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thailand
Travel, Wedding

Adventures (and Proposals) In Thailand

Following our trip to China for my brother’s wedding, we took a detour via Thailand on the way home. It seemed such a shame to go so far and only visit one country, and since we’d used our holiday fund to pay for the trip, it made sense to add a holiday on the end.

So, with many thanks to an amazing travel agent who managed to get us everything we wanted at a price even her colleagues couldn’t believe, our next stop was Phuket.

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My first impression of Thailand? It’s hot. I’ve been to my fair share of hot destinations but the humidity levels in Phuket completely blew me away. I couldn’t even lie in the shade without sweating. A pale-skinned girl like me is not made to function in places like that. I felt virtually incapacitated by the heat, and spent most of my time in pool or sea. This was no bad thing, not when you had a pool that looked like this.

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But I would have liked to explore a little more. We could literally manage a few hundred metres in the heat without needed to retreat somewhere with air conditioning. Our hotel was at the top of a hill, and I’d read that it was a short walk down some (very steep) steps to the resort and beach. Let’s just say I only took this short cut once. Going down, fine. Coming up in 42 degree heat when you’re as out of shape as me? Not a good plan. Bikram Yoga ain’t got nothin’ on this! Luckily there was a shuttle bus and plenty of tuk-tuks to get us up and down when needed.

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One thing that did slightly disappoint me was that the food we had wasn’t quite as amazing as I was expecting. While I know the days of 100 baht getting you the best green curry of your life are long gone in a built-up resort like Kata Beach where we were based, I was expecting to find the food tastier and more authentic than the stuff I’ve managed to whip up at home. We had a couple of very good meals and a couple of very mediocre ones. Everything else was just fine. That said, you forgive a lot when a three course meal for two comes in under £25, including a cocktail in a hollowed-out pineapple.

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Now onto the good stuff, because I don’t for a second want to make it sound like Thailand isn’t an amazing place. We were very lucky to visit when we did – days before the military coup that’s resulted in a 10pm curfew and soldiers on the streets – and I’m thankful for that.

Firstly, there was the snorkelling. I used to have snorkelling lessons as a child and many of my memories of childhood holidays centre around snorkelling trips, so I do have a tendency to judge a holiday destination based on its snorkelling potential. The snorkelling in Thailand was the best I’ve ever experienced. In terms of sheer numbers of fish swarming around you at all times, it even topped the Great Barrier Reef. The variety of sea life wasn’t quite the same (no turtles or rays on our trip) but that didn’t mean a thing. I’m used to surface diving to see all the best stuff. Here you just stayed as still as possible and stared as hundreds of fish swarmed around you. It was incredible.

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Then there was the scenery. You won’t see anything like this in the Mediterranean! Thailand is so green, from the tree-covered hills to the water itself. Obviously one of the best moment was stepping foot on Maya Beach, the idyllic cove where they filmed The Beach. Though it was pretty rammed with people this didn’t take away from how incredible a place it is. And as terrible as the casting of the film was (seriously, read the book!) walking in the footsteps of Leo DiCaprio definitely pleased me.

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For me though, one place in Thailand has a special place in my heart, and that was the lagoon we swam in near Phi Phi Ley.

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That amazing looking place is where my boyfriend became my fiancé, the perfect way to end an amazing trip!

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Travel, Wedding

My East-Meets-West Adventure in China

My older brother moved to China in 2013. Wanderlust is one of the rare things we have in common, though my trips tend to involve meticulous travel arrangements (including my legendary laminated currency converters), good shopping, incredible beaches and the passing chance that someone might speak a bit of English, while he is the kind of confident sort who will throw himself into the most challenging travel situations without the slightest thought. The thing is – and I hope he won’t mind me saying this – he’s also a bit of a jammy git. He has natural charm that usually helps him through these situations, and China was no exception. He ended up falling in love with more than just the country, and a few weeks ago 14 family and friends flew to the far east to join 240-odd Chinese people to watch my brother tie the knot!

