Top tips for tourists... and other things to do in Cuba

What's the first thing you think of when you think of Cuba? Cigars? Salsa? Rum? Well, you'd be pretty accurate on all accounts here, but this island has so much more to offer.

However, as its technically a third-world, us Westerners may find it daunting to manoeuvre, particularly when travelling as a solo female. I chose to join a G Adventures tour, so had a great tour guide and group with whom to explore the various landscapes Cuba had to offer, including Havana, Trinidad, Viñales and Playa Larga, and boy did we explore. If you're thinking of touring the county on your own, with a mate, or joining a tour group, here are a few things you may want to know before you set off (after prepping your liver for all the rum cocktails, obvs).

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The basics

Before you even set off, UK visitors need to purchase a tourist card, which works like a visa. This can be done at the embassy, or as I did, via this website. I was nervous to do so, despite it being recommended by a friend, but it is indeed totes legit. Another thing before you set off, which I can't recommend strongly enough, is to take out your spending money in cash to change into CUPs once you land; only certain cards will work at certain ATMs - something I learned the hard way, when it transpired that my bank card was not going to play ball. Thankfully, I was staying in a casa particular (a cross between a B&B and family home) that provided Wi-Fi in the mornings without the need to purchase a Wi-Fi card (more on that in a bit) and I was able to rely on the kindness of strangers - the host in my casa and a couple of the girls on my tour - and the bank of mum and dad to help me sort out the predicament. Within 24 hours, I had cash, but without them… well, who know what I would have done!

Speaking of money, Cuba is pretty affordable for the most part, but a big bulk of your money will go on bottled water (heat + being unable to drink from the taps makes "agua, por favor" your new fave sentence) and tips. The moment your ears hear the tinkling of a guitar, or your bladder tingles with the need to pee, get that coin purse out. Musicians rely on tips, as do the women who hand out toilet tissue outside the loo - and don't forget: do not flush your used loo roll down the toilet! It must go in the bin.

So, back to the Wi-Fi. Compared to the UK, internet in Cuba isn't as widely accessible; Wi-Fi isn't a given at casas, and sometimes even hotels. On the most part, you have to purchase a Wi-Fi card, which is like a little scratchcard that gives you a username, password and length of internet time. You need to keep an eye out for signs indicating you are in a Wi-Fi zone, and then sign in on your browser (and not forget to sign out to preserve the time you're not using it). I chose not to buy one, only connecting three times in eight days for a half hour or so each, and enjoyed the time away from WhatsApp, Instagram and everything else in daily life - it was great!

The food (and drink, obvs)

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I heard mixed things about the food in Cuba before travelling, but I have to say, I was very pleasantly surprised. The benefit of having a local guide was that he was able to recommend and take us to great places. The seafood is fantastic -particularly grilled shrimp, which I first tried in a restaurant in Viñales overlooking the mountains, as was the mezze of traditional crab, lobster and fried fish we had in Trinidad; the chicken can be a bit hit and miss. Restaurant meals are well priced for those coming from the western world; you'll get decent meals for the equivalent of a little more than a tenner, if you don't land yourself in a tourist trap, however, our guide explained that often locals will be unable to afford to eat here, which I did find a little jarring. For breakfast, you can expect oodles of fresh fruit, omelette, and crepes.

Even better are the three little letters that spell r.u.m. The rum cocktails here are served with free poured alcohol, and you can ask for them to be topped up (for free) if the already triple or quadruple measures aren't enough for you. In most places, mojitos cost at 3 or 4 CUC (the equivalent of £2.50) - just 1 CUC more than water.

The accommodation

You have a choice when it comes to accommodation in Cuba; hotels/hostels or casa particulars, which run like a B&B, as well as being the family home. We stayed in different casas throughout our stay, giving us the opportunity to bond with different families and learn a little bit about local life in each town and city. Going as a big group, there was a 'main casa', which served as a drop-off and meet up point, then we were split up in pairs or groups of four all around the town. We had great hosts who went out of their way to help us and be of assistance, particularly the owner of my first homestay in Havana and the wonderful host in Viñales, who brought us mango juice on her roof to look over a neighbouring vineyard and we chatted in the little Spanish and the lot of hand gestures that me and my roomie could muster.

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The landscapes

Our trip took us to Havana, Viñales, Cayo Levisa, Playa Larga, Bay of Pigs and Trinidad with a few more stops along the way. Each was very different from one another. In Havana, we wondered around the famed Art Deco streets that seemed reminiscent of a time past, with a sprinkle of Beverley Hills style about it; the buildings are so ornate and vibrant. We hopped on both a bus tour and vintage car tour, which I highly recommend. You can choose to tour the inner or outer city (we chose the latter) and cruise in style as you admire the city's landmarks, with music playing, and learn a little more about their history. Our driver was so friendly, knowledgeable and also an ace photographer. We saw Cuba's Jesus statue, which overlooks the city from the Casablanca area, and the fort, amongst other stops. As a group, we partook in a walking tour around Havana’s four main squares, but I also got the chance to peruse the fantastic local art at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, peruse the José Martí Memorial and pass Revolution Square.

Trinidad is just as vibrant as Havana, perhaps even more so, with larger casas and a real laid-back vibe. We enjoyed a really cool evening on one night of our stay, listening to music and putting our newly acquired salsa skills to use in the amphitheatre-style main square, following our private lesson with a former ballet dancer on the terrace of the main Trinidad casa earlier that afternoon. We then had a proper night out at a Disco Ayala, which was legit a club in a cave, that played both Cuban and international music. However, a quick drunken Uber was not an option at 3am; we were just grateful that one of the girls had GPS…. My roomie and I were defo still drunk in the morning as we wolfed down our huge (and lovingly prepped) breakfast and set forth to swim in the mountainous waterfall of El Cubano national park.

Viñales brought a completely different, more rural landscape, backed by mountains, with ample vineyards and farms growing fruit. On our second day here, we took a day trip to Cayo Levisa and, my God, it was one of the most beautiful beaches I have been on! From the fine white sands and interlinked wooden huts to the swaying palms and cool clear waters, we were in paradise! We were welcomed off the boat with drinks and spent the day swimming, sleeping, sunbathing, and drinking or snorkelling. Another day, another beach the following day - one of only two protected sites in Cuba, the infamous Bay of Pigs - and yet again, the terrain differed to a more rocky swampland.

The way of life

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It's not just the gorgeous weather that is warm in Cuba; it's the people and their way of life. While we may have got a specific, more tourist view of the country, we did get to dabble in a few more 'local activities'. In Viñales, we had an informal Spanish lesson, where along with the regular tourist phrases were learned two more Cuban terms: ‘ultimo’, which you use to find out who is last in the queue (especially important in case the queue is in the direct sun and people are seeking the shade) and ‘mangito’ (or for females, ‘mangita’). This word derives from mango and basically means ‘fit AF’ - yeah, we used this word a lot as a group...

Also whilst here, we visited a tobacco farm, learned how farmers grow the tobacco, and how they roll it to create 100% handmade cigars. They told us about dipping it in honey to moisten it and also get a better taste, and we sat, smoked and had a proper chilled time. We took our new-found Cuban habit up a notch in Playa Larga, sitting under atmospheric lighting at the beach at night, after enjoying a fabulous dinner, and smoked, drank, chatted and listened to music with our toes in the sand (and our bods covered with mozzie spray).

Something that truly struck me about Cuba is their laws surrounding animals. In fact, we were told how the farmers aren't allowed to kill their own animals, and how, if an animal dies in an accident, the police are called, the same way as a person. Hefty fines and punishments are imposed. Dogs, which are loving and not at all vicious roam about and, in Fusterlandia Park (which was built by José Fuster across 20 years, starting with his home then extending across the neighbourhood for his community), there was quite the domestic tortoise who approached people for head strokes.

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Now, I’ve managed to get through the whole post without really mentioning anything to do with the politics of the country or the Revolution; this is intentional. Of course, we were shown one point of view throughout the tour, and it was super interesting to learn about. I came away from my trip with lots of questions and lots of food for thought. What was also pretty interesting is that in my stopover at Miami airport, between Cuba and New York, I met a guy whose mum was Cuban, but left during the Revolution - it was quite enlightening to hear another point of view then, too.

All in all, Cuba was very different to the daily life I am used to, and that’s why I loved it. Although we did a lot, I weirdly felt really well rested - probably was all the rum in my veins.

Biting the Big Apple without going broke... and other things to do in Manhattan, New York

The city of New York is synonymous with almost every romantic comedy, hit TV show and even a few books that I devoured growing up; the Big Apple had been on my must-travel-to list for a while. With time taken off for another trip that I didn’t end up booking, plus £250 flights, this May was finally my time to set foot in a city I had already fallen in love with.   

Now, it goes without saying that New York is expensiiiiive. I’ve heard this about many countries, for example, Oslo and Iceland, and just minimised the cost in certain ways to make it doable, but New York really is all about the dollar bills, yo. This trip was a birthday trip with my ma, so we didn’t necessarily adhere to the most cost-effective solutions when sightseeing or dining, but I definitely identified a few ways to enjoy the city to the max, without fully breaking the bank - whether we adhered to them or not.

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Travel

So, we travelled with Norwegian airlines - they came recommended by a few people, but they are a budget airline. Their tickets were cheap and cheerful, and to be honest, flying with them (me one way, my mum both ways), they were decent, but it is worth noting a few things. First things first, make sure you are completely within your baggage weight and measurements for both your carry on and hold luggage - they will charge yo’ butt for even the slightest scale tilt, so it’s best to avoid any fees. Secondly, don’t bother pre-ordering food; it’s definitely not worth £25, especially the veggie option. However, they have a selection of meals and snacks on board that are more purse friendly (like, not ground costs, but decent) and also, just better.  

After some airport shenanigans - my mum was flying in from home, while I was flying over from Cuba - we exited the airport, Times Square-bound. Here, we met a taxi driver who, for whatever reason, wasn’t in the main taxi queue, which we found strange. He quoted us NINETY DOLLARS plus taxes and tolls to take us, ranting on how Uber was cheaper. Do not fall for this - head on over to the taxi rank. This journey into the centre should cost around $60 (including taxes and tolls). We one-upped ourselves on the way back and went for an airport transfer that picked us up near Grand Central Station - that was cheap, comfortable and easy to get from a to b.    

Accommodation

We were pretty lucky with our accommodation; thanks to a hefty work discount, we stayed at Hotel Mela right off Times Square and Broadway (top tip: go down to the screen on the square for cheap on the day tickets). We even got an upgrade to a 16th-floor suite (accompanied by a cute fruit platter and personalised message)! Being so close to Times Square was absolutely incredible, and finally seeing the ball, though obvs not yet dropping, was amazing for me, as I’ve always wanted to see it drop on new years in person. This location also meant we walked EVERYWHERE, as most places in Midtown were within walking distance (there were definitely days where we must have walked around 80 blocks all in all). We had a plush living area with one- and two-seaters, where my mum curled up with her book when I went on my solo jaunts – it was like having our own apartment.

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That said, being in central meant everything cost a small fortune. Room service was crazy expensive, but we treated ourselves to a delicious and huge breakfast our first morning, naturally. If I were to come back here and do it in my usual cost-effective way, Airbnb would most definitely be the way forward. On one of our days, we walked a few blocks east as we ambled towards Chelsea Market – the perfect place to spend a rainy afternoon; it’s indoors, has well priced food, and is kitsch yet cool, with its lights and wood aesthetic – and saw the ‘real-life’ Midtown and where people actually live if they’re not a celeb, but in this suburb. We used the High Line to walk back towards our hotel, finishing at Hudson Yards shopping centre, which was hugeee.   

Bright lights, big city: sightseeing

Of course, we started with our fave: a city sightseeing tour bus, covering the majority of downtown with one ticket. The app said the weather was going to be bad, but it was brilliantly sunny. We got some great intel about the suburb, I saw Gossip Girl filming locations (like the hospital Eric is in  season 1, hahaha) and learned about the food rating system. We hopped off at the stop for the 9/11 Memorial Museum and…wow. The fountains are startling, glittering in the light as if like souls, and very symbolic and the museum itself is an incredible tribute. Hearing the voices of people who were related to those who lost their lives, seeing the massive room covered floor to ceiling in their images, the videos… it was incredibly powerful and moving.   

Next up, we walked through Battery Park, towards the Staten Island ferry terminal. Now, New Yorkers are so friendly and open, especially when they hear a British accent, but the closer we got to the ferry, the more people tried to sell tickets to us. Despite the flattery, don’t listen when these peeps say you can’t see the Statue of Liberty from the ferry. Yes, you won’t be stuck up close to it, or get off to climb up it, but you will get a pretty good view of the Lady for free. Ensure you are on the right side of the ferry when going towards Staten Island and on the left side as you return to Manhattan. On the way back, we hopped back on the sightseeing bus and saw the different quarters, plus some incredible artwork.

The next day, we headed towards Macy’s for a little peruse and, more importantly for me, we were on 34th Street! Miracle on 34th Street is one of my top two Christmas movies, and Cole’s is based on Macy’s. I could imagine myself sitting above one of the shops, just like Susan at the beginning of the film.

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From Macy’s, you also get a pretty good view of the Empire State Building from ground level. Although the idea of climbing this iconic structure was attractive to me – mainly because of the whole Blair and Chuck engagement shiz in Gossip Girl - the sheer height of the building was not. However, I definitely wanted to do something that would scare me a little so decided on Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Centre – many people, including the guide on our sightseeing bus the day, before say the view is better than from the Empire State. I bought a ticket online and then my mum and I went to explore the Rockefeller Centre for a bit – it was fab to see where the famous ice-rink and Christmas tree goes in winter – but when in there, we were advised that it was too foggy to see anything from the top. However, top tip, you can SWAP your ticket for a different time slot, so check the weather beforehand, so you can swap to a good slot. When I got up there the next day, the view was incredible! The lift is quick, but not stomach-flop-inducing. Weirdly, it wasn’t any windier or colder, and you can also opt to stay indoors.

Another great, cost-free way to spend an afternoon in the city is a stroll around Central Park – I did this with my headphones in and thoroughly enjoyed it – again feeling like I was in one of the films I love (also, as usual, I spotted a wedding shoot). I just did a couple of hours, but I definitely think you need a full day to do all the attractions and appreciate it fully.

Dining

I can’t dress this up: the majority of your money will go on food and tips at restaurants in Manhattan. On the evening of our second full day, we wandered over to the Met Life centre and had a great New York pizza… at New York prices. The fresh basil definitely made it though – it was up there with one of my favourite pizzas. A handful of mornings, we also made use of the diner a stone’s throw from our hotel; the breakfasts were huge and tasty, and the service good. Again, it felt like a proper American diner, with the coffee refills and all. On our last morning, we deviated to a different diner, but enjoyed our dishes just as much. I even had a cheeky Oreo milkshake.

I don’t want to close this post on a neggy note, so popping this before I go onto the best places to eat, but if you value your stomach or your wallet, do not, under any circumstances, eat in JFK Terminal 1 post-security. They aren’t allowed gas cookers, but they are allowed to commit daylight robbery apparently. At one of the restaurants, we fell hook line and sinker for the water on the table trick (bye $16.99 for two bottles of water) and the food… yeah, utter shite. $40-something worth of utter shite too. URGH.

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A hidden gem (well, for me anyway; I legit didn’t know this was here) was the food court under Grand Central Station. Now, Grand Central Station was amazing as it is – again, I was Serena in GG, Mila Kunis in that film with the flash mobs – I bloody loved it. The grand ceiling, the chandeliers… remind me why my local tube station isn’t like this again? Anyyyyway, when you go downstairs to use the loo, you’ll find a whole new world (not in the actual loo though, obvs). We parked up at a gelato bar and enjoyed the creamiest, sweetest, most indulgent gelato – perhaps even more so than that I’ve had in Rome or Milan.

If you’re looking for well-priced food fairly close to the centre of Midtown, the Hell’s Kitchen area is the place to go. Just a few blocks west, you’ll find a plethora of cuisines. I had arguably the best fried chicken I’ve ever had at a Korean place; so good that little ol’ me had six drumsticks in one sitting. I couldn’t manage near that a few months before back in the UK when KFC were doing the nine buckets for a fiver.

So, there you have it; there are plenty free activities to do in the Big Apple and, with a few changes to your itinerary, you can actually make the most of the city’s landmarks without totally breaking the bank. While food and tips are defo the biggest expenditure, you can minimise it a bit by where you eat, and definitely where you stay. I will 100% return.

How to day trip to Europe... and other things to do in Brussels, Belgium

"I'm off to Europe for the weekend, dahhhling" sounds like something the Kim Ks of the world would say, right? But what if I said you could one up that with a day trip AND you could do the whole thing for less than £150? Yep, it is totally doable; all you need is a passport and a well-timed Eurostar sale and you're away.

Train travel lends itself more easily to day trips than flights do, and with the Eurostar, you've got direct trains to various locations across France, the Netherlands, and Belgium (and even more options if you’re happy to change). Eurostar often has sales where tickets are far cheaper than heading up north; I took advantage of this and opted for Brussels, as I had not yet been to Belgium.

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Going to a new city for the day may seem quick, but you can pack a lot in without rushing - and you get all the fun of travel without the cost of a hotel or hassle of living out of a suitcase. Here's how to make the most of a day in Brussels (or elsewhere on the continent):

Choose your dates wisely

You'll be governed by the dates of the cheap tickets, but the earlier you book, the better choice you have; we were able to get the first train out and the last train in on a Saturday (which is just as well as my annual leave is spread pretty thin already…) We had such good experiences at both terminals: the staff at the Pret in the morning were super friendly and one even let me off the extra change for my water, so I didn't have to break a larger note, while the one in Brussels in the evening had pedal bikes to charge your phone and a football table to while away the waiting time.

Had we been less impulsive, we would have probably chosen a Saturday later on in the year; Brussels abounds with beautiful parks, such as Jubilee Park, Brussels Park and Elizabeth Park, and it would have been lovely to chill out with a picnic of sweet waffles, salty frites and beer in the warmer weather at one - or all - of them. However, no amount of on-off rain will hinder a Brit, no matter the time of year.

What to pack

I am guilty of pretty much always over packing for my trips, prepared for all manner events that are unlikely to happen, but going for a day trip means just picking up a (small) backpack or handbag and heading out. Apart from the weather-appropriate gear, such as an umbrella, scarf and gloves, all you need is:

- Passport

- Eurostar tickets

- Money

- Oyster (or travel) card (for getting to and from Kings Cross in London)

- Headphones

- Lipstick (totes essential for me)

Getting around

It's so easy to get from Brussels Midi to the central station: there's a four-minute train or you can hop on the metro (via the ticket machine that has an English option and directions on how to navigate the interface above the screen) for a few stops to De Broukeer, and either change or walk for 10 minutes.

Those who have read my previous travel guide posts will know that I love a city sightseeing bus, and when you're doing a day trip they're an absolute no-brainer. For £20-something (it varies city to city for a 24-hour ticket), you can see the city's top landmarks on a whistle-stop tour, hopping off at the ones you wanna see a little closer, without having to faff about with public transport. All the while, you’ll be getting information through your personal headphones. In Brussels, there are two stops at the central station, one each for different tours. This is the only point where they cross over, so make sure you're on the right one if you don't want to do both lines (which we did easily and had plenty of time for other stuff, but this may not be everyone's cup of tea).

