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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On the trail of the Witchfinder General

Summer’s here and the skies are blue over my corner of Essex. Our river estuaries are at their most attractive at this time of year with plenty of birdlife making the most of the shallow water. Some of the best walks in the county follow the river banks and many are easy to reach by rail. So when Greater Anglia asked if I would like to help promote this summer’s #railadventure campaign, I jumped at the chance. Many of my favourite North Essex coastal towns and resorts are easily reached by rail, among them delightful Walton-on-the-Naze and Dovercourt’s historic lighthouses and Blue Flag beach. Regular readers of this blog might remember the super Greater Anglia days out I had in Harwich and Wivenhoe last summer – if you’ve never been, I’d definitely recommend them.

This excursion was inspired by a novel I found on a book exchange shelf in a guest house in Cape Verde. My charger wouldn’t function, the Kindle was out of juice and I’d resigned myself to a long flight back with no reading material. It was the only book on the shelf which was in English and when I turned it over to read the blurb, I found it was set in Essex. That book was “The Witch Finder’s Sister”, the debut novel by Beth Underwood which told the unsavoury tale of Matthew Hopkins, who held the position of Witchfinder General in 17th century Essex. Though born in Suffolk, Hopkins was closely associated with Manningtree and Mistley. Nowadays, they’re not only both reachable by train but a half hour walk apart.

L0000660 Portrait of Matthew Hopkins, the celebrated witch-finder.

The journey from Kelvedon required two changes of train but nevertheless ran like clockwork, taking just over half an hour in total. There’s even more opportunity to enjoy the countryside views on the way back – time it right as I did and there’s a direct train from Manningtree to Kelvedon taking just 20 minutes. It’s faster than driving, as well as being much less stressful. We’re wedded to the convenience of our cars, but on the train it’s nice to be able to get up and walk around – or sit back and relax on the comfortable seats. There was even sufficient time on the Colchester to Manningtree train to grab a coffee from the onboard buffet. For a less hurried walk when connecting to the Mistley train via the underpass my tip would be to find a seat nearer to the front of the train.

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Alighting from the train, my first impressions of Mistley were favourable. The port, once centred on the transportation of grain and malt for the brewing industry, is still operational but many of the old buildings that line the quayside have been renovated and repurposed. The malt extract works on the opposite side of the road are still in business and the smell of malt permeated the air as I strolled down towards the village centre.

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I couldn’t resist popping into Cooper’s Gallery to browse the colourful ceramics, paintings and textiles. Next time I shall walk in the opposite direction so that the gallery is my final stop; as it’s just across the road from the station I won’t have to walk far fully laden. This time, however, willpower was required as I wished to walk to Manningtree unencumbered by shopping bags. Liz, the gallery owner, was a mine of useful information about Mistley and the history of the quayside, lending me a calendar of old photographs to browse as I ate lunch at the T House cafe next door.

It was low tide and Liz explained how the partially submerged barge I could see from her window came to be stuck in the mud. Apparently, the sails of the Bijou caught alight during a bombing raid in 1940. So that the fire wouldn’t spread, she was cut free from her moorings and allowed to drift away from the quay. Burnt out, she’s been there ever since, the tide covering and uncovering this century-old vessel and gradually eroding what’s left.

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Across the street was The Mistley Thorn. The present day building was built as a coaching inn about 1723 and is now a restaurant with rooms to stay in. A pub stood on the site in the mid 17th century which was reputedly owned by Matthew Hopkins. He was supposed to have “examined” his first witch at the Thorn in 1644. An information board on the side of the Thorn tells a little of the story that Beth Underwood so cleverly adapted for her novel.

In an age of mistrust and religious upheaval, Hopkins decided there was more money to be made as a witch finder than as a lawyer, switching professions and assuming the role of Witchfinder General by 1645. Witch hunting set in motion a chilling sequence of denunciation, interrogation and finally execution. The trials were a joke. So-called witches were said to bear the Devil’s mark, a part of their body that didn’t feel pain. This could be a mole or a birthmark, which Hopkins prodded with a spike or cut with a blunt knife to see if it bled.

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Another method was to tie the alleged witch to a chair and throw her into a pond. God’s pure water would reject a witch, it was thought, and she would float, but if “proved” to be a witch, she would be hung. Hopkins used to carry out such practices at Mistley’s Hopping Bridge, a short walk from the Thorn. It’s said that his ghost haunts the site and is most likely to be seen when there’s a full moon.

The exact number of women who were targeted by Hopkins is not known, but it is thought that the prolific Hopkins was responsible for several hundred deaths. In less than two years the number of witches he convicted represented about 60% of the total number punished in England from the early 15th to the late 18th century. In 1646, a parson from Huntingdon by the name of John Gaule published a pamphlet exposing Hopkins methods for the nonsense they were. The Witchfinder General wrote back in an attempt to defend himself, but popular support for his actions had begun to wane. Hopkins retired to Manningtree, a rich man. He died in 1647 of tuberculosis and was buried in the churchyard at Mistley Heath; both the graveyard and his body are long gone.

