Fairytale views by Lake Bled

Wow it really is as picture-perfect as you’ve been led to believe! All the ingredients of a fairy tale:

– small church perched perfectly on a small island ✅

– sitting in the middle of crystal clear water with only the light lapping of town boats ✅

– castle nearby hanging over a precarious ledge to the water ✅

– backdrop of the Julian Alps ✅

An Instagrammer’s dream!

The 6km / 3.7mile run around the lake, the swim over the island and the variety of other outdoor options nearby make this a great experience
Make sure to stay for 1 or 2 nights (as opposed to a day trip) so you can soak up the magical feeling of the place

The Northumberland Coast (in summer!)

The UK isn’t known for its beaches, and for good reason – its only warm enough for them 3 months of the year and even less the further north you go!  That’s why the coastline of Northumberland, and in particular Bamburgh Beach and Embleton Bay, comes as a bit of surprise when I put them in a list of the top beaches in the world.  But before you write it off as nostalgic madness, consider a few factors:

  1.  The castle backdrops – Bamburgh Castle is an imposing 11th century Normal castle that looms over Bamburgh Beach from its crag right on the waterfront and with as much history as almost any castle in the world.   England dominates the world for stunning castles by the beach, and Bamburgh is the jewel in the crown.  Dunstanburgh Castle, whilst more battered over the centuries, provides a similar backdrop for Embleton Bay
  2. The quality of the sand – the sand tone in this part of the world is the same as the powdery sand you find in the tropical beaches of the likes of Brazil and the Caribbean, and is so fine it squeaks, which is in stark contrast to some of the pebble beaches you find in the eastern Mediterranean and south of England
  3. The cute villages by the water – the likes of Low Newton-by-the-Sea, with its gorgeous white cottage square green circled by local pubs overlooking the beach are about as quaint and lovely as anywhere in England
  4. Few tourists – “best kept secret” seems to have held well for decades and you simply don’t have the volume of fellow tourists as you would in the south of England.  The beaches are wide and long, and you will likely have big chunks to yourself
  5. The Northumberland Coast Driving Tour – you have some great nearby attractions that share the quiet vibe.  In particular, Hadrian’s Wall (the well preserved northern boundary of the Roman Empire), Lindisfarne (aka Holy Island – a key centre for the spread of Christianity in Britain in the Dark Ages and infamous site of the first Viking invasions), and the various quaint Northumberland villages dotted no distance from the coast

 

It obviously doesn’t hit the tropical beach vibe, but is nonetheless beautiful.  Just be sure to go in summer!

2 days for the famous highlights of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a great place to visit either as a destination on its own, or, as many people do, as a nice 2 day stop over between flights.  I’ve lived in Hong Kong for 8 years, so . . . I’m biased . . . but also leaves me well placed to give you tips on how to have the best experience

For this review, I’m focusing on 10 classic highlights of Hong Kong and can give some tips that will improve your experience.  But my biggest tip overall is that Hong Kong is not just skyscrapers and neon signs – more than 3/4 of HK is undeveloped, 40% is national parks and a mini tropical paradise if you just jump on a ferry or take a short taxi ride.  For some ideas that will give you an even better HK experience, see the travel entry for 2 days hidden highlights of Hong Kong – you maybe surprised at just how world-class an experience you can get from these little islands

2 days hidden highlights of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a great place to visit either as a destination on its own, or, as many people do, as a nice 2 day stop over between flights.  I’ve lived in Hong Kong for 8 years, so . . . I’m biased . . . but also keen to share some tips to make sure you get the best from the place
The biggest overall tip I can give – many people when they think of Hong Kong think of the skyscrapers, the busy neon light lined streets, the sheer hustle of one of the most densely populated places on earth etc etc – and it is indeed all of these things.  But it is also 75% undeveloped and 40% national park.  In short, it is a world class city, with a tropical paradise a short ferry / taxi away.  That is why, for this review, I am focusing on some of the more unusual things to do in Hong Kong for a first time visitor
Should you want to check out the classic Hong Kong highlights – see my entry for 2 days for the famous highlights of Hong Kong

Relaxing on the beaches of Phuket

Phuket is a beautiful spot to chill out at for a few days.  It has the full range of accommodation and eating options, some good opportunities for partying / lash, diving to the south and enough scale to head off on trips all around the peninsular

 

Yes, its touristy, but it ticks the chill out vibe after a few weeks of travelling or as a simple break from any of the nearby Asian cities

 

Only a very brief travel entry, so a few high level tips:

  • Even if there for full on partying/ lash – try not to stay in Patong.  It’s great for the nights out, but there are just so many wonderful options slightly further away in the hills and on the beaches for the same prices
  • When in Patong, even if not there for a giant night out, make sure to head to Tiger Bar.  It kind of sums up the Patong vibe with something like 50 different mini bars each with their own theme
  • There are a bunch of islands off the east coast of Phuket that you can visit as part of day tour with a variety of operators leaving from Yamu Pier.  The islands are great, but you just need to be careful who you book with because it is very easy to get rammed into a full tourist boat that won’t quite hit the paradise vibe you’re looking for
  • There are some great spots for scuba diving all around Phuket, in particular the ferry reef dive off Raja Yai in the south is superb, with heaps of large cleaner fish that come up very close

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

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 in Cozumel

Cozumel is all about the diving and the 30m+ visibility.  From what we could see, there were some nice spots outside of the main tourist areas, but the huge influx of cruise ship tourists kind of dominates the main town of San Miguel.  If a diver, its a great spot for nice 1-2 day adventure heading over from the mainland, and where you only spend the evenings in the main town.  If not a diver, give it a miss unless you can find a quieter spot

We went with Maple Leaf Scuba for 2 dives and they were great.  1st dive –  Palancar Bricks (26m), where you work your way through the maze of coral walls which was fun.  Highlight was the 2nd dive – Paso del Codral (18m), a long drift dive along the coral floor, one of my favourite dives for its colours and sheer amount to see

Chilling, diving and drinking in Caye Caulker

Chilling – Go Slow is on the street signs, used when people say hello to each other, and just the general culture of the place.  Such a wonderfully laid back Caribbean beach town

Diving – some fab dive sites no distance from the shore, and of course access to the world famous Blue Hole

Drinking – the Spit, the narrow channel that splits Caye Caulker in two and with a series of beach bars to allow you to chill in the water whilst having your drinks, makes for one of the best drinking spots you can dream of

Caye Caulker – a must if in Belize