Six mini-breaks to blow away the cobwebs

  UK trips to recharge your batteries Feeling a bit sluggish after Christmas? Still suffering from the back-to-school blues? Well, if your new year’s resolution was to fly less to cut your carbon footprint, you’re probably trying to resist jetting off somewhere hot and sunny to cheer you up, but these UK mini-breaks should put …

Best city breaks for… veggies and vegans

  Not just for Veganuary Even if you’re not one of the 250,000 people worldwide who’ve signed up for Veganuary (yes, it’s a thing, apparently) chances are you’re thinking of cutting back on your meat consumption because, quite honestly, who isn’t these days, what with concerns about the effect of red meat on our health, …

Girls’ trip: Las Vegas, USA

Vegas is vulgar, brash, superficial and seedy. But it’s also sophisticated, stylish and glam. It’s the most schizophrenic city in the US, probably in the whole wide world, a place where desperados in trackie bottoms spend hours feeding slot machines that never pay out and where high rollers fly in on private jets to win …

Utterly lovely Topsham – and its Scarlett O’Hara connection

OMG! I can’t believe I’ve never been to Topsham before. I’ve just spend two days in this historic south Devon town and fallen in love with the place. Quite simply, it’s the most picturesque, quintessentially English countryside town – but with seriously good restaurants, proper old fashioned pubs that actually serve decent food, quirky cafes …

Providence, Rhode Island in pictures

Providence, founded in 1636, one of America’s oldest cities, is the capital of Rhode Island, the smallest state in the USA. It’s in New England on the east coast, not far from Boston and an easy three-hour train ride from New York City.  It’s a nice break from the big city, a bit like Boston in miniature, and it’s nice and compact and easy to walk around. Also, despite being so old, its two universities mean it has a very young, arty vibe, with lots of quirky cafes and boutiques.

I paid the city a flying visit in June 2018. Here’s some stuff I got up to (and something I wished I’d seen):

Haven Brothers Diner

One of the first things I did when I arrived, shattered after my long-haul flight, was visit the Haven Brothers Diner. Haven Brothers Diner is a Providence institution. It says so on the side of the van, which is parked outside the city hall every day, selling burgers, hot dogs, fries and shakes. I went for a hotdog – because it’s famed for its dogs and burgers – and, meh, I wasn’t impressed. It was flaccid and flavourless – a limp frankfurter in a pale bun, really disappointing. My salted caramel milkshake tasted like sweet frozen gloop. Still, I’m glad I went, because ‘it’s a Providence institution’. It’s been going since 1893, so it must be doing something right, mustn’t it?

Better than Haven Brothers are the many artisan cafes you’ll find down the side-streets, here the service is friendly and the food much better. When I visited midweek in the morning, they were busy but not rammed.

I took this (really bad) photo because I thought I was standing across the road from the ‘Superman’ building, you know, the one that inspired the Daily Planet in the comic book? If you look at a slightly better photo of the actual building, it does look like it, no? Well, it’s not. Turns out that Superman creator Joe Shuster got his inspo from the buildings in his home city of Toronto, so don’t bother standing in front of this one with your selfie stick and posing like a muppet like me. This building, the tallest on Rhode Island, is actually the Industrial Bank, and it is one of Providence’s most iconic sights.  And it does have a small claim to fame as it features heavily in the American TV animated sitcom Family Guy. So now you know.

Providence has lots of other really beautiful and historic buildings, dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

The Biltmore is another of  Providence’s best-known buildings, having opened downtown as an upscale hotel in 1922. It’s now the Graduate Providence. I didn’t stay there (I stayed at the Omni Providence two minutes’ walk away) but it looked lovely from the outside. Try and pop in for breakfast or just a coffee to soak up the historic vibe.

On the right is the city’s early 20th century theatre opened by the vaudevillians in 1917 and now the home of Trinity Rep.

You can see lots more downtown attractions on a walking tour.

If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can take a kayak tour along the city’s rivers, which you take from Waterplace Park, right in the city centre, with Providence Kayak. Waterplace Park is just a short walk from many of the downtown hotels all equipment is provided. You don’t need any experience – the staff give a little demo and you’re off.

 

Kayaks cost from $20 for 40 minutes. You won’t go far in that time, but it’s interesting to see the city’s historic buildings from the water. You can hire a kayak for 1.5 hours for $30 and go a bit further into the open water. Dress in shorts or jeans – you’re not likely to get really get wet, unless you fall in or someone splashes you, but the water is pretty calm, although Providence Kayak does warn that you might get wet and you’re advised to ‘dress accordingly’. They have large plastic containers at the departure point where you can leave your shoes and belongings. If you’re lucky you’ll come across a gondola and a gondolier singing for a tip, just like in Venice. Nothing else in Providence, even the canal, is remotely like Venice.

Sadly, kayaks are only available for hire from Friday to Monday, sometimes only Sat-Sun, from May to October. Hire isn’t available in the winter. Here’s a little video I made of my kayak experience in Providence.

