Those who know me will know that I’m a serial planner. When it comes to planning trips away there is no exception. I envisioned spending the summer of 2020 exploring new European cities and swimming in the med. Of course, all of our plans were uprooted this year and it gave me the opportunity to take a step back and take life one day at a time.
The pandemic has thrown plans out of the window and made ruin of my carefully laid out two year plan. However, it’s not all doom and gloom and I believe it’s opened up new opportunities and ideas to me that I never thought of before. It’s also meant I’ve explored places a little closer to home.
Over the strict lockdown period, I spent months exploring bike rides and areas close to me and was amazed at how many areas of beauty were accessible by foot from my house. I also started to appreciate what beautiful scenery we had here in the UK and I started thinking of where else I could explore in the country.
This led to conversations with my roommates from Sydney, Katherine and Stephanie about a trip together in the UK. We decided to head to Scotland and the west coast country of Ayrshire for a week. With little knowledge of what was in the area, we took advantage of accommodation at Brunston Castle and set off.
I decided to get a plane to Glasgow from Birmingham since it was the cheapest mode of transport to Scotland. I only paid £45 for the return flights which felt like an absolute bargain! The airport experience was pretty similar to what it was like in the past and I felt safe, comfortable and happy. Everyone in the airport was social distancing and complying with wearing masks.
On the plane, Easyjet made sure to leave a space between each separate passenger so no one was squished up against someone they don’t know. The flight was only short so I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all and the experience made me much happier at the thought of longer flights in the future under the same restrictions.
I had a few hours waiting at the airport for the girls to arrive from Luton. The only place serving food before security in the airport was the wetherspoons so I braved the busy restaurant for a seat and a bite to eat.
The girls finally arrived and we set off to the car hire to pick up our chariot of choice for the trip. We had booked a Ford Fiesta but lucked out on an upgrade to a chunkier and larger car which was perfect for the windy and bumpy roads we drove on over the week.
Brunston Castle was around an hour and a half from the airport. It was nestled in a large valley and each property on the sight offered seclusion and privacy. We loved our little cottage for the week which was fully self contained and comfortable. That evening, after making a curry for dinner, we set off for a quick walk before the sun went down. The sunset was beautiful and the rolling hills around us felt very different to the landscape down south.
We decided to split our days between packed and relaxed. Our first full day edged on the more relaxed side. We headed to the main town in the area, Ayr. This small town has a unique location on the edge of a river running into the sea. There are historic bridges crossing through the town with views out to the ocean. We walked along the beachfront here and bought some items that might make our stay in Scotland a little more comfortable.
We headed to bed fairly early for a rousing 5am wake up call. Our ferry to the Isle of Arran, an island off the coast of west Scotland was booked for 7am and we were over an hour away from the port. We set off around 5.45am and got to the port with around 10 minutes to spare. Once on the ferry, it was masks on the whole way unless you were sitting outside. Since the morning brought with it such lovely weather, we decided to brace the wind and cold and sit outside. The island is mountainous and as we approached we caught sight of the highest point on the island which we planned to hike that day. It is called Goatfell and is over 700m above sea level.
The ferry ride took just under an hour and we arrived just before 8am. Of course not much was open so early in the morning so we strolled along the boardwalk of the main town until we spotted a bakery. Armed with fresh goodies and hot chocolate, we found a beach to sit and eat on overlooking the beach. We sat here until 10am and decided to start our ascent.
Although the guides online told us to take the bus to the starting point of the hike at Brodrick Castle, since we missed the bus by a few minutes we chose to walk it. It was less than a 20 minute walk and there was pavement along most of the road, making it perfectly safe. The hike to the top of Goatfell was long and uphill consistently. The first half is through forest and heather, but once past the tree line you are exposed and following a rocky path to the top. Much of the last ascent is bouldering over rocks but with lots of rest stops it is doable for most hikers.
The view at the top is spectacular, with amazing views down to the sea and a surprising mountain range on the other side. We chose a great day in terms of weather to attempt this hike and could see the coast of Ireland in the distance. We made sure to get lots of photos at the top, making the hike worth the while! The descent was the same way back down and tiring on the legs. We were all relieved to make it to the bottom of the mountain where a pub is located. We stopped here for a drink and some well deserved food.
A surprising addition to the day was the introduction of midges. These small little flies seemed like nothing, but after hiking up and down the mountain I was covered in little bites that resulted in days of scratching. Do make sure to take insect repellent with you!
Our day on the island was long, with our return ferry at 7pm, but at no point did we feel we had outstayed our welcome. Hiking up Goatfell was a fantastic day activity and the quaint town of Brodrick was also lovely to walk around and explore. The island does have more to offer, so for those with more time, do consider a stay here.
This was our longest day in Scotland and as a result we spent the next day relaxing and recovering at our cottage. Although we may not have done much physically, it was lovely to spend some quality time with Katherine and Stephanie just enjoying each other's company.
The next day we left early for another adventure day, this time to the city. We drove the hour trip to Glasgow and spent the day mostly walking and checking out the sights. Due to Covid-19, a lot of attractions were pre-bookable only and had already sold out of allocation. We therefore couldn’t visit any museums or art galleries but we did walk from the downtown area to the university which was a lovely walk. It took around 40 minutes and crossed through traditional streets and expansive parks. The University of Glasgow has been compared to Hogwarts many times. Although none of Harry Potter was filmed here, it is said that JK Rowling did get her inspiration from here and you can see why.