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I headed to Manningtree, passing Mistley Towers, erected as part of a failed scheme in the late 18th century to reinvent Mistley as a saltwater spa town. The twin towers that remain are all that’s left of a grand Georgian church, designed by Robert Adams and eventually demolished in 1870. I walked over the Hopping Bridge – in broad daylight I saw no ghosts. A lone swan glided across the still waters of the pond.

Across the road, following the south bank of the River Stour along what’s known as The Walls, I encountered more of these graceful birds. Mistley has been traditionally associated with a large population of mute swans, which have made their home here since the 18th century. Back then, as barley and other grain was unloaded at the quayside, some would be blown by the wind into the waters of the Stour and its tributary channels. Not surprisingly, the swans hung around to feed off this grain and have done so ever since. These days, those that remain are part of a domesticated herd.

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The sun was out, fittingly for what’s termed the Essex Sunshine Coast, and I couldn’t resist an ice cream as I walked towards Manningtree. In Tudor times a centre for the cloth trade, later a port, Manningtree claims to be England’s smallest town (by area, not population). The town also gets a mention in the Shakespeare play Henry IV Part One, as Falstaff is likened to a “roasted Manningtree ox”. The Witch Finder’s evil reach extended to Manningtree too, for it was here that some of his victims were hanged, and the town sign bears his picture.

With bunting out and kids playing on the town beach, it was hard to imagine such troubled times. As I made my way to the train station, I thought what a pleasant afternoon I’d had on my latest #railadventure.

The lowdown

I received free train travel from Greater Anglia in exchange for writing this review of my #railadventure, but there are some great deals to be had for paying customers, particularly if you travel off peak. For instance, if you book in advance, tickets from Norwich to London are available at just £10, Cambridge to London at £7 and Southend to London at just £5 (all fares quoted are one way). Accompanied children travel for just £2 return and you don’t even have to pre-book for their ticket as this fare is valid on all off peak trains within the Greater Anglia network. On top of this, they are offering  2FOR1 on top London attractions, helping your summer holiday budget stretch further.

Discover destinations and ticket prices at www.greateranglia.co.uk and plan your journey at www.nationalrail.co.uk.

Did you feel inspired to plan your own rail adventure after reading this blog? Why not complete Greater Anglia’s survey using this link:

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/5CG9TGG

East vs west: routes to New Zealand compared

I’m just back from my latest trip to New Zealand and this time took a different route, flying west from London to Los Angeles and then on to Auckland instead of the easterly route I followed before which took me via Singapore. Both flights were on a Boeing 777 but how do the routes compare and which do I recommend?

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West: via Los Angeles

I was tempted by an excellent Black Friday deal offered by Air New Zealand. By signing up to email alerts with Secret Flying (you might remember their tip off saw me travel business class from London to New York for under £350), I learned of a special offer. Fifty flights were on offer for just £399, which is exceptional value for a trip that takes 26 hours in the air westbound and 24 coming back. I went online and uploaded my details to the Air New Zealand site in preparation for the offer to go live, saving valuable minutes and ensuring I was one of the lucky recipients.

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In practice, one of the downsides to travelling in this direction is of course having to go through the US immigration process. An ESTA is required for UK passport holders even if they are only in transit; this costs about £10 but is valid for up to 2 years. I’ve just renewed mine and incidentally, it’s a more detailed form than before. On the outbound leg, passengers transiting on NZ1 were fast-tracked to some empty kiosks and desks which saved a fair bit of time on the regular queues. This wasn’t the case on the inbound leg, NZ2, when we were all directed to the main queue, adding about fifteen minutes to the process.

Though it isn’t necessary to fill out a customs form or clear customs, there’s still the requirement to queue through security. This took about fifteen minutes on both legs. NZ1 and NZ2 use the same plane for both legs, with suitcases remaining in the hold. Passengers must alight and take all hand luggage with them while the plane is cleaned and restocked. Some passengers only fly one of the legs. I found that the London to LA (and vice versa) part of the flight was considerably less full than the LA to Auckland segment.

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I had hoped to be seated in a Skycouch row. Air New Zealand’s trio seats on either side of the plane are fitted with pull out, sturdy padded footrests which can be converted into a couch. You have to pay extra for this and not all reports are good, with some travellers saying it’s hard for a couple to get comfortable enough to sleep. For a comprehensive review of Skycouch, why not take a look at this excellent review from etrip.tips?

http://etrip.tips/air-nz-skycouch-flying-cuddle-class-to-san-francisco/

As a solo traveller, to be able to guarantee the use of one of these would have signifcantly increased my fare. On the inbound LA to London leg, the Skycouch adjacent to my centre section aisle seat was vacant. Cabin crew did not permit me to use it, however. Instead they moved a mother and baby there which is fair enough as they were more in need of the space than me. However, this kindness resulted in the family being split on opposite sides of the aircraft. Throughout the flight they came and went, knocking my seat and making sleep difficult for me. The baby slept soundly like, well, a baby.

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The outbound leg was quicker than scheduled, taking 10 hours 30 minutes from London to LA, followed by a layover of 2 hours 5 minutes and then an onward flight of around 12 hours 30 minutes. Auckland Airport was very busy when we touched down around 5.15am and I wasn’t on the bus out of the airport until well after 7am. However, I was fortunate that my hotel room was available and after showering, enjoyed a pleasant day’s sightseeing without the need for a nap. Julia 1 Jetlag 0. Now I’m home, I can report to have been very tired for a few days but not very jetlagged as I was going to bed and waking at normal times.

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Verdict

Though transiting the USA wasn’t an issue and there was no danger of missing the second leg of the journey as it used the same aircraft, the short layover wasn’t enough to stretch my legs properly, take a shower or have a sleep in a proper bed. The food and entertainment were both above average, yet over such a long time in the air I found the time dragged, particularly on the second half of the journey. Also, so many seats required additional payment (for extra legroom, priority boarding or of course the Skycouch option) it meant that the availablity of my preferred aisle seat was very limited. I checked in online immediately the systems opened but even so, only three aisle seats were showing as available and no window seats.

East: via Singapore

I’d call this the classic route for Brits travelling to Australia or New Zealand. Asian stopovers are a popular choice, and especially Singapore as Changi Airport has such a stellar reputation. I used Singapore Airlines in 2013 and wasn’t disappointed.

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Outbound, I opted for an 8.30pm departure with Singapore Airlines, an overnight flight which reached Singapore at 4.30pm the following day. As my second leg flight didn’t depart until after 9pm, there was plenty of time to enjoy an unhurried dinner, a shower in the airport hotel and a stroll around the airport’s orchid garden. I could have visited Changi’s cinema to catch a movie, but figured there’d be plenty of opportunity for that on the flight itself.

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The inbound flight departed Auckland at 12 noon, arriving in the Asian hub at about 7pm. I chose to extend the layover to facilitate a night in a nearby hotel. My second leg thrrefore left Singapore at 9am the following day, reaching London by about 3.30pm that afternoon. This didn’t come at any extra cost, and the chance to stretch out in a full length bed with decent bed linen was very much appreciated. I came back to the airport the following morning considerably more refreshed than I did arriving from LAX.

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On both legs, I was easily able to secure my preferred aisle seat and would have been able to get a window seat if I’d have wished. Meals were good and the inflight entertainment system as good as you’d expect from an airline which regularly secures high approval ratings from travellers.

Where this option falls short, however, is the increased risk of jet lag affecting the first few days of your holiday. Some people swear by a stopover to give them time to adjust. Personally I think that just means you need to put your body clock through two changes in just a few days which isn’t ideal. However, it’s a good way of seeing a bit of Asia if you haven’t visited before. As well as Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are conveniently located. Hubbing through Dubai is possible but the two legs are pretty uneven and it is hard to psyche yourself up for that second leg from Dubai to the Antipodes as you’ve barely covered a third of your total journey time at that point.

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Verdict

I found the overnight layover with a hotel stay made the Singapore option considerably less arduous. The lengthy outbound layover was also helpful. I’d done something similar with Malaysian Airlines to Sydney, hubbing through KL. That time, however, the jetlag was fierce and I remember stumbling around Sydney as if drunk on the first day before crashing and sleeping it off. I’ve read that for every hour’s difference in the time zones travelled, your body needs a day to recover. In practice, if you keep hydrated and try to sleep on the plane it can be considerably less than that. Arriving in Auckland from Singapore, I expected the jetlag to kick in, but in fact enjoyed a pleasant day pottering about Ponsonby before heading off to bed about 8pm.

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So would I choose east or west next time?

Price would be a deciding factor but unless I got an especially good deal I’d pay a little extra to fly eastbound and a bit more on top to be able to have a night’s sleep en route. As I get older, I really need the rest, though as a twenty something, getting to NZ as fast as possible would rank higher in the list of priorities. I was lucky not to have to suffer a middle seat with Air New Zealand so I’d look for an airline which permitted seat allocations at the time of booking, something which is increasingly being phased out as airlines seek to raise income. What I would say is that the US immigration and security procedures and staff which tend to put a lot of travellers off transiting via an American airport really shouldn’t. I’ve noticed in the last few years that staff attitudes have improved immensely and the norm is now a polite and friendly welcome.

Have you flown from London to Australia or New Zealand? Did you do it in one go? Which route gets your vote?

A beginner’s guide to the Faroe Islands

One of the most remote and most overlooked corners of Europe, the self-governing Faroe Islands might be part of the kingdom of Denmark but they believe in doing things their way. A long weekend is just sufficient to see why those who find themselves there can’t get enough of the place. In part, it reminds the traveller of Iceland, Norway, Scotland and even the Yorkshire Dales, but in truth it’s all of them and none of them.

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Getting there

Flights are operated by two airlines: Atlantic Airways and SAS. There’s a twice-weekly direct flight from Edinburgh to Vagar Airport. Flight time is around an hour. However, if you have onward connections, particularly on the inbound leg, it’s wise to allow a longer than usual layover because flights are often affected by bad weather. All other flights from the UK are indirect, with the greatest number of connections via Copenhagen as you’d expect.

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Getting around

If you have plenty of time, or are happy to be constrained by public transport routes, it is possible to get around without your own vehicle. An airport bus connects Vagar Airport with the capital Tórshavn. In town, the centre is compact and walking between the main sights is easily doable. In addition, there’s a free bus that links Tórshavn to historic Kirkjubøur. Ferries are as reliable as they can be given the wild weather, but cheap, particularly if you walk on. For instance, foot passengers travelling from Gamlarætt to Skopun on Sandoy Island pay just DKK 40 return (less than £5) while a car costs under £20. Multi-day travel cards might work out cost effective if you are travelling around a lot; they cost DKK 500 for four days and are valid on all buses and most ferries.

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For timetables, visit the Strandfaraskip website:

http://www.ssl.fo/en/timetable/ferry/7-tvoeroyri-torshavn/

Car rental is best if you wish to get off the beaten track. We rented from 62°N which is affiliated to Hertz, Europcar and Sixt, but there are several other agencies. Typically, prices start at around DKK 600 (£70) per day for a small car. In my experience, roads were good quality and drivers courteous, but the buffetting wind can be disconcerting if you’re not used to it. The Visit Faroe Islands website has plenty of sound advice about driving conditions and rules of the road as well as this useful graphic:

Helicopter rides are also possible if the weather is playing ball, which sadly it wasn’t during my trip. A community initiative means that transport is subsidised, meaning you can be airborne for a tenner. A chopper transfer from Vagar to Tórshavn bookable through Atlantic Airways costs DKK 215 (about £25). Fares between other islands cost from DKK 85 to DKK 360. More here: https://www.atlantic.fo/en/book-and-plan/helicopter/fares/

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What to see

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The Faroese capital is a delightful, quirky little place with much to recommend it. Begin between the twin harbours at Tinganes, seat of the Faroese government. The russet-painted government buildings with their verdant turf roofs are impossibly photogenic and unusually accessible.

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The fish market on the quayside is also worth a look, and you may be able to blag a sample or two. There are plenty of cafes and a burgeoning bar scene; I can vouch for the hot chocolate in Kafe Husid and a beer in Mikkeller. There are also a clutch of good eateries in town including the excellent Barbara Fish Restaurant, where the broth for its bouillebaisse is poured from a vintage china teapot and the deconstructed lemon meringue pie is to die for.

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KOKS, the first Michelin-starred restaurant in the Faroe Islands, deserves its own entry. An evening here doesn’t come cheap – the tasting menu is an eye-watering DKK 1400 (about £165) with the wine pairings another DKK 1100 (approximately £130) on top. It might just be the most memorable and adventurous meal you ever eat, however, and is not to be missed. Your evening begins in a lakeside hjallur, or drying house, with some tasty nibbles of fermented lamb and dried kingfish. Next, you jump on a Land Rover for the short hop up the hill to the restaurant itself (this is not a restaurant for posh heels). From the opener of scallops served in a shell encrusted with live and very wriggly barnacles to the final mouthwatering dulse (red seaweed) and blueberry dessert, it was incredible.

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The historic village of Kirkjubøur is home to the ruins of St Magnus Cathedral, the largest mediaeval building in the Faroes. Next door, is the simple but beautiful whitewashed church of St Olav which dates from the early 12th century. It’s still in use today and 17th generation farmer and churchwarden Jóannes Patursson rings the bell to announce a service. Opposite, lies the oldest inhabited wooden house in Europe, the 11th century Roykstovan farmhouse built from stone and logs weatherproofed with black tar. It began its days in Norway, before being dismantled and shipped to its present location. Today it remains the Paturssons’ family home and is fascinating to visit. On the walls hang traditional whaling equipment, now obselete; Jóannes will explain and defend the long tradition of hunting pilot whales if asked. Whatever your personal views, it’s interesting to hear a Faroese take on the practice.

