A long weekend for Lisbon and the surrounding gems of Sintra and Cascais

Lisbon is a supremely elegant city stepped in history and with atmospheric neighbourhoods to head off and explore, but I actually found the two surrounding places of Sintra and Cascais to be the real gems of the visit

I would suggest staying in Sintra or Cascais rather than Lisbon. Staying in Lisbon you are always going to be surrounded by fellow tourists, day or night.  Whereas places like Sintra and Cascais offer a very different experience when the crowds have left for the day (or before they arrive if you’re an early bird). And the trains / Ubers make it so simple to pop between the 3 of them. I had some magical times in the likes of Sintra wandering around in the early morning having the place to myself, and enjoying the quieter evenings in Cascais.  Be bold and stay outside of Lisbon for the better experience

A supercharged week seeing the highlights of Israel and Jordan

I say this trip is supercharged because it doesn’t leave much time for chilling out.  But, if you’re like most of us and only have a limited amount of vacation, then this is a fantastic weekend to weekend trip that takes in the world famous sites of Jerusalem, Petra and Wadi rum; while providing time for some fun experiences like floating in the Dead Sea, scuba diving in the Red Sea, driving through sparse deserts and a party in Tel Aviv

You’ll need energy for these 7 days, but you’ll be rewarded as, in my opinion, its one of the world’s best week long trips in the world

I was hesitating in going in winter as I’d seen low temperatures.  Don’t.  The winter helped with reduced crowds, not needing to book far ahead and not getting exhausted by the heat.  Perfect trip for a week-long winter break

Exploring Petra in winter

We’ve all seen the famous Treasury building that sits within Petra – yes, the one from Indiana Jones – but the Treasury is only one small piece of a vast network of ancient buildings that sit within a labyrinth of dramatic red stone canyons, and all surrounded by equally dramatic mountains and deserts.  To combine a visit to one of the Wonders of the World with an exploration of the broader area makes this a truly unforgettable experience

I’ve written below some tips for how to get the most out of a visit to Petra, but my #1 tip is to get  local guide to walk with you from Little Petra through the back entrance of the mountains, via the Monastery, and to the main Treasury / Siq (the famous bit).  You won’t be disappointed as the views are world-class and the crowds less keen to stray so far from the Treasury.  We visited in winter, which naturally thinned the crowds, but the site is so vast that even in the busy periods you will be able to get away

7/8 week itinerary for the highlights of South East Asia

South East Asia has to be the premier world traveling region.  A big call?  For sure, but consider what genuinely world class offerings it can provide:

 

  • World class beaches and coastal areas – think of THAT beach in Ko Phi Phi and HaLong Bay, one of the Natural Wonders of the World
  • World class food – think Thai, Vietnamese, Malay and the genuine fusion into the mix with the large established Indian and Chinese communities
  • World class ancient sites and history – think of the temples of the “8th Wonder of the World” of Angkor Wat, and the breathtaking site of the pagodas stretching across the plain in Bagan
  • World class cities and party locations – think of Singapore as the city of the future and the Full Moon Parties on Ko Pha-Ngan

 

And all this in a place that is super safe, outrageously friendly, easy and cheap to travel in.  A must for any keen traveler and the below itinerary will give you the highlights – enjoy!

An overnight boat trip through HaLong Bay – The Bay of the Descending Dragon

Over 2,000 islands of sheer vertical karst limestone peaks bursting from the waters of a huge tropical bay, you can see why HaLong Bay literally means “the bay of the descending dragon”, why it is categorised as a Wonder of the Natural World and why it is consistently seen as one of the highlights of Vietnam

 

Its only downside is it is super busy in places and with the classic Asian approach to mass commercialised tourism somewhat stripping the place of the magic feel you’re most likely hoping for.  So, some high level tips to help you have a better experience:

