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Jan
01

Lavenham Medieval Market Town

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MedievalTimberBuildingsLavenhamIf you ever visit the heart of Suffolk, you will find a number of medieval market towns that prospered from the wool trade during the 15th and 16th centuries. Places like Bury St Edmunds, Long Melford and others all have a charm of their own but without doubt, the most enthralling is Lavenham.

At its height, Lavenham was among the top 20 wealthiest places in England as the it reaped the rewards of the wool trade paying more tax that the large centres of Lincoln and York. Today, many of the beautiful old buildings remain and it is a wonderful place to walk around at your leisure visiting the museums, tea shops and browsing the antique stores looking for a bargain.

De Vere House, Lavenham

De Vere House, Lavenham

In the early days, the estate was owned by a tenant-in-chief of William the Conquerer called Aubrey de Vere. One of the many timber buildings in Lavenham today bears his name – De Vere House. This 14th century cottage was used to create the fictional village of Godric’s Hollow in the film “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part One”. If you fancy staying at De Vere House, it is a luxury self catering accommodation with two guest bedrooms.

Of all the wonderful medieval buildings in Lavenham, the best known is the Guildhall of Corpus Christi. This Tudor building has a number of museum rooms telling the tale of Lavenham’s history. The Guildhall was probably built in 1530 although the exact date is not known. The building has a chequered history and at one point in time was used as a prison. Some of the basement windows still have bars across them.

Guildhall of Corpus Christi, Lavenham

Guildhall of Corpus Christi, Lavenham

During World War II, Lavenham was home to one of the many American air bases and Station 137 was manned by the US Army Air Force 487th Bombardment Group between September 1943 and November 1945. Much of the base has been returned to fam land although parts of the runway still remain and the Control Tower is in the process of being restored. In the square in Lavenham, there is a plaque to the memory of the men of the 487th along with a more recent British casualty Lance Corporal of Horse “Jo” Woodgate who died in Afghanistan in 2010.

In all, there are over 300 buildings of historic significance in Lavenham which today is home to around 1,700 people. If you want to visit one of England’s finest examples of medieval history then Lavenham is the place to go. It is within easy driving distance of Colchester, Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge and should be one the list of any itinerary if you are ever in Suffolk.

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Dec
27

My Favourite Photos of 2012

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The problem with writing about all the wonderful places I’ve visited in 2012 is that I simply couldn’t do them justice in a single blog post. Instead, I’ve chosen my favourite photos I’ve taken this year.

Donbass Arena

Donbass Arena, Donetsk

Donbass Arena, Donetsk

I travelled to the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine for the Euro 2012 match between England and France. It was a beautiful summers day and I had time to look around the city and soak up the sun. The game was played in the Donbass Arena, a magnificent, modern football stadium. As it as the summer, there was still a hint of sunlight after the game and I was able to capture this photo.
http://bbmexplorer.com/donetsk-euro-2012-host-city/

Blue Dragon Nudibranch

Blue Dragon Nudibranch

Blue Dragon Nudibranch

In April, we took a family holiday to Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, a place where I have dived many times before. I’m not sure what was different about this trip but I seem very tuned in to find different nudibranchs and slugs whilst I was diving. I found this Blue Dragon Nudibranch on the wreck of the Yolanda at the very tip of the Sinai.
http://holidayblog.easyjet.com/dives-in-egypt-rob-atherton/

Oslo Harbour

Oslo Harbour

Oslo Harbour

Oslo Harbour is one of the main tourist areas of the city and is wonderful place to be during the long summer days. It is also the starting point for a number of short cruises around the many beautiful fjords and inlets.

Scallop, Aldeburgh

Scallop, Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Scallop, Aldeburgh, Suffolk

There are some lovely towns and villages along the Suffolk coast. Aldeburgh is one of these places and although it is probably best known for its wonderful fish and chips the Scallop just to the north of the town has been the cause of discussion. This sculpture is dedicated to the composer,  Benjamin Britten who used to walk along this stretch of beach. Some people think it should be taken down as it is inappropriate for a man made object along such a beautiful setting.

