juliamhammond

Independent travel

The end of the High Street travel agent – or is it?

News has broken today that Thomas Cook will close 21 of its High Street stores, one of which is my local branch in Colchester. It’s no surprise. Even Thomas Cook themselves admit that 64% of its UK bookings were made online last year. Their website is bright, colourful and most important of all, easy to navigate. Rationalising a business is the way to keep it afloat, and if you don’t move with the times you become a dinosaur. Thomas Cook led the way in 1841 with its pioneering railway excursions and is a respected player in the industry. Closing its stores isn’t a sign of failure, it’s a savvy move designed to help the company retain its market share.

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I haven’t stepped foot inside a travel agency for over two decades. The last time I asked about flights, the assistant hadn’t heard of the place I wanted to fly to, so I left. The rise of budget airlines and the breadth of information available at the click of a mouse means I have no need to pick up the phone and speak to a specialist, much less go to the bother of visiting a High Street store. The rise of the internet made the travel agent the middle man. Online agencies such as Expedia, originally set up by Microsoft in 1996, do a more than satisfactory job. Use an online travel agent and you’re not tied to store opening hours, but you’ll still have the convenience of a one-stop shop for your travel package and the benefit of bulk buying discounts.

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But just because I no longer use a travel agent, doesn’t mean I don’t advise others to use one. One of the benefits of the internet is also its biggest drawback – sometimes there’s just too much information. Sifting out what you need to know from the mountain of websites that Google presents can be hard. Travel’s my job – I take for granted that I know which sites will be useful and which are irrelevant to my needs. But for many, navigating through all that information is a minefield. How do you know what you’re reading isn’t misleading or downright inaccurate? Sadly there are many influencers out there who just don’t know as much as they claim to, like the blogger who presented a £1000 indirect flight from London to the US as a bargain, when direct fares are often half that amount or less. How do you whittle down which New York hotel to choose when Expedia presents almost two thousand search results?

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In the light of that, it’s not surprising that some High Street travel agents are actually expanding the number of branches. Kuoni’s one of them. Paired with John Lewis, they offer a different experience to Thomas Cook, and aim at a different clientele including the lucrative luxury honeymoon market. Their customers, they say, value quality over cost. Between 2016 and 2017, they reported a 38% increase in the number of appointments made with their in-store experts. 59% of their customers, they reveal, come in with a blank sheet and ask the consultant to help them find their perfect trip. Visit Kuoni’s website, and though you’ll find plenty of tempting images and itineraries, you can’t book them online – instead you have to telephone or book in person. Hays Travel, the UK’s largest independent travel agent, are also expanding, so the trend’s not confined to Kuoni.

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Millennials are particularly keen to utilise a travel agent, a trend that’s mirroring what’s going on across the Atlantic. FOMO – that’s the fear of missing out to those of us who are old enough to be their parents – means that they want to ensure that they book the very best when it comes to travel. According to ABTA, 59% of millennials say they’d pay extra for a holiday that’s tailormade to their preferences, good news for agents like Trailfinders with a High Street presence and a strong reputation for bespoke but affordable packages. In Kuoni’s latest worldwide trends report, it notes a rise in bookings of what’s termed “wow experiences”. From dining beside a waterfall in Thailand to staying in a vintage Airstream trailer on the Bolivian salt flats, bespoke just got interesting – and crucially, difficult to pull off without the right connections. ABTA’s annual report backs up this desire to leave the booking process to an expert. They state that 45% of those booking via a travel professional do so because of the confidence it gives them, while Google asserts that 69% of travellers return to companies offering a personalised approach.

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While hardened low-budget, intrepidly independent travellers (like me!) will stubbornly continue to find their own way, the age of High Street travel agents isn’t yet over. After all, if you’d call out a plumber to fix a water leak, why not call upon a travel professional to find you the holiday that’s right for you? It will probably cost you more, but if you think it would be worth it, then it’s money well spent.


Gorillas lite: up close with the chimps of Kibale Forest

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in the south west of Uganda is one of the few places in the world that you can see mountain gorillas, the others being just across the border in DR Congo (currently on the FCO no-go list) and Rwanda. These aren’t the gorillas you’ll maybe have seen in zoos – those are lowland gorillas – as mountain gorillas can’t cope in such environments. Less than 800 of these magnificent creatures remain in the wild and about half of them are found in Uganda.

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Lowland gorilla in Port Lympne safari park, Kent

I was really keen to include a primate tracking safari as part of my Uganda itinerary but knew from what I’d read online and from what others had told me that I just wasn’t physically fit enough to do a gorilla trek.  Bwindi Impenetrable Forest truly lives up to its name (well, almost). The hike, which research indicated could take anything from one to seven hours depending on where the gorillas were that day, was likely to involve the thin air of high altitude, steep uphill climbs and trails wet and slippery with mud. Last April, a 63 year old French tourist lost his life after collapsing with a heart attack on the way back. Though Trip Advisor is full of gung-ho reports about porters and assistance, I decided that realistically, it wasn’t for me. Oh, and it would cost $600 in permits, though admittedly that’s a whole lot cheaper than the $1500 you’d pay across the border in Rwanda.