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We (the boyfriend and I) started our trip in Hong Kong. Travelling to Lanzhou, where the wedding was taking place, would require domestic flight connections as there’s no international airport, so I decided to ease us in gently by stopping off at East-meets-West melting pot on the way. We only had three days in Hong Kong and the first was spent getting over the inevitable jetlag, so I don’t think we really saw what the city had to offer, but what I did decide quite early on is that the best bits of Hong Kong were definitely the more traditional Chinese areas. We stayed in Kowloon, on the mainland, and our one trip to Hong Kong island left us feeling like we could be anywhere (Canary Wharf, mostly). I had much more fun in Mongkok’s built-up shopping areas and markets (though I managed to resist the thousands of Mulberry and Celine fakes). There wasn’t enough time to really explore the city, though we did manage a trip on the Star Ferry, lunch at the lobby bar at the Intercontinental Hotel (stupidly expensive artisan burger shown below!) and a trip to a branch of Etude House to buy ridiculous lipstick.

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My parents met us in Hong Kong, and we made the journey to Lanzhou together. After the luxury of Emirates A380 planes on the trip out, I was slightly concerned about the cheap, short internal flights (we had to connect in Xi’an). But China Eastern did us proud. Then, on arrival in Lanzhou, the fun really began! We visited during a public holiday, so the whole city seemed to be celebrating.

lanzhou

We were staying in a mystery hotel that had no online presence, so I didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived. It turned out to be gorgeous, and right in the thick of things, across from one of Lanzhou’s main squares (complete with huge Gucci store). The hotel was also the wedding venue, and to be honest, we barely left the place for our three night stay – when we did, it was to buy the cheapest and most amazing pork buns (baozi) I’ve ever had, or ogle the shelves of the huge underground supermarket and buy exotic junk food. I heard on my trip that only 1% of tourists to China venture to Lanzhou. If that’s true, it’s a shame, because they’re missing this…

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…which is beef lamian, a Lanzhou speciality. It’s safe to say this was one of the culinary highlights of our trip. The name lamian refers to the hand-pulled noodles, which we saw being made by one of the incredibly talented chefs. They’re served in a rich, spicy, chilli-laced broth, to which you add pickles, vinegar and chunks of cooked beef to give extra flavour (in most cases the beef is cooked in the broth, then removed for serving). Here’s a great post from a Lanzhou resident explaining the phenomena of the recipe. I am desperate to try and recreate it at home but I know it won’t be a patch on what I had in Lanzhou.

Being part of a Chinese wedding was an experience I will never forget. Family is such a huge part of Chinese life, and we were welcomed like old friends. My parents visited in January and met everyone so they had a head-start, but I’d only met my future sister-in-law on skype so it was all new to me. This didn’t matter one bit, within minutes I could see why my brother had fallen in love with her, and I’m so happy to have her as part of my family now too.

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The traditions of the wedding were quite amazing to behold. The grooms family stay home to receive the bride and groom before the ceremony, so I missed out on much of the early fun, when my brother and his gang of groomsmen got ready together then went to coax the bride from her home, hunt down her shoes, and serve tea to her family. Luckily, there’s a video that shows all of this, which I absolutely have to share (sorry for pre-roll ad, I can’t control this)!

Then, tea was served to my parents too, before the official ceremony began. Usually this would happen in the apartment that the couple will be living in once married, but as they will live in Beijing, not Lanzhou, we had to make do with the bridal suite!

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The ceremony itself was conducted mostly in Mandarin (with only 14 English speakers and over 200 Chinese, it was only fair) but I confess to shedding a tear when the bride and groom said their vows in English. Then, the best man and my dad did their speeches with translation by two friends. Dad’s baby photos went down well with the audience, despite the language barrier!

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Being at the wedding – and indeed just being in Lanzhou where Western visitors are a rarity – gave me a small insight into what it must feel like to be famous. The rule seemed to be that the taller or blonder you were, the more people stared. I had my photo taken with lots of strangers, and everyone wanted to talk to us or toast us! It made the wedding banquet an interesting couple of hours. No sooner had you put something in your mouth than someone else was there to coax you to empty your glass with shouts of “gan bei!” I learned very quickly to only keep a tiny splash of wine in my glass at any one time!

