Interrail – 2009
At 18 – fearless and arrogant – I spent a humbling month inching through Europe via its arterial rail network; the only, and the only way to navigate through Europe with an oversized backpack.
Flush with traveller’s cheques, a trusty Rough Guide, and a veil of invincibility afforded only to the gallivanting white British male, four weeks were spent intermittently bowing to our Cyrenaicist urges to seek pleasure (Exit Festival, the coffee shops of Amsterdam) and recalibrating our sense of self, privilege, and significance (Auschwitz, a gipsy funeral in Prague).
The iconic Budapest welcomed us to the continent, with its imposing and extravagant architecture and its innate bustle both comforting and beguiling to a group of young Londoners. It straddles old and new; a city that has been central to European affairs for hundreds of years that has continuously rebuilt itself, evident in the array of architectural styles visible as you wander through its streets. Gorgeous, filling food, the Szechenyi baths, and aimless strolls populated our days, while gorgeous people, relentless partying, and aimless taxi rides occupied us after hours.
Novi Sad hosted us briefly in the run-up to Exit Festival. Dry and hot, we received a cold reception from its locals, perhaps prejudicial of our likely status as the revellers who annually descend on its banks for a long weekend of, well, revelry.
The festival takes place in Petrovaradin Fortress, which sits, sentinel-like, high on the banks of the Danube, overlooking four days of sonic-fuelled pleasure to those hardy enough to make the trip. The other 361 days of the year, its attention is outward, watching over Novi Sad, as it has done since the late eighteenth century. Yet the hilltop has served as a watchman for the region for far longer; Bronze age ramparts were uncovered dating back to 3,000BC, and remains of a Paleolithic settlement suggests that it has been inhabited for nearly 20,000 years.
In our post-festival stupor, Belgrade beckoned and its gritty Danubian charm was immediately evident upon arrival. Chaotic and muted, traditional and modern, it is a city of contrasts that is quickly catching up with Western Europe. With energy reserves low, we settled for a brief stay and embarked on the next leg of our journey to Ulcinj, a small Montenegrin beach resort where the multiethnic composition of our group was a source of great wonder to locals. We partook in your typical, exuberant teenage boy activities; sunbathing, cliff jumping, kayaking, and of course happy hour.
Zagreb, a fascinating blend of Soviet bloc and Austro-Hungarian influence, was kind enough to welcome us with open arms. A hectic nightlife scene, with a range of sophisticated local and foreign cuisine, all wrapped up in an eminently walkable city, Zagreb left a warm impression on the group.
Ljubljana, a magnificent jewel box of a capital city with smart buildings and intriguing alleyways, beckoned. To only spend a short time in such a beautiful city was a shame, but given that we’d effectively shoehorned a visit to Ljubljana into the itinerary at the last minute, the wider realisation that Europe is scattered with such gems at every turn was what made the longest lasting impression of the trip. Living in London, with five airports, we are perfectly positioned for weekend breaks to some of the most historic and captivating destinations on the planet. Quelle chance!
On the subject of historic and captivating destinations – to Prague. Its enchanting Bohemian labyrinthine streets were the setting for some of my favourite moments of the trip. I have come to judge a city on the pleasure I gain from a capricious, mapless, wander through its streets. This habit was undoubtedly borne in Prague, whose cobbled paths, Gothic monuments, and history-weighted aura reminded me of places I’d never been, but had only read about. Our few days in Prague were disproportionately memorable; a storm uprooting our tent, a fallen chick rescued, a fortuitous awakening, and the descent of a gipsy population onto our campsite for a funeral of a revered member of their community. The sombre occasion did not mute the cheeky nature of the Roma gipsies, who salvaged our tent from a tree, then taught us a footballing lesson.
We moved on to Krakow, prioritising a visit to Auschwitz. Words cannot do justice to the site’s ambience. There remains a great chasm between learning about something and knowing about it, which can only begin to be traversed by visiting places such as Auschwitz.
Krakow itself is an energetic place with great sophistication at its edges. It is picturesque and intimate, yet fun and inviting at the same time. It counterbalances the inescapable shadow that the infamous concentration camp casts with brilliant dining, nightlife, and activities.