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Grooming

Fortunately for me, Uganda’s primate tourism doesn’t begin and end with gorillas. While I was looking into a gorilla trek, I came across a chimpanzee tracking experience that seemed the perfect fit for me. I’d get to see primates up close but the trek, across the relatively flat forest floor of Kibale Forest, shouldn’t be anywhere near as tough. I put together a customised itinerary with car and driver provided by Roadtrip Uganda and they sourced a permit for me. It’s not wise to leave the purchase of permits until you arrive as they are strictly limited in number and you may be disappointed if they’ve sold out.

Tip: to further minimise the need for a long hike, opt for an afternoon tracking slot.

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Chimps are exceptionally good climbers

As I had opted to stay overnight in Fort Portal and planned to spend the morning driving around the area’s crater lakes, I opted for an afternoon permit which would give us plenty of time to drive south to Kibale Forest. This turned out to be a wise idea. Groups go out in the morning and when the rangers come back to base, they report back on where the troops of chimps have been spotted. There’s no guarantee that they’ll have stayed put, of course, but I was told that there’s usually less walking involved in the afternoon excursions as a result. The downside is that temperatures do increase as the day wears on, though in the shade of the forest this isn’t as big an issue as you might first think.

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Chimps share 98% of our DNA

Our group of six met at the park office for a short briefing before our own drivers took us to the part of the forest that had been chosen as the start point for our tracking experience. Accompanying us were a ranger and also an armed guard; in the event of elephants or buffalo encroaching too close to the group, the latter would fire warning shots in the air. Before we gave our drivers a few hours off, there was another briefing. No one would be allowed to trek if unwell, the group should remain at least 8 metres from the chimps at all times and most important of all, we were told to tuck our trousers into our socks to avoid being bitten by ants. Photography was encouraged but we were to turn off the flash to avoid startling the chimps.

Three whoops of chimps (that’s the collective noun!) in Kibale Forest were habituated, that is, they’re used to being close to humans. Others are left alone. We set off in search of one of them, Benson our ranger encouraging us to hurry so we could reach the spot before they moved deeper into the forest. The pace wasn’t actually too fast, largely because we were picking our way over buttress roots and ducking under forest vegetation. Benson told us that the “hoo hoo hoo” sound we could hear was chimps calling to each other and that they were close.

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The initial group

I was thrilled when we came across the first group of four – three adults and a baby – after only about fifteen minutes of walking. Benson arranged us so that we’d have a clear line of sight to the chimps without getting too close. We were the only group at that point, so the six of us enjoyed an intimate encounter and it was truly a delight. Though the baby had climbed a tree, too unsure to remain on the ground so close to us, the three adults weren’t fazed at all. Two were too focused on grooming each other to acknowledge our existence while the other rolled onto his back and closed his eyes for a snooze.

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Time for a snooze

The chimpanzee tracking permit had cost $150, considerably less than that of the gorilla encounter, but still a significant amount of money. But at that point, it was worth every cent. About five to ten minutes later, another group caught us up. Benson asked us to move on so that the chimps would not be overwhelmed. We did so and and after a few minutes came across a larger group.

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It’s a real privilege to be so close to the chimps

Once again, watching their behaviour was fascinating. These creatures share 98% of our DNA and many of the mannerisms are uncannily similar. We watched, transfixed, as they ate fruit, chased each other in play and swung from the canopy high above our heads. We saw their nests high in the canopy – the chimps overnight in these but prefer to hang out on the forest floor during the day. Generally speaking, it was a pleasure to be so close. The loud chatter and screams as they approached was a bit intimidating – as it was intended to be, I guessed. I think I’d watched too many Planet of the Apes films to have been entirely comfortable at this point, but Benson calmly explained what was happening and pointed out where they were which made me feel safer, particularly when they had us surrounded.

After the initial delight of seeing the chimps, I began to notice how different each were from the others. One was a proper porker – we were told he was vying for the alpha male spot and thought his extra weight might help. Some of the older chimps in the family were going grey, or balding. The youngsters, true to type, were mucking about and being put in their place by their elders. And the baby, well he was just too cute. We saw a female in oestrus, and then a bit of chimp sex up a tree after she parked her baby on the branch next to her while she got it on with her potential baby daddy. Sadly, light levels in the forest weren’t sufficient to get it on film but that’s probably just as well.

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Letting it all hang out!

In all, we spent around an hour with the chimps before Benson led us on a trek out of the forest back to the ranger station. This was at a very leisurely pace, with plenty of stops to point out types of trees, birds, monkeys and butterflies. The tracking activity that I booked in Kibale Forest has about a 95% success rate of spotting chimps. This is nature, of course, and nothing is guaranteed. In all, we saw about 25 chimps. The permit cost me $150, which included entrance to Kibale National Park for 24 hours.

