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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
There’ll be plenty in the travel media over the next week or so about travel resolutions and if last year was anything to go by (who knows after the year we’ve had?) sustainability will feature heavily. I’m not a one for making New Year’s resolutions anymore, having broken so many in the past, but if I’m forced to come up with something I’d say that next year I’d like to learn to speak Icelandic.
Having spent a blissful eleven days in Iceland in the summer, it wasn’t until I returned home that I realised just how little Icelandic I had heard. Many of the hotel and restaurant staff I came into contact with were foreign nationals and those who weren’t spoke almost faultless English. That’s understandable: tourism numbers have grown exponentially in recent years and with such a small population, I guess it was inevitable that they might have to look beyond the border to fill some of the jobs that had been created.
I’m usually more of a fan of unspoilt nature, particularly in a place where the landscape is as ruggedly handsome as in Iceland. But the beautiful East Fjords port of Seyðisfjörður challenged that somewhat. Sadly it’s been in the news the last few days as there has been a terrible landslide which has caused significant damage to property. Luckily the authorities evacuated everyone in good time but they have been left with one hell of a cleanup task.
I thought it was a pretty little place: my guesthouse was right on the water’s edge and I could walk to the church – an Instagrammers’ favourite thanks to the rainbow path that leads up to it – in a couple of minutes. Travelling in August, the village was just busy enough not to feel like a ghost town yet not so overcrowded that it was overrun. I might have had a different opinion about that rainbow path if it had been. Instead, I ambled along it in a very good mood indeed having just purchased a pair of equally colourful knitted-by-nanas socks. I was enticed away only by the thought of a beer in the sunshine; in my defence the temperatures were uncharacteristically warm.
And so I have fond memories of Seyðisfjörður. When I got home, I was itching to watch the exceptional crime drama Trapped, which actually premiered back in 2015 under its Icelandic title Ófærð. The action in the first series centres on Seyðisfjörður and its ferry. So, I was excited to reminisce and “share” the place with my husband, though it turned out a lot of the scenes were shot in the North Iceland village of Siglufjörður which I had bypassed. Honestly, though, if there’s even the slimmest of chances I’d get to see Trapped’s detective Andri Ólafsson, then a repeat visit is most definitely on the cards. Season 3 is currently in production and due to air sometime in 2021.
But I digress. The show is subtitled for international audiences, rather than dubbed, so it was only then that I became aware of what I had missed. Icelandic is a delightfully melodic language and one that I could listen to just for the sake of the sound. But it’s also fiendishly difficult to pronounce, as we found out when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull blew its top a decade ago. It doesn’t help that the Icelandic alphabet has 32 characters: no c, q, w or z but letters like æ, pronounced i and þ, pronounced th.
There are even whole words where we don’t have an equivalent – like dalalæða (valley-sneak fog) or sólarfrí (an unexpected day off when it’s sunny). Others are literal translations that just wouldn’t work in most places. Take Sauðljóst, for instance, which describes the pre-dawn haze as “the time of day when there is just enough light to see your sheep.” There are phrases too, such as Þetta reddast, which strictly speaking means it will all work out fine, but more often is used when the exact opposite is the case.
All is not lost, however. Fortunately for those who intend to stick to their resolutions (not saying whether that will be me), there are similarities between some words. Fiskur means fish, hús can only be house, dóttir is not dissimilar to daughter, fjall and fell (as in our northern hills) are obviously connected and vegur (which you’ll see on numerous road signs) translates as way. And as we quickly learned from Trapped – not to mention another gripping Nordic noir series The Valhalla Murders – there are plenty of English words that Icelanders have adopted. One of these loanwords (þriller) even means thriller.
So check back in next December and see how I’m getting on. After all, it doesn’t look like I’ll be travelling for a while, so I may as well make use of the time.
At one point this year I wondered whether I’d even be writing this post. When the UK government imposed its first lockdown in March, the future of travel looked extremely bleak. Day after day I received gloomy notifications on Facebook and Twitter, not to mention countless emails from PRs and tour operators. Borders closed, airlines cancelled flights and festival organisers postponed events. I’d have liked not to have thought about travel at all, but that’s not exactly a smart move for someone who writes about it for a living.
At first, it seemed like it could all be over in a few months. Respite came in the summer but as autumn set in, numbers began to rise again and lockdowns and travel restrictions once again became the norm. On top of everything comes Brexit. Though in theory Brits should still be able to travel throughout the EU with minimal restrictions, in practice our coronavirus numbers could see us barred for an indeterminate period of time if, as now seems likely, a deal isn’t done. Before I get too depressed, let’s look back at where I escaped to this year.
February: New York City
I adore New York. There’s always something new to see or do and this trip was no exception. I paid a visit to Hudson Yards. Though I was underwhelmed with Vessel and let down by the PR who promised to get me onto the Edge observation deck ahead of the public opening but cancelled at the very last minute, I did at least get to wander around the mall. More interesting was my visit to Staten Island. Instead of just doing the classic ferry U-turn, I hopped on a bus and spent some time exploring Historic Richmond Town with a very engaging guide. Amid all the modern skyscrapers on Manhattan it’s easy to forget there’s a lot of old stuff in the city so it’s well worth checking it out and exploring the other boroughs.
March: St Petersburg
It had been a long time since my first visit to Russia when I set out from Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian bound for Ulan Bator. In the intervening years I’ve written many times for Just Go Russia and it was that experience that won me the job with Morning Calm magazine for a feature on St Petersburg. Keen to see as much of this beautiful city as I possibly could, I put together a punishing itinerary crammed with palaces, churches and other visitor attractions. I was blown away by the lavish interiors of the royal palaces (not least because there were so few tourists) but it was the quirkier side to the city that I enjoyed the most, like figuring out how to beat the machine at the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games, meeting the feline residents of a cat cafe and drinking Maverick Bumbles in trendy cafes.
By the time we reached August I was going stir crazy but my Iceland itinerary changed so many times I almost didn’t dare to believe I’d actually make it. The reward for all that uncertainty was a trip blessed with unseasonably warm weather and sunny skies. Couple this with the lack of visitors and it’s not hard to understand why this was one of the best trips I’ve had, not just in 2020, but ever. After such a stressful period, hiking in the fresh air was invigorating not just for the body but also for the soul. Some of the driving was a lot more challenging than I expected, but those terrible gravel roads led me to off the beaten track corners for some truly magical moments. I can’t wait to go back to Husavik in particular and watch another sunset from GeoSea.
Nothing would compare to Iceland but I really enjoyed my first visit to Madeira. I thought I’d just relax and do a little bit of walking but there was actually a lot more to do and see than I’d anticipated. From my base in Funchal, I could explore not only the capital – and ride one of those famous wicker toboggans – but head out around the island. I walked a couple of levada trails and saw just how pretty the Madeiran countryside is, though some of the ridiculously steep descents left me hobbling in agony! But the wow factor moment came over lunch in the northern village of Porto Moniz. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sea was brochure blue as I watched the waves break over the famous lava pools.
And that’s about it, save for a holiday to Northumberland with the dog and a lot of local walks. Right now I’d normally be at a Christmas market somewhere in Europe. Most of them have been postponed until 2021, but the thought of being somewhere crowded while case numbers are this high just doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.
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.
Happy travels for 2021, whether you see places in real life or travel vicariously through the words and pictures of others.
There’s been some discussion in the press and on social media about a possible COVID vaccine passport. Currently, as you’d expect from an unanticipated pandemic, the response to traveller demand has been inconsistent, with each nation making their own decisions about how to proceed. Some require advance or on arrival COVID testing, others have closed borders and a few have relied on track and trace. Keeping abreast of changes to know what the current situation is can be tricky, as I discovered when I travelled to Iceland in the summer.
