The older I get and the more my knees creak, the more I need to research possible hikes before setting on to ensure I don’t end up with aching muscles or worse, being stretchered out. But no one, least of all me, wants to find out that they’ve missed out on superb scenery on a hike that would have been perfectly within their capabilities. So when I found out about a glacier accessible from Mestia on foot, I set about reading up. The trouble is, many of those who post are young and fit. Their definition of an easy hike isn’t necessarily what I’d call easy. So here are the facts about hiking to the Chalaadi Glacier.
You don’t have to walk all the way
Technically, the Svans consider this hike a 25km round trip. The official tourist board literature states the duration of the hike as being eight hours. That’s beginning and ending in Mestia and walking up the road past the airport until it runs out. Well, 25km would take me more than eight hours including collapses, even if much of it is fairly flat.
Keen not to have to quit before the good bit, I hired a lovely driver called Nodani. I found him in the main square in his adapted Subaru – look for the Subaru sunshield and a disabled badge in his rear windscreen. He agreed to drive me to the suspension bridge that crosses the River Mestiachala. It costs a flat rate of 80 lari (about £26). It’s also possible to rent horses, but they looked pretty frisky and once you pay for the guide too, it’s not a cheap option.
Allow time to enjoy the hike
Most people book a two hour gap between rides; I made it three so as not to have to rush. I was keen to take the hike at a steady pace and allow enough time to appreciate my surroundings. I thought I’d make an afternoon of it but in actual fact got back thirty minutes ahead of schedule. No biggie: there’s a cafe at the bridge where I waited for Nodani to come and collect me.
You won’t get lost
A concern if you’re hiking solo, as I was, is getting lost. Most trails are marked but the frequency of such signs can be less than you need. Not so here, where they’ve helpfully painted red and white rectangles on assorted rocks and tree trunks. There was even an arrow cut into the tree trunks in some places. It was very clear which direction you needed to take, so you won’t get lost.
The uphill bits were a bit of a slog
Remember, I’m no athlete. If you are reasonably fit, then this will be a piece of cake. But the altitude at the river is around 1600 metres above sea level, rising to about 1920 up near the glacier. If like me you live at sea level, the thinner air won’t help either. But it’s shady amid the trees and where the route passes through the forest, you’ll see plenty of pretty flowers and lichen covered rocks.
The path wasn’t difficult to navigate as the stones formed a natural staircase. I took frequent rests and carried plenty of water. Further up, heavy rains a few days before my hike meant the water was running high and parts of the path had turned into a shallow stream. Luckily it wasn’t deep enough to leave me with wet feet.
You have to cross a boulder field
About halfway to the glacier, you reach an area where rockfalls have created a big obstacle. Boulders of various sizes lie piled up. Some are steady, others move disconcertingly beneath your feet. I fell foul of such a hazard when I hiked one of Sweden’s High Coast trails last year and ended up with a nasty cut and bruised elbow. There are also deep gaps between some of the stones, meaning a misstep would leave me with a twisted ankle or worse. This was the scariest part of the hike, more so on the way back down as higher up the slope I could hear rocks falling. Fortunately I managed to cross without incident and didn’t end up a casualty of a rock avalanche. You’ll need decent boots though.
You can cut out the very top part of the hike and still see the glacier
Once you’ve successfully negotiated the boulders, the path is an easy one and leads to a flower strewn meadow by the river. Here, you get a fabulous view of the glacier itself and in its mountain setting, it really is a spectacular view. Turn around, and you’ll see mountains behind you too. Unless you’re really dead set on touching the glacier, you’ll be scrambling over terminal moraine to get any higher. Personally, given the timing of my visit in early summer when the ice is melting and there’s a real possibility of being hit by falling ice or rocks, I didn’t continue. If you carry on, as many do, it’s advisable to use walking poles.
Is it worth it?
That’s a resounding yes! If the weather’s playing nicely as it was during my visit, it’s hard to imagine a better way of spending an afternoon. But to maximise your time spent at the scenic parts of the trail, I’d definitely advise hiring a driver for that dull airport road.