Food and drink

Image: Emily Jenkins

Image: Emily Jenkins

You can definitely do 'top line' Brussels in a day. Of course, you can't see and do everything the art nouveau capital of the world has to offer, but you can get a real taste for the city - something we did pretty literally. The sweet smell of waffles tempts from around the corner, and not in a whimsical way: the city literally smelt sweet AF in a lot of places we visited or streets we wandered down. Our afternoon pit stop was at the Waffle Factory near Grand Place, which was teeming with tourists and locals. I opted for a Brussels waffle with dark Belgian chocolate. It was DELICIOUS and strangely light for such an indulgence.

Earlier in the day, we stopped for lunch at Le Faucon Den Valk, a cosy pub-type joint with an open fireplace. Heeding the advice of some of my colleagues, I opted for mussels (alongside a hot choco) and my flatmate had the onion soup and a beer, and we were both happy with our choices. They weren't the best mussels I've had - this goes to Oslo - but they were pretty good.

Going back to the beer for a minute, the beer scene in Brussels is highly rated and for those who even just tolerate the stuff, it is essential to try on a day trip. Now, I'm not a beer drinker myself, but my housemate is, and we ventured into Poechenellekelder, the most kitsch cool beer house ever. Atmospherically lit, from the ceilings hung puppets, musical instruments, upside down beer glasses and mannequins, with some tables made from old barrels. Each beer (and there are loads!) comes with its own uniquely styled glass - bog standard pints this ain't. However, at €4 a pop for really good local beer (according to my flatmate), standard pint prices this is. Recommended is the Brugse Zot.

What to do

Hopping on and off the city sighting bus, we saw a fair bit. The city abounds with Horta-designed buildings, much like Barcelona has a strong Gaudi influence, which are lovely to admire. We hopped off at the European Parliament, where you can take a virtual selfie in the arena at the Visitor Centre, see original pieces of the Berlin Wall (but, ya know, in Belgium) and get as close to the EU as us UK folk can probably get for a while after March...

Ascend the Atomium for a unique bird's eye view of the city, and to observe Mini Europe from above, if you don’t have time to go in, and check out the Manneken-Pis (which is exactly what it sounds like). It's smaller than it looks like in pics and sits behind a small barrier, but is still major lols.

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In the morning, and again in the evening, we stumbled across the Grand Place square with its gorgeous, gold-gilded buildings and Town Hall - they are an absolute must-see. Round off your day with a walk back to the Midi station, so you can experience the city by night, even if only for a short while. In the centre, the way the cobble-stone roads are lit with their overhanging street lights is pretty fairy-tale like, especially with the romantically, art nouveau buildings. On your way back to Brussels-Midi, you'll also pass through a more 'Hackney-esque' part of the city. Be sure to grab some frites for the walk home.

So, there you have it - a full day in Brussels! And, if you're not knackered (and live in London), you'll be back in London before your local pub closes. Shame about the beer here though, eh.

Admiring natural wonders... and other things to do in Reykjavik, Iceland

Spellbinding. Breathtaking. Epic. These grand words seem all too puny to describe the beauty of Iceland's landscapes. From the moment we disembarked the airport transfer bus in the centre of town (it’s an easy 45-minute drive, hella cheaper than getting a cab, and you catch it right outside the arrivals terminal) and walked to our Airbnb, the onslaught of snow set the tone instantly; this was going to be some sort of winter wonderland trip - and, boy, did Iceland deliver. Funnily enough though, apart from on this first evening, we had perfect weather. No snow fell in our three days, yet there was a thick, powder-soft blanket of the stuff wherever we went, sitting under clear blue skies all day long. 

From our short trip, we learned three things about Iceland and Reykjavik pretty quickly: firstly, everyone is so friendly! Regrettably, I didn't utter a word of Icelandic during my stay, as everyone speaks English, and the way they are... well, let's just say, you’ll hear a hell of a lot politer English on their streets than in London. Their laid-back attitude is probably owing to the fact that their whole country has 4% of the population that there is in our capital city alone.

The second thing we learned is that the whole country abounds with such #nofilter beauty and wonders - I genuinely think it’s the most naturally beautiful place I’ve ever been. Yes, everyone knows about the Northern Lights (more below) - and obvs I wanted to see them too - but there is so much more to discover, too.

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The third is that, while money is always a bone of contention for visitors to Iceland, the cost isn’t as crazy as you’d imagine. Yes, it is expensive, but you can minimise a complete kamikaze of your bank balance and still get to soak up the country’s spectacles. It is advised to get any alcohol at the airport due to the crazy prices and when it comes to food, you can eat in on some nights (hence the Airbnb - self catering!) There is a well-stocked 24-hour supermarket near Hallgrimskirkja where we stocked up on mixers, snacks and brekkie bits, and while it was (v roughly) about £40 for what would have been perhaps a £25 Tesco shop, we were prepared. You can swap out dishes too - a pack of bacon costs the equivalent of nearly a tenner, while Frankfurter sausages were soooo much cheaper. Also, we pre-booked all transfers and tours - and it was these tours that predominately led us to these stunning natural wonders…

Northern Lights

Okay, starting with the one most people travel to Iceland for between September and April. We used Reykjavik Excursions, one of just a few tour companies operating in the capital city. They put on a minibus service to pick you up from a predetermined bus stop or your hotel that drops you off to the actual coach, which sits at the city's main bus terminal. Saved us a 10-minute chilly walk.

On journey, the guide explained the science behind the Northern Lights, and how three things are needed for us to see them: complete darkness with no light pollution (we had to turn our backs on oncoming cars during the hunt); the ideal weather of clear skies, so we can see towards the higher altitude more easily; and mother nature to actually play nice, so they come out. Arguably, more interesting were the myths surrounding the lights in different communities and counties, for example, the Vikings thought the Northern Lights were a reflection of their shields flying across the sky when they passed over. We also learned that some believed in night trolls and night ravens coming out after dark - and to this day, 80% of Icelandic people recently surveyed said that they couldn't "rule out" the existence of elves.

Right, I'll come out and say it, and probably sound like an ungrateful typpi, but the lights themselves were a little bit... underwhelming. Sure, we got to see a naturally occurring phenomenon that people would kill to see, but on our night, to the naked eye, it was a little dull. Our tour guide explained how the camera often captures it a lot better than we can see with our eyes - it literally looked like a stagnant light grey cloud to our peepers. But, here’s how it looked to our tour guide’s camera:

Image: Lydia Geirsdóttir

Image: Lydia Geirsdóttir

However, for someone who has grown up with light polluted skies most of her life, seeing a clear sky peppered with sparkling stars, and feeling as if I was in my own personal snow globe? Yeah, that sight absolutely took my breath away. There's something magical about being under a million stars with your feet in crunchy snow, just standing in the pitch black looking at something a phone can't capture (yeah, I'm a secret hippy).

Dark mornings

From dark nights to dark mornings; it's proper weird waking up at 8.40am, 9.00am (aaaand a hell of a lot earlier on tour day) and it still being pitch black out. I'd say that's my only negative about the country, actually. It goes dark in the evenings at around 4.30pm, just like in British wintertime, but because it took so long to get bright in the first place, it feels weird. When we weren't getting up for tours, we spent the dark mornings and evenings playing cards to a 90s playlist, with the optional duty-free beverage, awaiting the sky to be lit up again, so we could see the grand Hallgrimskirkja from our window.

Hot springs

The country’s hot springs are another natural wonder that you have to immerse yourself in - literally. Laugarvatn Fontana is nestled just after the eerily foggy mountains (especially at night) of the Þingvellir National Park. Essentially, they are a series of outdoor pool-like hot tubs, but with naturally geothermic hot water, cooled down to varying temperatures (between 36 and 42 degrees) by water from a naturally freezing lake. There are natural saunas too, heated by the hot springs as well, so the temperature varies as the springs and plates underneath shift. FYI, the sulfur smell is strong in there. The Laugarvatn Fontana even serves a bread in its restaurant that has been baked by the heat of earth over 24 hours. Commitment to the cause, or what?

You may think being in -6 degrees in your swimmers is strange, as you run (but carefully cos, you know, slippery ice) towards one of the warm pools, but for proper strange, be sure to get your hair wet. ACTUAL ICICLES will form. It's so strange because you genuinely do not feel cold once you're in the water.

South Coast drive

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For a long ol' journey - but where you'll see some of the most spectacular natural landscapes of your life - driving along the South Coast is absolutely unmissable. Again, we opted for a tour, Grayline this time, so all we had to do is sit pretty, hop off and on when told, and listen to the tour guide’s knowledge and love of Justin Bieber. You'll drive past lots of little towns, including Springfield, which was actually named for the Simpsons’ Springfield, and a constant slew of otherworldly snowy mountainscapes that will honestly take. your. breath. away. It's genuinely like stepping foot into an epic action sequence you've seen in movies. It's quite a full day because hello, oh there you are, finally, daylight hours, but so so worth it.

I can't count the number of times during this day that I muttered "wow", or "it's beautiful" under my breath (or actively voiced it to my travel buddies). From watching the sunrise with streaks of candy pinks and purples against the stark white expanse to observing sheets of ice flowing down the river, I felt like I was in a live Pinterest board. For a country that's made up of a little over 10% ice, there so much more depth to the landscapes than just snow. We drove through the largest national park in Europe, passed a farm whose owner hangs bras along his fence and leaves them blowing in the wind to raise money for a breast cancer charity and stopped at Skogarfoss and Seljalandfos waterfalls and Vik's black sand beach. The town is only home to 300 people, who actually practise running up the hills in case of landslides. Standing here, and later on the breathtaking beach of Jokulsarlon Lagoon with its even blacker sand punctuated by dramatic shards of ice, it was incredible that in one 360-degree turn, I could take in sea, sand, snow, mountains and, later, a gorgeous sunset. I enjoyed some tasty chips from a fish and chip van, before I waved goodbye to that heavenly spot. Be wary when you're packing that the temperature varies hugely between your stops; it was a balmy -3 (who thought I'd ever say that unironically) in Vik and -15 at the lagoon in the wind (which, FYI, makes a beautifully ethereal layer of whispy snow atop the regular stuff).

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An actual chilled-out capital city

Coming from London, this is probably equally as shocking: Reykjavik, the most northern capital city in the world, is SO laid-back and generally quiet. They even had their Christmas lights up while we were there - end of January - because they are their "winter lights" to brighten up the dark months. We headed up to the top of Hallgrimskirkja to look out across the city, walk down to the water's edge to take photos (where my shoe got momentarily stuck in the snow, awks) and even frequented the largest penis museum in the world... yup. Laugavegur, the main shopping street, is no claustrophobic, maddening Oxford Street, that's for sure. We stopped at Svarta Kaffid, a traditional eatery serving soup and beer, the former in a bread bowl where they "close when the soup runs out or between 9 and 10" and the soup is a surprise when you return the next day. We also visited a highly recommended bakery during our stay, Braud & Co, and on our last day, checked out a lauded hot dog stand (yes, an actual stand is lauded) that had the perfect crispy onions.

We went to this pub called Bastard on our last day with a really cool aesthetic and a bathroom I could have spent a few hours in as comedy sketches played on loop; an Irish coffee was the equivalent of about £11, which compared to London prices, isn’t actually terrible.

One thing that did surprise me, not just in the city but out in the Icelandic countryside with the Icelandic horses, is the 4G coverage. My Instagram posting was shameless because it could be... but I strongly recommend switching your phone to aeroplane mode during the day and just enjoying the surroundings.

Treating yourself when travelling… and other things to do in Loch Lomond, Scotland

#nomakeupselfie

#nomakeupselfie

As I begin writing this, I can hear the familiar gentle lapping of waves hitting the shore and pulling back, repeatedly. It's one of my favourite sounds. Except this time, it's not coming from the Rain Rain app, so I can drift to sleep, or a video that I took at the beach on my travels; it's the sound of Loch Lomond right outside my window. 

You know how Colin Firth goes to a lake to write while sat in a cute cabin in Love Actually? Yeah, that's me right now. But whether or not you're a writer, illustrator or working in finance, it's important to treat yourself on your solo travels. It is perpetuated far too much that to be a proper 'traveller' - solo or otherwise - you have to don a backpack, sturdy shoes, and go on relentlessly about sticking your budget. While I'm donning the first two and usually guilty of the latter, I broke the mould with this trip to the village of Luss on the west bank of Loch Lomond in Scotland - without breaking the bank too much.

Book early

The early bird always gets the worm, hence all the so-called early bird offers. I had my heart set on a particular hotel, the Lodge on Loch Lomond, from the very start of planning this trip. From its close proximity to the Loch to the brilliant reviews from previous guests, all the cheaper hotels, B&Bs and even the gorgeous waterside hostel didn't compare (though the latter was a close second, but had no availability - see, gotta get in quick!) I booked around eight weeks in advance and got discounted rates, as well as breakfast included, and I was able to specify that I wanted a loch-facing room. Don't get me wrong, it was still the most expensive room I’d stayed in for a night, but I got a good rate and, boyyyy, was it worth it - more on that later.

Train tickets are another thing that are hella cheaper when booking advance. Yes, flights might have been quicker than the five-hour ride (plus the rather scenic hour's bus ride from Glasgow to Luss), but at just over £30 each way, I couldn't go wrong. Virgin Trains are pretty good when you're lucky enough to catch the deals. If you have an unreserved ticket, get there half an hour before, so as soon as the gate is open you can bag a good seat. There are one or two reserved cabins, depending on the size of the train. I hopped on the U cabin and managed to bag a full four table to myself in a forward facing seat, next to the window. However, if I was a little smarter with it, I'd have gone with the C cabin for all this, plus all the snacks...

Choose one thing you're happy to properly splash all out on

That view… this photo doesn’t do it justice.

That view… this photo doesn’t do it justice.

For me, it was the hotel. The boujis-ass hotel with the award-winning, two AA Rosette restaurant, Molton Brown bath amenities and a location right on the water's edge. Hey, if you're going to splash out on something, it might as well be the place you'll retreat to at the end of the day (or in my case, all evening because I couldn't tear myself away from the window). With its panelled wood interiors from floor to ceiling, gorgeous water and mountain views from the large windows and the soothing soundtrack of the waves, I felt like I was on a luxury boat. 

Room service was all part of this indulgence: a two-course dinner, with prosecco - garnished with a raspberry - plus Scottish shortbread biscuits, which I'm not ashamed to say I ate in between my meal, not after, then finished off in the bath just because. Doing it for the 'gram (except I didn't cos I was #livingmybestlife in REAL life). I have never felt so happily stuffed, apart from on Christmas Day. While the deep bath was something, the bed was something more. I'm a petite gal as it is, but I've genuinely never slept in that huge a bed. I have no regrets.

Remember that some experiences are priceless...

I have never awoken to a more beautiful sight as I did in the morning (hotel windows and male suitors inclusive). I naturally woke up at around 7.15am, my body probably anticipating a day of work, and watched the sunrise over Loch Lomond from my bed. 

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Even as a writer, I don't think I can adequately put into words how content I felt for that hour or so. I did a Ross Gellar and stayed until the very last minute of my check-out, wanting to soak in every minute of this view that I could.

Other wonderfully free and freeing moments on this trip included seeing a pretty rainbow over the rolling countryside green on my train journey up, and strolling through Luss, sheep to the left of me, chocolate-box houses and mountains to the right, feeling like I was in the village off Postman Pat (the original, not the new computer-animated version, urgh).

... And get the most out of the ones that aren't

I told a lie earlier as I actually do have one regret from this trip: the hotel had some great spa facilities included in the room price that I didn't make the most of. However, breakfast I most definitely did, piling my plate high with hot Scottish breakfast goodies, including tattie scones and black pudding. I'll also only mention it one more time - promise - but I defo made the most of the view from my bedroom...

However, it's worth saying, that you shouldn't do yourself a disservice by forcing yourself to do something you don't want to do just to get your money’s worth. After all, the whole joy of solo travel is that you don't have to stick to a plan you previously committed to with someone else; you can do as you damn well please. 

Loch Lomond and Luss are also a nerve centre for a whole host of activities from water sports and cruises to hikes and wildlife excursions. While I had plans to take advantage of the activities here, in the end, I didn’t - and that’s okay! I will on my return.

Don't let anyone make you feel bad

Personally, I never drop big sums of money on the likes of clothes, shoes or bags (or anything less archetypal of a girl either - whoops, sorry PC police). Instead, trips abroad are my vice and, even then, I always make sure I have a good deal for what it is. Still, in flip mode to how people used to flash the cash, I genuinely feel there is a kind of millennial competition at times for who's the worst off in some circles. Don't fall into that. You work hard and save hard day in, day out - you can afford yourself a treat, so go ahead and do it! 

Joining a travel tour... and other things to do in Morocco

Beautiful weather, gorgeous ceramics and divinely intricate mosaics, as well as beaches and mountains; Morocco had been inticing me for a good while. Along with my primary venture onto the African continent, this trip also marked my first thoroughly solo trip and the first time I joined a travel tour group.

I was nervous about the whole thing up until the moment I stepped foot into the hotel. What if the transfer driver isn’t legit? What if I don't click with anyone once I arrive? What if my roomie is strange? What if I have to spend eight days hating every moment and I’ve paid for the privilege of doing so?!

Okay, so before I even go on about what you should expect from a travel tour and the country that is the fourth largest producer of marijuana in the world (Rif Mountains - rifa - who knew?!), I have to say that joining a tour was the BEST decision and I’m so glad I did it on my own. I was absolutely gutted to leave the new friends I’d made (but thankfully, I have lived on in the form of photos of me sitting at the breakfast table and new welcome meetings, I’ve been informed). I know for a fact I wouldn’t have had the same experience had I joined with a friend.

Choose the right tour company


This is very important. There are so many out there, and they each offer different categories and styles of trip. I wanted to strike the balance between people who are sightseeing enthusiasts like me, but also happy to chill with a drink in hand. This is exactly what I got from my trip and I’m so pleased.

Talking sweepingly, there is Contiki (drunken Aussies), Intrepid (golden oldies, judging by the groups we passed in our hotel), and G Adventures among many many other tour operators. G Adventures provide different types of tours, from ‘Classic’ open age tours to more budget-friendly gallivants; I went for a G Adventures YOLO tour for 18 to 39-year-olds. The groups are no larger than 14, the accommodation is fairly basic but still good, and there is a good mix of core activities, optional activities and free time in each city and town.

Palace, Fes, Morocco

Palace, Fes, Morocco

I discovered my initial worries about the tour were completely unfounded from the moment I knocked on my hotel room door at 10.30 on the Saturday night. I was so late because of BA delays on my first flight resulted in me missing my connecting flight (sorry hilarious air-steward Frank, but 15 minutes ain't enough to make the second flight). The girl sat next to me and I worked out we were both heading to Casablanca, albeit on different G Adventures tours and, once armed with handwritten boarding passes for a 7pm replacement flight, we headed out to Madrid city centre for sightseeing escapades and tapas, guided by my friend who lives there. I literally was twenties in transit! It was the most random afternoon, but it was a fantastic way to start to my adventure. I may have missed Casablanca, but I was advised that apart from the Casablanca mosque - the only one in the country that allows non-Muslims to enter - I hadn't missed too much.

In our group, we definitely had a few of the typical tour group types: the hilarious roomie (f-ing loved my roommate - all you'd hear was us two cackling intermittently at the front of the tour bus, and we had nightly jam sessions and debriefs of the day), a fun couple, student travellers, the one that was actually happy to go home and, out of our 14, we made a core group of 10 who, while we split in the day, spent the evenings together each night of my trip. We had some great times from hilarious dinners, watching the sunset from the Rif Mountains (and my roomie’s and my hilarious attempt at watching the sunrise), people-watching from our Chefchaueon hotel and getting eyebrowed by local kids.

On the note of saying ‘my trip’, be sure you know what kind of trip you're booking, too; as I’d booked a northern Morocco tour, and all but two of us had booked a northern and southern tour, I had to leave the group halfway through, which I was gutted about. We spent my last day in Marrakesh doing what I fancied - Majorelle Garden and Sky Bar - despite them having the opportunity to do it the next day, which I really appreciated. We still videocalled after I came back to London, and some of the group sent me photos of photos of me enjoying southern Morocco, which I absolutely LOVED, but next time, I will be booking a full tour #fomo

Our guide, or 'CEO' as G Adventures calls them, was brilliant. He was a wealth of knowledge and gave us many recommendations for our free time, too. He often made reservations for us, should we have needed, but also left us to it as per the tour itinerary.

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Another note: check out your transfer times and, for the love of God (or Allah, as we were in Morocco) PACK TRAVEL SICKNESS TABLETS. This is something I didn't do and had to bum a couple off of one the nurses on the trip for the super-long ride to Marrakesh. My roomie and I also luckily bagged the front seats on the first journey despite getting on last and they kind of became our unofficial seats, which definitely helped our stomachs. We passed the time chatting, sleeping, listening to the guide and intermittently bursting into "A Whole New World."

Research the culture 

Wherever you go, it is a good idea to be aware of the culture. Morocco is a Muslim country and, while their current king seems pretty progressive, there are many things that differ in Morocco when compared to our Western lifestyle. While I may personally disagree with the gender roles and expectations within the country, I had chosen to visit there, so I had to be respectful.

I want to make it explicitly known that, while I can't speak for other’s experiences, I am absolutely fuming (raging) at how much scare-mongering there is about visiting Morocco online, especially as a solo female. I was so apprehensive, as were many of the female members of the group, and we experienced nothing but kindness, politeness and incredible customer service from the big cities to the small towns. From them setting aside myself and roomie a breakfast when the buffet was all out, to trusting us to come back to pay later when we didn’t have small enough denominations of cash, or letting me off altogether at the airport, this would hardly happen in the UK. A few of us even got into an Adele sing-a-long with our Chefchaouen hotel receptionist. Of course, you'll have the classic tourist issues, like drivers trying to overcharge for a taxi ride, or trying to coerce you into buying stuff, but as long as us women were dressed in the way they consider respectful  - shoulders, knees and cleavage covered - we had no problem with the locals, even in the medinas. Wearing a t-shirt, hippy trousers, a floaty skirt or a thin shawl/scarf over a vest top, we walked around, even solely as a group of three girls sometimes, went to bars (though it felt pretty weird for us to be the only females in there, and so so strange to only see a sea of men sitting on the restaurant terraces after sunset), and everything. Of course, it was a bit of a piss-take that the guys were able to stroll about in their boy scout shorts while we sweated with increasingly pasty legs, but it made for a good drinking game of spotting those flaunting their shoulders and knees. In fact, the most ‘accosted’ we got was by a rather persistent eight-year-old rose seller who attached her little body in a vice-like grip to one of the group and we weren't quite sure how to appropriately remove her...

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While, of course, the country has an overall Muslim culture, it really does change from city to city, town to town. As we drove past agave cacti, orange and banana fields on our way from Casablanca to Tangier, our guide explained how in Tangier, which sits at the midpoint between the Atlantic and the Med, and is pretty close to Gibraltar, they speak more Spanish than French (alongside Arabic, of course) due to their close proximity to Spain. He also explained that a Moroccan breakfast was traditionally mint tea (absolutely BANGING FYI, and that's coming from someone who barely drinks hot drinks), lamsaman (a roti-style pastry that again was sooo good) and olive oil with bread, but you'll now increasingly see other more European bits, like croissants, as part of the spread. On our way from Tangier to Chefchaouen, we enjoyed a full history of Morocco, which was pretty interesting. We drove through the pine and cypress trees and a hella amount of weed in the Rif mountains (we did get offered “hashish” quite a few times - "in cookies for the ladies, as it's lighter" was met by an onslaught and hasty backtracking on one of the seller’s parts), and also passed so many donkeys, goats and a crazy amount of hitchhikers. The most eventful drive was definitely between Chefchaouen and Fes, where a police stop, the unexpected discovery of old vomit and a photo op between the Rif and Atlas mountains ensued, alongside our usual hydration stop. 

The medinas - the old towns, home to a series of winding alleyways where families live and sell things - were incredible. Now, prepare to get lost AF. On our first venture into a medina, heading towards Tangier's Kasbah and seaside, my roomie and I got lost on a five-minute walk to grab some magnets (not magnums as the majority of our little group heard). We legit ended up on someone's property until the stray cats saved us. We relied on more solid landmarks in Chefchaouen, which we smashed with our orienteering skills (and haggling!) on our second day, but we got so lost on our first. We knew the rough direction we needed to head in, but ended up way too high, by the wall. And don't get me started on the 19,000 alleyways of Fes medina. We had a pretty good tour from a local (who seemed to know everyone), but even so, we weren't toooo adventurous when five of us ventured back in ourselves.

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Our day in Fes was a pretty good, filled with culture and, of course, the standard tourist Fes hats photo op, which five of us bartered even more successfully for than our guide thought we could (though wearing them did earn us more attention than usual!) We learned all about the power of seven in the Islamic culture, explored the exterior of palaces, the Quranic school and the Jewish quarter (Mellah), visited a huge tannery to see how the leather is made, as well as a ceramics factory and saw how silk scarves are made from the agave cacti - you literally pull apart the plant and thread appears! I found the Berber, Arabic and Islamic culture so intriguing. As I mentioned before, I may not necessarily agree with it all - particularly their views on women - but it was a real eye-opener. And, actually, the whole trip wasn't as much of a culture shock as I thought it would be; in fact, Ubud, Bali, was definitely more so.

Try new things 

Going on a tour means you’re in a much better position to try new things than you would be if you were going solo, or with a partner/buddy, I think. Included or optional tours provide the perfect opportunity to experience things you would find harder to gain access to as a normal traveller, and even if you choose not to go on those, you can safely get good recommendations from your guide.

At home, I'm neither a fan of olives nor beer, but I loved both these things in Morocco. They grow olives in the country and I couldn't get enough of the green ones - they were fabulous! Casablanca beer (served all over the country, despite the name) is so different than the stuff we usually get in the UK - Heineken this isn't (though we had to settle for it one night in Chefchaouen as they had run out of all the others - there was only one place, Hotel Parador, close to the Kasbah, that sold alcohol in the whole town). We ventured twice from this beverage when drinking: once to have a different, cheaper Moroccan beer in the most sex-dungeon-esque Fes bar, lit up like the red light district, where us five were the only ones there, bar a couple of locals and a performing duo, and also in the Sky Bar in Marrakesh. As seedy as it sounds (and it was), the evening at the red bar was hilarious. The duo were singing and playing the piano, and the former slowly started to make his way towards the guy in our group after a particularly vigorous clap after the first number, much to our amusement.

Right, so, this section would be incomplete if I didn't relay my traditional hammam experience. Only four of us opted to have a go at this practice, which our guide explained as a place where women and men go once or twice a week, apply black olive soap to their skin and scrub it off to get rid of any dead skin. It is also a social thing; men and women are in separate sections, but mothers and fathers will often use it as a place to scope out potential suitors for their kids and, ya know, just have a good ol' chinwag. Now, never in my adult life have I lay in the lap of an old, topless, Moroccan woman as she scrubs at my neck and I desperately try not to laugh while making (hazy, due to the lack of contact lenses) eye contact with my buddy receiving the same treatment. And, well, I'll be honest, no amount of pre-hammam chat can prepare you for the moment you are slid across bathroom-style tiles of a hot room in your swimmers by said old, topless Moroccan lady and your foot accidentally hits her naked boob. Nothing can prepare you for the wave of cold water that they throw over you at the end, either. All that said though, there is something pretty calming and humbling about having your hair washed with a bucket, shampooed, conditioned, combed with a flamingo-patterned Tangle Teezer, and plaited with your friend, all while trying to communicate through smiles and gestures with someone has just scrubbed your whole body. I have never had this baby soft skin like ever, and when we returned to the boys, it was comforting to hear their experience was just as crazy - and theirs included assisted stretches, too...

Don’t hold back when it comes to food

When talking about drink like above, obviously food comes hand in hand and, boy, did I have a lot of it. Bread was a natural staple at every meal, their salad was to die for (I don't even know what it contained, but it was like a mezze of veg and tasty spreads), and they had this incredible houmous-like bean soup, kefta tagines and so much more. The food is so cheap, too; for a normal meal, you’ll pay the equivalent of anywhere between £3.50 and £7. My favourite meal was an all-out, expensive, elite meal (£21) on our first night in Fes, just as you enter the medina, where we had a three-course meal, consisting of Moroccan salad, chicken pastella (deliciously spiced chicken, wrapped in a crispy crepe-style pastry, sprinkled with icing sugar and cinnamon) followed by a coconut cake-biscuit dessert. We watched a magic show, fire-eating belly dancers, a traditional band, a fake bride, and they pulled up members on the stage. This meal was in stark contrast to my last one in Marrakesh... let's just say meaty "veggie soup", a four cheeses pasta for me, and a whole lot of lols (and potential food poisoning).

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Unfortunately, when it came to vegetarian dishes, there was often limited choice: vegetarian tagine or couscous. Often, the menu would boast an array of options, but you would find that they had run out - quite like the beer situation - even in some pretty good restaurants. It just seemed to be a thing. However, we all very much enjoyed the mint tea, from our very first dalliance with it in Petit Socco in Tangier, to the mint and lemonade that tasted like just like a mojito that I tried to seek out at every opportunity.

