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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Off the bucket list: the Neighbours tour
I visited Australia many years ago, and one of the highlights of my trip was doing the Neighbours tour. Since then much has happened. First, the tour was extended to include the outdoor areas of the set, something that wasn’t possible on the original version. Most recently, news broke that Neighbours was coming to an end after being on our screens for 37 years. That was enough incentive for me to book flights to Melbourne and take the Neighbours tour again. If you’re a fan too, here are some photos from the tour. It runs until the end of July 2022; after that the future of the tour is uncertain.
First up, the street in real life: Pin Oak Court and the houses used for exterior shots.
Just down the road, at the Nunawading studios, you’ll find some of the back gardens plus Karl Kennedy’s greenhouse. In case you were wondering, you can still see one of Sheila’s gnomes even though she moved out.
As you walk in from the main gate and on the set, the first things you see are the cars, including Hermione and an Erinsborough Hospital ambulance, plus the tram.
Next, you pass by some of the less frequently used business sets, including Grease Monkeys, Fitzgerald Motors, the yard owned by Kyle Canning when he ran Dial-a-Kyle and Sonya’s Nursery. There’s an indoor set at the mechanics too, which you can see if you peer through the window.
You might also remember Sonia’s mural, the community centre, these trees and The Hive/Leo’s Backpackers. Also, you can see the university mural featuring a young Toadie (and Harlow) plus a couple of lecture rooms. The sign for the Geography department at Erinsborough High is nearer the entrance to the studios.
However, the main attraction is the Lassiters complex, of course, home to The Waterhole, Harold’s Cafe, the hotel and much more. Some of these businesses have indoor staging too, so for instance you can see the hotel lobby and lift, as well as Jarrod’s office.
That’s all from the set.
Chicago Rising from the Lake
When I reached downtown Chicago last night, several buildings were lit in blue and yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag. This morning I took a look at a piece of art that’s also a link to this Eastern European country.
This bronze relief is called Chicago Rising from the Lake and it’s the work of a Ukrainian artist called Milton Horn. Born near Kyiv, he came to the United States as a child. The work was created in 1954 and represents Chicago herself. Lake Michigan’s ripples feature at the bottom, a sheaf of wheat is a reference to the city’s importance to agricultural trade, while a bull is a nod to its stockyards. Even the curved bars have meaning: they’re Chicago’s railways, industry and commerce.
It was displayed for a time on the wall of a garage not far from where I’m staying. But despite the significance of the piece to the Windy City, it was torn down and languished in a warehouse for many years before being lost altogether for a time. Eventually it was discovered by a firefighter and then restored at a cost of $60,000.
Today, you’ll find it on Columbus Drive Bridge on Chicago’s River Walk.
How the pandemic has changed the way I plan trips
After a tough couple of years, it really is starting to look more positive for travel. By making such a statement I hope I haven’t jinxed my upcoming trips, but my inbox is now full of optimistic predictions which have replaced desperate pleas imploring me to “dream now, book later”. I’ve travelled as much as I can internationally since March 2020. At times, that was anxiety-inducing. Would governments hold their nerve and keep the borders open? Would I test positive and throw the whole trip off? Would it feel safe and sensible to travel at all? To keep travelling, I’ve had to change the way I plan trips. If you’re still a little unsure about whether to take the plunge again, here are a few things I’ve learnt along the way.
Embrace independent travel
COVID is the viral equivalent of a shapeshifter and has been a constant headache for my travel plans. Back when I was a teacher tied to school holidays, I would think nothing of booking a scheduled flight 11 months ahead of departure to lock in a decent price. Now, I think that would be foolish, partly because flight schedules are changing so frequently and partly because it only takes one vaccine-resistant variant to throw the whole world into disarray. You only have to look at government actions regarding Omicron to see this in action. But I’ve never been a big fan of package tours. They often unfairly penalise solos and regardless, I prefer to be the one in charge of my travel decision-making. So how does that affect me as an independent traveller? Short answer: not much. In fact, being able to decide whether it feels right to travel without having to convince anyone else is a bonus right now.
Ditch the idea of planning too far in advance
How far in advance is too far? I guess the answer to that one is, How long is a piece of string? In summer 2020, I had an Iceland trip all ready to go and then regulations changed. To avoid a five day quarantine, I ended up bringing the trip forward by a month and replanning everything in the space of a day and a half. At one point during that fraught weekend, I wondered if I should go at all. I did and it was one of the best holidays I have ever had. Empty roads, cheap accommodation and those incredible landscapes almost to myself in such gloriously sunny weather I wondered whether this could be Iceland at all. That was the first post-pandemic trip I made, and it felt like a weight had been lifted.
Accept that things might change
Since then, in addition to some remarkable trips within the UK, I’ve flown out to Madeira, Iceland again, Germany and Austria, Menorca, Sweden and the USA a week after it finally reopened its borders to leisure travellers. Right now, I have international bookings lined up for the USA in March and France in April. I’m looking at adding the Azores and Uzbekistan to that list for later in the year. On my bookshelf are guidebooks to Rwanda, Madagascar and Benin ready for some point in the future. But things change. Pre-pandemic, I thrived on visiting off the beaten track places in unusual destinations. I miss that, but if I’m honest, I’m still unsure about travelling to parts of the world where healthcare provision is patchy and where access can be a challenge. I don’t want to get stranded somewhere. Actually, I don’t want to get stranded anywhere.
Check the regulations with a reliable source
Even though I’m now sufficiently convinced that booking a month or two in advance isn’t a big risk to my finances, there are still a few considerations that are influencing my choice of destination. I’m happy to test in advance. I figure if the result is positive, that still leaves me time to cancel or preferably reschedule my bookings and I’m unlikely to be out of pocket. Testing on arrival, which to be fair I was OK with on that first trip to Iceland, now seems risky, given how much more spreadable variants such as Delta and Omicron proved to be. I’m fully vaccinated and boostered, but though that’s likely to prevent me becoming seriously ill, I can still catch it. I don’t want to test positive the minute I step off the plane and risk that massive disappointment. Similarly, nowadays, anywhere with a quarantine in place is a no for me, for example, as that might imply high case numbers. I use the FCDO’s travel advice pages in conjunction with other official government sites and tourist board socials to get as full a picture as I can of the current situation before settling on a destination.
Keep flights flexible
I’ve always planned trips to be flexible to some degree, but that’s even more the case now. I’ve tried to choose flights with airlines that permit date changes. Over the past couple of years that’s been BA, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic but policies change so double check the small print if you plan to fly with them. Ryanair didn’t offer the same flexibility when it came to planning my Stockholm trip last December but they were so much cheaper and more convenient than other airlines I figured I’d risk it and write off the cost of the flight if I had to. I didn’t, by the way, and the trip went off as planned. Another thing I’m trying to do at the moment is stick to direct flights, which reduces the chance of something changing at the layover destination and preventing inward or onward travel.