Much has been written in the press over the past week on the subject of a ban on larger electronics items entering the United States with airline passengers. Following on from the March policy shift in which inbound flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African destinations, there’s speculation that such a policy could be extended to European destinations.
What’s the current situation?
At present, passengers travelling to the US from ten airports are affected: Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), Cairo International Airport (CAI), Ataturk International Airport (IST), King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED), King Khalid International Airport (RUH), Kuwait International Airport (KWI), Mohammed V Airport (CMN), Hamad International Airport (DOH), Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).
Large electronics items, including laptops but also larger cameras like DSLRs and tablets such as the iPad, must be carried in the hold and cannot be taken on board the flight. How airlines are implementing this varies, but some are offering gate check in and secure packaging in the form of bubble wrap and cardboard boxes. This policy doesn’t extend to the return leg; flights departing the US for these ten airports are not subject to the same restrictions.
So why are people getting upset? Surely they can do without their gadgets for a few hours?
As talk grows about an extension to the ban, so too do certain worrying facts emerge. Many of these larger items are powered by lithium ion batteries, which up to now have been banned from the hold for safety reasons. They carry a risk of catching fire, something that could have disastrous consequences if unnoticed. The FAA itself stated its concerns in 2016:
There’s more here, from The Independent:
There’s also the issue of sensitive data on company laptops and directives from some businesses to their employees requiring them to keep such equipment on their person whilst travelling. For the regular tourist, it’s more a case of a lack of insurance. I might just about be able to cope without my iPad on a long flight if I went back to those old fashioned paperback things I used to lug around, but if the airline then loses my suitcase, my travel insurance policy won’t pay out. I really can’t afford to replace my DSLR if the lens gets smashed in transit. So, with a flight to Houston looming on Friday, I’ve been watching the TSA website and Twitter like a stalker.
So have they made a decision yet?
There were some misleading headlines last week, like this one in NYMag following a piece in The Daily Beast:
Retweeted and quoted to within an inch of its life, The Daily Beast’s article, claiming an announcement would be made Thursday 11 May, sparked an angry reaction. In part, there was a touch of indignation along the lines of European nations being way too civilised to be lumped together with the Middle East.
But amidst all the fuss, some serious issues for the Americans began to be raised, not least the impact that it would have to the US economy and its tourism sector. This article from The Independent explains:
Yes, you read that right: 1 in 3 potential foreign tourists would think twice about going if this policy becomes a reality. I’m among them. I’d be seriously concerned about that fire risk, especially on such a long flight.
Here’s a follow up article, also from The Independent:
I’m hoping, as we get closer to my departure date, that even if the electronics ban is widened, the changes won’t take effect until after I’m there. Getting my valuables back to Blighty in one piece will be, as it has always been, down to me. But after that, much as it pains me to say given my love of the USA, I’d have to give it a miss, at least until the TSA came to its senses once more. It was reported that the TSA met with representatives of the US’ major airlines last Friday to see how a ban could be implemented; sources indicate that further meetings were to be held with EU personnel today. At the time of writing, there’s been no announcement.
Watch this space.
Well as it turned out we didn’t have to wait too long for an update. Common sense has prevailed and the EU have persuaded the US authorities that widening the ban on larger electronics would be foolish:
The ban still exists for the ten Middle Eastern and North African airports, so think about your safety before you opt to fly. Happy travels!
Sometimes there’s a travel listicle that does the rounds that just makes you laugh out loud. I’ve just read a piece by Tour Radar claiming to have been written in conjunction with Lonely Planet which puts Prague, Sri Lanka and Goa on a compilation of eight “best kept secrets”. I’m sorry, but walk into any High Street travel agent and it won’t be hard to find a package to any of those. I’m shocked that this got through the filter, if I’m honest, so here’s my response. You want best kept secrets? I’ll reveal a few of mine.
