Peru

This one was a long time ago – 5 years now, back in November 2015.

This was my first real solo foray into a non-western country, and one which I didn’t speak the language. I’d actually taken some informal Spanish lessons for a couple of months in the run up to this trip which proved invaluable, and useful for a few trips to Spain since then.

At the time I went, there were no direct flights between the UK and Peru. I had 2 viable options – via Madrid or via the US. I choose to go via the US to extend the amount of time on my trip that I could speak English, but having done this and transited through the US, I would not generally recommend this. Whilst I had booked connecting flights from London to Lima, via Dallas Forth Worth on the way out and via Miami on the way back, you always have to clear immigration in the US even when transitting which made for some slightly stressful connections and BA leaving my bag in Miami on the way back.

I don’t remember much about immigration into Peru – I didn’t need a visa, and I don’t remember it taking particularly long. I’d arrived early morning after an overnight leg from Dallas, the one thing I do remember is the hustle, bustle and chaos of the arrivals hall, finding my transfer (and another group member), and the traffic en route to the hotel being utterly insane.

This was my second trip with G Adventures. We were staying in a hotel in the Miraflores district of Lima. Having arrived in the morning we weren’t yet able to check in. However, having arrived with someone else who was on my trip, we hatched a plan to go to the downtown area and got a taxi/paid a guy at the hotel to drive us. I’d read beforehand that whilst Miraflores was a relatively safe area, the centre of Lima was a little more dangerous and you needed to have your wits about you. I think it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t have ventured there on my own so was glad for the company. There is some amazing architecture in downtown Lima, and loads of churches and the cathedral with unbelievably ornate decoration.

In the evening we met up as a group – there were 8 of us and we became a really close group – and went for our first dinner together. It wasn’t a late one as most of us were jet-lagged from travelling and we had an early start the next day to catch a flight inland to Juliaca. We arrived in Juliaca at altitude and travelled towards Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at over 12,000 feet above sea level, and the start of our acclimatisation ahead of the Inca Trail hike which would start in a few days.

Lake Titicaca

This was the first time I’d ever been at real altitude. Living in the UK doesn’t expose you to these heights, and whilst I’d done some exercise and preparation at home ahead of a 4 day hike, there was no way I could replicate the altitude. I was even more worried when we arrived at our hotel for a couple of days in Puno and got absolutely knackered walking up one flight of stairs!

We had a brief walk around Puno before dinner and drinks – though at this stage I was avoiding alcohol (unusual for me on holiday!) in preparation for our hike in a few days.

The next day we had a boat trip on Lake Titicaca and visited the Floating Islands of Uros on the lake, made of reeds, and people live here year-round. We had lunch on Taquile Island (grilled trout according to my diary!), and then in the afternoon and evening we were introduced to our homestay families where we would spend the night with local families, learning about their way of life and being welcomed into their homes. This was where it was advantageous to have learned some Spanish, though my roommate was way more fluent than I was. After a delicious dinner of quinoa soup, rice and vegetables, we turned in for the night. The next morning we helped the family with their daily farm chores (taking the sheep out to graze) and watched on as the mother soaked and prepared the quinoa (now a western health food, but a staple in Peru).

In the afternoon we sailed back across the lake and back to Puno for a final night before heading to Cusco on a local bus the next day. I was very impressed with the local bus – it was a double decker and we had lots of legroom and reclining seats. It was pretty much an all-day ride to Cusco, but it was super-interesting to watch the scenery go by. I had no idea what to expect from the landscape beforehand.

On the bus between Puno and Cusco

When we arrived into Cusco, the first thing we did was head to G Adventures’ hiking depot to get kitted out with sleeping bags, hiking poles and other kit for the Inca Trail hike. We would be leaving our main bags in storage at the hotel in Cusco as we’d be returning here in a few days.

The next day on the way out of Cusco, we stopped at the Cristo Blanco statue high in the hills on the way out of Cusco. We were heading through the Sacred Valley and stopped off at various spots, including at a women’s weaving co-operative, at Pisac which has some great Incan terraces, and at a wonderful restaurant which is supported by G Adventures for some more delicious food.

We ended the day in Ollantaytambo where we hiked briefly into the ruins – a spectacular view over the town and mountains from the ruins. After carbing up with a pasta dinner, it was an early night and an early start the next day to Kilometre 82 and the start of our 4 day hike to Machu Picchu. We got all our gear, met our porters who would be carrying food, tents, most of our stuff. We were also given snack packs to sustain us through the hike.

Ollantaytambo

The first day of the hike is relatively gentle (certainly compared to what was to come on day 2), and it was absolutely beautiful. We also really lucked out with the weather. After a couple of hours we stopped for lunch. Again I had no real idea what to expect with the food but it was beyond anything I could have imagined – we had asparagus soup, fried trout, and jelly for dessert – all ideal for sustaining hiking, and the jelly was a very welcome surprise. At every meal stop we were also able to fill up with water which was obtained from nearby streams and boiled for sterilisation.

After lunch we headed off hiking again. You have to have a permit to hike the Inca Trail, which manages the numbers of people on there at any one time. This was arranged for me with the trip I’d booked. As you can imagine, this is a very popular hike so you would need to book well in advance. I’d booked this trip in February 2015 for a late November departure. We arrived into our first camp in the late afternoon. Our tents had already been set up by the porters so I took off my hiking boots and relaxed for a while before dinner.

Day 2 involved walking up hill for about 5 hours as we reached the highest point of the hike at Dead Woman’s Pass (13,800 feet above sea level). There were times during the hike uphill where I could only make it literally 10 steps before needing a break due to the thin air. And whilst munching on coca leaves helped slightly, it was still very hard, but very rewarding work.

After a 3 hour walk downhill we arrived at the campsite for the second night where again our tents had already been erected and we were able to relax before another delicious and nourishing dinner. In the evenings we would sit out chatting and stargazing. It was approaching a full moon whilst we were there, you do get amazing views of the night sky here.

Day 3 was a long day of hiking – around 9 hours in total, but not quite as steep as day 2. We passed several Incan ruins which we were able to explore. We were also walking above the clouds at several points which was really awesome.

At lunch on day 3, our chefs had prepared a cake for us which was a huge surprise. the porters are truly amazing people who do this trip several times a month.

After an early night on day 3, it was an early morning for the final 5km into Machu Picchu. We were woken at 3.30am and headed out in the dark at around 5.30am. After climbing up a near-vertical wall, we arrived at the Sun Gate at around 7am and after getting down to the main citadel, we almost had the place to ourselves as only the early day-trippers from Aguas Calientes were arriving.

After reuniting with others in the group who didn’t do the Inca Trail hike, we briefly freshened up in the bathrooms (actual flushing toilets after a couple of days of squats and holes in the ground) and then had a guided tour of Machu Picchu. It’s so awesome to walk amongst the ruins, and large parts of it are very well preserved.

After the tour, we took the bus down the winding road to the town of Aguas Calientes where we had lunch, wifi and a well-deserved beer before heading on the panoramic train back to Ollantaytambo, and then a bus back to Cusco.

Back in Cusco I had the longest shower I was able to take in the intermittently hot/cold/dribble/gush of the shower head, as is usual in Peru. We then headed out for a celebratory dinner and Pisco Sours in Cusco. Definitely a night to let your hair down and celebrate a great hike.

The final part of the trip had meant to be a trip into the rainforest. However at the time of our trip there was some unrest in Puerto Maldonado and so we ended up staying in Cusco for a couple of extra days. Cusco has a lot of history, a lovely cathedral, and we enjoyed a cooking class including sampling the Peruvian delicacy of ceviche (cured raw fish).