Just enjoy your time

For both joining a travel tour and heading to a country with vastly different cultural expectations, my main piece of advice for anyone would be JUST EMBRACE IT ALL. When else are you in a position where you’re with a bunch of random people from all over the world who you may never see again (though I hope to see some of them!), or able to be in a hot country and not have to shave your legs even once? Don’t care what you look like, how you come across or about problems back home - just go and have fun and do everything on offer!!

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Releasing your inner child... and other things to do in Disneyland Paris, France

This year has seen a few activities ticked off my childhood bucket list. I saw the Sydney Opera House with my own eyes back in May, I am off to watch the actual Queen B - B for Britney Spears - at the end of the month and I finally spent a day at a decent outdoor pool in England like we all do on holiday (there are so many London lidos about... who knew?)

As a child, I didn't have any actual proper interest in the world of Disney. While my brother and I would watch our Alice in Wonderland video on repeat - and I would lie to my mum and say my teachers had taken me to visit the blue moorcroft during the school day - that was about it. The Lion King was emotionally stressful, Ursula was scary AF and while Aladdin had cool songs (and my fancy dress party alter-ego of Jasmine), I just liked the films. However, I soon learned young Tamsin was missing a trick when I set foot in the Happiest Place on Earth a few weekends ago. 

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A whirlwind weekend, thanks to my lack of available annual leave and other adulty constraints, I donned my Disney manicure, my two friends and my friend's 9-year-old son and headed to Paris on the Saturday, smashed pretty much everything Disneyland's main park had to offer in 14 hours on the Sunday, and commuted to work from Paris, via Lille, on the Monday morning. It was one of THE BEST weekends I'd had in ages.

We get so caught up in our day-to-day responsibilities, life admin and how good our lives supposedly look on Instagram, that sometimes we forget to have the good old fashioned fun we had in childhood. That is exactly what we did this weekend. Here's how to rediscover your inner child with a trip to Disneyland Paris...

Wake up early

I am guilty of wanting a long lay-in on the weekend; we work so damn hard in the week and live by an alarm most of the time, so why not? I still stand by this belief but, when it comes to Disneyland, channel your inner six-year-old, get up and GO! Despite a late night because of our late train being delayed, we got up at the crack of dawn (well, 7.30am) and were in the queue for the park by 9am. 

The doors opened at 9.30am and we headed straight for the shop to get our ears on. Make sure you buy your mouse ears from inside the park - after you've scanned your ticket, not just from stalls after the security checkpoint - as there is a huge range. In fact, we probably missed a trick by getting them at the shop that sold around 10 options; you'll find more and more designs throughout the different 'lands'. 

It was a good thing we got in early as, two attractions in, my friend's son had a little accident. As we exited Alice's Curious Labyrinth, he collided with a rather ill-placed pole, catching the corner. This meant a trip to the fully-functional Disney hospital (with a nice French fire warden escort) where we observed a couple in their early 40s jokingly miffed that the plaster the husband had received was not a Mickey Mouse one. It was okay though, as the wife then drew one on for him - true love, that. This is one of the things I loved about the park; grown adults, Shoreditch hipster-types, the Phil Mitchells of the world - everyone I saw had a grin from ear to ear, some singing, some bopping along, nearly ALL with some sort of Disney paraphernalia on their head, getting into the Disney spirit.  

Be willing to let go of the purse strings

Right, I'm gonna get this out of the way early. Remember when you were a kid and had no concept of money? Yeah, you're gonna need that attitude here. While I live a very budget-focused life at the moment, you've got to be willing to let that go in the Happiest Place on Earth. Thankfully, I came with a set amount of mullah that I was willing to spend throughout the weekend, so I could only go mad within that realm. 

Our must-get Disney ears were a bit on the expensive side, but we'd have done ourselves an injustice had we not got a pair each. Water was another essential; it was hot, so you've gotta keep hydrated. I wince a little bit now though, looking back on how we each spent about €15 on aqua, especially when I remember how I left three different bottles on three different rides. Whoops.

Now, food. Mate. You're gonna spend a lot. My loaded chips and four chicken nuggets cost me the equivalent of £15. FIFTEEN POUNDS. FOR CHICKEN NUGGETS AND CHIPS. Yeah, I'm not yet over that one. 

Rides, shows and the parade

It's a Small World

It's a Small World

Despite going at the start of the summer holidays on a sunny weekend, we were pretty lucky with the queues. We waited between 20 and 45 minutes to get on the rides, apart from Big Thunder Mountain, which was an hour's wait. If you wish, you can opt for a 'fast pass': you'll receive a time for the ride, go off and enjoy yourself, then return at the stated time, missing out the queues. 

Right, I will say it now: I hate rides. I hate that stomach drop feeling and I hate not knowing what's around the corner. In fact, I watched the other three take on Big Thunder Mountain from the comfort of a nice rock on the ground. At Disneyland Paris, sure, there are those kinds of rides, but there are also a lot of chilled-out rides that aren't just the plain old teacups.

There are a few rides that you sit on and just watch a story or show, for example, Pinocchio's Daring Journey and It's a Small World. The latter was one of my faves as I enjoyed the recreation of all the different countries and how the song (a proper earworm) was sung in different languages. 

There are more interactive rides, such as Buzz Lightyear's Laser Blast, which involves competitively shooting targets with a laser (we got quite into this), and Autopia, where you drive a car around a track. My favourite ride was Pirates of the Caribbean which, despite being in darkness and beholding a few unexpected drops, I found thrilling. Once that theme tune starts playing, you're transported to the world of Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones in an instant. The production values on all the rides, and even their queueing areas, are incredible. It genuinely felt like a tropical night as we waited to board our 'boat' on the Pirates ride, despite being 3pm on a hot summer's afternoon.   

As we were at the park during the 25th anniversary year, there was a 25th anniversary show that we sat and enjoyed, croissants in hand. Again, I loved how they integrated different languages throughout in a way that flowed and was non-repetitive, rather than doing it purely in French or English. 

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The parade that takes place a few times a day is a Disneyland classic. Head to the main concourse to grab a spot, but get there early. We, unfortunately, headed over just before it began, so we were a few people deep in the crowd. There are acts and characters doing 'floor work', which was a little hard to see from our low vantage point, however, there are huge floats you can enjoy no matter how far back you are. Again, incredible production values - the dragon from Sleeping Beauty was mesmerizing!

Of course, a trip to Disneyland would be incomplete without meeting the man himself. Not Walt, obviously, but Mickey Mouse. Unlike the other characters who roam about the park, or are stationed outdoors, Mickey gets his own theatrical experience and room. While you queue (again, this was about 40 minutes), you can watch reruns of the cartoon, before being ushered into a room with just your group, the photographer, and Mickey himself. Now, I don't know if it is just me, but there is something weird about knowing there is an actual human being behind that huge animal head, and not knowing whether his/her eyes are in the eyes, in the nose, in the cheeks... it's unsettling. However, don't be apprehensive like me - just embrace the magic! Yes, even when Mickey tries to run off with your friend... 

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Put down that camera and enjoy the moment!

I love taking photos all. the. time. I print them out and have them in an album, and I love spending a Sunday afternoon leafing through and reliving good experiences. I often take short videos when I'm on holiday, so I can truly relive the moment, especially when I'm on a grotty tube. 

However, make sure that you're not just viewing your surrounds through a camera lens or phone screen - smell it, see it, hear it and feel it in the moment. The whole of Disneyland is great at keeping your mood up, especially when you're 9 years old, or feel 9 years old again, and have done over 31,000 steps. They play music constantly in the Central Plaza and at various points throughout the park, so you can't help but feel upbeat, too. 

The most magical part of the day, by far, was the illuminations. The world-renowned daily show at 11pm is just... words cannot describe it. We got to the Central Plaza at around 9.30pm, kitted out with our snacks, and thank God we did; it got packed. Fast. We opted for a spot near the fences a little further back from the fountains and protected our space like a lioness would her cubs. Come 11pm, we had a great view and what proceeded was an absolute feast for the eyes, ears and even the soul, tbh. The fireworks were incredible, the music was touching and, the last time I'll say this, I promise, but the production values were AMAZING. The whole thing was genuinely tear-provoking. It wasn't even just the classic Beauty and the Beast montage and scenes the more recent Frozen, either; Star Wars got their moment, too.  A very special 20 minutes... and there have only been a few moments in my life that I can say that about... 

No matter your age, no matter whether or not you have a son/daughter/niece/nephew/family friend, Disneyland needs to be on your list. It really is the happiest place on earth and is truly MAGICAL.  

Getting the taste for solo travel... and other things to do in Sydney, Australia

I've never intended to become a solo traveller; one of those wild and carefree people who grab their backpack and seek out adventure on their own. I'm too cautious and map illiterate for that. I've plenty of times set foot on a plane on my lonesome, only to be met on the other side by a friend, or family member, who takes me under their wing for the days that follow, not once leaving my side in a land unknown.

My trip to Sydney was kinda different. While I was surrounded by many friends, friends of friends, ex-colleagues, and some pretty key figures in my life, these people had their 9 to 5s to contend with, too. A 16-day holiday ain't annual leave friendly for ANYONE. So, during their working hours, I found myself cracking out Citymapper, city guides, and my headphones, and exploring a land down under on. my. own. If, like me, you're a keen traveller, but super wary of walking into the unknown without back-up, here are a few tricks and tips that made me fall in love with solo travel (backpack optional - I opted for a 23kg suitcase instead).

