ELEUTHERA

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We left for Eleuthera on the ferry from Potter’s Cay, a gritty market dock on Nassau featuring sun-bleached conch shacks, shipping containers and a distinctly rough but authentic vibe. The ferry only takes about 2.5 hours, which is more than worth it not just to avoid airport hassles (and tiny prop planes) but for the view of stunning Eleuthera rising up from the ocean.

The ferry docks on an island at the Northern tip of Eleuthera, at a small harbour town called Spanish Wells. Surrounded by blindingly emerald-green waters, Spanish Wells is made up rows of pastel-coloured clapboard houses and picket fences that look as if they’ve been transported directly from a New England fishing village. It’s like Maine on prozac. Stephen King would have a hard time setting one of his brooding novels here.

We stayed in a tiny rental cottage in Palmetto point with its very own beach, picnic table and fire pit, which we used one night to make foil-wrapped one-eyed-jack that we bought straight off the pier in one of the neighbouring fishing towns.

The best thing to do on island is to rent a car, turn up the music and drive. Eleuthera is a long, narrow strip of land that stretches 110 miles. The only highway – the Queen’s Highway – will take you past casuarina pines and coco plum bushes with flashes of brilliantly turquoise sea-views in between. Palmetto lies pretty much right in the middle so one day we would drive North, and the other South, stopping at whatever spectacular view we happened to come across. At the very southern tip of the island, down a long, dusty, dirt track, is Lighthouse Beach. Though I’ve lived in the Caribbean for the last five years, this is without doubt the most spectacular beach I’ve ever seen. The sand is pristinely white and powdery, and the water is studded by endless miles of reef, creating a kaleidoscope of brilliant blues. The best view of both the beach and reef is from a rocky limestone promontory, at the end of a short trail to a beautiful, disused lighthouse. It’s hard to imagine that a place so beautiful could be so sleepy, but we saw about a handful of tourists the entire time we were there. This is all soon set to change though, as the Bahamian government has just finalized a deal with Disney cruise lines to add Lighthouse Beach to their list of destinations. Disney will be ‘developing’ 700 acres of land.

The ‘capital’ of Eleuthera is Gregory Town, a tiny settlement with a few sleepy restaurants, a couple of bars, and a grocery store, where imported goods are so expensive that the onions are individually priced at about a dollar. About a five minute walk from the grocery store is one of the prettiest public libraries I’ve ever seen – a pastel pink-and-white colonial building surrounded by swaying palm-trees and dreamily peaceful views out to the sparkling ocean. The most action Gregory Town sees is at the popular Friday fish-frys, and every evening at dusk when the sharks come out to hunt in the shallows.

On the Northern tip of Eleuthera it’s a short ferry trip to the perennially popular Harbour Island. The two neighbouring islands could not be more different. While Eleuthera is dusty, sleepy, and fairly ramshackle, harbour Island is a buzzing, pristine tourist hub. Tourists in golf-carts zip past postcard-perfect, pastel-coloured Caribbean cottages, making their way to the eye-wateringly expensive restaurants and cafes on pretty Dunmore Street. Harbour Island is famous for its pink beach, but I can say without hesitation that it does not hold a tiny birthday-cake candle to any of the beaches on Eleuthera. What’s more it’s a lot more crowded.

The drive from Gregory Town to the Harbour Island ferry dock will take you past Eleuthera’s most famous photo-op spot, the Glass Window Bridge. From the bridge you can at once see the angry dark blues of the churning Atlantic on one side and the calm and turquoise waters of the Caribbean on the other. One day when we were swimming at some beautiful, unnamed beach where the bath-still water was perfectly silent, we noticed a dull roaring sound coming from somewhere in the distance, and we realised that it was the crashing of the waves coming from the other side of the narrow island. We walked over (about 15 mins to Surfer’s beach) to views of enormous waves, rugged coastline, and sand dunes. Apart from some sea-sprayed surfers, we hardly saw a tourist all day in one of the most beautiful locations we’d ever seen. 

THE STREETS OF HANOI

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I’m not sure that there are enough adjectives in the English dictionary to describe Hanoi. Hanoi is all the adjectives – it is an an absence of negative space. It has no time for the superfluous or irrelevant – it is constant energy and never-ending chaos. Yet the chaos is not random, it serves a purpose, it’s systematic.

The traffic never stops. The meaning of Hanoi is a ‘city inside rivers’, and the rivers are its traffic. It is a continuous flow and non-existent ebb of infinite streams of motorcycles. Sometimes the stream narrows into the rivulets of the alleyways, only to pour out again into the ocean of vehicles that is the main road. In Old Hanoi especially; lights, signals and rules don’t exist. A break in the din of the horns sounds louder than the horns themselves. But just like a stream, the flow of motorbikes is reactive, weaving gracefully around whatever object is put in its way. Crossing the road in Hanoi definitely takes patience for a novice, but it never feels truly dangerous.

I fell hopelessly in love with the Old Quarter in Hanoi. Wandering down its impossibly tangled alleyways felt more revealing than visiting any national museum. The history is told by the faded, french colonial buildings that flank the streets, and the incongruous baguettes served at the ubiquitous Bahn-Mi stands. Hanoi’s even confusingly dubbed the ‘Paris of the East’ – presumably these days because of its charm rather than aesthetic similarity. The culture is revealed by countless lives that are largely lived outside. Shop and general life activity spills out openly into the narrow, suffocating streets. Shop-owners, merchants, kids, business men and women chat, shop, work, cook, eat and drink out on the pavements.

Unrelenting smells range from motorcycle fumes to freshly chopped lemongrass to sewage to infamous durian to heavenly pho.

The end result of this sensory assault is (or was for me) an overwhelming sense of calm. Weaving through the interminable traffic, skipping over puddles of indescernible liquids, desperately trying to avoid burns from scalding motorcycle exhausts – here the focus is on staying alive and not getting hopelessly lost in the identical-looking, ancient streets. There is no time for overthinking or introspection. The focus is no longer yourself, but the people you’re sharing this precious little space with.

