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Archive for the ‘Festivals and Holidays’ Category

so...where are we?

so...where are we?

“You’re going to Cork over Easter weekend? Everything will be shut. Yes I mean everything. You might not be able to eat. Take food.”

When you get encouragement like that when you tell someone you’re going on holiday, you either laugh, or stare in shock, speechless. I did one, Cam did the other. Luckily, our hilariously sarcastic friends were wrong, but they weren’t all wrong.

Cam and I arrived very (very…) early on Good Friday morning in Cork, Ireland. After being greeted by the enormous hill that preceded the entrance to Sheila’s Hostel, and taking a much needed nap (I really did mean very early) we got up to discover that…nothing was open. Okay, not nothing. But when you’re on a girls holiday in Ireland of all places and the sale of alcohol is banned. Well, it may as well have been nothing as far as we were concerned that day.

tiny chocolatesDon’t worry, we did pull ourselves together and actually decide to explore Cork beyond the pint glasses. We found a Gourmet Burger place (not GBK…proper local like) and gorged on the biggest beef patties and buns I’ve seen in awhile, then over the river and into the high street we went. Heading down St Patrick’s Street, we explored Cork’s city centre. We found O’Connaill’s on French Church Street, where the hot chocolate had come highly recommended. It didn’t disappoint. Walked through the English Market and bought ourselves one tiny little chocolate each at the amazing chocolate truffle stand, and Cam discovered her new favourite necklace at one of the alleyway’s vintage shops.

Then, the perfect way to round off the evening – the one place, possibly in all of Cork that had a bottle of wine or two to share with us? Sheila’s Hostel. I knew I picked this place for a reason. We also spent the evening getting to know half of the Muycullen under-17’s boys basketball team who were staying in our hostel for a tournament. I hope they did well, I have no idea, but apparently they’re pretty good…

Saturday was reserved for the Franciscan Wells beer festival. From a completely dry day in Cork to a, well, not dry one. With some new friends from Sheila’s and fellow festival folk, we tried out as many different Irish beers as we could handle. We felt it was our obligation after all… only fair really.

We did manage to make appearances at both Crane Lane and Mutton Lane – two bars/pubs that had also come highly recommended. Crane Lane had a great outdoor area down the um, lane. Mutton Lane was the absolute definition of a pokey old man’s pub but was brimming with charm. We didn’t stay (they didn’t serve food, we were hungry) but I think I really liked that place.

Sunday was kicked off with a proper roast, a film, and yes, the beer festival. It ended, in my opinion, the best way possible. We had met a comedy group, also staying in our hostel (Sheila’s is clearly quite the hive of activity…) called Foil, Arms & Hog. We were meant to be seeing their act, but the lack of a crowd on Easter Sunday meant the night was canceled, and they went back off to their home city of Dublin. Leaving me and Cam and the City Limits Comedy Club owner, Brian, to ourselves. So what else was there to do except lock up the doors, help ourselves to the bar and have a pool/Connect Four/table football tournament between the three of us while I DJ-ed on my iPod. I have never had a proper lock in at a bar like this, but it was a pretty fantastic if not completely random night.

seaside town of Cobh

seaside town of Cobh

Monday we went crazy and did the tourist thing by taking a train to Cobh, a seaside town and also the last port of call for the Titanic. We chose not to go into the Heritage Museum which apparently was a huge mistake but Cobh – little tip for you – don’t make your museum look so small and unappealing from the outside if you’re going to charge for it. Apparently, once inside, it’s fascinating but the entrance was very deceiving. So we spent a few hours wandering the coast line, eating fish ‘n chips by the sea, and seeing the aftermath of a local fire disaster. Back on the train to Cork then…

Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle

Tuesday was a much more successful tourist day. It was also our last day in Ireland. We got up and headed on the bus to Blarney to kiss the damn stone I’ve been told so much about. It actually turns out that Blarney is a stunning little piece of land that isn’t all about the stone. The castle itself is pretty amazing, especially the tiny cavernous dungeons, and the poison garden is great, even if the police have confiscated the marijuana plants (seriously).

We explored Blarney’s Rock Cove with its Wishing Steps (apparently the witch here has agreed to grant everyone’s wishes if you go down the stairs backwards with your eyes closed in exchange for living in the grounds…) and Witch’s Kitchen and even searched for fairies in the grove.

Also – kissing that stone? Not as easy as you may think at first…

**More photos will hopefully be added, apologies for some gaps. To see a few more of my photos, you can click here.

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White sand beaches courtesy of the Sahara

White sand beaches courtesy of the Sahara

You think Tenerife is all hot and tropical? Think again. It’s an amazing diverse little island with a lot more going on than you might first assume.

I headed there for a week of visiting a wonderful friend, Naomi, and got a lot more than just the hot sun and the beach. I also got snow, rain, cities, fishing villages, and volcanoes.

Tenerife has multiple microclimates. The number varies depending on who you ask, but travelling the island from North to South you need clothes for all four seasons.

Pina Colada time

Pina Colada time

Heading South for the sun

I arrived in Los Cristianos, Naomi’s neighbourhood, and got just was I was expecting (and craving after months of cold English weather) – hot sun, white beaches, swimming pools, hotels and lots of tourists. Los Cristianos isn’t quite as built up as it’s close neighbour, Las Playas de Las Americas (literally, the beaches of the Americas, or Americans), but it was still the sunny escape most of us Brits crave around this time of year.

I spent my time there filling up on paella, tapas and cocktails whenever I could, exploring the boardwalks and the tourist beaches.

How do you tell a tourist beach from a local untouched beach in Tenerife? Tenerife doesn’t have white sand, the sand here is black. All that glistening white stuff is imported from Africa just to fulfill the picture perfect beach image…fit for a postcard.

A quick ray of sunshine

A quick ray of sunshine

Santa Cruz: Soggy city life

Okay, I admit that Naomi insists that I managed to pick the worst week to see Santa Cruz, but I can only go with what I saw. I was there for Carnaval week, and so was ready for a day of parties in the street, with drinks and carnival food in the hot sun. What I got? Cold, grey skies, and more rain than I’d left behind in England. Less than an hour’s drive back down South in Los Cristianos, it was 30 degrees and baking. In Santa Cruz, I had a scarf and jeans on and was still cold. Having said that, Santa Cruz is a nice city, and while it’s much more built up than the rest of Tenerife, it’s worth a visit to explore. I felt like it fit somewhere in between Barcelona and Madrid, it’s mainland siblings. And I’m sure the Carnaval would have been a lot more impressive if the umbrellas hadn’t blocked most of the view… I did manage to get one quick snap in between rain clouds though.

Mount Teide. Notice the snow.

Mount Teide. Notice the snow.

Pico del Teide: Let it snow

One of the sites on the top of my Tenerife list was visiting Mount Teide. The highest elevation point in Spain, and one of the world’s largest volcanoes, Teide and the surrounding National Park are unmissable. You hear the word ‘lunar landscapes’ thrown around a lot when people describe this place, but, well, few things could say it better. It really is like another world. And at the elevation, forget the 30 degree heat of Los Cristianos, at this point I was even missing the chill of Santa Cruz. In Teide National Park, there was snow at my feet, not that I could feel them, and we in fact had to wait over an hour before leaving the small cafe as we couldn’t see more than 30 metres ahead of us from the snow and fog.

Lava fields. (It may not look cold, trust me, it is)

Lava fields. (It may not look cold, trust me, it is)

When we finally did get out, the paths towards the volcano were almost deserted (not that many people crazy enough to leave the beaches) which meant a peaceful light trek through some seriously strange rock formations.

