What’s it like to travel solo on New Zealand’s Kiwi Experience coach?



Peters Pool in Franz Josef, which I stumbled across by accident while trekking


“Here comes the big green f*ck truck,” the hostel worker casually remarked, as the coach rolled into view. I responded with a nervous laugh, before bidding him farewell. Fresh-faced and dishevelled (mostly) young persons stared down from the windows of the coach as I queued to offload my backpack into the hold underneath, wondering what I’d got myself into.

I was setting off on a solo 16-day adventure through New Zealand and the Kiwi Experience backpacker bus would be my primary mode of transport. A chubby man with a clipboard – the driver, it turned out – waited by the coach door and ticked off my name as I boarded. A nostalgic feeling crept up on me – I hadn’t seen a clipboard since my school days, and I remembered field trips, the days of needing to register with the teacher. Turned out that this was the first of many, many times I would be seeing a clipboard on the trip, and this won’t be the last time I’d be made to feel like a bit of a big kid on their first day at school.

It’d been more than 10 years since I finished school – I was 27 and found myself on the Kiwi Experience because while I’d have loved to explore New Zealand in a car or campervan, I was going solo, so rather than it being just me and the open road, I opted for a backpacker bus that I hoped would take the hard work out of getting about, and help me make some friends in the process.

There was a stench of booze mixed with foot odour as I boarded the bus and found myself the nearest empty seat. I introduced myself to my neighbour, his name was Till, he was 21 and from Germany. In the next couple of days, I discovered that much of the bus was packed with “gap yah” students from Europe, the States and England. Many were also fresh out of university. There was one couple who was a tiny bit older than I was – newlyweds from Australia.

Chart music was booming from the speakers as we departed from Christchurch – I’d spent a day in the city beforehand, exploring the Quake City Museum (must-visit – it’s brilliantly interactive) and Christchurch Botanic Gardens. The driver spoke over the microphone, giving a commentary on where we were headed, how long it would be till the next toilet and supermarket stop (two hours) and then explained that clipboards (they’re back) were being passed around listing hostel accommodation options and activities for the next stop on the route – you had to simply put your name down and you’d be booked in.


Eel-filled Lake Rotoiti – which some crazy people from our coach had a swim in. It’s entirely safe to do so, the driver said

“Make some noise if you’re from England” the driver roared over the microphone, and the seemingly sleepy passengers sprung to life, “now make some noise if you’re drinking tonight”, there were whoops of delight heard. This set the tone for the next few days, and it reeked of a freshers’ week vibe. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, I thought to myself.

As the clipboard with the accommodation sheet reached me, there were different rooms available; private rooms for a higher price, which were taken up by the couples on the coach, and then there were mixed and single sex dorms. My neighbour Till scribbled his name in a slot in the mixed dorm, and I asked him if I could tag along. He said “sure, as long as I get the top bunk,” to which I nodded and signed my name on the paper.

When we eventually arrived at our accommodation in Nelson, more than five hours later, we were exhausted – it had been a long ride and this was because of the earthquake that happened a few months previously – the stop we initially were meant to make was no longer accessible by road. There was a long queue to check-in: getting more than 40 people signed in at once is a bit like being in a car at Piccadilly Circus at rush hour – you’re not getting far, fast. The remainder of the evening passed nicely though, we dropped off our bags and Till and I and a couple of our dorm friends headed out for a walk to see what the sleepy city of Nelson’s had to offer. Very little, it seemed, although the Queen’s Gardens and waterside area were nice. Later on, we came back to rustle up some dinner with our supermarket shop – I got pasta, and Till got tinned tuna and rice. I headed off to bed by 10 as I was due to be up and on the coach by 7am the next morning to make the coach to the next stop. WiFi was incredibly expensive and was often payable by the hour in hostels, so I was glad I bought a WiFi dongle at the airport that allowed access to the internet in most places.


Winding road in Fjordland National Park as we made our way down to see Milford Sound and board our cruise

As I was doing the Kea route – which covers both North and South Island in just over two weeks – I was on the move a lot and almost every other day I was at a new destination (it helps to pack sensibly and have a good backpack that opens up like a suitcase). Because I was sticking to the fixed route – other travellers had the option to stay longer in each destination if they wished, but they would have to change their bus bookings accordingly – to get everything done in the two weeks, there was a lot of time spent on the coach, and most days I was up by 6.45am to catch the coach for 7am. For those with more time, it’s probably wise not to do the routes like this – on “minimum time” – as it can feel rushed and you don’t have much flexibility, for example, if you arrive at a place and really like it, you might want to stay for longer, but you can’t because ultimately you may not make your return flight home. The minimum time travel route also meant I missed out on certain things: for example, in Abel Tasman I couldn’t do the four-hour trek through the national park as we arrived there at 6pm and were set to depart at 10am the following day (and the trek started at 2pm), and star gazing was called off at Lake Taupo as the weather wasn’t good, and I was set to leave early the next morning so I couldn’t delay it and experience it another day.

On our way out of Nelson the there was an incredible photo stop at the Nelson Lakes – and there were a few more memorable photo stops over the next couple of weeks, which was one of the highlights of the Kiwi Experience – the drivers took us to good spots and some days we even did little hikes together to break up the long bus journeys. What else is great is that the Kiwi bus tours the main hotspots, and this one took me to all the key places I wanted to visit – Franz Josef, Abel Tasman, Lake Wanaka, Queenstown, Lake Tekapo and then on to the North Island.

The initial impression I got of the driver being very “teacher-like” was solidified as he was the person who dictated toilet stops along the driving route, took the group to the supermarket to stock up on essentials, pointed out interesting landmarks as we drove and he was the one who attempted to solve any problems we had, for example, if someone wanted to change their travel route. This felt like an escorted tour and while you have time to do your own thing, it was also a bit strict: if you missed the bus without letting the driver know you wouldn’t be boarding, you’d have to pay a fee to get on the next one, and if you didn’t make it back to the coach in time from the toilet stop, the driver would leave without you. I heard a horrible story of a girl who was on a coach before ours, who had left all her belongings on the coach and taken too long in the supermarket. The coach driver didn’t wait as he had to stick to a schedule, so some of her friends jumped off the coach to find her and they all caught a taxi to the next stop together – otherwise she would have been alone and penniless in an unfamiliar town.

On the way to Kaiteriteri it turned out that there would be a party that evening – an “S party”, which meant you’d have to come dressed as something beginning with the letter S. I didn’t really have a means of opting out as we were going to be staying in a secluded lodge with lots of cabins that is miles away from civilisation. As we rolled up to the supermarket, we were instructed to get creative with what we bought, to craft an inventive outfit for the theme – and there would be prizes for the best ones.I’ll admit it was an exciting challenge that forced me to think on my feet. One person went off to buy a pair of fluffy rugs (to dress up as sheep), a couple of girls dashed to buy some bright blue face paint and white hats, so they could dress up as the Smurfs, while another group of girls went off and buy accessories to dress up as the Spice Girls. Even I, the frugal traveller, got involved and purchased a red-coloured fleece blanket which could double up as a cape and be paired with my Superman pyjamas – simple.


Horseback riding in Lord of the Rings land, Glenorchy in the south island

Arriving in the cabin in the woods, there was excitement as everybody was keen to put their outfits together, and considering that mostly everyone was travelling with only essentials, there was a lot of improvisation involved. There were a few hours till the party yet and the accommodation providers had an opt-in paid for cultural activity: greenstone (known locally as pounamu or jade) carving. I got involved, and it was an intricate process. Some people made beautiful pendants for necklaces while I carved a neat prism as a keyring for a friend back home. Travelling through New Zealand you see a lot of pounamu souvenirs and it was nice to have been given the chance to get involved in the process of making my own.

The S party turned out to be rather enjoyable, I even threw some shapes at the disco and tried to shrug off my self consciousness, thinking, ‘I probably won’t be seeing these people again, better make the most of it’. The evening was rosy until bed time – I made a brisk exit from the party at 10pm, and at about 11pm a couple of others from my cabin came crawling in. Unfortunately the all-female dorm wasn’t all-female any more. In the bunk below me, things were getting heated and moans and groans were erupting. At the time I felt the best way to proceed was to stay silent and log-like. Being in a remote location meant I had no cellphone reception, so I couldn’t even text a friend to stay busy. It then became clear to me why the hostel worker had called it a “f*ck truck”! Everything calms down after about half an hour, thank God. Thankfully this was a the only time I had to encounter this on my two week trip.

In the coming days I met two lovely American girls sitting beside me on the coach to Franz Josef. I told them about my experiences so far, and that night in the woods, and they insisted that I share a room with them, *breathes sigh of relief*. The clipboard listing possible activities to do in Franz Josef came around and there was a cool helicopter ride and hike on the glacier, or a sky dive. I was feeling brave and put my name down for the sky dive. When we arrived in Franz Josef though, the wear was grey and rainy and the driver informed us that there was a high chance our activity would be called off. I checked the weather forecast for the following day and it looked the same. The driver was right, it’s called off. According to my itinerary, I was scheduled to stay two days in Franz Josef so it would have been worth me trying to get an earlier coach out of there, especially as I didn’t have very much to do there. I called the Kiwi Experience head office to arrange a transfer, but the coach for tomorrow was full so I’d have to stay an extra night.

It was a tad annoying, but the Americans and I made grand plans to follow the guided path up to see the glacier and perhaps have a dip in the on-site jacuzzi at our hostel. On that hike I also accidentally discovered Peter’s Pool right beside Franz Josef – it’s slightly hidden away from the normal path, but do visit.

That night a random guy ended up in our room too, and we made friends, although his sleep snoring in the top bunk was displeasing. The following day felt like a  waste; I went back to check that there had been no change in circumstances and there hadn’t – the sky dives weren’t happening – but the good thing was that the American girls and I were set to be travelling together for the next six days straight, and it felt so good to have made a couple of good friends to stick with. We cooked together in the hostel kitchen in the evening as it was the cheapest way to fuel – sachet porridge, tinned goods, sandwiches and soup are about as ambitious as I got for the trip as it was a bit of a chore to carry ingredients around everywhere and unpack at every destination.

The Kiwi Experience was a good way to meet a lot of people – some people I lost and found again as my travel continued down the route, perhaps because they spent an extra night in a location that I was about to leave, but then they caught up when I was spending a couple of nights somewhere else. Everyone was on their own journey and the dorms and optional extra activities offered a good way to make friends. The Kiwi Experience organised dinners and drinks that you can opt in to, too. One day the hostel we were staying in in Wellington offered a free home-cooked dinner and it was the most comforting cottage pie I’d tasted in all my time abroad. Another optional communal breakfast (AUD $15) in Queenstown was ridiculously good, perhaps simply because you’re not making it yourself and it’s been made for you. The drivers gave good food/restaurant recommendations and tips on things to do, and ways to save money too.

The Kiwi Experience also forced me out of my comfort zone a little. I found myself riding a rodeo in a fancy cowboy-themed bar in Wellington, cheered on by some guys I met at the hostel bar; risk-averse me did a bungee jump in Queenstown, after getting caught up in the thrill of being in one of the most adventurous places in the world. Even though it took me a good four minutes of teetering on the edge of a wooden plank, questioning what the hell I’d got myself into, I finally made that jump and it made me realise the importance of facing my fears head on. No, I’m not cueing up that cliche about travel changing a person, although sending the bungee jump video to my parents was an interesting experience. My mother said she didn’t sleep for a couple of nights after watching it. I told her it was too late, I’d already done it, and I was fine. Talk about testing boundaries.


Rippon Vineyard in Lake Wanaka – hosts free wine tastings so do visit

Other highlights of the trip included discovering the most scenic vineyard in Wanaka. After being tipped off by a hostel worker, and a good forty minute hike in the boiling midday sun, we arrived at Rippon vineyard and I tasted incredible wine, got a little tipsy with the American girls and some others we’d befriended and decided I’d like to get married there one day. The hikes were really memorable.

