juliamhammond

Julia's Travels

Over the last 25 years, I've visited over a hundred countries and learned a lot about saving money without scrimping on the travel experience. If you're looking to broaden your horizons and make your travel budget stretch further, then Julia's Travels is for you. To find out more about my work as a freelance travel writer, please visit www.juliahammond.co.uk.

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Testing, testing

With so many hoops to jump through, it’s little wonder many people in the UK are choosing to holiday at home this year. While back in 2020 we might have thought that being vaccinated would be a ticket to freedom, unfortunately that’s not the case. International travel feels like a minefield of paperwork and regulations, but here’s my experience travelling from the UK to Iceland. Note that regulations change frequently, so check with reliable sources to ensure that you have up to date information.

Prior to departure

Preparations started before departure. As with many countries, Iceland differentiates between vaccinated passengers and those who haven’t been jabbed. You need to be fully vaccinated at least 15 days before – check the Covid.is website for the latest information. The Icelandic authorities will accept the NHS app but once or twice when I’ve gone into it the app has been unreliable – and one time my vaccine details had disappeared completely. I ordered a paper copy of the vaccine record from the NHS website and it came just under a week later through the post. Note that you can’t get this via your GP a surgery.


A green list country, Iceland required a negative test to enter the country but accepted a lateral flow test. You can keep up to date on the Covid.is website which has an up to date record of everything from regional case numbers to current government legislation. I also found it helpful to follow some of the Icelandic news websites on social media such as Iceland Monitor and Iceland Review as they gave an indication of whether the COVID situation was changing. Case numbers were on the rise before my trip so it was helpful to track that.

Which test?

Unlike the more expensive PCR tests, the lateral flow tests are the same as the NHS tests you can pick up from your local pharmacy. But you can’t use those for international travel as you require a certificate that confirms a negative result. I found that there were fewer places offering lateral flow tests in my area (perhaps because many more countries require PCR tests instead). Though I could have used a postal service I was concerned the result wouldn’t come through in time.


In the end I opted for a test with Collinson using their drive-thru testing facility at London Stansted Airport. Unfortunately I was flying from Luton, but the flight was so early I wasn’t able to use the testing facility there. So instead, I made the hour and a half round trip a couple of days ahead of my flight. There was no queue, availability was good and I stayed in my car the whole time – the nasal swabbing was conducted through the car window. The negative result came though via email almost exactly 30 minutes later. With easyJet’s discount, the cost of the test was £32 (regular price £40).


This is also the time to book your Day 2 test. The UK government requires all inbound passengers to complete a detailed Passenger Locator Form and the booking reference for this test is one of the pieces of data you’ll need to add to the form. I opted for a mail-in service this time. I used Randox. They don’t have the best reputation for reliability. Twitter users have reported that their return boxes have been full to overflowing. However, though there are only three drop-off points in Essex one of them is only a short drive from my home it is convenient. The cost of this test was £43.

Outbound

To be able to board the flight, it was necessary to show proof of the lateral flow test to the gate staff. The Icelandic government’s rules had changed just a few days before I flew out and some passengers had been caught out. They were dismayed to learn that they had been denied boarding – hopefully they were able to get a test and a later flight. Rebooking wouldn’t have been an issue in terms of availability as the flight I took was only about a third full. That’s in August, the height of peak season.


On arrival at Keflavik passport control formalities were completed fairly quickly – though of course British passports are now stamped. After that came duty free and baggage claim for those that wanted it before the final test check at the exit. Paperwork was looked at and I was good to go. I understand that there is a hefty fine for those who get caught out, though the airline should pick up any issues long before you get that far.

In Iceland

The UK government requires all inbound passengers to be tested within three days of returning to Britain. There is a testing facility very close to Keflavik Airport (easy to find in a building beside the Courtyard by Marriott hotel). I booked for the afternoon prior to my flight; a text and email reminder were useful. The sign on the door said they were all booked up for that day, so definitely plan well in advance.


I got tested with a friend who has been trained to administer the tests. She was concerned about some of the procedures being followed. Five people were escorted to the testing room at a time. Each was allocated a numbered seat and then the tester conducted each swab in turn. My friend noticed mistakes: the person didn’t swab both nasal cavities, and she squeezed each sample without changing gloves, potentially increasing the risk of cross-contamination. It was certainly a production line affair. The tests came back negative about 20 minutes later – another hurdle jumped. Cost of this test was 6900 ISK (about £41).


