Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Iceland - Whale Watching Tour

Not only have I been lucky enough to visit the extraordinary country of Iceland, but this most recent trip was my third visit. The first time I went I was alone, and I fell absolutely in love the place. So when I returned a few years later with KC, I wanted to show him all the wonderful sights I loved so much on my first trip. Since we’d already ticked off a couple of the main ‘must-do’s’ in Iceland, like the Golden Circle Tour and visiting the Blue Lagoon, we wanted to make sure that this time round we had a go at some of the other special experiences Iceland has to offer. 

The previous day’s horse riding experience was very high on the list, and so was another chance to get close to some of Iceland’s native wildlife with a whale watching tour.  

I say ‘whale watching’ but we were all warned fairly early on that early February is not exactly prime whale-spotting season, but you never know! My boat-loving other half was just eager to go out for a ride, so the possibility of seeing some awesome sealife was just a bonus really! 

And it really was a beautiful ride. Sat on boat waiting for it to set off, the rain was coming down and we did suspect that it might not go so well,... but as soon as we got going the sun came out and the trip was bright and beautiful! 

Still incredibly cold, like, but bright and beautiful and cold.

The company we went with were Elding Whale Watching, but there’s a number of companies running similar tours. This was booked as part of the holiday package so I didn’t really look into the differences between them, but the Elding tour was grand. The boat was cosy with seats both inside and outside (for the super brave). There was a little cafe inside selling drinks and chocolate bars, and you could borrow blankets and waterproof overalls for warmth too. 

The boat trips all come with a knowledgeable guide. Our on-board marine biologist had plenty to tell us about the kinds of creatures living in the seas around Iceland, as well as where and when to look if we hoped to see anything! 

But did we see anything?

Yes! No whales, though we'd been told that wasn't overly likely anyway - but just as it was about time to start heading back to Reykjavik we spotted a little group of white-beaked dolphins! 

Now, I'm afraid I didn't get any pictures - I'm sure the quick flashes of fin I saw wouldn't have made amazing photos, and I didn't want to miss anything myself by fiddling with a camera.

(And will shamefacedly admit that by this time the boat was starting to get the better of me and I was regretting my decision to reject the earlier offer of sea sickness tablets to all passengers!) 

It might not have been the biggest of most impressive sighting of dolphins in these waters, but I was so utterly thrilled to catch a glimpse of these wonderful creatures, and it made all the feeling-like-I-might-die completely worth it! 

Though with tours like this, there's no guarantee of seeing anything - nature can be fickle! - but I think it's absolutely worth the risk! Just wrap up warm, and say yes to the sea-sickness pills!

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Iceland - Horse Riding with Eldestar

It's been over two months since I got back from my last visit to Iceland and I've still barely posted a darned thing about it. It's true that time constraints, work issues and lack of internet connections have held me up a great deal, but it's also been quite difficult to know where to start!

Though I guess in the end it just made sense to start with one of my favourite bits! We didn't go to The Blue Lagoon on this trip, nor did we do the Golden Circle tour (were we even IN Iceland?!) so one of the things we really wanted to do was meet some of the beautiful Icelandic Horses.

I've never ridden a horse before. I probably rode a donkey on the beach when I was little, and once about twenty years ago I sat on a friends horse for about half a minute before panicking and insisting on getting straight off. So I wasn't entirely sure how well this was going to go....

...but this was top of KCs Iceland list so I had to be brave! Plus I'd heard that Icelandic horses are super sweet and small, perfect for beginners!

We booked through Eldestar, who organised a hotel pick-up in the morning before we were driven about 30 minutes out of Reykjavik to their farm, where we were provided with all the equipment needed and paired with our horse for the day. The horses were just indescribably lovely (though mine was obviously these best one!)

You know when you watch films and folk just hop up onto a massive horse like it's nothing? Yeah, my attempt at mounting my lil horse buddy did not go so gracefully.... I don't think I'm a natural horsewoman, but still, we got there in the end! 

We had about an hour and a half to two hours of riding time through the meadows around the farm. It's a beatiful area and our early start meant we got to see the sky transfrom through an array of colours, from pink to grey to blue, throughout the ride, offering a very colorful backgrop to the surrounding mountains and fields. It was just stunning, and I'd have taken more pictures but my hands were staying firmly on the reigns as instructed while we were moving!

Despite my cowardly inclinations, I did love it... mainly the nice calm, slow bits of the ride. When the horses were encouraged to speed up a wee bit (so we could experience the 'tölt', the special gait unique to Icelandic horses), thats when I started to fear for my life. That's just me being a massive wimp though, as KC had the time of his life! It was his first time too, though you wouldn't have known it, as he spend most of the ride out in front (of I guess around 25 riders?) while I was happy to trail along at the back.  When we did catch up (at a mid-way break and when we got back to the farm) he was as giddy as a kid at Christmas, and has been looking up local horse riding options since!

