Coast Starlight

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Train travel is one of the few forms of transport left that’s not just about reaching your destination but about savouring the journey itself. Going on a long train trip feels like a journey within a journey, where you’re not just experiencing present adventures but are also transported to a nostalgic, bygone time, where everything seemed to happen at a slower pace. You can admire beautiful views that you would never get to see on a plane or a bus, catch up on a book you keep meaning to read, or chat to other people who like you are in no immediate rush to do something, or be somewhere. Slowness seemed to be the theme of this West Coast trip. I flew from Miami to Seattle to visit my best friend from university who lives in a pretty, very tiny town in central Washington. It was one of those typical American strip towns with buildings on either side of the highway that takes all of a minute to drive past. I stayed here a leisurely two weeks visiting horse ranches, fossil-hunting and riding quad bikes through abandoned Cougar dens. (To be fair that last bit wasn’t really slow, those things really pick up speed! )

When the time came for me to catch my Amtrak train down to L.A., me and three friends took a road trip to Seattle along the scenic North Cascades highway. I felt like I was having the true American travel experience!  The highlight of this route is definitely Lake Diablo. The North Cascade mountains that surround it are huge and usually snow-peaked, and the lake itself is an incredibly distinctive green-turquoise colour caused by the melting of nearby glaciers. The lake is a very do-able 2.5 hour drive from Seattle. While you’re there you might as well visit nearby Leavenworth too, a faux-Bavarian meets Wild West town where you can eat Schnitzel and order giant steins of (really good) craft beer from men in Leiderhosen.

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The Amtrak Journey from Seattle to Los Angeles is called the Coast Starlight and takes about 2 days. I was a. On my own and b. Not in a sleeper coach, so I knew this was going to be a test of my boredom threshold as well my endurance! I shouldn’t have worried; the views were beautiful enough that the journey did not seem anywhere near its 35 hours, though I’d be lying if i said they flew by! In this direction, the views really start to become spectacular after Klamath Falls towards Dunsmuir in Oregon, with dramatic views of tall pine trees surrounding snowy Mount Shasta.You would normally be arriving here by evening, so the view is made even more dramatic as dusk turns to silvery moonlight. The next morning I woke up in Northern California, greeted by rolling oat-colour hills and grazing deer and cows. I spent most of the rest of the day in the Observation car, which has comfy seats and floor to ceiling windows for the best views. It was here that I watched the train roll into Santa Barbara at sunset, with its stunning Pacific ocean views and surfing beaches. collage-2016-03-16 (1)

Coast Starlight Travel tips:

  • If you can afford it, stay in a private ‘roomette’. I was lucky that nobody was sitting next to me in coach so I managed to get some sleep by lying across the seats, but I’d have been wide awake all night if not. I was on a budget and a roomette is much more expensive, but you do get all of your meals included and they are served in the private Pacific parlour car. Here they have a bar, cushy swivel easy-chairs, free wi-fi, coffee and they also do free wine and cheese tastings every afternoon. There’s even a mini-cinema room! I had breakfast in the dining room on the first morning as the train rolled along the Puget sound and the food was actually much nicer than I expected.
  • If you’re planning to share a roomette, do it with someone you  really like – they are extremely small!
  • Bring all the usual sleeping comforts – eye mask, toothbrush, inflatable pillow etc. (Especially if you’re in coach.)
  • If you have the option, do the route when the days are longest, as it was already quite dark as we got to the Cascade mountains, the prettiest part of the trip. Otherwise try and go when it’s a full moon!
  •  For the same reason as above, do the option from L.A. to Seattle – if you have the choice.
  • Seats are not assigned when you book and are given out as you board so they’re pretty much luck of the draw – if you find a nice controller ask if you can get a seat on the Ocean side.
  • If you get bored, go to the viewing car and strike up a conversation with someone. Everyone is unhurried and relaxed and probably bored so I found that people were pretty chatty!
  • Use the ladies powder room – they are very clean and there’s actually a little powder-room area.
  • If you’re bored easily download some things to watch on your phone, ipad etc. There are sockets by the seats.
  • Bring your own food if you’re not keen on the menu and don’t fancy eating snacks.

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Coast Starlight

Amalfi photo diary

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There are places that I’ve travelled to that I know I will return to again and again, and I know that again and again I will fall even more in love with them. There is just something uniquely magical about the Amalfi coast and the picturesque little towns dotted along it. Even the journey there feels like a dream – the bus from Sorrento, the main pick-up point, takes you on a ridiculously beautiful and terrifying coastal drive along hair-pin curves and vertiginous drops to the glittering Mediterranean sea below. A few miles of lemon and bougainvillaea bedecked houses and gardens later, and you’re greeted by towns of pastel-colour houses stacked precipitously on cliffs above an impossibly blue sea. Not a bad start.collage-2016-03-09 (2)

Things to do: The first time I visited I went to Positano. This is possibly the most visited town along the coast and rightly so as it is stunning. You’ve probably seen pictures of views from hotels with the iconic yellow church steeple all over instagram. On our most recent visit we went to Capri and Ravello. Capri is its own island rather than a town along the coast, and has its own magnificent views – most famously of ‘I faraglioni’ – the two giant, iconic rocks that jut out of the sea. We decided that we wanted to see them up close so we rented out a powerboat and did a tour of the island from the sea. We went through the famous hole in one of the Faraglioni and visited one of the many cool caves that are dotted around the island. In the bay outside the cave we had a picnic on the boat and I think I can categorically say that was one of the loveliest days of my life.

Capri is also famous for the blue grotto – a cave that is illuminated bright blue inside because of the angle at which the sunlight hits it. You get in on little rowboats and the men that steer them love to sing Neapolitan songs inside the cave as they echo so loudly. This and the strange blue light make it one of the most eerie and magical experiences I’ve ever had. Some people go swimming in the cave after hours when the boats have left. This is illegal and we definitely did not do this…nope…

If you go to Capri you must make sure to visit the area above Anacapri – the most elevated part of the island. Getting there is fun as you have to get the funicular, and the views from the top are totally breathtaking.collage-2016-03-09

We wanted to go to Ravello on this trip as it is one of the most high-up of the towns along the coast (you have to get a bus that goes up the mountain from Amalfi) and thought it would have amazing views. We were not wrong. The most memorable moment here was the view from the Terrace of Infinity in the gardens of Villa Cimbrone. This Medieval villa is famous for its beautiful flower-filled gardens that gradually lead the way to a statued terrace with stunning views. I don’t usually mind heights but looking down here made me feel very dizzy. There is a tiny, half-hidden bar below the terrace with a balcony overlooking this view that’s about big enough for two people. We got my favourite pre-prandial, a bright orange Aperol.

I’ve been to the Amalfi Coast about four times now, and even though I love ticking as many countries as I can off my bucket list, it keeps beckoning me back. My grandparents are from this area originally, so I guess there’s a sort of psychological affinity there, but really I just think it is uniquely beautiful. Perhaps Steinbeck said it best in his book about Positano;”Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”

Where to stay: Hotel Rufolo. Nice decor and great views. It is one of the more slightly affordable hotels for the view that you get. My dream is to one day stay at Villa Cimbrone.

Where to eat: Anywhere. Really, I have never had a bad meal in Amalfi, even in the most touristy of areas. The seafood especially is consistently amazing. One particularly memorable restaurant was at Cumpa’ Cosimo in Ravello. The food here is trattoria style rather than Michelin and is run by a lovely, frilly apron-clad woman called Netta. She’s such a larger than life figure that most locals simply call the restaurant Mama Netta’s. The food was so good here that I can still remember the taste. I recommend the pizza.

Amalfi photo diary

Anegada

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Pineapple bikini – Midori Bikinis – Top, Bottom; Crochet dress – Souvenir from Cuba.

If the BVI is already off the beaten tropical track, then lonesome Anegada, the most remote of the Virgin islands, has fallen clear off and into the ditch. Being on Anegada feels like being on another planet. The landscape is eerie and desert-like, populated by cacti and swampy-sea shrubs. The island is so flat that you’d be forgiven for missing it on the way in on the ferry – the biggest giveaway that you’re arriving is the ocean going from a deep blue to a dreamy tropical turquoise.

If you’re looking for an activity holiday then this probably won’t be it. They say that the donkeys and flamingoes outnumber the people (this is definitely not true), and there are only a handful of sun-bleached bars and restaurants. But if if you like the idea of feeling like you’ve been ship-wrecked on a desert island, and having nothing much more to do than listen to the sound of lapping waves, then this is the place for you. One of our favourite things to do was to walk along the endless deserted beaches to our favourite sleepy, pastel-coloured bar for a rum cocktail. If we were feeling lazy we’d go in our Wrangler rental with the local radio station on at full blast – having the radio on here feels strangely like a link to forgotten civilisation. It’s a cliche’ but my boyfriend and I decided that if paradise had beaches they couldn’t look much better than the idyllic beaches on Anegada. They’re even mysteriously strewn with hundreds of huge, beautiful pink Conch shells that you stumble upon everywhere. Maybe I’ve not travelled enough – is this the case anywhere else?!

The irony of travelling to such a remote place is that you end up getting to know the few tourists and locals you meet better than you probably would somewhere busier. It’s also the perfect place to go with a group of friends. The second time here we sailed over in a big group. We moored up to a bar with a pretty empty dance-floor but we soon changed that around and ended up having one of the best nights of our time out here.

Sleeping: We stayed at the Anegada Beach Club sea-front tents, which we saw on our first visit and vowed to come back and stay in. It’s not really camping as you know it – think four-poster beds with mosquito nets blowing in the breeze, deck hammocks, solar-powered showers and views overlooking a milky-blue Atlantic Ocean. Each tent even has it’s own mini path to the beach. They have paddle-boarding and snorkelling gear for in- between tanning sessions.

Eating: Anegada is famous for its lobster. They have so much of it and in most places it’s plucked straight out of  lobster traps and cooked right in front of you in converted oil-drums. We went to the Lobster Trap for my birthday meal. It has tables on a jetty decked out with fairy lights right over the water. We were the only people in the whole restaurant! If you want to visit at a busier time of year then the lobster festival is held on varying dates in November. 

Neptune’s Treasure: Famous for it’s cinnamon buns and home-made bread.  Have breakfast while watching the boats moor up on the harbour.

Anegada Beach Club: Get the coconut French toast!

Anegada