EXUMA

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We arrived at Staniel Cay Yacht Club from Nassau by tiny prop plane, a trip that’s only made less terrifying by the incredible views. Below – spidery turquoise estuaries bleed into brilliant white sandbars; ahead – unbroken views of sky and sea.

Staniel Cay Yacht club sits in the middle of the protected Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, and is one of the few places to eat or stay within, well, a very large radius.  Luxurious but unpretentious, the hotel is made up of nine pastel-coloured wooden cottages, each with its own little balcony over the water where nurse sharks regularly come to visit. Guests are given their very own little boat to explore the pristine and secluded beaches and cays that surround the area. If you’re missing lunch to go out and explore (meals are included), the hotel can pack you a picnic basket and beach chairs so you can have your very own castaway picnic.

Staniel Cay is also the perfect home base for attractions like swimming pig beach and Thunderball Grotto. Named after the Bond movie that was filmed there, Thunderball grotto is a stunning underwater cave that has amazing marine life notwithstanding the hundreds of people that visit daily. At all hours of the day the sunlight filters through in beautiful patterns while snorkelers weave their way through hundreds of tropical fish.

Just a few minutes away by boat is Swimming Pig beach (Big Major Cay). While you’ve no doubt seen the pictures, it really is a surreal sight to see enormous pigs swim (quite gracefully) up to your boat in the crystal-clear ocean demanding food. They are utterly unperturbed by humans and very, very cute, especially the babies.

Still unconvinced by the tiny planes, I managed to find (after several desperate rounds of emails and phone calls) a boat tour that agreed to pick us up at the club on their way back down to Great Exuma, our next stop. It ended up being a great idea as we caught the end of the tour, which stopped at Great Guana and Leaf Cay. Apparently, the latter was bought by Nicholas Cage in 2006, but he subsequently discovered it couldn’t be developed as it was home to hundreds of Northern Bahamian rock iguanas – a critically endangered species. The island is currently on sale for $7,000,000. Any takers?

We only stopped on Great Exuma for one night before we set off on our Out-Island Explorer kayak tour of the Exuma Cays. We wanted to do the two night, three day tour so before we set off we had to stock up on camping gear (all provided by the tour company), food, and a heck of a lot of water.

The first slog from the setting point to the first island in the chain, Jimmy Cay,  is by far the longest and hardest. As soon as we turned out of the sheltered mangrove we were hit by a ferocious oncoming wind from the North. I’ve never paddled so hard in my entire life and yet it seemed like we were getting no closer to our target island. I very almost called it quits and went straight back but J kept pushing me on. I closed my eyes so I couldn’t witness our demoralising pace, and eventually, after A LOT of cursing and drenched to the bone, we finally got to Jimmy Cay. I’m so glad that we powered through because little did I know that this was going to be the best travel experience of my life.

It was like we’d kayaked to a different country. While the water at the start was choppy and turgid, as soon as we turned in behind the islands (where the water is protected from the Atlantic side by the islands), the water was the bluest, clearest and stillest we’d ever seen. The paddling was now a breeze. The first island we stopped at was Cluff’s Cay, which features a once beautiful and now totally abandoned and dilapidated house, and some enormous resident iguanas. We got off to explore the eerily beautiful house and abandoned garden and then continued on our way to choose which cay would be our home for the next three days.

After kayaking past several islands, each more stunning than the last, we came across Lily Cay, and we knew straightaway that this was the one. The water was incredible and the island was separated by rocks into three parts, which became our campsite, sunset bar and washroom. The water is so crystal-clear and shallow here that you can walk out for miles, even to a small nearby island. There wasn’t a soul in sight. We swam to wash up after kayaking, set up our tent, and explored our island while we gathered wood for the fire. In the evening we had a sunset aperitif at our bar followed by a three-course, gourmet meal of pasta, tinned mackerel and chocolate mousse-pot. We listened to music from our phones and portable speaker (yay for solar chargers), and looked at the stars. I’ve never seen so many.

The next day we explored the islands further up the chain. The whole area is so remote and the water so clear and calm that apparently it’s easy to catch fish to cook fresh on the fire, but unfortunately we’d forgotten to bring our spear gun. We spent most of the day chilling, looking for lobster, collecting sand-dollars and rod-fishing on as many of the stunning islands we could muster up the energy to kayak to. The only people we saw this entire time were two fishermen in the distance. If it wasn’t for running out of food and drinking water I’d have stayed here forever.

Great Exuma

We stayed at the very southern tip of Great Exuma, in secluded Williamstown. Since Williamstown was once separated from the mainland by a small toll-bridge, it has very much a small community feel of its own. One of the only activities to do here is to fish off the bridge for Tarpons, which are huge, tasty fish that our lovely cottage owner at Gunhill Bay Villas quaintly described as ‘fine fellows’.

I’m not sure if we caught turbulent weather or if the ocean is always rough in Williamstown, but our cottage was battered by the crashing Atlantic waves the entire time. We spent most of our time on the balcony, and occasionally we’d go out to the mainland or take the short ferry trip to Chat’n’Chill, a shack-like bar and grill on nearby Stocking Island. A favourite with the yachties, Chat’n’Chill sits on a beautiful beach with hammocks and picnic tables, and has resident rays and sharks that swim in the shallows. If you’re game to wade over a channel there’s also a beautiful hike that crosses over on the Atlantic side and ends with a view at the peak of Stocking Island, which boasts gorgeous views of Great Exuma.

After the hike I recommend heading to Chat’n’Chill’s conch salad bar, where they make a particularly good example of our favourite Bahamian dish. Deliciously citrusy conch salad is made with fresh conch plucked directly from its shell, cut to soak up the juices, and then combined with a mixture of diced peppers, onions, lime and hot sauce.

But our favourite meal of the trip was the seafood platter back in Williamstown, seemingly in the middle of nowhere at the GunhilI Bay Villas restaurant. Williamstown is also famous for its bakery, where local ladies make delicious rum and banana cake. We happened to be visiting during Easter so we were also lucky enough to try their famous hot cross buns. We bought them still hot from the oven and had them on our balcony with coffee, watching the Exuma-blue waves crash onto the shore.

HONG KONG

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It’s a cliche’ that’s used for a lot of places, but in this case it’s undeniably true – Hong Kong is the ultimate city (or territory) of contrasts. A favourite maxim – ‘where East meets West’- highlights the region’s Chinese roots and the western cultural elements it gained from its time as a British colony. This fusion of cultures can be seen in the architecture, lifestyle, and perhaps most clearly in the food. While sterile, ultra-commercial dining options like Mcdonalds or Starbucks abound, you can also wonder through chaotic market stalls past spiky, strange-looking fruit, desiccated, undefinable fish-things, and dark-coloured eggs that look like they’re boiling in tar.

One of Hong Kong’s most interesting contrasts is its symbiosis of an ultra-modernized lifestyle with traditional Chinese customs. Ancient concepts like Feng Shui – the Chinese art of positioning objects or structures so as to harmonize with nature – has firm roots in the city’s culture. In fact the plan and design of a building in Hong Kong is determined as much by Feng Shui masters as it is by engineers and architects. Often, buildings lack any floor number with a 4 in it, due to its similarity to the Cantonese word for ‘death’.

