Lipari, Sicily

lipaf1lipfigftrammiciofum2fgnofumsent4sent3osse2hammockfoutside-chairzuleika-at-the-door-1lip3cattcolazcvcjgdquatt

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

dolomitdol11nowbdol3dol7dol2dol13dol5dol16dol21clockchdol10

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

Jost Van Dyke

JVD4JVD3JVD1jvd22JVD2JVD5JVD6jvd25cjvd14JVD7JVD8jvd15JVD9jvd16JVD10jvd17jvd23JVD11jvd21jvd18jvd19

Named after a 17th Century Dutch pirate who settled there, utterly unspoilt and laid-back Jost Van Dyke is the quintessential Caribbean island. Also known as ‘the barefoot island’, Jost’s grand metropolis, Main Street, is a sandy extension of Great Harbour beach, with lazy beach bars and restaurants on one side, and hammocks so low they touch the sand on the other. When there isn’t a Reggae or Calypso band playing at the quasi-mythical Foxy’s bar, the main form of entertainment here is the hook game. A hook, connected to a string, that you must swing so as to attach it to a metal circle on a palm tree. Another past-time is watching the fishermen return to the harbour in their little boats with their less-than-little and indignant lobster spoils. Importantly, you can do both of these from your hammock.

Just over the hill is White Bay, which boasts the kind of desktop-wallpaper beach where you heavily suspect someone has played fast and loose with the saturation button. Only it really does look like that – the water is that brazenly turquoise and the sand as white as the name promises. White Bay is home to the famed Soggy Dollar Bar, itself home of the Painkiller cocktail – dark rum, coconut cream, orange juice and a pinch of nutmeg. Soggy dollar is so called because if you’re arriving by boat, as most people do, the only way to the beach is by wading in and paying with perfectly acceptable soaking wet money. If that wasn’t chilled out enough, a lot of the bars here (including Gertrude’s) are honesty bars, where you go behind the bar, make your own drink with as much booze as you like, and then tell the owners what you’ve had. Needless to say, White Bay is a party beach. The sheer drinkability of a painkiller and contagious festivity of happy yachties on holiday is a heady combination. If you want to enjoy the beach minus the people, Ivan’s stress-free bar is exactly that. Though still part of White Bay, Ivan’s is separated from the main beach by rocks and is much quieter. It’s accessible either by boat or a short hill walk.

One good way to see Jost is to hike it. We’ve done this a few times and while it’s challenging, the views are absolutely worth the uphill pain. Hiking from Great Harbour to the West side of the island by Foxy’s Taboo brings you to Bubbly Pool – a sea-water pool described as a natural ‘jacuzzi’ because when the swell is up the waves enter from a crevice in the rock to create surfy bubbles. But my favourite way to see the island, a view that I’m sure is shared by many, is to sail it. Having your own boat has the added advantage of being able to go to Sandy Spit – without a doubt my favourite place to visit when we go to Jost. About a five minute sail from Great Harbour lies an almost comically beautiful and stereotypical castaway island – a tiny mound of white sand surrounded by an aquamarine sea and inhabited by a few forlorn palm trees. There is absolutely nothing to do here apart from perhaps bring a bottle of rum and pretend to be shipwrecked. If I knew any I’d sing some sea shanties. From here it’s an even shorter sail to the isolated B-line bar on Little Jost Van Dyke. Moor up on the jetty and order a Passion Confusion and either tan on the beach or play Corn hole. You’d better enjoy either of the two, the bar is the only thing on this roadless paradise island.

Things to do on Jost Van Dyke:

  • Have a Painkiller on White Bay
  • Go to Bubbly Pool
  • Hike the Island – There are a few routes. Go West from Great Harbour for the shorter 2 hour hike past Garner bay and to Bubbly pool. Go East from White Bay (starting behind Perfect Pineapple Guest Houses) for a longer, more uphill, 3 hour hike with spectacular views of Jost all-around.
  • Have a drink at Corsair’s – Adorned all over with yachtie memorabilia and graffiti, listen to country and rock at the bar and chat.
  • Eat in Great Harbour – Corsair’s has the fanciest food but is the priciest option.
  • Go to Sandy Spit – If you’re not on a boat then you can rent a dinghy out at Great Harbour from the Scuba shop. Grab a drink/coconut while you prepare to inevitably wait for it to be fixed.

 

Jost Van Dyke

The Lake District

lakeduskldpretentflklakejoshspotldfarmhighstJoshalderhillclimdaisyhighstfhillsit

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

vallmvall1canh2greenococdcart

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.

chichimanrchitDSC_1001ikkilyodz1laybac

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.

breakfastplatesvallrwomchchurchvthatcghrfruteryhairdm

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

bartfcanctlunchtbszcturulftulfllokbcsitupadDSC_0481DSC_0523DSC_0916cenlocenh2swimcenswimcenff

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.

tulbflotboatanDSC_0710bgrpipuntacaflilypsitupadlilypadtulalwav

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

jsilyyos1faceroDSC_0960_3yosf

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.

sign1rayrraymfrontierimeandapchsfla

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