Bali in the rain

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It rained a lot in our time in Bali – it rained from the moment we arrived to the morning we left.

The first experience we had of Bali was of its sounds. We arrived late at night and got to the house in a taxi so the next morning we had no real idea where we were. Glimpsing nothing in the blue pre-dawn light but the outline of a heavy mosquito net,  I could hear the dense, tropical raindrops, relentless as static, broken by the distant, almost imperceptible chanting of the call to prayer. I listened for a while as the light just began to creep through the delicate latticework of the windows. I hadn’t yet seen anything of Bali, and I was already seduced.

Taking advantage of a break in the clouds we stumbled out with the cocks still crowing, jetlagged and hungry and looking for breakfast. Just outside the house on the street I saw my first Balinese offering (Canang Sari), a skilfully folded palm leaf filled with brightly-coloured petals, sticks of incense, a beautiful pearl-coloured frangipani and topped off with something resembling a cream cracker. I took about twenty pictures from all angles until I saw more petals strewn along the street leading to another offering, and then another. Canang Sari’s are everywhere in Bali – on front porches, cars, garbage dumps, so that at all hours of the day you’re hit by wonderful, unexpected wafts of sandalwood and patchouli. The offerings aren’t just there to look pretty; the preparation of these little baskets is a constant ritual that makes up a large part of a traditional Balinese woman’s daily life. In fact, Ca Nang derives from the Kawi language Ca – meaning beautiful, and Nang – meaning purpose. They are offerings to the Hindu God Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, as a form of thanks for the peace given to the world.

We ate at a local warung and had nasi campur with fish sate lilit.  Balinese cuisine is incredible in its taste and dizzying variety. Nasi campur means a dish which has a little bit of everything on offer, and Sate lilit is something of a sweet and savoury popsicle – a satay made from minced pork, fish, beef, or chicken, which is then mixed with grated coconut, shallots and lemon juice and wrapped around lemongrass sticks to grill. We loved the food at the warungs (and its price), and even though I did get Bali belly I’m convinced that it was from the tap water rather than the food. J was fine and we always share our dishes, whereas I ALWAYS forget to not rinse my toothbrush with tap water – Every. Time.

The next day the friend whose house we were staying in invited us to a healing festival she’d organised. Keen to see this other side of Bali we agreed and made our way towards Ubud. This was when we met our driver, Apel, who we used for the rest of our time on the island. Meeting and talking to Apel was one of the highlights of the trip. It’s a good thing too when you’re fond of your driver in Bali as the increasingly heavy traffic means you end up spending a lot of time with them. Apel told us more about the history of the island as well as that of his own family. He explained that his real name was actually Ketut, which means ‘fourth son’. In Bali, the first son in a Hindu family is called ‘Wayung’, the second ‘Made’ and by the time the fifth son comes around the name becomes ‘Wayan Balik’ – meaning ‘Wayan again’!

Apel also explained a bit about the Balinese philosophy of Rwa Bhineda – the philosophy of balance and origin of the concept of Yin and Yang. The most I knew about yin and yang was of the ubiquitous black and white symbol plastered on kitschy spiritual paraphernalia in vaguely alternative places like Camden Town market. But Apel and his family lived by the concept; he never said that anything was ‘bad’, and if he did he checked himself and sought out the good that may have come of that thing’s existence. Similarly, he said that you cannot know what pleasure is if you haven’t experienced the lack of that pleasure. While it’s easy to realise this, it was the first time I ever saw someone actually living by the idea. You’ll see that a lot of spiritual symbols in Bali are decorated with Black and white chequered cloth – like the famous Yin/Yang symbol. The black stands for evil and the white for good. For the rest of the trip, any time we said anything negative Apel lightheartedly told us off and encouraged us to see what good may have come of it. Difficult at first, it became easier each time.

By the time we got to the New Earth healing festival I could already see why so many people are attracted to the Balinese ‘philosophy’, and it was interesting to see how people personally interpreted it. The festival offered various options to achieve healing; via movement – Tai Chi and Yoga; via nutrition – all the food was vegan and organic; via ‘Mind, body and Spirit – aromatherapy and sound and crystal therapy. There was also a strict no electronics policy (ie no mobile phones – which I was fine with although from what I could see nobody else was) and an absolutely no drugs policy, including no alcohol at the ‘awakening’ music festival later. Me and J almost ran for the hills. I’m kidding of course – if I could do veganism, no electronics and no drugs anywhere in this world it would be Bali. After one breakfast bowl of raw chocolate, dragon fruit and coconut yogurt I was ready to convert. Also, they made an exception for coffee, understandably, because no-one wants violence at a healing festival.

The next day, reluctant to leave the stunning villa where New Earth was held, we headed to Ubud town and the sacred Monkey Forest. Whilst the main attraction here is obviously the wildlife, the location itself is beautiful, featuring a rocky stream that flows through a steep ravine in the middle of the rainforest. Dense, tangled vines and tropical vegetation cover the various Hindu statues. We were warned upon entering not to look at the monkeys directly in the eye, and to be very careful with our possessions; apparently, they are very adept at snatching your stuff and then holding it for ransom in return for food. Thinking I could out-wile them, I managed to sneak in a few shots on my cameraphone, before I was spotted and had to frantically stuff it back into my rucksack before being attacked. They look deceptively cute in those pictures though.

It’s easy to see why Ubud has become Bali’s artisanal and cultural capital; every few metres, the treelined, cobbled streets are dotted by stunning Hindu temples and their hidden, rambling family gardens. Our hotel room was in the middle of one of these secret gardens, and in the morning we’d wake up to the smell of rain, coffee and incense from the Ganesha statue by our balcony.  We happened to be there for Tumpek Landep – a holy day that celebrates objects made of metal. All over Bali, motorbikes and cars are bedecked with beautiful baskets of flowers. The ceremony also celebrates other useful everyday objects containing metals – including laptops, phones and fax machines!