Hong Kong’s uniquely paradoxical and thus (I think) beautiful aesthetic is forged by determined efforts to reconcile the city’s origins as a humble fishing harbour and its current status as one of the most fast-paced powerhouses in the world.  Flashing skyscrapers tower above immutable colonial buildings like the Old Supreme Court and the ancient-looking junks that timelessly cruise Victoria Harbour. The glittering, glass designer storefronts of the North Shore lie in stark contrast to the dingily romantic, slum-like noir of the alleyways of Kowloon. Kowloon is itself a microcosm of contrasts. Dark, empty backalleys are filled with the discarded trash from business back-exits while thick, tangled electrical wires hang like some sort of urban python. The wires feed the kaleidoscope of neon signs in the chaotic main streets of Kowloon, piercing fluorescent colour onto otherwise dreary, beige-grey towerblocks.

The hard-edged rectangles of these ubiquitous tower blocks are juxtaposed by the graceful, dimly-blue mountain peaks that surround the city. Though it boasts the status of most urbanised city in the world, country parks actually account for 40% of the total area. Hong Kong’s urban planning is necessarily one of the most meticulous and strategic in the world, but the nature around it remains wild, rugged, untamed. The hiking and coastal walks around the territory offer some of the most impressive views in China.

But you don’t need to head to the outskirts to find incredible views. Any high-rise hotel or apartment block will likely offer aerial views of the city and the perennial mist below. Standing amidst the clouds you feel strangely close to nature, at the top of a concrete tower-block, in a room 10 sq metres across.

Walking around at night feels like being in a Sci-fi movie or videogame. Some areas of the city – the functionally named Central and Mid-Levels – connect vertically rather than horizontally, reached by a network of interconnecting outdoor escalators, with drop offs on the way so as to access poky-looking noodle or dim sum stalls with flickering signs. I could picture Bruce Willis eating at his favourite floating noodle joint in Fifth Element. The view from Victoria’s peak on a misty night (almost always) is a scene directly from Bladerunner, with the fluorescent lights of the sprawling city piercing hazily through the inky Hong Kong fog.

It’s surely no coincidence that so much Sci-fi literature is based in Hong Kong. The territory’s various contradictions, particularly the juxtaposition of old and new, allows it to effectively present the message of a utopian, familiar past and a lonely dystopian future. The city offers nostalgia, while simultaneously existing in a shiny, futuristic realm. This uniqueness makes Hong Kong unlike any other fast-paced, commercial city. Singapore, for example, is just as corporate, just as ultra-modern, but it struggles to conceal its corporateness. For me at least, it simply doesn’t feel as exotic or seductive as the inky mist of Hong Kong City.

 

 

 

BEIJING and the Great Wall

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WHAT TO DO IN BEIJING:

We pulled into Beijing after a 20-hour train journey from Zhangjiajie surprisingly refreshed, hopped in a taxi and made our way to the Doufuchi hutong where our guesthouse was. Hutongs are Beijing’s ancient and steadily vanishing residential areas, made up of narrow alleyways and traditional courtyard houses.

STROLL THROUGH THE HUTONGS

The hutongs have resiliently defied the lightning-fast growth seen in the rest of the country, offering a nostalgic window into the old China. Bikes and rickshaws weave precariously through the crowds, shopkeepers peddle their wares, and groups of elderly men gossip and play the ancient game of Mahjong – note the victor’s faces rippling into a sea of creases as they smile. All the while the sundry smells of street-cooking saturate the air – steamed Baozi, fried Youtiao and spicy Roujiamou are common fixtures.

But once you cross the alleyway and enter the courtyards of the traditional slate-grey residences (Siheyuan), the relentless bicycle bells disappear and a heavy silence reigns, a welcome respite from the chaos of the Beijing’s huge and trafficked streets.

When the Forbidden City was built by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th-Century as an imperial residence, the city was planned so that the palace would sit at the centre while the hutongs expanded outwards in concentric rings. The inner rings would house the luxurious aristocratic residences, becoming more and more basic as they neared the outskirts. The hutongs to the north of the Forbidden City, Qinhai and Gonjian, are some of the most popular to visit.

JINGSHAN PARK

Having heard how expensive it was and how ridiculous the queues were, we decided that instead of visiting the complex itself, we’d view the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park instead. Not only is there a sweeping birds-eye-view of the imperial palace from the hilltop pagoda, but public parks in general in China are a great way to get an insight into the culture.  Go early to catch locals practicing Tai-Chi as the sun rises, or later in the day to witness all kinds of social activities. You’ll see groups of men taking turns to sing traditional Chinese songs into portable karaoke kits, kite-flying, exercising, and even elderly couples ballroom dancing – with or without music.

THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA

To see one of humanity’s greatest ever feats of engineering for the first time was one of the most unforgettable moments of our Asia trip. Having heard so much about this legendary, quasi-mythical landmark growing up I was almost surprised to see that it looked exactly how I imagined.

Originating in Liaonang province, the wall hugs the peaks and troughs of the mountains, winding through Beijing and then across 13,000 miles of Chinese countryside before reaching the unforgiving Gobi desert, where only its crumbling, wind-blasted ruins remain. Contrary to what most people think, the wall is not a continuous entity. Built originally to protect against invading tribes from the North, vast sections of it are formed of natural barriers like rivers or precipitous mountains that didn’t need further defence. Construction occurred haphazardly over 2000 years, and the best preserved sections – built during the Ming dynasty – are easily accessible from central Beijing.

Having done our research on the best sections of the wall to visit (Thrifty Nomads have a great overview) we decided to go with Jinshanling, which seemed like a good compromise between accessibility from Beijing and being relatively uncrowded. It probably would have been a great choice, but we made one cardinal error – we unwittingly decided to go over a Chinese holiday. We also made another major error – we waited at the wrong bus stop…for ages.* By the time we got to Jinshanling and waited in the ridiculously long ticket line, our bus driver warned us that we didn’t have much time to explore before he returned to Beijing. We started off stressed and trying to rush, but when we paused to look around at where we were, at the the beauty of the ancient wall undulating over the hills and disappearing into the hazy distance, we decided to take our time, miss the bus, and figure out a way home somehow or other. We stopped rushing, admired the incredible views and tried our best not to roll headfirst down the steep, timeworn steps. In the end we shared a long cab journey back with some friends we’d made at the mistaken bus stop.

*If you get the bus to Jinshanling from Wanjing West station, make sure to cross the road into the bus depot instead of waiting alongside the road. You’ll know you have the right place as there are loads of buses departing to different destinations all the time.

WHERE TO EAT

Kou Rou Ji

Technically a halal restaurant that specialises in mutton dishes, KRJ has a huge menu with pretty much anything you could want – including the obligatory Peking duck. We ordered the duck, mutton skewers and cold cucumber and chilli salad and they were all incredible. Right on the Houhai lake and nearby the most extensive collection of hutong neighbourhoods in Beijing , it’s also perfectly located for an after-dinner stroll.

The Grandma’s

Located on the top floor of a modern shopping mall, this one seems like a dubious choice for a Beijing first-timer. But looks are deceptive – not only is the interior really cosy, but the food is genuinely some of the best we had in China. To top it off the portions are huge and the prices amazing considering how expensive a lot of Beijing restaurants are. For all these reasons it’s very popular, which is why you tick your food order off on a list while waiting in line to be called to your table. This is where the location comes in handy – order your food, take your number and go shopping while you wait.

WHERE TO STAY

Unlike the food, hotel prices in Beijing are pretty decent, even for some of the more luxury ones like the Four Seasons. But if you’re looking for something with a bit more character and still luxurious, the VUE hotel Hou Hai is in a traditional Siheyuan-style building and overlooks the Houhai lake. Yangfang alley and the surrounding area are fun and lively in the evenings, too.

We stayed in a traditional courtyard house in Doufuchi hutong which cost us about $15 dollars a night. I can’t for the life of me remember the name but there are hundreds of these rooms about. Download the Trip app (previously Ctrip) and go through the myriad options. This app will be your lifesaver in China. Since a lot of Western sites are banned in the country, Ctrip has a lot more options for both transport and accommodation, and they do everything for you (provide schedules, rates, availability, bookings etc) so you don’t have to go through the terrifying experience of attempting to speak mandarin over the phone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ZHANGJIAJIE

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Thousands of towering sandstone karsts jut precipitously from the park floor towards the sky, where the evergreen forests that cling to the karst-tops merge ethereally with the clouds. You have to wonder about the wildlife on these tiny forests in the sky – do they know that they live on top of the world?

Armed with our beautifully hand-drawn map of the park, we entered Zhiangjiajie on our first day from the main Southern gate at the Loguta ticket station, and started on the Golden Whip Stream trekking trail. The trail starts out as a gentle riverside walk through the forest, following a crystal clear stream framed by the magnificent stone pillars on either side. Just after the Zicoatan peaks, we turned onto a steep, scenic staircase that 2,000 steps later had us eye-level with the tip of the karsts. This is where we came across two of the most popular sights in the park (and accordingly the crowds). The first, Lianxinqiao bridge, looks across to what is probably the tallest and most impressive karst in the park – Hallelujah mountain. At a dizzying 3,500 feet above ground, you just have to see it to believe it’s possible. If you’re scared of heights you might have trouble here as the bridge is made of a metal grid which lets you see all the immense way to the bottom. Hallelujah mountain is often referred to as the ‘Avatar filming site’ but I’m pretty sure this isn’t true.

Just after Hallelujah mountain is Tanxia Diyi Quiai (the bridge across the sky) – an incredible gravity-defying bridge that you can cross over to visit a small temple. At 1,230ft above the ground, it may be the highest bridge in the world.

From here we took the free bus to what is essentially the centre of Zhangjiajie park – Mcdonalds. (Yes, a huge Mcdonalds, slap-bang in the centre at Tianzishan) By this time it was getting late and the buses had stopped running. We weren’t keen on getting the ridiculously expensive elevator back down so we approached some shopkeepers and in some heavily app-assisted Mandarin managed to ask if there were any available rooms they knew of in the park. As it happened the owner of the shop owned some guest-rooms near his home, which he assured us were very comfortable. By comfortable, they had a bed, a hole in the bathroom for the toilet, and no heating. Since we were in the middle of nowhere and our breath was condensing in the arctic cold of the room, we snuggled in the single bed, popped some sleeping pills and listened to music until we fell asleep.

The next day we woke up to find there was a trail that started right from our guesthouse. If you’re keen to avoid the crowds then this is the route for you – we must have have seen about three people the whole time. The cliff-hugging trail meanders through beautiful dripping wet forest with small detours that lead to viewing points on the tips of some of the karsts. The most memorable was Yibu Nanxing – One Dangerous Step – so named because to get to it you have to walk on a metal grate across a void between two pinnacles. We continued past small waterfalls and streams with rocky stepping stones until the path got too crumbly and dangerous to follow and we had to turn back. We figured this explained the lack of people.

But we hadn’t yet had enough of Zhangjiajie for the day, so we took the shuttle back to Tianzishan and started the long hiking route to the east of Wolongling that would eventually lead us down to one of the park exits (Sansuo fire station). The map describes the surrounding area as ‘three miles of enchanting nature’, and it’s not wrong. We walked down what must have been thousands of stone steps through dense, verdant forest, past waterfall bridges and natural gravity-defying archways. We hardly saw a single other person except for a group of hikers at about half-way who, to my amazement, were making their way up. My legs were in agony from walking down the incredibly long, steep stepways so I can only imagine what they were feeling. I wonder if they ever made it all the way up.

The third day was the mistiest. We took the trail that started right from Loguta ticket station to the Huangshizai scenic area (you can also get a cable car). Not seeing any people on our way up and looking relatively underwhelming from the map, we were wondering what to expect, but the views from here ended up being the most breathtaking in the park by far. An easy walking route once at the top, the walkway leads you past various different lookouts, each one more spectacular than the last. The views reminded me of ancient Chinese drawings I’d seen in museums and galleries, where the dark, decisive outlines of the mountains in the foreground gradually fade into the faint, delicate outlines of the distant peaks, until they  eventually disappear altogether into the mist. With only the tip of some karsts visible through the clouds, I could see why people think Zhangjiajie is the inspiration behind Avatar’s floating mountains.

Oh, and be sure to take the cablecar either up or down, it’s terrifyingly stunning.

 

 

Yunnan

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While most of our South East Asia trip was on the quintessential backpacker route, our next leg, through Yunnan, was decidedly not. In fact it was probably the first time on all my travels where we were the only western tourists for days on end, making us feel like intrepid explorers. Even in the most remote of my travels to date I had some basic foreign language skills to get by, or I’d find someone who knew a tiny amount of basic English. At the very least, the street signs and menus were in characters I could recognise. South-west China provided none of these options, and it was exciting.

We were determined to travel overland from Sapa into Yunnan on the train to see the beautiful mountain scenery and avoid flying (which I hate with a passion). More importantly, the more remote, undeveloped towns we wanted to see were on the train route and nowhere near a major airport hub. While we eventually managed to arrange a train from Sapa (Lao Cai) into China be warned that if you’re keen on doing the same, China DOES NOT make this easy. It’s much easier to travel into the country if you have dated entry and exit plane tickets. But I’m going to have to do a whole other blog post on how to get a Chinese visa as it’s a total ballache.

Jianshui

Our first stop in Yunnan was Jianshui. This was where we most clearly witnessed  modern and ancient China side by side. Cobblestone streets and beautifully faded frescoes intermingled with shiny sportswear and gadget shops. I’ll never forget a crinkly old lady who looked like she was pushing a hundred sitting proudly in front of her sex toy shop.

It’s obvious when travelling through China that it’s a massively booming country. When the taxi from the train station to our hotel was taking forever and seemed to only be going past huge deserted fields, I remembered reading that it’s common practice in China to build train stations miles away from city centres, as planning authorities expect such a huge population boom across all cities.

The landmark of Jianshui is the first sight you see upon entering – the ancient city gate (Chaoyang tower). Built in 1380 during the Qing dynasty, it’s just older than Tiananmen in Beijing, and looks remarkably similar. The imposingly red three-story building is made up of tall wooden pillars and those quintessential hip roofs with gilded tiles. We went exploring in the evening when we heard music and saw dozens of elderly couples ballroom dancing underneath the lit-up gate 🙂

Another main attraction in Jianshui is Zhu’s family garden. This Qing-era private mansion is made up of 218 intricately decorated dark-wood pavilions separated by a maze of 42 pillared courtyards covered in blossom trees. The main courtyard features a beautiful, over-the water outdoor theatre. You can actually stay in one of the rooms in the extensive garden grounds.

Jianshui also boasts China’s third-largest Confucius temple. With it being relatively expensive and us becoming objectively poorer, we decided to skip it. However if you’re not on a backpacker budget it’s said to be well worth a visit, supposedly being the best preserved Confucius temple in China.

Shaxi

As it was with us, a trip to the Yunnan countryside is often seen by tourists as a chance to see China as it once was, and Shaxi was the one place we travelled to that’s remained relatively pristine. For this reason the town sees a lot of Chinese tourism, but while new guesthouses continue to mushroom in the outskirts, the centre remains pretty much untouched.

