Holiday

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(Have you read Big Apple-ing part i? If not, get a wriggle on!)

I forgot to mention in my previous post, that if you ever get the chance to fly into New York from the West coast, you definitely should. I hadn’t really thought about it but when you fly from London, you literally land into JFK from the ocean. When you fly from the other direction, you fly RIGHT over New York and I was so lucky that the sun was just setting so I could still shove my nose up to the glass and gape as we flew lower and lower with incredible birds eye views of Central Park and the Statue of Liberty.

Popeye

On the Friday night, I had finally finished my gruelling work schedule and was a free free bird to go out and enjoy the city that never sleeps with Nick. Luckily we had tons of friends to meet up with over the weekend, who generously created a packed schedule of the finest NY events. Friday night was kicked off by finally meeting our dear “internet friend” the glorious gorgeous gregarious Heather Park in the flesh. We rolled into K-Town and queued for an hour for the best KBBQ in town over at Wonjo (23 W 32nd St). Whatever you do, don’t turn up to KBBQ hungry if going on a weekend night, instead use your hour queue-time to take in the sights and sounds and SMELLS whilst your appetite grows into one of beastly proportions. We also had the pleasure of witnessing the most intense amazing boss-lady working front of house, barking at her staff and customers alike as she rocked a Britney-headset and flapped about some sort of laminated mega list. Heather & I agreed she would be a serious asset to backstage at NFW. I had never had KBBQ before and so if you are a fellow newbie, it’s basically a feast AND a game. You sit around a huge table (Heather Park comes complete with entourage of beautiful smart New-Yorkers to dine with!) and there is a mini BBQ firepit in the centre of the table. As well as about 20 dishes of veggies, beansprouts and tofu; the Wonjo staff bring over raw meat and barbecue it on the table in front of you. Every morsel was so mouth-watering and tasty, and washed down with BOWLS of soju (what’s soju?) which when mixed with burning coals could end in druken disaster… but luckily everyone left full and happy and with all their fingers intact.

KTown

After our feasting we jumped in cabs to Alphabet City where we hit Evelyn. The bar was cosy, just the right amount of buzz-y but with seats at the bar, and with an extensive tempting cocktail list. It was hard to believe that just a few months earlier, the entire bar (and block) had been underwater in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Evelyn is such a hidden treasure, and somewhere I desperately wish I could transport home to London to have as my local. I loved the little touches like on the menu there was a “drinking language guide” explaining what on the rocks, short etc means. although there were also a few etiquette guidelines too such as under make it strong it said “This means you want me to pour extra booze for free. Not gonna happen. Order a double” !! I tried my first ever Egg Creme, a drink popular in America and involves a mixture of milk & selzter. I opted for an NYC creme which also included chocolate sauce and rummmm! It’s probably the weirdest thing I have ever drunk but it was oddly delicious. Like a fizzy, boozy Yazoo. Definitely put it on your NY-To-Do list. (Also thanks HP for letting me pinch the only physical evidence of us meeting IRL! We were terrible paparazzi’s)

Gang

Empire

On Saturday we thought the blue sky was finally out and we started the day with a stroll over Williamsburg Bridge which is one of my favourite things to do (the last time I did it I saw Chloe Sevigny riding a bike and Tobey Maguire jogging!) you also pass the old Domino sugar factory which I have been unhealthily obsessed with since Emily Haines sang about it in the Metric song On The Sly. The views from this bridge are unparalleled and you also arrive in the heart of Williamsburg in easy walking distance of everything good to see there. We were there to see something very good indeed – our friends Leah and Gareth.

Graph paper NY

LOVE LOCK

Williamsburg Bridge

Domino Sugar Factory

Leah & Gareth live in Green Point which is a gorgeous neighbourhood, and an easy stroll away from the waters edge to take in a perfect cityscape view of Manhattan. After we had lost all feeling in our extremities and even our fingers clutching piping-hot coffee cups were nearly blue, we scuttled to Allswell for brunch. In America, they just GET brunch. They get that you might want to eat it anytime of day (it’s served until at least 5pm most places), they GET that you want tons of choice and they also GET that you most likely want to get seriously back on the booze wagon after the night before. Over at Allswell I opted for the cheese & egg sandwich which was basically a fancy McMuffin which I could then slather in hot sauce; a habit that has stuck with me long after my NY trip and I’m now eating the hot sauce I bought back with me from the US with almost every meal. It is a surprisingly delicious addition to beans on toast. I also had a bloody mary which went down a treat! We spent the afternoon exploring Green Point and Williamsburg. Nick had desperately wanted to go to the Brooklyn Brewery Bar tour but we arrived at 2pm and the queue was about 4 blocks long and would have taken hours to wait out. Maybe it’t particularly en vogue at the moment but I wouldn’t set your heart on going unless you fancy a looooong wait. We instead invented our OWN tour which just consisted of visiting different bars and drinking Brooklyn Beer. Almost the same..! Oh and eating donuts from Peter Pan which is apparently open from 4am for any night owls. I punted for a standard sugar glaze which was heavenly, Nick braved a red velvet which also tasted of heaven.

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Donuts

On Saturday night we had tickets to the glorious Planetarium at the BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music – I’d recommend a visit there even if not to see an event, it’s beautiful) which was a collaboration between Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner (of The National, aka my one true musical loves), and Nico Muhly and consisted of a piece of music for every planet in the solar system played along side amazing graphics. I really wish that they’d release the whole Planetarium but it doesn’t look likely. You can catch most of it on YouTube: Jupiter was our favourite and has had Nick & I singing “Jupiter… is the loneliest planet” in distorted voices to each other ever since! It was such an incredible thing to do and has definitely taught me to check out your fave bands/cool locations/events before you go somewhere and to book tickets in advance. This really made our weekend! After hours of inspiring, mind-melting music we hitched the subway back to Williamsburg and crawled to Rosamunde Sausage Grill. I don’t consider myself a sausage fan but this experience converted me for life. Pick ANY sausage you like (sooo many options) to which you can then add numerous onion/chilli based toppings. It’s served hot-dog style in a gorgeous crusty bun, and then there are about 10 pumps of different mustard/condiments to go wild on. It was a messy affair, and the sauce slops did irreparable damage to my favourite rust-colour paper bag skirt, but it was WORTH IT!! We stayed out with Leah & Gareth (and therefore our stolen) friends drinking margaritas into the early hours. Nick also sampled something called a Pickle Back which is apparently all the rage in NY: a shot of whisky with a shot of pickle juice as a chaser. As a pickle phobic, I had to hide under the table at this point.

BAM Planetarium

We awoke on the last day in the big apple, hungover and happy. We walked around the block to The Essex for their brunch deal. Long-time readers may remember that last time I went to NY I booked in for brunch there (you HAVE to book! Dont just rock up) and was then so hungover I couldn’t eat a thing let alone make the most of their unlimited mimosa/bloody mary deal. This time luckily my hangover was less brutal, and I chomped my way through shrimps, grits, eggs and biscuits all covered in hot sauce. Grits and biscuit are a really southern American cuisine and worth ordering for novelty value of saying the name and having no idea what to expect, plus they are mighty tasty. Nick had a giant stack of American pancakes, and to be honest I can see why their brunch is world famous, everything looked dreamy. They really mean business here with the breakfast booze… just take a look at Nick’s wide eyed fear of his bloody mary. The whole clear top half is pure vodka!