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Dinner offered up a chance for the first wardrobe change of the day. Because you can’t have a Chinese wedding without some beautiful embroidered silks…

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…or, evidently, a custom made pink party dress and that other far eastern favourite, karaoke!

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For most of the Chinese guests, the wedding was over by 5pm (time to sleep off all the Baiju) but the rest of us had only just begun. We managed four solid hours of karaoke (Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ was a strange if successful choice for me) before going back to the suite for a few more hours of revelry. I gave up around midnight, but from what I heard (and overheard singing down the hotel corridors in the early hours) the final guests had to be kicked out at about 4am. Well, if you travel almost 5,000 miles for a wedding, you expect a good party, and I think my family definitely delivered!

islandresort
Competitions, Travel

The Sweet Scent of the Maldives

Usually I give blog competitions a miss, but sometimes the lure of an incredible prize and a fun challenge is too hard to ignore, and that is definitely the case with Kuoni’s incredible Scents of Adventure competition.

They’re asking people to get their thinking cap on and come up with the signature scent of a country to add the finishing touch to a poster that will hand in the Bluewater store. The rest of the countries are already completed (coffee for Brazil, apple pie for the USA and so on) which leaves one last island nation to get its representation; the Maldives. The prize, of course, is a trip there to experience the sights, sounds and smells for yourself. How could I resist?

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Now, I’ll be honest. I did my research, I tried to find a unique, interesting choice that wasn’t completely obvious. But the truth is there’s only one thing that could possibly represent the Maldives as its signature scent, and that’s the coconut.

The coconut palm is the national tree of the country, and the most commonly grown tree on the Islands. The national emblem features a coconut. They use it in abundance in their food, they serve up drinks in carved-out coconuts, and the palm leaves are woven into baskets, mats and decorations (often used in wedding ceremonies). If you’re a tourist visiting the gorgeous beaches, no doubt you’ll be slapping on sun cream that has that familiar tropical scent. Hell, coconuts have even been at the centre of vote-rigging scandals in the country! These folks take their coconuts very seriously indeed!

The Maldives
Image courtesy of artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It would be ridiculous to think that anything else could represent this country. Nothing sums up the Maldives so well; exotic, sweet, aromatic, fresh, tropical. I also love that the coconut has so many uses, just as a trip to the Maldives offers so many new experiences.

It’s not just something with a memorable scent, it does so much more. It’s used in both male and female beauty products as both a scent and an ingredient. It’s used in sweet and savoury cooking and baking, and even has its place in cleaning (you may not believe it, but SLS, the controversial cleansing agent, is derived from coconuts). The oil can be used for everything from cleaning your teeth and gums to taming frizzy hair. Even the shells and husks don’t go to waste. As well as being perfect for holding a pina colada, they’re carved into trinkets and souvenirs, used to make buttons and jewellery, or can even be used to make charcoal briquettes.

And let’s be honest, when you think of the Maldives, do you really think of lemongrass, or freshly washed hotel sheets, or a spicy curry first? Nope, you think of lying on a beach, surrounded by palm trees, drinking something exotic and making plans to do absolutely nothing!

Disclosure: This is a competition entry. I wasn’t paid to write this post

haightashbury
Travel

If You’re Going To San Francisco…

One of the perks of my job is that I’ve been lucky enough to visit head office in San Francisco a couple of times. It’s such a great part of the job, not just because it means I get to put faces to the names I speak to so often by email and phone, but also because it’s such a wonderful city.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some amazing places over the last 30 years, but there are only two cities other than my beloved London I’ve visited and thought “I could live here”. One is Melbourne (which one of my best friends did move to, only adding to this feeling) and the other is San Francisco. The general vibe, the various cultural neighbourhoods, and the thriving tech / media industry all feel very familiar, but you could never say it’s like London. California and England are separated by so much, not just the weather.

