Dorset, and the Jurassic Coast of England

Durdle Door, the iconic limestone arch that has been eroded over time, is 140 million years old.

I kept hearing about the Jurassic Coast and how it was so beautiful, but I never really knew WHAT it is was. I just knew England has impressive coastlines. A quick google search, and it immediately went on my list of “must see” places in England! Living in England, we have access to many discount airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet, out of London Stansted airport. It can be so simple to find a cheap (50 pounds or less roundtrip) flight to the mainland of Europe. Since moving here, we’ve been to over 20 European countries! One regret I do not want to have, is to live in England, without actually SEEING anything more than our town and London. So a weekend trip to the Jurassic Coast was a must for us, and should be for you as well! I can honestly say we’ll be back to explore areas farther west on the coast.

What is the Jurassic Coast you ask and does it have anything to do with dinosaurs??? The Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site; it spans 95 miles of coastline in Southern England, stretching from Dorset (the area we visited) to Devon. The stunning coastline features a variety of rocks and cliffs from the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods. This area brags 185 years of geological history, all in one place! As the cliffs erode, they expose more and more of the past. The study of the rocks, and evidence of fossils prove how the area has changed over millions and millions of years. During the Triassic Period (around 250 million years ago) the Jurassic Coastline was a desert. The region was covered by a tropical sea during the Jurassic Period, and then a swamp during the Cretaceous Period. I guess a lot can change in 250 million years! As one might predict, fossils are found in abundance in this area, allowing us to learn so much. Most of the fossils found have been marine animals such as mollusks, clams, starfish, sea urchins, and even nautilus. Interestingly enough, there was indeed a dinosaur fossil discovered on the Jurassic Coast. In 2000, the remains of an armored dinosaur, Scelidosaurus, was found. (Please don’t ask me to pronounce that). The fossil was determined to be 195 million years old! Sheesh. And I feel bad about turning 42 this fall. Compared to that guy, I got a lot of life left in me.

The area itself is full of idyllic views, each with their own unique look and history. There is SO much to see in the area, and 48 hours is obviously not enough time to explore all 95 miles of nature’s splendor (especially since you have to drive back roads to get to everything), but it does make the perfect weekend getaway for exploring PART of the coast! There are so many options and things to see. To be honest, we tried to make it a relaxing weekend and didn’t have a jam packed agenda; there is definitely potential to pack in much more than we did. Given that we wanted to relax, and the fact that it rained on and off on Sunday, we moved at a slower pace. The decision has already been made to return to the Jurassic Coast, but instead of staying in Dorset, explore the Devon area. However, my husband is not eager to drive the M roads around London anytime soon, so it may be a while….

gorgeous views of the English Coastline

We drove to the Jurassic Coast, as we thought it would only be a 3.5 hour drive, and it would be nice to have a car once there. However, nothing is ever easy with the M11 and getting around London. We made the mistake of traveling on the last weekend of half term, which also turned out to be a beautiful. Cue lots of cursing and frustration as our trip turned out to 5.5 hours! After an agonizing drive, we arrived in Weymouth, our “home base” for the next 45 hours or so. We stayed at the Kelston Guest Home, a charming B and B in a row house. Everything was perfect about our stay, except the parking situation. Traffic had delayed us, so by the time we arrived, there was no parking to be found. Pretty much all of the BnBs in the area offer a limited number of parking passes, but it is applicable for street parking, which is limited. We drove around the streets of Weymouth for almost 40 minutes until we gave up and went back to our guest house. The owner was kind enough to give us her spot, and then took off searching for parking (which presumably she knows the ins and outs of the area, because she found parking rather quickly). It appears that parking is an issue for all visitors (except those who take the train to Weymouth, so if that is an affordable option for you, I’d strongly consider it). The owners at Kelston Guest House were amazing and so accommodating; they also cooked the most delicious full English breakfast with incredible sausages and French pressed coffee! They also gave us information about the area and were super friendly. Our room was cozy and quiet, and the location was perfect for us – gave us easy access to the boardwalk and restaurants. We loved our visit, and would definitely stay there again. However, the owners told us not to book their place on hotels.com in the future; they shared that the best rates are found on their actual website. Good to know for next time, as we’d certainly love to come back!

