The Lake District

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The beauty of the Lake District lies in the contrasts of its landscape. Wild, unruly weather, imposing mountains, and sheer cliff drops frame small, cobblestone-paved farming villages and pastoral hills sprinkled white with sheep and daisies. It’s no surprise that this landscape was a favourite with the romantic poets, who could revel in their closeness to nature on bracing winter walks on snow-tipped mountains, while no doubt later enjoying a comforting cup of Lady Grey by the cottage fire. Or, in Coleridge’s case, enjoying some comforting opium pills.

We started our hiking trip in the quaint village of Patterdale. We arrived quite late from London and since I had never been camping before, Josh suggested we spend the night at a nearby hostel. I was excited to set off however so, perhaps rather stupidly, we set off towards Angle-tarn Pikes as the sun was low in the sky.  It was an inauspicious start for my overly-excited self – we’d set off not half an hour earlier and I started to get vertigo on the very first leg off the walk; the path wasn’t even particularly steep, but it was quite narrow, and I kept having visions of slipping on the gravel or being stuck on the trail in the dark and out in the open. But I stuck close to the ground (Josh walked as if he was having a stroll in the park) and we got to the top of the hill to a stunning view of Angle Tarn as the sun was setting on the neon-blue water. We admired the scenery and looked for a dry spot to set up our tent. I was peeved that somebody had already nabbed the most picturesque spot to pitch theirs up- a little grassy peninsula that juts out into the tarn so that it looks like you’re on your very own little floating island! Next time, next time..

We woke up the next morning to a brisk and beautifully sunny morning. We made some much-needed hot coffee and bacon on our tiny gas stove and admired the tarn that was so clear and still it looked like a giant’s pretty mirror. We packed up and made our way around the tarn and towards Helvellyn, the Lake District’s highest peak. This part of our hike was the longest, most up-hill and most difficult of the whole trip. The best thing about the intense exercise of hiking up-hill while you’re carrying the combined weight of your tent, sleeping bag, clothes, cooking equipment, food etc etc is how it makes you really appreciate the small things you take for granted in daily life. Sitting down to rest on a jaggedy rock feels like being enveloped by a cloud while being fanned by cherubs, and eating chewy, overcooked pasta with Dolmio sauce from a sachet tastes like a three-course meal at a Michelin-star restaurant. As much as I love all types of travel, including leisurely city-breaks, this really was an amazing feeling.

The summit of our trail was the hole-in-the-wall look-out across Helvellyn and Red Tarn. From this point a lot of hikers continue their walk to Helvellyn along the famous Striding Edge trail – a very narrow, very rocky trail with steep drops on either side. Needless to say, just looking at it made me feel physically ill, so we took the long way around. We continued up to the High Street to find Josh’s ‘favourite spot’ from when he used to go to the Lake District as a kid. The spot looks out onto Haweswater lake and the rolling peaks and troughs of the hills that surround it. The area is so high-up and so vast that you can watch the shadows of the clouds as they dance across the hills. We sat here for a long time just admiring the view.

Our detour meant that we had to go off-piste and cut down to the Ullswater river valley below in order to make it back down by evening. Essentially this meant jumping a fence and sliding down a steep hill on my bum in front of a herd of bemused sheep. At the bottom we found probably the most picturesque scenery of the trip. The path northwards through Martindale and towards Sandwick took us past gnarled, beautiful Alder trees, bubbling brooks with natural stepping stones and every type of wildflower imaginable. Old stone cottages and hamlets reached by tiny bridges dotted the bucolic countryside. We found a deserted, forested spot by the river and pitched up our tent for the night.

The next morning we were invited to experience the other face of the Lake District. Grey skies and a light, intermittent drizzle while we fuelled up with coffee by the riverside turned into steady, torrential rain that despite waterproof gear, still had us soaked within no time. But we walked fast, and with the heat of the exercise and drama of the rain the walk ended up being really fun. The heavy rain, lush vegetation and waterfalls along the river made the atmosphere feel almost tropical. Running and laughing by the end, we eventually reached Patterdale. Drenched to the bone, we holed up by the the fireside at the White Lion Inn and had shepherds pie and chips.

