Posts tagged “Independent travel

How to deal with travel indecision

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.

IMG_4074 (1)

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!

Been there, done that, now what?

I wouldn’t class myself as a jaded traveller.  I still get excited as I pack my wheelie and I even still love dragging myself out of bed in the pitch black to make an early flight.  But there are places that I’ve tired of, places where I find myself wondering why they’re so hyped.  If I never got to go to Paris or Amsterdam again, I wouldn’t be concerned.  (But let’s not include New York in there because I’d be gutted to think I could ever be done with that incredible city.)


Tulips from Amsterdam

Increasingly, though, I’m keen to seek out places without crowds, not so much out of some kind of snobbish one upmanship but more out of a desire to be completely unsociable.  We introverts need our space, you know.  So which alternative destinations do I recommend if you’re looking for an off the beaten track experience?

Been there: Cusco and the Sacred Valley

Now what: Chachapoyas

The wealth of Inca sites in and around the Peruvian city of Cusco makes the area one of the country’s most visited.  From Sacsayhuaman to Machu Picchu, this splendid heritage makes for fascinating viewing, but year on year visitor numbers have soared and you’ll be hard pushed to find space for quiet reflection unless you seek out some of the lesser-known places like Poroy and Chinchero.


Kuelap fortress

Trailblazers should ditch the crowds and fly north from the Peruvian capital Lima instead of south.  Basing yourself in the charming town of Chachapoyas, you’ll be well placed to visit the intriguing hilltop fortress of Kuelap as well as the sarcophagi at Karajia.  Find out everything you need to know about arranging your trip here:


Been there: Dominican Republic

Now what: Haiti

Not for the faint hearted, a trip to Haiti’s going to require you to keep your wits about you.  Compared to its Hispaniolan neighbour, the Dominican Republic, package tourism is in its infancy and largely confined to Labadee in the north of the island.  Instead of all-inclusives and the hard sell at the end of a rum factory tour, head over the border and make for the sleepy beach at Port Salut.


Fishing boat on Pointe Sable, Port Salut

You won’t find a bustling resort, rowdy beach bars or pestering hawkers who won’t leave you alone until they’ve made a sale.  At weekends, a steady stream of ex-pat aid workers from Port au Prince gives the place some life, but if all you want is pristine white sand, crystal clear turquoise waters and a cold beer, then come on a weekday and you’ll have the place to yourself.  See why I liked it here:


Been there: Andalusia

Now what: Extremadura

I’m a big fan of Andalusia, from the tranquil elegance of the Mezquita in Cordoba to the bustling alleyways of the Jewish quarter in Seville.  The delightfully atmospheric hamman in Jerez offered welcome respite from scorching afternoon sun and the towers of Cadiz offered a glimpse into that city’s fascinating maritime past.  This year, though, for the first time, I dragged myself away from Andalusia’s comforting familiarity and ventured north to Extremadura.


Vivid colours and unspoilt views

This overlooked region still has its pueblos blancos, like Zafra.  It offers the gourmand such a choice in unmissable foodie experiences that stay too long and you’ll need to pay for an extra seat on the plane to accommodate a vastly enlarged belly.  And the scenery, both natural and built, is as transfixing as its more popular neighbour.  My favourites?  Monfragüe National Park’s showstopping scenery and Trujillo’s atmospheric back street bakeries selling yummy yemas.  Find out what else you shouldn’t miss here:


Been there: Vienna, Budapest and Prague

Now what: Lviv

Given the political situation in parts of Ukraine, you could be forgiven for thinking I’ve lost my mind in recommending one of its cities instead of the other gems of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  But Lviv was annexed by Austria in 1772 and, known as Lemburg, had more in common with west than east.  Belle Epoque mansions and public buildings built in Viennese style still characterise today’s Lviv.  It’s a very rewarding place to explore on foot, safe and not at all what you’d expect from an ex-Soviet bloc city.  I’ll have my coffee and cake here, thanks.


Elegant Lviv



Any other suggestions?

Of course, there’s a good reason why some parts of the planet attract so many of us. But if you venture off on your own, the rewards are limitless.  Where have you been that improves upon one of the world’s top rated destinations?

