juliamhammond

Independent travel

Five foods you must try on your travels

I love food.  I love travel.  And I love nothing better than combining the two.

The more I’ve travelled, the more adventurous I’ve become with the foods I’ll try.  Some I’ve enjoyed, others not so much.  There’s not much I’ve regretted eating, apart from the vile black chuño potatoes that popped up from the bottom of my soup bowl in Peru together with a wrinkled chicken’s foot.  Dried in the Andean sunshine, chuño potatoes are bitter and a staple of altiplano cooking.  And I hope I never have to eat one again as long as I live.

But here’s what I would recommend.

Cuy

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Making short work of a roasted cuy dinner

It took a while for me to pluck up the courage to try cuy, for cuy is guinea pig and where I come from, guinea pigs are for cuddling.  But in Peru, they’re for eating and have been for at least 5000 years.  It’s such an iconic dish they even have a national holiday for the fluffy creatures – it’s the second Friday in October.  Roasted cuy, particularly if you ask for it to be served with the head removed, isn’t likely to induce a gag reflex.  It’s tasty, albeit rather fiddly to pick off the many small bones.  It tastes not dissimilar to the dark meat of a chicken – though doesn’t everything?  You won’t find it very filling, but it’s often served with a huge potato, so that should fill you up.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/04/13/a-beginners-guide-to-peru/

Hákarl

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Trying hákarl, fermented shark meat

I’m not going to try to con you that hákarl is going to be the holiday taste sensation you try to recreate back home in your own kitchen.  Like chuño potatoes, once was enough for this fermented shark meat which is an Icelandic delicacy.  But unlike chuño potatoes, I’m glad I tried hákarl, and unlike Gordon Ramsey, I didn’t spit mine halfway across the room either.  It had the texture of a piece of Parmesan that’s gone hard in the back of the fridge and a pungent ammonia-like aroma which didn’t endear it to my nostrils.  Try it and see how bad it is.  But don’t expect to see the locals doing the same.  Sense has prevailed and they no longer eat the stuff.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/24/a-beginners-guide-to-iceland/

Suckling pig

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Suckling pig on a lechonera spit

Guavate, a short drive from the easternmost point of the Ruta Panorámica, is home to the tastiest suckling pig that I’ve eaten anywhere. On Sundays, half the island’s population winds its way up the steep switchbacks to eat at one of the village’s many lechoneras. Whole pigs rotate on spits, drawing in the punters, while chefs armed with machetes hack the glistening animals into bite sized pieces. This isn’t fancy dining: you’re just as likely to get a lump of bone as you are a hunk of melt in the mouth pork, but the crackling is first rate.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/01/10/puerto-ricos-ruta-panoramica/

Yemas de Pizarro

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Bakery window, Trujillo

Don’t think for one minute that because this is a photo taken through a shop window, these yummy yemas didn’t make it into my sticky hands.  They did, and I enjoyed them so much I went back for seconds, much to the bakery assistant’s amusement.  Central Spain is good for pastries and these were an improvement on the already delicious yemas I’d tried a few years before in Ávila, a couple of hours to the north-east of Trujillo.  Eat them on an empty stomach as they are filling and sickly sweet.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/07/12/a-beginners-guide-to-extremadura/

Beignets

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Icing sugar overload!

My final choice – and what a tough job it’s been whittling the list down to five – comes from New Orleans.  No visit to the Big Easy can be complete without sampling the beignets at Café du Monde in the heart of the French Quarter.  Brought to New Orleans by the French in the 18th century, these fried sweet balls of dough are served hot and buried in icing sugar.  Take them as I did with a cup of chicory coffee, another local speciality.

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/a-beginners-guide-to-new-orleans/

There are as many must-try foods that I’ve left off the list as included on it: lemony yassa poulet in Senegal, freshly caught lobster in Maine or snow crab in Seattle, Salzburger Brez with cherry filling, real Italian gelato, Swiss fondue…  What would your top five be?


Welcome to the Wiviera!

