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 daytime heat was unbearable. We would psych ourselves up for a walk only to regret it 2 minutes later and climb into an Uber covered in sweat. After about two days of trying we had to give up on our grand plans of walking around exploring the city. Not that any of this could have been done on foot even if it hadn’t been scorching. Kuala Lumpur is sprawling, confusing, and definitely not made for pedestrians. Which makes sense because no one walks, which makes sense because it is one million degrees. Okay, so we didn’t do much research on this part but that would not dampen our spirits. No, we would leave the dampening to mother nature...
We had just landed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and were wrapping up our first meal ever in Malaysia in a Mexican restaurant in a mall of all places. After dinner, our host jumped on her motorbike to head to the house just up the road. Good thing there were two of us or I fear we might have ended up on the back of it. Instead, we hopped in a cab to join her and meet our new temporary adoptees, Julian Le Strange and Carlos Broccoli. First impressions: what interesting names, and what absolute sweeties. Both rescued, these two were distinctly different in look but had similar traits. They were immediately friendly, not shy, and active from the start. Where one went the other followed. Though they might have come from very different places they were most definitely brothers now. They were not afraid to be vocal when necessary and made good guard dogs. Even if that meant barking at us when we returned from the city at night causing a domino effect through the neighborhood, oops.
Due to a change in our host’s plans, we actually had a couple nights where she would be home while we were there. This was a pleasant surprise of course and gave us a couple days to explore without having to worry that the boys were alone. We had a number of fun adventures in Kuala Lumpur and its suburbs during this time.
We had been warned that the boys had met two “girlfriends” a few days earlier, a couple of semi-strays that seemed to live right outside of the gates of the house, and they were always there to greet us each morning and accompany us on the walk. They made quite the foursome and would confuse passers-by who occasionally would query why only two of the dogs were not on leashes in the middle of an urban setting. A smile and a shrug were really the only answer.
One of our early mornings started just like the others. It was still before sunrise and our little guys and their friends were all ready to go out. I left Blair asleep and we scooted out into the dark. We got about one-quarter of the way through our walk when the winds changed. And as day broke we noticed the dark clouds in the distance. Thunderstorm. There was no time to call a car, even if they would take dogs, because by the time they got there it would be too late. We raced home as fast as their dog sized legs could take them. The storm held off as we navigated the labyrinth of concentric hexagons that was our neighborhood of SS19. We just turned onto our street when a wave of rain hit. We were soaked instantly. Blair was waiting for us at the door with towels ready and an apologetic expression. Not that there was much to be done. He had tried to send me a warning message but I was already focused on getting the dogs back at that point and wouldn’t have pulled my phone out afraid it would get wet.
But that day wasn’t all bad. Many dogs don’t like storms and Julian, in particular, was no exception. That was the day we truly bonded. He followed underfoot as the storm raged outside, even hiding in the clothes pile as we were doing laundry. This tiny little creature leaped onto the bed where I was reading and nestled himself right next to me seeking comfort. When I woke up from a nap to post-storm calm outside, he was still there, curled up, eyes closed, little snout on the pillow next to me.
In our one week we had been through the full scale of Malaysia weather. Hot and humid, wet and windy, and even a short period called the Haze Season, which is exactly what it sounds like and does not feel so great on the throat and sinuses. Luckily the storms washed that away so we could enjoy the little bits of time we could stand being outside.
It was sad to say goodbye to our little protectors. We regretted having only a week in Malaysia, it was not enough. Next time, we will plan it so that we can explore outside of the city and really immerse ourselves in much more of the country and its fascinating history and blend of cultures. For now, though, it’s back to Britain for a bit of a cool down.
With just one month to make all the plans, getting to Malaysia was not going to be the easiest job. We had to use most of our best travel skills to make it happen. During this house sitting adventure of ours we have really been experimenting with ways to keep the traveling budget under control, and since flights make up the majority of that budget we needed a good plan for this long haul. This is when the fun and frustration of airline alliances typically kicks in.
We always fly United Airlines within the States, and normally internationally. So our first place to check for flights is their website, but our search there ended quickly. Coming from the UK, the only way to fly on United would be to go backward to the States and then on to Malaysia. We are gluttons for travel punishment but even that seemed excessive. I have done that once to Australia and it was a killer. Occasionally on international flights we end up on another airline in the Star Alliance network. Our goal being to choose the airline with the best price for our flight while still contributing to our mileage accrual and status qualifications. That's key. If you are not careful in checking to see how each airline in an alliance interacts with your airline of choice you can be left with an expensive ticket and nothing in return. So we got online and used a couple of tools to do a quick search of the best flights from London to Kuala Lumpur. On one website, Momondo, there is actually an option to filter by the different global alliances so we could make sure to keep it in house. We had all the potential flights lined up but there was still a problem. The prices were pretty outrageous! I mean, we were cutting it close what with the trip being so soon, but the costs were out of control. It was time to step back, rethink, and figure out a new plan.
