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Dec 8 14

The Bay of Kotor, a Montenegro hidden gem

by maxineclayman

Montenegro is often referred to as the gem of the Adriatic. A combination of lakes and mountains makes Montengro’s dramatic coastline some of the finest in Europe. For me, the most spectacular part of this is the Bay of Kotor, a Montenegro hidden gem, and on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Following on from my post about Muo, the best place to stay in Kotor Bay, I wanted to share some of Montenegro’s hidden gems outside of Kotor Old Town.

Kotor Bay Montenegro morning

Good morning Kotor Bay

The easiest way to get around Montenegro’s coastline is to hire a car. If, like us you can’t drive, it’s not a problem though. There are frequent bus services that operate up and down the coast, or you’ll find taxis everywhere ready to cash in on the tourist trade.

Perast - my favourite of Montenegro's hidden gems

Perast – my favourite of Montenegro’s hidden gems

My absolute favourite spot in Kotor Bay has to be Perast. A Montenegro hidden gem, Perast is about a 25-minute bus ride from Kotor and as you can see from my pictures it’s pretty spectacular. There are lots of Venetian architecture, Perast was a stop-off point for Venice’s princes, and Baroque churches to be found in this peaceful village. Another reason Perast is one a Montenegro hidden gem.

Perast view of Lady of our Rock

Looking out onto the Lady of our Rock, Perast

Perast’s main tourist attraction is Our Lady of the Rock (Gospa od Skrpjela), and the nearby island of St George. If you want to check out the Lady of the Rock church (built in 1630) you can just hop onboard a taxi boat. The return trip is €5 and the boat deposits you on the tiny island for around half a hour (which gives you plenty of time to also check out the museum (you have to pay to enter) and small gift shop.

Perast Montenegro landscape

Stop for a spot of lunch and take in the scenery

We stopped for lunch at the Hotel Conte, an idyllic spot on the waterfront overlooking Our Lady of the Rock (or you can choose to eat inside if you prefer). It’s not cheap, and the service was a bit abrupt (possibly because a large group of more mature wealthier looking people had arrived who the waiters decided to focus his attention on). But aside from the food at Montenegro’s best restaurant it was the nicest place was ate during our stay in Montenegro, due to both the quality of the food and the romantic setting.

Perast Our Lady of the Rock Montenegro

Hop in a water taxi to Our Lady of the Rock one of Montenegro’s hidden gems

On another day we headed, again by bus, further north along the bay to the coastal town of Herceg Novi. The idea was for us to go on a boat trip to check out the Blue Grotto on the Lustica Peninsula. We wandered through the cobbled streets of the Stari Grad (Old Town) to get down to the harbour, only to discover that the organised group boat trips had finished running.

Kotor Bay Montenegro sunrise

Sunrise over the Bay of Kotor, another of Montenegro’s hidden gems

This meant our only option was a private charter. As we’d come this far (about an hour and a half) we decided to see how much it would cost us. After resigning ourselves to the fact it was going to be too expensive, one guy wanted to charge us €100, we found someone who would let us share with another two people and split the cost, making it about €30 as he was cheaper. So I’d definitely recommend haggling on price.

Herzeg Novi Montenegro boat trip

See Herzeg Novi by boat

On route to the Blue Grotto our guide took us to some other smaller islands along the way. We encountered a film crew on the island of Mamula, which acted as a prison in both world wars, who were making a Serbian horror movie. The Blue Grotto itself was much larger than the other Blue Grotto I’ve been to in Capri. We were a little disappointed though to see it was equally as touristy. Fortunately, our guide took us back a bit later when there were less people so we could experience the bright, tranquil water all to ourselves.

Herceg Novi Montenegro Blue Grotto

Sharps takes a dip in the Blue Grotto, Herceg Novi

After exploring Montenegro’s coastline and witnessing its beauty it’s easy to see why the Bay of Kotor is a Montenegro hidden gem. We did also pay a visit to the other side of the country as we went to Lake Skadar to go kayaking, courtesy of Undiscovered Montenegro. Our journey took us past Bar and Budva, both meccas for package holidaymakers. The little I saw  driving through was more than enough. Yes, they may have sandy beaches, but if you’re after something more than just sunbathing and want a flavour of Montenegro’s hidden gems, stay in the Bay of Kotor.