Kelston Guest House
Downtown Weymouth

After the great parking dilemma, we put our luggage in our room and set out to explore and find dinner. As I mentioned, the location of our guest house was ideal for walking the beach and boardwalk. It was a bit brisk that evening, but we enjoyed our walk past the houses and guest houses that lined the beach. Determined to find a good meal, we stopped and browsed menus until we decided on Enzos. I can always eat Italian food, especially when there is gnocchi on the menu! We had an enjoyable dinner and then had a leisurely stroll along the boardwalk, back to our guest house. Exhausted from our drive, we set our alarms for the latest time possible that would still allow us to get to breakfast and get our day started.

exploring Weymouth

Our Saturday started with the aroma of rashers (British bacon; it’s different, but so much better than American bacon, believe it or not!) and we quickly got ready and headed to the dining room for breakfast, where we had an assigned seat. Here’s a random fact; prior to moving to the United Kingdom, my husband and I lived in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, just next to Virginia Beach. Due to the time change, we didn’t find out until that morning that a mass shooting had taken place the evening before, in which 12 people were fatally shot. The events were unfolding on BBC as we ate our breakfast. It was so surreal for this to have happened in our town! You never think it could happen where you live, but it can. I also wondered what the other guests thought of us, specifically the gun violence problem in America. I wonder how many of them were surprised by the news, since mass shootings appear to now be a daily part of American. Honestly, seeing those images on the news and coming to the realization that this was the place I used to live, was just so crazy and will forever be a memory when I think of the Jurassic Coast.

After breakfast we had to give up our coveted parking spot, unfortunately. We really wanted to leave our car there to avoid another dramatic evening circling around the same streets, looking for somewhere to park. But, none of the places we were going were in walking distance. However, we did decide to be back by early evening so we could find a spot more easily. Or so we hoped. Our first stop of the day was to a site I’d been excited to see, and probably the whole reason I planned a trip to the Jurassic Coast.

Durdle Door was our first stop of the day, and it did not disappoint! I’d been wanting to see it since a friend showed me pictures of her trip. Durdle Door in Southern Dorset, is one of the most photographed (instagrammed?) features on the Jurassic Coast, and possibly all of England! It’s not hard to see why, with it’s stunning formation, and blue green water. Seriously…. who knew we had water like this in the United Kingdom?? Durdle Door is a limestone arch that has been eroded over time. It was formed 140 million years ago, and one day, the top will be eroded away as well, leaving just two stacks sticking out of the water. It’s truly an incredible site to see, and worth the short, hilly, hike from the parking lot. (Yes, there is a plethora of parking there but you do pay a small fee). You can walk the path further along the coast, for different views of Durdle Door. It was truly amazing to marvel at the beautiful colors of the English Coast. Durdle Door is definitely the highlight of any Dorset trip, so don’t miss it!

Durdle Door
These are unedited photos! The English Coastline really is this stunning!
Man o war Beach, right next to Durdle Door

After wandering around for a bit at Durdle Door, we set out for Lulworth Cove. The parking that we paid for also included Lulworth Cove, so that was a nice bonus, and the two sites are somewhat close to each other. There is a way to hike from Durdle Door down to Lulworth Cove, but we had a jam packed day and I wasn’t feeling well, so it was better to drive. I definitely would like to make the trip back to the coast to do some hiking. If I haven’t mentioned it yet, the views are spectacular! Lulworth has a slightly touristy vibe to it, with gift shops, many ice cream carts (of course we had some!) and ads for homes to let. The area gets pretty crowded, but I’m still glad we went. The cove and white pebble beach is beautiful, even more so from above. There are hiking trails all around, and the area is a great place for families, especially since the swimming area is protected and calm. The Fossil Forest is also right near Lulworth Cove, something we will be going back to do! The Fossil Forest is from the Jurassic Period, and many fossils are found in the petrified remains of a former swamp.

Lulworth Cove makes a perfect swimming hole for young kids.

I wish we could’ve spent more time and done some hiking around Lulworth Cove, but we had to make the most of the sunshine! We were spending less than 48 hours on the Jurassic Coast, and Sunday the forecast was for rain all day, so we did our best to squeeze in a lot on Saturday. Our next stop after Lulworth Cove, was a boat tour of the Jurassic Coast, to see the stunning cliffs from the sea. We booked a 2.5 hour return boat trip from Poole to Swanage and back, on Poole City Cruises. The main reason for wanting to book the tour was to see views of the spectacular Old Harry Rocks. I had seen so many pictures on instagram, many of them drone pics, and knew I wanted to see it up close. The boat tour was pretty easy to book and you have the option of getting off in Swanage and returning on a later boat, but we didn’t. The weather was perfect for the tour, and we even received free entertainment from the dolphins that caught a free ride in the current next to the boat. The views of the Jurassic Coast from sea are phenomenal, and I highly recommend this tour for a relaxing afternoon. My pictures from the moving boat do not do the area justice.

After our boat trip, we wanted to explore Poole, but didn’t….. Ugh, the whole parking situation in Weymouth is seriously insane and annoying. We felt like we had to be back around 5-5:30pm in order to find a spot. While we loved our guest house, it’s so worth it to find one that has it’s own lot instead of just parking passes. After returning to the guest house, we relaxed and took a nap before heading out to dinner. Side note: my pet peeve about England is the lack of good burgers. You can go to a nice restaurant or a charming pub, and if you order a burger it always comes back well done and like a charcoal briquette with no flavor. It’s constant disappointment with burgers in England. They just don’t make them like we are used to in the United States! So naturally, we were in the mood to complain, so we tried Dorset Burger Company. OMGGGGG. This place is the real deal! We FINALLY found a good burger in England! The ambiance is great as well; you must try this place if you stay in Weymouth and like burgers. I know we will be back!