Learn to enjoy your own company

First things first, you've got to be okay with your own company. I would consider myself a fairly self-confident person, however I realised entering social situations with only me, myself, and I, was a totally foreign situation to me. Grabbing dinner at Heathrow at the start of the trip was the first time I'd ever sat in a pub on my own and, frankly, I didn't know what to do with myself.  How that has changed in just over two short weeks - in fact, one of the days, I opted to spend the afternoon on my own, rather than meet a friend. The secret is to just grin and bear it, until you find that it's not a forced smile and, actually, you're involuntarily smiling to yourself because you've realised your own company is frigging fantastic and you are having a great time (yes, cringe, but yes, I did do this). 

On two occasions, I found myself wandering alone around Sydney - once though The Rocks towards the CBD and Darling Harbour, another time through the Royal Botanical Gardens and around the Circular Quay area - at my own pace. There's something about walking around with your headphones amongst the cityfolk that makes you feel like you belong there, despite not knowing where the F you're going. There were no complaints about how long I was taking, thanks to my little legs, no objections to spending an obscene amount of time in the palm tree section of the Botanical Gardens, then breezing through the so-called pretty sections in 0.2 seconds (palm trees are my fave plant and they had them from all over the world!), and I could walk in circles admiring the Opera House and eating as much gelato as my heart desired. Isn't that great? 

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I changed my plans on a whim and there was no one to explain or 'pitch' this idea to - I could do what I damn well pleased! YASSS. I know the sightseeing buses are so classically tourist, but I think they are the best way to get an overview of a city. There was quite a bit of Sydney I would have missed if I skipped out on the tours, such as the Vertical Gardens, residential Dover Heights (#homegoals), Rose Bay and some incredible views. The tour here is split into two; the Bondi line is a must do for gorgeous beaches and bays, and cityscape views, while the City line is packed with a whole host of fun facts, for example, Oxford Street, home to many a pub, bar and restaurant was paid for in 45 gallons of rum. I enjoyed what the area had to offer with some good friends of mine; from a drag queen act to a grime night, and a Sunday session thrown in for good measure. 

Split your itinerary into solo and group activities

Although it is key to be comfortable in your own company, we have to accept that there are just some things we won't want to do on our own - whatever the reasons. For me, the aforementioned sightseeing bus tour, relaxing on Manly Beach, and visiting the Australia Museum were activities I was happy to do by myself. The museum was smaller than I anticipated, but well worth it, especially their Garrigarrang: Sea Country exhibition, which gave some good insight into the Aboriginal heritage of the country. 

However, going to Taronga Zoo, and doing coastal walks between Coogee and Bondi and Manly and The Spit, were activities I preferred to do with company. I'm not sure why, as I'm pretty sure many people happily do these activities on their own, but hey! My prerogative (I love you, Britney). 

To get to Taronga Zoo, you get the ferry from Circular Quay and head to the zoo's own little island. From there, you can get a cable car to the top and make your way through the zoo. It's a fabulous touch, as you can see the elephants and other animals from high above, pretty much as soon as you get to the zoo, as well an amazing view of the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and the CBD against the water when you look behind you. My buddy's favourite were the majestic tigers, but personally, I was in awe of the gorillas. They were just so human-like, I felt almost like I was spying on a family going about their daily life.

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The coastal walks are a must-do in Sydney. Within half an hour from the main city, you can undertake recreational walks along kilometres and kilometres of gorgeous beaches, bays and cliffs (which were practically empty as I was visiting 'out of season' - though 27 degrees is defo the season for me). Now, I love walking through Richmond Park here in London, but as a sea lover, these walks win it, hands down. Bondi to Coogee takes over an hour or so, so we got a bus from Central to Bondi Junction, then another to the famous Bondi Beach to begin the picturesque walk. I did this with two girls I met on a group tour (more below), and we chatted about travels, our lives at home, and so much more, stopping every couple of yards to take photos. When we got to Coogee Beach, we sunbathed, went into the water and I actively stayed away from the only 2.3 spiders I saw on my WHOLE trip (thank you, God). I did the 10km Manly to The Spit walk a week later with a good friend of mine, catching up and having a few D&Ms. It was much more of a bush walk that the first, shorter one, but I loved it! Taking you through a hella lot of greenery, and offering stops where you can admire Aboriginal carvings, this walk offers so much different scenery - and photo ops! There is even a bit when you have to walk across a beach. Unlike other times my friend had done it, the tide was well in and, well, let's just say we were a bit off with our timing... *squelch squelch trainers*.  

A great middle ground between the above two options is going as a solo traveller onto an organised group tour, like I did for the Blue Mountains. I very much recommend the Coast Warriors Travel Australia tours, as they are so laid-back and good value for money, yet offer an amazing experience and a wealth of knowledge. Aimed at backpackers, our tour was actually filled with way more variety than that. A small group, there were, of course, a few travelling youngsters, but also people like me - holiday folk - people visiting friends, and even a mother and daughter duo. Funnily enough, the first people I met on this tour were a trio who lived just down the road in Angel and, as the whole group hopped in the camper van filled with flags, stuffed toy kangaroos, and signs and stickers with some very choice words - I won't show Grandma that photo - the group got on really well. BREATHTAKING views were ample and, actually, the Three Sisters (which you get to touch as part of the tour... perv) were probably the most average view of the day, which says something. At one point, I was laying about two meters from a very high cliff edge, with the bluest skies above me and vast green valleys below - bliss. The tour included a BBQ lunch with the opportunity to try kangaroo meat, games, TimTams and more. It was a hilariously fun day out and, even just a couple hours in, I felt like I was on a big ol' Aussie road trip with a bunch of mates

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Be prepared and, even then, be prepared to get lost 

My phone provider doesn't offer particularly favourable overseas rates once you venture out of Europe, so my usual Google Maps fall back had to be adapted slightly. Strangely, I would say CityMapper is better in Sydney than it is in London, so I citymapped a lot of my journeys at the beginning of the day then screenshotted them, so I could access them without internet later on. Google Maps also has an option to save maps you can use offline. It was helpful that all the friends I stayed with lived quite centrally, so it was fairly easy to maneuver between stations; it was any walks with more than one or two turns I struggled with - classic Tam! However, there are quite a few road signs for pedestrians about and, the transport staff are very helpful. They don't appear disgruntled when you ask them for help - even the bus drivers (which is particularly helpful, as the older buses don't indicate the upcoming stops with any signage or announcements while you're on them). 

Grab an Opal card (the Sydney version of London's Oyster) from a corner shop or Woolworths, top up at the station and, with this, you can hop on any train, bus and even most ferries! On my first full day in Sydney, I got my first taste of solo travel; I grabbed the Opal pass my friend had kitted me out with and headed to Circular Quay. I hopped on the ferry to a virtually empty Manly Beach, sat on the soft sands, crinkling it between my toes, reading a book and hearing the sounds of the waves over the music in my ears. I felt so happy. I even managed to catch the sunset behind the Harbour Bridge on the ferry back, because I had stopped for chicken nuggets.  

Worst comes to worst though, always have the option to turn on the internet, grab an Uber or phone a friend (yes, there were some cases I had to relent. Here's my dollar, *unnamed phone provider*).

Do once-in-a-lifetime things

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Celebrate your 'I can do anything', powerful feels from doing your own thing by marking the occasion with something you'll remember forever. As a double celebration, on my birthday, I climbed the Harbour Bridge. Yes, that huge, f-off bridge that dominates the Sydney skyline. As someone who almost cried at Go Ape because I was scared of heights, this was probably my proudest moment of the whole trip. There were only two other people booked in to climb it in the same time slot, so we were able to ascend at our own pace, chatting along the way. I was surprised that, apart from a few bits which, yes, did feel like you were walking on water because the ground was grated and you could see straight through (*gulp*), for the majority of the climb you couldn't tell how high you were unless you properly looked down to your right. The BridgeClimb guide was really friendly and explained a lot of the bridge's history to us and, despite sweating profusely from fear and heat in the rather fetching grey bodysuit, I stepped off feeling such a huge sense of accomplishment.  

Have people to share your day with that evening

Whether it be friends, strangers, phoning home, or a Facebook community (there are some great ones for solo travellers), have someone to relay your day to each evening. It's all well and good doing these kick-ass things, but you can feel lonely internalising them if you're used to the constant company back at home.

If you can organise a home-stay wherever you are, it is a really good chance to immerse yourself in the country's culture and experience normality. I guess I had five kind-of homestays during my time in Sydney: I got to stay in a variety of suburbs at four different friends' homes, and I even went up the coast to Newcastle to stay with my friend's family for a night. I loved Newcastle, and loved the idea of growing up here - it just had a good vibe. We chilled with family and friends, cooked, ate, played games, went for walks, even did some filming, and I revelled in how close everyone was.

When I first landed, a friend of mine had prepared her home, even her own bed, for me to crawl into after the hellish journey from London, despite being at work. She had made sure everything was as easy as possible for me to maneuver in the new city, which I am so grateful for. I woke up and found my way to Wynyard, of course managing to get lost on a three-minute walk on the way, before meeting one of my friends at his work. He led me on a (long) stroll ending at the Sydney Opera House (which he rather lovingly wouldn't let me see as we made our way around Circular Quay, so it was more of a surprise), where I was reunited with another friend - two of my best buddies, who I'd lived with in England (and travelled to Hvar and Milan with). It was all the more poignant as my aunt had got me a National Geographic game in my childhood where the Opera House was a trump card; it really honed in the fact that I was halfway across the world.

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On this trip, I also got a lot closer to some friends who were part of larger friendship groups in London. Where I'd never really got the opportunity back at home, I was able to spend hours and hours with them, meeting other important people in their lives and, in some cases, getting to know them even better outside a work capacity. We ate, went to house viewings, explored suburbs and even went to sports games. On my birthday, my first spent completely away from my family, I was filled with so much love as I was taken to an incredible waterside bar, and a restaurant with the most incredible pork I've had in my life. We were all very surprised by a drum rendition of 'Happy Birthday', which made for some good laughs.  

I ate so much amazing food while in Sydney and, as a breakfast lover, I've fallen hook line and sinker for how good brunch is out there. So much, in fact, that on one occasion, we ordered double the amount of food. I really rated 4 Ate 5 in Surry Hills and Flour Drum in Newtown, and to be honest, would happily just brunch my way around this town every weekend til the end of time. I had great gelato from Messina at 11pm one night, after a drinking and art session at Cork and Canvas (a birthday gift that was another must-do while you're in Sydney - I massively surprised myself at how great my painting came out), as well as popping into Mr Crackles (fried chicken or any pork dish is the way to my heart). 

All in all, I don't feel like this is the last of with my dalliance with Sydney. Unlike my usual resolute to not visit a place more than once (because that money can go towards visiting a brand new place, instead!) I will defo be back!

Getting the silver-screen experience... and other things to do in LA, California

LA: the home of Hollywood hopes and beachside gyms. It was also home of my aunt for a couple of years, so I hopped across the pond to live out my 90210 dreams for a fortnight.

Naturally, I started off my trip like a celeb, dosed up to the high hills on prescription meds (all legit; it was my first solo long-haul flight and I'm not a flying fan), basking in extra legroom despite being (just) shy of five foot. LOLs. 

I am very much like my aunt where travelling is concerned, so the moment I touched down at LAX, it was sightseeing central. I’m all for living like the locals (or with a local, in this case), but here are a few tips on how to get that silver-screen experience when you hit up Hollywood. Limo not included, sorry.

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

Start at the top
Literally. Of course, everyone heads up to the Griffith Observatory to get the classic Hollywood sign selfie #basicbitches (JK, obvs I got one), but the observatory itself is v. interesting, too. The Foucault Pendulum, which Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone dance around in La La Land, draws in a lot of people and I was fascinated. In layman’s terms, the bronze ball’s swing depends on the Earth’s rotation at any given time, demonstrating that yes, we are rotating daily. I know we know this anyway, but for someone with little scientific background, it’s pretty cool to see the concept right in front of your eyes. Go on, have your own La La Land moment - Ryan Gosling optional. The view of the city below was also great for my mild OCD tendencies; the grid system made the land below look all neat and nice and I loved it.

Get on the big screen... kind of
It’s something a little different, but see if you can get into the audience for the filming of a TV show. Your face may not get on the big - or small - screen, but your laughter will. And really, what is Friends, or The Big Bang Theory, without that chorus of chuckles? Like a lot of the audience attendances in the UK, those with free tickets still need to queue up, and it’s first come, first served; you need to get there early in order to guarantee a seat.  

Follow in the footsteps of others... 
Another attraction that goes without saying is the Walk of Fame. For some reason it wasn’t too busy when I went, so we perused the whole street and I discovered Meryl Streep has MUCH larger hands than I do. My fave star was actually not on the Walk of Fame itself though; a few days later, we passed a local church and I looked down to see a replica pink star in honour of Jesus. It made me laugh a lot. Well played, JC followers.

Walk of Fame star outside of a church

Walk of Fame star outside of a church

We also drove through Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive, admiring the places I had grown up seeing in films, TV and magazines. I absolutely love palm trees - they are my favourite type of tree, and plant for that matter - and they weaved up high into the sky everywhere I looked. I was in my element. It’s lucky my aunt didn’t have a convertible, because God knows I would have gone full stereotype and waved my arms in the air while screaming at the top of my lungs.

As a lover of water, of course we also hit up the beaches in the area. Venice Beach is pretty cool but, personally, I preferred Santa Monica. One day I’ll go on an America road trip, but for now I settled for a photo next to the end point of Route 66. I also took LOADS of photos on our visit to the Grammy Museum, which was a lot more exciting than I had anticipated. All floors were super interactive and it was great to actually see the history behind the world-renowned music awards, as opposed to just remembering Lady Gaga crawling out of an egg... 

A little less museum, a little more theme park was Universal Studios which, again, was a place I’d grown up seeing in pop culture and was *so* excited to visit. I’m not even a fan of rides, but I was so chuffed at finally getting a photo in front of that globe. I felt like I was on a film set from the moment we approached the grounds at 8am. Yes, we got there WAY early, but we were the first ones to get on the studio tour that day meaning we didn't have to queue for most queued-for attraction in the park. I survived a national disaster, rode through Wisteria Lane (RIP Mike), headed to the Kwik-E-Mart and, of course, came face to face with the shark from Jaws. I even had my own “Oh my God. You’re from London?!” moment. A very good day. 

...but go rogue too     
Get off that beaten path and visit parts that you might not have necessarily seen in the media. Go to the Old Town, head into China Town; don't just go to the Grove! It’s worth noting here that although I’ve focused on the sleek, glossy sides of LA in this post, one thing I noticed is that it is one of the most integrated cities I’ve ever been to. By this, I mean you could go from absolute decadence on one street, turn a corner to be in poverty, then back to a street where there’s a stupid amount of money pumped in again in a matter of minutes.

In terms of lesser known attractions, definitely hit up the temples in the area. We first went to Hsi Lai Temple, the largest temple on the West Coast, situated in Hacienda Heights. Again, the view was great and exploring the grounds was pretty cool. There was a room FULL of different-sized Buddhas, which was an amazing sight to behold, as well as various holy statues, gardens and carvings. I observed monks who had taken a vow of silence, and first learned about America’s weird (read: amazing, if you’re an easily offended American, aka Trump) rule about having their flag higher up the pole than any other countries’ flag. We also visited the serene Svivnanda Inner Peace temple, which I can’t recommend enough to take some down time, while The Getty Museum was also a hidden gem of lush green gardens (as well as the amazing art collected by J. Paul Getty, of course). 

Svivnanda Inner Peace Temple

Svivnanda Inner Peace Temple

How to staycation properly... and other things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland

For New Year's last year, I headed up the country to Edinburgh and, despite clearly being a different city, it still very much had the UK vibes (hi cold weather, hi).

Going on 'holiday' in your home country has its perks. Cost, for example, is likely to be lower than international travel, the language is the same (or, if not, then pretty similar), and there'll be no worry of the currency exchange rate doing you over #BloodyBrexiters.

However, holidaying at home may sometimes take away the feeling of, you know, actually being on holiday. But, by making these seemingly small decisions, I could have easily been somewhere else in Europe (with equally as shite weather as the UK).

New Year's Eve crew

New Year's Eve crew

Getting there
Driving for seven hours (well, being a passenger; it's a hard life) definitely generated the road trip feeling. There's just something about service stations, isn't there? Once we got in to the city, we dropped our bags off at the AirBnb and headed to a pub on the recommendation of our host.

On our way back, flying was our mode of transport. Just being at an airport oozes holiday vibes, even if it is the end of the hols. For someone who hates flying, I absolutely love being at the airport and, in this case, flights from Edinburgh to London were actually hella cheaper than train tickets #winning.

Surround yourself with locals and their traditions
You're bound to soak up the culture and traditions of the town you're visiting, even if it's only a couple hundred miles way from home, by surrounding yourself with locals. The Scottish festival of Hogmanay was in full swing throughout our stay, which we found entailed a hell of a lot more than the fireworks at the turn of the year. We got up close and personal with ye olde Scotsmen (unfortunately not in kilts) on countless occasions during our trip.

We took part in the Torchlight Festival on New Year's Eve eve (or the 30th December, as some people call it), and it was incredible. We each had a 'torch' between a group of three: basically a long stick lit at one end with an entirely open flame. Very trusting are the Scots. We toured the streets in our thousands, taking in all the sights by night as we went. It was beautiful to see the streets lit up by some many individual little fires constantly moving forward.

Torchlight Festival - Scots Monument

Torchlight Festival - Scots Monument

The next evening, we DEFINITELY surrounded ourselves with the locals, tourists, and every man, woman and child Edinburgh had to offer. As you can imagine, the fireworks were a very close affair. At one point, we joined forces with two other groups of people to guard our standing point and create a human wall to stop people squashing us even more than we were. The fireworks themselves were beautiful though, and were a great way to welcome in the new year. As were the post-fireworks visit to the pub to wait out the taxi until 3am. We had a great laugh playing Heads Up and drinking until we could get home. Alas, we were too hanging to take part in the run into the sea the next day...

See the sights
Of course, aside from Hogmanay, there are the sights in Edinburgh that are there the whole year round. I don't know how I always end up trekking huge heights whenever I'm on holiday, but we headed up to Arthur's Seat prior to the Torchlight Parade to get a good view of Edinburgh below. A year on and I'm still in awe of my friend who did it all in heeled boots (which many tourists passing us seemed compelled to remind her). The view was great and really drove home that I wasn't in London anymore.

Half of us also explored Edinburgh Castle, myself wrapped in a tartan scarf, obvs. Apart from another great view of the city below, the castle is like a mini museum with old jail cells, historical armour and painted artwork. I enjoyed discovering Edinburgh's history and it was good to take time learning new things.

Savour the free time
Although you're still at home (kind of), treasure the fact that you're on holiday. You'd otherwise be working, doing chores, or getting pissed in the same pub week in, week out. Instead, we chose to down whisky at 10am in a distillery, following a ride on a whisky barrel... We learnt a lot and even came away with a couple free gifts!

The distillery

The distillery

Another difference to our frequent Thursday night pub visits was the fact that we played games throughout. There were many a tense game of Jenga and Heads Up throughout our stay and it even earned us a round of shots from a friendly stranger, admiring our impeccable sportsmanship from the bar. Let's not even get onto our own version of Cards Against Humanity... we probably would have earned more than free shots for that.

FINALLY...
The best thing about staycations? You can return pretty soon. Not too far from home, and as I said earlier, likely cheaper than heading abroad. Anything you do miss while you're there can easily be done a few weeks, or months, later. Result!