A Winter Weekend in Budapest

First Published by Weeqli

Believe it or not, Budapest has been on the tourist radar since long before George Ezra decided to sing about his fictional house there. In fact, it’s considered by those in the know as one of the hidden gems of Central Europe, although the ‘hidden’ part of that is fading away rapidly, thanks in large to the boom in budget-airlines now linking the UK to Hungary. The upside of this, of course, is that it’s opened up another gem of a city as the perfect destination for a quick weekend getaway. Add into the mix a rather favourable exchange rate between the British Pound and Hungarian Florint – even in these days of Brexit doom – and you have yourself a rather nifty and highly affordable weekend retreat, just two short hours from home.

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Getting In & Around

Almost all visitors arriving for a weekend in Budapest will land at Franz Liszt International Airport, some 20km from the city centre. While the cheap-and-cheerful public bus 100E runs into town every 20 minutes or so, those with limited time may be better off splashing out on a taxi into town. Journey times are approximately 30-40 minutes and cost £15-£20 on the meter – great value and much more convenient than the bus, particularly for early or late arrivals!

Once in the city, the vast majority of sites can and should be visited on foot. That said, if you are planning to explore further afield, single trips on the excellent bus and tram network cost 350HUF – a little under a pound – making this a fun and cheap way to get around. 24-Hour passes, as well as the tourist-focussed ‘Budapest Card’, are available, with the latter offering token discounts at some of the city’s museums and attractions, although these tend not to be worth the cost for weekend visitors.

Where to Stay

Call me romantic, but I feel a weekend away in a grand city like Budapest deserves a hotel of equal standing. I couldn’t bear to spend days walking cobbled streets, admiring stunning architecture and designs only to return to an anonymous business hotel on the edge of town. Regular readers may also have gathered that I am one who enjoys his creature comforts, so it’s rather fortunate that the four-star Hotel Palazzo Zichy covers all the bases and is my go-to choice of digs while in town. A former palace, dating back to the 19thcentury, the 80 contemporary styled rooms offer thoughtful touches including a walk-in shower, complimentary Nespresso machine and buffet breakfast included as standard.

Central Market Hall of Budapest, Interiors 

Before you go

The grand Hungarian Parliament is one of Budapest’s most famous landmarks, and while there are countless amazing views of the exterior across the city, getting inside isn’t as easy. In fact, you can only visit the grand interior as part of an official tour, which can sell out weeks, if not months in advance – so plan and book ahead!

 

See & Do

Budapest, like many European cities, is home to an excellent Free Walking Tour, run by local volunteers and covering a number of key sights, while also providing a little background on the city. I’m not a tour kind of guy but found the 2-3 hour walk around both fun and informative, without feeling like cattle being herded around the streets. Your guides are also an oracle of knowledge when it comes to great bars and restaurants! For the classic tour, simply meet at the Lion Fountain at Vörösmarty square daily at either 10.30am or 2.30pm. Alternatively, join one of the special interest tours to discover more about Budapest’s communist past, the fascinating Jewish Quarter or even join the tour dedicated to visiting some of the city’s finest drinking establishments!

If you’d rather go it alone, the mighty Fisherman’s Bastian is a great starting point. While impressive in its own right, the real attraction here are the stunning views out across the city, and the chance to snap that picture-postcard shot of the famous Parliament building. From here, it’s just a short walk down to the Matthias Church with its stunning roof, before enjoying a stroll through the Royal Palace complex and castle hill.

The Fisherman's Bastion in Budapest in HDR

Having either walked or taken the funicular to the bottom of the hill, take a stroll across the historic Szenchenyi Chain Bridge to reach the Pest half of the city and make your way through the maze of streets towards St Stephen’s Basilica. As one of the oldest and most beautiful parts of the town, it’s worth spending the afternoon simply exploring on foot, with a tactical break for Coffee & Cake at Gerbeauds – the perfect mid-walk pick me up! Foodies like me will fall in love with the Great Market Hall, or ‘Nagyvasarcsarnok’ to those of you more linguistically competent than myself! Hungarian classics such as Paprika, Salami, Tokaji Wine and Palinka Fruit Brandy can be found virtually anywhere in the market and are perfect goodies to take home! When the sun goes down, see if you can sniff out one of the city’s trendy ‘ruin bars’ for a taste of the real Budapest nightlife scene. These are traditionally old abandoned factories or warehouses that have been converted into makeshift bars and are a popular hangout for those in the know!

Szechenyi thermal bath in Budapest

The next day, if you’re feeling the need to relax, the famous Szechenyi Baths are without a doubt the most famous of Budapest’s thermal springs, but certainly worth a visit. Once you’ve soaked your way back to life, Heroes Square stands as a dramatic reminder of the city’s communist park and borders the equally impressive, although arguably more beautiful Vajdahunyad Castle. Returning to town in the evening, take a sunset stroll along the banks of the Danube, being sure to visit the ‘Shoes on the Danube’, a chilling memorial to the thousands of Jews who were murdered there during the Nazi’s occupation on Budapest.

And there you have it. A one weekend, whistle-stop tour of one of my favourite European cities. Well, a tiny bit of it, at least!

 

 

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Driving Australia’s Great Ocean Road

Stretching some 356km from Portland, near Victoria’s border with South Australia, all the way across to Torquay near the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia’s Great Ocean Road is considered by many to be one of the world’s great road-trips. The B100, to give it it’s less romantic name, was first constructed in 1919 by some 3,000 returned servicemen as a memorial to their comrades lost during WWI. Today, the twisting stretch of tarmac winds its way around jagged cliffs, past some of the area’s best surf beaches and through some phenomenal historical bushland. Whether you have two days or two weeks, this is a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage for those who love all things beach.

 

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The B100 – Great Ocean Road

 

Most visitors to the Great Ocean Road area arrive and depart via Melbourne, by far the largest city and main transport hub for the region. Whilst it’s possible, and indeed there are many companies offering day trips to the Great Ocean Road, I would certainly not recommend joining one unless you’re critically short on time. If you have to do it this way, be prepared for a long drive in a crowded bus, and only whistle-stop visits to the major sights – not the real road-trip experience by any means! Much better would be to grab yourself a car and put aside a good 3-4 days to really get to grips with this glorious stretch of tarmac. With some great deals available on Car Hire, and excellent deals on accommodation on Booking.com, you can make this trip as luxurious or budget-friendly as you like.

 

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Watch out for Kangaroos!

 

Melbourne to Torquay

If like us, you start your trip in Melbourne, the first couple of hour’s drive out of town will be some fairly monotonous highway driving. Leave town on the M1 highway and enjoy a pleasant cruise through suburban Melbourne before leaving the city and crossing open farmland for the 75km ride to Geelong. Situated across Port Phillip Bay from Melbourne, this small waterside town has grown into a pleasant retreat for those looking to escape the city. Boutique coffee shops and some excellent seafood restaurants line the waterfront, along with some pleasant parkland and large marina. It’s advisable to leave Melbourne after 10 am to make sure you miss any rush-hour traffic, in which case Geelong makes an excellent lunch stop! The King George Fish & Grill, directly opposite the pier, is held in high regard for its expertly prepared seafood, and of course does an excellent Fish & Chips.

 

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Stunning beaches wherever you look…

 

From Geelong, it’s just another 25km or so along to the official start of the Great Ocean Road at Torquay. This small seaside town is, in fact, the region’s surf capital, with the famous Bell Beach playing host to the annual Rip Curl Pro surf event. Experienced surfers will have no problems filling several days riding this area’s exceptional waves, whilst plenty of surf schools are on hand to guide beginners through the basics. Go Ride A Wave excellent value introductory surf lessons all over the area which is an excellent way for absolute beginners to get into the water in a safe and friendly environment. My partner was lucky enough to spend two hours with Lochland (aka Lochy/Lucky/Wobble!) and just 4 other students, by the end of which she was able to pop-up and ride some smaller waves into shore – not bad for an absolute noob! At $70 including wet-suit and board hire, this was incredible value and an all-round amazing experience.

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Sam (Second Right) learning to surf with Go Ride a Wave!

A special shout-out also has to go to home-grown burger champions Bottle of Milk who have locations in Lorne and Torquay. I was lucky enough to live in Lorne when these guys were getting off the ground around 9 years ago and was thrilled to see that they’re still going strong and have opened a second branch in Torquay! Definitely worth a visit whilst in town, whether or not you decided to spend a night or two here. Which I’d highly recommend.

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The Blue Cheese Beef Burger from Bottle of Milk

Torquay to Cape Otway

Having got the boring motorway-blast out of the way, this is where things get interesting. Twisting coastal roads, staggering cliff views, deserted and often hidden beaches galore mean that you cover ground a lot slower than you might expect! With literally dozens of lay-bys, viewpoints and rest areas, you really can spend as much or as little time as you like soaking up the awesome vibes. Along the way, you’ll pass through the quaint villages of Anglesea and Airey’s Inlet, before reaching another surf-paradise at Lorne. Split Point Lighthouse makes for a great stop off along the way, with a charming café serving warm, homemade scones and jam!

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Split Point Lighthouse – The cafe on the right does a great Homemade Scone with Jam & Whipped Cream!

Arguably one of the area’s most expensive towns, trendy Lorne is ever-popular for good reason. A perfect crescent bay, flanked either side by dramatic forested hills plays host to a charming local community with great restaurants and plenty to keep you entertained. I may be biased, having spent several months living and working here as a backpacker many, many years ago – but if the budget can run to it, I’d definitely spend one or two nights in town!

If you’ve got a tent, there are some awesome beach-side campsites, although we opted to check into the Lorne Bay View motel. Just minutes from the beach, the rooms are superbly clean and most feature an awesome terrace, cooking equipment and hot-tubs. Brian & Susie run a tight ship, and at around $150 per night, you really can’t go far wrong! Apart from the obvious attraction of spending time on that stunning beach, you can take a hike (or drive) up to Teddy’s Lookout for some knock-out views of the bay, with the Great Ocean Road snaking its way around the cliff face. For a little inland-relief, a gentle hike down to the impressive Erskine Falls is a great option to get in touch with the region’s dense bushland. A dip in the waterfalls themselves is a great way to cool off, just keep an eye out for snakes on the final part of the trail!

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Great view of the Great Ocean Road from Teddy’s Lookout

From Lorne onwards, the road starts to get really dramatic. Often cut straight into the cliff-side, the twists and turns reveal a stunning new vista at every corner. Once again, ample pull-offs allow you to stop as often as you like to capture the view and take a dip in the sea. It’s around here that the Indian Ocean meets the Bass Straights which separate Tasmania from mainland Australia. The meeting of these two massive bodies of water throws up some incredible surf, although the rip-tides that can go along with this can cause big problems for swimmers. If in doubt, it’s best to swim on patrolled beached, between the red and yellow flags which indicate a lifeguard is present and the water is considered safe for swimming!