Bloody mary

Hungover Bee

Last up on our solo day of dreams in NY was to walk the High Line which you can read all about here. The project has totally rejuvenated this side of Manhattan and is probably now my #1 favourite place in New York City. I imagine it’s even more lovely in Spring/Summer as the blooms come out. The walk takes you past so many different areas and the birds eye view provides a whole new perspective on a city you’ve seen so many times in films and TV. I could honestly have walked up and down it all day! Highlights were seeing The Standard hotel famous c/o Fassbender in Shame (we didn’t see an nekkid action that day though) and the beautiful brownstones. The viewing points where you can stand over the road and feel like Godzilla are also amazing! We also saw Anne Hathaway! She was wearing a wig, hat and glasses but could not keep that post-Oscar-win glow and grin off her face.

High Line

High Line 2

Brownstone

At the end of the High Line you come off in a no mans land so it might be better to retrace your steps and get back into a better neighbourhood. However we had time to kill and Trader Joe’s to find (oh and a Shake Shack to munch on!) so we walked about 20 blocks back to central NY, past Port Authority and accidentally stumbling on Times Square which we’d actually vowed to avoid. I guess it’s impossible, the bright lights suck you in! We took our time walking miles upon miles until our feet screeched with every step, then it was time to head to JFK and on the final plane journey of my extended US trip. On the way home we flew through a snow storm heading in NYs direction, so I wobbled my way through a sleepless night which eventually gave way to a beautiful sunset to chase all the way back to London.

Times Square

I hope you’ve enjoyed my travel adventures. Normal life will now resume on Like a Skeleton Key which I can’t promise will be as exotic… but definitely will be as busy! I wanted to make a final mention that we couldn’t have got through our NY weekend without the Trip Advisor App – it has maps, subway details and information on every cuisine/tour/place you might want to visit. ALL without needing any data, how smart are they? So you can use it without wifi or costing any money. I’m tempted to download the London one now I’m home just to keep living the faux-holiday dream.

Sunset

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Crikey, where is the time going? I’ve been back from America for 3 weeks now but they zipped past in a haze. I haven’t actually had a weekend in London since getting home, instead my jet-setting continued on a smaller UK-scale as I spent Easter weekend in Norfolk with my 93 year old gran (who is amazing; she called people in their 70s “old fogies” and one morning she just whipped up 2 homemade loafs of bread before I’d even woken up!) then last weekend I was in Taunton visiting Nick’s older brother, wife and his 2 year old nephew Riley.  He is at that super cute inquisitive age and was on fine form; with highlights being his bath-time serenading us with his self-invented song “heads, shoulders, knees and toes AND BUM!”, his new-found ability to naked breakdance (I can’t wait to remind him of that when he’s a teenager – his parents have NO idea how he learnt to do it?) and following our lunch out at Frankie & Benny’s on the Saturday, his obsession with playing “restaurants”. I spent all of Sunday playing restaurants with him. At Riley’s restaurant he serves “crab bolognese” “chocolate” or for the more adventurous diner.. “whale”.

Anyway I don’t want anymore time to pass without documenting my time in New York. I relied on blogs SO heavily before heading to the big apple and although I already blogged about New York the last time I was there, I had a totally different experience this time around, I guess a lot can change in 3 years and I’m also a different Bee to the one I was then. This time I was business Bee! Before I wade into my memories and photos; the blogs that have recently captured my NY imagination were The Faerietale Foodies hot list of coffee, donut & NY food joints broken down by area, my lovely Eleanor Jane’s recent trip which despite giving her a frostbitten face produced some of the best photographs of the city that I’ve ever seen and finally VIPXO who was flying out as I flew home and managed to fit in about 4 weeks worth of antics into 4 days.

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So you last left me exploring LA’s downtown and enjoying the California sun. My flight from LA > NY was quite eventful! I flew Virgin America who I adore (the beaker above says it all, so much attention to kitsch detail) and it was just short of 7 hours. It still boggles my mind that it’s further to fly across from LA to NY than it is to fly back to England. It’s the same country? Anyway my flight was manned by male twin hipster stewards with waxed moustaches, who both separately talked to me about wanting a dinosaur onesie. I loved them until one of them ID’d me for my G&T and I had to trample over all the people in my aisle to get out, get my handbag, get my ID etc etc in front of the whole plane! But with the big 3-0 a’knocking I guess I should really bask in the youthful accusations, especially as I had no make-up on and severe timezone confused tired-face. Anyway half way through the flight we had a power surge of some kind which was one of those heart in mouth moments as I squinted down at the snowy rocky terrain below and sneakily eyed around to see how edible people looked. Luckily the only thing it affected long term was the entertainment service; so no films for me for 4 long hours. By the time I landed in JFK I was relieved to reunite my feet with the ground. I was less relieved to walk out into the -5 dark night; having got used to 30 degree daily sunshine!

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I didn’t get a particularly warm welcome from New York, on day one I negotiated my walk to the office (I felt like a true New Yoiker! No subway for me!) and the sky got darker and darker with every step. I expected Godzilla to pop round for every corner or a Day After Tomorrow style tidal wave to creep up behind me. Luckily for me and my overactive imagination it was just a snow storm landing and a few hours later a blizzard started that didn’t stop for ten hours. After a long day my best laid plans for exploration were weather-ruined and I slinked back to my hotel, only venturing out to find something warm and tasty near by. Luckily I stumbled across a Korean restaurant where I could chomp away on steamy broth and kimchee pancakes and watch the snow settle outside. The next day the snow had more-or-less melted and left the city in a state of frost-bite. The temperature didn’t creep past zero degrees for my whole trip, mostly lurking around -5. It was so cold that New Yorkers were walking around with their Starbucks cups gripped in their teeth, so that they could keep their hands in their pockets. That sight frightened me everyday… what if the lid fell off? Such a risky strategy!

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I HEART New York. I totally get why people want to emblazen their love for it on T-Shirts and mugs and sing about it endlessly. There is just this sparkle and energy that is contagious, and a huge pride in being in NY which is something I think us shy retiring Brits haven’t successfully emulated in London. One thing I had forgotten is how much people CHAT. I think it helps that as a nosey northerner I’m the first to get nattering, but it made me chuckle that on a daily basis someone would just randomly yell something at me. The first day it was “Hey! Blue Eyes!” and the second I just got a nice “Good Morning Miss” and they aren’t from people wanting to engage you in conversation or a sleazy-builder style bellow. They are just chatty New Yorkers being very New York. It warms my heart! On the Tuesday I had a recommendation for a sushi restaurant but when I walked the 10 blocks there it had shut down! Woe. Luckily this led me to discover Two Boots where I could order a slice of pizza as big as my head and very delicious it was too (also don’t tell, but I actually ordered 2 slices and ate them ALL). However, my work colleagues were not so impressed and said it wasn’t AUTHENTIC enough, so the next day one of them ordered me two wholes boxes of Saluggi’s which I will go on record to say that was hands-down the best pizza I have ever eaten. They must put actual magic in the sauce. Even remembering it makes my mouth water. If you are ever in New York, you need to go there and you need to eat THIS.

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There is so much yellow in New York! I hadn’t realised before. Taxis, school buses, traffic lights and traffic lanes. Yellow follows you around the city and every photograph you take will inevitably have a flash of it somewhere. The nice thing about working was that I made instant friends and had some people to show me the best spots off the tourist trail. After eating & drinking myself around Manhattan here were my top treasures:

Best Cafe: Vesulka This Ukarainian cafe has been in the East Village for 58 years. The bright, airy space is the perfect place to meet friends for brunch, lunch, dinner OR late night since it’s open way past bedtime. Be brave and try the traditional items like Blintzes, Challah or Goulash. If you would prefer something more traditional; the choc chip pancakes are to die for. The tea also comes with sweet literary quotes attached to the bag-string.

Best Sushi: On the Wednesday night my colleagues Clairellen & Gerta indulged my sushi craving and introduced me to Tomoe Sushi. It would be easy to walk past this cosy little Japanese joint and there is often a small queue, but oh it’s worth it. The chef’s prepare the sushi in front of you (it’s so small in there, you can see everything!) and I’d definitely recommend the seaweed salad and the deep fried oyster-mmmm. They can definitely claim the Best Sushi in NY title.