Next, the thing that’s so easy to forget: the Passenger Locator Form. This is a detailed document that you have to fill in on the UK Government’s website, so make sure you have WiFi or data roaming as you’ll need to go online to fill it out. Amongst other things you’ll need your flight details (including the arrival time and a seat number, so you will need to have checked in) and also your passport details. This form has been around for some time but the requirement to supply a booking reference for your inbound test wasn’t needed in 2020.

Inbound

Departing Keflavik went smoothly, but it’s important to have all your documentation to hand. Security and passport control were as normal, requiring the boarding pass and passport respectively. The UK government paperwork was checked at the gate. This can be time consuming if your flight is full so it’s wise not to leave it too late. The gate staff asked to see the passport first, then the Passenger Locator Form, then proof of vaccination and finally proof of a negative test result (for the test conducted in Iceland). Once all of those were seen, the boarding pass was scanned and I was free to board.


Arriving at Luton, I used the e-gates and as all the information was electronic and paperwork had been checked in Iceland, no further checks were necessary. I completed the PCR test using the home kit Randox had sent me and drove it over to the drop box in the next village. I had an email later that day to confirm Randox had received the kit and another the day after confirming the test was negative. Now all I have to do is to decide where to go next…

Happy 200th birthday Peru!

Today Peru celebrates the bicentennial of its independence. I’m gutted I can’t be there to join the party, but I hope to return as soon as restrictions are lifted. To mark the occasion, here’s a picture from my first ever trip to Peru back in 1995. Later, I shall raise a glass to this incredible country and my many friends there. ¡Salud!

What’s it like to drive up one of the UK’s steepest roads?

The Bealach na Bà – Gaelic for Pass of the Cattle – is the UK’s steepest ascent. This road was initially built as a drovers’ road, used by farmers to move their livestock to better pastures or to market. It dates from 1822 and cuts across the Applecross peninsula in the Scottish Highlands. It’s not the highest mountain pass in the country; that honour goes to Scotland’s Cairnwell Pass, the top of which is 670 metres above sea level. However, because the Bealach na Bà starts at sea level and rises to 626 metres, it’s widely considered the UK’s steepest ascent. I drove this historic mountain pass, part of Scotland’s North Coast 500 route, in May 2021 – so what’s it like to drive up one of the UK’s steepest roads?

View from the Bealach na Bà

I’d been tipped off by good friends – thank you Alex and Karen – that the Applecross Inn was worthy of a detour for its king scallops alone. My B&B was actually on the Isle of Skye, but fortuitously I’d opted for the southerly Sleat peninsula. (I’d like to pretend that was deliberate but in truth I just didn’t want to pay Portree prices.) Anyway, thanks to the Skye Bridge, getting back to the mainland wasn’t difficult. From there, while everyone else was still washing up their porridge pots, I followed an almost empty road across the Lochalsh peninsula and around beautiful Loch Carron.

Loch Carron

Not long afterwards, I reached this sign, which was a warning not to underestimate the route ahead. I’ve had to use this picture instead of one of my own as I was so excited to get going on the Bealach na Bà I didn’t think to stop!

Alan Talbot / Tornapress – warnings about Bealach Na Ba road (via Wikipedia)

Fortunately, it’s been a very long time since I was a learner driver and I wasn’t towing a caravan. I’ve also driven an Austrian mountain pass with the dog on board, not to mention some of Iceland’s steepest gravel roads, so I figured this wouldn’t be a big deal. They are both two-lane, however…

As on many of Scotland’s islands, this mainland route has sections that are single-track. We have them here in the north Essex countryside and they are a nightmare in the daytime. Lined with tall hedges or fields of crops, it’s almost impossible to see what’s coming and every bend is accompanied by the threat of a head on collision. At least at night you see approaching headlights. However, in Scotland, I found the narrowest highways considerably better managed. There is signage at regular intervals indicating where the passing places are, and these themselves are a significant step up from the micro-gaps and farm gateways on my local country lanes. Essex Highways, take note.

Passing place on the coastal stretch

As it turned out, I was also lucky that I’d timed my trip just before Scotland’s COVID rules relaxed to permit indoor drinking; the number of visitors was still relatively low which was a bonus when passing through the many narrow stretches. I’d set out fairly early on a Sunday morning on a fine, sunny day. There were cars about, and also the odd cyclist, but traffic was light. This is really helped once I got up on the higher ground and round its hairpin bends. You see, if the traffic can space out, there’s no need for anyone to retreat to the previous passing place. I read that sometimes a dozen or more cars have to engage reverse and creep back to let other motorists through. That wouldn’t have been fun at all.