The next major town that you’ll hit will be Apollo Bay, a formerly sleepy little surf town which has undergone a recent explosion in tourism. Whilst the beach is perfectly pleasant and accommodation options are plentiful, the regular influx of tour groups and busses can take the edge off the otherwise chilled-out vibe. Instead, push on another half an hour or so, until you reach the beautiful Cape Otway National Park. Whilst the GOR turns inland at this point, smaller roads lead you into the dense, almost jungle-like bushland that plays host to a number of awesome walking trails and waterfalls including the Hopetoun Falls, Triplet Falls and Beauchamp Falls. Climb to the top of the historic Cape Otway Lighthouse for some pretty incredible views of the area and out to sea. For a fun place to sleep, check into Bimbi Park’s Camping Under Koalas, deep in the national park. Great value cabins and caravans cater to a range of budgets, and as the name suggests there’s a great chance you’ll meet some furry friends during your stay!

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Inland roads around Cape Otway

Cape Otway to Warrnambool

Leaving Cape Otway, the road heads inland for quite a way, before re-joining the coast at Princetown. The inland stretch of road weaves through some pretty impressive forests and farmland, with a number of small Chocolate, Cheese and Wine producers to break up the journey. As soon as you get back onto the coast, you enter the Twelve Apostles Marine Park, which soon becomes the Port Campbell Marine Park which together make up perhaps the most iconic stretch of this great drive. The sights come thick and fast, so be prepared for plenty of stop-offs! The advantage of staying at Cape Otway is that you will reach this part of the road long before the day-trippers from Melbourne, meaning far fewer crowds! All of the sights are well signposted and have ample parking, with the bigger stops offering toilets and even a small shop.

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Rocks, Stacks and Arches

Frist up are the famous Gibson Steps, an incredible viewpoint looking out over the dramatic cliffs to an idyllic beach far below. As the name suggests, there are indeed steps clinging on to the edge of the cliff-face, providing access to fine sands far below. Just out to see are two giant limestone stacks, affectionately known as Gog and Magog, which are a dream for budding photographers looking to hone their skills behind the lens.

 

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The Twelve Apostles by day…

Pushing on around one kilometre, you’ll hit arguably the most famous landmark in the area: The Twelve Apostles. Formed over around 20 million years, these giant limestone pillars are the result of endless erosion of the mainland by the wind and seas, which formed natural caves in the cliffs. The caves were gradually worn out to become arches, which in turn were further eroded to the point that the arches collapsed, leaving the free-standing pillars that we see today. As the name suggests, once upon a time there were 12 such stacks in the bay, but thanks to ongoing erosion there are now only 8 left standing. The most recent collapse was in 2005 when the 9th Apostle took a dramatic plunge into the sea! There’s a great walking path around the clifftop offering excellent views out across the bay, which are even more dramatic at sunrise or sunset – Well worth the effort as visitor numbers are generally low which adds to the magic.

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…and again at Sunset. Amazing!

The carpark area for the Twelve Apostles doubles as the base for 12 Apostles Helicopters who offer a number of options for flights in and around the area. If the weather is fine, the $145 for a 15-minute tour is well worth the cash, as you get an unforgettable up-close and personal view of the coast, far above the tourist masses.

Back on the road, another 4km drive delivers you deep into the heart of Port Campbell National Park. Follow signs for Loch Ard Gorge, as this exit delivers you to a host of viewpoints and attractions. The gorge itself is an absolute gem, and the short hike down the steps to the beach below is well worth the effort. If you get there early enough, it’s possible to get this fine sandy beach all to yourself. The gorge opening itself not only makes for an incredible view, but it also shelters the bay from the wind and high seas, creating a wonderfully calm spot for a quick dip! Before climbing back up to the clifftop, be sure to check out the amazing caves and grottos at the back of the gorge behind the steps. Many visitors don’t even realise they’re there! Within a short walk of the carpark area, you’ll also find The Razorback, Mutton Bird Lookout and The Blowhole – all well worth a look in for their incredible views.

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Loch Ard Gorge from the cliff top…

Continuing through the small tourist town of Port Campbell, next on the hit-list is the double feature of London Bridge and The Grotto. Another example of the natural caves and arches that form along this stretch of coastline, London Bridge was formerly a double arch before, rather fittingly, falling down in 1990! The outlying arch is now free-standing and, although no longer accessible to visitors, is an awesome sight to behold. If you haven’t by now seen enough arches and caves, you can head just a little further along the road to The Grotto where once again you can descend to beach level and explore an amazing network of natural rock formations. Often overlooked by the mass tour groups, this may be a good place to get away from the crowds!

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Dramatic Weather to go with the Dramatic Coastline…

The last stop for most visitors before the road turns inland is the vast 32km wide Bay of Islands which lies between Peterborough and Warrnambool. Rather having one specific sight, the bay has a number of viewpoints and trailheads, many of which are often practically deserted. Cruise this final stretch of coast road at your leisure, stopping off as and when the mood takes you. From here onwards, it’s inland all the way to Warrnambool…

 

Onwards from Warrnambool

For many, the regional centre of Warrnambool marks the end of their Great Ocean Road adventure. Whilst not exactly being a destination in its own right, the town is a perfectly pleasant place to spend a night after a long day’s driving and sightseeing. There’s an awesome range of hotels, motels and backpacker accommodation, although we found that the Best Western Colonial Village Motel offered nice rooms and great value for money. In town, the Warrnambool Hotel is the go-to place for a well-earned beer and bite to eat, serving a good selection of pub fayre as well as some interesting (and delicious) wood-fired pizzas. If you hadn’t yet experienced a proper Australian tavern, this could be an excellent and gentle introduction!

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Heading for Warrnambool and beyond…

So – Where’s next? If time and kilometres allow, there’s nothing stopping you from pressing on along the coast. The Grampians national park is just a few hour’s drive away and is a great spot to get back to nature with dramatic hills and rolling forests. If you keep going long enough, you’ll cross over into South Australia, home of the Barossa Valley and some of the nation’s best vineyards, before hitting the state capital of Adelaide. Failing that, a 3-hour blast on the Princes Highway will have you back in Melbourne in time for tea!

 

 

 

Itinerary: Hong Kong to Hanoi by Train

Over the past few years, my partner and I have made it our missing to travel all the way from Singapore to London overland. From Thailand’s idyllic beaches to the mountains of China and the vast wilderness of Siberia, this was to be our ultimate journey. Sadly, the reality of busy lives in London prevented us from tackling the entire journey in one go, and forced us to split it into numerous smaller segments. Our most challenging leg to date was that between the high-rise hub of Hong Kong, to the historical citadel of Hanoi, thanks in large to the logistical issues that can arise from both arriving in and departing from the People’s Republic of China in anything other than an airplane. This, however, was our journey…

Train Travel in China

China’s rail network is vast, largely efficient and good value for money considering the distances involved. With several different classes of train ranging from the brand new high-speed G Class trains, to the older and slower (although still perfectly good) K Trains, there is usually an option to suit all needs and budgets. 2nd class seating on daytime trains is perfectly suitable for 99% of visitors, although First or even Business Class on the high-speed network can be an experience in budget is of no concern! For overnight trains, there is usually a choice between “Soft” and “Hard” sleepers, although this has nothing to do with the quality of the bed! The main difference, realistically, is the price. Soft Sleepers are arranged in cabins of 4 bunks whilst hard sleeper has 6, but both come with sheets and a pillow and are perfectly acceptable for the odd overnight journey, and have the added bonus of saving the cost of a hotel bed! The excellent www.seat61.com is a great place to read more about travelling by train in China.

When it comes to booking, Chinese trains (particularly the overnight sleepers) can book up days in advance. Whilst it’s perfectly possible to book the trains in person at the station once in China, booking through the online agents listed below can save a lot of headaches and missed connections. If you do opt to book in person at the station, don’t count on the ticket agent being able to speak a single word of English. A better bet would be to print and complete this excellent form and simply present it at the booking window. Just don’t forget to take your passports with you!

 

A Word on Visas…

My first experience applying for a Chinese visa was whilst I was living as a teacher in Kolkata, India, in 2008. It didn’t go well, and I never made it north over the border. Fast forward 10 years and from what I can tell, progress in the application system has been minimal! All visas for China are best processed in your home country, well in advance of your planned departure date. You can’t apply directly to the embassy itself, but rather through the Chinese Visa Application Centre, who add a hefty fee to the already significant visa charge. Budget travellers be warned, your visa will be valid for 30 days, although it is possible to spend as little as 48 hours in the PRC on this trip – if you have time it may well be worth extending your itinerary beyond what I provide below, to get more value from your Visa!

In a nutshell, the best advice for a pain-free visit to the Visa Centre is to read their website back to front, in minute detail. And then read it again. The exact requirement can vary slightly depending on your nationality, and where you are physically applying from. Generally, at the very least, you will need to provide details of exactly how you will be arriving in and departing from China, and where you will be staying on each night that you are in the country. And when I say details, I mean Confirmed Reservations.

And this is where things can get tricky. It is not currently possible to book Chinese Trains online from abroad, meaning you will need to use an agent – more on this later. Unfortunately, most of the booking agents are unable/unwilling to book trains for you without a copy of your Chinese Visa. See the conundrum here? No visa without tickets, yet no tickets without visa! Fortunately, once you’ve got your visa, your official itinerary can go out the window – meaning that with a little creativity, getting a visa might not be so bad after all. My favourite method is to book the ferry between Osaka and Shanghai as my return method of travel, as they will issue you with a booking certificate without any down payment or credit card guarantee. As for hotels, I generally book two weeks in a reputable Shanghai institution that offers free cancellation, send my papers off and hey presto – a shiny new Chinese Visa! A few quick cancellations once the deed is done and you’re home and dry…

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Arriving in Hong Kong

How: Airport Express Train

Cost: HK$115

How to Book: Buy at Station

Recommended Connection: Departures every 10-12 Minutes

Where to Stay: Ovolo Central

Get Around: Buy an Octopus card at any MRT Station for discounted fares on all public transport.

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The Journey
Having arrived into Hong Kong’s vast and shiny airport, by far the quickest (although not the cheapest) way into the city is using the Airport Express train. If you’re staying in Kowloon or the New Territories, alight at        Kowloon station, or continue to Central station to be delivered to the heart of Hong Kong Island. Your Airport Express ticket also includes a free shuttle -bus from the station to many of the main hotels, so be sure to follow the well signed route to the shuttle bus desk!

Whilst in Hong Kong    
Having historically belong to the UK up until 1997, Hong Kong is a fascinating blend of colonial British and Cantonese influences. The central business district on Hong Kong island is a hub of global business, with modern high-rise buildings, fine restaurants and exclusive bars operating late into the night. Whilst on the island, be sure to explore the maze of backstreets and alleyways that weave across the city, punctuated by surprisingly calm and pleasant parks and temples. A trip to the summit of Victoria Peak is a must for incredible views across the towering skyscrapers to the bay beyond, with sunset a particularly popular time to visit. The historic tram that runs to the peak is charming, although rather expensive and often with huge queues – it’s quicker and cheaper to take a taxi, particularly if there’s a group of you! Finish your day on the island in one of the many bars that make up the nightlife district of Lan Kwai Fong, where the early evening happy-hours take the sting out of the Hong Kong prices!