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The adults were well habituated though the babies were a little unnerved by our presence

You can also try your luck spotting chimps at Budongo Forest Reserve in the northwest of the country, those living in the Kyambura Gorge at Queen Elizabeth National Park in te south and also at the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve near the Congolese border. To spend longer, a chimpanzee habituation experience is offered, where visitors can spend all day in the forest shadowing researchers. This costs $200 for foreign visitors; on the Uganda Wildlife Authority website it does state half-day habituation experiences were available for $100 but I was told this was not the case. For a full price list, including prices for other areas, please use this link:

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Review: Kampala’s backpackers compared

During my trip to Uganda I stayed at the three backpacker hostels in Kampala. Each was very different, so if you’re looking for cheap accommodation in the capital, my reviews might help you decide which is best for you.

Red Chilli Hideaway

The clue’s in the name with this one – it’s tucked away at the end of one of the roads leading south from Kampala’s city centre. It’s as much a resort as it is a hostel, with a sizeable swimming pool as well as two bars. Day guests can pay for the use of its facilities, but it retains a backpacker vibe nonetheless. Staff are helpful and efficient.

The location is both Red Chilli’s biggest plus and its worst drawback. Because it’s so far out of the centre – around 10km from downtown – it’s inconvenient if you intend to visit the city’s sights. Traffic is horrendous, so that 10km journey can easily take an hour or more of frustrating stop-start driving, more in rush hour. If you’re coming into the city on a tourist shuttle such as Pineapple Express, note that drop off will be at the Oasis Mall, still a considerable distance from Red Chilli.

That said, if you’re looking for a place to unwind as part of your Ugandan or East African trip, it’s the perfect spot. Security’s excellent – all cars entering the compound are checked thoroughly, with mirrors used to check the underside of the vehicle. Guards on the gate are also a reassuring presence in this relatively remote location. The views across the valley to the surrounding countryside further distance you from the hubbub of the city and it’s a surprisingly peaceful place. Sunrises are spectacular and well worth rising early for.

The multiple accommodation blocks contain a range of room types, from dorms to private ensuites. The latter are roomy and are equipped with fans and showers that actually deliver hot water. I slept well, cocooned from the noise of those socialising in the bar. The room was basic but clean.

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Red Chilli Hideaway is the sister property to Red Chilli Rest Camp up at Murchison Falls. I took the three day budget safari, which costs $320pp in shared tents and about $80 extra if you upgrade to a self contained banda. It was well organised and well thought out, and though the distance travelled was considerable, the two included game drives and boat trip made the package excellent value for money as well. The safari price includes a free dorm bed the evening before – it’s definitely a good idea to stay in order to avoid a ridiculously early start just to reach Red Chilli itself.

Would I stay there again?

Yes, if I was looking for a place to stay put rather than get around.

Cost of a single room with ensuite bathroom $45 with a discount for booking the safari – I paid $33 (note that prices have recently risen)

Bushpig

If you’re looking for a sociable backpackers then this is the pick of the bunch, but I also found it to be the noisiest of the three. Located on busy Acacia Avenue, there’s a constant buzz of traffic as well as considerable noise from the immediate vicinity – bells ringing when people asked to be let in and chatter for instance. My single room was tiny, the bed taking up the whole of the window side of the room, making it difficult to access the window. There was a small hole in the glass, so even with the window shut, it wasn’t remotely soundproof, though mesh and a mosquito net ensured I wasn’t bothered by the bugs.

The showers and toilets were in a room a few doors down the corridor. They were clean and the water was hot. I rented a towel for 4000 shillings (a little less than £1). However, there was no door to the bathroom itself and (unlike the rest of the rooms in my section) my room had mesh above the door rather than a solid wall. The noise from flushing toilets and running water was therefore bothersome. I managed about three hours sleep which wasn’t ideal.

Where Bushpig scored highly was in its food. There was an outdoor bar with tables. An extensive menu sold really tasty food at reasonable prices and it was a popular place to entertain friends as the number of visiting diners indicated. Staff were approachable and helpful. The manager went out of his way to get me connected to the WiFi when my devices were being uncooperative and it proved to be the speediest once I was online. Also, the reception staff helped me figure out the location of the relocated Post Bus service as well as sort me out with a reliable taxi.

Would I stay there again?

Probably not, on account of the noise, though it was a temptingly convenient location. However, I would definitely visit for the food and atmosphere in the bar garden.

Cost of a single room with shared bathroom $25, which represented the best value of the places I stayed

Fat Cat

Occupying a site in a quiet side street close to Acacia Mall, this backpackers had the most convenient location. It was the smallest of the three and felt the most basic. My single room was directly off the main dining room, which could have presented a noise issue had there been more guests, but in fact I got a good night’s rest. Staff were efficient, and my driver for the late night airport transfer was waiting for me outside Entebbe Airport. However, I didn’t get the sense that they were especially bothered if I was enjoying myself and came across as a bit bored by the whole customer service thing.

