Showing posts with label Travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Travel. Show all posts

Monday 22 April 2024

A Defender Road Trip to France and Northern Spain

We had a brilliant Easter holiday in France and Spain with Budgie.  We were away for 10 days and covered over 1750 miles (2850 km), making it all the way down to the Spanish Pyrenees.

Alu-Cab Defender Camper in the Spanish Pyrenees

As is usual for our road trips, we did a few long travelling days, but interspersed these with shorter days and one two-night stay in San Sebastian.

Ferry to France

We chose to take the DFDS ferry from Newhaven, in Sussex, to Dieppe, in Normandy.  For us, Newhaven is only about an hour and a half away and this route was considerably cheaper than the alternative routes from either Portsmouth, Dover, or Plymouth.   

The ferry takes around 4 hours.  We travelled both ways on the Seven Sisters vessel, which was very comfortable and had great facilities onboard.  The boys highly recommend the croque monsieur and the sausage rolls!

DFDS Seven Sisters

The return ferry departed Dieppe at 0630, so we decided to get a cabin for this leg.  We booked a four berth outside cabin, which had two sets of bunks and an ensuite bathroom.  We were heading straight up to Edinburgh when we disembarked, and after the early start we really wanted to make sure we got some sleep on the ferry.  It was definitely worth the extra cost!

4 berth cabin on the DFDS Ferry Seven Sisters

Top Tips for Driving in France and Spain

1. Check the Crit'Air Clean Air Zones

The first bit of travel to Ballon-St-Mars took us a bit longer than expected as we diverted around the Rouen clean air zone.  Budgie is too old to register for the French crit'air system, so to avoid fines we just had to avoid the zones completely. It only costs around 5 Euros for a sticker or 'vignette' if your car is eligible for the scheme, so make sure you check this out before you travel.  Ensure you use the official French government site, as there are a number of scam sites around.

2. Consider avoiding the Toll Roads

Google maps also took us on a couple of toll roads on the first day, which I think costs us around 30 Euros.  The next day we selected 'Avoid Tolls' in the maps application, which made life much easier for route planning.  Most of the toll roads have a maximum speed of 130 km/h (80 mph) which is pretty much out of reach for Budgie, so we were much more comfortable travelling on the slower roads.  These routes also took us through some beautiful towns and villages, and made stopping at the delicious boulangeries easier!

3. Take the required equipment and documentation

There is additional equipment required for driving in Europe; some is obvious, like headlamp deflectors, but others are not so intuitive, such as reflective jackets for all passengers which must be carried in the cabin.  The RAC has a handy driving in Europe checklist, so be sure to check this before you travel.

Finding Camp Sites in France and Spain

Unusually for us, we didn't really have much of a plan for the rest of the holiday, other than to hopefully catch some sun and a vague aim of getting to Northern Spain and maybe Portugal. 

We ended up staying at a mix of campsites, off-grid park ups, and aires, which we felt gave us a nice balance of facilities and some stunning locations.

We had only booked one camp spot in advance, and that was for the first night, as we wanted somewhere to aim for within a fairly short drive after disembarking the ferry.  We booked Ludovic's site in Ballon-St-Mars through PitchUp.  It was a great small site with the added bonus of a small cabin with a hot shower and a sitting / dining area.  The boys loved their first night in their newly built sleeping area:

Kids sleeping in a Land Rover Defender Camper

For our second night, we had aimed to get across the border into Spain, but we were enjoying taking our time and exploring, so decided to have a shorter day and stop on the coast in France.  We headed to the small town of Andernos-les-Bains, which sits on the beautiful bay of Bassin d'Arcachon, and our first 'Aire de Camping Car'.  

Aires come in a variety of forms in France (the literal translation is just 'area'), from motorway services, or picnic areas, to camping zones with facilities.  They are often free, or charge a small fee for overnight parking.  We picked up a guide to camping aires at a local supermarket, but you can also find them in maps, and they are usually signposted from the main road or entry into a town.  

The aire in Andernos-les-Bains was a simple area of ground alongside a quiet no through road on the edge of town.  It is minutes walk from the beach and some great seafood restaurants.  The payment machine was out of order, so we stayed for free!  The following morning we woke up to find that the Easter Bunny had managed to track us down in France and had delivered some chocolate eggs for the boys to find:

Easter Eggs on a Defender

Defender Camper at Andernos-les-Bains Aire de Camping Car

We spent the next day exploring the Arcachon area, including the Cap Ferret lighthouse and the amazing Dune du Pilat:

Phare du Cape Ferret

Steps at Dune du Pilat

We spent the night in another aire, just down the road in Biscarosse Plage.  After hotdogs in the rain, we were treated to a stunning sunset:

Defender Camper at Biscarosse Plage Aire du Camping Car

Sunset at Biscarosse Plage

Next we headed down to San Sebastian, in the Spanish Basque region, and spent a great couple of days exploring this beautiful coastal city.  We stayed at WeCamp San Sebastian, which is in a great location on top of the cliffs at the edge of the city; with a regular local bus service into town.  It's a very clean and tidy campsite, with a lovely cafe bar on site and an outdoor pool (sadly we were too early in the season for it to be open).  It was nice to spend a couple of days relaxing at a site with facilities.

San Sebastian Corniche

While in San Sebastian, we decided we weren't going to have time to make it over to Portugal without some very long drives on the way home, so instead we headed down to the Pyrenees.  It was a beautiful drive down to the mountains, and we found an absolutely stunning off-grid park up on top of a hill through the park4night app:

Defender Camper off-grid in the Pyrenees

Pyrenees mountain view from the roof tent

After crossing the border back into France, we headed north to a great campsite we found on HipCamp.  (Use the link for $/£10 off your first booking.)  Camping D'Artagnan is run by a British couple and they also have a British style pub on site!

Defender Camper at Camping D'Artagnan

Boys relaxing at Camping D'Artagnan

From here we headed up to La Rochelle.  Our next camp was another site from park4night, there were no facilities, but it was right on the sea front and next to a brilliant seafood restaurant, La Cabane de Pampin.

Sitting on the bonnet of a Defender

Seafood platter at Le Cabane de Pampin

The next day we drove up to Mont St Michel.  As we were taking the shuttle bus over to the island to explore, we noticed a campsite right by the causeway.  It turned out a night at the campsite wasn't much more expensive than the parking we had already paid for.  So, top tip; book the campsite online and you can drive straight in!

Defender camper at Mont St Michel

Boys with Mont St Michel in the background

Exploring Mont St Michel

Our last stop of the trip was another aire, this time right in the heart of Dieppe.  We wanted a camp spot near to the ferry due to the early start, and this fit the bill; as well as being right next to the beach, it was a short stroll to the bars and restaurants of the quayside in Dieppe.

Dieppe beach

Dieppe church

Defender at sunset in Dieppe aire de camping car

Let us know if you have any other sources for campsites, and if you'd like to see our full route, check us out on Polar Steps!

Ridley Errington on Polar Steps

Read on for info about Budgie's camper conversion.


Tuesday 20 February 2024

The Isle of Jura

One of our favourite things about living in Victoria, BC, was being able to explore beautiful Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, but our love of islands didn't start in Canada.  It actually started in Scotland on the Isle of Jura.

Lorne Cottage, Caigenhouses, Craighouse, Isle ofJura

I (R) have been visiting Jura for almost 40 years now, and Sarah has been joining me for more than 20 years.  It's one of our favourite places, and we even got married there on the beach at Corran Sands in 2012.  

Isle of Jura Wedding at Corran Sands

One of the best things about being back in the UK, is being able to get up to Jura regularly.  This is our third trip up in the last 6 months!

About the Isle of Jura

Jura is an island in the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland.  

Despite being the 8th largest of the Scottish islands (about 30 miles long and 7 miles wide), it is only the 31st largest in terms of population with around 200 permanent residents.  The residents are vastly numbered by Red Deer, with a fairly steady population of around 5000, and in fact the name Jura is thought to derive from the Old Norse word Dyrøy meaning "deer island".

Red Deer on the Isle of Jura

The island is dominated by three large peaks, known as the Paps of Jura, which make for a distinctive silhouette from the mainland and also from neighbouring Islay.  Only the South and East coasts of the island are inhabited, leaving the West coast as a beautiful wilderness which is only accessible on foot or by boat.

With its small, friendly population and remote feeling, Jura is a magical place which really gets under your skin and many visitors return on a regular basis.

Getting to the Isle of Jura

The Isle of Jura was described as "ungettatable" by George Orwell when he was writing his famous novel '1984' on Jura.  Fortunately it's not that difficult these days, and there are a number of options to get here, but it does take a bit of planning!  The major options are listed below, but get in touch with us if you need help planning your journey.

Jura Passenger Ferry

This is our favourite way to get to Jura. The Jura Passenger Ferry crosses between Tayvallich, on the mainland, and Craighouse on Jura.  It's the quickest (less than an hour) and most scenic way to get across the Sound of Jura, but is for foot passengers only, no vehicles.  Craighouse is the main settlement on Jura, so it's an ideal place to land.