Everyone goes south from Lima, but head north and leave the crowds behind. The area around Chachapoyas has some superb sights and you’ll often get them to yourself. Read more in my guide to Northern Peru’s Chacha circuit here:
Citadelle Laferriere, Haiti
Haiti’s troubled political history and its penchant for getting right in the way of terrible natural disasters means that tourist infrastructure is severely limited. Make the effort, though, and there are many wonderful places to be explored. Aside from Jacmel, I pretty much had everywhere to myself.
Copan Ruinas, Honduras
Central America is packed with Mayan ruins but you’ll have a hard time finding space for a bit of quiet reflection if you stick to the beaten track. Honduras’ reputation as the murder capital of the world keeps the tourists away, but the savvy traveller will know that away from the large cities, the country is as safe as they come. Saddle up and see for yourself in sleepy Copan Ruinas.
The only other foreigners at the lodge in Obuasi were a bunch of South Africans who partied hard by night and worked the gold mine by day. Few tourists make it to this part of Ghana but it remains one of my favourite underground experiences.
The draw of this South Pacific island is well documented – an active volcano which bred the Prince Philip cult. Its remoteness, however, means that it sees relatively few tourists and those that venture are likely to have little company as they view some of the most spectacular sights on the planet.
If you’re looking for somewhere off the beaten track in Europe, you’re going to have to search hard. Bremen’s northerly location in Germany means it sees relatively few visitors and yet there’s lots to do and see.
Also in a country that sees its fair share of international tourists is the delightful region of Extremadura. Overlooked in favour of its southerly neighbour Andalusia, yet an easy ride from Madrid, this part of Spain is packed with history and extraordinary scenery. Get there before everyone else. No, scratch that – leave this one to me!
OK, so you’ve been to the Big Apple, and during that first trip, you diligently ticked off the essential sights: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State (other towers are available!), the Brooklyn Bridge. You strolled through Central Park, caught the Staten Island ferry, shopped on 5th Avenue, dined in the neon-lit Times Square and were humbled by your emotions at the 9/11 Memorial. So that’s it, right? Wrong. Here are some great New York City experiences to keep you busy when you return for more.
Bronx Botanical Gardens and Zoo
These two attractions are just a short walk from each other, so combining them on the same day makes sense, especially on a Wednesday when you can get into most exhibits free of charge. I visited in November, the perfect time to witness the fall colours at their best and watch the animals play without distracting crowds.
High Line or Lowline?
Both, of course. The High Line park is now well established on everyone’s must-see list for New York, and won’t disappoint. I love it in winter; if the sun’s shining and the wind’s absent, there’s no place better to chill out. But now the elevated railway has a rival, at weekends at least: the Lowline Lab, an experimental space destined to become the city’s first underground park. Right now, it’s in its test phase, so entry’s free on Saturdays and Sundays.
Gospel brunch in Harlem
The other great way to spend a Sunday is to savour the tastes and of course the sounds of brunch in Harlem. You don’t have to be religious – just musical – to appreciate the atmosphere and joy generated in a number of excellent eateries. Sylvia’s and The Cotton Club have been at it for years, but I opted for a relative newcomer, Ginny’s Supper Club, located in the basement of Red Rooster – and wasn’t disappointed.
City of New York Museum
You’ll have paid a visit to the Met and the Guggenheim last time, so how about learning a little of the city’s history to give you some context. Located beyond the Upper East Side facing the north-east corner of Central Park, it’s the perfect place to learn more about the story that whizzed past you as you ascended the elevator to the top of the Freedom Tower.
This tiny museum is tucked away around the corner from Battery Park, but is well worth the detour. It has a mixture of permanent and rotating exhibits, explaining the development of the skyscraper and its contribution to the city’s iconic skyline. If you’re in the city between now and next April, check out the Ten & Taller installation, fleshing out the stories of New York’s 250 buildings that stand ten storeys tall or more.
Once known as Nut Island, this tiny haven from the noise of Manhattan was renamed Governors Island by the British in 1699 who occupied it until the time of the American Revolution. Later a military base for the US Army and home to the Coastguard, it’s now open during the summer months as a city playground. Once you’ve admired the view of southern Manhattan, rent a bicycle, enjoy a lazy picnic or try out Slide Hill, one of the island’s newest attractions.