Liverpool

Liverpool Skyline

Liverpool Skyline

I’ve been spending a bit of time in Liverpool recently and although the city is the butt of a number of jokes, parts of the city are absolutely wonderful. One evening I took the opportunity to head over to the Wirral on the other side of the River Mersey and took this picture of the Liverpool skyline at night. It shows the iconic towers of the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building, the Port of Liverpool Building, the Echo Area and in the distance, the Anglican Cathedral.

Avebury Stone Circle

Avebury Stone Circle

Avebury Stone Circle

The stone circles in the Wiltshire village of Avebury contains the largest stone circle in Europe and is one of the best known prehistoric sites in Britain. It dates back to 2,600BC during the Neolithic period and today is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Titan Triggerfish

Titan Triggerfish

Titan Triggerfish

I wasn’t sure whether to include a second underwater picture but I really like this picture of a Titan Triggerfish. These fish can grow up to 70cm long and are sometimes incredibly agressive. I’ve been attacked by them a few times although luckily, I’ve never been bitten. The thing I like about this picture is I was able to get so close to it head on.

Dec
02

Menorca: Island of hidden delights

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The Balearic Islands are known as a hedonist’s wonderland – full of clubs and rowdy young things. However, the quieter cousin of Ibiza and Majorca is Menorca. This smaller island is full of foodie delights, tranquil backwaters and 99 beaches, each with its own unique vibe and sea conditions. Whether by bike, kayak or on foot, Menorca has a treasure trove of hamlets to discover.

Magnificent menus 

Towards the north of the island is Macaret, a decent spot for a lazy lunch or tapas meal. Try the dangerously refreshing pomada, a local speciality gin that’s served with plenty of ice and lemon. Also, take a mental note of Es Mercadal. In this area, there’s a large variety of eateries, ranging from the cheap and cheerful to upmarket cuisine. An island with 99 beaches has abundant seafood morsels and a decent variety of seafood restaurants. Try Ses Truqueries, a farm combined with restaurant near the rocky shores of Cuitadella. Another gem is Can Bernat d’es Grau, a place that does local fish seared on a griddle, near Maó on the coast. In Maó, a converted convent holds a decadent market which sells local cheeses, sausages, capers and gin – all of the necessities for a fun night.

Must-see Menorca 

Menorca has 1,600 megalithic sites from aeons ago scattered around the island. Talatí de Dalt has a magnificent T-shaped structure called a Taula. The Naveta dels Tudons has an enigmatic monolith that’s shaped like an upturned boat. In ancient times, the inhabitants of Menorca mined for limestone, and recently these quarries have been restored to their glory days. The Pedreres de s’Hostal at Líthica is one such treasure of antiquity. At the early and later hours of the day, the shadows cast into these quiet, empty spaces are awe-inspiring.

An eco-view to write home about 

Menorca has been a UNESCO biosphere since 1993. Suffice to say that they take eco-living and conservation very seriously indeed. Wild camping is not allowed, but sleeping out in sleeping bags and in a small tent is tolerated, so long as you’re careful where you park your tired feet. Places like sand dunes are protected because of the local flora and fauna. Just make sure that you leave the place as you found it. Unlike Ibiza, instead of techno beats reverberating around Menorca, there is only bird song and waves. The island is largely flat, making it perfect for walking or cycling trips. The good news for the out-of-shape traveller is that these won’t prove to be too challenging.

Get lost in a kayak 

Athletic and adventurous types should try their hand at kayaking across the 216km of coastline in Menorca. Only around half of the beaches there have road access, which means that exploring by kayak could be the ticket to a little-known paradise. The Menorcan tourist board estimates that the circumnavigation of Menorca by kayak will take 10 hours in the kayak, for 10 days. If this idea seems exhausting, then there are plenty of day trips and pleasure paddles to be found. A good day’s paddle is Illa d’en Colom. An uninhabited island about 200m from the mainland, it’s a part of the Parc de s’Albufera des Grau. It’s likely that there won’t be a single solitary soul in view, only turquoise water, golden sand and a flurry of birds above and fishes below. Be sure to check accommodation arrangements before travelling, as many places are closed for the winter from November to March. However, going there during the colder period will mean that Menorca is surprisingly cheap and practically deserted – always a nice bonus. Check out cheap holidays to Spain in early spring time too. This is when the almond blossom comes out and the air is restless with new life.

