During our previous visit we visited the old Jurong Bird Park. We only just caught it, in fact – we visited in October 2022 and in January 2023 it was closed, to be replaced by a new, bigger and better bird park – Mandai Bird Paradise.

Let’s first talk about the former attraction, Jurong Bird Park. This was built in the late 1960s/early 1970s, opening in 1971. It was inspired by a visit by Singapore’s finance minister, Goh Kong See, to a free-fly aviary that was part of Rio de Janeiro zoo when he was visiting that city fir a World Bank meeting. He determined to establish something similar in Singapore so that they would have a place where they could escape from urban life and relax with nature. The park featured three large free-fly enclosures – that is, enclosures that were big enough for people to enter and walk around,  in which a specific environment could be created (as far as Singapore’s climate allowed), yet which would have some sort of security system, typically a steel mesh roof, to stop the birds from flying away. In addition to the enclosed free-fly zones there were also areas with specific features, e.g. lakes and ponds, that would be populated by birds that would tend to stay there anyway, without the security. There were lakes for water birds such as flamingos and pelicans, for example, plus of course the mandatory penguin pools.

This park became a huge hit – it was one of the first leisure facilities for the growing population of the newly-independent nation. But in recent years it was beginning to show its age. It was requiring a lot of maintenance; some of the facilities, such a monorail that circulated the park, had reached the end of their lives and weren’t replaced, and away from the free-fly enclosures a number of birds were held in aviaries that no longer looked or felt appropriate. Thinking on how to keep birds in captivity had changed between 1970 and 2010. So it was announced in 2016 that Jurong Bird Park would be replaced a few years later – 2020 was the first target – by a new park that would be bigger, better, and co-located with other wildlife parks in a central area (Mandai) of the island where there would be more space.

In the event the new Bird Paradise didn’t open until spring 2023, due largely to the pandemic. Initially there was a restricted ‘soft’ opening, but by the middle of 2023 it was in full swing, which meant that we’d be able to get there on our 2024 visit. And we did, spending most of the day there.

We had a good day which we enjoyed. But maybe, just maybe, we found a problem with it, one that’s been alluded to by other visitors: the new enclosures are so good, and so big, that it can be hard to actually see the birds! I was glad that I had my new binoculars. I also had my new(ish) camera and long(ish) lens, which received a lot of use.

My conclusion: it’s worth visiting, but if you’ve got binoculars take them. The park itself is very well laid out, there are facilities such as toilets and water-bottle refill locations in a lot of locations, and a central plaza which in addition to having an outdoor auditorium where bird shows are presented, also has a cafe. Here we had an excellent Chicken Rice meal. But as ever in Singapore, for much of your visit you will be out in the open and dealing with the climate.  It’s also quite a long way out: It took us 90 minutes or even a bit more, from leaving the hotel to walking in, what with the walk to the MRT, a good 45 minutes or longer on the MRT, then queuing for the shuttle bus from the MRT to the park and finally the bus ride itself. So a worthwhile and enjoyable day but also quite a hard day.

In 2022 we visited the Botanic Gardens, spending several hours there. However we didn’t see all of it – it’s huge, we were walking around in the sun for a long time,  so we stopped when we were feeling exhausted. But we were aware that there was more to see and it was definite target for this visit.

But first a bit of history. The Botanic Gardens were originally founded in 1859 by the Agri-horticultural Society of Singapore which was granted land by the colonial government in the Tanglin area. At that time this land would have been well beyond the town of Singapore. During this initial phase the gardens were used as a pleasure park for the society’s members, but significant development and expansion took place and the basic layout of the gardens as they are now (at least the central part) was created during this time. In 1874 the society ran out of money and handed the gardens back to the colonial government which appointed a Superintendent in 1875. Since then there has been a continuous run of Superintendants and Directors. One of them, Henry Ridley, used the Gardens in the 1880s to develop the techniques of tapping rubber trees to obtain rubber without killing the tree. He publicised this and as a result rubber cultivation spread throughout British Malaya to the point where the colony became the world’s leading supplier of rubber. Two Directors were Japanese – they held their positions during the Japanese occupation of Singapore, from 1942 to 1945. Indeed, the first of these (Hidezo Tanaka) saved the gardens from being looted and perhaps converted to training grounds by the occupying Japanese military.