Now there’s a vaccine on the cards, IATA has put forward its Travel Pass. This will be a digital platform where data on tests, vaccines and other relevant information can be stored securely. The scheme is due to be piloted this December and launched in the first half of 2021. The advantage of a speedy rollout is designed to dovetail with the vaccination programme – in other words the idea is to ensure that if you have a vaccine early in 2021 it would be recognised on this database.
Of course, there can be no assumption that the vaccine will work for everyone, nor will every negative test result ensure that the person sitting next to you on that plane won’t be an asymptomatic carrier. There are no guarantees and with a disease as contagious as COVID-19, even a digital travel pass won’t provide enough reassurance for some.
In the past, other travel vaccinations have been linked to entry requirements. When I visited Panama, I had to carry the yellow fever vaccination booklet to show to border officials if asked; I wasn’t. When applying for a visa to visit Uganda last year, I needed to supply that same proof of a yellow fever vaccine as a condition of receiving it. The WHO has this to say about yellow fever:
“The vaccine provides effective immunity within 10 days for 80-100% of people vaccinated, and within 30 days for more than 99% of people vaccinated. Good supportive treatment in hospitals improves survival rates. There is currently no specific anti-viral drug for yellow fever.”
Right now, results from the coronavirus vaccine trials indicate that they don’t have such a high success rate. But in terms of vaccines being a component of the decision on whether to permit you to travel, there’s obviously a precedent. Many of us can choose whether or not we wish to fly internationally and we can also therefore decide whether we are comfortable with both the risks involved in air travel and also with our personal information being stored in the manner IATA suggests.
As Australia’s relative isolation and sparse population have helped keep cases low during the pandemic, it was no surprise to read that Qantas was the first airline to come out and say they’ll require passengers to be in possession of this kind of travel passport when a vaccine’s been rolled out. Boss Alan Joyce was quoted in the press at the end of November as saying he felt it was a necessity to boost confidence and enable air traffic to get back to some kind of normal. That news didn’t go down well with UK travel agent Tradewinds, who countered with an announcement that they would cease booking their customers on the Australian airline. Their argument? They were pro-choice rather than anti-vaccine, they said. (As far as I can see, they aren’t offering tours to Uganda, which would have been interesting.)
Personally, I’m comfortable with having the vaccine – in the same way I’ve opted for typhoid, hepatitis and even the fairly useless cholera jabs in the past. So long as my personal data’s stored securely, I’m also OK with carrying a health passport. However, I respect that not everyone feels the same way. What about you?
Every now and again, the debate over whether counting countries makes someone less of an authentic traveller or not rears its head. I’ll freely admit, I’ve added places to an itinerary simply because I’m going to be just across the border and the urge to explore is strong. But it’s also great to revisit a place and dig a bit deeper. That said, there’s a temptation when you do go back to see yourself as some kind of expert. Usually, that’s not at all true, but what about when it’s your local city?
When I was offered the chance to review Jonglez Publishing’s “Secret London: An Unusual Guide”, I thought it was a chance to see just how well I knew the city. Both my parents were born there and as I’ve lived all my life under an hour from Liverpool Street station, I’ve been a frequent visitor. In that respect, although I’ve never lived in London, I do know it well and think I’m reasonably well qualified to determine whether the places included in the book should be deemed “secret” or not.
The extensive list of contents is zoned into broad geographic areas, such as Marylebone to Shepherd’s or Whitechapel to Woolwich. “Towerbridge” niggles, but the error is fixed in later pages. I’d say you have to know the city already to be able to make sense of the geography, though the flip side of that is that the book is designed for people who wish to get off the beaten track and by definition, they’re more likely to have already visited.
I’d have liked to see neighbourhoods or the more usual East, South, West and North London split to make it easier for readers to get their bearings. Greater London is dealt with in two halves, so you have BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in the same section as God’s Own Junkyard yet they’re 15 miles apart on opposite sides of a congested city.
In this respect, the guide’s more suited to curling up in an armchair than taking it out with you. In many cases, the listings seem to be designed to be sufficiently informative that you don’t need to visit at all, with tons of background and a colourful picture. However, there are helpful maps throughout which enable you to concentrate on a small part of the city and hop from sight to sight should you wish. The inclusion of bus numbers as well as Tube stations is also useful.
Largely, the buildings and curiosities that the authors include are intriguing. One of the guide’s greatest strengths is to gently remind you that many of these things are hidden in plain sight. Some of the attractions featured are a surprise: Brixton is home to London’s last windmill in full working order, while Strand Lane’s Roman Baths are neither Roman nor originally built as a bath.
There’s a lot in here that is already familiar to me, but there’s also a lot which isn’t.Though it’s possible to dip in and out of this guide, it’s the kind of book that rewards those who give it a little more time. There are a few missed opportunities, such as an entry for the Kingsway Tram Subway that makes no mention of the Crossrail project. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, anyone hoping to visit some of these attractions is going to need to check online listings as many of them are currently closed.
Overall, I think it’s a worthy addition to any bookshelf – not to mention its gift potential if you’re stuck for present ideas. I can’t wait to take it up to London with me and see some more bits of our fascinating capital now I know more of the background.
Many thanks to Jonglez for the gift of several of their guides, including the Secret London guide which retails at £12.99. For a full list of titles visit the Jonglez Publishing website.
These are stressful times but one of the best ways to find a way through this with your sanity intact is to walk. As you connect with your surroundings, you’ll find yourself using more of your senses – you won’t just see what’s around you but be able to smell, hear and touch it. Slowing down the pace gives you time to appreciate what’s around you in a way that taking a scenic drive cannot. Here in Essex, thanks to our flat topography, walking really is accessible to everyone.
Even before the pandemic, Country Walks magazine was encouraging us to get out and explore on foot to improve our fitness. Its Walk 1000 Mile challenge was as simple as it sounds; walk, record, share. If you walk every day, that’s less than 3 miles in one go each time you lace up those boots. The initiative launched early in January, with a year suggested for covering the 1000 mile target, but there’s no reason you can’t start whenever you like. Use an app such as Map My Walk or Strava (not just for runners and cyclists) to keep track of the distance you’ve covered.
Be mindful of the lockdown rules
Before you head out on a cross-county drive to explore somewhere new, bear in mind the UK government’s lockdown guidance, which currently extends until December 2nd. Walking with members of your household or support bubble is permitted, and it’s also legal to meet with one other person. Plan ahead so you’re abreast of seasonal parking options and road closures.
Give other walkers space; carry a mask for areas which might be busy, such as queuing for a car park ticket or a takeaway coffee. Carry some hand sanitiser to ensure you don’t unwittingly pick up germs from a gate or bench. We might not all agree with the government’s policy, but restrictions will only ease if the numbers come down and we all have a responsibility to try to achieve that.
Where to find information
If you’re looking for a walking book there are a number of good choices, but one of the best is Essex Outstanding Circular Walks by Dennis and Jan Kelsall. Suggested routes are grouped by length, giving you a good idea of how long they might take, and there are clear maps too. Best of all, you’ll conveniently end up where you started.
There’s also a wealth of online content available. If you’re not able to get connected at home, sixteen Essex libraries are open and 45 minute computer sessions are bookable in advance. These are the libraries which remain open during the lockdown: Basildon, Billericay, Braintree, Brentwood, Chelmsford, Clacton, Colchester, Dunmow, Epping, Harlow, Harwich, Maldon, Rayleigh, Rochford, South Benfleet and Witham.
A useful starting point on the internet is the Essex Walks site. It has a useful map search facility which means you can identify walks near to your home. It also splits walks into long and short, allowing you to pick a route which is suitable for your fitness level and the amount of time you can spare. Fellow travel writer Helen Moat wrote a great round-up piece for Wanderlust magazine this summer, which mostly features walk ideas that showcase our varied coastline.
If you’re on Facebook, then I recommend you check out the Rambling Essex group. Largely driven by member-suggested content, this is where you’ll find the local walks and hidden gems that can only come from those who live here. The admin team have been diligently uploading all sorts of walking routes, so if you’re looking for inspiration, this is the place to find it.
Some of my favourite Essex walks
Woodland: Marks Hall Arboretum
We’re blessed with many woodland walks in Essex: well-trodden paths cut through Hockley Woods, Billericay’s Norsey Woods and Belhus Country Park in south Essex. Further north, the county boasts hidden gems such as Blakes Wood near Danbury, Chalkney Wood near Earls Colne and Weeleyhall Wood near Weeley. Let’s not forget Epping Forest, which remains an unspoilt tract of countryside despite its proximity to London.
Marks Hall Arboretum, in my opinion, is in a league of its own. This time, it will stay open during lockdown; the mix of formal planting and natural woodland makes this place a delight to visit at any time of year, but it’s especially lovely in autumn with its palette of ochre, burnt orange and crimson. It’s becoming increasingly popular, so check ahead for opening times and car park information.
Village walks: Thaxted
Inland, there are plenty of walks which loop within and around some of the county’s cutest villages. Coggeshall’s packed with history, not least as you stroll past Grange Barn or Paycocke’s House. A walk from Bradwell-on-Sea soon takes you to England’s oldest chapel, St Peter-on-the-Wall, built in 654AD. Follow St Peter’s Way 40 miles across Essex and you’ll reach another historic place of worship, Greensted Church, the oldest wooden church in the world.
The Essex countryside is also littered with windmills. The oldest, a post mill, stands overlooking the chocolate box village of Finchingfield but as far as walks are concerned, my vote goes to Thaxted. A loop trail reveals not just an early 19th century tower mill but also Dick Turpin’s house, thatched almshouses and the beautiful 15th century Guildhall.
Riverside walks: the Wivenhoe Trail
It’s really hard to pick a riverside favourite as there’s just so many to choose from. The charms of the River Stour at Dedham Vale are well-documented, but it’s also a treat to walk east from Manningtree to Harwich, passing Wrabness and the quirky House for Essex along the way.
The Blackwater at Wickham Bishops reveals an almost hidden wooden trestle railway bridge tucked out of sight in a copse, the last of its kind in the country. Not far away, the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation has a number of highlights, including Paper Mill, Hoe Mill and Beeleigh locks, not to mention Heybridge Basin, of course. The Crouch is pleasant too, particularly the north shore from Fambridge to Burnham-on-Crouch.
I do enjoy the five miles or so from Hythe in Colchester to Wivenhoe. The industrial heritage at the start of the trail is fascinating – you won’t miss the Colne Lightship in its red livery but there are some unusual wooden carvings that are easier to overlook. Wivenhoe, with its pretty historic cottages and colourful boats, is a complete contrast.
Coastal: Walton on the Naze
Surprisingly little of the Essex coastline boasts broad sandy beaches, as the presence of salt marsh creates a buffer between the villages and the sea in places. At RSPB Old Hall Marshes, near Tollesbury, and at Wallasea Island, footpaths make use of the sea walls for hikes that are guaranteed to blow away the cobwebs. That’s not to say we’re short of sand, however, from the busy beaches flanking Southend Pier to the historic iron lighthouses on Dovercourt’s Blue Flag beach.
In my opinion, the stretch of coastline between Jaywick and Hamford Water takes some beating. Though the grassy dunes of Jaywick are photogenic and the greenswards at Clacton and Frinton are ideal for a dog walk, northerly neighbour Walton is head and shoulders above the rest. With an 18th century clifftop tower, wrecked pillboxes, promise of shark’s teeth fossils and a nature reserve that’s home to migratory birds during the winter months, what’s not to love?
One last thing: show respect for local landowners
I’m always saddened to read of conflicts between ramblers and local landowners. Private land is what it says, whether we like it or not. Farmers out in their fields using machinery shouldn’t have to worry about people straying into their path – it’s important to remember that 72% of Essex is agricultural land, so stick to footpaths and marked trails if you’re venturing out into the countryside.
I spent five days exploring Madeira and it wasn’t nearly enough to discover its charms. Based in Funchal, I enjoyed several early morning strolls around the old town while waiting for buses to take me around the island. Those walks revealed a novel art project instigated by local photographer José Maria Zyberchem in 2010, coincidentally about the same time as Instagram began. It’s called the Art of Open Doors – and as it’s evolved, now centres largely on Rua de Santa Maria in the Zona Velha. The first piece of artwork on that street – at number 77 – was commissioned in 2011 and the project’s still growing.
Homes, restaurants and shops combine to form one wonderful outdoor art gallery, as diverse as it is compelling. Some owners were more reluctant than others, particularly at first, but this is the kind of project that snowballs. The more doors they include, the greater the impact of the whole installation. As property changes hands, some of the art is painted over. In one or two cases, vandals have spoiled the original work. But, many of the doors are as they were when the artist packed away their brushes.
The Painted Doors Project, as it’s also known, provides an interesting insight into Madeiran culture, with images of poncha, folk dancing and the island’s colourful flora all making an appearance. Some artists make imaginative use of door knockers and post boxes within the design. Some are modern in style, others contemporary. All of them help to breathe new life into an area that was definitely looking a little rough round the edges.
Do you have a favourite? I’m hard pushed to choose and always a sucker for a dog, but if I had to pick, then perhaps the mermaid.
As more and more of Europe experiences a rise in coronavirus cases, and the weather worsens as we head into winter, my thoughts are inevitably turning to travel further afield. I hate November with a passion. Since I’m no longer tied to school holidays, that means I can escape to far-flung destinations such as Barbados for a bit of autumnal sunshine. But this year’s a little different, of course. After my recent trip to lovely Madeira, tentative hopes to visit perhaps the Azores or Santorini were dashed due to the lack of direct flights and I remain wary of travelling long haul lest the situation worsens and I end up stranded.
I’m not even sure I’d enjoy the experience, if what’s on offer in Cuba and St Lucia becomes the norm. I’ve enjoyed trips to both those Caribbean countries and part of the appeal as an independent traveller is to explore on my own. But right now that wouldn’t be possible. Take St Lucia for example. Travellers of many nationalities including Brits are permitted to fly; BA are operating direct flights and TUI have just followed suit. So long as you can present a recent negative test result, you’re in. But that’s when things get a little more constrained.
The advice on the UK’s FCDO website reads:
“You must remain at your COVID-certified accommodation for the duration of your stay in St Lucia unless you are on an excursion arranged by the hotel. You may not leave the property by vehicle or on foot during your stay.”
To elaborate, St Lucian authorities permit travellers to stay in certain hotels. There are 30 such places on the official list, though not all of them have opened quite yet. No worries there. In fact, the hotel in Rodney Bay I chose before is on the list and I’d be more than happy to stay there again. The issue is what happens when I want to leave the resort. Current regulations state that unless I choose from a predetermined list of excursions with an approved list of operators then I’m legally bound to stay put. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s how you usually travel, but I don’t enjoy holidaying like that.
The experience in Cuba would, from my perspective, feel equally restrictive. Last time I visited this fabulous country, I split my time between Havana and Trinidad. I explored sugar plantations by day, travelled in style by vintage car and danced late (for me) into the night fuelled by sweet but potent canchancharas. If I were to visit right now, I wouldn’t be landing at Havana Airport – it’s only open for repatriation and humanitarian flights. The situation is a little more relaxed than it was before – visitors are allowed to rent cars and aren’t entirely confined to the beach resorts. And sometimes, as it was for me, it’s cheaper and easier to see the sights on an organised excursion.
