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

Jerusalem for a day on the Sabbath

One of the most famous cities in the world and the spiritual centre for three of the world’s major religions, Jerusalem is steeped in history and has sites that attract hordes of tourists and worshippers alike

We went on the sabbath, which in Israel means many things are closed, and in winter, which means it’ll be around 10-12 Celsius / 50-54 Fahrenheit in the day, so it was probably a bit quieter than normal and I think that was a positive on the overall experience

I’ve read in books like the Lonely Planet that you need four days to experience Jerusalem.  I think that may be true if you are deeply religious or have a passion for the history of the area, but for those who just broadly want to check it out, and have the right level of energy, you can have a great experience with only one day

So, if only have one day, I have 2 suggestions.  Firstly, focus on the key sites of the old city, in particular the Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple on the Mount.  Secondly, don’t try to do more than that and, instead, get lost wandering through Jerusalem’s narrow streets and off the tourist trail.  You’ll notice subtle differences moving between quarters and stumble upon some of the lesser known sites.  Far more enjoyable that following a guided tour, and less tiring

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!

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

Kuala Lumpur

KL is ok if passing through as you can head up to the KL Tower for views of the city and the world’s former tallest buildings the Petronas Towers.  But it’s a bit of an unpleasant hodgepodge of super modern malls and skyscrapers with still quite underdeveloped and at times poverty spots right in the city

 

If looking for a South East Asia big city break, put Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Yangon, Ho Chi Minh, Singapore and Hanoi (for its old town) ahead of KL

2 days of baths and the Bosphorus in Istanbul

The crossroads of Europe and Asia and the former capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Istanbul is steeped in history and makes for a world-class destination city.  I only spent 3 days there, so won’t write a detailed review, but high level tips:

  • Hagia Sofia – the star attraction and will no doubt be on your list.  Be sure to not only see this incredible structure from the outside, but also to visit the extraordinarily beautiful interior
  • Definitely get a Hamam – these Turkish Baths, whilst a bit on the pricey side (around USD100 for the entrance and some treatments), are just the perfect way to relax after a day of seeing the sights and some have the most beautiful interiors
  • Best river views – try to find a spot that gives you both the views of the Golden Horn with its various bridges and the Suleyman Mosque.  Watching the sunset from one of the restaurants round there was one of our highlights of Istanbul
  • Take a boat – even if it is just a short one over the Golden Horn, its a great way to get views of the city
  • The Grand Bazar – worth a visit just for its sheer size and bustle
  • The airport – the lines for immigration can take hours, so be prepared.  You’ll have to pay for a visa sticker (45 euros, bit of a joke) which is quick, but then the immigration queue itself can be long

A day trip to Abu Dhabi from Dubai

Its only around a 1.5hour drive from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, so I’d suggest it is a must visit if staying longer than 2 days in Dubai.  The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, with its squinting bright white marble, beautiful interior and sheer scale is the obvious must visit spot, but also give yourself time for a drink in the luxurious pink Emirates Palace with its gorgeous terrace overlooking the sea

Seeing the spectacular sights of Dubai

Dubai gets a slightly bad reputation for being a bit fake, manufactured, crude etc.  The thing is, it is all of these things, yet it is exactly because it has gone so far toward the non-authentic end of the spectrum that makes it such a fascinating place to visit.  I’ve enjoyed Dubai each of the 3 times I’ve visited – loved the fountain performance of the world’s tallest building the Burj Khalifa, sitting on the beach by the world’s only 8 star hotel the Burj Al Arab drinking cocktails, seeing the giant aquarium in the world’s largest mall in the Mall of the World, taking a boat over to the Dubai Old Town and would have LOVED to experience the skiing!  But I’ve visited mainly for work or in a time before we had the simplicity of taking photos on the phone.  For these reasons, I don’t think I can really do the place anywhere near the justice it deserves by writing a full review, so haven’t shared photos and tips.  Instead, I’ve given it a score based on how I found it – can’t miss out on such an obvious global city stop in the ratings

A stop over in Brunei

If flying the long haul from Europe to Australia / South Pacific, it’s actually quite nice to time your flights so that you have half a day or so in Brunei, which is about the right amount of time needed.  Customs allow you to clear and have a wander / taxi around to see the city and come back for the final leg of the flight

 

For a fun half day, I’d suggest jumping in a water taxi to the small group of stilt villages just over the water on the south bank of Kampong Ayer, then head back to the centre to take a view of the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque and try the local sticky specialty of Ambuyat in one of the food courts of hawker stands

 

Not exactly a highlight of South East Asia, but it serves a purpose to break up the 24 hours on a plane

Eating, lounging and soaking up the souks in Marrakech

Cracking spot for a short break, especially to escape the European winter.  I’m writing this a few years later so only a very short entry, but my key tips after spending 3 days there:

 

  • Marrakech has 2 sides – the first side is the mayhem of it all, with the markets and busy streets.  The second is the hidden and private residences that often sit behind the non-descript walls in what appear to be super dull streets.  You can be walking down one of these streets and then suddenly knock on the right door and find yourself in a little contained oasis paradise.  Very much part of the allure
  • So, it pays to do a bit of research to see which of these little hidden paradises you’d like to check out
  • Get yourself lost in some of the narrow chaotic medina lanes – you’re going to get lost anyway, so just embrace it!
  • See if you can arrange yourself a day trip into the nearby mountains, which feel a world away from the business of Marrakech.  This was probably our highlight