Eldestar have a number of packages available (from the beginner half-day sessions like ours, to week-long riding extravaganzas for those who know what they are doing!), and we'd booked the 'heritage tour', not only becasue it sounded like a great place to start, but becasue it came with tea and cake! So after our ride, when we'd shed the riding clothes and said goodbye to our lovely horses, it was time to head to the Eldestar hotel for refreshments.

We didn't get a good look around the hotel, as we were totally distracted by cake and tea (horse riding was lovely but 'twas cold!) but I'd love to spend a night or two here when we go back to Iceland! By then, KC will probably be an expert horse handler and I'll.... well, I'll be happy to go for a nice little ride then have some tea and cake!

Saturday, 1 April 2017

March Happenings, April Plans

Ah, the end of another month! And golly, it’s been a long one!

I don’t want to be one of those bores who just complains about work all the time, so I promise to not spend next month’s round up going on about how busy I’ve been – but March was tough and I’m glad it’s over!

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though! I think the improving weather always helps – everything seems so much brighter, the pretty flowers are out, it’s all good! Plus we had a couple of nice events and stuff.

Last night, to finish the month off nicely, I had a great night out with one of my very favourite people. My lovely brother got us both tickets to the ballet for my birthday, so last night we headed out to Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre to see Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes. The performance was just wonderful, an innovative and beautiful interpretation of one of our favourite films We followed this up with some slightly less graceful dancing of our own! 

We also had a lovely lil weekend in Cumbria. The Mr was booked in to go be a 'zookeeper for the day' so while he was feeding penguins and petting kangaroos, I took myself off for a visit to Muncaster Castle, and swung by Furness Abbey too.  It wasn't the greatest weather for a weekend of outdoor activities, but it was a lovely time and ice to be away. We also went to see the highly anticipated Beauty and the Beast while we were in Barrow In Furness, and it was everything I hoped it would be!

We had a nice family day out in York, which involved a very chocolatey afternoon tea, but mainly taking pictures of the friendly squirrels in York's lovely museum gardens!

Oh, and I'd mentioned previously that the kids and I had a karate tournament coming up at the start of March. It was great fun, and I ended up with silver medals in both my events. Harry did a great job and came home with a bronze and silver, and Emily didn't medal but she had by far the biggest category of us all and did such a great job - I was very proud!

April sees the start of some intense and much needed spring-cleaning (which I am of course avoiding now by writing this, but will crack back on real soon!) . . . not my favourite way to spend a weekend, but I'm sure I'll feel better once I'm de-cluttered a bit! And I did promise the kids that if they got their rooms organised we could go to the cinema, so I forsee Power Rangers in my near future!

I'd hoped to get plenty of blogging done but I seem to have left myself without internet at home for a couple of weeks - oops! Still, I think not having the distractions of easy internet access might actually work in my favour, so if I can organise pictures and write some stuff up offline and posting from work I stand half a chance of getting caught up!

Otherwise, we don't really have lots of separate stuff booked for April, but rather one biggie - the Easter holidays are coming up and we are off to Malta for a week! I honestly can't wait for a week OFF, and hopefully should be a relaxing but fun-filled holiday!

What are you up to in April?

Friday, 31 March 2017

A Wet Day at Muncaster Castle

With only one spare day at the the Lake District, it was quite hard to choose which of the areas wonderful day-out offerings to go for. I'd picked up a bunch of leaflets at the hotel and there's a lot I'd have liked to have seen, but the promise of owls had me driving to Muncaster Castle.

When I set off, it wasn't raining. This changed by the time I left the car park, and I spent the hour drive from Barrow-in-Furness telling myself 'I'm sure it'll stop in a minute'. 

It didn't.

In fact, despite being a seemingly popular destination on a spring Saturday, the nice lady at the ticket office told me I was the first person to visit that day. By the time I left in the afternoon, a few more folk had arrived, but it certainly never got busy! 

Of course, that might have been something to do more with the fact that people knew that the actual castle wasn't open. Oops. Apparently I missed it by a week, but I was still able to walk around the gardens. 

I'd been given a map at reception along with some guidance with some nice routed to take. I headed first to the terrace walk, as it looked (to the naked eye) a but less muddy and treacherous that some of the other places to explore.

One of the terraces best features is the view it offers of Scafell Pike and the western Lakeland fells... even on the day of my visit, when my view was 60% fog and 20% rain, it was still pretty special - I can only imagine what a great lookout this is on a clear day! 

