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How To Make the Most of Your BritRail Pass

Great Britain is like a box of chocolates. An elegant, classy one. And we never seem to have enough of it. With every city, village, loch, coastline and rolling hill, we like this country more and more.


We recently explored the UK by train with a BritRail Pass from ACPRail - a pass meant for hassle-free travel throughout the British rail's extensive national network. We started our journey in Scotland, and from there we worked our way down to Wales, Cotswolds, Cornwall and ended up in London.

We had some amazing experiences that included:

- a ghost tour in a cemetery in Edinburgh
- the launch of The Kelpies, the largest equestrian sculptures in the world,
- witnessing the haar in Aberdeen
- a failed attempt at spotting Nessie,
- drinking hot chocolate at the same table where J.K.Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book, 
- and wondering at the beauty of Snowdonia National Park in Wales
- we took a zillion pictures of the honey coloured cottages in Cotswolds, 
- spotted more sheep that we could count, 
- took long, romantic walks along one of the most beautiful coastal sceneries in Cornwall, 
- discovered one inspirational B&B that changed the way we think about design forever, 
- attended Chelsea Flower Show for the very first time and loved it, 
- took a helicopter ride over the British capital, 
- stood on top of the White Cliffs of Dover, 
- and finished with a champagne reception at Stonehenge.

And we gathered some wisdom along the way.



It's all about the journey, not the destination.


Traveling first class though the UK ruined train travel for us... FOREVER!

We fell in love with spacious leather seats, complimentary Wi-Fi, hot meals served at our seat, delicious Scottish shortbread on almost every ride and staff that went out of their way to keep us happy.

We felt cool!

And loved every minute we spent on trains.

Train travel was invented in Britain after all. Combine the nation's passion for riding the rails with their deep love for comfort, and you will get one of the most romantic journeys of your life.


Allow yourself to take in the scenery


You might be tempted to get a book out of your bag, get some work done before you reach the destination, read the complimentary newspaper they so kindly offer you in first class...

Forget about all these!

Put your headphones on, and take in the breathtaking scenery. Music is proven to consolidate memories. You will build bridges between songs and good feelings. And you will remember your trip every time you hear those songs in the future.

Believe me, it's the best souvenir you can give to yourself.




Relax, you're in Cornwall!


Be selective with your itinerary.

Get out of the big cities.

Give yourself the chance to experience something different. Go off the beaten path. The path beaten by the first time travellers at least. Go village hopping in The Cotswolds, find the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, visit a fairy-tale like Scottish castle.

UK rail travel can be an absolute breeze.

Don't forget to relax. Let go of all the stress accumulated. Forget your worries. Hell, you don't even need to reserve seats! Just hop on and off whenever you spot something interesting through the window!  

As our dear host Janie from the Lower Barns B&B repeatedly said to us... "Relax, you're in Cornwall!". Life has a different peace when you travel. Embrace it!


Find joy in the little things


We must have spotted hundreds of baby bunnies from the train. It's a Beatrix Potter kind of world out there, I'm telling you! And we named them all Peter Rabbit, and feared for their lives as we spotted them playing on the train tracks.

And then we laughed out loud when we saw this funny yet thoughtfully composed sign in one of the Virgin Trains' restrooms.

It's impossible to get bored while traveling by rail in Britain!




A little research won't hurt


I won't lie to you. Riding first class is great! But not all trains offer a first class. When they do, the difference between first and standard class in terms of comfort is not that big. Yes, you will get perks, like free meals, complimentary Wi-Fi and a larger seat, but standard class is not bad at all.

Unfortunately not all trains have a first class. And though a first class pass can be used in standard class, you might feel like you are missing out.

Choose wisely. Do your research. The cool facilities are only on selected trains. And they are highly inconsistent even among trains belonging to the same company. Ask at the ticket office, enquire online. If you are flexible, chances are the next train has all the luxury services you've been dreaming of.

Hot tip: Whenever you can, take the Virgin trains. They are the best!!


Some of the best places are remote


And the train won't take you all the way there, in spite of the truly extensive and efficient British rail’s national network.

But don't worry. Most of the time a short bus or taxi ride will take you to your destination. Not to mention that people are incredibly helpful.

We had great experiences in Britain. The locals are very proud of their heritage.

