24 hours on a plane with four flights across four time zones – this was my next big trip as I hit the US of A in October. I have always wanted to give America more of a chance than I have done in the past. I have friends and family in various locations in the States and yet I have only been once since my big road trip across America when I was five, of which I remember absolutely nothing other than being terrified of Goofy in Disney World. The last trip was for a wedding in Seattle five years ago where I also added a long weekend in New York on my way home. So I decided I was going to return to New York but would also explore San Francisco with a stopover in Texas to break the journey up on the way. My very own West to East US city adventure.
I was really excited about seeing San Francisco in particular because I studied American History at University and the best bit was learning about the counterculture hippy scene of the 1960s which was all rooted in San Francisco. So I already had a picture in my head of what it would be like but then I wanted to see it before the tech companies completely took it over, which is what I had been reading a lot about before my trip there. Continue reading
Even though I was in Portugal to have a proper summer holiday with friends and the idea was to just spend time hanging out in Sintra, eating, sleeping and relaxing, I really wanted to spend a day or at least half a day in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city, seeing as I was so close – and not necessarily sure at this point whether I would return to Portugal.
I decided to look into what day tours were available. My first choice was to try out another free city walking tour, as these seem to be popular and available in most capital cities and I do find them really good for getting your bearings, meeting people and gaining some local knowledge. In my research for that, I stumbled across a couple of food tour options, which were even more up my street, and especially as I had decided I was not blown away by Portuguese cuisine – perhaps I needed to be guided to see what I was missing. I then remembered that Intrepid, who I have toured round Latin America and Vietnam with, also do day trips, which I had never tried before. When I looked into the description of the Experience Lisbon Walk, it seemed to be a combination of food and history, all with a local guide and was a reasonable 3-4 hours long, so I could get back to Sintra and spend the last evening with my friends. Continue reading
Next stop for medianoche was a proper summer holiday – a villa in Portugal bang in the middle of August with some friends. We decided on Sintra which was a 20 minute drive or 40 minute train journey from Lisbon so that we could also have the option of checking out Lisbon for a day. I understand that most people tend to do it the other way round – have their base in Lisbon and do Sintra for a day trip. Either way, the train was easy and very cheap for a return journey (around €4).
Sintra Historical Centre
All I knew about Sintra before I left was that it had a lot of castles. I can’t really describe it in any other way apart from being like a fantasy land. Lots of mountains, hills and forests yet minutes from the Atlantic and the most westerly point of Western Europe – and lots of castles! The historical centre itself is tiny and a real nightmare to get in and out of by car if you do happen to be staying on the outskirts. The streets are narrow, cobbly and winding with a confusing one-way system, and are not sufficient to keep up with the heaving demand of August’s peak season. Every taxi driver seemed to be visibly annoyed if you tried to get a taxi at the busiest times during the day but we believe they are going to try and make the centre completely pedestrianised at some point soon because it really was enough to put people off going into town and back. Continue reading
Although it seems like it with me and the number of long-haul trips I have done over the last few years, travel is not always about exploring the other side of the world or experiencing culture shocks. As it was a May Bank Holiday Weekend in London, I decided to take a city break to Amsterdam to try out somewhere a bit more on my doorstep. With a flight of just 40 minutes from London, the trip including getting to the airport, worked out to be about the same time it takes me to visit my friends in Newcastle for a night, so I was more than open to this idea when a friend suggested it.
I have always wanted to go to Amsterdam and am well aware of its reputation for stag weekends, red light districts and legal highs. But the other side of Amsterdam which I experienced really pleasantly surprised me. The first thing that strikes you is what a beautiful and clean city it is. Built on the River Amstel, it is full of canals and boats, unique Dutch townhouses, lots and lots of cobbled streets, bicycles everywhere (London really has something to learn from the cycle lanes here which makes it so much safer for both pedestrians and cyclists), trams, a fantastic cafe culture and great food! Continue reading
The best part of the Vietnam trip was getting the chance to escape the hustle and bustle of city life to experience 24 hours in the Mekong Delta, a rural area dominated by rivers and canals. Hence, much of our time was spent on a boat. We started the day going through a floating market with lots of boats scattered around selling fruits and vegetables.
Hoi An centre
Next stop from Hue was three nights in Hoi An, a chance to stop somewhere properly and relax a bit and it could not have been a better place to do so. The morning after the night before, I was feeling delicate (an understatement) but I managed to survive the four hour bus journey. We stopped on the way to take in the view of China Beach with another break to take a look at an American bunker left over from the war.
After the dramas of Halong Bay, it was time to head to Hue which would involve an overnight train. On the way, we stopped off at a herb farm on the side of the road where they have plots of land and grow everything from lettuce to basil to sage to spring onions. I later discovered that after the Vietnam War, the country was quite poor and many families existed on rations using government coupons. Growing herbs like these was one way where they could try and supplement their diets and their incomes and the tradition of keeping such plots has continued.
No visit to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to the World Heritage Site of Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin. The harbour is home to around 2000 limestone islands jutting out of the water – similar to the landscape you see in Thailand, but the sheer scale of this bay makes it spectacular. This was the part of Vietnam I was most excited to see and it did not disappoint – it really does look picture post-card perfect.
After my stopover in Singapore, it was time to head to Hanoi, Vietnam for two nights. I booked myself on another Intrepid food tour, following the success of the Mexican trip. I have always loved Vietnamese food and there is a big Vietnamese community in East London so I have tried my fair few dishes, love the fact that it is rice-based and largely gluten free, and have always wanted to see the spectacular scenery of Vietnam, especially Halong Bay. Also, I have never visited a communist country so was intrigued to see how different it would be.
I was given some fast facts about Hanoi by my taxi driver. There are 7 million people and 4 million motorbikes (yikes). The airport was shiny and new and only about a month old and the old airport was going to be used for domestic flights. The bridge linking the airport to the city centre was also new – 27 days old to be precise. The driver had been married two years and had a four month baby boy called Bun (meaning beautiful boy).
In all honesty, Singapore has never been on my list of must-see destinations. I was offered a good deal though when I booked my trip to Vietnam to stopover for 24 hours so I thought, why not go and explore the city and enjoy a Singapore Sling.
I arrived with very little knowledge of it other than that 2015 is its 50th birthday, it is a city state with a large finance sector and a big ex-pat community…and something about the legality of chewing gum. The humidity as I stepped off the plane was intense, unlike anything I have experienced outside the jungles of Mexico. But the drive from the airport to my hotel near Chinatown made me wonder whether I had made a mistake. All I could see was concrete high rise towers everywhere and not very much else. To be fair, you could tell you were in a tropical climate by the amount of foliage in between the concrete towers but it was not particularly attractive to say the least. Given I live in Hackney, I am not short of concrete jungles punctuating my view on a daily basis.