Fresh air and water are always a good combination.  With excellent rail links as well, it made the riverside town of Wivenhoe a good choice for my third outing with Greater Anglia this summer.  There’s an easy but very pleasant 4km walk that takes you along the banks of the River Colne from Hythe to Wivenhoe.  The really good news is that if you don’t wish to walk it in both directions, the path is easily accessible from Hythe station and leads you straight into the station car park at Wivenhoe.  Both the path and the railway line follow the banks of the Colne Estuary, offering splendid views.  As a walk, it couldn’t be more convenient if it tried!

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If you’ve been following my previous blogs, you’ll know that I’ve enjoyed days out by train to Harwich and to the East Anglian Railway Museum.  Greater Anglia have some very affordable advance fares across their network as well as £2 child fares and many other offers.  It’s well worth checking out their website if you’re at a loose end this summer.

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I set off from Hythe station just before lunchtime and walked along the riverbank towards the University buildings and on towards the new apartments that are springing up.  I’d come this route a thousand times – it’s on the way to B&Q and Tesco – but from the car, you just don’t see what’s under your nose.  There’s some fantastic artwork to be seen.

Information boards telling a little of the area’s history help provide context.  In parts, they form trail markers.  You can’t miss them in their steel cages.

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Following the river, I passed the iconic lightship and headed off in the direction of Wivenhoe.  Urban becomes rural pretty quickly and it’s a pleasant and flat walk past riverside meadows, reed beds and woodland.  Even on a weekday, there were plenty of joggers and cyclists using the trail, as well as a man in a wheelchair walking his dog.  This is a trail for everyone to share.

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Towards Wivenhoe, there’s a board marking the entrance to the Ferry Marsh Colne Local Nature Reserve; the name’s a bit of a mouthful but it’s well worth the diversion.  There’s plenty of seating along the river banks on which to sit and watch the birdlife and see what the ebb and flow of the tide reveals.  If you’re lucky you could even see otters or water voles.

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But it was Wivenhoe that I’d come to see.  From its railway station, I found myself on the charming quayside in just a few minutes.  Wivenhoe Quay is packed with buildings of historic interest, among them The Nottage, open on weekends, housing a museum with an eclectic collection of nautical items.  Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon until September 3rd you can visit to learn more about Captain Nottage, the Victorian army officer and keen yachtsman whose name is on the door.

Next door to The Nottage is the excellent Rose and Crown pub.  Its outside tables are perfectly placed to watch the comings and goings along the Quay and the food’s not too shabby either.  In the sunshine, there are few places in Essex more attractive for an al-fresco lunch.

I wanted to see something of Wivenhoe and began to explore its quiet streets.  Just along Rose Lane, I noticed a blue plaque commemorating the great Miss Marple actress Joan Hickson, who once made her home here.  Around the corner, I couldn’t resist browsing the produce on offer in the Village Deli.  Owner Mike had an interesting take on the calorie issue presented by the ice cream on sale.  According to him, if you use the attached spoon correctly, the calories can be neutralised and thus don’t count.  That’ll be a salted caramel tub for me, then, and…

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Along the High Street I found the Wivenhoe Bookshop, the kind of place that almost doesn’t exist anymore.  Staff member Sue told me they’ve worked hard to create a space that works as a community cultural hub as well as a bookstore.  Coming up there are writers’ workshops, book signings, a knitting group and even a philosophy breakfast, reflecting the University of Essex presence on the edge of town.  You don’t have to be a local to get a warm welcome.  The place has a homely feel – the sofa in the back room was just the kind of sofa you’d want to sink into on a rainy afternoon.  I was blessed with blue skies so it was time to move on.

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My final port of call was to The Sentinel Gallery, run by the delightful Pru Green whose enthusiasm for art is catching.  Inside, work from some of East Anglia’s most talented artists was on display as well as some of the most colourful pottery you’ll find in the county.  The modern structure features angular lines and huge panes of glass.  It stands in stark contrast with the very traditional buildings that surround it, but it doesn’t jar.  And the light which floods into the exhibition space is incredible.  Even if you’re no art expert, this place is worth a visit, though don’t come on a Monday or a Tuesday as they’re closed.

Wivenhoe, I decided, had much to recommend it and if you want to see for yourself, there’s a ton of special events still to come this summer.  The Sunday, August 20th, sees the Wivenhoe Crabbing Competition, great fun for all the family; register on the Quay from 10.30am.  The town hosts its Beer Festival from September 1st to 3rd with the Art Sea Music Festival following close behind on September 9th.  Throughout the summer season, a weekend foot ferry links Wivenhoe to Rowhedge and Fingringhoe so long as the tide is high enough.  With limited parking in Wivenhoe, it’s a really good idea to take the train.

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With thanks to Greater Anglia for providing transport to and from Wivenhoe.

Links

Rail tickets and offers from Greater Anglia

https://www.greateranglia.co.uk/

The Nottage Maritime Institute

http://www.nottagemaritimeinstitute.org.uk/

Rose and Crown pub

https://www.facebook.com/Rose-Crown-Wivenhoe-173216156080059/

Village Deli

http://www.wivdeli.co.uk/

Wivenhoe Bookshop

http://www.wivenhoebooks.com

The Sentinel Gallery

http://www.thesentinelgallery.co.uk/


Explosive Mount Yasur, highlight of my Vanuatu trip

I’ve been reminiscing about a trip I made to Vanuatu as the BBC Travel website commissioned an article about Bislama, the language spoken there.  Some people might question the amount of money spent on travelling, but in my opinion it’s money well spent as you treasure those memories forever.  So, beneath the link to the article, you’ll find some of my favourite photos from that unforgettable trip.

http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20170814-how-one-language-unites-83-islands

Man on the road to Lenakel

Working in the fields is a tough job

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Women in Mother Hubbards at the market

Lenakel market

Produce at the market, in the foreground is taro

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Lenakel petrol station

AIDS awareness

AIDS awareness poster in Bislama

Air Vanuatu tea towel

The Air Vanuatu tea towel

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My ride to the volcano

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Post box on the side of the volcano

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Dusk on Mount Yasur

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Terrifying, enthralling, spectacular


Stepping back in time at the East Anglian Railway Museum

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Time flies by when I’m the driver of a train, and I ride on the footplate, there and back again.”  Chances are, if you’ve just sung this rather than read those words, you grew up on a diet of Chigley and you remember as fondly as I do Lord Belborough and his steam engine Bessie.

But until yesterday, though I’d been on many a steam train, I’d never experienced what it’s like to ride on the footplate.  Thanks to train driver Michael and his sidekick Kim, whose role is that of fireman, I got to tick it off my bucket list.  Stood between Michael and Kim, I tried to keep my balance and time my barrage of questions to avoid interfering with their safety checks and operational duties.  With a carriage-load of passengers on board, even on such a short demonstration trip, it was important that things were done properly.

Teamwork was key, with both volunteers working together to ensure everything ran smoothly.  It was hot work.  As Kim stoked the firebox with coal, the blast of heat coming from inside was palpable.  Kim wiped a smear of coal dust from his nose and grinned as I wiped the sweat from my own forehead.  I was glad this was the museum’s 1905 vintage engine when Michael mentioned that had I ridden on the footplate of one of the other two working engines I’d have been much hotter, as the furnace would have been level with our faces instead of by our feet.

Whatever your age, there’s something special about a trip to a railway museum and the chance to see a working steam engine.  If you’re reading this and nodding your head in agreement, then I’d recommend you visit the East Anglian Railway Museum at Chappel and Wakes Colne.  While riding on the footplate was a special treat, visitors will sometimes be able to take advantage of the museum’s “Taster for a Tenner” promotion where you can learn how to drive a diesel loco for just £10.