So just because a village doesn't have a railway station, it's not reason enough to avoid it. Boscastle is one of the most peaceful places on earth and the Slaughters turned our to be our favourite villages in England. Neither of them have a train station.

But we were stubborn and really wanted to see them. It was rewarding to say the least! We felt a sense of accomplishment and got to pet ourselves on the back!

For most visitors from abroad, train is still the best option. Especially if you don't want to navigate motorways and roundabouts while driving on the left. Not to mention the perspective is much better from a train window than from the road and you have so much more leg room.

Don't sacrifice fascinating corners of the UK. It's ok to get a bit out of your comfort zone!

When you have an 8-Day within 1 month Flexi Pass like we had, you will have plenty of days left to explore around the different bases of your choice. The pass offers unlimited train trips on each travel day and it is recommended to use it for longer distances, for return trips or for days when you need to change trains often. This way it is guaranteed that your pass will be great value for money.




But you will find perks everywhere


While traveling with a BritRail Pass you will have plenty of perks.

Like discounted tickets at various attractions and tours.

We enjoyed a 50% discount at Shakespeare's birthplace and saved over 20GBP in between the two of us. It might not sound much, but if you take advantage of several such discounts, the pass will almost pay for itself.

Not to mention you will never have to be on a time table, or check the prices and try to travel on off-peak periods. Britain’s pay-as-you-go train tickets are some of the most expensive in Europe, but the use of a rail pass will seriously cut the costs. Just make sure you choose the pass that's right for you, depending on the area you want to cover and the available time.


Have you ever used a BritRail Pass? What are YOUR tips?

Fun and Quirky? Stay at The Church Street Hotel in London

Camberwell has enjoyed mixed fortunes over the years, but luckily this part of London is increasingly trendy once again. We immediately notice the strong African and Afro-Caribbean influence, but as the night falls, the streets are taken by a young student crowd in search of ale, wine and conversation.

The Church Street Hotel where we are staying is situated on the main artery road running through Camberwell towards Peckham. The street is flanked with interesting bars and eateries, and our hotel contributes to this bustling night scene with the newly opened Communion Bar, serving cocktails amidst religious themed stained glass panels.


Church Street Hotel is one of the quirkiest hotels we've stayed in and this is what caught our attention in the first place. The decor is bold, and the walls are painted in strong hues that make a statement. The interesting artefacts, brought all the way from Mexico, are like a breath of fresh air. The atmosphere is vibrant and relaxed. And the hotel is atypical to say the least.


I fall in love with this beautiful figurine on the nightstand. And really appreciate the fresh cut rose in a Havana Club bottle resting on the other side of the bed.


We are welcomed with a friendly note, complimentary organic chocolate, water and a jar of their signature hot sauce made in the kitchen downstairs.


The room is medium sized, but the decor surely is eye-grabbing. The white colonial furniture contrasts with the moody blues of the walls, and the hand-made iron work bed is comfy and inviting. 

The Church Street Hotel is sensual and alluring like a latin lover. A very religious one I might add, with crucifixes, sacred hearts and skulls tattooed all over. But a partygoer nevertheless, that likes to take you out dancing. And as long as you join him, you will have a good nights sleep upon your return. Unfortunately, up in our room, we can hear music from the bar and doors slamming until almost midnight. 



The bathroom is decorated with colourful hand painted tiles and complemented with L'Occitane toiletries, that happen to be among my favourites. 



The reception area very much resembles a colourful shop. When I point this out to the friendly girl behind the desk she actually enlightens me by saying that all objects are indeed for sale. Unfortunately they have ran out of stock for the pretty girl figurine in our room.



The Havana Lounge is a relaxing and peaceful place where guests can meet and work. There's complimentary tea and coffee here and an honesty bar where you can try your hand at mixing drinks. They start from the premises that their clients are decent people and in my experience, when you treat people like that, you get a very positive response. 


The Angels & Gypsies Restaurant at the ground floor welcome both hotel guests and passersby. It specialised in tapas, with meats sourced directly from Spain, and organic vegetables from Kent farmers.
It has an interesting decor, with brickwork, hand painted tiles and stained glass panels, a vibrant atmosphere and friendly staff that go out of their way.



One of the evenings we try their tapas, a nice combination of Spanish classics and South American influences. They serve a nice selection of vegetarian plates, as well as some delicious meaty ones.

