Travel advice and guidance

Tea time in the Hill Country

I expected tea picking to be difficult. Working in the sun on scarily steep slopes for eight hours wouldn’t be my choice of job and certainly not for the 600 rupee (£3) daily wage that these industrious women earn.

Tea pickers off to work

Tea pickers off to work

Learning that the Heritance Tea Factory offered a tea plucking and tasting activity, I jumped at the chance to try my hand. The slopes carpeted with squat tea bushes were relatively gentle compared to those I’d seen from the train on the way in and thickening cloud promised to deal with the heat issue.

Weather changes fast in the hills

Weather changes fast in the hills

The staff at the Heritance kitted out their small but enthusiastic team of volunteers in suitable attire: saris for the women and sarongs for the men. Raising my arms, my dresser tied a string snugly around my waist, into which she tucked a carefully pleated sari. Six metres of fabric is expertly tied to create an elegantly flowing dress, pinned across one shoulder to ensure modesty isn’t neglected.

The basket for collecting leaves

The basket for collecting leaves

Elegant, that is, until I moved. Sadly walking in a long dress without tripping had never been a skill I’d mastered and squeezing my way through the tiniest of gaps between tea bushes only compounded my clumsiness. Unhooking me from a stray piece of barbed wire, our guide led me to the plucking area and demonstrated which leaves to pick.

The guide showed us which leaves to pluck

The guide showed us which leaves to pluck

Get it wrong and the tea will be useless.

Tea, glorious tea!

Tea, glorious tea!

As I started to pick what I hoped were the softer, greener leaves I wished I’d paid closer attention to those deftly thrown into the basket by the expert. My basket, with an optimistic capacity of 3kg given we were only out here for half an hour, looked pathetically empty, despite the guide’s surreptitious efforts to sneak a few handfuls of her leaves in when my attention was diverted.

Not much to show for my efforts

Not much to show for my efforts

No shortage of tea bushes

No shortage of tea bushes

The bag attached with a wide canvas strap across my forehead. As I bent over to pick, it swung a little, needing the weight of some leaves to hold it steady. That strap seemed to have a mind of its own, alternating between slipping down onto my glasses and wriggling up to form a Sixties’ style beehive. Eventually, I gave up and balanced the basket on the ground. It wasn’t quite what was expected but at least I could fling in a few more leaves before my shift ended to save face.

The area surrounding Heritance is stunning

The area surrounding Heritance is stunning

It was hard to concentrate given the beauty of the landscape surrounding the hotel – and indeed, it’s own well-tended gardens. The Heritance Tea Factory has a long history. Its original owner was a man called William Flowerdew who bought the land in 1879, only a decade or so after tea bushes were introduced to Sri Lanka by Scot James Taylor.

Heritance Tea Factory

Heritance Tea Factory

Flowerdew named his factory Hethersett, producing around half a million kilos of tea each year for decades.

Machinery from the factory still in place

Machinery from the factory still in place

The factory buildings were modernised in 1937 but the factory closed, no longer economic, in 1973. Fortunately, it soon underwent a sympathetic restoration: much of the factory machinery remains in situ to make this what surely must be a unique hotel and, with attentive staff, a delight in which to stay.

The table laid for tea tasting; flavour and strength are determined only by how small the leaves have been ground

The hotel has its own tea bar; flavour and strength are determined only by how small the leaves have been ground

The fact that they serve a decent cuppa – well, that’s just a bonus.

Hands off the Flowery Pekoe!

Hands off the Flowery Pekoe!

Packing tips from someone who learnt the hard way

1995.  The end of a six week holiday in Peru, my first big trip.  I’d been completely clueless when it came to packing, wondering how I’d fit six weeks’ worth of clothes into my suitcase (did I even have six weeks’ worth of clothes?) and trying to check in at the airport with the entire stock of Arequipa’s souvenir vendors. It took a lot of begging but I somehow managed to avoid excess baggage charges despite the fact that I couldn’t even lift my suitcase onto the weighing scales.  I was then the kind of traveller I laugh at now.  How easy it is to forget.