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This summer, Greater Anglia are making it better than ever to travel by train.  For a number of attractions across East Anglia and London, the East Anglian Railway Museum being one of them, presenting your rail ticket gets you 2FOR1 admission.  If there’s just two of you, Greater Anglia’s advance fares will also keep your costs down.  For larger groups, check out the Group Save tickets, a good deal for families and groups of friends looking for an affordable day out.  Even better, Group Save can be used in conjunction with the 2FOR1 offer.  With rail tickets for children costing from just £2, arriving at the EARM by train makes a lot of sense.  Chappel and Wakes Colne station lies between Sudbury and Marks Tey on the pretty Gainsborough Line.  From Marks Tey there are frequent connections to London’s Liverpool Street as well as Ipswich and beyond.

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I chose to time my visit to coincide with one of the EARM’s regular special events.  The 1940s Vintage Tea Dance marries our nostalgia for the age of steam with a love of music, dance and reminiscing about the war.  Headlining the event were the fabulous Fox, Wiggle and Sass.  Perfectly co-ordinated in red polka dot dresses, hair coiffed in immaculate victory rolls and lips painted a perfect scarlet, the girls had the Forties look down pat.

Aimee (Fox), Amy (Wiggle) and Gemma (Sass) hail from what they term the Bermuda Triangle of Essex: Layer de la Haye, Finchingfield and Witham.  Over the last four years, they’ve been hired for countless weddings and private parties, but coming back to the EARM is special as it was the first gig they ever played.  This talented trio made performing the harmonies and melodies of iconic Forties classics like “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” and “It’s a Good Day” as well as swing hits like “Sing Sing Sing” look simple.

Watching them perform was a full house – or rather goods shed – of people, many in 1940s costume themselves.  Servicemen danced with WVS volunteers while onlookers sipped tea from vintage china and ate cream teas.  Sharon from Swing Jive Sudbury was on hand to teach everyone the basics so even complete beginners could join in the fun.

Also in the goods shed, Bunty Bowring had laid out a fascinating collection of 1940s vintage clothing, showing how in times of rationing, make do and mend were of vital importance.  Together with husband Richard, who was dressed as one of the Home Guard, she shares her passion for all things wartime by giving regular talks to various local organisations.  Outside the goods shed, meanwhile, members of the Suffolk Regiment Living History Society had brought their rifles, kit bags and even their trucks and The Viaduct mini-pub was open for those wishing to sample the local beer.

The event had been fun, but  to leave without exploring the museum’s regular exhibits would have been a travesty.  I began at the signal box where a series of colour-coded levers ensured a train couldn’t enter a stretch of track while another was in the way.  The blue one shown in use here is pulled to activate a points lock, making sure the points don’t move as the train’s wheels pass over the top.  Young kids will love pulling the levers so much it will be hard to drag them away.

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Across the footbridge, the restoration shed gives you the chance to see some of the museum’s many engines and carriages being brought back to their former glory.  Many of the volunteers work on these projects on Wednesdays, making this a good day to find out about what’s going on.  There’s plenty of restored rolling stock to have a look at, including some vintage wooden carriages and recreations of station buildings and platforms.

The exhibitions in the on-site heritage centre explain the impact of Beeching’s cuts on the Gainsborough Line, which once would have continued on to Cambridge.  Sudbury’s population grew sufficiently to save the Marks Tey to Sudbury stretch from the same fate.  But other long-lost lines are covered too, including the Crab and Winkle Line which ran from nearby Kelvedon to the coast at Tollesbury.  Take a walk around Tollesbury Wick and at low tide, you can still see the railway’s wooden sleepers  disappearing into the mud.

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EARM staff say that visitors often remark on how much there is to see at the museum and I’d have to agree.  I made it through the level crossing gates back to the regular platform just in time to catch my train.  Whether you time your own visit for an event day or not, you’re sure to have a rewarding and enjoyable day out.  The volunteers were without exception keen to share their knowledge and enthusiasm.  Best of all, taking the train instead of the car gave me the chance to mull over what I’d seen and done.  My verdict: I’m going back – and next time I’m taking a 2FOR1 friend.

With thanks to Greater Anglia for courtesy train travel to and from the museum and to the East Anglian Railway Museum for a great day out.