Efficiency is obligatory to cut through the chaos. Many of the streets of the old quarter are named after the products they sell. Cotton street, Leather street, pickled fish street, clam worm street, and excitingly, charcoal street. If you plan on your phone dying whilst travelling like I did, then do it in Hanoi. Rationally fearing that fixing my Iphone would put a huge dent in my backpacker budget, I went to a local store suggested by one of the unfailingly friendly locals we met. After about half an hour where we watched the phone be fixed in front of us (they had live-feed screens for ones that had to be fixed round the back) I had a fully functioning phone and a wallet only five dollars lighter. If Vietnam is a socialist country, then they’ve obviously found the magic formula.

THINGS TO DO IN HANOI

If you’re desperate for a break from the chaos, head to peaceful Ho Hoan Kiem Lake and take a stroll around the well-kept grounds. From here it’s a short walk to Cafe’ Pho Co, one of the most popular spots to try Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. Invented in 1940 when there was a milk shortage in Vietnam, the drink consists of thick black Vietnamese-style coffee topped by a creamy-soft foam of beaten egg-yolk and sugar. The hot version comes in a small bowl of warm water to keep the temperature.

Cafe Pho Co is slightly more expensive than similar cafes as it boasts a view over Ho Hoan Lake. It has something of a speak-easy feel – entrance is through a silk shop that leads to a beautiful Chinese-style courtyard complete with a resident rooster and enormously fat cat. It can be hard to find but don’t give up, the silk shop is currently called Cicada Silkli.

The biggest regret of my Asia trip was not having done this tour. There are so many street food spots and cafes that it would have been great to have someone knowledgeable scope out the best and most unique ones (although the street food is all pretty amazing). The reviews are exclusively great and I can’t bear to look at pictures as the food looks so good!

  • Fake shopping

The Old Quarter in Hanoi has hundreds of fake designer shops (especially sports gear) that actually sell some pretty well-made stuff. I’m not sure I could say it’s as good as the real thing but I’ve been wearing my ‘North Face’ jacket non-stop. You’ll see them everywhere in the Old Quarter but the shops tend to concentrate around Hang Gai.

Set in lovely picturesque grounds, this serene ‘temple’ (originally a Confucian University) is another place to get away from the crowds. Walk through ancient courtyards and landscaped gardens in this age-old place of study.

WHERE TO EAT:

I recommend doing the street food tour at the beginning of your trip so that you can go back to your favourite places. All of the street food is pretty amazing in Hanoi but here are some of the best spots we stumbled on;

For Bun Cha. Bun Cha is a Vietnamese dish of pork meatballs served with a bowl of rice noodles and loads of delicious fresh sides – crisp lettuce, plenty of fresh herbs, a variety of pickles and dipping sauces. This place was always packed and was mainly frequented by locals. So, so good.

For beef pho. Absolutely ram-packed with locals at all hours of the day. The pho is handed out assembly-line style by a lady who takes her delicious beef pho very seriously. We went here three times.

Hanoians are huge tea and coffee drinkers, and I’m convinced that it’s partly because it’s so fun to sit and drink on those tiny plastic stools while watching the bustling world go by. Cong Ca Phe is a military themed chain that happens to serve the most delicious coffee drink I’ve ever had in my life. I’m not normally a sweet tooth but the blended iced coconut with coffee is perfect after a humid day walking around the city.

 

Koh Yao Noi – How to beat the crowds in Thailand

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Your probable vision when planning your dream trip to Thailand: Endless white sand beaches with hammocks and palm trees blowing in the breeze, bright turquoise and crystal clear waters broken only by colourful longtail boats and stunning rock formations. The gentle sound of lapping waves. The briny scent of sea salt.

Your Probable Reality: A sweaty elbow in the face as your crowded tour boat spills out into the sea in a manic rush to get a crowd-free selfie before everybody else. Pumping music. A faint smell of sewage. I exaggerate…sort of. I did personally witness the boat scene, and unfortunately it’s true that a sewage system struggling to keep up with rocketing tourism means that some places like the coast of Ao Nang did smell faintly rotten at times. But while they’re becoming more and more difficult to come by, there are still plenty of places to find peace and seclusion in Thailand if that’s what you’re after. One of these magical places is Koh Yao Noi.

Koh Yao Noi is part of an island chain to the East of Phuket, about half-way to Krabi, and  it’s remained remarkably tourist-free. Since the population is predominantly Muslim, alcohol isn’t served in most establishments, which keeps the revelling backpackers at bay. So if you’re looking to party, this probably isn’t the place for you.  Personally, my ideal itinerary would start with a few days of downtime in Koh Yao Noi before taking the short ferry trip to Krabi in time for the full moon.

On the ferry over from Phuket I took hundreds of frantic photos of the rock formations in the distance, much to the amusement of my fellow passengers who obviously knew how much more beautiful they were from the island. On the East side of Koh Yao Noi, the limestone karsts of Phang Na Bay jut majestically out of the sea, seemingly mutating shape and colour according to the changing daylight. They’re particularly spectacular at sunrise – when both the karsts and the sky turn various hues of incandescent pink and lilac.

We watched the incredible sunrise on the beach outside our bungalow at Suntisook resort, which is owned by the wonderful Mr. E and his wife, who is a ridiculously good cook. If you want to book excursions and trips, Mr E. is the man to speak to. The highlight from our time here was taking a typical Thai longtail boat out to the rocks in Phang na Bay, including the famous beach at Ko Hong. There are no official boat tours or companies, so Mr E hooked us up with a local fisherman who owned a longtail boat. I asked if he could meet us a couple of hours before the usual time so we could beat the crowds and the plan worked like a charm. Every island we stopped at, we were always one step ahead of the other boats, meaning that for a blissful half hour we had the paradisiacal beaches of this incredible part of the world entirely to ourselves. This is why I really recommend Koh Yao Noi to those who are after a more intimate Thailand experience. Not only is the island very slightly closer to the rock formations than the tours that leave from the Krabi coast, but the fact that the boats are local and private means you can have a more tailored, personal experience.  I honestly will never forget floating past the overhanging rocks that graze the crystal-clear, turquoise waters, jumping off the boat into secret, hidden lagoons and being the only two people to rock up on Ko Hong, the most magnificent beach I’ve ever seen in my life.

