Travel has always been my addiction. Family aside, I’m happy to make a whole heap of sacrifices to be able to travel. I don’t smoke, drink only in moderation and have few vices. Let me share with you a few of my tips for how you can afford to travel more often.
I’m a compulsive list maker. Years of being a teacher conditioned me to having a structured day and to do lists enabled me to prioritise my non-teaching periods and knock out the admin efficiently. Since I quit school and turned my attentions to travel writing, that structure has gone out of the window. How I fill my day is no longer dictated by the bell. To an extent, I can do pretty much what I want, when I want. So those same to do lists give me structure. I still run a must, should, could list and ensure I deliver what I’ve promised on time, so that my clients are happy. Applying this method to travel plans also works. Each year I think about where I’d like to visit, formulating a rough list that usually contains one or two long haul destinations plus a number of European trips. I don’t stick rigidly to this plan, but knowing what I want to achieve helps me think ahead.
Do your research
Once I know roughly where I want to go, I start researching what those trips might cost. I’m fortunate that I receive invites for press trips, but there’s nothing better than the flexibility to do what I please, so independent travel is still my preferred option. Usually, the cost of flights is the biggest expense, so I’m always on the lookout for cheap fares. I’ve signed up for email newsletters with a number of airlines and this enables me to get wind of any flash sales before they’re announced to the public. I also follow Secret Flying and FlyNous on social media for their special deal and error fare alerts. Even though I don’t book the majority of these flights, it’s a very useful gauge as to what consitutes a cheap fare for a particular destination. If I do learn of a particularly good deal, I’ve found that you have to snap them up fast. Act decisively and you get a bargain; dither and someone else does. Often, though, a deal too good to resist comes up for somewhere unexpected, such as Uganda for just over £300, for instance.
Fix a budget
Once I have transport sorted, I figure out what my total budget can stretch to. I know what my day to day living expenses are, how much my car costs to run, what purchases I need to factor in. Adult life is a far cry from my early twenties and the girl who blew her first pay packet on a holiday to Venezuela! Instead of being impulsive and extravagant, work out how to downsize your lifestyle – cancel your gym membership and go for a run instead; sell your car and take public transport; watch movies on TV rather than at the cinema. I’ve never been one to spend big on clothes, I rarely wear make-up and I don’t choose to get expensive manicures or facials. You’ve seen my picture; that should be no surprise. When I worked full-time in education, I made a packed lunch every day. Add up what you spend on that takeaway coffee each day – it will surprise you. But also think about what you are and aren’t prepared to give up. It’s all about what’s important to you. I’d rather have a budget weekend away than spend the same money on alcohol, but if the discipline required to save for these trips is taking the joy out of your everyday life, then you’ll need to rein in that travel addicition.
Now see how far that budget can stretch
The same principle applies to the trip itself. Over the years, I’ve saved thousands of pounds because I opt for independent travel over group tours. It’s often been considerably cheaper to go it alone and pay for local guides as and when I’ve felt the need. I enjoy the flexibility and I don’t miss the company. And for me, it’s the destination rather than some luxury accommodation that is the most important element of the holiday. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fancy hotels as much as the next person, but if switching to a simple homestay or hostel is what I can afford, I’ll book that rather than not go. Ask yourself if you can cope with a dorm bed or if you need a private room, could you manage an overnight sleeper train (surprisingly cheap) or whether you’d accept a shared bathroom down the hall (though always check cleanliness reviews before you book!) Would it work out cheaper to stay slightly out of the centre and jump on the subway each day, or would you sacrifice time and come back a day earlier if it meant you could achieve a city centre hotel within your budget?
Choose your destination with a view to value for money
Some destinations are hard to do on a budget. I spent a week in Barbados last year. I saved money on my flight by using air miles, travelled around by public bus, found a bargain Airbnb studio apartment and did a food shop at the local supermarket to cut the cost of restaurant meals out. (It might not seem like a holiday thing to do, but tot up the cost of seven breakfasts if you eat out and compare that to the cost of a box of cornflakes and a couple of pints of milk.) Even so, that trip cost somewhere in the region of £700 and that was with the many free admissions that come with a wave of my press card. Not expensive by Caribbean standards, but not cheap either. I could have saved on the cost of accommodation by travelling with a like-minded companion, of course, which would have knocked off about £200. In contrast, Kyrgyzstan offered considerably more value for money. In fact, I even brought cash back with me, things were so cheap. Typically, accommodation was a third of the price of the equivalent standard in Barbados, and food was considerably cheaper too.
Explore ways of making your trip pay for itself
As a travel writer, these days I bear in mind whether a destination is likely to be marketable and factor that into my decision-making. While some trips, like the Tonga add-on I did last time I was in New Zealand, are an indulgence, others are much more lucrative. With some timely commissions, I made over £1000 on one week-long trip to New York last year. Iceland, New Zealand, Russia and Italy have worked out well for me too. If there’s a downside to this, it’s that I’m on the go more and relax a whole lot less – I won’t have much to write about if I don’t stray far from the hotel pool all week. If you want to see if you can sell an article, see if you’ve got what it takes and create a profile on a freelancer platform like Upwork. But you don’t have to be a writer to earn money from your travels. Perhaps a TEFL qualification would open some doors, or maybe you could earn money from photography if you’re skilled enough and work hard at pitching your talent. Working as a tour guide, taking on house or pet sitting, taking a job in a ski resort or working on a cruise ship are just some of the ways you can fund your trip.
I shared a video from BBC Wiltshire this week on my Facebook page. It reported that the cost of visiting Stonehenge is set to increase this April. Individual adult admission will rise from £16.50 to £19.50 while the cost of a family ticket will go up from £42.90 to over £50. Is it worth it, I asked, and the answer was almost universally no. So how does the cost of visiting Stonehenge compare with other world famous attractions?
General entrance to the Pyramids complex costs just 120 Egyptian pounds (under £5) but that doesn’t permit you to go inside the pyramids themselves. To get into the Great Pyramid it will cost a further 300 Egyptian pounds – if you’re lucky enough to get one of the 150 permits available each morning or afternoon. Entrance to the smaller pyramids is rotated so only one is open per day; it costs 60 Egyptian pounds on top of the general admission to go in.
Entrance to Machu Picchu is being more tightly regulated by the Peruvian authorities in an attempt to manage visitor numbers. Tickets are timed and cost a foreigner 152 soles, about £33.80. Peruvians can enter for 64 soles (£14.20), as can nationals of the Comunidad Andina – Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia. You’ll need to pay extra if you’re aiming to climb Huayna Picchu. Even with the limits now imposed, it’s still a must-see while you’re in Peru.
Tickets cost 50 Jordanian dinars for a one day ticket, though subsequent days are significantly cheaper. Two days will cost you 55JD and three will set you back 60JD. To qualify, you have to be able to prove you are staying overnight in Jordan, or the price becomes 90 JD. £1 will get you around 1 JD, so a visit to Petra makes Stonehenge look cheap. It’s better value, however, as there’s so much more to see, from the iconic Treasury to lesser known sites.
