Sicily

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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

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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

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