Nevertheless, Havana remains off limits, as does Ciego de Avila, Spriritus and Pinar del Rio. Note too that although tourist flights to other parts of the country are operating, the current FCDO advisory states:
“Visitors who fly directly in Jardines del Rey Airport (for holidays in Cayo Coco, Cayo Cruz or Cayo Guillermo) may rent cars, but cannot leave the Cayos.”
I’m not suggesting for one minute that the Cuban or St Lucian governments aren’t doing the right thing. They have a responsibility to take care of their citizens and this is an effective way of balancing that duty with the need to kickstart their economies in a COVID-safe way. Tourism is a major income generator for both islands, as it is across the wider Caribbean region. A number of islands are now deemed safe destinations for British tourists, including Barbados, Antigua and the British Virgin Islands. Each is managing arrivals in their own way. The information’s easy to find and it’s up to you to decide whether you would be able to have the kind of holiday you hope for.
For me, a trip isn’t on the cards until I can travel my way. I guess I’ll just have to be content with Tenerife, but as the UK heads into Lockdown 2.0 even that will probably have to wait until 2021. What about you?
Funchal’s wicker toboggans might not give you a rollercoaster-level thrill, but their long history makes riding one a must for any visitor to the Madeiran capital.
I stopped off at The Madeira Story in downtown Funchal for a little background before catching the cable car up to Monte. I learned that people started to use the wicker toboggans, known as “carros de cesto”, back in the 19th century.
Wicker is a big deal in Madeira; the industry is centred on the village of Camacha. Willow grows abundantly on the island, thanks to its humid climate. Once harvested, the willow sticks are boiled to make them flex more easily, an attribute that’s vital if they’re to be crafted into baskets, furniture – and toboggans.
Riding a toboggan provided the means of getting down the very steep hill from Monte to the Livramento neighbourhood in comfort. Having walked down from the end of the toboggan ride I can attest to the painful toll those gradients have on your toes, knees, calves and thigh muscles. But if you look closely at these old photos, you’ll also see the steps in the cobbles, designed to make it easier to walk – but probably resulting in a much bumpier ride than that you’d experience today.
Today’s carreiros wear much the same white uniform and straw boater as their 19th century counterparts. However in some old photos the carreiros wear something akin to a funnel on their head instead. I’d love to know what these peculiar hats were called and when they were phased out.
In pairs, the carreiros drag the wicker cart on ropes to get some momentum, before running to the back ready to steer. Gravity pretty much does the rest – the cart’s greased wooden runners glide surprisingly smoothly on the tarmacked streets.
At junctions (these are proper roads used by cars too), spotters keep an eye out for oncoming traffic and ensure someone gives way. If it’s the toboggan, passengers must rely on the braking power of the carreiros’ shoes. Fortunately, despite reaching speeds of up to 30kph – some say even faster – they seem to be pretty adept at stopping. It’s fun rather than terrifying, but an activity I’d definitely recommend.
Some sources claim that Ernest Hemingway pronounced the ride “the most exhilarating” of his life during his 1954 stopover on the island. But there are no written accounts penned by the author; instead, it’s likely that the only Hemingway to have experienced the toboggans during that trip was his wife Mary, who wrote about it herself.
Rain was threatening and so the carreiros were beginning to pack away the wicker toboggans. This involved considerably less effort than a century ago. Back then, if this picture is to be believed, the toboggans were carried downhill on their shoulders.
These days, all that has to be done is to bump the cart down a few steps, using the ropes to guide it. From the bottom, it’s hoisted onto a waiting flatbed truck and piled up neatly for the transfer to the depot.
To ride the toboggans:
The Monte base is a short walk from the top of the Teleférico do Funchal, which departs from the Funchal waterfront near the bus station. A one way adult ticket costs 11 euros. The toboggan ride costs 30 euros for two passengers (solo travellers pay a hefty 25 euros). The ride lasts just a couple of minutes. From the end of the ride at Livramento at the junction between Caminho do Monte and Estrada do Livramento, a taxi will cost you 10 euros back down to the cable car station. Save your money and instead, catch a city bus (#19 departs from across the street and #26 nearby) for a fifth of that cost.
One of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time is Eurovision Song Contest: the story of Fire Saga. Most of the Icelandic scenes were filmed in October 2019 in Húsavík, in the north of Iceland. While I’m not usually a fan of Will Ferrell, who plays Lars Erickssong in the movie, I do share his love for the insanity of Eurovision. So too, apparently, do Icelanders – according to Visit Húsavík, over 98% of them tune in when the contest is broadcast each May. When I had the opportunity to visit Húsavík this summer, I decided to check out some of the places featured in the movie.
Húsavík is well known in Iceland as a whale watching village and it’s no surprise that the cetaceans feature in scenes from the movie. Tours depart regularly and head out into Skjálfandi Bay where it’s common to see humpback, minke, white-beaked dolphin, harbour porpoise and blue whales. Occasionally it’s possible to see them from land (try GeoSea) but as Erick Erickssong (Lars’ father) is a fisherman, if you’re really going to experience Húsavík as portrayed in the movie you should get out on a boat.
Lars’ family home
The distinctive two-storey home is easy to find as it sits right near the harbour on the main drag. It’s located on the corner of Héðinsbraut and Hafnarvegur. Built in 1903, it is a wooden structure painted a rather lovely shade of blue. A residential property in real life, the apartment that covers the top two floors of the house was recently put up for sale for 24.5 million ISK, about £140000. Bargain!
Captain’s Galley bar
Named “Skipstjórakráin” in Icelandic, disappointingly, this bar isn’t a real pub. Instead, it’s the home of the Húsavík Academic Center (HAC). The signage was removed for the purposes of filming so the building could be used for the exterior shots. It’s another centrally located building, close to the harbour; the shape and recognisable gables make it simple to identify. But like many things on the big screen, things aren’t exactly what they seem – according to IMDB, the interior scenes were filmed back in the UK at Chobham Rugby Club.
This iconic wooden church was built in 1907 and overlooks the harbour in the centre of Húsavík. In the film, Lars rings the church bell to announce that he and singing partner Sigrit have been chosen as the Icelandic entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s a pretty church and well worth a quick nose inside.
The bus stop
The bus shelter where Lars and Sigrit wait for their ride to Reykjavik isn’t a bus stop at all – it actually sits beside the astro turf pitch belonging to Völsungur’s football team. Hinrik Wöhlers, director of the Húsavík Chamber of Commerce and Tourism was reportedly keen on shifting one of the two shelters to the harbourside location seen in the film. When I visited in August 2020 they were both still at the football ground.
The elf houses
Though it’s common to see elf houses in Iceland, these particular ones were a prop installed specifically for the movie. However, the Cape Hotel were keen to tap into the interest created by the film and faithfully recreated this tiny residential street in the hotel garden. As well they opened a pop-up Ja Ja Ding Dong bar; it’s outside so it’s likely to remain a summer attraction only. I spoke to the manager and asked him whether he was a fan of Eurovision himself. “I am now,” he said with a grin.
The village of Húsavík is one of the prettiest in the country so even if you’re not a Eurovision fan you should really add this to your Iceland itinerary. It’s a great base from which to drive the Diamond Circle route which features Dettifoss waterfall, Ásbyrgi Canyon and Lake Mývatn. But if you do love to watch Eurovision, then find your way to this petition which calls for Swede Molly Sandén aka My Marianne to perform Húsavík (My Hometown) at the contest in 2021:
The changing rules
The Icelandic government has acted quickly and effectively throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Regulations have changed fast to address changes in the infection rate and if you’re planning a holiday, you need to do so on a flexible basis to adapt your trip to those varying parameters.