After independance the Gardens were handed over to the National Parks Board of Singapore, which has continued to develop and expand them. The Gardens are free to enter and explore – only one area, the National Orchid Collection, has chargeable admission. The orchid is Singapore’s national flower and Singapore’s climate is especially suitable for tropical orchids. We visited the orchid collection on our previous visit and therefore did not do so this time; however, the orchids are stunningly beautiful and the Collection is well worth the price of admission. The Gardens are one of only three to be honoured as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the only one of those which is a tropical garden. (The other two are the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and the Orto Botanico at Padua, Italy, apparently the very first ‘University Botanical Gardens’ in the world.)

For this visit we knew the layout so we were able to navigate our way to areas we hadn’t visited last time. Chief among them was the ‘Tyersal Extension’, a large new area added in 2009 and opened to the public about ten years after that. Essentially it’s an area of forested wetland which had been slowly drying out and the vegetation changing as a result, of course. The Gardens have restored the original conditions, and as a result examples of the original vegetation are returning. It’s very much a work in progress, in a passive sense – they’ve set up the conditions, the vegetation will respond to them over decades, and the Gardens will manage those changes with a very light hand. We spent maybe an hour walking around this area which felt quite wild and very forested – this was definitely not an area of manicured lawns.

As on our previous visit we walked and explored until we felt tired and decided we’d done enough. Time for lunch! – at a small restaurant we’d found last time, ‘Fusion Spoon’. Basically just a big open indoor space (and blissfully cool) with an automated ordering system through which we built our own, individual salad lunches. And so cheap! – Singapore is often described as expensive, but if you eat local you can often eat cheaply. A customised salad and a soft drink for each of us cost £16 total, and was very tasty. Then back to the hotel; and thanks to the continuing development of Singapore’s MRT (metro system) there was a new station just by the Garden’s gateway.

There is one thing I wonder about as regards the Botanic Gardens. Actually, not just the Gardens, but all the vegetation in Singapore and throughout tropical SE Asia. I think that if I lived in these conditions I would very much miss the annual cycle that gardens and woodlands go through in the UK. In Singapore it’s always green, and mature green at that; no light green leaves in spring, no early summer flowers, and above all, no autumn colours. But I don’t live in tropical climates so I won’t worry about it.

Marina Bay Sands hotel and the Art Science Museum, Singapore

We visited Singapore in October 2022 and had a good holiday, (you can read the posts here), but came away feeling that we hadn’t seen or done everything we wanted to. So last year we booked another trip, this time for spring (not that visiting at different times of the year makes much difference in Singapore; they have a climate, not weather).

We decided to go back to the same hotel as before, this time for the whole holiday, but we had uncomfortable memories of the long direct flight from Heathrow to Singapore, not to mention the additional impact of getting to and back from Heathrow. So this time we booked flights from Manchester with Qatar Airways, which would mean a short stop at Hamed International airport in Doha. Our flight out was at lunchtime, then there would be a two-hour stopover in Doha starting at around midnight local time, and we would arrive at Singapore in the early afternoon of the following day. The return flights would leave Singapore in the mid-evening, would again involve a a two-hour stopover at Doha at about midnight, and a further flight that would get us back to Manchester at about 6am. In view of that early arrival time in Manchester, and a realistic consideration of how we could expect to feel when we did so, we decided to book a return transfer with a local travel company rather than use our own car. We’re not as young as we used to be….

Most of that worked well! The car transfer turned up promptly on our departure day and got us to Manchester efficiently and comfortably. Our flight was from the new Terminal 2 which is certainly a lot glitzier than the others. Most impressive were the new security arrangements – no need to get all your electronic devices and liquids out, they were scanned inside the carry-on bag. We still had to empty our pockets, however. But we were through security very quickly and spent a couple of hours just relaxing and snacking before boarding the plane. Take-off was almost on time, the flight was a bit quicker than scheduled and we landed at Doha a bit early after just over six hours. We flew in one of Qatar’s Airbus A350’s – a good modern aircraft, comfortable enough, and the seating not too cramped. It’s a wide body aircraft with seats arranged in a 3-3-3 configuration, and we had an aisle and centre seats in the central block. And as with all the Middle Eastern airlines, we were wined and dined comprehensively. (Though these days we stick to soft drinks while flying.) So far, so good, then.

Hamed International airport was a mess, however. To put it politely, it’s a work in progress with acres of construction. We were surprised when the aircraft did  not pull up at the terminal but at a hard standing – somewhere, from where we were bussed to the terminal. This was quite a shock – I haven’t had to walk down external steps and board a bus after a flight for a long time, and never after a long haul flight. Worse still, we were waiting for ten or fifteen minutes to actually get off the plane – I think they were waiting for buses – and then the ride itself lasted for a good ten minutes. All of this was eating into our two-hour transfer window, of course. Then we arrived at the terminal, were swiftly ushered inside, someone said ‘Transfers this way!’ and pointed us in a general direction, we went that way, and found ourselves already in Departures – somehow we’d bypassed the transfer security check.

Terminal Interior, Doha airport

There’s no doubt that the interior of the terminal at Doha is stunning, and the actual operational arrangements inside work well. But can you find a cup of tea at midnight? Well, we didn’t. We did find some very refreshing fruit juices which we drank straight down – we hadn’t realised how thirsty we were. Then we went to the gate and waited for a while for boarding to commence. Boarding is by groups, which were called individually, but all that meant was that each group got its own bus – yes, we were back to the busses. In fact at one point, a group ahead of us was called and formed a queue at the gate and then had a five minute hold-up while they waited for another bus…. not a good experience. But we got on board eventually and the aircraft (another A350, with us seated in same way) took off not too much delayed. The flight passed uneventfully, I may have managed a bit of sleep, and we landed at Singapore just about on time.

Actually getting into Singapore took me a bit of time – they have new electronic passport control gates which a) scan your passport, b) take a look at your face, and (if it’s not happy with that) c) require a thumb-print scan. I had to have a handful of attempt at c) before I was let in. Val just breezed through with just the facial scan at the first attempt, of course. We got our bags, found a taxi, and were at the hotel about ninety minutes after landing. We were feeling pretty tired by then, and I was pleased that we’d set things up so that we hadn’t been trying to get currency, phone sims or anything else at the airport.

Checkin at the hotel was quick; we unpacked, showered, changed, and went out for a meal at a restaurant we knew. There was just one hiccup – we had to use cash (of which we fortunately had some) to load value ) – it turns out that the MRT system (Singapore’s metro) requires local debit and credit cards only to add value onto our EzLink cards (Singapore’s equivalent of London’s Oyster cards). Fortunately we had cash and found one lonely machine that would accept it. Then – finally – bed, and good night’s sleep. But oh, the pleasure I had experiencing that Singapore heat! – I love it. I’m finding English winters increasingly hard.

A winter break in Dubai

Looking across the creek

In mid-January we visited Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a few days, as a winter break. We’ve both been there before: we went together nearly two years ago to visit Expo 2020 (which was postponed a year because of Covid), and I’ve been several times previously, in the context of breaks on the way to or on return from holidays in SE Asia. We booked a breakfast-time flight out of Manchester and stayed at a Premier Inn near the airport the night before. That necessitated a very early start, and scraping ice off the car windscreen at 5:30 on the coldest morning of the winter was not fun. But we got going after a few minutes, got the car parked, dropped our bag, and then waited for the flight.

On our last visit we stayed at a (formerly) grand hotel, the Grand Hyatt, but this time we stayed at a Holiday Inn. This was at Festival City, a district not far from the airport and a bit away from all the regular tourist areas. The hotel was attached to a shopping mall (Festival City Mall) which in turned backed onto Dubai Creek at Festival City Bay – there’s a theme emerging here, you’ll have noticed. This mall is much more of a ‘locals’ destination than a tourist hot-spot – for example it included a huge supermarket and an IKEA, plus (in addition to fashion shops) a number of other ‘practical’ stores, e.g.  home furnishing shops. There were also a number of restaurants.

Of course, referring to ‘locals’ in Dubai actually means ‘local residents’ rather than actual Emirati citizens. This is because just over 80% of the population of Dubai are expatriates – non-Emiratis – who have moved there for work, and they have come from many different parts of the world. One result of this was the Festival City mall was thronged with people of all ethnicities and cultures, which made it an interesting place to walk around. Very alive and vibrant, and we both enjoyed it.

We were there for four full days. On the first day we just found our way around. We generally prefer to use public transport when we visit places but our hotel was not positioned on either the Dubai Matro or a helpful bus route. I had read, however, that there was a ferry across the creek from Festival Bay to a point on the other side that was within easy walking distance of a Metro station so we needed to confirm that. And indeed we found that using the ferry was easy and cheap, and the Metro station was  just a five-minute walk away on the opposite bank. So we spent the day working all of this stuff out, adding money to our Nol cards (Dubai’s equivalent of an Oyster card), visiting Dubai Mall (where we spent a happy hour in Kinokuniya, the biggest bookstore in SE Asia) and just generally settling in.