If you’re headed to the North Island, keep an empty stomach for the epic feast at the Maori cultural village. It is an experience you won’t forget in a hurry, having been living like a pauper for ages, you immediately feel like a princess/prince being fed the finest food cooked in a hangi. In the geothermal wonderland of Rotorua, the bubbling mud pools and geothermal activity park were amazing to see, too. Lake Taupo (do the hike to Huka Falls, it’s worth it) and the Waitomo Caves (where you can see glow worms) are great, too.

South Island was my favourite of the two islands because of the beautiful scenery, but the cultural highlights were greater in the north island, so it’s wise to do a bit of both if you get the time. Would I do it again, the backpacker bus? Perhaps, if it was for a shorter time. I’d do it for longer if I had a pal/s with me. The Kiwi Pass is valid for up to a year after you’ve travelled, so you can go and use the buses again in that time if you like.


Top tips for travelling on the Kiwi Experience Bus:

-Don’t do the route on ‘minimum time’ as you miss out on a lot of activities

-Get your smartphone unlocked and buy a sim card at the airport loaded with lots of data, as Wi-Fi is expensive in the hostels

-Take a good side-open backpack for travelling, as it makes getting things in and out easier and a good padlock.

-You won’t need a sleeping bag

-Don’t lose that little Kiwi Pass (slip of paper they give you at the start of the tour) as you’ll have to pay a fee to replace it

-Be open to making new friends if you’re travelling alone

-When that clipboard comes around, get involved if you can afford it

-Befriend the drivers, and go and sit up front and chat to them while driving to get a better insight into the place you’re visiting and also to get more tips on places to go/things to eat  (ie they tipped us off about going to the famed Fergburger in Queenstown; gigantic burgers)

-Take anything that’ll make a coach journey more comfortable, such as a pillow, a good pair of headphones, etc. Perhaps load up your phone with podcasts and TV programmes to watch before you leave home, too

-Take a good microfibre towel for showers – it’s light and it’ll dry quick, essential when you’re moving around a lot

-Pack layered clothing: the weather changes quickly, and differs in both north and south island

-If you can’t afford to do all the activities, which can be expensive, do a lot of hikes and get out and explore the area you’re in – that’s how I discovered some of the most stunning spots, by accident

-Buy supermarket stuff in bulk for breakfast and dinner as it’s cheaper than eating out every day – perhaps get a cool bag if you can

Full disclosure: I was not paid by Kiwi Experience to write this. I wrote this piece back in 2017 but forgot to publish. Since then, my laptop has been stolen, which contained all the rest of my beautiful photos from the trip. Boo!


We made it to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal!


Annapurna on the left, Fishtail mountain on the right

After months and months of preparing and training, I completed a relentless 9-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp in November 2018, along with 26 others in my group. Thanks to the incredible generosity of all our sponsors, we have managed to raise approximately £430,000, which will help Sense International continue doing its amazing work for deafblind children and their families throughout the world.

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Getting closer to the top

Trekking up to Annapurna Base Camp was one of the best yet most challenging things I’ve ever done – it has helped me to discover the strength of my body, my mind, and ignited within me a new passion for trekking and a desire to push myself further. It has exceeded my expectations and rewarded me with great new friendships and treated me to the most amazing vistas, from trekking alongside rice paddy fields, through tiny villages, mountain valleys and within dark forests. It wasn’t easy, but the spirit among the group kept everyone motivated – and regular rest periods (I listened to my body), helped me through. Here’s a day-by-day account of what went down, illustrated by photos, plus a list of essentials to pack if you’re doing the trek yourself (bottom).


Annapurna is a group of mountains in the Himalayas in north-central Nepal. We trekked to Annapurna Base Camp at 4,130m, taking in its unique and incredibly spectacular setting, amidst the majestic peaks of Annapurna South (7,219m), Annapurna I (8,091m), Hiunchuli (6,441m), Gangapurna (7,454m), Annapurna III (7,555m) and Machhapuchhre (6,993m).


Our hiking route


Our group of 27 ranged in age from 24 to 65 years old, with more than 50% of the trekkers over 55 years old. There were 3 father and son/daughter pairs and 7 couples in this global team, which drew together trekkers from the UK, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Italy and Liechtenstein. Our full entourage came to 48 including the 5 local guides and their assistants and 16 porters, all local Gurung people of north-central Nepal. We were under the able leadership of our local Nepalese chief guide called Basu.


DAY 1 (18 November) – Nayapul to Ghandruk 1,940m

The whole group united in Pokhara for the start. We loaded our bags onto the roof of a people carrier and made a 2-hour car journey to the starting point of the trek at Nayapul (1,010m). The ride was so bumpy we wished we’d been given protective helmets! The rest of our entourage, including the assistant guides and porters, were waiting for us at the starting point. Everyone was muted and deep in thought as there was a sense of excitement coupled with a bit of nervousness amongst our group about the big task ahead and most probably the questionable living conditions we’d encounter over the coming days. We watched in awe as the porters used rope and rolled up old rice bags to secure two of our heavy 20kg backpacks on each of their own backs.


The amusing, makeshift baggage claim counter at Pokhara Airport

We set off on a dust road at around 11.30am. The weather was glorious; the sun was out and so were the bottles of sun cream. An hour into the trek we stopped for a coffee and to reflect on the lush greenery surrounding the small townships and rice paddies that we had passed. Little did we know of the endless uphill steps that would greet us shortly after our coffee break.


Leaving the village of Nayapul to start our trek

We followed the trail along the Modi River until we started hiking up a winding path to reach a place called Kimche for lunch; stir-fried rice with vegetables – subsequently voted the worst meal of this trek. Thankfully we’d packed a couple of mini bottles of Sriracha hot sauce, which helped the mouthfuls go down a little easier. Considering it was our first meal, we were even more nervous about what we’d be fed this week.


Steps, more steps, and even more steps

After lunch the trek continued to ascend towards Ghandruk. Some of us found the first day really challenging and slow going which meant we ran out of daylight towards the end of the day. We had to complete the rest of the day’s walk in darkness – it was eerie, being in a completely silent forest at that time of the day, but provided a very good chance to test those head torches. All in all we had climbed an equivalent of 400 flights of stairs on the first day. The thought on everyone’s mind was that whoever classed this as a ‘moderately difficult’ trek wasn’t thinking very clearly. We were questioning what we’d got ourselves into. On the upside, we were astounded that the porters managed to do the exact same route as we did, but with at least 40 kg loaded on their backs, and in significantly less time than we took.


Passing lush paddies and green fields

We arrived at our first tea house accommodation in Ghandruk having gained 900m on day 1, at approximately 6.30pm. Tea houses are essentially small, basic hostels in local villages offering both a place to sleep as well as a home-cooked meal. Most of the tea houses are owned, managed and inhabited by local families. They are all very basic, and the standards of service and facilities offered vary significantly between one tea house and the next. In the ‘bedrooms’ were three or four wooden bed frames with a thin mattress on each. Every night we would unfurl our sleeping bags on top of the mattress and clamber inside. The facilities got more basic and fewer as we ascended to villages at a higher altitude and the rooms got colder.


The porters trekking alongside us, each holding two 20kg bags on their backs

Everyone was completely shattered following a tougher than expected day of trekking immediately after a long-haul flight; so after a traditional Nepalese thali dinner we all retired early.


A traditional Nepalese thali

There were at least three people in a room (sometimes 5) – it was tight and there was definitely no space to swing a cat! There wasn’t any hot water coming from the shower so a few of us persuaded the owner to boil some water in a kettle for us – a bucket shower it was. The snorers in our group (each vying for the top spot) maintained their orchestral performance throughout the night depriving some of us from much needed sleep and rest – the flimsy, thin bedroom walls were no match against the nightly performance!

DAY 2 (19 November) Ghandruk to Chhomrong 2,170m

With the first day’s trek behind us and armed with a (mostly) good night’s rest in clean mountain air, we were ready to embark on our second day’s challenge, comforted by the knowledge that today would be easier than yesterday as we were only going to end up 250m higher. The early risers amongst us managed to catch a glimpse of the snow-covered mountains in the Annapurna Range far in the distance at sunrise, before the view was hidden by the clouds rolling in from the valley floor.


Annapurna peeking through and Fishtail at sunrise on the right

After a hearty breakfast (a boiled egg, curried potatoes and pancakes) and a quick stretch and warm up to loosen the muscles from the previous day’s trek, we left Ghandruk at about 8.00am, passing many children getting ready to go to school in this little village. The trek ascended for an hour up to Ghandrukkot Hill where we had a mini-picnic over cups of black/ginger tea.


A quick warm up before we set off

We prepared ourselves for a very steep descent down to the bed of Kimron River to our lunch stop. Having navigated almost 2,000 stony steps down to the river bed, almost everyone shared the view that downhill trekking was not much fun and strenuous on the knees.

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Steep climbs and descents greeted us on this day

After a couple of hours walking, everyone enjoyed the lunch served in a very pleasant tea house not very far from the river bed and valley floor. During lunch the discussion centred around the unexpected 600 metre ascent that we needed to ready ourselves for – so much for an easy trekking day that we had anticipated when we started off this morning.

Sure as night follows day, we were greeted by another steep ascent comprising of 2,500+ steps to Chhomrong, a quaint village located on top of a ridge.


We frequently saw sheep, mules, monkeys and mountain dogs on our route

It was only day two – morale was low. The group was totally exhausted having laboured through thousands of steps and the mood for rebellion was in the air. There were no facilities on the trek so we’d all become accustomed to peeing in the wild or in a hole in the ground, and those trusty rolls of biodegradable loo paper were our saviours for the trip. Showers on this day were limited to a maximum of two minutes as there was not enough hot water for everyone, but very few people complained as it was just too cold to utilise the full two minutes – as soon as the sun went down, the outside temperature quickly dropped.

We got our first close-up silhouetted night view of the snow-capped Annapurna South and Machhapuchhare (commonly known as Fishtail Mountain) towering above the village of Chhomrong. It was a majestic sight, difficult to forget in a hurry. To warm up against the chill at night we decided to break open a bottle of local Nepalese rum to make a hot toddy. Before we knew it the beers and hot toddies were flowing and it became a party with everyone merrily singing and dancing around the dining table to local Nepalese songs, including the guides and porters. Letting our hair down allowed for a huge improvement in morale within the group.

DAY 3 (20 November) – Chhomrong to Bamboo 2,130m

It was 6.00am, dark and really cold outside but already the camp was stirring with a lot of activity. Everyone was out with their cameras and smartphones to catch their first real glimpse of the sunrise over Annapurna South and Machhapuchhare. There was a lot of excitement as people jostled for photo opportunities – it was a truly magnificent site. The temperature rose as soon as the sun was out; clear blue skies and 16°C were forecast today – perfect for the day’s trekking.


The view from our room

Breakfast was another feast, consisting of a boiled egg, curried potatoes and the traditional Gurung fried bread with lashings of masala tea and black coffee – our tastiest breakfast yet. After breakfast, it was a challenge to get everybody to line up for a group photo but there was a distinct upbeat mood within the group today.

The trail out of Chhomrong descended via 2,500+ large stone steps to the Modi river bed which we crossed using a swaying suspension bridge. There was yet another uphill climb on a rocky trail to Sinuwa (2,350m) where we took a break at one of its tea houses to catch our breath over lunch.


A chilly day of trekking under a deep fog in the forest

The trail continued uphill passing through a beautiful rhododendron forest to a place called Kuldi, which was once a British sheep-breeding project. It was all downhill from Kuldi across a long, steep staircase passing through a dense bamboo and rhododendron forest to arrive at a small hamlet called Bamboo.

DAY 4 (21 November) – Bamboo to Himalaya 3,000m

The trail continued to ascend through dense forests where we got to see troops of Langur monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Today we walked through thick fog so cameras didn’t see much action. We had not seen any motorised transport since we set off three days ago; the trail was littered with mule droppings, as mules are the main transport mechanism at this altitude; or sheer human strength.