When I booked my flights I planned to visit Iceland in September; I’d already had to switch my flights from Gatwick to Luton after easyJet altered their schedules. In June, when I made those arrangements, it was on the understanding that I would need to either quarantine for 14 days or take a single COVID test on arrival and then, so long as my result was negative, continue with my holiday. The test was originally quite expensive but was later reduced to about £50. In the grand scheme of things that wasn’t excessive.
At the end of July, the rules were changed. A second test 4-6 days later would now be required at no extra charge. While testing in the capital was easy to arrange, my itinerary placed me on the other side of the country. The regional health care centres that had been set up had shorter hours and as a consequence, I would need to be a little more flexible. Adding an extra level of inconvenience was the fact that I was due to fly out on a Monday which meant if I couldn’t arrange a test on Day 4, I’d have no way of being tested on day 5 or 6 as weekend appointments weren’t available.
Then late on Friday August 14th came the announcement that from August 19th, all arriving passengers would be given the choice of either a 14 day quarantine or taking a COVID test, quarantining for 5 days and then taking a second test. At the time it was unclear just what the restrictions on movement for those five days would look like. By the time the government website was likely to be updated, I’d probably be stuck with it, or be forced to cancel.
I decided to bring my trip forward to depart in mid-August instead of September and thus avoid the need to quarantine. A few hours on the computer that weekend and a slightly condensed itinerary (to reduce the amount of time in Reykjavik) left me with a ten day trip during which I could pretty much cover the same ground as before.
What was the testing process like?
Passengers on our early morning easyJet flight were invited to disembark row by row. Instead of the usual jockeying for position, this staggered approach meant that there was no queuing in the terminal building. Each person, continuing to wear the mask they had worn during the flight, was called in turn to one of a bank of cubicles for their test.
I was invited to sit and to remove my mask for the test to be administered. The throat swab was done first and was relatively comfortable. The second, a swab to the top of the nose, was more intrusive and made my eyes water. But like the vaccinations for tropical diseases I’ve had in the past, such medical procedures are just part and parcel of travel.
Awaiting the result
In all I was off the plane and out to the rental car centre in well under an hour. The rental was ready and with paperwork filled in and a socially distanced handover, I was soon on my way. I’d made the decision to avoid Reykjavik this time. Though the number of coronavirus cases in Iceland has been very small, the majority have, not unsurprisingly, been in the capital region. Instead, I headed east. It was within the regulations to stop at a supermarket, though visitors at that time were asked to keep clear of restaurants and other busy places until their test result came through. In most respects my holiday continued as normal and I was free to book tours.
I drove on for a socially distanced hike at Seljalandsfoss waterfall. I’d been there on my wedding day in 2014 but it wasn’t practical to visit the almost concealed falls nearby. This site would usually be busy in August as it is one of the few waterfalls you can walk behind. However, this year numbers have been considerably lower. My negative test result came through by text around 4 hours after I had been tested, which was a relief. Despite having no symptoms and being cautious at home, there was still that tiny chance of being asymptomatic.
The problematic second test
Four days into my trip I’d reached the tiny village of Borgarfjörður Eystri down a gravel road and over a mountain pass in the East Fjords. The nearest test centre was at Egilsstaðir, in a temporary structure beside the main supermarket, but as I’d planned to stay the next night in Seyðisfjörður, another village in the same region, that wasn’t a big deal. The test centre was open mornings only, so I could call in and get tested, spend part of the day hiking in Stuðlagil canyon and then head out to Seyðisfjörður by mid-afternoon.
There was just one small spanner in the works: the Icelandic authorities suggested it wasn’t possible to take the second test until you had received an official barcode. This would come through late afternoon. By that time, the Egilsstaðir centre would be closed and by the time the next closest testing centre opened, it would be Monday afternoon. By then, I would be somewhere on the road beyond the centre in Akureyri and the remote West Fjords region.
A face to face solution
I decided the best thing to do would be to go to Egilsstaðir anyway and discuss it with them face to face. By then, four days and one hour had elapsed since my first test at Keflavik. At first, I was told it wasn’t possible to test without a barcode. When I explained that the following Wednesday (day 9) would be the next time I’d be close enough to a test centre to avoid a 6 hour round trip drive, they had a look on the computer to see if the system would allow a test to be registered. Fortunately, it could and I was identified via my passport number rather than the missing barcode. Incidentally that barcode eventually came through about 5pm.
Holidaying almost as normal
Mostly I’d chosen ensuite hotel rooms for this trip, whereas in normal circumstances I’d have probably opted for guesthouses with shared bathrooms to save money. I decided I would feel more comfortable being the only person to use the shower and toilet facilities and considered the extra cost worth the additional peace of mind.
Different hotels operated slightly different policies for breakfasts; in many cases the breakfast buffet was still put out, but with separate sittings and fewer tables to spread guests as far as possible. Masks were not necessary in public areas, but the use of hand sanitiser and sometimes also gloves was encouraged. I chose to eat picnic lunches most of the time, though the lobster rolls from the van at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon were too tempting to pass up.
The sunny and surprisingly warm weather meant I could also eat al fresco most evenings on terraces or outdoor patios. I ate in just a couple of times, once in a restaurant that had just two tables. The absence of North American tourists coupled with the presence of Spanish and Italian tourists meant that when eating early (as is my usual preference), places were largely empty. Given that hand sanitiser was absolutely everywhere (even in remote long drop toilets on nature reserves) and staff were enforcing social distancing, I felt safe all the time.
Sightseeing in a pandemic
One of the big advantages of choosing Iceland over a city break destination is that most of the visitor attractions are out in the countryside and away from people. I did have a couple of disappointments: the Elf School in Reykjavik has closed for the duration of the pandemic and a Eurovision-themed walking tour I’d planned to do in Húsavík was not operating. I also found that several places had shorter than expected seasons, such as the Keldur turf houses, now part of a farm museum. But the ride I booked with Glacier Horses operated as normal, the horses enabling social distancing with no need for masks.
I did take two boat trips. The first, a Zodiac excursion out onto Jökulsárlón, required the use of weatherproof gear and lifejackets to be worn throughout the trip. The latter were disinfected after each boatload of passengers returned but I didn’t see similar measures being taken with the suits. In contrast, on the whale watching trip in Húsavík, the company made it clear before payment was taken that no additional gear would be provided. Lifejackets were stored on board and accessible to passengers but no one wore one. As it was relatively mild and calm weather, I was fine in my own winter jacket and waterproof trousers – in fact, I didn’t even need those out of the wind.
I also couldn’t resist the geothermal baths that Iceland is so famous for. On previous trips I’d visited the Blue Lagoon but this time it didn’t fit in with my plans. Instead, I enjoyed visits to the Mývatn Nature Baths and also GeoSea in Húsavík. The latter in particular blew me away with its breathtaking location overlooking Skjálfandi Bay and a setting sun reflected in both the baths and the sea.
Would I do it again?
As someone who loves to plan trips meticulously – a hang up from travelling as a teacher when trips had to be scheduled in peak season – it was quite a big deal to be so spontaneous. Iceland once again didn’t disappoint, and to be able to travel in such glorious summer weather minus the usual crowds was a huge privilege.
To keep abreast with current visitor regulations and procedures, visit covid.is where you’ll find more details of testing, what you can and cannot do while in quarantine and up to date case numbers by region.
A review of Glacier Horses; I booked with them at the very reasonable rate of 11000 ISK (just under £60) for a 1.5 hour ride.