The shower room was very basic. The cubicles were fairly clean but the windows and walls were grubby and there wasn’t much space to hang clothes or a towel while you showered. The water was almost cold, adding to the monastic feel. Though it was dearer than Bushpig, the room was larger, but the facilities were definitely a lot more rundown and in need of modernisation. I only ate breakfast here, and that too was basic. There was a lounge and several traditional hostel noticeboards where you could post requests for shared rides and the like.

I did like the garden area, which was a tranquil spot to sit and enjoy a drink with plenty of shade. You could qualify for a free beer if you went litter picking in the vicinity of the backpackers. Just outside the gate, Uber bodas (motorcycle taxis) congregated and I had no difficulty organising an Uber car and driver when I needed to go into the centre of the city a short distance away.

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Would I stay there again?

Possibly. Despite it being the most basic, it functioned well and its proximity to the Acacia Mall and a number of cafes and restaurants helped.

Cost of a single room with shared bathroom $34, a little steep given the quality but admittedly reflecting that it was significantly larger than the room at Bushpig.


Five places I’d love to visit again

Reconnecting with a Japanese friend this weekend made me think about the trip I’d made to Honshu and Kyushu in 2007. It got me thinking about countries I’d love to visit again. I’m all for exploring new countries – Uganda and Kyrgyzstan will be new destinations for me this year – but it’s also good to revisit places that made an impression. I’m making another visit to Italy this year, this time to see the trulli of Alberobello in Puglia, which I’m really looking forward to. So which are my top five places I’d love to visit again?

Japan

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This Asian nation’s unique culture makes it special. Last time, I took a sand bath, soaked in an onsen and watched cormorant fishermen catch fish by firelight. In Kyoto I saw a geisha in Gion and in Tokyo, followed in Bill Murray’s footprints by staying at the hotel which featured in the movie Lost in Translation. Coping with the language barrier and different alphabet wasn’t as challenging as I’d expected thanks to video calls and picture menus. I loved how you could buy practically anything from a vending machine, including beer and hot chicken. Even the trains were a revelation, with slippers to wear and attendants that bowed when they served drinks. Next time, I’d like to head inland to the mountains and north to Hokkaido.

Austria

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My visit to Nuremberg’s Christmas markets this year made me realise just how much I’d enjoyed my visit to Salzburg the year before. The markets themselves were much more handicraft oriented and in their mountain setting, a delight to explore. It would be hard to choose a season though – Austria’s just as beautiful in summer, if not more so. It’s been nine years since I took our elder dog to St Johann in the Tyrol and I’d love to go back with our younger one. We used to go to that part of Austria when I was a child and it’s a place I always feel a sense of calm. Something about the clean mountain air, perhaps, or the hearty, home-cooked food?

Nicaragua and Guatemala

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When I eventually reached Nicaragua, I had been delayed two days, detained by the “Weekend Whiteout” in New York City. Despite the shortened time, I very much enjoyed the city of Granada and its colourful colonial core. Nearby, I explored volcanoes and cloud forest, and took leisurely lunches beside tranquil lakes. I’ve always felt that the trip was a little rushed, though, so it would be great to go back and explore at a more leisurely pace. Guatemala was equally charming, but a disappointing hotel on the edge of Antigua took the edge off my stay there. It would be fun to revisit around the time of Day of the Dead and compare the experience to the wonderful trip I made to Oaxaca a few years back. In a better hotel, of course.

Australia

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As a die-hard Neighbours fan, boarding the bright blue minibus back in 2005 was a rite of passage. But now, as well as paying a visit to Pin Oak Court, the sets themselves are included in the tour and regular pub nights offer a chance to meet cast members. That in itself is a reason to go back, but I’d also like to spend some time in the north west of the country which is blessed with some stunning scenery. Taking a road trip north from Broome to the Bungle Bungles and beyond would be quite the adventure. (Hey, if Helen Daniels painted it, count me in!) I’d also love to ride the Ghan, Australia’s iconic train linking Adelaide and Darwin, stopping off to see Brolga and his kangaroos in the red centre along the way.

Morocco

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I’ve visited Morocco several times since my first visit in 1997 and there’s still plenty more I’d like to see. A new high speed train service would be a real treat to try out – on that first visit I chugged my way from Tangier to Marrakesh and back again at a snail’s pace. Last trip, I planned to visit the coastal town of Agadir for a day trip and would have done, had I not been laid low with a bout of food poisoning (don’t eat the salad!) The blue city of Chefchaouen looks so photogenic it would be irresistible, another for the wish list. I’m told its cobbled lanes lead to leather workers and weavers. I’m a big fan of Moroccan style when it comes to home furnishings – I know it would be hard to resist a bit of shopping.

