As 2017 starts up, it is inevitable that we would contemplate how life has changed this past year. It’s a clear, sunny day - about 30ºC (86ºF) - at lunchtime here in a leafy residential quarter of Yangon in Myanmar (Burma). We are looking after Bubbles, who we met on our very first house sit in Normandy in France only 6 months ago. For that is where our story of house and pet sitting really starts, and what an unpredictable adventure it has been ever since. If you had asked us a year ago what we would be doing now, or where we would be, never in our wildest dreams would we have contemplated this. So to say goodbye to 2016 we have compiled a list of our favorite moments, best meals, and the most stunning locations we have experienced. Without further ado here are our 12 Best and Most Pleasantly Surprising (and 6 Not So Great) Travel and House Sitting Moments of 2016 in no particular order.
-Blair and Nicolo
Normandy American Cemetery
We of course expected to be moved by the experience at the Normandy American Cemetery and Omaha Beach, but it was more than that. Being halfway across the world and seeing all the graves lined up really put things in perspective. It’s stunning in its sadness, and yet there is something beautiful about the memorial to so many who died protecting our world and our freedoms. It was the least we could do to take time out of our trip to honor the dead. The exhibit is extensive and you should plan on spending a few hours here to take in everything.
Nestled in the far northwest of England lies the (very) small town of Silloth in Cumbria. For years I had driven up the M6 motorway from the south to north of England and on into Scotland. What a shame I had never known to divert west 30 minutes to the coastline. It’s beautiful. And right in the middle of town is the large Silloth Green filled in winter with dogs and their walkers, in summer I am sure with a mass of people enjoying the beautiful scenery, Victorian designs and Silloth Music and Beer Festival. - N.
Eagle’s Nest (Kehlsteinhaus)
As history buffs, we would have never forgiven ourselves if we had skipped this stop on our way to Austria from France. There is a strange disparity being here as the stunning views of Austria and Germany are not to be missed while at the same time the history is almost startling when you think about what was and what could have been - especially after having visited the Normandy beaches and war memorials just a few weeks before - The bus ride to the top is gorgeous but also thrilling. And if you’re feeling adventurous you can walk all the way down to the bottom, which we did. You can also walk all the way up, but, no thank you because it is a giant hill.
Fish and Chips
If there are two people who have tried harder to survive on more than solely Fish and Chips please comment below and bring us out of our shame. Also if there is prize money for the award for most Fish and Chips eaten in one year we happily accept checks. It’s gotten so bad we now do post-mortems after each fish and chip meal and keep running reviews and rankings. We just can’t resist the deep fried goodness. So we have to shout-out or favorites of the year. Riley’s Fish Bar, a family-owned shop on the coast in Blackhall Colliery, Durham, for having humongous portions and for restarting up the fryer after closing once you saw the four sad hungry faces outside your window. And just down the road in Blackhall Rocks, Cod on the Rocks, for having very friendly staff, and for being the perfect meal for four people who had just traveled a very long way to get home. The Angel Inn in Grosmont, Monouthshire, Wales, for having Fish Thursdays instead of Fridays and for the food and atmosphere in this charming pub being perfect. The Fountain Head in Branscombe, Devon, for providing the perfect accompaniments to the excellent main dish: real ale and the best platter of local cheeses for the ultimate cholesterol booster. The King’s Road Fish Bar in St Leonards, East Sussex for being the perfect snack to take to the beach. The Pheasant Inn for being a surprise find near London Heathrow Airport with an expansive menu, quick service, so many drink options, exceptional portion sizes, and great fish and chips.
La Route du Cidre is definitely worth it if you are visiting Normandy. You can take one day to visit, but that won’t be enough time to really tour all the facilities and really take advantage of the route (ahem, taste all the cider!). The scenery, the people, and the alcohol pretty much make a perfect day! The setting is perfect for sampling the local cider, calvados, pommeau, and cheeses. Just be careful because they are very generous with the samples. If you can arrange a driver, do so, otherwise someone is going to have to DD and trust the others to pick good bottles to bring home. Our favorite was the Poiré, also known as Perry or Pear Cider, from Manoir du Grandouet. This place was really beautiful, with an informative tour of the press, caves, and farm. Also, they weren’t judgy at all when we bought 18 bottles to take with us on our travels.