Around the University Campus is a series of sweet lanes filled with art and boutique shops. We spent a fun afternoon exploring them and picking up some local artwork and pieces. That evening we had set our eyes on a Korean restaurant in the city but when we got there realised they hadn’t updated their google info and they were closed. We were there on the last day of the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme and many restaurants were either booked out or had lines down the street. Luckily I spotted a Dim Sum restaurant which were able to squeeze us in and we had an amazing meal here. Glasgow really impressed me and was a nice day out in the city.
We headed back to our little haven in the valley for the night and the next day spent a rainy and wet afternoon in Galloway Forest. This Forest is the largest in the UK and had many loches and waterfalls to explore. We chose a mid-lenght walk in the forest to shield us from the rain and despite the cloud got some nice views of the scenery around us.
Our last day was spent at Culzean Castle which is a 16th century castle and home surrounded by the beach and cliffs on one side and expansive grounds on the other. Although the house wasn’t open to explore, the grounds were large enough to keep us entertained all day.
They had a small walled garden, a swan lake, a deer park and of course a long line of coast to walk. We also found caves in the cliffs which were used by smugglers to get to the castle. This was another great and varied day out in the Ayrshire area and we felt we had made each day different to the other.
On our last evening, me and Katherine set off to pick up some Fish and Chips and stumbled upon an amazing sunset over the beach in Girvan. We attempted to eat some chips on the beach but the seagulls amassed very quickly so we hid in the car. The sunset was incredible and really was an amazing day to round off the trip.
On the final day our flights were early in the morning and before 10am I was back home in Lichfield. Our trip to the West Coast of Scotland was fantastic and really showed the variety on offer. Although I had never heard of the area before, we were able to make each day different and I learnt a lot about the area, it’s history and people. Although it wasn’t the sunny summer holiday I expected this year, it was a great break from reality.
I hope your UK break experiences were equally interesting this year and that you learnt a little more about what is available in our varied and beautiful country.
Last October, I took a trip to Los Angeles which I had dreamed of doing for years. Armed with a new-found confidence for solo travel, I decided to test the waters by exploring Santa Monica and Hollywood on my own.
In my previous post I detailed my time in Santa Monica and how I cycled along the famous Venice beach, hiked canyons, shopped and caught up with old friends. This was a great introduction to LA and after four days, I packed up my bags and headed to Hollywood.
I chose to split my stay to add more variety and to make sure I made the most of the eight days there. I was warned before I went that I wouldn’t be able to fill eight days in LA and with this in mind it made sense to make my trip a twin centre to keep it varied. I stayed in USA Hostels Hollywood, which had great reviews on Hostelworld and was well located from the main Hollywood strip. Some had said that they felt uncomfortable with the area around the hotel as there was a car park which seemed to be popular with the homeless community in the evenings. I never felt unsafe so don’t let this deter you from this location.
I was staying in the hostel over Halloween so there were a number of activities laid on with this theme in mind. The hostel also ran several trips to the Hollywood sign and Beverly Hills and I eagerly signed up to these. These trips are usually inexpensive, allow you to have local guides and are a great way to meet fellow travellers.
I checked in in the evening, after a packed day in Santa Monica so simply got myself situated in my mixed dorm room and found a local pizza shop for a slice for dinner. My dorm mates here were mostly male and also quiet, a few from neighbouring states with their own agendas for their time in LA.
On my first day in Hollywood I joined the Beverly Hills tour. This was a quiet affair, with only two other travellers signed up. We enjoyed our time regardless and our guide was great, showing us all of the main homes in Beverly Hills and the stories behind them. Beverly Hills is a stark contrast from some of the other areas in LA. There is a huge disparity in wealth and it is quite a shock to see it so brashly. Once you enter the Beverly Hills area, you are straightaway taken back by the size of these homes and the seclusion and secretly behind each one.
It is also amazing to see how many famous people lived side by side but probably had no interaction with one another. For example, on one street was the home where Miley Cyrus grew up and Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson lived. Each home has strict security and looks quite lonely, separated from the city and the outside world.
Our guide took us down the most famous streets and we also were able to get a photo with the infamous Beverly Hills sign. After this we took a trip to Rodeo Drive and walked down the streets filled with some of the most expensive and lavish shops in the world. It wasn’t really the place for me since I’ve never really been into designer shops and clothes but it was fun to walk amongst it all for the experience.
This was a great introduction to Hollywood and after this morning tour I spent the rest of the day walking around the main Hollywood strip and popping into Trader Joes to prepare for the evening. Bre, my friend who lived in LA, had graciously invited me to her pumpkin carving evening with her friends. Not one to say no to an opportunity to partake in a famous American pastime, I headed over, armed with the best pumpkin I could find.
On my walk back to the hostel with a pumpkin under my arm, a passerby commented on the odd item and shouted back to me ‘Yes girl, go get that arm workout!’. This gave me a chuckle as I continued walking.
That evening was lovely and it was so nice to meet her friends in LA. We all got creative and made unique styles. I went for an owl design that in the end came out quite well, I was pretty proud and sad to have to throw the pumpkin away after carving it, I didn’t have any need for a pumpkin whilst backpacking!
After a fun night with great company I headed back to the hostel, ready for another busy day. I got up and joined a hostel tour once again, this time to the Hollywood sign. This was a more popular tour and I was joined by around 10 other travellers. We took a local bus to the bottom of the hill and then walked the rest of the way. Once at the top, we had great views of the sign and took the standard tourist photos.
I was surprised that the tour wouldn't be making the trip to the top of the sign. I was told that this would take around an hour or so to do and no one else seemed up for the climb. I therefore said goodbye to the rest of the group and started the ascent. I had always wanted to see the sign from the top and get a shot of just the Holly part for laughs.