Shaxi is most well-known for being the most intact horse caravan town on the ancient tea route leading from Yunnan into Tibet. With its cobblestone streets and ancient, crumbling alleyways, walking around town felt like stepping back in time. Shaxi consists largely of four alleys and a central marketplace, both lined with little cafes with low roofs and charming courtyards. A crystal-clear stream runs down the length of the main street towards the Ming-era Sideng theatre, which was probably the most beautiful ancient building we saw throughout China. On our only evening there (the town is tiny) we listened to traditional Chinese music in one of the marketplace cafes. Walking back to our room in the rain under the light of the ubiquitous red lanterns hanging from the trees made us feel like we could have been back in the days of the tea trail.

Dali

In the shadow of the Cangshan mountain and on the shores of the Erhai Lake, Dali is a popular destination for Chinese city-dwellers desperate for some blue skies and fresh air. Even though there were plenty of people, knowing that we were at the very border of mainland China and the furthest extremities of the Himalayas made Dali feel mysteriously remote, like a pit stop en route to the mythical Shangri La.

Dali is beautifully uniform, with characteristic white buildings with slate grey rooftops that stretch for miles. One of my favourite memories is hanging our laundry on the rooftop of our lovely Dragonfly guesthouse, where we could see the looming Cangshan mountain on one side and the endless rooftops on the other. The ancient town is amazingly well-preserved, with a typical water-stream that tumbles peacefully down the treelined streets that lead into the old town, where the buildings are framed by the surrounding mountain range.

Dali was also where I happened to get the worst food poisoning of the whole Asia trip. If that’s what it even was, as it was the strangest food poisoning I’ve ever had. The smell of anything that wasn’t artificial would make me unbearably nauseous, even boiled rice or fruit. Chinese food is my favourite in the world and I couldn’t eat a bite of it. This meant that when it came to our most looked-forward to activity in Dali – trekking the Cangshan mountain, there was no way I could humanly do it. We tried for the funicular that goes up to Zonghe temple, but it was closed for renovations. Disappointed, we attempted to start the trail, but about three steps in I was close to passing out. We aborted and decided to admire the mountains from our rooftop, J with a Dali beer, me with a green tea staring enviously at his beer.

Lijiang (UNESCO heritage site)

With it’s 12th century Cobblestone streets, canals, alleyways, and old Naxi houses, Lijiang is undoubtedly beautiful, but this beauty has also ensured that it’s incredibly crowded.  I’d never come across it before in any of my travels, but in Lijiang there’s an entrance fee just to get into the old town, and it’s not cheap. The stores that line the beautiful old streets all sell the same stuff and blare out quite literally the same song, over and over. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. At specific times of the day the underwhelmed shopkeepers do a ‘traditional’ dance. I actually quite liked the surreal, theme-park edge that all this lended the place, but if you’re looking for authentic China, this is not it.

The most popular walking route in old Lijiang leads to the Black Dragon Pond Park, with its spectacular view of the region’s highest mountain, Jade Dragon Snow mountain. The backdrop of the mountain against the white marble bridge and Moon-Embracing pavilion is particularly stunning to see.

Seeing the Jade Mountain from Lijiang town was somewhat bittersweet, as we’d intended to take the cable car to the snowy peak at Glacier Park and the next day begin the 3 day-hike to Tiger-Leaping gorge. As it was, I was way too ill to do either. The air is so thin at Glacier Park that it’s recommended to take oxygen cans to the top, and I could barely climb a few steps without wheezing my lungs out. This meant that we spent most of our time in our traditional courtyard guesthouse, which fortunately had a terrace view of the beautiful Naxi rooftops against the snowy Yulong mountains.

Missing out on the gorge is one of the many reasons that I know I’ll be travelling back to China in the very near future. Carved out by the raging rapids of the Jinsha river, the Tiger Leaping gorge massifs peak at almost 4000m above the river, making it one of the steepest canyons in the world. If you intend on doing this incredible-sounding trek then Nomadasaurus have a great review of their trip here.

Chengdu

Chengdu is actually the capital of the Sichuan province, slightly outside Yunnan, and is one of China’s fastest growing mega-cities. Despite this, the city has a relaxed, laid-back vibe. One of the most traditional things to do here is to go to a teahouse, many of which are set in peaceful, lush courtyards. On our first day there it was typically grey and damp (there’s a saying that in Chengdu you’ll see more teahouses than sunny days), so we went to the Lao Dianying Tea Garden, where we drank Bamboo Green Tea and listened to the the steady beat of the rain on the teahouse rooftop. Locals chatted, read the paper and played cards.

On our second day and last day in Chengdu we went to the region’s most popular attraction – the stiltedly translated Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. It’s popular for a good reason – these animals are just as adorable and ridiculous as you expect them to be. We were told that since Pandas are super fussy eaters that refuse to eat anything other than bamboo, they don’t get enough energy from their food, which explains why they eat lying down and quite literally roll their furry selves from place to place. They have high standards for their food too – not only does it have to be a specific species of bamboo, but it also has to be super-fresh. They’ll turn their noses up at wilted leaves or stalks that are the wrong kind of green. They are essentially ridiculously spoiled bundles of cuteness.

If you want to see the pandas when they’re not simply rolling from one snoozing spot to another (we saw one that was contentedly sleeping with half its body on a wooden slat and its lower half just dangling below),  it’s a good idea to go in the morning when the handlers bring out the first meal of the day.  You’ll see them happily munching their breakfast, playfully wrestling, climbing trees and especially falling off them. You’ll also have a head-start on the crowds.

Another major highlight of Chengdu is the food. The famously spicy, oily Szechuan food isn’t for everybody, but it has to be tried at least once. We went to Tian Tian restaurant in search of the most traditional fare. Already huge fans, we decided to go for the weirdest options possible, which is really not difficult when it comes to Szechuan cooking. Some of what we ate was a revelation, some was borderline stomach-churning (I’ve discovered I’m not a fan of food served in bowls of cold, previously cooked oil), but it was all definitely a unique experience.

SAPA

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We arrived at Sapa through Lao Cai on the overnight train from Hanoi. Bleary-eyed and slightly unnerved from having shared our otherwise lovely carriage with a very strange tourist, we were soon on a hair-raising bus journey through the twisting mountains into Sapa.

At almost 5000 feet above sea level, Sapa town could be incredibly beautiful, but increased tourism and industry has resulted in a somewhat haphazard construction of hotels and buildings that look strangely out of place in what’s otherwise a very rural setting. Not that it matters, as nobody comes to Sapa for the town; they come for the drama of the country scenery and beautiful simplicity of the mountain villages.

We had a quick nap in our damp, freezing hotel room, (waiting for the electric blankets to heat up was the longest 20 minutes of my life), and then set off on our first hike. From the main town, the most popular hiking trail is down to Cat Cat village. While it’s definitely become commercialized (there is a 70,000 Dong entrance fee and you’ll walk past lots of market stalls), the views of the lush, staggered paddy fields are still beautiful, and the highlight – the Cat Cat waterfalls at the bottom – are as stunning as ever. Most people end their hike at the falls, but there’s a riverside trail you can follow from here that you’ll likely have entirely to yourselves. The walk hugs the stream and ends at a smaller set of rocky waterfalls. On the way back, instead of heading back to Sapa on the right turn of the main road, me and J headed left. It’s impossible to get lost as you simply follow the tarmac, which will lead you to tiny villages with their dark wooden huts and low sloping roofs. Black pot-bellied pigs root around under floorboards and brightly- clothed kids dot in and out of houses in a haze of bluish charcoal-smoke that seems to permanently hang over the villages alongside the mist.