Should you go back to a favourite destination?

For much of my adult travelling life, I’ve been keen to seek out new destinations, craving the buzz which comes from taming the unfamiliar and discovering what makes a place tick.  As the country count has increased, some have commented that I’m only interested in the number, but that’s really not the case.  In fact, over the past two years I’ve cut back on visiting the new to revisit old haunts.  Nostalgia is harder to fight the older you get.


Valle de la Luna, near San Pedro de Atacama

After a fourteen year gap, exploring the incredible landscapes around San Pedro de Atacama in Chile helped to reinforce just how spectacular that country is – and this time I came armed with a better camera:


As well as Chile, I returned to Salzburg in Austria, a city which I last visited as a child.  Participating in the Fraulein Maria Cycling Tour enabled me to create new memories – although I think my dream of belting out Lonely Goatherd at the top of my voice was probably someone else’s nightmare.  Perhaps that’s the key – to try something new in a familiar environment and add another page to your personal guide book for that place.


Fraulein Maria’s Cycling Tours provide the words in case you’ve forgotten

There’s more here:


There’s a risk, though, and that’s the place will have changed from the rose-tinted picture that takes pride of place in your holiday album.  Accept the reality: it moved on, and it moved on without you.  I remember heading back to Lake Titicaca after an eleven year gap to find the Uros Islands that had held such rustic  charm now sported satellite dishes and solar panels.  The quality of life for the islanders had measurably improved and I had to adjust my perception accordingly.  Why should people forgo education and health care just so we can get our daily dose of quaint?


At least the Uros Islands still bounce

However, on balance, returning has been a largely satisfactory experience.  Seville, New York, Saigon and Cusco are amongst the cities which have garnered renewed attention from me over the past couple of years, and none of them disappointed.  In a few weeks, I’ll head to Budapest for a second visit.  It will be a day trip (joining Belfast, Lisbon, Amsterdam and Bremen on this blog once I return) but I’m already excited at the thought of luxuriating in one of the city’s hot springs and having a post-dip coffee and cake at Gerbeaud’s Cafe.  If you’ve been, send me your tips for how I should spend my day.

My next big solo trip will be back to South America; I plan to return to Uruguay, Argentina and Bolivia but many of the destinations I’ll stop at en route from Montevideo to La Paz will be new to me.  And I’ve still got a few new countries on my wish list – Ethiopia, Cape Verde and Moldova spring to mind – but for now, they’ll just have to get in line.

What’s your take?  Do you love to return to the familiar or prefer seek out new places?

Gladiators, we salute you!

As the theme tune from “Gladiator” filled the arena, I felt the hairs on my arm stand to attention.


I’d come to watch a spectacle.  Jerash’s RACE project had both impressive credentials and great reviews.  Ticket clutched in sweaty palm, I hurried into the auditorium, eager to secure a good seat.  A Roman soldier adjusted his strap under a stubble-pocked chin, bristle-brush helmet conferring stature, scarlet tunic incongruous under masculine armour. An air of anticipation rippled through the crowd.


A small group of legionaries arrived, interrupting excited chatter, and took their place in the sand of the legendary Hippodrome.  Though few in number, they were a formidable sight behind their flag bearer.


Known as the Legion VI Ferrata, “the ironclads”, they treated us to an impressive demonstration of battle tactics and formation marching.  As they recreated the classic Roman two-sided shield barrier, it was clear how effective this would have been in war.  Not a finger or stray hem was visible outside the shield.


The music played, unashamedly tongue in cheek.  A diverse band of gladiators entered the arena ready to fight, clad in robes and armed with assorted weapons: net, shield, trident.  All were muscle-bound and postured aggressively.  Once they might have been slaves or criminals facing the death penalty, but today they had the best job in Jerash.


“Ave, imperator, morituri te salutant!”

“We who are about to die salute you!”


Passive spectating wasn’t allowed; thumbs up or thumbs horizontal – we had to vote.  The loser kept his life with thumbs up.  Caught up in the moment, I voted thumbs horizontal, before realising, embarrassed, that everyone else had pardoned him.   Feeling audience pressure, next time I voted thumbs up.

A Roman general tore into the stadium in a horse-drawn chariot. Two others followed, kicking up clouds of dust.  Their wheels angled outwards, giving the impression of imminent collapse every time their horses tackled the tight turns. The centre of the track was marked by a fragile wooden fence which didn’t seem at all like it might withstand a misjudged move.


Leaning forward over the barrier, I urged the racers on ever more enthusiastically, reminiscent of ‘My Fair Lady’ though with slightly more ladylike language.  I cheered myself hoarse for a bearded driver clad in an emerald tunic, who threw himself into the job with gusto and wasn’t going to let anyone pass under any circumstances.  My favourite strode to a clear win after the regulation seven laps.  I whooped unashamedly and thought it was a pity I couldn’t have put a bet on.


As the winner received his prize and our respect, it was time to clamber down to the track for some photos. Not allowed to take a chariot for a spin (clearly my reputation for a lack of hand-eye-wheel coordination had preceded me) my hero had been swallowed up within a crowd of well wishers.  I had to settle for a picture with the runner up – same beard, same tunic but, alas, a lot less balls.

Looking at the familiar with fresh eyes

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”

London born writer Gilbert K. Chesterton wrote this oft quoted phrase about Battersea in his essay “The Riddle of the Ivy”. It’s an idea I’m embracing while out and about in my home county of Essex.


Thorrington Tide Mill

Often overlooked in favour of neighbouring Suffolk or Kent, the greatest pleasure for me of travelling in my local area is the lack of visitors in all but the most obvious of destinations.


In the grounds of Layer Marney Tower

Researching for Countryside Dog Walks, I’ve quite literally walked for miles without seeing a soul. It’s taken me to parts of the county I’ve never visited and to my delight, I’ve had as much enjoyment discovering new sights in my own backyard as I’ve had anywhere in the world.  


Marks Hall Arboretum

Part of the joy of independent solo travel for me is to unpick somewhere new, to learn how it’s constructed and to find out how it ticks.  Realising I can still do this in Essex has been a satisfying revelation. Another great British writer, Lawrence Durrell, famously wrote:

“Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.”  

Walking along the Essex coastline and through its surprisingly empty countryside, the lack of specific sights and attractions makes it perfect for pondering while wandering.  Life’s full of things to be done and these walks feel deliciously self-indulgent, yet unlike a big trip, they only require me to take a few hours off.


Salcott Creek

Being alone makes me more in tune with my surroundings. Sounds that are concealed by conversations push their way in to a solo walk. The salt marsh fizzing, the wind vibrating the rushes, the stream trickling – all lost unless you really listen. For me, one of the biggest distractions from the landscape is my camera. It can be hard to give up the search for the perfect shot and just look without a lens. But when I force myself to do so, it’s more than worth it.


Lion Creek, Paglesham

To find out more about the hidden corners of Essex, why not visit my Essexology blog? You’ll find it at http://www.essexology.com

Travel outside your comfort zone

American intellectual Clifton Fadiman is quoted as saying:

When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.

They’re wise words.  On the road, it’s all too easy to become indignant when things aren’t going your way.  Two decades ago, I got somewhat cross when barred entry to what I hazily remember as a fort in Old Delhi (though it could well have been a mosque).  I wanted to climb a tower to take in a view, arguing that my gender shouldn’t influence where I could and couldn’t go.  Did I have the right to do that, if it wasn’t my country?  Probably not, though such misogynistic attitudes have put me off returning.

India Old Delhi street scene

Old Delhi

Despite such a poor experience travelling around India as a solo traveller, I’ve tried to challenge myself as I’ve ventured further afield.  Weaning myself off package tours was as much a case of economic necessity as anything else, but choosing countries and regions off the beaten track where tourists are as rare as a white moose has kept me on my toes.  Buying a train ticket in Ukraine via sign language?  Check.  Getting to grips with riots and a transport strike in Haiti?  Check.  Overnighting in the world’s most dangerous city without being shot?  Check.  That’s San Pedro Sula in Honduras if you’re wondering and yes, the barbed wire barricade at the end of the street was a little off putting when it came to sleeping soundly in my bed.