For a taste of Cantonese life, jump on one of the famous Star Ferries that cross the harbour to the main land every few minutes. At just HK$2.50, this is by far the cheapest way to experience Hong Kong’s manic harbour waters and the old boats are quite an experience in themselves. With over 21 million people living in just 47 square kilometres, Kowloon is one of the most densely populate places on earth. Prepare yourself for a crazy mix of markets, malls and tower blocks that seem to never sleep! For shopping, the area around Mong Kok has something for everyone, whilst Temple Street Night Market is a great place to get a taste of authentic Chinese street food.

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Hong Kong to Guangzhou

How: Intercity Train

Cost: HK$210 in “First Class” (Standard Class) / HK$250 in “Premium Class” (First Class)

How to Book: https://www.it3.mtr.com.hk/b2c/frmIndex.asp?strLang=Eng

Recommended Connection: 13.11 (Train Z826)

Where to Stay: Lazy Gaga Hostel

Get Around: Metro

The Journey    
Up to 10 days per day leave Hong Kong’s Hung Hom station, bound for the mainland. Just a short hop from downtown Kowloon on the MTR, the station has a definite airport vibe and be prepared for extensive security and immigration checks! Rather confusingly, the entry level seats are named “First Class”, whilst “Premium” is what we would call first class. Whilst the normal seats are perfectly fine, the extra US$5 for premium buys you a very comfortable seat with free nibbles and at-seat service! The trains are generally punctual and take around two hours to make the trip into Guangzhou’s east station, passing through the industrial areas to the north of Hong Kong before reaching a more scenic stretch on the way into Guangzhou.

Whilst in Guangzhou
Formerly known as Canton, Guangzhou is China’s third largest city and dates back over 2000 years to when it was founded a key trading town for the region. Today, the city is an important business hub with a sprawling and modern city centre, and numerous large and beautiful parks. For visitors, it is probably the historic and cultural side of the city that holds the most appeal with a number of temples, monuments and memorials dotted across the town.

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A great starting point for visitors to Guangzhou is the historic European quarter on Shaiman Island. The beautifully renovated buildings, squares and churches are a great area to explore on foot and soak up the quirky, artistic vibes. For shopping, the pedestrianised Beijing Lu is Guangzhou’s answer to London’s Oxford street, whilst Qingping Market is home to an array of exotic goods, foods and traditional Chinese medicines.

As the hub of Cantonese culture, Guangzhou is also home to some unique and delicious delicacies which are traditional to this part of southern China. A word of warning, however – the Cantonese are famous within China for their use of all parts of the animal when cooking – and I mean all. The squeamish may be wise to ask for English menus when possible, although even then the translations can be misleading!

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Guangzhou to Nanning

How: High Speed Day Train or Overnight Sleeper Train

Cost: From $26 (Day Train, 2nd Class) / $31 (Overnight “Hard” Sleeper)

How to Book: www.chinahighlights.com

Recommended Connection: 13.02 (High Speed Day Train G2914) / 17.25 (Overnight Sleeper Train K1205)

Get Around: Metro

The Journey: 
Taking a little under 4 hours to cover the 600km between Guangzhou and Nanning, a ride on one of China’s new “G” class trains can be a great experience in itself. Hurtling through the countryside of southern China at speeds of up to 300kmh is both a comfortable and convenient option. That said, the scenery on the way is not particularly exceptional, and by the time you’ve got to and from the station at each end you lose practically a whole day travelling.

Our preference has always been to cover such stretches at night in one of the comfortable sleeper trains that ply the route. This means you maximise your time in each city, with the added bonus of saving the cost of a hotel for the night. The trains are clean, comfortable and a great way to meet local Chinese people!

Whilst in Nanning                 
Nanning, although a large city, has relatively little to offer the average tourist. Instead, it tends to act merely as a staging post for those making the journey to or from Vietnam by train. A number of modern shopping malls and some nice landscaped parks are perfectly pleasant places to spend a few hours whilst in town, but one night here is usually enough for most visitors. In fact, if you’re short on time, it’s perfectly possible to arrive at in Nanning in the morning on the overnight train from Guangzhou, and then leave again the same evening on the sleeper train to Hanoi. If you choose to do this, the train station has a convenient left luggage option where you can store your bags for a few dollars whilst you spend the day in town!

modern city at night, Nanning, China

Nanning to Hanoi

How:                                        Overnight Sleeper Train

Cost:                                        From $38 in Soft Sleeper

How to Book:                          www.chinahighlights.com (Search for “Gia Lam” as your destination!)

Recommended Connection:   18.05 (Train T8701)

Where to Stay:                        Central Backpackers Hostel – Old Quarter

Get Around:                            Walking / “Vinasun” or “Mai Linh” Taxis

The Journey: 
Whilst technically a sleeper train, and it does indeed have perfectly comfortable Soft Sleeper berths, don’t count on getting too much sleep on this journey! Expect to arrive at the Chinese border town of Pingxiang at around 10pm, where an announcement will be made in English that the trin will stop here for around two hours whilst customs and border checks are completed. You will be required to leave the train, taking all of your luggage with you, and pass through Chinese immigration before returning to your berth.

Once everybody is back on-board, it’s then a relatively short trip to the Vietnamese border post at Dong Dang where the routine is repeated again, this time for the benefit of Vietnamese immigration. It’s worth noting that it is worth changing a small amount of money into Vietnamese Dong here, as you will need some cash when you arrive in Hanoi!

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From Dong Dang, it’s then non-stop to Hanoi’s Gia Lam station, a few kilometres away from the Old City. This stretch is your best chance to get a little shut eye before arriving at around 6am. The station is pretty remote and you will be greeted by hordes of taxi drivers offering to deliver you to the old town for an extortionate price. You can try to haggle with the drivers but the chances of them turning their meters on for you is slim as they know you have few other options. At this stage, many passengers are so tired that they give in a pay the higher rates, although walking a few hundred meters down to the main road may get you a better price. If you can, flag down a green ‘Mai Linh’ or white ‘Vinasun’ taxi – these are two of the most reputable companies in Vietnam and their drivers are friendly and always use their meters!

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Whilst in Hanoi      
Walking the buzzing streets of Old Town Hanoi has to be one of the all-time great travel experiences. With many relics of the communist days, the city is packed with history and is home to a number of great museums, memorials and temples. The Hanoi Citadel and Military Museum both offer great insight into the history of the Vietnam War, whilst the grand Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a triumph of communist era architecture.

For culture-vultures, the Temple of Literature dates back almost 1000 years and offers an oasis of calm in the sometimes-overwhelming madness of Hanoi’s streets. Another great escape is to take a walk around the central Hoan Kiem lake, and even join the groups of locals practicing Tai Chi or martial arts in the park area surrounding it.

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For food, one of the must try dishes when in town is the famous beef noodle soup, or Pho. At around $1.50 per bowl, this is a great value, healthy and filling meal. For a snack on the go, the Banh Mi is Vietnam’s answer to the French baguette, and comes packed with delights such as BBQ pork, fresh chilli, herbs and pickled vegetables. For drinks in the Old Town, head to Ta Hien, affectionately known as ‘beer street’ and join the locals sitting on tiny plastic stools on the street side. Bia Hanoi is a classic bottled brew, whilst the draft Bia Hoi is the cheapest option at as little as $0.25 per glass!

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Itinerary: Singapore to Bangkok by Train

A firm believer that the journey is as much of the experience as the destination, I’ve always been one for overland travel whenever possible, with train travel being my preference. Not through any particular love for the locomotives, but more the overall experience. Often faster and more comfortable than busses, yet still very firmly on the ground, rail travel allows you to cover vast distances at ‘street level’ – and often meet some wonderful characters on the way. My first foray to Asia many years ago had me excited at the prospect of riding aged carriages along historic routes, and the journey we chose was from Singapore up to Bangkok, taking a little over two weeks at a comfortable pace.

Nowadays, sadly, the connections are not what they once were. With much of the Malaysian section now electrified and running modern intercity style trains, in order to make the journey by train, one must change trains more frequently. It’s hoped that the ongoing modernisation work on Malaysia’s railways will be complete by 2020, allowing the for the re-introduction of a direct north to south service. Until then, here’s how we did it…

 

Arriving in Singapore

How: Fly to Singapore Changi Airport; MRT into City

Cost: SG$1.75

How to Book: Buy at station

Recommended Connection: Departures every few minutes between 6am – Midnight

Where to Stay: AMOY by Far East Hospitality

Get Around: The Singapore Tourist Pass offers Unlimited Public Transport from SG$10 per day

The Journey
The vast majority of visitors to Singapore arrive by air, into the city’s glistening Changi Airport. A model of cleanliness and efficiency, you can expect a quick stroll through immigration and customs, before boarding and equally smart and efficient MRT train which will deliver you into the heart of the city in a little under an hour. Kill the time by reading some of the entertainingly excessive rules that one must adhere to onboard, and remember – Don’t even think about bringing a Durian fruit on the train with you!

Whilst in Singapore
Modern, buzzing and a veritable melting pot of cultures, Singapore has something for everyone – although be prepared to pay handsomely for it! There’s no such thing as a cheap night’s sleep in Singapore, so we opted to spend a little more and treated ourselves to a room at the boutique AMOY hotel, directly opposite Telok Ayer MRT station on the downtown line. Situated at the heart of the city and accessed through a historic temple, this gem of a hotel is a great base for exploring all that Singapore has to offer. The rooms are well furnished and the staff couldn’t be more hospitable.

Take advantage of the excellent value Singapore Tourist Pass for unlimited travel on the excellent Bus & MRT network, which will deliver you speedily to any corner of the island. Be it shopping on Orchard Road, nightlife at Clarke Quay or a stroll through the lanes of Little India or Chinatown, it’s possible to see the highlights in just two days. For the budget conscious, eating at hawker markets is another great way of keeping costs down whilst enjoying some of the most authentic food in local surroundings. A huge portion of fried pork dumplings can be found for as little as SG$6 in the markets of Chinatown.

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore's Chinatown at sunset

Singapore to Kuala Lumpur

How: Train

Cost: Approx. $17

How to Book: Book Online 12go.asia

Recommended Connection:
1. Depart Woodlands 08.00 / Arrive JB Sentral 08.05
2. Depart JB Sentral 10.00 / Arrive Gemas 14.25
3. Depart Gemas 15.00 / Arrive KL Sentral 17.12

Where to Stay: The Reggae Mansion

Get Around: Taxi Apps Grab & Uber, or buy a Touch’n’Go card at any major station for discounted fares on all Public Transport

The Journey
Sadly, Singapore’s central station has been out of use for a number of years now, meaning that all journeys off the island start at Woodlands Checkpoint station, a quick bus or taxi ride from the city. Once you’ve cleared Malaysian immigration, a 5-minute shuttle train ride will take you across the causeway that links Singapore island to mainland Malaysia, and into Johor Bahru Sentral Station. From there, you board a brand new express train for the 7-hour journey to Kuala Lumpur, with a quick half hour change at Gemas. The trains are modern, air conditioned and very comfortable, and the view from the windows is magnificent, particularly approaching Kuala Lumpur.

If you don’t fancy changing trains so often, there are direct busses linking downtown Singapore to KL although these can be prone to long delays at the border, and often fall victim to KL’s traffic. Be prepared for the journey to take just as long as the trains, if not longer – It took us nearly 9 hours on a recent trip!