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What I like about San Francisco is that it’s stunning in a completely different way to London. There are obviously none of the old buildings we have in London, but the mish-mash of eras (pre and post 1906 earthquake) make it even the most amateur architecture fan’s dream. I couldn’t stop photographing the art deco details, Victorian houses, perfect pastel paint jobs and 50s neon signs, much to the amusement of my SF-based colleagues (what’s a dodgy motel to them is a perfect example of retro Americana signage to me).

It’s also a great city for discovery. Though it has its good and bad neighbourhoods, if you’re staying in the centre of the city you can’t get yourself into too much trouble in the areas within walking distance (so long as you stay north of Mission). I walk loads when I’m in San Francisco and now I’ve ticked off most of the main tourist attractions, I prefer to just go for a wander and see where I end up. But for those who prefer a bit of guidance, here are the five things everyone must do on their first trip!

Five of My Favourite Things to Do in San Francisco

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1. The Inevitable Visit to the Bridge

No trip to San Francisco is complete without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. There are two ways to do this – over or under – and having done both I definitely recommend taking a boat trip that takes you right underneath. The photo opportunities are insane and you get a really great view not only of the Golden Gate, but also the Bay Bridge and the whole of the city. I took the Red and White Fleet 2 Bridge Cruise – 90 minutes taking in both bridges and Alcatraz. I’d advise you don’t pre-book this. Choose your sailing day based on the weather and just head to the pier to buy a ticket. San Francisco gets more fog than even fictional London, and you’ll want a clear day to see the best of the bridge. If you book for a foggy day it’ll be a waste of your $30-odd.

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2. Shopping and People-Watching in Haight-Ashbury

Haight-Ashbury is the original home of the hippies, full of musical history and a must visit suburb as a young visitor to the city. Though it’s been suitably gentrified since the 60s and 70s, it still has an alternative heart. I think of it as the Camden of San Francisco – definitely worth the visit, but only if you’re prepared to be one of a zillion tourists. For me, the pull is the shopping, from a branch of SF boutique Ambiance where I found a gorgeous dress for $10, to the Bay Area’s only Bettie Page boutique. There are also dozens of great vintage stores (some of which have incredible collections of real turn-of-the-century frocks so delicate you can’t touch them) and vintage inspired lingerie shops that stock hard to find brands like Parfait. There’s also no shortage of cafes and coffee shops for refuelling.

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3. See The Painted Ladies

Sat on the edge of Alamo Park, the most famous examples of the ‘Painted Ladies’, San Francisco’s Victorian/Edwardian pastel painted houses, are definitely worth a look (in fact, you can jump off the bus and snap your photos on the way to or from Haight-Ashbury, as I did). You can walk up just about any street in San Francisco and see beautiful houses but here, at the top of a hill, is where you get the best photo opportunity. As you can see from my photo, I went on a foggy day when the contrast of city skyscrapers behind old-fashioned buildings wasn’t so clear, but if you’re lucky enough to be there when the bay is clearer, the pictures give you the perfect embodiment of all this city is about; the future and the past living together as one.

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4. Take a Cable Car

For $6, you can ride one of San Francisco’s historic cable cars from Union Square up through the hills and down to the edge of Fisherman’s Wharf. Despite the long queues and the fact you could probably walk the route faster, it’s one of those things you just have to do when you’re visiting this city. There are other routes, but this is the one most people take as it goes from one big tourist hub to the other, going right up into the hills on the way (great for dramatic rises and falls). Brave people will stand on the side and hold on to the poles. I must admit, I sat down, held on and aimed my camera!