Make the most of free cancellation policies
I often use booking.com to source accommodation – just a personal preference rather than a travel writer perk – and they offer to book on a free cancellation basis which has been a real help. You do need to check the dates, however. Some properties offer free cancellation as late as 6pm on the day of arrival whereas others require you to lock in your reservation as much as a week or more in advance – which might be fine for a hotel you’re planning to use later in the trip but not the one you plan to stay in when you first arrive. Where possible, if I have to cancel, I do so as far in advance as I can; more often, I try to move the reservation to alternative dates. I mark crucial dates in my diary, usually a reminder 24 hours before the cancellation might need to be made and double check the situation once more before embarking on the trip.
Manage your risk
Travel insurance has never been more necessary, I’d argue, but read the policy document carefully to see exactly what you are covered for. It’s wise to have decent medical cover and provision for unforeseen expenses should you need to stay longer than planned. Take a close look at those exclusions for cancellations to see if COVID is one of them. You don’t really know if an insurance provider is any good until you need to make a claim, but it’s worth reading their reviews and ratings to see if they help you make a decision on which to use.
Everyone’s different and for some people, it’s still to early to consider travelling beyond their own border. I respect that, though it’s not for me. As visitor numbers haven’t yet fully recovered to 2019 levels, it’s still a great time to see the world, especially those places that typically have attracted large numbers of tourists. Wherever 2022 takes you, happy travels and follow your dreams.
Travels in 2021 and hopes for 2022
Once again it’s been a rollercoaster ride of a year for travel. The beginning of the year was bleak and, just when things started to look up, Omicron showed up and set us all back. Somehow, I managed to escape the UK more than once and 2021’s trips, though tame, were a pleasure. I do miss visiting far-flung, culturally different destinations and hope to achieve some of that kind of travel in 2022. Here’s what I managed this year:
Incredibly, we were confined to home until April. Just about as soon as it was permitted I rented a little cottage near Ludlow for a few days. Having persuaded my husband and the dog to join me, we visited some of the prettiest places in Shropshire, including The Stiperstones, Carding Mill Valley and of course Ironbridge. The horses on the Long Mynd gave Edi a bit of a fright and the drive back down such a narrow single-track road was a tad scary. Fortunately the cottage was very comfortable and the llamas up the road were a real treat.
May: Barra and Skye
In May, I took my first flight of the year and touched down on the beach in Barra. This airport in the Outer Hebrides is the only one in the world where scheduled flights land on sand, which was pretty cool. After I returned to Glasgow I picked up my own car again and immediately after arriving at my B&B on the Isle of Skye promptly locked the keys in the boot which I don’t recommend if you want a stress-free (or cheap) holiday. The locksmith had to come out from Inverness but everything turned out alright in the end. Back on the mainland, a Scottish friend of ours suggested I drive the Bealach na Bà (the Pass of the Cattle). It boasts the steepest ascent in the UK and also has lots of single track stretches. I was grateful for my automatic transmission and an early Sunday morning start which meant only light traffic.
June: the Isle of Wight
Somehow hopping on the ferry made it feel a little more like we were going abroad when we headed for the Isle of Wight in June, though when we drove off it, we could have been going back in time. Much of the island was how we remembered it from family holidays in the 1970s, with a few welcome modern additions like WiFi and Costa. Highlights included some fabulous dog-friendly beaches, a ride on the chair lift at Alum Bay, a chance to meet the donkeys at Carisbrooke Castle and a stroll through the delightful Shanklin Chine.
This year’s big trip was, once again, to Iceland. I began the trip by visiting some of the places I hadn’t made time for last summer. In Siglufjörður in the north of the country I thoroughly enjoyed a social history lesson at the Herring Era Museum and on Heimaey in the Westman Islands I was so engrossed in the puffins I almost missed my ferry. I didn’t have much luck again in the Westfjords. Failing to spot the Arctic fox on Hornstrandir I had to be content with a stuffed specimen in a museum. The dramatic eruption of Fagradalsfjall volcano, which at the time was still spewing lava in spectacular fashion, lured me back down south and a friend over from the UK. Lisa and I would recommend a hike to an ice cave and the delicious geothermally baked bread at Laugarvatn Fontana spa. The jury’s out on Elf School.
Dad and I took a road trip to Dundee in September to visit RRS Discovery. This historic ship took Scott of the Antarctic on his first trip to the icy south, but it also holds special memories for Dad who had some of his own adventures onboard while a Sea Scout in 1951. The visit was fascinating, both for a glimpse into Dad’s childhood and of course the more famous stuff about the South Pole. We also enjoyed a visit to The Kelpies and a spin on the Falkirk Wheel before heading home.
September: Austria and Germany
Though it was touch and go for a while due to the COVID situation, the borders remained open long enough for me to spend a week in Austria and Germany. South of the border, I stayed in Seefeld and sunned myself up several mountains – nursing a dodgy knee I couldn’t do much hiking but did manage one glorious walk through the Leutascher Geisterklamm, a scenic gorge cut by a glacial river. For the first time, I made it to the Swarovski factory and rekindled the joy of an old favourite: the Tyrolean evening, kitsch, clichéd and hilarious fun. The Almbetriebe was scaled right back in Mittenwald, but all of the cable cars were open so I did get to make an ascent of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain.
In October we took the dog away again and this time spent a relaxing weekend in Norfolk with family. Splitting the time between woodland walks and lazy hours in the hot tub was the ideal way to unwind. I was more than happy to dogsit while the others went ziplining at Go Ape but sometimes the best things come to you – a muntjac deer strolled right past the deck of our cabin in broad daylight.
I’d planned to visit Santorini in the autumn but ended up changing my flights to Menorca because of COVID uncertainties. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time based in Ciutadella, the island’s old capital. I stayed in a beautifully renovated mansion right in the heart of the old town and really enjoyed the convivial atmosphere (and abundant ice cream parlours). I hired a car for a couple of days so I could tour the island. Free from the constraints of off season bus timetables, I was able to try out cheese making and watch the sunset from a bar tucked into the side of a cliff. The boat trip I took along the island’s south coast was also well worth doing: the turquoise water in the rocky coves was dazzling.
For the first time since returning from New York in February 2020, I flew to the United States. President Biden finally opened the border on November 8th and a week later we touched down in Miami. Naples was our first stop, a very upmarket enclave on Florida’s Gulf Coast, with probably the most splendid botanical garden I’ve ever visited. We followed it with gorgeous Longboat Key. On the way, we practised the “Sanibel stoop” – shell-hunting is a big deal there – and sank into the icing sugar soft sand of Siesta Key. After seeing manatees and bobcats with some expat friends of ours, we rounded off the trip in Orlando, though I’m relieved to say I didn’t have to set foot in a Disney theme park once.
The final trip of the year was to Sweden where I visited the Christmas markets in Sigtuna, its oldest town, and in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan. The weather was dismal – grey skies and drizzle rather than blue skies and snow – but even that couldn’t dampen my spirits. On December 13th I enjoyed a wonderful candlelit Santa Lucia concert in Stockholm cathedral. During the trip, there was also time to hang out with some reindeer in Skansen and have a party for one in the ABBA museum as well as try all the elements of a traditional Christmas dinner thanks to a lovely friend of mine. If you’re planning a trip there soon, the dog pictures at Fotografiska were fabulous fun.
