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.


Where I travelled in 2022 – and what’s next

It’s been a couple of months since I wrote my last post, snowed with work in between trips, but I thought I’d write my usual roundup piece. After a couple of COVID-impacted years, travel in 2022 finally started to feel normal again. Places were busier than ever and many of the restrictions that had created an administrative headache were lifted. Here’s where I went and how 2023’s plans are looking so far.

February: Cumbria

Edison loves a country walk so we decided to kick off the year’s travels with a week in Cumbria, staying in a lakeside cabin close to Carlisle. The weather, as expected, was pretty mixed, but we enjoyed blue skies for a beach walk at Silloth and a hike to Aira Force waterfall. It’s a long drive from our home in Essex but it did give me an excuse to pop into Mainsgill, a great farm shop on the A66 near Richmond, and say hi to the camels.

March: an Amtrak ride across the USA

Ever since I rode the rails down to New Orleans a few years ago I’ve wanted to sleep in an Amtrak roomette again. This time, I started my journey in Chicago. First stop was St Louis, where I boarded a retro tram to the top of the Gateway Arch and ate Gooey Butter Cake. Continuing south, I explored a little of New Mexico, staying in Santa Fe and Albuquerque while I climbed ladders to step inside the caves at Bandelier National Monument, made tamales at cookery school and took a road trip to Taos via the quirky Classical Gas Museum in Embudo. If you’re keen to know more, I wrote about it for the New Zealand Herald.

April: Alsace

For a long time, Alsace has been on my wishlist, so it was great to finally see it in the flesh. I was impressed with Strasbourg and enjoyed the obligatory boat ride as well as a mooch around Petite France with its cobblestone streets and half-timbered buildings. Colmar was even prettier – and there I took another boat ride, this time much lower to the water. I was keen to visit one of the smaller villages. After a failed attempt to catch a bus to Riquewehr (arriving at the bus stop several days early) I managed to get to Eguisheim, which was very quaint.

May: Australia

After a family trip to Paris for a Disney-based 21st birthday party, I jetted off to Australia. News had broken earlier in the year that my favourite TV show, Neighbours, was wrapping up after 37 years, so I decided to be there to watch the final day of filming on “Ramsay Street”. It was also fun to do the Neighbours Tour again, this time visiting the sets at Nunawading Studios, and driving around the eastern suburbs of Melbourne ticking off sights such as the church where Scott and Charlene got married and Lassiters’ pool. Even I wouldn’t fly halfway round the world just for Neighbours so I tagged on a dreamy few days in eastern Tasmania, the opal mining town of Coober Pedy and a trip to Sydney’s Northern Beaches for the Home and Away tour. Breaking the homeward journey in New York City was the icing on the cake.

June: Northumberland

One of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in England is surely that of the Northumberland AONB. Dad and I spent a few days there in glorious sunshine, visiting Cragside, Alnwick Poison Garden and Rothbury. We were incredibly luckily with the weather for a boat trip to the Farne Islands on a millpond calm sea, with plenty of seabirds and seals to look at from the boat and close to the Longhouse Lighthouse.

September: Malta

After spending the hottest summer ever at home, Alan and I took off for a relaxing week in Malta. I’ve been before, so it was good to take it easy this time. I was tempted off the sunlounger for repeat visits to Valetta & the Three Cities, Marsaxlokk and Mdina. For the latter, I opted to ride the vintage bus, which is now a tourist attraction rather than the regular public transport it was last time I was here. With a breeze streaming through the window, it was far more comfortable than the airconditioned vehicles that have replaced it and definitely more photogenic.

September: Sicily

Though I did enjoy season two of The White Lotus, I’d say the best reason to visit this Mediterranean island isn’t Taormina, Siracusa or even Etna – it’s the train that’s carried on a ferry. This railway journey, linking the mainland to Messina was certainly the most unusual of all the train rides I’ve done over the years. Milazzo was an overlooked gem, and the jumping off point for a boat trip to the Aeolian Islands where Stromboli was puffing ash into the sky. The views from hilltop Erice were equally breathtaking, as was the hour long hike back to the bus stop but for more literal reasons. Palermo was interesting, particularly learning about the Mafia’s historic hold over the city. The only thing I wouldn’t recommend is Pani ca’ Meusa (veal spleen sandwich) that has a rather intense taste and a pungent aroma.

October: Morocco

I’ve been to Marrakesh many times but never tire of wandering its souks, so a few days here in autumn was a real treat. I found myself a beautiful riad so buried that I couldn’t even hear the call of the muezzin. It was hard to find the first time, but once I could remember at which sign to make a left and when to keep the wooden doorway on the right, it was plain sailing. I was grateful of a press pass to skip the enormous queue at Jardin Majorelle, but delighted to discover the charming Jardin Secret even closer to my base. Another highlight was a day trip to Eassaouira by bus – fresh sardines on the quayside, hassle-free shopping and a chance to see the historic Jewish Quarter before it is gentrified.

November: Colombia

I was really excited at the prospect of seeing more of Colombia, having dipped a toe in with a Cartagena weekender about 15 years ago. This time, I was on the coffee trail, beginning a journey in Medellin that would take me through some of the coutnry’s most wonderful scenery to Bogota, the capital. I learnt a lot about coffee staying on two very different but equally captivating coffee farms: Hacienda Venecia and Hacienda Cafetera La Gaviota. Touring the countryside near Salento was like stepping into the Disney movie Encanto, while cute Barichara was absolutely worth the long slog to get there. It wasn’t all coffee and countryside, however, as I spent a fascinating afternoon in the Egipto barrio of Bogota learning how the community is trying to shrug off the gang-related violence of the past and build a safer and more positive future.

December: Oslo

Several years ago I tried unsuccessfully to visit Oslo. Two cancelled flights meant that the most I saw was an airport hotel. This time, I made it to the Norwegian capital only half an hour behind schedule and spent a pleasant – if cold – couple of days visiting its Christmas markets and some of its museums. Unfortunately, the curse struck again, this time thanks to heavy snow at Stansted which caused my flight home to be cancelled last minute. I rebooked, but the next flight was also cancelled. Fortunately, it was third time lucky, and Visit Oslo’s generosity in comping me an Oslo Pass and train ticket meant I got to see the fabulous view from the top of Holmenkollen Ski Jump and one of the original Screams on my bonus day.

2022 turned out to be an incredible year, and not just in terms of travel. Neighbours is coming back in 2023, though I don’t (yet) have any plans to be there for the first day of filming. What I do have in the calendar is a week in Yorkshire and a return trip to South Africa from where I shall ascend the vertiginous Sani Pass into Lesotho (someone else is doing the driving so I can concentrate on the view!) After that, who knows what 2023 will bring, but I’m excited to find out. Happy travels everyone, wherever your wanderlust may take you.

A day trip to Essaouira

Essaouira is a port on the Moroccan coast that’s been on my travel wish list for many years. While I was in Morocco earlier this month, I figured I could visit the town as a side trip from Marrakesh and ended up spending a very enjoyable day there. Here’s how to do it.

What to see

Essaouira’s location beside the Atlantic Ocean makes it an ideal spot for surfing. On the day I visited, the air was still, with no waves of any use to anyone hoping for more than a swim. The beach was relatively busy – even on this early October day the temperature was in the mid-twenties. I strolled along the seafront to the port, where a mass of pretty blue fishing boats bobbed in the smelly, polluted water.

Essaouira is famous for its sardines and everywhere I looked there were boxes of fish packed in salt. Some were being detached from lines, others placed on grills ready for lunch. Watched by a number of hungry cats, I drew up a faded plastic chair and tucked in to a plate of grilled sardines and fresh bread – it cost me less than £3 and it was utterly delicious.

Next, it was time to explore the medina. Essaouira’s walled old town isn’t as densely packed as those in Marrakesh or Fes. With broader streets, there’s less likelihood of being run over by a motorbike or donkey cart as you browse. Sellers aren’t pushy and you can inspect the merchandise with no more than a laidback greeting. However, it lacks the choice you’ll find in the souks of Marrakesh, so save your purchases of brassware, leather goods and textiles for later – read my tips on how to haggle first.

What I did find fascinating, however, was the quiet back alleys of the Jewish Quarter. The city they used to call Mogador welcomed the Jewish community for their skills as traders. Their part of Essaouira is called the Mellah. Today, this walled ghetto is undergoing change; there is evidence of demolition and renovation all over.

But here and there you’ll find the Star of David carved into a wall, spot a sign indicating a centuries-old hammam or catch a woodworker carving an intricate mirror.During my visit the Slat Lkahal Mogador synagogue was closed, but I was able to duck under arches and wander along narrow derbs to get a feel for the neighbourhood.

Getting there

I was already in Marrakesh, so there were a few choices about how to get there. I could have booked an organised tour, though that isn’t my cup of tea. I could have rented a car and driven, but decided against that so that I could have a nap on the journey if I wanted to. The riad I was staying in suggested taking a grand taxi from Bab Doukkala. Pre-COVID I’d have been fine crammed into a small space with a bunch of strangers but didn’t want to tempt fate. So as the railway doesn’t head that way, the option I was left with was to take the bus.

CTM and Supratours both serve the route, and CTM was cheapest. My ticket cost 72 dirhams each way (about £11.60) and was bookable online. It left from a terminal a few minutes’ walk from the railway station, so I jumped on a city bus, grabbed a coffee at the station’s branch of Starbucks and strolled to the bus station in good time.

The ride

The journey took about three hours each way but the bus was relatively empty so I had a double seat to myself in each direction. The scenery wasn’t great for the first part of the way as the route takes you through featureless desert. As you near the coast, there are more trees. Some were full of goats.

These tree-climbing goats traditionally munched on the leaves of the argan trees but today, it’s a contrived tableau aimed at tourists, who are charged a fee for a photo. This article from National Geographic explains how it isn’t good for the goats or the trees. Such exploitation of wildlife is sadly commonplace in Morocco – in the Djemaa el Fna I saw monkeys on chains being led around the square in the hope of persuading someone to snap a selfie. Such behaviour mars what’s otherwise a super place to visit, though while it’s a necessary source of income, sadly it’s hard to see anything changing.

Northern Sicily on a budget

If you’re Europe based and looking for a budget break, then I’m recommending you check out Northern Sicily. I’ve just come back from a four-day trip and was pleasantly surprised. Here’s what I did, what it costs and why you should go too.

The train ferry

To get to Sicily there are a number of airports served by low-cost carrier Ryanair. However, I didn’t choose to fly into any of them. Instead, I hopped on a flight to Lamezia, which is on the mainland in south western Italy. Why would you do that, you ask? Well, it was cheaper (the flight cost me £21.99 one way just three days ahead of departure) but also it gave me the opportunity to tick something off my bucket list: Europe’s last train ferry.

This is not only unusual, but a lot of fun and inexpensive to boot. My single ticket from Lamezia Terme to Milazzo cost about 14 euros in second class for a 3.5 hour journey. Passengers stay on this Intercity train as the ferry tracks are lined up with those at the port. Then you trundle on. If you’re lucky to be on the first half of the train, you can disembark and stand around to watch as the second set of carriages are shunted on. Throughout the short crossing of the Straits of Messina, you are free to come and go as you please.

Up on deck, you can grab a coffee, watch the scenery or peer down onto the train below. Down on the train, some of your fellow passengers opt to stay in their seats – including in our case one travelling with her pet canary – though be warned, there’s no lights or air-conditioning as the power’s off. On arrival in Messina, the unloading process begins, and you are free to watch the tracks being aligned once more. The train continues on to Palermo, but I chose to stop at Milazzo. The train station is two miles out of town but a bus to the centre costs less than 2 euros.


Before I started researching this trip, I knew very little about Milazzo other than it was the jumping off point for ferries to the Aeolian Islands. I love a good volcano, especially if it’s active, so it was too good to resist. I found a stylish waterfront B&B, L’Ancora, overlooking the marina which had ensuite rooms from 45 euros, very reasonable if there are two of you sharing. Milazzo had a surprise up its sleeve – a hilltop castle and cathedral. My press pass got me in for free but if you pay your way it’s only 5 euros for a ticket. The views from up there are extraordinary: Milazzo is on a promontory so of course from up there you get to see sea on both sides.


I could have stayed up there all afternoon but I had a boat to catch. If you’re keen to see a couple of the Aeolian Islands independently Liberty Lines operate regular hydrofoils from the centre of town. The two hour journey to pretty Panarea, for instance, takes two hours and costs 19,30 euros; Stromboli a few euros more. Play around with the schedules as the routes vary and you can hop on and hop off to make up a bespoke itinerary.

Instead, I opted for a tour, departing from the port a five minute walk from my hotel, which was a little extravagant at 70 euros. The reason was that at this time of year (early autumn) there are no late ferries back from Stromboli and I was keen to see the volcano after dark. So I donned a pink wristband and joined a boatload of Europeans to see first Panarea and then Stromboli. A couple of hours on pretty Panarea was enough for me to have lunch at the Bar del Porto and a stroll past some of the whitewashed houses and the quayside.

From there, a different boat took us to Stromboli, passing some magnificent volcanic scenery along the way. We docked in Stromboli for the passeggiata. A cold beer and the usual snacks went down a treat while I passed the time people watching. The third and final boat took us to the other side of the island to a scar on the landscape called the Sciarra del Fuoco. Old lava flows had scoured away any vegetation. The volcano wasn’t exceptionally active; we saw a few clouds of ash and some small lava fountains – enough to say we’d seen it in action. While you can arrange a boat trip on Stromboli itself, doing a tour meant I could return to Milazzo the same evening.


An early start got me to Palermo Centrale station (a ticket bought online through Trenitalia’s website cost 12,40 euros) in time for a No Mafia tour. Valeria, our guide, was passionate about her cause and told us how the city was fighting back against the actions of the Mafia. Though there’s still a long way to go, the percentage of businesses paying money for fake “protection” has halved. The city is a far safer place than it was in the early 1990s when two of the key prosecutors were murdered in twin bomb attacks a few months apart. The tour cost 29 euros, which included a donation to the grassroots organisation Addiopizzo, which campaigns, educates and fights against the Mafia in Palermo.

For lunch I ordered a veal spleen sandwich called pani ca’ meusa (which was utterly vile) so filled up on arancine – you can taste three different flavours if you order the mini selection at one of the city’s oldest restaurants, Antica Focacceria San Francesco, though be prepared for surly service. Afterwards, I checked in at another great value B&B, A Casa di Josephine, which cost about £59. I thought it was excellent value for a spacious, modern double just around the corner from the railway station. I spent part of the afternoon visiting the small No Mafia museum on the main shopping street Via Vittorio Emanuele and paid my respects at the Piazza della Memoria. Palermo’s a gritty but interesting city with a fabulous UNESCO-listed cathedral. There’s an entrance charge if you want to see the Royal Tombs inside it, but the rest is free.

In the evening, I joined a street food tour with Streaty. This was quite a bit cheaper than many food tours I’ve done, costing 49 euros including all food on the stops and a couple of alcoholic drinks. It was a good opportunity to try some of the carb-rich local favourites, including sweet-sour caponata, bruschetta laden with swordfish roe, delicious fried lentil discs called panelle, the local twist on potato croquettes and that veal spleen sandwich again. Unusually, we didn’t have Palermo’s famous ice cream in a brioche, but that was easily remedied.


Last stop was Erice, reached by cable car from Trapani. I caught a bus from Palermo as it took less than half the time of the train. The bus ticket cost less than 8 euros with Segesta, though I was almost denied boarding as I was wearing a cloth mask instead of the required FFP2 version. Luckily a local lady passed me her spare. The cable car up to Erice took about fifteen minutes, offering some splendid views over Trapani and the local salt works on the way up. This hilltop village is very quaint, with plenty of cobbled streets and a castle to explore. My round trip ticket cost 9,50 euros which was more than worth it. Back at sea level, it was time to hop on the airport bus (4,95 euros) and fly home from Trapani’s airport with Ryanair at a cost of £25.21.

Take out the cost of the tours – much of which you can do yourself on a far smaller budget – and this is a seriously cheap place to visit by European standards. Typically a cappucino and a croissant at a cafe cost about 3 euros and dinner at a reasonable restaurant anything from 15 to 20 euros including a beer. I could have stayed in simpler B&Bs that would have cost me about £25-30 for a single room, but I opted for better quality in a better location. Temperatures in mid September were around 24-26 degrees so it’s definitely a place you can go to slightly off peak and still get decent weather. But most importantly, this was a great place with lots of different things to do and I’m really keen to go back and see more.