The biggest issue apart from needing to be aware of oncoming traffic was the distraction caused by the jaw-dropping beauty of the surrounding area. On a clear day the views are incredible. Coming from the east, there’s a significant pullout which gives you a chance to get out and take a look at the road winding upwards ahead of you. After that, it’s not safe to stop until you get to the viewpoint at the top, where there’s a large car park on either side of the road. You can see some of the nearby islands, such as Raasay and Skye, and it’s one of the most fabulous panoramas in the country. Don’t be tempted though to pause in a passing place to snap a photo. You could end up blocking the traffic and that will not go down well with your fellow road users.

View at the top

The descent down into Applecross is less twisty but the scenery is still nothing less than spectacular. By the time I started working my way down it was approaching late morning and the traffic was building. After I’d had lunch (I’m pleased to report it was as good as I’d been told) I decided to take the coast road instead as I didn’t fancy ruining my good mood with the stop-start motoring that would now be likely if I backtracked over the pass. Instead, hugging the shoreline I headed north and then looped south. It added over half an hour to my journey time to postcard-perfect Plockton, my final stop of the day, but it was also very scenic and so definitely a good decision.

Pretty Plockton

Driving tips

  • Avoid winter – if the weather’s bad, the road can be impassable and if the cloud descends, those breathtaking views will disappear which would be a terrible waste.
  • Know your car – if you’re taking your own, you’ll be in familiar territory, but if you’re renting, opt for something slightly smaller than your own vehicle but don’t skimp on the horsepower. Also consider hiring an automatic which will take the hassle out of those hairpin bend gear changes.
  • Consider leaving early in the morning to give yourself the best chance of lighter traffic.
  • Always give way to oncoming traffic where they have right of way. Pull over on your own side of the road at a passing place, regardless of which side the passing place is – oncoming traffic should pull round you rather than drive in a straight line so that both vehicles remain on the correct side of the road.
  • Book ahead for the Applecross Inn as it does get busy. Allow more time than you think to get there – check your Sat Nav or Google maps and then add on a generous amount of stopping time, as you won’t want to rush this drive.
Roadside cairn beside the Bealach na Bà

My conclusion? If you find yourself in this part of Scotland, driving the Bealach na Bà is a must. My only disappointment was that I didn’t see any Highland cattle. According to Visit Scotland, I could have done (perhaps I was too busy concentrating on the road?) I guess I shall just have to try my luck another time, which gives me an ideal excuse to drive this magnificent route again.

Ticket to Ryde: a dog-friendly holiday on the Isle of Wight

It became a familiar conversation. We’d returned to the Isle of Wight after decades – my last holiday there was in 1979 and my husband’s a few years before that. It would seem the pandemic had given many of us the same idea: hop on a ferry and holiday on the island that had been a childhood favourite. And judging from the people we spoke to, we were all up for a bit of nostalgic sightseeing. But what’s it like now and most importantly since we had Edison in tow, how dog-friendly is it?

Dog-friendly attractions

Carisbrooke Castle

Aside from the museum, dogs are welcome across the Carisbrooke Castle site. As with most English Heritage properties, you need to book in advance, but availability was good. We chose to get there when it opened, largely because hot weather was forecast, but actually it only started to get busy around lunchtime. Edison walked the walls with us, though the steps down from the keep were very steep. If he’d been smaller, we might have been tempted to carry him, but instead we were forced to resort to bribes to get him down. Also, he wasn’t too sure about the castle’s famous donkeys, so we made sure he gave them a wide berth – though I couldn’t resist a fuss. Due to social distancing restrictions they aren’t demonstrating the donkeys using the water wheel at present but you can still take a look inside the wheel house.

Shanklin Chine

The term chine is used on the Isle of Wight to refer to a steep, narrow ravine where a river has cut its way down to the sea. Blackgang Chine used to be the largest until a landslip put paid to that; it’s still there and those dinosaurs you might remember are too. But we picked Shanklin Chine instead, which is now the largest. A stepped path leads down beside a waterfall and stream. There’s plenty of trees and shrubs to provide shade, including pretty rhododendrons, dainty ferns and some magnificent gunneras which have grown to giant proportions. On a hot day this was a lovely walk. There are glorious views out over the sea and close to the heritage centre, a cafe serving cream teas where dogs are welcome.