The Balaerics in general are very easy to get to, with cheap holidays to Spain available through Thomson and several other travel operators.

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Want a holiday that packs a wallop like a souped-up retro car? Perhaps one set to a meringue beat? This sort of scene may bring to mind Cuba, but another place that’s similarly vibrant, sunny and loud is the Dominican Republic. Not to be confused with the small Caribbean island of Dominica, population 73,000, the Dominican Republic is the second largest nation in the Caribbean, with around 10 million people living there.

The DR in a nutshell 

When Christopher Columbus first spotted this large island in 1492, he named it Hispaniola. French pirates and buccaneers later set up camp, before there was a French colony in the 17th century, with sugar cane successes, and plenty of ships passing in the hot trade winds. The Dominican Republic is diverse, lush and teeming with different ecosystems; from high alpine and mangrove swamps, to savannah, desert and sandy beaches. It’s not only the land that’s diverse, the island is now split into independent parts: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Crossing the island, one meets African-looking folks who speak French and dress to party at all hours; on other parts of the island, bodegas are pumping out tapas and meringue music.

Day-time adventures 

There are plenty of both natural and man-made diversions. The ecology of the island means that exploration calls like a whisper on the Caribbean wind, if only to follow in the footsteps of many other curious explorers in history. Day-time exploring can include traversing through savannah, towards the windswept coastline where whales can be spotted during certain times of year. Another excellent day trip is climbing the peak of Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the Caribbean at 3,175m.

After siesta time 

When the sun gets horizontal in the sky and energy levels begin to waver, it’s time to chow down on some fortifying tapas and sangria in a bodega. Or perhaps it’s worth gambling with the local poison of choice – rum and cigars. Not exactly healthy, but then some things simply aren’t healthy that feel good. The national and personal motto of everybody in the Dominican Republic seems to be “Fiesta mi amigo”. So don’t be afraid to gulp down some pungent, fiery liquids that could kill a small horse.

Quirky local haunts 

Countless beach huts and bars will be frequented by the tourists, who fling themselves into the feel-good vibes of the local scenery. But those in the know will dig a little deeper and go where the locals party. A new phenomenon that is flourishing on the island is car wash parties. It may sound ludicrous, but it’s nothing like the silly 1970s movie of the same name, starring Richard Prior among others. Car washes in the Dominican Republic come complete with a bar, plenty of amber ale of different kinds flowing freely and people milling around, partying together while washing and buffing their treasured vehicles. Each car wash will feature music that’s played at a decibel range heard from outer space. It’s not for everyone, but for travellers wanting a unique and quirky experience that’s completely indigenous to the area, this is it. Older people may want to bring the ear plugs; younger ones will want to bring along wads of cash for the reveries, which could easily rival the parties of nearby Cuba. Turn up at around 9pm but don’t expect the party to really kick off until after 1am. Getting a rental car specifically for the purpose is advisable – a designated driver for the evening is also a canny idea.

Holidays to the Dominican Republic, through Holiday Hypermarket or other travel companies, can be as quiet and tranquil as any other island hideaway, or you could pretend that you’re in the thick of a carnival in Rio. It’s really all down to where you choose to hang your hat.

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Sep
17

Wanted – Free WiFi at airports

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One of the many advantages of smartphones is the growing array of travel apps that help make our journeys easier. Airlines such as British Airways and Lufthansa are among a host of companies that provide apps free of charge. One of the excellent features they offer are boarding passes that are sent to your phone.

There is no waiting around at machines or counters to collect bits of paper as the boarding pass is sent straight to your phone. When you get to the airport, all you have to do is click on the app and the boarding pass appears, nice and easy.

However, there is a hidden cost to this. In the UK, I have an unlimited data plan with my phone so accessing boarding passes isn’t really an issue but when abroad, I need a connection to retrieve the boarding pass. Data roaming charges are usually outrageous and when I’m abroad, I turn off my smartphone’s data. Instead, I use wifi hotspots.

