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.
I’ve never found it harder to resist booking a trip than over the last few days. The UK vaccine rollout continues apace; I’m finally old enough to be booked in and if all goes according to plan, I will be fully protected (as much as any vaccine can do so) by mid-June. Of course currently, international leisure travel is banned here in the UK, but each day, my social media feeds and inbox bring news of more countries that will permit entry for vaccinated travellers without the need for quarantine. Everyone, it seems, is competing to have us back. So why haven’t I booked?
One thing I learnt last year was that predicting what the situation with travel will be in the weeks and months ahead is fraught with uncertainty. After the Icelandic government altered their quarantine arrangements, I had to reschedule my trip in a hurry, dropping everything to leave almost a month ahead of my planned departure date.
The information about current entry requirements is fairly easy to obtain – my go-to is the FCDO travel advice which is a UK government site updated regularly. From this, I have a tentative shortlist of countries to which I might travel later in 2021. But as coronavirus case numbers change, so too can national policies. In other words, just because somewhere is saying they’re welcoming us now doesn’t mean their borders will still be open in the summer.
Inbound quarantine restrictions are also a factor. The UK government currently have a “red list” of countries which trigger a compulsory inbound quarantine for ten days on arrival in England. Whether that takes place at a hotel or in your own home depends on where you have travelled and the route you take to reach England:
“If you’re travelling to England you must either quarantine in the place you’re staying or in a managed quarantine hotel for 10 days because of coronavirus (COVID-19). What you need to do depends on where you travel in the 10 days before you arrive in England.”
Costs for the managed hotel option are significant and certainly a deterrent- as intended. I’m sure those who have already booked are hopeful, maybe even confident, that their destination won’t appear on the list. At some point, as yet unspecified, this requirement will be lifted, but with case rates still worryingly high in some parts of the world, there are no guarantees.
The requirement for a PCR test (or two) is an added complication. There’s a lot of variation between countries. Some offer testing on arrival with a requirement to quarantine or at least limit activities until a negative result is received. Others require tests to be carried out in advance, usually within a 72 hour window. A positive result would scupper your holiday at the last minute, as it’s hard to find an insurance policy which would cover cancellation in those circumstances.
Even if it’s negative, it could add a considerable sum to the cost of your holiday. In the UK, such tests should be done privately and are quite expensive. Abroad, the cost of testing varies a lot. Last year, I paid around £50 for two tests in Iceland but nothing for the test on arrival in Madeira. It’s worth doing thorough research in advance to avoid getting a bill you weren’t expecting. Test to release on the inbound leg currently adds another cost.
Some countries, tour operators and airlines have indicated they’ll require guests to be fully vaccinated before they are eligible to travel. In some cases, such as Iceland, this removes the need to take a PCR test so long as you carry official proof. Being vaccinated isn’t likely to be a problem for the over 50s, as we’re not permitted to travel internationally until at least May 17th. But younger travellers might need to wait until autumn until they receive that crucial second dose to qualify. Vaccine passports are also probably going to be a requirement, but the precise nature of the document, how to apply and how much it will cost is still being worked out. As with many things during the pandemic, governments are having to play catch up as the situation evolves.
The holiday itself
As numbers continue to spike in countries across the world, quite rightly governments are reacting with local or national lockdowns. When that happens, visitor attractions are an early casualty. Some trips would be worse affected by this than others: the trips I made last year to Iceland and to Madeira largely focused on walking outdoor trails. Aside from dining, much of what I did wouldn’t have been affected by the closure of museums and other indoor attractions.
Hit the jackpot, of course, and you get to experience popular places without the crowds. I visited St Petersburg just before things really kicked off last March and toured its breathtaking palaces with no waiting in line and no jostling to see their exhibits. That was an extraordinarily special thing. But it’s a gamble; if you’ve always wanted to visit a particular attraction but it’s closed, ask yourself whether that would ruin the trip. Had I been in Funchal and missed out on the famous wicker toboggan ride, I’d have been disappointed; thankfully they were able to operate.
The industry perspective
The impact of the global pandemic has been horrendous for tourism-driven companies. Even the most profitable airlines have taken a huge hit and there are no guarantees that routes or even airlines will be around. Make a booking and you do your bit to help to save the industry, but if it all goes belly-up you potentially won’t see your hard-earned cash again. If you do plan to pay upfront, check your insurance policy and make sure you’re happy with the cover it provides.
But many companies are offering flexible bookings, and we know a lot more about who did the right thing in 2020 when it came to refunds thanks to this useful survey by the travel team at Which? If your gamble pays off you can win big. Hotels have slashed their rates, meaning you can enjoy luxury on a modest budget, while outside of peak season, the cheap fares we’ve come to expect from airlines are there for the taking. However, in my experience, last minute flights in 2020 were pretty affordable and accommodation was widely available even on the day, so if you’re not too fussed about where you go and where you stay, there’s an argument for waiting.