Any normal, sane person would have just sucked it up and jumped on a flight from London Heathrow which was only two hours away from where we would be staying. But since occasionally we are neither of those things (normal or sane) we decided to think bigger. We figured we had just enough time if we moved quickly to make it from the place we would be house sitting to one of the airports in continental Europe. So, through quite a bit of research, we found flights out of Brussels on Turkish Airlines, and determined it would actually be £300 cheaper to go to Belgium even including the cost of the drive. One of the big differences in price was avoiding that pesky and expensive UK Air Passenger Duty which is especially punishing on long haul flights. It’s actually not the first time we’ve done this. I’ve dropped Blair off in Paris, Brussels, and even Amsterdam before to save significant money on return flights to the US. So after a call to United and a call to Turkish to confirm, step one of our trip was in place. Yes, it was a little complicated, and we would now have a lot of plans to put in place. But we were proud that with a little perseverance, some flexibility, and a lot of research we made the system work for us. The Malaysia trip was becoming more real by the second.
Did I say we are pretty adamant about finding good deals on flights? It is almost up there with how far we will go out of our way to not pay for parking. Blair can attest to how many times I’ve made him walk an extra mile because a few pounds for parking seemed too steep for just a couple hours. It sometimes seems ridiculous but when you are traveling so much it really does begin to add up. Same reason we almost never pay for airport parking.
I can’t remember the last time I parked at an airport, and we definitely weren’t going to on this trip where every dollar counted. Instead of parking the car at Brussels Airport, we arranged to stay outside the city in a place where we knew we could street park the car while we were gone. We spent the night in a small town outside of Brussels called Merchtem. It lies northwest of Brussels about 25 km from the airport and has the typical charm of a nice sized European town. What we hadn’t counted on when we arranged to stay there was that Merchtem was hosting its 10-day long annual street festival and fair. Each year the center of the town is closed off to traffic and, inspired by hot summer weather this particular August, the entire town came out to party. Beer, Belgian waffles, fries with mayo, musical bands performing in the square, dancing in the streets until 4 am; you name it, it was going on. We left the revelers to do their thing and stumbled home exhausted because we had a bus to catch the next morning. For a few euros we were able to take the regional bus right to the front door of the airport, knowing our car would kindly be looked after by the person we had been staying with.
I mentioned were are both pretty tall. Since both of us stand just about six and a half feet, it can be tough to fit into regular sized economy airline seats. In this case, tough equals impossible if you want to be able to walk when the flight is done. Because we fly so much normally we are pretty much always able to arrange for exit row seats, but that is only on our regular airline. When you are dealing with other airlines even in the same alliance, it's like wandering through the wilderness, expect the unexpected. We thought it would be best to arrive early and see if we could get exit row seats assigned. Early being as soon as the gate opened. Apparently, in Brussels, and unlike the US, that doesn’t mean 4 hours before the flight, but that’s fine. After an hour long wait for the desk to open we were very thankful to be checked-in with great exit row seating on both flights. That early bird thing rings true in this case.
We’d never flown Turkish Airlines before, so didn’t know what to expect. We are such frequent flyers on the same airline (have to get those miles and preserve that status!) that we get nervous whenever we have to fly with anyone else. Luckily, Turkish Airlines turned out to be a really pleasant experience and great choice. Nice modern planes, good food, more than decent on-demand video entertainment options, and all of this in coach. Most impressive, though, is its lounge in Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport. It makes you want to arrange for a long layover. We had never experienced anything quite like it. Split across two floors, and the size of many large hotels’ lobbies, you can help yourself to practically anything you want. A gin and tonic? Pour one for yourself. Hot pressed panini oozing with mozzarella and fresh tomatoes? Just ask the chef to make you a couple. Fresh, strong, local coffee with Turkish Delight and biscotti as a snack on the side? The barista is there to keep you continuously caffeinated.
Back in the air, it occurred to us that we had just flown out of Brussels, with a connection in Istanbul, on our way to Malaysia. Considering the recent history of all of these places we said a quick silent prayer in hopes of making it all the way without a hitch. We relaxed a bit as we enjoyed all the food, wine, and movies we could desire. Thanks to the wonderful Turkish Airlines service we landed excited and invigorated the following morning in a new part of the world.
Kuala Lumpur International Airport, locally referred to as just KLIA, is very far from the city center. You feels like you are flying straight into a tropical jungle as you land because of the surrounding palm fields. With the sun setting by the time we landed, the air had that distinct humid and sticky feel. It had been a while since we’d been to a place like this. It felt familiar yet different.
On this occasion, we would be looking after two dogs for an expat teacher who was taking some time off to vacation. So we jumped into an Uber and headed to a restaurant where we had agreed to meet her straight from work. It was at this point that we made our first exciting Malaysian discovery. Taxis are cheap. It must have taken 45 minutes to get to our destination and the fare wasn’t even $20 with tolls. This would become increasingly beneficial as the week progressed. Once we arrived at the restaurant we made another discovery, this time a little less exciting. The high cost of alcohol, yes, even beer. Oh well. They say alcohol and heat don’t mix anyhow.
We settled into, of all places, a Mexican restaurant, and waited for our host to arrive. After such a smooth journey we were pretty sure it was going to be a good week...
Photo of Merchtem, Belgium by Luc T. flickr.com
Photo of Turkish Airlines A330 © 2015 Eric Salard via Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Turksih Airlines CIP Lounge by Jun Seita flickr.com
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.
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