We flew back to Lima for a final night before I flew home to a rainy UK (sans my bag which eventually made it a couple of days later). This was one of my favourite trips for many reasons. My first real time in a different culture, the food was so delicious (I think Peru and Vietnam are tied first in my favourite food experiences), the scenery was epic, the people on my trip were so lovely and to have the opportunity to hike the Inca Trail is something I will never forget.

Iceland

In March 2018 I took a short trip with a friend to Iceland. Flight time is approx 2 and a half hours from the UK – we flew from Manchester and arrived into some low cloud at Reykjavik’s Keflavik airport mid afternoon. After getting to the hotel, we had a bit of a wander around the local area to orientate ourselves, before having dinner and an expensive drink.

The next morning, the weather was much better and we could see some of the beautiful scenery that surrounds Reykjavik.

We had a long walk around Reykjavik, along the waterfront which has some interesting sculptures, and we visited the Aurora Northern Lights museum to learn about the Northern Lights, which we were hoping we’d be able to see in the evening.

After an expensive burger for lunch, we visited the Hallgrimskirka, which is the main church in Reykjavik. You can also climb up the bell tower and see some great 360o views of Reykjavik – I definitely recommend doing this if you visit Reykjavik. And I also recommend trying to get up high in any new place you visit – it gives such a great perspective on wherever you’re visiting.

We continued our wandering and ended up visiting the Icelandic Phallological Museum (ahem…)

After that, we meandered back to our hotel for a bit of a break and snooze, as we were heading out later in search of the Northern Lights. We were quite fortunate with a break in the weather on the day we were booked on the Northern Lights trip, the previous day’s trips were all cancelled due to the weather. We were picked up at around 10pm and were driven out of Reykjavik for around an hour towards Thingvellir National Park. We were looking for dark, clear skies, and we were so fortunate to get them. To the naked eye, you could see the sky shimmering a silver-ish colour, but when I cranked up to the right settings on my DSLR, it captured the greens and purples amazingly (if a little shakily as I didn’t have a tripod). I still reckon the Northern Lights are one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen, such an awe-inspiring sight.

We were out until around 12.30am watching the skies, and then with an hour’s drive back to Reykjavik, it was a late night. Followed by an early morning as we were doing a full day Golden Circle tour – an absolute must do when you go to Iceland.

The first stop was at Geysir, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Not the most impressive geyser I’ve been to (humble brag…), but if you’ve not seen one before, it’s certainly a sight to behold. There were also some wonderfully blue pools in the area, and lots of steam coming from the ground, as you’d expect in a place with lots of geothermal activity.

The next stop was a Gullfoss Waterfall – an amazing sight, though it was absolutely freezing and blowing an absolute gale.

The final stop of the day was back to Thingvellir National Park, which we were unable to fully appreciate when hunting for the Northern Lights. This is an important place in Iceland, it’s where the first parliament was held, and is also where 2 tectonic plates are moving away from each other, and you can literally see the crack in the earth.

After some more expensive drinks in the evening, we had an early night followed by an early morning as we had a very early flight back to the UK. Iceland makes for a great, if expensive, short break destination from the UK. If you’re going to see the Northern Lights, choose your dates wisely – the sky needs to be dark so better to go around the time of a new moon rather than a full moon, and also bear in mind the daylight hours in Iceland. It’s the furthest north I’ve been and especially in summer, there will be near-constant daylight. We went in March which has approx 12 hours of daylight and does mean it is dark enough in the late evening for viewing the Northern Lights. Do your research if seeing the Northern Lights is an important part of your visit. There are also some wonderful natural phenomenon to see here, it’s on a plate boundary so heaps of geothermal activity and barrenly beautiful scenery in and around Reykjavik. Definitely recommend!

Sevilla, it makes me happy…

In 2018 my holiday plans were primarily to ‘cold’ places – Iceland, Alaska and Jersey (which can be, and was, warm but it wasn’t guaranteed!), so I figured that I needed a hot weather break before we headed into winter. I’d very briefly visited Seville in 2017 when I did a trip through Spain and Morocco, but we basically only had half a day there and it was so hot I could barely move, let alone see everything I wanted to see. So, it seemed like the perfect option for a long weekend break with a good friend who I met on a trip to New Zealand in 2014.

We flew from Gatwick and arrived in Sevilla in the late afternoon. It was cloudy but warm. After checking into our hotel we headed out for a wander towards the Plaza de España

Plaza de España – October 2018

The cloudy skies gave it a different ambience to 2017’s blue sky visit:

Plaza de España – September 2017

With the temperature in the high 20s rather than approaching 40, this time round it was a much more comfortable temperature for meandering through the streets and taking in the sights.

After wandering back around to the cathedral we found a nice tapas restaurant for dinner and a couple of drinks. Afterwards a walk through the city back to our hotel

Sevilla Cathedral by night

The next morning we headed over to the Bull Ring. Bull fighting remains a spectator sport in Sevilla, and you can go on a tour of the bull ring, as we did. It was very interesting to learn about the history of bull fighting in this part of Spain, and the arena itself is very impressive, but I can’t say I’d be rushing to see a live event

In the afternoon we went on a tour of the cathedral, which we had booked in advance. An immensely impressive building (the largest gothic church in the world) and a must-do when in Sevilla. I would also recommend climbing La Giralda, the clock tower, for some great views over Sevilla.

Afterwards we continued our wandering through the pretty streets of Sevilla before dinner, wine and local speciality tinto de verano (makes red wine drinkable in my opinion!).

The next day, with a slight hangover, we had a tour of the Alcazar, which again we’d booked in advance. It’s an enormous complex, both the buildings and the gardens, and you could easily spend hours there. Another must-do if you are in Sevilla.

After more tapas and wine in the evening, it was an early start the next morning for our flight back to Gatwick.

I would absolutely recommend Sevilla as a great short break destination. It does get extremely hot in this part of Spain, so great for visiting in Spring or Autumn – we went in mid October and it was still 30C. It’s a good idea to book ahead for the Cathedral and the Alcazar as they can get very busy, and it saves you queuing in the heat. Wandering around the pretty streets and enjoying wine and tapas is an ideal way to spend a long weekend.

Oman & India

Next up in my series of ‘catch-up’ blog posts – a family trip cruising Oman and India. This trip was December 2016.

We had a direct flight from London Heathrow to Muscat, Oman – approximately 7 hours flight time if I remember rightly. We flew with Oman Air and arrived in Muscat in the early evening. At the time of travel, British citizens were required to purchase a visa on arrival for $17USD to be paid in cash.

We were transferred over to the port area to board our vessel before having dinner and the required life jacket muster.

The next day we remained in Muscat, I went on a Muscat city tour which included a visit to the Sultan Qaboos Mosque. This is one of the very few mosques in Oman which welcome non-Muslim visitors, though visitors are obviously required to be respectful. Women are required to be fully covered apart from the face so be sure to wear trousers/long skirt, and have a cardigan/shawl to cover arms all the way to the wrist. Once inside, it is quite an awe-inspiring sight, with some wonderful, ornate features such as the chandelier below.

Inside Sultan Qaboos Mosque

After we’d finished the mosque visit, we also visited the palace, a museum and a souk before returning to the ship for lunch. I then enjoyed a free afternoon relaxing on the ship whilst some of the other passengers were on a full day trip inland.

The ship sailed east overnight to Sur. Here the ship moored offshore and we got to land via zodiacs, which made for an interesting ride! Once ashore we had a trip visiting a local fish market before heading to a fort with some great views overlooking the city, and finally to a dhow boatyard to see dhows under construction (dhows are traditional fishing boats in this part of the world).

Back on the ship at lunchtime before continuing to head east to India. It was a day and a half’s sailing to India, so plenty of time for relaxing on board on the sun deck, and practicing my photography skills.

