Dubai – A Wetland Surprise

Whilst glitz, glamour and sand are at the front of anyone’s thinking when it comes to Dubai and the U.A.E. I suspect that few would suspect that it is also home to a world class wetland teaming with bird life.


This is exactly what one will find in Ras Al Khor.  Situated about a 10 minute drive from the glitz and glamour of Downtown Dubai and the shops of the Dubai Mall is an area of 620 hectares of protected salt flats, inter-tidal mudflats, mangroves, and lagoons.

The area is home to the most northerly permanent flock of flamingos in the world.  In addition to these pink beauties the area is home to a further 66 species of birds including grey and reef herons, cormorants, great egrets and even ospreys.

Most of the species that can be found here are migratory.  These wetlands are a crucial staging spot for birds migrating between East Africa and West Asia, and are in fact one of the best arid area wetlands to be found anywhere in the world.


There are 2 main areas for viewing the birds which have permanent hides close to the wildlife.  One, reached from the point where the Al Ain Road turns into Oud Metha Rd – is best for viewing the flamingo flock whilst the other which is reached from the Ras Al Khor Road, is best for viewing other birds and is quiet.

Access to the hides is free of charge and the prime time for viewing is the winter (between November and March)  when the migratory bird population is at its highest.

Kuta Beach – Sunset & Swill

The evening ritual of sundowners is an absolute DO NOT MISS if you ever visit the Indonesian island of Bali.  Kuta Beach is walled off from the road and amongst the trees that line the top of the beach can be found the beach bars.  Now, if your idea of a bar includes a roof and walls, then you may be surprised by what constitutes a bar along this stretch of coastline, where no more than an ice-and-drink-filled esky (cold box), an umbrella and a plastic chair are required.

People walk along Kuta beach at sunset

People walk along Kuta beach at sunset

With Kuta on the western side of the island, the sun sets directly off the beach and I have to say that the sunsets are fantastic.  Given that the drinks are also always cold, there really is no better start to your evening than heading to the beach, watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean as you listen to the waves crashing on the shore, discussing your day and making plans for dinner.

I will admit that the “hawkers” on the beach can be persistent, but my experience was that if you are polite, jovial and firm they do eventually take the hint.  Even better still, take the time to talk to some of the ladies and you may find that they have fascinating stories to tell and love a good laugh. Just remember that they are trying to do nothing more than make a living so, please, treat them with respect.

Depending on where you have chosen to stay, there are any number of options for an evening drink but I would recommend Joseph’s Bar if you’re up by the start of the pedestrian walkway in front of the Legian Beach Hotel.  He’ll definitely look after you and ensure that your Bintang is always full and cold.

A volcano peeps out from the clouds as the crowds gather to watch sunset from Kuta Beach.

A volcano peeps out from the clouds as the crowds gather to watch sunset from Kuta Beach.

Each bar owner has their own unique way of keeping track of your tab.  Some work on the crate principle.  When you arrive you will be provided with a chair and an empty crate.  Every time you finish a drink you put the empty in your crate and when its time to leave the bottles are counted and charged accordingly.

Joseph is well geared to big groups with a crate/bottle top combo.  On arrival you will receive your empty crate and when each opened bottle is delivered you are also presented with the bottle top.  When leaving you will be charged based on the bottle tops until the last person leaves and they will have to pay for the balance of what is in the crate.  Both methods worked extremely well and in all our visits we never had an issue with the bill.

Whatever you do in Bali make sure you have sundowners on at least one evening and if you do it on your first night I can almost guarantee you won’t miss a night during your stay.

The Battle of Britain – cast in bronze

On the Victoria Embankment, just near the Westminster Bridge is a modern bronze sculpture cast by the same foundry that cast the lions in Trafalgar Square.  This artwork, over looking the Thames, gives London a fitting tribute to one of its toughest periods in recent history.

The left hand panel of the Battle of Britain Memorial shows the women working in a factory making a wing for a fighter plane

The left hand panel of the Battle of Britain Memorial shows women working in a factory making a wing for a fighter plane.

During the summer of 1940, the German Air Force started its onslaught for Britain.  Having the distinction of being the first major campaign to have ever been fought entirely by air forces, it also  prevented Germany from gaining its much desired superiority of the skies over Britain, eventually leading to the cancellation of Operation Sea Lion.  This was the planned amphibious and airborne invasion of the United Kingdom, something that no foreign force has achieved since the Battle of Fisbourne in 1797 – and that invasion by the Irish lasted only two days.

The central panel of the Battle of Britain Memorial shows the brave men of the RAF and their fighter planes

The central panel of the Battle of Britain Memorial shows the brave men of the RAF and their fighter planes.

The memorial, unveiled in 2005, shows several icons of the period.  On the right is St Paul’s Cathedral standing tall as London burns beside it, to the left are the women who took up roles in the factories to support the efforts of the men who had enlisted and at its core the brave men of the RAF scrambling for their aircraft to fight for “Dear Old Blighty”.  Around the outside of the monument are plaques that list the names of the 2,936 souls from 14 countries who played an active role in the campaign.

The right hand panel of the Battle of Britain memorial shows St Paul's standing tall as the men of the auxiliary fire service deal with London in flames

The right hand panel of the Battle of Britain memorial shows St Paul’s standing tall as the men of the auxiliary fire service deal with London in flames.

Whether a history lover or simply someone who can appreciate a fabulous art work the monument is a real must see on any visit to London, and I think a much deserved addition to my free to visit list for the British capital.

Queen Elizabeth Tower – London’s Leaning Tower

The Queen Elizabeth Tower is more widely known as Big Ben, although this was originally the nick name given to the massive bell of the clock in the tower.  Finished in 1853, the Clock Tower, as it was originally known, is one of London’s most iconic images and actually leans slightly to the north-west (about 23cm).

Big Ben behind the railings of the Palace of Westminster

Big Ben behind the railings of the Palace of Westminster.

The clock (which is the world’s second largest four faced chiming clock after the one on the Minneapolis City Hall), is famed for its precision and accuracy but it hasn’t always looked as it does today.  For two years during the First and then again in the Second World War, its face was darkened (and the bell silenced) to prevent attack by Germany, and during the Blitz part of the roof and two of the faces were damaged. When these were repaired, an additional five floor block was added.

The chimes of the clock are as famous to those in the UK as the clock tower itself, with television stations around the country sounding in midnight on New Year’s eve – but don’t get it wrong the first chime signals the hour, not the last.  Times Square has its ball and London its Bell.

London_20140912_262 Big Ben

Although it’s not possible for most people to access the tower, UK residents can arrange to join a tour of the inside.  This is done by contacting your local MP or Peer of the Realm if you happen to have one on speed dial.  If you are lucky enough to fit the bill, then plan ahead and get fit, as the tours tend to fill up 6 months in advance and includes climbing all 334 spiraling stone steps to the top.

Changing the Guard – But with horses

A much less well known spectacle that shows the pomp and ceremony of Royal London than the Changing of the Guard that occurs at Buckingham Palace is the Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard which takes place at Horse Guards at 11am each summer’s day (except Sundays when it occurs at 10am – please check on the day you plan to visit though as State ceremonies and duties will change this time table from time to time).

Horse Guardsmen lined up and ready

The “New Guard” are ready to take command.

The ceremony, as best I can understand it, really starts approximately 30 minutes before the actual changing ceremony when the relief leaves Hyde Park Barracks, heads along Constitutional Hill in Green Park, down The Mall and into the parade ground on the northern side of the buildings of Horse Guards, and lines up opposite the “old guard” that has already congregated there.

Changing of the Horse Guards

The first relief of the “new guard” takes over.

The guard has two groups within it and the first relief (those who will be on duty for the first 90 minutes) move into the central yard at the Whitehall side of the buildings and is joined from inside the Guard Room by those who were still “on guard” at the start of the ceremony.  The now relieved group from the “old guard” join their colleagues on the parade ground and the “old guard” return to the barracks while the second relief of the “new guard” head to the Guard Room.

Guards on horse back head to the Parade Ground

The current “relief” of the “old guard” head through the archway to join their colleagues on the parade ground.

Anyway, suffice to say that this is a beautiful spectacle that has been performed on this spot since the restoration of King Charles II in 1660.  As it is less well known than the ceremony at the Palace, the crowds are significantly smaller and there are also no fences between the public and the action.

Mounted guardsmen watches the gate to Horse Guards

Mounted guardsman of the “new guard” takes his position on duty at the gates.

This is a definite highlight on my free to visit list for this incredible city. To get there, either walk up from Green Park with the horses (get to Green Park by 10:15 if this is your plan) or get the tube to Charing Cross or Embankment stations, walking from these should take no more than 10 minutes.

St James’s Park – The oldest of London’s Royal Parks

The original landscape in this area was a large marshy water meadow on the edge of Westminster and in Medieval times a leper colony (called St James’s) was built in the area and this is the source of the park’s name.  In 1532, just 2 years after he “acquired” neighbouring York Place from Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII bought the land.

Henry quickly turned the meadow land into a deer park, building what is now the Palace of St James on the park’s north western edge as a hunting lodge – makes you wonder why when he already had a home on the other side of the park, but what a king wants….

The flowers and topiary in St James Park

The flowers and topiary in St James’s Park

His daughter, Elizabeth I, used the park to indulge her love of pomp and ceremony, holding fete’s in the park. Under her successor James I, the meadowland was ordered drained and became home to a collection of wild animals including an elephant and crocodiles as well as exotic birds kept in aviaries along the southern edge of the park – now known as Birdcage Walk.

Squirrel being hand fed by an old man in St James Park

A squirrel being hand fed by an old man in St James’s Park

Under Charles II a level of formality was imposed on the park with a French inspired garden that used a straight canal to contain the Tyburn River that runs through the park.  This layout remained largely intact until the 1820’s when the Prince Regent (later George IV) commissioned John Nash to remake the park.  Nash, working in the more natural style of the day, removed the canal and replaced it with the flowing lake shape we still see today.

Deck Chairs in St James Park

Deck chairs in St James’s Park

The modern Park makes an ideal location for a picnic (just bear in mind that the Royal Parks limit the size of a picnic group and – as at 1 July 2015 – for St James’s Park this limit is 20 people and cooking/barbecuing is prohibited).  If taking a picnic is “not your thing” then there are a number of kiosks offering snacks and drinks and a licensed restaurant offering simple food and drinks available within the grounds of the park.

Horse Guards shows behind the edge of John Nash's lake at the Eastern end of the St James's Park.

Horse Guards shows behind the edge of John Nash’s lake at the eastern end of St James’s Park.

For me, the key reason to visit, are the views it offers of London.  These are not the iconic views we are all used to but include beautiful and unexpected perspectives of some of London’s most famous landmarks.

Natural History Museum – More than just a museum

The towers that flank the amazing entrance to the museum

The towers over the amazing entrance to the museum

The Natural History Museum is a great day out but don’t forget to look at the building as well as the exhibits.  This is, in my mind, one of the architectural treasures of London.

Intricately carved columns that flank the entry to the museum

Intricately carved columns flank the entry to the museum

The museum, which was built on the site of the 1862 International Exhibition, is a true case of making a swan from a ugly duckling.  The original building for the International Exhibition was described at the time as the ugliest building in the world, but the same can definitely not be said of the wonderful building that was created on the site in the 1880’s.

The head of a mouse looks out from the bottom of one of the pillars flanking the entrance.

The head of a mouse looks out from the bottom of one of the pillars flanking the entrance

An eagle on the base of a pillar in the museum's entryway

An eagle on the base of a pillar in the museum’s entryway

The terracotta facing, intricately carved animal motifs, and majestic staircase in the main hall, ensure that the building is as big a star at the Museum as the rocks and bones that make up the exhibitions inside it.

If you are visiting in the early summer months  before schools are out, then my advice would be to avoid weekday mornings as the museum is a real “school trip staple”.  It is best to visit in the afternoons when the children have returned to their schools for their end of day pick ups or even on a weekend.

To get to the museum the best tube is South Kensington from which the museum is signposted.  Another of the great offerings within London which is free to visit.

Is this London’s best looking church?

The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich is another of the wonderful locations (it’s adjacent to the Painted Hall – see Greenwich’s Painted Gem) that one should visit on a trip around this beautiful part of London –  especially since entry is free unless you feel moved to make a donation.

Ornate Ceiling Rose

Details of the exquisite ceiling rose from the centre of the church

Unlike many churches in the UK that combine elements of design from many styles, this is an example of pure Neoclassical design and is a fine example of architecture in the 1700’s and a testament to the quality of the skills of the painter decorator in England during the Georgian Era.  The Chapel has a magnificent painted ceiling reminiscent of a piece of Wedgwood china from the period. All of which, in my mind at least, puts it into the running of being one of the most beautiful of all of the churches in London.

Ornate Plasterwork

Details of the ornate plaster and paintwork on the underside of the church’s galleries.

Another of the features not to miss is the chapel’s organ that cost £1,000 at the time of its installation in 1798 when it was commissioned from one of the country’s finest organ builders, Samuel Green (in today’s money, that would be equivalent to around £130,000).

I definitely think that this together with the Painted Hall are must see destinations for any visitor that makes it to Greenwich – the Chapel is a short walk from the DLR station (Cutty Sark) and the river bus wharf (Greenwich Pier).

Greenwich’s painted gem

The Painted hall is one of the gems of London, designed by Christopher Wren to be the dining hall for naval pensioners who were housed at the nearby Royal Hospital for Seaman.

The halls magnificent paintings, which were created in the early part of the 18th century, and took 19 years to complete, include the clever use of painter’s illusions to give the hall even more grandeur.  The column seen on the right of the image above shows how the plain columns were made grand through the use of painted effects which gave an appearance of much more expensive carved pillars.  The same is true of the architraves around the rooms windows and doors.

The main panel of the ceiling has the UK’s largest figurative painting and at over 5,600 sq feet is often referred to as England’s Sistine Chapel.  The panel pays homage to King William and King Mary and represents the triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny.

This is a great way to spend a few minutes when you are visiting Greenwich and best of all its free to enter.

Why take a stroll in the city when the countryside is closer

EU-GB-London_20150627_257 lachie checking out the view from Dunstable DownsWhen you travel to London it can be easy to feel that you have to spend your time within the city, however if the weather is great then why not venture out a bit further.

The Dunstable Downs can be reached from the centre of London in about an hour (lets face it that’s less than it can take to get to some of the Parks within the city).  Take a train to Luton from St Pancreas Station and then its an easy bus or taxi ride to the end of the downs.  Alternatively make a day of it and add the 7km walk from Luton to the trip and then get a cab back to the station at the end of the day.

When you get there these chalk downs are perfect for a summers day walk.  Watch the para-gliders soar, visit the Medieval Rabbit Warren, stroll through the Saxon burial area of Five Knolls but above all watch for the wildlife.