We woke up Sunday morning to the sound of rain, and overcast skies. After a delicious breakfast at Kelston Guest House, we checked out early, and re-evaluated our plans for the day. We opted for a steam train experience, leaving from the small town of Norden and going to Corfe Castle and Swanage. The Swanage Railway makes for a fun afternoon, riding in historic steam and diesel trains to different tourist attractions. You pass through beautiful countryside along the coast, with tons of sheep (which we love). Since we bought a return ticket, we decided to ride straight to the last stop, Swanage, and walk around. We had been to Swanage on our Jurassic Coast boat tour, but never actually got off the boat. We browsed some shops, and meandered the streets until we arrived at a hilltop overlooking the city. Swanage seems like a cool town to explore, but we wanted to make the next train so we only stayed an hour.

Coastal town of Swanage

After wandering around Swanage, we headed back to the train to catch a ride to Corfe Castle. Corfe Castle is both a village and the ruins of a castle. We loved this stop; it was so adorable! The sun even peeked out for a tiny bit, so we could enjoy this charming village, with it’s stone buildings and iconic uniformity. We spent some time admiring the cottages and visiting the shops; in particular we enjoyed some fudge from a local store. You can enter the castle grounds but we opted against it as our National Trust membership had run out, and we would have to pay to enter. It’s a great deal (free!) if you are a member, so definitely take advantage of that. If you’re not a National Trust member or haven’t heard it, definitely check it out. We will be joining again after our English Heritage runs out. After wandering, we stopped at a pub for a delicious Sunday Roast and a pint of cider, and sat in the back garden with views of the castle ruins. It was the perfect afternoon!

charming village of Corfe with castle ruins on the hill.
castle ruins

Thinking we were having luck with the weather, we thought we’d make one more outdoor stop for siteseeing before leaving, but as soon as we arrived, it started pouring. We opted to get an early start on the drive home, thinking we’d be home in time for a late dinner. But guess what? That damn London traffic turned it into a 5 hour drive again! I guess the moral of the story is to take the train! We definitely were thrilled with our time in Dorset, and would like to return again soon to see more of the coast. I hope you are convinced to go as well!

The Maltese Islands of Gozo and Comino

I booked our trip to Malta without fully researching what to do and how long to stay. I was shocked to learn there was so much to do, and more than one island! Most of our trips, with the exception of summer and winter holiday, are short 2-3 day trips, so I was originally worried 4 days in Malta would be too long. It turned out to be quite the opposite! I personally wanted to stay on the mainland and wasn’t sure if we would venture elsewhere. The idea of switching hotels after two days didn’t appeal to me, so I just assumed we’d stay on the mainland. However, the Islands of Gozo and Comino looked beautiful and intriguing, and once I learned they are easily accessible by the ferry system, I decided to book day trips. This allowed us to keep one “home base” and still see multiple places in Malta. We booked both of our tours through Viator, and would recommend them as they were excellent and exactly what we were looking for! We choose to stay in Sliema due to it’s access to restaurants and the ferry to Valletta (plus, lots of hotels with air conditioning!).

The first day trip was to the island of Gozo, where we went on a Tuk-Tuk tour of the entire island, seeing many sites. Gozo is one of 21 of the Maltese Islands. The island of Gozo is rural, but still boasts an incredible coastline, and beautiful churches and cathedrals. The tour began with being picked up by a van in front of our hotel. The van picked up a few other passengers before heading to the ferry terminal at Cirkewwa, on the other end of the island. The ferry was large and we enjoyed views of the stunning Maltese coastline along the way. It was an easy process, as our guide and Tuk-Tuk were both waiting for us at the ferry terminal. The groups were split according to language spoken. On this particular day, it was just us and one other couple who spoke English, so we lucked out with a smaller group.

beautiful coastal spot near Sanap Cliffs

After leaving the ferry port, it wasn’t long until we were in a more rural area. The island is hilly and green, and it was a beautiful ride. Our guide stopped often to point out landmarks and share information about the island. We did stop to view some churches briefly, but he explained that there were a ton on the island and we couldn’t possibly see them all. We did stop to take a quick picture of a cathedral in the distance before winding along to the coast. At the coastline, we were greeted with views of the stunning Sanap Cliffs. The limestone cliffs are beautiful, and accented by the gorgeous hues of the water. While walking around the cliffs, our guide pointed out the wild capers — it turns out, capers are plentiful on Malta, which makes sense as they were in several dishes we ordered.