Sunset in the Arabian Sea

We arrived after lunch the following day at our first port of call in India – Porbander, in Gujarat. Porbander is famous for being the birthplace of Gandhi, and in the afternoon we went on a trip to the house where he was born. It was extremely hot but the inside of the house was surprisingly cool. We also had a tuk tuk ride to a temple in Porbander before returning to the ship.

As first impressions of India go, Porbander was a massive assault on the senses. Of all the places we visit, I felt that this was the ‘real’ India. Bumpy roads, cows on the roadside, hustle and bustle in Porbander itself, and signs of poor living conditions.

We were moored overnight in Porbander, and the next day I went on a trip inland to the fort at Junagadh. Getting there featured the singularly most uncomfortable bus ride of my entire life – 3 hours of being flung around on the back seat of a bus. When we arrived, we visited Uparkot Fort, which had some good views over the city. Later we also stopped at the Mahabat Maqbara Palace, which is one of the most intricate buildings I think I’ve ever seen.

The return bus journey was just as uncomfortable as the outbound journey and I was relieved to be able to stretch out my back when we arrived back at the ship. We sailed south overnight to Diu and arrived at anchor early the next morning. After using the zodiacs again to get to shore, we visited another fort before wandering around the pretty town and visiting a very colourful market.

We had lunch back onboard and set sail for Mumbai in the afternoon. We arrived the next morning. One of the features of a cruise to India is that we must clear immigration each time we enter the country. Before travelling to India, we had to obtain a ‘multiple entry visa’ which was quite a laborious process requiring a lengthy form and 2-inch square photos to be sent off to the Indian Embassy in London, along with your passport, payment and a stamped addressed envelope. Make sure to leave plenty of time to obtain the right visas before leaving, especially if making multiple entries to the same country.

Once we cleared immigration (again!), we had a tour of some of the main city sights in Mumbai including the Gateway Of India, and the Taj Mahal Hotel. We also visited some markets – I love visiting markets in Asia – so many sights, sounds, colours, and saw some of the Dhaba-wallas at work outside Church Gate Station. After a short ride on a train, during which I noticed that Mumbai uses the same signage for its stations as the London Underground, we also walked passed an open air laundry before having lunch – actual Indian food in India – delicious!

In the afternoon I took a trip to Elephanta Island, off the coast of Mumbai, which is where the Elephanta Caves are. The caves a dedicated to Shiva and contain many carvings for both Hindu and Buddhist iconography. It’s quite extensive and I really enjoyed this trip – a must-do if you find yourself in Mumbai.

In Elephanta Caves

The following morning was a free morning in Mumbai before we set sail in the afternoon to Goa. We arrived in Goa the next day, and headed off on a trip to a spice plantation, which was very interesting, before visiting old Goa. We visited a basilica and a church. It was extremely hot and I was extremely hungover so I wasn’t able to enjoy it quite as much as I’d hoped!

We sailed overnight to Mangalore, I didn’t partake in any trips in Mangalore and spent the day relaxing on board. We sailed overnight to Cochin.

We had 2 days in the Cochin region. On the first day we had a tuk tuk ride to a village where we learnt about traditional skills such as coconut shelling, crabbing, fishing and weaving – in fact this was very similar to traditional skills I’d learnt about in other regions, particularly the Pacific Islands, which goes to show that these are fundamental skills that humans have developed regardless of where people live.

Fishing in Cochin

After lunch we had a punt across a river which was very relaxing. In the afternoon we went to Fort Kochi and watched some traditional Kathakali dancing. I’ve never seen anything like this before – a lot of the performance was based around eye movement and facial expressions with brightly painted faces to convey the story.

The following day was one of the things I was most looking forward to in India – a cruise on the Kerala Backwaters. We drove for about 90 minutes before getting on our boat and cruising around for around the backwaters for around an hour and a half after which we stopped for lunch at a hotel. One of the noticeable things was the amount of building work going on – lots of new hotels and resorts being constructed. It’s easy to see why – the Kerala Backwaters are a beautiful, peaceful spot, but it seems like that is on the cusp of changing into a very commercialised area. Hopefully it won’t take away too much of the reason that people would like to visit in the first place.

After lunch we had a shorter boat ride back to our bus, and then travelled back to the ship.

Overnight we continued sailing south, and arrived the next morning at the port of Vizhinjam, for Trivandrum. Immensely hot and sweaty – we did a morning tour of Trivandrum where we visited some more amazing architectural sites including the museum of horses.

In the afternoon we set sail for the last time, and arrived into Colombo in Sri Lanka the following morning. Aside from a drive through Colombo to the airport, we didn’t get to see much of Sri Lanka (that’s for another time!), and after heading to the airport for the long flight home, we arrived in a cold UK in the early hours of Christmas Eve. It was quite the juxtaposition coming from the heat and hustle and bustle of South Asia to the cold festive season in the UK.

This was a family holiday, and without it, I’m not sure I’d ever have got to India. But I’m glad I went. An assault on all the senses, and such an interesting country, even if all I saw was a few ports on the west coast. It’s a culture shock, it’s hot, it’s busy and gives you lots of things to think about. I’d also never particularly considered Oman, and didn’t know what to expect. It seems a prosperous country with some interesting sights, and seems to be up-and-coming from a tourism point of view. Certainly somewhere to consider for near year round sunshine in the Middle East.

Gooooooood morning Vietnam

It’s actually over 3 years since I went to Vietnam, better late than never in writing up about it! This trip was March 2017.

I had a direct flight from London to Hanoi with Vietnam Airlines, an extremely reasonable flight price of around £450 return if I remember rightly. After a 12+ hour flight, I landed at 4.30am local time, and after swiftly clearing immigration (British citizens didn’t – at time of travel – require a visa for stays under 15 days) I had quite a long wait for my bag as it was basically the last one round the carousel – always a slightly worrying time! I’d arranged a transfer to my hotel in central Hanoi, and after arriving at the hotel at around 6.30am I took myself off to bed. Top tip, especially when travelling somewhere where accommodation is cheap by western standards – if you are arriving somewhere first thing in the morning, book a hotel room for the previous night so you can check in and either get some kip for a few hours, or freshen up before you start exploring. The hotel I was staying in was approx £30 per night which was worth every penny to be able to crash for a few hours.

As it turned out, I was absolutely knackered, the product of being in a job I didn’t enjoy (part of the reason I’d gone on sabbatical the year before), and at the time I’d actually just been successful in interviewing for another job in the same company which I would start shortly after returning from this trip. Much less stress and a better work/life balance, but that isn’t the topic of this blog, and as such I pretty much slept through the entire day. Fortunately I’d arrived a day early to join the trip so I didn’t miss out on that much, and it gave my body clock a chance to adjust.

After a long sleep, I awoke refreshed on the second day and after breakfasting in the hotel, I set off exploring Hanoi. One thing I had been warned about prior to this trip was that attempting to cross the street in Hanoi would be an interesting experience, certainly if you waited as you would in the U.K. for a break in the traffic, I’d still be stuck on the wrong side of the street now! It is a little unnerving basically having to walk out into traffic but, unbelievably, it works. Most people in Vietnam ride scooters as the taxes on (usually imported) cars are prohibitively expensive, and they are used to adjusting their speeds for pedestrians. After building up confidence to cross the street, I made my way to Hoan Kiam Lake and walked around it, enjoying the early morning sights including the locals enjoying some early morning yoga/meditation along the shores.