I'd gone out for the day in my most sensible boots, but I don't think I was quite prepared for the obstacle course that was walking though the woodland in that mud! The uphills were squelchy but doable, but by downhill descents mainly consisted of undignified skidding.... but I still managed to stay more on less on my feet throughout which was more impressive than it sounds! 

This woodland 'path' led back to the castle for a closer view of the grand building, and out the cannon bank - home to the herons! I missed the heron feed they do here in the afternoon sadly as I had to make my way back, but it was lovely see to see them! 

Of course, my favourite feature of any day out is the obligatory tea-and-cake time, and after all my soggy wandering around I really appreciated a sit down with a hot drink in the cosy tea room! They had a tasty looking if not particularly extensive cake selection - the coffee and walnut cake was delicious but deceptively big! 

Then it was time to meet the birds! The gardens were lovely but this is what I'd come for really - I love owls and birds of prey, and was looking forward to meeting the feathery chaps at the Muncaster Hawk and Owl Centre.

The birds are there for visiting all day of course, but they have a flying display in the afternoon where you get to see a few of them in action. 

Despite not being the prettiest bird at Muncaster, I quickly developed a soft spot for the African Hooded Vulture, Moriarty. I was very sad to hear that these birds are now on the 'Critically Endangered' list. One awful contributing reason for this is that the vultures in Africa are frequent victims of poisoning.. poachers will lace the carcasses of animals they have killed with poison in order to get rid of the vultures they fear with give their position away. It's layer upon layer of tragedy, totally heartbreaking.

(Sorry to be a downer! Here's Cavalli, the pretty Verreauxs Eagle Owl to lift the mood!) 

The Muncaster Hawk and Owl Centre is run in association with the Hawk Conservancy Trust, who's mission is to conserve birds or prey.

Just before leaving we got to meet the newest bird at the the centre, week old Phoenix as brought into the cafe for a quick visit. Baby owls are so ugly-cute, all angles covered in skin and fluff.... but ever so sweet.

I had a lovely if wet day at Muncaster Castle, and I think it's be a great place to revisit with the family when the weather is better and the house is open... but if there's one thing that will guarantee I'll return soon it's that I want to see how little baby Phoenix is growing! 

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Furness Abbey

At the weekend we took a little trip to organise one of KCs Christmas presents. While he was off being a zookeeper for the day, I had a nice quiet day to myself to potter round a couple of local sites. I spotted the brown tourist signs for Furness Abbey and I always relish the opportunity to make the most of my English Heritage membership so off I headed.

(And I made it all the way there following the signs instead of the satnav, which I think is the first time ever, so brownie points for me!)

Unfortunately we picked a pretty terrible weekend for adventuring in the great outdoors as it more or less threw it down for the duration of our trip, but such are the perils of holidaying in the North of England!

In addition to having the weather to contend with, I turned up to the Abbey pretty late into the day. The last admission is 30 minutes before the site closes and I made it by three minutes, so I didn't have a whole lot of time to look around! 

So unfortunately time constraints meant I didn't get chance to look round the on-site museum in the visitors centre, but there's a permanent exhibition of effigies and stone carvings as well as other items found around the Abbey, which I imagine would be well worth a peek if you have time.

Though, the best thing to so do at sites like this (if time and the weather aren't against you) is to settle down with a well-packed picnic, and enjoy the scenery and the peace and quiet! 

Furness Abbey dates back to 1123, and was once one of the most powerful Cistercian Abbeys in the country, second only to North Yorkshire's Fountains Abbey. I have a real soft spot for Fountains Abbey, as I did a GCSE project on it many a year ago and we had an awesome school trip out there. 

It's hard to compare the two as places to visit - not only was one a long day out with friends in the sun and the other was me running round in the rain by myself for twenty minutes, but one of them was not far off 20 years ago! 

One thing that definitely differentiates the two is the striking red colour of Furness Abbey. I asked the nice English Heritage lady about it on the way out and she explained that the it was built out of local red sandstone, which can be found in a number of similar sites along the Cumbrian coast. I'd not really seen anything quite like it before and it's really quite spectacular!

Though this was a flying visit, I'm glad I managed to fit Furness Abbey into my schedule. It's a really pretty little spot, and definitely think it'd make a great visit in good weather! 

I'm definitely hoping to get back up in the area when it warms up a little (our Travelodge was a whopping £26, so if I can get that sort of price again there's really no reason not to!) and I'm looking forward to seeing how that red stone brightens up when the sun is on it! 

Do please let me know if you have any other recommendations for places to visit! 
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