Pan fried pumpkin with habanero and thyme

D cut rump (45 days aged) with black beans, fried quails egg and horseradish allioli 

We couldn't resist the temptation and ordered both Jamon de Teruel and Jamon Iberico de Bellota. The first one brought back fond memories of our visit to Teruel years ago and the second one of our dinner at Sobrino de Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world, in Madrid. Both hams were good quality and hand carved, however it's impossible to be impartial. The Jamon Iberico de Bellota is unquestionably the best ham one can possibly eat.

Jamon de Teruel (cured for 18 months) and Jamon Iberico de Bellota (cured for 36 months)

We also loved their selection of British cheeses. Matured and strong flavoured, they were just perfect served with rum plum jam. They also serve mojitos and other cocktails in the Angels & Gypsies Restaurant, thought if you are in mood for fancy drinks, it is better to pay a visit to the underground Communion Bar with its dim lights and stained glass panels, that are like windows towards another dimension.

Selection of Neal's Yard cheeses served with house made oat cakes and Mojito 

Breakfast is served in the soothing atmosphere of the Angels & Gypsies Restaurant, so much more quiet early in the morning than we knew it late at night. They serve a nice organic and locally sourced continental breakfast, with freshly squeezed smoothies and some of the best Italian cappuccino I've had outside Italy (probably the secret is that it is actually made by an Italian). 



We also find the jam jars quite pretty, for they are beautifully hand painted with the same fruit the jam inside is made of, making the labels obsolete.  


The cooked breakfast ranges from huevos rancheros and full English to puffy pancakes stack with maple syrup and butter. The full English is however the jewel of the crown, served with a twist, of course, to our delight. 




The Church Street Hotel more than met our expectations. Besides the quirky decor, what impressed us most was the overall cleanliness. South London might not be your first option, but we can assure you this part of the city is quite special and unique. Where else can you find such a lively hotel like this one? Central London is just half an hour bus ride away, though in all honesty, Camberwell is well worth exploring too.

For more information on The Church Street Hotel or to book a room, please see their website.

Looking for Harry Potter in Oxford


In spite of being world-famous for its university, Oxford has something for everyone

Besides the charming and mandatory college-hopping, one should visit at least one museum and a church. If time and weather permit, even a park! 

And Harry Potter fans can trace back to the various film locations in the city.


This time around we were in Oxford for only a few hours, on a day trip from London. And while Harry Potter wasn't a priority before, while on the train, the idea of spotting as many filming locations starting to grow on us.

As the train rushed through the beautiful English countryside, and we relaxed in the plush, comfortable chairs in the first class, we were grateful for choosing the efficient British railway systems as means for our journey. We were using the 8-Days Flexi Pass and this was the perfect day trip from London.

We are not huge Harry Potter fans, hell, I haven't even seen all the movies, let alone read the books. But in our travels we stumbled upon various places connected to Harry Potter and they were always breathtaking. For example, in Porto we discovered this gorgeous bookshop that supposedly served as inspiration for the grand staircase at Hogwarts

In Edinburg, we had hot chocolate at the Elephant House where J.K.Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book. We also had a sneak peak inside the Balmoral Hotel where in a luxurious suite she wrote the last book of the series. Quite a big change!

Blenheim Palace, and Lacock also served as film locations.

And now we were in Oxford, where quite a few scenes were either filmed or iconic buildings served as inspiration for different set designs.



But before our Harry Potter quest, we stopped by the Museum of the History of Science where Albert Einstein's blackboard is one of the most iconic object on display. The museum is home to a leading collection of scientific instruments from medieval times to the 17th century, but I must admit I was a bit disappointed with the blackboard. For starters, it's pretty small. And Einstein only used it once, with the occasion of his visit to Oxford in 1931.

Luckily I found the atmospheric, golden-stone colleges clustered around medieval streets irresistible.

We started with a visit inside the Divinity School, Oxford University's oldest teaching and examination room. This place with its intricate rib vaulting was used as Hogwarts Infirmary. It was also used as the room where Harry Potter and his friends learned to dance.


Right next to it is the Bridge of Sights, a mandatory photo stop while in Oxford. Legend has it the college closed off the bridge that links the old and new quads when as a result of a survey, it turned out their students were the heaviest.  Nevertheless, using the bridge requires students to use more stairs than if they didn't use the bridge at all.