Before you fork out for Cambodia’s premier attraction, you’ll need to decide how many days you’ll need to explore the vast Angkor archaeological complex. Passes are sold in one day ($37/$26.40), three day ($62/£44.30) and seven day ($72/£51.50) blocks that have to be used on consecutive days. You’ll also have to have your photo taken but this is free. Three days is about right to see the main sights.
Empire State Building
Most visitors to the Empire State Building are content with an ascent to the 86th floor viewing platform. Adult tickets for this currently cost $37 (£26.40). To combine the 86th floor with the top deck on the 102nd floor, the price rises to $57. Seeing the sunrise will set you back $100 though you’ll need to snag one of only 100 tickets. A combo ticket for day and night (reentry after 9pm) is $53, so time your visit for sunset to avoid this surcharge.
Getting into India’s most famous visitor attraction, the Taj Mahal, will set back foreign visitors 1000 rupees, the equivalent to about £11.20. Costs are approximately halved for citizens of SAARC countries (Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives and Afghanistan) and BIMSTEC Countries (Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar), while domestic visitors pay 40 rupees (about 45 pence).
The cost of reaching the top floor of the Eiffel Tower varies according to your energy levels. Take the elevator and it will set you back 25 euros (about £22). You can save 6 euros off this cost if you are prepared to climb the stairs instead. Satisfying yourself with a partial ascent is another way to keep your costs down – 16 euros and 10 euros for lift or steps respectively gets you to the second floor.
Have you visited any of these attractions? Were they worth the price of the entrance fee?
Regular readers of this blog will know how I’ve made a number of day trips by air to some of Europe’s most captivating cities. Yesterday saw me jet off to Venice, in perhaps my most ambitious trip yet.
You’ll find a full list of the others at the bottom of this post or on my Index page here:
While I’m not suggesting for a minute you’re going to truly get under the skin of your chosen destination in such a short space of time, it is great when you have little or no holiday left but still have that pressing need to travel. Or in my case, a desire to keep two dogs out of kennels and into Daddy Day Care which is always a priority. If you believe those predicting Brexit will put an end to cheap European flights from the UK, time could be running out to snap up a bargain. Here’s the how, where, when and what of Venice in a day.
My local airport is Stansted, the main UK base of Ryanair, and once again it was to the controversial budget carrier that I looked for my cheap fare. Normally, Ryanair flies in to Treviso airport, but while the airport has been closed for essential runway maintenance, flights are being rerouted to Marco Polo instead. Marco Polo also has the advantage of being closer to the city and well connected by both boat and bus. The current closure lasts until 18 October, but it’s worth keeping an eye out as it’s not the first time I’ve read flights have been diverted. My flight departed on time from Stansted at 0620 and touched down ten minutes ahead of schedule at 0910. The return left a few minutes after its scheduled departure time of 2230 and taxied to the terminal to unload us at 2355, about 15 minutes late. Total ticket cost this time was £34 return. I should also add, as per usual I didn’t bother with a seat reservation and got a randomly allocated window seat on the outbound flight and an aisle on the return leg.
To reach Venice from Marco Polo it’s possible to catch a bus. An express service takes around 20 minutes to make the journey to Piazzale Roma, near the top end of the Grand Canal and the city’s Santa Lucia station. Return tickets cost 15 euros. But to arrive in style, I figured I needed to arrive by boat, though my budget most certainly doesn’t stretch to water taxis. There are, however, direct transfers from the airport with Alilaguna who offer a reliable service on one of three routes. This is double the price of the bus at 30 euros for a return, but in my mind well worth the cost. However, I should mention you do sit low in the boat, which isn’t great for sightseeing if you aren’t tall.
I opted for the orange route as it takes you via Cannaregio and then down the Grand Canal. Journey time to the Rialto Bridge was just under an hour. From there, the boat continues down to Santa Maria del Giglio, just short of St Mark’s. It was busy, and I had to wait for one boat to leave before getting on the second one, which added about a 30 minute delay to my journey. However, the boats serving the blue route were bigger and there wasn’t a wait. They loop via Murano and Giudecca instead, and calling at San Marco on the way. This is a really convenient option if seeing Murano’s famous glass is on your wishlist. However, it does take about 90 minutes to get to San Marco and it doesn’t transit the Grand Canal. The way I see it is that this transfer is part of your day out rather than just transport, but if time is the priority then the bus is a no-brainer.
Note: From Treviso, an airport bus scheduled to coincide with arrivals takes around 70 minutes to reach Piazzale Roma. Make sure that you’re on the ATVO bus and not the Barzi bus as the latter calls at Mestre station rather than Santa Lucia (requiring a second train journey to get to the city) and also Tronchetto Island which is again inconvenient for Venice’s top attractions.
The links you’ll need (including timetables, fares and maps):
ACTV bus and city boats: http://actv.avmspa.it/en
Ailaguna boat: http://www.alilaguna.it/en
Venice is time-consuming to get around, which is why I refer to this as my most ambitious day trip to date. Because of the lack of roads, you either have to walk or take to the city’s canals. It’s a pleasure to wander on foot, but the downside is that many alleyways are dead ends leading to canals or courtyards. Without a good map (or even with one) you’re likely to get lost. I relied on a combination of paper map, Google map navigation on my phone and a general sense of direction.
Those of you who know me will realise the latter is pretty much non-existent. Narrow streets and a maze of densely packed buildings mean that sometimes Google maps don’t quite have your location right. I also struggled with night mode, as the canals and alleys have almost no contrast – the waterways are such an essential aid to navigation that I switched it back to day mode. Fortunately even with very limited Italian, people were helpful to my pitiful “Scusi, dove Rialto Bridge?” attempts at conversation and pointed me in the right direction with a smile.
There has been a lot in the press about how residents are fed up with the city being overrun by tourists; the historic centre’s residential population numbers only 55,000 now, compared to an estimated 28 million visitors annually. Do the maths: that’s more tourists per day than the number who actually live there. Whether it was because I visited in the quieter shoulder season or whether such irritation has been exaggerated in the press, I didn’t see any indication of frustration with tourists invading locals’ space. But it’s certainly not an issue to brush under the carpet.
Due to the unhappy marriage of being time-poor and totally incompetent at map reading, I decided to splurge on a day pass for the city’s ACTV boats. This cost 20 euros and can be purchased at the many ticket booths near the jetties. (The jetties themselves are easy to spot being a) near the bigger canals and b) on account of their bright yellow livery as in the photo below.) You do have to validate the pass before you step onto a floating jetty, or risk a hefty fine. Look for a white oval terminal as you step off dry land and tap the card against it. I got my money’s worth hopping on and off, but you’ll need to make several journeys to cover your outlay.