Like many others, we used Sapa mainly as a springboard to visit one of the more typical villages in the area. There are plenty of beautiful ones to choose from and after some research we decided on Ta Van. I can’t speak for the other villages that are probably equally as beautiful, but Ta Van was nothing short of spectacular. At the bottom of a plunging valley, it’s flanked by looming, ephemeral mountains that only reveal themselves occasionally and suddenly from behind the rolling mist.

There’s an ongoing debate when it comes to hiking in Sapa as to whether it’s best to get a guide or go it alone. If you decide you’d prefer to have a guide there’ll be no shortage of ladies from the myriad of local ethnic minorities offering to take you. Of course you can also organise a tour beforehand. We ultimately decided to hike on our own as we had a feeling the guides would likely lead us down the main drag, and we wanted to go as off-piste as possible. Of course this meant that we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. Ta Van is not renowned for its excellent signage, and there are no trekking maps save for the most popular routes. So we just picked one of the many paths we came across and followed it up, and up, and endlessly up.

We soon found ourselves off the concrete and on a muddy, rocky path that went past lush, scalloped rice fields, plunging valleys and towering mountains. I was convinced that at some point the path had to end or start looping back around, as we were so far away from the town and hadn’t seen a single person in hours. It was also quite late in the afternoon and we had no idea if there was a shorter way down before dark. And yet the path just kept leading ever-upwards until we found ourselves not just in the mist, but in beautifully thick, fluffy cloud – the kind you see from airplane windows.

I didn’t imagine we’d find any sign of people this high up yet we were still among the rice terraces, which meant somebody had to be tending them. Just as we were admiring the reflection of the afternoon sunlight on these paddy fields in the sky, the thick mist passed and we could make out the vague outline of a house. A beautiful, dark-wood house esconced in the fog in the middle of nowhere, or rather on top of the world. The family that lived there seemed surprised to see us, and in some sort of Vietnamglish gibberish we managed to communicate that we were looking for a way back down. They pointed, and we thanked and followed.

The next day, totally thrilled by our impromptu trek, we decided to do the exact same thing, just pick a path from the main route (we chose a path up on top of the Silver waterfall on the most popular Ta van route) and keep heading upwards. Today was even foggier. The damp, grey, mist was broken only by the occasional dash of lilac from a spring flower, or the flash of the stunningly bright outfights of the ethnic minorities.

At one point, totally lost in the fog and unable to see the path or even eachother, we had to sit down and wait for it to pass. We could hear the sound of buffalo bells and children laughing and playing somewhere in the distance. When the clouds suddenly parted we could see the whole scene..we were on top of a mountain, the children silhouetted against the rolling clouds, disappearing and reappearing as the cloud drifted along. Buffalo serenely grazed in the paddy fields, sometimes bathed in sunlight and then suddenly in the mist, and all framed by the pink, newly budding blossom trees. It was one of the most memorable travel moments of my life.

WHEN TO VISIT:

March was perfect as we got to enjoy the characteristic mist but it wasn’t so heavy that you couldn’t see the spectacular views when the clouds parted. It’s bearably chilly (which is a bonus when you’re uphill trekking) and the spring flowers and blossoms are just beginning to bloom.

HOW TO GET THERE:

From Hanoi, the options are to take the train or bus. There are no airports in Sapa.

The Train:

The train takes about 8-9 hours from Hanoi and the carriage beds are actually quite comfy so you should be able to get a pretty decent sleep before waking up to the beautiful mountain scenery. The trains often depart between 8pm – 10pm and it’s advised to book your tickets in advance. You can do that here. The final stop is Lao Cai where you’ll have to get a one-hour shuttle into Sapa. Make sure you hold onto something or take a pill if you suffer from car sickness – they take the mountain bends pretty sharp! Whether you’ve got a tour bus waiting or you’ve not yet booked anything the shuttles should be easy to find out in the square.

You can also take the train from Hue, Da Nang and Nha Trang.

The Bus:

The bus is faster at 6-7 hours and it goes straight into Sapa without stopping at Lao Cai. The buses leave at 6.30am or 10pm. You can book here.

WHERE TO STAY: While there are hotels and guesthouses in Sapa, a much more authentic experience is to stay with a local family at a homestay. The accommodation is usually basic but the experience is much more memorable and you’ll be supporting a small family business. Plus, the home-cooked food is usually great! The Backpacker’s Bible has a great guide to staying at homestays in Sapa here.

WHAT TO EAT/DRINK: Homestays usually provide free breakfast and paid meals throughout the day. Some are all-inclusive. There are also usually restaurants dotted around whatever village you choose to stay in.

A guide to the temples at angkor wat

girl at Angkor WatTuk tuk in front of templePreah KhanAngkor Wat windowgirl at Angkor WatTa Prohmmonk at Bayon templeAngkor WatAngkor Wat windowsawg3girl at angkor watmonkey at angkor watBayon TempleTa Prohm TempleIMG_9770_Snapseedaw4Angkor Wat bas-reliefsAngkor Wat central towergirl at ta prohmAngkor Wat sunriseAngkor Wat sunrise

Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat is not only the largest religious complex in the world, but also one of the largest archeological sites in existence. The main temple is so sprawling that notwithstanding the crowds, you’ll often find yourself wandering alone down a long, empty corridor, or admiring the intricate carvings in a low-lit, echoing corner. The perfect symmetry of the structures creates a play of light and shadows that is mathematically perfect, purposefully designed to evoke a mystical, awe-inspiring atmosphere. Each architectural element is studied; the bas-reliefs of the temple were designed to be viewed in an anticlockwise direction, a practice that has precedents in ancient Hindu funerary rites. This, along with Angkor Wat’s westerly facing direction (most of the other temples face East), led many scholars to believe that Angkor Wat must have existed primarily as a tomb, since the western direction is a traditional symbol of death. Accordingly, the best time to admire Angkor Wat is at sunset, when the burnt orange light streams moodily through the elaborate window columns and reflects off the lotus-covered lake.

The main monument was originally built in the 12th century by the Khmer Empire as a dedication to the Hindu God Vishnu. The layout is intended as an earthly representation of Mt Meru – the five-peaked sacred mountain of Hindu and Buddhist cosmic mythology. The central, lotus-shaped tower is Mt Meru, with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat). When you wander through the temple to the main tower, you’re essentially travelling back to the first age of the creation of the universe.

Angkor was once home to approximately 750,000 people, making it the largest urban complex of the pre-modern world. But by the time the Portuguese came across the site in the 1500’s, it was essentially deserted. Why this is is still uncertain. Angkor remains a magnificent enigma shrouded in mystery. Just in 2015 new underground towers were discovered along with a huge, mysterious underground spiral. Massive cities between 900 and 1,400 years old have been found beneath the tropical forest floor, some of which rival the size of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Every year it seems, Angkor Wat throws up more cryptic questions than it answers.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is a tropical fairytale. Claimed long ago by the jungle, the sprawling, sinewed roots of the aptly-named strangler fig continue to slowly choke the temple walls. It’s one of the few temples to have been left largely as it was when it was found, and it’s easy to imagine yourself as an explorer (or tomb raider) discovering it for the first time. While Angkor Wat is awe-inspiring in it’s symmetrical perfection, Ta Prohm is a dappled, crumbling daydream. Dislodged, delicately carved rocks pour into forgotten courtyards, blocking off obscure corridors and diverting visitors into an unintentional labyrinth. The dappled light filters through the leaves of the silk-cotton trees onto the ancient, lichen-covered rocks, cloaking the entire temple in a surreal, greenish shadow.

