop laughing.
The tour around Troy was amazing. You have to get the obligatory photo of the Trojan horse! That afternoon we headed on our Gallipoli tour, a much larger group of 75 Australians and Kiwis. Dino was our guide. Apparently around the traps he's very well known to travellers, so if you have done this tour with Dino, please tell me what you thought. Visiting Gallipoli was probably one of the best things I've done. After hearing many stories from friends' fathers and grandfathers, I'm so glad I had the opportunity to visit the site. You start off at the museum and it's a long tour and a lot of it's on foot, so be prepared for that.
We got around to Anzac Cove, lunch in hand, ready to hear another of Dino's amazing recaps of the disaster, when out the corner of my eye I saw a group of Turkish military marching our way. I thought, "Excellent, part of the show," ... but not quite. Next came this screaming tour guide from the Yellow Rose Pension, yelling, "You're in Turkey now!" We looked up and Dino the guide said, "Sorry folks," as they took him away to prison. With guns right in front of us, we just watched and I thought, "I'm going to be killed like a true Anzac." The irony is the tour was called Hassle Free.
The Turkish trainee guide was trying to bargain with them, in the end he ran back to the buses to tell them to send us another guide. We didn't really know what to do for the next hour, so we just walked along the cove, which was quite amazing. We were a little unsure and shaken, but there were so many of us that, again, we found the incident rather amusing.
A guide finally joined us at the Nek. He was Turkish and explained to us how his grandfather fought in Gallipoli. He told us some amazing stories that had my eyes swelling with tears.
From there we made our way around the peninsula and before we knew it, it was 7.30pm. We were sunburnt, exhausted, speechless but honoured.
We arrived after a 12-hour bus ride at about 1am (not a nice experience). Pitch black, landing in a place you have no idea about, is a tad daunting, but we managed to tell a taxi driver to take us to a bungalow backpackers' place. He kept trying to tell us we wouldn't like it, it was outdoors and had lots of frogs. We were tired and I was trying to be tough and brave. We were drawing near the beachside paradise, driving around steep cliffs, when I noticed we were on the wrong side of the road. I said to Nat, "Are we on the wrong side of the road or what?" I then looked in the mirror and the driver was nodding off! Turkey wasn't doing me too many favours. So I screamed and he sat upright and fiddled with every contraption, obviously to keep himself awake.
The first building I saw that looked like a decent enough hotel, I screamed, "Stop! This will do, we'll find a better place tomorrow." He was very reluctant and kept saying, "No, there are no frogs here and you said want frogs." "No! It's like this: we want to stay here now." He told us it was very expensive and I thought, "Good, bring on the five-star right now!"
The minute we woke up I stumbled across to the information folder and asked, "Where the hell are we?" I had to look twice, we'd stumbled across bloody heaven. It's called Club Belcekiz Beach and let me just say that this place is paradise. It is a huge resort and cost A$70 each per night, including breakfast and dinner. It has the most amazing pool, bars and entertainment. Now we were happy. The first thing we did was buy pool floats and, with cocktail in hand, we lazed about the resort.
We spent three nights there. Oludeniz is a water-sport haven and Turkey's hang-gliding capital. The beach is beautiful and up the road is a blue lagoon. Given all the crazy things that had happened to us, we opted to para-sail and that was really glorious!
Life is bliss in the Greek Islands
We didn't have much of an idea how to get from Oludeniz to the Greek islands, so we just played it by ear and booked something from the resort. We got a three-hour bus to Marmaris, then a hydrofoil to Rhodes. We were given advice not to even bother to stay on Rhodes, so we also booked a ferry leaving Rhodes that afternoon to the only island we could get to, which was Patmos. But once we hit Rhodes we adored it, so I wished I hadn't listened to so many people. (Another tip: wait and see for yourself.) The ferry from Rhodes was long, but we had met two New Zealand travellers on the way from Marmaris, so we kept ourselves entertained with a few Cointreaus and a game of cards.