Our last few days were spent visiting rice terraces and temples. While we did go to the Tegallang rice terraces, I’d say they’re a bit of a tourist trap. I’m pretty sure no rice has been harvested there for quite a while. I’d recommend a less busy and equally beautiful terrace like Jatiluwuh instead. Much more remote, here you can really enjoy the peace of the still water of the paddies and impossibly green steps of the terraces.

While all the temples we visited were stunning, my favourite was actually the smaller, less dramatic temple of water – Tirta Empul. Discovered in AD 962 and believed to have magical healing powers, the springs bubble up into a beautifully clear pool within the temple and stream out through spouts into a separate bathing pool. Here, people perform a cleansing ritual to wash away their sins. You can feed the thousands of Koi fish in yet another of the temple pools. Make sure you don’t kiss or cuddle your partner in the temple – our driver told us off.

On our last day we visited the stunningly dramatic sea temple at Tanah Lot. Perched on a rock in the middle of the ocean, Pura Tanah Lot is an incredible sight. The steep cliff walk to the west of the temple grounds offers the most spectacular views. It also offers some very impudent monkeys. Knowing full well how photogenic they look along the cliff wall, they pose and wait for innocent passersby that stop to snap a photo so that they can snatch their stuff. One poor tourist had his eyeglasses stolen and chewed and mangled in front of him. He tried to bribe the monkey with food, which of course it took and then proceeded to return the favour by chucking the glasses over the cliff. I guess that’s one good example of Yin and Yang. The stealing of the glasses, that was bad – but the hilarious Schadenfreude it caused the crowd, that was definitely good.

 

 

Bali in the rain

East Coast Australia

Ocean view Whitsunday Islands Whitehaven beachTree with ocean view and beachByron Bay lighthouseOcean and cliff view on Australia's most Easterly pointGirl with ocean viewKangaroos in backyardClassic carDingo in front of Fraser Island Tour busGirl sailing boat Whitsunday islands sunsetpeople sailing in the Whitsunday IslandsAustralian man in old Australian townGirl in lake mckenziehbFraser Island sand blowFraser Island Land RoverView over Whitehaven beachDingo on Fraser IslandGirl in front of Maheno ShipwreckView of Lake MckenzieLake MckenzieGirl in front of tent on Fraser IslandGirl with Australian manView of ocean and rocksGirl in front of Australian shopFraser Island pierFraser Island Lgirl cooking on Fraser IslandGirl under tree in Fraser IslandGirl jogging at sunrise in Byron BayAustralian girl with hat

HOW’S THE SERENITY?

We spent two weeks living with my step-dad’s family near Coff’s Harbour up the coast. Corindi – the tiny suburban town where they live, hasn’t changed in the slightest since I visited when I was ten. There’s still only one shop, duly called ‘The Shop’, which sells the same meat pies and potato scallops with chicken salt, one post office and of course the nerve centre of the town – the local pub. No doubt one of the highlights of our trip was winning the ‘Amble Inn’ (for ten years I thought it was the Ann Boleyn) breakfast meat raffle.

Our days took on a standard routine pretty quickly – wake early to the most chaotic and deafening dawn chorus I’ve ever heard, drive up the headland to check the surf, back to the house for breakfast, and then amble down the wide streets with their low wooden houses and immaculate lawns (hosting frequent Kangaroo visitors) to the beach – our home until lunch. Contrary to some misleading pictures, going to the beach in Northern Australia is not a sexy affair – it feels like going into battle. Walking down in our pasty factor 60+, comedy-size hats, long-sleeved shirts and multiple sun-blocking accessories felt more Mr. Bean than Baywatch.

The beach here is interactive – nobody just lays back and tans – it’s a way of life. Everyone born here is expected to learn to surf or at least try, and for most, the thrill of riding along the limits of the ocean is one they seek forever. In few other sports is the goal so dependent on and shared with nature – a brief tussle for control to secure that hard-won victory of total weightlessness. And here I’m told – the waves are perfect…The official shark copter keeps an eye out overhead, and if there’s anything suspicious it will fly in a circle as a warning. One day as we were floating in the shallows the helicopter did exactly that, and of course not a single surfer left the water. Ahh it’s only a shark mate, no worries.

When we weren’t hiding under the beach umbrella from the relentless sun we played in the rock pools with the girls, overturning rocks to discover strange, slithering life-forms and squishing the ‘Gungy Boy’ anemones. We made wigs with spotty seaweed that looked like it belonged in an aboriginal painting.

Afternoons were hot and lazy – a sleepy, anxious interim between lunch and the first cold beer of the day before the mandatory BBQ prep. Even the unbelievably coloured lorikeets joined in, becoming increasingly raucous as they got drunk on fermenting fruit. We nursed our hangovers together.

BYRON BAY (CAVVANBAH)

We reluctantly left Corindi on the Greyhound from Coff’s Harbour and started making our way up the coast. First stop – the inevitable Byron Bay and shining beacon of (formerly hippy) hipster heaven. The vibe is creative professional, which to us suggested that we must start chilling out first thing in the morning, with a jog and a coffee at one of the many, many coffee-shops. We did the famed lighthouse loop – starting along the beach at dawn, as the sand and clouds turned varying shades of pinky lilac, and then the Lighthouse Road up to the pristine and still functional Cape Byron Lighthouse. From here, the Easternmost point of Australia, the view of the surf-battered cliffs and unbroken ocean is spectacular. Walking back down via the coastal route (Cape Byron walking track) we saw two dolphins playing in the distance and at Wategos beach we spotted a White-breasted Sea Eagle. Watch out for trees full of sleeping flying foxes – we thought that it was some sort of gigantic fruit before we noticed furry squirming! We finished at the Pass, a perfect white-sand beach and watched the surfers enjoy the famed right-hand point-break.