And so to 2022…
This is what I wrote this time last year, and I guess I’ll just carry this over to next year (though perhaps I might hold off on Belarus for the time being?)
“So what of next year? If this year has taught me one thing, it’s to seize opportunities to travel while you can. If the pandemic permits, when flights resume I’m keen to visit the Azores for some more wow-factor volcanic scenery having enjoyed Cape Verde and Madeira so much. Santorini is also on my wishlist – I’ve never been but perhaps it won’t be as busy (or expensive) as it normally is. Andorra would be great, though I’d then be tempted to visit Belarus too – they’re the only two countries in Europe I’ve never been.
Who knows when it will be safe and sensible to travel further afield? But if there’s no chance of being stranded and I’ve had the vaccine by then, Peru for its 200th birthday celebrations sounds like a whole lot of fun. Last year I wrote about how I’d love to visit Tajikistan, Comoros, Sao Tome & Principe, Rwanda and Madagascar – all of them are still high on my wishlist. Over in the States, I’d still love to make it to Alaska or Hawaii, though a road trip taking in Washington DC, North Carolina and Dollywood looks more likely. Nothing’s certain right now, but it doesn’t hurt to dream.“
How’s it looking? Well, easyJet have already cancelled my flights to Santorini, booked for April, so that’s a no-go until I can find a suitable alternative. The much-hoped for return to Peru didn’t happen in 2021 but now I’m keen to add a second trip to Colombia too if it seems sensible to revisit South America. I’m still hopeful of that US road trip, so check back next December and see if I managed to pull it off.
Wherever your travels take you in 2022, have fun and stay safe. As ever, do your homework and research the current situation for your proposed destination as requirements and regulations are changing frequently at the moment. Happy New Year!
Christmas isn’t cancelled: a last minute trip to Stockholm
It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. That’s not because I haven’t been travelling – I took advantage of the US border opening in November. But as Omicron wreaks havoc and every day brings a new headline of more restrictions, it’s been hard to find the motivation to post.
This winter, I was all set to return to Germany for a visit to Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s Christmas market. It’s a pretty little town (read about my autumn visit a few years ago here) and one which I’m keen to return to. But first Munich’s Christmas market was cancelled and then all markets across Bavaria, and the trip was off. Luckily, thanks to a six hour flight change, I even managed to get a full refund from Ryanair which took just a few days to come through. That sounds impressive though the total fare was just £12 so I’d already written it off as one of those things.
I still wanted to visit a Christmas market this year and settled on Sweden. A Ryanair flight to Västerås, despite the distance from Stockholm, was actually the most convenient direct flight. I left all the other bookings until the day before, crossed my fingers and as luck was on my side, managed to pull it off. First stop was Sigtuna. This is Sweden’s oldest town, founded in the 10th century.
On 13th December, Sweden marks Santa Lucia Day. In the 4th century, Santa Lucia of Syracuse (yes, that’s in Italy) brought food to Christians hiding in the catacombs. She used a crown of candles to see her way in the darkness and this saint’s day has come to represent bringing the Light of Christ into a world of darkness and, more immediately, receiving enough light to get you through a dark Scandinavian winter. These girls sang beautifully beside Sigtuna Museum and then paraded along historic Stora Gatan. The following evening, the candlelit concert in Stockholm’s beautiful cathedral was a feast for the senses.
The following day I planned a visit to a museum that I’d missed last time I was in Sweden through lack of time. Fotografiska is an excellent museum with rotating exhibits on a range of themes. This time, one of them was The Pet Show, a fun collection which featured some entertaining images of dogs, and a colourful and very powerful display centred on the themes of migration and loss of identity.
Back over on Gamla Stan, I pottered around Stockholm’s oldest market. Stalls have been set up in Stortorget since mediaeval times but the Christmas market is all that remains – in summer, this pretty square is filled with cafe tables. Keep an eye out for the straw goats which are called Julbock. Tradition has it that this creature is a gift-giver and a symbol of good luck. If you have time, take a ride out to the city of Gävle (about an hour and a half north of the capital) which puts up a giant one, though it often gets torched.
I was feeling peckish, which was the ideal excuse to indulge in the Swedish tradition of fika. This concept is more than just drinking coffee and eating cake. It’s more of a state of mind, a conscious effort to make time to sit for a while. You’re supposed to do this with friends, but as a solo traveller I made do with a friendly server at the Skeppsbro Bakery, a 100% organic craft bakery that makes its bread and cakes on site. The bun is a traditional Santa Lucia saffron bun. They’re called lussebullar and they’re quite delicious.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a reindeer, but this far south in Sweden you won’t find any herds. Instead I visited Skansen, an open air museum on the island of Djurgården. Tram #7 from central station stops right outside which is really convenient – it’s also one stop along from the ABBA Museum. I tried to resist, but the music was audible from the street and I couldn’t pass up the chance to sing my way round again. Every Christmas needs some entertainment…
In Skansen, there’s another Christmas market (weekends only) and some wildlife that are winter-hardy. The brown bears had gone into hibernation but I saw European bison, moose and of course the reindeer who were content to nibble lazily on lichen. I was enchanted by a trio of lynx cubs who found out the hard way that play-fighting on a frozen pond is going to leave you feeling a little embarrassed.
Another essential element of a good Christmas is a long walk to compensate for all that excess. I really like the industrial vibe of Södermalm, where there are some repurposed factories and tons of historic buildings along the waterfront to the west of Slussen. I found a route on the Visit Stockholm website that suited the time I had spare. I started on a rocky outcrop called Skinnarviksberget, which has fabulous views overlooking the city.
I followed the path towards Monteliusvägen, which is a super vantage point for taking in Riddarfjärden, the easternmost part of Lake Mälaren. From there, I dropped down the cobblestone street of Blecktornsgränd and made a left onto Hornsgatan. This street has a number of art galleries and independent boutiques selling everything from tea to toys. The window displays are really well done, so I’ll leave you with this bunny, taking his friends for a ride on his wooden sleigh.
How to spend a long weekend in Menorca
I’ve just returned from a warm sunny weekend in Menorca, one of Spain’s Balearic Islands. I’d originally intended to spend a few days doing next to nothing, but the temptation to explore got too much. I rented a car from a local agency close to my hotel in Ciutadella and spent a couple of days touring the island at an unhurried pace. These are some of the highlights I’d like to recommend.
Explore historic Ciutadella
Rather than staying in one of the coastal resort hotels, I opted for a small family-run place in the historic heart of Ciutadella. This, the beautiful cathedral which dates from the 13th century, was just around the corner. The maze of alleyways and cobbled streets was a joy to explore on foot, not least because of the high concentration of tapas bars and ice cream parlours.
Learn how to make cheese
About a 20 minute drive from Ciutadella was Binissuès. This is part farm, part museum, which showed a delightful film about how it would have been in the past, told from a child’s perspective. Each weekend, visitors have the opportunity to watch them make cheese. This particular batch had gone a little wrong and the curds hadn’t sufficiently formed, so it was tricky to squeeze enough of the liquid out and the muslin was leaking in all directions.
Tackle a maze in a quarry
When I first read about the Lithica quarries, I somehow managed to miss the part about the labyrinth that now fills the base of one of the two cavernous spaces. I was also impressed by how straight the sides were: by the 20th century, the limestone was extracted by machine and precision-cut. Surrounding the disused quarries was a botanical garden, serene and peaceful in the early morning. Olive, almond, lemon and fig trees are underplanted with herbs and wildflowers and the overall effect is magical.
Visit a shoe factory
You can’t get very far on Menorca without passing a shoe shop selling avarcas, a traditional leather sandal with a rubber sole. In the town of Ferreries, it’s possible to see the iconic footwear being made. RIA has been in business since 1947, starting out in a small workshop and now producing shoes in a sizeable factory. There’s also an outlet store on site where you can pick up certain styles and colours at a discount.
Discover the island’s prehistoric past
Menorca is littered with ancient monuments but one of the best preserved is the Naveta des Tudons. It’s a type of funerary monument that’s only found on this particular island. More than 100 people and their grave goods once occupied this tomb. Though it’s not possible to step inside, even the outside is impressive. The stones fit perfectly together without the need for mortar, while the name refers to its shape – like an upturned boat.
Take a boat trip
Unless you’re up for some serious hiking, the easiest way to reach many of Menorca’s coves and beaches is from the water. I did a couple of boat trips while I was there. The first, departing from Cala’n Bosch marina, took me to some of the prettiest spots along the scenic south coast, including Cala Gallana, Cala Trebaluger, Cala Turqueta and Cala Macarella. It’s also worth hopping on a harbour tour over in Mahon to visit the Hauser & Wirth gallery on Illa del Rei and to see the impressive Fortalesa de la Mola.
Visit the capital, Mahon
Like Ciutadella, Mahon boasts an attractive old town. Amongst the handful of churches is one whose cloisters now house a market, the Mercat Claustre del Carme. A steep flight of steps or a snazzy elevator gets you down to the waterfront where several boat operators run tours. Regular gin tastings are hosted by the Xoriguer distillery and numerous restaurants make the most of the picturesque harbourside setting.
Enjoy a leisurely lunch in pretty Binibeca
Charming Binibeca Vell is a fraud. At first glance, it appears that this maze of narrow passageways flanked with whitewashed homes and even a chapel has been there for centuries. In fact, it was built in the 1970s to resemble a traditional fishing village. Unsurprisingly, every corner is occupied by someone posing for a photo. I loved it despite all this so if they want to fake somewhere as cute as this, I say good luck to them!
Admire the boats in Fornells harbour
Fornells, in comparison, is an authentic harbour. It’s also lined with whitewashed buildings that overlook the water and rows of traditional wooden fishing boats known as llaüts. Seafood restaurants line the palm-fringed quayside and a gentle breeze keeps off the worst of the sun. I visited on a Sunday afternoon and it was very quiet, which only added to its end of season appeal.
Watch the sun set from a bar halfway up a cliff
Menorca’s best known sunset hangout is Cova d’en Xoroi. This bar and nightclub occupies a natural cave in the cliff. Perched high above the Mediterranean, the views are breathtaking and the chillout music gave it more of an Ibiza vibe than anywhere else I visited on the island. Set over multiple levels and with plenty of tucked-away nooks to enjoy a quiet conversation or party with friends, this was a pretty cool place to unwind.
First impressions were good, but this was my first visit to Menorca. Have you been? What did I miss?
A brief guide to visiting the Zugspitze
The Zugspitze is Germany’s highest mountain. By Alpine standards it’s a paltry 2962 metres above sea level, but that’s not to say it isn’t impressive close up. The peak straddles the border between Germany and Austria. If you’re keen to admire the view from the top, here’s how to go about getting up there the easy way. You can hike up, but that’s far too much effort.
First, pick a country. You can reach the summit from either side. Technically, there’s actually nothing to stop you ascending from one country and descending to the other. On the Austrian side, you need to go to the Tirolean resort of Ehrwald. From there you need the Tiroler Zugspitzbahn, a gondola which whisks passengers up the mountain in about ten minutes.
On the German side, many visitors set out from the ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Adjacent to the town’s railway station is the separate station for the train that passes through Grainau en route to Eibsee. Tickets include an ascent of the Zugspitze, though you can get as far as the Eibsee on public transport. There’s also a bus which departs from the main railway station, easily recognisable as it’s bright blue. Here’s the timetable.
The trip costs 61 euros for an adult. Though the train journey is marketed as one ticket, you’ll actually need to change trains along the way at Grainau station. One section has regular rails but look closely and you’ll see the other is designed for a cogwheel train, equipped to tackle steeper gradients. This change is no big deal, as the two trains depart from adjacent platforms and there are no ticket checks or barriers.
Incidentally you can also purchase a 2 Peaks ticket which costs 73 euros and gets you up to the AlpspiX as well. This works out cheaper than two separate tickets. The AlpspiX is a viewing platform that from your approach looks like a pair of alligator jaws. The two viewing platforms extend out from the mountain and though you don’t have the full panorama that you’ll enjoy from the Zugspitze, it’s still a great view on a sunny day.
Back to the Zugspitze train: at Eibsee you have a decision to make: alight and take the gondola to the summit or stay on board and ascend on the train. Part of the route is inside a tunnel, similar to the ascent of the Jungfraujoch I made a few years ago. As I’d already experienced the cogwheel train, I decided to take a stroll along the lakeshore of the Eibsee – it’s gorgeous – and then finish the journey to the top on the cable car, enjoying the scenery on the way. It’s also considerably quicker.
At the top, the viewing platform enables you to appreciate this extraordinary view. The view of the Alpine landscape, with its craggy peaks, forested slopes and winding valleys, is simply lovely. Looking towards Austria, you can admire even taller mountains. There are handy guides to enable you to pinpoint particular peaks but its the bigger picture that makes this so special, whichever way you face.
However, it also reveals that you’re not quite there. The actual summit of the Zugspitze is marked by an ornate gold cross and to reach it there are metal ladders. I’m not great with heights and was perfectly content to admire the view from solid ground.
What was pretty cool was crossing the border – in reality just a narrow walkway between the German side and Austrian side. I didn’t do this just to say I’d been on both sides. There’s an excellent museum in Austrian territory which covers the history of human interaction with the Zugspitze, from the first climbers to the story behind the first cable cars. If you’ve come to the top on a German ticket, it will cost you another 4 euros on top of the price of your ticket but it is worth the money.
To go back down the German side, you also need to make a decision about whether you wish to use the cogwheel train or the gondola as they depart from different places. Either is included in your ticket. To reach the cogwheel train summit station you need to first ride the short Gletscherbahn.
This is a cable car to the glacier on the side of the mountain. You can use this as often as you like so there’s no reason not to pop down to have a look or a drink in the cafe even if you plan to use the gondola to get back down to the Eibsee.
Note though that by the end of the summer season there’s not much ice and snow left up there, as you can see. I understand that when there is, you can go snow tubing. There’s still beauty in this barren landscape, and on a warm day, quite some demand for the deckchairs that face this view.