A local carrying a great load in his bamboo basket – and doing it in flip flops, mind you

After walking for 7 hours, and having ascended 900m in total today, we finally reached a collection of three tea houses in what appeared to be the hamlet of Himalaya. Our accommodation was grandiosely named the Himalayan Hotel but it was just another tea house with fewer facilities than yesterday. I hadn’t showered in three days – the thought of a freezing shower and stripping off in the cold was too difficult – so my biodegradable baby wipes saved the day.


Time to chill after a long day of trekking

Although there was a chill in the air, we sat outside in the courtyard, under a corrugated roof shelter sipping tea and coffee; some of us playing cards over a beer whilst others content with having a chat about the day’s event. We were too tired to unpack our bags and freshen up before dinner.


No room at the inn… our rooms only had space for beds – small ones

Dinner was the usual spread in a tightly packed and cosy dining area – 27 plates of Nepalese dal bhat thali, plus an extra 21 for the porters and guides. It is amazing what the chef was able to conjure up for dinner in such a small kitchen area in a remote location – but it tasted delicious.

Thali time again

DAY 5 (22 November) – Himalaya to Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) 3,700m

We had been warned the night before, during the usual dinner briefing, to expect an uphill trek all the way to MBC which would be our highest overnight resting place on this trek. Today we had to ascend a full 700m. With heads slightly thumping (the first sign of altitude sickness), we set off towards MBC at 8.00am after the usual boiled egg and potato curry breakfast. The sun was out yet again to give us another gorgeous day, but it was not to last. The weather changed as we went up through the valley towards Hinko Cave with clouds rolling up from the valley floor making it very foggy. The trail passed over a couple of small precarious log bridges crossing a stream of ice melt from the mountains above.

After a 4-hour ascent we arrived at a place called Deurali, high above the cloud-line, where we relaxed for a couple of hours to enjoy an al-fresco lunch underneath a clear blue sky.


Sunglasses are out and we’re eagerly awaiting our lunch

We were in for a treat – this place was known for the Nepalese Momo (a steamed dumpling with different kinds of filling – a bit like dim sum). Whilst lunch was being prepared, the game of cards continued; others relaxed and watch the world go by.


Nepalese dumplings, known as “momo”, with a side of stir-fried rice


A quick game of Monopoly Deal

After lunch, the trail ascended gently through a fast-glacial river bed rising steeply over the mountain side. We found ourselves surrounded by giant snow-covered mountains. The sun rays reflected off the snow on the mountain to create a stunning view. But we had just entered the “Avalanche Risk Area” and the path was treacherous as we navigated across rocks covered by fresh snow fall from a recent avalanche. It was single file only. The mood was sombre. One wrong footstep and the snow beneath us could give way causing an injury or worse, making one slide right down the mountain side.


Team work makes the dream work


The scary sign we trekked past in silence


Entering the avalanche zone


Traversing the snow-covered ground towards MBC


The uphill snow struggle


The weather kept changing as we entered the clouds


The most rewarding views of the mountain valleys

We all made it across safely but the effort and concentration of ploughing through lots of deep snow and icy sections was exhausting. Every now and again we heard the thunderous clap of an avalanche and snow falling down the mountainsides around us – it stopped everyone in their tracks to try to spot the white dust storm in the sky indicating the location of the avalanche.

The trek felt never ending. We asked the guides: “How much further? Are we there yet?” to which they gave their stock reply, “Not long to go now”. We finally arrive at MBC around 5.00pm and the view that rewarded us made it all worthwhile. We were completely surrounded by mountains, every way we turned; it almost looked pretend; like it was created as a backdrop for a theatre production. The humongous mountains (including Fishtail Mountain right ahead of us) had a way of making us all feel so small and insignificant. Despite the freezing cold and biting wind we posed and took lots of photos; staring in awe at the spectacle around us.


Almost at Machhapuchhre Base Camp

Although we were at a place labelled a base camp, it is not technically a base camp as it is forbidden to climb Machhapuchhre (Fishtail) for religious reasons.

The plan was to start trekking very early at 3am the next morning in order to get to Annapurna Base Camp just before sunrise. Some people had a splitting headache brought about by the altitude; most had mixed feelings of both apprehension and anticipation for what tomorrow would bring. We got busy organising and preparing ourselves for the early morning start. There was a sense of trepidation too: all that snow we’d just traversed would surely turn to ice overnight, and soon we’d be climbing back up it, yet it total darkness. Everyone was in bed by 9.00pm (today we were 4-5 to a room) although a lot of sleep was not to be had due to altitude, cold, anxiety and the ever-present night-time orchestra!

SUMMIT DAY 6 (23 November) – MBC to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) 4,130m

It was 3am – pitch black and freezing cold outside – in fact the temperature was about minus 10c but it felt much colder due to the wind chill. But we had no option – we had to get out of our cosy sleeping bags as today was the big day when we would meet Annapurna. There was no time for a cup of tea/coffee or breakfast before we headed of.


The 3am struggle to get to Annapurna Base Camp – battling the freezing cold, darkness, snow and black ice

Although we had three layers of clothes on our legs, at least six on the top of our bodies, three pairs of socks, woolly hats, balaclavas and ski gloves, it still felt really cold standing in the biting wind whilst waiting for everyone to assemble before starting off.

To manage the safety of the group the guides split us into 2 groups, a faster pace and a medium pace group. Adorned with head torches we slowly made our ascent in a single file – wary as the path was covered with black ice – slippery and treacherous in some sections.

It was a full moon night with hardly any cloud cover to hide the millions of stars peppering the sky. Progress was slow on the icy surface and our ascent was c150m per hour. The wind chill made it feel colder, and our stops were limited to less than 2 minutes – to catch our breaths, clear our runny noses, grab a sip of water etc, so that we wouldn’t freeze – most finding it frustratingly difficult to accomplish these tasks in such a short time with so much clothing on!


Just as the sun started rising, we entered an area called the Annapurna Base Camp Sanctuary. From here the views of the near-vertical south face of Annapurna towering above us were sensational. We had an unobstructed 360-degree panoramic view of Machhapuchhare, Annapurna South, Annapurna I, Annapurna III, Gangapurna, Hiunchuli and a few other peaks towering close to or above 8,000m. Annapurna Base Camp is a small area with a couple of tea houses, some research huts and expedition tents all on a cliff edge above a huge glacier moraine. We had finally arrived.


Obligatory team photo at Annapurna Base Camp

Everyone was on a high – hugs and high-fives all around; for some it was a very emotional moment – it finally sunk in that they had just realised their goal of trekking to Annapurna Base Camp having spent so much of their time in the last 10 months training and preparing for it.

There were 27 of us who embarked on this trek. 26 made it to ABC. It was a shame that the last one could not make it as he was about 45 minutes away from ABC but succumbed to altitude sickness, serious enough for the guides to make a call that it would be safer for him to turn back. All in all a great achievement for the entire group and for many individually it was one of the most rewarding day of the trek and a significant achievement of a lifetime. We took our time to watch the sunrise over Annapurna Sanctuary in the lap of the Himalaya range and let this significant achievement sink in.


Spectacular view of the mountain ranges

Before setting off on our descent to MBC we enjoyed a most satisfying and much needed cup of coffee and a piece of chocolate each. As the sun rose in the sky, the trek down to MBC became even more treacherous as the ice had started to melt. There was little foothold for our boots on the icy path and there were many tumbles and falls on the way down – luckily there were no serious injuries or broken bones. We arrived back at MBC for a well-earned breakfast before packing our bags in readiness for the descent.


Spirits remained high

The mood in the group was very different now – we were on our way down and everyone was on a high from a personal goal fulfilled! We still had a long day ahead of us in order to get down to Dovan (2,500m). We passed through the “Avalanche Risk Area” again to arrive at Duerali at around 2.00pm where we enjoyed another great al-fresco lunch under clear blue skies.


Making our downward descent

We continued our downward trek to Dovan, having to don for the second time that day our head torches, finally reaching Dovan in the dark for our overnight stop at around 6.00 pm. We had been walking since 3.00am – 15 hours in our boots! At Dovan we all had hot showers – for many of us it was our first shower in six days – at a cost of 200 rupees per person (about £1.50). Today was also a special day as we had a birthday boy amongst us. We cracked open a few beers, exchanged animated stories of the day’s events and for the first time ate something other than dhal bhat for dinner; we got pizza and chips as a reward for our hard day’s work. Sadly, we were all so shattered and unable to keep the celebrations going for too long. Everyone was tucked up in bed by 9.00pm.

DAY 7 (24 November) – Dovan to Sinuwa 2,360m

After a leisurely breakfast in Dovan – our first fried instead of boiled egg; oh what a treat! – we continued our trail downhill towards Sinuwa. Spirits were high and everyone had a spring in their step. After a 3-hour walk we arrived at Bamboo for a lunch break. We reached our accommodation in Sinuwa in record time around 4.00 pm.


Picturesque coffee/masala tea stop

DAY 8 (25 November) – Sinuwa to Jhinu Danda 1,780m

We decided to start off early today as we wanted to get to Jhinu Danda as quickly as possible so that we could relax our tired muscles in the natural hot springs there. We left at 7.00am and after a couple of hours arrived at a beautiful outdoor spot, high on a mountain ridge, with panoramic views of the valleys below.

We continued our descent to Jhinu Danda, arriving in time for lunch and beers. After lunch we got into our swimsuits and ventured down through the forest for a 30-minute walk to the hot springs to spend a couple of hours unwinding in style. The setting of these hot springs was surreal – to one side was the fast-flowing Modi River and to the other was a dense forest. The locals believe the natural hot springs would aid the healing of the aches and pains that our bodies had suffered in the last few days.

DAY 9 (26 November) – Jhinu Danda to Pokhara

This was the final day of the trek. After breakfast we had a short 2.5-hour trek down to Sauli. To get there we had to walk along the second longest, swaying suspension bridge in Nepal about 350m long – it felt like walking down the aisle of an aeroplane in turbulence – for some it was unsettling. At Sauli, we thanked our porters for their incredible support and hard work, followed by an emotional farewell, before jumping onto our transport for the journey back to Pokhara.


The second longest, swaying suspension bridge in Nepal – walking along it felt like walking down an aeroplane when there is turbulence – it was unsettling


Everyone in the group is incredibly proud of their own personal achievement and journey over the last few months. We take away great memories forged along the Annapurna Base Camp trek together with countless stories and anecdotes to share with our friends and family. The best thing to come out of this trek are the new friendships and sense of camaraderie forged over the 9 days of trekking.


Tibetan cloth prayer flags adorned many of our trekking routes. The practice of hanging prayer flags (which contain sacred text and symbols) pre-dates Buddhism. It was a shamanic medicinal practice to help bring balance and harmony to the environment. After some time the prayer flags will naturally fade and fray, symbolising the passing nature of all things



Multi-coloured prayer flags sway in the wind above us


A local carrying a bale of hay on his back


Clothes drying outside a home in a village we passed through

Together, we have managed to raise an extraordinary sum of money, currently standing at £430,000, for the deafblind which would not have been possible without the immense generosity of our donors.

We left a small piece of our hearts in Nepal but taken with us a rucksack full of memories. Kaushik, one of the team members has composed this poem below which sums up our feelings at the end of this incredible trek.


Step by step, rock by rock

Heart thumping fast, tick-tock, tick-tock

You gaze to the sky, crystal clear blue

There she sits, majestically, like few others do

She holds court, so begins the drama

As others pay homage, in humble panorama

The flags in colour, salute her and flutter

Whispering sweetly “Go in Peace”, they mutter

The sun rises, showering her in golden glory

So ends a chapter, in your life’s story

Your heart and soul in union, this is karma

It’s just amazing, Ascending Annapurna


What to pack for Annapurna Base Camp

The main bag (70-100kg), which porters carry (make sure it’s wheel-less) should be waterproof, and contain the following items:

I’ve highlighted in red the things that were absolutely ESSENTIAL and inserted a few web links.