Small towns and smaller children

After spending time in the capital, the tourist capital, and the highest point on the island, I got a chance to see some local Canarian life in the towns of Candelaria and La Laguna. Naomi is an English teacher, teaching mostly very young children both in the capital and Candelaria, a much smaller town on the East Coast. Both Candelaria and La Laguna are beautiful towns well worth exploring and far away from the tourist hoards. And the children know their colours, numbers and body parts vocabulary very well…

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After almost five months in Australia, having sneakily avoided winter, I’m settling back into London life. When I think about my most recent travel adventure, I suppose I was able to see quite a lot of Australia, but really, I didn’t see half of it. This is one big country. I passed through five of Australia’s eight states and territories, saw cities, the ocean and the outback and I left thousands of miles uncovered. But what I did see, I’ll never forget.

I loved wandering through Darling Harbour or taking the ferry to Manly Beach in Sydney, exploring the great cafés and night spots in Melbourne, and hitting some of the fantastic museums in Canberra.

In the Northern Territory, I got a taste of what I’ve always imagined to be ‘real’ Australia (not that the cities are any less real) in the Outback. I walked around Ayers Rock and ran under its waterfalls after the rain, trekked through the Valley of the Winds in Kata Tjuta, and hiked around the rim of Kings Canyon. I drove past herds of wild camels, slowly backed away from a Western Brown Snake (one of the deadliest in the world), and evicted various lethal spiders that had found their way indoors.

On the coast, I got to see some music legends at the Byron Bay Bluesfest before heading up to the Whitsundays for a spot of sailing among these beautiful islands. I walked across pure white sand on Whitehaven Beach, and went snorkeling around the most amazing reef I’ve ever seen. The Great Barrier Reef isn’t world famous for nothing after all.

And finally I got to explore the famous Fraser Island – the largest sand island in the world, with its stunning freshwater lakes and abundant dingo population.

My list of Australian memories could go on, but the list of things I still want to see is even longer. It is almost impossible to really convey how fantastically huge and diverse this country is. I’m glad I got to see what I did, and I can’t wait for my chance to see more. The plane ride has never been more worthwhile.

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My last day at Bluesfest, I spent most of the afternoon enjoying the time with my friends before I headed off. After a few drinks at the festival camp site, Kat and I headed off to see Tribali and I’m SO glad we did. You already know that I enjoyed every day and every band of this festival, but nobody got me dancing and hyped up like Tribali. Absolutely stunning world-music band from Malta, with enormous amounts of energy and an almost equal amount of instruments. Guitars, bongos, didgeridoos, mouth harps, drums, even a conch shell at some point. They were a totally mixed bunch of people going nuts on stage and sounding great. And they’re the only band who popped confetti so they get points for that too.

Later on in the day, Kat, Danny and I went to meet Tribali which was great. We also met Nick Kickstand who gave me his CD after he jammed out on his bongos with the band.

After the energy of Tribali, we couldn’t help ourselves, so we headed back to the Narasito Pan Pipers yet again and jumped around to the pan-piping/blues singing bunch.

At night, we camped ourselves at main stage, seeing Blue King Brown, Fat Freddys Drop and Crowded House to round off the night. Blue King Brown sang their heart out – they were a band to make Bob Marley proud. A soul, a purpose, a message, and definitely some music you could sway and nod your head to. You know the kind.

After them it was Fat Freddys Drop. I hadn’t heard of them before, I have to admit, but Kat had assured me I’d love them. She was right. The highlight was probably the trombonist who came out looking FINE in an all white suit and an energy he seemed to have a lot of trouble controlling. In fact, he had a lot of trouble controlling the suit too… he ended up in a vest top and boxer shorts by the end, but to say he enjoyed himself would be an understatement. His enthusiasm definitely rubbed off. I’ll thank Kat for that one.

Finally was Crowded House. Ahh my last act. Another one I wasn’t too familiar with – they’re homegrown Australian. Although I did recognise “Four Seasons in One Day” and “Fall At Your Feet.”  My old boss from Longitude, Tapa, had recommended them so I thought I had to check them out. They were a great band, definitely of a different generation I have to admit, but I was just enjoying the time with my friends at my last day here before heading off for more East Coast fun. And I enjoyed it just as I wanted to.

So that was it, the Byron Bay Bluesfest was over for me. An epic four days in one of my favourite Australian towns. Even if I didn’t spend much time IN the town…small detail.

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Saturday at the Bluesfest I took a bit of a break from running stage to stage. When I arrived, Kat and I briefly met up with our new friends Ben and Danny, then I left them to head to the press tent as I’d been told I had an interview slot with Bela Fleck.

I was pretty excited about my interview – Bela Fleck is arguably one of the best banjo players in the world, and had recently done a tour around various parts of Africa, studying the banjos origins and playing with local orchestras and village kids as he traveled. I saw Bela Fleck live back in Maryland when I was about 15, so I was really excited about the prospect of getting to meet him in person. I know he isn’t the most high profile musician of the week – but any interview was great for me, and this was a blast back to my high school days, plus I couldn’t wait to talk about his travels in Africa.

I was duly escorted backstage and shown to a table to wait patiently for the man to arrive. Delay after delay after delay later, it started to become pretty clear that it wasn’t happening. Mr. Fleck was running late and ran out of time before he had to get on stage. It was disappointing to have been missing so much good music in the meantime, but the silver lining was Poor Man’s Whiskey did a little improv jam session backstage after one of their interviews. So at least I got to see a little music, and hey, can’t complain about a more or less private backstage show, right?

After that, I finally made my way back into the festivals and located my friends again. I had time to briefly check out a bit of Bela’s set before we headed to the Mojo Stage to stake out our spots for the night. First one was the Buena Vista Social Club – a great latin orchestra that makes you wish you knew how to salsa. The problem I had with them was, that while they are GREAT musicians, and their music is top quality, it isn’t the type of music I particularly enjoy listening to for a full hour. They sing in Spanish, eliminating any chance of singing along, and maybe it’s my ignorance, but I simply cannot enjoy that chilled Latin beat for more than a few songs before I want something a little different.

Obviously this is a personal taste – and there were plenty of people in the crowd that would have vehemently disagreed with me. Unfortunately for us, everyone in front of us was there for the same reasons we were – to get as close as possible to the stage before the headliner. Jack Johnson. Yes, I know, I know, I’ve already seen him play once this week, but how can you say no to seeing him twice?? He was just as great the second time around too.

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Day Two of the Bluesfest, just as Day One, I spent my time moving between tents discovering a handful of fantastic artists. Kat and I also took a break from the main stages to explore the rest of the festival, including the Original Musician Competition. We took a seat on the grass to watch the Mojo Bluesmen – two guys, one with a guitar, one with a loudspeaker as a microphone and harmonica. The harmonica player looked a bit like a plump sheepdog, but other than that they were pretty great. At The Avett Brothers performance we met two brothers, Danny and Ben who we hung out with the rest of our time at Bluesfest. They were Australians who spend most of their lives skiing and snowboarding around the world. Tough life. When we met them, they were back in their home country for the summer tour season including, of course, Byron Bay.

I was definitely getting used to festival life.

Martinez Trio

Chilean band, the Martinez Trio are a father and sons group led by Victor Martinez. I have to say I didn’t know that when I saw them performing on the Apra Stage at Bluesfest, but it makes a lot of sense. It was clear that they were purely loving their time together on stage, completely wrapped up in their music.

The three men seemed to be improvising the entire performance, although I can’t believe this was anything but a well rehearsed show. I’m not a musician, but even I understand that for three individuals to play together so seamlessly at the sheer pace that these guys were playing at is damn well difficult. Their hands blurred across the guitar strings as they played separately, then two at a time, and finally together. And apparently a guitar isn’t just a guitar… it’s the percussion too. Who knew… With ‘nothing’ but three guitars, close your eyes and you could have a full band in front of you. This was a family purely loving their time on stage together.

Joe Bonamassa

I’ve already alluded to this, but while the Bluesfest was brimming with jaw-dropping talented musicians, the actual ‘blues’ musicians seem to be the minority. but Joe Bonamassa is certainly one of them. This really seemed to be what a modern blues and rock band should be, with real ‘blues-y’ lyrics (about losing things mostly…) fantastic guitar solos and a man who has clearly spent a lifetime loving and mastering his talent. It’s great to see someone of such renown and experience still putting everything into each and every performance.

At times, Joe’s hands were up in the air, eyes closed, totally focused on belting out his songs. Perfect Bluesfest band. Plus he was pretty grateful to be there since apparently it was his first time in Australia. “Anyone who knows my name in this country is a miracle, so thank you” he said.

The Avett Brothers

The Avett Bros were yet another band I didn’t know about, but they were one of my favourite performances of the week. A total mix of bluegrass, country, rock, pop and a lot more, this was sheer rowdy, infectiously crazy music. The brothers (Scott and Seth) plus standup bass player Bob Crawford along with the rest of their band have an electric stage presence. This was their first ever weekend in Australia and I’m certainly happy they came. Their most popular song and their big single is ‘I and Love and You’ but there was plenty to love.

Imelda May

I briefly stopped by the Jambalaya Stage to see a few minutes of Imelda May – an Irish woman with a rich soul voice that probably belongs in a different era, but sounded damn good in this one. She rocked out in her stylish tight black and white outfit, while her guitarist enjoyed the show in a rather loud Hawaiian shirt. But hey, the clothes don’t make the music. Thank goodness.

Jeff Beck

I left Imelda May’s stage early because I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see at least a few minutes of Jeff Beck live. You couldn’t help but feel a bit humbled and in awe listening to this guy. He has influenced and inspired some of the most famous musicians of the last five decades. Now I get to say I watched him play, including all the greats. Even a rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow.’

John Butler Trio

This was the big event of night. Australia’s most successful independent musician, John Butler Trio was the local hero of the day. His set was great and he definitely knew how to get the audience moving. Personally, I loved the improv (sort of) drum session. I knew this was one of the ‘tricks’ of their show, but it was still fantastic. As was John Butler’s acoustic solo songs – just him, his hat and his guitar in a spotlight.

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In 1990 when the Byron Bay Bluesfest began, it was actually held in Byron Bay. Imagine that. The Arts Factory – a hostel/campground that is well known to any backpackers that pass through the town was the first site. These days the festival has far outgrown its humble beginnings. For over a decade the site has moved around, while the organisers search for a permanent home, which they believe they have finally found this year at Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm. Eleven kilometres away from Byron Bay, the 2010 Bluesfest was actually closer to Brunswick Heads, but I suppose changing the name now would just be confusing.

If you still chose to stay in Byron Bay (and who can blame you) then you had to be prepared to open up your wallet. Hostels were almost doubling their prices, as were all the campgrounds in town and anywhere along the road towards Tyagarah. I decided to take the hit myself and stay at Main Beach Backpackers, which cost me $35/night for a dorm bed. I couldn’t say no to staying 20 metres away from Byron’s gorgeous beaches, although spending my days at the festival meant not a lot of time for sand and surf. Oh well.

After reuniting with some fellow Poms, Day One of Bluesfest began with a 20 minute bus trip on the $4 Bluesfest Shuttle. I could go on about how if they’re going to take the Bluesfest out of its hometown, shouldn’t they at least help people get there for free to compensate, but I won’t…

After I arrived, picked up my media pass and found my way to the press tent, I finally had time to properly peruse the schedule to figure out who I would actually have time to see. Always a problem at festivals – multiple stages mean overlapping performances; picking and choosing can be a painful process.

This year’s fest was centred around celebrating great guitar music from legends like Jeff Beck to eclectic world music bands like Tribali. There were enough musical geniuses around to blow anyone’s socks off.

The day had a good start with artists from the Brushfire Records label – Zee Avi, Neil Halstead and Matt Costa. From there I got to rock out with Jen Cloher and the Endless Sea, jump around like a maniac with the Narasito Pan Pipers, stare in awe at Daniel Champagne, salsa to the Buena Vista Social Club and sing along to all my favourites by Jack Johnson. More thoughts on that in my Day One post.

What a great way to kick off the Easter holidays.

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