Sanap Cliffs
Capers growing on the island of Gozo

After seeing the cliffs, we explored more of the Maltese Coastline, stopping for to take in the sights and snap a few photos. Our tour continued to Xlendi Bay, which is a popular beach spot for the locals. Following that, we headed into town and stopped a store where we had the opportunity to sample local products such as nougat candies, jellies, liquors, and more. As we drove through the center of town, preparations were underway for the Feast of St. George taking place that weekend. The decorations were quite elaborate and spanned several blocks; it definitely looked like a giant street party would be taking place! We arrived in a town on a harbor, and had a delicious 3 course meal for lunch served outside. I find Maltese food to similar to Italian cooking, but with it’s own flare.

After lunch, our journey continued along the coast, where we continued to feel the breeze (open air Tuk-Tuk ride) as we marveled at the island’s beauty. We stopped by some salt pans along the sea, before heading to a modern Cathedral, called The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta Pinu (or Ta Pinu, for short). The Cathedral is a Roman Catholic minor Basilica and shrine, set in the countryside where visitors are treated to views of the island. As far as impressive Cathedrals in Europe go, Ta Pinu is relatively new. The groundbreaking was in 1920, not too long ago considering many churches are 1,000 years old. Built with Maltese stone, the Cathedral is beautiful both on the outside and inside. It is definitely worth a visit when on Gozo.

salt pans on Gozo
Ta Pinu
inside Ta Pinu

You may notice that Maltese architecture has some uniformity; the lightly colored stone buildings are all constructed of limestone. Why is that, you ask? Sure light colored buildings keep things cool in the heat, but more importantly is the access to limestone. Limestone is abundant on Malta, and being an island nation, they use what they have. Our tour took us past one of the limestone quarries. The sheer size was incredible, and it was so interesting to see how the limestone is mined (not that I completely understand how it works, but it does look pretty fascinating). The Maltese certainly import some products, but they are also very self sufficient as well, not only with utilizing limestone, but also growing crops, making their own (delicious) wine, etc.

limestone quarry in Gozo

Following our stop at the quarry, we headed to the Blue Grotto. We stopped at a tiny swimming hole where locals and tourists gather to enjoy the clear water. For a few euros, you have the option of hopping in a rowboat to go through the cave and see the grotto up close. We were so glad we did this, because the colors are indescribable! The purple hues of the submerged flora are also reflected against the caves, making it even more incredible. Fun fact, the Blue Grotto was in the movie Troy, with Brad Pitt. Definitely check this out if you have the opportunity; I’ve never seen water so vibrant and blue.

Blue Grotto

Our last stop on our wonderful day tour of Gozo, was the Citadel. The tour actually gave us an entire hour there. It wasn’t enough time to see everything there, but we were satisfied, and we also saw incredible views from Citadel, or Castello. The Citadel of Victoria is in walking distance to the center of town. The ancient Citadel was first fortified by the Bronze Age people, around 1500 BC. Inside the Citadel complex is the baroque Cathedral of Santa Maria. Like much of Malta, the history of the Citadel is complex and reflects all the changes and inhabitants of Malta over the course of history. The sweeping views are worth the stairs and hilly climb.

Cathedral of Santa Marija, inside the Citadel complex
view from the complex

Again, we wanted to see as much of Malta as possible while maintaining our “base” in Sliema. We also didn’t want to deal with renting a car. We live in England, so we are well aware of how to drive on the left side of the road; we just didn’t know how easy it would be to finding parking. Soooooo…. another day trip! This time we wanted to see the small, mostly uninhabited island of Comino. Or simply put, we wanted to SWIM in the waters off the coast of Comino and enjoy a relaxing day. A day trip on a catamaran accomplished all of this! This trip was relatively cheap, around $30 a person. It did NOT include transportation from Sliema. However, public transportation can take you to Bugibba, where the trip departed. We opted for a cab, and while I can’t recall an exact price, I want to say it was around 25 euros. All of the cab fares in Malta are set price.

While we enjoyed this trip, and loved that we could swim and snorkel for hours, the boat was a bit crowded and large. It was worth it, and the price was right. Definitely try and find a more secluded spot on the catamaran. We went straight upstairs to front, where there were two seats together. The tour also offered people the opportunity to go to Gozo, which we passed on because we had been the day before. However, if you are short on time, you might consider doing both in one day.