  • Sleeping Bag – a 4-5 season plus (delivering comfort at -5C to -9C)
  • Travel pillow (optional)
  • Sleeping Bag Liner (silk or cotton) for extra warmth
  • Comfortable shoes or trainers for the evening
  • Good walking socks (1 pair for every 2 trekking days)
  • Underlining socks (1 pair for every trekking day)
  • Spare socks and underwear
  • Warm thermal or base layer (2 pairs)
  • Light trekking trousers (each one should give you 4-5 days wear)
  • A couple of trekking shorts (or trousers convertibles into shorts)
  • A couple of warm fleeces
  • T-shirts & long-sleeved tops (1 for every two trekking days)
  • Comfortable bottoms or spare trousers for the evenings
  • A small wash-kit including any personal hygiene stuff
  • Quick drying travel bath and hand towel (microfibre is best)
  • Warm pair of wind and waterproof gloves with thin liner (ski gloves are excellent)
  • An extra pair of lightweight fleecy gloves for lower altitude
  • Padlock or means of securing/locking luggage
  • Ear plugs
  • Playing cards (Monopoly Deal is amazing), books, miniature travel games or something for entertainment
  • Hand torch with spare batteries
  • Mobile power bank for device charging (most tea houses charge you to use their electricity) – some in our group used solar chargers
  • 1 spare re-useable water bottle
  • Biodegradable wet wipes
  • Medicine kit (see below)
  • Spare chocolate bars, snack bars, trail mix, sweets or other snacks (the tea houses do have them available also, to buy)
  • Colouring pencils/books/stickers/toys for the young Nepalese children you meet on the trek

Medicine bag comprising:

  • Painkillers (avoiding those that include aspirin)
  • Ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatory (not for asthmatics)
  • Imodium or Lomita for diarrhoea
  • Dehydration mix such as Dioralyte
  • Antihistamines
  • Antiseptic wipes and cream
  • Plasters
  • Elastic knee support
  • Moleskin and/or ‘Compede’ for blister treatment
  • Tiger Balm or equivalent
  • Olbas Oil or Vicks breathing stick
  • Throat pastilles or lozenges

Day rucksack (size 25-35 litres), which will be carried by you while trekking, containing:

Winter exploration: a day trip to Bristol

bristol ice rink

The biting, chilly winter winds have arrived in full force, work Christmas parties are fast approaching and the festive hype is beginning. It seems about the right time to slip into the Christmas spirit – and that I did, while outdoor ice skating this weekend in the city of Bristol.

One of Bristol’s festive attractions, the recently-opened At-Bristol Ice Rink gives visitors the chance to skate around a small-scale rink, with feel-good festive such as Frozen’s Do You Want to Build a Snowman, Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car and Frank Sinatra’s New York playing in the background. When we visited on Saturday afternoon, it was mostly full of young children and families. What’s great about its location [for a family outing] is that it’s beside both the planetarium and the aquarium, and the harbour.

ice skates on iceFor festive food, we made our way to the German Christmas markets located in the heart of Bristol’s shopping area in Broadmead. Rows of traditional wooden chalets selling traditional German Christmas decorations, gifts and food combine with Bavarian-style beer houses to create a buzzing atmosphere. It’s a great place to while away an hour or two sampling festive food – from hog roasts, crepes and waffles to spicy mulled wine and cider.

On my to-do list for the day was a more hands-on, creative festive experience offered by Bristol Blue Glass, a renowned company that makes and sells glassware in the city. For a limited time it is offering a special glass bauble blowing experience that sounds intriguing and rewarding.

Time was running out, so instead of visiting Bristol Blue Glass, we took a detour for a free dose of culture (and to warm ourselves up!), by heading to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, in the hope of finding something by graffiti artist Banksy, who was born in Bristol. As you enter the museum, you find Banksy’s famous ‘Pink Angel’ sculpture, an angel with a paint bucket slung over its head, and pink paint trickling down its body. Much of the rest of Banksy’s work is dotted around the streets of the city, so street art and graffiti tours have become established as a must-do when visiting Bristol.

death exhibition bristol museum

Whilst at the museum we also queued for a short time to make it into the ‘Death: the human experience’ exhibition. As a society we’re quite reluctant to talk about death and dying – it’s not something I’d choose to start a conversation about – which is why this exhibition, which is on until March 2016, was particularly eye-opening and insightful. It was a ‘pay what you think’ exhibition, so as you exit, you’re able to decide how much you enjoyed it and what you’d like to donate – a smart idea, I thought.

st nicholas market bristol

St Nicholas Market

Hunger struck again, so we made a beeline for the artisan food stalls in the covered section of St Nicholas Market. This is an unmissable foodie stop and the laidback, cool vibe of the city really comes through. Independent retailers selling everything from fresh made-before-your-eyes falafel to Jamaican specialties, smoothies, or pies and gravy from local favourite Pieminister, make this is a brilliant and quirky stop. The other areas of St Nicholas Market, which were established as early as the 1700s, contain stalls selling everything from artwork to jewellery and vintage clothing, so the area is great for exploring, and picking up a few unusual bits and bobs.

st mary redcliffe church bristol

St Mary Redcliffe Church

pieminister pie shop bristol

Hearty fare at Pieminister in St Nicholas Market

Before heading back to catch the train home to London from Temple Meads Station, we stopped in at the strikingly beautiful St Mary Redcliffe Church. It’s a masterpiece of gothic architecture, which has been around for some 800 years. Look out for one of the stained glass windows in the east end of the church that depicts Noah’s Ark, with 22 species of animals in pairs.

A day isn’t enough to see everything that Bristol has to offer – and the hilly city can really bring the tiredness out in you – but on my list of things to see for next time is:

  • SS Great Britain, the world’s first luxury cruise liner. Restored and reinstated to where she was built, you can climb aboard and explore everything from the posh first-class cabins to the cramped workers’ quarters and the engine. It gives an insight into Bristol’s maritime history – and its past as a port, which stretches back to 1051.
  • M Shed has a permanent exhibition that charts Bristol’s history for a fuller picture, and there are also pirate tours to explain Bristol’s part in the triangular slave trade.
  • Clifton Suspension Bridge, which can be considered the defining image of Bristol, sits spectacularly on the cliffs of the Avon Gorge. It was built by great Victorian Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the same man who created the SS Great Britain, and the Temple Meads Station.

If you’re thinking to visit Bristol on a budget, here’s a list of attractions with free entry:

  • Arnolfini
  • Arnos Vale Cemetry
  • Blaise Castle House Museum and Estate
  • M Shed
  • The Georgian House Museum
  • The Red Lodge Museum
  • Bristol Cathedral
  • Spike Island
  • The Architecture Centre
  • The Matthew

Beside the seaside: a day trip to Hastings

hastings beach

The last time I uttered the word “Hastings” was when I was aged 13 and bored silly in a history class at school. You guessed it – I was studying the Battle of Hastings, which, I only recently discovered didn’t actually take place in Hastings – it took place several miles away, in Battle (Hastings was the nearest, largest town, so it earned the name). Something they failed to mention at school, or perhaps I wasn’t paying attention.

old sweet shop hastingsMy preconceptions about Hastings, therefore, were somewhat skewed: I’d imagined a boring little place stuffed full of historic sights and history types wearing ghastly walking shoes. What I found, though, was refreshing: a pleasant seaside town with a good mixture of old and new, and plenty of options for the hungry visitor.

Ideal for a day trip, Hastings is a bit like Brighton’s much younger, less polished sibling. It’s a little rough around the edges, but very family- and dog-friendly, and there’s something for history buffs and non-history buffs alike.

In 2016, Hastings Pier will reopen – it was party destroyed by a fire in 2010 – and the town will also celebrate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in September and October, with a big arts festival and lots of events planned, so it could be a good time to visit.

To help you get an idea of what there is to see and do in Hastings, here are some ideas:

tush n pats fisherman rolls stall hastings

Tush and Pat’s Fisherman Rolls stall

Wander down Rock-a-Nore Road

Hastings is home to one of Britain’s oldest fishing fleets – fishermen have worked from the shingle beach, known as The Stade, for more than a thousand years. If you wander along the seafront, past all the children’s amusements, you’ll reach this section. Freshly-caught fish is sold from small sheds, and here you’ll find the historic black net shops that are unique to Hastings. They look a bit like towering beach huts – but they are actually made using half an old upended fishing boat. Split over two or three floors, fishermen used them to store their nets, ropes and fishing gear.

Pick up a Fisherman’s Roll

Stop off at Tush and Pat’s ever-popular stall in front of the net shops, which sells freshly made Fisherman’s Rolls. They’re incredibly tasty and cheap, and the queues for them are continuous. The rolls are famous – even Jamie Oliver has visited  – and while we were there, the locals were stopping for some: always a good sign. “I like mine with vinegar and lemon on top,” reveals co-founder Tush.

west hill life hastings funicular railway view over hastings country park

Tightly packed houses on terraces carved out of the rock to East Hill

Go up the East Hill Lift

Right across the road from Tush and Pat’s stall is the entrance to the East Hill Lift. It is the steepest funicular lift railway in Britain and provides access to Hastings Country Park, which stretches across five kilometres of cliffs and coastline. Go up with a picnic (or some fish and chips!) or buy an ice cream up top and enjoy the views. Follow one of the park’s many walking routes, or perch on one of the benches and enjoy the scenery. If you don’t want to take the lift up to the park, there’s a hidden set of steps, known as Tamarisk Steps, located between the Dolphin Pub and The Fish Hut. Follow the little alley, and you’ll find the stairs that take you to the top.


Get your art fix at Jerwood Gallery

Overlooking the beach, and situated within The Stade is the Jerwood Gallery, a relatively new addition to the town. Opened in 2012, the gallery, which displays contemporary and modern art, is considered a jewel in the crown of the Hastings cultural scene. It’s a great escape from the hustle of the promenade.

hastings old town george street

Hastings Old Town

Explore Hastings Old Town

It would be very easy to while away a few hours wandering around the quirky boutiques, pubs, cafés, vintage clothing and antique shops in the Old Town. It’s arguably the most charming part of Hastings. Start on George Street and work your way further inland – and don’t miss the treasure trove that is Butler’s Emporium, it’s set in a shop that dates back to the 1800s.

Something for the kids

Along the seafront, there are a host of activities for the kids, from trampolining and go karting to mini golf, football, boating, and more. There are lots of places for ice cream and sweets too, of course! If it’s raining, the Blue Reef Aquarium located along the promenade can take little ones on an undersea safari. Wannabe pirates may also be intrigued by the Shipwreck Museum.

hastings seafront promenade

Catch a movie at Electric Palace

Electric Palace is an old fashioned, charming independent cinema run entirely by volunteers. It has a quirky line up – making it an entirely different experience to your usual Vue or Odeon.

view from west hill cliff hastings

Historic Hastings

Check out Hastings Castle, the first castle built in England by William the Conqueror. It is situated on the West Hill and can be accessed via the West Hill cliff railway located at the top of George Street. Hastings Museum & Art Gallery is also nearby – set in a manor house away from the Old Town and up above the seafront, it displays art and offers the chance to learn about the local history of Hastings.

Battle Abbey

Stop off at the site of the 1066 Battle of Hastings: Battle Abbey. Learn all about the invasion of William The Conqueror and stand on the site where the future of England was determined. It’s mostly all outdoors so make sure the weather’s good when you visit.

Southeastern Rail trains run direct from London Charing Cross to Hastings.

With thanks to the Visit 1066 Country East Sussex tourist board for the invite to Hastings.

A day in beautiful Bruges

Romantic cobbled streets, narrow lanes, little bridges and canals greeted us as we arrived in the charming little medieval city of Bruges.