Where to eat: 

Cheeky Monkeys:

We were on a budget and had a discount with our YHA stay so we went here for dinner. It’s got mostly terribles on Tripadvisor and is apparently for ‘immature travellers’ according to one review. I’m not sure what that means but we had cheap drinks, fun with the table Jenga and an average meal. It has lots of party events.

Bay Leaf Cafe

We  had a much more typical Byron Bay brunch the next day at the Bay Leaf Cafe.  Poached eggs, avocado and sourdough toast. The food and coffee was delicious. We didn’t get the banana bread but I got a waft of some freshly baked stuff and my God it smelled good. The juices and smoothies looked good too.

Where to stay:

Byron Bay YHA

We stayed pretty much only at YHA’s for our Australia trip and they were great. The rooms are predictably basic but the facilities are good. This one’s pretty chilled out and has a pool and snooker table. The only bummer is that they charge for luggage storage and don’t have wifi in the rooms.

FRASER ISLAND (K’GARI)

Before hopping onto the 12h Greyhound to our next stop Hervey Bay we stocked up on some supermarket liquor – because 12 hours, and because nobody should ever have to drink Goon. “Produced with the aid of milk, egg, nut, and fish products and traces may remain. Sugar added.” We walked past a girl who remarked of her Goon cocktail; ‘but why does it smell like feet?’. Yes alcohol is stupid expensive in Australia, but it’s worth the extra 2 dollars for almost the same alcohol content in a bottle of rum.

12 hours and a crazy bus driver later, we were in Hervey Bay – main launchpad for Fraser Island. There’s not much going on in Hervey Bay, but we did have a nice walk to the pier in searing middle-of-the-day heat where we saw two enormous Manta Rays, and at our YHA we spotted a beautiful, shy possum and had resident, not-so-shy peacocks.

Our main reason for staying here was to rent our Land Rover and have our safety briefing for Fraser Island – the main message of this being ‘please for the love of God put the hand-brake on when you park on the barge’ and ‘don’t drive onto the beach when the sand is wet, you will get stuck, and the car will be destroyed’. Apparently two different groups ignored the handy tips, and the rest you can imagine.

Fraser island is the largest sand island in the world. There are no paved roads. When the tide is out, there is a window of time in which you can drive on the beach and it’s smoother than concrete. Fraser island is the wildest, most unspoilt place I have ever seen on my travels, and was without doubt the highlight of our Australia trip. With a crackling radio struggling to pick up any signal, the massive 4×4 skipped over tree-trunks as if they were toothpicks while we drove past bizarre, Jurassic Park-style scenery. Our biggest threat was succumbing to soft sand. After seeing barely a person all day, we pitched up our tent at one of the wild-camping spots along the 75-mile beach. We must have inadvertently set up our tent on a horsefly nest as 5 minutes later we were attacked by a manic swarm, forcing us to cook dinner on the beach as we watched an oncoming storm.

Things to do in Fraser island:

Lake Mckenzie (Boorangoora)

Lake Mckenzie is made up solely of crystal-clean rainwater, tinged Caribbean turquoise around the edges. The sand is entirely white silica and the water is so pure it’s said that only a few species of fish can survive in it. It’s too clean for life. Allow at least a few hours for all manner of selfies.

Sandblows

Sandblows are enormous sand dunes that blow across the island according to the wind and the tides. Burying forests as they move, the dateless tree-tops emerge post-apocalyptically from the wind-blasted sands. The lack of wildlife and eerie quiet makes these mobile deserts even more otherworldly. Lake Wabby off Hammberblow is slowly being engulfed, which is bad news for its little catfish inhabitants.

Eli creek

Each day, Eli creek spills out 80 million litres of beautifully clear rainwater into the Pacific ocean. You can float along the stream amongst the tangled vegetation down onto the beach, where you’ll see small aircraft land on the sand by the shore.

Maheno Shipwreck

Maheno was a New Zealand Naval ship that was washed ashore by a cyclone in 1935. 82 years later, it’s rusty skeleton remains, battered daily by the surf along 75-mile beach.

Where to eat:

Tent/beach/forest/car. Watch out for dingoes. We had one coyly come up to us on the beach – understandably tempted by our lunch of canned fish and beans.

Where to sleep:

Tent/beach/forest/car. There is a main campground with showers in the middle of the island.

WHITSUNDAY ISLANDS:

Another long Greyhound night bus and we were at Airlie beach to set off on our 2-day boat tour of the Whitsundays with Silent Night. J hurt his back badly on the morning of our trip, and since it was too late to cancel or go to the doctor’s, we headed to the booze shop instead. We stocked up on a bottle of whiskey and two bottles of rum. Note: This is definitely not recommended self-medication for slipped discs under normal circumstances. When I saw the sleeping arrangements – a minuscule corner berth by the engine – I was grateful for our choice of impromptu meds.

We met the group and then started our sail towards our first snorkelling trip and mooring spot for the evening. This is where I have an embarrassing admission to make. Having heard so many nightmarish stories about lethal jellyfish in Northern Australia, I never actually went in the water on this trip, not even with the tempting offer of the full-length wetsuits. This made me the ONLY wimp in our boat group to not go underwater. I charged J with the Gopro and sipped my cocktail on the gently rocking sailboat with a strange mix of regret and utter peace. My excuse is that I’d already been snorkelling in the Whitsundays when I was ten and fearless. I’m sticking to it.