Car Ferry

Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) sail to Islay from Kennacraig, on the Scottish mainland, to either Port Ellen or Port Askaig on a regular basis.  This route takes about 2 hours, and you can check out the current schedules online at  From Islay it's a short journey from Port Askaig to Feolin on the Jura Ferry, which takes around 10 minutes to cross the Sound of Islay.  You will likely need a car (or bike if you're feeling fit) for this route, although there is a limited bus service available on both Islay and Jura.  Be sure to check that the connections work if you are planning to come over as a foot passenger with CalMac, we've been stranded on Islay before!

Ferry traffic queuing for the Finlaggan at Kennacraig

By Air

There are regular scheduled flights between Glasgow (GLA) and Islay (ILY) airports with Logan Air

What to do on Jura

Jura is rightly famous for its whisky, visit the Jura Whisky website for details on tours and tastings.

Did you know that Jura is now also home to a gin distillery, rum distillery and brewery?  

Lussa Gin distill by hand in a traditional still in a converted stable on the Ardlussa Estate at the North end of the island.  Using 15 botanicals which they grow or forage on the island, it's the 'spirit of island adventure'.  They are also open for tours, check out the Lussa Gin website for details.

Deer Island Distillers make a small batch Scottish spiced rum from the business units at Craighouse Pier.  They have a distillery shop and also offer tours, check out the Deer Island website for details.  They're also right next door to Konrad's beautiful photography gallery - The Whisky Island, and the local craft store - Camella Crafts.

Jura Brewery are still finishing the construction of their new brewery at their croft in Kiels, which is about a 15 minute walk.  Their Laughing Stag is an easy drinking pale ale which you can find in the community owned Jura Stores, in the Jura Hotel bar, and from the Jura Brewery TrALEr at certain events.

Jura Brewery Laughing Stag

It's not all about alcohol though!  Throughout the year there are a number of regular events, which can see the Jura population expand significantly, you're strongly recommended to book early if you want to stay on Jura during these events:

Jura Fell Race - this 28km fell race sees 200 competitors climb seven of Jura's summits on the last weekend in May.  This is one of Jura's busiest weekends.
Ardlussa Sports - this annual sports event is great fun for all of the family and raises money for local charities, it usually happens the last weekend in July. Events include tug of war, hammer throwing, barrel rolling and family races.
Jura Regatta - this day of water based sports is usually held on the first Saturday in August.  Events include open water swimming, rowing, kayaking, sailing and a raft race.
Jura Music Festival - this great festival is usually held on the last weekend in September.  

Jura has some amazing scenery and wildlife which you can explore for yourself, or take a guided tour with one of the locals:

Jura Guided - Grant offers guided walks suitable for all levels around the island.
Jura Boat Tours - Robert offers small group wildlife and sightseeing tours in their MCA approved RIB. 
Discover Jura - Alex offers small group tours by minibus and in conjunction with Jura Boat Tours.
Jura Cycles - Are now offering bike hire on Jura to help you get around.

Where to stay on Jura

Jura has a variety of options for places to stay, from a super luxury hotel to rustic bothies, and everything in between.  

Lorne Cottage

Of course we are biased, but we think Lorne Cottage is one of the nicest small holiday cottages on the island.  Sleeping a maximum of six, but more comfortable for four, our wee cottage in Craighouse was fully rebuilt in 2019.  With stunning views over Small Isles Bay, our self catering holiday cottage is literally a stone's throw from the beach and just a short stroll into the village.

Lorne Cottage, Isle of Jura

While we were in Canada, we offered the cottage up for long term let and had a number of great tenants.  Now that we are back in the UK, and will be able to visit more often, we're moving to a holiday let arrangement. Stay tuned for an announcement when we are ready to start taking bookings.

Self Catering Holiday Cottages and Bed and Breakfast

There are a number of other holiday cottages available to rent on Jura, and a couple of options for Bed and Breakfast. The most comprehensive listing can be found on the Jura Development Trust's website.

Jura Hotels

Until fairly recently there was only one hotel on Jura, the imaginatively named Jura Hotel!  The Jura Hotel also has a public bar, which serves as the island's only pub.  

When an Australian hedge fund manager bought the Ardfin Estate, he set about a massive investment program; including building a world class 18-hole Golf Course, a huge extension of Jura House and refurbishment of agricultural buildings into a boutique hotel.  If you have deep pockets, Jura House can now be rented for up to 20 guests on an exclusive basis (minimum 3 nights, price on application), or you can stay in the Quads on a hotel basis for a rumoured £1000 per night!