Best Bagel: Bagel’s are served everywhere. The bagels from the bagel cart are your best bet and best NY experience. A plain white with cream cheese has to be your first pick, but then I would be brave and opt for the darkest brown looking option, which is Pumpernickel  and unlike anything I’d had before. They are packed full of molasses though, so will leave you full for hours of site-seeing.

Best Mexican: Rosa Mexicano  is a high brow mexican offering so partner it with a trip to somewhere a bit more down n dirty for a burrito. The reason you have to visit here is the world famous guacamole which they come and make fresh at your table in front of you! 

Best for Night Owls: My favourite place to drink is St Marks Place, and a great place off the beaten track there is The Crooked Tree. It’s fairy-lit, cute and perfect for gazing at a handsome boy over a cocktail or IPA brew. They also do killer crepes.

Best for Take-Home Treats: Trader Joes! This isn’t just your bog standard supermarket. This is the best grocery store I have ever encountered. Don’t leave it to the airport to stock up on boring-reeces-pieces. Hit up a Trader Joe’s and explore their treats section for peanut butter stuffed chocolate covered pretzels! Oh and their Speculoos biscuit spread is also an absolute must. I also stocked up on my biggest weakness: HOT SAUCE!

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During this trip I indulged in a bit of an ambition and guilty pleasure – also taking one for the team for people in my life such as my best friend Lol and my sister Meg. I went to CARRIE BRADSHAW’S HOUSE! Under the guise of exploring Greenwich Village, which in itself is definitely worth doing, I looked up the street address and found myself at 64 Perry Street being a fan girl. Luckily there was no one else around so I could take a few stealth snaps and then pretend like I belonged in the neighbourhood. One really sweet thing is that the family who live there have put a chain up (so people dont intrude and climb up the steps) and on the chain is a note from the family, asking if you take a photo to donate ¢1 to the local animal shelter. Aw. There is a little tin for you to drop your dollar in. Such a nice idea.

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After nearly a fortnight apart, on the Thursday my dreamboat sailed into town (well ok, flew). We had agreed to meet at Grand Central, as after the longest we have ever been separated, we felt we deserved the most film-like and romantic reunion. And it was! We hadn’t agreed where in Grand Central, but happened to choose the same location where I leapt on him for a proper Hollywood smooch and the worlds longest bear hug, whilst tutting harassed Americans scampered past on their ways to and from their lives.

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Part 2 coming soon; the ‘holiday’ part of my trip as Nick & I took on New York heading to my first ever KBBQ, exploring Williamsburg and being turned away from the Brooklyn brewery tour so making up our own Brooklyn beer pub-crawl.

I’ll leave you with this little lady; the NY office dog of dreams. Isn’t she just begging for me to take her home with me in my bag (that she’d definitely fit in)?

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If you read my recent accounts of my Los Angeles adventures (part i & part ii) you will have gathered that I recently went on a work trip to America; where I spent 1 week working from the West (Best?) Coast and then jetted over to New York for another week. Obviously my initial reaction when finding out about this trip was WAHOOooooooOoOooOooooOOo! However, my second instant reaction was, what the HECK am I going to pack for 2 weeks, 2 cities and 2 entirely different weather systems (not to mention an itinerary of formal work presentations, tourist treks and bar crawling)?

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After weeks of jotting down outfit plans in Evernote and hours of frantic trying-on sessions which resulted in my room looking like it had been burgalised on more than one occasion; I finally had a suitcase filled with lessons learnt on how to pack for two VERY different climates. In LA the weather hovered around 28-30 degrees with blazing sunshine; although out on the coast there was a wind chill to contend with. In NY there was a blizzard to welcome my arrival and the weather barely crept over zero degrees, mainly sticking to the minus section of the thermometer. I found it really tough to adapt by the time I reached New York as I had got so used to just skipping out into the California sun every day, so on my first lunch break in NY I eagerly packed up my bag and embarked on the 4 flights of stairs down to the street in just my cardigan. I had got so used to the bliss of no-coat living. The second I stepped out into the frost bitten city streets I realised my error and skulked back up 4 flights to retrieve my coat, scarf, gloves and did NOT make that mistake again!

Top Tips for Hot to Cold to Sunny to Snowy Packing

01. Layers 

It’s the classic mum-advice whenever you visit a different climate and if it’s good enough for mums worldwide you just know it must be wise owl stuff, and it definitely is the first rule of thumb for packing for multi-climates. I would have a basic outift, then a multitude of others bits and bobs that I would carry around in a tote bag ready to layer on as the sun set or the snow set in. I sound smarter if I make it look mathematical:

cardie
cardie + hoodie
cardie + hoodie + scarf
cardie + hoodie + scarf + leather jacket
cardie + hoodie + scarf + leather jacket + coat
cardie + hoodie + scarf + leather jacket + coat + knit headband
cardie + hoodie + scarf + leather jacket+ coat + knit headband + bobble hat
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Even when I was beach-bumming around Malibu I still had a few emergency layers stuffed into my bag for when the sun set. You can see from this photograph, taken on the same day, I could wear a short-short dress and cardy during the day, but by dusk I had added my trusty American Apparel hoody, pink cotton scarf-snood and a pair of Uniqlo thermal leggings. Which takes me neatly onto…

 02. Thermals

I have been a fan of thermals ever since you could only buy them M&S and they were of the frilly/holy/granny variety. Luckily nowadays thanks to the kings aka HEATTECH Uniqlo and their subtle, fashionable thermal collection, life for chilly boned bods like me has vastly improved. In fact the latest tie-up between Uniqlo & Orla Kiely produced such thermal beauties that they were begging to be worn for the world to see, rather than buried beneath winter woollens. For my trip I took a camisole, vest, t-shirt, long-sleeved and legging versions of the Uniqlo thermals. I also took thermal tights; which you can pick up in Primark and are so thick they don’t have a denier. They are like leggings with feet! Finally, I took my trust thermal socks. If you have survived winter without making the discovery that is thermal socks with all your toes intact, I want to shake your hand! Thermal socks are the worlds best invention. They are fluffy, furry and take the heat you create whilst walking around and circulate it around your hoofs leading to toasty, happy feet. Mine are from Primark but I have spotted higher-brow versions in Fat Face.

03. Key Pieces

The skill of any great packer is an eye for key pieces. There is nothing worse than chucking a bunch of stuff in a bag and arriving at your destination to discover not one item matches! I have been guilty of this myself; usually when I’ve been travelling somewhere on a Saturday and just one drink after work on Friday turns into staggering in at 2am and up-ending a drawer into my weekend bag and hoping that the items somehow miraculously turn into outfits en route. They never ever do. One of my key pieces for this trip was my cream lace midi dress. It’s comfortable, work/fun friendly and they main reason is; it looked lovely in LA with just bare legs and sandals. It also looked as lovely in NY with tights, clompy lace-up boots and all the layers listed above. I used a snazzy Stylight board here to highlight what I mean, I could spend hours on Stylight making boards. It’s certainly captured my cut & paste/mood board interest where Pinterest failed.

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Here is another good example of a versatile outfit pick. I’m obsessed with this birdcage tropical River Island T-shirt (a steal at £15!) and in the Cali sun I matched it with a denim highwaist buttondown skirt and sandals and a leather jacket for the evening. In NY it worked just as well with thick tights and my boots and a woolly cardie.

04. A good excuse for SHOPPING

Now lets just get this straight. You don’t want to pack toooooo well, as if you have a few items missing it’s the perfect justification to hit the shops. By the tailend of my second week on the road, life was getting stale. That musty aeroplane/suitcase smell was wafting after me like a cartoon cloud and I was thoroughly sick of the same few choices. So, I scuttled to Broadway and spent the last of my precious per diems in Forever 21, Madewell & American Eagle. Was I sensible in my picking up of warm weather supplies? No, of course I got dazzled by the stocks of spring/summer/sunny offerings so shivered my way through the final weekend and am now seriously hoping we get a glimpse of sunshine so that I can debut my results of New York foraging.

I will be posting all about my Big Apple antics this week, but in the meantime I wanted to say thanks Shopping Unlike for picking Like A Skeleton Key as a highlight on their blog this week and giving it this write-up. Shucks.

 

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When I landed into LAX, I was so fortunate to have a seat on the right-hand side of the plane and one away from the window, with a slender slumbering passenger next to me so I could lean right over and shove my nose up to the glass (plastic?). As we swooped down over the city, I had the perfect birds-eye view of the Hollywood sign which had me giddily bouncing about in my seat. I’ve since learnt that this aeroplane sign-spotting is extremely rare. The day before I flew in, LA had something almost unheard of… rain! This meant the stubborn smog, that would usually entirely blot out the view of the sign and the Hollywood hills, had lifted for a few days and the air was temporarily clear and crisp. By the time I headed up to the Griffith Park observatory just a week later, the soupy smog was well and truly back and although it created a dramatic Gotham-city style effect it really did highlight just how terrible the pollution problem is, especially for a city so otherwise obsessed with health and well-being.

Do you know the story of the Hollywood sign? It’s well worth a read here if you don’t. I had no idea that it started life (appropriately for Hollywood) as an ambitious outdoor marketing campaign for a suburban housing development “Hollywoodland”. Long after the housing development firm had disbanded, the land was removed leaving the sign that still stands today. It’s had a typically Hollywood life; with a drunken driver ploughing through and destroying the H, a suicide of a rejected-starlet Peg Entwistle (who in an ironic twist, mere days after her suicide would have received a letter offering her the lead role in a play… about a girl driven to suicide) and near total destruction as weather & no maintenance took it’s hold. In 1978 numerous donors bought a letter each at $27,777 a pop and the sign was renovated. Hugh Hefner owns the Y and Alice Cooper bought the second O in memory of Groucho Marx. Whatever your views on Hollywood and the culture, I would challenge anyone not to feel moved in some way when they see that sign in the flesh!

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Now where was I? The rest of my week followed a similar path of working away during the days, then escaping into the dusky evening to explore Los Angeles whilst I could keep my eyes open. On the Wednesday evening I was fading fast so took a night off tourism and just explored Sunset Boulevard with the sole intention of snapping up a feast and retreating to eat it in my hotel bed like a massive slob. I discovered a little Mexican take away (sorry take-out) called Poquito Mas where I ordered a shrimp taco, which you can see below was about twice the size of my head (and stomach, but that didn’t stop me!). I also called in at the liquor store and bought a Mike’s hard lemonade. I first discovered wonderful Mike in NY a few years ago, and it’s perfect for people like me who don’t drink alot and aren’t overly fond of the taste of beer. It comes in a few flavours but black cherry is by far the yummiest.

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You’ll notice a theme in this post… FOOD. After a strong start to the year of running, swimming, pilates-ing… all rules went out of the window for a fortnight of gluttony. One night after work Nora kindly chauffeured me back to Malibu as I was desperate to get some more beach time. First we stopped off for sushi (where we could sit outside; a prospect which seems ridiculous now that I’m back in the UK in head to toe thermals, woollens and 3 pairs of socks) and I devoured spicy seaweed and blue lump crab and various sea-lurkers I’d never even heard of, before proudly tucking into an authentic California roll IN California, ho ho. It was during this meal we were sat next to a boy of about 14 on a date with a similar aged girl, and I overheard him loudly exclaim “well I asked my agent, my manager AND my publicist…”which was my one ‘only in LA’ experience. Well that and crossing the road with Joshua Jackson. After sushi we hit Malibu Frozen Yoghurt, and I made Nora laugh/cringe by insisting on saying Mu-Bu-Fro-Yo-Yo-Lo the whole walk there. Mu-Bu Fro-Yo is obviously the #1 teen hangout so I felt like I an extra in Beverly Hills 90210 whilst I sat surrounded by impossibly skinny teens in cut off shorts, scooping mountains of peanut butter frozen yoghurt with crushed Oreo toppings into my gob!

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I’m lucky enough to have a cousin, David, who lives out in LA with his girlfriend Katie, so I had a second set of tour guides to introduce me to a whole different part of the city. They live in an area called Echo Park, which along with nearby Los Feliz and Silver Lake are certainly up-and-coming and becoming increasingly appealing neighbourhoods. I can see why; Echo Park is a wonderful mishmash of diners, trinket shops, dive bars, diners, all walks of life, all cultures, street art, lakes, green spaces and there is also 826LA; one of Dave Eggers-inspired non-profit writing & tutoring centres. If you haven’t seen one, then you can seek out the Ministry of Stories in Hoxton. All of the centres have a fictional shop-front hiding the volunteers and students from prying eyes. In Hoxton its a Monster Suppliers store, Pirate Shop in San Francisco, Super Hero Supply Co in New York and 826LA in Echo Park has a Time Travel Mart. Behind the shopfront, there are classrooms and seminar rooms where children and young people up to age 18 from the local community can go and work with volunteers to improve their writing skills and explore their imaginations. I’ve always wanted to volunteer in London, it’s definitely on my permanent to-do list. On my night in Echo Park we sought out the Gold Room dive bar, where a beer & tequila are served together as a rule, and I enjoyed giant pint of Californian beer that came served with a peel of orange curled into it, served with a bowl of shell-on peanuts.

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Friday night rolled round and I could breathe a sigh of relief at my office hours ticking to a close. To celebrate Nora took me for a unique LA experience. We headed down to the Upright Citizens Brigade, which I’d highly recommend if you ever find yourself in NY or LA, as it’s not something you’ll read about in a rough guide or tour book. The UCB Theatre puts on nightly comedy improvised & sketch shows featuring various local comedy troupes. The troupes consist of some of the best comedians out there, who still perform together as quite often this type of improv production is often where comedians are discovered and begin their career. Despite the show being ticketed, my one piece of advise it to arrive 30 minutes early as you still have to queue in advance as each show is massively over-subscribed. I was lucky enough to get a great seat to watch Diamond Lion who specialise in musical improv. They launched on to the stage and asked for a word at random from the audience (“plaid”) and then performed various skits inspired by this word, entirely created on the spot AND set to music?! I can’t comprehend how one person could be so sharp, let alone a group of 7 people all working instantly in harmony and feeding off one another’s talent. It’s at the UCB that skits for Saturday Night Live and various other big American entertainment shows are tested out and based on the audience reaction; shelved or written up! I wish there was something similar in London because I have to admit I find stand-up comedy tedious and contrived, and really enjoyed the unpredictability of improv; some of the funniest moments were actually when a joke didn’t work and the whole thing unravelled.

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On my last day in Los Angeles David & Katie ensured I saw everything that was on my quirky hit-list. The only thing we didn’t get time for was the Museum of Jurassic Technology (alas) but I know Nick would have been a green monster if I had, so am quite happy to wait for a return trip. First up we drove around ‘Old Hollywood’ and saw some incredible Victorian Psycho style houses, including one that had been set up by a film shoot to have a garage sale outside. Two doors down a real family were having a legitimate garage sale, so I couldn’t help but think the crew could have saved some time and budget and just filmed that! As a David Lynch fangirl I was desperate to see the spooky Sierra Bonita apartments from Mulholland Drive so after a quick ‘scared face’ tourist photo shoot (as people actually live in them… jealous) we sped off up the road to inspect John Marshall High aka Rydell High from Grease. It was surreal to see the bleachers and race track where they sing ‘Summer Lovin'” which still look identical for the students who attend there today. The school seems to be used as a standard high school in most movies, including Nightmare on Elm Street.

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We then drove up the actual Mulholland Drive towards Griffith Park and the incredible observatory there, which again I recommend and it’s FREE. The park itself is a vast amount of green space and in an isolated corner David has even spotted a mountain Lion! After a steep climb to the top, you are rewarded with 360-degree views over the whole of Los Angeles. Everything is visible; the sign, downtown, the stacked hill houses and the mountains in the distance. See what I mean about the smog though…

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En route to downtown we called in at Scoops. Again Americans just seem to go bigger & better and the flavours were pretty mindblowing. I resisted temptation to opt for the brown bread or hot sauce options (!) with my sweet tooth winning out and gorging myself on Guinness Chocolate (it was St Patricks Day eve after all) and Oreo Cheesecake. I also appreciated the unlimited toppings so I could go nuts with the nuts. Downtown was my absolute favourite part of Los Angeles. If someone had driven me there blindfolded and dumped me out of the car, I would have sworn blind we weren’t in LA anymore. It had such a different vibe and look; skyscrapers tower over with those distinctive NY-style fire stairs and the sun is shaded out by the staggering buildings. It’s a little slice of NY in LA, with the best of both cities. Although to be honest anywhere that is home to a bar that serves cocktails in bespoke copper tankards is bound to win my heart. The tankards at Cole’s are so precious that you have to hand over your ID as a deposit, and they definitely made my 3pm Moscow Mule taste 100% more delicious. The bar itself obviously had it’s hayday in the roaring 20s and still has the most incredible decour, oh and a sign in the men’s toilets (David reported back) that says “Charles Bukowski pissed here”! If you want to know what downtown LA looks like; watch (500) Days of Summer as the majority of it is filmed there. I also was very proud of my own personal Hollywood tour – I spotted the parking lot that the kid in Kick Ass gets stabbed in. Downtown LA used to be the heart of Hollywood, and this is evident in the grand, plush theatres that still dot the streets; although they are mostly abandoned or now house 99-cent stores or dodgy gold pawn shops beneath. It’s quite heartbreaking and eerie.

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I didn’t need a Zoltar wish as I’d had the best possible time in Los Angeles and was about to be whisked off to New York, so already plenty lucky enough. Thanks to my generous tour guides and their infectious enthusiasm, my perspective of LA has been entirely changed and I would definitely class it as a favourite place with so much more to still investigate and discover for myself. It’s much more than just the hall-of-fame stars on the strip.

 

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The day I left London it was the classic big smoke weather than makes you feel like you’re in a Charles Dickens novel or Sherlock Holmes story. Drizzle dampened my coat and my case and spooky mist hung heavy, clutching me as I marched around Paddington station seeking out the Heathrow Express. 11 hours of tossing, turning, munching those ridiculously bad/good cheese pasties you always get as part of inflight ‘snacktime’ and watching a few movies (The Perks of Being a Wall Flower, The Silver Linings Playbook & The Girl; all of which I really enjoyed. Perfect dozy aeroplane picks.) and I was landing in LAX.

I spent 8 days in Los Angeles, working from the West Coast branch of my employers. Despite still managing to sicken all my Facebook friends and family with photos of me larking about in the sun; I did actually work ten hour days and had to do daily presentations for over 100 people (mega eek) as well as pretty much hourly meetings and keeping up with all my standard work-load. So I promise, I earnt that sunshine, as I spent most of the time hunched over my laptop gazing at the palm trees and blue sky from my desk! But you don’t want to hear about that, and I’m happy it’s over and went well, so lets focus on the fun bits of my LA adventure which I crammed into every evening and weekend moment.

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Before I start rambling… I HAVE THE CURE FOR JETLAG! Which obviously I have to share. I was so anxious before; because I have always been struck with the worst jetlag on previous trips. Even flights to Toronto & NYC which don’t have massive time-zone differences have left me groggy and grizzly for days. For my best friends wedding in Vegas, I was so jet lagged that I fell asleep for 20 minutes during her reception (I had also drunk 3 pints of a dive bar cocktail named ass juice which might not have helped) and earnt myself the title Maid of Dishonour. So you can imagine I was dreading this trip as I knew that I needed to bring my A-Game (totes learnt this phrase in LA, obv) and could hardly do that if I was a drooling mess PLUS I have given up caffeine so knew that I couldn’t even indulge in comically-big Starbucks or multiple Diet Coke fixes to aid me in my zzz battle. I spent half a day googling jet-lag cures/preventions and couldn’t find anywhere that said the same thing, but one advise kept popping up which was… stay hydrated. Water water water. So this was my tactic:

1. Drink as much water as possible. They are stingy on flights so take on a couple of big bottles. Yes you will spend most of the flight queuing or in the toilet but at least you pass the time. Maintain this once you arrive. I drank 4 giant Evian bottles in my first two days there.

2. No booze! Actually that’s a lie, I had one Baileys on the flight over. I think the key was no getting baked (like I did on route to Las Vegas; the plane actually ran out of alcohol…) and definitely NO drinking on your first two days in the new time zone.

3. Don’t nap. Just don’t. I’ve always succumbed to arriving at the hotel and regardless of the time, crashing out for an over zealous power nap. This time I arrived at about 3pm (11pm London time) but gritted my teeth and stayed awake until 9pm having a proper dinner and then sleeping through the night. I also left the curtain open meaning I woke up with the sun (not the alarm) which sounds hippyish but really helped too.

And there you have it. I wasn’t jet lagged at all during my trip, in fact I felt more energised than in London! I applied this strategy again on Sunday when I flew to NY (LA > NY is a meant to be even more brutal than LDN > LA) and have found again that I have totally defeated the jetlag beast, and can get by on using Cheetos as a caffeine replacement for my long hour days. I have probably turned my insides orange!

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Having no jet lag meant I could bounce out of bed and go meet my dear friend Nora, who was to be my trusted chaffeur, companion, tour guide and fancy frolicking fun date buddy for my trip. We started off with brunch at The Hart and Hunter and honestly if you are ever in LA you need to eat here. In fact, even if you live thousands of miles from LA, you need to go drool over the menus. After an impossible amount of perusing the options, I settled on the fried green tomato & crab egg benedict with herb hollandaise. I ate an actual fried green tomato! It was the best brunch of my life and no doubt a foodie highlight of the year. With our bellies full, we zoomed off to Malibu. Nora spent some of her childhood growing up there (she went to Malibu High School; surely the name of an actual TV show?) so knew every nook and cranny and the absolute best places to take in the view. We drove along the gorgeous Pacific Coast Highway into Malibu and I saw a dolphin glistening & larking about in the ocean. I didn’t even know dolphins existed in this part of America so though it was a mirage until Nora assured me it was real, they are quite common. We stopped in at a mall complex where I indulged in a spot of Sephora digging (I was restrained and limited my purchase to the Pantone Emerald colour of the year nail polish) and then we went to Grom for some of the finest Italian-in-California Gelato, which was so good I’m going to have to travel to the other side of Manhattan and seek out the NY branch to feed my addition.

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We passed Mel Gibson’s house which has a GIANT house-sized white wooden cross in the front garden, visible for miles. We then drove up the winding roads, creaking around hairpin bends and tummy-flipping hills to get the the Wild West as Nora phrases it. It’s an area of Malibu where you can climb craggy rocks and wade through cacti to basically get a birds eye view view out over the valley (home of Kim Kardashian…), the hills & the coastline. The whole world felt tiny from up there, and it re-enforced just how beautiful LA can be; it’s not the plasticky concrete jungle I was expecting by any means. From there we drove down to Zuma Beach, which was as idyllic as you’d expect; just a little gusty with a coastal breeze which had the gulls (and PELICANS!) whizzing around in the wind currents.

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After all that fresh California air, we needed something else to munch on. For months since Nora knew I was coming out to LA, there was has been two words on her lips and those are fish burger! I had no idea what a fish burger even was, and was imagining some sort of upmarket fillet-o-fish but oh boy was it more than that. We headed to Neptunes Net which has a famous history, as it was used for the exterior of restaurant that Hollywood twin-brats Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen ate religiously at in their show So Little Time, which I sadly/proudly haven’t ever seen as it was before my kids TV career days. Nowadays however, there isn’t an Olsen in sight, in fact you are most likely to be greeted by a mob of bikers and Hells Angels! It has a huge biker community as it’s on a popular motorcycle route. Inside it was chaos, happy people everywhere chowing down on all seafood imaginable. We opted for the holy fish burgers, fries & a side of shrimp, and sat out in the blazing sun in happy greedy silence. I can see what the fuss was about – a fish burger might be my new favourite food; so how cruel it’s not available in London! (Or if it is, I doubt the Thames-fish are quite so tasty)

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We ended a perfect Malibu day with a drive to Point Dume, where it honestly felt like we were in a fairytale. I can see why so many music videos and films are shot here; including Destiny’s Child – Survivor (I know right, what a jip… they weren’t really on a desserted tropical island). We walked through fields of head-height yellow flowers that were glowing in the pre-sunset golden light. We scrabbled down craggy steps onto the beach, and sat watching climbers coast up & down the huge rock face. Finally, we sat back and enjoyed a perfect Pacific sunset as the sky burnt from yellow to pink to orange to purple. Oh, and drove home via Cher’s house. Hi Cher!

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A few other highlights of my first few days living as an LA-er were definitely the time I got ASKED for directions by actual authentic Americans. I felt it must have meant I didn’t look so rabbit-in-the-headlight dazed tourist and perhaps this was a sign I’d made it in Hollywood! Also nifty Nora busted me out of work one lunch time to indulge in the ultimate must-eat when in LA: In-n-Out Burger. Have you heard the urban legend/true fact story that apparently once Lily Allen flew all the way from London to LAX in her private jet just to get In-n-Out then flew straight home? A 22 hour round trip just for a burger! I can see why though, they are something special. My first time in LA I didn’t know about the secret menu (not on the boards instore, only visible on their website) so this time I was all set to order my fries and burger Animal Style like a true know-it-all. This means they come covered in special sauce (thousand island I’d call it) and fried onions! Also by some freak occurrence and fangirling, I wore a tee covered in Palm Trees so fitted perfectly with the branding.

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On the drive back to the office, we had our windows down and hair whipping in the wind. We pulled up next to a van driver who was doing the same, but was also blaring out Boys of Summer on his music system, which we did some serious car-dancing and appreciation to. At the next red lights we pulled up next to him again and THIS time he was playing Smells Like Teen Spirit. What a playlist, it was such a surreal moment that will really stick with me.

So that was a brief recap of my Malibu & Hollywood adventures. There is a sequel/part ii to this blog coming soon about exploring Echo Park, falling in love with Downtown & of course… getting up close to the THE sign.

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Woah nelly!

(Have you read part i? If not click here, or this won’t make much sense. All stories need a beginning after all.)

On Valentines Day we drove into Agadir. We were excited to see the local city, and take in a different kind of culture than the village life we’d adapted to. Agadir itself was a mixed experience. Our first port of call was the Kasbah that overlooks the city, perched atop of a huge hill and visible from everywhere in Agadir. The view from there was breath-taking. I also saw my first EVER camel. The panoramic perspective clearly shows the shift caused by the disastrous earthquake that hit Agadir in 1960, killing half the population and completely destroying the old town. The Agadir we visited is apparently unrecognisable to it’s previous state, having been entirely rebuilt and so it’s fair to judge it bearing in mind that it’s a city still recovering from a devastating natural disaster.

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We spent alot of the day on the beach; which was clean and pleasant. The town however didn’t really have much to offer. Sadly (well not if you like that kind of thing) Agadir is dominated by resorts. Tourists flock for the cheap flights and guaranteed heat, but then stay in these Club-Med style resorts with huge walls and gated access. Actually I think I only need to say one thing to describe Agadir; there’s an English Pub. And for me, that’s exactly what I was trying to escape! We tried to make the most of the day by visiting the Valley of the Birds; a free nature attraction. However, as I excitedly scampered in and ran up to the first cage of blue parrots… I recoiled in horror. All the birds were balding. Some had almost no feathers. Some had actual bits of them missing, obviously having been gnawed off by their cage-mates. The ‘valley’ was an unfortunate one-way system so we were forced to carry on through what Nick coined the gauntlet of horror and we were very relieved to escape, if a little traumatised. One good thing about Agadir was that we could visit the huge Uniprix (supermarket). Morocco is a totally dry country = no booze for sale! So if you want a few drinks on an evening, you have to bring them yourself. Our Kasbah were very accommodating – and would happily put drinks in the fridge for us, open them to serve with dinner etc. They just don’t have the license (or inclination…) to serve it. The Uniprix is the only place in Agadir to legally sell alcohol, so we picked up a bottle of bubbles and also 4 bottles of the local Casablanca beer. I’m absolutely gutted we just had hand-luggage allowance as otherwise we would have bought a crate of this back! It was a beautiful beer, and a steal at just over £1 a bottle. The highlight of Agadir, and reason I would still recommend a visit, was twilight. As the sun sets, you can sit on one of the beach front bars drinking mint tea (obvs) watching the birds swarm around the port and then the motif on the Kasbah hill that says God, Country, King lights up and sparkles in the distance. It was a really tranquil moment and a favourite memory of the trip.

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Our big adventure day saw us drive the 2 hours down to Souss-Massa National Park. There were endless options of big day trips we could have done – Marrakesh, the oasis of Ait Baha, sampling fresh honey and waterfalls of Imouzzer or the imperial city of Taroudant. We chose the national park because it was close to the city of Tiznit so we felt we could have a perfect day of wilderness and then taking in a traditional souk. At Souss-Massa we were met by a local villager Ahmed (another Ahmed!) and his trusty binoculars. He took us on a 3 hour trek which trailed the river Massa to the beach, the sahara sands and a small fishing village where homes were carved caves into the sand cliffs. We knew before we visited that Souss Massa was home to the near-extinct Bald Ibis bird. Half of the worlds population (of which there are only 800) reside there and there’s a huge local push to preserve and protect this critically endangered species. Our guide suddenly whooped for joy, and a V of bald ibis swooped over our heads! As we stood stunned on the sand, we saw about 3 different flocks of these incredible creatures and I even managed to get photograph that shows their amazing baldheads. This has to be the highlight of our trip, seeing one of the rarest birds in the world. Ahmed kept saying bon chance, bon chance as it’s so unexpected to see them. We also tracked wild foxes, found a wild boar skeleton, flocks of yellow billed herons in the trees and of course… sea gulls aplenty.

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As we crossed the sandy planes to the fisherman’s village, I made Ahmed laugh with a crocodile impression (the international language of signing coming in handy again) and in return he gave me his Berber headscarf which I wore for the rest of the day. On another baking hot day, it was sorely appreciated. As Ahmed took his headscarf off, a big curly mop of sun-bleached hair appeared, and we realised that he was a cool surf dude undernearth the traditional dress. He also had an amazing ironic teeshirt, considering he is a guide at a national park, he was wearing a Yellowstone national park T! We took mint tea with his brother in his beautiful painted cave house. The language barrier was easily overcome by Ahmed showing us photographs of a giant dead whale that washed up on the coastline last May, with men stood around it looking the size of ants. Again I was struck by how little you need to be content, and how simple his life was looking out on the ocean. On the way home Ahmed encouraged us to climb up some stairs built into the sand cliff, which then turned into… just sand. The ground gave away (imagine how slippery vertical sand is!) as we scrambled our way up the cliff. Ahmed of course remained cool as a cucumber, whilst I imagined just how much damage landing on those spiny, sharp rockpools would do to my face… Another near-death scrape but as he tugged me over the final cliff-lip, the views were almost worth it.

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Sandy and sun-kissed, we drove an hour to Tiznit. On the way we didn’t see another car, only ragged rudded plains as far as the eye could see, peppered with the occasional nomad’s tent. Tiznit was a delight, and I’d definitely recommend you visit. We were the only tourists and that always reassures me that you are seeing a city in its natural state rather than putting on a show for visitors. Tiznit is the capital of silver, and we got to see a local man creating silver that looked like delicate spun sugar. I bought an ebony bracelet with silver etchings, which has shot to the top of my most favourite and precious jewellery items and would definitely get saved in a fire! Tiznit is split in two, with an old terracotta town with huge towering walls and staircases that lead to nowhere. This was where the souk was, and it was a wonder to walk around – heaps of tagine pots, Moroccan slippers, jewels, oils and our new guide Saeed kept encouraging me to eat random bits of what looked like twig that he plucked from the market stalls that were apparently good for women (he didnt say how, and they tasted like tree. I even got a tongue splinter.)

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From Tiznet we drove out into the proper heights of the Atlas Mountains to the Ben Tachfine dam. As we wound narrow roads I had no idea what to expect, and as we stepped out of the car I couldn’t catch my breath. No photo or words or describing will do justice to how beautiful the view was, and how silent and peaceful and just mind-blowing this moment was. I couldn’t have felt further from home. An 86 year old nomad lived at the top of the mountain and invited us for mint tea… and offered Nick to swap me for his donkey. It was quite a nice donkey.

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So, days merged into days, and a lot of dips in the pools, hours reading in the dusky sun, exploring the high Atlas and sleeping (we averaged around ten hours a night) and for our final trip we drove out to a surf town near Essaouira which is fondly referred to locally as banana beach. Weirdly enough Nick & I had never tried surfing before, despite me having holidayed at Fistral Beach in Newquay and Nick having er.. lived in Australia! I can’t remember at what point we agreed to try in Morocco, but we thought it would be nice to try something entirely new for the first time together. We went with Surf Town who we were reassured were experts with beginners, and they lived up to the claims. We paid £54 for half a day surfing and that included a very hands-on tutor, equipment and wet-suits. We joined a group of 5 friendly Russians and together embarked our efforts to take on the sea.

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I couldn’t believe how MASSIVE the surf board was. I am a weakling, and could barely lift the thing let alone contemplate riding it! But actually once in the water (and attached to my foot) it was a little easier to control. We learnt the basics of surfing on the sand, and then hit the (huge) waves. I have to say, I absolutely loved it. Surfing requires intense concentration, a good sense of timing (to know when to paddle, when to attempt to stand etc) but once you get up on the board it’s the most satisfying, free feeling. Although every moment of exhilaration is matched with an hour of face-planting into crashing waves, sand and (for me) rocks. Woops. I definitely caught the surf bug though, and it helped to be doing it in a glorious exotic location with camels roaming the beach and herons swooping overhead. I managed to stand up once, whereas Nick was basically Beach-Boys level surf star within hours. What I didn’t expect was the world of pain that followed the next day. Every muscle in my body was screaming, so being squished into a full-capacity Easyjet flight for nearly 4 hours wasn’t the best treatment. We both agreed that it’s something we can’t wait to try again. I can’t see us getting his n hers boards and spending the days at the beach, but I reckon we’ll definitely go again this year. It’s quite nice to have started on one of the coastlines that worldclass surfers long to surf on!

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So that’s the end of my first ever trip to Morocco. You have probably gathered that it stole a piece of my heart, and I am desperately blue at being back in -5 degree London, which currently is snowing constantly at that level that makes me feel like I’m walking around in Silent Hill. Morocco has been my best ever holiday, and I would recommend everyone and anyone to visit. You can pick and choose absolutely anything you could wish for from a holiday, and be as adventurous or as lazy as you like. I also can’t recommend Atlas Kasbah enough. Every member of staff seemed so personally invested in us having a good time, and were patient, welcoming and endlessly friendly. Nothing was too much trouble, and they made our holiday so much more special because they were from the local area so were endless sources of knowledge and tips and information.

If you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into a travel blogging version of me, then don’t worry, my feet are barely on the ground because in two weeks time I’ll be in Los Angeles and New York for work so expect a bit more of the same.

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Last Tuesday my alarm went off at 4am and I didn’t mind AT all! We bundled out of the house and a taxi whooshed us to Victoria to pick up a train to Gatwick. It had snowed overnight so all the parks were Narnia-like and frost glistened on the silent streets. Somehow the blue lips and cold fingers as we waited for the train made the fact that in a a few hours we’d be landing in 30 degree African sun even more satisfying. The glorious Easyjet fly to Essaouira, Agadir and Marrakesh, and our flights cost £70 return each, so if you book in advance a Moroccan escape can be cheaper than holidaying in Europe. As we creaked up into the air the captain informed us that thanks to a stiff tail wind (heh) we’d be there in a brisk 3 hours as opposed to the scheduled 3 hours 45 minutes. A bumpy trip and beautiful sunrise later and we were descending over the Atlas Mountains.

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This was both Nick & I’s first time in North Africa. Rather than staying in one of the bustling cities, we had chosen to stay in the High Atlas. This is the edge of the Atlas Mountains, and about a 25 minute drive from Agadir. After a fair bit of research we had fallen head over heels in love with the Atlas Kasbah which is an Ecolodge situated in the middle of the hills in a small Berber community. The Kasbah ticked the boxes of everything we wanted from the holiday; to be immersed in a new culture, easy access to mountains, desert, beaches and souks and… a pool to lounge around next to on our lazy days.

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We couldn’t have been more impressed with the Kasbah, in fact on the feedback survey I marked everything 10/10! We were absolutely spoilt with the local cuisine, as in the Kasbah local chefs and cooks from the village create traditional dishes. Everything from the vegetables, to the herbs used in the tea, are grown at the ecolodge in gardens and over the week we ate the best food of our life! From heaps of fluffy couscous, to steaming tagine, to this amazing invention called pastilla (a sort of noodle pastry pie filled with chicken and sweet almond) and every meal was opened with piping hot just-baked flat bread. Even breakfast which I expected to be a lame buffet effort (HOW wrong) was an epic feast. Every day we ate a barley soup to warm our stomachs which was a bit like a tepid savoury rice pudding but curiously addictive. We would then be brought pancakes, warm bread, cake and an omelette, along with natural yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice and 6 mini tagine pots filled with honey, pureed apple, dates, jam, butter and almond butter. Nick drank the spiced coffee but as I’m still caffeine-free (and was green with envy!) I opted for mint tea.

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Mint tea needs a whole paragraph of it’s own! Now lets just get this straight, the Moroccan mint tea isn’t like the ole packet peppermint stuff we have here. It’s the pillar of the Arabic culture. We were lucky enough to get a lesson in making the mint tea by the Kasbah host M’bark. The tea is made with fresh mint (50 types of mint grow in Morocco), green tea and a serious amount of sugar. The tea takes 10 minutes to prepare as the water is boiled over hot coals, then poured in and out of metal teapots into small glass beakers over and over, to dilute the sugar and mix the ingredients. You can certainly taste the love that has gone into it. During our various trips we were invited to take tea with 3 different families, to whom we were complete strangers, and each time the process was done with such care (and always by the man of the house – it’s serious business remember!)

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In fact the main recommendation I would give for Morocco is how friendly and welcoming everyone is. I had read before going that in Arabic culture everyone they meet is viewed as a gift from Allah and destined to be there, and this attitude is absolutely clear by how warm and open everyone we met was. Especially given the massive language barrier! In Morocco, French and Arabic are the dominant languages, with Berber also spoken in Berber communities. We learnt that Berber people actually refer to themselves as Amazigh which means free people, as Berber was a name given by outsiders and is actually quite offensive (sort of equivalent to barbarian) although still commonly used. I speak no French and given that I’m now 8 weeks into re-learning Spanish, was desperately trying to avoid using French as I was worried the Spanish would all drop out of my brain! Nick, we soon realised, also could speak no French other than the very helpful “shut your mouth” and “I don’t give a damn” which wouldn’t exactly endear us to the local community. We soon decided it would be just as easy (and hopefully a bit more impressive) to learn key phrases in Arabic and Berber. So we made a big effort on our first day to practise and perfect how to say hello, please, thank you and no problem. It’s amazing how far these 4 phrases used alongside some sign language and big wavy arm movements can get you.

Our first test came on day 2, when we spent the day hiking in the High Atlas with our guide Ahmed, who lived in the local village. It was a blisteringly hot day, and in Morocco as a female you need to be covered elbow>knee when out and about in rural areas, to respect the religious beliefs of those you’ll come into contact with. Add to this the fact that Ahmed’s idea of a stroll was to walk 5 metres ahead at all times, with an almost jogging power pace. We later discovered that he cheekily told the Kasbah staff that he’d worked us hard because they are young! The hike was exactly what I needed to fully de-Londonify myself. We walked miles and miles into the hills, barely seeing another living creature. What struck me about the terrain was how rocky and craggy everything was. Even beautiful flowers were covered with spiney stems and dusty leaves. The trees, despite being green, had thorny gnarled trunk. It felt like everything had to be extra tough and coarse to survive the lack of water and the desolate environment.

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Eventually we reached the peaks of the hills, where the nomads live. At night, we could see the nomads fires blazing in the distance and it was comforting and humbling to think of them out there, living such a simple lifestyle (especially when we had been patting ourselves on the back at going without iPhones for a week) We then hiked down to Ahmed’s villlage. En route he encouraged (ok politely forced) us to stroke a very poisonous-looking caterpillar and we both wondered if we might drop dead within minutes… but luckily we didn’t. Instead we made it to the village, and were fortunate enough to visit the Argan Oil Cooperative. As part of a push to create more jobs for women, cooperatives have been set up around Morocco where women gather to create Argan Oil (specific to the region and one of the biggest exported goods). We sat with the women for half an hour, using the stone tools to attempt to crack open Argan fruit and then crack open the nut inside, then free the small white seeds which are then crushed to make the precious oil. The women working away found it hilarious that Nick sat down and mucked in, and were howling with laughter the whole time! It felt really special to spend the time there, really witnessing what daily life is like for the villagers.

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We were then invited to Ahmed’s for mint tea and a flatbread/honey feast. We met his wife and two young children and he proudly showed us his home, his chicken and the area he lived in. We started to realise that perhaps he had been walking so fast because he was excited to get us back to see his house! As we headed home in the late afternoon, the village mosque was calling to prayer. We spotted this glorious blue lizard and spent the evening star gazing.

Part ii coming soon (hopefully tomorrow if I get a wriggle on and keep eating these fizzy strawberry straws that are powering me with E numbers!); including spotting the endangered bald ibis, my first time surfing, Agadir being a bit crummy and scaling a sandy cliff face of doom.

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I have never been to Sonar before. I have actually never been to a music festival outside of Britain before, but after 10 years of soggy camping, over-priced van food and harrowing when-weather-goes-bad experiences I had enough of hearing myself inevitabley bleat with the amount I’ve spent at 3 days of festival going in the UK, I could have paid for a holiday abroad! and decided to put it to the test.

There were alot of things that appealed to me about Sonar 2010. The fact it was in Barcelona – a city I had only visited briefly when I was 14 and well below Sangria slurping age or the age to really appreciate anything other than the fact I was away from home for the first time with boys from the YEAR ABOVE shocker! Also the fact Sonar is a non-camping festival which means you hook yourself up with a nifty little appartment and have somewhere nice to wake up, BATHE and prance around in pretty dresses (speaking as someone whos favourite teadress got washed away in the Bestival 2008 monsoon, this is of upmost importance!) It also means you can buy the amazingly cheap local Cava (two euros fifty a bottle) and freeload it in your appartment before leaving to start partyng at night; thus avoiding buying the not-amazingly cheap beer at Sonar – 3 euros for HALF a pint. Oucho.

I went to Sonar with a gaggle of 3 girls and we rented an adorable appartment in the El Born region. The appartment had teacup tiles on the wall and a roof terrace that we could spy over Barcelona from and laze around in the sun, munching food from the local food market like jamon, queso and la sandía. We arrived a day before Sonar kicked off, so we could have a beach bum day and get cracking into some Estrella daytime drinking whilst getting our bearings.

 

 

Sonar is great because it runs Day and Night. Sonar by Day is held at MACBA which is an amazing venue, packed with exhibitons – the key one being all about robotsa! and two stages. My favourite was Sonar Village, which is covered in faux grass (think butchers windows) and had a constant flurry of DJs playing amazing tunes. One of the absolute highpoints was when Lemonade did a DJ set on the Friday afternoon at about 5pm. We danced, beers in hand, sun beating down as they played amazing reggae and summery tracks. We danced until our calves hurt and when they dropped in All That She Wants by Ace of Base we witnessed a stampede as everyone around us hurtled towards the stage to dance too. I’ve never seen so many happy smiley faces, I guess Ace of Base really are internationally adored and so uncool they are cool or something?

 

 

After a midnight rooftop party, we knew we had to get in some serious siesta in order to last a night of raging. We also had learnt that teeny tiny tapas is no stomach-lining material and this lead me to discovering Maoz for the first time. Or should I say MMmmaoz! Super cheap falafal pittas stuffed with salad and hummous with all-you-can-eat access to a buffet bar of extra toppings including giant sundried tomatoes, fried cauliflower and jalapenos. My pitta was actually bigger than my entire head and probably one of the nicest things I’ve ever eaten. Luckily I found out they have a chain in London, phew, who wants to go?

 

 

I can’t possibly list all the incredible things and reasons why this festival was the best five days of my year, possibly life! Sonar at Night is held at an old aircraft hanger type set up, sprawling and with plenty of space for dancing crowds. The stages are inside and outside and it’s so warm you don’t realise when you are walking between one and the other. Dancing to Hot Chip under twinkling stars, dancing to LCD Soundsysem as slices of sun start to crack through the night sky at 5am. Bare leg weather through the night. Branded plastic beer beakers. Ghost balloons. Even loving crazed Dizzee Rascal (I challenge anyone not to shake a leg to Bonkers!) Dodgems. Twirling around our kitchen eating crisp feasts and making lemon fanta shandies. Singing so loudly (ahem, badly) to A Little Respect in the that taxi the driver almost turned around and took us home. 7am trip to A&E after my festival buddy fell during a poorly executed flying-high-five and tore her ankle ligaments (true story!) Bocadillo vending machines.

Sunday was a sad day, and even the beautiful care bear clouds on the flight home and being treated like P Diddy on arrival at Gatwick because of Susies broken foot (private lift and mini bus arriving to the plane to whisk us off and through security in .5 seconds!) can’t shake my back to work blues.  I would recommend. Heck I would BEG anyone with a foreign festival itch to scratch it next year and head to Sonar next year. I’m already counting down the days.

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