But a word of caution: the vaccine rollout might change that for 2021 as costs are always influenced by supply and demand. If more Brits feel confident to travel abroad this summer, the prices will reflect that increase. But last March we couldn’t have imagined a winter booking could be risky, so who knows what the situation will be like later this year?
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.
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.
Where were you this time last year? If I was asked that question based solely on memory, I’d struggle to remember. One of the downsides of being a travel writer (and there aren’t many) is that I travel so often that it’s almost routine. That means that although I’ve enjoyed pretty much everywhere I’ve visited, it takes something extra special for it to stick in my mind. If not, then I have my trusty notebook, tens of thousands of photographs and a back catalogue of articles to refer to.
This spring, for a time at least, I didn’t even want to look back. Knowing that there were so many places I still wanted to visit with the world pretty much closed to travel made it just too upsetting to even think about. Like many of us, I turned to my local area, walking some of the coastal and riverside paths that we have in abundance. Once it was permitted, I squeezed in trips to Iceland and Madeira before autumn brought Lockdown 2.
Restrictions this time have been a little different. Much more is open, a vaccine’s looking likely and there’s a gradual stream of messages in my inbox from past clients looking to restart blogs, revamp online content and send out newsletters to their customers to let them know they’re planning to open for business again. The situation’s far from normal, whether measured in terms of confidence or volume of work, but there’s hope that 2021 might not be quite so awful for travel as 2020 has been.
Within that context, I’ve not felt as despondent looking back at past travels. I’ve spent many hours trawling through unsorted photographs to create photobooks of Cuba, Madeira and The Faroes. I’ve allowed myself to reminisce about my favourites – US road trips, walks in the Austrian Tirol, Seychellois beaches, Day of the Dead in Mexico, German Christmas markets and past holidays to Peru and Chile.
One thing I’ve done for the first time is click on my Facebook memories. Though I don’t really see much point in reposting old content, it’s been fun to take a look back at where I was on this day in years past. I’ve never much enjoyed November with its grey days and lengthening nights. When I stopped teaching in favour of this new, more flexible life, the first November was spent in New York and Mexico’s Mayan Riviera and I’ve not looked back since.
This time last year, I was exploring the delightful Moroccan city of Chefchaouen feeling anything but blue; the year before I was drinking rum and coke with Nigel Benn’s auntie in Barbados. In 2017, I discovered how varied and pretty Cape Verde was, while four years ago I’d already ticked off my frst German Christmas market with a day trip to Regensburg. This year I’ve been in Essex, but I hope in November 2021 I will be able to report back from somewhere more exotic.
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?
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:
Despite the country’s capricious weather, a visit to one of Iceland’s thermal baths is a must, whether you’re a first-timer or on a return visit. There are numerous hot springs and thermal baths dotted around the country, some little more than a hollow in a totally natural settting. In this post, I compare three of the biggest. All offer lockers, smart changing rooms, swim up pool bars and something akin to a spa experience. So how do they stack up?
The Blue Lagoon
First-time visitors, consider this a must. Located close to Keflavik Airport, it offers the chance to tick off a quintessentially Icelandic experience before you’ve even checked in to your hotel. Located in the middle of a lava field on the wild Reykjanes peninsula, nature is raw and rugged here, but dip a toe in and the water is warm and soothing. White silica-rich mud makes an enriching face mask and also reflects light to give the water its beautiful blue colour. It’s gorgeous, with plenty of tucked away spots to create a sense of privacy even when the place is crowded. On site, there’s a fancy spa, restaurant and eye-wateringly expensive accommodation. Book well in advance for your session in the baths, particularly if you want to visit before or after your flight.
Would I go back?
Definitely yes. It’s touristy, of course, but there is something rather special about the place.
Mývatn Nature Baths
The north of Iceland sees far less traffic than the south. Like the Blue Lagoon, Mývatn Nature Baths water source is linked to a power supplier, this time the National Power Company´s bore hole in Bjarnarflag. The water in the baths has a temperature of between 36 and 40°C and also has a high mineral content. The pool is basically split into two sections, with one slightly cooler than the other – I found the hotter part to be more comfortable. Both overlook the lake itself and the midges which plague the area in summer were absent from the pool itself which was a relief.
Would I go back?
Probably not. It’s pleasant enough but didn’t have the wow factor.