Hoan Kiam Lake, Hanoi

After some more wandering to a temple and to the market, I headed back to my hotel for some much needed air-con. After a short break from the heat, I ventured back outside and grabbed lunch – a delicious Bánh Mì from Banh Mi 25, one of the top-rated places for Bánh Mì in Hanoi. Bánh Mì are a delicious fusion sandwich, a baguette-style bread roll filled with pate, grilled meat, cucumber and pickled veg, and an absolute bargain with a Bánh Mì and bottle of water costing the equivalent of 75p!

In the afternoon I walked to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum complex and around the botanical gardens before retreating back to the hotel. In the evening I met the rest of the group (a G Adventures trip) and we headed out for dinner.

An early start the next morning as we headed to Halong Bay. It was a 4 hour drive punctuated by a stop at a project which creates employment for disabled people by teaching them crafts and needlework which is then sold. A very interesting idea.

We arrived at Halong Bay and boarded our overnight junk boat in time for lunch. As we set sail through the bay, the limestone karsts that we passed through reminded me a little bit of Milford Sound. I’ve since also been to Khao Sok in Thailand which was very reminiscent of Halong Bay. We sailed through the bay in the afternoon, stopping off in a couple of places including Ti Top Island where we climbed up 400 steps to take in the views.

Halong Bay

We had dinner on the boat, all freshly made on board and plate after plate of delicious food was served up. After enjoying the stars with a couple of drinks, I retreated to bed. Another early start the following morning with breakfast at 7am before we visited a Sung Sot Cave, the largest cave in Halong Bay, which had this amazing, wave-like ceiling.

Sung Sot Cave, Halong Bay

We then headed back to land and late morning got off the boat and headed on the 4 hour journey back to Hanoi. We were taking the overnight train south to Hue but had a few hours spare before then, so I went on a street food tour. If you haven’t already gathered, I absolutely loved the food in Vietnam. I think it’s the best food I’ve had anywhere, and certainly the cheapest. We wandered the streets of Hanoi, sampling lots of delicious food before ending up in Hanoi Food Culture where we had the Vietnamese speciality of egg coffee (or egg chocolate in my case as I’m not a coffee drinker)

Egg chocolate – an alternate version of the Vietnamese speciality egg coffee

We boarded the train in the evening, around 9pm. We were travelling in first class which comprised of 4-berth bunks with shared toilets/squats at the ends of the carriages. Second class was 6-berth bunks, followed by soft seats and hard seats (as you might recall from the Top Gear Vietnam special). I took a top bunk. The journey itself was very loud and the train was very shaky, and I don’t remember sleeping too much. The overnight train I’ve since been on in Thailand was a much more comfortable ride.

We arrived in Hue at 10.30am the next morning. It was noticeably hotter and more humid. Despite arriving early, we were able to check in to our hotel where I promptly showered before heading out for a quick wander before we went on our included trips in the afternoon. I ventured for a walk along the Perfume River before retreating to the air con ahead of our afternoon tours. Firstly we went to the Tien Mu Pagoda:

Tien Mu Pagoda, Hue

We then went to the main attraction in Hue, the Imperial Citadel. An imposing collection of buildings, and much, much larger than I imagined. The citadel was built in the early 1800s and was targeted during the Vietnam War. You can see the bullet holes from the Vietnam War in some of the walls.

Imperial citadel, Hue

We also squeezed in a visit to the Royal Tombs on an busy sightseeing afternoon.

At the Royal Tombs, Hue

The next morning I did a motorbike tour (as backseat passenger!) – an absolute must-do in a country where motorbikes/scooters are the primary form of transport. We were taken out to the countryside outside of Hue, seeing rice fields, monasteries and a colosseum where elephants and tigers once fought. We had an included vegetarian lunch at the monastery which was, once again, absolutely delicious.

We arrived back in Hue after lunch and then headed south over the Hai Van Pass towards Hoi An. Unfortunately it was a bit cloudier than ideal which didn’t make for the best photos, but we still saw some great views.

We arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon. Our guide took us on a brief orientation tour as we had 3 nights here to explore. We bumped into Jack Whitehall and his dad filming their Netflix travel series whilst we were wandering down tailors row – an unexpected sight! Hoi An is famous for getting cheap tailoring which can be ready in as little as 24 hours, but I didn’t partake on this occasion.

The following day we had an included excursion in the morning to Planeterra’s project here, Oodles of Noodles. This project taught local kids both the skills of cooking in a professional environment, as well as some English language. We learned to make rice pancakes, and then enjoyed a delicious bowl of noodles for lunch:

Lunch at Oodles of Noodles, Hoi An

We had a free afternoon where I enjoyed walking around Hoi An old town. Sincerely the prettiest place I’ve ever been.

The next day was a free day. The weather was a bit dodgy, grey with the occasionally downpour but still very warm, so after a relaxing morning at the hotel, I went for a hot stone massage in the afternoon. £20 for a 90 minute massage was an absolute bargain, even if I was a bit sore the following day! In the evening we enjoyed a walk (and some bargains) in the night markets.

The next morning was an early start for a flight from nearby Danang to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly Saigon. Even hotter and more sticky than Hue. After checking in to the hotel mid morning, and then going for lunch to have pho (finally!), we then had a free afternoon. Ho Chi Minh City has some pretty spectacular architecture, including many remnants of the French colonial era:

The following day we had an included trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of tunnels built by the Viet Cong outside of Saigon during the Vietnam War. It was fascinating to learn about the guerilla tactics used by the Viet Cong, and amazing to see the size of the tunnels, which were utterly minuscule.

Cu Chi Tunnels, barely big enough for a body to fit through

We came back to HCMC for lunch and then had a free afternoon. I decided to go to the War Remnants museum which is is a sobering affair. Be warned – there are some very graphic pictures of the effects of the chemical warfare. It was also horrifying to learn that people still live with the effects having been exposed at the time, but also because some of the effects can be passed on to offspring. A sobering reminder of the legacy of war, and well worth a visit.

That evening was our final group dinner before I left the following day. More delicious food, this time Vietnamese barbecue.

Vietnamese BBQ – cook your own dinner!

I had most of the next day free before an evening flight back to London via Hanoi. It was extremely hot and sticky again, and after a walk in the morning to the Reunification Palace and a failed attempt to find the Jade Emperor Pagoda, I retreated back to the hotel and air con and a shower before heading to the airport in the late afternoon.

So, what were my impressions of Vietnam? Genuinely part of the reason I went was after I’d seen the Top Gear Vietnam show, it looked a beautiful and fascinating country. A few people I’d met on my previous travels had also been and talked about what a wonderful country it is. And it certainly was. Everyone was friendly, I didn’t feel afraid walking around by myself, a solo female traveller (albeit on a group tour). It was very cheap – obviously I’d paid for the trip and accommodation/transport beforehand, and so all I had to buy whilst there was food, drinks, excursions and souvenirs. I was there for 10 days and spent less than £150 – and that included a $40 motorbike trip and a £20 massage. The absolute best food I’ve had anywhere I’ve been either before or since (with Peru close behind). And a fascinating, and devastating, recent history. Would absolutely recommend, and when I do go back again to South East Asia, I wouldn’t think twice about going back.

Thailand

I’ve previously taken holidays in November, in many ways it’s a great time of year to take a holiday, just before the festive season gets into full swing, and before the worst of winter sets in. It’s been a while since I took a winter holiday though, and I was excited to get back to it. I was even more excited about being able to get to Thailand from Cardiff airport. Less than an hour between me leaving the house, to being sat in the airport lounge with a glass of vino – ideal.