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To reach the tiny village of Saksun, you’ll need your own transport (or be up for a lengthy hike) but the reward is a super hike alongside a tidal lagoon to the sea. The folk museum within the Dúvugarðar sheep farm is managed by the farmer himself who apparently isn’t too keen on tourists visiting, so don’t plan on gaining access. The setting’s the star here, though, and you won’t be disappointed by the walk along a sheltered, sandy beach hemmed in by steep cliffs. At low tide, and in good weather, it’s surely got to be one of the prettiest spots in the country. I visited in the pouring rain and on a rising tide. Despite the low cloud and the slightly wet feet it was still worth the effort.

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Weather killed my boat trip to the Vestmanna bird cliffs but I’m told the sight of the towering rockfaces crammed with puffins, guillemots and razorbills is an impressive one. If rain stops play as it did for me, the SagaMuseum, housed inside the tourist information centre, is an interesting detour, if a bloodthirsty one. Prepare for some pretty explicit waxworks; the creators didn’t hold back when telling the stories from the sagas of the Faroes’ Viking past. Decapitation, torture and drowning are all depicted in the gruesome exhibits. An audio guide is a must to learn about the fascinating tales behind the exhibits.

And beyond…

Even if you’re only in the Faroes for a long weekend, Sandoy and Streymoy are only a half an hour apart by ferry so it’s a tempting excursion from Tórshavn.

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Vast empty beaches lined with sea stacks and grazed by sheep who munch on the plentiful seaweed are a big draw, even in the shoulder season. Quaint harbours full of colourful fishing boats, yarn-bombed rocks and even the odd art gallery all offer pleasant diversions. With more time you can journey further afield to the other islands. Highlights include Hans Pauli Olsen’s sculpture of the seal woman on Kalsoy, picturesque Gjógv – the most northerly village on the island of Eysturoy – and a solitary hike to the lighthouse at the end of the the islet of Mykineshólmur on Mykines, an island where puffins greatly outnumber people.

Planning

I bought the Bradt guide to the Faroe Islands a month or so before I travelled and as ever, it’s an informative and eminently readable guide. If you are planning an independent visit to the Faroe Islands it will be invaluable to your preparations.

Thanks

I travelled to the Faroe Islands on a press trip as a guest of Atlantic Airways who were efficient, friendly and best of all laid back about seat swaps so we could all grab a window seat. Visit Faroe Islands and Visit Sandoy arranged a diverse and memorable itinerary, so much so that I’m already planning a return visit at some point in the not so distant future. Their accommodation choices, the Hotel Føroyar overlooking Tórshavn and the Hotel Sandavik on Sandoy, were comfortable, contemporary and classically Scandinavian.

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Though I paid for my connecting flight, I’m grateful to Holiday Extras for taking care of my airport parking at London Stansted, particularly as they chose the very convenient Short Stay Premium option.

Why do countries change their name?

This week, I read in the news that the King of Swaziland has decreed that the country’s name will henceforth be known as eSwatini. He’s been referring to it as such for many years but this pronouncement, carefully timed to conicide with the kingdom’s 50th anniversary of independence makes it official.

The name means “land of the Swazis” and you’re probably thinking that it’s not so far removed from “Swaziland”. The king would beg to differ. Allegedly he’s fed up with people confusing his tiny landlocked country with another, larger landlocked country: Switzerland. And the country didn’t change its name on independence, so better late than never, you might say. Regardless, as eSwatini is an absolute monarchy, the name will stay, though it has angered some in the country who say the king should have better things to focus on – like their beleagured economy for instance.

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It brought to mind the announcement from the Czech Republic a couple of years ago that they’d prefer we shortened the country’s name to Czechia. The Czech Republic form would stay, but to make advertising easier, Czechia should be used if people wanted a catchier moniker. But too many people think it sounds like troubled Chechnya and the name isn’t sticking. Hungary tried something similar a few years earlier, in 2012, officially becoming Hungary after being the Hungarian Republic. I’d been calling it by the wrong name all those years.

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Cape Verde officially altered the English version of its name to the Republic of Cabo Verde in 2013, though if you book a holiday to the islands, most UK agents still refer to it as Cape Verde. Changing your name is one thing. Getting others to follow suit is another thing entirely.

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Often, the act of changing a country’s name comes with independence as part of a wider declaration that the country is now in charge of its own affairs. Until 1825, Bolivia was Upper Peru, Dahomey became Benin in 1975 and Upper Volta changed its name to Burkina Faso in 1984. Sri Lanka had been Ceylon until 1972 while Siam became Thailand in 1939 – and save for a short period in the 1940s it’s been Thailand ever since. I could go on.