The Blue Lagoon

The day began with sailing along the Maltese coastline on the way to Comino. The first point of interest was called St. Paul’s Island. It is said that St. Paul was shipwrecked here around 60 AD, while on his way to Rome to face charges. He was rescued by the locals and remained on Malta for some time. The boat also sailed past beautiful cliffs and came in close to some coves, to feast on the splendor of the sparkling blue water. We continued onward to the main attraction for us, the Blue Lagoon. This particular tour brings you to the Blue Lagoon in the morning, BEFORE it becomes extremely crowded. The boat moors for about 90 minutes before making a quick trip to Gozo to drop off those who elected to see both islands in one day. It then returns to Comino, but as the day progresses, the spot becomes crowded. We loved using the water slide in the Blue Lagoon, and also brought our snorkels; it’s amazing how far down you can see!

cave on the way to Comino

The island of Comino is uninhabited. You are able to get off the boat or out of the water to walk around. There are also many vendors selling food and drink on the island, and the boat sells food as well. I was glad we had the catamaran as our “base” despite how crowded it was, because the small beach at the Blue Lagoon was completely packed with people on every inch of the sand. We basically only ventured on the island to grab some lunch and take some pictures; it was way to crowded for us. We spent most of our time in the refreshing water. In the afternoon, the boat made a swimming stop at the Crystal Lagoon, which is close to the Blue Lagoon, but with less people. We actually enjoyed this spot the best. Not only was it beautiful, but you could also swim through caves! The boat returned to Malta in the early evening. I’d say this day was a win; if you like swimming, this is the trip for you! Oh and the bartenders make a great frozen drink, aptly named “the Blue Lagoon”.

Crystal Lagoon

If you are spending more than a day or two on Malta, definitely consider visiting the islands of Gozo and Comino. If you don’t like crowds, skip the Blue Lagoon in the summer! Gozo is definitely an island I would like to see more of, particularly Victoria, if we ever return to Malta.

Is Malta on your bucket list yet???

Malta, the island nation between Sicily and Northern Africa

hilly streets of Valletta

So here’s a funny story… I tend to put potential travel destinations in my phone’s weather app, so I can see what the weather is like, if I’m missing out, should I visit in fall, etc. When my husband saw a picture of Malta online, he said “We should go there sometime”. So I promptly typed “Malta” into my phone. It was late winter and I was curious if this was a destination I should wait until spring or summer to visit. Interestingly enough, Malta had the worst weather in the Mediterranean! I mean, EVERY time I checked my weather app, it was cold and usually snowing. WTH?! The snow continued, through spring. This just wasn’t right, and I told my husband we were never going to Malta. Fast forward a few months, and I figured out my mistake… Malta is the name of the island, not a specific city on the island. There is, however, a Malta in the United States, in a very cold (in the winter) state called ILLINOIS. Once I typed in Valletta, the weather improved! I’m here to tell you the COUNTRY of Malta is very hot and sunny, and probably doesn’t snow at all, ever. So crisis averted, and we booked a trip to Malta and had a great laugh at my expense.

Malta is a stunning island, with so much to offer. It is packed with breathtaking views, gorgeous architecture, natural sites, and a wealth of history full of change and conquest. Archaeologists have determined that the Maltese Islands were settled as early as 5200BC! Malta lies on a popular trade route, and has been colonized by many as a result. Malta has been ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Arabs, Normans, French, and British, among others. In 1814, Malta became part of the British Empire, and it’s location played a role in both World War I and World War II. Malta remained a part of the British Empire until it gained it’s independence in 1964. However, many “signs” of it’s British past are evident on the island; in Malta you drive on the left side of the road, and there are still many red telephone booths and British chain stores on the island. Though it has British roots, the close proximity to Sicily influences the restaurant industry in Malta. It’s diverse past and unique history shapes the island and it’s inhabitants. Currently, Malta is part of the European Union and is largely Catholic, with a large amount of stunning Cathedrals and Churches. I was shocked to see how much religion influences life on the island. In the summer months, it is common to have a “feast” or celebration, for a saint, as often as every weekend. While the national language is Maltese, many people speak English and Italian as well, and communication was not a problem.

The view of Valletta from Sliema

The biggest mistake I made when booking our trip to Malta was not doing enough research BEFORE booking flights. I have a habit of finding good flight deals (helllllloooo Ryanair), buying them, and then researching the destination afterwards. Had I done my research first, I would’ve learned how MUCH there is to do on Malta and would have planned a longer stay. I assumed since it was a small island, there wouldn’t be much to do there, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We spent four full days there, and it was not nearly enough time to see everything. The entire island is populated with cities, history, natural sites, ancient temples, cathedrals, etc. We barely scratched the surface on Malta and our four days was jam packed! We did spend two days exploring the nearby islands of Gozo and Comino; more on that in a future blog.

one of the “Three Cities”