In the UK, wifi is available in airports but it is a paid service. Visitors to the UK either have to pay to connect to the airport wifi or incur expensive roaming charges. I have noticed that many airports around the world offer free wifi. In some cases, it is free for as long as you want, in other cases, it is free for a limited period of time.

Passengers wanting to retrieve boarding passes from their smartphone wouldn’t need much free wifi time so I struggle to understand why UK airports don’t offer this. Many leading hotels have always charged outrageous amounts for wifi but last month, Accor announced it was going to scrap wifi charges at all of its 500 hotels. In the 21st century, this has to be the right thing to do and hopefully, UK airports will soon realise this and do the same.

Picture: Flickr User – Joseph Hunkins

Categories : Big Blue Marble, Britain
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Aug
26

Should We Have Travel Regrets?

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I was sitting on a train the other day and thoughts drifted (as they often do ) to places around the world. Not so much ones that I wanted to visit but I for some reason, I was thinking about the places I didn’t visit when I had the opportunity.

Last year, Jordan seemed to be the destination of choice for the discerning travel blogger and I took a 10 day break there with my family during the summer. I tried to plan an itinerary that suited us all. My aim was to see new places but also leave enough time to visit other spots on the spur of the moment. Jordan has many wonderful places but one place we didn’t go to was Wadi Rum. As we left Jordan, I kept thinking that I’d go there next time but as the months have passed, I’m wondering if I will go back to Jordan. I’ve seen a lot of it including Petra, Madaba, Aqaba and the Dead Sea but I’m not sure I’ll go back any time soon. If I don’t, it does seem such a shame that I didn’t get to Wadi Rum, a place I first heard of in the film “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Seven Pillars of Wisdon, Wadi Rum (Photo: Dale Gillard on Flickr)

As ever, when you have plenty of spare time on your hands, one thought leads to another and I started to think of other travel experiences I missed. Ironically, many of the missed experiences are close to home. This was a subject I wrote about back in February – Travel Adventures On Your Doorstep. The local places are easy enough to visit but its the further afield destinations that I may never get to see again. Five years ago, I spent nearly 3 weeks in Cuba but apart from a couple of days in Havana, I spent the rest of the time in Varadero at a beach resort. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but on the flight home, I felt I should have tried to see other parts of the country too. I think of trips to Australia, South Africa, the United States and a number of cities in Europe where I had the opportunity to see and do more but didn’t.

Why Have I Never Been to Vegas? (Photo: GlacierTim on Flickr)

On reflection, I don’t think you should have any regrets about travelling. There is always something else to see and none of use are going to get to see everything we want to while we are on this earth. For the first time ever, I’ve started compiling  bucket list of places I want to visit. I’m sure I’ll never get to some of them but its always good to aim high. I think we should all be grateful for the numerous travel experiences we’ve have and try to get the most out of all future trips. Top of the list for me at present is to travel Route 66 from Chicago to the Pacific. Its something I’ll only ever do once and when I do, I’ll see and do as much as possible. It won’t be easy as there are endless things to discover as you head West across the USA.
Share your thoughts?  Do you have any regrets about places you didn’t see when travelling?
Aug
19

Heathrow Pods at Terminal 5

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If you have ever flown from London Heathrow Terminal 5, you may have seen this strange little pods approaching the terminal building on a concrete ramp near the end of the runway. A number of them can be seen at any one time and they are quite small so for a time I wondered what they were.

A few months ago, I discovered they were used to move passengers from the T5 Business Car Park to the terminal. It seemed like a great alternative to the more traditional bus. Ahead of a recent trip to Zurich, I was flying from T5 at Heathrow and needed to pre-book some parking. The BAA website usually has some pretty good rates when you book in advance so it is part of my trip routine if I’m driving to the airport.

When I logged on to their website, I hadn’t really considered the Business Car Park. Generally, they are a lot more expensive and with the Swiss Franc being so strong, I wasn’t looking to spend any more money than I had to on this trip. I needed to park for 2 days so I typed in the details and the search results came back. I was pleasantly surprised to see the Business Car Park was only £4 more than Long Stay (£36 as opposed to £32). The opportunity to have a go on the Heathrow Pods was too good to miss so I booked them straight away.