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5. Eat (and Shop) For Cheap in Chinatown

San Francisco apparently has the largest Chinatown outside of China, and it’s definitely a sprawling area, covering a huge mass of the city just north of Sutter Street. I head here for gifts and cheap buys, as the main road is lined with knick-knack shops sell all the San Francisco souvenirs for a lot cheaper than the shops around Fisherman’s Wharf. There are also lots of Chinese themed homewares, clothes, toys and treats (and a fair amount of tat). The side streets offer a more authentic Chinatown experience; grocers, pharmacists and shops full of exotic looking foods and herbs that you don’t find in your local Sainsburys. But the real reason to head here is the food. It can be a bit of a mixed bag so trust Trip Advisor or local recommendations. But it’s cheap, quick and great if you’re on a budget. Ironically, my Chinese restaurant of choice (thanks, Frommers) is Brandy Ho’s, nestled right on the edge of Chinatown, technically in the more trendy North Beach area. Get the fried dumplings with Sweet and Sour sauce. I apologise in advance to your arteries.

These five things barely touch the surface of what can be done in San Francisco and I will be updating with some more off-the-beaten track ideas, but for those of you planning your first trip, these are my musts for getting the real touristy experience!

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Gemma Recommends, Travel

A Brit Abroad: My Girl’s Guide to visiting Las Vegas

Las Vegas is a city you either love or hate. I’m firmly in the ‘love’ camp, and could ramble on for hours about how to get the most out of your trip, where to stay, what to do and how to get there. So I thought I’d do just that!

I am well known amongst my friends for my Vegas obsession (I’ve been 7 times). I’m often asked for advice on visiting – especially when it comes to where to stay and where to shop. I felt it was worth a blog post I can direct people to in future – and hopefully this will also be useful to others who fancy a fashionable trip to Sin City. Please bear in mind my last trip was in 2012 so while I’ve tried to keep this updated, until my return early next year some things may be a little out of date – this city moves fast!

Vegas is a city where money rules, and if you really want to make the most of it it’s worth saving up before you go. That said, there are plenty of ways you can have fun without spending big bucks. The first time I went I was 21, living on a shoestring and staying in one of the cheapest hotels on the strip, but I still had an amazing time. The joy of Vegas is there are options for everyone. If you have the cash, eat at Nobu. You don’t? $10 Lobster dinner special coming right up!

But before we talk about what to do when you’re there, how about getting there in the first place?

Travelling to Las Vegas from the UK

If you’re willing to book flights and accommodation together, nine times out of ten I find Expedia.co.uk to be the cheapest option overall. Obviously if you want it all done for you, you can try a holiday company like Virgin Holidays and add in extra stops too. I always try Trivago too as a comparison, and check that flights aren’t available cheaper using SkyScanner. If you’re booking the two separately, most hotels offer great rates direct, so follow your favourites on Twitter, sign up for their mailing list and check out their facebook page for good deals and freebies like meal credits or show tickets. Be aware of any charges you may incur for booking in dollars though – some credit cards will add a fairly large fee for foreign transactions. Plus most hotels add a circa $25 “resort fee” per night when you arrive (though playing the “polite but clueless British person” card can sometimes get this waived.

You can fly to Vegas a number of ways through various transport hubs. I’ve done both direct and indirect flights depending on cashflow. Be sure that if you book an indirect flight you have adequate time to make your connection. On your first entry point into the USA (your connection airport) you’ll need to collect your bags and clear immigration with them before you drop them back off and go to the gate for the Vegas connection. One flight I looked at this year had a 40 min connection time – I can tell you from experience that this is not enough time to run through a big US hub like Chicago O’Hare!

You can also connect in Europe or Canada, but be aware this may mean you may have to clear immigration twice, once as you connect and again when you get to Vegas. This all adds time to your already long journey of 12 – 16 hours.

Now for the fun bit. Once you’re there!