  • Aim for a one night stay on one of the boats.  You can easily make HaLong Bay a day trip (and I have done this before and had a great time as we rented a boat to ourselves as a large group, which I appreciate isn’t an option for everyone), but there is something super nice about sitting for the sunrise / sunset and seeing the wonderful change in colour around the various karst towers
  • Your choice of tour operator is going to be crucial.  It pays to do a bit of research on the best recommended one and, remember, you get what you pay for – be very wary of the rock bottom operators offering USD80 from one of the stalls in Hanoi.  Ball park you’re looking at USD125 and upwards.  Aim ideally for one of the old-school luxury Chinese-style junks
  • The highlight is drifting past the sheer cliff faces through the tropical waters . . . so do make sure to find a god spot and just watch this Natural Wonder of the World go by
  • Kayaking around the bay is kind of par for the course and good fun.  Make sure this is included in your trip
  • Try to spend as little time in HaLong City as possible.  Its not what you’re in the region for
  • The caves are worth checking out and will be in all boat itineraries
  • Looking back, if I had a little more time and had booked long enough ahead, I would have aimed to go for Lan Ha Bay, near Cat Ba Island further to the south.  Seems to be off the standard tourist boat route and with similar scenery
  • To see how HaLong Bay can fit into an itinerary for experiencing the highlights of Vietnam see this entry for more ideas – A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

Cycling and views around Tam Coc

Just outside of Ninh Binh there are series of lookout points and caves that take advantage of the surrounding karst landscape as the cliffs loom impossibly steeply out from the flat lush valley floor.  The Huang Mua area has a tourist spot where you can climb up one of the hills and get great views around the UNESCO World Heritage listed landscape, and just to the West there are some small roads that allow you to cycle through the area

 

Its definitely worth checking out if you are passing nearby as it at times gives that classic picture-perfect karst towers view, but overall its a little touristy and, if you have the choice, I’d recommend Mai Chau to the north east which is a bit more atmospheric and less touristy.  For details of this experience see Cycling through the patchwork rice fields of Mai Chau

 

And for ideas on how a trip to Tam Coc can fit into an itinerary for experiencing the highlights of Vietnam, see this entry A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

6 months trip of a lifetime around Latin America

My girlfriend and I went on a 6month trip around Latin America (excluding Brazil).  Started in the far South in the Tierra del Fuego in Argentina and, broadly, made our way up the west coast to the Yucatan Peninsular of Mexico.  Best large scale trip I’ve done, and wanted to share the overall itinerary and tips here to hopefully help those who are considering something similar

A few high level points:

  • Other than the flights there and the first hotel, there were only three things we booked in advance: the Inca Trail (which we knew we needed to for permits); plus for Patagonia a trip through Torres del Paine National Park and a ferry through the fjords (as we were going at peak season and only a couple of weeks after we landed).  Everything else, we booked when in Latin America and, in our opinion, that is the best way to do it – gives you the freedom to relax in the places you find that you love and be super flexible to do what you want to do
  • Total costs – my girlfriend and I went in our 30s, with no kids and on sabbaticals from work.  We’re not poor, but certainly not mega wealthy.  We didn’t stay in super expensive hotels (other than for the occasional splurge), flew economy and used a bit of common sense for timings of certain expensive items, but never held back on doing the things we wanted to do.  Some examples of big ticket items: US$5k for a week diving in the remote Wolf & Darwin Islands in the Galapagos; US$1.2k for 4 days in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia; US$800 for a helicopter trip to see the El Mirador Mayan ruins in the Guatemalan jungle; US$700 for the Inca Trail.  Total cost of the whole trip was US$34k each.  This included all flights, transport, hotels, activities, food, drink, guides, screwing things up, credit card fees – the lot.  Expensive, but so are most Experiences of a Lifetime
  • It’s not about trying to “do everything” – in a place as large as Latin America, you couldn’t even if you tried – so don’t think of things as a big tick box exercise.  Brazil, for example, we knew we couldn’t do justice whilst also trying to enjoy all the other amazing places we’d heard of, so left it for next time
  • In the similar vain, make sure you give yourself big chunks of time to chill out.  Not only to recharge the batteries, but also because most places are enjoyed when you spend time to soak up the feel for the place.  There were some places . . . like Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, Buenos Aires in Argentina, Isla Mujeres in Mexico, Bocas del Toro in Panama . . . where I could have spent weeks there just because the general vibe of the place was so wonderful
  • Safety – we weren’t robbed, but many people do either having a bag stolen or, unpleasantly, get robbed face to face.  Other than a couple of cities, we generally felt super safe the places we went and tried to just apply common sense to reduce our risks
  • Learn a bit of Spanish before you go – the app DuoLingo was great for getting us to a basic level that made a lot of difference.  But also don’t be afraid to pull out google for simultaneous conversation translations to really be able to have a conversation with someone – some long trips became some of our highlights just from being able to properly talk with the driver / locals.  I particularly remember a long taxi ride in Colombia where we went back and forward for 2 hours with the driver on everything from his home town to politics to football to his favourite movies to his family problems- never could have done that without Spanish or google.  In a similar vein, and using the right level of common sense, don’t turn down an invite for drinks / dinner / house visit with locals.  There are some truly unforgettable natural and cultural spots to see, but similarly an evening with a local family will be something likely to be just as unforgettable
  • Whenever checking out a place or must-do-site, its easy to get templed / churched / ancient site / beached out.  Always do a very basic bit of research to see if there is a more out of the ordinary way to experience it – by bike / drinking tour / kayaking / helicopter / whatever.  Thats what we tried to do, and I hope it reflected in some of the cool stuff listed below