We booked our flights on Ryanair, and flew from London Stansted to Luqa, Malta. I had been watching flights for quite some time and gather that flying to Malta is a little more expensive than flying into mainland Europe, but we were still able to get a decent deal on flights. (We arrived around 9pm and it was an easy taxi from Luqa to Sliema. The airport has a taxi stand where you prepay, making it easy to pay by credit card.) With flights out of the way, it was time to find a hotel. Since we were going in mid-July and it is such a hot and humid island, I limited my search to hotels with AC. There are so many options on where to stay in Malta depending on what you want to see and get out of your trip. You can stay in historic old cities, or beach areas. We choose to stay in Sliema, which is essentially an area populated with hotels and restaurants, that has easy access to Valletta (the capital) by ferry. We stayed at Labranda Rocco Nettuna Suites, and found it to be spacious and cool, while being convenient to our needs. We were in walking distance to restaurants, ferries, and public transportation. Part of the reason we chose this hotel was the rooftop pool, but ironically we never used it because we were so busy exploring. We were happy with this hotel, and would definitely stay here again. However, if you are looking for a beach hotel, this isn’t it. There is a public beach about a 15 minute walk away, but it is rocky. The Maltese make the best of what they have – which is a lot of limestone! They lay out on hard rock surfaces, instead of soft sand beaches. The Maltese definitely make the most of their island and appear to enjoy life to the fullest.

rocky Maltese beach in Sliema

Upon arrival, we checked in to our hotel, and immediately went out to explore even though it was late at night. We headed down to the main strip on Sliema, in search of some dinner. We quickly realized that Malta has a good nightlife scene as many people were out enjoying dinner or drinks. We had a meal at Portopalo that was delicious (especially my risotto) and we chatted over a carafe of Maltese red wine. (we even returned another night for wine and an appetizer). The next morning we hit the ground running! We walked to the Sliema Ferry to head to Valletta. The ferry system is fairly inexpensive and a time saving way to travel from Valletta to Sliema or vice versa. Valletta is a walled city, and the beautiful capital of the island. As you climb the hills of the city, you are rewarded with views down the street, and of the water. There are many shops and quaint alleys to explore in Valletta. We spent time exploring St. John’s Co-Cathedral, a beautiful Baroque cathedral. You have to pay to enter, but you receive an audio guide. They are very strict about having shoulders and knees covered, but will give you something to wrap around your shoulders or legs if needed. The Cathedral is stunning and lavishly decorated with gold, and we spent about an hour touring it. After St. John’s we walked past the Grandmaster’s Palace and headed to Upper Barrakka Gardens. From the gardens, we took an elevator down to the street below (Valletta is very hilly) and then took a ferry to visit “The Three Cities”.

St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta
Upper Barrakka Gardens has beautiful seaside views!

In Malta, you will hear the phrase “The Three Cities” to describe an area. It refers to the collection of three fortified cities: Birgu, Senglea, and Cospicua. It is easy to travel to “The Three Cities” by ferry from Valletta. I enjoyed this part of Malta because it was less crowded than Valletta and Sliema. While there aren’t quite as many shops and restaurants, and it appears to be more residential, it was still fun to walk around, and provided gorgeous waterfront views! I enjoyed marveling at (and envying) the grand sailboats and yachts docked in the harbor. After admiring the beautiful scenery in Birgu, we paused for a delicious lunch at D’Centre Vittoriosa, which has an adorable patio set up in the alley. I had a traditional Maltese salad which was filled with local cheeses, capers, sausage, and vegetables. It was phenomenal! After lunch, we wandered a bit more, enjoying the boats in the harbor and snapping more pics, before boarding the ferry back to Valletta (and then another ferry back to Sliema). It sounds overwhelming with the ferries, but in reality it is quick and easy.

Maltese Salad
Harbor near ferry drop off at the “Three Cities”

During our four days in Malta, we spent time on two of the “other” Maltese Islands, Gozo and Comino. We booked day trips for each one, and those will be their own blog post as I don’t want this one to be too lengthy. In addition to touring Sliema, Valletta, and “The Three Cities”, we also spent time in the city of Mdina and Rabat on mainland Malta. Mdina is a fortified city that is nicknamed “the Silent City”; it’s history dates back to the 8th century BC. Mdina is a popular place for tourists, and while it’s narrow streets are often crowded, cars are forbidden inside the gated walls. Our first stop in Mdina was St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Cathedral was beautiful and we also stopped at the museum as well. Afterwards, we wandered the shops and strolled the quaint streets. We also headed to Rabat, and enjoyed some lunch and more window shopping.

The gates of Mdina
Mdina is known for glass

During our stay in Malta, we dined on regional food and treated ourselves to several glasses of Maltese wine. One thing I love to do is try local beer and wine. Having enjoyed the red wine so much on our first night, we never did make it to sampling the beer — we ordered Maltese wine each night and loved it. Everything we tried was great for the price point. One night, we ate at a Sicilian restaurant in Sliema (and had more Maltese wine!) called Anciova Sicilian. We had a great meal and good service. One of our favorite culinary experiences to date, was a dinner we had in Valletta at a place named Legligin. The restaurant is slightly different; instead of ordering from a menu, the chef decides what to prepare, and you are served 7 courses. I really wish I had taken pictures with my camera, because the meal was amazing, but the setting was intimate and it didn’t seem appropriate at the time. We were served traditional Maltese dishes such as mussels, octopus, sea bream, and rabbit pate. It was slightly out of our comfort zone to allow the chef to decide for us, but we loved it and consider it a worthwhile and exciting experience. I hope your visit to Malta leaves your stomach full and happy!