In any case I was told that the snorkelling was good – but not great. The best spots are widely regarded as being further up the coast towards Cairns. The ultimate way to see the reef if you’ve got the cash is by airplane, watching the the ancient coral below curl like tendrils around myriad hues of brilliant cyan.

The next morning after breakfast on board we started our sail to inimitable Whitehaven beach. A short walk through forest brings you to Hill Inlet viewing point, where you’ll see the famously white Silica sands bleed into the turquoise waters of the inlet. From here we walked onto the beach where we spent a few hours walking through the glittering, squeaky sand (walking on it has somewhat of a nails down a blackboard effect) and admiring the sheer blue of the ocean blues. Round a hidden bay behind some rocks we found two lemon sharks exploring the shallows. The rest of the day I spent not snorkelling in another beautiful location.

While the crew was really attentive and great fun, it was all things considered quite an expensive trip for scenery and activities that you can get elsewhere for cheaper. I don’t mean this boat tour in particular but rather the Whitsundays in general. If I were to revisit the Whitsundays again however I’d do a bigger, cheaper party boat.  If what you want is a more relaxed trip with with great crew and fewer people however, then Silent Night is the tour for you.

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Sydney (On a budget)

Australia day at Sydney Harbour bridgeSwimming pool on Bondi beachBondi Beach surfer girlGirls jumping in tamaramaGirl doing Bondi to Coogee walkPeople walking dogs on Bondi coastal walkPeople doing yoga by Bondi PoolsWaterfall at Blue mountainsGirl walking dog on TamaramaBrunch in Bondi with avocado and salmonBondi by nightGirl under waterfall at blue mountainsBodybuilder on Bondi beachBondi coffeeSydney Opera House close-upSydney Harbour bridge on Australia DayGirl with parrots in SydneyCrowded Bondi beach

Our 6 month trip through Australia and Asia started in Bondi, Sydney. I’d lived in Bondi for almost a year back when I was ten, but this was a different place – unfailingly charming and friendly as ever, but more self-conscious, and achingly hipster.

Does anyone know of anyone on the wholesale end of avocado/sourdough/big lightbulb retail in Oz because it’s got to be lucrative? I could do with a job. I could be a professional avocado smasher for hire, it sounds therapeutic and I’ve got references.

Bondi was always health and fitness conscious. I remember as a London kid in the nineties wondering why everything here wasn’t slathered in layers of I-can’t-believe-I’m-eating-this margarine, but this current trend seems more about identity than aesthetics. We were asked, in utter seriousness, whether we wanted our coffee in ‘paper or ceramic?’ My embarrassment and confusion must have been as plain as the marble decor – ‘to have in or take away?’ ‘Ceramic please, I want to make the most of my $4.50.’ Ten minutes later we had our Ethiopian-bean coffees, brewed in a contraption that looked like it had come off the set of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It turns out Ethiopian bean tastes quite bitter; ‘could I get some sugar, please?’.’We don’t serve sugar in this establishment’. The Oompa-Loompas would be horrified.

The food is delicious and so are a lot of the people that make it; I’ve never seen so many good-looking people in such a short space of time. I’m assuming this fact and the sunshine puts everyone in good mood as the friendliness is relentless. I wanted breakfast with some artisanal component but also I was poor – people actually have a good wage and standard of living in Australia so stuff is expensive. I was that annoying person at the front of queue trying to figure out how to cheat the menu and get everything for nothing. Just I was just getting ready to scowl passive-aggressively at the non-existent tut-tutters behind me I was rewarded with a free breakfast and a dazzling, knowing smile. I realised then I wasn’t in London anymore.

Top FREE things to do in Sydney

Bondi Beach

Sydney is a subtropical city where urban life and nature merge into something really quite beautiful and unique. There aren’t many cities I can think of where you can walk straight onto the sand and into the ocean. Bondi is the most famous and busy of the Sydney beaches but there are countless others (see below). If you want to people-watch however then this is the beach to go to. Ubiquitous sun-kissed surfers, body-builders (I recommend the outdoor pull-up bars), all manner of beautifully tanned beach bums, yogis, picnicking Aussie families – you’ll find them all here. And when you can’t sleep due to jetlag, check Bondi out at sunrise.

Bondi to Coogee coastal walk

A well-trod and stunningly picturesque coastal route that winds past dramatic cliff-faces, rockpools, countless beaches and the beautiful houses of Sydney’s suburbs. Even the historic cemetery (Waverley) with it’s sweeping ocean views is incredible. The start of the walk goes past the legendary Instagram mother of all swimming pools – the Bondi Baths, then upwards to Marks Park, where you’ll find Aboriginal rock carvings and is one of the prime whale-watching spots from May-November. The first major beach is Tamarama (small but stunningly framed by cliffs either side), nicknamed Glamourama because of the trendsetters and wannabe trendsetters that hang out here. Be careful of riptides. Further along is much larger Bronte beach and then tiny, peaceful Clovelly, which is perfect for swimming. Stop half-way at Bronte to have lunch in one of the many cafes and say hello to the most glamorous residents, Mango and Crush – two enormous blue Macaws that sit by the railing near the beach and watch the world go by. They’re very friendly and love to hang out with passers-by.

Sydney Opera House and The Rocks

You’ve seen it in pictures a thousand times, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint when you see it upfront. You can check out the Opera House lobby for free and don’t miss the view of it from the Harbour Bridge. The Rocks is Sydney’s oldest neighbourhood, where European settlers first arrived in the late 1700s. Wander down cobbled paths and narrow alleyways of colonial-era pubs and gothic sandstone churches. The area sits directly underneath the imposing Harbour bridge and is in surreally stark contrast to the modern buildings that surround it. It’s definitely one of my favourite areas of Sydney.