The Radcliff Camera, together with two other architectural gems - the medieval University Church of St Mary the Virgin and the 15th-century Bodleian Library are the heart of the university. This, in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful places in Oxford.


St Mary's Church turned our to be quite impressive and a great place to spend a good half an hour while waiting for the rain to pass. 


But I believe Harry Potter wise, we saved the best for the last. The amazing Christ Church College houses the beautiful fan-traceried vaulted ceiling of the staircase and landing used in two Harry Potter movies.



But what impressed me the most was the Tudor architecture of the grand Dining Hall in Christ Church College which was the inspiration for the set design of Hogwarts Great Hall

The Dining Hall looks impressive to say the least. It is a fully functional hall. It smells like recently cooked food. It even has the plates on the table - though in all honesty it looked like space was really used to the maximum. And it has a large painting of Henry the VIII at the very end. With the exception of the missing flying candles, the reality was so much better then the fiction!


The church of the college has some impressive stained glass windows and it's also worth a visit.



While the college's courtyard is breathtaking, with intricate details and religious reminders.


In the evening, we returned to London. The two cities are merely one hour away and the train journey is comfortable and enjoyable. Since we were using the BritRail FlexiPass, we needed not worry about train schedules. We could hop on any train we pleased and we arrived to London Paddington safe and sound just before nightfall. Oxford is one inspiring city and since it is so accessible, no visit to UK shell be complete without a stop at the City of Dreaming Spires.


Inconspicuous Beauty: Discovering Hidden Gems in Europe

Europe is a magical continent overflowing with a vast number of beautiful countries, each with their own quirks, cultures and features that provide curious travelers and tourist with a lifetime of opportunity to explore and enjoy. It has become so popular that previously less visited countries and cities, such as those in Eastern Europe, have seen tourist numbers soar as people look more and more for destinations that are quieter, more authentic cities and towns that few other tourists are aware of. Getting out and about in these places is the chance to have cheap holidays but valuable travel experiences.

Unsurprisingly, this quest for the unknown, or even simply the little-known, is becoming more and more challenging by the day. There are, however, a number of these places left where tourists can go and enjoy themselves amongst a predominantly local crowd and where prices are geared towards the locals rather than hiked up to exploit visitors.

Here are just a few destinations that you can bump into on your European travels and not bump into swarms of tourists:


1. Lake Aachensee, Austria



Situated in the Tyrol district of the often under-appreciated country of Austria, Lake Aachensee presents a perfect opportunity and getaway to enjoy a more tranquil break amongst some of the most mesmerizing landscapes and backdrops on this side of the Atlantic. Though Austria still isn’t made it to the number one spot on most people's must-see lists, it’s enjoying an increasing surge in popular. This is particularly the case for the city of Vienna. The rest of the country, though, still sits under most people's radars, and Lake Aachensee is truly one of those rare natural beauties that has yet to become wide public knowledge.

The lake spans a massive 6.8 kilometers and the average temperature of its water is 19 degrees, which lends itself perfectly to water sports, swimming and other activities. There are also several public beaches to bathe and relax on in between all the fun. It’s not all about the lake, though, and there’s more than enough to keep you busy if you fancy something different: mountain hikes, golfing, dining out and sampling some Austrian cuisine. Oh, and then there’s the cable car into the mountains: you don’t want to miss out on the views.


2. Olomouc, Czech Republic



As close as you can get to a Prague-esque experience, only with a tiny fraction of the tourists and for a quarter of the price. Olomouc is visually gorgeous and culturally rich. Better still, not so many tourists know about it, which makes this town one of the finest discoveries that you can make if you visit the Czech Republic. Here you can really get a feel for the Czech culture and way of life, sample authentic food that hasn't been altered for tourist taste buds and take in the sights in a relaxed manner without other tourists bumping into you or photo-bombing your pictures.


3. Sintra, Portugal



A hot bed of history, nature and dreamy sights, Portugal's Sintra is situated between the mountains and the sea, giving the best of both worlds. The town’s grand architecture is simply to die for and the fact that Sintra isn't overloaded with tourists allows it to achieve something of a romantic mood. It all transforms the town into a great unexpected choice for a romantic getaway or celebration that obliterates all the clichés and feels truly special.