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Splits and mergers are another common reason for name changes. The island of Zanzibar merged with mainland Tanganika to form Tanzania on independence in 1961. Malaya and Singapore combined with Sabah and Sarawak to become Malaysia in 1963. However, thanks to a memorable ad campaign, it will always be Malaysia Truly Asia to me. In the splits camp, Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s, spawning Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovenia, FYR Macedonia and Montenegro.

Lake Ohrid at Sveti Naum

Sometimes the changes can happen so often that people can’t keep pace. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance. It was the Congo Free State in 1884, then Belgian Congo in 1908; the Republic of the Congo in 1960 before adding Democratic in 1964. Then in 1971, it became Zaire under Mobutu before reverting to the Democratic Republic of the Congo once more in 1997. And just to make matters more confusing still, the country next door now calls itself Republic of the Congo.

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Now the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev has thrown his hat into the ring as well. He suggests that the suffix -stan doesn’t have the best connotations when it comes to attracting investment, thanks to some politically troubled neighbours. He proposes perhaps Kazak Yeli or “country of the Kazakhs”. The country’s ethnic diversity doesn’t make this an easy switch. Only time will tell how that one pans out.

How to see the Bahamas’ famous swimming pigs

The Bahamas consists of around 700 islands, cays and islets strung out like jewels on a necklace in some of the shallowest, most turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean.  Most of these islands are uninhabited.  Those further from Nassau, the country’s capital, are known as the Family Islands or Out Islands.  The Exumas draw visitors for snorkelling and watersports as well as film makers – James Bond’s Thunderball was filmed near Staniel Cay and Pirates of the Caribbean on Sandy Cay.  Johnny Depp liked the place so much he even bought his own private island nearby.  He’s not alone.  The Bahamas has a higher number of privately owned islands than anywhere else on the planet.

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But when it comes to celebrity residents, even Hollywood stars are eclipsed by the Exumas’ famous porcine residents.  No one knows for sure how pigs got to Big Major Cay, but these days they are the Exumas’ biggest draw.  Around twenty or so pigs live on the beach, charming the pants off the steady stream of tourists who come here to swim with them.  The proximity of Big Major Cay to Nassau makes it possible to visit for the day, even if you’re stopping off as part of a cruise.

It’s a popular trip but doesn’t come cheap.  Many operators offer excursions.  A flyer from Exuma Escapes in our hotel room offered a day out by boat for a special price of $359 per person, which included a 150 nautical mile round trip by speedboat, plus stops to see not only the pigs but also iguanas and to snorkel with nurse sharks.  We ruled this out as it was billed as a bumpy ride and not suitable for those with bad backs.  To take a smiliar package by air would have cost $550 per person which pushed it well out of our price range.  Though you’d have an hour with the pigs and another with the sharks, the return flight would be at 3pm and so with check-in advised over an hour before, that would cut into the day considerably.

Fortunately, I read about a company that would unpackage the trip.  We contacted Staniel Cay Vacations whose website http://www.stanielcayvacations.com/tours/ lists a number of options including a pigs only boat trip for $50 per person (minimum 2 people).  Booking flights separately with Flamingo Air at http://flamingoairbah.com/ cost us $240 per person.  We flew out of Nassau on the 0800 flight, arriving before 0900 and departed at 1700, with check-in required by 1530.  We needed to fund our own transport to the airport and lunch at Staniel Cay, but still didn’t pay what we’d have needed to shell out for a tour.

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Our boatman, Mr George, was waiting for us at the airport and pointed out Thunderball Cave as we passed.  We didn’t see the iguanas like the tour groups do, of course, but while we were enjoying an al fresco lunch at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club a frenzy of nurse sharks clustered around the boat dock.  We ended up with plenty of relaxation time at Staniel Cay – spent lazing under a shady tree on the beach and watching the boats come and go from the marina.

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Best of all, we were ahead of the tour groups at Big Major Cay and had the pigs to ourselves for a while before another couple of boats arrived.  This in itself made the day.  Mr George had brought food along so we were able to feed the pigs while in the water.

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Of course, we took a small risk unpackaging the tour but were fortunate that the flights were pretty much on schedule.  Monique was responsive and helpful, answering emails promptly and making sure we were all set.  Feeding the pigs was fun and watching them swim was a memorable experience.  Mr George kept a close eye on us and made sure we gave pregnant mama pig, who had a tendency to bite people’s bums, a wide berth.  And the piglets were cute too, the youngest just a couple of weeks old.

Would I recommend the trip? Definitely.  It didn’t come cheap, but was an unforgettable experience and worth evey cent.

Heading to Nassau? Don’t miss this excellent food tour!

Ask anyone who’s visited the Bahamas what is the food that epitomises the islands and chances are, they’re going to say conch. Pronounced ‘conk’ this ubiquitous marine mollusc is served in all manner of ways, the most popular being deep fried fritters with just the right amount of spice to give them a kick. There’s also delicious cracked conch, which can best be described as the Bahamian version of fish and chips. Every restaurant has it on the menu, so finding it is easy. Knowing which serves the best is a whole lot harder, however.