Nov 30 14

Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht

by maxineclayman

The best pub in Maastricht, Sjinkerij de Bobbel

The city of Maastricht, in the south of the Netherlands, is famous for  it’s university. As you might expect with it being a student town, Maastricht is home to over 300 bars (Maastricht has the highest density of bars in the Netherlands), and Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht is one of the best pubs in Maastricht.

Outside Sjinkerij de Bobbel cafe Maastricht

Outside Sjinkerij de Bobbel cafe Maastricht

I was invited by the Maastricht tourist board to stop into Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht. Located on Wolfstraat in the main shopping area and close to the lovely Our Lady’s Square (Onze Lieve Vrouwplein), Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht is kind of a cross between a bar and a pub where you can get food (eetcafe). De Bobbel, which means fat-bellied bottle of gin) is famous for serving bobbelke, a type of brandy-based clear liquor to which secret ingredients are added to make different flavours.

Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht's famous bobbelke

Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht’s famous bobbelke

There are four varieties to choose from – herbal (a bit like Jaegermeister), bitter sweet (think Campari), fresh sweet and very sweet (peach and almond). These range from 25-32% alcohol so it’s potent stuff. I was surprised to find I preferred the fresh sweet flavour which has notes of vanilla, caramel and cinnamon. Although the bitter bobbelke actually tasted better, and was far more drinkable, mixed with bitter lemon. The affable owner also recommended pairing the sweeter ones with dark chocolate, which left a kind of marzipan after taste.

Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht

Behind the bar at Maastricht’s Sjinkerij de Bobbel

It’s not just the drinks that attract people to this traditional Maastricht pub. Winner of the best cafe in the Netherlands 2012, Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht serves typical Maastricht dishes such as beef stew in a sweet sauce. The menu at Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht changes twice a year and the owner told us where possible he likes to use local suppliers. Sadly we didn’t have time to eat here but Sharps did get to sample some Geulhemmer Kloostergrottenham, an award-winning regional speciality. Pigs that come from the heart of Limburg are used to make the ham. But what’s unusual about it is that the ham is salted dry for a month and a half, then cured in a cave for 9 months. Sharps said it had a rich, smokey flavour.

Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht cafe food

Award-winning Guelhemmer Kloostergottenam

When we visited Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht there were no students in sight. Possibly because with its laid-back atmosphere Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht attracts a slightly older crowd (think over 40), so you don’t have to fight your way to the bar to get served. Plus, there’s no music at Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht which again means you can sit and chat without having to shout to be heard. I particularly liked the cosy feel of the old world decor – dark wooden tables and chairs, rows of tankards running along the back wall, and green gdn bottles that were actually clocks.

Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht cafe interior

Calling time on these cool bottle clocks

I was surprised then to learn that Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht has in fact only been around for about 30 years. Fortunately you don’t have to be a genius, or go to university, to realise if you’re after a taste of Maastricht, Sjinkerij de Bobbel Maastricht is the place to go.

Nov 16 14

The Montage Forest Hill, SE23′s newest cafe and art gallery

by maxineclayman

My favourite new SE London hidden gem, The Montage Forest Hill

London’s rocketing property prices have been pushing people to explore previously overlooked parts of SE London and Forest Hill (SE23) is one such ‘up and coming’ area. In the last couple of years I’ve noticed trendy coffee shops and cafes popping up as amongst its established favourites (like St David’s Coffee Shop). My personal favourite of the latest crop is The Montage Forest Hill, SE23′s newest cafe and art gallery.

The Montage Forest Hill cafe

The Montage Forest Hill, SE London’s newest cafe and art gallery

What I love about the Montage Forest Hill, apart from the coffee, is its relaxed vibe. It’s also deceptively big. On first impressions when you walk into the Montage Forest Hill it looks as if the cafe is on the small side. A mix of retro wooden and laminate tables placed in front of the serving area which has an array of homemade cakes on display. But it actually stretches out into the back, where you’ll find various rooms, covered in wallpaper made from maps and old cookery book recipe pages. Further out back there’s a lovely little garden, perfect for chilling out in the summer months.

Montage Forest Hill

Step inside the Montage Forest Hill

Head down the stairs and you’ll discover even more little rooms in this cool cafe in Forest Hill. Here you can easily wile away an hour or two without even noticing on one of the comfy Chesterfield armchairs. The Montage Forest Hill also has its very own kids’ playroom, full of toys to keep children entertained, making it a popular stop with young local families.

The Montage's cool wallpaper

Check out the wallpaper and you might even find a recipe for your tea at The Montage

Another other great thing about the Montage Forest Hill is that pretty much all of the furniture and bric-a-brac you see (or might be sitting on/ eating at) is for sale. We’ve been looking for a kitchen table for ages and ended up buying a retro wooden table from the Montage Forest Hill which was reasonably priced (and I managed to haggle them down). And handily as we live in Forest Hill the friendly owners also delivered it free of charge so we didn’t have the hassle of trying to lug it home.

Montage Forest Hill retro furniture

Just some of the retro furniture and bric-a-brac on sale

The only part of the Montage Forest Hill I wasn’t too impressed with was the art gallery upstairs. This could have been down to the work of the particular artist exhibiting in the stark white studio space when I was there. So don’t let that put you off as local artists tend to change on a monthly basis. The Montage Forest Hill may be a mishmash of warren-like rooms but as a whole this cafe is a great new addition to the South East London coffee shop scene.

Nov 2 14

Norfolk coast hidden gems

by maxineclayman

Seal watching in Morston is just one of the Norfolk coast hidden gems

In much need of a break, I decided an exploration of some of the UK’s coastline was long overdue, and after some debate (and checking where had the cheapest train fares) I opted for a jaunt to Norfolk to check out some  Norfolk coast hidden gems. Because I didn’t have a car I based myself in the seaside town of Cromer. In all honesty it doesn’t have that much going for it, other than being famous for Cromer crab, as everything seemed to shut down around 4pm.

Blackeney Point seals Morston Norfolk

The best of the Norfolk coast hidden gems, seal spotting at Blakeney Point Norfolk

I was also pretty disappointed by our accommodation Ogilvy House, a B&B which had rave reviews on TripAdvisor. I fully expected it be a Norfolk coast hidden gem in itself. Normally I wouldn’t even bother to mention it, because the point of my blog is to recommend things I love and that stand out. But because it stood out for all the wrong reasons, mainly its rude, passive aggressive owner who even went as far as to make personal comments about my appearance, I wanted to flag it up as somewhere to avoid.

Hunstanton beach on the Norfolk coast

Hunstanton beach on the Norfolk coast

Luckily all  wasn’t lost though as there are plenty of other Norfolk coast hidden gems that can be explored from Cromer. The easiest way to do this by far is to drive. Failing that, the handy Coast Hopper bus operates along the Norfolk coast, letting you get on and off wherever you want along the way. The only snag is that the buses do get quite full, and they also finish late afternoon, so depending on where you’re based you may have to cut your day-trip short to be able to get back. I’d recommend a stop in Morston as from here you can take a trip to see a seal colony at Blakeney Point. This was the highlight of my stay and the Norfolk coast hidden gems.

Seals at Blakeney Point Norfolk

Getting up close to seals on the Norfolk coast

The day I set out from Morston it was pretty miserable and foggy so I was a bit worried I wouldn’t get to spot any seals. Just the opposite was true. It was pretty amazing as I  couldn’t believe how many seals, both grey and common, we got to see up close. I opted to book a trip with Temples Seal Trips which costs £10 for adults, £5 for children, and was worth every penny. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and the one-hour boat trip also included the option of going onshore for an additional hour at Blakeney Point. Back in Morston you can also check out the foodie Norfolk coast hidden gems. Firstly there’s Morston Hall, a luxury hotel and Michelin starred restaurant. Or if you prefer something a bit more casual the Anchor Inn Morston serves up hearty gastropub grub.

Norfolk cpast hidden gems Wells-next-the-Sea

The beach at Wells-next-the-Sea

Despite the weather being a bit rubbish we also took the opportunity to check out some of the Norfolk coasts best beaches. Wells-Next-The-Sea, Holkham, my favourite spot amongst the Norfolk coast hidden gems, and Hunstanton are all along the Coast Hopper bus route. Holkham beach has been used as the backdrop in lots of films, including Shakespeare in Love, and one of the Norfolk coast hidden gems. Not only can you sunbathe, or walk across the seemingly endless stretch of sand, but Holkham is also home to 18th century house Holkham Hall which has a deer park in its grounds. It might have been foggy and rainy on my visit to the Norfolk coast hidden gems but they still gets my seal of approval.

Oct 19 14

Blauw, the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam

by maxineclayman

Is this the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam?

Forget curry or Chinese, it’s Indonesian food that’s a staple cuisine in Amsterdam. But with so many Indonesian restaurants, of varying quality, to be found in the Dutch capital it can be tricky to know where to go. I’d been told by those in the know that the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam is Blauw, located in the posh suburb of Amsterdam West close to Vondel Park. So it goes without saying I had to find out for myself if Blauw lived up to its reputation as the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam and was indeed one of Amsterdam’s hidden foodie gems.

Blauw Indonesian restaurant Amsterdam

Just one of the meat dishes at Amsterdam’s best Indonesian restaurant

I have to admit that things didn’t get off to the best start on the night I went. First up there was a mix-up with our booking, the restaurant called at 6.45pm to see if we were still coming, our table was for 8pm. Then I was given the worst table ever, right next to the bar and on route to the toilet, which mean there was a constant stream of people walking past. But we were given a more pleasant spot upstairs after I asked if we could be moved.

Blauw restaurant Amsterdam

Blauw restaurant Amsterdam

Blauw, the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam, is legendary for its rijsttafel (rice table). I went for the vegetable version and tried not to get distracted by other dishes on the menu, which sounded equally as delicious. I also opted out of a starter. I tried to warn my friends that the rice table was supposed to be massive, but I don’t think they quite believed me, and ignored my advice. One of them ordered deep fried crispy shrimp. Two huge pieces of shrimp, covered in a surprisingly light and fluffy batter that didn’t stick to the shellfish, served with a mix of sweet, savoury and spicy sauces. My other friend opted for Soto Ayam, a flavoursome, spicy chicken broth, the taste of the lemongrass and kaffir leaves really coming through, with decent-sized pieces of chicken in it.

Blauw Amsterdam restaurant

But I knew the best was yet to come. And I wasn’t disappointed. Our waitress said the rice table (all 18 dishes of it) was for one person. Seeing the gigantic amount of food before us I have to say it was a bit of a stretch, even for me. My friends had also ordered a meat, fish and vegetable rice table and a main dish of beef to share between them. I was so excited by the vast array of food in front of us I didn’t even know where to start. f it tasted as good as it looked I can see why Blauw is the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam.

Blauw Indonesian restaurant Amsterdam rijsttafel

Our table groaned under the weight of the rijsttafel

My vegetarian feast included a variety of veg in sambal sauces, mixed veg in coconut sauce, spicy tofu and tempeh dishes, caramelised potato, sweet and sour cucumber, fried banana and steamed and fried rice. Each dish was delicately flavoured and deliciously spicy, without being too hot, greasy or overpowering. For the meat eaters there were a selection of dishes from the vegetarian ricetaffel as well as goat in soy sauce, stewed beef in tumeric and in a spicy sauce with cinnamon, chicken satay, fried cod in a curry and a spicy sauce and pork in soy sauce with star anise. It wasn’t just our table that was groaning at the amount of food on it at Amsterdam’s best Indonesian restaurant. We were stuffed. Blauw may well be the best Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam but it also has a branch in Utrecht so I’ve no doubt it’s probably the best Indonesian restaurant in Utrecht too.