Tips for hiking the Lake District:

    • We went in June, and although it was relatively warm in the day, it was freezing in the tent at night. I don’t think I slept for a minute the first night up on the hill. Never underestimate how cool it gets at night when on hills and bring plenty of warm gear/good sleeping bag. If you’re going as a couple I’d recommend getting a double sleeping bag so you can share body heat. I wish I’d known these existed at the time!
    • Not to freak anyone out, but if you do decide to hike Striding Edge then do it when the weather is good i.e. good visibility/not too windy. There are casualties every year, mostly due to bad weather.
    • Lots of water. We bought water purification tablets so we could fill up our water in springs but it tasted funny and never felt entirely full proof. Water filters are a better option. Failing that, you can always boil it if you’re bringing a portable stove.
    • And then the obvious stuff; good hiking boots/really thick socks!(seriously you’ll be in pain otherwise)/waterproof gear (including a waterproof case for your clothes in your rucksack- seems like overkill but trust me!) /good hiking map/first aid kit especially plasters and disinfectant for blisters/gas canisters for stove/energy-rich food and snacks.

The Lake District

Yucatan Diary

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Valladolid

As much as we enjoyed pretty Tulum, we couldn’t wait to hit the road to inland Yucatan and see a more genuine, less tourist-oriented Mexico. Our first stop was Valladolid – a charming, unpretentious and serene little colonial town. While it isn’t exactly a tourist-free backwater, the city feels lived-in – its raison d’etre not being simply to cater to foreigners. Valladolid looks exactly how you would imagine a typical Mexican town to look – stucco, sherbet-colour colonial houses line wide and dusty cobbled streets that feature the occasional and elaborately painted horse-drawn carriage. Though the architecture is Spanish, a large part of the population is actually made up of Mayans, and a lot of them still speak the strange and beautiful ancient language and wear the traditional embroidered clothes.

What struck us most about this area of Mexico was how unconsciously ‘trendy’ it is; as we strolled under sun-bleached arcades we came across artisanal stores and trendy niche boutiques selling what at home would be sold as over-priced, pink crepe-paper-wrapped cult objects. Tiny artisanal shops sell Mayan chocolate made using ancient recipes, while others provide tastings of their home-made, organic Tequila and Mezcal. Coqui Coqui, a Yucatan perfumery decorated with elaborate coloured tiles and minimalistic black laquer display cabinets, uses recipes inspired by Franciscan monks who worked closely with Mayan alchemists to produce their floral-scented potions.

Then of course there’s the traditional Mexican food – inevitably trendy after having undergone a seemingly international, instagram-fuelled revival. Predominantly vegatarian restaurant Yerabuena del Sisal serves up chia lemonade and whole-wheat Tortugas with fresh avocado. After our inevitable over-consumption of every possible variety of  taco and avocado in Tulum we were happy to try something simple. Wandering around Avenida de los Frailes we noticed a long line of locals heading out of an inauspicious-looking backyard patio that was cooking up whole fresh fish from the market in nothing but olive oil and salt. We chose a big red fish that was cooked right in front of us, grabbed a double-sized Pacifico beer and ate in the Parque Francisco Canton in front of the imposing San Gervasio Cathedral.

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Chichen Itza

The cultural highlight of the Yucatan is without a doubt the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, though it seems almost inappropriate to call them ruins when they are so amazingly well-preserved for 1400 year-old structures. The most well-preserved and spectacular is El Castillo, temple of Kukulcan God of the wind (and Josh’s new nickname). It’s sometimes difficult when travelling, at least it is for me, to fully realise the significance of certain cultural landmarks, and get that immediate sense of wonder that you want and expect. I especially find this with certain religious icons and especially ruins. As spectacular as El Castillo is, I was disappointed to find that this anticlimax is exactly what I felt when I first walked into the Mayan site. I can only put this down to the heat, the ridiculous number of people and the jaguar whistle-wielding peddlers (they make a loud jaguar roaring noise, kind of cool at first, really annoying thirty seconds later).

I soon realised however that while the atmosphere may not have been the same as the Tulum ruins (that boasted stunning sea views and were virtually empty thanks to good timing), the temples themselves were far more beautiful and dramatic at Chichen Itza. Rather than stroll lazily through the site, it made me think about the beauty and significance of the buildings themselves. Each individual structure was testament to the amazing ingenuity and artistry of the Mayans. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the late-afternoon sunlight hits El Castillo’s principal facade to create the illusion of snake slithering down the steps. El Caracol, dubbed ‘the observatory,’ seems carefully aligned with the movements of Venus – which was of tremendous spiritual significance to the Mayans. One of the observation points on El Caracol marks an appearance of Venus at a particular point on the horizon that takes place exactly once every eight years.