Opened in August 2018, GeoSea uses a mix of geothermal heat and seawater pumped from two nearby drillholes to maintain a temperature of 38 to 39°C. Intimate and architecturally sympathetic to its surroundings, it sits on a cliff right on Skjálfandi Bay, meaning that if you are really lucky you might catch sight of the whales that occasionally come right into the bay. The carefully thought out design means that the pool water and that of the bay itself create the illusion of an infinity pool. As it is west facing, it’s perfect for those rare, clear days when you can watch the Icelandic sun set. In the winter, stay after dark and you might also catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. If your visit coincides with an evening such as those, you are in for a real treat.
Would I go back?
Absolutely. This is surely one of the best views in the whole country.
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.
We recently lost our beautiful Einstein at the grand old age of 13 and almost a half. He was our first dog and we were determined he would share our lives and our love of travel. From the very first time we put him in the car, he was content to be with us – and from that point on, determined to look out of the back window to watch what was going on.
At home, he was fascinated by traffic, spending hours stock still at our living room window watching the cars go by. When Edison came along a few years later, he was never permitted a front row seat in front of the window – not that he was unhappy with the sofa perch. When we moved to the country, Einstein missed his cars – birds and squirrels just didn’t have the allure of headlights and tail lights, no matter how much fun they were to chase. But on car trips, he got a taste of the life he’d left behind, and even as his arthritis made it harder and harder to sit up for lengthy periods, he’d still try to stay upright as long as he could.
As an 8 week old puppy, he’d travelled well on his journey to Essex from Cambridgeshire, falling asleep on my lap as we sat in the back seat of the car. But even a small dog needs to be restrained to be safe, so we popped a puppy crate into the boot and started to take him out for drives. Most of the time he was fine, though once, on particularly windy roads heading for Burnham on Crouch, the motion got the better of him and he vomited all over the crate, himself and the boot of my car. Fortunately, such travel sickness was short-lived and we were able to take him on longer journeys.
Aged 7 months, he had his first holiday, to Cley-next-the-Sea in North Norfolk. We stayed in a pet-friendly room at Cley Windmill and all was going smoothly. Not that we travelled light – by the time we’d packed his food, bed, toys, treats, puppy crate and play pen, there wasn’t much space for our own luggage. But dog-friendly though Cley Windmill was, it had a strict rule that pets weren’t allowed in the breakfast room. We popped him safely in the playpen and nipped out for a bit.
By this age, Einstein was used to being left for short periods of time, but despite the familiarity of his playpen, the new sights and smells in the room were too tempting not to investigate. As we ate breakfast, we heard woofing and joked that it couldn’t be Einstein, as he didn’t bark. We returned soon afterwards to find a room scattered with chewed up tea bags and individual milk cartons punctured by teeth. He greeted us with a waggy tail and the evidence stuck to his fur.
It would be the first of many UK holidays with him. He hiked the Dorset coast path to Durdle Door, climbed up to the Cow and Calf rocks in Ilkley and rode steam trains in Somerset. Except for one memorable incident in Boscastle where he tried, lead still attached to a cafe table, to go and say hello to a rather attractive Dalmatian bitch, he was the model traveller.
It was time to broaden our horizons. A trip to the vet and a bit of paperwork rewarded us with a blue pet passport. My parents had a holiday home near the Mosel in Germany so it was the perfect place for a trip. That house became Einstein’s home away from home and we spent many happy days wandering the countryside and villages of this pretty region. There was something about him that turned heads, and we never got very far without someone making cooing noises as they stroked his soft fur. The Germans let him go just about anywhere – even inside the wine shop at Zell, though I held my breath as that swishy tail got frighteningly close to some potentially expensive breakages.
Confidence growing, we booked the overnight ferry to Santander and set our sights on a holiday in Spain’s beautiful Picos de Europa. Most dogs on the route were used to travelling with their owners, many to holiday homes further south. But unlike them, Einstein didn’t relish the thought of being stuck in a kennel while we were downstairs in our cabin. When I arrived on the dog deck with some toys and a blanket to make him more comfortable, I discovered my husband in the kennel and the dog trying to escape it. The outdoor part of the dog deck proved much more to his liking, if a little windy.
The trip would be fun, but not without a few trials. On his first day on Spanish soil, Einstein managed to injure his paw somehow. Milking it for all it was worth (as would be his custom), we spent the week lifting him in and out of the car, yet as soon as a nice beach or meadow walk was on the cards, not to mention the sight of ice cream, the paw was miraculously healed.
Most of the time, Einstein walked nicely, though having crossed a precarious bridge to one side of a river one day decided it was all too scary to walk back again, much to the amusement of the watching crowd. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d die of embarrassment at his antics, though mostly closer to home, like the time when he pulled me over in a very muddy Hockley Woods and I was forced to do the walk of shame across a busy car park.
Probably my favourite trip with Einstein was when we went to Austria. We had a lot of fun walking in the mountains, particularly when we didn’t get lost. Getting there by car was a bit ambitious – when Einstein got the cramp at a motorway service station just outside Munich in the pouring rain I didn’t think we’d get there at all – but all was forgiven when we arrived to much fuss and special treatment, not least from my doting parents.
I love how dog-friendly Austria is. Einstein behaved really well at the WildPark Tirol where herds of deer and plenty of other wildlife roam unenclosed. When I’d asked were dogs allowed, the cashier had looked bewildered that I’d even needed to ask. The woman manning the cable car near Sankt Johann took a little more persuading to bring the cable car to a stop so Einstein could be lifted on (he got spooked by the movement, bless him) but soon came round when she saw how cute he was.
Trips abroad were a little trickier when we got Edison, logistically speaking and thanks to Edison’s general state of abandon and loss of self-control around any kind of hotel breakfast buffet. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop us from exploring our own country with the pair of them. Einstein’s final holiday was to the beautiful Forest of Dean. He couldn’t walk far by then, but managed to enjoy the view from Symonds Yat, a visit to Goodrich Castle and one final steam train ride. I hope we’ll have many more happy holidays with Edison and who knows, we might even venture across to the continent again one day.
Rest in peace darling boy and I hope you’re enjoying one big holiday (or watching the traffic) in doggie heaven.
Einstein 11.2.07 to 30.6.20
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?
One of the questions I’m asked a great deal is how I became a travel writer. The answer is almost by accident, but then sometimes the very best things in life happen serendipitously.
I can’t define a moment when I really got hooked on travel. My first trip abroad was at the age of 9 months, a family package holiday to Austria where, I’m told, I charmed everyone. Throughout my childhood, I was fortunate to travel abroad quite a few more times, notching up countries such as Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands instead of the more usual Spain, Italy and Greece (“too hot,” said my parents). I made my first solo trip abroad to northern France at the age of 17, a foreign language exchange organised by the sister of a neighbour. Money put paid to big budget travel ideas while I was a student, but I travelled vicariously to Latin America as a member of various university societies.
In 1991, I graduated with a joint honours degree in Geography and History and took a job as a teacher in East London. I spent my days teaching about places and my evenings wielding a red pen in despair over the pitiful knowledge of my charges. When I was promoted to Head of Geography a few years later, I vowed to include as much place-related content as I could alongside National Curriculum staples such as river processes and population dynamics. My line manager once asked why I didn’t share his desire to push the students to ever-higher grades. I told him I judged my success as a Geography teacher on whether my students went travelling after they left school. Many of them did, after they’d got those top grades as well.
As soon as I was earning a regular wage, I started to travel. I blew my entire first month’s wages on a package holiday to Venezuela put together by Ilkeston Coop Travel in Derbyshire, many miles from my Essex home but too good a price to resist. Splitting my time between Isla de Margarita and the mainland, I danced, sunbathed and saw the sights, indulging a passion for Latin America that’s never gone away.
And so it continued, during term time I would teach, pulling long hours to ensure I never had to sacrifice precious holidays for work. The late 1990s saw the boom of the low cost airline, which meant that I could travel more often. Sometimes the places were obscure but they were always interesting. Keen to make sure I didn’t forget my experiences, I wrote articles, taking inspiration from the diaries I kept on the road. It was a hobby and likely to stay that way as my enthusiasm for writing far outweighed my talent.
The internet began to take off and with it, traveller forums such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree and Wanderlust magazine’s GoWander. I was a regular on all of them. The latter was a budding travel writer’s dream, as it offered the opportunity to upload experiences. Some of my pieces attracted comment and I was surprised and delighted to see that much of it was positive. Encouraged, I began to send off crude pitches to editors of magazines, though I rarely got an answer and never a commission. Once I actually received a reply, telling me that the quality of what I wrote was sufficiently promising, but the content wasn’t needed at that time.
One of my fellow GoWanderers (or maybe by then it was My Wanderlust?) posted that she was setting up an online writing club. Members would complete an assignment each month and upload it to a forum to be critiqued. The comments were honest, sometimes brutally so, but they were also incredibly helpful. I learnt more about how to write from Liz and the gang than I had ever done. The trouble with kind comments from well-meaning friends and family members is that they don’t give you the incentive to improve – though they do a sterling job in boosting confidence, which is probably just as important.
Finally, the turning point came. Or, rather, several turning points. I entered a competition organised by Mail Travel, knocking out 300 words during a late night thunderstorm about my sister shoe-shopping in Morocco. I won, the prize being a trip to America’s Deep South and a piece in the newspaper’s travel supplement. I was still teaching, of course, but my understanding senior team allowed me unpaid leave so I could follow my dream.