The Jura Hotel has a large waterfront field which acts as a semi-formal campsite during the summer.  There is a shower block, toilets and laundry facilities available to the side of the hotel, via a key fob system.  Enquire at the hotel for the latest prices and seasonal opening.

Wild camping is permitted on Jura, but it should be noted that this does not extend to vehicular camping.  Please follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and Leave No Trace:

    This type of camping is lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two or three nights in any one         place. You can camp in this way wherever access rights apply but help avoid causing problem for local     people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or farm animals and keeping well     away from buildings, roads or historic structures. If you wish to camp close to a house or building, seek     the owner’s permission. Leave no trace by taking away all your litter. Remove all traces of your tent            pitch and of any open fire.

There are extremely limited places to park campervans, all without facilities, but there are public toilets by the big pier in Craighouse.  Large motorhomes are unsuited to Jura's single track road, and may struggle to get on and off the wee ferry!

Isle of Jura Tourist Map

Is Jura in your plans for this year?  If not it probably should be!

Wednesday 3 January 2024

Skiing Montgenèvre

Shortly after we moved to Portsmouth, the boys realised they wouldn't be able to ski every weekend of the season, like they had been used to in Canada!  

After a bit of internet searching and researching European ski locations, we settled on a trip to Montgenèvre in France.  The small town sits about half way between Grenoble in France and Turin in Italy and is right on the border.  We flew into Grenoble Alpes-Isère Airport with EasyJet from Edinburgh, and had a private transfer with Snow Cab.

Welcome to Montgenevre

It's the oldest ski resort in France and it's possible to ski across into Italy to join up with the Milky Way resorts of Clavier and Sauze D'Oulx.  Beware that the Italian resorts open later than Montgenèvre; for our early season trip before Christmas the rest of the resorts hadn't opened.  There was still plenty for us to do though, with over 100km of runs and 38 lifts.  It's a good mix of beginners and intermediate pistes, with a few advanced runs.

Beginners ski area Montgenevre

View from the top at Montgenevre Ski

Montgenevre Ski Lift

The town itself is fairly small, but retains a rustic Alpine charm and has a good selection of bars and restaurants, and according to Innes all the food was 'delicious'!

Innes with a calzone pizza

We stayed at the Résidence Club MMV le Hameau des Airelles, which is a collection of self-catering apartments in a number of chalet style buildings set around an outdoor pool. The location is ski-in / ski-out, but the access lifts hadn't yet opened when we were there. It was just a short walk over to the piste though and there is also a free regular shuttle bus which stops just outside the hotel. There's also a great bakery just across the road for lovely breakfast pastries.
Night time view from Montgenevre Apartments

Montgenevre Pool

We booked the flights, hotel and transfers through Heidi, who we highly recommend.

Not sure what to pack for your ski holiday? Check out our handy guide and printable ski trip packing list.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Washington State - Seattle and Olympic National Park

Getting to Seattle from Vancouver Island

We travelled to Seattle on the FRS Clipper service from Victoria on Vancouver Island.  It's a fast, passenger only catamaran service between Victoria's Inner Harbour and Pier 69 in downtown Seattle.  The journey takes roughly 2 hours and 45 minutes to cross the scenic Juan de Fuca Straight, then into Admiralty Inlet and Puget Sound towards Elliott Bay.

Seattle Clipper in Victoria

Keep an eye out for whales and dolphins whilst you travel at 30 knots, or just enjoy the views of Mount Baker and the Olympic mountain range.

The clipper has 3 different classes of ticket, but all have allocated seating and great views, as well as bar and food service! 

Where to Stay in Seattle

We stayed in a great townhouse AirBnB in the Queen Anne district, which had amazing views over the city and the Space Needle.  We were surprised by how hilly Seattle was, but the views were definitely worth the hike up to the top!

Seattle skyline at night

Queen Anne was a great location, walkable from the clipper and easy access to the Space Needle or Downtown areas (as long as you're ok with the hills!).

Top things to do in Seattle

1. The Space Needle - it's hard to miss this landmark, and you really shouldn't miss a visit.  The entry tickets are timed to a 15 minute slot, but you can spend as long as you want at the top.  As you'd expect the views are stunning, and the rotating glass floor is a cool experience.  There's also a nice bar up there! 

Seattle Space Needle from Chihuly Gardens

Boys at the Seattle Space Needle

2. Chihuly Gardens - this gallery features the amazing glass work of Washington artist, Dale Chihuly, and is definitely worth a visit.  There are 8 internal galleries, a huge glasshouse, and a beautiful garden filled with architectural glass works.  The bar is home to some of Chihuly's personal collections, and is a great spot for lunch.