I believe there’s no better way to get to know the heart and soul of a country than through its stomach. Though the enduring image of the Bahamas is of glistening turquoise waters surrounding necklaces of cays, there’s a lot to be said for getting out of the water and into Nassau’s historic downtown district. But the capital’s streets are packed with eateries and it’s hard to know where to start. I figure it’s always best to enlist the help of a local when it comes to food. I’d been tipped off by Cecilia fom Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tours that in Nassau, I should get in touch with Tru Bahamian Food Tours.

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Alanna Rogers set up the company in 2012, describing herself as a passionate foodie whose own travels inspired her to showcase the cuisine of her own country. The Bites of Nassau food tour is popular with cruise ship passengers looking for a memorable experience when their ship’s in dock, as well as with those who are staying on the island. It even attracts locals, which in my opinion is another measure of how good it is. Something like 5000 people take the tour each year, and the company is going from strength to strength.

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My husband and I took the tour this March as part of a week-long holiday in the Bahamas. From our base at Cable Beach it was an easy ride into Nassau. Guide and operations manager Murray was easy to find on the steps of the cathedral, built in 1841 as the first official place of worship in the country. Our small group strolled around the corner to Market Street for a look at the pastel pink Balcony House. The oldest wooden structure in the city, it hosted Ian Fleming when he came to the Bahamas when Thunderball was filmed in 1965.

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Across the street was Bahamian Cookin’. Murray warned us that this would be the largest of our tasting plates, and it was here we had our introduction to the Bahamian staples: conch fritters, fall off the bone chicken, baked mac and cheese and of course peas and rice. I hate peas. But peas here are beans, fortunately, and this was so tasty I confess to stealing some of my husband’s while his attention was distracted. On the way out, we had a refreshing glass of switcha, a kind of Bahamian limeade. Apparently, spellings of switcha vary considerably so if you’re reading this and spelling it differently, I’d love to know how you write it.

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Next up we got to meet one of Nassau’s most colourful characters. In the Towne Hotel, we were served a potent Planter’s Punch while enjoying the company of Max, who’s the hotel’s resident blue macaw. The artwork in the hotel was fabulously diverse and a big talking point as we sipped our rum cocktails.  The chatter continued as we reached Graycliff.

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Now a hotel, it was built in 1700 by privateer John Howard Graysmith.  An inn from 1844, it was also once the private home of wealthy Canadian Izaak Killam and later Lord Dudley. The latter played host to the likes of Edward and Mrs Simpson, Churchill and Lord Mountbatten. It’s also seen Al Capone, the Beatles, Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

We learned that some of the bottles of wine in its cellar would cost the average tourist a year’s wages. Passing on that, instead we got to try some of the chocolates in the on-site factory. The first, labelled “white chocolate twice as hot as goat pepper” was a truly Marmite experience – some of us (me included!) spat it out half-eaten while others would have been delighted to eat the whole tray. That’s half the fun of taking a food tour, of course, to experiment with flavours you wouldn’t otherwise have tried.

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Nearby is Government House. Our Queen is Head of State in the Bahamas but of course her representative the Governor General takes care of things for her and these are his digs. The building actually stands on the highest point of downtown Nassau affording a fabulous view of the cruise ships in dock. We walked down a flight of steps – not those steps – to visit Biggity in Bay Street. Amanda’s creative take on pigeon pea hummus, rosemary and thyme infused olive oil, and garlic Johnny cake crostini was a big hit with everyone, as was the bush tea we washed it down with.

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Murray explained that Bahamians consider bush medicine important. A nod to the country’s African heritage, native spices, leaves, flowers and tree bark are artfully combined to cure all manner of ills. Apparently it’s also quite common to consume a medicinal tot of rum to avoid having to visit the doctor. I’ve bookmarked this interesting blog from the Tru Bahamian Food Tours website just in case I feel under the weather:
https://www.trubahamianfoodtours.com/tru-bahamian-must-eats/bush-teas/.

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Our penultimate stop was at Athena Cafe. Many of the Greek community in Nassau can trace ancestors who came to participate in the trade of sea sponges back in the 19th century. They stayed on, blending typical Greek dishes with local ingredients – we had a tasty chowder. Rounding off the tour was a sweet treat from the Tortuga Rum Cake Company. The group enjoyed rum cake with walnuts but as I’m not a fan, my rum cake came nut-free with pineapple instead. It was delicious.

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Tru Bahamian Food Tours promote Bahamian cuisine as “the islands’ most unexplored cultural treasure”. After a few hours in Murray’s company, I think they’ve got that just about right. What sets this tour apart from other food tours is the emphasis it places on history, culture and the pivotal role of immigrants to the Bahamas. When asked what they enjoyed best about the tour, most people commended the contextual information that Murray had provided.