I entered a travel writing contest organised by an insurance company and won a Kindle. I answered a shout out from Bradt for bus routes suitable for Bus Pass Britain Rides Again and my piece on the Dengie was considered interesting enough for inclusion. Recounting the tale of a Rasta rescue in Zambia won me highly prized column inches in Wanderlust magazine and a goodie bag. It began to dawn on me that I could do this for a living.
However, the thought of giving up a steady income as a teacher after a career spanning more than 20 years was a scary one. For a while I tried to juggle the two. I set myself up with a profile on a freelance forum called oDesk, now Upwork, and very slowly, jobs trickled into my inbox. I still write for some of those first clients. They took a chance on me and I’m grateful. Work built up and with the support of my husband, who provided a financial safety net in exchange for the promise of hot dinners and ironed clothes whenever I was home, I quit teaching to write full-time.
Breaking in to the more well-known publications took some time. I sent off pitch after pitch and received rejection emails in return or, depressingly often, no response at all. Yet to be taken seriously, I needed some big names under my belt. The travel industry’s all about contacts and – most of all – having a killer idea. My break came with a piece I did for Sunday Times Travel Magazine about flying business for economy prices. That was followed by commissions for BBC Travel, The Telegraph, Which?, a few in-flight magazines and more. Now I write for an eclectic mix of travel industry businesses, websites such as The Discoverer and print publications.
Having finally built up a portfolio I was proud of, I decided to apply for membership of the British Guild of Travel Writers. This prestigious organisation counts among its members some of the best travel writers in the country, so it was an ambitious move to say the least, but one which paid off. I’ve found membership invaluable in cementing my status as a trusted freelancer; BGTW membership affords a kind of quality control which reassures potential editors that they won’t be taking too much of a risk. Membership has its privileges too, in the form of useful professional development opportunities and press trips.
So do I miss teaching? Honestly, no, I’ve never looked back. I loved my job, taught some great kids, but the pressures of targets and paperwork got in the way of enjoyment. Travel writing hasn’t been like that. In fact, it rarely feels like work at all. Right now these are uncertain times for the travel industry, but I don’t regret a thing.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
A sentiment expressed by Plato, but first recorded in the written word by 17th century author Richard Franck, never has it been more true than at this extraordinary time in the world’s existence.
In these strange and challenging times, life – and businesses – are having to adapt to cope and survive. The travel industry is one of those affected, of course, and the impact on guidebook publishers is one way that manifests itself. Lonely Planet announced last week that it was shutting down some of its offices, though guidebook production would continue. Once, a Lonely Planet guide would have been my go-to, but increasingly, they’ve not been the best fit. Instead, I’ve used independent publisher Bradt Guides on many occasions when my wanderlust led me to some of the world’s most off the beaten track destinations. I even took one to Iceland, packing it alongside my wedding dress. Some of those guides are well thumbed; others purchased in anticipation of future trips.
Uruguay: Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha
Bradt has been offering seriously tempting discounts on its back catalogue. I’ve stocked up with guides that I hope to use when we get exploring again. As someone who has seen her writing feature in a small way in two Bradt anthologies, and has had the privilege of meeting both founder Hilary Bradt and MD Adrian Philips, I’m invested in this beyond consumer level. But even if I wasn’t, it would seem a very worthy initiative to support, beyond a travel writer’s loyalty to a favourite brand. This is the company that produces guides to the more obscure corners of the planet, sometimes the only mainstream publisher to do so. My Bradt pile includes guides to Tajikistan, Haiti, Uganda and Belarus. Along side them sit Iceland, the Azores, Ghana and Uzbekistan. On the wishlist, awaiting the publication of new editions, are Sao Tome & Principe, Suriname and Iran. Right now there are 227 special offers at the Bradt online shop, not just for guidebooks but for some of the best travel writing out there on the shelves.
Cape Verde: Santa Maria
But that’s not enough. Yesterday, Bradt announced a different strategy, one which is innovative, brave and – I hope – successful. Using the Patreon platform, Bradt are asking travellers to support them by signing up to their new subscription service. For £5 a month, Bradtpackers receive an e-zine with the latest news and travel inspiration together with exclusive discount offers, competitions and pre-publication deals. Opt for Globetrotter level at a cost of £15 a month and on top of that, you receive a free book each month. Choose First Class Traveller tier and as well as that you will be able to benefit from bespoke travel-planning advice for two trips a year from a Bradt author or other expert at a cost of £35 a month.
We still need our guidebooks. This is still a time to dream.
I hope that Bradt survives the economic fallout from this horrible virus. But in the meantime I’ve subscribed and, if you’re a keen traveller also, I hope you will too. If so, this is the link you’ll need:
Tomorrow marks two weeks of lockdown for the UK. On the face of it, COVID-19 hasn’t impacted my daily life as much as some. I finished a large commission for an in-flight magazine. I’m told they will still pay, though I’m less certain they will publish. The editor has been supportive and communicative, which has been a relief. Although some of my regulars have paused contracts, I still have work from some. I’ve even managed to score a couple of new contracts which should prove to be ongoing. I’m one of the lucky ones; many travel writer colleagues have seen a year’s worth of work vanish overnight.