On the second day we visited Expo City, the site of the former Expo 2020. I’d read that this was being developed into a new residential area, and that there were already new things there. Not so, it turned out. The site was just about deserted (certainly when we arrived mid-morning), apart from the army of staff who were almost fighting over us. We visited two of the main pavilions from the Expo, and in some ways had a better time than we had two years ago. The pavilions were interesting and dramatic, and with no crowds (indeed, hardly any other visitors at all) we were able to take our time over them.

Day three saw us explore Old Dubai and the creek. This didn’t start well – we took the Metro to a point on the creek from where I’d thought there was a creek-side walk, but it turned to be mainly a busy road-side walk. Never mind – we pressed on and came to the central Abra (ferry) station, from where many traditional ferries were crossing the creek, to various destinations along it. We just took a simple crossing to the Al Seef area which we explored. Then after lunch we walked back through the Souk. I’ve got some old pictures of the souk from the 1950s and 60s, and in those days it was the local market, but today it’s just a tourist attraction. I can’t work out how these stalls make any money: there was no-one there hardly, the stalls were not doing any business, and they all seemed to sell the same stuff, most of which was – not good! Stuffed camels were a staple, as were plastic models of the Burj Khalifa. And I’m pretty sure that none of it actually came from Dubai.


Finally, on day four we ventured to Sharjah Emirate, to visit some museums. This is the next emirate north, and in fact adjoins Dubai old town – Dubai, Sharjah city and Ajman together make up what is in fact one continuous city. We went on the bus, and on this occasion this was probably a mistake. We’d investigated the bus station in Dubai the previous day – it was near the souk – and it was modern and well-organised, with up-to-date public information systems and helpful customer service people. When we eventually got to Sharjah we found that the bus station there was just a concrete space alongside a very busy main road, from which it was quite difficult to get away on foot. So we took a taxi to the Heritage Museum, and were non-plussed by the fact that the taxi driver had never heard of it! But we got there eventually, and had perhaps the best 90 minutes of the trip – lots of information and displays about life and culture in old Sharjah, and all displayed in a traditional house. What’s most extraordinary about this is that ‘old Sharjah’ means the 1960s – the changes have all been that recent.

Unfortunately our decision to use the bus that day meant that by the time we’d finished we didn’t have time to locate and visit another museum, of which there are a number in Sharjah. (That Emirate seems to have specialised in museums; Abu Dhabi does theme parks, it seems, while Dubai is all about shopping and incredible architecture.) So we decided to walk back to the bus station, and on  our way there fell into a small restaurant where we had one of the best chicken birianis ever. Thank you, Spice Bazar in Sharjah – you made our day.

And we finished off the day with another (small) meal plus wine in the hotel bar. We’d visited there on previous evenings, mainly to have a pre-dinner drink. The UAE is a muslim country so access to alcohol is restricted, of course. The solution that Dubai has adopted is to make alcohol available in ‘private places within private places’ – e.g., a hotel bar. None of the restaurants in the mall served alcohol – the mall itself wouldn’t be regarded as a private place so the restaurants would at best be regarded as ‘private places off a public place’. (Sharjah, which as a separate Emirate has its own laws, has banned alcohol completely.)

Then it was back home on an early afternoon flight from Dubai International which landed at Manchester in the early evening. We’d decided that we’d be too tired to drive home that evening so we had another night in the Premier Inn near the airport before an easy drive through the Peak District the following morning to a very cold but otherwise untouched house.

This post will cover the practical issues concerning the trip.

    • Flights: We flew with American Airlines from London Heathrow to Chicago O’Hare. We chose that route because there are no direct flights to Chicago from Manchester, our nearest long-haul airport. We could have chosen other routes:
      • Aer Lingus have a direct flight to Chicago from Dublin and we could have taken an Aer Lingus shuttle from Manchester to Dublin first. That would even have let us enter the USA in Dublin! – there’s a US Customs & Border Protect post at Dublin airport and you are processed there. But that would have required a very early start at Manchester with a short transfer window so we opted against it;
      • Or we could have flown from Manchester to New York JFK or possibly Newark Liberty International and then taken a US domestic flight to Chicago. But again there were uncertainties about the transfer time, especially as we did not know how long it would take to clear immigration – that would have to be done in New York, our port of entry in this case – or perhaps our flight from Manchester would be delayed, or perhaps we might have to get across New York to a different airport.
      • So in the end we felt it was simply easier to drive to Heathrow the day before and stay at an airport hotel. In fact we booked a ‘Sleep and Park’ stay in which we had a night at the hotel and then left the car there until we returned. That turned out to be cheaper than booking a hotel and parking separately.
      • For the flight from Chicago to Memphis there were many choices with several airlines, both direct and with connections. However we were strongly advised to book direct flights and that led us to Southwest Airlines out of Midway.
    • Hotels: we stayed four nights at a hotel in downtown Chicago. This was made up of 3 nights at the beginning and 1 more night at the end (o/r from Memphis). These were booked in advance but with flexible bookings, and with payment on departure, not in advance. This turned out to be handy: when we booked the trip that final night was about $100 more expensive than the earlier three nights. While we were in Mississippi I noticed that the price of the final night had dropped, so I cancelled the previous booking and immediately re-booked at the lower rate.
    • Eating out: As ever, US prices were a shock, especially as what you’ll actually pay will be 25% to 30% more than the price on the menu. The extra covers sales tax (generally around 10%) and a tip, which these days will be at least 15% and possibly 20%. We spent more than we had expected to, in Chicago especially.
    • Getting around Chicago: We used the L a couple of times. However, we realised that other than the connections to the airports, it’s not especially useful as it doesn’t seem to go very close to some of the major tourist attractions. We had a bit of a walk from and back to the L when we visited Lincoln Park, and looking at the map it seems that several of the other major museums (the Field Museum which we didn’t get to, and the Museum of Science and Industry which we did) are nowhere near an L station. City buses go to both but we hadn’t researched them. In the event we used Uber to get to the Museum of Science and Industry which was easy but not cheap. The L was very easy to use, however, and certainly saved us a lot of money with the trips to and from Midway airport, and the final trip to O’Hare. It didn’t seem very busy, however – certainly nowhere near as busy as the London Underground.
    • An extra night on return to London: Our return flight from O’Hare was overnight, landing at Heathrow at just after 10am. We had decided that we would be too tired to safely drive back to Sheffield after that so we had booked an additional night in a hotel near to Heathrow (no driving required). In the event we were unable to check in until 2:30pm which, given that we had arrived at the hotel before midday, meant that we were just sitting around for over two hours. We were indeed very tired, too tired to do anything that afternoon, so we just sat in the hotel and our room, trying to stay awake until some not-too-unreasonable bed time. All in all, that day really dragged – the experience was a strong argument in favour of flying from Manchester, barely an hour’s drive from home. (We felt that we could have safely managed a drive of that length after the overnight flight.) So I doubt if we’d do it again.

The purpose of the whole trip was to visit our daughter at her home in Oxford MS (Mississippi), where she lives with her husband. She moved there in 2019, and  we had planned to visit her in April 2020, but the pandemic stopped that. But now three years later we were able to make the trip.

We flew from Chicago Midway, Chicago’s second airport, to Memphis TN – the closest airport to Oxford. Midway airport is busy – about 20 million passengers annually before the pandemic. The biggest airline there by far is Southwest Airlines with over 70 destinations, almost all within the US. It has an L connection from the Loop on the Orange line, so we used that to get there. But it was early! Our flight was at 08:35 and we wanted to be at the airport by 6:30 at the latest. This meant getting up at 4:30, leaving the hotel at 5:30, and being on a train at about 5:45. The flight was uneventful, we landed on schedule at Memphis, and met our daughter and her husband who then drove us the hour or so over the state line into Mississippi and on to Oxford.

Dating from 1837, Oxford is an old-established town. It was always intended to be the seat of a university (hence the name) and in 1841 Mississippi duly selected Oxford as the home of the University of Mississippi, colloquially known as ‘Ole Miss’. Today the town has just over 20,000 inhabitants, and there are about the same number of students at the University. It’s a very traditional southern town – there’s a town square, with wooden buildings round it – today most of these are shops, bars or restaurants. There’s housing beyond that, then the typical strip-mall developments on the outer edge of town. The University is adjacent to town. Perhaps Oxford’s most well-known building is Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner the Nobel-winning author who lived there for decades. Today Rowan Oak is preserved and open to the public.

We spent three nights in Oxford, staying with a member of our daughter’s husband’s family. So we had two full days plus most of the day we arrived and the morning of the day we left. And we were kept busy, what with exploring the town and the wider environment.