Is there somewhere you’ve visited that you’d love to go back to? I’d love to hear about it.


How I choose my next destination

Happy New Year, fellow travellers. As we embark on 2019, thoughts inevitably turn to the year ahead and for me, that means thinking about where I’d like to travel in the coming year. One of the questions I’m inevitably asked is how I decide where to go. The answer’s not a simple one, but here’s how I choose my next destination.

Cheap flights

As an independent traveller who likes to pay her own way, the biggest outlay for many of my trips, particularly long haul ones, is the cost of my flights. I’m always on the lookout for a good deal, so I sign up for airline newsletters and that way, I’m the first to know of any special offers. That’s how, on Black Friday 2017, I snagged Air New Zealand’s £399 flight deal to Auckland via LAX. There were only 50 seats on offer at that price, so had I been surfing the net, I’d almost certainly have missed out. Similarly, to make the most of Ryanair’s flash sales it’s important to be ahead of the pack. But with a bit of creativity, it’s possible to save on flight costs by searching for error fares and utilise reward schemes as I did for my recent trip to Barbados.

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Social media

My Twitter feed is full of photographs of exotic locations and every now and again, something stands out from the pack. Georgia (the country) first entered my radar in this way, as did those cute swimming pigs in the Bahamas, and I wasn’t disappointed with either. On Facebook, members of the My Wanderlusters group provide inspiration for destinations through their own holidays snaps. Some are friends in real life and I have the double privilege of seeing their travels via their personal accounts too. I maintain a file of e-clippings (the old-fashioned way, in a folder, rather than via something more creative like Pinterest). This April, Brexit-permitting, I’m off to Alberobello in Italy to stay in a trullo after seeing it on someone’s timeline. I expect Santorini will also feature at some point for the same reason.

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TV

I love watching TV documentaries and travelling without leaving the sofa. Joanna Lumley’s Japan series has been bookmarked for a return trip one day. It’s been over a decade since I visited but seeing the country through her eyes has made me yearn to go back. Levison Wood’s adventures also give me inspiration; I especially enjoyed his Nile walk though it’s way too energetic for this traveller. Chris Tarrant has, in the past, done some incredible rail trips, from the Trans-Sib to some distinctly more adventurous destinations. Sometimes, though, even a venerated presenter can’t entice me: Michael Palin’s recent foray into North Korea was a charm to watch, but the country itself doesn’t appeal to me.

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Magazines and other tourist literature

Whether it’s via a magazine that plops through the letter box or a tourist leaflet picked up at a trade show, there’s always something to tempt me to investigate a place a bit further. During a visit to World Travel Market in autumn 2017, I got chatting to a lady manning the Uganda stall. I’d previously visited other parts of East Africa, notably Kenya and Tanzania, but Uganda is a new one for me. When I mentioned it in passing to a couple of fellow villagers here at home, I discovered they ran a school out there, so I’m now looking forward to a trip in February when I’ll combine a visit to their school with a couple of safaris. No gorillas, but look out for tree-climbing lions if I’m lucky enough to spot them.

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Festivals and other special events

Sometimes it’s not only the destination that’s the attraction, but a particular event that requires a visit at a particular time of year. I visited Mexico long before I managed to schedule a trip to coincide with the Day of the Dead celebrations. That was several years ago now, but it remains one of my favourite trips of all times. Cusco’s Inti Raymi festival was also on my radar long before I was able to time a visit to Peru to experience it. The colourful costumes, dancers and theatrical spectacle made this a memorable holiday too. Most recently, I headed off to Moldova to join Chisinau’s residents for their National Wine Day, which was fun.

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Press trips

As a relative newbie to travel writing with an expanding portfolio, I’ve yet to be inundated with press trips, though I do get offered one now and again. Every so often, an offer comes along that’s too good to resist and that’s how I found myself in the Faroe Islands in May 2018. It was a beautiful country and I’d love to return one day to explore a little further. Without wishing to sound ungrateful, I do struggle with a prescribed itinerary which can be a little stifling, as I’m so used to travelling solo and doing as I please. That said, I’m always delighted to be offered such visits even when I choose not to go.

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How do you choose where to visit? Like me, do you have an ever-growing wish list? I’d love to hear what motivates your travel choices.


Looking back on 2018’s travels

It’s probably an age thing, but the year has flown by and once again it’s time to draw the curtains on another year of rewarding travels.

January: Cuba with a stopover in the Netherlands
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It has been fifteen years since I followed the advice in the travel press to “get there before it changes”. Like many others, I was conned: the headlines still say pretty much the same thing today. Having found a £140 error fare with Aeromexico, the journey was a bit convoluted – though it did win me a day exploring Zaanse Schans and Delft on the way. Havana and Trinidad were as captivating as they were in 2003, though the food was considerably better. I had a front row seat at the Casa de la Trova and scored an invitation to kick on with the trumpet player – if only his intentions had been honourable I might have been tempted. If you’re off tho Cuba, book a Mob Tour with Havana Supertours – guide Michael was excellent. I felt like I’d stepped onto the set of Mad Men when we walked into the Riviera Hotel, once a gangster favourite.