It was easy to see why Bruges is often known as the ‘Venice of the North’ after ambling the canal paths, and it felt like we’d stepped back in time as horse-drawn carriages navigated the small streets, and intricate architecture and antiqued buildings flooded our view.

We were particularly impressed by the ultra-romantic Lake of Love (formerly Minnewater Lake), and its elegant resident swans.

lake of love bruges

The Lake of Love (Minnewater Lake)

The many lace shops dotted around the city – reminiscent of the city’s lacemaking tradition – were bursting full of intricate homewares, and, of course, Belgian treats were at every corner: chocolate, waffles, frites (chips, double fried, with mayonnaise squirted on top), mussels (‘moules’), beer, and more.

And it was in Bruges that I discovered the real way to enjoy hot chocolate – the best hot chocolate I’ve had yet – at The Old Chocolate House.

hot chocolate bruges belgium the old chocolate house

A unique hot chocolate experience at The Old Chocolate House, Mariastraat 1, 8000 Brugge

‘The place to be to drink the best hot chocolate’ is the slogan for this cosy little old fashioned cafe and chocolate shop, and I’m so thankful for stumbling upon it. When you enter, you walk straight into a chocolate shop, but a set of stairs leads to a lovely antiqued tea room upstairs, complete with stained glass windows, dim lighting and vintage table covers.

The hot chocolate is an experience in itself – first you choose a combination, for example, the type of chocolate (white, milk or dark) and then the combo you want with it (chilli, ginger, marshmallows).

A huge mug of steaming milk then arrives, with a mini whisk, and a separate tray full of chocolate drops to mix in – as well as a biscuit and a selection of individual chocolates from the shop downstairs.

You whisk in the amount of chocolate you want before slurping away. We were full up after drinking half the mug, so perhaps order one to share. I cannot recommend this place highly enough, and what’s great is that it wasn’t even expensive.


A horse-drawn carriage ride is a common mode of transport to navigate the small streets – and it is one of the best ways to get a glimpse of the city. Boat tours along the canals are equally popular, and also another great way to see all the beautiful architecture. We chose to spend the day on foot, however, and got ourselves lost among the tiny streets – but that’s how we discovered some of the prettiest spots.


There were a variety of museums dotted around, such as a lace museum and beer museum, along with various canal-side eateries and drinking holes where you can dine with a view.


Getting there: We took the ferry over from the port of Dover to Calais, and then got a coach to Bruges. The ferry ride took about 2 hours, and the coach from Calais to Bruges took about 2 hours, too. A quicker and simpler way to get there would be to jump on the Eurostar.


Beautiful Bruges is easily doable in a day – but for a more relaxing experience, consider an overnight stay.


Tip: wear comfy shoes (there’s lots of walking on cobbles!) and perhaps something with an elasticated waistline (there’s so much to eat!).

I’m off to try and get hold of the film In Bruges, to see if Bruges looks as pretty on the big screen as in real life.

Dag! (That’s good bye in Flemish, FYI.)

Eat, drink, do: 96 hours in Singapore

marina bay sands singapore

Marina Bay Sands infinity pool

After 13 hours of movie-watching, boredom-eating and dozing on an aeroplane, we were relieved to exit Changi International Airport so we could begin our 4-day adventure in Singapore.

The humidity struck us first. The 28-degree heat was suffocating and we were thankful to clamber into an air-conditioned taxi. During the journey to our hotel, we noticed the trees, plants and lawns lining the roads were pruned to perfection; public places were immaculate; and super cars such as Ferraris and Aston Martins whizzed past. This set the tone for the next few days: Singapore was clean, efficient and flashy.

Driving through Orchard Road – the main shopping street in the city, a bit like London’s Oxford Street fused with Knightsbridge, but 10 times larger – we were flanked by mall after swanky mall. Stores for big-name brands including Gucci, Prada and Chanel cropped up every two seconds, as did restaurants offering a variety of cuisines. It was a shopper’s paradise, and you got a real sense of wealth and modernity in this small city island.

national orchid garden singapore

The National Orchid Garden

There was tranquility on the streets. Ladies shielded themselves from the heat of the sun with umbrellas. Pavements were clean, and – as you’d expect – chewing gum-free as the city banned the sale of chewing gum a few years back. Taxis were everywhere (and they all accepted card payments – win!).

Arriving at our hotel and tucking into the breakfast buffet, I was amused to discover sushi, dim sum, noodles and rice dishes at such an early hour. It was something I’d have to get used to, and be tucking into soon enough. I devoured the exotic fruits on offer, including mangosteen, rambutan and longan, before we stuck our middle fingers up at jet lag and set off for a day of exploration.

Day one

We headed first to the malls along Orchard Road. We walked from the hotel – although locals we bumped into to ask for directions advised getting a cab or the bus. It was a wise suggestion, the heat was unrelenting and we arrived at the first mall wet with sweat. We learned our lesson, we’d be taking cabs from now on. The Westfield malls we have in London have got nothing on the malls in Singapore. We made it through one mall, which, in Singapore terms, you’d consider ‘small’, before resigning for lunch at one of the many eateries.

Later that day, on our quest to visit one of the many hawker centres in Singapore – which are basically open-air, lively food courts, with stalls serving food that reflects the cultural diversity of the country – we hailed a cab to the Newton Food Centre. Hawker centres are famed for their cheap, authentic food, and apparently locals eat dinner there every night because it’s better value for money than cooking at home.

It’s a basic sort of experience: you pick a table (they’re a bit like picnic tables), select food from a stall (it’s harder than it sounds; there are so many stalls and the majority serve similar food, so it can be difficult to pick) and tell them your table number. It’s served to your table with in plastic plates and cutlery, and you pay the bill at the end.

What we later discovered from a local taxi driver is that the price of the food is adjusted so it’s much lower for locals, and inflated for tourists – and we were left with a hefty bill after ordering crab, prawns, sting ray, and various other dishes. A sign by the stall priced seafood per kilo rather than giving a set price – and we ended up paying way more than we would for a proper sit-down meal in a restaurant, with proper napkins. Tip: clarify prices with the stall owner before you order. And try to barter with them, it might get you a little discount.


Day two

We had booked a tea appreciation ceremony and tasting class with a dim sum lunch at Yixing Xuan Teahouse next to Chinatown after a recommendation from a friend, so that was our first stop. We were joined by a few other tourists and a couple of Singaporeans. The Chinese owner, Vincent, and his daughter Charlene, both had an infectious passion for tea. They shared facts, myths and tips for preparation, and provided various tea tastings too. It was a random, but highly enjoyable experience, followed by an authentic dim sum lunch, which was simple but very tasty. We had some vegetarians in our group and the tea house catered perfectly for them as well.

funny shop sign shoplifting notice warning

A funny shoplifting warning sign at a Chinatown shop

Full from that lovely lunch, we took a short stroll through nearby Chinatown. Towering above us was the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. We weren’t appropriately dressed to enter (legs, shoulders and arms must be covered) but there were items available for us to cover up with. Apparently every level in the temple has something worth seeing, from the orchid garden on the top tier to the free museum on the third tier, but we didn’t make it up. We scoured the market that runs through the heart of Chinatown next, which sells everything from Chinese tea pots and jewellery to magnets and t-shirts, and picked up a few kitsch bits and bobs and souvenirs on the way.

Next we jumped on the train to Marina Bay as we’d been eager to check out the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel, and the rooftop view it offered. The underground system, known as the MRT, was easy to navigate, and, as you’d expect, very clean and efficient. In comparison to the chaos you’d find on the London Underground, in Singapore, locals wait for all passengers to get off the train, and make a orderly queue to board. The priority seats for pregnant women, the elderly and parents with little children were humorously depicted (see pictures, below). It was also funny to see notices that banned the local, smelly fruit durian on the trains.

When we arrived at Marina Bay station, we found ourselves in the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, one of the largest malls in Singapore. It was luxurious, super-modern, and to top it all off, there was a mini canal running through the centre, on which you could take a gondola ride to the other side. I was awestruck. Just outside the mall we spotted the Helix Bridge, before making our way to the entrance of the mammoth Marina Bay Sands hotel.DSC_0077

We took the lift up to the top, having chosen to go up to the Ku De Ta bar for drinks, rather than spend the same to visit the observation deck. The impressive rooftop infinity pool was located beside the bar, which was a bonus, (although only hotel residents can use it or access the area around it) but the outside deck offered an extensive view over the Singapore skyline and its shores, the pool as well as Gardens by the Bay, which was our next stop.

gardens by the bay singapore night show light

Gardens by the Bay light show

Gardens by the Bay is a vibrant horticultural oasis of lush greenery and floral displays. We’d timed our visit to coincide with the free light and sound show, which takes place right after dark. Many people lie down on the ground to watch the show, and I think it’s a wise thing to do to really take it in. We paid to visit the Flower Dome, Cloud Forest and other attractions in the Bay before it took place, too. We weren’t overly impressed by Gardens by the Bay, and thought the Singapore Botanic Gardens were much more worthy of a visit.

Sticking with the theme of heights, that night we went up to the highest rooftop bar in Singapore, 1-Altitude, to enjoy cocktails and a mesmerising view of the city. The bar has a strict dress code, and you have to pay a flat-fee to enter, but this includes a free drink, and it really is worth it for the 360-degree view of Singapore by night. There’s a relaxed vibe up top, and cocktails are surprisingly tasty. A must-do.

1altitude bar singapore view

The view from 1-Altitude bar

Day three

We put on our nicest clothes and hopped in a taxi to the palace-like Raffles Hotel, one of Singapore’s most famous hotels – and the birthplace of the legendary Singapore Sling (it was invented by one of the hotel’s bartenders a long, long time ago). Raffles, which has been around since 1887, was once a place where the upper class British colonials would stay, and many famous names have inhabited its many rooms, including British poet Rudyard Kipling and actor Charlie Chaplin.

raffles hotel singapore high tea long bar

Raffles Hotel

The grand, elegant hotel really does make you stop in your tracks, and its colonial, old fashioned appearance – reminiscent of the city’s history –takes you back in time. We took a walk around some of its terracotta-tiled courtyards, and admired the classic detail in its architecture, before slipping into the Long Bar to relax with a Singapore Sling it’s like going to Manhattan and having a Manhattan cocktail, it’s got to be done!

Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel's Long Bar

Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar

The bar has an earthy decor, with rows of wicker fans lining its ceilings, and creating a breeze thanks to an ingenious contraption. I was a bit confused as to why monkey nut shells crunched under my feet as I entered the bar, but it seems that it is tradition to eat monkey nuts and throw the broken shell right onto the floor where you sit. Odd, considering how strict Singapore is generally with littering.

We were all set for a relaxing afternoon of tea and cake, but there had been a mix up with our afternoon tea booking at Raffles tip: call them to book as the online booking system doesn’t clarify what you’re booking in for so we wasted a couple of hours under the lovely air conditioning at Raffles City Shopping Centre before returning for our tea in the hotel’s Tiffin Room.

There was a harpist elegantly strumming tunes, and the high ceiling-ed room was impressive and tranquil. It was a lovely setting and scones, pastries, cakes and finger sandwiches were served in tiered stands. There was also a dim sum buffet with extra cake that you could help yourself to. The service was impeccable the waiters kindly brought us out a special cake as there was a birthday in the group  but the food, on the whole, was not amazing. The afternoon tea came to around £35 per person. A bit of a tourist trap, but nice to do.

That night we made our way to the Arab quarter, and the sweet smell of shisha instantly filled our nostrils. A local we had spoken to earlier in the day recommended visiting from 7pm onwards, as this is when it comes alive. He wasn’t lying people spilled out onto the pavements from shisha bars and restaurants on the streets surrounding the Sultan Mosque.

haji lane quirky grafftti

Haji Lane

We took a walk around the quarter, stumbling on Haji Lane, a narrow, colourful street filled with quirky, independent fashion boutiques, cafes and restaurants. It had a hipster vibe, and graffitti-strewn walls – it reminded me of London’s Camden Town. With unique homeware and clothing, it was really different to the standard stuff we’d found on Orchard Road. Throughout the Arab quarter there were also a lot of Persian-style carpets for sale, traditional fabrics and clothing, as well as leather goods. 