Post-pandemic travel: Austria and Germany
Throughout the pandemic, when allowed, I have travelled. I get why some people haven’t felt confident to do so. Official websites are written in complex language and even when you think you understand the rules, there’s a nagging doubt that you’ve got something wrong which will leave your booking high and dry – and unless you’ve got decent insurance, out of pocket too. For amber list countries there’s the slim but present chance that the country you picked might turn red, necessitating expensive hotel quarantine. There’s supposed to be a logic to the classification but even the industry’s so-called experts haven’t guessed correctly prior to the reviews, so what chance have the rest of us got? Then there’s the risk of catching COVID while you’re away and finding yourself stranded or worse, alone in a foreign hospital.
I get it. You’ve got to be travel mad to want to go away. But I am, and I do.
Some of the trips I’ve made have been within the UK – with my husband and the dog to Northumberland, Shropshire and the Isle of Wight, with my Dad to Dundee and Falkirk, and solo to Barra and Skye. They’ve all been great trips, but I’ve always been most excited to travel abroad. With COVID-era trips to Iceland (twice!) and Madeira under my belt, I decided it was time to head over to mainland Europe again. Just to make things complicated, I couldn’t decide between Bavaria and the Austrian Tirol, so I opted to visit both.
Flying to Munich
easyJet have been reliable, affordable and above all, flexible during the pandemic, so once again I chose this budget carrier. It’s too early in the season for their Salzburg flights so a couple of months ago I booked to fly into Munich on the late evening flight. As it would be a late arrival (oh how I miss the old days when you had a full flight schedule to choose from rather than the new normal’s take this flight or leave it offering), I reserved a room at the Novotel just up the road. Having studied the FCDO website for Germany’s entry requirements, I was a little surprised to then receive a reply which basically said we’d love to host you but we might not be able to. At that time, the COVID incidence rates came into play – basically if the rate rose too high, under local regulations, hotels would be forced to close. Things do change quickly in regards to COVID, however, so I figured I’d just wait it out and decide what to do nearer to my departure date. As luck would have it, the rules changed in time and I was able to fulfill my original booking.
Overland to Austria
With six nights to fill, I had already toyed with travelling over the border to Austria and when the country officially opened its doors to UK travellers I decided that would be the way to go. I’ve previously trained it to Salzburg; this time, I decided to make Seefeld-in-Tirol my base. I’d last visited as a child in the 1970s so had few memories of the place. Armed with notes from my Mum about where we’d stayed and visited, I checked in to the Alte Schmiede Hiltpolt, an exceptionally well-run family hotel right in the centre of the resort. I stopped off for a wander around Mittenwald on the Bavarian side of the border – very quaint – and then hopped on a local cross-border train to complete the last few minutes of the journey. Thanks to advice given by both the German and Austrian tourist boards in the UK, I already knew that my Digital Registration on Entry submission for Germany would get me into Austria with no further need for form-filling.
Where 3G has nothing to do with your phone
Both countries currently work on the three G’s principle for many scenarios where you’ll come into contact with other people: geimpft, genesen, getestet. To translate, that means you either need to be vaccinated, hold proof recovery or be in receipt of a negative test result. In my case, it was the vaccination certificate that was the documentation that got me on the plane and checked in to the hotels. Some of the cafes I ate at also asked to see it, though some were happy to take my word for it without actually looking at the paperwork. In all other respects, the situation was rather casual. When I walked across the border during a hike along the Leutasch Geisterklamm and from Germany into Austria at the summit of the Zugspitze, no checks or border formalities were made at all – just as you’d expect from two Schengen signatories.
Returning to the UK
For the last time – next time I travel the requirement to test will have been removed – I had to take a lateral flow test to be able to return to the UK. As with my Iceland trip, I’d already sent off for my do-at-home PCR test kit from Randox as the drop box is conveniently located in the next village from my home. Although I’m pleased the result came back negative this weekend, it was the booking reference from the purchase that was the crucial piece of the puzzle – without it, I’d be lacking essential information for the UK government’s Passenger Locator Form. I made sure I arrived at the airport in good time to be able to take a lateral flow test; the negative result came through about 30 minutes later. I will be glad not to have to do one next trip as it’s a bit stressful waiting for the result – even though I was pretty sure I had no COVID symptoms.
In the end, I’m pleased to report that my trip was memorable for the scenery, sunshine, food and entertainment – not for the COVID-related admin and – happily – not for a positive test result. Time to start planning the next one…
As before, this was the situation at the time of my visit in September 2021. Rules change frequently, so always check carefully before embarking on your own trip to make sure you’re abreast of current regulations when you travel.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
A dog friendly break in Shropshire
Aside from a brief visit to Ironbridge many years ago, this was my first visit to Shropshire. I’ve just returned from a few days spent in a converted cow shed – rather lovelier than it sounds – in a sleepy village close to the Shropshire Hills. What follows is by no means a complete guide to the area – for that I recommend the excellent Slow Travel Shropshire by Marie Kreft. As with other guides in this Bradt series, it will equip both first-time and return visitors with all the information they need to get the most out of this beautiful county.
Where we stayed
Home for a few days was the delightful Little Drift cottage in Edgton. Convenient for Ludlow and Church Stretton, this cute place was surprisingly spacious. The cottage shares an enclosed courtyard with the owners’ house with a couple of seats perfectly located to enjoy the late afternoon sunshine over a glass of wine. Inside, the comfortable living room and well-equipped kitchen were more than adequate for our needs, while upstairs there were two roomy bedrooms and a modern bathroom. There were enough dog-friendly touches to make this work for Edison as well – dogs allowed upstairs and a hose outside in case he got too muddy – useful for cleaning off hiking boots too.
Where we strayed
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ironbridge is handily close to Telford and as such barely a detour from our route into Shropshire. It’s the oldest iron bridge in the world, erected in 1779. In nearby Coalbrookdale in 1709, Abraham Darby had worked out how to produce iron on a commercial scale and the area soon attracted industry. With that, access needed to be improved and Thomas Pritchard, a local architect, came up with a groundbreaking design for an iron bridge. He died in 1777 but Darby’s grandson took on the job of overseeing construction. The result was the single span bridge we see today, 30 metres long and boasting five semi-circular ribs. It cost about £6000 to build, almost double the original estimate.
This charming place bills itself as instrumental in the establishment of the modern day Olympics, though with the dog in tow (not to mention COVID restrictions) we were confined to outdoor attractions only. There is a museum, however, should you be keen to learn more. Instead, we were content with a stroll through the village to admire the many historic properties and also a visit to Wenlock Priory. Managed by English Heritage, this ruined monastery stands close to fields grazed by sheep and at this time of year, plenty of lambs. It is sufficiently intact for visitors to get a sense of what it would have once been like, particularly if you take advantage of the audio guide provided.
Carding Mill Valley
Managed by the National Trust, Carding Mill Valley offers an easy but scenic walk to Lightspout Waterfall. The route is billed as moderate, as there are a few short stretches which involve some minor clambering over rocks. Edison enjoyed the chance to cool his paws in the stream, and have a drink whenever he wanted. The weather had been mostly dry in the weeks before our visit so there wasn’t a lot of water in the falls, but they were pretty nevertheless. We looped back along New Pool Hollow on a trail the National Trust described as “suitable even for children”. It led to a small reservoir before looping back to the tearoom.
The Long Mynd
For a longer walk it’s possible to continue from Carding Mill Valley to the Long Mynd on foot. Instead, we chose to drive the Burway – a largely single track road which follows the ridge. There are passing places and as we were early in the season there was barely any traffic but I assume it would get pretty busy in peak season. We parked up near the top and continued on foot – the views were breathtaking and one of the wild ponies that was grazing nearby moved in for a quick lick of the car much to the dog’s surprise. At Pole Bank beside the Triangulation Pillar there’s a signpost which points to local landmarks which is great for getting your bearings.
The Stiperstones are a collection of rocky outcrops which are formed from quartzite. Surrounded by heather, smaller rocks litter the slopes beneath. Each has a name: you’ll find Shepherd’s Rock, Cranstone Rock and Nipstone Rock. Manstone Rock is the highest point. The largest is Devil’s Chair. According to legend, the Devil was carrying stones in his apron but one of the strings broke, so he dropped them here. There’s also a ghost that roams here: a Saxon noble called Wild Edric haunts this upland area fighting an endless battle. As with other Shropshire uplands, there are some excellent mini-hikes from convenient car parks as well as longer walks.
A trio of castles
There’s no shortage of castles in this part of England though we were a little unlucky. During our visit Stokesay Castle and Ludlow Castle were both off-limits as they were being used for filming. Instead, we had to make do with Acton Burnell Castle, a ruined shell of a property built in the 13th century by Bishop Burnell, Edward I’s Lord Chancellor. It’s free to get in and we had the place to ourselves, save for a couple of squirrels. We only stopped for coffee in Shrewsbury but when COVID restrictions on indoor attractions are lifted, it’s good to know that you can take a self-guided tour of Shrewsbury Prison with a dog in tow. Instead, we looped south to another ruin, Clun Castle and a somewhat unimpressive heap of stones which once formed the fortification in the nearby town of Bishop’s Castle.
If you know this part of the world at all, you’ll be wondering why I’ve omitted Ludlow. This historic town is definitely a must for visitors. We did a drive-through only on this occasion to admire the many historic buildings but I’m keen to go back for the annual food festival which is held in September. Edison will have to stay home for that trip, as will my “I only eat brown food” husband.
Why I can’t wait to go back to New York
It’s been a while since I posted. The constant changes to predictions for summer travel have been wearing and I decided it was easiest to cope with it by simply not thinking about it at all. Nevertheless, my inbox has been flooded with press releases and updates reminding me that while the UK government won’t be updating their guidance until at least May 7th, tourism providers are chomping at the bit to get us to commit our holiday funds. Many of them sound really tempting, most of all a new initiative covering New York City. The “NYC Reawakens” tourism campaign is designed to help promote visitor attractions, hotels and restaurants. Since my last visit in February 2020, there’s a lot to get excited about.
A new observation deck
On May 1st, the Empire State Building celebrates its 90th birthday. Since it opened, other observation decks have followed suit. Last year, Edge launched at Hudson Yards. Frustratingly, my invite to step out onto the glass floor fell through at the last minute as the builders hadn’t vacated in time. Although I was told I’d be welcome next time I was in town, lockdown happened soon afterwards. Now there’s another. This autumn, SUMMIT opens at One Vanderbilt, close to Grand Central station. I’m not sure anything can top (sorry for the pun) the iconic ESB except perhaps Top of the Rock, but everything’s worth a try at least once, right?
One of the most fun tours I’ve done in New York City is definitely the movie tour operated by On Location. There have been so many films and TV shows set in New York that many of its buildings feel familiar the first time you set eyes on them in real life. One film in particular was even the reason for one of my earlier trips. After watching the John Cusack movie Serendipity, my husband and I made a repeat visit to NYC just days later – I’ve rarely been as spontaneous. This time, I’m looking forward to sitting on the Central Perk couch at the Friends Experience. I might just be tempted to watch a few more episodes of the Marvelous Mrs Maisel to get more out of the tie-in tour from the seat of her 1957 Studebaker. Harry Potter fans will be interested to learn that a dedicated merchandise shop opens in the Flatiron District at 935 Broadway on June 3rd. On the subject of shopping, the legendary Century 21 department store is set to relaunch too.
Though I love New York in the off season, perhaps this year it won’t be as crowded as usual in summer. In my book, that’s a good reason to time a visit to coincide with the opening of an exhibition of portraits of Barack Obama at Brooklyn Museum. By the time the artwork reaches the Big Apple on August 27th, it’ll have already been seen in Washington and Chicago, as is fitting. The Frick’s collection is temporarily being housed at Madison and 75th while its historic East 70th building opposite Central Park is being renovated. I’ve never been a huge art fan but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed my visit. Somewhere I’ve never got around to touring is the Intrepid, though I know it gets rave reviews from those that have. This year, for the first time in decades, visitors will be able to access the pilot escalators and, it’s hoped, the bomb escalators.
That’s plenty to be going on with, though there are also a number of exciting new hotel openings, such as Virgin’s first NYC hotel in NoMad (due this winter) and a Margaritaville Resort in Times Square (accepting bookings from June). I also promised myself I’d stay at the TWA hotel after enjoying a rather sociable visit to Connie Cocktail Lounge for drinks last year. I’m pretty tempted – are you?
Why I’m still not booked up for summer
I’ve never found it harder to resist booking a trip than over the last few days. The UK vaccine rollout continues apace; I’m finally old enough to be booked in and if all goes according to plan, I will be fully protected (as much as any vaccine can do so) by mid-June. Of course currently, international leisure travel is banned here in the UK, but each day, my social media feeds and inbox bring news of more countries that will permit entry for vaccinated travellers without the need for quarantine. Everyone, it seems, is competing to have us back. So why haven’t I booked?
One thing I learnt last year was that predicting what the situation with travel will be in the weeks and months ahead is fraught with uncertainty. After the Icelandic government altered their quarantine arrangements, I had to reschedule my trip in a hurry, dropping everything to leave almost a month ahead of my planned departure date.
The information about current entry requirements is fairly easy to obtain – my go-to is the FCDO travel advice which is a UK government site updated regularly. From this, I have a tentative shortlist of countries to which I might travel later in 2021. But as coronavirus case numbers change, so too can national policies. In other words, just because somewhere is saying they’re welcoming us now doesn’t mean their borders will still be open in the summer.
Inbound quarantine restrictions are also a factor. The UK government currently have a “red list” of countries which trigger a compulsory inbound quarantine for ten days on arrival in England. Whether that takes place at a hotel or in your own home depends on where you have travelled and the route you take to reach England:
“If you’re travelling to England you must either quarantine in the place you’re staying or in a managed quarantine hotel for 10 days because of coronavirus (COVID-19). What you need to do depends on where you travel in the 10 days before you arrive in England.”
Costs for the managed hotel option are significant and certainly a deterrent- as intended. I’m sure those who have already booked are hopeful, maybe even confident, that their destination won’t appear on the list. At some point, as yet unspecified, this requirement will be lifted, but with case rates still worryingly high in some parts of the world, there are no guarantees.