On our first full day we were taken down into the Mississippi Delta. This is not in fact the actual delta at the mouth of the Mississippi river – that’s know as the ‘River Delta’. The Mississippi Delta is an area of flat, fertile agricultural land in the NW of Mississippi, lying alongside the river. This was where cotton was King; this was where the Blues were first sung; and this was where racial oppression was possibly at it worst, from the later 19th century to the mid-20th. It has a unique racial, cultural and economic history. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article about it.

We spent the day driving through it, and we saw some of the contrasts. We visited Clarksdale, where early bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil; then Merivale where we visited a pottery and ate a very good lunch at a very good restaurant; the Mississippi Grammy Museum at Cleveland (more Grammy nominees have come from Mississippi than from any other state); and finally we had a light meal in the bar at the Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood. In the space of just one day you can only scratch the surface of the area, but you can perhaps recognise its contrasts: the coffee shop at Clarksdale was so different from the restaurant at Merivale, for instance. It was certainly fascinating.

We spent the following day in Oxford and its environs. There was an open day on campus, with all the University departments promoting themselves; then we walked round to Rowan Oak and relaxed in the grounds for a while.

And of course throughout the visit we ate and drank! I lost count of the places where we ate good meals, but I remember drinks at City Grocery (it’s a bar, despite the name – it’s possible that it was a grocery store once upon a time); coffee at Clarksdale and the lunch at Galleria in Merivale; and most of all, the excellent meal at Lenora’s bar & restaurant in Oxford. A great evening.

In April 2023 we went to Chicago and Mississippi while visiting our daughter. She lives in Mississippi with her husband and his family. This was a trip of two halves: some days in Chicago at either end of the trip, and some days in Mississippi in the middle. This first post will cover Chicago.

We’ve never been to the Windy City but other people had told us that it’s worth visiting, and having now done so ourselves, we would agree. We landed at O’Hare airport (Chicago’s main airport, of two) late afternoon at the end of our flight from Heathrow. Flying time was about eight and a half hours. O’Hare is 20 miles or more from our hotel in downtown Chicago, and the taxi we took cost us over $100. Partly this was because it’s a long way, and partly because, thanks to hold-ups caused by roadworks, it took us over an hour. It’s also possible that we ended up in the wrong sort of taxi, i.e. a more-expensive mini-van. Happily we had a couple of hundred US dollars in cash with us so were able to pay – the taxi didn’t take cards – but it was an expensive start to the holiday.

We were staying at a hotel at Wolf Point, in the downtown area – just across the Chicago river from the Loop. This was fine – a spacious and comfortable room, good facilities in the hotel, and of course handy for downtown. Not the cheapest but anywhere significantly cheaper was a long way further out. We enjoy being able to walk around the cities we visit, so staying centrally was our natural choice.

We had three nights in Chicago at the beginning of the holiday which gave us two full days, plus whatever was left on arrival day. However the time difference of six hours meant that arriving at about 4:30pm felt like 10:30pm to us so we were in bed by not long after 8pm – that felt like 2am to us, and we’d had an early start to the day in London.

On the first morning we had book a walk with a Chicago Greeter. This gave us a three to four hour walk around the downtown area and into Millennium Park. We had expressed an interest in Chicago’s architecture, and our guide, Peter Orlinsky, gave us an in-depth exploration of that topic, covering the main developments from the time of the great Chicago fire in 1871. This destroyed almost all of the existing downtown area, and it so happened that the rebuilding period coincided with the development of steel-frame construction, so the skyscraper was born in Chicago and has never really left. Peter took us into many buildings both historic and new, and explained their history and significance. This was an interesting and rewarding excursion, and was also free – Chicago Greeter’s policy is that there shall be no charge, or tip, for the tours – it’s Chicago residents talking about their city. Thoroughly recommended. Here’s a link the to website.

Still feeling tired from the flight we explored the Chicago riverfront area for a while after the walk, found somewhere to eat for the evening, then went back to the hotel and rested for a while. It’s worth saying that the weather during these two days was excellent – sunny, with temperatures into the low 20s, and dry.

The following day – our second full day – we took the elevated railroad – the L – out towards Lincoln Park. This is north of the downtown area and stretches alongside the shore of Lake Michigan for several miles. It’s a mixture of open grassed areas, some sports fields, beaches, a zoo, and other cultural attractions. On our way from the L at Sedgwick towards the park we called in to a Foxtrot Market on the edge of an area called Old Town and had an excellent coffee and sticky bun, then pressed on to the park.

We walked around it for a while and then decided to explore the zoo (a free attraction). We found that we didn’t really enjoy this so much – it was a very traditional zoo on a constrained site, so numerous rather small enclosures containing large animals. There were better features, for example a pavilion with a collection of very small reptiles and mammals all in very carefully-built and suitable environments, and that was more enjoyable, but I don’t think I would recommend the zoo. In all zoos I’m aware that the animals are in very artificial and often constrained environments. These days I wonder what visitors can learn from visiting a zoo that they can’t actually get from a David Attenborough wildlife documentary.

The zoo was followed by one of the highlights of the trip, a visit to the Chicago History Museum, which is located on the edge of the park. This is a big institution and we were already tired, so we restricted ourselves to a big exhibit about the Great Chicago Fire. Even so, we were there for over an hour. This was interesting and engaging – there are lots of exhibits from the fire itself, for example photographs of the aftermath, documents about it (e.g. letters from those who experienced it), paintings, and artifacts saved from the fire. We enjoyed it. Then it was back to the Foxtrot Market for a reviving cup of tea, and back to the hotel on the L.

After our days in Mississippi we returned to Chicago during the Sunday evening. We were staying at the same hotel, and used the L from Midway into the loop to get there. But it was cold – temperatures had dropped while were in the south to just about freezing, and slight snowfalls were forecast were the night. Walking back to Wolf Point from Clarke/Lake L station was a cold business, especially as Chicago was living up to its epithet that evening.

Our flight back to London was the following evening, so we had the day to fill. We had a lazy morning, including coffee at Merchandise Mart (attached to the hotel) then checked out at noon. We left our bags with the concierge and got an Uber to the Science and Industry Museum, where we spent just a few hours. This is a huge museum – we could have spent whole days here – but time was limited so we contented ourselves with some time in the Great Train Story gallery, followed by stepping inside the fuselage of a Boeing 727 which was suspended from the ceiling. We finished our visit by visiting their U-Boat (!) – U-505, captured intact by the US Navy in 1944. It was towed back to the US for investigation and research, and eventually put into storage. Some years later the submarine was handed over to this museum and installed in a basement gallery. It’s difficult to explain just how imposing it is – much bigger than I had anticipated.


We really enjoyed our visit to this museum and wished had more time, but we had a plane to catch in the mid-evening. So it was back to the hotel by Uber again, then a walk round to the L to get the train out to O’Hare – no $100 taxi ride this time!

We were very impressed with Chicago, and I have a feeling we’ll be returning.

Battersea Power Station

In January I visited the Battersea Power Station development. Basically, it’s a high-end shopping mall inserted into the old Battersea power station, plus surrounding development – more retail (less high-end), apartments, and a tube station. I hadn’t realised that something had finally been done with the site – I remember the Pink Floyd pig from the early 80s, and I also remember Margaret Thatcher enthusing about a planned redevelopment when she was PM – and she resigned in 1991, I think – but I also remember that all the initiatives stumbled and failed because of the scale of the challenge. But it has been done, and is open.

As I said, the shopping mall is pretty high-end – indeed, there are shops there for brands that I’d never heard of. (But I may not be in their target demographic, so fair enough…) What there weren’t was a lot of shoppers – indeed, I got the feeling that the majority of people wandering around were just there to have a look at it. Like me, in fact. By far the busiest shop I saw was a M&S Food store in the deveopment outside; that was packed.

There’s no doubt that the development has been well done – the new shops, etc, have been inserted into the old structure, and in a lot of places the old brickwork shows though. There’s even the occasional piece of (huge) generation equipment lying around, possibly to give a clue that it used to be a power station. The architecture around is pretty good – certainly the public spaces are on a scale that matches the original building. The apartment blocks are a bit of a disappointment, however. I took a bunch of pictures with my iPhone, inside and outside, and the best are attached below.


Inside T3 at Changi Airport

We flew back to the UK on the Friday, 10 days after our arrival in Singapore. As with the journey out, this was a direct flight from Changi Airport to Heathrow with Singapore Airlines. We arrived at the airport with almost four hours to spare. We handed over our big bags at check-in and headed off to Jewel, home of the world’s highest indoor waterfall. Readers, we were disappointed – the waterfall has a rest until 10 o’clock every morning. Not much else seemed to be open, so we just headed back to the terminal and went through security. (Note to other travellers: Jewel is landside; you can’t get to it once through security.)