Our subsequent destination – Berlin – mesmerised with its grandeur and scale. A slick and trendy city with character bursting from the seams is by day a treasure trove of attractions and spectacles that by night transforms into Europe’s premier city for nightlife.
Our final stop, Amsterdam, needs little introduction. It did not disappoint, with its charming backstreets and canals and its ever-engaging populace. An abundance of cultural sights and activities contrast with the red light district and coffee shops that give Amsterdam a sordid reputation, but all of it combines to provide a magical experience in this hectic but alluring city.
Thailand – 2010
The sprawl of Bangkok was like nothing I’d ever seen. I have grown up with London as a reference point for big, and Bangkok made London feel like a pokey village in comparison. Its vast urban expanse holds too many secrets for a whole lifetime to unravel, let alone a few days, but I gave it a shot and padded the streets in an almost fugue state, constantly impressed by the city’s sheer scale. It seems to cater for the high-end elite or the low-end backpacker with little in between, impressing both in equal measure.
Phuket was a tropical, if slightly overdeveloped, introduction to island life in Thailand. The heavens opened during our brief stay there, showering us with spells of rain perhaps more severe than usual even during the rainy season. The nightlife was atmospheric and hedonistic, contrasting with the peaceful aura that permeates daytime Phuket.
Ko Tao was, at least in 2012, a paradise. White sand and shimmering turquoise seas encapsulated the tropical ideal, whilst development had not yet tipped the balance from sleepy island of calm to not-so-sleepy island of revelry. Scuba diving amongst the vivid coral reefs that surround the island was a mystical experience, where my perception of time was warped, my understanding of colours forever shifted, and my appreciation of open water – previously a nagging fear of mine – transformed.
We moved on to Ko Pha Ngan to soak up the atmosphere, arriving for the infamous full moon party and doing little else but give in to temptation. The island itself is, like its cousins, overdeveloped, and almost entirely caters to the young backpacking crowd, although it retains a lot of its natural beauty.
The peaceful island of Ko Phi Phi was our final stop before going home and it delivered an eventful denouement to the journey. With no motor-powered vehicles allowed to access its centre, Ko Phi Phi had a relaxed ambience by day and a raucous yet controlled one by night, resulting in the realisation that Thailand can pack quite a punch behind a charming veneer. An evening Muay Thai bout seemed innocuous, until members of the crowd were invited into the ring to challenge the fighters. Kayaking out of the bay appeared to be harmless, until a sudden downpour led us to capsize into jellyfish-infested waters. This was my second brush with jellyfish in two days; I’d made unfortunate contact with one the previous day whilst cliff jumping near Maya Bay (where The Beach was filmed). To cap off my first venture into Asia, I contracted dengue fever on my final day on Phi Phi, making the journey home somewhat challenging. Yet I bloody loved every moment of the trip.
Cambodia/Vietnam – 2012
Phnom Penh had a sombre air due to its recent bloody history. It is an imposing city which sprawls à la Bangkok, but without the splendour and shine to accompany it. Cambodians on the other hand are warm and engaging, and are proud of their capital.
Sihanoukville hosted us next for a brief but entertaining period. Beachside bars and hostel-lined streets encapsulate Sihanoukville’s backpacker vibe, but further out there are waterfalls and islands that make it worth a visit for all types of traveller.
We went by boat to the spartan island of Ko Rong, where electricity was a luxury and the bare-bones lifestyle seduced surreptitiously. By our third day it felt natural to be there; it felt an appropriate place for a stoic to holiday. Hammocks and cocktails and white sand combined to make this a place for extreme unwinding. Unfortunately, no monkeys (‘rong’) were encountered.
Ho Chi Minh City was a fascinating blend of the old and the new, and as a city dweller myself I felt quite at ease. There was a verve flowing through the place; a thriving backpacking scene, feats of architectural brilliance, and gastronomic excellence throughout the city all contributed to a gripping introduction to Vietnam.
We briefly stopped in Mui Ne for a fix of beach action. There is a thriving watersports scene going on here and a wealth of culinary options and the setting is undeniably attractive.
Dalat was a misty wonder in the verdant highlands of southern Vietnam; a delightful atmosphere complemented the equally delightful aesthetic of the city and drew us in from the start. Time flew by as we were seduced by its charms and its attractions – of which the waterfalls were the most impressive.
The timelessly elegant Hoi An was – as I’m sure it is for many – quite a special experience. We gave in to its mystical pull and stayed twice as long as had been intended, making the most of the local trade of tailoring and exploring Hoi An’s quaint streets and endless stretches of beach nearby.
Hue was a tranquil and pretty city notable for its French colonial influences and had in store plenty of historical treasures for us to enjoy. Despite the brief stay it was clear that Hue maintained a great deal of beauty and elegance whilst still providing for the growing backpacker scene.
We bid farewell to Vietnam via Hanoi, who sent us off with a bang. An electric atmosphere coursed through the streets, and with so much to do it was a whirlwind of an end to our trip. Historical and modern attractions and a wonderfully amiable populace left a positive imprint on us and a longing to come back and see it all again.
Latin America – 2014
Port of Spain was a muggy and hectic introduction to our grand tour of Latin America. Caribbean cool oozed from every street corner, if not typical Caribbean weather. Spicy food and seductive music were constants in our brief acclimatisation to island life.
If arriving in Trinidad was suffocating and contrasting to our expectations of the Caribbean, arriving in Tobago was stroke for stroke a painting of exactly how we had envisaged this part of the world. Clear blue skies, a gentle Caribbean breeze, gregarious and carefree locals lining the streets, and irrepressible soca music blaring from our taxi’s radio combine to form a memory that will last forever. A boat trip circumnavigating the small island was a highlight, with pitstops for a goat race and a jazz festival epitomising the fun there is to be had on Tobago.
The arduous journey from Guyana’s capital of Georgetown to Lethem on the Brazilian border was nothing if not memorable. The vast majority of the drive navigated through dense jungle via a poorly maintained road in a cramped minibus. Forced pitstops occurred due to a tree in the road, numerous mechanical issues, and the necessity for dropping off a passenger in an almost inaccessible gold mine. It might have been a tough 20 hours, but it certainly won’t be forgotten any time soon.
I could write a book about the magnificent Roraima; its looming magnificence and extraterrestrial mystique had me enchanted from start to finish. Beautiful yet dominating and genuinely inspiring, my life is divided into two parts – before and after Roraima. The trek was a challenge – six days there and back, over plains (sabana), across rivers defended by puri puri (more than a match for mosquitoes and sandflies), through jungle (selva), and even up dried-up waterfalls. A day at the top was perhaps the most magical day of my life; it was an experience that can only be described as unearthly.
The sticky Amazonian city of Manaus was preparing to kick off the 2014 World Cup as we arrived for an eventful weekend. Unfortunately we were hamstrung by money and time commitments and were not able to stay for the football. We were nonetheless lucky to experience Brazil’s most isolated city in such high spirits. The nightlife was electric, and the people warm and engaging. The city itself was a mélange of old and new, and all of it dripped with Brazilian pride.
A week on a cargo boat going up the Amazon River was unfortunately a harrowing experience for me, having been severely ill and hammock-ridden for the entirety of the journey. Fortunately I had 1,000km of peaceful chugging along to lull me into comfort. The serenity of the Amazon was in contrast to how I had imagined it, and the scale and vastness of it is simply indescribable. Pink dolphins and numerous species of birds brought some enjoyment to what was a difficult experience.
Leticia was our first taste of Colombia, an isolated city that borders Tabatinga in Brazil and Santa Rosa in Peru. It is supposedly the gateway for the drug lords of Colombia, but our experience was decidedly PG. We explored the surrounding areas by motorbike, bathing in ponds and eating grilled meat in the sun, and were introduced to the riotously fun game of tejo, which is best described as a cross between lawn bowls and archery with added explosives (seriously).
We flew to Bogotá and were immediately blown away by the sprawl of the city. Perched high in the mountains like a sentinel watching over its country, Bogotá bustles and heaves under the weight of eight million busy people. Each quarter is home to a different scene, a different architectural style, or a different pocket of culture, resulting in a truly cosmopolitan city with tons to see and do.
