Sunday, 31 August 2014

Dream Vacation in Greece: Santorini + Athens

This Trip: FROM 2014.08.20 TO 2014.08.26

Picture-postcard villages full of snow-white houses with royal-blue roofs over volcanic cliffs surrounded by the Aegean Sea under the azure sky make Santorini a top destination of a dream vacation to me. A 4-day “honeymoon” on the island and a 2-day city trip in Athens were just about right for a happy ending of our precious summer 2014, before flying back to the UK where autumn has already arrived. We had been boiling in Greece over 30C but started to feel the 15C back here as soon as the plane landed. We were lucky to have perfect weather without any rain or heavy clouds throughout the trip. We did not plan to watch the beautiful sunset over Santorini’s caldera on the plane from Athens to the island, thanks to the Aegean Airlines that delayed the flight so that we were just over the caldera at around sunset time. To make this surprise possible, make sure you check in and choose your seat early so that your window seat is facing west at the moment the plane flies over towards Thira Airport.

PART 1 - SANTORINI - Hotel Delfini Villas in Oia

Generally I do not take pictures of and talk about a hotel. For this room with a balcony and outdoor jacuzzi facing the caldera, however, we even included it in our itinerary just to make sure we would spend enough time enjoying the hotel room itself. I have to emphasize that view is unbeatable. Just immerse in the hot bubbling water facing the spectacular views in daylight or serve yourselves a fresh fruits platter with glasses of champagne at night for ultimate romance with your beloved. Continental or Greek breakfast is served on the balcony at your preferred time. Staff members are nice and helpful. We do recommend this hotel to everyone, but there are a lot of quality hotels around that area with rooms facing the caldera and so you just need to do some research before booking.

PART 2 - SANTORINI - the iconic OIA and the capital FIRA

The entire first day was scheduled for sightseeing in Oia, the icon of Santorini as well as background of postcards that feature the famous sunset best viewed from Oia Castle. We took our time photographing and touring around my favorite Oia Village, walked through a 200+ steps path down to Amoudi Bay where we had a seafood lunch and a nice swim, had lots of fun going back up by a donkey ride, and finally wrapped up the perfect day with a beautiful sunset. Since we were determined to hike from Fira to Oia despite the weather, we set off by ten and go from Oia to Fira by bus. There was not any sign like “Fira-Oia Walking Trail”, but stay by the coast and head northwest you will then make it. What made the hike difficult was the hot weather combined with the duration. Efforts were rewarded with several spectacular panoramas of the island and best views of villages of Fira, Skaros Rock of Imerovigli, and all the way up to Oia. Must-do!

PART 3 - SANTORINI - Beach Towns

We picked up the rental car in Oia at around ten and then drove all the way down to the south where we firstly visited La Ponta-Venetian Tower and secondly the famous Red Beach. The former is a mini-museum not that much of our interests but from the terrace there is a nice panoramic view of the town. The next stop was Vlychada Beach to the east. Both beaches are picturesque “volcano beaches”, but the more spacious Vlychada should be ideal for settling down for a swim and relaxation before a palatable seafood lunch at the harbor. We should never have gone up to Ancient Thira in Kamari that was nothing interesting and the drive up was a little frightening. We spent the last bit of the day in Kamari beach, before having a cocktail time in one of the many bar restaurants along the beach. 

PART 4 - SANTORINI - Traditional Villages

While the most favorite Oia is artificially gorgeous, traditional villages like Emporio, Megalochori, and Pyrgos are authentically Greek. It was so nice touring around in the castle in Emporio which seems the least touristic but most impressive. Megalochori, the most mentioned one of travel information, travelers’ reviews, etc., is quite small and nothing as attractive as Emporio. Pyrgos is the biggest and we like it as much as Emporio, while appreciating the differences between the two. 


We spent the last two days of the vacation in the capital Athens. With a combined ticket at 12eur per adult we spent one full day sightseeing in the site of Acropolis. Attractions generally close at 20h in summer. If you start the day by ten, you should be able to cover every spot in the area. Acropolis is a must-see in Athens. From a few highest points there are unobstructed panoramic views of the city and the site itself. It is very hot in summer and you need to climb a lot to reach most spots, so make sure you wear hat and appropriate shoes, and also bring enough water as any other beverages are not allowed inside the area.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Cambridge England

This Trip: 2014.08.09

For those living in or traveling to London a 1-day trip to a pretty town like Oxford and Cambridge is definitely a great idea especially on a beautiful day in summer. Cambridge is slightly less appealing but still worth a visit if you have an extra day on top of the conventional London itineraries and day trips to Windsor, Oxford, Brighton, etc. It takes around 1h20m by direct train to go from London Liverpool Street station to Cambridge. Make sure you depart early and arrive in Cambridge by 10:00, because all major attractions close between 17:00 and 18:00. From Cambridge station to town center it is a 20-minute walk. Cambridge is a small and compact town where a good way to get around is on foot. Actually you should spend most of your time visiting inside particular attractions like colleges of University of Cambridge and museums of your interests.

King’s College is a pretty place but we did not have a very pleasant experience. The college’s website is kind of misleading as it says you can “see a number of buildings” in addition to the iconic chapel on an entrance fee of 7.5pounds. First, we could not see all the buildings described in details on the website. Second, we see a few of those buildings, but only from the outside. So, we paid 7.5 per adult only to see the chapel and a spacious green behind. 

Don’t forget to go up to the tower of Great St Mary’s Church, which is the only good viewpoint of Cambridge skyline. Here’s our route:

(1) Parish Church of Little Saint Mary’s→ (2) Saint Botolph’s Parish Church → (3) Saint Benet’s Parish Church → (4) King’s College → (5) Clare College → (6) St Edward King and Martyr Church → (7) Great St Mary’s Church → (8) Cambridge Market at Market Square → (9) Trinity College → (10) Church of the Holy Sepulchre The Round Church → (11) All Saint’s Church → (12) Christ College → (13) Christ’s Pieces → (14) Emmanuel College

Monday, 23 June 2014

Oxford England

This Trip: 2014.06.21

For those living in or traveling to London a 1-day trip to Oxford is definitely a great idea especially on a sunny day in summer months. It takes one hour by direct train to go from London Padding station to Oxford. Make sure you depart early and arrive in Oxford by 10:00, because all major attractions close between 17:00 and 18:00. The best way to get around Oxford is on foot or bicycle. We opted for the former for maximum freedom and ease of happy photographing. Oxford is really a small and compact city where you don’t spend much time walking around, but you may need more time visiting inside particular attractions like colleges or museums of your interests. Queueing time is not a concern, as we queued only once for 10 minutes for entry to the tower of The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin for the best bird’s eye views of Oxford. We do not recommend entry to Magdalen College that costs £5 but is worth £2. On the website it’s written “Magdalen is Oxford’s wealthiest, and arguably most beautiful college, with its own deer park and beautiful cloisters …. On the far right of the grounds, a bright blue wrought iron gate leads to Addison’s walk, a pretty riverside path.” Here’s our version: “Magdalen is one of the Oxford’s colleges, with its own spacious plain green with only trees and grass, and ordinary cloisters …. On the far right of the grounds, a bright blue wrought iron gate leads to Addison’s walk, a riverside path where you will see water and grass.”

Purchase of train tickets days ahead is generally necessary and we did book ours two days before departure. It would have been either a cloudy or rainy day according to the weather forecast on Thursday and Friday respectively, but we had a wonderful Saturday and we couldn’t believe our luck. Yes, what a reliable forecast! At some previous weekends the weather forecast said it was going to rain in London, but then the sun was shining for a whole weekend. Just book your train tickets and keep your fingers crossed!

Our route:

(1) Carfax Tower → (2) Saxon Tower of St Michael at the North Gate → (3) Martyr's Memorial → (4) Ashmolean Museum → (5) Balliol College → (6) Trinity College → (7) Blackwell's Bookstore → (8) Sheldonian Theatre → (9) Clarendon Building → (10) Bridge of Sighs / Hertford Bridge → (11) New College → (12) St. Edmund Hall → (13) Queen’s College → (14) University Church of St. Mary the Virgin → (15) All Souls College → (16) Radcliffe Camera → (17) Bodleian Library → (18) Brasenose College → (19) Merton College → (20) Magdalen College → (21) University of Oxford Botanical Garden → (22) Christ Church → (23) Museum of Oxford → (24) Covered Market
***It was already 18:00 when we stepped out of Magdalen College, so we didn’t have time for 21-24. Botanical Garden closes at 18:00, Museum of Oxford at 17:00, and Covered Market at 17:30.