One of my favourite things to do while on holiday is to ride a horse. I’ve ridden a bit, but would still class myself as a novice. That said, seeing the countryside on horseback is well within my capabilities – so long as the ride’s limited to a few hours or so. This was going to be my third trip to Iceland but the first time I’d had the time to ride. Originally, I’d planned a September holiday, but in this new era of viruses and government quarantines, the whole thing was brought forward and the trip shortened by four days. I had thought about riding near Húsavík, in the north of Iceland, but it was looking difficult to fit in all the things I wanted to do up there, not least whale watching.
I had spent the day hiking in Skaftafell, part of the Vatnajökull National Park, drawn by a desire to see Svartifoss. This beautiful waterfall was even better in real life than it had looked in the photos I’d seen online, with basalt columns like chubby sticks of charcoal framing the foaming cascade. You can imagine I was in a great mood as I drove back along the ring road towards my hotel, not least as the weather had delivered almost cloudless blue skies.
As I rounded a gentle bend, the glacier on my left, a sign caught my eye: Glacier Horses. That was one of those serendipitous moments that make a holiday special: I had more time to ride during this part of my trip, making this the perfect place to do so if they could fit me in. On reaching the hotel, I had a look at their website and dropped them an email about a ride the following afternoon.
I was impressed at the speedy response I received from Sophia and the following afternoon parked up in a farmyard at the end of a gravel track. I was greeted by a very friendly dog and very soon after, Sophia who would act as our guide and the other rider who would be coming out with us. Sophia explained how we would saddle up and get acquainted with the horses. Beginners (and those like me who hadn’t ridden for a while) would be especially reassured by this opportunity to test their newly acquired skills within the safe confines of a corral.
Sophia had paired me with a beautiful mare named Fluga. She was definitely a head-turner, a spirited horse but very gentle too. At first she took a little bit of getting used to as she didn’t need as firm handling as the horses I’d ridden back home, but we were soon in sync and ready to really enjoy the ride. One of the reasons I’d been so tempted with this particular location was the incredible backdrop from the glacier itself and riding out with a view such as that was a real treat.
With Sophia leading the way, we headed out into the countryside, fording a couple of small streams, crossing grassy meadows and even cutting through what South Iceland would call a forest. We would probably term it a thicket, with low-growing birch trees that took on more of a shrub form than a tree, I’m guessing because of high winds and chilly temperatures. Regardless of what you call it, the place was very pretty apart from the occasional darting sheep that had been spooked by our arrival. Nothing fazed Fluga though.
We stopped briefly for Sophia to pick a few berries for us to try. They were delicious and I couldn’t help noticing how much smaller and more flavoursome the wild blueberries were compared to those back home. The remains of a long-abandoned turf house also made an interesting diversion. And all the while we had that fabulous view in the background of one of the tongues of ice that drop down from Europe’s largest glacier. It really was a magical place.
One of the reasons I was so keen to add Iceland to the list of places in which I had ridden was because of something called the tölt. This is an extra gait that is peculiar to this breed; there’s another, dubbed “flying pace” that seemed more than a little ambitious for anyone but an expert in the saddle. At home we have horses that walk, trot, canter and gallop. For a beginner, even a trot can feel a bit bumpy. Not so the tölt, described correctly as a four-beat lateral ambling gait. If you’re no equine expert and that doesn’t mean anything to you, it basically equates to “engage armchair mode”. This YouTube video helps explain it:
You shorten the reins a little, sit back in the seat and the horse does the rest. The speed increases, but the ride actually gets smoother than if you are walking. None of the up down, up down that you get when you trot at home. It’s something that Icelandic horses instinctively know how to do, and I was told it was Fluga’s favourite gait. It is so comfy, it rapidly became mine too. Sophia joked that it was the best treatment she knew for a bad back and I have to say, when we finished up, it seemed like she was right. I can’t wait to go back.
If you’re planning a trip to Iceland and want to ride too, here is where you’ll find Glacier Horses:
Address: Sel in Svínafell, 785 Öræfasveit, Iceland (between Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, just south of the ring road.
GPS coordinates: N 63°57´46.0″ W 16°52´39.6″
More information on their website: http://glacierhorses.is/
It’s less than a month until I plan to be in Iceland. Usually by this point, I’d be a bit excited at the thought of a big trip. This year it’s a little different.
Iceland will be my first trip since I returned from Russia in March. It’s been decades since I’ve been home for this long. Aside from a scenic drive through the Dedham Vale the other week, I’ve done no exploring at all. Since the UK lockdown restrictions have eased, it’s possible to take a holiday, but I’ve preferred to take a cautious approach, waiting to see what the numbers look like after others have taken their summer holiday.
That may or may not prove to be a good decision. I’ve tried to plan as far as possible to minimise financial risk. As fewer people are travelling at the moment, I don’t think I’m taking too many chances leaving bookings to the last minute. I have almost all my hotels booked on a free cancellation basis which also leaves me free to tweak the itinerary if I want to. I’m holding off on fixing up any tours, concerned that I might not get my money back if I do.
Iceland as a potential destination was a considered decision. First, the coronavirus numbers there have been low, as you’d expect from a sparsely populated island with a developed infrastructure. Second, this year would prove a good opportunity to tour at a time when visitor numbers were relatively low again – since my last trip in 2014, the popularity of the country has increased at a rapid rate. Third, the exchange rate has improved slightly on recent years, making this expensive country a little more affordable (and it’s not like I’ve spent much on travel this year!) Fourth, and most importantly of all, it’s a fabulous country but one I’ve not toured extensively, so this is the chance to see the east, north and west of the country, such as Dettifoss, pictured below.
It was back in June when I booked my flights, choosing easyJet from Gatwick as the closest option. A week or so ago, I was starting to think about car hire and for some reason decided to check the flight times via easyJet’s website rather than from my emails. It was lucky I did, as the schedule had been altered and now flights to Keflavik airport from LGW aren’t starting until October. The website actually reads “no flights available” – the word cancellation isn’t used anywhere.
To date, I haven’t received notification from easyJet that the flights are cancelled. I think this is poor; the situation’s not likely to change and so giving travellers more time to adjust their arrangements would be the right thing to do. I’ve decided to be proactive, while alternative flights are available, though in practice that means travelling from Luton instead. I’m not too happy about that as it’s not a great airport and also parking is more limited. But more significantly, easyJet’s behaviour has knocked my confidence in them as a carrier and I think that will influence me in the future. Given that the Luton parking has to be prepaid, I’ve decided to make the arrangements as late as possible so I don’t end up with a booking I can’t use.
I have a Plan C: Icelandair from Heathrow – but that’s even further to drive and means I’d be stuck with more expensive parking. In normal circumstances I’d prefer to travel by train to Heathrow but I don’t want to travel by Tube or train unless there’s no alternative. I should add I’m not complaining – after all it’s my choice to travel in these uncertain times.
Government policy has also changed my plans already. I’ve been watching Europe-wide numbers like a hawk, as our quarantine and FCO advice policies are subject to change without notice. But as I work from home and can quarantine with minimal impact, it’s actually Iceland’s policies that might have more of an effect. The rules when I booked my flights were that I would need to pay for a COVID test on arrival at Keflavik Airport. If I were unlucky to test positive, I’d need to go into quarantine for 2 weeks, but this would be at the expense of the Icelandic government.
The policy is now different for those opting for longer trips as I have. 4-6 days after the first on-arrival test, I will need to report for a second one. It’s free, but I will need to take time out of my sightseeing schedule to attend my appointment. Fortunately, this second test doesn’t have to be done at the airport, which is just as well as I plan to be over in the East Fjords by then. I understand why the Icelandic government have taken this step and fully support it.
Of course I hope that both tests will be negative. I’m not unwell at the moment, I have no symptoms of the virus and for the next few weeks, I intend to remain home unless I really need to go out which should minimise my risk of catching it. I’m fortunate to live in a small village and in a part of the country which at the time of writing (let’s not jinx things) has fewer cases than the England average. But who knows what might happen? My September 2020 trip could well become a September 2021 trip. So I’m trying not to get too excited, in case my plans come crashing down around me. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be desperately disappointed if they do.
Recently, a friend invited me to her beach hut. During the drive to the coast, the subject of toilets came up. A bucket, if you want to know. Ah, she said, I normally warn people before they come that the facilities are what you’d call basic. But you, well, you’ve probably seen much worse, so I didn’t think I’d need to say anything.
She was right, of course. Over the course of my travels I have had more than a few memorable toilet encounters. I’m sure you can say the same if you’re a frequent traveller. But I’m not going to be writing about Montezuma’s revenge and Delhi belly. Those stories don’t need to be shared, for obvious reasons, though unfortunately I’ve experienced both and more besides. Instead, here’s a roundup of a slightly different kind.
When it comes to a loo with a view, nothing I’ve ever had the privilege to use beats this basic pit latrine is located at the top of the Kalmak-Ashuu pass leading to Song Kul. Travelling in late May, we were one of the first to drive across the snowy pass, and the only footsteps leading to this most welcome hut were my own. With beautiful blue skies overhead and a handy packet of tissues in my pocket – it pays to be prepared – surely there are few toilets in this world that compare?
One of the best glamping experiences I’ve ever had was a stay in a nomad’s yurt in rural Mongolia. It would have been a tranquil spot had it not been for the family’s herd of camels and sizeable herd of semi-wild horses. This was the guest toilet, located further up the meadow. The screen did the job of protecting my modesty from the family members back at camp, but not the curious livestock who popped along to watch me do my business.
This toilet, located at the top of Mount Fløyen in Bergen, sticks in my mind for a different reason. There was no view, but who needs one when you and a friend can sit and chat in a loo made for two? It’s located about 400 metres above the town, but there’s a cable car that stops nearby.
Ushguli in the wild Svaneti region was one of the most beautiful places I visited during my trip to Georgia. There wasn’t much in the way of public facilities, particularly toilets, but after the boneshaker of a journey from Mestia on a unpaved and severely potholed road, I didn’t have the luxury of waiting to find something more salubrious. Suffice to say you’ll be pleased you can’t smell this photo, though the cow didn’t seem to mind as he popped his face up through the hole in the floor.
Serbia and Vietnam
On the face of it, these two countries make unlikely bedfellows, but both trips involved toilet visits that required a great deal more balance than I can usually muster. In Serbia, the bus station toilet was in a right old state, and I had to balance with two rucksacks, one front and one back, whilst trying not to topple into the hole. The Vietnam experience was very similar, but substitute a moving train for a bus station. Balancing on slippery foot panels as the train jerked and jolted was not the easiest thing I’ve ever done.
Many of us take our toilets for granted, but for a while in Christchurch, New Zealand, after the devastating earthquake in 2011, residents were asked not to use their indoor loo until the sewers could be fixed. Instead, this collection of photographs on the back of the toilet door in the city’s earthquake museum shows just how imaginative Kiwis can be when they have to be.
I’ve never been quite as delighted with the toilets as I was in Japan. Aside from the one in Kyoto station, which was a extraordinarily basic squat toilet, they were a veritable cornucopia of surprises. With buttons to heat the seat, spray water, deodorise and even play music to mask the sound of your tinkles, I promise if you go, you’ll be in there a while just as I was.
The polar opposite was a pile of stones that masqueraded as a toilet in Chile’s altiplano region. Returning from a bus trip that had taken me to El Tatio, a high altitude gesyer field, I was caught short. Literally, as it turned out, as only someone half my height would have been hidden from view by the pitifully low wall of stones. Instead, what my fellow tourists were treated to was the sight of my naked derrière. Thankfully there’s no picture to record my blushes, which I guess is the advantage of being a solo traveller.
I guess it says something about the kind of traveller I am that I can’t find you a picture of a swanky toilet somewhere all glitzy and glamorous. But where’s the fun in somewhere like that when you can go in a hole?
Over the weekend I booked a flight to Iceland. If I’d written that this time last year it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. After all, I’ve been twice before – once to get married – and so a return trip would be nothing to shout about. But of course, this year is different.
I might not go.
I’ve only once in my life booked a flight thinking that there was a very real possibility I wouldn’t use it. It was for a day trip to Germany, and dependent on my husband’s work schedule. It cost less than £20, so when he had to fly off to the US at short notice, I wrote off the trip. This time, whether I get to go or not is most likely going to be out of my control. Right now, the stats for COVID cases in Iceland are looking very promising – a relatively small number of cases and very few deaths. But that’s not the problem.
Cases in East Anglia have now subsided to a low level and my local area is slowly getting back on its feet. I’d hesitate to use the word normal, but most shops are open, cafes are offering takeaway cream teas and the big coffee chains are open for business. I can see my friends, albeit at a distance. But yesterday’s announcement about Leicester having to reintroduce lockdown measures after a spike in cases is a reminder that nothing should be taken for granted. As people become more mobile again and have more reasons to go out within and beyond their local area, it will be interesting to see what happens to the number of cases in the UK. I’ve been out of my own county just once since March – to buy a sofa of all things – and have no immediate plans to do so again.
The British government is imminently expected to announce a series of air bridges. It imposed a 14 day quarantine period on those entering the UK and travellers arriving from these air bridge countries will be exempt from this. There’s talk of a traffic light system: green for safe countries, amber for caution and red for, well, danger. Many of the countries are thought to be the popular European summer destinations – Spain, France, Italy and so on. If this goes ahead, we should soon see if this has brought the dreaded second wave or if flying and travelling can be considered an acceptable risk once again. I had nothing booked for summer, so haven’t had to think about how I feel about an existing trip. Have you?
I’m anticipating the FCO advice will broadly follow the traffic light pattern and even though Iceland has not been mentioned when it comes to talk of air bridges, it could well be in the green category. Currently Brits can visit Iceland so long as they take a test on arrival and it’s negative (if not it’s a 14 day quarantine). If that policy holds out, then best case scenario is that my holiday will go ahead as planned; worst case scenario is that I test positive and spend two weeks in quarantine at the Icelandic government’s expense, forfeiting everything I’ve booked. Right now, I’d need to quarantine for 14 days on my return, but as I work from home anyway, that’s not a deal breaker.
Last week I renewed my annual travel policy – surprisingly with no increase in premium – and am covered for medical treatment including that for coronavirus, so long as the government hasn’t advised against travel to the country in which I show symptoms. That FCO advice is crucial. I’m not sure I’d want to take the risk of travelling without insurance, particularly for somewhere that has a high cost of living like Iceland. However, I have done so for brief periods during my trip to the Caucasus, for instance when I spent a couple of days in Abkhazia. It’s really a case of wait and see at the moment.
In any case, regardless of FCO travel advice, I won’t be covered if I need to cancel because of coronavirus. In practice, that means that the amount I’ve just spent on flights (less than £100) won’t be recoverable if I can’t go, though I’m hopeful I’d get a refund or voucher. Anything else, for now at least, will be reserved on a free cancellation basis and reviewed at regular intervals between now and my September departure date. In the meantime, I’m planning an itinerary that I hope to follow this year – so far it includes the Diamond Circle, Arctic Henge, elf school (yes, it is a thing!) and the sheep roundup known as rettir – but may have to postpone until 2021. Watch this space.
