This is a blog about our holiday to Europe in 2014. We started off our travels in Venice, where we began a cruise of the Adriatic and Aegean seas, ending in Rome. We then travelled from Rome to the Netherlands by rail, stopping in various places along the way. We are: Me - Gill, my husband - Grant, my daughter - Paula; my father - Neil and his partner - Astrid. We are South Africans, from the lovely province of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Our friends Lisa and Trevor joined us from the UK for the cruise portion of our holiday.

Navigate using the labels on the right =>

Click on images and text boxes to enlarge

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nuts and Bolts

For my own personal record, and also in case anyone wants information on which hotels, tour-operators etc we used, below is a list of the "nuts and bolts" of our holiday.


I booked our flights through Kathy Cowie of Carlson Wagonlit (she's in their Ballito office) - she was lovely to deal with, highly recommended. We flew Emirates and they were good as usual.


Our transfers were arranged through our hotel. I highly recommend arriving by water taxi if at all possible, it is SO much less schlep than dragging suitcases over the hundreds of bridges that are scattered around Venice.

Our hotel: The Hotel Becher. We thoroughly enjoyed staying in this hotel. The location couldn't be more perfect, so close to St Mark's Square and everything within easy walking distance. The hotel is not overly fancy, but is charming in a very Venetian way and the staff were lovely and friendly. We had booked a triple room and it turned out that Paula had her own room, with an en-suite bathroom, adjoining ours, which was a very pleasant surprise.  Paula left her ipad at the hotel by mistake (yeah... not her brightest moment!) and they very kindly arranged for it to be couriered to our Rome hotel.  Superb service.

Our tour to the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello was booked through It was not a private tour, but I would recommend it as an easy and cost-effective way to see the islands.


Our cruise was on-board the Celebrity Equinox. I loved cruising with Celebrity. Having cruised with Royal Caribbean (Celebrity's sister company) before, I would say the two are fairly similar. Royal Caribbean gets my vote for the quality of their shows (although the Cirque de Soleil type show on Celebrity was outstanding) as far as food goes, I would say Celebrity is slightly better, friendliness of staff I would say was better on Celebrity, our stateroom seemed bigger on Celebrity. Celebrity seems to be targeted more at a slightly more mature demographic, while RCCL seems to target families with younger children.

Our ship was the Equinox and I thought it was lovely.


We didn't use a tour operator in Dubrovnik. It was very simple to catch a taxi at the port (the taxis lined up right at the exit) and the taxi operators were very keen to offer a "panoramic tour" before dropping one off at the Pile Gate (sort of the "main entrance" to Dubrovnik old town). We chose not to do the panoramic tour as the weather was grotty.

Tom's Port Guides are an invaluable resource when planning a cruise and he has one on Dubrovnik.


We arranged our boat trip with Nautilus Daily Cruises. On a scale of 1 to 10 this shore excursion gets a 10! We had the best day EVER with Iakis. Highly, highly recommended.


We had a private tour with George of Taxi Katakolon. George was a pleasure to deal with and was very efficient, pleasant and helpful, he was a fantastic driver and even went so far as to offer free wi-fi in his vehicles.


We spent a wonderful day with Patricia of OceanWave Tours. Patricia was a lovely guide, so friendly, warm and knowledgeable. Highly recommended.


We had a private tour with HelloEphesus tours. I found HelloEphesus to be a fantastic company to deal with - very organised. Our guide, Susanna, was absolutely lovely and knowledgeable and the restaurant they took us to for lunch was very, very good.


We did two tours in Istanbul, but I didn't organise either of them - the first was organised through a lady on the CruiseCritic group for our cruise and the other was a Celebrity shore excursion. Both were very enjoyable.


We did our own thing in Mykonos, using information from Tom's Port Guides (see link to the right) Mykonos is VERY simple to do on your own, I didn't feel a tour was necessary.


We did a private tour through Private Greece Tours. Nikos was a pleasure to deal with, so organised and quick to answer emails. Our guide, Tarsus, was delightful. Highly recommended.


I organised our tour through Amy Pace. I found Amy very pleasant to deal with. She is clearly passionate about her country and very knowledgeable. I have no hesitation in recommending her.


We did a private tour with RomeinLimo. Rome in Limo are always fantastic to deal with, very professional and efficient. Our guide, Luca, was lovely and we spent a wonderful day with him. Highly recommended.


