Should you go abroad for Christmas this year? – my take on spending the festive period overseas

I’m no Christmas grinch, in fact I love the festive season- from mince pies to setting the Christmas pudding ablaze; the tinsel to the turkey – I EVEN like the tacky presents you get in Christmas crackers (who knew you needed another set of mini screwdrivers?). Nothing screams yuletide cheer more than stuffing yourself with transfatty acids and sherry whilst watching Mr Bean trying to force a giant turkey into a microwave with hilarious consequences on TV. This must of course, be done surrounded by copious amounts of wrapping paper and ribbons -or better still, from peering through eye holes in a giant box that you’ve managed to salvage from a newly opened present (sniggers). I’m not the only one, right?

Well every now and again it all gets a bit much and after three solid days of being physically unable to move due to having managed to eat my entire body weight in mincemeat and leftover turkey – I had started to question whether there is a better way to do it.

Going abroad at Christmas for many, may seem like an expensive and unnecessary hassle. For some, an unobtainable dream- to be able to leave the cooking, clearing up and granny-sitting duties to someone else for one glorious year. Some may find the thought of leaving family or loved ones behind inconceivable.

Well we took the plunge a few years ago and booked ourselves into a resort on Cape Verde, a tiny island off the coast of West Africa, leaving on Christmas Day morning for a week. As strange Cape Verde Beachas it was arriving on the island to thirty degree heat, beautiful sandy beaches and Christmas songs being played out of loud speakers- it was a welcomed change to our usual festive routine. We substituted time on the couch for time on our sunloungers, Christmas dinner for a sumptuous all you can eat feast of seafood and our usual Boxing Day walk for quad biking on voluminous sand dunes.

A big draw for us was the weather, the thought of lapping up the sunshine whilst thinking of how terribly miserable the weather might be back home was strangely appealing. Of ditching the presents to just enjoy and savour the moment. For making Christmas less about ‘things ‘ and more about having unforgettable experiences. It was, in some ways, a welcome relief to avoid the ritual of hours of present giving, shortly followed by clearing up, only to discover that you now own thirteen pairs of reindeer socks and about three kilos of chocolate. How lovely it was to sip cocktails whilst watching the sun go down over the sea, blissfully (and literally) miles away from the present induced carnage back home. No panic buying gifts on Christmas Eve, no bustling through shoppers to buy the last remaining bag of brussel sprouts in Sainsbury’s, no pine needles to clear up from the floor beside your ‘non- drop’ Christmas tree. Instead, the only thing we had to worry about was which restaurant we were going to dine in that evening.

I almost tricked myself before we left into thinking that we were being less materialistic, but in fact splashing out on a holiday somehow felt even more self indulgent- and was accompanied by feelings of guilt that we had left our families behind, surrounded by wrapping paper watching Mr Bean on their own.

Practically speaking, avoiding the Christmas Day shenanigans meant that everyone still got presents and cards, and that our celebrations were a bit more toned down than normal when we got back. We were still able to meet with friends and family before and after our trip, and enjoyed the run up to Christmas in December as usual. We just broke it up with a week of fun in the sun, and who wouldn’t want that?

Christmas in Cape VerdeWould i do it again? Yes. Did i enjoy Christmas more than I would have back home? Not sure. It seems to me that Christmas takes on a different meaning for each person, and whilst like me you may get tired of the usual routine – ultimately it doesn’t feel like Christmas without it. However I can’t say that for that one year I missed any of it, and I was quite happy dosing up on vitamin D and sunshine before returning to the much colder British winter-  where loved ones were waiting to wish us festive greetings and cook up a belated feast.

(We’ve stayed at home for Christmas ever since).

Making your first attempt a success without paying for the privilege

Having successfully completed the UK National three peaks challenge five times between us, my husband and I are certainly no authority on the subject but have learnt a few things along the way.

A lot of people undertake the challenge as an organised group tour with support from a guide and/or driver. This is largely down to individual preference but for the purpose of this post I will Three peaks challenge - Snowdon viewbe focussing on organising and completing it without any back up. A daunting prospect for some, but achievable with the right planning, training and determination.

The challenge involves climbing to the top of the highest mountains in England, Scotland and Wales (and back!) in 24 hours or less. Not for the faint hearted, the hike takes in stunning vistas from the start – and whilst you won’t have much time to stop to admire the view, the sense of achievement is worth it. A good level of fitness is needed, however you will also need to carefully plan your route, gear and nutrition in order to be successful. Every minute counts!

Quick facts:

Mount Snowdon (Wales)- Elevation 1,085m ~8 miles

Scafell Pike (England)– Elevation 978m ~ 6 miles

Ben Nevis (Scotland)– Elevation 1,345m ~9 miles

Total distance to drive between mountains: 472 miles

Training
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of training for an event like this. Just going for a few Three peaks challenge - Ben Neviswalks won’t cut it, unless you are a seasoned hiker you will need to get yourself up some hills – the toughest part of the challenge is the sheer elevation gain  and you will be out of breath within the first ten minutes of starting if you haven’t prepared your body for it. I would suggest if you’re starting from scratch, taking a long, hilly walk with a day pack at least once a week for two to three months – gradually building up the distance.

When to go
July and August are popular months to complete the three peaks challenge, and for good reason. Temperatures are generally milder and conditions more favourable. Snow can be found at high elevation even as late in the year as June, making the climb more challenging.