Peru Llama girls and Inca stonework

Cusco 1995

1997.  I’d downsized my suitcase, though not by much, and figured a lightweight trolley would help me drag it around Morocco.  The dust, potholes and uneven surfaces took their toll and once again I was heaving half my worldly goods on and off trains in the August heat.  It was uncomfortable, ineffective and something had to change.  A backpack was out as I could never trust my dodgy back to cope, and a little hard-sided wheelie became my saviour and trusty travelling companion for over a decade, only to be replaced when its lightweight sibling hit the market.  I’ve never looked back.

Morocco Djemaa water sellers (1)

Marrakesh 1997

Fitting my stuff into a tiny wheelie has taken practice, but I reckon now I’ve got it down to a fine art.  Here’s my top tips.

Take as few clothes as you can get away with

It’s never very far to a laundry.  Look for one that operates by weight rather than by individual item and avoid hotel laundries like the plague.  Alternatively, pack a couple of washing capsules in a small plastic tub and do it yourself in a self-service laundrette.  You’ll meet local people and who knows where that might lead?

Pack things that work together

Take clothes that don’t need ironing and roll them as you pack them to avoid any creases.  Make sure everything goes together and never take something just in case you might need it – you won’t.  Don’t forget a swimsuit and flip flops.  Forget about a hair drier or straighteners.  You’re on holiday, who cares?

Wear the heavy stuff

Hiking boots are bulky and heavy.  They’ll take up way too much space in your suitcase so if you need them, travel in them.  Ditto a thick fleece or coat; if you don’t need it in your plane/train/automobile you can fold it up and use it as a pillow. Ignore anyone who says you can do that with a sarong.  They’re just not thick enough to be any good.

Decant toiletries to travel sized containers

In terms of shampoo and the like, you’re really only taking emergency rations.  Reasonable hotels and guest houses will provide toiletries anyway.  If they don’t, you’re never far from a supermarket to go and buy some.

Take wipes instead of bottles

When it comes to insect repellent, take plenty.  It’s not always possible to buy it and there’s nothing that spoils a good holiday faster than a leg full of itchy bites.  Sprays are messy.  Take individually-wrapped wipes instead and as your travels progress, you are making space for shopping.  Don’t forget some wet wipes too to clean your hands afterwards, but again, choose the flat plastic packs not the rigid tubs.

Consider posting things home

A word of caution needed here, obviously.  Don’t post anything you’d be devastated to lose and be prepared for things to take months to get home.  I’ve successfully sent books from Cuba, a bulky throw from Turkey and even dirty laundry!  No matter what the vendors say, though, breakable stuff will rarely be packed well enough to make the journey back unscathed.

Have you got a tip you’d like to share?  I’d love to hear from you!

Changes to the US visa waiver program

A headline on the news section of the BBC’s website caught my eye this morning. It read: “Iranian dual citizens fight new US visa rules”. I’ve never been to Iran but reading on, this article could have directly affected me, but for a few months. The article explained that any British citizen that had been to Syria in the last five years would no longer qualify for the visa waiver program; in other words, they couldn’t travel on an ESTA and would now have to apply for a visa.


Spices for sale, Damascus 2010


I’ve checked my travel diary, in which I keep a list of the places I’ve been and the dates I visited. One of those is Syria. Now, the country is a no-go zone, but just a few short years ago, it was a different place, largely undiscovered by tourists. I wandered the souks of Aleppo and Damascus, travelling between them across the beautiful countryside on a modern train. I enjoyed a wonderful walk through Hama to a soundtrack of creaking norias. You can find out more about them here:


Noria by the river in Hama 2010


I went to Syria and neighbouring Jordan in Spring 2010 and the new regulations stipulate a cut off date of March 2011. That means I’m still good to go to one of my most favourite cities, New York, next May. I was worried, though I don’t regret visiting Syria back then for a moment.  Nor do I condemn the US government for passing such legislation; countries have a right to determine their own security and their own rules.


Citadel of Aleppo 2010


It’s not just Brits and it’s not just Syria. The Wall Street Journal wrote: “Coming up with a comprehensive plan has been challenging. Instead, a piece-by-piece approach appears to be emerging. The initial step was legislation to put some restrictions on the visa-waiver program, which allows travelers from the 38 mostly European and Asian nations to enter the U.S. without obtaining a visa. The measure would ban people from those nations who had traveled to places including Iraq or Syria since March 2011 without first getting a visa. The bill, which passed 407-19, is supported by the White House and is expected to be wrapped into a must-pass spending bill and become law by year’s end.”