My top 10 Vegas Experiences

1. Stay in the best (or most ridiculous) hotel you can afford

Vegas isn’t exactly short of accommodation options, so you may as well make the most of it. Stay on The Strip! As far as I’m concerned there’s no point staying in a motel miles off the strip, or scrimping on a super-cheap option Downtown if you want the proper Las Vegas experience (unless you like sharks – see number 7 below). Though you’ll have fun no matter where you stay, it pays to pick a strip hotel in the centre of the action. The whole of Vegas life (as a tourist) centres around these huge hotel / casino / entertainment / shopping complexes and you’ll never get such a good hotel room for such a cheap price. There’s a hotel to suit everyone, from tropical decor at Mandalay Bay and The Mirage to rococco excess at The Venetian and Italian glamour at The Bellagio (above). For that reason I’m not going to go too much into personal recommendations. One woman’s dream is another’s nightmare. I do like the Flamingo for its gardens and pool and eye-popping pink, I love the Mirage because I’ve had so many good times there, and I think TI is in a perfect location for a short trip. If you don’t fancy the madness of a themed hotel, a lot of the newer hotels (The Wynn and Encore, Aria, The Cosmopolitan etc) have more of a generic ‘luxury’ feel, with no detail overlooked, and I hear The Hotel at Mandalay Bay is a beautiful option for those with cash to splash. With the exception of Circus Circus and the Stratosphere (too far up) there aren’t really any strip hotels I’d strongly advise against – even a cheesefest like Excalibur has a certain trashy appeal (and a surprisingly good pool complex) if you’re on a tighter budget.

2. Visit the Grand Canyon (preferably by helicopter)

You’ve come this far, you may as well take a day trip to one of the Wonders of the Natural World. If you’re renting a car then it’s a cool drive (possibly taking in a bit of Route 66) to the Canyon. But there are loads of tours from Las Vegas too, and if you’re tight for time one of these might actually work out better. As dramatic as a drive to the rim and skywalk is, I thoroughly recommend splashing out on one of the helicopter tours. Not only is it much quicker (a matter of minutes to the Canyon, rather than the 4 hours it’ll take most coaches) but it’s also one of the most dramatic journeys you’ll ever experience. The flight takes you over the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, and most will then land in the Canyon for a final touch of drama. This kind of trip will cost about $300-$400 per person – I booked my last one through All Las Vegas Tours and had no complaints. I will warn you though – they weigh you and your bags to make sure the weight is distributed evenly for the flight!

3. Shop ’til you drop at the many malls

Las Vegas is a shopping mecca. Everything is represented here, from young fashion stores like Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters to designer labels like Chanel and Louis Vuitton. The top shopping destinations were, for a long time, The Fashion Show Mall (Mid-strip, next to TI and opposite The Palazzo), The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, The Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood and the shops of The Venetian. Now you can also add Crystals at CityCenter, a high-end designer shopping mecca that includes Miu Miu, Bulgari and Bottega Veneta, plus the ever-expanding designer shops at Bellagio, Palazzo and the Wynn to the list. These are malls like no other, themed beyond belief. Ever seen a spiral escalator? Head to the Forum Shops and you will. Fancy shopping under the stars no matter the time of day? Try the Miracle Mile. Want to punctuate your shopping with some street theatre or a gondola ride? Head to the Venetian! My top haunt as a girl on a limited budget is definitely the Fashion Show Mall, which makes up for lack of theme with the sheer amount of stores for all budgets, including Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Dillards and Saks Fifth Avenue department stores. You can see me outside the Fashion Show in the pic above, way back in 2004 on my first trip to Vegas!

TIP: When it comes to individual shops, my first stop is always the retro reproduction store Bettie Page Clothing (branches in the Miracle Mile and Forum Shops) for wiggle dresses and polka dots a-plenty in a huge range of sizes. I’ve never been in there and come out empty-handed.

4. Gorge at the brilliant buffets

Photo by bryanh @ flickr

Apparently there are people who don’t like buffets. They think there’s too much choice, a bad atmosphere, the promise of lifelong indigestion. They think that getting up and down all the time for food is annoying, that the food is sub-standard, and that it’s greedy to keep on shovelling it down your throat just because you can.

These people are no friends of mine.

I love a good buffet, and Vegas does them brilliantly. Especially at brunch. I used to be a fussy eater, so a buffet was good because I could always find something I liked. Now I love them because after all those years of not eating stuff, I want to eat it all, but I can only do that if I have very little bits of everything. My favourite Vegas buffets are mostly more expensive ones; The Wynn, The Bellagio, The Mirage. You do get what you pay for. I’m desperate to try Wicked Spoon at The Cosmopolitan on my next trip. Along with many others I also really rate the off-strip treats at The Rio and the good international cuisine at Flavors at Harrah’s. For budget eats that aren’t greasy and lukewarm, you can’t beat a trip downtown for the Garden Court Buffet at Main Street Station. Plan your buffets in advance – you definitely won’t want to eat nothing but buffets for your entire stay. Not only will you go home unable to fit into your clothes, but Vegas is full of incredible restaurants you’ll want to try too. Just promise me you’ll give in to the tack factor and try one or two buffets if you can, if only to get the full Vegas experience.

5. See the dolphins & big cats

photo by Andrew Ressa @ Flickr

When explaining Vegas to non-believers, I usually find that explaining the sheer size and scope of what is available away from gambling is the way to go. Most people usually get interested around the time I say “and one hotel has a ZOO inside it!” It might be a bit of an exaggeration to call it a zoo, but Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at The Mirage is definitely worth a visit if you want a break from the clinking of slot machines. The secret garden is home to Siegfried and Roy’s big cats (white tigers, white lions, panthers and leopards) plus a few surprises, while the dolphin habitat is a really well-designed home to a family of bottle-nosed dolphins. In true Vegas style it’s a bit over the top but very well done, and definitely worth a couple of hours of your time, if only because it’s one of the only places where you won’t hear the familiar jingle of slot machines!

6. Hit the outlets & shop for bargains

photo by Judy Baxter @ Flickr

My first trip to Fashion Outlets Las Vegas was a revelation. Diane Von Furstenberg dresses for $90 and skirts for $50! A Marc by Marc Jacobs bag for $200 and a top for $40! I could have spent thousands, but each trip I’ve limited myself to only a few purchases. This particular outlet mall is a good 40 minute drive out of Vegas, reached by car or a $15 shuttle from various points on the strip. If you enjoy a designer shopping bargain, it’s definitely worth the trip. I prefer it to the other big outlet chain (Las Vegas Premium Outlets, found north and south of the strip) for the simple reason that it’s in a covered mall that’s air-conditioned, which is a big selling point when you’re in the desert! It’s also the only one with a Neiman Marcus Last Call, where I’ve found 90% of my best buys. If you’re holidaying with someone who’s not a shopper, the outlet is right next to Primm Valley Resorts, so they can head there to kill time if need be. This hotel is worth a look even if you’re shopping – it’s like a Vegas homage to the Hotel Del Coronado from the film ‘Some Like it Hot’. There’s also Buffalo Bills, complete with amusement park, just over the road.

7. Take a trip Downtown

Downtown Las Vegas is the bit you’ll recognise from all those old movies (not to mention the brilliant Swingers). Before huge theme hotels started appearing on Las Vegas Boulevard South, there was Fremont Street, a hotel and casino-filled street in Downtown Las Vegas that earned the nickname ‘Glitter Gulch’. The area has seen better days, but remains a must-see. Head down at dusk and grab the cheapest dinner ever at one of my favourite off-strip hotels, Main Street Station, then take the covered walkway to the California for cheap beers before taking in the Fremont Street Experience free light and sound show on the covered walkway over the main stretch of Fremont Street. It’s really great fun. Pick up your tacky souvenirs here too – they’re much cheaper than the shops in the malls on the strip. If you do decide to stay Downtown, the Golden Nugget Hotel has a big selling point – a heated pool with a water slide that takes you through a shark tank!

The best way to get Downtown is by public transport, just jump on The Deuce bus from anywhere on the strip.