As lockdown measures continue to be lifted, my thoughts are straying towards travel again. Technically, it’s not been far from my mind – though work has thinned, I have been writing for clients throughout.
At first, my work focused on Russia. Just back from St Petersburg on assignment for Morning Calm, I crafted the piece that promises to be the most lucrative I’ve ever written; though pay has been delayed until July, I remain hopeful I’ll receive what’s due eventually. But this was never a great time for any in-flight magazine, and Korean Air will leave that special edition in the seat pockets of their aircraft for the remainder of 2020. The fate of the magazine beyond this year is uncertain.
Some of my regular clients reworked their product, and I needed to adapt with them. I’ve written regularly for The Discoverer for a while now, but instead of round-up pieces on destinations, they sought inspiration in the form of Staycation topics such as cooking and gardening. So I’ve been reliving some of my favourite global dishes writing guides to Yassa Poulet, ceviche, Bouillabaisse and Yassa poulet. Even the humble English roast dinner – as much of the audience is American, to them it’s a travel experience, though to my husband there’s always an uncomfortable wait to see if my Yorkshires have collapsed.
While I have continued to write and edit content for Mundana’s blog without a break, other clients have started to get back in touch over the last couple of weeks. As COVID numbers fall in many parts of the world, I’ve been asked to refresh web content and create new posts for clients such as Just Go Russia and Hotels.com. That’s encouraging, but dampened by the realisation that for some, the economic bite of the pandemic has been exceptionally nasty. I know that my Caribbean client is holding off for now and hope that the Icelandic businesses I’ve worked for come out the other side now tourism is tentatively resuming.
All the while I have one eye on the FCO travel advisories. My annual travel insurance is renewed and ready to use. My suitcase has been dusted off (we’re renovating, everything needs dusting off, all the time). And instead of ignoring those flight deals and emails from hotel PRs, I’m starting to read them again. I’m not quite ready to travel yet, let alone book, but I’m becoming more confident that the end of 2020 won’t be as dismal on the travel front as the middle. How about you?
As Brits and Europeans tentatively prepare to travel again, governments are formulating plans to manage international holidaymakers. For many of us, a quiet, off the beaten track destination might be the answer to a less stressful trip. So if, like me, busy cities are a big turn off for you right now, what are the top spots for crowd-free travel?
This Caucasus nation took decisive action early on to implement lockdown measures. As of the end May it had reported less than 750 cases and just 12 deaths from COVID-19 (source: Worldometer). Its population is 3.7 million. The Georgian government plans to reopen hotels in July as part of a phased relaxation of the country’s lockdown rules. Bilateral travel corridors are being discussed; Israel’s agreement is already in place but it seems likely others will follow. The wide open spaces of mountainous Svaneti will appeal to those wishing to hike Alpine pastures and woodland paths which lead to dramatic glaciers. When I visited the region in June a few years ago, I had many of the trails to myself.
Located in the mid-Atlantic with a tiny population, Iceland was always going to be well placed for post-COVID travel. To date, it has reported 1805 cases and 10 deaths. Its government have seemed keen on welcoming international visitors while remaining alert to the risks they might pose. Current indications are that the country might reopen on June 15th. There’ll no longer be the need to quarantine for 14 days as has previously been the case, but instead there’ll be screening on arrival and contact tracing for those who wish to visit. Away from tourism hotspots such as Reyjkavik, Jökulsárlón and the Golden Circle attractions, there are no shortage of places where you can expect to enjoy Iceland’s breathtaking landscapes without having to share them with too many others.
This Scandinavian country opted to follow a different policy to many of its fellow Europeans, eschewing a lockdown in favour of social distancing. While you may still fear the crowds of Stockholm, the High Coast region, a four hour drive north, is as remote as it is beautiful. Pretty Ulvon, Mjallom and Bonhamn await those who prefer their waterfront to be backed by verdant coniferous forest and dotted with russet red wooden houses. The existing travel ban for foreign travellers (currently in place until June 15th) does not include EU, British and EEA citizens. However, there are advisories in place that suggest the Swedish authorities do not yet consider it wise for tourists to stay overnight in visitor accommodation.
While Malta remains closed until at least June 15th, government tourism officials are making all the right signs when it comes to a relaxation of border controls this summer. It looks like bilateral talks with countries that have experienced relatively low rates of coronavirus, such as Luxembourg, Norway, Serbia, Slovakia, Austria, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania and Israel, are making headway. How soon afterwards citizens of countries such as Italy, France, Spain and the UK might be able to travel is uncertain. But this Mediterranean Island, whose population numbers around 440,000 people, has to date had just 616 cases and 7 deaths. That figure may put many potential visitors’ minds at rest if they have a holiday booked there later in the year.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
A word of caution: those statistics that look so certain on our computer screens might not be as reliable as we think. Countries are gathering data differently, reporting inconsistently and updating figures when new ways of calculating totals are adopted. Dig a little deeper, and that country with an impressively low death total could be reporting only those who test positive in hospital, for instance, rather than those who have the virus.
Plan to be flexible
If you do plan to holiday abroad later in 2020, do as much research as you can – the situation is changing rapidly and what might look possible and practical now may not be so in a few weeks or months time. As a consequence, many of us will prefer to remain at home or have a holiday within our own country. If we do book travel, we’ll need to be careful not to make plans that are too concrete – cancellation and postponement policies will be scrutinised like never before, as will the financial health of the companies we plan to book with.
That the country you wish to travel to is open for business goes far beyond its border controls. Accommodation, food, retail and activity sectors will all play their part too. There’d be no point in travelling if the kind of holiday you’d expect just isn’t possible once you get there. On top of that, you’ll need to feel confident that the risk you take making the journey is one that’s acceptable to you. Quarantine may also be imposed as well, perhaps by foreign governments, or our own. There may be paperwork involved: COVID passports, negative test results and in time, we hope, vaccination certificates. And of course, the FCO will also need to remove its current ban before British travellers can travel with valid insurance policies. That’s a lot of ducks to get in a row.
I have no firm plans at present and, like many of us, am in no rush to make any. For a travel writer and someone for whom travel has always been such a big deal, that’s quite a statement. Throughout this pandemic, my feelings have changed as to what kind of travel I’d feel comfortable with and where I’d like to go. So it’s anyone’s guess when and where my next trip will be, though there will be somewhere, some day. Those places on our wish lists will still be there when we’re ready to experience them, so what’s the rush?
Last week I flew back from St Petersburg in Russia and since then, the travel world has pretty much fallen apart. At times it’s felt like those few seconds when you settle back into a chairlift and wait for it to move slowly to the edge of the platform before accelerating away. My inbox and social media feeds are full of stories: airlines laying off staff and grounding flights, governments closing borders; visitor attractions falling like dominoes. Stranded travellers scramble for places in a global game of musical chairs, wishing they had acted more decisively while they still had the opportunity.
In short, it’s not a great time to be a traveller, or a travel writer. It’s not a great time to be a lot of things.
But who knows, this might finally be the time I write the book I started five years ago, or at the very least finish the Roman blinds I’m making for the spare room. At the time of writing, my commission with an in-flight magazine for a story on Russia’s St Petersburg hasn’t been cancelled, though it still might be. As I wrap up the other articles on my to do list, I thought I’d share some of the photos I took last week. I’m not sure when my next trip will be, so pictures and stories about past adventures are just going to have to do for now.
Sts Peter & Paul Cathedral
St Isaac’s Cathedral
Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood
Sadko from the Tsar’s box at the Mariinsky Theatre
Museum of the Siege of Leningrad
Vodka tasting at the Museum of Russian Vodka
Museum of Arcade Games
Museum of Street Art
Nevsky Prospekt and around