There are many more hidden delights such as these dotted all across Europe. Do some extensive research on Europe and you can uncover some real gems. Let the others be the tourists while you’re the explorer.

Images by Patrick Nouhailler, Ana Paula Hirama and Feliciano Guimarães used under creative commons license.


Top Destinations to Ensure You Have Travel Insurance

Travel insurance should be a top priority when arranging to go abroad. It allows a certain peace of mind in knowing that, if anything were to go wrong, you are covered by your insurance. Not all countries have a national health service, and you may not be covered in the ones that do. Although having insurance cannot prevent something from going wrong, it allows you to be more prepared if it does.


Some places in the world are open to much greater risks and this can be for a variety of reasons. One is example is the way other countries drive on the road. Not many other countries drive on the left like in England, and some countries are known for their abysmal roads, and drivers. Rome in particular is known for its erratic drivers.

Similarly, the road safety in Marrakech, where everything appears as one big market, is so different to the UK. This is before taking into account that driving is often on the right hand side too! You should throw yourself into the culture in Marrakech, as what can be found in those vast markets will astonish you.

Another issues that you should be aware of when travelling abroad should be remoteness. The more remote somewhere is, the more difficult it is to remedy a problem once something has gone wrong. Without insurance, this will be a cost passed on to you and a rescue helicopter does not come cheap.

Hot terrain is something else to be aware of, as you do not want to be stuck in the searing heat with no water or sun cream. Although Las Vegas is considered ‘Sin City’ it’s worth remembering that it is in a desert and you can get seriously burnt or dehydrated and require medical care.

In conclusion, the point of a holiday is to enjoy it. It is much easier to enjoy a holiday when you are not worried about what may go wrong, so a little preparation beforehand can go a long way.

Holiday insurance can easily be arranged through various companies. For example, Saga can possibly cover you for most pre-existing medical conditions, which is more important for the over 50’s as well as a whole host of other factors which may have had your family worried.

Photo by Martin Burns via Flickr CC

Ty'n Y Wern Guest House, Llangollen. Welsh Hospitality


Llangollen might not be the obvious choice when planning a trip to the UK, but we can assure you it's one beautiful Welsh gem well worth discovering. The picturesque little town is ideal for an away from it all kind of weekend. With its steam railway, charming half-timbered housed, horse-pulled boats, two major art festivals, white-water rafting, fishing, golfing and hiking through the forest options, it really feels like the possibilities are endless. 

In such beautiful setting we found the family-owned and run guest house Ty'n y Wern. We were greeted by the owner himself and Mark made sure we were comfortable and had all we needed during the whole duration of our stay. 


The small guest house with only a few rooms is a very special place indeed. First of all, it is spotless through and through. Every room was decorated with the modern guest in mind, and you can see a conscious decision was taken when choosing all colors and fabrics. 

I personally found the combination of pink and white in our room delicious. The vintage wallpaper, the decorative fireplace and the soft carpet were all contributing to a relaxing atmosphere of which we took total advantage of.

  

The tea and coffee facilities in the room were a welcomed surprise and we found the rose cups matching the wallpaper a very nice detail, proof of the attention with which guests are treated here.  


The views were however probably the best feature of the room. The Llangollen Valley is an incredibly beautiful place, and the ruins of Dinas Bran Castle on the top of the hill provided a ghostly backdrop for our stay. Enjoying a cup of tea or hot chocolate while taking in the views from one of the soft, pink armchairs was one of the best ways to invest our time in Llangollen. 


Fluffy towels and a modern en-suite bathroom with plenty of natural light complemented the room.


The lobby was this homey space with a log fireplace burning most of the time. Books, magazines, comfy sofa and a warm fire and the recipe for happiness was delivered.






But Ty'n Y Wern offers more than just accommodation. Their restaurant is sought after by guests and locals alike.  


Breakfast consists of cereals, fruit juice and a tasty Full Welsh. Everything is cooked to order and with local ingredients, not greasy at all, just delicious. 



We simply loved it here. Ty'n Y Wern Guest House is a great base for discovering North Wales, however, you will probably need more than a week to discover the attractions in the nearby vicinity alone. Great views, relaxing walks in nature, plenty of activities to choose from make this area a favorite ever since the Victorian times. Definitely a must add to any bucket list!

For more information on Ty'n Y Wern Guest House in Lllangollen or to book a room, please see their website.