Whilst in Kuala Lumpur: 
Described by many as Singapore without the polish (and excessive rules – chewing gum is perfectly legal!), Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia’s thriving capital city, and a model of diversity. The sprawling markets of Chinatown are just minutes away from world-class mega malls, whilst the twin Petronas Towers dominate the skyline of the city’s financial district. Whilst it’s possible to ascend the famous towers, there is often a long wait for a slot and the tickets don’t come cheap. Another option is to ascend the KL TV Tower which is far less visited and considerably cheaper. Best off all, the view from the top features the full KL skyline – including the twin towers – something you wouldn’t get if you were standing inside them!

Thanks to the excellent network of subways, light railways and even a monorail, getting around is a breeze. Clean, bright and modern, the Reggae Mansion offers reasonably priced private or dorm rooms with breakfast included and an amazing rooftop bar. It’s within walking distance of the famous Petaling night market and directly opposite Masjid Jemak MRT station, and as such is a great base for two or three nights in the city. For a local dining experience, head for Jalan Alor and choose from one of the dozens of restaurants that line the streets!

Petronas Twin Towers at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth

How: Train

Cost: Approx. $18

How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia

Recommended Connection: Depart KL Sentral 09.00 / Arrive Butterworth 12.53

The Journey  
You’re back onboard one of Malaysia’s brand new ETS Platinum trains for the four-hour ride up to Butterworth. With an onboard Bistro car serving fair value snacks, and often overly powerful air conditioning, you can expect a comfortable ride with lovely views of the Malaysian countryside as you head north at over 100mph – an experience in itself in SE Asia!

Whilst in Butterworth:
Butterworth itself probably doesn’t warrant a visit in it’s own right. It’s a perfectly pleasant town in which to grab a bite of lunch before the connecting train north later in the afternoon. However, if you have time, we strongly recommend breaking your journey here for two or three nights, and making the short trip to Georgetown, on the island of Penang.

 

Optional Side Trip: Georgetown, Penang

How: Ferry

Cost: Approx. $0.30 Outbound; Return Journey Free

How to Book: Buy Onboard

Recommended Connection: Every 30 minutes from 5am to Midnight

Where to Stay: Numerous Guest Houses & Hotels on Love Lane

Get Around: By Foot

The Journey                                            
Having jumped off the train at Butterworth, follow the signs for the short walk to the ferry which makes the 15-minute crossing to Georgetown every 20 minutes or so, between 5am-1am. The outbound fare is around $0.30, and the return journey is free making this an incredibly affordable stopover. Georgetown itself is small enough to easily explore by foot, or you can hire 4-wheeled pedal cars from a number of locations around Armenian Street!

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Famed for its ubiquitous street art and incredible food scene, Georgetown is a haven for any budding culture-junkie. Exceptional Chinese, Indian and Malay can be found on every street corner and in food markets dotted across the city – all at bargain prices. Assam Laksa is one of the most famous dishes, and is prepared with a thinner soup than other Malaysian Laksas, resulting in an amazing balance of sour and spicy.

The ‘Little India’ district transports you to downtown Delhi, whilst the area around Armenian Street is a hub of Colonial architecture and vibrant street art. Hours can be spent wandering the back streets in search of lesser known pieces, whilst the most famous works of art will often have large crowds of people waiting to pose alongside them. Be sure to visit the Kapitan Kling mosque for a free and incredibly interested tour of a working mosque, guided by a local volunteer.

For accommodation, the area around Love Lane has a number of good value guest houses, where it is advisable to simply turn up and negotiate a rate directly with the hotel. In the evening, a number of small bars pop up in the backstreets around here, serving cold beers on plastic tables at the side of the road!

 

Butterworth to Surat Thani

How: Train

Cost: $18

How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia

Recommended Connection:
1.Depart Butterworth 14.25 / Arrive Padang Besar 16.16
2. Depart Padang Besar 18.00 / Arrive Surat Thani 23.28

The Journey
Having taken the ferry back to the mainland, it’s time to continue north and leave Malaysia behind as you cross into Southern Thailand. Once again, a shiny new Malaysian train will deliver you to the frontier station of Padang Besar where you will officially exit Malaysia, and enter Thailand. Both border posts are within the station building, and are both usually very efficient meaning there is little risk of a hold up. Once across the frontier, you board an older but perfectly comfortable Thai overnight express train bound for Bangkok. Whilst it would be possible to book an sleeper berth to deliver you straight to the capital overnight, you’d be missing some of the very best of Thailand. Instead, we recommend booking yourself a second class seat and jumping off at the town of Surat Thani just before midnight.

Whilst in Surat Thani
Much like Butterworth, Surat Thani is generally just a staging post for travellers transferring between trains, busses and ferries on their way to or from the gulf islands. Given your late arrival, it may be best to book a hotel online and simple take a Grab taxi straight there from the hotel. Town itself is pretty small and run down, so you won’t be missing much by taking an early departure to Koh Samui the next morning!

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Surat Thani to Koh Samui

How: Bus & Ferry (Lomprayah)

Cost: $18 (Incl. Hotel Transfer on Koh Samui)

How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia

Recommended Connection: Depart Surat Thani Town 09.00 / Arrive Na Thon Pier, Koh Samui 12.35

Where to Stay: Ananas Hostel Samui

Get Around: By Foot, Motorbike or Shared Jeep

The Journey      
There are numerous operators and agents selling cut-price combination tickets from Surat Thani to destinations all over Thailand. Generally speaking, if you book through one of the numerous touts, you will likely get to your destination eventually. However, for well-maintained ferries, great organisation and an overall lack of hassle, I wholeheartedly recommend spending a couple of dollars more and travelling with Lomprayah ferries, booked through 12go.asia. They provide collection from the town centre, a fast catamaran connection between the islands and the mainland, and a free minibus shuttle from the ferry pier to your hotel door on one combined ticket. It’s unlikely that you would save much, if anything, by arranging each leg yourself and the through ticket makes the whole journey fast and pain-free!

Whilst in Koh Samui  
As the most developed of the gulf island, Koh Samui has everything from basic backpackers digs to ultra-luxurious 5-star resorts. The beaches are undoubtedly the main attraction, although pretty much anything else you could hope for will be available somewhere on the island and can be arranged at any of the numerous travel agents across the island. The largest and most famous beach can be found at Chaweng (Samui’s answer to Sin City), along with a number of bargain bucket accommodation options, and a hardcore nightlife scene. Whilst the cheap drinks and fast relationships 8for want of a better phrase) on offer in the bars of Chaweng are a draw for many of the islands visitors, we prefer to stay away from the craziness and explore the less developed side of the island.

Ananas Hostel is set in a beautiful local part of the island, with picture-perfect beaches within walking distance. It’s possible to hire 50cc scooter here, too, which make a great way to explore the island and discover your own secret beaches far away from the tourist throngs!

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Koh Samui to Koh Phangan

How: Minivan & Ferry (Lomprayah)

Cost: $14 (Incl. Hotel Pickup on Koh Samui)

How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia

Recommended Connection: Depart Koh Samui 09.45 / Arrive Koh Phangan 11.45

Where to Stay: Koh Phangan Bayshore Resort

Get Around: By Foot / Jeep Taxi

The Journey
If you once again book through Lomprayah, a minivan will pick you up from your accommodation around an hour before sailing time and deliver you to the pier, where you will re-board one of the company’s catamarans for the short ride over to Koh Phangan. If you’ve pre-booked your hotel, they may well offer a pickup from the port – otherwise it’s down to you to negotiate a price with one of the many jeep taxis that meet each sailing.

Whilst in Koh Phangan 
Koh Phangan is home to the world famous Full Moon parties, where thousands of revellers descend on the idyllic Haad Rin beach to spend the night consuming questionable substances and dance the night away to deep house and trance music. If you can’t make it for Full Moon, but still want a slice of the action, the Half Moon parties give you a taste of what it’s all about. Either way, if you visit during either of these events, be sure to book your accommodation and transport well in advance as the sudden influx of thousands of visitors means that things sell out quick. The Koh Phangan Bayshore Resort offers reasonable quality accommodation at fair prices, right at the heart of the action.

The day after the party sees a coordinated clean-up effort by many of the revellers, and taking part is a great way of giving something back to the community and environment.

If wild parties are not your thing, head for one of the smaller communities on the island where the traditional fishing lifestyle is still at the heart of the community. Heading inland from the coast, there is endless opportunity for hiking through the stunning green hills that make up the island’s backbone, with plenty of hidden waterfalls thrown in for good measure.

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Koh Phangan to Koh Tao

How: Ferry (Lomprayah)

Cost: $17

How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia

Recommended Connection: Depart Koh Phangan 13.00 / Arrive Koh Tao 14.00

Where to Stay: Koh Tao Coral Grand Resort

Get Around: By Foot / Motorcycle

The Journey 
Talk to your hotel’s reception to organise transport back to the ferry pier at the end of your stay. They will be able to arrange a fair price for you, as well as advise what time you should leave to make your ferry connection. The ride across to Koh Tao is the longest crossing of your trip so far, so it’s worth taking some drinks and snacks with you, particularly if you’re suffering the aftermath of a big night! Once again, transport from the pier on Koh Tao is best arranged through your hotel if you have pre-booked.

Whilst in Koh Tao
The smallest of the three main gulf islands, Koh Tao has a long and well-deserved reputation as being the most chilled out island, and is a favourite amongst those looking to get away from it all. The diving is world class, and a number of 5 Star PADI Dive Centres are based on this tiny island, making it a go to destination for qualified divers and beginners alike. Prices are pretty comparable across all of the schools, with most offering dive and accommodation packages for those seeking to complete their Open Water certification.

Getting around the island is best done on foot, or with a rented scooter. To access some of the more remote coves on the far side of the island, it’s best to hire a jeep Taxi which can cope with the rough, unmade roads that cross the island’s spine. Alternatively, longtail boats can be hired directly from the beach to take you anywhere around the island.

The small island of Koh Nang Yuan lies less than a kilometre away and makes a great excursion by long tail boat, and offers excellent swimming and snorkelling oppurtunities. In the evening, head back to Koh Tao and garb a drink in one of the beach bars to see the sunset behind Koh Nang Yuan.

Ko Tao to Bangkok

How: Ferry, Bus & Overnight Sleeper Train (Lomprayah)

Cost: $51 (Second Class Sleeper Train)

How to Book: Book Online at 12go.asia

Recommended Connection:
1. Depart Koh Tao 14.45 / Arrive Chumphon Pier 17.15
2. Transfer to Chumphon Station by Bus (Included with Lomprayah)
3. Depart Chumphon Station 21.10 / Arrive Bangkok Hua Lamphong Station 06.30 (+1)

Where to Stay: Sri Suvan @ Rambuttri Guest House

Get Around: Taxi Apps Grab & Uber; Public Transport

The Journey
The final leg of the journey takes you back onboard a Lomprayah catamaran for the crossing back to the mainland town of Chumphon, several hundred kilometres north of Surat Thani. If you book a through ticket, a bus from the ferry port to the train station will be included in the price – just follow the instructions of the staff onboard.

The sleeper train to Bangkok is a great experience in its own right, and second class is generally perfectly comfortable enough for most travellers. The sleeper berths are made up by the onboard attendants, are well padded and come with a pillow, blanket and curtain for privacy. Although reliable, the trains can be prone to delays of an hour or more, so be sure to leave enough time if you have a flight to catch!