How to avoid this summer’s air travel chaos

Post pandemic, travel’s starting to return to normal. After a couple of years of lockdowns, border closures and administrative hoops, it’s finally possible to travel more or less as we used to. Except there’s a problem: staffing. To weather the crisis, many travel businesses – accommodation, airports and airlines among them – had to lay off staff to make it through. Some of those haven’t returned and as a result, travellers across the world have faced disruption, longer than usual queues and sometimes lengthy delays. So what can you do to avoid being caught up in it?

Do your homework

Before you book with any airline, do some research. Even a quick Google search might give you a flavour of the current situation. Have they made the news for repeated flight cancellations and if so, have they implemented measures which have resolved the problems? Ditto the airport. Is it a busy hub that’s been struggling with demand, such as Heathrow or Schipol? If so, see if you have other options. Finally, try to find out if there are any strikes planned as industrial action is a possibility too.

Choose your flight time carefully

Certain times of day are busier than others. For instance, London Stansted has a night quota restriction which means it cannot operate as many flights between 11pm and 6am. It’s often very busy in those first couple of hours when the rules no longer apply, so you’d need to factor in additional time to pass through the airport. At a minimum, allow two to three hours. However, this needs to be balanced with the chance of delays, which tends to be lower earlier in the day.

Opt for hand baggage only

Depending on who you’re flying with, you might find carry-on allowances are surprisingly generous. Given that there have been some well documented cases of luggage hold ups or losses, you might find it less stressful to keep your bags with you. Check airline policies carefully as making sure you measure up is crucial. With some low-cost carriers, such as Ryanair, you might find it’s more cost effective to pay for priority boarding where it comes with a cabin bag allowance than to pay for hold luggage separately.

Be organised for security

Security procedures concerning liquids are something we’ve been saddled with for many years, so check what you’re carrying in your hand luggage carefully. Pack everything that has to come out into an easily accessible outside pocket. Wear slip on shoes if you’re travelling to places such as the USA which require most passengers to remove them. Consider purchasing a fast track pass if you are concerned about time. Some airports will allow you to buy one there and then, so you can see what the queue is like before you hand over your money.

Embrace holidaying at home

As we learnt when border restrictions ruled out international travel, holidaying at home can be just as rewarding. Post COVID, I’ve explored ruined castles in Northumberland, hiked to a pretty waterfall in Shropshire, drove the Bealach na Bà in Scotland and had fun with the dog at the beach on the Isle of Wight. And you don’t even need to spend a night away from home. Be a tourist in your own city or local area – it can cost next to nothing to create a holiday vibe and best of all, you can give the airport a miss completely.

Visiting a kangaroo orphanage in Coober Pedy

Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage was one of the Coober Pedy attractions I was most looking forward to. The sale of Aboriginal art and a modest entry charge help support this South Australian outback institution in the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned joeys.

Animal lovers Josephine and Terry Brennan-Kuss opened their orphanage in 2008 and since then have rescued wildlife in need from an area the size of Germany. Some have been orphaned after their parents died in road traffic accidents. Feeding time kicks off with a chance to interact with the older kangaroos who have a thing for wasabi peas. The spicy taste apparently reminds them of a shrub they eat in the wild.

Next, it was time for Terry to fetch Olly, one of two joeys at the orphanage at the time of my visit. Terry gave him his bottle while we looked on. After Olly had a hop around – and was interrupted from some mischievous munching of potting compost – we got to give him a cuddle. Holding his tail very firmly, he settled back for a rest and plenty of strokes. Unlike the older kangaroos, he hadn’t yet developed a fear of having his ears touched. (When a kangaroo gets into a fight, it throws its head back so its opponent doesn’t gouge out its eyes.)

Olly hopped head first into his bag – mimicking Mum’s pouch – and it was time for us to say goodbye. You can find the orphanage on Coober Pedy’s Hutchison Street. Feeding time is late afternoon.