For dinner we could choose from Middle Eastern, Malaysian and Turkish restaurants, and we opted for a Turkish meal at Alaturka on Bussorah Road. Seated outdoors in the humid air, we munched on everything from kebabs, humous and freshly cooked naan to mezze, salads and falafel.

The view from Marina Bay Sands over Gardens by the Bay

The view from Marina Bay Sands over Gardens by the Bay

As it was officially our last night in Singapore, we were determined to make the most of the evening, and so we ventured to the area of Ann Siang Hill and Club Street on the fringe of Chinatown where there are lots of bars and drinking holes clustered together. The area is really lively come sun down, and filled with merry post-work drinkers. We started off at The Screening Room’s rooftop bar, La Terraza, which is cosy, dimly lit and has a romantic ambience, before wandering to Toca Me Bar across the road. Come 2am, all the bars began to close and taxis filtered in to the main street that had been pedestrian-free until this hour, to ferry us all on our way. The efficiency of this system was splendid.

Day four

We had a few hours before we were to depart for Singapore airport, so we made a quick dash back to Haji Lane to perhaps do a bit of shopping. As it was before 11am only a few shops on this street were open. We then visited one of the most ‘fragrant’, colourful and untidy places in Singapore – Little India. The smell of incense wafted in to the taxi as we pulled up, and the cab driver warned us that if we wanted to take a taxi home we’d have to go a little way away from Little India as many taxi drivers weren’t keen on coming down these streets. The main things to do in Little India include eating, shopping or visiting the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.

We were impressed by the Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour mall-like store that basically sells everything you could ever wish for, from electronic gadgets to jewellery and Indian sarees. Every single wall in this multiple-floor store was stacked high with products, piled high and untidy. A sight to see.

We collected our bags from the hotel and headed off to Changi International airport, where we stopped off at the butterfly garden inside terminal 3 before fluttering off onto the plane.

Thank you for having us Singapore.

Highlights of Hvar, Croatia’s sunniest island

Hvar town

In an age where we nearly always apply enhancements or ‘filters’ to photos we post on social media networks, it’s like a breath of fresh air to arrive in Hvar – a picture-perfect land where rich blue skies merge with calm, clear waters, and where snaps don’t need modification before they reach Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

That is what strikes you most when you arrive on Croatia’s sunniest island – it is naturally beautiful.

I arrived in Hvar as a result of a 7 day road-trip with my girlfriends through Croatia, starting from Split. We’d devised an action-packed itinerary: two days in Plitvice to visit Plitvice Lakes, one of Croatia’s 8 national parks; followed by a night in Zadar; and three nights in Hvar, one of Split’s nearby islands. Our final night was in Split.

As it was my first ever visit to Croatia, here are a few things I discovered:

  • In Croatia they drive on the right hand side of the road, which took a bit of getting used to.
  • Food prices vary according to where you are: restaurants in the Plitvice area were relatively cheap (£2 for a soup; £2 for fries) but as you get closer to the coast, it becomes more commercialised and expensive – in Zadar a pizza was £7 and fries were £4; on the island of Hvar it was about £7 for a pasta dish, and £6 for a Jägerbomb. As you get closer to the coast though, as you’d expect, there’s lots more fresh sea food.
  • Take mosquito repellant. We got bitten!
  • Croatia is a safe place: as four ladies travelling through the country, we didn’t ever feel like we were in harm’s way.
  • The Croatian currency is the Kuna. Card payments were accepted at some places, not all.
  • The mix of mountainous regions and beaches means you get the best of both worlds here.
  • In the high season (June/July/August) ferries are very busy and often get booked up so try to book at least a day in advance to secure a spot.
  • Croatia’s beaches are mostly all rocky and pebbly, which makes it a bit painful walking around barefoot, especially when getting into the sea.
  • Beware of the jellyfish when swimming in the sea – you don’t want to tread on one of those.
Plitvice Lakes ('Plitvička jezera' in Croatian)

Plitvice Lakes (Nacionalni park Plitvička jezera in Croatian)


If you’re planning a trip to Croatia, try and get these on your list.

Accommodation Plitvice

The guesthouse we stayed at: Accommodation Plitvice

1. Plitvice Lakes. This stunning national park comprising 16 lakes interconnected by waterfalls surrounded by plush greenery, really is as good as the pictures make it look. The green and blue hues of the water are so vivid. There’s plenty to explore in the park – it spans well beyond the few lakes shown in the picture above. It took us a good 3 hours to get around the trail at a leisurely pace. Advice: pack snacks and drinks in your bags if you get peckish or thirsty, and a hat, particularly if it’s a hot day. Wear comfortable shoes as there are lots of uneven surfaces and a few climbs, and take a camera: there are plenty of opportunities for great pictures!

You can’t swim in Plitvice lakes unfortunately, but if it’s a swim you’re after, pay a visit to Krka National Park instead where you are allowed to take a dip in the water. At Plitvice, you have to pay for car parking, but if you don’t fancy driving, jump on a bus. Try to get to the park early though, because as the day progresses, large groups from tours start to take over the place.

Plivtice is at a high altitude in Croatia so it is cooler than Split or the islands – something we weren’t prepared for. We needed a light hoody/raincoat, even in July. Our accommodation in Plitvice was super cosy – we were staying at a guesthouse known as Accommodation Plitvice. It was a 15 minute drive from the lakes, and although the owner’s English was sketchy, she made us feel at home.

Hvar old town

Hvar old town

2. Hvar, Croatia’s sunniest island. Prince William’s been there, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have been there… and now I can tick it off my list. Super yachts line the harbour and bars line the promenade, while Venetian towhouses nestle together in the distance.

It’s not the cheapest place for a cash-strapped Brit – prices are inflated, particularly at eateries, shops and bars nearer to the harbour – but Hvar is a great place to mingle and party with young American, Australian and English travellers.  It was very hot when we visited Hvar in July; the sun was out every day and temperatures were in the high twenties.

Sleep: The hostel we stayed at was great fun. With free pancakes for breakfast, organised fun such as a bar crawl and sailing trips on offer,  Earthers Hostel was welcoming and homely as well as enjoyable. The first day we arrived the owners sat down with us and went through all the local spots, telling us how to get to the supermarket and the clubs, etc. The hostel wasn’t particularly plush, but it was clean, and had a really relaxed vibe where socialising was easy.

See: Robinson Beach was a nice spot to swim and it was jellyfish-free, although it took a long (and scenic!) coastal walk to get there. Take a break from sunbathing with lunch at the restaurant that’s located right on the beach – we had salads, burgers, fries and fresh fish. In comparison to Hula Hula beach, Robinson Beach was much less pretentious, more laid-back and cheaper (in terms of sun bed hire and food).

Eat: For delicious local sea food, try Lungo Mare. When a restaurant is packed out with locals, it’s always a good sign: and that’s what we discovered when we visited. We were recommended by our hostel to try it, and it was so good we went back, twice. Generous portions, a hospitable, chatty and hilarious owner and tasty food awaits.

Nightlife: Hvar is renowned for its party scene. One night you could take a taxi boat to Carpe Diem beach island to rave, or go in the daytime for a mellow adventure. For a more relaxing evening head to the Jazz Bar, which is hidden away in the back streets of the town. Or join the other party animals at Kiva, a bar/club tucked away in a side street next to the town. Kiva closes at 2am so we headed to Pink Champagne afterwards, a basement club with a very cool entrance – I won’t give it away (entrance fee is payable on the door), which is open till the early hours. Veneranda club is meant to be epic although we didn’t squeeze it in, as is La Struya – a club with expansive views.

hvar view from fortress

The view from beside Hvar’s fortress

Sightsee: If you’re into history, visit the fortress. It’s quite a walk, but we went simply for the views across the island (see picture above).

Lavender is one of Croatia’s biggest exports. You can get lavender oil, cream, soap, dried flowers, lavender honey; basically everything which is made of lavender from local vendors on the streets. We missed out on going on a lavender tour to visit the copious purple fields, but it looks like an amazing opportunity to take great creative pictures. The olive oil and wine you get at the restaurants are also likely to be made fresh locally, so another worthy excursion could be a wine tour.

3. Bar crawls in Split. Unfortunately we were too tired to make it to them, but judging by the number of people we met who raved about them, we missed out.

With over a thousand other islands scattered off Croatia’s stunning Adriatic coastline, as well as 8 national parks on the mainland, there’s reason for repeat visits. I’d like to visit different islands and Dubrovnik next time around. Have you been? What was your highlight? Tell all!

Playing the tourist in Cuba

Cuba“You must go before things change” – that’s what everybody says about the Caribbean island of Cuba. At first I was puzzled at this comment, but I understood it better once I landed on Cuban soil…


The few things I knew about Cuba before I went

•Cuba has an eventful history. From 1492 to 1898, it was a colony of Spain. The rule was brutal, as the native Taino people and the forest were annihilated to clear space for large cattle and sugar farms belonging to a few wealthy owners and worked by slaves. In 1895, the poet, journalist and man who is dubbed ‘the father of Cuba’, Jose Marti, led an uprising against Spain. Although he was killed soon after, the uprising continued. In 1898, the United States entered into the Spanish-American war and Spain was easily defeated, so Cuba was under US military rule from 1898 to 1902, and during this time US individuals and businesses took over much of the land. Wealth belonged to them and the majority of Cubans lived in poverty, without land, proper incomes or sufficient food. On December 31, 1958, the Batista government was overthrown by Fidel Castro, and a socialist government took power. US property was reposessed by Cuba and the US then put up a trade embargo against the country.

•The Cuban government is headed up by the Castros. Raul Castro took over from his brother, Fidel as leader of Cuba in 2008, and while most resources are controlled by the state, Raul is slowly relaxing the rules and attempting to reform the economy. People wonder what will happen once the Castro brothers cease to exist.

•The US detention centre Guantanamo Bay is in Cuba. It’s at the south eastern tip of the island, but there is little other connection between the US and Cuba: the US cut ties with Cuba over 50 years ago.

•Everybody seems to come home from Cuba with cigars and rum.

•You should request a rum slushy at the bar if you’re staying in one of Cuba’s many beach resorts, I was told.

old havana

Old town Havana

What I learnt and observed whilst in Cuba

•When you’re from the West, entering Cuba is like entering a time warp. Everybody rides in old cars from the 1950s and many buildings are crumbly and old.

•Guantanamo Bay is the only US ‘thing’ going on in Cuba – diplomatic relations are non existent.

•A US embargo that has been in force since the 1960s means that Cuba cannot trade or invest with America, although farm products and medical supplies are allowed. In 1920 though, Cuba was a playground for Americans who owned much of the land.

•There are no American brands in Cuba – so no Mc Donald’s, Starbucks, or clothing chains. There are also very few fast-food joints.

•Cubans aren’t fans of Americans. One hotel worker suggested that the best way for an American visitor to remain inconspicuous in Cuba was to say he or she were Canadian.

•Cubans are not allowed to leave the country without special permission from the government.

•Contrary to popular belief, Americans can enter Cuba, although there’s a bit of bureaucracy involved.

•There are no billboards or advertising posters anywhere in Cuba. As you’re driving along the freeway, you won’t see anything advertised. The only boards you’ll see are those put up by the government, which are propaganda notices and murals of revolutionary Che Guevara, who played a key part in the Cuban Revolution (when Fidel Castro’s army overthrew American-friendly President Fulgencio Batista from power).

•Hitch-hiking is legal, and everybody does it. It’s encouraged. People in state-owned vehicles are obliged to stop and offer rides to passengers if they have space for them.

There's lots of lush vegetation and greenery in Cuba

There’s lots of lush vegetation and greenery in Cuba

•The average Cuban earns 5CUC a week – that’s about 58p in GBP. A chef at our hotel said he works 13-hour days for this wage. A 2000 Lexington Institute study found that it would take an average Cuban on a government salary about four days to earn enough to buy one pound of pork, rice, beans, and two pounds of tomatoes, three limes and a head of garlic.

•You’ll rarely find beef on the menu in Cuba. One of our taxi drivers said it was because it’s too expensive, as the government takes cattle away from farmers to be killed, and the farmers have to buy the meat back from the state – farmers aren’t allowed to kill the cattle themselves.

•Cubans know how to dance and do salsa. They’ll put you to shame in no time!

•All Cubans receive free education so the population is highly literate. Healthcare is also free.

•Cuban families are given ration cards which they can use to buy essentials such as rice, chicken, eggs, oil and pasta at a subsidised rate.

•Cubans weren’t allowed to own cars or businesses till recently – they were strictly state-owned till after 2008 when Raul Castro came to power.

•American author and journalist Ernest Hemingway was one of a few Americans who went to Cuba and chose to stay after relations between Cuba and America soured. He spent about 20 years in Cuba, just outside of Havana. His favourite watering holes, La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, still stand today.

•In one of the restaurants I visited in Havana, the idea of vegetarianism was interpreted literally – I asked for a vegetarian pizza and the toppings consisted of carrots, potatoes, beetroot and basically any vegetable the chefs could find in the kitchen!

•A traditional night in for Cubans involves men playing dominoes, smoking cigars and sipping rum while the ladies chat and make food, our tour guide informed us.

Varadero rainbow Cuba pretty

A rainbow falls over Varadero beach after a storm

•The island generally still runs on dial-up internet – there’s little or no chance of getting Wi-Fi out there.

•Cubans celebrate Christmas Day on the 24th December. We woke up on what we’d deem ‘Christmas Eve’ to a mass feast and a premature Christmas Day – so we got to celebrate it twice – once on the 24th and once on the 25th!

•You’ve got to pay a tourist tax when you leave the country through the airport. It’s 25CUC, so about £15.

•Cuba’s sandy beaches are stunning and the water is very clear, but the mosquitos are a pain.



•Visit the Partagas cigar factory in Havana – even if you don’t smoke or like cigars, it’s worth a visit: a truly surreal experience. The majority of the cigar making process involves manual labour; first you see the women-only room where they sort the leaves, then the rolling, then the finishing. The deep smell of cigars engulfs you as you walk around, and the smoke from employees (staff are allowed to smoke while working and each receives a handful to smoke each day). You’re not allowed to take a camera or any such device into the building so you won’t be able to capture it, unfortunately. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

•For music and dancing: Calle 62 (authentic Cuban music and salsa) and The Beatles (rock ‘n’ roll) bars in Varadero. At the former, locals will show you how to get your hips going and have you up from your seat to dance; in the latter you can rock out to famous songs in an outdoor bar area.

cuba sugarcane guama

Sugarcane stems in Guama

•Sip on fresh sugar cane juice. Sugar used to be one of Cuba’s biggest exports until the collapse of the Soviet Union. We had to travel all the way out to Guama for a taste of the sugarcane.

•Cuban music. A few of my favourite songs from our trip include: Guantaramera by Compay Segundo (you may recognise this from the film White Chicks), Vivir Mi Vida by Marc Anthony, Chan Chan by Compay Segundo, Valio La Pena by Marc Anthony and Carnaval by Laritza Bacallao.

What it’s like staying at a hostel

It took me 24 years of my life to discover hostels. I feel sad to say that aloud. But ever since my first hostel experience in July last year, and successive stays in other hostels since, I’ve not looked back.

There were a number of reasons why I’d never ventured to hostel territory: the most common being the misconception that hostels are unsafe, dirty places where you only meet promiscuous humans. Bad misconception.

hostel dorm room

After staying in a variety of hostels, from the party places to the quiet, family-run stays, my train of thought is totally different: why pay £50 a night for a posh and pretty hotel (if you’re lucky) where you’ll spend the night most likely sipping expensive drinks in the lobby, with just a bartender for company? Why do that when you can pay roughly half that price or less, for the company of likeminded others, good conversation and satisfactory amenities [made up for by the fact that you’ll probably have a more memorable and exciting experience]?

Convinced? Here are a few things you should know before staying in a hostel.

  • Not all hostels are booze fests. Some are, granted. You’ll probably be able to tell by the hostel’s bio: if it says the owners will greet you with a beer when you walk in, it’s likely to be that kind of place.
  • The so-called ‘free breakfast’ might not be the buffet you expect. You’ll probably get a few stale crossaints, sugary cereal and some milk if you’re lucky. Beggars can’t be choosers. And remember to wash up your crockery once you’re done.
  • Ear plugs are essential. People snore, slam doors and talk really loudly. Don’t get annoyed: just plug in.travel quote
  • Dorms vs private rooms: pick from four, six, ten or sixteen bed dorms, or opt for a private room if you like your privacy. I’ve always opted for a four or six-bed dorm as it’s way easier to make friends. Also, try and opt for a dorm with a private bathroom – you don’t want to have to trail through a corridor in your towel after showering in a cubicle you have to share with 12 others. You can go for a mixed dorm or same-sex, depending on how brave you are.
  • Flip flops for the shower. Essential. You don’t want to come home with fungus on your feet.
  • Kitchen etiquette. Most hostels offer kitchen facilities, such as crockery, microwaves, ovens, kettles etc. Wash up after yourself and label any food you leave in the fridge or else you might find it’s vanished tomorrow.
  • Most hostels have social areas such as a communal living room, kitchen or maybe an outdoor space. It’s the perfect place to introduce yourself to others and perhaps make some lifelong friends. Make conversation: ask people where they’ve visited so far, how long they’ll be here, where they’re from and the conversation will flow easily. Don’t be shy – you’ll be surprised at how friendly people are and how keen they are to make friends.
  • Bottom bunk please. If you get the choice, bag the bottom bunk. It’s way more convenient; no climbing stairs, and it’s quicker to get to the toilet and the door!
  • Take a padlock: most hostels provide lockers where you can stow away belongings. Assess the security of them before putting away all your life’s treasures: sometimes it may be better to carry your bits on your person.
  • Pick carefully. There are some terrible hostels, but if you choose carefully via sites such as hostelbookers.com and hostelworld.com, and assess the security ratings and reviews, and select wisely, you’ll probably end up in a good place.
  • Treat your roomies as you’d like them to treat you. I had some courteous party animals sleeping in the beds in my dorm, and although they crawled in at 5am, they kindly used their iPhone torches to seek out their pyjamas and the bathroom before knocking out for the night, with minimal disturbance to me.
  • Make the most of your hostel. Participate in its bar crawl/walking tour or any activities it offers. They’re probably cheaper than those offered by actual companies, and also a great way to make friends while experiencing a place properly. Often, hostel workers and owners have some of the best recommendations for places to see or eat at, too – chat to them.
  • People may steal things. If you leave your iPad and your money lying around, don’t be surprised if it’s gone in the morning. Keep belongings hidden and try to get to know your roomies. Whilst travelling in Australia, I met a girl who said her clothes were stolen from her suitcase. It happens. Keep it locked when you’re not around.
  • Wi-Fi. If you get Instagram/Facebook/Twitter withdrawal symptoms, pick a hostel that gives you free Wi-Fi or an internet connection. It might not be the fastest thing on earth, and it may cut out when you’re half way through posting a picture on Instagram, though.
  • Towels, luggage storage, laundry, and similar amenities. You’ll have to pay extra for them if you want them. This ain’t the Four Seasons yo. Try hand washing your pants and hanging them on the rails of your bunk instead – or create a makeshift line dryer if you’re smart enough; make a friend and ask if you can store your luggage in their room for an hour or two if you are desperate to save on cash.
  • Grubbiness. Sink holes plugged up with hair, strange smells and bugs in beds (and worse) are all possible. But if you choose your hostel wisely, and book in advance, rather than just turning up at a place and asking for a bed, you put yourself in a better position to avoid this.
  • You don’t need a backpack. So far, I’ve always travelled with a suitcase. A full 20kg suitcase sometimes. So if you can’t pack light, don’t worry: you won’t be frowned upon!
  • Some hostels feel like hotels. The bathrooms are spotless and the interior is fresh, so if that’s the kind of environment you like, I’m sure you’ll find it if you look hard enough. Every hostel has its own character: check out pictures before you book and you’ll get a feel for what it’s like.

Happy hosteling!

The best of Perth: things to see and do

It gets more sunshine than any other Aussie capital, it has some of the most beautiful beaches (and sunsets) and it’s no way near as boring as some Aussies suggest. Sure, it’s a little sleepy on the outskirts, and its city shopping district is about the size of London’s Leicester Square, but if you’re lucky enough to be visiting Australia’s most isolated capital, there’s plenty to do and see. Grab your sunnies, your sunscreen (you WILL need it) and let’s go… PS, you’ll probably need a car to get around – Perth is HUGE and public transport doesn’t make life too easy, except for when you’re in the city centre. Here are the top 10 picks for places to go/see/do in Perth*:

1. Explore Kings Park

Kings Park Perth

The view of the city from Kings Park after the sun sets

Overlooking the city and the Swan River, this is one of the largest inner city parks in the world – it’s spread over 400.6 hectares; London’s Hyde Park is just 142 hectares: do the maths! Do the tree top walk, take a stroll through the botanic gardens and pack a picnic to enjoy on the endless grassy lawns.

2. Get close to Australian animals at Caversham Wildlife Park

In this small, friendly park, stroke the koalas, wombats and kangaroos (kangaroo feed is provided, too), and see dingos, emus, Tasmanian Devils and more.

Pet the koalas at Caversham Wildlife Park

Pet the koalas at Caversham Wildlife Park

3. Go on the hunt for cheese and wine in the Swan Valley

Swan Valley is Western Australia’s oldest wine region. Drive the length of the signposted Food and Wine Trail in search of vineyards, distilleries and fine food, including chocolate and plump grapes.

4. Admire surfers on Trigg Beach

…And have a go too, by booking in a lesson. This is one of Perth’s most popular surfing beaches, so grab a coffee or an iced chocolate drink from the Yelo café, then find a spot on the sand and watch the surfers do their thing.

The stunning Moore River

The stunning Moore River

5. Grab a towel and head to Moore River

A little way out of Perth is this picturesque, popular family-friendly spot. The river is separated from the Indian Ocean by a sandbank, and the contrasting colours make it a postcard-worthy scene. Hire a paddle boat or a canoe, go fishing, go swimming, or just relax and sunbathe. There’s so much to do here, its easy to while away the hours. Locals often bring their picnic blankets, umbrellas and fold-away chairs and make a day of it.IMG_6493

6. Watch the sun set over Cottesloe Beach

Have dinner by the beach as the sun goes down. Barbecues are available, so just pack some bits and fire one up for a freshly cooked dinner by the sea. Sorrento and Scarborough beaches are just as pretty, too. If you’re going to Scarborough, and you’re hungry, check out The Wild Fig for yummy food.

Kayak or sail on The Swan River

Kayak or sail on The Swan River

7. Sail or kayak on the Swan River

If Moore River’s too far away, head to the Swan River for some water-based fun. Mind the jellyfish, though!

8. Explore historic Fremantle

With its famous Cappuccino strip, lively markets, restaurants, bars and harbour, Fremantle (locals call it “Freo”) is buzzing day and night. It’s steeped in history too; take a tour of Fremantle prison, which was built in the 1850s, and closed officially in 1991, or roam the heritage listed buildings and you’ll be transported back in time.

The port of Fremantle

The port of Fremantle

9. Party in Northbridge

You’ll find bars, clubs and tons of restaurants in this area of Perth. But why not start your night in Mr Munchies, a 10-minute drive away in Mount Lawley, where you can devour well-priced, delicious sushi with a range of vegetarian options too – hands down the best sushi I’ve ever tasted. Then head over to Northbridge and dance the night away in one of its many late-night haunts.

10. Pick up some souvenirs

If you’d like to see what the city area and central business district is like, jump on one of the three free Central Area Transit (CAT) buses that connect East and West Perth and Northbridge, and do a little sightseeing and shopping if you like. If you’re into tea, visit T2, a super cool tea shop chain.

*With thanks to my fabulous Perth-based family for creating such an awesome itinerary and helping me discover such amazing spots.

6 reasons why you need travel alone at least once

Travelling solo had never really crossed my mind; I mean, why would you intentionally isolate yourself from your loved ones, and what fun would there be in exploring a new place when you had no one to share it with? Getting on an aeroplane alone, dining alone, getting around alone – it all seemed a little too lonely (and scary!).

harbour bridge sydney

Soaking up the sun in Sydney

But it is now – after navigating my way around an unfamiliar country by myself – that I realise how wrong I was. After unexpectedly being made redundant, I figured that there was no better time to up and leave – and at such short notice, there was no way I’d find a travel companion, so I had to go it alone. Within a week of being told I was losing my job, I was high up in the sky, about to start an adventure that turned out to be the opposite of what I expected it to be. I experienced the generosity of strangers, found friends in people I’d never have imagined to, and learnt a hell of a lot about myself, and life itself. That’s why I’m with the camp that firmly believe everybody needs to travel alone at least once in their lives, here’s why:

You’re the boss

If you’ve ever been away with others and not quite seen eye-to-eye about places you’d like to visit, or the amount you’d like to spend, this will feel like a breath of fresh air. You are the master of your plans – you can go wherever you want, do whatever you want, sleep in when you like, and spend how much or as little as you want, without anybody judging you. You get to do what you like to do, at your own pace – no compromises involved – and it’s brilliantly satisfying (and cheaper).


Snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef

You’re not actually alone

There are hundreds of people who are in the same situation as you – and you’ll meet them along the way. On the plane, at your accommodation (I’d recommend booking into 6-person dorms at hostels as you meet so many people this way), at tourist attractions and guided walks: independent travellers are everywhere. As well as fellow travellers, you’ll befriend shop owners and locals of all ages, often accidentally, such as when you’re shopping, asking for directions, or sitting next to them on a bus. Everybody has a story to tell, and being open, friendly and smiley will mean you get to hear theirs, and share your own. After meeting so many genuine, good people – from the guy who lent me his coat for the entire day as I’d forgotten mine, to the girl who offered to show me around town on my first night, and the local shopkeeper who told me the best place to find cheap clothes – I came home feeling like I’d had my faith in humanity restored. And I’m able to keep in touch with many of the people I met thanks to the wonders of modern technology such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

Face your fears

Ever been too nervous to ask a stranger for directions or to take a picture for you? Too afraid to dine out in a restaurant alone? When travelling, you’ll often find yourself in situations where you’re out of your comfort zone, with no safety blanket and nobody to call on or fall back on. There were numerous times where I got lost, situations where I felt uneasy – and at one point I even ended up in hospital as I’d passed a kidney stone – and whilst these were scary experiences, I’m thankful for them as I learned so much about myself as a result. Travelling independently stretches you; it tests you and helps you discover your self-confidence and self-esteem because you always manage to find a way through (although it may not always feel like it at the time!).

Get to know the real you

No, I’m not going to pull out the overused and clichéd “I found myself” statement. But travelling does involve spending serious time alone with your thoughts, and whilst at times it may get lonely, it helps you learn about yourself, and lets you learn to enjoy your own company. Sounds strange, I know, but you almost get to know yourself from the inside out – you figure out your strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and get to listen to the different voices in your head – it’s the perfect time for reflection and personal growth. I kept a journal throughout my travels, so any time I was alone, I’d fill up a few pages with what I was feeling and what I’d been doing, and I this helped me connect with my innermost thoughts and also helped me to discover what it actually is that I want to get out of life.

The 80-metre deep crater lake I swam in – Lake Eacham, Queensland

The 80-metre deep natural crater lake I swam in – Lake Eacham, Queensland

Free yourself and your mind

You’re more likely to reach out to others, and be approached by others, when you’re alone rather than when you’re with travel buddies. There’s this overwhelming sense of freedom you get, and it enables you to act out of sheer curiosity – go exploring with new people you’ve just met, embrace a country’s culture with open arms, try new foods – and you find that you appreciate things more. You’re more open to new experiences – when was the last time you jumped into an 80 metre deep lake, just for the fun of it? For me, it was whilst I was travelling – I went with the moment, and with the new friends I’d just met, we all had a swim in the pouring rain. Now I’m home, I’m feeling brand new, and refreshed – I came home to see all my belongings in my room – and realised that I’d lived out of a suitcase for a month and not needed any of the 20 hair products I was looking at now – travelling helps you put things into perspective.


12 Apostles, Great Ocean Road, Melbourne

12 Apostles, Great Ocean Road, Melbourne

Well, you only live once (YOLO, as us cool kids say), so give it a shot – there’s no harm in trying! I only went away for a total of a month, but that was enough for me – you don’t have to go away for a long period to benefit from this experience. It isn’t actually as scary as it seems, and if you go with a YOLO attitude, you’re more open to saying ‘yes’ to every new experience or opportunity. And again, it’s something I’ve taken away from the trip and am applying to life now – say yes to everything you possibly can! Obviously, use your common sense in a foreign country, do your research beforehand and be safe at all times, but remember give spontaneity a go, too!

My friends have seen that I – the least independent person of all who still has her laundry done by her mum – managed to survive a solo trip abroad, and a couple have been inspired to already take the leap and go away by themselves… If I did it, you can do it too – don’t let fear hold you back.

Christmas in Copenhagen

Christmas market Tivoli Copenhagen

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark

Spending a weekend in Copenhagen (København, if we’re being proper) in December was enough to get me properly in the mood for Christmas. Colourful lights lit up the streets and shops; Christmas trees were blanketed in snow; and mulled wine (or gløgg as the Nordics call it) was flowing all day and night.

General observations

This being my first trip to Denmark, I was most impressed by the popularity of cycling – even heavy snow didn’t deter the Danes from getting on their bikes! Bicycles litter all street sidewalks and they’re rarely secured (unlike in London, where every bike is chained!). This says a lot about the Copenhagen – it’s a very safe place, and the people are incredibly kind, and helpful. The fact that the majority of the population speaks English is a massive bonus too. The transport system is great; the buses and trains are fairly regular, and the bus drivers were so helpful. The food isn’t exactly cheap, and there is much less variety for vegetarians, but there are plenty of cafés, restaurants and watering holes to try. If you’re traveling to Copenhagen in the winter months, especially December, it’s essential that you take snow-proof, warm clothing. Here are my recommendations for places you should visit if you take a trip to Copenhagen.

Santa Claus at Tivoli Christmas market

Santa Claus at Tivoli’s Christmas market

Tivoli Christmas market

The main reason we’d traveled to Copenhagen was to visit a gorgeous Christmas market, such as that at Tivoli Gardens. We certainly got what we were after. Tivoli Gardens was transformed into a picturesque, intricate and magical winter wonderland. The park was showered in delicate Christmas lights; there were Christmas themed decorations and Christmas trees dotted around everywhere; and there were even reindeer and a Santa Claus. As well as rides to amuse young and old, mouthwatering aromas floated from every foodie stall. As much as you may try to capture the magic of Tivoli in a picture, it’s impossible to convey it properly – you have to witness it for yourself. Visitors must pay an entry fee, and you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to get carried away and spend, spend, spend!

rides Tivoli Gardens amusement park Christmas december

Tivoli is lit up beautifully at night

The Little Mermaid

We started off our sightseeing journey by going on the hunt for the statue of The Little Mermaid. It originates from a book of the same name, by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. The statue is very small in real life, and to be honest, a bit of an insignificant let down. She’s hidden away beside the water’s edge, so don’t be fooled by any maps, which suggest she’s inside a park – you’ll be going on a wild goose hunt, just like we did!

The Gefion Fountain

This is the Danish equivalent of Rome’s Trevi Fountain. It features statues of four oxen, driven by legendary goddess Gefjun. Unfortunately, the fountain is not as impressive in winter: the sprinklers are turned off and the fountain is iced over because of the cold.

The Marble Church

Marble Church copenhagen

The Marble Church

Also known as Frederik’s Church, this stood as a ruin for about 150 years, until it was finally completed in 1894. The dome is absolutely humungous, and breathtaking too. It stands very tall – scraping Copenhagen’s skyline – and is so beautiful and intricate. Entrance is free and it’s well worth visiting – just to see the detail of the inner dome – it’s spectacular. Considering how old the church is, it’s amazing that it still looks in tip-top shape!

Amalienborg Palace

Right across the road from The Marble Church is this gigantic palace on-looking a courtyard. This is the Queen’s residence and it is patrolled by guards. Every day there is a public changing of the guards’ ceremony at noon in front of the palace. We were lucky enough to visit when the Queen was in residence (signalled by the flag being raised and the changing of the guard ceremony being accompanied by the guards’ music band).

Changing of the guard at Amalienborg Palace

Changing of the guard at Amalienborg Palace

Nyhavn harbour

This was one of my favourite spots in Copenhagen. Nyhavn was established in 1671 by then Danish king Christian V, who wanted a gateway from the sea to the city. Gorgeous, brightly coloured houses line the harbour (the scene is a bit like that from CBeebies children’s programme Balamory!) – and it’s so picturesque. Overlooking the canal are bars and restaurants, and in December, a Christmas market too. The place is very lively, both day and night, and restaurants continue to provide outdoor seating, even in the winter. I especially liked that the restaurateurs had thoughtfully left blankets out on seats for visitors – what a nice touch!


Beside Nyhavn is Copenhagen’s largest pedestrian-only outdoor shopping street. With everything from Topshop and H&M to Chanel and Mulberry, it’s a shopaholic’s dream!

Copenhagen Opera House

We didn’t make it inside this beastly beauty, but were taken aback by its architecture from afar. It has one of the largest canopy roof structures in the world – it’s almost as large as three football pitches!

The view from the top of Vor Frelser Kirke (Our Savour's Church)

The view from the top of Vor Frelser Kirke (Our Savour’s Church)

Vor Frelser Kirke (The Church of Our Saviour)

In my opinion, this is one of Copenhagen’s most elegant landmarks. What’s more, visitors can climb the Church’s unique golden spire for excellent views of the city. You must pay to climb the 90-metre tower (400 steps!), and don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an easy climb. It’s very steep and narrow – and quite terrifying at times. There is no lift to take visitors up so it’s definitely not for the elderly, those with mobility issues, or those who are claustrophobic or afraid of heights. We went on a rather busy day, and there were large numbers of visitors wanting to go down as well as up. In a dimly lit, confined staircase, this resulted in lots of congestion and it didn’t feel altogether very safe!

Ole Steen Lagkagehuset

One of the finest bakeries I have ever visited, this modernist space sells everything from fresh bread and pastries to cakes and biscuits. Interestingly, it operates on a ticket based system – you must enter the shop, pick up a ticket and wait for your number to be called before you will be served. One Danish speciality to try is the popular chocolate-coated marshmallow (a flødeboller) – it’s a melt-in-your-mouth, gooey treat.

The National Museum of Denmark

This presents such a large, varied and rich mix of exhibitions, that I’m surprised it’s free to enter. Insightful and fun, there’s plenty to see and learn. It takes you right back through 10,000 years of history – a must-see.

Final words

Copenhagen is a beautiful place; the architecture is great, the pastries are lovely and the Danes are a friendly bunch – I’d definitely recommend a visit!