Whilst in Bangkok
Bangkok is a vast city and deserves at least three days to really do it justice. The modern part of the city, centred around Siam Square and Sukhumvit, is full of high rise office blocks and designer malls. For a cheap bite to eat, do as the locals do and head to the food court at the top of the terminal 21 shopping mall, where a full meal can cost as little as $2.

Bangkok’s old town, with its hundreds of temples and vast Royal Palace, is just a few kilometres from the modern city, but is sadly not served by the Skytrain or Metro system. The busses are cheap and frequent, although using the Uber or Grab taxis apps is a great way of getting around very cheaply. Just be aware of flagging down a taxi or Tuk-Tuk as overcharging is rife!

If you have limited time, a visit to the Grand Palace is essential, followed by a visit to the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho before jumping on one of the taxi boats that ply the Chao Phraya river. A quick stop at Wat Arun is the perfect place to catch the sunset, before continuing on the river boat to Phra Arthit and the backpacker district of Khao Sanh.

Famous the world over, the Khao Sanh road is Bangkok’s original backpacker’s street with a thriving night market, cheap accommodation and boisterous nightlife. Just a few minutes’ walk from the main strip, the Sri Suvan guesthouse offers simple yet immaculate rooms at bargain prices, with a number of great restaurants just on the doorstep.

If you’re leaving Bangkok by plane, Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is on the city’s excellent Skytrain system, whilst Don Mueang airport (DMK) requires a metro journey as far as Bang Sue station, before taking a connecting Bus.

Wat Phra Kaeo, Bangkok, Thailand

 

Slovenia’s Incredible Caves

Originally Published by Free B&B, October 2017

 

Sandwiched between Italy, Austria and Hungary, Slovenia is one of Central Europe’s lesser known gems. With dramatic scenery, almost as rich in diversity as the country’s history, this is an off-the-beaten-track destination that certainly packs a punch. From towering mountains and crystalline lakes to rolling green hills and even a small stretch of Adriatic, Slovenia seems to have it all. Factor in charming cities and picturesque farming communities, and you could be forgiven for feeling like you have stumbled across some kind of latter-day Garden of Eden. It is underground, however, that Slovenia really begins to show its wild side. Buried deep below the surface lie some of the world’s most spectacular natural caves, with an array of streams, flora and fauna that simply blow the mind.

The fact that Slovenia as a country is relatively compact means that getting around is a breeze. A solid rail and bus networks allows for easy access to a number of the main towns and cities, whilst the excellent road network makes this a road-tripper’s dream. For those seeking a more active experience, cycling and kayaking are popular past times for locals and tourists alike, and provide a completely different perspective to this fascinating area. A particularly famous area for active exploring is the northern region of Koroška, with its labyrinth of subterranean trails and streams. Ever wanted to mountain bike through a cave to discover hidden underground mountains? How about kayaking across lakes almost 700m below ground, before riding a real mining train back to the surface? Koroška has all this and more! In the meantime, here are some of Slovenia’s other must-see caving destinations…

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Postojna Caves

Around 1 hour to the west of the capital, Lubljana, lie the caves at Postojna, the most famous of Slovenia’s cave compexes. Served by excellent road, rail and bus connections, this sleepy town hides a network of caves that stretch for over 20km underground. To add to the magic, the entrance to one part of the caves is hidden behind the imposing Predjama Castle, which is well worth a visit in its own right. Access to the caves to the general public is generally only possible as part of a guided tour, which meets a short bus ride away from the castle. Available year round, the visit begins with a magical train ride into the expansive complex, passing through numerous passageways and caverns before being delivered to one of the large central chambers. From there you can explore the seemingly endless caverns, each adorned with glistening stalagmites and magical underground streams and pools. The world’s largest stalagmite, measuring a staggering five meters in height, can be seen here, along with the Europe’s only cave-dwelling vertebrate: The eerily named “Human Fish”.

Living for over 100 years, the Human Fish, or “Olm” is fabled to be a distant relative of the dragons that supposedly roamed these lands thousands of years ago. Able to go years at a time without food, this unique and endangered creature is almost exclusively found in the caves in and around Postojna. Getting to see one in its natural environment is an amazing experience!

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Škocjan Caves

Lying in the main train line between Ljubljana and Trieste, just over the Italian border, is the small town of Divača. The area is home to a number of caves including those of Divaška and Vilenica, although the grand caves at Škocjan are by far the most impressivex and are even listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The complex of caves stretches over 11km long, with a total of 11 vast chambers, one of which being the highest cave hall in Europe! The network of streams, pools and waterfalls is truly enchanting, with stalactites and stalagmites doing a fantastic impression of the towers on a magical castle. It is also here that the mighty river Reka flows underground before re-surfacing around 20km away nearer to the Adriatic Sea.

As a general rule, admissions to the Škocjan Caves is only possible as part of an organised tour. In reality, this isn’t a problem at all as the guides are all locals with an intimate knowledge of the area and personal stories that really bring the caves to life. There’s something indescribable about scurrying through the towering caverns of Škocjan, in the cold and damp, with only the narrow beams of your guide’s flashlight stabbing at the inky darkness. A top tip, though – photography is technically prohibited in much of the complex, so best to turn your flash off to avoid drawing attention to yourself if you do decide to snap a few pictures!

As an added bonus, once you’re back above ground you have the opportunity to explore the enormous gorge that adjoins the site. The views are dramatic, and if you’re feeling brave you can even venture across the small bridge the spans the gorge – Definitely not one for those with a fear of heights!

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Kostanjevica Caves

Whilst the caves themselves are ancient, the Kostanjevica was only discovered in 1937 when a flood washed away a layer of land and exposed the gaping mouth of the stunning caverns behind. As such, and thanks in part to their more remote location, these are a true hidden gem and the stuff of dreams for any budding Indiana Jones! Nestled in the foothills of the Gorjanci hills, close to the Croatian border, this sleepy area is best accessed by road as public transport is extremely limited. Accessible only during the summer months, the true beauty of this site is its sheer undeveloped charm. Whilst a basic level of lighting and footpaths have been installed, visitor numbers are still relatively low meaning there’s a very good chance you may have the cave to yourself! It’s best to be prepared and bring a waterproof jacket and sturdy pair of shoes – the fact that the caves are so natural is fantastic, yet brings its own challenges! Back on the surface, the wonderfully lush countryside is home to extensive woodland areas, intertwined with fairy-tail streams and mini-waterfalls. An incredible destination and the perfect place to get away from it all!

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The Best Ways to Travel South Africa

First Published on Free B&B, October 2017

 At over one million square kilometres and with 11 official languages, South Africa has long proved an alluring destination for travellers from all walks of life. Bustling urban cities meet dramatic coastlines; Sweeping game reserves meet vast vineyards – and the distances in-between can be truly staggering. For Europeans who are used to hopping from one country to another in as little as an hour, the thought of driving over 19 hours between two major cities in the same country (as would be the case from Cape Town to Durban), can be baffling. So, with such an exciting country spread over such a vast area, how exactly does one get from A to B in South Africa? Here’s our take on getting the most of your time in this fascinating country…

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By Car

With thousands upon thousands of kilometres of tarmac weaving across the country, South Africa has become one of the most popular destinations for that once-in-a-lifetime road-trip. Almost all big-brand hire car companies have a presence in the major cities, and with special offers starting from as little as $15 per day, this can be an attractive option for travellers of all budgets. Small, budget cars are fine for shorter trips but if you’re planning on driving great distances it’s well worth paying the extra for something a little more comfortable. Sports cars or off-road vehicles are also readily available if you’re looking for something different! Another option would be to buy a car, with the intention of selling it again at the end of your trip, although the paperwork involved can be prohibitive for many, particularly if time is a factor!

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Whilst driving in the large cities will be similar to anywhere in the world, it’s the endless remote highways that hold the true appeal to any budding petrol-head. With the majority of main roads in excellent condition and fuel stations every 200-300 kilometres, getting around by yourself is easily achievable. Maps and SatNav devices are generally perfectly reliable, too, making it easy to find your way around, even away from the large cities. Hitchhiking is also theoretically possible in the more developed parts of the country, although is – for good reason – considered unsafe and is best avoided.

Whilst the security situation in South Africa has improved significantly in recent years, it is still worth remaining aware of your surroundings, particularly at night in larger cities. Simple techniques such as leaving enough space between yourself and the car in front at traffic lights will help you to make a fast getaway should you at any time feel unsafe. Realistically, the most common annoyance on the roads are the numerous police speed check cameras which, unlike in many western countries, are usually not accompanied by warning signs in advance. Providing you’re not doing anything crazy, the police are generally polite and honest and of minimal concern to tourists. If, however, you should find yourself in the increasingly rare position of being asked for a bribe, politely refuse and insist on taking the officer’s details with the intention of reporting them!

 

By Bus

If driving your own car doesn’t suit your taste or wallet, then fear not – you can still experience the pure joy of cruising South Africa’s highways! Well known operators such as Greyhound and Interscape Mainliner operate high quality, regular bus services between all major points on interest within South Africa. With online booking available for all major companies, this can be a convenient and cost-effective way of covering large distances, and is a great chance to meet both locals and other travellers. For a more back-packer friendly vibe, Baz Bus offers a hop-on/hop-off bus service between a range of hostels across the country.

Beware, however, of the numerous minibus taxis that also ply the most popular routes for bargain-bucket prices. Whilst cheap, vehicle and driving standards are notoriously low and it’s not unheard of for busses to be stopped by the police and being prevented from travelling any further due to poor safety standards!

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By Train

Despite what many middle-class South Africans may tell you, the nation’s train network is a perfectly safe and feasible way to explore this vast land. With several different classes of trains plying the rails between major destinations, there is an option to suit all tastes and budgets. For those who seek a luxury travel experience, the world famous Blue Train makes the journey from Cape Town to Pretoria at least once per week, with sleeper fares starting from $1300 one way including all meals, wine and even cigars!

However, don’t for one moment think that train travel in South Africa is exclusively for those on high-end budgets. Considered by many to be one of the country’s best kept secrets, the Shosholoza Meyl long distance trains run along the same tracks as their luxury counterparts, but at a fraction of the price. For example, Jo’Burg to cape Town can cost as little as $50 when booked in advance, including a bed in a 2 or 4 berth sleeper carriage. If availability is an issue, the Premiere Classe also run on a slightly more limited selection of routes, but offer a luxury experience at budget-friendly prices.

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Having travelled a large proportion of the world by train, it would always be my first choice when planning a trip to South Africa. The experience of cruising serenely across the vast plateaus in the comfort of a train’s restaurant car, sipping a beer, is truly an experience to be savoured and far superior to any long-distance bus. Sometimes, it’s the journey that teaches you the most about your destination.

 

By Plane

Whilst many would argue that crossing the nation at 30,000 feet, you are not experiencing even half of what the country has to offer, air travel offers a practical way of covering large distances fast. With a well-established and competitively priced domestic airline network, it is possible to criss-cross South Africa in a relatively short period of time, allowing you to pack more of this great country into your time. With numerous regional and national airlines operating on most routes, fares can be competitive, particularly when booked in advance. And with small propeller powered planes operating on less-busy routes and to smaller airfields, flying domestically in South Africa does come with its own sense of adventure! Fear not, though, as all major airlines meet the strict safety requirements set by the government, and accidents are thankfully a rarity.