Scuba diving at Maria la Gorda

Remote.  Quiet.  Slightly odd.  Staying at the Hotel Maria la Gorda and the surrounding area feels a bit like if the hotel from The Shinning was on its own tropical island.  The hotel is geared for large numbers of guests, with individual 1950s commune-style houses dotted all around the grounds, and is by a lovely beach . . . yet . . . as with many large projects in Cuba, it sort of misses the mark – in this case because there is no real reason to come this far to the end of Cuba other than for diving.  Now the diving is great (great visibility in particular), but I can’t imagine there ever being enough divers to fill the facilities.  Kinda spooky, but also very cool and certainly adds to the feeling of being in a bit of a parallel universe as part of an itinerary for Going back in time for a week in Cuba

2 weeks in Tonga, Fiji and Samoa

Moving from one spot of paradise to the next; super friendly people; picture perfect spots that scream “I want to go!”; and having some truly unforgettable adrenaline-throbbing moments by swimming with Humpback Whales and diving with the Tiger Sharks.  For sure Fiji, Tonga and Samoa are in the middle of nowhere, but this is a world class 2 weeks

Below I’ve given the itinerary we took and the links to the individual entries on each of the travel experiences

The Sua Ocean Trench at the end of the world

Yep – offensively photogenic and screams “I want to go there!” from just about everyone who sees the photo.  In my case, from my girlfriend.  “You know it’s in the middle of the Pacific right?  In the middle of nowhere?” I reply.  The determined eyes staring back at me need no vocal expression – “I want to go” – they clearly say

For those who have the similar determination, you won’t be disappointed – the place really is that beautiful up close and it’s a lot of fun swimming around in the pool soaking it all in.  The site has the added advantage of having some delightfully well maintained gardens on the nearby cliff edges where you can gawp at the gorgeous surroundings, and a series of rock pools that you can laze around in and get pushed and pulled around as the waves come in, which is also super fun

To be fair, I don’t think you’d go this far to the middle of the ocean for just the Sua Ocean Trench, which really, spectacular as it is, you only need half a day for.  Samoa itself has some nice spots to drive around to (I’d recommend hiring a car for convenience), friendly people and some fab food (make sure you have lunch at the Seabreeze resort only 5mins drive away).  But I’d recommend combining your visit as part of a 2 week trip of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji.  Swimming with Humpbacks, diving with Tiger Sharks, white water rafting and kayaking from one picture perfect island to the next sound appealing?  Then see here for more details, ideas and tips in this travel entry for –2 weeks in Tonga, Fiji and Samoa