Links

Greater Anglia’s offers

https://www.greateranglia.co.uk/offers/offers-in-east-anglia

East Anglian Railway Museum

http://www.earm.co.uk/

Fox, Wiggle and Sass

https://www.facebook.com/foxwiggleandsass/

Swing-jive Sudbury

http://www.swingjive-sudbury.co.uk/

Richard and Bunty Bowring

Email: bowring40s_talks@hotmail.co.uk

Suffolk Regiment Living History Society

https://www.suffolklhs.com/


Tourism on my doorstep: Colchester’s Bourne Mill

Eighteen months ago, I moved to a village close to Britain’s oldest recorded town.  Colchester was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in 77 AD; it was then known as the Roman settlement of Camulodunum.  After much time spent doing DIY and decorating the house, I decided it was time to get out and explore the town on my doorstep.  Today that took me to the delightful Bourne Mill, a National Trust property just outside Colchester town centre.

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Bourne Mill with the stream running beneath it

If you live in East Anglia, you might be interested to know that Greater Anglia are running a promotion this summer called Let the Adventure Begin.  There’s also a competition running until mid-August in which you could win first-class train tickets to any station on their network:

https://www.greateranglia.co.uk/about-us/news-desk/news-articles/win-free-rail-tickets-greater-anglia-summer

Win that, and you too could be exploring Colchester.  Visitors today can see plenty of evidence of the town’s long history, from the Roman Berryfield mosaic at Firstsite to surviving groundworks of the Roman theatre which can be seen in Maidenburgh Street in the town’s Dutch Quarter.  The Tourist Information Centre run a superb bi-weekly walking tour which I highly recommend.

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Colchester Castle

Now, look closely at the photo above and in particular, the materials used to build the castle.  The structure that you see is Norman.  Construction began in 1076, similar to the Tower of London, but all is not what it seems.  The foundations stand on what was the Temple of Claudius dating from about 55-60 AD and many of the building materials were recycled from Roman Colchester.  In particular, look at the red stones that form the cornerstones – they look almost like roof tiles.  These crop up elsewhere too, for example, in the remains of the fortifications that once encircled the town (you can make them out about halfway up the original wall to the left of the picture below):

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Roman wall near St Botolph’s Priory

I shouldn’t have been surprised, therefore, to see the same materials plundered to build Bourne Mill, located about a 20 minute walk away.  This National Trust property was originally a fishing lodge used by the monks of St John’s Abbey.  A stream, the Bourne, emerges a short distance north of the site and spills out to form a large pond, thought to have been created artificially as there appears to be no geological reason for the water to widen.

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The pond at Bourne Mill

After the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, St John’s Abbey passed to the Lucas family and later, they began to demolish it.  Seeking to improve on the monks’ fishing hut, they constructed what’s now Bourne Mill.  The stones were cannibalised and together with those Roman bricks, pieces of flint and some Walton-on-the-Naze septaria to hold it all together, this wonderful building was the result.

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Bourne Mill

Well actually, not quite.

What Sir Thomas Lucas built was a single story dwelling, thought to be a place where he could go with his well-heeled mates to fish and then hang out over dinner.  On the ground floor, there are two fireplaces which lend credence to this theory.  Carp, pike and wildfowl would have been plentiful so it seems likely that this story is true.  This beautiful banner, stitched by the Colne and Colchester Embroiderers Guild, tells the story.

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Wall hanging at Bourne Mill

But that story doesn’t end there, of course.  Now that Britain was Protestant, it became a haven for those fleeing religious persecution in Catholic Europe.  Granted refuge by Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1565, they boosted the town’s population, congregating in what would later become known as Colchester’s Dutch Quarter.  Though they kept themselves separate when it came to socialising and marriage, they did have a profound effect on the north Essex landscape and economy, bringing their weaving industry skills and breathing new life into a flagging industry.

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Bourne Mill prior to its use as a corn mill

The Dutch introduced new worsted draperies, known as bays and says.  They were lighter and cheaper, and not surprisingly proved very popular.  A method of quality control was introduced in 1631, immediately raising the status of Colchester cloth.  That Dutch seal automatically meant that your cloth fetched a higher price; faulty workmanship, on the other hand, would lead to fines (called rawboots) being levied.