Osborne House

Osborne House itself is off-limits to dogs but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting. If there are two of you, take turns to tour inside and admire the lavish interiors of what was Queen Victoria’s summer palace. Dogs are welcome to explore the grounds – Edison enjoyed plenty of fuss from the gardeners tending the roses. There’s a 1.2km long tree-lined path which leads to the water where you’ll find an old fashioned bathing machine beside the cafe. From there, another ten minutes walk past gorgeous purple rhododendrons gets you to Swiss Cottage, an Alpine-style chalet built for the Royal children. It started to rain just as we were leaving to walk back to the main house. Fortunately, there’s a free minibus to shuttle visitors about and the driver was very keen to have Edison on board even though he was a little damp.

Alum Bay and the Needles

The Needles are the iconic image associated with the island and a must-see. Parking costs a hefty £6 for the day with no short term options available, but you can reach it on one of the two open-top Breezer bus routes. Two dogs are permitted per bus according to the terms and conditions, though we had the car so can’t verify this. You can see the Needles from the car park or walk to the Battery for a closer look. From Alum Bay beach, there are boat trips which head out for a closer look; dogs are permitted. We stuck to the beach itself where dogs are allowed so long as they stay on the lead – pack an extendable or long lead so they can go further out if you don’t fancy going in too. No dogs are permitted on the chair lift, so to see the famous coloured sands you’ll need to take the steps.

Isle of Wight Steam Railway

Steam railways are almost always dog-friendly and this one is no exception. Start your journey at Havenstreet, but get there well ahead of your departure time as there’s a superb museum to explore. Dogs are permitted inside and on the accessible carriages. The museum has some really old rolling stock which has been painstakingly restored, and there’s also a more recent addition – the newly retired carriages that once saw service on the London Underground before becoming the Island Line. The train ride is slow but very relaxing as it passes through unspoilt countryside. It’s especially dog-friendly at present as COVID restrictions mean households get a compartment to themselves – ideal if you have a nervous dog or don’t relish the embarrassment of a barking match. We travelled first class, which was perfect for us, but carpeted – apologies to the person who had to vacuum all that dog fur and sand after we got off.

The beaches

Many of the Isle of Wight’s beaches are dog-friendly year round. One of the best is Yaverland Beach, located just east of the resort of Sandown. At low tide, it’s a huge stretch of sand, so there’s plenty of room to roam – take a ball. As it is backed by cliffs you won’t have to worry about your dog running onto the road. We also liked the beach at Bembridge, close to the lifeboat station. We chose to go at high tide; there wasn’t much beach left but the beach shelves quite steeply so it’s ideal for your dog to swim yet still be close to shore. Another great choice is the walk to Steephill Cove from Ventnor. Park up at La Falaise car park and stroll along the cliff path. It’s steep in places but there are steps. Steephill Cove is privately owned, so it’s dogs on leads until 6pm, but visit the crab shack (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) and you and your pooch can share a delicious crab pasty on the beach.

Getting there

You’ll need to book a ferry or hovercraft if you’re travelling with your dog. We opted for the former as we wanted the convenience of having a car with us, but if you wanted to do a day trip the crossing is just ten minutes. We looked at both Red Funnel and Wightlink ferries. The former links Southampton to East Cowes and the latter crosses from Portsmouth to Fishbourne as well as Lymington to Yarmouth. prices were comparable so we chose the Fishbourne route. We travelled out on Victoria of Wight which had a large, dog-friendly deck as well as interior space. It was on time and a good experience.

A word of caution

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the return booking. We’d chosen a sociable 10.40am crossing on the St Clare, but the Victoria of Wight suffered an engine problem two days before we were due to sail. Our crossing – on the unaffected ferry, remember – was bumped to 00.40am with no option to change online. (The text and email we were sent said we could, but our booking had been checked in without our consent making that impossible. I tried calling but it was impossible to get through. Rather than drive through the night to get home and with heavy rain forecast all day (no fun with limited indoor options thanks to the dog), we paid an additional £67 for an 8.40pm booking the day before – ironically also on the St Clare. It wasn’t the best end to a holiday and I shall be making a complaint to Wightlink about it.

Where we stayed

There’s a great deal of dog-friendly accommodation on the island but we were very happy with our choice. Fort Spinney bungalows are located across the road from Yaverland Beach and have off-road parking. They were tastefully renovated in 2020 and represent excellent value for money. We opted for a two-bedroom bungalow sleeping four people which cost us £110 per night in June. It had a spacious living room, spotlessly clean bathroom and well-equipped kitchen with fridge, freezer and washing machine Although we’d liked to have had a coffee machine, the kiosk across the road served good coffee.