The requirement for a PCR test (or two) is an added complication. There’s a lot of variation between countries. Some offer testing on arrival with a requirement to quarantine or at least limit activities until a negative result is received. Others require tests to be carried out in advance, usually within a 72 hour window. A positive result would scupper your holiday at the last minute, as it’s hard to find an insurance policy which would cover cancellation in those circumstances.
Even if it’s negative, it could add a considerable sum to the cost of your holiday. In the UK, such tests should be done privately and are quite expensive. Abroad, the cost of testing varies a lot. Last year, I paid around £50 for two tests in Iceland but nothing for the test on arrival in Madeira. It’s worth doing thorough research in advance to avoid getting a bill you weren’t expecting. Test to release on the inbound leg currently adds another cost.
Some countries, tour operators and airlines have indicated they’ll require guests to be fully vaccinated before they are eligible to travel. In some cases, such as Iceland, this removes the need to take a PCR test so long as you carry official proof. Being vaccinated isn’t likely to be a problem for the over 50s, as we’re not permitted to travel internationally until at least May 17th. But younger travellers might need to wait until autumn until they receive that crucial second dose to qualify. Vaccine passports are also probably going to be a requirement, but the precise nature of the document, how to apply and how much it will cost is still being worked out. As with many things during the pandemic, governments are having to play catch up as the situation evolves.
The holiday itself
As numbers continue to spike in countries across the world, quite rightly governments are reacting with local or national lockdowns. When that happens, visitor attractions are an early casualty. Some trips would be worse affected by this than others: the trips I made last year to Iceland and to Madeira largely focused on walking outdoor trails. Aside from dining, much of what I did wouldn’t have been affected by the closure of museums and other indoor attractions.
Hit the jackpot, of course, and you get to experience popular places without the crowds. I visited St Petersburg just before things really kicked off last March and toured its breathtaking palaces with no waiting in line and no jostling to see their exhibits. That was an extraordinarily special thing. But it’s a gamble; if you’ve always wanted to visit a particular attraction but it’s closed, ask yourself whether that would ruin the trip. Had I been in Funchal and missed out on the famous wicker toboggan ride, I’d have been disappointed; thankfully they were able to operate.
The industry perspective
The impact of the global pandemic has been horrendous for tourism-driven companies. Even the most profitable airlines have taken a huge hit and there are no guarantees that routes or even airlines will be around. Make a booking and you do your bit to help to save the industry, but if it all goes belly-up you potentially won’t see your hard-earned cash again. If you do plan to pay upfront, check your insurance policy and make sure you’re happy with the cover it provides.
But many companies are offering flexible bookings, and we know a lot more about who did the right thing in 2020 when it came to refunds thanks to this useful survey by the travel team at Which? If your gamble pays off you can win big. Hotels have slashed their rates, meaning you can enjoy luxury on a modest budget, while outside of peak season, the cheap fares we’ve come to expect from airlines are there for the taking. However, in my experience, last minute flights in 2020 were pretty affordable and accommodation was widely available even on the day, so if you’re not too fussed about where you go and where you stay, there’s an argument for waiting.
But a word of caution: the vaccine rollout might change that for 2021 as costs are always influenced by supply and demand. If more Brits feel confident to travel abroad this summer, the prices will reflect that increase. But last March we couldn’t have imagined a winter booking could be risky, so who knows what the situation will be like later this year?
The new GHIC card
Ever the optimist, in a week when foreign travel slipped even further from our grasp, I’m now the proud owner of the new GHIC card. It replaces the EHIC card, though Brits still in possession of a valid card can use it until it expires.
What does it cover?
The UK government website says:
An EHIC or GHIC covers state healthcare, not private treatment. With an EHIC or GHIC you can get emergency or necessary medical care for the same cost as aresident in the country you’re visiting. This means that you can get healthcare at a reduced cost or for free, but planned treatment is not covered. What is covered does vary from country to country, so it’s best to check on the website. There’s a handy drop down menu for each country. You can also use the FCDO travel advice by country site; the “Health” section has helpful country-specific information. Broadly speaking, though, if the treatment would be free in the UK, then for card-holders it also would be for the countries that are part of the scheme.
Where is it accepted?
Basically, it’s valid throughout most of the EU, but there are some exceptions. The following parts of Europe are not covered by the scheme, but also didn’t accept the EHIC: the Channel Islands, including Guernsey, Alderney and Sark; the Isle of Man; Monaco; San Marino and the Vatican. In addition, UK GHIC holders are no longer covered for treatment in Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Contrary to the “global” in its name, it doesn’t entitle the holder to global cover.
What if I lose it?
The government website is clear that you’ll still be covered but you will need to apply for a PRC, which stands for the Provisional Replacement Certificate. If you lose your GHIC or it is stolen while you are away, then call NHS Overseas Healthcare Services on +44 191 218 1999. Someone will be there to help you from Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm, but not at weekends.
So why do I still need travel insurance?
One of the most costly aspects of a medical emergency or serious incident abroad is the cost of getting home. This isn’t covered by the GHIC (and also wasn’t covered by the EHIC). So for instance, if during the course of treatment you are told by doctors that you can be medically repatriated to the UK, the bill can run to thousands of pounds. Even if that’s not the case, some countries expect you to pay at least part of the cost for your treatment upfront and then claim it fully or partially back later. Having decent travel insurance is vital.
How to apply
Applying is free if you are a UK citizen. Applications are made through the NHS website and you will not need to enter any payment information. However you will need your NHS number or National Insurance number, so have it to hand. The form’s pretty straightforward and only takes a few minutes.
The USA on the big screen
It’s getting harder to write about travel plans and look back on past trips. Though the UK vaccination programme proceeds at a decent pace, there’s still a long way to go before I reach the front of the queue and who knows when I’ll be able to travel abroad again. Lockdown has been tough this time, not least because the ground is sodden from one of the wettest winters we’ve had. I’m fortunate to have plenty of work and much to do around the house. But television and film allow me to travel vicariously and get my USA fix until I can get back there in real life. This list is certainly not a critics’ roundup, but instead it represents some of my favourite movies which celebrate the diverse and wonderful country which is the USA.
When Harry Met Sally
Let’s start at the beginning. Over three decades ago, I walked across the Rainbow Bridge to the American side of Niagara Falls; a couple of years later I returned for my first trip to New York City. It was a few years after When Harry Met Sally was released. As on the big screen, I stood beside the arch in Washington Square Park, ate “what she’s having” in Katz’s Deli and strolled through Central Park. I roller-bladed on the Wollman Rink too, though these days you can only skate in winter, on ice.
Fortunately, my experience of Canyonlands National Park was nothing like that of Aron Ralston and this film, recounting the accident he had in which he lost an arm, is a tough watch. It’s set in Bluejohn Canyon, well off the main highway, which was apparently named after an outlaw called John Griffiths who had one blue and one brown eye. I never made it to this photogenic slot canyon, but the colours of the rock under the changing light bring back memories of the other, more accessible parts of the park I visited.
I do love a good Denzel Washington action thriller and no matter how many times I watch this movie, I never get bored of it. The runaway train scenes are stylishly shot as you’d expect from Tony Scott but I also love how this film has a really strong sense of place as it represents blue collar Pennsylvania. The “Stanton Curve” which is the setting for one of the most tense sequences in the movie, is actually the B & O Railroad Viaduct linking Bellaire, Ohio and Benwood, West Virginia.