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Isaan: Thailand’s Final Frontier

Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport isn’t an inherently bad place. It’s by no means a highlight of anyone’s visit to Thailand, but neither does it conceal some dark force of evil. It is, however, a place that I will generally try to spend as little of my life as possible for if it is one thing for sure, it is boring. And so we found ourselves sitting in – rather bizarrely – and Egyptian themed bar in Laos’ capital city of Vientiane, eating Hummus and flat bread. We were due to meet a friend in Yangon in around 10 days’ time and were trying to find the best way to get over there. Pretty much every flight we could find for a reasonable price required a lengthy layover at Don Mueang– something you may have realised we were keen to avoid. Another option that was open to us was a quick hop over the border and an overnight sleeper to Bangkok and onward flight to Yangon. That was out, too, as we’d already spent a considerable amount of time in Bangkok and didn’t fancy killing another week there now. Looking at the expanse of North Eastern Thailand that lay just across the Mekong, it dawned on us that this was the one region of Thailand we were yet to really explore. It was our final Thai frontier: Isaan.

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A quick bit of online research soon revealed that as-well as the plush overnight express trains, we could reach Bangkok using the much cheaper, albeit much slower, local third diesel trains that plied the tracks between Nong Khai and Bangkok. This is a part of Thailand that is often overlooked by both the tourist and backpacking crowds as it has none of the fine sandy beaches for which Thailand is famed. What it does have, however, is an incredible cultural diversity, some fine Khmer ruins (Cambodia & Laos are just a hop away!) and food that is considered both delicious and spicy – even by Thai standards! The spherical Isaan Sausages are renowned throughout Thailand and available practically everywhere – not one to miss!

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A quick and hassle-free trip to the border using Vientiane’s local bus network soon saw us boarding a shuttle coach across the bridge leading over the mighty Mekong, and into the Thai city of Nong Khai. We had seen a flyer for a guest house here a few weeks ago and had, fortunately, had the good sense to note down the details, and it was just a couple of hours after leaving the bustle of Loas that our TuKTuk driver was delivering us to the oasis that is Mut Mee Garden guest house. Owned and managed by long term British expat Julian and his Thai family, Mut Mee was the escape we so badly needed after a few months of rather basic accommodation. Luscious riverside gardens, soft beds and immaculate rooms were served at prices that even the most budget conscious traveller couldn’t refuse. Julian’s hospitality, it would seem, is somewhat legendary locally, and we ended up spending almost a week in and around Nong Khai. Whilst the city itself is perhaps unexceptional, the weekly regular street food markets, excellent cycling network and relaxed, riverside vibe makes it a great place to spend a slow week. A cycle out to the Sala Keoku sculpture park with its gargantuan concrete statues is a surreal experience and an absolute must whilst in town.

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We had decided to break the 600+ kilometre trip to Bangkok down into smaller sections, spending a night or two in towns along the way. Local Thai trains are utterly brilliant. Not in the sense that they are in any way luxurious or modern, but in the sense that they connect you to local life in a way that no other mode of transport can. The rusty diesel cars that were to be our chariot for the next week offered only third-class seating, which had certainly seen better days. Trundling south, however, on our first leg towards Khon Kaen, we knew we had made the right choice in travelling this way. The seats may have been hard but with the windows wide open we were able to truly appreciate the staggering beauty of this land, so untouched by tourism. Mile upon mile of farmland rolled by, punctuated by rural villages and the occasional larger town.

Life on board was just as vibrant as that trundling by our window. Food vendors boarded at most stations, offering cooled drinks and various snacks which were both as delicious and as spicy as we had been warned to expect. Towards the front of each train is an area of seating reserved exclusively for the use of Monks who may happen to be travelling. This can be a great place to sit as we found that many of the Monks who boarded spoke remarkably good English and were keen to engage us in conversation and share their knowledge of the area.

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Despite their slow speed and regular stops, our train trundled into Khon Kaen pretty much dead on time, and we had a wonderful evening exploring the local night market, before enjoying an exceptionally good value meal in the food court just a few hundred metres from the station. We had been warned that the cities of Isaan’s cities didn’t offer much in the way of sightseeing, and had decided to spend just a night or two in each of our stops. This worked perfectly for us as we were mainly looking to experience the region rather than go off and hunt down specific sights.

Next stop on our journey was the provincial capital of Nakhon Ratchasima, locally known as Korat – remember that when looking at train timetables as both or either names may be used! On this particular leg, our train was much busier than previous journeys. The conductor, seeing us jump on board with our bags was keen to practice his English for a few minutes, before ‘miraculously’ reserving 2 seats for us by the window, with space for our bags!

Despite its size, Korat retained it charming, small town feeling. A large central square, interesting selection of temples and buzzing night market cemented the charm factor, whilst the city Zoo – one of Thailand’s largest – makes a great day trip. Shopaholics will also be delighted by the great range of wares available in town, both in the street-side markets and large, modern malls that can be found on the city’s edge. For those with a little more time, the hour-or-so journey to Wat Non Kum will reward you with idyllic views over a grand Thai temple, with none of the tourist crowds!

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From Korat, both Bangkok and the ancient capital city of Ayutthaya are in easy striking distance by train. If time is of the essence, regular express trains make the journey into Bangkok’s Huamlamphong station in around three hours, although we decided to stick to our guns and complete the journey on our trusted slow trains! Whilst this may sound a rather romantic waste of time, one of the most truly remarkable aspects of this style of travelling is the cost – or lack of. Our entire journey from Nong Khai on the Laos border, to Bangkok some 630 km away had set us back a mere 120 Thai Baht. That’s less than $4, for several days of stunning views, great conversation and unobstructed photography. Who needs windows when you can have the wind in your hair?

Top 10 Dishes to try in Morocco

Safe, vibrant and well connected to Europe and beyond, Morocco is widely regarded as one of the most accessible North African countries to visit. With both Arabic and French as its national languages, and English widely understood in tourist areas, it’s possible to truly immerse yourself in the local culture and experience the famed Arabic and Berber hospitality. I’m a firm believer that one of the best ways to get to grips with a new culture is through its food, and with Arabic, French and Berber influences coming together with incredible fresh produce, Morocco is a joy to visit. Here are 10 classic Moroccan dishes you shouldn’t miss…

 

Tagine

Possibly the most famous of Moroccan dishes, the name ‘Tagine’ actually refers to the unique clay cooking dishes used commonly in this part of the world. A wide, clay base and tall conical lid work together to ensure its contents are cooked slowly and evenly, whilst the shape of the lid acts to preserve moisture and keep the contents juicy. This humble dish gives birth to a myriad of different dishes, although Chicken, Lamb and Beef are staples along with an assortment of vegetables, olives and traditional Moroccan preserved lemons. Tagines can be found practically everywhere in Morocco, and are almost always served with freshly baked bread. Delicious!

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Merguez Sausages

Bright red in colour, these fresh sausages can be found grilling over hot coals on practically every street corner. Traditionally made of either minced Lamb or Beef, these little delights are heavily spiced with Cumin, Sumac, Fennel and Harissa – a spicy blend of roasted peppers, chillies and garlic which gives the sausages their red colour. Traditionally eaten as a sandwich or with French fries, Merguez sausages can also be found dried as an ingredient in Tagines. Head to Marrakech’s famous Djemaa el Fna square to try one hot off the grill!

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Mechoui

Morocco’s famous slow roast lamb, usually prepared by roasting whole lambs on a spit in clay ovens. Before roasting the lamb is smeared in traditional Smen, or fermented butter, and then coated in a blend of cumin, coriander and chilli powder for that signature north African flavour. Whilst the idea of fermented butter may sound unpleasant, when roasted it helps to keep the meat tender and juicy, whilst enhancing the natural meaty flavour. Once cooked, the succulent meat is pulled apart by hand, shredded and eaten with salt and freshly ground cumin – and the ubiquitous flatbread!

 

Harira

A traditional North African soup, Harira is often eaten as a starter or by itself as a light snack, although it is particularly popular during the holy month of Ramadan when it is eaten to break the fast at sunset. Rich hearty and satisfying, the main broth is made from Chicken, Chickpeas, Lentils and Tomatoes, with hints of ginger and saffron. Just before serving, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice is often added for sharpness, along with a pinch of salt and turmeric. Traditionally served with hard boiled eggs, dates and sweet bread, it’s a triumph of sweet and savoury!

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Couscous

Popular and trendy across the world, Couscous is a classic Moroccan dish and can be eaten both as a savoury main course, or sweetened and eaten as a desert. In its savoury form, couscous is eaten in a similar way to how other cultures would eat rice or pasta – as an accompaniment to a stew with lots of vegetables and sauce. A classic example of this would be the famous “7 Vegetable Couscous”, where squashes, cabbages and root vegetables are slow cooked in an intense broth and served on a mound of fluffy couscous. In its desert form (known as Stouff), the couscous is traditionally steamed several times until incredibly light and fluffy, before being topped with sugar, almonds and cinnamon and served with milk that has been perfumed with orange flower water.

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Bread

A nod to Morocco’s French influences, freshly baked bread lies at the heart of Moroccan culture. A perfect accompaniment to the rich stews, hearty soups and succulent meats that make up the Moroccan diet, bread is both cheap, filling and delicious in its own right. It’s perfectly common for every household to prepare their own fresh bread every morning, which is then taken to the communal bread ovens that can be found in every neighbourhood, where it is expertly baked in the hot ovens before being collected again in time for lunch.

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Tangia

The lesser-known brother to the Tagine, ‘Tangia’ refers to the clay cooking pot that is traditional to Moroccan Berber culture. It is common for single men to take their Tangia to the local market in the morning, and have it filled with a mixture of olives, preserved lemons and meat – usually beef or lamb. A blend of spices and seasoning is added, along with a little water and olive oil, before the pot is tightly sealed. The pot is then often taken to a bakery or even the fires beneath a steam bath where, for a small fee, the pot will be nestled amongst the embers of the fire and left to slowly cook for several hours. The result is a rich and nutritious stew with succulent meat – the ultimate one-pot cooking!

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Dates

As with many Arabic cultures, dates have been popular in Morocco for thousands of years and are in ready supply thanks to the vast number of date palms that grow in the region. Often eaten ceremoniously to break the fast during Ramadan, dates are still a popular ingredient to this day and can be eaten alone as a sweet snack, or used in recipes such as the famous Tagine. Whilst over 100 varieties of date grow in Morocco alone, the most famous is the Medjool Date which is celebrated for its meaty flesh and honey-like flavour – perfect with a cup of fresh mint tea!

 

Moroccan Mint Tea

Drinking mint tea is a national past time in Morocco and is considered a symbol of hospitality and friendship. Whilst the preparation of food is still often considered to be a woman’s role, the preparation of the tea – a process known as atai – is usually left to the man or head of the household. Brewed using green tea, fresh mint and sugar, the tea is then poured from the pot from a height of at least 30cm into a small glass, causing a foam to form on top. This foam is known as the ‘crown’ and is an essential sign that the tea is good to drink!

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M’Hanncha

Whilst a huge assortment of sweet pastries known as Baklava are available across the country, one dessert that is particularly renowned in Morocco is the M’Hanncha, or Serpent. A sweet mixture of almonds, butter, sugar and rosewater is wrapped in long sheets of thin pastry, similar to Filo. This long tube is then rolled up and baked, with its shape resembling a coiled snake – hence its name! Sweet, with a crisp pastry crust and oozing centre and wonderful perfume of rosewater, this is a quintessential Moroccan experience and is best enjoyed with a fresh glass of mint tea!

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48 Hours in Taipei

First Published on Free B&B, September 2017

As the national capital of the Republic of China (or Taiwan, to you and me) Taipei is a vast city and home to over 2.6 million people. Drenched in history and with a rich cultural heritage, it is the textbook modern Asian metropolis where east meets west. Ancient temples nestle in amongst modern skyscrapers; Bustling night markets lurk just blocks away from modern day mega-malls, and world class street-food stalls sit comfortably alongside Michelin starred restaurants. Add to the mix the fact that Taiwan has none of the often-prohibitive visa restrictions of the Chinese mainland, and it’s easy to see why tourism in Taipei is booming.

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With 48 hours before we had to fly out, we were determined to get the most out of our time in Taipei and, as such, had booked ourselves into one of the snazzy new backpacker’s hostels that have erupted throughout the city centre. Based in the central Ximen district, we were strategically located just a few minutes’ walk from one of the numerous stops on Taipei’s outstanding metro system. Cheap, regular and – crucially – tourist friendly, we invested in a daily ticket and joined the throngs of commuters that inhabit the system at the crack of dawn. It was a crisp, clear winter’s morning and Elephant Mountain was calling.

Having taken the metro for the short trip out of the city as far as Xiangshan, any fears of not finding our way to the summit were soon allayed. It seems that the early morning pilgrimage to the peak is one that is enjoyed by many tourists and Taiwanese locals alike, for there was a constant stream of people making their way from the station, through the neighbouring park and up the steep and winding path through the forest. Providing early morning refreshment at the foot of the trail was an elderly couple selling orange juice, pressed fresh before your eyes. Nearing the top, we found a long and surprisingly orderly queue of people waiting to scramble upon a rock balanced precariously near the edge of the cliff – no doubt in search of the perfect Instagram photo! We followed our gut instincts and pushed on past the crowds, to be rewarded just minutes later with the most perfect panoramic view over the city, with the imposing form of Taipei 101 – once the world’s tallest building – taking centre stage.

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Heading back into the city and it was time for an exceptional Szechuan lunch at Kikki’s, and small chain of restaurants around the city specialising in this spicy cuisine from the mainland. From there, it was just another quick subway hop to the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, a symbol of the nation where the Taiwanese flag is raised and lowered every morning and evening. The vast courtyard is flanked by impressive oriental-style buildings and is a popular destination in its own rights for locals to come and practice martial arts. The memorial hall itself stands as a tribute to Chiang Khai-Shek, former President of Taiwan, and contains a small yet interesting museum of his life.

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The rest of the afternoon was spent taking a quiet stroll through the streets and alleyways that make up Taipei’s historic Zhongshang district. A wonderful mix of old and new, the sights, smells and sounds made us realise that underneath it’s somewhat polished veneer, Taipei is above all a busy, functioning and slightly gritty metropolis. The beautifully landscaped 228 Peace Park provided some welcome relief to the hustle and bustle of town, and gave us the chance to rest our feet for an hour or so! As the sun began to dip on the horizon, it was just another short subway ride to the famous night market at Shilin.

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Admittedly, the Shilin night market is one of the more tourist-orientated experiences that Taipei has to offer. Whilst there are plenty of more ‘local’ markets to be found, we were keen to experience the ‘big one’ and certainly weren’t disappointed. All of the usual market wares were on offer: fake electronics, reproduction T-Shirts and plenty of other trinkets aimed at the tourist masses. A particularly entertaining stall offered large buckets of live prawns and mini fishing rods for kids to try their luck – Anything they caught got barbecued for them on the spot! Opting for a slightly more traditional street food experience, the blow-torched cubes of beef, spicy Taiwanese sausage and steamed BBQ Pork buns were all a delight and made for a superb value evening meal.

Taking a slightly more leisurely start the next morning, we decided to make use of the excellent cycle hire scheme available throughout Taipei. With pickup and drop-off points across the city, you simply register at one of the terminals using a credit card, pay a few dollars access fee and you’re ready to go, much like London’s (infamous) Boris Bikes! Wide roads, dedicated cycle paths and very strict traffic rules make cycling in Taipei both fun and safe, and we had soon made our way to Longshan Temple, one of Taipei’s oldest Buddhist centres nestled amongst significantly more modern apartment blocks. For temple lovers, the Baoan and Confucius temples are both easily reached on two wheels and a great source of insight into local traditions and both still very much active to this day.

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Leaving the old town behind, we peddled our way into the heart of the modern city, and the namesake Taipei 101. Officially known as the Taipei International Financial Centre, this vast 508-metre high structure is recognised the world over as a symbol of the prosperity of this great city.  The basement food court offers a vast selection of simple, good value food from around the world, whilst the shopping mall on the upper levels would keep even the most intrepid shopper occupied for quite some time. For us, however, the main attraction was taking a high-speed elevator to the 89th-floor observation deck, taking a mind-blowing 37 seconds. The views from the top are breathtaking, and it’s well worth timing your visit to coincide with the sunset as the mountain backdrop is jaw-dropping. For those interested, you can descend a couple of floors and see the vast tuned mass damper system which keeps the building stable in the strong winds that can blow across the city.

With our time limited, it seemed only fitting to sample the nightlife on offer down at ground level. Whilst hardly a party destination in its own right, Taipei is not short of quality bars and restaurants, although those on a tight budget may struggle a little! The area around Lane 280 Guangfu South Road is a favourite hangout for locals and, over a few cold Taiwan Beers (when in Rome!), we decided that whilst it was certainly possible to cover large parts of the city in just two days, to really do it justice would take weeks. And seeing as we’ll be on the Chinese mainland later in the year, it’s a safe bet that we’ll be back soon!

 

The Top 10 Things to do in Germany

Germany has worked hard over recent years to develop its reputation as a tourist destination. With a mix of modern cities, historical towns and stunning scenery, this country has something to offer for ever taste. English is widely understood in most towns and cities, and the rail and bus network is excellent making it an incredibly accessible country for most visitors. Here’s our Top 10 Things to do in Germany…

 

Explore Berlin

Germany’s thriving capital, Berlin has established itself as a diverse and liberal city. With an abundance of museums, an excellent food scene and vibrant nightlife, Berlin is one of the most exciting cities in Europe. Local Tip: The vast flea market at Mauerpark every Sunday is a favourite hangout for locals and tourists alike – just jump off the metro at Bernauer Straße!

S-Bahn und Fernsehturm in Berlin

 

Drive the ‘Romantic Road’

This 400km long route between Würzburg and Füssen passes through some of Germany’s finest scenery and historic towns. Würzburg is also a renowned grape growing region with some excellent local wines. Local Tip: Avoid the tour busses by cycling the route using the excellent network of cycle paths!

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Visit Neuschwanstein Castle

This picture-perfect castle is almost a symbol of Germany itself. High in the Bavarian mountains, it looks like something out of a fairy-tale and is must see in the area. Local Tip: Take the public bus that runs right up to the castle- it is much cheaper than the horse and carts advertised near the ticket counters!

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

 

Explore Germany’s largest lake

In the very south of Germany on the Swiss and Austrian borders lies Lake Constance, known as the ‘Bodensee’. With amazing views, plenty of water based activities and charming towns, this area has something for everyone. Local Tip: Take a seat on the top deck of one of the many ferries and enjoy a leisurely tour of the lake – you can even buy a beer and something to eat on board!

Harbour of Lindau in Lake Constance, Germany

 

Go for a Hike

Going for long hikes is a national pastime, particularly in areas with lots of hills and lakes. Walking trails are well maintained and signposted so getting lost shouldn’t be an issue – just remember to wear good walking boots! Local Tip: You will find plenty of ‘Hütte’ along popular routes where you can get a simple and hearty meal to keep you going!

Hiking in the alps near Berchtesgaden at the Obersee, Koenigssee, Bavaria, Germany

Say ‘Prost!’ at a Beer Festival

Joining a local Beer Festival is a must-do when in Germany. Munich’s Oktoberfest is the biggest and most famous, with live bands and plenty of amusements. Remember to say ‘Prost’ (‘Cheers’) before drinking! Local Tip: Rather than Oktoberfest, try the ‘Cannstatter Wasen’ which takes place around the same time in Stuttgart.

Friends enjoying Oktoberfest

 

Eat like a Local

German food is generally very rich and hearty, featuring lots of meat, bread and potatoes. Whilst there are plenty of fine dining options in most cities, for a true taste of Germany, head to one of the local ‘Imbiss’ stands which serve quick snacks for people on their lunch breaks! Local Tip: Most butchers shops will also have a hot counter that served various delicacies such as Schnitzels in a bread roll, ready to eat!

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Drink Beer in Munich

Munich is often considered to be the home of German beer and is the home of the German Purity Law that governs the production of beer to this day. All over the city there are vast beer halls that serve up fresh local beer along with hearty food, traditional music and an amazing atmosphere. Local Tip: Don’t call the large beer glasses ‘Steins’! Holding one litre of liquid, the proper name for these giant glasses is a “Maß”, pronounced “Mahss”!

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Head to the Beach

Although not generally known as a beach destination, Germany has a wonderful stretch of coastline on the North and Baltic Seas. The town of Heringsdorf boasts spectacular stretches of sandy beach which get incredibly busy in the summer months. Local Tip: Take a trip to the island of Usedom for some truly world class beaches, accessible year-round. You can even pop over the border into Poland for lunch!

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Go City-Hopping

The north-western state of North Rhein-Westphalia is home to a number of vibrant cities such as Cologne, Bonn, Düsseldorf and Dortmund. They are all relatively near to one another and are connected by an excellent network of trains and busses making it easy to jump explore them all in a short space of time. Local Tip: Buy a ticket that is valid for the whole region as this will provide you with unlimited travel between the cities. There are great discounts available for groups!

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Sri Lanka on Three Wheels

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First Published on Uncharted.io, August 2017

Unlikely Beginnings

It all started with a Facebook tag. You know the story. “Somebody has tagged you in another cat video”. Reluctantly opening the link, I was thrilled to see that rather than a small fluffy creature with 4 legs, my partner had in fact tagged me in something quite different. Staring back at me on the screen was an equally small being, in my eyes just as cute as any juvenile fur-ball – but with Three Wheels!

And so it came to be. What we had stumbled upon was in fact a post from a small Sri Lankan social-start- up who specialise in renting TukTuks to foreigners, but with a catch – they don’t come with a driver. You have to drive yourself. Sri Lanka had long been on the agenda, and whilst it would be a few months before we could make our way across the Indian Ocean, we knew there and then that we had to get ourselves a trishaw!

As Tom explained, the money we were paying for our very own ‘Asian Chariot’ was directly supporting a local family who would usually struggle to make ends meet. We hardly needed convincing, but knowing that we would be giving something back to the local community certainly sealed the deal. We couldn’t wait.

Meeting “The Dark Knight”

We were greeted by ‘TukTuk Tom’ as we dubbed him, and Mr Wiejesinghe (say Vee-Jay-Singer), a jovial and instantly likable guy who was the owner of our new steed. And he was apparently just as excited about our upcoming adventure as we were. His shining three-wheeler was clearly a prized asset and it looked as if he had spent a significant amount of time preparing it for our arrival. It was immaculate. Painted a glossy black, and with numerous decals, trims and tassels for added flair, we could barely wait to get driving. A large sticker across the back windscreen proclaimed “The Lavinia Express”, but we didn’t find that very catchy so dubbed our ride “The Dark Knight” instead.

Behind the ‘Wheel’

Or, to be accurate, Handlebars. To drive, TukTuks are most similar to an old-school Vespa; Left hand clutch and gear change, right hand throttle and a somewhat dubious foot-brake. Following an expert driving lesson, even the manic Colombo traffic wasn’t going to stop us. With our bags loaded and the raw power of that 4-stroke engine behind us, we were ready to see what Sri Lanka had to offer.

There’s a lot of talk in travelling circles about experiencing countries at ‘street level’ and getting the ‘local experience’. But quite frankly, nothing could have prepared us for the raw, in-your-face experience of driving The Dark Night out of the sprawling Colombo suburbs. For the first 30 kilometers or so heading south, we did begin to wander whether we’d made the right decision. It was hot and noisy, incredibly congested and the bus drivers were every bit as suicidal as the guys back at base had warned us they would be.

But then something remarkable happened. The traffic cleared, the multi-lane suburban highway came abruptly to an end and we found ourselves on a textbook beach road. Running right along the sand with the spray of the Indian Ocean in our face, this was what we had come for. Our first night stop was around 4 hours south of #Colombo in the fishing-village turned surf-haven of #Midigama, which we reached without hiccup in the early evening. Despite being wholly out-of-season, we stumbled into the aptly named ‘Mamas’ for a sensation spread of potato curry, spicy dhal, paratha bread and coconut sambol – all Sri Lankan staples to die for.

The Galle Road runs right along the coast for hundreds of kilometers

The Elephant in the Room

TukTuks are simple beasts, and are not known for their reliability. Not 50 metres on the road the next morning and *ping*, our clutch cable broke, rendering our chariot immobile. Fortunately, with the help of some local taxi drivers, just $10 worth of parts and an hour or so later we were back on the road. Backtracking ourselves slightly, we spent the rest of the day exploring the wonderful colonial fort at #Galle. The Dutch influence is clear to this day and there was a distinctly European vibe throughout the town, compounded when we were lucky enough to catch the last few hours of a college cricket game.

From there, our Chariot carried us faithfully along the southern coast through surf spots such as #Weligama and #Mirissa, both of which boast equally renowned beachfront nightlife. Turning inland just past #Tangalle, and the scenery began to change rapidly as we approached the #Yala National Park. A well-known and somewhat overdeveloped tourist destination, #Yala is home to vast open plains, dense bushland and the chance for some mind-blowing Elephant encounters. The road that leads across the Western corner of the park is where some of Tom’s previous customers had encountered Elephants up-close and personal. Sadly, we were not so lucky, although the perfect strip of almost deserted tarmac running through the scrub made for our most memorable drive to date.

Taking in the view…

On the road again

Continuing our path northwards, we began to climb into the hills that make up the Sri Lankan heartland. Open plains soon became rolling hills, which in turn yielded to some simply astonishing peaks, complete with Tea Plantations clinging desperately to their slopes. A relic from the days when Her Britanic Majesty claimed Sri Lanka as her own, tea is still big business in hill country. The vast majority of plantations have some form of visitor center where a charming young lady will invariably be on hand to show you around. A tip of 200 rupees (Around $1.50) per person is usually enough for a half hour tour of the estate and a taste of the wonderfully fresh tea that they produce. It’s quite easy, not to mention pleasant, spending a day ‘plantation hopping’ as you weave your way along the winding mountain roads.

The well-established backpacker hub of #Ella is a great place to take in the mountain air in the company of other travelers. Although not a big town, there are plenty of great hikes that deliver absolutely stunning views of the area, particularly from Little Adam’s Peak. Chill Bar is a backpacker favourite where travelers congregate most evenings to indulge in a dose of respectable western food and cheap beer!

Heading back out of #Ella, we sensed that our little TukTuk was particularly grateful to be heading downhill again. The steep gradients, coolers temperatures and thinner mountain air had taken their toll on it’s 194cc engine and, if we’re honest, it would have been quicker to get out and walk some stretches on the ride up! As we dropped back down towards Colombo, we had just enough time to take in the former British hill town of #Nuwara Eliya. Tea plantations, golf clubs, a rowing lake and a plethora of hill side bungalows make up this quaint community, which is a hit with Sri Lankans looking to escape the heat for a few days. Just the one night was enough for us, but one could easily spend longer in this oasis of tranquility.

All good things must come to an end…

We’ve started and ended many a trip over the years, but crawling back to TukTuk Rental HQ through #Colombo rush-hour traffic, we felt particularly sad to be parting with our three-wheeled friend. Like all good friends, there had been times when it had let us down or hadn’t behaved as we would have liked. But oh boy, the memories we had made together. From the policemen who stopped us simply for a chat as they couldn’t believe their eyes, to the locals who had come to our aid in our hour of need, it had been a truly immersive two weeks. And we all owe it to our now good friend Mr Wiejesinghe and his Dark Knight!

The Forge Restaurant & Wine Bar

Originally Written for Destination Luxury, July 2017

Dating back to the 1920s, The Forge Restaurant & Wine Bar is a Miami Beach institution. Having welcomed the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy garland and more recently Justin Bieber through its doors, there is no question of The Forge’s credentials as a luxury dining venue. In 2015, owner Shareef Malnik appointed celebrated Chef Julia Doyne to lead the dining operations in the role of Executive Chef, bringing modern techniques and flavours to the established American Steakhouse genre.

A Cleveland native, Chef Doyne began her culinary career at the age of 5, learning to cook with her mother at home in the family kitchen. First setting foot in a professional kitchen at the age of 13 as a dishwasher, Chef Doyne’s culinary career blossomed at the University of Pittsburgh before moving to New York City to continue her training under some of the finest chefs in the country. Having built a long and successful working relationship with celebrated Chef Christopher Lee in New York, she followed him to The Forge as Chef de Cuisine before being promoted to Executive Chef in 2015.

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Since assuming ultimate control over the culinary operations at The Forge, Chef Doyne has been quick to put her personal touch on the menu, which has long been celebrated for its Steakhouse Classics. According to owner Shareef Malnik, “Her dishes are thoughtful in presentation and offer bold flavours and masterful presentations that are influenced by her passion, precision and technique.”

Similar words could be used to describe the interior of The Forge, which is a seamless blend of traditional and modernist features. Having undergone a number of changes over the years, the most significant refurbishment took place in 2009 when the restaurant was closed for a year to allow for a $10 million regeneration. Lead by renowned interior designer Francoise Fossard, The Forge was reborn with a modern décor, ambience and philosophy. Hand carved wooden wall panels, Murano glass chandeliers and colourful upholstered furniture are plentiful throughout the main dining room. For private dining, the glass-enclosed ‘Board Room’ features a 22-foot long tables carved from a single, polished Indonesian tree trunk. For a more traditional feel, one can dine in the ‘Library’ room with its stained glass, light wooden furniture, open fire and extensive selection of books adorning the high walls.

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The trademark design feature of the new-look Forge, however, is the labyrinth-like wine cellar which also boasts its own private dining room for up to 25 guests. With over 25,000 bottles of wine stored in this cavernous site, the Wine Cellar at The Forge is one of the largest collections of fine wine in the country. The list features exceptional vintages dating back to 1822, as well as over 60 wines available by the glass, dispensed and preserved using state-of-the-art technology. Upon our visit, we were fortunate enough to be given a private tour of the extensive cellars by Dean, one of The Forge’s many wine experts. The sheer size and complexity of the operation is staggering, and the tour was a definite highlight of our visit and an experience which should not be missed.

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Having taken our seats in the wonderfully light and airy main dining room, we were taken on a journey of gastronomic delights as Chef Doyne introduced us to the dishes which she has personally hand-crafted for the menu at The Forge. To start, I opted for the Artichoke Ravioli, served with crispy pancetta, brown butter and pine nut biscotti. The balance of textures was outstanding and the freshness of the artichoke sang through the rich butter sauce. My partner’s Crispy Crab Cake was wonderfully light and worked perfectly with the smoked remoulade. A burst of fresh acidity was delivered masterfully through the addition of fresh green apples and pickled fresnos.

As would be expected from an American Steakhouse, The Forge features an extensive selection of cuts ranging from Japanese A5 Wagyu through to a mammoth 35oz, bone in dry aged Porterhouse for two. Add to the mix a number of creative spice rubs and a plethora of sauces and butters, and it’s clear that the emphasis on delivering world-class grilled meats lives on at the heart of the kitchen.

To complement this excellent selection of steaks, Chef Doyne has added two composed entrees of her own creation which elevates the menu well beyond that of a typical steakhouse. A tableside classic, the 2 Pound Lobster Pot Pie with root vegetables was both hearty and refined. The generous chunks of succulent Lobster were coated in an indulgent sauce and topped with rich, buttery pastry, whilst the sweetness of the root vegetables complemented that of the lobster meat superbly. My partner’s whole Salt Baked Branzino was perfectly light and delicate, and was supported by a wonderful warmth from the smoked paprika vinaigrette.

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As far as side dishes are concerned, a number of classics have been given the chef’s twist, such as the Haricot Vert which are delicately seasoned with Szechuan chilli sauce and sesame seeds. The Creamed Spinach is adorned with a soft poached hens egg and parmesan cheese for richness; Cauliflower with English cheddar is a classic reborn through the inspired addition of capers for acidity. For the ultimate indulgent side, it’s hard to resist the house special of Caramelized Brussel Sprouts with Confit Duck and verjus raisins.

To round off such an indulgent meal, it would have been amiss of me not to sample Chef Doyne’s signature sign off: ‘The Forge Dome’. Rich chocolate cake, homemade banana bread ice cream, vanilla infused walnuts and pineapple sauce come together in a satisfying blend of old school flavours and modern culinary technique. Served under shiny dome of chocolate, the hot sauce is poured over the top of the dome at the table, thus melting the chocolate and revealing the delights within. Being renowned as a venue at which to celebrate special events and milestones, the ‘off the menu’ Birthday Cake Soufflé is a testament to the skills of the kitchen team and a desert fit to mark any special occasion.

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As The Forge approaches the 100 year anniversary of its original inception, it is comforting to know that the dynamic team of Malnik & Doyne are at the helm. Together, there is little doubt that their respect for the traditional values, yet forward-looking approach will continue to keep The Forge at the very forefront of the American Steakhouse genre for the indefinite future. Here’s to the next 100 years.