March: Key West and the Bahamas
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With two weeks to kill while the builders demolished the kitchen and rebuilt it into a finished shell, we decamped to the sunshine of Key West and the Bahamas. I especially enjoyed a visit to the Tennessee Williams Exhibit and some of Key West’s other historic attractions, and let’s face it, the margarita culture helped. But it was the Bahamas that won out. Husband is a big fan of cute little piggies – he married one, after all – so we booked a trip to see Big Major Cay’s swimming pigs. They were feisty little (and not so little) creatures, particularly when the food came out and we were warned to steer clear of one fat mama who had a thing for biting tourists’ bums. Fortunately, no one got bitten and it was the highlight of the holiday.

May: Faroe Islands
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I had the opportunity to join a press trip to the Faroes in May which was a chance to explore this northerly Iceland-alternative. A meal at Michelin-starred KOKS was unforgettable thanks to wriggly barnacles, but the home hospitality we enjoyed was just as welcome. The weather was challenging, particularly during our hike at Saksun, but fortunately the sun came out over colourful Torshavn. It doesn’t quite have the scenery to compete with Iceland, but I’d like to go back on my own one day. Being so used to independent travel, I’m not sure if I’m cut out for press trips, but nevertheless it was a fascinating insight into how the world of travel journalism operates.

May: New Zealand and Tonga
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A too good to resist Black Friday deal saw me travel all the way to NZ for under £400, a chance to visit family and see a bit more of North Island. A dawn hike to a deserted Cathedral Cove was delightful and experiencing the hand dug hot tubs of Hot Water Beach was fun. Windy Welly lived up to its name but the gales subsided in time for my flight out. Last time, my South Pacific add-on was Vanuatu, but this time I opted for Tonga. So far it’s not embraced tourism in quite the same way as some of its neighbours. I got lucky with a knowledgable Fijian guide who showed me the highlights of Tongatapu, most memorably dramatic blowholes and fire dancers.

June: Port Lympne
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For husband’s big birthday we were treated to a weekender at Port Lympne with family. Going on safari without leaving the Home Counties seemed a bit bonkers but the place was exceptionally well run and our guide was as good as any I’d had in Africa. Our game drives became a little more interactive than planned when one of the giraffes took a liking to a skip that should have been off limits, though luckily it responded to our treats of hastily grabbed branches full of tasty leaves. The most surreal moment of my travel year was waking up and looking out of the bathroom window to see a rhino pottering about in the back field. In Kent, of all places!

September: New York
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It had been a while since I’d been to New York so I piggybacked off my husband’s business trip to join him for a week in the Big Apple. While the city broiled in an extended heatwave, we sought out the air-con of the Freedom Tower as he’d never been. I had a surprise at the top as the skyline was revealed, a part of the experience that hadn’t been open when I first visited. But it was the Lower East Side and East Village that, once again, I enjoyed the most, with a fascinating LES a food tour with Free Tours By Foot, a one to one tour of the Museum of the American Gangster, a chance meeting with Michael Quinn of Feltman’s of Coney Island and cocktails at PDT. Please don’t tell.

October: Moldova and Transnistria
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I’ve never been much of a wine drinker, but nevertheless headed for the Moldovan capital Chisinau for their National Wine Day celebrations. Twelve samples later, I had rose tinted spectacles when it came to appreciating the city’s other attractions, including a teeny tiny statue that took an age to find. Fortunately this lightweight doesn’t get hangovers which was good news when it came to catching the early morning train for a day out in the breakaway republic of Transnistria the next day. Though Tiraspol was a bit soulless, the border town of Bender with its riverside fortress was not, thanks to a mediaeval fair in the grounds complete with rifle range, dress ups and a liberal scattering of plastic ducks.

November: Barbados
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BA offered a sweet deal whereby its air miles were worth double their usual value – and sweeter still as I’d collected most of them on that sub £400 business class error fare to New York I found a few years back. So I redeemed them to do “Barbados on a Budget” and thanks to a steal of an Airbnb deal, brought in a week’s holiday for under £800 including food. Good job the rum was cheap. I loved chatting all afternoon with Nigel Benn’s Aunty Lucille who not only poured a generous measure but told a tall tale and sorted out the bus timetable as well. Beautiful gardens, plantation houses and a countryside hike with incredible views of the east coast and a working windmill completed the picture.

December: Nuremberg’s Christmas markets

I’ve been working my way through some of Europe’s finest Christmas markets, clocking up trips to Salzburg, Regensburg and Copenhagen. This year, I opted to fly back to Nuremberg and although the fare didn’t match the previous £4.08 deal (sadly I think that was a one off) it was still sufficiently good value to make a day trip viable. I began the day in Bamberg, whose mediaeval heart was delightful. I hopped on and off the train back to Nuremberg, calling in at the markets at Forchheim and Erlangen on the way. The main event was pretty, decorated with twinkly lights for evening, with plenty of Christmas decorations and foodie treats to round off the day.

Where have your travels taken you in 2018? Share your stories, I’d love to read them.


Barbados on a budget

Thanks to celeb haunt Sandy Lanes and the other luxury hotels that line the aptly named Platinum Coast, Barbados is firmly associated with the high end travel market. But what if you can’t afford the eye-wateringly expensive prices of these places? I was determined to visit Barbados but needed to bring the cost of my trip in at a much smaller budget. Here’s how to save money on your holiday and enjoy Barbados on a budget.

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Flights

As with all long haul trips, flight costs make up a large percentage of the total cost. Both BA and Virgin Atlantic fly direct to Barbados, but neither of them are budget airlines. Saving money on the cost of a ticket takes a bit of forward planning. I’d saved a bunch of air miles with BA – what used to be Avios and are now points on their Executive Club scheme. However, these were not sufficient for a return fare to the Caribbean. Fortunately, BA announced a promotion, whereby the number of miles required for a seat halved. Availability was good and I snagged a fare for the last week of November for the price of the taxes, around £270. Virgin, of course, have a similar loyalty scheme.

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If you don’t fly regularly, that doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. I save points regularly with my Nectar card on groceries, petrol and even car servicing. It’s possible to redeem those points with Expedia and as with the airline loyalty schemes, all you need to pay is the taxes. Without points of some kind, full price fares in high season, that’s December through until spring, can be horrendously expensive. Though they’ll be much cheaper in September and October, it’s hurricane season and you run the risk of your vacation being memorable for all the wrong reasons. At best, you’re likely to have a rain shower most days and at worst, a total washout. Instead, look for a seat in the shoulder seasons, with late November and early May more reliable in terms of weather.

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Accommodation

How much will you pay for your accommodation in Barbados? How long is a piece of string?! Many of the resorts here are prohibitively expensive, especially for a solo or budget traveller. Much as I’d have liked to stay at one of the fancy resorts, I’d have hated the huge bill at the end of it. I wanted to keep my accommodation costs as low as possible, but without sacrificing some of the holiday comforts that can make a trip so much easier. I wanted reliable WiFi – needed, even – and hoped to be able to get a pool too. I’m not a sea person when it comes to swimming, but I do enjoy a relaxing dip in the pool. Most important of all, I needed to be well connected in a convenient location without being right in the city.

Fortunately, Airbnb came up with the answer: a studio apartment at Rockley Golf Club. Once fees were factored in, the place cost just under £400 for my seven night stay. Though I had it to myself, it would easily have slept two, and two more on the sofa bed downstairs. The clever layout, with downstairs sitting room and the bed on a mezzanine, meant that it felt much more spacious than the label studio might suggest. The ladder stairs up were a little steep, but manageable, and regardless, the listing made it very clear that’s how they were. The sofa in the living room converted into a bed which was a reassuring back up, had I been too stiff (or too drunk) to get up the ladder. This is the listing, should you wish to have a look:
https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/22558128

I had a small kitchen, bathroom and living room, with hairdryer, cable TV, phone for local calls, beach towels and even a cooler. The hosts, Karen and Mark, were helpfully available at the end of a phone and left me a comprehensive booklet of advice covering everything from which beaches were best to how to do a food shop. Their attention to detail was legendary – there was nothing they hadn’t thought of. The resort itself had a laundry and clubhouse and of course that all important pool. It was safe too, not an insignificant consideration for a single female. Would I recommend the place? Absolutely.

Food and drink

First, the good news: drinking is cheap in Barbados. I drank Banks beer from the characterful John Moore beach bar at Weston for about £1.20 a bottle, rum and Coke with Nigel Benn’s Aunty Lucille in Shorey Village for £2 a pop. Cocktails down at the local Tiki Bar at Rockley Beach were a little over £6, not bad for a tourist joint. Lots of places served up happy hour for more than 60 minutes a day. But actually the nicest drink I had was non-alcoholic, a yummy mango and peach smoothie at the cafe at Holetown’s Chattel Village.

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Food was another matter. Barbados is the kind of place where if you’re on a budget, you need to think about where, and what, you eat. Though it was possible to find affordable restaurants, particularly those aimed at the local market, in general Barbados doesn’t offer good value for money when it comes to eating out, though neither does it pretend to. Of course, being an island means some foods are imported, which adds to the cost. Nevertheless, Oistins’ famous fish fry is a memorable night out for tourists and locals alike and there were plenty of local haunts where a meal didn’t break the bank.

I decided to make the most of having a kitchen and self-catered for some of my meals. I spent about 100 Barbados dollars, roughly £40, stocking up on supplies that sorted me out for breakfast and lunches for the week, plus the makings of a couple of night’s dinners. Massy’s, the island’s biggest supermarket chain, even stocked Waitrose products, though at a premium.

Getting around

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Tours on the island aren’t cheap, a by-product of this being a cruise-ship destination where travellers are cash-rich and time-poor. With more time on my hands, I was able to take advantage of Barbados’ extensive (though Bridgetown-focused) bus network. Plenty of minivans plied their trade along the coast, and it was easy to hail a yellow bus to Bridgetown or Speightstown. The journey times were surprisingly long for such a small island, but a ride afforded a glimpse into local life as well as interesting sightseeing out of the window. If you don’t mind stopping everywhere, it’s a great way to get around. People were happy to chat and travelling this way was a real pleasure.

The official buses of Barbados Transport Board, identified by their blue livery, were fine off peak. At peak times, however, they double as school buses. If you were lucky enough to persuade a driver to let you take up a valuable space – and I was – riding with a bunch of noisy schoolchildren didn’t make for a relaxing holiday experience. The BTB’s website has a useful timetable finder, but note that some buses are likely to be cancelled to act as school buses instead, such as the Boscobelle service that I was told by a driver was “hard to come by”. You can find the timetables here:
https://www.transportboard.com/route-finder/
I found the Moovit site helpful as a planning tool as well:
https://moovit.com

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Whichever you choose, a flat fare of 2 Barbados dollars (about 80p) means that getting around is cheap and straightforward. While minivans and yellow buses would change small notes, for blue buses you require the exact fare in coins which you simply chuck into the slot in front of the driver and wait for him to give you a ticket. On the yellow buses and minivans, you pay the driver on exit, unless a conductor is on board – if so, he or she will ask you for your fare at some point during your journey. To get off, press the bell, pull the cord or if neither is present, call out “bus, stop”. Most will continue on until the next official bus stop. These too are user-friendly: marked “to city” or “out of city” which usually refers to Bridgetown.

Sightseeing

It doesn’t have to cost a lot to see a lot, if you’re prepared to bus it. The highest entrance fee I paid was at St Nicholas Abbey, but for 45 Barbados dollars the ticket included a tour of the historic house (never an abbey), mill and distillery, plus a rum tasting. The family’s movie footage of 1930s Bridgetown was fascinating, though at times it was hard to concentrate as Twinx the cat decided my lap was a lovely warm spot for a nap and a cuddle. I tried to tell him I was a dog person, but he wasn’t at all put out. In the end I had to lift him down or I’d have missed out on the rum.

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For a little less, a tour of Arlington House in Speightstown is well worth the outlay. One of the rooms was themed as a sugar cane field and told the story of the slaves that made Barbados’ plantation owners wealthy. The house itself was made from coral stone and the traditional louvred shutters were hung to good effect in another of its displays. Entrance costs just 25 Barbados dollars for overseas visitors and I thought it helped me gain a better understanding of what shaped Barbados in the past.

Other entrance fees were equally good value: 30 Barbados dollars to visit either Hunte’s Gardens or Andromeda Botanic Garden. The former definitely had the wow factor, the kind of place that inspires you to go home and plant something. The owner, a talented horticulturalist, had turned a natural sinkhole into a verdant muddle of hidden nooks dotted with quirky statuary.

Andromeda, by contrast, was a botanist’s dream, the life’s work of the late Iris Bannochie and a rival of Hunte’s. Managed by the enthusiastic and passionate Sharon Cooke, it was a real pleasure to see someone work so hard to make such a place accessible to all. For a week, Barbadians can enter free of charge. And throughout the year, the entry ticket is valid for three weeks – go early in your stay and you can go back for free.

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I paid the same for a combo of the delightful George Washington House and the Garrison tunnels and as with the gardens, the tour was well worth the outlay. The guide, Martin, was extremely knowledgable and not at all perturbed when one of the country’s senators – and a Sir to boot – delayed us for a long chat about writing, editors and publishing in general. I’m not sure what he was doing in George Washington’s House but thought it impolite to ask. The tunnels were almost a no go thanks to a loss of power, but guide Wilbur was keen to show us anyway so our small group descended by torchlight.

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Some of the best attractions turned out to be free, and I don’t just mean the afternoon I spent with Aunty Lucille. The beaches cost nothing, providing you don’t need a lounger. Watching the jockeys practise at the Garrison racetrack is also free, though you need to be up early as they ride out before the sun gets too hot. Morgan Lewis sugar mill is the only intact windmill in this part of the Caribbean, though it doesn’t actually work – it was struck by lightning a decade or so ago and no one’s got around to fixing it yet. I reached it on foot, taking a gentle half an hour hike downhill enjoying far-reaching views along the east coast on a quiet backroad.

The verdict

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It’s certainly possible to visit Barbados on a budget, though other Caribbean destinations offer better value for money. Would I go back? Not just yet, but if the UK exchange rate improves, then I might just go back for more.