San Gil is a small town with big cojones, being the adventure capital of Colombia. World-class whitewater rafting and a swathe of adrenaline-fuelled activities are at your fingertips, and the quaint town of Barichara (where many Colombian telenovelas are filmed) radiates with the beauty of the Santander region if you fancy a change of pace. We enjoyed a thrilling stay here, rafting the grade five rapids of the Rio Suarez and mountain biking the following day, with the icing on the cake being the best burger I’ve ever eaten (a shout out to Gringo Mike’s).
Coastal Santa Marta was our first taste of Caribbean Colombia. A cool sea breeze offset the sweltering heat as we acclimatised to the northern coast. Excellent cuisine and easy access to plenty of superb destinations and attractions and a feverish atmosphere due to Colombia’s success in the ongoing World Cup meant Santa Marta left a highly positive impression upon us.
Cartagena is what the reader of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel might imagine unprompted. It is the oldest city in Latin America, having served as the gateway for the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s, and echoes of a simpler time bounce off every wall in the old town. It is revered by foreigners and Colombians alike, and provides a quaint and romantic setting unrivalled on the continent despite its occasionally stifling heat. Its beautiful streets are quite magical, despite the hordes of tourists.
Barranquilla is an industrial sweatbox that receives very little tourism. Its tourist infrastructure is limited and the locals unaccustomed to the presence of gringos, but it is a chance to see Colombia at its most honest. We were certainly off the beaten track, but it brought some of the trip’s most authentic experiences. We were continuously gawked at, and targeted on at least one occasion, on our way to a football game at the national stadium (we stood tall). Our one big night out began with our taxi driver using the country’s most famous export whilst driving, and ended with our taxi breaking down in what can only be described as a ‘pretty dodgy area’. We reluctantly accepted the driver’s offer of a lift from his friend, fully aware of the potential for things to go south. But we survived.
Away from the bustle of Caribbean Colombia’s three coastal hubs, more peaceful climes beckon. Tayrona is a place that, before arriving, had only existed in my imagination. Picturesque doesn’t quite do it justice; with colours appearing enhanced and exaggerated everywhere you look and the heat and humidity penetrating every fibre of your body. Unpredictable riptides and the aforementioned heat make this an intense place to relax, but one I could not recommend more.
Minca, perched in the Sierra Nevada, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and shrouded in mist, was one of the more spectacular settings we experienced on our travels. Sandflies aside, it was serene and raw and unlike anywhere else we visited. Cool, jungly, and away from the buzz of everyday life, Minca is a spot seemingly suspended in time. It is forever etched in our memories as the place we watched Germany humiliate Brazil in the World Cup semi-finals.
Palomino attracts beach bums and adrenaline junkies alike. Watersports are the order of the day here, and with kitesurfing, surfing, and tubing on offer, we were not lacking for choice. A selection of sleepy hostels with pools gives the traveller plenty of choice upon arrival. Lazy days by the pool and some low-tide tubing were all that we managed to muster the energy for. We moved on, recharged.
Medellín – the city of eternal spring – could easily have seduced me and become my eternal city. The ambience is hopeful – in stark contrast to its recent history – and pulsing with energy. It is a modern city exploding into life as the tech centre of Colombia’s economic renaissance, that retains an organic sense of beauty as shown by the lakes at Guatapé, the waterfalls at the city’s edge, and the valley in which the city is cradled that only paragliding can do justice to its view. The gorgeous weather is the backdrop for a city that is brimming with energy. At night, Parque Lleras is the spot where this energy culminates and radiates from, attracting locals and foreigners alike.
The quiet town of Salento – famous for its river trout – is based in the beautiful coffee region in the heart of Colombia, and is the springboard for the spectacular Valle de Cocora. A picturesque setting of gargantuan palm trees, luscious greenery, and delightful wildlife, it is no surprise that it is so popular with tourists and locals alike. The intimate Salento complements this wonderfully, and consequently this part was one of the undoubted highlights of my time in South America.
As we moved on to Ecuador, Quito welcomed us with an earthquake and took our breath away – literally – with a memorable trip up the teleferico to the Pichincha volcano 4,000m above sea level. The expansive metropolis below the volcano is home to a patchwork of traditional Sierra culture, a vibrant nightlife scene, and all things in between, and often coated in a misty shroud a city that gives off a magical sensation. A city of energy and tradition in equal measures, it was a pleasure to explore the city and its surroundings with locals’ help.