Best of all with a dog in tow was the enclosed private garden which was ideal for sitting safely with Edison who found himself a shady nook to stretch out in when we returned home each day. Bungalows 3, 4 and 5 (of ten) are dog-friendly; 5 is tucked away in the corner with only one attached wall. Edison’s not too fond of noise these days as we live in such a quiet village, but the bungalow was well insulated and he only kicked off when a cat had the audacity to come into “his” garden.

The verdict

The island is really dog-friendly and there is a whole lot more to do and see than we experienced during our six day stay. I’d definitely stay at Fort Spinney again too. All in all, it was a fabulous week, although the ferry issues were a reminder that you have limited options if you are stuck on an island when things don’t go according to plan.

Ever wondered what it’s like to take a flight which lands on a beach?

For a long time there have been two aviation-related items on my Scottish bucket list. I will have to wait a little longer to tick off the world’s shortest commercial flight – a 1.7 mile hop from Papa Westray to Westray in the Orkney Islands. But this May I realised a travel ambition: to land on the beach on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

Flights to Barra are operated by Loganair. I flew from Glasgow on a Twin Otter. They typically have a capacity of about 19 passengers though there were only 13 of us on board on the outbound leg and just four when we returned to Glasgow. It’s an intimate affair. Two crew members accompany the flight; the pilot is joined by a first officer who doubles as cabin crew for the obligatory safety briefing.

I’d heard that flights could be bumpy and in such a tiny plane I was fully prepared to feel queasy. Luckily for me, the weather was calm and the skies clear – both times. The flight time is about an hour from Glasgow and along the way we had some great views of some of the other islands.

My experience at Glasgow Airport was strange. Thanks to COVID, there were few people around when I arrived. In fact, I was directed down a side passage instead of entering the departure gate area via the duty free shop as was the norm. Even though I’d flown from Glasgow a few times before, it was a bit disconcerting, particularly when passengers were outnumbered by staff by a ratio of about 4:1. And this was for a civilised departure time of 10.15am. Eventually, a few businesses opened – Boots, WHSmiths, the duty free shop and the pub. The fact that everything else remained closed and there were fewer than 20 people waiting to fly in the whole terminal – not to mention seeing just a dozen flights for that day on the departure board – was a real eye-opener to the devastating effect this pandemic has had on airport economies.

Nevertheless, as I boarded the plane I was grinning. It’s always exciting to fly, but this was the first plane I’d boarded since October 2020. Approaching Barra at low altitude, we had a good view of the landing strip and airport. Aside from the beach itself, the airport comprised a few small buildings that housed the terminal, fire service and maintenance operations. Baggage reclaim was a bus shelter, though the bus itself idled in the car park as it waited for passengers.

I had a better chance to see how this airport functioned on the return leg. At high tide, the water is too far in to enable a safe landing. Even at low tide, a reccy is done by Land Rover to check there’s no debris left on the beach by the tide and to make sure the beach is dry enough to permit a safe landing. Whichever direction the plane lands, there’s plenty of room for it to taxi to the “stand” on the part of the beach closest to the terminal.

From my window seat I had a clear view of the landing. As we landed, the water on Traigh Mhor beach created a spray off the wheel. It was a smooth landing though – touching down on soft sand is definitely a lot more comfortable than doing so on the usual runway asphalt. Coupled with the lack of wind, it was one of the smoothest landings I’ve ever experienced.

And of course, being such a tiny plane with so few passengers, disembarkation was fast too. As it is a domestic flight there were no inbound formalities, though on the return leg bags were weighed and all passengers, regardless of whether they were in possession of an electronic boarding pass, were checked in by hand. It takes next to no time, but I’d recommend getting up to the airport well ahead of the departure time.

It is possible to fly in on the early flight and out on the later one, giving you a few hours on Barra. I opted for a two-night stay so I could see more of this charming island. Though Kisimul Castle is currently closed, boat trips to Mingulay to see its ruined village and bird cliffs are running, and there are plenty of excellent hikes to unspoilt beaches. Across the road you won’t want to miss the dune-backed Traigh Eais beach – a short but rewarding walk – and of course you’ll be able to see the incoming flight touch down. The bus driver was happy to let me stay on the bus for some bonus sightseeing as he looped up to Eoligarry to the north of the island.

To check out flight availability, visit the Loganair website.

To watch the videos of the flight landing, check out my Facebook page, Julia Hammond Travel Writing.