Tips for Visiting Malta

  1. Do your research and decide what you want to see and how long you want to stay. There was so much more we wanted to do, if we had more time.
  2. Wear shoes with good traction. Many of the hilly streets (particularly in Valletta) have stone that is worn and extremely slippery. I almost fell at least 8 times.
  3. Remember, Malta was most recently under British rule. Your European adapters will do you know good; bring your British ones as they have the same outlets as in the UK.
  4. Drink the local wine; it’s a good value!
  5. Consider the season. We were told by guides, that many restaurants and places are closed in the winter.
  6. During the summer, book reservations at restaurants in advance to avoid disappointment.
Be prepared for lots of hills and stairs!

An overnight trip to Zagora from Marrakech

For me, there were two MUST DO things while I was planning our Morocco trip. I wanted to see the desert stars at night and wanted to ride a camel (ok three things, I also wanted to eat a lot of tangine). Lucky for me, this trip did all of them! We booked a two day tour to Zagora from Marrakech through Viator, and it was reasonably priced. They picked us up near our Riad and transported us by van (there were 7 of us in the tour) to Zagora. While it was an awesome experience, it is definitely a lot of driving!

We began by heading through the Atlas Mountains, taking the Tizi-n-Tichka pass. This windy road leads from Marrakech to Zagora, climbing through the mountains, and is considered the “gateway” to the Sahara Desert. While the drive was beautiful, many portions of the road were under construction and extremely bumpy. It made for a long, slow, ride at times. Our guide stopped at a restaurant in the mountains so we could enjoy coffee or tea with a view (I’m pretty sure if you’ve been following my blog you understand our obsession with Moroccan mint tea, so of course we had some). While the views of the Atlas Mountains were incredible, the temperature dropped significantly, so bring a warm jacket if you do this trip!

Driving through the Atlas Mountains
The drive from Marrakech to Zagora was beautiful

As the van motored on, we talked along the way, a diverse group made up of American, Japanese, and Australian. Our guide shared interesting information about Morocco and the sites along the way. Our second stop was at the Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ait Ben Haddou is an old fortified village that was along the trade route from Marrakech to the Sahara. Made from clay, and surrounded by high walls for defense, the interior houses several kasbahs and dwelling places. While a few families still remain in the complex, it is mostly known as a filming location for movies, in particular, Gladiator, along with many others. After leaving, we headed to lunch before making the rest of the trip to Zagora. We passed through Ouarzazate, but didn’t visit until the way home from Zagora.

Ait Ben Haddou
Ait Ben Haddou

When we arrived in Zagora, we were greeted by camels and guides. Our trek to the traditional Berber camp, where we would spend the night, was a one hour trip by camel. Anyone who has ridden a camel before will tell you that 60 minutes on a camel, is about 45 minutes too long! It definitely was a challenge to stay stable and upright, and it used core and leg muscles to stay on correctly. However, it was an experience that I didn’t want to miss! My camel was quite friendly and let me pet him. I didn’t see any camels spit, which is supposedly their stereotype. We arrived at the campsite around sunset, and had beautiful views of the sun dipping behind the sand dunes. We were greeted at the campsite with Moroccan mint tea, and we sat around talking until dinner. Dinner was served family style, inside a large dining tent. After dinner, we gathered around a bonfire as our hosts entertained us with traditional Moroccan music. It was amazing to see the stars on a clear night in the desert. While we were with a large group of locals and tourists alike, it felt like we were so far from civilization, which was a nice departure from the crowds and tourists in Marrakech. We slept in our two person hut, in the complex. Each hut has a bed, but the bathrooms are in a communal area. It gets very cold in the desert at night in December, so I was bundled up and slept in a jacket.

our camel caravan that took us to camp
Berber camp where we spent the night

After a delicous breakfast, many of us set out to climb the highest sand dune to watch the sunrise over the desert. Climbing a steep hill in sand is quite difficult, but it was worth it to see endless views of more sand. I know that sounds crazy, but seeing sand where there is no beach is surreal. It wasn’t actually the beautifully windblown dunes of the Sahara that you see in the movies, it was a rockier sand as this place is basically the entrance to the desert. Our morning concluded with our one hour camel ride back to the van.

early morning in the desert
Camel caravan back to the vans

On the trip back we made two stops. The first stop was a town in South Central Morocco named Ouarzazate. Ouarzazate is nicked the “gateway to the Sahara” and was a fun stop on the trip. I wished we had more time to explore, but it was also nice to get back and enjoy the evening in Marrakesh. Ouarzazate has a large Kasbah and Palace, and is also used for filming movies. There are large studios and movie sets in the area because of it’s popularity for filming. After our stop in Ouarzazate, we made stop for lunch in a secluded area, where we welcomed the bright sunshine along with more traditional Moroccan food. We were back in Marrakech by early evening. This trip was great, and something to consider if you have extra time in Morocco.

Ouarzazate

Tips for Visiting Zagora from Marrakech or elsewhere in Morocco

  1. The temperature changes quickly as the altitude changes, plus the desert gets cold at night. Wear layers and bring warm clothes.
  2. The journey is LONG, you spend almost as much time in the car as you do at the camp, so be prepared for a long trip.
  3. The roads are not great, and there is a lot of twists and turns. I was glad I took bonine to prevent motion sickness.
  4. Bring tissues or toilet paper. As mentioned in a previous post, once you are outside of the tourist areas in Marrakech, many stops do not have toilet paper. Also be prepared to use a hole in the ground, not an actual toilet.

The charming seaside city of Essaouira, Morocco

It’s no secret I’m a beach lover, having lived by the ocean for 11 years. I’m a bit further from the beach than I’d like in England, despite it’s island status, and I’ve yet to explore some of the closer beaches. I guess the rain, weather, and rocky shores make it less exciting. However, I jumped at the opportunity to explore Essaouira, a coastal city in Morocco. A friend of mine lived in Rabat, Morocco and had the opportunity to travel the country. When she told me Essaouira was one of her favorite places in Morocco, the decision was made to book a day trip! Essaouira is an 18th century fortified city and it’s proximity to the ocean made it an important seaport.

fortified city of Essaouira

Our tour made a few stops on the way, the first being one of my favorite experiences — goats in trees! Yes, you read that right, goats that climb trees. It was obvious that this was “staged” in this particular location and the goats’ owner was charging people to take pictures (so worth it!). Oddly enough, these goats were not chillin in the trees on our way home at 6pm, nor was the farmer standing next to the tree. BUT, I’ve learned that goats in trees are a natural thing elsewhere. In parts of Morocco, the dry soil makes it difficult for the goats to find food. So, they climb the argan trees to eat the fruit on the trees. We learned that some argan oil factories use this to their advantage because after the goat digests the argan seeds they “release” them back to the ground, already broken down, thus doing part of the job! So if you are using Moroccan Argan Oil on your face or hair, there’s a chance a goat has pooped out the raw ingredients that go into your product…..

the famous goats in trees

Speaking of argan oil, our next stop was to visit an argan oil consortium where we learned about the process of marking argan oil, and good sample the products. Products were also for sale (and of course I purchased a bottle of argan oil for my hair even after learning the goat/poop fact). The great thing about this consortium is that it is 100% run and staffed by women. The women received a grant to start the business; the grant was part of a government program that seeks to create jobs for females. It was interesting watching the different steps of the process and learning how argan oil is produced.

women working at the argan oil consortium

When we arrived in Essaouira, we were greeted with the beautiful blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and children playing soccer in the sand on the beach. Our tour included a one hour guided tour, and then a few hours to explore the city on our own, before making the 2.5 hour drive back to Marrakech. Our guide met us outside the gate to the old city walls. He shared the history of Essaouira, and highlighted the fact that while Morocco is a predominantly Muslim country, people of many religions, including Christianity and Judiasm, have always peacefully coexisted in Essaouira. Differing from other parts of Morocco, Essaouira has European influence. During our tour, we headed to the port and learned about the local fisherman and the importance of the port. We also toured through some of the shops, many of which had artisan flare with unique gifts, ceramics, pottery, and crafts.

After we left our guide, we explored the city on our own. I was impressed with the market near the port. The fruits were so colorful and fresh, and smelled delicious! We ended up buying berries to eat as we walked. The food market is one long street, and worth the visit, although there is a strong fish smell in certain areas. We also headed to the souks, and explored the different shops with artisan goods. Before heading to the old fort to see the ramparts, we enjoyed a rooftop lunch at Restaurant Des Reves, where I had delicious monkfish skewers. It was a beautiful rooftop terrace with vibrant colors and overlooked the medina; I recommend checking it out if you’re in Essaouira.

lunch at Des Reves in Essaouira

After lunch we wandered around the Medina. We browsed the shops, visited the old fort, and went back to the sea port. We had an enjoyable day in Essaouira, and it was great to see the bright blues of the sky meet the colors of the Atlantic Ocean. It never gets old walking on the sand and listening to the waves crash! Essaouira is a beauitful city on the coast, and was a welcomed departure from the crowded streets of Marrakech. If you have time, it is well worth the visit. Our day was perfect, with one exception – our van waited around for a couple who showed up 40 minutes late to our departure point. Perhaps it was good customer service on their part, but it annoyed me, and I would’ve left their butts behind! What would you have done??

my favorite, the goats!
streets of Essaouira
fishing boats in the harbor