Things to do
With so many sights to choose from, whittling down what’s easily a month’s worth of sightseeing into the nine hours I had in central Venice was tricky to say the least. It helped that this was my third trip to Venice, so I’d already seen the main attractions and (fortunately for me) years ago, well before selfie sticks had been invented. I was also keen to test out the new policy of the Venice authorities which is to encourage people to explore off the beaten track. You’ll find a wide choice of suggestions here (when they first pop up, you might think they’re written only in Italian but they’re actually dual language with English too):
I began my day by alighting at the Rialto Bridge boat jetty and crossing the bridge itself to the adjacent market. Originally the market moved to this location in 1097, but a 16th century fire destroyed almost everything in the vicinity. The market was rebuilt and despite being a stone’s throw from the tourist crap which lines the bridge and its environs, manages to retain more than a little of its charm. There’s plenty to see, including more varieties of mushrooms than you could ever expect to see back home, capsicums done up like posies of flowers plus of course a pungent but vibrant fish market.
There’s a treat tucked around the back of the market in a hard to find alley (even with the address, Sestiere San Polo 429, it was concealed so well it took me a while to find either of its two doors) What I’m referring to is Cantina do Mori, the bacaro which claims to be the oldest in Venice. This tiny bar whose ceiling is hung with dozens of copper pots still retains a customer base who are happy to share their local with tourists like me. It’s been around since 1462 and once counted the infamous lothario Casanova among its clientele. Today, it’s still a popular place to go and have an ombra (Venetian slang for glass of wine) and soak up the alcohol with some cicheti (or in English, cicchetti), the Venetian equivalent to Spanish tapas.
Eventually, I prised myself away from the bar and its surroundings. I decided first to take a stroll in search of Venice’s narrowest street. Calle Varisco is just 53cm at the little end, though mercifully for pedestrian flow, it widens as you walk down. If I’m honest, I was a little underwhelmed; several properties off the street were having work done and there was a fair bit of rubbish around as a result. Forget what you’ve read: it’s not the narrowest street in the world (that’s a German one) and it’s not even close to being the slimmest in Italy.
Moving on, I headed north and picked up a boat which looped around the Castello district to bring me to the San Zaccaria stop. I was hoping to see if the church’s flooded crypt was underwater, but it closes from 12 noon until 4pm each afternoon so was out of luck. Nearby though, I passed Banco-Lotto No. 10 which sells clothing made by inmates at the women’s penitentiary on Giudecca Island. Sadly, that too was closed, though it shouldn’t have been according to the sign on its doorway. The clothes looked fabulous, even for someone with my limited fashionista skills.
Next up was a bookstore, and one which proves that Amazon can’t provide everything. The Libreria Alta Acqua is a treasure. Books stacked in precarious piles fill every inch of available space. Balanced on shelves, filling redundant gondolas and bath tubs, they represent what a bookstore should be.
This is a place to be savoured, to potter and to forget the time or anything else on your mind. The store owner wandered about, leaving the rather scary looking cat to mind the till while he wheezed and tutted to himself looking for items unspecified but clearly important. I think I could have watched him all day too. Out back was the tinest of courtyards with a sign imploring people to climb up some wobbly stairs made of old books to see the view over the canal.
I couldn’t resist walking south via St Mark’s Square. This might sound odd as I really hate the crowds and the tourist paraphernalia but I think I wanted to see just how bad it was. On the way, in Calle del Mondo Novo, my nose caught the aroma of a cheese and ham store as my eye was drawn to a pig in the pizza shop window opposite. Incidentally, I read that you should never eat pizza in Venice as wood-fired ovens are banned with just a tiny handful of exceptions. The store, Prosciutto e Parmigiano, is known locally as Latteria Senigaglia (that was the name of the original family-run dairy produce store which was set up in 1940).
In St Mark’s Square, I navigated a sea of people who couldn’t have been more synchronised in pointing their mobile phones towards whatever their guide was pointing out had a musical soundtrack been in place. Pausing only to recreate the famous shot of the gondolas lined up facing out across the lagoon, I hopped on another vaporetto. This one was bound for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. From the top of its belltower, or campanile as they’re called, the views across the city are splendid and of course you look out over the campanile in St Mark’s Square rather than from it. It costs 6 euros to ascend, but for that they provide a lift, and free entertainment when the bells chime the hour, frightening unsuspecting visitors. Best of all – no queues.
It was mid-afternoon and I wanted to explore a little more before I left, so I took a boat a short way up Canale della Giudecca, jumping off at Spirito Santo church to cut back through to the Grand Canal near the Peggy Guggenheim art collection. Another vaporetto took me to Venice Casino from where I could cut through to the district of Cannaregio. This is on the Venice authorities’ recommendations list and is where you’ll find the Jewish Ghetto. It lacked the crowds of St Mark’s and it’s probably very uncharitable of me to hope that the city’s campaign is unsuccessful and it stays that way.
I had planned to have an early dinner in Osteria al Bacco, which is one of the area’s most highly rated restaurants, but got sidetracked by the wonderful Al Timon instead. You do need to book ahead for dinner reservations, though they don’t always serve what they display in the window. Get there right on the dot of six when they open to grab a table for cicheti and a Spritz – for something classically Venetian, swap the fashionable Aperol for Campari.
Time was ticking on so I took a last vaporetto ride along the Grand Canal and then bought a ticket for the boat back to the airport. I’d definitely recommend a visit outside of summer and most importantly, away from the crowd. Venice is never going to be one of my favourite cities, but it’s growing on me.
The other day trips by air:
Copenhagen Christmas markets
The title’s a bit of an exaggeration – at the very least a work in progress – but I’m in the process of creating an index for my blog posts. Here’s the first instalment. With years of independent travel under my belt there’s a lot of advice I can share about airlines and air travel. From finding business class flights at fares lower than economy to what to do if your flight is cancelled, there’s a blog to help.
Tips for saving money on flights
Cabin baggage charges
What to do if you miss your flight
How to travel business class for the price of economy
Are business class flights really worth the extra?
How to survive a long haul flight
What’s it like to travel long haul on a budget airline?
Thoughts on airports
Transport options from Heathrow to London
How to get the best from a Heathrow layover
Getting your money back if your flight is cancelled
It’s been a busy time recently, working on lots of different projects. I try to keep an up to date list on my website http://www.juliahammond.co.uk but I thought it might be a good idea to post some links here too.
I’ve written a number of articles for this excellent website and it’s really good to have an outlet for some narrative driven pieces rather than factual blogs. If you haven’t had a look, then I’d recommend you have a browse. To get you started, here’s a piece on Cusco:
Camping and Caravanning Club of Great Britain
Closer to home, the Camping and Caravanning Club commissioned a series of blog posts covering a variety of British cities. It took a while for them to go live but they’re now all up. You’ll find the likes of Norwich, York, Manchester and Oxford but here’s one on London:
Sunday Times Travel Magazine
Following a string of rejected pitches, I finally managed to get an idea accepted by the Sunday Times Travel Magazine after snagging the £342 business class error fare to New York last year. I’ve pitched a second idea which may or may not be a follow up piece, but we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, here’s the piece that made the cut in the March 2017 edition:
The excellent Go4Travel continues to be a satisfied client and I’m delighted that they accept my work on a regular basis. Alongside my regular articles on New Zealand, I write on places I’m currently visiting, so most recently, I’ve had blogs published on Puerto Rico following a most enjoyable trip there last month. A round up of most of the articles can be accessed via this link:
Towards the end of last year, I submitted a piece to the Essex Belongs To Us initiative and learned in December that my short article on what it’s been like to move to Salcott had been accepted for their anthology. It’s due to be published in March and launched at the Essex Book Festival which sadly I won’t be able to attend as I’ll be off travelling. There should be news here in the near future if you’d like a copy:
The Big Easy isn’t your usual North American city. Crammed full of French and Spanish creole architecture, hemmed in by Lake Pontchartrain to the north and enclosed by a huge looping meander of the Mississippi to the south, it’s about as unique as they come in this part of the world. It’s laid back, easy going and welcomes visitors like they’re old friends. Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning to visit.
From the UK, getting there just got a whole lot easier. Direct flights with British Airways from Heathrow begin at the end of March. They’re going to be a little more expensive than the indirect options but convenience may be worth paying for, particularly if your travel dates match up (the direct service operates several days a week only). Indirect, flights hubbing via Atlanta with Delta are likely to be the cheapest option, but don’t rule out other carriers. The #202 Airport Express bus (sometimes referred to as the E2) is the cheapest method of transport between the arrivals hall and downtown but of course the use airport shuttles and taxis are available.
If you want to arrive overland, then consider one of the Amtrak trains that serve New Orleans. The Crescent takes 30 hours to make its way south west from New York stopping at Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta, while the City of New Orleans is quicker, taking 19 hours to travel south from Chicago via Memphis. Single travellers will find the roomettes a tight squeeze; I had just a small wheelie and we just about fitted, me and my bag. Book early as this isn’t a cheap option unless you can cope with a reclining seat. The good news is that once you arrive, it’s a quick trolley ride into the French Quarter from the railway station.
Much of the historic downtown area known as the French Quarter is a delight on foot (so long as it’s not raining heavily). But New Orleans also has a very useful public transport network which is convenient to use and budget-friendly. Planning your accommodation so that you stay near to a tram stop can make your holiday a whole lot easier.
There’s plenty of information online including maps:
Trams are fun to ride and simple to find. The shortest, the #2 Riverfront streetcar, links the French Quarter with the Outlet Mall at Riverwalk. The #47 Canal streetcar takes you from the edge of the French Quarter past St Louis Cemetery No. 1 and up as far as Greenwood Cemetery. The #48 follows a similar route and then heads to City Park. The #12 St Charles streetcar is great for the Garden District and Audubon Park. Single tickets are $1.25 but a 1 day Jazzy pass only costs $3 if you’re planning on making a few journeys. Crossing the river is also worth doing. You can take the ferry from Canal Street to Algiers Point for just $2. Check out the schedule here:
Where to stay
Being central to the action is key in New Orleans. It’s the kind of place where you can wander aimlessly, drink in hand, and you don’t want to have to end your evening trying to find a cab. I’ve stayed in a couple of places that are worth recommending. Both are located within staggering distance of the #2 Riverfront streetcar. If you’re on a budget, try Villa Convento. It’s atmospheric and reputedly haunted, a Creole townhouse dating back to about 1933.
Some say it’s the House of the Rising Sun, made famous by The Animals in the 1964 song. Renovation work has taken place though some parts of the hotel are a bit shabby – the lift being one of them – but ask for a room with a balcony and you should be fine. It’s website is here:
At the other end of the same streetcar line is the Marriott Downtown at the Convention Center. Ask for a room in the historic half of the hotel which has more style. I like it because you alight at the Julia Street station. Mulate’s restaurant is also nearby though when I went there the food didn’t live up to my admittedly high expectations.
If you’re on a tight budget, there are loads of ways to save money while you’re in the Big Easy. For tips on how to save money on everything from food, drink and attractions to where to find free walking tour maps, check out my previous blog post:
What to see
There’s a ton of places that are worth seeing and doing in New Orleans, so what follows should get you started if it’s your first visit.
The French Quarter
You can’t visit New Orleans and not go to the French Quarter. Amidst its streets, you’ll find the 18th century almost Disney-esque St Louis Cathedral which commands a prominent position on Jackson Square. Opposite, the Cafe du Monde is the place to eat beignets and drink the chicory-rich coffee; it’s tourist central, but a must none the more for that.
Take a horse and carriage ride from here through the surrounding cobblestone streets of the Quarter. You’ll get your bearings as you clip clop through the Vieux Carré past mansions with wrought iron balconies intertwined with trailing plants and hidden courtyards glimpsed through open doorways.
Music on Frenchmen Street
Forget Bourbon Street, which has almost become a caricature of itself. In my opinion, you’re much better off heading to Frenchmen Street. You’ll find it in the nearby Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood. There’s at least twenty or so bars and clubs where you’ll find live music. Although the action kicks off in the late afternoon, the later it gets the better the atmosphere. Some places have cover charges, others require the purchase of food or drink. Others require just a tip for the musicians. My advice is to head down there and check out what’s on during your stay. If you do want to get some advance research in, check out this site:
St Louis Cemetery No. 1
One of the most interesting things to do while in New Orleans is to visit at least one of its Catholic cemeteries. Begin with St Louis Cemetery No. 1. This is the oldest, opened in 1789. It is characterised by above ground tombs, a nod to the city’s swampy and flood-prone location. The most notable “resident” is Marie Laveau, Voodoo priestess, a religion very much alive in New Orleans to this day and a fascinating topic to explore. She rests among aristocrats, politicians, engineers and architects. Actor Nic Cage has a plot here; look for the pyramid. Since 2015, independent visiting has been prohibited after vandals spray painted Marie Laveau’s tomb. You’ll need to take a tour. Options include booking via the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries or Free Tours on Foot; I’d recommend Gray Line, especially if Sandy’s rostered on.
The mansions of the Garden District
The Garden District’s wide avenues and huge mansions with even bigger gardens contrasts with the downtown feel of the French Quarter. Many of these mansions have a story to tell, their original owners making their fortunes off cotton and other mercantile activity, and a walk around the area is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. In the midst of the mansions, you’ll find another atmospheric cemetery: Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. The cemetery was first planned out in 1832, making it the oldest of New Orleans’ seven cemeteries, and can be visited without having to book a tour.