Bourne Mill grew an upper storey, recognisable by the gable ends that are also commonly found in the Netherlands and Belgium.  It became a fulling mill,  a place where cloth was softened to make it more wearable.  A waterwheel would have made the process of hammering the fabric much less labour-intensive.  Initially urine, collected from the poorhouse, would have been used in the process; the ammonia it contained helped to clean and whiten the cloth.  Later, Fuller’s earth would have been used instead.  Afterwards, the cloth was stretched on frames known as tenters to dry – attached by tenterhooks.

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Part of the wheel mechanism

After a while, the Essex cloth industry fell into decline once more.  The cloth industry, bay especially, was vulnerable in the 18th century to disruption by wars, competition from rival manufacturers, and the import of cotton.  As the cloth industry declined, the fulling mills were converted to grind corn or grain, competing with the many windmills that dotted the landscape.  By around 1840, Bourne Mill was no longer in use as a fulling mill. It was converted to a corn mill by 1860 and it’s for this purpose that the uppermost floor and sack hoist would have been installed.  Later, it was steam driven, but the last miller hung up his apron in 1935.

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Bourne Mill today

Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised at just how much there was to see and learn at Bourne Mill, expecting only to see a waterwheel and not a lot more.  The team of volunteers work hard to bring the Mill’s history to life and succeed in communicating their enthusiasm.  I’d especially like to thank Liz Mullen and Joan Orme for their insights and for not burdening me with more historical detail than I could cope with.

Acknowledgements and practical information

I’d like to say thanks to the National Trust who provided me with a free pass to visit Bourne Mill.  If you’d like to do the same, entrance costs £3.75 for adults and £1.90 for children.  The place is open from Wednesday to Sunday inclusive, from 10am to 5pm.  Dogs are welcome on a lead, though there’s a steep ladder-like staircase to the upper storey which they won’t be able to access.  There’s a small cafe too and plenty of picnic tables perfect for sitting and watching the ducks, including Joan’s favourite with the quiff.

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Check out that fluffy head!

There are plenty of things to do with the kids, including free use of the Mill’s pond dipping equipment, making this a good choice now that the school summer holidays are upon us:

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bourne-mill/features/things-to-see-and-do-at-bourne-mill

The National Trust website also has a guided walk which you can follow to get a better grasp of your surroundings.  I shall be back soon to try it out.

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bourne-mill/trails/bourne-mill-a-wee-wander

If you’d like to begin with the Camulodunum to Colchester walking tour, then this takes place at 11am on Saturdays year-round, with additional walks on Wednesdays at the same time throughout the summer.  Walks need to be pre-booked as they do fill up; adults cost £4.30 and children £3.10.  Find out more here:

http://www.visitcolchester.com/things-to-do/tours-sightseeing.aspx

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At Bourne Mill, parking is limited on site – Sir Thomas Lucas didn’t plan ahead – but you should be able to find roadside parking nearby.  Better still, take the train.  Greater Anglia’s nearest station is Colchester Town.  It’s about a 20 minute walk from the town centre to the Mill, but you can catch a bus to Mersea Road from outside the station if your feet have had enough.

The fastest connections from London Liverpool Street to Colchester’s main station take just 46 minutes and just over an hour to the Colchester Town station right in the centre of town.  More details can be found on the Greater Anglia website:

https://www.greateranglia.co.uk/

#lettheadventurebegin


Julia’s 12 golden rules of travelling

Over the years I’ve picked up a few things that I’d like to share with you.  Whether you’re planning your first big trip or an experienced traveller wishing to compare notes, these are the things that I consider my golden rules.

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Prepare but don’t over plan

Good trip preparations are key to a successful and safe trip.  Over plan, however, and with the rigid itinerary you’ve set yourself, you won’t be able to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities.  I try where possible to keep arrangements flexible, such as booking accommodation on a free cancellation basis, enabling me to change my plans if I want to.  You need to know enough to be safe, and yet still leave yourself open to the thrill of a surprise discovery.  Build in some down time: an exhausted traveller is not a happy traveller.