8. Take advantage of the freebies

Vegas can quickly become an expensive place to visit, even if you take advantage of the cheap deals and budget options. But the good thing is there are still a few fabulous things you can do for free, mostly when it comes to entertainment. See flamingos at the Flamingo, the Rio’s Masquerade Show in The Sky, the huge aquarium in the Mirage lobby, or the Forum Shops talking statues to start! For a long time, top of my list was the ridiculous Sirens of TI, which used two mechanical pirate ships moored in the grounds of the resort to put on a live show with Pussycat Dolls-style dancers. Now that’s gone, there’s still the Mirage’s Volcano, The dancing fountains at the Bellagio and the Wynn Lake of Dreams show to keep you entertained.

9. Have a ridiculously expensive night out

pic via XS website

It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that Las Vegas isn’t exactly short on nightlife. The coolest club changes with every new opening, meaning the last one I went to is not even worth mentioning now. But they all offer up incredible nights out if you’re young enough to appreciate the atmosphere. I currently have my eye on XS at Encore (above) which has its own pool, outdoor patio and blackjack tables. I’m sure next week I’ll find something else that looks even better. One thing they all have in common is that a night there can quickly set you back a lot of cash, and will undoubtedly involve long waits if you don’t plan ahead. If you want to sit down, you’ll need to book VIP table service which will run into hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars as the night progresses. There are nightlife hosts / concierge services that can organise stuff for you but that too comes at a price. A cheaper option if you don’t mind standing and waiting is to look out for free entry cards around Vegas (try cool fashion stores in the malls, or ask a hotel concierge or taxi driver. There are also touts on the street who’ll hand over a pile of them for a tip. Whichever way you do it, go out for cheaper drinks first, dress up and be prepared for a pricey night. The good news is girls get the best freebies – if you’re a group of ladies together, you can blag almost anything.

If you don’t fancy the huge clubs, there are plenty of lounges and bars that are almost as rowdy. Look for ‘ultralounges’ in your hotel or hunt down the cheesiest bar you can find. My guilty secret for a guaranteed good night out is Coyote Ugly at New York New York. Yes, it’s essentially a box hidden in a corner, made to look like a trashy movie set, and the clientelle is mixed to say the least. But it’s cheaper than the clubs, the naffness makes it fun, ladies are treated well (if you’re brave enough to dance on the bar you’ll get free drinks) and the jukebox has loads of British music on it. I’ve never had a bad night here.

My favourite bar in the entirety of Vegas was Mix, which sat at the top of what used to be The Hotel with the most incredible views (even from the loos). This is reopening in late 2015 as “Skyfall”, attached to a chic new restaurant in what is now the Delano. It’s number one on my list for my return trip!

10. People watch from the casino floor

Photo by TI

If you’re gambling a decent amount and willing to tip, waitresses will circulate and offer free drinks. But this can often be a pricey way to soak up the atmosphere if you don’t win along the way. I’m not a big gambler, which people find odd considering how much I love Vegas, but I hope by now you’ve realised there’s so much more than slot machines in this city! If you’d rather not risk your hard-earned readies, I suggest heading for the many bars / lounges that sit right on or just off the casino floor, where you can watch other people and see how it’s done. On my last trip, bar-hopping these places became a daily routine. My favourites include Breeze at TI, Centrifuge at MGM Grand, Laguna at The Venetian, Eyecandy at Mandalay Bay and Le Cabaret at Paris Las Vegas. There’s also the gorgeous 3-floor Chandelier bar at The Cosmopolitan which serves the best (white) Cosmo you’ll ever drink. This is just a drop in the ocean though – all you need to do is step into a casino and walk until you hit a bar – they all have one and they’re all surprisingly good for watching the world go by.

I feel like I could go on for another ten, there’s so much more I want to touch on. But this post is long enough, and hopefully this gives you a taster of what Vegas has to offer. If you tire of the food, drinks, shopping and tourist traps, there’s always the high-octane thrills (rollercoasters and rides at New York New York, Stratosphere and Circus Circus) the pools and spas, and the hundreds of amazing shows to continue to keep you occupied.

If you’re a Vegas fan too, let me know your top tips below!

Photos are mine unless otherwise credited.