Mardi Gras World
If you can’t get here in February for Mardi Gras, then at the very least you should pay a visit to Mardi Gras World down by the Convention Centre. The building houses an enormous collection (both in scale and number of exhibits) of former floats, props and other carnival-related paraphernalia. Guided tours are possible and will show you around; you’ll get to see some of the costumes and props being made for the next carnival. Many are revamped and recycled. One thing’s for sure: the colours will blow your mind!
Across the Mississippi lies the sleepy residential neighbourhood known as Old Algiers. It was first settled by Jean Baptiste le Moyne in 1719, who had a plantation here. It has a dark past, site of a slaughterhouse and also an 18th century holding area for African slaves. The ferry you take to get here has operated since 1827, fiercely protected by the Algiers residents from any attempt by the city authorities to close it down on economic grounds. It’s well worth a wander to explore the 19th century homes here, and of course a coffee stop in the corner cafe at the junction of Alix and Verret Streets.
The steamboat you’ll see churning up the Mississippi isn’t the first to be named the Natchez. It’s actually the ninth and dates only from 1975. It’s also not modelled on its namesake predecessors, pinching its design instead from steamboats Hudson and Virginia. Her engines came from the steamboat Clairton and were made in 1925; her copper bell came from the SS JD Ayres. So she’s a bit of a mongrel, really. Nevertheless, cruises for lunch and dinner are a popular addition to many people’s itineraries. Even if the food doesn’t impress, the music’s good and it’s interesting to head down to the engine room to have a closer look.
Hurricane Katrina tour
Despite it being over a decade since Hurricane Katrina blew through the Big Easy with devastating consequences, there are still parts of the city that bear its scars. I took a Gray Line tour in 2012 and was shocked to find so many houses still covered with blue tarpaulins and bearing the red crosses of the search teams on their doors and windows. Returning a few years later in 2015, I was less surprised to see boarded up houses as the train made its final approach into the city. Time may heal the hurt and dissipate the shock, but the economic impacts on an individual scale linger long after the city proclaims it’s open for business again. New Orleans will always be vulnerable to the impacts of hurricanes, and exploring what happened in 2005 will help you understand why.
For more on New Orleans, why not read my article on etrip.tips?
I’ve washed the smell of wood smoke out of my hair and a couple of Ibuprofen have sorted out the backache, for now at least. My latest day trip was the longest yet, but proof yet again that you don’t need to overnight to enjoy a rewarding experience over in continental Europe. This time, I had my sights set on Germany’s famous Christmas markets.
This month’s destination, hot on the heels of Budapest, Bremen, Belfast, Lisbon and Amsterdam which have previously featured on this blog, took me to Nuremberg. A flash sale on Ryanair’s website netted me return flights to the Bavarian city for the princely sum of £4.08 all in. The offer was one with limited availability, not only in terms of seats but also in validity, solely for flights on Tuesdays or Wednesdays in November. Such offers come up quite often and it’s worth subscribing to Ryanair’s email alerts if you’re within easy reach of Stansted. I also saved money on my airport parking by purchasing it through the Holiday Extras website which saved me over a fiver. My 7.35am flight from Stansted was on time and we touched down shortly after 10.15am.
I made use of the Bayern ticket which I’d learnt about on a trip to Munich. The ticket’s valid for a day from 9am to 3am the next day which gives plenty of time for sightseeing. It offers unlimited travel throughout Bavaria on all trains except ICE, IC and EC (so basically excludes high speed trains) as well as city transport in many of the larger cities. The cost? A flat fare of 23 euros if bought from a ticket machine, 25 euros if bought from a kiosk. Unfortunately there’s no train service from Nuremberg airport which means no DB ticket machines (a U-bahn service operates instead with a fare of 3 euros for a ticket with 90 minutes’ validity) so I had to buy the Bayern ticket at the Airport Information desk for the higher price. As it covers the U-bahn that was still the cheapest way of doing it.
It wasn’t long before I was in Regensburg and my first stop was the Neupfarrplatz Christkindlmarkt. Most German Christmas markets get underway on 25th November this year, but Regensburg’s begin a couple of days earlier. The market was well underway at midday, a mix of traditional market stalls and refreshment huts. Next I checked out the Lucrezia Craft Market, though that was still being set up. There were some stalls that had limited wares on display, the likes of sheepskin clothing, wood carvings and handmade silver jewellery. To reach the third of Regensburg’s markets I needed to cross the old stone bridge at the Spitalgarten. Again, setting up was in progress but the walk was a pretty one and there were sheep waiting in the wings to coo over.
I crossed back over the Danube for a lunch stop at the Regensburg Sausage Kitchen, one of the oldest restaurants in Germany. Prices were reasonable and they did takeaway, though even at the end of November, it was warm enough in the sunshine to eat at one of its picnic tables.
The main focus of my visit was the Christmas market at the Thurn und Taxis Palace. Regensburg’s Old Town has hundreds of listed buildings but this palace and its grounds are the jewel in the crown. The Christmas market is more than just a market, with live music and even visiting alpacas and camels. The latter obviously play a role in the Christmas story but I think the alpacas were just there as a crowd-pleaser; certainly every time I held up the camera, they turned their heads and posed!
But let’s get down to business: this is no ordinary market. Princess Gloria from Thurn und Taxis apparently is pretty hands-on with the organisation of the market and I did see a couple of elegant, well-dressed women who might have been her. The market, less well known outside Germany than the likes of Munich’s markets for instance, attracts a mainly local crowd, though it’s definitely worth making the journey for.
The market attracts artisans not just from Germany, but from surrounding countries such as Austria as well. The man selling delicious hot cheese bread had made the journey from the Voralberg and the journey had done his cheese no harm at all. It was cheap, filling and almost worth the market’s 6,50 entrance fee in itself.
As darkness fell, the market took on a magical atmosphere. Open fires and strings of fairylights added to the romance of the market and there were plenty of stalls to browse. It’s at dusk when you really start to appreciate the attention to detail. Stallholders decorate their huts with freshly cut branches from pines, spruces and firs: the smells as well as the aesthetics are something to savour.
The good thing about not having to pay for accommodation is that there was plenty of cash in the budget that could be used for souvenir shopping instead: I was spoilt for choice amongst a wide selection of products including sheepskin rugs, rustic Christmas ornaments, clothing and handcrafted metal ware.
The palace itself, larger than Buckingham Palace, looked spectacular as the lights came on. At six, a pair of trumpeters heralded the official start to the festivities, followed by a choir and costumed soloists. The balcony overlooking the main courtyard provided the perfect staging.
Eventually, it was time to wander back to the station for a train to take me back to Nuremberg. The seven hours I’d spent in this delightful city was plenty to enjoy it without rushing. My flight departed more or less on time at 10.35pm; I’d landed and cleared immigration well before midnight UK time.
I’m already planning my next day out to a European Christmas market – but this time, I’m off to Copenhagen and I’ll be blogging about it next month.
Interesting article in the news today that Eurostar will be offering some very cheap deals on its fares to Paris, Brussels and Lille. The fares will be available for trains from the end of November to mid-January and you can book from next week. Simon Calder was explaining the offer during a breakfast television segment this morning, and the Independent article he wrote on the story can be read here:
On the face of it, £19 each way sounds like a bargain and I’m certainly one who’d usually espouse the benefits of train travel over flying. However, I’m not sure I like the terms and conditions – if it wasn’t enough that you don’t find out which time train you’re on until almost the last minute (you could end up trying to get to St Pancras very early!), if the train they allocate for you gets full at the last minute you’re going to be bumped to a jump seat.
I had a look at easyJet’s website to see what kind of prices they’re offering from Luton, Gatwick and Southend – there are some good deals to be had especially in January, with Southend coming out as the cheapest at the time of writing. It looks like flying won’t cost much more than the Eurostar, and of course you get to choose exactly what time you depart and return. In terms of travel time, it would take me as long to get to LTN, LGW and SEN as it would to central London, so for me that factor doesn’t influence my decision.
Personally, I’m no great fan of Paris or Brussels, and as I’m off to Nuremberg soon with Ryanair for the princely sum of £4 return including tax, I shan’t be booking. What about you? Would this special offer tempt you?
One decision to be made when working out a long haul itinerary is whether or not to plan a stopover when booking flights. Here are a few issues to consider which might help you decide.
What’s it going to do to the flight cost?
Before making a decision to stopover, check out flight combinations and prices. A stopover including a few nights’ accommodation sometimes makes very little difference to the total flight cost compared to a direct flight. A stopover is classed as a stay of more than 24 hours whereas a layover might be just an hour or two. Layovers can also give you the chance to do a bit of sightseeing during your journey. See if you can extend your layover by taking a later flight to your final destination with that same airline. If the city is relatively close to the airport and if transportation is good, you can see a little of the layover city without it increasing the budget at all. Your luggage will usually be checked through to your final destination leaving you with just hand luggage. This has worked for me several times, most recently in Chicago and in Istanbul.
How much of the world do you want to see?
On both occasions I’ve been to the Antipodes, the best flight deals hubbed through places I’d already visited, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Eschewing the stopover didn’t leave me feeling like I’d missed out , but I may have felt differently if I’d never been to the stopover city before. A trip to Tanzania with Qatar Airways gave me the opportunity for a two-day stopover in the Qatari capital Doha, somewhere I’d not have chosen to visit in itself, but a pleasant stopover nevertheless. Next year, I’m stopping off in Sri Lanka en route to the Seychelles, a little out of the way but a great opportunity to see more places without vastly inflating my budget.
How will you cope with double jet lag?
If you are travelling east over any distance then you’re going to be hit by jet lag. There are things you can do to help alleviate symptoms, including trying to eat and sleep according to the new time zone before you arrive and keeping hydrated during the journey with plenty of water, but the fact remains, jet lag is a very real possibility. On my trips to Australia and New Zealand, I’ve opted for a quick change of flights rather than a few days’ stopover. Why? So I suffer the dreaded jet lag once rather than twice. Admittedly by 4pm on my first day in Sydney I was punch-drunk with fatigue but after a good sleep I was raring to go the next day. In Auckland a few years later, prepared for the same thing, I enjoyed a pleasant day exploring Ponsonby before hitting the hay at 7pm for a decent night’s rest. Again, the following morning, I was fully refreshed and ready to tackle the city instead of facing another long flight. Choose a layover airport with plenty of facilities, such as Singapore’s Changi or Kuala Lumpur International, both of which have airside hotels. You can book a bed or take a shower while you wait for the second flight, and get that horrible journey out of the way in one hit.
How much time do you have for your holiday?
If you’re heading long haul for a long stay holiday such as a gap year, then a few weeks exploring somewhere on the way doesn’t make a big dent in the time you’re going to get at your destination. But if that holiday is restricted to the two or three weeks you’re going to be able to get off work, then you need to think about where you really want to spend it. Ask yourself whether your stopover days will prevent you seeing something amazing at your main destination, or give you the chance to see something equally amazing en route that you’d otherwise have missed.
Are you likely to get the opportunity to go back?
For some, a long haul trip will be the adventure of a lifetime, and likely to happen only once. If that’s the case, then stopping on the way to your main destination might be the only chance you’ll have to explore that part of the world and as such, you might be foolish to pass up the chance. If it’s somewhere that frequently shows up on flight deals websites or is a popular package holiday destination and thus relatively cheap, you might be tempted to ditch the place as a stopover for now and go there later on for a longer holiday.
Are you unsure about whether you’d like the place or not?
Taking the opportunity to make a stopover in a city is a good way to find out if you like the place enough to book a longer holiday or not. Sometimes, this might be clear beforehand; it’s possible to stop in Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, on the way to certain North American destinations, but in my opinion, this incredible country warrants more than a couple of days. But if you’re unsure, then staying just a night or two in a place gives you a taster, enough to help you decide whether to tick it off the list or to go back for a more leisurely visit.
New York, New York, as Gerard Kenny sang, the city so good they named it twice and, you’ll find, so enthralling you won’t want to visit just once.
But where to start? There’s just so much to see and do that the city can be daunting for the first-time visitor. Don’t worry, help is at hand. I’ve put together several online guides. They’re free and they should help ensure that you won’t miss something major. Here are the links you need to make your New York city break a success.
First, here are my tips for getting the best out of your trip to New York City:
Next, how do you choose which tower to climb for the view of a lifetime?
From the Statue of Liberty to the 9/11 Memorial, Lower Manhattan is packed with must-see attractions. Read this for some less well known tourist spots as well as some great money-saving tips.
With gems like the High Line, the cafes and bakeries of Greenwich Village and fabulous views from both the Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building, it’s hard to beat this side of the city.
The Upper East Side with its mansions facing Central Park is the polar opposite of the edgy Lower East Side but both are essentials for your trip. From Chinatown to the Chrysler Building, here’s what to see.
And lastly, for something a little different, get out into one of the other boroughs; Brooklyn is most convenient, Queens has some great food, Staten Island is reached by that free ferry with the views of the Statue of Liberty and the financial district’s skyscrapers, but my favourite is the Bronx. Find out why here:
Many people might rule out a holiday in South America on the grounds that it is too expensive, but there are ways to save money and make that dream trip an affordable reality. Here’s what you need to know:
Tour operator prices to Latin America are often prohibitively expensive. Although some operators offer good value, such as Llama Travel and Journey Latin America’s value range, typical tour prices are high. Unpackage your trip and book it yourself. Get decent insurance and make sure that your Transatlantic flights aren’t going to be affected by a cancelled or delayed short haul connection by purchasing all legs as a through ticket. Don’t be tempted to book airport transfers or tours in advance for the popular destinations as you’ll pay a premium and it’s simple to arrange these on arrival.
Book your trip for shoulder season
Peak period flights to South America are expensive, there’s no getting round it. But if you can be flexible with your dates, then it is possible to slash the cost of your Transatlantic fare. For example, travelling in the shoulder seasons (spring and autumn) can reduce prices significantly. Don’t rule out the southern hemisphere winter. Air France flights from London to Lima last June were on sale for a little over £500 (compared to over £1000 in August) and if your planned destination is up in the Andes such as Cusco in Peru or San Pedro de Atacama in Chile then it will be dry and sunny during the daytime – just pack a thick fleece and jacket for the evenings.
Don’t assume the European route will be the cheapest
There are few direct flights to Latin America, meaning demand often outstrips supply which pushes the prices up. Use a flight comparison website to see which routes are cheapest for the dates you wish to travel; many people consider the US and European hubs such as Amsterdam, Paris and Madrid, but there are often deals to be had to west coast destinations via Brazil or Argentina with LATAM. At the time of writing, LAN were offering return fares to Rio for £419. If you’re on a really tight budget but have bags of time, you could consider reaching your final destination overland from Rio or Buenos Aires.
Do your homework on internal flights
Sometimes, overnight buses provide a cheap and surprisingly comfortable alternative to flying. Many large bus companies in Latin America offer cama or semi-cama seating – large spacious seats which recline far enough for you to have a good night’s sleep. Stick to a reputable operator which will use two drivers and ensure they are drug-tested and safe to go behind the wheel. Try Cruz del Sur, for example, between Arequipa and Cusco. If you do need to fly, check the terms and conditions before purchasing. LAN offers sizeable discounts on its internal flights in Chile if you book from a Chilean website (use free software such as Tor) or via a Chilean travel agent – and you don’t have to be Chilean national to take advantage of them. This isn’t the case for all countries; in Argentina, discounted prices are for nationals only.
Don’t rule out hostels and guest houses
Private rooms in hostels increasingly come with private bathrooms and can be a fraction of the cost of a similar quality hotel room. They’re also a good way to meet other like-minded travellers who might be willing to split the cost of tours with you. Use a reliable website such as Booking.com or Hostelbookers.com to fix up your accommodation in advance – use the free cancellation option, monitoring prices so you can cancel and rebook if prices fall before you leave. Check locations carefully so that you are within walking distance of transport operators or the attractions you want to visit.
Package up tours
If you do decide to book tours, some operators will bundle up different day and half-day excursions offering a discount for cash. If you’re booking for the next few days ahead, they’ll be keen to fill their minibus and will want to make sure you don’t take your business elsewhere. This works well where it’s normal to take tours rather than use public transport to visit sites of interest, such as the Sacred Valley near Cusco and Los Flamencos National Reserve in the Chilean Atacama.
In Chilean Patagonia, accommodation providers in the Torres del Paine National Park offered expensive all-inclusive packages. Self-drive from Punta Arenas (four hours) or Puerto Natales (one hour) and drive yourself round the park. Stock up at the supermarket in Puerto Natales for provisions to save buying expensive box lunches from the hotel (and make sure you have a full tank of petrol). The maps and information provided by the visitor centre are excellent and you won’t have wasted money on a guide.
Mexico’s Riviera Maya is the name given to the stretch of Quintana Roo coastline that extends from Cancun in the north (or a few kilometres south of it, definitions vary) to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to the south. Together with the neighbouring state of Yucatan, it is a deservedly popular package and independent tourism destination. This guide is aimed at the first-time visitor and should help you to make the most of your holiday. Prices are shown in Mexican pesos, which at the time of writing had an exchange rate of about twenty to the pound. The information given was correct at the time of writing, but check locally as things change.
How to get there
Most visitors arrive at Cancun’s international airport just to the south of town, well served by direct scheduled flights from the UK, for example, with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. It is possible to fly to Mexico City and catch a connecting flight but this takes longer. A wide range of packages are available with operators such as Thomson, Thomas Cook and First Choice. From the airport, the best way of getting to your hotel depends on your location. ADO buses serve the centres of Cancun and Playa del Carmen on a half-hourly basis, with fares of 148 pesos per person to Playa and 62 pesos to Cancun. Airport shuttles are available to the main resort areas for around four times as much and private hotel transfers considerably more. If you’re on a package, transfers will usually be included but check your booking documents.
How to get around
Taxis are cheap but better still are the minibuses called colectivos that ply the main road at regular intervals. To catch one, simply flag it down and tell the conductor your intended destination. Fares are cheap so take loose change and small notes. In Playa, colectivos can be found in town at Calle 2 Norte between 15th and 20th, whereas in Cancun you’ll need to come out of the Zona Hotelera into downtown, where they congregate outside La Comercial Mexicana supermarket on Avenida Tulum. In Tulum, look for them opposite the ADO bus station in the town. Several bus companies serve a large network across Quintana Roo (the state containing the coastal strip) and neighbouring Yucatan (where you’ll find Chichen Itza). The best quality buses, with fewer stops and therefore slightly dearer fares, are run by ADO, whose website http://www.ado.com.mx is easy to navigate. Local routes are also served by the cheaper Oriente and Mayab buses, which tend to be a little less comfortable and stop more frequently.
Where to stay
Cancun is the largest of the Mayan Riviera resorts. Created from scratch four decades ago, it basically consists of two areas: downtown, where the locals live, and the Zona Hotelera, a narrow strip of land flanked by a lagoon on one side and white sand in the other. Its lively nightlife and many bars attract a young crowd, especially from the USA and Canada. However, Cancun’s too noisy and brash for many, who Instead head an hour down the coast to Playa del Carmen. Playa has grown immensely in the last decade, but its pedestrian street, Quinta, with a good selection of shops, bars and restaurants still attracts many people. Try Sur, which serves Argentine steaks in a swanky setting, or Blue Lobster for seafood and glow in the dark blue margaritas. The central beach, though eroded in places, is busy and lined with popular beach clubs playing music while its water is safe for swimming.