If you want to do a shorter trip and remain on the boat, it’s an amazing experience nonethelesss. The longtails are not just beautiful to look at; lined with colourful cushions and pillows, they’re also wonderfully cosy. As well as the beautiful rocks and beaches, our fisherman took us to monkey island where we got to feed mango to the cute residents, and also brought us fresh local fruit to enjoy while we floated along.

For such a quiet island, there’s quite a lot to do. The day after the boat trip, we took a kayak out to some of the nearer karsts and islands (Kudu Yai is a must-see), stopping at secluded beach bars on the way to rest on the hammocks. Again, we were some of the only people there.

On the last day we rented out a scooter to explore Koh Yao Noi’s interior. We zipped past tiny towns, fields of bison and gum tree plantations, ending our day at the pier on the west side of the island to watch the sunset.

How to get there:

  • From Phuket – From Phukhet airport, it’s about 25 minutes by taxi to Bang Rong Pier. From here, you take the hour-long ferry to Koh Yao Noi at roughly 50 Baht. Currently, departures are at 9.30, 12 noon and 17.30. The ferry will stop at Koh Yao Yai first.
  • From Krabi – Ferries (traditional long-tail boat) depart from Ao Thalane pier on the hour between 9 am to 5pm. See the schedule here. The trip is about one hour by ferry but you can also get a speedboat which takes about 20 minutes.

Where to stay:

  • Suntisook Resort – It has a beautiful location across from the beach and the owners are great. It’s also well located to rent out longtails and kayaks in the little ‘town’ down the road. You can rent bikes and scooters directly from the resort.
  • Six senses – If you have a more generous budget, this is the most luxurious option on island. As well as offering an array of activities from cooking to Thai boxing to canoeing, they also provide unique touches such as free ice-cream all day and nightly movies on the beach with popcorn. The highlight is without doubt the view of the Phang Nga rocks from the infinity pool.

Where to eat: Honestly, there are just so many good places, but here is a short selection –

  • Suntisook – You won’t find it as a restaurant on Tripadvisor, but I reckon has some of the best food on island. The raw prawns with lemongrass and chilli are amazing. The breakfast buffets are huge and delicious and have local as well as western options. J loved the sticky rice in the little banana leaf parcels.
  • Kaya – Great, inexpensive local food. The Massaman curry is delicious.
  • Hill tribe restaurant – Slightly more upscale, it specialises in seafood dishes. Order the seafood hotplate – the food comes out still hot and sizzling and is cooked off with a cool fireball.

What to do:

  • Hire a Longtail boat to Phang Na Bay. Unfortunately I don’t remember how much we paid but I do remember being surprised at how little it was for such an amazing experience. It’ll work out as very inexpensive if you’re in a group.
  • Take a kayak out along the coast. Koh Nok, one of the islands reachable by kayak, has a hill that you can hike up for stunning views. If you have the stamina, you can kayak to the north side of the island one day and then south the next.
  • Rent a scooter or bicycle to explore the island (about 200 baht for half a day)
  • Take cooking classes. Mina’s cooking classes has great reviews.
  • Do yoga at sunrise while watching the karsts morph into various hues of pinky purple. Or take yoga classes.
  • Have a traditional Thai massage.
  • Take a trip to the beautiful and even the sleepier neighbouring island of Koh Yao Yai. 

If you’re really keen to beat the crowds, check out my next post where I talk about Khao Sok National Park.

 

 

 

 

 

Bali in the rain

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The first experience we had of Bali was of its sounds. We arrived late at night and got to the house in a taxi so the next morning we had no real idea where we were. Glimpsing nothing in the blue pre-dawn light but the outline of a heavy mosquito net,  I could hear the dense, tropical raindrops, relentless as static, broken by the distant, almost imperceptible chanting of the call to prayer. I listened for a while as the light just began to creep through the delicate latticework of the windows. I hadn’t yet seen anything of Bali, and I was already seduced.

Taking advantage of a break in the clouds we stumbled out with the cocks still crowing, jetlagged and hungry and looking for breakfast. Just outside the house on the street I saw my first Balinese offering (Canang Sari), a skilfully folded palm leaf filled with brightly-coloured petals, sticks of incense, a beautiful pearl-coloured frangipani and topped off with something resembling a cream cracker. I took about twenty pictures from all angles until I saw more petals strewn along the street leading to another offering, and then another. Canang Sari’s are everywhere in Bali – on front porches, cars, garbage dumps, so that at all hours of the day you’re hit by wonderful, unexpected wafts of sandalwood and patchouli. The offerings aren’t just there to look pretty; the preparation of these little baskets is a constant ritual that makes up a large part of a traditional Balinese woman’s daily life. In fact, Ca Nang derives from the Kawi language Ca – meaning beautiful, and Nang – meaning purpose. They are offerings to the Hindu God Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, as a form of thanks for the peace given to the world.

We ate at a local warung and had nasi campur with fish sate lilit.  Balinese cuisine is incredible in its taste and dizzying variety. Nasi campur means a dish which has a little bit of everything on offer, and Sate lilit is something of a sweet and savoury popsicle – a satay made from minced pork, fish, beef, or chicken, which is then mixed with grated coconut, shallots and lemon juice and wrapped around lemongrass sticks to grill. We loved the food at the warungs (and its price), and even though I did get Bali belly I’m convinced that it was from the tap water rather than the food. J was fine and we always share our dishes, whereas I ALWAYS forget to not rinse my toothbrush with tap water – Every. Time.