We did a private tour with RomeinLimo. As mentioned above, they are brilliant. Our guide, Stefano, was so sweet and we had a lovely day touring the Amalfi coast. The roads in that area are pretty terrifying, but Stefano put us completely at ease.


We did a transfer and tour in one - again we used Rome in Limo and their service was brilliant.

Our hotel in Rome was the Relais Giulia. I highly recommend this hotel. It is a lovely, intimate little hotel, perfectly located for sight-seeing on the ancient Via Giulia. Lovely rooms, atmospheric hotel, very good service.

Transport in Rome - we used the City Sightseeing Hop-on Hop-off bus. They were okaaaay.

Food tour - We did an Eating Italy food tour. Highly, highly recommended, we LOVED it.


For our transfers I used Autoservizi Davide Guerrera- professional, great drivers and vehicles, punctual - highly recommended.

Our hotel was the Hotel Metropole Bellagio. This hotel is not new and flashy, but rather an "old dame". The location is absolutely brilliant. If at all possible, reserve the rooms with terraces... to laze on your terrace overlooking the lake is amazing. The rooms are nice, the bathrooms are good and the breakfast was a nice continental buffet. I would certainly pick this hotel if I was ever fortunate enough to visit Bellagio again.

Our tour on the lake was with Bellagio Water Taxis, very friendly, nice people, great tour.


We used the City Sightseeing Hop-on Hop-off bus to get around Milan. They were okaaaay.


Our hotel was the Hotel Bernina. We were given free upgrades, the rooms were lovely.

Bernina Express: We booked our tickets for this awesome rail journey through the Rhaetian Railway


We stayed in the Hotel Alexander. I am in two minds about this hotel. The reception is quite off-putting, but the rooms were nice and the bathrooms were fine. The location is in Old Town which is quite fun, lots of pubs, beer halls, nice restaurants, shops. It's just a short walk from the train station. BUT the cost of this hotel was a LOT more than the other hotels we stayed in and although not bad, I think it was probably the least pleasant hotel we stayed in - that could just be that Zurich is expensive though.

Our tour of Zurich was with Best of Switzerland tours


We had arranged a transfer with MyDriver but unfortunately they did not arrive as arranged, so we caught a taxi. Thumbs down to MyDriver!

We stayed in the Hotel Torbrau - it was ideally located within walking distance to the Marienplatz. The hotel was upmarket, lovely rooms, breakfast room etc. Highly recommended.


Our transfers and tours were all arranged through Prague Experience. Everything ran according to plan and they were a pleasure to deal with.

Our hotel in Prague was Hotel16. A small, boutique hotel. Their staff were the friendliest I have ever come across in any hotel! The rooms were lovely - in fact, in the triple room we booked, Paula had her own little room leading off ours. The location is an easy walk from Wenceslas Square. Highly recommended.


Our hotel was the lovely Hotel Estherea. A beautiful hotel on the Singel canal, just a short walk from all the attractions in Amsterdam. The rooms were lovely.

Our canal bus tickets and the tickets to the Heineken Experience and the Ice Bar were bought through the Canal Co.

Holiday Round-up

This was an amazing holiday - ticking off a number of "Bucket List" items.

The cruise was lovely, confirming for me that I love cruising! I love that we could unpack our suitcases and not have to pack them up again for 2 weeks. Bliss! The food on the cruise was awesome and I gained a couple of kgs, even with all the walking we did.

Lake Como was a delight. Loved, loved, loved it and would go back tomorrow if I could.

Our journey from Milan to Amsterdam, by rail, stopping in Tirano, Zurich, Munich, Prague and Amsterdam was great fun. So enjoyed it! We saw some indescribably beautiful scenery and visited some wonderful places.

Once again, travelling with 3 generations proved not to be a problem at all. We had a couple of minor irritations now and then (what family wouldn't, being together 24/7 for 4 weeks?!) but I can honestly say that we generally thoroughly enjoyed one another's company and had a great deal of fun creating memories that will last forever.

* Corfu! Our day with Iakis on the Nautilus was unanimously elected our favourite day. 

* Venice, there is just something so utterly magical about Venice 
* The Equinox, we loved our home on the ocean.
* Santorini - so beautiful and we loved our stop at Anna's food stall.
* "My cat" in Mykonos, I did so love Johnny
* Mount Etna - fascinating.
* The food tour in Rome
* Bellagio - too beautiful for words, literally! 
* Bernina Express. Wow! What a day! Gorgeous. 
* The Beer towers we drank in Zurich
* Prague, amazing architecture and the friendliest people 
* Amsterdam - definitely right up there with my favourite cities.

Biggest laugh of the holiday:

Astrid nearly drowning... the only person I know who would drown with a smile on her face and Astrid and the "booze-oh" i.e ouzo!!  Love Astrid!

Biggest disappointment:

The Hofbrau Haus - poor, poor service, shocking.

The Trevi fountain being covered in scaffolding, so sad!

Also, the weather in Dubrovnik and particularly in Amsterdam.... wet!

Biggest surprise of the holiday:

Ephesus - we expected it to be dry and boring and it was fascinating.

Mount Etna - so exceeded my expectations - it was amazing.

Best hotel:

I really loved most of the hotels we stayed in. We somehow just got it right this time. I have confirmed that I prefer smaller "boutique-style" hotels to the larger chains.

Best meal: We had lots of good meals, but the food that Iakis gave us on the boat was outstanding and also the food on the food tour.

Worst meal: The first night in Venice, it was disappointing.

Modes of transport: (We like to count the different modes of transport we use in a holiday!)

water taxi
motorised "little train"
cable car

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Day 1 (Tuesday):

We arrived in Amsterdam at about 10:00 on Tuesday morning.

Dad and Astrid hopped straight on a train bound for The Hague, to go and visit with Astrid's family in Wateringen.

We caught a taxi to our hotel, the Hotel Esthereadropped our luggage and then set off for Anne Frank's house.  

View from our hotel room

Our hotel provided bright pink umbrellas for the use of all residents, so it was fun to spot the bright pink umbrellas dotted around Amsterdam.  Paula is probably the most uncoordinated umbrella carrier I have ever come across and I honestly believe that if I didn't wear glasses I would probably be minus my eyes at this point.  As it is she painfully extracted a chunk of my scalp.  Bearing an umbrella, this is one armed and dangerous chick!

There was an extremely long queue to get in to the Anne Frank house (and when I say extremely long, I mean extremely long!)  One of the employees who was keeping an eye on the queue suggested that we come back this evening, as the queue would probably be shorter then.  So we left and made our way to the nearby Hop-on Hop-off canal boat stop.  The weather was pretty miserable, so the boat was quite full and unfortunately the windows were a bit steamed up.

We got off at the stop nearest the Heineken Experience.  We thoroughly enjoyed the Heineken Experience, it was absolutely brilliant.  So much detail, so much to do, very interactive - we enjoyed every minute.  In my opinion it's a must do if you are ever in Amsterdam.

Next, we took a walk to a nearby Irish pub and had a very good lunch.  After lunch we set off for the  Ice Bar.  Before you enter the actual "ice room" you sit in a bar area where you are given a cocktail of your choice.  Then you suit up in a strange fur-lined rubber cape and gloves and you make your way into the Ice Bar in a group.  The entire room is ice, the bar, the seats, even the glass you are given is made of ice.  The ticket price includes 2 vodkas.  I started with vodka orange and then had a vanilla vodka orange which was really delicious.  No surprises, it was freezing cold in there!  (You will notice that Paula isn't smiling much - she couldn't - her mouth was frozen in place, she doesn't have the padding that Grant and I have!) 

Having frozen our butts off, we took a slow stroll, through some lovely areas of Amsterdam, back to our hotel.  The hotel has a coffee/tea/hot chocolate machine which residents are free to use at any time, which I thought was really nice.  So when we returned we helped ourselves to some coffee, before making our way to our room to unpack and freshen up.

By about 7pm we were sorted and we headed back to Anne Frank's house.  The queue was still very long and by this point it was raining in earnest and quite cold, but we were determined to get into the house, so we braved the rain and cold and carried on regardless.   Paula managed to poke a very nice young gentleman in the back of his head with her vividly pink umbrella, fortunately he was very nice about it, but I notice he kept a significant distance between us after that and looked vaguely terrified every time Paula moved!  The little stall selling hot chocolate was doing a roaring trade and we added to it.  If this is how cold it gets in Summer I shudder to think what Winter is like!

Finally after about 1 1/2 hours in the queue we walked through the doors of the house.  We watched the "Anne Frank" movie a couple of weeks before our holiday and that definitely added to the experience of being in the house.  It was so moving to walk through the rooms where the Franks and their friends actually lived for all those years.  And to think that only Mr Frank made it out of the concentration camps alive.....  So sad. 

By the time we were finished at the house it was very late, so we found a cafe near our hotel where we had some soup.  I was literally falling asleep in my soup - first time I can ever recall dozing off while seated in a restaurant!  As soon as we were done we walked back to the hotel and called it a night.

Day 2 Wednesday:
We caught a taxi to the station bright and early and caught a train to Den Haag and then (for the first time ever!) we caught a tram to Wateringen, where Marty
n and Dad picked us up and took us to Martyn's and Heidine's home, where the rest of the family where gathered.  It was such fun to meet Astrid's family, her grand-daughters are just too precious for words.  We felt like we'd known everyone for years.  We all had lunch together in a local restaurant.  It was a lovely, relaxed day.  We tried to find a geocache nearby, but unfortunately couldn't find it.  

Once back in Amsterdam we took a slow wander to Dam Square, doing a geocache  and popping into a couple of shops along the way.  

We stopped for a take-away meal at a Thai restaurant and then wandered into the red-light district.  I have no idea why - I get how sad and sordid it all is, honest, I do - but Paula and I were deeply fascinated by the goings on and we made poor Grant wander around there for hours. Once we had seen our fill, we stopped for some delicious Nutella and strawberry pancakes, before heading back towards our hotel.

Tonight was the night of the World Cup semi-final between Holland and Argentina, so it was fun to see all the decor and how everyone was dressed up.  We sat outside a restaurant and watched for a while, before calling it a night.

I have LOVED Amsterdam.  It could well be my favourite city.  There is something so utterly charming about it.... the canals, the beautiful houses, the friendly people.  It really is wonderful, wish we had more time here.

Day 3 Thursday:
I woke up with a pounding headache - why today of all days?  I hate flying at the best of times, but flying with a fuzzy head from all the headache medication is just the pits.  

After breakfast at a cute little cafe near the hotel we wandered around for a short while, but I was in a foul state of mind and my head hurt, so I decided that the hotel was probably the best place for me at this point.  I finished packing and then lay on the bed, feeling sorry for myself and generally being a gigantic pimple on Grant's and Paula's butts.

Soon it was time for a taxi to the station, where we met Dad and Astrid for our train to Dusseldorf (we flew out of Dusseldorf as the connection time in Dubai was far better that way.)  Dusseldorf airport had some rather nice shops and I spent the last of my Euros very happily on tops for Rox and me at H&M.  (That improved my mood!)  We had supper at a surprisingly pleasant restaurant in the airport, before boarding our flight for the long flight home.

The flight between Dusseldorf and Dubai was horrendous.  We skirted a storm over Frankfurt and the turbulence was like nothing I had ever experienced.  They couldn't even serve hot drinks with dinner.   I didn't like it, not at all!

The layover in Dubai was a pain.  Grant was feeling grim - I think it was something he ate onboard as another woman off our flight was also visibly battling with nausea.  Thankfully it passed quite quickly.  We showered, had some breakfast, bought Rox some perfume at duty-free and then sat and patiently waited.  We sat next to the Afghanistan cricket team who were flying to Harare for a tour, which for some reason I found absolutely fascinating.   FYI there are some exceedingly nice-looking Afghan cricketers.

Eventually it was time to board our flight to Durban and between reading and napping, the time went quite quickly.

We landed in Durban and queued for what felt like hours at customs, before finally collecting our baggage, meeting our transfer and arriving home.

It was wonderful to see our little family again and to eat a home-cooked meal (My Rox and Junie are such stars!) before a bath and a good-night's sleep in our own beds!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Prague, Czech Republic

6 July

We caught a taxi to the station, where we had enough time to buy some pretzels and sweets (from the lovely sweet shop and bakery at the well-equipped station) to keep us going during our long train ride to Prague.  When we boarded the train we discovered that there were old fashioned carriages (as opposed to airplane style rows of seats), so we had one to ourselves, really cute.

Sorry Paula, but it's the only photo we have of the old-fashioned train carriage!

The train trip was long, but quite pleasant, with nice scenery.  We are great lovers of train travel. 

We arrived in Prague and our transfer was there to greet us.  He dropped us off at our hotel - a lovely boutique hotel just a short walk from Wenceslas Square.  The receptionist made us comfortable in the little breakfast room, where she completed the necessary documentation for our check-in and she then spent some time explaining the surrounding area to us and suggesting outings that we might enjoy.  I was blown away by her friendliness and willingness to help, it turned out that all the staff in the hotel were brilliant.

Once we had freshened up we took at stroll to Wenceslas square.  Prague is full to the brim of architectural beauty.   

Wenceslas square is lovely, pretty buildings and lots of international shops, yet not intimidating. 

We had made a quick stop at Starbucks, before popping in and out of a couple of shops.  

'Cause that's what you do in Prague you know.... you go to Starbucks!!  Forgive us, we're South African...  Starbucks holds a deep fascination for us!

I made a bee-line for Debenhams (my favourite-favourite) but was disappointed to find that, even on sale, the clothes were too expensive for my South African rand budget.  We took a slow stroll back to the hotel to get ready for our evening excursion.

A mini-van arrived on time to pick us up and we then drove to the location of the folk show.  It was a lovely old barn, where tables were set up in front of a small stage.  

Yup, yet more untouristy photographs!

We were offered glasses of delicious mead on arrival - Paula decided we had to buy a bottle.  The show was great, with singers, dancers and musicians to entertain us.  It was a small scale production, but really lovely and friendly.  The food was exceptionally good  - a starter of bread and pates, followed by a delicious mushroom soup, the main consisted of a variety of meats with a traditional kind of mash, another potato dish and a cabbage salad, with apple tart for dessert.  The food was brought to the table in large serving bowls and we could dish up ourselves - it was plentiful and they were keen to offer seconds (we couldn't manage seconds!)  Local wine and beer, as well as fruit juices were on the house and a waiter kept circulating with trays of drinks.  The place was nearly full, I noticed a very large table from the Viking River Cruise line.

We had a lovely evening, with Grant, Paula and I even ending up on stage!  I am not normally a fan of landing up on stage - quite the opposite really, but this crowd were so friendly and the atmosphere was so relaxed that I didn't mind it at all.

To end the evening they sang a few typical WW2 songs and it was quite moving to hear the various nationalities all joining in.

We really enjoyed our evening.  Such fun.

7 July

We slept in and then had breakfast before readying ourselves for our tour.  Our bus arrived to pick us up and take us to a central location where we picked up more people and our tour-guide.  There were 16 of us in total, with a very sweet lady guide.  

We drove through the beautiful streets of Prague to Prague castle.  The castle itself was newer than I expected.  

We went into St Vitus' Cathedral in the castle grounds which was beautiful.  

There were pretty vineyards in the grounds as well as some lovely shops that I would love to have gone into, but unfortunately there wasn't time.  

We got back on the bus and headed off to the pier where we had a very pleasant boat ride up the Charles River.  The boat had a bar and snacks available and we enjoyed having a drink (and a plate of french fries!) while we watched the beautiful scenery go by.  The bridges were beautiful, very reminiscent of the Seine.

Once the boat ride was over we walked through the Jewish quarter into Old Town.  

It was a lovely area, with beautiful old buildings.  The astronomical clock was amazing, absolutely fascinating.  The tour ended at this point.

We wandered into a few shops (I was astounded to see marijuana lollipops!) bought a few things (No!  Not the lollipops!) and then had lunch in a nice pub, 

before making our way back to Wenceslas square.

We saw this really strange sculpture called "Dead Horse" by David Černý inside the Lucerna Palace - it's a parody of the statue of St Wenceslas on his horse, which can be found in the nearby Wenceslas Square:

We did a geocache at the National Museum building, bought a picnic supper at Marks and Spencers and then went back to our hotel to collect our luggage and meet our transfer to the station.

We hopped on board the overnight train - it was really hot - there seemed to be some issue with the aircon not working too well, once we got going it seemed to kick in, but it took quite a while to cool down.  We were in a 3-sleeper with our own shower and toilet.  It was a tight squeeze with 3 of us in the one carriage, but it was great fun to picnic and drink the (complimentary) wine in our carriage.  (Unlike the over-night train we did from Paris to Madried a few years ago, this one did not have a dining cart, which was a pity.)  The conductor in our carriage spoke Czech? German? We think it was German, and Grant does NOT speak the language at all, but this guy took great delight in telling Grant looooong stories.  He was very sweet, gave us a laugh!