Check out the Australian hotel – knocked down during the plague outbreak in 1900, it was rebuilt during the Edwardian era and retains a lot of the original features. The sloping bathrooms look like they haven’t been changed since. Sit at the window and people-watch as the sun streams through (you might actually have to pay for a drink to do this unless you’re feeling brave). The ‘I’m Free’ Walking tours leave from this area and they’re great. They’ll show you places you might otherwise have missed and are really informative. They’re technically free but you’re encouraged to give what you think the tour was worth at the end.

Manly and Northern Beaches on a Sunday

Use your Opal card (capped at $2.50 on a Sunday) to get the Manly ferry from Sydney Harbour to the golden-sand beaches North of Sydney. It’s also an excellent way to see the harbour cheaply.

Blue Mountains

Just 2.5 hours North of Sydney by NSW train and you’re at the quirky Blue mountains launchpad town of Katoomba. The vibe here is more chicken-salt scallop and formica diner than smashed avocado and reclaimed wood, or maybe that’s just where we ate. Check out Greco’s for cheap burgers served by bored and friendly teenagers. A free shuttle bus goes from here to the most famous landmark – the Three Sisters at Echo Point – a stunning and unusual sandstone rock formation formed by wind erosion over millennia. Catch them at sunset or under evening floodlight, but be warned – the crowds will be massive.

The blue mountains are so called because of the blue haze that hangs silkily over them, formed due to oil droplets evaporating from hundreds of thousands of eucalyptus trees. From Echo point there are a number of possible hikes – we took the steep and narrow Giant Stairway trail past Katoomba falls and the Scenic Railway. Whichever path you choose you’ll see stunning views of the Jamison valley and the sheer, sandstone rock faces that frame it. We went during a rainstorm and the tropical smell of wet soil and eucalyptus was beautiful. Listen out for hundreds of echoing tropical bird calls. Once at the bottom you have the option of taking the scenic railway to the top or walking the Furber steps back up to Echo point. The railway looks fun but is quite expensive. We chose to take the Furber steps which are amazingly secluded and take you past some magnificent waterfalls. If you happen to be there in the late afternoon you’ll be rewarded with some incredible views where the orange light intermingles with the dark blue hues of the valley.

We stayed in.. The Beach Road Hotel. If you’ve had enough of (but really just can’t afford) the boring pleasantness of boutique hotels try the sticky floors and genuine stale-beer scent of the Beach road Hotel in Bondi. It’s basic and cheap..for Sydney, and they do free gigs on Wednesdays and Thursdays. It’s also perfectly located just off the main drag and the staff is great.

We ate in.. Bonditony’s Burger Joint. Great, big greasy burgers named after rock bands accompanied by some awesome tunes.

Emperor Garden BBQ and noodles. Chinatown in any city is normally our go-to when we want something delicious and inexpensive. Turns out chinatown in Sydney isn’t exactly cheap but it was delicious. The hand-made noodles with duck were thick and chewy and amazing.

Le Paris-Go Cafe’. Our inevitable hipster breakfast was probably one of our best meals of the trip. We shared The smoked salmon/scrambled eggs and avocado on toast/poached eggs and it was fantastic. Simple menu and ingredients and perfectly made. Also has a really nice family and locals-what-brunch atmosphere.

Sydney (On a budget)

The Anti-Backpacking wishlist

I’ve just returned from the most incredible travel experience of my life. After backpacking across Asia for eight months, I’ve seen two of the seven wonders, played in the mud with rescue elephants, driven a car almost twice my height along a twenty mile beach and woken up on a night train to the sunrise over Chiang Mai. I feel elated, enlightened… exhausted.

After all the amazing things I’ve seen and already can’t wait to visit again, there are some things on my travels that I’ll be happy to see the back of forever: my back/soul-destroying rucksack; my crusty, mud-caked trainers; and my monster-sized thermal fleece that sexy forgot — aka my 24-hour uniform for 8 months straight. I feel a certain uneasy guilt just admitting this – all these items have served me faithfully through months of physical abuse. But for the meantime, I’m done with functional. I don’t want to see any more neon polyester straps/zips/locks and ultra-breathable materials with intelligent-sounding names that keep you perfectly cool while trekking the surface of the sun. I just want something pretty, to wear somewhere nice.

It’s not that I want to relax at home for a while – it’ll never come to that – but right now I’m fantasising about vacations rather than travels. I love the sound of a city break to Seville, or a country outing to the Cotswolds, where perhaps I can wear a dress with a discernible shape, or a handbag the contents of which don’t primarily consist of stolen toilet paper and sporks. Obviously, I’m totally broke after eight months of backpacking, so I’ve drawn up a wishlist of beautiful things I can’t currently afford and booked a low-cost flight to Lisbon, where luckily my Dad is living right now.

My Anti-Backpacking Wishlist:

1. Fleur du Mal lacing bullet one-piece.

I can’t get enough of their swim collection this year. Delicate lace is mixed with edgy designs and they seem to be continuing the ‘swimtimates’ trend with their corset one-pieces. I honestly wouldn’t know which swimsuit I’d choose.

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2. Lisbon Wallpaper city-guide.

I love the Wallpaper guide’s urban vibe. They primarily focus on a city’s contemporary design and architecture and include stylish, minimalist pictures. Plus I love how the colourful collection looks on the bookshelf!

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3. MAHI Leather Bag.