Right now, I’d usually be travelling. In previous years, I’ve jetted off in early spring to places as varied as Chile, the Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Bolivia and the Bahamas. Tomorrow is my wedding anniversary – six years ago we were in Iceland luxuriating in the Blue Lagoon in anticipation of the big day. I’d have been preparing for late spring trips to the Faroe Islands, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Armenia, New Zealand and Tonga, finalising plans and reserving hotels.
But over the last few years I have also taken a few months off in the summer, so right now though the seasons are a little mixed up, it feels just like that. The village has become a bubble, a place free of anxiety, when the outside world has become a frightening place. We’re looking out for each other; the Facebook group I set up before this all started has twice as many members now and we’re all doing what we can to help each other.
When the virus first started making its presence felt, I experienced a kind of grief. Border after border closed; tour operators and tour guides reported how it was devastating their businesses. Financially, I’m not significantly affected, with just one BA flight to deal with when the airline officially cancels it. But it’s horrible to think of all those who have lost livelihoods and with them, hope for the future. The human impact of this virus is unbearable, but the economic effect is something we’ll live with for many years.
A friend has spoken to me about how hard it has already been in Uganda, where I visited last year. Rising food prices and a lack of affordable healthcare will have terrifying consequences. At present there are only 52 confirmed cases, and no deaths. The population is relatively young, though the impact of HIV/AIDS mean many youngsters are looked after by grandparents who fall into the vulnerable category. No matter how hard it is for us, it’s so much worse for the desperately poor.
Though I’ve built a career on discovering new places, I’ve found that the places I most want to go and visit when all this is over are those I’ve already visited. On TV right now in the UK is a BBC series called Race Across the World. In last night’s episode, they travelled from Puno in Peru to Cafayate in Argentina. Along the way, they visited the Salar de Uyuni, La Paz, Salta and San Pedro de Atacama, all places I’ve been and fallen in love with. It was great to escape. Like many, I’m trying to limit the amount of news I’m watching.
It’s impossible to plan when nobody knows exactly when the travel restrictions will be lifted. I’m getting email after email of impossibly cheap flight deals in my inbox, but the FCO have extended the worldwide travel ban indefinitely. How can you plan a trip when you don’t even know what season it will be? I know they’re first world problems. My job doesn’t put me at the front line and I’m immensely grateful to those working in the NHS and in key worker roles to keep us safe and fed.
I’ve bought myself some new Bradt guides for bedtime reading, though for now they’re shelved as I pore over old photos. Talk in the household is of a US road trip from Washington DC to the Great Smoky Mountains, or a return visit to Iceland or Peru. I know I want to go back Down Under and hike the mountains of the Austrian Tirol again. It’s been interesting to see the different strategies employed by tourist boards and travel companies, some of whom are marketing their destinations almost as normal so that they can remain in people’s imaginations when they are able to book again.
I really should be using this time to write the book I never finished. But I can’t seem to find the words just yet. In the face of what’s happening, it just doesn’t seem important.
One of the questions I’m asked most often is how I choose where to go and then once I’ve settled on a destination, how I set about planning the trip. Of course, it would be much simpler to let someone else take care of the details, but that’s where a lot of the fun is, and who wouldn’t want to create a bespoke trip without the bespoke price tag that comes with it. I’ve saved tens of thousands of pounds over the years going it alone, so I plan to continue travelling independently as much as possible.
Now I’m writing for a living, I am offered press trips on a regular basis. While I have accepted some of these and am very grateful for the generosity of the tourist boards involved, I don’t like to travel like this all the time. I’m fortunate to have worked with some lovely PRs who have gone out of their way to deliver a tailormade experience within the confines of the programme that’s been agreed. But on a group trip, everyone has to compromise. When I travel solo, I can do as I please and it’s extraordinarily liberating.
How I go about choosing my next destination
Now a big trip for me these days, with family commitments, is just two weeks. This blog won’t be relevant if you’re planning a gap year and need to stretch a budget or find annual insurance cover. (However, you can apply some of the same principles and concentrate on the first and last week of a longer period of travel.) Instead, I’m talking about choosing the destination that’s likely to be your main holiday.
This is often a fluid concept. I do have a loose wish list of places I’d like to visit. Right now, for instance, Sao Tome & Principe, The Azores and Tobago are on that list, together with Tajikistan, Madagascar, Belarus and Algeria. However, I’ve found that being more flexible enables me to take advantage of better flight deals that might present themselves. Often, flight costs form a large part of a trip, particularly if it’s to a long haul destination. Keeping abreast of flight sales and last minute offers is a good idea. But although I have that list, I almost always end up travelling somewhere else – this year it’s Grenada.