Chihuly Glass

Chihuly Glass

Chihuly Glass House

Chihuly Gardens

Glass Tree at Chihuly Gardens

3. Take a ride on the mono-rail from the Seattle Center (beside the Space Needle) to the Westlake Mall terminal downtown.  It's a short trip between the two terminals, but only costs a few dollars and passes through the architecturally impressive Museum of Popular Culture (MoPOP), and then on a high track above the city.

Seattle mono-rail

MoPop Seattle

4. Take a stroll round Pike Place Market, it is buzzing with shops, restaurants,  and the first ever Starbucks; if that kind of thing floats your boat you can join the huge line up to get a coffee, perhaps unsurprisingly we didn't!  Instead we headed to the ever important brewery - Old Stove Brewing and grabbed a beer looking out over the water. The market is a bit of a maze but there is an app to guide you - we didn't have this when we were there so can't comment on how good it is but we think it would be worth a try.  The market is also home to 'The Gum Wall', dubbed 'a hidden work of art' - we'll let you be the judge of that!

Getting to Washington State from Vancouver Island

A couple of weeks later we took the Coho Ferry from Vancouver Island to Port Angeles in Washington State.  The Coho is operated by Black Ball Ferry Line, and has been operating this route since 1959!  Travelling on the ferry is like stepping back in time, with the original decor and jolly music accompanying the safety announcements.

Coho Ferry entering Victoria, BC

The ferry takes 90 minutes to cross the Juan de Fuca Straight, from downtown Victoria into Port Angeles.  Heading to Washington, you will clear US customs in the ferry port, so need to be there 90 minutes prior to departure.  On the way back, you only need to be there 60 minutes before.

There is a bar and cafeteria onboard, but we spent most of the trip out on the foredeck looking for whales.  We didn't see any on the way south, but spotted a few humpbacks on the way back, so keep your eyes out!

Olympic National Park

On our second trip over to Washington state, we visited Olympic National Park.  Managed by the US National Parks Service, the park is a vast wilderness of nearly 1 million acres and over 70 miles of beautiful wild coastline.

Olympic National Park Welcome Sign

Where to Stay in Olympic National Park

We stayed in a really cool camp near Forks, which we booked through AirBnB.  The camp is by the river at the end of a rough track, with no near neighbours.  It's completely off-grid, with no power or running water, but there is a covered shelter for cooking and eating and a cool outhouse with a view!  You have the entire property to yourselves, and can pitch your tent wherever you like.

Camping near Forks, WA. Kestrel's Place AirBnB

If you want somewhere with a few more home comforts, the friends we were travelling with stayed in a log cabin at Kalaloch Lodge.  The cabins overlook a beautiful beach, and there is a nice restaurant on site.

Things to do in Olympic National Park 

1. Marymere Falls is a short hike through the forest from Crescent Lake.  The early part of the walk is pretty flat, and meanders past some huge trees and over a couple of log bridges, the last section up to the falls is pretty steep, but there's a good path with steps in places. Sadly this trail does not allow dogs so Sarah and Hector chilled down at the lake, but worth bearing in mind if you travel with your dog.

Kids inside a tree, Olympic National Park

Log bridge, Olympic National Park

Marymere Falls, Olmypic National Park, WA

2. Hole-in-the-Wall is a stunning natural arch in the rocks.  Walk along Rialto Beach from the car parking area at the southern end of the beach, making sure that you get the tide times right!  There were some huge schools of fish just off the beach when we were there, which attracted loads of Pelicans.  Some of the fish were getting washed up on the beach by the waves, and the kids loved catching them.

Errington Family at Rialto Beach

Hole in the wall, Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park

Catching fish by hand at Olympic National Park

Catching fish by hand at Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park

3. Sol Duc Hot Springs offers three pools at different temperatures, plus a fresh water outdoor swimming pool and cold water shower!  The natural mineral hot springs are directed into man-made pools.  There are also changing rooms and a gift shop.

Sol Duc Hot Springs Pools

There are other natural pools in the park, but the hike was a bit far for the kids after already hiking to the hole-in-the-wall.

4. Ruby Beach is one of many stunning beaches on the western coast of the park.  There's another much smaller natural arch at this beach, and it's much quieter than Rialto.

Natural arch at Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park

Two very different experiences in Washington State, but both well worth a visit.  Olympic National Park was more our usual style, but we really enjoyed our short city break in Seattle.  Which would you do?