On arrival, the Business Car Park is pretty similar to any other airport car park although it is a bit small in terms of number of bays. There are 2 pod stations; A and B. You simply walk to the nearest one and wait for a pod to arrive. When it does, there are a couple of very simple options on the touch screen, you jump in and away you go.

Inside, the pod will seat 4 people comfortable along with their luggage. The journey takes 5 minutes and drops you right in the heart of the terminal. On your return, you follow the signs to point you were dropped off, pick one of the waiting pods and chose your destination; Station A or Station B.

Heathrow quite often gets a bad rap, usually unfairly but I have to say that the Business Car Park pods are as efficient as anything I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. I’m not sure how much extra I would be prepared to pay for them in future but I will definitely consider them in the future. Unfortunately, they only operate at Terminal 5 which is where most (not all) of the British Airways flights operate from. Travelling in the modern age can be a real pain and it is little things like this that make our journeys a little easier.

Heathrow Terminal 5 Business Car Parking can be booked online at the BAA website*

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*Affiliate link

Categories : Britain, Europe, London
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Jul
08

Travel Assistance at London City Airport

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Guest post by: My Mum

Courtesy of Flickr user "1541" Darren WebLondon City Airport (Picture: Flickr user 1541 under Creative Commons) is one of Londons gems. Situated on the south bank of the river Thames I found that this is an efficient and well run airport. It was initially used by businessmen due to its close location to the City of London but more and more people are using it for leisure trips.
Ten years ago my husband and I discovered the joy of travelling via London City Airport and today I can only endorse the most favourable impressions that were made in 2002.
Today, there is an excellent rail connection from the City Airport to the main rail routes which has encouraged people like me to use this wonderful little airport.
Last year, I flew to Australia and I arranged wheelchair assistance along the way. This time, my destination was much closer but I felt so much more at ease knowing that people would be there to help me at the airport. Once my flight to Zurich was booked with British Airways, I contacted them to arrange wheelchair assistance. It was very simple and free of charge.
When I arrived at the airport, I went to the customer services counter. The staff are friendly and helpful and the wheelchair that had been ordered well in advance was soon on the scene. They helped me all the way through security, passport control and right to the aircraft.
My journey was so much more enjoyable thanks to the wheelchair assistance provided at London City Airport. I believe that most, if not all, airlines off this service and most airports.
Long live London City Airport!
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Jun
26

Donetsk Euro 2012 Host City

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Nicknamed the “City of a Million Roses”, Donetsk probably isn’t a place on many peoples bucket list of place they simply have to visit. The city was founded by a Welshman called John Hughes who developed the coal and steel industry in the area and it is still an important centre for these industries in Ukraine today.

A by-product of the mining activities are the numerous spoil tips (aka slag heaps) that litter the landscape in and around the city. If you have ever flown to the Maldives, you will have seen the many islands dotted around in the Indian Ocean. On approach to Donetsk airport, the spoil tips are distributed around the countryside but that is where the tenuous link to the Maldives ends.

Donetsk was originally called Yusovka in recognition of the Welshman who settled here with his family and workers from South Wales to develop a steel plant and the coal mining industry. Today, it is still an important centre of steel works and is home to more than a million people. Due to it’s location in Eastern Ukraine, there are a significant number of ethnic Russians who actually outnumber Ukrainians.

As with many ex-Soviet cities, a large statue of Lenin is never far away. At the heart of Donetsk is Lenin Square complete with a statue of the man. Artema Street runs next to Lenin Square and people visiting for the first time may be surprised at the amount of trees and parks in the centre. In summer, temperatures are regularly into the mid 30s celcius (95F) so walking in the shade of the trees can be a welcome relief. There are a number of bars and cafes along Artema Street where you can have a drink and watch the world go by.

 

Lenin Square, Donetsk

 

Like many towns and cities in this part of the world, there is plenty of history and places to discover. Unfortunately, time was limited as the main event was football.