Qatar Airways fly 3-4 times a week from Cardiff via Doha, and to say the plane wasn’t full would be an understatement – I had 3 seats to myself! I would definitely encourage anyone in south Wales or the south west of England to use this route if you’re thinking of heading to Asia, Australia or New Zealand, it is no more expensive than flying from London, particularly when you factor in the cost of getting to Heathrow, and especially on the way back, being home just over an hour after landing is almost priceless. Anyway, after that pitch for Qatar Airways (I am not affiliated with them in any way…), onto Thailand…

I had been warned that immigration in Bangkok could be a long experience, but I must have landed at a fortunate time as there was a very short queue. British citizens don’t need a visa for trips up to 30 days, you just need to keep hold of your stamped departure card until you leave. After picking up my rucksack (gotta live the backpacker lifestyle in Thailand), I then had a transfer to the hotel. It was about an hour in some pretty heavy traffic.

I travelled with a company I haven’t been with before, Intro Travel, always good to try a new company. You can see the trip itinerary here.

We were staying in a hotel one street away from the famous backpacker mecca of Khao San Road. The plus side of this was that it was very close to the hubbub of this part of Bangkok, and the nightlife, the downside was trying to sleep over the noise coming from outside!

I arrived mid afternoon, and after a brief snooze, we met up as a group in the evening and went for dinner before going to a sky bar on the 84th floor of Baiyoke Sky Tower. I love getting up high in a new city, especially at night

The next day was a late start (10am!), we had breakfast, and then headed out on a bit of a city tour. The first stop was Wat Chana Songkhram, a temple (Wat means temple), where we received a Buddhist blessing, and then individually we offered a prayer along with incense and a lotus flower, which is an important symbol in Buddhism.

We walked through the streets and then had a short river cruise. I had no idea that Bangkok had so many rivers and canals in it. After that we headed to a market for some coconut ice cream before heading to Wat Pho, one of the largest temples in Bangkok and home to an enormous reclining Buddha

as well as numerous smaller Buddhas

We then had a tuk tuk ride back to the hotel for a little down-time before our big night out on Khao San Road. First up we went for dinner at Bombay Blues, an Indian restaurant (when in Rome…), where we started the drinking with enormous sharing cocktails and jelly shots, before heading to a bucket bar on Khao San Road for buckets of alcohol and some critters as snacks (the second time this year I’ve eaten fried critters on holiday, they have got no better since Mexico!)

I retired at midnight and left the others to it. The next morning we had a cooking class, for which I was very glad I didn’t have a hangover. We made Tom Yam soup, Pad Thai and Massaman curry, all delicious:

We then had a free afternoon before we were getting the overnight train south to Surat Thani. The train journey was about 14 hours, we were sleeping in bunks (which had been converted from seats) in an open carriage. Definitely comfier than the bunks on the train in Vietnam:

In Bangkok, the skies had been clear, but as we headed south it was greyer and more prone to tropical showers, still very hot though, absolutely no need for a sweater. When we got to Surat Thani the next morning, we had breakfast before hopping on the minibus inland to Khao Sok National Park. We drove for about an hour and then got on a boat across the lake for about an hour to the floating bungalows. A pretty idyllic place, the lake is man-made, but the scenery reminded me of Halong Bay in Vietnam. We spent the afternoon lounging around in big rubber rings with an adult beverage in hand, admiring the scenery and enjoying life.

The next day was a long travel day, we started off with an hour back across the lake, and then an hour in the mini bus back to Surat Thani, then an hour’s break in a mall for lunch before another hour or so to the ferry port, before a two-and-a-half hour ferry to Koh Pha-ngan, and then a 15 minute taxi ride to Sarana Bungalows, our home for the next 4 nights. It’s in a perfect location right on the beach, I could definitely get used to this view:

Koh Pha-ngan is famous for its Full Moon Parties on Haad Rin beach. Despite not being there for full moon, we still partied as though it was. We had dinner at Same Same in Haad Rin, got painted with luminous body paint before heading to a bucket bar to get pre-fuelled before eventually heading to the beach. A fun night of drinking and dancing before getting into bed at 3am

The next day I felt surprisingly well, which was a good job as I had a Thai massage at 11am. Not necessarily a relaxing experience as I was pulled into angles I didn’t know I could do! I spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool and in a hammock – blissful. We went to Pandip Food Market in the evening, there was a large array of food to choose from – I had sushi and some Thai-style ice cream, before heading back to the bungalows for a chilled evening.

The next day we did an island tour, heading firstly to Secret Beach:

As became the norm with the weather, the day started off with blue skies before turning cloudy and showery in the afternoon. There was a downpour whilst we were at lunch, and then it was showery at Malibu Beach in the afternoon. I lounged in a hammock, sheltering under some palm trees, whilst some of the others played volleyball.

After that we headed to Apichada viewpoint, where we would have been able to see a lovely sunset if it hadn’t been quite so cloudy.

In the evening we had a barbecue and bonfire on the beach, a lush, chilled evening. The lights you can just about see in the distance are on Koh Samui:

The next day we had a Muay Thai boxing class in the morning. Hot and sweaty but very enjoyable. After a chilled afternoon we had a final dinner with those only doing the 9 day trip, including more buckets and beach-partying. A late evening was then followed by an early morning and another long travel day to Phi Phi Islands.

A 6.15am start (following a 2am finish), with a taxi to the pier, a 2+ hour ferry back to the mainland, a coach (I think 3 hours but I was asleep for most of it) across the mainland to Krabi, and then another 2 hours on a ferry to Koh Phi Phi, and a 10 minute walk (no cars on Phi Phi) to the hotel. A downpour greeted our arrival. After relaxing in the room for a bit, we then went for dinner, and went to see a fire show, somewhat similar to those I’ve seen in Fiji and Rarotonga.

The next morning we met at 8am to walk up to the viewpoint on Phi Phi, it was a sticky walk as it was very humid, but the view was well worth the effort:

All the main hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars on Phi Phi Don are on the isthmus you can see in the photo, and from this angle you can imagine the devastation which was caused by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. The isthmus is so low-lying and would be easily washed away by a tsunami. Thankfully it has been rebuilt, but as the island is so heavily dependent on tourism, this brings new issues. Everything has to be shipped on and off the island, including all food, drinks, consumables and waste. It certainly eye-opening and made me think about the environmental impact of tourism on these idyllic islands.

In the afternoon we had a boat trip to some of the other islands, including Ko Phi Phi Lee, which is where Viking Bay and Maya Bay are located. You might know Maya Bay from the film The Beach. As a consequence of over tourism following the popularity of that film, Maya Beach remains closed to tourists. You can see it from the water but can’t get close or land on the beach, the red flags signal it’s closed, and later on there was a security boat patrolling the bay.

It was also raining again. We all got in the water for a swim – lovely and warm, like having a warm bath – before having dinner on board. After dinner, once it had got dark, we all got back into the water to see bioluminescent plankton which reside in these waters. I’ve seen this phenomenon once before in New Zealand whilst kayaking, but this time I could see it up close. It’s pretty cool to see the water lighting up beside you.

The next day, after a free morning, we went on another boat trip, this time around the main island of Phi Phi Don. We went to Phi Phi Village, Nui Bay and Monkey Bay. The monkeys were cute, but be sure to keep back as they will bite!

That evening was our last night on the trip, we went for a final group dinner before drinking and dancing the night away in some of the local bars.

All in all, a great trip. Lots of great (and different) sites, lovely food, great people, and generally good weather – I even came home with a bit of a tan!

Monument Valley and Grand Canyon (again)

After leaving Bryce Canyon, we had a long drive day to Monument Valley which was punctuated by a couple of interesting stops.

First up was Glen Canyon Dam, near Page, Arizona, which dams the Colorado River and created Lake Powell. Similar to how the Hoover Dam created Lake Mead, this area and the Lake provide a variety of recreational water-based activities that would not otherwise exist in this part of the US Southwest.

After stopping at a Subway in Page for lunch, we then had a stop-off at Horseshoe Bend. Apparently it’s grown massively in popularity over the last couple of years due to it’s very instagrammable nature. It’s approximately a 15-20 minute walk from the parking lot, and despite what it looks like in the photo, there were hoards of folk there.

It is a fabulous example of how rivers meander, and really is horseshoe-shaped. The colours, yet again, were amazing. The mixture of the blues/greens of the water with the orange and red of the rocks was perfect. I was really glad we were able to make this stop-off. Last time I was in this part of the US in 2016 we didn’t see it and I was really pleased to make up for that this time round.

We then carried on towards Monument Valley, and just had time to drop our bags off at the hotel in Kayenta (which apparently I’d stayed at last time I was here as my phone auto-connected to the terrible WiFi – be warned that phone signal and internet connectivity is scarce around here) before heading into the valley and onto our included Navajo Jeep tour.

The vistas in Monument Valley are so iconic, having been the backdrop to numerous films, tv programmes and adverts over the years. I’m very fortunate to have been able to revisit his place, and the scenery still hits you second time round. It’s like being in a movie.

We did the same jeep tour that I did last time when I was travelling with Trek America, though this time it was an included part of the trip (it was an additional excursion last time). We went on the backroads that you can’t ordinarily get to, and got much closer to the mesas and buttes (the stone structures). It’s brilliant doing it in the late afternoon/early evening when the sun is setting as the changing colours really add to the atmosphere.

Once the sun had set, it was time to enjoy some delicious Navajo tacos and be treated to some traditional song and dance. A fabulous opportunity to learn more about the Navajo and their traditions, as Monument Valley is within the Navajo Nation, a Native American territory covering parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

The next morning we left Kayenta and headed towards the Grand Canyon. Our first stop off was about 30 minutes outside of Kayenta, at the Navajo National Monument, where we did a short trail to a viewpoint:

In the cave were dwellings which the Ancestral Pueblo people built and lived in around 1250AD – really cool to see, if not that closely! Yet again another glorious late summer day with not a cloud in the sky.

We approached the Grand Canyon from the east, so our first glimpse of it was from Desert View. On the way, we’d stopped off at a deli for a packed lunch, and so we enjoyed our lunch with a view over the Grand Canyon, a pretty epic lunch-spot, I think you’ll agree:

After lunch we had time to take in the views and snap a few photos from Desert View before driving over to the main Visitor Centre at the South Rim. The bus parking lot was absolutely rammed, and the viewpoints were absolutely packed. It was a Friday, and just about still the summer season, but I was really surprised at how busy it was. Although it’s one of the busiest National Parks, with more than 5 million visitors annually, it seemed way busier than last time I was here in June 2016.

After some more photo opportunities, we then headed to the hotel in Tusayan, which again was somewhere I’d been before, though this time we were in the hotel part rather than the motel part.

Some of the group headed out on a helicopter trip, I didn’t as I’d done it last time. Definitely recommend doing it if you have the time and the pennies. The moment when the helicopter flies low over the trees before you get to the edge of the rim, and suddenly the canyon falls away below you is one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had.

Whilst most of the group went on the helicopter trip, my roommate and I went in search of food and snacks for the hike we had planned for the following day, as well as picking up a bottle of vino, which we enjoyed whilst waiting for the others to return. We went for dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Tusayan is a strip of hotels/motels and eateries, not heaps of choice (Mexican, Italian, steak house – you don’t come to this part of he world for the food!). After a burrito and a large strawberry margarita it was off to bed before a big hike the following day.

We left at 8am and our tour guide drove us into the park. Grand Canyon operates a shuttle bus system to get around the South Rim, and so we hopped on a shuttle bus to take us to the Bright Angel Trailhead. The Bright Angel trail is a there-and-back trail with turnaround options at the Mile-and-a-Half Resthouse, the Three Mile Resthouse, Indian Gardens (at 4.6 miles) and Plateau Point (6 miles). The hike to Plateau Point and back is longest day hike, at just over 12 miles and going over 3000 feet down into the Canyon. Going to the river and back in a day is not an option.

We started hiking at around 8.50am, it was cool and a little windy on the rim, good hiking temperatures. As we got down into the Canyon, it was much less windy. We stopped for breaks at the first 2 Resthouses, and made it to Indian Gardens (our aim) at 11.30am.

Indian Gardens are a complete oasis in the Canyon, lots of trees and vegetation, and a nice cooling breeze as respite from the heat of the day. We stopped here for around 40 minutes for lunch before starting the long hike back. Indian Gardens is 3040 feet below the rim, a long way up! We started back at 12.10pm and were back on the rim by 3.40pm. I was really pleased with how this hike went, it was almost 10 miles and the climb on the way back was hard. I drank about 4 litres of water, there are water taps at each of the resthouses and at Indian Gardens, and even though it wasn’t as hot as it can be at the height of the summer, it was still very hot work. Eating lots of salty snacks is also important to prevent dehydration, so make sure you’ve packed plenty of trail mix!

Last time I was here I just hiked along the rim, and one of the reasons I came back was to hike into the Canyon. It is so stunning in the Canyon, when you get below the rim, you get such a different perspective of the landscape, and the clouds on the day we hiked meant that the colours were constantly changing.

When we got back to the rim, we had an extremely long wait for a shuttle bus back to the Visitor Centre, the queues were very long, I think in part due to it being a fee-free day in the park. When we got to the Visitor Centre, we then had another wait for the shuttle bus back to Tusayan.

After the quickest shower ever, we then met up as a group to come back into the park for sunset. Sunset at the Grand Canyon is a definite bucket-list experience, and one I’ve now been fortunate enough to witness twice. The way the colours change as the sun goes down is just magical.

The next day was our last day of this whistle-stop trip through Utah and Arizona. On our way back to Las Vegas, we made a stop-off at the historic Route 66 town of Seligman.

After an In-N-Out burger for lunch (the best burgers!!), we tried to go and see the Hoover Dam, but the security presence deemed all our suitcases/bags too much of a risk (or too much of a hassle to check) and so we were turned around. A shame. We were able to stop off at a scenic overlook for Lake Mead as a consolation.

After that we headed the short distance back to Vegas and the end of the trip. It’s always sad to say goodbye, but we packed so much in to a week and I had a blast.

Zion and Bryce Canyon

When I travelled extensively around the USA in 2016, we didn’t get to either Zion National Park or Bryce Canyon, and they’ve been on my radar ever since. I found the ideal trip with Grand American Adventures which fitted the dates I had off work perfectly.

The trip started in Las Vegas on Sunday evening. On Monday morning we set off for Zion National Park, approximately a 4 hour drive out of Nevada and into Utah. We arrived mid afternoon after a couple of stops for snacks in Walmart and lunch at Chick-Fil-A.

We were staying in Springdale, which is right at the entrance to Zion National Park. After our tour guide gave us a brief rundown of how the shuttle service works (you can’t drive into the main part of Zion Canyon), and talked through some of the hiking trails, we then set off into the park. As it was already mid afternoon, I just hiked a couple of the shorter trails, and admired the awesome colours of the park:

We went for a group dinner in the evening (massive cheeseburger and a beer for me), and then had a fairly early night as I had a big hike planned for the following day.

Angels Landing is one of the 2 most famous hikes in Zion. It’s 2 and a half miles one way, and climbs up approximately 1400 feet. The trail for the first 2 miles is pretty good, well paved and with some decent shaded areas to shelter from the blazing sun. The last half mile is basically scrambling up rocks, with a chain to hold on to, to save you from the 1000 ft drop either side – not for the faint-hearted!:

There were also a lot of people on the trail which made this section pretty challenging as there isn’t much room with people going in both directions. The views at the top are totally worth it though. I spent around 40 minutes at the top, having my lunch and soaking up the epic views.

It was somewhat easier to get down, partly because there weren’t so many people trying to come up the chains. I was so proud of myself for completing this hike. To be honest, the chance to hike Angels Landing was the main reason for booking this trip, and I was elated, if completely knackered, after I’d done it.

After I’d got back to the start of the trail. I then hopped on the shuttle bus to go to the end of the line – Temple of Sinawava. This is where the other famous hike in Zion starts – The Narrows. I just did the river walk to the start of the Narrows but some of the others in the group hiked the Narrows on the first day:

After that I headed back to the hotel for a soak in the heated pool and jacuzzi – a welcome relief for my aching limbs.

In the evening we went to a Thai restaurant in Springdale which was a nice alternative to American fare. There are not a lot of dining options in Springdale, it’s a functional strip of hotels/motels and easy-dining restaurants catering for the park tourists, so don’t go there expecting gourmet dining!

An unreal view from the hotel the following morning:

Look how blue the sky is!! So clear, and not a cloud to be seen. We set off for Bryce Canyon in the morning.

Bryce Canyon is around 90 miles/145 km from Zion. We arrived around lunchtime and enjoyed our deli sandwiches with a view:

The rock formations are known as hoodoos, and look other-worldly. The way the colours layered in the rocks reminded me of Badlands, but the rock formations themselves were like nothing I’ve ever seen.

In the afternoon we hiked the Queen’s Garden and Navajo loops into the Canyon, to get up close the the hoodoos.

The colours were just spectacular. It was a nice walk in amongst the hoodoos and down into the Canyon, certainly a good workout for my still-tired legs. Afterwards we went to check in to our hotel in Bryce Canyon City (not a city in the traditional sense of the word, another functional strip of hotels/motels and eateries). We ate at a pretty decent buffet in the evening and then headed back into the park for an excellent view of the night sky. It was clear and there was no moon so we could see a lot of stars and the Milky Way – here is a somewhat wonky attempt at some night-sky photography. More practice needed!! (Or a tripod)

The next day was an early start for the long drive to Monument Valley, but that excitement is for another post.

Disclaimer – I am not affiliated with Grand American Adventures in any way, and was a full fare-paying customer on this trip.

Jersey

In September I spent a week in Jersey with my family. Jersey holds a special place in my heart, it’s where we holidayed when I was a kid every year from when I was 6 until I left college at 18, and whilst I’ve been a couple of times since then, it’s now been 10 years since I last went. A place that holds lots of memories. In contrast to pretty much every other trip on this blog, this was a family holiday, and one to celebrate milestone birthdays for my dad, mum and brother.

For the first time in years (though actually the second time in 9 days due to a work trip) I flew from Cardiff airport, just 35 minutes from where I live, and such a small airport that you can happily whizz through check in and security in under 10 minutes. Cardiff airport doesn’t offer a massive array of destinations, but Qatar Airways have started daily flights to Doha which does give me options for next year without having to go to Heathrow…stay tuned for more on those plans.

Jersey is a 30 minute flight from Cardiff, and so after one of my shorter holiday journeys I was standing in warm early September sunshine on the island of Jersey.

Most of my folks had arrived the previous day on a flight from Manchester but my brother and sister-in-law were coming on the ferry from Poole, so after I arrived (and had a drama at the hotel check in whereby I’d been bumped from a double room to a single room for one night because ‘we are very busy’) we all headed off to the harbour in St Helier to wait for their boat to come in.

After waving at them as they drove off the ferry, we then had a pretty relaxed afternoon before all meeting up in Rozel for a lovely pub dinner. On the second day we all went for lunch at the Atlantic Hotel, to celebrate my dad’s birthday (not that it was actually his birthday but, you know, any excuse…). Biggest Yorkshire pudding ever…

After a leisurely lunch, we then drove to Corbiere lighthouse right on the south-westerly tip of Jersey. At low tide you can walk along the causeway to the lighthouse. We just about managed it before the tide came in.

Then we drove round to St Ouen’s Bay which spans the west coast of Jersey. There’s always been something kinda wild and beautifully desolate about St Ouen’s, it’s exposed to the prevailing wind (great for surfing) and if you headed directly west the next stop would be Newfoundland.

We then went to Bouley Bay on the north of the island. This is where I’ve always stayed when I’ve previously been to Jersey. It’s in a small bay which has a stony beach and steep hillside behind it and is probably about as much off the usual tourist trail as you’d get on Jersey. I have so many happy memories of May half term, September hols and early July hols here (the daily Calippo ice lolly from the cafe, watching the Hill Climb on the May bank holiday Monday, having tea in the lounge when we were too young to go down for ‘grown up’ dinner, being able to watch anything on TV in the evening whilst mum and dad were at dinner, usually Eastenders or Casualty if I remember (we were young!), eventually being old enough to go for dinner and then fancying all the Portuguese waiters, throwing stones into the sea and trying to get good ‘skimmers’…those were the days) and it was kinda sad to see that the hotel is now empty, and has been for some time.

The next day was no less hectic. After a morning run along the front we headed off to Elizabeth Castle on the Duck boat as the tide was in (when the tide is out you can walk there). A castle with a long and potted history including being controlled by Germany during the Occupation in WW2.

After this we headed over to St Aubin, across the bay from the castle, for a spot of lunch (there was a lot of eating on this holiday!)

We went to Jersey Zoo the following day. It’s been a long, long time since we went to Jersey Zoo (in fact since I’ve been to any zoo). I have mixed feelings about zoos, on the one hand it gives you the opportunity to see wildlife you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to see without embarking on an adventure, but on the other hand they aren’t in their natural environment and some of them didn’t look super-happy about being gawped at by tourists.

I remember when I was younger that my favourite thing to see here were the flamingos. They’re still awesome.

After the zoo we went to St Catherine’s Point on the east of the island, and a nice walk along the breakwater.

That evening we had the first of 2 tasting menus for dinner, this one at Tassili at the Grand Hotel. Lovely if slightly large portions – I was stuffed after this!

The next day I went to the Escape Rooms at the War Tunnels with my mum, brother and sister-in-law. It was the first time I’d been to an Escape Room, and it was a lot of fun. And we managed to escape in under an hour – result!

After that we headed to La Mare Vineyards for some wine tasting and purchasing, followed by a quick trip to Devil’s Hole, always a disappointment when the tide isn’t in.

That evening we had our second tasting menu at Bohemia. Very nice, and better-sized portions.

The next day was the Jersey Air Show. Always a good day, and a perfect blue sky for background. It’s always good to see the Red Arrows, and some of the other displays were pretty awesome.

The next day we went to the Oyster Box in St Brelade’s for lunch, more delicious seafood….

And then we went to possibly my favourite beach on Jersey at Greve de Lecq. Nice and quiet at the end of the season.

A lovely way to end a fabulous week in Jersey. I flew back to Cardiff the following day.

All in all, a great week. Lovely memories of my childhood, good weather, great food and only 30 minutes from Cardiff!

Alaska

A mid afternoon flight from Seattle arrives in Anchorage 3 and a half hours later. Having lost another hour by moving timezones (now 9 hours behind the U.K.), it was around 7.30pm before I arrived at the hotel. After checking in I decided to stretch my legs with a walk around downtown Anchorage. Not a whole lot to see to be honest, and I didn’t really expect there to be. For the most part, Anchorage is a way into the state. The most striking thing for me was the daylight. I headed back to the hotel around 9pm and it could have been the middle of the afternoon.

Trek America trips start at 7.30am in the morning (which differs to G Adventures which generally start in the evening). After meeting the group (6 other travellers plus Sam, our tour guide) we did the usual admin and introductions before heading south to Seward.

