Wednesday, 12 October 2016

To Canada the USA and back again!

It's been a whirlwind 2 weeks - how are you?

We have managed to get to Canada and the USA and back again in little over a week and racked up some 7000+ miles in doing so. It's fair to say that we are feeling a little tired last week but hey ho when there are memories to be made whats missing out on a bit of sleep.

Our whirlwind tour highlights look a bit like this:
Saturday - arrive in Toronto and meet Victoria and Emily, two girls we met via twitter / Instagram and have been looking forward to meet for the 4 years we have been corresponding. That evening we met up with a further two girls Patricia and Court that we also know via social media for a wives night out. It was a great way to spend our first night in Canada.

Sunday - a day we will NEVER forget. After a 2 hour drive we arrived a Niagara Falls. We had stocked up on Tim Horton's delicious doughnuts en route and arrived ready to go. The area was a strip of entertainment - think mini Vegas or Blackpool - and at the bottom of the road was Niagara Falls in all it's glory.

We REALLY recommend seeing this extraordinary sight from the Canada side as you get a full perspective of the size and scale of these incredibly powerful waterfalls. We also did the Maid of the Mist (now called Horn Blowers) and got up close to the falls. Thankfully the boat trip provides ponchos as it is true - you get soaked! As you approach the falls the mist starts but as you get closer the rain gets heavier until you feel as if you are standing in a shower. It is incredible and must be on anyone's to-do list. It was everything we had hoped for and more.

After the soaking Victoria and Emily felt it only fair to warm us up by introducing us to Poutine - essentially chips, cheese curds and gravy - and it was SO good. We each ordered a different type of Poutine so we could indulge in the different flavours - I went for Thanksgiving dinner, Laura for bacon cheeseburger, Tori for chicken, bacon, ranch and Emily went for the original. Can you figure out which is which?

For dessert we started with dippin' dots and finished with Beaver Tails with maple syrup - so so so good! To 'balance' the indulgence we walked off a few pounds with a game of pitch and put / crazy golf and a tour of the strip. It was so much fun.

The evening was a highlight Laura had requested - a Jewish feast courtesy of Emily. We dined on latkes and matzo ball soup and ate until we collapsed stuffed on the sofa to review the days photo's.

Monday arrived too quick and while Tori headed back to work Emily gave us a tour of the rest of Toronto, the docks, Yonge-Dundas square and the old brewery district where we grabbed breakfast. Then a quick stop to get Jewish bagels and that was it. On to Boise.

Tuesday, after arriving late Monday night and having a hellish experience with the Dollar rental car representative (we both left practically in tears and wising we hadn't bothered renting a car) we had driven straight to the Air BnB and fell asleep. Our first day was spent with 2 of Laura's oldest and dearest school friends Sarah and Julia. Sarah was leaving town the next day to start a new travel nurse assignment in Montana and Julia had started work at 6am so she could get finished in time to join us for breakfast and then a drive to the mountains. Which ever way you drive in Boise the scenery is stunning and Tuesday was no exception except that our drive and plan for a hike was curtailed when we realised that the forest fires were still burning higher up the mountain and the whole area was a no go.

We had to settle for a wander around Idaho city - a once thriving mining town that is now a is collection of ramshackle houses and museums - and a visit to Trudy's that does the BEST tater tots and pie we ave EVER had. Seriously we'd have driven the 2 hours just for them.

The evening was then spent chilling out on the deck at Sarah's parents house, enjoying a drink and indulging in the warm evening - it was perfect!

Wednesday we shopped and I got my fill of Panda Express. The highlight was catching up with Laura's friend Tina and her fiance Jared. Laura is part of their wedding next year and so we wanted to meet Jared beforehand. We are so glad we did he was brilliant. Although slightly too good at mini-golf / crazy golf for my liking, we had met then at a fun course and he made my victory a close one! Although his hole in one at the end set of a fire ball which was impressive, my miss had me soaked by a water cannon! Crazy golf in Idaho is CRAZY! We then caught up over dinner at the Village shopping centre that has fountains to rival the Bellagio - they dance to music and everything!
And yes we WERE that happy to be playing Crazy golf :)
Thursday. Wine day. Well wine tasting day - not something Laura and I are a fan off but as it was a hen party we made an exception. It turns out Idaho has quite a few vineyards out in the mountains and after boarding a coach with the rest of the hen party we had a 90 minute drive into the country to arrive at Ste Chapel. Next stop was Hat Ranch and finally Sawtooth. The first vineyard was sat among rolling hills providing a stunning view. The second, at Ranch, was exactly as I had imagined an Idahoan vineyard, small and with guys in cowboy hats. The third one was hard to describe having only really seen the vats inside.

Friday and our last free day in Boise. We caught up with another of Laura's school friends for breakfast and spent time checking out all the pumpkin spice food supplies that we needed to bring back. Then it was home to pack before heading out to welcome drinks for the wedding. We actually ducked out fairly quickly as the bar was rammed and it was boiling with no where to stand. We decided that as we had caught up with most people at the hen party that we should spend the evening checking out a local corn maze.

We met up with Tina and Jared (I didn't trust that just Laura and I would survive) and it was the right decision. They were great team mates and Tina single handedly got us out of the maze. Jared was making us try corn straight from the cob (don't try it) and Laura was taking pictures. I was just concerned about getting out before dark! We also indulged in a corn dog and got a free fireworks show. The night ended at a bar called Motel that used to be a motel but is now a bar with outside seating and toilets that play records - you have to check it out!

Saturday - wedding day! Well firstly dog walking day, we were up super early to get to a local park for See Spot Walk, a charity dog walking event for Idaho Humane Society. We will do a post on our full experience but in summary we got to walk a super cute puppy called Rudy, an enthusiastic collie mix who just loved everyone. It was so hard to give him back. We walked with another of Laura's friends (she has so many) Kelcie and her dog which made it even more fun.

After the walk it was home to get ready and then a 45 minute drive up to the mountains for the wedding of two of our wonderful friends. The wedding location was a private house with amazing views over Boise. It was a little windy but all in all a lovely wedding and a great chance to further catch with everyone before we left.

Sunday - travel day, 3 stops and a race through Toronto airport to find Tim Hortons before our final flight.

And that was it. We're back as if nothing happened. It all feels like even more of a dream as I had to be on an early train into London this morning.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Birmingham Buildings- the highlights!

Okay so it must have been at least a few posts since we went on about how much we love Birmingham, right?!

Well I thought it was about time that I highlighted one of Birmingham's beautiful venues. While the city itself is a wonderful mish-mash of old and new architecture there are a few buildings that really stand out as being something special.

The Library:
I don't know what went through the designers head when he started drawing circles all over this building but the end result is spectacular. It's a building that mesmerizes and entertains and whatever time of day you are looking at it you will always see something different. It's easy to forget that it houses 1000's of books but if you ever visit Birmingham it's worth 20 minutes out of your day to enter the cavernous space and ride the escalators to the top. From there you can enjoy the roof garden and views of the city stretching out to the surrounding countryside.

The Cube:
Sitting at one end of the Mailbox area the Cube is actually a hotel and spa complete with it's own fancy restaurant. The name describes exactly what the outside is but it doesn't give any nod to the amazing design. With crosses of every size covering every side it appears almost hollow at certain angles and proves the architecture does not have to be brick walls and glass. It stands over looking the canals and is a great example of old meeting new in a complimentary way.

The outside of Selfridges:
The spot design is synonymous with modern Birmingham. If you have been to the Bull Ring you have seen the silver discs covering a large area in an undulating form. In fact the discs can change colour but under the usually silver discs is Selfridges - the biggest branch outside London. The architecture style is called Blobitecture and who wouldn't love that?!

Images courtesy of Wikipedia and
Grand Central Station
The latest addition to Birmingham's grand designs is the ultra modern station. A place I visit at least once a week and every time I am impressed. I am impressed at the size, the light, the fact that there is an entire shopping centre under it's roof and it's impressive structure. While the outside looks like a zipper that is fighting to stay closed the inside is like a greenhouse built to allow you to gaze upwards without getting swept up in the crowd. In this station there really is enough room for everyone and it never seems to get dirty which is most unusual for a station.
Images courtesy of and

The Town Hall
This is for the traditionalist. And I love a traditional building. Opened in 1834 the outside looks like the Pathanon but the inside has been modernised in a way that makes it feel contemporary. As you walk in the light, airy entrance is a great place to meet and grab a drink before a performance and that is exactly what we did when we went to see Sue Perkins 'Spectacles' book tour.

Image courtesy of
It was Sunday evening and we could see a steady flow of people heading for the venue. Scurrying in behind them we arrived in plenty of time to check out the hallways and images of performances from yesteryear. The ground floor was a tribute museum to great performers and moments in time and you couldn't help but wish you were there.

By the time we needed to take our seats most of the crowd has dispersed and after 2 attempts we found our door. Our seats were high in the circle but our view was perfect. The steepness allowed a great view over people and the acoustics made Sue's performance as clear as if we'd been sat in front row. We were so impressed with the decor, behind the stage was the edge of a giant organ and on the ceiling gold painting offer a sense of opulence. You can take a look for yourself here.

It was not the venue we thought we would be seeing Sue perform in but somehow it worked. Even though the area was large Sue's performance made it feel intimate. Starting off with a slideshow of childhood pictures Sue provided us with a highlight tour of her life up to now. Finding the humour in every bad outfit or hair cut the audience couldn't fail to laugh. Add in the amusing stories of working on Bake Off and there was something for everyone.

I had been a Mel & Sue fan since Late Lunch in the late 1990's but Bake off had brought them into the limelight. In fact the news that they won't follow Bake Off to Channel 4 is somewhat devastating. Although no-one asked outright during the question session what Mel and Sue would be off to next. Sue held her own though as people asked her about her favourite cake and fondest memories of the show and shared a few inside facts about how the show comes together. We also got lucky as a previous Bake Off  winner- Frances Quinn was at the show and had made a cake that we were lucky enough to get a piece off when we went to get our books signed.

We left the Town Hall with a new appreciation of Sue and of the Town Hall - we will be checking out what else we can see there...I hear Daniel O'Donnell is on the line up or maybe the Jazz orchestra is more our thing :)

Anyways if you do make it to Birmingham let us know what you thing of the buildings, what's your favourite?

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The Smith Catch Up V5

Well, well, well, has it really been 13 whole days since I last opened up Blogger?! That is crazy!

Hope you are well.....

Unfortunately, and if you follow us on other social media you'll know I haven't been well. In fact since I got back from Glasgow I've been sick enough that I have needed a day off work, an entire weekend of bed rest and antibiotics. I am just about back to full health but it has knocked me for six and has not been a good 10 days - mainly for anyone who had to listen to my whinging and moaning.

Throughout the 13 days there have been some up's though. I found out that along with one of my customers we were shortlisted for 'Best Enterprise Platform Implementation' award at the Learning Technologies Awards. I will miss the presentation we have to do (sad times) as i'll be attending a wedding in Idaho (good times) but i'm super happy to have got this close with the team and hope they can bring it home. We find out in November!

In another up my netball team made it through to our second consecutive final. I can't believe it was a year ago I wrote this post - to think how scared I was! We lost the final although, as I played with a chest infection and we only found out we had the final half way through playing the semi -final it wasn't a bad effort. The whole team staggered off the court at the end.

And you may have noticed that we spent Friday night to Sunday afternoon in Barcelona. It really is such a benefit to living in the UK, we can finish work, get to the airport and be in a new country in less than 2 hours. Unfortunately our journey wasn't quite that simple. We made it to the airport in plenty of time and managed to find a space for dinner in the Frankie and Benny's. Luton airport was AWFUL. It is currently a building site and with scaffolding reducing the available room for passengers it meant people were sat on the floor, resting against walls and generally seeking any personal space they could find. It looked more like a disaster zone than an airport.