Cuenca is a colonial charm that rivals anywhere we saw in South America in terms of pure splendour. Its beautiful historic centre is a sight to behold, and the relaxing atmosphere of the city lulls you into wanting to stay longer. It maintains strong traditions of local culture, which manifests itself through a prolific craftwork industry. This is where to get your souvenirs.
Baños is Ecuador’s epicentre of adventure, with ziplining, canyoning, rafting, climbing, and a swathe of other activities guaranteed to get your heart racing. A luscious green valley surrounds the town, which is relatively modest, and provides the backdrop to evenings in the lively backpacker area. Excellent food options and the myriad thrills, not to mention the fabulous “swing at the end of the world”, make Baños a highly alluring destination.
A pitstop in the, let’s say overdeveloped, Montañita, gave us a chance to let our hair down before we moved on to Peru.
Máncora is an idyllic sun-kissed town that serves beach bums and weary travellers, Peruvians on holiday, and all other manners of people. Surfing and partying are the most popular activities here, and if you’re lucky enough you may see a whale from the beach, whereas if you’re not so lucky then you might see a dead sea lion. A reliable swell from the Pacific makes Máncora a great place to learn to surf, with waves befitting all abilities rolling in throughout the day.
Peru’s capital city, Lima, has a plethora of wonderful historical sites and attractions, in addition to a truly mouth-watering array of gastronomic delights that more than offset its arguable lack of beauty. Energetic and ever-changing with a sophisticated populace, Lima is certainly a city of culture. It is not blessed with gorgeous weather, yet the city oozes character and attracts people from all over.
Huacachina, a tiny town surrounded by dunes with a picturesque lake in the middle gives the appearance of an oasis. The setting is certainly a unique draw, but the dune buggies and sandboarding elevate Huacachina to a popular backpacker haven.
The White City – Arequipa – is nestled high in the Andes in the shadow of the mighty volcano El Misti. Its cool, crisp air serves to remind you of the altitude at every step whilst you acquaint yourself with this charming place. Its traditional ambience is typical of Peru, as are its magnificent surroundings.
The second deepest canyon on the planet – Cañon de Colca is a spectacular geological marvel that awes not only with its vastness, but also with the condors that call it home. Perhaps our earliest start of the whole trip was when we rose before dawn to watch the magnificent condors feed. We stayed in the nearby town of Cabanaconde – as authentically Peruvian as can be – and stocked up on giant avocados before descending the canyon with a canine companion to the remote Oasis Sangalle, where we stayed for a blissful 24 hours. The ascent was just as gruelling as the descent, but the awesome backdrop more than made up for this.
We next visited Cusco, the thriving and intriguing home of Incan culture. It is also the gateway to Machu Picchu, attracting visitors by the truckload. Few really scratch the surface of what Cusco has to offer though, with its cobbled alleys weaving through a city that has been continuously inhabited for 5,000 years. As the capital of the Incan empire, it remains a highly important archaeological site and has the attractions to go with it.
Machu Picchu really is one of those places you have to see. I had been apprehensive – as I often am of the big attractions – of its likelihood to measure up to lofty expectations, but it absolutely blew them out of the water. What you don’t see in the pictures is around the archaeological site. It is not an understatement to compare the voyage to it as like a pilgrimage. You can reach there as easily as you like; we chose to walk as much as possible as opposed to rolling up to the ‘base camp’ of Aguas Calientes on a luxury train. The hordes of people might be enough to put you off visiting other places, but not Machu Picchu.
Lake Titicaca emits a mystical aura from its shimmering surface, entrancing visitors to the world’s highest lake. Visiting the Uros islands (made from reeds) was as timeless an activity as I had done before, and humbling too, seeing how the tribes lived. Not content with being the world’s highest, it is also the continent’s biggest, and perhaps the most quiet and serene too.
The chaotic city of La Paz is a rolling wave of buildings of all shapes and sizes and, like other Andean capital cities, a crisp-aired blend of traditional and modern buzzing with energy. There is a heavy indigenous feel to La Paz, and a beautiful web of cobbled and hilly passageways to pass through as you acquaint yourself with the city. It felt a good place to say adios to South America, for the time being.