Of course you don’t have to visit Mayan or Aztec sites to experience Mexican culture. One of the things I loved about the Yucatan was how art seemingly permeated every aspect of life – whether this be the unrelenting aesthetic conciousness of Tulum or a beautifully embroidered and kaleidoscopically coloured hammock swinging from the ceiling in a bare and otherwise furniture-less thatched hut in the most remote of towns.

A lot of Mexican art seems laced with subtle irony. From the oxymoronic, cheerfully coloured skulls which reflect what Octavio La Paz would surely describe as a Catholic nation’s baroque fascination with the macabre, to a tiny bamboo hair salon we came across in a remote rural town that was painted red, white and blue in the traditional barber shop colours – a symbol not only associated with the service of bloodletting (originally the image denoted bloody bandages around a pole) but also reminiscent of the patriotic colours of the US flag and fifties consumer culture when this style of barber-shop predominated.

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IK-kil and Yokdzonot Cenotes

IK Kil cenote, a limestone sinkhole not far from Chichen Itza, is one of those surreally magical places that will demand a permanent and happy place in your memory. Lush, tropical vegetation suddenly gives way to a Lewis Carollesque hole of climbing ivy and seemingly endless vines that caress the clear blue water 90 feet below. Eager to swim with the hundreds of cute, mini catfish that inhabit the cenote, me and Josh climbed down and dove from the highest platform into the cool water below. Lying on my back and staring at the blue sky while ivy leaves fluttered down and dappled sunlight streamed through the vines forming tiny rainbows is an experience that I will remember forever. I felt like Alice in her dream.

I was so eager to get to IK-Kil early that we actually had to return to the hotel as the ticket office hadn’t even opened, but even when it did we had the cenote to ourselves for at least half an hour. It did busy up later though so if you want to have a more tranquil cenote experience, nearby Yokdzonot is beautiful. Though not as precipitous and immediately striking, it gets more sunlight, which makes the water warmer as well as a beautiful turquoise colour. Yokdzonot is more frequented by locals, and is actually owned by the community as part of a cooperative. We had lunch at the restaurant above the cenote where local women cook traditional Yucatan dishes like lime soup and flaky cochinita Pibil, washed down with with a local berry drink that I haven’t been able to find since. It was our last and without doubt best meal of the entire trip.

Yucatan Diary

Tulum

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If fashion blogs and instagram hadn’t entirely convinced me that I needed to drop everything and immediately go to Tulum, a new low-budget airline that has just started a direct Puerto Rico to Cancun route did. Given that where I live inter-island travel is notoriously painful, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally visit Mexico. We arrived quite late and so spent the first night in what is one of the few boutique hotels in Cancun. From the taxi there we saw some high-rise hotels and enormous multi-tiered clubs that looked like awesome fun if you were an excited 15-year old on Spring break. In our case we looked in vain the next morning for a Mexican-style breakfast in a deserted mall (we ended up in Mcdonalds (but at least they had a salsa/guac bar!)) and then high-tailed it out of there.

I’d heard that a lot of people biked around Tulum so we didn’t bother with a car rental and got the bus. I’m so glad we did – at Playa del Carmen we picked up a group of young Mariachi musicians who sang and played their beautiful guitars all the way to Tulum. Half-way through the set an English guy who was visiting started playing his trumpet along-side them and the entire bus started singing and clapping – I felt like I was finally in Mexico!

If you’re looking for a low-key vacation but want to avoid the gargantuan monolith-resorts of Cancun, Tulum is paradise. No structure is higher that the nearest palm tree – the predominant look being faux-rustic and sun-bleached and flawlessly stylish. The boutiques across from the sea are decorated with plush, four-poster beds and lined with powdery white sand so that it feels like an extension of the beach. It’s an instagrammer’s dream. I was particularly impressed by the restaurants and bars at night – think tiki torches guiding your way to your seat, or low-hanging candles and hispter-esque lightbulbs amidst tropical plants and the sound of cicadas. Aesthetically, I could not fault these lovely restaurants, but actually when it came to the food itself we found that the more basic the place, the better the food tended to be.

Where to eat and drink:

– One of the best meals we had in our time here was from a family-owned, road-side van with a couple of plastic chairs and tables outside. They made the food right in front of us and we had what was quite possibly the freshest, most delicious guacamole and ceviche we’ve ever had. As a bonus it doesn’t cost half as much as some of the more established places. Unfortunately I couldn’t see a name but the place is hard to miss as it’s pretty much the only one of its kind (along with another family-owned stall right next to it) on the beach-strip.

Mateo’s Mexican grill – Delicious and fresh. The nachos come out still warm from having been cooked then and there and the fajita’s are served on a sizzling hot-plate.

Pollo Bronco – this one’s in the town of Tulum. Lively and bustling with locals and tourists alike, the chicken is cooked in a wood-charcoal oven (hole in the wall) and is simple and delicious. It comes with fresh cabbage and salsa.

El Pez – We had cocktails on the beach here a couple of times, watching the dive-bombing pelicans and circling lemon-sharks as the sun went down. I highly recommend the Spicy Senorita cocktail – Tequila, ‘muddled’ red pepper with cilantro and chipotle and a dash of lime.

Restaurare – A vegan restaurant and bar that makes delicious juices and smoothies. I recommend the tropical mango, orange, papaya and mint.

Things to do:

– Nothing. Unwinding on the beach is the name of the game in Tulum. Everything seems geared towards total relaxation, even down to the king-sized, swinging sun-beds and swing-seats at the bars. As an indication the only club to ever open in Tulum closed down after a month – it just isn’t that kind of place. If you’re into yoga, massages and spa treatments by the sea on the other hand, the options are limitless.

– Go to Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve, or more accurately, get lost on your way there and go to Punta Allen instead. Sian Ka’an is a UNESCO site and comprises of more than a million acres of tropical forest and wildlife. Unfortunately, we didn’t really see any of this! Thinking we were going to the biosphere, we rented a 4×4 and set off to the park from the Tulum entrance which happened to be right by our hotel. We passed by what looked like may have been an entrance but the gate was shut so we just kept on driving, and driving…and then driving some more..2.5 hours of dwindling hope later on some of the worst pot-holed roads we’d ever seen, and we reluctantly admitted that perhaps we’d missed the entrance!  Luckily this road follows the narrow Boca Paila peninsula – which meant stunning scenery of the caribbean ocean and salt-water mangroves on one side and a milky-blue lagoon on the other.

Still, we hadn’t seen a single sign of civilisation and were getting really hungry and thirsty, so given that we had absolutely no idea if there was anything at the end of the road we nearly turned back when we came across Sol Caribe – a beautiful restaurant/ranch/life-saving oasis. I was so relieved at the thought of a cold beer and guac after hours on dusty, ridiculously pot-holed roads I could have kissed the hotel owner. I have absolutely no idea how they get their ingredients but the food was delicious. We had delightfully cold, Pacifico beers on a beautiful veranda overlooking the stunningly turquoise Caribbean ocean. We asked the waiter if there was anything at the end of the road and he told us there was a small town called Punta Allen, so we decided to keep going a little longer.

I’m so glad we did. Punta Allen is a tiny and sleepy sleepy lobster-fishing village, perhaps a bit what Tulum was like once upon a time. We felt like we were at the ends of the earth so naturally the first thing we came across was a hipster coffee-stall serving organic Mexican coffee served in genuine Mocha machines with some sort of ground demerara sugar emulsion. It was unexpected and lovely. It’s not on Tripadvisor but is right by the visitor centre and is called Cafe’ Lejana. Other than drink and eat there’s not much to do in Punta Allen except for stroll down the palm-fringed beach or go and visit the lighthouse. We saw a fishing boat that had been converted into a holiday ‘villa’ which I would love to go back and stay in if we ever go back. N.b. If you want to explore more of the biosphere and can’t find much info (we certainly couldn’t) there is a very thorough run-down here.

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Black one-piece – American Apparel; Floral Romper – Urban Outfitters; Black bardot top – H&M; Denim shorts – Mango; Shoes – Converse.

 

Tulum ruins. Dramatically perched on the edge of  a limestone cliff overlooking the ocean, the Mayan ruins of Tulum are undoubtedly the most stunning ruins I have ever seen. Come to think of it, they are the only ruins by the the sea that I have ever seen. We got there early so that it was just us, a few other tourists and what seemed like thousands of huge Iguanas who looked as old and still as the vestiges of the royal buildings they love to sunbathe on. There are so many of them and they are so majestic looking that you can’t help but think they are somehow aware of the significance of these crumbling edifices. You can access the beach (where turtles go to lay their eggs from May to October) from the site of the most significant ruin- El Castillo.

Dos Ojos and Nicte-Ha Cenotes. I’ve left the best ’til last. Cenotes are underground freshwater sinkholes that are thought to have formed when an asteroid crashed in the region around 65 million years ago. At Dos Ojos, breaches at the top of the caves means that the sunlight streams in from above, bouncing off dozens of stalagtites and turning the water unearthly hues of green and blue. You can get a diving guide to take you deeper into the caves where you can explore the incredible limestone formations with artificial lighting.

Nearby is serene Nicte-Ha cenote, which is more freshwater pond than cave. Flowering lily-pads and other freshwater plants float on stunningly crystal-clear water filtered by the surrounding limestone rock. I could have spent the entire day happily floating in this surreally beautiful cenote that looked like something out of a pre-Raphaelite painting. We were lucky to have Nicte-Ha all to ourselves but get to Dos Ojos early before the throngs of tourists show up in their fluorescent orange life-vests.

Where to stay:

– There are plenty of lovely boutique hotels in Tulum but knowing that we would love the cenotes we decided to book Manglex eco-hotel, which has it’s very own private one. The hotel is made up of four tree-level jungle cabanas that each have four-poster beds and mosquito nets. To get to the cabanas there is a wooden pier above the mangrove that ends in a sun-deck with white canopied lounge-beds overlooking Manglex cenote, which we explored at sunset with one of the hotel kayaks. We didn’t see any but apparently you can see the occasional small (and I’m told not dangerous) crocodile! The pier is very pretty at night when it’s illuminated green and they light lanterns and tiki torches to guide you to your suite.

If you’re after luxury rather than eco-chic this may not be the hotel for you – the ‘hot’ water was tepid at best (at least for us), and they turn off the power at night. I don’t know if we were just lucky but we were surprised that we didn’t have a problem with insects but I’d definitely recommend bringing repellant in case.

 

Tulum

West Coast Road trip: ultimate guide part IV

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Death Valley to Yosemite

After seeing an Ansel Adams photography exhibition in London, Yosemite National Park has been at the top of my list of places to visit. Although the whole trip was quite spontaneous and we didn’t necessarily plan on arriving at Yosemite in early October, it turned out to be the perfect time to visit. The flowers and trees were still in bloom and the weather was sunny and balmy.  More importantly, there were hardly any crowds or traffic, which I’ve heard can be an issue in the summer.  It was just as well as we were only at the park for 2 days and ended up doing most of it by car. Although we agreed that we’d love to return to hike it as we did in Zion, Yosemite is actually a great driving park. We were even lucky enough to see a baby bear crossing the road! N.b. bear in mind that in October some of the waterfalls may be dry.

Trails –

Glacier point – This short loop-trail ends with what is probably one of the most iconic views of any national park. It is not hard to see why. The summit looks out on to half dome – a huge, granite dome-shaped cliff that is actually a deep cleft carved out of the rock by long-melted glaciers. The view of the lush, U-shaped valley flanked by these massive, sheer cliffs is almost indescribable. Stay for the sunset as the sun illuminates the head of the dome.

Olmstead Point – The most accessible of all the views by car. Panoramic views of smooth, rolling granite peaks dominated by the side of half-dome and a very picturesque, photo-bombing pine tree.

Tenaya Lake – A short hike from where you leave your car around the lake. A crystal-clear alpine lake surrounded by lodge-pole forest and of course the ubiquitous granite domes.

Where to stay and eat: We stayed in quite generic park lodgings with an expensive and forgettable bar and restaurant. From what I saw a lot of the accommodation in Yosemite was over-priced. If I were to do it again I would love to hike around the park, camp in a spot I liked when I was tired, and prepare my own food on a fire and eat amongst the trees while admiring the views. It would definitely be worth the hassle of getting a Wilderness permit to avoid the summer crowds at designated campsites. Though note of course note that there are a few restrictions when it comes to wilderness camping. If this doesn’t sound up your street then the tent-cabins of Tulomne Meadows Lodge and Half Dome Village are a good compromise.

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Yosemite to San Francisco

At this point we had the obvious choice of taking highway 120 out of the park onto 580 direct to San Francisco, but this seemed such an anticlimax after the beauty of the park we thought we’d take the back roads instead. We weren’t ready to leave the trees for the freeways quite yet, and it meant we could catch a small part of the Pacific Coast Highway. We took the 140 South, onto the empty roads and wheat-colour hills of rural California. I think we saw about 3 cars during the 2 hours before our lunch stop in the tiny, sleepy town of Raymond.

Formerly called Wildcat Station, Raymond grew up around the railway and has the definite nostalgic feel of a once-busy, now bypassed town. You can still see the sleepers for the Southern Pacific highway and eat in a virtually unchanged 1890s general goods store. We felt we’d walk  through the swinging saloon doors of the only bar to have everyone turn around and stare at us. As it happened they (about two people, including the bartender) did turn around and look but were about the friendliest people you could hope to meet. We spoke to one man who told us that Raymond was going through one of the worst droughts in its history – forcing a lot of young people, including his son, to move to San Francisco for work. He said it hadn’t rained in Raymond in 6 years.

From here we continued onto our 3 hour drive to the coastal town of Santa Cruz, where we stayed in a roadside motel. There’s a strange feeling that you get at the end of a long road-trip, one simultaneously of satisfaction at having seen so much but also a pre-emptive sadness of not wanting it to be over. We lounged in bed the next morning half-watching  the ends of movies and day-time TV shows, in no rush to give back the car we’d grown attached to, but still looking forward to catching the sunset over the famous cliffs and angry waves of the final part of the Pacific Coast Highway.

West Coast Road trip: ultimate guide part IV

West Coast road trip: Ultimate guide part III

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Zion to Death Valley

This is the longest stretch of the route, so prepare for your GPS to shout discomforting things like, ‘in 245 miles turn right.’ If you take highway 15 as we did the route actually takes you through four different states! But this is also the best ‘on the road’ part of the road-trip itself. Flanked by looming canyons on each side, the roads are flat and almost totally empty, especially as you near Death Valley. Route 95 turning into 373 at the famous alien center truck stop into Death Valley was our favourite part of the route. Completely flat, infinite and carless roads that get so hot that they transform into dark grey waves of tarmac. This is, after all, the hottest point on Earth.

Things to do –

Zabriskie Point – I’d always wanted to visit after seeing the 1960’s film of the same name. I could see how an artsy cult movie would be set here. It’s strange to think that there was ever water in this desolate place in the middle of the badlands but the strange, cream-coloured crevices of Zabriskie point were formed out of a lake that dried out 5 million years ago. Pink Floyd seemed an apt soundtrack for it

Artist’s Drive and Palette – Artists palette is a scenic loop drive through the volcanic black mountains and ends in a weird, rainbow-coloured rock formation caused by the oxidation of different metals. The colours weren’t very bright when we were there but I was told that the best time to go is at sunset.

Ghost towns – We didn’t have time but on my map of Death Valley I saw a number of ghost towns that I would LOVE to go and see one day. They must be really eerie sights. If you do visit these make sure your car is in good condition and you stock up on plenty of water as these side-roads will be even more desolate!

Lone Pine – It was nightfall as we left Death Valley so we had to find a place to stay in the first town we came across – Lone Pine. We woke up to find ourselves in a lovely little Wild-West town of sheriffs, cowboys and women in bonnets. Thinking we’d stepped into a Death Valley time-warp at first, we discovered that Lone Pine was in the middle of its annual film festival that celebrates movies and TV episodes that have used the town and surrounding Arizona hills and Sierra Nevada mountains as Wild-West backdrops.

Where to Eat – 

There was only one place in Death Valley as far as we saw – Furnace Creek Inn. We only had a coffee here as we had to get back on the road before nightfall but I would love to stay sometime in this somewhat eerie resort in the middle of the hottest desert in the world – and whose staff I assume make up the ‘population 20’ of Death Valley. 

In Lone Pine we had the best breakfast of our trip at the tiny Alabama Hills Cafe and Bakery. 

West Coast road trip: Ultimate guide part III

West Coast Road triP: Ultimate guide PART ii

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Vegas to Grand Canyon:

There aren’t as many Kitschy tourist attractions on this route as there are on East to West Coast U.S. road-trips i.e. the world’s largest ball of twine, but there is a quasi life-size replica of Ponte Vecchio in the middle of the desert in Henderson just outside Vegas, and it’s pretty much as surreal as you’d expect. (I’m noticing a theme about this trip).

After Henderson the route from Vegas to the South rim of the Grand Canyon takes you through Lake Mead National Park. I love driving through National parks in the US – you pay a small fee to drive past amazing views on immaculately kept roads. You also usually get a pamphlet upon entering explaining the surroundings, which is good for passengers to enlighten/bore their drivers with trivia. We got to the Canyon later than I’d have liked but we did manage to catch an incredible sunset. There’s not much I can say that does justice to seeing the Canyon for the first time. The best I can say is that if like me you’ve wondered whether it might be anticlimactic given just how famous it is, it definitely isn’t!

Doing it again I’d try to spend at least a couple of days at the Canyon to take in the breathtaking views from all four rims. I’d particularly like to try the skywalk, which is not technically in the National Park but on Hualapai tribe land on the West rim. We vowed to return to go white-water rafting on the Colorado river one day among the stunning, iconic crevices of the West-rim canyons.

Where to stay – There are various different bases for the Canyon but for the South rim I would suggest Flagstaff, which is a charming college town that was originally part of historic route 66. This was actually the only part of the trip where we got to drive the route for a few exciting minutes! Because it’s a popular base for visiting the Canyon, there are a lot of generic hotels like Comfort Inns etc in the area. We chose to stay at the Weatherford hotel – a really characteristic, quaint, and creaky old hotel with an interesting history. They have frequent live music events in the bar and you can have meals on their balcony overlooking the town.

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Canyon to Mount zion

We weren’t sure what to expect from Zion National Park as we hadn’t heard as much about it as the more famous landmarks on our trip, but it ended up being one of the highlights. Driving into the park you’re immediately struck by the strange and dramatic sandstone cliffs and their unique, burnt red colour. Even the park roads that tunnel through and weave around the rocks are a dark burgundy. It is a dramatic entrance and a fitting introduction to the Park.

Trails – We did Angel’s landing (5 miles), Lower Emerald Pools (1.2 miles) middle Emerald Pools (2 miles), upper Emerald pools (3 miles) and the Riverside Walk (2 miles). Angel’s Landing is probably the most famous and most strenuous of the trails. Hugging the Virgin river, it starts as a serene riverside walk among the pines and then slowly and steadily begins to gain elevation through steep switchbacks up to the summit, where you get amazing, precipitous views of the cliffs and valley down below.

Emerald Pools is actually three different parts of one longer trail – each part ending in a clear-water pool formed by waterfalls cascading from the top of the cliffs. There are parts of the trail where you walk behind the waterfall itself.

Riverside walk is by far the easiest of the three trails. Completely flat and paved, the trail goes through a valley by the river with bubbling brooks and waterfalls along the way. We saw a lot of mountain deer on this trail.

Where to stay: Zion Park Motel. Not only is this the closest accommodation to the park but because it’s nestled at the base of Zion’s cliffs it has spectacular views. I loved the out-dated, 60’s motel charm of the rooms. I tried to do an artsy shoot but I don’t think I’ll be quitting the day job anytime soon.

Where to eat: Cliff Dwellers. Just after the Navajo bridge on our long drive from the Canyon to Utah, we stumbled upon this cute but inconspicuous restaurant/lodge.  We weren’t expecting much in the way of food from the middle of nowhere the menu turned out to be amazingly varied with options like seared Ahi Tuna and Sauteed Bree with home-made ciabatta. We asked the owner how he managed to make such food in the middle of the desert and he said he gets fresh deliveries every day by truck all the way from Vegas. He had some really good craft beers too. Oscar’s Cafe’ is right by Zion Park motel and is well-known for its good Mexican-style breakfasts.

West Coast Road triP: Ultimate guide PART ii

West Coast Road-Trip: Ultimate Guide Part I

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“Sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whiskey and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind but falling in love and not getting arrested.” Leave out the whiskey part (while you’re driving, anyway) and I’d say Hunter S. Thompson has a pretty good outlook on life on the road. There’s just something about looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing nothing but endless stretches of empty, dusty roads while you’ve got your favourite tunes on full-blast. I don’t know if it’s the not knowing what lies at the end of the road that feels so satisfying, but I’m sure it’s also got a lot to do with the sense it gives you of that most treasured of American dreams – freedom.

LA to Vegas

The road from Los Angeles to Vegas is pretty uneventful for the most part, but the dry, arid scenery does start to give you an idea of that movie-like atmosphere you’ll come to expect if you’re continuing on to Arizona and Utah. By far the most stressful part of the journey for us was driving out of L.A. The highways there are some of the most terrifying I have ever experienced – four lanes on either side with very little warning about when you have to exit! Unless you’re used to this kind of driving (or you really, really love maps) I would strongly recommend getting a GPS system when hiring your car. We got a super-generic four-door hatchback.

As I’m sure it is for many people, our only stop on the way to Vegas was Peggy Sue’s diner – a super kitschy diner with menu options like meatloaf and Buddy Holly bacon cheeseburgers served by women in baby-blue aprons and soda jerk hats. It was our first tiny taste of the totally unapologetic ostentatiousness that is Las Vegas.

If you can, I would try and time this trip so that you arrive in Vegas at night-time. We had a few false alarms where we thought we’d arrived but were actually in surrounding casino towns like Primm, but there is definitely no mistaking it when you do arrive. Nothing quite prepares you for the sudden spectacle of lights you encounter when you roll in to the city from the pitch-black and desolate Mojave desert.

Where to stay: We decided that the only way to do Vegas was to really do Vegas, so we stayed at the Venetian. Of course there are plenty of hotels that are synonymous with Vegas but I liked the thought of the especially tacky, themed ones like Ceasar’s Palace. Our room had an amazing view overlooking the Nevada desert but was otherwise quite understated. The real spectacle is the lobby downstairs, where you can take a totally surreal stroll through the streets of a fake Venice with actual water canals and eat at your own ‘al fresco’ table in a fake Piazza San Marco. The most impressive part for me was how the clouds on the ceiling are painted so that they move while you walk!

If staying at one of these huge hotels I definitely recommend taking a chance at an upgrade. They’re so massive that they quite often have empty rooms and some are quite willing to bump you up at no extra cost, especially if you go on about how much you’re going to gamble at the front desk!

Where to eat: We took the same approach to where we ate as where we stayed. We were lucky that we happened to be in Vegas on a weekend when the Wynn hotel does its famous buffet brunchWe’d read about it and knew to expect a big buffet but it really has to be seen to be believed. Quite simply, there was A LOT of food – and I’ve been to weddings in southern Italy. Any type of food that your imagination can conjure up, and they will have it, all at a very reasonable price of $30 on the Saturday and $40 on the Sunday. Try to get a seat in the incredibly elaborate dining area in the front and pace yourself! It’s definitely a once (only) in a lifetime experience!

Heart Attack Grill – Like a lot of Vegas, this place is totally ridiculous. We stumbled upon it in the Fremont East district of Vegas and saw its flashing neon sign outside proudly claiming that people ‘over 350 lbs eat for free’. We tried the scales outside and didn’t quite qualify but we had to try it when we saw the giant syringe needle and pill-box they had as decor. You get a wrist-band and scrubs when you go in and the waitresses are all dressed as nurses in – naturally – glossy, red high-heels. But the best part – you get a spanking from the nurses in the middle of the restaurant if you don’t finish your meal. The food must have been good because both me and Josh finished ours. Definitely the most surreal dining experience I’ve ever had!

Things to do:

  • Bellagio fountains. You’ve heard a lot about them and the show is actually really impressive. It happens regularly throughout the day and is set to a different song each time.
  • Go to the Fremont East district – this was probably my favourite part of our time here. While it’s not exactly surprising, the main strip can seem a bit, lo-and -behold, commercial – i.e. souvenir shops and throngs of tourists sipping from giant neon-colour cocktail pipe-things (I’ve still got no idea what they were). ‘Old Vegas’, as I called it, felt a bit more like what the city may have been like once upon a time. It feels more dated and seedy but that’s exactly what I liked about it. Also, games and drinks are cheaper – Josh actually had a pretty good Poker streak here.
  • Lose money. Josh did not have a good streak on the main strip. If you’re like me and hate gambling, do the slots and wait for the waiters to come around with free drinks:)
  • Forget your own name
  • Get married. We did not.
  • Whatever you want. Remember, what happens in Vegas…

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West Coast Road-Trip: Ultimate Guide Part I