However, compared to other food tours I’ve taken there were fewer opportunities to chat to fellow participants about the food, which has in the past been an enjoyable way of processing what I’ve learnt. Also, towards the end, the tour felt a little rushed; several of the other tours I’ve done have been around five hours long. By lengthening the tour from its current three hours, both these points could be addressed. I guess when something’s good, you don’t want it to end.

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But those are minor criticisms of what’s an excellent tour. If you’re planning to visit Nassau any time soon, and if you want to understand what makes the country tick, this is a must for your itinerary. But take my advice: arrange the tour at the start of your trip. Once you’ve tasted what’s on offer, you’re going to want to go back for more.

The lowdown

You can find out more about Tru Bahamian Food Tours on their website and social media feeds – the links are at the foot of this post. The excellent Bites of Nassau tour is a great way to experience the islands’ capital Nassau. It runs several times a day from Monday to Saturday and lasts about 3 hours; you can book online. The company has also just launched a Sunday cocktail tour, which should prove to be just as popular as the original Bites tour. If you’re feeling really inspired, they can also arrange cooking classes giving you the skills to recreate the dishes you’ve enjoyed once you get home.

The Bites of Nassau costs $69 per person. My husband and I enjoyed the tour free of charge in exchange for promoting the tour via this blog.  The photos which illustrate my blog are a mixture of mine and those supplied by Tru Bahamian Food Tours, but the opinions are entirely my own.

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https://www.trubahamianfoodtours.com/
Facebook/trubahamianfoodtours
Twitter: @trubahamianfood
Instagram: @trubahamianfoodtours

Will you be adding FlagMate to your backpack?

Adverts can be a little irritating at times, but every once in a while one comes along that begs to be investigated.  Last week, a feature on FlagMate popped up on my Facebook timeline.  I was intrigued and contacted the man behind the idea, fellow Brit Bhavesh Patel, to find out a bit more about his company, Storyteller, and the concept of FlagMate.

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Let’s face it, buying ourselves something that’s going to help someone else makes us feel good about our purchase.  Storyteller offers the chance to do just that.  Bhav told me that the company was founded around three main principles: to create high quality travel accessories, to inspire people to travel and to share some of its profits funding educational programmes in less privileged areas of the world.

At this early stage, Storyteller supports four charities – The Barefoot College (which currently operates in 93 countries), UNICEF Next Gen, London (worldwide), Global Citizen (worldwide) and The Hope Foundation (which is based in Kolkata, India).  You see, education’s a top priority when it comes to giving those born into poverty a leg up.  As a former teacher, I’m of course biased, but the more I travel, the more it’s obvious – adult illiteracy is still a huge constraint on progress in many parts of the world.  Bhav agrees and told me about his experience in places like India and Peru:

“It was a repeat cycle – children could not obtain a quality education, and in time became illiterate adults. I wanted to make a change and so made a conscious decision to use Storyteller as a platform to help fund and run educational workshops in partnership with charities who shared my vision.”

Storyteller itself is not a charity, but one of a number of new start ups who are proving that getting a balance between profit and philanthropy can be beneficial to all those involved.  It raises capital for causes it considers worthy by selling products aimed at the buoyant traveller market.  FlagMate, part of Storyteller’s initial range, appeals to those keen on collectibles.

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Years ago, when I first got the travel bug, I painstakingly sewed fabric patches onto my rucksack as a reminder of each of the countries I’d been to.  Many, many pricked and sore fingers later, I had a bag covered in flags.  People would stop and chat about the places they represented and my experiences there.  It was a good icebreaker and often led to further conversation – and those meaningful interactions with people we meet on the road are, of course, why many of us travel.

FlagMate goes one better: faux leather, hand-painted flags which can be personalised and then attached to a keyring or clip for your bag.  It’s a great souvenir of your last trip, but also, it’s a good talking point on your next one.  Think of the flags, and the words you choose to engrave them with, as prompts for you to tell a story to someone you meet as you explore the world.

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Right now, Storyteller is coming to the end of its Crowdfunding campaign, but there’s still time to support the cause if you so wish.  You can find out more on their website:

https://www.storytellertravel.co.uk/.

Alternatively, why not visit their IndieGoGo page to find out how your purchase can help get this start-up off the ground.  Find it here:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/storyteller-flagmate-the-ultimate-travel-accessory-accessories/

Disclaimer

While I have no financial interest in Storyteller as a company, I am looking forward to receiving a FlagMate sample later this year in exchange for writing about the product.  Keep an eye on this blog to find out what I think of it, which countries I’ll choose to wear on my keyring and why they make the cut.