The next day the friend whose house we were staying in invited us to a healing festival she’d organised. Keen to see this other side of Bali we agreed and made our way towards Ubud. This was when we met our driver, Apel, who we used for the rest of our time on the island. Meeting and talking to Apel was one of the highlights of the trip. It’s a good thing too when you’re fond of your driver in Bali as the increasingly heavy traffic means you end up spending a lot of time with them. Apel told us more about the history of the island as well as that of his own family. He explained that his real name was actually Ketut, which means ‘fourth son’. In Bali, the first son in a Hindu family is called ‘Wayung’, the second ‘Made’ and by the time the fifth son comes around the name becomes ‘Wayan Balik’ – meaning ‘Wayan again’!

Apel also explained a bit about the Balinese philosophy of Rwa Bhineda – the philosophy of balance and origin of the concept of Yin and Yang. The most I knew about yin and yang was of the ubiquitous black and white symbol plastered on kitschy spiritual paraphernalia in vaguely alternative places like Camden Town market. But Apel and his family lived by the concept; he never said that anything was ‘bad’, and if he did he checked himself and sought out the good that may have come of that thing’s existence. Similarly, he said that you cannot know what pleasure is if you haven’t experienced the lack of that pleasure. While it’s easy to realise this, it was the first time I ever saw someone actually living by the idea. You’ll see that a lot of spiritual symbols in Bali are decorated with Black and white chequered cloth – like the famous Yin/Yang symbol. The black stands for evil and the white for good. For the rest of the trip, any time we said anything negative Apel lightheartedly told us off and encouraged us to see what good may have come of it. Difficult at first, it became easier each time.

By the time we got to the New Earth healing festival I could already see why so many people are attracted to the Balinese ‘philosophy’, and it was interesting to see how people personally interpreted it. The festival offered various options to achieve healing; via movement – Tai Chi and Yoga; via nutrition – all the food was vegan and organic; via ‘Mind, body and Spirit – aromatherapy and sound and crystal therapy. There was also a strict no electronics policy (ie no mobile phones – which I was fine with although from what I could see nobody else was) and an absolutely no drugs policy, including no alcohol at the ‘awakening’ music festival later. Me and J almost ran for the hills. I’m kidding of course – if I could do veganism, no electronics and no drugs anywhere in this world it would be Bali. After one breakfast bowl of raw chocolate, dragon fruit and coconut yogurt I was ready to convert. Also, they made an exception for coffee, understandably, because no-one wants violence at a healing festival.

The next day, reluctant to leave the stunning villa where New Earth was held, we headed to Ubud town and the sacred Monkey Forest. Whilst the main attraction here is obviously the wildlife, the location itself is beautiful, featuring a rocky stream that flows through a steep ravine in the middle of the rainforest. Dense, tangled vines and tropical vegetation cover the various Hindu statues. We were warned upon entering not to look at the monkeys directly in the eye, and to be very careful with our possessions; apparently, they are very adept at snatching your stuff and then holding it for ransom in return for food. Thinking I could out-wile them, I managed to sneak in a few shots on my cameraphone, before I was spotted and had to frantically stuff it back into my rucksack before being attacked. They look deceptively cute in those pictures though.

It’s easy to see why Ubud has become Bali’s artisanal and cultural capital; every few metres, the treelined, cobbled streets are dotted by stunning Hindu temples and their hidden, rambling family gardens. Our hotel room was in the middle of one of these secret gardens, and in the morning we’d wake up to the smell of rain, coffee and incense from the Ganesha statue by our balcony.  We happened to be there for Tumpek Landep – a holy day that celebrates objects made of metal. All over Bali, motorbikes and cars are bedecked with beautiful baskets of flowers. The ceremony also celebrates other useful everyday objects containing metals – including laptops, phones and fax machines!

Our last few days were spent visiting rice terraces and temples. While we did go to the Tegallang rice terraces, I’d say they’re a bit of a tourist trap. I’m pretty sure no rice has been harvested there for quite a while. I’d recommend a less busy and equally beautiful terrace like Jatiluwuh instead. Much more remote, here you can really enjoy the peace of the still water of the paddies and impossibly green steps of the terraces.

While all the temples we visited were stunning, my favourite was actually the smaller, less dramatic temple of water – Tirta Empul. Discovered in AD 962 and believed to have magical healing powers, the springs bubble up into a beautifully clear pool within the temple and stream out through spouts into a separate bathing pool. Here, people perform a cleansing ritual to wash away their sins. You can feed the thousands of Koi fish in yet another of the temple pools. Make sure you don’t kiss or cuddle your partner in the temple – our driver told us off.

On our last day we visited the stunningly dramatic sea temple at Tanah Lot. Perched on a rock in the middle of the ocean, Pura Tanah Lot is an incredible sight. The steep cliff walk to the west of the temple grounds offers the most spectacular views. It also offers some very impudent monkeys. Knowing full well how photogenic they look along the cliff wall, they pose and wait for innocent passersby that stop to snap a photo so that they can snatch their stuff. One poor tourist had his eyeglasses stolen and chewed and mangled in front of him. He tried to bribe the monkey with food, which of course it took and then proceeded to return the favour by chucking the glasses over the cliff. I guess that’s one good example of Yin and Yang. The stealing of the glasses, that was bad – but the hilarious Schadenfreude it caused the crowd, that was definitely good.

 

 

The Anti-Backpacking wishlist

I’ve just returned from the most incredible travel experience of my life. After backpacking across Asia for eight months, I’ve seen two of the seven wonders, played in the mud with rescue elephants, driven a car almost twice my height along a twenty mile beach and woken up on a night train to the sunrise over Chiang Mai. I feel elated, enlightened… exhausted.

After all the amazing things I’ve seen and already can’t wait to visit again, there are some things on my travels that I’ll be happy to see the back of forever: my back/soul-destroying rucksack; my crusty, mud-caked trainers; and my monster-sized thermal fleece that sexy forgot — aka my 24-hour uniform for 8 months straight. I feel a certain uneasy guilt just admitting this – all these items have served me faithfully through months of physical abuse. But for the meantime, I’m done with functional. I don’t want to see any more neon polyester straps/zips/locks and ultra-breathable materials with intelligent-sounding names that keep you perfectly cool while trekking the surface of the sun. I just want something pretty, to wear somewhere nice.