Visit first thing in the morning when everyone is watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Since this is one of the smaller temples, it gets crowded much faster. I may be biased because it’s my favourite but as the most romantic temple I think benefits most from being viewed when it’s quiet.

Preah Khan

If you want the romantic atmosphere and beautiful protruding tree roots of Ta Prohm but with fewer visitors, visit Preah Khan. To the north-east of Angkor Thom, Preah Khan is much larger than Ta Prohm and wasn’t used as a set in the Tomb Raider movie, so it suffers less from overcrowding.

Bayon

Just north of Angkor Wat is the Angkor Thom temple complex, with Bayon at it’s exact centre. The Buddhist temple is built over three levels and originally boasted 54 towers (now 49) carved with the 13-foot faces of Lokiteshvara – the Bodhissattva of compassion. The columns are carved on all four sides and are staggered on different levels, so that the faces, all 216 of them, loom down on you from all angles. More than imposing, the serene smiles and closed eyes of Lokiteshvara feel comforting, and lend the whole temple a uniquely peaceful, and slightly mysterious, atmosphere.

Bayon looks best just after sunrise or at sunset.

Baphuon

Also in Angkor Thom is the Hindu temple Baphuon, dedicated to Shiva. Built over three tiers that gradually narrow towards the top, it looks the most like a traditional pyramid, if a very intricate one. Climb to the top for wonderful views of the forest that surround it. It’s somewhat camouflaged so be sure not to miss the enormous reclining Buddha painstakingly pieced back together by archeologists.

Baphuon is quite large and not as crowded as some of the other temples, so any time of day is good to visit.

Banteay Srei

Distinctive for it’s unique pink-hued sandstone, Beanteay Srei, once again dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, is most noteworthy for the amazing condition of its extroardinarily intricate carvings and bas-reliefs.

For a much more in-depth guide to all the more minor and remote temples in Angkor Wat and around Cambodia, check out my post Ten Ways To Beat The Crowds At Angkor Wat.

 

East Coast Australia

Ocean view Whitsunday Islands Whitehaven beachTree with ocean view and beachByron Bay lighthouseOcean and cliff view on Australia's most Easterly pointGirl with ocean viewKangaroos in backyardClassic carDingo in front of Fraser Island Tour busGirl sailing boat Whitsunday islands sunsetpeople sailing in the Whitsunday IslandsAustralian man in old Australian townGirl in lake mckenziehbFraser Island sand blowFraser Island Land RoverView over Whitehaven beachDingo on Fraser IslandGirl in front of Maheno ShipwreckView of Lake MckenzieLake MckenzieGirl in front of tent on Fraser IslandGirl with Australian manView of ocean and rocksGirl in front of Australian shopFraser Island pierFraser Island Lgirl cooking on Fraser IslandGirl under tree in Fraser IslandGirl jogging at sunrise in Byron BayAustralian girl with hat

HOW’S THE SERENITY?

We spent two weeks living with my step-dad’s family near Coff’s Harbour up the coast. Corindi – the tiny suburban town where they live, hasn’t changed in the slightest since I visited when I was ten. There’s still only one shop, duly called ‘The Shop’, which sells the same meat pies and potato scallops with chicken salt, one post office and of course the nerve centre of the town – the local pub. No doubt one of the highlights of our trip was winning the ‘Amble Inn’ (for ten years I thought it was the Ann Boleyn) breakfast meat raffle.

Our days took on a standard routine pretty quickly – wake early to the most chaotic and deafening dawn chorus I’ve ever heard, drive up the headland to check the surf, back to the house for breakfast, and then amble down the wide streets with their low wooden houses and immaculate lawns (hosting frequent Kangaroo visitors) to the beach – our home until lunch. Contrary to some misleading pictures, going to the beach in Northern Australia is not a sexy affair – it feels like going into battle. Walking down in our pasty factor 60+, comedy-size hats, long-sleeved shirts and multiple sun-blocking accessories felt more Mr. Bean than Baywatch.

The beach here is interactive – nobody just lays back and tans – it’s a way of life. Everyone born here is expected to learn to surf or at least try, and for most, the thrill of riding along the limits of the ocean is one they seek forever. In few other sports is the goal so dependent on and shared with nature – a brief tussle for control to secure that hard-won victory of total weightlessness. And here I’m told – the waves are perfect…The official shark copter keeps an eye out overhead, and if there’s anything suspicious it will fly in a circle as a warning. One day as we were floating in the shallows the helicopter did exactly that, and of course not a single surfer left the water. Ahh it’s only a shark mate, no worries.

When we weren’t hiding under the beach umbrella from the relentless sun we played in the rock pools with the girls, overturning rocks to discover strange, slithering life-forms and squishing the ‘Gungy Boy’ anemones. We made wigs with spotty seaweed that looked like it belonged in an aboriginal painting.

Afternoons were hot and lazy – a sleepy, anxious interim between lunch and the first cold beer of the day before the mandatory BBQ prep. Even the unbelievably coloured lorikeets joined in, becoming increasingly raucous as they got drunk on fermenting fruit. We nursed our hangovers together.

BYRON BAY (CAVVANBAH)

We reluctantly left Corindi on the Greyhound from Coff’s Harbour and started making our way up the coast. First stop – the inevitable Byron Bay and shining beacon of (formerly hippy) hipster heaven. The vibe is creative professional, which to us suggested that we must start chilling out first thing in the morning, with a jog and a coffee at one of the many, many coffee-shops. We did the famed lighthouse loop – starting along the beach at dawn, as the sand and clouds turned varying shades of pinky lilac, and then the Lighthouse Road up to the pristine and still functional Cape Byron Lighthouse. From here, the Easternmost point of Australia, the view of the surf-battered cliffs and unbroken ocean is spectacular. Walking back down via the coastal route (Cape Byron walking track) we saw two dolphins playing in the distance and at Wategos beach we spotted a White-breasted Sea Eagle. Watch out for trees full of sleeping flying foxes – we thought that it was some sort of gigantic fruit before we noticed furry squirming! We finished at the Pass, a perfect white-sand beach and watched the surfers enjoy the famed right-hand point-break.

WHERE TO EAT: 

 

Cheeky Monkeys – We were on a budget and had a discount with our YHA stay so we went here for dinner. It’s got mostly terribles on Tripadvisor and is apparently for ‘immature travellers’ according to one review. I’m not sure what that means but we had cheap drinks, fun with the table Jenga and an average meal. It has lots of party events.

Bay Leaf Cafe – We  had a much more typical Byron Bay brunch the next day at the Bay Leaf Cafe.  Poached eggs, avocado and sourdough toast. The food and coffee was delicious. We didn’t get the banana bread but I got a waft of some freshly baked stuff and my God it smelled good. The juices and smoothies looked good too.

WHERE TO STAY:

 

 

Byron Bay YHA – We stayed pretty much only at YHA’s for our Australia trip and they were great. The rooms are predictably basic but the facilities are good. This one’s pretty chilled out and has a pool and snooker table. The only bummer is that they charge for luggage storage and don’t have wifi in the rooms.

 

FRASER ISLAND (K’GARI)

Before hopping onto the 12h Greyhound to our next stop Hervey Bay we stocked up on some supermarket liquor – because 12 hours, and because nobody should ever have to drink Goon. “Produced with the aid of milk, egg, nut, and fish products and traces may remain. Sugar added.” We walked past a girl who remarked of her Goon cocktail; ‘but why does it smell like feet?’. Yes alcohol is stupid expensive in Australia, but it’s worth the extra 2 dollars for almost the same alcohol content in a bottle of rum.

12 hours and a crazy bus driver later, we were in Hervey Bay – main launchpad for Fraser Island. There’s not much going on in Hervey Bay, but we did have a nice walk to the pier in searing middle-of-the-day heat where we saw two enormous Manta Rays, and at our YHA we spotted a beautiful, shy possum and had resident, not-so-shy peacocks.

Our main reason for staying here was to rent our Land Rover and have our safety briefing for Fraser Island – the main message of this being ‘please for the love of God put the hand-brake on when you park on the barge’ and ‘don’t drive onto the beach when the sand is wet, you will get stuck, and the car will be destroyed’. Apparently two different groups ignored the handy tips, and the rest you can imagine.

Fraser island is the largest sand island in the world. There are no paved roads. When the tide is out, there is a window of time in which you can drive on the beach and it’s smoother than concrete. Fraser island is the wildest, most unspoilt place I have ever seen on my travels, and was without doubt the highlight of our Australia trip. With a crackling radio struggling to pick up any signal, the massive 4×4 skipped over tree-trunks as if they were toothpicks while we drove past bizarre, Jurassic Park-style scenery. Our biggest threat was succumbing to soft sand. After seeing barely a person all day, we pitched up our tent at one of the wild-camping spots along the 75-mile beach. We must have inadvertently set up our tent on a horsefly nest as 5 minutes later we were attacked by a manic swarm, forcing us to cook dinner on the beach as we watched an oncoming storm.

THINGS TO DO IN FRASER ISLAND:

Lake Mckenzie (Boorangoora) – Lake Mckenzie is made up solely of crystal-clean rainwater, tinged Caribbean turquoise around the edges. The sand is entirely white silica and the water is so pure it’s said that only a few species of fish can survive in it. It’s too clean for life. Allow at least a few hours for all manner of selfies.

 

Sandblows – Sandblows are enormous sand dunes that blow across the island according to the wind and the tides. Burying forests as they move, the dateless tree-tops emerge post-apocalyptically from the wind-blasted sands. The lack of wildlife and eerie quiet makes these mobile deserts even more otherworldly. Lake Wabby off Hammberblow is slowly being engulfed, which is bad news for its little catfish inhabitants.

 

Eli creek – Each day, Eli creek spills out 80 million litres of beautifully clear rainwater into the Pacific ocean. You can float along the stream amongst the tangled vegetation down onto the beach, where you’ll see small aircraft land on the sand by the shore.

Maheno Shipwreck – Maheno was a New Zealand Naval ship that was washed ashore by a cyclone in 1935. 82 years later, its rusty skeleton remains, battered daily by the surf along 75-mile beach.

WHERE TO EAT:

Tent/beach/forest/car. Watch out for dingoes. We had one coyly come up to us on the beach – understandably tempted by our lunch of canned fish and beans.

WHERE TO SLEEP:

Tent/beach/forest/car. There is a main campground with showers in the middle of the island.

 

WHITSUNDAY ISLANDS:

Another long Greyhound night bus and we were at Airlie beach to set off on our 2-day boat tour of the Whitsundays with Silent Night. J hurt his back badly on the morning of our trip, and since it was too late to cancel or go to the doctor’s, we headed to the booze shop instead. We stocked up on a bottle of whiskey and two bottles of rum. Note: This is definitely not recommended self-medication for slipped discs under normal circumstances. When I saw the sleeping arrangements – a minuscule corner berth by the engine – I was grateful for our choice of impromptu meds.

We met the group and then started our sail towards our first snorkelling trip and mooring spot for the evening. This is where I have an embarrassing admission to make. Having heard so many nightmarish stories about lethal jellyfish in Northern Australia, I never actually went in the water on this trip, not even with the tempting offer of the full-length wetsuits. This made me the ONLY wimp in our boat group to not go underwater. I charged J with the Gopro and sipped my cocktail on the gently rocking sailboat with a strange mix of regret and utter peace. My excuse is that I’d already been snorkelling in the Whitsundays when I was ten and fearless. I’m sticking to it.

In any case I was told that the snorkelling was good – but not great. The best spots are widely regarded as being further up the coast towards Cairns. The ultimate way to see the reef if you’ve got the cash is by airplane, watching the the ancient coral below curl like tendrils around myriad hues of brilliant cyan.

The next morning after breakfast on board we started our sail to inimitable Whitehaven beach. A short walk through forest brings you to Hill Inlet viewing point, where you’ll see the famously white Silica sands bleed into the turquoise waters of the inlet. From here we walked onto the beach where we spent a few hours walking through the glittering, squeaky sand (walking on it has somewhat of a nails down a blackboard effect) and admiring the sheer blue of the ocean blues. Round a hidden bay behind some rocks we found two lemon sharks exploring the shallows. The rest of the day I spent not snorkelling in another beautiful location.

While the crew was really attentive and great fun, it was all things considered quite an expensive trip for scenery and activities that you can get elsewhere for cheaper. I don’t mean this boat tour in particular but rather the Whitsundays in general. If I were to revisit the Whitsundays again however I’d do a bigger, cheaper party boat.  If what you want is a more relaxed trip with with great crew and fewer people however, then Silent Night is the tour for you.

Chamonix & the dolomites budget road-trip

The DolomitesIcicles on a wood cabinGirl in Chamonix snowboardingTraditional restaurant in the DolomitesGirl Husky sledding in ChamonixChamonix StationCervinodol5dol16dol21clockchHuskies in snow

Crashing chalets and not skiing –

If you’re not there solely for the skiing or snowboarding, Chamonix can, believe it or not, be done on a budget. All you have to do is be bit cheeky about it. Our friend was in Chamonix for work and overheard some people talking about renovating their chalet and asked if they wanted him to overlook the work while they were away. They agreed and he got to stay in their spectacular two-storey chalet with mountain views (and hot tub) for free for a month. Naturally, we jumped at the chance to visit for a few days. It sounds purely like a stroke of good luck, but a lot of chalet owners who don’t rent are busy people who are only too happy to have somebody responsible to look after their holiday homes or pets while they’re away. This is one website that helps you find those people . Otherwise, the Hotel Cretes Blanche and Labrador have some pretty good rates.

As well as not having a massive budget, me and J are also devoid of any snow-sport skills whatsoever. Chamonix was a bad choice, you say? I’ll admit that trying to learn to snowboard without an instructor was difficult, and we spent more time on our butts than we did standing up, but it was most definitely fun, and we did get very slightly better by the end of the day. The good thing about renting gear and a pass for the day is that even of you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing, you get the breathtaking views of the Mont Blanc massif and Chamonix Valley from the slopes and ski-lifts as pretty compensation. The next day, slightly defeated from the snow-boarding, we rented some snow-shoes (much cheaper than most other snow activities) and did the Les Houches trail past snowy mountains, icicle-adorned wood-huts and pine-tree forests.

The next day we got on the scenic bus towards Valtournenche/Breuil-Cervinia where we stayed with an Italian relative. Having loved our leisurely walk through the pine-forest in Chamonix, we rented out snow-shoes again and started the walk from Breuil-Cervinia base to Plan Maison. As it happened, this turned out to be anything but leisurely. Since snow-shoes necessarily have a massive surface area and pick up snow as you walk, going up-hill can be incredibly strenuous. Going straight up the steep, fresh ski-slopes of the Matterhorn with the sound of distant avalanches crashing in the background was one of the hardest, most exhilarating experiences of my life. By the time we got to the top we were in t-shirts and singing into the eerily echo-less snow to keep us going. One of the things I remember most clearly were the fresh snow crystals at the summit of our walk reflecting a stunning carpet of tiny rainbows which I determined to (totally unsuccessfully) take hundreds of pictures of.  We finally reached Plan Maison where, whether because of all-consuming hunger or just good cooking, I had one of the best pastas of my whole life. We ended the day by taking the spectacular Cable Car to Plateau Rosa, home of Il Bar del Rifugio guide del Cervino, a cosy  Alpine Bar at 3480m altitude.

From Valtournenche we took the long train/bus journey to the Dolomites (I’d recommend staying in Milan or Verona for a couple of days if you’re going to do this). We went in the off-season (early April to be exact, the tail-end of Ski season) when everything is cheaper – accommodation, car rental, ski-passes, husky-sledding etc. While many of the hotels and restaurants are closed, and some of the trails are closed off due to snow, you can enjoy the dramatic views of the towering rocky peaks on the trails that are open without the crowds. If you’re travelling as a couple, it can be cosy to visit at this very quiet and snowy time of year.

Things to do in Chamonix/Dolomites other than skiing/snowboarding:

  • Snow shoeing
  • Husky Sledding
  • Hike the many trails/take Cable cars in the Dolomites
  • Rent a car and drive the Great Dolomite Road (anywhere from Verona to Cortina d’Ampezzo via the Lakes) There isn’t really one single route which is fine because the scenery in the area is generally stunning.
  • Eat your body weight in Speck (the local cured ham) and Spetzle

Cheap Eats:

  • Chamonix – Poco Loco . Great burgers and cheap beer pitchers (for the area) if you’re in a group.
  • Breuil- Cervinia – La Grotta. OK this one is not exactly cheap but the pizzas are amazing and huge and definitely shareable.
  • Dolomites – Malga Sella Alm. Home-style German food in an Alpine hut with lovely views of the Val Gardena Dolomites.

The Lake District

girl on lake at duskView of rolling hills in Lake Districtfeet in tent with view of lakeView of lakeJosh's spotScenic cottages in Lake DistricthighstJoshalderGirl climbing up hill in lake districtDaisyThe High StreetTaking a Break

The beauty of the Lake District lies in the contrasts of its landscape. Wild, unruly weather, imposing mountains, and sheer cliff drops frame small, cobblestone-paved farming villages and pastoral hills sprinkled white with sheep and daisies. It’s no surprise that this landscape was a favourite with the romantic poets, who could revel in their closeness to nature on bracing winter walks on snow-tipped mountains, while no doubt later enjoying a comforting cup of Lady Grey by the cottage fire. Or, in Coleridge’s case, enjoying some comforting opium pills.

We started our hiking trip in the quaint village of Patterdale. We arrived quite late from London and since I had never been camping before, Josh suggested we spend the night at a nearby hostel. I was excited to set off however so, perhaps rather stupidly, we set off towards Angle-tarn Pikes as the sun was low in the sky.  It was an inauspicious start for my overly-excited self – we’d set off not half an hour earlier and I started to get vertigo on the very first leg off the walk; the path wasn’t even particularly steep, but it was quite narrow, and I kept having visions of slipping on the gravel or being stuck on the trail in the dark and out in the open. But I stuck close to the ground (Josh walked as if he was having a stroll in the park) and we got to the top of the hill to a stunning view of Angle Tarn as the sun was setting on the neon-blue water. We admired the scenery and looked for a dry spot to set up our tent. I was peeved that somebody had already nabbed the most picturesque spot to pitch theirs up- a little grassy peninsula that juts out into the tarn so that it looks like you’re on your very own little floating island! Next time, next time..

We woke up the next morning to a brisk and beautifully sunny morning. We made some much-needed hot coffee and bacon on our tiny gas stove and admired the tarn that was so clear and still it looked like a giant’s pretty mirror. We packed up and made our way around the tarn and towards Helvellyn, the Lake District’s highest peak. This part of our hike was the longest, most up-hill and most difficult of the whole trip. The best thing about the intense exercise of hiking up-hill while you’re carrying the combined weight of your tent, sleeping bag, clothes, cooking equipment, food etc etc is how it makes you really appreciate the small things you take for granted in daily life. Sitting down to rest on a jaggedy rock feels like being enveloped by a cloud while being fanned by cherubs, and eating chewy, overcooked pasta with Dolmio sauce from a sachet tastes like a three-course meal at a Michelin-star restaurant. As much as I love all types of travel, including leisurely city-breaks, this really was an amazing feeling.

The summit of our trail was the hole-in-the-wall look-out across Helvellyn and Red Tarn. From this point a lot of hikers continue their walk to Helvellyn along the famous Striding Edge trail – a very narrow, very rocky trail with steep drops on either side. Needless to say, just looking at it made me feel physically ill, so we took the long way around. We continued up to the High Street to find Josh’s ‘favourite spot’ from when he used to go to the Lake District as a kid. The spot looks out onto Haweswater lake and the rolling peaks and troughs of the hills that surround it. The area is so high-up and so vast that you can watch the shadows of the clouds as they dance across the hills. We sat here for a long time just admiring the view.

Our detour meant that we had to go off-piste and cut down to the Ullswater river valley below in order to make it back down by evening. Essentially this meant jumping a fence and sliding down a steep hill on my bum in front of a herd of bemused sheep. At the bottom we found probably the most picturesque scenery of the trip. The path northwards through Martindale and towards Sandwick took us past gnarled, beautiful Alder trees, bubbling brooks with natural stepping stones and every type of wildflower imaginable. Old stone cottages and hamlets reached by tiny bridges dotted the bucolic countryside. We found a deserted, forested spot by the river and pitched up our tent for the night.

The next morning we were invited to experience the other face of the Lake District. Grey skies and a light, intermittent drizzle while we fuelled up with coffee by the riverside turned into steady, torrential rain that despite waterproof gear, still had us soaked within no time. But we walked fast, and with the heat of the exercise and drama of the rain the walk ended up being really fun. The heavy rain, lush vegetation and waterfalls along the river made the atmosphere feel almost tropical. Running and laughing by the end, we eventually reached Patterdale. Drenched to the bone, we holed up by the the fireside at the White Lion Inn and had shepherds pie and chips.

Tips for hiking the Lake District:

    • We went in June, and although it was relatively warm in the day, it was freezing in the tent at night. I don’t think I slept for a minute the first night up on the hill. Never underestimate how cool it gets at night when on hills and bring plenty of warm gear/good sleeping bag. If you’re going as a couple I’d recommend getting a double sleeping bag so you can share body heat. I wish I’d known these existed at the time!
    • Not to freak anyone out, but if you do decide to hike Striding Edge then do it when the weather is good i.e. good visibility/not too windy. There are casualties every year, mostly due to bad weather.
    • Lots of water. We bought water purification tablets so we could fill up our water in springs but it tasted funny and never felt entirely full proof. Water filters are a better option. Failing that, you can always boil it if you’re bringing a portable stove.
    • And then the obvious stuff; good hiking boots/really thick socks!(seriously you’ll be in pain otherwise)/waterproof gear (including a waterproof case for your clothes in your rucksack- seems like overkill but trust me!) /good hiking map/first aid kit especially plasters and disinfectant for blisters/gas canisters for stove/energy-rich food and snacks.