You can read the exact wording of the bill here:

A list of visa waiver countries can be found here:

Currently, the restrictions affect those who have travelled since 1 March 2011 to Iraq, Syria and “any other country or area of concern designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security” (to be determined within 60 days). If, like me, you’re a fan of visiting unusual destinations, it looks like it’s going to be important to double check you still qualify to travel on an ESTA if you wish to visit the USA.

To stopover, or not to stopover?

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.


Boeing Dreamliner takes off

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.


Auckland’s Sky Tower

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.

Australia Sydney Opera House at night

Sydney’s iconic Opera House

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.

Thailand Old temple in Ayutthaya

Ayuttahaya, Thailand

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.


The Sun Voyager statue, Reykjavik

Five steps to becoming an expert haggler

Haggling can seem daunting at first, but it’s all part of the travel experience. Here’s a few tips to get you on your way.

Browse formal souvenir shops to get an idea of prices

Before starting to negotiate, you really need an idea of what’s a reasonable price. A good place to start is with fixed price shops. They’ll add on a mark up to cover overheads and running costs, of course, but you’ll get to see what kinds of prices are charged for goods of the quality you require.

Window display in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Window display in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Be good humoured

Haggling is theatre, and part of the travel experience, but it’s also how the vendor is making a living. Smile a lot, be nice and build a rapport with the sales person. Getting aggressive or angry isn’t going to get you a better deal, and nor is it going to make you feel good about the place you’re in.

Mamadou in Senegal, who taught me how to play his bean game before I bought it

Mamadou in Senegal, who taught me how to play his bean game before I bought it

Remember this is someone’s livelihood

A few dollars or dirhams off the price for won’t make much difference in the grand scheme of things, but in some countries, it could make a huge difference to a family’s income. Before you demand too low a price, think about what’s a fair discount and what might be a price that only a desperate seller would be forced to agree to. In general, the rule of thumb is to settle on a figure about half what was originally stated, but it’s not an exact science.

Jacques Eugene in Croix des Bouquets, Haiti, with his amazing metalwork pieces

Jacques Eugene in Croix des Bouquets, Haiti, with his amazing metalwork pieces

Don’t make promises you won’t keep

Once you offer a price, etiquette demands that you pay up if it’s agreed to, so don’t make an offer you’ve got no plans to honour. Think about what the item’s worth to you and don’t offer what you don’t intend to pay. If you find yourself in a situation that is getting awkward, look for an outcome where no one loses face. Be positive about the product and apologise for the fact that it’s beyond your budget.

It's tempting to show an interest in what might be impractical to take home

It’s tempting to show an interest in what might be impractical to take home

Getting rid of a persistent hawker

Sometimes, pester power is the local norm, and it can be hard to shake off sellers that just won’t take no for an answer. If a polite “No, thank you” or “I’m just looking today” doesn’t cut it, you might need to be more creative. Suggesting that you’re looking for a particular colour or design that you know the vendor doesn’t have in stock might just work.

How do you choose when it all looks great?

How do you choose when it all looks great?

Rome under wraps

If you’re planning a first visit to the Eternal City, you should be aware that a number of Rome’s main tourist sights are currently under renovation. You can still visit, of course, but you’ll need to rely on your guidebook or a postcard vendor to see the view you’ve missed out on. Here’s what it looked like when I visited at the end of May 2015:

 At the Spanish Steps it's business as usual, but its pretty church, Trinità dei Monti, is currently covered up.

At the Spanish Steps it’s business as usual, but its pretty church, Trinità dei Monti, is currently covered up.

All you'll get at the moment is a glimpse of the Trevi Fountain as it's being extensively renovated.  Save your coin for another time.

All you’ll get at the moment is a glimpse of the Trevi Fountain as it’s being extensively renovated. Save your coin for another time.

The lower level and much of the rear of the Colosseum is undergoing repair, though it's still open to visitors.

The lower level and much of the rear of the Colosseum is undergoing repair, though it’s still open to visitors.

In preparation for Italy's Festa della Repubblica on 2nd June, when a parade will pass, temporary grandstands are being constructed along the streets alongside the Roman Forum.

In preparation for Italy’s Festa della Repubblica on 2nd June, when a parade will pass, temporary grandstands are being constructed along the streets alongside the Roman Forum.

Know of any other tourist attractions currently undergoing repair? Add a comment and let us all know, thanks.