Alternatives to Cancun and Playa
Another hour by bus further south, Tulum is rapidly developing with accommodation strung out along the beach. Once home to a few hippy hangouts, it now also hosts beach clubs and luxury hotels alongside the hammocks. Puerto Morelos, midway between Cancun and Playa, is a small town that contains a few hotels, such as Casa Caribe to which the excellent Little Mexican Cooking School is attached. Akumal, a quarter of an hour south of Playa, serves those who like their resort to be local and relatively unspoilt. The easiest way to get to both Puerto Morelos and Akumal is by flagging down a colectivo on the side of the main road, known as the 307. Connecting Cancun to Tulum and beyond is a string of all-inclusive luxury resorts, gated from the main road and fiercely protective of their private patch of beach. These are well suited to families as the all-inclusive option makes budgeting easier and there are plenty of water-based activities for all ages. Whether you’re a backpacker on a budget or a family seeking a fortnight of water sports and lazy days by the pool, there’s something on the Mayan Riviera that will cater for you. If you don’t mind being away from the beach, the town of Valladolid, two hours inland from Cancun, offers an alternative to independent travellers seeking a less touristy experience. ADO buses run frequently, costing 176 pesos each way from both Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
Set around a charming plaza, there are a handful of hotels and restaurants, the best being El Meson de Marques right on the main square. From Valladolid, it’s easy to get to the ruins of Chichen Itza and Ek Balam as well as to the pretty town of Merida to the north of the peninsula, itself a good base for visiting the ruins of Uxmal and Sayil. The town is busy and it can feel less comfortable in the heat without a cooling sea breeze, but Valladolid’s a useful stopping off point between the coast and Merida if you wish to tour the peninsula.
As you’d expect from a well-established destination, there’s a number of water and eco-parks to tempt holidaymakers out of their resorts. If you go to only one, make it Xcaret. Pronounced “ish-ca-rett”, the site was once a Mayan port. Its archaeological remains can be visited without having to pay the entrance fee to the main park, and cost 43 pesos, but the park itself is a fun way to spend the day. You can swim in a lazy river and visit the park’s wildlife including turtles and dolphins. The park features a reconstructed Mayan ball court as well as a typical hacienda and folk art museum. At night, stay for the spectacle that condenses a thousand years of history into a couple of hours. It features everything from Mayan sport played with balls of fire to dance and folklore set pieces representing Mexico’s diverse regions. This and other performances such as an equestrian show and the exciting display put on by the Voladores de Papantla are included in the ticket price. It’s simple to find booths selling tickets in Cancun and Playa del Carmen or you can book online. Tickets start from US$89 with some activities such as swimming with dolphins carrying a supplement. For more information visit http://www.xcaret.com or pick up a leaflet when you arrive.
Xplor is the go-to park for thrill seekers. Tickets cover four attractions: a ride in an amphibious vehicle, a lazy river swim, underground rafting and the highest zip lines in Latin America. Full instruction is given and a helmet mounted camera ensures that you have a selection of photos as a memento of your day. Tickets cost from US$119 and can be purchased in much the same way as Xcaret. Xplor’s website http://www.xplor.travel has all the information. As well as Xcaret and Xplor, there are a range of other attractions run by the same company, including Xel-Ha and Rio Secreto. Perhaps even more fun is to do what the locals do to make the best of the landscape. Beneath the peninsula, the limestone rock has slowly been weathered away to create a fascinating underground world of sinkholes and caverns into which water has gradually filtered. These lagoons, known as cenotes, form natural swimming pools popular with families at weekends but often quiet in the week. There are many close to the coast, but one of the best is Cenote Xkeken at Dzitnup. Located a little way out of Valladolid, it is a glistening turquoise lake lit through a hole in the roof of a huge cavern dangling with stalactites. Entrance costs 80 pesos.
The large number of historical sites in Quintana Roo and the Yucatan can leave the visitor ruined out. It’s best to choose a few and enjoy them, rather than attempt to tick them all off in one trip. The jewel in the crown is without a doubt Chichen Itza. A sprawling site surrounded by jungle, it centres around the restored Kukulkan pyramid and an interesting collection of other structures including an observatory and ball court. Every tour operator offers day trips, but the site is easy to visit independently. ADO buses connect Chichen Itza directly to Cancun and Playa del Carmen via good roads. Guides can be hired at the entrance if you wish. A ticket to get in costs 533 pesos for foreign tourists. (Mexicans enjoy a discounted rate, locals even more so).
The must-see on the coast is Tulum, not for its scale but for its location. Tulum’s temples sit right on top of the cliff above a small patch of sand and a turquoise sea and unsurprisingly as a result receives the highest number of visitors of any of the peninsula’s archaeological sites. Like Chichen Itza, the volume of tourists necessitates obvious management and many structures are roped off, but the grey of the stone against the blue sky makes this a very atmospheric place despite the crowds. It’s still just possible to find a quiet spot with just a lizard or two for company, especially first thing in the morning. Tickets are priced at 80 pesos.
Coba, just a few years ago off the beaten track but now increasingly in the tour operators’ sights, is situated an hour or so from Tulum. Once a thriving Mayan city, the ruins are scattered through an area of jungle crisis-crossed with Mayan roads known as sacbe. The pyramid here is less well preserved than that at Chichen Itza and for now at least can be climbed by anyone untroubled by vertigo – with just a single rope to cling on to, this is not a climb for those with a fear of heights. Entrance costs 80 pesos but due to the size of the site, many people opt to rent bicycles or take a ride to the ruins in a cycle rickshaw at extra cost.
Note that at present Coba is closed to visitors.
Less well-known and yet only twenty minutes by colectivo from Valladolid are the extensive ruins at Ek Balam. Relatively recently rediscovered, like Coba the site has a pyramid to climb, the Acropolis, its 106 worn steps rising steeply from the ground to offer extraordinary views of the surrounding jungle from the top. Ek Balam means dark jaguar in Mayan and as a result, the observant will spot jaguar motifs carved into the stone throughout the site. The entrance fee is 456 pesos for foreign tourists. Colectivo taxis from Valladolid cost upwards of 150 pesos each way; either pay for a seat and wait for others to join you or pay for the whole car. As they’re taxis rather than minibuses, you’ll find them on Calle 44 between 37 and 35, tucked inside the courtyard of a building rather than on the road outside.
Further afield, the attractive colonial town of Merida makes a convenient base if you wish to visit the Yucatecan sites of Sayil, Labna and Uxmal. It’s also close to Izamal whose ruins boast the largest surviving Mayan structure in the area. Getting to Merida takes around five hours by bus from the coastal resorts of Quintana Roo.
A coral reef extends from the Riviera Maya down past Belize and on to Honduras. The second longest in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, it provides excellent opportunities for both snorkelling and diving. The largest protected reserve in the area is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, south of the main tourist strip. Tours showcase its flora and fauna, in particular birds, dolphins and turtles, plus occasionally manatees for those lucky enough to spot them. Akumal’s public beach is a good place for green turtle watching. There’s no need to book a tour, as snorkelling equipment can be rented from the dive shop on the beach, from where it’s a short swim out to the reef. Even in busy spots such as the main beach at Playa del Carmen, you’ll see flamingos diving for fish and bobbing about amidst the breakers.
Off the coast
Cozumel, an established cruise ship and diving destination, is easily reached by ferry from the terminal at the southern end of Playa del Carmen. It offers the facilities you’d usually expect from a place where the majority of visitors are only in town for a short while. Island tours are expensive as are taxis. Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox, reached by ferry from Cancun, are better bolt holes if you want a more laid back island stay.