Take risks but be careful

Can you even be careful if you’re taking a risk?  I’m not sure!  But what I’m getting at is that you’ll need to take calculated risks.  If you’re planning to ride a horse, wear a helmet.  If you’re going to be up close to the really wild wildlife, listen to advice about what you should wear.  If you want to visit a bar in the dodgy part of town, don’t get hammered and take a taxi home.  If you’re using local transport, seek out the one with the best safety record and don’t travel at night.  I’ve ignored all of these of course.

Walking with lions, Zambia

Ditch the guide book and ignore the must-sees

Forgive me if this seems to contradict my opening rule (though rules are made to be broken of course!)  I do still usually start with a guide book, especially if the area is one I’m less familiar with or the trip is a longer one.  But the trouble with guide books is that they have a tendency to funnel everyone to the same places.  If you deliberately ditch the must-sees, you’ll often have the places you visit to yourself.  And if you really can’t bear to give up that Top Ten list, travel off season when the crowds will thin.

Step outside your comfort zone

Whether this means taking a trip to somewhere you’ve never been before or attaching yourself to the end of a bungee cord, this will mean different things to different people.  But the underlying principle is the same.  Challenge yourself.  Try something new.  Spread your wings.  Fly.

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Don’t be scared to try solo travel

For some, the idea of solo travel is about as far from their comfort zone as they could possibly get.  Possibly, that first trip might be daunting.  The first few hours of my first solo trip (to France as an exchange student aged 17) were scary.  Three decades later, I remember shopping for live crab and watching it wriggle alarmingly close to my ankles in the footwell of the car.  I remember getting mud between my toes hunting for crevettes on the beach.  I remember the smoothness of the hot chocolate I had for breakfast and how enormous the bowl was that I sipped it from.  I remember visiting the local library (didn’t I know how to live it up on holiday!)  But one thing I don’t remember anymore is the fear.

Do no harm

Be nice.  Respect your environment, both cultural and natural.  You know the saying, take only photographs.  That.

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Take your time

It’s always tempting to pack too much into an itinerary.  Sometimes you just have to trust that if it’s good enough, you’ll go back for it one day.  But rushing around ticking off sights is no fun and you won’t remember where you’ve been or what you’ve seen.  Make time to do something as well as see something.  Most of my all-time favourite travel experiences have nothing to do with sightseeing.  A cooking class in Guatemala, where I learned how hard it is to grind cocoa beans with a pestle and mortar.  Herding cattle in Uruguay on a horse that didn’t want to move.  Walking a lion in Zambia and failing miserably to remember that I wasn’t walking my dog.

Connect with people

No matter how well you think you know a place, you don’t know it as well as those who live there.  There’s so much to be learned from chatting to the locals and I don’t just mean recommendations for places to eat.  But also, some of my fondest travel memories have been fleeting trips and tours I’ve made with people that I instantly connected with – and often never kept in touch with afterwards.  People are what make a place special, in my opinion.  It can be the most beautiful place in the world but if the people are ugly, your time there won’t be special at all.

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Don’t restrict yourself to chain hotels

It’s time to get practical.  I know you can earn points and get free nights, but if you register with a bland and forgettable hotel chain then those free nights are going to be somewhere bland and forgettable.  Try a private room in a hostel, excellent for meeting people.  Find somewhere historic to stay that’s got a story to tell, or even a resident ghost.  Try a quirky guesthouse or a welcoming homestay.  Meet the owner.  Chat a while.

Fly midweek to stretch your travel budget

Practical matters part two: you need to maximise your trip budget.  If the flight’s going to represent a big chunk of your budget, you’ll need to find ways of saving money.  Fly indirect, fly midweek, book late at night when the cheapest deals are most likely to come up and, alright, use those air miles.

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Travel light

Of the three logistical points, this for me is probably the most important.  Travelling light keeps you mobile and allows you to focus on your surroundings rather than your possessions.  Think about the last trip you made and what you didn’t use.  Could those items have been left at home?  Do laundry on the road, buy toiletries when you get there, choose clothing that will multi-task, take a Kindle or use a book exchange – all these things will ditch the weight.

There will always be something

When it comes to travel, there will always be an excuse not to do it.  Life has a habit of throwing things up that might get in the way of your trip.  If it’s money, see what you can give up to fill the travel piggy bank.  Sell the stuff that’s cluttering your attic.  Cook dinner instead of calling for takeaway.  Unless it’s a legitimately important family matter that’s standing between you and the trip of a lifetime, go.

Happy travels!


The increasingly thorny issue of cabin baggage

Airline Jet2 are in the news this weekend, with an article in the Daily Mail highlighting their new policy of charging for guaranteed cabin baggage.  You can read the article here:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4719308/Now-airlines-charge-bring-HAND-LUGGAGE.html

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I was a little suspicious, given the propensity of the Daily Mail to be economical with the truth, so I did some fact checking.  Buried within the Jet2 website, and revealed as far as I could see only after you have reserved flights and are well into the booking process, is the opportunity to pay extra to keep your bag with you:

Subject to availability, you can pre-book “guaranteed cabin baggage” for an extra charge, and if you have purchased this service, you will not be asked to put your hand baggage in the hold (unless it exceeds the weight and size requirements detailed above or operational requirements apply).  If we require your guaranteed cabin baggage to go into the hold for operational requirements, you can contact customer services to arrange a refund for any charges which you have paid for this service.

I tried a sample booking of a flight from Stansted to Dubrovnik.  The cost of ensuring your cabin baggage made it into the cabin with you (subject to those operational requirements not being necessary, of course) was £3 per person per leg, a little more than the £2.59 quoted in the Mail’s article.

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Would you pay it?

I’m not sure I would.  But then I’ve rarely taken a suitcase on board and instead prefer to check it or, better still, leave it behind.  I find it irritating to wait while wheelie after wheelie bangs its way down the aisle, though with airlines charging to put such luggage in the hold, I can hardly blame those doing so.  But this not only slows boarding, it often means that there’s too much luggage to fit.  I’ve taken many a Ryanair flight – the airline guarantees only the first 90 carry on bags will make it on board – and watched it all kick off as people are asked (or not) to hand over their bags.  My fairly small day pack has always made it on board, I presume because it can fit between my feet and wouldn’t have to be placed in the overhead bins.

Wizz Air, it would seem, have had to backtrack on their plans to charge for guaranteed larger sized cabin baggage.  You can take on a bag of up to 42x32x25cm free of charge, but to carry on an item up to the maximum dimensions (55x40x23cm) there’s a price to pay.  Until 29th October 2017, this can be anything from 10 to 20 euros according to the small print on their website (35 euros if you take care of business at the airport), but this add-on disappears after that date, supposedly incorporated into the price of your seat.  Have Wizz caved under the pressure of customer complaints, I wonder?

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At this point, you’re likely to be muttering things about budget airlines, but they’re not the only offenders.  Increasingly, scheduled, so-called full service airlines are supplementing their fares with extra fees and charges.  And when it comes to revenue “earned” by such add-ons, you might be surprised to learn who the worst offenders are:

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Some airlines are worryingly reliant on additional revenue as a share of their total earnings.  You can read the full report here:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/airlines-that-rely-most-on-extra-charges/

So, even on a scheduled airline, if I want to select my seat in advance (and even as a solo traveller I might, or risk being stuck in that middle seat that no one wants) I’m likely to have to pay for the privilege.  At the moment at least, I’m not likely to have to hand over my carry on luggage but who knows how long that might last?

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this.  As travellers, if we’re determined to do so on as low a budget as possible, we’re going to have to think hard about what we really need to take with us.  I shared my packing tips here:
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/packing-tips-from-someone-who-learnt-the-hard-way-2/

Taking large suitcases will perhaps become a luxury rather than the norm.  It will certainly be interesting to see if Jet2’s new policy lasts the distance, and if it does, whether other airlines will follow suit.

What are your views?  Would you pay to ensure your bag comes on board with you or do you think it’s one rip-off too many?  I’d love to hear what you think.