It probably didn't help that most flights were experiencing delays. Our flight was delayed for over an hour - thankfully we had spotted this before starting to board as anyone who went through had to spend an hour stood on stairs. We at least had seats. Once boarded we got a sense that we weren't going anywhere quick and after getting everyone seated they confirmed it. We were to sit on the runway for another hour as we had missed our landing spot in Barcelona. Veuling is not an airline we'd recommend. Uncomfortable seats, no head rest and a 'slot' instead of a basket. This simple thing ended up being so annoying as we had no-where to put our drinks so sat heating them up in our laps while we waited.

My illness meant I was ultra tired by this point so I thankfully managed to fall asleep and not wake up until I was thrown out of my seat landing in Barcelona. Turns out that Veuling don't check for seat belts!

We were so glad to get off the plane and into the airport so that we could figure out our new plan. The delay meant we didn't have much public transport choices as it was 1.30am. Thankfully the decision to get a taxi was the right one, our driver sped through the city and it cost €15 less than expected.

On arrival at the apartment we were staying we were greeted by a bunch of friendly faces - we had finally made it to the Sten (Stag/Hen) weekend. After dumping our bags we headed to the lounge just in time to see everyone run inside covered in water. Turned out that some neighbours in an upstairs apartment had taken offense at the noise being made and decided to throw water over the group - no warning, just water!

The 2.30am soaking prompted an end to the evening and we all agreed that heading to bed would be best to get the most out of the Saturday. By 10.30am we were all up and the 7 of us made our way to the city centre to collect bikes and our tour guide. For the next 2 hours we cycled the city, the harbour and everywhere in between. We saw amazing architecture, beautiful parks, lots of cute dogs and walked on the beach. The pace was just right allowing everyone to stop and take pics but never stopping long enough for anyone to get bored.

After the cycling we felt lunch was very necessary and took our tour guides advice to head to Born and go to a tapas bar on the street. The food was delicious and we got to watch a marionette performance of an old man on roller skates. A thoroughly lovely way to spend a Saturday. After all the excitement a siesta was required.

Waking up at 5pm we had just enough time to shower and get ready for our afternoon activity - Sagrada Familia or Gaudi's unfinished cathedral (now basilica after a a visit from Pope XVI in 2010). On my previous visits to Barcelona I had driven past, walked past and even enjoyed lunch in a park opposite but I had never been in. This time changed that. We had been told that sunset is a particularly stunning time to visit as the sun lights up the church through certain windows. The recommendation was spot on. Walking it the spectacular interior was glowing with the reds, oranges and pinks that featured in the windows. It was breathtaking.

I am not usually a church fan but this place is something else. From the stories carved into the outer facades to the detail given to the branches that extend upwards to create a canopy that holds the roof up. I was truly touched listening to the commentary about how Gaudi believed nothing man-made should be higher than God's work, so at it's highest point it will still be 1 metre short of MontJuic on the outskirts of the city.

Laura and I spent almost 2 hours walking around, impressed and amazed. The visit is a must and we already have plans to be back in 2026 when the cathedral is meant to be completed.

Saturday night was official Sten Do night and after a quick turnaround and addition of one more person the 8 of us hit the city for dinner. This time we went to area known for having tapas restaurants selling a pick-and-mix of tapas. You walk in, order a drink and then select the tapas you want from the counter. Each piece of tapas has a cocktail stick through it and at the end you count up your sticks and pay the amount. Each piece is usually €1 so it's easy to figure out.

We went to three different tapas bars before deciding to head to the confectionery cocktail bar. The bar itself was in an old sweet shop and the cocktails were a weird and wonderful mix. As I was on meds I watched as everyone else ordered bizarre drinks - the hen and stag shared a bath or a cocktail in a bath, another person had a cocktail in a pepper and another in a teacup - they all looked delicious!

After cocktails we split into Hens and Stags. At the start of the night the hen and stag were given task lists with points awarded for each task achieved - lets just say it involved obtaining a few things and finding a few willing victims, The night was hilarious and somehow led us to an Irish bar where there was a very helpful group of men and one was a dentist. The dentist advised me on what I should and shouldn't be eating on my meds and by the end of the conversation we realised he used to live 20 minutes from where we do now. He also knew people living in a flat previously rented by the hen! Small world.

We survived until 3.30am by which time the metro back was much needed, over the course of the night others arrived back at 4.30, 6,45 and 9am. It made the 12pm clear out time hard to meet. Thankfully Laura took control and got everyone organised and out by 12.30pm.

As brunch was much needed we went to a restaurant the group had discovered on Friday night only two streets from the apartment. We tucked into more tapas and paella and made our plans for the rest of the day. Our flight was at 7pm so we decided we had enough time to check out La Pedrera or Casa Mila, an apartment block designed by Gaudi as his last piece of work.

While the rest headed for the beach we headed for the Metro and it to La Pedrera for 2pm. The queue was short and after paying the €20.50 per person entry we were in. The first stop is the apartment base allowing you to gaze upwards and see the colours and designs that cover the walls. There are no straight lines, everything is curved or wavy. It is like nothing we'd seen before.

The visit is about the roof though, you are whisked up via a lift and as you walk out you are greeted by an expansion of cream walkways. Like walking on sand the walkways rise and fall smoothly. From every angle is a new view of the city. The designs look other worldly and almost like knights (it is also known as the garden of warriors). The arches frame either the Sagrada Familia or the castle on the mountain. The audio guide (included in the price) talks you through Guadi's thought process. He thought that metal objects which served purpose were shoved on roofs without thought, making roofs look like men with only one hair on their head - he wanted his roof to be a thing of beauty and purpose.

After completing the roof you then follow steps down to the loft where you see the full scale of the construction. Under the roof are 1000's of arches, differing in size and height. In Gaudi's words a fine gentleman should have both a hat and umbrella, the loft is the buildings hat and the roof it's umbrella. Now the loft is a gallery showing construction designs and other Gaudi memorabilia, it is fascinating.

The last stage of the tour is the apartment decorated as it would have been in Gaudi's time. The guy was a genius, he designed the apartments so that walls could be moved to meet the needs of the apartment owners without impacting the structure. He also built in servants quarters and used the natural light to enhance the feeling of space. The apartment is impressive even by today's standards.

And then that was it. Our trip was done. We grabbed an ice lolly as we sat and enjoyed the last 20 minutes in the sun before heading to the Metro and the airport.

We were impressed with Barcelona, it had free wifi everywhere and was easy to get around. We bought a 10 journey travel card at the start for €10 and it served us well. While walking is possible we had to cram a lot in and the Metro was a time saver. The food was also fairly priced - not cheap - but not ridiculous and our meals didn't go above €20 each. So all in all a great trip.

Of course our flight back was delayed (seriously avoid Veuling) but not as badly as before so we could still get the car and get home by 11pm.

Our whole trip had also been made a lot better by Bisbee letting us know she was doing great. We had a lovely friend stay over and look after Bisbee - turned out she also helped Bis message. Knowing she was doing just fine helped us relax and focus on the trip.

So I am almost back from London - on another scorching day! Seriously one of these 'hot' days I won't be in the hot and sweaty city and I will be in the garden.

How has your week been so far?

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Smith Catch Up V4

I don't even know where to start this blog post, there is so much that has happened in the last 48 hours let alone the week. I can tell you one thing though I am ready for a weekend of sleep and recuperation.

While last week was pretty quiet, we were having the house painted top to bottom on the inside so I spent my time working from home in a state of constant movement, partly to get out of the way and partly to make sure I wasn't in a paint smelling room for too long. The end result of the painting is AMAZING. Our house feels all clean and fresh and new and looks better than it did when we moved in 3 years ago.

The weekend was really where we started to step up the activities though. On Saturday morning we drove the two and a half hours north to go to Manchester Pride. We arrived just in time to park the car and make a brisk walk of it to get to the parade route. Unlike last year - when we arrived early and found the perfect viewing point- this year we had to find a space and make it work.

The city was packed. We managed to squeeze our way in and stand beside two guys who were very much not into the parade spirit. Thankfully everyone else around them was so we could still get into the spirit. At the end of what was a great parade we followed the floats through the city centre. It was a great way to discover different parts of the city and meet some lovely people.

British summer weather decided that after a beautiful morning the afternoon needed a bit of rain so we had to make a dive for cover, it was at this point we decided to catch up on social media and found one of our good friends (from Girl eats Sheffield) had given us a lunch suggestion - Almost Famous Burgers.

We made a reservation and after dropping the dog at the car we were seated. The menu made it difficult to pick just one thing but we were on a mission to get the Big Gay Burger and that is exactly what we did...oh plus waffle fries covered in maple syrup (so so so good) and a strawberry pop tart milkshake (tasted a lot like drinking strawberry sauce). The burger itself was really juicy and more than enough to share. It was a great recommendation and delicious experience. Shame the Big Gay burger is a Pride weekend special.

Well fed and re-energized we headed back to the car and made the 90 minute drive towards Sheffield. The route took us through the stunning peak district and while the roads were hairy at times the scenery was spectacular. The rain followed us most of the way but by the time Sheffield was in sight the sun was reappearing.

Arriving at our destination we were greeted by our fav ladies and their handsome pup Otis. Saturday night was sorted - whats more they were preparing a Turkish/Greek feast of lamb, chicken, home-made hummus and tzaski. Delicious.

Rolling into bed that night we were fast asleep before we could check out the days photos, our usual routine!

The great nights sleep was exactly what was needed ahead of a jam-packed Sunday. Our plan was to find all 58 elephants in the herd of Sheffield. Sheffield Children's hospital had asked local artists and companies to design elephants and they were placed in open spaces and parks across the city.

Just a few of the 58 elephants we spotted.
It actually took us two days in total as we and the dogs were exhausted after the 6.5 miles walked on the first day we called time at 6pm. Plus we had dinner reservations at SMOKE which were much needed. SMOKE is an industrial US-style BBQ restaurant that serves a LOT of delicious meat! Oh an cocktail reservation at a cute cocktail lounge that we also had to make on Sunday evening.

In completing the trail I learnt the following about Sheffield:

  1. It's has a stunning mix of architecture, combing the old with the new and surrounded by countryside
  2. It's hilly - 6.5 miles on flat ground is a fair distance but add in a few hills and it feels further
  3. There are so many parks and they are all beautifully maintained
  4. You won't go hungry - there are tons of restaurants to try 
  5. The city centre has a beach area during summer
  6. People are proper Northern,  the array of accents is wonderful and there was even an elephant covered in local dialect
Bisbee took time out to learnt the lingo!

And to top it all off with the app you could check each elephant off using the QR code and unlock rewards including discount codes and treats from vendors across the city. We hadn't realised that at the start but it worked out really well for us as there was a discount code for SMOKE and Our Cow Molly - both stops we planned to make anyway.

After finishing the final 10 elephants we had to pack up and head home for work - sad times.

Even sadder was Laura having to have a tooth out on Tuesday afternoon. The plan had been to have the procedure done on Friday but we ended up having to wait until Tuesday which was probably just as well. The tooth did not want to leave of it's own free will and ended up splitting. That led to a trip to the dental hospital on Wednesday. We spent 6 hours there, first getting a further check up, then x-rays and finally the surgery. It involved forceps, huge needles and stitches and WAY too much information about what was going on. I'm queasy at the best of times but having bit hit by a flying tooth and watching the amount of blood leaving my poor wife's mouth makes me never want to see anyone I love go through anything like that ever again.

An evening of TLC had Laura feeling better and even though I felt bad leaving to play netball the exercise was a good way to put the day out of my mind. We won too.

Today I have been in Glasgow and Laura has been back at work with painkillers although I think both of us would have rather spent the day snuggled up in bed. Ah well 1 more day and it's the weekend.

Let the weekend countdown begin.....

Have you got any plans?