I’ve had my eye on this one for a while, and it may be one that I can actually afford. MAHI’s beautiful made-to-order travel bags are made from 100% soft full-grain brown leather and brass. Their classic duffle – my favourite although I also love their Armada duffle – is only £96.50 and looks stunning. To truly satisfy any luxury-on-a-budget cravings, they can also imprint your initials for just £10 extra. With every purchase, MAHI also donate $1.50 to Frank Water Charity in recognition of their name-sake: the Mahi river in India.

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4. Fujifilm xf-100.

My mum has this camera and it’s amazing for street photography. It’s really user-friendly and has lots of features which makes it great for front-end editing and taking quick snaps on the move. I still haven’t figured out most of the features but I love that you can add filters before taking a shot. And, of course, its retro design means that it’s photo-worthy itself.

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5. Phoebe slip by Paris Georgia Basics.

I’d absolutely love this simple black slip-dress for Lisbon but this one is a definite “wish” on the wishlist. Off to find something similar on ASOS…

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6. ‘As I walked out one midsummer morning’ by Laurie Lee.

Strangely, I’m not usually one for travel books but I flicked through a friend’s copy of this once and Lee’s descriptions of Spain are so sensuous yet simple that I fell in love. Not set in Portugal I know, but it’s close -perhaps a road-trip to Seville wouldn’t be out of the question…

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7. Loeffler Randall Jasper loafers.

Their Agnes Laceless Oxfords are gorgeous patent black loafers that go with everything and can look smart as well as casual. They’d be perfect for travelling light on a short city-break.

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8. Truffle Clarity Clutch.

These clarity clutches seem to be doing the rounds on social media lately. Being TSA-approved they’re great for travelling but they’re also quite sleek for makeup and accessories in general.

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9. Cafe-press towel.

I love this fun, Andy Warhol-inspired beach towel from online store Cafe-Press.

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10.BOSE headphones.

The kings of sound quality. I’ve never tried BOSE headphones but if they’re anything like their speakers then they’re pretty damn good. The reviews are great anyway. The Custom QuietComfort 35 wireless set are customisable in a variety of different colours and finishes.

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The Anti-Backpacking wishlist

Sicily

View of Ragusa IblaOld building in Ragusa IblaGirl in front of Ragusa IblaSpices in Syracuse food marketGirl in front of Noto CathedralNoto at sunsetChurch in NotoItalian ice creamGirl in front of Noto CathedralView of beach at Syracuse, ItalyGirl in piazza duomo Italy, SyracuseIsola Bella in SicilyGirl in front of Isola BellaFish at Syracuse food marketTaormina

It’s hard to describe Sicily with just words. Sicily is scents – lemons and cigarette smoke – and sounds – church bells and bellowing fishermen at the market; it’s tastes – chilli and salty sea-spray, and of course sights – almost impossible to describe, but usually bathed in various hues of dripping, golden-yellow sunshine.

SIRACUSE

Our trip through the South-East started in Siracuse, briefly the capital of that most eclectic of Empires – the Byzantine Empire. Ortigia, the oldest and most beautiful part of the city, is actually an island that has to be reached by a small bridge. Here we strolled through narrow cafe’-strewn lanes that all seem to lead directly to piazza Duomo, a strangely oblong-shaped and dazzlingly bright piazza flanked by OTT aristocratic palaces and baroque churches. The Cathedral sits in the middle, and is a perfect microcosm of Sicilian history and architecture. With ancient Doric columns, a Norman roof in the nave, at one time a Mosque, and finally, (coming neatly full-circle) Corinthian columns on the facade,  it is a perfect example of the dizzyingly complicated history and culture of Sicily. You wouldn’t know it just to look at it though, the end result of the whole piazza is a stunning and very aesthetically uniform example of high Sicilian Baroque.

As if to reinforce its identity crisis, Siracuse sits prettily by the sea, at the intersection of the Ionic and Mediterranean. We bought a seafood fry at the unassumingly-named but delicious Sicily Fish and Chips and ate by the water.

Things to do in Siracuse:

  • Ortigia Food market – Blood-red oranges, dried chilli peppers, glistening black olives and giant, silver swordfish heads; all accompanied by a lot of shouting and gesturing. Every morning except Sunday.
  • Piazza Duomo at Sunset – Watch the entire piazza transition from a bright, pearly white to deep orange.
  • Go to the beach – There are two swimmable spots with small pebbly slips right in Ortigia itself. We went in November so we didn’t really fancy it but the water was a beautifully clear blue-green.

NOTO

We weren’t meant to go Noto. Our actual destination was Modica, near Ragusa, but our naive assumption that we could make the short 2 hour journey to our intended destination in Sicily on a SUNDAY ended us up in the much nearer Noto. I am so unbelievably glad that I underestimated southern Italian Catholic fervour as Noto ended up being, as it so often happens, my favourite stop on the trip. Once a town of varying architectural cultures and styles, a massive earthquake in 1693 shook the town into a dazzling and unique uniformity of Sicilian baroque. Churches, Piazzas and Palazzos were reconstructed; streets were widened – a practical anticipation of future disaster with beautiful, airy and ironically calming results. Noto is small and quiet, and there isn’t a whole lot to do in the town itself apart from eat almond granitas or explore flamboyant palazzos, but just walking through the streets of Noto, when all the Palazzos and the ubiquitous churches are lit up golden-orange at sunset, is an incredible experience.

Things to do in Noto:

  • Visit the Palazzos, especially Nicolaci Palace – possibly the most striking example of typical Baroque style. Elaborate, iron-wrought balconies and mermaids, hippogryphs, and sphinxes decorate the outside, while the interior is a no-less elaborate display of Empire-style chandeliers and frescoed walls and ceilings.
  • Walk the centro storico at sunset
  • Get a granita and brioche at Caffe’ Sicilia – the granita’s are made with fresh, seasonal ingredients like Sicilian blood-orange, but the most traditional is almond flavour.