The hike in the end wasn’t too hard, although it wasn’t well signposted and you really had to rely on either knowing where you were going or trying to follow the trails on googlemaps. Eventually I got there and got the desired photo, all worth it for the gram!
I then pondered on what I wanted to do next. It was still early and I had the whole day to explore. I could see the Griffith Observatory in the distance and wondered if I could walk there. After a quick search it looked like a hike of over an hour but it was doable. I still had a lot of water and was also armed with snacks so I decided to try it out.
The walk from the Hollywood sign to the Griffith Observatory turned out to be lovely, quiet and peaceful. Walking along the canyons ridge with an amazing view of LA below felt like I had really stumbled upon a hidden gem. There was hardly anyone else on the path and I listened to music and just enjoyed taking in the view I had seen so many times before in movies.
Finally at the Observatory, I explored the various free exhibitions and was reminded of the Space Observatory I had been to in Wellington not more than a month before. The view from the observatory is also spectacular and I made sure to take some photos which took in the downtown area of the city and went all the way to the coast.
I was amazed that the Observatory is free to enter and only had a few paid attractions. This makes it a must do in LA and is the perfect way to spend a morning or afternoon. I took an Uber back to the hotel from here and had the typical Uber experience in LA. My driver was an actor and artist as well as an Uber driver on the side and asked if we could listen to his mixtape in the car. After the journey he was keen for me to add him to Instagram to see how he processed in the city of dreams. This was the LA I had read about and seen in movies and I wished him the best with his dreams in this competitive city.
That evening was a relaxed affair and I ate in the hostel and went to bed early, unable to really meet anyone to hang out with in the hostel.
On my third day in Hollywood I was really looking forward to experiencing Universal Studios. I found a great deal online which was two days for the price of one and decided to take my time exploring all that the theme park had to offer. I took the subway to Universal which was easy to navigate and then took the Universal tram to the entrance of the park.
I chose Universal over Disney as it seemed easier to get to and also had Harry Potter world. The first thing I thought when I went through the gates was wow! The park was huge and had almost every theme imaginable. From the elaborate Simpsons set to the many country themed areas, there were hours of fun to be had here. Hearing that the Studio tour would become busy later in the day, I opted to head straight there.
This is an hour long tour of the Universal lot and was so much more immersive than I expected. The tram is guided the whole time and takes you through live lots, old sets and amazing example lots of special effects used in the past. It was so good that I decided to go on it again the next day. Thinking I would have a different guide and therefore a brand new experience, I was surprised to jump in the car and have the same guide again!
Next up was the Simpsons lot which is very realistic (for a cartoon show) and has lots of restaurants and buildings from the famous TV show. I had lunch here at Krusty Burger. The food wasn’t anything to write home about but the novelty of sitting in a bright burger restaurant whilst Simpson episodes ran on the TV was quite something,
The main attraction in this section is arguably the Simpsons ride. Universal operates a single rider line which was great for me as it meant I could skip quite a lot of the queues. This was not the case for every ride though and I spent around an hour waiting to try out this attraction. The rides at Universal were new to me in that they didn’t really move at all but instead relied on special effects and simulation to replicate the movement of a ride. This was still very effective though.
The park also had a section for Jurassic Park, Stranger Things, Transformers and more. The highlight for me was of course the Harry Potter World. This featured a realistic Hogsmeade complete with shops, a train station and a huge model of Hogwarts. I was in awe of the scale of this model and how amazingly immersive it was. I spent the majority of the first day going around the shops in Hogsmeade, trying out Butterbeer and grinning like a kid.
There are two rides in the Harry Potter world in LA. The first is the Flight of the Hippogriff which is a relaxed roller coaster, usually short queues here and not worth queuing for if the line is long. The second is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This ride takes you on a tour of Hogwarts with a plot line featuring dragons, spiders and broomstick rides. It isn’t a roller coaster but it does have some amazing special effects that make you really feel like you’re flying with Harry and the gang. This ride does have a single rider line and it meant I skipped a queue of around an hour for the ride. Pleased I could do so, I then proceeded to go on the ride another three times until the motion of the ride made me feel a little queasy.
Universal was well worth a day and a half of my time in LA and despite going alone I was never made to feel unwelcome or out of place. It was one of my favourite things I did in LA because of this.
My final day in LA after spending half in Universal was spent seeing the famous Chinese theatre and other hotspots in Hollywood. I didn’t particularly enjoy the crowds filled with promoters and dress up actors so I didn’t stay too long but was able to look at all of the hand prints and signatures immortalised outside the Chinese Theatre.
In the evening, I headed a few blocks away to the Hudson Theatre where I would be watching Starkid Productions perform their newest musical, Black Friday. I was there for opening night and was so excited to watch a Theatre Company I had watched for years in real life. Starkid was a group I got into 10 years ago during my musical theatre kid days and I had casually supported from afar for many years. To see them perform one of their shows in real life, knowing I was one of the first to see it was a privilege and another highlight of my time in LA.
I also met some lovely people in the audience that evening and didn’t feel at all left out. After the show, I stayed for stage door and was lucky enough to meet the majority of the cast and get into conversation with a few. This led to me being one of the last to leave the venue and as I walked with the other fans I had befriended towards their cars I felt like I had really cemented my LA experience.
The night of Black Friday was also Halloween and I was glad I had spent it in the company of Starkid and not at a party. I have never been a fan of Halloween so this felt like the perfect way to spend it. The next morning I packed my bags and headed to the airport, ready to say hello to Mexico.
My time in Hollywood was packed, had lots of variety and boosted my confidence in my skills solo travelling. Although I didn’t meet many people in the hostel, I found comfort and enjoyment in my own company and got to do everything I wanted to do with no compromises.
The Bay of Islands is a sub-tropical paradise, sitting far above the rest of the country just before the great expanse of the Pacific sea. The region is well known for its fantastic lush scenery, large variety of wildlife and never-ending list of activities. It is also home to New Zealand’ s historical roots and was the place where I first felt a real connection with New Zealand’s people, culture and legends.
I have been to the Bay of Islands twice. The first was Christmas 2018, when I joined a three-day Stray trip which coincided with Christmas Day. The second was for a long weekend road trip, this time with my friend Steph.
The most popular area of the Bay of Islands is Paihia. This small tourist town is around a three-hour drive from Auckland and sits smugly in between many of the popular tourist sites this region has to offer. The town itself is small and cute, with a lot of Kiwi charm. There is a lot of accommodation to chose from, from hostels to luxury condos.
I stayed at the Peppertree Lodge and the Haka Lodge. Whilst the Peppertree Lodge was quite basic, we loved the Haka Lodge for its good location, REALLY comfy beds and dorms and sociable atmosphere.
The town boasts a small high street which offers everything a tourist may need. I particularly enjoyed my visit to Ella’s Fudge Bar where I treated myself and my housemates to a variety of delicious homemade fudge!
The Highstreet also had several great eateries and bars for any budget. For Pizza, the Pizza shack is a great option, with views of the sea from the restaurant and huge pizzas to share. On the wharf are even more places to eat and drink. Me and Steph particularly liked Charlotte’s Kitchen which had great cocktails. The menu was limited but the view and ambiance made up for it.
The things to do in Paihia was numerous and suit every traveller. The most famous is the Cruise to the Hole in the Rock. This two-hour ferry ride takes you out in the Bay of Islands harbour, on the search of dolphins along the way. As you near the mouth of the bay and the open sea, you will come across the famous Hole in the Rock which on a good day the ferry can sail through.
On my first trip, the weather was closed in. We enjoyed a presentation from the staff about the different animals that lived in the area. Of course, since the weather was so closed in, we didn’t see any this time around! On arrival to the Hole in Rock, although impressive, it was a scrabble to get a photo without getting too wet from the rain! If you don’t see dolphins on your trip to the Hole in the Rock the company offers another trip free of charge. Of course, since most of the clients are tourists, they most likely would have to go out of their way to take up this offer. Luckily, I was able to keep the voucher safe and redeem it a few months later.
The second time around the skies were clear and we had a much more enjoyable experience. We saw dolphins and they showed off a few tricks to our ferry as we sailed past. The Hole in the Rock was surrounded by calm waters this time and we were able to successfully sail through the rock, the boat blasting the horn as we went through which made for an amazing echo.
I was also amazed by the lone house sitting on the cliff face opposite the Hole in the Rock. Covered in cloud the last time I had taken the cruise, my second time around it was an intriguing sight and I wondered if/ who was brave enough to live there.
Linking to the Hole in the Rock cruise, the company also offers you the opportunity to take a one-way trip to Russell, the town on the opposite side of the bay. Known for its raunchy history, the town was popular with pirates and whalers at the beginning of New Zealand’s European history. The town gained a reputation for debauchery and gambling. These days it is a lot sleepier and is best accessed by boat. Although it does have road access, it can take many hours to make your way around to the small town. On our first trip to the area, we decided to take up the offer for a cheap trip to the town and went over to explore.
Unfortunately, on this day the weather was still closed in and as we landed on the opposite shore, the heavens opened. We took refuge in The Duke of Marlborough Hotel which in New Zealand is well known. A few of our other travel friends did decide to hike Flagstaff Hill that day but were disappointed with a lack of views and a whole lot of cloud.
On a better day, this town is great for a walk and a visit to the historic museums which detail the towns interesting history.
Other popular tourist attractions in the area include the Waitangi Treaty Ground, which is the site of the first accord between the British Crown and the Maori people. Here, history has been preserved and you can learn about why there were issues with this treaty and why Maori representation and preservation of the culture is so important. Many visit this site for a Maori demonstration, but if you are travelling to Rotorua at any point in your trip it is better to save your money for this experience down there. I didn’t visit this attraction due to money constraints, but it is great spot for travellers of New Zealand who wish to learn a little more about Maori and European history.
Another popular attraction in Paihia is the range of water sport activities. My trip kayaking and paddle boarding to a waterfall was one of the highlights of my trip to this region. We first met on the wharf and hopped in a boat to travel in-land towards Haruru Falls. On the way, our guide told us stories of the river and we enjoyed watching the birdlife on the riverside. As we got closer to the falls we transferred into Kayaks. As we reached the falls, we were encouraged to go underneath them. This was huge fun and we tried many times to do this and see how long we could stay under the water.
The last time I had visited this waterfall it was a wet cold day and I had watched the kayaks with remorse for them. This time, on a warm summer evening it was a great experience and we stayed in the water longer than we needed to. A few of us opted to kayak/ paddleboard back whilst others warmed up in the boat. We paddle boarded all the way back to the river mouth as dusk fell. This led to an incredible moment. As it got darker, we started to notice the water around our paddle boards glowing. Intrigued, I put my hand in the water and was amazed when the water around my hand started to glow. This was the elusive glowing plankton I had heard so much about from other travellers all over the world.
Every time we paddled the whole area around our boards glowed and it was a truly magical moment. None of us wanted to get out of the water after this and were so sad to get back to dry land. I would recommend this trip even without the plankton as it was a great way to spend the evening.
Aside from Paihia, the bay of Island region has a lot more to offer. On the long drive to Paihia from Auckland there are a couple of places which stand as great stops along the way. The first is Whangarei Heads, around halfway to the Bay of Islands. This peninsula has an amazing beach, breath-taking views from the cliffs and a great sub-tropical climate and landscape.
We stopped here for an afternoon and really enjoyed our walk up the cliff to amazing views over the whole area. Looking to the left, we watched as the cliffs fell into the Pacific Ocean. On our right we had a view of the rolling fields leading back to Auckland. The area also has fantastic surfing beaches and is worth a longer stop for the keen surfer.
On my first trip to the Bay of Islands, we stopped off at a slightly different beauty spot, the famous Hundertwasser toilets of Kawakawa. These public toilets were created by the Austrian-Kiwi artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser who commissioned and designed the unusual tourist attraction. It is on the only public toilet in the world which is seen as a work of art. We spent a short toilet break enjoying the uniqueness of this ‘work of art’.
One place that stands out to me is Hokianga, a small town on the left of the peninsula. The area is surrounded by tropical rainforests and across the bay from the community are amazing sand dunes. We stayed at a local hotel here which was a nice treat from a hostel. On our first evening here, the power went out and we had to go to sleep early by candlelight. It made for a memorable Christmas Eve and when we woke up on Christmas morning, we were greeted by a buffet breakfast and sunshine. The dunes across from the town are popular for sand dunning and we got in a small boat to go experience the fun.
The unique thing about these sand dunes is that they go into the water. We spent a few hours here getting braver and braver, eventually trying out the steepest and longest dune for a more exciting ride.
The area is also known from its Kauri trees and we joined a local Maori representative for an informative evening about the trees and their significance to Maori culture. The Kauri are known as protectors of the forest and in the past have been heavily logged form their good bark. Even Buckingham Palace features a lot of Kauri. Unfortunately, this heavy logging means that there are not many left and the species also has to contend with kauri dieback, a disease that that is attacking the remaining few.
It is therefore important to disinfect your shoes before you enter a Kauri forest. Our guide shared this information and more as we took a twilight walk amongst the huge trees. We finally got to visit Tane Mahuta, known as the God of the Forest. He is featured in the Maori creation story as the child of Ranginui (the sky) and Papatūānuku (the earth). It is said that his parents were wrapped in an enteral embrace, leaving their children in darkness. Tired of this, Tane pushed his parents apart bringing life to the world. What is amazing is that Tane is the only living God in the world at over 2000 years old.
When we went to visit this huge tree, our guide led us to him and directed our attention in the opposite direction. When we then turned around it was a pretty amazing and impressive sight. The tree is so huge that it has a whole ecosystem on it, with other trees growing on the top. This experience was a great way to connect with Maori culture and heritage and is well worth doing when visiting Northlands and the Bay of Islands.
The Bay of Islands has more than many may first think and therefore is a great destination for a longer holiday or a trip which encompasses more than just the beach. I really enjoyed both of my trips up to this region and think it shouldn’t be overlooked when planning your own trip.
Written by George Thomson
I love a road trip, the ability to be able to make a simple holiday into an epic journey is such an alluring thought to me. More so is the ability to remove yourself from the confines of a resort and to delve into the places and people that make up a location. A more tangible slice of reality, somewhat removed from what the lens packaged holidays allow you to see through.
On the back of my third summer camp experience in Canada and free from previous restrictions of completing my degree, I joined three friends as we took a Dodge Journey across the Canadian Rockies. The trip centred around the sole idea of wanting to visit Moraine Lake in Alberta and while this may be obvious advice, a good tip for any trip is to have at least one primary goal or location to work towards. With this knowledge, and knowing that one member of our party was time restricted to flying back to Florida, we boarded a 5am flight from Toronto Person Airport to Vancouver.
The first port of call was to pick up our transport and for this we hired a Dodge Journey from Wicked Campers Vancouver. Having searched for viable options, Wicked Campers offered the best range of vehicles alongside creative paint jobs that’ll get you noticed on the road. Alas, we hired an all grey 4x4 aptly named ‘Plain Jane’ who we, in our sleep deprived state, quickly renamed ‘Cletus’ and made our way towards our first stop, Whistler.
The road to Whistler is one of the most beautiful coastal roads I have rode on in my life. High up among the evergreens gazing west towards snow-capped mountains that dwarf over Howe Sound and Squamish below, the scenery was a far cry from the somewhat flat landscape of Ontario. There was a real sense of freedom here, a landscape so far removed from the concrete jungle of Vancouver mere miles behind us that, taken out of context, could have been mistaken for a locale hidden in one of the most remote corners of the globe.
What I didn’t expect was the road signs, written in both English and the language of the First Nation communities of the Pacific Northwest Coast, a cultural co-existence I’ve only ever seen in parts of Wales. This is a theme that I soon learnt is commonplace for many of the notable places across British Columbia, the colonisation and cultural assimilation of the First Nation peoples of Canada is interwoven in a self-reflective narrative.
A few hours later and our arrival to Whistler is greeted with one of manmade infrastructure’s biggest oversights, a traffic jam. However, I wouldn’t have wanted to put the brakes on anywhere else with a perfectly central view of Whistler Mountain. Staying with an old friend of ours, the source of the traffic jam was also the source of his excitement for the weekend he had planned for us. Crankworx World Tour 2019 had reached Whistler and with it came the promise of a weekend of partying with NERO performing the headline set. It’s safe to say that I spent most of my money this trip on both of my visits to Whistler, fully immersing myself into the Whistler lifestyle, partying in the sun while exploring the vibrant and open Olympic village surrounded by lush forests and looming peaks.
By the end of the weekend and headed north east, out of the mountains, into scenery that completely subverted my expectations of Canada. The change of scenery starts to appear in the town of Lillooet an old mining town that contends for B.C’s hotspot location every summer. Gone was dense greenery and in its place, a semi-arid landscape clinging to the valley walls. The aesthetic was something I’d only ever seen from towns in the Arizona deserts and continued as we got closer towards Kamloops. What I soon learnt was that Kamloops sits on the northern edge of Canada’s only desert, the Okanagan Valley, a rain shadow region for the Coast Mountains that envelope Whistler and Vancouver.
As the afternoon set in, we looked for our first camping spot, a recreational ground by Inks Lake. However, the deeper we drove towards the lake, the more uneven the ground became. Eventually, we reversed Cletus back towards the entrance of the park and found a place to park. A big feature of our car was that we had a fold out tent on the roof, simple to use and extremely comfortable and spacious inside. As evening set in, a herd of cattle came in to graze around us and we slept that night with a cool breeze carrying the occasional rustle of hooves on the dry ground.
Kamloops, with its yellow and orange aesthetic, came and went as we drove across the desert towards the mountains of Alberta. Soon, we were back among the stereotypical alpine lakes and peaks of the Canadian Rockies. The distances between places in Canada is vast compared to the UK and while this is a fairly obvious observation of North America in general, it does mean that locations along the way are often seen from the view of a car window. Our next camping spot was the inverse of the night before, parked on the banks of Kicking Horse River, just west of Wapta Falls, braving the ice-cold glacial waters.
Feeling refreshed, the next day we crossed the border into Alberta and towards our initial goal, Moraine Lake. From two days of relative freedom driving along the Trans Canada Highway, entering the tourist hotspot of Banff National Park was a sharp reminder that we were tourists more than wanderers. Both carparks for Lake Louise and Moraine Lake were packed and entry would come down to patience and a lot of luck. The latter was on our side as we entered our second attempt, seeing the marshals open the gates towards Moraine Lake and letting through three cars, ours being the last. The cars in front stopped to soak in the view of the valley below as we raced ahead, eager to arrive at our prized destination and stunned at how lucky we had been.
Moraine Lake did not disappoint, and was just as our friend had dreamed it would be. The glacial waterfall beyond drew crystal clear water into the lake, thick with an aethereal blue hue. Water so opaque, the sight of canoe hulls disappearing under the surface felt otherworldly, adding to the serenity of the landscape. Behind the sea of blue was an equally impressive sea of green with the National Park encompassing the valley floor and walls as far as the eye could see.
A brief visit to the gift shop introduced us to a lovely shop worker from Brighton who said she would vouch for us and get us free canoe hire through ‘mates’ rates’. I can’t remember why we didn’t accept her offer. We spent the night outside of Canmore, in a small area known dauntingly as Dead Man’s Flats, braving the freezing waters once again and aimed to spend some proper time in Banff before our inevitable farewell stop in Calgary.
Banff itself was an amazing town, sprawling with tourists and full of life and character. Our diner breakfast had us meeting another Brit who encouraged us to visit Mount Norquay which would provide a perfect viewpoint over the Banff and the Bow River Valley. Local knowledge is an invaluable asset and sure enough, the views atop Norquay were astonishing, with a pleasant chair lift ride to boot.
At the viewpoint, we spoke to a woman who visited Banff every year and was on the lookout for grizzly bears who liked to raise their young on the slopes. Talk in the town was that a sighting had been confirmed a few days before and subsequently, the walk to the viewpoint had been closed for safely. Sure enough, as she told us the story, we noticed movement among the trees below and suddenly, a mother emerged from the treeline with two cubs cautiously in tow. Fulfilled, we stopped by a liquor store for some celebratory drinks and left the mountains for real civilisation in Calgary.
Calgary wasn’t a location we were fussed by and driving in concluded that we weren’t going to miss much from not visiting what felt like a rather generic city. Instead, when four became three, we swiftly retreated back into the wild and north towards Jasper National Park. Jasper was far colder and wetter than we ever expected it to be and staying in Waterfowl Lakes camping grounds, we relied on a steady stream of firewood to keep us warm. Our goal for the return journey to Vancouver was to cover some new ground before we took the familiar route back west and Jasper achieved all of those ideals. We had gone from lush forests, to arid deserts and the flat grasslands of Calgary and now we were in a truly glacial environment.
The Columbia Icefields dominates the southern region of Jasper National Park, its glacial waters feeding into the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Icefields offer a variety of different activities, the cheapest in price being a visit to a skywalk. Overlooking the Sunwapta Valley 280 meters below with views of the Icefield was a unique, yet slightly underwhelming experience where tour guides told us the history and geography of the Icefield and the uncertain future it faces as a result of global warming. While the factual knowledge imparted was fascinating, the views on a cloudy day such as ours failed to justify the money spent.
The free option however, to walk over the terminal moraine to the mouth of the Athabasca Glacier, was a beautiful yet harrowing sight. One of the six ‘toes’ of the Icefield, the glacier is an impressive sight, a pearly white and vast hulk of ice and snow lodged between its massive valley walls. Beyond its bordered fence, hikers and specialised coaches climbed its surface to the top along strict, well worn paths. The tragedy of this majestic piece of natural geography is signified by strategically placed markers along the walk to the glacier mouth.
Further inspection informed that in our current climate, the glacier is receding 5 meters every year, a total of around 1.5 kilometres since the beginning of the 20th century. With such a high rate of recession, the fear among scientists is that the Icefield will at some point fail to feed water into all three oceans leading to what may be dramatic effects for our climate. As we journeyed south, I was left with a sobering reminder of what natural wonders will be lost as a result of climate change and can safely say being able to visit the Columbia Icefields was a privilege and a major highlight of the entire trip.
The return journey west greeted us with much appreciated clear skies and warm weather, joined with a fantastic camping spot at Waitabit Creek where we enjoyed relaxing in the calm waters of a small eddy on the riverbank. From here we visited Revelstoke, a small city and resort on the edge of B.C, guided by one of my companions who had prior experience with the place and regularly reminded us that he ‘nearly did a season here’. From our brief tour around the city, I could definitely see why. Revelstoke is a charming town with classic architecture and a relaxed feel, mixed with a diverse mix of local and seasonal residents. We spent a lengthy amount of time at a local café, charging our phones, chatting with the international staff and soaking in the ambience around us.
Our camping spot for the night would be across the Columbia River near Begbie Falls, another recreational spot, shrouded in thick forest. With more time, we could have seen far more of what Revelstoke had to offer but we were now effectively racing to get back to Vancouver before our hire period expired, spending overnight stops in Cache Creek and Whistler, where we spent most of our money again.
Throughout our time on our road trip, we had gotten constant questions from locals and travellers alike either fascinated by our car’s roof tent or amazed to see such a mix of nationalities on the road together. For the record, our party was two Brits, one American and one New Zealander and this combination of accents had us approached by inquisitive Canadians and fellow internationals alike, eager to hear the story of how this journey came to be. In turn, we met some of the most fascinating people, from stereotypically friendly Canadians who had spent time growing up in the UK to seasonaires, keen to tell us the experiences they’d had while living and working in the mountains.
As my time in Canada was coming to the end, I waved goodbye to my two remaining travel partners, as they ventured off to spend a week on Vancouver Island, and visit Stanley Park. With my feet firmly in the Pacific Ocean and the warm sun on my face, I reflected on the experience I had been on. Living for two weeks in such close proximity with each other was on a few occasions a challenge. However, I now felt a sense of loneliness traveling on my own in a large and unknown city.
The road trip I’d dreamt of since I was young had been everything I’d hoped it would be; full of excitement and beauty, filled with laughs and plenty of joy. Traveling by oneself can be enjoyable but traveling with friends is a must and being able to share all of the experiences in real time with each other further cemented our friendship. Having spent the last two weeks being in the total opposite situation, shielding and not leaving my house, I have had plenty of time to reflect on this adventure. As the road trip’s anniversary draws near, now more than ever do I look forward to getting in a car with some friends and driving somewhere beyond.
After many years of wanting to explore the ‘City of Stars’, I decided to make it part of my journey back to the UK at the end of 2019. Previously when I had lived in Utah, USA, I had dismissed travelling to LA due to the lack of interest in a trip from friends. After a further three years of travel and a newfound confidence in my ability to travel by myself I booked my trip.
With eight days booked in the LA area, I decided to split by time between two main areas. I first spent four days in Santa Monica and a further four in Hollywood. This post will recount my time in Santa Monica and my top things to see and do here.
I first landed in LAX at a very early 8am. My flight had left Auckland at 7.30am that same day so this was an odd experience, knowing no time had passed and I was set to embark on the longest day of my life. I left the airport and went in search of my shuttle service to the hostel. This was easy to find and I was glad I had pre-booked a shuttle as the Uber system has recently changed making the pickup point a trek from the terminal. The shuttle dropped me off right outside of the hostel, HI Los Angeles Santa Monica Hostel, which was well located in the middle of Santa Monica.
Since I had arrived at the hostel so early, I was fully expecting to not be able to access my room until a lot later. Luckily, this was not the case and I was given my room from the off! I used this opportunity to have a rest and a shower. I felt so stiff from sitting on a plane for so long that I decided the first thing to do was to go for a walk.
My walk took me over the highway to the promenade a couple of blocks from the hostel. I was amazed at how expansive the beach was, it seemed to go on forever! I walked along the beach and enjoyed a bit of a paddle. The sun was starting to get quite hot around midday as I sat under the Santa Monica pier and simply people watched. The pier reminded me of the many videos that had been filmed under here and I could not believe I was in LA after so many years of wanting to go.
After a walk and this short break under the pier the time was only midday! I could not believe I still had half of the day to go when all I really wanted to do was sleep and start afresh. I headed for some lunch on 3rd street promenade and went to the T-Mobile store to get some data to use in the US. Interacting with Americans again was a slight culture shock as their attitudes are typically less subdued than Aussies and Kiwis. After a few days though, I was back into the swing of being in America and felt comfortable.
I spent the rest of this long day chilling and napping, desperate to not fall to jetlag. I headed to Chipotle for dinner and tried to plan out what I wanted to do for the next four days. I was yet to meet anyone in the hostel as the girls in my room were quiet.
I went to sleep that evening excited to hopefully meet some more people in the hostel and explore the area fully.
The hostel I stayed at was the only hostel in the area and was highly rated. It did seem to lack the charm of other hostels I had been to around the world and served more as a hotel than a place to meet other backpackers. That morning I headed down to the breakfast and everyone was seated alone, not engaging with others. Finding this strange, I adhered to the social norm and ate alone, amazed at the amount of plastic the hostel deemed necessary. Ever heard of individual slices of bread wrapped in plastic?!
After speaking to the reception, I was recommended a good place to hire a bike from and made my way there. This bike shop was a walk from the beach but offered a good rate for the day and I was also able to score a sweet pink bike for my cycle trip!
Armed with my new mode of transport, I made my way to the pier once again and onto the famous boardwalk that spans the whole beach district. I started by cycling to the right, towards Ratner Beach. This route takes in the expansive beach and is generally quieter than going towards Venice. I enjoyed a quiet bike ride all the way out to Ratner where the trail stopped. The path was dotted with other cyclists, stylish runners, and well-off fast walkers.
I stopped on the way back for a quick drink and a sit down and spend the next 30 minutes trying to find my Fitbit which had fallen off on the ride! After retracing my steps and feeling confident that it wasn’t coming back, I kept on going back towards the pier.
I continued all the way to Venice Beach. This was fascinating to see after seeing it so much on the TV and online. The main beach street is packed with interesting people and a huge variety of stalls. Across the path from here is the famous skate park where I stayed to watch a few skaters show off their tricks to the crowd. Further on from here was muscle beach where there were many pumped up sweaty athletes working out. My PT back in New Zealand has suggested I get a pass for a few hours and work out there but looking at the people I think I would have looked very out of place!
I continued from this iconic spot and made it to the end of the ride trail at Marina del Ray. The bike lane goes inland from here and then back out at the beach after the airport, but I didn’t fancy navigating a busy main street. Instead I used the opportunity of the end of the trail to have a late lunch at a small sandwich spot. I left my bike and strolled back to Venice and the famous Venice canals. The houses here were all large and fully decked out for Halloween, I am always amazed by how America decorates to the full for every holiday.
I reunited with my pink bike to leisurely cycle back to the Santa Monica Pier. I made sure to take a break to sunbathe and have a little paddle in the water. The coastline is so expansive that there is a huge amount of room for everyone, it seemed a world away from the city of LA that I knew was bustling a few miles away.
Back at the pier I took a brief walk along the boardwalk, again so familiar from the many movies and online content I had watched over the years. I decided to come back here in the evening and try out some of the rides and food.
Back at the hostel I freshened up, feeling 100% better than I had the day before and feeling proud of my ability to beat jet lag this time around. At dusk I made my way across the road to the pier and bought some tickets for the rides. They are quite expensive for what they are, $10 for the roller coaster and Ferris wheel, but it felt like something I had to do since I was there.
I went for the roller coaster first and enjoyed the short but sweet bumpy ride as the sun set. Next up was the Ferris Wheel where I learnt about the dreaded no single rider rule. I assumed I would be bundled up with a group of two or four and be able to ride but it seemed that the Ferris Wheel only put people who knew each other in each carriage. Since I had already bought my ticket, I was told I would have to wait until someone else wanted to find single as well. Luckily after a minute or so of waiting, a man was called over and agreed to join me. He was also travelling solo and was in LA for a business trip. We both took photos of the other for them and enjoyed the view from the Ferris wheel.
I tried to get a glimpse of the Hollywood Hills and what lay ahead for the rest of my trip, but it was a little too dark and far away to spot. After the ride was over, I made my way to get a pizza and stroll along the pier until nightfall. Although it was a little embarrassing to be outed as a solo traveller by the staff at the Ferris wheel, I was happy I had ridden it regardless and that I had taken my first big step on an unusual solo outing.
The next day I had a mission in mind which was to conquer 3rd Street Promenade. I set out and explored the shops, some familiar and some new to me. One of my favourite things about America is the shopping so I happily spent the morning snapping up Victoria Secrets deals and trying to convince myself that I had enough room in my backpack to fit these extra clothes.
After a successful morning, I met up with my friend Bre for lunch. Me and Bre met in a hostel in Auckland and I was excited to see her again in her city. We went for lunch at The Misfit on Santa Monica Blvd. and enjoyed a catch up over what we had been doing since we last had seen each other.
We went for a walk around Santa Monica after lunch and then headed into LA city and K-Town. We had a fun afternoon together and I was amazed to be with her again but in her own surroundings of LA. That evening Bre invited me to watch her play at a bar on Universal walk where she worked. Bre is a really talented artist and did many gigs in New Zealand and record a live album at her hostel (ps. Check it out, it is amazing). Watching her again was fab and I was really happy I had made the trip to LA and was able to see her perform again.
On my final day in Santa Monica, I signed up to do a walk of the nearby Temescal Canyon with the hostel. Around 10 people signed up for the hike and we made of own way to the start using public transport. I was thrilled to be around a group of travellers who wanted to chat, and we had a really fun time hiking to the summit.
There were quite a few Aussie’s in our group and after successfully completing the hike and making it back to Santa Monica we went for lunch together where I tried my first beyond meat burger. It was insane how much the texture resembled beef! I had spent a lot of the hike regaling one of the Aussies about the joys of the Cheesecake Factory. After my pitch he was sold, and he joined me for a mid afternoon snack at the famous restaurant. Jack was suitably impressed with the cheesecake; I was thrilled to finally have a slice after many years and we spend a few hours just getting to know each other.
After this I headed back to the hostel to grab my bags and get in an Uber to my next hostel in Hollywood. My time in Santa Monica was perfect. It was the perfect amount of time in the city and a great first impression to LA. The smaller city and laid-back vibe settled me back into America again and without this I think I would have found Hollywood overwhelming. Santa Monica is also where I first dipped my toe in solo travel on this trip and I was proud of myself for enjoying my own company and ticking off everything I wanted to do.
The next few days in Hollywood allowed me to explore more of LA and get a different side of the city.