The drive down from Anchorage to Seward is a couple of hours, and is insanely scenic. It reminded me of Fiordland in New Zealand. There were lakes on one side of us and hills/mountains on the other side. We arrived in Seward around 11am and after grabbing some (very expensive) lunch from the local supermarket, we then got on board a boat for an afternoon of cruising around the Kenai Fjords. We were so, so lucky with the weather, even in summer blue sky and warm temperatures are relatively rare in these parts.

Aside from the epic scenery, we were also hoping to see lots of wildlife. We saw lots of birds (I have entirely forgotten what most of them were), as well as sealions and then eventually we saw a humpback whale. Money shot:

We stayed in a hostel in Seward where I managed to choose a bunk with a particularly saggy mattress. We went out in the evening for out first group dinner, followed by a couple of drinks in the first of many bars on the trip which had dollar bills covering the ceiling.

The next day we went to the nearby Exit Glacier. I did a guided ranger walk for a couple of hours to a viewing point at the face of the glacier, whilst some of the others did a more strenuous hike up towards the Harding Ice Field.

In the afternoon we headed back to Seward and along with a couple of the group, I did a short hike around the 2 Lakes Trail and then I went to the aquarium. In the evening we did our own thing for dinner before having a few/lots of drinks in a couple of bars, chatting to the locals and stumbling back just before 1am…and it was still light!!

I had a slightly bleary-eyed start the next day and we were up early and on the road at 7am for the long drive day to Denali – around 375 miles. The weather, however, was perfect.

This picture was taken at the lunch stop in the town of Talkeetna, pretty epic view with Mount Denali on the right (tallest mountain in North America at 20,310ft, and it has a higher vertical rise than Everest from its base, as Everest rises from a plateau). On 2 out of 3 days you can’t see Denali because of the weather. Sam also said that though this was her 3rd trip to Denali this year, it was the first time she’d seen it, so I definitely feel that we were super-lucky.

We rolled into Healy around 5.30pm, where I had booked onto a scenic flight which would also land on a glacier. It was not a cheap excursion but it was totally worth the money.

There were 8 passengers and the pilot on the plane, pretty cosy. I was right at the back but had a bonus with views out of both sides of the plane. The plane itself had skis on it so it could land on the glacier, which was an awesome experience.

After that we met with the rest of the group for a late dinner at 49th State Brewing. They definitely like their beers in this part of the world, there seemed to be quite a few local breweries around, though I had a nice glass of vino.

The next day (4th July!) we had a full day bus tour into Denali National Park. I think this is probably one of the most authentic wilderness areas I’ve been to. There is basically 1 road into Denali (at least from where we were staying), which is only paved for 20 miles, and private vehicles aren’t allowed beyond the first 20 miles. There are very few maintained trails and you are encouraged to go and wander (what the Americans term ‘backpacking’, though you’ve gotta be aware of the wildlife).

The bus took us out 66 miles to the Eielson Visitor Center and it took about 4 hours to get there. We made rest stops as well as stops for wildlife spottings. On the way out we saw caribou and some grizzlies.

This is the amazing 4th of July view from the Eielson Visitor Center

We did the Alpine View hike at the Visitor Center, where I was lucky enough to see another sow and her cubs coming down the hill. More epic views at the top:

On the bus back we saw loads of sows and cubs, we seemed to be stopping every 20 minutes for sightings, which was really amazing. In contrast to the bears I’ve previously seen in Yellowstone, we seemed to be closer to the bears in Yellowstone. I have a whole heap of photos on my camera which at first glance are just photos of green hillside, but if you zoom in the bears are there – somewhere! In Yellowstone, with a less good camera, I have clearer photos of bears. But it is still really exhilarating to see bears in the wild.

We also saw a moose right at the end of the trip back. Moose are enormous!! The next day back at the park entrance there was a moose and her baby moose casually wandering in the car park! We essentially had a free day on the second full day in Denali. I decided to do some of the shorter trail hikes near to the park entrance Visitor Center. The weather was a bit rainy in the morning and I was glad for my full wet weather gear! Some of the group went rafting instead, not really my cup of tea.

The next morning we had a sled dog demo in the park. Denali is one of the few places where huskies work in the winter, to patrol the park and carry supplies on sleds. I can hardly imagine what this place is like in winter, covered in snow and blanketed in darkness. It would certainly be a different experience to be there in the winter!

After the demo, it was time to head off to our next stop. We were heading east down the (unpaved) Denali Highway to Maclaren River Lodge in the Alaskan Range. It was another long drive, but with more great scenery. Canoeing was an option here, but I was the only one who decided against it, and instead I enjoyed a couple of glasses of vino.

Once the rest of the group made it back (not all of them dry…) we had dinner and then had a bonfire and made s’mores. S’mores are classic American campfire snacks, toasted marshmallows, and a slab of Hershey’s chocolate sandwiched between 2 Golden Graham crackers – a proper sugar hit!

The next morning we had a short hike quite near to the lodge, and then continued along the Denali Highway towards Wrangell-St-Elias National Park. This is the largest national park in North America. It’s the size of Switzerland, and the main town within the park, McCarthy, is accessed via a 60 mile dirt road. It’s quite hard to imagine the isolation of these communities, especially outside of the tourist season. We arrived at 6.30pm on a Saturday evening, and after a quick shower we headed out to sample the local nightlife. There was live music in the Saloon to enjoy, as well as some interesting people-watching.

The next day the only thing to do was to get out onto the glacier. The options were a full day glacier hike or ice climbing. I opted for the glacier hike and after being fitted out with crampons which we would wear once on the ice, we headed off on the 2 mile hike to the face of the glacier. In contrast to other glacier hikes I’ve done which have largely followed set routes, this one felt much more like we could roam free (within reason, i.e. avoiding any precipitous drops!). And by ‘roam free’, I mean that I felt that our guide wasn’t following a pre-determined path, but was taking us to look a interesting features on the glacier.

We hiked about 6 miles on the ice, and because we were constantly moving, it didn’t feel as cold as you might expect.

The blues that you see on the glacier are so intensely blue, the photos don’t really do it justice.

We returned in the late afternoon, and on the drive back to McCarthy from Kennicott, as we turned a corner in the road, a black bear was right in front of us! It looked at us for a few moments before disappearing into the bush. Really cool to see up close!

The next day was the last day of the trip, and a long drive back to Anchorage. Firstly back down the 60 mile dirt road through the park, and eventually onto the paved highways. We rolled into Anchorage at 6pm and said our goodbyes as we weren’t all staying in the same hotel.

A reasonably early night followed for me as I had a 4am alarm for the long journey back to the U.K.

So, what were my overall impressions of Alaska? First off it is beautiful. The scenery and wildlife are out-of-this-world. The locals are friendly, and in the summer there is near-constant daylight which means plenty of time (if you can hack it) for exploring. Pack for all seasons, it’s unlikely to be hot and the weather can change pretty quickly. Things to be aware of, firstly the prices – it’s expensive in Alaska, naturally because it’s pretty remote up there. On the plus side, there is no sales tax so at least you know that price you’ll pay once you get to the till. Secondly the nightlife is very low-key. You definitely don’t come to Alaska to party. And thirdly, the sheer size of Alaska – it’s huge. It’s 82 times larger than Wales. The furthest north we got was the Denali region, but there is another near-600 miles of Alaska before you hit the Arctic Ocean, and you’ll be lucky if those roads are anything more than a dirt track. It’s difficult to appreciate the remoteness of some of these places, and I can barely imagine what it’s like to be there in the constant darkness of winter. But all in all, definitely worth visiting.