RAGUSA

As beautiful as historic Ragusa is, with it’s tiny, private lemon orchards, stunning palm-fringed piazza and tangled alleys leading ever-up to the peak of Duomo S. Giorgio, the city is at its most breathtaking from afar, especially at night. From Ragusa superiore, the historic centre (Ibla) rises magnificently from the surrounding hills like an ambitious nativity scene. When it’s misty, Ibla becomes quite literally a city in the clouds. We had our best meal of our trip (and one of the best meals full stop) by far in Ragusa superiore at Trattoria da Luigi. It’s not what you’d normally expect from a trattoria – tiny, quiet and modern, options included pistachio carbonara and chilli and caper Sicilian pesto, all at pretty ridiculously cheap prices.

Things to do in Ragusa:

  • Relatively unassuming from the outside, this neo-classical palazzo stuns from the moment you walk into the courtyard and on into the beautiful interior with hand-tiled floors and frescoed ceilings. The view of the Cathedral from the balconies is stunning, and it’s all topped off with with a Sicilian aperitif at the end. Book an appointment for a tour through their FB page.
  • Get a wine-flavoured ice cream at Gelati divini, or another unusual flavour like prickly pear or chocolate and chilli.

TAORMINA

If Ragusa is beautifully situated on a hilltop, Taormina on the North coast gives it some serious competition. Perched strikingly on the side of a cliff, it also has spectacular sea and Mount Etna views to boot. Having not suffered from the serious earthquakes in the south, the architecture is more varied, and there are some amazingly restored medieval buildings. Corvaja palace, from the 10th century, is Arabic with Gothic and Norman additions. It’s unique beauty also means that Taormina is very touristy, so I wouldn’t recommend it if what you’re after is the genuine Sicilian experience, or if you’re simply not in the mood for being ripped off.

If you want to escape the crowds and being 200 metres above sea level isn’t enough, then you can hike (or get a bus) like we did to Castelmola, a tiny medieval town above Taormina with magnificent views of Etna and the Tyrrhenian from its ruined castle. If you’re here visit Bar Turrisi – a cafe’/bar with beautiful views and some interesting decor. By interesting I mean that it is covered by pictures and sculptures of penises..everywhere..over four whole floors. It’s very random, especially for a bar in the middle of nowhere! It’s also apparently the birthplace of red almond wine, which you can of course buy in a penis-shaped bottle as a souvenir.

Things to do in Taormina:

Visit Isola Bella – We first glimpsed it on our train-ride to Siracuse, and thought it was some sort of mirage – too pretty to actually be real. Only a short bus drive from town, Isola Bella is like something out of a fairytale. A tiny, castle-topped island that juts out of the crystal-blue water and is separated from the main beach by a narrow sandbar.

Hike Etna – We’d looked into doing a tour with Viator but sadly didn’t have time. There are plenty of tours to choose from though, especially in the summer months, though I wouldn’t recommend the intense temperatures in July and August!

Hike to Castelmola  – If you want a breather from the crowds this hike offers beautiful scenery of the coast and Mount Etna. It took us about an hour and a half. I’ve heard from some that the views from here are actually more impressive than hiking Etna.

 

 

 

 

 

Sicily

Lipari, Sicily

Sunset in LipariGirl in front of Prickly pearsSunset in LipariRed kitten on a rockGirl in red dress in front of volcanoHome-made pumpkin gnocchi with lemon and sage on blue tableGirl in red dress in LipariTraditional Lipari houseView from a hike in LipariLipariGirl on a hammockLight and Shadow on the patio with chair Girl on the balcony in lipariMarina corta with boatsLipari Cathedral with stepsGirl in front of Italian bakery eating cannoliSunset at Quattropani churchQuattropani sunset with dogView of ocean, cliffs and trees at quattrocchi in Lipari

Visiting Lipari at the end of October meant that we saw a very different island to the busy, tourist-touting transport hub that people generally see in the summer. While most days still consisted of brilliant sunshine, calm seas and omnipresent bougainvillaea plants gently swaying in the breeze, others revealed the origin of the islands’ eponymous name-sake Aeolus – God of the winds. Indeed everyday life on the Aeolian islands is dictated by the whims of the wind (not least for the sailors and fishermen).  Scirocco from North Africa would mean hot and humid days and clouds so low they passed beside us, whereas the fierce Ponente from the West, transformed into a wind tunnel as it passes through the Gibraltar Strait, meant battening down the hatches and holing up in bed listening to the gail-force winds and its eery howls, while watching sea-water spray the house from almost 300m below.

We stayed in Quattropani, the highest spot on the island and the furthest away from the colourful and historical port-town of Lipari. Too high-up to hear the waves, we woke up to the sound of church bells and the industrious humming of ferries instead. We spent the days hiking volcanic trails and visiting churches with spectacular sea-views, hanging out with super-friendly neighbours or just chilling out in the garden overlooking neighbouring island Salina, making prickly pear jam and grilling fresh fish from town with lemons from the garden.

Things to do in Lipari:

Visit the Acropolis: Most people would expect to see a temple in an ancient Acropolis, but Lipari’s was actually destroyed by Arabs in 838. What remains is a fortified citadel with a beautiful Cathedral and archaeological museum. One of my favourite views in Lipari is of the Citadel from up high (when driving into town from the Pianoconte direction) with the shimmering Tyrrhenian sea in the background.

Visit Quattrocchi: One of the best views on island. From here you can see the Faraglioni of Lipari (giant cliffs jutting out of the sea) and views of Vulcano island. If you’re here in the summer try some of Maria-Grazia’s spicy Aeolian Crostini (Capers, sun-dried tomatoes and lots of olive oil on crusty bread.)

Visit Canneto: Lipari’s largest stretch of coast where locals and tourists alike come to the seaside to hang out on the pebbly beach and swim in pristine water. If you’re here go to bar Tano to have

Granita with brioche: A classic Aeolian breakfast (or afternoon snack ). Flavoured shaved ice (the most typical is mulberry) with whipped cream and a side of fresh brioche. It is amazing!

Visit the Observatory: More amazing views – this time of Vulcano and Vulcanello. If you have a hire car this place is also beautiful for star-gazing on a clear night.

Hike from Quattropani to the Fumaroles or Pianoconte: The trail starts at Quattropani and goes along the coast boasting beautiful views of Salina and the Faraglioni. At about half-way you can either turn into the ‘Fumaroles’ trail which takes you past dramatic Canyons and sulphurous rock up to the fumaroles – volcanic steam chambers; or continue onto Pianoconte past beautiful, remote Aeolian houses and Olive Groves with amazing sea views.

Visit/hike to Acquacalda from Quattropani: A very sleepy town with quaint Aeolian houses that are so close to the sea that the crashing waves pay regular visits. Listen to the echoing sound of the waves in the church.

Sunset at Chiesa Vecchia: My favourite. The church is small but the location is more than grand. It’s definitely the most amazing spot for a church I’ve ever come across. 400m above the sea with spectacular views of all the islands from the gardens at the back. Come with an aperitif and sit on the rocks while watching the sun go down.

Lipari, Sicily

Chamonix & the dolomites budget road-trip

The DolomitesIcicles on a wood cabinGirl in Chamonix snowboardingTraditional restaurant in the DolomitesGirl Husky sledding in ChamonixChamonix StationCervinodol5dol16dol21clockchHuskies in snow

Crashing chalets and not skiing

If you’re not there solely for the skiing or snowboarding, Chamonix can, believe it or not, be done on a budget. All you have to do is be bit cheeky about it. Our friend was in Chamonix for work and overheard some people talking about renovating their chalet and asked if they wanted him to overlook the work while they were away. They agreed and he got to stay in their spectacular two-storey chalet with mountain views (and hot tub) for free for a month. It sounds purely like a stroke of good luck, but a lot of chalet owners who don’t rent are busy people who are only too happy to have somebody responsible to look after their holiday homes or pets while they’re away. Naturally, we jumped at the chance to visit our friend for a few days.

As well as not having a massive budget, me and J are also devoid of any snow-sport skills whatsoever. Chamonix was a bad choice, you say? I’ll admit that trying to learn to snowboard without an instructor was difficult, and we spent more time on our butts than we did standing up, but it was most definitely fun, and we did get very slightly better by the end of the day. The good thing about renting gear and a pass for the day is that even of you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing, you get the breathtaking views of the Mont Blanc massif and Chamonix Valley from the slopes and ski-lifts as pretty compensation. The next day, slightly defeated from the snow-boarding, we rented some snow-shoes (much cheaper than most other snow activities) and did the Les Houches trail past snowy mountains, icicle-adorned wood-huts and pine-tree forests.

The next day we got on the scenic bus towards Valtournenche/Breuil-Cervinia where we stayed with an Italian relative. Having loved our leisurely walk through the pine-forest in Chamonix, we rented out snow-shoes again and started the walk from Breuil-Cervinia base to Plan Maison. As it happened, this turned out to be anything but leisurely. Since snow-shoes necessarily have a massive surface area and pick up snow as you walk, going up-hill can be incredibly strenuous. Going straight up the steep, fresh ski-slopes of the Matterhorn with the sound of distant avalanches crashing in the background was one of the hardest, most exhilarating experiences of my life. By the time we got to the top we were in t-shirts and singing into the eerily echo-less snow to keep us going. One of the things I remember most clearly were the fresh snow crystals at the summit of our walk reflecting a stunning carpet of tiny rainbows which I determined to (totally unsuccessfully) take hundreds of pictures of.  We finally reached Plan Maison where, whether because of all-consuming hunger or just good cooking, I had one of the best pastas of my whole life. We ended the day by taking the spectacular Cable Car to Plateau Rosa, home of Il Bar del Rifugio guide del Cervino, a cosy  Alpine Bar at 3480m altitude.

From Valtournenche we took the long train/bus journey to the Dolomites (I’d recommend staying in Milan or Verona for a couple of days if you’re going to do this). We went in the off-season (early April to be exact, the tail-end of Ski season) when everything is cheaper – accommodation, car rental, ski-passes, husky-sledding etc. While many of the hotels and restaurants are closed, and some of the trails are closed off due to snow, you can enjoy the dramatic views of the towering rocky peaks on the trails that are open without the crowds. If you’re travelling as a couple, it can be cosy to visit at this very quiet and snowy time of year.

Things to do in Chamonix/Dolomites other than skiing/snowboarding:

  • Snow shoeing
  • Husky Sledding
  • Hike the many trails/take Cable cars in the Dolomites
  • Rent a car and drive the Great Dolomite Road (anywhere from Verona to Cortina d’Ampezzo via the Lakes) There isn’t really one single route which is fine because the scenery in the area is generally stunning.
  • Eat your body weight in Speck (the local cured ham) and Spetzle

Cheap Eats:

  • Chamonix –Poco Loco . Great burgers and cheap beer pitchers (for the area) if you’re in a group.
  • Breuil- Cervinia – La Grotta. OK this one is not exactly cheap but the pizzas are amazing and huge and definitely shareable.
  • Dolomites – Malga Sella Alm. Home-style German food in an Alpine hut with lovely views of the Val Gardena Dolomites.
Chamonix & the dolomites budget road-trip