Direction                                                                                                                                                                                 Most people go North to South rather than South to North. However there are merits to doing both. Whilst it may be mentally more challenging to finish on Ben Nevis, the toughest and longest climb, you can also get ahead of schedule pretty easily on Snowdon and Scafell Pike, which is a nice feeling.  The other advantage of going South to North is that you will typically be climbing on Ben Nevis in the dark, as opposed to the more difficult to navigate Scafell Pike.

Timing                                                                                                                                                                             The general aim is to spend as little time hiking in the dark as possible. Walking at night is slower Three peaks challenge - Snowdon viewand requires more concentration to avoid tripping or taking a wrong turn. Having got lost on Scafell Pike in the middle of the night, I can vouch for this – and it is about as fun as it sounds. Practically this means timing your climbs so that you drive between Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis overnight.  If going North to South, start climbing Saturday evening so that you come off Ben Nevis at dusk and begin climbing Scafell Pike at dawn.  If travelling North to South, start climbing Snowdon in the morning so that you finish climbing Scafell Pike just as it gets dark.

Choosing your route                                                                                                                                                        To my knowledge there are no rules about which route up the mountain you can take. With this in mind it makes sense to take the shortest maintained trail up each mountain. There is only one route up Ben Nevis unless you fancy a bit of rock-climbing.  Scafell Pike has several routes, but the shortest and simplest is the route up from Wasdale Head.  Snowdon should be climbed from Pen y Pas; from here you have a choice between the shorter, rockier Pyg track or the longer but easier Miner’s track.  We usually go up the Pyg track and down the Miner’s track, but there is some merit in going up and down the Miner’s track as 3/4 of it has a very gentle gradient and you can travel pretty quickly.

Getting there
Part of the challenge is to get to each mountain in a timely fashion, and by car is the only feasible way to do this. On our combined trips we have either had a designated driver who has not done the challenge or we have driven it ourselves. The latter is perfectly doable, particularly if you can take turns although a lot of it depends on how well you cope with sleep deprivation and driving at night.

Three peaks challengeTime efficiency
At the risk of sounding like a kill-joy, and as much as it would be lovely to stop at every peak for a picnic and a photo shoot – this is not the time to do it! Unless you are a super athlete who is running the entire thing, you definately won’t have time. Eat on the move or in the car, and certainly take a few quick photos on the way- but if you want a leisurely hike with lots of stops,  this is not for you.

Safety
It goes without saying that you must check the weather forecast before you set off (at any time of the year) as conditions on the mountains can change rapidly and may become dangerous if you are not adequately prepared. Make sure to take plenty of layers including a waterproof – just because the weather seems ok at the base of the mountain does not mean that it will be the same two or three hours later at the summit. Go careful underfoot, particularly at night, rocks can become slippery and you will have to negotiate a river crossing on Scafell Pike.

Be aware of the dangers of driving when tired – pull over and give someone else a turn. Don’t be tempted to power through, it’s dangerous and definately not worth it.

There is safety in numbers and whilst we did see the odd lone climber, who I can only assume were very confident in their ability and experience, I would suggest going as a group of four or more. This is for two reasons; more drivers to take a turn at the wheel, and in case of emergency one person to wait with the injured person and two to go for help.

Top tip
You will be shattered and probably sleep deprived by the end of the challenge. Aim to stay near to your finish point to avoid a long drive after your adventure.

River at night in Kurokawa Onsen

Hot spring hopping in Kurokawa Onsen

Hot springs (or onsen) are synonymous with Japanese culture and for many, a part of every day Kurokawa Onsenlife. In fact thermal springs are so abundant in Japan that there are many dedicated onsen towns  that lend themselves to ‘onsen hopping’ – a rather charming way to sample a selection of the town’s best baths. Kurokawa Onsen is one such town, and whilst it is more difficult to access via public transport, it’s historic baths and rural location in the heart of Kyushu make this picturesque onsen town well worth a visit.

Kurokawa Onsen townEasily explored on foot, Kurokawa Onsen’s steep cobbled roads are lined with little gift shops and restaurants. Nestled among them are several ryokan which you can stay in for a small fortune, or for a much more reasonable price you can spend an afternoon making use of their onsen by purchasing an ‘onsen hopping pass’.  You can buy your pass at the visitor centre or from any of the twenty- four participating ryokan, which gets you into three baths of your choice and is presented on entry in exchange for a stamp.

It is customary to wear a yukata throughout town between bathing and most local hotels or ryokan provide these when you stay with them, along with a belt, jacket and small modesty towel. If you need to store your luggage there are lockers at the visitor centre in town. Just don’t forget your towel and camera!

There are maps displayed in town and you can find a helpful free English onsen guide at the Kurokawa Onsenvisitor centre explaining about each onsen clearly numbered on the map. Some are more sulphuric, acidic or alkaline and may be reputed to have specific health benefits.  You will find that some onsen may be closed due to maintenance – check at the visitor centre before you go.

Most of the onsen are gender separated although some are mixed.  We tried two that were gender separated, one of which was accessed by walking through a beautiful moss garden and we both had the onsen all to ourselves.

Cave bath at Kurokawa OnsenWe did also visit quite a unique but very popular mixed onsen in a cave. I enjoyed the onsen and it was possible to find a private spot away from other people, however I did feel a little exposed when dressing as there did not seem to be an obvious separate changing area for ladies. There seemed to be mainly men in the onsen, some with children, and not many of them used their modesty towels!

I believe it is possible to reserve certain onsen in the town for private bathing for an extra fee. If Foot bath at Kurokawa Onsenthis still doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, why not take advantage of one of the free foot spas dotted around town? Just take your shoes and socks off at the entrance and roll up your trousers to enjoy the hot springs and rest your feet.

There is something peaceful and very  Japanese about watching people strolling around the quaint streets of this beautiful rural town in their yukatas. Onsen hopping is a must for anyone that loves bathing in natural hot water and wants to enjoy an interesting cultural experience.

Note: Your onsen pass will set you back 1300 yen (£9) per person and is valid for up to six months.

Top tip: Kurosawa Onsen is accessible by bus, however getting there by car gives you more options for basing yourself slightly out of town where you can find less exclusive accommodation at a more reasonable price.

For more advice on what to do at a Japanese onsen, visit my blog post on how to onsen in Japan!

Amish people on buggy

Staying with the Amish

I’ve always had a fascination with the Amish because of their distinct lifestyle, discipline and commitment to a simple life without the complication and entrapments of modern living. Drawn from principles outlined in their Christian faith,  the Amish are reluctant to embrace modern technology to varying degrees, and their seemingly more ‘back to basics’ existence focuses on the practices of rural living, manual labour and raising families.

The States of Ohio and Pennsylvania house the largest population of Old Order Amish and over Beacon hollow farm guest house, Pennsylvania35,000 settlements lie within Lancaster County, Pennsylvania alone. Whilst the Amish retain a reputation of being fairly insular and wary of outsiders, it became clear to us from visiting Lancaster that not only are Amish people extremely friendly towards non-Amish, but are in fact very accommodating towards tourists also. Amish-made merchandise, baked goods, tours and even buggy rides are easily stumbled upon in some of the more built up areas of Lancaster County. We only had one day in the area which happened to be a Sunday, so as you can imagine most attractions were closed. However we still managed to get our Amish ‘fix’ by staying with the Riehl family on their working Amish dairy farm.

Beacon hollow farm guest house, PennsylvaniaI couldn’t believe my luck when I happened upon a website that enabled you to book a stay with the Amish. Beacon Hollow Farm Guest House, nestled in the heart of Amish Country, can be reserved by telephone or online through a booking agent who will provide details for your check-in. Typically this involves paying in cash upon arrival to the property, as was the case here. A quiet cottage on the grounds was our home for the night, complete with all the sounds and smells you expect from a farm, and somewhat surprisingly – electricity! The cottage was quaint and it felt like we had stepped back in time by about a hundred years (in a good way). Taking a pleasant evening walk around the farm meant that we were able to observe some of the animals, farm equipment, and crops growing in the fields. I will never forget sitting outside our cottage as the Corn fields on Amish farm, Pennsylvaniasun went down, a most serene moment, with nothing but the sound of crickets chirping happily in the grass. Somehow, it felt like home.

After an amazing night’s sleep in a creeky old bed, interrupted only by the falling rain, we were woken to Mrs Riehl knocking on the door with some fresh eggs from the farm, some homemade bread and a delicious strawberry smoothie. I struggle to think of enjoying a heartier breakfast at any other point on our trip. She offered us a tour of the cow shed whilst they did their morning chores, but sadly time was short and we had to hit the road again.

Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, a stay on this fairly remote, rural farm offered us a tiny glimpse into the way of the Amish. Seeking simplicity and quietness was high on my agenda but what I found was much more fascinating. We were made to feel welcome in a most unassuming and gracious way by a family from a culture so different from ours. I felt truly humbled to have shared in a small piece of their peaceful existence and gained a deeper understanding for what it means to be Amish .

Beacon hollow farm guest house, Pennsylvania

Top tip: Unless you’re into heavily processed, greasy food (as was our experience at a local restaurant) I would recommend a trip to the local store and using the kitchen in the cottage. You will want to maximise your time here anyway, as words cannot express how tranquil it is.

Check out the nearby quaint village of Bird in Hand which I’m told is worth a trip (not on a Sunday as everything is shut) if you are interested in all things Amish.

Feature photo courtesy of Clark Young/Unsplash

Miyajima floating gate

An afternoon on Miyajima Island

Miyajima Island is one of those places that pops up in all the travel brochures and you almost feel obliged to visit it because it is mentioned so many times. It was added to our Japan itinerary without us really knowing an awful lot about it, but soon became yet another highlight of our Miyajima Island viewtrip. The island in Hiroshima bay is most famous for it’s red floating gate (or torii) which at high tide appears to hover elegantly in the waters close to shore. The torii is just part of the impressive Itsukushima shrine – a UNESCO world heritage site and said to be one of the top three scenic sights in the whole of Japan. There are many other reasons to visit this lush island which is surprisingly forested and mountainous . There are plenty of things to do here and much hiking to be had for the more adventurous. Sadly we only had an afternoon on the island but I felt i could easily have spent a whole day and night here.

Ferries are provided by japan rail (covered by your japan rail pass) from Miyajimaguchi and various other private companies which run fairly regularly from other nearby ports including hiroshima and some larger hotels. Typically the ferries don’t provide a return service that runs much later than 17:00, so plan to stay on the island or get there early to make the most of your day.

Forget taking a car onto the island as this is actively discouraged and the island is not particularly car friendly. Most places you will want to visit are accessible by foot. Allow a few hours just to stroll around the town and surrounding area taking in Daisho-in temple, the numerous shops and to soak up the atmosphere as you walk along it’s ancient streets.

Itsukushima shrine, Miyajima IslandItsukushima shrine, Miyajima IslandItsukushima shrine:  This world heritage site is an example of shinden architecture and is home to the famed torii floating gate. Overlooking the beautiful Hiroshima bay and a 15 minute walk from the ferry port, the shrine complex is centuries old and can be admired at both low and high tide. Various festivals and events are held at the shrine throughout the year including regular performances of the ancient  ‘Bugaku’ court – dance. Allow 30 minutes to stroll round the shrine and take a few snaps.

Admission 300 Yen (~£2)

Opening times as per website below:

January 1 12 a.m. 6:30 p.m.
January 2 – 3 6:30 a.m. 6:30 p.m.
January 4 – end of February 6:30 a.m. 5:30 p.m.
March 1 – October 14 6:30 a.m. 6:00 p.m.
October 15 – November 30 6:30 a.m. 5:30 p.m.
December 1 – December 31 6:30 a.m. 5:00 p.m.

Momijidani Park: This beautiful park is a favourite for cherry tree viewing in Spring, it’s maple trees in autumn and is popular with Miyajima Islandpeople and tame deer alike. The park makes for a pleasant stroll and leads up to the ropeway station for Mount Misen. There are one or two notable points such as a koi pond and a picturesque red bridge (pictured right). 

Mount Misen:  At 500m above sea level, Mount Misen is the highest peak on the island. For 1800 yen (return) you can take a cable car to the top or for the more adventurous you can take one of the three hiking trails that wind up to it’s summit. Expect your hard effort to be rewarded with panoramic views from the top. Lured by the prospect of souvenir shopping, I skipped the hike whilst my husband took the Momijidani path up the mountain – a forested route with great views across the island.

Shopping on Miyajima: if you’re looking for retail therapy, check out the shopping arcade for some lovely gifts. The main shopping street is also home to the world’s largest rice scoop – the rice scoop being a popular item to buy here, along with kokeshi dolls, maneki-neko (beckoning cat) ornaments, samurai swords and the obligatory ‘hello kitty’ paraphernalia.

Oysters on miyajima IslandMiyajima’s food:  Miyajima was one of the culinary highlights of our trip to Japan. We basically ate our way across the island. Conger eel and oysters are a specialty and you can buy these from street stalls or in restaurants. One if the best ways to sample lots of different food is to take in some street food, which is often cheaper too. We managed to find an an amazing okonomiyaki (savoury pancake) restaurant,  called ‘momo chan’, where they have an English menu and for a very reasonable price you can watch them make your pancake to order in front of you. Then there were the momiji cakes… lovely warm sponge cakes available with a variety of fillings; azuki bean, chocolate, sweet potato, apple, vanilla, peach, blueberry and of course – green tea. At around 90 yen each, you can just keep going! Even more Cafe on Miyajima Islandexcitingly you can see them being made. This shop in the shopping arcade had a small seating area at the back where you could enjoy a cup of green tea with your momiji cake whilst looking out at a beautiful Japanese garden (pictured right).

Top tips: Take a note of when high tide is in order to see the famous torii ‘float’ but don’t panic if like us, you can’t get there for when the tide is at it’s highest. The gate is still an impressive spectacle even at low tide and you can even walk out to it on the beach.

Don’t miss the views from the historic Machiya street of the pagoda, and of the town from the Yamabe path.

Stay: The Grand Prince Hotel in Hiroshima offers a free shuttle bus to and from the hotel from Hiroshima train station. There is an express ferry to Miyajima that leaves just outside the hotel and takes 25 minutes (cost 3,300 yen round trip). Not the cheapest option for getting to the island, but a great base to get there if your budget allows. For 10,500 yen (£73 +/-), our hotel room included a fantastic sea view and modern facilities. There is a lovely 5km running path that hugs the shore initially then winds through a wooded area. There are several restaurants to choose from and the sky lounge on the 23rd floor boasts both spectacular views and a reasonably priced bar menu.

Japanese girls in Kimono

Renting a kimono in Japan

As you visit popular tourist sites in Japan, you can’t help but notice how many people are wearing kimonos. Older ladies wearing them to a special engagement, teenage girls on a fun day out and couples hand in hand; the kimono is making a come back in Japan.  Dressing up to go sight-seeing may seem strange, but this unique experience will add fun to your day out and an extra splash of colour to your photos.

As a tourist it is easy to participate in this ancient tradition and you will find plenty of tourist-Kimono rental Asakusa Tokyofriendly kimono rental stores around. Prices vary from place to place and can be anything from 2,500 to 14,500 yen (£17 – £100) depending on which plan you choose. Typically standard kimono rental costs around 4,000- 4,500 yen (£25- £30). Optional extras include more elaborate hair styles, obi (belt), umbrellas, jackets and a greater variety of kimono.

We rented near to Senso-ji temple in the Asakusa area of Tokyo. I reserved before we visited and paid slightly extra, in advance, to get an early appointment (in hindsight I possibly wouldn’t have paid the extra as it only saved us about half an hour). We chose the standard couple’s plan which included the kimono, obi, socks, shoes, bag, dressing service and hair styling.

KimonoOn arrival we were greeted and given time to choose which kimono we wanted. There are plenty to choose from and the ladies advised which obi would be a good match. You can choose your shoes (or ‘Geta’) and a small bag to take your valuables with you.

The ladies were really sweet and spoke a little English. We were ushered into a changing area behind a curtain (gender separated) where they give you special socks and a light garment to put over your underwear. They dress you in your chosen kimono before styling your hair. You are given a bag to place your clothes in, as well as anything else you don’t want to take with you.

Kimono rental Tokyo

The whole thing took around one hour and we were not there at a busy time. Unfortunately for us, it was raining heavily outside so taking pictures was more of a challenge. However l still managed to get my fix of cherry blossoms and the experience became a real highlight of the trip. We were amazed at the acknowledgement we received from local people when wearing our kimono, and several tourists wanted to have their picture taken with me which only added to the memory!

Kimono rental shop Tokyo

TOP TIP: Several kimono rental stores have an English page on their website and accept reservations online. I used Kyoto Kimono Rental wargo who have a particularly good website which is easy to navigate and they have shops in a variety of locations (not just Kyoto). The picture on the left is the Asakusa (Sensoji temple) branch which was not that easy to find however google maps got us there, and this is what the outside of the shop looks like.

Don’t plan to go too far in your kimono as walking becomes slightly more challenging. Rather, rent your kimono near to a particular place you want to visit and somewhere that makes for an interesting backdrop on your photos.

If travelling during peak season, reserve ahead to avoid disappointment. Ideally allow at least a whole morning or afternoon for kimono rental, and don’t forget your camera!

Geothermal feature in Yellowstone National Park

A visitor’s guide to Yellowstone National Park

Looking to knock Yellowstone National Park off the wish list but don’t really know where to start? Then fear not, help is at hand! This stunning part of the USA boasts a unique combination of natural beauty, history, flora and fauna unmatched by any other place in the world. Established as America’s First National Park in 1872, Yellowstone lies on the largest super-volcano on the continent and contains many intriguing geothermal features. In a wilderness of over 8,000 square kilometres that is home to some of the USA’s deadliest predators, it can be difficult to know how to experience the park in all it’s splendour whilst avoiding the tourist trail and staying safe. Here’s a basic guide to getting the most out of your trip, even if you only have a few days spare on your US itinerary:

Bison jam in Yellowstone National ParkHire a car: This might seem obvious, but there is something quite liberating about being able to zoom off into the distance at the first sight of a bus load of tourists arriving to ruin the moment. There is no public transport within the park, and whilst there are tour companies that will provide a shuttle service and/or guides we chose to get about and explore the park on our own to allow us the freedom to go where and when we wanted to. There are five roads that provide entry into the park and at it’s centre is a 142 mile Grand Loop road that takes in most of the classic sights and scenic spots. It could easily take a whole day to travel the entire figure of eight loop, stopping at various points of interest along the way. Driving in Yellowstone is like being on safari – you never know what is round the next bend and that is half the fun!

Black bear at Yellowstone National ParkWildlife viewing: It isn’t difficult to find tour companies that will take you on wildlife viewing trips within the park and this is a very valid option. However, it is perfectly possible to see wildlife up close without a guide if you have your own car. During our three day stint in Yellowstone we managed to see grizzly and black bears, bison (known more commonly by visitors as buffalo), beaver, wolves, marmots, elk and pronghorn by driving to some of the well known spots for wildlife viewing such as Lamar and Hayden Valley. Be prepared to wait for a sighting and if you see parked cars congregating, it’s often a sure sign of a good spot. We saw some serious binoculars and zoom lenses on display here, but don’t despair – you may be lucky enough to have a close encounter like we did of a black bear and cubs right next to the road, and if the animals are too far away to view by the naked eye someone may offer to lend you their bino’s.

Park ranger - led hike in Yellowstone National ParkJoin a ranger – led hike: The National Park Service put on a series of fairly easy hikes (and talks) with a park ranger that vary in length from 45 minutes to 5 hours at various locations throughout the park. No need to book, just turn up at the meeting point. This is a great way to explore the park away from the confines of your vehicle and with the knowledge and expertise of a park ranger, lending itself to those unfamiliar with hiking in grizzly bear country. The NPS currently advises visitors to hike in groups of three or more for safety reasons, as there have been fatalities in the park. It was wonderful to be able to walk through even just a small section of the park’s natural forest, meadowland and pasture with our small group shouting “hey bear!”, an exhilarating memory I’ll cherish forever. In the 2.3 mile hike we did at Indian pond with Tom, our ranger, we spotted a marmot colony, osprey, bison and a red tailed hawk. He also educated us to be able to differentiate between lodgepole pine, fir and spruce trees.

Geothermal features: Once you get over the rather unpleasant smell of sulphur Geothermal feature in Yellowstone National Parkin the air, it’s quite fascinating to visit some of the park’s many geothermal features. If you don’t already know your fumaroles from your mud pots,  your geysers from your hot springs – you soon will. Each are beautiful in their own right and as inviting as the turquoise waters of the geothermal pools look, don’t be tempted to get too close as they are highly acidic – be sure to observe the safety notices which warn against entering dangerous areas. The park’s visitor centres also offer a plethora of information about the history and nature of the park, conservation and advice about making the most of your visit.

Yellowstone National ParkThe Grand Canyon of Yellowstone: No trip to Yellowstone would be complete without gawking at Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. At 24 miles in length and up to 4,000 feet wide, this impressive landmark attracts a lot of visitors and for good reason. The 1,200 foot deep canyon carved out by the Yellowstone River was discovered by the explorer Charles Cook in 1869 and continues to impress today. Easily accessible by car, a comprehensive network of short walking trails takes you to various viewpoints including views of the photogenic waterfalls.

 

 

Top tip: For a very reasonable $90 a night, you can stay in a pioneer cabin at Lake Lodge, Bison at Lake Lodgeoverlooking the stunning Yellowstone Lake. Don’t expect luxury, but everything you need for a comfortable stay in a beautiful spot. The main lodge has a restaurant, an enormous log fire and a bar perfect for exchanging exciting tales from the day – don’t miss the yellowstone sunset cocktail, yum! You might even have some unexpected visitors when you open your cabin door in the morning…

Whilst you may encounter animals near the road at any time of the day, dawn and dusk are particularly good times to see them.

Beppu Beach Sand Bath

Sand bathing on Kyushu

Bathing in hot volcanic sand is one of the more unusual things you can do in Japan. Beppu, on the island of Kyushu is famed for its hot springs and has been offering is visitors sand baths for hundreds of years. Claimed to be beneficial for a number of ailments, the heat and minerals provided by the hot sand are thought to have many therapeutic effects.

‘Beppu beach sand bath’ as it’s name suggests is on the shore, only a few kilometres from the centre of Beppu and can easily be accessed by car or foot.Beppu Beach Sand Bath

On arrival you will pay the entrance fee of 1030 yen (~£7), be given a ticket with a number written on it and then pointed towards the relaxation room to wait until your number is called. We went on a Sunday around 1pm and had to wait one hour.  The difficulty comes when they announce your number over the loud speaker in Japanese, unless your Japanese is particularly good! We just checked the numbers of people around us and guessed when it was our turn before showing it to the ladies at the reception who then gave us our yukata to change into.

There are separate changing facilities for men and women, which are small but there are lockers to store your belongings for 100 yen. After stripping down to your birthday suit you can then put on your yukata with obi belt and head out to the beach. I took with me my towel and camera which I left on the side.

Beppu Beach Sand BathThis is where the fun starts! You are shown to your ‘hole ‘ in the sand where you lie down with your head on a wooden block. The ladies then shovel hot black sand all over you leaving just your head poking out. It’s surprisingly heavy so bear in mind that you won’t be able to move very much for the 15 minutes they leave you to relax. I wouldn’t say the sand was unbearably hot or sweaty, just a pleasant temperature and it was a really nice experience. One of the ladies, seeing my camera at the side offered to take pictures of us.

After about fifteen minutes you will be prompted to get up which is easier than you might Beppu Beach Sand Bathimagine and you will need to head to the shower facilities to wash off the sand. There is a separate bathing area with soap provided, but no towels.

I would highly recommend this experience but bear in mind that you may have to wait and that the washing facilities are very basic, bring a towel and 100 yen for the locker.

Top tip: Probably not for the claustrophobic or for those with a fear of being buried alive!

Opening hours of the sand bath’s at Beppu beach are 8:30 – 18:00 between early March and early November and is closed on the fourth Wednesday of every month.

They do not allow anyone under the influence of alcohol, people who have heart disease, high blood pressure, pregnant or menstruating women to enter the sand baths.

Highland cow

100 miles on the West Highland Way

Scotland is a country known for it’s natural beauty, iconic landscapes and mountainous terrain. The West Highland Way offers the traveller a glimpse into what Scotland has to offer, and an opportunity to ‘get away from it all’, taking in great views, peaceful lochs and forests.
We hiked the ~100 mile trail that winds through some of Scotland’s most loved scenery in six days, averaging around fifteen miles a day.

The way begins in Milngavie (pronounced ‘mill-guy’), just outside Glasgow, and winds North finishing in Fort William near to the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland. The trail conveniently passes through several small towns/ villages making it possible to stay overnight in local hostels, camp grounds or alternative accommodation.

For those wishing to lighten their load, a baggage transfer service is available. This would be particularly useful if carrying camping gear, which fortunately we were not.

Our six day hike can be broken down into the following sections (we had longer and shorter days based on the availability of accommodation which we booked fairly last minute):

Scotland's West Highland WayDay one: Milngavie to Balmaha ~20 miles/32 km
The way begins in the town of Milngavie and the first few miles do not feel particularly remote. After this the hike is fairly flat, mostly on footpaths and quiet roads with a fairly steep ascent over Conic Hill towards the end. The climb is rewarded by views to Loch Lomond as the path winds down towards the shore. Even from day one the scenery is pretty astounding and provides a taste of things to come

Day two: Balmaha to Ardlui ~21 miles/34 km
This was in some ways the most difficult day of the hike given it’s length and difficult terrain along the latter sections on the shore of Loch Lomond. The final push is followed by a pleasant boat ride across the Loch to  Ardlui where you can find a decent pub and lodgings. Connecting the remote and largely uninhabited east side of Loch Lomond with the West, the boat can be summoned from across the Loch by raising a ball tied to a flagpole and waiting in anticipation on the dock – just make sure you don’t miss the last boat! Expect to pay a mere £4 per person each way (£6 for solo travellers).

Scotland's West Highland WayDay three: Ardlui to Crianlarich ~6 miles/10 km                                 With moderate ascents and descents, this short stretch of the trail proved to be in some ways the most beautiful and a section of the hike I remember particularly well for it’s pine forests. Be sure to check out the youth hostel at Crianlarich,  with beds from only £18 per night this is a great place to rest your weary legs.

Day four: Crianlarich to Tyndrum ~ 6 miles/10 km                             After only covering 6 miles the previous day, ideally we would have hiked a bit further, but due to limited availability of accommodation we had to stop only 6 miles up the road in Tyndrum.  As a result, the day felt more like a gentle stroll than a serious hike, but given that we had a very big day the next day we were glad for our second easy day in a row.

Day five: Tyndrum to Kinlochleven ~28 miles/ 45 km                                                                                    This section takes in the wilderness of Rannoch Moor as well as the Devil’s Staircase – the most challenging climb on the WHW. Rannoch Moor is basically an uninhabited peat-bog with few trails across it and limited cover.  Consequently it felt a lot more exposed and would be quite challenging in adverse weather.  We stopped off for a well deserved break at the Kingshouse Hotel before climbing out of Glencoe up the infamous Devil’s Staircase to the highest point on the whole trail.  Although a tough climb of several hundred metres, the views at the top are well worth it.  After the climb, the trail meanders gently down from the high pastures to the town of Kinlochleven where we stayed the night.

Scotland's West Highland WayDay six: Kinlochleven to Fort William ~16 miles/ 26 km.                                                           After our epic hike the day before, limbs were tired and feet were sore, so the immediate climb out of Kinlochleven was quite tough; a climb made even more demoralising by a couple of female German ultra-marathoners running past us as if out for a Saturday morning Park Run.  However, the reward for our hard work was our first sight of Ben Nevis – Scotland’s highest mountain and our companion for most of the remainder of the hike.  Even with the summit shrouded in cloud, Ben Nevis loomed large and provided an inspiring backdrop as we made our way slowly down into Glen Nevis.  After almost 100 miles of walking, the final 3 miles along tarmac roads felt strangely West Highland Way, Scotlandhard and the elusive Fort William always seemed just round the next bend, but eventually we arrived weary, elated and hungry.  The weariness would take a while to deal with, but the hunger was quickly resolved by steaks all round at the local Wetherspoons – although not before the obligatory photograph with the Weary Traveller!

Top tip: As a first hand witness of the dreaded ‘midges’ in Scotland, I can assure you that these critters really are as bad as their reputation would suggest. Your best chance of avoiding them is to go in May/ June and consider taking strong insect repellent as a precaution. We hiked the Way in May and didn’t see a single midge.

Be sure to book accommodation well in advance (or camp) to avoid disappointment. This way, you could space out your overnight stops more evenly, if you wish.

Feature photo courtesy of Nicolai Durbaum/ Unsplash

Statford Upon Avon

A visitors guide to Stratford upon Avon – birthplace of William Shakespeare

Stratford-Upon-Avon boasts of everything that you might expect from a medieval English market town. Easily explored on foot, a stroll around the town will take you past buildings dating back to the 1400’s which are a display of the area’s history and literary significance. Most famously, the homes, school and grave of the playwright and poet, William Shakespeare – and his family. Add to this charming streets, fascinating architecture, peaceful boat rides on the river (and shopping!) and you have yourself a perfect day out. If this is not enough to entice you to visit, rest assured that there are plenty of other things to see and do in Stratford- Upon- Avon.

Take a walking tour

Every day at 11 am (and on weekends at 11am and 2pm)  a 2 hour walking tour of the town Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford Upon Avonbegins near to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and is run by friendly, knowledgeable guides. No need to book, and at £6 per adult, it’s a bit of a bargain. We went past Shakespeare’s birthplace, school (opened to the public for the first time in 2016), later residence and grave among many other fascinating places and it gave us a great overview of the town and it’s general layout. Packed full of anecdotes and stories of old, the tour left us feeling as though we had lived through it all. It was also an insight into the morbid past of the town which has a long history of fires and was hit very severely by the dreaded plague. Shakespeare himself was a man of mystery as there is still a lot that we don’t know about him- adding to the atmosphere in this remarkable town. Also, learn about Marie Corelli – a largely unknown, eccentric literary figure and previous resident of Stratford-upon-Avon,  who sold more copies of her novels than the combined sales of her contemporaries Arthur Conan-Doyle, H G Wells and Rudyard Kipling.

Afternoon tea

A visit to Hathaway Tea Rooms is a great way to rest your weary legs after the tour. Claimed to be one of the oldest tea rooms in Stratford, this cosy little cafe is situated inside a grade two listed building thought to date back to 1610. Established in 1931, Hathaway Tea room has a long history of it’s own – originally built as one of the town’s many Inns, then later used as an apothecary and a shoe shop. A traditional English afternoon tea will set you back £15.50 per person which includes sandwiches, scones, cakes and tea- or for a mere £6.25 you can indulge in a more modest, but equally delicious cream tea. I’m a sucker for herbal tea and was particularly excited by the lavender tea on offer here- which was very refreshing. They even have a take-away picnic menu complete with table cloth, glasses and cutlery -for £20 two people can enjoy a slap-up feast in one of the town’s many grassy areas overlooking the river Avon.

Stratford upon Avon chain ferryTake the Original Old Chain Ferry

Said to be the last of it’s kind in Britain, the Original Old Chain Ferry built in 1937 is a fun way to get across the river. Costing only 50p each, you can sit comfortably whilst the operator winds the lever to get you from one side to the other. This convenient and quaint ride makes is easier to do a walking loop of the town to incorporate both sides of the river.

Shopping

Nutcracker Christmas shop, Stratford Upon AvonStratford has plenty to satisfy the retail enthusiast, with an array of boutique clothing, jewellery and gift shops on offer. You won’t leave empty handed if you’re in the market for some unique gifts. Look no further than the Shakespeare Gift Shop and the Nutcracker Christmas Shop – the cutest Christmas shop I’ve ever seen, just opposite Shakespeare’s birthplace.

Visit the oldest pub in Stratford-upon-Avon

The Garrick Inn, Stratford Upon AvonLocated along Stratford’s Historic Spine, The Garrick Inn thought to date back to the 1500’s has a checkered history – and is thought to be home to at least forty ghosts. Not daunted by this, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to eat in this beautiful, half timbered building which we booked shortly after our visit to the pub on our walking tour. Serving a variety of traditional English pub classics, I naturally opted for the steak pie and was not disappointed (I’m no pie connoisseur but to my mind a pie is not a pie without being enclosed in shortcrust pastry!).

Theatre

Many visitors to Stratford take advantage of the town’s plethora of theatres. In the summer months, the Royal Shakespeare Company put on free open air theatre in one of the town’s parks.   The Royal Shakespeare Company itself is based in Stratford, and it’s main theatre along with The Other Place and The Swan Theatre provide regular performances of popular plays- not just Shakespeare. Their stages have been frequented by some of the UK’s most loved actors including Judi Dench, who I’m told lives in the area- along with various other celebrities, as we found out on our walking tour.

Top tip

The Dirty Duck is another favourite pub in Stratford, both with theatre-goers and actors. Richard Attenborough and Kylie Minogue are amongst some of the celebrities that have been here, and it’s proximity to two of the town’s main theatres make it a popular choice with visitors. Book well in advance to avoid disappointment.

 

 

 

 

Azalea's on Kyushu, Japan

A day hike in Aso Kuju National Park

Hoarfrost in Kuju MountainsThe Aso Kuju National Park lies roughly in the centre of Kyushu and is made up of the Aso volcanic plateau and the Kuju mountain range. This range has several peaks over 1700m and remains volcanically active today. It’s ever changing scenery is most popular in June when the hills are littered with bright pink kyushu azaleas. However each season brings beautiful colours as trees turn white in winter with hoarfrost and the leaves of the white enkianthus  become red in October. We visited in early spring when there was still a bitterly cold wind and evidence of winter lingering on the trees at higher elevation.

A good place to start your hike is at the Chojabaru Visitor Centre in the north east section of the park, on the road to Beppu. If approaching the visitor centre from the south you will drive to it via the scenic Makinoto Pass. Entrance is free and there is information to read, maps and leaflets in English. An interesting twenty minute film about the area (with English subtitles) is available to watch if you have time. The staff at the visitor centre are particularly helpful and were able to suggest a hiking route for us on the day. You can purchase a very good hiking map of the area here for 300 yen.

We decided to hike up Mount Minimata, at approximately 12km and 1700m elevation which in total took us around 4.5 hours including pausing for the obligatory photos and a lunch stop. The path begins at the visitor centre and winds gently up a concrete path for 2 km or so before turning into a gravel path. The views from quite early on are breath taking.

About half way up the path becomes very rocky and you begin to see steam billowing from a neighbouring volcano. The path going up through the rocks is quite difficult to miss as there are painted yellow dots lining the way. Shortly you will come to a covered rest area with benches which is where we decided to break for lunch. Note that there are no facilities here at all, but the remains of an old concrete shelter provided a much needed respite from the wind.

After this begins a steep and rocky trail towards the summit which we found to be very muddy and slippery, so do be careful if the ground is wet.
A ‘false summit’ near the top of the mountain brings temporary elation until you realise you’re not quite there yet. From here you can see the top of Mount Minimata and a further thirty to forty minutes through similar terrain takes you to the summit.  From here we were rewarded with a glimpse of the large caldera viewed occasionally through the shifting clouds.

After reaching the summit there is a circular route that takes you to three other peaks and back to the top of Mount Minimata. We did not do this due to time pressure but followed the same track back down towards the visitor centre after taking a few snaps.

Be warned that the weather can change very quickly on the mountain and you should be prepared for all conditions. The hike does not require technical experience but a fair level of fitness and agility are required to navigate steep uphill climbs over rocky and slippery terrain.

There is a myriad of hiking trails in this mountain range and I would recommend staying for at least a few days if you are a keen walker and time allows. We barely scratched the surface of this beautiful region which provides a welcomed escape from the expanse of Japan’s busy cities and an opportunity to reconnect with nature. The region is also known for it’s fantastic hot springs and within an hours drive is the much loved onsen town of Kurokawa Onsen – a great place to soak your tired muscles after a good day’s hiking!