Nissan, why don’t you make this anymore? If I had known how awesome it is, despite how ugly it is, I definitely would have bought one! Left to us by one of the homeowners we were housesitting for in California, this big-little car was perfect for getting around. With headroom for two 6’5” giants like us, and cargo space plus room for pets, it was absolutely perfect. Comfortable, good mileage - I’m totally a convert now. I heard they still sell them in Japan; anyone know a good exporter? - B.
Because we haven’t talked about food enough, we have to mention the Bijou Bistro restaurant in Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland. For a birthday breakfast, this was great. The proprietor is completely mad but it just adds to the fun. We ate way more than necessary but still not enough off this really good menu.
Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul
It’s very rare that I’ve ever wanted to stay in the airport rather than get on my next flight, but this is one of those times we would have been happy for a delay. Set across two floors, The Turkish Airlines CIP Lounge at Ataturk Airport is travel paradise. Just leave your stuff in the private electronic lockers and let loose. You can continually stuff your face on the buffet of different types of food being freshly prepared for you by the chefs. Lounge in front of the multitude of video screens, or pass the time playing the video games made available to you. It’s exactly what you imagine being an adult will be like when you are a kid but better because there is alcohol! - B.
The Ewyas Harold Common
One of our nicest surprises of touring and sitting England the last few months was discovering the county of Herefordshire (not to be confused with Hertfordshire just north of London). The mainly rural county runs along the southwest border with Wales. It’s beautiful, with narrow country roads and hillsides stretching for miles. Nothing exemplifies this more, though than the huge 125-acre area of common land featuring wild roaming ponies, fields of ferns, woodland, and fresh blackberries and damsons to eat there or take home to make jam and lies with at the time of year we visited. We often spent hours here each day watching our canine charge around and never tire, as we never did of the views.
National Trust Properties
I grew up, lived and worked in England before moving to the US almost two decades ago. Being back for several weeks this year made me experience again the rich history and beautiful landscapes that this island offers visitors and inhabitants alike. One of the great organizations that protects this for future generations is The National Trust While staying in the Cotswolds, in particular, we were within reach of a multitude of National Trust properties that I was able to visit - ranging from the village of Bibury with its seventeenth century weavers cottages and water meadow to Great Chalfield Manor, a fifteenth century medieval manor house, and Lacock Abbey, an 800-year-old country house with monastic roots, to name just a few. - N.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival
We could not have been luckier than to be scheduled for a house sit in Edinburgh while the Fringe Festival was taking place. People pay hundreds of dollars for what little accommodation is available and we had a place to stay for free! As first-time festival attendee I were overwhelmed with options but somehow managed to see 12 shows over one weekend. From The Lady Boys of Bangkok to a bilingual English/Welsh production of A Good Clean Heart, it was an unforgettable experience. - B.
The City of Bath, which lies about 115 miles directly west of London, is a gem dating back almost a thousand years. Established originally by the Romans during their occupation of Britain as a thermal spa resort, it became hugely fashionable once again in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with its stunning Georgian architecture later added to by the Victorians who would go there to “take the waters”. Nothing exemplifies this better than The Royal Crescent, a row of 30 Georgian townhouses with Royal Victoria Park in front of it. Today, Bath retains almost all of its heritage and architectural beauty despite being a bustling city and smaller sister to nearby Bristol. Well worth a visit for a day.
Google - Hallstatt, Austria...stunning right? You have now experienced everything you need to about Hallstatt. This town that looks so beautiful in photos did not live up to the hype and felt more like a cheap roadside attraction in person. First, you have to struggle to find parking, then you pass the bus loop where loads of tourist are getting off and immediately snapping photos. After that, you stroll past the stands selling expensive pretzels, soap, and trinkets. A few duck boat peddlers and random kitsch here and there line the cobblestone streets and that’s about it. Other than one square there is really nothing interesting to look at. It’s boring, overpriced, and lame. If it wasn’t for our walk around the lake to get to the town (trying to avoid the crazy parking lots) the day would have been a complete waste.