It’s not that I want to relax at home for a while – it’ll never come to that – but right now I’m fantasising about vacations rather than travels. I love the sound of a city break to Seville, or a country outing to the Cotswolds, where perhaps I can wear a dress with a discernible shape, or a handbag the contents of which don’t primarily consist of stolen toilet paper and sporks. Obviously, I’m totally broke after eight months of backpacking, so I’ve drawn up a wishlist of beautiful things I can’t currently afford and booked a low-cost flight to Lisbon, where luckily my Dad is living right now.

My Anti-Backpacking Wishlist:

1. Fleur du Mal lacing bullet one-piece.

I can’t get enough of their swim collection this year. Delicate lace is mixed with edgy designs and they seem to be continuing the ‘swimtimates’ trend with their corset one-pieces. I honestly wouldn’t know which swimsuit I’d choose.

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2. Lisbon Wallpaper city-guide.

I love the Wallpaper guide’s urban vibe. They primarily focus on a city’s contemporary design and architecture and include stylish, minimalist pictures. Plus I love how the colourful collection looks on the bookshelf!

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3. MAHI Leather Bag.

I’ve had my eye on this one for a while, and it may be one that I can actually afford. MAHI’s beautiful made-to-order travel bags are made from 100% soft full-grain brown leather and brass. Their classic duffle – my favourite although I also love their Armada duffle – is only £96.50 and looks stunning. To truly satisfy any luxury-on-a-budget cravings, they can also imprint your initials for just £10 extra. With every purchase, MAHI also donate $1.50 to Frank Water Charity in recognition of their name-sake: the Mahi river in India.

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4. Fujifilm xf-100.

My mum has this camera and it’s amazing for street photography. It’s really user-friendly and has lots of features which makes it great for front-end editing and taking quick snaps on the move. I still haven’t figured out most of the features but I love that you can add filters before taking a shot. And, of course, its retro design means that it’s photo-worthy itself.

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5. Phoebe slip by Paris Georgia Basics.

I’d absolutely love this simple black slip-dress for Lisbon but this one is a definite “wish” on the wishlist. Off to find something similar on ASOS…

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6. ‘As I walked out one midsummer morning’ by Laurie Lee.

Strangely, I’m not usually one for travel books but I flicked through a friend’s copy of this once and Lee’s descriptions of Spain are so sensuous yet simple that I fell in love. Not set in Portugal I know, but it’s close -perhaps a road-trip to Seville wouldn’t be out of the question…

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7. Loeffler Randall Jasper loafers.

Their Agnes Laceless Oxfords are gorgeous patent black loafers that go with everything and can look smart as well as casual. They’d be perfect for travelling light on a short city-break.

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8. Truffle Clarity Clutch.

These clarity clutches seem to be doing the rounds on social media lately. Being TSA-approved they’re great for travelling but they’re also quite sleek for makeup and accessories in general.

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9. Cafe-press towel.

I love this fun, Andy Warhol-inspired beach towel from online store Cafe-Press.

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10.BOSE headphones.

The kings of sound quality. I’ve never tried BOSE headphones but if they’re anything like their speakers then they’re pretty damn good. The reviews are great anyway. The Custom QuietComfort 35 wireless set are customisable in a variety of different colours and finishes.

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Yucatan Diary

Girl in street in ValladolidColourful houses in valladolidcolourful bottles with plants in mexicogreenokids playing in coca cola shop in mexicocart

Valladolid – 

As much as we enjoyed pretty Tulum, we couldn’t wait to hit the road to inland Yucatan and see a more genuine, less tourist-oriented Mexico. Our first stop was Valladolid – a charming, unpretentious and serene little colonial town. While it isn’t exactly a tourist-free backwater, the city feels lived-in – its raison d’etre not being simply to cater to foreigners. Valladolid looks exactly how you would imagine a typical Mexican town to look – stucco, sherbet-colour colonial houses line wide and dusty cobbled streets that feature the occasional and elaborately painted horse-drawn carriage. Though the architecture is Spanish, a large part of the population is actually made up of Mayans, and a lot of them still speak the strange and beautiful ancient language and wear the traditional embroidered clothes.

What struck us most about this area of Mexico was how unconsciously ‘trendy’ it is; as we strolled under sun-bleached arcades we came across artisanal stores and trendy niche boutiques selling what at home would be sold as over-priced, pink crepe-paper-wrapped cult objects. Tiny artisanal shops sell Mayan chocolate made using ancient recipes, while others provide tastings of their home-made, organic Tequila and Mezcal. Coqui Coqui, a Yucatan perfumery decorated with elaborate coloured tiles and minimalistic black laquer display cabinets, uses recipes inspired by Franciscan monks who worked closely with Mayan alchemists to produce their floral-scented potions.

Then of course there’s the traditional Mexican food – inevitably trendy after having undergone a seemingly international, instagram-fuelled revival. Predominantly vegatarian restaurant Yerabuena del Sisal serves up chia lemonade and whole-wheat Tortugas with fresh avocado. After our inevitable over-consumption of every possible variety of  taco and avocado in Tulum we were happy to try something simple. Wandering around Avenida de los Frailes we noticed a long line of locals heading out of an inauspicious-looking backyard patio that was cooking up whole fresh fish from the market in nothing but olive oil and salt. We chose a big red fish that was cooked right in front of us, grabbed a double-sized Pacifico beer and ate in the Parque Francisco Canton in front of the imposing San Gervasio Cathedral.

Girl in front of pyramid in chichen itzaMan selling colourful hand-made rugs mexicocolourful skulls in mexicoIk Kil cenoteGirl in Yokdzonot cenoteGirl floating in cenote

Chichen Itza

The cultural highlight of the Yucatan is without a doubt the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, though it seems almost inappropriate to call them ruins when they are so amazingly well-preserved for 1400 year-old structures. The most well-preserved and spectacular is El Castillo, temple of Kukulcan God of the wind (and Josh’s new nickname). It’s sometimes difficult when travelling, at least it is for me, to fully realise the significance of certain cultural landmarks, and get that immediate sense of wonder that you want and expect. I especially find this with certain religious icons and especially ruins. As spectacular as El Castillo is, I was disappointed to find that this anticlimax is exactly what I felt when I first walked into the Mayan site. I can only put this down to the heat, the ridiculous number of people and the jaguar whistle-wielding peddlers (they make a loud jaguar roaring noise, kind of cool at first, really annoying thirty seconds later).

I soon realised however that while the atmosphere may not have been the same as the Tulum ruins (that boasted stunning sea views and were virtually empty thanks to good timing), the temples themselves were far more beautiful and dramatic at Chichen Itza. Rather than stroll lazily through the site, it made me think about the beauty and significance of the buildings themselves. Each individual structure was testament to the amazing ingenuity and artistry of the Mayans. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the late-afternoon sunlight hits El Castillo’s principal facade to create the illusion of snake slithering down the steps. El Caracol, dubbed ‘the observatory,’ seems carefully aligned with the movements of Venus – which was of tremendous spiritual significance to the Mayans. One of the observation points on El Caracol marks an appearance of Venus at a particular point on the horizon that takes place exactly once every eight years.

Of course you don’t have to visit Mayan or Aztec sites to experience Mexican culture. One of the things I loved about the Yucatan was how art seemingly permeated every aspect of life – whether this be the unrelenting aesthetic conciousness of Tulum or a beautifully embroidered and kaleidoscopically coloured hammock swinging from the ceiling in a bare and otherwise furniture-less thatched hut in the most remote of towns.

A lot of Mexican art seems laced with subtle irony. From the oxymoronic, cheerfully coloured skulls which reflect what Octavio La Paz would surely describe as a Catholic nation’s baroque fascination with the macabre, to a tiny bamboo hair salon we came across in a remote rural town that was painted red, white and blue in the traditional barber shop colours – a symbol not only associated with the service of bloodletting (originally the image denoted bloody bandages around a pole) but also reminiscent of the patriotic colours of the US flag and fifties consumer culture when this style of barber-shop predominated.

Breakfast in the jungle with sunriseColourful plates in MexicoValladolid street with flagswomchSan Servasio cathedralThatched houses in mexicoGirl in mexican fruiteryBamboo barber shop in mexico

IK-kil and Yokdzonot Cenotes

IK Kil cenote, a limestone sinkhole not far from Chichen Itza, is one of those surreally magical places that will demand a permanent and happy place in your memory. Lush, tropical vegetation suddenly gives way to a Lewis Carollesque hole of climbing ivy and seemingly endless vines that caress the clear blue water 90 feet below. Eager to swim with the hundreds of cute, mini catfish that inhabit the cenote, me and Josh climbed down and dove from the highest platform into the cool water below. Lying on my back and staring at the blue sky while ivy leaves fluttered down and dappled sunlight streamed through the vines forming tiny rainbows is an experience that I will remember forever. I felt like Alice in her dream.

I was so eager to get to IK-Kil early that we actually had to return to the hotel as the ticket office hadn’t even opened, but even when it did we had the cenote to ourselves for at least half an hour. It did busy up later though so if you want to have a more tranquil cenote experience, nearby Yokdzonot is beautiful. Though not as precipitous and immediately striking, it gets more sunlight, which makes the water warmer as well as a beautiful turquoise colour. Yokdzonot is more frequented by locals, and is actually owned by the community as part of a cooperative. We had lunch at the restaurant above the cenote where local women cook traditional Yucatan dishes like lime soup and flaky cochinita Pibil, washed down with with a local berry drink that I haven’t been able to find since. It was our last and without doubt best meal of the entire trip.

Tulum

girl on swing in tulum beachTulum beachchicken tacos and guacamole in TulumGirl in front of tulum mayan ruinsView of tulum mayan ruinsgirl in swimsuit in cenoteGirl floating in cenote with lily padsThatched hut tulumcenlogirl sitting over cenote at sunsetGirl swimming in dappled cenoteGirl coming out of cenote in swimsuit

If fashion blogs and instagram hadn’t entirely convinced me that I needed to drop everything and immediately go to Tulum, a new low-budget airline that has just started a direct Puerto Rico to Cancun route did. Given that where I live inter-island travel is notoriously painful, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally visit Mexico. We arrived quite late and so spent the first night in what is one of the few boutique hotels in Cancun. From the taxi there we saw some high-rise hotels and enormous multi-tiered clubs that looked like awesome fun if you were an excited 15-year old on Spring break. In our case we looked in vain the next morning for a Mexican-style breakfast in a deserted mall (we ended up in Mcdonalds (but at least they had a salsa/guac bar!)) and then high-tailed it out of there.

I’d heard that a lot of people biked around Tulum so we didn’t bother with a car rental and got the bus. I’m so glad we did – at Playa del Carmen we picked up a group of young Mariachi musicians who sang and played their beautiful guitars all the way to Tulum. Half-way through the set an English guy who was visiting started playing his trumpet along-side them and the entire bus started singing and clapping – I felt like I was finally in Mexico!

If you’re looking for a low-key vacation but want to avoid the gargantuan monolith-resorts of Cancun, Tulum is paradise. No structure is higher that the nearest palm tree – the predominant look being faux-rustic and sun-bleached and flawlessly stylish. The boutiques across from the sea are decorated with plush, four-poster beds and lined with powdery white sand so that it feels like an extension of the beach. It’s an instagrammer’s dream. I was particularly impressed by the restaurants and bars at night – think tiki torches guiding your way to your seat, or low-hanging candles and hispter-esque lightbulbs amidst tropical plants and the sound of cicadas. Aesthetically, I could not fault these lovely restaurants, but actually when it came to the food itself we found that the more basic the place, the better the food tended to be.

Where to eat and drink:

– One of the best meals we had in our time here was from a family-owned, road-side van with a couple of plastic chairs and tables outside. They made the food right in front of us and we had what was quite possibly the freshest, most delicious guacamole and ceviche we’ve ever had. As a bonus it doesn’t cost half as much as some of the more established places. Unfortunately I couldn’t see a name but the place is hard to miss as it’s pretty much the only one of its kind (along with another family-owned stall right next to it) on the beach-strip.

Mateo’s Mexican grill – Delicious and fresh. The nachos come out still warm from having been cooked then and there and the fajita’s are served on a sizzling hot-plate.

Pollo Bronco – this one’s in the town of Tulum. Lively and bustling with locals and tourists alike, the chicken is cooked in a wood-charcoal oven (hole in the wall) and is simple and delicious. It comes with fresh cabbage and salsa.

El Pez – We had cocktails on the beach here a couple of times, watching the dive-bombing pelicans and circling lemon-sharks as the sun went down. I highly recommend the Spicy Senorita cocktail – Tequila, ‘muddled’ red pepper with cilantro and chipotle and a dash of lime.

Restaurare – A vegan restaurant and bar that makes delicious juices and smoothies. I recommend the tropical mango, orange, papaya and mint.

Things to do:

– Nothing. Unwinding on the beach is the name of the game in Tulum. Everything seems geared towards total relaxation, even down to the king-sized, swinging sun-beds and swing-seats at the bars. As an indication the only club to ever open in Tulum closed down after a month – it just isn’t that kind of place. If you’re into yoga, massages and spa treatments by the sea on the other hand, the options are limitless.

– Go to Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve, or more accurately, get lost on your way there and go to Punta Allen instead. Sian Ka’an is a UNESCO site and comprises of more than a million acres of tropical forest and wildlife. Unfortunately, we didn’t really see any of this! Thinking we were going to the biosphere, we rented a 4×4 and set off to the park from the Tulum entrance which happened to be right by our hotel. We passed by what looked like may have been an entrance but the gate was shut so we just kept on driving, and driving…and then driving some more..2.5 hours of dwindling hope later on some of the worst pot-holed roads we’d ever seen, and we reluctantly admitted that perhaps we’d missed the entrance!  Luckily this road follows the narrow Boca Paila peninsula – which meant stunning scenery of the caribbean ocean and salt-water mangroves on one side and a milky-blue lagoon on the other.

Still, we hadn’t seen a single sign of civilisation and were getting really hungry and thirsty, so given that we had absolutely no idea if there was anything at the end of the road we nearly turned back when we came across Sol Caribe – a beautiful restaurant/ranch/life-saving oasis. I was so relieved at the thought of a cold beer and guac after hours on dusty, ridiculously pot-holed roads I could have kissed the hotel owner. I have absolutely no idea how they get their ingredients but the food was delicious. We had delightfully cold, Pacifico beers on a beautiful veranda overlooking the stunningly turquoise Caribbean ocean. We asked the waiter if there was anything at the end of the road and he told us there was a small town called Punta Allen, so we decided to keep going a little longer.

I’m so glad we did. Punta Allen is a tiny and sleepy sleepy lobster-fishing village, perhaps a bit what Tulum was like once upon a time. We felt like we were at the ends of the earth so naturally the first thing we came across was a hipster coffee-stall serving organic Mexican coffee served in genuine Mocha machines with some sort of ground demerara sugar emulsion. It was unexpected and lovely. It’s not on Tripadvisor but is right by the visitor centre and is called Cafe’ Lejana. Other than drink and eat there’s not much to do in Punta Allen except for stroll down the palm-fringed beach or go and visit the lighthouse. We saw a fishing boat that had been converted into a holiday ‘villa’ which I would love to go back and stay in if we ever go back. N.b. If you want to explore more of the biosphere and can’t find much info (we certainly couldn’t) there is a very thorough run-down here.

Tulum beach viewGirl on swing bed in tulum beachResort in siaan khan reserveGirl in front of wall punta allenPunta Allen coffee stallGirl in pond with lily padsLily pad with flowerTulum beach and ocean  with wave

Black one-piece – American Apparel; Floral Romper – Urban Outfitters; Black bardot top – H&M; Denim shorts – Mango; Shoes – Converse.

 

Tulum ruins. Dramatically perched on the edge of  a limestone cliff overlooking the ocean, the Mayan ruins of Tulum are undoubtedly the most stunning ruins I have ever seen. Come to think of it, they are the only ruins by the the sea that I have ever seen. We got there early so that it was just us, a few other tourists and what seemed like thousands of huge Iguanas who looked as old and still as the vestiges of the royal buildings they love to sunbathe on. There are so many of them and they are so majestic looking that you can’t help but think they are somehow aware of the significance of these crumbling edifices. You can access the beach (where turtles go to lay their eggs from May to October) from the site of the most significant ruin- El Castillo.

Dos Ojos and Nicte-Ha Cenotes. I’ve left the best ’til last. Cenotes are underground freshwater sinkholes that are thought to have formed when an asteroid crashed in the region around 65 million years ago. At Dos Ojos, breaches at the top of the caves means that the sunlight streams in from above, bouncing off dozens of stalagtites and turning the water unearthly hues of green and blue. You can get a diving guide to take you deeper into the caves where you can explore the incredible limestone formations with artificial lighting.

Nearby is serene Nicte-Ha cenote, which is more freshwater pond than cave. Flowering lily-pads and other freshwater plants float on stunningly crystal-clear water filtered by the surrounding limestone rock. I could have spent the entire day happily floating in this surreally beautiful cenote that looked like something out of a pre-Raphaelite painting. We were lucky to have Nicte-Ha all to ourselves but get to Dos Ojos early before the throngs of tourists show up in their fluorescent orange life-vests.

Where to stay:

– There are plenty of lovely boutique hotels in Tulum but knowing that we would love the cenotes we decided to book Manglex eco-hotel, which has it’s very own private one. The hotel is made up of four tree-level jungle cabanas that each have four-poster beds and mosquito nets. To get to the cabanas there is a wooden pier above the mangrove that ends in a sun-deck with white canopied lounge-beds overlooking Manglex cenote, which we explored at sunset with one of the hotel kayaks. We didn’t see any but apparently you can see the occasional small (and I’m told not dangerous) crocodile! The pier is very pretty at night when it’s illuminated green and they light lanterns and tiki torches to guide you to your suite.

If you’re after luxury rather than eco-chic this may not be the hotel for you – the ‘hot’ water was tepid at best (at least for us), and they turn off the power at night. I don’t know if we were just lucky but we were surprised that we didn’t have a problem with insects but I’d definitely recommend bringing repellant in case.

 

Anegada

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Pineapple bikini – Midori Bikinis – Top, Bottom; Crochet dress – Souvenir from Cuba.

If the BVI is already off the beaten tropical track, then lonesome Anegada, the most remote of the Virgin islands, has fallen clear off and into the ditch. Being on Anegada feels like being on another planet. The landscape is eerie and desert-like, populated by cacti and swampy-sea shrubs. The island is so flat that you’d be forgiven for missing it on the way in on the ferry – the biggest giveaway that you’re arriving is the ocean going from a deep blue to a dreamy tropical turquoise.

If you’re looking for an activity holiday then this probably won’t be it. They say that the donkeys and flamingoes outnumber the people (this is definitely not true), and there are only a handful of sun-bleached bars and restaurants. But if if you like the idea of feeling like you’ve been ship-wrecked on a desert island, and having nothing much more to do than listen to the sound of lapping waves, then this is the place for you. One of our favourite things to do was to walk along the endless deserted beaches to our favourite sleepy, pastel-coloured bar for a rum cocktail. If we were feeling lazy we’d go in our Wrangler rental with the local radio station on at full blast – having the radio on here feels strangely like a link to forgotten civilisation. It’s a cliche’ but my boyfriend and I decided that if paradise had beaches they couldn’t look much better than the idyllic beaches on Anegada. They’re even mysteriously strewn with hundreds of huge, beautiful pink Conch shells that you stumble upon everywhere. Maybe I’ve not travelled enough – is this the case anywhere else?!

The irony of travelling to such a remote place is that you end up getting to know the few tourists and locals you meet better than you probably would somewhere busier. It’s also the perfect place to go with a group of friends. The second time here we sailed over in a big group. We moored up to a bar with a pretty empty dance-floor but we soon changed that around and ended up having one of the best nights of our time out here.

Sleeping: We stayed at the Anegada Beach Club sea-front tents, which we saw on our first visit and vowed to come back and stay in. It’s not really camping as you know it – think four-poster beds with mosquito nets blowing in the breeze, deck hammocks, solar-powered showers and views overlooking a milky-blue Atlantic Ocean. Each tent even has it’s own mini path to the beach. They have paddle-boarding and snorkelling gear for in- between tanning sessions.

Eating: Anegada is famous for its lobster. They have so much of it and in most places it’s plucked straight out of  lobster traps and cooked right in front of you in converted oil-drums. We went to the Lobster Trap for my birthday meal. It has tables on a jetty decked out with fairy lights right over the water. We were the only people in the whole restaurant! If you want to visit at a busier time of year then the lobster festival is held on varying dates in November. 

Neptune’s Treasure: Famous for it’s cinnamon buns and home-made bread.  Have breakfast while watching the boats moor up on the harbour.

Anegada Beach Club: Get the coconut French toast!

passing ships

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Bikini – Missoni very similar here. I also love this one-piece and this bikini on sale. Necklace worn as bracelet – Givenchy vintage; Hat – lying around the house; Sunglasses – Gucci. 

Location: Long Bay, Tortola

I hope this seventies revival never ends. I keep panicking that its inevitable demise is just around the corner. I’ve had this vintage Givenchy necklace forever and I feel like I can wear it with anything I buy at the moment. I thought it would go perfectly with this Missoni bikini that I managed to extort from my family as a Christmas gift. I won’t get started on Missoni or I’ll start gushing uncontrollably so suffice to say that I think their use of texture and and tactile design is the best in the industry.

This is one of my ultimate beach-crushes in the BVI. I love the hill in the background, it reminds me of a teeny-tiny St. Lucia. Amazingly, the beach is never crowded – it always looks pretty much like it is here in the pics. When I’m there I always try to get a fresh coconut at “nature boy’s” tiny beach bar that you can just about see in a couple of the shots. It occasionally collapses with the breeze and is quickly repaired with some deft palm-leaf rearrangement. So much better than bars that don’t fall over.

Florence

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Chanel-style jacket customised with faux fur cuffs – Tailor-made; Jeans – Abercrombie & Fitch similar here; Shoes – Nine West; Bag – Louis Vuitton vintage

I’ve often wondered what it is about Florence that makes it so special for so many people. There are lots of beautiful cities in the world but I’ve yet to meet a person that thinks that Florence is just meh…Maybe it’s the fact that there are so many intact Renaissance buildings, and so few modern ones, which is rare for any city. Even the roads and pavements with their distinctive ‘stab marks’ (last pic) seem untouched by time. There’s also the fact that like the rest of Tuscany, what’s attractive is not just the beauty of the place, but the lifestyle that goes with it – amazing food, beautiful clothes, and of course, the best gelato in the world.

I also think that Florence is the probably the most romantic city I’ve been too. It seems a strange thing to say but I always seem to imagine Florence at sunset. There’s some sort of magical orange light about it at all hours of the day. I’m sure it’s just the colour of the buildings that makes it seem that way, but it’s certainly beautiful. My Italian family lives quite close to Florence, and it was always my favourite place to go for a date… Continue reading Florence