Where to Stay in Belfast: Culloden Estate and Spa

Culloden Estate and Spa

On our final night in Northern Ireland, we were fortunate to stay in the beautiful 5 star Culloden Estate and Spa situated high in the Holywood Hills, overlooking the Belfast Lough. This magnificent estate spans over 12 acres and was originally built in 1876 as an official Palace for the Bishops of Down and is now part of the Hasting Hotels group.

The foyer of the Culloden Estate and Spa

The atmosphere in the Culloden is one of prestige and elegance. From the moment I walked through the doors, I knew that this is exactly where I wanted to be shortly before Christmas, relaxing with a hot drink by the fireplace or taking long walks through the extensive and pristine grounds. Everywhere I looked, the decor and design was just so, beautifully thought out and stylish.

Stylish bathrooms in the Culloden

We were taken up to our room by the porter and I have to admit that neither Kat nor I were expecting a suite. We stayed in the Muirfield Suite and as you can see from the photos below, it was simply elegant.

Muirfield Suite Culloden

The suite featured a large room with twin beds, fireplace, sofas and dining table, overlooking the grounds of the Culloden. The entrance featured spacious double wardrobes, luggage racks and lead off to a large bathroom with a bath and shower.

Egyptian cotton linen at the Culloden

Special mention has to go to the bed. With Egyptian cotton linen and a Cloud Bed with deep pillow top layer, this was simply the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in. I felt like I was floating and I have to admit that all I wanted to do after breakfast the next morning was snuggle back into that bed.

Chandelier in the Muirfield suite, Culloden

The entrance to the Muirfield Suite, Culloden

Design and decor, Muirfield Suite, Culloden

View of Muirfield Suite, Culloden

The Culloden is what I like to think of as a destination hotel – it is the type of establishment that you visit for its own sake and not simply as a place to sleep. There is so much to do here if you’re looking for a nice, relaxing winter getaway and I have no doubt that it will be even more lovely during the summer months. Despite our relatively short stay, we enjoyed cocktails in the Crozier Lounge while listening to a live jazz trio, we took a walk around the grounds and drank in views of the County Antrim coastline, we spent a morning relaxing in the spa and we enjoyed a superb afternoon tea. Did we wish that our stay had been a little bit longer? Of course we did.

I will definitely return to the Culloden one day and I can’t wait to take Stephen there. Despite its luxury and opulence, the Culloden is surprisingly reasonable and they frequently offer packages and special offers which include meals and a full Irish breakfast.

Be sure to come back in February when I will take you on a tour of the grounds and gardens of the Culloden Estate.

Culloden Estate and Spa
Bangor Road, Holywood, Belfast, BT18 OEX
028 9042 1066

Room rate: from £165 for a double room, bed and breakfast.

We were guests of Hasting Hotels and Tourism Ireland during our stay in Belfast. As always, I promise to share sincere and honest opinions with my readers.

Lost in the Hills of Sarajevo

Looking back, we must have assumed the typical pose of lost travellers. We'd walked out of the Bascarsija (old town Sarajevo),  over the river and straight up the road towards the mountains surrounding Sarajevo. We slowed to a halt, took note of a rare street sign and then poured over a map to find our bearings.

Ulica Bistrik

A man had approached us asking, "do you speak English? Are you lost?"  I smiled widely and replied, "yes, and sort of". "We were trying to get lost", I clarified and he smiled knowingly. "Well", he said as he turned around and pointed to a narrow flight of stairs disappearing into the distance, "if you take those stairs they'll lead to the road that goes right around the hills. Any time you want to come down again, just descend another flight of stairs and the road will take you back down to the city". Perfect. We could get well and truly lost now.

Sarajevo - Stairs disappearing into the distance

As we parted with warm thanks and good wishes, I asked the man whether he was Irish. "Yes", he replied, "but I live here now". He wasn't the first person to say that to us in the past two days and I was starting to realise that Sarajevo is a very difficult city to leave.

I was just wondering to myself whether there might be a statistical correlation between speaking English and being lost when it began to rain. Of course, who else would be out walking during a thunderstorm with only a waterproof jacket and no umbrella?

We climbed the steps towards the motorway and turned at the last minute to walk down a narrow pathway leading behind the rows of houses. The stone path was uneven, overgrown and slick with rain. Most people would rush for shelter but incredibly, Stephen and I slowed down and stopped to drink in the views of the city below.

The Hills of Sarajevo

As we continued walking, movement caught my eye and I looked up to see a young teenage boy waving at me from his bedroom window. "Zdravo!", I greeted, the Bosnian greeting for hello. "Zdravo!", he replied but when I asked him how he was, "kako ste?" he disappeared.

We rounded his house and then continued along on the path below when I realised he had popped out of another window. We greeted each other again and then his attention was taken by his neighbour who popped out of her window to chat to him. As we turned another corner on the winding path, I turned back around and he waved enthusiastically at me. I was strangely touched by this friendly, welcoming and unaffected boy and waved back before he disappeared from view.

Scars of war Sarajevo

Walking along these narrow pathways, it is impossible to avoid seeing evidence of the war and siege that took place here twenty years ago. There are signs everywhere and many houses are burned out or encased in scaffolding or plastic. But there are far more signs that Bosnians have moved beyond this, that they choose to define their lives rather than their past.

We soon came to a main walkway. To our left steep, narrow stairs lead back up into the hills while we could see the main road leading back into the city on our right. We were very wet and Stephen asked me which way he wanted to go. "Well", I began, "if we turn right, our adventure is over but if we turn left then it will continue". I knew that I had to let him choose, walking along slippery, uneven pathways in the Sarajevan hills in the rain isn't everyone's idea of fun.

He turned left, as I knew he would, and the adventure continued.

The Streets of Sarajevo

It was at this point that we realised the rain we had experienced was simply something of a prelude, preparing us for the main event to come. As we continued winding our way along the narrow paths and stairways, the rain came down in a torrential downpour and we were drenched.

Sarajevo from the hills

We eventually emerged onto the highway where we encountered more breathtaking views but the path was not as interesting. We chose to cross over the road and took some stairs back under the highway and into the hills. As we stood there somewhat bedraggled and dripping with water, an elegant woman walked towards us, casting a curious glance at us as making me feel quite self-conscious in my shorts and walking shoes.

Under the highway in Sarajevo

We eventually came to a point where the path ahead was too steep and slippery to walk down and we sheltered in the shadow of a house for a short while. My heart was hammering against my ribs and my legs felt like jelly. I thought I was fitter given all the walking I do but I guess nothing can prepare you for navigating steep inclines and slippery slopes in the rain.

Sarajevo - shelter from the rain

For the longest time, Stephen and I stood in silence, lost in the moment. I allowed myself to dwell entirely in the present, watching the rain cascade from a gutter to my side and pound the house across the road. This is what I love: exploring and discovering neighbourhoods, walking until I'm breathless and seeing what houses look like in other countries. These streets felt so familiar to me, so European, and in this moment Sarajevo became not a foreign city but a city like any other. A city I could make my home.

All of these photos were taken using my Canon 1000D. I wanted to capture the mood of that wonderful day in Sarajevo and have applied a desaturation filter in Snapseed. I love desaturation (a little bit too much judging by my Instagram gallery) and thus I am careful not to use it too often!

Have you every become purposefully, truly lost in a city? Do you also like seeing how people live and how the houses look in foreign cities?

Museum of London: London the World City

Seventies fashion Late 1960s dresses with Biba catalogue display

One of the things I’ve loved most about my time in London is learning about London’s incredible history. From Roman occupation and Norman invasion to the Great Fire and the Blitz, I can’t get enough of learning about it all.

Vespa Douglas Vespa motorcycle, 1957

Luckily for me, there is a museum dedicated to London and if you haven’t been yet, you simply have to visit the Museum of London located within walking distance of St Paul’s Cathedral. Like most London museums, it is free to enter but special exhibitions may be charged.

Psychedelic tops Dollyrockers dress, 1969 with miniskirt outfit, 1967 and Mary Quant dress, 1966

I recently had some time on my hands after my final exam and I took a look at the World City gallery. Here two of my favourite obsessions collide: the 1960s and London. This exhibition is all about the explosion of culture, fashion and colour in post-war Britain and if you love retro or 1960s fashion and music then you’ll love it here. There are some jaw-dropping exhibits, especially for pop culture fans. Luckily the exhibits are behind glass so I couldn’t drool on the Mary Quant dress.

60s Shoes 1960s shoes

These were just some of my favourites but I am always happy for a return visit to the Museum of London so do let me know if you’re keen!

Museum of London
150 London Wall
London EC2Y 5HN


A Winter’s Walk Around Leeds Castle

… or how to ruin a perfectly good pair of boots.

Sometimes I really wonder about myself. For example, what kind of blogger goes to spend a night away in Kent and doesn’t check first to see if there are any attractions nearby? In my head, it seemed perfectly logical that we were going away for a company work function and I should concentrate on enjoying that. Which sounds fine, until you consider that our hotel was two minutes away from Leeds Castle, a place I have always wanted to visit.

As you can imagine, this lapse in judgement meant that I did not have my camera on me and I also had two choices of footwear – ridiculously high but cute red heels and a pair of boots with equally high heels. Which would not be a problem except that on discovering Leeds Castle was nearby, I decided that I really wanted a photo of the castle from across the lake. You’ll be glad to know I went with the boots but they are now officially ruined.

Countryside Walk, Leeds Kent

But this post could also be called “how to spend a perfect winter’s morning in the Kentish countryside”. On the advice of a local, we decided to drive past the entrance to Leeds Castle and we turned left shortly afterwards to access the footpaths leading up to the back of the castle.

Before we spotted the castle, we noticed that we were in the middle of beautiful English countryside. We also noticed that we were up to our ankles in mud thanks to the recent floods across south eastern England.

Countryside Walk, Leeds Kent

We passed through several gates and were sure to carefully latch them again after each passing. Farm animals can be very canny and soon figure out how to open unlatched gates.

Countryside Walk, Leeds Kent

Suddenly, there was Leeds Castle in the distance and there to the middle of the photo, you can spot the lake.

Countryside Walk, Leeds Kent

I know it looks lush and green up ahead, but don’t be fooled. The grass was becoming positively swampy and we weren’t keen on proceeding straight ahead. Besides, I had a feeling I wasn’t going to get the iconic ‘Leeds Castle across the lake’ photo from down there. There must be another lake where the view of the castle isn’t obscured by trees.

Countryside Walk, Leeds Kent

We made our way left towards the tar road before pausing for a self-portrait. I’m not sure if you can see from the photo above, but Stephen and I were in fact smiling.

Countryside Walk, Leeds Kent

We spent a long time gazing at the castle…

Countryside Walk, Leeds Kent

…and we were sure to admire the Kentish countryside…

Countryside Walk, Leeds Kent 08…and then one more glimpse of the castle before we made our way back to the main road.

Countryside Walk, Leeds Kent 09

There were some gorgeous trees along the way. Usually by mid-January, I am complaining about ‘tree skeletons’ but it is amazing how a mild winter and some blue skies and sunshine can change your perception. I thought these trees were positively beautiful.

Countryside Walk, Leeds Kent 10

I was super happy that this photo came out as I took it straight into the sun. These photos were taken just after noon and that is as high as the sun will get in our sky today.

Countryside Walk, Leeds Kent 11

We reached the main road some distance from where we’d joined the footpath, on account of our detour along the tar road. We took a lovely walk down the main road and were only nearly knocked down twice by the posh locals.

So was it worth ruining a pair of perfectly good boots? Of course it was. We had a fabulous walk and I’d certainly like to go back one day with a camera. All of these photos were taken my iPhone.

Have you ever found yourself inadequately prepared for an adventure? Just how bad was it?

Where to Stay in Belfast: Europa Hotel

Europa Hotel Belfast

On our first night in Belfast, we were fortunate to stay in the Europa hotel, the flagship hotel of Hastings Hotels. Situated on Great Victoria Street, Belfast, the Europa Belfast is in a fantastic location right in the centre of the city, within walking distance of all the major attractions.

Festive Europa Belfast

We arrived shortly before Christmas and the atmosphere at the Europa was electric. There were many Christmas parties going on and the guests were all dressed up and glamorous but it wasn’t just that. We spent some time in the Piano lounge and enjoyed drinks in the laid back yet upmarket atmosphere.

 Europa Hotel colourful history

The history of the Europa Belfast is really fascinating. The hotel was built on the site of the former Great Northern Railway Station and it opened in 1971. A lot of journalists stayed here during the Troubles and it used to hold the record as the most bombed hotel in the world. Like a phoenix from the ashes, the Europa has risen from this colurful past to become one of Belfast’s most important hotels. In was the hotel that President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton stayed in in 1995 and they have maintained their relationship with the Clinton’s to this day.

Comfortable Europa Hotel Belfast

We really impressed with the comfort of the Europa Belfast. The rooms were spacious and stylish and we especially appreciated the little touches like mince pies in our room. The bathroom was complete with a bath and a shower which you don't always see in hotels these days and we loved our Hastings Hotel ducky! Can I just say that the shower was absolutely incredible and possibly the best shower I’ve had in my life. I felt like I had a full body massage and could have stayed in there for hours. After the enjoyable nights sleep I’d had, I emerged feeling completely rejuvenated.

Hastings Hotel ducky

One of the most outstanding features of the Europa Belfast was the food. We were lucky enough to enjoy a festive afternoon tea there but what really stood out in my mind was the breakfast. Like most of the food at the Europa, the food is locally sourced and we were given a full breakdown of everything that we enjoyed. I had a full Irish breakfast and especially enjoyed the Carnbrooke Meats Honeybee Sausages, the Moyallon Dry Cured Bacon and the Gracehill Fine Foods Black Pudding.

Would I stay in the the Europa hotel Belfast again? Absolutely. The location and food would be enough to bring me back but the atmosphere will make for really special memories and I would love to take Stephen there. Besides, I have to try that shower again.

Europa Hotel, Belfast
Great Victoria St, Belfast BT2 7AP
028 9027 1066

Room rate: from £110 for a twin or double room.

We were guests of Hasting Hotels and Tourism Ireland during our stay in Belfast. As always, I promise to share sincere and honest opinions with my readers.

The Dominican Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

When Sarah from The Experience Collection Project suggested that I book ahead for the TickItaly Last Supper tour, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I duly went ahead and booked tickets for my mother-in-law Robyn and I. I’m really glad I did because I loved learning all about the Sforza Castle and seeing works by Michelangelo and Leonardo in the Museo D'Arte Antica. The highlight of our tour was seeing Michelangelo’s Last Supper but before we did, we explored the beautiful Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie where the painting is housed.

Church of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

I have a fascination with churches and it is an interest that I have held for about 20 years, ever since a friend of my mother’s showed me the photos he took of churches around South Africa. In the years since I have been travelling, I have realised that my interest extends beyond churches to mosques and synagogues too. I consider myself to be quite secular but something about these majestic establishments instils a sense of wonder in me.

And sometimes, a church especially takes my breath away.

From the moment I spotted the Santa Maria delle Grazie, it was as if the tour guide and everything else dissolved around me. I immediately fell in love with the geometric lines of the dome, the circles and rectangles and the simple yet elegant design.

Despite my newfound admiration, I was still unprepared for the beauty of the church’s interior.

Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

It was Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan who ordered that a Dominican convent and church be built in Milan in the 15th century. It was built on the site of a small chapel and similarly dedicated to St Mary of the Graces (Santa Maria delle Grazie). The convent was completed in Francesco’s lifetime but it was his son Ludovico who ordered that the cloister and apse be completed when he came to power in 1494. Ludovico deemed the church to be the Sforza family burial place and his wife Beatrice was buried there in 1497.

Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

The walls of the church are adorned with frescoes by Gaudenzio Ferrari and Bernado Zenale and there is intricate paintwork throughout the church.

Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

It is difficult to comprehended as you stand in this magnificent place and contemplate its beauty, but the Santa Maria delle Grazie was heavily bombed by British and American forces in 1943. The bombs hit mainly between the refectory and the church thus destroying the northern wall of the church and much of the refectory. The Last Supper adorns the northern wall of the refectory and was saved by heavy sand-bagging of the area.

Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

For many years before rebuilding and restoration, the historic painting was protected only by tarpaulin and a scaffolding built specifically to protect the wall.

This is why the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was so important, to protect against indiscriminate destruction of cultural property during wartime.

Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan

We did get the chance to see the Last Supper during our stay. Visits are firmly limited to windows of 15 minutes and photography is strictly forbidden in the refectory. I can tell you that it is absolutely worth seeing this painting in person. The perception of depth and perspective is quite marvellous, such that you feel as if Christ and his disciples are there on a raised podium above you and you can see beyond to the hills behind them. I’m not really sure if 15 minutes was sufficient. It was all rather dignified (except for the people caught sneaking photographs) and I didn’t feel that we were herded in like cattle but I think I would have preferred a quieter, lengthier moment of contemplation.

Linking up with Our World Tuesday.

Have you ever stood in awe in a place? What is the most beautiful place you have seen?