Donetsk has a sporting heritage. It is home to the legendary Soviet pole vaulter Serhiy Bubka and regularly holds international competitions including Davis Cup matches. Shaktar Donetsk won the UEFA Cup in 2009 and in recent times, the Hockey Club, futsal team, volleyball team and basketball teams have also won various titles.

In the quest to become a Euro 2012 host city, Donetsk fought off competition from Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa. The magnificent Donbass Arena was selected for Group D matches, a quarter final and a semi final. Given the city’s links to Britain, perhaps it was fate that England would play two matches here.

 

Donbass Arena, Donetsk

Donbass Arena, Donetsk

 

The Donbass Arena is one of the best ‘new’ stadia I have visited on my travels. It is in a beautiful setting of woodland, lakes and lawns. At night time, it is beautifully illuminated. Nearby is a war museum with a few Soviet era tanks and various memorials to fallen soldiers from past conflicts.

Group D was made up of Ukraine, England, France and Sweden. Considering Ukraine were the host nation and would have had an influence on the venues, it is surprising they picked Donetsk as their record there is awful. In 8 attempts they have drawn twice and lost six times which hardly makes it a lucky stadium for them.

The first match of Euro 2012 in Donetsk was between England and France. The difficult journey to Donetsk (14 hours overnight train from Kiev) meant the numbers of England and France fans were much lower than normal but the local Russian and Ukrainian fans flocked to the game and the stadium was pretty close to capacity.

The game ended 1-1 and following the final whistle, it was time to board the coach to head back to Donetsk airport. The newly built airport is a superb building and moving through security to the aircraft was as smooth as anywhere I’ve been in the world.

My visit to Donetsk was only short but very enjoyable. If you are ever in this part of Ukraine, take time to look round. You may be pleasantly surprised, just as I was.

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Apr
22

Transit in Singapore Airport

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Singapore Changi Airport - PHOTO from Flickr: Hey Tiffany!

Singapore is only small but it is a fascinating destination and you don’t even need to leave the airport to get a feeling of the place. Singapore Changi airport is a major transit hub in the Far East for Singapore Airlines. With flight connections all over the planet, a significant number of passengers are in transit. Being a transit passenger can sometimes be a pain. If you are lucky, the time between your flights allows you enough time to get between the aircraft without hanging around for ages.

Depending on the passport you hold, it is possible to leave your transit airport and visit the city if time allows but Changi is one of those rare airports where the transit passenger could happily spend hours. One of the first things I noticed was the terminals were all fully carpeted. The carpets absorb a lot of the noise you find in most terminals which gives the place a much more relaxed feel.

On my last transit visit to Changi, I had around 6 hours between flights (18:00 – Midnight). I had booked myself into the transit lounge but first I wanted to grab something to eat. There is no shortage or variety of places to eat but I wanted cheap and quick before heading to the transit lounge. I was pleasantly surprised that the prices were very reasonable. A problem I’ve found in many airports is that transit passengers are a captive audience and prices usually reflect that. However, in Changi, I didn’t find this to be an issue. Another plus for transit passengers !!

During the day, a 6 hour transit time would allow enough time to head into the city with a free 2 hour city tour (first come, first served). The first tour departs at 9am and the last at 4pm with a choice of either the Cultural Tour or Colonial Tour. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity to take either this time so instead it was off to the Ambassador Transit lounge. For longer transit stays, there is a hotel next to the lounge.

As airport lounges go, the Ambassador Transit lounge is superb with free wifi, a good selection of hotel and cold snacks and drinks and comfy seats. There is also a gym, showers and business facilities including a meeting room. Alternatively, if you are there during the day and the weather is nice, you could take advantage of the rooftop swimming pool.

Rooftop swimming pool at Singapore Airport - PHOTO from Flickr: Iain Croll (8lettersuk)

 

A few hours in the lounge was ideal to spend a bit of time catching up on emails and relaxing but before I headed to catch my flight back to London, I had to buy a couple of presents. As you would expect, there is no shortage of places to shop. I was after a bit of jewellery so a quick visit to the Pandora shop and I was set to fly home and I didn’t even get the chance to go to the free cinema or visit the buttterfly garden.

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