Talking of the river in Providence, I’m pretty gutted to have missed WaterFire, a monthly event that takes place throughout the summer where bonfires are lit on the water at dusk and entertainment is provided along the river banks. You can also take a boat tour along the rivers to see the bonfires close up. The fires are lit one Saturday a month from May to October.  Here’s a photo on the left of what I didn’t see.

 

I did, however, take a bike tour. The highlight was seeing the first Baptist Church in America in N Main Street.

My taxi driver told me that I must go to Federal Hill in the evening, so I did, after all, it’s just a short stroll from the downtown hotels. It’s an area largely settled by Italian immigrants, so there are lots of great Italian restaurants lining the main drag, Atwells Avenue.

On a Friday night it was really buzzing, with tables lining the streets and a bit of a party atmosphere. Oh, and it has the friendliest policemen.

Have you been to Providence, Rhode Island. Do you have any tips? If so, please feel free to share in the comments.

Full disclosure: Some but not all of the links in this article are affiliates, from which I earn a small fee if you make a booking as a thank you for the info. Thank you!

 

 

 

Amsterdam trip

9 things NOT to do in Amsterdam

It’s one of the coolest cities in the world but there are 9 things you really mustn’t do if you want to get the most out of your Amsterdam trip:

 

1: Walk on the red brick roads

These might look like pavements but they’re actually for the bikes and – more importantly – mopeds, so if you walk here, you risk an injury.

At the very least, you could get yelled at by a local and nothing is more mortifying for a tourist than being dissed by a resident. You’ve been warned, remember the phrase ‘Red is Dead’.

 

2: Eat an entire hash cake

Hash, weed, dope…call it what you like, it’s all sold openly in shops and cafes in Amsterdam, but if you’re tempted to indulge, remember that some hash cakes can be very, very strong – but, and here’s the really dangerous bit – they might take a couple of hours to have an effect.

Our guide told us that tourists often over indulge, gobbling down and entire cake after feeling nothing following the first couple of bites, and then they spend the rest of their visit in bed!

His best advice was to start with a nibble and wait a while to see if it’s having an effect – and take advice from the vendor. If they tell you it’s strong, trust them, they know what they’re talking about. Ignore them and your Amsterdam trip could be ruined.

 

 

3: Buy cheese in the 9 Streets

This is the most touristy bit of Amsterdam, the nine street (de 9 straatjes) that criss-cross the city’ s canals, which are full of intriguing boutiques and delis selling gorgeous (but over-priced) items targeted at visitors.

As this is Holland, you’ll find plenty of places to buy cheese, but, say locals, you should try to resist for the sake of your pocket.

Full disclosure: I bought cheese from one of these shops, it was delicious, but I could have bought it much cheaper in my local Sainsbury’s in London!

There are much cheaper places to buy delicious cheese in Amsterdam, you just need to avoid the tourist traps.

 

 



4: Change your plans if it’s raining

It rains a lot in Amsterdam so there’s no point cancelling that bike ride or canal boat tour you’ve booked if the weather forecast is rubbish because the chances are it will be rubbish the next day too. Just roll with it and hope that the rain stops for at least some of the time.

We nearly cancelled our bike tour one morning when it was pouring but our guide promised us the rain would stop within 30 minutes and he was right. In the meantime, he handed us ponchos and we only felt a little bit daft because everyone else – including the locals – was wearing them too.

 

 

 

Amsterdam trip

5: Wear stilettos

I seem to advise this for almost every city break destination, so many of them have cobbled streets and Amsterdam is no exception. Where flats or sturdy heels instead, your neck will thank you.

 

6: Take cabs

There’s nothing wrong with taxis in Amsterdam, but they’re probably unnecessary. It’s easy to walk around, the heavy traffic and one-way systems mean that it’s often faster on two feet too, and if you’re going a long way, there’s a good public transport system.

 

7: Try to get a selfie at the IAmsterdam sign at Museumplein

Too many tourists tried to do that and, due to fears of overcrowding, the sign was removed in 2019. To be honest, it was nigh on impossible to get a selfie there anyway, the crowds were so big. Now you’ll have to snatch a selfie at the alternative sign at Schiphol Airport, or go to wwwiamsterdam.com and find out where the letters, which are going on a tour of the city and other areas, have been moved to.

 

Amsterdam trip

 

8: Fall in a canal

Before going on a trip to Amsterdam with a group of girlfriends, I Googled ‘how many people fall into Amsterdam’s canals each year’, mainly because I have one very clumsy friend and I was aware that there are no railings down the side. I was a bit worried to see that there are about 20 drownings a year including, tragically, a 21 year old British man in May 2018. Apparently most of these incidents involve alcohol – quite a few are men who fall in while peeing over the side. Take care.

 

9: Wear clogs

I know it’s Holland, but no-one wears them. Seriously.

 

Read my review of Amsterdam’s Hotel TwentySeven

 

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