Next steps after I’ve found my flights
Finding a well-priced flight is a start, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to book. But if there’s a chance that the cost of that flight will increase, it’s important to act fast. It is possible with some airlines to pay a small amount to hold the fare. I’ve never needed to do so, but it does quite literally buy you time to get your other arrangements tentatively in place before committing to the full whack.
A case in point
I recently found a sub £100 return fare from London to Algiers. Algeria is on my travel B list at the moment, a place I expect I would enjoy. The fare was a great deal, far lower than usual, with BA. The dates worked too. A quick scour of accommodation via booking.com indicated that I could find something central and reasonably priced that didn’t look like a dive. Photos from the road from the excellent Simon Urwin via my Twitter feed only served to fuel my interest.
It all fell apart when it came to the visa. I’ve never been turned down for a visa – and I’ve bought a fair number in my time. Sadly, it would seem the Algerians are hard to please and turn down many applications. As a freelance writer on an unreliable income I might or might not match their criteria – who knows? But to meet the visa criteria I would need to buy the flight and arrange the accommodation in advance. The latter I could achieve with minimal risk on a free cancellation basis, but the former would be an unrefundable outlay. So, I decided not to take the risk and have not applied. Algeria is a destination probably best left for another time.
Back to the drawing board
Having shortlisted a destination with affordable transport, it’s time to look at geography. Use a guide book such as Lonely Planet or a comprehensive online guide to identify some of the key places and sights that interest you. Don’t over-plan, but also don’t be the person who realises once they return home that they missed out something they’d love to have seen because they didn’t do any research. The trick is to do just enough planning to make sure it’s possible to fit in all your must-dos. Fine tuning can come later.
I sometimes take a look at the itineraries of tour operators such as Explore or Intrepid, as they tend to be balanced and well thought through. Then I weed out the parts that don’t interest me and mentally replace them with what I’d prefer to do. But don’t assume that because an area doesn’t feature on most tours, it isn’t worth bothering with. If I had relied solely on such sources of information, I’d have missed out wild and wonderful Svaneti in Georgia which was the highlight of my time in the country.
Considering open jaw itineraries
Is a round trip fare to and from the same airport a smart decision or would an open jaw be more sensible, saving unnecessary backtracking? For instance, I’ve used this for a rail holiday in the US, booking Amtrak services to link the two cities at either end. I also looped through a few countries on a longer journey, beginning in Cape Town and ending in Johannesburg but going the long way round via Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Alternatively, I’ve flown into one capital, for example Panama City, and out of its neighbour, San Jose, using the two cities as bases for point and spoke excursions. (That’s when you stay in one place and head out and back in a different direction each day.)
If you are going to opt for an open jaw flight, try flipping the two destinations around. Sometimes when I’ve looked into following the same itinerary but in reverse I have saved a whole heap of money. It’s also worth thinking about whether to avoid somewhere on a particular day of the week. For example, there’s no use planning to be in a city on, say, a Monday if the main reason you are going there is to visit a museum that’s closed on that day. Kick off dates for seasonal attractions might vary from year to year so always check. Finally, if the place you intend to visit stages a big festival of some sort, such as Day of the Dead in Mexico, make sure you’re booking early enough to make sure transport and accommodation isn’t already sold out.
The overland bit
One final thing to look at is overland transport. If I plan to start and finish in two different cities, I always research what the public transport is like between. I look into whether I can take a bus or train and if so, how far in advance I can book my ticket (many companies have online sites). In some cases, demand outstrips supply, so make sure there’s a plan B before committing to expensive flights.
Don’t rule out domestic flights, which in some places can be cost (and certainly time) effective. I always leave a day clear between any inbound transport and my international flight home, even if that means splitting the sightseeing between the early and later part of my trip. Delays do happen, and you don’t want the added stress of worrying about missed connections. Another thing I’ve learnt the hard way is to reconfirm flights with regional airlines or carriers that you’re not sure you can trust. I didn’t, in Argentina, and had to make hasty arrangements to bus it across the country to make Buenos Aires before my next flight left. Look what I would have missed!
Now factor in the weather
This one’s important. Once I know that my potential trip is a possibility – the flights are available, the accommodation suits my needs and I have a vague plan of the order in which I’ll see places – I just double check the weather. It helps that I was a geography teacher for years, so I’m unlikely to make the mistake of unwittingly timing it to arrive right in the middle of hurricane season or the monsoon. Do that, and not only will your triup be a washout, but you might find yourself stranded if public transport on the ground is adversely affected.
Consider how you’re likely to spend your time. Is it still going to be OK if the temperature’s on the chilly side? There’s not a lot of point in booking a beach resort if it’s going to be too cold to swim in the sea or snooze beside the pool. But if you’re keen to explore a city, then those same cooler temperatures will make sightseeing a whole lot more pleasant. Shoulder seasons are a gamble with their promise of cheaper flights but a higher chance of inclement weather. Of course, you can’t predict the weather even in peak season, so there’s always going to be that chance of it scuppering your plans.
That’s almost it
By the time you’ve got this far, I expect you’ll probably fall into one of two camps. Some of you will be thinking that it would be so much simpler just to let a tour operator take care of all this time-consuming planning stuff. But if like me, you love that kind of thing, just think of the many happy hours you can spend travelling vicariously through blogs and magazine articles while you craft a trip that’s perfect for you. Book those flights, make sure you have insurance from the get go and start making your dream a reality.
As we entered a new decade, I found myself in an unusual position. For the first time in many years, I had no trips booked. In my 2019 roundup, I shared several ideas, but nothing grabbed me sufficiently to book travel. We didn’t get far into January before that changed, but nevertheless I’ve not planned anywhere near as many trips as I would normally do.
Take advantage of sales
Sometimes all it takes to make me more decisive is a deal that’s too good to resist. The flight sale period is coming to an end but there’s still time to grab a discounted flight if you are quick – and can handle the flygskam (flight shame). I took advantage of my husband’s generous offer to dogsit and BA’s generous cabin bag allowance to book an Economy Basic fare to New York for just £259.17. I’ll board last and they’ll allocate me a seat, but given that the taxes and fees component of the fare amounts to £258.17 that’s a pretty good deal in my book. At this time of year accommodation is relatively cheap too (by New York standards at least) so I bagged myself a deal on a comfortable Midtown hotel.
I know air travel is coming in for a lot of criticism at the moment, but at least I work from home so my daily commute is completely CO2 free. If you can square it with your conscience, BA’s not the only airline to be holding a sale at the time of writing, so take a look on your favourite airline’s website and see what discounts you can find.
February might seem an odd time to go to New York, but it’s a city that I prefer in the winter. There are fewer tourists, which translates to shorter queues, plus the humidity in summer can be unpleasant. If like me you’re up for a return visit – the city’s constantly inventing new ways for you to pass the time – check out this post I wrote on New York for second-timers. I’m looking forward to exploring Staten Island beyond the ferry terminal and also to checking up on progress at Edge, New York’s latest observation deck, which is scheduled to open mid March.
Chat to industry professionals
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been going to Destinations, a huge travel fair that is held in Manchester and London at this time of year. It’s a great way to find out more about places you are already considering for a visit and to be tempted by those you hadn’t even thought of.
I’ll be there again later this week to say hello to my friends from Lithuania who will be promoting the charms of Neringa and the Curonian Spit. It’s a place I enjoyed very much on a press trip last September and hope to return to. To find out what the area has to offer, read this piece I wrote for them that’s on the British Guild of Travel Writers website or visit them on stand E152 at Olympia from 30th January to 2nd February.
This year I also went to Adventure Travel Show, also at Olympia. It’s not a fair I’d been to before, as I’m not a fan of extreme sports and, if I’m honest, anything too energetic. I’ve never thought of my preference for independent travel to off the beaten track places as being particularly adventurous, but apparently it is. Anyway, though I was a little disappointed at the scale of the show compared to the much larger Destinations, I did learn plenty about Malawi, Sao Tome & Principe, Madagascar and Tobago. I also picked up a map of Grenada which will come in handy in the spring – I’m booked to spend a week on the island and can’t wait to see what this lush corner of the Caribbean has to offer.
Utilise social media forums
I also get inspiration from the people I chat to on social media. Twitter is a useful source of information, via chats such as The Road Less Travelled, which you can join on Tuesday evenings – look for the hashtag #trlt. I also enjoy reading posts on the Facebook group My Wanderlust Migration and Regroup! page, which transferred from the Wanderlust website a few years ago. I’m sorely tempted by Ethiopia at the moment thanks to some excellent photographs and stories posted by other members. If you’ve a keen interest in travel, this is definitely a group to be involved with. There aren’t many places on the planet that one or other of us hasn’t been to.
Take up travel writing for a living
Writing for a living gives me the chance to travel vicariously and at the moment I have a number of corporate clients in Iceland who are keeping me especially busy. I’ve created articles for their blogs on topics as diverse as ice cream, traffic laws and the country’s relationship with the EU as well as more mainstream topics like whether you should rent a 4×4 or not and where to stop if you’re planning to drive the country’s ring road.
As for real life travel, I’m still exploring other possibilities, so watch this space to see where else I end up. Happy travels!