Once we were in the Departures area of T3 we found something I had forgotten about – the butterfly garden. It’s a small, enclosed area where butterflies of many species are just flying about and feeding on the sweet food that’s available to them. The butterflies are very beautiful, and looking at them helped fill up the time before we could board the aircraft.

Which brings us to the flight. It was not a pleasant experience; we were sat on the aircraft for 15 hours or a bit longer. The flight itself took almost an hour longer than scheduled, 14 hours instead of 13-and-a-bit. Then there were the usual periods spent sat in the plane both before and after the actual flight, and these amounted to at least an hour extra. I was feeling very sore and uncomfortable by the time we got off.

Getting back into the UK was pretty quick. There was a long walk from the gate to UK Border but after 15 hours being sat down I was glad for the opportunity to stretch my legs. We both got through the automated immigration process quickly, didn’t have to spend too long waiting for our bags, and found a Hoppa bus waiting to depart once we were outside in the T2 approach area.

We were staying at the Renaissance hotel, which is on the Heathrow estate. We’d left the car there 11 days earlier and were finishing the holiday with a night’s stay before driving home the following day. We felt that it would not be wise to attempt the drive after the long journey especially by the time we were at the hotel (8:30pm) we’d been awake for about 23 hours. So it was straight to the room, have a cup of tea, and then to bed, and slept well.

We got away from Heathrow somewhere around 9am the following morning and were home by just after 2pm. By this time the hours spent awake the day before were catching up with us. We did a bit of shopping for food, we washed some clothes, and then we went to bed, happy to be home.

An Orchid in the National Orchid Collection the Botanic Gardens

On our last full day we visited the Botanic Gardens. These are are a couple of miles away from the city centre but not too far from the hotel we’d moved to – we’d planned a two-centre holiday in Singapore (more on that in another post). It was a bit of a walk but went for it anyway. Additionally, entry to the Botanic Gardens – the main gardens, that is – is free, for locals and visitors alike. So off we set.

Thankfully – because we took a wrong turning and it ended up being further than we’d hoped – it was cloudy and eventually wet during the later morning so we weren’t walking in bright sunshine. Indeed, for a few minutes we had to get the umbrellas out. By this time it was late morning so coffee was called for, and we found a small food court selling kopi (more on that in another post, too). Then we set out into the gardens themselves.

They are large and, by Singaporean standards, old. The oldest section dates from the late 1850s, and the gardens were expanded during the following decade. In the early years it seems to have served as an ornamental garden for the enjoyment of the members of the horticultural society that then owned it, but they ran out of money to maintain the gardens and they were handed to the government in the 1870s. The government took them with several intentions. First, the ornamental aspect of the gardens were preserved and expanded, with access now free to all. Secondly, a zoo was established in the gardens. Thirdly the cultivation and exploitation of the rubber tree was studied at the gardens. This was so successful that by the end of the 19th century, Malaya (of which Singapore was then a part) produced half the world’s supply of latex, by tapping growing rubber trees. During the 20th century, and especially since independence (1965) the gardens have been principally developed as a leisure facility for the population to enjoy.

The gardens enjoy great regard among Singaporeans and in the world-wide horticultural community. They have been awarded the World Heritage Site accolade, one of only three gardens to be so honoured. The gardens also house Singapore’s National Orchid Collection – the national flower of Singapore is an orchid, and the National Orchid Collection holds well over a thousand different orchid species and many more artificial hybrids.

There’s also a small area of original tropical forest on the edge of the garden that’s been preserved. We took pictures of it, but I think that public access to it is restricted, or even prohibited. Much of Singapore was originally tropical forest but almost all was replaced by cultivation early in the colonial period – something called ‘gambier’ was the first cash crop to be raised. In fact its cultivation may have pre-dated the founding of the colony – Singapore’s early history is a matter of intense debate. But more of that in another post, as well.

We walked around parts of the gardens for several hours. As ever it was hot and humid, and in the early afternoon the clouds rolled away and the sun came out making it even hotter. Eventually we gave up long before we’d seen everything (indeed, I think it would take a number of visits to achieve that). However we did visit the orchid collection. There is a cost for this, but we found that by declaring ourselves to be Seniors we got in for a very reasonable price. They are very beautiful and very varied, and I applaud those who have made the study of the orchid their lives’ work (there are indeed such people).

And there were a couple of animals. We saw another otter, scurrying along a path. He was past us so quickly that I wasn’t able to get a picture, but I did get some of a later encounter with a monitor lizard; again, just lazing on a path.

Although hard, this was a good day.