Instead - skip going into town and have a picnic on the other side of the lake or camp in the area. Take a nice train ride from Bad Ischl. Visit some of the other lake towns in Austria like St. Wolfsburg.
I empathize with ABBA. I was definitely sick and tired of everything when I woke up the next morning in Glasgow. This city can really do a number on you. There are a number of popular bars and restaurants of which we were taking to three (or was it four) of in one night. The Karaoke at the Horseshoe Bar was definitely top notch, but most memories after that get fuzzy. There were magic tricks, deep-fried pizza, and lots of stumbling down the streets speaking too loudly. Enjoy the city, and pace yourself, but also maybe not. - B.
I have to be honest. I do not eat popcorn very often, and typically only at the movies. But I was hot and tired and feeling hungry towards the tail end of this day, having walked several miles through hot, bustling Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. When you’re still far from “home”, this is the perfect recipe for going to a Malaysian movie theater. They are inexpensive, modern, with large comfortable soft seating, A/C cranked up high (actually too high if you are just in shorts and a T-shirt), and, as with most cinemas, you can buy snacks on the way in. Not being a meat eater, and not knowing what many of the food items contained, I decided I would just have to do with popcorn. So I got in line and waited my turn to get to the front of the queue. Imagine my horror then when I was told that the regular popcorn had run out, but the featured variant - chicken flavor - was all that was left. Chicken flavor popcorn? Really? What next? - N.
Smog Season - Sounds like a bad B-movie but no, this is how Malaysians describe the period when the air is thick with haze and fog that gets irritates the eyes, nose, and throat. Said to be caused by illegal slash and burn land clearing practices taken by corporations in Indonesia, it’s a real pain. If it wasn’t for the huge storm we were lucky to get that cleared this out we might have been unable to leave the house for the duration of our trip to Malaysia.
This, of course, is not a surprise to anyone, but having spent so much time in the UK this year it has become sort of a running joke. Britain, your weather sucks, you need to do something about this. - B.
What were your favorite (or least favorite) moments from 2016? What are you excited for in 2017? Comment below.
Photograph of Nissan Cube by IFCAR (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photograph of Royal Crescent by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Different Faces of Coastal England
The last few months of 2016 have seen us spend quite a bit of time in England. Not only did we have an opportunity to visit family and friends but we also took on four separate house sitting assignments across the country.
Situated in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), we could not have snapped a prettier or more quintessentially English countryside scene than what we discovered in Branscombe. We found ourselves in this tiny hamlet of just a few houses, in a beautiful thatched cottage, looking out across steep rolling hills leading down to the coastline and the sea. And it was really unfortunate that the sit was only 3 days long. We were in earthly heaven.
As planned, we arrived to be greeted only by Snoops.This Persian looked us up and down - we were not sure at the time whether approvingly or disapprovingly - and then seemingly allowing our presence continued about her day as usual. Snoops would prove to be a very independent, undemanding feline whose principal requests were a tin of cat food and to be let out to sit on her throne in the front garden and rule over her domain stretching to the Jurassic Coast down below.
We made the most of our three days by exploring the area as much as we could. Directly below the cottage we were able to traverse fields full of sheep and cows, descend the steep hill, cross streams and brooks and eventually hit the beach, losing time there enjoying the magnificent views until it was almost dark.
Thankfully, about halfway back to the cottage, stood The Fountain Head, a fourteenth-century pub with a log fire burning and offering a selection of real ales on tap for those, like me, who like their beer warm and flat. If you are ever fortunate enough to sup here, the selection of amazing Devonshire cheeses accompanied by a pint (or three) gives you just about the right amount of energy needed to spur you home.
A break from the coast
After Branscombe we took a trip to Switzerland (Don’t Judge a Basel By Its Cover) followed by California, and then returned to the UK. A quick diversion from our coastal route, we stayed in an eco friendly, solar paneled house in Martins Heron, situated on the eastern side of Bracknell just west of London. We appreciated the homemade yogurt waiting for us in the fridge on arrival, and the whole house was fitted with high-tech audio and video equipment. It was the perfect spot for downtime and visiting family in nearby Windsor and London.