We arrived in Patmos around midnight. While it's very easy to get accommodation at the ports, it can be a tad overwhelming, so we sifted through the crowd and thought, "This one sounds okay, as it is just across the road from the port and this is the main town." I was asking, "Do you have a pool?" and she kept replying, "Yes, of course." It was called Hotel Delfini (tel: 0247 32060). A close family runs it they are really lovely. There is no pool, but you guessed that, right?
There isn't much to do in Patmos and it's not very touristy, so it was perfect for sitting on the beach with a book and relaxing. We walked around the town. The food was lovely and the beaches very tranquil. You can hire bikes, and if you plan to do that in Greece, I recommend you do it here, as the roads are less busy and the traffic not so crazy. We tried to hire a car, but we obviously weren't convincing enough that we could drive and they fobbed us off, which we thought was hilarious.
After relaxing in Patmos, we were on our way to Mykonos. Again, we arrived about 1am and walked a fair way before we finally flagged a cab down and checked into the Hotel Poseidon. Not very cheap here, so many of the cheap places were booked out. What you'll save on other islands you'll make up for here.
After a good night's sleep, we were up and hitting those shops. Mykonos is busy, happening and has a party feel to it. The shopping is fantastic, the beaches are beautiful and the nightlife is mad.
The most popular beach is Paradise. You can get the bus there from the main hub of town. You can hire a chair and sit under a thatched umbrella for the day, eat, swim and, of course, drink and dance on the bar as the beach turns into the party spot at sundown.
Little Venice is a great spot to eat and or have a drink really good seafood here. If you want a nice cocktail bar, check out Catalina's, not far from Little Venice. If you're sick of Greek food or just want a change, there is a gorgeous little Mexican restaurant called La Mexicana. Around the corner from there is a bar called Club Uno and I noticed a fairly reasonable hotel right in the thick of it all if you wanted in-town accommodation: Zoris Hotel (tel: 0289 22167).
No trip to the Greek Islands is complete without a trip to Santorini. This time we arrived in daylight how novel. We booked a hotel again at the port (the Golden Sun in Fira Town). It's a great hotel: three-star with a pool and nice outlook. Just a short walk up the hill and the main town is right there, with loads of shops and beautiful restaurants. One I have to recommend is Kastro. It's on the peak and has spectacular views and great food. The view here is breathtaking I've not seen anything like it before in my life. Again, there are a lot of bars and clubs and every second shop is a jewellery shop, so have the credit card ready.
Why did we bother? I have to be honest … this is just my opinion, but I thought this island was missing something. There were a lot of young people but not that much happening. When we asked what happens, we were told the island was coming to a close, yet it was only the first week in September. So if you are going, I'd go earlier and it might have a whole new buzz to it (whereas Mykonos doesn't close until October). We did, however, stay at a lovely resort called Hotel Sunclub resort-style, magnificent views, the rooms are great, the pool is divine and it is just a short walk into port or town (tel: 0286 92140/92150 or email: email@example.com
Bring on the mainland:
After all that sun and lugging around a backpack (and the obligatory suitcase with presents), we decided to head to Athens. We arrived in port, jumped in a cab and asked to go to the Athens Gate, which had been recommended to me, but he had no idea where that was. So we basically named as many chain hotels as we could and ended up at the most expensive, the Athens Plaza. We were five-star backpackers ridiculous, but funny.
The only room available here was a suite and we figured, "What the hell!" The next day we looked around for a cheaper hotel, which was just up the road, called Esperia, and it too had a view of the Acropolis (tel: 01 3238001, 22 Stadiou Street). I'd been to Athens before, so I didn't do the main touristy things, but what we did do was the sound and light show and dinner dance night, which was a lot of fun, I'd recommend it.
We caught a movie, I had a hairdo and we tracked down a KFC (creature comforts, I guess). We then headed for the airport for our long flight back to Oz, did the last-minute duty-free shopping in Harrods at the airport and home we went.
By Leearne Hynes.