Watch a game
Which sport you watch depends of course on the season in which you visit. In summer or autumn, head up to 161st Street where you’ll find the Yankee Stadium. In winter, try the ice hockey at a fast-paced Rangers game or watch the Knicks play basketball at Madison Square Garden. The latter offers an interesting backstage tour as well. For those of us visiting from outside the US, it’s as much an exercise in people-watching as anything else. Attention spans are low compared to the intensity of watching the footie back home, for instance, but grab a beer and a hot dog to soak it up anyway.
Bryant Park Christmas market
Once Thanksgiving has passed, it’s time to focus on Christmas. My favourite Christmas market in the city is at Bryant Park, an easy hop from Times Square in the heart of Midtown, though the last time I was there heavy rainfall had flooded the paths and many of the stallholders had gone home early. Union Square also has a market, a little smaller but also worth a look.
Roosevelt Island tramway
It’s been a while since I rode this, but a ride on the Roosevelt Island tramway is worth it for the views alone. After the Staten Island ferry, it’s probably the biggest public transport bargain in the city, as you can ride it for a price equivalent to a single subway ride using your MTA card. If you think it looks familiar, that’s because t’s been featured in many movies, including Scarface, City Slickers, Now You See Me and Spiderman.
New York Transit Museum
The shops and cafes of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg are well-documented but a few miles down the road, you’ll find the New York Transit Museum, occupying a decommissioned subway station where Boerum Place meets Schermerhorn Street. Underground, you’ll find a collection of vintage subway cars, some of which are over a hundred years old. The best bit: no one minds if you hop on board.
Travel safety is a big consideration for most travellers and as a solo female, it’s something that has to be thought about, both at the planning stage and while I’m on the road. Here’s some advice based on what I’ve learned over the years about keeping myself safe.
Plan before you go
I hold what I call my reserve bucket list. I contains places that I hope to go to one day, but for safety or security reasons aren’t top of the list right now. One of the websites I go to when I have a trip idea involving somewhere that might just be a bit dodgy is the FCO’s – and in particular its Travel Advice by Country. Sometimes it can make for scary reading, but knowledge is never a bad thing. The FCO’s up to date facts about a country can help rule it out – sorry, Mali, you’ll just have to wait in line with Yemen – but where it’s clear that any issues involving safety are contained to a specific part of the country, it can sometimes rule a country in.
Keep abreast of news while on the road
I’ve found Twitter to be an invaluable help in finding out what’s going on within a country from the inside. In Haiti last year, it was the most accurate way of tracking the unrest triggered by fuel price rises and ensuring that I didn’t leave sleepy Jacmel too early. It’s also been handy to check how the roads are running in and out of Calais when my family have taken a cross Channel ferry during the recent difficulties.
Think about luggage
Habitually I travel with a rigid-shell wheelie, which would be harder for thieves to slash than a soft suitcase. My aim is usually to appear a more difficult target than someone else, so to that end I ensure zips and fastenings are done up, small padlocks secure outside pockets from interfering fingers and bags are worn cross-body so they can’t easily be slipped off my shoulder. Valuables are buried deep within inside pockets and expensive equipment like cameras are in plain bags rather than labelled ones with Nikon or Canon clearly visible. One thing I never do, though, is wear my rucksack on my chest – personally, I just think that marks you out as a dumb tourist and makes you more of a target.
Trust your instincts
Over the years I’ve either been lucky or I’ve developed the skill of knowing when something just doesn’t feel right. Of course, I could have been blissfully unaware of any potential danger. Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut and accept help or hospitality from complete strangers. I’ve trusted people to give me a lift and turned others down simply because it didn’t seem right; spoken to others at length and entered their homes while avoiding eye contact with others. One of the most rewarding aspects of travelling is the encounters you have with people along the way, which would be impossible if your guard was always up. So far, though I shouldn’t want to jinx my luck, I’ve never got myself into any situation I couldn’t get out of. Perhaps that’s the key – have an exit strategy in the back of your mind.
Choose accommodation in a safe location
It can be tempting to book a hotel or hostel near a bus or train station but I do check first to find out if that puts it in an insalubrious district. Better to have a short taxi ride or subway trip than to risk walking around somewhere that I’m more likely to get robbed. That’s especially important if I’m arriving after dark, which may be earlier than at home, of course. If arriving after nightfall is unavoidable, then I’ll almost always take a taxi; to do otherwise could be false economy. It’s also good to take local advice. The hostel I stayed at in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, was very clear with the advice posted on its gate: leave anything behind that you didn’t wish to lose – pickpockets were, sadly, rife.
Ironically as it turned out, when I visited Syria just months before the civil war kicked off, I took the airport bus from Damascus into the city and then walked alone through its deserted streets at 2 am – and have rarely felt safer than I did that night. Perhaps safety is a state of mind?
For almost three decades, I’ve happily travelled the globe alone. While I enjoy travelling with family or friends, nothing beats the joy of being by myself as I discover a new place. But there are, as with anything worthwhile, a few issues to consider. Here are a few tips to help you discover solo nirvana.
Watching the bags
One of the most inconvenient things about travelling alone is having no one with you to watch your bags. With a bag on your back or at your feet, you become very vulnerable when your attention is distracted – like when you’re booking a bus ticket for instance. There are several ways of reducing the chances of being robbed. Travelling light is the obvious one – carry less stuff and there’s less chance of that stuff being stolen.
Also consider which type of luggage you’re carrying and how to avoid being the victim of an opportunist thief. I travel with a hard shell wheelie and when I’m off somewhere dodgy, pop a mini padlock on my rucksack. It’s not foolproof – a bag slasher obviously wouldn’t have a problem – but it is a small deterrent. If the person next to you has their bag wide open, you’re not going to be the first choice for a thief. Keep your bags in sight and where possible, keep the strap across your body.
Timing is everything
On a related point, I’ve never thought it would be smart to leave my bags unattended. I’ve no wish to be the reason an airport is evacuated. But I’m also regularly the victim of suggestion – and if I see a toilet, then there’s a good chance I need to visit it. That can be tricky when you’re on the move with all your bags and the floors are at best grubby, at worst, well, let’s not go there…
Timing is everything. Go before you leave your hotel, in an airport where the cubicle could be big and clean enough to leave belongings on the floor or somewhere there’s a solid, heavy duty hook. And pray it’s not a squat toilet. Believe me when I say it’s almost impossible to keep your balance with a rucksack on your back.
The dreaded single supplement can make it all too obvious that solo travellers incur a financial penalty from some establishments. While I understand how frustrating it must be for hoteliers to lose half the potential revenue from a double or twin room, I still have a travel budget to stick to. I look for hotels with single rooms – they’re not all windowless cells shoved in basements – and unpackage my trip to swap private drivers for public transport.
I also avoid tour companies promising single rooms without the single supplement – usually all they’ve done is absorbed those charges into their headline price. If I do need to take a tour, I opt to share with a same-sex stranger – sometimes you get lucky and get a room to yourself anyway and where that’s not been the case, I’m relieved to say my room mate has been a pleasant distraction for a few nights and not a surprise snorer.
Most of the time, while I’m happy for my husband to rest his head on my shoulder, the same doesn’t apply for complete strangers who just happen to be occupying the seat beside me. On buses and trains, I seat myself on the aisle seat with my bag by the window. Most people would prefer to slide into an empty seat rather than have to ask someone to move, so you often keep your seat even when the bus is quite full. I’m always gazing intently at something out of the window, though if they ask me to move over or let them in, I always do so with a smile. There’s no sense in pissing someone off who’s going to be next to you for hours. It’s also easier than you might think to find single seats, whether on trains or on the overnight sleeper buses that are common in South America.
If you do end up next to someone, it’s not the end of the world. The most comfortable flight I ever took was an overnighter from Ghana wedged tightly up against a very large woman – she was as soft as a goose feather pillow and happy for me to snuggle up as she spilled over into my seat.
Eat at the bar
Often, the only time when I’m really conscious I’m travelling alone is when it comes to dinner. Where eating breakfast without a companion rarely feels odd, there still seems to be a stigma about sitting alone over dinner. I’ve never been one for room service (and let’s face it, rarely stay somewhere smart enough to even have room service) so how do I overcome the thorny problem of dinner for one? I’m not frightened to say no to a table shoved up at the back of a restaurant by the kitchen door – if they don’t want to give me a decent table, I’m quite happy to take my business elsewhere.
But if I’m feeling sociable I often sit at the bar to eat, as the bar tender and fellow patrons are often chattier there. And if I’m not, I’m quite happy to read a book between courses or simply people watch.
If you’re thinking of travelling solo but are scared to try it – don’t be! It might just be the best thing you’ve ever done.
For a first time visitor wanting to maximise sightseeing time, good weather is a must, but when’s the best time to visit New York City? I’ve visited in all seasons, so here are some observations and tips based on my experience.
Avoid summer if you can
Summer in the city, with its long sunny days and picnics in the park, sounds like the perfect recipe for a great trip, right? Wrong! New York in summer is humid and hot. Typical temperatures push 30°C which in my opinion is too hot for sightseeing. Add to that average humidity which peaks in August at around 70% and conditions are often unpleasant. It’s sweltering if there’s a storm brewing and when the rain does fall, it’ll be heavy and you can expect localised flooding.
It’s beach weather, sure, and there are some fun places to go close to the city like Coney Island, but if you’re planning to visit the Big Apple’s iconic sights like the Empire State and the Statue of Liberty, then you’ll be standing in line until you’re good and sweaty. If you have booked to travel between June and August, then take a ferry to Governor’s Island to catch a breeze, rent a boat from Central Park’s Loeb Boathouse or head out of Manhattan to the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.
Don’t write off winter
Travelling to New York in winter is not without its risks. If your holiday coincides with a big winter storm, then you can find yourself stranded if the subway system shuts down and the buses can’t get through. That said, there’s a lot of fun to be had snowballing in Central Park and seeing the rooftops dusted with powder. Overnight temperatures can plunge to -10°C or below, but in the daytime, it usually hovers around zero. Wind may well be your biggest problem, but an advantage of a grid pattern street network is that if you turn a corner, you’ll come out of the icy blast and warm up. Make sure you pack accordingly, and don’t skimp on the hats, scarves and windproof down jacket.
The main advantage of travelling in winter is the lack of crowds – those who venture to the Big Apple in winter are rewarded handsomely. First-timers can pack more into an itinerary and reduce the need for pre-booking popular attractions such as the Freedom Tower. It’ll also be easier to pick up tickets for popular Broadway shows. Restaurant week takes place in late January or early February, with lots of establishments offering special menus and good deals.
Spring and autumn might just be the best compromise
Temperatures by April are on the rise, and it can be warm and sunny through into October, so travelling in the shoulder seasons is a good option. You’re looking at an average of around 17°C in May which in my book is perfect for sightseeing. Statistically, October is the driest month, though that was also the month in 2012 that Storm Sandy wreaked havoc, so it’s not a dead cert. April is the wettest, but rainfall averages are fairly constant through the year so that’s not a deal breaker. Markets reemerge from their winter hibernation, blossom enhances the High Line and stepping out is a pleasure.
Book your hotel well ahead, however, because late spring and early autumn are when you’ll see accommodation prices spike – it makes sense, of course, as you would expect demand to drive up rates. May sees temperatures climb and after Memorial Day weekend, summer has officially started; try earlier in the month if you prefer it less busy. You’re more likely to find a deal in November, and maybe even plan a trip to coincide with Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and the leaves will be on the turn in the city’s parks to boot.
What I have learned over the years and through numerous visits, is that there’s really never a bad time to go. My personal preference is for a winter trip, but I’ve never had a bad holiday in New York yet.
Tempted to book? Don’t miss these earlier posts from Julia’s Travels: