Tag Archives: travel

These Vagabond Shoes (Are Longing to Stray)

UnisphereWell, here I am in the Big Apple. New York (New Yoooork, it’s a wonderful tooooown!). The location of so many TV shows I’ve loved: Castle. Beauty and the Beast. Fame. Flight of the Conchords. Elementary.

Top Cat.

You’d think the celluloid connections would suggest plenty of things to do and see in New York, but that’s not the case. I’m not that interested in chasing down film locations for the sake of it (and in any case, many locations from NY-set shows aren’t necessarily in New York, or even real).

Ticking Off the List of Big Things is also not something I’m very keen on. Of course I took the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, though I didn’t disembark at Liberty Island. She looks grand enough from the water.

I liked the immigration museum on Ellis Island too, because the social history of New York is fascinating. Tim and I saw some great pieces at the Museum of Modern Art, and tomorrow we’re taking in an off-Broadway show – but I’m happy enough to look at the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings from across the East River or from the street below, without having to climb them.

Into the boroughs

Instead, I find great pleasure in exploring neighbourhoods. I enjoyed poking around odd little parts of London at the start of this trip, and this week I’ve had the best fun away from the crowds, noise and bustle of Manhattan’s Midtown and Downtown. Instead, I’ve seen what places like Queens, Bushwick and Flushing have to offer. As a writer, a city’s commercial heart may be interesting, but it can lack the texture of the areas where locals live, work and play.

It was in the boroughs and quieter ‘hoods of Manhattan that I noticed things like the graffiti and the way the trapdoors to basements might be left open – perhaps for the unwary to fall into. It’s there I saw kids playing, and noticed the housing that was clad in weatherboard as well as brick; where we stopped at local cafes and had brief but entertaining conversations with staff and customers.

Long Island City, Queens

IMG_8055A lot of the boroughs are kind of quirky. The Z Hotel in Long Island City, Queens, gave us a terrific view across the East River to the Manhattan skyline, while being located amidst taxicab depots and a lot of light industry.

New Yorkers would have nothing to do with the odd passive-aggressive ‘Polite Notices’ (that weren’t especially polite) that I kept seeing in London, and instead tell it like it is with signs frankly warning you not to park in private parking areas.

IMG_8028This area also had a lot of these very old fashioned fire alarm systems – any passer-by could pull the lever to alert emergency services of a fire. We weren’t convinced that they were still active, though this one seemed to be attached to the telegraph wires. Tim had to exercise superhuman control to not pull the lever just to see what would happen.

In any case, Long Island City was a nice low-key district (and it was by chance I discovered that Silvertop Studios, which makes Elementary, is housed nearby). I had a pleasant time meeting the locals when I visited the local laundromat on our first night to clean up my travel wardrobe.

Lower West Side, Manhattan

Highline 1But it’s not all sassy signage and soap bubbles. Sometimes it’s reclaimed parkland. The High Line is a former above-ground freight rail line that was abandoned and then, in recent years, reclaimed as a linear park. Threading among derelict factories, new housing complexes and rejuvenated neighbourhoods in the Lower West Side, it starts in Chelsea and ends in the Meatpacking District.

The paths are pleasant, the greenery encouraged to grow without too much manicuring. It’s a welcome respite from the madness of the rest of Manhattan. It’s full of locals as well as visitors, and the path cleaves through a building at one point where you can get food and even a really excellent espresso coffee. (That’s right – New York has discovered espresso and the Melburnian coffee-holic can survive quite handily here.)

Highline 2

Central Park, Manhattan

The High Line isn’t the only lovely green space in New York. There’s the famous Central Park, too. No sign of Vincent the cat-faced, poetry-reading, tortured-yet-cuddly hero of 1980s Beauty and the Beast, but there was a lawn. On which we stretched out for little while, loving the rich smell of grass and loam, soaking up the hot New York summer sun until I began to wonder if I could get sunburned through my jeans, and also wondering if I would be nested on by squirrels if I sat still long enough. I took a flat-on-my-belly-in-the-grass-eye-view picture to convey some of the loveliness of my Lazy New York Adventure.

Central Parkflushing statue

Flushing, Queens

Another wonderful green space is in Flushing, the home of the World Fairs of 1939 and 1964. Very little remains of the old fairs beyond the layout and a few key structures (like the Unisphere, at the top of this post) but it’s a wonderfully quiet area in the borough of Queens.

When the sirens, the crowds, the smell of the subway and the sight of steam billowing out of grates (it really does do that) has your senses demanding downtime, a train to this huge park is just the ticket.

And when you have had enough of bloody parks as well, you can find some interesting urban neighbourhoods to explore.

Bushwick, Brooklyn

Bushwick 1But wait! I think I lied about the sassy signage! Not all of it is official, and I loved this little doublet of graffiti stuck on the side of a posting box in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

I also got a little unexpected NYPD Street Theatre in Bushwick, when I popped into a post office to buy postcard stamps and two burly officers seemed to appear out of thin air to deal with a customer who was getting stroppy with the staff about some problem with a… thing.

God knows. But they dealt with it with the kind of calm sternness one associates with the gruffer kind of primary school teacher, and nobody got shot. (I suspect I watch waaaaaay too many crime shows…)

Bushwick 2Bushwick also has some fabulous street art and we came across some great examples on a street that also boasted a coffee shop with a Twin Peaks theme.

Manhattan transfer

But if you love the bustling heart of a great big city, it’s there. The New York subway is every bit as grungy, sweaty, zippy and intriguing as I’ve always thought it would be; the New York delis as thriving and fascinating as expected, and with excellent food.

New Yorkers are forthright but mostly friendly, and they never seem to mind that Sinatra’s New York, New York is an earworm that I can’t help singing as I walk along.

Apart from anything else, Midtown gifted me with this gem – a Cupcake ATM. That’s right. An ATM. THAT DISPENSES CUPCAKES!!

No matter what you want from it – TV locations, green spaces, mad bustle, cupcakes from an ATM – New York, ladies and gentleman, does not disappoint.

Thank you to the Z Hotel and NYC and Co for discounted accommodation and other assistance.

The Lady Novelist Fangirls Out in Cardiff

fangirlWhen Tim and I were walking down to Cardiff Bay, on our way to the Doctor Who Experience, I said to him: “I’m getting my fangirl geek on for this.”

Tim laughed and laughed at that one. As if my fangirl geek wasn’t already on; wasn’t constantly on. It was a fair cop. I therefore declared that I was flicking dust from my fangirl geek cuffs, setting it hat at a raking angle and walking jauntily towards my date with Adventure! Or at least with the Doctor Who Experience!

I’ve wanted to go to the exhibition and interactive adventure ever since Tim saw it in London a while back and spoke so highly of it. Since then, it had moved to its permanent and purpose-built home in Cardiff, so of course we made time for it on our current Tour of Blighty. (We got in just in time – the Experience closes very shortly for an overhaul, and will reopen in October with a brand new Doctor and a whole new Experience!)

The exhibits are great, but it really is the interactive experience that makes this whole thing worth a visit (and the price of entry). Lighting effects, physical effects, atmospheric sets and effective soundscapes make for a fun and immersive activity – but as always with theatre (which it undoubtedly is) the key element is the participants’ own willing suspension of disbelief. As an adult it would be too easy to decide it’s all just smoke and mirrors (or lighting effects and sensaround) and not be impressed, but you won’t have any fun that way.

DWE 1Instead, I let a lifetime of being spooked by threatening creatures; feeling excited by the appearance of the TARDIS; and yearning to be a companion for just one adventure carry the moment.

I managed to in fact spook myself and duck once or twice and have a rip-roaring good time. If you missed the Matt Smith version, I’m sure the upcoming Peter Capaldi adventure will be just as good. And if you saw this version – now you have an excuse to come back!

The static exhibition will no doubt have more costumes and props to display as well.

But Cardiff has more for the fangirl and boy than the Doctor Who Experience. There’s also a semi-official memorial to a fictional character, and a castle that plays supporting roles in show.

The Ianto Jones Shrine sprang up after that character met his sad fate in the third season of Torchwood. I wasn’t a fan of the first two seasons of the show, but I thought the third was excellent SF (and it had Capaldi in it, huzzah!) but Ianto’s death was sad very effecting. It certainly seems to have made an impact on his fans, who started an impromptu shrine on the boardwalk by Cardiff Bay. It became such a big thing that the local authorities finally erected a permanent plaque about the shrine to a fictional character.

IMG_6039One theme that popped up in several of the letters and notes attached to the grating of the wall was the notion that he did not pass a ‘blip in time’. One item hung on the grate was in memory of a woman who wasn’t able to get to Cardiff in person due to ill health and passed away – her friends leaving a note to her that ‘you aren’t just a blip in time to us, either’.

I’m sure there are essays out there exploring more of why this character and his death affected so many, but I think that speech of his touched a nerve. Perhaps most of us will pass without having made any major impact on history or broader life, but perhaps we want to know that we mattered more than passingly to those we loved.

Memory does endure, though, especially if any of the exhbitions and articles about Great War I’ve been exploring are any indication. Loss leaves a hole, and though it may stop bleeding and may heal over with a scar, there will often be that mark, that absence of a person who should have been there, a hole in the fabric of broader lives… and I’m getting too philosophical maybe, after an afternoon spent at the Imperial War Museum, but anyway. A human response to the loss of a single fictional character is a sort of dress rehearsal for other losses, and none of those lost are blips. They always leave spaces in personal histories and individual hearts.

After reflecting on death and loss and people both real and invented, I spent part of the next day at Cardiff Castle. With BBC Wales based in Cardiff, it’s no wonder that the Castle is used as a location in many shows shot here – including two of my favourites, Dr Who and Sherlock.The Castle even offers a film location tour on this aspect of the site.

IMG_6319Having said that, though, I wasn’t all squeeful about spotting TV locations around the castle, because I am separately a fan of castles in their own right. Castles are neat! Castles are filled with layers of history, and layers of imagination. Castles weren’t always used for fortification, or at least not only for fortification. They have pasts full of luxury and leisure as well as warlike stances and defensive bristling.

Cardiff Castle, for example, has roots down to the Roman era; it has a Norman keep. The main living quarters are all faux-medieval having been done up in the 19th Century as Gothic Revival; and in the 20th Century it was opened to locals as a bomb shelter during WWII.

attack beaversElements of the Gothic Revival decorations entertained me the most, though. Oh, our Victorian era brethren, how you loved to make stuff up and then pass it off as tradition! You sure made a mess for the lovers of historical accuracy, but as a storyteller, I can’t help but to think you delightful for your crazy. (Speaking of which, I love the Attack Beavers depicted on the rooftop water fountain. They look like their fish are loaded and they are not afraid to use ’em.)

Discussing this with Tim, we wondered whether that Victoria habit of making up ‘traditional’ legends and traditions was a reaction to industrialisation; and whether our modern habit of being all retro hip with 19th Century hipster beards and 1950s Betty Page hair-dos and cupcakes is a similar treasure-the-past reaction to contemporary anxiety about constant connectivity, climate change and fear of surveillance through the smart devices to which we are so addicted.

IMG_6309Or, you know, maybe we just think the hair is cool.

Finally, I leave y
ou with a giant and rather cranky owl who squawked a lot and glared with his giant golden eyes because he wanted his dinner RIGHT NOW. He was like a giant feathered cat.

The castle falconer had a number of birds out for us to see. The white barn owl made me think of Hedwig (and that always makes me weepy) and there was a tiny wee owl called Pocket who of course made me think of the Weasley’s owl, Errol, only Pocket was more sprightly and even cuter.

So. Cardiff. A fangirl’s delight. I recommend it.

Thank you to Visit Britain and Visit Wales for hosting us.

Romantic London: The Gentlemen’s Afternoon Tea at the Athenaeum

IMG_5744I arrived in London two days ago and already I’ve done so much it feels like I’ve been here twice as long.

That’s not a bad thing. It just seems unlikely that in only 48 hours I’ve packed in a walk around Fitzrovia, a visit to Speedy’s Cafe (of Sherlock fame), the Cartoon Museum and the Petrie Museum, seen the first episode of the new Doctor Who (many cheers for Peter Capaldi!) and then today visited the Abbey Road community garden, met with one of the locals who work on the garden (discovering he’s an SF fan and has just been to LonCon, and his wife is writing a fantasy novel) and then explored the All Saints Church which has sections dating from the 12th Century, before reuniting with our new friends Mike and Penny for a beer in Stratford’s Tap East boutique beer bar, and then returning to our new digs at The Athenaeum on Park Lane…

Possibly I should have stopped for breath somewhere in that paragraph, but you get the picture. I have two weeks yet to go here in London, and then we’re off to New York. It’s going to be jam-packed and fabulous!

But let’s backtrack a little to The Athenaeum.

After spending our first two nights at the splendiforousness that is The Grafton, we have moved our little travel camp to the dashing and shiny Athenaeum Hotel overlooking Green Park. I feel very posh (and possibly also under-dressed). The bathroom is full of beautiful dark green marble and the bow window allows me to watch the passing traffic – including red buses and black cabs – as darkness falls over the Park.

IMG_5753The Athenaeum also offers a charming Gentlemen’s Afternoon Tea. If your tooth isn’t all that sweet, it’s a wonderful alternative to the usual scones-and-cakes affairs normally offered by grand old hotels. (The Athenaeum offers those as well, of course.)

There’s a certain Gregory Peck-ness to the ambiance of this savoury afternoon tea, served in the elegance of the Garden Room. The view through the windows is of a lush garden wall, greenery draped down the outside bricks and lending the interior a lovely grotto feeling without all that inconvenience of actual leaves and insects in your tea. Inside, highlights of burnt orange in the furnishings add to that sense of richness and warmth. Tables are set up in little shallow alcoves, so you have a sense of intimacy without being shut off in dark corners.

IMG_5762As for the afternoon tea itself: you start with a dram of single malt scotch whisky (served with water that you can splash into the glass yourself to taste) and soon you and your beau will be enjoying chilli cheese sticks with welsh rarebit; wild boar sausage roll, a seasonal terrine (ours was ham hock) and a miniature beef and ale pie.

By the time the bacon scone topped with Wookey Hole Cave aged cheddar arrives, so has your large pot of piping hot tea. Selecting the tea is rather fun – you open up kind of wooden ‘book’, which is a box displaying loose leaf tea samples and descriptions so you can choose a tea for your mood. Half way through the afternoon tea, the lovely staff whip away the pots, in which the tea was brewing a bit too strongly, and bring back fresh pots – so each cup of tea is the perfect cup of tea.

The sweetness comes along, not in light and fluffy confections, but in rich and complex flavours – a sticky toffee pudding with walnuts (served with that thick English cream that has real gravitas), whisky fruit cake and whisky chocolate truffles.


A cake trolley is also brought past in due course – to tempt you with cakes that you’re probably much too full to enjoy. (I am more to be pitied than censured that I was much too replete with deliciousness to be tempted by the caramel chocolate cake; a Victoria Sponge was also on offer, which led to my beloved doing impersonations of a Connery James Bond soliloquising about his nemesis, the femme fatale spy, Victoria Sponge…”So, Miss Sponge, we meet again. I must be dreaming!”)

IMG_5785If you’re in London with the one you love, whether or not either of you is a gentleman (or can do Connery 007 impersonations), this is a sophisticated and ever so slightly rugged alternative to the standard sugar-rush afternoon tea. It’s well worth the £34.50. In fact, it might make a really special and stylish buck’s party (or hen’s party) for a small group.

The Gentlemen’s Afternoon Tea is at the Athenaeum until 31 December 2014 from noon to 7pm, and reservations are essential.

Disclosure: On this trip we were hosted by the Athenaeum Hotel.

Do you know of a romantic city experience? Let me know and I will selflessly explore it. SELFLESSLY.

In the meantime, read my erotic spy thrillers set in Melbourne and Brisbane: Double Edged and Expendable and learn about Philip and Martine before I send them to London to spy-wrangle and drink whisky in the Garden Room!

Launceston, architecture and ghosts

BillTim and I have been in Launceston for a few days, guests of Launceston City Council, and have been sampling copious amounts of cider and excellent food. For science!

Well, no, probably not for science, but we’ve been dedicated, I promise you that. This evening, we went on the Launceston City Ghost Tour, guided by Bill – he of the cape and atmospheric voice.

The night was bitterly cold but Bill set a brisk pace as he walked us around the centre of Launceston, visiting wonderful old buildings, sometimes leading us into darkened cellars and ill-lit garages, and keeping up an entertaining stream of storytelling and terrible jokes.

Launceston is Australia’s third oldest city, founded in 1806. It was from here that Batman and Fawkner set off to found Melbourne and then spend the rest of their lives arguing over who did it first.

Some lovely architecture remains intact from the city’s foundation through to the late 19th century, so naturally it’s a town ripe with folklore and spooky stories.

It’s also one of those places that was lucky enough to fall into economic decline at just the right time to avoid having these wonderful buildings knocked down – so instead of hideous mid-20th century blocks of concrete and pebblestone facades, we still have elegant churches, warehouses, former grand homes and current hotels, many beautifully restored.

0108dd50b4323aa87ce2a3312201f1411d2d71fc7fFor many, seeing the city’s architecture by night will be reason enough to go on the walk, but of course, it’s a ghost tour – so while I enjoyed the visual drama, I was really there for the tales of macabre deaths and gruesome deeds.

There are plenty of  both of course, along with mysterious occurrences whose origins are unknown. But Bill grins wickedly and tells the tale anyway.

There are the traditional theatre ghosts, the star-crossed lovers, the cruel murders and the terrible accidents. There are tales of hotel and pub staff disturbed by odd noises and ghostly fingers on skin, and visions of spirits running down halls.

Perhaps it’s true that my most terrifying moment in Launceston was the landing of our Jetstar flight in strong winds that made it feel like the plane was being shaken about like a maraca – but to be fair, the ghost walk was certainly a whole lot more fun than that, too. Vastly entertaining, in fact.

And if you don’t believe in ghosts – you still have the pretty buildings to look at.

When you’re in Launceston, book your ghost tour with Bill or one of the other guides at Launceston City Ghost Tours

Disclosure: Tim and I were hosted by Launceston City Council.