They say you remember where you were at great moments of history. I was in Morocco absorbing the diverse treasures of Marrakech and Agadir during the London riots in 2011, enjoying a rather different atmosphere. The coastal town of Agadir is typical of North Africa, with its strong Islamic and Berber influence evident right up to the beach. Marrakech is an enchanting and occasionally opulent gem of an ancient city. Your eyes, ears, and nose will be continuously overwhelmed with new sensations. Your mouth too is in for a treat, the tagines are extraordinarily flavoursome and define the taste of the maghreb.
Dubai has a marmite reputation – you love it or hate it. Perhaps that’s a touch extreme either way. I enjoyed my time there visiting one of my best friends, and as such was treated to a whirlwind experience of the best Dubai has to offer (on a relative budget). It is a gleaming spaceship of a city with no sign of letting up in its wave of modernisation. Spectacular buildings and hugely impressive features boggle your mind as the sun beats down, whilst world-class activities and gastronomic delights are at your fingertips wherever you go. You still can’t drink the tap water though.
Georgia is a delight that is rarely visited by western tourists. The capital of Tbilisi is one of Europe’s prettiest, mazes of cobbled streets and markets jumbled amongst more modern architecture strewn across the hilly setting. It has a buzzing alternative scene and a friendly populace, and offers sublime Caucasian food and energetic nightlife throughout the year.
The second city – Kutaisi – is less developed but charming nonetheless, and in the process of exciting development that has come with the opening of a new airport. The surrounding area is pretty and the locals are always delighted to meet a tourist.
Gudauri, in the mountains, is home to some of Europe’s cheapest, and dare I say finest, skiing. The resort has been open since the late 1980s and is now a highly impressive collection of accommodation, facilities, and most importantly slopes.
Modern Baku – the blossoming capital of Azerbaijan – is a Caspian blend of Paris and Abu Dhabi, with a sprinkle of Vienna thrown in. The ancient walled city has beautiful Ottoman and Persian elements mixed with Arabic and even Oriental influences that evoke a deep sense of awe. The city is undergoing a transformation from its old Soviet roots to a more up-to-date Western flavour. As evidenced by its new Grand Prix, it has lofty ambitions, which are matched by the quality of the food and the warmth of the people.
Armenia’s capital Yerevan is modernising fast in the post-Soviet climate, yet is fusing this modernisation well with its old influences. The streets are clean and well-organised, and various Soviet throwbacks remain in place giving a unique feel. There is some spectacular food to be eaten at very reasonable prices, and a pulsating nightlife scene.
Much of Armenia’s beauty lies dotted randomly around the country. Garni Temple, Geghard Monastery, and Lake Sevan can all be experienced in a day. In doing so you can travel through some awesome scenery; we were fortunate enough to have a gentle snow bless each leg of the trip, giving a mystical wintry feel that will be difficult to forget.
With extensive family in Scotland, I’ve visited on countless occasions. I realised one day last year that I’d never actually been further north than Glasgow – so I rectified that with a gorgeous two week driving and camping holiday through the highlands and islands. The winding country roads permitted me to let my inner-David Coulthard out, and by that I mean I drove sensibly and carefully, with great skill… Our first stop was Loch Lomond – a serene and misty lake with plenty of adventure activities to do (this is absolutely my thing). We then set off for Glencoe, sandwiched between the spectacular craggy mountains and another beautiful loch. Camping hasn’t always been my idea of a good night, but the location offset any reservations I had. It was our base for our ascent of the mighty Ben Nevis. The surrounding area was incredible – think Game of Thrones – and the occasional swarm of midges wasn’t enough to dampen our spirits (nor was the constant drizzle). Our next stop was Glenfinnan – where the famous viaduct used in the Harry Potter films is set in a stunning backdrop. The adjacent lake and the surrounding landscape were also the setting for the culmination of Skyfall (which is not as good as everyone says, by the way…). From Glenfinnan we made our way to the simply breathtaking Isle of Skye, down the wonderful A87. Believe the hype – Skye is something else. By the end of our stay there I was almost sick of all the breathtaking vistas, deflated that I had to return to the concrete, steel and glass jungle of London. The air was so fresh, the terrain so ragged and unique, the island a lush and misty and magical place. I’d had no idea that the scenery on Skye especially, but also the Scottish Highlands, was so magnificent. I’ll certainly be returning.