Port au Prince bus station

I’m soon off to Sri Lanka.  Everyone I know who’s been says it’s wonderful and the pictures of the hill country through which I hope to journey by train look idyllic.  But someone reviewing a train trip on a web forum was complaining that a Sri Lankan man ignored her reservation and threw her bag off the seat, forcing her to stand for the entire journey.  If that story is true, Clifton Fadiman’s words take on a whole new truth.  And there’s just that nagging voice in my head that reminds me that we just wouldn’t stand for that kind of treatment in Britain.  Wish me luck!

Don’t believe the hype – the truth behind the travel industry’s predictions

Every travel magazine and major publisher is full of persuasive suggestions at this time of year about places you must not miss if you are to keep up with the in crowd. But which recommendations should you ignore? Here’s my pick of places and attractions that don’t live up to the buzz that surrounds them.

New York’s Freedom Tower

New York’s my favourite city, but even the best of us has a few flaws.  Don’t bother with the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square; you won’t see much unless you watch it on TV and the weather’s often so cold everyone rushes indoors straight after midnight.  Its latest high rise has been open a while now, but is still being touted as a must visit attraction for 2016. The elevator ride to the top, speeding through centuries of the city’s development in under a minute, is impressive, but the reflections and fingerprints on the glass windows of the observation deck aren’t. Ascend the Top of the Rock instead for the best views of the city, putting the Empire State Building in pride of place in what’s arguably the world’s most iconic skyline. Read my comparison of the two towers and how they stack up to the Empire State here:

View from the Freedom Tower

View from the Freedom Tower


I don’t have anything against Haiti, per se, more the marketing surrounding this impoverished Caribbean nation. 2015’s lists were full of how this was the next up and coming destination, but when I visited in February, I quickly learned that infrastructure lags way behind potential. We’re not just talking about punctuality here: there were tyres being set alight in the capital’s streets in protest about rising fuel prices, a luxury bus set alight and a terrible tragedy caused by a live cable at carnival. Give it a few years more for the country to recover from the 2010 earthquake and preceding flood damage, but don’t put it out of your mind entirely – this is one to watch.

Overloaded tap taps are the only public transport to Port Salut

Overloaded tap taps are the only public transport to Port Salut


Now this one’s a tricky one. I visited this fascinating country in 2003, a year in which the travel experts suggested you “go before it changes”. For perhaps every year since, that same advice has been trotted out, with thousands of tourists dutifully doing as asked. Go, by all means, but go because you want to, not because you are worried this charming country won’t wait for you.

Memories from a trip to Cuba in 2003

Memories from a trip to Cuba in 2003

Northern Lights in Iceland

Iceland is one of my most favourite destinations on the planet; I loved it so much when I first visited I went back to get married there. A multitude of incredible sights awaits, from the iceberg-strewn Jokulsarlon beach to the gushing geysers and impossibly scenic waterfalls of the Golden Circle. But the one thing you can guarantee with Iceland is that you can’t guarantee the weather and there’s nothing like a cloudy sky to ruin your chances of spotting the Aurora Borealis. If you want to see the Northern Lights, try Norway instead.

Northern Lights over the hills surrounding Tromso

Northern Lights over the hills surrounding Tromso

The new cable car to Kuelap, Peru

2016 looks like a good year for Peru, especially seeing as British Airways are introducing direct flights after what seems an interminable wait. Machu Picchu is getting more and more crowded, so in an effort to entice people away, the northern fortress of Kuelap is being pushed as an alternative. A cable car is set to open later in 2016, but some reports are incorrectly suggesting it will shave four hours off the hike to get there. It won’t. The current hike from the main visitor centre car park is an easy one; what the cable car cuts short is the drive there along some so-so roads. Be aware that Kuelap’s no match for Machu Picchu, but the area has many as yet unspoilt attractions for intrepid visitors. Don’t believe the hype and wait. Go now, before the cable car opens and the hordes arrive.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu