The Anti-Backpacking wishlist

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

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

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

My Anti-Backpacking Wishlist:

1. Fleur du Mal lacing bullet one-piece.

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

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 5.59.28 AM

 

2. Lisbon Wallpaper city-guide.

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

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 4.33.10 AM

3. MAHI Leather Bag.

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

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 4.24.40 AM

4. Fujifilm xf-100.

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

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 5.03.47 AM

5. Phoebe slip by Paris Georgia Basics.

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

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 5.09.09 AM

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 5.19.02 AM

7. Loeffler Randall Jasper loafers.

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

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 5.29.24 AM.png

8. Truffle Clarity Clutch.

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

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 5.50.38 AM.png

9. Cafe-press towel.

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

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 6.19.13 AM.png

10.BOSE headphones.

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

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 6.25.31 AM

The Anti-Backpacking wishlist

Sicily

ragbelffbuildrrahhycurcimg_7962noto3img_7983image-3kjytIMG_7996.JPGimagetaorphtaorbeimg_7992taolas

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

SIRACUSE

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

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

Things to do in Siracuse:

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

NOTO

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

Things to do in Noto:

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

RAGUSA

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

Things to do in Ragusa:

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

TAORMINA

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

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

Things to do in Taormina:

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Sicily

Lipari, Sicily

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