St Leonards, East Sussex
Once we said our goodbyes to Chloe in Bracknell it was back to the seaside for some quality time in St Leonards, East Sussex. We arrived at a large, tall, rambling and beautifully appointed Victorian house with views right down to the English Channel.
Two cats - Zuri and Kaya - and an energetic and playful springerdoodle accepted us into their lives almost immediately. The cats loved to stay in, sleep and snuggle when not bringing us gifts of leaves from the garden (better than dead mice or birds). Nala, on the other hand, loved to play and be outside. Both in the local large park with woodland, lakes and acres of open space to run around in, and down on the beach. She never ran out of energy chasing after her ball, even going into the sea after it. Even when the temperature plummeted below freezing, and we were very reluctant to leave the house, she was always up for her outdoor time.
Castle Eden, County Durham
With our stint in the south of England done it was time to head Up North. We were due to head to Cumbria, in the far northwest of England for our next sit. However, we had a couple of days to spare. What better excuse than to visit our friends in Castle Eden who you might remember from The Roaming Scotties blog? It was wonderful being reunited too - albeit briefly - with Maggie and Denny as we walked, and the Scotties shuffled, along the beach enjoying ice cream with monkey’s blood (yes, we didn’t know what that meant either until the raspberry syrup was drizzled on our cones), and then indulged in a seafood risotto dinner back at the house. How different the northeast coast was with warm sun allowing us ice cream, to the southeast coast with freezing temperatures just a few days earlier where only warm mulled wine would have done.
They say the weather in Britain changes almost daily or is that hourly? This was clearly evidenced in our fourth, and final English house sit. Situated almost directly opposite County Durham, we headed to a small town - really a big village - called Silloth on the northwest coast just short of the border with Scotland. For the next week we would be living right by Silloth Green in a beautiful conversion of the old Post Office - well the two of us, one cat, Sox, and two lively but very different dogs: Tali, a young jet black Labrador, and his younger brother Mac, a Bedlington, Poodle, Whippet mix puppy, also known affectionately as Gnasher after the canine companion of Dennis The Menace in the UK’s famous comic strip, The Beano.
Like Nala in St Leonards, these two loved the outdoors as much as we did. Every day the view would change. When we arrived it was sunny and crisp. From the seafront, just moments from the house, we looked out across the water to Scotland. By the next day, Scotland had vanished, to be replaced by mystical fog that shrouded almost everything. After that, a day of wind and rain, though this did not deter Tali and Mac from demanding hours each day charging around the Green and along the coast playing with each other and the multitude of other dogs and their walkers who we would befriend. This is perhaps the biggest difference between the north and the south of England. In the south, people are always courteous, but they seem busy, going about their daily business with barely an acknowledgment of strange faces. Head north and it's a different world. People - dog walkers in particular it seems - have time to stop, chat, give advice on local sights, and tell tales of times past. While the dogs charged about burning off their youthful energy, we would engage with the locals in this truly beautiful spot. And just as our week started drawing to a close the wind and rain lifted, the sun shone once again, and Scotland, perched across the Firth of Solway with its magnificent Criffel appearing to rise out of the sea, beaconed us for a future trip once more.
It was fun to have so many unique experiences and despite the sometimes inclement or gloomy weather, our trips were a great success. While we don’t know what 2017 will bring, we will be shocked if a return trip to England for some more house sitting isn’t on the cards at some point.
One of our favorite house sits of the past few months was relatively unexpected. I would never have guessed that when we agreed to come to Herefordshire we would find one of the most beautiful parts of England. With the narrowest of winding roads, traditional hedges separating undulating fields, and the Black Mountains of Wales in the distance, we were truly impressed. Being able to look out the window at such beauty every day is enough to make a great stay, but it only got better from there...
The Mill House
Our joy intensified as we arrived at our home for the coming week, a beautiful mill house restored by our hosts over the last couple years. The view was stunning with sheep fields on one side and Dore Abbey visible from the other. The garden was immense and pleasantly arranged with all kinds of flowers. There was a chicken coop at the far end and a number of fruit and vegetable bearing plants - apple trees, fresh tomatoes, zucchini, runner beans, it was like the produce aisle of Waitrose.
Inside the house was so comfortable, it really had everything. A nice wood burning stove for the colder nights. So much counter space in the kitchen we could have slept on it (but we didn’t need to because of the super comfortable bed). Even a great book and DVD collection although Blair got a little overzealous with how much of it he thought he would get through in one week (nice try on all 1000 pages of 1Q84 though).
Not the questionable roadside tourist trap in South Carolina with kitschy Mexican trinkets. You’re forgiven for thinking that, but no, if you have ever spent time in Scotland you will know that England is referred to as ‘South of the Border’. This was our next destination.
Exhausted in a really good way from Edinburgh and the Fringe Festival, we were on our way to The Cotswolds. In the southern part of England, about 85 miles northwest of London, it is an area of considerable beauty. With its rolling countryside, quaint villages and small town charm it is easy to see why it is home to members of the Royal Family including the future king, Prince Charles, and his sister, The Princess Royal. This was going to be our first house sit in England since we started our journey, or so we thought at the time. At the last minute we received a call from our family. You see, my brother and his wife had been invited to France for a few days. They asked if we could make a short detour to look after their dog.
Continuing our new found equality of looking after both cats and dogs at the same time, we would foster a beautiful one-year-old golden labrador, Frank, and his two feline house companions, The Littlest and Riddance. We had been told upon our arrival that Riddance was shy and that we may not see him for a while. But after a few days of only being able to send photos of Frank and The Littlest, and just assuming Riddance existed because his food and water bowl were depleting each day, I had to dispatch Blair to search and discover whether the cat was actually real. Eventually, with a little contortion of the body, his camera found a pair of eyes under a bed staring back. That was Riddance.
The Littlest, on the other hand, was evident most the time. Purring, nudging for treats, sleeping on, and occasionally discovered in, the bed. The strangest thing though is that the best treat this cat could be given comprised a few pieces of Frank’s dried dog food. Milk for the cat? Not really, as in “Why would you expect me to drink that?” Dog food? “Yes please, may I have more?”
One of the great things about staying in a small town like Northleach is that open countryside, field after field, is right on your doorstep. There are few things more quintessentially English than being in the open field with your dog, and your thoughts, and some beautiful views. Nobody appreciated this more than Frank, or me for that matter to purge my guilt of the cream teas abundantly available nearby.
Off the lead as soon as it was safe, he would charge off, burning his puppy energy, running through streams, greeting fellow dogs and retrieving various items as his breed is meant to do. And it is that last activity that I, as someone who grew up primarily in a city, could happily have missed. You see, when I think of a retriever I have an image of a dog with a ball, or a stick, or even a toy in its mouth. Yes, we got some of those but also a dead rabbit and my favorites, the UFOs, or unidentifiable field objects which were also mostly dead. Luckily, retrievers just retrieve, and even he got bored with the rabbit after a while when I showed no interest.
It was much more fun for him when, as was often the case, I would chase him around the house trying to recover stolen items. At only one-year-old Frank was still combining his instincts with his training. He had a habit of finding objects that you really didn’t need at the moment, but he also knew you wouldn’t want him to have it, which inevitably led to a chase through the house. Shoes, remotes, the mail, cat food, everything had to go above dog height. We could have charged admission to his graveyard of destroyed stuffed animals.
Like all good things though our downtime in Northleach came to an end. But our timing could not have been more perfect for a period of relaxation because our next trip would be the most exotic and intense so far. We were headed to Asia.
Photo of South of the Border © 2004 Sullynyflhi via Wikimedia Commons
The Roaming Blog
From Europe to Asia. From cities to villages. From mansions to cottages. Follow us on our journey as we celebrate a new type of travel - House Sitting. Learn how to start you house sitting career, tips for making the most of your travel, and the tricks for being the best house sitter you can be.