The Horse Whisperer
I’m as much a fan of Robert Redford as I am of America’s wide open spaces, so this film is one I’ve watched many times. Southern Montana, specifically the ranch country at the base of the Absaroka Range south of Livingston, provided the breathtaking backdrop for much of the movie. That said, the opening sequence in a wintry upstate New York lane never loses its dramatic punch to the gut.
I’m not sure whether it’s the music but the sequence in front of the Bellagio’s fountains is a splendid way to end a film. I’m not alone; apparently when they won the TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice award for top landmark in the United States over a decade later, the film was credited for reminding visitors of their appeal. Las Vegas has grown on me; the first time we visited I took some persuasion to go at all, but having been to the Neon Boneyard and Mob Museum, I’m now a convert.
It’s rare that both a book and a movie can have the same impact; often we connect with one more than the other. Cheryl Strayed’s hike along the Pacific Crest Trail was an emotional read but translated well to the big screen. Reese Witherspoon did an incredible job but the trail scenery in Oregon and Washington was unquestionably the star.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
This award-winning film wasn’t set in Missouri. But that isn’t really the point. It was shot near Asheville, North Carolina; downtown Sylva, an hour away, became the fictitious Ebbing. It was chosen as it had a quintessentially small town feel and, I read, the buildings in its main street were close enough together to throw something from one into another. I haven’t yet made it to Asheville, but it brings to mind similar places as far apart as Colorado and Maine.
Nights in Rodanthe
My final pick is also for a place I’ve never been, though North Carolina’s Outer Banks have been on my wish list for a while. The herd of wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs that Diane Lane catches sight of do roam the northernmost Currituck Outer Banks, though that’s not where they are in the movie. Another thing that’s moved is the inn itself. Had Richard Gere survived (oh I wish that he had) he’d be surprised to find it in a different location. It was moved 2 years after the film came out to protect it from future storms.
Do you have a favourite movie that’s set in the USA? I’d love you to leave a comment and share your picks.
This blog contains a mix of images; some are my own but those illustrating Unstoppable, Ocean’s Eleven, Wild and Nights in Rodanthe are sourced from Pixabay.
Get a jump on your travel planning – trips that require forward planning
Right now we can’t travel far, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about it. In fact, some destinations require a lot of forward planning. If you’re keen to tick one of these trips off your wishlist, then you should get started on your research.
The Oberammergau Passion Play, Germany
Oberammergau’s Passion Play only takes place once every ten years and so if you miss out, there’s a long wait before you can try again. In the 17th century, this part of Germany was affected by the plague. The desperate villagers prayed to God and promised to perform the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ every decade, if no one else died. Their prayers were answered and the villagers honoured their word. In 1634 the first Passion Play took place. The promise has been kept every decade, but the 2020 performances, like many events last year, didn’t take place. Fortunately the play was postponed rather than cancelled and the organisers are now taking reservations for 2022. Make sure you buy your tickets from the official website only.
Japan’s cherry blossom
Japan’s dense population makes this a crowded country at the best of times, but in sakura season, things ramp up a notch. The Japanese believe that the delicate flowers symbolise the fragility of life, but also, just as importantly, how beautiful it is. And so everyone wants to go and see it. Cherry blossom forecasts are broadcast on television and hordes descend on some of the country’s most scenic paths, such as Kyoto’s Philospoher’s Path, to catch a glimpse of the pretty blossom. Hotels get booked out and so if you want to plan a trip to coincide with sakura season it’s wise to make some advance bookings. Failing that, ditch the idea and time your visit for autumn to see the fall colours instead.
Day of the Dead, Mexico
Mexico’s annual commemoration of their ancestors takes place countrywide, but some cities cater better to visitors with parades and funfairs. Oaxaca is one of them and to secure a room in the centrally located hotel of your choice you’ll need to reserve a year in advance. A number of hotels, such as Casa de las Bugambilias, put on a special programme of events which includes creating an altar, visiting the cemeteries and watching the fancy dress parades, known as comparsas. When I stayed in Oaxaca I had to be content with a hotel on the edge of the city as that was all that was left. Luckily, I was able to join the Bugambilias team for the excursions even though I wasn’t staying there too.
Inti Raymi, Peru
As with permits for the popular Inca Trail, tickets to the Inca Sun God festival known as Inti Raymi need to be bought well upfront. The parade that passes through Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is free to anyone who can find a piece of pavement, but if you wish to watch the ceremony up at Sacsayhuaman Fortress then you have to pay. The spectacle, which involves a colourful procession and re-enactment of an Inca llama sacrifice, is an unforgettable sight and definitely worth the effort. By booking as early as I could, I managed to get a front row seat. Even then, I nearly missed the start of the proceedings as heavy traffic up to Sacsayhuaman meant I had to jump out of the taxi halfway up and run the rest.
Gorillas, Rwanda and Uganda
When I visited Uganda a couple of years ago I opted to trek to see chimpanzees rather than the much rarer mountain gorillas – just 700 or so remain – that occupy the forests both there and in neighbouring Rwanda and the DRC. Partly, my decision was made on the basis of cost (permits can set you back up to $1500) but also as I didn’t think I was fit enough to cope with the physical side of the excursion (chimpanzees typically hang out much closer to where the trucks can park). Despite what would seem to be a prohibitive cost, permits are strictly limited and do sell out, even in Rwanda where there are more habituated groups of these magnificent primates.
Venice Carnival, Italy
Venice’s carnival is one of the oldest in the world, with a history that dates back to the 12th century (although it did take a break for almost 200 years before being reintroduced in 1979). Today, visitors from all over the world flock to this ancient city for the festivities. Masks are an important part of the costumes, made from leather, porcelain or even glass. Several different styles exist: the white bauta which covers the entire face, the shorter colombina, the medico della peste with its long beak and the volto, heaviest of all. Each has a story to tell. For a conveniently located hotel or a ticket for one of the lavish costume parties, get organised in plenty of time. It goes without saying that the same applies if you’re planning to attend the carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Jacmel, Haiti or Port of Spain, Trinidad.
The Afrosiyob train, Uzbekistan
The Afrosiyob is Central Asia’s first high speed rail service. It currently links the cities of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara; it’s expected that the train will continue on to Khiva in the near future (slower trains already run this route). Modelled on the Spanish Talgo, train buffs couldn’t wait to get over to Uzbekistan to try it out. Consequently, tickets often sell out (they’re only released 45 days beforehand in any case) and I’ve read that some unfortunate travellers have found that their tour operator has been forced to switch them to a minibus instead. I haven’t yet been, but following a wonderful trip to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan a couple of years ago I would very much like to return to this part of the world. Then, Advantour took care of my arrangements so I expect to entrust them with my tickets when I visit Uzbekistan.
This isn’t a complete list by any stretch of the imagination, but nevertheless I hope that this roundup has given you food for thought. I should also add that only the pictures of Day of the Dead and Inti Raymi were taken by yours truly; thanks to Pixabay for the rest.